The Widening Divide; “Pardon Me” Redux*

The Widening Divide

For the majority of the human species, and for tens of thousands of years, the idea that humanity includes every human being on the face of the earth does not exist at all. The designation stops at the border of each tribe, or linguistic group, sometimes even at the edge of a village.” – anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss.

Tribalism. Having an identity. Finding acceptance.

The resurgence of tribalism in the 21st Century owes a great deal to the impact of social media, a subject addressed in “The Rise of Populism and the Agonizing Death of Compromise” in the April 10th TLR. Social media has enabled people to find those with whom they most closely identify, whether by race, religion, politics, economic status or national origin, each of which acts as a magnet to separate the wheat from the chaff humanity into its component parts, each of which fractures society … as each has done throughout history. This is not new. The difference is that social media is serving as a super-magnifier to focus individuals on their need to identify with those who look alike, act alike and think alike, and to consequently act more alike and think more alike … and by doing so intensify their resulting alienation from and hostility towards “others.” As more and more individuals access the internet, sameness is confirmed and differences are exaggerated – you’re now one of “us” … and not one of “them.” Humans, innately tribal animals, gravitate to sameness, defaulting to the comfort of shared media-centric communities, preferring to interact primarily only with those who share their race, their religion, their politics, their economic and social status – their definition of what it is to be human. They gravitate to those who share their commonalities …, and who also share their prejudices, their fears, their nativist roots, rejecting others’ alternate unrealities … rejecting facts that are not consistent with their tribe’s beliefs. Members of competing racial, religious, political, economic and national tribes thereafter are perceived – and often treated – as abnormal, less-than-human, and in many cases sub-human, their reality a “fake” one, at times a heretical one that requires remedial action. At the fringes, extremists who were isolated before the birth of social media, who had no external confirmation of their views, now can find supporters for their alternate reality. Even for those in the mainstream, action often is perceived as a viable alternative. The world has re-entered a more violent, “us-versus-them” historical cycle.

History rhymes … and often repeats. Textbooks are replete with examples of one civilization butchering or enslaving another, whether because of racial or religious or political or national or economic reasons. The last turn of the cycle was only 80 years ago, when economic dislocation, the impact of mass media communication (the radio), populism, racism, absolutism-vying-with-democracy, competition for resources, and a reshuffling of global leadership led to a world war. (See, for example, “Are We Experiencing a 1937 Redux” in the February 27th TLR and “1937” in the March 11th TLR.) (Perhaps a more accurate title for today’s TLR therefore might have been “A Return to the 1930s” or “Prelude to War?”) Whether within countries or between them, differences are being stoked, passions are being inflamed, and conflicts – racial, religious, political, economic and social – are sharpening. (That is not to say that the trend over millennia isn’t favorable. See, for example, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker. The trend has been clear, but cycles, after all, wax and wane.)

Asia provides a microcosm of global antagonists and adversaries, and unfortunately is representative. The intensely nationalist, nuclear-armed Hindus of India (who comprise 80{29ea29b64b10057f61377b2c087cd5b7537a0cd24da4295a308b0bf589469f35} of the population) are increasingly repressive intolerant of their Muslim minority and are taking aggressive actions engaged in a face-off with their equally nationalist, 95+{29ea29b64b10057f61377b2c087cd5b7537a0cd24da4295a308b0bf589469f35} Muslim, nuclear-armed neighbor, Pakistan. Myanmar’s Buddhists persecute brutalize hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingyas in a reign of ethnic terror that has banished more than a million Rohingyas to neighboring Muslim Bangladesh …, as the world stands idly by. Indonesia’s Muslim majority has become radicalized and is progressively less tolerant of the country’s ethnic and religious minorities. Meanwhile, economically prosperous Japan has become a model for successful ethnic isolation and racial purity. Where derogatory analogies previously were drawn between Nazi Germany’s National Socialism and Japan’s racially-charged nationalism, mercantilism and protectionism, Japan’s successful economy has turned the Japanese template into a role-model for virulent tribalism. Not by coincidence, China has adopted a totalitarian counterpart of racial, ethnic, religious, and political purity. It has used a 21st Century toolkit to ensure the dominance of its 92{29ea29b64b10057f61377b2c087cd5b7537a0cd24da4295a308b0bf589469f35} Han majority and the further entrenchment of the Communist Party, Confucianism and rabid nationalism, brutally repressing its Muslim minority, imposing government control over its Christian and Buddhist churches, and mandating socialist conformity with anti-Western, “Chinese characteristics.” Its foreign policy is ingenious, emphasizing industrial, commercial and military exploitation of “others” by employing a broad range of construction, trade and transport levers, a subject previously addressed in “Red Storm Rising” in the April 12th TLR (as well as “Axis of the Sanctioned” in the June 21st TLR).

Countries in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and South America are having their own 21st Century identity problems, a similar combination of race, religion, politics, economics and social issues that recur periodically in human history. Whether Brexit or immigration or terrorism or populism or inequality or tribalism or racism, almost every country is experiencing a higher level of turmoil today than 20 or 30 years ago … with disturbing echoes of the 1930s. The difference is that disorder and divisions are being spread more widely and more virulently by social media.

Politics in the U.S. is a further bellwether of that widening …, and President Trump has become the world’s leading proponent of that divisiveness. He revels in identity politics, and some accordingly have labeled Trump’s rhetoric as tribalism-through-demonization. For example, in a June speech, he said “Our radical Democrat opponents are driven by hatred, prejudice, and rage. They want to destroy you and they want to destroy our country….” “Impeachment,” he Tweeted in November, would be “a COUP [that] will cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.” Demonization of opponents is not new – even Hillary Clinton’s obnoxious characterization of Trump supporters as “deplorables” merely duplicated similar vituperation by candidates running for office –, but the breadth, depth and constancy of Trump’s attacks are a first for an American President … and a further echo of the 1930s.

The cycle-of-tribalism is waxing. In 1960, fewer than 5{29ea29b64b10057f61377b2c087cd5b7537a0cd24da4295a308b0bf589469f35} of the members of both of America’s political parties said they’d be unhappy if their children married someone from the other party. According to a poll by The Atlantic, today 35{29ea29b64b10057f61377b2c087cd5b7537a0cd24da4295a308b0bf589469f35} of Republicans and 45{29ea29b64b10057f61377b2c087cd5b7537a0cd24da4295a308b0bf589469f35} of Democrats would be unhappy. It’s only politics people! A Pew Research Center study in July found that only half of those polled believed that Americans would accept election results no matter who won. An earlier study at Vanderbilt University found that both Republicans and Democrats dehumanize members of the opposite party. “Partisans are willing to explicitly state that members of the opposing party are like animals, that they lack essential human traits….” Disturbingly, it concluded that “Dehumanization may loosen the moral restraints that would normally prevent us from harming another human being.”

Such thinking is not limited to America or American politics. Regrettably, it is worldwide, common … and spreading. Read the speeches of today’s leaders, what Xi Jinping and Jeremy Corbyn and Benjamin Netanyahu and Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Narendra Modi and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are saying about “others,” how those who are not members of their tribe aren’t human. These leaders practice the playbook that autocrats have been using for centuries – the playbook of division. Trump is not a unique 21st Century phenomenon …, although he is the lead player in that spectacle. The Golden Age of humanity may or may not have passed. It flourished in the era of Pax Americana that began after WWII (as discussed in the March 22nd TLR, “Was Pax Americana Good for America?”). To date, it seems clear that the 1990s marked a peak in human peace and prosperity from which the world has been retreating. The hope for humanity is that we are now passing through a shallow valley of tribalism, racism, religious and political hatred, economic inequality, unchecked nationalism, and the fracturing of humanity’s social structure … and that we will soon resume the climb to a new peak.

A “Pardon Me” Redux

The May 24th TLR addressed a U.S. President’s power under the Constitution to pardon. It noted, in part, that President Trump’s pardoning of persons for political advantage “undercuts the principle cherished by the Founders and ensconced in the Constitution …, that Americans live by the Rule of Law and not by the Law of Rulers (see ÔÇÿThe Rule of Law’ in the April 5th TLR).” On November 15th, the President pardoned three members of the military, one of whom had been accused of violent war crimes and two of whom had been convicted of them, overruling senior military leaders and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, all of whom were concerned that the pardons could potentially damage the integrity of the military justice system. In May, Trump had pardoned an Army lieutenant convicted of killing an Iraqi during an interrogation, the first pardon of a convicted murderer in modern U.S. history.

Finally (from a good friend)


*┬® Copyright 2019 by William Natbony. All rights reserved.

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