Friday, June 14, 2013

Anti-Semitism—Part 4: Tribalism

Brief introduction

The first part of this post is about tribalism in general followed by a short exploration of Wagner’s “tribe” in the second part. If it hasn’t become clear, I am using Wagner’s anti-Semitism to explore various aspects of his views and the phenomenon itself in much broader detail than is normally—ever?—the case in writing about him.  This reflects my belief that Wagner, while in some ways a sport (in the biological sense) in his creativity and hyperactivity, is also very normally human—ultimately just like you or me—in both the good and bad senses.  Thus this whole blog is a dual exercise. While I explore the good, bad and ugly in him, I also explore it in myself, and all of us.

On tribalism

The New York Times education section had a very interesting article, “Rituals and Traditions; It Takes a Tribe,” on the irrational development of the feeling of school loyalty with a concomitant dislike of the rival team, which is essentially a form of tribalism.  According to the article, “For social scientists, it's an object of research, offering clues to a fundamental and puzzling aspect of human nature: People need to belong, to feel a part of “us.”  Yet a sense of '”us” brings with it a sense of “them.”’

In the article, Harvard social scientist Mahzarin Banaji said of this mental processes of becoming one of a group,  “We know that human beings identify with social groups, sometimes sufficiently to kill or die on their behalf.  What is not as well known is that such identity between self and group can form rapidly, often following a psychological route that is relatively subconscious. That is, like automata, we identify with the groups in which we are accidentally placed.'”

Even though liking a sporting team or your school should be trivial, it is not necessarily so.  Ask any Giants fan who has dared to show his team’s colors at Dodger stadium or visa versa.  The story of Brian Stow1, who was beaten and nearly killed at Dodger stadium just because he had on Giants gear is a particularly horrific example, but I have heard many scary stories of what can and does happen when showing that you are the “other” in a rival’s stadium.  In our 28 years together, Leslie and I have had more conflict over the fact that I am a Dodger fan and she is a Giants fan than any other single thing.  Isn’t that absurd?  (In Leslie’s defense—and to my shame—she likes them both and can’t understand why I am so nuts on the issue.  I can’t either, but social scientists tell me that it is normal, nonetheless.)

This tendency to group ourselves is overwhelming and a part of the human condition.  We can’t change it; the best we can do is be aware of it and try to tread as lightly as possible.

For me, I consciously identify with various groups, such as women, lesbians, “blue state people, secular humanists.  For each of those there is the “other,” that I do not like—sexist men, homophobic people, “red state people, religious fundamentalists.  But that list—and a counter “other” list—could be much longer.  The fact is that if something bad happens to people whom I perceive to be in a rival tribe, I don’t tend to feel much, if any, empathy or even sympathy towards them (except for people I actually know).  For instance, when this far-right guy committed suicide in Notre Dame to protest gay marriage in France, I had neither emotion.  Instead, I rolled my eyes and thought something along the lines of “good riddance.”  Yet he was a human being, with family and friends who are now suffering, and with a cause that he felt was just and right.   But he is out of my empathetic circles, and battling against my self-interest.  I really can’t find it in my heart to care about him.

I feel very confident that you can come up with your own list. I try to be a good person, and to me part of that is maintaining, to the degree possible, the sense of the humanity of those from whom I am deeply divided.  But to love your “enemy” is a very, very tough thing to do. 

I like to think I am a citizen of the world, and not deeply “American.” But I admit, America is my team, right or wrong.  When the Boston bombing happened, I absolutely—and quite irrationally—felt much more empathy than I do for a terrorist bombing in, for instance, Iraq.  I read a lot and talked a lot and felt very bad for those affected by the Boston bombing though I knew no one involved; I barely notice articles about terrorist bombings in countries I have never visited. Yet, unlike the Notre Dame guy, these people are not even in a hated “other” category; they are just not in my tribe.

Tribalism is deeply part of being human.  It comes with good and bad aspects.  One of the good things, paradoxically, is that we don’t tend to have run-away empathy.  That is, we save our emotional reactions for those whom we have accepted as part of “us.”  The closer they are, the more empathy.  But, in general, it isn’t too much for most of us to handle most of the time.  Those people who do have hyper-empathy lead very difficult lives, and it is considered a disorder with good reason. 

I want to take a quick look at one of the predominant tribal divides in the United States now:  the so-called blue state/red state divide.2  These names were coined by David Brooks in the Atlantic article, “One State, Slightly Divisible.” 

Watch this anti-Howard Dean ad, which does a good job of stereotyping us blue-staters:

The text for the ad above, for those who prefer to read, is: “Howard Dean should take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs.”

Humorist Dave Barry talked about the divide this way: “Do we truly believe that ALL red-state residents are ignorant racist fascist knuckle-dragging NASCAR-obsessed cousin-marrying roadkill-eating tobacco-juice-dribbling gun-fondling religious fanatic rednecks or that ALL blue-state residents are godless unpatriotic pierced-nose Volvo-driving France-loving left-wing communist latte-sucking tofu-chomping holistic-wacko neurotic vegan weenie perverts?”3

We all know that there is (though greatly exaggerated) truth within those stereotypes.  There is a real divide of values.  Blue state folks are much more secular.  The lion’s share of the atheists in the country identify with team blue. We believe in the value of multi-culturalism, rights for women and gays, and scientific knowledge.  Red state folks tend to want “traditional values,” which means women as the homemaker when there are kids, nuclear families as the ideal, faith over science if they clash, non-whites in “their place” (though that “place” is much more expansive at this point than it was 50 years ago), and for Christian values and Euro-American culture to predominate.

These are broad strokes I am brushing; nuance isn’t possible in a short post.  But I think most people will agree that we have these two different trends in America – one more a development out of and following of enlightenment ideals, and one more a continuation of religious tradition.

I am very solidly “blue state” and do think that “red state” folks are wrong and should be opposed in writing and at the ballot box.  That said, I believe in democracy and I think the majority of  red state folks do too.  As long as they aren’t trying to suppress my views with violence or through subverting democracy, then I understand our differences and try to make peace and find common ground with those on the other side of the divide.  And I think that is true of the majority of other blue-staters, and of most red-staters, too.

However, as we all know, many people are incredibly mean to the other side, hurling insults on the internet or on TV that are often shocking, far meaner and uglier than anything Wagner ever publicly said about Jews.  This is unleashed tribalism, and I find it all very disturbing.   I don’t hate disagreement, but I do hate mean.

Tolerance, even for the intolerant, is a strong value of mine.  In my private life, to close friends, I know I have said many negative and even hateful things about, for instance, religious fundamentalists.  So, yes, I can be mean privately. It blows off steam, really, and I don’t fault myself or anybody for private venting. But I also know that—at least for the last 30 years—I have been consistently publicly respectful and charitable to those with strong religious beliefs that run counter to my self-interest and my vision of a better world.  To not be mean, to find common ground, and to be tolerant to the “other” are all more important to me than pressing my vision of what a better society should be in a way that would upset those with whom I disagree.  Therefore, I am not a self-righteous crusader for my causes, though I used to be.  I realized that being kind is actually better tactically and much better emotionally than being consumed by a burning desire to act forcefully on what I considered—and still consider—just and right.

That we all have groups that are the “other” is inevitable.  That we do not care about them much, if at all, either in sympathy, empathy or action, is also inevitable.  But I do believe how we treat individuals in the “other” group and what we say publicly about the group does indicate much about our character and our vision of a decent, humane society. 

Wagner’s tribe

Wagner’s tribe was Germany, and what a pitiful tribe it was.  Buffeted by centuries of war and, at the turn of the 19th century, French occupation, the states that constituted what is now Germany were historically weak, feudal and backward.  When Wagner was born in 1813, the War of Liberation from France was underway and would successfully throw off the political yoke of the French, but culturally France remained dominate over Germany well into the century.

Wagner wasn’t crazy about his tribe, as he considered that Germany, its people, and its art had been thoroughly degraded through war, conquest and the rise of capitalism. He called Germany “one of the stupidest of all nations,” but yet was bound of it “simply because I happen to speak the nation’s language.”4 To him, language was the key to a people, to the culture. In the essay “Know Thyself,” he puts it this way: “Fatherland, mother-tongue: woe to the man bereft of these!  But what unmeasured happiness to recognize in one’s mother tongue the speech of one’s forefathers.  Through such a tongue our feelings and beholdings stretch back to early Man himself”.5  His mission in life was “to redeem a degenerate branch of our great, human art”6  To do this, he wanted to tap into what he considered to be a dormant “German spirit.”  Wagner gave as an example of that spirit the music and person of Bach: “beautiful and noble [who] came not in the world for the sake of profit, nay, not for the sake of fame and recognition.”7 

Wagner's main cultural antagonists—the “other”—were the Church, particularly the Catholic church, which he considered thoroughly bankrupt of true spirituality; the French, to whom most Germans turned for “high culture;” the economic system, which was dominated by the profit-motive; and the Jews, who did not share the German language, culture, history or spirit, but who were surging into the cultural vacuum that existed in Germany to create entertainment along with profit, both anathema to Wagner.  All these antagonists were a threat to his plans and vision, which was for Art writ large to supplant religion in Germany, and for the profit motive and greed to go by the wayside.

Is it any wonder that Wagner considered himself to be both a “total stranger"8 and at “loggerheads” with the world, considering the breadth of his foes?9 

One thing that people get very wrong on Wagner is that he was a German chauvinist and thought that Germans were superior to other people.  This was not his view. What he wanted was Germany to be both united and to be the  equal with other nations, not weak and backward as it was.  He was an internationalist and had respect for other cultures as long as they didn’t impinge on Germany’s cultural development.  This is the reason he had particular animosity to both the French and the Jews, as he felt both did. As his friend Eduard Devrient wrote in 1848, “a united Germany is no longer enough for him, what he wants is a united Europe, united humanity.”10

It is the tension between his desire for a united humanity and his belief in cultures developing without influence of harmful “others,” that defined his life and his work to the end of his days. When people refer to his anti-Semitism, this is the context for it.  Given his beliefs—whatever you think of them—it was a rational prejudice, as rational as my prejudice against religious fundamentalists. At least I will argue that in a subsequent post.

I also argued above—to repeat myself— that how we treat individuals in the “other” group, and what we say publicly about the group does indicate much about our character and our vision of a decent, humane society.  I think Wagner had clear failings in this realm, though not nearly as horrible as many people assert, which I will also address in future posts.

End Notes

1 Bryan Stow is still struggling from brain damage inflicted in the beating and will never fully recover.  He has recently returned to the town we both live in, Santa Cruz, California.  Here is a recent story about his progress.
2 When using the term, I am talking about a state of mind, not a literal state.  Obviously people of both tribes live in all the states.
3 Barry answers his question:  “Yes.  This is called “diversity,” and it is why we are such a great nation —a nation that has given the world both nuclear weapons and SpongeBob SquarePants.”
5 Wagner, “Know Thyself,” download here
6 Op. Cit, Millington, 648
7 Wagner, “What is German?,” download here
8 Op. cit, Millington, 566
9 See here
10 Spencer, Wagner Remembered, 62


  1. Imagine Wagner on Online! On Facebook!

    I've taken a break from Cosima's Diaries, and read through Wagner Remembered, which offered a lot of great observations.

    I'm now reading my way through the first book of The Wagner Experience by Paul Dawson-Bowling:

    I think it is quite good. He gives poor Minna her due, thinking that she was of a great deal more importance in RW's life than she has been credited by most, and that he also loved her far more than any of the other women.

    With his background he has some very interesting observations and it seems to me at this point that he is doing a very balanced job of it.

  2. I am not sure if it is true that Wagner loved Minna more than any other woman. I do think in his early years of marriage, he certainly was madly in love, but I think his love for Wesendonck was the only thing that was close to his ideal of what love was supposed to be, and came from a much more mature place than what drove him into his marriage with Minna. The difference in the letters to the two of them make that clear to me.

    Thanks for the top re Dawson-Bowling. Hadn't known about it.