Every year at my high school, there was a “career day” for seniors. We had the opportunity to choose to hear from a variety of speakers who had been invited to discuss their various careers as a way of helping us determine the course of our own lives. Of the many possibilities I’d been considering at the time, a career in law was one of them, so I signed up to hear the lawyer speak about what his life was like.
Despite my relatively conservative up-bringing, my parents and grandparents had instilled in me the values of human compassion and sharing what we have with the less fortunate, and most of my teachers reinforced these ideals throughout my life. Hearing this lawyer speak was like diving into a freezing cold ocean when you’ve only ever swum in heated pools—you may have had a basic understanding that water could be different than the way you’ve always known it but you’ve never actually confronted that reality until now.
The lawyer spoke to us perhaps more frankly than we’d ever been spoken to before, not only sharing the fact that a career in law meant excruciatingly tedious work and horrendously long hours, but sharing his philosophy that it was all worth it because, when all is said and done, money is the most important thing. “Life is a game,” he imparted to us, and “he who dies with the most toys wins.”
Even at the time I knew that I’d learned a valuable lesson by actually hearing someone express this view in complete sincerity, but I only gradually came to recognize the full significance of that experience as I looked back on it over the years. It was the first time I realized that the world is actually full of people like that—people who see life as a game in which the “winners” owe nothing to the “losers”—and that I just hadn’t known any of them. That all of the various groups and sorts of people I’d been thinking of as enemies weren’t actually on the opposite side of the most important “us vs. them” divide in the human race, but that it was this way of thinking that represented the true enemy.
In the world of online discourse (particularly among Americans), I’ve noticed that almost everyone seems to have drawn their own lines around who they see as part of their “team” and who they consider “the enemy.” I’d like to take a moment to look at some of these various ideas regarding who our real enemies are, and point out why I believe that people are misdirecting their anger when most of it ought to be reserved for that special kind of scoundrel I’ve alluded to above.
1- The foreign terrorists are the enemy. This is quite a common view in the “post-9/11” world, and at first glance it seems quite reasonable:
“I may have my differences with my fellow countrymen but I recognize that they are my fellow citizens after all. The real threat to our security comes from the outside, and we should all be willing to join together to fight the radical militants who would kill us indiscriminately to further their religious and political goals.”
While radical extremists certainly are an enemy, I don’t believe they can be considered the enemy. The people who commit acts of terrorism such as suicide bombings are usually the victims of some kind of oppression, whether real or perceived, and they honestly believe they are fighting for a good cause. The only effective way to defeat radical extremism is to gradually and painstakingly root out oppression worldwide and win people over with ideas. Simply declaring them Enemy #1 and attempting to kill them all is the most counter-productive approach possible, as the past decade has demonstrated. In doing so you only create more terrorists, thus providing our real enemies with more manufactured enemies with which to enrich themselves by fighting.
2- The political left is the enemy. Thanks largely to real enemies such as Rush Limbaugh and Rupert Murdoch, many conservative Americans do not see liberals and progressives as people with whom they have mere political disagreements, but as the greatest threat to their way of life.
“The terrorists may be out to get us, but the liberals are helping them. By insisting on giving these people their Civil Rights, they’re inviting them to attack us and get away with it, and by apologizing for our nation’s mistakes they’re weakening us in the global community. Not only that, but these progressives want to take all my hard-earned money and give it to lazy poor people who do nothing but mooch off the system. If they had their way, the Church would be abolished and we’d all be worshipping a communist dictator.”
Aside from the blatant misperception of what liberals really want, conservatives should recognize that they share more common ground with present-day liberals than they probably realize, and that political differences can often be reconciled with rational argument and compromise, provided everyone is interested in the common good.
3- The political right is the enemy. Too many people on my side of the political spectrum seem to think that conservatives like the people we see gathered at Tea Party protests are the real enemy, and most of our energy should be spent fighting them.
“These Tea Party people are as bad as the Taliban. If they had their way, women would have no rights at all and minorities would be perpetual second-class citizens. They’d impose their fundamentalist Christianity on all of us and institute laws and punishments based on Biblical Scripture. Given the chance, they’d remove every shred of the social safety net and leave everyone to fend for themselves.”
Naturally I agree that a lot of the sentiments I see expressed by conservatives do lead in these dangerous directions, but I believe that most are far more moderate and reasonable than that. Most conservatives that I know believe in equality of the sexes (even if they’d deprive women of certain reproductive rights) and aren’t overtly racist (even if they believe that minorities are given too much special treatment). They almost all agree that some social safety net is necessary, and with the right combination of rational discussion and compromise there is no reason to consider them any more of an enemy than those who practice different versions of the same religion.
4- The ideologues are the enemy. You have tension all along the spectrum from moderate to extreme on both sides of the political divide, but this is always more of a problem for the party in power. Today there are moderate conservatives who see Tea Party extremists as an enemy, but even more prevalent (at least in the online circles I frequent) are the progressives who view those who criticize President Obama as the biggest obstacle to progress.
“We have the most progressive president in generations, but there’s only so much we can expect him to accomplish. The criticism he gets from the right is clearly ridiculous, but those on the far left who constantly complain about his compromises are doing even more harm. Their impatience will result in losing what little power we have left, as if the president is to have any political leverage at all he needs our unwavering support.”
I will readily admit to being impatient with the president, but I object to being treated as Enemy #1 by my fellow progressives. As I’ve written many times before, the president needs a strong left flank not just to push him to move towards what I believe are the right policies, but to allow him to move there by shifting the political spectrum (see: Overton window) to the left. Without a strong voice of opposition to policies such as tax-cuts for the wealthy and indefinite detention, the president will take the path of least resistance by implementing or extending them. Conversely, without strong and constant advocacy (some call it “whining”) about things like repealing anti-gay policies or fighting climate change, the president will take the path of least resistance by ignoring these issues. The president may be a progressive deep in his heart of hearts, but the realities of governing have turned him into negotiator-in-chief, not fighting for one particular side but merely trying to balance the nation’s competing interests: those of the average people on the right and the left against those of their real enemies, who have most of the leverage.
5- The moderates are the enemy. The inverse of the above sentiment is one I’m more sympathetic to, but which I still think is a mistake. On the right, you have Tea Party conservatives in a rage over those who don’t conform to their rigid ideological purity tests, but on the left these days it has everything to do with the president:
“The people who follow the president like blind sheep are the real enemy. They enable him to move further and further to the right and to protect the interests of the giant financial institutions and the military industrial complex by telling the rest of us to shut up and keep quiet whenever he does something we find unacceptable. Instead of fighting for the principles we all believe in, they are willing to sacrifice those principles for the sake of political expediency, and we often find that half a loaf is as good as no loaf at all.”
Very few people follow the president like “blind sheep”. Most have good, substantive reasons to support him, and he needs those people to keep the impatient among us in check. While I have suggested that perhaps a weak Democratic president might allow more harmful policies to be implemented than a Republican (because the left would be unified against the latter), I am still receptive to the case that the current president has accomplished more than we give him credit for and shouldn’t be tossed under the proverbial bus just yet. That said, I find that Obama’s defenders all too often respond to legitimate, substantive criticism of the president with personal attacks against his critics, likening us to whining children. While we keep our cross-hairs on those in power, they point their guns at us.
6- The government is the enemy. We’re getting to some overlap now, as many who see liberals as the enemy often conflate them with the government. But their sentiment is basically this:
“The government is made up of a bunch of corrupt, greedy, power-hungry individuals who want nothing more than to control every aspect of our lives. With enough size, the government will take over everything and determine who gets what. Success as we know it will become impossible because everything will be owned by the State and distributed as it sees fit, regardless of who has actually earned it.”
To be [extremely] fair, this would be a legitimate worry if circumstances really were as these people are led to believe by Limbaugh & Co. In the past, governments have taken too much power and imposed a brutally unfair system on the people in the name of equality. But that is not the direction things are heading in now, and it’s a mistake to try and push back against a tide that’s already receding rapidly. Ideally, the government is “of the people, by the people, for the people” and if the right kinds of changes are made to the current system, there’s no reason it can’t work for us as it was intended to.
7- Corporations are the enemy. Now we arrive at what I consider the appropriate frame. While I would hesitate to say that corporations themselves (or even most of the people who run them) are Enemy #1, I would place that designation squarely on the corporate structure and make my case thusly:
“The corporation is a soulless, amoral institution designed and required by law to earn as much money for its shareholders as possible without regard to any other considerations. As such it not only destroys the environment but finds ways to funnel wealth from every other sphere of society into its clutches. Left unchecked, corporations will continue to grow and accumulate more of the world’s wealth through mergers and acquisitions until only a small handful of companies hold every last shred of political power in the world, which they will use for no other purpose than to maintain that power even if it means global poverty and irreversible harm to the planet.”
Those who see government as the enemy are only scratching the surface: government is the enemy only insofar as it is currently a tool of the corporation, which is really the dominant ruling institution of our time and the one that constitutes the greatest threat to our collective future.
The corporation is not a person but if it were, it would be like the lawyer I met at career day all those years ago. The corporation doesn’t care how many hours it works or if it ever sees its family—it is unconcerned with human relationships of any kind. The corporation does what it does because by its very design, money is the most important thing. The corporation makes only the decisions that will maximize its own gains and minimize its own losses, determining each move according to a strict formula derived through Game theory. To the corporation, it is all a game, and “he who dies with the most toys wins.”
Until the rest of us acknowledge this reality and stop devoting so much of our energy to secondary fights like the battles between or within political parties and the overblown threat of foreign terrorists, the real enemy will continue to wage war on us without our noticing, until one day the damage is irreversible and all of us—from conservatives to liberals to politicians to religious extremists—will realize that we’ve all lost.