The phrase that opens this post is one that has been around for some time. Claude Levi-Strauss used it as the title to what has since become his most famous, and possibly most important, book. Even in 1962, when the book came out, one could use such a phrase without irony and be accepted as a scholar. These days, the imputation of a “savage mentality” is likely to be met with considerable resistance, and general antipathy (at least from those with a more liberal political orientation.) “Savage” is a pejorative term, and its application (especially in matters of thought and mentality) was almost always applied to aboriginal peoples whom colonial invaders (almost always of European descent) wished to demean, degrade, and – rather savagely – exploit. Such attitudes have been quite rightfully (even righteously, in the non-pejorative sense of that word) denounced for many decades now.
Nevertheless, I submit that there really is such a thing as a savage mind, where such a mentality is understood as an antithesis to that of a civilized mind. It is an example of the genetic fallacy to reject the term because it has been seriously abused in the past. This is not a comparison between persons in pre-scientific, non-technological, &/or aboriginal societies and our own, “gloriously” developed Western cultures. Rather, I submit that the distinguishing characteristic of savagery is its rejection of community in various forms and to varying degrees.
All groups and societies have enforced demarcations, with differing degrees of stringency, between those who are “inside” the group, and those who are not. The ancient Greeks did not invent cities and civilization, though at times it rather seems like they thought they had. The term they had for anyone who was not Greek was “bar-bar,” meaning someone who babbles like a baby (bar-bar-bar-bar-bar-bar-bar.) It is from this term that we get our word “barbarian.” The ancient Hebrews are also famous for their rigid separation between Jew and Gentile. These two aggressively “them vs. us” groups form the foundation of Western “civilization,” such as it is. (One is reminded here of the apocryphal quote attributed to an exchange between a Western journalist and Mohandas Gandhi:
Reporter: “What Do You Think of Western Civilization?”
Gandhi: “I Think It Would Be a Good Idea”)
But within the group – even and especially for the above two examples – the centrality of community was without exception. In Plato’s narrative of Socrates’ last days, Socrates refuses to escape a death sentence (which he easily could have) because he will not abandon the laws and civilization of Athens in which he has not only lived, but which has made the very possibility of such a life a reality. Having spent his life in defense of his community – the stories told by those who knew him show Socrates to be an absolutely fearless soldier, utterly undaunted by any physical hardship – Socrates will not defy that community even at the cost of his life. There are fundamental problems with the argument that Plato writes into the dramatic mouth of Socrates; The Reverend Doctor King was not unfamiliar with these problems, even as he was far too “delicate” a rhetorician to explicitly blame Plato for his superficial analysis of the relational possibilities and realities of individual and community. As anyone who has even glanced at the dialog Crito will instantly notice, there are no imaginable circumstances under which Plato would advocate for, justify, or even tolerate, the civil disobedience that was the centerpiece of King’s civil rights work.
Now community – real community – is a trickier notion to get a handle on than might initially seem to be the case. Fascism, for example, always makes a show of “community” in its propaganda. (So, too, did Soviet and Maoist communism.) German Nazi’s made grand parades of the idea of “national socialism,” while the Italian fascists under Mussolini spouted off about the “corporate” body of “the people.” (See, for example, THIS collection of fascist texts.) But such assemblages were not communities in the sense I am thinking of here; they were more like mechanical engines wielded for the purposes of power.
A community is a living thing, an organic thing; a machine is an assemblage of interlocking (and completely replaceable) parts. There is simply no coherently defensible grounds for treating the one like the other. Lewis Mumford spoke of the first “mega machine” as the slavishly laboring, but absolutely disposable and replaceable, human cogs in the grandly religious Egyptian machine that constructed their megaliths: the Sphinx, the pyramids, and so on; even the massive irrigation works that canalized the annual flooding of the Nile into a functional mechanism of the Empire’s agriculture. The people who made all these things come to reality from their sweat and their blood did not matter: they were not members of a community, they were merely cogs in a machine. And for all the absence of what we might otherwise recognize as technology, that machine ran very well, and it ran for a very long time. Even when the machine broke down catastrophically (the collapse of the dynasties), rebuilding it was simply a matter of will and power, not of community.
The peoples who became the foundation of Western “civilization” (it could still happen … ), the Greeks and the Hebrews, for all of their sins and savagery (slavery, misogyny, self-righteousness, narrow-minded provincialism), they nevertheless opened a real dialog on the meaning of the idea of community. This was the beginning of the possibility of civilization in the West. (The much dismissed “bar-bar” probably entertained various concepts, but we have no evidence that they ever opened the dialog on the idea, of community. Recall here that an idea is a generic notion, of which concepts are diverse specifications.)
Conservatives, laissez-faire “liberals,” libertarians, fascist apologists (aka, Trump supporters), all (to differing degrees) go into some stage of anaphylactic shock at any suggestion that the primary emphasis in our social dealings should always be based upon the community (organically conceived), rather than the individual. Matters will rapidly degenerate into histrionics about socialism, a word whose meanings they’ve never bothered to learn. Per that earlier blog post, it is the “metaphysical socialist” that takes center stage here.
No individual exists, except that there was a community that nurtured that individual into existence. Some community based concept of the individual was always at play in the development and maturation of any specified person. Different groups and communities have entertained different concepts of “the individual,” with greater and lesser pronounced growth, integration, and development for both the community and the “individual.” Absent some manner of support, some kind of communal infrastructure, no manner or type of individualism can ever possibly emerge. And here, following Dewey, we should recognize that an individual is something that we become, not something from which we begin as some type of metaphysical “atom.” The question is what sorts of social structures enable the emergence of the best qualities that persons can manifest, and that create genuinely civilized individuals.
Which brings us to Donald Trump …
Here we have the absolute paradigm of the savage mind. He is a narcissist and a textbook psychopath. This is someone who has never served anyone or anything other than himself, and his election to the highest office in the country is certainly not going to change that pattern. We must now brace ourselves for at least two years (recall, the mid-term elections) of almost completely unchained savagery.