First, my thanks to those of you who have written to express appreciation for the previous essay in this new series and to warn me that I've "painted a bull's-eye on my chest." I'm aware of the risks inherent in telling people things they don't want to hear; I'm also aware that the longer the "unspeakable truth," of whatever import, remains unspoken, the more damage will occur when those who have refused to face it are finally compelled to do so. In this and in all similar oppositions, I feel a personal moral obligation to take reality's side.
And yes, I am attempting to "sleep with one eye open."
Owing to its associations with various aboriginal groupings around the world, there are few words with as unpleasant a connotation as tribe. Yet it remains exceptionally useful as an envelope within which to study the great importance of habitat and adaptation in human social organization and interaction.
Tribe, first of all, has nothing to do with race. All the races of the world form tribes. Sometimes those tribes are even multiracial. This distinction is critical to making use of the concept.
A tribe is a group with certain social and political characteristics:
- It possesses a set of criteria for determining who is (and who is not) a member;
- It demonstrates a substantial degree of cohesion over time;
- It prefers members to non-members in significant ways;
- It enforces a code of conduct upon members, whether formally or informally;
- It regards interaction and interpenetration with outsiders as occasions of elevated danger and opportunity.
From that definition, it follows that the tribe is the precursor of the organized political unit. The explicitly political unit's major distinction is that it has completely formalized its code of conduct, the penalties for violating it, and the mechanisms that enforce it. Yet we can see the outlines of the political unit, particularly the nation-state, in the characteristics and operation of the tribe.
What makes the tribe fascinating is the extent to which its formation derives from habitat.
The characteristics of a given locale will determine what sorts of life can flourish there. When some species become dominant in that locale is when we traditionally begin to refer to it as those species' habitat. But a habitat, as I argued in the previous essay, never ceases to operate in shaping the species that adopt it. One of the most obvious, yet least studied, aspects of a habitat's operation on its dominant species is in how it shapes whatever tribe might form there.
Remember that a tribe must exhibit both criteria for inclusion and cohesion over time. The most important determinants of these things are blood relationships and the distances over which individuals may practically travel, with the latter helping to shape the former. For example, a severe desert environment such as the contemporary Sahara sharply limits individuals' radius of travel; thus, tribes that form in that environment will tend to be geographically compact. A more life-tolerant environment such as Middle Europe will permit individuals to move more freely and at greater distances; thus, tribes that form there will on average be geographically more dispersed. As a population advances technologically, those radii can be expanded, but characteristics of the environment, such as great heat or lack of easily accessible resources, can retard such progress.
Critical to the understanding of tribes' political importance is the appreciation of how they function in relation to one another over time. The cohesive identity of a tribe causes it to resist subsumption in a larger unit. That resistance is not absolute; tribes have often allowed such subsumption, when given a sufficient reason, as in the case of the formation of the United States from the freshly liberated states. However, since a tribe's ways and traditions incorporate preferences for its own members, the interpenetration of tribes, for whatever reason, will sometimes eventuate in violence. Neighboring tribes that have a history of violent interactions will thus have two reasons to resist subsumption, one considerably more powerful than the other.
The degree of resistance particular tribes exhibit to subsumption and unification is what gives rise to the sizes and shapes of the political units we recognize as nation-states.
Even after nation-states have formalized their legal systems and all that goes with them, whatever tribes they have subsumed will still exhibit tribal characteristics, at least for a while. In particular, members of a subsumed tribe will continue to prefer one another to the members of other subsumed tribes. In historical studies, this is often called sectionalism, but the geographical connotations of that word should not be allowed to lead us astray. After subsumption by a nation-state, the members of a tribe will often undergo some degree of internal dispersion. Yet they will continue to maintain tribal preferences as they disperse, until interpenetration and the slow process of binding to their new locales have had time to weaken them. Consider the resistance of various religious groups to exogamy as an illustration.
Should political incentives arise that reinforce tribal distinctions and preferences, havoc will ensue. A nation-state cannot endure under conditions of internal inter-tribal strife; as Abraham Lincoln put it, a house divided cannot stand. There must ultimately be either a convulsive reduction of the tribes to political passivity, for example by warfare, or a parting of the ways that dissolves the nation-state into two or more separate units, as happened after the British relinquished the rule of India.
A subsumed tribe reluctant to weaken its cohesion and its preferences, but unwilling to risk open conflict with the enveloping polity or with other subsumed tribes, will sometimes "go underground." That is: it will attempt to pull its distinctive characteristics and its methods for preferring members to non-members out of public view. This isn't always possible; when possible, it isn't necessarily easy. But it does occur, for example in the case of the Amish, the Mennonites, and similarly insular groups in American history.
Most fascinating of all, interior conflicts brought about by political forces can actually germinate new tribes within the nation-state. Those conflicts, and the nascent tribes they elicit, can arise from:
- Legal privileges granted to some persons but not others;
- National policies that have regionally, racially, sexually, ethnically, occupationally, religiously, or otherwise discriminatory effects;
- De facto infringements or abridgements of the rights of recognizable groups.
When such forces cause new tribes to arise within an existing nation-state, their tribalism tends to be irruptive, disruptive...and sometimes violent. The extent to which they take hold and attract allegiants is the measure of their impact upon the health of such a nation, and the prospects for its continued existence.
Tribalism is shorthand for the perpetuation of the preferences and practices of a tribe by those who are or were once its members. Among the politically most important aspects of tribalism is the behavior political scientists call particularism: the willingness to grant one's primary allegiance to the tribe in preference to the nation-state. When a tribe subsumed within a nation-state become restive, its members begin to be covertly particularist; when such allegiances become overt, open inter-tribal warfare becomes a real possibility.
There are far too many examples of such alignments in operation in the United States today to be complacent about them. In just the post-World War II decades, we have seen the emergence of tribes based on region (militias), on race (the Black Panthers, old and new), on religion (Muslims in America), on ethnicity (Aztlan, La Raza, et. al.), on gender (militant feminism), sexual orientation (don't get me started), disability (the "deaf culture"), and so forth. A fully cohesive polity would refuse such tribes the slightest degree of political recognition or legislative influence. Sadly, that has not been the case these past fifty years.
I contend that the greatest of all hazards to America's future inheres in the burgeoning tribalism / particularism we observe around us today. To the extent it prevails among us, we are no longer "One nation under God." Rather, we are an assemblage of mutually hostile tribes jockeying for advantage over one another, the ultimate effect of which can only be either the forcible suppression of some tribes by others or the political dissolution of the United States. If we wish not to be impaled on either of those tines of the political pitchfork, we must quench the forces that have given rise to the tribes among us. How that is to be done, I cannot say.