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MISUNDERSTANDINGS (4)

 It was probably inevitable that the first three essays on this subject should be followed up by a fourth. What set it in motion was a television programme in which a family from Liverpool had had a small British-style house built for them in the Namibian territory of the Himba, who, as I have described earlier, favour a primitive lifestyle in order to cozen money out of tourists. In the programme the Himba were seen wondering at their own reflections in a mirror. Gadzooks! Their cars have mirrors! Also, they were seen marvelling at the stairs in the alien house. But there are stairs in the towns where the Himba go to jiggle their titties and do their shopping. The Himba are very cheerful people, as well they might be, even if they must be tempted to arrogance when confronted by the stupidity of tourists.

 Benedict Allen, a television explorer and self-publicist, presented a programme in which he boldly penetrated into a remote part of New Guinea where the people live up trees. These people proudly showed Allen their arboreal existence, not far from the lifestyle of the great apes. Yet readers will not be surprised to learn that these people actually live on the ground. They only build tree houses when they learn that camera crews are on their way. They demonstrate great hospitality to visitors and profess surprise when told that their way of life is unique. They seem to be as sophisticated exponents of fake culchismo as the Himba, and no doubt profit considerably thereby.

 In the 1950's an anthropologist called Margaret Mead wrote a best-seller called “Coming of Age in Samoa”. Essentially readers were led to believe that the primitive islanders guided their young people through adolescence by encouraging them to have free and easy sexual relations, thus avoiding the stresses and embarrassments that were the lot of their civilised counterparts. Alas, it turns out that the Samoans made it all up, having established that Miss Mead was pruriently interested in carnal knowledge. In real life the Samoans are no less anxious to avoid inconvenient pregnancies and to ensure that their young persons are as fully equipped to assume adult responsibilities as members of any other human society. The book was very influential and contributed to the supposed sexual liberation of the day, which was really due to improved educational and employment opportunities for young people in the post-war economic boom.

 Ever since Europeans started travelling to remote parts of the world there has been a clash between two schools of thought: Hobbes, who believed that without civilisation life is “nasty, brutish and short”, and Rousseau who introduced the concept of the “Noble Savage” unaffected by the corruption of civilised manners. For example, early settlers in Australia acknowledged their indebtedness to the aboriginal people, who showed them how to stay alive in unforgiving terrain. Later settlers treated them as sub-humans. Only recently, once they started playing cricket and being elected to Parliament, have they been treated again with respect. A symbol of this change has been the renaming of Ayers Rock as “Uluru”, its native name, and the recognition of it as a sacred site.

 This conflict between the two concepts of “primitive” peoples can be seen in relation to the Yamomani, who live in deepest Amazonia. These people have generally managed to avoid contact with Europeans, and some writers have made them out to be unsullied by the evils of civilisation. Yet a more recent anthropologist describes how the tribesmen like to bash each other over the head with wooden clubs, and, moreover, are proud to show off the sites of the injuries thus sustained. Perhaps it would be instructive to mention that recently a visiting professor taking up an appointment at Oxford University, holding a doctorate in agronomy from Santiago and a doctorate in comparative linguistics from California, was a Yamomani who had been born in a dugout canoe.

 The same thing happened in North America. When the indigenous people showed the incomers what crops to grow and how to catch fish, they were noble savages, and not so much of the savage. But when the incomers competed with the native peoples over land for cattle ranching and large-scale agriculture, they were treated as sub-humans. Naturally racial theories were developed to justify degrading them. Nowadays we can note that Navajo communications officers played a vital part in the United States successes in the Pacific War. A Navajo who called himself “Mr Smith” was one of the leading pioneers in laser technology. We can also note that the Navajo, who are said to be wonderfully skilled in making a living in the inhospitable desert country where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona meet, are themselves recent immigrants from Canada. They moved into the country that was vacated by the population crash that may have been caused by the introduction of Old World diseases.

 Even worse for the exponents of racial theory and for the exponents of Marxist Dialectical Materialism, it is now believed that the so-called primitive hunter-gatherers of both North and South America were the relict survivors and their descendants of that population crash. Archaeologists are finding substantial evidence of sophisticated cities and organised agriculture in the Mississippi Basin and in Amazonia. It would not be proper, however, simply out of respect for other people, to call every human culture a “civilisation”. That word should be restricted to cultures with a political organisation capable of organising large-scale public works. Though as I have hinted above, people who operate on a smaller scale are deserving of no less respect – and, correspondingly, no less scepticism of claims to superiority.

 Despite what you have just read, anthropologists are not usually fooled. When the Soviet Union collapsed, neither the historians nor the sociologists had any idea how to advise the British Government. But the anthropologists were able to advise them who the important people would turn out to be in many of the newly independent republics. A good example of widespread misunderstanding, that the anthropologists tried unsuccessfully to prevent, relates to Carlos Castaneda's 1968 book The Teachings of Don Juan. This book was perhaps the most important founding literature of the hippy movement, and it is complete rubbish. Castaneda was an idle student in the University of California, who was threatened with dismissal unless he did some work. His tutor suggested that he might redeem himself if he could procure an interview with a shaman, that is a traditional healer and communicator with the gods. He did much better than that: he went to Mexico and got taken on as a shaman's apprentice. He wrote up his experiences of being shown The Truth through use of peyote, and the University of California published them, selling three million copies. The giveaway was the subtitle: A Yaqui way of knowledge. The Yaqui are a native tribe who inhabit a region of Mexico abutting the Sea of Cortez; the River Yaqui is named after them. It was anthropologists who knew that the Yaqui do not use peyote, even though their neighbours the Cora and the Tarahumara do. Word got out to journalists, who set about tracking down Don Juan. They did not actually find him because he had died, but they interviewed his widow. She told them that her husband had met this gringo while they were waiting for a bus, and that was the only contact they had had. Her husband had certainly not taken any gringo on as an apprentice. The entire thing was bogus. One can imagine, however, that peyote was a godsend to idle students. Instead of having to do a lot of work and make informed judgements about the truth or otherwise of statements (which is the only meaning of “Truth”), it was possible to take a drug and feel that one knew everything.

 In a previous essay I listed a few of the numerous misfortunes that car manufacturers have made for themselves in naming their models. Perhaps the worst of all was Mitsubishi, who named their Chelsea Tractor “Pajero”, which is a word that Spanish football hooligans shout from the terraces. It means “wanker”. Even worse, the company displayed this word in big letters on the back of their vehicles, allowing drivers of less ostentatiously anti-social cars to hoot in agreement.

 And a few historical misunderstandings. It is agreed in school history books that when Queen Mary of England married Felipe II of Spain, his status was not recognised in England. This is in fact a piece of Elizabethan spin-doctoring, as I discovered when I saw a copy of Abingdon Town Charter, which begins: “Be it enacted by their Majesties Philip and Mary”. Coins were issued, too, with the double portrait. Elizabeth had as many as possible melted down, so they are rare.

 Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania, means “Brotherly Love”. Or so the founding fathers thought. The original City of Philadelphia was the present Amman, capital of Jordan. It was named in honour of the Greek Pharaoh Ptolemy II Philadelphus marrying his sister to conform to Egyptian convention. Not quite what the Quakers had in mind!

 Another story that just has to be shoehorned in here somehow relates to the Byzantine Emperor Constantine V Copronymus. When baby Constantine was being baptized by the Metropolitan of Constantinople, the clergyman formally asked the Imperial parents “What shall I name this child?” At this point the infant shat in the font. And ever afterwards Constantine has been known as “Copronymus”, that is “Shit-by-name”.

 In Headington's Old High Street there is a house with a blue plaque, testifying to the fact that Sir Isaiah Berlin used to live there. For many years he was regarded as one of the greatest intellectuals on the planet, who could be relied on for his judgement and his understanding of the moral agreements that underpin a civilisation. So it was a bright idea of Churchill's to invite him to sit in on a meeting of the War Cabinet to contribute his ideas as to the future disposition of Europe. Unfortunately, Churchill's instructions got slightly garbled, so that it was not Sir Isaiah Berlin who appeared as an honoured guest, but Irving Berlin the American songwriter. The Royal Navy had dispatched a destroyer across the Atlantic just to fetch him from the United States. Of course, the poor man was quite bewildered, especially as the most powerful men in Britain appeared to be hanging on his every word. I should love to believe that there are certain aspects of modern Europe that are founded on the expert advice of Irving Berlin.   

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