America: Nation of Tribes

Or the Unbearable Darkness of History

We must remember America is a nation of tribes. It’s both a great source of strength and a constant thorn in the side of our effort to build a more perfect union. We know that getting here has been fraught with fuck-ups. Native Americans were decimated, defrauded and diseased. Africans were enslaved, stripped of culture, and denied enfranchisement for hundreds of years. We live now in the shadow of those awesome crimes and there is no simply deciding to get up and move. For every idealistic progressive dreaming of a utopia, there is an equally passionate pragmatist committed to dealing with reality as it appears. This isn’t the result of one party observing the truth and the other a falsehood. It’s more akin to the parable of the blind men and the elephant.

Experiences drive what we are as much as our genetics. And our experiences are largely decided by two factors: culture and environment. As children, we largely have no control over these things. But even as adults, there are aspects of our culture and environment we cannot change alone. Our views, therefore, our impressions of the world, are not completely within our control.

It’s seductive to believe that we are the masters of our destiny. It’s a very American assumption. It’s manifest destiny writ small. We are individuals, incapable of being divided into smaller units of responsibility. It isn’t an abusive childhood that makes one an abuser, it’s our choices. It isn’t poverty that creates crime, but low morals. This is a philosophy that works well with libertarian capitalism. Those who make good, shrewd choices benefit and those who make bad ones don’t. Therefore, anyone at the top must ipso facto have earned it and anyone at the bottom must deserve that as well.

But what choice did thousands of non-violent drug offenders have in their sentencing? And what choice do they have once they’re out? They hail from a culture that decided collectively to punish drug abuse as a failure of individual character rather than a failure of society. Collectively, a philosophical position was assumed that individuals would shoulder the burden of society’s inability or unwillingness to address the causes of drug abuse and criminality. Even after they have paid their “debt,” they are released into a society which refuses to forgive their trespass, so, unable to find legitimate work, they are conducted in endless circles of criminality and punishment.

But isn’t there someone to blame for our predicament? Our culture’s need for an individual change agent demands it. There must be individuals in whom the responsibility for our society resides. There is, but it is not an omnipotent “they.” It is a resounding “us.” We are each an instance of our culture’s values. A drop of tap water from Flint, Michigan today is as toxic as all the other drops. Similarly, we are all permeated by our culture, through and through. Equally true, however, is the near impossibility of us perceiving our condition clearly while submerged in the funk.

As an African American I have experienced this when I travel. While I’m in America, I identify as Black. I feel as if my values, my assumptions and expectations are Black. I mistrust government, but participate out of sense of ancestral sacrifice. I like certain foods I grew up eating that other groups of Americans don’t. I think of hip-hop as my own. I think of myself basically as a minority in a nation of mostly European descendants. But when I actually travel to Europe, I am vividly reminded of how American I am, of how American American white people are. Even more so when traveling to brown countries. I am reminded that I am viewed first as an American and only remotely as Black — and usually in the context of Black American celebrities.

America is a gestalt, larger that any of its subcultural components. It’s original sin has been the lack of inclusion for all its constituents, not the aspirations of its founding. It is a promise, but a promise decorating a lie that only we collectively can undo. Those who consider themselves idealists, be they progressive or conservative, generally agree on the goal of extending the promise of America to everyone, but differ vastly on the means to achieve it. The reasons for these disagreements stem from mutually exclusive experiences. White people really don’t know what it’s like to be Black. Black people really don’t know what it’s like not to wonder what it’s like to be White. White people want slavery to be ancient history without any repercussions, without a stain on them individually. Black people, by contrast, are much more comfortable thinking in collective terms about their relationship to inequity and the historical debt owed them. On either side, blinded by their respective experience, they grope the elephant, seeking purchase. Add to this the complexity of multiple ethnicities, striated classes, political leanings, and genetic variance and you quickly begin to realize the odds of all groups agreeing on the identify of the elephant, much less a means to control it, are next to interstellar.

So that leaves only a few major paths forward. Perhaps America will divide itself along its social fault lines, Balkanizing itself into a group of independent nation-states with their own internal issues. The possibility isn’t so remote. There are already armed groups of separatists waiting for the opportunity. Some have never gotten over the original Civil War and still fly the flag of that defeat proudly. The surge of support for all but de facto GOP nominee for President, Donald Trump, is a clear indication that many Americans desire greater separation from what they perceive as the foreign other. Trump’s promises to build walls between us and Mexico and to ban Muslims from entering the country are red meat for such.

Then again, perhaps we’ll unite in the only real way possible. Not by forcing the dogma or views of one group on another, but by truly agreeing to disagree. Peacefully. Take the campaign for the nomination of Hillary Clinton for instance. Bernie Sanders’s supporters fall generally into the idealistic camp. They want “real” change not the fake stuff. They believe their champion, Bernie, has a clear appreciation of the elephant and the means to move it. In adopting this view, they deny Hillary even the possibility of a valid truth. She is, therefore, a liar, inconsistent and un-ideal. The language of critique has been reduced to blind men yelling at one another.

How much wiser, how much more scientific, would it be if we accepted the basic inability of people to smell their own bullshit? That we are always groping through history, attempting to make the best of one situation after the next, with our expectations of the future informed by our experiences of the past. We would prefer the idea that history is truth — that there is contained in the artifacts of the past a concrete expression of reality we can base our truths and decisions around. But there isn’t. History is written by human beings with bias. The truths extracted from one version of history will be entirely different from another. White folks may look back at the post-WWII years as halcyon and yearn for a return of the days when a white man could provide for a family of two working 40-hours a week, while Black folks look back with horror on the rising tide of violence as the impending Civil Rights movement collided with the death throws of Jim Crow. Interpretation is literally everything when it comes to history.

The way forward for America is learning to respect each other’s interpretations of history. It requires me, a Black Southerner, to accept the validity of a White Southerner’s interpretation of the Civil War as a battle for state’s rights. It is not my obligation or even my right to change their interpretation. More, it is irrelevant. It is not necessary to agree on history to make compromises in the present. What it involves is a willingness to be partially disappointed. Something must be relinquished. Certainty, moral superiority, whatever hobgoblin happens to be animating the egos of those involved, must be put to the side.

Some call this blunting of inter-tribal expression “political correctness” with the implication that anything done for political reasons is inherently invalid. Nothing could be less true. Politics isn’t a bad word. It simply means the science and practice of influencing people. Can you influence people negatively? Surely. But for the most part, we owe our very civilization to our ability to be swayed from our self-interest in favor of promotion of the public good. We should celebrate those with the charisma and vision to lead us, even when they prove themselves fallible, supporting their good choices and questioning their bad ones.

But we must remember we judge good and bad choices by our experiences, by our interpretation of the elephant. We are not always aware or even concerned how something that benefits us might penalize someone else. But it nearly always does. Someone is always sacrificing for the things we feel we are entitled to and it is faint comfort to tell them it is justified by what they perceive fairly as an interpretation of history. Even if you read the entirety of Ta-Nehisi Coates “The Case for Reparations” to them, they will not agree. So what will you do? Bludgeon them with history… or fists? What does that do but return us to another Civil War and start the whole loop over again?

Understanding inter-tribal communication in this way, it becomes clear that for those in the business of actual politics (be they elected officials, activists, or both) must polish their words if they are to influence those that must be influenced. Simply shouting their sins at them will not work. The word “polite” comes from the Old English “to burnish” or “polish” to a fine finish. It is the same process as transforming a raw diamond into a jewel.