By David K. Shipler
In 1975, Harold R. Isaacs began his book Idols of the Tribe this way:
“We are experiencing on a massively universal scale a convulsive ingathering of people in their numberless grouping of kinds—tribal, racial, linguistic, religious, national. It is a great clustering into separateness that will, it is thought, improve, assure, or extend each group’s power or place, or keep it safe or safer from the power, threat, or hostility of others. This is obviously no new condition, only the latest and by far the most inclusive chapter of the old story in which after failing again to find how they can co-exist in sight of each other without tearing each other limb from limb, Isaac and Ishmael clash and part in panic and retreat once more into their caves.”
Four decades later, supposedly civilized people are retreating once more into their caves to shear off the intricate connections with “them,” to escape from “others” who are “different,” and to celebrate their own group by denigrating those across the boundaries of race, religion, nationality—of tribe. Harold Isaacs, my father-in-law, would be appalled but surely not surprised, for his work on group identity drilled into the long human habit of self-definition that relied on stereotyping, categorizing, and rejecting whole peoples.
As at certain earlier times in history, this bad habit is now translating itself into toxic politics. Make no mistake: The United Kingdom’s vote to exit the European Union—a departure that is expected to feed other ethnocentric moves on the Continent—was driven essentially by antipathy toward “others” who had paid the UK the highest regard by uprooting themselves and settling there.
There were the reasonable complaints about high-handed EU regulation of British consumer safety standards, for example, and the burden of rescuing economic basket cases like Greece. But immigration seemed the more animating issue: a revulsion toward those whose citizenship in EU member countries gave them free passes into the UK.