David Brooks, competitor with Thomas Freidman for the title of the New York Times sophist-in-chief, dropped this phrase into his painfully superficial column on the coronavirus on Friday, March 20, “All those tribal us-them stories don’t seem quite as germane right now.”
There it is again: tribal.
“Is the Slide Into Tribal Politics Inevitable?” was the headline of a Trump election post mortem in the New York Times on November 17, 2016. Amy Chua’s much heralded 2018 book Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations is another example. For a long time now we have been swamped with a tsunami of tribal associations from academics, pundits and bloggers in every nook and cranny of the mainstream media universe.
You might not notice the frequency or find it the least bit off-putting. I do because I pay close attention to the vocabulary of white supremacy.
There are, of course, appropriate uses of the word, including by people who self-identify as members of tribes, pueblos and other Native organizations. Its use as a pejorative reflects centuries of propaganda portraying conflict among indigenous people through the white gaze. Sometimes tribal and its variations are deployed faintly as though it’s just a convenient and neutral description. Sometimes it’s uttered in an overtly condescending way.
This is not to deny that there were conflicts between Native peoples in what is now called North America. And other places inhabited by people of color too. The question is, what to make of that?
As a white man, when I hear or see a word like tribalism, a fuzzy scene of bare-chested battling warriors in headdresses comes to mind. Others may conjure imagery suggesting a different idea of “primitive” people. That’s no accident. It’s how we have been trained.
White supremacy is nothing if not a high-powered myth-making machine. After all, skin color does not actually make any human “better” in any way whatsoever than any other human. It takes complex social constructs and social systems to allege otherwise.
Language does a lot of the work. Here’s an example, “…the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
Did you recall that passage from your civics class? Probably not. But it’s definitely in the subconscious of your inherited social mind. It’s from the Declaration of Independence.
If we are going to stereotype, why not tribal as a positive, describing instances when indigenous people avoided or reduced conflict. Weren’t they being tribal then too?
Bruce Pascoe, author of a 2014 long overdue revision of racist stereotypes about aborigines in Australia says they constructed, “a system of pan-continental government that generated peace and prosperity.” Here in the U.S., all the murdering, treaty breaking, buffalo exterminating and land stealing has apparently overwhelmed the role of “smoking the peace pipe” in the cowboys and Indians version of our collective memory.
Actually, the very idea that the primary form of organization of indigenous people is by tribe as opposed to by nation or some other phrase is itself part of the ideology portraying whites as “civilized” and non-whites as primitive, barbaric or savage.
Most often, hand wringing about so called tribalism trivializes what our current political conflict is about. It’s like reducing the Civil War to violence between the Northern Tribe and the Southern Tribe. As if war for its own sake is just the nature of those homo sapiens arbitrarily situated on either side of the Mason-Dixon line. Which would be another way of saying it wasn’t about slavery.
As with the Civil War, present-day disputes are also about fundamental values and interests. All the more reason why it’s hard to see how mischaracterizing them as “tribal” adds anything worthwhile to the discussion. Has it even somehow successfully embarrassed Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer into getting along better? Obviously not.
Here’s a better idea. Let’s say our society is becoming more Christian.
After all, some of the nastiest of all human-on-human conflicts have been between Christians and those of other faiths. Gas chambers were invented by German Protestants to efficiently massacre six million followers of a different religion. Not a thousand years ago. Less than a hundred years ago.
Apaches, Zulus, or Mayans didn’t do that. Sunni’s or Shiites or any other kind of Muslim didn’t do it either. White Christians did.
For that matter Christians have been slaughtering and enslaving people of color all over the planet for 500 years now. And still are. Why not then, say we are suffering from Christian politics.
Don’t like that? That’s understandable.
At the very least though let’s put tribal politics, tribalism and its other variations into the dictionary of obsolete white supremacist language like the ”n” word. If it makes people feel better, perhaps such words and phrases could be memorialized in a dedicated gallery of the white supremacy museum, maybe next to the collection of statues of Christopher Columbus and Robert E. Lee.
Even though political conflict now pales in intensity compared to earlier eras in U.S. history, some pundits use polarized or hyper-partisan. Those can work for now.
Better still, we could use the lens of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s triple evils of militarism, materialism and racism, updated to include patriarchy and environmental destruction, to frame what these debates are really about.