Two pronouns

In the last days of 2005, leading thinkers and scholars from around the world share their fears, hopes and expectations of 2006. Forty-nine of openDemocracy’s distinguished contributors, from Mariano Aguirre to Slavoj Zizek, Neal Ascherson to Jonathan Zittrain – offer their predictions for the coming year. Since this is openDemocracy, we did not expect them to agree. We were not disappointed. (Part Two)
Richard Rodriguez
22 December 2005


In the new year, the dangerous stranger will move ever closer. He may take up residence in our house.

London learned, in this dying year, that the dangerous stranger lived just up the street. He was native-born and had not needed to cross an international border to cause mayhem in the name of Allah. His journey required merely several tube stops.

In the United States, it was a lesson we should have learned ten years ago, but didn’t. Just before the federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed (and hundreds killed) in 1995, an eyewitness saw three men “either Hispanic or Arab” running from the explosion in jogging suits. No one noticed the native son with flaxen hair leaving the scene.

In 2005, along the US border with Mexico, posses of Americans calling themselves “Minutemen” patrolled the desert looking for “illegal aliens” who might also be terrorists. President Bush labeled the Minutemen “vigilantes”. But growing numbers of Americans (according to polls) are troubled by the fact that America’s two thousand mile border with Mexico is largely ungoverned and may be ungovernable.

Through the long, perspiring day, it is difficult to distinguish on the horizon between the brown peasant from Mexico or central America, looking for a job washing dishes in Dallas, and an agent for al-Qaida. At night, that cactus might be a human figure.

For all our worry about the dark stranger who has just boarded our bus, a more domestic anxiety could await us at our destination. Call it a neo-Victorian story of home: one person is living uneasily with two pronouns, the “I” and the “we”.

The “I” is, of course, the great pronoun of modernity, of solitude and ambition and self-seeking. It is the pronoun stamped onto our passport into the secular city.

But many of us also come from societies of “we” — families and tribes that bend or refuse to bend against the child’s ambition for “I”. Many of us belong to the desert religions which, as we have come newly to appreciate, are oriental, not western, and belong to the medieval “we”.

In the past, there was an uneasy, often unresolved compromise between the public “I” and the private “we”. The compromise made the secular city possible.

But with the desert religions — Judaism, Christianity, Islam — beckoning the believer with their more ancient pronoun, balance between public life and private belief may be lost. The Arab teenager in the Paris suburb frustrated by the difficulty of claiming his French “I” turns to Islam’s “we”. The Canadian Jew abandons Toronto to take his family to live in a desert colony of settlers that serves as a bulwark against the infidel.

In the US, a new awakening among Christians seeks to make the political life of the nation more harmonious with the agenda of the televangelist. And the president’s men are at this moment in prayer at the White House.

The dangerous stranger, don’t you see, may be at this moment in the bedroom upstairs?

“I” versus “we”: the self at odds with its own pronouns. Dr Jekyll meet Mr Hyde.


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