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When John McCain tapped Sarah Palin as his running mate, he splashed kerosene on America’s culture wars.


The VP candidate’s conservative stances on hot-button social issues - she’s against abortion and same-sex marriage and doesn’t oppose the teaching of “intelligent design” - set off a firestorm of charges and countercharges. The fact that she is the mother of five children, including an infant with Down syndrome, reignited long-simmering debates about working mothers.


These controversies added logs to the political bonfire stoked by Barack Obama’s historic candidacy, which has intensified long-burning debates about race, religion and love of country.


Increasingly it seems that this election will not revolve around firm policy positions or even the gauzy notions of change or experience. Instead it will come down to the schism of the “isms” - that is, the very different perceptions Americans have about racism, sexism, patriotism and elitism.


I agree with those who lament this. For too long, our elections have focused on social issues instead of the chief responsibilities of the federal government - the economy and foreign affairs. Those are the issues that make or break every presidency. And yet every four years we focus on controversial subjects that they can do little about. If campaigns were a beauty contest, we would pick winners based on the swimsuit competition and then hope that they have some talent.


Nevertheless, these debates are necessary. They reflect the issues that matter to voters. We often complain that politicians try to manipulate us through well-spun ads and stump speeches, but we, in fact, are the puppet masters. We force them to focus on these fiery issues. These discussions may be somewhat beside the point, but presidential campaigns are one of the forums we have for a national dialogue about our society.


These debates are so divisive precisely because they involve complex moral issues. They are so fierce because they often involve core beliefs that are informed as much by deep-seated passions as careful consideration.


My fondest hope is that Americans will engage in an open-minded discussion of these issues during the next seven weeks. It is too much to imagine that we would all entertain the possibility of changing our minds on anything. But we could start listening to each other. We could start trying to understand the life experiences that lead others to reach very different conclusions from our own. That is the essence of the values we should hold dear: tolerance, empathy and respect.


The early returns indicate that this is wishful thinking. So far these fiery debates are producing plenty of heat but little light.


How come? Our difficulty in engaging in civil discourse stems in no small part from the fact that the culture wars have blossomed during the same period that high culture has withered.


The 1970s witnessed not only the rise of the right, which offered the first real challenge to post-war liberal orthodoxy, but also the increasing marginalization of literature and the arts in American life. Studies by the National Endowment for the Arts and others have shown dispiriting declines during the last few decades in the number of Americans who read for pleasure or enrich their lives through other art forms.


Put another way, around the same time that we started to have complex philosophic debates over bedrock social issues, we loosened our ties to the best tools human beings have created to help us think more clearly and feel more deeply.


Besides providing transcendent pleasure, great books and other works of art allow us to defy the laws of physics and be in two places at the same time: in our own shoes and someone else’s. They allow us to enter into the hearts and minds of other people, to experience the world from their perspective. They are training grounds for those vital skills of empathy, tolerance and respect.


Talk radio, 24-hour news cycles and the blogosphere that now shape our national discourse have many virtues, but inculcating those qualities are not among them. They provide rivers of information, but not the intellectual paddles we need to navigate these roiling waters. In this respect they represent the strange paradox of the dumbing-down of American culture.


Modern Americans know more than ever, but we are - at least in the public sphere - gradually losing the capacity to scrutinize the facts and factoids that bombard us. Instead of thoughtful analysis, we opt for the knee-jerk response.


As our public forums devolve into vast echo chambers, we tune in voices that confirm our beliefs, dismissing and demonizing those that might push us to think harder and feel more deeply.


While bolstering our sense of moral superiority, this approach injures us and our country. As the great American pragmatist William James observed a century ago, vigilant skepticism is the true path to deep conviction. The way to be sure of our beliefs is by constantly testing them against the strongest counterarguments.


Best of all, this process is a cerebral two-fer: It allows us to feel even more confident about our positions while helping us generate greater respect for thoughtful people who reach different conclusions.


I know this sounds abstract. We need a lot more than the seven weeks left in this campaign to edify the national dialogue. Recognizing that we need more culture and fewer wars is the next step in the essential battle to replace the sound and fury that fills the air with tolerance, empathy and respect.


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ABOUT THE WRITER
J. Peder Zane is a columnist for the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer. Readers may send him e-mail at peder.zane AT newsobserver.com.

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