Howzzat Supposed to Work Anyhow?

Regular commenter JA offers today the following observation:

However, I would (and do) distinguish between tribalism for minority “tribes” and tribalism for the majority in the most powerful nation on Earth. Black pride, Jewish pride, Mormon pride, Catholic pride — these, while (and this is where I probably disagree with Sharansky) still falling short of the ideal of universalism, can be useful for societies which contain them. It’s when the primary group of a powerful society shows too much tribalism that it becomes dangerous. But, again, I think universalism is ultimately best.

A few remarks might follow from this. (I might note that these remarks stem from the book Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy, by Nathan Sharansky)

How can identifying and being proud of your heritage then as a good be contingent on whether your tribe is successful? Be proud of your team, unless you start winning. This makes almost no sense. Here’s the only way I see that it can make sense. Defending your identity, or being proud of your tribe as it were, carries with it many good and bad aspects. JA suggests that when your group is weak, then the good aspects are dominant and when that group becomes powerful, then the bad aspects outweigh the good. Yet this is manifestly unjust. Justice is, as they say, blind. One cannot say the attitude of person A is good … until sometime later when that person’s tribe is ascendant it is now not good. What needs doing here instead of a blanket accusation against tribalism is to identify more precisely exactly what aspects of tribalism are bad … and likely those aspects will be bad when a tribe is an oppressed minority as when it is not.

Natan Sharanksy is going further than saying tribal (cultural) identity is “useful” for the society. He found it essential and a primary anchor under repeated interrogation sessions.Tribalism was useful for the individual, it fostered and strengthened a sense of purpose and personal identity in the face of terror. His tribalism, his identification as a Jew in this case, was, for him, the primary anchor against the Marxist universalism that he was being pressured to assume. JA holds to the notion that the “ideal of universalism” is best. However there is no escaping the fact that the particular pressures against Mr Sharansky were trying to make him concede precisely that concept which JA holds up high. Universalism generates no passion. From Sharanksy:

Democracy requires passion; passion to organize, to mobilize, to participate, to persuade, to get people involved and energized to fight for what they believe in. This passion comes from deep attachments. Identity provides those attachments.

Individual rights are fundamental to a democratic society, but community life is fundamental to individuals. The self is deeply dependent on the worlds out of which it has emerged. Each person is born into a family, into a community, into a history that binds them with ties and gives them a sense of who they are beyond the mere self. This kind of belonging creates cohesion and obligation that all societies depend on, for care as well as for defense.

Identity strengthens the sense of self that serves as the building block for self-government. The way to strengthen society is not to weaken an individual’s sense of self. It was precisely on this point that Artistotle criticized his revered teacher Plato. The latter dreamed of a utopian Republic where particular attachments, most prominently the family, were wiped away in the name of strengthening attachments to the state. To Plato, attachments were a zero-sum game. Aristotle disagreed. To him, a man could be a good father and a good patriot. In fact, the former was critical to the latter. Strong families build stronger communities, which build stronger nations.

Well, he says it more clearly than I might. Universalism is not good. It is not a higher ideal. The absence of universalism to paraphrase the Ratzinger/Habermas debate, one of those foundational aspects that the free secular state. Recall that debate topic:

Does the free secularized state exist on the basis of normative presuppositions that it itself cannot guarantee? This question expresses a doubt about whether the democratic constitutional state can renew from its own resources the normative presuppositions of its existence, it also expresses the assumption that such a state is dependent on ethical traditions of a local nature.

Tribalism is one of those normative presuppositions, or to put it in Habermas words, “it also expresses the assumptions that a state is dependent on ethical traditions of a local nature” … read tribalism or identity. For those interested … this book The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion contains the debate (this is my post long long ago on that).

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6 Responses to Howzzat Supposed to Work Anyhow?

  1. 1) Obviously tribalism can be “useful” for some values of “useful” — otherwise we wouldn’t have evolved it. Tribalism is very useful for waging war, for establishing cooperation within monocultures, for encouraging fertility, etc.

    2) For the same reasons tribalism is useful, it is harmful for people who are not in that tribe. The more powerful the tribe in comparison to others, the more harmful to others it may be. That was my only point there.

    3) Universalism is not the absence of tribe, but rather the enlargement of tribe to the extreme — the human race become tribe. America despite the efforts of many has come so far along that continuum — and it’s been virtually all beneficial.

    4) Let me elucidate the difference between a dominant tribe in a multiculture being tribalistic and a minority tribe doing the same: when Sarah Palin, the provincial WASP, is tribalistic, she equates her tribe with “the real America.” (Her tribe is not explicitly defined along race or religious lines, but I think it’s clear that when she talks about the real America, she’s not thinking about a Henry Louis Gates or a Jewish Atheist.)

    Or, if that example is too controversial, take a full-fledged white nationalist. They don’t say just that whites are better, but that America should be a white country, etc. Now, when Louis Farrakhan is tribalistic, he doesn’t say that America should be a black country or equate blackness with Americanism.

    Let me say it like this: minority tribalism isn’t compounded by the power of nationalism, because it can’t be. Majority tribalism can be and often is. This is not to say that majority tribalism is less *moral* than minority tribalism — they’re both simply irrational instincts of the human being — but it is more dangerous because it is more powerful.

    Let’s say the Jews in America inexplicably took a turn for the hard right and became super-tribalistic. The worst they could do is wage some sort of guerrilla warfare against the country. They could write angry articles and engage in random acts of terror, but they could never use the machinery of the government or military to their ends. But let’s say the Jews in Israel suddenly all became hardline tribalists. Then they, being a majority, could use the machinery of the state and easily murder or ethnically cleanse all the Arabs and Christians. That’s the difference between being a minority and being the majority.

  2. 4) Let me elucidate the difference between a dominant tribe in a multiculture being tribalistic and a minority tribe doing the same: when Sarah Palin, the provincial WASP, is tribalistic, she equates her tribe with “the real America.” (Her tribe is not explicitly defined along race or religious lines, but I think it’s clear that when she talks about the real America, she’s not thinking about a Henry Louis Gates or a Jewish Atheist.)

    I think the tribe is problematic when it becomes defined in the negative. “The real America” is inherently a negative definition……for A to be the ‘real American’ B needs to be the ‘fake American’. I think any tribe, minority or majority, can fall into negative definitions and when it does pride turns to arrogance.

  3. JA,
    #1 – Tribalism is also useful for those things which Mr Sharansky notes. These go beyond “cooperations” with monocultures. And if you haven’t noticed America is not a monoculture … and tribalism for it does not preclude valuing its multi-cultural nature.

    #2 Yes, that was your point. And I’m saying that instead of rejecting tribalism you need to dig in and isolate the features of tribalism which are negative and root out those while encouraging tribalism’s positive aspects. Oh, and drop the whole universal/Marxist crap. :D

    #4 You’re petty (tribal?) partisan views of Ms Palin blind you to essential details. Ms Palin is talking about America. She is married to a Native American, was governor of a very diverse cultural mix, a plethora of native tribes, Russian’s left from the pre-purchase times, Oil-men, the back-to-nature crowd, gold rush and all. This is essential multicultural America that she is calling the “real America.” You’re just to blind in your partisan ways to see it.

    I am a full fledged white Nationalist, by any reasonable definition (I am white. I am fully for America). But, I think you mean a more narrow, white=KKK sort of meaning, which isn’t really what you said. What you don’t realize is that faction is a distinct minority. By your rules, that tribalism is to be allowed.

    Again to recap, tribalism is essential. You need to not reject tribalism, but its negative aspects while encouraging the positive.

  4. This is essential multicultural America that she is calling the “real America.” You’re just to blind in your partisan ways to see it.

    Actually I believe her ‘real America’ statement was referring to the rural parts of Virgina where McCain was polling well. Or maybe that was ‘pro-America’, I forget.

  5. 1 and 2) We can harness the good of tribalism by expanding the tribe to include all Americans.

    4) Palin was not talking about “America.” If she were, she wouldn’t have had to differentiate between “real America” and… what, fake America? As for Todd, come on. He’s what, 1/8th Native? He could easily pass as white. And she may have technically been governor of all those groups, but that doesn’t mean she considered them all “real” Americans. After all, if she had won, she would have been VP of fake Americans like Barney Frank.

    I am a full fledged white Nationalist, by any reasonable definition (I am white. I am fully for America).

    Don’t be cute. White nationalism is a well-defined concept distinct from nationalism which happens to exist in a white person. Can’t you argue in good faith?

    White nationalism is a political ideology which advocates a racial definition (or redefinition) of national identity for white people, in opposition to multiculturalism, along with a separate all-white nation-state.

    What you don’t realize is that faction is a distinct minority. By your rules, that tribalism is to be allowed.

    1) I never made any comments about what is or is not “to be allowed.”
    2) The faction of white nationalists is a distinct minority, but the race they agitate for is the majority.

    Again to recap, tribalism is essential. You need to not reject tribalism, but its negative aspects while encouraging the positive.

    I somewhat agree with at least the second sentence. Whether it’s “essential” or not I’d probably go with not, but it’s moot because it’s ingrained in human nature. I suggest redirecting it by expanding the “tribe” to the “human tribe.” I’m sorry if you think that’s “Marxist” but it would have enormous benefits, not the least of which is reducing warfare.

  6. JA,
    By “allowed” I didn’t mean legally speaking but sanctioned, i.e., good. You’ve allowed that tribalism is good for small groups but bad when expressed by the dominant.

    but the race they agitate for is the majority

    So what? It is a minority. Are you modifying your claim concerning the acceptability of tribalism for small groups to include the notion that the group in question cannot identify itself as a larger group within its claim or something akin to that?

    Sharansky is pointing out that when you enlarge the “tribe” past the community becomes dissolute and no longer compelling on a personal level. It is why the universalist/Marxist rhetoric which attempted to enlarge the tribe to all of humanity abruptly stopped that in WWII because it wasn’t working.

    I’m sorry if you think that’s “Marxist” but it would have enormous benefits, not the least of which is reducing warfare.

    You need to do more than he said/she said here. Sharansky is directly pointing out that this is exactly wrong. It does not (a) have “enormous” benefits and (b) is actually harmful. I thought I’d expressed a few of these reasons in the original post. Are you refuting them or just ignoring them. And yes, it would reduce warfare. it would in fact reduce any ability to defend or fight at all, which is another way of saying one way to end the struggle is to surrender.

    Ok, my bad joke you interpret as argument in bad faith. Whatever. The point remains that White Nationalism is a minority tribe.

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