Regular commenter JA offers today the following observation:

However, I would (and do) distinguish between tribalism for minority “tribes” and tribalism for the majority in the most powerful nation on Earth. Black pride, Jewish pride, Mormon pride, Catholic pride — these, while (and this is where I probably disagree with Sharansky) still falling short of the ideal of universalism, can be useful for societies which contain them. It’s when the primary group of a powerful society shows too much tribalism that it becomes dangerous. But, again, I think universalism is ultimately best.

A few remarks might follow from this. (I might note that these remarks stem from the book Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy, by Nathan Sharansky)

How can identifying and being proud of your heritage then as a good be contingent on whether your tribe is successful? Be proud of your team, unless you start winning. This makes almost no sense. Here’s the only way I see that it can make sense. Defending your identity, or being proud of your tribe as it were, carries with it many good and bad aspects. JA suggests that when your group is weak, then the good aspects are dominant and when that group becomes powerful, then the bad aspects outweigh the good. Yet this is manifestly unjust. Justice is, as they say, blind. One cannot say the attitude of person A is good … until sometime later when that person’s tribe is ascendant it is now not good. What needs doing here instead of a blanket accusation against tribalism is to identify more precisely exactly what aspects of tribalism are bad … and likely those aspects will be bad when a tribe is an oppressed minority as when it is not.

Natan Sharanksy is going further than saying tribal (cultural) identity is “useful” for the society. He found it essential and a primary anchor under repeated interrogation sessions.Tribalism was useful for the individual, it fostered and strengthened a sense of purpose and personal identity in the face of terror. His tribalism, his identification as a Jew in this case, was, for him, the primary anchor against the Marxist universalism that he was being pressured to assume. JA holds to the notion that the “ideal of universalism” is best. However there is no escaping the fact that the particular pressures against Mr Sharansky were trying to make him concede precisely that concept which JA holds up high. Universalism generates no passion. From Sharanksy:

Democracy requires passion; passion to organize, to mobilize, to participate, to persuade, to get people involved and energized to fight for what they believe in. This passion comes from deep attachments. Identity provides those attachments.

Individual rights are fundamental to a democratic society, but community life is fundamental to individuals. The self is deeply dependent on the worlds out of which it has emerged. Each person is born into a family, into a community, into a history that binds them with ties and gives them a sense of who they are beyond the mere self. This kind of belonging creates cohesion and obligation that all societies depend on, for care as well as for defense.

Identity strengthens the sense of self that serves as the building block for self-government. The way to strengthen society is not to weaken an individual’s sense of self. It was precisely on this point that Artistotle criticized his revered teacher Plato. The latter dreamed of a utopian Republic where particular attachments, most prominently the family, were wiped away in the name of strengthening attachments to the state. To Plato, attachments were a zero-sum game. Aristotle disagreed. To him, a man could be a good father and a good patriot. In fact, the former was critical to the latter. Strong families build stronger communities, which build stronger nations.

Well, he says it more clearly than I might. Universalism is not good. It is not a higher ideal. The absence of universalism to paraphrase the Ratzinger/Habermas debate, one of those foundational aspects that the free secular state. Recall that debate topic:

Does the free secularized state exist on the basis of normative presuppositions that it itself cannot guarantee? This question expresses a doubt about whether the democratic constitutional state can renew from its own resources the normative presuppositions of its existence, it also expresses the assumption that such a state is dependent on ethical traditions of a local nature.

Tribalism is one of those normative presuppositions, or to put it in Habermas words, “it also expresses the assumptions that a state is dependent on ethical traditions of a local nature” … read tribalism or identity. For those interested … this book The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion contains the debate (this is my post long long ago on that).

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Filed under: ConservativeEthics & MoralityGovernmentLiberalMark O.

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