Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Congressman King's precursors

As reported here and elsewhere, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) recently claimed that we owe "civilization" to the Europeans; nobody else contributed significantly.  This idea is straight out of the playbook of the 19th-century evolutionists, who claimed that contemporary humans were stuck at different points on a unilineal evolutionary ladder leading from "savages" to "barbarians" and, finally, contemporary Western "civilization."  One of the leading purveyors of this notion was Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881), an early American anthropologist.

The paradigm of unilineal evolutionism was debunked for biology by Darwin himself, who imaged evolution as a tree with many branches rather than a straight ladder.  The debunking of the cultural myth was largely begun Franz Boas (1858-1942), another American anthropologist who stressed the importance of particular histories of cultures and societies over their ranking on some grand, ethnocentric scheme.

But the idea that societies and cultures could be ranked on a unified scale from "primitive" to "advanced" remained in the general folk model of many Americans and Europeans.  This is a slide I use in some of my classes to illustrate Theodore Roosevelt's investment in the idea.

And this idea is still alive and breathing.  Rep. King's thinking is in a direct line of descent from Morgan, and Roosevelt.  The maybe puzzling but definitely sad thing about this is that not only is King not alone, but somehow, with so little knowledge of human nature and history, he manages to maintain a high position in our government.  One would have thought that the demythologized view of humans ought to have become dominant by now.

We need anthropology, its knowledge and perspective, more than ever.

Monday, March 13, 2017

"The idea that every culture is equal is not objectively true"

Rep. Steve King (Iowa): "The idea that every culture is equal is not objectively true."
Well, yeah. There is a sense in which the ethnocentric Rep. King is right, but it's not the sense he was thinking of. Some years ago, in Exploring the Ways of Mankind (1960), anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt proposed some criteria for objectively evaluating cultures without being ethnocentric. He suggested that we look at how well a culture satisfies the physical and psychological needs of its members in terms of:
--Nutritional status
--General health (physical and mental)
--Crime, violence
--Domestic stability and tranquility
--Stability of relationship to resource base

On these measures, American culture is not doing so well. Don't tell King.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Denying science

You know, I've been used to this kind of thing for many years, because being a linguist/anthropologist means having to listen to people who don't know shit tell you about language and human nature and expect you to respect their nonsense because they're human and they can talk, which means they know all there is to know.

Now, though, this mental illness is spreading into other domains: evolutionary biology, environmental science, etc. Too bad there's no cabinet secretary of cosmology; Trump surely would have found somebody who would be telling us that the Sun revolves around the Earth.

EPA head Scott Pruitt denies science on global warming.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Who's surprised?

It's been a while.  So much has been going on, so much has happened, so much of it positively depressing and angering at the same time, that it has been hard if not impossible to focus the anger.
And frustration.  But what I wonder about is why anyone is even surprised that our country is descending into fascism.

There are a couple of different threads to this story, feeding into each other, reinforcing each other.  Perhaps the most immediate is our (US) national obsession with "business," and "businessmen" (face it, it's mostly men, and the women involved are honorary men).  Success in "business" is the Holy Quest of our land and has been pretty much since the beginning.  It almost seems not to matter whether the "business" succeeds or fails, the Quest is the thing.  And the people (mostly men) are the priest/leaders of this quest. They are the Holy Ones, successful or not, because they went on the Quest.  Trump is one.  Holy, untouchable, simply for having made the Pilgrimage.  Even as a failure most of the time, still able to command others to value his opinions, perverted and destructive as they might be for the rest of us.

There is another thread, and that has to do with the nature of "business" as it has developed over the last few centuries.  "Business" as we mostly know it grew out of the incomprehensibly vast profits created by the European imposition of predatory capitalism on both the New World and Africa beginning (roughly) in the 16th century.  West Africans were transported to the parts of the New World (the West Indies, Brazil and other parts of South America, parts of Middle America, and southern portions of North America) to labor without pay in the service of this predatory capitalism.  They worked mostly on plantations, growing and harvesting sugar cane (itself brought from the Old World) and processing it into sugar, rum, and molasses.  They grew other things too (tobacco, rice, indigo, cotton, etc.) but it was the immense wealth built by Sugar that fueled both the growth of global capitalism and the Industrial Revolution.

And as this happened, the plantation, and especially the slave-based plantations, among the earliest large-scale factories, became the working model for the "business corporation."  Power and authority flow from the top down, and all below serve the Masters.  Everything in the societies based on this system is subordinate to this essentially fascist structure, and many "third-world" problems remain in the places where it flourished.  The social structure of the southern US, the Old Confederacy, is still riddled with the rotting remnants of this system.

So, is it surprising, really, that a "businessman" who grew up comfortable with this type of predatory, fascist way of making a living would display the pro-fascist leanings our new president displays?  Couple this with his severe personality disorders, which apparently may include something called "malignant narcissism," and we are in trouble.  If there are any adults left in Washington I hope they can get rid of him very soon.