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Friday, June 10, 2011

Noble Savage

Recently I attended a very touching world-prayer service at a church in Woodstock. Representatives of all of the major faiths spoke and prayed. Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Native Americans prayed together for peace, and for the healing of the earth, especially the Gulf of Mexico.

I was very touched by the earnest and forthright prayers from all of those present, but one presentation, though equally well intentioned, stuck in my craw nonetheless.

A women who is actually from England but part of a local Native American community got up to speak. The first thing she said was that indigenous peoples the world over have always had reverence for the environment and for human dignity.

This is a patently absurd statement. Entire indigenous cultures have imploded due to overuse and misuse of resources. And, of course, there is the egregious example of the Northwest American tribes Potlatch ceremonies. These ceremonies sometimes devolved from simple giving away of goods and food (and, I might add, slaves) to the actual destruction of food – a sort of keep up with the joneses frenzy wherein two tribes tried to outdo each other in the wanton destruction of foodstuffs to prove that they were the most prosperous and powerful.

Oprah Winfrey seems very proud of her Zulu roots, though the Zulus were famous for raping and pillaging their enemies, and zealously practicing impalement and other forms of torture. Other tribes viewed them as human locusts.

The obvious truth, if one looks past a sort of paternalistic ‘Noble Savage’ reductionism that reveres anyone non-white as implicitly wiser, kinder and gentler, is that white people have no lock on evil deeds in this world, and people of color have no lock on grace, decency or environmental sensitivity. To me, such idealizations of any ethnic group are at their most benign the product of simplistic thinking, and at their most malignant, the bases for prejudice, war, and terror.

There seems to be a self-hating aspect to many white people. They see how their race’s dominance on the planet, economically and technologically, has decimated the world’s species, and caused untold human suffering and death. Yet to implicitly blame this on the color of the perpetrators skin by putting all non-whites on a sort of pedestal not only flies in the face of the historic record, but indulges in the same style of racist thinking that these same people would find reprehensible in an unreconstructed Klansman or Nazi.

Blacks seeking reparations only seem intent on getting them from the white countries involved in slaving, never from the African countries that of course made the entire slave trade possible through their collusion with whites.

A white researcher in the southwest is virtually pilloried for proving that the ancestors of the Navajo practiced cannibalism against the Anasazi. Yet all he did was find the evidence, not fabricate it; And one has only to visit places like Mesa Verde and Canyon de Chelly to see the evidence of a people under siege, living not on the open plain, but clinging instead to high cliff faces, walled into houses with tiny windows.

And all was not peace and love among the bloodthirsty Incans and Mayans either.

The truth is that all humanity shares linked proclivities for evil as well as for good. None are immune from the violence and hierarchical nature we’ve inherited from our primate forbears, just as we all share a divine spark capable of the most exquisite love, creativity, and caring for all living creatures.

The reductionist Politically Correct thinking that denies this universal human duality has been the cause of much suffering, whether used in the service of supporting slavery in the nascent United States, or in drumming out white farmers in Zimbabwe, which turned that country into a famine-wracked ruin.

As a Taoist I find it odd that people seem to focus on only one side of things. Some see humankind – or some subset thereof - as inherently evil, some as inherently good. I see a duality well reflected in nature itself. Look to the lioness, tenderly playing with her cubs , and ruthlessly ripping out the throat of the zebra, to see the duality of all creation manifest all around us.

Chimps and Bonobos Redux

Recently a video of scantily clad seven-year-old girls gyrating and pelvic-thrusting to a Beyonce track went viral. I saw it on the Huffington Post, clicked on the link, and was almost instantly mortified. I never got through more than about 20 seconds of it, because I became instantly nauseated at what I saw – a group of girls in hot red ‘stripper-kinis’ thrusting their ‘busts’, butts out and writhing suggestively. It didn’t matter that the little girls were obviously talented dancers. What mattered was the heavy, completely inappropriate sexual imagery.

I immediately went to the comments section to post my outrage. Although many other people on the site shared my revulsion, there were also many who saw nothing wrong with this at all. There was even one ‘sexuality denier’ who insisted that there was nothing sexual at all about little girls in bright red bikinis writhing suggestively. He insisted that any folks who saw anything even remotely sexual in this video were themselves pedophiles. Another said sure it’s sexual, but children are sexual beings. He implied that denying their sexuality was a form of repression.

This struck a chord with me because I’d written of sexual repression in the essay below for Northeast Public Radio. I countered that, yes, children are sexual beings – they experiment and play with sex after all – but they are immature sexual beings, and to sexualize them with adult symbolism most closely associated with strippers and prostitutes is a serious distortion and perversion of the natural sexual curiosity that children possess. It is a superimposition of degraded sexual images from a sexually distorted culture onto little girls.

To me, this video constituted child abuse, pure and simple. I could not believe the level of acceptance I saw. Whereas many saw this as a normal, even laudable endeavor, I felt that the dance teachers and parents all should have received a visit from Social Services, because they were ‘empowering’ these little girls with the worst possible symbolism. In fact, the entire experience of the fleeting fame of the viral video only underscored the latent message: women (and by extension, girls) should monetize their bodies and their sexuality if they want to succeed in the world.

I can think of no worse message to foist upon the impressionable mind of a child.

Here is the original essay:

Chimps and Bonobos

Humankind’s two closest genetic relatives are the Chimpanzee and the so-called ‘pygmy chimp’, the Bonobo. We share some 97% of our genetic makeup with both of them.

This is a vast oversimplification, but in general, Chimpanzee society tends to be male-dominated and violent. Chimps engage in brutal fights, gang rape, genocide, even cannibalism. Their society is highly stratified, with dominant males at the top and lesser males at the bottom. Although females also have dominant and lesser representatives, in general their health and safety, and that of their offspring, is still largely a matter of male whim.

The Bonobo are quite different. Although there are fights in Bonobo society, they tend to be brief and non-lethal. There appears to be no rape, no cannibalism, no wiping out of other troops of Bonobo. All in all, the Bonobo society is, for lack of a better word, more humane

In Chimp society, sex occurs only when females are in heat. In the matriarchal Bonobo society, sex occurs all the time, for procreation, for enjoyment, and sometimes merely as a form of social stress relief. It’s kind of like the Greek play Lysistrata, wherein the women refuse the men any sex until the men give up war. The Bonobo have largely given up conflict, replacing it with ready access to sex.

What do our two closest relatives have to tell us about human society?

In his landmark work, the Mass Psychology of Fascism, Willhelm Reich posited that the veneration of war and conflict coupled with sexual repression leads to a more violent and easily manipulated, fascistic society.

On its surface, American society is heavily sexualized, not repressed at all. But Reich didn’t mean the repression of all sexual symbols, but rather the displacement of healthy representations of sexuality with unhealthy symbols that debased and dehumanized, coupled with increasing representations of violence.

In light of that distinction, it’s easy to see how American society is sexually repressed when it comes to positive images of sexuality and the human body, while overflowing with negative ones and simply awash in violent imagery. To paraphrase Larry Flynt, in America it’s illegal to commit murder, but not to broadcast movies of it, and legal to make love, but illegal to broadcast movies of lovemaking.

Once, while watching the movie ‘Dead Calm’ on broadcast TV, I saw a naked rear end pixilated on my screen, I suppose to protect me from some terrible prurient urge. This was followed not 5 minutes later by the graphic, unpixelated footage of a man’s head being blown off. What kind of a society finds a naked ass more dangerous than an act of bloody violence?

Obviously, in the human mind, sex and violence seem to be linked in all sorts of complex ways. Look at how the torture at places like Abu Ghraib often devolved into sexual humiliation. The themes of procreation, survival, and death underlie all human activity, and imbue everything with their nascent power, which can be positive or corrosive. It can build a culture up, or debase it. And one man’s view of socio-sexual health can be another’s symptom of metasticized perversion.

For example: when Jonbenet Ramsey was slain, I became aware for the first time of childhood beauty pageants. I was profoundly shocked that these little girls were so sexualized and monetized. The pictures of six year old Jonbenet tarted up like a Vegas showgirl, complete with feathers and heavy makeup, seemed to bespeak some horrific underground subculture of kiddy porn purveyors.

Yet who were the perpetrators of this little girl’s debasement and objectification? Her very own quite conservative, mainstream, Republican, Christian parents, who doubtless saw nothing perverted at all in their actions. In fact, the same segment of society engages in so-called father-daughter purity balls, which ostensibly are about being chaste, but carry many disturbing psycho-sexual undertones, including ones that imply that women are chattel, their bodies and sexuality first owned by their fathers, and then their husbands.

Our culture is so out of whack that a nude adult body part is deemed threatening and perverse while the obvious sexualization of a child, albeit in symbolic terms only, is seen by many as wholesome.

Welcome to the topsy-turvy Chimp world that is America.