A Tale of Two Tribes

By David Swanson

On Friday evening, Charlottesville, Virginia’s liberals were lined up the length of the pedestrian street known as the Downtown Mall waiting to get into an event with President Obama and Congressman Tom Perriello. Meanwhile the rightwingers (or some of them, because the Tea Party had an event elsewhere) were at an Americans for Prosperity event in a nearby park. And we misfits were handing the same flyers to both groups and observing the different reactions.

We were unable to find a single person who was on hand for the purpose of urging elected officials to do better, to move in a preferred direction on any important policy. In fact, attendees of the Democratic rally were forbidden to bring signs and saw no problem with that at all. We discovered that people had shown up in order to be part of a communal deification or demonization of elected officials, not to lobby them. This was not about policy, but about group identity. These two crowds were not voting the lesser of two evils, whichever candidate they deemed that to be. They were backing heroes and condemning evildoers, from both sides in a form of tribal madness.

I handed the same flyer to members of the Tribe of O and of the Tribe of No. The flyers read:

“Jobs NOT Wars

“Tom Votes for War $ — Obama Shows Up

“On July 27, 2010, 115 congress members voted against a $33 billion escalation of the War on Afghanistan. Tom Perriello voted for it.

“On July 1, 2010, 100 congress members voted to fund only withdrawal from Afghanistan. Perriello voted against that amendment.

“On March 10, 2010, 65 congress members voted to end the War on Afghanistan. Perriello voted to keep it going.

“In May 2009, 60 congress members voted against dumping another $97 billion into the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. Perriello voted for it. Then, in June 2009, 202 congress members voted against that same war funding combined with a massive bailout for East European bankers. Perriello voted for both.

“136 congress members have signed a letter promising not to cut Social Security. Perriello has not.

“Tom Perriello: he listens to Obama. Does he listen to us?

“http://WarIsACrime.org.”

Members of the Tribe of No all wore stickers that said “Cut Spending,” so I asked them if they’d like to cut the single biggest piece of spending. Several of them, when they figured out what that was, said that they certainly would not and began denouncing me as a member of the Tribe of O. I confess that it drives me crazy to listen to people yell about cutting spending when they favor both the largest and the most harmful spending program we have: the Pentagon. So, I suggested they take their stickers off, and they suggested I leave.

Of course, I don’t leave places if someone wants me to, so they told me I had to leave because they had a permit for the park. When that didn’t work they threatened to call the police, which I encouraged them to do. But cameras were starting to circle like vultures, and an amicable Republican Party guy quickly stepped in and advised his brethren that I should be allowed to stay because I was “anti-Perriello.” I made sure he understood that I was anti-Hurt, but that crisis had passed.

I had some conversations with people in the Tribe of No who agreed with me, and others who were open to doing so. And it worked as long as we talked about the wars and the financial cost of the military. If we strayed to any other topic, such as schools, or the right to bear automatic weapons, or whatever, they quickly spotted me as a member of the Tribe of O, and collaboration then became risky if not treasonous.

While I was talking to one Nomian, a young man came up and quickly began yelling about the need to fund the military or die, and the need to support our wars. Eventually he showed me his war scars, but what he really wanted to stress repeatedly was that he had been at the World Trade Center on 9-11. I’m not a doctor, but when someone goes from zero to screaming in under 6 seconds, I suspect they may have more to worry about than flawed political arguments.

There was nobody like that in the much larger Tribe of O. The Omians were all against war, as far as I could learn. They read the first line of the flyer and eagerly took it. Then they read part or all of the remaining text, and, in many, possibly most, cases, they gave it back or crumpled it up and threw it on the ground. They sometimes claimed the facts were wrong, but that was just a baseless exclamation. Much more often they were simply angry that the facts were right or considered relevant.

One rational woman said that she understood but “still liked him anyway.” Even in this case, it wasn’t a question of calculating the political gain to be had in voting for a flawed candidate. It was a question of “liking him” or not. This was the tribe of the candidate backed by the NRA, but all the NRA hats were over in the park on the heads of the Nomians. This was liberal territory. War was really bad, unless your guy backed it.

Another common reaction to the flyers in O-Land was “But it’s Bush’s wars!” This is bizarre. Obama campaigned promising to escalate war in Afghanistan. He’s now escalated war in Afghanistan. Bush has been gone for longer than most U.S. wars have lasted from beginning to end. What in the world does Congress or Obama have to do to get ownership of the wars?

Who knows? The important thing was that my friends and I were clearly from the other tribe, and we were consequently denounced as supporting the Republican candidate, Robert Hurt.

In fact, I voted for the third-party guy who has no chance because I’d promised Perriello I would not support him if he kept funding wars. But if you want to vote for the lesser of the two evils, which is clearly Perriello, knock yourself out. And if you want to send me more Emails about how you’ll protest him AFTER the election, hey, I can’t stop you. But I can remind you to uphold that bargain. And I can encourage you to declare your independence from tribal madness as soon as possible.

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