Notes from the Perimeter

Friday, August 21, 2009

An Other Issue

I’ve been highly entertained by the whole ‘natural born’ citizen brouhaha that the ‘birthers’ have been trying to propagate. In case you’ve been in a coma for the last few months, their contention is that Barack Obama is ineligible for his office.

First they claimed he was born in Africa, unearthing a Kenyan birth certificate so full of discrepancies that even Karl Rove rolled his eyes. The birthers were oddly innocent of any doubts regarding this document as opposed to his Hawaiian birth certificate which they imperiously dismissed. Unfazed, they bravely pressed on, revising their argument to claim that because only one of his parents was a US citizen, Obama cannot be considered ‘natural born,’ a constitutional requirement for the presidency.

Lawyer and dentist (does she represent herself when sued for malpractice?) Orly Taitz is especially comical. Prone to on-air meltdowns, this émigré from the Soviet Union has taken the lead in proclaiming that Obama is not only an illegitimate commander-in-chief but is the incarnation of Stalin himself. You betcha.

The nutjobs are indeed entertaining. But my amusement is tinged with uneasiness. I fear there is a faction in this country determined to cast Obama as Other. Let me migrate from the ridiculous to the all too real—the debate about health care—to illustrate my point.

In town hall meetings across the country, the rhetoric, especially on the right, is becoming incendiary. If you believe the ads and admonitions, you’d be convinced that the Obama administration is hell bent on any number of lowdown, mendacious provisions aimed at impoverishing the population. ‘They’ want you to die, especially if you’re old or unborn. ‘They’ will insist that a government bureaucrat or, gasp! an IRS agent, make your medical decisions. ‘They’ are determined to bankrupt you and the country for no reason other than the glee of raising taxes. ‘They’ sure aren’t like us so ‘they’ must be Other.

Individuation is a necessary part of growing up. At best, despite obvious differences of character, background and talent, we attribute to our fellows the same basic humanity that we value in ourselves. Only when we reduce another individual or group to a label such as ‘bad guys’, a simplistic collection of unpleasant or dangerous traits does it become sinister.

Perceiving someone as Other is the result of projection, and the problem with projection is that it says far more about the projector than the project-ee. Let me share a story. Years ago I was engaged to a sailor; we had delivered a yacht to Dubai and he was to return for several months to repair the damage the voyage had caused. Right before he left he said, “I just know that while I’m away you’re going to have an affair.” What? I was besotted, madly in love. The concept didn’t even register; I shook my head and forgot about it. Yep, you guessed it. While in Dubai, we had become friendly with a German woman working at the marina. My fiancé knew, perhaps without knowing that he knew, that he intended to get involved with her when he returned, and he did. However, he was so guilt-ridden by the notion that he projected his discomfort onto me. I lost a fiancé but I gained a valuable lesson about projection.

The difference between others and Others is the difference between community and enemy. We are, or should be, a community in which, as the adage goes, we trust that what unites us is more profound that what divides us. Differences become a catalyst for growth rather than the context for denunciation.

What, you might ask, does this have to do with health care or Kenyan citizenship? Despite what some would have us fear, Obama is neither lunatic nor devil. Disagree with his policies or methods but give him credit for being our legitimate president and, in terms of health care, for wanting the same thing we all should: that no patient be left behind. There is plenty of fodder for honest argument without demonizing the opposition and reducing the debate to a meaningless jumble of jargon.

Beware The Other—but not in the way you might think. Beware those who would propagate The Other. The evil you perceive might be your own.

(initially published as a newspaper column during the week of August 10)