Sometimes one group finds it useful to appropriate the label used by another group and adopt it as their own. Those who called themselves liberals 200 years ago most likely would today identify with the label classical liberals or libertarian to better distinguish themselves from the progressives who arrogated the label of liberal to their cause. Why is the label so important? Because folks buy labels. Once a brand is established and trusted, it becomes invaluable.
Very broadly speaking, Democrats became known as the party of the poor and minorities. Republicans became known as the party of the business-rich (not to be confused with Hollywood-rich) and the financially savvy. For perhaps the majority of voters, once these identifications become fixed in their minds, little or no further research is necessary. These instant mental associations do not need to be accurate to be effective precisely because they serve as a shortcut for thinking and make decision-making easier. From the point of their acceptance on, the only reinforcement that labels need is brief but frequently repeated sound bites in the media. As with sports, the names may change and even the entire team can be transformed or relocated, but it is still our team. We are loyal to our brands.
Because of the blurring of boundaries when using labels, we are often unsure who we should hate. During periods of intense competition for control over resources, we find our leaders fanning the flames of our differences, because assimilation usually means loss, defeat. Republicans don’t want their membership showing interest in or empathy for some of the Democratic Party’s platform. (And of course, vice versa.) There can be no weakness, because we have a winner-takes-all system. The rank-and-file then behaves much like sports fans, learning to hate people they don’t know, people with families like themselves. There is too much at stake, or so it seems at the moment. Politics is group warfare, and the grandstanding of the candidates has little to do with the maneuvering for the levers of power in the back rooms of the State. The power they seek is to control resources confiscated by taxation and regulation of the producers, to be redeployed to the fulfillment of the winners’ personal vision of a better world and rewarding the pillars of their personal power structure.
When I was growing up, white people called black people colored. It wasn’t terribly important because in my neighborhood we were friends and we were all just people. Well, somewhere along the line colored people became blacks. I never really understood this because a lot of my colored friends were not very black. They were just not white. It didn’t matter. We were friends, we went to the same church, and I thought a couple of the girls were hot. But our new abbreviated labels made it clear we had been de-peopled. Dehumanized. It became easier to know who to hate. Black versus white. Us versus them.
Then black people became persons of color. As Americans we were in search of better, more politically correct labels. In trying to mitigate prejudice, we became more focused than ever on differences. Our labels reflected and exacerbated those differences.
At one time, people who came to this country wanted to become, and be called, Americans. What was important was not where they came from, or where they had been, but what they had become. This was the New World, and they were thrilled to begin a new life. The world changed on us again, and today we are distancing ourselves from our homogeneity and resurrecting and re-emphasizing our cultural differences. People of color have now become African-Americans. Perhaps this is because some people came here to become free, and others came here to be slaves. That would certainly have an impact on my attitude.
But the fact is, today none of us regardless of color are free. There are growing limits on our autonomy and our lives become increasingly circumscribed by the intrusions of the State. In New York City as of this date, it is illegal to donate food to homeless shelters because the government does not have the manpower to monitor the salt, fat, and nutrition content of the donated food. Read about it here http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2012/03/19/bloomberg-strikes-again-nyc-bans-food-donations-to-the-homeless/. Are there really people who imagine such micromanagement as being part of the founding fathers’ vision for freedom? The sad truth is, yes there are—a lot of them. And obviously they have the power to turn their opinions and whims into law. One has to wonder, are they really concerned about the nutrition of hungry people, or are they simply trying to starve undesirables out of their city?
Do we want to be perceived and judged as individuals or as members of our group? Is being a hyphenated American a good thing, or simply one more sign of our fractured society? If you haven’t traveled much, you may be unaware that prejudices of one group against another are everywhere. There is no place on this planet that is prejudice-free. This is just what groups do. Us versus them. So by hyphenating ourselves, emphasizing our group-ness, are we celebrating our differences or deepening the divide already between us? Are our labels the herald of our rise or the stigmata of our fall? As individuals we might like each other; in the aggregate we can demonize and hate each other. Divided we fall, while the ascendant State continues to metastasize.
The American Brand
Americans are a group. What does it mean to be an American today? What do we stand for? How would a European watching our elections answer that question? I used to think being an American had something to do with our Constitution, but today that document seems to change in meaning daily, if not hourly when Congress is in session. Is there any philosophical bedrock to this racial and ethnic medley called America? Some few people came here because they were tired of groups, but most came here because they were tired of their group being told what to do by another group. America meant freedom from harassment from other groups who didn’t approve of your group. For me, the meaning of the Constitution was simple. In the words of Erwin Griswold, one-time Dean of Harvard Law School in a speech to Northwestern University Law School in 1960: “The right to be let alone is the underlying principle of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights.” America was an experiment in upholding the rights of the individual. America was not about your freedom to conform, but your freedom not to conform.
Our politicians from both sides see that Constitution as a rubber document. Yes, some of them pay lip service to a strict construction of the founders’ intent, but those philosophical pretensions evaporate as soon as they get their shot at winning a prize for their group. The Constitution was formed to protect the smallest minority in the world—the minority of the individual. If you protect the individual, including those individuals we don’t like and don’t agree with, then you have defanged the power of groups. Individuals need protection from groups. When we lose sight of that one fact, we have opened Pandora’s box to endless possibilities for injustice and evil.