Back to Index


Margaret MacKenzie, an anthropologist, calls our attention to a book which has been the subject of debates in Australia. It is Roger Sandall's The Culture Cult: A Symposium. Here is a summary of it: "The Culture Cult is an acerbic critique of that longing widespread in society today to 'retreat from civilization'. From Rousseau and the Noble Savage to modern defenders of ethnicity such as Isaiah Berlin and Karl Polanyi, a prominent intellectual fashion has over-romanticized the virtues of tribal life. In contrast, another tradition, represented by Karl Popper, Michael Polanyi, and Ernest Gellner, defends modern values and civil society. ...The romantic insistence on the superiority of the primitive is increasingly grounded in a fictionalized picture of the past - a picture often created with the aid of well-meaning but misguided anthropologists. Such idealizations work to the detriment of the very people they are meant to help, for they isolate minorities from such undeniable benefits of modern society as literacy and health care..."

My comment: Margaret knows where I stand in this debate. The fight has led to the creation of two anthropology departments at Stanford: "Anthropolical Sciences" and "Cultural and Social Anthropology". It would be simpler to call the latter "Romantic Anthropology". This does not mean that I idealize our empty lifestyle. TV around the world has been showing people leaving for their seaside vacations. They travel on jammed highways for hours to reach the resort or that they wait for hours in airports (many airlines, expecially in Spain, are plagued with strikes), and then travel like sardines. The vacation consists mostly of lying on the beach. Asked why they are taking a vacation, they answered "to get away after a year's boring work". As a small boy I was taken on such vacations, and how bored I was! That led to my passion: travelling around Europe like a pilgrim, visiting its glorious churches. The pilgrims were not bored.

Ronald Hilton - 7/1/01