Of the many noteworthy lines in President Obama's Inaugural speech, here's one that especially struck me: "We cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace."
The President was speaking of America's history as a multicultural nation, laying out our unity as an example for the world. He was offering e pluribus unum as it had originally been intended: not merely as a historical fact, but as a model for future human governance.
As most Americans heard today, he preceded his "lines of tribe" comment with this: "... we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united ..."
For those who think this kind of rhetoric is a platitude, a no-brainer, "Mom and apple pie," think again: The rhetoric of tribe is being used today in every corner of the planet to divide, conquer, and destroy. Tribalism is the curse that can destroy humanity. So far, the 21st Century has been no better than the century before it in terms of our ability to overcome our heritage of tribal division.
Consider this Kenyan commentary, written as Obama won the Democratic nomination in June of last year:
"I am finding it very difficult to join in the jubilation about Senator Barack Obama. Not that I want to deny the man his victory, but my impulse to celebrate keeps deflating on the idea that the best thing that happened to little Barack was not growing up in Kenya ... If he had grown up here, and had he somehow managed to retain most elements of his current self, he would have been another outstanding, intelligent and competent Luo man in our midst:
And he would have been killed.
... after all, when we had that incredibly good-looking and charismatic home-grown hero, Tom Mboya, we shot him to death. And when that austerely intellectual and elegant leader, Robert Ouko, threatened to look overly intelligent to the world, we killed him too. We killed Pio Gama Pinto and we killed JM Kariuki ... When Wangari Maathai is abroad, we feel that her Nobel Prize is partly represented in each of our Kenyan living rooms; when she comes home, she is just another Kikuyu politico ..."
These words come from a bitterly disappointed writer, someone whose heart has been broken by tribal warfare and corruption. That's how Obama, the Obama that would have been had he grown up in Kenya, appeared in his eyes: as just another promising young half-Luo facing violent death.
But tribalism isn't just a Third World problem. For 144 years we've been spared the violence of civil war and received the grace of life in a peaceful civil society. But we're not as different as we like to think. There are tribal ruptures here, too. I've seen it in my own life as the child of two religious heritages. Too often we use belief (and, as the President observes, non-belief) to divide us - whether it's by viewing wars and occupations through sectarian lenses, or by using "Phone Books" that help us to do business only with those of our own faith.
Sure, it's political rhetoric to speak of finding unity and strength in our diversity as "Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers." But how often in the past ten years have we used these differences in a tribal way to divide and conquer, electorally and socially? We saw that happen in national politics over the course of many elections, and again this year in California with the passage of Proposition 8.
Constitution-loving Americans have waited years for a President who will say this: "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals .... Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake." But it's the call against tribalism that rings in my ears tonight. If humanity is to survive, those lines of tribalism must dissolve.
It's human nature to have communities of affinity as well as communities as geography. Those communities can be based on common history, shared interests, or a mutual wellspring of dreams, hopes, and faith. There is a complex balance to be struck between respect for cultural differences and devotion to our common destiny. Finding that balance can be the work of lifetimes.
It won't be easy. Tribal divisions have to be recognized, not just dismissed. We've failed to understand and acknowledge tribal issues in making military and foreign policy decisions, to our own detriment and the world's. We'll need to understand these forces better if we are to forge that "hard-earned peace" the President spoke of in Afghanistan.
If we have the national will, however, improved intelligence and improved diplomacy can be put to a higher purpose: the goal of building a common human future by reducing sectarian division.
RJ Eskow blogs when he can at: