The Persistence of Tribalism

I think I need to go back and reread Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld.

The cover of that paperback illustrated the conflict Barber was addressing: a woman in a full burka drinking a diet Pepsi. That one picture showed the conflict between globalization and tribalism.

Barber was exploring the conflict between consumer capitalism in a constantly shrinking, interconnected modern world and deeply-rooted “tribes”–cultures resistant to and threatened by modernization.

In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Istanbul and Brussels, it’s easy enough to point our fingers at the jihadists who believe they are defending their tribal cultures against encroaching global norms. These extremists pose a real challenge to civilization, and the best way to meet and defeat that challenge is by no means clear–not just because of the danger and mayhem they pose, but because there are troubling signs that many of our more “civilized” citizens are responding in kind.

Whatever else accounts for the electoral successes of Donald Trump, a major element has been his blatant appeal to white American tribalism–his willingness to “go there,” to draw stark lines between (a culturally and racially-defined) “us” and “them.” Proposals from Trump and Cruz to “patrol” Muslim communities, to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, the scornful rejection of civility and inclusiveness as “political correctness” all serve to remind us that Middle East jihadis aren’t the only groups responding viscerally to what they see as assaults on their worldviews.

Communication and transportation technologies, scientific and medical discoveries, the growth, productivity and interrelationship of the global economy–all of these advances hold enormous promise, if we can enlarge our concept of our tribes to include the other humans with whom we share the planet.

But right now, the signs are anything but auspicious.


  1. It appears that many in our tribe are now looking for excuses to be more tribal and even the slightest differences between cultures are magnified and used to focus attention on our differences. It’s sounding more like old Deutschland all the time.

  2. The North Carolina legislature followed Indiana’s conservatives with their anti-LGBT legislation to basically enforce discrimination. I look forward to watching them (hopefully) back track out of that mess just like our legislative conservative extremists had to.

  3. Georgia as well. They are facing a huge backlash from their current rfra mess. Only fear of loosing a lot of MONEY will make them pull back, if even that works. Stay tuned.
    And the “Politically correct” business… They just want to go back to calling others by the names they prefer. “N” words for back folk. “F” words for gay folks. You know the drill

  4. Nancy, patmcc: This legislation is currently working its way through the Missouri legislature, and has already been passed in Kansas. I don’t think the timing is coincidence.

  5. It’s nothing new, but it’s always based on ‘the different’.
    Economic history began with this:
    Modern social history began with Prohibition, but it goes way back further than that.
    And the gender wars? Maybe the acceptance of women authors in the Romantic period.

  6. I just read that in Phoenix – a majority/minority city and most populous in Arizona – has reduced the number of polling places from 200 to 80. Protecting the tribe?

  7. Sheila; haven’t forgotten your serious injuries and difficulties with health care. Hope you are recovering, regaining mobility and your independence.

    During the 1960’s I agreed to instruction from two young missionaries from LDS Mormon Church (young white men of course) just out of curiosity. Nice kids; we became friendly and they would often stop by just to visit and drink one of my Pepsis they couldn’t afford on their limited stipend. We always argued about the caffeine in my coffee being against LDS rules but the caffeine in sodas didn’t count. They have since changed that belief. There are now young women and blacks in their missionary field.

    Also, out of curiosity, took some Bible instruction from a friendly young woman from Jehovah Witness religion. At that time they believed only 144,000 would make it into heaven when the end comes. That has changed, probably because they realized there are more than 144,000 Jehovah Witnesses they want to be allowed to enter the afterlife.

    Long before Pope Francis began modernizing the Catholic religion, birth control was permitted by some branches of the church and divorce and remarriage allowed.

    Globalization or tribalism; or did the economy force it’s way into the equation?

  8. Joann – interesting observations. I’ve always wondered why people in some religious sects are gullible enough to believe foolish man-made rules created by their leaders – with the sole intent being to control their followers.

  9. That’s one of the reasons I hate the race question in the demographic section of and surveys. That is an artificial construct to divide people. The race is HUMAN for all of us.

  10. Peggy, I am categorized as “white” in applications for employment and other government surveys – but I am Italian-American and have dark skin. When I do a lot of gardening I get darker; this was not a problem in California but when I moved to Montana I was the “black” because most people there are very white. I experienced economic exclusion from my profession and the state discriminated against me, not allowing me to get a license to practice when it is federal law that I get my license because I have been licensed in CA since 1992, in good standing; however, the bureau of licensing in MT was headed by a woman who was a jealous, vindictive and exclusionary, and lied to the board to deny me my license. I have moved to Oregon and gotten my license without a hitch because they followed federal law, allowing me a reciprocal license. Years ago when in CA, my home state, I experienced the ugly discrimination during my divorce where I was in the “wrong” tribe; although we were all white (except my husband’s attorney who was black), cultural differences caused me to lose custody of my son and I lost every financial issue in court with a Jewish judge presiding – I was not a Jew but my husband was, so everything was decided on the basis that I was not in the “right” tribe or sex. Cultural discrimination exists but it is under the radar when one is “white”! However, this aspect of discrimination is “invisible” but still as hurtful as outright black/white racism. I also have seen and experienced prejudice from christians who have a “sub-culture” within my business that favors those “in” the tribe and “out” of the dominant tribe. Tribalism is alive and well but if you don’t experience its negative effects, you can’t understand how pervasive the problem is in our country. We can make federal laws against discrimination but you can’t take the tribalism out of people who feel justified in putting down a person who is “the other”, and that is why we have Trump winning over the racists who have been in the closet since the civil rights gains of the minorities in the 1960s, combined with the election of the first black President who is more dignified than all those who criticize him and who oppose anything he tries to do, because he is not in their tribe….. a disgusting mess we all need to expose, but people don’t feel it when they are a member of the ruling tribe. Equality is an ideal; life is not ideal. As a secular humanist, I appreciate fairness and compassion for those who are “different”, but I live between two colors that I can’t hide. Hence, the expression “blood is thicker than water”, something we have heard people say for eternity.

  11. “These extremists pose a real challenge to civilization, and the best way to meet and defeat that challenge is by no means clear.” While I certainly do not condone their methods, I have to face the fact that jihadists are acting in line with Barry Goldwater’s aphorism from the 1964 election: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Can any approach to the eradication of extremism that is not in itself extremist have any chance of success? Can a country that allows some states to curtail voting rights continue to argue credibly for democracy-building in any other country?

  12. Tribalism is adequate governance when people live in clusters with enough space between them to preclude constant contact. As the clusters expand into a fixed amount of land, contact increases in frequency and intensity and those interactions have to be managed somehow so tribal government has to coalesce into area governance.

    We’ve now population and area and technology wise hit a hard stop on that process. Sometime in the future we probably will start that engine again because we expand beyond earth but that’s a future concern.

    The last steps in the process here on earth have been the evolution of the UN and multi-national corporations and the emergence of departments of state as the most influential of government services.

    This all comes of course at the expense of local tribal control. They must give up power and control to more general influences both abstract (culture) and tangible and specific (laws and rules).

    Uncomfortable and disruptive for individuals and institutions and in need of figuring out how.

    It boils down to can or can’t we figure out how (as we always have but for smaller simpler challanges).

    History gives two clues. Yes we will but it will be time consuming and traumatic.

    We will because some of us enjoy challanging figuring out how. It will be traumatic because others of us have a high need for local control.

    Humanity in a nutshell.

  13. I would offer a caution or two here in terms of calling globalization an “advance”. In my limited stint in West Africa as a teacher and college administrator I traveled to many central Nigerian villages and towns to monitor local elementary schools and their teachers. In these travels I encountered the poverty side of globalization. Rusting farm tractors from failed and ill conceived international development projects abandoned in weed infested fields next to traditional fields rich in heavy yields and maintained as neat as a holiday dinner table by local families and villages. Or the proliferation of cheap plastic buckets that put whole villages of pottery and basket artisans out of business. The locals could make products that were actually better than the plastic buckets but the latter were being dumped on the Nigerian market not unlike the dumping of cheap products here via Walmart and like stores. Or the development of new Western inspired commercial towns that were weak in terms of commerce but successful in terms of disrupting traditional communities and lives. What was missing in so much of this European, East Asian and U.S. driven globalization was a recognition of local values and local solutions that actually worked very well. In this local mix animists, Christians, and Muslims all lived and worked together. The disruptions came from the thoughtless flood of petro-dollars and international interests thinking they could cash in on an African gold mine in the form of the coastal Nigerian oil fields. When given a chance to act on their own terms the locals were very responsive to the needs of their communities. Hence, when I would travel to a community to investigate the starting of a new elementary school for the Ministry of Education and the teachers college where I was assigned, I always found that the locals had already fashioned the construction of a new school using traditional building techniques before I arrived. I never encountered any resistance from Nigerians in terms of learning about the greater world. As a white former Indiana farm kid teaching educational psychology and overseeing a regional student teaching program for a public teachers college, I was evidence of their willingness to use resources from across the globe. What I did encounter was the importance of letting the locals figure out how to move forward on their own terms in ways that wisely respected their indigenous culture(s) and which took advantage of the many creative Nigerian and African solutions that were already time and people tested. When development/globalization fails to do these things the results can be ugly: producing unwanted and unintended consequences that are harmful to the locals and to the stability of the greater world.

  14. Thank you Sheila for this commentary. It is my belief that we need to interrupt the recruitment process of the terrorists. Just like the KKK and gangs, they look for young men who feel disenfranchised, whose lives lack meaning and purpose. I think many people around the world feel threatened by the Americanization of their countries due to multinational corporations as evidenced by the woman in the burka drinking pepsi. I don’t want a world that has no cultural diversity. The Native Americans lost their culture and were not allowed to speak their own languages and look what happened to them. There is so much we could learn from one another if we could simply learn to celebrate and appreciate each other instead of trying to make everyone just like us.

  15. John Cardwell; I have said for years that progress does not always mean improvement. You experienced evidence of my belief. In the movie, “Inherit The Wind”, the court speech by Spencer Tracy regarding the invasions of progress into our private lives named some of the losses we experience due to progress. Sorry I don’t have a source to those very words; globalization vs. tribalism, the Bible vs. evolution.

    All gains are won at the cost of certain losses in our lives; today, we have little control in our lives on almost every level. The alternative does not HAVE to mean giving up our personal choices to continue moving forward progressively; but it will take action to make the many wise comments and observations on this blog a reality. Quite simply it means we must stay aware by looking past headlining rants and seeking facts; using facts to make our decisions and to VOTE to bring them to fruition.

  16. John, yours was a moving plea. Unfortunately time, tide, and progress wait for no man. Nobody is in control of any of them, our choices are only how to react to them.

    Evolution also favors nobody. Some go extinct and some flourish based on random change and natural selection.

    The best we can do is manage what we can and globally now that’s determined by multinational corporations making money and multinational governments (the UN) doing what nations allow them to.

    I personally have faith that our unfolding future will be both progressive and traumatic just like our past. Big deal prediction, right?

  17. Tribalism would be a step further in the arts, technologies in the 1800s sense, than masquerading as Indians. At least the tribes here in 1492 still managed to come with distinctive sculpture and landscaping styles equal to those of current architects for “modern mounds,” as well as preservation of those sacred and important and original messages in rock throughout these continents.

    The distinctive styles recorded by earliest invaders to 20th Century anthropologists are not those of singular population habitats, nor their mythologies printed in 1492 typefaces still clearly intelligible on street signs in Dublin. My grandmother by the 1950s said to study American word origins, I would need to go to South America. She was home-schooled of course by the male nation, bachelor Harvard herds and their wives.

    So it’s time still to Change the Mascot, the Masks of the Red-Faced white tribes at their tea talks. Anytime between 1492 and “Too Late.”

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