All Tribalists Are Bastards

Former President Donald Trump promised to “Make America Great Again,” implying that it used to be great, but wasn’t anymore.  Former President Barack Obama said in response that as far as he was concerned, America was great right now.  Former New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo said that America was never that great, and isn’t great now.

Each was saying what they believed certain political supporters wanted to hear.  Governor Cuomo was saying what Democrats in New York wanted to hear.  Who was right?

I believe that the United States of America has been, and remains, a nation of great aspirations.  An aspiration to transcend the human tendency to aggregate in groups around some characteristic, and then be set against each other, and instead have different types of people share a society with mutual tolerance under a common set of laws.  And just because those aspirations were not fully achieved on July 5th, 1776 does not mean that ours is a worse society than those that never had such an aspiration to begin with.

And yet now you have politicians of both parties, and the media, using tribalism as a convenient explanation (for some an excuse) for our economic, social, political and psychological decline — after four decades of generational and interest group self-dealing and other sociopathic trends.  Using this base instinct to suppress the discussion of other issues, the search for other explanations, the raising of other questions.  Questions about generational inequities for example.  Or whether it has been fair for the executive/financial class and (in New York) the political/union class to take so much at the expense of everyone else.  Rather than face those questions, far better to have the serfs and the later born, to whom our institutions have less and less to offer and demand more and more in exchange for it, divided along tribalist grounds.  Since the self-dealers have had some success in that regard, a question has to be asked right now of every American.  Do you or do you not believe in the aspirations of the United States?  Do you even know what those are?


Tribalisms of various kinds – based on physical features, religion, language, or whatever else people can come up with – have been a feature of human beings since our primate ancestors descended from the trees.  They are an evolutionary shortcut to security, allowing people to decide who is probably safe without having to judge each individual separately.  And a way to gain advantage by bonding together over something, at the expense of those who don’t share that something.  In the U.S. we talk about racism.  Expand the idea to all kinds of tribalism, however, and one find that it was a taken-for-granted part of every culture in the world at the time the United States was founded, for all the millennia prior, and in many places still to this day, the UN Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights be damned.

The United States aspires to something radically different.  Here a person is supposed to be an individual first and part of a common humanity second.  Or vice versa, depending on one’s politics.  The aspiration of this country has been to reduce to irrelevance whatever tribalist groups one happens to be born into.  Slowly, generation by generation, the United States has pursued that objective, the real American Dream, always having to overcome those evil humans who seek to use the reptile brain impulse of tribalism to achieve a status in society that their contributions to other people (if any) would not justify.

Nonetheless, some choose to make the claim that the United States is the most uniquely evil and racist country in the world, and in world history, due to the past the enslavement of Africans, and the dispossession of Native Americans who had previously been decimated by Eurasian diseases.  Including many of those who style themselves as “progressives.”

With regard to the enslavement of the Africans, the Europeans didn’t kidnap them.  They bought them from other Africans.  They could do so because the Africans were divided one tribe against another, and didn’t care what happened to people who they perceived to be different from themselves – even if the Europeans thought of them all the same.  In fact, according to an exhibit I saw at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, more Africans died between the time of their capture by other Africans and their sale to Europeans than died on the slave ships.

According to the book 1991, meanwhile, there were far more native Americans in the Western Hemisphere before Columbus than had been believed, but Eurasian diseases spreading among them killed off 90 percent of them – most before they had ever seen a European.  Even so, Europeans were only able to conquer North and South American because the natives were divided, with some tribes having previously conquered and exploited others.  Those others were more than happy to come across a new White tribe with new weapons with whom they could ally to throw off their native oppressors.  In just about every Indian War there were Native Americans fighting on the side of the colonists, and later the United States.

The conscience of Christianity had gradually eliminated slavery from Europe.  It is thus a disgrace that, after finding that Africans and Native Americans still enslaved each other, those who thought themselves to be Christians decided that (in effect) what happens in the Western Hemisphere stays in the Western Hemisphere.  The cruelty to Native Americans and Africans by European colonizers long ago cannot be discounted, especially since they should have known better.  Even so, slavery was not a U.S. invention, or even a European one.  It was a human commonality that ended during the historically brief (and now in the past) era of European global dominance.

Europeans didn’t need purported racial differences to justify wars against and subjugation of other groups of humans.  Religion or language differences worked just as well.

Not long before the founding of the United States, at the very time when the first U.S. colonies were being founded, Europe fought the Thirty Years War, the last and most destructive of the wars of religion.  An estimated quarter to a third of the civilian population of Germany was killed in the conflict.  While theoretically about religion, that war was really about political power – Catholic France fought on the side of the Protestants in opposition to the Catholic Hapsburg family, then in control of the Austrian empire and Spain.  Religion, rather, was merely a tool used by those in charge to get Christians to hate and kill each other.  In the end the rulers decided that the rulers of each country would get to decide the religion everyone else had to follow – so there would be no internal conflict.

No wonder the freedom of each individual to choose their own religion, and their obligation to tolerate the religions of others, was such an important foundational idea of the United States. It was an extremely radical idea at the time.

Later, in World War I, Europeans slaughtered each other for no reason other than the fact that different groups of them spoke different languages.  It was basically a war about nothing.  World War II, an even bigger slaughter, combined language – Germans against French and Slavs – and religion – non-Jews against Jews.  The would-be master races against the rest.

Is tribalism just a European phenomenon?  Hardly.

During World War II, East Asia featured a brutal conquest by the Japanese against the “barbarian” Chinese and Koreans, with the former colonizing the latter.  In Vietnam, soon after the United States was out of the way, the Vietnamese were back at war on their border against the hereditary enemy that has always tried to dominate them, the Chinese.  The Chinese government, meanwhile, is seeking the Sinicization of the Tibetans and Uighurs in the name of achieving national unity the only way they think it can happen – national conformity.  But the Chinese have become an international people, one that is present and sometimes resented in other countries such as Malaysia, where they face tribalist issues of their own.  Are there universal human values that the overseas Chinese can appeal to in the name of fairness, or are they a separate tribe competing against other tribes?

In South Asia, there have been the religious wars and terrorism of the Hindus against the Muslims and vice versa, layered against the language war of independence of the Bengalis against the West Pakistanis who speak Urdu.  In the Middle East, as soon as all the Jews and Christians are driven out, you had the Shia and Sunni persecuting and killing each other, along with the Sufis and Yazidis, even though they are all Muslims.  At least the Buddhists haven’t killed anybody, I once thought – before the Myanmar military started raping and killing Muslim Rohingyas and driving them into Bangladesh.  And in Africa, there was a genocide by the Hutu against the Tutsi, people with the same race, same religion, same language, and lots of intermarriage.  After Hutu politicians tried to use tribalism to keep political power, and encouraged the massacre.  Just as in cities like Chicago and New York City, those who everyone else sees as the same, shoot each other for no other reason than being in different groups (gangs) they made up themselves, based on nothing other than the “colors” they put on.

Some people may be uncomfortable around those who they perceive to be different.  Others may not like those they perceive to be different.  But for serious evil to happen, it takes a politician.  Somebody seeking to gain followers and thus power by uniting people around a common enemy.  Drinking from the chalice of poison in the hope of becoming a powerful evil wizard.

Absent politicians playing to the reptile brain to sow division, and media (new and old) seeking to increase their profits by doing the same, sex and money influence people toward mutually beneficial interactions.  Someone offering you a good deal, as a worker, consumer, saver and investor, buyer or seller?  Someone appears to be attractive, nice, desirable?  Suddenly those differences don’t seem as important after all, and people start doing business, getting married, having children.

Despite this, there seems to be some kind of tribalist revival going on around the world.  The Chinese and Russian communist parties once justified their rule based on the economic theories of German-British economist Karl Marx, but neither of those countries are communist today.  So what are they?  Both President Xi and President Putin have chosen hyper-nationalism in what are now state capitalist, fascist states, as a reason for them to stay in power.  And elsewhere, there seems to be a host of mini-mes in other countries following the same playbook.  Gorillas thumping the collective chest, and baboons showing the collective ass, while doing little or nothing to make their countries better places, and in some cases being outright corrupt.

Most New Yorkers have been disgusted by the U.S. tribalist revival led by former President Donald Trump, a man who clearly doesn’t believe in the anti-tribalist aspirations of the United States.  He waves the American flag because he was born here, but would have been waving the communist flag or the Nazi flag if he had been born in a different place and time, if that’s what it took to win and get on top.  

But are New Yorkers prepared to face up to the reality of the tribalism of New York’s Democratic Party and culture?

In a city with the highest state and local tax burden in the country, where people are continually told all the things they don’t deserve because they don’t pay enough, what reason can Democratic politicians give to justify their perpetual incumbency?  Vote for me because I’m a woman like you.  Because I’m Black like you.  Because I’m gay like you.  Because I used to be Latino, but am now Latinex, like you.  Because we’re hip and urban.  Because we’re against those other people who ride bicycles. Because we’re outer borough people who are tired of being ruled by those Manhattan people, and I will fight against them and for you.  Because we’re not like those other lesser people.  Because we’re the victims.  Because we’re the deserving.  We’re the smart people, those who walk faster, talk faster, think faster.  Etc. etc. etc.  

And the rest?  Go back to Africa Ohio or Iowa.  

People who ought to know better just can’t resist.  Many years ago reporter Denis Hamill, writing in the Daily News, quoted Father Farrell, then the pastor of Holy Name Church in Windsor Terrace, where Hamill grew up and my wife and I have lived since 1986.  Those people moving in are ruining the neighborhood, the pastor said, not long after I had spent a weekend helping him and others clear out the church basement that became Shepherds Hall, where Irish Dancing classes are held.  Go back to Yonkers, you college educated son-of-a-bitch, and tell your wife to go back to Flatbush!

This, however, isn’t what is now the core of Democratic tribalism nationwide.  In fact, it is just the opposite.  In the middle of the prior century, there was what political scientists call a realignment.  Before that the Democrats were the party of bigots, and the Republicans the party of snobs.  Afterward the Republicans became the party of bigots, and the Democrats the party of snobs.  The frat party and the cocktail party.

And you see snobbery everywhere you look in New York public policy, from the zoning resolution to gifted programs that sort some children into the future elite and others into the social landfill at the age of four.  Black people whose parents went to Harvard are welcome!

Here is a guy I don’t often agree with, but who almost has a point.

What California is creating can be best described as oligarchic socialism, a form of collectivism that combines hierarchy with “equity,” regulation with oligopoly, and progressive intentions with feudal results. Like so much else, the pandemic has accelerated this trend, vastly enriching the tech elite, while turning much of the working and middle classes dependent on what Marx called “the proletarian alms bag.”

People say those things about California, but New York is worse by just about every measure.  Despite our high taxes, we can’t even afford the proletarian alms bag.  But the point about the snobbery applies here and there.  

Which is too bad, because the New York aspiration is even higher than the United States aspiration.  It is, or ought to be, a place where people not only are willing to tolerate those who are in some sense different, but actually want to be around those who are in some sense different.  Is unity without uniformity possible?

The United States is supposed to be the country that says yes, while New York is supposed to be the city that believes a lack of uniformity is actually better.

Recall those wars of religion going on at about the time that the city was founded as New Amsterdam.

Of the Inhabitants of the Town of Flushing 

To Governor Stuyvesant

December 27, 1657

Right Honorable,

You have been pleased to send up unto us a certain prohibition or command that we should not receive or entertain any of those people called Quakers because they are supposed to be by some, seducers of the people. For our part we cannot condemn them in this case, neither can we stretch out our hands against them, to punish, banish or persucute them, for out of Christ god is a consuming fire, and it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

We desire therefore in this case not to judge least we be judged, neither to condemn least we be condemned, but rather let every man stand and fall to his own Master. Wee are bounde by the Law to doe good unto all men, especially to those of the household of faith. And though for the present we seem to be unsensible of the law and the Law giver, yet when death and the Law assault us, if wee have our advocate to seeke, who shall plead for us in this case of conscience betwixt god and our own souls; the power of this world can neither attack us, neither excuse us, for if God justifye who can condemn and if God condemn there is none can justifye…

The law of love, peace and liberty in the states extending to Jews, Turks, and Egyptians, as they are considered the sonnes of Adam, which is the glory of the outward state of Holland, soe love, peace and liberty, extending to all in Christ Jesus, condemns hatred, war and bondage. And because our Saviour saith it is impossible but that offenses will come, but woe unto him by whom they cometh, our desire is not to offend one of his little ones, in whatsoever form, name or title hee appears in, whether Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist or Quaker, but shall be glad to see anything of God in any of them, desiring to doe unto all men as wee desire all men should doe unto us, which is the true law both of Church and State; for our Saviour saith this is the law and the prophets.

Therefore if any of these said persons come in love unto us, we cannot in conscience lay violent hands upon them, but give them free egresse and regresse unto our Town, and houses, as God shall persuade our consciences. And in this we are true subjects both of Church and State, for we are bounde by the law of God and man to doe good unto all men and evil to noe man. And this is according to the patent and charter of our Towne, given unto us in the name of the States General, which we are not willing to infringe, and violate, but shall houlde to our patent anmd shall remaine, your humble servants, the inhabitants of Vlishing.

In contrast, what do we hear?  All cops are bastards.  Really, all?  100.0%?  Half of the desperate, deluded people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 are in the basket of deplorables.  Really, half?  50.0%? 

So now we have political tribalism.  But take a look over the past 50 years and try to tell me some set of consistent principles that either Republicans or Democrats actually believe as to what would make things better for everyone.  There aren’t any!  It’s two sets of special interests seeking to manipulate ordinary people through tribalism, while pretending to place some tribes above the others.  The Republicans didn’t invent identity politics when they adopted Nixon’s Southern Strategy.  The Democrats have been practicing it for those same decades.  Perhaps it has always been there.  The founding fathers hoped the United States wouldn’t even have political parties, but John Adams, the second President, was the last who kept that aspiration.

I have relatives in different places, and far too many of them seem to end up simply mimicking the views of those around them.  That’s what you think?  What a coincidence!  I hear and recognize the tribalism that is there.  But I also hear and recognize the tribalism that is here.  The views you must agree with, the questions you must not raise, the things you must not see to join the willfully blind crowd.  It isn’t even enough to agree with people 75 percent of the time anymore.  I see things written, and hear things said, that are at their base tribalist invitations to join the groupthink.  It’s all nails on the blackboard to me.

Have I considered the possibility that labeling those born 1930 to 1957, the richest generations in U.S. history, Generation Greed, and those born from 1958 to 1979 (the back of the Baby Boom and Gen X) Generation Apathy, might be divisive?  Yes I have, and I understand that not everyone in those generations were greedy or apathetic.  But the majority were, and ultimately I have concluded that regardless of the risk of a tribalist interpretation, they need to be called out before this country is wrecked once and for all.  Let me quote someone from the U.K., where you see the same trends, but not as bad, and they are at least talked about.

A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of generational inequality. In fact, this ghost has intercontinental reach, haunting North America, East Asia, Australasia, South America and even, to an extent, South Asia. It disturbs the very idea of progress between parent and child, a fundamental tenet of modern life. Whether or not the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle, all societies might henceforth expect a future of generational strife. 

This might sound alarmist. But then again, when you consider that in so many corners of the world, young people are expected to earn less, own less, have fewer children and, in some cases, have shorter lives than their parents, it might not sound alarmist enough. The last, gravest regression is especially bad in the US where, as Anne Case and the Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton have identified, “deaths of despair” (those from suicide and addiction) are now striking each successive generation at a younger age. In Britain, also suffering a rise in such fatalities, the Resolution Foundation has shown that young people’s wages bounced back far slower from the financial crisis than those of their parents, while their likelihood of owning a house by the age of 30 is half that of the generation before…

I have yet to mention a certain word that usually dominates jeremiads such as these. The generation born between 1946-1964 are much scorned for their profligacy, but this is no anti-boomer polemic—I love Bob Dylan, and my parents. The fallout from the post-war demographic explosion can’t be completely attributed to the supposed selfishness of the individuals in a particular cohort.

But there will be no fixing the problem until we have faced it: the big squeeze that has affected the young is in part due to deliberate political decisions about which perks and benefits get protected and which have been in line for cuts. Part of it is down to chance: boomers came of age during a long economic upswing when asset prices were low but on the way up, and there was bipartisan agreement on the need for free higher education and a strong welfare state. What happened next, though, is the result of pure demographics: as this population bulge has moved up the age range, in western societies where people were already living longer, it has carried the centre of the culture with it. As a result, many of these societies are now senescent, ruled by older people governing—maybe consciously, maybe not—in their generation’s own interests…

If you’re a conservative (of either sized “c”) it’s not hard to realise that if young people have no stake in a society, they will want to bring it down. In America, where problems like student debt weigh even heavier, a poll revealed 50 per cent of millennials would prefer to live in a socialist country. Last year, its cities roiled in protest. The immediate focus was racial injustice, but the wider inter-generational culture war stoked the mood of rage on both sides…

What will it be like when the boomers are all elderly, and millennials, many of whom look set to remain childless, begin to come of a certain age? In 1942, during a worldwide struggle with no end in sight, the government commissioned a report to settle what could be done to reward people for their sacrifices—the Beveridge Report that followed laid the foundations for the welfare state. Millions of young people who were already suffering restricted opportunities, political alienation and economic disadvantage have stoically accepted the need to defeat the virus with sacrifices that belie their relatively low physical risk; an investigation into how their lot might be improved should be the minimum of rewards. 

Yet still, these suggestions presuppose that there can be a political solution to a demographic problem. Another option is neatly summed up by a popular meme: “I’m a millennial so my life goal is societal collapse.” Let’s *hope* it doesn’t come to that.  

Or embrace the audacity of hopelessness, and realize that in the face of this social tsunami we might as well get it over with.

Such a collapse is apparently fine with those in charge.  As long as they can rationalize it by finding another tribe to blame, and they are either gone when it happens or are grandfathered from the resulting consequences.  As long as money can be borrowed from the rest of the world and stuff imported from there, the later born and those not working the system can be made worse off gradually so they get used to it, while the earlier born, the executive/financial class, and (in New York) the political/union class take ever more.  Even in a pandemic.

I continue to believe that the increase tribalism has been driven by the need for an excuse, for someone else to blame for the fact that the later-born have been left progressively worse off.  And a way for increasingly miserable people to find some basis for self-esteem unrelated to their own lives, now that they don’t believe in the aspirations of the United States, or any actual religion that might make a real demand on them, anymore.  

Meanwhile the statue of Thomas Jefferson, the man who wrote that it was self-evident that all men are created equal – a revolutionary idea at the time – is being removed from New York’s City Hall.  Jefferson was, ahem, the founder of what became the Democratic Party, and owed his election as the third President of the United States (against anti-slavery, anti-tribalist but apparently somewhat snobby Harvard grad and lawyer John Adams) to New York City voters swinging New York State in his favor.  Is his statue being removed because he failed to fully transcend the life he was born into, and completely live up to his aspirations during his lifetime?  Because he was a hypocrite?  Or because a different tribe that doesn’t fully share those aspirations either is seeking a tribalist victory?  Shouldn’t New York’s Democratic Party be cancelled too?

Why did George Washington free his slaves at the end of his life, while Thomas Jefferson didn’t?  Perhaps because George Washington was a good businessman and owned his slaves free and clear.  While Jefferson was an always-in-debt spendthrift who had mortgaged them to keep spending, and they were not really his to free.  Something modern Americans could relate to with regard to relative weight of consumerism versus personal and social principles. Leaving behind debts and other liabilities to enslave those to follow.

To me it isn’t just politics, or history, or public policy.  I’m against tribalism, period.  

Consider three consciousnesses.  A universal consciousness, in touch with the universe and the world.  And individual consciousness, as a unique person briefly living their one and only life.  And a tribalist consciousness, with identity tied up with being in some group.  The universal consciousness is mostly good, though it can turn evil if someone decides others must conform to their universal vision or be wiped out.  The individual consciousness can be good or evil, inspiring great individual achievement in some but selfishness in others.  But the tribalist consciousness is almost always evil.  I’m glad there is such a thing as Italian food, Jewish humor, and Irish music.  And Afro-American music, and Afro-Caribbean music, and Afro-Latin music.  If it goes beyond that, I’m against it.

And always have been.  Even as a teen, I observed the desperate attempt by my peers to fit into some group in order to feel good about themselves.  The jocks, the nerds, the freaks, the socs, the greasers, this clique, that clique.  Why?  What for?  

Then in college, 90 percent of the men in my freshman class joined a frat.  Mostly because of the desperation to be accepted, the fear of rejection, the lack of self esteem, the concern for social hierarchy – that wouldn’t make any bit of difference in the long run.  It was madness, and I didn’t join.  You want to be my friend, fine, otherwise, fine. I’m going to be me, and you get to be you.  Can’t you see they’ll come a day when it won’t matter, come a day when you’ll be gone?

Shouldn’t the children be taught that we are basically all the same, that they can feel a sense of connection with someone anywhere else in the country, anywhere else in the world?  That it’s a small world after all?

Shouldn’t teens be told that they don’t need to fit in with any group at all, and they should decide who they are in their one and only life?  

Do some people never grow up to be responsible, independent adults?  And we a nation of nasty little middle schoolers?  Is that what Bob Dylan meant by “may you stay forever young?”

Does the United States stand for something (other than being able to buy lots of stuff for now, but perhaps not for long), or doesn’t it?  Will there still be an American Dream when we have to stop running up collective debts and start dealing responsibly with the consequences, or won’t there? Does it mean something to be an American, or doesn’t it? Do you believe in the anti-tribalist aspirations of the United States, or don’t you?

People.  Can’t live with em, can’t live without em, regardless of which tribe they decide they are in.

1 thought on “All Tribalists Are Bastards

  1. larrylittlefield Post author

    It seems that India has also gone tribalist, according to The Economist.

    “There is a more fundamental reason for the bjp’s assault on Bollywood than electioneering, political point-scoring or the sheer joy of bashing Muslims. Since coming to power in 2014, the bjp has demolished the national opposition, co-opted independent institutions, tamed India’s once-vibrant press and obstructed free speech. It is building a cartoonish personality cult around Mr Modi, printing his picture on everything from sacks of government-subsidised rice to covid vaccination certificates”.

    “Bollywood may well be the last independent source of influence in India. It is inherently patriotic, its superstars mostly apolitical and, after the past year, most of its members terrified of speaking in any manner that might attract Delhi’s attention. But that is not enough. The fact that its movies show Hindus and Muslims—and all sorts of Indians—getting along, that it tackles issues of social injustice, and that its characters and the real-life people behind them espouse liberal values, is simply too great a threat to Mr Modi’s narrow vision of a Hindu nation. If ensuring that Indians can imagine themselves only on the bjp’s terms means destroying one of country’s great cultural and commercial successes, that is a price the party and its prime minister seem willing to pay.”

    If they don’t have skin color or language as an excuse, they’ll come up with something. Religion or politics will do.

    The way things are going, it’s almost like a Tom Lehrer parody. With no one standing up on the other side.

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