Shweder’s “True Culture War,” Part II

Before I continue, I wanted to counter any reader’s impression that the hidden aim of these posts is to somehow malign or criticize Shweder personally. I actually do not know him, we have never met, and what I recall that I might have read in the past certainly left me without a negative impression. I am more interested in Shweder’s message, and it’s true, sometimes I make the mistake of using the messenger’s name as a shortcut for referring to the message. In this case, Shweder’s intentions are obviously good, and I will summarize them as follows:

  • to help preserve the integrity of the discipline of anthropology;

  • to distance the discipline from the abuses committed in its name; and,

  • to provide positive input that can help to reform the global perspectives entertained by the military, intelligence, and foreign policy establishments in the United States.

What I wish to add here is that what is happening with the “enlistment” of anthropologists in the service of counterinsurgency, is not a product of chance, or the result of the actions of select, unscrupulous individuals exercising their individual agency. Agency without structure is simply myth, in the negative sense. So what is the structure at work?

First, the military is not enlisting just any social scientists, it must be noted. The social scientists they are recruiting are not those with degrees in Cultural Studies, Postcolonialism, Women’s Studies, Political Science, and so forth–those who can potentially be troublesome from an ideological standpoint and whose “data” is of the wrong kind. They are specifically anthropologists, and this stems in part from the discipline’s largely successful efforts to proclaim that it owns ethnography: in person, face-to-face, sensitive, on the ground, immersion. If positivist number crunching was the safe science of Cold War, 1950s social science, ethnography is becoming the seductive science of deep penetration into the enemy Other in this so-called “War on Terror.”

Anthropology is thus a victim of its own success, reinterpreted as an art of espionage and attracting all the attention of those who found its prolonged discussions and debates about confidentiality, sensitivity, and ethical rapport as suggestive of a potential dark side that could come in handy, if cultivated by the right military strategist.

Second, applied anthropology does not often look like academic anthropology, and therefore one argument that is not convincing is that what the McFates and Griffins of the world are doing is “not real anthropology.” This is a potential minefield for both the upholders and the critics of the discipline: if we end up arguing that there is no real anthropology, it means that criticism of the discipline is criticism of a straw figure, and on the other hand, the discipline has no right to exist as such because it is nothing as such.

Third, one needs to have become quite numb to the atrocity of the last two decades of the conquest of Iraq. From the first Gulf War, to constant violations of the sovereignty of Iraqi territory and airspace, to genocidal sanctions, to a second war, to rapes, torture, and massacres, to collateral damage, to white phosphorous and cluster bombs in cities, a bloddy bludgeoning of a weak and poor nation that had once done more than most of its neighbours to raise its standard of living, having now lost from hundreds of thousands to millions of lives, depending on when we begin to count. This is unforgivable. We are dealing with a ghoulish blood bath. For any anthropologist to volunteer to “educate” the foreign policy establishment is beyond naive, it is quite unacceptable.

The only thing American anthropologists ought to be focused on is keeping their country’s troops out of the world and to better educate their children, students, family, friends, and neighbours so they never again commit the kind of genocidal war in which the overwhelming majority of American public opinion cheered Bush on. Indeed, even antiwar activists in the US frequently resort to highlighting how many American troops have died in Iraq, as if that were the war’s greatest drawback–they still don’t get it. Anything less than radical activism on the part of anthropologists, in reforming both their discipline and their position in society, will always bleed into the field of complicity.