THE CITIZEN VS. THE TRIBESMAN
War & Reality in Afghanistan
A CONTINUING CONVERSATION
With Author & Historian Steven Pressfield
Part 2 of 5
In the West, the predominant unit of societal organization is the nation. And the individual constituent unit of the nation is the citizen. In the East the primary unit of social organization is the tribe. And the individual constituent unit is the tribesmen. These are two different breeds of cat. They see the world completely differently and see themselves completely differently.
THE CITIZEN IS A WESTERN INVENTION
The citizen, remember, is a fairly recent invention. There never was such a thing as a citizen until 500 B.C. in Athens. Even today, if you think about the totality of the globe, there are only legitimate citizens pretty much where there are industrialized nations, you know, in Western Europe, North and South America, Japan.
A citizen is an autonomous individual. A citizen is free. A citizen claims the right to determine his or her own destiny. A citizen can rise or fall, pursue their dreams, pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
THE TRIBESMAN IS ANCIENT AND EASTERN
The tribesman has completely different values from a citizen. The tribesman doesn't want individual autonomy. The tribesman is a proud member of a group. What the tribesman wants is cohesion, belongingness, significance to be a part of something greater than himself. In the tribesman's eyes, the citizen is a selfish, disloyal, irreverent, God-abandoning devil.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE "FREE"?
Both the tribesman and the citizen want freedom but they have completely different definitions of what freedom is. To the tribesman, freedom means political independence for the group. The tribesman will die for freedom in a minute, but what he means is: Keep off my land, don't try to make me do what you want me to do and let me live my own life. When we citizens come in and we say freedom we say, "Send girls to school, open up the society, allow every individual to rise and fall on their own merits." And that's two completely conflicting points of view.
PROGRESS IS A DIRTY WORD
Like education, progress is also a dirty word to the tribesman. Because what can progress bring? If it's Britney Spears videos or something like that? What is it except something that undermines the proud ancient ways. To the citizen education is an undoubted good because a citizen wants to make a better life for himself and his family. He or she wants to rise and education is a means to better their life within the society. But the tribesman is very conservative as we said before. The tribesman believes that things are good just the way they are. So that education is not a positive to him, it's a negative. When a person, when a tribal person, gets educated they want to start changing the system. So education becomes a threat to the great, noble, proud, traditional ancient ways.
INFIDELS, OUTSIDERS, INVADERS
Now perhaps the most telling difference between the tribesman and the citizen is their different views of the Other. Now the citizen, because he values multiplicity, to him the melting pot means richness, cultural diversity, a better life for everybody. The tribesman doesn't see it that way at all because he values the fixed norms, the fixed hierarchy of the tribe. So within that fixed situation, disagreement is not dissent in the Western sense, and thus to be tolerated, instead it's treachery, it's heresy, which must be ruthlessly expunged. That's why you'll see the Taliban cutting off hands and stoning adulterers to death.
IS TRIBALISM EVIL?
Is tribalism evil? Absolutely not. I think in many ways, tribalism may be the best life, maybe the happiest life, maybe the way that evolution and nature intended us all to live.
Let's try to imagine ourselves inside a tribe. There have been certain movies have done this, like Dances With Wolves with Kevin Costner. So let's think about what is the payoff if you're a member of a tribe?
Number one, you belong. You're part of a group that surrounds you and supports you. And no matter what evil may befall you-the worst thing, illness, death-you're surrounded and supported by the clan, the family, and the tribe itself.
The second thing is that you know who you are. You know who your enemies are, who know who your friends are. You know what is expected of you, you know what role you have to play. You are absolutely secure in your identity. You suffer none of the Western ills that we're all so aware of-alienation, isolation, loneliness. In a tribe your identity is solid and grounded.
Another very important thing is you have significance. You're valued. Your world has meaning because the tribe has a unified view of the world and where each individual fits into it. Now this is a tremendously powerful force that keeps people in the tribe, that is a payoff in the tribe. Now I once knew a Marine Gunnery Sergeant who used to explain to his young Marines that they got two kinds of salaries-they got the financial salary and they got a "psychological salary." And the psychological salary was all these tribal benefits, these intangibles of: the sense of belonging, sense of significance, a sense of identity that you know who you are, that you are part of something greater than yourself.
In a tribe, you might not have individual autonomy but you've got structure, safety, significance, and security. These are big, big pluses. It's not hard at all to understand why tribesmen love their way of life and why they're willing to die to preserve it.