Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The brothers Tsarnaev and the end of ‘Other’

THE FALLOUT from the Boston Marathon bombings has led to an often inane but sometimes enlightening debate over the ethnicity of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the two suspects in the bombings, and how that ethnicity either dovetails or collides with longstanding American tropes of race, religion and American identity. Ironically, the urgency of the debate — centered on whether or not the Tsarnaevs are white — says more about those asking the question than anyone else.

Cutting to the chase in the debate, Peter Beinart nails it in a great piece at The Daily Beast today:

“[T]he bombers were white Americans. The Tsarnaev brothers had lived in the United States for more than a decade. Dzhokhar was a U.S. citizen. Tamerlan was a legal permanent resident in the process of applying for citizenship. And as countless commentators have noted, the Tsarnaevs hail from the Caucasus, and are therefore, literally, ‘Caucasian.’ You can’t get whiter than that.”

The disconnect? Beinert notes the obvious (or that which is obvious when we decide to talk about it): “[I]n public conversation in America today, “Islam” is a racial term. Being Muslim doesn’t just mean not being Christian or Jewish. It means not being white.”

The fact of the Tsarnaev brothers’ identity as Muslims, coupled with their previous ordinariness while living in America, has thrown a monkey wrench in the social machinery that has in modern times linked Muslims with “dark-skinned” people. The Other.

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Historically, as Beinert makes clear at length, the sense of Otherness in the United States required an enforced social and judicial separation from the mainstream, one that decades of acculturation and stasis have made hard to counteract.

After 9/11 scarred the nation’s psyche, that sense of Otherness was effectively codified in, among other things, a variety of airport screening regulations that targeted Muslims for extra attention, policies that made one’s faith subject to probable cause.

The matter of Muslims’ complexion, reinforced in reality and by operational government policy if not in actual word, was addressed by the informal catch-all description of dark-skinned males — those from Middle Eastern countries and Africa. By the official if unwritten calculus, Muslim = dark-skinned; certainly since 9/11, one has always equaled the other. That conflation of religion and color is a poison that’s been trickling into the wider American culture ever since.

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AND NOW in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, as evidenced by the onslaught of rage on conservative TV media, the solution for conservatives seems to be nothing less than war on Muslims. And that’s where the brothers Tsarnaev come in to complicate everything. They make the conservatives’ rhetorical attacks on the Muslim faith more problematic.

Why? Because the Tsarnaevs don’t fit the mold. They’re not the Muslims from the Central Casting Dept. of the national imagination. They reflect the immigrant experience we don’t talk about, the one lived by people who’ve absorbed the same cultural messaging, mastered the same societal referents, expressed the same recognition of our mores and values, as everyone else in this country.

The meme of Otherness requires a space, a  distance between itself and the majority culture, a distance that the Tsarnaevs’ past and deeply American lives have obliterated. Because of their example, that Muslim = dark-skinned equation may not be so easily arrived at anymore.

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“At base,” Beinert observes, “the reason it’s so hard for people to accept that the Tsarnaevs are white is because, since America’s founding, being white has meant, both culturally and legally, being “one of us.” And since 9/11, in particular, being Muslim has meant the opposite. As a light-skinned Muslim, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev straddles that divide.

“But he straddles it in other ways, too. He was a pothead, a devotee of hip-hop, a lifeguard, a high-school wrestler, an aspiring dentist. And yet he became, it appears, a murderer on behalf of a fanatical species of Islam. He’s a type that has reappeared again and again in our history, from every faith and in every shade: an American at war with America, both intimately familiar and frighteningly alien at the same time.”

The story of the Tsarnaev brothers gets more ethnographically fascinating every day; as this thing unfolds, what’ll be just as interesting to watch is how our commentariat culture gets its head around this de-conflation of religion and ethnicity. The Tsarnaev brothers may well have signaled loudly, and tragically, what’s been evolving in the national life for decades, percolating in a hundred million interactions every day:

Thanks to the elastic personal latitudes of religion, the evolution of our information technology, the evolution of our national population, and the breadth of our popular culture, the box marked “Other” no longer obtains. For all practical purposes, the “Other” that’s the construct of majority society no longer exists. Any such convenient labels, describing those who didn’t fit the contours of the national demographic typology, outlived what pretended to be their usefulness a long time ago.

The Other in America is now what it’s always been: the Us we never acknowledged.

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