I like to say that I’m a tribalist. Imagine my surprise to find out that this really means Jewish conspirator aspiring to world domination!
Even if it isn’t used as a stick to beat Jews with, tribalism has a terribly bad name. Law professor Glenn Reynolds defines it as “The tendency to defend our own tribe even when we think it’s wrong, and to attack other tribes even when they’re right, just because they’re other,” and blames it for escalating violence between police and blacks in the US. Economist Barry Brownstein calls it “the worst idea in history.” His definition is “the belief in the supremacy of one’s group identity over the rights of individual human beings.”
Have you met my superhero friend, Straw Man? These professors are well acquainted with him. In order to attack an idea, they first define it as something between torturing puppies and murdering old ladies. Then, surprise, they show how it is horrible, dangerous and evil. They would define a tree as a piece of wood growing out of the ground used to lynch people on.
The fact is that tribalism is a natural human characteristic, which has developed over hundreds of thousands of years of biological and social evolution, that simply means the propensity to prioritize the good of members of one’s own group over others.
It doesn’t mean one has to hate outsiders or refuse to help them if they need help. It doesn’t mean that one is obligated to defend one’s own no matter what they do. It doesn’t mean that non-group members are inferior beings, or don’t have rights. It most assuredly doesn’t mean that outsiders should automatically be treated as enemies.
Tribal feelings apply to all sizes of groups, from the nuclear family to extended families and clans, to regional groupings and to nations. In particular, there is the idea of a people: a group whose members self-identify as belonging to it and who may share a unique language, religion, origin, ancestry, folklore, place of residence, or even certain physical features.
The paradigm case of a people is, of course, the Jewish people. This is the model that the ‘Palestinians’ would like to adopt, although they lack the language, religion, origin, or physical features. Yes, they live here now and have plenty of folklore, although it’s considerably more modern than ours. They’ve been self-identifying as ‘Palestinians’ since the 1960s.
When a people has a sovereign state, it is called a nation-state. A people can exist before the state and create it, as in the case of the modern state of Israel, or the state can be formed by diverse peoples who then grow together to become one people. This is the much-maligned “melting pot” model of the United States: Americans of diverse origins became unified as a people as a result of their experience building and defending their country. Today many Americans, under the influence of universalist ideas, are uncomfortable with this conception, seeing the demand that immigrants learn English as an excess of tribalism or even “cultural genocide.”
In any event, the tribal feelings of a people for their nation-state is called ‘nationalism’, something which is almost as strongly derided lately as tribalism in general. Nationalism is blamed for wars and genocides and almost every form of collective human bad behavior.
The position opposing tribalism is universalism, the belief that one should treat all humans exactly alike, regardless of their relationship. The corresponding antithesis to nationalism is, naturally, internationalism.
In an attempt to improve human behavior after the horrors of the first half of the 20th century, the victorious elites decided to engineer tribalism out of humans and impose an internationalist world order. Not everyone agreed with them, but those who didn’t and wanted a piece of the action pretended to do so. Thus arose the internationalist United Nations and European Union.
The failure of the UN to achieve its primary goal of ending war is due to the fact that no rational national government was prepared to give up its freedom of action while others kept theirs. In hindsight, this isn’t surprising. But as a result the UN has become a huge boondoggle, supporting countless bureaucrats and agencies. The only area in which it has been even slightly successful is in providing a way for relatively weak nations that want to gang up on Israel to do so. Even that has been unsuccessful so far, as Israel continues to thrive.
The European Union is failing today for several reasons; its aspirations to become a super-state clashed with the unquenchable nationalism of its members, and its decision to try to maintain a unitary currency for countries with totally different economic cultures was a mistake. One of the major reasons for the British vote to leave the union was the feeling that they ought not to outsource control of anything, particularly anything related to security, to outsiders, who – in tribalist manner – might put their own interests first. Universalism and internationalism (and socialism!) only work when everyone cooperates, and of course they never do.
Nationalism and, more fundamentally, tribalism, could not be suppressed, and are popping up all over, even in places like Europe where they are still strongly opposed by the elites. In America, minority groups paradoxically behave in a strongly tribal way, while at the same time they appeal to universalist ideals to justify their tribal demands. There is also the explicitly tribal (although to a great extent incoherent) Trumpist movement challenging the official universalist dogmas of the establishment.
Zionism is Jewish nationalism, and in Israel it is experiencing a political and cultural resurgence. The founding generation, which dominated the country’s early days and was strongly Zionist, was replaced by a new leadership which allowed its desire for peace to override rational constraints – the fact that Israel was opposed by strongly tribalist enemies – and adopted a universalist “solution,” the Oslo Accords. The Arabs responded rationally and tribally, grabbing as much strategic advantage as possible and stepping up the terrorism which they saw as responsible for their partial success.
The pendulum is now swinging in the opposite direction, with Israeli voters rejecting politicians who espouse universalist ideas. There is also a growing cultural backlash against the universalist elites who still dominate many areas of Israeli society, which is exemplified by the strong popular support for a soldier who (probably) violated military protocols by killing a wounded Arab terrorist after the Arab had tried to kill his comrade in arms. The fact that this places the general population in opposition to the elite army brass is significant.
It is not a surprise that tribalism, which after all developed over many millennia, can’t easily be snuffed out – especially when people who are being told to adopt more universalist views are facing enemies that are as tribal as ever. But I believe that this is not a bad development.
Tribalism and nationalism per se should not blamed for the disasters of the 20th century. It is not the idea, for example, that Germans should look out for Germans first that gave birth to the Holocaust – it is the myth of “Aryan superiority” and the ethically unwarranted belief that there is no obligation to treat outsiders humanely. Most people care more about their families than they do about their neighbors. But this does not give them the right to murder or enslave those neighbors. The fact that you care more about your country than the one next door is not a green light to invade it.
On the one hand, tribalism can become dangerous when pushed to extremes. But it is not the tribalism that is the problem, it’s the extremism. On the other hand, attempting to apply universalist beliefs as guides to action often results in worse outcomes. For example, the Oslo accords attempted to break down the barriers of suspicion between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs. But the process was not successful, primarily because the Arabs were not prepared to give up their goal of total victory. Thousands of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs died as a result.
A healthy nationalism which creates national pride will have a beneficial effect on the life of a nation, by promoting cooperation, enterprise and obedience to laws. It will also encourage individuals to sacrifice personal benefits for the good of the nation, such as by doing military or other national service.
Rather than struggling against the result of evolutionary development and trying to remake mankind according to an (inconsistent) universalist ideal, why not work with it? Why not accept the positive aspects of tribalism while opposing extremism?
Personally, I prefer Naomi Shemer to Kumbaya.