When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and took possession of a troubled land that was more geographic expression than country (as Metternich once said of Italy), I remember thinking at the time that we were far less likely to export democracy to Iraqis than Iraqis were to teach us a lesson about how fragile are the cultural foundations upon which democracy rests.
American society has been fracturing for some time. This is due to many factors: growing anxiety over jobs in a global economy; changing demographics as the nation becomes less white and Christian; the rise of identity politics, specifically more politically aggressive religious groups; and communications technologies that allow individuals to self-segregate by ideology with dual citizenship to places like Fox "Nation" or Hannity's "America."
What may have once been an academic curiosity has now metastasized into a genuine concern: Intensifying political polarization is threatening the ability of our community to hold together as both our politics and our government become increasingly dysfunctional.
To better understand one's country and its own internal dynamics it is often advantageous to step away and see what lessons might be learned by studying the experience of other countries.
And for America this is especially true of the Middle East, where the more intimately America becomes entangled with that troubled region the more our own domestic politics absorb through osmosis the Middle East's distinctive tribal pathologies and torments as well.
Christian fundamentalists, for example, are not merely obsessed with Israel because daydreaming about the Jewish State's eventual destruction by the armies of the Anti-Christ at the Battle of Armageddon lets them act out their rapture fantasies from the Book of Revelation. The Religious Right also draws inspiration from Israel for what the Right might be able to accomplish here as they watch ultra-Orthodox groups transform Israel's democracy into a Jewish theocracy.
In an article titled "The Troubling Rise of Israel's Far Right," New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier cites reports in the New York Times showing that the list of controversies - and confrontations -- between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews is growing weekly.
Organizers of a conference on women's health, for example, barred women from speaking from the podium.
Ultra-Orthodox men spit on an eight-year-old girl "whom they deemed immodestly dressed."
The chief rabbi of the Israeli Air Force resigned because the army would not excuse ultra-Orthodox soldiers from attending events where female singers perform.
Jerusalem's police commander was depicted as Hitler on posters because he allowed public buses with mixed-sex seating to drive through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in violation of that sect's religious dogmas -- an intolerance the American Catholic bishops might want to think about as they use words like "totalitarian" to describe their dispute with President Obama over coverage for contraception in health care plans.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews even went so far as to prohibit a distinguished woman scholar whose book on pediatrics was being honored by Israel's Ministry of Health from sitting with her husband at the ceremony or accepting her prize in person since women were forbidden from stepping on stage.
The New York Times article, said Wieseltier "provoked widespread revulsion" in the US, as it ought.
The origin of the problem, both there and here, is the infusion of fundamentalism into politics.
Fundamentalism is less religious than psychological -- an aspect of personality that abhors ambiguity and demands certainty, and thus authority, in every aspect of their lives, whether political or religious. Fundamentalism is fundamentally incompatible with liberalism and with the emphasis in liberal societies on the autonomy of the individual and individual free will.
"Like all liberal societies, says Wieseltier, "Israeli society contains anti-liberal elements, and these anti-liberal elements, both religious and secular, have become increasingly prominent, and increasingly wanton, and increasingly sickening."
Of chief concern is the treatment of women in Israeli society.
The "odious misogyny of the ultra-Orthodox" is not yet typical of Israeli life in general since the ultra-Orthodox have seceded from it, says Wieseltier. But gender discrimination is typical of traditional Judaism where "there is no equality between men and women in theory and in practice."
Whatever freedom women enjoy in Jewish religious life, he says, "has been accomplished by movements and institutions that have broken with the inherited understandings."
There are many rabbis, even among the more orthodox, "who have shown glimmers of compassion for women and tried to mitigate their doctrinal contempt for secular Jews," says Wieseltier.
But more typical is the rabbi who said that: "Only one who believes in the God of Israel and in the Torah of Israel is entitled to be called by the name 'Jew.'"
Using that standard, said Wieseltier, one of the more extreme Jewish sects declared that the total Jewish population in the world amounts to only about one million.
"Our worst enemies never eliminated so many of us," said Wieseltier.
As the radicalization of Israeli Judaism continues apace, Wieseltier said the bigger problem is that "Israeli politics is open to these closers." That is especially true given the outsized influence Israel's parliamentary democracy gives to small parties.
If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is disgusted by the tightening grip of orthodoxy in his country he doesn't seem to be doing much to stop it, says Wieseltier. "Nobody ever suffered political damage by pandering to obscurantism and folk religion," he says. "And that is how gender segregation came to some of the public sphere of a secular state."
All these developments are unique in their own way, "but the pattern is hard not to see," says Wieseltier. "There are fevers on the right, anti-democratic fevers. These are the excrescences of Benjamin Netanyahu's base. The outrage is not that these forces have gone too far, but that they have gone anywhere at all."
The pattern is also hard not to see here in America.
An Israeli-style, orthodox-fueled fracturing of the American community took place just last week in the otherwise inexplicable schism that at least temporarily existed between Planned Parenthood and the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation.
That two organizations so committed to the same vital mission of fighting for women's health would be at bitter loggerheads is a stunning reminder of the destructive nature of fundamentalist mindsets that let nothing stand in their way of achieving their ideological obsessions.
"We're talking about breast cancer here!" said one exasperated women's health advocate when she first heard the news that Komen was pulling funding from Planned Parenthood.
As Daily Beast's Michelle Goldberg reports, in the first 24 hours after Komen announced its decision to pull $700,000 in funding, Planned Parenthood raised about $400,000 from outraged supporters online. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg chipped in $250,000 and the Amy and Lee Fikes Foundation also donated another $250,000.
Within the Komen organization itself, the Connecticut affiliate publicly rebuked the parent agency over the new policy, says Goldberg, writing on its Facebook wall: "Susan G. Komen for the Cure Connecticut enjoys a great partnership with Planned Parenthood, and is currently funding Planned Parenthood of Southern New England. We understand, and share, in the frustration around this situation."
The Denver Komen affiliate said it too planned to continue grants to Planned Parenthood no matter what the organization's top executives might have to say about it.And so it begins: the unraveling, fracturing and eventual disintegration of any organization, institution or communitiy invaded by the cancer of right wing fundamentalism which fails to find a cure.