It reminded me a lot of home, which isn't Appalachia, but it's still rural and connected to those factory towns. It was quick to read, engaging, lovely. I really enjoyed it.
Anarchist educator who can be found at nerdteacher.com where I muse about school and education-related things, and all my links are here. My non-book posts are at @firstname.lastname@example.org or emailed at email@example.com. [they/them]
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The reason archaeological evidence from Europe is so rich is that European governments tend to be rich; and that European professional institutions, learned societies and university departments have been pursuing prehistory far longer on their own doorstep than in other parts of the world. With each year that passes, new evidence accumulates for early behavioural complexity elsewhere: not just Africa, but also the Arabian Peninsula, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
The problem is that prehistory turns out to be an extremely long period of time: more than 3 million years, during which we know our ancestors were, at least sometimes, using stone tools. For most of this period, evidence is extremely limited. There are phases of literally thousands of years for which the only evidence of hominin activity we possess is a single tooth, and perhaps a handful of pieces of shaped flint. While the technology we are capable of bringing to bear on such remote periods improves dramatically each decade, there’s only so much you can do with sparse material. As a result, it’s difficult to resist the temptation to fill in the gaps, to claim we know more than we really do. When scientists do this the results often bear a suspicious resemblance to those very biblical narratives modern science is supposed to have cast aside.
What needs to be investigated, instead, might better be called the ‘myth of the myth of the noble savage’: why is it that certain Europeans began attributing such a naive position to others? The answer isn’t pretty. The phrase ‘noble savage’ was in fact popularized a century or so after Rousseau, as a term of ridicule and abuse. It was deployed by a clique of outright racists, who in 1859 – as the British Empire reached its height of power – took over the British Ethnological Society and called for the extermination of inferior peoples.
Observers who had previously considered the modes of subsistence and division of labour in North American societies to be trivial matters, or of at best secondary importance, now began assuming that they were the only thing that really mattered. Everyone was to be sorted along the same grand evolutionary ladder, depending on their primary mode of acquiring food. ‘Egalitarian’ societies were banished to the bottom of this ladder, where at best they could provide some insight on how our distant ancestors might have lived; but certainly could no longer be imagined as equal parties to a dialogue about how the inhabitants of wealthy and powerful societies should conduct themselves in the present.
Not only are we taught to think of intellectual history as something largely produced by individuals writing great books or thinking great thoughts, but these ‘great thinkers’ are assumed to perform both these activities almost exclusively with reference to each other. As a result, even in cases where Enlightenment thinkers openly insisted they were getting their ideas from foreign sources (as the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz did when he urged his compatriots to adopt Chinese models of statecraft), there’s a tendency for contemporary historians to insist they weren’t really serious; or else that when they said they were embracing Chinese, or Persian, or indigenous American ideas these weren’t really Chinese, Persian or indigenous American ideas at all but ones they themselves had made up and merely attributed to exotic Others.
Intellectual historians have never really abandoned the Great Man theory of history. They often write as if all important ideas in a given age can be traced back to one or other extraordinary individual – whether Plato, Confucius, Adam Smith or Karl Marx – rather than seeing such authors’ writings as particularly brilliant interventions in debates that were already going on in taverns or dinner parties or public gardens (or, for that matter, lecture rooms), but which otherwise might never have been written down. It’s a bit like pretending William Shakespeare had somehow invented the English language. In fact, many of Shakespeare’s most brilliant turns of phrase turn out to have been common expressions of the day, which any Elizabethan Englishman or woman would be likely to have thrown into casual conversation, and whose authors remain as obscure as those of knock-knock jokes – even if, were it not for Shakespeare, they’d probably have passed out of use and been forgotten long ago.
After all, imagine we framed the problem differently, the way it might have been fifty or 100 years ago: as the concentration of capital, or oligopoly, or class power. Compared to any of these, a word like ‘inequality’ sounds like it’s practically designed to encourage half-measures and compromise. It’s possible to imagine overthrowing capitalism or breaking the power of the state, but it’s not clear what eliminating inequality would even mean. (Which kind of inequality? Wealth? Opportunity? Exactly how equal would people have to be in order for us to be able to say we’ve ‘eliminated inequality’?) The term ‘inequality’ is a way of framing social problems appropriate to an age of technocratic reformers, who assume from the outset that no real vision of social transformation is even on the table.
There are, certainly, tendencies in history. Some are powerful; currents so strong that they are very difficult to swim against (though there always seem to be some who manage to do it anyway). But the only ‘laws’ are those we make up ourselves.