IDOLS OF THE TRIBE by Harold R. Isaacs


Email this review


A compact and forthright enumeration of childish allegiances to group identities. The essential motive for clutching at any view of self based on a group narrower than the human species, Isaacs suggests, is the infantile fear of aloneness. And the lack of other sources of self-esteem in this society drives people to soothe and protect themselves with ethnic Linus blankets. A puerile emphasis on bodily features is found not only in the imposition of ""skin"" concepts on black people, but in most nationalist and ethnic group-think. The magic of names and language, reflected in the term ""mother tongue,"" is grounded in the baby's reliance on his parents to control the world for him by unknown but powerful means. Religious magic is more complicated, Isaacs continues, but often boils down to the same ""warming comforters""; and national adherence depends on ""powerful primordial associations."" Having so concisely dissected these limitations on an individual's ability to think rationally about the world as a whole, one expects Isaacs--author of The Failure of the Chinese Revolution--widely considered one of the best studies ever done of the early days of Maoist movement--to offer a firmer conclusion than his parting hope that perhaps someday we will see a pacific, wholesome pluralism of groups. Two other major gaps occur in his prefatory historical discussions--he writes as if the post-colonial Balkanization of Asian and African regions just ""happened"" without Western involvement; and, though he discusses various kinds of Jewish ""tribal"" identity at length, he omits to mention the way the Nazis played on ""group identity,"" for example in occupied Belgium and Czechoslovakia, not to mention Germany. The divide-and-rule principle of power politics is here ignored in favor of ""primordial"" instincts; a dear survey of half the picture.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1975
Publisher: Harper & Row