‘Tribal” is an increasingly fashionable word. It is trendy to identify various groups in society as “tribal,” in both the US and Israel. The term is used partly as a signal among people who think of identity and politics as “tribal” and want to signal to each other with a kind of wink that they agree about this term. But what does it mean, and why has it become common? A few recent examples: Tom Nichols, a professor at the US Naval War College, had a spat with Lee Aronsohn, co-creator of TV show Two and a Half Men. “I’m not going to join a center-left party. But America needs one.
I realize that for you, it’s a tribal all-or-nothing,” wrote Tom.
Author and Yale Law professor Amy Chua also spoke about how America was becoming addicted to “tribalism” in an interview at The Straits Times
on March 5. “It used to be you saw people on the other side of the political divide as people you could go to dinner with... now it seems like they are immoral enemies,” she said. It is a “fracturing” of the country.
Chua said that the “browning of America” has made it so white people and minorities feel threatened. She drew attention to the “coastal elites.” The “well educated and cosmopolitan.”
She says her kids are “half Jewish and half Chinese” and that “they think of themselves as the opposite of tribal, but they don’t see how tribal they are.” She says that people in the heartland don’t see the others as “real Americans.”
For Edward McClelland, another author, “Trump is the tribal chieftain of white America.”
In Israel the idea of a “tribal” lens is also being pushed from the top down. President Reuven Rivlin gave a speech in 2015 in which he claimed children from different backgrounds not only don’t meet each other but “are educated toward a totally different outlook regarding the basic values and desired character of the State of Israel.” He claimed that “Israeli politics to a great extent is built as an inter-tribal zero-sum game.”
The focus on tribes in Israel has a bizarre self-fulfilling-prophecy aspect to it. You tell people they are irretrievably different and that where they are born or what background they are born into will forever separate them from other groups and they grow up believing that. Then those people create institutions that perpetuate the separation. The more you tell them they are tribes, the more they behave like tribes, even if 100 years ago they were relatively similar.
When race, class and religion become synonymous with “tribal” political affiliation, the result is a toxic mix of racism and division.
Because people can change their political affiliation, but less easily change their class, religion or race, the propagandizing of “tribal” differences leads to accepted discrimination against people based on race, class or religion, justified as political discrimination.
How does this work? Think of it this way: if we had a society of blue and red people, and we said “all the blues are fascist” and “all the reds are progressives,” then the reds could simply not hire or want to integrate with blues under the excuse that “I don’t associate with ignorant fascists.” Political choices would help perpetuate color differences.
This hatred for regional and tribal differences was on display at one gun control rally in the US. A man held up a sign saying “f*** the heartland.” It was reminiscent of Barack Obama’s claim that rural people “cling” to guns and religion. The idea is to stereotype people from part of America as irretrievably backward and bad. Once that has been done then people on the coasts can pat themselves on the back as being “superior.” It insulates class and regional differences by making acceptable discrimination against anyone from the “heartland” as “not one of us.”
Who benefits from the claims of increased “tribalism”? Privileged people are the main beneficiaries. They believe that being born wealthy now means they were born “superior,” as evidenced by their politics. If you’re not familiar with terms like “gaslighting” or “dumpster fire” then you aren’t “one of us.”
And where do people learn these terms? In their financially well endowed education systems and among groups of friends who are told that being insular is cool.
It used to be Western societies were looking for meritocracy and strength in diversity.
Now we are being told by the wealthy and powerful that merit doesn’t matter, and diversity is bunk, and we should be “tribal.”
That is because this is in the interests of the powerful. They fear the threat of meritocracy.
It wasn’t enough for them that their schools are already far better and their children have access to types of non-profit volunteering prized by universities, while the poor work – now we are told that even if you have merit you are a different “tribe.”
A piece at Vox neatly illustrates this. The author argues that the Trump election “convinced a great many people in elite political circles that they were hopelessly out of touch.” But the piece goes on to argue they are right to be out of touch, because Trump voters “overlap (mostly) with the interests of the white, suburban and rural conservative base. The only conceivable motivation to support him is tribal.”
Thus the political Right in the US is part of a “cultural backlash, against immigrants, minorities, uppity women, liberals and all other forces seen as dislodging traditional white men from their centrality in American culture.”
Again and again the article claims “white men” are “hostile” toward minorities and women. “America’s angry whites. Who are these whites? Well they are against bourgeois morality and standards of conduct, against changing demographics” and they are from a demographic that experiences change as “a loss of dignity and prestige.”
I grew up in rural Maine and then moved to rural Arizona for high school. I never met any “rural whites” who viewed their life as a “loss of dignity and prestige.” Anyone watching old American films such as Inherit the Wind
(1960) sees a rural white culture that was already out of pace with wealthy elites.
It didn’t “lose” prestige, it never had prestige.
Just watch Deliverance
(1972) and you’ll already see the caricature of rural whites ingrained in master narratives.
So what’s really happening in America isn’t about a “tribe” of rural “white men,” it is about an imagined community of them that has been constructed, to serve an agenda.
Hillary Clinton referenced this in a comment she made in India: “We do not do well with white men and we don’t do well with married white women,” she claimed of her voter base. Why? Because of “ongoing pressure [on women] to vote the way that your husband, your boss, your son whoever believes you should.”
But wait – Clinton won the vote among women by 54% to 42%. Actually she won the popular vote overall by several million. However, it’s easier to blame “white men.”
WHAT’S REALLY going on with the constant refrain in America about “white men”? Most of the “elites” employing it are also white men; the real story behind the creation of a white male bogeyman in America is about enshrining a class-political difference in American society.
In Israel something similar happens. In Israel there is a devotion to dividing society along “Ashkenazi” and “Mizrahi” lines. In some media Mizrahim are depicted like rural whites in America, they are called “right wing” and “racist.” There is a remarkable similarity therefore between Israeli and American politics in the need to label poorer people “racist” in order to discredit their views. Western society has largely become divided between imagined communities of “rural racists” and “good non-rural progressives.”
People are labeled “racist” with no relation to reality. Bizarrely, in Israel there are left-leaning communities that practice official segregation against non-Jews and often against non-Ashkenazi Jews, through acceptance committees, but who still call other Jews “racist.” In a recent case a community in northern Israel that votes mostly Left canceled development of a new subdivision because Arabs had sought to move in. The same thing happens in America. Newsrooms that might be 95% white will still be full of people who call rural America “racist.” The most segregated, white spaces in the US tend to call others “racist” the most, to protect themselves from critique.
Racism has thus become tied to class, place of origin, race and political affiliation. The goal is to create a hermetically sealed “elite” area that can openly discriminate based on race, religion and class, but claim they are discriminating against “racists.”
I sat down with some of these “racists” recently, mostly white college students who had come to Israel and were doing a project.
They came from a cross section of America, mostly from areas portrayed as “tribal.” Yet they seemed perfectly tolerant to me. They chose to stay in Bethlehem. They enjoyed meeting Arabs and learning about local cultures.
Yet, they were mostly white, and therefore in the modern American parlance they were the “racists.”
Western society increasingly places on people a mark from birth, imprisoning them with a label without giving them any choice in the matter. This is used to create arbitrary divisions in society. Our society has largely given up on trying to provide great education to all people and allow them to dream and have access to opportunity. Fearful of social mobility, a rising chorus shouts “tribal and racist” at everyone not born in a certain zip code, to isolate them and make societal gaps into a social wall. Unfortunately the higher the walls grow, the more the “tribalism” will actually come into existence.
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