November 19, 2010

Racism in Brave New World

Seattle mom seeks ban of 'Brave New World'A parent asked the Seattle School Board to ban a classic novel, "Brave New World," arguing it's prejudicial to American Indians.

The school board Wednesday decided to postpone its decision on the 1932 novel by Aldous Huxley, saying it needed more time to deliberate and would again address the matter at a later meeting, and KUOW-TV, Seattle, reported.

Sarah Sense-Wilson, the mother of a student at Nathan Hale High School in Seattle, said her daughter was offended by the reading assignment.

"They left having an image of Indian people as being criminals, that we're to be feared, that we're scary, that we hold these ceremonies that are animalistic and brutal and violent," Sense-Wilson said.

Jack Miles, an English and religious studies professor at The University of California in Irvine and a member of the board of the Aldous and Laura Huxley Literary Trust, said, "(Huxley's) point is not to celebrate the white visitors and laugh at the Natives who are on the Reservation. It's rather to draw attention to the ways in which the larger society is the wilder and more depraved one."
I read this book in high school but don't remember much about it. I have no recollection of its having an extended passage about Indians.

What it's about

For those of you like me, here's a summary:

Brave New World | IntroductionWritten in 1931 and published the following year, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World is a dystopian—or anti-utopian—novel. In it, the author questions the values of 1931 London, using satire and irony to portray a futuristic world in which many of the contemporary trends in British and American society have been taken to extremes. Though he was already a best-selling author, Huxley achieved international acclaim with this now-classic novel. Because Brave New World is a novel of ideas, the characters and plot are secondary, even simplistic. The novel is best appreciated as an ironic commentary on contemporary values.

The story is set in a London six hundred years in the future. People all around the world are part of a totalitarian state, free from war, hatred, poverty, disease, and pain. They enjoy leisure time, material wealth, and physical pleasures. However, in order to maintain such a smoothly running society, the ten people in charge of the world, the Controllers, eliminate most forms of freedom and twist around many traditionally held human values. Standardization and progress are valued above all else. These Controllers create human beings in factories, using technology to make ninety-six people from the same fertilized egg and to condition them for their future lives. Children are raised together and subjected to mind control through sleep teaching to further condition them. As adults, people are content to fulfill their destinies as part of five social classes, from the intelligent Alphas, who run the factories, to the mentally challenged Epsilons, who do the most menial jobs. All spend their free time indulging in harmless and mindless entertainment and sports activities. When the Savage, a man from the uncontrolled area of the world (an Indian reservation in New Mexico) comes to London, he questions the society and ultimately has to choose between conformity and death.
Weak plot and characterization...that sounds about right. So what the hell is this book still doing on school reading lists? Because someone thought it was great once doesn't make it great forever.

25th-century Indians?

Brave New World takes place in the year 2495. By then I'd worry that the forces of acculturation and assimilation would've fully integrated Indians into the mainstream. That they'd be thoroughly modern citizens with few vestiges of their traditional cultures and religions. (Note to my dumber readers: This is a worry, not a hope or a prediction.)

Is that how Huxley saw the 25th century too? Not exactly. Below are some excerpts from Chapter 7. It features a fictional Pueblo tribe called the Malpais that's clearly modeled on the Hopi:She pointed to the Indian guide who had been appointed to take them up to the pueblo. Her feeling was evidently reciprocated; the very back of the man, as he walked along before them, was hostile, sullenly contemptuous.

A padding of soft feet made them turn round. Naked from throat to navel, their dark brown bodies painted with white lines ("like asphalt tennis courts," Lenina was later to explain), their faces inhuman with daubings of scarlet, black and ochre, two Indians came running along the path. Their black hair was braided with fox fur and red flannel. Cloaks of turkey feathers fluttered from their shoulders; huge feather diadems exploded gaudily round their heads. With every step they took came the clink and rattle of their silver bracelets, their heavy necklaces of bone and turquoise beads.

She liked even less what awaited her at the entrance to the pueblo, where their guide had left them while he went inside for instructions. The dirt, to start with, the piles of rubbish, the dust, the dogs, the flies. Her face wrinkled up into a grimace of disgust. She held her handkerchief to her nose.

An almost naked Indian was very slowly climbing down the ladder from the first-floor terrace of a neighboring house–rung after rung, with the tremulous caution of extreme old age. His face was profoundly wrinkled and black, like a mask of obsidian. The toothless mouth had fallen in.

Lenina was left to face the horrors of Malpais unaided. They came crowding in on her thick and fast.

They rounded a corner. A dead dog was lying on a rubbish heap; a woman with a goitre was looking for lice in the hair of a small girl.

Queer–yes. The place was queer, so was the music, so were the clothes and the goitres and the skin diseases and the old people.

For suddenly there had swarmed up from those round chambers underground a ghastly troop of monsters. Hideously masked or painted out of all semblance of humanity, they had tramped out a strange limping dance round the square; round and again round, singing as they went, round and round–each time a little faster; and the drums had changed and quickened their rhythm, so that it became like the pulsing of fever in the ears; and the crowd had begun to sing with the dancers, louder and louder; and first one woman had shrieked, and then another and another, as though they were being killed; and then suddenly the leader of the dancers broke out of the line, ran to a big wooden chest which was standing at one end of the square, raised the lid and pulled out a pair of black snakes.

The coyote-man raised his whip, there was a long moment of expectancy, then a swift movement, the whistle of the lash and its loud flat-sounding impact on the flesh. The boy's body quivered; but he made no sound, he walked on at the same slow, steady pace. The coyote struck again, again; and at every blow at first a gasp, and then a deep groan went up from the crowd. The boy walked. Twice, thrice, four times round he went. The blood was streaming. Five times round, six times round. Suddenly Lenina covered her face with her hands and began to sob. "Oh, stop them, stop them!" she implored. But the whip fell and fell inexorably. Seven times round. Then all at once the boy staggered and, still without a sound, pitched forward on to his face.

The door opened. A very stout blonde squaw stepped across the threshold and stood looking at the strangers staring incredulously, her mouth open. Lenina noticed with disgust that two of the front teeth were missing. And the colour of the ones that remained … She shuddered. It was worse than the old man. So fat. And all the lines in her face, the flabbiness, the wrinkles. And the sagging cheeks, with those purplish blotches. And the red veins on her nose, the bloodshot eyes. And that neck–that neck; and the blanket she wore over her head–ragged and filthy. And under the brown sack-shaped tunic those enormous breasts, the bulge of the stomach, the hips. Oh, much worse than the old man, much worse!
Comment:  Needless to say, I've never heard of any Native blood "sacrifice" conducted on young boys. Men, yes, but not boys. I also believe there are no Native ceremonies involving shrieking women.

These Indians aren't quite ready to get neural implants or join Starfleet. Or to surf the Net. Or to use cloth and metal. Do you think they'll get running water and electricity by the year 3000, or is that too much to hope for?

Indians stuck in the past

With these excerpts in've got to be kidding, Professor Miles. Does the Huxley Trust pay you to defend this tripe? This may be the most racist stereotyping ever in a work deemed a classic. Books such as Robinson Crusoe and Little House on the Prairie have nothing compared to this. Even Peter Pan isn't this bad.

This passage isn't about making the Indians look good so civilization looks bad. If anything, it's a pseudo-justification for keeping civilization safe, calm, and controlled. It's saying freedom is a kind of madness, like being a wild animal or Indian. It may be attractive to some, but others understandably will stick with technology and its creature comforts.

But it doesn't matter what Huxley's intent was. He grossly stereotyped the Indians of 1932. He did little or nothing to show their humanity. He certainly did nothing to show how they might've evolved and progressed to become members of Western society--as they've done since colonial times. As a portrayal of 600 years of ignorance and stagnation--Indians haven't even learned how to dispose of dead dogs!--it's repugnant.

Since Miles seems a bit clueless, I'm happy to inform him that this portrayal is pure racism. It adds nothing to Brave New World. Indeed, it subtracts from the book by making a case for a dystopia. If Huxley had wanted to make a natural lifestyle look good, he would've painted the Indians with positive stereotypes--i.e., as noble savages living in harmony with nature. Clearly he didn't do that.

This posting confirms what I recall: that Brave New World isn't a great book. Nowadays you could find hundreds of dystopian science-fiction novels as good as it or better. Therefore, I see no need for it to remain in the school curriculum.

For more on the subject, see Stereotypes in A Princess of Mars and Hopi in The Gods Laughed.


Anonymous said...

reading it now. couldn't agree more. the book ain't that great. it just ain't.

Eduard said...

Sure, I also noticed a lot of racism. Not only against indians, but also against black people as being the delta and epsilon people. However, it is a book from 1932. Fortunately society evolved (at least at some parts) in the meanwhile. Still I find it amazing how modern the book feels despite the age regarding technological and scientific issues.
Should it be on a reading list? I don't think so. There are other books with the same theme (e.g. 1984, Fahrenheit 451) that are worth reading.