Re: Ethnic Fables

Tibor Benke (benke@SFU.CA)
Tue, 3 Oct 1995 09:46:18 -0700

In a discussion with John McCreery, I tried to illustrate one of the
essential roots of ethnic conflict with Aesop's fable about the fox and
the stork. Missing my point (or maybe not), he replied:

>The fable of the fox and the stork is an all too telling
>image of what passes for "negotiation" in too many
>arenas these days. What hope there is arises from
>situations in which the bear comes along and takes
>both gruel and frogs, forcing the fox and the stork to
>consider a common cause. Of course, the bear may be
>smart enough to leave a little gruel on the plates and a
>few frogs in the jar. A wicked bear will occasionally
>leave enough one place or the other to persuade the
>fox or the stork that they're better off with the bear
>than each other. A more businesslike bear will build a
>rice paddy to increase the supply of both gruel and
>frogs and eventually be able to bring in a monkey as
>manager, leaving himself the time to enjoy the honey
>he has always kept for himself. Is all this "fair"? No. Is
>it better than carnage? Yes. The question, of course, is
>the wicked bears. Then even the rational pragmatist
>will take up arms in defense of liberty. The moral
>issue s/he faces is deciding when the bear is wicked
>enough to justify this last resort.


John's command of the fine points of rhetoric greatly surpasses mine, as it
should considering our positions in the social structure of the Global

When I learned what little I know about the subject, way back in C.K.
McClatchy High in Sacramento, CA., I was told that these fables were
generally used to illustrate single processes sharply, for instance, recall
the story of the "fox and the crow", from where our expression "sour
grapes" derives. John succeeds in muddying my point by complicating the
fable. I could do the same, by pointing out, that the entrepreneurial (sp?
I can never spell that word - maybe a reflection of my attitude?) Bear
might well find that the rice paddies breed some plague which wipes out
everyone, Bear, Monkey, Stork, Fox, leaving only frogs and mosquitoes. But
that would only cause an endlessly escalating cycle of sillyness, until we
both ran out of steam and would have to suddenly stop, with no one the

Rather, I would return to the point that John is bypassing, my allusion to
what Christianity contributed to the ideology of Mesopotamian Monarchism,
and which Luther rediscovered, but Calvin quickly buried again, namely that
the just shall live by faith, and salvation is not earned by works, but is
granted by Divine Grace, "lest any man" (sic - remember, Luther and St.
Paul both wrote before feminism could make them aware of language or their
own sexism)"boast". In modern terms, we could say that those who are freed
by their circumstances of neccessity, can be held more responsible,
because only their greed and not their natural need for daily sustenance
drives them; their talent, which we assume makes them winners, is given
them by their heritage (grace - genetic and cultural - divine? ). Thus,
in situations of negotiations, the stronger should look to the needs of the
weaker party. In other words, the cycle of slavery and revolution will end
when the king washes the servants' feet.

When I first went to College, (Sacramento State - now CSUS) I planned to
study history long enough to become a high school history teacher. As an
'under achiever', I had had a miserable time in high school, mitigated only
by reading history and science fiction and swimming a lot. I found
College, at first, liberating. I learned in English 101 about the
difference between discriptive and prescriptive grammar, and thus that I
had suffered needlessly at the hands of prescriptive grammarians in high
school. I learned about the Copernican Revolution in astronomy class,
(which, in retrospect, was probably a mythical narrative) but, nevertheless
(or maybe, precisely because) was instructive. And in anthropology 101,
(Thank the Divine Mother, a compulsory social science class for History
majors, or I wouldn't have thought to take it) I learned about cultural
relativism. This translated to me as three axioms, which I still use: 1.
The natives are not stupid. 2. The natives are not crazy. 3. Everbody
(including me) is a native. I underwent something William James would call
a "conversion experience" and changed majors and political committments.
Unfortunately, I didn't aquire better study habits.

A lot of water has flown under the bridge since those days, and I am an old
welfare bum pretending to be a scholar in Canada now. For the past decade
or more, I've been trying to understand the works of Karl Mannheim and Karl
Popper and how consciousness is related to existance. I am not making very
good progress, and I am close to loosing my status as a graduate student on
medical leave. But I have started to formulate a set of ideas about our
much maligned Western Civ. Coincidentaly, it segways in to the discussion
on cultural and biological evolution we are having.

It is almost purely speculative.

Let us take as an axiom that consciousness is a product of activity -
(that is to say, our ideas arise in the course of our solving problems
which we encounter as we go about the business of living).

Let us take as another axiom that consciousness is a social product - (
Mannheim said something like : Strictly speaking it is incorrect to say
that the single individual thinks. Rather it is more correct to insist
that he/she participates in thinking further what others have thought

Let us take as a further axiom that human intelligence evolved in the
course of social as opposed to natural selection - ( That is to say, a
human individual's 'fitness' depends largely on whether that individual is
tolerated by and/or helped by his/her social group).

Let us now consider the problems and possible responses to the discovery of
horticulture. What happens to consciousness? It seems to me that it is
fairly accurately discribed in Genesis 3:17 (JWH speaking to Adam) :
"...accursed shall be the ground on your account. With labour you shall
earn your food from it all the days of your life. It will grow thistles
and thorns for you". That is to say, new problems: weeds, pests, thieves,
and invaders become actual once one's livelyhood depends on directly
controlling a piece of of land. In the course of the 5,000 years
preceeding historical times in Mesopotamia and North Africa, (elsewhere as
well - but historically these two lead to Western Civ.) a definite set of
historical-cultural adaptations emerged in the course of dealing with these
fundamental problems: 1. Labour: activity not rewarding in it self, but
aimed at future reward - displacement 2. Defense of territory from weeds,
pests, and other humans - anal retentive behavior 3. Warfare becomes
infinitely more profitable when surplusses accumulated by others may be
appropriated by force - passive-agressive behavior. (Others as well - but I
am out on a thin enough limb)

If we view the ancient Mesopotamian civilizations from this perspective,
much of our own value system can be traced. In particular: The work
ethic, the us good/them bad god/satan dualism, authoritarian group
structure (e.g. patriarchal family, marine crew) , the complex moral
programme which works to direct frustration to warfare and which Jewish
ritual demonstrated with the rite of the scapegoat.

But are these cultural traits generaly adaptive? This can be, at least, a
matter of debate. On the short run, they almost certainly are. But for
me it is clear that they are not adaptive on the long run and that
eventually the authoritarian and agressive orientation of the whole
complex leads to disaster. In fact, I think it led to disaster enough
times so that modifications had to arise, if the system was to survive at
all. I think Judaism and Christianity can be viewed as attempts at
mitigating this process. The apocalyptic literature of the old and new
testaments depicts the sort of cultural breakdown that educated people at
the time that literature was written must have known about from their
ancient history.

Basically, humanity has left the immedieate constraints of natural
selection. The only constraints on us are the finitude of the biosphere
and our own agressive tendencies. Our culture, unless we are able to
modify it, will not be able to avoid both of the dangers these limits pose.
Unless we revise the work ethic, we will kill the biosphere; unless we
truly give up violence and authoritarianism, we will kill each other and
destroy the biosphere in the process. The reason most of you can't see
this, is because you are working too hard and you don't dare admit it.

Best Regards,

Tibor Benke
Graduate Student (MA program)
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Simon Fraser University

Democritus was right: change is constant!
Democritus was wrong: change is variable!