Thursday, March 07, 2024

Uncivilised, by Subhadra Das

“The museum is a powerful and extraordinarily malleable cultural sorting house. [Museums] are places for demonstrating that the West is best, regardless of what the West has actually been up to. For example, when we hear the story of how Napoleon’s troops in Egypt at the turn of the nineteenth century resorted to using dynamite to blow up a large, basalt statute of Rameses II, we needn’t worry in the way we do about the Taliban [destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas]. Even if they did blow up the Egyptian sculptures, Napoleon’s motive was to get them into the French national collection. They would be safe there.” (p. 188).

Subtitled “Ten lies that made the West”, this insightful and often funny book is full of historical details that challenge all kinds of presumptions. The ancient Athenians, for example, wouldn’t recognise our political system as democracy. Their whole system was about governing themselves; we elect other people, usually from the elite, to do so on our behalf.

Or there’s what Magna Carta did — or rather didn’t — do to fundamental rights here and abroad. I’d never even heard of the contemporaneous Charter of the Forest, which now seems a far more radical document, providing rights for ordinary people to land and resources; some of its provisions were still in force until 1971.

Over the course of 10 chapters, Subhadra unpicks a series of assumptions about the “civilised” and the “savage”, such as the superiority of the written word over the spoken, or the roots of political frameworks or psychological insights. In doing so, she shows how art, science and history are bound up in and blinded by a constructed, self-aggrandising narrative. 

Subhadra addresses numerous elisions from the historical record that serve to feed this false story. Repeatedly, women and non-white people and cultures have been left out of the story. I was fascinated to learn that Abraham Maslow’s work on the hierarchy of needs and on self-actualisation, which I studied as part of my training to be an adoptive parent, owes a great deal to his time among the Siksik√° people in Northern Alberta — now the Northern Blackfoot Confederacy. Maslow later said he’d been inspired by news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour; Subhadra uses Maslow’s own work and accounts from women who knew him to set the record straight.

I should declare an interest in that I know Subhadra and get a credit in the acknowledgements (I had to check with her what for). The Dr is also cited as a source at one point. Some of what’s covered here I’d already heard, having seen Subhadra’s stand-up comedy act and heard her Boring Talk for the BBC on Jeremy Bentham’s “Auto-Icon”.

But there’s a great deal here that was completely new to me — a richer, stranger more diverse history than the one I thought I knew. What a delightful way to discover the myriad ways in which I’m wrong.

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