American political system reflects some African tribal traditions


When a politician announces their Presidential candidacy, media figures and former acquaintances come out of the woodwork to knock them down a few pegs.

This phenomenon does three things, either it knocks him out of the race, makes him a victim, or has little to no effect.

In the first case, former acquaintances and bad press often create an insurmountable wall of distrust. In the second case, the candidate is the subject of apparently false accusations, and as a result, voters tend to side with the candidate.

In the unlikely case that candidate receives little substantial press or few accusations, he or she is neither eliminated nor victimized.

I believe these three options operate on a spectrum, as it is rare to fully achieve any of these roles. This concept of political degradation is an ancient one, as seen in the African Ndembu tribe.

In this tribe the chief is considered to be a condensed symbol of the tribe itself, as he represents its community, and well being.

Therefore, before he becomes chief, he is stripped of his status and is reduced to the level of the common tribesman.

He and his wife “sit crouched in a posture of shame and submissiveness and undergo a trial of rebuke and humiliation by fellow tribesmen.” Anyone who has been wronged by him is entitled to come forward and chastise him.

The leader is taken down a few pegs before ascending to chieftain or, in our case, the Presidency.

In announcing presidential candidacy, a period of ridicule begins. Everybody the candidate has ever wronged relates these misdeeds to any news source that listens.

Former Presidential candidate, Herman Cain, is an excellent illustration of the damaging effects of this ridicule on one’s Presidential ambitions.

Cain’s first grievance came from two women accusing him of inappropriate behavior. These allegations hit hard, as the New York Times explained that, “the allegations of sexual harassment go the core of Cain’s qualifications to lead.”

Furthermore, Ginger White came forward alleging she and Cain had a 13-year long extramarital affair. Though Cain and his wife unequivocally denied the allegations, the public deemed Cain a perpetrator, all but removing him from the Presidential race.

In this way, the United States embodies the tribal tradition of political degradation.

In the case of Cain, the American system stayed true to the tribal version, as those who slandered him were those he had personally wronged.

However, in the tribal version, the chief-elect becomes chief after enduring the humiliation. The idea that humiliation can result in a failed candidacy is a unique, modern addition to the tribal system.

Another exclusively modern form of degradation is by the media, who have had no direct contact with candidate.

President Obama has been overrun with media attempts to degrade him. Glenn Back called Obama a “racist” who “has a deep-seated hatred for white people, or the white culture.”

Similarly, the Washington Times’ Kuhner labeled Obama as a “cultural Muslim,” while Pamela Geller called him “the Muslim president.”

Instead of delivering a fatal blow, these right-wing barbs turned Obama into a victim.

Furthermore, Obama’s race may have given him an advantage in achieving victimhood.

The image of older, Conservative, wealthy white men attempting to dismantle a young, successful black man is one that makes many Americans uncomfortable.

I do not believe any of Obama’s media critics to be racist, but the image they provided was one that provoked strong feelings of racial unity.

This form of attempted humiliation is not a tribal one, as the accusations against Obama were completely false, and came from those Obama had never met.

I would say the American political process is an advanced version of the Ndembu tribal system.

Staying true to the Ndembu system, candidates must appear humble and be prepared to be rebuked by those they have directly wronged, however the candidates must also be prepared for false allegations.

However candidates cannot be submissive, as they have to proactively dismantle the criticism. Becoming the President requires a candidate to accept humiliation while simultaneously fighting it off.

President Obama stood strong in the face of false accusations, and I believe this perceived strength, coupled with the victim role, propelled him into the White House.

By embodying the victim role while also standing resolute, Obama fulfilled a sense of communitas; creating a sense of common humanity with he was able to share with voters. As a result, Obama has twice emerged from this humiliation period to serve as our “Chief” as a condensed representation of our proud American tribe.


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