Maybe an Invasion from Outer Space?

The Washington Post recently ran a column listing the top ten reasons American politics are so broken. None of the listed reasons will surprise anyone who’s been following our increasingly uncivil, toxic political environment, and the whole column is worth a read.

That said, this struck me.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States lost a common enemy that had once unified the country.

There’s a Bedouin proverb: Me against my brother; me and my brother against our cousin; me, my brother and my cousin against the stranger. From 1939 through 1989, the United States had a rogue’s gallery of heavily armed strangers to unite with in defense of democracy and the homeland. The Cold War began as a bipartisan affair with strong support from both parties. By the 1980s, the parties had clearly split into the hawk party and the dove party, and that split has only deepened. As the parties have purified and moved apart, foreign policy and the proper response to foreign threats has become more divisive.

I’ve often wondered whether the human animal is hard-wired to need an enemy– whether we evolved to inhabit an “us versus them” universe. It seems increasingly likely.

Sociologists argue that “membership” is a meaningless term unless there are also non-members–people we can point to who don’t belong. Many years ago, in a book focused upon the growing assimilation of Jews in the United States, the author–who was very concerned that Jews might die out altogether–posited that anti-Semitism might be necessary to Jewish identity. In other words, without an enemy, there was really no reason to remain in the “tribe.”

That appeal to tribal loyalties, that lack of a more capacious and inclusive definition of “we,” that view of a world divided into “teams” that allows us to experience the world as “us versus them” is what drives everything from religious extremism to Fox News.

All of which does raise an uncomfortable question:  Do Americans–or earthlings–require an existential threat to our existence in order to see each other as fellow Americans, or fellow humans?


  1. Back to Pogo; “I have met the enemy, and he is us.”

    Barack Obama’s book, “The Audacity of Hope” was written with his memory and his hope (which echoed my own) that both parties could again unite for the betterment and salvation of this country. The fact that it hasn’t happened, even with his concessions since inauguration, requires “finger-pointing” by both sides to justify their actions and inactions. The “finger-pointing” seems to be the primary focus rather than establishing common ground benefical to the majority of Americans. This condition is when outsiders can slip in while in-fighting is going on; we must be vigilant to prevent another 9/11 and/or be facing the terrorism situation plaguing France today. The particism in our government seems to me to be a cold war situation similar to the Civil War we believed to be in our past. It brings to mind another old adage, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”

  2. If it is a hardwired thing, then it is odd that a threat of a “horrible tomorrow” does not satisfy our need to bond and act collectively. It must be immediate.

  3. Pretty common theme in sci-fi that humanity finally unifies only when faced with an outside (alien) threat.

  4. I wondered the other day if at the root of conservatism is competition and at the root of liberalism is collaboration. I sent that to a very conservative friend of mine and his response was interesting. “That’s not true because all humans are competitive all of the time.” Confirmation? Maybe.

    I have moved from conservative to liberal in my life’s journey and mostly attributed that to the world marching to the right by me. At the same time though I worked through having to “prove” myself to my present maturity of comfort in being my self. And my recognition that my turn on earth is more nearly over and it’s the next generation’s that we ought to be paving the way for. Also during that same time I’ve observed my tribe move from being Americans first and foremost to liberals and conservatives first and foremost with wealthy and not, Evangelical and not, Anglo and Latino, black and white, us and Chinese, Christian and Muslim, man and woman, hetero and homo, all fighting for high ranking.

    Back when Europeans discovered that others had already discovered America, it might have been argued that competition was beneficial as cultural evolution. Those with the most functional culture were rewarded with longer life spans.

    Now however 7B of us scrapping and scraping for our share of limited resources (including use of our gaseous resevoir as a dumping ground) have to decide on a solution. I believe if we solve it conservatively success will be measured by lower world population. Essentially the new colonialism enforced by weapons, with victory rewarded with less life loss and the defeated voted off of the planet. Life and death vs master and slave.

    Can liberalism offer a less traumatic solution? I believe that collaboratively we can solve the problem by more survivors living perfectly satisfactory if less extravagant and more egalitarian lifestyles.

    The big question then is liberalism vs conservatism. Political vs destructive war. Advancing as the human race or retreating back to primitive.

    What is the human race capable of?

  5. If assimilation eliminates enemies, then we need to start loving our global neighbors. It reminds of the old adage – keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

  6. Classical Christianity – of which we see very little these days – has a term for this: “Sin” (with a Capital “S.”) Over the centuries sin has become equated with nasty little individual acts but classically it meant something much larger, e.g. a basic flaw in the human condition. Sheila has described that flaw quite succinctly in this essay. I recognize that the word “Sin” has no coinage in contemporary conversations, but the Christians amongst us might serve others well by revisiting that idea and seeing what we might add to the public conversation about the nature, origin, and possible containment of the basic human flaw: needing others whom we can belittle, subjugate, fight, and even hate.

  7. The neighborhood I live in has full mature trees including my yard. I have a couple bird feeders I keep stocked with bird seed. The neighborhood squirrels come around and wait for the Birds to scatter seed on the ground. The squirrels cannot climb up into the feeder. I bought a large bag of unsalted peanuts in the shell. I dumped the peanuts in a pile on the ground near the bird feeder.

    I observed there was an “Alpha Squirrel.” He had first dibs in terms of feeding. However, it was not enough he was first, he spent a good deal of time denying the other squirrels access to the peanut pile with aggressive behavior. (Perhaps he has a Walton Gene I thought.) Being a Socialist I went over to the pile and scattered the peanuts around. Each Squirrel staked out his or her section, driving intruders away.

    The birds also have their own pecking order. Male Cardinals and Male Woodpeckers chase away other males of the same species that try to intrude on their territory. With the exception of the large Hawk that makes an appearance once in a while, the Blue Jays scatter all the other birds from the bird feeder.

    This same behavior can be observed among the larger animals such lions, and even our closest animal relatives the chimps: a dominant individual, each group carefully guarding it’s territory and in some cases killing the intruders.

    We have the same genes. We have an intellect that should be the brake on Nature. There are some in the Political and Religious Realm who chose not to step on the brake, but actively encourage us against them.

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