Charlottesville exemplifies America's regressive tribal politics

Charlottesville exemplifies America's regressive tribal politics

As a Miami Dolphins fan, the 2014 saga featuring Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin remains seared in my memory. Beginning in 2012 Incognito, an all-star offensive guard with a well-known mean streak zeroed in on Martin, the newly drafted, wide-eyed offensive tackle fresh out of Stanford University.  Incognito targeted Martin because, as most bullies tend to do, he perceived him as soft. He was a typical, effete, la-di-da scholar with a degree from a top-tier American university trying to make it in what Incognito believed to his core should be a hard-nosed group of fighters with chips on their shoulders and a point to prove. Martin had nothing to prove. He was a high draft pick, possessed a stellar intelligence, had risen to prominence largely due to protecting the blind side of legendary Stanford star Andrew Luck, and clearly treated football as an occupation, not the all-consuming do-or-die lifestyle Incognito did. The reports of the language used by Incognito sent shockwaves through the sports world. He had committed psychological abuse, hurling racial epithets and attacking Martin incessantly on a deep and personal level. Journalists condemned him, players read the transcripts with horror, and fans around the league were aghast at this behavior. Still, Incognito found droves of support from his teammates, coaches, and fans. Why? He was a better player. 

Incognito gave the Dolphins the best chance to win. Martin was a liability, whereas Incognito was arguably the most reliable member of the line. Fans (myself included) were willing to sacrifice Jonathan Martin to the god of the win column without a second thought. Why were we so callous and unfeeling? Why could we not see the very real human implications of supporting such a vicious bully over a clear victim? Because sports are mainstreamed, admitted, and enthusiastic tribalism. We knowingly lose all sense of morality in the interest of seeing our team win an ultimately meaningless accolade. Sports are, at heart, barbaric and utterly trivial. We do not root for entertaining games, we do not root for the safety of all involved, we do not root for the honor of the sport to be upheld and exemplified; we root for our tribe to win. Politics, it seems, has become nothing more than sport—barbaric, tribal, and ultimately trivial.

Politics is a necessary evil. In a republic, we elect officials we believe will represent our interests to the greatest degree possible. In order for these officials to appeal to the electorate, they must engage in persuasive politics, convincing the majority that their interests will be best represented by electing one official over another. In order to better expedite the process, we have political parties. They pool funding and decide on overarching platforms, allowing potential representatives to identify with a visible and known entity that closely aligns with their own views. These parties are not meant to be cults—in fact, until very recently there was great fluidity as platforms were tweaked ever so slightly to appeal to changing sentiment and demographics. 

Florida’s two-term governor Charlie Crist made his journey from Republican to Independent to Democrat in the span of five minutes. Strom Thurmond, Ronald Reagan, Hillary Clinton, and Elizabeth Warren all famously switched their party affiliations for a diverse litany of reasons. Today, however, doing so seems almost unthinkable. The polarization, however, is no longer along party lines but Trumpist ones. You either clamor incessantly for President Trump’s impeachment, or you defiantly hail the President as deserving of an entirely new Mt. Rushmore, dedicated wholly to immortalizing his brilliance. You choose your side, you pick your team, and you dig in your heels. And in doing so, you make politics excruciatingly stupid. 

Once you have decided on your team, absolute loyalty is expected. There is no room for dissention. There is no tolerance for individualism. Groupthink is the name of the game, and your lack of submission to it merits punishment and shame. Never has the tribal nature of current politics been more on display than following the catastrophic events of Saturday, August 12, in Charlottesville, Virginia. The previous night, like something out of a film depicting a dystopian response to nuclear fallout, the few hundred somber “blood and soil” neo-Nazis held up tiki torches in a bizarre and horrifying vigil to the memory of Robert E Lee following the announcement that his statue in the small Virginia college town would be removed. They chanted hateful slogans, sporting the Swastika-clad flags of the Third Reich and showing off their skinhead-vogue Hitler salutes. The display and the participants of the so-called “Unite the Right” protest were utterly contemptible. Still, it went on peacefully long into the night. Then the media arrived and, as if on cue, all hell broke loose. 

The excessive, unreasonable coverage of fringe movements on the right is not a new phenomenon. Richard Spencer and David Duke, noted leaders of the white nationalist wing of the “alt-right” are almost entirely creations of a media that salivates at the opportunity to provide them with a platform. We on the right disavow, condemn, and ignore them, yet they continue to find willing vehicles for their repulsive ideology in the newsrooms of the ratings-starved news networks. Naturally, their involvement in the relatively poorly attended neo-Nazi vigil led to a stampede of news outlets to Charlottesville, desperate to decry what was deemed an imminent Nazi takeover of the town. The next morning, as the white nationalist group reassembled, they were met with not with the peaceful mockery they had experienced the previous night, but with counter-protesters wielding homemade flamethrowers and throwing punches. Violence erupted, culminating in the horrifying death of Heather Heyer, a counter-protester, and two Virginia State Police Officers. The response, in keeping with current political reality, exemplified team-oriented tribalism in the face of an obviously complex situation with multiple degrees and angles of fault. 

The correct, uncontroversial opinion after the horrific events was to blame the white supremacists exclusively. Had they not been marching and spewing their vile ideology, there would have been no need for the counter-protests to assemble and violently attempt to suppress it. This sentiment, while possessing some truth, forces total suspension of common sense. As children, we learn that the only excuse for violence is self-defense. The counter-protesters were not simply acting in self-defense. Why, then, are we no longer allowed to treat those behaving as violent children in that manner? Why must we indulge and endorse one half of the violent scrum that resulted in death and destruction? Because the tribe elders have so decreed. 

The debate surrounding the fault of those involved in the Charlottesville debacle is not, as many might have you believe, a fight for the future of civilization. It is not Nazis v. Reds Part II, in which we must side with one to defeat the other, in the hopes of saving the republic. It is the inevitable result of tribal politics, seeking desperately to absolve their own tribe of any responsibility. The truth is excruciatingly, frustratingly obvious: two sides of horrible people are at fault for the violence that engulfed Charlottesville this past weekend. We must unequivocally condemn both sides, loudly and by name. We must not excuse the behavior of Richie Incognito to remain in the win column. We cannot excuse the behavior of violent radicals for a cheap score in the larger, ever-trivialized debate over politics and policy.

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