Thursday, September 28, 2017

Guess Again--It Ain't Tribalism

The latest trope being used to explain political America is "tribalism."  Close but no cigar.  Keep looking for an appropriate hook because this one isn't it.  It is only partially accurate, even as a metaphor, and partially offensive.

"Tribalism" has been used before as shorthand for a closed society, intolerant of others and their views.  It's even been applied to corporations.  But only recently has it become a more elaborate idea applied to politics, even as it has seemingly become the fashionable replacement for the previous lazy buzzword, "polarization."

The brief evolution of this trope is interesting, for things mutate fast in cyberspace.  The latest round probably started with Lee Drutman at Vox about hyperpartisanship in today's politics, positing two mutually exclusive positions held by two mutually exclusive segments of the electorate, each informed by contrary and rigid ideologies, and by closed information loops to the point that anything said by the other side is automatically dismissed as, at best, untrue.

Fine, not a lot new there, until this sentence: "But for years now, we’ve been retreating into our separate tribal epistemologies, each with their own increasingly incompatible set of facts and first premises."  The term 'tribal epistemologies' was hot linked to a piece by David Roberts published in May called Donald Trump and the rise of tribal epistemology, in which he quotes Rush Limbaugh:

"We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated, and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, and that’s where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes ever overlap."

Roberts goes on to say "It is well known that Americans have been sorting themselves into like-minded communities by race, class, and ideology, creating more in-group homogeneity and cultural “bubbles.”' That it's well known doesn't stop him from adding some social science research showing that Americans have been "sorting themselves" by personality as well as the usual other categories.  All of this results in the US being split into "two increasingly polarized cultures" or even "two countries."

Drutman's piece adds more social science observations, such as "As political scientist Lilliana Mason convincingly argues, 'The more sorted we become, the more emotionally we react to normal political events.'”

The justifications for these generalities or categorizations aside, both pieces use the term "tribal epistemologies" without defining it or even ever again referring to the term.

However, the tribalism motif goes into high gear with Andrew Sullivan's long mid-September essay "America Wasn’t Built for Humans," with the explanatory subtitle: "Tribalism was an urge our Founding Fathers assumed we could overcome. And so it has become our greatest vulnerability."

This time Sullivan is explicit about what he means by tribalism, if mostly through examples:

"Tribal loyalties turned Beirut, Lebanon’s beautiful, cosmopolitan capital, into an urban wasteland in the 1970s; they caused close to a million deaths in a few months in Rwanda in the 1990s; they are turning Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, into an enabler of ethnic cleansing right now in Myanmar." 

Other examples are Scots and Catalans.
All these are ethnic/religious groups within artificially constructed countries. Sullivan mentions Sebastian Junger's book Tribes, which posits that humans most naturally bond into small groups, as they have since the beginning of human society. So Sullivan (following Junger one assumes) includes Dead Heads, Packers fans, and members of Facebook groups within the definition of tribes.

 African Americans, brought forcibly to America as slaves, constitute a tribe, as do Mormons.  Today the political tribes are called Democrats and Republicans, with distinct geographical distribution, socioeconomic status, educational attainment and so on, in addition to race.

Despite their differences (some of which Sullivan acknowledges), he calls all of these groups tribes.  His contemporary analysis of America however does not include the one group that defines itself as living in tribes: Native Americans, American Indians (known by different names in Canada, Mexico and Central America.)

In my work with American Indian organizations I learned a number of things, the first of which is that non-Indians like me should never presume to speak for Indians, because they can speak for themselves.  But my recollection as well as my educated guess is that the appropriation of the term "tribes" is generally offensive to them, as it does not comport with either their contemporary realities nor their history and traditions. Nor does it, in my view, with other surviving indigenous societies.

Sullivan's essay appeared in New York Magazine online, as did a subsequent video The Psychology of Tribalism which in images as well as words takes the next step of linking political polarization to the history of tribes.

While the voice of an academic psychologist talks about the "normative value" of "following the crowd" fostered by tribal societies, the apparently contemporary video shows a group of girls in what appears to be Northwest Coast Native regalia, following each other to presumably participate in a ceremony or an exhibition of a traditional--that is, religious--dance.  

This combination of words and images I am pretty certain is specifically offensive.  This is the point where the distortions of a sloppy metaphor become ignorant and dismissive.

It is more than ironic that the only American societies with the name of tribes, legally recognized as such, largely do not fit the stereotypes of the tribe in these analyses.  Moreover, the history and traditions of existing Indian tribes contravene many of these stereotypes.

Even historically, the basis of American democracy and of the union of the United States can both be found in prior American Indian concepts and practices.  The tribal council was the first Congress on this continent.  The Iroquois Confederacy was the first union.

Today's tribes are heterogeneous, and blood relationship is usually just one of the factors required for membership, and may not be considered at all.  This pertains to small tribes (though some of them don't use the term), and the few large ones.  But in other ways, size matters.

Anthropologists say that humans banded together in small groups--sometimes only a dozen or so--for hundreds of thousands of years before history began.  This is the basis for the idea of tribes.  Small groups were often isolated, and sometimes hostile to one another.  But this was not always the case.  In fact, mating or marriage within the group--even if it were possible, with a group so small--was often frowned upon, or forbidden.  Marriages among tribes were important even when not necessary, as extending relationships helped keep the peace.

Tribal beliefs--including an origin story, ceremonies, etc.--might be different, but often they were similar among neighboring tribes.  There was enmity and stereotyping and fear, but there was also exchange of knowledge and ideas as well as goods.  Often there had to be, for survival.  Kim Stanley Robinson's Ice Age novel Shaman captures this very well.  There are also documented traditions among tribal groups (in Africa for instance) that required that one group help another that might be experiencing food shortages or drought, with the understanding that they were be aided in return when they were in similar straits.

How any of this applies to either Cheeseheads or 35% of the American electorate eludes me.

Moreover, these tribal traditions cannot be understood without the basis that none of these analyses consider.  They are all about the relationship of these human societies to the natural world.

When Andrew Sullivan mentions Native American tribes, he quotes Junger as noting that in colonial times many whites joined Indian tribes (including captives who refused to return to white society) while the reverse did not voluntarily occur.  Sullivan and Junger conclude that this was because of the strength of tribal bonds and relationships.

But that's a simplistic and deceptive explanation, according to the reading and research I did on the so-called "white Indian" phenomenon, specifically in colonial Pennsylvania.  It was the way of life derived from the relationship to the natural world that attracted many.  Indeed, they rebelled against the constraints and enforced conformity of white society (especially the women), which were more "tribal" in the sense these analysts seem to use the term.

That they were embedded in the natural world, physically and spiritually, informed all the social and religious traditions of indigenous peoples in America and elsewhere in the world.  That relationship is so essential to early humanity that no analysis of their social organization can be separated from it.

This is also the basis for the revival of traditions within contemporary tribes, such as ceremonies by Northwest and North Coast peoples.  These ceremonies as well as languages and other cultural elements were forbidden by white governments for generations and many were partially or wholly lost.  American Indians suffered their own physical and cultural holocaust over centuries, and these revivals are ways of reclaiming identity and self-respect as well as tribal wisdom that's increasingly useful to the world at large as it faces the consequences of destroying its natural world context.

These are some of the reasons why American Indians might be sensitive about the appropriation of some distorted notion of tribe, not to mention specific expressions of what in many cases has been a hard won and nearly miraculous cultural revival.

So tribes reflect our primordial roots in small face-to-face groups.  Then how can a tribe be comprised of millions of people who don't know each other?  And if this is a tribal divide, why just two sides?  If we were subdividing on this basis, wouldn't we have many tribes?   The word starts to lose its meaning fast.

The application of the tribal model to this debate is questionable on other grounds, often due to the distortions of human societies caused by capitalism, as well as other factors such as urbanization and the dominance of the desert religions.

Capitalism as a social organizer means that a person's behavior and expressed beliefs are often determined by how they make their money.  Entire societies depend on that context.  A lot of our current division may as well--as income inequality becomes extreme.

A lot of what the tribal epistemology is supposed to represent depends on how you make your money (which also means who is paying you for what, and how much.)  The enforced sameness within a group seems tribal only when it is smaller in scale.  Sometimes it's been pretty big. Does anyone remember the 1950s?

The 1950s, as analyzed in the early 1960s, were characterized by what at the time was called conformity, and it was a force across American society.  There was one way to think and behave, modified by other factors such as ethnic groups and class.  The operative metaphor was the assembly line.

Conformity was so strong that apart from rebellion by some crazy artists and intellectuals, the only opposition was generational.  With those crazy artists and intellectuals as touchstones, the younger generation--first the teenagers and juvenile delinquents of the 50s, and then the Vietnam/hippie generation of the late 60s--diverged.

  It was a worldwide phenomenon, the generation gap, and though the hippies were drawn to Native traditions and emulated aspects of tribes, the dividing line was between a portion of the Baby Boom generation and the majority of their parents' generation.  The lockstep conformity was broken.  And now that's apparently considered a bad thing, because it led to "tribalism."

Certainly there are merits to the analysis that sees strong political divergence according to cultural differences rooted in geography and history (the South, as the most vivid example) and socioeconomics.  These differences are abetted by a breakdown in common sources and standards of information , fostered by a number of factors, most prominent among them being new information sources made possible and accessible by the Internet and related hardware, but also by partisan political opportunists and what must be a really shitty educational system.

So if you posit two sides, as all these folks basically do, then you have two sets of facts.  Unfortunately for the theory, actual tribal societies could not afford two sets of facts.

They might have different beliefs about why things happen or what to do about them. (And the reasons thing happened did not, as Sullivan asserts, always depend on gods, especially not in our cut-off-from-nature sense of the term.)   But their constant dependence on the realities of the natural world meant that its facts could not be ignored.  Close observation and accurate memory over generations were crucial.  In this sense, what we need is precisely a lot more tribal thinking.

There have been other objections made to Sullivan's essay.  I've previously noted my agreement with Jonathan Chiat's point disputing the equivalence given to the two sides' contentions in the Drutman piece.  People from the left are fully capable of asserting and believing stuff that isn't true, but by and large, it is the folks from the right that do not respect facts and the process of ascertaining facts.  Some people are capable of being persuaded they are wrong, based on the application of scientific, scholarly and journalistic standards as well as logic and debate, and some people are not.

You have to accept the absurd right wing notion of a complete conspiracy not only of people but of process to make this equivalence. Similarly you have to bend the concepts of tolerance and intolerance a long way to the right to make that equivalence. A sense of security and belonging of course pertain to the tenacious hold on views by both sides, but probably a lot more strongly on the right, which may have to do with the common fear and sense of threat implied by exclusionary beliefs (racism, misogyny etc.) and the particulars of a common and absolutist set of religious tenets.

Everyone makes assumptions and can be blind to them, although some can learn from having them pointed out. The difference finally is between those who are dogmatic (or entirely opportunistic) and those who are not.  Dogmatism is not an intrinsic quality of tribes or tribal knowledge.  Nor is shameless opportunism.  The metaphor fails.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Emergency: Real Now, Real Later

Provocation, response, let's move on from NFL protests before any more people suffer and die in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and other islands devastated by Hurricane Maria.

Only relentless media coverage will force this administration to pay attention to the brown people out in the ocean.

Multiple reports say that due to inadequate federal response, things are getting desperate in Puerto Rico.  Philip Carter at Slate:

"Only the most rudimentary military support is now on the ground. This is inadequate and calls to mind the lethargic response by the Bush administration to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The U.S. military has a unique expeditionary capability to deliver humanitarian support, logistics, and security anywhere in the world, far above what FEMA or any other civilian agency can muster. American citizens are suffering and dying and need all their government can do for them (including the military). Unfortunately, their president and the military at his command appear focused elsewhere. Unless this changes, more Americans will die."

Some troops and resources are there and have met some emergency needs for water and food.  But it's not enough:

"Make no mistake: These troops have already saved lives and will save more in the weeks to come. Delivering 1.1 million liters of water is no small task. But Puerto Rico has 3.4 million residents, and another 100,000 live in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Clean water is a basic daily necessity. These islands’ residents will need orders of magnitude more—plus food, fuel, electricity, housing, medicine, and more—in the months to come until local capacity is restored."

The size of the human resources and quantity of other resources needed, plus the length of time this will remain an emergency, is just a preview of the climate crisis future.  For the sake of the victims, it's time to pay attention.

As for official response from the top, it has been--what else?--lunatic and provocative.  The Guardian:

"It took Donald Trump five full days to respond to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria on the lives of 3.5 million Americans in Puerto Rico, and when he finally did so his comments on Twitter were so devoid of empathy it threatened to spark a new controversy.

Hot on the heels of the billowing dispute he single-handedly provoked over African-American sporting figures protesting racial inequality during the national anthem, Trump launched another provocation on Monday night with a belated and lacklustre response to the Puerto Rican disaster. In a series of three tweets he effectively blamed the islanders – all of whom are American citizens – for their own misfortune."

He blamed Puerto Rico for an old electrical grid and for being in debt to Wall Street.  Juliette Kayyem, a former senior official in the department of homeland security under President Obama, said that Trump’s response to the Puerto Rico disaster showed “a lack of empathy of epic proportions”.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Provocations (with Updates)

Update (one of two, see below): Couldn't pass up passing along the concluding paragraph of Jelani Cobb's piece in the New Yorker about some of the topics in this post:

"Amid Trump’s nuclear brinksmanship and social-media provocation toward North Korea, amid the swollen gorges of water streaming through Puerto Rico, amid the craven and indefensible attempts to gut health care, amid the slower-moving crises of voting access, economic inequality, and climate change—amid all these things, Trump yet again found a novel way to diminish the nation he purportedly leads. He has authored danger in more ways than there are novel ways to denounce it. This is his singular genius. When this moment has elapsed, when some inevitably unsatisfactory punctuation has concluded the Trump era, we will be left with an infinitude of questions. But Trump, we will assuredly understand, is a small man with a fetish for the symbols of democracy and a bottomless hostility for the actual practice of it."

A weekend of taking sides is also a weekend of parsing meaning, a process of defining terms carefully and precisely in response to events and to the incumbent in the White House.  Because of the dangers that lurk if we don't.

I begin with a quote from a perceptive essay by James Fallows at the Atlantic entitled "Donald Trump's Shocking Recklessness":

"Who Donald Trump was, and is, was absolutely clear by election day: ignorant, biased, narcissistic, dishonest."  Fallows notes that Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that "everyone who voted for him did so with ample evidence about the kind of person they considered the “better” choice, or even as a minimally acceptable choice for president."  An argument I've made here since election day.  Fallows point however is this:

 "Almost nothing Trump has done since taking office should come as a surprise.
But numerous things Trump has done are objectively shocking, in the sense of further violating the norms of the office and the historic standards the previous 44 incumbents have observed. (Among the things the Trump era has taught us: the difference in nuance between shock and surprise. Donald Trump in office has delivered a nonstop series of shocks, no one of which can really be considered a surprise.)

Many of us out here understand this as our reaction, but it is a very useful distinction in judging other effects.  Shocks by definition galvanize attention, and that's the game that our apprentice dictator has been playing, consciously and not, all along.  In this case, it takes attention away from ongoing Russia investigation news, his new travel ban, collapse of the unhealthcare bill and especially the delicious revelation that Jared Kushner used private email to conduct White House business.  All of it dropped lower or off the news pages thanks to this shocking behavior regarding professional sports figures.

The weekend's shock was over-the-top criticism of NFL players who protest during the national anthem and the NFL for not punishing them (as well as having rules limiting on field violence,) At the same time, naming Steph Curry and the NBA champion Golden State Warriors and cancelling their invitation to the White House because Curry and other players had answered reporters' questions and said they weren't inclined to go because of his racial divisiveness.  Fallows essay showed that past presidents (namely LBJ and Nixon) said nothing about prominent racial protests by sports figures.

NBA players responded in anger on the Internet, with LeBron James Tweet calling the a.d. a bum breaking a Twitter record for retweets.  On Sunday, well over a hundred NFL players protested during the national anthem.  As did others at these games--including two people who sang the national anthem.  To make things perfectly clear, players protested during the US national anthem at a game played in London, England, but stood for "God Save the Queen."

The NFL protests were various.  Some followed the example of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and took a knee.  Others linked arms in solidarity, a somewhat ambiguous protest.  Others remained off the field during the national anthem, which in the case of the Pittsburgh Steelers reportedly indicated they couldn't agree on what the team should do.  That might indicate a lack of unity that might help to account for losing a game they were favored to win.

Personally, I'll believe in the sincerity of NFL teams and their management when somebody actually hires Colin Kaepernick, a capable player who has been blacklisted because of his protest.

Still, the rebuke was interpreted as widespread, and there will be more.  These are responses to provocation, which is what Fallows essay is about.  Sure, the whole thing is beneath the office of the President, but so is the incumbent, what do you expect?  It's a shock but not a surprise.

Fallows however links this tendency with the a.d.'s continuing to provoke the leader of North Korea, to the point where they have both promised to destroy the other, which would in practice mean that millions of others would die or suffer and the Earth further damaged, though those two would probably survive.

  This is such unprecedented and above all irresponsible behavior that it is itself an impeachable offense, in my view.  (These offenses can be general, with specific instances to confirm them.)

Which brings us to two other sets of definitions.  The first is sanity, as yet another story--or book review-- on the subject finds a growing alarm among psychologists that the a.d. is addled in the head in a a dangerous way.  Although according to one book reviewed, so is the entire country that elected him.

What does this mean in practical terms?  That the man with the nuclear codes cannot control his behavior, that what he tells himself are reasons really arise from his unconscious,  and he is convinced by them because there is something wrong with him akin to a disease.  (Many of today's psychologists would put it more strongly--he is mentally ill, it is a disease.  If only they could agree which ones.)

The concepts here are so new to the political system that the chance of this "mental derangement" triggering a constitutional process to remove him seems vanishingly small.  However, the idea that he may be incapable of not acting irresponsibly could factor into a congressional process of impeachment.  Although since by any prior standards the Republican party is itself acting irresponsibly (especially with their shameful unhealthcare bill) chances are not all that much better.

Finally, we've come to this pretty pass: many can easily agree that the a.d. is a functionally a racist and a racist demagogue, but is he a white supremacist? Jonathan Chiat posted a careful analysis of the term "white supremacist" as it has traditionally been used in political discourse, and argues that it does not apply, and further, that it might be dangerous and needlessly provocative to make this charge--as several responsible commentators he names recently have.

Update: Without naming Chiat, WPost columnist Eugene Robinson responded with a column titled "If Trump's not a white supremacist, he does a good impression."  Michael Gerson uses the other term in his WPost column, "America has a racial demagogue for a president."  The New Yorker published three articles under the general heading, "Trump's Racial Demagoguery" beginning with this one.

I am not sure where I come down in this specific debate, although I am usually in favor of precision, and in maintaining as many words with shades of meaning as possible.  But I do want to comment on one of his other observations.  He goes after those who in some sense equate the a.d. with Hitler. "The equation of Trump with Hitler is a way of using history that treats American democracy as a failed experiment. All its procedural niceties, like freedom of speech even for those with the most heinous beliefs, are suddenly unaffordable luxuries."   

I certainly do not agree that in highlighting the warning signs that historically characterized the rise and reign of Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy implies that "freedom of speech" is a "suddenly unaffordable" luxury.  Nor do I condone so-called antifa violence.

Those signs need to be highlighted because the idea that "it can't happen here" is too entrenched.  Yes, "Homegrown Hitler" is a provocation--meant to provoke considering the likelihood that his intent is dictatorial or authoritarian, and his methods and some of his ideology are very close.

  Clearly a lot of things that conventional wisdom believed couldn't happen here have happened, and exhibit A is currently in the White House, or the White Tower as it should be called now.  That does not imply that lawful and democratic means can't prevent the worst.  Indeed, they must.

Chiat is notable for being a liberal who worries about intolerance from the left, as well he should.  But in judging disruptive protests, I argue for more nuance.  What are the basis for specific protests?  The content of speech or the misuse of funds to pay the speaker?  Here I'm dipping my foot in waters where I shouldn't, since I don't care to get involved in such debates.  I've had my day, paid my dues.  But I suggest the need for nuance hasn't been exhausted.  Though in general I suppose we all have been.  Some weekend.