What Tribes Do I Identify With?
One of the best pieces I’ve ever read about the Internet-outrage cycle is this one, from Scott Alexander in New Statesman: PETA, Ferguson, jihad, Doctor Who, rape, and kitten pics: the toxoplasma of online rage. It’s worth reading in absolute full and contains far too many excellent passages for me to excerpt any particular one.
The story got me thinking about tribalism generally, specifically which tribes I identify with personally. These are the groups I give the benefit of the doubt, or instinctually feel as if I should defend. The groups whose bad behavior I am more likely to excuse. Or, another way to look at it: these are my identity biases, stated up front.
I do not mean the groups that I inherently belong to as a result of some quirk of my birth. I mean those that I have adopted over the course of my life. The ones I choose now.
Of course, the circumstances of my birth (white, male, American) have a huge influence on my biases and help shape my identity, but those circumstances are only part of the picture. In some regards, I have latched on to groups I have some birthright to (Jews, for example), partly as a result of events later in life. In other cases, I have latched on to groups which have little or nothing to do with those original circumstances (e.g., journalists).
The point I hope is an attempt to be self-aware enough to tell the difference between a mere fact of being – I am a white male who was born in America – and a tribal affiliation which I have chosen to identify with as a result of a variety of circumstances.
Here’s what I’ve come up with:
My first real job was as a reporter. It was my baptism into political life, covering local government for a daily newspaper. I was also a reporter in the time just before the explosion of social media and the decline of print.
Being a journalist was something I always thought I might be good at, but it wasn’t until I actually became one that I realized just how noble and essential a pursuit it is. Just how much of our life and the health of our democracy depends on it.
Today, whenever journalists are attacked, I leap to their defense, whether it’s yet another misdirected accusation of media bias, an assault by government on journalists’ ability to protect sources, or an actual attack (see Charlie Hebdo).
To be clear, I am not, technically Jewish. One half of my family is, but not the important half.
My grandfather left Germany in 1934 and eventually made his way to America. I was not raised in Judaism, but as I’ve grown my Jewish heritage has become more central to who I am. This is in large part of who I have come to know my grandfather as: one of the most thoughtful, tolerant, and kind people I have ever known. But also because I owe my German citizenship to my Jewish heritage. German guilt over the holocaust means that the descendants of Jews who Nazis deprived of their German citizenship may apply to be “re-patriated,” which is what I have done.
In essence, my EU citizenship, which I value deeply, is only possible because of what my grandfather did, and because he is Jewish.
St. John’s Grads
It is an especially specific tribe because St. John’s is a unique program in the U.S., and few people understand its true value.
Having been to St. John’s is a badge of honor and an instant bond. If tribalism is about signaling one’s identity, than my allegiance to this tribe signals my devotion to Truth (capital “T”), and the value I place on the close study of great thinkers. Y
es, this goes beyond mere alumni boosterism. I don’t care if you both root for the same college football team, or both went to Duke, or whatever it is – St. John’s is special, and us Johnnies know what we mean when we say that.
I spent much of my childhood in New York, went to high school in Connecticut, and live just outside DC. But it’s New Mexico which feels the most like home, and it’s New Mexicans with whom I identify.
To begin with, I’m proud of the state: its beauty, its history, its food (oh my God, it’s food… pause blog-writing to day-dream about green chile… ok, continue). I love New Mexico so much it’s easy to forget how messed up it is. The state ranks near the bottom of several important lists, including those charting education and poverty, and it has some of the worst drug problems in the country. There’s a reason Breaking Bad was set there (other than the tax credits).
But, it’s my home.
If you are a writer… I feel you.
I have always made my living off my writing, and it is writing to which I turn to process, to communicate, and to accomplish pretty much everything else of substance. I write screenplays. I blog. My contribution to art and to the world, if there ever is one, will surely come through my writing.
Writers’ struggles are my struggles: endless thought, indecision, low-level depression, drinking, being in my head all the time.
The only writer’s struggle I don’t identify with is writer’s block. To those who think they have writer’s block, I say: shape the fuck up and just start writing already.
This is simply a more accurate label than to say I identify as being American. To me being American means, for the most part, being an immigrant. See above my grandfather’s experience coming from Germany via Brazil, but the same is true for relatives on my mother’s side, who comes from Norway, Sweden, and various parts nearby.
We are all immigrants (requisite nod to native Americans aside), and whenever I get a little weepy and sentimental about America it’s usually because I am thinking about our tired, our hungry, our huddled masses, and how they came here with hope to make a better life for themselves and their family.
America should be the champion of immigrants around the world, and I hope we can always keep this part of our soul and our history intact. See? Sentimental.