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Who’s Afraid of Tribalism?

It is not news to anyone that the United States is being torn apart by tribalism. Media commentators widely agree that American politics and society is increasingly polarized—divided into two mutually hostile camps which share ever-fewer references and values. While observers may assign a greater share of blame to the identity politics of the Left or the Right, they are nearly unanimous in their insistence that tribalism now characterizes both sides of the political spectrum.

It may seem obvious that tribalism is a threat to American democracy. But when Andrew Sullivan, Thomas Friedman, and David Brooks agree on something, it should arouse suspicion. These three brought us the Iraq War. With different emphases, they embody the common sense of the political center. They imagine themselves as untainted by the prejudices of partisan tribalism; daring thinkers who defy the taboos of Right and Left alike.

But their common fear of ‘tribalism’ reveals them to be members of a particular kind of ‘tribe,’ one that perpetuates its power by accusing opponents of tribalism. Tracing the history of ‘tribalism’ from its origins in the nineteenth century to its central place in today’s headlines reveals how powerful insiders have sought to delegitimize their opponents by presenting them as irrational primitives.

Inventing Tribalism: Africans and Jews

As European empires colonized Africa in the last decades of the nineteenth century, explorers and administrators moved into the continent’s unfamiliar interior. They searched for words to make sense of the bewildering array of societies that they encountered. Many of them turned to ‘tribe.’ The word ‘tribe’ had long been used to describe everything from the Sioux on the North American plains to the ancient Germanic and Turkic peoples who had invaded the Roman Empire. It connoted a small, self-contained population whose distinct cultural norms distinguished it sharply from outsiders—a supposedly primitive form of social life that had been replaced elsewhere in the world by larger structures (states, empires) and identities (nations, races, religions).

Colonial officials tended to describe all African groups as tribes, whether they were speaking of small nomadic populations with only a few dozen people, or of sizeable ethnic and linguistic formations that included millions of people, including those living in urban centers and centralized states. They generally believed that their task—the White Man’s Burden in Africa—was to ensure Africans’ transition to modernity and away from ‘tribalism.’ They understood such diverse phenomena as competition among African groups for resources, resistance to the demands of the colonial state, and demands for greater autonomy as expressions of a singular, atavistic ‘tribalism,’ the virulence of which proved Africans were not yet ready to govern themselves.

As ‘tribalism’ became part of colonial ideology in Africa, it also became a key element of political conversations about another supposedly backward and problematic group: the Jews. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, European and North American observers increasingly criticized Jews and Judaism for being ‘tribal.’ Such views were by no means expressed only by what we might now call the nationalist and antisemitic political ‘Right’; they were also common in progressive circles. Many liberal Christians, who argued that the Bible should be read, not as the literal revelation of God, but as a historical record of the emergence of moral principles, hitched their arguments to a view of Old Testament Judaism as a backward ‘tribalism.’

From this perspective, the advent of Christianity had overcome the spiritual chauvinism of the Old Testament and its Chosen People, transforming Jews who remained unconverted into living anachronisms. As Goldwin Smith—one of Victorian Britain’s leading antisemites—put it in an 1878 essay entitled Can Jews be Patriots? “Christianity offers without tribalism…everything that is universal and permanent” in the Hebrew Bible. Smith linked this theological argument to a political one, when he claimed that Jews living as minorities in Christian countries could never become patriotic citizens. Having refused to give up their spiritual particularism for Christianity, they would similarly refuse to become British, French, etc.

These arguments echoed earlier generations of antisemitic discourse. The philosophes of the eighteenth century French Enlightenment debated what should be done with the “obstinate Hebrews” who seemed equally resistant to religious conversion and cultural assimilation. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer contemptuously described Jews as a winkelvolk—a people living in a corner, withdrawn from the world. What changed in the late nineteenth century was not the underlying logic of antisemitism, which blamed Jews for continuing to be Jews, but rather the inflections of its discourse. Now, through the concept of ‘tribe,’ Jews could be rhetorically linked to other populations whose determination to remain themselves troubled Europeans’ sense of superiority.

‘Tribalism,’ by the turn of the twentieth century, was not so much a concept as a slur. To describe a group as ‘tribal’ was to link it to an ancient past of small, ethnocentric peoples, who were destined to give way to larger, more inclusive, and more rational social structures. It was, indeed, to summon the group so described to disappear, to dissolve itself and join the ‘universal’ identities offered by Christianity and European empires. That colonized Africans and Jews living in the West should resist this summons and attempt to retain elements of their ‘tribal’ identities was seen as proof of their intellectual inferiority or moral perversity.

Accusations of tribalism portrayed Africans and Jews as a conservative, particularist ‘other,’ in contrast to the progressive, universalist self of the accuser—whose own in-group chauvinism was thereby occluded. Those who accused others of tribalism could imagine themselves as enlightened individuals who were attempting to share their expansive and unprejudiced worldview, bringing benighted, isolated tribes into the circle of common humanity. Thus defined, ‘tribalism’ could become a perfect weapon not only for imperialists and antisemites, but also for liberal internationalists.

Liberalism Against Tribalism

In the aftermath of World War One, as the possibility of another global conflict and the rise of fascism alarmed liberal observers, they appropriated the language of ‘tribalism’ for themselves. Many progressive academics of the 1920s and ’30s blamed the outbreak of the Great War on European nationalism, which they saw as a disturbing resurgence of tribalism. Just as it had been the cause of the war, so too was nationalist ‘tribalism’ the greatest threat to the post-1918 peace. In 1934, shortly after the Nazis’ seizure of power in Germany, eminent British historian Arnold Toynbee warned of a new war sparked by nationalism, explaining that “the spirit of nationality is a sour ferment…in the old bottles of tribalism.”

This outlook, which promoted the era’s endless peace conferences and the toothless League of Nations as vehicles for transcending outdated nationalism, can be said to have contributed to making another war inevitable. Describing Europe’s belligerent patriotisms and bloody geopolitics as the return of ancient, irrational demons meant ignoring what made them modern and explicable. Was it, after all, an outdated tribalism that made French political figures as diverse as the monarchist antisemite Charles Maurras and the Jewish socialist Léon Blum seek rearmament in the face of a rising Germany? After Toynbee met privately with Adolf Hitler in 1936, he reported that Nazi foreign policy did not pose such a grave threat as he had thought. Imagining that the Third Reich was merely a throwback to past ‘tribalisms,’ he could not perceive Hitler’s distinctly modern ambitions to transform the world.

Having done little to prevent World War Two, or even to understand its coming, the liberalist vision of tribalism not only survived the war, but became a key part of the post-war intellectual consensus. The most important contributor to the liberal appropriation of ‘tribalism’ was the philosopher Karl Popper. Friedman, Sullivan, and Brooks’s fretful columns in today’s newspapers are descendants of Popper’s 1945 opus, The Open Society and its Enemies. Drawing on liberal critiques of ‘tribalism’ in the interwar period and refining them into a forceful (and tendentious) historical and sociological vision, Popper completed the transformation of the term from a weapon of the West’s old colonial order into a weapon of its new regime.

Popper’s two-volume work began with a reading of ancient Greek history that traced how ‘tribes’ gradually formed city-states. In Athens, this transition went further, creating an unprecedented ‘open society.’ Here, for the first time in human history, people recognized each other as individuals, who had the right and capacity to question social norms through the free exercize of their reason. While all previous modes of social organization had been ‘closed societies’ focused on the reproduction of traditional norms and the maintenance of barriers between the community and outsiders, there now emerged a society ‘open’ both to new ideas and to new people. The cosmopolitan, tolerant, and rational society of Athens, however, succumbed to foreign enemies and internal dissenters, who longed for the security of tradition. Its legacy was revived by Enlightenment-era liberals, only to be met, almost immediately, by ‘tribalist’ resistance in the form of nationalism.

Except for the first scene of his historical panorama, when he speaks of proto-state social groups in ancient Greece, Popper’s ‘tribalism’ does not refer to any concrete social fact with identifiable features. Rather, ‘tribalism’ is a permanent feature of human psychology. It is a deeply-rooted “desire to be relieved from individual responsibility.” It is the coward and the weakling’s way of refusing the hard work of rationally examining social norms, a plea to be rescued from the anxiety of thinking for oneself.

The rhetoric of ‘tribalism’ in Popper’s Open Society functions much the same as it had in the writings of colonialists and antisemites. Those who resist the open society—like Africans resisting European imperialism, or Jews refusing to convert to Christianity—are tribalists. They represent both humanity’s backward past and the base instincts repressed by civilized people. They are afraid of novelty, of having to critically examine their traditions, of putting aside their limited, bigoted identities for the true individuality that comes with adopting universal norms. They are, most alarmingly, intolerant, and thus a threat to the tolerant, open society that they refuse to join. The latter must defend itself against them.

Tribalism Today

In the years after World War Two, Popper’s understanding of tribalism influenced many other thinkers, particularly right-wing defenders of laissez-faire capitalism, who imagined themselves as rational individuals upholding universal norms against atavistic forces unreason. Friedrich Hayek pitted free-market liberalism against tribalism. Ayn Rand, expressing Popper’s views in her own breathless style, wrote that “tribalism is a product of fear, and fear is the dominant emotion of any person, culture or society that rejects man’s power of survival: reason.” Tribalism assumed forms as varied as fascism, socialism, and the gay rights movement, but it invariably (inexplicably, wickedly) rejected Rand’s ideals, which, she insisted, were nothing but human nature codified.

The end of the Cold War and the apparent triumph of liberal democratic capitalism brought the Popperian language of ‘tribalism’ into the mainstream of political commentary. Once the initial euphoria of 1989 wore off, observers wondered why some groups in the world continued to resist the West’s hegemony. Benjamin Barber, in his 1996 Jihad vs McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism are Reshaping the World, classified phenomena as varied as nationalist movements in the former Yugoslavia and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as expressions of ‘tribalism,’ a perspective shared by analysts baffled by the resurgence of nationalism and the spread of Islamic terrorism.

Islamic groups seeking to reinstall a caliphate are hardly ‘tribal’; they aspire precisely to a form of universal dominion that would undo the current global order. Nor are modern nationalist movements ‘tribal’ in the sense of being based on autochthonous populations that seek to preserve their traditions from change and foreigners. The identitarian right in Europe and the alt-right in North America, for example, are creating transnational coalitions that challenge forms of identity based on national belonging (as Americans, French, etc.) making appeals to racial identity (whiteness) and to Western civilization: rhetorical strategies that transcend borders. These are not exactly the forms of modern internationalism that liberals were dreaming of, but they are modern and international just the same.

Calling such movements ‘tribalist’ provided no analytical insight. It did, however, provide moral authority to the liberal world order, by casting its most powerful opponents as throwbacks to the past. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and Marxist parties throughout the West, class fell behind other categories like religion and ethnicity as an organizing principle of oppositional political movements. By interpreting this shift as a revival of primitive, instinctual tribalism, liberal observers can imagine that nationalist and Islamic fundamentalists, however threatening, do not represent a real alternative to the ‘end of the history.’ They are merely flashbacks, ghosts, indigestion—passing symptoms of irrational resistance to the enlightened center.

The dangers of political polarization are real and obvious. They are particularly so to the journalists and opinion-makers who have made careers appealing to a vanishing liberal consensus. But there are also dangers to their panic about ‘tribalism.’ The troubled history of the word shows us that ‘tribalism’ is analytically vacant and likely to guide policy astray. Sermons against ‘tribalism’ did little to stop World War Two, and indeed gave Hitler time to prepare Germany for a new round of armed conflict.

Besides being simply mistaken, charges of ‘tribalism’ do a moral wrong to those they target. The latter are made out to represent a backward, irrelevant form of existence, while their accusers seem to hold down the citadel of reason and progress. But since the nineteenth century, those accused of tribalism have often been guilty only of trying to remain themselves, of resisting the encroaches of more powerful empires and ideologies, of persevering in being. Others described as tribalist, like Hitler and ISIS, of course, have sought to transform the world and wrest power from the global order imagined as oppressing their people. But there is precisely little that is ‘tribal’ in such ambitions. What is tribal—narrow-minded, hopelessly obsolete, and serving the interests of a clique—is the Washington establishment’s discourse of ‘tribalism.’


Blake Smith is a historian of European interactions with South Asia and a postdoctoral fellow at the European University Institute. His essays regularly appear on, and other media.

Filed under: Top Stories


Blake Smith is a historian of European interactions with South Asia and a postdoctoral fellow at the European University Institute. His essays regularly appear on, and other media.


  1. dirk says

    In how far may we describe modern identity forms of social retreat and victimhood as tribalism? I have worked in Kenya, a country, nation, with 50 tribes, the largest of a few million, the smallest a few 1000 people, all with their own language and habits and cultures, developed as adaptations to the geographic region where they lived for centuries or longer (wetlands, deserts, forest, savannah etc etc). Political upheavals now ( in the democracy) are still along tribal lines, often with many deaths. The Roman historian Tacitus described about 30 German tribes, often ennemies, sometimes allies of the Roman empire, also on geographic terms. In primary school, we learned that people far away from Europe, in the African, Amazon and Indonesian bush and savannahs, were still organised along tribal lines, and we understood this as a primitive way of society, to be developed by Europeans (often missionaries) into modern forms of society. This no longer is the case, now we are all equal, but I wonder how the word and concept “tribe” sounds in the ears of older, middle aged and younger people now in the USA and Europe, probably quite different! And maybe often quite negative, or maybe positive altogether (I am no longer a youngster).

  2. Great essay.
    Any concept of belonging has to be tribal. Adolf Loos, in Ornament is Crime, attacked the ‘primitive’ and ‘tribal’ mindset, and thought it ‘degenerate’, because such ordinary, uneducated, rooted people love pattern. Ornament and pattern tell the story of a tribe, which helps foster belonging. The stripping away of ornament in 20thC architecture is one very visible part of the effort to ‘rise above’ tribalism – to erase the particular and quirky and local in favour of the blank and ‘global’. The irony now is that to express a love of Brutalism is a marker of membership of a distinct urban tribe.

    • dirk says

      Take care David, Loos did not look down on ornaments with a function, as expressed by local villagers and peasants on their houses , clothing and carts, but especially where it was just decadent and conspicuous in the Vienna of his time (and of now), where all the frontispieces of houses and palaces are full of dragons, murmeltiere, griffions, monsters, ornaments without any significance, draperies, acanthus you name it. It had become the nomal style at the time, Loos was the first to criticise it, and with reason. Was it tribal? Don’t think so. It was imperial.

  3. Surge says

    Not a very good essay. It fights a straw man with many Hitler arguments. What current commentators mean by tribalism is the deep inate tendency of people to separate society in “us” and “them”. And yes, even ISIS and Hitler did that, although not representing actual tribes. The fact that some colonial powers used accusations of tribalism to cover for their greed in the 19th century is hardly addressing the point.

    • SkipTownCPA says

      You expressed my thoughts on this piece much better than I.

    • Nathan says

      Yes, exactly. One thing I’d add is that the contemporary usage of “tribal” tends to include a kind of non-critical group-think among members of a tribe. For example, knowing a politically “tribal” person’s thoughts on climate change will likely allow you to guess their position on transgender bathroom rights, even though these two issues are completely unrelated.

      • dirk says

        True Nathan, and it goes much further than that. Peterson even remarked somewhere in an essay on the dangers of fascism: -peer pressure is always stronger than the inner moral compass-. When I read this, I got a very unpleasant feeling, because I fear it is all too true. Has to do with tribe psychology, of course.

  4. Charles White says

    The article is a nice historical overview. The one problem, my opinion only, is the concluding sentence which is written as a declarative fact by the author. A second article expanding on this sentence would be good.

    However, a great article providing much to contemplate and think upon.

  5. Michael says

    I agree with Surge. The author seems to dismiss or at least minimize the psychological significance of tribalism, portraying it as some sort of “socially constructed” phenomenon. He seems to do this, in part, in order to agitate against the way in which progressives have employed this term to delegitimize their various enemies. Yet as many Quillete readers have no doubt observed, progressivism itself is a form of tribalism, arguably the dominant manifestation in today’s political discourse. Many people, including myself, who have “left the left” have experienced the incredulity-turned-hostility of their liberal friends or family members struggling to reconcile themselves to the impossible event of one of their own leaving their moral tribe.

    I suggest that any comprehensive analysis of “tribalism” must reckon with its psychological origins, which in turn must incorporate its moral dimension. Jonathan Haidt’s the Righteous Mind makes a profound case that we are “groupish” creatures with a “hive mind.” Josh Green’s Moral Tribes is another great analysis. One thing that’s great about Quillette is that its pieces often do incorporate the psychological dimension to their analysis. Politics is about morality, ultimately, and morality is a psychological phenomenon. I would hazard to say that many of us who have come to enjoy this publication have been led to our perspectives by recognizing that politics is psychological and that ideologies themselves (of which the left seems to have become the most cult-like at the present historical moment) are in effect secular religions, moral tribes organized around a set of social bond-forming sacred values.

  6. dirk says

    Anecdote on classical tribalism: yesterday on Dutch TV a culinary program on bitter gourd. The TV cook went to Surinam to see how it grows and is prepared by the locals. He asks the grower in the bush what type of vegetable it is?, what the cultural background is? The lady (black) hesitates and says it is something general, not special to one group or culture. She probably knew very well (because not a young woman) that it was brought to Surinam with the Indian immigration (as farm labour after abolition of slavery) and only afterwards became part of the dish for other groups as well, but obliterated this knowledge, because nowadays, we are all Surinamers, one country, one people, aren’t we??. It was the white cook who wanted to divide along tribal lines (“which tribe do you belong to?”, it’s even the title of a book). However, this is all history. Tribalism in the USA now follows quite different social lines, concerns and developments, of course.

  7. Aaron Berg says

    Great article. The author displays an impressive grasp of historical usages and origin of the concept of tribalism. However I do take issue with the fact that the author seems to have attempted to reduce tribalism to a mere social construct that has been wielded as a political weapon against various oppressed groups. Inasmuch as this may be the case, the author does not grapple with the more difficult problem of the actual existence of small-scale tribal organization, which is a real problem in African countries whose bloody political conflicts continually fall along small-scale tribal lines — the very type of conflict that the emergence of the nation state was successful in mitigating. So long as the existence in the real world of tribalism is dismissed as a social construct, we will fail decisively in understanding why the concept retains its meaning and power for those who speak out against it.

    • James Lee says


      I didn’t read the author as claiming that tribalism is a mere social construct. I read him as saying the concept has at times been deformed and weaponized to use against ideological opponents, and that such pejorative usage has in fact obstructed analytic clarity and understanding.

      I know virtually nothing about continuous small scale tribal conflict in African countries, but as a born member of the modern liberal project I am sympathetic to your proposition that the nation state has had some success in mitigating those type of conflicts.

      On the other hand, I am also very leery of the modern “hyperliberalism” strain which seems to believe in a universal world with no borders, and who casts their opponents as backwater racists. Such an ideology is profoundly flawed, and yet it is a major force in Western progressive political movements.

  8. The essay seems to ignore the genetic basis of tribal groups, which is the current fashion. Consanguineous mating is standard in some societites. The Catholic Church prohibited cousin marriage during the so-called dark ages, sometimes out to the fourth degree, and this tended to eliminate extended family and tribal affiliations in Europe. The term “tribal” is applied to any form of affiliation that people on the left think is undesirable. This dodge is fundamental to their campaign to deny the facts of human nature, which have caused their actions to initiatives to collapse into bloodbaths.

  9. So, because mainstream political commentary employs the term ‘tribal’ in an ‘analytically vacant’ manner, and because it has been used as a propaganda weapon in order to advance the liberal-capitalist world order, and also because it is liable to hurt the feelings of those who find themselves so labeled, it ought to be banned from acceptable public discourse as yet another politically incorrect expression? I heartily disagree with the drift of the author’s argument here.

    ‘Tribal’ is a technical term, of critical importance in anthropology, designating a particular type of mentality and the social structures, attitudes, etc. it tends to engender. Whether or not that mentality is resurgent in Western populations in our time is indeed a worthy question.

    • WLGR says

      ‘Tribal’ is a technical term, of critical importance in anthropology

      This is actually 100% false: anthropologists have been pushing to discard the terms “tribe” and “tribal” for decades now, and non-anthropologists for the most part have been stubbornly ignoring them. The people who do still use it as if it’s a serious technical term are either pop-facing scholars like Jonathan Haidt or Charles Murray who uncritically adopt their outdated preconceptions about anthropology as raw material for other kinds of questionably rigorous analysis (see “garbage in, garbage out”) or else they’re non-scholarly pundit commentators like Amy Chua or Jonah Goldberg.

  10. Killer Marmot says

    The meaning of the term “tribalism” goes beyond simply being affiliated with a group. It means hating those outside of your group for the sin of being outside of that group.

    It’s a natural human impulse, one that modern education should — but often doesn’t — combat. in. In fact, I suspect that our modern universities are adding to tribalism.

  11. As a cultural anthropologist I am well acquainted with the nuances associated with “tribal” socio-political organization. The way the term has now been translated into the modern lexicon is less familiar or understandable to me. Reading your article made me realize that a lot of people do not understand the essential characteristic of tribalism. Hence let me explain it in operational terms. Members of a tribe recognize rules for interacting with other tribal members. Rules like you don’t steal, rape, kill and so on — which functiion to maintain group cohesiveness and further the existence or survival of the tribe. However, it is clear that in tribal societies these rules do not necessarily apply to people outside of the tribe. In so much, in a general sense, stealing, raping , killing and so on is not regulated by the tribe with respect to the “other”. While a tribal member suffers consequences for social transgressions within the group, when dealing with non-tribal members one could say with assurance– pretty much anything goes. This is clearly evident in the ethnographic and historical record. Tribalism is not a unifying concept for human socio-cultural evolution and progress, rather it is an allegiance to a form of social organization that does not promote greater or world-wide social harmony. Furthermore when you see a group that has rules which apply to those within the group and rules that apply to those outside the group — that should give you a clue that what you are seeing is tribalism– perhaps best noted as a more evolved form of tribalism. Consider for example the Jew/Gentile dichotomy. Jews who ascribe to a set of behaviors appropriate for interactions with other Jews and a different set of rules for dealing with non-Jews are “tribalistic” as evidenced and codified in Talmudic law. Much the same tribalistic identity can be applied to Islam which also has a categorical separation of rules pertaining to relations within and outside the group. It is perhaps worth noting that Christianity seems to be a break from these tribalistic constraints. A good Christian is supposed to treat both in group and out group members with compassion and understanding and perhaps most important “equality”–at least that is arguably the ideal if not always the reality. In so much Christianity moves beyond tribalism and which might well explain in large measure its growth and success on the world/historical stage. Christianities break with tribalism might also explain how it gave birth to modern humanistic philosphical ideals. In summary- Human social evolutionary progress means moving forward away from tribalism. Which begs the question– is “multi-culturalism” really just an attempt to sustain and legitimize “tribalism”? Have to think about that I suppose.

    • dirk says

      A necassary introduction frank, and also answer to breathnumber’s reference, but quite a different matter as the modern, ‘Alt’tribalism of Blake and, e.g., Amy Chua, the post-modern, actual forms within a nation. You (and Blake) consider Jews as a tribal group, I donot think they see themselves as such. The Bible speaks of the 10 tribes of Samaria and the 2 tribes of Juda, the Assyrians, Phenicians and other neighbours, with other languages and cultures were not seen as tribes, but as altogether other people.Tribes I see as somewhat related (genetically, culturally), but not too different, otherwise you speak of barbarians, or, at least, so I have seen it always. I wonder how the term is going to be used and understood in his modern alt-form.

    • ga gamba says

      That’s a good comment, Frank.

      Even today we can see evidence of the recognition of tribalism and measures taken to eliminate it. For example, in interstate trade treaties each party agrees to provide “national treatment” to the counterpart’s businesses and their products and services. Under law, imports are to be treated exactly the same as local products are, e.g. same taxes, same regulation, same enforcement. National treatment is one of the cornerstones of international trade.

    • sorethumb says

      What is wrong with a nation-state if it is doing everything right (such as a sustainable birthrate)?

    • augustine says

      Yet Christianity does not obviate tribes. In our devotion to Christ and his teachings we are One but we may, and usually do, retain significant ethnic, linguistic and cultural integrity at the same time. The latter tendencies do not preclude harmonious relations between different tribes, nations, etc.

      If we recognize only the natural and social orders, the domain of tribalism, we omit the possibility of transcending the limitations of reason.

      • Alan Schenk says


        Thankyou, that was insightful. I am myself trying to square a circle with my Christian beliefs and the advent of multiculturalism in my own country. I see population, culture, society and heritage and yes identity under threat and want to retain that which was, the integrity you mention. Yet to want to do so is seen as racist. I’m not aware of feeling superior to any other race and have friends of other ethnicities, yet i anguish over the dissolution of my own ‘tribe’, in the face of a globalist/universalist demographic change. Can one desire to retain one’s own identity (as defined by ethnicity, country, culture) and yet not be racist?

        • Really? I wonder which country you come from…You do realise that even if things change due to multiculturalism, we call minorities because they are minorities. There’s no way a white-majority country will even suffer from the tyranny of the brown. Is how you feel racist? I can’t answer that. But you should know that minorities too want to live in the same country as you. It could be argued that some could do more to adapt. And yet can you truly shed your culture? Furthermore, would immigration had become such a thing if Western countries hadn’t meddled in foreign state (i.e war in Middle East)? Similarly, if you look at immigrant population, you will notice that often they come from former colonial states. So again, if Western countries hadn’t decided that they needed to have empire, would we have the same convo about immigration? It should also be pointed out that at some time in history immigration was encouraged due to shortage of labour.

          “I’m not aware of feeling superior to any other race and have friends of other ethnicities…” People in general have a tendency to lie to themselves in order to not confront embarassing truth. But I don’t know you, so your statement may be true.

        • Frank says

          The people who hate the word “race” might consider focusing their rage against institutions more influential than people who comment here. For example, the federal government spends billions to collect and make available Census data sorted by race; the New York Times uses the word “race” dozens of times per week; and the previous President of the United States entitled his autobiography Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.

          For most of its history, the U.S. was a European-derived nation with a small “minority” population. As recently as the 1970 US Census, the USA was 84% Caucasian, 11% black, and just 4% Hispanic. It is only recently that the USA and Europe is getting an actual sense of what it means to be a multicultural democracy and it seems clear that the harsh reality doesn’t meet the idealized and Utopian theory for many Americans.

          The roof is about to crash in on those who insist on a purely environmental explanation of all sorts of ethnic differences, not just intelligence. Since the decoding of the genome, it has been securely established that race is not a social construct, evolution continued long after humans left Africa along different paths in different parts of the world, and recent evolution involves cognitive as well as physiological functioning.

          The best summary of the evidence is found in the early chapters of Nicholas Wade’s recent book, “A Troublesome Inheritance.” We’re not talking about another 20 years before the purely environmental position is discredited, but probably less than a decade. What happens when a linchpin of political correctness becomes scientifically untenable?

          The PC problem facing us down the road is the increasing rate at which the technical literature reports new links between specific genes and specific traits. Soon there will be dozens, then hundreds, of such links being reported each year. The findings will be tentative and often disputed—a case in point is the so-called warrior gene that encodes monoamine oxidase A and may encourage aggression. But so far it has been the norm, not the exception, that variations in these genes show large differences across races. We don’t yet know what the genetically significant racial differences will turn out to be, but we have to expect that they will be many. It is unhelpful for social scientists and the media to continue to proclaim that “race is a social construct” in the face of this looming rendezvous with reality.

        • augustine says

          @ Alan Schenk

          Mixing politics and religion is bad as they say, and your concerns bring truth to that axiom. Faith is about transcending our everyday, worldly problems by spiritual understanding– not abating or eliminating them through religious practice. Those who rely on reason and rational thought alone are more limited in their operational prerogatives. Are Christians hypocritical at times? Of course they are, just like everyone else.

          As to your last question, you cannot give away or disown your own identity. You have it and you are free to not emphasize it or politicize it but it remains nonetheless. You are only at risk of being called “racist” for claiming your ethnic or racial identity if you are European (white). That condition does not make you inherently racist but it speaks volumes about those who would label you that way.

  12. markbul says

    “Having done little to prevent World War Two …”

    Good God. What were they to have done? The Japanese had already invaded China – should they have pushed to force them out? Hitler was going to seize vast lands in the east – should his movement into Czech lands have set off an immediate attack on Germany? Or perhaps total capitulation is being suggested here. One certain way to stop a war is to lay down and die for the aggressors. But let’s not let a little reality get in the way of a good online magazine article.

  13. James Lee says

    Thank you. I found your essay very insightful.

  14. Semantics says

    Okay, so, “balkanization” then?

  15. er, I thought the term ‘tribalism’ was just being used as a metaphor…..

  16. Fascinating essay!

    I think a lot of trouble with the modern discourse on “tribalism”, as with any other loaded term, is the motte-and-bailey way in which it’s used. The “motte” is tribalism-as-bias: people adopting facts that favor their tribe instead of seeking the truth. For example, a conservative that rejects climate research or a progressive that rejects behavioral genetics research simply because these are aligned against their tribe’s narrative. Most people agree that this is bad, and that in this way tribalism does stand athwart reason.

    The “bailey” is people having value judgments and opinions that are in line with one group or another. For example, conservatives thinking that NFL players should stand for the anthem or progressives getting Rosanne fired. Even if every tribe agreed on an objective epistemology for pursuing the truth, these value differences will remain. In discussions about value judgments (which are most discussions), “tribalism” is often just a slur used to delegitimize the opponent’s argument.

  17. Richard Roe says

    Tribe obviously has at least two meanings.
    1. homogeneous groups of people with their own language, idioms, habits,common history and culture, and
    2. people who think alike and support each other on an important social issue and regardless of their language, idioms, habits, absence of common history and culture.

    The fact that we have used and are now using the word in the second sense to cast aspersions on “the other” is interesting and quite useful to describe the schisms. The schisms seem to be able to lead to bad things happening. That is frightening.

    • Frank says

      Ironically, many people today consider meaning 1 & 2 to be combined into one. The overarching theory is best summarized as kinship or GST theory. J. Philippe Rushton’s Genetic Similarity Theory (GST) is a biological/ genetic theory aimed at explaining positive assortment on a variety of traits in friendships, marriage, and alliance formation. Friends, spouses, and the other people we make alliances with are more like us than people selected at random. At the psychological level, the same mechanisms that influence these choices may well also be involved in positive attitudes toward people in the same ethnic group. In other words, people have an interest in their ethnic group in exactly the same way that parents have a genetic interest in raising their children. In raising their children, parents ensure that their unique genes are passed on to the next generation. But in defending ethnic interests, people are doing the same thing — ensuring that the genetic uniqueness of their ethnic group is passed into the next generation. When parents of a particular ethnicity succeed in rearing their children, their ethnic group also succeeds because the genetic uniqueness of their ethnic group is perpetuated as part of their child’s genetic inheritance. But when an ethnic group succeeds in defending its interests, individual members of the ethnic group also succeed because the genetic uniqueness that they share with other members of the ethnic group is passed on. This is the case even for people who don’t have children: A person succeeds genetically when his ethnic group as a whole prospers.

      A quick look at the historical record shows that conflict between different groups has been common throughout human history. Tribalism seems to be the default mode of human political organization. The world’s largest land empire, that of the Mongols, was a tribal organization. But tribalism is hard, if not impossible, to abandon, again suggesting that an evolutionary change may be required. Cooperative defense by tribal peoples is universal and ancient and it is bound to have boosted the genetic fitness of those who acted to further the interests of their group. Under such circumstances it would be odd indeed if natural selection did not mold the human mind to be predisposed to ethnocentrism.

  18. X. Citoyen says

    I was about to excoriate the author for yet another invocation of the meaningless abstraction “tribalism” for the reasons cited by the frankest. Tribe is a generic word for self-defined groups, which need not carry pejorative connotations. A religious order that cares for lepers could be analyzed as a tribe–as a self-defined in-group with a specific relationship to (in this case) a defined out-group. The fact that tribe is used with autonomous social groups (as opposed to social groups within larger groups) is a matter of semantics in the case of leper colonies, which are removed from the larger society.

    Analyzing political parties as tribes would be more difficult because they’re more deeply embedded in the rest of society–though I suppose it’s possible. Perhaps one could even analyze liberal democrats as a super-ordinate tribe containing left and right tribal parties. And this is where Brooks’s analysis, for example, breaks down. He seems to miss the fact that it is not tribalism versus the Reason, but better and worse tribes. In his hands, therefore, tribalism becomes, as the author suggests, a lazy way to malign others while feigning disinterested sophistication. Like its now unfashionable predecessor, partisan politics, the accusation of tribalism imputes irrationality to the other side, obviating the need for argument.

  19. Thanks very much for this article and for the comments which it has prompted – especially thefrankest’s anthropological description of “tribalism” and observations on how Christianity differs from Judaism and Islam in this regard.

    • dirk says

      But be aware Robin, that the universalism as preached by religions (Judaism maybe less) is the opposite of tribalism, read the letters of Paulus.

  20. Steve Sailer says

    “But when Andrew Sullivan, Thomas Friedman, and David Brooks agree on something, it should arouse suspicion.”

    It seems as if at the elite level there is a fairly high correlation between being alarmed and outraged by the “tribalism” of Trump voters and being an ardent Zionist. It would be interesting to run a study quantifying what fraction of pundits denouncing “tribalism” most strenuously since the 2016 election are themselves Member of the Tribe.

    • KDM says

      Reply to Steve Sailer:
      Not Sure about Sullivan but Friedman & Brooks are definitely in the tribe. David Brooks son served in the Israeli Defence Force for pete’s sake, I’d say he’s got a blinding bias towards his own tribe.

      This isn’t verboten to talk about as long as your Jewish, see below.
      The problem with our society going tribal has been discussed since the 70’s with increasingly loud warnings and hand wringing. The problem was never really multiethnicities (we have always been multiethnic) the problem is the multiculture. That’s balkanization. Someone said in this forum that Jews don’t view themselves that way, but that’s not true at all. They definitely see themselves as a tribe. (The ones who self identify culturally as Jews and not just religiously). It doesn’t mean they agree on everything, but they do speak the same language. A lot of them put their kids in Hebrew day schools here, they go to Jewish only summer camps and do Birrhright Israel Trips.

      There are hundreds of Jewish advocacy/Interest organizations. The majority of which don’t have anything to do w/ Synagogs or religion, just cultural. They are clustered in just a handful of large cities, mainly on the coast. All this for a population of 6 million people in a country of roughly 320 million…
      Not to mention the glaring tribe that is Israel. The entire country is a tribe. It’s literally an ethno-Jewish state, they even have two state Rabbis, one for Ashkenazi and one for Sephardi.

      So I think our pundits might be blinded to their own tribalism the same way a fish isn’t aware he swimming in water. Their so surrounded by each other both in the physical world and in journalism. It seems as though they’re basically just talking and fretting to each other about the peasents in the middle of the country. Those land and earth people. Anyway, they can look to their own tribe as having good hand in this. See paragraph from J.J. Goldberg below.

      Jewish Power
      Inside the American Jewish Establishment
      By J.J. Goldberg

      “In a way, the American Jewish community is a vanguard of the new chaos. In a national political system that is increasingly balkanized, dominated by feuding interest groups that seem more concerned with their own agenda than with the common good, the Jewish community can fairly claim to be the pioneer. American Jews were the first ethnic or religious minority to win power and influence within the larger body politic by trumpeting their own weakness and victimhood. More recently, they have led the outcry against balkanization of American society–even as they have advanced the science by pioneering special-interest lobbying techniques that combine street protest with targeted political giving and backroom backscratching.”

      Also, see this fascinating essay below:

  21. KD says

    When pundits talk about tribalism, they aren’t employing cultural anthropological terms, they are referring to the phenomenon of people who place loyalty to their identity group over and above their loyalty to the greater political community. Given that the greater polis is based on social cooperation between citizens, members of the polis who rely on the generosity of other citizens but only reciprocate to their own group are free riders on the polis. This destroys social cohesion, and divides the polis. It triggers mirror strategy retaliation by groups which formerly placed loyalty in the polis above their own group identities to shift toward ethnocentric behaviors, until ultimately, the polis unravels completely, and then you just have groups competing for control of territory (like Yugoslavia).

    I don’t see what is wrong with use of the term “tribalism” in the common parlance. Moreover, the problem is real, and will remain real, whatever more politically correct term people invent to talk about it (or more likely, obfuscate it).

    • dirk says

      The problem is, KD, that the word tribe has a history, and a rather tainted one, older readers here will agree (read my first reaction). Now, the meaning of tribalism has shifted in a more humanistic and nationalistic direction, the angle of once has vanished, we don’t think anymore that to finish off the non-tribal ones is something good (or? see above reaction of killer marmot). Same thing with the word sustainable, or natural, or organic, my grandparents would have thought to understand perfectly well what it meant, but, confronted with what it means now, they would be totally wrong.

      • KD says

        We are really talking about ethnocentrism, but that’s probably too academic and contains too many syllables for the modern journalist.

  22. Ron W. says

    Wow, this is a different perspective. Lot of food for thought.

    As an aside, for starters maybe the word “faction” would be better (less pejorative) than “tribe”?

    • Frank says

      “Faction” Interesting. Certainly the “Founders” were very wary of “factions”. It was James Madison who in Federalist 10 “the latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man.” Our Founders were also good historians; they were well aware of Plato’s belief that democracy is the second worst form of government because it inevitably decays into tyranny. Madison wrote in Federalist 10 about pure or direct democracies, which he said are quickly consumed by the passions of the majority: “such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention . . . and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

      The United States began as an implicit ethnic state, whose Protestant European identity was taken for granted. As a result, the founding fathers made few remarks about ethnicity, but John Jay famously stated in 1787 that America was ‘one united people, a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs.”’ a prominent statement in one of the republic’s founding philosophical documents that attracted no disagreement.
      Even Liberals in the 19th century were fervent supporters of nationalism and the essential importance of being part of a community with shared traditions and common ancestry. None of these liberals ever envisioned the nations of Europe and the USA as mere places identified by liberal values belonging to everyone else and obligated to become “welcome” mats for the peoples of the world.

      Many intellectuals conclude that the American experiment was destined to be a failure, grounded as it was in egalitarian, Enlightenment nonsense.

  23. dirk says

    Tribalism sounds warmer, cosier, us people. By the way, I came across a third meaning of tribalism. On German TV, a program and a show with dance and song. Half of the public in Lederhosen and Dirndl, the village dress of a century ago (and longer) of Baiern and Austria. This expression of locality, regionality (with special food, song, talk) for long was something to hide, in my youth you felt ashame that people could see and hear where you came from. This is over now, Europe no longer the arena of nations, but of cultural regions. Of tribes.

  24. Giallopudding says

    It is our nature to belong to groups. The smallest and most vital “tribe” is the family. Tribes can be good or bad in relation to other tribes. Any blanket statement identifying tribes in general as good or bad is meaningless. As with individuals, when assessing the virtues of one, it must be done on a case by case basis. And a globalist ideology that presupposes humanity can exist as one big “tribe” is utopian nonsense. There will always be tribes that are more morally good than others, as long as collectivism allows groups to be lead by a moral sociopaths.

    • dirk says

      I wonder, giallopudding, how many here on Quilette will agree. I myself, have come from a firm believer in a universal, global truth (christian, capitalist, western,human rights etc) into a tribalist, sorry, I don’t know how or what to feel about it, but this is my truth.

    • KD says

      “And a globalist ideology that presupposes humanity can exist as one big “tribe” is utopian nonsense.”

      True, but corporate profits aren’t doing so badly, and the share of the economy going to capital versus labor hasn’t been better than probably in the 1920’s. . .

      • Frank says

        Your answer is irrelevant to the discussion.

    • Frank says

      You are correct. Edward O. Wilson was pilloried for suggesting in his 1975 book Sociobiology that many human social behaviors might have an evolutionary basis; his Marxist critics wanted to keep the mind a blank slate, mold-able by governments into Socialist Man. Research since then has established that Wilson was correct. People not only assort positively for a wide variety of traits, they do so most on traits that are more heritable — that is, the traits that have a relatively strong genetic influence. This means that when you select a genetically similar spouse, your children are more similar to you than they would be if you had chosen your spouse at random. Moreover, identical twins have more similar spouses and friends than do fraternal twins. Genetic differences therefore influence the tendency to assort with similar others. In other words, some of us are more attracted to genetically similar spouses and friends than others, and this tendency is influenced genetically.

      The implication when there is a choice to be made whether in marriage, friendship, or other type of alliance, all things being equal, we are more likely to choose similar others as a way of enhancing the benefits of relationships.

      From their earliest years, children wish to be part of a group, to obey its rules and to punish violators. People have an instinctive morality, a readiness to make any sacrifice in defense of their family or group. These and other social behaviors seem to be inherent and therefore genetically based, even though the relevant genes are still being identified. Race (ethnicity) is the key building block of any real community and the farthest meaningful grouping to which we can give our loyalty. We know that genetic similarity and kinship patterns affect our behavior every day, even in ways we don’t expect. We know that children are race conscious as early as nine months. We know that people are mentally healthier in ethnically homogeneous societies. We know diversity destroys social trust, eventually, even within members of the same ethnic group. The ancients knew this, and modern science confirms it.

      Our society’s frantic efforts to escape these truths gives us the farce that passes for a public debate in a multiethnic democracy. We set up entire social systems and ideologies at odds with our most basic instincts, and wonder why the world seems to have lost its mind.

  25. augustine says

    “The identitarian right in Europe and the alt-right in North America, for example, are creating transnational coalitions that challenge forms of identity based on national belonging (as Americans, French, etc.) making appeals to racial identity (whiteness) and to Western civilization: rhetorical strategies that transcend borders.”

    An appeal to racial identity is a tribalism of sorts, certainly closer to tribalism than universal abstraction. The fact that all races (but not all tribes) are partitioned by national boundaries does not preclude some sense of tribal identity for the peoples in question.

    Western civilization is a very broad concept but it is of course closely associated with Europe and its peoples so it can be viewed broadly as a tribal development. No “universal” idea can evolve universally; it always arrives from particular persons within a particular people (tribe) and historicity.

    • KDM says

      Except that whole white identity thing is futile and useless especially in America. Not only are most whites part of the melting pot America mutts but tons of us beige-y skinned colored people have some Native American (1st Americans) blood in us as well.
      We are NOT a multinational country, we cannot become one and still be America. We were set up to be ONE PEOPLE! Out of the many, one! One nation under God (or whoever your creator is or is not)!

      If tribal identity politics keeps us then we will fractionalize by necessity, we will be a multination and we will have to start grouping together with whoever our own category nationals are.
      Then the military industrial complex will go broke because young people will have no loyalty or patriotism to sign up in the military. There will be no fighting for one nation since will be a multination formerly known as the United states. Not to mention there would be no reason to be ethical in business since there’s no skin in the game unless it’s to my own tribe. From there it’s a short leap to Yugoslavic balkinization.

      BTW, when I say one nation, one people I mean hat with the exception of Native Americans who didn’t immigrate and didn’t ask or want any of this. They are free to be a nation within a nation. Descendants of slaves are complicated but they’re free to move or assimilate. Everyone else CHOSE TO IMMIGRATE. Since they chose it then they have the duty and responsibility to assimilate fully or go back to the country where their loyalty is.
      I’m with Teddy Rosevelt on this one “There is no room for hyphenated Americans in this country”!

      • Frank says

        “If tribal identity politics keeps us then we will fractionalize by necessity, we will be a multination and we will have to start grouping together with whoever our own category nationals are.”

        Yup. That what the literature and a thousand years of history tell us. Multiethnic and culturally diverse democracies, like the USA, consist of peoples of different religions, languages, cultures, races, and nationalities. One of these groups dominates the others by naked military and police power. Nations, on the other hand, are dominated by one group that makes up a strong majority of the population. Finally and most important, nations are inherently stable while multicultural democracies are always inherently unstable. Nations are naturally stable because a majority of the people mutually recognize each other as co-nationals. Multi-ethnic democracies like the current USA never achieve true internal stability. They survive only by military and police suppression and break up the minute the dominant group loses the power to shackle the society together. To understand the future, study the past. Throughout world history, all multi-ethnic democracies have broken up, and almost always in cataclysmic violence. Therefore, the question is not if the multi-ethnic America will shatter, but when and under what circumstances. The only was a culturally diverse multiethnic society can be kept together is by a totalitarian government, a choice the people of the USA are not likely to make.

      • augustine says

        @ KDM

        Where there is a challenge to the dominant “tribe” (whites in this case) by other tribes, the latter will not be comfortable with an identitarianism of the majority. It will seem threatening to them, and artificial and strange to whites themselves. Explicit white political identity certainly does not feel right to me. At the same time it is wrong to deny or deflect racial identity and association where the context is clearly supported by evidence in the historical record. The context of race is not germane to all socio-political realities, in spite of what many on the Left would argue.

        I don’t agree that the idea of one nation in the case of the U.S. should exclude anyone who resides on our territory. How any of us or our ancestors arrived here can be used to divide us further politically. There are some positive aspects of tribalism but resentment is not one of them.

      • dirk says

        But, KDM, the great-grandchildren of the Irish and Norwegian immigrants, or the children of the Latinos, are as much immigrants as the black are the slaves or enslaved of once. And why should the Sioux and Apaches not belong to the American people? I myself live somewhere, and feel myself part of an identity, a western nation, without having had the slightest choice, it was pure lottery. I could have been born in Syria, Mongolia,the middle of the Amazon, or in a Mexican slum. Such things happen simply. Now, I live on potatoes and beef, it easily could have been tortillas and tunas!

  26. Morti says

    Liberals and all leftists have dreamed of the world rid of tribalism and have preached about overcoming it. What they missed is that all they’ve managed to create was yet just another tribe at war with all existing ones. While preaching unlimited openness, universalism, egalitarianism and internationalism this tribe is becoming at least as intolerant, closed and even xenophobic of other tribes as many of the “old” ones have been.

    This isn’t anything new. It’s the same story as with monotheistic religions which waged war with all other beliefs and continue to do so until now.

    Submit to the new all-encompassing ideology that will bring peace, prosperity and love to the world or perish as an evil fascist (aka heretic) bigot (aka pagan).

    • dirk says

      In furtherance of my first reaction here: in how far is tribalism the same thing a ideology? Tiribalism, I think, always has to do with blood and earth ( in the positive way, if possibe at all), if not, better speak of ideology. So, yeas, the Sioux, the blacks and the Bayern Lederhosen can consider themselves as tribes, the left , the right, and the Islam not.

  27. Indie Wifey says

    eliminate tribalism’s tangible manifestations and you have homogenization. live and let live, you have organic influx and merging that allow for a sustainable measure of darwinian survival thriving of any tribe (any collective connected via unifying markers of existence) – and that includes inclusion of differentness recognition and assimilation where it’s best applied – for best chances of ongoing success that stops short of borgian collective subsistence.

    political tribalism is imo the scariest, as it is the most fickle (ie opposing sides saying/standing for the same thing while yet insisting it’s fodder for battle), hence emotionally driven, minimally substantive power driver, not only for its faction-forming but also for its judges and dissenters, who by attacking, drive “tribes” from organic existence – and conflict minimizing celebration of self – to taking up arms (literally and/or figuratively) when faced with (literal or figurative) attach and denigration.

    (i invoke politics first, as academia’s current [tribal] incarnation is skewed far too politically, thus gets pooled under concern noted just above)

    we are wired to circle our wagons. otherwise, if we can no longer ID ourselves into any demographic that lends comfort via familiarity and the myriad realities that are our varied heritages, let’s just start at the most american, westernized, ez access tribalistic acknowledgement/celebration/$ and simply shut down all epcot centers, and then work our way down from there, to everything anyone does in their free time, from worship to a bite out.

    • Frank says

      I hate to tell you but it has been recently written that the 21st century will be the Century of Identity, as ethnopolitics in the multicultural West replaces the Left/Right divisions of the past. The successful political movements of the future will confidently assert the identity interests of its members.

      • dirk says

        I wrote that 1 month ago on Quillette Frank, but, maybe, I was not the first to note it, and being hatched elsewhere too, it’s the logical synthesis as follow-up to the antithesis of Fukuyama’ s The end of History, the Homo Universalis Capitalistus as the only remaining human species on earth.

  28. Frank says

    This might seem simple, as if ethnic identity can be reduced to counting genes. That is not how the human Homo Sapien) mind works. Suffice it that descent is what defines and motivates kinship systems. Members of an ethnic group believe that they share common ancestors, as well as sharing culture. This perceived kinship, expressed in folkloric metaphors such as “shared blood”, explains why ethnic and tribal motivation can be so strong. Knowledge of genetics might now, in principle, substitute for folklore but has not been necessary for thousands of years. By and large, beliefs about ancestry are accurate, so that folkloric beliefs about ethnicity generally correspond to genetic identity. This contradicts the sociological theory that ethnicity and race are socially constructed with no role for biology.

    Frank Salter presents a powerful case for the adaptiveness of ethnocentrism. Different human ethnic groups and races have been separated for thousands of years, and during this period they have evolved some genetic distinctiveness. This genetic distinctiveness constitutes a storehouse of genetic interest. A quick look at the historical record shows that conflict between different groups has been common throughout human history. Tribalism seems to be the default mode of human political organization. The world’s largest land empire, that of the Mongols, was a tribal organization. But tribalism is hard to abandon, again suggesting that an evolutionary change may be required. Cooperative defense by tribal peoples is universal and ancient and it is bound to have boosted the genetic fitness of those who acted to further the interests of their group. Under such circumstances it would be odd indeed if natural selection did not mold the human mind to be predisposed to ethnocentrism.

    In other words, people have an interest in their ethnic group in exactly the same way that parents have a genetic interest in raising their children: In raising their children, parents ensure that their unique genes are passed on to the next generation. But in defending ethnic interests, people are doing the same thing — ensuring that the genetic uniqueness of their ethnic group is passed into the next generation. When parents of a particular ethnicity succeed in rearing their children, their ethnic group also succeeds because the genetic uniqueness of their ethnic group is perpetuated as part of their child’s genetic inheritance. But when an ethnic group succeeds in defending its interests, individual members of the ethnic group also succeed because the genetic uniqueness that they share with other members of the ethnic group is passed on. This is the case even for people who don’t have children: A person succeeds genetically when his ethnic group as a whole prospers.

  29. dirk says

    It might well be that we are slowly going back to some form of global empire, instead of a body of UN with one kind of manifests and idealistic human rights for all. All empires (and there were many, the Roman being best known, the very last ones the Ottoman and the Habsburg Austrian/Hungarian) crumbled and gave way to modern nations with strict sovereignty. The constitutions of all these nations and basic laws are strictly anti tribal/identity preaching homogeneity (though, immaterial free thinking is allowed, in the most modern states at least) but discrimination is the worst crime (whereas it was the basis for all civilisations uptil rather recent times). Give brotherhood a try, it would be nice , humankind as one big family. Lamentably, the tiny crevices seem to grow out, the pillars crumble. But, but…..what was wrong with those empires? The emperor (or a political super-structure) keeping the tribes/identities together on some sort of platform? We still are all humans, so, maybe the platform needs adaptations. Social cohesion must be quite possible over and above tribal , ideological and clan lines.

  30. WLGR says

    Regarding Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld, an early trendsetter for the modern resurgence of the “tribalism” meme, one deserving-classic response is Timothy Mitchell’s 2002 essay “McJihad: Islam in the U.S. Global Order”. Mitchell charts a history in which Jihad and McWorld aren’t actually opposed in any deep sense at all, but in fact, McWorld itself is responsible for creating and nurturing Sunni Wahabbi sectarian extremism in the Middle East as a geopolitical tool with which to crush potential competitors to its hegemony, from secular Arab nationalism in the ’60s and ’70s to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in the ’80s. So deep-seated is this codependent relationship between Jihad and McWorld, even pinning the public-facing ideological justification for its Middle East policy to the so-called “war on terror” still hasn’t stopped Washington from using rebranded al Qaeda affiliates as its proxies against Russia and Iran in the ongoing Syrian conflict!

    If we extend this analysis from the specific history of “jihad” to the “tribalism” meme more generally, we get an intellectually and politically compelling general counternarrative. Far from some primordial condition of savage nonstate peoples, innate in all of us only to be held at bay by the civilizing process of liberal democracy, “tribalism” is a political framework forced on subject populations as an integral aspect of the modern civilizing process itself, presented as offering people uniform identities through which to make their political demands heard by the pluralistic liberal state in theory, while leaving them helpless to affect the imperial dictates that actually determine the structure of their societies in practice. In so many words, “tribalism” is the enemy liberal/conservative centrists prefer to face, which is why they’ve spent decades frantically rearranging the ideological battlefield to keep “tribalism” alive and well on the so-called opposite side.

  31. augustine says

    Why has this entry been bumped off the main Quillette page for the last several days?

  32. Pingback: Weekend Reading 6/8/2018 | Sightline Institute

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