science, pseudoscience, politics, and anthropology

Mike Lieber (U28550@UICVM.BITNET)
Tue, 22 Nov 1994 16:07:51 CST

To Theodore Benke, Todd Nims, Raf Alvarado, et. al.,

I don't have any particular bone to pick with any of you, except possibly
with Benke's charge of bringing disguised politics to what is supposed to be
an anthropological discussion. Several of us insisted from almost the getgo
that Murray-Hernnstein-Rushton-Itzkoff, et. al. were writing political tracts
under the guise of science. That some more conservative Republicans should
want to use M-H's "findings" as "scientific" evidence in support of their
public policy proposals is neither surprising, nor is it particularly new.
The U. S. and Europe have long histories of adopting eugenic programs as
public policies. Franz Boas first came to general public attention as an
outspoken opponent of the eugenicists of his day, and he was much hated for
it, particularly for his bringing scientific data to bear on every flaw in
the eugenicist's arguments. That not all Republicans are closet eugenicists
is a lot less important than the timing of the publications and the vociferous
use of newly elected, influential conservatives of those publications as
alleged science to support public policy initiatives. There is nothing
inherently non-anthropological in identifying a recurring pattern in our own

Nor is there anything non-anthropological about Raf Alvarado's post
distinguishing between public policy, the needs it addresses, and the sorts
of rationale used to buttress it. I would be very curious to hear a bit more
about how Bordieu's framework could equally well support some or all provisions
of the "Contract with America." I suspect that *habitus* would be the
backbone of such an analysis, but I'm not an expert. I am not clear as to
whether Raf thinks that this spate of publications--and their timing--are (a)
non-political, just scientific, (b) unconnected to popular beliefs about
race and ethnicity in America, and (c) good science. This is a suggestion for
expanding a very brief post.

Of the posts since the elections, Todd Nims's post is the closest I've seen to
on the ground anthropological matters, like data. Clearly, there are a lot of
levels on which these matters can be discussed, one of them being gut level
responses of people to events and what they see as patterns of events in their
own lives. That's data, too. It may not be politically correct, but aren't we
supposed to be listening to what the indigenes say? As many of them as will
talk to us?

We live in a society that has two major peculiarities. It is probably the most
heterogenous racial and ethnic mix of populations in the world and the legal
unit of rights and duties is the individual. Even groups, when legally
certified, are incorporated as legal individuals. What constitutes the
community, the public, and the polity have become less and less clear as the
society expands in both populations and identifiable sub-populations, such
that what constitutes community mores and standards becomes fuzzy. These are
bones of contention when they're supposed to be axiomatic. This fuzziness,
which is sometimes fostered, makes for some interesting contradictions that
become explicit during crises, e.g., what can be legally done to protect the
public when individuals' rights may have to be curtailed? The case of the
airline steward who was infecting men around the country with AIDS in the
1980s is a case in point. Knowing that he was spreading the infection, there
was nothing anyone could legally do to prevent him from doing so. What does
public health mean?

In the Chicago Tribune today, there are two different examples of ethnographic
data for your consideration. Mike Royko quotes from a letter from a suburban
I'm not going to tell any woman that she can't have a kid, and I don't want
government doing it on my behalf. I'm Catholic, and I came from a big
family, so who am I to tell anyone that they shouldn't have children?

But if you want to have a kid, don't tell me that I have to support it.
It's your responsibility, not mine. I'll take care of my own children, and
you take care of yours...

So, I'm not feeling guilty about wanting welfare tightened. Having a kid is
your business. But asking me to support it makes it my business.

In the same issue, Robert Reich talks about corporations, also (legal)
individuals. To fund the kinds of tax cuts that Republicans want, Reich
suggests ending subsidies like tax breaks for private corporations. An
interesting datum in this regard is the language used. What is subsidies for
corporations is called welfare for individuals. Reich insists that these
subsidies also be called welfare and that if welfare ends for some individuals,
then it ought to end for all individuals, which, legally, would have to include
corporations. I have a feeling that not many Republicans or Democrats will buy
Reich's language. But why?

Are these matters, and many more we could talk about, not the business of
anthropology? Are not the politics, the public policy, the manner in which
policies are decided, the rationales used in these decisions, and the voices
of the people represented AND unrepresented whose votes drive these processes,
for good or ill, not all data that are the grist of anthropology's mill?
Should any of it be excluded from collegial discussion? My answer is no.

Mike Lieber