In Amolike Yidn, in a story titled, The Messiah and Shooting, Jewish Eastern Europe is in political ferment. More locally, the shtetl Kalinkovitch is abuzz because a young leader named Shimshon “…was done with the Social Democrats and had become a Revolutionary Socialist. It was said that he carried a revolver with him.” Then, in his exuberance after a political meeting he fires the gun into the air, startling a nearby pregnant woman who falls, eventually leading her to miscarry. The boy’s father implores Rabbi Getzl, the town melamed (teacher), to talk to him.
Meanwhile, back in Iowa, it looks as though Trump has finally started washing out, and the Republican contest may soon turn to a struggle between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. It seems increasingly likely the Republicans will be nominating a Latino candidate, a possibility which represented the biggest challenge to the Democrats all along.
More and more, politics in the US is tribal, as is much of our cultural life, with identity politics in the ascendancy. I personally see this up close in the poetry world. The aspects of identity that have the spark are mostly the tribal ones. It’s not exciting or interesting to be an American, a 30-year-old, a suburbanite (it has never been exciting to be a suburbanite); nor for example is identity crystallized as a calling, such as a doctor participating in the shared community of healers; nor is it au courant to talk about a mother, without any other qualifying adjective, balancing her numerous and insane time demands. Nature poems are not just seen as irrelevant, but as regressive. The exciting thing is to be an African American, a Mexican American, a gender-queer person, a woman who has been negatively singled out. It’s also, from a literary perspective, energizing to have been oppressed or to have suffered, because writing can be an act of transformation, of personal redemption, of sharing with those who thought they were alone.
This atmosphere might marginally lower my own personal opportunities. I also strongly regret the misguided devaluing of nature, including our own common human nature. Nevertheless, when it comes to literature, I think the increased importance of social identities is important and good. Many voices have been systematically excluded until very recently, and many stories went untold. In the face of prejudice and discrimination, a positive group identity can be the basis of survival. Colorblindness, for example, has not worked out well at all for Black Americans. Mostly, so-called “race blindness” turns out to be racism-blindness. It takes the form of resisting help for people who are discriminated against, all the while discrimination continues, outside of language and even out of awareness. A lousy deal.
I saw the pride my Latina friend took in her friend Richard Blanco when he was chosen to be the inaugural poet. I don’t see why many Latino voters won’t also be proud to support a presidential candidate who is one of them. And I think that other Republicans, who are sick of being called racist, are going to be eager to prove they aren’t, just as all of America was eight years ago when we had a chance to vote for Obama. So move Florida and Colorado into the Republican column, and see how tough the electoral vote-gathering challenge becomes for the Democrats.
Meanwhile, a man from my own tribe is running for the Democratic nomination. A secular Jew. But the American strain of left-wing secular Jews are an explicitly non-tribal tribe. Their (our) version of enlightenment liberalism and democratic socialism is focused more on universal individual rights and on equality, not on taking sides when resources or power dynamics bring one national or cultural group into conflict with another. And those secular Jews with tribal inclinations have gone for Israel as the locus of their sense of belonging, rather than saying, for example, “All educated humanists are my family, no matter what their origins may be.”
A community of ideas or of ideals is different than a tribe. It doesn’t touch that deep part of our animal nature that prefers our own child to someone else’s child, treats our own sister differently than anyone else’s sister. I’ve heard people say, “I only read novels written by women now.” I’ve seen others count writers of color included in literary magazines. Can you imagine someone saying, “I only read books by those who write about people from groups other than their own?”, or, “I only read poems by people who talk about what all people have in common, everywhere?” In short, universalists are lousy at group cohesion.
What Sanders does in terms of identification is to talk about class. He tries to use class resentment to unite everyone against the extremely rich people who have distorted our political system. Of course his opponents characterize this as dangerously divisive, but as far as I’m concerned, class is directly analogous to the issue with racism and identity I already talked about. The division is there in fact. Refusing to see or to talk about class conflict only prevents helping the poor, while continuing to covertly buttress the forces that make equal opportunity impossible.
Overall, in our country’s political and cultural life today, we’ve swung extremely far in the direction of tribalism, away from ideas, and away from appreciation of what unites us. An idea is not treated as separate from the person who has it, nor a poem from the person who wrote it [If you’re curious about the latter, Google “Yi-Fen Chou”].
In this atmosphere, it’s worth considering the candidates purely from a perspective of group memberships. Bernie is a member of “the non-rich”, which forms the biggest single group of American voters. But do they see themselves as a group? Will they vote as a group? Poor and working class Americans have resisted this appeal time and time again, in favor of someone who had been poor, is now rich, and promises to help everyone rise.
Then, too, he will arouse tribal suspicion among some Americans, to a small degree because he is a Jew, but even more because he is an atheist, or will be labeled as such. That is a group which average white Americans fear even more than they fear people of color or Muslims.
From this ground-level group membership perspective, Hillary is a stronger candidate than Bernie, because she is a woman. Simply put, she is a member of a bigger tribe, with more clout, and with more inroads into other tribes (Latinas, for example). The way to be simultaneously tribal and nearly universal is to be the champion of everyone except white men like me. Hey, we had our 232-year turn.
But who can begin to nudge us, without denying the racial and class imbalances that prevent us from being a true democracy yet, in the direction of also seeing our commonality? Where is the movement that can promote universal dignity, rights, and opportunity? Who can speak to Americans as a general class, while still acknowledging the roles that group memberships, both born and chosen, play in our society and in our individual lives? This really should not be too complex an idea for voters to grasp. When my children were three I used to read them a book called, “We are Different, We are the Same.” Sadly, from all the campaigns, what I mostly expect is lip service to universality even as the levers of difference and resentment are being pulled for all they’re worth.
In the story with which I started this post, the old Rabbi and the young revolutionary have a fascinating conversation. The rabbi asks the young man what he hopes to accomplish by shooting. Here’s his reply:
“Put simply and in your language, Rabbi, we want to bring the Messiah to everyone, to the whole world.” Shimshon’s voice quieted: “Kohelet [in Ecclesiastes, Chapter 4] says, And I have further considered all the robbery that is committed under the sun. And here are the tears of all who have been robbed, and there is no one there to comfort them. And the power is in the hands of their oppressors, and they have no one there to comfort them. Rabbi, we will comfort them. No, we will put down the oppressors, and there will be no more oppressors. We will clean out all the robbers and there will be no more tears on anyone’s cheeks.”
“A fine reason, Shimshon, but tell me how you will carry it out?
“Simple, Rabbi. We will put guns in the hands of the unfortunate, teach them to shoot, and they will clean out all the evildoers. No trace of them will remain.”
The rabbi counters with an argument that bloodshed must and will only lead to bloodshed. Told that this anti-revolutionary stance means he is denying there is any hope, Getzl disagrees:
“What do you mean no hope? Each person has an image of God in them. It is written, “And God created Adam in his own image and likeness.” Not, “And God created the Jews…” but human beings. Of course, in the end, evil will disappear from the earth. But you will not hurry it with the rifle.”
The nonbelieving Jew quotes Torah. The Rabbi implies that the Messianic age will depend also on non-Jews and will see Jews and non-Jews on an equal moral footing. I’m still making my way into Yiddish literature, but I hope and expect that these tribal loyalists who think globally, and these universalists who are proud of their tribal origins, are both abundant. The capacity to acknowledge both difference and sameness. Through a narrow entrance into a big tent.