In the famed and fabled War Between the States, the two sides were not only separated by geography, but they wore uniforms of different colors so you could tell at a glance whose side they were on. There were two relatively distinct adversaries, with separate legal systems and separate currencies.

The same cannot be said today in the wearying culture wars. That person sitting on the plane next to you could be friend or foe. Who can tell? There are a few hints, of course, such as whether a person lives in Vermont or Georgia or whether that person is a military captain or a college professor, yet by-and-large everybody in society is jumbled together.

You have to wait until the other person tips you off, maybe with a bumper sticker or an off-hand joke about Karl Rove. In other words, in public spaces many of us find ourselves standing around nervously waiting to figure out where somebody else stands politically before we expose our own allegiances.

I sat through an entire dinner listening to an acquaintance rail against conservatives, capitalists, traditionalists, southerners, Christians, and just about every stereotype about the right-wing before she learned to her chagrin later that I found myself somewhere over there on the same end of the spectrum. Oops. Had she just called me a Nazi? It doesn't matter, honey, because obviously you think that I must be. Q.E.D.

Gatekeepers remain vigilant at job interviews and on dates and, well, just shaking hands at a picnic. Did I just overhear a reference to 'undocumented worker?' You don't hear my people use that euphemism, so obviously that person is a lib and probably not worth befriending, right? And they do the same thing to me, listening for code words such as 'family values' that label me.

The following image is by no means original with me, but lately I've noticed that each side seems to rely on the metaphor of a plague, as though ideas are infectious and spread through the body politic, infecting carriers and working ruin. Best to isolate yourself from contamination. Don't watch Fox news, if you are leftist. Don't read the New York Times, if you are from the right. And try your best to keep those you love from fatal contact.

These are coping strategies of quarantine. That's step one. The next question is, how best to eradicate the disease and eliminate the threat? After marginalizing the sick, setting them over there away from the rest of us, then the next step is to set up wards under lock and key to keep them away till they heal or they perish. Put them over there and see that they stay there, and by-God don't let them become too vocal.

Even though conservatives and liberals do not originate in separate parts of the country bounded by an unambiguous Mason-Dixon line, we are gradually separating ourselves in other ways, filling different churches, surfing different websites, buying different kinds of cars. And occasionally, the gatekeeper in our midst uncovers a traitor, somebody who just isn't pure. Then things will turn ugly, you bet.

I find it interesting when physicians say that our strenuous efforts to protect kids from infection simply reduce their powers to resist, so that when the pathogenic germ does come - and come it will - their delicate constitutions are just too weak to respond vigorously. So, let them eat dirt? Over time, kids exposed to ordinary strains will in the end be more able to withstand.

Me, I plan to stop relying on the metaphor of plague when it comes to the culture wars. I think you folks on the other side are wrong most of the time, but you aren't diseased.

Trending Video

Recommended for you