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The screw-you spirit; tribalism and group antipathy.

James Fallows, an editor of The Washington Monthly from 1972, to 1975, reports for The Atlantic from Yokohama, Japan.

Sometimes the Monthly includes "tribalism" on its list of evil practices, along with expense-account conventions, end-of-the-year government spending sprees, and so on. There's an important point >; here that is concealed by an unfortunate name.

"Tribalism" doesn't sound as if it has anything to do with the average American's life. The word sounds like something strictly from the Third World, appropriate only for people who actually describe themselves as belonging t"tribes," like the Ibos in Nigeria or the Miskitos in Nicaragua. But the meaning behind the term has a bearing not only on America's major problems but also on the countrys best future hopes.

The idea behind "tribalism" is the inst >;inctive sense that people are divided into "us" and "them" categories on the basis of traits they acquire by birth or upbringing-race, language, religion, clan, or caste membership. One crucial ingredient of the tribal mentality is that it's almost inconceivable for people to shift out of the category they're born into. The other crucial ingredient is a double standard of morality. People inside the tribe-"us"-deserve better treatment than the people on the outside-"them." When tribalism is described thi >;s way, it's easy to think of illustrations of its deplorable effects-in Northern Ireland, in the Middle East, in The Godfather and Romeo and Juliet. There are other, less obvious illustrations. The central tragedy of the Philippines, I think, is a "Godfather"-like family/tribal ethic that allows people to mistreat anyone who's not part of the same clan or "barangay."

The more important point, however, is that this kind of tribalism is the normal outlook in most of the world. It is not some peculiar, lo >;calized evil, like wife-burning in India, or just a form of ignorance that economic progress automatically corrects , like the drinking of impure water. From what I can tell after several years in Asia, most people strongly prefer to live with others of their own "tribe" and feel only a feeble bond to those who are born different from them. This emotion is strongest in the most modern Asian country-Japan-but is powerful in all the others. The Chinese have a very strong sense of Chinese-ness; most Koreans >; scorn "impure" children of

KoreanAmerican marriages; the politics of most Asian countries break down on tribal lines (sometimes these are racial and ethnic, as in Malaysia; sometimes regional, as in Korea; sometimes based on clans, as in the Philippines and Indonesia). Asia is not a microcosm for the entire world; but in its belief that tribal ties do and should matter strongly, it is more typical of the world than America is.

To most Americans, this tribal outlook sounds terrible-and it clearly is har >;mful in its effects. (One reason why Japan is happier internally than, say, India is that its sense of "us" includes most people in the country. That is, tribalism warps it only in its dealings with the outside world.) But why, when so many people take the tribal mentality for granted, does it seem to Americans not just inconvenient but "wrong"?

One underlying reason is the Western/Christian concept that every human being is created by the same God and therefore all people have some bond. Obviously the >; explanation can be taken only so far, since Christianity has coexisted with and even been used to justify slavery, apartheid, holy wars, and other intolerant practices. Still, Christianity and Islam are the two religions with the most powerful evangelical component, based on the idea that everyone regardless of race is a potential convert. (Buddhism is also theoretically universal but in practice leads to less evangelism.) In the background of every mainly Christian culture lurks the suspicion that triba >;l discriminations are basically wrong.

The other explanation is a specifically American one: the idea that a society can be made up of people who did not have a preexisting racial or cultural tie to one another. Yes, the Founding Fathers were nearly all from English or other white Western European backgrounds; yes, they excluded blacks from their social contract and killed off the Indians; yes, the American vision has never been free from tribal bias. What makes America unusual, however, is the goal of >;a society that accepts individuals regardless of their "tribal" background. This is a goal very few other societies share.

If we think of the United States as a nontribal society in a tribal world, what does that tell us? One possible conclusion, implied in much of what the Monthly has said on the subject, is that we should try to convert everyone else to believe as we do. That is noble but completely unrealistic. The only effective conversion America can carry out is case by case, through immigratio >;n. (China, India, and the Philippines may remain tribal societies; but Chinese,

Indians, and Filipinos who try to become Americans are, by definition, showing a desire to be judged as individuals, not as members of a category or tribe.)

The more sensible conclusion, I think, is a version of the old "Socialism in One Country" theory about Russia. The most admirable thing America stands for is its nontribal, open social ideal.

America can best help itself and promote its ideal by doing everything possibl >;e to make it work at home. What this means is recognizing the tribal roots of many of our domestic problems-not just black/white differences but also the screw-you spirit of interestgroup politics and big-city life. Calling these things "tribalism" does not make them easier to solve, but it does help show why they're particularly offensive to America's unique ideal.

An appreciation of tribalism can also help our foreign policy. The political-science term "nationalism" sounds like a force that waxes an >;d wanes-increasing when Third-World countries are escaping from colonialism, decreasing at other times. In fact, nationalist feelings are another form of tribalism, and as such should be seen as a constant in our dealings with other countries. America stands for certain universal values, like freedom and democracy, and we should never be afraid to recommend those values to others. But we should remember that the values themselves will be much more popular if they're not mixed up with cultural or politica >;l subservience to the United States. No matter how popular American movies, music, and blue jeans may be around the world, no other society really wants to be dependent on the United States, England, for example, is culturally closer to America than Vietnam or Nicaragua is, and the English desperately needed U.S. help during World War II. Yet even the Brits after a while got tired of GIs who were over-paid, over-sexed, and (the main problem) "over here." Our values will go farther if they advance other c >;ountries' nationalist feelings, not overwhelm them.
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Author:Fallows, James
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 1989
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