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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.

1 comment:

  1. How refreshing ! How perceptive! How insightful ! How liberating !!!
    Great article !!!!

    ReplyDelete