Wednesday, June 18, 2008


[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.


Anonymous said...

That "irrational requirements make a much stronger test" is a compelling argument. It is simple, seems accurate in a quick survey. Works for me. However, IMHO, there's a nameless fallacy here — you're providing a reasonable explanation for unreasonable behavior.

The "real" reason nomadic tribespeople gathered together is tied directly to survival. That they survived is self evident, that they attribute this survival to kinds of meat eaten or not is their prerogative but it is, again IMHO, an unreasonable observation.

Easier example is the flag lapel pin as a cultural marker and identifier. Given that many of the flag lapel pin class cannot be compelled to testify honestly about their official actions because of constitutional protections, it makes sense they settle on some meaningless and innocent symbol of their bond. Beats "Mission Accomplished".

James Killus said...

I'd offer that it's more a case of rationally analyzing irrational behavior. That such an analysis is possible doesn't, as you point out, make the behavior any less irrational, but it might give us rational types more of a handle on how to deal with it. If nothing else, it might reduce the frustration level.

Flag pins are an interesting counter to American exceptionalism, except of course it isn't. Once can tell a flag waver that many nations have flags they revere, but, of course, it's only the one (exceptional) flag they're interested in.

J Thomas said...

If I didn't know the password already and I had to answer a World Series question, they'd shoot me.

It's that way more and more in america, we're increasingly fragmented.

"What song did the Beatles do right after 'Michelle'?"

Who knows? Who cares?

Of course you want a password that nobody will know unless somebody who knew it told them.

How you approach an american checkpoint when you don't know the password, is you exclaim "Oh, I'm so fucked!" and they don't shoot right away. You get the chance to tell them you don't know the password and you want in, and they listen to your story and decide something.
Here's somebody in iraq. They had checkpoints separating the sunni and the shia sides of town, and they caught a girl crossing at night -- she seemed to be about 13. They brought her in and the iraqi occupation leader started to interrogate her in front of the americans. "I can't talk in front of them! Give me some privacy!" He took her aside and he came back grinning. She had been to see her sunni boyfriend and got caught by the curfew and now she was so embarrassed! Please don't tell her father. So they let her go.

Who should you use as a courier? Obviously, a girl who's young enough she has a chance the soldiers won't rape her, and just barely old enough to tell them how embarrassed she is. It works!

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