by SHMUEL KLATZKIN
In an article this week in Tablet entitled “The Politics of Tribal Nonsense,” Wilfred Reilly chronicles how modern identity politics has corrupted truth. The “tribal nonsense” Reilly identifies are a series of great false narratives — such as the hagiography of George Floyd or the indictment of Israel as a practitioner of genocide and apartheid — that underly the destructive politics of the last decade and through which trust in our institutions and in each other has decreased.
Victor Davis Hanson has frequently taken up this point in his many talks and articles, which increase in quality and quantity as the need for his sane approach grows. We are splintering apart into small tribes, he maintains. We are losing our feeling of being bound together in a great union, and so our nation is losing political and cultural coherence. He cautions us from Hobbes, whose stark political philosophy, utterly skeptical of any better angels of our nature, saw humanity falling into a war of all against all. In Hobbes’ own words:
During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man.
Our identity as American citizens, says Hanson, has been the first casualty of identity politics. We think of our tribe first and our tribe only, and all outside it are our enemies, striving similarly to accrue all power to themselves and thereby reducing our tribe’s power.
The arguments of Hanson and Reilly are cogent and hit home. And yet, it must be said that the criticism of tribe and tribal consciousness needs significant qualification.
The most basic questions to ask are: Is the best way to achieve the desired goal of a large, coherent national identity through the dissolution of subsidiary identities? Or, in its best realization, does the national identity add another layer to the sense of community we already are building in smaller groups: the nuclear family, the extended family, one’s religious community, communities of other interests; one’s school loyalties; loyalty to one’s locale and loyalty to one’s state?
In other words, does our national identity as Americans supersede and displace all other loyalties, or is it built upon and enriched by them? Is our ability to identify a zero-sum enterprise, a single pie; or is it something that is dynamic and generative, that our national identity gains from our smaller identities and is itself educated by them?
Do we embrace the idea of centralization as the supreme end when it comes to organizing our identity? Should we do so any more than we embrace centralization as the supreme principle for organizing our economy, our culture, or our political life?
Clearly, totalitarians want there to be only one identity. Crude totalitarians like Robespierre and Danton tried to destroy every institution that claimed human allegiance save for their own revolution. Jacobins filled barges with priests and drowned them in the Loire. Napoleon was a far more sophisticated politician. He forcibly co-opted religions, making them instruments of the state. He got the Church to rewrite its catechism so that it equated loyalty to the emperor with loyalty to God; he examined the French Jewish community to make sure it had no superior allegiance than that due him.
It was also a Frenchman who saw a better possibility than such a top-down, centralized zero-sum national identity. When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote his admiring reflections on American democracy, he spoke of Americans’ tendency to associate themselves into different groups as a great virtue:
Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate. Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.
The smaller identities of these associations are a defining and admirable feature of America, Tocqueville writes, and I sense that Hanson and other critics of tribalism would not disagree.
What, then, would be the criterion that could allow us to distinguish between a positive smaller identity, as in Tocqueville’s associations, and a destructive identity, as is being cultivated by wokists and assorted allied political villains?
Before answering, let us first realize that this is not a new problem.
One of the themes of Hebrew Scripture is that the national identity can become sinful. From the moment the people of Israel were forged by God into a nation, prophet after prophet tells them that their national identity will be a force for good only when it is aligned with God. Our supreme identity is as being created in His image, under His always-beneficent power. That is our supreme identity. It is how that we are created and it is our true nature. Every other identity, including our national identity, is subsidiary to our identity in God.
When the national identity conflicted with the identity in God, the Bible tells us that the result was national exile.
Exile — but not dissolution. The remnant of Israel, the Kingdom of Judah, was taken as captives to Babylonia. Through Jeremiah, they were instructed to carry on with their life as a people but to be positive members at the same time of the land into which they are brought:
Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its prosperity you shall prosper. [29:7]
This was a lesson that had to be learned in a time of disastrous national defeat. But it was to light the way through centuries of later exiles in which Jews learned how to square the circle, as only God’s instruction could teach — how to be loyal and positive members of a larger sovereignty while at the same time maintaining a coherent and godly identity of their own, as God asks.
Given human imperfection, this was never accomplished perfectly, and it was never perceived or understood perfectly. But usually, societies that welcomed the Jews into their society benefited tremendously from their labors and enterprise, whether in early medieval Spain, in Poland in the 1500s, in the early and vigorous Ottoman Empire, or in the United States. On the other hand, the most regressive societies, whose sense of national unity was exclusive and totalitarian, would treat Jews with murderous cruelty as enemies of their state by the very fact of their group identity.
Every national identity must be subsidiary to our identity as creatures in the image of God. As John Adams told us, our constitution requires a religious and moral people and can work for none other — our national identity depends upon our prime identity as a subject and child of God.