Thursday, December 14, 2017

Readings about tribes and tribalism — #22: Victor Davis Hanson on “Nation v. Tribe”

Here’s another recent warning about the dire effects that increasing tribalism may have on American society and culture. It’s by the well-known military historian based at the Hoover Institution, Victor Davis Hanson, writing about “Nation v. Tribe” (2017).

• Hanson poses his theme — tribalism is destructive, especially to states — right up front:
“Tribalism is one of history’s great destroyers. Once racial, religious, ethnic, or clan ties trump all considerations of merit and loyalty to the larger commonwealth, then factionalism leads to violence, violence to chaos, and chaos to the end of the state itself."
Knowing this, most states around the world have sought to homogenize the racial and ethnic composition of their populations, so as to limit if not suppress any propensities for tribalism. In particular, says Hanson, “Fear of tribalism and diversity is why much of Asia limits immigration” — as does Mexico. Meanwhile, wherever tribalism has gotten out of hand, “The extreme historic remedy for tribalism is often the brutality of empire” — as in the multiethnic Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Soviet empires.

• Hanson points all this out as instructive background before zeroing in on his key interest, the United States and its exceptional efforts to “cultivate diversity” and “subordinate the tribe to the state”:
“The United States is by and large the exception to the global rule that governments seek to maintain homogeneity, not cultivate diversity, whenever possible.

“Although founded originally by English-speakers largely from the British Isles, America’s unique Constitution was an effort to subordinate the tribe to the state. …

“But, again, the inherent logic of America was to transcend tribalism and focus on merit and citizenship. The result was twofold: the emergence of greater talent unimpeded by racial and religious barriers, and a constant awareness that individual identity should not trump political unity. If it did, such tribalism would lead to violence, insecurity, and general impoverishment.”
• In warning that “individual identity should not trump political unity” if America is to avoid excessive tribalism, Hanson posits four “historical reasons why identity politics has never sustained a state and eventually leads only to its oblivion”:
“1. It is hard to maintain strict racial and religious purity in a nation of competing tribal interests — without resorting to apartheid, violence, or ethnic and racial ideologies subverting civility. …

“2. Identity politics is anti-meritocratic and often illogical: The tribe resents anti-tribal bias, even as bias is what fuels the claims of the tribe itself. …

“3. The logic of identity politics is totalitarian and destroys individualism, past and present. …

“4. Ultimately, tribalism destroys the common law and legal system by selective nullification. If particular tribes feel themselves exempt from federal law, chaos ensues. The most egregious case, of course, was the nullification of federal law by southern white supremacist states that led to the Civil War. A later example was the refusal of southern states in the 1950s and 1960s to follow federal integration laws.”
• Hanson does not specify exactly what is amiss in our culture and society today, nor how to try to remedy it. His write-up is rather oblique. But he sure indicates, notably in his concluding paragraphs, that Americans should be worried and warned that identity politics, nepotism, favoritism, toxic individualism, social prejudice, and other collective biases are making our nation more divided in ways that increase “the dangers of American tribalism”:
“Segregation and apartheid should have warned us where tribalism leads. Political systems strain under the pressures of nepotism and favoritism. But they fail entirely under the far greater strain of tribalism — especially one that replaces toxic individual or familial prejudices with much more insidious, sweeping, and dangerous collective biases. There was a reason why liberal historians such as Samuel P. Huntington (Who Are We?) and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (The Disuniting of America) warned about the dangers of American tribalism in their final years.

“Tribal infighting is usually what erodes otherwise common cultures — from the city-states of ancient Greece to the constantly warring republics of Renaissance Italy to an increasing divided America today.”
In sum, this is an insightful unexpected analysis — and warning — from a military historian who is a political conservative. I hope it helps spread the word into new circles that haven’t yet heard enough about the nature of the tribal form and the dangerous reversions underway all across America.

Meanwhile, the defeat of Roy Moore’s senatorial campaign in Alabama offers new hope for a bit of attenuation in the trends toward tribalism. But the Republican’s new tax-law proposals sure don’t…

To read Hanson's article for yourself, go here:

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