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Monday, May 27, 2024

Enemies

Enemies

  • Audio Recording by George Hahn

For any species to endure, it must find reward in two things: sex and conflict. The importance of the sex drive is obvious. But if we’re not wired for conflict, we’ll meet the same fate as if we never reproduced. Evolution is a competition for resources, and conflict is inevitable. The ecosystem isn’t much concerned with who plays fair: Everything is prey to something else; conflicts arise over resources, mates, territory, and pride. We either develop a reward system that deftly chooses battles, or we’ll be consumed by a species that does.

Humans are not immune. We evolved hiding in the trees while stronger, faster, and more sharply clawed creatures roamed the savanna. So we developed a robust neurological system for identifying threats, gauging their severity, and responding quickly, often before we’re conscious of the threat level. But fight-or-flight wasn’t enough to shepherd us out of the forests. First we had to develop our superpower: cooperation. The cocktail that’s made us the apex of apex predators is cooperation on the rocks of conflict. Under threat, we become a “band of brothers,” establishing “sisterhood” to “fight the power” and form “one nation, indivisible.”

Love Thy Enemy

This system, however, is always on. It feels bad to be scared, but good to be angry. Especially good when we’re surrounded by others who validate our anger and direct it toward the chosen threat. This dynamic is often referred to as “tribalism,” but that misses the point. Tribes are defined by their enemies. They help us convert danger and anxiety into brotherhood and glory. Spiritual leaders preach we should love our enemies. Evolution teaches us to love having enemies.

Rallying support under the threat of a common foe is an ancient tactic. Historical foes Athens and Sparta united to fight the Persian Empire, and Rome’s rivalry with Carthage is credited with holding its fractious republic together. The U.S. shaped a half-century of foreign policy on countering the threat of communism. Most profoundly, House Stark and the Targaryen forces allied to combat the undead. But I digress.

We love conflict. As General Lee said at Fredericksburg: “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” This is likely even more true today, when technology and culture have severed so many of our traditional bonds and left young people aching for connection and community. According to a recent UNICEF report, “The proportion of people willing to participate in demonstrations has increased to its highest levels since the 1990s, and the number of protests has also risen in this period.”

Know Thy Enemy

Most rivalries are harmless, but they point to a darker tradition. Because we enjoy unity in the face of threat, we seek out enemies, even if we need to manufacture them. Or we let others manufacture them for us. Scapegoating is the go-to in the demagogue’s handbook.

This week, Donald Trump told Time magazine that he would consider deploying the military against immigrants inside the U.S., characterizing undocumented entry as “an invasion.” He claimed that “over the last three weeks, 29,000 people came in from China, and they’re all fighting age, and they’re mostly males.” He’s right that there has been a sharp rise in the number of Chinese immigrants crossing the southern border — thousands have made it to New York, in fact. The New York Times has been documenting their arrival.

But it takes a warped perspective to see enemies among these people, sleeping in bunk beds, working the dangerous/dirty jobs American citizens don’t want. I see my parents, risking everything to find a better life. Also, these new immigrants are our lifeline. They paid $500 billion in taxes in 2021 and made up 22% of all entrepreneurs. Their children are the most fiscally productive cohort in America. Without immigration, we’d be in population decline, which is the surest way to go into recession and lose influence on the global stage.

On Campus

The conflict in Gaza has reverberated throughout U.S. higher education, catching many flat-footed despite predictions that there would be disruption in academia and that DEI would begin eating its tail and turn racist. U.S. universities have an important legacy of protest. However, there’s been a troubling presence of antisemitism in these campus protests. Its extent is disputed and unclear, but it is happening, and history has taught us there is no such thing as “antisemitism light.” While all forms of bigotry are condemnable, antisemitism carries a unique danger due to the long history of setting up Jews as the go-to, manufactured enemy. It’s essential for any group advocating for a cause to actively combat any hateful messages that exploit our primal instincts to identify fake enemies. I believe the greatest threats to America aren’t its true adversaries, but the voices that tell us to hurt others who pose no real danger. The Jewish girl leaving the library to get a manicure is not your mortal enemy. These hateful messages have such power because they trigger our deep enemy-identification system.

We join movements because of their goals, but also, increasingly, because joining makes us feel good. That’s not an insult — joining is the reason we do everything; it triggers our reward system in some way. Camping out on college quads or barricading buildings is a social aphrodisiac. These experiences generate powerful feelings of common identity and give us the intense sense of “belongingness” we crave — especially among young people who lack the same connective tissue earlier generations enjoyed on campus. Covid and identity politics have sequestered and divided students from one another.

And of UCLA

At my alma mater UCLA on Tuesday night, counterprotesters attacked the pro-Palestine encampment and a multihour pitched battle ensued. Little of this has anything to do with the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. There’s an African proverb that if a child does not feel the embrace of the tribe, they will burn it down to feel warmth. I wonder how many of the student protesters are burning the village to feel warmth. When enthusiasm overwhelms reasoned analysis, you find yourself on the steps of your college admin building demanding: “The revolution should be catered.” We should, and will, cut a wide berth for 19-year-olds pushing the boundaries of their intellectual freedom and testing limits. Put another way, they pay us to make mistakes in a safe environment. When their expression, however, impairs another student’s right to a safe college experience, they should be suspended or expelled.

At UCLA, they expel 91% of the (potential) students during the application process. Shouldn’t restricting the access of Jews to campus facilities be on par with not having perfect SATs? Elite universities need to accept, and exit, more students. Finally, there is, in my view, no excuse for any faculty or administrators to disrupt our mission to educate. They have a right to free speech, meaning they cannot be criminally charged for what they say. However, these are adults being paid to do a job, and when they make that job harder for the rest of us, or for the students and their families to even have a commencement ceremony, they should be fired.

Go into the lobby of any organization and start screaming at your fellow employees and setting up a tent in the cafeteria, and see how that turns out. The arrogance and self-aggrandizement of faculty at elite universities, who unilaterally changed their job description to “social engineer,” is obnoxious. You sign the back, not the front, of the college’s checks — do your damn job.

Stupid

UC Berkeley Professor Carlo Cippolla developed a deft construct for identifying the “stupid”: people who hurt others while hurting themselves. We’re all, at different points of our life, stupid. We instinctively turn on our parents (i.e., when we are teens), because it makes it easier to leave the pack, and it’s healthy to question the ways things have been done. “I hate you!” said every teen … at some point. We’re also prone to stupidity and a lack of grace with our spouses and friends. Hate and envy are similar to Wi-Fi: hyperlocal. People who care about us often bear the brunt of our moods and disappointments, which have nothing to do with them. Students on campus who feel animosity for their country, not to mention their fellow students, are hurting others and themselves.

At home, in school, on the job, or in your community, do you register the commitment, goodwill, and love of the people closest to you? Or are you being stupid?

Life is so rich,

P.S. My TED Talk on America’s war on the young was released this week — watch it here

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