Tag Archives: tribalism

Accurate, Not Funny

A friend recently sent me the following “joke:”

The Republican Congress is preparing to pass a resolution adding an “S” to WASP.  The S will stand for STRAIGHT, and “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant will henceforth be “Straight White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.”

The Democrats in Congress will respond by creating  a new acronym of their own. MAGPIE will stand for “Minority Americans, Gays, Poor, Immigrants, Educated, Seculars.”

Clever word-play, but much too accurate to be amusing.

Count me among the many Americans who heard Donald Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again” as a very thinly-veiled promise to “make America White Again.” Trump’s appeal was grounded in a notion of “true” Americanism that equated being a real American with being a straight white Protestant male. He appealed to nostalgia for a time when those white Protestant males dominated– and women and minorities “knew their place.”

That nostalgia, needless to say, is not shared by those encompassed by the MAGPIE acronym.

There are, as readers of this blog know all too well, many kinds of inequality. We tend to concentrate on economic disparities, and there is good reason for that—if you are a member of the working poor, unable to make ends meet even though you may be working two jobs, unable to afford adequate food and transportation, let alone health insurance—that lack of self-sufficiency hobbles you in virtually every other way.

People struggling just to survive don’t go to public meetings, rarely vote, and usually are in no position to assert their legal or constitutional rights. They lack the time (and too often the self-confidence) to complain about inadequate city services or substandard schools.

Economic equity is thus incredibly important. But as we all understand, in a society that privileges certain identities over others, the people most likely to be poor, the people most likely to be economically marginalized, are the people consigned to the “Other” categories. The MAGPIES.

One of the most depressing realities about Trump’s America is the increasing division of the population into tribes contending for advantage in what most see as a zero-sum game.

Rather than a liberal democracy in which elected officials work for their vision of a common good, America is rapidly devolving into a corporatist system where elected officials decide who they will favor with tax cuts, subsidies and other governmental prizes. (Those decisions, needless to say, are not made on the basis of what is good for all Americans—they are made in exchange for campaign donations and/or partisan estimates of what is good for the official’s “tribe.”)

From time to time, someone will repeat the old story about the Chairman of General Motors who reportedly said “What’s good for General Motors is good for the United States.” What he actually said was “What’s good for the United States will be good for General Motors.”

That recognition—that we are all in this together, that prosperity must be shared to be sustainable, and that sound management of any business requires a concern for the national welfare—is all but gone, replaced by Trumpism’s far more constricted and un-self-aware concern with the immediate prospects of ones own tribe.

The SWASPs.

 

Good Cop, Bad Cop

Yesterday’s post about the Department of Justice’s investigation of the Baltimore police department contained several suggestions about implementing change. A recent series of articles in the Washington Post pointed to a reform I omitted.

The Justice Department’s investigation of Baltimore police this month rebuked the agency for an entrenched culture of discriminatory policing. Deep within their findings, Justice investigators singled out a core failure: Baltimore’s system for identifying troubled officers was broken and existed in name only.

In Baltimore, Justice found that critical disciplinary records were excluded from its early intervention system, that police supervisors often intervened only after an officer’s behavior became egregious and that when they did, the steps they took were inadequate.

According to the Post, many police departments have inadequate “early warning” systems, and many have none at all. As a result, “bad apples” are protected, rather than identified, until they do something so egregious that it cannot be covered up.

An early-warning system, of course, is only as good as the data it includes. Some systems, according to the Post, exclude the sort of information one would expect–complaints filed, incidents of excessive force–instead recording things like grooming violations (growing a beard in violation of the rules) or absences. And as one officer noted, recording even relevant data doesn’t do any good if no one is reviewing it and acting on it.

The real problem is a very human one: the deeply-embedded tribalism that causes us to see the world as “us versus them.” The culture of a police department is very similar to that of a military group. Such “bonding” can be an important asset when danger approaches, but it can lead to a counterproductive protectiveness when one of “ours” is accused of improper behavior. When the accusation comes from someone who doesn’t look like “us”–someone who is culturally or socio-economically or racially different–that tribal instinct can overcome good judgment.

As strong as that impulse is, it behooves us to recognize that there are a lot of good guys in blue who play by the rules and require others to do the same.

Back in my City Hall days, I remember a conversation with the then-Chief of Police, about a lawsuit that had just been filed against a member of his force. Far from being defensive, he immediately agreed to investigate the allegations, saying “When we give someone a lethal weapon and the authority to use it, we have an obligation to make sure he is well-trained, emotionally healthy, and wearing a badge for the right reasons.”

Says it all.

The Persistence of Tribalism

I think I need to go back and reread Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld.

The cover of that paperback illustrated the conflict Barber was addressing: a woman in a full burka drinking a diet Pepsi. That one picture showed the conflict between globalization and tribalism.

Barber was exploring the conflict between consumer capitalism in a constantly shrinking, interconnected modern world and deeply-rooted “tribes”–cultures resistant to and threatened by modernization.

In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Istanbul and Brussels, it’s easy enough to point our fingers at the jihadists who believe they are defending their tribal cultures against encroaching global norms. These extremists pose a real challenge to civilization, and the best way to meet and defeat that challenge is by no means clear–not just because of the danger and mayhem they pose, but because there are troubling signs that many of our more “civilized” citizens are responding in kind.

Whatever else accounts for the electoral successes of Donald Trump, a major element has been his blatant appeal to white American tribalism–his willingness to “go there,” to draw stark lines between (a culturally and racially-defined) “us” and “them.” Proposals from Trump and Cruz to “patrol” Muslim communities, to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, the scornful rejection of civility and inclusiveness as “political correctness” all serve to remind us that Middle East jihadis aren’t the only groups responding viscerally to what they see as assaults on their worldviews.

Communication and transportation technologies, scientific and medical discoveries, the growth, productivity and interrelationship of the global economy–all of these advances hold enormous promise, if we can enlarge our concept of our tribes to include the other humans with whom we share the planet.

But right now, the signs are anything but auspicious.

None of the Explanations are Pretty

Implicit bias, anyone?

Two profoundly depressing examples of implicit bias–not to mention the deficits of today’s media–were on display in Indianapolis last week.

The first–and arguably most embarrassing–occured when Ben Carson endorsed Donald Trump; Fox 59 showed a picture of Trump with a photograph of Indianapolis Democratic African-American Representative Andre Carson superimposed.

Because all of “them” look alike?

And how oblivious to the political environment they cover did the newsroom have to be in order to confuse a black Democrat who happens to be one of two Muslims serving in the U.S. House with a sycophantic joke of a presidential candidate? Did they really think Andre Carson would have endorsed a xenophobe who wants to bar Muslims from the country?

Equally discouraging, if not as inexplicable, was the early reporting about a shooting involving an IFD officer. According to later, corrected reports, Michael “Kevin” Gill, a veteran of the Indianapolis Fire Department, was shot outside a house and ran into a nearby mosque seeking help.

Earlier, “breaking news” had reported that Gill was shot inside the mosque. (The definition of prejudice is to “pre-judge”…).

Tribalism–and its exploitation by demagogues seeking political power– is creating a meaner, more dangerous America.

 

Speaking of Infectious Diseases…

It would do us well to remember that chosen ignorance isn’t confined to the uneducated, Fox-“news”-watching, fearful folks who tend to be the butt of liberal disdain.

 A new study confirms its presence in tonier liberal precincts as well.

When it comes to science illiteracy in the form of Creationism, we know what kind of people are more likely to believe it: Those who attend church frequently, the elderly, and people without much formal education.

But when it comes to parents who refuse to vaccinate their children, the demographics are very different, according to a new study in the American Journal of Public Health.

The people most likely to refuse to have their children vaccinated tend to be white, well-educated and affluent.

Although this particular data point was not in the study, I’d be very surprised if the same people who are rejecting the overwhelming scientific consensus about the value of vaccination aren’t also sneering at the “anti-science” folks denying the reality of climate change.

At both ends of the political spectrum, we have people picking and choosing the scientists and scientific conclusions they are prepared to accept. I’m neither a sociologist nor a political psychologist, so I’m unprepared to offer a theory about why liberals choose to reject one set of conclusions and conservatives another, although I have a sneaking suspicion that in each case, tribal identity plays a large part.

And independent–let alone critical– thinking plays very little…..