The Ragweed Tribe

We bonded much more deeply than crash-pad stoners or cubicle rats. More like soldiers in a combat outpost.

We are at the gatehouse to The Farm, the Welcome Center we set up for greeting guests as they arrive. This day they are coming for the annual homecoming celebration we call Ragweed Days. Our job is not unlike the door greeters’ at WalMart, without the blue vests. We have a tie-dye pouch to hold pencils and loose change in case we sell some books or t-shirts, and a stack of hold-harmless forms to give non-residents to sign.

It is a bit incongruent, because in the early days of the community money was never exchanged between hippies. It wasn’t that we were socialist or communist. We were intentionally moneyless.

By some reckonings, more than 4000 people lived at The Farm at some point in time during the past half-century. In the 1970s there were more than 500 youths under the age of 18 living here.

The community is now in its fourth generation since the original bus caravan left Haight Ashbury in October 1970. The most permanent residents lie out at the end of Cemetery Lane under six feet of hardscrabble dirt. The newest are still being born, or have shown up and managed to get themselves voted into residency after a short period of getting to know us.

This two-story building arrived on truck carriage wheels and was lowered onto these foundations. It was purchased at condemnation auction, a clapboard and tarpaper relic of the greater throwaway society. As a 20-something-year-old Farm mason, we faced this gatehouse with red brick salvaged from the Singer Pants factory in Pulaski, chipping off the old mortar with a rock hammer.

We recall a band of young Akwesasne Mohawks showing up one day while we were about 10 feet off the ground laying bricks to string. They took up trowels and showed us a far finer level of craft than our self-taught kind. If you look closely, you can still see that edge here on the side of the building — the border where it crosses from amateur to professional.

We are reading to great enjoyment, Tribe: Our Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger, who writes:

There is remarkably little evidence of depression-based suicide among tribal societies. Among the American Indians, for example, suicide was understood to apply in very narrow circumstances: in old age to avoid burdening the tribe; in the ritual paroxysms of grief following the death of a spouse; in a hopeless but heroic battle with an enemy; and in an attempt to avoid the agony of torture.

In many of the better-studied North American tribes, Junger writes, the suicide rate was zero.

This stands in stark contrast to any modern societies where the suicide rate is as high as 25 cases per 100,000 people. In the United States, white middle-aged men currently have the highest rate at nearly 30 suicides per 100,000.

Anyone kitesurfing long enough in San Francisco Bay will sooner or later witness a bridge jumper. People in wealthy countries suffer depression at eight times the rate of poor countries. Urban USAnian women, the most affluent demographic, are the most likely to experience depression.

A wealthy person who has never had to rely on help and resources from his community is leading a privileged life that falls way outside more than a million years of human experience. Financial independence can lead to isolation, and isolation can put people at a greatly increased risk of depression and suicide. This might be a fair trade for a generally wealthy society, but a trade it is.

We are particularly struck by what Junger, who as a war correspondent experienced what it is like to hang one’s life by a thread, says about male herd behavior. We have written here in the past about herd behavior in the context of climate change solutions, because as we often say, it is not science or technology that confounds us from mending Earth’s ecology, it is human social behavior.

As can be seen in zebras or wildebeest crossing a river full of crocodiles, herding is a rational defense strategy. Bunching herds protect their majority from predators, although a few will be lost to the needs of the river dwellers.

Millions of years ago, our ape ancestors adopted herd strategy over lone individualism and it has served us well. Our fads and fashions are not really optional — they are hard wired to our genetic code. When we choose to wear a necktie and blazer, or a pants suit with jewelry and heels, we are signaling membership in a particular band. The cars we drive, the places we live, the foods we eat — all signals of belonging to a particular tribe.

Adversity being a teacher of the true way is not necessarily to be avoided. — W.Y. Evans-Wentz

Our trope of allegiance is hard-wired, although the particulars of to whom we swear are not fixed. In the 1930s, suffering from the hardships and sanctions imposed after the First World War (shared hardships being a bonding energy) many Germans of average civic pride swooned for the Aryan race rhetoric and grand public pageants of the National Socialists. In the ’40s, reeling under the horrors of the Wehrmacht’s Eastern assault, millions of Russians took up crude weapons or bare fists and many died to save motherland and freedom. Junger says the same happened during the London Blitz, when Britons of all classes and positions were prepared to go to the beaches with broken bottles if necessary.

Image courtesy Farm Family Archives

In the ’50s, anticommunist hysteria swept the West. In the ’60s, the Baby Boom’s bohemianism marked the coming of the Age of Aquarius — harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding, no more falsehoods or derisions, golden living dreams of visions, mystic crystal revelation, and the mind’s true liberation.

Tribal instincts towards personal sacrifice are ennobling, unifying, heroic — even without the broadway back beat. Junger goes on:

Christopher Boehm published an analysis of 154 foraging societies that were deemed to be representative of our ancestral past. One of the most common traits was the absence of wealth disparities between individuals. Another was the absence of arbitrary authority.
“Social life is always egalitarian, in that there is always a low tolerance among a group’s mature males for one of their number dominating, bossing or denigrating the others,” Boehm observed.
The human conscience evolved in the middle to late Pleistocene as the result of the hunting of large game. This required cooperative, band level sharing of meat. Because tribal foragers are highly mobile and can easily shift between different communities, authority is almost impossible to impose on the unwilling. And even without that option, males who try to take control of the group or of the food supply are often countered by coalitions of other males.
This is clearly an ancient and adaptive behavior that tends to keep groups together and equitably cared for.
In his survey of ancestral type societies, Boehm found that, in addition to murder and theft, one of the most commonly punished infractions was failure to share. Freeloading on the hard work of others and bullying were also high on the list. Punishments included public ridicule, shunning and, finally, assassination of the culprit by the entire group.

This fabric is now frayed. Tribe shows it clearly:

All told, combined public and private fraud costs every household in the United States around $5000 per year, or roughly the equivalent of working four months at a minimum wage job. A hunter-gatherer community that lost four months worth of food would face a serious threat to its survival, and its retribution against the people who caused that hardship would be immediate and probably very violent.

Westerners live in a complex society and opportunities for scamming small amounts of money off the bottom are almost endless and very hard to catch. (see Shameless). But scamming large amounts of money off the top seems even harder to catch. Fraud by American Defense contractors is estimated at around 100 billion dollars per year and they are relatively well-behaved compared to the financial industry.

Junger goes on to describe how, following the 2008 bubble-burst, the adult males of the tribe not only did not punish the crooked banksters for costing trillions to the US economy, but rewarded them with million dollar bonuses and billion dollar bailouts. They were not just too big to jail. They were heroes.

Lesser citizens were outraged. A wild silverback buffoon lumbered forward, beat his chest and promised to “drain the swamp.” This alpha male behaved like he was a good ol’ boy calling the tribe to a backyard barbecue, where they were going to roast them some Goldman Sachs. Wiser adults in the tribe should have ridiculed him as a lunatic. Instead, he became supreme commander and the tribe descended into idiocracy.

How does a tribe become that dysfunctional? Partly, Junger opines, it’s the isolation of contemporary living, where we cocoon in private spaces at night and work at faceless terminals by day. Maybe we have a few friends at church, the gym, or a neighbor we know, but more than 90 percent of our human contacts in an average day are with complete strangers. Most we will never see again.

Some of the fallout of our separation from our genes has been the exit from the Paris Agreement and the UN process generally (association with national tribe rather than global community), BREXIT (association with national tribe rather than continent), the Scottish, Crimean and Spanish referenda (association with region, or former nation, rather than nation), the street attacks in London and Paris (association with ethnic tribe rather than civil society), and the Muslim Ban (association with religious groupings and denigrating all others).

Consider the history of US government shutdowns. The 1990 shutdown occurred when then House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich torpedoed an appropriations package put forward by George “Read-my-lips-no-new-taxes” Bush. Because the shutdown occurred over a weekend, only around 2,800 workers were furloughed and it cost the government a mere $2.57 million. That was pocket change to Gingrich. He could pull in more than that in a single power lunch with corporate backers.

During the Clinton administration, there were two full government shutdowns (1995 and 1996) lasting 5 and 21 days respectively. These shutdowns caused massive furloughs and significant disruption. The ostensible issue was deficit funding for Medicare, education, the environment, and public health, which is to say, the willingness of the Federal Reserve to manufacture debt out of thin air, with nothing backing it, and to lend that to the government, banks or anyone else, at private — not public — profit, to meet Congressionally mandated or otherwise legal obligations. Expanding debt, or “liquidity,” expands the national economy and grows jobs and wages. That is how it works.

Gingrich’s GOP, which had legally ordered the unpaid mandates, now wanted to reduce debt, essentially throwing millions of people out of work or freezing their wages. Clinton rightfully refused to do this. Gingrich won. His 1995 shutdown threw 800,000 people out of work and led to the impeachment of the President.

Having been war-painted in the blood of Democrats, the right’s 2013 government shutdown was ostensibly for the purpose of delaying or defunding Obamacare. It ultimately cost the economy some 217 billion dollars and reduced quarterly GDP (previously growing at around 2%) by 0.9 percent. This is more than even a Gingrich power lunch. Approximately 800,000 employees were indefinitely furloughed, and another 1.3 million were required to report to work without pay.

Eighty-one percent of USAnians disapproved the shutdown and 86% felt it had tarnished the United States’ image in the world. In the local DC area, the cost to the economy was $200 million per day. Nationally, the shutdown of the National Park Service alone cost $76 million per day. How many months of food was that for the tribe? For park concessionaires, it was a year’s.

In an October 7, 2013 interview with MSNBC, Senator Bernie Sanders stated:

The real issue here, if you look at the Koch Brothers’ agenda, is: look at what many of the extreme right-wing people believe. Obamacare is just the tip of the iceberg. These people want to abolish the concept of the minimum wage, they want to privatize the Veteran’s Administration, they want to privatize Social Security, end Medicare as we know it, massive cuts in Medicaid, wipe out the EPA; you don’t have an Environmental Protection Agency anymore, Department of Energy gone, Department of Education gone. That is the agenda.

In a rational tribal society mature adults would have publicly ridiculed, tortured and killed Newt Gingrich, John Boehner, Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell and Lamar Alexander. An overwhelming majority of the tribe would have cheered the executioners. But Junger adds a note of caution.

The most alarming rhetoric comes out of the mouths of liberals and conservatives and it is a dangerous waste of time because they’re both right. The perennial conservative concern about high taxes supporting a non-working underclass has entirely legitimate roots in our evolutionary past and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.
Early hominids lived a precarious existence where freeloaders were a direct threat to survival and so they developed an exceedingly acute sense of whether they were being taken advantage of by members of their own group. But by the same token, one of the hallmarks of early human society was the emergence of a culture of compassion. They cared for the ill, the elderly, the wounded, and the unlucky. In today’s terms, that is a common liberal concern that also has to be taken into account.
Those two driving forces have co-existed for hundreds of thousands of years in human society and have been duly codified in this country as a two party system. The eternal argument over so-called entitlement programs, and more broadly over liberal and conservative thought, will never be resolved because each side represents an ancient and absolutely essential component of our evolutionary past.

What do you say about a Health Care bill that would throw millions off Medicare and could kill 29,000 people per year? It is not Big Tribe (the nation) but it is small tribe (the wealthy) working shoulder to shoulder to achieve a shared task and egging each other on — honking like geese. In the example of health care, though, Junger’s two-party theory is misplaced. Republicans and Democrats are members of the same tribe. They worship together at the same golf courses and cocktail parties.

Much like Obamacare, Trumpcare is a tax cut for the rich and a payback to the insurance PACs. It kicks seniors out of nursing homes but does not harm elderly wealthy, such as Senators and Congressmen, who can pay for extended care no matter the cost. They get free insurance anyway, and if they didn’t the insurance industry lobbyists would comp them that much out of tribal loyalty.

Ask someone why she stays in a job she hates, and as often as not the answer is, “For the health insurance.” In other words, we stay in jobs that leave us feeling dead in order to gain the assurance of staying alive. When we choose health insurance over passion, we are choosing survival over life. — Charles Eisenstein

Lately the GOP has taken to claiming that Trumpcare will reap 4 billion in savings. Boring into that number, we find it based on the sinister calculation that cutting Medicare to seniors will cause 200,000 deaths among elderly who will then not have to be paid their Social Security entitlements.

Junger scribes a limit to social tolerance:

Reviling people you share a combat outpost with is an incredible stupid thing to do, and public figures who imagine their nation isn’t, potentially, one huge combat outpost, are deluding themselves.

The hippies who left California for Tennessee got themselves a decrepit ridgetop farm for $70 dollars an acre and nearly starved the first winter. Reduced to eating boiled wheat with sorghum molasses, they persevered in thin-walled army tents in subzero temperatures, and worked from sunrise to sunset building roads, laying pipe and erecting public buildings — the dairy, the machine shop, the potato barn, the free store, the tractor barn, the flour mill, this gatehouse. We bonded much more deeply than crash-pad stoners or cubicle rats. More like soldiers in a combat outpost.

For that first dozen years the per capita income from all sources seldom exceeded one dollar per day. Gangs of us got up before dawn to bus 75 miles to Nashville to work hard labor at $1.25 per hour. We got bombed by the Klan, had horses shot, were harassed by the District Attorney. It only made us stronger.

We tribed.

We should thank the buffoon and his chorus. While they may not grow GDP, they are doing what they can to boost the misery index. The storm that is coming is going to push a great many more people back to their genetic roots. We’ll need that unity if we are going to seriously tackle the greatest enemy we have — ourselves.