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Monday, June 27, 2011

"'Only connect', was the whole of his sermon" --E.M. Forster

It's not often I use video in this blog other than for purposes of ornament. This video is the entire subject of this entry. I present it here without comment, and look forward to reader reactions.

I'll give it a week, then write my responses below.



Okay, so it's been more than a week. What do you want at these prices?

Most responses so far (from Facebook) have tended to focus on an assumption of the tragic loss of an innocent, Edenic state of being. I do not know for certain that that happened in this instance, but the history of such encounters would suggest you can bet the rent that this tribe did not remain isolated.

The myth of a golden age, where indigenous cultures flourished untouched by any outside (thus necessarily corrupting) influence, is one of those common-sense human presumptions that crumbles under examination. There never was such a time or such a culture. Movement, contact, and assimilation have been the constants in all human history, unless you assume that indigenous tribes grew up out of the ground like indigenous plant life.

The DNA record clearly shows common ancestry in sub-saharan Africa, movement up the fertile valleys into Europe and Asia, and then branching and splitting separating, until the tribal journey began to fold back on itself and certain human relatives, separated since time out of mind, encountered one another for the first time in their experience. At which point they either cooperated, negotiated or fought for dominance.

There is hardly one square kilometer or habitable or arable or grazable land on the planet that has not been acquired, conquered, inherited, or brokered as a result of such encounters. The isolation tribes like the one in the film find themselves in, is as a result of following herds or food-gathering or fight and flight. They are far and away the exception.

However, just because history has always been thus is no excuse for not trying to come up with better ways of managing such encounters. Because, for me, the real issue in the film is power. The Europeans have it (in the form of knowledge, technology, and resources), and the tribe does not (apart from perhaps a better knowledge of the immediate area). It is thus the Europeans who have the greater leverage in mystifying and controlling the tribe, and thus in a far better position to determine the outcome of the exchange.

What helps this seem normal, natural, and right is that we buy into the infantilization of the tribe by ascribing the romantic 'noble savage' status to them. By assuming they want to be and should be left alone, that this is what is best for them. So, I imagine, is typhus, which is natural in that part of the world. Which is NOT to say that we have a right to 'civilize them' for their own good. However, given the massive power imbalance at work, it is the Europeans who are in better position to consider carefully what the best course of action might be, given the inevitability of human contact, the utter impossibility of utter isolation forever. Noblesse oblige...emphasis on the latter term.

Witness how white Europeans managed the encounter with the indigenous Australians and you get a good idea of how NOT to exercise power. In a landmark announcement today, the City of Sydney finally called a spade a shovel, and finally called for the phrase 'white settlement' to be replaced by the more accurate term 'invasion'.

That this has taken over two hundred years to be uttered (and not without the predictable apoplexy among of those privileged by the invasion), is as deeply dispiriting as anything I can think of, but at least it's a step in the right direction. The past cannot be undone of course, but the scenario played out in the film will continue to be played out in the developing world, perhaps in far less picturesquely romantic circumstances, among those without power or agency in negotiations that will determine their futures and the futures of their offspring for centuries.

Compassionately ascribing full dignity and agency to the socially marginalised, the dispossessed, and the powerless, was the ministry of one Yeshuah bin-Yoseph, otherwise called Jesus. That was 2000 years ago, and how's that working out for ya?

Let's hope that if we are contacted by an alien race, they will have evolved beyond our practices. Otherwise, we're screwed.


  1. Amazing video. Isn't there a protocol for first contact situations? I hope the film-makers were abiding by it. It was fascinating to see their reactions to the mirror. And lovely to see the way the people in the encounter managed to communicate without words.

    I hope that the tribe is not in danger from logging or other commercial interests, or having their culture destroyed by missionaries, or any of the other things hitherto uncontacted tribes are prey to.

  2. I thought it very moving, but like you I worried about the ethics of the situation.The white people seemed to be producing magic tricks to impress the natives and I'm sure white rice wouldn't do them any good at all.At least I think it was rice tho from one guys reaction it could have been cocaine or sugar : -)They were being offered a lot of stuff they didn't know they needed and didn't.