October 10, 2012
It isn't hard to see the thin red line that connects the nakedly tribal appeals of the Democratic National Convention with the bloody chaos in the Middle East. Despite Occupy Wall Street's best efforts our kind of tribalism does not involve mobs and gunmen violently attacking other groups, at least not in the formal sense, just representatives of the tribes getting up on the floor of a convention hall and promising that tribal priorities will be upheld through affirmative action and other redistributive schemes that will move more members of the oppressed tribes up the political and economic ladder.
We may scoff at the absurd sectarian arrangements of Iraqi and Lebanese politics, but we have our own quotas. Like the Sunnis and Shiites we turn out in large numbers to vote for our own, at least those who claim to be our own. Race, gender and other identity tabs have become excellent predictors of voting patterns and our conventions have become tribal displays that carefully include members of all the prominent tribes. Petty matters like economics or national defense have taken a backseat to unconvincing shows of tribal unity.
Somewhere in the middle of the show a speaker insists that we are all members of the same tribe, as Obama said once, "There is no Black America or White America or Latino America or Asian America, there is just the United States of America." Those are fine words, but if they were true, then their speaker would have never have made it to the White House while talking ceaselessly about his racial identity and pitting the racial guilt of one tribe against the racial ambitions of another tribe.
There is a Black America and a White America and a Latino America, in time there will also be an Asian America -- not as occasional neighborhoods, but as slices of the country with dramatically different cultures, economic agendas and outlooks for the future. These are different tribes, who despite the best efforts of the integrators, live apart and think apart. They do not, for the most part, hate each other, but neither do they like each other nearly as much as they like themselves.
These are natural phenomena, but they are also unnatural because politicians have chosen to turn identity into identity politics, to segregate economic and political participation by race and to then equate political and racial identity. They have linked political participation to a subsidized economic infrastructure that offers up patronage and other benefits in exchange for a racial-political alignment and that makes their tribal America not a great deal better than any Middle Eastern country which runs on the same tribal benefits access.
Or to put it another way, we are all Indians now, we all live on reservations waiting for our government check and depending on our corrupt tribal leaders to protect us from the unknowable insanity of a massive government that has too much power and too little mercy. And while you may not live that way now yet, if things go on as they are, your children and grandchildren will live that way, within the bowels of a political machine that is both vast and microscopic at the same time.
Tribalism is another word for chaos, it marks the unwinding of a system based on higher ideals and laws to one that is as simple and petty as stealing from everyone else before they steal from you. In a proper Middle Eastern country, no one can trust each other because blood is stronger than law and family ties are the strongest and most reliable form of ethics that exist. They are the only truly real thing in the region and the only thing that anyone owes their allegiance to.
Toppling a central government, as we discovered in Iraq, leads to tribal chaos and violence until the largest tribe forms a coalition with a few smaller tribes and emerges on top. That happens to be how our own political system works, which is why both conventions were razor sharp exercises in splitting demographics and focusing in on them with shameless pandering. The Democrats were worse at it, but that is because their entire electability is built on tribal alliances, and without their mismatched coalition of minorities, gays, unions and Sanda Flukes, they could no more win an election than could win a war.
The Democrats, loosely speaking, are a coalition of men and women who want to take over the central government, tear down its principles and replace them with their own system of preferences and racial and gender subsidies. They have already been successful in this to a large degree, even if the results have not been particularly beneficial to anyone. That is the other side of tribal government, while there are benefits for everyone, the scale of corruption and ineptitude makes the economy so worthless that the benefits are all there are.
America's tribes largely came to this country because they were trying to escape the tribal and feudal way of doing things. They came to get away from systems where economic opportunity depended on access and on caste privilege, where by the time you came of age, you already knew your destiny and your place in the world. And that America, for all its flaws, managed to persist for quite some time, until it was overwhelmed by the cynical tribalism of a political system that stopped caring about any higher principle than winning the next election.
And so we have guilds and we have tribes and we have all the other medieval and bronze age trappings of a failed society that is going backward, despite its ability to assemble enough engineers to design neat phones for Chinese factories to manufacture. We offer subsidies to the most disruptive tribes in exchange for trying to be less disruptive. Our elections ae now as tribal as anything to be seen in the Middle East and the American Dream now consists of being rewarded for your people's grievances, not for your own deeds.
The only good news is that we are going to the same place as the rest of the world. China's political leadership is further away from being a meritocracy than ever before and its elites are becoming increasingly indistinguishable from a nobility. Europe, despite the blue and gold blanket of the European Union, is fragmenting into its own tribes, except they are no longer national tribes, but a division between the natives and the migrants, many of whom are now in the third generation, but whose allegiances are not to their new country or its culture and history.
Germany is full of Turkish tribes, England is full of Pakistani tribes and France is coping with its Tunisian and Algerian tribes. These tribes want a different kind of Europe and they are getting it and a new different kind of Europe will also mean a different kind of European Union. Like America, the European Union will put tribal priorities first and those tribes who are the least committed to the national governments who are rivals for authority with the European Union will take priority in the coalition to replace provincial national governments with something that will end up looking more like Iraq.
And that brings us back to America, where coalitions of the same sort were used by Unionist Federalists and then by Post-New Deal Federalists as a wedge against states, only to replace the states with tribes. The European Union has already happened here and it is running up trillion dollar deficits every year to subsidize the various tribes and the various power brokers and all the men and women who know someone who knows someone with an office in the right part of Washington DC.
Tribalism has become the native tongue of our political classes who hardly bother hiding what they are saying anymore. Everyone takes it for granted that tribal achievements trump individual initiative and that tribal representation is the way that this country has to operate. The resulting system is unwieldy and unworkable, like its counterparts around the world it is completely incapable of getting anything done, and once its military goes tribal, then it will also be unable to defend itself, but in a country where so many have forgotten how to be Americans and remember only how to "represent", it is the only way that the system can run.
Just like in Afghanistan, nothing gets done without appeasing tribal identities and even then nothing still gets done, because everything gets stolen and there are too many tribal arguments for a project to move forward. Members of one tribe cannot trust another tribe because loyalties are to the tribe, not the workplace, the program or the country. The order of priority within a tribe trumps the individual skills of the tribal member so that any form of meritocracy eventually becomes impossible.
We are not all the way there yet. For one thing, despite all the chatter about making every workplace and agency into a place that "looks like America", America still mostly looks like America, not like the Democratic National Convention. The 19th Century tribalism of Germany, Irish and Jewish immigrants was integrated into a functional and patriotic whole that did not diminish their identities or splinter the nation into tribal camps. It is possible that the current tribalism may eventually give way to a greater unity. It would be nice to think so, even if not altogether probable.
The trouble with our current tribalism is that it is less and more than identity. It is not so much the tribalism of the new immigrant looking to hold on to his identity, as it is the tribalism of outposts of America composed not of foreigners, but of post-American Americans who have become what they are due to government niches and academically bred identity politics that have little relationship to authentic ethnic, national and racial identities. These tribes do not have an authentic identity, but a political identity and that is what makes this wave of tribalism so toxic.
That ersatz identity should be familiar to anyone who has spent time around liberal Jews or liberal members of other mid to late 19th Century immigrant groups whose identities consist of a vague sense of past repression, union politics and ethnic songs and celebrations so hollow and watered down that they mean very little at all.
Those erzatz tribal identities have become a good deal worse in the second half of the 20th Century under the guidance of groups such as the Ford Foundation who have done what the 19th Century Democratic political machines never considered doing, aside from the Civil War's Draft Riots, they weaponized their identities and and aimed them at the United States to achieve maximum disruption.
Those tribal representatives often do not speak for their communities, but they do represent them on the national scene and command their votes through the old patronage mechanisms of the political machine. The only skill they truly know is to belligerently demand more and denounce everyone who stands in the way of extracting maximum benefits for their own political machine. Their hostility is internalized and can be brought out for display in an instant. And these things form the sum of their ersatz identity.
All this would not be nearly as bad, if the advocates of tribalism were not also bent on dismantling the entire system of law and the ideals behind it, and remaking it into niches of identity subsidies and unlimited political power. The United States has centuries of history behind it, but it cannot survive both an assault on its identity and on its laws at the same time.
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