Moats: American Tribalism

Mar 29, 2018

A recent family gathering drove home the point that families — for all that holds them together — consist of a whole array of seemingly mismatched parts, all matching up to form something larger.

My extended family includes teachers, nurses, builders, business people, computer geeks, scientists, a farmer, a scientist-farmer, writers, actors, and a winemaker.

The black sheep of the group is no longer with us: He was a bartender and a sort of all-around outlaw, who became an avid student of Shakespeare, a computer expert and an opera buff.

And these are just our job descriptions. Our personalities range across the board, and cannot easily be summarized, though there is a notable absence of Type A’s, for which I am grateful.

We had gathered for a memorial service, and the unity among this diverse group was gratifying, creating a warm feeling alongside the feeling of loss that had brought us together.

We all were part of a larger story — the story of our family, the ancestors, the characters, the successes and failures, the trials and tribulations of the varied individuals. We relished the stories, which included even a piece of oral tradition involving a former queen of Hawaii.

None of us is simply an individual. And this made me think of the larger communities of which we are a part, extending even to what we might call the American family.

America has its stories and oral traditions, that we tell in our history lessons and our journalism and in our kitchen table arguments.

But the fact is that the American family is not and never has been one thing. It includes everybody, with different points of view and experiences.

Much is said these days about the tribalism of America, the way people are retreating to their own groups — an unfortunate trend.

My own group — white northern European Protestants and Catholics — always seemed kind of boring to me, which may account for the fact that when I was growing up my friends included a disproportionate number of minorities, including Chinese, Mexicans and Jews.

No family is entirely happy, and there are always conflicts and disappointments. But it’s good to get outside yourself, whether that means learning something from your weird cousin or hearing the voices of a minority. Remember what Whitman said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

And if you can, do as we did and bring a winemaker along.