Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Anthro-apologists for the status quo

It probably can’t be argued (or can it!?) that anthropology is inherently racist--despite its origins in colonialism--but it is beyond dispute the field attracts more than its fair share of racist boneheads. For every Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, & Ashley Montague there are dozens of the criminally stupid often associated with elite universities to give racism the patina of science. The monuments to racism in anthropology are natural history museums where the artistic achievements of tribal & “primitive” societies are showcased in contrast to fine art museums where the art of “advanced civilizations” are shown.

Stephen J. Gould from Harvard spent most of his writings demolishing the bogus scientific claims of generations of eugenicists & racists, especially the sociobiologists (now called evolutionary psychologists but more appropriately termed “evo psychos”). As devastating as his critiques are, the halfwits get the most media attention because racism is too powerful a political weapon to abandon. It’s a multipurpose tool for the oligarchy to justify the status quo of discrimination, inequity, colonialism, war.

In the early 1970s, an anthropologist named Colin Turnbull published an ethnography of the Ik people, a forager society in Uganda displaced & reduced to poaching when their hunting grounds were turned into a national park. When the entire foundation of their culture & livelihoods was destroyed they faced massive famine which profoundly impacted their social cohesion & family bonds. Most notably children & the elderly were abandoned & abused. As Turnbull saw it through the mindset of racist moralism, this made the Iks a reprehensible & despised people. His ethnographic study inspired movies, plays, & writer-dilettantes like Lewis Thomas to hold up the Iks in contempt as a model of antisocial primitive life.

The neoliberal model of agribusiness has increased massive land grabs from tribal peoples on every continent & is facing their resistance. This is where shameless anthropologists have proven quite useful to multinational predator/corporations. In his recent book, “The World Until Yesterday,” Jared Diamond draws on anthropological claims about tribal societies & describes the people of West Papua as “trapped in cycles of violence & warfare.” Diamond, his science stunted by racism, calls on the Indonesian state to impose social order & peace & does not mention the violence of the Indonesian military occupation which has led to the murder of over 100,000 Papuan tribal people since 1963.

Another odious character named Napoleon Chagnon gained notoriety for his field work among the Yanomamö people of Venezuela from the mid-1960s through the 1990s. Although he is one of the most disreputable people in a problematic field, his ethnographic study, “Yanomamö: The Fierce People” (published in 1968) is commonly used as a text in college introductory anthropology classes & has sold in the millions. It describes the Yanomamö as “sly, aggressive & intimidating” & engaged in constant warfare. His claims are used by the Brazilian government to justify neoliberal land grabs from indigenous peoples. Chagnon’s investigative methods among the Yanomamö are considered so reprehensible & divisive that many challenge his conclusions & are protesting the many honors he is currently receiving from academic & scientific institutions. His most vocal supporters are evo psychos like Stephen Pinker at Harvard & Richard Dawkins at Oxford.

The struggle against racism in anthropology & other sciences cannot be fought by words alone but will require a resurgent civil rights movement. The forces are already assembling & the vanguard shaping up is indigenous people--not because they are more bellicose but because they have nothing left to lose.

(Photo taken by Fiona Watson of Davi Kopenawa, Yanomami spokesperson & shaman, who has spoken out against Napoleon Chagnon's new book “Noble Savages”)

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