Friday, June 22, 2007

Culture Murder

Two month's ago I explored the concept of "culture death," as it has been discussed in an article Charles Taylor had written for The New York Review. This morning I was confronted with the "inconvenient truth" that those who perpetrate culture death can easily hide behind anonymity. This confrontation was provided by Kate Mayberry in an article she filed for Al Jazeera English from Sarawak, one of the Malaysian states on the island of Borneo. Her article is a much more immediate account of culture death than was Taylor's examination of the fate of the Crow Indians. The latter may have been closer to home in space; but, if, for better or worse, globalization is all about the "disappearance of space," then it is more important that Ms. Mayberry was closer to home in time. The victims she examined are the Penan, one of the world's last nomadic peoples confronted with a world that, with its rigid definitions of property, no longer has a place for nomads.

In modern language nomadism is a subsistence economy: One moves in search of the resources that provide subsistence, usually through hunting and gathering. The cause of the culture death of the Penan is the exploitation of the resources on Borneo in the interest of the logging industry. We are thus confronted once again with that inexorable Dickensian logic of Little Dorrit: the culture death of the Penan is "nobody's fault." However, while I first attacked this logic for an offense of cultural insult, the death of a nomadic culture is as serious a matter as any act of "ethnic cleansing," even if only about 10,000 of the Penan still remain, a number dwarfed by most statistics of ethnic cleansing.

These reflections haunt me as I ponder my weekly Chutzpah award. If this is really "nobody's fault," then who is committing the chutzpah? However, the point behind Dickens' turn of phrase is not that no one is at fault for all the misfortunes that surround Dorrit's life but that those who are at fault hide behind anonymity, just as those who are perpetrating the culture death of the Penan. Act of chutzpah are being committed in the name of globalization, and they should not go unrecognized just because they cannot be attributed to specific agents.

Law & Order fans have encountered that strategy of putting out an arrest warrant for an individual identified only by DNA. Since we are not dealing with issues of due process of law here, there seems nothing wrong with identifying an agent on the basis of his or her acts, rather than a specific name. In the case of the Penan, there are actually any number of agents responsible for the chutzpah. These include those who work for the logging companies, those who run those logging companies, those who have a voice as shareholders in the logging companies, and, of course, those involved with both international and Malaysian national policy-making, who create the context in which the interests of the logging companies trump those of 10,000 indigenous nomads. Needless to say, all of those agents would prefer to remain anonymous rather than stepping forward to accept the Chutzpah of the Week award; so the only comfort the rest of us can take is that they know who they are!

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