There are numerous American tribes, and we all belong to a few. Usually, we will have one as our primary identifier. James Webb, just elected Senator from VA, wrote Born Fighting: How The Scots-Irish Shaped America, which is a powerful defense of the oft-maligned Southern, Appalachian, South Central US culture. Webb’s point is that this culture has fought our wars and continues to fight them – it is absolutely the case that the Revolutionary War could not have been won without them, for example – and is defined by honor, duty, country. Other tribes, particularly the Arts & Humanities crowd, deride them for their cars, their music, and their accents. Actually, the A&H crowd pretty much derides anyone who tries to do entertainment or academics that’s not under their supervision.
On the negative side, this Scots-Irish/ Appalachian/stereotypical Red State culture is historically racist (or more exactly, very tolerant of racism), suspicious of outsiders of any color, and violent. While this is less true now than previously, some remains.
Arnold Kling, over at TCSDaily, writes about “trust cues,” of the different groups, and in particular identifies some of the verbal cues of the Business Tribe. Such cues declare “I am part of this group. To lose that status would be painful for me. You can trust me to obey certain norms.” Such trust cues apply only for the specific tribal rules. Business trust cues don’t indicate whether you can trust the person with your wife or what his politics are.
Black voting patterns are tribal in this larger sense. Being loyal to “the community,” giving back to “the community,” remains important. White liberals like to note that black theology stresses social action and justice. Which would be more convincing to me if the justice sought didn’t always involve a large percentage of other black people. The black social action which defends Hispanics or American Indians exists only in the context of defending African-Americans, with others as throw-ins. It is invisible otherwise. Ironically, this larger tribalism may be a result of slave owners making extreme effort to destroy tribalism in the African sense. Slaves were split up from their historical tribes so they could not communicate with each other and become dangerous. Mandingos and Bantus lost their historical importance. Had these persisted, the national rivalries we see resolved in America – Poles & Germans, or Serbs & Macedonians as comfortable neighbors, shaking their heads at those idiots in Europe – might have taken place among Africans as well, as they are with Caribbean blacks now. That sort of natural accommodation might have be better. But because white people saw blacks as “all of a piece,” they came to see themselves that way.
There are regional tribes: Joel Garreau convincingly describes Nine Nations of North America. Texas conservatives are not the same as New Hampshire conservatives, as my second son is finding out. They are an affiliated tribe. They like making noise. We like being left alone. Or perhaps, their other tribal identifications are very different from what you find in New England. Libertarians in New England are geeks who really care about the Tenth Amendment; the same party in Arizona tends toward people who also belong to NORML. There are religious and ethnic tribes as well.
Many people straddle tribes, or move fairly easily in more than one. Many more think they move easily but don’t. The entire cultural weight of the LL Bean catalogue was founded on the illusion that even though you’re a chieftain in the (Preppy) Business Tribe of suburban Boston or New Haven, you can still mix naturally with hunters, boat repairmen, and dog breeders in Maine. The balancing act for those trying to rise in the Business Tribe is difficult. You actually might mix well with the lobstermen and pie-bakers – because they really are your relatives. There’s just something humorous about wearing the look that is supposed to be an imitation of the relatives you are trying to hide, so that you can assume the appearance of unassuming wealth.
Come to think of it, the Arts & Humanities tribe tries to do that on their vacations also. It’s no accident that there are lots of books about people having profound thoughts while hiking in the wilderness. That group doesn’t hunt or fish much, however.
There is an element of choice. Many of us have family from several tribes, and at some point choose to align more with one. My wife and I aligned early with the Arts & Humanities tribe, and both have our jobs in its offshoots. Our closest friends haven’t tended to be from that group, and our allegiance to it has waned, but that alignment shows in our two older children. We belong to some older version of that tribe.
Each tribe has at least some disdain for the others. The A & H tribe looks down on the others, despite its shameful dependence on the Business Tribe. Most other tribes look at the A & H with suspicion, enjoying the shows and magazines, sending their children to the colleges, but wondering whether these people are quite stable and sensible. Couldn’t all this talent and energy have gone into something more, well, important? Businessmen are regarded as being removed from emotions, relationships, and “real life.”
Strong crossovers provoke both respect and nervousness. A friend who is both a Poli-Sci professor and a parish minister laments that the Poli-Sci professionals regard him with suspicion because of his MDiv; church folk treat him tentatively at first because of his PhD. Austin Bay is a retired Air Force colonel, and also a PhD in English from Columbia. People just don’t know what to do with that. They ask test questions upon meeting him, hoping to establish which tribe he identifies with. To many people, it is crucial to know what tribe you identify with.
Though the military draws from all the national tribes, it draws least from the Prep School and A & H tribes, and draws most from the Western, Southern Heartland, and Rust Belt workingman (especially ethnic) tribes. Also, the military specifically inculcates a value common to those groups, mutually reinforcing it: we are all Americans, leave your differences at the door, we have to work together. As I noted in an earlier post, some groups find it infuriating that others split themselves off, claiming a primary allegiance elsewhere. “Proud to be American,” their bumper-stickers read. No hyphenated Americans, please. The Prep and A&H tribes tend to be internationalist, and worry about displaying the flag. They believe that Transnationalism is a higher calling, and the mainstream clergy, drawn heavily from A & H, believes transnationalism is more holy . This gets a lot of dressing in religious language, but is essentially a merely tribal value. A & H values the opinion of Brussels more than Nashville. So do their pastors.
Few writings in recent years have provoked more anger than Michael Moore’s screed immediately after 9-11. His comments that the terrorists should have targeted Texas rather than New York, because “these people didn’t vote for Bush,” was a clear statement that his identification was not with the US as a whole, but with his particular subgroup. His statement was interpreted, rather accurately, as “I don’t care if people from your tribe die. I care if people from my tribe die.” This sentiment of not merely disagreeing with other large tribes in the American coalition, but actively unfastening oneself from their fate, is growing in Blue America, and may be dominant in the A & H tribe.
Contrast this to the country music song “Have You Forgotten,” referring to the destruction of the Twin Towers:
Have you forgotten, when those towers fell
We had neighbors still inside goin through a livin hell.
The A&H tribe in NYC doesn’t think of Biloxi as “neighbors.”
The fact that the 9-11 attacks took place in NYC created some temporary realignments, but Arts & Humanities quickly quarrantined the victims as “Business” and were able to avoid connection. By defining themselves out, what they define as their tribes are indeed not in much danger. Why stir up trouble, George Bush? We’re not going to be losing our sons unless it’s a very large war.