Toxic Tribalism

Dare I write about this subject at the risk of being trolled? Okay, I’m bursting to exorcise the feelings of revulsion I have been living with since Brett Kavanaugh was sworn into the Supreme Court.

Like millions of people, men as well as women, I believe Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony. More importantly, if I imagine that I did not believe her, I would still think that Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony was appalling. His display of petulance, self-pity and political partisanship is not befitting a member of America’s highest court.

With only one week allowed for the FBI to investigate and with a Republican majority in the Senate, Kavanaugh’s appointment came as no surprise. The appointment of Clarence Thomas in 1991 after the compelling testimony of workplace sexual harassment by Anita Hill yielded the same results. But here are the key differences that stirred my disgust these past weeks. Firstly, Anita Hill was alone in her allegations; two other women have come forward in the Kavanaugh case. The Hill vs Thomas standoff was over 30 years ago, before Harvey Weinstein and before #MeToo – this time, the nomination process could have ended differently. The greatest differences of all have been the reactions of the sitting presidents. In 1991, President George Bush (senior) accepted the Senate’s decision to place Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court without accusing Anita Hill of giving ‘false testimony,’ as Trump did of Christine Blasey Ford. Nor did President Bush publicly mock Anita Hill or say anything to discredit her during the judge’s swearing in ceremony.

This country of polarised ideals has escalated into a cold civil war. And it didn’t start with Trump.  The conservative/liberal polemic has been deepening since the Clinton administration, when Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich went after all things liberal, especially the Clintons – a modern couple, where the lawyer wife earned more than her politician husband. This anti-liberal fervour took on another level with the Tea Party Movement, started during the Obama years.Tribalism 2

Unlike these other waves of intense opposition, this time the initial surge is not in reaction to the presidency, but is being instigated by it. Trump has fuelled old hatreds and fears, using rallies to drum home the message, touring the political polemic into tribalism.

Some members of the Republican tribe, mainly women, actually believed Ford’s testimony, but said that Ford was ‘mistaken’ about the identity of the perpetrator. They ignore (or think we won’t notice) the fact that Ford said she was ‘100%’ certain that it was Brett Kavanaugh. In other words, these Republicans know better, but pretend that they don’t in order to remain loyal to their tribe. I don’t meant to oversimplify this – of course, there’s also political motivation. Once the questions about Kavanaugh emerged, other conservative judges could have been nominated in Kavanaugh’s place, but given the realistic time constraints and the mid-term elections coming up, the Republicans couldn’t risk having an even harder time still if there were more Democrats in the Senate.

If, dear reader, you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that I too have strong political opinions. I’m a proud feminist and a liberal. I’d like to think that my feelings of being incensed over the Kavanaugh vs Ford spectacle have come from my intellect and not because I belong to a tribe that has been threatened. I fear that there could be a point in my future when my passionate views tip over into tribalism.

In my echo chamber

If I’ve learned one thing from the Brexit vote and the ascent of Trump, it’s that inside social media I live in my own echo chamber. Both events took me by surprise. While the mainstream media showed support from all sides in these contests, in Facebook and Twitter, I was seeing overwhelming support for remaining in the EU and strong arguments and jokes against Trump – though divided between supporting Saunders and Clinton.

Of course, in Facebook my ‘friends’ are mostly my former students and colleagues, fellow writers and a few friends who really are friends, in the sense of the word before Facebook. It is no surprise that educated and liberal would define this select group. On top of that, my Facebook interactions have been infiltrated by Mark Zuckerberg’s algorithms, sending me postings from people and organisations which are not my friends, but are clearly like-minded – but sadly, not always accurate – I’ve stopped waiting for the ‘child-rape’ charges to be pressed against Trump.

Twitter is another matter. I started my Twitter account when I was still working in academia fulltime and used it as a way of furthering my own research. As a writer, I also follow other writers, certain publishing houses and publications, etc. In other words, I’ve been following loads of people I don’t know personally. Yet, many of these strangers were touting the same views as I was when it came to the Brexit and Trump. We retweet and like each other’s tweets. It could be argued that these people were indirectly hand-picked because they were likely to share the same views – after all, they’re academics or in creative fields.

Since the Brexit vote, in order to keep sane and to participate in the fight against a hard Brexit, I have deliberately started following political organisations, e.g. the Lib-Dems and Open Britain, for the latest news and information on protest marches and petitions. Hence, reinforcing the walls of my online echo chamber.

Offline, while my choice of friends keeps me contently among the like-minded, I also find myself in situations with people who are my political polar-opposites. In Nice, for instance, the expat community sometimes has me face-to-face with regular readers of The Daily Telegraph, which openly backed Brexit. Such encounters challenge me to show up prepared with statistics and references. I do my best, though probably to little or no effect.

At least with Trump’s win my online and offline worlds are not so different. I have not had to come face-to-face with any Trump supporter – I don’t know what I would say to one if I did. It would be like confronting someone who has joined a cult – they have chosen to believe the unbelievable and they are clearly nurturing a need that places them beyond reason.

Yet, my offline world – and my online world outside of social media – with news programmes and newspapers, keep me informed about what others are thinking – the polemics of the debates. The walls of my echo chamber might be strong, but they do have windows.

American Patriotism and Me

A few days after the terrorists’ attack on the World Trade Center, I received a chain email that read ‘All Americans wear RED, WHITE and BLUE today.’ The email told its readers to pass this message on to ‘ten other Americans.’ In other words, members of the same club. It concluded with ‘Let’s unite against terrorists. GOD BLESS AMERICA.’ I coiled up in my revulsion and wondered if there were any way I could take the ‘dual’ out of my dual citizenship, cut my elongated vowels and just be British. I then braced myself for a round of nauseating American patriotism.

Over the years, I’ve run into non-Americans who assume that if someone is American, they are by definition patriotic. Not true. There’s something about American patriotism that has always gotten under my skin. Having spent most of my adult life outside of the US, I’ve clung to only a portion of my youth – the  unpatriotic portion. I was growing up when the Vietnam war and television characters like Archie Bunker made patriotism look foolhardy and ‘uncool.’ Certainly, other Americans grew up at this time – this awkward border between baby boomers and x-ers – but many of them seemed to have shaken off this brief trend of embarrassment at being American, this blip in American history.

Of course, my contemporaries were helped back into patriotism by the usual culprits, the US media and public relations firms. I recall in 1979 when Americans were being held hostage in Iran, marketers had discovered that patriotism could sell. Then, it was through advertising that ideas and trends gained their currency in America. The Pepsi ads that ran during the Iran-hostage crisis had pop stars singing about Pepsi as being ‘the American way’ while dancing in a sea of red, white and blue. Now, of course, this fervour is drummed up largely on social media.

Most of this patriotism has been harmless, but it does have an ugly side. I first experienced this nearly 30 years ago. I found myself in the States in 1990 just as the first Gulf War was starting. I strongly opposed US involvement and felt that the escapade was a set up to use the stockpile of arms left by President Reagan and to help his successor G.H. Bush overcome his image as a wimp. One morning, I stopped by my local convenience store in Boston to pick up a newspaper. When I was handed my change, the cashier held out a little foot-high American flag and said, ‘Here, Ma’am.’ The last thing I wanted was an American flag. What was I going to do with it? Wave it around like a cheerleader, promoting a country I was embarrassed to be from at a time when it was policing the world to the resentment of millions? Being polite, I simply said, ‘No thank you.’ I saw her mouth hang open and her eyes roll in disgust as I turned away to walk towards the door. I heard the cashier spit out the word, ‘Bitch.’ I knew it was meant for me, but I pretended that it was for someone else or that I hadn’t heard it. This stranger’s hostility shook me to the core.

Since then when the topic of American patriotism came up and someone would comment about my lack of it, I would give them one of two responses. One – I would remind them of Samuel Johnson, who once called patriotism ‘the last refuge of a scoundrel.’ Or two – I would confess to experiencing patriotic moments, such as when the American hockey team beat the Canadians at the winter Olympics or when Obama give his acceptance speech in Chicago on the night of his first presidential election. Honestly, goosebumps.

Flash forward to 2016. Donald Trump is running for president and he is gaining support. And this is not a joke. The people who support him are mostly the flag-waving, intensely patriotic Americans who seem to be the stuff of satire. Supporters of Trump’s opponents will wave flags at rallies, but are otherwise more subdued in their patriotism.

Throughout this presidential campaign, Trump spewed out racist, intolerant and misogynistic attacks – and gained patriotic supporters. Now here’s the strange thing – given my history with American patriotism, you would expect me to roll my eyes, get angry at the television and computer screen and feel even more alienated from American patriotism than ever. But that didn’t happen. Trump has injected poison into America. He’s ruining it.  In doing so, he has reminded me of the many good things America stands for – even if it doesn’t always get it right. Things like liberalism and democracy. Like many Americans, I find myself feeling protective and perhaps even patriotic over the country of my birth. Perhaps I have finally fallen into the grips of patriotism – the kind of patriotism that happens at a time of war when you don’t want to see your country destroyed. But, frightfully, in this war, the enemy is within.