Us and Them

Political awareness is something new for me. Once upon a time, say 1980-2001, I could not have told you who was President of the United States let alone explain the differences between a liberal, conservative, democrat, republican, independent or libertarian. Although drawn to observing cultural trends and particularly on how identity and meaning shape our experience, I never framed the world or its people by political categories.
Somewhere post 9/11 it occurred to me that political identity plays a big part in the lives of some people. At that time I did not own or watch any television, did not listen to any news related radio. Whatever current events I was aware of came to me by way of what I called the “trickle down theory.” If something got enough air play in the culture I would hear about it from friends, family or work mates.
Then the Towers fell. Watching the catastrophe on a television at the print shop where I worked was in many ways life changing for me as it was for many of us, if not the entire culture. As a native New Yorker now relocated 3,000 miles from my home town, I felt a deep pain and sadness for all my NY “family” and felt drawn by the tragedy to make sense of it. 9/11 reminded me that even though I had left my Long Island home there remained something deep inside that shaped me in ways I continue to discover to this day. From the salty moist air to the sound of the ferry boats and all the familiar places, Long Island is my primary experience of being.
9/11, not an accident, not an act of war in the traditional sense, and not an act of violence directed personally towards the actual victims makes it hard to feel sure that one can know what the attackers objectives were even if we understand their motives. While cultural clashes are not new, perpetrating violence upon persons not personally engaged in the battle (and not victims of collateral damage) was perhaps unknown fifty years ago.
Does the impersonal nature of these and similarly impersonal attacks (school, mall shootings) point to some relational dynamic hitherto unknown?
And is there a parallel between impersonal victimization and technology? Are crimes perpetrated on strangers becoming more common as the nature of our technology provides us with an over extended psychic reach?
While it is true that serial killers perpetrate crimes on strangers I think there is a difference. For one thing, serial criminals act privately, hiding both their criminal act and their victim’s remains. Usually their victims are singled out because of something personal about them, i.e. they are prostitutes. Victims of impersonal crime as in acts of terror are not singled out for who they are, but for where they are. Impersonal crimes are public, they are meant to say and show something and to make us feel something.
Post 9/11 increased my desire to understand something about the clash of cultures and so I began sifting and sorting through the cultural conversations around me. My first observation was that there was a pre-existing conversation between vaguely defined groups of people called left, right, conservative, liberal, progressive, libertarian, independent. I had a lot of catching up to do, with both the political characters and their narratives.
So, not only is there a clash of cultures between Western Civilization and Islamists (which I define as anyone who identifies and aligns themselves with the cause and justification of eliminating all threats to an Islamic Leadership being in total domination of human affairs), but also the cultural clashes between factions of Western peoples and factions of Islam.
The overarching dynamic of which seems to be, “which side are you on?”
Once again, I thought, it’s about identity, as if our professed beliefs make us who we are. If it were only that easy, I thought to myself. It may well be that our beliefs shape us and certainly they deserve all the support and criticism we can muster, so that we might give to them the clarity, depth and realization they deserve. But we all seem to fall short of our ideals and perhaps it would be more transformational for us to dig deeper into what shapes our ideals than to spend a lot of energy convincing ourselves and others of their value.
Most baffling perhaps, is that many if not most people I know want what is best, for themselves and for others. Whether it’s “do your own thing, I won’t judge” or “please don’t step in front of that car, you’ll get hurt,” rarely does anyone rant on and on about their intentions to hurt others. If we all could at least give each other the benefit of the doubt, there would cease to be a need to see one’s self as being on the right side merely based on the idea that “my intentions for you are better than your intentions for me.”
And, I believe, our intentions for each other are a huge part of politics, which is where the human struggle to live with and without each other is articulated and practiced.
The frustrating thing about following the political conversation is believing that any of us alone carries enough weight in a lifetime to make much difference. For most of us our circle of influence is pretty small. Even our political heroes seem to meld into some sort of muddied quagmire once in office. There is direction in the cultural stream yes, but it seems we are all tiny particles of a small fish in a big pond.
In terms of “left” and “right” though, I believe we have reached an interesting point, perhaps a stalemate. Maybe the view from the middle years of my life incline me to draw that conclusion. Can we stop and consider that while we argue back and forth on whether or not the rich, the poor, the government or our destiny are to blame for our current unrest, that the conversation has ceased to be an exchange or even useful?
It’s a rare conversation in which people don’t attack each other for their position of being on the left or the right. It’s almost as if the object of an exchange is to place the other person firmly in a particular political camp where they become the stereotype. The person can now be safely objectivized into a position of “managed care” where their ideas can be easily dismissed as not worthy of our consideration, primarily because we know our intentions are better than theirs.
Embracing and focusing on one’s political identity (your own as well as another’s) allows us to disengage the ideas. Aren’t political ideas and our understanding of them there to be shared and exchanged to determine their value? Unless I am a dictator, whether or not I agree with you on the legalization of abortion or marijuana will hardly have an impact on your life. The agreement or disagreement is not what needs our attention, it’s the content and the consequences of either the legality/illegality that matter to the culture. The people served best by our political identities are not us, but the people in power and all they seem to want is to stay in power.
I may be just as guilty of participating in this predictable drama with the simple caveat of not ever having felt satisfied with the spoils of conquest. I don’t want to win a debate so much as feel as if an exchange of ideas has occurred. Often, long after a political exchange has taken place, I imagine how it could have gone and all that was left out, wishing for a do-over.
So, baffled by the lack of a true exchange in conversation and tired of the predictability of both sides of political spectrum, I often skim news articles and read the comments in the hopes that some intriguing exchange might take place. More and more I am disappointed in the way news events and issues are presented and from reader’s comments sense an increasing disconnection between who we are online compared to who we are face to face.
The internet has certainly extended our ability to reach out, gather information, find friends from our past, bridge geographical distances with family and businesses and other cultures. But as every new technology does, our participation in the internet experience will change us both individually and culturally. The internet cannot correct existing interpersonal deficits, cannot make us love more, think more, or try to understand each other and when the hope of that becomes our primary motivation to be online we will be disappointed. There is no short cut to the heart’s true desire.
Or, as my musician friends say, “If you can’t play it slow, you can’t play it fast.”

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