OPEN UNIVERSITY JANUARY 1, 2007
by Richard Stern
It's said that one reason the U.S. is out of its depth in Iraq and
Afghanistan is our ignorance of tribalism, yet we have our own forms of tribalism, so it shouldn't be so difficult to understand theirs.
In the waning hours of 2006, I watched my beloved, yes, beloved, if also hated, Chicago Bears humiliate themselves in a cascade of ineptitude and self-destructiveness the like of which we've not seen in what has been largely a triumphant season. Their opponent, the classic foe of their long history, was the Green Bay Packers playing as well as they have in their poor season in what was probably the final game in the long career of their 37-year-old quarterback, Brett Favre. As usual, I watched the game behind closed doors and allowed myself to vent strong feelings of disgust, despair, fury, and, occasionally, exultation a viva voce. My good wife, understanding that the cries coming from the closed doors were heard only during these hours of communion with the Bears, added to her chapter on the idiocy of the American male.
Five years earlier, we'd flown to her father's home town, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, for a family wedding. The post-wedding dinner was given in the local convention center which was wildly decorated and filled with tables devoted to the appetites of the two or three hundred guests. After I'd fed myself and drunk some champagne, I went into an adjacent room where it seemed that a goodly proportion of the male guests were cheering and moaning as they watched a football game between the University of Southern
Mississippi and a southern rival. Tuxedo jackets were off, black bow ties were hanging loose on the bestudded white dress shirts of the perspiring cheerers. It occurred to me that USM, a local institution of which till then I'd never heard, was the focus of a profound identification which went pretty much to the core of those watching the game. It was at this institution that Brett Favre first came to the notice of those who drafted him to play for the Atlanta Falcons from whom he was eventually purchased
by the team of which for more than a decade and a half he'd been the great star.
USM was the tribe of the whole region around Hattiesburg and perhaps for a good part of the state. To a somewhat lesser degree, the Chicago Bears were my tribe. At least for some hours, my emotional life was in their hands and my sense of fulfillment or depletion depended on what happened in Soldier Field a few miles away from my room.
After the game which Favre and his team won in a decisive way, the
grizzled, good-looking (in the manner of the just-deceased Gerald Ford who'd once been offered a try-out by the Packers), not ineloquent quarterback was interviewed by one of the ignorant and vulgar tootsies who are now part of the athletic package offered by the networks. She was probing for the "big story," "Was this the great quarterback's last game?" and, if so, "How did he feel?" Favre choked up. "This is very tough," he said, and went on to say how much he loved his teammates and how much he loved the game. She had her story, though in her jackal-like way, kept at him till he got out of her grasp and made his way to the locker room. My
own parochial feeling for my soundly-defeated team had broadened and deepened by now, so that I felt for and with this old enemy. My tribalism had been extended by emotional alliance which now included the memory of the wedding festivities in the town where one is shown Favre's house.
No need here to go over the familiar ground of the sedentary American man's involvement with professional or college teams. It involves forms of expression our everyday life denies us. We can hate openly, we can join thrillingly with others of all sorts and classes for a common end. It involves the lingua franca which enables us to talk with our cabbie, the grocery clerk, our colleagues on a Monday morning before our serious professional discussions. Tribal glue it is.
Why should it be so difficult to understand the loyalties which seem to be defeating our organizing goals in countries so many thousands of miles away?