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branchandroot: blowing dandelion (dandelion blowing)
[personal profile] branchandroot

Written as a very disturbed young teacher in the fall of 2001.

I see something rather strange happening, in the month since September 11th. I started out calling it nationalism for lack of a better word. It's a particular variety of nationalism. Or, more accurately, nationalism is a particular variety of what I came to call Group Identity Disorder.

Let me describe what it was I saw, though.

I live in a self-imposed news blackout. I read a paper perhaps once a month, especially when there are elections or local proposal votes coming up, and my spouse reports the NPR headlines to me a couple times a week. It works. I get the top stories sketched out and don't have to deal with actual news reporters, who tend to make me froth at the mouth. Aside from that, I get along quite well with Smithsonian magazine, which tells me all about people like physicist/roboticist Mark Tilden and almost nothing about Presidents and Senators. Thus, my two primary contacts with the phenomenon in question have been my students and my afternoon cartoons. More precisely, the advertisements shown during cartoons.

What I see in the adverts has been nothing short of disgusting. Not only is there an abrupt resurgence of things like GI Joe action figures, but there is a sudden upswing in slogans like "Chevrolet, keeping America rolling! Keep America rolling and buy Chevrolet!" I see this symptom as of a piece with the sudden proliferation of flags adorning every surface in sight. There is a sudden need to be American and express one's Americanness in any way possible.

What I see in my students troubles me more, though. In the four and a half years I have taught so far, I have never seen anything like this. All of a sudden, every single one of my students has no toleration whatsoever for ambiguity and even less willingness, if possible, to examine their own assumptions. We started this term with an audio CD (The Past Didn't Go Anywhere, Utah Phillips and Ani DiFranco), which is full of stories. Some are serious, some are sarcastic, all of them are a bit outside the mainstream of majority US thought. The first problem that showed up, when my students encountered this, was a tendency to take every word Phillips said as utterly serious; at least one attempt to moderate this perception resulted in a paper that insisted he wasn't serious about anything. Then there was the problem of simplification. Phillips explicitly defines anarchy as "the tension between moral economy and political authority, especially in the area of combinations--whether they're going to be voluntary or coercive. Some of the most destructive, coercive combinations are arrived at by force." Every single first draft I got defined anarchy as chaos, lack of central authority and, by extension, the condition in which every individual does whatever they want. The usual example of what they want was casual murder. Do you see the disjuncture here? The idea of dynamic interactions between right-ness and authority, with the rider that the strongest dynamic is one in which people participate of their own will, gets cut and hammered down to simple disorder, with the rider that disorderly humans will naturally slaughter each other in job lots.

And then there was the problem of assumptions. I eventually came to see assumptions and simplification as connected. You see, the entire class had a huge problem with supporting their arguments. With one, count it one, exception, every author simply made statements (for instance, Phillips' ideal world would be chaotic), and went on without saying what statements of Phillips' led them to think so. Or they might quote one of the corollary definitions of anarchy, Phillips quoting one of his acquaintances saying "Ah, judge, your damn laws, the good people don't need 'em and the bad people don't obey 'em, so what good are they...?" and then go on about wild murders in the streets without saying what experiences of humanity led them to think humans without written laws would be unable to prevent murder. (This is a second-level writing class, mind; they've already been taught better once.) Even after three separate attempts on my part, one on paper and two in class, to point out what arguments and assumptions they were making and the necessity to support them, they were almost wholly incapable of even verbalizing their underlying reasoning. Their own assumptions had become invisible to them. They didn't seem to be able to see that these ideas could possibly be anything other than self-evident truth: Well, of course we would sink into deadly chaos if we tried to use a different model of social control than the one we have now--the one we have now is the only possible one.

Isn't it?

As I said, I have never encountered something like this before. Oh, it's usual for a certain portion of the class to feel like that. Let's say, twenty percent. Perhaps as much as forty at the start of a class like this, composed mostly of second-years. But never the whole class! And never have I encountered such downright inability to support arguments. After a few weeks of tearing my hair out, and alarming my spouse with my alternate threats to either kill my class or just cry, I finally came to the conclusion that I was not actually cursed, but rather dealing with another outcropping of what drove the multiplication of flags. This conclusion was strengthened when we moved on to less immediately loaded material (the movie Pleasantville) and my students seemed to recover some modicum of the sophistication I expect from them.

I think it all boils down to simplification. Displaying the flag equals supporting your country. There are no possible socio-political systems but the one we have already. What we have been told is the truth. This is why propaganda works at times like this--why it can only work at times like this. Thirty years from now, if I teach a class on propaganda texts, and include some from 2001, those eighteen-year-olds are going to laugh at them. They won't be able to comprehend how anyone could accept such blunt manipulation, such transparent tactics.

A group identity of any kind depends on some sort of lowest-common denominator. Individuals within the group have their own variable identities, but there is also some sort of identifier for the group as a whole. In order for that identifier to apply to all members, it has to be broad, vague, simple. The larger the group, the simpler that identifier has to be in order to encompass all members. For something as large as a country what it genuinely boils down to is usually bare citizenship under a handful of laws within an agreed-upon geographic boundary (born there, registered there). We always seem to want more than that, though, and so we try to produce actual personality characteristics. For example, French-snootiness-cuisine, or Americans-arrogance-guns, or Japanese-workaholics-raw fish. These don't fit all members, of course, but we produce them anyway. A caricature, as it were.

So think what happens when individuals are threatened on the basis of a group identity. For instance, planes were crashed in New York as a strike against "America". Everyone who participates in that group identity immediately rallies around in an attempt to protect it; that's a pretty standard response to perceived threat on any front. In order to identify as a member of that group, though, and therefore as part of the target with a right to defend, the members appeal to the group characteristics.

The problem, of course, is that the characteristics are, as noted, simplifications. Caricature. So in order to claim them and identify with them, the members in question seek to simplify themselves.

This, I believe, is what produces that intolerance for ambiguity and unwillingness to question assumptions. From the point of view of the caricature-identity, such complexities are not feasible. This is GID.

A subsidiary disorder, which I named CITL, shows up in those who participate in the group identity, but do not fall into full-blown GID. These are the people who keep a greater proportion of their individual identity at the fore, and thus have a somewhat greater tolerance for questions. They are not, however, willing to actually abandon the group identity, and so when faced with the aggression and hostility toward non-group-members displayed by victims of advanced GID, they respond by not actually voicing their perceptions of ambiguity. They Color Inside The Lines.

Everyone is coloring inside the lines, and it's kind of freaking me out. The idea that other citizens should feel they have the right to put my own citizenship in question merely because I have no intention of identifying myself according to the caricature also makes me very, very angry. Those who doubt, those who question, are just as much citizens as those who don't. And vice versa. If I hear the term "real Americans" one more time I may just move to Australia because it will then have been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Or maybe I'll stick around and break a few heads. Wouldn't that be cathartic? Gee, wouldn't that prove my identification as an American?

I would never, of course, start doing so in my classroom, since that's against the most basic of my ethics as a teacher, but the next advertising executive I meet had better watch out.

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