Monday, October 09, 2017

Transcending tribalism - crafting a new vision for America?

I want to point to, and comment on, two recent pieces by David Brooks. In the first, he argues that “the main enemy is not aliens; it’s division — between rich and poor, white and black, educated and less educated, right and left. Where there is division there are fences. Mobility is retarded and the frontier is destroyed. Trumpist populists want to widen the divisions and rearrange the fences. They want to turn us into an old, settled and fearful nation.” The second article deals with the gun control issue having “become an epiphenomenon of a much larger conflict over values and identity.” Both describe a reactionary core of Americans who contract into a vision of a lost past rather than opening up to feel comfortable in a more multicultural society. The first piece suggests the possibility of finding unity in a shared quest for new frontiers, with the same psychological force as the geographical western frontiers of the 1800’s, but instead in communication, the arts, science, and new social structures and media.

My comment would be that we do not face such a new world with a blank slate, but rather an evolved psychology that permits individuals to have stable relationship with only ~150 other people (see Robin Dunbar), in a larger tribe that has clear rules and expectation of its members, and that organize itself to complete successfully with other groups. In the basements of our minds there is a paleolithic psychology trying to cope with an utterly altered world. Having at age 75 just moved back into the childhood home I grew up in, in Austin Texas, I have very strong recall of my immersion in, and comfort with, the social rites of fellow Texans of the 1940’s and 1950’s.

I can not imagine, for myself or others, feeling analogous emotional bonding to an national or international multicultural meritocracy with a ruling elite, permissive of its components having conflicting moralities and rules. An ‘us’ and (or versus) ‘them’ is mentally much less taxing. Brooks faces an uphill battle with his hopeful vision: “The core American idea is not the fortress, it’s the frontier…It may be dormant, but this striving American dream is still lurking in every heart. It’s waiting for somebody who has the guts to say no to tribe, yes to universal nation, no to fences, yes to the frontier, no to closed, and yes to the open future, no to the fear-driven homogeneity of the old continent and yes to the diverse hopefulness of the new one.”

It would take a very charismatic new leader to pull all this together. Sigh… we thought we had that at one point, with Barack Obama.

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