Empty Scholasticism at its Best on the AAA Blog

Having read through over 60 comments posted thus far on the blog of the American Anthropological Association, devoted to debate over the AAA Executive Board’s decision to condemn anthropological involvement in the Human Terrain System project as a violation of its code of ethics, I am struck by the vain scholasticism of some of the responses critical of the Executive Board. By “scholasticism” I mean an especially pedantic upholding of rules and standards of scholarly research–professionalism–in response to moral, ethical, and political questions (in other words, the wrong answers to the right questions, paraded as the most scholarly answers). This is classical “science versus doctrine” propaganda, upholding the mythology of the Western bourgeois knowledge system. It also shows very precisely how anthropology, as currently constituted, as a knowledge embedded in the capitalist world-system which spawned it, cannot be relied upon to assist in struggles for liberation from imperialism. It will continue to contain these internal elitist impediments. The members of the Executive Board are being accused of not being scholarly…and you know that for scholars, that’s going to hurt.

Vain scholasticism is apparent in the following examples, derived from the blog postings:

(a) “I think it important to treat this issue anthropologically, that is to try to understand in as complete a way as possible what the embedded anthropologists are doing and to ask about who they are and how they found themselves to be in this particular situation”–i.e., before judging, we ought to study and learn more from members of these Human Terrain Teams, such as their kinship terms, their subsistence patterns, their use of symbols, their social relations, and religious beliefs;

(b) we need to know more about the Human Terrain System before we can comment–i.e., let us continue to defer judgment eternally, for knowledge can never be complete and perfect;

(c) we cannot accept that these wars in Afghanistan and Iraq violate human rights, without appropriate documentation from authorized agencies–i.e., we are not allowed to form any critical opinions until higher ups have authorized us to do so, body counts and years of horrific reportage do not matter;

(d) we cannot accept that these wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were illegal, until recognized state parties have been properly referenced on the question of legality–too idiotic to even address here;

(e) “interactions via the United States military could be a brand new study in itself, which could open new doors and new ideas in anthropology. Don’t allow politics to get in the way of anthropology”–in other words, “hmm, maybe I can score a publication from this, or a hefty new grant”;

(f) the AAA Executive Board is offering “a knee-jerk reaction to what is admittedly a complex issue and one that deserves to be grounded in a careful and thorough investigation of particulars”–yes, more study, it is just so “complex” that it defies any understanding, let alone one that is straight to the point, and, remember Executive Board members, you must always speak like an academic, that is to say, as if you had butter in your mouths;

(g) we cannot know ahead of an engagement what will constitute ethical behaviour–we have no idea what is right and wrong; and, leaving the best for last,

(h) “do you not have an obligation to alleviate harm?”–the idea here is that these HTT anthropologists are helping to reduce body counts (a very dubious argument at best) and are thus alleviating harm–an interesting expression in itself–while also helping to reduce risk for US soldiers. Of course, from a more detached and less self-serving perspective one could just as easily argue that those who caused the harm were American forces, and the ones alleviating harm are the insurgents. But, these are American anthropologists after all, and for as much as they protest that “cultures are not confined to places,” they demonstrate the contrary given the heavy imprint of nationality on many of their intellects.

Together, these almost random statements paint a good picture of the pathologies of professionalism in one country. These, along with some posts that were apparently written with the hope of attracting the eyes of publishers and senior scholars (the strategic reference to academic authorities, the extensive quotation of sources indicating one has done one’s homework), leads me to rework a statement once offered by Woody Allen about himself:

“I wouldn’t want to join any movement that has an anthropologist as a member.”

In the end, I was most struck by the one professor who referred to the statement by the Executive Board in terms of “stupidity” that left him “furious.” Given the avalanche of stupidities the world has been treated to from the US, from before the start of this merciless and unwarranted invasion of Iraq, it is amazing that “stupid” should be directed at those who, finally, protest support for the war.

When an anthropologist approaches you with, “I want to help you,” the best thing you can do is run like hell.