You will know the tribes by their bumper stickers. Those watch-your-back talismans affixed to our minivans. We’re social animals, desperate for extended families, but tribalism which served us well in ancient times now splinters a humanity hungry to be whole. The myth of the staunch individualist ignores accomplishments of our collective will, yet individualism is precious, and herd mentality both dangerous and dull. Think of that frightful tribe, motivated by unconditional loyalty, its mindless chants filling stadiums in crude rituals of domination. I’m speaking, of course, about Green Bay Packers fans.
Thankfully, Vikings fans are a pale imitation of their namesakes from Scandinavia, those longboat marauders, as vicious and cruel, it is alleged, as many a hedge fund manager. But the Vikings got over it. They traded their battle axes for Volvos and social democracy. Instead of kidnapping they’re exporting cheap furniture, because Us against Them will get you only so far.
A handful of close friends is a blessing beyond measure. How do we hold onto that without circling the proverbial wagons? How can tribes expand and blend like living Venn diagrams without falling into in-group ethics? How do we “coexist” as one tribe’s bumper sticker suggests? “Don’t Tread On Me,” says another’s, twisting the sentiment of revolution for reactionary effect. A rattlesnake, poised to strike, illustrates the theme. Along with this less-than-veiled threat, drivers approaching our blindside must be warned we are insured by Smith and Wesson, and deputized for vigilante justice. Tailgate at your own risk, and don’t step on my snake.
There exists a loose motorcycle tribe comprised of owners of Harley Davidsons. Harley’s motto: “Making chubby guys look tough for over a hundred years.” Herein are sub-tribes such as the old-school Visigoths-with-bearing-grease-under-their-fingernails, and though I am weary of macho-men and wary of gangs, I must admit some admiration for their aesthetic — the rough functionality of their clothing, and screw-the-Man taste. I envy their blood-oath loyalty and sense of danger shared. But the fuck-the-world parochialism of some makes for a tough interface with others. Maybe that’s how they like it. As individuals, of course, they’re just people, more complicated than we might guess. I once played music at a biker wedding, and as has happened at weddings for millennia, tribal boundaries were relaxed and outsiders welcomed, to toast the ties that bind.
There are tribes believing themselves to be the only righteous tribe, who would govern us all with the one true law of their one true scripture, and every knee shall bend and every Willy aim for the one true wifely orifice. And, with life beginning at foreplay, that would still be a sin if not skin-on-skin, in this hungry world, for God’s sake, in this, the year of their Lord, two thousand eighteen.
There are tribes which consider scriptures land titles for colonial projects. We’re here — you lose — God says. No arguing that, and it puts a serious dent in our one small world crusade. Our one small world swept with refugees fleeing instability. And who did the destabilizing? The same men we turn to to protect us from said refugees. They cannot lose. The circularity of events insures that Empire’s snake will eat its own terrorist tail. This is perpetual motion propelling the merchants of death. And there’s no need to advertise when the news will tell the lies which push your weapons and your stock. Invest in fear, go short on shame, there’s no such word as “sorry.”
There are the ghost tribes of the internet, diffuse and anonymous, amplifying the peaceful and the poisonous, infiltrated by deceptions both benign and malicious, and surveilled by algorithms of commerce and the state. Anonymity functioning like a Ku Klux Klan hood, something to be shed once one’s digital crosses have been burned, and it’s time to blend back in at the office or the shop. The world is now wired as one, but instead of being united it’s Balkanized down to the tiniest cohorts and cabals. When looking in someone’s eyes (the only visible living cells, by the way) it’s harder to lie and threaten and hate. Deep in our genes we are wired to cooperate, yet alienation is epidemic, and “deaths of despair” on the rise.
Community is the bunker-busting love-bomb to level the walls which divide us. Isolation, even for introverts, is not our true nature, and hatred is a toxin synthesized in the laboratories of control. Maybe community is another word for tribe. Maybe our evolution lags behind our trade and technology, and we’re not ready to relate to humanity writ large. There are too many people to know or love, but can’t we at least leave them be?
Last summer I attended a wedding in rural northern Wisconsin. As it turned out the groom was an old-school biker who married his neighbor, my dear friend. I’ve never seen so many burly men in one place — the majority on the bride’s side. It was a casual, outdoor wedding, and one fellow wore a Second Amendment T-shirt. But decency prevailed and tribal boundaries didn’t stand a chance. There were liberals from Minneapolis with their teenage kids in skinny jeans. The bride’s adopted son, who walked her down the aisle, was an hispanic Afghanistan vet. The violist in the musical trio was black. And the sun shone on us all without distinction as my heart swelled at this gathering of impossibly complicated humans. This was how it happens, I thought. This was how love wins.
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