Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Other

A man called in to our local public radio station, WNYC, the other day during the Brian Lehrer Show, after news of the killing of my generation’s arch-villain, Osama Bin Laden. There had been a number of callers that day wanting to discuss the celebrations of his death; their revulsion at such celebration and their embrace of it, and for some, their ambivalence. The fellow’s name was Jordan, and had I had any impulse toward celebration, I think his comments would have been the equivalent of a cold shower. Here’s why: he showed very clearly that, really, nothing has changed.

While, yes, the face of terror for many Americans is now dead, he was just that—a symbol. However, I would suggest that he is a symbol not only of terrorism, but of that most human of traits, the unending need to create an “Other”. We were Osama’s “Other”, and he was ours. Jordan did not seem to understand this. While I could understand his emotions, and know that emotions can cloud as much as they illuminate, I found his remarks chilling in their unexamined certainty.

Those people in some countries who celebrated on 9-11 were to him somehow different from he, himself. His celebration righteous, theirs evil—and to be sure, they probably thought, or are thinking, the same thing about him. They ‘hated freedom’, he loves freedom. 9-11 victims were innocent, Bin Laden was not. There seemed no attempt to step outside of his own world-view, his own experience, to consider that in countries where “free and fair” elections do not exist, it is perhaps easy to imagine that no American is innocent. In a country torn by decades of war, and fueled by an ‘outsider’ across an ocean, nothing is quite so simple. After all, we elected those in power whose policies have effects the world over. Here in the USA we may be keenly aware of how often those we elect do not even closely represent our deeply held, personal values or our most basic needs—that is to say, keenly aware of our innocence. But in a place where people may subsist on less than $2 per day, or where the literacy rate is 28% and average life expectancy is 45 years (as in Afghanistan), a nation of have-nots looks across an ocean to a nation of haves, and things look differently than we might imagine. We may strongly disagree with their view, and be privy to information and experiences that they are not, but we must not assume that it’s simply “evil” that motivates, that these ordinary people are somehow less than human. It is no more or less wrong for them to celebrate vengeance than it is for us. Whether American or Afghani, Israeli or Palestinian, Brit or Libyan, mere vengeance (as opposed to justice) may be at times delicious, but it is always dehumanizing of those on both sides of the conflict.

Make no mistake, I will shed no tears for Bin Laden, the coward who incited and sent others to do his dirty work. My tears were for my country and its people on 9-11, and they are now. My tears are for soldiers and civilians alike who have perished in the struggle since then, and families of victims whose scabs are torn open at this news, even as they breathe a sigh of relief. Added to it, though, I have also shed tears for Iraqis, Pakistanis and Afghanis caught in the crossfire. I have, too, shed tears even for those so separated from their own basic goodness, from their own humanity, and from whatever God they claim to serve, that they would seek to do violence. I have shed tears for those whose vision is so clouded that they believe they could accomplish more by their dying than by their living.

What Jordan missed is the fact that he and celebrants in another time and place have more in common than he would perhaps be comfortable admitting. Until such recognition occurs on a wide scale, the game has not changed. There will be new Bin Ladens, new Hitlers, new ‘evil empires’, new infidels to take their place. Freedom-loving Jordan seemed to appreciate only people who are free to think just as he does, to see situations and governments just as he does. I’ll bet Bin Laden, were he at all self-reflective, might have recognized this thinking. One of the defining characteristics of the human being is the capacity for rational thought, but it has a rebellious offspring; the capacity for rationalization. In this regard, we are all extremists, going to extraordinary lengths to change ‘the rules’ depending on the person or the situation, particularly if the person is us, or the situation involves us, and one of our perceived needs or fears. In this we are amazingly, alarmingly consistent.

Susan Griffin said it best in her 1982 essay, “The Way of All Ideology”, published in the Journal of Women and Culture in Society available at which I excerpt here. [alert: if you find certain racial epithets offensive, no matter the context, you’ll want to stop here. I will quote her and James Baldwin directly, without imposing my own preferred use of language]:

“Writing of racism in the 1960’s, James Baldwin spoke in The Fire Next Time of the creation of the “nigger” in the white mind. The idea of the nigger, he observed, said nothing about black character and everything about white racist character. The nigger is the denied part of the white idea of self. A fantasy of another’s being created out of a purposeful ignorance of the self. And I discovered the same delusion, the same denied self, in the pornographer’s idea of a woman.
. . .the ideology of racism requires the creation of another, a “not-I”, an enemy. This is a world view in which the self is irrevocably split so that it does not recognize its other half, and in which all phenomena, experience, and human qualities are also split into the superior and the inferior, the righteous and the evil, the above and the below. . .
. . .And the other, the not-I, bears all those qualities which are lesser and bad, thus the other is the enemy who must be controlled or annihilated.
I can be angry. I can hate. I can rage. But the moment I have defined another being as my enemy, I lose part of myself, the complexity and subtlety of my vision. I begin to exist in a closed system. . .Slowly all the power in my life begins to be located outside, and my whole being is defined in relation to this outside force, which becomes daily more monstrous, more evil, more laden with all the qualities within myself I no longer wish to own.”

Yes, It’s a mouthful. I also think it’s spot-on in the contexts of which she speaks—racism and sexism. I would add to that list nationalism, anti-gay sentiment, anti-religious sentiment, or religious exclusivity (i.e. “My God is the True God, and yours is false”), classism, intellectualism, and a host of other –isms. Heck, we even do it right down to our sports teams or brand labels. We are nothing if not a creative species, and boy, can we come up with ways to reinforce our delusions. Before you start to pen that defensive hate mail, let me acknowledge my own place among the “we”, and the closet full of –isms I have yet to clean out. Don’t worry—I’m not planning on a yard sale, just a trip to the dump, or tossing them onto a bonfire.

I hear this news of Osama’s killing, and look out my kitchen window at the ever-present NYC skyline. The hole in that skyline is still there. It hasn’t gone away, even as new buildings begin to rise where the towers once stood. There in the city is that big hole in the skyline, and there lurking all over its streets and alleys are those “Others”. The place is crawling with them. Each of us, somebody else’s “Other”. To the macho man, the woman is his “Other”, who embodies the weakness and fragility he denies in himself, that he will not own. To the rich man, the poor man is his “Other”, the receptacle for every lazy impulse or brush with failure he has had to deny in himself. To the poor man, the rich man is his “Other”, the embodiment of the greed or selfishness he wishes to pretend he could never possess. We are walking polarities, magnets, simultaneously repelled from and drawn to each other. Muslim and Jew. Atheist and Christian. White and Black. Straight and Gay. Each clinging to an idealized self image, reinforcing it through our clinging to “Otherness”. At its most extreme, we define ourselves by our “Other”, and fear the loss of the other as a loss of our constructed sense of self—ask any Palestinian or Israeli on the street right after a suicide bomb or an IDF operation. If peace were achieved, if we had no enemy, how would we know who we are?

Perhaps by our love, our compassion.

Might we then know ourselves as simply human beings, in our purist and most imperfect glory? Might it free us from our need to deny the less-than-pretty aspects of that humanness, and free up the energy of compassion that enables us to support each other in the flowering of our best possible selves?

One of my favorite authors, favorite human beings, is Thich Nhat Hanh. In his book Peace Is Every Step (Bantam Books, 1991) he makes the overall point of this blog post better than I, in his poem “Please Call Me By My True Names”:

        Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow
        because even today I still arrive.

        Look deeply: I arrive in every second
        to be a bud on a spring branch,
        to be a tiny bird with wings still fragile,
        learning to sing in my new nest,
        to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower;
        to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

        I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
        in order to fear and to hope.
        The rhythm of my heart is the birth and
        death of all that are alive.

        I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river;
        and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time
             to eat the mayfly.

        I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
        and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence,
             feeds itself on the frog.

        I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
        my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
        and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to

        I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
        who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea
        and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and

        I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my
        and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to my
        dying slowly in a forced labor camp.

        My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all
             walks of life.
        My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.

        Please call me by my true names,
        so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
        so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

        Please call me by my true names,
        so I can wake up,
        and so the door of my heart can be left open,
        the door of compassion.

Those are Thich Nhat Hanh’s words. I sit with them and add my own.

I am the man in the turban. I am the FDNY hero.
I am the priest hearing last confessions at ground zero, I am the politician capitalizing on the fear of the populace.
I am the Pentagon office worker, and the commander ordering drone strikes.
I am the child whose father never came home from Cantor Fitzgerald,
I am the thirteen-year-old girl, witnessing her reviled father’s shooting in Abbottabad.
I am the Afghani girl, yearning to go to school like her brother, and the father who can afford to send only one child for an education.
I am the man forcing his wife into the burka, and I am the wife quietly crying beneath my burka.
I am the pastor burning another man's holy book, and I am the Imam reaching out to my non-Muslim neighbors.
I am the dictator, and I am the one protesting dictatorial rule.
I am selfish, and generous.
I am angry and level-headed.
I am lazy, I am full of plans.
I am all of this and more.

Thus, I will resist the urge to employ words like “evil”, lest I condemn myself and all of us.
Thus I will not rejoice at the death of my “Other”, but rather seek out the other in myself, hunt it down with all the stealth of a Navy SEAL yet lay down my weapons, make peace with it, and in so doing, transform it; transform the world.

In my heart of hearts, I know it is the only thing that will make that hole in the skyline disappear.