Humans, like other primates, are tribal animals. We need to belong to groups, which is why we love clubs and teams. Once people connect with a group, their identities can become powerfully bound to it. They will seek to benefit members of their group even when they gain nothing personally. They will penalize outsiders, seemingly gratuitously. They will sacrifice, and even kill and die, for their group.This may seem like common sense. And yet the power of tribalism rarely factors into high-level discussions of politics and international affairs, especially in the United States. This blindness to the power of tribalism affects not only how Americans see the rest of the world but also how they understand their own society. It’s easy for people in developed countries, especially cosmopolitan elites, to imagine that they live in a post-tribal world. The very term “tribe” seems to denote something primitive and backward, far removed from the sophistication of the West, where people have supposedly shed atavistic impulses in favor of capitalistic individualism and democratic citizenship.
In recent years, the United States has begun to display destructive political dynamics: the rise of ethnonationalist movements, eroding trust in institutions and electoral outcomes, a popular backlash against both “the establishment” and outsider minorities, and, above all, the transformation of democracy into an engine of zero-sum political tribalism. These developments are due in part to a massive demographic transformation. For the first time in U.S. history, Whites are on the verge of losing their status as the country’s majority. To varying degrees, minorities in the United States have long felt vulnerable and under threat; today, Whites also feel that way. A 2011 study showed that more than half of white Americans believe that “whites have replaced blacks as the ‘primary victims of discrimination.’” When groups feel threatened, they retreat into tribalism. They close ranks and become more insular, more defensive, more focused on us versus them.
What happened in the 2016 U.S. presidential election is exactly what I would have predicted would happen in a developing country holding elections in the presence of a deeply resented minority: the rise of a populist movement in which demagogic voices called on “real” Americans to, in Donald Trump’s words, “take our country back.” The answer lies in tribalism. For some, Trump’s appeal is racial: as a candidate and as president, Trump has made many statements that either explicitly or in a coded fashion appeal to some white voters’ racial biases. But that’s not the whole picture. In terms of taste, sensibilities, and values, Trump is actually similar to some members of the white working class. The tribal instinct is all about identification, and many voters in Trump’s base identify with him at a gut level. They identify with the way he talks and the way he dresses. They identify with the way he shoots from the hip—even (perhaps especially) when he gets caught making mistakes, exaggerating, or lying. And they identify with the way he comes under attack by liberal commentators—coastal elites, for the most part—for not being politically correct, for not being feminist enough, for not reading enough books, and for gorging on fast food.
For the Western world’s liberal political and cultural elite, the idea of a “Christian West” is forcefully rejected, but even more banal terms like “Western Civilization” and “Judeo-Christian,” once intended to offer a more ecumenical narrative of Euro-American history, are now seen as dangerous, exclusivist, chauvinist, alt-right, dog-whistles for white nationalists. You could see those impulses at work in the discussion following the great fire at Notre-Dame. On the one hand there was a strident liberal reaction against readings of the tragedy that seemed too friendly to either medieval Catholicism or some religiously infused conception of the West. At the same time there was also a palpable desire to claim the still-smoking Notre-Dame for some abstract idea of liberal modernity, a swift enlistment of various architects and chin-strokers to imagine how the cathedral (owned by the French government, thanks to an earlier liberal effort to claim authority over Christian faith) might be reconstructed to be somehow more secular and cosmopolitan, more of a cathedral for our multicultural times. This seems strange, since as Ben Sixsmith noted, “it would never cross anyone’s mind to suggest that Mecca or the Golden Temple should lose their distinctively Islamic and Sikh characters to accommodate people of different faiths.” But an ancient, famous Catholic cathedral is instinctively understood as somehow the common property of an officially post-Catholic order, especially when the opportunity suddenly arises to renovate it.
If you aren’t a liberal Christian, if you believe in a literal resurrection and a fully-Catholic Notre-Dame de Paris, this combination of attitudes encourages a certain paranoia, a sense that the liberal overclass is constantly gaslighting your religion. That elite will never take your side in any controversy, it will efface your beliefs and traditions in many cases and be ostentatiously ignorant of them in others … but when challenged, its apostles still always claim to be Christians themselves or at least friends and heirs of Christianity, and what’s with your persecution complex, don’t you know that (white) American Christians are wildly privileged? This last dig is true in certain ways and false in others. The marginalization of traditional faith in much of Western Europe is obvious and palpable, and the trend in the United States is in a similar direction; and residual political influence is very different from the sort of enduring cultural-economic power that a term like “privilege” invokes. But if the equation of traditional Christianity with privilege has some relevance to the actual Euro-American situation, when applied globally it’s a gross category error. And so the main victims of Western liberalism’s peculiar relationship to its Christian heritage aren’t put-upon traditionalists in the West; they’re Christians like the murdered first communicants in Sri Lanka, or the jailed pastors in China, or the Coptic martyrs of North Africa, or any of the millions of non-Western Christians who live under constant threat of persecution. One of the basic facts of contemporary religious history is that Christians around the world are persecuted on an extraordinary scale — by mobs and pogroms in India, jihadists and United States-allied governments in the Muslim world, secular totalitarians in China and North Korea. Yet as an era-defining reality rather than an episodic phenomenon this reality is barely visible in the Western media, and rarely called by name and addressed head-on by Western governments and humanitarian institutions. (“Islamophobia” looms large; talk of “Christophobia” is almost nonexistent.)
At bottom all these failures illustrate the unusual and difficult position of traditional Christianity in Europe and the United States. The old faith of don’t-call-it-Western-civilization is at once too residually influential and politically threatening to escape the passive-aggressive frenmity of liberalism, and yet too weak and compromised and frankly self-sabotaging to fully shape a conservative alternative.
When Ali Wong socializes, it is mostly with the same seven women she befriended at U.C.L.A., where she majored in Asian-American studies. (Joking about her unlikely success given her focus, she has said, “Ethnic studies is a major where you study how to blame everything on white people; it’s not supposed to yield income.”) “We all had kids at the same time. And they have nothing to do with entertainment,” she says proudly. “They’re public defenders, lawyers, event organizers, pharmacists, graphic designers. They could give two shits about what I do. They never ask me about any of it or for anything.” The Saturday after we meet, Wong invited her friends and their kids over to her house—to chill and eat food delivered by a Korean catering company.
For decades, Yale offered a two-semester introductory sequence on the history of Western art. The fall semester spanned the ancient Middle East to the early Renaissance; the spring semester picked up from the High Renaissance through the present. The introductory art history course has been my anchor to the past, providing visual grounding in the development of Western civilization, around which it is possible to develop a broader sense of history. But now, the art history department is junking the entire two-semester sequence. The reasons given are either laughably weak or at odds with the facts. The first reason is the most absurd: the course titles (“Introduction to the History of Art: Prehistory to the Renaissance” and “Introduction to the History of Art: Renaissance to the Present”). Art history chair Tim Barringer, whose specialities include post-colonial and gender studies, apparently thinks students will be fooled by those titles into thinking that other traditions don’t exist. “I don’t mistake a history of European painting for the history of all art in all places,” he primly said. No one else would, either. But if the titles are such a trap for the Eurocentric unwary, the department could have simply added the word “European” before “Art” and been done with it. Marissa Bass, the director of undergraduate studies in the department, echoed Barringer’s accusation of Eurocentrism. The changes recognize “an essential truth: that there has never been just one story of the history of art.”
Barringer promises that the replacement surveys will subject European art to a variety of deconstructive readings designed to pull that tradition down from its alleged pedestal. The new classes will consider Western art in relation to “questions of gender, class, and ‘race,’” he told the Daily News in an email, carefully putting scare quotes around “race” to signal his adherence to the creed that race is a social construct. The new courses will discuss the involvement of Western art with capitalism. Most intriguingly, the relationship between Western art and climate change will be a “key theme,” he wrote. Barringer’s proposed deconstruction of Western art illustrates a central feature of modern academia: The hermeneutics of suspicion applies only to the Western canon. Western academics continue to interpret non-Western traditions with sympathy and respect; those interpreters seek to faithfully convey the intentions of non-Western creators and to help students understand what makes non-Western works great. So, while the replacement European art survey courses will, in Marissa Bass’s words, “challenge, rethink, and rewrite” art historical narratives, the department will not be cancelling its Buddhist art and architecture class due to the low representation of female artists and architects, nor will it “interrogate” (as High Theory puts it) African arts and cultures for their relationship to genocidal tribal warfare, or Aztec art and architecture for their relationship to murderous misogyny.
Yale has cancelled other landmark courses on identity grounds. For decades, English majors were required to take a yearlong course called “Major English Poets.” But that course was defenestrated from its gateway status for English majors in 2017, following a student petition griping preposterously that a “year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity. The Major English Poets sequences creates a culture that is especially hostile to students of color.” Rather than push back against this ignorant nonsense, members of Yale’s English faculty validated its premise. Professor Jill Richards announced that it was “unacceptable that the two semester requirement for all majors routinely covers the work of eight white, male poets.” Jill Richards, who specializes in global modernism, gender and sexuality, citizenship, human rights, critical legal theory, revolution, social movements, cinema, avant-gardes, and young adult literature, is another example of the trahison des clercs: terrifyingly, despite her contempt for “white, male poets,” she teaches the now-optional “Major English Poets.”
Yale’s lust for curricular cancellations has picked up steam since Major English Poets lost its required spot in the English major. The art history department appears to be eliminating the Western art introductory courses on its own initiative, without the pretext of a student petition or other agitation. The only possible grounds for doing so is a political hatred for the Western tradition, since the axed courses were voluntary and surrounded by numerous non-Western alternatives. Barringer did not reveal whether African, Asian, and South American art will now be “problematized” along with Western art. The one-sided subjection of Western civilization to the petty tyranny of identity politics will only worsen. Yale is one of four universities to have received a $4 million grant to infuse the theme of race into every aspect of humanities teaching and scholarship. Brown, the University of Chicago, and Stanford are the other recipients of that Andrew W. Mellon Foundation bequest. (The Mellon Foundation, once a supporter of apolitical humanities scholarship, has been captured by the identitarian Left.) Race, Yale announced in its press release about the Mellon grant, is critically important and indisputably central to the humanities.