By what logic, if any, does Zero Anthropology function?
If in light of the controversy that erupted with the publication of Sophia Tesfamariam’s outline and condemnation of western anthropologists working to support regime change in her native Eritrea, Zero Anthropology for its part fails to criticize the Eritrean government for its alleged militarization, then what good are we? (Well, for one, we are good for a distraction: turn the denunciations around against us, the messenger of a messenger, and thus avoid any discomfort occasioned by Tesfamariam’s allegations.)
Let’s say either Michael Brown or Travyon Martin had a gun. Let’s say they used their guns in self-defense once they were shot at, and in so doing stayed alive. Some might condemn us for not denouncing Brown and Martin for defending themselves with a gun, especially if we still persisted in our critique of the militarization of the police. We would say we are glad that Brown and Martin are still alive, and yes, the police are too powerful and trigger-happy.
By the same token, if you are in the USA or Canada, but the militarization that you find particularly offensive is not that of the USA, Canada and NATO, it is instead that of, say, tiny little Eritrea all the way across in Africa, then what is your logic?
At the very least then we have two sides that each apply different standards in their selectivity. Are they both right? Are they both wrong? Is only one right, and if so, which one? Let’s continue by untangling the logics that, I think, are deliberately confounded and confused in order to create room for distraction and misdirection.
The Law of Sameness
Is all power the same everywhere? If so then it deserves equal criticism everywhere. Speaking truth to power is not just speaking truth to power in Eritrea. Likewise, speaking truth to power is not just speaking truth to power in a NATO member state. If all power is the same everywhere, then this is a statement of your logic on the subject of militarization:
Militarization is militarization is militarization.
Thus neither different contexts, nor different causes, nor different consequences matter, because it is all the same militarization. If one is critical of militarization here, then one must criticize militarization there. If you believe in the law of sameness, then both sides of the dispute above are wrong, because each party (ZA on the one hand, Bozzini on the other) is being one-sided in their focus.
The Law of Same Difference
However, it seems that some new law has snuck in through the margins, not just in the dispute above, but more importantly in Washington, Ottawa, and Brussels. This is the law of “same difference”: everything should be the same, and could be the same, but we need to adjust or standards to deal with various “evil” entities that grow out there, like “cancer”.
In such a universe, special laws operate:
All objects in the universe have the exact same mass–
except some, the Black objects, have greater gravity.
Some might call that racism. Others might call it a special ability to avoid the obvious around you, to be mystified, and thus exoticizing your concerns. If your concerns, as an anthropologist who supports regime change, are misplaced and your objections misguided is one thing. The fact remains the one standing accused of unwanted foreign intervention is you, not Zero Anthropology, and not any of the vilified anti-imperialists who–to their everlasting discredit, never started costly and interminable wars of conquest and occupation. So not all things are equal after all, now are they.
The Law of Difference
There is another root of the dispute, and it has to do with an unvariegated, emergent anthropology of militarism that does not distinguish among subjects. The problem is that we never said we agreed with such an approach. Instead, if one read Anthropology against Empire: Demilitarizing the Discipline in North America, one would discover something different. While appreciating the call for an anthropology of militarism, I added something else: that the proper focus should first be on imperialism, the context and cause of most of the rampant militarization we see in the world today. Otherwise, militarization looks like something that “just happens,” as if it spontaneously generated everywhere. In that chapter I also argued:
The point of this is that we should not be satisfied that we have a robust corpus of work on colonialism in anthropology, not even contemporary imperialism. I believe that studies of militarism make most sense in the context in which the most acute militarism actually occurs: in aggressive imperial centres, and to a lesser extent in some parts of the periphery that seek to actively resist and defend themselves against imperial aggression.
It is not shocking to us that some would prefer a defenseless Eritrea, or that some would condemn conscription in Eritrea, and not condemn it in their native Switzerland or Italy. It is not shocking because there is a tradition that objects to the militarization of the weak and the militarization of the anti-imperialist. It is still disappointing, however, to see that some anthropologists think speaking to truth to power means exercising their white authority to pick at post-colonial bones in small states of the periphery.
But one thing we don’t do is this: we don’t pretend that there are not vast inequalities in power in the global system, and these inequalities in power are reflected in the extreme inequalities of military spending and military power, which are dominated by the west far above and beyond all others on the planet. We also do not pretend that military power is used by everyone in the same way everywhere. There is NATO, but there is no non-western mirror of NATO.
If there is to be an anthropology of militarism, it needs to be mindful of these differences. And in speaking truth to power, we need to be mindful of the fact that power is not the same everywhere, as if all share and wield it equally and identically. Clearly, they do not.