Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Why Do We Hate Them?

 Why Do We Hate Them?

Episodes of political hysteria are familiar in US history. The people of Massachusetts hanged witches in 1692, almost a hundred years before Independence. Today, we persecute Muslims .

These outburst of irrationality no doubt have many different causes. When war with Japan broke out, we feared a Japanese invasion on the West Coast and the internment of Japanese-Americans ensued. The hatred of black people had its economic sources: a despised minority can be made to work for less. One source of anti-immigrant sentiments is a sense of economic insecurity. In times of high unemployment one fears any competitor for one’s job. The uproar about gay marriage has its origins in sexual fears and religious beliefs. Some of these blind fears and aversions, such as anti-Semitism, are part of our European heritage. Our ancestors brought it with them when they came to the United States.

In recent years, these explosions of hate have been fostered by the mass-media. Before, they have often been carefully nurtured and manipulated by persons who stood to profit from them.

But these outbursts of irrational aversion and persecution tell us a great deal about who and what we are.

To begin with, the aversion and persecution is always of groups whom we perceive to be different from ourselves. Underlying these episodes are self-definitions of Americans: we are god fearing and not in league with the Devil; we do not practice witchcraft. Unlike Japanese-Americans, we are loyal to the United States. Unlike the Muslims, we are Christians (How many times have you heard it said recently that ours is a “Christian nation”?) and unlike some we are fiercely heterosexual. We speak English (and, in most cases, only English). We are hardworking, thrifty and plan ahead. In rejecting others--from witches in the 1690’s to the Muslims today--we assert our own identities.

But these identities cause us considerable anxiety. We cannot remain calm about the differences between ourselves and whatever “other” group draws our ire at this moment. There is great anger about the plans for an Islamic Community Center in downtown Manhattan. There is great anger at immigrants--especially undocumented ones.

The protests against the Manhattan Islamic Center reveal the core of that anxiety. People protest the “Islamicisation” of America. They fear that our culture, as they understand it, is about to be replaced by something else. There is a sense that who we are and have been, as a people, is in danger. Our national identity is being undermined. Every day there are more people living in America who are not like us, who are not really Americans.

But who are we, who have we been? One purpose of these fierce angry outburst at alien groups is to define who we are in contrast to the others. We define ourselves in contrast to the hated others. But these self-definitions are suspect because often the stories we tell about those others are false, they are made up. The people of Arizona largely support anti-immigrant legislation because they had been told that a large number of illegal immigrants were criminals. The facts do not support that. The Islamic Cultural Center opponents fear that America will became “Islamicised” and that Islamic law will replace ours. But that is clear fantastic. There is no such danger. The portrait of the Muslim opponents is distorted. It is a fiction. We define our American identity by telling lies about others.

We define our own identity by telling lies about others because we have become very uncertain of who we are. The great crisis revealed by the outbursts of hate against others is that we have lost sight of and lost touch with who we are ourselves.

On the surface the uproar about illegal immigrants, about gay marriage, and now about the threat of Muslims in America seem to have little in common except that all of them evoke violent emotions. But looking more closely at these different of uproars, we can see that they all manifest the same underlying crisis. Once again America has lost its way. We do not know who we are and what we stand for. Unsure of ourselves we manufacture a fictitious identity for ourselves by making up false stories about people who are different from us.

This is a common experience in our history. To overcome it we need to think very hard about who we are and what America stands for after several lost wars, overwhelmed by a major economic crisis and seeing our power wane around the world.