When we were freshmen at Oberlin, four of our required 12 hours of social sciences could be met by taking Marcia Colish’s dread History 101, a class in which I routinely scribbled 10 pages of notes out of sheer desperation as she flung the story of Western civilization at us at warp speed.
She talked about how empires rise and fall. First, there would be tribalism, though she didn’t call it that.
No, she didn’t call it that because back then, we mistakenly thought that tribes only existed in “uncivilized” parts of the world, which didn’t even merit mention. Her course started with the fall of the Roman empire, but didn’t dwell on its causes. Instead we waved at the Patristic (dig that etymology) scholars and then sailed on to the Merovingians and Carolingians.
So the story back then began with warring dukes and wannabe kings and emperors. Back then, as Rome fell and Byzantium faded eastward, there was of course the “Holy Roman Empire.”
But what there really was, was tribalism. We just didn’t call it that. Still, Ms. Colish gave us the fundamental principle: Empires fall. They crumble into chaos and then – she taught us – nation-building starts. Nations arise and then they grow into empires, and then those empires fall and so in goes, on and on.
What we didn’t appreciate, because we didn’t see we were in the middle of it, is just how messy the fall of empires can be.
And we never studied what really happens when an empire crumbles. It doesn’t go right back into nations; now we see, it goes down to the bones. And the bones, because evolution is slow, are tribes.
So here we are now, in a global economy with 24/7/365 ¼ communications, working at the tribal level to get the world’s work accomplished every day and try to prevent incinerating ourselves in the meantime.
How’s that working for you?
Two good essays on Salon.com this morning tackle the subject as it’s manifesting itself right here in America. Never mind the lethal and tragic tribalism of street culture vs. the police; this morning’s essays look at why Trump voters can’t even admit to themselves that they might have been wrong – because tribalism is such a deeply embedded survival mechanism: http://www.salon.com/2017/06/21/watch-why-trump-fans-wont-dump-him-now/
And in an interestingly congruent essay, Lucian Truscott IV – he of the Jefferson family scandal and many trenchant insights into our society – writes about “power without money” – about how you motivate scared human beings to go out an fight a war when there’s no immediate reward in it for them and they are too many to punish … and how that is exactly what our nation’s underpaid, unloved but faithful government bureaucracy is, and how Trump hates those bureaucrats because he doesn’t understand the concept of power without money.
Or maybe, I am thinking, he understands it very well on an instinctive level. Instinctively, he knows these faceless functionaries are not of his tribe, and he is exerting all of his own power to dismantle and destroy them.
Just thinkin’ … read Truscott at http://www.salon.com/2017/06/21/power-in-the-absence-of-money/ …and hope that our justice system and those patient, faceless bureaucrats survive this bout of tribalism. But as Ms. Colish never quite pointed out, when empires crumble, nations are not what they crumble into. They crumble into tribes, and it is messy and dangerous. Like the Dark Ages.
Let us pray ..