Our enemies make us who we are -- so we must choose them carefully

Our enemies make us who we are -- so we must choose them carefully

In the 1930's, when FDR was elected President in the midst of the Great Depression, he had some big decisions to make. It had been a decade since the Russian Revolution, and the Soviets didn't seem to be going anywhere. Pro-communist sentiment was on the rise worldwide, including in the United States. Trade unions were starting to gain significant power. Socialists like Eugene Debs and populists like Huey Long had made the ruling class antsy. 

FDR's solution was the New Deal. History students don't remember much about it today except that it had a bunch of alphabet soup agencies like the CCC, the TVA, and the WPA. But it was actually a totally unprecedented coalition between the ruling class and working class that was forged in order to prevent a popular revolution or a decline into dictatorship. It led to the most prosperous period in American history. 

It did not have to happen this way. It was far from inevitable. What we do know is that if it weren't for the Russian Revolution and communism, it wouldn't have happened. If the ruling class wasn't worried about their heads ending up on sticks, they wouldn't have had any incentive to change a system that, while profoundly unstable, had enriched them for decades. 

And so ironically, if it were not for the Evil Empire, there would've been no Land of the Free as we know it.

"What do you despise? By this are you truly known." -- Frank Herbert's Dune

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the world breathed a sigh of relief. Millions of people were liberated, the threat of imminent nuclear annihilation decreased significantly, and the consensus was that capitalism had "won." 

But after that brief elation, we started to go through an identity crisis. If you define yourself as "against" an enemy and then defeat that enemy (or that enemy collapses from within, as is the case with the USSR), then you're stuck without your defining feature. The easy (and lazy) solution is to immediately seek out another foe to conquer -- like Islamic terrorists, for example. But when we choose a new enemy, there's something important to remember:

To oppose something is to maintain it.
— Ursula K. LeGuin

Terrorism, 16 years after 9/11, is as bad, if not worse, than it was before. The reason is simple -- the extreme elements of both sides have framed this as a religious war, and that is a useful recruiting tool for Americans and ISIS fighters alike.

"Save western civilization from barbarism!" Americans might say. 

"Save Islam from the bombs of the infidel!" ISIS might say. 

We hand each other recruitment tools all the time -- George W. Bush okays torture? Al Qaeda uses Abu Ghraib photos to enrage potential fighters. Donald Trump institutes a Muslim ban? ISIS points to it as proof that these are wars against Islam, and not "wars of liberation."

And then every time ISIS or Al-Qaeda or any lone wolf loony drives a car into a crowd or bombs a subway, the west has its proof that these are inhumane maniacs, and that they must be destroyed. We feed each other, just as we did in our Cold War propaganda -- it's just that now, instead of "commies" or "capitalist pig dogs," it's "infidels" and "bloodthirsty terrorists."

So it follows that we should be careful about how we choose our enemies. They will end up defining our lives as nations and as people.

Which enemies do we want?

It's easy to say, "my enemy is wrong, I am right," and ask no further questions. But when Islamic terrorism is eventually defeated (or when our capitalist empire collapses), we will just end up casting about for a new enemy. There is always a new enemy.

It's harder, though, to ask "why is my enemy my enemy?" It is harder to look at historical political and economic forces that have brought my enemy from -- once, way back in my lineage -- from being a neighbor and an ally to being a mortal foe. And students of history will tell you that these forces go back a long way. On a long enough timeline, the fault for the decay of our relationship lies with both parties. It lies in invasions, massacres, and crusades. It lies in cultural tensions and economic exploitations. It lies in racism and nationalism. It lies in technological differences and in power imbalances.

There is no one evil person or group who is the cause of all of this, and there is no one person or group who can be killed to bring it all to an end.

This goes for local enemies as well as foreign ones. For modern progressives, the enemy is Donald Trump. And truly, that's a fair enemy to have -- he's a thoughtless bigot, a practiced misogynist, and repellent flimflam man with the conscience of a tapeworm. But the danger is that progressives will focus all of their energy on defeating him (as they focused on defeating George W. Bush a decade ago) and they will find, when they inevitably do tear him down, that there's just another Trump waiting in the wings to defeat our latest standard bearer.

Another way

The easy solution is to declare a war on a concept rather than a person -- we're not fighting Hitler, we're fighting fascism. We're not fighting Osama bin Laden, we're fighting radical Islamic terrorism. But these fights can still cause problems, because these fights still provide us with specific groups of humans that have to be either destroyed or degraded in order for us to declare victory. They are still fights. And that's only going to result in more resentment, more tension, and more violence down the road. 

To avoid falling into the enemy trap, we can stop thinking in terms of what we aren't and start thinking in terms of what we are. This does a couple of things -- first, it has us base our decisions on our own values rather than in response to the values of others. Second, it leads us away from competition and towards cooperation. Which is the state humans are better adapted to, anyway. 

In a time like this, when a pretty easy enemy occupies the White House, the real revolution would not be to defeat him in an election, or to get him impeached, but to decide on the society we want, and to build it with or without his consent. Otherwise, he'll just be another Hydra, and his defeat will give rise to even more horrible monsters waiting in the wings.

Photo: Carole Raddato

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