Fathers, the fatherland, and tribes – AEI – American Enterprise Institute: Freedom, Opportunity, Enterprise2nd May 2019
“Tribalism” has become a bad word in recent years, and that’s a shame.
In elite circles, “tribalism” is the opposite of an urbane, cosmopolitanism outlook. Brexit was cursed as “a reversion to tribalism.” Trump supporters were cursed as “provincial.”
But flag-waving Trump supporters can also be found cursing American tribalism. “Fox & Friends” hosts, for instance, joined together one recent morning to lament “hyphenated Americans” who “focus on background.” Having an ethnic identity, like Norwegian, Irish, or African American is what “we have been trying to move past for a long time.”
“My grandmother, I believe, spoke Norwegian,” Fox News host Pete Hegseth said. “I don’t know a word of Norwegian. That’s what I hope every group who comes here does.” His conservative co-hosts agreed.
This “leveling” ideology is not new. Alexis de Tocqueville saw the seeds of it two centuries ago. And he saw its danger and its error.
Among those who would dissolve differences, the elites’ error is more common and obvious: They act as if their elite tribe is somehow not a tribe. As laughable as this conceit is, it’s also horribly cruel. What they value so much in their own lives, belonging to a little platoon that provides a sense of identity and purpose, they want to deny to everyone else.
The other species of anti-tribalism, a sort of conservative melting pot demand for conformity, is often just a thoughtless reaction against the Left’s multiculturalism and oft-pernicious identity politics. As conservatism has increasingly defined itself as hating what progressives stand for, the conservative position on race and ethnicity has been to demand a “color blindness” and a denunciation of identity politics that eyes with suspicion any identity other than “American.”
But modern American conservatism was founded on something quite different. Russell Kirk, to explain himself, would tell stories of his grandfather. To better understand himself, Kirk visited Scotland. He cursed those managerial elites “who have come to look upon society … as a homogeneous mass of identical individuals whose happiness may be obtained by direction from above.”
Tocqueville and Kirk all saw that a nation’s strength lay in our hodgepodge of “little platoons.” We are a nation of people with multiple overlapping identities. We have our American-ness as one identity, but that is tied up with a diversity that includes our particular geographic identity, our particular vocation, our particular faith, and yes, our particular ethnicity.
This sort of conservatism holds that you cannot understand a person, including yourself, without trying to comprehend the invisible forces, spanning generations, that shaped you.
A corollary to this insight is that we owe it to our children to give them not only a healthy and happy and challenging now, but that if we hope they have a happy and successful tomorrow, we need to also give them a yesterday. In some cultures, this is easy and natural. In some settings, this takes real effort.
Tocqueville, Kirk, and Edmund Burke all wrote on this, and they are now joined by Michael Brendan Dougherty, and his first book, My Father Left Me Ireland.
Dougherty was raised around New York City as an only child of a single mother, with only irregular contact with his father from Ireland.
Spending one’s youth in different suburbs, in two different states, raised without a father is a formula for serious alienation. It’s the same profile as the man who murdered Heather Heyer with his car in Charlottesville, Va., after joining a white nationalist movement. Much of what afflicts the working class in Middle America today is the nakedness of a deracinated life: We have more and more men who lack faith, who lack ethnicity, who lack fathers, and who live in areas that lack a sense of distinctive place.
So, what did Dougherty’s mother do? How did she try to save her son?
She made him Irish.
First, she named him Michael Brendan Dougherty.
Then she dug deep to plant roots that would anchor this little family that otherwise could be tossed by the tempests of modernity. She brought little Michael to Irish culture festivals and Irish pubs. She brought him to “Gaeltacht Weekends” where attendees were supposed to speak no English, but only the old Irish language which, as an act of rebellion, some of the Irish had been trying to resurrect for about a century.
“[M]y own nursery was injected with a peculiar kind of Irish nationalism,” Dougherty writes. “My mother wanted me to know myself as Irish … ”
My Father Left Me Ireland is written in the form of letters to his father, and it spends only a few words on the abstract. Fittingly, it is very grounded in the specific worlds of Ireland, greater New York, parochial school, and modern America. One can divine easily the broader lesson, though, and it has been telling to see early on a warm embrace from Jewish American conservative writers who appreciate the richness of family, faith, ethnicity, and language.
Today’s politicians and commentators talk about a duty to future generations in the abstract, often stripped of a duty to our particular children. A sterile concern for posterity cannot do what a life-giving love can do. And a real love for posterity is inextricably tied to a loving, familiar, embrace of the past, and of a tribe.