American Tribalism

Gene Autry

I see a lot of really bad Internet memes and blog posts come down the pike, but an especially egregious one that caught my eye recently invokes the spirit of that great political philosopher and sage prophet… Gene Autry. Yes, that’s right: the Great Singing Cowboy, according  to this titanically silly article, “eerily predicted everything Trump is saying in 1942”. Really? Everything?  Like “I am the greatest at everything, including things I’ve never done” or “Nobody has been more persecuted than me” or “Hillary is a crook?”

Well, let’s assume that they’re using a little poetic license here, and when they say “everything”, they really mean “a couple of things”. In which case, there is sort of a half grain of truth to the caption (but that’s just about the only truth you’ll find in the entire post).

The allusion to Gene Autry involves a song called “Don’t Bite the Hand That’s Feeding You”, which he sang in the film The Bells Of Capistrano. Released when the U.S. was embroiled in World War II, the jingoism of lines such as these is understandable:

If you don’t like your uncle Sammy than go back to your home over the sea, to the land from where you came, whatever be its name, but don’t be ungrateful to me!

But even that is a far cry from what the current White House Occupant and his cult following would have you believe: namely, that (a) dark-skinned foreigners are causing a great many of our problems, and (b) anyone who says otherwise is un-American.

You get a very good inkling of this from the very first sentence of the article:

Patriots, if you ever hear a liberal complain about our country, then just sing them a song.

Notice the very first word: “patriots”.  The piece is supposedly addressed to patriots, but it’s actually addressed to Trumpsters. In the mind of the author, the two are one and the same.  The implication is that everyone who supports the current White House Occupant is a patriot, and anyone who doesn’t is a “liberal” and hates the whole country. This is an old tried and true propaganda tactic called flag waving, which we’ve examined more than once.

What’s really exceptional about this piece of Internet propaganda is that it is constructed almost entirely of straw men. (Please read the previous examination of that propaganda technique if you haven’t already done so.) Herewith is a sampling of the straw found therein:

…we see more and more liberals complaining about our great nation.

There are immigrants who come to our country only to complain about it.

…they tell us how we should live…

Under eight years of Obama, we had a president who did not care about our veterans.

Obama hated our country so much that he literally ignored the pleas of our veterans.

Why does the Left hate our military so much?

Do the Democrats understand that if it were not for our great veterans, they wouldn’t have a platform to spew their awful hatred?

We need to hold the media accountable for ignoring our veterans.

The Democrats love government spending, except when it comes to keeping America safe.

The Left loves wielding the Hollywood sword to try and cut us down, but we have smartened up.

And not that the author has “smartened up” enough to actually care about getting facts straight or anything, but he also has it backward about which party and which politicians have treated veterans most shamefully.

What this article does, in short, is advance the cause of tribalism: the schism of society into clashing ideological or sociological divides. And it is far from the only example. You will hear it over and over and over again from the Cult Of Trumpery: “Liberals hate America”; “Liberals are evil”; “Liberals are stupid”; “Liberals want to destroy you”.

The distinct impression you get is that the main reason, if not the only reason, that a great many of them voted for 45 was simply to “pay back liberals” for some imagined offense or other.  Some have said something like, “Well, we suffered for 8 years under Obama, so now it’s your turn to suffer.”  (To which someone penned an excellent response in an effort to get to the bottom of the “suffering” under Obama.) It doesn’t seem to have occurred to these folks that in their obsession with making “liberals” suffer, they are making everyone suffer, including themselves — for the present, and quite likely for generations to come.

Tribalism defies all reason.  And while it has always been with us, and is perhaps inevitable, what’s really different now is the extreme, deliberate crusade that one particular tribe is waging to make the rift broader, deeper and more toxic.

As it happens, I recently saw another old movie, for the first time in years: Tribes, a film made for TV in 1970. (It’s been sadly neglected and forgotten for decades, despite winning 3 Emmy awards and distinctly influencing later military flicks that are better known, such as Full Metal Jacket and Heartbreak Ridge.) It deals with a hippie (Jan Michael Vincent) who is drafted into the Marine Corps and butts heads with a rock-ribbed drill sergeant (Darren McGavin).

Tribes

In addition to being a powerful drama well worth watching, Tribes is a thought-provoking rumination on the problem of tribalism, which we thought was bad in 1970, but is arguably worse now. At one point, the hippie draftee says, “We’re from different tribes, sergeant. Two completely different worlds. You don’t understand mine, yet you force me to accept yours”. To his credit, the sergeant actually does try to understand the other side of the divide. But another sergeant (Earl Holliman) has nothing but hostility for the young man. He embodies, in other words, the attitude of Trumpsters — talk about “eerily” prescient.

When they were “suffering” under Obama, they were full of rage and loathing. Now that (they think) they are getting everything they want, they are… full of rage and loathing. Perhaps even more so. It’s hard to reason with people who seemingly just live for rage and loathing.

We previously listed some strategies for overcoming the plague of Trumpery, and among them was the importance of trying to “cross the bridge” — i.e., the gap between ourselves and those on the other side of the ideological divide. (Back  in the era when Tribes was made, for example, I recall reading about a softball game between hippies and police. ) Unfortunately, you may find that’s an uphill battle when you’re dealing with people who are obsessed with blowing up the bridges and building higher walls.

Propaganda Prop # 2: Flag Waving

When the 112th Congress, freshly perked up with newly elected Tea Party darlings, convened this week, they did something that had never been done before: they read the entire Constitution on the floor of the House. The whole thing. No, really. Well, except for, um, the parts they didn’t want to read.

In a sane society, the common reaction to such grandstanding would be disbelief if not outrage. After all, the time for reading the Constitution is long before you even decide to run for public office, not after you come to town to do the job on the taxpayer dime. But instead, the typical reaction was, “How nifty. Somebody in Washington is finally paying attention to the Constitution.”

Which is, of course, precisely the reaction they wanted. They were making good use of another common technique from the propagandist’s toolkit: flag waving – i.e., wrapping oneself in the cloak of patriotism. Patriotism itself is nothing objectionable, mind you. It becomes propaganda when patriotism is equated with a particular partisan ideology. And in contemporary America, that almost always means “conservatism” (which in truth is anything but conservative, but that’s another story).

But there is certainly nothing new about the tactic itself. Back in 1775, Samuel Johnson remarked that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”.  To which others have replied that it’s actually the first. Neither is strictly accurate; flag-waving is not the most commonly used propaganda technique. In fact, we hadn’t planned to cover it so soon, but sometimes a timely news item like the one above serves you something so delicious you just have to feast on it. On the other hand, it’s not the last thing propagandists would think of using, either.

The objective in wrapping your ideology in a star-spangled cloak is not just to make yourself appear patriotic, but to make those who do not wholeheartedly support your ideology appear unpatriotic. The Teabaggers want not only to present themselves as champions of the Constitution but also to suggest that certain policies of the current administration (especially “Obamacare”) are somehow unconstitutional. Democrats could either refuse to support the reading of the document (in which case the Republicanoids would say “What do you have against the Constitution, anyway?”) or go along with it (in which case they could say, “Aha! Why didn’t you think of this?”) Either way, brilliant ploy.

Every now and then, as if to validate the maxim that nothing is so enduring as a bad idea, certain right-wingers demonstrate their reverence for the Constitution in another way: proposing to alter it in order to ban flag-burning. That’s right: a political faction that loudly proclaims its support of “limited government” and personal liberty wants to give the government power to dictate how individuals might use their own property when it’s adorned with the very emblem of that liberty. The mind reels.

Just how big a problem do you suppose flag-burning is, anyway? When was the last time you ever even heard of an American citizen burning the flag? Thirty years ago? Forty? But there’s one prediction you can take to the bank: if they ever do succeed in passing such legislation, there will be THOUSANDS of flag burners in the streets to protest it. And virtually all of them will be genuine patriots who never would have imagined they’d do such a thing, but feel it’s their duty to challenge such idiocy.  (I might even be the first to strike a match.) Surely even Glenn Beck can figure that one out. But then, the real objective is not to protect the flag (as if there were only one in existence) or liberty; the real objective is to present themselves as morally superior by being patriotically superior.

This kind of tactic has been a right-wing staple at least since McCarthy, who under the pretext of ferreting out communist spies and subversives, put stars in his own crown by persecuting anyone who varied in the slightest from the conventional mold – which potentially included everyone.  And all you really need to know about most of today’s right-wing extremists is that they regard McCarthy as an unjustly maligned hero. Never mind that he destroyed the lives of countless innocent people; he was on the “right” side, so he was a demigod. (Ironic historical footnote that will no doubt be deemed as irrelevant: Yes, Virginia, there were a few communists lurking around. And how many did McCarthy actually find?)

In the post-Cold War world, it has become difficult to label your fellow Americans as communists without making yourself sound like a total ass (which doesn’t stop some from doing it anyway), so the usual approach is to tone down the epithet to “socialist” instead. (Neither communist nor socialist is really synonymous with un-American, but just try explaining that to a Tea Partier.) It’s not unusual for them to brand the president as a communist, a socialist and a fascist all at once, blissfully unaware of any contradiction.

James Watt, who was Secretary of the Interior under Ronald Reagan, allegedly summed up the attitude by saying, “I never use the words Democrats and Republicans. It’s liberals and Americans”. More recently, Minnesota representative Michele Bachmann channeled McCarthy by declaring, “I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out if they are pro-America or anti-America.”

Just take a good look at the right-wing websites, books, magazines, newspapers and TV programs, and you’ll see the same theme hammered on over and over and over: “Liberalism” (whatever that may be) is evil, and “liberals” hate America. That has become the very backbone of contemporary “conservatism”. Consider just a few in the seemingly endless stream of vituperative book titles: “Treason; Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terror”; “Let Freedom Ring; Winning the War of Liberty Over Liberalism”;  “Deliver Us From Evil; Defeating Terrorism, Despotism and Liberalism”; “How the Left Swiftboated America; the Liberal Media Conspiracy to Make You Think George Bush Was the Worst President in History”.

The latter is especially interesting. It says that it isn’t just adherents of a particular ideology, or those who reject a particular ideology, who are un-American. Even criticizing one single person constitutes an attack on America itself – if and only if that person happens to be a Republican. In contrast, right-wingers who attack Barack Obama, even in the vilest and most childish terms, generally label themselves as “patriots”. Today’s “patriots” jeer when the President of the United States is awarded a Nobel Prize, and cheer when he fails to bring the Olympics to America.

And then there’s this literary gem: “The Real America; Messages from the Heart and Heartland”.  Got that? It’s only the “red” states that make up the real Amurrca.  Ask any of Sarah Palin’s admirers (and apparently she does have some) just what she has to offer of value besides being within spittin’ distance of Russia, and the answer you’re likely to get is that she’s a “real American”. You know, as opposed to those plastic Americans who have less reactionary views. Sarah herself is at least savvy enough to cash in on the divisive rhetoric, referring to small towns as “what I call the real America… very patriotic, very pro-America” areas of the country. You know, as opposed to the false America of those elitist metropolitan areas where people think they’re special because of their geographical location, and where major media outlets allow prophets like Palin to get their message out to Real America.

As publicity stunts go, perhaps the reading of the Constitution in Congress is harmless enough. It only cost taxpayers a million or so, and just think, that dough might have been squandered on something totally frivolous like school lunches or public libraries or even (shudder) saving the lives of a few impoverished children through communist/socialist/Marxist/Nazi/Muslim/Klingon healthcare. Maybe the Tea Party will even absorb some of the things the Constitution actually says, to root out what they fantasize it says. (Huh? The Second Amendment is really about militias? Gee, who knew.)

But don’t bet on it. Most likely, it will have exactly the kind of PR payoff they hoped it would. This is indeed the Real America now. And it’s a land where demagoguery, bitter partisanship  and “patriotic” polemics reign supreme. Get used to it.