- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2000

There are, the game theorists tell us, two kinds of games. In a finite game, the players and the rules are predetermined and set. The object of the game is to win and, by winning, end it. But there are also infinite games. Here the object is the game itself. Players come and go. Teams form, dissolve and form again. Rules change. The nature of the game itself evolves. What matters is not to win, but to keep it going.

An election is a finite game. A nation, a civilization, is not. Or, more aptly, a civilization this civilization, certainly is a complex mixture of finite and infinite games. And viewing it thus can be revealing.

As I write, no one can predict the final election outcome. About all that’s certain is that the media have shifted into their O.J. Mode. Careers will be made: Another harvest of telegenic talking heads and busy on-site bodies who will remain with us, as has the O.J. Punditry, long after they’ve worn out whatever welcome they might have had. Also certain it is that if Mr. Bush goes to the White House, you can start getting ready for a three-way contest in 2004 Dubya, Hillary and Jesse Ventura. But what matters for the moment is the task is understanding that the election of 2000 was no freak. It was a logical product and accurate indicator of America as an evolving infinite game.

It has long been noted that neither establishment party seems capable of capturing or engaging the mood of the American people. Perhaps that’s because there is no single mood to capture or engage. This election offered a relatively clear set of choices between styles of governance and the moralities attendant thereon. The American people chose not to choose. Some might call this mere evasion, self-indulgent, the floundering of a people who don’t know what they want … or who don’t want to know. Others might discern a healthy and traditional penchant for divided government. Both assessments are arguable.

But I would suggest a third. The Culture War has evolved from a finite to an infinite game. The old finite struggles remain, of course: the elections and laws and court decisions and the thousand other reasons, real and imagined, for slugging it out. But something else is going on, a historically unprecedented experiment to determine if a complex civilization can live and flourish without a normative center, in culture or in politics. Once, the Culture War was about minorities and victims and psychobabble and government and who-gets-what. Workaday, it still is. Once, celebrating diversity and multiculturalism were weapons and tools. Workaday, they still are. But now, they are also about whether a civilization without normative centers can long endure. From election results to New Age spirituality, from globalized economics to same-sex marriage, the finite contests segue into the infinite game.

Most conservatives would find abhorrent the very concept of a civilization without normative centers. Their concern is not universally shared. The Christ Died So We Could Tell You What to Do crowd thunders its eternal verities. America’s response: Jesus, save me from your followers. More secular thinkers proclaim their own self-evident truths. America’s response: How often the self-evident also turns out to be the self-serving. And, of course, resentment, the belief of some groups and individuals that they’ve been robbed of their rightful place at the center of the universe, this ye have always with you.

But neither will the other side(s) find this new infinite game entirely to their liking. The endlessly outraged and aggrieved, the professional victims, the psychobabblers, the We’re Mad as Hell about Something or Other street protesters, clowns, and thugs … America’s response: Have a nice day, if you still can. Slowly yet inexorably, complaints, demands and accusations elicit the same response as verities: boredom. And we are not a people that likes to be bored.

In sum, the 2000 election was quite appropriate for a civilization groping toward life without a center. We were offered a choice of political and attendant moral centers, as these have traditionally been offered and understood. We just said no.

But can it work, this new game? History and current events would both say no. We are not, as a species, spontaneously fond of each other. All this stuff may be fine when the economy’s rising and the bombs aren’t falling. Could it survive an economic crisis or a war? And all those finite games do produce winners and losers. Some always end up more equal more central than others.

But I wonder. Not so long ago, people believed no civilized country could function without an official church, a hereditary aristocracy and a majority who knew how to stay in their place, or could be kept there. Not so long ago, people believed a civilization could work without such structures, provided everybody shared or pretended to share a basic consensus on vital matters. Not so long ago, people began to realize that traditional forms of central authority actually got in the way of many endeavors, from business to war. How much farther can it go? Can the national motto evolve from E Pluribus Unum to (as one restaurant chain puts it) “No Rules. Just Right”? And can a civilization so conceived and so dedicated long endure?

Something to ponder as the election game changes rules and players and form. As for the 2004 Dubya/Hillary/Jesse prediction … you heard it here first.

Philip Gold is president of Areta, a Seattle-based cultural affairs center.

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