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The Coming Marxist Threat

by Aaron Houck

November 6,2007

A specter is haunting Charlotte – the specter of Marxism. The growing Marxist movement is a symptom of a grave threat to our community.

Of course I’m not talking about Karl’s Marxism. I’m talking about the Marxism of Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo. The Marx Brothers took America by storm with movies like Horse Feathers and A Night at the Opera. Today these early twentieth century comedy stars threaten Charlotte’s community by inspiring fans to meet, discuss, and revere their films.

Watching Duck Soup may inspire some viewers to anarchy, but the real danger lies in what a Marxist Film Society would signify. Charlotte’s population is growing by leaps and bounds; and every year we achieve the critical mass necessary to support new groups – film societies, botany clubs, and neighborhood associations.

By now you’re probably thinking that perhaps I’ve seen one too many Marx Brothers movie. After all, the existence of these organizations shows exactly the kind of civic engagement we are constantly promoting, doesn’t it? Yes, it does, but it also illustrates that population growth makes it easier to sort ourselves into groups based on various interests and characteristics.

Once we form identity groups, human nature kicks in. First, we apply to our groups some of our individual biases. For instance, we attribute our own group’s bad behavior to situational forces outside our control while other groups misbehave because they are fundamentally disposed to meanness. That is, I’m weaving in and out of traffic for a good reason: my gas tank was empty after my brother borrowed my car over the weekend, so I had to fill up and now I’m running late for an important meeting. You’re driving that way because you’re an idiot and a bad driver. These sorts of biases can make it difficult to sympathize with the challenges facing outside groups.

Beyond apathy, we can even see antipathy. The psychologist Muzafer Sherif examined this phenomenon in his famous “Robber’s Cave” experiment. In the experiment, twenty-two boys attending a summer camp were randomly divided into two teams: the Eagles and the Rattlers. Competition between the groups quickly escalated into something fierce, and the boys developed hostility toward their peers for no reason other than the group to which they belonged. These feelings were obviously illogical, but potentially have important consequences for our community.

What am I saying? That we should beware intense rivalries developing between fans of the Marx Brothers and those who prefer the Three Stooges? Not quite, though think of the pratfalls and eye-pokes! No, the real threat arises in the formation of groups along characteristics that I would describe as “sticky.” These are characteristics that are not easy or likely to change – traits like socioeconomic class, religion, race, and political ideology.

As Charlotte continues to grow and become more diverse, her citizens are increasingly able to surround themselves by people who think, look, and act like them. It seems a touch ironic that in my own neighborhood some sort of “Celebrate Diversity,” bumper sticker seems to be required – we are uniform in our appreciation of diversity. We have sorted ourselves into an enclave of professionals who enjoy “diverse,” urban-ish living just as others have sorted themselves into cliques of suburban soccer parents.

While such flocking of birds of a feather may be amusing at times, it can mean trouble when it comes to competition for the region’s limited resources. The struggle among interest groups can become a zero-sum game in which greater spoils for one part of the community means less for another. And, as you might expect, the typical losers are those groups with less financial and political capital to begin with. This has been a frequent complaint in recent discussions about school building and transit planning.

But it need not be a competition of “us vs. them” with obvious winners and losers. If – when it comes to public policy issues – we can subjugate our small-group identities for larger, regional identities, we’ll see solutions and opportunities not accessible to small-minded thinking. In other words, whether you’re a member of the Groucho Marx Society or the Karl Marx Society, we can get a lot more accomplished if we all adopt the slogan “Citizens of Charlotte, unite!”

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