Trials and Tribalizations

Out in Punditland, where Time magazine covers grow, they're calling it "the retribalization of America." Jew against black, black against Asian, Asian against Hispanic, Italian against WASP, and all against gays. It's the world of Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing, the experts say. And they claim, with the utmost solemnity, that all of this ethnic assertiveness is simply the latest evidence of a terminal breakdown in the American whitebread consensus, and perhaps even of Western Civ as we (they) know it.

A dissonant politics of unilateral, unconditional demands and exclusivist appeals on the basis of ethnicity -- that is what the pundits hear. And, like rap and rock, it's racket to their ears. Reared on the Mills Brothers, or the tempting Temptations, the mainstream poohbahs prefer harmony from the lower orders. But I don't think that the neo-tribalism picture they paint is as simple as all that, for a number of reasons.

First off, Megalopolis-bound pundits extrapolate too much from recent events in New York City. All these retribalization stories trot out the same few incidents -- Bensonhurst, the black boycott of a Korean-owned Brooklyn store, the Public Enemy anti-Semitism row, and the Central Park gang rape.

It's true that the Big Apple has serious, and even deadly, problems. Ethnic strife is one. De-industrialization and displacement are even bigger ones. And they all started at the top in the Ed Koch years, but you rarely hear about the latter in the newsmags.

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