Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Hate Thine Enemy

My early childhood memory seems like a piece of Swiss cheese, more holes than substance. One small and vague morsel remains which concerns some sort of a celebration in the basement of my elementary school. It may have been an end of the school year celebration. Whatever, for a few hours we got to play games. Between logic and arithmetic, I now deduce that the war (WWII) was still on and while I would have been too young to remember very many details, it seems to me that one of the games was to throw darts at three balloons tricked up to represent Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini. I suppose that every nation at war feels the need to demonize the enemy. It wasn't difficult to demonize Hitler but my recollection of these figures was that they were more ridiculous than scary. That's another common and useful tactic, one I sometimes dabble in myself. Making the enemy ridiculous may be even more effective than making him the personification of evil.

I don't recall a particularly large campaign of this sort in the major wars of my lifetime, but my mother did tell me of how the windows were smashed in my German great-grandfather's food shop during WWI, how sauerkraut was officially renamed liberty cabbage, and how my mother's German lessons were curtailed at the time. When WWII came along, there was much less of that sort of thing in the US, unless you were of Japanese origin. In the Korean and Vietnamese wars, I can't remember either the Korean or Vietnamese people being subjected to scorn, but of course we were fighting both with and against indistinguishable people in their civil wars.

Counter-intuitively, it seems that domestic battles lead to more elevated demonization than do foreign wars, where both sides tend to go about their business with more detachment. When I went to college in the south, the residue of resentment against people from the north seemed stronger ninety years after the Civil War than that felt toward the Germans and the Japanese who had been bitter and deadly enemies just a decade before. I've never been to Ireland and I doubt that I could tell a Protestant from a Catholic there and yet, somehow the Irish could, and the violence and bitterness lingered. For that matter, I also couldn't tell a Lebanese Muslim from a Lebanese Christian but they seem often unable restrain their hostility towards each other. Shiite-Sunni violence is another of those mysteries. When I moved to Rome in the 70's I experienced that kind of battle up close. Violent hoodlums battled on the streets and kept scrawling graffiti all over the city. Their slogans and their colors differed, but otherwise the militants of the right and the militants of the left didn't seem much different.

Back in the USA we have people of all sorts of nationalities, races and religions. There have certainly been battles but we're so mixed up by now that it keeps becoming harder to draw the lines of otherness. And yet, they do sometimes emerge. Many years ago, I was on assignment in Miami for a couple of months. I found a group of congenial people to socialize with, in and around the motel in Coconut Grove where I was staying, and I was thoroughly enjoying my Florida sojourn. One day the news came of the assassination of Martin Luther King. In the motel bar, comments started flowing freely with the booze, such as, “that bastard finally got what was coming to him”. Suddenly, in front of my eyes, Sam, the voluptuous barmaid that I had lusted after, was transformed into a monster. The place seethed with venomous creatures who only the day before had seemed like normal people. I just wanted to be out of there and never see any of those people again. Fortunately, I was repatriated to New York after only a few more sullen and angry days.

Our Civil War has been over for a long time and one might have hoped we would be getting along by now. Maybe it's not as bad as it seems. After all, I do live in Italy, so perhaps I don't get to see a more complete picture, since my view of the country is basically through family, friends, visitors and the media. Nevertheless, a few days ago I was surfing through the news channels in search of some bit of news when I came across the Gang of Five, or something like that, on Fox News. One older conservative fellow played the role of lion tamer in the midst of a circle of wild and vicious creatures who appeared not to have been fed yet. Except for their aggressive demeanor, the men were nondescript, but the women on Fox are always young and good looking, and these were no exception. The foxes almost make one think of airline stewardesses in the early days of commercial flight, all young, pretty, slim and single, back in the days before age discrimination law suits. One of the women on the show had had her fangs polished by working in the Little George Bush Administration, defending the indefensible. I don't know where the other one came from but she was shapely and exotic, and if she hadn't come from the adult entertainment sector, she certainly could have a future there if Fox goes down. All in all, the crew seem more a pack of rabid ferrets than lions or tigers. They were constantly on the attack. They routinely spoke about President Obama in terms more hostile than ever heard in the American media about the likes of Tojo or Mussolini, closer in tone to that used for the late Col. Ghaddafi or the current President of Iran. While the President of the United States received his share of gratuitous insults, the villain du jour was Chief Justice John Roberts, of all people. Yes, the same John Roberts who led the Supreme Court to rule that corporations are people and money is speech, after pledging judicial restraint at his confirmation hearings. John Roberts had not done his God-given duty by striking down Obamacare, the health care plan borrowed from Mitt Romney. He was clearly a traitor, not to be trusted, and the occasion of his defection from plutocrat orthodoxy had made the need to appoint yet more radical members to the court all the more apparent.

These people are paid (very well I suspect) to foment hatred and they are masters at it. Just as an Ian Paisley could rouse his rabble to attack Catholic neighborhoods while raising the level of hatred amongst the Catholics for his dreary flock, the Foxters manage to raise the blood lust, or at least the blood pressure, of their Tea Party faithful while producing feelings of disbelief and disgust in any outsiders who wander into the tent. I'm not especially prone to hating people, though I may succumb too easily to disdain or contempt. Neither working in difficult conditions in Saudi Arabia nor having my NYC office destroyed by the 9/11 terrorist attack ever managed to get me to hate Arabs, just as hearing way too many racist slurs directed at every imaginable minority in my childhood never left much of an impression. I even married one of the hated Catholics. Getting me to hate a beautiful woman is an especially arduous and improbable task but, when it comes to stirring up hate, these people at Fox are not to be underestimated. Watching that show was like another Martin Luther King Assassination Day all over again. Every day on Fox has something of that feel.

I don't know how long it will take the country to get over the increasingly bitter oligarchy/anti-oligarchy struggle. It took more than a century to get over the Civil War, a war which killed more Americans than any other. Slavery had to go. Oligarchy will have to go too, and with it the fascist infrastructure that sustains it. We can hope that it will take less casualties than the abolition of slavery did, but pretending that the problem isn't there, or that it will just go away by itself, is no solution.

The effectiveness of the Gang of Foxes, and the many others in their cage, is disturbing. Hatred is a bad thing but indifference isn't much better. Should King Kong miraculously return to New York and throw the whole Gang of Five through a plate glass window on the 32nd floor of the Fox HQ building, I confess that while I might be curious about all that broken glass, I doubt that I'd give a fig about the collateral damage.