Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Roger Sandall's Culture Cult: Salisbury Review, Summer 2013

Back in 1965 Roger Sandall (1933-2012) became the first full-time documentary film director at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. Sandall made nine documentaries during his eight-year tenure at the Institute, Emu Ritual at Ruguri winning first prize at the 1968 Venice Film Festival. In spite of this, all of them, shockingly, were suddenly banned from public viewing in the early 1970s and have remained so ever since. The proscription of his ethnographic films prompted Sandall to write a seminal work, The Culture Cult (2001), which explores the genesis of a revolution that has seen free men and women throughout the world allow themselves to be bound and gagged.                             

The greatest challenge to Western societies, contends Sandall, turned out not to be Marxism, but anti-bourgeois bohemianism. The Culture Cult nominates Frank Boas’ opening of Colombia University’s anthropology department in the 1920s to “would-be writers” Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead as the starting point for the institutionalisation of bohemia in the West. This radical new notion of anthropology – “heavily didactic semifiction” in Sandall’s words – went on to shape much of our contemporary world, including American-style liberalism: “The effect on American manners and morals would be to legitimise the bohemian counterculture of Greenwich Village.”

Bohemia’s “exemplary original” was Rousseau (1712-78). Sandall identifies Rousseau’s rejection by eighteenth century French society as the catalyst for his subsequent enmity towards the luminosity of the West and its greatest thinkers of the time. Whereas the sophisticated Parisians were false and perverse, decided Rousseau, the mythical “Noble Savage” was natural and dignified. The revolt of the civilised against civilisation had commenced.

Ressentiment also informed the views of the German philosopher and critic Herder (1744-1803). Many speak of Herder’s passion for “cultures” as an indication of the man’s open-mindedness and affection for humanity but not Sandall, who adroitly draws the portrait of a provincial intimidated by the erudition of the French philosophes. Herder’s contention that every last primitive clan had “its own irreplaceable contribution to make to the progress of the human race” was less a celebration of diversity than a tribal dagger aimed at the heart of civilisation. Sandall’s designation of Herder as “the father of multiculturalism” is not intended as an accolade.              

Despite their academic pretensions, most twentieth-century ethnographers, including the aforementioned Benedict and Mead, deceived themselves no less than the dilettante-adventurers of the previous century. The real-life tribalism they sought to document had already been “defanged” by Christianity, and toe curling acts of human sacrifice, deflowering, and cannibalism were not so easily observed. In any case, under the bohemian credo of cultural relativism, academia was predisposed to sanitise tribal cultures for the purpose of skewering bourgeois mores. The inequities of the West were unfavourably contrasted with a dreamy version of tribalism that underplayed the role of compulsion and brutality. Sandall sardonically posits Disney’s Pocahontas (1995) as the consummation of all the “Noble Savage” caricatures twentieth-century anthropology has bequeathed us.

The triumph of the bohemian insurgency over the past ninety years can be measured by the virtual disappearance from academic discourse of the concept Matthew Arnold in his Culture and Anarchy (1868) defined as “civilisation”. Arnold spoke to the British people, extolling the civilisational exemplars contained in the “illustrious traditions of Hellenism, Hebraism, Christianity, none of which are British”. In other words, he was claiming something for “civilisation” that went beyond a Herder-like celebration of what we today would call “culture”. The conquest of academia during the 1960s was followed by mainstream political victories. 

Governments in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand of all political persuasions had seen themselves as morally bound to assist indigenes “to cross the divide” between their traditional tribal cultures and modernity. From the early 1970s, a new agenda made its appearance. Australia’s Whitlam administration (1972-75), for instance, began encouraging Indigenous people “to preserve their traditional cultures at all costs”. The integration of Aboriginals into Australian society and its modern capitalist economy now took second place to identity politics.

In 2001, the time of The Culture Cult’s publication, Sandall’s warning that “artificially petrified indigenes are doomed” was all but ignored. His message that the best chance of a good life for an Aboriginal Australian was “full fluency and literacy in English, as much math as [they] can handle, and a job” fell on deaf ears. Not until Aboriginal leaders such as Noel Person raised the alarm on national television in 2002 over plummeting literacy rates in remote communities, not to mention an epidemic of substance abuse and unprecedented levels of domestic violence, did people begin contemplating the need to reverse the disastrous policies initiated by Whitlam.

Germaine Greer’s On Rage (2008) encapsulates much of what is wrong with anti-bourgeois bohemianism. Greer attempts to contextualise the substance abuse, domestic violence and suicide over the past decades in remote Aboriginal settlements. The unacceptable behaviour of so many Aboriginal men in those communities is the consequence of a “hunter-gatherer people” facing defeat and humiliation at the hands of “Whitey”. Greer’s solution to the rage of Aboriginal men in remote areas is for them to create yet another forum in the name of “hunter-gatherer” resistance.
In 2007 the Northern Territory government released the Little Children are Sacred Report, which detailed the dysfunction in remote Aboriginal communities. The conservative Howard government, then in its last months of power, initiated the Northern Territory Intervention. Not unexpectedly, Greer argues against the merits of the Intervention in On Rage, suggesting that rather than quelling the wrathful violence of Aboriginal men it would only exacerbate the problem. More unexpectedly, was the rising up of Indigenous Australians, not just to support the Intervention, but also to breathe new life into the regional Country Liberal Party. Last year, largely on account of first-time Indigenous support, the CLP swept to power in the Northern Territory’s election.             

The profound insight of Roger Sandall is that that substitution of the notion of “civilisation” for the politically-correct counterfeit “culture” has allowed so-called progressives, including academic-activists such as Greer, to barbarise our institutions, hijack the political agenda, immiserate those caught in the margins of society, and generally diminish our freedom of expression through their PC dogma. Bess Price, an Indigenous woman who won the Central Australian seat of Stuart for the CLP in the August 2012 election, said it for all of us when she berated those who opposed the NT Intervention. The critics valued the inviolability of Indigenous culture above the sacredness of real existing human beings:

When Aboriginal women in Central Australia ask for help, when they are killed, raped and beaten, when they cry for their abused children, you ignore them and you support those oppressing them.
In March of this year an Indigenous Australian, Adam Giles, was elected by his parliamentary colleagues to become the Chief Minister of Northern Territory. Giles, in his first address to the media, made it absolutely clear that he wanted to work on behalf of all Territorians, be they “men or women or Aboriginal, non-Aboriginal or otherwise.” Greer’s “hunter-gatherer” forum must seem a lame proposition to the man now in charge of an entire government.        
In the last decades of the twentieth century, the Soviet Empire collapsed while many governments throughout the Western world attempted programmes of fiscal responsibility. All appeared right with the world. The political trajectory of Germaine Greer, our emblematic bohemian socialist for the purposes of this essay, bears out Sandall’s concerns about the wellbeing of Western civilisation coming into the new millennium. From The Female Eunuch (1971) onwards there have been few facets of Western modernity that Greer has not disparaged, while her commentaries on non-Western cultures are almost always supportive. In Sex and Destiny (1984) she lamented Western attitudes towards sexuality, fertility, and family while admiring the “pro-child” traditions of pre-modern cultures. After embarrassing herself by writing sympathetically about female circumcision in The Whole Woman (1999), Greer eventually confessed that her real gripe was Westerners criticising any tribal practise, since this would “reinforce our cultural superiority”.

Greer’s endorsement of the “Campaign Against Monica Ali’s Film Brick Lane” in The Guardian, July 2006, exposes the perfidy of modern-day progressives. Rousseau and Herder could have ghostwritten Greer’s diatribe against Ali. It is an anti-Western discourse that pointedly juxtaposes Ali’s “British-ness” and lack of authentic “Bengali-ness” with the cultural bona fides of London’s Bengali community. For Greer, blinded by her anti-bourgeois bohemianism, freedom of expression is trumped by the “self-esteem” of tribal culture.

The shame of it is that Western civilisation, for all its inequity and complexity, offered humanity an escape from the cruelty and coercion of tribalism – a unique “openness” as Karl Popper would say. The Culture Cult explains why our political elites seem so desperate not to offend the forces that conspire to destroy us; and why the rest of us are sullen but silent: “Cultures are good: civilization is bad. Those six words tell you all you need to know about the moral judgement we have inherited from Herder and Rousseau.”