Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Cultural insensitivity is deadly. So where are the anthropologists?

Recently I blogged about an article in the NY Times by anthropologist Rick Schweder. Judging by some of the feedback he's getting, it seems many have failed to grasp what he is talking about. Typical of many academics, his critics don't see the forest for the trees.

Schweder was writing about a matter of profound importance to US foreign policy.

Americans bases encircle the planet. Iraq is not the last insurgency the US will ever fight. In the future, American troops will be sent to one "failed state" or another. Historical circumstance means that many Americans will end up stomping around in other countries for years to come. US foreign policy will continue to matter globally.

Yet, Americans remain among the most inter-culturally naive people on the planet. This should come as no surprise. Few hold passports, most speak only one language, many can't find their own country on a map, the US news media skimps on coverage of international stories, etc.

The end result? American cultural insensitivity -- incompetence by another name -- gets foreigners and Americans killed. Even if a plan is well-intentioned, humanitarian, UN supported, etc., America's inter-cultural incompetence is potentially deadly.

That's the big conundrum Schweder seems to be thinking about.

In this context, US anthropologists ought to make themselves matter, make their perspective matter. Teaming up with institutions of US foreign policy is one way to start. Wherever and whenever the circumstances to do so present themselves, it's probably for the best that anthropologists get involved. That's thinking long term.

Anthropologists need to look beyond this administration -- and the present Iraq debacle. That's what Schweder is saying. And I might add, not just the anthropologists. We all have to think more constructively, present long-term visions. We can't allow ourselves to stay trapped in a static recoil when confronted with the lunatic nightmares of neo-conservatives.

* * * * *

Speaking of neo-conservative lunatics, in a recent campaign ad, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney asserted that America is in a struggle with people who aim “to unite the world under a single jihadist Caliphate. To do that they must collapse freedom-loving nations. Like us.”

Romney likely doesn't know it, but he's rekindling the same outlandish myth that encouraged the allies to carve up the Ottoman Empire at Versailles (the peace conference held at the end of World War I). As David Fromkin explained in his classic work, A Peace to End all Peace, the myth of the Caliphate was an obsession that drove British statesmen to entirely misread the situation in the Middle East (I mentioned the Fromkin book in my previous post on Schweder's article).

Update: David Price's critique of the US military's "human terrain program" is posted at Counterpunch (via Jinjabeelah). He paints a grim picture of the program:
Human Terrain research gathers data that help inform what Assistant Undersecretary of Defense John Wilcox recently described as the military's "need to map Human Terrain across the Kill Chain". The disclosure that anthropologists are producing knowledge for those directing the "kill chain" raises serious questions about the state of anthropology.
Price relates some of the harsh lessons anthropologists have learned over the years:
But as Bryan Bender reports in the Boston Globe, "one Pentagon official likened [Human Terrain anthropologists] to the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support project during the Vietnam War. That effort helped identify Vietnamese suspected as communists and Viet Cong collaborators; some were later assassinated by the United States." This chilling revelation clarifies the role that Pentagon officials envision for anthropologists in today's counterinsurgency campaigns.
Price's view seems to be that institutions beat down the anthropologist, forcing conformity to a preconceived vision:
. . . My research examining the frustrations and contributions of World War II era anthropologists identifies a recurrent pattern in which anthropologists with knowledge flowing against the bureaucratic precepts of military and intelligence agencies faced often impossible institutional barriers. They faced the choice of either coalescing with ingrained institutional views and advancing within these bureaucracies, or enduring increasing frustrations and marginalized status. . . In large part, what the military wants from anthropology is to offer basic courses in local manners so that they can get on with the job of conquest. . .
Such concerns not withstanding, I believe Americans abroad equipped with insufficient cultural knowledge pose the greatest risk -- both to themselves and others. Despite everything the Bush Administration has done, in the long-term, I'm far more concerned about US incompetence than US malevolence. The danger that cultural knowledge will be misused may be real, but I believe it is -- far and away -- the lesser danger.

Because, it seems to me, the former begets the latter: a general cross-cultural ignorance serves those with unscrupulous designs. (Only in a country hampered by a severe deficit of inter-cultural knowledge would a neoconservative who tells Americans to "fear the Caliphate" be taken seriously by the news media).

To the extent Americans are rather ignorant of foreign cultures, the discipline of anthropology is partially to blame. One issue I have with American anthropologists -- and social scientists generally -- pertains to their reflexive use of jargon and uncritical use of postmodern theory. This goes a long way to explaining why so much good scholarship has had so little impact on the wider society.

A commitment to work with the military or foreign policy establishment forces anthropologists to explain the insights of their discipline in more straightforward terms. The much heralded "Army Insurgency Manual" by General David Petreus is a case in point. Professor David Price shows it to have comprised the unattributed scribblings of various leading social scientists. Accusations of plagiarizing aside, the Manual represents a step towards making anthropology more accessible to some Americans in urgent need of cross-cultural knowledge.

But to get back to my original point, I think it's easy to get so worked up about the trajectory of the present US Administration that we forget that in the future, the US military will be called upon to play a constructive role in the world -- beyond "conquest." Increasingly it will be called upon to bring stability to failed states (Paul Collier talks of the pressing need for this here). And in this regard, "A basic course in local manners" is not such a bad place to start. The underlying focus should be to conceive a positive new role for American institutions and foreign policy, to provide vision for the new leadership. To get from here to there, it's not helpful to simply be against the institutions. We have to articulate what we want from them.

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