I finished reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. It’s a book that’s in high school curriculums (my partner Katt read it in high school), but I just heard about it on a non-profit’s staff page (that I can’t find anymore), oddly.
There’s a personal story in it, as well as a systems story in it.
The personal story is a well-worn one. Okonkwo is a man in an Igbo tribe in what is now Nigeria. His father was considered a failure, and so he’s motivated to be successful by his clan’s standards. He is firmly in the grip of what we now call toxic masculinity. He is deathly afraid of seeming unmanly and of his sons seeming unmanly. He’s much like Hank Hill, except he has to fight and kill people instead of extolling the Dallas Cowboys in conversation.
By now, you’ve probably read and watched many stories about a person who does things because other people think they should. And thus, you know how these things go: Not Well.
These stories are still compelling to most of us because we see them lived every day. How did Trump stumble into the presidency of the United States, for example? Why is he so cruel? Why does a tech worker feel that they must work at the most dominant and highest-paying companies, despite the harm that they do? Why does Joe Rogan feel the need to take HGH and do testosterone replacement therapy, despite not being an athlete?
Now, we have to think about what creates the insecurity that drives this. In the case of Okonkwo, it’s a patriarchal culture that values, foremost, being a good warrior and being industrious (specifically, being a successful farmer) but also being generous. Okonkwo dutifully does everything he can to demonstrate these values, much like a corporate employee desperate for a promotion. (And he is explicitly desperate for promotions.)
His father and his oldest son, which he considers worthless embarrassments, actually have a lot to recommend them when viewed from outside the core values of his clan. His father was an accomplished musician, and his son is a thoughtful kid that enjoys stories and questions village decisions that involve killing. (He’s not unlike Bobby Hill.) In a system that had a broader set of values, perhaps Okonkwo would not have this driving shame.
He admires his daughter for having “manly” characteristics like clear-headedness under pressure. Yet, he can’t openly express this and instead wishes she was born a boy. In a radically different system, perhaps he could have had simply chosen her as his heir.
The clan’s system has consequences beyond Okonkwo’s family when the White men arrive, seemingly out of nowhere. (Much like 19th century Korea, which suffered a similar fate, the clan was largely uninterested in outside affairs.) After wiping out a village with superior firepower, the British send Christian missionaries to the other villages in the clan. They preach their religion, which the clan finds alien and outlandish. The White men are ultimately successful, however.
This is because the clan’s system disenfranchises many of its members. There are people marked as outcasts at birth. Twins are sent to the forest to die. The gods sometimes demand blood sacrifices that seem cruelly unfair. The people that have a problem with this decide to give Christianity a chance. They seed its growth within in the clan.
Something similar happened in India with Islam. The Hindu caste system designated many people as untouchables. Islam offered these people a chance at equality and dignity, and thus, it caught on. The same can be said of the Nation of Islam and African Americans in the ‘60s.
(And to use a much lighter and less real example, there was that episode of King of the Hill in which Bobby Hill got tired of being screamed at by an American football coach and so defected to a soccer team with a “participation trophy”-style coach, to Hank Hill’s horror.)
When we think about threats to a system or nation, we often think about physical threats, like being outmatched in military technology as the Igbo were in their first encounter with the White men in this book. But inequality within a system is also a significant vulnerability.
I mostly discussed tragic big-picture stuff here, so I feel compelled to add: Things Fall Apart is actually an enjoyable read. It’s not something that you dread reading, despite containing a lot of tragic events. The tone is kind, and the writing gives you a sense of a way of life that is now gone.