Romantic racism

Perusing the internets a while back, I came across this picture posted on a prominent pro-liberal web forum:

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The image certainly reflects the mentality of a very vocal subset of liberals who, right or wrong, see western civilization as having gone off the rails. They are a people who desire a simpler existence uncomplicated by the deleterious effects of mass production, corporate capitalism, and a materialist, consumer-oriented culture. Like the Beat-generation before them, these “modern primitives” have latched onto fringe cultures they feel buck against the dominant culture in their own societies. We’ve all met them; they are the  ones throwing money at Deepak Chopra or pretending to be Native Americans. While it is worth pointing out I generally disagree with their assessment of western cultures, that’s not what bothers me about the picture. Rather, what gets me is the unashamed, flagrant, and patently illiberal racism of the whole thing.

Native peoples are not magic. They experience the same range of human emotions as do the rest of the us, of which stress is most certainly a part. They have the same capacity for good, and for evil. They laugh, they cry, they know happiness and they know suffering. Their lives, generally, are far from idyllic. They know things we in the west have forgotten. Things like pestilence, disease, and famine. They know what it is like to lose a wife or a child at birth, to watch a loved one die of sepsis, to see a son or daughter die of a simple childhood illness.

The picture, simply, is a lie. It is nothing more than a fantasy projected upon a native people by a person who very likely never met a single member of their tribe, let alone lived among them. They do not know what it is like to live in an isolated community in the hostile hinterlands of the world without access to modern conveniences most people living in the first world take for granted. They do not know what it is like to live without regular access to food or clean water, without access to basic medical care, or without a comprehensive education. They have never seen a loved one die from a treatable illness, and have never had to wage war against a neighboring town for access to life-sustaining resources. Completely and entirely without qualification, they assert abject poverty enriches life rather than detracting from it, and, all the worse, that we should actually aspire to become poor ourselves.

I, for one, am happy for modern conveniences. I don’t have to worry about dying from tooth decay. I’m not overly concerned as to where I will find my next meal (the refrigerator is a good bet). If I need a drink of water, I know where to find the tap. That there are people still living without these comforts is not, as the creator of this picture presents, a tacit approval of the primitive life. We have to ask ourselves: if what few traditional tribes remaining today were not geographically or economically inhibited, would they choose modernity or traditionalism?

I’m not going to pretend I know the answer to that question, but what I do know is this: there are many such tribes who are presently reliant upon modern charities for even the most basic of human necessities, such as food, water, and clothing. Pretending tribal life to be a carefree utopia not only denies their basic humanity and the harshness of their lives, but denies that they are in any kind of need at all.

Poverty isn’t carefree. It isn’t pleasant. It isn’t noble, or romantic, or admirable. It is a ruthless mistress, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

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