Tribalism and Tyranny
Like Nazis in Germany, White supremacists throughout U.S. history have based their claim of superiority on an essentialist and racialized worldview. That is, they have pretended to define the “essence” of the nation and its people through the idea of “race.”
Such vision features the notion that humans are distinctly divided according to the diffuse, arbitrary category of race. I hereby highlight some of the sources and causes of racism, nativism and conflict in so-called “modern times,” up to the present moment.
Idiocy Hasn’t Gone Away
It’s not insignificant that Adolf Hitler read and admired the work of Madison Grant, an American, whose 1916 book The Passing of the Great Race argued that “Nordics” were the “master race.” Grant also warned about a supposed threat to such superior breed: Their alleged replacement by “non-whites.” Dan Patrick, the Lt. Governor of Texas –already infamous since the pandemic began in 2020– recently spewed Grant’s notion, sometimes dubbed as “the Great Replacement.”
Between Grant and Patrick, there are more than one hundred [additional] years of illiberality, intellectual laziness, nativism, paranoia, and narcissism. Such idiocy is dangerous, as it is a factor in leading the U.S.A. to an authoritarian abyss. “Make America Great Again” might very well have been a slogan used by the Nazis. We’d just need to substitute the time and place.
Nazis longed for the consolidation, strengthening, and elevation of an ethnic community, comprised of a “German people” of the “Aryan race.” American White Supremacists have always had similar longings, which are based on equally malleable, opaque –albeit powerful– ideas of “racial” hierarchy.
Religion was not what made Jews inferior and expendable, but that diffuse, arbitrary, absurd concept called “race.” Per the Nazis, Nature itself made Aryan Germans the “master race,” thus entitling them to decide the fate (in the form of genocidal annihilation, no less) of “inferior races,” such as Jews, Slavs and Roma. As Hannah Arendt made it clear, since that annihilation was meant to comply with the dictates of nature, which included the inevitable and necessary demise of the inferior and the weak, the innocence of the victims was beside the point.
Lacking critical thinking and, worse still, uninterested in the truth, Nazis wouldn’t care to hear, for instance, that Slav and Germanic peoples had been comingling and interbreeding for centuries. Much less did the Nazis question whether “race” is a fallacy, or whether the notion of “natural law” has the flaw that it can be used to justify anything, good or bad, constructive or destructive.
Moreover, ideas that derive from a racist worldview are always bad, because no group of people is inherently good or superior to others and, likewise, no group is inherently bad or inferior. We are us and our circumstances. Under auspicious conditions, people who –per certain viewpoint– have not attained their full potential, invariably display talents and accomplishments galore.
Arendt pointed to the irony that, before anti-Semitism became a real and present danger to their very survival, European Jews had begun to see themselves as a distinct “race,” instead of mere members of a religious tradition. Then again, the idea of race had been in circulation several hundred years before Hitler assumed total control of the German state in 1934. As Karl Popper put it, “erroneous beliefs may have an astonishing power to survive, [even] for thousands of years, in defiance of experience.”
Civilization and Discontent
Over a span of several million years, our ancestors lived and evolved while belonging to small, hunter-gatherer bands. Eventually, each of those groups comprised around 60 bipedal hominids, isolated from each other and frequently on the run. We didn’t begin living in larger communities, and staying put, until some one hundred thousand years after we had become fully human.
In time, the advent of agriculture spawned cities and complex societies. The road to civilization was paved. The dangers ahead would be much more intractable than hunting and surviving, in no small part because of the emergence of hoarding of surplus by the few, of politics, and of our lingering proclivity to privilege tribal mores and behaviors.
Popper coined the term “the strain of civilization,” referring to the dissatisfactions associated with living in complex societies –which provide few hints of the intimate, communal relationships in which we evolved. The concomitant angst includes a diminished sense of “belonging.” Class, ideological and political conflicts, which are some of the features of groups marching towards becoming an “open society” –another Popperian term– may become unbearable in times of perceived or real social crises, particularly those spawning economic and nativistic anxieties.
The human problems and anguish which characterize civilized life are part and parcel of living in complex, literate groups. Our societies feature politics, and competition among people; that is, humans being human. But such realities are not to be avoided by clinging to tribal instincts, which may compound our problems with fratricide conflicts. Then there is, as the Second World War illustrated so well, the senseless devastation brought by totalitarian regimes, purporting -as the Stalinist and Nazi regimes pretended-to implement the dictates of the laws of history or the natural order of things.
Capitalism and [More] Discontent
When most people are hopeful about their prospects, thus expecting to keep improving their lives and those of their offspring, a sort of stability settles in. Capitalism, however, has again spiraled out of control. The factors leading to the current wealth inequality, erosion of the middle class, and consequent unrest, have been brewing at least since the early 1980s.
Forty years after Reagan and Thatcher took over, a new cadre of millionaires and billionaires pay little to no taxes, exploit workers, poison soil, water, and air, keep destabilizing the global climate, profit from war, and own the politicians –including the social democratic factions. Today, these oligarchs meet and greet each other across borders, sharing a globalist vision of capitalist, total control over the planet’s resources and peoples.
Meanwhile, the rest 98 percent living in the U.S., the European Union, and other “first world countries,” are still better off than the majority of the planet’s population. Thus, their vulnerability lies in their feeling that they do have something to lose. However, for that reason alone, they must beware of demagogues pointing the source of their anxieties in the wrong direction — as the rascals have already been doing.
It’s an old tale. Nazis did it in the early 1920s, repeating all sorts of lies, including the “stab in the back” explanation for Germany’s defeat in World War I, and the role of Jews as saboteurs and financial vampires. Today is fashionable in the U.S.A. to ignore the role of the powers that be, with their bottomless greed, in the destruction of the fabric of American society. It seems easier to blame “brown” people, particularly immigrants. One also witnesses the occasional, and distressing, Jew-hating statement.
The Breaking of Democracy
In order to work and thrive, democracy requires –at a minimum– an engaged citizenry, abstract thinking, anti-tribal worldviews, dialogue, optimism, and the ability to reach compromises. In times of acute strain, it’s easy to fall for simplistic, and false black-and-white thinking: Polarized (good or bad) peoples, attitudes, ideas, and values. In times of anxiety and unrest, humans may discard democracy in favor of autocracy, with its [false] promises of going back to a [mythical] past of ethnic community, harmony, and prosperity; or may get behind the equally spurious endeavor of complying with the dictates of either God or Nature.
Moreover, many perceive or are made to see the questioning and criticizing of the status quo –the power relations and socioeconomic structures that have reigned for so long– as synonymous with advocating for the destruction of the mythical ethnic community. After all, a made-up, extended tribe seemingly provides gravitas to the imagining of the nation –an emotional gambit, often ripe for the plucking.
The reality is that dreams of going back to a phantasmagoric, idyllic past, or the endeavor of arresting change, are invariably wishful thinking. They are also dangerous. Moreover, attempts to eradicate tensions and conflicts by getting rid of those things and peoples that don’t participate in the “essence” of the ethnic community, are immature, childish, stubborn folly. But those efforts often yield violence, human rights violations, and murder. And, when the dust settles, we are in a worse place than before the madness was unleashed. Ask the Germans of 1945.
It seems that too many of us privilege simplistic, unrealistic, and essentialist worldviews. Such mindset disables the ability to compromise, because it operates from a place of moral superiority, of a supposed monopoly of truth and goodness, and of rigid dogmas. Those mentalities display not one iota of introspection or knowledge. They’re about folly, fear, and hate. They’re about humans pretending that the world works in accordance with their ideologies, which leads them to hate everything and everyone that doesn’t yield to their demands and delusions.
It happened in Germany in the 1930s and 40s. It’s happening in the USA, where the GOP has become an organization made up of people whose slogan seems to be: “never compromise.” After all, they have bought into the infallibility and righteousness of their worldview.
If American “whites” are superior; if the essence of America is being a “white nation;” if –as Dan Patrick said to Fox News– there is a conspiracy to replace the white population through immigration and other means; if nature intended whites to rule, thrive, and be better off than the “non-whites;” if God’s or natural law establishes and mandates all that, then whites would feel that they are in the right when enforcing the dictates of either God or Nature. Ideas have consequences. Bad ideas often have terrible consequences.
On the other hand, if an ethos of criticism were the default position, most people would evaluate their ideas, and those of others, with open minds and incisive intellectual tools. The reality is that most of our ideas are either bad, very bad, or plain stupid. It’s only on occasion that we come up with good or great ones, and distinguishing between good and bad ideas is often vital.
The GOP’s ideological edifice is glaringly false and idiotic. In societies where critical thinking is second nature, the worse an idea is, the sooner it is discarded. Not in today’s U.S. of A., where an important plurality of the population is unable, in virtually all aspects of life, to recognize mere established truths or egregious falsities. And that is dreadful because, as Voltaire wrote, “those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”