18 February 2007

Mumbo Jumbo, Gobbledegook And Old Bones

Most people, at least most people who aren't fundamentalist Christians, wouldn't hesitate to write off the doctrine of creationism as being little more than superstitious nonsense. They'd probably harbour similar feelings about literal interpretations of the Bible, churches that discriminate against women or homosexuals, or basically anyone that talks about "Jay-sus" with a Southern accent.

It's odd, then, that many of those same bien pensants will bend over backwards to avoid speaking with anything other than hushed reverence about the "traditional religions" of so-called indigenous people. I mean, human sacrifice, slavery, burning and/or drowning of witches, they're all part of someone's "traditional religion" at one time or another. Yet while Anglo-European people are ridiculed if they believe in anything at all that smacks of the supernatural, the various forms of mumbo-jumbo and old bone worship practiced by certain "native" groups have to be honoured without so much as an eyebrow or a question being raised, let alone the burst of derisive laughter that, say, a Richard Dawkins or one of his followers would unleash in the face of traditional Judaeo-Christian beliefs.

Currently the Australian government is being dragooned into a legal battle on behalf of some Tasmanian nutters who are suing the British Museum of Natural History to stop it conducting DNA tests on the skulls and bones of some aborigines who died in the early 1800s. The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre wants the remains returned to Australia immediately for "traditional" burial, and is concerned that they might be "damaged" if scientists are allowed to take samples from the bones for future study.

Damaged? Hello, these people have been dead for 200 years. I'd say they're pretty much beyond damage at this point. Oh, but you say that aboriginal people believe that old bones are the resting place of the departed one's spirit, and that we have no right to contravene that belief? Well, some of my ancestors were no doubt Druids who traditionally believed that the gods had to be propitiated by blood sacrifices, and some of other ancestors were devout Catholics who no doubt thought the Spanish Inquisition was doing the work of God. Does the importance of one's nonsensical beliefs increase in direct proportion to the darkness of one's skin tone? Or is this just another example of liberal racism, where lovely, well-intentioned white people are happy to preserve people of colour in a state of backwardness because, oh, well, they're happier that way, just simple little people at heart, that's what they are.

What I find particularly egregious is that much of this "traditional religion," in the Americas as well as in Australia, was spun out of whole cloth by a coalition of self-appointed native activists and white cultural leftists who see power or profit in manipulating the history and politics of their friendly local natives. Think of Ward Churchill, for example, who may or may not have had a few drops of American Indian blood coursing through his otherwise thorougly disreputable veins, but still managed to reinvent himself into a professional Native American activist with full tenure at what had hitherto been a respectable American university. Australia is littered with such charlatans as well, shameless chancers who are as white as their convict ancestors but thanks to a good suntan or one native ancestor six generations back are now transformed into spokesmen and leaders of "Australia's traditional owners."

"Traditional owners" is the oxymoronic euphemism they have created for the aboriginal people, oxymoronic because one of the virtues constantly being ascribed to "these people" is that they had no concept of private property. We hear the same gobbledegook about Canada's "First Nations" people (even though, for the most part, they had no nations) or the USA's "Native Americans" (even though they too were immigrants who just happened to get there before the Europeans). And under our current orthodoxy, all such peoples are meant to be given a double-barreled "special" treatment: on one hand, they're treated as mental or cultural pygmies who can't be expected to develop a religion or philosophy that goes beyond worshipping old bones and doing rain dances for the tourists; on the other, thanks to (understandable) white guilt, they're absolved from all responsibility to fit into the norms of modern Australia, Canada or America.

So they're kept as perpetual children, given just enough welfare to keep them drunk and (hopefully) not starving, but seldom if ever enough help to break out of the vicious circle of poverty and backwardness in which society has been content to see them dwell for the past century or two. The reasoning - if there is any - behind this policy seems to be, "Well, we stole their land and destroyed their culture, the least we can do is to let them live on the land in their traditional ways."

The fallacy here is that there is nothing at all "traditional" about the rural slums where most aboriginal Australians and North Americans live, or the welfare payments they live on, or the tin and tarpaper shacks they inhabit, or the booze, drugs and solvents that shape their everyday existence. That's all strictly white folks' stuff, as bastardised and adapted by the crippled remnants of native culture. Face facts, folks: none of the indigenous people are ever going to go back to the land and live the way their ancestors did. For one thing, most of the land is no longer there, long since having been fenced off and paved over; for another, thanks to being pre-literate cultures, nobody really knows anymore what that traditional culture was like.

If native people are ever to prosper, then, they'll have to undergo the same process of assimilation and integration that other successful immigrants have. Doesn't seem fair, does it, since they were here first, but there are a lot of things in life that aren't fair. What's your alternative? That, as urged by the ever nuttier Germaine Greer, Australia give up its Anglo-European culture and revert to aboriginal ways? Of course, if you listen to some people, Europeans should never have set foot in Australia in the first place, being that it was already occupied.

And there's a certain logic to that. I know I would hate it if an advanced race of aliens arrived in spaceships and set about evicting me and everyone I knew from our homes on the grounds that they'd "discovered" our land and we're claiming it for themselves. But what happens if we follow that logic through to its, well, logical conclusion? In the first place, Australia today would, instead of being one of the major developed nations of the West, be an enormous preserve, kind of like a Jurassic Park for primitive hunter-gatherer societies.

Okay, you say, the world could certainly afford to set aside some portion of its surface for people whose culture hasn't developed at the same rate or in the same ways as in other lands. But is this really practical or plausible? Just suppose for the sake of argument that Australia had remained completely aboriginal, but was surrounded by the modern world. Wouldn't companies be vying to set up tours to "see the natives in their natural environment"? Wouldn't pirates and freebooters be slipping into hidden coves to trade booze or weapons for gold or women? Who would or could police such a vast coastline to prevent it from encroachment? What if one country, say Indonesia, decided to defy the international consensus and resettle some of its 300 million inhabitants on this vast and mostly unpeopled continent?

And if we're going to seriously entertain the notion of leaving Australia to its original inhabitants, why not North and South America as well? It was only a few centuries earlier, afer all, that Europeans came flooding into those continents. And if we're agreed that Europeans should have stayed in Europe, which Europeans and in which part of Europe? There's hardly a corner of the Old World that hasn't at one point been conquered or overrun by one or more compteting empires or tribes. When it comes down to it, nobody is indigenous, and everyone is an immigrant, if not an invader. And while anyone with a shred of sensitivity is going to feel shame, shock and horror over what contending tribes and nations have done to one another throughout history, it's impossible to imagine how any of us would have crawled out of the Stone Age if those nasty people who happened to discover iron hadn't come marauding over the hill with their vastly superior weaponry and their richer, more modern way of life. It's not pretty, but it seems to be the way things work around here.


Amy said...

In my first year of college I took a humanties class and a large portion of it was centered around Native Americans and the preservation of their traditional culture. I was actually getting good grades in that class until we hit that point. Then I turned in a paper that said a lot of the same things you just said and I ended up failing the course. I guess people don't like it when you have different and realistic opinions.

Anonymous said...

Re: "We hear the same gobbledegook about Canada's "First Nations" people (even though, for the most part, they had no nations)."

They weren't the first either, by a long shot---maybe 30,000 to 40,000 years. Descendants of the really-really first peoples are presumably down in Tierra del Fuego, pushed there by later waves of immigrants. (DNA testing will eventually sort the facts out, if only scientists are allowed to go about their business and actually do science.) So the Canadian "first nations" might better be called "prior peoples." Or, in your favorite Latin, priores populi, or perhaps populi antecedentes. The right word for "nations" here is certainly populi, as the correct Latin for "Commonwealth of Nations" is Consortio Populorum. We know that's so because H. M. the Q. proclaimed it to be so, in one of her earliest official utterances: the one in which she, upon her accession to the throne (like each of her predecessors for hundreds of years), informed the world how to style the current reign. Incidentally, in that proclamation she reminded us that the correct Latin for "United Kingdom" is not (as literatists may foolishly assume) Regnum Unitum, but simply Britanniae, the Britains.---NoMoBtown (Redivivus)

Larry Livermore said...

Amy: I was very fortunate, I suppose, to attend Berkeley at a time when my own wacky left-wing and self-righteous identity politics views coincided fairly well with those of the faculty, which meant I sailed through with nearly straight A's (the only exception being when I strayed outside the fuzzy-wuzzy social sciences and humanities into the realm of hard math, which requires a bit more than astutely or passionately argued opinions).

I remember Jeff Bale, who was doing his Ph.D. at the time, also at Berkeley, railing against the climate of political correctness and intellectual fascism that he claimed was rampant on campus. "I don't know what you're talking about, Jeff," I told him, "I've never had a single problem with any of my professors." He was polite enough to refrain from pointing out that it was probably because I was just as nutty as they were.

NoMoBtown: Your erudition as usual leaves me almost (but not quite) speechless.

Anonymous said...

Notwithstanding the existence of politically correct ideologues, it is a proven fact that Western Europeans - and especially the British - bear moral responsibility for the plunder, and conquest of what is now the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc.

Great Britain is a tiny island nation in an isolated corner of Eurasia. How did it obtain vast, continental-sized expanses of land like Canada, the U.S., and Australia - which, to this day, are English speaking and majority of Anglo-Saxon stock?

By killing its inhabitants and taking what was theres. Isn't that worthy of condemnation?

Larry Livermore said...

Nearly every tribe/clan/people/nation has engaged to some extent in empire building, colonisation, or just plain predation, and that to try and sort out who did what to whom, on what occasions and under what circumstances, and by whom and to whom reparations should be made, are all such hopelessly tangled questions that only someone with a particular ideological axe to grind would even attempt them.

And obviously only someone with an ideological axe - or more likely a bludgeon - would single out Western Europeans or the British for "plunder and conquest." If you're going to ask how America, Australia, et al. became English-speaking and Anglo-Saxon, you could just as well ask how the Middle East, North Africa, and large parts of Asia became Muslim, and the answer would be very similar. For that matter, how did North America and Australia become "Native American" and "aboriginal" in the first place? Because those people invaded (or immigrated) sooner than the Europeans, that's all.

The same principle holds true in Africa, where various peoples, particularly the Bantu, swept across the continent killing, enslaving and cannibalising the inhabitants long before Europeans even thought of colonising the place, or in Europe itself, where wave after wave of Teutonic and Central Asian invaders laid waste to the Roman Empire and gave birth to the "Europeans" we know of today.

If anything, the British Empire was one of the more moderate enterprises of its type, and, it can be argued, brought with it many benefits to counterbalance the exploitation it engaged in. Also, if you'll examine the facts rather than the identity politics rhetoric, you'll find that the British did very little killing of the native inhabitants of North America and Australia. The vast majority of deaths in the existing populations were caused by coming into contact with diseases to which the natives had no immunity, something that has historically happened whenever populations come in contact with each other for the first time.

Anonymous said...

Re: "almost (but not quite) speechless." Ouch! It's those adverbs that hurt! Meanwhile, why don't you come over to Vicipaedia and add some pertinent pages? I've been meaning to add one on our beloved Dies Viridis, and may get around to it soon. Maybe I'll post one on you. Hehe. NoMoBtown.

Anonymous said...

OK, Larry, I've posted your bio, basically a Latinization of the version in Wikipedia. Please correct any errors in it, or use the old NoMoBtown email addy to let me know what changes you want. I made Tre Cool "Ter Sedatus," which, though it can't match the cleverness of the original pun, does at least come out literally as "Triply Sedated," i.e., 'thrice cool' (as in 'calm, collected'). Some people at Vicipaedia don't like to translate the names of people, bands, etc., so it's unclear how long the mentions of Actio Hedera (Operation Ivy), Mustela Eiulans (Screeching Weasel), Insolentes (The Queers), Homines Batatarum (The Potatomen), and such will survive their editorial eyes. I suppose the text could mention Pepito's Folder somehow, but what's "folder" in Latin?---NoMoBtown