We like tribalism for the same reason we like fatty foods: We evolved that way.
Homo sapiens didn’t survive long on the African savannas as rugged individualists. Alone, they couldn’t scare away the scarier animals, and, for the most part, they couldn’t catch and kill the tastier ones. But in groups, humans rose to the top of the food chain thousands of years ago and have been passing down their tribe-loving genes ever since.
Customs and practices that ensured the survival of the species were worked out through trial and error and passed from one generation to the next. Over time, and with many setbacks, the knowledge accumulated until we hit the critical mass required for modernity.
Indeed, the story of modernity is the story of how we moved away from traditional, non-voluntary forms of tribalism based on familial, ethnic, or even nationalistic lines and toward voluntary forms of tribalism.
The American founding was revolutionary in its embrace of the universality of human rights (even as it fell so short of its own ideals with the institution of slavery). Since then, the West has fought several civil wars to break away from various tribal ideologies, including not just monarchism and imperialism but also Nazism (racial tribalism), Communism (economic tribalism), and fascism (national tribalism).
In fits and starts, we’ve moved toward ever greater voluntarism, which is a fancy way of saying we’ve moved toward greater individual liberty. According to the American creed, no one, and no thing, is the boss of me unless I agree to it. To a certain extent, that’s even true — at least in theory — about the government, which is a representative institution created solely by and for the people, who are sovereign.
But the instinctive attraction of tribalism endures. The same drives that once pushed tribes to kill the villagers downriver still reside in us. We’ve just learned to channel and check them better. Bowling leagues, football franchises, high-school rivalries, motorcycle clubs, Goth clubs: You name it, these free associations — what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons” — satisfy our innate desire to belong to “something larger than ourselves,” as so many politicians like to say.
Now, in the context of American politics, I would (and often do) argue that the Left has grown confused about all this. It has tried to turn government itself into a tribal enterprise of some kind. Democratic politicians tell us that “Government is just the word we use for those things we do together.” “We’re all in this together!” has become at once a rationalization and a battle cry for larger government and higher taxes.
At their recent convention, the Democrats rolled out a video proclaiming that government is “the one thing we all belong to.” This, to me, is pernicious nonsense. The government belongs to us, not the other way around.
But that is an argument for another time.
What got me thinking about all of this is the effort by various Muslim leaders at the United Nations to lecture us about free expression. Leaders who abuse and torture their own citizens for expressing their ideas or faith seem to think they have standing to lecture us about the limits of freedom.
Well, the tribe of barbarism doesn’t get to lecture the tribe of liberty about what freedom means. A few years ago, Dinesh D’Souza wrote a book, The Enemy at Home, in which he argued that American conservatives and Muslim conservatives should make common cause against liberals and leftists. The book was predictably denounced by liberals, but it was also rejected by conservatives.
Why? One reason, I think, is that whatever our differences with American liberals may be, conservatives understand that our argument with them is still within the family. The fighting is intense, but we’re all trying to figure out what it means to live in this country bequeathed to us by the American Revolution and the Enlightenment.
Well, the thugs haranguing us about the proper limits of free expression aren’t members of that tribe. They haven’t paid their dues.
Because the moral superiority of liberty is irrefutable, totalitarians often feel the need to wrap barbarism in the language of freedom. For example, North Korea calls itself the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Similarly, the Muslim Brotherhood stooge running Egypt doesn’t care about free speech or tolerance; he cares about his own theocratic will to power — and making Americans grovel.
There are more practical reasons not to allow our liberties to be held hostage to the bloodlust of a foreign mob, but underneath them all is the instinctual tribal refusal to let marauders tear down what we’ve built.
— Jonah Goldberg is the author of the new book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can write to him at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.