THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us
When the federal building in Oklahoma City was blown up on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people including 19 small children, the country seemed to have changed in some dramatic way that we had somehow missed. The shock and disbelief were akin to the sickening feeling you get upon discovering that termites have been eating away at your house for years, and by the time you first notice it the damage is irreversible and beyond repair. After nearly a quarter of a century, we still struggle to come to terms with the idea that it may be too late to stop the decay that came to light on that dreadful day. We certainly have not done anything effective to combat the conviction held by many of our compatriots that our worst enemies come from within, nor to counter the concomitant certainty that no measures are too extreme to prevent an ongoing hostile takeover of the country by its own government and by the racially, ethnically and religiously suspect people it champions. We trained many of the people who hold these perverse views to be warriors, but evidently we didn't make it very clear to them who or what the enemy actually is. It is like the terrifying moment in a submarine movie when the crew realizes that the torpedo it fired has missed its target and has made a u-turn right back towards them.
By attempting to understand what happened in Oklahoma City, and to make sense of the pathology that led a former soldier who swore an oath to defend his country to turn his rage against it, we must be very careful to avoid giving a twisted ideology the dignity of rational argument. The last thing we should do is give credence to the thoughts of those who demonstrated their bravery by murdering unarmed adults and children. Even to the right-wing militias that were rising during the 1990s, the wholesale killing of innocents was a step too far. After causing much anxiety for a number of years, especially among law enforcement officers who had to confront this threat directly, the militia movement retreated to the shadows for a long time after this horrific slaughter. But it never really went away, and was clearly among the progenitors of the white nationalist movement that has found its feet and its voice again in the current period. This paranoid thread in the American cultural fabric has never been far from the forefront of society and politics. From the original Ku Klux Klan in the 19th century to the alt-right today, a certain proportion of white men has always found common cause in the "discovery" that the country is on the verge of being overrun by "others". The definition of the enemy, and even the parameters of white identity, have morphed over time, but the imperative of solidarity in the face of cultural decline and loss of influence has been fairly constant. This fear has varied in intensity but is always waiting in the wings for its next cue.
It is difficult now to put the singular event of Oklahoma City in its chronological context. It fell exactly in the middle of the 12-year period that spanned the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which we had reason to believe would usher in an unprecedented era of global peace and prosperity, and the attacks of September 11, 2001, which far eclipsed Oklahoma City as the deadliest act of terrorism in America, and shattered the illusion of a global society of inevitably greater harmony. Barely had the words "new world order" left the lips of President George H.W. Bush following the death of Communism when a counter-argument about loss of sovereignty and an imminent invasion by the United Nations pushed it aside. As soon as a foreign enemy was defeated, the hibernating forces of reaction leapt into the breach to generate a new one. If foreign enemies ever prove too remote or unlikely a target for the ambitions of nationalists, there are always domestic ones to arouse the passions of the dispossessed.
The promised era of global economic growth and integration did in fact come to pass, elevating countless millions, even billions, of people from poverty. It just wasn't accompanied by the worldwide embrace of liberalism that we were expecting. As illuminated by some recent books and studies (consider Stephen Pinker's decidedly too cheerful Enlightenment Now), death by war and violence has become ever more rare throughout the world, despite undeniably horrific exceptions like Bosnia, Liberia, Congo, Syria and Yemen. But the domestic backlash against linking arms with dark-skinned others has been fearfully strong in many countries and, as we have discovered over the last two years, more stubbornly rooted in Western society that we had previously wanted to acknowledge. The historical period since the late 1980s should have taught us that prosperity and harmony are not mutually dependent, and that it is self-evidently possible to create a human society which is at the same time wealthier and politically less free. This trend has not been lost on the heavy-handed Chinese government, whose experiment in authoritarian capitalism has been, so far, dispiritingly successful.
While the motives of Osama bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh would appear radically dissimilar (they would certainly have considered one another mortal enemies) their close proximity in time, from a longer historical perspective, unexpectedly blurs the distinctions between them. The rationale of the Oklahoma City killers — that the gruesome death of innocents can be justified because they pay taxes and accept public services, so that even preschool-aged children are complicit in government evil — is chillingly comparable to the smug logic of al Qaeda — that those who happened to be working in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, even waiters and cleaners who earn too little to pay any taxes, are nonetheless contributors to America's capitalist, anti-Muslim, military crusade and therefore personally responsible for the demonic actions of the Great Satan. The aspirations of America's white nationalists and al Qaeda's Muslim fascists may seem thoroughly at odds with one another, but they are two sides of the same tribalist coin. And they both demonstrate as starkly as possible that compassion and otherness are simply incompatible.
A Species Apart
Contemporary social science has spread the notion that human beings are instinctively tribal animals, so that attempts to eradicate prejudice and forge good relations between peoples inevitably runs into the insurmountable realities of group identity. In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari's intriguing history of our species, we are faced with a strangely elusive fact about ourselves: Homo sapiens are not the only humans. Until about 15,000 years ago — roughly the end of the last ice age — we shared the planet with not one but several different human species. Some of the other species existed many times longer than we have so far. Homo Erectus, for example, thrived for several million years, making them arguably more successful creatures than we are, from a purely evolutionary point of view. Much has been written about the Neanderthals, not least because they disappeared quite recently and bits of their DNA show up in the modern European genome. There was clearly some mixing between our two species, though Harari argues that the minuscule number of Neanderthal genes that survive in our cells shows that it was far more the exception than the rule. (He suggests that we probably didn't much like each other's smell.)
Harari has a gift for piecing together well-known but distinct precepts of science and history into new observations that feel as if they ought to have been obvious all along. The fate of the Neanderthals is a prime example. Taking the laws of natural selection literally, anthropologists have long supposed that Homo sapiens simply out-competed contemporaneous species like Homo Floresiensis and Homo Neanderthalensis. Our superior intelligence and social organization were no match for these other species' mere physical strength. And while the sheer mental abilities of sapiens was undoubtedly a factor in outlasting our most closely related competitors, Harari suggests another likely reason for the rather sudden disappearance of our human cousins: we killed them all. If we consider our atrocious behavior towards one another in the millennia since we've had the human scene entirely to ourselves, we cannot help but wonder what reason our forebears would have had for treating the Neanderthals any less cruelly than we treat members of our own species.
The fossil record shows rather starkly that nearly every large animal species disappeared within a few thousand years after the arrival of Homo sapiens on a new continent. Evidence of our penchant for hunting animals to extinction is found in Asia, Australia and the Americas. For example, children throughout North and South America are taught that there were no horses in the Western Hemisphere before the Europeans arrived after 1492, and that the excellent horsemanship of Native Americans was learned during their centuries of conflict against white settlers. The latter part is true, but the biological story is a myth: there are indeed fossils of ancient horses on the American continents. The sapiens who got here first apparently killed them all long ago, and later generations forgot they ever existed.
But the most convincing argument that we simply annihilated the Neanderthals is our own history. To the present day, Homo sapiens has shown little compunction about killing its own. The list of groups of Homo sapiens which have actively sought the elimination of another group is shamefully long. The most ancient recorded conflicts between even ethnically identical people — Athens vs. Sparta, for example — were wars of annihilation, with survivors taken as slaves. If the denizens of strikingly similar Greek city states had no trouble designating their rivals as "the other" and attempted to wipe each other off the map, what possible basis is there for believing that we would have been any kinder toward the Neanderthals? If the conquistadors blithely decimated the Aztecs and the Incas, whom they viewed as racially inferior, we can easily imagine what they might have done to an actual species of "lesser" humans. Moreover, the Neanderthals were more threatening to us than other animals. They were too similar to us, too numerous, and too violent to just leave them be. It would be too extreme perhaps to condemn their annihilation as genocide, any more than it makes sense to suggest that wiping out the woolly mammoth or saber-toothed tiger must be subjected to moral reproach. Nonetheless, this reading of history makes the eradication of the Neanderthals by sapiens seem almost inevitable.
This leaves us with a rather different possibility for the origins of "otherness", and offers a decidedly more precise definition of "dehumanization". Perhaps our supposedly instinctive reaction against those who are different from ourselves arose not in response to other tribes of hostile Homo sapiens, but against other human species altogether. If we indeed co-existed for tens of thousands of years with other non-sapiens humans, it stands to reason that we might have developed an aversion to these human-like creatures, and retreated to the safety of our own kind whenever danger threatened. The lingering tendency to identify with our own tribe, which strikes many humanistic people today as unreasonable and unnecessary, may in fact be the vestige of a perfectly reasonable prehistoric fear, not of other human races, ethnic groups or religions, but of other human species. Forging alliances against common enemies is one of the most distinctive features of human social organization. In the absence of the Neanderthals, perhaps sapiens started turning against one another from their instinctive sense that there are dangerous enemies out there, and a deeply embedded fear of the world outside one's own group. This predilection is mirrored today in the way we turn our sights on one another and in our constant labeling of enemies, often without much basis in reality.
Strangely, while the rise of nationalist parties across Europe poses an existential crisis for European unity, America's white nationalists seem to have adopted a surprisingly pan-European view of whiteness. Faced with a perceived "invasion" of Central American migrants (Lewis Black said that in the history of mankind, no one has ever been invaded by an enemy who was merely walking in their direction) and Middle Eastern war refugees (who are so restricted in number that they can scarcely be considered a threat of any kind), America's white fear mongers have decided that all people of European Christian descent are now allies in the struggle against the brown conquest of America. This would be startling news to the German Nazis (call them Nazi classic). They could perhaps stomach the Scandinavians, the British and the Dutch, whose ethnicities and languages are Germanic in origin, and even the French, whose name derives from the medieval Franks. But those Eastern and Southern Europeans? What a dreadful come-down to have to accept Slavs, Spaniards, Greeks and Italians as part of the master race.
This newfound American fascination with all things white and European may explain the recent embrace of Russia by so many on the far right. Russia remains among the whitest of nations, and therefore, under the leadership of its bare-chested president-for-life, a potent symbol of white domination. Never mind that the reason Russia remains unsullied by the swarthy hordes that are infesting Western Europe is primarily because no one wants to go there. Few refugees fleeing the chaos and violence of Syria, Afghanistan or Yemen have dreams of reaching the safety and opportunity of Moscow or St. Petersburg. Quite apart from any financial or political favors that Russians may have conferred upon the current occupant of the White House, a deference for Russia and its interests may actually reflect, to some degree, an outsized regard for the ruins of the tsarist empire as a bastion of racial purity in an otherwise polluted ethnic sea. White makes right.
How terrible that the recent commemorations marking a century since the end of World War I were overshadowed by the same kind of national and ethnic divisions that pushed Europe into the abyss of the last century in the first place. The 19th century was notable in Europe for the rise of nationalist sentiment, as many small nations sought to unshackle themselves from their subservience to large powers. Many saw this deepening of patriotic feeling as a healthy development; sound familiar? We need not wonder how that turned out. The killing fields of France remain a profound testament to the folly of believing that there is any fundamental difference between peoples, particularly those so closely bound by race, religion, geography and culture as the Europeans have long been. The post-war unification of Europe was supposed to be a permanent response to centuries of continuous, pointless strife. But the inbred need to distinguish one's own group from all others seems to be a permanent, recurring feature of human history.
When Jean Renoir directed his masterpiece "Grand Illusion" about French prisoners during WWI, the second world war was already looming. In addition to meaningless distinctions of nationhood, Renoir's searing indictment of the war and its incalculable costs targets other illusions, as well: class, language, religion. The commanding officer of the prison camp and the ranking officer among the prisoners find they have more in common with one another than with the rabble under their respective commands. That they are honor-bound to try to kill one another, just like the rank and file soldiers, is presented less as a tragedy than as a pathetic portrait of human weakness and narrow-mindedness. By all rights, the movie ought to be dated, but it remains as poignant and relevant today as it was in the 1930s. For that, we can thank the nationalists of many nations for reminding us that they are potentially as great a menace today as they ever were.
"If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being."
— Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
In The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff argue that one of the contributing factors to the ultra-sensitivity of many of today's college students — one of the "Great Untruths" they identify — is the simplistic belief that there are good people and evil people. The insidious nature of such a belief is evident in its appalling consequences. People who are evil deserve no quarter, however slight or unsubstantiated their alleged offenses. Therefore, hounding professors from their jobs for using a single offensive word, or attacking a guest speaker violently because his views are disagreeable, are entirely justified actions because it is the duty of good people to take up arms against evil people and rid the world of them.
One would have thought that thousands of years of chauvinism and intolerance, culminating in a century of extreme nationalism, fascism and totalitarianism with tens of millions of victims, would be sufficient to lay waste to any such simplistic arguments. If we can no longer count on college campuses to be havens of Western Liberalism, then where will the freedoms upon which our lives depend find their defenders? Worse, if those who have the most to lose from the loss of free speech fail to stand up for it, then we are surrendering the field to those whose notions of liberty fall far short of the ideals of Jefferson and Madison. We expect superficiality from race bigots and religious zealots, but when college administrators, in the dubious pursuit of "fairness" and "safety", start showing comparable signs of intellectual smallness, we are facing a bleak future indeed.
Let us remember that the most successful movements for social change in the post-war era were notable for their largeness. Martin Luther King did not call for the elimination of the white race or even the separation of the races. He called instead upon our common humanity to bridge the divides between peoples, and turned a great many white people into supporters of civil rights. Nelson Mandela eschewed vengeance and bitterness, instead appealing for unity among all South Africans. While race relations in America remain fraught at many levels, and South Africa has barely begun to reverse the inequalities wrought by apartheid, they at least represent a path toward coexistence. Compare these two examples with inter-ethnic struggles in which both sides are entrenched in their otherness, and that endlessly stain the earth with blood: Israelis and Palestinians, Shia and Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, Congolese tribal groups, Rohingya and the Burmese majority, among others.
If few are willing to do the hard work of finding our common humanity, and if world leaders are keener on exploiting our differences than on bridging them, then the lessons of history will go forever unheeded. Our propensity to make bombs is not in doubt. To what extent we can overcome the compulsion to use them against one another remains an open question.
November 18, 2018
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