The “left” wants somehow to unite us all behind ideas that are inherently divisive. (“My life matters more than your life,” “I belong to more victim classes than you do,” and “If you don’t think exactly what I happen to think today, you’re evil and should die.”)
A growing faction on the “right” (including, apparently, former quasi-pseudo libertarian Peter Thiel), wants to unite us all behind big-government nationalism.
Here’s my bet: neither plan will fly, at least not outside of academia, think tanks, and their devotees.
The only thing that will ever unite millions in the foreseeable future is a Lathe of Heaven solution, which will have legions of problems of its own and be short-lived.
And that’s okay. Disunity has plenty of virtues. We just aren’t feeling them right now because our particular disunity is so new and so chaotic.
In fact, while shared cultural touchstones, coupled with respect for difference, are wholesome, creative, and very much needed, it’s safe to say that too much political unity is a very bad thing.
Political unity is — despite the high-flying and noble rhetoric often attached to it — always the unity by and for the powerful and wealthy. It’s been that way since forever. The U.S. may have been the first country ever consciously created “by and for the people,” but it took only a decade or so for the Hamiltonian elite to begin asserting its true intent. And after recent decades of prosperous passivity we’re witnessing the culmination of Hamiltonian thinking right now. And Marxian thinking, too. Whotta combo. (Hint: In political practice, the two aren’t as different as they sound in theory.)
Our current situation looks like disunity on steroids, but the plain fact is that whichever political faction comes out on top (if any), and whichever illusion of unity emerges from the present chaos, the chief beneficiaries will be the Usual Suspects of power. The beneficiaries are unlikely to be thee and me. Not individual rights. Not reason. And certainly not liberty.
Except those pockets of liberty we create. Around the edges and in the shadows.
The tribalism we’ve talked about before.
I’ve been thinking. And thinking. And thinking. About how future tribalism might work. Or not.
I’ve especially been thinking about the “not” part lately. How many of us thought we’d built pretty solid potential “tribes” we could rely on and contribute to in hard times, only to learn that some of our most presumably solid friends were ready to act as kapos for the state* the moment said state pushed the (time for you to) panic button?
Poof. There went our tribes. Or at least there went our confidence that our tribes would be there when tribe members needed each other. And there went our confidence in our own ability to distinguish real allies from fair-weather friends.
That got me thinking about how tribes actually function.
Somewhat of a digression, but really not: I’m seeing three potential models for our tribal future.
1. Actual tribes. Small groups of people born and raised together, bound and bonded by traditions that go back hundreds or thousands of years, and usually also bonded by shared blood, experiences, beliefs, threats, and survival needs. Frequently highly hierarchical and rule (or taboo)-driven.
2. Monastic establishments. Small groups of people who’ve chosen to live together, bound and bonded by service to a higher-than-human ideal. Nearly always hierarchical. Definitely rule-driven.
3. Communities. Small-to-medium groups of people who only happen to live in proximity to each other, pursuing their own individual and familial good in their own ways, but bound by certain shared interests (e.g. neighborhood protection or a need to keep waterlines open and roads passable). Generally far less hierarchical, and (regardless of whatever laws-on-paper exist) more driven by the Golden Rule and common courtesy than by dictated procedures or tribal taboos.
Any one of these models could serve us, and serve the preservation of liberty, reason, and knowledge in an age that ceases to value them. They’re all similar — and different. For purposes of this ramble, I’m lumping them all under the rubric of “tribes,” though the monastic and community models are more realistic for those not born into real tribal circumstances.
So. Thinking about this, I’m confronted with some maybe-not-so-randomish thoughts about what makes tribes work — and why there are so many obstacles to making our (often far-flung) tribes truly functional.
In no particular order:
- Every successful model we have is based on physical proximity. Not that proximity itself guarantees either harmony or security (hardly!); but lack of proximity seems to guarantee fragmentation under pressure. It’s not impossible, but it is hard to turn your back on a community of sisters, brothers, or cousins; pretty easy to walk away from an ally on the Internet you’ve never met and probably never will.
- A tribe can’t merely be based on shared, but untested, ideas. Ideas themselves shift (as the Jacobin left demonstrates nearly every week). Or ideas may be sound and durable, but the people who hold the ideas, not so much.
- Real tribes require long-term, sometimes lifetime, contact, experience, and testing of both the individuals and the groups themselves.
- Tribes are excellent at preserving tradition. Tribal elders inculcate the young with received knowledge and skills. It’s thanks to monasteries and monks that modern scholars have so much once-forbidden material to study. Communities are so synonymous with preserving certain aspects of daily life that the words “community standards” are gospel to some.
- But tribes are rotten at creativity, innovation, thinking outside the box, generating great individual minds (though monastic communities have certainly nurtured a few of those), and adapting to changing circumstances.
- Tribes collapse utterly under even minimal outside influence or changed environments. Monasteries can be bombed or mobbed to smithereens and monastics driven out and scattered to the winds. Communities can change their character with just a few small alterations to the personnel who inhabit them.
- Freedom needs not only to be preserved, but to be practiced and grown.
As I say, these are just random thoughts. Preliminary. Fragmentary. But they all point to the need for a couple of things. One is physical proximity. Another is shared real-world interests if we want to build or belong to tribes that will enable us to preserve and pass on freedom (real-world interests meaning not only a commitment to the same philosophy, but either shared fundamental survival needs or a shared transcendent purpose backed by coherent and cohesive actions).
It also appears that the structure that’s best for preserving something is unlikely to be the best for creating something. In fact, creativity in a tribe may be viewed as disruptive (and not in the self-congratulatory Silicon Valley sense), or downright destructive. (I keep saying it: In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is burned as a heretic.) Therefore, tribes are at best a temporary solution, even if temporary means generations or centuries. The ultimate goal of the tribal future we appear to face isn’t to preserve freedom like a fly in amber or a manuscript in a desert cave, but to release freedom into the world again one day, healthy and vigorous.
But for our purposes — we who may need to create the tribes or found the monasteries — the one big thing my rambling mind keeps returning to is the question of testing and being tested.
Real tribes have killer rights of passage. Children have to prove their courage and strengths and value to their fellows. Young men go on vision quests or perform great feats of hunting before being accepted as fully fledged members. Sometimes the rituals are incomprehensibly brutal, like those of the Mandans of North Dakota. Before becoming men, Mandan boys had to endure being suspended above the ground by piercings through their upper bodies while their arms were weighted with buffalo skulls. All to prove their worth as men of the tribe.
Monasteries require brief postulancies, then longer periods spent as novices to test whether wannabe monks and nuns are fit for the life. Even once fully vowed, monastics have to bear the crosses of hard labor and obedience (and obedience, they invariably say, is vastly harder than any vows of poverty or chastity). They have to go on with their commitment, even when they’re not feeling it. Every day is a test.
Even in informal communities, where acceptance or non-acceptance is a lot less structured, newcomers have, sooner or later, to prove themselves to be good neighbors before being accepted. Being there to help build a shed or a fence, sharing garden produce, transporting a sick or elderly neighbor to an appointment, or maybe just earning a reputation for being diligently watchful of others’ safety while also minding your own business about everyday matters — they’re all tests of a sort.
Can you be counted on? Can you count on others? There’s always a test. Always. Many times, multiple tests.
As far-flung as we are now, it’s hard to test the depth and strength of our connections. Or to be tested and found reliable.
Testing is never infallible. But it matters — and matters far more than shared ideas, which loom so large here in the eworld, but may not count for spit when the you-know-what hits the you-know-which.
Credit to KP for reminding me of the very useful term “kapo.”