First I should make clear that this is not an attack on wasps (white anglo-saxon protestants, for those who may not be familiar). This is an elucidation of why many in American society have never felt fully welcome within that society. It is the reason why some may feel less proud of a nation that can journey to the moon, because not all of us were invited on that storied voyage. We're still waiting to launch.
This essay was in part inspired by this diary. Others added to my thoughts, but unfortunately my attempts to search them out for citation have proven fruitless. But my ruminations have brought me to consider the effects of what I call the hatemosphere, that complex of biases, attitudes, half-remembered slights, and cultural waste that hangs all around us like some gray haze only glimpsed with a trick of the light by so many who live within its bounds. But for many, it is all too real and relevant to our everyday lives.
If you are not a wasp, then you are less vulnerable to mass marginalization and persecution in America. It has always been that way. It is understandable (how often would the majority conspire against itself?). Every time America faces an enemy, or even just a perceived socio-economic obstacle, to which the populace can pin a group-face, members of that group suffer. Just ask Japanese-Americans (Imperial spies), African-Americans (3/5 of a man), German-Americans (Nazi spies), Native Americans (savages). Now even Muslim Americans (terrorists), who were until recently essentially ignored by the national hatemosphere, know the shadow it casts. I could go on and on. Notice that the English haven't known the cold touch of that shadow since 1812, and even then you had to be actually English, not just descended from them.
All of these prejudices still live, to a greater or lesser extent. Some have waned quite a bit. You may not always notice, because groups like the Irish-Catholics have the "gift" of comparative camouflage, being white, and are therefore assumed to be wasps until proven otherwise, at which time the fear of looking stupid often overrides the fear of the "other." In some places and situations, the reaction can be more violent.
The all-pervasive nature of the hatemosphere is something that many wasps just can't comprehend, because, in America at least, it is their culture that casts the shadow. A white friend of mine recently explained that he had independently realized the situation, that his classmates from high-school had grievances and attitudes which were in part a product of the fact that they could never get away, that wasp culture was always around them, telling them they weren't good enough, that their very nature made them congenitally inferior in the eyes of their peers. The strength and effect of the hatemosphere varies from region to region, and from age to age, but it is persistent and alive.
I don't say this to offend or encourage guilt. Actually, I feel "white guilt" is silly. All peoples have blood on their hands, even the currently oppressed. All peoples were slave to someone, beaten by someone, raped and pillaged by someone. How far back must we go before we feel the weight of guilt? How far back before it lifts? There is enough to go around, though some depravities are forgotten to history.
No. My point is simple, that we must open our eyes to the reality around us. You must wake up to the power of symbol and its weight in history. It is a language that runs deep in us all, insidious and without ethical narrative, like some tangled map drawn by the blind for the sighted. Learn this then: symbols rule you. The question isn't what symbol needs to be destroyed, but what you must do to alter its meaning, because as sure as the tides, the symbol itself will remain. Just look at what the Nazis did to the Swastika, a most ancient symbol.
Ask yourself: why do we identify "white" with purity and "black" with negativity? I do not think it is racial in origin, actually, but ask yourself further what subconscious affect such symbolism has had on race relations. Why was Africa known as the "dark" continent for so long? Not for lack of exploration and exploitation. Even while its jungles were being stripped for their diamonds, my mother's textbooks called the cradle of man by that empty name. Do not dismiss this lightly. Symbols matter. They effect us deeply, and pervade our cultural experience. If this were not so, "Hussein" would be just another name among a sea of names. This is manifestly not the case. "John," even were it the name of a tyrant, would not hold such singular power.
So what do I propose? Well for starters, we should undo the relational ties that bind us so tightly to the hatemosphere. This won't happen swiftly, but it had better happen, or the next group to be marginalized could be your own. How do we do this? First, I should say here that in many ways we already tread the path we must. There is a suggestion that with each successive generation, these deep-seeded hatreds are eroding into the past. I pray this is so, but I do not wait in stasis for this eventuality. Each of us should become a student of symbols and how to control our experience of them. Symbols have the habit of disappearing into the background noise of our culture, until some crafty individual or group decides it is time to divide or unite us with its power (think of the peace symbol). If we are more aware of symbols in our everyday lives, we are more able to re-frame them in some positive way, in order to mitigate harmful effects, or augment positive effects.
This is, of course, nothing new. Psychiatrists, mediators, managers, campaign strategists, and others do this all the time. But, just like the Obama campaign, I propose something altogether different in approach. Up to now, the job of re-framing the national conversation has been left to pundits, the MSM, and politicians. We live in the Information Age, and yet I see us abdicating our power to influence information in many ways. If we are going to neutralize our most despised memes, then we must do more than rail against them with righteous anger. We have to take charge of the conversation, pacify the symbols that have been turned against us, and re-frame the context.
For instance, I wonder why so few of us have come out and claimed that using Sen. Obama's middle name is unchristian bigotry? We say things like it's "racist" or "fearmongering." Racism, while powerful, is often dismissed because of its very power: people are tempted to give others a pass, because it cuts so deep and is often overused by people trying to score points. It can incite a backlash. Groups long tired of being labeled "racists" can dismiss such notions, when they could have been reached in some other way. By the same token, "fearmongering" just isn't powerful at all, because it requires a great deal of reflection to see how it has harmed Americans in the past. Sure, you can come up with some quick examples, and I'm sure they are riddled with allusions to the Bush Administration and McCarthyism, but the average American doesn't emotionally connect "fearmongering" with a powerful and negative image that comes easily to mind. However, if you frame the debate as an attack on Christianity, that is altogether different. Here, the work has been done for us, vis the constant claim within the Evangelical movement that Christians are persecuted around the world (which is true). If you connect the fact that African Christians often have "funny" names, with the fact that Obama is being attacked by uncharitable, unchristian bigots, you will unleash a torrent of symbolic power. Why these symbols? Well, I should think that was obvious. Christian symbols can be used to inoculate the Right's base against their own tactics.
I use the "Hussein" flap because it is current, but the hatemosphere is pervasive and does not end with name-calling. We have to extend the fight to every strata of our lives: how we talk to each other, how we react when we see symbols abused around us, and even how we buy products. In short, how we interact with the world. This is more than just "PC." Political correctness is a bandage, a semantic retreat into venality. We trade veracity for the hope of comity, and we are left with neither. Has anyone actually called someone "differently-abled" in public and not felt like an ass? If you feel he or she is equal to you, why should you mention their "ableness" at all? You see, it is not substance, and is therefore relegated to a joke at best, and at worst a way to lie to ourselves and to others, because of its very superficiality. What I am talking about here is a move to reshape not the words we use, but how we use them (or choose not to use them, as in the case above) – not the symbols we all know, but how we respond to them. Because, in the final analysis, these are the building blocks of our culture.
A few templates:
A symbol employed to divide can be re-framed as an attack on the constituency of the divider. I've already outlined how "Hussein" can be re-framed in this way.
A symbol employed to highlight how a person is different can be re-framed to highlight a circumstance asserted as generally acceptable. Arguments against gay marriage can be undermined by pointing out their similarity to old objections against interracial marriage.
A symbol employed to cause controversy could be preempted to serve the opposite purpose. Think "reject" and "denounce." If Obama had said: "I'll go one step further and denounce what he said," when asked if he rejected Farrakhan's support, he might have avoided my even hearing about the incident, though he handled it well enough in the end. In this way, he could have used the construction of his message to claim the high ground when challenged on the word "reject," since he could have said, "You want me to go soft on him, Hillary?" This is a small point, since he's doing just fine in this field, but it underlines how a shift in meaning, rather than just in connotation can produce different effects.
I fully realize that this isn't some kind of revolution in understanding human interaction, but my point is for all its venerable content, it isn't consistently leveraged by the populace to discredit the people who are bankrupting us and getting our friends and neighbors killed for schizoid and corrupt purposes. I hope this has aided some of you out there in your fight against the odious hit-machine of the Right.
After reading my essay (and perhaps before ;), how many of you picked out the following less than agreeable juxtapositions?
Just ask Japanese-Americans (Imperial spies), African-Americans (3/5 of a man), German-Americans (Nazi spies), Native Americans (savages). Now even Muslim Americans (terrorists), who were until recently essentially ignored by the national hatemosphere, know the shadow it casts.
This was a heavy handed example, to be sure, but things like this happen all the time. I often read diaries pertaining to unsavory images placed next to Obama or Clinton articles or cable stories. It is just this sort of thing that we need to combat. Just some practice for the masses.