Saturday, June 23, 2018

Book Report: Tribe

12. Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016) (6/23/18)

In Tribe, Junger explores, in four chapters, ways in which societies both exclude and embrace. It's a rather rambling journey, combining personal anecdote, journalism, interview, and secondary sources. Its scope is broad, touching on various Indian tribes—such as the Iroquois Nation with its alternating peacetime leaders called sachems, whose job was to enforce civil affairs, including justice and harmony, and its warrior leaders, whose sole concern was physical survival of the tribe; the war in Bosnia and the London Blitz and the ways they brought people together in common cause; the Righteous Among the Nations roll, which recognizes individuals who saved Jews during WWII; PTSD and victimhood; rates of suicide in various cultures; the financial crisis of 2008; fraud by defense contractors or Medicaid recipients; a 1958 mining disaster; and so forth. The alienating effects of wealth and modernity are one major theme, coupled with the unifying impacts of adversity.

Junger presents his ideas straightforwardly (if rather incoherently—that rambling thing) as if they were fact—or, perhaps better, the only fact. He frequently relates a story, whether from his own experience or research, then extrapolates it into a universal value. The apparent simplicity and obviousness—not to mention gloomy, and occasionally sentimental, self-righteousness—of his arguments are deceiving. He wants, in the end, to find tribe chiefly in a dark place, that of warfare and hardship that draws people together through urgency. But doesn't tribe exist in light as well? Sure it does. That said, he does provide plenty to ponder, especially in terms of where and how we, as individuals, families, and communities, find our own tribes.

Here's a longish passage from near the end to give an idea of his thinking and mode of argument:
I know what coming back to America from a war zone is like because I've done it so many times. First there is a kind of shock at the level of comfort and affluence that we enjoy, but that is followed by the dismal realization that we live in a society that is basically at war with itself. People speak with incredible contempt about—depending on their views—the rich, the poor, the educated, the foreign-born, the president, or the entire US government. It's a level of contempt that is usually reserved for enemies in wartime, except that now it's applied to our fellow citizens. Unlike criticism, contempt is particularly toxic because it assumes a moral superiority in the speaker. Contempt is often directed at people who have been excluded from a group or declared unworthy of its benefits. Contempt is often used by governments to provide rhetorical cover for torture or abuse. Contempt is one of four behaviors that, statistically, can predict divorce in married couples. People who speak with contempt for one another will probably not remain united for long.
 The most alarming rhetoric comes out of the dispute between liberals and conservatives, and it's a dangerous waste of time because they're both right. The perennial conservative concern about high taxes supporting a nonworking "underclass" has entirely legitimate roots in our evolutionary past and shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. Early hominids lived a precarious existence where freeloaders were a direct threat to survival, and so they developed an exceedingly acute sense of whether they were being taken advantage of by members of their own group. But by the same token, one of the hallmarks of early human society was the emergence of a culture of compassion that cared for the ill, the elderly, the wounded, and the unlucky. In today's terms, that is a common liberal concern that also has to be taken into account. Those two driving forces have coexisted for hundreds of thousands of years in human society and have been duly codified in this country as a two-party political system. The eternal argument over so-called entitlement programs—and, more broadly, over liberal and conservative thought—will never be resolved because each side represents an ancient and absolutely essential component of our evolutionary past.
 . . . The United States is so powerful that the only country capable of destroying her might be the United States herself, which means that the ultimate terrorist strategy would be to just leave the country alone. That way, America's ugliest partisan tendencies could emerge unimpeded by the unifying effects of war. The ultimate betrayal of tribe isn't acting competitively—that should be encouraged—but predicating your power on the excommunication of others from the group. That is exactly what politicians of both parties try to do when they spew venomous rhetoric about their rivals. That is exactly what media figures do when they go beyond criticism of their fellow citizens and openly revile them. Reviling people you share a combat outpost with is an incredibly stupid thing to do, and public figures who imagine their nation isn't, potentially, one huge combat outpost are deluding themselves.

1 comment:

  1. I’ve been thinking about reading this book; however, I’m reconsidering. It sounds like it may be too depressing. I don’t need any more depressing in my life.