A Tea Party woman in Florida says she wants the government to “keep its hands off my Medicare.”
Replacing homosexuality as “the word that may not be spoken,” poverty virtually disappears from the political discourse at a time when it is increasing and becoming deeper and more entrenched.
Finally, in the post-September 11 world, the government implements a vast and secret surveillance program with nary a peep of protest. It also systematically tortures people, an illegal and immoral practice that, nonetheless, has substantial public support. Meanwhile, a law that simply requires people to secure health insurance is seen as a dagger pointed at the heart of American liberty, a big step on the slippery slope and an unprecedented power grab by the federal government.
So what is the answer to the question? What do all of these things have in common? The answer is that they are all part of the “otherization” of American society. None of these actions or practices is meant to be applied to “the American people,” a group that is far more limited than one would think. In all instances, the targets, the losers, those to be marginalized or gotten rid of, are “the others.”
For decades now, conservative politicians and media figures have invoked “the American people.” Listen closely and it becomes a pretty exclusive group. This “people” consists only of native born, white, conservative, mostly suburban, private sector-employed Christians. These are Christians in the post-modern American sense. Forget about the peace, love, justice and inclusion stuff. Jews are given a (temporary) pass because of the biblical significance of Israel.
That leaves the “others,” those who are not “the American people.” This fairly large group includes African-Americans, Latinos, most nonwhite immigrants, non-Christians, but especially Muslims and atheists, poor people, city-dwellers, union members, government employees and “liberals.”
“The American people” know full well that they are not going to be stopped and strip searched, or even frisked. For example, in New York City, that bastion of liberalism, this humiliation is reserved exclusively for young black and Latino men. While hundreds of thousands of such searches are conducted on this group, it is inconceivable that a young white Wall Street exec would be strip searched, despite the fact that his (or her) industry and the Wall Street area are cesspools of drug use and prostitution.
As for our vast spying apparatus and the casual violation of our now largely vanished rights of privacy, everyone knows that the ones that are going to be spied upon are the “others.” As the Muslim threat at least temporarily recedes and loses resonance, other rationales will be found for our expanded surveillance society. For example, bringing back fond memories of the long-gone McCarthy years, Florida Congressman Allen West claims to know exactly how many communists there are in the House of Representatives. Those over the age of 60 will clearly recognize the reference.
“The American people” know that they are never going to be denied the right to vote. But as the white majority shrinks, it needs to maximize its voting power, and the only way to do that is to suppress the votes of the “others.” Thus voter identification laws and other tools of voter suppression.
And while we are at it, let’s get these brown skinned people out of the country, including young ones who have grown up here but whose parents came illegally. And sure, maybe some legal immigrants will suffer as well. But hey, you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs, right?
The woman in Florida who wanted government to keep its hands off her Medicare? She was written off as a fool. Didn’t she know that Medicare was a government program? Of course she did. She was hardly a fool. What she – and her many reactionary co-religionists – want is to make sure that none of “the others” get Medicare, or any other benefit. You see, it is a zero-sum game, and, if the others get something, it is going to be taken out of my pocket.
Not willing to challenge the zero-sum mentality, even Democrats can’t bring themselves to discuss poverty. This would just stir up the real Americans who share the unshakable belief that their tax dollars are being siphoned off by the others to buy vodka with food stamps and live high off the hog on welfare, even though welfare hasn’t existed for fifteen years.
The confusion of poverty and race has led directly to the majority of poor people, the white poor, being screwed. They have been otherized and have become collateral damage, mostly because the “American People” have wanted to put black people back in their place. And now, as even more whites join the “former middle class,” they are also being otherized.
So what does this all mean for the Virgin Islands, one of those unusual places under the American flag, where a large majority of the population consists of “the others”? Within the conservative definition, there are “American People” living in the territory, but they are a relatively small minority.
The Virgin Islands majority consists of those others who are often disdained and held in contempt by the “real” Americans: nonwhites, poor people, government workers, union members and (low-income) recipients of government benefits.
If history is a guide, the name Jack Abramoff gives us some clues as to how otherization is likely to play out in places like the Virgin Islands. Abramoff, the slimiest of slimeballs, made a fortune in shady deals by treating nonwhite people with contempt and exploiting the low visibility United States controlled territories.
Contempt and disdain make it easy for those with power to abuse, manipulate or toss overboard these others. Since they are “lesser” beings, there was no great obligation to respect them or treat them with dignity. So rather than torture or imprisonment, this form of “nice place” otherization typically takes the forms of increased corruption, disrespect, exploitation, inequality and deepening community divisions.
At some point, self-government may not be compatible with the need to protect the elite from “the others.” New and less-democratic approaches may be required. Of course, all of this will be done in the name of strengthening the territory’s economy. And given the impact of grinding recession and high levels of violence, a combination of giveaways to the “real Americans,” all under the heading of “job creation” and “economic development,” and a crackdown on the others would have a lot of appeal.
Nobody knows what the future holds. But, if we look back just three or four decades, most people in 1980 would be shocked to think that early in the 21st century, the United States would become the most unequal country with the least opportunity in the industrial world, that it would be the world leader in incarceration, that its government would be captured by powerful corporate interests and that it would have engaged in systematic torture.
In 1935, Sinclair Lewis wrote, It Can’t Happen Here. The title is frequently cited as a warning about potential extremism. But when we look back over recent decades, it becomes clear that, in important ways, it did happen here! What has masked it is that “it” happened to “the others.” And the pool of “others” continues to expand, now including what has been labeled “the former middle class.”
Historic trends have a way of ending abruptly. Look at what happened to liberalism. But the rise and spread of otherization has already done enormous harm to society.
Because of its demographics and history, otherization in the Virgin Islands is multi-directional. “Born here” and the disdain for “continentals” are forms of otherization, as is the low opinion of local people held by recent stateside arrivals, who bring the attitudes of the “American people,” narrowly defined, with them.
Wherever this goes, it is unlikely to lead to anything good. Resentment, being looked down upon and a sense of injustice are not good things. In the movie Men in Black, the good guys are equipped with “neuralizers,” devices that wipe out the memory of contact with aliens (space, not illegal). We might want to think about a neutralizer program as more and more people are otherized in our society. We could wipe out the memories of the time when people felt they were treated with respect and had more hopeful lives.
Alternatively, instead of neuralizing these groups, we might want to consider stopping otherizing them, which would produce much better outcomes. But that would be a heavy lift in the current environment.