The setting is a little creek out west, where Wyatt Earp had just bested the bad guys in a gunfight that featured Wyatt taking cover from a hailstorm of enemy fire before deciding that he wasn’t going to die crouched behind some rock. The scene is from the movie Tombstone, wherein Earp opted instead to walk out in the open where he could see his targets, picking them off one by one in a display of what the brass in the Pentagon call “Extreme Valor,” (the rest of us grunts preferring a term of art that describes certain male body parts as being made of brass).
Referring to the shootings of Wyatt Earp’s brothers by the bad guys, Sherman McMasters says, “If they were my brothers, I’d want revenge too.” At which point Doc Holliday corrects him, saying, “Oh, make no mistake; it’s not revenge he’s looking for. It’s a reckoning.”
Which I suppose would compel Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, among others, to simultaneously lament the rise of — and Wyatt Earp’s descent into — “tribalism;” a term which has come to embody the proposition that to get kicked around is noble, but to kick back against an aggressor is to succumb to more vulgar and primitive instincts.
In his recent Wall Street Journal piece, Senator Sasse performs a public service by isolating the proximate cause of a great deal of the loneliness we observe each day as those we love sit, surrounded by those who love them, unable or unwilling to lift their noses from their phones or divert their eyes from the television long enough to engage in a meaningful and prolonged exchange with people who have chosen to be present in flesh and blood to spend time with them. Senator Sasse writes:
The Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam chronicled the collapse of associational, neighborly America in his book “Bowling Alone” (2000). In the nearly two decades since, the smartphone has further undermined any sense of place by allowing us to mentally “escape” our homes and neighborhoods. We can instantly connect with the supposedly more exciting lives of others. These moments add up, until we’re in an almost permanent state of dissociation, punctuated only by the most urgent demands of life, to which we tend halfheartedly.
All of which rings quite true. The Senator’s diagnosis continues:
Humans are social, relational beings. We want and need to be in tribes. In our time, however, all of the traditional tribes that have sustained humans for millennia are simultaneously in collapse. Family, enduring friendship, meaningful shared work, local communities of worship—all have grown ever thinner. We are creating thicker, more vehement tribes around our political differences, I believe, because there is a growing vacuum at the heart of our shared (or increasingly, not so shared) everyday lives.
At this point, Senator Sasse’s analysis begins to show signs of arrested development. Are our political differences becoming more intractable and contentious because of a “growing vacuum” in the heart of our existence, or because politics insists on making deeper and deeper inroads into that existence? Perhaps it’s not an either/or proposition, but rather an unholy alliance of both. Still, it would have been helpful had Sasse at least acknowledged the role that government has played in the collapse of traditional community structures.
I offer as a shining example from Senator Sasse’s column his observation that, “More Republicans and Democrats are placing politics at the center of their lives,” and ask the good Senator pray tell, how can we do otherwise when politicians won’t leave us alone? From a Federal Register that numbers in the hundreds of thousands of pages from which blossom still more hundreds of thousands of regulations prescribing everything from how our toilets flush to what we may and may not do with puddles of water on our own property, I’d like nothing more than to relegate political matters to an inconsequential subcategory of life.
Alas, Senator Sasse’s contemporaries won’t oblige and a great many on his side of the aisle haven’t felt much like restraining them, so that we can’t even brush our teeth or change a lightbulb without running smack into circumstances about which we were warned by Alexis de Tocqueville when he described a government which:
…covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
Speaking of Senator Sasse and others currently inveighing against the rise in tribalism, how vociferous were their anti-tribal concerns when the liberal tribal contingent was running roughshod over the right of citizens to go about their daily lives unharassed by the encroachments of the state? When people discovered that, no, they couldn’t keep their doctor or their health insurance under Obamacare, and they saw their premiums rise to the level of their mortgage, where were the op-eds decrying progressivism’s, “thicker, more vehement tribes?” When Barack Obama bypassed the people’s elected representatives and announced instead that he would rule by “pen and phone,” where were the lamentations over the ascendancy of “ferocious political tribalism?”
For that matter, does anyone recall reading or hearing of the dangers of this descent into tribalism when we were instructed, in no uncertain terms, that one particular group of lives mattered more than others and the police themselves became targets of assassination? When Eric Holder’s Justice Department undertook to investigate precisely those police departments battling hardest against the mayhem of the lawless, whose ambassadors blocked traffic, illegally detained motorists, plundered and vandalized businesses, and attacked the innocent, who was it exactly that admonished the left’s tribal tendencies?
Can someone explain why it is that at precisely the moment when those of us who have played by the rules and are vilified by the media and the left, announce that we’ve had enough of this nonsense and are doing something about it, that we find ourselves under an avalanche of anti-tribal recriminations and admonishments from our own side? Is the antithesis of “tribalism” defined as serial capitulations to the left’s agenda of dividing people into racial, economic, and gender categories in order to favor some over others via wealth redistribution and racial/gender spoils systems?
Thankfully, a few observant souls, such as Senator Lindsey Graham, have finally achieved mental clarity with respect to the progressive’s lust for power at all costs. The attempted wholesale destruction of Brett Kavanaugh, consisting as it did of lurid fact-free allegations of the worst kind, ultimately revealed itself to be nothing less than a desperate attempt to keep off of the Supreme Court anyone who might demonstrate fidelity to the Constitution as written. Unable to do so on the basis of legal philosophy, Democrat senators resorted to the sort of character assassination that would have made Teddy Kennedy proud.
When Kavanaugh’s senatorial executioners stated that his audacity in actually fighting back against their absurd allegations that he was a gang-rapist demonstrated poor judicial temperament, the scales at long last fell from Lindsey Graham’s eyes, and he would have no more. “If you wanted an FBI investigation, you could have come to us,” thundered the Senator whom I referred to years ago as John McCain’s sorority sister. “What you want to do,” he continued, “is destroy this guy’s life, hold this seat open and hope you win in 2020. You’ve said that, not me. …Boy, you all want power. God, I hope you never get it.”
“Both sides seem to believe that a grand solution to our political dysfunction can be found inside politics,” writes Senator Sasse, adding that, “If only we could vanquish those evil people waving a different banner, this thinking goes, we’d be on the road to national recovery.” The simplistic formulation of, “both sides,” calls to mind Bill Buckley’s rejoinder that an assumption of moral parity suggests that there is no substantive difference between the guy who pushes a little old lady out of the path of an oncoming bus and a guy who pushes a little old lady into the path of an oncoming bus — on the grounds that they are both guys who go around pushing little old ladies.
As I observed a while back, the suggestion that conservatives are merely fighting for their particular “banner,” as if in dumb allegiance to a specific-colored sports jersey, is a poorly conceived caricature of what is at stake and why it matters. One “side,” is waging an all-out assault on individual sovereignty, on the proposition that government exists to protect the rights and lives of its citizens rather than to lead them about as if they were born with rings through their noses, and on the proposition that proper government is limited to those functions actually enumerated in the Constitution. Our side seeks liberty. The other side seeks servitude to the state and its masterminds.
It’s not revenge. It’s not even a reckoning. It’s what generations of American patriots have fought for. If Senator Sasse and others can’t understand that, then they have precious little right to lecture the rest of us on questions of morality, tribal or not.