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
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…