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Essay

Strangers in Our Midst

By Dustin Pickering

( dedicated to President Donald Trump)

In the uncertain and unsettling time of the COVID-19 crisis, we may be wise to consider our good fortune and family. We are fortunate, in fact, that our family bonds exist and we have loved ones at all. This testifies to God’s ever shining mercy. However, in the current crisis we should also consider those who are distant from us and less fortunate. A variety of faiths teach mercy to the needy.

The word family originally referred to domestic servants under one roof. It only emerged in its current meaning in the 1600’s. Strangely, the word familiar also has a unique history:

mid-14c., “intimate, very friendly, on a family footing,” from Old French famelier “related; friendly,” from Latin familiaris “domestic, private, belonging to a family, of a household;” also “familiar, intimate, friendly,” a dissimilation of *familialis, from familia (see family).

From late 14c. as “of or pertaining to one’s family.” Of things, “known from long association,” from late 15c. Meaning “ordinary, usual” is from 1590s.

The noun meaning “demon, evil spirit that answers one’s call” is from 1580s (familiar spirit is attested from 1560s); earlier as a noun it meant “a familiar friend” (late 14c.). The Latin plural, used as a noun, meant “the slaves,” also “a friend, intimate acquaintance, companion.”

— Online Etymology Dictionary

Family and familiar share a common background apparently. Suspected witches, burned in numerous witch trials, had their familiar spirits. Some speculate that the European psyche was traumatised by the Black Death that depopulated the land, and such widespread trauma led to the historic witch hunts. Fear has a way of unraveling the human psyche and creating an atmosphere of unrest. We are facing similar conditions now.

When our social ties loosen, we turn on one another. Strangers are seen in every human face. Yet what is a stranger? What makes a person a stranger? Are strangers only those who cross borders? Is it the distance separating him or her? Is it a transformation of self that makes another person strange?

Recent foreign policy blunders have shaken the world and created a refugee crisis that only time or God could sort through. From Arab Spring and Mubarak, to Assad and Syrian protests, horrific deaths and destabilizing events shook the Middle East as well as Europe. Refugees fled and were welcomed by Germany, Canada, and the United States, but to the dismay of much of those countries’ populace. Quite possibly, these events brought by the Obama administration are a cause for Brexit as well as tightened immigration policies. France, as recently as 2018, imposed tougher immigration policies and included assimilation and learning French in their priorities for accepted refugees.

The question of nationalism is a heated one. However, even the founder of The Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington, once opposed lax immigration policy though she is an immigrant herself. The debate concerning immigration policy revolves around culture, law, human trafficking, employment, and human rights. Why do nations safeguard  a certain identity for themselves? Why is “the Other” to be feared, misunderstood, deported?

Is there something integral to nation states that they desire to protect themselves from those outside them?

All across the world we are asked to practice “social distancing”, to quarantine ourselves to protect against the spread of COVID-19. To “flatten the curve”, experts say, we must work at home and venture out only for essential tasks, and then we must keep our distance from others. As can be expected, people are lonely and restless. The virus has generated conspiracy theories, shut down events and outdoor activities, and emptied stores of wares, especially toilet paper.

 According to Rene Girard, an anthropological philosopher, the plague was often blamed on those of the Jewish faith. Many Jews practiced medicine, and their ability to heal also made them suspect. They were believed to cause the illness they could treat. They were accused of poisoning community wells. It turns out the plague was actually carried by fleas on rats. Hysteria distorts our perceptions of one another. Where there is no perceived explanation, we invent one from our fears and suspicions.

Does a quality of strangeness arouse suspicion? If so, what defines the quality? Is strangeness something within us, not so much outside? When facing inner transformations, do our surroundings alienate us? In what sense are we even masters of our environment, so heated by political strife?

One thing is certain: President Trump told Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto that his border wall was at the bottom of the priority list. However, couldn’t he tone down the divisive rhetoric? Or is this the way he befuddles a hostile press?    

American Historian Howard Zinn wrote, “Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals the fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.”

 Recall the etymology of family and familiar. The strangeness of the Other is the strangeness of our haunted psyche. We project our fears and naked ambitions onto the Other, or the outsider, who we construe secretly to harbour those same things within. Does the Other become our double? Considering our eusocial nature, Othering may be the psychological stumbling block we put our heads on before the executioner arrives.

President Trump insisted on calling COVID-19 “the Chinese virus” during this crucial period of trade negotiations with the Chinese government. In his briefing, he informs the press and public that his negotiations are going well. In what sense is he, as President, Othering China? Do we Other him in our recoil against his rhetoric? Perhaps he is the doppelgänger of our country’s hideous history coming to bite us back. Perhaps he is the voice of the forgotten, as his adviser Stephen Miller told CNN.  In being the voice of the forgotten working class, has he saved the working class at all or only confused things more?

One thing is certain: we are strangers to ourselves if we cannot answer these questions.

Dustin Pickering is the founder of Transcendent Zero Press and editor-in-chief of Harbinger Asylum. He has authored several poetry collections, a short story collection, and a novella. He is a Pushcart nominee and was a finalist in Adelaide Literary Journal’s short story contest in 2018. He is a former contributor to Huffington Post. 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author and not of Borderless Journal.

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