Saturday, August 16, 2008

National Generalizations

Some of my postings recently have elicited a set of comments that can probably be accurately described as ‘America-bashing’, and the typical defensive claims that are often made in these types of situations.

It reminded me a great deal of my childhood.

See, I grew up on the U.S./Canadian border. I did not grow up near the border. Quite literally, if I was playing ball in my back yard, and the ball left my back yard heading north, it landed in Canada.

Officially, I was told, I was not permitted to go other there and pick it up again. I was not allowed to go to Canada unless I went down the street to the customs station and cleared customs. Then, I could retrieve my ball and come back.

In fact, I never did so. I dashed over into Canada, grabbed my ball, and dashed back again before anybody saw me.

There were people living on the other side of the border. I lived in a town called Sweetgrass, Montana. On the other side of the border, there was a Canadian town. In spite of the fact that I grew up inches away from this town, I cannot name a single person who lived, there, or tell you the location of any important buildings . . . except the school . . . which was right across the border from our house.

Schools tend to attract children, and children tend to get involved in childish games, such as “My country is better than your country.” So me and my friends would line up on our side of the border, and the Canadian school children would line up on their side of the border, and we would shout insults at each other. We would dare the people on the other side to “come over here and say that.” They would dare us to do the same thing.

These were childish insults. They certainly did not display any depth of awareness of social, cultural, or political norms. I actually remember being confused as to whether Canada was a country or not. In a sense, it had its own government. In another sense, it still showed some allegiance to England. We had a revolutionary war over here. We kicked the British out. The Canadians never did.

I remember that I could stand on the border and look east and west, and I could literally see the line that divided the United States from Canada. There were farms on both sides of the border, and all of the fields ended right on that line.

My attitude now is that there is a problem with these kinds of disputes. They are, in a sense, quite bigoted. They make derogatory claims about whole groups of people as if they are all alike – all Americans or all Canadians. When, in fact, each country is made up of a wide variety of people. The mix is almost certainly different, but the variety is there nonetheless.

So, I no longer (or I try not to) write about “Canadians” or “Russians” or “Chinese” or “French” as if they are all alike. Or, I try not to. It is such a part of our culture to speak and write in this fashion that I will not be too surprised if somebody can find violations in the 1,500,000 words that make up this blog, or the 1,000,000 words that make up my other writings. If I have violated this rule, I offer my apologies.

Instead, what I try to do, and what I argue should be done, is to focus one’s comments specifically on the subgroup of any population who actually hold the attitudes that one is criticizing or praising. I do not wish to blame the Afghans, or the Iranians, or the Saudis, or the Chinese, or the Russians, or the French, or the Canadians. Rather, if a nation pursues a policy that I approve of, I will reserve my criticism for the policy and those who support it, not for a whole nation.

In fact, I fear that this habit of treating whole nations as if they are alike may contribute to some of the worst aspects of human conflict. By blaming “the Germans” or “the Japanese” for the atrocities of World War II, we made it that much easier to carpet-bomb whole cities.

This is not the first context in which I have made this objection. In protesting against religion, I have spoken against making claims about ‘Christians’ or ‘Muslims’ or ‘theists’ or any group as if they share traits that they do not, in fact, share. A person should always address their criticism to the specific view that one is seeking to criticize, and to those who hold that specific view, without casting blame around indiscriminately.

I will use the term ‘theocrat’ from time to time. However, that term refers specifically to anybody who believes that government should be grounded on a particular theology or religion. A pledge of allegiance to ‘one nation under God’ is a pledge of allegiance to theocracy, specifically because it states that civil law should be under religious doctrine.

Of course, since there is no God, there is no possibility that the nation can ever be ‘under God’. What these people are striving for as a matter of fact is ‘one nation under those people who claim to speak for God, but who in fact are seeking power only for themselves.’ But that would make an awkward Pledge.

A person can speak about atheists generally, but only insofar as an atheist is somebody who believes that the proposition, “at least one God exists” is certainly or almost certainly false. To make any generalization about atheists outside of those boundaries is to bear false witness against others. Effectively, it contains a lie, and is not something that a person with good desires would have an aversion to.

I think that something also needs to be said about the fact that America is still a very young country. Let us look, instead, at Greece. Do we hold the Greeks of today responsible for the atrocities of their own past?

Every year, Sparta would declare war on its own slaves, conquering them all over again. It was one of the most brutal slave cultures that ever existed.

Yet, it makes no sense today to speak about the Greeks – the modern Greeks – as being the perpetrators of this injustice. To go into a bout of Greek bashing because of the activities of the ancient Spartans seems absurd. It is, in fact, absurd. There is no sense in looking at what happened in a past that the current generation now repudiates.

We do, of course, have a right to demand that the current generation actually repudiate the immoral activities of their ancestors. When a country offers a formal apology for slavery, for segregation, for Japanese internment, for the slaughter of the native Americans. This is a way of stating that we condemn any group of people who would commit such an atrocity, even our own ancestors. In this way, we can be trusted not to do the same to others.

I look forward to the day (though it will probably not be in my lifetime) that there will be a formal government apology for a pledge and a motto designed to culturally exclude and promote hostility against to those citizens who do not believe in God. The apology will come, not from those who are guilty, of course, but from those who want to state that they are better than their ancestors and recognize injustice where that their ancestors chose to remain blind to.

It will be a statement against those doctrines and the people who defended them, not a statement against all Americans.

That’s the part about justice that we still need to learn – the part that tells us to be careful of our generalizations, since they often accuse people of things they have not done, and make other claims about people that simply are not true.


anticant said...

Alonzo, you are of course absolutely right in saying it is wrong to lump together masses of very different people, stick one national, religious, or characteristic label on them, and then attack them as a homogenous entity. That has always been a favourite ploy of tyrants and warmongers.

The problem we suffer from in democracies is that while all of us quite rightly believe our own personal lives, careers. and interests are more important than politics, except in times of crisis – i.e. that we are entitled to the pursuit of happiness - a majority of the population who are qualified to vote take no interest whatsoever in what is going on in their own country and the world, and this culpable indifference enables the power-hungry politicians, the super-rich, the bigoted religious loudmouths, and the downright crooks, to wield much more power than they are rightly entitled to.

My favourite metaphor for this is “little lively tails wagging big sleepy dogs”. The burning issue for those of us who still believe in the possibility of a society that is more free and just than the ones we have is how to stir the too passive dogs into growling loudly enough to remedy the current democratic deficit.

anton said...

Ruiz's Four Agreements include one which says, "Don't take things personally". While I wouldn't even consider that you take things personally and we certainly don't mean it that way, an awful lot of US Americans do.

It is indeed a tragedy that Atheist bloggers receive the brunt of the intelligent Anti-US America complaints. As US American Atheists, you have saddled with the additional responsibility that we expect you to join in our struggle because, as a nation, US America shows almost the same disregard for the rights of Atheists as it does for the rights of the rest of the world.

If US American Atheists have trouble being heard in their own country, what chance does a foreign Atheist have when US America broadcasts to the rest of our world that it is okay to treat Atheists with extreme prejudice?

Do not forget that the Christian extremists are busy spreading their "beliefs", "methods" and "values" throughout the world (along with the message that God chose George Bush to be your president). While the US extremist Christian right has had its growth in US America under some control (it is still growing though), US American Atheists have no concept of how pervasive their influence is on the rest of the world. Since their message comes "wrapped in the Stars-and-Stripes", opposition to it is seen as "anti-American" and at the same time, the "anti-American" criticisms are seen as at attack on Christianity. As a "foreigner" we are being forced into a corner where we shouldn't say anything against US Christians or US Americans. We don't claim any form of superiority but we recognize that US America is dealing the cards and calling the game. And it objects if we make mention that it may be dealing from the bottom of the deck!

P.S. I would make a request that Atheists may have more of an impact, albeit subtle, on the rest of the world if we start capitalizing Atheist. I am disgusted that we haven't progressed beyond a lower case "a" in more than 50 years since the subject was raised.

Burt Likko said...

I may be guilty of providing what Alonzo has called a "defensive claim" made in response to criticisms of the USA. For the record, I believe the USA to be morally ambiguous.

My objection to "America-bashing" is that it portrays the USA as morally bad, when in fact the reality is much more complex than that. My remedy to that here was to point out some good things the USA has done without refuting the reports of bad things. That may have been interpreted as being unthinkingly pro-US. I do confess to patriotism and nationalism as well, and I do not apologize for being proud of those good things my country has done. But true patriots also challenge their own country to do better than it has in the past, and I try to do exactly that on my own blog. Particularly with regard to the USA's treatment of atheists, I think we fall well short of our ideals.

anticant said...

Some Americans are morally bad - e.g. the current Administration. Some are morally good. Far too many are morally vacuous. The same could be said of the population of any other country. But it matters more with America, because you are [or claim to be] the world's only Superpower, and what you think and do affects far more people around the globe than is the case with most other countries - including, nowadays, the UK.