In his observations of America during the latter part of the 20th century, social and media critic professor Marshall McLuhan observed a curious effect of electronic media, what he called the increasing “tribalization” of culture. In effect, the tribalization he noted was a re-tribalization – a return to factionalism; modern communications technology is a double-edged sword that simultaneously unifies and fragments society. McLuhan preceded the internet, digital communication, cell phones and social media, but all he imagined has come to pass.
Tribalization existed in America long before McLuhan observed it, of course. Ethnic divides have separated people into distinct factions for the entirety of American history. As Isabel Wilkerson states in her book Caste, ethnic and cultural distinctions have long been used to tightly place people within economic and social classes, often with terrible, even genocidal results. Although the Statue of Liberty welcomes all, America’s “melting pot” has been revealed as an aspiration, not reality. The dividing lines within our culture today are starker than ever.
I recently re-watched Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film Gangs of New York, that takes place in 1860. Although, like all Scorsese films, it’s almost exclusively about men and the violence they incite, I was struck by its relevance to today’s situation in America, and its focus on nativism and tribal habits. The film takes place in New York’s Lower East Side, where brutal poverty and political corruption dictate the happenings of everyday life. A gang of nativist Protestants led by “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (played brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis) viciously protects its turf in “the Five Points” neighborhood from incursions on their power by the growing population of Irish immigrants. As the Civil War looms and the military draft is initiated, poor whites riot and turn their rage upon free blacks in New York, illustrating Wilkerson’s premise that designating scapegoats allows even the most downtrodden caste to feel elevated.
This old pattern is repeating itself today, as poor whites flock to a Trumpian anti-immigrant ideology and oppose the political empowerment of black Americans. Social media, combined with powerhouse corporations like Rupert Murdoch’s FOX, have provided highly effective platforms for nativist tribalism; With the help of social media, Gangs of U.S. are thriving upon anger and discontent and fracturing social stability.
Biden’s effort to promote unity is running up against a strong tribal current built on blame and shame, and some on the left contribute to the problem by shaming as well. In this way, the tribal factions fight over their turf; it’s no coincidence that gun sales in America are at their historical peak. The threat of violence is real; the events of January 6th demonstrated just how real.
If disorder in America continues to increase, the authoritarians among us will find excuses to impose order by force. Accordingly, for those wanting an authoritarian government, nativism and tribalism – both sowing disorder, fear and confusion – are the path to power. Overcoming this threat is a great challenge and won’t be accomplished through sentimental jingoism, but only through real programs and policies that take the wind out of tribalist sails.
In Gangs of New York, the violence ends through military intervention; soldiers march through the streets firing at crowds and gunships bombard lower Manhattan with cannon fire. Rows of dead bodies line the streets. In short, democracy and order are preserved by force. McLuhan must be spinning in his grave.