Our Tribalism Will Be the Death of Us
One of the most consistently intelligent and unbiased sources of news about Covid has been The Times’s newsletter The Morning, anchored by David Leonhardt, who fully respects science while being cleareyed about what it hasn’t figured out yet, opts for data over diatribes and tends toward understatement in an age of hyperbole. So when I see that his focus on a given day is the pandemic, I perk up and pay special heed.
That was the case with his analysis earlier this week of the first pandemic-related poll that The Morning commissioned. Its big takeaway, more confirmation than revelation, was distilled in its headline: “Two Covid Americas.” The paragraphs following that demonstrated anew that while a virus isn’t partisan, many Americans’ responses to this one have been emphatically so.
“Millions of Republican voters have decided that downplaying Covid is core to their identity as conservatives,” David wrote, elaborating on what the poll showed. “Millions of Democrats have decided that organizing their lives around Covid is core to their identity as progressives.” And so, he explained, all of those Americans filter information selectively through their political affiliations, which also determine their triage of concerns.
He wasn’t equating a Covid denier or vaccine paranoiac with someone whose mask is more badge than barrier. Nor am I. He was making a wider point about passions and prejudices. He was drawing necessary attention to the intense tribalism of American life now.
The pandemic, which could and should have brought us together, has instead driven us further apart, exacerbating our tribalism, which is an enemy of real progress but a friend to all sorts of dysfunction, all manner of meanness. The irrational obstructionism in Congress and lawmakers’ taste for vitriol and vengeance are tribalism run amok. Cancel culture, be it on the left or right, is a tribal impulse, not merely abetted but amplified by the technology of our time.
We humans are inherently tribal creatures. I get that. I’ve read and remember enough history and headlines not to be surprised. But the work of civilization — the advance of it — involves containing that tribalism, controlling it, moderating it with grander and more unifying ideals.
That work in America is currently in a state of crisis. You saw that at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. You see it in public opinion surveys that document how darkly Democrats and Republicans regard each other. You see it almost hourly on Fox News, which casts Joe Biden not as a flawed president but as a doddering autocrat or socialist puppet turning the United States into a crime-besieged hellscape. You see it every minute — no, every second — on social media.
I’m obviously talking in particular about political tribalism, which, fascinatingly, is growing just as Americans’ attachment to organized religion is waning. Political observers have noted that and mulled the consequences. One of this tribalism’s obvious drivers is many Americans’ substitution of investment and involvement in physical communities with investment and involvement in online ones that more efficiently sort them into cliques of the rigidly like-minded. Another is many people’s use of the internet not to check or challenge their thinking but to validate it.
I also sense that many Americans, overwhelmed by the volume of competing information that comes at them and the furious pace of its delivery, outsource their judgment to a tribe and its leaders. Those leaders give them certainty in place of ambiguity, definitive answers in lieu of smarter questions. They’re liberated from genuine inquiry and freed from doubt.
In the short term, that’s a simpler, easier way to live. And in the long term?
I fear that we’re in the process of finding out.
For the Love of Sentences
Sam Anderson’s profile of the Icelandic novelist Sjón in The Times’s Sunday magazine brims, as Sam’s profiles tend to, with magical snippets. “A big orange cat happened to be sprawling in the middle of the sidewalk,” Sam wrote. “Sjón stopped to pet it, and as he did so, he poured out a soft stream of affectionate Icelandic — vowels stretching and plunging and leaping, R’s rolling like creekwater over stones.” Also, focused on that same consonant: “Sjón’s full nameis Sigurjón Birgir Sigurdsson — a cascade of soft G’s and rolling R’s that sounds, when he says it, like a secret liquid song, sung deep in his throat, to a shy baby horse.”(Thanks to Darren Katz of Amsterdam and Vipan Chandra of Attleboro, Mass., for these nominations.)
Also in the magazine, Alex McElroy explored the satisfaction of holding a grudge, explaining: “A grudge is not a resentment. Sure, they’re made of the same material — poison — but while resentment is concentrated, a grudge is watered down, drinkable and refreshingly effervescent, the low-calorie lager to resentment’s bootleg grain alcohol.” (Kathy Black, Philadelphia)
Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican who recently announced that he will run for re-election, is ready grist for rich prose. In The Times, Michelle Cottle noted the dearth of enthusiasm for him in the state he represents: “Polling suggests the senator is about as popular there as Brett Kavanaugh at an Emily’s List happy hour.” (Audrey Brooks, Tucson, Ariz., and Maureen Ryan, Hattiesburg, Miss.) And in The Washington Post, Michael Gerson called him “America’s most reliable source of unreliable information about Covid-19,” adding: “He offers his lack of intellectual seriousness as an element of his political appeal — similar to handing out a résumé with the firings and felonies highlighted.” (Mike Profit, Dunwoody, Ga.)
Here’s a priceless aside in an article in The Guardian by Zoe Williams about the cultural significance of the infamous 1995 sex tape involving onetime spouses Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee: “Arguably, Anderson is just very into nuptials; she managed a marriage, an annulment and another marriage to someone different during 2020, which I think puts your sourdough successes to shame.” (Todd Boes, San Anselmo, Calif.)
In a lovely column in The Times about Ciro Scala, who went back to college after a half-century pause, Ginia Bellafante wrote: “The high school Ciro went to in Brooklyn could not provide his transcript, which turned out to be on microfiche and thus might as well have been preserved on bark.” (Nancy Friedland, Manhattan)
Pithiness, thy name is Maureen Dowd: “Joe Biden better Build Better or he won’t be Back.” (David Stout, Albuquerque, and Bob Walthers, Port Townsend, Wash., among others)
Or is thy name Gail Collins? Pushing back at the idea that Biden should announce that he won’t run in 2024, Gail wrote: “If you don’t have to be a lame duck, why volunteer to hobble when you waddle?” (Karen Coe, Seattle, and Stephen Manes, Santa Monica, Calif.)
Lyricism’s name is Margaret Renkl, who had this to say about people’s claims of ownership of the greenery around them: “A tree’s shade belongs not to us, but to the furtive bobcat making its shadowy way through our cacophonous world.” (Peter Comerford, Providence, R.I.)
It’s rare that I revisit an article praised in a previous installment of this feature, but I’m making an exception for Mike Tanier’s preview of the N.F.L. playoffs, in which he spoofed the key vulnerability of each contender. It was that much fun. Here’s Mike on the Kansas City Chiefs, and for those not familiar with the references to come, Patrick Mahomes is their star quarterback and Tyreek Hill their star receiver: “Nearly every turnover the team coughs up is a Rube Goldbergian series of improbable coincidences: The intended receiver slips before Patrick Mahomes delivers a side-armed pass, the ball ricochets off the receiver’s helmet and the antlers of a gazelle grazing along the sideline before landing in the hands of a defender, who bobbles the ball directly into the hands of a teammate, who nearly runs for a touchdown before being chased down by the gazelle, or by the slightly faster Tyreek Hill.” (Frank Friedman, Voorhees, N.J.)
It’s also rare that I showcase words within an article other than the author’s. But in putting together an obituary of Howard Solomon, Richard Sandomir had the excellent sense to make use of an email he’d received from the man’s son, the writer Andrew Solomon, about how his father had helped him through the depression he recounted in his extraordinary memoir “The Noonday Demon.” From that email: “My father was like a reef that took the violent waves of a frightening world and broke them down into gentle, manageable undulations before they reached the beach where I stood.” (Pete Browne, Kansas City, Mo.)
And now I’m crying.
To nominate favorite bits of recent writing from The Times or other publications to be mentioned in “For the Love of Sentences,” please email me here, and please include your name and place of residence.
What I’m Reading
Is affirmative action in college admissions nearing its end? That’s a real possibility, a complicated subject and an important story, addressed in this article in Vox and this one in The Times.
By what strange path did the Republican Party arrive at its current destination? That’s an even more important story, addressed in a new book, “Insurgency: How Republicans Lost Their Party and Got Everything They Ever Wanted,” by Jeremy Peters of The Times, that will be published on Feb. 8.
I was late to “Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty,” by Patrick Radden Keefe, which was published last April. But I’m so very glad I finally got to it. I’m halfway through and wholly impressed: It not only tells the story of America’s premier opioid peddlers in a comprehensive and highly readable fashion but also provides an education about diverse facets of American history and industry. I’ve been reminded of past chapters of American antisemitism. I’ve been introduced to many unsavory tricks of the pharmaceutical trade. I’ve been made smarter all the while.
On a Personal Note
A newsletter reader emailed me the other day with a complaint. I used to refer occasionally to “my man,” he wrote, but since moving to North Carolina, I mention “my dog” instead. “For me you have lost a bit of your edge as a result,” he added. “Still, good luck with the dog.”
And warmest wishes to you, too, sir.
I share his email not in an angry or self-pitying vein. An overwhelming majority of you send me warm wishes, tell me your thoughts about the issues of the day, push back firmly but politely at something I’ve written or even confide your secrets. I’m flattered by your engagement. I’m touched by your generosity. And I’m moved by our mutual sense of this newsletter as a space that’s essentially good-natured and fundamentally respectful.
So much of American life these days is neither. People are slow to decency and quick to nastiness. They too seldom pause to consider fully the object of their sassing or the target of their sniping. It’s more fun just to pop off.
And maybe they assume that we’re all walking around in armor, given the nonstop political and cultural wars into which we’ve been drafted and the fusillade of insults on social media.
That’s why I mention the reader and his email. In his small way, he reflects that ugliness. Forget his inaccuracy: I have never in my life written the phrase “my man,” and my dog, Regan, appeared in my life and in this newsletter long before my move south. Focus instead on his petty cruelty.
For all he knows, my nearly 10-year relationship, the end of which he rightly picked up on, left me devastated. For all he knows, I had no say in its end. For all he knows, I’ve very much wanted a next relationship but simply haven’t succeeded in finding it — and Regan isn’t my substitute but my consolation. For all he knows, I’ve been stripped of my armor and he drew blood.
I’m not saying that any or most of that is true; if he cares to read my soon-to-be-published book, about my medical and emotional odyssey over the past few years, he can learn what’s what and make a fresh appraisal of my “edge.”
I’m saying that if you don’t know all the facts, shouldn’t you hold your fire?
That’s a good rule of thumb for our private interactions.
It’s equally good for our public ones.