The Culture Cult. Designer Tribalism and Other Essays. (Book Reviews/Comptes Rendus)

Article excerpt

Sandall, Roger. The Culture Cult. Designer Tribalism and Other Essays. Boulder: Westview Press, 2001, 214 pp.

This is a book which is at times polemical, entertaining and insightful, at others superficial, simplistic and frustrating. The very structure of the book is somewhat confusing: the subtitle suggests a collection of essays (whose connection is indeed at times tenuous), but the book is arranged as a continuous sequence of parts and chapters which suggest a coherent argument.

Sandall, prior to his retirement an anthropologist at the University of Sydney, Australia, criticizes what he sees as the "romantic primitivism" in anthropology and other social sciences which conjures up images of "traditional" or "ethnic" cultures that are often deliberately simplified and carefully cleansed of all negative characteristics. Designer tribalism contends that all cultures stand on the same plane. Traditional cultures are not only not inferior but offer valuable lessons for modern society: their communal ways, egalitarian social structures, and harmony with the environment are presented as solutions for modern social and environmental ills.

Sandall responds with an unqualified defence of modernity. Many traditional societies are in fact inferior. Communal life and egalitarian structures are more often than not developmental dead ends. The history of many early societies is a history of tyranny, violence and environmental devastation. In Sandall's words "the garden of human cultures contains as many stink-lilies as violets, strangling vines as primroses, sick societies as those with rosy cheeks -- and too many problems in the modern world come from sentimentally denying this fact." The benign image of traditional societies promoted by the "culture cult" is in fact a synthetic mix of genuine and invented fictionalized pasts, used by aboriginal ideologues and their non-native allies for political expediency and personal gain. What is worse, political decisions based on such "culturally justified false beliefs" condemn contemporary native cultures to economic and social stagnation. The pre-1970s policies of trying to help them overcome their backwar dness through "creative destruction" have given way to policies which maintain "indigenous identity" through psychological and moral "reconciliation" which does little more than "rejig the public mind, ask leading political figures to adopt a contrite demeanor and apologize for the sins of history." This may have considerable political appeal, but is often counterproductive: Sandall argues that Australian aborigines who have assimilated have made impressive gains, while those who were the "victims of anti-assimilationist policies embraced and promoted by idealistic middle-class whites in the south" have seen their literacy levels fall, experienced deteriorating health, and have suffered from administrative waste and corruption. The handover of education, policing and health care to "native self-administration" has merely assured that development has passed them, a fact that is covered up by the mandatory silence imposed by political correctness: "no one dares say a thing."

Sandal maintains that there is a "big ditch," a threshold of modernity which must be crossed if backward societies are to catch up with the three principal achievements of modern society: a democratic political system, an independent judiciary, and a market economy. Democracy was discovered in early Greece. It was strengthened by the gradual emergence of an independent legal system and market capitalism in Europe and America and then spread around the globe. These changes represent a "universal adaptive process," and are a fundamental prerequisite for social and economic progress.

Sandall traces the intellectual origins of the "culture cult" to Rousseau's "noble savage" and Herder's view that each culture is "of literally inestimable value in its own society, and consequently to humanity as a whole. …