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Game of Tribes

PS#12

The folks who produce Survivor think that they understand tribes. Jeff Probst’s first official duty, on the first episode of every season, is to divide the contestants into tribes—for competition and drama. And of course all of that happens even within the tribes, because who joins which tribe is entirely arbitrary. So they really aren’t tribes.

It makes for interesting TV… hmmm, maybe those producers know exactly what they’re doing.

Something very like that first official event happened to the Middle East following World War I, when sections of the defunct Ottoman Empire were assigned political boundaries that did not coincide with the existing tribal boundaries.

And that’s been interesting since before TV was invented.

Tribalism starts with self-preservation. Then it extends to protecting your family, and after that to groups of families banding together for mutual protection. That’s a community, and when isolated over many generations—as we’ve been through much of human history—it will develop its own ethnicity and customs. The result is a tribe, and being a member has a powerful effect on human behavior.

It’s an “us versus them” so basic that it lies beneath conscious thought.

Mutual protection is a good thing, until it isn’t. It’s not difficult to imagine how much trouble us v. them can trigger. Your tribe is family. “Our people.” Tribe members will give each other the benefit of the doubt—even when no doubt exists. Your membership can make you excuse illegal or immoral acts.

Across time, religions have acted like tribes. For example, the Catholic Church protected priests who were known child abusers. The Mafia, as least as it is presented in popular culture, comes to mind. Scientology. And racism is just another word for tribalism, as it applies to the Confederate flag and the war still being fought in some parts of the South.

Tribalism no longer needs to be ethnic. It has gone full-bore political and cultural, dividing people within diverse fields from sports fandom to science fiction. Most certainly in national politics.

The Affordable Care Act—Obamacare—was based on Republican proposals from the 90s, and on the popular Massachusetts law that was signed by then-governor Mitt Romney. That Republicans can so angrily and utterly reject their own ideas—when they were put forth by Democrats—tells you something truly ugly about tribalism’s power.

Tribalism is at the heart of white privilege. Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts illustrates white privilege heartbreakingly well when comparing the death-in-two-seconds of young and black Tamir Rice, as compared to the salvation-over-40-minutes of an older white man brandishing a shotgun in the street. The white man survived because he was a member of the tribe, one of “us,” while the black kid died because he wasn’t.

And if the steady stream of news and comments full of hate isn’t enough to convince you, FiveThirtyEight.com will show you statistics to prove that being arrested is nearly twice as deadly for African-Americans as it is for whites.

Locating Pitts’ column on the internet was an education in itself. Beneath it, the number of comments from angry white men (and women) was daunting. I’ll let a comment deep into the list sum it up:

“Wow, Mr. Pitts. You not only lay out a clear argument regarding whites’ ignorance of their own privilege, you get a raft load of comments that substantiate everything you’ve said. The commenters’ blindness to their own privilege is breathtaking.”

I had a similar reaction when I searched YouTube for the videos that Pitts mentions in his article. I didn’t find those, but I did find two dozen videos of white men testing Michigan’s open carry law. Gun “enthusiasts” taunting police—then bragging about it without even realizing that openly filming cops might alter their behavior.

And there’s the fact that the gun taunters were white, and looking for a fight.

That’s gun culture, and it’s one of the most virulent political tribes in the U.S. right now. The U.S. House and Senate couldn’t even bring up a background check law for a vote. Too much pressure from people who apparently have no problem with the mentally unstable carrying guns.

If you took any biology courses in the past half-century, you’ve surely read how human habits such as fat consumption got us through a lot of hardship—way back when. Millennia ago. Those habits don’t serve us well now. I put tribalism at the top of that list.

Dogma spawns tribes, and these days the leap into cult territory is quick. I offer the NRA and PETA as examples—from opposite ends of the political spectrum—where a common belief so unites the members, that preserving their bond becomes more important than getting along with non-members.

Or obeying the law.

Why is the tribe of people who look like me—old white men—packing so much heat and hate these days? Demographics. The future. We are already just a plurality. Soon we won’t have enough votes to stay in power, and I wonder what happens then. Especially with those who feel obligated to carry guns.

Time magazine has a fascinating map of present and future demographics in the U.S. It compares the racial mix of each state now with the racial mix in the country as a whole. For example, California’s racial balance in 2013 looks like the projected racial balance of 2060 America. By contrast, 2013 Iowa looks like 1930 America.

Yow—you’re telling me that the first state to judge who should run for president resembles America’s racial balance of 85 years ago?

Candidate Bobby Jindal has been taking his lumps in the media for his support of the NRA. As he should. “When it comes to the state of Louisiana,” Jindal said in Indianapolis, mocking the words of President Obama, “we’re proud to be clinging to our guns and religion.”

Just yesterday I saw video of candidate Rick Perry claiming that the safest response for events like the theater shooting is for more people to carry guns into the theater. This is our field of candidates? These guys belong in 1881 Tombstone Arizona, shooting it out with the Earps.

I’m reminded of a New Yorker cartoon from a few years back: a vendor walking the aisles of a sports stadium during a game, calling out “Guns and alcohol! I’ve got guns and alcohol!” What could go wrong?

We may find out soon. Last week, the Pentagon asked vigilantes to stand down in their unrequested defense of military recruiting offices.

And I’ll bet it broke their hearts to be rejected, because this is as much about the gun culture tribe as it is about protecting other people. Open carry enthusiasts are strutting around comparing each other like high school boys in the gym class locker room.

But there’s also a lot of sad truth in that cliche that you hear when anyone makes a serious pass at gun registration: “Guns don’t kill people, People kill people.”

It’s true. Gun laws won’t stop mass murders like the one in that Louisiana theater. But that fantasy of arming everyone won’t stop them either. Let’s drop back in on those vigilantes-guarding-the-recruiters story … it came with a photo of two guys standing in front of some recruiting office, proudly wearing holsters with loaded guns. No sweat, Uncle Sam. We got this.

Do you remember the video of Tamir Rice being shot? I saw it on a seemingly endless loop right after it happened. I won’t forget it. The police car glides up to the 12-year old black kid and the cop riding shotgun drops him at the exact moment that the car comes to a stop. There was no time for a single word to be spoken.

And that makes me think of those two swaggering vigilantes in front of the recruiting office. And this now is my imagination: a car pulls up, driven by some friendly older white guy who smiles and waves at them. When they approach his car for a chat, he guns them both down. Then he shoots up the recruiting office before the real police can arrive.

How do you stop an attack like that? The solution is not far from Rick Perry’s everyone-needs-a-gun theory. You draw your weapon and shoot anyone who comes near. Just in case this next one’s that Bad Guy who you know will show up sooner or later.

That’s our gun culture. Like so many other aspects of public life, it has become a cult, a social tribe. Laws won’t fix that. Change must from the inside. Remember when the National Rifle Association was about responsible firearm ownership and gun safety? I don’t either, but I’ve read that it was founded on that principle.

A mere requirement that prospective gun owners take a safety course could prevent hundreds of deaths every year when children get hold of unsecured, loaded weapons and kill each other.

So hey, angry white guys, how about it? Listen to your own founding fathers.

Not everyone should drive a car. People could die. That’s why they have training and tests. And licensing. What’s the reason guns should be different? Please don’t tell me it’s because the tribe won’t allow it.

Written by

<p>Steve Schlich is retired after 35 years of writing fiction about software: “easy to use,” “does what you want,” and the like. Hobbies include webmaster for www.RodSerling.com, writing songs and short stories. In 2004, he created www.NakedWashington.com, a website chronicling the naughty public art in Washington, D.C. He lives happily with his wife and cats, north of San Francisco.</p>

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