COLUMN: The danger of ‘Us vs. Them’
Most Cold War-era action movies like to follow the same plot: “Watch out! The commies are coming for our women, children and Bibles!”
A little narrow-minded, sure, but I’m not complaining. Without communism, we wouldn’t have about half our Bond villains, “in Soviet Russia” jokes or “The Hunt for Red October.” Or those really cool tundra hats.
For the better part of the twentieth century, communism drove an awful lot of American culture and consciousness. It was Lex Luthor to our Superman, a challenge to our post-war moral authority that sustained it and gave it life for the next 45 years.
But what about now? Ever since the power of communist rhetoric dissipated, international politics has been left with a strange power vacuum. No longer do we have Superman versus Lex Luthor, but just Superman — the Iron Curtain fell, and suddenly the U.S.’s superhero status lost a big part of its impetus. Now the world, not to mention Superman himself, is trying to decide what he’s all about.
It’s interesting to watch how the U.S. has developed as its original claim to moral authority has evaporated. Compared to the globetrotting do-gooder we used to be — fighting evil (read: communism) wherever we might find it, we’re now forced to find another binary to support our superhero status.
The need to address how the U.S. sees itself is especially ascendant now as the Middle East begins to coalesce into a ‘bloc’; a nuclear Iran and an unfriendly Syria, not to mention a perennially surly Pakistan, don’t make the State Department’s life easier, and the East-West binary it’s beginning to create is hauntingly similar to Cold War styles of thought.
I’m not wary of keen foreign policy or of dealing responsibly with Iran, Syria and Pakistan. I am very alarmed, though, by the thought that our legislators might begin to see the Middle East as a commonly allied enemy, because this does nothing but create an artificial division between us — one that distracts the U.S. from constructive projects in other areas, like education, green energy and space exploration.
If we get caught in a national need to define ourselves as the enemy of some foreign ‘ism’ or allow ourselves to get caught in the need to live some kind of us-versus-them national narrative, the country makes a wrong turn. We condemn ourselves to a divisive process that can set good, problem-solving diplomacy back a generation.
The people of the U.S. need to realize the Middle East is properly understood as a group of individual countries, as intricate cultures with unique diplomatic needs — not as our next Lex Luthor.
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