2004-05-12

Self and Other

Who are we?

Often we seem to find ourselves defined by what we are not – that is, the people and things around us. For Westerners, these “things” include a certain level of material well-being (albeit higher for some than for others) and certain basic assumptions about the society we live in. For people in other parts of the world, the standard of living and the assumptions about life may be different.

But who we are, as people, as individuals – that is not defined by anyone or anything except ourselves.

Some Westerners have a need for there to be a mythic Other. It’s not so important who this Other is, in fact its’s better if we don’t get to know him/her too well. What matters is the role this figure plays. Often it’s that of the Noble Savage: wild, untamed, everything we imagine that we are not, and cannot be, but wish to be. And don’t the Arabs fit this picture perfectly? They live in tents, they ride camels, they have a fiery temper, they are exotic, swarthy, and Semitic ... and, oh yes, they’re not Jews! That’s the best part. (You know the old saying: An Arab when he’s dirty is picturesque; a Jew when he’s dirty is a dirty Jew.)

Who would want to spoil this rustic scene? Mention freedom, human rights, democracy ... oh, shock and horror! You want to make the Arabs just like Americans?! You want to turn the Middle East into a world of shopping malls? You have to respect their culture! Don’t you see? Those people are HAPPY living like that.

This argument is advanced not only by twenty-something leftists who can imagine no greater horror than the appearance of a Starbucks in their trendy neighborhoods; no, you can also hear this from respectable “intellectuals” who write erudite essays on the subject. Who is the Other? Well, the Other could be almost anyone you want.

But let’s take a look at who the Other is not. For liberal academicians, the Other is never, EVER, conservative Americans. That’s a given. Because once you designate someone as Other, you have an obligation to dialog with them. So those Republicans and neocons and Libertarians and middle-of-the-roaders become subsumed in the “us” – that is, the guilt-ridden “we” who are responsible for all the trouble in the world. The direct object of the anguished cry, “Why do they hate us?” (You didn’t really think these intellectuals were talking about themselves, now, did you?)

Neither does the Other include dissidents and freedom activists whose ethnicity might prove inconvenient – that is, who threaten the image of the picturesque Arab, for example. Iraqis are most emphatically not Other. If they were, then “we” might have to talk to them, and perhaps even listen to them. We might find out that they are not that different from “us”: they want to be able to afford medicine to save their sick children; they want to express their thoughts without fear of going to prison; and they do not particularly care for being fed feet-first into shredders.

Those who opposed the liberation of Iraq find all this terribly inconvenient, so it’s not too surprising that the anti-war Left are not flocking to donate to humanitarian relief organizations like Spirit of America. (One “intellectual” rabbi actually banned Spirit of America literature from his synagogue. But I digress.)

No, I don’t care to be defined by my environment, nor by intellectuals who want to do my thinking for me. I don’t mind acknowledging my commonality with Arabs, Iranians, the Turks in whose country I lived for two years, or my American neighbors in all their splendid diversity. I see myself as an individual human being, with a cultural heritage I’m proud of, and the ability to choose my own future. And I choose to work with other human beings who, like myself, choose freedom and a better world.