US AND THEM (9-12-03)
I have made a decision. I have decided to stop taking potshots at religion.
It's not that I'm terribly concerned about offending people. In fact, I find that offending people is too easy to be of any real value intellectually. And offending religious people...well, that's about as easy as getting Rick Santorum to think about dog-fucking.
Besides, the world's major religions have had hundreds of years to develop factions, splinter groups, and wayward theologians who push a different cart than their forebears, so any doctrinal criticism lobbed their way can be deflected over to the weirdo sects, or onto the main body by the weirdos, who agree with you and would rather roast babies and handle snakes anyway.
But recently, I've started feeling that when I toilet-paper the church doors, the true target giggles mischieviously and runs away unpapered. And it occurred to me that the world's major religions are but a symptom of a larger disease: Cultural Identity.
Cultural identity is bunk.
People will tell you that preserving cultural heritage promotes diversity. Let me tell you something about diversity.
There are 6,320,935,803 human beings on this planet (per the U.S. Census Bureau). Each one of them is distinct and different from all others in a thousand ways. Surely this provides all of the diversity we need.
But no. Because actually, people want to bundle.
A bundle is a collection of personality pieces like religion, ethnic background, national origin, gender role, and family class status that you get handed upon birth. The information in a bundle is not without its uses. But beyond being an educational and historical tool, it is a rather useless and even poisonous item to keep in our sacks.
For a bundle has created an "us". And in order to have an "us", there must be a "them". The fact that "us & them" is the basic friction that has wreaked havoc over this planet for all of recorded history should be obvious to anyone who's ever picked up a high school history book.
So why do we crave "us"?
When you develop a You, it's like furnishing a house. All of these empty rooms. If you wish, you can use your bundle to furnish these rooms. Depending on the bundle you've received, some rooms are furnished more completely than others. If you got a Catholic bundle, your Abortion room is done. If you got a Baptist bundle, your Gay Rights room is painted a nice, intolerant red. If you got a Jewish or Muslim bundle, your kitchen is even stocked.
And keep in mind that you can switch bundles at any time if you get tired of the decor.
But all of this is just religion. Race roles fill some more rooms. So does nationality. If you're West Indian, you can believe in voodoo. If you're English, you can pretend your peasant-ass family has a coat of arms.
Along with this comes the Patriotism room, wherein the wallpaper assures you that your country is the best country in the world simply because you were born there. Hell, it extends to the state level in Texas. To the city level in sports.
If you want to, you can furnish your whole house without actually building any furniture.
But laziness is not the only reason for bundling. In cases of a "them" oppressing "us", it can be a tool for self-defense. When Irish-Americans in the 1800s said they were "proud to be Irish", what they wanted to say was "My basic rights do not change because of my nationality". When African-Americans say "I'm proud to be African-American", I suspect they want to say the same thing in regard to race.
Look, though, at what happens here. One man's "us" is another man's "them", and the prouder you are of "us", the prouder he must be of "them".
To be "proud" of a history that you yourself had no part in is to legitimize the type of logic that kept hereditary monarchs on the throne for centuries. It is the way of entitlement and greed.
The most obvious, and indeed the most problematic of these bundle components is gender. Because in all other factional battles, "us" won't even let "them" in the house. But here you have a "them" right in the bed with you. And until recently, that piece of cultural heritage gave women a form of societal and economic slavery that we have to stop ourselves from sliding back to even now.
Humanity has never invented a more horrible reasoning for unreasonable behavior than Tradition. (cue Fiddler on the Roof soundtrack)
Tradition is founded upon the pernicious concept that somewhere in the distant past, somebody figured everything out. Witness the concept of scripture.
But religion is only one form of the Tradition beast. Politics is perhaps worse, in its continued assertions that societal mores are going to hell in a certain type of basket. You can find this tendency as far back in history as you care to look.
The core of such Chicken Littleing is that shimmering mirage forever on the horizon: The Good Old Days. For modern Americans, that appears to fall somewhere in the 1950s. Unless, of course, you're black. Or gay. Or picked a Karl Marx selection for your book group.
The point is that the Good Old Days vary depending on which "us" you ask. And likely, the demise of those days will be attributed to any number of "thems", preferably all of them.
Ask Jewish Likkudniks when the Good Old Days ended--they may point to the Roman conquest of Jerusalem. Or they may say the Good Old Days came back in 1948 with the War of Independence. But ask a Palestinian, and that year moves to the end of the Good Old Days calendar.
But here's the point: Cultural identity is crap.
It creates unnecessary societal conflict, breeds stereotyping, and is just utter crap. The problem is that, to a certain extent, it's unavoidable. We're born, we inherit a story, we inherit a language, we inherit a class status, we inherit a nationality, we inherit a gender, etc. What can be done?
The answer: Be yourself.
Should my life be a mirror image of my parents'? Absolutely not. People are forever going on about "our way of life". WHOSE way of life? I was born and raised in Texas, but my way of life bears little resemblance to, say, George W. Bush's. I was raised in the same house with my brother and sister, and yet if you hand all three of us the same opinion questionnaire, you're likely to get three different responses.
Which sounds like I'm holding myself up as an example. Allow me to puncture that rather unconvincing balloon.
Right now I'm sitting in a laundromat, fidgeting because the perfectly harmless pop/rock emanating from the shop's boombox is sung in Japanese. And it's driving me crazy. Not only that, but when our building superintendent smiles blankly at me because he doesn't understand a word of English, I curse his laziness. What a reasonable man would do in 21st-century America is to get off my ass and learn Spanish, lest I be totally fucked 20 years from now.
Look, we all have to fight it. Whether it's assuming that the black lady at the next desk has less in common with you than the white guy in the golf pants, or figuring that no matter who you marry, you'll be dragged to chick flicks for the rest of your life, we all gots to cut it out.
But don't assert YOU by asserting your cultural identity. As far as Who You Are and Who You Want To Be are concerned, that bundle might as well be a shoe size. Your bundle tells you everything about where you came from, but it needn't tell you where you're going.
Okay, so what is it that I'm so bent out of shape about here? It is that I am forever seeing people engaged in destructive behavior and calling it cultural heritage. I say bunk.
Bunk to those who make their wives wash all the dishes. Bunk to those who insist on inserting the Ten Commandments into public architecture. Bunk to those to would presume to speak for God and to take lives in his name. Bunk to those who make life unbearable for those around them because they are pursuing a vocation and a way of life that doesn't fit them.
And bunk, bunk, bunk to anyone who suggests that the existence of a Tradition is itself a reason to continue it.