Monday, April 16, 2018

The Center is a Super Tribe...but Doesn't Know it Yet!

As a musician and writer, overeducated and based in New York City, I always assumed I was a liberal, in exactly the same way I'm Jewish: i.e. tepidly. I never particularly identified with - much less celebrated - either affiliation, but they felt inevitable. My discomfort with liberal positions felt hazy and semi-conscious. I was appalled by bible-thumping, Ayn Rand-humping, trickling down conservatism, and that aversion kept me loosely in-tribe for years. My political affiliation ran on sheer inertia.

Only later in life did I realize that I had never been a liberal. Who knew one could despise Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh without embracing Hillary Clinton and Michael Moore! The Center's a precarious perch, but I'm much happier having found it. And there's never been a better time for it.
(Here, FYI, is my political platform, from 2016.)
There's nothing particularly fresh about my story. Tens - perhaps hundreds - of millions of Americans, on both sides, probably feel similarly ambivalent, even if they remain as fuzzy-headed about it as I once was. But here's the interesting part:

For years, I'd hear peers say extremely left-wing things (Bernie-ish ravings about the federal gov's role as all-purpose paternal provider; rigid and sanctimonious adherence to the ever-expanding taboo list of beyond-the-pale speech and thought; outrage culture, identity politics, neo-Dworkinism and victimhood vanity; harshly condescending attitudes toward non-urban cultures and traditional values; anti-science positions on nutrition, vaccines, GMOs, nukes, and fracking; Soviet-style intolerance toward free-thinking nonconformity per the Tolerance Paradox, etc.), and I'd conclude that I simply disliked those people.

"No, Jim," some wiser voice should have uttered, "those are liberals, part of a political tribe you happen not to belong to." These people hadn't just, like, thought all that stuff up. They're mostly just conforming. Recognizing this, I see that they're not obnoxious people. They're nice folks caught up (as virtually all of us are) in viral, tribal mindsets, drafting off the tropes of their peers and their favored media outlets because they're way too busy with actual life stuff to persistently question trendy intra-bubble thinking. They have insight and intelligence to offer despite their unexamined ideology.

Their talking points, in other words, don't necessarily reflect their core personhood. It's the equivalent of lighting Sabbath candles simply because "that's how our people do." They're herding, and it's nothing deep.

I had always clearly understood this about rank-and-file conservatives. But clear vision is tougher when viewing your own side...and toughest of all when extricating yourself from a side you were never really on to begin with. Since this was the pervasive tone where I grew up, I hadn't realized it was ideology. I'd figured it was just what people are like.

But from a slightly higher perspective - my comfortable centrist perch, from which the vapidity of both sides is clearly evident - I'm surprised to find myself bifurcating everyone less, not more! The vast majority appear to have recognizably soft and malleable edges, in spite of the credos they parrot. None of that stuff is as entrenched as it appears (which explains, for example, how most Republicans managed to blithely flip their values 180ยบ over the past two years). From the center, practically everyone - aside from hot-headed zealots - seems strikingly sympathetic to my position. I can converse with liberals and conservatives without triggering either into their dumb talking points. Despite my sharp distaste for virtually all noisy political positions (aside from civic-mindedness, empathy, and the rule of law), I have, oddly, never felt more politically kindred to nearly everyone.

The center is a super-tribe that just doesn't know it yet.

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