Reimagining American Community

20071101ho_walkabout_500I learned two things from the movie “Crocodile Dundee”:

First, I learned what Paul Hogan does and does not consider to be, properly speaking, “a knife.” (Hint: size matters.) That knowledge has served me well over the years, enabling me on an untold number of occasions to say with great accuracy and confidence: “That’s not a knife.”

But second, and perhaps more importantly, I learned that there is this thing called a “walkabout” on which a man might go, and which involves traipsing off into the Australian outback, for an indeterminate period of time, with little or nothing on your person except maybe a knife (preferably one that, by Paul Hogan standards, actually is a knife).

While the first lesson—the one about Dundee’s miniature scimitar—captured my attention for the first, oh, twenty-seven years of my life, eventually it was the concept of the “walkabout” that began to kindle my curiosity. And so, naturally, I did some research on the matter. It appears that although the term does indeed refer to the act of disappearing into the Australian wasteland, its original meaning was not exactly what my adolescent self was led to believe.

It was originally used to describe, not romantic acts of wanderlust by rugged and thoroughly tanned white men, but rather the tendency of Aboriginal peoples to disappear without warning, and without leave, from their white employers. “Walkabout” was not something one claimed he was about to go on—it was something that he was said to have already gone on, to his boss’s great chagrin. Apparently this led employers to assume that flakiness and unreliability were “inherent in the Aboriginal nature”; or, in modern terminology: Aborigines were lazy. Thus, the act “going on walkabout” was really just an old-fashioned “no-call, no-show.” And yet, sooner or later, people figured out that the sporadic absences were not without rhyme or reason. They weren’t just walking about, they were walking to something—usually a wedding, a birth, or some religious event. In short, they were walking to a specific rhythm; it just wasn’t the rhythm of the combustion engine or the assembly line. It was the rhythm of life and of community, and the Aboriginal people could hear this music over the noise of the machinery and the ticking of the clock. So obstinately did they prefer this tune, so naturally and without a second thought, that Western observers assumed it was an instinct unique to their race, so deaf were they to this subtle ancient melody.

But of course this phenomenon wasn’t unique—the Aborigines were not the only people to prefer this rhythm. In fact, this problem seems to recur each time modern methods are deployed in some new territory or culture. An exploration of the subject reveals that most underdeveloped (pronounced: “backwards”) peoples tend to reject the rigidity of the time-clock, and it takes not a little discipline, and even a certain degree of invasive re-education, before they will submit to the daily grind.

One American company noticed that the locals were not participating satisfactorily in the projects they were hired for, and so the company decided to double their pay. To the astonishment of the managers, the workers simply responded by cutting their hours in half. Having met their needs with the original wage, their natural reaction to the new income was to spend more time at home. They did not value the new income in and of itself, which would have led them to cling more closely to the work—they valued it for the freedom it offered them. This situation is common, and at the same time it seems to be always met with the same interpretation: the people must be lazy, and the culture inferior and somehow backwards.

This inability to empathize with such a prioritization of life—the inability to “hear” the strange music that these people seem to be hearing—leads consistently to confusion, and then to condescension. It somehow feels like a deep challenge to the assumptions of industrial civilization, and even a rejection of our values. Ananda Coomaraswamy was right in observing that: “It irks us that these others, who are neither, as we are, industrialized nor, as we are, ‘democratic,’ should nevertheless be contented; we feel bound to discontent them…” And indeed we do feel bound. It feels as if we were trying to “share our blessings” with these backward individuals, and they rejected our great gift. And, unfortunately, we usually end up forcing them to accept our gift, whether they like it or not. In the words of Coomaraswamy, we develop a strange sort of “proselytism mania,” through which the Gospel of Development is aggressively spread.

This results, as the word “proselytism” implies, in a strange synthesis between religious zeal and a material methodology. The Good News is industrialism, and the catechesis is of a purely technical sort. Ivan Illich, an insightful thinker who is not nearly so widely read as he deserves, sought to address this very problem when he spoke so fervently against missionary work in Latin America:

“By definition, you cannot help being ultimately vacationing salesmen for the middle-class ‘American Way of Life,’ since that is really the only life you know. A group like this could not have developed unless a mood in the United States had supported it – the belief that any true American must share God’s blessings with his poorer fellow men. The idea that every American has something to give, and at all times may, can and should give it, explains why it occurred to students that they could help Mexican peasants ‘develop’ by spending a few months in their villages…It is now high time to cure yourselves of this. You, like the values you carry, are the products of an American society of achievers and consumers, with its two-party system, its universal schooling, and its family-car affluence. You are ultimately-consciously or unconsciously – ‘salesmen’ for a delusive ballet in the ideas of democracy, equal opportunity and free enterprise among people who haven’t the possibility of profiting from these.”

Illich strikes at the heart when he says later: “There is no way for you to really meet with the underprivileged, since there is no common ground whatsoever for you to meet on.”

There is apparently a profound chasm between the affluent and the “undeveloped,” and it goes beyond the economic order of things, but having become so immersed in the Gospel of Development, the economic order is all we are capable of seeing. This renders a real “meeting of persons” impossible. In a word, the reason we cannot see eye-to-eye with a Mexican peasant or an Australian Aborigine is not because they lack expensive prescription glasses—it is because they often see the world through an entirely different set of eyes. Buying them prescriptions won’t “show” them anything. To ignore this and insist on buying prescriptions anyway, perhaps even forcing poor people to wear these prescriptions in hopes that they’ll “see correctly” once they’ve got them on, is going to frustrate both parties and exacerbate the miscommunication. These efforts tend, in the end, to lead not so much to the development of such peoples, but to their cultural decimation. No finer example of this can be offered than the American Indians, who, as a people with an organic culture, hardly exist any longer.

What leads to this often violent inability to communicate? What blinds affluent industrialists like us from being able to see beyond merely material circumstance and understand the spirit behind the so-called “underdeveloped?” What is the cause of our tone-deafness to the traditional rhythm of life? I’d like to offer the explanation formulated by Italian philosopher Julius Evola. He called it the “socio-economic myth,” and defined it as:

“…the serious assumption that existential misery can be reduced to suffering in one way or another from material want, and to impoverishment due to a given socioeconomic system.”

Obviously such an assumption creates almost automatically a very materialistic view of the world—in fact it creates a purely materialistic view of the world, and judges the well-being of every man by his material circumstance. Such an outlook renders traditional cultures—even culture itself—incomprehensible. It makes man unable to understand even himself. Evola called it a “psychic lobotomy” that would methodically “neutralize and infantilize any form of higher sensibility and interest, every way of thought that is not in terms of the economy and socio-economic process.” Such civilizations then live in a state of progress-induced “technological euphoria,” which must be constantly fed before it dies out and makes felt the spiritual void that lies beneath. Needless to say, this implies a certain degree of existential insecurity, which will then be projected out onto the entire world.

This leads us to an absurd effort to solve all problems of human existence by material means. We begin trying to solve the perennial problems of man by asking the questions in an entirely new way. For example, as illustrated by most American political discourse, we begin stating most of our political questions in economic terms. Even hostilities between nations tend to devolve into conflicts of an economic nature.

Naturally then, when we encounter an Aborigine or a third-world peasant, we seek first and foremost a way to change his material circumstance so that his economy will expand as ours has expanded. Again, this “socio-economic myth” has become so imbibed on the modern spirit that it mingles indistinctly with both our spiritual and our commercial endeavors. Thus, we have men like George Weigel who reduce the problem of destitution to a matter of capitalistic evangelization:

“The poor who are getting not-poor have, in the main, been incorporated into global systems of production and exchange: sometimes roughly, to be sure, and often unevenly, but where economic growth lifts large numbers of people out of poverty, that growth comes from being part of a global market, not from any other source.”

The answer, for Weigel and friends, is perfectly clear: integration into the “global systems,” and he is always quite clear on the fact that human prosperity cannot be drawn from any other source. This attitude, by the way, was the same that led warships to the harbors of Japan, shelling ships and sending white flags of intimidation to the Emperor, all simply because the reclusive nation feared the loss of its personality—it feared integration into what it called the “barbarian people.” It rejected the gospel, and Japanese culture died a heretic’s death.

Julius Evola referred to this sort of attitude as “Economic Messianism,” and responded:

“What must be questioned is not the value of this or that economic system, but the value of the economy itself. Thus, despite the fact that the antithesis between capitalism and Marxism dominates the background of recent times, it must be regarded as a pseudo-antithesis. In free-market economies, as well as in Marxist societies, the myth of production and its corollaries (e.g., standardization, monopolies, cartels, technocracy) are subject to the ‘hegemony’ of the economy, becoming the primary factor on which the material conditions of existence are based. Both systems regard as ‘backward’ or as ‘underdeveloped’ those civilizations that do not amount to ‘civilizations based on labor and production’—namely, those civilizations that, luckily for themselves, have not yet been caught up in the feverish industrial exploitation of every natural resource, the social and productive enslavement of all human possibilities, and the exaltation of technical and industrial standards; in other words, those civilizations that still enjoy a certain space and a relative freedom. Thus, the truth antithesis is not between capitalism and Marxism, but between a system in which the economy rules supreme (no matter in what form) and a system in which the economy is subordinated to extra-economic factors, within a wider and more complete order, such as to bestow a deep meaning upon human life and foster the development of its highest possibilities.”

Evola believed that civilization had to be reconstituted in such a way that the lives of men could be animated by “extra-economic” values—in such a way that the economy did not always and everywhere have the last word. This would mean, for example, that when an employee does not show up because there is a wedding going on in the village, or because there is a rite of passage ceremony underway, that no one is surprised at his absence. In such a culture, a culture with “extra-economic” values, no one would be around at the factory to be surprised at his absence, because the employer himself would be at the celebration.  The “walkabout” would no longer be necessary, but if it happened it would be understood.

Really, as Illich tried to say, the affluent nations of the world must learn to accept that it may not be they who have something to share with the “underdeveloped” peoples of the world. It may just be vice versa. We could also listen to the wisdom of Ruskin, who said long ago that the only real way to help a foreign people is not to integrate them into yourself, but to integrate yourself into them—to live with them and, rather than changing what they do, simply learn what they are already doing, and then help them do it better. But so long as the “socio-economic myth” prevails in the Western mind, communication and empathy will remain impossible.

Lawrence E. Harrison’s famous book, “Underdeveloped is a State of Mind,” asks the right question, for once. He just happens to answer it wrongly. He concludes as we would expect from a “salesmen for the American middle-class”: that Latin Americans are an inferior culture, lack a vigorous spirit, etc. Our southern neighbors, he thoroughly proves, just don’t have the right mentality for progress via the industrial-capitalistic plan. They are, so to speak, “lost.” Sort of like the Native Americans, I suppose. I agree with Harrison’s assessment, of course, except that, unlike Harrison, I’m not really so sure which state of mind is the superior. Maybe that’s because, for almost as long as I can remember, I’ve had a subtle and growing desire to go on a very long “walkabout.”

About the Author
Daniel Schwindt is Editor-in-chief at Solidarity Hall. He hails from the plains of central Kansas, a cultural navel of the world, and from there hurls his literary lighting bolts far and wide. His writings include Letter to my Generation: On Identity, Direction, and Disbelief, The Pursuit of Sanity, and Holocaust of the Childlike.