When elites speak of tribalism, we tend to think we’re somehow above it. After all, we have educated minds that have developed the intellectual muscles to resist coarser loyalties, have we not? We value unique individuals over the amorphous group. We like to think we can see complexity and nuance rather than wallowing in coarse Manichean ideas, articulated by demagogues, that divide the world into “us” and “the other.” It’s the unthinking masses who do that. Not us. Unlike them, we are aware of the dangers of this temptation, alert to its irrationality. We resist it. . . .
The dynamic here is deeply tribal. It’s an atmosphere in which the individual is always subordinate to the group, in which the “I” is allowed only when licensed by the “we.” Hence the somewhat hysterical reaction, for example, to Kanye West’s recent rhetorical antics. I’m not here to defend West. He may be a musical genius (I’m in no way qualified to judge) but he is certainly a jackass, and saying something like “slavery was a choice” is so foul and absurd it’s self-negating. I don’t blame anyone for taking him down a few notches, as Ta-Nehisi Coates just did in memorable fashion in The Atlantic. He had it coming. You could almost say he asked for it.
But still. And yet. There was something about the reaction that just didn’t sit right with me, something too easy, too dismissive of an individual artist’s right to say whatever he wants, to be accountable to no one but himself. It had a smack of raw tribalism to it, of collective disciplining, of the group owning the individual, and exacting its revenge for difference.
To be fair, Coates’ established role is to call people outside the tribe racist, while policing racial attitudes and behavior within the tribe.
As an individual, I seek my own freedom, period. Being gay is integral to who I am, but it doesn’t define who I am. There is no gay freedom or straight freedom, no black freedom or white freedom; merely freedom, a common dream, a universalizing, individual experience. “Liberation from the dictates of the we” is everyone’s birthright in America, and it is particularly so for anyone in the creative fields of music or writing. A free artist owes nothing to anyone, especially his own tribe. And if you take the space away from him to be exactly what he wants to be, in all his contradictions and complexity, you are eradicating something critical to a free and healthy society. You are devouring the individual in favor of the mob. You are reducing a kaleidoscope to black and white.
And notice that in Ta-Nehisi’s essay, two concepts — freedom and music — that have long been seen as universal, transcending class or race or gender or any form of identity toward an idea of the eternally human or even divine — are emphatically tribalized and brought decisively down to earth. Freedom, in this worldview, does not and cannot unite Americans of all races; neither can music. Because there is no category of simply human freedom possible in America, now or ever. There is only tribe. And the struggle against the other tribe. And this will never end.
Well, that’s the point. If it ends, a lot of people’s livelihoods, social positions, and power bases are gone.
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