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January 27, 2007


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Andrew R.

I'm a bit confused by this discussion. You seem to be arguing that there are ideological cleavages in the American population as a whole that may lead to Bad Things in the future. Then, as far as I can tell, your and Carlos's discussion seems to turn towards questions of *ethnic* differences, which is a whole 'nother kettle of fish.

If, after all, your just talking about ideology, I can't understand why you wouldn't be sanguine--most of the truly angry disputes seem to be among the ~1/3 of Americans that really care about politics to begin with. The broad middle doesn't lie awake worrying that the Muslims and liberals are conniving at our eventual doom or that W. is just an act of Congress away from making himself dictator. They care about their jobs, relationships, friends, etc.

Is this where Yugoslavia comes in, showing us a mostly apolitical population getting sucked in by a minority's angry nationalism that eventually engulfs the entire nation? And even so, the difference between ideology and ethnicity strikes me as being non-trivial.

Okay, I should get back to my carrel. Only four days till my Major Field exam!

Noel Maurer

Andrew, if I had to guess, I'd guess that the conversation started with "How can some people be so irrational," and then segued into "How far can irrationality go?" Thus the shift from potential ideological violence in the U.S. to potential inter-ethnic violence.

Doug, as you put your last paragraph, I find it impossible to disagree with you. Your argument makes sense, and upon reflection, Yugoslavia worries me too.

If I may paraphrase, you're saying that past performance does not always predict future results. E.g., the fact that Muslims are astoundingly well-integrated into American society as of early 2007 does not mean that it would be impossible for a future political movement to demonize them in a way that results in violence.

I do have two caveats, however, which you may agree with. First, there's nothing inevitable about the demonization of an Other to the point where widespread or state-sanctioned violence becomes legitimized. We certainly aren't there yet, and it's far from clear that we're even moving that way.

Second, there is not an infinite number of ways in which societies can (as a practical matter) be fractured. Yugoslavia had a particular set of historical myths and animosities that made possible some but not all potential fractures. The same applies to the United States. For example, switch "Muslim" for "Mexican" and one's assessment of the probability that political violence against Americans of said group will be legitimized probably drops precipitously.

If I may go further, it seems that much of what is often called "political correctness" is nothing more than the rough calculation of the possibility of such fractures. To many listeners, jokes that are funny about Italian-Americans aren't about Mexican-Americans, and jokes that are funny about Mexican-Americans aren't about Muslim Americans, partially because of the listeners' assessment of the likelihood that the deprecatory attitudes behind the joke might have real-world consequences.

What do you think, Doug? Assuaged any worries?


Doug, while I don't think it's impossible, I think it's very improbable, and here's why.

Look at the recent wave of jingoism in this country, "Freedom Fries" and Lou Dobbs and all that crap, successfully controlling the forms of discourse here for six years. Have we had waves of ethnic violence result? There have been a few tragic incidents, and a rather greater number of butt-dumb ones, but I think you have to agree that, no, there has not.

At the same time. The number of interracial -- not interethnic, interracial -- marriages has increased in the U.S. at seven percent a year. There are more Muslims in this country than ever before, and despite the propaganda, regular people are willing to vote for Barack Obama despite thinking he's a Muslim. (He's Baptist, but you knew that. You knew that.) We are approaching the levels of foreign-born residents in this country that haven't existed since the great days of the Golden Door. My God, we even have two black coaches facing off in the Superbowl.

There are issues in the US, severe ones, but they are becoming class issues (that happen to be correlated with race) instead of strict racial or ethnic ones. And of course, there's homophobia; how the wingnuts hate the gays! with an intensity usually only seen in self-hate. But I digress.

Anyway. It might all go to hell, sure. But we've had the Limbaughs and the Dobsons and the rest of that ilk go unchecked for years, and you know what? they're less liked now than before.

I think that because of your personal connection to some of these culture warriors [okay, I gotta put a sic here], and because of your extended residence in places that have had some of the worst ethnic conflict not in the Third World of the past two generations, that you're more pessimistic than you ought to be regarding the US.

Madison, man, Madison. Greens, birds, and Germans, what more do you need?

Randy McDonald

I'm not convinced that large scale demonization of a constructed Other is going to be limited to a handful of militia types, either.

What could the Other be, in the American case? I'm not convinced that American ethnic cleavage match the political ones very well, not nearly enough.

Noel Maurer

We've mentioned Muslims, Randy. But even that's low probability.


It's instructive to try to rewrite current American political rhetoric in a Balkan or a post-Soviet mode.

The American paranoid style in politics is robust, and responsible for all sorts of mayhem in this country, but it's really having a hard time finding a group to demonize without having to qualify it extensively, as not to alienate allied members of said group.

In Bizarrostan, a typical critique of the administration might go, "Look at the incompetence of Bush's Negro advisors! First Colon Powell, then Leeeza Rice: their intelligence must have been flawed, all right... at the genetic level! This has all been a conspiracy by the Negrocats to discredit sound white American policies and install their King Chaka Macaca instead, Barack Hussein Obama, who is likely the Anti-Christ."

You see what I mean.

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