Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Two Kinds of People: Tribal/Selfless vs Universal/Selfish.

We loosely associate tribalism with selfishness and universalism with selflessness. It is said that a tribal–or particularist–person only cares about himself and his community whereas the universalist person cares about others and all of humanity. This may indeed be true in some respects, but selfless particularism and selfish universalism also seem to be quite commonplace. We only need to look at innumerable obvious examples from history.
Consider the Germans who obediently served Hitler. Consider the Japanese samurai who lived and died by their allegiance and oath to their lords. These were all highly particularist folks. They lived, fought, and died for their tribal, clan-centered, or national community. They were willing to sacrifice everything for their master or masters, to defend or expand a world of their own. They may have lacked great sympathy or feelings for people outside their community, but they were not selfish or self-centered individuals. Their life meaning was wholly invested in the community to which they belonged. If Hitler told his soldiers to go fight and die, millions of dutiful German soldiers did so. They considered it a great honor to fight and die for their Fuhrer, nation, and race. One could argue that they were selfish and greedy in a collective, communal, or tribal sense against other peoples, but they were not selfish in the individual sense.
Or, consider the family. There are many parents willing to do everything for their children. These parents can be said to be selflessly sacrificing for their children. And, some children are devoted practitioners of filial piety. But, these self-sacrificing parents or devoted children may not have much sympathy for people outside blood kinship.
Consider the movie GODFATHER where the Corleones will go to hell and back–at the very least, Michael went to Sicily and back–for the sake of the family but don’t much give a damn about those outside the family. Vito Corleone had tried to get Michael deferred from military service, and at one point, Sonny says only suckers fight and die for strangers. The young and idealistic Michael disagrees and says he signed up to serve his country. From this scene–the final one in Godfather II–, we might conclude Vito and Sonny are tribally generous but universally stingy. The Corleones established a good life in the United States, but their main loyalty is not to the US or the Constitution–nor even to NY–, but to blood. It’s all about the family. They’ll do anything for the family and closest associates(like Johnny Fontaine), but they’ll do little or nothing for the larger society. In contrast, Michael–at least initially–seems concerned about people and issues outside his immediate circle of family and friends. He appears more generous to all of humanity, less toward his own family. But, can we say that Michael is fundamentally more generous and selfless than the Corleones, or is the object of his selflessness simply different from that of Vito and Sonny’s? Furthermore, one can argue that Michael’s decision to defy the rules of the Corleone family was a kind of individualist selfishness. By embracing universalism–or a greater nationalism beyond family ties–, he was grasping for his own independence and freedom. Subconsciously, self-assertion rather than service to country may have been the main motivation.
As a member of the family, he was burdened with certain family obligations and expectations.
But, being a member of humanity–a patriotic American–enables him to lose himself among strangers to whom he owes NO SPECIFIC obligation. (One can only be truly free in the modern sense if one is a stranger among others bound by impersonal material contracts and abstract ideals. In this sense, it’s not surprising that even an oppressive ideology/system like communism had initially seemed liberating to many young people in poor countries who had previously been bound to family, clan, and custom.) One can also argue that an individual making a claim for the larger community or humanity is implying that he has the right to lead/rule/control/dominate other people or has the right to certain entitlements paid for by rest of humanity–welfare, free housing, free medicine, etc. Thus, universalism can also serve the interests of selfishness. Indeed, universalist selfishness can be more dangerous and destabilizing than particularist selfishiness. A would-be universalist leader seeks control and power over entire nations, even the entire world. A would-be universalist activist expects all the world to feed, clothe, and house him. Most radical universalists want either power or freebies. Rarely do they want to work hard and share the wealth they’ve created with rest of humanity. There are many ‘progressive’ rich capitalists, but they either tend to be naively stupid about world outside business, hungry for political power to bought with money, or simply afraid of ‘leftist’ activism and willing to dole out money to trendy causes so as to be left alone.
Let us consider some examples of universalist selfishness. Take Karl Marx. It’s often been said that Marx, for all his faults, was a man of great compassion. He wanted to ‘change the world’ so that man would not exploit fellow man. But, let us look at what Marx did for those closest to him? He had a devoted wife and children. His choice of lifestyle and career meant that his family would have to suffer, but Marx didn’t do much for their well-being. He was so busy caring about humanity that he let his family nearly starve to death. Now, it wouldn’t haven been so bad if Marx worked to feed his family, but he didn’t even do that. For all his professed compassion for the working class, he refused to stoop to its level and do manual labor. He only chose to do intellectual or ideological work, and he expected to be supported by rich capitalists who admired his genius. Indeed, one can argue that compassion conceals power-lust. Poor or weak people don’t feel compassion for rich or strong people. Feeling compassion for others means you’re in a position of superiority. Compassion is a form of luxury. A rich man dropping a few coins into a beggar’s cup feels the luxury of compassion. The beggar receives the coins like a dog receiving a bone. Thus, Marx enjoyed the pleasure of power-lust in his professed compassion for the working class. He claimed to struggle for a world with no more exploitation, but he never wanted to be a member of the unwashed rabble. He wanted to be a member of a moral and intellectual aristocracy that would lead the masses toward the new future. Thus, love for The People was a ticket to or a justification for his lust for power.
Or, consider Che Guevara, the much romanticized heir of Marx. He has also been praised and glorified as a man who cared for The People. Thus, it’s been said he was a selfless warrior who sacrificed his life for the good of the people oppressed by exploitative capitalism and imperialism. But, was he really selfless? He didn’t care too much for his family. He dumped his first ugly wife and married a prettier woman. But, he didn’t much care for her either nor the children they had together. He was too busy chasing after other women and the Revolution. His love for the People was a rationale for him to find pussy and adventure. Even if there was some truth to the fact Che was enraged by poverty and exploitation, it seems Che’s main motivation for joining the Revolution was vanity, self-glorification, and self-adulation. He wanted to be a communist god-king or rock star, a kind of Jesus. He dreamt of a communist empire stretching all across Latin America and saw himself as the King of the new order. And, was Mao any different?
Though universalism is often associated with collectivism, it is just as much a blood relative of individualism. After all, true individualism is only possible in true universalism. This is why there will always be a clash between nationalists and libertarians. Libertarianism understands that true individualism must be universalist. For an individual to be totally free and unconstrained by tradition, customs, culture, family, tribe, and nation, he must be a member of the universal or cosmopolitan community. Cultures compromise individualism because all cultures define and place moral/social demands on the individual. For example, a Jew is expected to uphold certain traditions and cling to certain loyalties. As long as he remains a Jew, he cannot be a totally free individual who makes his OWN choices on all matters. As a Jew, he is expected to remember the Holocaust and support Israel. To be a total individual, a Jew has to abandon his Jewishness and join the world community as a free-thinking individual who makes his own decisions every step of the way outside of social or cultural pressure.
Of course, the problem with libertarianism is it’s just another radical idea that tries to create the impossible. Despite all the talk of globalism and the privileged cosmopolitan delusions of the NWO elites, the fact remains that most people will remain affixed to a culture, nation, and tradition. Weakening borders and merging the world together will only produce more chaos, violence, and tensions. We need only look at the dire history of Latin America to realize that ONE WORLD culture doesn’t work. Catholics have failed, communists have failed, and globalism–at least the radical kind–isn’t working either.
If communism or Marxism is a form of collectivist universalism, libertarianism is a form of individualist universalism. Universalism is a good and noble idea, as it’s only natural for scientists, thinkers, spiritualists, and activists to seek or champion universal truth or justice. After all, we know that the law of gravity is universal all across Earth and throughout the universe. There is no British gravity as opposed to Arab gravity. And, we know that people everywhere are fundamentally similar; they feel much the same feelings and have many common intellectual abilities. So, universalism, to a sensible degree, was never the problem. The problem has always been radicalism, a poison that destroys all ideas, causes, and movements. Attach ‘radical’ to any -ism, and it turns into a purist, utopian, intolerant, and arrogant venom.
There may be moderate libertarians, but the more famous ones tend to be the radical ones like Ayn Rand and Grover Norquist. Perhaps, we should at least give them credit for their consistency of logic, but therein lies the problem–the idea that the world and humanity can be understood and saved by only one strain of thought or one thread of logical argument. No matter how logical an argument, all human arguments are grounded in ‘what FEELS right’. Ayn Rand calling her school of thought ‘Objectivism’ was just pure arrogance.
At any rate, libertarianism is valuable if only for exposing the moral defects of communism, and vice versa. Consider that both consider themselves to be universal truths, yet they’ve arrived at totally different conclusions. History had made it plain as day that communism was less about equality of man than about the Nietzschean power-lust on the part of some individuals to gain god-like wisdom, authority, and power. Communism may not take or maintain power without masses of selfless suckers willing to serve the Great Cause, the State, or the Great Helmsman, but it would never have come into existence or triumphed in certain countries without the cult of ‘great man’. So much for universal selflessness. Furthermore, the majority of the people came to tolerate or even support communism in communist nations out of selfishness than selflessness. Once Stalinist forced labor camps were shut down, communism for most Soviet citizens meant getting something for doing the least amount of work. A Polish friend once told me that despite communist Poland having been an unhappy place, the workers sure enjoyed their 2 hr lunch breaks. And, what does the passage of universal healthcare in America really mean? It means POWER for those who will control the system, and it means free healthcare for the masses who don’t want to pay for it themselves. There’s much here that has to do with selfishness.
Of course, other values and ideas are also rife with contradictions. Take heroism, for instance. Since heroes take on the toughest and most dangerous work, you’d think people on the ground or in the front line are most obsessed with heroism–and indeed this is true of some individuals. But, this isn’t so in most cases. Generally, those who make the most noise about heroism are the ones who are safely removed from the front lines. So, Patton talked big about heroism, but he was the one giving orders, not the one getting his guts blown apart. For soldiers on the ground or in the battle, heroism is an afterthought, if that. Their only thought is to survive and live another day. Men who lie wounded in army hospitals don’t think about heroism. Generally, chickenhawks and privileged men far removed from the battleground expound about big and grandiose ideals. There’s a scene in the German film DAS BOOT where the submarine crew comes up for air but then are lectured about duty and service by commanding officers who are enjoying champagne and gourmet food.
And today, there are many fools on the left who romanticize violent revolution and many idiots on the right who romanticize Nazi ‘heroism’ in WWII. Such people are poisoned by ideas and have little use for reality. They’ve forgotten the tyranny and murderousness of communism. They’ve forgotten the fate of the Germans in the war. Many German soldiers may have gone into battle feeling like great heroes, but they soon came face to face with the real nature of war–that heroism is a myth in war, especially in a modern war where whether one lives or dies is a matter of luck.
Hitler was the most frightening kind of tyrant for Nazism was a perverted synthesis of both particularism and universalism. It was what one might call a universalist particularism. Generally, particularists throughout history sought isolation. Thus, feudal Japan shut itself off from the rest of the world. Thus, Franco’s Spain was inward looking and wanted no great involvement in world affairs. The particularist right believed in a world of its own, wanted to be left alone, and wanted to leave others alone.
The universalists, on the other hand, sought to unify and reorder the world with their ONE AND ONLY TRUTH. They were not necessarily for a military conquest of the entire world. Their main objective was to spread their values and ideas all over the world. Thus, Christians sought to Christianize the world. It didn’t matter whether it happened by force, persuasion, diplomacy, missionary work, etc. This was also true of Islam.
And communists similarly wanted to turn the entire world communist by any means necessary. Universalism posited that people all around the world were fundamentally the same, therefore capable of understanding the same basic truths and attaining the same basic justice. Whatever delusions or hypocrisies were rife in all its forms, universalism was supposed to advance, liberate, and/or unite all of mankind.
The virtue of particularism was it wanted to leave others alone and wanted to be left alone. Its vice was its dogmatic clinging to much that was static and/or oppressive–in the name of sacred tradition–and its often petty or even contemptuous lack of curiosity for other peoples and cultures. (Thus, Japan stagnated over the centuries in virtual isolation precisely when the West was growing richer and stronger.) The virtue of universalism is it seeks to change society by overturning privileges of the few and ensuring rights to the many–all of us. It also has a very human and idealistic urge to share certain ideas, values, and truths will the rest of mankind. The vice of universalism is it can be intrusive, morally arrogant, aggressive, and blind to its own hypocrisies. Thus, Christian universalists were blind to the fact that other cultures had their own sacred faiths and even their own versions of universalism. After all, Buddhism and Islam are also universalist. Also, in its zeal and impatience to change the world, radical universalists have committed their own great crimes. The culmination of radical universalist folly was communism in the 20th century. Totally committed to their secular-faith-as-objective-science, communists were blind to their own blood-stained hands. It was more important to validate their sacred dogma, even if it meant enslaving or killing all the ‘wrong’ people.
Anyway, even more dangerous than communism was Nazism. If communism was radical universalism, Nazism was universalist particularism. Though it’s true enough that Hitler didn’t want to ‘conquer the world’, he did want to dominate of Europe and Eurasia and dominate world affairs. Hitler was not a traditional particularist whose motto was, ‘leave us alone, we’ll leave you alone.’ Hitler was a particularist on race but a universalist when it came to territorial vision. He wanted to universalize ‘Aryanism’. Since his ideology was based on blood–‘Aryanism’ was a biological truth than a moral or cultural idea–the only way to universalize it was by exterminating non-Aryans from the lands coveted by the ‘Aryans’. For a man who rejected universalism as an idea, he sure embraced universalism as a military and racial objective. Hitler sought to convert 1/3 of the world into an ‘Aryan’ utopia, and the only way it could be accomplished was by wiping off huge numbers of non-Aryans.
Some people on the White Right are ignorant of this and worship Hitler as a comic book hero fighting the venal Jews. Yet, other members of the White Right know this all too well but aren’t bothered by it because of (1) their obsessive fetish with the beauty, grandeur, and magnificence of the Third Reich. Priding themselves as nihilistic Nietzschean connoisseurs of higher beauty and unsentimental meta-morality inaccessible to the unwashed rabble, they turn their noses at notions such as sanctity of human life. As far as they’re concerned, most of humanity is commonplace and boring–what with 6 billion people around the world. What is truly precious and rare are deemed to be greatness, beauty, nobility, excellence, purity, etc. Since the ‘Aryans’ as formulated by Hitler were supposed to represent the highest form of natural beauty, cultural excellence, strength, and health & vigor, it is assumed that they had some natural right to dominate and even exterminate other peoples who were merely dime-a-dozen. Some white rightists admire the Japanese for the same reason. Regarding the warrior code and culture of the samurai to be cooler and more magnificent than the cultures of less martial Asians, some white rightists believe that the ‘superior’ Japanese had every right to massacre any number of commonplace ‘chinks’ to create an empire of the samurai. Most of these white right types tend to be hopeless geeks themselves. (2) There was and still is the idea on the part of some of the white right that Russians were lesser whites or no longer true whites because their blood had been tainted by Mongol invasion centuries ago and because their minds had been f***ed by the Bolshevik Jews. And other white rightists believe that the Germans had a right to rule over the Russians because Germans were simply a more advanced people while the brutish Russians were half-man/half-beasts who were only fit for taking orders. In other words, Russians are simply white ‘niggers’ or ‘spicks’, and Russia should have been a backyard for the Germans.
At any rate, it’s probably true that selfishness–or self-centeredness or self-more-ness–is a natural human trait. In this sense, if you repress one form of selfishness, it merely morphs into another kind. Similarly, if one suppresses or denies one’s sexual drives, it doesn’t really go away but surfaces in another form. Thus, if you lock up a lot of men together and don’t provide them with access to women, they turn to buggering one another. If you prohibit priests from marrying, some of them turn to child molestation. A lonely shepherd in the middle of nowhere may start mounting his own sheep. Or, if no kind of sexual outlet is allowed at all, sexual emotions can turn to violent emotions. To be sure, a few individuals do manage to overcome their natural animal drives, but it’s terribly difficult and not even desirable for most people.
Like sexuality, selfishness–perhaps it’s better to call it ‘selfness’–is natural. We see the world through our eyes. Even when a person sympathizes with others, he does it through his own private heart; all forms of sympathy is to an extent a form of projection, which is why some people are regarded and pitied as ‘victims’ even when they don’t see themselves that way. In other cases, sympathy is very selective and essentially self-serving. Thus, during WWII, Americans sympathized with those noble Russians and Chinese fighting the evil Russians and Chinese. During the Cold War, Americans sympathized with Afghanis fighting a ‘heroic’ war against communist imperialism. Oftentimes, we sympathize with other peoples–or fuel such sympathy among the masses–in order to serve our own interests in the matter. This self-serving sympathy can be political, economic, or essentially a form of vanity. After all, why do Americans care so much more for Tibetans than for the Uighurs who are also oppressed by the Han Chinese? Because Tibetan religion and culture invoke visions of spiritual Shangri-La so dear to narcissistic Westerners steeped in fashionable Eastern Mysticism. And, why are so many celebrities passionate about poverty among black Africans but show little interest for poor Bolivian Indians or Sri Lankans? Because the White West is obsessed with black athleticism and popular music, and thus feel more sympathy for suffering blacks than for suffering Bolivians or other ‘uncool’ peoples.
And of course, the sympathies of the some members of the White Right are just as suspect. They will bitch and whine about those innocent Germans killed in the Dresden bombing or raped by Russian soldiers but ignore, remain mum, or try to deny the much worse atrocities committed by Germans in the East.
In a way, one could argue that universalism can take the form of a megalomaniacal projection of one’s own ego–one’s own view of how the world should be. For the world to embrace universalism, there has had to be a person who projects his own idea of universal values and justice on everyone else. In other words, universalism isn’t possible without the prior existence of an individual with a huge ego who considers it a moral, philosophical, and/or political imperative for all of mankind to agree with HIS view of how the world should be. There can be no law unless there is a law-giver to begin with. Similarly, there can be no universalism without a man who lays down the universalist principles.
Great men who laid down universal laws must have been aware of the contradiction within their outlook. On the one hand, a GREAT MAN claims to be doing something for mankind–or the larger community–, yet he is imposing HIS own idea of how things should be. How can one convince the people–and oneself–that one is not merely forcing the people to follow ONE’S OWN idea of how things should be? Who is he to say HIS IDEAS are right for all people? Thus, the GREAT MAN often came to rely on God. He would say these universal or higher truths are not his own but were given to him by God to pass down to all the people. So, Moses went off to Mount Sinai to return with the tablets with the Ten Commandments. In the modern secular world, the creators of the new universal order invoke science, freedom, liberty, human rights, social justice, or The People.
This isn’t to suggest that all universal ideas are merely the eccentric inventions of individuals who seek to force their view of reality and justice on everyone else. Everyone is an inheritor of past traditions, wisdom, and experiences. With the power of reason, individuals may arrive at a set of values or principles that may indeed appear sound and useful to most people. Since people want to live in a ‘better’ world, there is a desire to learn, improve, and reform society. Some individuals are indeed more capable of connecting the dots, arriving at a higher truth, advancing rational arguments for the common good, and/or attaining an higher spiritual truth.
But, there are radical universalists who claim to be utterly selfless or other-istic and to speak and work purely for mankind. Yet, such radical suppression of the natural emotions of selfness leads to a monstrous selfness in the guise of utopian idealism. Consider Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Che. Each claimed to be utterly selfless agents of human progress. They claimed to desire no wealth, no privilege, no fancy jewelry and the like. They only wanted to save or help humanity. But, were they really selfless or other-istic? Did they really care more for other people than for themselves? No, they used the idea of revolution to gain obtain power for themselves. They may not have been greedy in the materialistic sense but they were greedy for power and for ‘truth’. They wanted to own and control the truth, which is why communists took over entire media networks, all schools, and all other institutions of information and learning. They always said it was all for The People–and they may have been sincere in their conviction–, but they were, at heart, very selfish or self-istic men. In the end, all that power and privilege–in the name of The People, of course–whet their appetite for other things as well, and it was only a matter of time before communist leaders lived like king and barons.
The best option for most of us would be finding a balance between particularism and universalism, between selfness and otherness. This idea may be old as the hills, but that’s why hills last so long.


  1. Fairly well-thought out and well-organized piece of reflection. Incorporates very broad, different, and important concepts/phenomena of human affairs into a cohesive message.

  2. One could even say Zionism is merely the Jewish version of Nazism!