The Persistence of Tribalism

What some people call patriotism others call nationalism, and still others call tribalism. But if we’re talking about the possession of “a strong cultural or ethnic identity that separates oneself as a member of one group from the members of another” then any name will do.

Yes, tribal society no longer exists in the Western World, in the strict and narrow sense that anthropologists use, but we still have Pat Buchanan and the Republican Party, and the neoconservatives with their notion that history, as such, is over, and our tribe won, and now we get the say-so in everything. That’s what the Project for the New American Century was about, and why we’re in Iraq. It was all about American Exceptionalism – and if that’s not a tribal notion, nothing is. Our rationally developed political rules – the Constitution and its Bill of Rights and all that – our historical evolution, and our current political and religious institutions, and their unique origins, and our lightly regulated free-market sink-or-swim economy with little by way of a safety net and that only granted grudgingly, make us unlike anyone else, and better than anyone else. Thus we get to tell people they must be like us – they must join the tribe – or suffer the consequences. They haven’t been too happy about that.

We used to mock the Soviets for thinking that way, but we thought that we too. Our tribe just happened to win, or be the one that didn’t collapse under its own weight. The assumption seems to be that this means we’re the best – hurrah for our side. We cheer a lot.

And the whole business really is kind of like sports, with rabid fans – what any anthropologist would call tribal behavior, particularly with those who are still pissed that the Dodgers left Brooklyn. The tribe was betrayed by the damned O’Malley family. And of course all sports writing is tribal myth, like The Natural (a tribal allegory) and The Boys of Summer (a paean to the strong cultural and ethnic identity that was that Brooklyn tribe).

We just don’t think of national politics that way. But unlike, say, Canadians, we do have a sort of atavistic sense of our well-beyond-wonderful cultural identity, and thanks to Lou Dobbs and Pat Buchanan and the like, also a strong sense of our ethnic identity, and which ethnicities just won’t do, or won’t do just yet. Dobbs on CNN and Buchanan on MSNBC, and most of the personalities on Fox News, stoke the fire – the tribe is white, male and Christian (allowing for a few well behaved Jews like Joe Lieberman) – and no members of the tribe have been, are, or could be gay. And the tribe’s values are clear – pro-gun, pro-war and simultaneously pro-Jesus, anti-abortion, sexually modest and so on. Thus you got a lot of talk from Sarah Plain and others last year about real the Americans (verified members of the tribe) who live in the tribal heartland, which at various times was rural Virginia, or some cluster of houses in the Alaskan wilderness, or in and around any NASCAR race, or in the vicinity of wherever in Toledo, Ohio, that Joe the Plumber happened to be at the moment. It wasn’t Hollywood, or Manhattan, or Boston, and certainly not Vermont. One night the tribal heartland was a bowling alley in Altoona. You have to participate in the tribal rituals, and the initiation ceremonies, and the right places. The tribe may accept you. It may not.

But the whole notion of what the tribe was – its very identity – was suddenly dissolving. We had a new leader, but from outside the tribe. We elected a black man whose father was a Muslim, and whose middle name was Hussein. And then he nominated a Latina woman to the Supreme Court, who said we all are the product of our experiences, and sometimes a wise Latina woman might make a better decision on matters regarding race and fairness, just as a wise white male judge with a background in business might make a better decision on, say, an antitrust case. But the tribally inclined were aghast. An outsider would judge a tribal dispute. And then this fellow goes to Cairo and makes a speech saying it was time to get serious – the Israelis had, out of fear, made some bad decisions and done some boneheaded things, as had the Palestinians, and we’d made some bad moves. It was time to clear the table and work out some ways to get things in the region under control, without all the posturing.

But as tribal disputes are all about posturing – like apes baring their teeth or showing their butts – this didn’t go over that well, or didn’t go over well with those who saw the tribe in real danger.

Glenn Greenwald examines that in Tribalistic Self-Absorption – “What animates most right-wing discourse is obsession with one’s own group and complete indifference to others.”

Here’s the thesis:

The most predominant mentality in right-wing discourse finds expression in this form:  “I am part of/was born into Group X, and Group X – my group – is better than all others yet treated so very unfairly.” This claim persists – indeed, is often intensified –  even when Group X is clearly the strongest, most privileged and most favored group. So intense is their need for self-victimization – so inebriating is their self-absorption and so lacking are they in any capacity for empathy – that, for all the noise and rhetoric, the arguments they make virtually always have this tribalistic self-absorption at its core.

He decides to pick on Charles Krauthammer to illustrate his point, and this column is key – Krauthammer accused Obama “of treating every country in the world so well – except for one, the one for which Krauthammer bears great love and affection and with which he was taught from childhood to identify.” And in fact Krauthammer says this:

President Obama repeatedly insists that American foreign policy be conducted with modesty and humility. Above all, there will be no more “dictating” to other countries. … An admirable sentiment. It applies to everyone – Iran, Russia, Cuba, Syria, even Venezuela. Except Israel. Israel is ordered to freeze all settlement activity.

Greenwald points out the obvious:

The U.S. transfers tens of billions of dollars to Israel – more than any other country in the world. We demand that no country in the Middle East have nuclear weapons – except Israel. We fuel Israel’s wars with weapons transfers, ensure it is the most militarily powerful country in its region, and loyally protect it from U.N. sanctions using our veto power. It’s virtually impossible to imagine one country that is more favorably treated by another than the various forms of largesse Israel receives from the U.S. But no matter. In Krauthammer’s eyes, the opposite is true:  the U.S. treats every country fairly except Israel. That’s the country that, to him, is singled out for unfavorable treatment by the U.S. Israel is the victim of unfair treatment at the hands of Obama.

And Krauthammer was at it again here and Greenwald is not impressed:

Krauthammer attacks Obama for daring in his Cairo speech to suggest that the U.S. has done bad things in the past and has contributed to the hostilities between the U.S. and the Muslim world. As a result of Obama’s statement of the obvious – that the U.S. also bears responsibility for the enmity that exists – Obama stands accused in Krauthammer’s column of “a disturbing ambivalence about his own country.” To Krauthammer, Obama’s sins include “transcultural evenhandedness,” “moral equivalencies and self-flagellating apologetics” and “creating false equivalencies.”

Here again we find the same adolescent self-absorption: the group into which I was born and was instructed from childhood to believe is the best – America – is, objectively, superior. It is so much better than everyone and everything else that even to suggest that we have flaws comparable to others is to engage in “false moral equivalencies.” To do anything other than emphatically proclaim my group’s objective superiority is to treat my group unfairly – leave to the side the irony that the same people who want to suppress torture photos because they don’t want to inflame anti-American sentiment apparently want the U.S. President to announce to the Muslim world that we are superior to them, have no serious flaws, have made no meaningful mistakes, and that everything is their fault – that sort of pompous self-glorification won’t inflame anti-American sentiment at all.

But it is just tribal thinking, or not thinking at all. Greenwald says there’s a lot of that out there. He points to Jonah Goldberg claiming to be the leading opponent of affirmative action (here) because it unfairly penalizes and victimizes his group (white males) and allows “achievement for reasons other than merit.”

Greenwald says that’s a laugh:

This is someone who might be the single most compelling poster child for the ability of white males to advance in America for reasons having to do with everything except merit. His entire career is attributable to his mom. He was almost 30 years old and was working as the “Vice President” of her tiny company – with no political or writing background – when he leveraged his mom’s sleazy involvement in the Lewinsky sex scandal and her contacts with the right-wing noise machine into a job with National Review, to which he has clung ever since. So much of the right-wing pundit class – which also complains endlessly about the unfairness of affirmative action in undermining “merit-based” achievement – similarly owes their entire careers to their moms and dads.

It’s true. Follow the links.

And as for Goldberg “prancing around as the Standard-Bearer of merit-based accomplishment and speaking out on behalf of fellow white males and Republicans who are treated so unfairly by our society and our media,” he is not impressed:

Yet again, it amounts to nothing more than:  my group – the one I was born into and trained to love – is being victimized and treated so badly. These claims of self-victimization persist even when their group historically occupied and continues to occupy positions of power and influence far disproportionate to their actual numbers.

And they give it up when they must:

For all the mockery over empathy, look at what happens to right-wing figures in those rare cases when they become personally affected by the ideology they advocate. They quickly abandon it. Dick Cheney objects to the injustice of gay inequality because his daughter is burdened by it. Nancy Reagan deviates from social conservative dogma to become a leading advocate of stem-cell research because she suffered through her husband’s Alzheimer’s. Jane Harman instantaneously transforms from Surveillance State authoritarian to raving civil libertarian upon learning that her own telephone conversations were intercepted by the government. They advocate their views up until the point that it begins adversely affecting not only others, but also themselves.

Otherwise, the only victims they ever see are themselves, the only unfairness they recognize is to their own group, the only perspective they are capable of understanding is the tribalistic ones drummed into their heads from birth.

Greenwald has much more, but this is rather devastating:

It’s a defining attribute of early adolescence to be incapable of seeing the world through any lens other than total self-centeredness, self-absorption and empathy-free self-obsession. If you watch for it (principally though not only) in right-wing discourse, you will see that this is really the central theme animating most of what they write:  My group is superior. My group (political, national, religious, ethnic, gender) is victimized and treated unfairly. The misery and suffering my group inflicts on far less powerful groups is irrelevant and always justifiable. Even those societies we bomb, occupy, devastate and destroy – even those we lock in cages without trials – are the ones victimizing us.

They never advanced beyond the adolescent stage of tribalistic self-absorption and it’s amazing how completely that lies at the core of most of what they believe and argue.

But people buy it. Well, not so much anymore – most people seem to be willing, now, to get their tribal jollies from following sport, and buying funny hats and foam fingers and all the rest. They seems to have decided, in the last two elections, to separate tribal hoopla and cheering from the business of running things in a way that slows down the pace at which we ruin the world and kill each other. 

Of course there’s Liz Cheney and what she thinks Obama should be saying to the world:

We’ve now seen several different occasions when [Obama]’s been on the international trips, where he’s not willing to say, flat out, “I believe in American exceptionalism. I believe unequivocally, unapologetically, America is the best nation that ever existed in history, and clearly that exists today.” Instead we’ve seen him do what we saw him do in the speech in Cairo, which is sort of, “on one hand this, on the other hand that,” and then attempt to put himself sort of above it all. I think that troubles people.

Greenwald’s comment:

Just ponder how psychologically disturbed – how deeply self-absorbed – is the need to announce to the world, let alone to believe: We are not only better than all of you – we’re better than everyone who has ever existed for all of human history!”

Imagine if you heard someone saying that about themselves; wouldn’t you conclude that there was something deeply wrong with that person?

The tribal stuff is bothersome. Everyone else grew up.

Two old women, Margaret and Helen, get it:

Margaret, this old gal has clearly lived too long. Never in my life did I think I would see a bunch of old, white men claiming they are being discriminated against. I am sure the Hispanic women who cleaned their houses today are having a good laugh… or a good cry. Honestly, the absurdity of it all is more than I can take. Stick me in a hole and throw some dirt on top of me. I’m done.

If you are born a white, male Christian in today’s world and life didn’t turn out the way you wanted, you probably have only yourself and the Rush Limbaugh Show to blame. Some exceptions probably do exist, but if you’re a commentator on a cable news channel you’re probably the rule and not the exception.

Pat Buchanan is an idiot. I mean it. Really.

The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten also seems to get it:

The murder of an abortion doctor and of a Holocaust Museum guard has predictably led to a left-wing media harangue against the right-wing media, whom the lefties blame for whipping up hate and violence.

As a lefty, I think they are right. (I mean, I think they are “correct.” The terminology gets confusing.) The point is there are consequences to words, and people like Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly and Michael Savage need to answer for theirs. But mostly, I have a question: Why does no one ever accuse the LEFTY media of whipping up hate speech and violence? How would that even work, anyway?

“A rabid follower of Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson shot up the offices of the Environmental Protection Agency yesterday to protest delays in implementing protections against global warming…”

Lefties just don’t get the whole tribal thing. Steve Benen explains:

I’ve been pondering the same thing this week. After Jim David Adkisson started shooting people at a Unitarian church last fall, police found books from Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly at the killer’s home. We don’t usually hear about lunatic killers who have Paul Krugman or Bill Moyers best-sellers on their coffee tables.

This is not to say there aren’t dangerous left-wing radicals. I know with some certainty they exist because I read the report prepared by the Department of Homeland Security about them. There are, for example, extremists in the environmental movement who might set fire to a Hummer dealership, and extremists in the animal-rights movement who might bomb a research facility.

But to Weingarten’s point, no one thinks to associate these radicals with the more liberal voices in the national media. And it would certainly seem odd to argue that prominent progressive voices in media might contribute to violence.

There are no doubt a whole lot of factors that contribute to this larger dynamic, but at first blush, I’m going to go with the obvious explanation: no one accuses “lefty media” of “whipping up hate speech and violence” because the “lefty media” avoids “whipping up hate speech and violence.”

The left just isn’t into tribal. Benen points out that the other side is:

When Glenn Beck tells his followers that elected U.S. leaders are reminiscent of Nazis, and if left unchecked, will impose a fascist dictatorship on all of us, it might lead a small handful of people in his audience to consider taking matters into their own hands. We’ve simply never heard this kind of talk from, say, Ed Schultz.

Joe Conason covers similar ground here, a discussion with Leonard Zeskind regarding the Zeskind book, Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream. And there is this comment on the fellow who killed the black guard at the Holocaust museum:

Von Brunn may have had mental problems but he really had serious political problems – and in that sense he wasn’t alone. This was a guy who wanted the old white republic that used to exist in America. He thought the Jews had stolen it from him. People like him don’t want to share power. When they see any gains by people who are not part of their group, they cannot tolerate it.

It was tribal, really. And Glenn Beck may be right – it’s all Obama’s fault, and the fault of those who voted for him. They forgot about the tribe, and that they’re armed.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in American Exceptionalism, Project for the New American Century (PNAC), Real Americans, Right-Wing Extremists, Tribalism. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Persistence of Tribalism

  1. Christ says:

    I cannot believe there are no comments on this excellent blog post that I found while surfing. Well done & brilliantly done, I might add. This “us versus them” mentality is being discussed frequently among some friends of mine on FB. The tribalism mentality is becoming exasperating. I found your article insightful & helpful. Thank you!

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