Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

09 November 2014


“Tribalism” is an odd word. It sounds outmoded, doesn’t it?

Wasn’t “tribalism” something that Native Americans and primitive pre-modern Africans had? Surely it doesn’t exist today, in twenty-first century America, in our clean, polished, humming cities.

But yes, Virginia, it does. It subsists everywhere. More than that. Right now, today, it’s responsible for our species’ greatest problems and tragedies, nearly all of which are self-inflicted.

It’s easiest to identify in the Middle East. There tribalism is driving the utter destruction of Syria, as Assad’s Alewite branch of Muslims attempts genocide and “ethnic cleansing” of other Sunni Muslims. There and in Iraq, it’s driving IS’ slaughter of Shiites, Kurds, innocent Yazidis and others. It’s causing the Turks to continue to oppress and harass the Kurds, who are patiently and valiantly protecting Turkey’s southern flank (and Iran’s) from political chaos and the likes of IS.

But tribalism rages far beyond the Middle East. It’s strong in Eastern Ukraine. There it’s driving a nasty civil war among white people who share not only the same race, but the same Slavic roots, the same religion, the same culture and history, the same alphabet, and even closely similar languages. Here in America, it was just responsible for an extraordinary election, in which the right-wing heirs to the worst presidency in a century decisively defeated the communitarians, few of whom even bothered to show up to vote.

How was that election tribal? Well, the old white guys showed up. African-Americans, Hispanics and other recent immigrant groups didn’t. Women did, but not nearly in the same proportions as they had in 2008 or 2012. And they failed to recognize where their common interests as mothers and (in many cases) heads of families lie, due both to the old white guys’ brilliant propaganda and to the Dems’ abject failure to make their case.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is now on track to become Senate Majority Leader. The most striking thing he said in his long, tough and dirty campaign to retain his senate seat was this: “These people have run this country in the ground, and they need to be stopped.”

Any American of age and sensitivity knows what the words “these people” mean, especially in the Deep South or a border state like Kentucky. They mean African-Americans, and maybe a few Hispanic immigrants. More generally, they mean anyone not from the older, white, male, conservative culture that still largely dominates those states.

So our new Senate Majority Leader will be a product and proponent of tribalism. At least he will be an adroit manipulator of tribalism, who hardly knows what to do now with the power it let him achieve.

More fundamentally, politics itself has devolved into tribalism in America. Simplistic cant, amounting to bumper-sticker dogma, has become a tribal badge or banner, a substitute for thought. You’re either a cowardly, promiscuous, immoral, lazy and freeloading “liberal.” Or you’re a militarist, racist, sexist, hard-headed “fascist,” bent on waxing rich and powerful by crushing women, the poor, and the unfortunate.

Expressing a single belief or assertion is enough to put you in one camp or the other. There is no middle ground, neither in our Houses of Congress nor in our popular culture. (The election just completed managed to oust nearly all the remaining “moderates” who once tried to bridge the gap.)

If you don’t believe this, just read the comments to any politically charged story in Bloomberg.com—our only remaining national Yankee newspaper that is free of charge. You can identify a politically charged story easily: it’s one with more than two or three hundred comments.

As you read the comments (if you have the stomach and the patience), you’ll find that the vast majority are simple assertions of tribal identity. They lack reasoning, let alone persuasive points. They recite not a single fact. They simply identify the writer as a member of one political tribe and disparage the other. Assad, IS or the rebels in Donetsk could hardly do worse, let alone in a culture that prides itself on universal education.

Tribalism even infects our medicine. We Yanks have known about ebola for nearly forty years. We have the most advanced and most well-funded medical technology on the globe. We are world-beaters at rapid mass-production. Yet in four decades we failed to develop and stockpile any drug or vaccine for this dread disease. Now Canada, France and even China are trying to pick up the slack.

Why did we fail? Two reasons. There wasn’t enough money in it to interest our Big Pharma. And after all, it was only killing “those people” in Africa, and then only in small numbers, until recently.

For their time, the Bible’s anonymous authors were among the smartest people around. When they wrote their magnum opus, universal literacy was not even a distant dream. There was no public education at all. So they tried to distill ancient wisdom into parables that any simple person could understand from oral recitation.

Perhaps the most important parable was the story of Cain and Abel. It’s a story that every Jew and Christian still learns by rote at an early age. It’s a story about sibling rivalry, which is strongly analogous to tribalism.

The Bible’s wise authors left us with no answers, just a burning question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” So asks Cain, having killed his brother.

The answer, of course, is “yes.” We all are our brothers’ keepers, and our sisters’, too.

Why? Because our chief evolutionary advantage as a species is our ability to cooperate. Individually, we are small, weak and stupid. Only by cooperating can we hope to fly through the air, communicate instantaneously across continents, ken our Universe, understand or cure disease, or (perhaps some day still) extinguish our own species in nuclear fire. How can we cooperate if we don’t “keep” each other?

It’s such a simple idea, really. The common good, or “general welfare,” as our Yankee Constitution recites. But it’s so devilishly hard to get through our still-thick skulls.

We Yanks finally have a president from a minority race. He’s not done a perfect job, but he’s done a damn good one. Compared to his predecessor, he’ a virtual Jesus, a national savior.

Yet we run away from him when the right wing pushes us. Some of us even refuse to admit we voted for him, when we would have had to have been crazy and disloyal to our party and beliefs not to. Mitt the Clueless Egotist and Self-Promoter as president?

How could any serious candidate believe the voting public would see that stance as anything other than dissembling cowardice? What could possibly induce such self-defeating behavior other than tribalism and the monstrous propaganda machine that incites and feeds it?

Despite all our comforting myths about the “afterlife,” from ancient Egypt forward, we humans have no real evidence that death is not final. Like the story of Cain and Abel, Heaven and Hell are only parables.

But they, too, are parables about real life, in the here and now. Albeit subtly, they tell us that we humans can make our Paradise right here, on the planet we evolved on, if only we abandon tribalism and cooperate. If we fail to do so, we can make our planet much like Hell, as in Syria, West Africa, and Eastern Ukraine today.

And things could get so much worse so quickly, as the fossil fuels that run our global civilization begin to run out, and as the climate that we are changing by burning them begins to main our agriculture, drive tropical diseases northward, and create further tribal conflict over retreating land area.

The choice is ours. With characteristic vanity, we call ourselves "Homo sapiens." We flatter ourselves with free will and intelligence.

Can we use them to our common benefit? That question still resounds at the dawn of the twenty-first century as it did at the dawn of the first.

Are we our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers? Indeed. And they are ours. That’s the way our species and its evolution work.



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