Sometimes you win, sometimes you loseWhen I was younger and more optimistic than I am today, I thought that I saw in the sweep of history the still voice of God operating through the struggles and pains of developments of ideas that coursed through world events. No, I didn't see God as guiding or controlling the what happened, but rather as offering us at all times the opportunity to be better people, both as individuals and as a societies. To the extent that we listened to God, I felt, we could move beyond our tribalism and into a more inclusive and tolerant society. The inclusive developments against racism, sexism, homophobia, and other sins of tribalism seemed like ways in which people were listening to the voice of God.
And sometimes the blues get hold of you
Just when you thought you had made it
-- Carole King, "Sweet Seasons"
The problem was this: when you are in the midst of world history rather than standing outside of it, it is sometimes hard to see where the progress is being made.
Are we keeping a scorecard? Are things getting better or worse in the struggle for greater inclusiveness?
I take some comfort in reading that a community board in New York voted by a whopping 29-1 to allow the building of the mosque near Ground Zero. Score one for reason, tolerance, and common sense.
Yet, meanwhile, the fight continues in Arizona against SB 1070, which was signed into law a little over a month ago. Score one for bigotry, hate, and intolerance.
Of course, the legal and moral battle against SB 1070 isn't over yet, but the fact that such a law was passed in the first place shows that we have a long way to go in this country. Sometimes it just seems like every step forward towards tolerance and inclusion is matched with just as many steps back.
Of course, there is nothing new in American society about anti-immigrant bigotry. The Know-Nothing Party of the nineteenth century was a precursor to what is happening in Arizona today. As the Wikipedia article on the Know-Nothing movement describes it,
The Know Nothing movement was a nativist American political movement of the 1840s and 1850s. It was empowered by popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by German and Irish Catholic immigrants, who were often regarded as hostile to Anglo-Saxon values...Sound familiar? Change the ethnic groups and it does seem like nothing has changed. Movements like these, which opposed those who are different in some way from the perceived cultural norm, have been rampant in the not just in the US, but in Europe as well, for a long time. In Europe, there is of course a long and sordid history of anti-Semitism, but these days it is more fashionable to spew hatred against Muslims, as demonstrated by the rise of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim parties of the far right (such as the Danish People's Party in Denmark), or by the recent law in Switzerland banning minarets.
In an essay in the Sunday New York Times book review, Geoff Nicholson writes of the cultural biases found in books of "facts" printed in the 19th century:
books of facts always display localized preferences, cultural values, sometimes straightforward prejudices. My “New American Cyclopaedia” (1872) tells me that in 1855 there were 25,858 people in New York who could neither read nor write, and 21,378 of them were Irish. This may well have been true, but why exactly did it need to be emphasized? Well, I think we might hazard a guess.Nowadays, people toss around supposed statistics about the alleged percentage of terrorist acts committed today by Muslims. This need to categorize The Other by statistical means thus has a long and rich history. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
I happened to be passing through Arizona when SB 1070 was first hitting the national news. The infamously bigoted sheriff Joe Arpaio was asked on the TV news what would be an example of a reasonable suspicion that someone might be an illegal immigrant. His answer--and this priceless but typical--was that speaking another language, or English with an accent, could be used as indicators that someone was an illegal immigrant. You could almost laugh at the absurdity of that statement if it were not so tragic. But you can see what this is really about--people who talk differently from us must be viewed with suspicion.
Yes, it is about fear of others, fear of the stranger--and yes, fear of people who talk or look differently from the way you do--that lies at the heart of so much tribalism. And it is tribalism that the world has struggled to overcome since the dawn of time.
There has always been that other strain, a strain of universalism and of tolerance. Religion has often been all about tribalism, and yet within religion there has always been the flip side. After all, Exodus 23:9 says, "You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt." Meanwhile, within the Christian tradition, Jesus was quite the poster child for inclusiveness. He was the guy who ate and drank with the excluded and outcasts of his society, and it pissed people off. And yet, so much of modern Christianity is stuck on its own forms of exclusionary practices. Sherry of "A Feather Adrift" recently linked to another blog that in turn cited an article on the Beliefnet website that criticized the trend towards open communion in many churches, complaining that "nothing is expected of those who receive Communion." Horror of horrors! The idea that something must be expected of you before you can be included in God's grace--well, I can see why the author of that article was so offended.
At the heart of tolerance and inclusion, I think, lies empathy. To the extent that we can cultivate empathy, tolerance and inclusion naturally follow. Maybe it helps if you have been excluded from something at some point in your life. Maybe it helps to know what the pain feels like of being excluded before you want to reach out and extend the hand of friendship to those who are excluded. If you always live safely and comfortably in your tribe, maybe you don't know what it is like to be excluded. Or maybe some people just don't care about such issues and would rather not think about them at all. In any case, it seems that the need to preserve the integrity of the tribe at all costs leads directly to intolerance, exclusion, racism, and bigotry. Those who are different threaten this integrity, or so it is felt.
Groucho Marx once said that he would not want to join a club that would have him as a member. I think that if it is a club spent its time deciding who was worthy and not worthy of being part of the select included few, I wouldn't want to join that club either.
But some days I wonder if we will ever see a world in which the tribal impulse is gone from our midst.