Monday, November 14, 2016

The water's fine

Editor's Note: I wrote this back in March...

What defines a "tribe?"  In the old days it was defined anthropologically, as

a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader.
"indigenous Indian tribes"  
At about the same time people in my neighborhood started going to Burning Man, when it was still just a group of artists and their families and friends getting together over the Labor Day weekend on a beach in the Outer Sunset of San Francisco to burn up some of the stuff they couldn't sell or didn't want to, the definition of "tribe" changed to something more like "affinity group."  One's "tribe" came to connote the people you wanted to hang out with, as opposed to say the ethnic group you might accidentally find yourself part of by birth.  San Francisco divided into tribes, as many of the people in Generation X made there way out from their homelands and migrated to different parts of their continents.  It was voluntary tribalhood, of course; the slacker image aside, very few of the people in Generation X chose their companions carelessly.  The definition of your local family or affinity group might have been as simple as "no needle drugs" but you'd surprised how meaningful and exclusive a club like that might be at various points in the '90s.

So the meaning of the word "tribe" changed 180 degrees from the original, at least as used by the ethnically-diverse-but-economically-homogenous hipsters who made up the urban core.  Isn't language grand?

But if you weren't in your 20s and full of life and living in the pleasantly conflict-free bubble of the Clinton era, when jobs were easy to get, the first lady was well respected and the GOP was a sane alternative to the raging Third-Wayism of the Democratic Party, the meaning of the word was stable.  There were still tribes in the traditional sense, whether as applied to people like the Siksika Nation or the Yanomamo in the Amazon.  In other words, the word "tribe" still applied in its traditional sense to people who ostensibly rejected the modern nation state in favor of a traditional ethnic division based on genetic connections.

Toward the end of the '90s we started to see revivals of what came to be called "ancient tribal hatreds," which usually tore apart the modern nation state that had apparently just papered over the old regional cracks.  The two most famous were Rwanda, where irrational hatred of one ethnic group by another led to a stunningly efficient genocide; the second was in the Balkans, where it had been clear for many decades to anyone paying attention that people who identified with one tribe or another didn't really want to live together.  Kosovars and Serbs and Bosnians really didn't like each other, for reasons that had very little to do with their shared history - although that was always a handy reason.  People in the west, supposedly long over their ancient tribal hatreds - of say, the Normans for the Saxons, or the Bavarians for the Swabians, or everyone for the Slavs - shuddered at the utter incomprehensibility of irrational hatred ripping into their clean veneer of non-tribalistic daily political convenience.  We didn't have a problem with tribalism, with our center-left democracies and their generous welfare states.  The more credulous among us wondered at why that was, while the cranky contrarians warned it could just as easily happen here, among the unsuccessfully integrated immigrants crowding our urban cores.  In fact Pat Buchanan ran for President of the US on just such a platform, three times.

Among the least lamented casualties of the revival of "tribal hatreds" was the theory that no two nations with a McDonald's had ever gone to war.  This picturesque principle of foreign policy was pushed by Thomas Friedman, a man who's never feared the sell-by date on conventional wisdom, who's cultural position is owed almost entirely to his willingness to manufacture agreement between male cab drivers of a certain age and male billionaires of a certain age.  But Friedman's point was that globalization had homogenized culture to such an extent that the same bland political convenience found in certain sectors of the modern western nation-state had hypnotized or blinded certain other sectors of the newly-modern nation states.  That Yugoslavia fell for a genocidal fascist philosophy professor who was as up on the latest management techniques as any of Friedman's dinner party guests very soon after it left behind the enforced camaraderie of military dictatorship, or that Rwanda descended into horrific violence in a matter of days as part of a well-executed plot by members of one ethnic group to seize power from another: well it made the bubble of blandness appear thin indeed.    

Of course you know where this is going:

Donald Trump rallies have a tribal cast to them.  But let't not dance around the issue; Chris Hayes feels he can't refer to to Trump as a fascist, straight up, so he's taken to calling Trump's platform something like "ethnic grievance" politics, and he points out that Trump is promising a kind of "ethnic socialism."  Trump is all for letting people he thinks are of the right ethnic makeup getting the goodies of the modern state, and making it hard for people who aren't of the right makeup to get help.  This willingness by Trump to make it clear that there are people who we know deserve things and people who we know don't, but we're not allowed to say who those people are in either case, well that unwillingness to say who deserves what is what people mean by "political correctness" run amok, as in this letter from a self-professed evangelical published in the New York Times this last Saturday:

...we marvelled as we watched Mr. Trump demolish the primary tool that has allowed liberalism and secularism to control the debate for decades: political correctness.
Now, I'm always suspicious of letters to the editor that accord with what I personally think the right wing thinks; the late Robert Anton Wilson claimed he wrote letters to the editor under various pseudonyms (including "Sister Mary Margaret") expounding ridiculous right wing positions, supposedly to get actual right-wingers to moderate their principles.  And there's the confirmation bias inherent in such casual coincidences, much as in The Crying of Lot 49 when Jesus the anarchist meets Pierce Inverarity the billionaire on the beach in Mazatlan and can't believe Inverarity is real, simply because he's too close to Jesus's image of what an indolent, arrogant American billionaire.  Jesus points out that with Inverarity as the poster child of American capitalism it'd be easy to get people to rise up in revolution, but no one would ever believe that Inverarity wasn't just an outlier because he was so outrageous.

The letter in the Times is the same.  This can't be what the right wing or Trump supporter really thinks, can it?  And yet there it is, in black and white, in the paper of record.

Of course its obvious that to a certain segment of the American public "political correctness" has meant the undeserving have been getting their unjust desserts while the deserving have had to simply put up with this immoral distribution of cake and Lexuses and vacations to Maui.  That most of the undeserving are non-white, and most of the deserving are white (and of course any friends of those whites who happen to be black or latino), goes without saying.

But this is obviously straight-up tribalism, of the same sort that the Siksika and the Yanomamo, the Tutsi and the Kosovars, practice.  Indeed the tribalism of the WASP isn't all that new.  Linguists joke that a language is a dialect with an army, but a "nation state" is a tribe with an army and a university system.  Its one of the wonders of the modern world that after centuries of brutally violent tribal warfare, often without precedent in human history, European tribes were able to convince the rest of the world that while they had states the rest of the world had tribes.  And so where for centuries people who lived in Tuscany may have identified as "Italian" and "Roman Catholic" but would never accept being told what to do by people from Genoa, who also identified as Catholic and Italian and lived a whole 200km away, and fought viciously for the right of local self-determination for hundreds of years -  these very same Europeans tribes felt justified in telling people in Central Africa, Central Asia, Central America, that they ought to get along as brothers.

But there's more to this than whoa man, white people are in tribes just like everyone else!

Because Caucasian Americans (and Canadians, for that matter) have been under the impression for a very long time that they're not tribal, that they're above tribes.  Sure they started out as Italian, Irish, German or Scottish, but they accepted American culture and so became part of the American tribe, which is the best tribe there is!  And why is the American tribe the best?  Because anyone can join it, and rise to become President - unlike other tribes, where say in England or in India you have to be a member of the right caste.

That leaves Americans (and Canadians as well) susceptible to coded tribal appeals that the rules of polite society say can't actually be acknowledged as such.  This is more than George W. Bush's flattering "Some people call you the elite.  I call you my base."  Its magical thinking, of a particularly dangerous sort.



No comments: