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January 26, 2005

Bush and the Bushmen

Posted by S. J. Masty
…every man and woman on this earth has rights…there can be no human rights without human liberty.
George W. Bush, Second Inaugural Address, 20th January, 2005.

Without being facetious, one wonders what George W. Bush might think of the Bushmen, the 100,000 remaining original inhabitants of Southern Africa. They pose a curious philosophical dilemma, a threat to the world that President Bush has pledged to build.

Spread across Namibia, South Africa and Botswana, most of these small, pale brown, soft-spoken, high-cheekboned people intermarried with pastoral tribes and disappeared generations ago, while many urbanised survivors succumbed to drink, drugs and lethargy like American Indians or Australian Aborigines. But according to some environmental organisations, NGOs and media, the government of Botswana since 1997 has, with mixed success, rounded up many of its last desert-dwelling, nomadic hunter-gatherers and settled them forcibly, ending their way of life. The fate of the Bushmen has become a major issue for Survival International.

Yet Botswana is an admirable country, peaceful and crime-free, devoid of bigotry and discord for 1500 years. It is now professionally and technologically adept, rich from diamonds and expansive cattle ranches. Things work well there, and everything seems cleaner than in Europe. The Batswana (as they are called) suffer from high levels of HIV like the rest of the region, but they are mostly as depicted in Alexander McCall Smith's popular mystery novels – competent, earnest, good-hearted, church-going folk. Without being stuffy they are a proper, respectable people with good manners largely abandoned in the West. A week among the Batswana lifts one's view of human nature. So I wondered why they had this supposed problem with the harmless nomadic Bushmen, who for the past 30,000 years seemed content to be left alone in vast deserts.

The theory offered by foreign NGOs is that the government and DeBeers want the Bushmen run off the potentially diamond-rich desert. The crusaders are only guessing, but they may be right. Even though the nomads care little for possessions, lawyers (who seem almost self-appointed) have won neighbouring South African Bushmen a cut of global pharmaceutical profits from a cactus used as an appetite suppressant. So the authorities may fear sharing tomorrow's diamonds.

Dinner with an official provided another answer. He was typical of many senior Batswana civil servants – well-educated and tastefully dressed, with a history of success in Europe and North America before entering government service. He was soft-spoken, intelligent and earnest, and involved in neither finance nor diamonds so there was little reason to question his sincerity. The democratically-made laws of his country, he explained, demand that all children go to school. In the desert, Bushmen adults deny a legal right to their own children which is as crucial to the children's future choice of careers as the rule of law is crucial to Botswana's future. He felt strongly about both, clearly upset at the environmentalist objections.

This issue runs consistently but unelaborated throughout President Bush's second inaugural address where he spoke repeatedly of freedom and liberty. President Bush is not a political philosopher and US inaugural addresses traditionally offer metaphor rather than rigorous thought, but herein hides conflict.

A Bushman recently told the BBC, "as you people read books, we read the desert". He proceeded to study an animal track and determine how long ago it had been made based on variables simply too complicated to describe here. Then he carefully showed off his delicate and deadly poisoned arrows. He had insufficient time to explain the many evocative, almost haunting Bushman mythologies that they use to explain their role in the universe.

Born into one of humankind's oldest civilisations, a Bushman infant cannot participate in his own culture and at the same time acquire Western survival skills. You cannot send him to pre-school, then to football practice alternating with hunting lessons, then teach him algebra and San tribal creation myths and video games and how to find water in the Kalahari. You cannot parcel him off to the local comprehensive with after-class lessons in poisoned arrow-making, then to the nearby university after a gap year in the desert with his relatives, and then finally have him choose between a master's degree in international law and going back to being a hunter-gatherer.

Nor can you start him out in one civilisation and let him later select another – watch all the interactive CD-ROMs on tracking antelope that you want, then wander into the desert and see where it gets you.

The decision must be made early, before the child reaches the age of reason, and the decision is irrevocable – the little Bushman child, too young to choose, must be made to walk our path or the path of his people. The Botswana government can permit his kinfolk to make that decision, negating his option to work at the dry-cleaners or to become president of the World Bank. Or they can intervene, drag him and his siblings irrevocably into our world, and end the Bushman way of life forever.

In pursuit of freedom ought Botswana support the collective freedom of the Bushmen to be left alone? Or the individual freedom of the child to later make career and life-style decisions in a modern context as advocated by my principled dinner companion? Similarly, how far should America go to enforce personal choice over collective decision-making? Does individualism justify cultural genocide?

Many venerable societies are predicated upon not trusting individuals to make the big personal decisions. In most tribal and many religious cultures, individuals often have little choice in whom they marry or what work they do. This is how these societies retain cohesion and survive. A century ago, in the shtetls of Eastern Europe or the souks of the Middle East, Jews made these decisions as large families or as communities – rent a copy of Fiddler on the Roof. Today as Jews assimilate into individualistic America, their numbers are dwindling - apart from in those Orthodox communities where individualism is made to take a back seat.

Islam also opposes the primacy of much individual decision-making - many educated Muslims warn that it leads to unbridled license and chaos. Nor is the Koran democratic - if you really believe Islam, good government comes from a handful of holy men who select the best successors. "Please explain again", an Afghan friend asked me, "why should the vote of a wise old professor count half as much as the votes of two idiot teenaged hairdressers?" It is not surprising that so many Muslims believe that America and Britain have declared war on Islam.

Beyond eating in ethnic restaurants and making polite global noises, most Americans and Britons that I meet are deeply hostile to any set of important cultural values apart from their own. So they gladly adopt the individualist position that, in the West or abroad, every Jewish or Muslim or Sikh or Hindu family must let each individual decide for himself in virtually every respect, and if that kills off ancient cultures, well good riddance. However, three pints later they still lament what was done to the American Indians or the Australian aborigines.

The dilemma of the Bushmen presents a clearer choice because they do not live in the house next door like the Goldbergs or the Hassans, the Singhs or the Patels. Bushman are not straddling two cultures. Partial or slow assimilation is not an option. If Botswana must do something, what do you recommend - allow collective decisions to preclude individual choice? Or commit cultural genocide on behalf of individualism?

The answer is more important for America – after all, Botswana is a sovereign state while the US pledges a global campaign. Inside and outside the Bush Administration are powerful people willing to go to war and kill significant numbers of innocent civilians to ensure that the individualist position is made universal.

While downplaying warfare, President Bush seems clear that the Western model of democratically-conveyed individualism must triumph and that God wants it to happen. He has probably not thought through the consequences for minority religions or little cultures like the Bushmen, but I doubt it would change his mind. They must go to the wall. He is a pluralist in the sense of individualism, not a pluralist of systems. Not in the sense of allowing - of choosing not to actively oppose – other older cultural experiments, many of which limit individualism without necessarily descending into tyranny.

If President Bush means what he implies about individualism, then he and his NeoConservatives are certainly not conservatives. Conservatives would recognise what is unique in their own traditions, and in the different traditions that keep others from becoming quite like us. Indeed, if Mr Bush and his people truly believe that democratic individualism is the product where, culturally and politically, 'one size fits all', then they are closer to NeoSoviets – de facto, communism was another ideology at war with every other culture and society on earth.

Shouldn't we expect these besieged cultures to defend themselves? One wonders if Nemesis pursues all hubris with equal vigour.

S J Masty advises foreign governments on strategic communications.

For a rather different take on neoconservatism see Douglas Murray's The Need for a British Neoconservatism.

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You are missing the point. Keep your eye on the ball. It's a democracy, if the Bushmen get voted out of existance, then they are gone. Period. There is no way of telling how many human cultures have vanished over the years. They are not the only Stone age savages to be faced with making a choice. One more or less makes no difference. What is one rat to the pack? One pronghorn to the herd? Democracy is about survival of the group. That survival is acomplished by extolling the individual. I know, it seems contra-intutitive, but it works. Bushmen can either assimulate or die. It doesn't matter to the society they are fighting. They do get a choice. Socialism is going the same way.

Posted by: Stehpinkeln at January 28, 2005 03:54 PM

How about the most basic "freedom": the freedom to live? If a subculture has been killing, say, female infants at a great rate for millennia, is the dominant culture justified in intervening, thereby distorting the culture's composition? How about vaccinations? As an objectivist, I have no problem with letting parents destroy any chance their children may have to compete with other children in becoming civilized. If it weren't imposed by government diktat, I would feel the same way about French Canadian children growing up speaking only French, or at least not learning English well. That certainly interferes with the child's prospects for getting good jobs in North America.
I don't think W was talking about guaranteeing freedom from the vicissitudes of culture and genetics.

Posted by: Robert Speirs at January 28, 2005 04:23 PM

The person who wrote this article has a dramatic misunderstanding of the concepts of liberty, individualism, and democracy, and severely muddles several concepts together.

Democracy is not individualistic. Democracy is a *collective* concept, by definition. (and yes, GW Bush, (and most other politicians) muddle this one too.)

The problem illustrated here is not a individualism vs. a traditional culture, it is one collective culture (i.e. botswana ) vs. another (i.e. the bushmen). The Batswana have decided upon enforcing the rule "all children should be educated (in the modern manner.)" (BTW, note that this is properly termed an entitlement to the children, not a right.), and have decided to force it's compliance upon the bushmen. The real individualistic answer is that each of the bushmen have the right to teach their children however they please, so long as they let their neighbors, bushman or batswana, do the same.

Now it is true, there are some cultures that are fundamentally incompatible with any individualistic society. They simply cannot "be and let be" , which is the requirement for that. Such cultures are also going to be incompatable with pretty much *any* other culture that does not share exactly the same values they do. Such cultures are *not* going to survive long in the modern world. *Most* cultures, however will adapt (or already have), at least enough to allow them to continue exist without being in perpertual war with the rest of the world.

Finally, the real contradiction of all the political talk about democracy and liberty, is this: They are not the same. Not only *can* democracy be opposed to human liberty, it often is.

Posted by: Monsyne Dragon at January 28, 2005 04:34 PM

St Paul writes (in 2 Timothy Chapter 3):

... in the last days, people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents ...

This sounds very much like the individualist culture deplored above. Is this what the West in general, and America in particular, is spreading all over the world? And does Dubya actually *read* the Bible?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at January 28, 2005 06:55 PM

The first of these comments - by stehpinkeln, oh how very droll, how very sad - is either utter offensive tosh - or simply gibberish. I can't work out which as it is so unclearly written. What on earth does "democracy is about the survival of the group" actually mean? Why is "this survival achiieved by extolling the individual"?

Otherwise S J Masty's article is very thought provoking and illuminating. The questions he raises are important and make one think about what is meant when one says one is supporting liberty.

Posted by: Jane at January 29, 2005 12:02 AM

Perhaps we should not simply assume that a "modern" way of life is superior to that of the Bushmen. Perhaps we - even in the rich countries - can learn much from the Bushmen: the way they live, their knowledge. Is our so-called civilised individualistic West really superior to the kind of earthy, organic life lived by the Bushmen?

Posted by: Georgie at January 29, 2005 09:54 AM

What Stehpinkeln does not seem to get with his stupid and offensive comment above, is that the Bushmen's problems are not due to their way of life. They could continue to live their life for ever - what is forcing them away from their way of life are the actions of the Botswana government in trying to open up more diamond mines. It is not the obtuseness of the Bushmen - but the actions of the Botswana government which are the problem.

Having said that S.J Masty is probably right in saying the actions of the Botswana government are not only motivated by a desire to maximise return oon diamonds - but also by some misplaced idea of what "civilised" behaviour is.

Posted by: Jennifer at January 29, 2005 01:22 PM

SJM usefully restates a dilemma: can "Enlightenment Liberalism" be other than universalist and compulsory, and thus not libertarian. Any society faces the problem of what to do with illiberal minorities. But it seems a bit rich to say that G W Bush needs to have much of a view on a country's duty to educate their Bushmen or to leave them to their primordial richness. So far as we know, Mr Bush merely insists that he has the duty to boot out regimes if they are a) an extreme menace to the US; b) extremely unaccoutnable; and c) capable of being overwhelmed by US force at acceptable human cost all round.

Posted by: Richard D North at January 29, 2005 02:03 PM

Frankly, I don't get your point. Because George Bush wants to promote liberty and democracy, the culture of the Bushmen must be eradicated? By that logic, George Bush should have already launched a government program to teach the Amish to drive. Botswana's treatment of the Bushmen is simply an intrusion of the state.

Posted by: John Bono at January 29, 2005 02:57 PM

Thanks to Monsyne Dragon for getting to the heart of things.

I couldn't have said it better.

Posted by: jomama at January 29, 2005 03:18 PM

how are they adapted to the desert, you have to tell at least 3 reasons how they adapted.
Basicly please be clear on the adaptation of the people that live in the desert.

Posted by: guide at November 1, 2005 01:04 PM
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