Sunday, April 10, 2016

Joshua Gates, the Inca Empire, and Religion in Travel Shows

Machu Picchu.  Photo by Allard Schmidt (The Netherlands).

A few days ago I was watching several episodes of Expedition Unknown on Netflix.  Expedition Unknown is essentially the Travel Channel's version of Destination Truth, which was also hosted by Josh Gates:  Gates travels to a site (usually an exotic site) associated with a wild story, makes fun of the local food, clothing, transportation, or whatever, spends a day or two "searching" in vain for something that others have sought for their whole lives without finding, and finally returns home to express hope that what he didn't find is real and still out there.  So yes, it is formulaic, but the locations and backstories can often make the show watchable in spite of its obvious flaws.  Sometimes, though, it crosses a line.

The fifth episode, "City of Gold", is set in Peru.  It is about the search for a legendary city built by nobles of the Inca Empire who fled deep into the mountains with tons of treasure, never to be heard from again.  The first part of that sentence tells you why people have wanted to find it, and the second part tells you why it is almost certainly untrue.  At any rate, Gates and the rest of his crew -- at least one cameraman -- travel several days into the back country with some men who have made the search for this city their lives' work.  They make it as far along the "stone road" as his guides have gone before -- then turn around, with Gates saying that he has to resist the pull of the unknown lest they disappear, as others have disappeared before.  There may be some wisdom to that; after all, the Shining Path still exists in Peru, and for what I know might have bases near there.  On the other hand, if you stick to a path that your guides have taken before and go no farther than they have gone before, you can be sure you will discover no new cities they have not already seen.  This failure, then, was part of the plan from the beginning, not just a likely consequence of a brief and halfhearted expedition looking for something that probably never existed anyhow, and it was more than usually dishonest of the program to pretend that it was ever a real search.

That, however, was not my biggest objection.

At the last outpost of civilization before venturing into the wild mountains, Gates and his companions are given shelter for the night in the basement of a Catholic church.  Gates notes how "ironic" it is that here he is looking for vanished Inca treasure when who should put him up but the Catholic Church, and furthermore the place (which does not seem to have a resident priest, but a "circuit-riding" priest) is maintained by "a descendant of the Incas".  Ugh.

Understand that his statement about her being a descendant of the Incas is literally as true as calling an Iraqi, as an Iraqi, a descendant of the Roman Emperors.  The Inca was the head of the Inca Empire, just as the Emperor was the head of the Roman Empire.  That's a technicality, but using the term "Inca" a bit more loosely doesn't really help things.  The Roman Empire controlled Mesopotamia off and on for centuries; the Inca Empire only existed for about a hundred years before being destroyed by the Spaniards.  Moreover, the Inca Empire was an empire, not a mutual admiration society; it was assembled by force, and its great wealth was the result of taxes and tribute, just like the Roman or, for that matter, the Spanish Empire.  As far as I know, the Inca Empire did not practice human sacrifice, as the Aztecs did, and so were not as hated by their subjects, but their subjects were still subjects.  It is never a coincidence that the wealth of an empire is concentrated into the hands of the powerful and the capital city.

Gates shows mocking contempt for the Catholic Church in a way he really never does for any other institution he meets in his travels -- certainly not for any other religion.  There are two questions he should have asked, but never does.
  1. What, exactly, has been the attitude of the Catholic Church to Pizarro, his manner of conquering the natives, and his subsequent rule?  Is Pizarro considered a saint?
  2. Peru has been independent now for almost two centuries.  Why are so many Peruvians still Catholic if, as Gates implies, the Church simply stole from the natives and gave nothing in return?

It would be bad enough if Gates merely had contempt for all religion, full stop.  Such an attitude is, I contend, overly simplistic and altogether unnatural, but at least it would be consistent.  However, Gates does not show contempt for all religion; at least superficially, he shows great deference to Hinduism and Buddhism, and he never passes a shaman without trying to get some sort of shamanic blessing.  In fact, later in the same episode ("City of Gold"), he participates in offering a sacrifice to some "spirit of the mountains" -- some at least of his guides being obviously not Catholic at all or only Catholic in the loosest possible sense of the word.  Once sacrifices are made, the bright line has been crossed into latria, the adoration due to God alone.

It is more likely, though, that what Gates is doing even with the Eastern religions and with shamanism is still an expression of contempt, but a different expression of contempt.  For Christianity, he shows no half measures; the disdain is obvious, in no small part because Christianity is a serious threat to his preferred world view.  I am not talking about any hypothetical threat of violence or manipulation from Christians; rather, Christianity is an idea describing a universe in which he does not wish to live.  The less familiar religions, though, are to him nothing more than silly games, and he takes participation in them as a way for him to be mildly naughty with no real risk -- much like when he eats the roasted guinea pig or the bull penis soup (to name two actual examples) at the beginning of the episode.  Just as there is an ugly, mocking condescension when he shares the "crazy" food of the locals, there is an ugly, mocking condescension when he participates in their "crazy" religions.

Incidentally, it is not as safe as Gates imagines to trifle with spirits.  In one episode the local priest or shaman calls down the spirit of his god to possess him, then places his hands on Gates to pass the possession on to him.  No Hollywood-style special effects followed, of course, but that's no proof that nothing happened.  Still, it has been said (and misattributed to Otto von Bismark) that "There is a special providence for drunkards, fools, and the United States of America," and surely Joshua Gates fits in there somewhere.

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