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What right does someone have to set themselves up as a teacher and purveyor of someone else’s culture?

New Age: Cultural Colonialism

There are few things that are liable to rile me up more than the exploitation of one people’s culture by another group. The only thing that can usually anger me more are the instances wherein the group doing the exploiting is also responsible for attempting to obliterate those cultures.

New Age religion is just another attack on a former subject race by its masters. Look over the history of the past two centuries and you will find it rife with examples of colonial masters working to suppress people. The easiest way was to destroy their language, which in turn would lead to the suppression of their culture.

In a move typical of empire-building the world over, closely following the armies would come the missionaries to bring the natives news of their salvation. Surely they could not want to live without the benefit of Christ and suffer the eternal fires of damnation.

While the missionaries taught English and spread the gospel according to King James or the Pope from Shanghai to Bombay to the deep woods of Northern Ontario and the Amazon basin, governors passed laws to assist them in their holy duties. The laws would create schools for children to be shorn of their culture, ban the use of religious languages in sacred texts, and encourage the development of the narcotic trade.

Through the obliteration of languages and religion, it became easier to assimilate and convert an indigenous population. The Victorian English gave this process the quaint name of “The White Man’s Burden,” wherein they saw it as their responsibility to take the coloured people of the world and lead them into civilization whether they wanted to be led or not.

Once they had settled the issue of culture, the creation of the period’s history had to be taken care of. Historians and anthropologists would look for proof that supported theories that pointed out the primitive nature of the indigenous people’s lives and how much better off they were under their new rulers.

Of primary importance, and before anything else was to turn them into good Christians whether they wanted to be or not, it was just another part of the White Man’s Burden to ensure that the poor, ignorant, people weren’t allowed to miss out on having their souls saved from eternal damnation.

So what’s changed? Why are the grandchildren and children of the oppressors now seeking answers to their questions about God, religion, and spiritual enlightenment from the same cultures that their ancestors tried to obliterate? Or has anything changed at all in the way cultures of other nations are treated by the people who call themselves New Age.

On the surface, it looks as if there is a movement toward treating the teachings and religions of other cultures with respect. People certainly seem interested enough in learning about them. But is that the reality?

Look closely at some of the books that are for sale in either the new age section of your bookstore, or even scarier, a new age bookstore, and check out the titles. Predominate will be stuff like Ten Easy Steps To Empowerment, Hidden Secrets Of Mystical Buddhism Revealed, Shamanism, Dreams, And Power, or Bang The Drum Slowly: Power Dances of the Native Americans.

If the titles of the books didn’t make you gag, wait until you see the authors of the books and their biographies. There’s never been a collection of blonder, more blue-eyed Indians, Hindi, or Amazon-basin Shaman in history. Maybe they’ve studied or done research and, in spite of their cheesy titles, the books are legitimate works of scholarship. If you call channeling the spirit of a 10,000-year old shaman, or being the reincarnation of a Cree medicine woman, or making it up off the top of your head study or research, then yes they have. But even if they had some sort of access to knowledge, and even if what they were saying had any basis in reality, what right do they have to set themselves up as teachers and purveyors of another’s culture?

Less then 200 years ago, European and North American governments were doing whatever was in their power to obliterate these cultures. By some miracle, these people managed to survive our best attempts to destroy their traditions, and in some cases are only now managing to begin their recovery.

How do you think it feels for them to see the faces of their former oppressors looking back at them from the dust jackets of books claiming to sell their practices? Wouldn’t it piss them off just a little?

I don’t know if any of the titles I listed above exist or not. I wouldn’t be surprised if they did, but there are many of similar type written by people claiming some sort of knowledge or other. What it boils down to in the end is just another form of imperialism. These people have decided that they, and they alone, are the ones qualified to teach people about cultural concepts belonging to other peoples.

That no one seems to question the right of buxom, buckskin-clad, blondes or red-headed sari-draped seers, or golf slacks-wearing gurus, to sell and teach paths to enlightenment based on cultures that are not their own only serves to show how little respect our society has for other people’s faiths.

What does it matter to them that there are millions of people alive today who are legitimate followers of those faiths, who were born into a society governed by those philosophies? The implication is that they don’t know as much about their own faith as these members of the elite.

Is it any wonder that in more and more cultures, especially those of former colonial countries, the populations are turning against North America and Europe? Our general attitude towards them is still condescending and arrogant, from our theft of their culture to our unwillingness to recognise their rights to have control over their own natural resources. In spite of their having gained independence, they must still feel like they are treated as a lesser among equals.

In colonial India, the British East India Tea Company forbid the printing of Hindu religious texts and histories in Sanskrit and would only allow them to be produced in approved English translations. Not only did that destroy Sanskrit as a language but it also ensured that everything colonial Indians read about their own religion and history was from a British point of view.

Walking into a New Age bookstore today is like seeing that policy put in effect for the whole world. It’s rare to find a book instructing you in the practices of a culture written by a person of that culture. Scarcer still are those that have anything to do with the original intentions of that culture.

For people who claim to have found the path to enlightenment, the authors of these books are at best ignorant and at worst exploitive thieves. Cultural colonialism hasn’t ended; it’s just wearing a new disguise, and it’s called New Age.

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.

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