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Saturday, September 2, 2023

Primitivism - Voodoo, Tribalism, And Shibboleths In Progressive America

One would think that in America, land of Jefferson, Hamilton, Locke, and the Enlightenment, that tribalism would be dead; but it is alive and well.  What else to call identity politics than totemism, a worship of signs and symbols; images and icons with innate spiritual power? 

Take the lionization of the black man.  Ironically ignoring his African tribal roots, progressives have made him into a cultural Odysseus, a man of legendary powers, intelligence, and insight far more able and promising than the white man.  He is not simply a captive of tribal war, enslaved first by his enemies then sold to Portuguese and English slavers; a man of a forest Stone Age culture bought and sold time and again and then put on the block by middlemen; but a native hero.  His skin is an ebony symbol of human excellence, his tribal origins as close to the Garden of Eden as man can come, his primitive sensibilities far more attuned to the essence of life than white superficiality.

To install the black man as the American, and to place him at the very top of the social and cultural pyramid, progressives have themselves become tribal.  They tear down statues and images of European men, presumed oppressors of the black man, tearing down shibboleths to slavery and white supremacy.  Images of progressives dancing around fallen statues, invoking primitive spirits with tribal chants and demanding blood illustrate a primitivism left long ago, one supposes, in the jungles of Dahomey.

This tribal primitivism is not restricted to race.  By creating new sexual icons, images of a strange, totemic variation of human nature, progressives have delved into black magic, invoking spirits that have lost their human form, that appear in the voodoo ceremonies of Haiti and Brazil, disappear and reemerge as hermaphroditic gods and goddesses. 

Climate change activists are no different from primitive societies praying for rain, sacrificing human victims to appease the gods, doing a danse macabre to defy the fiery death of an environmental Armageddon.

All this, of course is practiced in cultural mufti.  Progressives try to look sane. They resemble rationalists with only a trace of Utopianism.  Transcendentalism has poetic and historical license; but beneath the philosophical posture is an intellectual savagery that has its roots far from Oneida.  The roots of modern progressivism do not lie in Whitman, Thoreau, and social reformers like Gompers and Lafollette, but in the forests of Cameroon, the plateaus of ancient Mesoamerica, and the jungles of the Amazon.

Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness understood how the primitive has never been expunged from human nature.  Marlow is enticed by the primitive and even admits to responding atavistically to the spectacle of unchained nature.  The sight and sound of savage dancing, so much a part of its primeval setting, awakens in him the sense of his ‘remote kinship with that wild and passionate uproar. Marlow responds to the scene not as an idyll in the tradition of Rousseau, but precisely because of its sheer savagery.  In it he finds ‘truth stripped of its cloak of time – that is a truth which antedates the truth that civilization has brought about, and which is therefore tireless or permanent.

Marlow says:

I returned deliberately to the first [heads] I had seen—and there it was, black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids—a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole, and, with the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of the teeth, was smiling, too, smiling continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber…

I want you clearly to understand that there was nothing exactly profitable in these heads being there. They only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him—some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence.

‘The wilderness had found him out early’, said Marlow, reflecting on the impenetrable jungle closing in the river for miles. 

The smell of mud, of primeval mud, by Jove! was in my nostrils, the high stillness of primeval forest was before my eyes; there were shiny patches on the black creek. The moon had spread over everything a thin layer of silver—over the rank grass, over the mud, upon the wall of matted vegetation standing higher than the wall of a temple, over the great river I could see through a somber gap glittering, glittering, as it flowed broadly by without a murmur.


All this was great, expectant, mute… I wondered whether the stillness on the face of the immensity looking at [me] were meant as an appeal or as a menace. What were we who had strayed in here? Could we handle that dumb thing, or would it handle us? I felt how big, how confoundedly big, was that thing that couldn’t talk, and perhaps was deaf as well. What was in there? I could see a little ivory coming out from there, and I had heard Mr. Kurtz was in there.]

Perhaps in the most telling passage of all, Marlow reflects on the immanent primitivism in man, celebrated by Kurtz:

The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one.


They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend.

Most of all Marlow admires Kurtz’s unflinching look into his own heart of darkness.  He knows what he has done and feels no remorse.  He only feels the terrifying horror of realizing what all men are capable of.  Kurtz has never looked away, accepted his vision, and died with its horror on his lips.

So it is not surprising to see totemism, primitive idolatry, and irrational transformations in progressive culture.  A more secular, sociological description would be ‘true belief’, an innate, unexamined belief in one’s own righteousness.  Once one is convinced of such morally absolute beliefs, any action to promote them is logical and necessary; but such true belief is not far from illogical primitivism. The Zapotecs believed in the immanent divinity in the mountains around them, thunder and lightning, and the sun and moon.  Human sacrifice was an expression of absolute belief in and fear of the power of the gods.  There were no moral persuasions possible.  Nothing has changed.

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