Why America's top pundits are wrong
Now here’s an interesting project: take a dozen anthropologists, invoke the spirit of Franz Boas, the founder of modern American anthropology, who “championed Native Americans and was an outspoken public critic of eugenics and of racially biased intelligence testing in the early twentieth century”, reverse the fallout from the bruising debates of the Vietnam era, which “left many anthropologists feeling that it was safer to avoid participation in national policy debates” - and point out that this reversal has been triggered in particular by a reaction to the narrowing of national debate in the wake of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. Then set the anthropologists loose on a number of prominent pundits - or “modern-day mythmakers”, as the editors describe them - and watch as the sparks of informed and righteous indignation fly.
To be honest, the pundits in question - including Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilizations
, Robert Kaplan, author of Balkan Ghosts
and The Coming Anarchy
, and Thomas Friedman, author of The Lexus and the Olive Tree
- are an easy target for anyone with half a brain. Between them, however, these authors have shifted millions of copies of their pernicious diatribes - as well as, on occasion, influencing government policy - and it’s therefore reassuring to witness a clutch of intelligent commentators attempting, in the words of fellow anthropologist George Marcus, “to remake the terms of public debate, to lessen the fear of the primordial, and to allow Americans to understand better the challenges, the errors, and the possibilities of what is being done elsewhere in their name”.
At the heart of the anthropologists’ complaints, as the editors describe it in the introduction, is the disturbing recognition that all of the authors under scrutiny subscribe to “a neo-Darwinist ideology”, which leads them to “preach the inescapability of conflict and competition, the unreformability of those who are not like ‘us’, and the responsibility of the poor, the weak, and the oppressed for their own suffering”.
These distortions are readily apparent in the works of Samuel Huntington and Robert Kaplan. In The Clash of Civilizations
, Huntington, a Harvard professor, divides the world up neatly into seven civilizations - Western, Orthodox, Chinese, Japanese, Hindu, Islamic and Latin American (he refuses to include Africa, as he is unsure that it even qualifies as a civilization). Of these, he regards the West as uniquely compatible with democracy, human rights and secular reason, and Islam as particularly suspect, insisting that “Muslim bellicosity and violence are late twentieth century facts”, and that “wherever one looks along the perimeter of Islam, Muslims have problems living peacefully with their neighbours”.
Given the enormous compass of these wild and groundless generalizations, it’s unsurprising that Hugh Gusterson and Keith Brown demolish Huntington on a number of fronts, in particular on his insistence that his “civilizations” are “timeless” and “impervious to change”, whereas, as Brown notes, all cultures are actually “perpetually in progress, shaped by human interactions and societal interconnections”. Gusterson includes an eloquent rebuttal of Huntington’s own bellicosity from Edward Said: “Why do you pinion civilizations into so unyielding an embrace, and why do you go on to describe their relationship as one of basic conflict, as if the borrowings and overlappings between them were not a much more interesting and significant feature?”
Kaplan, a columnist for Atlantic Monthly
, at least acknowledges that Balkan Ghosts
is nothing more than a “subjective, broad-brush travel book about the whole Balkan peninsula, not a policy work”, but is as prone as Huntington to presenting dangerous generalizations as though they were hard facts. His picture of the Balkans as a region doomed to perpetual strife because of “ancient tribal hatreds” dating to the Middle Ages - a view which apparently contributed to Bill Clinton’s unwillingness to become involved in the conflict in the 1990s - is succinctly dismantled by Tone Bringa, who was living in a Bosnian village when the war broke out. She points out that what actually happened was that the interethnic friendships between Catholics and Muslims, “which had been the rule rather than the exception in this part of the world... were blown apart only under the pressure of a war begun by Serb separatists in Belgrade”.
For a realistic view of the conflict, she turns to the Bosnian journalist Rezak Hukanovic, a survivor of one of the death camps, whose descriptions of his experiences were published in his book The Tenth Circle of Hell
. In this first-hand account, the author “never falls into easy explanations of centuries-old ethnic hatreds to account for the horror”, perceiving instead that “the hatred and cruelty he experienced are phenomena of war... where normal rules of social behavior no longer apply”. Hukanovic also “bears witness to acts of human decency and heroism among fellow Bosnians - Muslims, Serbs, and Croats - who shared his hell”, acts that would be incomprehensible to Kaplan with his fixed view of people “isolated by poverty and ethnic rivalry, dooming them to hate”.
In The Coming Anarchy
, Kaplan transposes his view of “ancient tribal hatreds” from the Balkans to the developing world, revealing, as Catherine Besteman describes it, “a myopic obsession with violence and criminality in Africa, in particular, and in humanity in general”. Asking his Western readers to imagine that they are travelling inside a stretch limo (and what a fine, unconscious metaphor for Western greed and self-absorption that is), Kaplan warns that outside is “a rundown, crowded planet of skinhead Cossacks and juju warriors, influenced by the worst refuse of Western pop culture and ancient tribal hatreds, and battling over scraps of overused earth in guerrilla conflicts that ripple across continents”, a rising tide of violence and criminality that will ultimately overrun the healthy, wealthy West in which his impressionable readers dwell.
Besteman points out the racism in Kaplan’s anecdotes - of “hordes” of young men (also referred to as “loose molecules”) turning to violent crime, of an “unstable social fluid... clearly on the verge of igniting” - which were gathered on brief visits to various West African countries, with, as Kaplan describes it, their “dangerous, disease-ridden coastal trading posts”. She also criticizes his wanton generalizations and his inability to recognize that, in various parts of Africa, the colonial powers practiced a form of divide and rule which either created or exacerbated tribal identifications (and which led, in turn, to the genocide in Rwanda, for example). She also points out that, rather than falling prey to inherent tribal weaknesses, many African countries are actually being undermined by their relationships with the rich countries of the West, who continue to exploit them for cheap raw materials and cheap labour, driving them further into dangerous poverty through the neo-liberal prescriptions of the World Bank and the IMF, which have forced them to cut social welfare while opening up their markets to a new wave of Western exploitation. Despite this litany of shameful omissions, the most astonishing revelation about Kaplan’s racist propaganda is that an Atlantic Monthly
article of the same name, which preceded the publication of the book, was deemed so significant that it was “faxed by the US state department to every US embassy in Africa”.
While Huntington and Kaplan sound fearful klaxons about the dangers of globalization, New York Times
columnist Thomas Friedman positively embraces it, as the cure for all the world’s ills, in his bestseller The Lexus and the Olive Tree
. For Friedman, economic neo-liberalism - a “Golden Straitjacket” which “first began to be stitched together and popularised in 1979 by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher” - is the only viable route to economic growth, political progress and a peaceful world, and his arguments - such as they are - are rolled out within the framework of his chosen symbols - the “Lexus” of affluence, apparently available to all if they can only embrace “the One Big Thing” that is globalization, and the “olive tree” of tradition, which has a tendency to inhibit those who “just don’t have the skills set or the energy to make it into the Fast World”.
In the first of three chapters dealing with Friedman, Angelique Haugerud demolishes his “caricature of a world torn between... stasis and change”, pointing out distortions familiar from the critiques of Huntington and Kaplan - including flawed observational models, a misunderstanding of tradition, and misconceptions about culture and ethnicity - and focusing in particular on his failure to address the moral and ethical dimensions of neo-liberal economics. Where Friedman dismisses the protestors who kick-started the movement for global social justice and new forms of global democracy at the WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999 as “a Noah’s Ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix”, Haugerud points out that the protestors include “precisely those village societies he deprecates as rooted in olive groves, together with migrants to the industrialized North who sustain ties with their countries of origin and forge complex transnational networks”, and aptly concludes that resistance to globalization is “rejection not of modernity per se, but of the social injustices, environmental destruction, and brutal inequality that can accompany industrialization and economic neo-liberalism”.
A second chapter on Friedman finds Ellen Hertz and Laura Nader dismissing the author for “glib phrase-mongering rather than reasoned analysis”. They proceed to satirize his irritatingly upbeat, ad-speak style - as well as his pompous self-regard - and compare him efficiently to Ronald Reagan, whose rhetorical devices also included “obvious exaggerations, material omissions, contrived anecdotes, voodoo statistics, denials of unpleasant facts, and flat untruths”.
While this approach provides some light refreshment, it is the third chapter on Friedman, by Carolyn Nordstrom, which is in many ways the most revealing, as it focuses on a vast, submerged topic - that of illicit or illegal trade - which Friedman, predictably, overlooks. As Nordstrom describes it, “Because Friedman and his ilk see globalization as inherently good, when they look at the world’s horizons they see the bright shine of economic activity, not the shadows of the extralegal”. Nordstrom notes that, although illicit trade primarily affects less politically powerful countries - she points out that, in the developing world, “resource-rich countries are four times more likely to be suffering political violence”, because “virtually all the resources go to cosmopolitan industrial locales around the globe”, with “the proceeds benefit[ting] the host counties very little” - the scale of the extralegal economies that exist alongside their legal counterparts is far from being the “insignificant portion of the world’s economy” that economic “experts” would have us believe. And while this hidden global economy involves some predictable activities - including illegal arms dealing, drugs, human trafficking, prostitution and pornography, as well as the estimated 20% of the world’s financial deposits which are hidden in unregulated and/or offshore banks - Nordstrom emphasizes that its true impact is actually both far more pervasive and far more significant.
Using the example of Angola, where she has conducted extensive fieldwork, Nordstrom shows how the country’s particular combination of valuable resources - chiefly its diamonds and its extensive offshore oil deposits - and the business opportunities provided by forty years of war (in many ways the largest extralegal money-spinner of them all) have resulted in an underground economy of which 90%, according to UN estimates, is “based on exchanges made along extralegal lines”. As well as pointing out that this hidden economy is beyond the reach of Friedman’s global ideal, Nordstrom is also left to wonder whether the fact that the “experts” ignore these figures is “not a simple oversight but the choice of the governments, industries, and people who build empires through less than legal means”.
The last three chapters of the book shift from America’s position on the global stage to domestic issues, with the books under scrutiny - The Virtue of Prosperity
by Dinesh D’Souza, A Natural History of Rape
by Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer, and The Bell Curve
by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray - turning back the clock to examine class, gender and race from a baleful social Darwinist perspective, producing myths which, as the editors note ruefully, are “resurrected every few decades and trotted out to explain why our great democracy continues to produce poverty, incarcerate minorities disproportionately, and suffer violence against women”.
In The Virtue of Prosperity
, D’Souza, safely ensconced in Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, insists that poverty is “no longer a significant problem in America”, primarily using a “commodity-based conception of class”, in which, by citing statistics which show that, for example, 98% of people below the official poverty line have refrigerators, and 93% have television, he concludes that the poor, such as they are, actually have nothing to complain about. And if this argument is not sufficient to explain the persistence of pockets of obdurate poverty, he adds that the only people left out of his vision of universal prosperity must be those who evidently don’t deserve it. His comment that “The guy who is worth little has probably produced little of value” therefore adds a contemporary entrepreneurial twist to a hardline Puritan callousness which has dogged the United States since its founding: that the poor are to blame for their own poverty.
While anyone with an ounce of compassion can recognize that this is patently untrue, D’Souza’s main contention, that American poverty is now an illusion, is taken apart by Kath Weston, who points out that the ways in which the measure of poverty was developed in the 1960s - focusing on consumer items and food but ignoring child care and health care, which have become increasingly significant in the intervening decades - have failed to keep up with the “topsy-turvy economy” of today, “in which it becomes possible to scrape together the money for household appliances that look like luxuries, yet inconceivable to cover the basic necessities that sustain life”. Weston insists, correctly, that, despite decades of rising GDP, little has changed for America’s persistent underclass since James Baldwin’s recollections of growing up in Harlem in the 1930s: “a cousin, mother of six, suddenly gone mad, the children parcelled out here and there; an indestructible aunt rewarded for years of hard labor by a slow, agonizing death in a terrible small room; someone’s bright son blown into eternity by his own hand; another turned robber and carried off to jail”.
Moving from the oppression of the poor to the oppression of women, Stefan Helmreich and Heather Paxson condemn the repulsive “conjectural biology” espoused in A Natural History of Rape
by Thornhill and Palmer, a biologist and biological anthropologist who choose to ignore the evidence provided by both rape victims and reformed rapists themselves that rape is about power, presenting it instead as a product of evolution that can be best understood through processes of natural selection. Both their findings and their advice - which includes the suggestion that teenage girls should be taught not to dress provocatively - are dismissed by the anthropologists with reference to two of the most brutal incidences of mass rape in modern history: those in Rwanda and in the Serb rape camps in Bosnia. They point out that the Serbian camps were not concerned with the genetic reproduction of individuals, but were conceived and executed as a nationalist and genocidal assault on another ethnic group through the bodies of its women. They also insist, quite rightly, that it is impossible to attach an evolutionary tale of reproductive fitness to the murder that followed the rape of Tutsi women in Rwanda, highlighting the essential social milieu of rape over the authors’ prurient obsessions with bikinis and miniskirts by asking ironically, “Could tragedy in Rwanda have been averted if Tutsi women had paid closer attention to their attire?”
Fittingly, the last chapter returns to the inspiration for this book, the anthropological pioneer Franz Boas, who was involved in a long, but ultimately successful, struggle against the social Darwinists and eugenicists of the early 20th century, who argued that African Americans and immigrants from Ireland, the Mediterranean and eastern Europe were intellectually inferior to themselves; they being the pure, white, Nordic super-race who introduced vile, forced sterilization programs, which were still taking place in some American states in the 1970s, and who, of course, provided such a malignant template for the ultimate Nordic eugenicists of the Third Reich. The Bell Curve
, whose authors attempt to resurrect the skewed IQ testing that was such a boon to white supremacists in the 1910s and 1920s, with its spurious proofs of the inferiority of black people, is lambasted by Jonathan Marks, who points out that the authors’ racially-motivated assertions that raw, context-free intelligence exists are nonsense, and that intelligence is always specific to a particular context. Marks concludes that “It is hard to see the goal of The Bell Curve
as other than to rationalize economic inequality, to perpetuate injustice, and to justify social oppression”. The same, it can be said, is true of all the pundits whose work is dissected so vigorously in this refreshing book, so perhaps it is now time for the inheritors of Franz Boas’ considerable legacy to think about collaborating on a further volume, which this time tackles the anger, the greed and the apocalyptic, Manichean tunnel-vision of the Christian fundamentalists and the warmongering neo-liberal cabal at the heart of the American government.