Us versus Them

First, Immanuel Wallerstein on nationalism and xenophobia:

the american taxpayers are the jews of Obama's ovens“We may applaud the nationalism of the oppressed as something that is worthy and progressive. We may condemn oppressive nationalism by the strong as unworthy and retrogressive. There is however a third situation in which xenophobic nationalism rears its head. It is that of a state in which the population feels or fears that it is losing strength, is somehow in “decline.”

The sentiment of national decline is inevitably particularly exacerbated in times of great economic difficulty, such as the world finds itself in today. So it is no surprise that such xenophobia has begun to play an increasingly important role in the political life of states around the world.

We see it in the United States, where the so-called Tea Party wants to “take back the country” and “restore America and…her honor.” At the rally in Washington on Aug. 28, the organizer, Glenn Beck, said: “As I look at the problems in our country, quite honestly, I think the hot breath of destruction is breathing on our necks and to fix it politically is a figure that I don’t see anywhere.””

That sense of decline is both cause and consequence of xenophobia. It also neatly divides the world between “us”, the good guys who have not done anything wrong, and “them” (whoever that happens to be) who are responsible for our problems, whether they are Latino immigrants pushing for La Reconquista or Muslims on the path to Jihad.

One of the characteristics of such divisions is they provide vocabularies of motives, that is, ways of explaining what people do. In nationalistic and/or xenophobic vocabularies, in-group members tend to be individualized, especially when they engage in questionable behavior. Perpetrators are seen as mentally disturbed individuals doing bad things for individual / personal motives. That way, patterns of collective behavior never emerges.

Individualization for me, but categorization for thee.

On the other hand, when members of a loathed out-group engage in questionable behavior, that behavior is almost always interpreted through reference back to group membership rather than individual explanations. Muslim criminal activities are always part of a terrorist plot, always part of a global Muslim conspiracy of some sort (the nebulous “global Jihad”). See the case of the Fort Hood mass killer, for instance.


July 2008: A gunman named Jim David Adkisson, agitated at how “liberals” are “destroying America,” walks into a Unitarian Church and opens fire, killing two churchgoers and wounding four others.

October 2008: Two neo-Nazis are arrested in Tennessee in a plot to murder dozens of African-Americans, culminating in the assassination of President Obama.

December 2008: In Belfast, Maine, police discover the makings of a nuclear “dirty bomb” in the basement of a white supremacist shot dead by his wife. The man, who was independently wealthy, reportedly was agitated about the election of President Obama and was crafting a plan to set off the bomb.

January 2009: A white supremacist named Keith Luke embarks on a killing rampage in Brockton, Mass., raping and wounding a black woman and killing her sister, then killing a homeless man before being captured by police as he is en route to a Jewish community center.

February 2009: A Marine named Kody Brittingham is arrested and charged with plotting to assassinate President Obama. Brittingham also collected white-supremacist material.

April 2009: A white supremacist named Richard Poplawski opens fire on three Pittsburgh police officers who come to his house on a domestic-violence call and kills all three, because he believed President Obama intended to take away the guns of white citizens like himself. Poplawski is currently awaiting trial.

April 2009: Another gunman in Okaloosa County, Florida, similarly fearful of Obama’s purported gun-grabbing plans, kills two deputies when they come to arrest him in a domestic-violence matter, then is killed himself in a shootout with police.

May 2009: A “sovereign citizen” named Scott Roeder walks into a church in Topeka, Kansas, and assassinates abortion provider Dr. George Tiller.

June 2009: James Von Brunn opens fire at the Holocaust Museum, killing a security guard.

February 2010: An angry tax protester named Joseph Ray Stack flies an airplane into the building housing IRS offices in Austin, Texas. (Media are reluctant to label this one “domestic terrorism” too.)

March 2010: Seven militiamen from the Hutaree Militia in Michigan and Ohio are arrested and charged with plotting to assassinate local police officers with the intent of sparking a new civil war.

March 2010: An anti-government extremist named John Patrick Bedell walks into the Pentagon and opens fire, wounding two officers before he is himself shot dead.

May 2010: A “sovereign citizen” from Georgia is arrested in Tennessee and charged with plotting the violent takeover of a local county courthouse.

May 2010: A still-unidentified white man walks into a Jacksonville, Fla., mosque and sets it afire, simultaneously setting off a pipe bomb.

May 2010: Two “sovereign citizens” named Jerry and Joe Kane gun down two police officers who pull them over for a traffic violation, and then wound two more officers in a shootout in which both of them are eventually killed.

July 2010: An agitated right-winger and convict named Byron Williams loads up on weapons and drives to the Bay Area intent on attacking the offices of the Tides Foundation and the ACLU, but is intercepted by state patrolmen and engages them in a shootout and armed standoff in which two officers and Williams are wounded.”

And yet, there is never real discussion in the media or in the political sphere of these incidents as a pattern. They are seen as the individual actions of deranged individuals. The point is not that these people were members of one organization and coordinated their attacks. The point is more that there is a social movement (Tea Party) whose members consistently use seditious rhetoric which would not be tolerated from any other groups (especially minorities) and would be condemned and stigmatized. And each individual action is treated as a data point in a pattern.

But coming from members of the dominant group, individual, psychological explanations are treated as sufficient (which kinda exposes the ideological nature of psychology) no matter how many iterations exist. These attacks are not data points but discrete incidents.

Needless to say, individualization tends to minimize a threat whereas categorization amplifies it.

By @SocProf, Global Sociology Blog

  1. 4

    “And yet, there is never real discussion in the media or in the political sphere of these incidents as a pattern.”

    No discussion about the pattern? Haha! Does the word racism ring a bell? White supremacy??.. KKK??.. NAZI- SCHWEIN_HUND ??!!

  2. 6

    @boyke: The tea party klinkt als een hele enge club, maar om dan meteen te zeggen dat de USA nooit “honor” hadden… Ze hadden ooit een goede naam te verliezen, ze zijn die goede naam kwijt, maar ze hadden hem wel.

  3. 9

    @ Minotauros
    Oh please een land dat is opgebouwd dankzij landjepik en slavernij heeft al vanaf het begin geen honor gehad.
    @ Jay, moreel element??? Laat me niet lachen zeg. Er zijn voldoende bewijzen dat Amerikaanse industriëlen geprofiteerd hadden v.d. opbouw van Nazi-Duitsland. Pas toen ze zelf bedreigd werden door de Axis-powers traden ze toe tot de Tweede Wereld oorlog en het is een feit dat Amerika financieel geprofiteerd heeft v.d. Tweede Wereld oorlog, het is geen toeval dat na de 2e W.O. Amerika te voorschijn kwam als een supermacht.
    Voor de yankees it’s all about money.

  4. 10

    @sikbock Of course there is such a thing as white supremacy, KKK, etc. But if you were to watch the US media, you would never think these groups exist.

    so, while every deed done by brown people is seen as part of a jihadist plot, a consistent series of crimes is not seen as white supremacist, anti-government, tea-party type plot.

  5. 11

    @ Socprof; so you say us citizens (and the media) have basically no sence of history.. they all “forgot” about abolitionism, malcolm X, the second world war, the passports of mexican immigrants etc?.. no left wing movement or media in the us?.. sorry, don’t believe you.. fool another sucker

  6. 12

    It isn’t very interesting to discuss to which extend `amplification’ takes place depending on your political motives.
    Given the social framework sketched by SocProf, the more interesting questions are:
    – is to minimize a threat as problematic as to categorize a threat (and thus individualization as problematic as categorization)?
    – Since I expect a positive answer to the previous one: what are the criteria to be justified in an aproperiate amount of ‘categorization’ (and the other side of its medal: ‘individualization’)?

  7. 13

    @sikbock You need to come spend some time over here and what the Fox News Channel, Glenn Beck and the Tea Partiers. They see slavery as a glitch from the past (as opposed to a systemic aspect of early American society), Malcolm X as a dangerous radical, they consider themselves the racially oppressed minority.

    Otherwise explain the success of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck again. They are the new incarnation of the know-nothing, nativist movement of the 19th century.

    Left wing movement? Sure there is one, with close to no access to mainstream media, and largely marginalized.

    Read the reporting on Media Matters for America on a regular basis and you’ll see these trends.

  8. 14


    It is not really a matter of quantity, a single act can be individualized or categorized… depending on how motives are provided.

    It is not entirely in the eyes of the beholder. Investigations can reveal whether a categorization is accurate or not. So, it is not simply a matter of subjective or political judgment.

    It is possible to establish whether a person acted based on membership to an organization, based on incitement by media figures, literature (like Timothy McVeigh and the Turner Diaries).

  9. 15

    It might come as a surprise to you, but if you can find me five broadly syndicated (like say top 20/30-ish nationwide) left wing or just liberal columnists in the US… I’ll buy you a beer.

  10. 16

    @socprof: fox news doesnt appear main stream media to me. Neither does Glenn beck..

    You charge the mainstream media (CBS, ABC, the large newspapers etc. )of nationalism and xenophobia.. thats a step too far.. the news isnt a white “thang” only.. it’s made by ( and for) blacks, latinos etc too.. demand thing you know

    @ Hal: i doubt we’ll be able to agree on the definitions upfront

  11. 17

    @9 Natuurlijk hebben ze geprofiteerd van de wederopbouw van Europa, nogal logisch als je het enige Westerse land bent dat niet in puin ligt (behalve kleintjes Australië en Nieuw-Zeeland). Daarnaast brokkelden de koloniale machten al af, WO2 heeft het alleen versneld. Zo kon Amerika dus de grootste wereldmacht worden.

    Maar de Amerikanen hadden ook heel goed kunnen volstaan met Japan verslaan en vervolgens het op een akkoordje gooien met Duitsland, dat dan de communisten had kunnen vernietigen. Dat hebben ze niet gedaan, onder meer omdat ze destijds zich verplicht voelden de landen met wie ze cultureel en politiek verbonden waren te verdedigen/bevrijden.

  12. 18

    @17: En natuurlijk ook wilden dat de leningen voor het oorlogsmaterieel werd terugbetaald. Bij verlies door de geallieerden konden ze dat ook wel op hun buik schrijven.

  13. 19

    You charge the mainstream media (CBS, ABC, the large newspapers etc. )of nationalism and xenophobia

    No s/he does not. He charges them *with* indifference.

    @su: Onzin. Dit is waar hedendaagse communisten voor mij een beetje eng beginnen te worden.