Messiahs, Scapegoats, and Taboos, oh my…

I am behind on reporting on my reading list for 2013 – for that, I apologize, but what that does mean is that you’ll see at least two and probably three new blog posts this week as I catch you up on my experience with the books on my list. First up is the anthropologist Marvin Harris‘s classic explanation of our need for messiahs, scapegoats, sacred cows, and taboos, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches.

I was attracted to Harris for a couple of reasons. One is, as anthropologists go, he was something of a provocateur, and, since my own academic career has often veered in that direction, I get him personally. Second, like another favorite “public intellectual” whose work I admire (and who is a contemporary of Harris), Neil Postman, he writes wonderfully lucid, readable prose that one can read and comprehend readily without an advanced degree in his subject area.  (This doesn’t lessen the insight and enjoyment of reading either of these thinkers and writers one bit. In fact, both provide the highly valuable service of opening doors into their respective fields – anthropology and communication studies – that may draw readers into more “scholarly” reading in these fields.)

But on to Harris’s book.

The thrust of Harris’s argument has to do with what we could call the “ecological” approach to anthropology: he attempts to explain human behavior in terms of social and economic needs of a given culture. The protection of cows in Hindu culture, for example, (they are, literally, sacred) can be explained quite satisfactorily once one understands the need for cow dung as fuel and the economic necessity of using land for grain rather than meat production. Similarly, Harris relates the abhorrence of pigs by Jews more to the ecological damage that would be done to Israel by widespread hog farming – a practice that would place pigs in direct competition with humans for scarce resources (food, water).

From these examples of how ecology and social practice intersect, Harris moves our attention to the South Pacific and the Pacific Northwest where he explains two practices that, when expanded in more advanced societies, turn on humanity in ugly ways: war and, for want of a better term, potlatch (the giving of gifts as a display of wealth and power).  As practiced by South Pacific islanders called the Tsembaga Maring, war is a way of conserving resources and allows them to maintain a reasonable population for their environment. As practiced by tribes like the Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island, Canada, one way a chief shows his worthiness to lead is through the ritual giving away of tribal wealth.

It should be obvious to anyone reading this that extrapolating from the practices of the Tsembaga and the Kwakiutl into more complex societies leads to all kinds of ugliness: empire building is only one of the outcomes that readers of this piece will surely recognize as the natural outcome of developing potlatch and war as economic practices.

But it’s in the areas of expecting others to save us from ourselves and finding others to blame for our misfortunes that Harris really enjoys himself the most. Let’s look at each separately.

The idea of the messiah – the anointed one who’ll save us from our bad choices – Harris defines as being an extension of what he calls “cargo cults“: the belief of undeveloped cultures that the goods brought by imperialist colonizers are a sort of “salvation.” The most  dedicated practitioners of messiah cultism were, of course, the Hebrew and Christian cultures of  the period of Roman occupation of Palestine. The interesting – for Harris, especially – and noteworthy characteristic of Jewish messianic belief is that their messiahs are military in nature – in other words, the traditional ecology of their homeland must be restored by war (see the Tsembaga mentioned above) – since Roman (and other, earlier, we should note) conquest has changed that ecology (and hence restored it from, for example, Egyptian or Babylonian conquest).  In fact, Harris argues that the rise of Jesus Christ as a “prince of peace” – a new kind of messiah – coincides with the destruction of Jerusalem and the final decimation of Jewish resistance to Roman domination.

In a similar way, Harris argues that the offering of scapegoats as focuses for cultural anger – and Harris offers the most well known example, the witch – by dominant cultural forces (since the rise of witch persecution came in the Middle Ages, these would be hereditary nobility and the now dominant and, in its own way, imperialistic Catholic Church) which allowed both of these ruling classes to escape punishment for their lack of concern for the plight of “those who work” (I use this term because of its suggestion of the “three orders” of society as discussed by Georges Duby, among others). If the problems and struggles of a culture where one group did all labor to support the other two groups could be explained away as the result of “bad magic” which could be fixed by burning alive or otherwise committing genocide on the old, the mentally disturbed, ethnic “outsiders,” or women, then everyone could live together happily – except for those murdered for the sake of defusing societal discontent, of course.

Harris ends his book (published in 1974) with a few choice barbs aimed at what was then known as the “counter-culture” (what we now think of most often as the New Age movement). His point that time spent rehabilitating witchcraft and/or expecting a “harmonic convergence” or some other sort of “cosmic salvation” could be better spent addressing world culture’s real economic and social inequities is well taken.  One wishes only that he’d updated his work to address issues such as fundamentalist religion’s rise and other – as Marshall McLuhan termed them – “rear view” cultural movements.

About Jim Booth

writer, professor, rock star - pretty inaccurate summary, I think...
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