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Op-Ed

Tribalism, Pluralism and Geronimo

As workmen were attaching the plaque with Emma Lazarus’s poem to the pedestal of the new Statue of Liberty – the one that reads, in part, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” – Americans were celebrating the end of the Indian wars. The lone holdouts, lead by the Chiricahua Apache Chief Geronimo with his threatening band of 16 warriors, 14 women and six children, had just been captured by General Nelson A. Miles and 5,000 of his troops. This, notwithstanding the obvious irony that the Apaches were also tired and poor, and no doubt “yearning to breathe free.”

Millions of immigrants have passed by Lady Liberty, most with the hope of achieving the American dream. But history has shown that they would rather have the dream without the “American” part. This is evidenced by the fact that neighborhoods with specific cultural identities populate most major cities – the African Americans, the Jews, the Italians, the Greeks, the Muslims, the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans, not to mention the large enclaves of Hispanics, and many others. Although there has been some integration between and among these groups, mostly in the workplace, in sports, and in schools, America’s “melting pot” looks more like a salad bowl, with each ingredient retaining its own unique identity.

To this point, Harvard’s Robert D. Putnam, back in the dark ages of 2000, published his comprehensive study, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” This was a massive study based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people in 41 communities across America. In his August 5, 2007, review in the “Boston Globe,” titled “The Downside of Diversity,” Michael Jonas commented that Putnam’s study, “. . . has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study . . . found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.”

But clearly, here in 2011, it’s obvious that Professor Putnam’s study didn’t go far enough. We are witness to a growing animus and the lack of civility in our political parties, between labor and management, among the have’s and the have-not’s, the capitalists and the socialists, the liberals and conservatives, the religionists and secularists, even the Dodgers’ fans and the Giants’ fans.

Dr. Putnam’s findings have been borne out In numerous international studies comparing different measures of social health by country, where the United States rarely makes into the top ten, and, too often, not even in the top twenty. For example, in the 2005 World Values Survey, the U.S. came in 13th in “Net Happiness,” and 114th out of 143 countries in the 2005, Happy Planet Index. In the Economic Freedom of the World, 2010 Annual Report, we went from 1st in 1980, to 22nd in 2008, under the “Legal Structure & Security of Property Rights” rankings of 141 countries and territories.

The chief restraint to our success as a society, I think, is the ages-old institution of tribalism. Therein lies our identity, our history, our values, our worldview. The tribe is an extended family, protective of its own, suspicious of outsiders. And tribal loyalty, as professor Putnam found out, gives rise to the mistrust of others, sometimes intolerance, and even war. Too many tribes sharing the commons, it seems, tends to slow the advance of civilization, as the tribal council we call the United Nations can attest.

Emma Lazarus wanted to give a warm welcome to those in flight from their respective dystopias. She forgot the importance of homogeneity and, thereby, the unintended consequences of mixing cultures and exacerbating tribalism.

Geronimo would understand. And he wasn’t even an immigrant.

Published in the Joplin Globe on May 4, 2011

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