Uncontacted tribes: Dispelling exoticized misconceptions

With the North Sentinelese uncontacted tribe being in the news recently because of the high-profile killing of the missionary who foolishly tried to go to the island, I feel as an anthropology student who knows a fair amount about “uncontacted” tribes that I should try to get rid of the mystique and the exoticism surrounding the label “uncontacted”.

The North Sentinelese are perfectly aware of the outside world. An anthropologist actually briefly was allowed on the island in the 1970s. They choose to be isolated from the outside world to maintain their traditional way of life. Furthermore, they are some of the most vulnerable populations on earth due to lack of exposure to viruses like influenza, and are threatened by complete demographic collapse if they are contacted again.

Amazonian uncontacted tribes in particular have had more contact than they desire with predatory loggers and cattle ranchers. Survival International states about the Akuntsu tribe that, “Just five Akuntsu survive. One of the men, Pupak, has lead shot still buried in his back, and mimes the gunmen who pursued him on horseback. He and his small band of survivors now live alone in a fragment of forest – all that remains of their land, and their people.” Pupak’s wound is a daily reminder to him of how the outside world is pressing in on “uncontacted” tribes more every day. Often times, we never hear the stories of Pupak or other members of tribes that were previously “uncontacted”, tribes like the Guayaki or Atchei-Gatu that Pierre Clastres so beautifully renders in his ethnography Chronicle of the Guayaki. 

Therefore, it is unfortunate that just when a story about an uncontacted tribe makes front page headlines, one witnesses the same exoticization and sensationalism being perpetrated by the American media. Take a look at the difference between these headlines, one by CNN and one by the BBC:

‘You guys might think I’m crazy’: Diary of US ‘missionary’ reveals last days in remote island

Andamans: US man’s death puts spotlight on ‘tribal tourism’

It is evident that the second headline from the BBC avoids the sensationalism of spotlighting the diary of the missionary and focuses on the meaning behind the death and the plight of the people who killed this man. For some reason, CNN feels compelled to emphasize the “remoteness” of the island and immediately puts the reader in the position of the white Western missionary rather than the uncontacted tribe. While tragic, this positionality is disturbed by the BBC headline and instead goes deeper than the isolated incident by framing the issue of the Andaman Islands, this tribe, and this killing within the perspective of exploitative “tribal tourism”. Tribal tourism is just one extension of the exoticization of this high-profile tribe that eventually led this man to feel the need to bring the Gospel of Jesus to these “heathens”. While one could analyze at length what this means for contemporary evangelical Christianity or its relation to the history of evangelizing indigenous tribes and colonialism, one should not forget the specifically 21st century nature of this problem and the role the media plays in perpetuating it. Exoticization of tribal people is now demonstrably a deadly thing, and outlets like CNN should be more careful with how they portray sensitive and serious subjects such as these. CNN may be 24/7 news outlet that covers entertainment stories and serious news stories, but they should not sacrifice good journalism for eye-catching headlines and lack of rigorous analysis. Unfortunately, this is par for the course for an outlet like CNN, which has been criticized for being, like Fox News, “infotainment”. All credit to the BBC for writing an excellent piece on this subject. The BBC highlights that the North Sentinelese are continually put at risk by high levels of tourism to the Andaman Islands, with over 500,000 visitors to the island per year, and meanwhile this death reveals an ongoing problem with loosening restricted permit laws for tourists on the Andaman Islands.

If you would like to learn more about uncontacted tribes, visit this link from the leading tribal rights organization in the world, Survival International. The leader of Survival International also released a statement about the Andaman Island killing, stating:

““Tribes like the Sentinelese face catastrophe unless their land is protected. I hope this tragedy acts as a wake up call to the Indian authorities to avert another disaster and properly protect the lands of both the Sentinelese, and the other Andaman tribes, from further invaders.”

Finally, one should read about the Jarawa tribe of the Andamans to understand what the North Sentinelese could become. The “human safaris” that plague the indigenous tribes of the Andamans that have stopped resisting contact have introduced more than just diseases. Rapes by tourists, poaching, and logging now all threaten the way of life of the Jarawa. Further, attempts by the Indian government to completely assimilate the tribe into “mainstream” society are underway. In conclusion, when one writes an article about the North Sentinelese without mention of the Jarawa, like CNN did but the BBC thankfully did not, you are complicit in the destruction of this tribe. Shame on you, CNN.

 

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There is no white genocide in South Africa

This article by CNN focuses on the group known as the Suidlanders, a South African far-right militia group that propagandizes about a coming “white genocide” of white South Africans. As the article demonstrates, the leader of the Suidlanders, Simon Roche, has connections with white supremacists groups and rallies in the US. That should be enough evidence for most people to not take the claims of the Suidlanders seriously, but Fox News and President Trump have been faithfully touting the Suidlander line. The narrative of white victimhood in South Africa has been successfully planted in the US, with global consequences for the spread of right-wing fearmongering and paranoia about minorities. Right-wing groups in South Africa claim that there is an epidemic of politically motivated killings of white farmers, while the statistically few farmers that were killed were killed because of crime alone.

The reason behind the claims of coming white genocide in South Africa is the ongoing changes in land policy in South Africa. The conflation of statistically low criminal murders of white farmers and the government expropriation of land in South Africa amounts to an alt-right conspiracy by the white minority. This conspiracy theory is being globally broadcast by white South Africans to maintain a hold on power after the fall of apartheid.

White South Africans make up just 9% of the total population of South Africa while owning 75% of commercial land. Therefore, the government has embarked on a program of expropriation and redistribution of land. This arguably socialist land policy only seeks to redress the previous ills of the apartheid system, in which land was forcibly expropriated from the masses and given to the ruling racial minority. This has always been the policy since the beginning of ANC rule, but the land reform has only increased in speed and scale. Furthermore, changes have been proposed to seek expropriation without compensation. Why is compensation no longer being pursued? The answer is as much bureaucratic as it is a matter of principle: compensating farmers for the land makes the process of land redistribution take an immense amount of time and costs the government money. Fiscal conservatives should be on board with this. However, they would rather see the economic sub-class of the vast black majority in South Africa to remain virtually colonized subjects.

However, the ideology that the Suidlanders maintain is that South Africa will “become like Zimbabwe”. This excellent article explores how mass shooter Dylan Roof was obsessed with the “white genocide” in Zimbabwe and the fall of white Rhodesia, one of the most oppressive colonial regimes in Africa. So what exactly happened in geographically proximate Zimbabwe? After the fall of Rhodesia, Robert Mugabe’s social democratic ZANU-PF party came to power on a platform of land reform. According to Wikipedia:

“Although many whites had left Zimbabwe after independence, mainly for neighbouring South Africa, those who remained continued to wield disproportionate control of some sectors of the economy, especially agriculture. In the late-1990s whites accounted for less than 1% of the population but owned 70% of arable land. Mugabe raised this issue of land ownership by white farmers. In a calculated move, he began forcible land redistribution, which brought the government into headlong conflict with the International Monetary Fund. Amid a severe drought in the region, the police and military were instructed not to stop the invasion of white-owned farms by the so-called ‘war veterans’ and youth militia. This has led to a mass migration of White Zimbabweans out of Zimbabwe. At present almost no arable land is in the possession of white farmers.” 

It is evident from the quote that the hard numbers of Zimbabwean land distribution were even starker than is the case in South Africa. Forcible expropriation or taking of land by the government did occur, but conflicts arose as a result of white farmers fighting back. There was an exodus of white people from Zimbabwe, and this is what the white farmers in South Africa really fear: not being killed, but being landless, which is ironically just what happened to black South Africans during apartheid. Furthermore, the ANC has gone out of its way to distance itself from the authoritarian tactics of Zimbabwe:

“Last week, David Mabuza, the country’s deputy president, looked to allay fears when he addressed the Land Summit in the northern Limpopo province. He said that no farms would be invaded or grabbed and that farmers did not have to fear for their well-being.

‘As the leadership of the ANC and government, we are clear that the implementation of land reform measures must not result in social fractures and racial polarisation,’ Mabuza said.”

The ANC is only fulfilling its mandate to end the effects of apartheid, which still linger on. Officially, legal apartheid ended, but economic apartheid, which is perhaps the most damaging legacy of the racial caste system, remained. The fact that historical apartheid is rarely mentioned in US conservative media when addressing this issue speaks to general lack of historical consciousness of the American people and the ease to which the right-wing media is able to perform propaganda tricks to its misinformed audience. It is also a worrying development in a time when the usual conservative propaganda only flirts with “demographic collapse” and fearmongering about minorities rather than embracing downright conspiracy theories. Fox News has seized on Venezuela as an example of why socialism doesn’t work. The Left should seize on Fox News’ and conservative media’s conspiracy theorizing about South Africa as a breakdown in intellectual discourse, the point where Alex Jones becomes indistinguishable from Fox News. In the Trump era, nothing seems to shock anymore. But the idea that the American people can forget the 1980s, the fall of apartheid, and Nelson Mandela and what he stood for I am not willing to accept. The narrative of white victimhood is now routinely trumpeted on conservative media, and is the slow cooking recipe for fascism. However, because of the changing demographic nature of the US, I am hopeful that some of the reactionary views of the white demographic in the US are the last gasps of a dying racist backlash.

There is now a global intersection of right-wing groups in the English speaking world. The Brexiters and UKIPites are talking with Trumpites. The Suidlanders are talking with UKIPers. To counter this growing anti-immigrant, far-right populism that is growing in Europe and elsewhere, we need a real Left alternative, one that offers real solutions to ordinary peoples problems, one that is staunchly anti-corruption, pro-democracy, and doesn’t sell out. This Left alternative is doing the proper thing in South Africa by attempting to address the everyday problems of black South Africans by fixing the systemic problem of the economic legacy of apartheid. This is something that should be celebrated, not decried- if you aren’t a racist.

Is the policy that South Africa is currently pursuing the right one? In terms of expropriating without compensation, I believe a possible compromise should occur in certain circumstances in terms of small commercial farms. However, paying the full value of the land is usually not possible because of price inflation, and meanwhile the  people of South Africa remain economically deprived. According to Al Jazeera, “more than 60 percent of South Africans now live in urban areas, and the struggle over land is no longer a question of resolving historical dispossession but a matter of inclusion in the country’s economy.” 11% of these urban households are “informal settlements”- in other words slums. There are real concerns about this land reform policy will be implemented, such as how beneficiaries of this new policy will be selected. But a simple look at the economic figures- 30% black unemployment in South Africa compared to 6.7% for whites, for example- makes clear the necessity for land reform. Unfortunately, a simple look at the economic figures is deliberately not in the game plan for Fox News and other alt-right media. So remember, if you ever encounter the “white genocide in South Africa” talking points, remember apartheid, and remember the slums of Johannesburg.

Finally, watch this video by Tucker Carlson to understand the scary effectiveness of right-wing on this subject. Notice how the bulk of their claims are built off of lack of statistics, lack of any context about apartheid and its real material consequences, and out of context video footage of a certain radical politician in South Africa who evidently uses anti-white rhetoric. The fact that Tucker Carlson, a person I believe genuinely believes what he believes, can’t contextualize those feelings and rhetoric in the context of the brutal history of apartheid is stunning. What is most worrying of all the synchronicity of the conservative media and the US state department and President. Fox News is now effectively the mouthpiece of the President and faithfully repeats their line.

 

 

A defense of skepticism

 

As an anthropologist, I am usually a proponent of respect for “non-Western worldviews” (whatever that means). However, I noticed something problematic in the comments section of this video by the channel Genetically Modified Skeptic. This video is a deconstruction of the Gaia channel/streaming platform, which is purportedly a channel devoted to alternative medicine and paranormal subjects, but Genetically Modified Skeptic claims it is a essentially a scam. I believe he is correct, and I believe that Gaia is promoting pseudoscience.

However, in the comments section of this video, the argument that this channel is simply “counteracting scientism, which is a new religion”, trying to counterbalance Western rationalism, and promoting non-Western worldviews was prevalent. I saw almost verbatim all of these arguments being employed. I argue that there is a significant difference between counterbalancing rationalism and the Western dualistic extreme of irrationalism, and that categories such as this are a product of the Western mind and its long philosophical history of the Enlightenment vs. Romanticism, reason vs. passion, etc. Spirituality as it is understood by the purveyors of New Age spirituality and New Age pseudoscience is fundamentally different from non-Western worldviews. Furthermore, the Marxist argument of religion as false consciousness can be legitimately employed in this regard, if one takes into account the full and original purview of Marxian thought on religion.

Philosopher Slavoj Zizek talks about how leftists and legitimate intellectuals should distance themselves from the fundamentally irrationalist ideas currently in vogue among some of the “politically correct” Left. Among this crowd, the ideas of postmodernism and deconstruction have been hijacked to advocate for a kind of ecological New Age spiritualism. Funnily enough, the essence of this problematic is found in the “Gaia hypothesis”, a theory proposed by chemist James Lovelock, in which the Earth can be considered a self-regulating biological “organism”. This theory has been co-opted by advocates of New Age spirituality who interpret the hypothesis as a neo-Pagan religion. Furthermore, from a theoretical and scientific point of view, the theory has flaws. One example of a flaw in this theory is that as a self-regulating system, the earth should seemingly be able to adapt to climate change. On a purely semantic level, calling this theory the “Gaia hypothesis” opens up a Pandora’s Box of anthropomorphization and attributions of sentience to entities that do not have any. Zizek goes on to argue that the Gaia hypothesis fits within the capitalist ideological framework of environmentalism as an essentially individual problem: we must “get back to nature” rather than looking structurally at the concrete environmental struggles and policies that shape the planet. Rather than looking at the planet as simply an ecosystem, the Gaia hypothesis stretches this hypothesis and essentializes the concept of ecosystem as inherently stable and permanent, instead of fragile and vulnerable. Viewing Earth as the “providing Mother”, while it has deep roots in ancient religions across the world, is no longer tenable in the Anthropocene, in which human-induced climate change can change the very dynamics that have structured the earth on geological time scales.

The Gaia platform obviously embraces this double-edged sword of a concept. But the concept is not without its merits on a purely formal level: seeing things as interconnected is not wrong. However, the manner in which they are interconnected is ignored in favor of a holistic, largely “essentialist” spiritual worldview. Rather than seeing those interconnections as a potential problem (like the cascading effects of climate change), interconnection has become the buzzword of the New Age movement.

Genetically Modified Skeptic does a good job of summarizing what Gaia is all about, so I won’t repeat his assessment. Rather, I’d like to focus in on why Gaia is not promoting “non-Western worldviews”, but rather cultural appropriations of non-Western worldviews jumbled together with scientific claims that are untenable.

One of Gaia’s video categories on their streaming service is “yoga”. What hasn’t been said before about the cultural appropriation of yoga by white, Western liberals? I’ll try my best to summarize. Essentially, yoga became popular during the 1960s during the counterculture movement as more people began to explore Eastern spirituality. Because these Americans were “open-minded people”, they did not want to adhere to the strict traditions of a particular system, but rather saw yoga as a “consciousness-expanding tool”. The downside of this worldview is that what made yoga effective in the first place, as a system of meaning within a larger cultural framework, dissolved in favor of yoga as either a general spiritual “healing technique” or a purely physical exercise. Sure, the buzzwords about “enlightenment” and “opening the soul” remains, but not in its original forms. One could argue that yoga never really “worked” in this regard, but the fact remains that the proper respect to the original traditions that practiced yoga (Hinduism and Buddhism) was not given. Furthermore, the idea of practicing yoga as a person who is not a devotee of these original faiths is as alien as taking the eucharist without being a Catholic, or wearing a yarmulke without being Jewish as a fashion statement. It is basically a statement of personal choice, a hobby rather than a spiritual commitment.

Gaia enthusiasts may vehemently disagree with me when I say that they do not practice as a spiritual commitment, or may argue that they are free to practice yoga as they please, and that yoga is not the explicit property of Hindus or Buddhists. However, I argue that they are not practicing yoga at all, but rather a distorted version of it. Furthermore, I argue, at least within the confines of Tantric Buddhism, that yoga was never meant to be general practice among the general populous, but it was designed as an esoteric practice only for the most advanced adepts and solitary hermits. There is a reason for this: the original practice of yoga involves practices such as doing 100,000 prostrations, not putting your leg over your head. Yoga in its secular form has become an interesting form of exercise, but that is not the original meaning of the word yoga.

Furthermore, while modern yogis and yoga enthusiasts may claim they are combining their spiritual practice into their practice of yoga, and employ some of the same terminology including chakra, without the context of chakra within a larger Tantric worldview, which involves either devotion to a specific god in the Hindu tradition, or the realization of the body as a Buddha body in the Buddhist tradition, the word chakra and the positions of the wheels in the body is virtually meaningless. There is no heart chakra, no real physical heart chakra. It is metaphor for spiritual realization: this is evident enough in Buddhist texts. Some New Age yogic practitioners seem to think that there is some sort of real essential thing called a heart chakra, as the also believe in a real thing called the Self. This is why New Age yoga tends to veer toward the Hindu tradition: but I digress.

From this example, it is evident that New Age spirituality is categorically different from “non-Western worldviews”. There are certain patterns of thought of a Western mind are so deeply embedded that something akin to a “subconscious cultural divide” exists between Western and non-Western cultures. Even when a Western mind seeks to consciously overcome these patterns of thought, the Western cannot help but systematize, analyze, and apply rational systems to what are essentially folkloric and customary habits. I argue that it is hard for the Western mind to understand the philosophical niceties and metaphors that surround the Eastern philosophical mindset. Spirituality among Westerners has always been literal: Gods really exist, spirits are real and tangible if they want to be. From my ethnographic experience, culturally Buddhist people from Asian countries do not experience belief in the same way. Rather, a pragmatic attitude prevails about spirituality: if it works, I believe it. Therefore, there are practices related to spirits, demons, etc. but they are practical endeavors made to appease rather ill-defined malevolent beings to ensure a practical purpose: a good harvest, etc. This is the way it has always been for many traditional societies. The Western rationalist cannot help but make these organic, living breathing traditions into stale, systematized concrete ideas. For instance, the idea of a “guardian spirit” in a tree or forest prevalent among animist societies is intimately connected, as Roy Rappaport and Darrel Posey argue, to concrete traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and specific knowledge about certain environments and cycles. Rather than a vague, holistic idea of “being connected to nature” (a product of real alienation from nature), traditional societies experience being connected to nature as a pragmatic, real, and everyday reality. Knowing the cycles of the seasons is experienced directly, as a part of their practical means of subsistence, as well as their larger epistemological and cosmological framework. However, the Western project and process of abstraction of these experienced cosmologies reifies these belief systems into terms like “animism”. Therefore, the project of “neo-Paganism” “neo-animism” is in vain, because the material substrate in which these belief systems were embedded is gone.

In conclusion, New Age spirituality is a product of the alienated Western consciousness, and in many ways can be interpreted as a product of capitalism and a longing for wholeness that is not essential to the human mind. As hard as it is to swallow, the “search for meaning” that drives Western people living in industrialized countries to seek answers to philosophical questions is not a cultural universal. Where I believe this skeptic channel could adapt their argument is viewing these people not as inherently biologically “insane”, but as the product of complex cultural and historical dynamics that have been given many names: the “Death of God”, the great disenchantment, or more concretely, the rise of feelings of nihilism driven by sociological ills in capitalist society.