I was inspired to write this blog by Steve Weinstein’s post on Crooks and Liars. There he observed
“I live in the middle of Los Angeles. Gay people are everywhere and considered as normal as anyone else. Black people too. Persians, Buddhists, Sikhs, astrologers and witches are ho-hum. My mechanic is Pakistani. I probably run into more Latinos everyday than I do white people. When I grew up, our mayor was black. Today our mayor is Hispanic. No one seems to notice.”
Tribalism, the belief that our group is uniquely virtuous and others innately less so, is one of the most fatal shortcomings among human beings. It has always been a trait that the powerful can use to cement their power and status by defining some out group as beyond the pale, and setting themselves up as the defenders against this threat. The behavior of the vile racist Donald Trump is no different than the behavior of many others less prominent than he.
But a disarmingly simple cure has arisen to this most fundamental of human shortcomings, sometimes accidentally and sometimes deliberately.
In Europe during the Thirty Year War religious tribalism led to the slaughter of so many people that after its conclusion Germany and what is now the Czech Republic took 100 years to rebound to their previous numbers. As many as one-third their populations were killed as Christians slaughtered the wrong kinds of Christian. Many other parts of Europe fared little better.
After the war one place in Europe, the Netherlands, tried out religious toleration as a policy. Catholic, Protestant, Nonconformist, and Jews were all allowed to live together peacefully. As a result, despite its small size. for a while Holland became the cultural and economic powerhouse of northern Europe.
During this period John Locke lived there in exile. There he saw people of diverse religions living together peaceably, even amicably. Locke was so impressed that he wrote his A Letter Concerning Religious Toleration, the first powerful statement for toleration in the English language. Locke argued that civil unrest was caused by efforts to create one religion, and its cure was a diversity of religions, so long as their adherents acted peaceably towards one another.
David Hume and later James Madison expanded Locke’s insight and Dutch experience to the issue of political toleration. Because there was an enormous diversity of religions, none could gang up on the others. By the same token, in a large democracy the enormous diversity of “factions” (what we today call interests) would prevent any one of them from ganging up on the others, a political disease that invariably led to the destruction of earlier democracies. The classic statement here is James Madison’s Federalist 10, a document frequently quoted but today rarely read. It should be read ore often.
In religion and politics alike what preserved peace, cooperation, and prosperity was not that one was better than the others, but that the complex diversity within each community led to no one having dreams of domination, undermined the efforts of would be Christian Ayatollahs or Führers to divide and conquer a people, and so generated strong and creative societies. Things could be done only through cooperation with and compromise between many points of view, with the outcome wiser than any single perspective could accomplish. This is the opposite of the current Republican model of my-way-or-the-highway, which if allowed unchecked will eventually result in civil war or secession or the overthrow of our system.
Today America’s racial tribalism is boldly emerging from under its rock because white racists who long took their superiority and privileges for granted are now seeing their superiority disappear with rising populations of Brown, Black, Yellow, and Red. In recent years they had learned to keep the worst of their sentiments private. But as America’s racial make up grew in diversity their hatred came to the surface first hidden behind euphemisms, and now increasingly in your face in ways not seen since the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s.
Today America is transiting to a post-Christian culture, energizing the worst of those calling themselves “Christian.” It is transiting to a post-White culture, energizing the most fearful and ignorant Whites. This is what gives the Republican Party its un-American power to potentially destroy the United States.
But the underlying reason for this ugliness are actually hopeful. European Americans are losing their majority, and happily, many of us are no longer enticed by white privilege. We have outgrown this form of tribalism. The bitter enders have realized they are in danger of permanently losing their superiority. And so they steadily escalate their attempts to deny legitimacy to others and spread fear of them.
But I think they are too late. Our biggest cities are already communities of extraordinary diversity, and on balance the better for it. The “real America” of the tea baggers and similar sorts is now the smaller part of America. That is why they seek to put so many of their prejudices in constitutions, so the coming majority will have a hard time challenging their domination.
* Those who have embraced religious freedom because they took their superiority for granted are suddenly seeing their numbers diminish, and as they do their real sentiments are coming to the surface.
* Those who took their cultural superiority for granted are seeing their cultural monocultures become isolated little hot houses. And they are panicking when confronted by those different from themselves who are not properly defer to their ‘betters.’
* Those who always assumed America would be safely ‘white’ are having their fantasies erased before their eyes whenever they see a “Black” man with the weird last name of “Obama,” a man who in fact is conservative and unimaginative, and utterly unwilling to upset any elite’s apple cart. Bizarrely, this man suddenly becomes a socialist/communist/Muslim/revolutionary/Kenyan/fill-in-the-blanks. Their reaction says little about Obama, but volumes about them. Those making such charges are either caught in the blindness of tribalism, or they are manipulative enemies of everything of value for which this country stands.
The good news is that with time and encounter many people can learn to expand their hearts and minds to embrace those they one thought irredeemably different. Benjamin Franklin went from thinking Germans were of the wrong complexion (most were not even “white) ever to fit in with Americans to arguing Black children were as competent as white ones.
Along with political, religious, and social peace, I think there is one other powerful advantage to living in a heterogeneous and diverse society. To give an example from my own experience, when the issue of gay marriage first arose, I was not in favor of it. I was not anti-gay, but I had an unexamined idea as to what a marriage was and they did not fit. However, as the issue continued in the public eye I was forced to think about what a marriage was, and as I did my attitude changed. If the statistics are right, what happened to me is continuing to happen across our country, and most predominately among the young and in urban environments.
Every time we encounter someone who is different in a way that challenges our taken for granted idea of who we are, we are presented with an opportunity to enlarge our hearts and deepen our understanding. In this way encountering diversity and growing from that encounter can be considered a spiritual practice.
A diverse and accepting nation is in America’s future if things ultimately go well.
We are in a kind of race for national survival as would-be aristocrats and plutocrats do all they can to split the country apart along any tribal line they can find. They do this with the aid of our most ignorant and self-centered citizens. Their efforts are deliberate because in a democracy, even one as flawed as ours, their only hope is to divide and conquer. We can only do all we can to see that those who have more fully incorporated the American dream that “all men [and women] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” ultimately prevail.