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Tribal Conflict in America

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Message Dan Fejes

There's been a question rattling around my brain for a while now: Where have the Second Amendment champions been the last few years? Those in favor of liberal gun ownership laws usually speak about it in abstract terms, most commonly harmony with the land and guarantees of liberty. The first argument hasn't been seriously challenged, but what are their thoughts these days about checks against a tyrannical government? Shouldn't the burgeoning surveillance state be anathema to them? Isn't this the kind of issue they should be up in arms (har) about? I would have thought the massive increases in spying and indiscriminate data sweeps would be an unsupportable infringement of their liberty.

The least charitable explanation is that they don't really believe all the high-flown language they spout - they really just like making big noises and blowing stuff up. I don't buy it, though. There are people like that in the world but not enough to sustain a movement. It could be they don't really bother unless a physical intrusion is imminent. If ATF agents are rolling towards your house it's time to man the barricades, but if the FBI is quietly vacuuming up every email and phone call it isn't such a big deal. That seems possible, but I suspect if they are concerned enough to consider gun control an intolerable intrusion by the government they are also emphatically opposed to anything else that smacks of it. Maybe they figure they've got their hands full with firearms rights and can't spare the effort elsewhere. But that just leaves me with the nagging feeling that they know something really bad is happening and on balance are OK with it. What causes a group to assent to a situation that goes against its core beliefs? The only explanation that adds up is tribal loyalty.

It may be officially neutral on politics but firearms groups like the NRA have been largely associated with Republicans and the right wing for a long time (I know there are exceptions - I wrote "largely" not "entirely"). Political affiliation is a tribal membership, and those ties create a sense of identification that resides at a very basic level. We typically think of tribal conflict as something that only happens in remote and undeveloped areas, but believing that blinds us to the fundamental ways we align with different groups. And for the record I do not consider myself immune to it. I think it explains a great deal of the contemporary political landscape. In the case above it explains why a group might generally ignore a development that strikes at the very heart of one of its central concerns. Loyalty to the tribe dictates a decorous silence until the presidency goes to a more palatable opponent. We tend to dismiss such light treatment of ideals as hardball politics, but more accurately it's loyalty to the tribe.

M.J. Rosenberg wrote of Charles Krauthammer this week "[h]e believes that Israel must triumph in every situation because it is innately right while the Arabs are innately wrong", which is as nice a summary of tribal thinking as you will find. James Carville compares Bill Richardson to Judas, Merrill McPeak compares Bill Clinton to Joseph McCarthy - these are coming from people in "camps" with clearly drawn boundaries, and they glare suspiciously out from them. I don't think it's enough to say politics ain't beanbag and this is how the game is played. It isn't just semantics - describing it as, say, overheated rhetoric instead of tribalism is extremely significant. For one, it tends to minimize the intent of it and disguise the motivation behind it. More importantly it keeps us from confronting how it drives our own actions, or from acknowledging when it prompts us to dismiss principles we claim to cherish.

Maybe I have been oblivious to it all my life, but it seems that the razor-thin and contested election in 2000 and terrorist attack the following year either created or revealed tribal identities that had gone unnoticed for a long time. Many retreated into territories defined by politics and religion. In this historic primary season it has happened again, now along racial and gender lines. It isn't absolute by any means, just much more clearly marked. All of it is driven by group identification, and in that sense it comes from a level too low to be reached by persuasion. It may be dressed up in formal clothes, sober tones, a big vocabulary and impressive rationalizations, but much of the time what passes for dialog seems to come from some of our most primitive instincts.

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Dan Fejes lives in northeast Ohio.
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