[I realized in a previous essay that I hadn't reposted this essay from my newsgroup, and it's germaine to many things, so here it is].
Was there ever really a World War II movie where the sentry asked the guy coming up to name the team that won the American League Pennant in 1940? (Ha! Bet you said the Yankees! But actually the Detroit Tigers won it, the only break in what would otherwise have been an eight-year streak for the Yankees). There must have been some movies where that sort of thing happened, but I’ll be damned if I can think of one offhand.
Anyway, you can see the danger in that sort of password. All the enemy needs is a knowledge of American baseball, and you’re screwed. Real passwords need to be arbitrary, hard to guess, like swordfish, or taiyo kamuri.
We may be hard-wired to have a sense of “us” and “them.” There have been news stories that reported on the “implicit bias” tests that I mentioned in an earlier post as demonstrating that people are “naturally” racist. That argument fails both because those tests show the effects of learning, and also because “natural” doesn’t mean “inevitable” or “good.” That last part applies to any “us-ness” and “them-ness” as well. We may perceive such things as part of our basic functions; what we do with those perceptions is something else again.
How we decide who is “us” and who “they” are also matters. Sometimes it’s appearance, certainly. At other times it’s dress, language or dialect, behavior, or abstract notions like nationality and religion. When the demarcation gets abstract, as it is in things like religion or political faction, what then? What is the litmus test?
Let me suggest that, like the password during wartime, the way to tell us from them needs to be something that can’t be simply guessed by being rational; irrational requirements make a much stronger test. So the crucial test becomes adhering to some behavior that looks at least a bit weird to an outsider. You can eat meat, just not meat from “unclean” animals. Or you have to pray a certain number of times a day, facing a particular direction. Or you’re not allowed to dance, or sing to musical accompaniment. Or you have to believe that some well-respected scientific theory is a hoax.
Obviously, the more irrational the behavior, the greater the cost of belonging. Paradoxically (but in accord with human psychology), this enhances the perceived value to the believer.
Fortunately, irrationality isn’t the only thing that’s hard to guess. Experience itself isn’t rational, it’s non-rational, so shared experience can bind a group together as tightly as a hunting band or jazz combo. The shared experiences don’t require direct interaction amongst those who share them, either (although obviously such interaction intensifies the connections). It’s often quite enough to have seen the same sights, felt the same emotions, to make you one of “us.”
So we come full circle back to popular culture. There are a lot of folks writing in the blogosphere, who, whatever their primary interest, suddenly stop to post an iPod playlist. For the past several generations, music has been a crucial part of the shared experience, a way of affirming that, yes, we do all share some common ground.
When Ben first loaned me his iPod shuffle, I loaded it up with T-Bone Burnett’s The Criminal under My Own Hat, Chris Isaak’s Speak of the Devil, the CD from the Dylan No Direction Home documentary, INXS, Welcome to Wherever You Are, The Chieftains, Long Black Veil, and a CD called The Heart of the Forest, music of the Baka people of Camaroon. The rest of it mostly came from a mix CD I made a couple of years ago. I've written previously about the art of the segue, and setting the thing to shuffle sounds like a radio show that my people would like to hear, and would feel like they belong wherever it played.