Politics as Tribalism

It is as frightening as it is mysterious. Donald Trump did not create it, but he has catapulted it to new heights, though “depths” would be a more accurate metaphor. He also exemplifies its greatest danger. What I am referring to is our political culture, which has become so extremist, small-minded, nasty and grounded in such staggering irrationality and ignorance, that it is hard to wrap one’s mind around it.


Characteristic of current politics is a strident focus on narrow concerns, zealous commitment to single issues and political identities built around them, a savage division of the American people by class, ethnicity, race, religion, gender, ideology, with an activism that allows for no compromise. Moreover, how is it that so many millions of Americans express political views, often with great anger, that have no basis in fact, lack any subtlety, defy evidence, and in many cases, undermine their own self-interest?


Frightening it certainly is. Democracy requires an informed citizenry, an engaged public capable of weighing evidence, and coming to reasoned decisions.  Voltaire could have been addressing our current moment when he said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” What we experience today seems unworthy of and alien to an advanced society.


How have we come to this point? How are we to understand the extremism and irrationality which characterizes so much of our political culture?


The answers, of course, are many and complex, and as with so many social conundrums, one can only be speculative.  I suggest a few.


We need to begin with ecnomic factors. For many working Americans, the economy isn’t functioning anymore. The new economy, characterized by information technologies and increased automation, has left behind older worker. Their factories have moved abroad, their towns gutted, leaving them unemployed or underemployed. The doors to upward mobility, an engine of American productivity and personal fulfillment through work, have been slammed shut. They are without hope, and they despair for their children. Economic dislocation and despair give rise to powerlessness that fuels anger; anger against government, anger against the political class which they feel, correctly, has abandoned them in the service of its own power and wealth; anger against immigrants, whom they are led to believe are taking jobs that should be theirs. And desperation and anger leave people prone to simplistic and extremist ideas which they cling to as their salvation.


As an offshoot of the above, this cohort feels abandoned, exploited and taken for granted by the two major political parties.  This has opened space for the emergence of authoritarian, demagogic and know-nothing leadership, which promotes itself as embodying directly the will of the people and which alone can put an end to their distress.


Going back further, the Republican Party can shoulder much of the blame for the extremism and unreason suffusing our politics. In the 80s it launched an attack not only on liberals, but more broadly on liberals values. Those tarred as intellectuals, or even educated, were depicted as not quite “real Americans.” It was an extraordinarily destructive strategy that transformed ignorance, anti-intellectualism and unreason  into virtues.


Allied with the Republican Party, and even more erosive of reason, was the politicization and extraordinary power of fundamentalist religion. Fundamentalist religion, which places doctrine and faith before reason, is profoundly anti-intellectual and has spread its influence far beyond the confines of the church. Wedded to politics, the Christian Right in the 80s and 90s became a very potent force. Despite the constitutional prohibition of religious tests for public office, an aspiring political leader became expected to wear his religion on his or sleeve and outdo his opponent in the depth of his religiosity. Religious identity became an important element fused to political life.


Another dynamic that has narrowed the scope of political discourse, is the power of modern communications technology, and with it how people are informed about the news. The internet is an extraordinary tool. But it has its down sides. It silos information into narrow and often extreme positions, encouraging people of whatever political persuasion to reinforce their opinions, without exposure to conflicting viewpoints. This channeling and narrowing of perspectives has come to characterize so much of the media, which have allowed themselves  to become echo chambers for exclusive positions and ideologies, reinforcing political divisions with ever-thickening walls.


There is more I can summon, but the result is that reinforcing one’s identity within a politically defined group becomes more important than values such as dialogue, compromise, and concern for the common good, all of which are necessarily for a healthy democracy to flourish.


Where I am leading is to the conclusion that we can understand much of the irrationalism and extremism of current politics as resulting from something akin to tribal identity.  Tribalism, loyalty to one’s group, is an extraordinarily powerful force.  All people seek to feel at home in the world. And in great measure that entails reinforcing their personal identities by associating with others much like themselves; those who share with them their values, customs, social habits and ways of life. While this is true, to varying degrees of all people. But when tribalism becomes excessive, the stage is set for drawing lines between in the in-group and out-groups, us and them, we who are virtuous and they who are to be shunned and reviled.


So powerful can the dynamic of group loyalty become that is can drown out the voice of reason. The reinforcement of communal bonds can deafen one to the claims of evidence or the appeals of outsiders to the fundamental recognition and respect. The desire to fit in and feel good and right about oneself trumps all other concerns. Hence the hatred, extremism and irrationalism of our political climate.



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No Integrity Among Republicans

There are Republican office holders  who have stated that they will not vote for Donald Trump. The are Republicans who have criticized what he has said, but will vote for him nonetheless.

But there is none, not one, who has denounced him. To put it in bluntest terms Donald Trump is a demagogue with neo-fascist tendencies. He is a political ignoramus who does not read. He is so self-absorbed he does not know that he does not know. He is a flaming narcissist who suffers from arrested development. He is puerile and vulgar. He does not have a vocabulary above that of a sixth grader. He sustains no elaborate political program, is inconsistent and self-contradictory and declares that his unpredictability is a virtue. He exhibits an inability to focus. He has no political experience and disregards constitutional strictures.

Donald Trump exhibits the fundamental tactics of the demagogue: He instills his followers with fear and raises their anxieties. He then scapegoats others; Muslims, Latinos, women, the disabled while asserting that he and he alone will save us.

Donald Trump is unique in American electoral history at this level. He is a profound danger to the nation- our freedom, democracy and all that we as Americans have that is worth having.

Yet, not a single Republican has stood up to denounce Donald Trump in unequivocal terms. Denounce, not merely criticize. These people are cowards who can think of nothing but securing their offices  for another term.

But we who love America for its freedom and we who cherish democracy, have to ask the question, “Is winning everything?” Where among Republican leaders is a commitment to decency? To truthfulness? To statesmanship? To integrity?

It is nowhere to be seen among them. Until these so-called leaders speak with a loud and clear voice that denounces Trump for the demagogue and danger that he is, we need to conclude that these Republicans -all of them- are cowards and small men and women who deserve no respect.


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Bernie Sander’s Noble Lie

Bernie Sanders proved himself a real mensch at the Democratic National Convention. Those who see the highest imperative of this election cycle as defeating the demagogue and neo-fascist, Donald Trump, regardless of their views on Hillary Clinton, fretted at how forcefully Sander’s would lend his authority and funded political achievements to the Clinton camp. And he came through with flying colors.

But in doing so, I detect that Sanders told a noble lie. It is a lie told for a higher purpose and it does not diminish his integrity as the most honest politician to run for high office in my lifetime. In his convention speech, Sanders depicted Clinton as a virtual political copy of himself; as a political figure who identifies with the platform he so consistently and forcefully lobbied for in his inspired campaign for the Democratic nomination.

But Sanders is a very smart guy, far more fluid in his insights than his political opponents, who paint him merely as a leftist ideologue, would grant. While giving a full-throated endorsement to Clinton, I have little doubt that he believes that this leopard has changed its spot. If Clinton wins the White House (and let’s hope she does for the sake of the Republic) I have little doubt that she will revert to her center of gravity of crawling back into bed with the masters of Wall Street and the plutocrats who own and manage America big banks. And in his unqualified endorsement lies Sanders noble lie.

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More Police Killings, Policed Killed and a Needed Response



It is endless. The unwarranted killing of young black men continues unabated. One would think that in these times the police would act with needed caution and restraint. But they seem not to be able to help themselves, as witnessed by the events in Louisiana and Minnesota.  Then in Dallas we have revenge – the killing of police officers and the wounding of more.

There is an avalanche of public response. Yet short of total social transformation and a resolution of centuries-old racial inequalities, a way forward seems elusive. To be blunt, broad ranging social justice does not seem close at hand. Paralysis is more immediate.

Here is one idea; one small but essential step. As agents of the state, let’s start with the police.

I am a 68 year-old grandfather, who has, at this stage of life,  few encounters with the police. It was not always the case.

Soon after I received my driver’s license, when I was in my 20s and long haired, I was stopped by the police incessantly; on average almost twice a month during my first year as a licensed motorist. In fact, I was a target of profiling. The first cases brought by the American Civil Union against the police in New Jersey were not initiated because the police were profiling and harassing African-Americans. They were on behalf of people who looked like me. In fact, I had been pulled over by the police on the Garden State Parkway on a false charge of dangerous driving and actually won my case in court before a sympathetic and liberally-minded judge. I have few illusions that white privilege wasn’t a factor in my unexpected judicial vindication.

Since then, my encounters with the police have been few. I have no doubt that my relations with the police are a universe apart from members of the black community. I do not fear that a road stop will end with my being dispatched at the end of a gun fired by a cop.

But here is my point. Almost every engagement I have had with the police, both then and now, (primarily road stops and not when police have come to the home wherein they have comported themselves as professional public servants) has left me on the opposite end of encounter in which I have been confronted by an unarmed man (or woman) bearing a weapon and  coming across as a commanding authoritarian who was humorless, cold, defensive and sealed off from rational conversation. The encounter was always staged to demonstrate the overwhelming if not absolute power of the police in a way intended to instill fear in his (or her) authority. I always left these encounters with the police feeling diminished, with my dignity assaulted. The reactive but suppressed emotions were anger and contempt lodged at the officer, indeed, the entire professional class of the police who wield their authority in a manner both arbitrary and disrespectful. If I feel this way, I can only begin to imagine how a minority member pulled over by the police must feel when the cop’s need to display authority can readily become a matter of life and death for the black person so detained.

I am told that I should be empathetic and grateful to the police for the dangerous and demanding work they do. Perhaps this is so. But for me to get there, I need to get through my feelings of anger at the police, anger for which I was not the precipitating cause.

Here is my point and my proposal: I suspect that the countenance displayed by police is a product of both the type of personality that is attracted to this work as well as the training police undergo. I am not naïve that police work is difficult and dangerous and this feeds into the steely countenance and defensive posture with which the police so often engage the rest of us.  But at the same time, this does not exonerate the police from treating the public – regardless of race – with requisite respect. I maintain that if the police were trained to be more fluid, more engaged as human beings and not as immovable and impersonal forces to display force as the last option and not as the first, that tension between the people and the police would be mitigated. No one, whether white or black, wants to be treated with disrespect. My faith as a humanist is such that if the police found the capacity to treat minorities with a sense of humanity that across the board, people, whether young or old, would respond in kind. Traffic stops and other similar encounters could be transformed from fear and hate-filled moments into experiences that would leave both members of the public and police uplifted.

Racial animus in this country has a very deep and broad history, and the killing of young black men by the police is among the most egregious examples of that multi-tiered and complex phenomenon.

One thing society does have control over is how the police, who charged to “serve and protect,” are trained. It is a small and incomplete step toward social healing, but I believe a necessary one.


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The Orlando Massacre

                                                   The Orlando Massacre

Once again, we are witness to mass slaughter by firearms, the most extensive in American history, with 49 persons dead and 53 injured,.

In a speech following the massacre, President Barack Obama said that “We have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be,” referencing the facility with which a potential murderer can access weapons with huge killing power.

His rhetorical question has broader implications. Let’s start with guns. The United States has the dubious distinction is the only country in the world which experiences of these kinds of mass killings. And their frequency is increasing to the point of becoming a normative feature of American life, as the president’s remark implies. Yet, the American people remain hostage to the gun manufacturers and their lobby, which in turns maintains a strangle hold on legislators who are too cowardly to defy in the slightest their puppet masters.  The leadership of the National Rifle Association is comprised of unbending fanatics who value their putative freedom to own a gun more than they do the lives of innocent men, women and children.

Several facts remain clear. There is no place for assault rifles in civilian society. They are not needed for hunting, target practice, nor self-protection, which is the common refrain of Second Amendment defenders. Their sole purpose is to kill large numbers of human beings in rapid succession.

The Second Amendment is invoked in the service of “freedom.” Yet what is the nature of this freedom for which 27 Americans a day lose their lives as victims of homicide? On closer scrutiny, it is the freedom to flaunt a macho swagger. It is the freedom to purchase a false security from one’s neighbor and his putative predatory designs. And it is a freedom to harbor libertarian, seditious, fantasies to defend oneself against a tyrannical government that is more worthy of contempt than trust. In the face of the carnage it brings, it is not a freedom worth having.


The tenor of American society has become very shrill and an illness courses through its veins at levels deeper than its idolatrous worship of personal weapons. We have become a nation divided against itself. Having lost a commitment to the common good, our politics has become petty, nasty and small. Broad aspirations of economic justice have been replaced by narrower, divisive preoccupations; the social issues that consume the culture wars. These have created unbridgeable lines difference between people. Mutual understanding and dialogue fall away and are replaced by anger and judgement. The humanity of the other is reduced to a mere political ideology to be ridiculed, scorn, and demeaned. Openly expressed racism and xenophobia, which had become unfashionable in recent decades, have re-emerged with virulence and self-justification.

This stridency has turned malignant, dark and very ugly. It has fostered contempt and the demonization of “the other” – of minorities, gays, woman, immigrants, Muslims, Latinos. American society has become fertile ground for the spawning of hatred. And hatred readily elides into violence. This malignancy now finds expression in the highest echelons of political leadership, which feeds on it and reciprocally legitimizes and gives license to it. For the first time in our history we have a presidential candidate who is a demagogue, a know-nothing with fascist tendencies. It is very dangerous.


It is against this background of social breakdown, legitimized hate, ready access to guns and generalized violence that a young man undertook this unspeakable crime. It seems that his murderous designs were fueled at the intersection of hatred for gays and the ethos and doctrines of jihadism. Different factions will spin this calamity for their political interest, which, in the light of the death of so many and the grief of their loved ones, is lamentable but inevitable.


We cannot be naïve with regard to the terrorist connection. There is the external matter of foreign policy and internal question of why young American men and are attracted to this ideology. There may also be a question of mental illness and characteristics specific to each violent actor.

But none of these elements are sufficient alone to explain the causes of the massacre in Orlando.  And realism should inform us that no matter what responses we put into place no cluster of remedies can be failsafe. Life always confronts us as precarious.


While we cannot obliterate all mass killings, we can ensure that there will be fewer of them. Among the things to which we must commit ourselves are:


  1. Instituting a total ban on assault weapons.
  2. Instituting thorough background checks as a matter of federal policy as a requirement for gun ownership. If Congress fails to act on these initiatives, we must replace the current members of Congress with representatives who will.
  3. Continuing to safeguard against those with terrorist designs within Constitutional restraints. While recognizing that there are those committing to harm us and we have a right to insist that out government keep us safe, the fight against terrorism needs to always consider the degree to which American use of force generates backlashes that kill innocent civilians and thereby render us less safe. The employment of force, when necessary, must always be used with the utmost discretion.
  4. Committing ourselves to working for an American society founded on the principles of respect for the dignity and welfare of all; a society that sustains a vital democracy, values pluralism and difference, fosters mutual understanding, exemplifies social and economic justice, and recognizes the humanity of all – minorities, women, the disabled, the immigrant, and the poor. We must keep before us a vision of society that shuns violence and cherishes mutual appreciation, compassion and love.


Given the challenges of our time, Ethical Culture has a vital role to play. Among our members and in society-at-large we need through teaching and social action promote our humanistic values, which are also American values at their best. We need to work to reduce the stridency and divisions in American life.  We need to sustain the belief that American society can and must overcome the rawness and hatred which have so corrupted our social character. And as hatred is quelled, so violence in all its forms will be diminished also.



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The Need for Dignity

A Syrian village is bombed and people flee becoming refugees. A young black man is shot and killed, in effect summarily executed, for a minor infraction by a cop in an American street. A child starves to death because his family is too poor to provide the sustenance to keep her alive. These tragedies describe real scenarios of people on the brink between life and death. They also describe situations in which not only the life of the victims is snuffed out but in which their personhood is diminished, their dignity impugned.
But one doesn’t have to invoke such extreme cases to identify an assault on human dignity. The child who is bullied by her peers, the minority member who is the object of humiliating prejudice, the financially struggling parent who has to decide between filling a medical prescription or feeding his children, all experience the inner anguish which accompanies the assault on their dignity.
But what is dignity? The word is often invoked, but its significance isn’t immediately clear. I can think of three different meanings given to the term.
Dignity is an ancient concept that has, in fact, changed its meaning through time. In ancient Rome, for example, dignitas had a specific significance. The orator Cicero often uses the term to denote the authority and honor due to a person of high social status. But beyond that, dignitas is a distinctive capacity of human beings in the order of nature that differentiates us from animals. It is vested in our ability to think, learn and be cultivated. But again, dignity was a status concept accompanying character development that marked off aristocrats from the masses, or human beings from other living things.
When we get to the eighteenth century, dignity assumes a different meaning, which becomes identified wholly with morality and becomes the possession of all people regardless of their social standing. By far the greatest expositor of this view of dignity was the eminent German philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose contribution to ethics cannot be overstated.
In briefest terms, Kant sees something distinctive in ethical behavior which endows human beings with a value that nothing else in the universe possesses and renders human beings absolutely worthy. In his major treatise on ethics, Kant declares that we use and exploit all things as a means to satisfy our needs and wants. But there is one thing and one thing only that we may not use exclusively as a means, but must treat as an end-in-itself. And that one “thing” is the humanity that resides in all people; others as well as ourselves. As a means, all things have a price or a value, which is relative to the interests of the one who is doing the evaluating. But there is, again, one thing and one thing only that does not have a price. It is priceless. It is outside of the market and is beyond value. Its “value” is absolute. And that entity, again, is the humanity that is resident in each of us. Kant contrasts value with “worth”, or, to get to our point, “dignity.” In briefest terms, in each of us there resides an invisible, transcendent, quality – in a word, dignity -Kant tells us, that is absolute and demands as a duty to be respected.
At a deeper level, Kant proclaims that dignity emerges from our moral capacities. And here he becomes complex. As mentioned, Kant sees something distinctive in ethical behavior, which as noted is tagged to our capacity as free agents. As biological beings our impulses may drive us to want to steal that piece of fruit when we are hungry, but we are free to say to ourselves “to steal is ethically wrong and I will not do it.” Kant interprets this moral freedom as ultimately lodged in our capacity to reason, which he sees as independent from our drives, instincts and impulses as biological beings. It is this reason and freedom as the bases for the capacity for ethical choice that renders human beings ends-in-themselves, distinct from everything else, and ensures that we are possessed of humanity and dignity.
This is quite a lot. But in so putting forth his moral philosophy, Kant became the most influential defender of the concept of dignity, which has been invaluable to the history of ethical and political theory. By ways of examples, Felix Adler based Ethical Culture on Kant’s ethics, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which launched the modern human rights movement, cites the central value of dignity seven times, with no doubt the ghost of Immanuel Kant looking over the shoulders of its drafters.
There is third meaning attributed to dignity, and it is an aesthetic one. We might say that a person “comports herself with dignity,” or “he acted with dignity.” In this sense, what the word entails, I believe, is a disposition of what we might call “grace under pressure.” When the person is challenged, and perhaps challenged severely, he or she did not fall apart but was self-possessed and in control of his or her emotions.
Asserting dignity requires that we dispose and act toward others in specific ways. While doing so has always been required to sustain a civilized life, we can all summon reasons as to why our times call evoke a need to for its realization.

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Demogoguery and the Culture Wars


I can’t watch it anymore.       The verbal blood fest which is the Republican campaign for the presidential nomination I find nauseating. The name-calling, demagoguery, scapegoating and the shameless xenophobia mark a new low in modern electoral politics. It is more fitted for the junior high school playground than a race that should evince the best in statesmanship, civic-mindedness, and thoughtful policy positions. It’s sickening and dangerous. The 24/7 news cycle gives it a sizzle that its content does not deserve. One can only imagine what it augurs for the future of our nation. I grasp for some consolation in the thought that the Roman Empire survived for centuries with crazy emperors at the top in great measure because at lower levels it was sustained by a solid and well-functioning civil service. But admittedly this is small consolation.

How did we get to this point? How did an appeal to intelligence come to be replaced by pandering to anti-intellectualism, base emotions and demagoguery? There are many explanations which in complex ways feed into the disintegration of political discourse we currently witness.

Let’s start with the Republican Party. A place to look is with the so-called southern strategy, which began with Goldwater campaign in 1964 and was refined by Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972. The strategy was designed to flip the South for the Republican Party, which had been solidly Democratic since the Civil War. The Civil Rights Movement was the catalyst, and by signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Lyndon Johnson himself noted that South would thereafter be lost to the Democrats. The strategy stoked the racial fears and prejudices of white southerners with appeals to “states’ rights” and “law and order,” coded terms pointing to the growing encroachment of blacks into white society. With the Southern strategy politics turned from articulating principled positions to manipulating emotions and pandering to base fears. This approach was reinforced by Ronald Reagan who campaigned defending states’ rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi, not far from the place where three civil rights workers had been slain. Again, it was an appeal to race, with states’ rights as a stand in for the way things were before integration. And who can forget the campaign of George H. W. Bush and the infamous Willie Horton ad? It was around this time that the moniker “pointy-headed liberal” came into vogue, thus transforming an honored-concept descriptive of Jefferson or FDR into an identity that was virtually un-American. Add to this the maligning of “East Coast intellectuals” and with it the disparaging of education and intelligence. The stage was set for campaigning not based on policy debate but on whom you want to have a beer with. A candidate’s appeal is no longer based on his intelligence, his or her grasp of difficult issues or even experience, but on whether he or she projects a strong personality and can verbally subdue adversaries or those holding contrary views. We were well on our way to a politics based on anathematizing the other, a politics that appealed to emotions above principles, policies and reasoned judgement.

Playing the race card fomented a political culture marked by stark divisions, polarities, and flaming passions which have characterized the American culture wars. It has pitted liberals vs. conservatives, divided not only over matter of race, but of religion as well. Whatever the culture wars may be, they have not created an environment that honors nuance, intellectual sophistication or a spirit of compromise. Rather, the political soil is rich in anti-intellectualism and small-mindedness.

Much of the culture wars have centered on issues such as prayer in the schools, abortion, sexual mores, including gay rights, the role of and status of women, with conservatives claiming the mantle of piety, while denigrating the putative licentiousness of liberals. Much of the attack on the right has come from politicized evangelicals who re-entered the political arena in the late 70s, with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. The re-emergence of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in the political arena, which has occasioned a tectonic shift of American politics far to the right, was ignited when the federal government deprived white, segregated, private academies of their tax-exempt status, ironically under the presidency of Jimmy Carter, himself a born-again Christian. These academies grew up in response to the Brown vs. Board of Education decision which mandated the integration of public schools. Thus we witness the unholy bond of racism and religion. And evangelical religion is based on faith and not on evidence or reason. Its triumphant hold on politics is apiece with our political descent into anti-intellectualism. It also equates one’s religious identity, and his or her putative piety, with one’s Americanism, despite the Constitutional ban on a religious test for public office.

And so we have the culture wars, which deflate political discourse to matters of identity and which sow the seeds of division resisting mediation by reasoned argument. Most distressing –and dangerous-is that facts have little to do with political allegiance for wide swaths of the American public. Our political discourse has become unhinged from reality.

My point is that the culture wars of the past 35 years, among other dynamics, have created the conditions which have allowed for and propelled the emergence of demagoguery in the highest echelons of American politics.  Question we are compelled to ask is, where can we look for hope? What must we do to restore sanity, civility and intelligence to our politics?


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