[Recycled, and slightly rewritten from a couple of years ago.
One does this sort of thing in August.]
There is a nice alpine orogeny, running from Afghanistan, across the roof of Asia, then into Yunnan, through most of Burma, upcountry Thailand and Indochina. It is all contiguous, all elevated, all rather wild — this vast territory enheaved, where three continental plates collided. (Supposing one buys into the hypothesis of “continental drift,” which I’m beginning to find “too plausible.”) About a decade ago it received a name from the Dutch historian, Willem van Schendel. He called it, Zomia, from a root that means “highlander” in many Tibeto-Burman languages. Think of it as Appalachia, but on a hundred times the scale, and of twenty times the historical depth.
Notwithstanding my Gaelic genes, I was schooled to despise, or glibly to romanticize, the Highland types. (Two sides of the same flipping coin.) Everyone was schooled to do this; and with great ease, government and media have since “stereotyped” enemies of the State who lurk in such remote places as, “The caves of Afghanistan!”
But of course, the intrusion into their midst of rudely psychotic persons with post-modern ideologies, and lethal post-modern weapons, is what actually occurred. The Pathan and other hill tribes of the “Northwest Frontier” came to serve Al Qaeda as their ancestors often served the British: at gunpoint.
From my own experience, travelling in such parts, I would say the hill people wanted only to be left alone. To travellers they have no objection; are hospitable to a reckless degree. Their violence is directed instead against invaders; and they have little difficulty distinguishing an innocent tramping fool from an embodiment of evil, such as a government official. They had, they have, no aspirations whatever, to conquer the little creatures down on the plains, who call themselves “people” but seem to lack many of the defining characteristics of full-fledged, free-born men and women.
I cannot get my head entirely around Zomia, owing to its size. The scholars who now employ the term as a geographical concept disagree about its extent; van Schendel himself excluded everything west of Ladakh. The Tibetan massif is a different world from the lower mountains to the east and south, both geographically and culturally. The latter territories are more densely and variously populated. Inhabitants of the former (that massif) have more in common with the pastoral “hordes” of Mongolia and Central Asia; but were once more secure in their mountain fastnesses. Historical migrations from there and from elsewhere, through mountainous southern China and into South-east Asia, were vastly more complex; and whole peoples passed over and by each other at different altitudes.
Yet it is true to say they have all, always, been Enemies of the State, up there in the mountains — hence, too, our sneaking rightwing attraction. In the 1950s, thanks to curmudgeonly sociologists, even the highlanders of Appalachia were enjoying some good press. This spread to the liberal anthropologists when they began to realize that these Hillbillies had preserved folk customs and attitudes from the earlier and freer society of the rebellious Thirteen Colonies; and that there might be some point to their counter-cultural rejection of the later mass-market America. (In other words, the mass market for Whole Earth hippiedom was being conceived.)
It is of the easternmore reaches of Zomia that Yale’s celebrated anarchist anthropologist, James C. Scott, characteristically writes. A recent book is entitled, The Art of Not Being Governed (2009, and already out-of-print). I seldom read such books, but skim them with enthusiasm. The professor, who also raises sheep, has been at his hobby horse for nearly half a century now, starting about the same time my own father was travelling among “the Hill Tribes of Siam,” and learning to love them as this author does.
During the Vietnam War we got to know these people — “Hmong” has become our generic term — as perhaps our most effective allies against Uncle Ho. They truly hated Communism, and a few other things, in common with hill people everywhere: slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labour. And, epidemics. For they often live to advanced ages, and fear Lowlanders less as soldiers than as carriers of disease. Verily, territorial warfare strikes the Highlander as one of the diseases the Lowlander is carrying (according to Scott with my enthusiastic, if tacit, agreement).
In a sense, these are the things — various forms of legislated slavery — that define the State, or arguably, Civilization in the narrow (“civic”) sense. Men are put under burden, and told it is for their own good. They learn to salute Power; to obey, to conform, to march, and to serve the poster politicians, shouting Heil! as each new, fashionable, Dear Leader motors by. But there are men who don’t like to do this; who are too independent to appreciate “democracy,” and would rather move to the hills. Or else, they get chased there.
My own Caledonian ancestors showed all the traits, including the murderous contempt for Lowlanders. They showed, too, as if Zomians, considerable wit in the invention of methods for remaining stateless. They dodged the bullet for centuries, until the Highland Clearances finally caught up, and the jackboots of the Modern State kicked them over the hills and into the oceans.
I shall leave the curious reader to follow the proper nouns to the proper sources, should he wish to learn more about the Higher Asians — with their incredible range of ethnicities and languages; their resistance alike to literacy and to positive law; their millenarian and prophetic tendencies; their chameleon skills; their mobility — and with that, their ingeniously successful techniques of swidden agriculture (usually more varied and complicated than “slash and burn”).
At the opposite end of the spectrum of human barbarity, we have the urbane. Total mutual incomprehension can be assumed between these extremes. Glancing through rebuttals to the Zomian theses, from the Po-faced academic elite, I am again and again arrested by their unreachable stupidity. The agents of Po cannot understand (except in little twinkles) that these people do not subscribe to the premisses of political and economic “science,” any more than to the other premisses of the Lowland mindset; don’t get, that the hillsman does not consider himself inferior to the “insects of the plains,” and does not long for “inclusion” in their termite colonies.
It seems all my life I have been reading the English travellers, and those of other countries who penetrated the wilderness, and came to understand the motives of “primitive” peoples — invariably from some calling in themselves, to which settled suburban life did not answer.
For instance, Charles Waterton’s Wanderings in South America, which came back to me from a flea-market stall, after years of wandering on its own. (The same copy with my name in the front.) It is a memoir of deep incursions into the woods of Guiana in the early nineteenth century, to stuff birds, and collect snakes, and gather other items for his extensive cabinets of “natural curiosities.” Waterton was a brilliant naturalist, whose descriptions of new species, and explanations of their physiology and behaviour, have stood up through all the subsequent Official Science.
Too, he was a fine Recusant Lord, from the vicinity of Wakefield, where the Catholics never quite gave up — just as their ancestors had never quite agreed to the Norman Conquest. He counts among the great English eccentrics; if also, alas, as a pioneer of the “ecology” business, for he surrounded his large estate with a tall wall, to protect the private wilderness around his moated castle, back home in Yorkshire. Conversant with both worlds, he adopts the prejudices of the British aristocracy, when mocking the tribesmen of Guiana; and of the tribesmen when mocking the British aristocracy — remaining Trump-like in his own indifference to criticism.
The History of Progress is highly biased, as I may have mentioned before in these electronic pages. It omits much more than half of human nature, and overlooks every fact that doesn’t fit. We need another account that will take in the whole, re-orient our attention to the immortal, and rescue us from the corvée frame of mind. A Highland version of history, if you will; a free man’s guide to how things really are, with some hints for escape from the labyrinth of totalitarian “good intentions.”
Indeed, Waterton found this just where I did, in the Gospels.