Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The New Political Tribalism

Following up on my post from last week, Believing is Seeing, I wanted to briefly explore what I will call the “new political tribalism” that seems to be at the heart of vitriolic partisanship that has allowed this Congress to be crowned the the greatest “do nothing” Congress in history. Marshall McLuhan argued in his seminal work Understanding Media (1962) that the world was “retribalizing” as new technologies like television, the radio, record players and other instruments of the “electronic age” nudged humanity toward a “post literate” ontology. This has arguably only accelerated with the birth of the Internet and, more recently, social networking.

While I find the Salon article from Sunday, Liberal Fascism is Everywhere, rather reductivist and absurd in its analogy of recent leftist behavior with Stalin’s purges, it does highlight the fact that it is not only conservatives that are demonstrating the closing of the American mind. In fact, the new tribalism appears to be based on the very echo chamber new technology provides; undermining not only civil or reasoned debate, but debate of any kind. Rather than McLuhan’s “literate man”, who relied on “objective” distanced observation and analysis, science and rationality, the post-literate variety relies more on charismatic leaders of movements, blind faith, collective “tribal” beliefs, mythology and spirituality. Facts don’t much matter to the post-literate man because he is too busy proclaiming the truth from up high, his voice echoing out through the many parrots who will spread those words to the flocks.

And as I have commented on in the past, this is increasingly as true of liberals and even leftists as it is of the right wing lunatics. Key left-leaning entertainers like Jon Stewart and Bill Mayer offer up strong but ironic critiques of the mainstream media and right, but in a voice that is steeped in moral and intellectual superiority – largely aimed at those who already agree. Too much of the blogosphere does the same thing, though with more earnestness and less wit. And too many left-leaning activists have adopted a one-sided first amendment argument, that says we should listen to anyone they even tacitly agree with while trying to muffle any voices they find “offensive.” It is hypocrisy at its worst and yet another indicator of why the left has become so marginalized in the last few decades.

It is hard to open yourself to the ideas of those who disagree with you and much more comfortable to seek the solace of the like-minded. It creates an imaginary community itself; one where members can feel both safe and superior to their enemies, who are always thought of as ignorant and morally-corrupted. Yet that comfort comes at a ridiculous price to democracy and any effort to fight for the common good. So don’t just tune into your enemies once in a while, actually listen to what they say. Otherwise, we might as well close the election booths and simply give the country to the corporate leaders who already run the show for all intents and purposes. 

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