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ROLAND MERULLO

A puzzling America

FOR A LONG time now I've been pondering the reasons why conservatives decide to be conservative and liberals to be liberal. Part of the motivation for this pondering is rooted in the fact that I'm a left-leaning independent with a number of conservative friends. Some of these right-wing friends are close relatives, people I love dearly, people who still forward me nasty Internet jokes about Hillary and Bill with a certain kind of triumphant glee.

It is a source of continual surprise to me that these friends and I can look at the same person -- George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Kerry, Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson -- and form diametrically opposed opinions.

My pondering along these lines always carries me back to the 1996 presidential campaign, during which I wrote a 20-part series for the op-ed pages of the Philadelphia Inquirer. The series started with the New Hampshire primary and ended on Election Day in Washington, D.C. For two installments, I drove from Bob Dole's birthplace (Russell, Kansas) to Bill Clinton's (Hope, Ark.) via Ross Perot's (Texarkana, Texas). I traveled back roads through small towns, stopping occasionally to ask people what word first came to mind when they heard the name "Clinton," "Dole," or "Perot."

Not surprisingly, the responses to "Dole" were more positive in Kansas than in Democratic eastern Oklahoma, and Clinton was better liked in Hope than in Russell. What did surprise me, though, were the kinds of things conservatives said about Clinton and the obvious hatred with which they said them: "Monster." "Nonhuman." "Worm." "Antichrist." "Devil."

That was the Bible Belt, where one might be more likely to hear the term "Antichrist," but the general pattern of vitriol held true in other parts of the country. I began to form the impression then that the conservative mindset springs from what, for lack of a better term, might best be described as an Old Testament world view: Life is harsh, God is angry, enemies ought to be treated without mercy. An eye for an eye. There is good and there is evil, and the distinction between them is as clear as the line between sin and righteousness. These days, the words of Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, or George W. Bush only reinforce that impression.

Most liberals, on the other hand, appreciate life's gray areas, which is perhaps why left-wing radio has never been very entertaining. The strength of this embrace of ambiguity is that liberals see the world in all its complexity. The weakness is that evil, real evil, can sometimes become so abstract and multifaceted that it is not quite real.

Life, liberals believe, is meant to be pleasurable, God is forgiving if He exists at all, and it's important to think about others' feelings and motivations as well as your own. You might not like the idea of abortion, but it is important to allow people who believe differently to make their own choice.

What liberals consider open-mindedness can seem wishy-washy when held up against the certainty of a right-wing opponent. At the same time, the right-wing opponent's views can appear simplistic. In this year's presidential campaign, the two sides have been trying to spin things accordingly: Kerry too thoughtful, Bush not thoughtful enough.

Strains from earlier campaigns can be heard here, too. The elder Bush's Willie Horton ads had a racial undercurrent, of course, but they were also intended to point up the idea that Dukakis, like all liberals, was soft on crime, weak on defense, living in a dream world in which the evil ones could be furloughed, rehabilitated, or ignored.

The two Americas, conservative and liberal, worship two very different gods. It's as if the fibers that make up the human psyche are spun around opposite psychological poles. But what is the essence and origin of that fundamental difference? Why is gay marriage anathema to one group and an obvious human right to the other? Why does almost exactly half the country beam with pride when George W. speaks, and the other half cringe? Why did my liberal friends talk about the Abu Ghraib scandal while my conservative friends were focusing on mutilation of hostages in Fallujah? Why do the delegates to the Republican convention have neater haircuts and less interesting clothes?

I ponder these questions when I drive past the home of one of my neighbors, a man with very strong opinions. I don't know the man, but I know about his opinions because he paints them on slabs of wood and nails the slabs up on tree trunks in his front yard. He is in favor of Supporting Our Troops. And vehemently opposed to a new addition that was built onto the 100-year-old public library, at least judging by one of his more interesting signs: "LIBRARY OFFICIALS EATING STEAK WITH OUR TAX DOLLARS."

Coming from a certain direction I drive by this man's yard, and a few times I've seen him sitting out there in a lawn chair, glaring at passersby as if to say: "What are you looking at? You want to start something?" He doesn't have a rifle across his knees, but I almost remember him that way. Perhaps I'm being unfair, but then again, a sign tacked onto one tree reads: "KILL THY ENEMY."

And then, sometimes on the same drive, I'll pull up at a traffic light beside a smiling, shaggy-headed soul at the wheel of a foreign-made car festooned with bumper stickers like: "Magic Happens." "Free Leonard Peltier." "I Brake for Animals." "War is Not the Answer."

At their essence, conservatives are on guard, bristling, armed with a righteous anger, prone to mockery of their enemies, sure of themselves, unwilling to criticize America, especially by comparing it to anyplace else. The attacks of Sept. 11 only confirmed their world view: We are constantly at risk.

Liberals are mannered, sensitive, armed with intellectual cynicism, self-critical, eager to learn from other cultures, wanting there to be no pain in the world. The attacks made them sad and angry, too, but their reflex was more pensive than vengeful.

And so we lurch toward what promises to be another close election, two Americas enduring a war that seems designed to highlight our differences. Two Americas, standing side by side, and -- for reasons that remain a mystery -- viewing the same landscape through very different filters.

Roland Merullo's fifth novel, a love story set in Boston, will be published next summer. 

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