Separate languages now divide warring American tribes, setting violent might against law and justice
What does the absurd, history-distorting Tower of Babel fable say about current politics? Quite a lot—more than equally naive Biblical myths, namely the Garden of Eden (with a bantering, legalistic snake) or the divine flood to punish “sinful” terrestrial life (but not thriving sea creatures). What the moralistic “separate language/dispersion” Babel sermon depicts is how human presumption ends up igniting the rich weave of linguistic, religious and cultural diversity. Talk about unintended consequences—“pride” fosters the cornucopia by which different, imaginative folks make sense of existence.
Resolving the current political babble, inevitable when two tribes “talk different languages,” is exactly what faces America. And the urgent question: Can the roughly two-thirds majority plausibly communicate with the one-third of implacable Trumpist radicals? Trumpism had its chance and the latest outrages close down the exchange. Despite needlessly losing one election after another, the preposterous Big Lie, a criminal insurrection, the crushing Jan. 6 Committee Report—and legal indictments in process—the fanatical cult of loyalists can’t escape its echo chamber, despite undermining its own interests. There are more Never Trumpers than ever.
Babel speaks to the disintegration (and tensions) that follows when communication stops cold. How many here would spend five minutes with Marjorie Taylor Greene without throwing up our arms (or our lunch), getting wacko nonsense whatever we ask? Arguably, the linguistic gap is worsening, in great part thanks to increasingly desperate House media addicts, fraudulent predators, and agents of dim billionaires who dismiss how government (and bad laws) serve their profits, even greater market domination.
Despite the weak plot logic, the culturally-regressive message of the Babel outcome speaks to what I consider our greatest political dilemma: irrational resistance to diversity, integration, compromise and tolerance. Opposition to expansion of diverse voices and perspectives absolutely key to American prosperity – confirms the authoritarian right as not just an obvious enemy of democratic elections but a weapon of mass disruption. In their twisted, racialized world, “white is right” and superior Christian Americans “are entitled” to dominate lesser beings, so often with darker skins and foreign ways remote from northern Europe. Insularity, resistant to new ideas, is self-fulfilling and dangerous.
Disruptions unearth unfinished tasks
The (faux) Nativism Uber Alles brigade does, however, bring into focus various unfinished tasks, buttressed by artificial distinctions related to racial tribalism, immigration, ethnicity, religion, culture, history, depraved control manias, and repugnance against “the threatening other.” A once more unified community (and America’s never lacked tribal and class divisions) now splits into Us vs Them, impacting who’s a true citizen, who controls policing, who defines which rights matter, and who gets decent food, education, housing and job prospects. Once upon a time we celebrated the idea of meritocracy independent of creed, still favored by most Dems and the left. But if insurgents oppose core values and use different languages (the religious vs. the secular, the instinctive vs. the scientific), we end up with today: Two alienated groups who cannot communicate, certainly not discuss in good faith whether open perspectives (data- and law-driven) offer many more benefits than variations of the old-time religion that forever “knows better.”
The past month confirms another interval of amplified divisiveness as stunts, mayhem, malignity and crude symbolism propel the dysfunctional House circus. All but extremists have little choice but to observe the temper tantrums until depleted by their own exhaustion or economic/political chaos, whichever comes first. Really, a concocted lose-lose debt debacle a year before a big election? That will only drive ‘24 voters to again punish the Party of Chaos, dispatching today’s thuggish House leadership because that’s the only option with a chance to keep the legal, rational, democratic train on track.
The tribal/moral/legal divide explodes as a twice-impeached, indicted criminal candidate still heads the GOP (Gumption Over Probity)—a singularity that promises to permanently taint the party. What is it about the Big Lie, let alone inciting an unconstitutional insurrection, that escapes the deranged, Trumpist base but instills in everyone else frightful horror? Two cultures now speak different languages and, as trust dissipates, neither is especially tolerant of the other’s “threat to America.” There is no equivalence implied: one side undermines democratic majority rule and the other stands by it.
Today’s unspeakable American tragedy isn’t only how far we’ve moved from the “melting pot” ideal but how forced, media-driven hostility is removing the minimums for governance necessary to sustain one nation. When I grew up in the 20th C, greater socio-economic mobility lifted more boats—and my relative comfort speaks to a poor, immigrant family arriving a century ago, doing much better here than in eastern Europe. Now money, property and class are so desperate to cement positions, the rich enforce a primitive gamesmanship by which (per Trump) winners gain only when someone else loses. Hard to achieve any sort of equality with this merciless law of the jungle face-off.
The “losers” in the Babel fable were all made instant migrants. Since they couldn’t communicate and finish building a presumptuous stairway to heaven (or protection against another epic flood), the estranged had to pack up and leave for parts unknown. An angry God caused this exile because the people that mattered to Biblical scribes had gotten too big for their britches. Obviously, parochial, moral-hunting scribes hadn’t a clue about the immense age of the earth, nor how tribes and real languages developed—in great part to SEPARATE from dubious, threatening neighbors beyond borders. We have a parallel geographic, racial and income-style exile reified by firm red and blue states.
The infinite treasures of diversity
But what an insult the Babel propaganda is to human brain power, implying no ability to learn new languages. The Babel babble makes diversity a moral and intellectual punishment, rather than a multiple positive. In fact, both old-time and modern imperial powers spoke and communicated in various languages (e.g. Greek, Roman, Persian, India, Chinese, Soviet and American empires). Cultural differences do NOT wholly explain an overheated climate, economic inequality, infrastructure demise, unjust taxation, even mass murder or police brutality. Racial victims here abused and beaten to death aren’t killed because they can’t talk English, just unluckily become scapegoats for brutal primitives.
Immoral, even outrageous genocide results not simply from “failed communication” but inadequate education, playing on flaws of human nature. As always, our species wobbles between our nobler, compassionate, community aspects (think Jesus and enlightened religions plus the New Deal and good government) vs. our fearful, greedy, desperate, violence-prone impulses. When riding our better angels, America the immigrant nexus is the opposite to Babel—a stirring demonstration of the inestimable gains when diversity coalesces to elevate prospects for the many, not the few. Not all was altruism: ambitious owners for two centuries needed cheap labor—and still do.
That’s what good government is designed to do—protect the rights of the less privileged, equalize the playing field with universal education while battling discrimination. So leftist language on procreation talks about rights and uses medical (not Biblical) terminology, keeping the state at arm’s length. Like other (once) confirmed freedoms, abortion rights mirror the commitment to individual control based on “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Is this rocket science?
The right-wing is the radical and reactionary gang, and its unforgiving, demonizing language judges opponents as unworthy of equality, or basic rights, thus mandating correction via authoritarian takeovers. The language of the right, though English, displays contempt for reason, science, expertise, and workable traditions like certified election results even when they offend losers. In short, the minority right wants unwarranted control over all citizens, a manifest heresy in a democracy. Anti-democratic moves follow the language of disenfranchisement wherein all citizens “are not created equal,” especially poorer, non-white minorities with fewer resources.
As usual, righteous upstarts invoke their partisan notion of “God” (however undefinable and unprovable) as forever on their side. The language of faith-alone fundamentalists reflect a contentious tribe looking to internal feelings and distorted Biblical authority, not reason, evidence, parity, the Four Freedoms, or historical consensus. By such faith alone “logic,” authoritarians everywhere justify any means to gain their unquestioned absolutes.
The old story: Will it be might or justice?
When the end is messianic, imperial, “destiny” or God’s will—human fabrications made into commandments—all civilized bets are off. What is Ukraine but Russian invaders trying to oppress tribal cousins who won’t bend to Kremlin dictates. Ukraine in part replays centuries of religious/cultural European wars in which secondary disagreements justified militarism to secure the “universal” ruling dogma. Only religion (and closed state belief systems) make opposition a death sentence (though so many then were “Christians” and none denied the divinity of Jesus). In fact, warring Protestants and Catholics often spoke the same languages, with Latin the common mode.
America itself was one constructive answer to centuries of European turmoil wherein the many were to rule (the majority), divine rights of kings were out, and statutory law trumped the insurgencies of power politics where violent might is right. Today, most non-militant, non-fanatics think waiting out the MAGA temper tantrums is enough, but we are still in the middle, not near the end.
In fact, we don’t only have a “language problem” but a political and legal one: the incredible delay in charging obvious criminals only encourages the radical disruption, as the outlaws scoff at justice. That only encourages the rebels to think they’re making progress in their holy war to “destroy the state in order to save it.” That bad logic didn’t work in Vietnam on a village and by all historical patterns in western democracies will fail again. The finale is less in question for this relative optimist than the nature and extent of the damage being done – and the permanent cost and hardship of fixing what’s today an open wound but, if we survive, one day will be a painfully remembered scar.