Sunday, May 6, 2012

It's the Tribe, Stupid. adapt James Carville's famous dictum to the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign.

So, thanks to Paul Krugman for yesterday's framing of the problem public discourse is having. His blog post entitled "Economic Tribalism" makes clear what my motivation has been for a string of posts here at The American Human.

In my recent scolding of white America it would be easy to assume that I don't like white Americans. Nothing would be further from the truth. For many reasons -- that I'm a white American being not the least -- I relate well to this tribe because I'm a member, however reluctant I may be to acknowledge it from time to time.

My tribe?

No, my problem with white Americans, especially the segment I abhor, is their tribalism. It's not easy holding humanist positions while being a charter member of the white tribe, especially these days -- you know, when a splinter group broke off from the white Borg, as Krugman might say, to become the Tea Party. Now that's a tribe if I ever saw one. Funny thing is, right now it seems able, as a minority subgroup, to wag the Borg, so to speak.

But to my point: The American experiment, so touted as "the greatest nation on Earth," is fracturing like an egg dropped on the kitchen floor. We've broken up into tribes, each not trusting the other, and, most importantly, not seemed to speak even remotely the same language. What's more, we don't seem to accept the same facts.

Not my tribe?

An apparent black man, Barack Obama, was elected president. A significant portion of the white American tribe known best as white Christian conservatives simply freaked out. Anything that supports this freakout, no matter how trivial or untenable, has been assembled into a world view that specifically delegitimizes Barack Obama. This world view, this set of factoids, could best be called the we-weren't-really-ready-for-a-black-president canon.

I call Barack Obama an apparent black man because his mother was a white Kansan. I know there's a kind of Spike Lee graduated scale of blackness that makes most everyone with mixed-race heritage -- which is most of black America anyway -- into a more or less black person. Obama is black, I'll accept it. White America does.

My tribe?

Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said that everyone's entitled to their own opinion, not their own set of facts. A good and serviceable notion, that. But it doesn't apply anymore. Fox News has taken care of that. Rush Limbaugh has taken care of that. Conservative Christian radio has taken care of that.

Now, the knee-jerk reaction should come that my tribe, narrowed to my subgroup of highly educated liberal progressives, has its own set of facts, that we've distorted reality to suit our own canon, to support our own mythology. I simply counter that it's not so.

Our set of facts tend to track reality better for the not insignificant reason that we employ the scientific method for most of our information gathering: we test it, we roll it around, and we accept it or reject it based on an earnest attempt to get to the truth, whether we like it or not. It's what my tribe does. We get educated, we study, we read, we grow, we develop, and at any point where we intersect with society -- which, except in some remote regions, like a research lab, means pretty much with everybody everywhere -- we make a forthright effort to figure stuff out. Full stop.

My tribe.

Sure, if I have the faintest idea what it's like to be raised in a black urban ghetto, it's probably more because I watched all five seasons of The Wire than because I've hung out in the 'hood. But I have made an effort. I want to understand people of differing tribes. My education is imperfect, but it's not for the lack of trying or caring. It's just because we don't always spend time together. We are a fractured society.

But my point about white America getting over its diversity panic is that we should be, as Rodney King tried to point out, learning to get along. It's not that I'm so evolved, so racially colorblind. It's that I've uncovered much of my institutional racism that I've harbored over a lifetime, and I've worked hard to overcome it. I probably never will, but I feel the better for making an effort to root it out, to accept that there are a lot of tribes with a lot of viewpoints, with their own challenges and successes.

My tribe.

Goodness knows the years I spent in Japan made me realize that the Japanese are not like me. I mean it, they're a ton not like me. They're, well, completely unAmerican. I could go into it, but my point is that despite the differences between me and the Japanese I've grown to understand them and appreciate them. I could join their tribe and have a reasonably happy life.

That goes, I suspect, for a lot of societies, a lot of races, a lot of tribes. Hell, I'm a bassist, and I bet playing bass in Lynyrd Skynyrd would be a major kick in the ass. But, let's face it, their Sweet Home, Alabama anthem is much too narrowly tribalistic for my tastes. I'd probably get drunk after a gig and let it slip how I really feel and get thrown out of the band but quick.

So, then, not every tribe is for me, but I'd like to think I'm ready to walk a mile in most people's shoes. Whether it shows, I have sympathy for white Christian conservatives; I can understand how their world seems to be slipping away as America becomes browner, gayer, less paternalistic, and less religious. Barack Obama's famous "that's why they cling to guns and religion" line was impolitic but nonetheless true: he was genuinely sympathetic toward their tribe's plight. The ecosystem of the white Christian biome is shifting beneath their feet. They don't know where home is anymore.

Not my tribe!

Fox News figured this out. Rush Limbaugh figured this out. Glenn Beck also possibly figured this out, only it's hard to listen to his rants and not think that Beck has not so much cleverly leveraged a tribe's paranoia as learned how to leverage his own paranoia, his own personal distortion machine, into a schtick that worked in the media, however blessedly short his run might have been.

Thus, if they can say it long enough, larger segments of America will come to believe that Barack Obama is a communist Muslim Kenyan born in Indonesia, raised on dog meat, grammar-schooled in Indonesian madrassas, and further educated in the liberal bastions of Columbia and Harvard -- oddly the same university Mitt Romney received his graduate and post-graduate edification -- so that he, Obama, could come to power to destroy the American world as we know it and replace it with a big-government machine that will insinuate itself into every last filament of our lives. This foreign bastard, this Spawn of Satan, this law professor, was placed on Earth to bring on the end of days.

Wow, nice gig if you can get it. Too bad none of it is true. Barack Obama is a mild-mannered political centrist and certified American who actually resides in the heart of the American experience. His views span many tribes. He "gets" us, he accepts us, he wants all of us to do well. His policy prescriptions are not to the liking of everybody, but they're not out of touch with most of America.

But there's that one sticking point, that one non-negotiable item. He's black. If he were white, he'd be more like Ronald Reagan than me, more like Richard Nixon than me, more like Mitt Romney, fer chrissakes, than me.

I get that. Why's it so hard for the Tea Party? Oh yeah, it's tribal. They access reality through their own special echo chamber. And that's a damned shame. We all could have gotten along. Now, we're a bunch of Humpty Dumpty's, fractured as all get out. Someone like Barack Obama could put us back together if, if, well, what I just said.

Keep this in mind this election season and beyond.

The end of the world as we know it.

No comments:

Post a Comment