23 March 2008

In My Tribe

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

The other day, I hit upon a fundamental organizing flaw in human civilization. It is not religion, or an ongoing series of battles over resources like food or energy, or even territorial disputes and the arbitrary nature of nation-state borders. The problem is an apparently human instinct towards tribalism, which dictates our response to almost every situation, from the basic to the most challenging – and affects all of the elements I mentioned above, and more.

Simultaneously, I realized that this tribalism will bind people together through bad decision-making as much as good: that any given tribe’s sense of self provides the fuel for its self-protective actions, even in the face of changes that might also be considered potential (self-)improvements. Tribes are terrible at realpolitik – to put it mildly – and even worse at recognizing opportunities. Protection of the tribal status quo will always come first, even if that “protection” is itself a kind of long-term suicide.

If these observations on the nature of tribes sound rather simplistic to you – Hutu vs. Tutsi, anyone? the crazy battles both between and within the Sunni and Shia Muslims of Iraq? – then consider some other examples below.


I was listening to a recent episode of This American Life when this concept of tribes, and tribal suicide, started to formulate. “Act Two. The Plan,” from Episode #350: “Human Resources,” is described (in part) as follows: “American cities have gone through a massive wave of gentrification in the last few decades. To some people, it's not a natural ebb and flow of the real estate market, but a plot, by rich, mainly white people, to take over the neighborhoods of poor, mainly black people.” The segment focuses heavily on Washington, DC; shortly after hearing this segment, The Economist ran a small article about new developments in Harlem, while the New York Times ran one about low-income housing in DC.

The segment from This American Life is disturbing, a word that might be an understatement. The idea of a plot, a conspiracy, is problematic – but that is not the worst part. No: worst of all is the apparently self-destructive nature of tribal preservation, presently loudly and clearly: the people – the “poor, mainly black people” – would rather remain poor than risk the change that might come with community improvements.

“Gentrification” is a complicated concept; some would surely argue that it has tribal (read: racist) overtones of its own. And while gentrification has benefits, there can also be corollary problems: when a neighborhood is “gentrified,” housing costs go up, which certainly makes it more difficult for those who cannot afford the new prices. Still, the implicit assumption for those in the This American Life segment is that the negatives of gentrification absolutely outweigh the positives: the assumption seems to be that blacks simply will not be able to participate in the general improvement of their neighborhoods, won’t benefit from the influx of businesses (and jobs) that is usually part of gentrification, and won’t gain anything by a general set of improvements to the area, whether that is a reduction in crime or an increasing in property values. Thus, if they cannot benefit, then gentrification is is simply a plot against them.

I grew up in Washington, DC, during a period when the city was known as the “murder capital.” When parts of the town were so bad that few people I knew (black or white) would even drive through them, let alone visit. When the majority of the city preferred to elect an incompetent mayor subsequently convicted of drug use than ... well, than just about anyone else, because just about anyone else might have been better, but might also have been from a different tribe.

At root, the issue here is one of tribalism: of preferring the misery of one’s own company to the benefit that might come from change brought by others. Even if that change, like the gentrification of neighborhoods, might improve life in a variety of ways.


A segue, for clarity and to head off some sense that there is a tribal undertone to the above. Do not misunderstand me: this is not about race, not about one group of people making poor decisions because they are poor or black. The tribalism I am writing of here affects almost all of us in some way, including those who are wealthy – and white.

To wit: Clinton vs. Obama. What could be more tribal, more viscerally ... ridiculous, than the current fight for the Democratic presidential nomination? A fight filled with irony: not only because of the degree of similarity in the candidates’ positions; not only because by battling each other both candidates make it easier for their Republican opposition; but because Senator Obama has pitched himself as post-racial, in a way that means, really, post-tribal, while Senator Clinton presumed her tribe to be dominant.

It turns out that it takes only one tribe to create a dispute; in this case, it is that of Senator Hillary Clinton. The issue? The Clinton tribe is itself predicated on an earlier, long-standing dispute of its own: the us vs. them / left vs. right battles of the previous decade (and century). Senator Clinton desperately needs to rehash these fights – and win them – in order to validate her own sense of self. Losing to Obama does not mean just losing the chance to run for president. It means losing the opportunity to prove that her tribe, the Clinton tribe, was right: right throughout the entire term of her husband’s presidency, right during the time when they were being investigated for Whitewater and TravelGate and everything else, right when they defended Bill for having oral sex with an intern, right even when Bill was enduring impeachment proceedings. More than anything else – even more than her not-insignificant need for power – Clinton’s desperate desire for the presidency of the United States is based in this ancient dispute.

And it is why Senator Clinton cannot stand it when Senator Obama talks broadly about the idea that Americans of differing views might actually get along with each other. Where is the tribal fun in all that? Ari Berman, in an article from a recent issue of The Nation on the smear campaign against Senator Obama, included the following: “‘No one knows if it's the Clintons, a rogue agent or a Rove agent,’ says Congressman Steve Cohen, a Jewish Obama backer who represents a largely black district in Memphis.” As Berman details, there are many forces – tribes – lined up to attack Senator Obama, and as we know when it comes to tribal politics: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.


What I find of equal interest – and equally saddening – is the apparent inevitability of tribalism, even in the face of an intellectualism that might otherwise seem poised to overcome it. My last example involves something much more personal: my own tribe. I belong to a synagogue, a Conservative-movement synagogue with a liberal, New York feel to it. Let’s put it this way: a synagogue liberal enough that a couple of years ago our rabbi talked about the genocide in Darfur, Sudan on Yom Kippur, rather than about Israel.

Still, even in this intellectually liberal environment, the default reference point for global tragedy tends to revolve around Israel. Services include prayers explicitly for the United States and for Israel, but not for the success of the United Nations, or peacekeeping missions in Darfur, or for the hope and expectation that conflicts everywhere will be resolved, or for other nations (or American states) where terrible things might be happening at that moment. As Americans, praying for the United States might be fine on its own. As Americans, praying for the state of Israel seems downright odd, and frankly, simplistic. Purely tribal.

Consider: Most American Jews have something in common with any random non-Jewish American walking down the street, something that puts the Americans, together, on a different plane from most Israeli Jews: the average American has never served in the military – fewer than 1 in 10 of us have, according to Foreign Policy – whereas Israel has compulsory military service. While many Americans (Jews presumably included) shudder and complain about Islamic nations where Sharia law is followed, we seem to ignore or forget that as much as Israel has a secular government, it also has portions of society controlled – with government backing – by the extremists of Judaism.

It is a sad thing to say, but here is one of the biggest problems of the tribalism of American Jewry: we fetishize Israel. New Yorkers have a parade to celebrate Israel, use Israel (and both implicit and explicit accusations of anti-Semitism) as a focal point for global political analyses, and share vivid, internet-driven information about our oppression, real and imagined.

Will American Jews support raising money to help the victims of Darfur? Maybe. But a couple of years ago, the New York newspaper The Jewish Week surveyed readers about support for rebuilding the homes and businesses of Israeli Arabs, following Israel’s failed war against Hezbollah.

Israeli Arabs – citizens of Israel, no less than the citizens of New Jersey are fellow Americans next to the citizens of New York – and still, if you have read this far, you can probably guess the results of the survey by now.

In the voting, tribalism won out. So much for citizenship – and so much for a civilized society.


Blogger slickdpdx said...

I think a bruising primary is not a bad thing. The opposition party will trot out arguments similar to your party opponents. You won't escape them by having an easy primary. Your candidate will have proven him or herself able to weather the attacks, the news media may have moved on and the electorate will be innoculated by the time the general election rolls around.

6:38 PM  

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