Friday, December 28, 2007

Prejudice for the Holidays

Mikaela says:
Turns out Thanksgiving was not the day to be armed with response to family prejudice. I should have been prepared for Christmas.

My grandfather, much as I love him, is a racist, prejudiced, elitist old coot. Old style.

He ambushed us with talk of an article that he's promised to send all of us about how "illegal aliens" are taking over our country. Using resources they have no right to. Blah blah blah.

Nevermind that a recent study found they actually do NOT use healthcare more than anyone else, and do NOT constitute the burden for tax payers that hysterics claim to justify their positions. Nevermind that they're here because big companies want and need them to be here. Nevermind that they'd HAVE healthcare and other services if they were provided them by the companies who profit from their all-but slave labor. Nevermind that our whole system supports them being here, rests on them being here, necessitates them being here.

I figured it wasn't worth getting into it with a 90+ year old man, but what I really wanted to say is ... do you blame the people who set up the system, or do you blame the victims of that system for "taking advantage" of the system you create for them? What good does it do to blame the victim?

Oh, right. That old narrative about vilifying an easily identified population for your own wrath about the way things are. Hmmm... Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

A friend gave me the recently published book, Death of Sigmund Freud, which lays out the parallel lives of Freud and Hitler starting with the time they were both in Vienna. Hitler was a frustrated art student, begging in the streets. Freud was at the height of his analytical powers. Then Hitler goes to war, becomes a decorated soldier, and comes home a hero. He starts his rise to power and institutes his backlash against Jews. Freud barely escapes with his life and his family to England. It's a great book, actually.

What I didn't know about Freud is that toward the end of his life, he tried to figure out why people gravitate toward totalitarian leaders and/or fanatical faith. He tied it to patriarchy and said we were all looking for the ultimate father-figure -- omnipotent, all-knowing, and infallible. The Germans found that in Hitler. He argues others find it in God -- whether the invisible God of the Jews, the intimate friend in Jesus, or the righteous God of Islam. He conceded that this drive toward power greater than ourselves was stronger than all the dynamics he'd started his career fixated on as the central drives in our lives -- sex and intoxication to escape the daily anxieties we all face. He figured our need to elevate powers outside ourselves beyond our own petty lives was the biggest intoxication of all.

In the persecution of the Jews, Freud saw an excuse to let the id and the superego run rampant over the ego. There was an ecstacy to the anti-semitism that took over the world (and it was the world -- Jewish refugees were refused in almost every country they sought asylum). It was condoned by the moral righteousness people worked up beyond rational arguments about the Jews.

Freud's answer -- although not his hope, since he didn't believe we could really overcome that intense desire -- was to pull back to balance the three parts of ourselves. We must work to rein in the id & superego and reinforce our egos -- our rational selves, the ones that can see pain, feel empathy, and understand our relationship to others because we have a healthy perspective about our place in the world. We belong here, with certain rights -- but so do others.

Much of Freud's work examined the dynamics of groups, how we become mobs, how charismatic leaders take over, how much of ourselves and our rationality we lose in the process.

I heard echoes of the hysteria of anti-semitism in my grandfather's speech. I saw it in the debates among frothing of Republican presidential candidates falling all over themselves to talk about how miserable they would make the lives of "illegal aliens."

In my mind, it's a bigger danger than all our talk of Islamic fundamentalism. As Freud warned, fantatism anywhere -- in Christians, Muslims, Minute Men, or otherwise -- is the same danger.

At the same time, we cannot escape the basic human instinct toward gravitating to leadership. This is why we need Democratic candidates to pick a position and stand in it -- using reason, if we're lucky -- to argue for change.

What's at stake is history. The strength of our country is our belief in reason -- trusting individuals to use reason, trust reason, protect reason. That's the basis of progressive belief, in my mind. It's the freedom to choose. It's equal protection under the law because we are all human, endowed with inalienable rights. We are creatures of free will.

We do not have to embrace hate -- in the form of strong leaders who point to scapegoats who look different from us or believe differently than we do.

My grandfather said the article claimed all democracies in the world have only lasted two centuries -- can only last two centuries before mob mentality or totalitarianism take over.

It is time to remind revisionists that not only is that a false assertion about the past -- we can choose a different future. We can start now.