Darkness as Far as the Eye Can See

Are you all familiar with the Darkness at El Dorado affair? Remember that? The book that exposed a putative scandal in the world of anthropology? Except the putative scandal was – well, let us say it was not well-supported by the evidence. But we all know how that goes. The ‘exposure’ of the ‘scandal’ is front-page news and a best-seller, while the later exposure of the fact that the ‘scandal’ was something more in the nature of a good old mud-throwing exercise is confined to academic journals where most people never hear of it. So that in fact the people who set off the whole mess to a considerable extent got what they wanted. In short, a miscarriage of justice.

It’s a fascinating (and infuriating) story. My colleague just read quite a lot about it for this book we’ve been writing, this book we are finally finally finally about to stop writing – this book that we have in fact stopped writing and are now just putting a few last bits of lace on. There is an article on a new development at Inside Higher Ed – where I left a comment late yesterday, unfortunately so late (my time) yesterday that I appear to have started out writing one sentence and ended up writing another, with unfortunate results for the coherence of the bastard sentence on the page. But the article is interesting and useful, and has links. There is also, as I say in that misbegotten sentence, an excellent article by Thomas Gregor and Daniel Gross in the CHE from 2002. An article they published in ‘American Anthropology’ in December 2004 prompted the American Anthropological Association to hold a referendum on whether or not to rescind its own report on the allegations against James Neel and Napoleon Chagnon that are the subject of Darkness at El Dorado. The report, the fact of its existence, the way it was carried out – all make a compelling (and rather horrifying) story of warped judgment.

What galls many anthropologists is a shamefully conducted investigation that should never have happened in the first place…By the fall of 2000, the charges of murder and genocide against Chagnon and Neel had collapsed. Preliminary investigations established that far from conducting cruel experiments on humans, they had safely vaccinated the Yanomami and saved countless lives. In a normal world, that truth would have punctured the balloon of allegations and left the accusers deflated and apologetic.

But guess what – that’s not how it went.

How then did the association, in violation of its own rules, become the lead prosecutor in an investigation of what it eventually found were “sensationalistic” charges leveled by a “deeply flawed” and journalistically “unethical” book? Our answer is that the leadership was swept away by a riptide of political righteousness so powerful that not even the association’s established policies and the demolition of the most scurrilous charges could withstand its force…In the case at hand, the most serious allegations against Chagnon and Neel had been disproved; the anthropology association does not license its members to practice; and it is among the most politicized of associations. Its fault lines include residual political schisms of the 1960s and ’70s and a confusion of the discipline’s intellectual goals with advocacy.

There it is, you see – a confusion of the discipline’s intellectual goals with advocacy. That’s where the wheels come off. It’s not that advocacy is a bad thing – hell no; indeed, it’s one of the best things. But it is not, repeat not, the same thing as an intellectual goal. In some very important ways, the two inhabit different universes. One universe is that of is, and the other is that of ought. One is facts, the other is values. Facts can (with due caution) inform values, but when values start to inform facts – the facts immediately stop being facts and become something else, only they’re still called facts, and out come the secret police and the show trials and the memory hole and all the rest of the mess.

We saw this same lost-in-the-fog confusion of intellectual goals with advocacy in that Judith Halberstam article the other day, in which what had been literature departments magically transmogrified overnight into some kind of guerrilla movement against colonialism combined with amateur philosophy/political economics departments.

To this must be added the postmodern worldview, much current in anthropology, with its penchant for stripping away appearances — in this case that of a disinterested science in search of the truth — to discover an evil within, or, at minimum, complicity with powerful elites…Such a civil war now threatens anthropology, which is riven with divisions between scientifically oriented, data-driven research and interpretive approaches. What makes the discipline uniquely vulnerable to political turmoil is the worldwide tragedy of beleaguered indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities, and the guilt that their suffering evokes. Although the poverty and the oppression are real, academic adversaries may misuse them as swords and shields in their battles…In the association’s report, this exquisite sensitivity extends even to the thoroughly postmodern demand that anthropologists surrender to their subjects the task of defining the topics to be investigated.

That last item is very reminiscent of an article in the Washington Post last September, that I chatted about here and here. Very postmodernist reporters they have at the Post.

Once any outsider starts thinking like an anthropologist, it’s hard not to start asking those bullying Margaret Mead questions. How do you know the natives are telling the truth? Is something sacred just because they say it’s sacred? How do you know that they’re not snowing you with all that talk of the Creator and the power of place and all the happy animism that runs through the general discourse of native life? If you believe that only native voices can get at the truth of native people, you must take it all in at face value. Truth is what individual people say about themselves, beyond refute and suspicion — which is perhaps the most powerful, and radical, challenge that Postmodern thought has proposed.

‘Truth is what individual people say about themselves, beyond refute and suspicion’ – how’s that for a recipe for getting everything wrong? That’s a powerful and radical challenge, all right – a challenge to anyone’s ability to think straight. And can end up with kangaroo courts and show trials. Advocacy is a fine thing, but it has to be the right kind of advocacy.

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