Op Ed: America Needs A Good Enemy

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Read Gregory Rodriguez's piece, "What America Needs Is A Good Enemy"

In a piece for the Los Angeles Times, columnist Gregory Rodriguez floats one possible solution to "increasingly vitriolic and even seditious rhetoric." He suggests a threatening external enemy would help unite the U.S.


Time now for the Opinion Page, and we've been talking about vitriolic language and bitter partisan divides. According to Los Angeles Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez, what we need is a common enemy to unite us. And while he does not advocate another 9/11, he says that eight years later, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida don't scare us enough anymore. Do you agree? Do we need a common enemy to unite us? Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Gregory Rodriguez joins us from his office in Los Angeles. Nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. GREGORY RODRIGUEZ (Columnist, Los Angeles Times): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And it's interesting, you talk about the United States as built on, well, some very fundamental principles of, well, democracy and liberty and equality and individualism, yet, you also point out that those are pretty frail reeds to build national identity around?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely. And this is really - this is coming from the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington who essentially argued that as lofty as our ideals - as our internally driven ideals are - and we rally about them and we talk about them and we salute them, democracy, liberty, equality and individualism - that they are rather ephemeral. And they - and really what - throughout American history what we've seen is that it was moments of crises, particularly war time, that brought this disparate, heterogeneous population together. It was really these moments in which - these crucible moments that helped us cohere as one nation over time.

CONAN: The famous example you always hear is that before the Civil War, people would refer to the United States are and then afterwards, that the United States is.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely. Perfect example.

CONAN: And these however cohesive moments come with a price.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: They do. The search for - the search and the need for enemies is a messy - it's a messy thing. We clearly - we had moments in World War II whereby, lets say, Chinese-Americans who had been very discriminated against suddenly became more an integral part of the polity. Mexican-American -African-Americans began in World War II to really be integrated more and really spurred the activity that happened in the post-war years for African-Americans.

But during that time, clearly, that the section, the group of Americans who are identified with the enemy - in this case, Japanese-Americans - obviously felt the brunt of discrimination against them when they were interned. So the search for enemies can create a certain cohesion, but there's always that danger of having the outlying group that's discriminated against. It's a messy process.

CONAN: Of being identified, frankly, as the other.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: As the other. As clearly as the enemy. Mm-hmm.

CONAN: And the Cold War was the longest running example of that. The Cold War of course involved many messy proxy wars, for example, Vietnam and Korea.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely. But again, we forget that the Cold War also helped focus our national interest domestically. You look at the 1956 federal legislation that led to the construction of the modern national highway system. It was called the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act. We look at certain achievements in integration, certain achievement - going to space was done vis-a-vis the Soviet threat that certain - there were certain actions that led to American greatness that were done to counter at - sort of, to distinguish ourselves from the communists, from the Soviets.

CONAN: We know we are not that.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: We know we are not that. We are better than that.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. We're talking with Gregory Rodriguez of the Los Angeles Times. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Dave(ph) is on the line calling from Concord in North Carolina.

DAVE (Caller): Hey. How you doing?

CONAN: Very well. Thank you.

DAVE: I agree that we need to be unified, but I don't necessarily agree that we need to have an enemy per se. I think that we really need to have a goal and the space race was a great goal. When JFK gave his speech about going to the moon and back in 10 years - I have been waiting for a president, for someone to come out and say we need to be energy-efficient within 10 years. And it's a feel-good story, it's going to cost money. But if we could do it, it would be so great for our country.

CONAN: I hate to break it to you, Dave, the last half dozen presidents have all said that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVE: I know. But I'm waiting for some action to be taken on this. And…

CONAN: Well, that's the hard part getting everybody to agree on what the course of action towards that laudable goal is. And I guess one thing that Gregory Rodriguez is saying is nothing quite like a good enemy to focus the mind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVE: Well, perhaps - you know, I do understand that al-Qaida is a grave danger. You know, we're across an ocean now. It's going to be tough for them to get to us. So, I don't know what else to say about that. You know, if we could hold them back in Afghanistan and Pakistan, then I think we're done.

CONAN: All right. Dave, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it. Thanks for thinking along with us, but Gregory Rodriguez, those goals again, they're great goals but they don't gain that huge national drive.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Right. It's really the - accomplishing the goals, it really can gain traction when you're doing it in order to beat someone else.

CONAN: It was a space race.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely. It was a space race. And one of things I do want to clarify is, I mean, we do have enemies out there. And it is the weird, hidden disparate nature of al-Qaida - and Huntington was right about this - that didn't make us huddle quite intently enough, it didn't keep us together, that they weren't a visible enough of an enemy to make us cohere. I mean, I'm politely being tongue-in-cheek in saying we need an enemy because we do have enemies.

CONAN: And we're currently fighting two wars.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely. And we seem to be forgetting that. We're not taking our enemies seriously. It seems to me the level of vitriol now in our politics seems to be suggesting to me that really we're forgetting that we're one people. We're forgetting that in the end if someone strikes us again, that - I hate to think that's the moment that makes us remember that all this vitriol really - is really not the point.

CONAN: You talk about the period before 9/11 back in the Clinton years. Really, there was a great partisan divide there, perhaps not as bitter as it is now. But that we remembered right after 9/11 as, well, I guess, a luxury of peace time.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely. The 9/11 saw Bush's approval ratings go sky high. Support for the president was, you know, upwards of 90 percent. And this is something that Americans have traditionally done. They've rallied around the flag and rallied around the president during times in which we are attacked or feel under attack. So it seems like a particular indulgence or - now that the attacks on the president are - seem so extreme at some level that it seems rather indulgent. It seems like we forget that, in the end, that he is our commander in chief, and it seems like, I hate to think we're going to be reminded in a bad way.

CONAN: Let's go next to Nick(ph). Nick on with us from Providence, Rhode Island.

NICK (Caller): Hi, Neal. I just wanted to totally mention the fact that, you know, this whole totalitarian demagoguery that is running the media, they just simply - they want to instill anxiety. They want to instill the notion that an enemy is around. And, you know, guys like - over at Fox News, like Glenn Beck, you know, this is a guy who has his own portion of the show called the "9/12 Project" that insinuates that people rallied around the flag and became great, big families, like a big nation on the day after September 11th. And he then conceives that in order to progress and have a great nation again, like we had on the day after September 11th, you need to rid yourself of liberalism and progressive agendas.

And, you know, in regards to his remark about Barack Obama being a racist, the interesting thing about this is the fact that, you know, Glenn Beck is a Mormon and the Mormons didn't allow black men to hold the priesthood until 1978. I think he needs to reconsider…

CONAN: Which is ad hominem attack, Nick. And the fact of the matter is Glenn Beck can say that and talk about it, and there are millions who watch him and may believe him. But only about three or four million who talk to him. He's hardly electrifying the public towards a grand, new cause, is he?

NICK: Oh, I completely agree with that. But I think the unhelpful debate is detrimental to actually securing a progressive utilitarian agenda that is conducive to a country that would give people the benefit to live and prosper, which was the goal of the founding fathers.

CONAN: All right. Nick, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

Again, these campaigns in the media, right or left, don't seem to be galvanizing the nation one way or the other but rather pulling it apart, Gregory.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Yes. And I don't recall in my lifetime ever being so struck by the level of hatred. I think we've reach a level of hatred. The email I received in my L.A. Times account this morning was quite shocking. One of them mentioned that he was armed. The level of racial epithets, which I receive, you know, weekly whether I write about, you know, trees in Oregon. The racial vitriol seems to be sort of released or taking advantage of this moment. And again, I don't see how we can get much done given the fires that are burning all over the country.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail from Dave(pg) in Storrs, Connecticut. We have plenty of common enemies: health care, climate change, et cetera. We have just become too armchair partisan, too corrupt and frankly too dumb to converge on pragmatic national responses to our pressing common problems. And I guess that would be the way ahead - without resorting to a common enemy is to form that comment goal. And how do you do that? How do you mobilize the nation?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: I don't think you do. I think we have to be honest about our needs for enemies historically. I don't think - we've never been terribly pragmatic. We've never - the previous caller mentioned utilitarian. This is accomplished through politics. Again, we've mentioned the space race. We've mentioned civil rights and wanting to look good vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. We've mentioned the national highway bill. But the point is is that we need to somehow see ourselves in contradistinction to someone else. And this is being -this is a complicated process.

Huntington, at the end of his life, was casting for enemies in order to get the U.S. to cohere, and he cast an enemy in Mexicans. And in my view, that was wrong. These were not - these are not the enemy. He thought they would divide the United States. But the point is is like we take for granted the strength of the U.S.,. We take for granted the strength of our identity. But when you look very closely, and I think you can feel it right now, it is a fragile identity. And it doesn't simply cohere on the strength of the ideal itself - that it must be - it must define itself in contradistinction to another nation or another ideology - in the term of communism - in order for us to galvanize and move forward in a pragmatic, utilitarian way that these callers seem to want.

CONAN: We're talking with Gregory Rodriguez from the Los Angeles Times on the Opinion Page today. We have a link to his column at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go next to Chuck(ph) in San Francisco.

CHUCK (Caller): Hi. Thanks very much. I think Mr. Rodriguez has kind of put his finger on the junk media formula that was the topic of the first half of the hour, which is, I think, to generate a bunch of anger which is then sort of satisfyingly discharged by some act of - or rhetorical viciousness that's directed at some scapegoat. And as such, I think it's a bit counterproductive.

I think, as a country, we've already got an identity. It's - a lot of the principles the country was founded on, basically, the concept of E Pluribus Unum, that we're - our task and our identity is: How do we make a functional society given the fact that we are made up of many different parts? How do we - how have we resolved things like guaranteeing the rights of minorities? And how have we come up with a system of checks and balances where we don't need to have this kind of xenophobia to unite us? What unites us is our kind of all being in the boat - in this boat together, and we recognize their differences.

CONAN: Well, that's the distinction that Gregory was making earlier, that we are not like the German nation or the French nation or the Indian nation -well, that's a polyglot society, even more so than ours perhaps. But rather, a nation forged by ideas. And I wonder, Gregory Rodriguez, if, in a lot of ways, that's sort of a civic self-knowledge that Chuck is talking about was forged, at least in the American mythology in public school, where we all were equal, and it was in a level playing field.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely. But I'd like to point out that E Pluribus Unum really isn't our identity, it's a tension. I mean, it's a tension that's never really resolved. It's out of many, one. This is the American dilemma, is that we're always trying to figure out how to cohere in our heterogeneity. And so, that phrase was about the initial colonies which became states, but we've always been trying to figure out vis-a-vis racial distinctions or ethnic distinctions. And as you mentioned, yes, there was moments - historical moments and schooling.

I was briefly talking to an editorial board member of a major paper a couple of years ago, and she had mentioned the possibility of coming out against the Pledge of Allegiance because of this controversy over the word God. And I thought that this would be outlandish, that in a state where I am, for instance, there's one in four people are foreign born, that this constant indoctrination of an American unity, in American - what makes us American, seems - it was definitely required. It's something that at during times of high immigration that the indoctrination is actually something that we've needed throughout our history. And we relied on public schools to do that for us.

CHUCK: But can I just say...

CONAN: Very quickly, Chuck. I want to give somebody else a chance.

CHUCK: Okay. I think - I don't think we should give up on this idea. I think we've made an awful lot of progress and I think it works and we should be grateful for that and not give up. We should just make it better.

CONAN: Chuck, thanks very much for the call.

CHUCK: Thank you, very much.

CONAN: Appreciate it. And let's see if we can go next to - this is Tony(ph). Tony with us from Boulder.

TONY (Caller): Yes. Am I on?

CONAN: You are. And I'm afraid I can just give you about 45 seconds.

TONY: Okay. Well, this may seem like a partisan comment, but it seems like when there's a - a Democrat gets elected to office, there's instantly this high level of vitriol, almost rage, almost instantly from the right, whereas when a Democrat comes in the office, it seems like there's a little bit more of a national wait-and-see approach.

CONAN: Well, I think that depends on where you start out looking at that from different points of view because Republicans certainly felt picked upon the last eight years.

TONY: Well, I, oh, I assume - obviously, there's impeach Bush stickers and stuff like that. But it just seems like this - the level of it and the - that doesn't seem to come up as immediately when a Republican's in office.

CONAN: All right. Tony, it sounds like you've got some unity problems there in your own household anyway.

TONY: Oh, I've got some 3-year-olds having their own debate.

CONAN: Well, they will never cohere, so good luck with that…

TONY: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: ...by the way. And Gregory Rodriguez, thank you very much for your time today.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Thanks for having me again.

CONAN: Gregory Rodriguez with us from his office in Los Angeles. We have a link to his column at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tomorrow, amid talk of sanctions, saber-rattling, even air strikes, what are the options on Iran? What do we actually know and how do we know it? That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.

I'm Neal Conan, NPR News, in Washington.

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