Our slurs range from the racist — Gooks, Rag Heads, Orientals — to the socially-acceptable-but-coded – Welfare Mothers, Elites, Wingnuts, Queens, Fags, Hippies. Sometimes they lose favor and a few decades later are reclaimed by those they identify — Queers, Niggers, Punks — out of defiance, through justice, through social awareness. But what continues is our endless need to name those we wish to keep on the outside, those we want something from. It’s a short hand, more often than not used by those with power to name their target, imbued with a two-way violence. Minorities become perpetrators, the most inhumane actions of a few are used to represent the entire group. If we create enough fear, if we show the damage that they can do to our children, our culture, our aspirations, our possessions, our way of life, we can claim that we are vulnerable and therefor justified in using violence against them. But this is an old story, a semantic trick, obvious as the genocides and systemic inequalities in our human history, and powerful as any nation state with ambition.
Last Wednesday both the New York Daily News and the New York Post had horrifying cover images that showed us “the other”: young men with guns on motor bikes dragging a half-naked, dead body through the dirty streets of Gaza. In one-inch letters the headlines told us what we were seeing: SAVAGES. We were told that this is what justice, Hamas-style, looks like. We were asked to wonder what they would do to us if this is what they do to their own. Those Palestinians. Those Arabs. Those Muslims. Those Terrorists.
America’s first Savages were Native Americans. They were less than human, we told ourselves, killers who lived and died to destroy pioneers, priests and gold-seekers. They were unclean, uncivilized and backwards, still feral. Our only obstacle to “the territory ahead,” to our budding nation’s future and prosperity. Native Americans became part of our narrative, our motivation. We needed them to prove our resilience, our tenacity. Overcoming them was our nation’s first coming-of-age success story. Our Savages made this nation strong and great. Our most recent Savages, as Pamela Geller reminded us with subway posters in September, are those who oppose the Israeli government.
These Savages too are feral, dirty, poor, violent and hateful. They drag their own dead through the streets. They are a threat to the only “democratic nation” in the Middle East. The violence of this identifier, Savage, is also two-way: Muslims/Palestinians/Arabs are a threat to westernization and modernization, to the American and Christian and Jewish way of life. And Israel, our closest ally, is their victim, we’re told. September 11 proves that we are their victim too. “Savage” justifies our own violence, our wars, our drones. It makes victims of us, the well-armed, the rich, the occupiers, in order to excuse our violence. It reminds us that we have only one choice. We must crush them. The power of calling a group, however unclearly defined, “Savage” is in the way it collapses all nuance, history, privilege, and motivation into one clear delineation. We’re the good guys. They’re our enemy, our racial slur, they’re our Savages.
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