BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Defining the "other" ...

I got this book via the “Early Reviewers” program this Fall. I'm a bit late with the review (it took me two months from when it came it to get around to reading it), but I'm just squeaking in on the 3-month window for LTER reviews!

I think Robert A. Williams, Jr.'s Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization would have been a very useful study in another author's hands. Unfortunately, Williams is a Law professor, and this eventually plays out like a rambling legal argument in front of a jury, waiting to come in with the “payoff” at the end of this with a pitch for Native American rights (and of course, painting American culture as racist), his main area of activity. Frankly, it's a long way to go from the earliest awakenings of Greek civilization through the whole history of Western culture, just to make a case against the (admittedly shameful) on-going treatment of “indigenous peoples” both in the US and elsewhere. This is where the book leads:
By now we are all too familiar with the stereotypes and imagery of a language of savagery that has been a constant part of the contemporary West's unrelenting wars against terrorism, drugs, crime, undocumented immigrants, and other enemies of civilization. … A language of savagery has become an indispensable part of the culture, ethics, and morality of consumption throughout the West today.
Considering Williams' background in promoting tribalism, and that he has been funded by anti-American financier George Soros, it's no surprise that this is the end point of the argument. But how does he get here? From the introduction:
From its very beginnings in ancient Greece, Western civilization has sought to invent itself through the idea of the savage. We are all familiar with the basic elements of the idea: The savage is a distant, alien, uncivilized being, unaware of either the benefits or burdens of modernity. Lacking in sophisticated institutions of government and religion, ignorant of property and laws, without complex social bonds or familial ties, living in a state of untamed nature, fierce and ennobled at the same time, the savage has always represented an anxious, negating presence in the world, standing perpetually opposed to Western civilization.
He argues that without this concept of the “savage” our civilization would never have come to be (and, by that I suppose implying that without the concept, I'd be running around Britain naked with blue tattoos like my Pictish ancestors today). Frankly, I don't find his arguments particularly convincing, as from the start he conflates a general attitude of superiority with material in Homer. He's certainly on base with this:
These … notions helped the Greeks define collectively who they were as a people and what separated and distinguished them apart from those people who inhabited the distant, uncharted parts of the world. To the ancient Greeks, the rest of the world was inhabited for the most part by tribes of savage, uncivilized “barbarians”. … “Barbarian” was an onomatopoeic term that basically translated as “babblers”. It was used generally to refer to people who could not speak the Greek language or who could not speak it well.
Where is the difference in this from any regional group of people defining their ways as opposed to the ways of their neighbors? Is this much different from a Chicagoan referring to a Wisconsin resident as a “cheesehead” or the Japanese calling Koreans “garlic eaters”? He anchors his entire thesis in this, once coupled to descriptions of non-Greek peoples (or non-human monsters) in the Iliad and the Odyssey. For Homer, these flights of fantasy are in the same nature as later map makers penning “here there be monsters” on unknown parts of the world. Williams argues that this was a racist impulse, with these groups being “races” … for example, the well-known mythological human/horse-hybrid Centaurs
Centaurs were long represented in Greek mythology as mountain-dwelling, lawless, hypersexualized creatures, paradigm examples of savage beings, driven by their bestial passions and irrational urges to violate the most sacred laws of civilized humanity.
His “case” is further backed by other creatures from Homer, and how they're defeated/marginalized by the Greek “heroes”, and he bases the rest of the book on this foundation. The very next thing he brings up is “colonization” of the Ionian speakers into the eastern Mediterranean … a familiar bugaboo of non-Western cultures … but, again, here presented as a basic function of the “racist” Greeks.

He next looks at the “golden age” myth in the works of Hesiod, and the beginning of the concept of the noble (non-monstrous) savage. This then works its way to the classic Greek philosophers and the development of “the West's first great imperial civilization”. Like “races”, and “colonization”, “imperial” is another trigger word here, and Williams brings back Homer as a key defining element in the conflicts with the Persian and Scythian cultures. He takes the “savage” concept and pinballs it through a landscape of Greek philosophical expression, and then drops the reader right into Rome. Shifting to using the architecture and sculpture of the Romans, and the writing of Caesar and others:
Tacitus also follows Caesar in adopting the Greeks' organizing principle of the barbarian savage's distance from Rome as determining the degree of cultural divergence from civilized norms and values.
Again, like Homer, the Roman writers tended to “fill in the blank spots” in their writings with fantastic visions … however, when the Roman civilization fell, and the medieval Church came to power, “the theme of the noble savage directly contradicted the biblical story of the Fall of Adam and Eve” and Christian redemption, and this element of the Classical world view was actively suppressed, and “replaced by the biblically derived image of the Wild Man as an unredeemable, irrational, and forsaken enemy to the Christian message of salvation”. The fantasized creatures of the Greeks and Romans were turned to demons by the Church, and “the savage” was linked to being in league with the devil. Rather than being those outside the cultural norm, anything outside of the lines of theological doctrine was now demonic … providing a great impetus to the Crusades, witch hunts, etc., and giving a powerful tool to define any group unwilling to allow missionary incursions as an outright enemy of the faith.

Even into the Renaissance, this view expanded, and Pope Innocent IV's theory of “infidel rights” directed that pagan peoples “could be lawfully conquered, colonized, and converted by Christian princes acting on authority” of the papacy. This, of course, came in quite handy when Columbus opened up a “new world” to European expansion. I wonder how Williams missed the irony of his descriptions of Columbus' early contacts with Caribbean tribal people, whose warnings about other tribes are almost exactly like the “monsters” of Homer … clearly showing that this is not a Western, racist, survival of a Greek attitude, but a common human trait to dehumanize the little-known “other”!

Oddly, the religious underpinnings of expansion and conquest were not set aside during the Renaissance. Even the English had legal justifications built up upon Christian doctrinal foundations:
Infidels … were regarded at law as perpetual enemies … of a Christian kingdom. Thus, they had no rights under English common law: “... for between them, as with devils, whose subject they be, and the Christian, there is perpetual hostility, and can be no peace.”
The difference being, of course, that this had evolved from enabling Rome to grant license to kings, to kingdoms (i.e. governments) being inherently enabled and encouraged to conquer any non-Christian peoples they encountered “Because the way of conquering them is much more easy than of civilizing them by fair means...”.

The Enlightenment did bring a reduction of the religious framing of this approach, but it was replaced by a “scientific” theory in which there were developmental gradations of human culture, and the more primitive would be, naturally, swept away by the more advanced. This view was very firmly established among the founding fathers of the USA, and was the basis on which interaction with the indigenous tribes proceeded, holding “the Indian as a doomed form of human savagery”. Further (from a Canadian legal document):
A civilized nation first discovering a country of uncivilized people or savages held such country as its own until such time as by treaty it was transferred to some other civilized nation. The savages' rights of sovereignty even of ownership were never recognized.
Frankly, it has only been in the past half century that there's been any serious countering of attitudes of this nature (and even more extreme ones) towards non-Western peoples. For an example of where these attitudes might have begun to shift (allowing for a new paradigm to arise in the 60's and beyond), I'd recommend James Bradley's The Imperial Cruise which traces out what happened when this sort of attitude hit Asia, and ended up inventing modern Japan (a case of “the savage” beating “the civilized” at their own game), and thus dramatically changing the world.

Again, there is a lot of very interesting stuff in Savage Anxieties, but I'm thinking the author stretches his basic thesis very thin over parts of this, all pointing to the last sections on activism for indigenous peoples. There is a taint of “Western Civilization = BAD, tribal culture = GOOD” throughout the book, which leaves a bad taste in one's mouth if one is not already on board with the message. While I think this would be far more popular with those who are “in the choir” that Williams is preaching to, there's enough good stuff here as a historical survey to keep up the interest of those who are otherwise convinced. This has only been out since the Fall, so I guess there's at least a chance of finding it at the more expansive brick-and-mortar book vendors, but the on-line guys have it for about a quarter off of cover price, which seems to be your best bet as not enough copies have floated down the the used channel to be at a substantially lower rate there. In conclusion, while I found this intellectually stimulating, it was also somewhat irritating, and I really wish that writing it had been done by a historian rather than an activist.

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