The Resurgence of Rampant Tribalism

Several pieces of archeological “trivia” clicked together for me the other day.   First was an event in the early history of the United States, during the time period when the Indians had had enough and decided to push the English out of New England – in a conflict known as King Philip’s War, named for the young chief of the Wampanoag Indian tribe. Despite differing religious beliefs, the English colonists were united, while the Indians were fragmented into more than half a dozen local tribes, two of which, the Pequot and the Mohegan, supported the English.  On top of that, at a point when the English colonists were having great difficulty, the neighboring Mohawk tribe, rather than support King Philip, attacked the Wampanoag.

The second piece of informational trivia was the recollection that one of the contributing reasons for the Spanish success against the Aztecs was that tribes conquered by the Aztecs united with the Spaniards.  The third was an article in Archeology revealing recent discoveries about the ancient Etruscans, one of which was that, despite their initial control of the central Italian peninsula and a higher level of technology than the Romans, in the end Rome triumphed, largely because the Etruscan cities could never form a truly unified nation.  Greece is another example.  The ancient Greek city-states never could form a unified nation – except briefly in short-lived alliances and then under the iron fist of Alexander and, despite their comparatively advanced technology and civilization, ended up dominated by the Romans.

The largest single difference between a nation and a collection of tribes is that a nation is held together by an overriding set of common beliefs.  The United States began as a “tribal” confederation, but succeeded in unifying what amounted to regional tribes through the idea and principles of a federal republic… for a period of little more than sixty years before the beliefs of the southern “tribes” resulted in rebellion.  One of the contributing factors to the defeat of the South was the lack of cohesion between the “tribal states” of the southern confederacy, a lack exemplified by the fact that some southern railways had different gauge track systems from others – and it does get hard to move supplies when you have fewer railways and they don’t interconnect.

While history does not repeat itself in any exact fashion, patterns and “echoes” do, and one of the patterns of history is that large and unified countries almost always triumph over nations that are or resemble tribal confederations or over smaller nations.  Another pattern is that confederations or unions seldom endure.  They either merge into a nation of shared values, as did the United States, or they fragment, as did the former USSR.

The problem facing the United States, and the world, today is that tribalism is again becoming rampant, if more in the form of values, largely religious, that are increasingly intolerant of those with other values.  This tribalism, instead of seeking common ethical and practical grounds, manifests itself in demanding that those with other beliefs be repudiated, if not exiled or exterminated, and often demonizes those with comparatively minor differences in beliefs.

More than a few political scientists have theorized that this trend could conceivably, if unchecked, result in the political fragmentation of the United States into several nations.  While I’m not that skeptical, I do see that this tribalization has resulted in a growing failure of society and government and an increasing inability to deal with critical national problems, ranging from failing infrastructure to financial overcommitment and endless wars around the globe.

And… as another symptom… is it that surprising that one of the top-rated media shows is the “tribally-based” Survivor series?  More tribalism, anyone?

6 thoughts on “The Resurgence of Rampant Tribalism”

  1. Let’s not overlook the tribalism of the secular. Very recently a well known science fiction author was ousted from a convention by a form of “tribal warfare” centered on identity politics and whether or not a person is part of the right crowd of self-styled “activists.” I suspect it’s part of human nature, our want to split off and form associations that compete. How else to explain sports? You want to see tribal warfare, put a stadium full of Red Sox and Yankees cans together! Or an arena filled with Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz fans! (grin)

  2. Err, cans = fans. Me fail English? That’s unpossible!

  3. The author wasn’t just “ousted,” but dis-invited after having been named as Guest of Honor. That’s like being given an honor and then having it taken away — all because the author in question wrote something that the governing committee of the convention didn’t like. While I suspect there might be many people who wouldn’t like what was written, isn’t that what we as writers should do, at least occasionally — not to be disagreeable, but because at times our beliefs and principles just don’t always agree with the “tribe”?

  4. Given the author in question, and the particular convention that she was due to attend as GoH, it was almost like she was being defrocked — for sins against the secular ‘church’ as it were. Or maybe I am stretching the metaphor too hard? I agree with you absolutely that it’s inevitable that all writers will write things others do not like — the “tribe” can’t always agree with us, and we won’t always agree with it. And that this is not a terrible thing, either.

    What seems very terrible to me is that we now have a young crop of self-designated “ism” police within Science Fiction who have made it their business to check the rest of us, and make things unpleasant — or as unpleasant as can be achieved via the oily lens of the internet — for any offending parties. This trend seems to be increasing, and list of offenders growing.

    Or maybe I am just too young myself, and haven’t had time to settle into a spot of my own from which I can quietly observe the carnival of Correction without feeling like I need to stand up and slap people.

  5. What is the relationship between tolerance and ethics?

  6. Jamey says:

    Is it a resurgence of tribalism, or is it the more basic “might makes right”? As you point out, the South was split in small groups – and therefore, could be defeated in detail. Cooperation might make a group stronger – but does it make them *right*?

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