Monday, 27 October 2008

Original Sin

The Todd/Fox News scandal of the attack-that-wasn't is another reminder of humanoid fondness for viewing the world through the prism of race or ethnicity or religion, anything to divvy people up into Us and Them. The popularity of this approach is so consistent across time and place that one despairs of any long-term peaceable coexistence except as an occasional lapse in the underlying biped bloody-mindedness.

At best, we seem to manage a sort of wary tolerance that can be sustained in modestly prosperous times. But any upheaval brings out the long knives.

The sudden explosion and abrupt implosion of the poor-little-white-girl-attacked-by-big-scary-black story reminds me of these habits of mind. The recurrence to this racist tack by our beleaguered ruling elite, while indescribably loathesome, is also depressingly predictable.

Not content with just pumping up the dubious tale and letting it work its poisonous way into the minds of voters, Fox TV explicitly tied the incident to Barack Obama because his and the now-phantom attacker's color were roughly the same. The word for this is "racism." But it usually works.

However, if we step back for a moment from the whirling typhoon of sewage being spewed out by McCain and Palin, we see that a similar logic obtains in trouble spots everywhere. A sobering corrective recently published in the London Review of Books on Georgia traced the troubles there in part to the post-independence chauvinism and Georgian triumphalism of the leadership of that erstwhile Soviet state, which is home to large ethnic minorities. But since Georgia is a U.S. ally, this history has been suppressed--even by the Obama camp.

This type of blunder is a terrific formula for disintegration and, often, warfare along ethnic lines. As indeed occurred. A similar case is Sri Lanka where the first post-colonial government set up the majority Sinhalese (themselves) as the ruling class and merrily excluded Tamil-speaking northerners from a share. The result was a civil war that brought with it the invention of suicide bombing.

If fact, you see the references to similar strategic hara-kiri everywhere; Serbian suppression of Albanian autonomy in Kosovo; Hungarian hubris during the Hapsburg period; Darfur; Rwanda; Iraqi ethnic cleansing. The list goes on.

But it would be hard to argue that the guys in charge of each of these cases are just gigantic creeps. Their consistency suggests that more sober voices are likely to be drowned out by the nationalist demagogues.

So what is to be done? Are all human societies condemned periodically to repeat this cycle of stupidity and self-immolation? It's a fascinating question, and I have no ready reply. But it is pretty clear that as a species we should recognize this inborn tendency and try our best to build some sort of check into our polity to avoid it, then relentlessly educate future generations to guard against a beast that they, like all of us, apparently carry deep within.

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