FRONT PORCH PERSPECTIVE
By JIM ATWELL • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
I’ve been driven out of the house to the peaceful shade of the front porch by television news. The programs are crammed with vitriolic volleys between this faction and that, one candidate and another. Pushing the mute button wouldn’t quell the stridence. It would still be there in the images – puffed up pols and preachers and pundits, each mouthing their one and only truth.
There’s one old bozo who nearly makes me gag. On his way to dotage, he’s still devious and malicious, and still wields outrageous power over the Senate. His heavy-jawed face and glassy eyes, floating on my TV screen, brings to mind a big Atlantic mullet, smacking lips over a small fry it’s just swallowed.
And so I have pushed not “mute” but “off” and have fled to the porch. Out here, a cooling drink in hand, I’m thinking about humankind’s primal sin. I don’t mean Original Sin; I’ll leave that nut for others to crack. I mean humans’ original sociological sin, whence all other such have been spawned.
I mean tribalism. Early in our species’ history, this trait embedded itself in our developing brain, probably parking right next to the fight-or-flight impulse. And it’s with us still today. (Does “Stranger, danger!” sound familiar?)
In tribalism, your only true safety rests in your immediate and extended family, then in your tribe. And watch out for anyone who wanders into those circles who dresses differently, has different build or facial features, smells oddly or speaks a different guttural language. Or is of a different skin color. . .
Such an “unlike” one frightens, is immediately seen as a threat. Better, then, to throw stones and roar at him. Or, for real safety, to kill him.
The stranger (in present parlance, “the other”) still triggers uneasiness, a sense of threat, even rising anger. Watch any film in which an unknown person walks into the neighborhood bar. Sudden quiet. Stares. Even glares. A stranger. Maybe danger.
Or look instead into our own lives and the ways in which be find comfort by gathering into groups of the like-minded. Even as we do this, we may quietly denigrate other similar groups. Rotarians, for instance, will speak kindly of Lions and Civitan members and even work with them on joint projects. But in their hearts, Rotary members (and Lions, and Civitaners and probably the Independent Order of Red Men) believe that their own is the best of civic or fraternal organizations.
Or consider nations. The history of every one is bloody with strife, for everyone has spent resources and lives trying to vaunt its essential superiority or expand its territory. Think of their colonial adventurism and pious belief in “manifest destiny” that justifies slaughter of all who block their way.
And never mind religions! I wonder if dear Jesus wrings his hands over the destructive conflicts that smolder among – and even inside – faith communities that draw their name from the Prince of Peace.
My education in tribalism started early. For grades one through three, I attended tiny Holiday School, literally just beyond the fence of our back yard. And there, after pledging allegiance to the best of all nations, we tots would lustily pipe, “Oh, Holiday, we think you’re grand, the finest school in all the land!”
And later, after high school, I joined a Catholic religious order founded in the 17th century to educate the poor, whose education then was non-existent. For 16 years I wore the uniform (black habit, white collar) of the order and bore the name that was mine as a monk: Brother Denis Andrew.
“Hey, Andy!” Sixty years later, if someone behind me calls that out, I’ll turn right around! So are the abiding bonds of tribalism. Some, like this one, are admittedly beautiful.
Others, like mindless racial tribalism, are fiercely destructive. The evidence for this is tragically all around us, and fomented, God help us, from the highest level of our blessed nation’s government.
More about that next time.
Jim Atwell, a Quaker minister and retired college administrator, lives in Cooperstown.