Humans have always been social animals. From our beginnings we lived in groups, logical extensions of families. It’s in our DNA. There are social benefits to banding together; safety, division of labor in hunting and gathering, a feeling of togetherness and community. Libertarian types didn’t last long way back then. If they weren’t exiled for not contributing to the group, they hunted alone and thus became easy dinner for their prey. If we look at the definition of ‘tribe’ as a group of persons having a common character, occupation or interest, we can see tribalism everywhere, from fraternity keg parties to gun-totin’ militias. There’s a club for everything you or I can imagine (the association, not the weapon). And tribes can change over time. The NRA began as a support group for hunters and sport shooters, and today it’s nothing more than the main lobbying arm of the weapons industry Political divisions are tribal, in their belief and loyalty to the party platform, at least ideally. I myself belong to the liberal tribe. We sincerely believe that conservatives and their policies are harmful to democracy and are destroying America. Conservatives believe the same of us, and these days it seems, never the twain shall meet. When different tribes with different loyalties make contact, there can be conflict, as there is in Congress. Other examples are the Red Sox and Yankees, or the Packers and Bears. Generally these conflicts don’t end in bloodshed, but others do, as we’ll see later on.
When you go to work for a company, you are joining its tribe. It used to be that loyalty to that tribe — being on time, working hard, being part of a team — were rewarded by the leadership in the forms of good wages, benefits, and a retirement pension. But many of the leaders have betrayed the very members whose labor created the company’s wealth. This would be an example of a dysfunctional tribal group, and those usually disappear, because they lack the synergy of community
Ancient tribes all had their own totem, a symbol emblematic of their origin or how they identified themselves, and the same is true today. The respective totems of Democrats and Republicans are the donkey and elephant. America has a few totems; the Stars and Stripes, the Statue of Liberty, the bald eagle. For us Seattle Seahawks fans (Go Hawks!) our totem is not that beautiful Northwest Coast Indian bird motif, but the number 12. It stands for the twelfth man, which is to say, the fans. Nowadays totems are copyrighted and trademarked (as in logos), and “the twelfth man” is owned by Texas A&M University, who originated the concept in the 1930s. The Seahawks organization pays an annul fee for the use of the name. As in ancient rituals, each home game begins with some celebrity hoisting the flag — not the American Flag, but the one that just says “12.”
Sociologists and neuroscientists tell us that social groups of 150 or less are the most successful. The human brain has an upper limit of about 150 other people we can either recognize or remember. Any political system has a better change of succeeding if the group population is within. Witness the Israeli kibbutz, a kind of collective farm that could be said to resemble communism in its purest form. In a population of millions, it doesn’t work so well, and neither do other political systems unless there is constant participation.
The down side to tribalism is the demonization other tribes or individuals. Ask any Red Sox or Yankee fan, or watch C-SPAN. The ‘other’ is different, not like us. When taken to extremes, we have the ethnic cleansing between Serbs and Bosnians in the former nation of Yugoslavia in the mid 1990s. At the same time in Rwanda, Tutsis and Hutus massacred each other by the millions. We’re witnessing these attitudes in America right now, with people going hysterical about all those brown people flooding across our border. They’re from another tribe; we don’t want them here. We’re seeing constant warfare throughout the Middle East between Sunnis and Shiites, a feud going back some 800 years, and concerning which descendants of the Prophet Mohammed are the rightful rulers. Feuds often began with the killing of one tribal member by someone of another tribe, like the Hatfields and McCoys. They can go on for generations, until elders of both tribes, or the members themselves, decide to end it or at least call a truce. Too many of these feuds can be fueled by outside interests, which always makes everything worse. What’s happening in Iraq right now can be directly traced back to U.S. Foreign policy of several decades, but much of it began after World War I, when the French and British carved up the Middle East, drawing arbitrary borders between ancient tribal areas. The border between Turkey and Iraq runs right through the middle of Kurdish lands.
One of the most ancient conflicts is between Israelis and Palestinians. The nation of Israel was created in 1948, but these two peoples have been going at it for thousands of years. The dispute is primarily over real estate. Just a few weeks ago, three young Israelis were murdered, a revenge killing of a young Palestinian followed, and as of this writing they are shooting rockets at and dropping bombs on each other. One would almost think they enjoy hating each other, they do it with such fervor. I don’t see this particular conflict coming to an end until either the last Israeli or the last Palestinian is killed. This enmity between Christians or Jews and Muslims is ironic, in that they all have a common ancestor — Abraham. That’s why they’re called the Abrahamic religions.
These are still ancient tribes, but they haven’t adapted to a modern age. The clubs (weapons, not associations) we hit each other with today are monstrous, and can destroy far away tribes who had nothing to do with the fight. It seems to me that unless we can once and for all recognize that we all belong to the same tribe, humankind, the future looks pretty dark. There’s nothing wrong with pride and devotion to one’s ethnic heritage, that’s a good thing. Having strong political principles is important, too, but at the same time we’re going to have learn more tolerance for other ways of being. As for war, that’s a luxury we can no longer afford, if we are going to continue as a species.