Perhaps the grossest myth of the last American generation is the Zero Sum Myth.
This myth was very much on display yesterday during the Iraq testimony. This is why it seemed at times that Gen. David Petraeus and the Democrats questioning him were speaking different languages, living on different planets.
To Petraeus, as to John McCain and the great majority of Republicans, there can only be two outcomes in Iraq. You win, you lose. The idea of some different, muddier, more real outcome is entirely foreign to them. Listen to any of them closely, listen to them tolerantly, and this comes through. You don't have to argue with it. It's simply their reality.
The point was brought home by Barack Obama's questioning (above). Is there an outcome other than a fully democratic (well Republican) Iraq, under American control, with no Al Qaeda and no influence from Iran, which you might define as victory, he asked? Petraeus reacted as though Obama were speaking his father's native Luo language. It was, to him, inconceivable.
This is in the nature of the Nixon Thesis of Conflict. It's at the heart of it, really. Life is a zero sum game. You either win or you lose. Peaceful coexistence is impossible. There can be no meeting of the minds, no agreeing to disagree.
The view is at total odds with reality. This is where political myth and the myths of ancient people come together. We do, in fact, co-exist with Vietnam. We lost the war, but Vietnam is not a totalitarian Communist state, filled with people wearing black pajamas. The influence of American brands, and American culture, is still there. It's still a market for our goods. And while the system is far from democratic, it would be completely wrong to claim that it's a complete dictatorship which does not take the feelings and needs of its people into account.
An intolerance for diversity is at the heart of the Nixon Thesis' domestic message as well. "Freaks, fags and n#&@@s" are not to be tolerated. They are to be avoided, put down, and segregated. One kultur, one volk. Even though this is as much a fantasy as The Wizard of Oz. Even the party's closest allies know this. That's why they isolate themselves in megachurches and cul de sacs and office towers -- they're the ones doing the abandoning and the leaving, not the rest of us.
The rest of us find a way to tolerate one another. We're different, sure, but we put up with it. At times we glory in it. There is no one single answer, just the muddy water from which consensus flows.
What has happened through the failures of this decade is that the idea of tolerance has become the common view. The idea of the zero-sum game is being rejected by the vast majority of people. Not just in the artsy-fartsy or high intellectual zones, not just in the ghettos, where "urban" has long been a synonym for "black" (and for exurban whites, the "n" word). It's happening in the suburbs, too, as well as many boardrooms. It's even happening in the churches.
What is most exasperating about the TeeVee media, in fact, is its refusal to acknowledge
this change in viewpoint. Only the Nixon and Reagan lessons have any
validity -- what's happening in front of them is a completely foreign
world. Thus alien. Thus un-American. Thus unreal.
Unfortunately, the new Thesis has to run uphill against this. It has
always been this way. The old Thesis, and the old media, do not give
way willingly to the new. They have to be overthrown. The assumption of the zero
sum game will only fade away once the new consensus view has been
validated through successive elections.
That's the real zero sum game.