Them

My brother took me to see “Them!” when I was 6 years old.  It was horrifying and left me with nightmares for several days.  I doubted that anything could be more frightening until he took me to see the “The Body Snatchers” (the original black and white version: not the gory remake). That movie gave me nightmares for months.  By the time I was 30 years old, horror movies did not affect me so deeply, but at that point in my life I started watching the nightly news and discovered what real terror was like.

For those too young to remember “Them!,” suffice it to say that it was a movie about unintended consequences of nuclear testing.  Ants (yes, the insects) exposed to radiation associated with atomic bomb tests in the southwest desert mutated to huge and inexplicably irritable pests. This vermin assaulted unsuspecting humans who stumbled into their home range and injected them with acid. In a sense this was informative, as well as worrisome. Most humans never learn that ants can weaponize their bites with a little formic (from the Latin word for ant: formis) acid. The other enduring lesson I took away from this low budget movie was that we refer to the filthy, annoying, implacable, dangerous enemy as “them.” The “we” that opposed “them” were the defenders of civilization.  By the end of the movie, clever people learned how to eradicate the threat to their habitat and learned a valuable lesson about the need to watch for and guard against changes in their surroundings.

To a 6 year old, this was very novel and entertaining stuff. While being scared out of my wits by these morbidly obese bugs, I learned about radioactivity, insect venoms, atomic bombs, and the southwestern U.S. (Yes, I do know that ants are not ‘bugs,’ a term reserved for beetles). What proved not so novel or entertaining was the adoption decades later of the terms ‘us’ and ‘them’ in social and political discourse.  I suspect that the designation of people outside the most well-armed social circle as the enemy has occurred since the first boatload of Europeans hit the beachheads of the Americas and fired their guns into the curiosity seekers on the beach. This made it no less alarming to hear Americans with a platform and power refer to their fellow citizens as ‘them’ in a struggle that unequivocally pitted ‘us’ against ‘them.’

Many talk show hosts on politically subsidized programs have long insinuated that it was the “white man’s burden” to protect “Western civilization” from the great unwashed who would overwhelm and debauch our pristine soil if they were not held in check by legal or extra-legal measures. Unfortunately, these subtle proposals for discriminatory practices have mutated into venomous monsters in recent years. Those promoting this distinction between us and them appear to have surfaced out of their well-hidden nests and spewed acid on the ever-delicate fabric of society.

These self-proclaimed defenders of civilization are no longer speaking cryptically.  They have stepped forward and proclaimed new imperatives.  To protect democracy, they have announced dozens of measures making it more difficult to vote. To promote our humane ideals, they celebrate the forced separation of children from their parents.  To ensure peace and tranquility in our communities, they demand that those designated to protect and serve all of us are allowed to serve and protect only some of us some of the time. None of the claims and solutions proposed are new, and that makes them all the more tiresome. When I was 6 years old, I learned in the Pledge of Allegiance that I recited every day before class started that there was a promise of “liberty and justice for all.”   Although that pledge has been slightly revised since I started grammar school, Google says that part about liberty and justice for all is still in there.

I wonder if those who advocate defending civilization against invaders have any idea of how the human condition has advanced over millennia to the point where life expectancy is more than a few decades, where a fever is not a death sentence, where the strength of a hundred people can be generated by a device smaller than a single person, where we can predict the position of a rock millions of miles away hundreds of years in the future. These things and millions more have been achieved by the genius and efforts of people from every culture and location on the planet.  The ancient peoples of Cambodia and Central America came up with the zero, one of mathematics most useful concepts.  Arabs invented the numeric system we use.  Africans advanced metallurgy.  The Chinese invented paper. Scandinavians, Poles, and Italians transformed the study of the heavens from the superstitions of astrology to the physics of astronomy.  What we recognize as civilization was and is the continuing product of people working for better lives all over the world. Civilization is neither Western nor Eastern, Northern nor Southern. It is the sum of positive achievements by all people.

It is worth remembering that Western societies have not always moved our species into the light.  We cannot ignore the Inquisition, the genocides, the pogroms, the Holocaust, but we can certainly learn to avoid these horrific missteps. Too often these self-destructive programs have grown out of special interests looking to advance their own agendas without regard for the pain inflicted on their fellows.  Exclusion and persecution have never benefited a people or a nation over the long term.

Dividing our nation into them and us is misleading and destructive.  It implies that the Declaration of Independence needs to be revised to state that “All men (and women) are created equal, but some are more equal than others.” It endorses a hierarchy that will evolve into a caste system. It allows democracy to degenerate into autocracy.

Some may argue that for many creatures, including ants, rigid hierarchies are effective in assuring the survival of the species. The ‘us’ versus ‘them’ arrangement is good for those on the side with more power and resources. Intruders, nonconformists, eccentrics, blasphemers, innovators can be suppressed or exterminated. Deny ‘them’ their voice and opportunity, and ‘we’ can preserve the status quo. Of course, maintaining the status quo is exhausting and inevitably fails in human societies. We, the people, can either progress or degenerate, but we cannot stand still.  If we allow our society to become a contest between us and them, we shall find all of us living like ants, hunkered down in our intellectual bunkers, weaponizing our spit, hoping we do not get stepped on.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.

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