What Tribalism Is, What Tribalism Isn’t

The idea of tribalism goes back to ancient times when bands of hunter-gatherers were following the animals they ate and searching for edible plants and fruits. Peoples clashed. They probably didn’t always clash, but if food scarcity was at levels that threatened survival, they certainly would have clashed. Compassion was enough of an instinct that killing would have troubled them, so they needed to carry a tribal god with them that told them they were a select group and other groups they ran into were not in that select group, which gave them permission to kill that other group without guilt or with diminished guilt. There are remnants of the tribal god thinking in the Western religions, which derived from the hunter-gatherer style of living. In the Bible, there are lists of foods appropriate to eat. These lists are worse than arbitrary, these were lists of the foods these people were already eating, so that when they ran into peoples eating different foods, they could kill them for violating religious law. There are other lists in the Bible, for how to sew etc. The Western religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) have adapted to a more unified globe and now teach messages of peace, but this tribalism origin shows in their texts and that influence probably affects our thinking, whether religious or not, we’re all influenced by Western religion.

A close equivalent to tribalism, in modern times, might be people who take sports rivalries way too seriously and imagine the campus of a rival college team or the city of a rival team a completely other set of people, even when everything else about those two cities or campuses would point to them having a lot in common (similarly sized, same region of the country, etc.). Tribalism would be if I eat Wheaties for breakfast and I have a neighbor who easts Mueslix, and I think, What kind of an asshole eats Mueslix for breakfast? I don’t even have an issue with this neighbor, I’m just looking for arbitrary distinctions so that when the end of times comes if we’re down to one loaf of bread and one bottle of water between the two of us I can not share without guilt.

The problem with explaining the divide in America today with tribalism is that it attempts to establish a false equivalency, kind of a buzz phrase through the 2016 election and continuing after, but a buzz phrase because the tactic is used constantly. There is a tribal element to the divide in America, because those Western religion influences are so powerful, but the distinctions of tribalism exist solely so that there are distinctions. They exist to create us and not-us, other. What divides America today is where we align on actual issues and what the influence of tribalism allows us to ignore is that there are objective truths behind those issues. This predates Trump. Jenny McCarthy used a study, later determined to be based on manipulated data and fraudulent research, to convince people vaccines cause autism. Many probably still believe this. Vaccinating a perfectly healthy baby is frightening, so it can be tempting to believe someone who tells you not to do it, but read up on how terrifying Polio was before a vaccine to prevent it existed. Climate change, caused by human activity, is no fun to think about, so when someone claims we’re just in a natural warming period, it’s tempting to believe. If you’re a Trump supporter, believing, as he said, that millions of people in California illegally voted for Clinton is tempting to believe, because winning the popular vote would be a nice feather in the cap of the person you voted for. Similarly, believing his inauguration was more well attended than Obama’s.

The scientific method allows us to eliminate our biases in how we observe. It has ways of eliminating that we might like to believe Trump’s inauguration was more well attended than Obama’s with what we can clearly see in pictures, that it wasn’t. Science has ways of studying how and why the planet is warming and was able to establish an extreme likelihood that digging up millions of years’ worth of fossil fuels and releasing them into the atmosphere as a gas is, inconvenient as it is to learn, the how and the why. Science establishes extreme likelihoods because science doesn’t deal in certainties. Certainty ends the search for potential new information and our ability to integrate that new information with what we already believe or to change what we already believe completely. We seem to be in a new age where people are comfortable believing whatever they choose to believe, and those people take advantage of science not dealing in certainties and use that to create irrational doubt, which is not the same as skepticism.

Soon after Trump was elected, he made the claim Obama had wiretapped him. An interviewer made every effort to nail him down on this, as Trump tried to be oblique, as he likes to be, you might remember this clip, Trump kept saying “you can figure it out,” and the reporter said, “I want to know what you think, you’re the president.” At one point, Trump said, “I don’t stand for anything,” and then he told the reporter, “I can have my own opinions. You can have your own opinions.” This is the problem in America, and Trump is just an expression of that problem. Whether or not Obama was illegally wiretapping Trump is not a matter of opinion, it either happened or it didn’t. That clip is here; it’s hard to watch:

After Trump’s win, a lot of Americans questioned how people could have voted for him and the response to that questioning was often, “Apparently people aren’t entitled to an opinion anymore.” That’s nonsense. Of course, everyone is entitled to an opinion but respecting others’ opinions doesn’t require not questioning them. As much as people were entitled to vote for Trump and defend that vote, I was and am entitled to state that they voted wrong. Russian paid for millions of ads on facebook manipulating Americans into being for Trump and against Clinton and, more relevantly, which doesn’t get the mention it deserves, those ads were shared by American citizens millions of times. We got duped. Russia rigged our election for president taking advantage of our willingness to believe whatever we like to believe.

If we’re not allowed to challenge each other to be better voters, our democracy is threatened. I hope everyone who’s read this far reads the quote below from David Foster Wallace. What comes through even more than his wish for his fellow citizens to maintain a Democratic Spirt is his compassion at how difficult it truly is, how we all fail, sometimes, how the trap of failing to maintain a Democratic Spirit is universal. Compare how his words below try to unite us at the same time as they try to make us better. Compare that to how our current president uses that same trap to try to divide us and make us worse.

“A Democratic Spirit is one that combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others. As any American knows, this is a difficult spirit to cultivate and maintain, particularly when it comes to issues you feel strongly about. Equally tough is a DS’s criterion of 100 percent intellectual integrity – you have to be willing to look honestly at yourself and your motives for believing what you believe, and to do it more or less continually. A Democratic Spirit’s constituent rigor and humility and self-honesty are, in fact, so hard to maintain on certain issues that it’s almost irresistibly tempting to fall in with some established dogmatic camp and to follow that camp’s line on the issue and to let your position harden within the camp and become inflexible and believe that the other camps are either evil or insane and to spend all your time and energy trying to shout over them.” – David Foster Wallace, from a 1999 article, “Authority and American Usage”

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If Jesus Rose from the Dead Why Doesn’t My Mom?

I’ve probably been to Catholic Mass as many times since my mom died as I’d gone with her since returning to Ohio from Seattle, several years ago. I always felt like an imposter when I went. Everyone worshipped so sincerely and I felt like I detracted from that energy, the way a non-participant in laughter therapy can ruin a session. I went a few times with her as her illness progressed because I felt like she wanted me to and I got something out of it, but I liked to stay home and write while she and her husband were at church and then have breakfast ready for them when they got home. Mom came to understand that represented me better and she respected that.

Now I’ve been to her funeral Mass, another bereavement service, Christmas, and Easter. I go so her husband doesn’t have to go alone, but I also go for me. Mom’s there. I drift in and out of paying attention. I’m mostly communing with the mystery, where Mom’s gone, to the mystery of being. Our presence proves the mystery of being. My conflict with religion is that it attempts to unravel the mystery by attaching specifics I don’t relate to. What Joseph Campbell taught me is that all religions are true. They’re metaphorical of something. What’s happening to Jesus should be happening in your life. Whether Jesus rose from the dead or didn’t, that was almost two-thousand years ago. I relate to it as a story. Jesus died and rose from the dead, as a metaphor. My mom died but I think of her sitting in her church with her husband, as I always think of her, but being in church brings me closer to the mystery of being, where she is now, and I commune with her. She has risen. It’s well known that that’s blasphemy, in some thinking, but in other thinking that is the point of religion to recognize that God is in you and your loved ones and everyone you meet. Joseph Campbell says, “Jesus ascended to heaven but what is heaven? Heaven is no place. He ascended to heaven through the inward space which is where you must go.” Sitting in church, I travel to the inward space and be with my mom. I enjoy that.

Love You Mom!

Mother died today. Or it might have been yesterday. I only don’t know because right now I’m enjoying morning coffee with her while she receives therapy from one of her Hospice nurses. I’m preparing this blog ahead of time linking some of the blog posts I’ve made over the many months since her diagnosis of terminal liver cancer. Months we’ve managed, following her lead, to make the most of. Sharing her through my writing is likely to be my path through grief.

I’ll link them short to long. If you feel like reading any, please do. I’m grateful for your thoughts, your comments, and your time.

1. Compiling A Reading List I Hope not to get to soon

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2016/01/07/compiling-a-rereading-list-i-hope-not-to-get-to-soon/

2. Awakenings

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2015/11/19/awakenings/

3. Dreaming of A Living Funeral

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2015/01/08/dreaming-of-a-living-funeral/

4. Bulk Popcorn

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2014/12/13/bulk-popcorn/

5. Hearts Connected by String

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2014/12/01/hearts-connected-by-string/

7. Integrating Sadness and Joy:

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2016/01/29/integrating-sadness-and-joy/

8. Scan Day:

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2016/02/02/scan-day/

9. Keeping An Eye on Her Grandchildren

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/keeping-an-eye-on-grandchildren/

10. This post I wrote about my father four years after he died:

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2014/10/01/four-years-today-thank-you-for-reading/

11. My Mother’s Simons:

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2016/05/06/my-mothers-simons/

12. Yahtzee:

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2016/06/04/yahtzee/

My Mother’s Simons

With permission, I’ve shared details of my mother’s journey through my own reflections, here’s another. My mom had a vision of Jesus carrying his cross and her following with a cross of her own. Jesus was giant-sized, she half his size. Helping her were tiny figures. She looked closely and saw that they were people who’ve sent cards or texts or otherwise offered encouragement. (That would include readers of my posts, as well.) The faces of Jesus and her are both blank.

My mom hopes it was a vision, not a dream or a hallucination. To me, the difference isn’t central. She’s accessing deep mythological themes that are comforting her. It’s bound to her specific religious beliefs but pushing deeper. She and Jesus are faceless. I interpret that as moving past the personification to that mystery beyond all human comprehension. The image of God is the final obstruction to the religious experience of interfacing with the transcendent.

We require models to show us how to die, which are really models to show us how to live knowing we’ll die. That’s the real human struggle. After all, dying’s no trouble. Dying isn’t even an action event. We have trouble with this concept, of course, and its inevitability isn’t necessarily comforting. In the Bible, Jesus died on the cross for our sins. What sins? The sin we’re born into the world with, well that makes no sense to me, personally. Considering the same story, I interpret the crucifixion, as I mention in Little Book of Thou, which I’ve excerpted here, as God becoming so immersed in the role of Jesus as a human being that Jesus didn’t know he was God and had to die a human life with only the same faith in what came next that every other human dies with. (What that is being unique to each individual)

We’re all on this journey but my mom is on it with a heightened awareness, because she’s terminally ill. She’s carrying her cross, now, and being helped by her Simons, but she’s also helping her Simons. She’s providing a beautiful, courageous model for accepting the passing of this life she knows and treasures. In some ways, it would be easier not to know what’s coming, but we’re all, those who love her, her Simons, following her lead and choosing to value the knowing and treat this ending leg of the journey as a gift.