Is your Tribe doing your Thinking for you?

Tribalism is in our DNA. This innate tendency to adopt the beliefs and customs of the people around us was the glue that held together small bands of nomadic hunters and gatherers.

Ancient humans with tribalism in their DNA survived in their tribe and propagated their DNA. Those without it didn’t and didn’t. It’s the natural product of human evolution.

Managing ancient humans was not like herding cats. It was more like herding herds. Stray humans didn’t last long on the savanna. Later, tribalism enabled us to coalesce into towns and cities, and to defend our resulting civilizations.

Even now, tribalism influences our relations with employers, extended families and communities. That influence is often good. When people work for the benefit of their tribe, they create focused teams that are more effective than individuals can ever be.

In short, tribalism has served us well for 99 percent of human history and in some ways it still does.

But tribalism poisons modern politics. In today’s hyper-partisan world, people are often slaves to the position dictated by their tribe. Republicans and Democrats are expected to have their respective positions on the issues.

Obamacare, for example, passed the senate without a single Republican vote. The recent tax bill passed the senate without a single Democrat.

Did each of the senators reason their way through Obamacare and the tax bill and simply reach different conclusions about whether they were good for America, different conclusions that coincidentally matched those of their party?

Of course not. Most simply voted the way their party leaders told them to.

In fairness, politicians are perhaps no worse than the rest of us when it comes to tribalism. It’s comforting to have a tribe and to know that your position is their position.

But democracy is not comfortable; it’s hard. Democracy requires an informed citizenry making carefully considered choices. Those choices should occasionally cross party lines. Sometimes the best solution is held by the “other” tribe or is a blend of both tribes. Neither tribe has a monopoly on all solutions.

The alternative is not to solve problems but simply to embarrass, dominate and destroy the other tribe. It was good for a tribe to destroy competing tribes on the savanna, but it’s bad for democracy in modern America. A one-party democracy is not a democracy at all.

I personally am not immune to the pressures of tribalism. I root for the Denver Broncos. I enjoy the comical portrait of former President Barack Obama that was unveiled last week. I have a soft spot for the Scots even though they have the worst food and wine in the world (but the best whiskey).

In fact, I may be more susceptible to tribalism than most people because I write this column. I’ve occasionally been told by my tribe that I was getting soft. The implication was that if I didn’t toughen up, they might stop reading me. (To be clear, however, that threat is nothing compared with the threats that the other tribe routinely makes against me.)

But even though I am susceptible to the instinct of tribalism and recognize the personal risk of defying it, I consciously try to tame it. That’s why I sometimes challenge myself to name an issue where I have not adopted the orthodoxy of my tribe. So far, I’ve always been able to name several such issues.

For example, much of my tribe says abortion should be outlawed. I don’t.

My position is the same as Bill Clinton’s stance that he took a couple of decades ago: Abortion should be safe, legal and, importantly, rare.

That doesn’t mean I like abortion. No, I hate abortion. But I recognize that it’s a complex issue. It’s not to be taken lightly — it’s one of the most serious things a person can do in life — and I favor limits on it. But I would not outlaw it.

I issue the same challenge to you. Name a topic where you have not adopted the position of your tribe.

Name it in the comments section to this column, as in, “I lean left (or right or toward socialism or libertarianism, or whatever) but I nonetheless disagree with them on _____, and here’s why:____.”

We’ll see how many comments we get from each side. Whichever generates the most will be deemed the winning tribe. Oops, there I go again.

(Published Feb 17, 2018 in the Aspen Times at


Good Reasons to be Sleepless in Seattle

Back when I was a young Boeing engineer Seattle was a modest place with (apologies to Winston Churchill) much to be modest about. They were always comparing themselves with the real city to the south, San Francisco. Seattleites knew they were more wet than cool.

So in a classic case of psychosexual compensation, Seattleites did the equivalent of buying the city a Porsche. They built a big phallus called the “Space Needle.”

Ever since, everything Seattle does is designed to show San Francisco and the world that Seattle is big.

I’d like to say this is a tale of two cities, but it’s a tale of many. Continue reading

Aspen Seeths Hatred While Pence Celebrates Christmas

A decent man of deep religious beliefs came to Aspen last week to relax with friends and family and to celebrate some of his religion’s most joyous and holy days. It was Vice President Mike Pence, his religion is Christianity and he was here for Christmas week.

The locals taunted and hated on him.

There were several stories, but one stands out. Continue reading

Ghosts of Christmas

“You lied to me!” So said my 6-year-old daughter to me one merry Christmas.

We always made a big deal out of Christmas Eve. It was the one night that I did the cooking, and that alone made it interesting.

After the guests pushed the food around on their plates long enough that they could plausibly pretend they were full, our tradition was to open gifts. We thought that we and the gifts looked better in the dim Christmas Eve lights after a few single malt scotches than in the bright Christmas Day lights with a hangover. The kids often put on a play.

Eventually, the party ended and the guests went home. After the stockings were well hung by the chimney with care, the kids would nestle all snug in their beds in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there. Hallucinogenic visions of plums and whatnot danced in their sugar-infused heads.

After even the mice weren’t stirring, the curtain lifted on my own little play. Continue reading

I’ll take redneck moonshiners over bluenose revenuers

The Discovery Channel has a series out on moonshiners. The characters are from red states like Tennessee and Kentucky, while the television producers are from blue states like California and New York.

The latter naturally portray the former as stupid.

The red state rednecks tell us that first you find a place for the still, then you haul all the stuff there. There’s a furnace, lots of piping, a condenser and miscellaneous things that go with it like duct tape, barrels, ATVs, propane tanks, sideburns, guns, denim overalls and tattoos.

Lots can go wrong in this business. If you use an old automobile radiator for the condenser, for example, you can poison yourself and your customers with the residual antifreeze. That’s bad for business.

In one episode, Continue reading

It’s Sunday, are the Dems enabling Big Dog today?

Where are Dems today on sexual assault? From their reaction to allegations three or four weeks ago by several women that a Republican candidate for Alabama senator sexually assaulted them three or four decades ago when he was a Democrat public official, the Dems seem to oppose it.

But as with the Dems’ position on Russia, it might depend on what day it is. More specifically, it might depend on when, where and especially by whom.

Remember the Clintons? Hillary was insatiable and predatory but only in matters of money and power. But Bill was in matters of sex. His nickname was “Big Dog.”

Back in the first and only Clinton administration, it all came to a head in the Oval Office when President Big Dog and his cigar and a young White House intern had a threesome. The cigar was not just a cigar.

And it was a foursome if you include the Congressman who was on the telephone.

Big Dog probably could have pulled it off, except that at the time he was a defendant in a sexual assault case brought by another woman. He gave a deposition under oath in that case where he was asked whether he’d had sexual relations with the intern, as rumored.


Big Dog being the Big Dog, he did what comes second most naturally to him. Continue reading