Thursday, May 9, 2019

Choosing Sides

“Political Scientists Trace American Democracy’s Severe Polarization to F***ing Idiots on Other Side of Aisle”
 —Headline in The Onion, October 31
The actor Liam Neeson found himself in hot water in February while being interviewed for his latest movie. Cold Pursuit was, by many accounts, a pointless remake of a cleverer Norwegian film called In Order of Disappearance, but it was consistent with the vigilante-action-hero persona that has been the Irish actor’s bread and butter the past few years. Perhaps that is why he thought an anecdote about his own misguided flirtation with street revenge might stir interest among his fans.

Neeson was nothing but contrite and self-critical as he explained to The Independent of London how years earlier, after a friend of his had been raped by a black man, he had gone “up and down areas with a cosh, hoping I’d be approached by somebody—I’m ashamed to say that. And I did it for maybe a week, hoping some ‘black bastard’ would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could… kill him.” Subsequently on the Good Morning America program, he said his reaction “shocked me and it hurt me. I did seek help. I went to a priest, I aired my confession, I was reared a Catholic. I had two very, very good friends that I talked to. And believe it or not, power-walking helped me. Two hours every day, to get rid of this. I’m not racist. This was nearly 40 years ago.”

Public reaction in the media, both traditional and social, was brutal. Not only was he widely excoriated for having had those feelings four decades earlier, he was roundly criticized for talking about them in the present. Few seemed inclined to give him credit for honesty in speaking about an extremely emotional reaction to a terrible event in his youth and having learned from it.

My own personal reaction, as usual, was different from the ones I kept hearing and reading about. What Neeson described did not sound to me like racism—at least as I have always understood the word. Here is the Oxford dictionary definition: “Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” It does not sound as though the actor went looking to get into a fight with a black man because he thought black men were racially inferior. He wanted revenge for a crime and was apparently seized by the notion that, because a black man was the alleged perpetrator, all black men were therefore guilty. That would be tribalism, not racism.

As a native of County Antrim, Leeson should understand the concept of tribalism better than most of us. The six counties of Northern Ireland have been convulsed for generations by antagonism between those who identify as British and those who see themselves as Irish. The latest sad example of these old hatreds was the pointless death last month of activist/journalist/author Lyra McKee, who was struck down by a stray bullet fired by a teenaged member of the New IRA during civil disturbances in Derry. The intended target was presumably the police officers on the scene. Amid the shock and grief that followed, there were hopeful murmurings that perhaps this might be the senseless tragedy that would finally bring people to their senses. If only. My memories are all too vivid of people saying the same thing in 1998 after a bomb killed 18 Catholics and 11 Protestants (including a woman pregnant with twins) in the County Tyrone town of Omagh. The bomb was planted by yet another republican splinter group, the Real IRA.

People who commit such atrocities justify them with notions like justice, revenge, and sovereignty. They are harder to justify when described as what they actually are: murders committed because of hatred for someone else’s tribe.

These days in the U.S. I see a lot of what seems to me to be tribal thinking. Some of it breaks down along racial lines, and I think it is useful to see those divisions for what they are—the tribalistic mindset of us versus them.

What concerns me these days mostly, though, is the country’s political division. It does not seem enough anymore merely to demonize politicians. Their supporters and voters must also be designated as beyond the pale—even evil. You rarely hear officeholders or commentators give their ideological opponents the benefit of the doubt and at least having good intentions. The worst is always assumed.

The other day House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was reported as saying that she does not “automatically trust” President Trump to respect the 2020 election result “short of an overwhelming defeat.” Of course, the president’s response would be that many Democrats have yet to accept the 2016 election result and that they have never stopped trying to undo it.

Let us hope that talk like this stays in the realm of partisan rhetoric. When political parties in a democracy become reluctant to hand over power after an election because they do not trust the other party’s intentions or character, we run the risk of finding ourselves on the slippery slope to to overt tribalism. Sadly, there are all too many historical examples of where this leads.