Should We Cut Off the Hands of Thieves?
by Peter Haffner
Table of Contents
This article was originally published in German in the supplement Magazine No. 13 (29th March to 4th April 2003), pp. 22-31 of Tages Anzeiger, Zürich, Switzerland. It has been translated from the original German into English by George Weber.
Born 1953 in Zürich in Switzerland.Studied philosophy and history in his home town.He travelled in Western and Eastern Europe, Greenland, Russia, Africa and the US as a journalist and now lives in California.
Peter Haffner's Publications:
"Die unheimlichen Patrioten. Politische Reaktion in der Schweiz" ("The Sinister Patriots - political reaction in Switzerland"), Zürich 1978 (joint author)
"Wie steht's mit Pachulski?" ("How about Pachulski"), Zürich 1993
"Die fixe Idee. 13 Versuche, die Welt zu erklären" ("The Fixed Idea - 13 attempts to explain the World"), Zürich 1996
"Herz auf Eis". Ein "Quast & Quimby" Kriminalroman" ("Heart on Ice", a "Quast & Quimby" detective novel), Zürich 2000 (pseudonymously as Louis P. Laskey)
"Grenzfälle. Zwischen Polen und Deutschen" ("Border Cases - Between Poles and Germans"), vol. 213 of the "Anderen Bibliothek" ("the Other Library"), published by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Frankfurt am Main 2002
Publisher: "Der Rabe. Magazin für jede Art von Literatur" ("Der Rabe/The Raven" - magazine for every type of literature), no. 35 (Subject: Science), Zürich 1993
Publisher: "Alfred de Quervain. Quer durchs Grönlandeis" ("Alfred de Quervain - Across the Greenland Ice"), Zürich
Editorial by Res Stehle
A judge accepts mitigating circumstances in the case of a man accused of rape because the accused's culture does not hold the integrity of women in high regard. Another shows understanding in a case of blood feud because of a tradition of revenge in the accused's home country.
The ethnocentrist takes the superiority of his or her own culture for granted but this outlook has been widely replaced (in the West) by an uncritical "politically correct" attitude towards alien cultures. Seen this way, violations of human rights are less serious if committed against the background of a fascinating culture. The former "barbarians" have been transformed into "heroes".
The new attitude may be well-meaning. But "positive racism" is still racism, elevating other cultures, just as film-maker Leni Riefenstahl once did with the Nuba. What is elevated can only crash and that is why "Tages-Anzeiger Magazin" author in the following article pleads for a new approach to inter-cultural relations: respectful but unsentimental.
1. Do all cultures deserve our admiration?
Immigration brings people to us (to the West) from cultures that allow women to be killed with impunity and adulteresses to be stoned. Do all alien cultures deserve our admiration?
It was in Kenya, in the Masai Mara National Park, where I met my first Savage. We had been on safari, had seen elephants, rhinos and a pride of lions holding siesta in the shadow of a giant baobab tree. Our senses stunned by all the new impressions, we sat at table and attended to the delicacies on offer, while in a nearby pond, a hippopotamus took a swim.
That same evening, a lecture on the Masai and their culture was on the program. The Masai are a nomadic people living in the steppes of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. A proud people whose best illustration was the lecturer himself: slim, tall, with ebony skin. While removing his transparent sheets from his briefcase and putting them on the projector, he told his listeners of his tribe's ascetic life, the long wanderings and the power of the blood they draw from their cattle to drink. The ladies listened, enraptured. At the end of the lecture, someone asked how the Masai related to members of other tribes. According to the lecturer, they were not human and to kill them was the same as to kill an animal.
More lasting than the shock about this statement was my irritation about the fact that no one was upset about it. I had seen an example of what the Australian anthropologist Roger Sandall called the "culture cult" &endash; a readiness to idealize alien cultures and to ignore anything that one would never ignore in one' own culture. In science, the culture cult is past its prime but followers can still be found in all circles, from New Age prophets to university professors. They see cultures as a kind of semi-divine creations and hold that every culture is valid and valuable. They think that any adaptation of a primitive (the politically correct would have to say "so-called primitive") culture to a superior culture would be disastrous.
It is advisable to have a few examples ready when people enthuse about indigenes, said to be living in harmony with each other and with nature, who have access to sources of mystical knowledge that in our own civilization have long gone dry. Sources, we must add, that open themselves to indigenes through initiation rites. One such is the ordeal that young Papua-Newguinean highlander males had to go through: they were flogged with nettles and had their urethra pricked with stinging blades of grasse, then they had to gratify the older men orally and anally.
As far as harmony with nature is concerned, the Maori of New Zealand provide a typical example. Some hundreds of years ago, they settled in a natural paradise. Within a very short time the settlers had exterminated roughly one third of all species of bird, among them all twelve species of Moa, an ostrich-like flightless bird. This is a record as far as human extermination of animal species is concerned. Of the original forests &endash; burnt down by the Maori in their eagerness to hunt &endash; only half remained when the civilized world in form of Captain Cook set foot on the islands in 1770. At that time, tribal warfare raged among the Maori who trained their male children from an early age to burn down hostile villages, to kill their inhabitants and then to roast and eat them.
Is all this not long past and hardly worth arguing about today? It is not past. Under the banner of cultural relativism (a milder form of culture cult), many chose not to notice things. Countless women today still die in India the "dowry death", which means they are killed by their in-laws because the dowry they brought is considered inadequate. In Muslim countries men may kill their wives, sisters, daughters, with impunity when the women's behaviour has been judged unseemly. This can happen if a woman had merely looked at a man. Year after year, around two million women in Africa and in the Middle East suffer genital mutilations because it is customary or, as religious fanatics claim, it is demanded by religion &endash; although no such rites are mentioned in the Koran or in the traditional sayings of the Prophet. With immigration, such practices have now entered the West.
Even hard-boiled cultural relativists have a hard time justifying such practices, still more so since it is often the women themselves who resist and adopt as their own cause Western ideas, including the principle of human rights and the equality of men and women. Only recently, the "first ladies" of Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Mali and Guinea have sharply condemned the practice of female circumcision, using arguments in the spirit of the Enlightenment and female emancipation.
2. Rousseau's "Noble Savage"
Why does respect for alien cultures make so many (in the West) blind to the advantages of the culture in which they themselves live? The idea of the "Noble Savage" goes back as far as the ancient Greeks but became popular only with Rousseau. Where people (the West) had seen only despotic chiefs, absurd superstitions, cruelty, poverty, disease and religious fanaticism, they suddenly perceived a paradise and one from which they had driven themselves with their own civilization. The German philosopher Herder with his term "Culture" launched a parallel attack on the universalism of the Enlightenment, helping a romantic concept to be widely accepted which in turn inspired the rise of cultural anthropology in the 20th century. Soon, those in favour of universal human rights found themselves denounced as ethnocentrists.
The fact that it was a German and a Frenchman who propagated the moral superiority of the hitherto despised barbarians has had consequences until our own days: the English-Scottish tradition of cultural anthropology has been less influenced by philosophy and has remained far more down-to-earth in its approach. As the world's prime trading and industrial nation at the time, Great Britain had a thoroughly businesslike interest in facts.
Yet even Rousseau's fellow Frenchman, Voltaire, had given him a good ribbing, with British irony, so to speak. Voltaire wrote in a letter of thanks to the author of the second "Discours", that nobody had shown the horrors of modern society more exquisitely and nobody had demonstrated more wittily what brutes we really are &endash; so convincingly had Rousseau done so that he, Voltaire, felt tempted to start going on all fours again; but since he had given up this habit 60 years earlier, he would prefer to leave it to those better equipped for it than himself.
What for Rousseau had been a polemic against the decadence and arrogance of Parisian society, American Margaret Mead tried to provide with a scientific underpinning. Her book "Coming of Age in Samoa" of 1928 is regarded as one of the most influential texts of cultural anthropology. It provides an example that not only past and future can be invented but the present as well. It is all the easier to fall for the South Sea magic since the author conjures up all what is lacking in her readers' lives: a stress-free society in which children grow up enjoying sexual freedom, where jealousy and envy are alien words and where everybody smilingly sways in the warm wind rustling gently through the palm trees on the beach.
The idyll died when anthropologist Christy Turner II revealed that cannibalism was widespread among Samoans. The Samoans had adopted Mead's flattering description of their society as their own self-portrait - and they were outraged. Not only had Mead's Samoa turned out to be the wishful thinking of her Bohemian New York Greenwich Village world, but it was also a Samoa in which a hundred years of Christian missionary activities had terminated tribal warfare, blood feuds, human sacrifice, and cannibalism. That Mead's work had appeared under the great anthropologist Franz Boas (who had tried to resist the German racial theories of the 1920s and 30s) does not help much.Good intentions do not a good argument make.
3. Are we guilty?
The paradise of the primitive is the mirror image of utopia on the other side of the time axis. It satisfies a need that is familiar to us all. Whether unskilled labourer or banker, we all try to satisfy it, be it during a weekend in an allotment or salmon fishing in Canada. There are no machines to reduce you to an insignificant cog, no terrorizing agendas or appointment planners. Temporary escapes from civilisation serve their purpose by making us all fit for civilization again. Somehow, you gladly dive back into the bustle of civilization afterwards, don't you?
More complex than the yearning for a holiday is another reason for hesitating before criticizing others' cultures. It is a feeling of guilt, the guilt of the victor over the vanquished, of the rich over the poor, the powerful over the powerless. This can go so far that a matter of course can turn into scandal. When the American philosopher Richard Rorty at a public discussion in the Berliner Schaubühne recently stated on the subject of political Islam that we did not need a new "dialogue of cultures" since nothing could be learned from theocrats and racists, the intelligentsia of Germany developed an instant case of the stutters. As the children of a generation that had sung "Deutschland Deutschland über alles" and who had prepared the path for the Aryan master race, this reaction is perhaps understandable. What is really outrageous is that the essentials of a politically guaranteed freedom are thrown overboard thereby: the Third Reich was ended in the name of precisely those values that Rorty argued for.
4. The Victims are also guilty
Does guilt not really exist? Did not the white man leave a trail of devastation wherever the cross of his religion or his lust for gold led him? Had he not exterminated the Amerindians and enslaved the African blacks?
Precisely those two examples show that the admission of guilt and the conclusions drawn from it are entirely different things. The original Americans were killed in their thousands by imported disease, driven from their lands and cheated out of their possessions. The Sioux had been assured that the Black Hills belonged to them "as long as the grass grows and the buffalo roams". Yet they were driven off their land as soon as gold was discovered there &endash; and they have not received compensation until today. Victims of the white intruders, the Sioux had themselves been perpetrators of crimes against other red-skins: the Sioux had been driven from their ancestral homes by Amerindian intruders and had then in turn driven out the people living in the Great Plains. It is the old story of conquest: the land belongs to those strong enough to seize and hold it.
It is a questionable practice to elevate the recognition of victims into their transfiguration. Amerindians tortured their prisoners, drove entire herds of buffalo over the cliffs to get at their meat but then left hundreds of bodies to rot. One could just leave the followers of the culture cult in their belief that the Amerindians were noble savages and ecologists to perfection &endash; if the truth did not happen to be politically relevant. And politically relevant it is, paradoxically on account of the cult that has grown up around the Amerindians in the US that has made them once more into victims. Since they have received the right to operate gambling casinos in their reservations, big gambling operators from all over the world have discovered their heart for the Amerindians. Slick operators gather a few of them, set up a tribe and, once the reservation complete with casino is operating, take the lion's share of its income. Anthropologists who deliver expert opinions and historians who construct useful genealogies, all participate in a fraud that exploits modern Amerindians along with the popular feelings of guilt about their treatment in the past.
The majority of modern Amerindians still live in poverty while a minority enjoys all the luxuries of life. Income from 290 gambling casinos in Amerindian reservations in the US added up to around $12,7 billion. There are tribes that pay their members a monthly income of $15,000 with an annual bonus of $200,000.The tribes had been happy to accept new members before, today they do not accept new applications or try to freeze out existing members so that not too many can participate in the golden rain. US Amerindians spend around $10 million for lobbying work in Washington &endash; more than companies like General Motors, Boeing or AT&T. In Californian elections, Amerindians are the largest contributors, which also means that the richest &endash; who need it least &endash; get the largest slice of the Federal Aid cake, in stark contrast, for example, to the Navajos, who do not run casinos for religious reasons.
There is no debate taking place about any of this. Those who profit from the system are not interested and those who do not, cannot get their voices heard. Among culture cultists, criticism of "native Americans" - seen as the victims of the American dream - is simply taboo.
A similar situation can be observed in the outrage about enslavement of blacks, the consequences of which are still evident in American society today. Researchers were for a long time interested only in slavery as an institution perpetrated by whites. Slavery perpetrated by non-whites was ignored. Hugh Thomas has shown in his history "The Slave Trade" that most people from Africa between 1440 and 1870 were enslaved and removed in cooperation with local people who wanted to get rid of their neighbours.
More disastrous is the fact that the slave trade of our own days is ignored. According to some estimates, there are now more slaves held in Africa and Asia than had been shipped during the entire transatlantic slave trade. Around 200,000 children are sold every year in Africa. The foreign minister of Benin, an adept student of western philosophical Kulturkritik, has downplayed the phenomenon as a West African tradition. "In our culture," he said, "we believe that it is always good for a child to move from the house of its parents to the house of an uncle or a distant friend."
5. Under the pretext of culture
Where is the line between naïve fiction and conscious political lie? Some ranchers in southern California wanted to stop the construction of a liquid gas pipeline in the 1970s. They hired a public relations firm that, with the help of a few Chumash Indians, managed to succeed.
Precisely where the pipeline was to pass through, it was said, was the place where the souls of their ancestors had begun their journey to their happy hunting grounds. "Western Gate" was the name of the place, and all of a sudden there were lots of such places found all over the country. The gates were welcome news to local Amerindians, who had never heard of them before, but had no hesitation to accept developments that helped increase their self-confidence and political influence.
In their belief that the savage is a better being and the primitive's world more valuable, the culture cultists fall for every humbug going. Zurich publisher Tanner & Staehelin made the deal of a lifetime when it acquired the world rights to a book that had first appeared in 1920: "The Papalagi, speeches of the South-Sea chief Tuiavii of Tiavea". Having been translated into many languages in the meantime, it has remained a bestseller until today. The author, Erich Scheurmann, had invented a simple man from the island Upolu in the paradisiacal Samoa group whose wisdom springs from his simple innocence &endash; at the request of his publisher Grote who had offered him a thousand Marks for a "nice South Seas story". Naïve readers wishing to get away from the "disease of thinking" eagerly snapped up his message. Scheurman had already fired a generation of nature ramblers during the Weimar Republic and his readers did not care that he later wrote Nazi propaganda pieces. They were not bothered, either, by the absurdities in his story of the simple savage in whose hut shame might be unknown but a copy of the Bible was always within reach.
Scheurman's impudence was nothing compared to the roguish trick played by the Philippine minister for tribal affairs under president Marcos. Manuel Elizalde invented an entire people: the Tasaday . Two dozen scantily clad aboriginals, sheltering in caves and living off plant food were said to have been discovered in 1971 by a hunter in the rain forest of the Philippine island of Mindanao. The discovery of stone-age people in the 20th century hit the headlines worldwide. Ethnologists and linguists fell for a fraud that was finally revealed as a PR gag by the Swiss journalist Oswald Iten. In reality Tasaday were poor hut-dwellers that had been persuaded by a mixture of threats and promises to swing stone axes. The purpose was to bring foreign exchange into the country.
Every ruined paradise provides room for a new one. If there are no more primitives, then there are still the apes. Are not the Bonobos, the African dwarf chimps with their lively sex life, the better humans?
Somehow, religions appear to be more honest about it all. Most move paradise into heaven and leave everyone free to imagine how wonderful it will be there. Perhaps their claims are also false, but at least they does not gloss over an unpleasant reality down here.
6. Tribal society as model?
To the degree that cultural relativism has triumphed (in the West), it has discredited the meaning of the word Civilization. Ancient Romans and Greeks had, without self-doubt, felt their way of life to be superior to that of oriental despotism. A legal system guaranteeing property rights or the rule of victor-takes-all, that was their dividing line between civilization and barbarism. The line is still effective today. Civilization means changes of government without bloodshed, civil rights, economic freedom for the individual, religious tolerance along with politicial and artistic liberty.
Tribal societies are characterized by the opposite of all this. They are closed intellectually, socially, politically, they are not open for new ideas and they are intolerant. Enlightenment &endash; the desire to downplay differences and to give prominence to commonality &endash; has not reached them. Postmodern critiques on the Enlightenment as an imperialist ideology trying to impose its values on everyone, disregard the fact that only an enlightened society allows the privilege of revolting against it. Precisely those who denounce the progress of civilization profit from it. It is a characteristic of the European spirit, as the philosopher Karl Jaspers observed, to question itself again and again.
Low infant mortality, long life expectancy, sufficient nourishment - all are blessings provided by civilization. Sated and satisfied as we all are (in the West), we tend to forget how long a path tribal Europe had to walk to modern Europe. The unprecedented rise of western Europe since the 11th century (when, as the historian David Landes noted, the "inventing was invented"), was possible only because the power of despots was broken. Law, security and public order allowed not everybody but more people than anywhere and anytime before to follow their own inclinations. It did not happen in Russia or China, nor in Africa or in the Middle East. The consequences are with us yet.
The very word "Civilization" is seen as an "un-word" by some in their eagerness to avoid setting one culture above another. Did not Civilization produce the Holocaust? Are not the Germans, the "people of poets and thinkers", guilty of the most heinous crime of human history? What is it with Civilization, then?
Precisely this: these crimes were not committed in the spirit of Civilization but as an assault on it. One only needs to read the Nazi rhetoric to see an attempt to get back to a tribal society. All the talk of blood-and-soil, master race and sub-humans was designed to destroy the accomplishments of Civilization, law and justice, freedom and order.
There was an echo of old Europe audible during the Balkan war. Suddenly battles fought during the 14th century were talked about again. The duty to defend national honour, words like pride, dignity were used by people whose only aim was to ensure the victory of their clan. American GIs noted with surprise that people tried to cut each others' throats for the sole reason that their grand-grand-grand parents had fought each other. One may think whatever one wants of our (the West's) corrupt politicians with their affairs and scandals. What distinguishes them (western politicians) positively from tribal leaders like Milosevic is that they can fall over their scandals. Tribal leaders, on the other hand, regard their state as their private property and have the means to use it for their own ends.
7. No Help to the Natives
The argument about culture and civilization is not merely an academic matter. It has consequences for those that the culture cultists allegedly wish to protect. While claiming to shield the Australian aborigines from the damaging influence of modern civilization, the aborigines have been barred from access to modern society. Today, aborigines whose grandparents could read and write have become illiterates. The only role they can play today is that of pathetic exhibits in a sad Disneyland, a land that preserves a culture that cannot be revived and that is no longer compatible with the world of today.
This is what the culture cultists can be accused of: that they harm those they purport to protect through their use of a kind of "positive racism". I will never forget what a Jew told me as we discussed anti-Semitism: almost as sinister as the anti-semites, he thought, were the philosemites, a species he tended to meet above all in Germany. What, he asked, if we disappoint the people who think of us as the better humans? Only too easily, uncritical admiration turns into blind hatred. Racism is a question of circumstances, not of attitude.
8. How far should tolerance go?
How far should tolerance go towards others? Every western country sees itself confronted with this question. The attraction of the West remains unbroken. This in spite of the West's own denigrators who, one notices, prefer to continue living in the West rather than elsewhere. Different ways of life as well as religious and cultural differences today meet head-on and directly. What is permitted and what is not, society has to decide. There are things that are not negotiable. We (the West) do not hack off the hands of thieves and we do not stone adulteresses to death. We solve conflicts in a civilized manner and revenge our honour in court and not with a knife. Must women cover their heads? That they do not have to characterizes our free culture. Over the conflicts between immigrants and locals one tends to forget the conflict between generations within the immigrant population. Daughters no longer accept their father's dictate of chastity, sons want to go their own way. We should strengthen the forces that are keen to adopt our own basic values as their own.
All cultures are blind to their own weaknesses, including our own. If we accuse the cultural relativists to under-estimate the advantages of our own culture, we should not forget that knowledge of other cultures if also self-knowledge. There is no better illustration of this point than the story of the Persian prince on a visit to France. He sneezed and dropped snot on the ground in front of his host. When he noticed his host's irritation, he remarked that he was himself surprised that even though they also regarded it as disgusting, Euopeans collected theirs in expensive silken handkerchiefs and then carried it around with them all day.
which of course we will continue to do, despite the disarming Persian logic.
Last changed 30 March 2006