It’s hard to remember back to the Margaret Mead era when cultural anthropology was the neuroscience of its day, the glamor subject for aspiring middlebrows. During the early Cold War, more than few Americans diligently tried to take an intelligent interest in the vast array of foreign cultures that were suddenly deemed of strategic importance to the new American empire, so the insights of anthropologists were in popular demand.
Unfortunately, cultural anthropologists soon lost sight of the forest for the trees, leading to a glut of unreadably detailed studies, such as our current President’s mother’s 1,043-page dissertation on Indonesian blacksmithery. In turn, the public lost interest in alien cultures. Barack Obama, for example, who had been raised to be a diplomat or international affairs scholar, moved to insular Illinois in hopes of becoming mayor of Chicago.
This decline in attention paid to exotic mores has cost America dearly in the post-Cold War era, as America’s leaders blundered into countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya with little awareness of how radically alien their cultures are. The successes of postwar American occupations in Germany and Japan turned out to be irrelevant in Iraq, a fundamentally tribal land where roughly half of all married couples are also first or second cousins by blood. Saddam Hussein proved not to be a Hitler at the controls of a terrifyingly well-organized state, but an aging bullyboy who had scared a fundamentally fractious population, divided into countless family mafias, into temporarily refraining from drilling holes in each others’ heads.
The withering of public respect for cultural anthropologists has opened the door for a handful of outsiders, such as ornithologist Jared Diamond, to offer the public readable accounts that try to draw broad lessons from the seeming trivia of anthropology. A worthy entrant in this genre is law professor Mark S. Weiner’s account of the continuing global appeal of clannishness: The Rule of the Clan.
The subject of how people align themselves with relatives beyond their nuclear families is central to traditional cultural anthropology, but academics frequently get blinded by what renegade anthropologist Robin Fox calls “ethnographic dazzle.” Each individual’s family tree extends outward almost indefinitely to countless relatives, so different cultures have different rules for which relations matter most. Researchers tend to get lost in the thickets of whether a culture emphasizes ties with the paternal or maternal extended families, in-laws or nephews, cross or parallel cousins, and so on.
Weiner wisely sidesteps most of these technical questions, with just a few standard examples from the anthropological literature, such as the Nuers of South Sudan exemplifying segmentary lineages. (“Me and my brothers against my cousins, me and my cousins against the world.”)
The minutiae of family structure generally bewilder English-speakers because the English embody an extreme degree of nuclear-family orientation. What French anthropologist Emmanuel Todd calls the “absolute nuclear family” was traditionally only found in Europe in the old Anglo-Saxon lands around the North Sea. For at least 800 years, the fondest dream of the English (who will send even their small children off to boarding schools rather than have them underfoot) has been, as much as possible, to avoid dealing with their kin. Perhaps parliamentary government, the common law, the rights of Englishmen, and other individualistic innovations were just an attempt by the English to avoid having to set up the usual mafias for self-protection because they don’t get on well with their family connections.
Weiner focuses on a few central lessons. Exactly which side of the family a particular culture deems proper to team up with is less important than the fact that in much of the world they do team up. And they have very good reasons to do so. We all need protection from predation, and we need assurances that our contracts will be enforced so we can engage in complex enterprises.
Clans provide fellow warriors to fight for you in return for your fighting for them. Clannishness even offers nonviolent methods, such as ostracism, to make sure that business partners aren’t cheated. For instance, the Antwerp diamond market has long been run by clans of Orthodox Jews and (increasingly) certain South Asian castes. Why? Because the transaction costs of appraising diamonds with microscopes for arms-length transactions are prohibitively high for wholesalers. Instead, clan members deal quickly with each other on their word of honor. If one dealer were to develop a reputation for cheating his distant relatives, his fraud wouldn’t be laboriously documented to the Belgian state. Instead, his children wouldn’t find anyone suitable to marry. Thus, classic clannishness prospers today even in a city that may have been the richest in Northern Europe in the 16th century.
Of course, clannishness has its downsides. Because cultural anthropologists have abjured objective research in favor of political advocacy for their subjects, they are loath to discuss it. But the disadvantages of tribalism—such as frequent blood feuding and restrictions on love marriages—are a staple of literature and movies. Juliet isn’t free to marry Romeo, for example, because she has been promised to Count Paris as part of the Capulets’ system of alliances.
Weiner’s grandparents include Serbs, Croats, and Jews, so he knows from tribalism. But Weiner has an even better example of clannishness, one that only the most paralytically politically correct would object to as racist: Scottish Highlanders, who made one of the more successful transitions from clannishness to modernity. The kilted clansmen of the wild north of Scotland were not brought wholly under state control until the clans were crushed by the British government after they invaded England in 1745.
Weiner points out that Sir Walter Scott revolutionized literature in 1814 with what is sometimes described as the first historical novel, Waverly, an account of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s uprising as witnessed by a young English gentleman who finds himself fighting on the side of the rude Highlanders. Weiner loves Scott because he was not only the most popular of the Romantic writers, glamorizing a region and culture that had previously been ignored by the English, but he was also a lawyer. (A remarkable fraction of the leading creative artists in European history were lapsed lawyers or law students.) In Waverly, Weiner points out, Scott offered the first careful analysis of clannishness. Scott ultimately preferred the Saxons’ rule of law, but he grasped the emotional power of the old ways.
How can present-day societies of status evolve into modern societies of contract, to use Henry Maine’s famous distinction? Weiner commends the example set by the liberal professions—especially his own. And while Weiner may be biased, there are numerous recent examples of law professionals providing heroic role models, from the brave Italian prosecutors who took on the Mafia in Sicily two decades ago to the Pakistani prosecutor recently assassinated on his way to charging that unhappy country’s former dictator.
Still, Weiner’s book raises more disturbing questions than it answers. For instance, how do we know that clannishness isn’t the wave of the future?
While Weiner emphasizes the positive benefits of modern states, they triumphed mostly because they were better at total war. As the years go by, though, the bravery of the men who sacrificed themselves for their countrymen at Gettysburg or the Bulge seems less replicable. Likewise, some of us old-timers remember when space exploration was expected to become “the moral equivalent of war.” The Enterprise’s Captain James Kirk was modeled directly upon the Endeavour’s Captain James Cook, that symbol of meritocratic advancement from farm boy to explorer of the Enlightenment.
In a mostly peaceful and earthbound 21st-century, however, why not instead connive to advance your family at the expense of your fellow citizens? Thus, the immigration debate is being conducted in the press as if the entire “citizenist” notion of Americans having responsibilities to their fellow citizens just because they are their fellow citizens is unimaginable.
Weiner writes: “The heart of the feuding process beats with the principle that individuals have no legal identity independent of their kin. Harms they suffer are recognized as injuries to the group. Actions taken in response to those harms are pursued by the group on its own behalf.” This sounds rather like how the media are imploring Hispanic voters take racial vengeance upon the GOP for not letting in as many of their foreign co-ethnics as care to immigrate here.
Similarly, America seems to be moving toward a society of status based on the proclaimed victimhood of one’s clan. For instance, the highly productive Weiner was long employed as a law professor at Rutgers’ satellite campus in Newark. In contrast, a decade ago Obama, a part-time lecturer, was offered tenure at the prestigious University of Chicago Law School despite having published no legal scholarship. Why? Because of Obama’s inborn racial status.
In a world where it pays to belong to a designated victim tribe, a perhaps unsurprising phenomenon is the current rush by some whites, who can’t claim special status by ancestry, to have themselves elevated above criticism by the privileged status of their sexual orientation. Homosexuals have often formed pseudo-clans, perhaps the most famous being the Bloomsbury cabal to undermine Victorian virtues organized by biographer Lytton Strachey around John Maynard Keynes, E.M. Forster, and Virginia Woolf. When Harvard historian Niall Ferguson recently alluded unflatteringly to this immensely well-documented bit of history, he was denounced worldwide for his insensitivity to a powerless victim group. He’d never lecture in this town again!
Ferguson, a financial historian who knows which side his bread is buttered on, immediately apologized.
Steve Sailer is a columnist for VDARE.com and TakiMag.com.