Tuesday, December 07, 2004

The Other, Our Enemy

The Other, Our Enemy

By Richard Hauenstein
Dec. 7, 2004

The people must believe that they are not manipulated in order for them to be manipulated effectively.
- Winston Smith, “1984”

You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!

- Jack Nicholson, “A Few Good Men”

As I write this, it’s Pearl Harbor Day - the sixty-third commemoration of what used to be the worst sneak attack ever perpetrated on American military forces and civilians. That is, until those bloodthirsty, freedom-hating, anti-American, non-Christian Al Qaeda fanatics turned a beautiful late summer day into the rallying point for our national hatred of all things Muslim, Arab or Middle Eastern. But we’ve always had someone to hate, haven’t we? It’s part of our national make-up, in fact it’s part of being human.

Back in 1990, around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, I read an article by a sociologist on the topic of “the universal other”. He (I think it was a he ) said that every society had to have a common enemy that could be used by that society’s leaders to keep the people under control – to distract the people from what the leaders were doing by making them fear the “other”. He went down a long list, all the way back to the Pharaohs of Egypt and their use of the Israelites for this purpose. If the Egyptians could hate a common enemy, they would be less likely to notice that the Pharaohs were robbing the common people of their substance, and living a life that the people couldn’t even aspire to.

The author included as examples of his theme the Romans and their subjugation of “barbarians”, Napoleon’s dream of world conquest, the British Empire’s appeal to King and country in subjugating people of color all over the world, Hitler’s use of the Jews (again) as the source of all post-WWI ills in Germany; and the author expressed concern that, since the Soviet Union could no longer be used to frighten children in the West, a new “Other” would have to be found to keep us in line. And he surmised that this new enemy would be – the Arabs.

As history shows us, less than a year later, the Gulf War (now called the First Gulf War – how sad that we continue to number our wars) initiated America’s overt war against the Arab nation of Iraq. As opposed to the West’s extremely long covert war in the same region.

In fact, history shows us something else as well: in the 228 years of the Republic, America has almost never been without an Other, to hate and fear, to unite us as a nation, and to use as a distraction from what has happened and is happening to our country from within.

In the beginning, the Other was England. Then, Indians became bloody savages who tried to keep us from fulfilling our manifest destiny, even before the term was invented. Then, with some overlap, it was African slaves, southern rebels, Indians again, Germany in two world wars, Japan in one, a long stint with the Soviet Union, and Vietnam and Red China thrown in for good measure.

And now, it’s the Arabs again, as we spread freedom throughout the Middle East one Iraqi corpse at a time.

Now, it’s true that many of these Others attacked us, though if the truth be known, only one of the above did so unprovoked – Japan, 63 years ago today. While I am in no way defending what was done to America on Sept. 11, a dispassionate reader of history would have to say that it was not an unprovoked attack from any but the shortest of short-term perspectives.

And if one can in fact do such an unemotional read, an interesting, almost counter-intuitive fact emerges from the welter of information: from 1991, when the Soviet Union fell and the First Gulf War ended, until Sept. 11, 2001, the world was not in perfect apple-pie order, I don’t mean to suggest any such ludicrous thing – but what is almost unarguable is that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, and before the rise of Islamic terror in its current form, we had no discernible common enemy against which to unite. In fact, on many levels our former enemies of the last half of the 20th century, Russia and Japan and Germany, became our friends and trading partners.

The overall net result of this unprecedented era of agreement between major nations was one of the most prosperous times in the history of mankind, at least for the Western nations. America built up unprecedented budget surpluses, the stock market went to all-time highs, the global economy came into being and began to flourish, and it looked like the national debt was going to approach zero some time in the near future. We had enemies, of course – but we didn’t live under a daily cloud of fear that, even in the heartland of the country, we could be attacked at any minute. Based on results, this relatively fear-free atmosphere was a positive influence on America.

And so, to bring this short history lesson to a close, I pose two questions for your consideration: Do we really need an “Other” to unite us in hatred? And will we ever be grown up enough as a nation, or as a species, to live without one?

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