Many find it impossible to understand those who, reared in a developed and technological society, deliberately reject the ways of civilized living that the human race has struggled so patiently to develop. The current revolt against civilization is most incomprehensible to those who have struggled successfully against poverty and other hardships to attain a reasonable standard of living for themselves and their families. But it is undeniable that many from upper-middle-class and upper-class homes are determining to “get away from it all” and to return to a tribal form of life.
Obviously, the socio-cultural rebel would call into question many words in the above paragraph, especially the expressions “developed society” and “civilized living.” He would point out that “civilized” persons resort to liquor, clandestine sex, tranquilizers, and a frantic social whirl to camouflage their personal failures and their frustrations with today’s living. Perhaps it is time for the Christian Church to engage in some heart searching to see whether through some misemphases it has contributed to the current yearning for the tribal state among these rebels.
The most obvious forms of retribalization are the rejection of monogamy, with its one-family home, and the abandonment of the “work ethic” in favor of a minimum-effort form of communal living. About a decade ago, there arose in California a tribal arrangement known as the “Perry Lane commune” which became something of a prototype for subsequent tribal establishments. The hippies of the Haight-Ashbury establishment sought to develop a parallel form of tribalization. The failure of this attempt lay, in good part, in the instability of many of the types who flocked to San Francisco, and in the large-scale use of drugs there, with the consequent abandonment of the basic forms of sanitation. In consequence, hepatitis and venereal disease became common, and the devotees of retribalization either abandoned the attempt or else turned to other forms and settings.
The Perry Lane group and its offshoot, the Merry Pranksters, which Ken Kesey established in the Santa Cruz Mountains, faded out. But from the so-called Midpeninsula Free University in Menlo Park there have come further attempts at commune-style living; notable is the Medway Forest Commune, which has lasted for six years now.
Still problematical, from the survival point of view, is Hog Farm in the San Gabriel Mountains, near Sunland, California. Here another of the “tribes,” as they are called in the underground press, has assembled, its members being mainly dropouts from the Sunset Strip and from Haight-Ashbury. Many of them are disenchanted with narcotics and skeptical about the total abandonment of the work ethic. The commune concept seems to be growing in popularity in North America and in scattered other parts of the world. In Washington, D. C., there are reported to be at least forty communes. In West Berlin there is the so-called Kommune-I at Sehenstrasse 60 in the Moabit district, and Kommune-II (K-II) founded by Eike Hemmer. These two communal forms resemble the California communes in their casualness concerning sexual matters and in their insistence that children must be surrounded by many adult figures, and not merely one father and one mother, since the latter form is held to be authoritarian.
In general, the German communes are more politically conscious than their American counterparts. Their inmates, being too young to have personal knowledge of the atrocities committed by the personnel of the Red army in the spring of 1945, have a sentimental leaning toward Marxist Communism; interestingly, their heroes are Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh, Malcolm-X, and Mao Tse-tung, rather than Lenin or Stalin. Thus they oppose the “spirit of privatism” and favor the elimination of private property and of the “capitalistic” practice of “formal” work. The overall aim is to outrage society, attack patriotism, and humiliate their elders.
The persistence of the efforts at retribalization leads one to feel that there must be some deep ideology or rationale behind the movement. It is much too simple to assert, as some do, that the communes are merely arrangements by which those in rebelllion against so-called middle-class morality act out what they have read in pornographic literature—although this does seem to occur. But there is a deeper theoretical basis for this return to the tribal form of living.
There is, it seems, something of the romantic in most men and women, something that is attracted by the words of the song,
A beautiful child
Growing up free and wild …
This the advocates of retribalization share. Deeper still, there lies in them the ideal of a return to a supposed primeval form of life, advocated by Aldous Huxley on something like a metaphysical basis, and articulated in terms of modern communication media and their effects by Marshall McLuhan.
In the volume War and Peace in the Global Village, by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, there is a three-page chart tracing in imaginative fashion the history of man’s civilization, from paleolithic man, through the stages that led to modern man (utilizing linear type), and back to “tribal man again.” It is significant that in the same volume McLuhan speaks of “the highly tribal and group-oriented character of the drug users.”
What McLuhan seems to be suggesting, according to Raymond Rosenthal in McLuhan: Pro and Con, is a kind of dismantling of today’s society, supposedly made inevitable by the discoveries in communication that rest upon electronic circuitry, and the erection of a type of new anti-environment in which men return to the kind of social configuration that allegedly marked pre-verbal man.
It seems to the newer advocates of retribalization that man can now defy all the hard facts of his previous geography, sociology, economics, and politics, and build a new life style that ignores the accumulated wisdom of the ages and the power of ideas and values of the past. The idea has charm and has attracted its devotees.
What has the current movement toward retribalization to say to the Church? Possibly it performs its best and most searching function if it inspires some pointed questions. For example, the Christian Church might ask whether the existence of racism among Christians has not been a form of concealed tribalization. Or to express it in other words, has not Christianity been remiss in failing to extend the concept of “The Tribe” so as to include all men?
Finally, has not the Christian movement sometimes assumed uncritically that all forms of so-called civilization are right and good? Possibly the existence of even such gauche social types as the commune comes to prod the Church into being prophetic rather than culture-affirming.
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