Tribalism & Reflections on Race (and Identity)

24Oct14

An Excerpt From Culture Worrier by Journalist Clarence Page 

INTRODUCTION   –   WHAT? ME WORRY?

Culture Worrier: Reflections on Race, Politics and Social Change by Clarence Page, Foreword by Chris MatthewsCulture Worrier: Reflections on Race, Politics and Social Change by Clarence Page, Foreword by Chris Matthews

When the pioneer media guru Marshall McLuhan visited my university during my student days, he said something that has stuck with me. A student asked what he thought of the “black power” movement that was simmering at the time. “White America is detribalizing,” he observed in his characteristically prophetic fashion, “and black America is re-tribalizing.”

He said more, but the elegant imagery and symmetry of that statement has stayed on my mind ever since. McLuhan used the term “tribe” a lot. He spoke and wrote about “tribal man” versus “technological man,” for whom modern media are extensions of the self. In these and in other ways, he was far more often quoted than understood. But what he was saying made clear sense to me. It was the civil rights era. White America was relaxing its historic customs, institutions and traditions of white privilege. Black America, particularly my young generation—presenting cool but feeling very cautious—was turning inward, rejecting the melting-pot assimilationist values of our elders and reaching back to discover our roots in a place to which we never had been, a romanticized Eden called “Africa”—or in some super-righteous circles, “Afrika.”

Fast forward. Were McLuhan around today in the new media age of Twitter, Facebook, Google, Instagram and the cloud—and once he got through with his I-told-you-so’s—I believe he would observe something quite the opposite of what he said about racial tribes in the 1960s. He might well observe that African-Americans in the age of Barack Obama have been detribalizing while white Americans in the age of tea party politics are re-tribalizing.

Or maybe he, like the world, would be more complicated than that. In McLuhanesque terms, I have seen all Americans re-tribalize—as in, rearrange ourselves less strictly along lines of race or ethnicity than along lines of shared culture, values, interests and attitudes. Today’s tribes are less distinctly racial and ethnic than cultural and political. Such is the new neotribalism that has defined my career as a reporter and my past three decades as a columnist, from which the works in this book were selected. I’ve written a lot about race and ethnicity, but race only has been the most obvious marker of far more significant cultural and tribal relations in our society. Ambrose Bierce got the point with his dour Industrial Age definition of “the Conservative” as “a statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.”

———- [ snip ] ———-

McLuhan, who died in 1980 at age 69, had an idea of what was ahead. “The tribalizing power of the new electronic media, the way in which they return us to the unified fields of the old oral cultures, to tribal cohesion and pre-individualist patterns of thought, is little understood,” he wrote. “Tribalism is the sense of the deep bond of family, the closed society as the norm of community.” Had he stuck around long enough to have seen increasingly vast and diverse new political media and vast audiences tuning in not only to their own favorite opinion but also their own favorite version of facts, I suspect he once again would have said, “I told you so.”

Reprinted with permission from Culture Worrier by Clarence Page, Agate Bolden, September 2014. (Read the rest of this ecerpt at: http://tinyurl.com/nesrpar)

*****

Along with tribalism and race, the author of this book should have included  identity and its loss, which was of even greater concern for Marshall McLuhan, who he cites throughout this excerpt. Identity and loss of identity are at the root of much of the violence and discord that we see in the world today. A McLuhan quote:-

 “The violence that all electric media inflict in their users is that they are instantly invaded and deprived of their physical bodies and are merged in a network of extensions of their own nervous systems. As if this were not sufficient violence or invasion of individual rights, the elimination of the physical bodies of the electric media users also deprives them of the means of relating the program experience of their private, individual selves, even as instant involvement suppresses private identity. The loss of individual and personal meaning via the electronic media ensures a corresponding and reciprocal violence from those so deprived of their identities; for violence, whether spiritual or physical, is a quest for identity and the meaningful. The less identity, the more violence.” – “Violence of the Media”, Canadian Forum, 1976

See McLuhan speak about identity on this video excerpt from Marshall McLuhan Speakshttp://tinyurl.com/qewuyg3 

Any loss of identity prompts people to seek reassurance and rediscovery of themselves by testing, and even by violence. Today, the electric revolution, the wired planet, and the information environment involve everybody in everybody to the point of individual extinction.  - Marshall McLuhan

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