Monday, July 05, 2010

The Piece of Lint

Many years ago I saw a skit performed on television that was a blend of slapstick comedy and social-political satire. I don't recall the two performers who staged it, but I clearly remember the skit itself, which was titled, "The Piece of Lint, or, How Wars Start."

The skit unfolded this way: a well-dressed gentleman strolling through the park sits down on a bench next to a fairly seedy-looking bum, who he eyes with quiet disdain. The gentleman then checks out the condition of his natty suit, and discovers a small piece of lint, which he carefully picks off with two fingers and tosses to the side, where it lands on the bum. The bum looks incredulously at the gentleman and at the piece of lint which is now on his tattered shirt, and then he plucks it up and places it gently back on the gentleman's suit. The gentleman is offended by this, and again plucks up the piece of lint and drops it back on the bum. This exchange continues and escalates until the two men are hitting each other and rolling in the dirt, each trying to drop the piece of offending lint on the other. In the end, the gentleman's suit is a shredded, dirty ruin and both men are lying exhausted on the ground ... whereupon the gentleman, with his last bit of energy, finds the piece of lint and drops it onto the unconscious bum lying beside him.

I hadn't thought about this skit in years, but I was reminded of it when I read this article by Christopher Hitchens in Slate magazine: The Narcissism of the Small Difference.

This is a fascinating short article that asks an important question: how is it that people in ethnic, religious, and national conflicts identify the "other" that they're supposed to hate, and why are the differences that supposedly mark them such a trigger for hatred and violence? In Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants historically hate each other...but if a Catholic and a Protestant stand next to each other when they're in, say Scotland, how can you tell them apart? Sunni and Shi'a Muslims each profess to have the absolute true religion, yet we have seen in Iraq and elsewhere that they can massacre each other with the most appalling savagery over the most arcane and trivial issues of their faith - and if Abdul and Omar stand next to each other, how do you know which is religiously which? Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda, Hindus and Muslims in India and Pakistan, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan, Greeks and Turks in Cyprus, Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka ... what are the differences that allow them to tell each other apart and trigger the hatred that cascades down the years, destroying communities and causing horror and misery long after the original differences may have been forgotten?

This is an extremely interesting article that is well worth your time to read and ponder. We can make fun of the differences, as Tom Lehrer did ...

But the underlying problem is real and terrifying.

Yesterday, we celebrated the Fourth of July, on which Americans celebrate their independence from Great Britain and the founding of the world's oldest functioning democracy. One of the things that makes the United States unique in the world is that it is a truly multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation in which everyone lives together in relative peace and harmony. Not perfect, of course, but on the whole, much better than just about anyplace else you could name. We have learned, in the main, to ignore The Narcissism of the Small Difference. The average American doesn't live every day in fear and suspicion of his neighbors, wondering whether they are going to explode in ethnic and religious violence over some perceived slight.

We have no shortage of cynical politicians and religious leaders eager to exploit racial, religious, and ethnic differences for their own cheap advantage, but by and large most Americans are - however unconsciously - smart enough to recognize their moral and intellectual bankruptcy and tune them out. I can only hope that the current of brotherhood and tolerance that has made this country the envy of the world continues to work against those who would exploit the small differences.

Because our children and grandchildren deserve better.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



John said...

Sad how a government (or political party) can stir up hate for others when as individuals we could often overlook the differences and see how much we are alike.

Sometimes the world is just an odd community; full of bullies and those that would take advantage, negotiators and peacemakers; some rich, some poor. Deep down I think that we'd all like to get along but there are always people telling us that we can't, that we have to hate and that we are better than the others around us.

Mike said...

I just noticed you have 29 followers. Time to start the Cult of Bilboites, move to Montana and set up a compound. Don't forget to bring guns. Lots of guns.

Wv: burstsol - What the terrorists did to Sol with an RPG because ..... it seemed like the right thing to do.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Bilbo. Perhaps the USA got it all out of our system via the Civil War, which made it unacceptable (and illegal) over the next 100 years, almost to the day of the passage of the Civil Rights Act) to hate thy neighbor because he is different. The casualties of the US Civil War (around 400,000 if I remember correctly--this of course doesn't count the post war lynchings and other incidents culminating in the 3 freedom fighters murdered in the 1960;s)) suitably impressed the nation that hatred had a serious downside, which could interfere with the pursuit of happiness, not to mention chasing the next dollar. Yes, we are exceptional is the point I'm making. Democracy makes it possible for a society to learn from its mistakes. Perhaps more countries of the world ought to try it. (Although competing economically with a democratic Russia and China might result in all of us having to work a whole lot harder!)

Eminence Grise