Culture Wars: The Tribalism Problem

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I had something different in mind for my opening post here, but then H.Con.Res.274, the “In God We Trust” motto-reaffirmation bill, raised its snout. This congressional action at this time in our history seems iconic of the tribal subtext defining the economic conflicts discussed on this blog.  Particularly in light of the Japanese response to their ongoing national disaster – a response that appears to put national interests ahead of personal ones – I do not think we can understand discussions of our economic problems without some acknowledgement of our functional tribality.

I’m going to admit something here that could (should?) be embarrassing:  until I noticed H.Con.Res.274 the other day, I thought our national motto was E Pluribus Unum, usually translated from the Latin as “Out of many, one.”  In my defense, I will argue that this is a reasonable mistake.  With its thirteen letters, this phrase symbolized both the formation of one nation from thirteen separate colonies and the essential national metaphor, as I learned it back in grade school:  the national melting pot.  “We all came here from other places,” went the myth, forgetting the Native Americans, “but we’re all Americans now.”  Our national origins may include the ends of the Earth, our worldviews – both supernaturalistic and naturalistic – may conflict, and our financial circumstances may vary widely, but once here, once we are Americans, that one fact concludes a commonality that trumps all those differences.  We then have common interests, national interests, the good of us all, which predominate.

Historians can debate whether, and to what extent, the melting pot was ever an accurate national metaphor.  It is true that E Pluribus Unum was ever only a de facto motto, never a codified one.  My argument, though, is that this unity was a national ideal, if perhaps a vague one.  We purported to celebrate our differences, if only in the self-congratulatory belief that our great national experiment could incorporate everything.  People arrived here as Something Else and became Americans.  The fuzzy quality of this transformation suggests its mythic character, but the myth persisted.

Then came the ‘50s, the Cold War.  I well recall learning the new Pledge of Allegiance in grade school, the admonition not to pause after “one nation.”  “There’s no comma there, class,” I can still hear my teacher saying, “It’s ‘one nation under God’.”  But I have no recollection of the codification of “In God We Trust” the following year, 1956, as our national motto.  These two obvious violations of the First Amendment – the Pledge and the motto – are usually excused as understandable responses to the perceived existential threat posed by international, and godless, communism.  Well, perhaps.  The so-called Iron Curtain countries did appear to pose a genuine military threat to our nation and to our very lives.  And certainly our tribality response is triggered by external challenges; we “circle the wagons” when “the Indians” attack.  But can one imagine a more stark divergence of national identification, from E Pluribus Unum to In God We Trust, from transformative unity to parochial supernaturalism, from “Let’s compromise differences and emphasize commonality” to “My way or the highway”?

And why, again, now?  What external threats do the Motto Representatives perceive?  The only military one we hear about is posed by something called “Islamist terrorists” or “jihadist Islam.”  But, after the Cold War, this threat seems puny, a matter of concern but in no way existential.  Indeed, our current rapid response to the Libyan uprising indicates our military preeminence in the world; within certain ethnic and geographic limits, we can pretty much bomb who we want when we want.  Notwithstanding the ongoing efforts of some, Americans just don’t fear “Muslims” like we used to fear “Russians.”

What then is the threat that prompts this present attempt to proclaim, to the world and to ourselves, that we have a national god?  I submit that it is a widely felt, nagging sense that we are now not one people, one tribe, but an agglomeration of distinct tribes and that tribal differences are now sucking the Unum out of our Pluribus.  Our cultural fragmentation is finally apparent to everyone and the legislative response is to reestablish a national identity, a powerful, unchallengeable Unum:  We Americans are people who trust “God.”

And “God” may be just fuzzy enough to recruit a solid majority of us, a coalition to include all of our tribes that worship a One True God (OTG), be it Yahweh or Jehovah or Jesus or Allah or Elohim (but probably not The Flying Spaghetti Monster).  Or maybe not.  Given the tribal constituency of the House of Representatives, it is likely that American Jews and Mormons and Muslims believe that the OTG referred to in the Motto Bill is a 50-50 blend of Jesus and Jehovah, with perhaps a whiff of Yahweh, but no hint of Elohim or Allah.  If so, the Motto Bill will be counterproductive even among followers of an OTG, actually highlighting tribal differences.  And it will certainly be so for all tribes that are nontheistic or polytheistic, or supernaturalistic in the myriad other ways that do not involve monotheism.

Except in the most homogeneous of theocracies, governmental identification with an OTG can never be in the interest of national unity and identification.  Witness the fissures in the national edifice caused in various Mideast states by the relatively limited Sunni/Shia differences.  In our increasingly much more diverse national culture, any such identification can only exacerbate the ongoing tribalistic fragmentation.

But however this Motto Bill plays out among OTG tribes, it cannot even pretend to diminish the tribalisms and sub-tribalisms that form along other, not strictly OTG, dichotomies:  Republican/Democrat, liberal/conservative, anti-abortion/pro-choice, homophobic/gay-friendly, etc.  And it will not, as it would not do at the founding of this nation, forge a national identity.

Which brings me to economics:  How, in such a tribalistic society as ours, can we forge effective national economic policies?  Isn’t the sine qua non of national economic policy that it be in the national interest?  While “national interest” is used in argument by all sides, what can that mean when tribal interests are demonstrably paramount?  It seems to me that until there is some agreed common ground of national interest, there can be no meaningful debate about effective economic policy.

There has to be a metric by which all reasonable people can assess whether and under what circumstances, for example, tax cuts increase the general well-being of the people of this nation.  There has to be a common ground of interest upon which we can all judge economic proposals.  Absent such an agreed, shared perspective, a dispute between “tax cuts now” and “tax the rich” remains one of dueling bumper stickers, not a debate about effective national economic policy.

Allegiance to the nation demands this common ground; allegiance to one’s tribe precludes it.

ARC, 3/26/11

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