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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Tribes

Years ago, comedians Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner had a routine in which Brooks posed as the 2000 year old man, responding to questions regarding life in his day. One question asked by Reiner concerned whether there were national anthems back then. Brooks replied that there were and recited one: “Hurrah for cave 96 and to h-ll with everybody else.” Funny, cynical we might say, but there is a kernel of truth in the punchline. Humans are tribal, insular, and in many ways little has changed since we were cave dwellers.

There are many good reasons to find one’s identity with a tribe—clan, family or some other federation of like-minded people. We look to those with whom we have commonality to support and defend us from those people or circumstances we deem threatening to our selves or way of life. We find valence with ‘people like us’, and unless we are rejected by our tribe, or question its rules, philosophies or values, we are likely to remain bonded for life.

Tribes can be delineated by nationality, religion, race, political viewpoint, or far more narrow distinctions but whatever the point of differentiation one thing is constant—a palpable antipathy towards those who do not belong. The toxic divide in our country—and indeed throughout the world today is about more than dislike or celebration of our kindred. At its worst, it is a corrosive rejection of the rights of those unlike us—to the point of denying their very humanity. Not just a passive to h-ll with them epithet, but for some, an active hatred simmering at all times, frequently explosive.

The larger tribe, humanity, even when threatened, rarely if ever manifests despite the fact that we all share common threats and challenges which can only be surmounted by common action. We can see the truth of this at this moment during what surely is a significant threat to all peoples, second only to the looming threat posed by our unsustainable abuse of the world on which we live. But even in these moments of existential threat there is little on which we agree.

The extreme xenophobia and anti isms that are so prevalent today have surely been fanned by politicians and other tribal leaders for the sole purpose of setting us against one another for their gain. While we quarrel and fight among ourselves, the instigators accrue wealth and power at our expense. A newspaper article the other day quoted an 86 year old woman living in the heartland who was complaining about the President. She said she had voted for him in the belief he would “punish those with whom she disagreed, but did not reckon on him punishing the wrong people.” It is hard to get one’s mind around the idea of electing someone for the express purpose of visiting harm on those who do not subscribe to our views, but sadly it is all too common.

Some historians suggest that there have been times in our past when humanity found more common purpose—generally following a period of extreme upheaval when all peoples were coping with the aftermath of global strife. The period following the second world war was perhaps one such time although there remained areas of conflict, repression and violations of human rights here and abroad. However briefly, though, there seemed to be an agreed upon need to address the many inequities of human life, not only those brought about by war or famine and its privations but more broadly. As a young person living through the tail end of that period it did seem a kinder and perhaps gentler era but my memories are limited by my experiences and those of my tribe.

Alien invasion is a familiar trope in science fiction movies. In these stories mankind puts aside its differences to defeat the greater threat to the human tribe. Rarely are alien races depicted as anything other than blood thirsty oppressors whose only purpose is to take Earth and its resources for their own. Our projections betray us. It is we humans who are cast as the nobler, more courageous and self-sacrificing defenders of our way of life. The aliens are portrayed in demonic terms and visually represented as magnified distortions of the things we fear. If there are indeed other forms of life in the universe we can only hope that they are not like us—not members of our tribe, but much better.

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