At the heart of every human lurks a beast. We have crocodile brains, monkey digits, and hominoid eyes. But written into the fabric of man's greatest physical attribute, the swollen cerebral cortex, is the operating system of a savage.
For millennia we existed in small, kin-bonded groups. This ancient relic of our evolutionary legacy still smolders in our being. Despite all the trappings of modern technology, we yearn to escape the confines of our plastic and metal caves, to roam a pristine landscape alone or in small bands. We write great documents on the concept of independence and argue ferociously over what it means. It stirs something deep inside, for we each and every one descended from countless generations of people who enjoyed a liberty we can only dream of. For the vast history of our species, we humans were ruled by neither tyrant-king or elected leader: Mankind is a tribal creature.
The scientific study of tribal society is the purview of ethnology and ethnography, both sub-topics within cultural anthropology. And while those words evoke images of primitive people in rain forests or deserts, it manifests itself in endless cultural practices easily seen on the modern battlefields of Iraq and in the politics of Washington, DC.
The noble savage is as much of a myth as the bloodthirsty tribesmen. The diversity of and within tribes far exceeds the scope of this post. They come in large and small, seemingly violent and surprisingly gentle. But there are a few broad features that most tribes have in common such as a rich mythology, taboo activities, and ritual ceremonies. Afarensis has more:
Ridicule and scorn are powerful boundry maintenence mechanisms (Failure to perform the role assigned to a particular status can actually make one sick). Boundry maintence mechanisms serve to keep us separate from them. The problem is that there is some leakage. Ideologies and world views become less pure as "we" meet and mix with "they" so boundry maintenece mechanisms provide a fence to keep "us" in and "them" out
Early hunter gatherer societies tended to be egalitarian. But with the development of agriculture, the concept of rank and wealth soon emerged. Repressive, institutional ideologies appeared, providing opportunity for high ranking members of agricultural groups to control uprisings and enlist support. Specifically, the existence of an enemy was useful, for with an enemy comes fear, and fear promotes unity and serves as a cudgel with which to bludgeon critics.
Tribes often use body art, dance and song, distinctive clothing, and piercing to identify themselves as members within a larger culture, which can appear intimidating to outsiders. The adolescent on the left is a Yanamano Shaman in training, the person on the right is a punk rocker. Despite their fierce appearance, both individuals are peaceful members of their respective subcultures
A common characteristic among tribal groups is ethnocentrism, the belief that one's own ethnic group is superior and the standard by which to judge all others. In more extreme cases, ethnocentrism is intertwined with local supernatural mythology and ideology to produce the basis for intolerance. In these groups, the leader[s] is looked upon as someone who is magical, chosen by deities and/or endowed with decision making instincts that transcend tradition or reason. If this sounds familiar, it should; add a few more ingredients, an enemy or enemies with which to rally the members of the group and perhaps a cult-like following of believers impervious to reason, and it begins to resemble fascism.
Two examples of leaders of what some call proto-fascist subgroups within larger populations; Left: Mohammed Omar, reclusive leader of the Taliban. The Taliban is a violent subculture within a much broader, mostly peaceful Islamic population. Right courtesy Crooks and Liars: Ann Coulter is a member of the extremist neoconservative faction which exists within a larger mostly peaceful North American conservative population. Although members of either group would intensely dislike the comparison, components in both the Taliban and the neo-conservative religious right utilize similar propaganda tactics to spread a comparable ideology of authoritarian cultism, religious fundamentalism, violence, and hatred
The opposing neoconservative faction within the larger Republican caucus views us and everyone else not as an alternative political party or a group holding a different world view. They see us and pretty much everyone as something far more dangerous, we are Them, we are The Enemy. This is the defining characteristic of a special type of tribe or gang: The Hate Group.
Our founding fathers were aware of this phenomena, and they crafted documents like the Constitution to sap these dangerous movements of the social inertia they need to gain a foothold. That might explain why there is a war against the Constitution by the neo-right; they sense either consciously or unconsciously that it prevents their movement from blossoming into full blown authoritarianism.
The phenomena emerged in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union, it cropped up in Rwanda in the mid 90s. It has stalked humanity in both mind and world since before the dawn of civilization. We may have thought we were immune to the influence of hate groups. But one very powerful gang of hate has gained a foothold on our own shores. Yes, the Tribal Hatred has finally come out, again, proud Fascist debutantes, clawing out of our collective Id, tumbling unwelcome out of the GOP closet. This mob is eager to foist their hatred on the rest of us through deception, raw power, thuggery, or the barrel of a gun. We are all at risk; atheist, Jew, homosexual, black and other minorities, media, Muslim, the ACLU, women, etc.
From the standpoint of cultural anthropology, it might be said there is a form of violent tribalism, alternatively called neoconservatism or the religious right, loose in America. So try to keep in mind, when you hear someone from the right parroting talking points that climate change is invalid or that Iraq is going swell, it's not so much an argument made from ignorance that can be corrected with information: it is a tribal chant.
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