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Is Anthropology Of Western Culture By Others Banned?

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I am in an egroup called ‘openrisa’ whose very purpose was to counter the closed the elitist nature of risa. Openrisa was started by an Australian scholar of Hinduism. However, it seems that when I write something in response to a comment about Indian culture, such that I point out similar ethnic peculiarities amongst western people, the moderator refuses to allow my post.

It is as though western people are off limits for study by non-westerners, using the same anthropology and other methodologies by which the non-westerners are routinely studied. When we want to know something about them, they will tell what to think, and we are prevented from having our own independent perspectives.

Below is my latest post that he censored. A Belgian scholar had posted that Indians and Orientals in general are very, very seriously hung up on their symbols, and he heroically proclaimed that westerners are not so symbol-driven. So in response, I wanted to show that westerns also love their symbols. He rejected my post (which I copy below) with the diplomatic remark that it is interesting but “NOT on topic.”

Why does he arbitrarily get to censor – that too in the name of a list which I helped popularize in the name of open and free exchange of ideas that are suppressed by risa?

Why are non-westerners disallowed from viewing white people as exotically as is routinely done in reverse? This reversal of the gaze should be encouraged, as it would improve mutual understanding and should not be suppressed.

Regards, Rajiv


Koenraad Elst: “Indians and some other Orientals (like some dwindling groups in the West) take symbols very very seriously, and we don’t.”

This is not true of westerners, but a major blindness of scholars today.

Ronald Reagan’s funeral and week-long ceremonies were a larger than life display of the American Grand Narrative. Americans do take their symbols, narratives, history (much of it falsely and chauvinistically taught) very, very seriously. This notion that westerners don’t take their Grand Narratives seriously is what I call postmodern blindness. It pretends that western myths are universal, and hence claims there is no “western” myth as such (having elevated western myths to universal truths, ethics, human rights…)

Secular westerners circumcise, bury their dead (as opposed to cremation that is cleaner, cheaper and better ecologically), have church weddings, have laws based on Biblical notions like “retribution” and so forth, give their kids Biblical names…

Kennedy’s assassination was a terrible blow to the American Grand Narrative. Thereafter, Jacqueline Kennedy filled the symbolic role of American Camelot, until she married a “foreigner” Onassis which was very hurtful to Americans’ sense of national symbolism. Despite this devaluation of her symbolic value, she remained symbolically special as the honors upon her death demonstrated.

The Brits have their royals as pride of national identity or else they would not support their extravagances. Princess Diana’s wedding was the zenith of English symbolism, and her death was the British equivalent of America’s September 11 – a blow to the Grand Narrative of the nation.

The French have their pride of Cannes, wines, cosmetics, fashions, Paris, etc. – btw, French cultural exports create more jobs than any other industry, so symbolism is serious economic stuff.

Symbolic capital is a well understood asset category in western society, hence much is done to protect it; in the political realm it is called soft power (J, Nye of Harvard coined the term).

When I used to work in Brussels, I asked many times why Belgium needs to exist as a separate nation. Why not merge half of it with France and the other half with Holland? When you answer this you will automatically understand that symbolism is very, very important to those highly rational and progressive Europeans.

Bottom line: Different societies have different kinds of symbols, but they do have them and value them. It’s a classical western blind spot to say that Orientalists are very, very stuck on symbols but that the westerners being rational have evolved on beyond this nonsense. In fact, Westerners spend more on their “nonsensical” symbolism, project them worldwide more assertively (as any trademark attorney will confirm), and value their identity as “Westerners” which is based largely on symbolism.

Published: 2004