The other morning, I woke up and my head was clogged with bad bile. A random list of baggy villains whirled around in my sleep, which left me cranky and unrested.
Doctors - let's start with them. Doctors make me sick. I haven't seen a doctor in years, which shows you how strongly I feel about them. I see them in the newspapers, making so much money, and it makes me sick.
The same for lawyers, of course.I'm not even going to mention politicians. Everyone agrees on them. Even the politicians blame other politicians.
I blame Arabs too. Why not? Somebody is to blame, and the Arabs certainly look guilty. I want to be mature about this. I don't blame the poor Arabs, only the other kind.
Moving right along: the greed-crazed oil companies. I would like to punch Mr. Exxon right in his piggish snout. Only Mr. Exxon is represented in my neighborhood by a big, amiable kid who pumps gas and does not take any crap from his customers.
Well, what about the Vietnamese refugees? Nobody made them live in Indochina. Let the rich Arabs and the oil companies take care of them.
Even newspapers make me mad. Television makes me as sick as the doctors. People say if the news media left us alone none of these things would be bothering us. If newspapers don't have anything good to say, I don't want to hear it. It only confuses me.
This is not my whole list. I haven't mentioned truckers, Commies, bureaucrats, the Supreme Court and a bunch of others. Everyone has his own list, anyway. Wasn't life so much simpler in the old days, when civilized nations simple blamed everyting on the Jews?
That's enough random bile to illustrate. I do not think my list is unusual these days among citizens who are normally temperate in their opinions. The search for acceptable villains proceeds, not as an exercise of thought, but more like a muscle spasm, a reflexive jerk caused by the secretion of some unidentified enzyme deep in the human mind.
The Washington press, let me add, is in a spasm of its own, which feeds new secretions to ours. The head villain, in their case, is the president. They were furious first because he didn't do anything to make all this black bile go away. Now he has made them twice furious by not telling them what he is going to do.
I wrote once, in another place, that Jimmy Carter's distinctive quality as president is his refusal or failure to identify believable "enemies" for us. I attributed this to his Christian perspective; others say it is simple incompetence. Either way, without strong guidance from a political leader it is difficult for us plain citizens to sort through the list of villains and make sense out of our discontents.
Knowing whom to be mad at and mobilizing your anger is one of the most satisfying human impulses. It can be very creative. Also most dangerous.
Quite by accident, I am dipping in and out of two books this summer, each of which described this mental process, the social-political search for believable villains. My wife was reading one book and I borrowed it. The other was sent by a friend who is familiar with my confident ignorance and enjoys disrupting it.
Peter Gay's "Freud, Jews and Other Germans" (Oxford University Press, 1979) is a series of essays about the rise of anti-Semitism in German culture, the strands that wove themselves together and legitimized Hitler's "Final Solution." Among many valuable thoughts, the historian, a refugee from Hitler, offers this insight: Jews became a metaphor for modernism in Germany, not only because Marx, Freud, Einstein and other Jewish intellectuals opened new vistas of modern thought, but because widely shared caricature of Jews seemed so adaptable to this coldly modern life, so comfortable in the rootless world. Nostalgia for the lost past fed hatred for modernity - and Jews. Gay wrote:
"Whatever else it was, German anti-Semitism was a way of confronting - or, rather, not confronting - the pressures of contemporary life which were remaking Germany as they were other industrial nations in the 19th century: specialization, mechanization, the crowding in of impulses and the speeding up of existence, the burgeoning threats posed by godless morality, socialist revolution and cultural nihilism; anti-Semitism was, in short, an irrational protest against the modern world."
I think there is a warning note in Gay's words, for they certainly summarize the collective frustrations induced by our own period of history - a sense of too many impulses coming at us, too many strange new events, a "speeding up of existence" and a bombardment from alien cultures, nihilistic protest, decadent fun, frustrating machines. This is an unstable moment in the long march of civilization, a transition of substance and feeling. But most people yearn for stability, for dependable explanations.
I am not predicting that a Yankee Hitler is about to emerge in the 1980s (although I can think of several prominent politicians who would probably volunteer). One of the essential points Peter Gay makes is that Hitler was not inevitable, even in Germany. Cultural changes and economic instability prepare the ground for political events, but they do not dictate the outcome of free choices, not if people are free to think beyond the metaphors. All I am saying is this: People are searching these days for simple metaphors to explain extraordinarily complicated events - and that is a dangerous reflex.
The other book, by coincidnece, is about other Semitic peoples, the Arabs - "Orientalism" by Edward W. Said (Pantheon, 1978) - and this book too examines "Arabs" and "Islam" as a metaphor in western minds. Said, a Palestinian scholar of literature, undertakes a breathtaking intellectual survey of how western scholars, poets, statesmen effectively dehumanized Arabs over centuries, projecting their own feelings of virtuous aggression upon a mythological place called the "Orient." In all, the book is a staggering portrait of how mankind can trap itself in its own imagination, constructing serviceable ideas to protect it from an unmanageable reality.
Much of what westerners "learned" about Arabs sounds similar to what 19th century Americans "discovered" about Indians on this continent. The first crucial intellectual step is to identify anti-human qualities in these strange people. They do not think like us, they do not share our aspirations. Once one has concluded that Indians (or Arabs) thrive on violence and disorder and stealth, it is easy to colonialize them. Indeed, it is the only thing to do, the right thing to do.
The Arab stereotypes created by British and French colonialism are still very much with us, of course. The package of beliefs was inherited by the United States, along with responsibility for the territory. One sees them expressed in newspapers regularly, especially in cartoons. This is a virulent variation of anti-Semitism, even though the Arab stereotype is now sometimes expressed by Jews.
One of the most chlling examples in Said's catalogue of misperceptions is this excerpt from Chaim Weizmann, the great Zionist leader, founder of modern Israel, in a letter written to Lord Balfour in 1918:
"The Arabs, who are superficially clever and quick-witted, worship one thing and one thing only - power and success...The British authorities...knowing as they do the treacherous nature of the Arabs...have to watch carefully and constantly...The fairer the English regime tries to be, the more arrogant the Arab becomes..."
This is approximately how the Nazis talked about the Jews and, once the anti-Semites attained political power, it became a deadly metaphor.
Odd, isn't it, how these two poles of anti-Semitism exist side by side like ugly twins? If the Jews were despised as exemplars of modernism, the Arabs are depicted as carriers of primitivism - threatening to upset our cozy modern world with their strange habits and desires.
Can the modern mind of Americans evolve beyond these stereotypes? If it doesn't, I think the world is going to be a violent place in the coming generation.
Right now, I think we are saved by our confusion. There are too many villains on the list for any one of them to rise above the rest as the acceptable scapegoat. I would love to see the government take a big bite out of the oil companies, but I cannot fool myself into believing that this would somehow transform the Arab oil producers back into docile colonial subjects. I do not really blame doctors for causing cancer, or bureaucrats either. I can blame some things on the Commies but not everything. There is too much going on in the world, too many strange events, to pretend that the Russians are behind them all. Or David Rockefeller. Or the PLO.
In a way, we are too wise to fall for the old metaphors, we know too much to be able to believe in them as securely as earlier generations might have. Yet we are not smart enough to organize reality according to a new mode of thinking.
This time in our history is like the moment of slack tide, when the sea pauses, and it's distressing, frustrating. It makes me cranky, not to have manageable answers, and I return to my clumsy list.