Assimilating the “Other”

George Saunders has this to say at the very end of his lengthy essay about Donald Trump and his supporters in The New Yorker:

From the beginning, America has been of two minds about the Other. One mind says, Be suspicious of it, dominate it, deport it, exploit it, enslave it, kill it as needed. The other mind denies that there can be any such thing as the Other, in the face of the claim that all are created equal.

The first mind has always held violence nearby, to use as needed, and that violence has infused everything we do—our entertainments, our sex, our schools, our ads, our jokes, our view of the earth itself, somehow even our food. It sends our young people abroad in heavy armor, fills public spaces with gunshots, drives people quietly insane in their homes.

I agree with Saunders here. However, he misses something important in this description — that this second approach, the liberal approach, to the other, assimilation, is just as violent and brutal as the first approach.

We don’t see it because it couches itself in a beneficent universalism that seeks the alleged good for all people. It means well, and western ethics has learned to dismiss brutality and violence if that violence can somehow be justified with “we meant well” or “we were acting for the greater good.”

But we also don’t see the violence this universalism gives us because it’s essentially face, bureaucratic, and impersonal. (Because western ethics also tend not to see state violence as violence, and strive hard to morally justify acts of state no matter brutal they are.) It’s a steamroller that uses the slow but inexorable machinery of the law — and all that comes with it, including progressives’ favorite state institutions, especially schools — to slowly crush and annihilate difference and distinction.

This liberal view, at its heart, denies agency and even humanity to the other. Because there is no other, just a collection of selves exactly the same as us waiting to be fashioned or unleashed or set free.

I find the particularism of Saunders’ first view here more honest — it at least acknowledges there is an other, and so there is a fighting chance to meet — really encounter, as opposed to simply crush and assimilate — the other on something resembling even terms.

Ross Douthat has something to say about the ersatz cosmopolitanism of the world’s liberal elites:

Genuine cosmopolitanism is a rare thing. It requires comfort with real difference, with forms of life that are truly exotic relative to one’s own. It takes its cue from a Roman playwright’s line that “nothing human is alien to me,” and goes outward ready to be transformed by what it finds.

The people who consider themselves “cosmopolitan” in today’s West, by contrast, are part of a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call “global citizens.”

America has always lived in the tension between a proclamation of universal values — all people are created equal — and the very particular heritage and context of that proclamation . Is it really for all people, or just certain kinds of people? Assimilation is one attempt to square that circle, by showing that all can be included but only if they share the same worldview and confess the same hopes and dreams and believe in the same shared human purpose.

Assimilation and conformity in the liberal society is one of the great tasks of the liberal state and its machinery. And it is just as fearful, violent, exploitative, domineering, and destructive as the alternative.

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