All Commentary
Monday, January 1, 1996

From Liberalism to Tribalism

The Disenfranchisement of the Individual Means the Empowerment of Gangs

Mr. Bidinotto is a long-time contributor to Reader’s Digest and The Freeman, and a lecturer at FEE seminars. Criminal Justice? The Legal System versus Individual Responsibility, edited by Mr. Bidinotto and published by FEE, is available in a new hardcover edition at $24.95.

Occasionally, an event attains culturally symbolic status, crystallizing a nation’s identity, values, and conflicts. One thinks of the Lincoln assassination, the Lindbergh flight, the Woodstock Festival, the Apollo 11 lunar landing . . . events that captured the spirit, or torment, of their times.

To these, add the O. J. Simpson verdict.

During the evening before the verdict was announced, I sat watching TV as a succession of lawyers (morphed into “expert commentators”) read the tea leaves of the trial. It was like a pre-game show for the Super Bowl. In fact, from its outset—from the football-hero defendant (ever eager to trade autographs for cash), to the cheering bystanders during his famous highway chase (“Run, O. J., run!”), to the courtroom clashes between the celebrity attorneys (“Marcia scored heavily on Johnnie today”), to the unspeakable hawkers outside the courtroom (“Get your Bronco bumper stickers here!”)—the Trial of the Century had become a garish new national pastime.

Never mind that the proceedings were supposed to be about justice for two slaughtered individuals. The fate of innocent individuals seemed to weigh as little in that Los Angeles courtroom as they had in any ancient Roman arena.

The blatantly racist appeals by the defense emphasized this. The overwhelmingly black jury was not asked to seek justice for individuals, but exhorted to make a social statement about white racism. The individual defendant was no longer on trial; social institutions were. Justice for individual victims was no longer the point; sending a message to white society, collectively, was.

“Race plays a part of everything in America,” Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran would say later. “Not only did we play the `race card,”’ colleague Robert Shapiro would admit, “we dealt it from the bottom of the deck.”

When the verdict of “not guilty” was read, I wept. For the victims. For what I believe was a gross miscarriage of justice. And for the future of my country.

But while millions wept, many others cheered. And the cheers and tears, instantly televised, were overwhelmingly apportioned along racial lines.

It was a stunning moment of national revelation. People sitting in the same rooms were experiencing violently opposing emotions—and looking at each other across a value chasm that seemed interplanetary.

“This is probably a bitter pill for most white Americans to swallow,” the president of the Los Angeles Urban League told USA Today, “but this trial is about many things. . . . For some, [the verdict] does represent a way of partially vindicating some of the past injustices that have been inflicted upon so many African-Americans. . . .”

But was that the goal of the murder trial? Clearly, the response to the verdict by many had little to do with an objective search for justice for individuals.

For many decades, liberals have denounced individualism as “atomistic” and “polarizing.” They have argued that to hold supreme the rights and well-being of individuals is socially divisive. Only by viewing oneself as a subordinate part of a greater social whole can we have collective harmony. Only by sacrificing individual interests to those of the group can we live in peace and brotherhood.

But the opposite has proved true. Only by respecting the sanctity of individuals can social peace and harmony be guaranteed. And it is precisely the obliteration of individualism that is causing our nation to disintegrate into warring tribal gangs.

The United States of America was the first nation constituted to protect individual life, liberty, and rights as its ultimate goal. In theory, these protections were to be guaranteed to all, equally and by law. In reality, the battle for equal rights under the law was not won with the framing of the Constitution; there remained serious contradictions in that document (its toleration of slavery being the worst). Over many decades, the struggle to make the law an impartial guarantor of the individual rights continued. During the 1960s, the last legal inequities were eradicated.

But for liberal collectivists, that was not enough. No sooner had the civil rights movement succeeded in its individualist legal ends, than it was hijacked and turned toward collectivist social ends. The aim of the early reforms had been a “color-blind” legal system, based on equal rights for individuals. The goal of the collectivists, by contrast, was equal status for groups.

No longer was equality before the law sufficient; the new goal was equality in socio-economic status. And no longer were individuals to be the beneficiaries; groups were. The collectivist hijackers of the civil rights movement now demanded not the protection of individual rights, but the sacrifice of individual rights for the sake of group objectives.

By viewing individuals as expendable, sacrificial parts of a greater whole, liberal collectivists divided America into clashing camps. Decrying inequities of status (instead of rights), they promulgated resentment, envy, and hostility. Extolling group traits (rather than individual virtues), they proclaimed that one should take “pride” in such collective characteristics as one’s racial, national, religious, and ethnic background. Politically empowering groups (instead of individuals), they created legal incentives for people to affiliate in collectives shaped by class, gender, age, and race.

The result of their experiment in collectivization? Not social harmony, but cultural disintegration. The old American “melting pot” and “color-blind law” is long gone. Instead, America is sinking into a violent new tribalism.

Younger working people resent the insatiable political demands of the elderly; the elderly resent their escalating property taxes going into public schools for the younger generation; teenagers demand subsidized college tuition from adults. Residents trapped in urban decay seethe with hostility at people living in protectively-zoned suburbs; suburbanites complain about providing food stamps for inner-city dwellers and crop subsidies for farmers; farmers denounce high taxes for urban mass transit. Men complain about preferential laws for women, women complain about unequal pay vis-a-vis men.

But without question, the ugliest collectivist affiliations are those defined along racial and ethnic lines. Physiological differences are the easiest to perceive; and for the mindless, provide the least demanding criteria for group allegiances—or hatreds.

This is the logical consequence of collectivism’s fragmentation of society. The disenfranchisement of the individual inevitably means the empowerment of gangs. The same collectivism that has Balkanized the globe, is now Balkanizing America.

The Simpson verdict, and its aftermath, was a defining moment for our culture . . . and a wake-up call. More than a verdict in a single murder case, it was a symbolic verdict passed on a collapsing culture—and on the murderous collectivist philosophy that is tearing it asunder.