The meaning of ‘Tribalism’

Adam Serwer offers a corrective on a corrosive: the use of tribalism. You mean racism:

It’s fashionable in the Donald Trump era to decry political “tribalism,” especially if you’re a conservative attempting to criticize Trump without incurring the wrath of his supporters. House Speaker Paul Ryan has lamented the “tribalism” of American politics. Arizona Senator Jeff Flake has said that “tribalism is ruining us.” Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse has written a book warning that “partisan tribalism is statistically higher than at any point since the Civil War.”

In the fallout from Tuesday’s midterm elections, many political analysts have concluded that blue America and red America are ever more divided, ever more at each other’s throats. But calling this “tribalism” is misleading, because only one side of this divide remotely resembles a coalition based on ethnic and religious lines, and only one side has committed itself to a political strategy that relies on stoking hatred and fear of the other. By diagnosing America’s problem as tribalism, chin-stroking pundits and their sorrowful semi-Trumpist counterparts in Congress have hidden the actual problem in American politics behind a weird euphemism.

Take Tuesday’s midterm elections. In New York’s Nineteenth Congressional District, the Democrat Antonio Delgado, a Harvard-educated, African American Rhodes scholar, defeated the incumbent Republican John Faso in a district that is 84 percent white, despite Faso caricaturing Delgado as a “big-city rapper.” In Georgia, the Republican Brian Kemp appears to have defeated the Democrat Stacey Abrams after using his position as secretary of state to weaken the power of the black vote in the state and tying his opponent to the New Black Panther Party. In Florida, the Republican Ron DeSantis defeated the Democrat Andrew Gillum after a campaign in which DeSantis’s supporters made racist remarks about Gillum. The Republican Duncan Hunter, who is under indictment, won after running a campaign falsely tying his Democratic opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, who is of Latino and Arab descent, to terrorism. In North Dakota, Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp lost reelection after Republicans adopted a voter-ID law designed to disenfranchise the Native American voters who powered her upset win in 2012. President Trump spent weeks claiming that a caravan of migrants in Latin America headed for the United States poses a grave threat to national security, an assessment the Pentagon disagrees with. In Illinois on Tuesday, thousands of Republicans voted for a longtime Nazi who now prefers to describe himself as a “white racialist”; in Virginia, more than a million cast ballots for a neo-Confederate running for Senate.

A large number of Republican candidates, led by the president, ran racist or bigoted campaigns against their opponents. But those opponents cannot be said to belong to a “tribe.” No common ethnic or religious ties bind Heitkamp, Campa-Najjar, Delgado, or the constituencies that elected them. It was their Republican opponents who turned to “tribalism,” painting them as scary or dangerous, and working to disenfranchise their supporters.

Nul ne peut soupçonner.

Image: tribal art of indigenous Warlis of the mountainous and coastal areas of Maharashtra/Gujarat border.

Currency

Typically characterized as hard, or cold. This, too, is one of the loaded meanings of green, of course, and not keeping some handle on it would be not only remiss but cause the other meanings to crash into a field of mere literal connotations. In that spirit, this article in the Times on the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles caught my, um, eye.

So first thing, the headline, Soaring in Art, Museum Trips over Finances, doesn’t past the smell test. You should know something is awry when art and finance are used in the same phrase in a newspaper. And not because anything is sacred, fer chrissakes. But finance in newspapers always means shareholders and art, alas, can’t even get its mouthpiece in before the first haymaker.

And sure enough, a couple of graphs in, the MOCA is in trouble – and has been for years. Bad management, shrinking endowment used for operational expenses, big donors bolting the board… I’m being redundant.

Yet by putting art ahead of the bottom line, the Museum of Contemporary Art has nearly killed itself. The museum has operated at a deficit in six of the last eight years, and its endowment has shrunk to about $6 million from nearly $50 million in 1999, according to people who have been briefed on the finances.

So, contemporary art… what have they been showing? Their permanent collection boasts Rauschenberg and Ruscha, but money problems at museums make me think of much more complexicated™ interstices of art, marketing and commodity than mere paintings, printmaking or collage. What’s the word… oh yes… Installation. And sure enough they get to it.

And at times the museum has secured financing for exhibitions in ways that many other museums would shun. To help pay for last year’s Takashi Murakami exhibition, the museum solicited hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from art galleries that represented the artist and therefore stood to gain from any related career boost.

Fair enough, I actually see little wrong with this supposedly nefarious ploy, as if our shackles should rise merely on the cross-branding. I mean, where is the lost innocence? No, I’m much more interested in who and what is Takashi Murakami. And a .0002567-second interweb search brings video of the Times coverage of his exib at the Brooklyn Museum last year. Murakami, a Japanese pop artist likened by the video reporter to Andy Warhol because “he works at the intersection of pop art, mass design and high fashion.” Excellent.

He’s known for his work – there’s that word again – with Louis Vuitton; in fact there was a functioning LV boutique inside the museum. What’s that game? Oh yeah. Keno!

But let’s go to the man himself. Reporter: do you think a purse with a logo on it can be considered art work? (Don’t answer that. She’s trying to trick…)

Murakami: I think so.

Okay, okay. LV creative director Marc Jacobs makes the point that art is fundamentally unnecessary, that “with art, there is no right or wrong, only opinions.” The extent to which he actually believes this confirms the self-fulfilling nature of his point.

So back to the financial problems at the LA museum. Alternately, there could have been some sort of foundational flaw in the building itself to cause it to physically collapse and everyone would stand around the pile of rubble lamenting the decision to go with the architect who fathered the structural  imperfection, signed off on the drawings that ultimately destroyed what they were designed to protect. “People deserve better!” the elegantly appointed mob might chant.

Instead, it is teetering on the verge of a similar collapse because of what? Some design flaw that reinforces how unnecessary it is? In the post-judgment judgment environment, if art or ecology can be mixed with commerce, then they must be. It seems to be the only rule. So let’s no kid ourselves about the consequences.

But discerning what it is and is not necessary is all about one of these. Can you guess which?