Sunday, August 31, 2008

Us vs. Them

These days everyone's a separatist.

Today's New York Times carries a story on how disgruntled Scottish nationalists are talking about seceding from the United Kingdom.

In Belgium, the French-speaking Walloons in the north and the Dutch-speaking Flemings in the south have long debated dividing the nation, as the Czechs and Slovaks split what used to be Czechoslovakia. And look at the former Soviet Union, today divided by a host of languages and animosities, as well as the former Yugoslavia, where everyone seems to be at each other's throat. Never mind Quebec and the rest of Canada.

At least many countries of what used to be called the Continent have formed the European Union, and its currency is strong. Maybe the French detest the Germans and vice versa, but financial self-interest will always paper over a great many cultural chasms.

Here in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Yoopers resentful about neglect by rich Lower Michiganders sometimes threaten to declare the U.P. a separate, sovereign state -- before reality sets in and they admit they depend too much economically on their rivals Below the Bridge.

Three years ago a crowd of deaf Americans (I'm not one of them) talked about setting up their own town somewhere in South Dakota where they'd be treated as full citizens with their own language, not handicapped folks to be pitied. There hasn't been much news about that since and the Web site,, set up to promote it has disappeared. My guess is that the difficulty of making a living in isolation finally sank in.

It's natural for those who speak a common language, share a common history and enjoy common beliefs and a common culture to wish to band together in comfort and security.

There is a dark side to this impulse, however, and it is the deplorable human tendency to demonize the Other, those who are different. Anti-Semitism is a good example of this, and so is anti-Islamism, not to mention anti-infidelism.

A robust economy helps stifle these bloody inclinations. (Not for nothing is "E Pluribus Unum" stamped on U.S. currency.)

It's when times are tough that fissures of resentment crack the map of humanity. We're seeing a lot of them lately.

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