We learned a little about ourselves and our country didn't we? For one thing, we learned that the slighter our differences, the greater our animosities seem to be.
No great conflicts divide Americans. No society has ever been better off than ours. No meaningful distinctions separate Democrats and Republicans. But during the circus that followed the presidential election, we despised one another with the passion of racists and witch hunters. For a month we were like Guelfs and Ghibellines, Hatfields and McCoys. It was uncivil war, almost as hostile as KU versus MU fans.
You can tell Republicans by their smell, one biased commentator claimed. A conservative acquaintance likes to think he's shooting Democrats when he's hunting quail. (He puts out food for quail, which means they're on welfare, which makes them Democrats, in his view.)
Another great truth presented itself: Everything depends on which side of the fence you sit, on whose ox is being gored. We tailor our principles to suit our self-interests. Is a dimpled chad a vote? It depends on your perspective.
Democrats spouted pious rhetoric about "the sacred right of voting" and "the will of the people," professing that "voter intent" could be mystically intuited by partisan vote counters. Republicans paid homage to the "rule of law" debunked by Democrats as "hyper-technical voting standards" that would oppose recounting and preserve their narrow margin of victory.
What Republicans claimed was an orderly demonstration was mob violence in the Democrats' eyes. To Republicans, Gore was arrogant, phony, a robot and a bully. Democrats simply dismissed Bush as an "idiot." Both candidates, in truth, were uncannily alike. Though few could summon much enthusiasm for their own man, they felt physical repulsed by the other.
What a wonderful faculty we have for discrediting facts that undermine our own cause and exalting those that favor it, for promoting half truths and ambiguities into lofty principles, for putting ourselves in the best possible light and demonizing the opposition.
Oh, how the truth was trampled by those whose allegiance differed from our own. What facile liars, what crooks all those who voted against our man. "Larceny!" "Hijacking" and "Fraud!" we cried.
Can anyone doubt that Democrats and Republicans would have embraced one another's arguments had the shoe been on the other foot? In the litigious society, we're all learning to think like lawyers: Anything, however shameful and contrived, to win.
The election provided us a glimpse behind the ideological veils that obscure the two parties. We saw the crude, bloody instruments and the squalid back room where deals are cut. We learned that even the Supreme Court is political, a lesson for our relativistic times.
How could it be otherwise? "In our time the destiny of man presents its meaning in political terms," wrote Thomas Mann. It's not your immortal soul that counts any more, but what interest group you belong to.
Does this mean there is no Truth, no Justice. Does it mean, as some have argued, that Justice serves the stronger and that only the weak and the suckers have to obey the law? What a loss of innocence in those five chad-bewitched weeks. Is there nothing left to believe in?
According to some contemporary European writers, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the failure of communism brought about a "crisis of ideology" which broke down traditional distinctions between the right and the left. Liberals and conservatives were no longer clear about what they stood for and against. Perhaps the current malevolence between scarcely distinguishable Republicans and Democrats reflects the need for a dependable enemy, the need to distinguish Us from Them.
But ideologies are only smoke screens that disguise conflicts over wealth and power, conflicts between the haves and the haves less, between the envious and the greedy. The only real thing that separates Republicans and Democrats is turf.
In Renato Fucini's story, "The Fountain of Pietrarsa," plans to bring water to a village are disrupted by an argument over where the fountain should be. The center of the town would be the most convenient spot, but factions at either end of main street object. The extremists come to blows, the fountain never gets built, and the people have to keep hiking to a spring for water.
Let Republicans and Democrats be wary of strife that leaves everyone worse off.
When a man who owned one mule saw his neighbor acquire a second mule, he longed for that mule to die rather than to get a second one himself. Let us aspire to make the pie larger rather than to grasp a larger share of the pie or to make everyone's share of pie the same.
And remember: no matter how you voted, half the country voted otherwise. And keep asking yourself: How could the other half have fallen into such an error?
George Gurley is a Lawrence resident who writes a regular column for the Journal-World.