The power of (foolish) ideas
I was recently reading the excellent interview of Marilynne Robinson by Barack Obama and got to thinking about the power of ideas, mostly foolish ones, in the context of political choices.
In a memorable quote, Robinson speaks of an especially foolish idea:
Because [of] the idea of the “sinister other.” And I mean, that’s bad under all circumstances. But when it’s brought home, when it becomes part of our own political conversation about ourselves, I think that that really is about as dangerous a development as there could be in terms of whether we continue to be a democracy.
We all know the issues and the how that basically applies to the United States. But I honestly think Mexicans have not done enough introspection to realize we harbor a world view that is eerily similar.
It can be argued that perhaps this idea might not necesarrilly be a source of explicit political discourse today, but we certainly look the other way when it is implied.
For example, whenever there is a shooting or execution in town, authorities are quick to point out a few facts: “the victim was involved in the drug trade” or “the shooting was gang-related”. This in turn produces a steady calm in readers because it was the “others” who got killed.
While the divide in the United States is racial or geographic, we are not less superficial. Probably the deepest “us versus them” divide is engrained in our ancestral class system. I find it very disturbing that color (but not exclusively) and other characteristics of class limit the borders of our herd.
The mayor of one of the richest municipalities in the country, has consistently argued for asking house-maids to carry special id’s. It is as though “we” are never capable of stealing, and “they” are the ones we should watch out for. Granted, this iniative hasn’t really been backed by the citizens in the municipality, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we are equalitarian model citizens. In fact, a lot of the decisions, social and political, reflect this “us” mentality. The relative extravagance (or lack of) weddings, for example, reflect the class of the participants, thereby affirming their place in society. The self-selection social activities keep on growing because being in a herd actually improves your life in Mexico, which is basically counter-intuitive to the idea of democracy espoused by Robinson.
I also find it rather ironic that the higher you climb the social ladder in Mexico, there is also higher involvement in the catholic faith, but more and not less support for the idea of exclusion. This again is touched upon by Robinson:
Robinson: […] It’s being human that enlists the respect, the love of God being implied in it.
The President: But you’ve struggled with the fact that here in the United States, sometimes Christian interpretation seems to posit an “us versus them,” and those are sometimes the loudest voices. […] at least in our democracy and our civic discourse, it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously sometimes are also those who are suspicious of those not like them?
Robinson: Well, I don’t know how seriously they do take their Christianity, because if you take something seriously, you’re ready to encounter difficulty, run the risk, whatever. I mean, when people are turning in on themselves—and God knows, arming themselves and so on—against the imagined other, they’re not taking their Christianity seriously. […] But Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive—“Love thy neighbor as thyself”—which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that you’re actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But you’re supposed to run against the grain. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.
This, at least to me, is profoundly important. Robinson implicitly argues that Christianity is actually a struggle because it’s supposed to give way to a respect for humans so deep that we run from the idea of the “others”. Democracy can be said is a representation of that belief.
Mexicans constantly denounce Trump, and there is good reason to do so, but we should also aknowledge that the very foolish ideas that gave way to his “movement” are also pervasive in our society. A more “human” church would help, but we mostly need an honest dialogue about our increasing entrenchment among classes.