AGORA

Agora

The Tribesman In All Of Us

By Steven Pressfield | Published: June 20, 2009

I was in Frankfurt a couple of summers ago and there was a young man at the hotel named Kaitet Olla Kishau. He was a Masai from Kenya. Kaitet is a big, tall, good-looking guy; he speaks English and German; he’s married to a European lady; he’s a writer and filmmaker. He also goes home to Masai Land two or three times a year, or whenever his father gets word to him that he’s needed. Kaitet dons the robes, tends the cattle, lives the full-on Masai life. He says he feels sorry for his European friends, who don’t have the chance to replenish their souls by periodic immersion into the primal ways.

I have another friend, David McQuade, whose ex-brother-in-law, Bahi (“Warrior”), takes part each summer in the Sundance on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. Remember Richard Harris in A Man Called Horse?  It’s that sundance, with the piercing of the flesh of the chest, the rawhide thongs, the three or four days of non-stop dancing. Anyway, David and Bahi were out there a few summers ago. David wasn’t allowed to participate because he was white, but he was permitted to attend.  So there they are–Bahi, pierced and dancing in 100-degree heat, surrounded by his tribal brothers–and David beside him. What is Bahi saying to David? Something about the ancient ways? The Great Spirit?

Bahi: “David, when you go back to my house, don’t forget the B-roll.  I’ve got some cuts and trims I’ve got to work on later.”

Yes, Bahi is a professional soundman and film editor. Which seems to indicate that the most primeval tribal ways can and do coexist quite handily with modern and post-modern sensibilities. Who, after all, is more media-savvy than al-Qaeda and the Taliban?

Or, looked at from the other end of the telescope, a very strong case could be made that the United States “went tribal” in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Our President declares the enemy “evil-doers” and states that “you’re either with us or against us.” That’s about as tribal as it gets.

The tribal mind, I believe, is the human race’s default setting. Why wouldn’t it be, after millions of years of evolution during which the only mode of social organization was the tribe? The citizen–a completely novel manifestation of homo sapiens–appeared, one might suspect, sometime around the rise of the polis, the city-state, in ancient Greece. Or maybe a related type showed up earlier, when trade became prominent and insular societies were first exposed to the wider world. But the citizen mind-set (intellectual curiosity, individual autonomy, self-regulation, inclusiveness, toleration for dissent) seems to be a higher faculty, layered over the tribal mind but not superseding it, much like the cerebral cortex nestles above the primal brain.

When extreme stress is applied, we all seem to revert to the tribal brain.  It’s our “go-to” mode, our survival setting.  More on this in the next few days.

Meanwhile many thanks to Brandon Friedman of VetVoice for posting our videos and linking to them.  Brandon, in addition to being Vice Chairman for Vote Vets and the editor of its blog, Vet Voice, is the author of one of the best books to come out of the Afghanistan campaign, The War I Always Wanted, a slightly askew recounting of, among other things, his service as a platoon commander with the Rakkasans (101st Airborne) in Operation Anaconda, 2002, the airborne insertion into the Shahikot Valley that sought to finish off the last concentration of al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan at that time.  Good stuff!

Posted in Afghanistan, Agora, Editorial, On Tribalism

4 Responses to “The Tribesman In All Of Us”

  1. June 20, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    Great post Steve. I can’t help but to read this stuff, and go back to Boyd’s Destruction and Creation paper. I thought you would get a kick out of it. He opens up the paper with this statement:

    Studies of human behavior reveal that the actions we undertake as individuals are closely related to survival, more importantly, survival on our own terms. Naturally, such a notion implies that we should be able to act relatively free or independent of any debilitating external influences—otherwise that very survival might be in jeopardy. In viewing the instinct for survival in this manner we imply that a basic aim or goal, as individuals, is to improve our capacity for independent action. The degree to which we cooperate, or compete, with others is driven by the need to satisfy this basic goal. If we believe that it is not possible to satisfy it alone, without help from others, history shows us that we will agree to constraints upon our independent action—in order to collectively pool skills and talents in the form of nations, corporations, labor unions, mafias, etc.—so that obstacles standing in the way of the basic goal can either be removed or overcome. On the other hand, if the group cannot or does not attempt to overcome obstacles deemed important to many (or possibly any) of its individual members, the group must risk losing these alienated members. Under these circumstances, the alienated members may dissolve their relationship and remain independent, form a group of their own, or join another collective body in order to improve their capacity for independent action.

    http://www.chetrichards.com/modern_business_strategy/boyd/destruction/destruction_and_creation.htm

  2. June 27, 2009 at 8:05 am

    Steven Pressman said: The tribal mind, I believe, is the human race’s default setting. Why wouldn’t it be, after millions of years of evolution during which the only mode of social organization was the tribe? The citizen–a completely novel manifestation of homo sapiens–appeared, one might suspect, sometime around the rise of the polis, the city-state, in ancient Greece. Or maybe a related type showed up earlier, when trade became prominent and insular societies were first exposed to the wider world. But the citizen mind-set (intellectual curiosity, individual autonomy, self-regulation, inclusiveness, toleration for dissent) seems to be a higher faculty, layered over the tribal mind but not superseding it, much like the cerebral cortex nestles above the primal brain.

    Growing up in Southern California, I’ve often wondered if there were a sociological link to the tribal mentality of the gangs who claim ordinary neighborhoods as territory. The more I read your posts about tribalism, the more I understand the cultural complexities we face today. Tribalism is alive and well in the communities of America, where intellectual curiosity is stifled by generations of chip-shouldered elders who propagate hatred for those who dissent. Is it even possible to reset the default from the tribal mind to the citizen mind?

  3. History Ph.D.
    June 30, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    You are completely ignorant about the topic of tribes. It’s painful to read, actually. I would use the word “primitive” to describe your knowledge, but I’m afraid you’d take it as a compliment to your theory of the savage dark-skinned races and their oh-so tribal ways.

    • Elcobar
      July 1, 2009 at 8:52 pm

      Wow! I think you must have tried very hard to misunderstand Carolyn, because I didn’t get that at all.

      All tribalism isn’t dark skinned, Doc. Democrats, for instance, tend to be very tribal in their behavior. You wouldn’t happen to be a Democrat, would you? (I can imagine you doing that donkey dance.)

      But in response to Carolyn, I think the tribal behavior you see in SC is more an economically create condition than a societal one. And it’s not true tribalism, but a temporary arrangement, from which many of those you are thinking of are looking for a way to escape – to become “citizens” so to speak.