Sunday, September 11, 2011

Us and Them

When I was a kid, one of my sets of aunts and uncles lived in Texas. This particular aunt and uncle had eight children--eight of my many cousins. Much of the rest of my extended family lived in Colorado, and so when we saw the Texas cousins, we had a blast listening to their accents. They said they wanted "Cheee-Toes and a Co-Cola" for Cheetos and a Coke. When we'd tease them about this, they'd say, "well, All-a-y'all talk funny" in their profound drawl, and the lines were drawn. Us. And. Them. Fortunately, this was good-natured line drawing, and we'd set about pointing out to each other the ways we talked funny. Was it "soda" or just "pop?" Did you put "oyl" or "ohl" in your car? And what in the heck was an Aggie?

Coming from a fairly homogenous world of white working-to-middle-class people, this was one of the first times I can remember being in the game of "Us and Them"--a game where you separate people not on how they behaved, but what they were. Unfortunately, it wasn't the last. I learned, for example, that while my parents weren't the cutting eyes out of sheets kind of racists, they had their moments. When I was in eighth grade, I developed a crush on a boy named Jimmy. Eventually, my mother asked his last name. When I told her, she pointed out that I should not put too much stake in the puppy romance, since he had a Spanish surname and therefore must be a "Mexican." Luckily, I guess, Jimmy did not share my interest in a relationship, so it never became a controversy outside my own mind. Another time, a mixed-race couple moved into the neighborhood and the African-American woman was promptly dubbed "N*****-baby" by my mother, a moniker that was not objected to by my father, or anyone but me, for that matter. Still later, my folks erroneously (and angrily) believed that I was having a relationship with an African-American man when I was in college. As much as it annoyed them, I'm actually surprised I didn't date him--but that's another topic. My dad made quite a scene, chasing my car down the street yelling foul things about my taste in men. Playing "Us and Them" is a phenomenon both universal and close to home.

Recently, my family and I went to see the movie The Help, which deals with the violent, overt, and subtle variants of racism in the American South in the 1960s. I'm fairly sure there wouldn't be a lot of people going to see that movie and rooting for the Junior-League-worshipping, separate-toilet-protecting antagonists in the film. We've grown beyond that kind of crude hatred and prejudice, right?

But it did get me thinking about way we play the game of Us and Them today. One of the most obvious at the moment is the great debate about Muslims--a debate in which people actually get on television to ask seriously whether all Muslims shouldn't be treated as terrorists because their religious book supposedly says that non-Muslims are infidels to be converted/conquered/killed.

In the interest of "Security," we are expected to ignore that the question whether all Muslims are terrorists because of what their religious book says or because some of them are makes about as much sense as asking whether all Christians are misogynists because their religious book says to stone to death women who turn up pregnant absent marriage (fornicators), even though they may have been raped, or whether those same Christians are bloodthirsty tyrants because of the Crusades, or whether all Japanese-Americans are dangerous because of Pearl Harbor, or whether all Black men are rapists of White women because some were accused of it in the South in the last century (and maybe some of them actually did it).

When we put it in a little more close to home terms, it seems pretty stupid to put Joe in prison because Bill committed a crime, even if they are both white, Catholic, New York City trash collectors, or to kill Jane because Joan bombed a pizza parlor, even if Jane and Joan both went to the same church where the pastor talked about pizza parlor bombing as a political tool. Somehow, the questions in the game of Us and Them only make sense in the moment, and only when we're on the side asking them.

So maybe instead of asking those questions, we could put our fear on hold and notice that this form of tribalism is primarily adopted when people are scared witless and find it quick and easy to blame someone else for that fear. Maybe we could realize that, most of the time, both the threat alleged and the tie of the "other" group to the threat is either manufactured entirely or is manipulated and enhanced to make the game of "Us and Them" seem more reasonable. We might even go so far as to notice that usually, the manufacturing of fear is done by people who stand to consolidate a good bit of political or economic power if people are scared and at a loss what to do about it. When that happens, people are willing to make lots of deals with lots of devils who claim that if we just let them have this power, or that amount of money, they'll keep us safe from the very fire they are stoking.

On the anniversary of the biggest "Us and Them" inspiring event of my middle-aged life, we would do well to analyze our reactions. We might even spend a bit of time questioning the motives of some of the people who are "commemorating" the event in a fearful "it's not over yet" manner. We could possibly look at the last ten years and recognize that the hijackers on 9/11 killed a few thousand people; our reaction to that day has killed ten times that many, most of whom had nothing to do with the terror plot, has hastened the destruction of the American economy while making rich the mercenary 'consulting' companies who make war for us in the modern era, and has put the concept of a free America on life support in critical condition.

Perhaps we could begin to figure out that we need to start acting like "Us" and "Them" are really the same thing, before they make a movie about how stupid we are.

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