The breaking up of a village community, a tribe or a nation into autonomous individuals does not eliminate or stifle the spirit of rebellion… (It) fosters a multiplicity of compact bodies — racial, religious or economic — vying with a suspicion of each other.
— Eric Hoffer
The True Believer
Today in our culture there is a wide and broadening abyss.
It is a chasm caused by intolerance, a fracture in society that has been fostered by racism, political extremism, xenophobia, and a deepening lack of civility. But, there is nothing about this abyss that is new. The causes, like the shifting tectonic plates of the earth itself, have been in existence since time immemorial. They have been part of the human condition for as long as recorded history, and probably for many years before the first scratches were made on rock.
In the beginning
No one knows when human beings emerged on our planet. Some people believe in a strict Biblical account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Others subscribe to L. Ron Hubbard’s fantasy, attributing our existence to souls deposited here from other planets “trillions” of years ago and released by volcanic eruptions. Archaeologists cite the evidence of bones excavated in East Africa and dating back perhaps 200,000 years, but evolutionary ancestors may have roamed the area a million or more years earlier.
It has long been fashionable to think about the first human beings as peaceful hunters and gatherers. Some believe that theirs was the true “culture of leisure,” postulating that the extent of “work” was finding food and a safe place to spend the night. Again, no one really knows what life might have been like. The concept of the “noble savage” may be naïve. The currently accepted “best guess” is that the first people lived in small clans, probably nothing more than extended families.
It is also believed that there was probably little contact among the clans. Cultural anthropologists point to the lifestyle of the aboriginal people of Australia before their contact with modern civilization. Australia is seen as something of an anthropological laboratory, having been isolated from the rest of the world for a very long time.
According to legend, sometimes re-enacted by old men a generation ago, a “nation” of a few hundred people would gather yearly for certain celebrations and then split up into small clans, each of which would then go off in its own direction to conduct daily life. Because of this limited and largely ritualistic contact among clans, it is believed that peace reigned.
Father, Mother, and Me
Sister and Auntie say
All the people like us are We,
And everyone else is They.
We and They
It seems that once people gathered into “nations” or developed some type of group identity, suspicion — and perhaps hostility — became apparent. Like Australia, the aboriginal people of the Americas also lived in isolation from the developing civilizations of Europe and Asia. Also, like Australia, a land bridge connecting them to the rest of the world disappeared as the Ice Age came to an end.
Yet, we know that the Inca people of modern Peru established dominance over others in South America. Aztecs in Central Mexico and Maya on the Yucatan Peninsula did the same. In what is now North America, tribes fought one another, some established treaties, some — like the Hopi and Navajo of the Southwest — still view each other with suspicion, if not outright hostility. The question to be asked is why these two isolated areas differed so.
Perhaps the answer has something to do with two interrelated factors: resources and population growth. Most of Australia’s resources (in terms of animal and vegetable nourishment) are sparse. This limited population growth. Clans probably never numbered more than a couple of dozen people, “nations” never more than a few hundred, maybe a thousand or so.
The Americas, on the other hand, were rich in all sorts of natural resources. This led to population growth and forced the development of cities. The Aztec city of Tenochtitlan once had a population of at least 200,000 people. Recent findings on the Yucatan indicate that that there were far more Maya settlements than have been explored. But of those known to us, many were quite populous: El Pilar, which stretched into modern Guatemala, had 180,000 occupants; Caracol, 140,000; Tikal, 100,000; Calakmul, 50,000; and there were dozens more.
The U.S.A., today
In our country, one of the most prosperous and populous of all time, our “tribes” are political, racial, religious, ethnic, sectarian, and so forth. The bombs that were sent through the mail during the past couple of weeks were directed at people who were identified as political foes, including CNN, which had been called the “enemy,” along with other news media. Last week’s attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh was an assault on a religious minority.
There are vigilante groups patrolling our southern border to keep refugees from seeking asylum in our country. Although American memories are short, we remember when Dylann Roof entered a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine African American worshippers who invited him to join in their Bible study. As he shot them, he said, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
Within our country, political “tribes” (Democrats and Republicans) engage in verbal warfare. “Negative advertising” against one’s opponent is meant to scare a naïve public. But, sometimes the negativity may escalate to the point of fueling hate groups. The Southern Poverty Law Center postulates that at least some blame for the current violence in our nation falls on politicians who use their public stage to “legitimize false propaganda about immigrants and other minorities and spread the kind of paranoid conspiracy theories on which militia groups thrive.”
All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking at We
As only a sort of They!
— Rudyard Kipling
We and They
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Jim Glynn may be contacted at email@example.com.