The Rise of Tribalism

Tony Donaldson

I can remember a time back in the early years of this century when the age of cosmopolitanism was in fashion. It was a beautiful time. One of the great benefits of cosmopolitanism is that it allowed us to throw off the shackles of nationalism. We could take on different identities of our own choosing at any time in our lives with an absolute sense of freedom.[1] We could travel anywhere and engage with cultures and peoples around the world without political interference. We could build partnerships in business and trade that benefited all of us. Nationalism was in decline, and it was a positive direction for humanity.

But in just a few short years, cosmopolitanism is now in retreat, to be replaced once again by nationalism. It began around the time Trump came to power and has since spread to countries from the UK to Australia. Since then, over three short years, the world was turning upside before the global pandemic.

It is unfortunate that the global pandemic should coincide with a dramatic rise of nationalism in Western countries. It is killing our natural cosmopolitan instincts. We no longer have the freedom to take on different identities and enjoy the benefits of travel or engage with people of other cultures, unless they have been officially sanctioned as “likeminded”[2] by Western governments. With the rise of tribalism in the West, we are also witnessing tribalism on the rise in China. Tribalism does not recognize ideologies and political affiliations. It doesn’t distinguish between neoliberal democracies, socialism, communism, or the Taliban. It can infect all political ideologies with devastating consequences.

Tribalism is forcing people to adopt a nationalistic mindset – against our natural instincts as human beings. Tribalism divides countries into friends and enemies, no longer as peoples belonging to a shared global community called humanity. It fears those who act as a bridge between peoples and cultures. This new form of nationalism now engulfing the West is ugly and dangerous – what Mahatma Gandhi also called “Tribalism”. While Gandhi is held up as a patriot of India, he did not believe in nationalism. For him, nationalism was tribalism. He believed in universal brotherhood. To their credit, despite pressures from some Western nations to do otherwise, most Asian nations have managed to avoid going tribalistic.

If tribal nationalism continues to grow, it can only destroy our humanity along with our ability to see other people as human beings with the same hopes and desires to live a good prosperous life. Nationalism undermines valuable partnerships across the international education sector that has brought tremendous benefits to millions of people. It is destroying business and trade relationships built up over many decades. It forces people living in other countries to see us, no longer as friends, but as enemies. It sabotages our capacity to understand cultures different from our own, other than through the prism of a narcissistic Western worldview.

Along with tribal nationalism, comes an insidious form of propaganda. All countries engage in it, with the media acting as its main outlet. Governments and the media have become so well-versed in the art of propaganda, people around the world can no longer tell what is true or false. It has reached a point in which many in power consider the purpose of the media to be propaganda, to instil a particular ideology in the state and its people, in the same manner Reich Minister of Propaganda Goebbels once advocated when he wrote, “The finest kind of propaganda does not reveal itself: the best propaganda is that which works invisibly, penetrating into every cell of life in such a way that the public has no idea of the aims of the propaganda.” (Golomstock, 1990, p.178).

This quote from Goebbels is relevant to our times as governments around the world and the media have learnt the art of propaganda from Nazi Germany. In this one respect, the West and Nazi Germany are “likeminded”.

What cosmopolitans are left with today are memories of those halcyon days, when the world was still a human community. We can only hope the madness of nationalism comes to an end, and the world can return to a better path.


Golomstock, I. (1990). Totalitarian Art. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.


[1] Here, I do not mean “freedom” in the sense of how the word is used by Western leaders which has its own hidden boundaries.

[2] In this context, likeminded is defined in narrow ideological terms.

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ALSO NOTE …. Tony Donaldson’s Sri Lankan ‘Excursions”

Yomal Senerath-Yapa: Sunil Santha: New Insights from Tony Donaldson,” 7 April 2019,

Donaldson:  “Tony Donaldson to introduce Sunil Santha and His Sinhala Music to Contemporary Lankans,”, 26 October 2016,

Donaldson:Neville Weereratne: the Artist and his Distant Homeland,”,17  February 2018,

Thuppahi:  “Aficianados and Music at Sunil Santha Lecture by Tony Donaldson, 28 February 2019,”

Aficianados and Music at Sunil Santha Lecture by Tony Donaldson, 28 February 2019


Western Neo-Colonialism Today: An Incisive Note from Tony Donaldson

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