December 11, 2023

In an article this week in Tablet entitled “The Politics of Tribal Nonsense,” Wilfred Reilly chronicles how modern identity politics has corrupted truth. The “tribal nonsense” Reilly identifies are a series of great false narratives — such as the hagiography of George Floyd or the indictment of Israel as a practitioner of genocide and apartheid — that underly the destructive politics of the last decade and through which trust in our institutions and in each other has decreased.

Victor Davis Hanson has frequently taken up this point in his many talks and articles, which increase in quality and quantity as the need for his sane approach grows. We are splintering apart into small tribes, he maintains. We are losing our feeling of being bound together in a great union, and so our nation is losing political and cultural coherence. He cautions us from Hobbes, whose stark political philosophy, utterly skeptical of any better angels of our nature, saw humanity falling into a war of all against all. In Hobbes’ own words:

I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.

During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man.

Our identity as American citizens, says Hanson, has been the first casualty of identity politics. We think of our tribe first and our tribe only, and all outside it are our enemies, striving similarly to accrue all power to themselves and thereby reducing our tribe’s power.

The arguments of Hanson and Reilly are cogent and hit home. And yet, it must be said that the criticism of tribe and tribal consciousness needs significant qualification.

The most basic questions to ask are: Is the best way to achieve the desired goal of a large, coherent  national identity through the dissolution of subsidiary identities? Or, in its best realization, does the national identity add another layer to the sense of community we already are building in smaller groups: the nuclear family, the extended family, one’s religious community, communities of other interests; one’s school loyalties; loyalty to one’s locale and loyalty to one’s state?

In other words, does our national identity as Americans supersede and displace all other loyalties, or is it built upon and enriched by them? Is our ability to identify a zero-sum enterprise, a single pie; or is it something that is dynamic and generative, that our national identity gains from our smaller identities and is itself educated by them?

Do we embrace the idea of centralization as the supreme end when it comes to organizing our identity? Should we do so any more than we embrace centralization as the supreme principle for organizing our economy, our culture, or our political life?

Clearly, totalitarians want there to be only one identity. Crude totalitarians like Robespierre and Danton tried to destroy every institution that claimed human allegiance save for their own revolution. Jacobins filled barges with priests and drowned them in the Loire. Napoleon was a far more sophisticated politician. He forcibly co-opted religions, making them instruments of the state. He got the Church to rewrite its catechism so that it equated loyalty to the emperor with loyalty to God; he examined the French Jewish community to make sure it had no superior allegiance than that due him.

It was also a Frenchman who saw a better possibility than such a top-down, centralized zero-sum national identity. When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote his admiring reflections on American democracy, he spoke of Americans’ tendency to associate themselves into different groups as a great virtue:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate. Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.

The smaller identities of these associations are a defining and admirable feature of America, Tocqueville writes, and I sense that Hanson and other critics of tribalism would not disagree.

What, then, would be the criterion that could allow us to distinguish between a positive smaller identity, as in Tocqueville’s associations, and a destructive identity, as is being cultivated by wokists and assorted allied political villains?

Before answering, let us first realize that this is not a new problem.

One of the themes of Hebrew Scripture is that the national identity can become sinful. From the moment the people of Israel were forged by God into a nation, prophet after prophet tells them that their national identity will be a force for good only when it is aligned with God. Our supreme identity is as being created in His image, under His always-beneficent power. That is our supreme identity. It is how that we are created and it is our true nature.  Every other identity, including our national identity, is subsidiary to our identity in God.

When the national identity conflicted with the identity in God, the Bible tells us that the result was national exile.

Exile — but not dissolution. The remnant of Israel, the Kingdom of Judah, was taken as captives to Babylonia. Through Jeremiah, they were instructed to carry on with their life as a people but to be positive members at the same time of the land into which they are brought:

Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its prosperity you shall prosper. [29:7]

This was a lesson that had to be learned in a time of disastrous national defeat. But it was to light the way through centuries of later exiles in which Jews learned how to square the circle, as only God’s instruction could teach — how to be loyal and positive members of a larger sovereignty while at the same time maintaining a coherent and godly identity of their own, as God asks.

Given human imperfection, this was never accomplished perfectly, and it was never perceived or understood perfectly. But usually, societies that welcomed the Jews into their society benefited tremendously from their labors and enterprise, whether in early medieval Spain, in Poland in the 1500s, in the early and vigorous Ottoman Empire, or in the United States. On the other hand, the most regressive societies, whose sense of national unity was exclusive and totalitarian, would treat Jews with murderous cruelty as enemies of their state by the very fact of their group identity.

Every national identity must be subsidiary to our identity as creatures in the image of God. As John Adams told us, our constitution requires a religious and moral people and can work for none other — our national identity depends upon our prime identity as a subject and child of God.

We find that Godly identity not only in great and large social organizations — of which the nation is the greatest and largest that works — but also, crucially, within the smallest and most particular of identities: our religious community’s, our family’s, and our individual soul’s.

Despots are threatened by smaller identities and wish to undercut them or obliterate them. Free societies treasure them and in turn are enriched.

What, then, makes a tribal identity to be abhorred? When it becomes exclusive and intolerant of the other identities in general and of the identity in God in particular.

For Israel in biblical times, detaching the national identity from the identity in God separated the people not only for others but from God as well. Separate from the source of goodness and power in God, the distinctness of identity became merely isolation, estrangement, and disharmony. That way lies unending strife, just as Hobbes saw. If we don’t identify with the uniqueness of God in the depths of our soul, then we must get it construe what makes us unique in a lesser way.  Seeing the identity of others, we look to appropriate from them, as we have no natural source any more. And thus we battle to take away what cannot be alienated — an identity — without lessening or destroying the one from whom we seek to take it. This battle for identity is necessarily, as Hobbes said, a battle against everyone else.

Another essayist, Wendell Berry, who, like Hanson, is a farmer, wrote an essay about 40 years ago in which he analyzed economies in the way we are considering identities. There is a great all-encompassing economy, the Great Economy of God, understood as setting proper and defining limits to our activities, so that we both work and preserve the Eden we have been given.

So, too, there is the great, all-encompassing identity that sets the proper limits for our own identities at every level. America has prospered because it has effectively seen itself as a nation under God, and it has backed that talk with action. All religions have found a safe home here, though not without work and effort. And from that acceptance of an overarching godly constitution, we wrote our own, embracing federalism, and embracing the idea that all powers under it flow up from the smallest and the least — from the citizen, free to choose with every other citizen how to mold the larger organizations properly.

But the new tribalism is without God. It is only about power. The wokists see meaning only in power, and that is what they worship. And for them, God is also just a pie to be divided up into only so many pieces — every slice someone else gets is one less for me. And so, they have pioneered the politics of all against all, the destruction of every identity except for the last one standing.

We see what this is. Let’s use clear language and think clearly about it. Godly tribes, godly families, godly individuals with a strong identity — these are not problems. What we must have is the definition of the Godly identity itself as encompassing every right identity, husbanding and developing it, guiding it so each subsidiary identity enriches and prospers us in its small but crucial realm. The godly identity as well keeps us away from the destructive and belligerent envy that can only defeat and impoverish us and, thus, makes possible the incredible gifts of freedom and prosperity for which America at its best has always stood.

May it ever be so!