I’ve written at length about this before, but I take it as axiomatic that politics are tribal. I don’t think that’s a particularly controversial view anymore. Politics are not a contest of disembodied ideals, or at least they’re not primarily such a contest. You don’t have the small governmenters arrayed on one side and the welfare staters on the other, or diehard constitutionalists versus loose constructionists, and the most compelling political program wins. We’re terrestrial creatures. Our loyalties and our affiliations occur on a primal level, an instinctual one, and they often precede our ideological commitments by decades of development. We’re protective of our family, the places we grew up in, the people we grew up around. To a large extent, our party affiliations reflect these prior ones, rather than the platform of that party generating affiliations all its own by sheer dint of philosophical cogency. In many ways this is a humbling or even an unsettling view. But I think it’s more or less accurate.
The tribal nature of politics is what renders debate between the Left and the Right misguided. (And it goes deeper, I think, than the fact that we don’t have enough shared premises to conduct legitimate dialectic, although we definitely don’t.) Debate is a ritual. It’s ritualized intellectual combat, essentially a game. It bears the same relationship to things like mass media propaganda campaigns or institutes of higher indoctrination that Olympic Tae Kwon Do does to aerial bombardment or an infantry charge—which is to say very little. The former are rituals and the latter are acts of war. And it’s the latter that are the hallmarks of inter-tribal conflict, which is anything but ritualized. In fact, the more embroiled two given tribes become over territory or resources or long-past blood feuds, the less and less ritual their combat becomes.
As we speak, America is fracturing along tribal lines, and the breakup of its various tribes is, well, acrimonious. Every day they’re more bitterly opposed. Every day some new prodigy of outrage from one camp or another. The notion that their disagreements are going to become somehow so cordial or civil that they’ll be tractable by dialogue is a little comical.
Nevertheless, be all this as it may, be it a fact that our politics are ineradicably tribal, be it a fact that we’re tending towards more strife and not less, I still don’t think the only available option at this point is vicious chimp warfare.
(As an aside, I’ll confess here that I don’t really break bread with any vision of human affairs that reduces us to chimps, no matter how cognitively and socially advanced it allows that we are. Who knows? Such a vision, in the last analysis, might be the truth of the matter. Might be that we’re nothing more than rudderless primates, adrift in the universe, with such an unfortunate degree of cerebral development that we can’t even live the placid, unexamined life of the pig and go to the grave without fretting overmuch. I certainly can’t prove that’s not the case. But I don’t believe it to be the case. And personally I see nothing more poisonous to the fighting spirit than the notion that it is. Imagine for a second that we are accidents, the unintended consequence of some remote cosmic explosion, gene-piloted machines, a particular constellation of favorable mutations accrued over eons. It puts the stakes of our struggle in a somewhat petty light. Reconquistas are made of more elevated hopes.)
No, I believe that we can still transcend the tribal nature of our politics, granting of course that we won’t do so in an absolute or final sense. And we can transcend that tribal nature precisely by maintaining in our minds the highest ideals passed down to us from those partially transcendent tribalists who went before us. Ideals of which our arts, our religions, our architectures were once a reflection. Like justice, like mercy, like charity, like truth. We just have to reconceive of them within a tribal scheme. (Our virtues used to operate quite easily within such a frame, but we abandoned it for a universalist one, for reasons mostly beyond your humble correspondent’s ability to comprehend or articulate.)
I’ll give a concrete example. For some time now, the progressive tribe (more of a coalition of tribes, really) has been promoting homosexuality as a positive good. This is the so-called LGBT agenda. They want everyone to conceive of homosexuals through the lens of a sanctifying victimhood. These longsuffering souls have for centuries endured the slings and arrows of heteropatriarchy. All they yearned for during those dark ages was to be allowed to express their love, itself as pure and innocent as anyone else’s. And so we ought to repent of our mistreatment of them and accept their lifestyle in a spirit of respect and camaraderie.
The opposed partisan response to this position, of course, is to condemn all homosexuals outright. They are a lot of degenerates, scum, a perversion to be ruthlessly extirpated. They are in Satanic rebellion against the natural order and natural law. Disease vectors. The dead end of their family’s lineage. And an insult to our highest ideals of masculine virtue to boot. (Full disclosure: it only takes me ten to fifteen seconds of a FCKH8 video to attain this mindset.) These are fighting words. One side offers something up as an icon of goodness and light. The other side clamors for it to be tossed into outer darkness. Each group rallies their constituents to their position, and the melee commences. I’m not pretending that I’m above such dynamics. I wouldn’t even categorically denounce them. I’m just pointing out how the sausage gets made.
A third way, what I would call a transcendent way, to view homosexuals is conceive of them as broken sinners like the rest of us. This is the lens of mercy, and it has a lot to recommend it. Mercy would have us see the LGBT agenda not as the inevitable march of holy progress nor as a legion of devils belched up from the hell, but as the products of a fallen world and of a particularly dysfunctional country. They are the flowers of our decadence, of our anomie, of our rootless hyper-individualist materialism. They are a testament—as unmistakable as the ugliness of the obesity epidemic or the meteoric rise of psychopharmacologic drugs—to our collective failures. At once both symptom and disease. All we like sheep have gone astray, and our institutions have gone astray as well. We have turned every one to his own way and some of us have turned to more desperate and emptier and hedonistic ways than others. But we have all fallen short.
And here, finally, is what I mean by understanding our highest virtues in the context of our tribal natures. It’s easy to see how the instinct towards mercy, although admirable, gets consistently co-opted by the people who want gay marriage and homo-friendly sexual education and Sodom pride parades to be normal and accepted parts of our culture. Viewing homosexuals as damaged people (rather than devils) tends more towards the sympathetic view that they prescribe than it does to the categorically opposed view that many of us do. Think this through, though. What will that sympathy bring about? What are the long-term, the collective, the ultimate consequences? To the extent that we make peace, even out of pity, with the proselytizers of gender dysmorphia, we’re only multiplying our brokenness, our neuroses, our dysfunctions. We’re only surrendering to the cascade of entropy already in motion, only spreading human misery.
On the other hand, the Right for all its faults is in some measure attempting to reverse that decay (not just homosexuality itself but any number of the discontents of modernity), to quarantine it, or to at the very least rebuild a functional society in the ruins. Our tribe is not interested in surrender. And even if our methods are occasionally harsh or jingoistic, they’re at least intended to contain and manage the pathology in the long term, whereas the other side seems content to let it corrupt and infect us as quickly and thoroughly as possible.
The aspect of tribal warfare is still there in this example of Right vs. Left conflict, and I don’t believe it will ever leave us. But something happens when we understand our goals not just in terms of victory but in terms of what duties we owe to truth or righteousness. When we understand these sublunary conflicts in light of higher realities, they take on the aspect of a Crusade rather than the look of a shit-flinging dominance dispute between squabbling chimpanzees. And I believe that to see them in that aspect is to percieve them correctly and in their natural light.
(Title in honor of one of our own, whose obligations in the real world deprived us of mots justes like that one.)