USA Today, November 8, 2005
Latching on to Us vs. Them
By Bruce Kluger
Leave it to Martha Stewart to hit the
nail on the head.
This fall, the duchess of doilies struck
again, launching her prime-time, Donald
Trump knockoff, The Apprentice: Martha
Stewart. Piquing viewers' curiosity most
was what phrase Stewart would utter when
it came time to eject a contestant. Would
she parrot Trump's signature boot-off line,
"You're fired," or come up with a unique
axe of her own?
Martha didn't disappoint. "Jeff," she said as she ushered the first loser to the door,
"you just don't fit in. Goodbye."
21st century, "You just don't fit in" would be a shoo-in. Gone are the giddy days of
the American melting pot, when being different was something to be proud of.
Instead, now it's all about who doesn't make the grade, and who gets to tell them
Welcome to the United States of Us-vs.-Them.
That the country has become noisier and nastier in recent years is not exactly
breaking news. Ever since the Florida meltdown of November 2000, Americans
have found new ways to define divisiveness, whether it's over Iraq, Supreme Court
nominees or the holy war between evangelicals and the blue-state sinners they
love to hate.
We have become, in effect, the loudest, most quarrelsome house on the global
block, casting ominous shadows over our neighbors' homes even as the sounds of
bickering stream from our windows.
Now there's a new twist to the phenomenon. No longer satisfied with squabbling
over the real and present perils facing our nation, America's dependable corps of
cultural windbags—from cable news pundits to fast-buck authors to proselytizing
radio hosts—have begun picking random, gratuitous fights, often at the expense of
the real news behind the rancor.
Case in point: Within hours of Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court last
week, MSNBC's Joe Scarborough was reveling in the trenches behind the bench.
Rather than embrace the opportunity to examine Alito's qualifications (or
disqualifications) for the job, Scarborough—who's fast becoming the crown prince
of Us-vs.-Them—seemed more invested in knuckling down for a brand new battle.
"I've got to tell you," he said of the fresh fight triggered by the Alito announcement,
"Republicans were happier than they've been any time since Bush beat Kerry a
year ago." The man was practically swooning.
But accentuating the negative is nothing new for Scarborough. Here's a guy who,
more than a month after floodwaters began drying up in New Orleans, still found
ways to wring Us-Them acrimony from the Hurricane Katrina disaster. He lent the
mike to Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, who whined about
needing greater government support of the "faith-based component" in recovery
efforts. And he assembled a pious panel that (with a straight face) pondered
Katrina as God's wrath for gays and lesbians and the debauchery of the Big Easy.
So much for a nation pulling together.
Then there are the "seasoned" journalists who profess to take the decent view,
cloaking themselves in the sheep's clothing of credible resumes, only to bear their
fangs when it's time to spout off.
On the dust jacket of his new book, 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America
(And Al Franken Is #37), CBS News veteran Bernard Goldberg oozes
evenhandedness, claiming that he "casts his eye on American culture at large."
Make that his right eye. The book is little more than a 320-page, drive-by potshot at
liberals, Hollywood types, rap artists and even Jimmy Carter—an Us-Them
manifesto if there ever was one.
Meanwhile, even fans of lefty sharpshooter Al Franken have to wonder about the
usefulness of his latest Bush bash-o-rama, The Truth (With Jokes). Wall-to-wall
zingers notwithstanding, does stand-up-as-politics really help to explore the
complicated underpinnings of the nation's cultural chasm, or does it simply fuel the
fad of knocking the knuckleheads in the White House? Maybe the disintegration of
discourse in the USA really isn't a laughing matter, after all.
Celebrities also have a knack for picking bad moments to pick fights. In the past
year alone, Whoopi Goldberg, Chevy Chase and most recently Kanye ("George
Bush doesn't care about black people") West have all suffered p.r. calamities as a
result of reckless jabs at the administration. In each case—during a fundraiser, an
awards ceremony and a relief concert—the salvo that was tossed crossed the line
from the provocative to the inappropriate, undermining the intent of the message.
My favorite example of the Us-Them divide comes courtesy of the religious right,
which, once again seeking safe harbor in the name of God, has attempted to co-opt
the box-office favorite March of the Penguins as the centerpiece of its ongoing
moral crusade. Heralding the record-breaking documentary as a slam-dunk
argument on behalf of everything from monogamy to intelligent design to the anti-
abortion movement, this self-appointed band of Bible bullies has somehow
managed to turn a family film into family feud.
"I could see (the movie) as a...condemnation of gay marriage" said Richard Blake,
author of Lutheran Milieu of Films of Ingmar Bergman.
Fortunately, one voice managed to cut through the penguin palaver.
"You know what?" commented Laura Kim, a vice president of Warner Independent,
which distributed March of the Penguins. "They're just birds."