An indiscriminate attack on the cult of the primitive is redeemed by some disrespect for Isaiah Berlinby Samuel Brittan / October 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2001 issue of Prospect Magazine
Roger Sandall, a retired New Zealand lecturer in anthropology, has launched a broadside against the modern version of the idea of the noble savage. The basic thesis can be found in a three page appendix “The Four Stages of Noble Savagery,” (which could well have come at the front). The first stage is that of the Captain Cook era in the 18th century. Rousseau was already praising the superiority of primitive culture. In the actual encounters between explorers and primitive peoples men are killed on both sides, but they are baked and eaten on one side only. The second stage is war and pacification. It corresponds most closely to that described in anti-imperialist tracts. There is war over land and violent displacement of peoples; but the indigenous population is eventually well placed to win the moral war. The third stage is called transfiguration. The vanquished tribes live in reserves and outskirts, demoralised, sullen, and often drunk. Meanwhile the intellectuals of the conquering nations start glorifying tribal culture and go beyond merely fighting for its rights. The fourth stage is termed Disneyfication. The primitive is elevated above the civilised. White populations are said to have lost the appreciation for magic and the capacity of wonder. The existence of cannibalism is denied and loving environmentalism is held to reign supreme among primitive peoples. The background to this book is the antipodean political struggle over the position of the Maoris and Aborigines. But Sandall wants to paint on a wider canvas and he uses the glorification of the primitive as a means to attack a whole host of politically correct ideas prevailing in north America and western Europe. He might have done better to discriminate a little among his enemies. Some of them start off as self-proclaimed relativists who refuse to be judgemental between different cultures. There are then those who have talked themselves into idolising the primitive or the tribal: not necessarily savages in the jungle, but at least the rural pre-industrial societies which some of the German romantics admired, often with unpleasant racial overtones too. Such people are certainly opponents of global capitalism; but they are as likely to be politically conservative rather than radical. Finally, there are those who are motivated either by a genuine antipathy to capitalism or a hostility to all authority, which they wrongly equate with competitive markets. Such radical critics are not particularly interested in the primitive or the tribal heritage. They simply use the sins of imperialism as debating weapons against western market culture. The author has his own bête noires, who he has obviously been longing to attack for years. It is at first sight surprising to find Isaiah Berlin condemned for lack of belief in western liberalism and for sympathy with reactionary nationalism. The basis of this attack is Berlin’s pretty standard philosophical position that one culture or moral code cannot be judged in terms of another-which does not mean that we refuse to take sides. Berlin’s interest in Herder and similar German writers arose from a desire to understand why the European Enlightenment failed to conquer all comers. But I, too, have always had a problem with the cult of Berlin among the western political and intellectual establishment. Why is it that so many people who have no time for political or philosophical ideas, and would much rather ride a horse than read a theoretical book, so idolise Berlin and set him up as a paradigm of cleverness? It is indeed troubling that, as far as I know, Berlin-in contrast to, say, Bertrand Russell-never stuck his neck out or became identified with any unpopular cause which would have made the conventional public school and Oxbridge graduate raise his eyebrows. If some readers suspect that The Culture Cult is a right-wing rant, they would not be completely wrong. But because nowadays there are few such rants by authors familiar with or interested in the world of ideas, as distinct from partisan politics, he does hit some targets on the head and provides some useful nuggets of information. For instance, I found out for the first time the difference between Karl and Michael Polanyi. They were not the same person, but they were indeed brothers. While Michael adhered to the classical liberal tradition, was a follower of Friedrich Hayek and an unremitting opponent of collectivism, his brother Karl managed to idolise at the same time both Soviet economic planning and the 18th-century slave-owning and cannibalistic west African state of Dahomey. And he refused to the bitter end to condemn the atrocities of Pol Pot in Cambodia which he regarded as, at most, unfortunate. Yet in one tract after another, I see Karl Polanyi praised to the heights as a profound critic of market capitalism. But let us not make the mistake of adopting a right wing form of political correctness in place of the left wing variety. It is time to forget where people stand in relation to the seating of parties in the French revolutionary assembly and to expose the fallacies and perverted morals of all the enemies of Enlightenment, from whatever side of the political circumference they come. If we can win a few more skirmishes and have a few laughs on the way, we will not have lived in vain.