From Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview with President Obama, I’ve already written about how he isn’t enamored with “free riders” and how his foreign policy is a challenge to the Washington playbook. The president also talked about how tribalism is the root of the problem in the Middle East right now.
One of the most destructive forces in the Middle East, Obama believes, is tribalism—a force no president can neutralize. Tribalism, made manifest in the reversion to sect, creed, clan, and village by the desperate citizens of failing states, is the source of much of the Muslim Middle East’s problems, and it is another source of his fatalism. Obama has deep respect for the destructive resilience of tribalism—part of his memoir, Dreams From My Father, concerns the way in which tribalism in post-colonial Kenya helped ruin his father’s life—which goes some distance in explaining why he is so fastidious about avoiding entanglements in tribal conflicts.
“It is literally in my DNA to be suspicious of tribalism,” he told me. “I understand the tribal impulse, and acknowledge the power of tribal division. I’ve been navigating tribal divisions my whole life. In the end, it’s the source of a lot of destructive acts.”
Tribalism isn’t merely a phenomenon in the Middle East. It is also obviously animating the “white nostalgia” of Trump’s supporters. We’ve seen similar reactions in Europe. So it’s interesting to contemplate what is driving all this.
Following President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 2009, he was interviewed by Will and Jada Smith and discussed our options to the fact that – due to advances in technology – the world is shrinking.
In response to globalization, we can either pull back into our own identities (race, tribe, religion) or we can work to expand our moral imagination. The latter is why the President so often talks about expanding our definition of “we.” In the context of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, that is not merely a call to do so across the lines of race, class, religion in this country – but to expand our moral imagination to encompass the world of a young mother in Bangladesh.
As President Obama said, to retreat into tribalism at this moment is dangerous. While the forces of a changing America and increasing globalization are unsettling and challenging, it is a recipe for disaster to simply identify with those who think/look like ourselves and draw battle lines with those who don’t. The goal is not to assume we can all agree with each other on everything – but to be able to see and value the humanity of those with whom we don’t.
As Jon Favreau wrote recently: “Every election is a competition between two stories about America.” Right now, one of those stories is about tribalism – the need to “take our country back” to a mythological day when a lot of white people assume that things were better. That story rests on demonizing, expelling and/or punishing those who are blamed for the changes that we don’t like.
The other story is the one President Obama is talking about…the potential we have to expand our moral imagination. That is not some ideal that humans are incapable of reaching. We see people do it every day. And it is old enough to be embedded in every major religion as something resembling the Golden Rule: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Here is how Barack Obama spelled it out in his speech back in 2004 that brought him into the national spotlight.
A belief that we are connected as one people. If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It’s that fundamental belief – I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper – that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. “E pluribus unum.” Out of many, one.
The story of this election isn’t so much about the fact that people are angry – it is about what we chose to do with that anger. Do we retreat into tribalism in the face of these challenges or do we work to expand our moral imagination?