Thursday, September 02, 2010

Hating the Other

We've all heard the rants:  President Obama wasn't really born in America (sorry, Hawaii is part of America).  President Obama is really a Muslim (he attended a Baptist church for 20 years).  President Obama is really a Socialist (usually from people who wouldn't know an actual Socialist if one came up and bit them on the ankle).  A lot of people think the subtext of all this is really, President Obama is black.  It's actually broader than that, and not restricted to race, although race is part of it.  There is, and there always has been, a vocal subset of the American populace which believes that anybody who doesn't look, dress, act and think exactly like them is - the Enemy.  Based on the things they are against, the people who think this way tend to be white (often of northern European stock), Protestant Christian, family in the U.S. for at least a couple of generations, and living in rural areas or small towns.  And they're almost always anti-immigrant.

Full disclosure here:  except for the benefits of a university education and a lot of reading, I am these people:  Scotch-Irish-English, with a reputed but unprovable touch of French and Indian.  Raised Baptist (no longer practicing).  Grew up in a small town.  (Left as soon as I got out of school.)  I know the mindset well.

To this group, anybody who isn't like them is "un-American," obviously out to get them, going to destroy the country, probably a terrorist, taking jobs from good American workers, etc.  You've heard it all. 

The attitude isn't new, either.  The current manifestation is the followers of the wilder Fox News commentators; but Benjamin Franklin, normally a tolerant and liberal man, published a well-known rant about the awful "swarthy, stupid" German immigrants who were going to take over the country if we weren't careful. And this was roughly 1751, which was before we were a country!  In the mid-19th century you had the Know-Nothing party, which was convinced the country was being overrun by German and Irish Catholic immigrants, who were controlled by the Pope in Rome.  Believe me, if you're Irish American now, nobody thinks a thing of it, and a lot of our anti-immigrant folks now are of Irish descent; but in 1850 businesses had signs reading, "No Irish need apply."  Wait long enough and the discriminated against become the establishment; but the anti-Catholic attitude was why the U.S. didn't elect a Catholic (or Irish) President until 1960.  In the early 20th century the Italians (also Catholic) were the immigrant threat.  Have we elected an Italian President yet?  I don't think so.

This parallel may exist only in my mind, but as I drafted this post, I realized slowly that I recognize these people from another recent source.  In the great Prohibition experiment, these people were the "drys."  See my last post, Reading About Prohibition; read Daniel Okrent's book.  See if you agree with me.  I'm not sure what this means, but it's interesting.

The bigger question is, why is the human race, or some of the human race, so hostile to "the other?"  It isn't just Americans.  Look at the hostility to Muslim immigrants in Europe.  Look at the genocide in Rwanda, where the issue wasn't even skin color.  I think it's tribal.  For millennia, the human race lived in very small tribes of hunter-gatherers.  Everybody in the tribe was related. The tribe had their territory, and they lived off it, and anybody who pushed into their territory was a threat to the whole tribe.  Everybody outside the tribe was suspect.  If you don't think this mind-set is still alive today, ask yourself why we have so much trouble in Afghanistan, the poster country for tribalism.  Here we all are in the 21st century United States, living in cities and driving cars; but in the back of our minds, some of us are still afraid that "those people" are a threat to "the tribe."  We've only had "civilization" (or whatever this is) for about 5,000 years; we've only had industrial civilization for about 300-400.  Is it any wonder that part of our minds still reacts as if we lived on the savanna?

I don't have an answer for this.  I don't have a tidy solution.  I've never been any good at changing people's minds; and in any case, the attitude I'm talking about here is not rational.  It's an emotional, fear-based response, from a part of our mind we don't deal with much.  So far we've always managed to overcome the fear of the other, and incorporate these new people into our culture and our country.  I hope we can continue to do that; I think we're better for it.  But we're fooling ourselves if we think this isn't a real problem.


  1. I have always thought of this in terms of "demonization": "I am in this camp, they are in that camp. I know what I believe in. I can only guess at what they believe in. They are not in my camp. Therefore, everything they believe in must be the opposite of everything I believe in."

    I tried to make this point in an amusing, sarcastic way in a throwaway post that basically meant to say "Hey, lookit what I'm eating for lunch." But I was feeling pretty sore at the time from being demonized myself in the leadup to the 2008 elections, so I decided to make this a contrast between Good Liberals and Evil Conservatives. And the responses I drew were more shocked and vituperative than anything I had gotten before, excepting the racist anti-Obama stuff I had been getting from the author of a white-supremacist blog.

    Or it could just be that Conservatives are complete morons with no sense of humor. They are, after all, in that other camp over there...

  2. I agree that it is tribalism at the root of this (as well as a little fear-mongering from powerful people who manipulate gullible people to work against their own interests - don't get me started). Just look at the tribalism in the Old Testament.

    My favorite example of tribalism at work is professional sports. The NFL can make us spend lots of money on tickets and apparel for a team that has our tribal community in its name, but nobody from that community on its team.

  3. NFL, nothing, Piglet. Look at all the "national" soccer teams. As a rule there's no more than one member of the "French" team, say, who is actually French; and often no one at all...

  4. Tribalism. Nationalism. Territoriality. You're mixing a lot of different spheres here. And you're ignoring temporality.

    Superstition is often wrong-headed, but sometimes it's empirically based. We're still a world of nations, and each nation must fend for itself. We've never been in a position to put the priorities of another people before ourselves, and there may never be a time when we will. Nations have borders, and those borders mean something; this isn't "territoriality" even if it "feels" like it.

    I'm very happy to have a Black President, but I find Obama less impressive and effective than Clinton. This, of course, means I'm racist.

    We need to get over the idea that we can simplify complex problems with simple explanations. "The Other" is a convenient short-hand way of trying to demonize people for suspecting the intentions of a whole range of difference. Mexicans of 2010 aren't the Jews, Italians and Dutch of 1900. Legal and illegal immigration aren't "the same thing."

    Small town Americans aren't benighted fools. My parents weren't, and neither were yours. If we think we're so cosmopolitan and sophisticated, we have a long way to go, baby.