Tag Archives: “us versus them”

Building Barriers

A few months ago, I came across an article by an anthropologist who was trying to make sense of the enthusiasm people displayed  for Trump’s border wall. If I were still teaching, I’d have used the article to reinforce a couple of important lessons: (1) most issues are more complex than most of us realize, and (2) cultural attitudes are the product of multiple elements that may seem unrelated but really aren’t.

We need to connect those dots.

The anthropologist’s investigation was triggered by a conversation at a trade show.

The border’s like our back door,” a concrete salesman named Chris told me in January 2017. “You leave it open, and anyone can walk right in.” It was the day of Trump’s presidential inauguration, and we were chatting on the exhibition floor of a trade show in Las Vegas, called World of Concrete. Circular saws, cement mixers, gleaming new trucks – it was an unusual place to talk about the politics of immigration.

But the simple promise of a concrete wall between the US and Mexico had flung a business tycoon into the White House, and I wanted to understand what this was about.

Chris was a millennial from a small town in western Ohio. With a trim beard and short, sandy hair, he projected an air of casual self-sufficiency. “I don’t really like neighbors,” he quipped, speaking with a dose of wry humor about how far he chose to live from other people.

The author was perplexed by the appeal of what he termed “the fantasy of sealing off the country with a stark, symbolic barrier.”  What he discovered in his subsequent investigation was that walls and barricades appeal to so many Americans because they “resonate with familiar boundaries in their daily lives.” He concluded that cultural and economic forces have operated to divide insider from outsider, fueling political polarization in ways we don’t always realize.

He focused especially on America’s ubiquitous gated communities. And when I say  “ubiquitous,” the data bears me out: one out of every six American houses in a residential community is secured–gated– by community walls or fences. 

Contemporary gated communities build on a century of intentional segregation and suburban white flight. Suburban interiors were designed as “escape capsules to enable their independence from the outside world”, architectural historian Andrea Vesentini has shown, built as shelters from the unpredictability of urban life. The pandemic has magnified the appeal of such distance and defense, with more features like security cameras, video doorbells and HEPA air filters built into new houses than ever before.

These histories have profoundly reshaped how Americans live in relation to each other, as much as where. So much of everyday life and leisure now takes place in secluded spaces. The front porch sessions with neighbors and passersby that once epitomized American social life have given way to more private gatherings on the backyard deck, or time with the television and other screens indoors. These changes lessen the chance for happenstanceconversation with neighbors and strangers.

There’s much more in the article, detailing the various ways today’s Americans wall themselves off from their fellow citizens. (Drive a Hummer?? Talk about separating yourself…)

I was particularly struck by the discussion of gated communities, because early in my academic career I became fascinated by the literature about social capital–especially the distinction between bonding and bridging social capital.

Social capital refers to the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society. Bonding social capital contributes to the “us versus them” phenomenon so pronounced in today’s America–it refers to the “bonds” formed within a group or community. Bridging social capital–essential in a diverse society– refers to the weaker but extremely important connections between people in different social groups.  

I wanted to research a “chicken and egg” question: did the people who chose to live in gated communities make that choice because they had already developed “us versus them” tendencies, or did the experience of living in such a community inculcate such attitudes? Unfortunately, I discovered there was no intellectually-honest way to conduct such research. Too many variables and much too much subjectivity…

The author of the article notes that our fractured media has deepened the existing fissures of American society, helping to shield us from exposure to uncomfortable ideas, unfamiliar people and perspectives. As he says, 

There’s a deep and pernicious history at work here. Longstanding patterns of neighborhood racial segregation have inflamed the prejudice against outgroups, bolstering stereotypes…. When such divisions are reproduced at an everyday scale, the gulf between self and other widens even further, and everyone becomes a potential outsider.

As my architect husband has taught me, the built environment matters, not just aesthetically. It profoundly shapes–and reflects–the culture.

 

Us Versus Them: Shithole Edition

When reports of Donald Trump’s “shithole countries” remark hit the media, various  outlets  reported “gasps of disbelief” by Congressional Republicans.

Give me a break. Anyone who is genuinely surprised to discover that Trump is a racist is too stupid to tie his own shoes.

David Leonhardt ticked off  the evidence in his column yesterday for the New York Times:

• Trump’s real-estate company was sued twice by the federal government in the 1970s for discouraging the renting of apartments to African-Americans and preferring white tenants, such as “Jews and executives.”

• In 1989, Trump took out ads in New York newspapers urging the death penalty for five black and Latino teenagers accused of raping a white woman in Central Park; he continued to argue that they were guilty as late as October 2016, more than 10 years after DNA evidence had exonerated them.

• He spent years claiming that the nation’s first black president was born not in the United States but in Africa, an outright lie that Trump still has not acknowledged as such.

• He began his 2016 presidential campaign by disparaging Mexican immigrants as criminals and “rapists.”

• He has retweeted white nationalists without apology.

• He frequently criticizes prominent African-Americans for being unpatriotic, ungrateful and disrespectful.

• He called some of those who marched alongside white supremacists in Charlottesville last August “very fine people.”

• He is quick to highlight crimes committed by dark-skinned people, sometimes exaggerating or lying about it (such as a claim about growing crime from “radical Islamic terror” in Britain). He is very slow to decry hate crimes committed against dark-skinned people (such as the murder of an Indian man in Kansas last year).

Although pundits have previously noted Trump’s racist, barely-veiled “dog whistles” to white nationalists, they have been far more reluctant to say out loud what political scientists (and most sentient beings) have concluded from data about the 2016 electorate: a solid majority of Trump voters were motivated by racial animus.  Racism “trumped” (excuse the pun) recognition of Trump’s ignorance, grandiosity and utter unfitness for office; for those voters, identity politics–aka white nationalism with a side of misogyny– won the day.

Which brings me to the unpleasant but unavoidable subject of “us versus them.”

Scholars who study the history of human interaction tell us that tribalism is hard-wired into the human psyche. There are evolutionary reasons for that, and the consequences aren’t all negative by any means. Our attachments to our families, our “clans” and our countries can promote solidarity, sacrifice and reciprocity.

The problem is the way far too many Americans define “us.”

I know I get tiresome with my constant harping on the need for improved civic literacy and constitutional knowledge, but the reason I believe it is so important that Americans understand our history and philosophy and constituent documents is because allegiance to America’s foundational values is what makes people Americans. It is what creates an overarching “us” out of an assortment of diverse and otherwise unconnected “thems.”

Republicans used to understand that. It was Ronald Reagan who said

You can go to Japan to live, but you cannot become Japanese. You can go to France to live and not become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey, and you won’t become a German or a Turk.’ But anybody from any corner of the world can come to America to live and become an American.

Donald Trump explicitly appeals to people who don’t understand that, people who have a very narrow definition of “us”– people who define their own identities by the color of their skin, their sexual orientation or religion. They are incapable of seeing people who don’t look just like the image they see in their imaginary mirrors as members of their tribe, as part of “us.”

Fear and ignorance keep them from understanding who “we” really are.

The good news is that we don’t have to fight our hard-wired impulse to see the world in terms of “us” and “them.” We just have to work toward a better, more accurate, more capacious definition of “us” — a definition that includes all Americans, no matter what color, religion, sexuality, gender or other “tribe.”

One we get that right, we can work on defining “us” as humanity….

Defining Our Terms

On Mondays, I receive an emailed essay called Sightings from Martin Marty, the eminent University of Chicago religion scholar who distributes his observations and those of others studying or teaching at the University’s Divinity School. This morning, he wrote about a recent article from the Economist on Jews and Israel.

The general discussion was interesting, but the following paragraph struck me:

The editors see reactionary Orthdoxies still winning over moderate movements. No surprise here. In the six-year five-fat-volume study of militant fundamentalisms I co-directed (with R. Scott Appleby) for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences,we found everywhere, in all religions, that it was not conservatism that was growing but extremism based less in history-based traditions but in fear, reaction, and aggression. As I read the Economist and other such literature I think of an observation by Harold Isaacs which we paraphrased as we looked at Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Christian and other militancies: “Around the world there is a massive convulsive ingathering of peoples into their separatenesses and over-againstnesses to protect their pride and power and place from the real or presumed threat of others who are doing the same.

I think that’s a perceptive observation, and it applies to more than religious identity.

In America, in our zeal to label rather than understand, we have seen contemporary radicalism confused with genuine conservatism. We have failed to distinguish between patriotism and nationalism. And we have seen “We the People” redefined to exclude “others”–immigrants, GLBT folks, Muslims, “elitists,” even Southerners.  We seem to be growing a variety of fundamentalisms.

Fear, reaction and aggression, leading to extremism and an “us versus them” worldview. Sort of sums up contemporary politics, doesn’t it?

This impulse to label and reject those who do not share our identity may be understandable, but it is deeply corrosive, and it distracts us from the discussions we need to conduct. Distinguishing between mainstream conservatism and liberalism and their extremist manifestations–accurately defining our terms–might be a first step back toward sanity.