Tuesday, June 3, 2014

What is good about the past?
I used to subscribe to a magazine that I loved, that had the word "Primitive" as part of its name.  It changed owners a few years back and in the process made a number of other changes as well. 

Where once it had discussed blending with nature in order to achieve one's goals, it instead began to endorse manipulating nature to make them easier to achieve. Where once it had discussed utilizing natural materials in crafting tools, it started introducing more technologically modern ways of doing the same thing.  Where once it had highlighted the efforts of people who truly lived a lifestyle without modern conveniences, it began presenting stories about people who used modern conveniences to thrive in primitive environments.  "They do it in a primitive style" was the justification.  In general, while attention to primitive living skills was still evident, the trend was more and more away from that and increasingly about integrating into the magazine the same old modern "bigger, better, faster, more" way of looking at things.  An attitude that I was already super-saturated with in my daily life.  An attitude that the magazine had once been an escape from.  These may be subtle distinctions, inconsequential to most casual readers, but to me they were important, as discussion of "primitive" was what captured my imagination and compelled me to shell out the money for a subscription in the first place. 
I looked up the reasons for the change and it was claimed that the decision was financial.  Ads bring in money.  Nobody sells sticks, bone and rocks through a magazine.  I get that.  Not a problem.  So I wrote their editorial comments page and asked the community there "what would it take to keep the magazine 'primitive'?  How much would it cost?"  I even volunteered to pay double, the issue was so important to me, and asked if it would cost the subscribers more than that.  Responses from the readers and publishers ranged from supportive, to "what's the problem?" to downright nasty.  I was told to "get with the Twentieth Century."  (I asked this guy why he was reading a mag on primitive living skills.  I didn't get an answer).  I was accused of "intolerance" when I was sharing a preference.  It was suggested that if I didn't like an ad or an article, to just turn the page, or, better yet, to cancel my subscription.  (Sensible, but insulting).  Eventually the thread was deleted.  End of discussion.
So, okay, I went back to reading the magazine, stayed out of the on-line forums, held my nose at ads for GPS tools (nothing wrong with that, but it isn't primitive, nor as interesting as celestial navigation to me), and tried to focus on stuff I enjoyed.  To be fair, I still liked much of what remained.  Maybe not enough to be worth the price of the subscription, but I was so starved for that kind of information that I paid it anyway.  Until a few months after my letter to the editor a satirical article appeared in an issue of the magazine, featuring a debate between modern man and a bumbling Neanderthal that shared the name ('Griz') that I wrote the editor's page under.  "Ooga Booga" actually made it in to the column.

Now that really elevated the discussion.  I canceled my subscription.

I had to mull this over.  While I grieved the loss of my beloved escape from the Twentieth Century, there seemed a disconnect between how many readers and the publishers of the magazine could celebrate the spirit of people who lived prior to the advent of modern technology, and in the next breath mock and disparage the same people.  "Ooga Booga" indeed! To those who actually study the anthropological record, Neanderthals were awesome!  Well, to me they are...except, when they're not.  I think that herein lies the answer to this disconnect.  Let me explain. 

Part of why I call this blog "Pro-primitive" is that there are, and were, pro's and con's to living in every era of human existence.  "The good old days" weren't always so good.  Neither is every modern advancement somehow intrinsically superior to how things have been done before, despite what expensive marketing campaigns may tell you. 

Neanderthals left behind skeletons with significantly thicker bones than modern humans, with enlarged attachment points to support huge musculature.  These people were physically powerful, fit individuals.  Something about their lifestyle made this true for them. 

They also rarely lived past the age of 30.  And disappeared from history.  Something about their lifestyle made that true as well.

Today, instead of shaking the water off my lettuce when I rinse it, I can put it in a 'Salad Spinner', pump that sucker a few times, and completely eliminate that unsightly little after-dinner puddle in the bottom of the salad bowl.

Even if I am obese, never go outside, smoke every day, and suffer an unfulfilling job for years on end, I will still live well past 30.  Something about my lifestyle makes that true for me.

At the risk of being painfully obvious, what if we tried to combine those elements that made the Neanderthals such amazing physical specimens, with the modern elements that allow us to survive two and three times as long despite our best efforts to kill ourselves?

In order to do this we need to look at the past with an open mind.  We need to stop the adolescent temptation to reactively disparage people and ideas that we don't understand, and use good judgment about what they have to offer, without being judgmental when we choose differently or disagree.  The Neanderthals, and other people from the past, are part of our history, our relatives going farther back than we can imagine, our grandparents.  We have built upon their discoveries and hardships, and without them we would not be what we are.  They still have much to teach us. 

Oh, yeah, before I go...

                                                                        "Ooga Booga!"

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