Racism in the US, and Religion in the Middle East

Some of us have worked ourselves into a lather over display of the Confederate flag and related issues. The problem is not the Civil War, which ended a hundred and fifty years ago, it is racism.

It’s getting harder and harder to tell a Yankee from a southerner these days, but a black person still stands out because of skin color. Racial differences are harder to forget about than most of the other differences that divide us because of their visibility. Any idiot can tell black from white, while the differences between gays and straights, or Republicans and Democrats for that matter, are harder to spot. But does that mean we have to wait for our descendants to mix things up till we’re all light coffee color before we get over that most ancient of human hangups? I hope not, for if so it will be a pretty long wait.

The real racists are on the run these days. And rightly so, for they are not only out of touch with modern times, they are out of touch with our increasing understanding about what it means to be human. They are not yet completely defanged as the recent shootings show but most of us are thoroughly ashamed of these atavistic reminders of a sordid past. We compete with each other as to who can show the most outrage. It’s all very commendable but not very sensible, not until we translate that outrage into something practical like more effective gun control.

I look at the situation here and cannot help comparing it to the Sunni-Shia split in the Middle East. The antagonists there look like each other so at least in theory they should have an easier time finding some more tolerable way of getting along with each other. And yet they keep on killing each other by the hundreds and impoverishing each other by the millions, with no end in sight.

If there is a common denominator here it is neither race nor religion but something deeper. I believe that factor resides in a past history of a social system that involved a master class and a class of serfs. This applies to conflict areas in the Middle East today and the pattern is not all that unlike the one that existed in our South a century and a half ago. Shia run Iran today but that is a relatively recent thing historically, since Sunnis were running the place until Shakespeare’s time. The Sunni suffered on in South Lebanon as a depressed underclass for many centuries until quite recently, when they morphed into a major political party, and of course Hezbollah. The Shia population in southern Iraq developed its own culture based on the marshlands there, which the Sunni up north destroyed when they drained the swamps; Sunnis dominated Iraq till we came along. The Houthi in Yemen and the Alawites in Syria were Shia who holed up in mountain fastnesses to escape Sunni dominance while they developed their own distinctive brands of their religion.

You break an established social system based on master-serf relations and it takes a long time to replace it with something stable, for it involves attitudes that cut even closer to home than which church you go to or which party you vote for.

What to do? That’s up to you. My job is diagnosis, prescription is for you to work out.

Carl Coon 6/29/15

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