Tribalism

By | November 21, 2016

First there were tribes and then there were nation states and now there’s the global village a feature of which is Facebook offering us 1.7 billion friending opportunities. (Be wary – many of them aren’t who they claim to be.) Marshall McLuhan saw electronic technologies in all their forms as creating a worldwide extension of consciousness. Despite the cozy intimacy suggested by the image, he also anticipated the pushback of the local against the global where simultaneous centralizing and decentralizing forces could lead to crises. He would not, therefore, be at all surprised to see that globalization is becoming, for many, a dirty word and that tribes are becoming fashionable again. In reflecting on James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, he draws attention to the Tenth Thunder, the final stage in the cycle of human history, described as a going “back to tribal involvement in tribal mood-mud.” The thought of all the achievements of the Enlightenment ending up in that hole is deeply disturbing.

Despite that, I get the appeal of tribes.

If I were to move to, oh I don’t know, let’s say, Mumbai or Beijing or Ulan Bator, the first thing I’d want to know is where the Anglo tribe hangs out. In trying to get my bearings in an alien world, the cautious part of me would seek out people who would at least give the appearance of having adapted. But finding oneself disoriented in a strange land, even the sight of MacDonald’s golden arches provides a measure of reassurance. Of one thing I’m pretty sure – I’d almost certainly fail any test that aimed to determine if I held Indian, Chinese or Mongolian values. The risk here is that, in venturing beyond the Anglo ghetto, I might inadvertently engage in what natives would consider to be barbaric cultural practices. Finding ourselves in a strange land, the urge to hang with people like us is pretty powerful. Closer to home, gated communities come to mind.

Here’s a cautionary tale about tribes.

A number of years ago I attended a conference at Trinity College, Dublin and got to spend time with a couple of Kenyans. In a late night chat, they allowed as how, compared to other colonialists, the Brits hadn’t been half bad. But my new friends found that the Westminster Convention, bequeathed to them by the Brits as a model for Kenyan governance, embodied a notion totally at odds with their culture and traditions. They were referring to the parliamentary principle of “loyal opposition.” “We’re tribal and tribes have chiefs,” they said, “and for that reason the idea of a loyal opposition, is, for us, a contradiction in terms … you’re either loyal or you’re opposed. You can’t be both.” That tribes had been around very much longer than the Westminster Convention suggests that for thousands of years they managed quite nicely with chiefs and without the benefit of loyal oppositions. From the chief’s perspective, the adjective takes precedence over the noun.

Given that tribalism is becoming fashionable again and populist movements (however defined) are pushing back against elites (however defined), what’s got me twitching is trying to imagine what kind of governance systems 21st century tribes will opt for. The pushing back of which McLuhan speaks arises when we discover that the global village isn’t anything at all like our idea of a village. “Who are all these weird dudes anyway and where did they come from? We’ve been sold a bill of goods and I want to go home. Get me out of here.”

Well, if those who want to go home have grown up in liberal democracies and are able to engage in civil discourse, they have the option of engaging in the kind of conversation that the literary critic, Wayne Booth, gives us a taste of here.

There could be no genuine criticism if they stopped quarrelling, because criticism can be practiced only by free agents whose conclusions depend on perceptions, feelings, and thoughts that can never come in a single mode. In most matters of complex judgment we in fact must mistrust uniformity of opinion; it surely results not from reason but from coercion, idolatry, or laziness.

Yeah, well forget that if you’re scared, disoriented and seriously pissed off. It’s time to go primitive. Tribes worked when they had chiefs didn’t they? Enough with the elitist talk about governance systems, the Westminster Convention and loyal opposition. The adjective wins.

When trouble arises and things look bad, there is always one individual who perceives a solution and is willing to take command. Very often that person is crazy.

Dave Barry, Miami Herald

Enter the demagogues; the 21st century tribal chiefs who find tribal mood-mud to their liking. It appears that there is no shortage of them out there.

Writing this has got me in a funk. Well, I’ve put that the wrong way round … the funk was the occasion for the writing. I can’t end this way, so I’ll go for another way.

A couple of years ago I was writing about my village; the community of cool people who make jazz music. In just a little over a hundred years that art form has gone global. I’ve had personal experience of this having done Getting in the Groove gigs in Paris (the one with the Eiffel Tower) and Jo’burg, South Africa and working with local musicians I met about an hour or so before the gig. Despite our manifest ethnic and cultural differences, we celebrated our shared ancestry in the wonderful music we made together. In fact, engaging diversity rather than pushing back against otherness, is what allows jazz to keep transforming and reinventing itself.

Google indulges most whims and so I tried to come up with an exotic place name to see if, perchance, jazz might have gone there. I picked Ulan Bator and discovered, much to my delight, that Mongolia annually hosts the Giant Steppes of Jazz International Festival. (For those who may not know this, Giant Steps is the name of a jazz standard written by John Coltrane.) Not only that, I discovered that Ulan Bator has a couple of jazz venues: the Turning Point Café and the UB Jazz Club. Perhaps, if I moved there, I’d be wiser to skip the tribe of Anglos and go straight to the clubs. I’d very likely find soul mates in that village.

I’m feeling very much better.

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