Fundamentalists in the Mirror

Our media shows Muslim fundamentalists terrorizing the Middle East, shooting an Afghani schoolgirl, offering safety in Pakistan to those sworn to destroy us – a world we cannot understand whose people we have no choice but to fear.

What impression do they have of us?

An ongoing study, “The Republican Party Project”, offers a mirror where we can glimpse what they see.  It is timely since our government is now shut down by the Republican Party.  Muslims have seen us attack them with rhetoric, sanctions, drones, and armed forces.  Now they see us at war with each other.  They must have a theory about why we do these things.

Republican Party demographics suggest their idea may parallel ours about them.

The Project`s research finds the Party comprises 47% evangelical and religiously observant (30% evangelical), 22% libertarian-leaning Tea Party supporters and 25% moderates.  The Christian half sees an America being destroyed by cultural rot from the outside.  The libertarian quarter sees an America being destroyed by accelerating dependency on ever bigger government.  Both groups are in a desperate fight to restore a deeply valued culture.  The moderate quarter feels, and is unrepresented.

We see fundamentalist Muslims suppressing moderates “over there”.  What the mirror shows is fundamentalist Christians and libertarians suppressing moderates “over here”.

We can imagine a response like this:  “If American fundamentalists will risk plunging their economy into unfathomably deep depression, if they care so little for their people’s future, can there be any limit to the suffering they would wreak on us?”  It`s a logical question.

Our media offers a worldview of Muslims “over there” who are our enemies unto death.  It is logical to assume the media “over there” offers a worldview of Christians and other fanatics “over here” who are their enemies unto death.  They will not have forgotten the “Crusade” President Bush said 9/11 compelled us to undertake, his “War on Terror” that would not end while a single terrorist remained alive.

The infection carried by these fantasies about those “over here” or “over there” whose symptoms are fear and hatred is highly contagious.  We must reverse our rising fear and hatred of each other.  We can counter the actions motivated by fear, hatred and greed without succumbing to the same infection.

8 comments on “Fundamentalists in the Mirror

  1. Somehow, we`ve arrived at the idea, the common wisdom, so to say, that Muslims, or maybe it`s Arabs, or, well, no need to know just what makes them the way they are because we can`t understand them anyway, those dark skinned, fierce looking people “over there”- there`s something about them that breeds fanatical hatred.

    We could start to make a happier world if we would recognize that exactly the same idea could be formed about us Americans. We know, or at least we believe, that most Americans are not hate-filled fanatics. Might that not be equally true of those “over there”?

    And while we`re at it, we could also consider whether those on the opposite end of the political spectrum act from the evil motivations we imagine.

    I found myself getting angry just now watching Newt Gingrich support the Republican Party actions that have shut down our government. He says they`re just trying to achieve a compromise solution for moving closer to the right direction for our future. The President and the Democrats refuse to compromise, he says. That`s how democracy is supposed to work, he says with a smile that I see as a smirk. I see it that way because I totally disagree with the way he frames what`s going on.

    But I don`t actually know what`s motivating Newt or those he`s talking about. If I succumb to the anger that rises in my mind, there can be no good outcome. I can`t vent my anger on Newt but I will on those around me.

    Bob Thurman just posted: “we have unwittingly shifted from being a nation of liberators, defenders of freedom, into becoming a nation of arms dealers and mercenaries fabricating our own weapons of mass destruction and arming tyrants with the tools to oppress their own people.” A respondent replied: “When was America a defender of freedom? The country in its modern sense was born out of genocide.” We might also mention slavery.

    But Thurman and his respondent are both pointing to important truths. We could start to make a happier world if we trained ourselves to assume, routinely, that more than one perspective reveals important truths and that every conceptual framework hides important opposing ones.

  2. I just heard an brief but interesting interview with Congressman Scott Rigell (R-VA) on NPR, and it reminded me of your post, and of another conversation you and I had recently. In the interview Rigell said two things which struck me. Firstly, that what he tells his staff is “Serve fearlessly.” by which he means that as an elected official you should do the right thing without worrying what impact it will have on your re-election, and that if a majority of your constituents disagree then they can elect someone else next time. The second thing he mentioned was that he feels strongly that what is missing in our country is civility. He said “In my house and in the office it’s ‘Mr. President’, whether you disagree with him or not. Civility isn’t weakness, it’s the thread that holds out country together.”

    I think this loops back to our conversation about news outlets which cater to specific demographics. The loss of civility in the national dialogue seems linked to the news outlets which characterize the ‘other side’ as villainous or stupid. I suspect that this is a genie which can not be put back in the bottle, unfortunately. Engaging people at that tribal level hooks too deeply into the psyche, too easily, and many ‘news’ organizations are now solely concerned with profit, not journalistic integrity. Once money gets involved…

    I think it might be possible to get people to actually see one another, but I’m not sure how. The internet, which makes communication and information distribution easy and cheap, seems like it might be useful, but I don’t know what in what shape.

    I think it’s really valuable to remember that democracy does not *require* equality or homogeneity of circumstances. In fact, a homogenous political environment engenders no conversations, and can only produce stagnation, just as vastly unequal circumstances cause the problems we’re seeing now.

    So if we don’t all need to be the same, what do we need? What democracy does require is that people from different walks of life with different ideas and opinions all routinely encounter one another. People of varying levels of education or wealth need to routinely be made aware of one another’s different opinions, ideas and ways of life, in a civil, respectful context. There are many ways to be, many ways to think, and the narrowing of perspective which comes with seeing your way as the only way is dangerous.

    Additionally, encountering different kinds of people and recognizing that our nation (or better yet our world) is made up of this variety is the only way for us to recognize that our lives are shared. *That our triumphs and defeats are shared.*

    People are much more inclined to work together when they recognize that their circumstances are interconnected. One of the big problems with news outlets which cater to a very specific demographic is that they insulate people from other opinions and ideas. In addition they also tend to characterize contrary opinions and ideas as being villainous, and those who have such ideas as the enemy.

    Living in a world in which everyone seems to agree with you (or in which those who don’t are just stupid or ‘evil’), a world in which everyone intelligent seems to be roughly similar to you, may be more palatable in the short term but it’s absolutely toxic to democracy, and to progress.

    There’s a phrase associated with the US which I’ve been thinking of a lot lately, with the incredible mess in Washington which we’ve been enduring: “United we stand.” The opposite of this phrase seems to be something that hasn’t been much considered: “Divided we fall.”

    So. How does the US, or the world, move toward a greater awareness of both our interconnectedness and a civilized, respectful assessment of different opinions and ideas? I’m not sure if there’s a large-scale answer, but I have a hope.

    My hope is young people, and the internet. Science fiction novels and movies of the 80s and 90s often envisioned worlds in which the internet would be accessed using a kind of virtual reality technology – three dimensional and immersive, so as to make the internet a physical place. What science fiction largely missed is that for young people who grow up with the internet, for whom there has always been an internet, it IS a place. There’s no escaping it – if you are bullied at school, the bullies are with you at home. You could not turn on your computer, not look at your smartphone, but you know they’re there. The entire world is always there, and the teens I’ve talked to are very, very aware of this. For them, the internet is a place, a very real place which has effects and consequences, and occupies mental real-estate in much the same way that a physical place (like school, or work, or home) would.

    These young people, as they grow up, will view the internet in a completely different way than we do. They’ll understand communication in ways we don’t. We can’t predict perfectly at this point what that will mean, but one of the things I hope it will mean is that they’ll feel interconnected in a way that we can’t even imagine. I may be aware that most of the world is at my fingertips, but I don’t feel it as a bone-deep assumption. It’s something I learned as a young adult.

    If young people *do* understand communication and interconnectedness in these new ways, at levels older generations don’t, maybe, just maybe, when they take the reins they’ll have a different set of assumptions. A different set of rules. The internet may not teach them civility (if the consequences of its anonymity I’ve seen are any judge) but it may teach them that they’re all in this together, somehow.

    • There are so many aspects to all this… What are the root causes of the problem, what actually is the problem, what could be elements of a solution? It will take me a while to think through the points you’ve raised. To begin at the beginning:

      About “serve fearlessly”: Senator Cruz, for example, seems to have been doing that in his attempt to reverse the Affordable Care Act by threatening to block raising the debt ceiling. But doing what you believe is right needs to be done in the right way. Civility is part of that. It’s also necessary to want to reach a compromise that is genuinely acceptable. Both civility and the desire to act for the benefit of the world, not just one’s own sponsors, are missing from our present Congress.

      About “civility and the media”: The media offers both entertainment and information, often one masquerading as the other, and increasingly on the same model as the World Wrestling Federation spectacles. Many people enjoy watching “wrestlers” perform acts of appalling simulated violence upon each other. Many people also enjoy watching, listening to and reading talk show hosts and guests tell appalling lies about people whose ideas are different from theirs., casting them, as you say, as villainous fools. Recognizing that people enjoy these attacks, politicians do the same. But it’s not a new phenomenon. If you’ve ever watched the British Parliament’s Question Time you’ll have seen a style of attack that has been practiced for centuries.

      I’m leaning toward the feeeling that while civility would make the process a lot more efficient, the determination to reach genuine compromise agreements for action is more important.

      I’ll comment separately about democracy and other points.

  3. Whose interests should we expect politicians to represent?

    All their constituents? Only those who voted for them? Only those who donated to their campaign? Chiefly their constituents but also, by cooperating with their peers, also the people in other constituencies? People in other nations, too?

    We pretty much speak only of politicians now, no longer about statesmen.

    We voters, including those who choose not to vote, are ultimately responsible for the quality of those who represent us. We are, sad to say, getting the results we deserve.

    This is another aspect of what I`m pointing to in this topic. We need to stop vilifying our politicians just as we need to stop vilifying those “over there” we imagine to be our enemies. Blaming politicians and thinking it`s all their fault is no different from hating those we think are different from us.

    We need to hold both our politicians, media folks and ourselves to a higher standard. And we must start with ourselves.

  4. About your central point, Mark, the possibility that the Internet may make future generations aware of our interconnectedness, that we are as you said all in this together:

    A great change in circumstances such as the one you describe does reduce the barriers to a change of worldview and therefore behavior. As you also imply, however, there`s no guarantee the change will be positive. We must act on the assumption that the Internet offers an opportunity to provide education that we`re all in this together and the implications.

    I`ll have to get back to education and make it a highlighted category here. I keep finding myself back at the conclusion that changes in how we educate are the key to a better society. I have no idea what changes are required but I have friends who are profoundly committed educators so we should at least be able to make a start on identifying what to change.

    When I established Teleconf” at National CSS around 1975 as one of the world`s first social media platforms, I realized it would need some contributors to provide the initial content, comments and responses to get others engaged. The easiest way to get that seemed to be to adopt a few personalities myself. So I had the ability to create anonymous identities established and began “talking”.

    It didn`t take long at all to get others contributing. Some had better instincts than me and participated under their own name because they saw the risk of enabling anonymity. It wasn`t long before abusive content appeared. A couple of noble volunteers then spent a great deal of time moderating the forums.

    Teleconf taught me a few things: social media would be a big deal, their costs must be met so they must be monitized, anonymous broadcasts can be hateful. I and others might have become uber-wealthy if I`d recognized the second lesson then and found a solution.

  5. About democracy, the last aspect of your comment, Mark, that I want to respond to right now:

    I`m coming to view the Constitution as a lot more important than I imagined. My schooling was in the UK, which does not have a written constitution. I guess that`s why, even though I studied it when I was applying for US citizenship and was impressed by the work of the Founding Fathers, I didn`t give our Constitution a lot of thought ongoingly. I`ve been most aware of its aspects that I think have become problematic.

    It now seems to me that a good Constitution is very important for a democracy. How else can you prevent legislation the majority may favor that harms minorities? I guess I`m appreciating more what Julie has raised in other threads.

    Our Constitution is a good example of the results of political compromise, and the desire to make compromise a key feature of government. Despite the strongly held beliefs of some of those who framed it, our Constitution did not originally make all citizens equal. Slavery had to be outlawed much later, women had no right to vote until much later still, and the Equal Rights Amendment was only established just before I came here. And the structure of government established by our Constitution guarantees paralysis unless members of the different branches cooperate, and it significantly limits Federal power by what it grants to the States.

    Citizens of many nations have far better lives because their leaders were not hampered by a democratic process. SIngapore and S. Korea come to mind. Their progress is a stark contrast with, for example, my beloved Nepal. But China maybe makes the issue clearer. Mao`s rule was a humanitarian disaster. It`s estimated that his leadership resulted in 30 million deaths, many of them appallingly painful. His successor who established a market-oriented economy, on the other hand, effected enormously positive change (as well as the Tianaman Square massacre).

    I`ll explore systems of governance in a future set of posts so I`ll just say for now that democracy seems to be a bit of a red herring for discussions about improving people`s lives. It hasn`t helped Iraqis, for example. As one of my Buddhist teachers joked, you have to be wary of Americans or they may bring democracy to your country.

    The conclusion seems to be that while some systems of government may be better at preventing harm, and a good Constitution can be very helpful, in the end, as in everything else, what happens depends ultimately on not systems but people. That`s why I started by suggesting we should look closely at what we see in the mirror and take action not with hatred but compassion.

  6. Another example of how our concepts can blind us:

    I just watched Fareed Zakaria talking with James Baker, President Reagan`s Treasury Secretary. Both are very smart, knowledgeable, thoughtful and serious people. Baker respectfully but decisively condemned Senator Cruz` attempt to overthrow the Affordable Care Act, saying it had no chance of success and could only bring harm to the Republican Party and the entire US in general.

    But then Baker said the big problem is the deficit which results from and is constantly increasing because of entitlements. He responded to Zakaria`s question about raising taxes by saying we already had a massive tax increase at the beginning of this year and taxes throttle economic growth, which is the only way out of fiscal imbalance.

    My sense is Baker believes what he says. Assuming he does, it`s an arresting level of cognitive dissonance. He must know that in fact half our deficit results from our unfunded military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan in the first decade of this century, compounded by great tax reductions on high incomes made at the same time. He must also know the income tax rate rate we actually pay is extremely low by comparison with every other advanced economy. And he must know that Social Security currently operates in the black and can easily be kept that way with changes that would not harm our economy.

    Baker must know so many things that do not surface in his mind when it presents the big picture.

    What I`m trying to get at in this post and its comments is we need to be far more sceptical about what we believe. It`s good to ask, how does this look to people I think are my enemies, do all the important facts support what I believe? We should be especially sceptical about our most strongly held beliefs. They are the ones most likely to lead us into hatred of others and misery for ourselves.

  7. “And we’re still left with a terrible problem for a free and multicultural society: Even though 99.999 percent of Muslims abhor attacks on innocent civilians on moral and theological grounds, 100 percent of attempted terrorist attacks on the U.S. (and, with the exception of the Basques in Spain, terrorists attacks on all Western nations) since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing have been committed by people claiming to act in the name of Islam.”
    “I could spend all day listing more of the same. And that’s using the narrowest definition possible of “terrorism”—i.e., excluding any state-sponsored terrorist acts. We’re currently at various forms of war in five different Muslim countries, so it’s not surprising that some of the violence directed at us is from Muslims. But to claim that “100 percent of attempted terrorist attacks on the U.S. (and [other than Spain], terrorists attacks on all Western nations)” since 1995 are by “people claiming to act in the name of Islam” is so blatantly, demonstrably, obviously false that you really have to wonder about a person who would utter such a thing. And while most don’t veer quite as deep into the falsehood department as Weiss did, one would get the sense from listening to our standard political discourse that “Terrorism” and “Islamic-inspired Terrorism” are synonymous. It’s the kind of myth-based demonization that is as familiar as it is false, dangerous and repugnant.”
    utterly i wound like to depic it ,
    There has been plenty of terrorism and violence committed by human beings from every religious background. Not all terrorists are Muslims. In fact, not even most terrorists are Muslims. Who is defined as a terrorist, and who is defined in some other way is not consistent. it not only just based on religon ,it ocassionally based on human nature and activity…..

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