Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Duty, Democracy and the Threat of Tribalism (wsj.com)
89 points by danmendes 49 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 68 comments

This was a good essay: well-written, cogent, and thought-provoking.

I know there are a lot of folks that want to take this essay and bash it into some political points. I think that's probably part of the problem Mattis is describing; our desire to make social media hay out of whatever we're given.

He does have a point about current politics in there. It's hidden quite a bit. His larger point, though, is about how instant communication is changing the nature of how governments work. Presumably that's what he gets paid for: understanding and projecting current trends through a historical lens.

I don't know what the solution is. A big part of the problem is that nobody much wants to talk about the generic situation. There's no clicks in it. Instead it's pitching rhetorical softballs to people who are already on your side. Congrats to Mattis for being able to walk through this mess and still come out looking okay. He's doing better than most.

> I don't know what the solution is.

Neither do I but I see tribalism as one of the most destructive forces of the last decade, responsible for almost all big changes (and lack of change) in the world. Politics spill out to other areas. It is not difficult to connect the dots between rapid clicks-and-likes driven social media to the burning of Amazon forests.

I don't know what the solution is but this is the meta problem. Solving it is likely to start fixing other areas of life.

Perhaps what we're finding out is that humans have had all sorts of natural obstacles to communication: geography, the ability of sound to travel, and so forth. As time progressed, trade and travel have presented unique challenges. When I meet a strange person, they might not be friend or foe but something in-between. We can still converse and exchange, but I don't trust you. Not like my people.

We've socially evolved as tribal creatures, but odd ones. We're tribal creatures with the ability to freely mingle between various tribes (for the most part). This actually gives us tremendous evolutionary advantages. We evolve first as individuals, then as small groups, then as groups-of-groups, and so on. At any one time there could be millions of various adaptations in the works. As conditions change, various individuals and group succeed and others fall by the wayside. This person-family-clan-tribe-region evolutionary promotion model works for biology, science, social mores, and so forth.

What we tech folks have done, and we had no way of knowing, is flatten all of that out. So now what we see is winner-take-all for all of those things that used to be widely diverse and somewhat chaotic. It would seem to folks who didn't know better that this would be a good thing. After all, isn't standardization good? But in fact it's turning what used to extremely robust and anti-fragile systems into quite brittle and unpredictable ones.

I don't think most people understand the problem, even the ones who complain about it. That doesn't make me optimistic that there's a solution forthcoming.

>What we tech folks have done, and we had no way of knowing, is flatten all of that out.

We did have a way of knowing, Marshall McLuhan went on at length about the rise of tribalism in the upcoming age of 'peer to peer electronic media'.

"The electronically induced technological extensions of our central nervous systems, which I spoke of earlier, are immersing us in a world-pool of information movement and are thus enabling man to incorporate within himself the whole of mankind. The aloof and dissociated role of the literate man of the Western world is succumbing to the new, intense depth participation engendered by the electronic media and bringing us back in touch with ourselves as well as with one another. But the instant nature of electric-information movement is decentralizing——rather than enlarging——the family of man into a new state of multitudinous tribal existences. Particularly in countries where literate values are deeply institutionalized, this is a highly traumatic process, since the clash of the old segmented visual culture and the new integral electronic culture creates a crisis of identity, a vacuum of the self, which generates tremendous violence——violence that is simply an identity quest, private or corporate, social or commercial…"


> It is not difficult to connect the dots between rapid clicks-and-likes driven social media to the burning of Amazon forests.

Would you please elaborate on how "rapid clicks-and-likes driven social media" leads to the burning of Amazon forests?

I would also like to add these two related paragraphs:

> According to various reports on the subject (Greenpeace, FAO), livestock farming, including soya production, is responsible for about 70 to 80% of deforestation in the Amazon region. The development of intensive livestock production, combined with the increasing consumption of meat in developed countries, is thus the main cause of Amazonian deforestation.

> According to the WWF, It’s estimated that deforestation caused by livestock is responsible for the discharge of 3.4% of current global emissions of carbon to the atmosphere every year. That’s why the late 2018 IPCC report stood out that reducing meat consumption by 90% is the single biggest way to reduce global warming. Some studies also show that without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by over 75%. In this way, reducing your meat consumption is also a big step to stop not only deforestation but also global warming on a larger scale.

Source: https://e-csr.net/definitions/what-is-definition-deforestati...

I'd rather not redirect this discussion to Amazon forests. It was just one example... and I probably could have picked a better one.

The dot chain I see is social media -> stronger tribalism, social bubbles -> strengthening of nationalist movements, particularly far right -> electing Jair Bolsonaro -> rejection of foreign aid, support of these farming techniques.

Perhaps I'm wrong in my reasoning... but I'd much prefer to be wrong about this particular example and right about the general trend.

So we could reduce something that accounts for just 3.4% of global emissions by 75%?

I'm pretty sure that's wrong or the wrong data point. Livestock is the largest source of methane emissions and methane plays a larger role in climate change.

Not to mention that eating less meat is just karmically/ethically way more optimal, regardless of what the data says.

Note that there is a difference between methane and carbon. My quote only mentioned carbon.

> The most important greenhouse gases from animal agriculture are methane and nitrous oxide. Methane, mainly produced by enteric fermentation and manure storage, is a gas which has an effect on global warming 28 times higher than carbon dioxide. Nitrous oxide, arising from manure storage and the use of organic/inorganic fertilizers, is a molecule with a global warming potential 265 times higher than carbon dioxide.

Additionally, he missed the fact that deforestation has other negative impacts besides contributing to climate change.

All things considered, meat consumption is pretty much the main reason for the destruction of Amazonian rainforest, using up incredible amounts of land, food, and water, as well as producing a statistically significant amount of pollution. Then there is desertification, MDR pathogens, and so forth.

If you want the total percentages per sector: https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/global-greenhouse-gas-emiss...

Some more reading (website is currently down for me but it was available a couple of minutes ago): https://www.fao.org/gleam/results/en/

> I see tribalism as one of the most destructive forces of the last decade, responsible for almost all big changes (and lack of change) in the world.

Go further back. The Civil War could be viewed as large-scale tribalism. After that, there were regional and ethnic tribalisms. The World Wars pushed us into a bigger tribalism - the US became one giant tribe. (It still had the smaller tribalisms, but they became less important.) That kind of held through the 50s. In the late 60s, the hippie movement could be regarded as a new tribalism (and a rejection of the old one). The US "big tribalism" has been progressively fragmenting into a number of "small tribalisms" since then.

I really like this deconstruction! Never thought about it this way but it makes a lot of sense.

From the article: "Nations with allies thrive, and those without them wither. Alone, America cannot protect our people and our economy. At this time, we can see storm clouds gathering. A polemicist’s role is not sufficient for a leader."

This is a true statement, I just hope the damage done can be undone. We are stronger together than we are alone.

Is that empirically true? The USA was the largest economy in the world by 1890, despite pursing a policy of isolationism for the entire century before that. By the time we entered the First World War, we accounted for a quarter of the world economy, about as much as all of Western Europe put together.

> The USA was the largest economy in the world by 1890, despite pursing a policy of isolationism for the entire century before that.

The US was never isolationist unless you ignore the existence of Native American Nations; it was brutally expansionist from day one. From the time of the Monroe Doctrine, US imperialism expanded even further, leaving the US “isolationist” in most of the 19th Century mainly only in regard to what happened outside the Western Hemisphere, and not even always there.

"Isolationism" when discussing U.S. history, and as relevant here, generally refers to our reluctance to our avoidance of alliances with European countries. (Or, really, anyone. In this context, "isolationism" isn't inconsistent with "expansionist." It's more about unilateral versus multi-lateral.)

I'd be interested in seeing this data. I couldn't find anything with a cursory search, can you point me in the right direction?

So the source for that appears to be http://www.ggdc.net/maddison/oriindex.htm "Statistics on World Population, GDP and Per Capita GDP, 1-2008 AD" but I can't find the methodology used. It is definitely an interesting spreadsheet to look through.

Maddison is garbage source for anything pre 1800s, FWIW. His all "data" before 1800s is completely made up. See http://faculty.econ.ucdavis.edu/faculty/gclark/Book_Reviews/...

That was also the last expansionist era in world history. The US was able to expand into new, fertile land and exploit new mining resources. The land wasn't completely empty, of course, but it was not being intensely farmed with the new large-scale agricultural techniques.

The expansion wasn't all of it; it was also an era of technological innovation in which the Americans were leaders (though Europe also produced a fair amount of innovation). But the expansionism had another advantage: while Europe was busy fighting a series of wars for control over the same territory, the US had a lot more freedom to devote to increasing production rather than destruction.

So the 19th century may not be an accurate model for the 21st. Isolationism was more feasible then because it was a large, self-sufficient nation. Today, capitalism has broken production down into finer and finer pieces and it's much harder for even a very large nation to compete against the combined strength of the rest of the world. If we don't collaborate, and others do, they'll gain a relative advantage that will slowly eat into our dominance. We can't simply conquer new territory because there isn't any, and even if we did, ownership of land isn't as important in a technological era.


It doesn't seem like that statement is obviously true.

World War I comes to mind as an instructive case against over-alliance. Likewise, in World War II, Switzerland remained famously unallied.

Not that I'm anti-alliances, but the common idea that allies are a key to survival isn't necessarily true.

That reminds me of one thing I noticed about nations and needing a "designated driver". Occasionally one prosperous democratic nation does something which the rest of the world can tell would be a terrible idea, warn them as such and get ignored because so many feel so strongly about. Predictably disaster strikes. The int

It makes me wonder if some sort of international veto arrangement might be a good idea - unfortunately it seems that even if they did so they would be unlikely to listen "because this time is different".

The problem is sometimes someone has to choose the least bad option. Sometimes there aren't any solutions that more than half a constituency are happy with, but not choosing is an even worse option. You can see this happening right now with Brexit IMO.

> Sometimes there aren't any solutions that more than half a constituency are happy with

Which is part of the reason why most democracies in history are representative democracies; they represent the interests of their constituents, not their constituents personal choices.

A representative should properly make the decision that, in their view, presents the best possible result for their constituency, not "what their constituents would choose if they were elected."

That doesn't change the issue that sometimes there are no "good" options to choose from. It takes a rare politician to doom their career by choosing something unpopular.

"More than half the population is happy with" is not the same as "good."

I fully believe in (representative) democracy, and with an extremely complicated issue like Brexit it needs dedicated politicians researching the issue and, ultimately, selling a solution to the public. I'm not deeply in tune with the parties in the U.K., but my general feeling has been that Labour has no fucking clue what to do, so all of the U.K. is just jumping into a yawning bottomless pit for no good reason.

I like this idea, it seems difficult to implement, my first thought is to have the UN involved in some way, maybe if 75% of countries have the power to veto something. UN has always had a problem with enforcement, especially with G-7 type countries. It would be hard to see UN voting down Brexit and the USA and allies enforcing this somehow. We would have to generate higher respect for the UN and the world seems to be going down a different path right now.

> Nations with allies thrive, and those without them wither

let me show you exhibit A:


"allies" is a romantic concept that doesn't hold any water, only the return of investment forecast drives action and inaction.

That is effectively fixed by amending the statement

> Nations with ardent and sincere allies

And, clearly though certainly teetering toward "no true scotsman," an ally who is only superficially allied (Germany and the USSR during the first half of WWII, or the Allies and USSR after the war) should not be considered an "ally," for all intents and purposes.

And I think it's clear in that specific example you gave how well selling out their allies worked for U.K. and France. If "greed" is your only motivation, eventually your greedy allies will sell you out as well. See, Prisoner's Dilemma or pretty much the entire field of ethics.

This was thoughtful, measured, wise, well-written, and completely ineffectual.

There's no "threat of tribalism". We're living in tribalism. This piece could only be effective in another climate.

Ham-fisted, on-the-nose, bluntness is the only way to get your message across to a political audience in 2019.

> There's no "threat of tribalism". We're living in tribalism.

I understand the point to be "tribalism is great, but we should be one tribe dominating all (or most, with our allies, as long as they are aligned with us) the other tribes". I didn't see any general call against tribalism. "Defending our way of life" is pretty much that: "the tribe's way of life".

> I didn't see any general call against tribalism.

"We are dividing into hostile tribes cheering against each other, fueled by emotion and a mutual disdain that jeopardizes our future, instead of rediscovering our common ground and finding solutions."

The phrase "defending our way of life" isn't in the article.

>"We are dividing into hostile tribes cheering against each other, fueled by emotion and a mutual disdain that jeopardizes our future, instead of rediscovering our common ground and finding solutions."

This describes the entirety of human history. And CERTAINLY the history of America.

> "We are dividing into hostile tribes cheering against each other, fueled by emotion and a mutual disdain that jeopardizes our future, instead of rediscovering our common ground and finding solutions."

exactly: I read We to mean "US-citizens", not "humans". Divide and conquer, be divided and you might be conquered, therefore (internal) division is bad. As soon as some intergalactic threat shows up, the same rhetoric will be heard on a planetary level. "This is no time for internal division while the bugs are trying to wipe us out. You've seen what they did to Buenos Aires."

> The phrase "defending our way of life" isn't in the article.

From the article: "When it comes to the defense of our experiment in democracy and our way of life, ideology should have nothing to do with it."

It's not directly related to General Mattis, but I would recommend reading Evan Wright's book "Generation Kill". Which recounts his time being embedded with the 1st Recon Battalion, which was under the command of Mattis (Callsign Chaos) during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The book even goes briefly into a famous moment in the invasion of Iraq were General Mattis fires one of his commanders during a siege of a city.


HBO did a miniseries on the book too which is great.


Amazing fact about that book and show: Sergeant Rodolfo "Rudy" Reyes ('Fruity' Rudy) finished his term with the military and decided to move to Hollywood and become an actor. A few years later, casting began for the miniseries based on the book, based on his tour. He tried out.

Rudy is played by himself.

I would like to second the tv series Generation Kill. Brilliant show. Really highlights a lot of the ridiculousness of war. Not as serious nor on the same scale as Band of Brothers, but still good nonetheless.

If you enjoyed reading Wright's book, you may also enjoy Cpt. Nathaniel Fick's One Bullet Away. He led Second Platoon's Bravo Company.

As others have said, this is an excerpt promoting a forthcoming book, not a declaration to run against the current president.

Also interesting to note Mattis is call sign "Chaos" who was a major offscreen character and frequently mentioned on the HBO mini series "Generation Kill".

American foreign policy has been inconsistent and often deadly to many civilians worldwide. Americans sometimes go in with the best of intentions, but not always, as we know from the Iraq war, CIA overthrow of Iranian government, and many other debacles.

For Mathis to disregard this and put the military and intelligence apparatus above politics is disingenuous, or at least ignorant of reality. He may be non-partisan but his department has a hand in why our current tribalism exists, and always has.

If American military and intelligence organizations had a truly non-interventionist approach and one which works with our allies then there are politicians on both sides to support them - Tulsi Gabbard, Ron Paul, for example.

Finally, Mathis admits our defense spending exceeds all but 20 countries' GDP. In an era where our enemies are often digital, or terrorist organizations, more so than nation states, is our military spending oversized for what we need? Would any secretary of defense admit to this and redirect funds to more pressing causes at home or abroad? Such a leader would be a truly remarkable and laudable.

"In an era where our enemies are often digital, or terrorist organizations, more so than nation states, is our military spending oversized for what we need?"

Hawks will only hear, "we need to spend more of the military budget on cyber threats".

More likely "We need a larger budget so we can spent more on cyber threats"


A military officer participating in warfare?! How uncouth.

Were you just looking to get in a dig about US hegemony? I prefer it to Chinese hegemony, and so should you.

The irony of your comment is that the threat of Chinese hegemony has increased several fold precisely because of the actions of the US military in response to 9/11, the effects of which are being felt nearly two decades on.

The US has wasted over a trillion dollars trying to police areas it had no business in being in. Meanwhile, China's military buildup went uncontested, and today the US is in a trade war of its own making, only now the shoe is on the other foot.

America's the one exporting agricultural produce and China's the one selling world-leading 5G and other advanced technologies.

Perhaps you’re able to detect the potential issues with a denunciation of tribalism made by someone who had a leading role in the homicide of several hundred thousand Iraqis for no apparent reason beyond their regional, ethnic, and religious affiliations.

No apparent reason? What about the “rape rooms”?

Presumably most of the several hundred thousand dead civilians weren't managing those.

I agree. The “rape rooms” did not justify the war. My point was that the war had APPARENT reasons, not valid reasons. There were no valid reasons.


Kind of like McClellan vs Lincoln. Wait no nothing like that.

In the Republican party of some people's wistful imagination, perhaps, but not in the actual one.

Trump is broadly unpopular with the American people as a whole, and every common demographic subset of them other "white males without a college degree".

But among Republican party members? His claims of "94%" are bullshit, naturally, but the actual results of real mainstream polling[1] put it north of 80%.

To paraphrase Marlo Stanfield: A lot of people want America to be one way. But it's the other way.

[1]: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-claims-higher-...

The Atlantic has an article out about him today, including interviews where he's extremely reluctant to criticize the sitting Commander in Chief. Him entering the primaries wouldn't fit with that.

> "The duty of silence. If you leave an administration, you owe some silence. When you leave an administration over clear policy differences, you need to give the people who are still there as much opportunity as possible to defend the country. They still have the responsibility of protecting this great big experiment of ours. I know the malevolence some people feel for this country, and we have to give the people who are protecting us some time to carry out their duties without me adding my criticism to the cacophony that is right now so poisonous."


it seems unlikely that anybody will run against trump on the republican primary but we'll see

Two people already are: Bill Weld and Joe Walsh.


But fair enough that there don't seem to be too many serious contenders (as far as I'm aware, it seems some pundits are even just wondering if Joe Walsh is doing this simply as a play to get more attention/funds)

And the Republican National Committee has stated that they won't support anyone but Donald Trump.

Sure, which would include Mattis.

It has been well over a 100 years since the last time the president didn't get the nomination.

It's pretty much going to be Trump vs Biden.

I'm more interested in who will run as VP on the Dem side, I'm still waiting for a Biden/Oprah ticket

> It's pretty much going to be Trump vs Biden.

Possible, but I doubt it. The early non-incumbent front-runner almost never wins the nomination, and while Biden has a big lead, it's far from a majority of the party and all of his opposition and most of the party electorate differ from him in the same direction (e.g., Democrats prefer Medicare for All over keeping Obamacare by a 2:1 margin.)

As the set of candidates narrows (and it will considerably before the first primary votes are cast), that doesn't work in Biden’s favor.

“It's pretty much going to be Trump vs Biden.”

A 74 year old vs a 78 year old. Pretty appealing options.

74 year old white dude vs a 78 year old white dude.

Why do you think it's pretty much just white old dude?

General Mattis and others like him from the administrative, technocratic state have to do so much more to try to convince us that they're qualified. His appeals to decency and fitness of leadership ring supremely hollow after 20 years in the Middle East absolutely screwing up at every turn. We're in the current mess, largely defined by lack of trust in government, precisely because of "respectable" heads of state like Mattis.

Not to mention spending years on Theranos' board, I guess he gets a free pass for letting Elizabeth Holmes play him like a fiddle.


Drumpf is finished

Would you please stop posting unsubstantive comments to HN? You've done it a lot and we ban accounts that do that.


HN is turning into reddit

Would you please read https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html all the way to the end? and please stop posting unsubstantive comments to Hacker News.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact