Misrepresentation: Prostituting “Open Anthropology” to the Military

Posted on August 31, 2009 by


Open to the Military

For those following the current conflict between the Open Anthropology Project (OAP) and the Open Anthropology Cooperative (OAC), outlined in these three posts (1, 2, 3) and the extensive commentary that follows them, readers will know that one of the key actors in this has been Keith Hart, who established the OAC and remains in control of its administration and policy. Noticed repeatedly by some readers in addition to myself, including at least one in the Moving Anthropology Student Network (which has actively followed debates about anthropologists supporting the military in the “war on terror”), is Keith Hart’s own positions on the use of his network, the OAC, by the members of the U.S. military in particular and their supporting academics.

While MASN has actively followed the biggest public debate of current anthropology, Keith Hart’s The Memory Bank returns the following result when searching for “human terrain system”: “Not Found. Sorry, no posts matched your criteria.” The broader term, “military” also does not bring up results pertaining to the debate around the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS), nor will you find a single mention of Montgomery McFate, the anthropology Ph.D. at the top of HTS, anywhere on Hart’s blog.

So when Keith Hart, in a discussion on “What is Open Anthropology?” on the OAC, writes, “Feelings run high on this issue and I know which side I am on,” some of us wanted to know: what side does he stand on, especially since he has essentially done what Johannes Fabian has done so far, and that is to effectively say: “no comment.”

Hart says, “There is a vigorous debate about the use of anthropology by the military and David Price hosts an active discussion group here on that topic.” David Price happens to be in the OAC because, to my regret, I invited him there, as well as Hugh Gusterson.

In a remarkably pointed display of his intent, Hart writes: “Max Forte was part of the founding group of OAC, but subsequently left in response to disagreement over the theory and practice of ‘open anthropology’. His site is one of the most prominent in our field. There is obviously room for argument about what ‘open anthropology’ is. How could it be otherwise?”

While Hart acknowledges the disagreement, and my leaving, Abimbola writing on behalf of the OAC seems to struggle with this recognition: now, it is that they were to derive their mission statement from the one to be found here, and Abimbola disingenuously adds, “We are not aware when this offer was rescinded or other conditions put on it” which suggests a lingering desire to link (my comment continues here). Let’s be clear: they have no intention of deriving anything meaningful from the purpose of the OAP, only in claiming the field — Hart calls it “our field” — and making it seem like an extension of “open anthropology,” which as a project gave rise to a phrase with a specific meaning that only came into currency thanks to this site. And no, it’s not all about “open access.”

The part of Hart’s intervention that I want the reader to focus on is this:

Recently there was some concern when a serving soldier in the US army joined the OAC. This was controversial in view of the advanced political argument in which Forte, Price and Marshall Sahlins (reprising his active role in contesting the Vietnam war) have taken the lead. We quickly decided that we would not exclude anyone on grounds of status alone, preferring to control anti-social behaviour when it occurs. We therefore advocate a network for the practice of open anthropology that, on the religious analogy, would be a broad church, not a sect.

First, note that my name appears in the list of critics, first even (even though I have done nowhere near the legwork of the other two). This tells us at what Hart is aiming. Second, ostensibly oblivious to concerns about being used for recruitment or propaganda purposes, Hart strikes an unusual note of tolerance — Hart has been, and continues to be, intolerant only with respect to those to the left of him politically in the network. Third, and this should read as a warning to radical critics, no “anti-social behaviour” will be tolerated, now that the military is part of the social. In fact, as we have seen over the last few days, ugly behaviour has been abundantly tolerated when aimed in ways that Hart finds pleasure with, thus presumably not anti- his social. Fourth, Hart then states that “the practice of open anthropology” is one akin to a “broad church, not a sect.” Leaving aside the dubious distinction between church and sect, Hart’s view is of a liberal democratic commons that is explicitly rejected on this blog.

You are welcome

Having never criticized the military, having never criticized the work of anthropologists in counterinsurgency, Hart is more than just a tolerant host to Eric R. Price and Don Smith of the HTS (who is also a co-author of “The Human Terrain System: A CORDS for the 21st Century“). He is a very welcoming host, when he writes to Price:

Welcome to the OAC! A former student, old friend and regular participant in my online ventures for 15 years is Charles Kirke, also a member here. He is a serving colonel in the British army and has recently published a book bringing his military experience and social anthropology together.

(Note #1: Price was also warned by Salzman about any lingering leftist anthropologists remaining in the OAC: “anthropologists tend to take a leftist view of the world, with all that that entails, including negative attitudes toward the military but not necessary toward their adversaries.” As I have argued countless times, I do not view the Taleban as my “adversaries”: neither I, nor the country I live in, was ever attacked by them. Rather, the reverse is true.)

(Note #2: Among Kirke’s specializations are: “working in electronic warfare, surveillance technologies, and human factors.”)

It is a curious fact that when Kirke joined the OAC, on the same day I did, right at its inception, that this “old friend” got no welcome from Hart, when virtually everyone else was personally and warmly welcomed by him. Perhaps the time was not right for playing his hand.

Anyone who has had any experience in the debate between anthropologists and the military will tell you that these are very insidious individuals. Not a single conference, not a single panel at a conference, that addresses them goes without their participation. Not even when the panel takes place in Canada do they fail to send someone from Fort Leavenworth (as noted here). These three persons in the OAC — Kirke, Price, and Smith — have also inserted themselves in some of the key groups and discussions of concern: what is open anthropology, resisting the militarization of anthropology, and the anthropology of Afghanistan.

What Open Anthropology is, and what it is not for

I said in my first post about this conflict that if Hart had deliberately planned this, I could not envision a slicker heist. After all, this was the same Keith Hart who, in response to my post about “Single-Cell Resistance” (no broad church there), heaped warm praises and flattery. He quickly acquired it for himself, devoting a post to it on his blog. Yet, there is this one sentence in that post of mine concerning the leaders of some resistance movements: “it is sometimes the higher ups who are the ones to worry about most.” I also wrote: “and once you get the notion into your mind that the leader of the movement may be a collaborator, you can almost never again work in an organized movement.” Silly me, forgetting my own words for a moment.

The very first sentence in my project description, to which I adhere as have my collaborators, reads: “OPEN ANTHROPOLOGY in its most basic sense is a project of decolonization…”. Really, you cannot miss it, it is the first sentence. I have also written about the project’s “pronounced anti-imperialist orientation” (link). I have gone out on a limb to put this into public practice. The current slanderous ire of milbloggers, who would like to see me fired, and three death threats so far this year, might also be enough to suggest that. (Also, show me another anthropology blogger who gets a veiled threat in writing on his blog from a Lt. Colonel in the Pentagon.)

One might begin to understand, if one has read and tried to follow, why I might be just a little defensive when it comes to having my project, the putative link to my project, and the identity of the project, sold out to my actual adversaries, from so-called “fellow” anthropologists. The problem with the title of this blog is not the word “Open;” it’s the word “Anthropology.”

What Open Anthropology is still about — like it or not I am still here and won’t let you ignore that fact — in the shortest summary ever:

(a) transcending disciplinary boundaries
(b) working outside of the walls of institutionalism and professionalism
(c) bringing anthropology out into public engagement
(d) bringing knowledge of alternative anthropologies, by non-anthropologists, back into the academy
(e) engaging in open source ethnography — collaboration, commentary, using materials freely available online and intended for public consumption. My partnerships with Guanaguanare, Leslie-Ann Brown, and Roi Kwabena have been examples of some of these aspects. My more recent collaborations with John Stanton and Jamil Hanifi, are other examples.

While I now think that the leading mistake has been to feature the word “anthropology” in the title, and to associate in various ways with anthropology bloggers, there is one thing that remains to be repeated:

Neither Keith Hart nor the OAC speak for this project, do not represent it and the people involved with it, and should not mislead anyone into thinking there is any kind of link whatsoever.

Cease and Desist

Please, I ask those commenting on this subject to take the time to inform themselves, ask questions (of themselves as well), and not immediately jump in and say this is all a debate about a “name” (in actuality, they mean “words,” but they have not thought of the difference), not about who owns “open” (no one does), or a pissing contest over “property.”

I have certainly made mistakes in this whole affair, I even noted some of them above. However, I mostly do not agree that I have made the specific mistakes that some think I have made, which are their perceptions based on putting words in my mouth. Yes, anthropologists do that, with remarkable ease and frequency it turns out.

The debate is about fraud, about misrepresentation, about political honesty and political responsibilities. Currently, members of the OAC are being duped into thinking that they are about to vote on a name, in a statement that first talks about linking to a project. They should be asked if they want to link to this project. If not, they would not want its identifying label. It’s simple — don’t confuse people who are too lazy to ask questions and investigate further.

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