Idols of the Tribe.
by Harold R. Isaacs.
Harper & Row. 242 pp. $10.95.

In 1915, at the height of a war-time mood of patriotism in this country, when Americanization programs were being undertaken by government and private agencies alike, the late Horace Kallen published an article criticizing the prevailing ideology of assimilationism and advocating in its stead the model of cultural pluralism. Today, Kallen’s radical suggestion of 1915 has become the conventional wisdom. Assimilation is a dirty word, and cultural pluralism is the order of the day. Black is beautiful, and so is brown, yellow, and red. In any stationery store one can find lapel buttons reading “Kiss me, I’m Irish,” or “. . . Polish,” or “. . . Italian.” And the pop-cult of ethnicity is merely an amplification of the pluralist vogue in the academic world. It would be difficult to find a work of scholarship on contemporary American society which did not pay obeisance to pluralism.

The limitations and superficiality of our understanding of this complicated subject become clear on reading Harold R. Isaacs’s Idols of the Tribe. Isaacs explores the interrelationship of group identity and political change from an international perspective, and, in doing so, breaks free of the common tendency to reduce the discussion to oversimplified extremes.

The function of basic group identity, writes Isaacs, is to supply the individual with two key ingredients: his sense of belonging and the quality of his self-esteem. These two needs are universal and timeless. The history of his group links the individual to past and future, and permits him to participate in a shared experience:

It assures him, as he profoundly needs to be assured, that he comes from somewhere and is going somewhere, that when he dies, it is not the end, that he is not alone. He is connected to others alive and dead by all the threads that connect what they share through parentage, family, kin, extending in time to a shared ancestry, shared antecedents, shared beliefs, imagined or historic experience. . . . These linkages help make tolerable the individual existence that is otherwise intolerably bounded by its own fragile aloneness, its own birth, and its own death.

This need for roots causes families to seek a genealogy, nations to establish their heroes, and religions to celebrate their special origins.

The deep and powerful need to belong to a group is expressed in half-a-dozen different and overlapping ways: body, name, language, history and origin, religion, and nationality. Isaacs’s investigation of the varieties of group identity around the world is fascinating, as he moves easily across nations, across time, across cultures, delineating the manifold ways in which people have defined their links to each other and at the same time made themselves distinct from all others.

Not, however, that a separate group identity is always a welcome thing for an individual; sometimes, indeed, it is a badge of shame inherited at birth. The eighty million Untouchables of India, for example, are locked into their lowly status on four different counts: their bodies, usually darker than those of higher castes, are considered unclean; their name, whether “Untouchable” or some euphemism designed to take its place, brands them as outcasts; their Hindu religion decrees their subjection; and their history is one of thousands of years of submission to fate. The best they can hope for is to “pass,” to escape the burden of group identity.

Political change—the collapse of old empires, the distintegration of traditional class structures, the pressure of modernization and industrialization—has hastened the fragmentation of established society. Trouble has arisen when different groups vie for the same piece of territory, or are thrown together into the same nation, or when one group feels it must make the world pure by wiping out some other group. Isaacs sees a painful paradox:

. . . the more global our science and technology, the more tribal our politics; the more universal our system of communications, the less we know what to communicate. . . . In the face of an ever more urgent need to pool the world’s resources and its powers, human society is splitting itself into smaller and smaller fragments.

Isaacs does not say whether this ongoing fragmentation is good or bad; just that it is so. But to those who hail the rise of particularism, Isaacs has words of caution: more than 10 million people have died since 1945 in ethnic-cultural clashes.

It is a somber catalogue: mutual massacring of Hindus and Muslims in India; tribal civil wars in Nigeria, the Congo, Chad, Sudan; Indians killing Nagas in northeastern Assam; Malays killing each other in Burundi; Catholics and Protestants killing each other in Ulster; Turks and Greeks in Cyprus; Kurds and Iraqis in Iran. . . .

The list goes on and on, including the half-million Sudanese blacks killed by Sudanese Arabs and most recently the devastation of Lebanon by the fighting between Christians and Muslims.

Despite recurring utopian hopes for a seamless world order, then, for a universal brotherhood or family of man, group differences refuse to fade away. “Our tribal separatenesses are here to stay,” as Isaacs says, and they are not an unmitigated blessing. They may be a source of art and a boon to the human spirit, they may act as a stay against the homogenizing processes of modernization; but “with all the beauty goes all the blood.”

For Americans, one comfort to be drawn from the pages of Isaacs’s book is the awareness that present-day American intergroup conflict is comparatively benign. While religions and races and cultures slaughter each other in various parts of the globe, in the United States group disagreements are likely to be expressed in seminars, encounter meetings, ecumenical conferences, and television talk shows. Indeed, if in the past Americans used to worry that their peculiar multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and multi-religious heritage might render impossible the task of forming a single American nation, the current vogueishness of “ethnicity” may represent an implicit acknowledgment that the American identity is now so secure that it is beyond internal jeopardy; the ritualistic celebration of distinctiveness thus becomes possible because distinctiveness itself is no longer as threatening as it once was.

Obviously, we must have our differences. How can we learn to live together without seeking to crush those who are different? Isaacs poses the question but does not answer it, declining to enter into prescription and policy. Nor does he tell us which kinds of pluralistic societies work well, and what sorts of accommodations are necessary for heterogeneous groups to live together peaceably. We are left by Isaacs with paradoxes and dilemmas, whose resolution “remains to be seen.” Still, such disappointments aside, Isaacs’s survey of global pluralism is enormously helpful in broadening our perspective, and should be required reading for anyone who cares about the shape of ethnicity in America.

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