Ben Hsu

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Pick Your Side

“You’re either with US or against US,” has been a popular phrase for longer than most of us care to remember. And why not? It’s short, catchy, and readily fools you into thinking the speaker has completely summed up the issues at hand. I first encountered the above variant of the phrase (with the word ‘us’ replaced with a capitalized ‘US’ to signify the United States of America) during 1990, in response to the Gulf War. At the time, 8 (or possibly 9) year old me thought the phrase was the height of wit, a simple substitution of letters filled me with such jingoistic pride I hardly knew what to do with myself. I’ve long since lost that pride (thank goodness) and now that I’ve got some distance from upper-middle class suburbia I can see the insidiousness of so proudly declaring, “you’re either with us or against us.”

Part of the awfulness of such a phrase is that it forces a lens on reality that tricks reader (or listener) into thinking that there are only two states of existence: ‘us’ and ‘not us.’ While this kind of thinking is technically true, it’s also completely idiotic when applied to the real world. Try the phrase with anything else and the whole idea quickly falls apart. You’re either a lawyer or not a lawyer. Technically a true phrase. But outside of looking for someone to give you good legal advice, viewing the world as lawyer/not-lawyer is absurd. The word ‘against’ changes the phrase from, ‘technically true but useless’ to ‘not even technically true.’ Now the ‘us’ and the ‘not us’ are in eternal conflict, we’ve moved from, ‘lawyer or not-lawyer’ to ‘lawyer vs not-lawyer.’ It makes no sense; again try it with any other concept: lawyers, gamers, Seahawks fans, etc. Even taking the phrase literally makes no sense. “You’re either with us or against us.” Okay, let’s say ‘us’ refers to me and my group of friends. Why would you be against my group of friends? Even if you’ve met us and decided you didn’t like us, does that mean you’re now and forever out to get us? Probably not, you probably just want to live your life and go about your business without any problems. You know, just like the rest of ‘us.’

As with all horrifying things, the true insidiousness is the unspoken part, the things that aren’t obvious. The implication happening whenever the phrase, “you’re either with us or against us” is said is that not only there only two sides in eternal conflict, but there’s clearly a good and a bad side. The phrase distills everything (incorrectly) into right vs wrong, good vs evil, and ‘the American Way’ vs ‘horrible communism’ (which you’ll remember is now defined as, ‘anything that’s not the American way’). To an 8 year old that sounds great. At that age, we believed the world worked that way; we were told the world worked that way. We wanted to be on the side of Superman, the ninja turtles, and the autobots, because if we weren’t, we were siding with Lex Luthor, Shredder, and the decepticons. I think, even as we grow older, we want that to be true. A more accurate phrase would be, “you’re either with us or…you’re still with us because thanks to globalization and increased interconnectivity anything you do will affect me and vice versa. We should probably figure out how to get along because our technology has gotten to the point that killing each other is just going to make the world uninhabitable for the survivor.” But that’s really confusing, and hard to think about, and it requires effort, and to learn things you don’t understand, and it’s so much easier to find a way to make, “you’re either with us or against us,” function in the real world.

By now I’m sure most of you have caught on that I’m talking about partisanship in American politics, and particularly how it’s caused the rise of what a lot of journals are callingtribalism.’ I wanted to give a little perspective and remind everyone that this is not a new phenomenon. The idea of ‘me and my little group of like minded individuals versus everyone else’ is older than recorded history, and using the human instinct to gravitate toward that mindset to get what you want was a tried and true method well before it was used on 8 year old me. I’ve tried to reject the ‘us versus them’ mindset in the past decade of my life. Instead, I’d like to believe that humans are capable of rising above their baser instincts and creating beautiful and wonderful things. I want to believe that we’re all capable of ignoring our mammalian and reptilian hindbrains, the parts that tell us the most important thing is to gather resources and fuck, and that our enemies are the ones trying to stop us from gathering resources and fucking, and when we do that we can concentrate on doing amazing things, like moving to Mars, exploring the deep sea trenches, or becoming immortal. I need to believe that, the same way 8 year old me needed to believe, “you’re either with us or against us.”

But here’s the thing I’ve come to realize about world views: they’re the last true democracy, and participation is compulsory. Back in grade school, I had the world view that I was the shy, sensitive kid that just needed a friend. The rest of the school had the world view that I was a ‘weirdo Chinese kid that did gross things’ (like not eat sandwiches for lunch) and ‘couldn’t speak english good’ (Born and raised in Lincolnshire, IL. English is my native language). Guess which world view won? Here’s a hint: I have to regularly take medications to control my depression, social anxiety, and general executive dysfunction. Similarly, I’d love to have an open and productive discussion with the right wing, but they’ve decided that I’m a, “Chink faggot that wants to have a kid out of wedlock,” so they don’t have to listen to anything I say, and it’s REALLY hard to have a productive discussion with someone of that attitude.

Okay. So “you’re either with us or against us.” That’s the way this country works, it’s been decided, I don’t like it, but you can’t fight compulsory democracy. If that’s the case, then I’m calling on everyone who reads this article to take a good long look at themselves and the news before deciding on whether they’re the ‘us’ or the ‘against us’ in that phrase. And before you base your decision on the fact that one side is in favor of big government, or wants to take away your guns, or won’t allow prayer in schools, I’d like to remind you that the other side has decided that it’s fit to be lead by rapists, Nazi’s, and thieves, all of whom, last I checked, are considered evil people. It’s your right to decide that your cause is more important than what I’ve mentioned, but I ask you be careful, or you may end up like this man, who was gunned down for spending a night at home, or these families, who were put in concentration camps for fleeing violence in their countries, or this woman, who is in hiding because she dared to tell the truth. The definition of ‘us’ keeps getting smaller and well, “you’re either with us or against us.”

Blog · Essay · Nonfiction

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