Thursday, October 4, 2007

95. The Lesson For Today -- Continued

I think the most important recommendation I could offer with regard to the whole issue of cultural "equity" (assuming anyone with any degree of influence in such matters is listening) would be that the problems of endangered traditions be afforded at least as much importance as that of endangered animal species. In other words, the issue of cultural ecology should be added to that of environmental ecology as a prime concern of all peoples and all nations, as part of our growing awareness that certain vital aspects of life on this planet, both physical and spiritual (and I do NOT include religion in this formula, thank you), represent urgent concerns that must be addressed if coming generations are to have any sort of meaningful future at all.

Note that we cannot in all good conscience argue similarly on behalf of, say, "endangered peoples." Not because there are no people in the world who are endangered or that there should be no efforts to assist and support them -- on the contrary, this is a hugely important problem that must continually be addressed with the greatest urgency -- but because we find endangered peoples all over the globe, in every country, of every ethnic background, in the countryside, the cities, in factories, farms, mines, slums, ghettos, on the streets, in homeless shelters, etc. The problem of endangered peoples is a vast, worldwide social problem that includes, but cannot be limited to, the effort to support indigenous peoples.

If we want to support indigenous peoples as such, we must emphasize what it is that makes them special and important to humanity as a whole -- i.e., their culture, their traditions. Their "indigeneity" per se, in terms of whatever claims they may have to the prior or inherent ownership of certain lands, properties, etc., however important from a moral and legal standpoint, is not enough to set them apart from any other groups or individuals who might have been unjustly dispossessed and/or displaced in the past, indigenous or not.

I've looked through the recently adopted United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples with mixed feelings. I won't comment on any of this in detail for now, but the sense I get is that there are far too many pronouncements and far too little discussion of all the many problems and pitfalls entailed in almost every article. For one thing, nowhere in the declaration is there any attempt to even define what is meant by "indigenous peoples." Nor is there any attempt to address the extremely complex questions and contradictions that will inevitably arise from many statements -- as in Article 3, for example, where it is declared that "Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination."

Peter Jones is going over the declaration very seriously and in some detail and he certainly has his work cut out for him. I think the essential problem is that the declaration attempts far too much, including a laundry list of often redundant and in many cases unreasonable demands obviously inserted by a wide range of different constituencies, in an attempt to please as many representatives of as many interested parties as possible, with little thought to the potentially divisive and even violent consequences -- in the highly unlikely event that everything in the document will be taken seriously by all the nations that signed it. Realistically, the declaration is likely to have no effect at all, because too many of the issues it addresses, where not hopelessly intractable on their face, are so complex as to be resolvable only in courts of law -- or, God forbid, armed conflicts.

What I'm trying to do here is emphasize the importance of the cultural side of this issue, because, as I see it, the battle for cultural equity on behalf of indigenous traditions is a battle that can be won, an eminently achievable goal. And, moreoever, a battle that can be "fought" peacefully without the need for either weapons or recriminations, which everyone can win and no one would necessarily lose. Whereas the more fundamental, life and death, moral and legal, battles that most concern Peter, as reflected in the well meaning but IMO naive UN declaration, are so complex and so fraught with the potential for violent confrontation, that they may never be fully or even partially resolved by anything more than a series of piecemeal compromises, appropriate to each local situation.

As I see it, efforts like Peter's blog afford a much better opportunity for addressing such issues, since each instance of exploitation, persecution or aggrandizement can be discussed and evaluated on its own merit, within its own parameters and context. In some cases, it might be appropriate to argue for self-determination, in others a simple compromise might offer a better solution. Of course, the UN declaration will be read by many more influential people than Peter's (or my) blog. But if Peter and I persist, we might ultimately reach more people in the long run and maybe change some minds.

Is it naive to assume that anything can be done to effectively and definitively stem the tide of global cultural "pollution"? Isn't it inevitable that native cultures will either vanish, be watered down, or simply assimilated into the mainstream "white"-out? In my next post, I want to discuss some exemplary instances where efforts to protect, promote and develop indigenous traditions have met with real success.

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