Sep 15 2009

Concepts of Identity in a Tribalized Society

The Founding Fathers were Strapped

James Madison, one of the flyest and most forward thinking of the founding generation, was gravely concerned with the impact of factional divisions in the nascent American republic.  He defined a faction as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”  So grave was this threat that he helped erect an elaborate series of checks and balances, proposed in the Federalist Papers, to keep this factional impulse in check.

The Taoist philosophers that compiled the Tao te Ching proposed a different approach to moderating the factional impulse: “Fill the bellies [of the people] and empty their minds.”

These two ideas have become superimposed in the contemporary social atmosphere of rampant tribalism and factional partisanship.  In a country as vast and diverse as America, rallying a unified section of the populace to any particular action is massively difficult, save for in two instances: when the appeal to patriotic love of country is invoked (or the love of God, often interpolated with patriotism); and when a minority faction’s sense of security is threatened . . . or when that faction believes they are threatened.

A Popular Faction

A Popular Faction

Motivated special interests (as the faction is known today) range from the Health Care Insurance Lobby to the the Republican and Democratic parties.  Factions can become defined by region, race, sex or ideology.  Being that America is a liberal bastion of free-thought, defining a faction in terms of what it is becomes difficult and necessarily exclusionary.  The terms used then become so big as to become pedantic and largely symbolic: American, patriot, Christian, conservative, liberal.  These symbols can only be wielded as bludgeons, inarticulately smashing differences and polarizing opposition to a fever-pitch.  This can work in focused, intent time-frames – such as the run-up to the War in Iraq and the election of Barack Obama on a platform of Change – but in the long-run these forces burn themselves out.  It is a more effective, and destructive, strategy to define a faction not by what it stands for, but by what it stands against. This strategem operates in phases.  The first applies the Taoist logic of keeping the peoples bellies full and minds empty.  This is done by propagating the static wave gibberish of partisan cable news, narrow-casted ideological websites, vacuous entertainment and substandard education.  Many of these elements are self-realizing in a capitalist material culture, and so engage a perpetual feedback loop, rendering their subjects ever fuller, ever emptier.  The people become convinced that their interpretation of reality, filtered by talking heads and vitriolic polemics and assumed folkloric knowledge about their place in the world, is right by virtue of the people who agree with them.

A Popular Television Personality!

A Popular Television Personality!

Your Grandma is Doomed! Ahahah!

Your Grandma is Doomed! Ahahah!

The second phase of this factional indoctrination  consists of defining the faction is reaction and reflex to ‘the Other.’  The Other can be whatever is handy and at hand, so long as the faction this fear is being sold to remains largely ignorant of that fear.  Historically, the Other has been anyone who doesn’t belong to your ethnic stratum: Jews, peasants, blacks, Irish immigrants, communists, socialists, Arabs and Mexicans.  The election of Barack Obama presented a unique problem for many partisans, in that as a popularly elected person of color, traditional ‘Other’ oriented smears proved to be largely self-defeating.  Attacks on the President’s ethnicity and character went no-where, and so attempts to define him as ‘Other’ devolved to cartoonish levels: he is a secret muslim and a Nazi.  The only factions biting these bizarre claims are the most under- and uneducated factions, their minds a vacuum and their bellies bloated.  It is historically significant to recognize that these factions are persistent not only in their ignorance but in their cultural influence.  This is the ‘disastrous third’ of the population Alexis de Tocqueville identified in his critique of American democracy.

The Other is easily defined as contrary to any factions interests; therefore, the factions most susceptible to partisan radicalization generally have the most to lose . . . or they feel they have the most to use.  The delivery systems identified earlier as the first phase of inculcating factional vigor are also extremely adept at delivering messages of fear.

Litany of Fear

Litany of Fear

to be continued . . .