As my last two posts illustrate, there appears to be ever more promoting of xenophobia both domestically and abroad against opponents from all sides, whether ideological/political/territorial, particularly as what was meant to be a lightning military campaign to effect a regime change gets bogged down and transformed into a continuing occupation force. A sympathy for authoritarian conformity regarding the War on Terror, unbelievable to me as what I thought was a fairly mainstream utilitarian liberal-libertarian, is on the upswing.
Its origin is not simply fear after “9-11 changed everything”, but a growing conflation of nationalism with unquestioning support of the current government and also with conservative religious beliefs, leading to heated charges of anti-patriotism and ‘supporting terrorism’ against anybody who criticises the war, the country’s leadership or homegrown Christian fundamentalist religious intolerance.
It gets to the stage where neighbours, who a few years ago were just OK folks who would be even better if they shared one’s voting and worship habits, are now spoken of as at best blind fools and often literally as traitorous, evil and perverted if they don’t march in lockstep with the warhawks. In return, the doves offer up rhetoric of greedy baby-killers-for-oil imperialism and chickenhawk death-beasts sacrificing everyone else’s liberty for their safety. It should be needless to say, but in the current climate I am careful to state it unequivocally: both positions are hyperbolic caricatures of more complex backgrounds to people’s final opinion for or against the War in Iraq.
The recent Lebanon/Israel hostilities, with the shameful indifference to non-combatant safety shown by both Hezbollah and the IDF, have made me heartsick as I listen to the xenophobic rhetoric ratchet up further notches. I remember that in every armed conflict it has ever been thus, and that this too will eventually fade as China rises as a greater threat to Western hegemony (then we can all be xenophobic about commies again), but that’s small comfort.
On a mailing list a few weeks ago, someone linked to this, part of a booklet for American soldiers in WW2 about distinguishing between Chinese and Japanese. Even then it was considered too pandering to stereotypes and was quickly withdrawn from later editions, but wow. Most Westerners in large cities these days have worked with both Chinese and Japanese people at some time, and would find the characterisations below quaint, but nonetheless offensive.
My point is: people in 50 years will look back at the archives of what is written now about conservatives/liberals, Republicans/Democrats, Liberal Party/Labor Party, hawks/doves, Israel/Palestine/Hezbollah/etc, USA/Iraq, CoW/Al Qaeda etcetera ad nauseum, and find much of the polemic flung about to be equally offensive, but also equally quaint, because the political map will have utterly changed.
Our teams, our ‘dogs in the fight’, our fellow-travellers of today, are all caught up in the exigencies of this particular geopolitical conflict. The labels we hang on our opponents to hook into our and others’ emotional engagement are mostly subjective, arbitrary and temporary when we look at the larger drifts, ebbs and flows of geopolitical history.
At the recent FIFA World Cup, the chant by British fans in the stands to their German counterparts of “my grandad killed your grandad” was considered tacky, tasteless and yes, offensive, but not really fighting words. It was an old wound, one on which the scab had dropped off, and the scar no longer even as tender as in the days of Basil Fawlty desperately trying not to mention the war.
The perceptions of Arabs and other Muslims have varied so much in the last century: from Lawrence of Arabia’s noble desert allies to greedy oil-sheiks and Mediterranean bellydancing resorts to noble mujahadeen fighting the Soviets to reactionary religious fanatics to our guy Saddam against the evil Ayatollah to evil Saddam invading Kuwait to alQaeda terrorists and the Axis of Evil. All it will take is a shift in the geopolitical wind to be shoulder to shoulder with noble Islamic allies against the boojums du jour.
In the meantime, before we can get to regarding our present divisions as quaint signifiers of a bygone age, people are being killed, young men and women are being desensitised into merciless killers on all sides, infrastructure and livelihoods are being destroyed, new resentments are being fostered to nurture future revenge, and the arms merchants are contentedly watching the profits in their Swiss accounts accumulate.
This is not the last war of civilisation. No war ever really has been, not even in the Cold War of the nuclear age, and despite the paranoia about nuclear weapons they’re not really on the table this time either. It’s nasty, brutish and horrific, like every other war; some cultures will end up no longer socioeconomically dominant in areas they traditionally were; whatever geopolitical gains are made by the “winners” will be mostly largely irrelevant in 20 years time, maybe less.
We must be on guard against the creeping xenophobia. This doesn’t mecessarily mean you have to be pacifistic, at least not totally. If your life/home/livelihood is threatened, it is right to defend yourself, as would I. But even there, self defense should be proportionate. Just remember your enemies are not evil monsters, they too are human.
And your domestic opponents are literally breathing the same air. Take a deep breath, take a long look around, and really look at those people around who don’t believe exactly the same as you do. They’re not really that bad, you know. Their photo albums are just as full of cute kids, joyful weddings and happy holidays. Step back from the mistrust of the Other and search for the fellowship of the Neighbour. We could all do more of it than we have been for a while.