My Reply to Margaret Wente
I liked this article, so I thought I would share it. As you probably remember, a while back Margaret Wente defended Dick Pound's characterization of First Nations people as "savages". I wrote a response that appeared in The Republic. I'd give you the links to the article, but The Republic's website seems a little messed up right now, preventing me from doing so.
Anyway, here's the article for your amusement.
November 12, 2008
In an August 9, 2008 interview with La Presse, VANOC board member Dick Pound addressed the issue of human rights and the Beijing Olympics: “We must not forget that 400 years ago,” Pound said, “Canada was a land of savages, with scarcely 10,000 inhabitants of European descent, while in China, we're talking about a 5,000-year-old civilization.”
The statement upset a lot of people, but not Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente. In her October 25, 2008 column, Wente wrote that while Pound was stupid to say what he did, his point was fundamentally correct. Drawing upon an as-yet unpublished book by Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard entitled Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry, Wente wrote that “North American native peoples had a neolithic culture based on subsistence living and small kinship groups. They had not developed broader laws or institutions, a written language, evidence-based science, mathematics or advanced technologies. The kinship groups in which they lived were very small, simply organized and not very productive. Other kinship groups were regarded as enemies, and the homicide rate was probably rather high. Until about 30 years ago, the anthropological term for this developmental stage was ‘savagery.’... Today, however, it is simply not permissible to say that aboriginal culture was less evolved than European culture or Chinese culture – even though it's true.”
Wente believes that guilt prevents non-Aboriginals from acknowledging the savagery of pre-contact First Nations people: “We robbed and mistreated aboriginal people for a very long time, and most of us feel terrible about it. Yet, Ms. Widdowson believes this denial of reality is extremely damaging. It dooms hundreds of thousands of native Canadians and their descendants to lives that remain isolated from the modern world, without the skills and aptitudes they need to make their way in an increasingly complex society. The message they get is that they need not, and should not, change. But a neolithic culture cannot possibly give them a future. And it's time for us to face that.”
Wente is shockingly ignorant of some basic facts. Anthropologists discarded the word “savage” because of its ugly moral connotations. According to my Oxford Dictionary, the word can be used as an adjective to mean fierce, cruel, wild, angry, and bad-tempered, or as a noun to describe a person with these unpleasant qualities. The Dictionary describes its use to refer to “primitiveness” or “primitive people” as “archaic offensive”: that is, it’s both obsolete and rude. The term doesn’t describe, it condemns, and in the case of Aboriginal people it condemns unfairly.
Wente seems unaware that modern anthropologists overwhelmingly reject the Social Darwinian idea that societies “evolve” towards some predetermined end-point. Even in biology, where the word has some meaning, evolution is simply a process by which organisms change over the course of generations in relation to their shifting environmental pressures. Evolution lacks any kind of teleological purpose, any kind of goal. Wolves aren’t “more evolved” than coyotes: their species have simply evolved differently. If evolution applies at all to human societies, then it does so only in the sense that societies change over time in response to various pressures. It’s a sign of profound anthropological illiteracy to say that four centuries ago the cultures of Europe were any more evolved than those of the Americas.
Furthermore, anthropologists like Claude Levi-Strauss have demonstrated conclusively that the cultures of Indigenous peoples are remarkably intricate. Culture is like language: just as the languages of Indigenous peoples are as sophisticated as those of colonial peoples, so are their cultures. This holds true regardless of the scale, complexity, and technological development of their forms of social organization. Once you know what to look for, you can find extraordinary sophistication throughout Aboriginal cultures.
Consider the tribal masks of the First Nations people of the Pacific Northwest. Levi-Strauss has shown that these masks formed part of a system of structured differences that transcended individual tribal groups. The Dzonokwa mask of the Kwakiutl, for example, is an inversion of the Swaihwe mask of the Salish: whereas the Swaihwe is typically white, the Dzonokwa is painted black. While the Dzonokwa has animal hair and a fur cloak, the Swaihwe has a feather crown. The Dzonokwa’s eyes are half-closed and deeply sunken into their sockets, while the Swaihwe has protruding cylindrical eyes. Whereas the lower jaw of the Swaihwe hangs low, allowing a tongue to protrude through the mouth, the Dzonokwa mouth is rounded in a way that prevents any protrusion of the tongue. Finally, where the Dzonokwa represents an anti-social monster that threatens the biological continuity of the social group, the Swaihwe represents the founding ancestors of the highest lineages of Salish society, the embodiment of the biological continuity of the social order.
Levi-Strauss writes that “The masks do not have a single meaning. Rather, like condensed dream images, they are the result of multiple series of semantic associations that relate to their specific cultural contexts.” (The Way of the Masks, 1975) Taken together, the many masks of Pacific Northwest tribes form an extraordinarily complex network of associations linked to the mythologies, social structures, and economic systems of the peoples that design them. The masks, in other words, are like a kind of language. To the uninformed eyes of someone like Wente, however, they’re probably little more than an unrelated bunch of funny faces.
Reading Wente’s column, I was reminded of how insidious racism can be in Canada. Canadians are rarely exposed to histrionic expressions of racism so commonly seen in the United States, and which were so glaringly displayed during the 2008 Presidential campaign. Instead, Canadian racism takes the form of “common sense”. This isn’t unusual: historically, injustice has often been rationalized by whatever was the common sense of the times. The common sense underlying Wente’s position can be traced back to the European Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment holds an honoured place in Western cultural history. It was because of the Enlightenment, so the story goes, that the forces of reason rose up against the tyranny of superstition and ignorance. The Enlightenment challenged the arbitrary powers of the church and the nobility, and made possible for the first time the development of societies governed by science and rationality. Our modern world’s major political and economic ideologies, both on the left and the right, are legacies of the Enlightenment. Unfortunately, not all legacies are benign.
The Enlightenment divided humanity into two camps: the rational, who were the torchbearers of a utopian future, and the irrational, those who would douse the fire beneath the filth and stupidity of the past. It was the moral duty of the former to “enlighten” the latter by whatever means were required.
This belief was common among major Enlightenment figures and their intellectual progeny. In Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, (2007) John Gray writes that “Voltaire subscribed to a secular version of the pre-Adamite theory advanced by some Christian theologians that suggested that Jews were pre-Adamites, remnants of an older species that existed before Adam was created.” In Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime (1764), Immanuuel Kant wrote that “The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling.” In On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill described China as a stagnant civilization: “…they have become stationary—have remained so for thousands of years; and if they are ever to be improved it must be by foreigners.” Karl Marx, meanwhile, felt that colonial rule in India was a useful means for overcoming the torpor of village life. Gray writes that “Whether the disabilities of other peoples were innate (as was believed in the case of Africans) or due to cultural backwardness (as was supposed to be true of Asians), the remedy was the same. All had to be turned into Europeans, if necessary by force.”
These philosophers added something completely new to the cultural landscape: “Before the Enlightenment, racist attitudes rarely aspired to the dignity of theory. Even Aristotle, who defended slavery and the subordination of women as part of the natural order, did not develop a theory that maintained that humanity was composed of distinct and unequal racial groups. Racial prejudice may be immemorial, but racism is a product of the Enlightenment.”
Margaret Wente defends Dick Pound’s description of First Nations people as “savages” because she buys into the Enlightenment belief that cultures evolve from immoral and ignorant anarchy through various stages in which the human potentials for art and science, politics and economics achieve ever-higher levels of expression. This belief conveniently places modern Western civilization at the pinnacle of human development: all other societies are, in this scheme, at best trying to catch up.
The belief that other societies were “less evolved” than European civilization was used to justify European domination of the globe. This domination was portrayed as the “White Man’s Burden”, the noble responsibility of the Enlightened West to drag backwards people into a beneficent modernity. In doing so, Enlightenment ideologies prevented Europeans from perceiving their own nihilistic brutality.
In Canada, as well as throughout much of the world, European domination imposed commercial economies upon subsistence-based tribal societies. Indeed, commercial societies, which depend on unlimited growth, are economically driven to expropriate the resource base of subsistence-based economies. Anthropologist John H. Bodley, in Victims of Progress (1989), shows that whenever this happens, subsistence peoples are violently subjugated. Their economies are destroyed and their lands’ resources become raw materials for the industrial machine. Even if they aren’t enslaved, the survivors are left destitute, traumatized, and excluded from the power structures of the new society. Many, of course, don’t survive at all.
Bodley estimates that between 1780 and 1930 tribal populations worldwide fell by 30-50 million people. These figures don’t include the rapid population loss that occurred in the centuries immediately following European colonization of the Americas. Bodley writes that prior to contact with Europeans, the tribal population of North America was approximately 7,000,000, while the tribal population of Lowland South America was 8,500,000. At their lowest point after colonization, these numbers had fallen to 390,000 and 450,000 respectively. Bodley’s figures may be conservative: Scholars like W.E.B. DuBois, Walter Rodney, Cheik Anta Diop, Joseph Inikori, and Basil Davidson estimate that the European slave trade alone was responsible for the loss of between 50 and 100 million African lives.
While she makes passing mention of the exploitation of First Nations people in Canada, Wente ignores the way that the Enlightenment beliefs that she espouses helped legitimize that exploitation. To take the most obvious examples, Canada’s residential schools were designed to “kill the Indian in the Indian”, to strip Aboriginal people of their language, culture, and religion in order to assimilate them into what was viewed as an inherently superior Canadian society.
The schools tried their hardest to murder the inner Indian, and in doing so they decimated the matrix of traditional beliefs, practices, and relationships that helped First Nations people cope with the anguish of the human condition, the feelings of grief and guilt, fear and despair that threaten all of us with psychological and social disintegration. According to a report prepared for the Law Commission of Canada by Rhonda Claes and Deborah Clifton (Institutional Child Abuse: Needs and Expectations for Redress Of Victims of Abuse at Native Residential Schools, 2002), children as young as four were beaten with wooden boards, sticks and pointers, whips, studded belts, and leather and rubber straps--straps that sometimes had tacks, nails, or wires embedded in them. Some children had needles pushed through their tongues. Some were burned and scalded. Electrical shock devices were used on physically restrained children. Kids were sometimes beaten into unconsciousness; blood was drawn, bones were broken. The sick were occasionally made to eat their own vomit. Children were locked in closets, publicly strip-searched, and forced to parade wearing soiled bed sheets over their heads. They were denied contact with their parents, and had no recourse to anyone who could conceivably protect them. In addition to these punishments, the children suffered from gross physical neglect. The schools were poorly designed. Ventilation, heating, and plumbing were typically inadequate, and the children lacked decent medical care. Diseases like tuberculosis spread fast through the student population. A 1907 report by Dr. Peter Bryce, a former Medical Inspector for the Department of Indian Affairs, announced that students in these schools had an average death rate of 30%. Many of the children who died in the residential schools were buried in unmarked graves. These institutions surely met the moral criteria for “savagery”, even if the students who attended them didn’t. Wente writes about the exploitation of First Nations people in the past tense, but the abuse is ongoing. The collective trauma inflicted by the residential schools over the course of generations makes it much harder for Aboriginal people to organize, with whatever meager resources remain at their disposal, to defend their interests against the predation of wealthy corporations and their quisling governments. It is the structurally-imposed disadvantages they encounter in defending their interests that are responsible for the marginalization of Aboriginal people in Canadian society, and not what Wente derides as their “neolithic culture”.
Those interests are under constant threat. To take only one case, the Alberta government has allowed resource industries to ravage the traditional territory of the Lubicon Cree, a people whose land claims have never been resolved, who lack even a single reserve to call their own, and who live in abject poverty. The Lubicon aren’t being compensated for the damage done to their resource base, damage so severe that the water from the Athabasca River is now unsafe for human consumption. Fish from the river often have tumours, and moose in the area are so sick they can’t be eaten. The United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) issued rulings in 1990 and 2005 in defence of the rights of the Lubicon, demanding that the Alberta government consult the Lubicon “before granting licenses for economic exploitation of the disputed land, and ensure that in no case such exploitation jeopardizes the rights recognized under the [International] Covenant [on Civil and Political Rights].” The government has thus far ignored these entreaties. Similar abuses are being inflicted upon First Nations people across Canada.
The Enlightenment’s unsavoury legacies continued into the Twentieth Century, and their ill effects spread far beyond Indigenous populations. In I Don’t Believe in Atheists (2008), Chris Hedges argues that the Enlightenment was, and continues to be, an expression of millennialism, the myth of collective moral progress: “The dangerous myth that confuses moral progress with material progress permits us to believe that we have discovered a way out of the human predicament. It places faith in an empowered elite to guide us toward a new world. Science increases not only our power to protect life and encourage virtue, but also our capacity to inflict death and destruction. The industrial slaughter and genocides of the past century were all products of the Enlightenment and their satellite ideologies, from liberal imperialism to communism to fascism. All preached collective moral progress through exploitation, repression and violence. All were utopian. And all unleashed science and technology, in the service of war and profit, to kill human beings on a scale unseen in human history. The Enlightenment vision, because it renders all other values subservient to reason and science, allows us to divide the human species into superior and inferior breeds. It sanctifies inhumane abuse of the weak to push the human race forward. This corruption was built into the Enlightenment from its inception. The Enlightenment may have encouraged an admirable humanism, but it also led to undreamt-of genocide and totalitarian repression.”
It’s this myth of collective moral progress that makes Wente’s views so attractive. By persuading us, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that we’re progressing from moral savagery towards something better, it makes us feel a little more secure, a little more confident about the future. It gives us a sense of righteousness, of a privileged place in the evolutionary order, and diverts our attention from the grotesque cruelty of our civilization.
It seems clear that modern civilization isn’t morally superior to the cultures of Aboriginal peoples, but how about our other measures of progress, such as our scientific and technological achievements? The question must be asked: what are we progressing towards? Once we factor in global resource depletion, climate destabilization, the chemical pollution of our ecosystems, cascading economic disasters, and the increasing ease with which we create and disperse weapons of mass destruction, it seems that we aren’t heading to the stars, but rather marching over the edge of a cliff. Subsistence societies endured for many millennia, but for all we know our industrial civilization may well have a lifespan of only a few centuries.
We like to think otherwise; indeed, to the degree that we’re committed to Enlightenment mythology, we have to think otherwise, regardless of the evidence. To abandon the faith is to confront the horrors our civilization has wrought—horrors like the Trail of Tears, Passchendaele, Auschwitz, and Hiroshima—without any ideological anaesthesia. But as long as we hold onto the faith we blind ourselves to the evils we inflict upon others; indeed, we blind ourselves to reality. Paradoxically, it’s only when we give up the belief in collective moral progress that we have any hope of acting morally. It’s only then that we begin to take responsibility for our own moral limitations and to strive to develop empathy for those who seem radically different from ourselves. It’s only then that we stop seeing savages where there are only people, and start taking the savagery in our own hearts and in our own cultures seriously.