Thursday, May 26, 2016

Coming Up Trump


Followers of this blog will have noticed, and probably understand why, I feel silent on the current US presiential race about the time it became a lead pipe cinch that Donald Trump was going to be the Republican nominee.

Trump was not my first choice. Nor second, nor third, nor fifth, nor seventh.

Nvertheless, I can see no good in the current drive to launch a third party campaign. Republican voters have already had a wide range of candidates to chnesoose from. It was the best crop of candidates in my lifetime. Nevertheless, they chose Trump. There is just not another figure out there in the wings who is going to do better against him than they did.

Ergo, all the candidacy would, if it did anthing, to throw the election to Clinton and the Democrats. If that's what you want to accomplish, why not just vote for her and have done with it?

The choice, like it or not, is between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Now, let's assume they are equally bad. If so, my vote still goes to Trump. If you are stuck with rascals, there is still something to be sai for throwing the current rascals out, and replacing them with a new batch of rascals. It takes time for any new batch of rascals to get familiar with the levers of power; and rascality in two different directions can sometimes cancel out.

But we cannot know that they are equally bad. Clinton has a track record. We know she would be awful. Trump has no track record. We cannot know the same of him. Given the choice between a leap in the dark and leap to certain death, make mine darkness.

And we can all do the math. Unless he is prepared to stage some kind of coup, Trump, like any president, will be very much constrained by Congress. In his case, whether that is a Democratic congress or a Republican congress, there will be huge areas of disagreement. This might, almost regardless of the actual disagreements, be a more desirable situation than the norm. Even here, the rascals will be using much energy fighting each other, instead of working together in silence to pick constituent pockets bare. At least we'll have a better chance of seeing and hearing what is going on.

The suspicion among the public for some time has been that the guys in Washington are chummier with one another, regardless of party, than they are with the electorate. The situation is similar to that in Canada during and after the Charlottetown Accord. 

A logrolling elite divided against itself cannot stand.


Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Considering Seagulls






Matthew 6:26

Sick of tragedy, I went to the beach
To consider seagulls.
There is something in the gull of bladder and comb;
Something of tumbling.

For he, given a big wind, does not struggle
But spreadeagles suffering Jesus and in bliss
Rides motionless over the moving world
Impossibly suspended.

No fall fatal, he
Folds wings and drops sheer,
A sudden dead thing, swallowed by waters,
Then rises, moments later,
Swallowing fish.

And when in present trouble, he
Gull-wings and approaches torment not head-on,
But weirdly, in parabolic dance,
Confounding calculation.

And so I consider the seagull in the vault of daybreak as,
With eyes half-full of the dignity of a sad-faced clown
He scolds me and he eats my bread-crumb alms.

-- Stephen K. Roney


The Original Affluent Society



Death of Minnehaha: The Romantic Indian

It ought to be a no-brainer.

I don't know about you, but to my mind, this Noble Savage fellow has long outstayed his welcome. Believing him to be a real person is beginning to look positively looney. But in fact, we are not free of him yet. Not only did he practice perfect sexual equality, while at the same time paradoxically allowing feminine dominance in all things; not only did he body forth the beautiful communist ideal; not only did he live in perfect peace with his neighbour, wanting only friendship and love. And not only did he get lots of hot, steamy love on demand. He also, apparently, was far richer than we, “the original affluent society,” to use the term popular in anthropology. And, unlike us, he got his material needs with little actual labour. None of this depressing nonsense about earning your living by the sweat of your brow. Remember, after all, this was Eden.

Surely, one might think, if one is prone to such activities, the average aboriginal is a lot better off with central heating, a no-leak roof over his head, perhaps a wide-screen TV, a refrigerator, a microwave, perhaps an iPod, a car, and such mod cons, than he once was living in skin tents, using stone tools, and wandering with the buffalo.

But no—it seems we modern miscreants have impoverished him.

According to Jared Diamond, he of Guns, Germs, and Steel, settled agriculture was, to use the title of a celebrated 1987 article he wrote for Discovery magazine, “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.” That's no small claim.

“Archaeologists studying the rise of farming,” Diamond explains, “have reconstructed a crucial stage at which we made the worst mistake in human history. Forced to choose between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny.” Okay—we know this script. There are too many people. Apparently, people are a bad thing. Good thing we don't know any personally.

“[R]ecent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence” (“The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” Discovery Magazine, May, 1987).

Sounds a whole lot like the same old story of Mr. Noble Savage, Marxist-feminist edition. Agriculture it seems brought sexual inequality, despotism, starvation, and warfare. Probably bad teeth too. But the new claim, and the living nub of Diamond's argument, is this: before agriculture, man was able to satisfy his wants with very little actual work. “[T]he average time devoted each week to obtaining food,” Diamond says, “is only 12 to 19 hours for one group of Bushmen, 14 hours or less for the Hadza nomads of Tanzania” (ibid). And if that were not enough, it seems the items on the modern menu, although more costly, are worse for our health: “At Dickson Mounds, located near the confluence of the Spoon and Illinois rivers, archaeologists have excavated some 800 skeletons that paint a picture of the health changes that occurred when a hunter-gatherer culture gave way to intensive maize farming around A. D. 1150. Studies by George Armelagos and his colleagues then at the University of Massachusetts show these early farmers paid a price for their new-found livelihood. Compared to the hunter-gatherers who preceded them, the farmers had a nearly 50 per cent increase in enamel defects indicative of malnutrition, a fourfold increase in iron-deficiency anemia (evidenced by a bone condition called porotic hyperostosis), a theefold rise in bone lesions reflecting infectious disease in general, and an increase in degenerative conditions of the spine, probably reflecting a lot of hard physical labor. 'Life expectancy at birth in the pre-agricultural community was about twenty-six years,' says Armelagos, 'but in the post-agricultural community it was nineteen years'” (Diamond, op. cit.).

Bruegel, The Harvesters
What a pack of fools our ancestors must have been. Imagine giving it all up for a mess of potage.

But how can nutrition be better for scavengers than for farmers? Isn't scavenging a bit iffy, like dumpster diving?

Diamond expands upon the point. “First, hunter-gatherers enjoyed a varied diet, while early farmers obtained most of their food from one or a few starchy crops. The farmers gained cheap calories at the cost of poor nutrition. ... Second, because of dependence on a limited number of crops, farmers ran the risk of starvation if one crop failed” (ibid.).

This thesis is not new with Diamond, writing in the late Eighties. Any guesses when it actually emerged?

Would “1960s” surprise you? 

That was when the original studies of the Hazda and other foraging groups were undertaken. This is when the watershed “Man the Hunter” conference was held, in 1966, just in time for the summer of love. At which, it seems, the entire field of anthropology wheeled around at once to the premise that primitive man had it better than we do.

Bushmen, Bushwomen, and Bushbabies.

The times, of course, were a'changing. Civilization in general meant to those of us there at that time eternal war and slow radiation death from the atom bomb. And even aside from a certain age of man, anthropologists in particular might be expected to be especially receptive to this Noble Savage message. They have given their life to the study of foraging societies. Why would they do this, if they did not hope or want to believe that such societies had something of value to tell us? Argue that primitive societies knew something of vital importance that we do not know, and suddenly it is a glorious thing to be an anthropologist.

And so, the Noble Savage's Affluent Society premise came to be, says David Kaplan, “widely accepted by anthropologists”; the “enlightened anthropological view” (“The Darker Side of the 'Original Affluent Society'” Journal of Anthropological Research, 56:3, Autumn, 2000, p. 301, 303). It has been ever since. Don't just ask Jared Diamond. Only last year, 2015, Yuval Harari summed it up in his best-seller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. “Rather than heralding a new era of easy living,” Harari writes, “the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. . . The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.”

Right. Got it. Let's look at the claims in turn.

First, as we have already heard from Engels and the Marxists, agriculture caused class divisions, and the birth of tyranny and social oppression. As Diamond puts it, “Besides malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic diseases, farming helped bring another curse upon humanity: deep class divisions. Hunter-gatherers have little or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources, like an orchard or a herd of cows: they live off the wild plants and animals they obtain each day. Therefore, there can be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others. Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing elite set itself above the disease-ridden masses” (ibid).

There is an immediate logical flaw apparent here. If only with agriculture was there enough excess food for anyone to devote their time to anything besides agriculture, how can it concurrently be true that people had more food, and acquired it more easily, before agriculture? Secondly, Diamond's thesis that those not producing food are “parasites” itself requires a pretty distinctly Marxist understanding of the world. Who's to say those folks too were not providing value from their work? Is food production the only thing of value to mankind? Is there nothing to be said for the existence, say, of some sort of government, to protect one's rights and goods from one's neighbour, or the tribe over the next hill? Would paying some to govern be so terrible? Not to mention underwriting the trades: milling, tailoring, pottery, storage, cartage, that sort of thing. Better off without them?

It takes a Marxist to see the mere division of labour as oppression.

Second, as we have already seen from Gage, Friedan, Steinem, and the girls, old Noble Savage was a ladies' man. In primitive society, as is only just, women got everything they wanted. Diamond notes, as a supposed contrast, that primitive New Guinea agriculturalists require their women to do all the heavy labour. “Women in agricultural societies were sometimes made beasts of burden. In New Guinea farming communities today I often see women staggering under loads of vegetables and firewood while the men walk empty-handed” (ibid.).

Yali people of New Guinea

Of course, here Diamond contradicts Engels, who saw women doing all the work as irrelevant to their supposed emancipation. But let's leave that aside. Is what he says even true of agricultural society? Diamond offers no control. Let us grant, against Engels, as seems obvious, that the lot of women in primitive New Guinea agricultural societies is worse than that of Canadian women today. But the proper comparison is with women in hunter-gatherer societies, not modern post-industrial women, and Diamond offers no examples of this.

As it happens, we have a few. We find that the observations of the early Jesuits conform exactly to Diamond's--in describing practices among Canadian Indians. Here, too, women did all the heavy labour.

The problem is, these were hunter-gatherers, not farmers.

Accordingly, quite obviously, the oppression of women was not because of agriculture. Why would it be? Women's lot improved with agriculture, even if this took a little time. Women doing hard labour was more probably due to the constant warfare and petty banditry one is going to get without effective government. The men, being stronger, always needed their arms free in case of surprise attack.

Now we get down to what is truly novel about this anthropological argument: primitive society was materially better off. At least if you think only in terms of food.

Diamond makes much of the variety of available food sources: “It's almost inconceivable that Bushmen, who eat 75 or so wild plants, could die of starvation the way hundreds of thousands of Irish farmers and their families did during the potato famine of the 1840s” (ibid.) “[B]ecause of dependence on a limited number of crops, farmers ran the risk of starvation if one crop failed” (ibid).

But wait a nanosecond. Early foragers may well have had more food sources than 19th century Hibernian pastoralists. But there does not seem to be anything making this limited variety a necessary feature of agriculture. A farmer might just as easily keep a vegetable garden, cows, and chickens for eggs. What farmer, left unregulated, doesn't? Nothing even prevents him from, in a pinch, shooting a passing wild duck. He has, in effect, the hunter's food sources, plus his own. Hard to see how the additional food sources are a minus.

An Gorta Mor (Potato Famine) Memorial, Dublin

He does not need to, and a wise farmer does not, put all his land into a single crop, or even just a few. That's not even good for the land.

In the case of the Irish, the problem was political, not practical. The native Irish were permitted to farm only tiny plots of land, too small to sustain their families with anything but potatoes. Their crops were effectively limited by government regulation; any other crops were exported.

Nor is it obvious that there is such a great diversity of food sources available in, say, a Canadian prairie winter. Here, the sedentary farmer has a definite advantage. Not needing to wander, he can store the harvest for the fallow months. A forager must follow the food sources, and cannot keep anything in reserve. If by chance there is no game today, he does not eat.

Ouside of Loblaw's, no great variety of foods is available in a Canadian winter. No fruit grows, no green shows. It's meat or nothing. Even most animals are in hibernation.

The notion that primitive societies were “affluent,” absurd on its face, is made possible by the corollary that, like good Buddhists, in a “zen” way, “they limited their wants.” So they were affluent strictly in the sense of achieving subsistence with relatively little work.

One can see the mark of the Sixties here. Out of the rat race, no nine-to-five job, no materialist hangups, living off the land, lots of free time for recreational drug use. Wish, meet fulfillment.

And it is actually true enough. Primitive tribesmen are not as busy as we aging former yuppies are. If not to the extent Diamond would have us believe. The Sixties studies show that Kalahari Bushmen had a “work week . . . of 2.4 days per adult,” (Lee, The !Kung San. Men, Women, and Work in a Foraging Society, 1979, pp. 250-280). Aborigines in Arnhem Land were clocked in at 15-20 hours per week (Kaplan, op cit., p. 303). Looking at all such studies, Sahlins (1972:34), choosing his words carefully, concluded that “Reports on hunters and gatherers of the ethnological present--specifically on those in marginal environments--suggest a mean of three to five hours per adult worker per day in food production'” (Kaplan, op. cit., p. 303).

Traditional food of Australian aborigines.

Okay; that sounds pretty good. Almost like a governmnent job. But note, what is being measured is food production alone. Going out and hunting down a plump gazelle or picking mongongo nuts might take less time than accountancy, but it might involve a bit of food preparation as well, more than you need if you seize your food at the local Loblaw's in exchange for bits of paper and tiny pieces of shiny metal. When you add in butchering, peeling, processing, cooking on outdoor fires without the aid of a microwave, plus the maintenance of hunting tools, plus the commute to the hunting grounds, “the total work week for the bushmen on the lowest of estimates,” says Kaplan, “turns out to be between 6 and 7 eight-hour days (not counting child care)” (Kaplan, op. cit.).

The scavengers may still have the better deal. It is tough to get a fair comparison, because it is actually arbitrary what one includes in “work.” The average Hottentot does not punch a time clock. Travel time? Child care? Shopping? Washing the dishes? Business lunches? Meetings with the boss, or fellow villagers? By one attempted estimate, Kaplan to the contrary, Kalahari residents spend 44.5 hours a week at their “job,” if male, 40 hours if female. But a mainstream Canadian male spends, by the same rough measure, 40 hours at paid work, and then another 40 weekly taking care of business that must be taken care of without being in his job description (Kaplan, op. cit., p. 308). Advantage, still, to the Indians and aborigines. Just not as much advantage as might appear at first.

But now let's consider another factor. Granted that primitive tribes are able to fill their large intestines with less work. But isn't there something to be said for the quality of the food this labour produces? Wouldn't many of us prefer to work a little harder to pay for the food we like, say, pesto, as opposed to mac and cheese?

Hunters and gatherers cannot have the choices we do. If it is a porcupine we find on today's hunt, it is porcupine for supper. And lunch. And breakfast.

Fortunately, they come with toothpicks.

During the survey of foraging practices among the aborigines of Arnhem Land, anthropologists came upon a bit of a problem. The locals actually had access to charity food from mission stations. They could get flour, rice and sugar. And usually did. In order not to falsify their data, the anthropologists had to go to some lengths to convince the natives to abstain from these preferred foods for the course of the experiment. By the fifth day, tired of the “traditional” diet, a significant proportion of the men wanted to drop out (Kaplan, op. cit., p. 306).

Arnhem Land, north Australia: lush, tropical and full of mission stations distributing food.

Sometimes spare time is not worth the effort.

Kaplan at least hints at the issue: “In 1980 the nut crop was a good one, but Wilmsen indicates that it was barely touched because most people [Bushmen] preferred maize meal. Hitchcock and Ebert ... also note that there are foragers in the Nata region of the Kalahari who have access to mongongos but choose not to exploit them in any quantity, presumably because they 'do not taste good'" (Kaplan, op. cit.).

Here, as it happens, we may also have an explanation of the better nutrition among hunter-gatherers than among early agriculturalists, as revealed by their skeletal remains.

Foragers may have a varied diet. Of necessity. But farmers have a choice as to what to eat. Given choices, people do not always make the best ones. Ask Adam and Eve.

People invariably prefer some foods to others. Some dislike spinach, some cannot stand olives. I can't get my fourteen-year-old boy, for example, to ever vary from macaroni for supper.

People will usually, given the choice, eat what they prefer. That will probably end up limiting their diet. Early farmers would have known little about good nutrition. They just knew what they liked.

Probable result: an overall decline in health. Not from scarcity, but from abundance.

The next issue is this, and we have already at least hinted at it: although food may have taken little time to acquire, was there always food to be had?

In fact, nothing was more obvious to early visitors to these shores than the extreme material poverty of the Indians. Father Bressani speaks of “this almost unexampled poverty” (Jesuit Relations 39, p. 246). Bressani was a seventeenth-century Italian. Keep in mind, when you read such observations, that peasant life in the Italian countryside in the seventeenth century was not itself all skittles and Chianti.

Wigwams, Quebec

Father LeJeune speaks of the state of Indian shelter. Apparently, there were no wide-screen TVs. “If you go to visit them in their cabins, ... you will find there a miniature picture of Hell, — seeing nothing, ordinarily, but fire and smoke, and on every side naked bodies, black and half roasted, mingled pell mell with the dogs, which are held as dear as the children of the house, and share the beds, plates, and food of their masters. Everything is in a cloud of dust, and, if you go within, you will not reach the end of the cabin before you are completely befouled with soot, filth, and dirt” (Jesuit Relations 17, p. 13).

Fleas were an endemic problem, commented upon by every observer. Champlain laments, of life among the Micmac, “They have a great many fleas in summer, even in the fields. One day as we went out walking, we were beset by so many of them that we were obliged to change our clothes” (Champlain, Voyages 1, Ch. 14). Lie down with dogs, and you get up with fleas.

And now we come to the food. The Hurons had it better than most. “A little Indian corn boiled in water, and for the better fare of the country a little fish, rank with internal rottenness, or some powdered dried fish as the only seasoning, — this is the usual food and drink of the country; as something extra, a little bread made of their corn, baked under the cinders, without any leaven, in which they sometimes mix some beans or wild fruits; this is one of the great dainties of the country. Fresh fish and game are articles so rare that they are not worth mentioning” (Father LeJeune, Jesuit Relations 17, p. 15).

But these were early semi-agriculturalists. It was worse for the wandering hunting tribes. “The roving Barbarians, before knowing the French, lived solely by hunting or fishing, and, through necessity, fasted more than half the year—… frequently lacking the means of preserving game or fish a long time, when these abounded, as they had no salt; while the smoke which they used in place of salt, was not adequate for preserving provisions a long time; whence they frequently died of hunger, or sometimes inflicted death out of pity” (Father Bressani, Jesuit Relations 39, p. 243).

Among these Indians, Bressani writes, hunger is a near-constant companion. And Champlain witnesses the same: “These people suffer so much from lack of food that they are sometimes obliged to live on certain shell-fish, and eat their dogs and the skins with which they clothe themselves against the cold” (Champlain, Voyages 2, Ch. 4).

The Romantic Indian: Portuguese/Brazilian "Indianism" painting


Champlain reports an encounter with the Innu one winter, when Quebec had just been founded.

“On the 20th, some Indians appeared on the other side of the river, calling to us to go to their assistance, which was beyond our power, on account of the large amount of ice drifting in the river. Hunger pressed upon these poor wretches so severely that, not knowing what to do, they resolved, men, women, and children, to cross the river or die, hoping that I should assist them in their extreme want. Having accordingly made this resolve, the men and women took the children and embarked in their canoes,… we heard them crying out so that it excited intense pity, as before them there seemed nothing but death. ... [T]hey reached the shore with as much delight as they ever experienced, notwithstanding the great hunger from which they were suffering. They proceeded to our abode, so thin and haggard that they seemed like mere skeletons, most of them not being able to hold themselves up. I was astonished to see them, and observe the manner in which they had crossed, in view of their being so feeble and weak. I ordered some bread and beans to be given them. So great was their impatience to eat them, that they could not wait to have them cooked. I lent them also some bark, which other savages had given me, to cover their cabins. As they were making their cabin, they discovered a piece of carrion, which I had had thrown out nearly two months before to attract the foxes, .... This carrion consisted of a sow and a dog, which had sustained all the rigors of the weather, hot and cold. When the weather was mild, it stank so badly that one could not go near it. Yet they seized it and carried it off to their cabin, where they forthwith devoured it half cooked. No meat ever seemed to them to taste better. I sent two or three men to warn them not to eat it, unless they wanted to die: as they approached their cabin, they smelt such a stench from this carrion half warmed up, each one of the Indians holding a piece in his hand, that they thought they should disgorge, and accordingly scarcely stopped at all. These poor wretches finished their repast” (Voyages, vol. 2, Ch. 5).

Odd that the anthropologists seem never to have read these historical accounts. But that is the way with anthropologists. It turns out that even the early Sixties studies themselves discovered much of the same among the Kalahari bushmen they observed, but somehow entirely missed mentioning it in their published reports. Kaplan notes that during the legendary "Man the Hunter" conference, Lora Marshall commented: "The !Kung we worked with are very thin and . . . constantly expressed concern and anxiety about food." In a 1989 piece, Harpending and Wandsnider are quoted to assert that "Lee's studies of the !Kung [Bushmen] diet and caloric intake have generated a misleading belief among anthropologists and others that !Kung are well fed and under little or no nutritional stress" (Kaplan, p. 309, quoting Wilmsen, 1989). “Konner and Shostak [quoted again by Wilmsen, 1989] are quite emphatic that nutritional stress and its health consequences among the !Kung are hardly in the eye of the beholder: Deprivation of material things, including food, was a general recollection [of !Kung adults]” (Kaplan, op. cit., p. 309). “Periodic food shortages,” Kaplan continues, “have been observed among all recent hunters and gatherers” (Kaplan, op. cit., p. 321; Eaton, S.B., M. Shostak, and M. Konner, 1988, The Paleolithic Prescription. New York: Harper and Row). All of them.

There you go again: the Noble Savage archetype is powerful enough to in most cases supercede the evidence of our own eyes.

It is perhaps true that it takes only forty-four hours a week to get enough food to live on, if you are a hunter-gatherer. But it turns out that said food may oft times simply not be available.

By contrast, in many progressive municipalities, Loblaw's stores are open 24 hours.

There is, contrary to popular and fuzzy hip thought, no “balance of nature.” Nature usually follows a patternless pattern of boom and bust, one absurd extremity following upon another. A nice warm wet spring, and prey animals have a population explosion. Leading to a boom in predators, which then deplete the prey, causing a collapse in predator numbers as well as prey. Rinse and repeat. General starvation is a predictable part of the “great circle of life.” A hunter-gatherer lifestyle locks one in to these natural cycles, leading to inevitable periods of mass death.

Sadly, some have even recently died under the glamour of the Noble-Savage-Affluent-Society myth. Consider the now-famous case of Chris McCandless, only 24 years old, who sought to disappear “Into the Wild” of Alaska, and died quickly of either poisoning from eating the wrong wild plant, or simple unadulterated starvation.

Last picture of Chris McCandless alive

Be ause he was a modern, this was memorable enough to be worth a best-selling book. Had he been a pre-contact aboriginal, it would not have even been news.

The 1960s Noble Savagist surveys, deliberately or not, did not account for possible slow periods in the good old merry-go-round of life, or rather slaughter—slow periods that, in Canada, will come predictably and severely every winter, for perhaps the odd seven months in a row. The studies of Bushmen and aborigines were “best-case” scenarios. Anthropologists were among their subjects for only a few days or a few weeks, at the most abundant time of the year. As Kaplan notes, “Although carried out under less contrived conditions than the McCarthy-McArthur survey in Australia, [which, note, was even worse in this regard] Lee's investigation [of the Bushmen] suffers from some of the same shortcomings: for example, to buttress his argument concerning Bushmen well-being, Lee would like to extrapolate his findings from one portion of the seasonal cycle to the entire cycle, even though he is aware of the significant difference between the dry season and the wet season. Between August and October, water is limited and food scarce. Lee's survey was done from July 6 to August 1” (Kaplan, op. cit., p. 307).

There may indeed be a good reason why all studies of existing hunter-gatherer societies are done in the tropics. The tropics may be the only place where hunting and gathering is even remotely viable. As my Filipina wife maintains, it is not easy to starve in the tropics. Some kind of fruit is in season at al times of the year; the woods are thick with birdsong.

There is never the ghostly silence of a Canadian winter.

"Iracema"; Portuguese "Indianism" painting

Although there might be famine at any time, wind and weather permitting, this is when, according to the early French journal-keepers, Indian starvation inevitably appeared. For a period stretching perhaps from November to May, with nothing green other than pine needles growing, possible food is limited to ice-fishing and a few non-hibernating animals. Not easy to find at the best of times. Not easy to run down and kill, especially without rifles. Samuel de Champlain reports: “The savages who dwell here are few in number. During the winter, in the deepest snows, they hunt elks and other animals, on which they live most of the time. And, unless the snow is deep, they scarcely get rewarded for their pains, since they cannot capture anything except by a very great effort, which is the reason for their enduring and suffering much” (Champlain, Voyages, Volume 1, Ch. 6). Deep snow was the one thing that allowed them to overtake the prey, if they were equipped with snow shoes. The animals, by contrast, often got bogged down in the deep drifts.

As evidence that women in foraging societies supposedly had higher status, Diamond offers this consideration: “nomadic hunter-gatherers have to keep their children spaced at four-year intervals by infanticide and other means, since a mother must carry her toddler until it's old enough to keep up with the adults.” (Diamond, op. cit.).

A bit of a non sequitor, surely. Diamond to the contrary, this does not sound like a good thing, for either males or females. Better for women? Aren't a certain proportion of those dead children female? Or is it that, to Diamond or to other noble savages, children are not human? To me it sounds like a terribly evil thing, that we should all be glad to have put behind us. That is, if we really have.

Diamond's point is the usual feminist one that motherhood is oppressive to women. It gets awkwardly in the way of free sex, in any case.

Our point is different. The traditional Indian lifestyle, because of the severe food contraints, did not leave a lot of margin for the social safety net we have in modern Canada come to expect. Most kids, it seems, were killed as a matter of standard practice. Estimates for infanticide of female children in traditional Canadian native cultures range from 50 to 80 percent (Schrire, Carmel; William Lee Steiger, "A matter of life and death: an investigation into the practice of female infanticide in the Arctic". Man: the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Society 9: 162).

Thr Inuit killed children by throwing them into the sea. The Yukon tribes stuffed their mouths with grass and just left them to die. Dene traditions were similar. Such practices lasted into the 1930s and 40s, when contact with the mainstream culture, and welfare payments, ended them.

Eskimo mother and child.

Father Jouvency reports of the Innu, “the women, although naturally prolific, cannot, on account of their occupation in these labors [the hard physical work demanded of them], either bring forth fully-developed offspring, or properly nourish them after they have been brought forth; therefore they either suffer abortion [i.e., miscarriage], or forsake their new-born children, while engaged in carrying water, procuring wood and other tasks, so that scarcely one infant in thirty survives until youth” (Jesuit Relations 1, p. 255-7). Orphans, he reports, are killed as a matter of routine (Jesuit Relations 1, p. 259).

Orphans and prospective infanticides became, therefore, for the Jesuits, a rich harvest of souls. Father Biard, working among the Micmac, notes, “I saw this girl, eight or nine years old, all benumbed and nothing but skin and bone. I asked the parents to give her to me to baptize. They answered that if I wished to have her they would give her up to me entirely. For to them she was no better than a dead dog. They spoke like this because they are accustomed to abandon altogether those whom they have once judged incurable “ (Jesuit Relations 2, p. 13).

Indian shaman

If it is not already obvious, the same fate would similarly await the aged, as the merely ill of any age. No room for sentimentality here. “[I]t is the custom,” the Relations report of the Indians about Port Royal, “when the Aoutmoins [shamans] have pronounced the malady or wound to be mortal, for the sick man to cease eating from that time on, nor do they give him anything more. But, donning his beautiful robe, he begins chanting his own death-song; after this, if he lingers too long, a great many pails of water are thrown over him to hasten his death, and sometimes he is buried half alive” (Jesuit Relations 1, p. 167).

If you weren't dying fast enough, they were eager to help you along. Or perhaps not dying at all.

For all these sufferings, it is only too apparent, the greatest help was to live near the newly-arrived Europeans. Jesuits would take your excess babies. The French in their fort would give you, in need, provisions and birch bark. They would always trade food for furs. “[T]hose who are situated near the sea,” Bressani explains, “have, by the exchange of their Beaver skins, provisions for some part of the Year” (Jesuit Relations 39, p. 243). It does not seem to have been terribly clear to these first-contact Indians that the Europeans were viciously robbing them of their land and their happy, idyllic, affluent lifestyle. No doubt more recently the Arnhem Land aborigines have suffered the same confusion, in light of the free nourishment from the nefarious mission stations.

The Sixties studies of hunter-gatherers miss one further factor that would have been a matter of life-and-death for the earlier aboriginals. Modern hunter-gatherers have a government somewhere to keep relations with their neighbours on an even keel. Murder, theft, and cannibalism are punished. They might now, as before, have to spend only forty-four hours a week on food. But now, unlike then, they need spend no additional time on self-defense. In the real state of nature, as Hobbes points out, not to mention Darwin, and as we have already seen, self-defense would have been an all-consuming consideration. Government, oppressive as Diamond may find it, can prevent adversaries from killing you, or stealing your food, or taking you as food.

Hence, perhaps, the idle hours. That may be a new thing. It may not be because of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. It may be because the hunter-gatherer lifestyle no longer really exists, anywhere.

So why do some societies, as Diamond points out, resist the change? Why are there still, at a minimum, Australian aboriginals, Kalahari Bushmen, and Canadian Indians?

Diamond takes the fact that some few societies seem to resist the transition to agriculturalism as itself evidence that agriculturalism is undesirable. That evidence, mind you, cuts both ways. Six thousand years ago, everyone was a hunter and a gatherer. Now, almost nobody is. The evidence here, surely, is that farming is overwhelmingly more desirable.

There are probably no true hunter-gatherer societies left, except those we can know nothing of, for they have not yet been contacted. A bit of an observer paradox here: the safe presence of white-skinned anthropologists almost necessarily means their subjects are no longer truly in the state of nature. Those who have not begun to farm may be sustained largely on the handouts from the misson stations, or government welfare.

If there is also a residual resistance on the part of a few cultures to settle down to pastoralism, the Bushmen of the Kalahari, or the Indians of Canada, might it mostly be that, for most males, hunting is fun, and farming is not? Evolution surely makes it so. We were hunters for a hundred thousand years, and farmers only in the last few thousand. Aren't we hard-wired, like any predator, to get a nice big adrenaline rush out of the hunt and the kill? Isn't it tough on most young men, naturally craving adventure, not to be able to do it any more, at least not daily, and not to have it valued? Might this feeling not also be amplified by the fact that, in hunter-gatherer societies, because of defense needs, any tilling of the land that did occur was done by the women? So farming was “women's work,” implicitly effeminate. To most red-blooded males, that is not a recommendation.

Didn't even the cowboys of the Old West feel this way about the settlers? Settling down meant an ultimate loss of freedom. Don't most young boys—or even aging accountants, according to Monty Python-- imagine themselves either running away to sea and being marooned on a South Sea Island, or as cowboys riding the lonely range?

Guiding a plough and reaping what you sow just isn't as exciting.

But be that as it may; there is something to be said for living past nineteen. There is something to be said about not living in constant hunger. Not to forget the central heating, Range Rover, and wide screen TV. In sum and in essence, even if only living in Attawapiskat on welfare, disregarding all further opportunities, Canadian Indians have a vastly better life in material terms than anything they might have hoped for in pre-contact days. They can still hunt and fish, after all, according to treaty, if they want. They just no longer have to rely on it for survival.

This being so, it is absurd to talk of financial reparations, or of someone having “stolen their land.” The net gain from colonization was at least as great for the Indians as it was for the more recently disembarked Europeans. Quite apart from any formal deal cut to extinguish aboriginal title. If working a bare minimum of hours is the only goal, for their “original affluent society,” they are living in the Land of Cockaigne, on the very summit of the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

Let us remember, too, before we walk away from the subject, that man does not live by bread alone. Poverty, and Indian poverty, pre-contact, was not just material. It was spiritual. With no permanent structures, no fixed abode where things could be kept, no writing, there was little way to preserve anything for future generations. That means not just food: that means any poetry, any visual art, any music, other than could be passed on memory to memory. Any Indian expressions of the human spirit were simply lost and forgotten; like wolves howling at the moon. Of numberless generations, we have and know practically nothing: a few ambiguous rock carvings, a few oral traditions of dubious authenticity. In the Far West, some totem poles not yet completely defaced by termites. Nothing for the young and restless soul, seeking meaning, seeking what life is really all about, seeking a voice to speak to them. Nothing but the daily struggle for barren subsistence. This is a profound cultural poverty.

When Wolfe approached the battlements of Quebec, it is recorded, he was reciting to himself Gray's poem, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” He would rather, Wolfe said, have written those lines, than to have taken Quebec.

A noble savage contrmplates the death of General Wolfe. Benjamin West.


The burden of that great poem is the tragedy that so many men die unheard, unknown, and forgotten. None of their thoughts recorded, it is as though their lives were never lived.

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd,
Or wak'd to ecstasy the living lyre.

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne'er unroll;
Chill Penury repress'd their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow'r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.

Gray, and Wolfe, were thinking of most seventeenth-century Englishmen. But the lament is far more poignant if applied to Canadian natives. That is just what Indian culture condemned every Indian who ever lived pre-contact to.

It is the deepest poverty known to man.


Monday, May 23, 2016

Treat Your Medication with Respect



May cause memory loss,
Disorientation;
And an ashen taste in the mouth.
Use caution while operating celestial machinery.

May cause optic deficits,
Follicle growth on palms,
And an obsessive feeling like remorse.
Marked parkinsonism
May make it difficult to write.

Avoid alcohol while taking this medication,
Avoid all other mood-altering substances
Not supplied by a registered medical practitioner
Wearing caduceus and candy-apple white.

Discontinue use in case of pregnancy.
May cause passive aggressive or co-dependent behaviours in women
Excessive discomfort during labour,
And resultant children are likely to be quarrelsome.

Side effects, while significant, are in most cases temporary;
Sufferers will be astounded, after only one day's use,
At how temporary they are.
But the good the drug can do may last forever.

With suitable precautions, worth the inconvenience seventy times seven
For the chance to see things as God can see them,
And for the satisfaction of earning one's way each day
By honest labour
And the sweat of one's brow.
== Stephen K. Roney


My Five Favourite Things About Being Catholic



Catholic Link
recently challenged its readers to list the five things that make them happiest about being Catholic. If anyone out there is wondering why I am Catholic, I too have my reasons. I was raised Catholic, so there's that. On the other hand, I studied world religions for some years, so it is not as though I just signed on without thinking about the issue. My adherence to Catholicism is not at all a rejection of other faiths. I have warm spots in my heart, in particular, for Judaism and Buddhism. But in the end, I do figure, if God wanted me to be anything else, he would have had me born into that tradition. Assuming God loves us all, and all equally, he would not put some of us in a significantly worse position in trms of salvation. Once you start out on one path or another, switching paths sets you back; you have to start at the beginning again, learning it all anew. Unless there is something definitely wrong with the tradition you were raised in, it seems unwise to switch. And one more thing: switching faiths can easily be a way to dodge the hard bits. I think I see this again and again, among those who do. They dislike something about their tradition, usually something it requires them to do that goes against their perceived self-interest. So they switch to another faith that does not require it. Then, if they sincerely get involved in their new faith, they soon find that it requires something else that seems to go against their self-interest. The process continues, and no spiritual progress is made.

But that is not exactly the question. It is, what makes me happy about being Catholic. And I am happy about being Catholic. Here are some reasons.

1. Upon This Rock.

Most academic disciplines are subject to fashions; they are trendy as can be. For twenty years, one theory is dominant, and then it is supplanted by another. Do we get any closer to truth? It sure does not look like it.

If so, in the quest for truth, the whole thing ends up being a waste of time. And the quest for truth is what we are here for.

The hard sciences might at first look better. They certainly seem to be building something. But what? All we know is that we have a model that produces results closely resembling the truth. Is this truth? Philosophically, we do not really know. And everything in science is properly a theory, subject to being overturned at any moment. What seems true now may be disproven tomorrow. Moreover, the useful subject matter of science is trivial. It can only deal well with physical objects. It is entirely possible, philosophically, that the physical world as a whole is an illusion, or nothing like what we perceive it to be.

So we are building on sand.

Philosophically, the only way we can know anything as truth is divine revelation. Only God knows for certain what is true. Therefore, you need at least a claim of divine revelation to have any hope of discovering truth. Moreover, if there is a God, he would have done this. It is simply a matter of where it is.

So if a body of truth is not at least claimed to be divinely revealed, it is of no known value.

The Catholic Church does claim that its truth is divinely revealed. Of course, a claim is not proof, and other bodies claim the same for their truths.

However, if God loves us, he would not have hidden the truth. He would have put it out there in plain sight. Catholicism is the most obvious vehicle: the biggest denomination, indeed organization of any kind. Moreover, its doctrines have not changed for two thousand years. Or more, for much of it, if you include what is revealed in the Old Testament. These truths have in the meantime been endorsed and clarified and extrapolated from by the best minds in Europe.

So with Catholicism I am standing on a solid rock, something the gates of hell have never prevailed against.

Protestantism, to the extent that it differs from Catholicism, propounds doctrines only five hundred years old at most, and even in those five hundred years, they do not seem to have held up well. Protestantism keeps fragmenting into novel doctrines, and established Protestant groups keep discarding or changing doctrine. Judaism, Hinduism, or Buddhism can claim to be older than Catholicism, but their doctrines are more diverse and internally debatable.

As an intellectual enterprise, in the end, Catholicism is the only game in town. Anything else is wasting your life.

2. One Holy Catholic Church

When I go to a Catholic mass, in Canada or just about anywhere else, I meet people of all ethnicities. The point used to be even stronger, back in the days when the Mass was in Latin wherever it was. But even so, Catholicism is transnational in a way no other religion is, with the possible exception of Islam. If you are a Jew or a Hindu, I have a pretty good chance of guessing your ethnicity. So too if you are an Anglican, or a Lutheran, or a Mormon. The orthodox churches are organized by nationality: Sofia has Bulgarian Orthodox churches, of course, but also a separate Russian Orthodox church and a Romanian Orthodox church. Within US Protestantism, there are “black denominations.” But if you are Catholic, you could be Italian, or Irish, or Polish, or African, or Filipino, or Peruvian, or Lebanese, or anything else, at just about equal odds. And we all attend the same mass, together.

Ethnicity and nationalism is, on the whole, a pernicious influence that divides us. Religion ought to be an antidote, promoting the brotherhood of man. Catholicism most clearly embodies that ideal.

Most other religious, in practice, segregate by ethnicity, implicitly and by example making religion and universal brotherhood secondary to politics and tribalism.

Almost as disturbingly, telling me your religious denomination often tells me something about your income, education level, or class. Telling me you are Anglican or Episcopalian says one thing; saying you are Pentecostal or Jehovah's Witnesses says sometyhinge else. Catholicism seems uniquely untethered to a class. It appeals equally, it seems, to aristocrats and peasants. And either are equal in worship. If you say you are a Catholic, similarly, I cannot tell whether you have a Ph.D., indeed, are one of the greatest minds of the ages, or mentally deficient. Good Catholics might be either. This is a kind of proof of Catholicism. God loves us all. His own religion would not favour the very bright, but would have all they need at the same time.

3. Join the Club


The Catholic Church is the largest human organization of any kind, and the oldest. As a human being, why would you not want to be part of it? Stay out, and you are out of the human mainstream; you are not part of the conversation. Stay out, and you are in a way rejecting the largest single proportion of your fellow men, living and dead. Are they all wrong? Are they all damned? It almost amounts in itself to misanthropy.

4. A Reliable Moral Guide

Back in the early seventies, one after another, human institutions seemed to be bowing to the sexual revolution and accepting, or even endorsing, abortion. I am sorry, but this was always obviously a moral wrong. Pope Paul VI and the Catholic Church appeared to be the only voices clearly and loudly saying this was not okay—as it obviously, to my conscience, wasn't. I knew at the time that they would suffer for it, and they have ever since.

By this, the Catholic Church demonstrated to me that it was a reliable moral guide, and perhaps the only reliable moral guide available in the social sphere. Everyone else, including other denominations, seems to be primarily about politics. They wait to see what the polls say, and reshape their own positions in light of them. If the majority was in favour of Jew-burning, they would soon be for Jew-burning. So long as the money kept dropping on the collection plate.

Only the Catholic Church seems to sincerely believe what they are saying, and to be bringing God's message to man.

It is ironic that Catholicism keeps getting knocked for supposedly not speaking out strongly enough against Hitler, or against slavery, or against the Spanish Inquisition, or this or that, when historically, they were invariably the lone group speaking out against any of these things. No doubt, eventually, they will be condemned for not speaking out strongly enough against abortion.

But there are pastoral reasons they are not more forceful than they are, as well. The Church is not here to end sin, which is not possible, but to forgive it. The important thing is to be a reliable moral guide.

5. Oh Ancient Beauty! Too Late Have I Loved You!

Plato had it right when he enumerated the three essential objects of human life: the true, the good, and the beautiful. As perfect being, God must combine in himself perfect truth, perfect goodness, and perfect beauty. We tend to forget door three. But a being that is not perfectly beautiful is not perfect.

Have you not had an aesthetic experience? Is there any thing you know closer to a direct experience of the divine?

And yet, a good proportion of the world's religions not only overlook beauty as an aspect of the divine; they actually condemn it. Protestantism, especially Calvinism, Islam, Judaism to some extent. This has to be wrong. Aside from denying one third of the divine nature, it gives the Devil, as has been said of Milton, all the best lines. Beauty untied from morality and truth, agreed, exerts a dangerous glamour. But the obvious solution is not to untie it from morality and truth; it is to bind all three tight.

Catholicism is not alone in its appreciation of beauty—Hinduism and Taoism are also strong in this regard. But Catholicism has a pretty good track record in the arts. You get Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, Caravaggio, all those ninja turtles. You get Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, and the boys. Western art stacks up very well against art from any other part of the world, and Western art is paradigmatically Catholic. Even in majority Protestant countries, art is mostly the Catholic contribution. Name a famous English poet: discover another Catholic. Pope, Dryden, Yeats, Shakespeare, the Celtic fringe: poetry in English is almost always a Catholic avocation. When Milton is not giving choice lines to the Devil. Name a famous German composer: discover another Austrian, which is to say, another Catholic.

The lack of beauty is a critical deficit in, for example, American culture. All those cities with ugly names, laid out in a sensible grid pattern, or worse, spaghetti roads to reduce traffic, each home identical to the next, everything with only practicality in mind. (On the other hand, greatest American visual artist: Andy Warhol. Catholic. Best American playwrights: Tennessee Williams, Eugene ONeill. Catholics. Best American novelist: Ernest Hemingway. Catholic. And just get startedd on actors and directors...). Much of English culture too seems deliberately ugly. When I was young and living in Catholic Montreal, the thought of moving to Protestant Ontario seemed a fate worse than death. It still does, actually, aside from the distinctively Irish and Highland Scottish settlements, which are indeed beautiful. And Catholic. But Oshawa, Brampton, Sudbury, Scarborough, Kitchener? Surely any fully human heart recoils.

One annoying symptom of the failure to appreciate beauty is the eternal complaint that the Catholic Church is “rich,” and all that art should be sold off to help the poor. As if the only purpose of art is as a financial investment.

Sinulog 2012

The Philippines is pretty poor. But Cebuanos live for the annual Sinulog festival, during which teams dress in wildly colourful costumes and perform dances in the street. I have seen it. It is so beautiful, it brings tears to your eyes. The intent of the fiesta is religious, in celebration of the Christ Child, and it is indeed an intense religious experience.

God made man in his own image, and formed him out of clay. Which is to say, forming things out of clay is acting in God's image, fulfilling his design for us. We are to take the raw materials he gave us, the clay of the material world, and create; he is a creator God.

If we are not doing this, then we are, as Milton has been accused of being, “of the Devil's party without knowing it.”


Saturday, May 21, 2016

Advice to Those in Danger of Being Discovered



Never tell psychiatrist the truth,
No more than offer acid to a narc;
The flaming sword within his desk craves use;
You must pass soul fully clothed, he hates things stark.

And if he asks in riddle who you are,
You must lie as dead as paper-thin straight line;
Assume a name--say, one you took at birth--
And pretend you only know of space and time.

And if you hear the door behind you lock,
Indulge each nurse, they know not what they do.
Give clockwork psyches no excuse for shock;
And speak only when audibly spoken to.

For the raving god of Bedlam loves odd stones;
Trust Him, though all the world outside is mad.
His logos still wells up from deepest springs,
Proof from law, or tinpot Jah, or Siggy's dad.

And recollect before you take advice
From anyone in white, how seeming warm,
That one man's hell's another's paradise;
And Satan most at home in uniform.

So never tell psychiatrist the truth,
Nor start at flash of fang, or hound-like bark;
For salts and Styx and stones may break no bones,
But every word can leave a fatal mark.
-- Stephen K. Roney


Eight New Commandments



After all, they weren't carved in stone. Oh, wait. I guess they were.

My leftist columnist friend has recently proposed that the Ten Commandments are obsolete. All very well for a small desert tribe, perhaps. But progress! Morality marches on!

We Catholics were always able to derive everything we needed from the original ten in the traditional examination of conscience. But he does have something of a point; sometimes it takes a bit of a stretch. Not all the commandments are as clear as they possibly ought to be. For example, there is no “Thou shalt not lie.” There surely should be. The Devil is “the Father of Lies.” We are able to deduce the general point, sure, from “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour,” but that seems more oblique than it needs to be.

So okay, here are a few additional commandments that might usefully be added to the mix. No, morality does not change or evolve. But certain sins are currently conspicuous, and part of the problem might just be that the prohibition is not as clear as it should be.

The same principle, after all, holds for the commandments as a whole. All of them, as Jesus notes, could really be replaced with “Do unto others as you would have them do to you”; or “Love God, and love your neighbour.” Love, as St. Augustine said, and all will be well. But while the Golden Rule, or “Love, and do what you will,” or Kant's categorical imperative, or simply following the voice of conscience, ought to do the whole job, humans are perverse. They will look for loopholes. Things often need to be spelled out, or we will rationalize our way out of them. Given this tendency, the ten commandments could probably always be expanded. And always have been. Feeling the ten are not sufficient, Rabbinical Judaism expands them to 613 specific prohibitions.

So, a few new ones, to address some common sins.

Confucius


To begin with, I like Confucius's answer, when asked what he would do first if put in government. “First,” he said, “is the rectification of terms.” It is, I think, a profound moral issue not to tinker with the language, with the standard meaning of words. It is a form of lying, and an especially insidious form, for it becomes a great obstruction to anyone later seeking truth. Playijng with gender pronouns, changing the meaning of words like “bright” and “gay,” changing pro-abortion to “pro-choice,” when it refers only to one particular choice by one particular actor, and so forth. The tendency is everywhere.

Moreover, this commandment needs to be understood as fundamental, as Confucius said, because without it, all other commandments can be easily overturned, simply by changing the meaning of a crucial word: “kill,” or “covet.”

So I offer a commandment close to the heart of any editor:

1. Thou shalt not falsify or manipulate the meanings of words.

Also close to my heart, for almost the same reason:

2. Thou shalt not attempt to prevent another from sincerely expressing their mind, or refuse to listen to and consider what they have to say.

If you do not follow this commandment, you are not yourself sincerely seeking truth--see John Stuart Mill on this. Worse, when done in the public sphere, you are preventing others from finding truth. If you are not sincerely seeking truth, you do not love God, for God is Truth. No shouting down, no ad hominems in argument, no government censorship, no hate speech laws. This is obviously a growing problem today.

3. Thou shalt not judge a person before hearing what they have to say in their behalf, or, depending on the circumstances, observing how they act.

This simply and properly defines prejudice. Prejudice is a failure to honour the second core commandment, to love your neighbour as yourself. It seems necessary to spell it out, not just because it is a frequent sin, but because the nature of prejudice is often these days misrepresented as its opposite. Any freedom from prejudice is now declared prejudice. For example, people actually say, if you have white skin, you are racist; if you have dark skin, you cannot be racist. This is a statement of quite extreme prejudice.

There is a corollary to this, which probably needs to be stated separately, because it is even more often overlooked.

4. Thou shalt not favour a person over others except as is justified by their own merits, or one's prior commitments to them.

This is really the same as the previous injunction, or at least its necessary corollary. Unjustly favouring someone is just as evil as unjustly condemning another. In practice, it amounts to the same thing: you cannot favour one without discriminating against another. But because it looks like “being nice” from one very limited perspective, people commonly think it is okay. Hence moral crimes like nepotism or “reverse discrimination.” Thou shalt not play favourites.

The bit about one's prior commitments is needed, I think, to clarify that you do indeed owe special consideration to some, like your children or your spouse, because of prior commitments you have made to them of your own volition (by, for example, begetting them), or debts to them you have incurred.

"Envy plucking the wings of fame"

5. Thou shalt not envy.

This is, to my mind, already definitively covered in commandments nine and ten, Catholic numbering (“Thou shalt not covet”) but recent discussions with this same leftist friend, and indeed a Web search, suggest that this is still ambiguous to many. He takes those commandments as prohibiting, not envy, but materialism. Not immediately clear to me how this refers to coveting thy neighbour's wife… but that might be separate injunction against lust.

Envy deserves its own clear prohibition in any case. It is a common sin, and it is one of the seven deadly ones. If your neighbour has more than you have, or is smarter than you are, or is better looking, you have no right to resent them for it. You should celebrate their good fortune.

Might I point out that most leftist politics are based on this sin? If anyone does not have enough to live on, that is a problem to be fixed. Money can of course be acquired in immoral ways, but the mere fact of having money is not a moral issue--except that, if you object to it in another, you are simply indulging envy. Even worse when the envy is based on another's intelligence, which is at least as common a problem. A particularly bright person might produce great benefits for mankind as a whole: a cure for cancer, a pollution-free energy source, a symphony, a solution to some great problem. Yet the envy of others can hold him or her back from this. Even at a more pedestrian level, everybody benefits if the druggist behind the counter is the best druggist available, the brain surgeon operating on you is the best brain surgeon, the engineer designing the structure is the best engineer. Envy is the primary force preventing this from being so, and it is cumulatively massively destructive.

6. Thou shalt not outsource thy morality.

This is a major omission: it is a prohibition against hypocrisy, the key issue in the New Testament. And it remains a key issue today. Tooo many people try to sidestep their own moral obligations by instead placing moral obligations on others. For example, it is moral to give money to charity. There is nothing moral, however, about advocating a law requiring others to give a percentage of their income to charity. It is moral to limit your air miles in order to conserve limited natural resources, or to prevent the emission of “greenhouse gases.” It is not moral to lobby to pass laws forcing others to limit their air miles for this reason. It might be advisable in practical terms, but it is not a moral act. A particularly common, and particularly egregious, example: if you are paid for a job helping people, you are no more moral than the next guy who has a job doing something else, given that your pay rate is the same. If you are being paid for it, it is not your charity.

7. Thou shalt not openly forgive another who has not admitted a misdeed.

This will probably not sound Christian to many—this is why it needs to be said. It is a very common moral error. If someone sincerely apologizes, you have a moral duty to forgive. This too is commonly not done, but at least just about everybody seems to understand that you should. The more common error is the opposite. If someone does not apologize, and you publicly and openly forgive them, you are saying that what they did was really okay. This is putting their soul, and even those of any onlookers, in mortal peril.

It is especially important to make the point, because non-Christians are always trying to beat Christians over the head with their duty to forgive, when what they almost always really mean is that the Christians ought to accept that a sin is not a sin.

Of course, there is nothing to prevent you from, in the meantime, forgiving another in your heart. But even this is not really a moral issue. It is something advisable for your own peace of mind.

"Honour your father and your mother"is another present commandment that seems often misunderstood, and used for nefarious purposes. It does not mean "obey your father and yor mother,"and it is not addressed to children. It is too often used by bad parents as a stick to beat their children. Read this way, it directly contradicts must of the New Testament, in which Jesus tells a prospective disciple who asks for time to first bury his father, "let the dead bury their own dead," and, "call no one father but your father in heaven," And,  after all, obeying your parents if theyu ask for something immoral, or giving them honour above their deserts, would be itself immoral. What if your Dad is Hitler, and your mum Karla Homulka? What the commandment is really about is looking after your parents in old age, and allowing them a digified dotage. That is "honour." Hence it should be recast as

8. Support and respect your parents in their age.

Many are not following this commandment. The common problem is not abandoning the old, in terms of their physical needs, but dropping them off in a nursing home and forgetting them. They are owed not just food, bedding, and physical care, but dignity and  a stake in the continuing life of the living.



Friday, May 20, 2016

Trudeau's Faux Pas



Justin Trudeau House altercation 1


In case Canadians are not aware, a big deal is being made even on international news about Justin Trudeau's recent behaviour in the House of Commons: grabbing the Tory whip, and elbowing an honourable member.

To my mind, it was never a big deal. Merely a breach in decorum. It looked to me as though Trudeau might only have been being playful, but for the reported swearing. He owed the House an apology. And he has apologized, not once, but several times.

It should now all be over and forgotten.

The most disturbing thing about it all is how NDP member Ellen Brosseau milked the incident, leaving the House, then blaming Trudeau for making her miss a vote. Please. Talk about playing the female victim card.

You can have special consideration and protection, or equality. Choose one.


Memento Mori



So you thought, my corporeal beauty,
That life was a game you could win;
And you'd call a poor man a loser
As if loss were the cardinal sin?

Well, hey, look over your shoulder,
And see what the night dragged in;
A crone is rubbing her toothy palms
And grinning a sweaty grin.

So you reckoned, my bright young mastodon,
That God was a crutch for the lame.
And you'd call the lame man a loser,
As if loss were a reason for shame.

Go, walk down the darkening morning
As one not accustomed to beg
And hold your head high as a street lamp
Till you feel a sharp pain in your leg.

And, hey, look over your shoulder;
An old man is dressing to grieve.
And he's hiding an ace in his pocket watch
And he's hiding a laugh up his sleeve.
-- Stephen K. Roney


Mother Right and Father Left



Mojave woman, 1903

Feminism has its own version of the familiar “Noble Savage” myth, that bears some consideration here. And once again, Canadian Indians figure prominently.

In her 1972 book Wonder Woman, Gloria Steinem tells the happy story:

“Once upon a time,” [yes, she really begins like that] “the many cultures of this world were all part of the gynocratic age. Paternity had not yet been discovered, and it was thought ... that women bore fruit like trees—when they were ripe. Childbirth was mysterious. It was vital. And it was envied. Women were worshipped because of it, were considered superior because of it.... Men were on the periphery—an interchangeable body of workers for, and worshippers of, the female center, the principle of life.”
Ah, the halcyon days of primordial innocence. Ah, the days of ripening fruit on every tree. Among other marvellous things, women were given much more freedom and respect. There was perfect peace, justice, and equality. There was of course no private property. Everything was held in common, and shared as needed.

Gloria Steinem, not wearing her bunny costume.

Then someone, surely not a woman, bit an apple. Writing was invented. Knowledge of good and evil, conventional ethics, came inexorably to pass. And all happiness fled, like a wisp of smoke, like an acetate reel on fire, like waking from a pleasant dream. We learned that we were naked.

“The discovery of paternity, of sexual cause and childbirth effect, was as cataclysmic for society as, say, the discovery of fire or the shattering of the atom. Gradually, the idea of male ownership of children took hold....

“... women gradually lost their freedom, mystery, and superior position. For five thousand years or more, the gynocratic age had flowered in peace and productivity. Slowly, in varying stages and in different parts of the world, the social order was painfully reversed. Women became the underclass, marked by their visible differences.”

Jicarilla girl, 1905

It was and is an appealing bedtime story, ringing all the old romantic bells of original innocence, along with furthering a feminist agenda. An unkind observer, mind, might note the suspicious lack of evidence, and the odd coincidence that such female-dominated societies disappeared at the very point –the invention of writing--at which we ought to have seen some solid evidence. Rather like a map which marks, wherever there is undiscovered terrain, “There be dragons here.” They must be here, after all, because we know there must be dragons, and we find them nowhere else.

So too, it seems, with Amazons.

One might also think, unworthily, there be here perhaps a wisp of wish-fulfillment. Women were, Steinem suggests, the rightful mistresses of the universe, illegitimately deposed by those dirty, nasty men. Kind of like Scar in The Lion King.

What, then, was Steinem's warrant for this idyllic idea?

The first modern to seriously suggest the existence of a primordial matriarchy was the Swiss classical scholar Johann Bachofen, in 1861. Perhaps a little late for a Romantic. He based his claim of prehistoric “Mother Right” on his interpretation of ancient myth, which he read as history. Astarte, Isis, Ceres as Earth Mother, all that sort of thing.

Never mind that Greek mythology, or Semitic mythology, for that matter, as we know it is pretty male-dominant: Zeus, Kronos, Bull-El, Baal, and the boys. Bachofen detected traces, he believed, of an earlier layer.

It was tantalizing, but all rather speculative, rather debatable. How historic, in the end, is myth? Did Daedalus really fashion workable wings from wax and feathers? Do unicorns really lose their fierceness once resting in a virgin's lap?

Like it says.

Possibly not. Myths have their meanings, but they may not always be straight reportage.

There was, however, one obvious test. If matriarchy really was the initial and natural order of mankind, some examples should remain today, among more “primitive” people.

Enter, inevitably, on cue, the trusty Canadian Indian. The proverbial, standby primitive for any European uses, and the most available subject of the then-newly-awakening field of anthropology. Of course, the Indians must demonstrate this “Mother Right.” Whether they like it or not.

And, happily, it turned out, on very first appearance, that they did.

The very early and very notable anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan lived in Rochester, New York, right in the old Cayuga country. He therefore based his extensive research on the Iroquois. And, his researches soon showed, the Iroquois were matrilineal. They traced descent in the female, rather than the male, line. This, to contemporary thinkers, was quite a striking fact. It seemed in itself proof positive that the Iroquois, along with the many other Indian tribes that shared this trait, were just such a matriarchy as Bachofen imagined.

Lewis Henry Morgan

Among those who quickly embraced and advanced this proof of primordial matriarchy were prominent early feminist Matilda Gage, past president of the National Woman Suffrage Association, colleague and collaborator of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She wrote, in her popular book Woman, Church, and State (1893):

“The famous Iroquois Indians, or Six Nations, showed alike in form of government, and in social life, reminiscences of the Matriarchate. The line of descent, feminine, was especially notable in all tribal relations such as the election of Chiefs, and the Council of Matrons, to which all disputed questions were referred for final adjudication. No sale of lands was valid without consent of the squaws ...” (Gage, p. 17-8).

Other than descent from Mom, her claims are not, in fact, supported by what Morgan actually found. It is not possible to trace Gage's references. They are always vague: only the name of an author or, at most, a book, lacking page or edition. But her claim regarding the sale of lands is unlikely on the testimony of Morgan himself, who tells, for example, of the Iroquois defeating the Delaware Indians and “reducing them to the status of women.” The Delaware later sold some of their land to the State, and the Iroquois insisted that this was not permissable, because they were women. Women had no right to buy or sell land.

“'How came you to take upon you to sell land at all?,' the Iroquois chiefs say. 'We conquered you; we made women of you. You know you are women, and can no more sell land than women'” (Morgan, League of the Iroquois, p. 328).

Matilda Gage. But could she waltz?

As to Gage's “Council of Matrons,” it shows up nowhere in Morgan's study. The closest approach seems to be a comment that “As a general rule the [tribal] council was open to any private individual who desired to address it on a public question. Even the women were allowed to express their wishes and opinions through an orator of their own selection. But the decision was made by the council.” Even the women were allowed to express opinons. There's equality for you (Morgan, Ancient Society, p. 119).

So Morgan, in short, and his evidence on the Iroquois, did not actually support the claim of matriarchy among the Indians. That did not seem to matter: we have already seen the powerful pull of the Noble Savage archetype.

“A form of society existed at an early age known as the Matriarchate or Mother-rule,” Gage asserts enthusiastically, combining Bachofen's thesis with Morgan. “Under the Matriarchate, except as son and inferior, man was not recognized in either of these great institutions, family, state or church. A father and husband as such, had no place either in the social, political or religious scheme; woman was ruler in each. The primal priest on earth, she was also supreme as goddess in heaven. The earliest semblance of the family is traceable to the relationship of mother and child alone” (Gage, p. 13). That sounds pretty definitive. And, as one might expect of the trustworthy Noble Savage, “never was justice more perfect,” Gage assures us, “never civilization higher than under the Matriarchate” (Gage, p. 15). Civilization, it seems, has been going downhill for the last 5,000 years or so.

This matriarchate hypothesis accordingly added another huge hunk of the chattering classes to the lobby for Indian segregation and for preserving or reviving Indian culture. Gage herself was adopted into the Wolf clan, and fought like a Fury against American citizenship for the Iroquois. Whether that was pro- or anti-Indian, you be the judge.

Gage is clearly Steinem's authority on the matriarchate. All Steinem had to do was paraphrase.

But to fully appreciate the influence of the Iroquois on modern feminism, we must introduce a second authority: Karl Marx.

Not Groucho and Harpo

He and his co-author of The Communist Manifesto, Friedrich Engels, apparently read Morgan excitedly. It was not just Morgan's research on the Iroquois that enthralled them. Morgan went on to propose a general theory of the development of the family in prehistoric times. In broad outline, it all began, he posited, with group sex, every tribal male “married” to every tribal female. Over time, with the material development of society, this shifted to monogamy. At the same time, tracing descent through the mother was replaced by descent through the father.

This fit perfectly with Marx's own ideas. It was essentially dialectical materialism, extended backwards into prehistory and drawing the institution of the family into its purview. If Morgan was right, he was an important confirmation of Marx. Even better, Morgan had found that Iroquois longhouses held all important property in common. They were, in effect, a working communist society—with all the natural appeal to Marxists that a supposed matriarchy had to feminists.

And so, Engels, in a book-length endorsement of Morgan's ideas, heralded him as one of the great thinkers of the age, one of a scientific trinity with Darwin and Marx (Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State).

It does not seem obviously required by their own purposes for Marx and Engels to concurrently endorse the idea that Iroquois society, and all early society, was also a matriarchy. Nevertheless, they were Germans, and visibly chauvinistically attracted to the writing of their fellow ethnic German, Bachofen. Morgan's theories, after all, did require the notion of original feminine descent. And so, like Gage, Marx and Engels took this as proving matriarchy. Morgan buttressed Marx; and Bachofen buttressed Morgan. Put them all together, and you seem to see the outlines of an irrefutable new science of human history. Inevitable material progress marches on.

Engels therefore concludes, “Communistic housekeeping ... means the supremacy of women in the house ... Among all savages and all barbarians of the lower and middle stages, and partly even of the upper stage, the position of women is not only free, but highly respected…. The communistic household, ...is the material foundation of that supremacy of the women which was general in primitive times” (Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, p. 55).

So now Indians are tied not just to the matriarchy but to to communism, adding another large phalanx of intellectual footsoldiers.

And Engels is right, based on Morgan. Iroquois longhouses were indeed communist. Indeed, Indian reservations are mostly communist today. Nobody owns their house or land. This is, perhaps, one reason for their poverty. Nobody has collateral for a loan, nobody has the incentive to financially strive. But this revelation should not be earth-shattering. All families are naturally communist: from each according to his abilities, to each according to their needs. Indian social order does not progress much beyond the family in any case; tribes are small and interrelated. Any longhouse was essentially an extended family. They were likely to be communistic just as any family is.

But it was all still terribly useful for Marx and Engels. Not only was communism demonstrably doable as a governmental system: it was the natural order of mankind. And, according to Marxist theory, of course, the primordial matriarchy, being communist, must have been free from any exploitation, any social injustice, any war or strife. Making it all look yet more useful to feminists in turn. The two ideologies at this point naturally reinforce.

It also made men, note, the original oppressors, the root of all social evil.

“The overthrow of mother right,” writes Engels, warming to the feminist alliance, “was the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children” (Engels, p. 65). The first class distinction was between male and female; the first private property was the wife; and the first oppressive social form was the monogamous family. The family as we know it is the key to all oppression. “The modern family contains in germ not only slavery (servitus) but also serfdom, since from the beginning it is related to agricultural services. It contains in miniature all the contradictions which later extend throughout society and its state” (Engels, p. 66).

One begins to see where modern feminism came from.

“Monogamous marriage,” Engels goes on to explain, “comes on the scene as the subjugation of the one sex by the other, as the proclamation of a conflict between the sexes unknown throughout the whole previous prehistoric period. In an old unpublished manuscript written by Marx and myself in 1846 I find the words: 'The first division of labour is that between man and woman for the propagation of children.'” So children are the problem, the little miscreants. “And today I can add: The first class antagonism that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male” (Engels, p. 75).

So there you have it. Women are the longsuffering proletariat, and men the bloated bourgeoisie.

Feminism as originally conceived had achieved its goals by the 1920s. Women had the vote. Feminism's two most notable secondary goals, prohibition and eugenics, had also by then been gennerally embraced, at least for a time. The fact that neither later turned out well is a separate issue; although that did tend to take the stuffing out of the movement for a generation or two.

The Women's Movement declares victory. 1917.


Then, in the 1960s, the women's movement booted up all over again. Why? What had changed? What again made it necessary? What were the pressing new goals?

A Friedan slip.

What devotees call “second wave” feminism was more or less single-handedly kickstarted by Betty Friedan publishing The Feminine Mystique in 1963.

It is probably important to notice that Friedan was a committed Marxist.

She certainly did not reveal this at the time. Then, and ever after, Friedan was adamant that until she researched and wrote that book, she was a typical suburban housewife, with no interests that overreached that station.

This self-representation has since been thoroughly debunked, notably by Daniel Horowitz (Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique). Friedan had for at least the previous quarter century been a committed Stalinist, a frequent writer-–an ideologue, in party terms—for Marxist publications.

Why the deception?

All by itself, it proves how deeply Friedan was influenced by Marx and Engels. She was quoting Engels chapter and verse.

Engels writes “all that this Protestant monogamy achieves, taking the average of the best cases, is a conjugal partnership of leaden boredom, known as 'domestic bliss'” (Engels p. 81).

Friedan begins The Feminine Mystique:

"The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning [that is, a longing] that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban [house]wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries … she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — 'Is this all?"

In the climate of the early Sixties, in America, it would not do to make the Marxist provenance plain. The House Committee on Un-American Activities was still in session. Khrushchev had only recently publicly revealed the true depravity of Stalin's rule. If it were too easy to connect these red dots, as Friedan no doubt knew, her project could not have gained popular acceptance. And where would the revolution be then?

Having read Engels, she, a Marxist, obviously saw feminism as an essential element of the class struggle. She was fighting to bring into effect Engels's and Marx's own known agenda. The monogamous family was the foundation of all social oppression. Overthrow the family, and you have the communist utopia.

Or at least group sex, as per Morgan's theories, which might have sounded almost as good to the bored suburban housewife of the fifties.

Maricopa maiden, 1907


Or for that matter the repressed Victorian matron of the 1890s. Gage dedicates her 1983 book “to all Christian women and men, of whatever creed or name who, bound by Church or State, have not dared to Think for Themselves.” Christianity, or Christian ethics, is the enemy. Engels also only too obviously turns up his nose at conventional morality, which he calls, ironically for a materialist, “philistine.” And the term “liberated woman,” popular in Friedan's day, had certain connotations associating it with the contemporaneous “sexual revolution.”

For non-Marxists, in particular, this was probably the bait. Buy the concept that women have traditionally been oppressed, and, male or female, you get a blank cheque for unrestricted sex without responsibility.

Along with communism, matriarchy, and equality, this unspoken promise of lots of wild, exciting sex was also projected back on the poor innocent Iroquois. In “Little Big Man,” for example: Dustin Hoffman, as Jack Crabb, adopted by Cheyenne, gets multiple wives. Being Indian becomes a protracted sexual fantasy in Leonard Cohen's 1966 novel Beautiful Losers.

Which is to say, in an odd and funny way, that Canadian Indians are inadvertently responsible for feminism, the New Left, and the sexual revolution.

But enough of that fantasy, for now, and back to the core concept of Indian matriarchy. In the end, how plausible was it?

Significantly, none of this supposed female dominance, or even equality, was visible to early European explorers and missionaries. They tended to report the reverse, and lament the cruelty with which, to their minds, the Indians treated their women. In one of the earliest reports from Acadia, speaking of the Micmac around Port Royal, Father Biard, S.J., writes of “the men having several wives and abandoning them to others, and the women only serving them as slaves, whom they strike and beat unmercifully, and who dare not complain; and after being half killed, if it so please the murderer, they must laugh and caress him” (Jesuit Relations 1, p. 171).

Is this really what matriarchy looks like?

The pale ones also noted that, among Indians, women did all the hard and heavy work, rather like Marx's proletariat, while men lived idly, like Marx's capitalists. “[T]he women ... bear all the burdens and toil of life,” says Father Biard (Jesuit Relations 2, p. 21). “The care of household affairs, and whatever work there may be in the family,” explains Father Jouvency, speaking of the Indians of New France without distinction of tribe, “are placed upon the women. They build and repair the wigwams, carry water and wood, and prepare the food; their duties and position are those of slaves, laborers and beasts of burden” (Jesuit Relations 1, p. 255). Champlain writes that Huron women “have almost the entire care of the house and work; ...The women harvest the corn, house it, prepare it for eating, and attend to household matters. Moreover they are expected to attend their husbands from place to place in the fields, filling the office of pack-mule in carrying the baggage, and to do a thousand other things. All the men do is to hunt for deer and other animals, fish, make their cabins, and go to war” (Champlain, Voyages, p. 319).

Hidatsa madonna and child, 1908

This apparent exploitation of the labouring female class ought, one might think, to be a fatal problem for a Marxist. Yet Engels brushes it aside. “The reports of travellers and missionaries,...” he writes, “to the effect that women among savages and barbarians are overburdened with work in no way contradict what has been said. The division of labour between the two sexes is determined by quite other causes than by the position of woman in society.

“Among peoples where the women have to work far harder than we think suitable, there is often much more real respect for women than among our Europeans. The lady of civilization, surrounded by false homage and estranged from all real work, has an infinitely lower social position than the hard working woman of barbarism, who was regarded among her people as a real lady (frowa, Frau — mistress) and who was also such in status” (Engels, p. 56).

So apparently, living off the fruits of another's labour is not, after all, the core issue determining social dominance. It has instead primarily to do with descent being reckoned in the male or female line.

Eh? Surely another example of the tremendous power of the Noble Savage myth.

Again, one sees where Friedan and modern feminists got their shtick. Traditionally, and even more so with postwar labour-saving devices in the home, men do all the dangerous, dirty, and dull work, while women get to spend most of the capital—eighty percent, on average. Yet Friedan and modern feminists saw and see men as dominant, and women as exploited. The traditional deference of men toward women in the West, and all the special advantages they are traditionally given, Engels informs them, are not in their favour, but a tool of their oppression.

Tiwa girl, 1906.

As to Indians showing no “false homage” towards woman, any thought of chivalry or sentimentality towards the “fairer sex,” Engels is clearly right. Of their frequent bouts of starvation, Father LeJeune writes, regarding the Innu, “When they reach this point, they play, so to speak, at 'save himself who can;' throwing away their bark and baggage, deserting each other, and abandoning all interest in the common welfare, each one strives to find something for himself. Then the children, women, and for that matter all those who cannot hunt, die of cold and hunger” (Relations 7, p. 47). None of this sentimental nonsense about “women and children first.”

Champlain, European bourgeois that he is, is offended, at one point, to find a Huron colleague cutting off the finger of a lady prisoner, to begin the traditional torture. “I interposed,” the French philistine explains, “and reprimanded the chief, Iroquet, representing to him that it was not the act of a warrior, as he declared himself to be, to conduct himself with cruelty towards women, who have no defence but their tears, and that one should treat them with humanity on account of their helplessness and weakness; and I told him that on the contrary this act would be deemed to proceed from a base and brutal courage, and that if he committed any more of these cruelties he would not give me heart to assist them or favor them in the war” (Champlain, Voyages, p. 290).

Sexist pig.

This deference towards women is one of the things modern feminism had to fight hardest against at its inception. This was why “consciousness-raising sessions” were so often required. Friedanites had to convince doubting middle-class women that they were better off not having doors opened for them, not being allowed to pursue whatever interested them at home, punching a time clock, working for a wage by the sweat of their brow, and so on. There was, by comparison, little or no resistance from men, just as there was remarkably little to “first-wave” feminism. By the logic of Sixties feminism, Iroquet was acting rightly, and Champlain was a chauvinist.

Still, one wonders, in the face of actual finger amputation, whether they were right. Our modern society has not yet really put the principle into full practice. If, for example, there were again a general war, with widespread blood and gore and stuff, and there was conscription, would feminists insist that this time, it must apply to men and women equally? Including getting to appear in the crosshairs on the front lines? One wonders. The benefits of femininity suddenly see obvious, to me at least.

But let's assume our consciousness has been raised by the traditional Marxist re-education sessions. Eliminating special privileges for women, and having them do the hard labour, is elevating their status. Fine. As a man, I can live with that. Still, since we were speaking of war, we have another problem with the matriarchy hypothesis as it applies to the Iroquois. As argued by both feminists and Marxists, the existence of a communist, matron-ruled state ought to guarantee general peace. However, on the contrary, the Iroquois cited as the prime example of a matriarchy was one of the most violent and warlike societies known to man.

What? Aren't women then by nature both nurturing and non-competitive?

Gage barely bats an eyelash. “Although the reputation of the Iroquois as warriors appears most prominent in history, we nevertheless find their real principles to have been the true Matriarchal one of peace and industry. Driven from the northern portion of America by vindictive foes, compelled to take up arms in self-protection, yet the more peaceful occupations of hunting and agriculture were continually followed” (Gage, p. 19). So in fact the Iroquois were pacifists, forced against their will to conquer all their vindictive neighbours, torture them to death, exterminate them, their children, and their culture, and confiscate their land. This is proven by the fact that they continued nevertheless to eat.

Procrustes, would that thou wert living at this hour.

There are further problems for this hypothetical matriarchy. One of the strongest structural supports of the thesis from its start is that “primitive people” worshipped “The Goddess.” You've probably heard the claim. “The Goddess” experienced a major revival in the seventies, when Merlin Stone published When God Was a Woman. This book restated the old Bachofen thesis, adding new support from archeology. Or actually, not that much support. Part of Stone's argument was that the physical evidence of matriarchy had been systematically destroyed by later patriarchists. As with most conspiracy theories, the very lack of evidence was taken as evidence. European digs, however, to be fair, were at the time turning up clay figures of a seriously obese woman--obviously, “The Goddess.” From her tiny clay loins, the new subculture of “feminist spirituality” was born. Which form of worship probably involved a liberal use of mirrors.

The Venus of Willendorf. Paleolithic pornography?

In the celebrated contemporary digs at Catalhoyuk, for example, from 1961 to '65, just when it seemed relevant, such chubby terracotta females did keep turning up. At that particular point, it looked like a lot were; but more recent, more extensive, excavation has yielded a proportion of about 5% of all in-site figurines.

Even if the proportion were much larger, that this demonstrated general worship of “The Goddess” seems a rather thin gruel. There is actually a strong tendeny in many religions, including, to cite a random list, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, to broadly avoid depictions of the supreme godhead in graven form. Anyone who was depicted, or depicted so often, would in fact by that fact have been a lesser personage.

Even in religions that in principle love images, like Catholicism or Hinduism, counting figurines does not seem an accurate theological guide. If, five thousand years from now, one were to excavate a typical Catholic church, one might easily conclude, by the preponderance of statues, that Catholics too worshipped “The Goddess.” Indeed, if one excavated a modern site at random, one might even conclude that modern North Americans worshipped a goddess named “Barbie.”

Moreover, without first buying in to Marxist theory, which was largely what needed to be demonstrated, it is not immediately obvious that the sex assigned to divinity has anything to do with which sex is dominant in society. It helps a lot, in order to hold such a thesis, to already believe in dialectical materialism. You must assume that religion is only a social construct created by the ruling class to serve political ends. A masculine god is therefore there to justify masculine rule, a feminine goddess to justify queenship. Said thesis seems arbitrary. One might argue, instead, even if God is a social construct, that the common Judeo-Christian conception of God as masculine (and assuming, again arbitrarily, that Judeo-Christianity is itself a “patriarchy”) is more a matter of deference to female worshippers. If God is love, and God is a man, who will find God easier and more natural to love, men or women? If God is a man, the soul of the worshipper is symbolically female. So indeed it has been traditionally understood in either the Greek, Jewish, or Christian traditions. Or Hindu, for that matter.

If you walk into a Christian church, you will see many more female than male faces. There is a reason for this.

But never mind all that. There is a certain history here, which must be honoured. To a good Marxist, can Marx and Engels ever be wrong? Surely not; admit that, and the entire mighty edifice of scientific socialism could soon be Ozymandian dust. And Engels, based on Bachofen, wrote, “the position of the goddesses in ... [Greek] mythology, as Marx points out, refers to an earlier period when the position of women was freer and more respected” (p. 71). So the matter is settled. Doubt or further questioning are no longer possible. We must simply move on from here. Gage concurs. Her status among feminists may not be comparable, but perhaps she makes up part of the difference by striving to sound authoritative. “In all the oldest religions, equally with the Semitic cults, the feminine was recognized as a component and superior part of divinity, goddesses holding the supreme place” (p. 16). It must be true; sooner or later the evidence will appear.

But leave aside now our clay figurines and our unimpeachable ideological authorities. Once again, the Indians and especially the Iroquois ought to be our test case. If they are a matriarchy, and if the mythological theory is correct, they ought to still worship “The Goddess.” Do they?

Unfortunately, on present evidence, no. In 1883, working for the Smithsonian, the ethnographer Erminnie Smith made a systematic effort to collect examples of Iroquois mythology. She found them, invariably, insisting that they and their ancestors always worshipped the definitely male “Great Spirit” (Smith, Myths of the Iroquois, 1883, Ch. 1).

Being thoroughly politically incorrect about it, and perhaps hoping otherwise, being herself a woman and influenced by the feminism of the time, Smith hints that nevertheless, oral traditions are not reliable. The beliefs among Iroquois in 1883 may not actually have been their traditional beliefs. They might have been influenced and altered by contact with the larger society.

Fair enough. And so our best source yet again would be the early Jesuits. They were the folks who best knew the Indians at first contact, and they were, naturally, intensely curious about just this, the pre-existing native religious beliefs. It was, after all, their field.

On their evidence, the Iroquois may not have worshipped a Great Spirit. He does not seem to turn up. Their most important divinity may even have been female—the evidence on this seems to go both ways. But if so, she may not have been a figure they wanted to emulate. We do not have much from the Jesuits on Iroquois mythology proper; the Iroquois were at eternal war with the French. Butthey did live long among the Hurons, and the Hurons were, culturally, an Iroquois offshoot. “They say,” reports Jean de Brebeuf, “that a certain woman named Eataentsic is the one who made earth and men.” So there you are: a female creator goddess. “They give her an assistant, one named Jouskeha, whom they declare to be her little son, with whom she governs the world.” So the chief male deity is only her son and assistant. But Brebauf continues, “This Jouskeha has care of the living, and of the things that concern life, and consequently they say that he is good. Eataentsic has care of souls, and, because they believe that she makes men die, they say that she is wicked” (Jesuit Relations 8, p. 115).

So that's a bit of a mixed bag. The creator is a goddess, and the top god seems to be her second banana. On the other hand, she's the devil incarnate. Not quite the moral model one might prefer. The myth does not seem to argue for putting women in power over the local polity.

This seems not to have been the only Huron version of the creation story. There is always something indefinite about oral history. Another Huron informant gave a different tradition to Father LeJeune: “his people believe that a certain Savage had received from Messou [apparently the same as Nanabozho or Nanabush, male, a commonly invoked creator god, or more accurately, the restorer of mankind after a universal flood] the gift of immortality in a little package, with a strict injunction not to open it; while he kept it closed he was immortal, but his wife, being curious and incredulous, wished to see what was inside this present; and having opened it, it all flew away, and since then the Savages have been subject to death“ (Relations 6, p. 157).

This sounds disappointingly similar to the Judeo-Christian tale of Adam and Eve, or the Greek story of Deucalion and Pandora's box. In all three, woman is ultimately responsible for evil. Not an enviable job reference.

Pandora with her box, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

A little later, LeJeune also relates of the Indians, “they recognize a Manitou ['spirit'], whom we may call the devil. They regard him as the origin of evil; it is true that they do not attribute great malice to the Manitou, but to his wife, who is a real she-devil. … As to the wife of the Manitou, she is the cause of all the diseases which are in the world. It is she who kills men, otherwise they would not die; she feeds upon their flesh, gnawing them upon the inside, which causes them to become emaciated in their illnesses. She has a robe made of the most beautiful hair of the men and women whom she has killed...” (Relations 6, p. 173).

So female figures may indeed be prominent in Indian and in Iroquois mythology, more prominent than in the Judeo-Christian Bible. But this is not necessarily to women's benefit.

Next, let us turn to the matriarchists' use of their own authorities-- most notably, the field work of Morgan. Of course, Morgan might in turn be wrong. But did he really discover what they said he discovered? Did he actually show Iroquois society to be matriarchal?

Not in any sense that Morgan himself seemed to recognize.

A great deal has been made by later commentators of a note Morgan includes from another source, which puts the case for the ascendancy of Iroquois women about as strongly as can be found anywhere, among those who actually knew the Iroquois first-hand. But this is, literally, a mere footnote. Morgan does not openly disagree with it, but he also does not say that he agrees. It is meant merely to establish that divorce among the Iroquois was easy and frequent, not that the Iroquois were governed by their women.

Here is the relevant note: “The late Rev. A. Wright, for many years a missionary among the Senecas, wrote the author in 1873 on this subject as follows: 'As to their family system, when occupying the old long-houses, it is probable that some one clan predominated, the women taking in husbands, however, from the other clans; and sometimes, for a novelty, some of their sons bringing in their young wives until they felt brave enough to leave their mothers. Usually, the female portion ruled the house, and were doubtless clannish enough about it. The stores were in common; but woe to the luckless husband or lover who was too shiftless to do his share of the providing. No matter how many children, or whatever goods he might have in the house, he might at any time be ordered to pick up his blanket and budge; and after such orders it would not be healthful for him to attempt to disobey. The house would be too hot for him; and, unless saved by the intercession of some aunt or grandmother, he must retreat to his own clan; or, as was often done, go and start a new matrimonial alliance in some other. The women were the great power among the clans, as everywhere else. They did not hesitate, when occasion required, 'to knock off the horns.' as it was technically called, from the head of a chief, and send him back to the ranks of the warriors. The original nomination of the chiefs also always rested with them'" (Morgan, Ancient Society, p. 464).

That sounds at first hearing pretty matriarchal.

Recreation of a Huron longhouse, Saint Marie among the Hurons,


Extended families among the Iroquois shared a longhouse. Since the membership in the extended family was decided by female descent, the greatest number of family members would usually be of one clan, the clan dominated by the house's women. But, also interestingly, both Wright and Morgan say this was somehow not always the case. The rule, in other words, seems not to have been: women ruled. It was only that the clan that held a majority ruled, if only through natural clannishness, and this most often happened because of the matriarchal rule of inheritance to be the clan of the majority of the women. In either case, whichever partner was not of the dominant clan was expected to leave the longhouse. Again, it was not a matter of the man having to leave, because he was the man; sometimes it was the woman. Nor was all this such a big deal. Probably nobody had much in the way of personal possessions beyond what they could carry with them, and either had the automatic option of moving to their own clan's longhouse.

The passage also claims one other notable female power. Women, as a group, apparently could overthrow a chief or sachem. Morgan quotes that part without comment; perhaps only because it is extraneous to the point he is trying to make. But it contradicts what he himself observes regarding tribal offices. He says instead that chiefs or sachems were overthrown by council or by popular vote. Council was entirely male, and in popular vote both men and women participated. And women could not themselves serve as sachems or chiefs.

Again, the passage says women could nominate chiefs. But according to Morgan, so, equally, could men; it was done by popular vote without distinction of sex, and in either case selection was subject to the approval of the all-male council.

So all that is established here, even at most, is that women had among the Iroquois a limited franchise: they had voice and vote, but could not be eleced to office. This was somewhat in advance of Canadian or American women's political rights in the days of Matilda Gage; but it does not look terribly impressive by modern standards. Certainly short of a “matriarchy” as Gage or Steinem describe it.

Morgan's own ultimate conclusion on women's status among the Iroquois is rather bluntly stated in his study, League of the Ho-De-No-Sau-Nee or Iroquois (1901): “The Indian regarded woman as the inferior, the dependent, and the servant of man, and from nurture and habit, she actually considered herself to be so” (Morgan, p. 314). Pretty much in line with the early Jesuit missionaries. He further notes the historical position of the Delaware, as previously mentioned, being “reduced” to female status as the result of losing a war. That's “reduced,” not “promoted.” One rarely gets prizes from the victors for losing a war.

“A deputation of Iroquois chiefs went ... into the country of the Delawares, and having assembled the people in council, they degraded them from the rank of even a tributary nation. Having reproved them for their want of faith, they forbade them from ever after going out to war, divested them of all civil powers, and declared that they should henceforth be as women. This degradation they signified in the figurative way of putting upon them the Gd-ka-ahj or skirt of the female, and placing in their hands a corn-pounder, thus showing that their business ever after should be that of women” (League of the Iroquois, p. 328).

Morgan also reports, in passing, the lyrics of one Iroquois war song as: “'I am brave and intrepid. I do not fear death, nor any kind of torture. Those who fear them are cowards. They are less than women'” (League of the Iroquois, p. 259).

Try that in Canada today.

Never mind. Morgan nevertheless clearly showed that Iroquois society was matrilineal: descent was reckoned through the mother. Even with nothing else to grasp at, that was warrant enough, for those who badly wanted to believe, that the Iroquois, and the Indians generally, were matriarchies. It needed to be so. Evidence is so androcentric.

A Seneca (Iroquois) woman. She can run my longhouse any day.


Engels, indeed, argued that all else necessarily followed from this fact. “the exclusive recognition of the female parent, ... means that the women — the mothers — are held in high respect” (Engels, p. 55). “[T]his original position of the mothers, as the only certain parents of their children, secured for them, and thus for their whole sex, a higher social status than women have ever enjoyed since” (Engels, p. 11).

Gage too considers this standing alone proof that women were dominant. “In a country where she is the head of the family, where she decides the descent and inheritance of her children, both in regard to property and place in society, in such a community, she certainly cannot be the servant of her husband, but at least must be his equal if not in many respects his superior” (note, Gage, p. 14). This must necessarily be so, she argues, not unreasonably, because in the earliest forms of society, the family was the society. If the woman ruled the family, then, she ruled the society, by definition and by default. “Even under those forms of society where woman was undisputed head of the family, its very existence due to her, descent entirely in the female line, we still hear assertion that his must have been the controlling political power,” she scofffs. “But at that early period to which we trace the formation of the family, it was also the political unit” (Gage, p. 15).

Gage's argument omits an important step. Does descent in the female line demonstrate that women ruled the family? Granted, women's clans usually dominated in any given longhouse, and this must have given some real de facto power. But don't women often rule the home in any case? Haven't husbands since time immemorial often been required to smoke on the porch, to not walk on the kitchen floor, to retire to the garage or basement to play with their toys? Descent or inheritance in the female line is rather a passive thing: it does not really mean that any living woman has any particular power over inheritance or descent. Gage, perhaps inadvertently revealing the weakness of her case, further asserts such useful facts as “When an Indian husband brought the products of the chase to the wigwam, his control over it ceased” (Gage, p. 18). But doesn't this simply mean that women did the cooking?

As to Iroquois being matrilineal, that much was surely true. Most Canadian Indian groups were matrilineal, and Morgan found the same arrangement among primitive tribes world-wide. The fact that most Indians traced their descent, like Jesus Christ, through the mother was also clear enough to Champlain and the first missionaries. But the idea never occurred to them, that this was important evidence of female status and control. Rather, they saw it as a simple practical necessity given general Indian promiscuity. In hunter-gatherer tribes generally, there is no effective government, all traditions are oral, and there is little social control. Everyone mostly does what they want. It is hardly surprising if that produces a higher level of sexual promiscuity than in societies with more social regulation—one might say, more civilization. Given little marital fidelity, as a simple matter of practicality, one never really knew who anyone's father was. But one always knew the mother. To keep inheritance in the family line, therefore, and to prevent anyone from feeling cheated or cuckolded, descent had to be traced through the female line alone. And this is just how Morgan, along with Champlain and the Jesuits, understands it. Champlain writes of the Hurons (members, recall, of the Iroquois language and cultural group, even though the sworn enemies of the Six Nations) “when night comes the young women run from one cabin to another, as do also the young men on their part, going where it seems good to them, but always without any violence, referring the whole matter to the pleasure of the woman. Their mates will do likewise to their women-neighbors” (Champlain, Voyages, p. 320). He reports one Indian woman approaching him too after this fashion, but claims he rejected the offer.

Iroquois woman, 1898. She had the vote!

Generally, according to Champlain, Huron marriage came after the birth of the first child. Taking a husband then became of practical value. Yet even after marriage the favourite game of musical longhouses did not end.

“But while with this husband, she does not cease to give herself free rein, yet remains always at home, keeping up a good appearance” (ibid). Terribly bourgeois of her. It follows, Champlain suggests delicately, that “the children which they have together, born from such a woman, cannot be sure of their legitimacy. Accordingly, in view of this uncertainty, it is their custom that the children never succeed to the property and honors of their fathers, there being doubt, as above indicated, as to their paternity” (ibid.).

The Jesuit Father LeJeune gives the very same explanation--making one suspect that this was the common and quite conscious understanding among the Indians themselves, offered to any European who inquired. “Now, as these people are well aware of this corruption, they prefer to take the children of their sisters as heirs, rather than their own, or than those of their brothers, calling in question the fidelity of their wives, and being unable to doubt that these nephews come from their own blood“ (Father LeJeune, Relations 6, p. 253). It makes sense, even entirely from the male perspective.

This did not, however, apparently indicate either a formal endorsement of free love, or of feminine power. Morgan reports that among the Iroquois he interviewed, albeit a few centuries later, “adultery was punished by whipping; but the punishment was inflicted upon the woman alone, who was supposed to be the only offender.” This whipping was public, before the whole tribe (League of the Iroquois, p. 32).

So much for full sexual equality. And so much for free love. Looks like it can cost something after all.

Among the Sioux, according to Parkman, the punishment for adultery was more severe. Women were physically mutilated. But this, again, applied to women only (Parkman, The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, p. 17). It seems this practice held not only with the Sioux. Father Savard, in his Histoire du Canada, reports a Frenchman returning from the north shore of Lake Huron with reports of “several girls the end of whose noses had been cut off in accordance with the custom of the country for having made a breach in their honour” (Consul Willshire Butterfield, History of Brule's Discoveries and Explorations, Cleveland, 1898, p. 167).

So Indian family life does not seem to have been quite the paradise of sex on demand and lack of sense of ownership, or indeed of female equality, that the feminists and Marxists might have wished. It was more a matter of there being fewer mechanisms available for establishing misdemeanours or for enforcement. The Mounties just were not yet on the job.

In conclusion, to be strictly fair, despite our mildly mocking at their pretensions, the Marxiststs, feminists, and feminist-Marxists were not altogether wrong. Women in Iroquois and in Indian society did have definite rights, as one assumes women in reality indeed do everywhere, and some of them look fairly significant. They were, at least, not slaves, and any notion among the first European observers that they were seems based in part on cultural chauvinism. The missionaries had to engage in some serious consciousness raising among Algonquin women to convince them of the desirability of monogamy. “Since I have been preaching among them that a man should have only one wife I have not been well received by the women;” writes Father LeJeune, “for, since they are more numerous than the men, if a man can only marry one of them, the others will have to suffer. Therefore this doctrine is not according to their liking" (LeJeune, Jesuit Relations 12, p. 163). All very well for Europeans to observe such fine points of sexual equality. But the constant war among the Indians meant a constant shortage of men, young men being regularly slaughtered in battle. If women could not share husbands, many were not going to have husbands. Fish need their bicycles, after all.

Women also had power, if only de facto rather than based on their sex, over daily activities in the longhouse. They had voice and vote on major appointments and vital tribal decisions. Which is at least more political power than women had in Victorian Canada.

There was a purely practical explanation for their relative power in these matters. It is the same reason that women were left with all the hard work, seen by the first Europeans as proof of their oppression. Aristotle, a fairly astute observer on the whole, even if ultimately a man, noted thousands of years ago, that among the most warlike races, “the citizenry will fall under the domination of their wives.” “This,” he went on to say in his mansplaining way, “was exemplified among the Spartans in the days of their greatness; many things were managed by their women.”

Iroquois women at work

It stands to reason. If the time and attention of the men are taken up with war, many more matters than otherwise must be left to the women. Something similar happened in the two World Wars of the last century: jobs otherwise held by men were taken over by women, women like Rosie the Riveter, to keep the home fires burning and the troops supplied.

Just so, among the Iroquois, women simply had to be left in charge of the planting and cultivation of crops. Crops grew during campaign season. Without this division of labour, if they ever got planted at all, they would mostly wilt in the fields. Women had to be in charge of the daily routine of the longhouse and family—-just, in fact, as they traditionally are among European Canadians—-because the husband and father would often be away at “work,” and away at work for weeks or months, not just hours, at a time. They would be off on surprise attacks hundreds of miles away, through thick bush, without roads, on foot, in Huron country, or lying in wait for trade canoes somewhere along the St. Lawrence.

The final moral of our little matriarchal parable is this: if Iroquois matriarchy is what you want, it is at least as likely under Hitler's Nazism, with its love of war, as under Stalin's communism. In either case, no need to tackle the daunting and difficult task of reviving traditional Indian culture to do it.

But either way, you may not really like what you get.