Political ‘Tribalism’ in America and the Conversion Experience

Reader, I have a confession to make. In the year of (not my) Lord 2004, I apostasized from the faith of my fathers and, for the first and only time in my life, voted for the Republican presidential candidate. Incredible as it is to remember in 2021, that was the incumbent George W. Bush, reviled now as a RINO who has dared stick his ivory horn up in challenge to the Great Dictator.

This personal story would not be of much general interest, had the U.S. not reached a point of political division so dangerous there is now widespread talk of a second civil war. Even if the once-and-future dictator drops dead before ’24 and the Republican Party somehow morphs from a near-totalitarian entity back into roughly what it was, say, fifteen years ago, we will still be in trouble as a nation (not that the second hypothetical is very likely, anyhow). The question is why the divisions have grown so deep, not just among those actively engaged in politics, but among many ordinary folks as well. Here is where my own experience in 2004 may offer some illumination.

The change in my attitude was swift—when Bush fils was inaugurated in January 2001 I was planning to attend a protest in Washington, D.C.—and my reasons were eccentric, since by 2004 I still opposed almost everything he had done, except for invading Iraq. Saddam Hussein wasn’t just “a bad guy,” remember; he was one of the elite cohort of post-1945 dictators who were also genocidaires. He had killed three hundred thousand or more people in an attempt to wipe the Kurds off the face of the earth, using poison gas bombs against whole towns in the so-called Anfal campaign in 1988. It is my strange and bizarre opinion, equally unpopular with the United-States-Out-of-Everywhere “Left” and the who-gives-a-shit-about-anybody “Right,” that no genocidal dictator should ever be left in power to try to commit this crime again, and so I forsook my ancestral faith and checked the wrong box on my ballot.

My brother told me more than half seriously that he would have been less shocked had I converted from our Jewish faith to Christianity. Ours is a family of dyed-in-the-wool, old-school liberal Democrats. As Philip Roth put it, our grandparents blessed FDR along with the Shabbat candles, and in 1948 my 15-year-old father went door to door canvassing with his father for Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace, a former Republican who had been Secretary of Agriculture and then vice president under FDR (they made Republicans differently back then, needless to say). Wallace was courageously giving civil rights speeches in the South, which was why my family was supporting him. His new party had also been thoroughly infiltrated by Soviet-backed Communists, a fact that my father and grandfather, like Wallace himself, didn’t want to believe. My mother’s family was perhaps a bit less gullible, but they were also down-the-line Democrats. I was raised to revere the heroes of the civil rights movement, and my dad used to keep a framed portrait of Hubert Humphrey, a staunch civil rights supporter who ended up as vice president to Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic nominee against Nixon in 1968, in a treasured place in his bedroom, along with his doctoral thesis on the history of the New Deal in Massachusetts. My own passions were environmentalist, anti-nuclear weapons, and pro-Israeli peace movement. The very idea of my voting for the smirking frat boy W. Bush was borderline surreal. Yet I did it.

In truth, I had been flirting with the idea of “neoconservatism” since early 2003. The war against Saddam was my gateway drug to this movement, whose intellectual godfather, the late Irving Kristol, described it as a haven for liberals who had been mugged by reality. I had suffered two such “muggings,” with the collapse of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 2000, when Arafat launched a war of extermination against the Jewish state, and the 9/11 attacks a year later.

See, the problem was that Oslo had been premised on the idea of rational give-and-take. The Israelis had something the Palestinians wanted—land in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem—while peace with the Palestinians would give the Israelis something they craved, an end to the perpetual state of war the country existed in, and worldwide recognition. So we can do business, yes? When it came to the crunch, no, because Arafat, and pretty much all of the Palestinian national movement, did not want to stop at the 1949 ceasefire lines around the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip; they wanted the “right of return” to all of historic Palestine/the land of Israel, and they wanted the Jews, every last one of them, exiled or dead. That is why I call the “Second Intifada” of the early 2000s a war of extermination. The targets of the Palestinian suicide bombers of those years were Israeli civilians living ordinary lives, in nightclubs, pizzerias, even a family Passover Seder in a hotel. Can anyone doubt they would have eagerly used Saddam’s poison gas bombs, or the nuclear weapons that the fanatical Iranian regime is still striving to get so they too can have a go at exterminating all the Jews in the Jewish state?

The rationalistic, human rights-based liberalism I had grown up with flinched from confronting the implications of this kind of implacable hatred, and its close kindred among the mostly Saudi 9/11 hijackers. What would later be called progressivism dodges the issue altogether, by designating all Palestinians and all Muslims as underdog victims of “White imperialism” whom it is the duty of all right thinkers to support on every issue and without question. It was tempting indeed for me to look to neoconservatism, which had no hesitation in identifying the enemy, and was, besides, a movement full of formerly “left/liberal” Jews such as myself.

The trouble was, as I swiftly came to realize even before the horror of Bush’s Hurricane Katrina disaster made plain to me what a folly my vote had been, that you had to accept the whole package to become a neoconservative. You can see this in the writings of the historian Ron Radosh, a Jewish “red diaper baby” who wrote a book proving beyond doubt that the Rosenbergs were spies who helped Stalin get the Bomb and not innocent victims of McCarthyism, which is still an article of faith among some on the Left today. So yes, the Left he grew up with was dishonest and wrong about the Rosenbergs, but did that mean they were also wrong about the labor movement and civil rights and the Vietnam War and every other issue? For Radosh and many others like him, it is essential to follow the party line. You can switch parties and be hailed for your intellectual courage, but then you must toe your new party’s line precisely, or be cast into the outer darkness a second time. (Though Radosh is also honest and courageous enough to have revealed in 2016 what he found out firsthand about how dangerous Steve Bannon is.)

Apparently due to my peculiar temperament, I can’t follow this very human tendency. Truth and ethics are more important to me than belonging to some warm circle of fellowship. Global warming didn’t stop being a threat just because some left-wing nitwits proclaimed that 9/11 was a case of “chickens coming home to roost,” meaning that “America” got what it deserved and the thousands of blameless victims deserved to be burned up in jet fuel. Homeless people still need help and it is still just shameless cruelty to tell them to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, even if the cold hearts on the right who celebrate this philosophy also celebrate Israel. Poor old representative democracy is still the only reasonably fair system of government yet devised, and the only one with a hope of providing human liberty, even if some think you can’t trust “the people” and it’s best to use force to impose your own views. The American tribes will just have to get by without me.

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