Rarely do the liberal and conservative elites unite in denouncing something. Tribalism, however, they both hate. In elite circles, “tribalism” is the opposite of an urbane, cosmopolitanism outlook. Brexit was cursed as “a reversion to tribalism.”
The liberal elite are joined by the conservative elite in denouncing American tribalism. The conservative elite on “Fox & Friends” joined together one recent morning to lament “hyphenated Americans” who “focus on background.” Having an ethnic identity, like Norwegian, Irish, or African American, is what “we have been trying to move past for a long time.”
“My grandmother, I believe, spoke Norwegian,” Fox News host Pete Hegseth said. “I don’t know a word of Norwegian. That’s what I hope every group who comes here does.” His conservative co-hosts agreed.
These elites act as if their elite tribe is somehow not a tribe. As laughable as this idea is, it’s also horribly cruel. What they value so much in their own lives, belonging to a little platoon that provides a sense of identity and purpose, they want to deny to everyone else.
As conservatism has increasingly defined itself as hating what progressives stand for, the conservative position on race and ethnicity has been to demand a “color blindness” and a denunciation of identity politics that eyes with suspicion any identity other than “American.”
Whether the elites are liberal or conservative, they all seem to have the same attitude. They want to ban tribalism (all tribes but their own) because they desire a society which looks up to them. They seem to want a homogeneous mass of identical individuals whose happiness and behavior depends on direction from them, the elite.
But the elites miss what underlies a strong and resilient society. The most resilient societies are diverse, but the diversity serves a common purpose. It is complementary diversity. It is composed of communities which are all independent but all working together for the common good. America has always been a nation of people with multiple overlapping identities. We have our American-ness as one identity, but that is tied up with a diversity that includes our particular geographic place, our particular vocation, our particular faith, and, yes, our particular ethnicity.
You cannot understand a person, including yourself, without trying to comprehend the invisible forces, spanning generations, that shaped you.
A corollary to this insight is that we owe it to our children to give them not only a healthy and happy and challenging now. If we hope they have a happy and successful tomorrow, we need to also give them a yesterday. In some cultures, this is easy and natural. In some settings, this takes real effort.
A recent book provides a great illustration. It’s author, Michael Brendan Dougherty,was raised around New York City as an only child of a single mother, with only irregular contact with his father from Ireland.
Spending one’s youth in different suburbs, in two different states, raised without a father is a formula for serious alienation. It’s the same profile as the man who murdered Heather Heyer with his car in Charlottesville, Va., after joining a white nationalist movement. Much of what afflicts the working class in Middle America today is the nakedness of a deracinated life: We have more and more men who lack faith, who lack ethnicity, who lack fathers, and who live in areas that lack a sense of distinctive place.
So, what did Dougherty’s mother do? How did she try to save her son?
She made him Irish.
First, she named him Michael Brendan Dougherty.
Then she dug deep to plant roots that would anchor this little family that otherwise could be tossed by the tempests of modernity. She brought little Michael to Irish culture festivals and Irish pubs. She brought him to Gaeltacht Weekends where attendees were supposed to speak no English, but only the Old Irish language, which, as an act of rebellion, some of the Irish had been trying to resurrect for about a century.
“[M]y own nursery was injected with a peculiar kind of Irish nationalism,” Dougherty writes. “My mother wanted me to know myself as Irish. ”
His book is grounded in the specific worlds of Ireland, greater New York, parochial school, and modern America. One can divine easily the broader lesson, though, and that’s why a the book has been praised by a bunch of Jewish American conservative writers who appreciate the richness of family, faith, ethnicity, and language.
“None are so blind as they who will not see.” Other writers and commentators denigrate America, the deplorables, Wal-mart goers, and any other tribe other than their own liberal minded clique. They can’t see how they draw sustenance from being part of a very exclusive community which sure looks like a tribe. They denounce tribalism while pledging full allegiance to their own tribe.
We have an innate need to be part of a tribe. Loving your people, your ethnicity, your culture is something we all need. But when such love is coupled with hate of all those who aren’t part of your tribe, tribalism become destructive.
“We are totally right and they are totally wrong” is an extreme of tribalism which assures destruction. The American Indians were divided into thousands of tribes which nearly all fought with each other even as the advancing Europeans took over their lands. Something similar is happening in the US today. Because we are so busy fighting with each other instead of working together to conquer our many challenges, other tribes are invading and taking over more and more of our country as we fight with each other.
Even if one side does win, this tribalism will identify an Other within its ranks. Then the tribalism and destruction will begin anew. Spend a little time in Africa and you’ll see how tribalism destroys. Yet the elite in Africa also want to eliminate tribalism, while not recognizing they are part of a tribe who wants to eliminate tribalism.
Belonging to a community or tribe is good. But watch out or your allegiance to your tribe will result in destruction all around.