Noble or savage?

From about a decade ago, in the last year of the Bush era, The Economist published the article “Noble or savage?” It is a typical piece, a rather simplistic and uninformed view, as expected. Rhetoric like this gets spun on a daily basis, but this particular example hit a nerve.

“two-thirds of modern hunter-gatherers are in a state of almost constant tribal warfare, and nearly 90% go to war at least once a year.”

That is plain fricking idiotic. Modern hunter-gatherers are under social, political, military, and environmental pressure that didn’t exist to the same degree until the modern era. Plus, they would be experiencing greater levels of pollution and introduction of new diseases that has been causing further stress and instability.

“Richard Wrangham of Harvard University says that chimpanzees and human beings are the only animals in which males engage in co-operative and systematic homicidal raids. The death rate is similar in the two species.”

Like modern hunter-gatherers, modern chimpanzees are living under unnatural conditions. The territory of chimpanzees has been severely impacted by human encroachment, environmental destruction, poaching, and violent conflict. Why would any halfway intelligent person expect anything other than dysfunctional behavior from populations of two closely related species experiencing the same dysfunctional conditions?

“Constant warfare was necessary to keep population density down to one person per square mile.”

Not necessarily. Hunter-gatherers have a lower birthrate, partly because of later puberty. Plus, they have higher infant mortality. Overpopulation is simply not much of a problem for most hunter-gatherers. They are usually able to maintain a stable population without needing warfare to decrease excess numbers. During boon times, population stress might become a problem, but that isn’t the norm.

“Hunter-gatherers may have been so lithe and healthy because the weak were dead.”

Maybe to some degree. But this would have to be proven, not claimed as empty speculation. Once past early childhood, hunter-gatherers have lifespans that are as long as and health that is superior to modern Westerners. Adult hunter-gatherers have low mortality rates, regularly living into old age with few if any of the stress-related illnesses common among WEIRD societies (low or non-existent rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, psychosis, trauma, etc).

“Notice a close parallel with the industrial revolution. When rural peasants swapped their hovels for the textile mills of Lancashire, did it feel like an improvement? The Dickensian view is that factories replaced a rural idyll with urban misery, poverty, pollution and illness. Factories were indeed miserable and the urban poor were overworked and underfed. But they had flocked to take the jobs in factories often to get away from the cold, muddy, starving rural hell of their birth.”

Along with being ignorant of anthropology and social science, the author is likewise ignorant of history.

Most rural peasants didn’t freely choose to leave their villages. They were evicted from their homes and communities. The commons they had rights to and depended on became privatized during the enclosure movement of early capitalism. Oftentimes, their villages were razed to the ground and the then landless peasants were forced into a refugee crisis with their only option being to head to the cities where they found overcrowding, homelessness, unemployment, poverty, and starvation.

In comparison, their rural life had been a quite secure and pleasant. Barbara Ehrenreich discusses this in Dancing in the Streets. During much of feudalism, specifically earlier on, as much or more time was spent in socializing and public events (celebrations, holy days, carnival, etc) than in labor. The loss of that relatively easygoing and healthy rural life was devastating and traumatizing. This set the stage for the Peasants’ Revolt, English Civil War, and the revolutionary era. Thomas Paine saw firsthand the results of this societal and economic shift when he lived in London. It was a time of near continuous food riots, public hangings, and forced labor (either as convicts or indentured servants).

“Homo sapiens wrought havoc on many ecosystems as Homo erectus had not. There is no longer much doubt that people were the cause of the extinction of the megafauna in North America 11,000 years ago and Australia 30,000 years before that. The mammoths and giant kangaroos never stood a chance against co-ordinated ambush with stone-tipped spears and relentless pursuit by endurance runners.”

That probably had as much to do with environmental changes. There is still scholarly debate about how much of those extinctions were caused by over-hunting versus environmental stress on species. It was probably a combination of factors. After all, it was large-scale climate shifts that even made possible the migration of humans into new areas. When such climate shifts happened, ecosystems were dramatically altered and not all species were equally adaptable as their former niches disappeared. For example, neanderthals probably died because they couldn’t handle the warmer temperatures, not because they were massacred by invading homo sapiens.

“Incessant innovation is a characteristic of human beings. Agriculture, the domestication of animals and plants, must be seen in the context of this progressive change.”

That is rhetoric being used to justify an ideology. All societies and species experience change, as they are forced to adapt to changing conditions or failing that to die out. That is the natural state of earthly existence for all species. But the narrative of ‘progress’ is a particular view of change. All of evolution has not been heading toward Western Civilization, as an inevitable march of history as foreordained by God’s plan for the dominance of the white race over the beasts and savages.

“It was just another step: hunter-gatherers may have been using fire to encourage the growth of root plants in southern Africa 80,000 years ago. At 15,000 years ago people first domesticated another species—the wolf (though it was probably the wolves that took the initiative). After 12,000 years ago came crops. The internet and the mobile phone were in some vague sense almost predestined 50,000 years ago to appear eventually.”

How shockingly simpleminded! Nothing is predestined. That sounds like the old Whiggish history of Manifest Destiny. This entire article is a long argument for Western imperialism in its genocide of the natives and the stealing of their land. No one is arguing that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is or was perfect, but let’s at least acknowledge the aspects of that lifestyle that were relatively better, such as low levels of social stress and mental illness. Do we really need yet another apologia for neoliberal hegemony and modern globalization? No, we don’t.

“There is a modern moral in this story. We have been creating ecological crises for ourselves and our habitats for tens of thousands of years. We have been solving them, too.”

There might be a modern moral in this story. But it might not be the one promoted by the ruthless dominators who have willfully destroyed all alternatives. The royal ‘we’ that supposedly have been solving these problems just so happens to be the same ‘we’ that has eliminated the natives and their lifestyle, often by way of one form of death or another, from war to disease. These hunter-gatherers, as representing an alternative, may seem problematic to the ruling class of capitalist nation-states. And no doubt that problem has been solved for the endless march of capitalist ‘progress’, such as it is.

“Pessimists will point out that each solution only brings us face to face with the next crisis, optimists that no crisis has proved insoluble yet. Just as we rebounded from the extinction of the megafauna and became even more numerous by eating first rabbits then grass seeds, so in the early 20th century we faced starvation for lack of fertiliser when the population was a billion people, but can now look forward with confidence to feeding 10 billion on less land using synthetic nitrogen, genetically high-yield crops and tractors. When we eventually reverse the build-up in carbon dioxide, there will be another issue waiting for us.”

So, the vision offered by the ruling elite is endless creative destruction that pulverizes everyone and everything that gets in the way. One problem ever leading to another, an ongoing Social Darwinism that implicitly presumes Westerners will continue to be the winners and survivors. They shall consume the entire earth until there is nothing left and then they will isolate themselves in post-apocalyptic biodomes or escape to the stars following their tech-utopian fantasies.

As for the rest of us, are we supposed to be apathetically submit to their power-hungry demands and world-weary pessimism threatening that resistance is futile, that no other options remain? Are we expected to unquestioningly accept how ideological realism denies moral and radical imagination, denies our freedom to choose anything else?

* * *

Noble or Savage? Both. (Part 1) And (Part 2)
by Jason Godesky

Romantic primitivism
by Evfit

Lone Star: Western, Noir, Romance


I just watched the movie Lone Star.  It’s all around good movie.  The script and acting were solid, and the mixing of past and present was very smooth.  I wouldn’t call it a great movie.  It’s just quality Hollywood fare.

There was one thing that intrigued me about it though.  Outwardly, it was a contemporary Western with good guys and bad guys.  However, the story was more complex than good versus bad because the good couldn’t be determined until the truth had been discovered.  So, this is where it had an element of Noir to it, but nowhere near as dark and tragic as typical Noir. 

Where it was most like Noir was in the idyllic surface of a small town with old secrets that no one wants to talk about.  Along with this, there is the detective-like character who is determined to discover the truth no matter what.  He is the rugged american individualist type with his personal code of ethics, and that is where the Noir elements connect with the Western setting of the story. 

So, this Westernized Noir replaces the Noir oriental aspect with latino culture.  What would be the femme fatale is latino, but although she is part of the dark past she doesn’t try to pull the hero down.  Instead, there is an easy, almost too easy, resolution at the end.  Even though the past hangs heavy, the hero manages to escape its hold.  This is where it departs from most noir, but then again it’s not entirely unkown for noir protagonists to find redemption.  He avoids self-destruction because he is interested in the truth and not vengeance or even legalistic justice, and this aspect is pure Noir for the protagonists in Westerns aren’t usually all that interested in truth.

Some further clear elements of noir are the flashbacks.  It reminded me of Citizen Kane because a central character is never seen in the present even though everyone talks about him.  He is present by his absence.  The question is whether he was the good guy that everyone made him out to be.

The Western setting is interesting as it seems so different from Noir.  The latter emphasizes the human world of cities, and it’s as if humans are trapped in their own human world.  Lone Star begins with a scene of the wide desert which makes the human world seem small.  Noir films are filled with stark contrasts of shadow and light whereas the desert is brightly lit.  However, the desert creates a similar starkness that serves a similar purpose as that of Noir. 

The camera work mostly isn’t very much in the noir style, but there are scenes that have a noir feeling.  Near the beginning, a police officer approaches some young men sitting on a truck.  It cuts to an image of his approaching as seen in the reflection of a mirror.  The kid in the truck is working on it and so is laying on his back.  The kid looks up and sees (and the audience sees with him) the officer upside down.  The use of reflections and odd camera angles is something Noir uses often, but it’s only occasionally used in this movie.

The story felt very familiar even though it was done in a fairly complex way.  It wasn’t fully Noir or fully Western, but it melded them together.  Also, by mixing in the happy ending of a Romance, it tamed the darker streaks of both Noir and Western films.  Romances necessitate clear resolutions which neither Noirs nor Westerns need.  Especially for Noirs, clear resolutions are rare.  In Lone Star, the mystery is solved and the ending was a bit anti-climactic.

Developmental Differences: Preliminary Thoughts

This post is a continuation of my thinking from a previous post.

Psychology and Parapsychology, Politics and Place

I’m feeling a bit uninspired in trying to organize my thoughts on this subject.  There are many factors… and, of course, many connections between them.  

There are the personality differences between people such as found in psychology and philosophy (in particular Jung’s typology as developed with MBTI, traits theory, and Hartmann’s boundary types).  There is William S. Burroughs distinction between the Johnsons and the Shits, and there is his idea about the One God Universe (OGU) and his criticisms of the Word God of Christianity.  Along with Burroughs, I’d be tempted to throw in Philip K. Dick’s division of the human from the robotic in terms of emotions and relationships.  So, questions of where humanity is heading would be essential.  In terms of the personality differences, I’d need to further discuss the basic distinctions between liberals and conservatives.  I could possibly add further context with the difference between Athenian and Spartan democracy and the differences between egalitarian and hierarchical social structures (especially as they relate to anti-structure, the trickster archetype and the paranormal).

These ideas touch upon the subject matter in George P. Hansen’s The Trickster and the Paranormal.  There is Max Weber’s theory of rationalization in terms of Western culture and there is the disenchantment of the world which many deep ecologists have written about (some books that come to mind are Sherry Weber Nicholsen’s The Love of Nature and the End of the World, David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous, and Leonard Shlain’s The Alphabet Versus the Goddess).  There is the idea of charisma as it relates to Victor Turner’s theories of liminality and anti-sturcture and as it relates to the paranormal and shamanistic religions.  Also, there is the philosophy of phenomenology and it’s relationship to existentialism… the being in the world and the direct experience of the world (in context of ontology and epistemology).  All of this would be contrasted to the mainstream attitude of academics.  Most significantly, I would include Hansen’s analysis of science and the paranormal.  In relationship to science, I’d bring up Hansen’s ideas about Hartmann’s boundary types.  I’d specifically detail the boundary types’ correlation with Jungian/MBTI types and detail the research that shows the type of person who is promoted to positions of power in hierarchical organizations.  In context of all of this, there is the conflict between the pre-modern and the modern and between the modern and the post-modern.

There is the article “Magic and Gnosticism” by  Will Parker from The Gnostic journal and the distinction between the attitudes of universalism and pluralism.  There is Karl Jasper’s theory of the Axial Age which I’m familiar with through Karen Armstrong.  There is Julian Jayne’s analysis of the primitive mind in his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (and his ideas supposedly influenced William S. Burroughs and Ken Wilber).  There have been many interesting theories of social development including spiral dynamics (which would clarify the issues of pre-modernism, modernism and post-modernism) which Ken Wilber heavily relies upon and, less optimistic than Wilber, the ideas of Paul Shepard.  In terms of the latter, other connected writers would be Derrick Jensen, Peter Wessel Zapffe and Thomas Ligotti, but I’m not sure how they’d fit in with the other writers I’ve mentioned… other than maybe how civilization has developed the way it has based on the human response to suffering  and thus development of the modern self-identity.  I would also add Terrence McKenna’s view on the relevance of psychedelics in the evolution of self-consciousness and Jungian ideas about ego development would also connect.

Related to Parker’s article and Karen Armstrong writings, I’d need to clarify the subject of religion in the Western world.  Gnosticism is very important in how it relates to both Hellenism and Christianity, and in how it has had a continuous impact on the development of Western thought.  To bring in Weber’s rationalization, I’d need to argue for the connection between the Christian tradition and science which is something Parker and many others have written about.  Furthermore, it could be helpful to bring up the subject of specialization that civilization has allowed.

A related issue would be of genetic evolution.  How has our evolutionary past influenced us?  Paul Shepard believed we essentially are the same genetically as we were before civilization and that this explains many of our problems.  As such, we simply weren’t designed to live this way.  However, has civilization itself irreversibly altered evolution itself?  Is the evolution of the human species slowing down or speeding up?  What are we becoming?  In terms of specialization, genetics might become specialized in terms of which people tend to procreate together.  There could be an intensification of certain genetic traits.

Anyways, those are the ideas that fit together.  The central idea around which all of this is ordered probably is Max Weber’s rationlization and the largest context that holds it all together would be George P. Hansen’s book.  In my previous post, I was discussing different types of people in terms of basic differences we’re born with.  In this post, I’m trying to clarify the issue of differences in people in terms of psychological, social and evolutionary development.  If I feel more inspired later, I’ll go into more detail.