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Review: Times Literary Supplement

Dreamers of Paradise

The failures of cultural relativism

by Raymond Tallis

A review of The Culture Cult: Designer Tribalism and Other Essays, by Roger Sandall, Westview Press 2001. From The Times Literary Supplement, UK, August 16 2002

In April 2001, the Etireno, with a cargo of slave children en route from Benin to Gabon, briefly became the most infamous ship in the world. Rumor had it that approximately 250 children, found to be surplus to requirements, had been thrown overboard.

When this could not be substantiated, the world’s press lost interest, thereby missing the bigger and more terrible picture: the orphans of the Etireno were only a small part of an estimated 200,000 children sold annually into Africa’s modern slave trade. The authorities in Benin tried to explain the episode away as a West African custom in which children are sent abroad to live as household servants with wealthy relatives. Benin’s Foreign Minister, Idji Kolawole, remarked, “In our culture, we think that it’s always good for a child to go from his parents’ house, to an uncle’s or to a friend abroad.”

Another incident, a few months later, gave the lie to this relaxed attitude. The prolonged torture and death of Victoria Climbié, sent to London to improve her life chances—not to speak of widespread evidence of sexual, physical and emotional abuse of other children sent away to live as unprotected mendicants with wealthier families—leads one to question the use of “always” in the Foreign Minister’s statement. His other phrase, “in our culture”, was striking too. Here and elsewhere these seemingly unexceptionable words have a strong intent: they are meant to immunize the practice being discussed against criticism.

“In our culture we…”

Roger Sandall’s brilliant, impassioned and sardonic The Culture Cult explains among other things how the phrase “in our culture” has come to be used to defend behaviour that would otherwise be seen as quite abhorrent. Until recently Sandall was a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Sydney. His career coincided with the high tide of an intellectual fashion which held three dogmas to be unquestionable. In his words:

1. Each culture is a semi-sacred creation.

2. All cultures are equally valuable and must never be compared.

3. The assimilation of cultures (especially the assimilation of primitive culture by a secular civilization coldly indifferent to spiritual things) is supremely wicked.

For adherents of what Sandall calls the culture cult, primitive culture is not inferior to modern civilization—it is different and quite likely better. Some commentators of this persuasion call for a radical simplification of modern life based on their notion of the condition of the primitive. Notwithstanding their own doctrine of incommensurability, they take “a sour view of modernity”, forgetting, Sandall argues, that modern civilization not infrequently “allows changes of government without bloodshed”, as well as “civil rights, economic benefits, religious toleration, and political and artistic freedom”; whereas most traditional cultures “feature domestic repression, economic backwardness, endemic disease, religious fanaticism and severe artistic constraints”.

* * *

The notion of the incommensurability of cultures was first put forward by Herder in the eighteenth century. In the twentieth it was particularly associated with the American anthropologist Franz Boas and his many disciples (and, outside anthropology, with Isaiah Berlin). It has, in many instances, been motivated by an honourable and humane rejection of pseudo-scientific biological notions of race and culture, which justified the iniquitous exploitation of “lesser breeds without the law” and provided a Darwinian rationale for ideologies which culminated in genocide.

At its best, the doctrine of incommensurability is rooted in a passionate loathing of things that should be loathed passionately, such as ignorant scorn for peoples who do not happen to have the same habits of thought and ways of life as oneself. It is informed by tolerance, self-questioning and wonder at the variety of the ways in which humans may make their way through the world.

But at its worst, sacralization of cultural difference serves as a hypocritical denial, by people who are comfortably remote from its consequences, of the fact that there are cultures that have deeply undesirable aspects. The veneration of closed, tribal, warrior cultures involves a failure to acknowledge the absence in such societies of, among other things, individual rights and freedom of thought, rights that these same romantic primitivists demand for themselves.

Not a pretty picture

Sandall focuses on the worst aspects of cultural relativism, in particular its use of sentimentalised assessments of primitive cultures as a stick with which to beat civilization. He begins with a cameo: Lauren Hutton, the actress and ex-model, forcing her two young sons to watch red-robed Maasai warriors drinking warm blood from the carcass of a slaughtered cow. Their reaction—tears in contrast to her own delighted yelps of “wow”—disappointed her. Perhaps, Sandall wonders, they understood better than she did the necessary violence of the warrior life behind the tourist-anthropology cabaret.

As the mother of two boys, one might have expected her to reflect on the appalling initiation ceremonies to which warrior societies sometimes subject young males. In some highland Papua New Guinea societies, boys “were beaten with stinging nettles, had barbed grass pushed up their urethras to cause bleeding, were compelled to swallow bent lengths of cane until vomiting was induced and were required to fellate older men, who also had anal intercourse with them”.

The initiation rituals undergone by Papuan boys are somewhat at odds with the “communal basket-weaving, accompanied by traditional song and dance”, that, Sandall argues, dominates the image of indigenous cultures in the minds of “boutique” multiculturalists. Multiculturalist thinking tends to exaggerate the place of art in past communities. Writers enchanted by Aztec art, architecture and poetry often ignore the unspeakable despotism of this warrior and priest-ridden society and its continual wars, waged in pursuit of the 20,000 prisoners needed annually for purposes of human sacrifice. For their neighbours, the arrival of the conquistadors was liberating.

* * *

The image of a lost world of wise, peace-loving artists in harmony with the natural world is the invention of Western intellectuals disgruntled with the civilization that makes their lives so easy. In reality, many primitive societies were not only homicidal but also impressively eco-cidal. The Maoris, for example, managed, despite their relatively small numbers, to wipe out about 30 percent of the indigenous species, including all twelve kinds of Moa, within a century of their arrival in an edenic New Zealand.

This took place against the usual background of incessant tribal warfare, and a brutally unfair legal system which was reformed only when, as a result of a series of deals with the white settlers, which benefited the chiefs but not their people, the Maoris were marginalized in their own land and came under European law.

Pacific and other fantasies

Such facts cut little ice with those who have the strength to dream. The career of Margaret Mead is illustrative. Her journalistic transformations of scanty field notes into a Polynesian idyll supported her fantasies of how human life would be if unshackled by the constraints of civic society. Coming of Age in Samoa, Sandall argues, was particularly persuasive in the Greenwich Village community where Mead had first hoped to make her name as a writer: it “resonated” with this avant-garde culture, where living for the moment, sexual liberation and the sovereignty of self-expression were the dominant ideas.

No wonder she by-passed awkward truths about Samoa; such as the practice of enslavement, human sacrifice and eating prisoners, all routine before they were stamped out in the nineteenth century by governments working in close alliance with Christian missionaries.

Among the many who believed the answer to the problems of the twentieth century were to be found in tribal societies of the past, the palm for lunacy must be awarded to the highly respected economic historian Karl Polanyi. He was so impressed by the control and command economy imposed by the rulers of eighteenth-century Dahomey (now called Benin) that he commended this barbaric autocracy as a model for the twentieth century. He did not worry too much about the rights of the king’s 2,000 wives, or of the large numbers of women appointed by the king to provide sexual services for the public at large, the elaborate system of state spies, or the systematic slaughter of prisoners of war.

* * *

A cornerstone of the excessive value put on cultural difference is the conviction that the arrival of Europeans invariably signalled disaster for native peoples. It is this belief that has clamped inverted commas on the phrase “European civilization” and buried its achievements under sneers. The assumption is that imperialism was always synonymous with exploitation that tended naturally to mass enslavement and genocide. In some cases—for example the Belgian occupation of the Congo—this was true, though even then the bloodbath would not have been possible without extensive native collaboration rooted in the priority given to tribal, family and class loyalties over any sense of abstract justice or universal rights.

As Hugh Thomas points out in his history of the Atlantic slave trade, “most slaves carried from Africa between 1440 and 1870 were procured as a result of the Africans’ interest in selling their neighbours. There were few instances of Africans’ opposing the nature of the traffic desired by the Europeans.”

Romantic primitivists forget that many—perhaps most—tribal societies from prehistoric times have been slave-owning. In a number of cases it took Europeans to make this moral outrage visible, so that it could be challenged. Slavery in India was little documented until the British identified 10,000,000 slaves in a census of 1841 and outlawed slave owning in 1862.

Utopian communities

In the absence of advanced technology, life is hard; and when life is hard, unsurprisingly, the primary concern is the survival of oneself and one’s family; the exercise of power is unlikely to be directed by a passion for Universal Human Rights. Equally unsurprising is that attempts to establish ideal communities modelled on the virtues attributed to primitive societies—rejecting modern technology and the institutions of civilization—have always proved disastrous.

Sandall’s accounts of a few utopian experiments in the United States—New Harmony, Oneida and Cold Mountain Farm—should be enough to persuade doubters that tribal collectivism, expressed in the common ownership of property, women and children, sooner or later leads to recrimination and destitution.

What was it that prompted Rousseau, Herder and their modern successors to idealize primitive communities? Injured pride, says Sandall, and a sense of being under-appreciated by their peers. Hence the happy “state of Nature” in which everyone is equal, and equally at home, where invidious comparison is unknown and no one’s pride is wounded. As Rousseau admitted, “such a state perhaps never existed and probably never will exist”; but it is a sufficient basis from which he and subsequent writers were able to berate civilization.

Romantic primitivism and what Sandall calls Designer Tribalism are irritating and wrong, but do they actually matter? They do if they result in bien pensants helping exotic autocrats to get away with murder. The most shocking is Raymond Williams, whose dislike of capitalism led him, according to his biographer Fred Inglis, to sympathise with Pol Pot for having “to impose the harshest discipline… over relatively innocent people” in order that his revolution should not “be broken down and defeated”.

These fantasies matter, also, if they promote the idea that the benefits of civilization—low infant mortality, long life-expectancy, adequate nourishment, effective treatments for illnesses, accountable government and individual rights—came from nowhere. They matter most of all when they translate into real-world policy.

The tragedy of the Aborigines

Some of the passion in Sandall’s writing comes from a local issue: his horror at the betrayal of the Australian Aboriginal people by practitioners of romantic primitivism, the intellectuals who rewrote Aboriginal history, enforced bilingual instruction, encouraged a cultural apartheid of “self-determination” and prioritised the preservation of traditional culture over the skills of modern life.

This has resulted in vocational disability among Aboriginal people, due in part to a catastrophic decline in literacy, and (to use Ernest Gellner’s words) in “frozen, visible, and offensive inequality”. The result is a diminution of life chances, and condemnation to a marginalized existence of a kind that boutique multiculturalists would never accept for themselves and their own children.

Anyone reading this book will ever after hear the exculpatory phrase “in our culture” with the terror that Bakunin said should attend the phrase “for reasons of state”. The ideology of culture has, one could add, replaced patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel.

TLS August 16, 2002