September 13, 2010

Worst Indian civilization ever?

A satire in the Onion implicates Amazon Indians:

Archaeologists Unearth Lousiest Civilization Ever

'What A Bunch Of Losers,' Researchers SayArchaeologists working in a remote section of the Amazon Rainforest announced Tuesday that they have discovered the ancient remnants of what they claimed may be the lousiest civilization in human history.

According to Dr. Ronald Farber, a professor from the University of Minnesota who is leading the excavation, the "half-assed" culture existed from about 450 B.C. until 220 B.C., when it abruptly disappeared—an event he said was "honestly no big loss" for our understanding of human culture.

"From what we've unearthed so far, it appears this pre-Columbian civilization was pretty much just copying what other, more superior groups nearby were doing—albeit to a much shittier degree," Farber said. "They sucked. You should see the useless mess of a calendar these dumbasses came up with."
Comment:  Stephen Bridenstine also posted this piece in his Drawing on Indians blog. Here's his take on it:The article is clearly meant to be parody. It satirizes the traditional stereotype that the Amazon was full of backwards savages and cannibals incapable of creating or sustaining any hint of civilization. The article references all the great achievements of the Pre-Columbian Americans such as advanced knowledge of astronomy, massive public works, written languages, and the fine arts.And:Essentially, The Onion draws upon the advances of Native civilizations in order to point out the traditional prejudices of non-Native people against the so-called "primitive" Indians. It demonstrates the hypocrisy of continuing to think of Indians as backwards people when for thousands of years Native civilizations were just as advanced or even more advanced than those in Europe!Stephen thinks the Onion piece could be a response to the scientific findings noted in Amazon Indians Weren't Savages. That could very well be.

As Stephen puts it, the key question is whether this is whether this is an "effective satire or just not funny?" My thoughts:

On the negative side

  • I'd say the satire loses points for its blunt-force insults. It's too extreme to be especially funny. Onion pieces are usually more subtle, and subtle is usually more effective.

  • The satire also loses points for conflating subjective judgments (e.g., their art was inferior) with objective fault-finding (e.g., their calendar was mistaken). This implies the Indians actually were stupid and incompetent. It introduces some unnecessary ambiguity that weakens the effect.

    On the positive side

  • It's obvious this piece is meant to be facetious. By Western standards, the worst Indian civilization would be one with grunting, half-naked savages killing and eating each other. Any civilization that had writing, calendars, irrigation systems, and "massive sun temples" is more advanced than many tribal cultures.

  • As Stephen notes, the piece doesn't use the words "Native," "Indian," or "indigenous." The only reference to the people's ethnicity is that they're descended from Mesoamerican tribes. This effectively removes race from the equation. "Those Indians were idiotic" is potentially offensive; "that civilization was idiotic" isn't.

  • Despite the criticism of the tribe's actual mistakes, it's clear the real targets are the Western observers. Their over-the-top invective says more about them than the culture they're slamming. Real researchers wouldn't react this way, but many Americans would. They don't realize their ancestors were just as "primitive," and they don't think history is worth pursuing.

    What this tells us

    This piece could've been better, but I'd say it's a decent satire. In particular, it shows how to use Native stereotypes in humor without attacking and insulting Indians. The key is to know who your targets are.

    Like the Sons of Tucson episode I praised, this piece has non-Indians spewing ignorant and stereotypical comments about Indians. But the comments are so obviously bad that they indict the speakers, not the subjects.

    They're examples of what we might call the Archie Bunker syndrome. When a moron says something moronic and people react accordingly, he's the one who looks stupid. Archie was exposing his own prejudice against minorities and the context made that clear.

    Contrast this with the infamous Dudesons episode. Although the overall tone is comedic, the Dudesons never let on that they know anything about Indians. That they're trying to satirize America's ignorance about Indians. Clearly they're the ignorant ones, not the audiences they're trying to reach.

    Worse, they have a real Indian, Saginaw Grant, to praise and encourage their efforts. If Grant had played the Michael Stivic ("Meathead") role, pointing out the Dudesons' stupidity, the episode might've come across differently. Instead he lent legitimacy to the affair.

    Imagine if Lionel or George Jefferson or Sammy Davis Jr. had agreed with Archie Bunker about blacks being different and inferior. Then Archie's message would've seemed sincere and believable. It would've seemed to be the show's message--the point Norman Lear wanted to get across.

    Instead, everyone on the show undercut Archie. This told audiences that his beliefs were socially and morally unacceptable. The takeaway was that Archie was wrong, not that he was right.

    Moral of the story: If you're writing humor about Indians, make sure you know what the target is. Portraying people whooping and dancing in clownish costumes isn't a satire of Native stereotypes. It's a satire of Natives.

    For more on humor about Indians, see:

    Racism in Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson
    DJs learn not to satirize Natives
    Quileute Chihuahuas okay in spoof?
    "Sick" cartoonist Callahan dies

    Below:  "Researchers examine some 'totally retarded' ancient pottery."


    Burt said...

    There is enough stupidity to go around. The last Republican tenure in the White House and the current conservative state of America is not the most highly civilized and sophisticated existence mankind has ever seen.

    Since when did science and archeologists ever prove itself/themselves viable means of intelligence or knowledge? Most of the information science and archeology ever offer is financially and politically motivated.

    dmarks said...

    The current liberal state of American shows that there is plenty of stupidity to go around.

    Burt said...

    The current liberal state of America Dmarks?

    Whats the matter Dmarks, not enough death and war going on now to quelch your conservative thirst for blood?

    The killings of doctors at abortion clinics and enrichment of television evangelist and lets not forget that woodcarver that got shot in Seattle recently Dmarks, oh yeah, this is a real liberal state of America, huh Dmarks?

    dmarks said...

    "The killings of [abortionists] at abortion clinics"

    How many? What is the total up to now?

    Abortion clinics are not the best places, by the way, for you to bring up on the issue of killing.

    Burt said...

    Now that you mention it Dmarks, the war industry stacks up a good collection of young Americans.

    Is the defense industry ran and manufactured by profits going into liberals pockets?

    I could never understand how anti-abortionists could be so pro-war and yet anti-abortion.

    I think its a race perservation thing with religious fundamentalists.