I wrote this opinion piece for US newspapers but couldn’t find an editor willing to run it. The intended subtitle was “When African civil wars foreshadow our present heart of darkness.” While US politics isn’t a subject I would normally post about on this blog, in these perilous times one finds an audience where one can.
Whenever a conflict breaks out in Africa, Americans hear it described in tribal terms: two tribes (or, for the more progressive-minded, “ethnic groups”) are supposedly fighting each other due to some ancient enmity. “What kind of people slaughter whole villages?” we wonder; “Surely we are nothing like them.”
Amid the darkening of our public mood this year, I keep thinking about the outbreak of war in the African societies where I have lived and worked. I have also come to recognize that Americans, my own people, are not so different from Africans. We too have become tribal.
It’s hard for most human beings to commit unprovoked acts of violence against strangers. To do so we must be armed with two convictions. First that those strangers are fundamentally unlike us, members of an enemy camp whose fates are not bound up with our own. Second, that those strangers are plotting to strip us of something vital–our liberties, our identity, our security, our very lives. With these convictions, people can even take preemptive action against innocents; their twisted perception leads them to see aggression as self-defense.
In short, before we can be made to hate or kill those on “the other side,” we must be made to fear them. Tribalization actually requires neither cultural difference nor deep-rooted, pre-existing antagonisms between groups. It requires political leaders willing to exaggerate and exploit any schisms, even to fabricate them, to strengthen their grip on power.
23 years ago in the Republic of Congo, a former president named Denis Sassou-Nguesso, having lost a previous vote, did not trust the electoral system to favor him in the approaching election. His private militia went to war with the incumbent president’s troops. In the fighting, over 100,000 Congolese were displaced and tens of thousands, mostly civilians, killed–an enormous loss for a country of under three million people.
A chemistry professor and writer named Emmanuel Dongala and his family fled the fighting, barely escaping with their lives. After taking refuge in the US, Dongala wrote the novel Johnny Mad Dog depicting a nameless African country torn apart from within.
Like Dongala himself, the characters in Johnny Mad Dog hadn’t grown up in a tribal society: until the civil war, they were cosmopolitan city dwellers caring nothing for their elders’ ethnic or regional distinctions. “Most of us had no tribe or village,” one recalls. But after politicians vying for power sow rumors of their opponents’ efforts to attack ordinary citizens and hijack elections, everyone must choose sides. Once people of supposedly different origins are pitted against each other, violence spirals out of control and the tribalization process is complete.
Many characters in Johnny Mad Dog see through their leaders’ fear-mongering and recognize the war for what it is: “It isn’t the tribes who are killing each other,” one woman protests, “it’s the politicians who are killing us.” But when divisive rhetoric sweeps up enough people, violence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Denis Sassou-Nguesso was adept at the tribalization game. Since winning Congo’s civil war in 1997 he has presided over an autocratic regime stocked with his own relatives and intolerant of dissent. The Congolese populace remains split into ethnic factions.
Could America mirror Congo’s descent into violence and authoritarian rule? Could our communities become segregated along political battle lines? Absolutely, if we fail to recognize the danger of our present moment. Partisan media and public officials have stoked the fires of tribalization through incendiary rhetoric and talk of shadowy conspiracies. Their power rests on the right to shout “fire!” in a crowded movie house and face no consequences.
Like the Congolese, awash in weapons and media-fueled paranoia, we have been primed to believe the worst about our compatriots who do not share our political allegiances–in short, to see them as members of an enemy camp. This could doom our democracy. American journalists who cover foreign wars have pointed out that American right-wing militia leaders are using the same tribal framing devices as Congolese warlords.
“One thing that I learned overseas covering civil wars is that the first step down that path is convincing yourself that the other side is bent on your destruction, convincing yourself that they do not have good intentions, that the arguments that you have with your neighbors are not political alone, that they’re also existential,” correspondent Mike Giglio recently said on “Fresh Air”. “And, you know, I only moved back to America a few years ago. And I was just really struck by the fact that that is how people in America are portraying the political divide right now.”
The war drums are not only beating on the right. “I see a civil war right around the corner,” said Antifa activist Michael Forest Reinoehl after shooting a right-wing demonstrator to death in Portland before he himself was killed by police on September 3.
If America is to defy Reinoehl’s dire prediction, citizens of all persuasions must recognize and resist the process of ideological tribalization instigated by reckless leaders. We must reject talk, including our president’s, of nefarious plots to subvert the people’s will. This talk only empowers cynical politicians; our only way forward is for American voters to spurn candidates who resort to it.
Words must have consequences: we must call out incitements to violence and baseless accusations undermining the integrity of our democratic process. Understanding that our fates are indeed bound together, we must cool our own overheated rhetoric. And when going to polls, protests, or public facilities where ballots are being counted, we must leave our guns at home. As soon as we arm ourselves and head to any such space, we cannot be the response to a potential problem; we become that problem.
Curbing reckless speech and keeping our public gatherings peaceful can’t magically resolve Americans’ political differences. But by arresting our slide into tribalization, we can honor our democratic heritage by addressing our differences without hurting or killing each other.