The Importance Of A ‘Tribe’

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Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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I’ve been attacking “tribalism” a lot lately—and I stand by that. But you can take any point too far. It would be a mistake to conflate the intrinsic desire we all have for loyalty, community, and a band of brothers—our “little platoons,” as it were—with the worst kinds of toxic identity politics that are currently infecting our political process.

Along those lines, I listened to a pretty amazing podcast the other day about Sebastian Junger’s new book “Tribe.” If you’re not familiar with his thesis, I found this story (via National Review) especially thought provoking:

Tribe aptly opens with Benjamin Franklin’s observation, decades before the American Revolution, that more than a few English settlers were “escaping into the woods” to join Indian society. Doctor Franklin noticed that emigration seemed to go from the civilized to the tribal, but rarely the other way around. White captives of the American Indians, for instance, often did not wish to be repatriated to colonial society. At this distance, it is simply astonishing that so many frontiersmen would have cast off the relative comforts of civilization in favor an “empire wilderness” rife with Stone Age tribes that, as Junger notes, “had barely changed in 15,000 years.”

Junger goes on to talk about how some of the affects of PTSD seem to have more to do with a loss of camaraderie and connection that come from ending a military deployment, than from actual trauma suffered in battle. He also talks about how rates of suicide and depression actually go down during moments of existential threat, such as  during the London Blitz or the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

But it’s the story about settlers going all “Dances With Wolves” on us that really underscores how modern civilization provides for our physical comforts, but can fail to provide us with meaning.

This is not some theoretical idea that is of no practical use for us. Aside from helping us treat PTSD and depression, understanding this phenomenon might help explain all sorts of things.

For example a while back I wrote about the dangers of our passionless lives, and how that could help explain the allure of homegrown terrorism.

It’s vitally important for a civilization to provide a purpose and community (especially) for young men. As Junger argues, we can either have healthy and sanctioned methods of initiation into manhood, or young men will invent their own, less civil, rites of passage. “Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet,” observed George Orwell.

This is not a new concept. Junger is an atheist, but the point he is making is utterly consistent with a Christian book I read a few years ago with the rather hokey title, “Raising a Modern-Day Knight.” (Another Christian book with similar themes is titled “Killing Lions.”) The point is pretty obvious. Young men strive for heroism, purpose, and connection. We’re not helping them if we tell them that their services are no longer needed.

The downside of modern American life is that it can be sterile and safe and nihilistic. For all the merits of rugged individualism, the thing we crave most is connection and community. This is not a new observation, and yet, a solution eludes us. In the long run, it may be possible to remedy this at the macro level by fostering community values that bring us joy without infringing on individual liberty. In the short term, though, it’s up to you and me build our tribe, discover our purpose, and invent our own rites of passage.