Monday, September 27, 2010
Along with many others, I have become increasingly distressed over the summer by the public discourse and conduct of some of my fellow citizens. At the moment, I am not inclined to describe this simply as “politics,” even though campaigns for the mid-term Congressional elections are underway and many of the issues over which opinion is diverging are also matters that are, to some extent, the purview of government.
Nor am I willing to reduce it to differences in political “ideology,” even though one of the contested issues is precisely the role of government, its size and reach, in its management of our common socioeconomic life.
Rather, I have been wondering whether there is something else operating at a deeper level, catalyzing our abrasive politics and ideologies, some sort of vestigial sensibility that is evoked by a perfect storm of socioeconomic conditions, cultural group membership, and existential receptiveness to change.
Social and political extremism is hardly unknown in periods of economic downturn. As a nation we are now enduring a widening in income inequality, a rise in poverty, and a diminution of the middle class. Unemployment has struck all classes, but the burden is carried primarily and disproportionately by the lower and middle classes. Perhaps, in part, the public discourse and conduct of some are expressive of such extremism, indicative of a new form of consciousness rooted in altered social and economic conditions. Loss of socioeconomic power and status move people to require of their government and the larger society a level of change—or intervention—in those circumstances that precipitated the loss. At the same time, maintenance or increase in socioeconomic power and status typically evoke resistance to governmental initiatives to alter the status quo. Clearly we are seeing both, as change is encouraged by some, resisted by others, and perceived with indifference by many.
Two recent articles, one by Christopher Hitchens and the other by Will Bunch, have drawn attention to what just might be at the root of the recent manifestations of extremism. In “White Fright,” Hitchens argues that the uneasiness and anxiety evidenced by the dissent of social, economic, and religious conservatives are what I would call but a new form of tribalism. The growth of American citizens and residents who come from non-European countries, or are the progeny of earlier immigrants from such places, has become a source of great agitation for members of the dominant socioeconomic and cultural groups. Hitchens declares that “one crucial element of the American subconscious is about to become salient and explicit and highly volatile. It is the realization that white America is within thinkable distance of a moment when it will no longer be the majority.” For dominant groups, this means, at best, sharing socioeconomic and cultural power. At worst, it means being out of it, on the margins as it were.
Viewed through these lenses, our current public-political-ideological morass takes on the form of a variety of discursive and activist strategies to preserve the status, influence, power, and ultimately, hegemony of European Americans (i.e., how we talk about the issues and what kinds of rallies are held). It is tribalist in that particular social, ethnic, political, and religious identities are defined and rendered plausible in contradistinction to other identities. Whites are not-black, wealthy are not-poor, Republicans are not-Democrats, Protestants are not-Catholic, etc. You’re either one of us, or you’re not!
In “It’s Not About the Mosque – It’s America’s War on ‘The Other,’” Bunch contends that the outcry regarding what are thought to be porous borders and the brouhaha over the Islamic Community Center some blocks away from the site of the former World Trade Center are fundamentally veiled forms of what I would call nativism. Like Hitchens, Bunch suggests that the transition of white Americans to a minority status is engendering outrage, anger, and fear among members of this group. Having to make way and room for the values and practices of other cultures whose points of origin are beyond our shores is perceived as destructive to American values and institutions. This is nativism in that it opposes the immigration and presence, lawful or otherwise, of ethnic and cultural groups whose ways of life are seen as strange and antagonistic to the dominant culture, and whose difference renders them ultimately inassimilable to American society.
As Hitchens and Bunch see it, the frenzy and the fear manifest over the summer and given so much attention by the media are really symptomatic of a deeper pathological condition afflicting white Americans, namely a sense of angst and impotence in the face of the loss of cultural dominance. If Hitchens and Bunch are correct—and I think they are—we find ourselves now confronting a new and virulent form of xenophobia, driven by diminished social and economic status, animus toward recent immigrants, and the rise of a religious tradition the knowledge of which—if it exists at all—is confined to stereotype. Muslims and Mexicans, mosques and migrations then become symbols of the demise of this hegemony. Matters like the immigration law in Arizona, opposition to the Islamic Community Center in Manhattan, the notion of reconsidering the 14th Amendment, and the proposed-but-cancelled burning of the Qur’an in Florida can all be viewed as attempts to draw limits to tolerance and freedom and preserve a privileged status quo. It is possible to impose these limits once one has effectively identified, defined and demonized “the other,” as has been done to Muslims and Mexicans.
Some years ago, the General Social Survey, a longitudinal social research project of the National Opinion Research Center, asked respondents whether they thought the coming racial and ethnic changes in the country’s make-up were a good thing or a bad thing. Most said it was neither, perhaps feigning acceptance in the guise of indifference. Twenty-six percent declared this was either a good or a very good thing, while eighteen percent acknowledged that it was bad or very bad for the country. Given the fact that in 2000 when this survey question was asked, there had been no 9/11, the economy was humming along quite nicely, and there was a full third fewer illegal immigrants in the country than there are at present, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the distribution of responses to the question now would be somewhat different. Indeed, in light of the indices of tribalism and nativism, perhaps researchers might find additional quantifiable evidence of extremism, on both ends of the spectrum.
But when, according to the Public Religion Research Institute, fully fifty-six percent of Americans believe that the former site of the World Trade Center is “sacred ground,” and fifty-seven percent are opposed to building the proposed Islamic Community Center two blocks from that site, one must indeed wonder to what extent tribalism and nativism may be in play. When the Pew Research Center for People and the Press reports that fifty-nine percent of voters approve of Arizona’s new immigration law, the possibility that this reflects a certain degree of tribalism and nativism does occur to me.
At the very least, it prompts me to consider whether there is some extraordinary elasticity in the notion of “sacred ground.”
For cultural anthropologists and sociologists of religion, sacred ground—or sacred anything—requires its correlative, namely profane ground. All religions have persons, places, and things that are demarcated by the boundaries between these two statuses, and for religionists, these boundaries are not fluid; there is a clear and unassailable boundary between a sacred place and the profane place from which it is separated. That’s what makes something sacred: it’s separate from and unsullied by the mundane, the usual, the common. A sacred object is used only for special purposes, and though it might appear to be similar to other objects, it cannot be used for any but sacred acts. Typically, a piece of ground is regarded as sacred because tribal members lived and/or died there, or the god(s) appeared there, or some rite of passage occurs there.
But precisely as an effort to draw boundaries between the sacred and the profane, boundaries that effectively delimit spaces for the purpose of exclusion, the declaration of any site as “sacred ground” gives me pause. This is especially the case when such boundaries are at best buttressed by the impulses of civil religion, or at worst, by the vitriol in the national temperament. Boundaries that evoke or express a misguided sense of tribe and a mistaken presumption of national homogeneity are cause for alarm. Who gets to decide where the boundaries are? Who gets to decide who is in and who is out?
Some Americans may well regard the footprint of the former World Trade Center as sacred because 2,595 people lost their lives there on 9/11. But it is not as though God has ordained that the site be “sacred.” Nor has any public or religious official been empowered to proclaim it as sacred in the name of any religion, least of all our civil religion. Still, it is not at all self-evident that construing this or any other 9/11 site as sacred is not disassociated with demonizing “the other.” In the absence of some unequivocally divine sanction, regarding the site as sacred easily becomes justification of our exclusivism and a form of idolatry.
The inescapable question is: What kind of nation do we want to be in the global community? As a nation, we are not likely to allow others to make that decision for us, but surely we must know that the way we differentially treat people who live and work here, especially those whose religions and cultures are different than those that prevail in the U.S., is a sign to other nations of the extent to which we value and practice the liberty and diversity that we preach.
As the world around us has changed, so too has the United States. Even Thomas Paine, the stalwart eighteenth-century revolutionary and enthusiast for our independence, knew that conditions in nations change, with notable affect on government. In his celebrated Rights of Man, published in 1791, he observed: “The circumstances of the world are continually changing, and the opinions of men change also; and as Government is for the living, and not for the dead, it is the living only that has any right in it. That which may be thought right and found convenient in one age may be thought wrong and found inconvenient in another. In such cases, who is to decide, the living or the dead?”
With gratitude, sorrow, and humility, we memorialize those who gave their lives in the cause of our liberty. They died for our sake, whether they freely put themselves in harm’s way or harm came seeking them, as happened to those who died on 9/11. But avenging their ultimate sacrifice by excluding and demonizing the innocent “other” solely because they are non-white, non-Christian, non-legal, or just plain “different,” is no way to honor our nation’s founding and those generations of Americans who have come and lived and worked undeterred in the pursuit of the freedom and equality enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.
No, I think we are, and will be, better than that.