Tribalism and connections in modern America

Tribalism and connections in modern America

Don McLean, the artist behind the much-beloved “American Pie” (the song, not the movie) was not a one-hit wonder. Among his other great works is the song “Homeless Brother.” Written in 1974, the chorus consists of the heartfelt line, “That homeless brother is my friend.” As with much of McLean’s work, there is a deeper message in his lyrics. One verse in particular from “Homeless Brother” stands out and I’ll quote it in full:

“Down the bowels of a broken land, where numbers live like men / Where those who keep their senses have them taken back again / Where the night stick cracks with crazy rage, where madmen don’t pretend / Where wealth has no beginning and poverty no end.”

Though written 40 years ago, one could easily apply each line of this verse to the present day. Police violence, wealth inequality, the reemergence of discrimination and demagoguery into the public eye are all real, pressing issues.

I think that the most interesting line of the verse is the first, where McLean describes a land “where numbers live like men.” At the time it was written, this line may well have been a complaint about the excesses of corporate greed and a focus on profits above all else. Such concerns still ring true today, but I think that a more positive interpretation is possible.

The elevation of numbers, of statistics, of quantization and of data generally seems a good thing to me. Often numbers are more reliable than the intuitions of people. When crafting public policy, it is often necessary to consider net benefits and to ignore the damage that certain policies may inflict upon particular communities in favor of the larger benefits for the country.

When purely rational and logical thinking creates human distance, problems arise, resulting in a lack of empathy and sympathy for those people who are left behind by policies and progress. This is why so many decry the Washington D.C. “beltway,” where policymakers become isolated from their constituents.

In electoral politics, it makes no sense for Hillary Clinton to campaign in Idaho or for Donald Trump to campaign in California. Neither is of any real numerical value to those candidates in terms of reaching the number of electoral votes necessary to win the presidency. Each candidate knows just how far outside of their own echo chamber, their own base they need to go to convince the necessary number of swing voters in swing states to vote in support of them.

It seems to me that this, along with the broader segregation of the nation along lines of wealth, race and urban-versus-rural, is what’s responsible for the anger and resentment that has boiled over during the course of this election. Humans are tribal, and tribes of any kind become echo chambers.

The website Politico recently published a story titled “Debate Night With the Unswayables.” The author had gone to a small town in North Carolina to watch the third presidential debate and in the story she recounted what the town’s citizens had said and what they believed. Frankly, these people believed nonsense like the idea that CIA director, John Brennan, had secretly converted to Islam. One woman, whose parents had rescued Jews in Nazi Germany, genuinely believed that Hillary Clinton’s election would result in the murder of the Jews.  

What are we informed, thinking students, privileged by our circumstances to not live in rural North Carolina, to think of the many millions of Americans who believe such verifiable nonsense? My first instinct is to dispassionately assess them as remnants of an America that no longer exists and that won’t exist in the future, to ignore them like all the homeless “” brothers and sisters alike “” that come up to a car begging for change, and to trust in the numbers that suggest these people and their communities will in fact die out as global innovation and progress continues.

But such an attitude is lazy and insensitive to real human suffering. It is a manifestation of the sneering intolerance that has become a hallmark of liberals and American progressivism. This arrogance is itself a product of the liberal echo chamber.

This is not to say that the people described in that article are right or that the lunacy they believe should be anything but challenged. However, the key to changing their minds and to including them in the expanding global tent, along with refugees and immigrants, is not to call them lunatics, but rather to approach them on their own terms with empathy and sympathy at hand.

The problems Don McLean described 40 years ago still exist today, in many cases because we have taken comfort in the numbers of people in our own echo chambers instead of reaching out to those modern homeless brothers who have been left behind by progress.