A nation of tribes

Our tribal emblems include logo-bearing caps that display our affiliation and values.

Our tribal emblems include logo-bearing caps that display our affiliation and values.

We become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.
            – President Jimmy Carter

A nation of tribes

The increasing fragmentation and polarization of Americans, both politically and socially, is much in the news this spring. The message seems to be that we are becoming more isolated from our neighbors, less engaged with our communities, more attached to narrow interests and groups, and less caring about broader concepts and issues.

This trend has been exacerbated by Internet communication, which makes it possible for us to choose the information we want to hear and read, and to ignore any information that challenges what we want to believe. Self-selection of information, especially from a source that promotes misinformation, is probably a bad thing for our society. In essence it has become easier, and more psychologically comforting, to belong to a like-minded and supportive group of “friends” on the web than to be part of that diverse and sometimes cantankerous throng of people who live on our street or within our ward or township.l

We are choosing, not quite subconsciously, to be members of a “tribe” rather than citizens of a “nation,” and that choice is laden with subtle dangers for a purported democracy racing toward autocracy.

However, I disagree with the claims of pollsters and pundits that our fragmentation and polarization is a new or even a modern phenomenon. Our country’s history is rife with examples of tribal allegiances and alliances, ranging from the clique of the filthy rich Boston Brahmins who held an exclusive grip on American governance and economy for some 200 years, to the dirt poor immigrants of New York’s East Side who banded together in gangs (or more accurately, ethnic clubs) mid-19th century to battle against the political and business status quo that denied them opportunities for a better life.

The roots of our innate need for a tribal identity go back to the dawn of the human race. An ancient and powerful proclivity, it is a part of our genetic make-up that has not diminished through a million years of mankind’s evolution from the Paleolithic creature foraging for sustenance in the wilderness to the Homo sapiens of this industrial-digital information age foraging for material wealth in a complex civilization.

We progressed mentally on the fast track, emulating the gods with our amazing acquisition of the powers of comprehension, deductive logic, reasoning, and foresight, but emotionally and genetically we are still that proto human animal locked into the simplistic stimulus-and-response behaviors once necessary for survival.

We are not likely to get beyond this stage. As more than one biologist has pointed out, mankind is no longer evolving in the Darwinian sense of “survival of those most fit for a given environment.” We are in fact “devolving” because we have learned to manipulate the environment so that all, from the least-fit to the most-fit, survive and procreate progeny for the future of our race as long as it lasts.

And we will always be tribal. That has both good and bad implications.

Our visceral need for identity and group loyalty is vastly more powerful than any cerebral appreciation of the abstract values such as national interest, patriotism, or the common good. As military psychologists learned in the course of the 20th century’s gruesome wars, no wounded soldier on the battlefield was ever rescued by a squad mate motivated by nationalistic fervor to make the world safe for democracy; he was rescued by a member of his tribe who was instinctively compelled by his loyalty and love for the injured member of the tribe.

Away from the battlefield this tribal loyalty, this division of the world into “us” and “others,” manifests itself in ways both large and small, beneficial and destructive. The result can be as horrific as Germany’s “final solution” – the calculated and methodical extermination of six million “other” human beings. It can also be as entertaining and mildly amusing as a dozen friends assembling at the local bar, all of “us” wearing Green Bay Packers jerseys on a football game day in November.

Our silent but obvious displays of tribal affiliation include tattoos, logo-bearing hats and clothing, hair styles, affectations of speech, physical mannerisms, music preferences, automobiles, furniture, and hundreds of other expressions of our self-image, symbols of the culture and values with which we identify. Our hobbies and pastimes, the organizations to which we belong, the sports we play or follow, the careers we choose, the places we live – all reflect the character and standards of our tightly defined tribe.

In comparison, the concept of state or nation is too vague, distant, shadowy, generic, nebulous, constantly morphing. There is nothing there our tribal yearning can cling to. The image of an American flag means a hundred different things to a hundred people. A New York Yankees emblem on a ball cap can mean only one thing.

So I’m not sure what it means when someone, especially a political candidate, declares himself a “true American.” For better or worse, our polyglot country will always be a loose conglomeration of a hundred thousand tribes. There will never be a common, homogeneous American culture distilled from a society with so many differences: race, ethnicity, religion, class, education, wealth.

America was not ever, and will never be, a melting pot. But it can be a mosaic of great strength and beauty. I think it was President Jimmy Carter who first said that. Except for those that want to destroy it or make it all their own exclusive color or design, every tribe can contribute something of value to that mosaic.

It may be a crude, garish, mismatched, jumbled piece of artwork, but I kind of like it that way. I hope it holds together.


More stories about life in the North Country are published in my two collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot and Old Coots Never Forget, and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com.

About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
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