A Whole Herd of Stripe-Less Zebras

As you may have noticed, I’m rather fond of a lovely little corner of the political media called The Bulwark. To the point where I am now doing parodies of one of their podcasts (simulcast on YouTube). 

And just to preview/warn you, this post is gonna be a journey. The lengths I will go to demonstrate that I am not just really strange, or at least not strange in the obvious ways. 

For the uninitiated, The Bulwark was started in 2018 by a group of Never Trump former Republican political commentators, strategists, publishers, writers, and wonks. And when they said Never Trump in 2015, they meant it, and they still mean it, unlike Nikki Haley. Unequivocally, completely, 100%, and at a personal and political cost. Which these days essentially makes them Democrats. But not really. If you don’t believe me, a quick perusal of Bill Kristol’s Twitter feed, on which the more polite of his haters regularly call him a blood-soaked war-monger, should prove my point. The Bulwark crowd kind of doesn’t belong anywhere, which is a huge part of their personal appeal for me. But I’ll come back to that. 

I stumbled across their work in the midst of a therapeutically-driven political and legal podcast feeding frenzy, as I desperately searched for even the most microscopic of tea leaves that might tell me what I wanted to hear even more than Bono telling me we can be friends, that the Age of Donald Trump would soon come to an end. I was absolutely obsessed with the Mueller investigation, then the Ukraine investigation, then every single other Trump misdeed (enough to fill HOURS of podcasting each day) because I thought surely, SURELY one of those scandals would break the horrible spell I saw descend on so many of my loved ones and deliver American democracy from what to me was clearly an existential threat of the kind the Founders had designed our system of government to defend against. 

There are various more specific reasons why the rise of Trump completely traumatized me, some that I can’t go into here, some professional, some personal (I’ve sadly had experience with a bonafide sociopath and recognized Trump as one immediately). As an American historian, the rise of Donald Trump was like watching a real life performance of the villain in The Federalist papers or the oxygen masks plummeting toward your face on a flight or experiencing some other horrible eventuality for which you had long been ostensibly prepared but now it’s like Oh Holy Fork, why didn’t I watch the flight attendant’s little tutorial even one of the 7,684 times it’s been offered. In addition, the threat of Donald Trump resonated with me as one who has seen dictatorship up close, albeit from a protective bubble. 

Bulwarkians’ laser focus on core values and ordering of all other issues against The Issue was a tremendous source of strength, clarity, and comfort. There are people of influence out there who really, really get it and are trying to do something about it, I could tell myself. The other media I consumed too easily lost focus, meandering into side shows and contriving additional, counter-productive litmus tests. And it wasn’t that The Bulwark’s moral certainty filtered out disquieting nuance or removed unwieldy complexity; they in fact allowed for more of it on secondary concerns. On the fundamentals of democracy and classical liberal values, however, there was no debate. Most other media had that flipped, drawing lines in the sand even as the obliterating tides rolled in instead of building, well, bulwarks on the shore. 

This commitment to democracy explains the appeal of The Bulwark for me on a certain level, but even I have been baffled by my own devotion (Did I mention I am literally making parodies now? I even have a real job and children and things. It’s not normal). It’s frankly a little weird how much time I can spend listening to them talk and reading what they write when admittedly a lot of it is rather repetitive and circular. That’s not just the Bulwark, of course—I could do a whole parody of the political commentariat writ large incestuously referencing each others’ “pieces” and going on each other’s podcasts/shows (on Tuesday, Molly Jong Fast is on Charlie Sykes’s show followed by Charlie on Molly’s show on Wednesday, perhaps Thursday they will both be on The Next Level discussing the previous two appearances). No matter, I will listen to every minute (and read many of the “pieces”), like a toddler snuggling into her mother’s lap to hear her read Goodnight, Moon for 7 billionth time. Also, these folks really do do miraculous work in offering slightly different information/takes every time, I don’t know how. 

Clearly I’m not alone in my insatiable appetite for these things, and I can’t tell you why everyone else listens to yet another exposition of why we are all completely forked, but I have thought about why I do, and it comes down to belonging

Belonging is one of the deepest of human needs, and for me, it’s been one of the more elusive. When your parents decide to raise you halfway around the world in a culture that you’ll never truly be part of and then you return to the first culture and find you don’t fit in there either, well, belonging is a whole, lifelong thing. I am what sociologists call a Third Culture Kid (the more vernacular term is a weird-a** freak).  I also went to boarding school when I was 10. In other words, I don’t have much of sense of home. 

There’s a generic African proverb that goes, “A man without culture is like a zebra without stripes.” And that is how I’ve often felt, like a zebra without stripes (and now you know why this blog is named that, ta-da!!!) 

Now that you’ve been introduced to the metaphor, I’m just warning you right now that I am going to ride it into the ground later on. Sorry, but it works for me. 

If my belonging wasn’t well-situated in a place or culture or even a nuclear family—and the make-shift family of friends I had at school scattered to literally the earth’s four corners at graduation—the one thing that did carry through the transitions of my life—the vacuum cleaner of my identity that sucked up all the strewn about pieces of myself—was my evangelical faith. More specifically, white evangelical American culture, because, to be honest, my own personal faith was always a bit shaky (see like 15 other posts). 

But evangelical culture, that was the closest thing to a home. That was the version of Christianity my parents and other missionaries so doggedly (and very successfully, Kenya is a mini-Bible belt) exported. That was the dominant culture of the American mission-run boarding school I attended there. Returning to the US was disorienting in many ways, but my passport was my faith. If I had a hard time chatting American pop culture with the other students at my evangelical college, I could easily speak the language of praise songs, quiet times, Bible studies, purity culture, personal saviors, and spiritual warfare. Pretty soon, I was also fluent in the Republican-ese, which I had already begun to learn even from a hemispheric distance because it was so central to evangelical Christianity, even in a wholly different political context. I embraced this identity with gusto. It was the only certain one I had. 

Long, long story short(er), my sense of belonging in evangelicalism eventually unraveled. It didn’t even fully survive first contact with The Enemy upon my entry into a PhD program, where I learned that slavery was actually quite bad, gay people did not have scales and horns, and non-Christians were capable of love. Who would have ever thought. Then, I got divorced and to a great extent I was, not exactly cast out, but my ongoing presence and internal angst became more more problematic. My remarriage to a more liberal Christian. The Iraq War (I did not agree with Bill Kristol and the neocons). The Tea Party. Obergefell. Obama seemed really cool and nice. 

And then, Donald Trump. 

By then, I was already aware I didn’t belong in evangelical-world anymore. My theology and politics were galloping towards the unacceptable if not the outright subversive. But on some level, I still thought I should belong. I still tried to belong. I still wanted to belong. I still felt afraid about not belonging. 

Donald Trump drop-kicked me right on out of there. Or, more accurately, the allegiance to him by millions of white evangelicals, including friends and family, and the silence of many, many more did that. It loosened the last few fingers of the grip evangelicalism had on me. Its moral authority fell away, and I began to see it for what I have come to believe it has always been, a faith primarily based on fear, perpetuated through rigidity, conformity, and power. With Trump, it reached its inevitable denouement, an anti-democratic, potentially violent political movement, equally terrified, intolerant, clinch-fisted, and tribal. 

I didn’t want to belong. 

But where did I belong? At the age of 40-something, it thankfully wasn’t the existential question it had been in my 20s. I had bedrock relationships. I had a fulfilling career. I still had a version of faith. After so many years in this town, I even had a sense of place. But I had wandered from my herd. Maybe I had never had a full set of stripes, or the correct pattern, but I could blend in. Not anymore. 

My experience is one I see reflected in the stories of my friends at The Bulwark. They, too, lost their herd. They, too, are realizing the ways in which they never had the same stripes (I found Tim Miller’s book particularly moving). They, too, have had to find new ways of belonging and new herds with which to graze. But they have found each other, plus some new friends from other plains whose prints and patterns don’t quite match the herds from which they’ve come. And they’ve all come together, and they’ve invited all us misfits in. And the grass is green and sweet and fortifying. 

And I think a lot of us feel like we belong here. And you are all welcome, too. Even if you’re not a zebra at all but maybe a wildebeest. Zebras and wildebeests migrate together in the Serengeti (although I’m just gonna put it out there—wildebeests are a lot dumber than the zebras, and the zebras use them as lion bait, but I’m just mentioning this as a little nature lesson, no metaphor is perfect, and I already warned you I was going to overdo this one). Unless you’re an a**hole wildebeest, then you gotta go. 

I think I have now exhausted this cheesy metaphor. Time for another one. 

As my Bulwark friends would agree, and as I’ve seen vividly in the African context, tribalism is a blight, reducing humanity to broad, unhelpful categories, stirring up conflict, preventing critical thought, smothering dialogue, suppressing minority voices, and determining values by group identity instead of the other way around. And ultimately producing really crappy leaders with weird hair who endanger us all. 

But I would argue that tribe is different from tribalism, and tribe is a good thing, a thing we long for, something that enriches us. Tribe is belonging, it’s community, it’s connectedness, it’s a tightly woven net that hold us up and catches us when we fall. Healthy tribes construct and perpetuate cultures that are hospitable and curious and invite people in and share and honor commonalities with other tribes. Healthy tribe is Shona women inviting me to help them make sadza at a wedding or Samburu women decorating my daughter’s head with beads or Maasai men teaching the tourists to jump. 

And at this stage in my life, I’m actually part of many tribes, and still none at all. And I’m mostly OK with that. 

But my ridiculous life has taught me to make family where I find it and to cherish the tribes that I have. And I love The Bulwark community. And if that is weird, I don’t care. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say if you were raised in a foreign culture and sent you to boarding school at a young age, you might also find meaning and belonging in strange places. 

I bet you didn’t think I could connect my dumb parodies to the deepest needs of my soul, and you would have been so very wrong about that, like Ross Douthat levels of wrong (that is a Bulwark inside joke). I am ALWAYS capable of going full-on Oprah. 

But also—I’ve actually met some of the Bulwark personalities and fans in real life, and it’s not an act. They are the genuine article. I’m grateful.

And I’ll probably keep making the parodies because why the fork not.

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