Building blocks of society

Rather than a death by a thousand cuts, the sabre is better. You can either dodge, deflect, or be quicker with your saber. Or, you can go down, losing blood fast or losing your head. You will no doubt laugh at my analogy but I compare the sabre thrust to a grand design and the thousand cuts to piddling quarrels over one point of argument or another. The piddling stuff is like arguing over the electoral college or even over if Trump is actually president since he lost the popular vote.

The grand design asks what the purpose of society is and how does our form of government serve that? Once that is established between two interlocutors, then the place of the electoral college in the scheme of things becomes clearer because now there is a scheme. If, OTOH, you cannot agree on what the purpose of society is, you can go enjoy a good movie and a box of popcorn.

What prompted me to write this is in part conversations with my neighbor, a Trump supporter and the relish with which I look forward to discussing the on-going (as I write this) impeachment hearings on Trump. An equal part is played by my conversations with my right-winger autistic grandson whose ability to twist your arguments into pretzels is amazing. He really makes you take a deep breath and get back to basics, which is what this piece of writing is about.

In order to establish the purpose of society, we might first list all the components, the constituent elements, the building blocks of all societies. This gets fundamental because some societies,, fewer and fewer, live at a basic level. Nevertheless, these societies all have language and music. Both of those are (language) or may be (music) intrinsic to the way the brain/mind works. Other blocks are present in all societies but are shaped by those societies under pressures for survival and take many forms, forms that are always in a state of flux.

But even language and music find cultural byways as when the Irish and the African-Americans take the oppressor’s English and make it their own. George Carlin had a great bit on how Black kids and White kids play basketball together and trash talk, but the White kids go home and lay some Black English on their parents (Whassup, Pops, Whacha burnin’, M’Dear?) and the Black kids do not go home and ask, What’s for din-din, Mom? Just sayin’ (apologies if my examples don’t ring quite true). How many “English” authors are actually Irish? We could start and end with James Joyce.

Traditionalist conservatives (think ultra conservative Catholics) long for the organic community where everyone had a place……. and knew it. Yet history is gorged with massive social and economic changes, often accompanied by war and revolution (think China all the time). So what is going on? Basically, every society has imbalances, stresses, unproductive members (often quite wealthy), dead end situations like failing enterprises (think buggy whips around 1920) and losing financial operations, trade routes drying up or blocked by brigands or high tolls, and so on. With some heaving and hoing, things change and some bewail the loss and others welcome the change, depending.

In order to make sense of this, especially in our own times where we are so close to it, requires a sorting. I think it best to sort society by universal elements and then look at the several processes of change associated with each element.

Many of us would put the economy as the first element to look at and the other, geography. Both can change or be changed, the latter by moving away, changing location. For me, I like to look at how people feed themselves. Marx, from what I understand, thought that the way people feed themselves, the means of production, determined the form of everything else: culture, religion, armed conflict, territorial expansion or contraction, just about everything. One key concept in this is that even an element as basic as the economy is shaped by the other elements. Probably the most famous historical development involving the economy is the dispute over whether the Protestant Reformation was motivated by religious conviction or the need for economic expansion, blocked by the Catholic Church. That is a good example of the interplay of elements.

As for geography, by that I mean the physical environment: the climate, the soil, the elevations, the drainage, accessibility to the sea, and so on. When discussing a particular society, its geographic location and setting are basic. The Turner Thesis of the expanding frontier in the U.S. comes to mind as does the open steppes of Russia.

We now have two more elements: culture and religion. And this introduces another characteristic of these elements or building blocks: they may not only overlap but fit inside one another. After all, most people would think of religion as one essential element of a culture since it is a universal. China seems to me a good case for examining this issue. Chinese culture is the oldest continuing extant civilization of our world. Yet it lacks one obvious feature of civilizations: a revealed or scriptural religion. I know people will argue with me and point to Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, powerful spiritual forces in Chinese civilization, but I would argue that none of these is possessed of the concept of transcendence. Transcendence is defined as beyond human experience, apart from the material. We could argue that Confucianism posits a higher being, that Buddhism seeks to transcend the material world, and that Taoism seeks experience beyond the normal. Yet none of these asks us to believe in a higher being as essential to the success of our existence and as powerful in our daily lives the way Hinduism, Islam and the other desert religions do. Most of all, I am not aware that any of these Chinese religions offer the believer a supernatural intervention, Buddhism least of all, Confucianism more focused on this life, and Taoism pursuing mystical experience at a personal rather than institutional level.

And it is those institutions that so affect the culture the religion is situated in. The binding force of religion, literally “tying back”, presents both the value and danger of bounds. The bounds keep us in line and give us a path to follow; but limits can become suffocating and we are back to the Reformation and the struggle against those bounds, that binding. All the possible origins of the word, including binding, obligation, observance, etc. have at their root, IMHO, this idea of being bound.

I wonder if the Chinese wanted only those bonds and bounds which kept people in line, kept order. They were beset by unrest, revolution and invasion. We see the efforts by the government there, dominated by the Communist Party, to grab hold of a swiftly changing society. That is the concern of the Chinese and, IMHO, has always been their major concern.

Nevertheless, throughout the rest of the world huge religious movements have invoked supreme authorities vested by a ‘supremer’ authority, some supernatural being or beings. In African societies, religion is manifestly an ingredient of the social contract. Gods aplenty gush forth for every occasion, every event, every need. Gods often must compete and can be trashed for not doing their job. In the fifteenth century Bantus in the Congo Basin so eagerly adopted Catholic Christianity that it spread like wildfire even without missionaries or priests. Priests later tested the catechism of these Catholics and found them to be quite Christian despite the inability to receive the sacraments without priests. However, they were adding to their own pantheon. Taking up a new god did not mean abandoning the old ones. A scholarly man from Nigeria told me recently that the Christians and Muslims there both follow the old ways in many guises with the Muslims being more inclined to do so.

And it is just such deep level orientations in attitude that fascinate me and make me wonder about the make-up of culture. Revealed religions with lots of laws and rituals never caught on in China where the family and generational authority ruled the day, whereas in Africa those religions were eagerly adopted by a god(s) hungry people who saw the gods as part of the on-going social fabric uniting past, present, and future people. Rituals in Africa bind the community together generationally as the Chinese are bound together generationally through Confucianism with no need for fearsome gods enforcing authority. Taking advantage of a book review on Roman religion I just read, I will inject critical notions of the function of religion. Quoting*, “But Ruepke’s approach is resolutely practical: ‘Human beings used religious action…as a special form of problem-solving.’ Flower is likewise more interested in the social functions of magical thinking and ritual behavior than in their theological or psychological, let alone spiritual, repercussions.” A caveat: we cannot neglect those theological, psychological and spiritual dimensions; it is just that  ‘ordinary’ people and what their involvement in ritual meant for the polis” is my focus here.  Further, under location, I will go into this phenomenon of the polis. “But the workings of religion to forge social bonds and identity are clearly demonstrated in these hist0ries: faith appears far less a matter of eschatology, salvation stories, or the search for metaphysical truths than an instrument for making a community out of heterogeneous elements…. The cult of the lares confirmed a sense of belonging to a place, a home, a neighborhood; they were familiars, and Augustus cultivated them purposefully to resist alienation and discontent among Romans.” What Marx would call the opiate of the people, I suppose.

My own reading in the function of music and ritual in African societies parallels this description of the role of religion in ancient Rome. We might look at our own society. A major difference between the Roman and African examples is that traditionally (no longer) African societies were pretty homogeneous, less so than the popular imagination about Africa promotes but more so than Rome where slave and merchants from many places found a home. The U.S. is a nation of immigrants, to the irritation of some Americans, and integrating them has been essential. However, it was the American economy and public school system which accomplished that task and not always completely. Religion did not play so much of a role; in fact, very little. Most Catholics remained Catholic; a large majority of Jews remained Jews; and Mormons remained Mormon. It is my understanding that many of the Asians emigrating here who are Christian were Christian in the old country. What many Americans of a certain stripe believe is that not even mainline Protestants fulfill the role of religion in this country, the U.S.; only a kind of Christianity called Evangelical does. Evangelicalism suffuses many Protestant denominations and has depleted the ranks of the mainstream Protestant denominations. Now their own ranks are thinning as young people drift away from religion altogether. It is interesting to me that we have already had the first Black president (unthinkable when I was young), and we may get the first gay president or female president, but we have yet to have a Jewish or agnostic president. That argues for a firm role for religion in society but I don’t think that argument wins the day. Other elements in U.S. society are more decisive.

Another important element or building block is how people group themselves in society. At the most basic level, the family in all its combinations persists as elemental. Francis Fukuyama, in his Origins of Political Order, makes it clear that in his view this is still what motivates people at every level and at in every epoch. As an old anthropology major, I couldn’t help but rejoice at seeing someone offer up an explanation of one reason for the devolution of many kingdoms and empires, the idiot child. Right now we have a reverse example: this country in Ivanka’s hands could not possibly do worse than in her dad’s hands (let’s ignore Erick and Junior. please). Notwithstanding, headmen usually try to pass their scepter on to the youngsters, able or not, willing or not. “Son, some day all of this will be yours,” should make the blood of every citizen run cold. There are exceptions when a strong man, a ruler, a queen, grooms someone outside the family, but even then they often adopt them or write them in somehow.

What about families like Saudi Arabia’s royal family with its 200 princes all trying to kill each other? While such internecine squabbles, complete with severed heads of sis and her husband, do break out, in general community leaders of any kind like to pass on what they have built to relatives, not to competent people. Many businesses fail in the hands of junior (sorry for my sex bias here – I’m told I should say gender bias, so I’m doubly damned) but many do not. Deep down, I think there still exists some idea of competence to rule being “in the blood.”

Back to Saudi Arabia. Recently I read of a slaver, a European, in West Africa, keeping a harem of 50 pretty girls. Busy fellow. Did the women get anything out of it? Possibly 3 squares a day, maybe freedom from being sent over the water as a slave, and just barely possible seeing their offspring by this man achieve some advantage or even status. You have only to look at the population of West Africa on the coast to see the genetic influence of Europeans there. A thoughtful reading of books like The Slave Trade reveals many opportunities for people of African heritage to slip over into a “White” identity, especially if they travel to the new world. Many could ship as sailors if male, as servants if female, and make their way into the byways of the New World as Whites. Recall that Whites, i.e. persons of entirely European heritage, occupied a less advantageous position in the New World than those Whites born in Europe; thus the term creole or criollo. Only later did that term take on the connotation in English of a mixed race person. Spanish had many such words for all kinds of mixtures.

Out of this hodge-podge arose a population that was almost by definition mixed. The claim by anyone more than 3 generations in this continent to be pure Black or pure White or pure anything is ludicrous. And all around the world the same condition prevails and has always prevailed. My advantage is that of being in a mixed race marriage at a time when such marriages were highly unusual and even illegal, so when I read about family situations like the guy with 50 girlfriends my mind goes to their offspring and theirs and on and on. Those people went somewhere and they are us.

Out of these relationships and community relationships we find it necessary to make laws to govern ourselves. All societies, no matter how small or remote, have some sort of legal structure within which they operate. This is another major building block. How can you possibly discuss current events without understanding that the Anglo-American legal system is based on precedent proceeding from an interpretation of the Constitution, ours written but derived in part from the British, and the English unwritten, based on Common Law and decisions made in the past. The French and other countries desire a more rational set of laws and they seem happy with theirs while at this stage we do not seem happy with ours.

The question is, does any society develop laws and procedures that serve everybody well? Doubtful. Nonetheless, the real, more basic question is, is there law or only the caprice of a ruler or a mob? If there is law, what is the law based on, rational thought, religion, custom, or some force external to the society itself? Laws imposed by colonial powers on societies like India, Nigeria, Egypt, and so on, often work against the informal system of customs and expectations in those societies. Recently, Islamists have insisted on a system based on the many interpretations of Islamic law, a huge body of thought, and Europe had a period of dominance by ecclesiastical interference which led to the aforementioned Protestant Reformation. How much law in China now is based in customary Chinese legal practices and how much in the Communist system? I do not know. The Japanese revised their legal system during the Meiji Reformation, I believe, as they revised so much of their society in light of what seemed to them Western superiority. What effect did that have? Some societies have a two-tiered practice of law, formal and customary. It is my understanding that the U.S. has codified something like that, deriving its system from English Common Law and codified laws passed by a representative legislative body.

I will have to leave law since I know little about it except to say the myth of some sort of state of freedom harms us when we strive for that because there will always be someone imposing their will on others and only law restrains them. I have in mind the libertarians and the economic philosophers who posit as a conceit a state of nature with one man alone and on his own. That never happened; the economists have used it in the past as have philosophers as a conceit.

Leaving a field I know little about let’s go to one I have experience in: education. Every society educates, be it a “bush school”, an apprenticeship, service in the military or in the merchant marines, or formal schooling (what is informal about teaching a young person to survive an arctic winter?). All children who are not neglected are educated. Once the father was taken off to a factory all day, others took over the education of boys. Girls still learned at home. Of course, different levels of society provided education appropriate to the station in life, be it slave or courtesan or prince of the realm. But all were educated and trained to take up their responsibilities.

What if we were to apply this sorting process to our own population here in the U.S.? Well, we used to. Rural kids were kept out of school to bring in the harvest, thus the summer vacation. Even today, colleagues of mine do not have to apply for leave to attend conferences during deer hunting season in some states because the schools are closed……. for deer hunting season. A friend from a small town in central Pennsylvania recently described to me the ritualistic driving through town with a deer tied to your fender. I mean, if you see getting your first deer as a rite of passage, that is very similar to preliterate societies putting their kids into bush school where they learn to hunt, handle emergencies, work together, avoid enemies and dangerous animals and plants, and heal themselves and others in case of sickness or injury. That is a kind of blending of the old rural society and the industrial society. When Ojibway Indians were asked about this split between the rural ways, the old ways, and the ways of modern society, they said they opted for formal schooling because you cannot teach a kid to survive a Canadian winter and go to school at the same time. Schooling allowed access to the broader society.

The spread of universal education came about it seems from the need to have conscripts in the military who could read the instructions for operating complicated machinery and weapons. I believe this started in France around the end of the 19th century. In the U.S. the high school movement enjoyed great success and before long a high school diploma was considered mandatory. Some problems occurred as the high school curriculum clashed with the abilities of poor children and immigrant children to accommodate the information fed them. Eventually, the U.S. education system was charged with educated everybody, including handicapped or differently abled persons with the idea of getting everyone through the system. Then the push was on for college. Earlier, specific groups in the society: the rural, the poor, the minorities, and the handicapped were excluded, usually in a random sort of way. Perhaps they were shunted off to special schools. The popular movie Forrest Gump showed his mother putting out great effort – or just plain putting out – to get her boy in regular school. I am old enough to recall kids excluded on one basis or another.

The strain on our system of education has reached critical proportions. Still we are charged with educating everyone. But whole districts, like my son’s and son-in-law’s, are made up of minorities and/or immigrants and students living in poverty. One would think that the business men eagerly accepting immigrants from Mexico whose labor was required to fill a great need would realize that those people would bring children with them. What did they think? But here the kids are. And 20 or 30 years later they are still here, poorly educated adults struggling to make a living with a subpar education. No one could have planned for that? Just what are our leaders doing? Educating each child is their responsibility as much as the parents’.

Closely related to education in that it raises a smart and healthy populace is health care. I recall Adam Schiff, when asked how he got interested in health care as an issue, recalled a time when he was passing petitions for better health care and a man approached him and asked him directly why he was doing that, asking for signatures. Schiff replied something like, “Because everyone needs decent health care. Don’t you agree?” And the man replied, “Only if they can afford it.” That awakened Schiff to the fact that a lot of people have little interest in the health status of others. Schiff, of course, realized how important a healthy populace is to a healthy economy and society. Just defense alone would require healthy recruits.

But more than the practical side, something else is revealed through archaeology. Not long ago a 7,000 year old grave site was uncovered in Florida. In the grave was the body of a boy 14-17, and the signs of spina bifida cystic were clear. This means the child had to be cared for as he was possibly paralyzed and certainly unable to care for himself. So where is the survival of the fittest, the dog-eat-dog world, the law of the jungle, and all the Social Darwinist claptrap so beloved of arm-chair theorists? We could make up a scenario where the child was magical or sacred in some way and cared for out of reverence and dread, but it seems unlikely in that similar remains have been found in abundance all over the world, many of them indicative of a need for caregivers.

As with education, a functioning community takes care to educate and heal its children at least. In that savage world posited by philosophers trying to convince us that we must accept such savagery as a norm, parents would need an extended family, a kin group, a village – in the words of Hillary Clinton – to provide for such a child. Why have we developed a society in which large numbers of children go unhealed and uneducated? Of such questions are born political discourse.

To focus for a moment on my country, the U.S.A., we must briefly survey our educational history, beginning with those early public schools in New England, motivated by the desire for religious instruction of children, which was confounded with civic responsibility, on to the mass if not universal public education of the industrial age to gain a literate work force, and into the age of universal public education divested of class and race discrimination as much as was allowed by the times. The high school movement was a big jump resulting in a higher education level overall and then that was tremendously augmented by the G.I. Bill giving veterans opportunities to go to college. And we must not forget that along the way, many students, some of whom may have been denied entry into public schools, were education in the Catholic school system and other schools sponsored by various denominations and religions like the Yeshiva schools of Judaism.

Of course, so much of the American ethos is based on the idea that we all have a chance to succeed. Only recently has an academic or college education been seen as the ticket to this success. We even label voters for Trump as those without a college education. But our public schools still operate on the old ethos that the poor, the lower class and working class, etc. do not need all that much education in order to experience success, so whole school districts and systems are allowed to bend and break under the weight of thousands of pupils unable to move far past third or fifth grade, let alone get a high school education that prepares them for college and beyond.


Community is certainly a part of education and health care, so a place to live, a place to be born, to bury our dead, is called for. Those isolated farms on picturesque calendars contained a fair number of people, a small village in itself. The location, from camp of hunter-gatherers still seen in heavily forested regions in South America and Africa, to compounds devoted to farming, to villages of various configurations, to small towns and centers of commerce, to cities and on to metropolises and megalopolises. We have to realize that we’ve had the last one a long time and that at least cities have existed in societies popular understanding does not credit with such, e.g. Africa had an urbanized population long before the arrival of Europeans. One of those intriguing Malcolm Gladwell books posits 150 as the peak number of persons who can function together; beyond that fissures appear. He gives the example of a business’ parking lot, designed for that number of cars (no car pooling?), which, when overflowing, signals time to build another site to ensure a cohesive work force. Very interesting and I have a couple of books on villages on my shelf I have not read that may help me see what happens in villages reaching over 150 inhabitants. Do they begin to split into segments?

In Athens and other Greek cities, it turns out that urbanization is village based, i.e. whole villages move to the city where their inhabitants build their own neighborhood complete with the old social structure of the home village and politicians need to be aware of this. In Japan, each year people return to a home village, at least that used to be the custom. Even without such ties to the village, a nostalgia prevails in some societies, giving rise to literary phenomena like Russia’s Village Prose literature of the 50s and 60s celebrating an organic village life similar to the nostalgia in the U.S. for “small town America, the real America.” Despite this nostalgia, the majority of the world population is now urban.

Some things strike me suddenly, a realization out of the blue. Once I was watching an Arnold Schwarzenneger action film and it dawned on me I was watching the old movie serials where the hero rides his horse into a burning building which blows up, leaving the audience hanging until next matinee where the hero and his horse will emerge from the other side of the destroyed building. Similarly, it dawned on me one day that the supermarkets – really megasupermarkets – nowadays are no more than the old market places but under one roof. Instead of going to a clothing store and a butcher shop and the cheese shop and then to the shoe store and then the bank to pay for it all, that was all under one roof and one name: Krogers, Frys, Luckys, etc. That same thing exists in old cities with their quarters like Paris’ Latin Quarter. The U.S. has deviated from that pattern somewhat; in older cities that attracted immigrants, what are called neighborhoods grew up and in some places took on names, especially if the inhabitants were seen as a type of minority group: Chinatown, Buttermilk Bottom, The Old Pueblo, Victory Acres, Harlem, Bed-Stuy, Little Italy, Greek Town, etc. In Phoenix, the old Mexican neighborhoods were Cuatro Milpas (four corn fields, I believe), Sagrado Corazon (Sacred Heart, for the parish), Bernie Park and Golden Gate for recreational areas, and so forth. I saw what happened to Sacred Heart up close and the others when the airport expanded and wiped those communities out. Many of the older people did not speak English well and they had all sorts of ties and links in those communities so when young people who had moved had came back to visit they saw their childhood friends and neighborhoods…. in other words, a sense of continuity.

When those people were dispersed, we saw up close what happened because some were our clients/patients in the mental health clinic. The city gave them some allowances or guidance, I’m not sure what, but it did not, could not, take into account those ties and links nor substitute something else for them. Money is the universal solvent in such cases, with more money allocated later on to clean up the damage – money for various services including police and jail. The damage done is on a human rather than monetary scale and is invisible to those whose job it is to keep the city running. Should someone fall from the folds of a community – and the Catholic church had closed the school many of the “barrio’s” kids went to – as when they have to move to a strange neighborhood, have no access to transportation anymore, do not know the local doctors, teachers, and police officers, then the city does not even see this, treating the results as divorced from the city’s actions in breaking up the community in the first place.

This is why you see lethal demonstrations in some places when dislocation and removal loom. The sense of place is strong and cemented by human relations. History is full of such dislocations, like the Highland clearances in Scotland, still remembered bitterly; the Irish emigration following the potato famine;  the most massive dislocation in history of Africans to the New World; the current flight from the Middle East and Africa to Europe, and so on. A great many social groups, whether we call them tribes or nations or communities, have found refuge in inaccessible places for their own protection from marauders. The Maroons of Jamaica and other maroon societies like Palenque recall the struggle of African slaves to escape and find refuge; the Pueblo cliff dwellings present great difficulty of access, built into cliffs and connected by ladders which can be pulled up; Cajuns of Louisiana settling in the swamps; the Dogon of Mali high up in their mountain fastness; and many more. So often these refugees make do to such a degree that they excite our admiration, having made more than the best of their situation.

Protection from enemies is found by other people by alliances and coalitions, frequently setting up a kind of dependency or symbiosis whereby each group needs something from the other and has something to give to the others. Thus are generated trade alliances, not only making mutual protection likely but making mutual hostilities unlikely. Lots of Europeans looked to the tight trade alliances of Europe on the eve of WW I to prevent the outbreak of hostilities. It didn’t work.

But as communities grow into nation states, such alliances work to everyone’s benefit. The EU, while currently endangered, is perhaps the largest coalition unit seen outside of empires. While empires imply domination and exploitation despite the advantages of integration, mutual aid societies can provide not only security but expanded opportunities for trade. And the nation state itself must not be inflated beyond its function. The very idea is new and some “nations” only became nations – Italy and Germany – almost within living memory. Nations made of former colonies had no existence prior to the post-WW II era and they are formed on uncertain ground.

The nation was sanctified in ancient lore that was often not really all that old. Folklorists dug up old myths and sagas and worked them into national narratives designed to bolster the instantiation of a concept – the Volk, the People – into a physical reality: a nation with borders and a population of citizens. This powerful notion spread and every group of people thought they should receive the designation “nation.” Native Americans in North America were called nations with a lot of the accoutrements assigned to that status. The status boosted the efforts of peoples under assault by the West to form themselves into something more than a helpless mass; it produced borders and citizens, both to be protected by the nation state. That allowed individuals and parties to set themselves up as protectors, form governments, and do all the things nations do like tax its citizenry, form armies, and create a bureaucracy. Think Japan, China, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, and many more.

Before this time, these nations were like Italy and Germany, open to exploitation by both neighbors and foreigners. The Indo-Chinese broke into three nations and one of them broke in two, generating a civil war and resistance to foreign invaders, the French, the Japanese, and last, the Americans. Costing several million lives in a small nation, they now take their place among nations. That is a source of pride for the Viet Namese and fits with their past resistance to Chinese hegemony.

All this talk about nations calls into question its universality since hunter-gatherer groups surely did not gain the status of nation – except that some Native American conglomerations of people did. But it was not an organic development but imposed from the outside, the conquering American nation imposing that status on them. However, thinking about a nation as a place, it does serve the purpose of tying people to a place, perhaps via the trappings of nationhood. In fact, identity as an Englishman or Frenchman is solid but there is a question about that in a very mixed and open society like ours here in the U.S. And a nation like Nigeria with its 56 languages and many identities based on tribal affiliations faces centrifugal forces as the Biafran War showed.

Could these nations within nations, like the Scottish in Great Britain, be viable as separate entities? In Nigeria the Niger Delta has many ethnic groups, Igbo, Ibibio, Efut, Efik, and more. I recently asked our pharmacist, an Igbo, if all those people felt their identities to be quite separate and she assured me they did. Looking at an ethnic or linguistic map of Nigeria, you might be tempted to dismiss such ambition as separate statehood. But if you compare the population of Norway, a long established place with a sense of nationhood despite having been an appendage of Denmark, to the population of the Yoruba of Nigeria, a tribe in the southwest of the country, it is Norwegians 5.5 million and Yoruba 45 million, eight times greater. So if numbers grant the rationale for nationhood, certainly the Yoruba qualify. The Igbo are 42 million. The economic viability of these areas can be called into question, many of them dependent on one product, like oil. But the fire of independence burns bright.

The purpose of all this talk of nations as opposed to smaller forms of place and the macrosystems subsuming nations is to first of all talk about groups of people living in a place that is familiar to most of my readers. Secondly, I want to bring forward for consideration the nebulous condition of a lot of nation states; they are not the embodiment of a substantial consciousness of identity for a good number of people despite the efforts of public schools to instill such an identity. And I would like to see us consider this so common phenomenon of disgruntled minorities in so many states in order to appreciate how the divisions in our own society reflect such divisions world wide. That is to say, the nation state might not be the only and permanent state of man.

I recognize that I have spent an asymmetrical amount of space on the topic of the nation state, but felt it necessary to dispel the fixed notion of nations with a clearly defined border and population and with those a clearly defined language and culture and well understood history. We have only to look at how our own U.S. history has been blown up since Eugene Genovese wrote Roll, Jordan, Roll and opened up the field of slavery studies. (I may be interpreting this wrong and need to research it more, but it seems to me, reading book reviews all the time, that this is indeed the case, although I may be influenced by that book opening up my own awareness to slavery studies which I had hitherto ignored) In fact, I recall studying history avidly in public school with little awareness of the role of Black people in it. Google books remark thus: “This landmark history of slavery in the South – a winner of the Bancroft Prize – challenged the conventional views of slaves by illuminating the many forms of resistance to dehumanization that developed in slave society….” The point being that these nations are made up of a mix of features that are in a state of flux. At no time can it be said, “Nation X is this, period.” But in the nations’ interest lies the semblance of certitude and security so that citizens believe the national structure and institutions are holding. But this cannot be accomplished fully in any society, let alone a populous society of some geographic expanse. It is just too complex.

The perceptions of the public and reality are often at odds. An example is the definition of a national border. Rather than the Gestapo agent on the train headed out of Germany for the border checking papers, we have a real border to our north and south, not to mention the limits out into the oceans and seas. Real borders are porous (the “papers please” folks forget that the heroes on the train actually do slip through to the frustration of the agent), smugglers operate continuously. But to drum up support for political factions, border security can always be cited as an issue because someone or something is always getting through.

So let’s move off this nation business and talk more about places. The closest connection is between a place and home. Home is the place we most intimately connect to. A great many people in the world think of home in a broad sense of the area they grew up in. Some are able to broaden that to include a nation. We saw in our U.S. Civil War the ferocious attachment to place of the Southerners. We have discussed traditions in some countries of maintaining a tie to a home village, returning to it in a ritualistic way. And sometimes places are meant to evoke a special attachment, memory or loyalty. We set up monuments – some languages like German and Russian have words for monument that have “memory” or “thought” at their root.

And cemeteries hold those memories we used to call racial but no longer due to the connotation of the word now. We mean by that heritage, our connections, be they blood (have to say genes now) or blood shed for us as honored in our national cemeteries of war dead or memorials to heroes. Roadside memorials to those meeting an unforeseen or violent end are common in Latin America and more and more here in the U.S. as well – due no doubt to the Mexican influence. And we commemorate the dead in a mass way as when we set memorials like Yad Vashem, the Viet Nam Memorial, and the memorial to the victims of 9/11.

Cultivation is a word I have come up with to apply across a range of activities designed to further and promote effective human action. Very vague, but a few applications may bring into relief my intention in using this word.

We cultivate things we care about. In fact, care was the first word that came to mind for this concept. But cultivate implies a more particular intent to make grow by paying close attention and providing ultimate care. Obvious collocations like cultivate a garden, cultivate a friendship, cultivate an attitude, and so on can be extended by analogy and metaphor to cultivating a society’s health, educational level, military readiness… and beyond that we can imagine cultivating what has been called social capital. We can cultivate memory and values. At the personal level, we can cultivate our family life and our spiritual life as well as all the above.

The extent to which a society experiences cultivation or intense caring and in which areas it does so paints a picture of that society. American culture in general cultivates success, some might say worships it. Eastern European culture cultivates a sense of paranoia around Jews. Western Europe cultivate the principles of the Enlightenment. Parents cultivate their children. Japanese society cultivates tradition even as it transforms itself by cultivation of detachment. The Democratic Party cultivates the working class even as it passes into the hands of coastal elites. The Republican Party cultivates the less educated, the left-behind, the addled, and the angry.

To examine a society and any of its institutions, we look at what it cultivates. Where does its caring go? What does it value? Where does it put its energy, its time, its money? In what direction does it push its children? And how integrated is all this? In small villages, these societal targets shift but it’s like people say, put your money where your mouth is. Political platitudes not followed by action, by effort, by money, by completion quickly dissolve. Follow the expenditures, of time, of money, of effort. As TV pundits say, don’t listen to what they say, watch what they do.

How are these all brought together and implements? To operationalize the cultivation of religion, to hone military preparedness, to hold families together, to see to it children are cared for and education, i.e. cultivated, we require joint action. At the band level of society the elders often meet in a Council of Elders to determine how to carry out these values and meet needs. Here is where the division between such small groups as bands and compounds and societies more complex in their make-up occurs. At an even slightly higher level beyond the band or family compound society builds institutions to house its values. We talk today (full disclosure: I write this in the midst of the impeachment hearings on Trump) about attacks on our institutions. Do people know what those are? The military, the courts, the medical networks, the educational networks, the governmental offices denigrated as bureaucrats. But that is what they are, bureaucrats, although the etymology denotes “rule by offices,” a somewhat sinister label. Yet it is this bureaucracy that implements the values of the society and meets its needs, what we call governance, giving birth to the institution of government. The decisions made and implemented are called policies. Even low-level societies like bands have some form of government. Societies deemed low on that order, usually by their colonizers to justify and rationalize their depredations on other societies, can display remarkable variety in government, e.g. Primitive Government (in East Africa) by Lucy Mair, 1962 (a Penguin book). That one was an eye-opener as was my reading in Chinese history, where I discovered the Chinese had experiments with most forms of government (feudalism, federalism, war lordism, dictatorship, empire, democracy, etc.) before the Roman Empire had ended.

What we are facing in the U.S. has to be faced by all modern nation states: an ephemeral feature of their life we call spirit. The spirit of the Russian people, of the Japanese people, of the Nigerian people, of the American people. Nothing supernatural or superorganic, just a conglomeration of the actions of the population of that country. France, Poland, Hungary, the U.S. all face challenges within their societies, challenges to their spirit. Sarah Palin referred to “real Americans.” What did she mean? She would probably say normal Americans. What is normal to her? As I was growing up, the word American conjured up a White guy. Later I married into an African-American family, so my social world grew considerably and I know lots of Black people of American origin who live in other countries like Japan and France and China and Thailand, so American no longer conjures up for me only a White person, a male at that. As more and more Americans experience a more integrated society – it’ll take about 200 years at this rate – we all will lose that parochialism. And by integrated I do not mean just the hoary Black/White split but everyone of every stripe.

But is that possible? Won’t other divisions arise? What might they be? In some societies there are invisible markers of division. In ours here in the U.S. all possible markers were swamped by the one of skin color. That determined your life from before birth, before conception. Too bad for us, a large number of us refuse to digest that reality. The Hispanics have been merged into that palette as well. Italians used to be on it. For those who don’t know, any number of books have been written on “how the X people became White” to explain the process by which Italian construction workers could be stratified below Blacks in evaluations of various ethnic groups as workers and wind up leading (Cuchinelli, Scalise, and so many more, shamefully) the party of White supremacy. How soon we forget. But those White supremacists have not forgotten. I am especially appalled by White supremacists like Steven Miller who are Jewish. How do they ignore the constant memes on the right of ovens and nooses?

But here we get into ad hominem explanations. Sometimes you cannot avoid them, as with Trump, whose existence is overwhelmed by his severe personality disorder. All you can say about people like that is Bless His Heart.

Every society, of any size, of any degree of complexity, must set up its institutions in order to be able to go on autopilot at times. But all of these institutions require cultivation. We are seeing now the dismantling of the norms and institutions of our vaunted democracy, our republic. It seems like it is one man, but of course he is only a tool of people who have been waiting a long time to reestablish the Old Order. All around the world there are such people; they live to impose on the rest of us their version of society. From time to time, I read articles that call into question the liberal world view I subscribe to. Zadie Smith remarked that at a post-Brexit party where everyone was bemoaning the vote of so many fearful and uninformed people, one lady looked up from tending her newborn and observed: “The problem with us liberals is that we have to always be right.”

That struck home for me. We have the facts, the stats, the wide grasp of the issues, the inside story, and so on, but lots of people just lead their lives until it gets uncomfortable for them. Part of cultivating our institutions is maintaining equilibrium. The immense wealth gap is a perfect example of people driving the ship right into the shoals because they can’t be bothered with looking ahead; they might have to put their drink down. The Trump vote should have been a wakeup call but just seems to have been seen as an opportunity.

Who does the cultivating? An elite? I am afraid so. The dream of the yeoman farmer as a full participant in a free society has foundered on the shoals of economic and social forces that only the elite can understand because they are just too complex. Bright side? Climate change will make all this moot.

A coda:

To show that my approach above is not unusual, here is a quote from the anthropologist Paul Bohannan from his book Social Anthropology, 1963, pp. 266-267:

“Every society must solve political problems, just as every society must solve the problems of reproduction and recruitment of new members, and the problems of commissariat and allocation. But what is a political problem? How are such problems solved by different cultural means?

Reduced to simplest terms, political institutions are those that control use of force within a territorial framework. Both of these factors are necessary; there is no such thing as politics without force, organized in one way or another. There is no such thing as politics divorced from territory (though not necessarily one which is bounded in the sense that a national state has boundaries). Politics is the spatial aspect of social force.

There are, furthermore, two main methods of controlling and utilizing political force – or, better, utilizing force politically. They are law enforcement and warfare. Therefore, in studying the political aspects of any society, we must recognize at least four factors: the territorial extent and organization of the society is the first. We must know something about the way its people are spread out on the ground, and about its ecology, as it is affected by the modes of production. We have to know whether there are so-called “natural” social units separated by geographical barriers or whether the barriers separating the different territorial or spatial units are merely social barriers. Second, we must know something about the social system through which force is allocated to different individuals playing different roles, and how that social system is seen by the people who live and work in it. Some men, obviously, occupy more strategic positions than others in the control and use of force. Third and fourth, we must know something about the two main institutional controls of force: law and warfare. Whatever units within a society go to [sic] maintain the peace and to protect each group’s interest against other groups can be called legal institutions. Governments are legal institutions in that sense: they maintain the internal peace through the use or threat of force. Warfare is, on the other hand, force organized for the maintenance of territorial and cultural integrity. Of course, diplomacy can be included here: warfare is, in a sense, only the force that can be put into the field when diplomacy, its threat, fails. Such is not an idea limited to modern societies. Diplomats are to be found wherever there is organized social life and a clash of communities.

Obviously, authority behind the decisions of who will do what and to whom is the essence of law. Who has the strength or power to do what to whom is the core of diplomacy and warfare.”


The foregoing is a sample of how social scientists look at society. Societal change can be seen broadly but underneath that there are details, for example, the development of new technology permitting expansion or greater exploitation of resources in place. When the spear-bearing armies from the north entered the Congo Basin, they found the archers and swordsmen of armies there a match for them. The Greek tactics of Alexander the Great overwhelmed a good part of the ancient world as did those of the Romans. The stirrup and the iron plow opened up the Western world to greater change and the Columbian Exchange of animals and plants transformed livelihood on all three continents.

About a year and a half ago I wrote the following in my blog What Looms Ahead:

“What are the dynamics of our society? Just as you look at the dynamics of wave action to understand what is happening to a beach, you have to examine the geographical, physical, climatological, demographic, economic, historical, cultural and political wave action against the mass of humans you are examining. Wave action is a good metaphor b/c the effects of these factors do tend to occur in waves. The churning and counter-action of this wave effect accounts for the immense difficulty in predicting what pressures will lead to what effect on a particular society.” This is obviously something I have been thinking about a while.

As a Further Reading suggestion, I recommend Francis Fukuyama’s two volume Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay. Fukuyama begins at the earliest period to show how this order advanced as humans spread over the globe and burgeoned into the vast societies of today. He shows how the political determines the course of societies both when it works and when it doesn’t. Large entities change in a variety of ways. The Roman Empire decayed over time, i.e. it did not really fall, whereas the Ottoman Empire fell at the time of WW I. English society was transformed by the Norman invasion while the Russian Empire and France were transformed by internal forces resulting in revolution. Our American revolution moved our society from a colony to an independent nation, and threatening changes to it are coming after only 400 years of settlement by non-indigenous people and 240 years as an independent nation, a relatively short life span. Is technology the prod to change in the U.S., globalization of the economy, demographic shifts, or some vague malaise or fatigue? Non-violent outside forces brought to bear on South African ended the Apartheid regime in South Africa rather than the terrorism occurring there and internal economic decay ate away at the Soviet Empire causing a sudden fall as of a wooden structure eaten up by termites.

Here’s my hope: our own society will survive Trump but take him as a warning: the elites inside the palace dancing at the ball need to recognize themselves and stop pretending that the folks in fly-over country will just quietly remain backward and out-of-the-loop. The White South thought that about its Black population, too, and, to quote Sarah Palin again, “How’s that workin’ out for ya?” So we will not, I hope, congratulate ourselves that the system worked if we destroy Trump and the Republican Party; that will not have resolved anything.

Nov. 30, 2019 Here’s another quote illustrating the point of this entry:

“… I agree with such anthropologists as James Peacock that an adequate understanding of culture may be hoped for only if we take a holistic approach. That is we must be aware that the culture of any particular society or group, however complex, is so internally interconnected that if we pull out any one of its components – its ideas, its myths, its rules, its logical structure, its material supports – and disregard that element’s embeddedness in the whole, we will fail to understand it.” – Wayne Meeks, The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries.






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