Monday, January 30, 2006

Gathering of the Tribes
It's a common phenomenon in the blogosphere--you sometimes have to wade through a deep pool of sludge to get to the golden nugget of wisdom floating in the middle. A blog (for example, this one) can be filled largely with garbage, but every once in a while contain a bit of good thinking. Or, to take a broader view, you can read a lot of blogs that are little more than narcissistic blather (again, like this one) before you find one that's consistently informative and wise.

That's not supposed to happen in newspapers, however--as newspaper folk are constantly reminding us. Pick up a newspaper and you are guaranteed a quality reading/journalistic experience. Newspapers are superior because they have editors, who check facts and monitor writers to make sure everything in their pages is fit for public consumption. As opposed to bloggers, who just rave on with no accountability to anyone, and if some poor reader gets brain cooties from something they write, they don't care.

So I wonder what happened in the Chicago Tribune yesterday, where veteran columnist Jon Margolis hacked up the single most incoherent column I've seen in a major newspaper in a long time. (The link goes to Smirking Chimp, where you won't have to go through the Trib's obnoxious registration process.) I have no idea how Margolis intended for Ted Nugent's opposition to anti-hunting groups to explain why intelligent design is so popular among Americans. I've read it three times, and I still haven't got a clue. It's so confusing that I'm tempted to think there's text missing.

What makes the column even more frustrating is that Margolis buried a fairly good observation near the end: We Americans are endlessly separating ourselves into like-minded tribes, which helps account for our polarized politics. Polarization, then, has something to do with our diversity.
Americans lack common ethnicity or religion, and while most of us speak the same language, our grandparents didn't. We get to choose our tribal loyalties and hostilities. Some choose one sociopolitical subculture to join, and others to find objectionable. Whatever the objectionable guys support is to be opposed, and vice versa.
Americans are like everyone else, in that we want to belong to something. We used to find it largely sufficient to be an American, we the people, united we stand, all that. But America is growing ever more amorphous and wide-open, and as a result, it's harder to feel as though we can be at home with people who seem so much different than ourselves. It's easier to feel comfortable in a group that has clear rules for what (and who) is included, and excluded. Which might be why America is looking more and more each year like a fractious collection of self-interested groups jockeying for position against one another in a zero-sum game. The idea that "we're all in this together" is mostly for marketing purposes, and has no relationship to reality.

Perhaps this is what Margolis meant to say. Then again, he might have meant to say only that Cat Scratch Fever is a really cool album. Whatever it was, I'm sure his editor knows.

Recommended Reading: There's a better-argued column in the Boston Globe today by James Carroll. He contemplates the likelihood that tomorrow night's State of the Union address will contain many references to the war we're supposedly fighting, but what kind of a war is this, anyhow? "Iraq is not a war, because, though we have savage assault, we have no enemy. The war on terrorism is not a war because, though we have an enemy, the muscle-bound Pentagon offers no authentic means of assault." Even though American soldiers and Iraqis are dying--real deaths, not theoretical ones--the war seems to be taking place some plane of the theoretical, or the metaphorical, or the metaphysical. (Or some other word Bush couldn't define if you gave him a dictionary.)

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