Sometimes fortune smiles upon you. I met Mark Weiner when we started law school. My life and my work is much better for it. Mark is a scholar and more. He obtained his B.A. in American Studies from Stanford, his J.D. from Yale, and his PhD in American Studies from Yale.
His most recent project is his excellent book, The Rule of the Clan. Ambassadors, professors from all around the world, members of the 9/11 commission, and publishers have embraced the book. Mark argues, and I think rather well, that the state has a quite important role to play, and we ignore that to our peril. Publishers Weekly has said:
A nuanced view of clan-based societies … Weiner’s argument is a full-throated defense of the modern centralized state, which he sees as necessary to protect human rights: “In the face of well-intended but misguided criticism that the state is inimical to freedom, we must choose whether to maintain the state as our most basic political institution or to let it degrade.” An entertaining mix of anecdote and ethnography.
The New York Journal of Books has called the book “accessible, mesmerizing, and compelling.”
I wanted to get into how Mark came up with the project, why it matters, and, for the writers out there, the process of writing about such a complex subject but in a way that is accessible to a general audience. So I asked Mark whether we could do a Bright Ideas interview. He graciously agreed.
Mark, the book is great. I want to jump in and ask, What do you mean by “clan”?
Thanks, Deven. In my book, I consider clans both in their traditional form, as a subset of tribes, but also as a synecdoche for a pattern by which humans structure their social and legal lives: “the rule of the clan.” Clans are a natural form of social and legal organization. They certainly are more explicable in human terms than the modern liberal state and the liberal rule of law. Because of the natural fact of blood relationships, people tend to organize their communities on the basis of extended kinship in the absence of strong alternatives.
So why clans now?
Two reasons. First, the United States is involved militarily in parts of the world in which traditional tribal and clan relationships are critical, and if we don’t understand how those relationships work, including in legal terms, we have a major problem.
Let me give you an example from Guantanamo. In the book, I tell a story of a college friend who was in charge of the team there interrogating detainees from Saudi Arabia. (I should note that my friend finds torture morally repugnant and against the national interest, as do I, and that she has advocated for this view in meaningful ways.) Over the course of her work, my friend realized that because of the first-name/last-name structure of the detainee tracking system, basic information about detainee tribal affiliations hadn’t been gathered or had been lost. This meant, among other things, that we couldn’t fully appreciate the reason why some of these men had taken up arms against us in the first place—for instance, because the United States had become embroiled in their centuries-long, domestic tribal war with the House of Saud.
Our ignorance about these issues is what I call the contemporary “Fulda Gap.” Our lack of knowledge about more traditional societies hinders our ability to understand the motivations of those who oppose us and leaves us vulnerable—and, even more important, it diminishes our ability to cooperate with our friends and to assist liberal legal reformers abroad in ways that are both effective and ethical.
The second reason to study clans, and ultimately for me even more important than the first reason, has to do with our own political discourse here at home. You could say that I became interested in clans because of widespread ideological attacks against the state within liberal societies—that is, attacks on government. By this I mean not simply efforts to reduce the size of government or to make it more efficient. Instead, I mean broadside criticisms of the state itself, or efforts to starve government and render it anemic.
I think you are saying there is something about clans that helps us organize and understand our world. What is it?
It’s often said that individual freedom exists most powerfully in the absence of government. But I believe that studying the rule of the clan shows us that the reverse is true. Liberal personal freedom is inconceivable without the existence of a robust state dedicated to vindicating the public interest. That’s because the liberal state, at least in theory, treats persons as individuals rather than as members of ineluctable status or clan groups. So studying clans can help us imagine what our social and legal life would become if we allow the state to deteriorate through a lack of political will.
By the way, the idea that the state is somehow inimical to freedom—that we gain individual freedom outside the state, rather than through it—is hardly limited to the United States. It was a core component of Qaddafi’s revolutionary vision of Libya. Or consider Gandhi, who advocated for a largely stateless society for postcolonial India. Fortunately for India, his vision wasn’t realized. Instead, we owe the prospects for further liberal development there to the constitution drafted by B. R. Ambedkar.
Hold on. From Indian independence to Libyan revolution seems a long jump. Can you help me connect the dots?