Sports fans know all about it – loyalty has nothing to with anything even vaguely related to rational thought and carefully considered perspective. It’s somewhat the opposite of perspective. Chicago Cubs fans always say wait until next year, every year, as another not quite adequate season ends. And Red Sox fans in Boston knew about the Curse of the Bambino. Ever since the team sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees – on December 26, 1919, as everyone knows – they’d never win a World Series – they’d never even get there. It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t right. The baseball gods were conspiring against them – everyone was. There was a lot of resigned martyrdom floating around, but everyone stuck together. It was a tribal thing.
The Red Sox were your team anyway – or any way – and you stood by them. It was often irrational, as some years the Red Sox stank. But that was just how things were.
And then it exploded – in 2004 the Red Sox came back from an impossible three game deficit and won four from the Yankees, and then moved on to the World Series and swept the Cardinals in four games. The curse had ended, and fans in Boston were now befuddled. Now what? Life became ordinary again. All the tribal stuff – the local mythology – was now defunct and obviously inoperative.
It had been nonsense after all. But this was like Nietzsche explaining that God was dead, actually – he had outlived His usefulness. Mankind had grown up. The central tribal myth had collapsed. And it seems such things happen at all levels. Boston baseball fans understood, and slowly became just folks who went to ball games now and then, because it was kind of pleasant, and sometimes the home team won, not that this meant anything much in the great scheme of things, although it was nice when they did. Things had changed. There was no long-suffering tribe of the persecuted, and if you think of it in terms of tribal loyalty, the tribe was no longer necessary. People became more autonomous, and more adult. Ticket sales took a hit.
Of course tribal loyalty is always a substitute for adult perspective, for thinking itself – and it’s far easier than thinking. But once you discover the central tribal myth is not necessary, and maybe never was, you might feel a little better about yourself, if you value a return to rationality now and then. Some do, and some don’t. There will always be die-hard sports fans – short for fanatics.
And that’s not a nice word. Fanaticism is usually thought of as uncritical zeal for an extreme religious or political cause, and only in some cases, for sports. And it lead to nothing but trouble, except, perhaps, for baseball. Yep, no one wants Jihadists blowing up Chicago or Boston next time – Islamic fanatics are the problem. You cannot be all adult and reason with them. Reason has nothing to do with any of it.
But we have our own fanatics – not fueled by the Prophet Mohammed, but by Jesus. There is a strain of evangelical thought that is based on turning this country, and then the rest of the world, into a whites-only Christian theocracy, while we wait for the Rapture and the End Times and Armageddon and all the rest, all of which could happen at any time now. But our fanatics are more like sports fans, in that they operate within the bounds of social norms – save for that McVeigh fellow who blew up that building in Oklahoma City and killed almost two hundred people, to help bring down the Zionist Occupation Government that had it out for true Christians, and that fellow who shot and killed the abortion doctor in Kansas, because even medically necessary abortions make Jesus cry, and the Michigan militia folks with their plan to kill cops to hasten Jesus’ return. Those are the exception. There may be ten thousand sermons each Sunday where the tribe – called the congregation – is told to be ready to kill for Jesus, because Sweet Jesus wants you to rid the world of His enemies, but there are rules, so it’s actually okay if you don’t grab a gun and go shoot a secular humanist or two – Jesus will understand if you just feel that way in your heart. It’s the thought that counts. There are those rules. Establishing God’s kingdom on earth is tricky.
But leave religion out of it and we still have our fanatics, and these would be my-country-right-or-wrong patriots. As the Vietnam War peaked, in Nixon’s first term, this was the America-Love-It-or-Leave-It crowd. But they never went away. Now it’s the pro-torture crowd. We can do no wrong. Our tribe has been attacked and we don’t have to think anything through – we just need to kick ass, so no one messes with us. And we don’t ever apologize. And we don’t do that diplomacy thing, where you talk to the bad guys, even indirectly. You’re with us or you’re against us – and don’t try to think it through and get all nuanced or anything like that. Reason has nothing to do with any of it. And above all else, don’t reach out to the Muslim world. Are you crazy? They want to kill us.
Of course there is a counter-strain to that, represented by the guy we elected after Bush. Obama got the majority of the votes. It wasn’t even close. It seems others like to think things through, instead of just buying into the tribal myth, where we are the long-suffering small noble tribe persecuted by everyone, everywhere, and the overmatched underdog who will, one day, finally triumph against all odds.
Obama’s sin, against the tribe, was that he didn’t buy into that. And now, as Marc Lynch and Kristin Lord explain in Foreign Policy, Obama is hitting a wall with that approach:
One year ago today, President Obama delivered a much anticipated speech in Cairo, Egypt in which he pledged “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” That new beginning seemed a long time ago this week, as Muslims expressed outrage over America’s seeming support for Israel’s naval commando attack on an aid convoy headed towards Gaza. It is no accident that the anniversary of Obama’s speech has gone virtually unremarked in the Arab media this week, except for a few comments about unmet promises and some juxtaposition of that glorious moment with America’s anemic response to Gaza.
Our usual reflexive support of Israel – whatever they do, however boneheaded, is the perfect thing to do – is tribal. And it seems Obama didn’t account for that:
The President’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs, told a press conference that he did not believe that the American position would have a great impact on Obama’s relations with the Muslim communities of the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. If the Obama administration does not change its cautious approach quickly and forcefully address the blockade of Gaza which is the real heart of this week’s scandal, it will confirm the crystallizing narrative of a President which either cannot deliver on its promises or did not mean what he said. This would be a sad epitaph for the President’s carefully nurtured outreach to the Muslim world.
Tribal ties are stronger than reasoned perspective. And this had been going well, until that came into play:
While little noticed, the administration has in fact eventually begun to deliver on the promises made in Cairo. It created a new corps of American businesses to partner with counterparts in Muslim majority countries, and hosted 250 Muslim entrepreneurs from around the world at a Summit of Entrepreneurship as part of an effort to promote new economic opportunities. It named science envoys to Muslim majority countries, and planned to launch centers of scientific excellence around the world. Its withdrawal from Iraq remains on track, it has renounced torture, and it has dropped the rhetoric of a “war on terror.” And it has used social media to build networks based on common interests – especially among the Muslim world’s massive, discontented youth population.
But those efforts have struggled to gain traction with Muslim publics still more inclined to focus on “big ticket” political issues, in part because of the limited media attention to such initiatives. The inability to make progress on a Middle East peace agreement, the lack of progress on closing Guantanamo, and the widely reported use of drone strikes in Muslim countries such as Pakistan and Yemen have fueled a narrative that Obama has in fact changed little despite his more appealing rhetoric. For months there has been a palpable sense that the Obama bubble has burst. Gallup tracking polls show that between February and April of this year approval figures dropped 9 percent in Mauritania, 4 percent in the Palestinian territories, and 18 percent in Egypt.
The Gaza flotilla crisis therefore threatens the President’s ambitions far more than his administration appears to recognize.
Of course Lord is vice president and director of studies at the Center for a New American Security – the new counter to the Project for the New American Century with its own myths – and Marc Lynch is the Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University. Lord and Lynch aren’t tribal kind of folks.
Andrew Sullivan adds this:
From the very beginning of Obama’s election, it seems to me that the prime objective of the Israeli government – both Kadima and now Netanyahu – was to use Gaza to destroy the U.S.’s attempt to reach out to the Muslim world. This is a chance to fight back – for the sake of broader American interests.
Good luck with that.
And as for Israel’s naval commando attack on that aid convoy headed towards Gaza, tribal forces are at play, especially in the matter of that nineteen-year-old Furkan Dogan, the Turkish-American kid killed on the flotilla, by multiple gunshots to the back of the head at close range. See Scott Johnson at Powerline:
If that is the case – and, again, the facts are not yet entirely clear – it is silly to call him an “American of Turkish descent.” He, like the other members of his family, was a Turk. The idea that his presence among the dead raises a special diplomatic problem is absurd; if it does, it shouldn’t.
Coincidentally, Scott Rasmussen published a poll this morning that found 58 percent of voters favor the abolition of birthright citizenship. I think the majority is right on this issue. Birthright citizenship is an anachronism, and in some respects a dangerous one, in an era when millions of people travel internationally and millions more enter the U.S. illegally, some for the specific purpose of having a baby here.
As for Dogan, it is reported that he was shot five times at close range, four times in the head. If that is correct, it is reasonable to infer that he was one of those attacking Israeli soldiers with a club, knife or other weapon and was shot in self-defense. The Times quotes his brother saying, on behalf of the family, “We were not sorry to hear that he fell like a martyr.”
Adam Serwer counters:
Johnson has managed to compile the ugliest tendencies of modern conservatism into three short paragraphs. Conservatives like Johnson are constitutional purists who reject foreign precedents, but when it comes to the 14th Amendment they cry “anachronism.” They’re all about individual rights, unless your family happens to come from a Muslim country. They want to limit the power of the state, except when states kill those whom conservatives have verbally excommunicated from humanity.
The only constant moral principle in this brand of conservatism is tribalism. There is an “us” and a “them,” and there are simply no rules protecting those deemed outside the tribe that those inside are obligated to follow or respect.
And see John Cole:
It must be really odd to be a foreigner watching the reaction of the American government. You look at Turkey, and they seem to be just furious that Israeli soldiers stormed onto a non-Military vessel on the high seas and shot up some of their citizens, but the United States seems to be wholly indifferent. What people don’t realize is just how nuanced America has become about citizenship.
When we decide if someone is a real American, worthy of all aspects of citizenship and defense by the government, we look at the totality of the situation. We look at what kind of citizen you are, what you believed in, what you were doing at the time you were shot four times in the head at close range by a foreign army as they stormed a ship in international waters, and a variety of other factors.
And Cole, who used to be a full-on pro-Bush conservative, but got fed up, extends Johnson’s argument further:
Not only was he not an American, but we should tinker with the Constitution so this never happens again. Now had his parents emigrated to a more American country when he was two, like, for example, Israel, then this story would be a lot different. But as it was, it is clear that he was not sufficiently American for our government to get upset about his death.
Second, you have to look at what Dogan believed in to establish his American credentials. He was against the Israeli blockade, and as we all know, there is nothing more un-American that opposing Israeli policy. Had he been doing something more real American – like delivering bibles to Iran or proselytizing in Yemen – then we could be outraged over his death. As it was, he had it coming.
I hope this clears things up for our foreign friends, and it makes complete sense that no one in our government would care enough to even mention his death publicly. It really is a question of nuance.
And see Jesse Taylor:
One of the basic presumptions in international law is against the statelessness of persons. It’s very bad thing when someone is born without a national affiliation, because it essentially means they’re wandering around with no national legal protection. When bad things happen (like, say, the soldiers of a given nation shooting you in the head four times), you’re left with no national protection and no place to call home.
And Taylor points out the main reason we have birthright citizenship in the United States is slavery:
We had a rather large class of people who were all of a sudden on American soil with no identifiable national identity and no attachment to any country except the one they were born in. Without birthright citizenship, every slave in the United States would have just been a wandering, stateless soul with no home country and no real way to leave America and find a home. Of course, for many modern conservatives, that would have just been former slaves’ wake-up call that they needed to start taking the initiative for themselves and stop relying on Constitutional handouts and the willing teat of the federal government, those lazy bastards.
So, is birthright citizenship an anachronism? Only if you’re a giant xenophobic dickhead.
And Taylor offers a thought experiment:
Imagine that a Turkish grad student meets a Ukrainian grad student. They meet, fall in love, and have a little highly-educated international baby. If we abolish birthright citizenship, what country is the baby a citizen of? It might be a dual citizen of Turkey and the Ukraine. It might fall into a contradictory set of citizenship laws in which each country says that the baby is its own citizen exclusively, or where one or both states consider it an American citizen. The Powerline Proposal also assumes that you can determine citizenship by subsequent actions of the parents, which is just awesomely presumptuous – you have more of a claim to American citizenship if you travel back and forth between the US and Turkey, but less if your parents decide to settle down in one non-American place. You have more of a claim if you’re doing something pro-American, and less of a claim if GOP donors don’t particularly approve of your political stances.
So it comes down to this:
If we give a damn about the meaning of citizenship (and about the history of this country), birthright citizenship is hugely important. The presumption that American citizenship can be rendered invalid because of where your parents decided to move you when you were two is simply absurd; it’ll be patently more so when nativists take this position to its logical end and start arguing that a businessperson who’s spent too long in France has become too froglike to vote for the Muslim impostor in the White House.
And Taylor adds that the Rasmussen poll doesn’t show that fifty-eight percent of voters favor the abolition of birthright citizenship – it shows those polled favor the abolition of birthright citizenship for children of illegal aliens – and Furkan Dogan was never one of those. But that may be a minor point. His family originally came from Turkey. They’re not part of the tribe. And his parents had, after all, moved back to the Old Country. He paid for that, with four bullets to the back of the head.
And Andrew Sullivan adds another thought experiment to the mix:
Imagine, for a moment, that a US ally that is not Israel – say, Turkey – killed an unarmed American civilian on an unarmed ship in international waters by four bullets to the head at close range. And imagine that president Obama decided that we shouldn’t rush to judgment and that Turkey was in an understandable bind, because it was enforcing an embargo on a tiny strip of (say, Kurdish) land it had recently strafed with missiles and bullets, killing over a thousand. The land was home to an elected Kurdish government that was viciously terroristic – even totalitarian in some respects – and wanted to destroy Turkey, even though it had few means to accomplish this. The Kurds, like the Palestinians, had no homeland at all, and were now suffering greatly under the blockade and embargo.
Can you imagine how the Republican right would explode at this example of classic Obama “weakness” and “appeasement”? Can you even conceive that the American right would actually champion and celebrate Turkey’s attack – and be far more solicitous of Turkey’s actions than any of America’s allies? Can you imagine that the conservative British prime minister would be more outraged at this attack on a defenseless ship and the murder of an American citizen than the president of the United States?
And this is the Republican right:
Israel simply isn’t a foreign country at all. For many Christianists, it is part of a civilizational war of Judeo-Christianity (an obvious oxymoron) against Islam. Not Islamism, Islam. Ever wonder why Sarah Palin, the next GOP nominee, wore a twinned Israeli-American flag lapel for an address to the Tea Party convention? Ever wonder why every rule we normally apply to foreign countries is automatically suspended when it comes to Israel?
The other dimension is the deep and understandable commitment of many American Jews, particularly of the older generation, to Israel, right or wrong. You listen to Anthony Weiner, for example, a left-liberal Democratic firebrand on almost every issue, suddenly becoming an über-neoconservative in foreign policy in one area, and one area alone: Israel. The idea of a Jewish congressman actually taking on Israel’s policies is close to absurd. Name one. This is not a conspiracy. It is a mindset.
And Sullivan offers a personal anecdote:
I grabbed some food the other night with a longtime Jewish friend. We had an honest conversation – the kind you cannot have on US television. He’s a big liberal but strongly sided with Israel in this latest incident. Why? “They’re my people.” But you’re an American, I countered, you’re not an Israeli, let alone a supporter of Netanyahu. None of that mattered to him. His attachment to Israel was indistinguishable from his attachment to America, and, if push came to shove, Israel came first, right or wrong. This had been dinned into him since childhood. His iPhone was deluged with texts from relatives and friends all appalled by any criticism of the commando attack, and immediately seeing it as anti-Semitic or designed to end the state of Israel for ever.
To charge dual loyalty is described as a blood libel, a vile anti-Semitic charge, and it often is. But my friend was very frank about it and unapologetic. That’s just the way it is, he said. It was deeply ingrained.
It’s tribalism. And there’s Glenn Greenwald’s experience:
I had it continuously drummed into my head from the time I was a small child, from every direction, that Israel was special and was to be cherished, that it’s fundamentally good but persecuted and victimized by Evil Arab forces surrounding it, that I am a part of that group and should see the world accordingly. Is this tribal identity which was pummeled into me from childhood – rather than some independent, dispassionate analysis – the reason I find myself perpetually sympathizing with and defending Israel?
Sullivan says there is much to admire and treasure in this, but it’s complicated:
No decent human being who has a grasp of history, let alone the enormity of the Shoah, can fail to have a deep sympathy for the Jewish people, Israel, and respect for its enormous achievements. But the fanaticism and emotionalism that many Jewish Americans have with respect to Israel is so intense that, for some, it overwhelms rationality, and makes a cool strategic analysis of America’s national interest close to impossible. Their total identification with Israel is often emotionally as strong, if not stronger, as their identification with America.
And this tragically means that an honest disagreement with Israel’s policies is sometimes taken as a breach of friendship, a profound personal betrayal, rather than a moral and political judgment about the actions of a foreign country. It means that the head of the Mossad can be more rational in his assessment of US national interest than Joe Biden. You reach a brick wall in this. And we might as well admit it.
But Sullivan realizes he is outside the tribe:
It has pained me enormously to have obviously hurt my countless Jewish friends and colleagues because I cannot support, morally or strategically, the actions of Israel these past two years, and especially its virulent disdain for the new American president who represented, it seems to me, the best chance for Israel in decades. I realize that the difference is that while I admire and support Israel, I do not identify with it. For me, it is a foreign country and an ally. To them it is something far more profound and indelible. So when I attack Israel’s policies, it feels as if I am attacking them. I really am not. But I cannot erase how they feel; and I understand why they feel it.
Tribalism, of course, is universal. It is by no means the exclusive property of Jewish Americans. Irish-Americans retain a similar knee-jerk alliance with entities that plenty of people in Ireland find repugnant – just as Israelis are far more candid in their debates than Americans are. … But this crisis is, as Peter Beinart has noted, a crisis among American Jews as much as anything, and the inability of some, especially in the older generation, to move even a millimeter away from orthodoxies and rigidities that are becoming almost comically anachronistic, is becoming a form of tragedy.
I think, by the way, that this is the reason some jump so quickly onto the anti-Semitism charge, even when they know that many critics of Israel’s policies are not bigots. They simply cannot absorb the idea that people they like and even love believe that Israel is doing wrong, horrible, categorical wrong, and that this is undeniable. And so they cannot explain the criticism, except as a form of self-hatred or animus.
And one of his readers adds this:
I was raised Jewish in Tulsa, Oklahoma and I’ve been thinking about this notion of Jewish “persecutionism” for quite a while.
I spent my early years in Sunday school – like every other Jew I know – being force fed a diet of Jewish persecution stories. We were either getting kicked out of one country or massacred in another or being forced into hiding somewhere else… and that’s not to mention the hours and hours we spent learning about the Holocaust. Endless films of emaciated Jews and readings of the Diary of Anne Frank and statistics from before and after the war and etc. Plus there were the many wars Israel fought in, the many times they were attacked by their neighbors during holy-days or asleep in their beds.
My entire self-concept as a Jew was based around the idea that Jews are simply not safe anywhere and must maintain perpetual militaristic vigilance both personally and culturally. It’s like some kind of cultural post-traumatic stress disorder. Hopefully soon Jews will stop indoctrinating their children to perpetually look over their shoulders for the next Hitler (or Torquemada), but I wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t take some time and until then self-pity and paranoia will continue to define the Jewish experience, for both Jews and non-Jews around the world.
But self-pity and paranoia come with the territory. And that’s why many of us hated those pre-2004 Boston Red Sox fans. Get over it. Tribal loyalty, while admirable in some ways, as it builds necessary social cohesion, has nothing to do with anything even vaguely related to rational thought and carefully considered perspective. You can have both.