“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.”
Well before the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin was one of the first to point out the awkward American elephant in the room: English settlers were constantly escaping “civilized” life to live with the Indians… but the Indians, unless forced to, rarely ever did the same.
It flabbergasted many European settlers, but whites were very keen to emulate the Indians, marry them, be adopted by them and even fight alongside them.
Indians, on the other hand, didn’t run away from their tribes to join European society. It simply didn’t happen.
“When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs,” Franklin wrote to a friend in 1753, “if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return.”
Yet, the flummoxed Franklin went on, when a white was liberated from an Indian tribe, he nearly always ran back to the woods clutching his loincloth: “Tho’ ransomed by their friends,” he said, “and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a short time they became disgusted with our manner of life… and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods.”
Hector de Crèvecoeur, a French émigré, noted the same decades later in 1782: “Thousands of Europeans are Indians,” he wrote, “and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European. There must be in their social bond something singularly captivating and far superior to anything to be boasted of among us.”
According to Sebastian Junger, author of the incredible book Tribes, Crèvecoeur was right on the money. There were many things about the Indian lifestyle which drew, in droves, European settlers in.
At the age of fifteen, for example, Mary Jemison was kidnapped by Seneca Indians from her family’s farm on the Pennsylvania frontier. She immediately became so enamored by the Seneca lifestyle that, when a European search party came roaming through looking for her, she hid from them so she could stay.
“We had no master to oversee or drive us,” she wrote toward the end of her long life, “so that we could work as leisurely as we pleased. No people can live more happy than the Indians did in times of peace… Their lives were a continual round of pleasures.”
Important side note: Notice, though, she said “in times of peace.”
“It’s easy for people in modern society to romanticize Indian life,” Junger writes. “That impulse should be guarded against. Virtually all of the Indian tribes waged war against their neighbors and practiced deeply sickening forms of torture. Prisoners who weren’t tomahawked on the spot could expect to be disemboweled and tied to a tree with their own intestines or blistered to death over a slow fire or simply hacked to pieces and fed alive to the dogs.”
But, of course, across the pond, society could not have reasonably claimed to be any more civilized (although, of course, it did… quite vehemently): “… the Spanish Inquisition was also busy serving up just as much barbarism on the behalf of the Catholic Church. Infidels were regularly burned alive, broken on the rack, sawn in half lengthwise, or impaled slowly on wooden stacks from the anus to the mouth.”
Cruelty, in other words, was an unfortunate norm of the era.
“On other levels, however,” Junger writes, “there seemed to be no competing with the appeal of the Indians.”
Native American tribes, for example, were generally egalitarian and run by consensus: “Individual authority,” Junger says, “was earned rather than seized and imposed only on people who were willing to accept it. Anyone who didn’t like it was free to move somewhere else.”
More voluntaryist-minded Europeans surely found sanctuary in such a free and open environment.
Moreover, men and women were, in many cases, seen as equal. Which, unfortunately, was far from the case in the English cities. Take, for example, what a white woman told James Madison when he, while passing through, discovered her living among the Oneidas:
The whites treated me harshly. I saw them take rest while they made me work without a break. I ran the risk of being beaten, or dying of hunger, if through fatigue or laziness I refused to do what I was told. Here I have no master, I am the equal of all the women in the tribe, I do what I please without anyone’s saying anything about it, I work only for myself — I shall marry if I wish and be unmarried again when I wish. Is there a single woman as independent as I in your cities? 
But beyond just having much more freedom, there was something else about the Indian way of life which felt more natural to the settlers. And it had its root in the tribe itself.
“Tribal society,” Junger writes, “has been exerting an almost gravitational pull on Westerners for hundreds of years, and the reason lies deep in our evolutionary past as a communal species. The most recent example of that attraction is combat veterans who come home to find themselves missing the incredibly intimate bonds of platoon life. The loss of closeness that comes at the end of deployment may explain the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans today.”
Historically speaking, tribal society is far more natural to us than modern society. Much of life’s meaning and purpose has come more through connecting and cooperating with other people in our “tribe” than through individual achievement or goal-seeking.
Yet, the only taste of tribal society in the Western world, unfortunately, usually only comes in the face of war, societal breakdown, disaster or a combination of all three.
Take, for example, World War II…
In the run-up to the war, London officials feared that Nazi aerial attacks on the city would almost certainly cause mass hysteria and a full societal collapse.
In fact, emergency planners, it’s said, were terrified to even build public bomb shelters because they were worried people would, out of fear, move in and refuse to leave. The shelters, they worried, would become breeding grounds for the bogeyman of Communism and general political dissent.
The bombs, indeed, did come. But their fears of mass hysteria, it turned out, were greatly exaggerated.
For nearly two months, beginning on Sept. 7, 1940, German bombers dropped thousands of high-ton explosives into residential areas, killing hundreds of Londoners with each blast.
Even so… a strange thing happened. The mass hysteria and societal collapse the government officials feared never came to pass. In fact, it was observed, people became more well-adjusted and humane than they were before the bombs started dropping.
“Throughout the Blitz, as it was known,” says Junger, “many Londoners trudged across town to shelters or tube stations in the evening, and then trudged back to work again when it got light. Conduct was so good in the shelters that volunteers never even had to summon the police to maintain order. If anything, the crowd policed themselves according to unwritten rules that made life bearable for complete strangers jammed shoulder to shoulder on floors that were at times awash with urine.
“Ten thousand people had come together without ties of friendship or economics,” one Londoner wrote about his time in the Tilbury Shelter, “with no plans at all as to what they meant to do. They found themselves, literally overnight, inhabitants of a vague twilight town of strangers. At first there were no rules, rewards or penalties, no hierarchy or command. Almost immediately, ‘laws’ began to emerge — laws enforced not by police and wardens (who at first proved helpless in the face of such multitudes) but by the shelterers themselves.”
“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.” -Sebastian Junger
Think about that…
Eight million people endured bombing on a level few soldiers of war have ever had to. Homes, hat factories, food plants, underground shelters, shopping marts and more were all bombed while ordinary people carried out their daily, ordinary tasks. And oddly enough, psychiatric hospitals saw admissions go down.
Curiously, this phenomenon isn’t limited to London during WWII, either. As Junger’s research uncovered, when other European countries went to war, suicides, homicides, and other violent crimes plummeted there as well.
Irish psychologist H.A. Lyons, after studying the Belfast riots, offered this theory…
“When people are actively engaged in a cause their lives have more purpose with a resulting improvement in mental health,” Lyons wrote in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research in 1979, “but the Belfast findings suggest that people will feel better psychologically if they have more involvement with their community.
“It would be irresponsible,” he went on, “to suggest violence as a means of improving mental health, but the Belfast findings suggest that people will feel better psychologically if they have more involvement with their community.”
Charles Fritz, an American scientist who pioneered disaster research during and following WWII, concurred. To his surprise, in fact, he couldn’t find one case of communities lapsing into sustained panic and chaos during or after a disaster.
If anything, he said, “social bonds were reinforced during disasters, and… people overwhelmingly devoted their energies toward the good of the community rather than just themselves.
“Disasters,” Fritz concluded, “thrust people back into a more ancient, organic way of relating… that allows individuals to experience an immensely reassuring connection to others.”
As Junger points out, rather than devolving into chaos, communities tend to become “more just, more egalitarian, and more deliberately fair to individuals.
“Despite erroneous news reports,” he writes, “New Orleans experienced a drop in crime rates after Hurricane Katrina, and much of the ‘looting’ turned out to be people looking for food.
“The kinds of community-oriented behaviors that typically occur after a natural disaster are exactly the virtues that [Thomas] Paine was hoping to promote in his revolutionary tracts.”
Coming back full circle, Paine, observing that although the Shawnee and Delaware tribes lacked the advantages of the arts, science and manufacturing, they lived in societies where individual poverty was unknown and the natural rights of man were actively promoted above all else. Something Western society, he observed, had failed to muster.
The American Indians, said Paine, were a worthy model, at least in this sense, of how to eradicate poverty and uphold natural rights for the individual.
Now, this isn’t to suggest we should leave Western society behind completely. We don’t have to escape to the woods and don loincloths like the early American settlers to become happier people.
It’s simply something to consider.
Modern society, make no mistake, is a monumental achievement. But, if it takes war and disaster in order for us to feel more connected to ourselves and others, it’s clearly lacking.
Junger put it best:
There’s no arguing that modern society isn’t a kind of paradise. The vast majority of us don’t, personally, have to grow or kill our own food, build our own dwellings, or defend ourselves from wild animals and enemies. In one day we can travel a thousand miles by pushing our foot down on a gas pedal or around the world by booking a seat on an airplane. When we are in pain we have narcotics that dull it out of existence, and when we are depressed we have pills that change the chemistry of our brains.
We understand an enormous amount about the universe, from subatomic particles to our own bodies to galaxy clusters, and we use that knowledge to make life even better and easier for ourselves. The poorest people in modern society enjoy a level of physical comfort that was unimaginable a thousand years ago, and the wealthiest people literally live the way gods were imagined to have.
There are many costs to modern society, starting with its toll on the global ecosystem and working one’s way down to its toll on the human psyche, but the most dangerous loss may be to community. If the human race is under threat in some way that we don’t yet understand, it will probably be at a community level that we either solve the problem or fail to. If the future of the planet depends on, say, rationing water, communities of neighbors will be able to enforce new rules far more effectively than even local government.
It’s how we evolved to exist, and it obviously works.
“We have a strong instinct,” Junger concludes, “to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding — ‘tribes.’ This tribal connection has been largely lost in modern society, but regaining it may be the key to our psychological survival.”
Just something to ponder this Thanksgiving. Especially given we face a potential extinction of Native Americans. The result of a shameful bloodstain in American history which will never simply be wiped away.
Maybe, for everyone’s sake, it’s time to decentralize our governance and, yes, revive the tribe.
Have a great holiday.
(If you liked what you read today, check out Junger’s book, Tribe. It’s short, but powerful. I read it in just two sittings.)
And, oh yeah…
Though our offices will be closed for the remainder of the week, I’ll make it a point to send along anything I find interesting.
Managing editor, Laissez Faire Today
P.S. Have something to say? Say it! Chris@lfb.org.
The post It’s Time to Revive the Tribe: What Every American Needs to Consider This Thanksgiving appeared first on Laissez Faire.