I call Norman “The Wizard” for two reasons. The first is that we met forty years ago at a Halloween party where he wore a pointed cone on his head and carried a wand made from a flyswatter festooned with tin foil. And though I have never seen him in that outfit since, the nickname stuck. The second is Norman’s penchant for wrestling with mysteries and unraveling conundrums—usually out loud and often uninvited.
I last ran into Norman in line at the Registration window of the Department of Motor Vehicles three days after the killings in Arizona.
“What’s up, Wizard?” I asked.
Norman ignored my attempt at small talk and launched right into his train of thought. “What we have in Arizona—and just about everywhere else—is a cultural malignancy,” he declared.
I started to respond, but The Wizard just kept right on talking.
“Specifically it is a defect in the mental techniques we use to identify ourselves. Figuring out identities is, of course, one of our most confounding tasks as human beings, but that can’t be used as an excuse. It is my belief that the mechanics of our approach to self identification dictate our outcomes. And when we cut corners and resort to generating identity with a negative arithmetic that concentrates on who we are not, and that ties our sense of ourselves to an other, a Them, who we revile and to whom we are indelibly juxtaposed, we set up a dynamic that inevitably yields victims, often in great numbers. I call it ‘The Curse of Them.’
“When I was a young man in Alabama, Them was black people, who we degraded and then felt better than. During the Fifties Them was communists who we had to stop. Now, Them is like cable tv and there are Thems available in enormous variety across a seemingly infinite spectrum. The culture is flush with such negative objects. That Congresswoman who got shot, for example, was part of Sarah Palin’s Them. The way it works is all the same, whoever is identifying the Them: Our Them is the thing we exist to negate and provides us an easy externalized identity by focusing on who we aren’t and not on the messy internal search for who we are. The mechanics of that process generate enemies and antagonism as automatic byproducts. Once Them is in motion, the only thing you have to add to get to an outcome like Arizona is enough intensity to carry the logic to its end. The form is already constructed. And clearly that assassin had the requisite fuel and absence of inhibition to ignite it. As long as we use this Them approach, it’s a license to do the worst to whoever we think is the worst. So we shouldn’t be surprised when someone does. ”
The Wizard dropped the subject abruptly when his turn at the Registration window came, but when I reached the parking lot, he rolled by in his old pickup truck, unable to quite let it go.
“They say the killer had a mind full of demons,” Norman barked. “Of course he did. The whole country manufactures demons, day in, day out. That’s what The Curse of Them is all about.”
The Wizard is eccentric—to say the least—but by the time I reached the parking lot I’d already decided he had a point. Consider some of the ways Them operates:
Them is one-size-fits-all. Its default setting is “threat” and Them recognizes no detail beyond that. So anyone who is our Them has no individual features, behaviors, or motives. They are only part of a mass to which we have already assigned a character. Everything else is subsumed to their Themness, reducing humanity to large blocks of projection and leaving no way for individuals to break out of that. The first thing we enforce on Them is faceless uniformity.
Them legitimizes cruelty. As our negative counterpoint, Them invokes self preservation, a mode in which no behavior is out of bounds. In this mindset, survival seems to be at stake and, accompanied by the Them’s facelessness, allows us to remain immune from the Them’s pain. Every day people are destroyed or disabled for being someone’s Them, more often than not without a regret or even a second thought.
Them exempts us from assuming responsibility for our actions. Since Them’s only issue is the character of the negative other, Them naturally lays all blame or responsibility off on the object of our distemper. Whatever we do has already been dictated by the character we have ascribed to Them, so we have no need to take ownership of our behavior. The decision to act against our other is compelled by its identity, so whatever we do, it’s all on the Them’s tab, not ours.
Them suppresses self-examination and atrophies morality. When our identity is premised on a threatening other, we lose focus on ourselves and wind up severely short of insight into our own behavior. Without that focus, morality never comes into play except as a standard to be wielded against Them, magnifying our belief that they are wrong and hence, whatever we do to Them is right. Our own morality is preempted. Meanwhile, who we are and how we are behaving is lost in the shuffle.
Them infects whatever it contacts and in so doing, replicates itself. Once a Them is established, more Thems arise in response, and then more Thems and more Thems, like layers of an onion, each with its own explosive charge. They flourish in the expectation of conflict and then assure it.
All of those Them traits generate suffering every day in real time, but, on top of that, they are particularly unsuited for the future we have in store and the adaptations it will require.
Which was The Wizard’s final word on the subject:
He stopped his truck and stuck his head all the way out of his window. “You know,” Norman called back to me, “we have to give it up. There is no way humans survive if we don’t realize that it’s not about Them, and never has been. It’s always about Us. Always has been and always will be.”