Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Tribal troubles

By now it’s pretty obvious that our politics are marked in this era by rampant tribalism. That’s why I wanted to read Amy Chua’s important book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations.

Chua aptly identifies the tribalism that’s currently ripping America to shreds, though her conclusion that all we need to do is really talk to each other and really, like, listen, isn’t a viable option to my mind. When you have half the country denying that the ocean is full of saltwater, it’s hard to listen to those people and not break down in tears. They believe conspiracy theories that have zero chance of being true, but the bottom line is that believing these theories is the signal (to one another) that you’re in the Trump Tribe. It’s like a hand stamp that lets you back inside the disco. 

Where this book comes through most powerfully is in Chua’s analysis of our military escapades over the past fifty years, from Vietnam to Iraq, and if our leaders would acknowledge her observations and promise to do better from now on, we’d be in much better shape as a country. 

Because what she’s landed on is that we have failed to notice or understand the tribalism that existed in all the targets of our military adventures, and consequently, we pretty much lost those wars. 

In Vietnam, we didn’t see, or we ignored, the fact that native Vietnamese despised the ethnic Chinese, partly because Vietnam has been at war with China for a thousand years but also because the ethnic Chinese in Vietnam were the wealthy class and owned almost everything worth owning. Contrary to our beliefs, Vietnam was not allying with China to spread communism in Asia. But we rolled in there thinking we were going to bestow democracy and capitalism on them, when all they wanted to do was kick out the Chinese and have a nation of ethnic Vietnamese people under Ho’s socialist model. 

In Afghanistan we totally overlooked the historical conflict between the majority Pashtuns who had been oppressed and marginalized by tribal minorities (the Taliban is mostly a Pashtun movement). We also didn’t seem to understand the role of Pakistan in manipulating the dynamics there. And after 1980, all we could think about was how to stick it to the U.S.S.R. by supporting the rebels, i.e., the future Taliban. Talk about going in blindfolded. 

And perhaps worst of all, we bullheadedly thought we could overcome the longstanding hostility between the Sunni and Shia sects, which had been aggravated for decades by the cruelty of the Sunni Baathist party (that is, Saddam Hussein), which we supported for years to stick it to Iran. Saddam fought Shiite Iran for eight years just after the Iranian Revolution. We were like, “You’re our boy, Saddam!” But the Shia in Iraq, and the Kurds—they remembered, so they hated our guts when we went in back in ’03, thinking we’d lay a little democracy on them (and profit from their oil). 

The rest is history. 

We’ve also screwed up Venezuela, as Chua points out, and we’re probably screwing up China, India, and possibly even Europe because we’re so goddamn dumb or cocky. Likely both. 

Political tribes govern more human interaction than we want to admit, but after this book, at least we can’t plead ignorance anymore. Now it’s a matter of willful aversion to reality. 

16 comments on “Tribal troubles

  1. kingmidget
    July 22, 2021

    We’ve never understood tribes. I’m reading The Empire of the Summer Moon, about the rise and fall of the Comanches. We made the same mistakes with them as we now make with the tribal concept in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 22, 2021

      That’s true. We’ve always thought we can either bribe ’em or wipe ’em out.

  2. jilldennison
    July 22, 2021

    Reblogged this on Filosofa's Word and commented:
    Ever since a few years ago when a reader informed me that the reason for racism in the U.S. … or anywhere, for that matter … was ‘tribalism’, I have despised that term. I consider myself to be a part of NO tribe, but rather an individual thinker who agrees with some things, disagrees with others. But, I am not a part of any tribe that seeks to put their own religion, ethnicity, skin colour, gender or gender identity, above others. To me, that is the height of stupidity and arrogance. Anyway, I found fellow blogger and author Kevin Brennan’s views on Amy Chua’s book about political tribes to be thought-provoking and interesting. You might, too!

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 26, 2021

      Thanks so much for the reblog, Jill! I just got home from vacay and saw it. One interesting angle is that I think Amy Chua uses literal tribalism (like Shia/Sunni) to shine a light on the political situation in the U.S., i.e., Democrat vs. Republican, White vs. POC, elite vs. working class, or any number of other divisions. The point being, Boy, are we divided.

      • jilldennison
        July 26, 2021

        ‘Twas my pleasure, Kevin! You do good work that deserved a share. I must admit that I don’t understand tribalism in the sense it is used today to attempt to justify racism, homophobia, and a host of other ‘phobias’, but I do accept that it exists for some, and is the reason some cannot see beyond their own self. I do plan to read Amy Chua’s book … it’s now on my list! I hope you had a great vacation! Go anywhere fun and special?

      • Kevin Brennan
        July 27, 2021

        We visited my mom back in St. Louis. Wonderful to see her, but I can’t say that 95 degrees with 95% humidity was especially “fun.” 😉

      • jilldennison
        July 27, 2021

        I know just what you mean about the heat & humidity … makes it almost impossible to breath! I keep reminding myself, though, that at least we haven’t had the triple-digit temperatures they’ve had out west, only adding to the wildfires. Glad you got to see your mom, anyway!

  3. rawgod
    July 22, 2021

    I don’t think tribalism is the correct words. From the time the Huns overran Rome tribes have always been small groups. When the white colonists came to their New World, they did not encounter a great nation of original human inhabitants. No, they encountered a great number of small tribes of them. That was the only way the whites defeated my forebears. We were divided into tribes, and there vulnerable to white aggression.
    Tribalism does not suit this situation. Nationalism comes a hell of a lot closer. It may not be precise, but it is more accurate.

    As for the choice between stupid and cocky (dumb is a condition meaning unable to speak) I’ll go for both, but more of the latter.

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 26, 2021

      Thanks for this comment. It’s kind of a “let’s define our terms” thing, but I think what Chua is trying to say is that we ignore the factors that different groups of people cohere around at our peril. If we don’t understand them, we’ll make terrible errors in confronting them or making peace with them.

      • rawgod
        July 27, 2021

        That is very true. Cultures seldom take the time to bother understanding other cultures because they are so busy trying to understand their own. It starts right from the nuclear family, who create a sub-culture for themselves, and then look to find other families who live as close as possible to the way they live. In doing so they fail to expose themselves to other types of family cultures that are different, and it grows from there.
        To make a long story short, in the USA, republican culture versus democrat culture has now torn through the fabric of family culture. Millions of families have broken apart over politics over the past five years, and one party’s believers can no longer even talk to the other party’s believers, though they be husband and wife, parents and children, or brother and sister, etc etc etc.
        It is happening here in Canada also, but not on such a grand scale. Our political situation is multi-party, so we are not as black and white as America, we have lots of shades of gray, but even so…

      • Kevin Brennan
        July 27, 2021

        Great points. On the family front, I just read that one of the Parkland school shooting survivors says that QAnon has convinced his father that the whole thing never happened. It was a hoax. In other words, he thinks his own son is a paid hoaxer who’s lying for political reasons. Hopeless.

  4. Thank you for sharing this very interesting information. Wil need to read this book, as here in Germany we has something like a traditional tribalism, all over the whole community. It origins from the middle Ages, and the nobles. These could only rule if the subjects were divided into such tribal units. Here you could turn one group against the other if necessary. xx Michael

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 26, 2021

      Thank you, Michael. It’s fascinating that humanity seems to have evolved over the millennia to divide itself into “tribes,” originally to survive I suppose and later to be able to manage, control, or intimidate other humans. In our era, it seems like it’s extremely destructive.

  5. islandeditions
    July 23, 2021

    We need more people who think like Groucho Marx … “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”

    Thanks for highlighting this book, Kevin.

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 26, 2021

      I’ve always loved that Groucho quote … and I’ve lived by it too! 😉

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This entry was posted on July 22, 2021 by in politics and tagged , , .
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