Thursday, November 8, 2012

Universal vs Tribal Morality, In The United States

In our previous post we delineated the differences between cultures centered on tribal based value systems and those oriented towards universal values. The value system that predominates within a nation has a tremendous role in shaping government and politics. Paradoxically, cultures oriented towards universal values promote political systems and civic involvement that at once affirm the "common good", while strongly valuing the rights and richness of the individual. Alexis de Tocqueville noted that Americans cherished individualism, while still possessing the uncanny ability to freely form civic organizations in the pursuit of the common interests. Connected only by the bonds of free association and shared values, individuals work together to form churches, charities, communities organizations and relief efforts. We find this on a local, political level, when individuals work together on mundane, but essential tasks like improving local schools and also on larger, more ideological movements, of the left and right that promote: human rights, rule of law, economic freedom, economic equality, environmentalism, etc. Needless to say, far too many individuals and organizations participate in politics in order to further their narrow self interests and that of their group. But, never the less, the core value system is universal in nature and politicians who too openly depart from this paradigm will face public reprimand. And to garnish even a modicum of public support, even the most narrow, self serving special interests use the language of common interest in order to justify their pursuit of self serving subsidies. A close look at political developments in the United States will demonstrate that we are experiencing a slow retreat from universal values and individual liberty, in favor of narrow, ethnic interests and group rights. While reading this essay, keep in mind that we are in no way downplaying the tremendous contributions that individuals of all ethnic backgrounds have made to the social, political and economic life of the United States; rather, we are exploring the nature and consequences of ethnocentric, clientelist politics.

Movements based on universal principles usually encourage individuals to be fair, objective and self critical of their behavior, as well as that of their group. For example, white participants in the civil rights movements encouraged their fellow citizens to address their unjust treatment of African-Americans. Males are asked to reflect on their unfair treatment of women. And those driven by universal values will even promote policies that are directly against their own immediate interests: wealthy liberals generally support a system of progressive taxation, in which they will pay more, white liberals promote affirmative action, even though it may limit their educational and employment opportunities. Conversely, the great African-American economist, Dr. Thomas Sowell opposes affirmative action, because he holds greater loyalty to the principles of individual liberty, economic reason and fairness than to his "tribal interests". And many moderate income libertarians and conservatives seek to limit government programs that would directly benefit them.

In the United States, we take this universal spirit for granted, but nowhere outside of the western world is this widely encountered. In North Africa and the Middle East, the idea of Muslims marching to promote the equality of Non-Muslims was beyond the pale of reason. One's duty was never to "justice for all", but rather to the support of the ummah. Legal equality to Christians and Jews were forced on Muslim territories by British and French colonial regimes, the only notable exception being Reza Shah's lifting of legal restrictions against Iranian Jews. And in countries like Malaysia, affirmative action was used by the Malay majority to expand their economic power, by limiting that of the better educated and more entrepreneurial Chinese Minority. To put it simply, in societies were universal values are not well entrenched, politics is centered on the aggressive promotion of one's tribe or ethnic group, rather than fairness and the perceived greater good. And even in cases in which middle eastern governments project an imagine of broad, modern nationalism, the dominion of narrow tribal interests is the rule, rather than the exception. For example, in Ba'athist Iraq, the majority of important government functionaries were members of Saddam Hussein's extended family. Underlying all tribal cultures is a negation of individuality and meritocracy.

In Latin-America, universal rhetoric permeates political discourse, but never the less, political cultural is  tribal in nature. Owing to blurred racial and cultural boundaries, affiliation is based not so much on ethnicity, but by what  Edward C. Banfield described such as a spirit of "amoral familism," in which the public good is sacrificed for the sake of nepotism and immediate family and friends. Harvard Sociologist Robert Putnan stated that in such a society, "political participation is triggered by personal dependency or private greed, not by collective purpose." The end result is a system of clientelism, a "form of politics in which the patron grants favors in return for political support, materials goods, and / or other services."' But, what of the populist, social-democratic wave that is sweeping much of Latin America? Does the universal rhetoric and expanded social programs for the poor, seen in the regimes of Hugo Chavez and Rafael Correa not indicate the growth of liberal democracy?

A closer look at these regimes demonstrates that they simply represent a dramatic expansion of the clientelist paradigm, made possible by rising petroleum revenues. In this system, leaders offer promises of welfare and subsidies, the masses support a charismatic "national patron", overlooking their corrupt, undemocratic practices. What is most troubling is that increased dependency on the patron is accompanied by a diminished concern for the common good. For example, in exchange for free homes and appliances and environmentally damaging fuel subsidies, Chavez's followers overlook his attacks on freedom of the press and economic mismanagement. Argentine writer, Marcos Aguinis best summed up the nature of Latin American Populist leaders; they "only care about the short term; take advantage of poverty to ensure votes; try to appropriate the most public funds possible; have an extraordinary ability to transfer their responsibility in poor performance to other and do not accept dissent or plurality of opinions." 

Within African-American politics, we find a well defined clientelist streak. This vision is clearly demonstrated when Jesse Jackson Sr stated that since African-American voters helped Barack Obama gain and retain political power, "we want, we want, we want, we deserve, we deserve...a return on our (electoral) investments." He went on to specify the "return" as increased federal spending in housing, healthcare, education, employment and public transportation. Absent from his discourse was the idea that all Americans should equally enjoy the benefits of increased government largess, but rather it should be directed primarily towards African-Americans, because of the political support that they offered the president. Furthermore, his demands for ever greater federal spending are not tempered by a concern for the rising federal debt and unfunded liabilities that the nation faces. As long as his tribe enjoys a greater share of the Spoils System; fiscal consequences be damned. Another parallel between African-American and Latin-American politics  is the apparent willingness of large swaths of the electorate to overlook the corruption of their political patrons. For example, State Representative Derrick Smith was re-elected with 63% of the vote, even though he had been expelled from the General Assembly of Illinois on corruption charges. And Jesse Jackson Jr won by the same margin, even though he has been indited for using campaign funds to purchase a $40,000 watch for a female friend. It appears that the personal loyalty of many African-Americans to political representatives and the Democratic Party trump concerns of basic ethics and good governance. It goes without saying that there are thoroughly rotten European-American politicians, the only difference is that when the extent of their corruption comes to light, they are quickly excoriated by the public.

Over the past few years, a wide variety of commentators have discussed the growing political influence of Latinos and other minorities in the United States. Time Magazine went as far as saying that Latinos Will Decide The Next Election. But, interestingly, few if any of these commentators explored exactly how this growing influence is shaping political life, yet alone dared to ask what possible risks and rewards. Against we must affirm that the question is not one of race and ethnic origin, but rather of political culture. America's unparalleled freedom and prosperity do not stem from race or color of the founders, but rather the synergistic values, visions, norms, culture and comportment of the founding fathers. And the deeply ingrained political vices found in Latin-America do not find their origin in DNA, but in culture. Even as successive waves of immigrants altered the demography of the nation, their successful assimilation to to the values and political traditions, has allowed the nation to maintain its cultural core and Republican System. Hence, some of the most distinguished proponents of the American Way and critics of ethnocentric politics are Hispanic-Americans, such as Adolfo Rivero Caro and African-Americans, such as Walter Williams and Dr. Thomas Sowell. So, we should welcome all Americans to actively participate in the civic and political life of the nation, as individuals, bound by beliefs and not by birth or blood. But, we should be concerned about the growth of ethno-identity politics that, at its core, represents a retreat from the universal value that underlie American Republicanism. This has been made possible by the promotion of a multicultural ideology, that eschews assimilation and promotes political ethnocentrism.

We see an ethno-corporate vision in well organizations like the Congressional Black CaucusCongressional Hispanic CaucusLa RazaMecha  groups, which openly seek to promote the power and interests of their respective tribes. What is most interesting is that the greatest impetus for the growth of ethno-identity politics has not come from minorities, but from well established (and largely white) political, educational and economic elites. For example, La Raza was launched by a grant from the Ford Foundation and enjoyed major contributions from the Gates Foundation. And President Obama's campaign website has a separate sections for Jewish-AmericansHispanic-AmericansAfrican-Americans and Asian-Americans. As the Chairman of the California Democratic Party (from 1995 - 2009), Art Torres is supposed to
have equally represented the interest of all his constituents, yet he gleefully spoke about the political decline of "White America".

The tribal orientation of these movements are made clear by the general nature of its discourse, which is largely bereft of principles, beyond the proclamation that their growing ranks entitles them to greater political power and even preferential treatment. And the quest for self interest is rarely tempered by the concern for fairness and the common good that other political movements must at least provide lip service to, if they are to gain legitimacy. Although there is no perfect, absolute means to determine the universality of a principle or proposal,  Kant's Categorical imperative is perhaps the most compelling I have encountered.. The first formulation is: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction." The third formulation is "Therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his maximum always a legislating member of the universal kingdom of ends." In other words, would the world be better if a particular behavior became universally adopted or was put into law? Take Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), a major figure in ethnocentric politics; by what universal principles can he justify the selective non-enforcement of immigration laws? Could one put forth a reasonable argument that the desires of non-citizens to cross a border, trumps the rights of  citizens to determine who enters their sovereign territory? Under what system of ethics and good governance could one justify extending preferential treatment (amnesty) to those who violated immigration laws, over the many individuals who waited in lines for many years to lawfully enter the country? Ethnocentric activists often imply that the economic desperation of Latin-Americans justifies their documented and undocumented entry into the nation, but if universal-humanitarian concerns were truly their motivation, would they not lobby to grant greater preference to the (let's say) Sub-Saharan Africans that faced far more dire circumstances? With each example, it becomes clearer that the focus of most ethnocentric political activists is not the common good. Rather it is to expand their own power by increasing the number of their clientel present in the United States.

One could easily counter my analysis with the following position: ethnocentric Hispanic organizations oppose most immigration enforcement measures as part of their question for the common good; just because a policy mostly benefits a single ethnic constituency, does not mean that it is contrary to the common good. In principle, this is a valid point, but in practice, the evidence does not support this proposition. The fact that La Raza has opposed, virtually every enforcement measure, leads me to the believe that they unconditionally support the perceived interests of their group, even when it is contrary to the common good. For example, the voluntary use of e-verify by employers, was previously banned in Illinois. And even after Cook County's systematic refusal to hand over repeat criminal offenders to ICE led to the death of innocent individuals, Toni Preckwinkle and other members of the Democratic Machine, continued to support this policy. In the worst spirit of Latin American Clientelism, they have placed the unconditional support of the perceived interests of their constituents above the rule of law and the general welfare of Cook County. It appears that the Democratic Machine is driven less by humanitarian principles and more by a desire to foster dependency in their clients, not through effective governance, but through fear: "only we can protect your family from the anti-immigrants..." Further evidence that lobbying for open border policies is driven more by raw self interest, rather than by universal principles can be deduced from the fact that the nations that have called for the United States to liberalize its immigration policies, most zealously guard their own borders and national sovereignty. This is especially true of the Mexican Government.

The ethnocentric, tribal world view is even more pronounced in the Spanish Speaking media. This could be seen in a recent discussion on Univision between News Anchorman Jorge Ramos and Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) of Mitt Romney's selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate. What is most significant is that that Mr. Ramos did not ask if Mr. Ryan would be a good vice president for the nation, but he reduced the discussion, ad verbatim, to the single question of: "is he good or bad for Hispanics." Nor did he discuss Ryan's positions on debt, entitlements, employment, public health and national security; the only concern he expressed was how a Ryan vice-presidency would effect undocumented immigrants. While immigration is certainly an important national issue, Mr. Ramos has never seriously framed the debate in terms of the common good; his only expressed concern has been "what impact would it have on my tribe?And on the rare occasion when he interviews a guest with more nuanced views, such as Marco Rubio, he responds with open ire that they are not "supporting their own". If a "white journalist" were to express such blatant ethnocentrism, they would justifiably be pilloried for their lack of objectivity, yet Mr. Ramos has won 8 Emmy Awards!

This brings us to one of the more troubling aspects of this issue: the demeaning double standards that many white liberals hold regarding expressions of political ethnocentrism. With few exceptions, they openly encourage African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, etc. to pursue their perceived ethno-political interests, while responding with absolute horror when European-Americans do the same. For example, protests erupted over the formation of a white student union at Townsen University, even though student organizations based on race, religion, ethnicity, gender and sexual identity abound on the campus. The underlying  notion is that whites, as individuals are expected to objectively pursue the common good, while non-whites are welcome to pursue their subjective group interests. This should be considered racist and demeaning, because it clearly holds Non-Europeans to a lower ethical and intellectual standard. Some liberals will respond that white political ethnocentrism is alive and well, but is simply hidden in the universal rhetoric of conservative movements. That may be true for some individuals, but never the less, the very fact that they must indirectly promote their group interests, by extolling the virtues of fairness and free markets, shows that they are held to higher standards than other purveyors of ethnic self interest.

These double standards have become so wide spread that very few people think twice when they are faced by them. For example, nowhere in NPR's discussion of the devastation that Korean-American owned businesses experienced during the LA Riots, does the commentator touch up the obvious presence of racism and xenophobia within the African-American community. We can be certain that if a mob of European-Americans looted and burned the stores of another ethnic group, NPR and much of the political elite would call upon whites to address these issues within their community. And during an NPR expose on gentrification in Chicago's Pilsen Neighborhood, the author and some of the readers were sympathetic to the residents concerns about the influx of "g├╝eros," which in Mexican slang means "whites". Yet, we can be certain that NPR would justifiably rebuke a European-American if they expressed similar concerns about the influx of Latinos into "their neighborhood." In piece after piece NPR praises integration and the growth of diversity in historically white neighborhoods, yet clearly expresses unease that Pilsen in now only 80% Hispanic, i.e. it is more diverse. The underlying notion is that non-whites have the right to desire a homogeneous neighborhood and exclude newcomers, while whites do not. And on a deeper level, one community has the right to pursue their perceived group interests, while the other can only exercise individual rights. The hegemonic shell was cracked by a few readers. In response to a resident who declared that the opposition to whites residents was "not racist", but was simply "about Mexicans not wanting to lose the Mexican culture," one reader astutely stated "hmmm...where have I heard that before? Oh, yeah: The GOP when speaking of not wanting to lose "American Culture" due to immigration. When they say it, it's called Xenophobia. Ironic." No matter how well meaning their intentions are, when liberals present double standards, they convey an underlying belief that minorities are too emotionally fragile and intellectually inept to engage in honest dialogues and meaningful self criticism.

This cultural and philosophical shift should be viewed with alarm, because they are a retreat from the universal values that made the American Experiment in Republicanism possible. The philosophical notions that underlie state sponsored multiculturalism and ethnocentric politics are deeply contrary to the respect for the individual  that is central to free republics and free markets. In order to believe that an individual automatically enriches a classroom or workplace because they "add to its racial and ethnic diversity, we must automatically assume that they possess distinct beliefs, behaviors and abilities, simply because of their origin. And we must assume that these differences are entirely beneficial, while refraining from seriously discussing them. In other words, multiculturalism and other corporatist ideologies discourages us from viewing our fellow citizens as unique individuals, but rather as members of groups. This political outlook fails to see that the greatest diversity does not exist between groups, but rather within them. Thus, the very notion that there are clear "Hispanic Interests" or "Jewish Interests" that the state must further, negates the intellectual diversity and individuality that exists within all ethnic groups. This makes the honest, uncomfortable debates that are essential to democracies, all but impossible. In its place "Holderian Monologues" have become the norm, one way conversations, in which self appointed representatives of diverse groups, air their grievances, while European-Americans are expected to demonstrate contrition or remain silent. Offering rebuttals or presenting their own grievances is strictly verboten. The result is that the majority of the population has withdraws from real dialogue, leaving a fringe of toxic racists to respond. No wonder Harvard Sociologist Robert Putnam found that "people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to 'hunker down' -- that is, to pull in like a turtle." 

Now, more than ever, as our nation becomes increasingly diverse, we must affirm our common values and shared responsibilities. A nation divided between universal and tribal values cannot remain peaceful for long; inevitably more individuals and groups will succumb to banal ethnocentrism. And when a growing number of our fellow citizens are held to lower standards, simply because of their origin, democracy cannot remain sound for long. True equality means that all individuals must not only enjoy full civil rights, but also must be held to equal standards of civil responsibilities. Hence our only real options are to either accept that European-Americans will openly pursue their narrow tribal interests, as all other groups are encouraged to do, or to affirm that All Americans must adhere to equally high, universal standards of ethical, political and civil conduct, in their pursuit of the common good. I for one wish for the latter.