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December 25, 2004

Never Smile at a Crocodile II


How to avoid holiday arguments with pro-war relatives, part two

by Dr. Teresa Whitehurst

While we've been seeing a lot of analyses lately regarding the divine-emperor, theocratic identity of George W. Bush, what we now need to understand is how Bush strategists have changed Americans by fashioning a new identity for the Bush/war supporter: obedient/"good" child, faithful/"good" Christian, and popular/"good" patriot.

If you wonder why even thinking about losing this identity is profoundly threatening to the Bushians, just consider the opposite-pole images that spring to mind: disobedient/"bad" child, sinful/"bad" Christian, and unpopular/"bad" patriot.

To keep your sanity when gathered together with your nearest and dearest, accept this unfortunate reality: While you can handle being labeled thus, most people cannot. Americans, with our immigrant heritage and our resultant need to "blend in," are loath to rock the boat. We are the people of the manicured lawns, the ones who are good neighbors and avoid creating "ill will," as my father used to say.

This tendency to "get along" is essential to some degree, but in the extreme it leads to mental blindness and groupthink.

Divinity and Reverence

Opposing the war = opposing George W. Bush, President of Our Great Nation. Please forgive the capitalization, for I'm trying to make a point. There's a religiously tinged reverence for this president, most of which has been manufactured. Some, however, derives from the psychological fallout of Americans' vicarious fall from grace and sense of shame (a fire on which an excited religious right threw gasoline at just the right moment) brought about by the sexual scandal of the Clinton presidency.

Though it seems minor now in light of the tens of thousands of human lives lost because of Bush's wars, we must understand how this situation led to the unblinking support for him. Americans on all sides felt disgust at the Clinton sexual affair, but it would never have created the firestorm it did were it not for its impact (again, inflamed by the radical right) on the average American's identity. From proud citizen to shamed sucker – this was the transition I noticed in people of all political persuasions, and it was exactly what the right-wing strategists were hoping for.

Leaders of the radical right insisted that the sexual scandal, rather than being a stupid act that highlighted one man's sexual immaturity, made us – every American and the entire United States – look bad internationally, deserving of mockery. This caused a massive, ego-threatening upheaval in the American psyche.

Sometimes termed an "identity quake" (Difficult Conversations [1999]), any major threat to our identity ups the ante in any argument or debate. If you disagree with my drinking Coke, I may defend this practice at first but ultimately change my ways after considering your argument that it's too sugary.

But if you disagree with the way I'm parenting my child, red flags will go up because this threatens my very identity – "good parent" – and I'll defend myself until the cows come home. Only if I'm already worried about my child, or especially confident (hence my identity isn't fragile), will I seriously consider what you say.

"I can surrender my opinions if your argument is effective and I'm in a receptive mood, but I'll fight to the death for my identity." This is what antiwar Americans must keep in mind about Bush/war supporters – they may seem indifferent to suffering and uninterested in the facts, but what really prevents them from hearing what you say is fear, the fear of losing their manufactured identity. Everywhere they look, they sense danger – not so much of terrorism, but of straying from the herd and thereby suffering rejection, even hatred, from others.

As I've written before, many Bush supporters are privately troubled by what they're seeing, but thus far, the fear of social rejection is greater. Driving through the South in a relative's car this Thanksgiving gave me firsthand experience of the seductive pull of being in the majority. Accustomed as I am to being honked at and tailgated and sped past by drivers who've seen my antiwar bumper sticker, it was an eerie delight to drive a huge Buick adorned with American flags instead.

On that long trip, I felt accepted by all (the few Kerry/Edwards cars were driven by people who looked too depressed to drive recklessly, and paid me no heed). I was treated with the kind of civility I remember from pre-Bush days. It was nice, it was a relief, it was … tempting.

Identity Imagery

A pillar of the Bush/war supporter's identity is what I call "identity imagery." When we who are antiwar think of the phrase "War on Terror" or the word "Iraq," non-identity fact-based images flood our minds: photos of bombed hospitals, infant corpses, bloodied soldiers, and weeping relatives. Say the very same words to a Bush supporter, and he or she will see images of identity: President Bush praying in church or speaking to his troops in military garb, and themselves – the "true" patriotic, Christian Americans – standing up for a victimized but noble nation.

For someone who sees the latter images – which anyone relying on mainstream news and commentary naturally will – hearing your arguments against the war will conjure up the opposite images: unpatriotic, un-Christian, unpopular, and – this is critical – unsafe. Right now the terrorist threat is mainly "over there," but the threat of social ostracism or worse is right here, so it is far more influential on American opinion.

When I say "worse," understand that we've already seen what happens to antiwar protesters, singers, and actors who dare criticize their Leader, even Catholic nuns who nonviolently oppose his wars. To assume that Bush supporters don't fear reprisals is a grave error; they, more than anyone, worry about what might happen to them if they raise even one eyebrow at their president's reckless domestic and foreign policies.

Antiwar people are a hearty lot, and though we feel stressed, lonely, and even frightened at times, we keep on truckin'. Most people wouldn't keep themselves out on that limb – it's cold, lonely, and sometimes dangerous.

Last winter, for instance, someone punctured my tire while I was eating at Cracker Barrel (yes, this antiwar activist is a Southerner). A few miles down the interstate at the mechanic's, I gazed at the brand new tire now deflated with one clean puncture hole. I realized why those good ol' boys standing by their pickup truck had stopped laughing when they saw me and my daughter get in our car with its antiwar bumper stickers. They probably regretted their stunt when they saw whose car they'd vandalized.

When tempted to argue with a Bush supporter, particularly a relative, we are wise to remember that people will surrender their opinions, but not their identities. The "Bush/Christian/war supporter" identity is currently threatened by a cascade of bad news from Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, so defenses are up and tempers are short. Just because they're family members who'll smile and hug you as you open presents or sit down to dinner doesn't mean they'll risk their identities by listening to antiwar/anti-Bush arguments.

Maybe later, but maybe never; the press shows no sign of stopping the identity propaganda. You may be tempted to try to reverse their support of violence and war by reciting the facts or appealing to human compassion; resist that urge, unless you enjoy futile arguments with your pumpkin pie.

It's possible that you'll find a Bush/war supporter who's (1) curious and wants to know all the facts, and (2) is sufficiently confident to hear alternative views. In such cases, perhaps you can alert them to alternative media such as Antiwar.com (I don't mean to advertise, but this site has opened the minds of even die-hard Rush Limbaugh fans, a remarkable feat).

But I wouldn't recommend any attempt to win hearts and minds this winter; a tipping point is coming, but it isn't close enough to ensure a receptive audience for your arguments or appeals. If you're a religious person, you can pray that Christian Americans will begin to see through the artificial religious-patriot identity that's been foisted on them and reclaim their own identities, their real values.

And you can pray for yourself – it's painful being in the minority, especially when your heart is burdened by the tragedies of war and follies of imperial theology. For the sake of your own sanity, safety, and a pleasant holiday season, my suggestion is to heed this sage advice:

"You may very well be well bred,

Lots of etiquette in your head,

But there's always some special case, time or place

To forget etiquette.

For instance:

Never smile at a crocodile.

No, you can't get friendly with a crocodile.

Don't be taken in by his welcome grin,

He's imagining how well you'd fit within his skin."

- "Never Smile at a Crocodile," from the musical Peter Pan.


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Dr. Teresa Whitehurst is a clinical psychologist, author of Jesus on Parenting(2004) and coauthor of The Nonviolent Christian Parent (2004). She offers parenting workshops, holds discussion groups on Nonviolent Christianity, and writes the column, "Democracy, Faith and Values: Because You Shouldn’t Have to Choose Just One." Visit her website.

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