Re: Carleton Coon

Mike Salovesh (t20mxs1@CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU)
Mon, 27 Nov 1995 01:30:01 -0600

Ralph, I agree that we should not relegate our intellectual ancestors to
oblivion because they were people of their times. Racism WAS rampant
among physical anthropologists for a long time, as was xenophobia, anti-
semitism, and an utter willingness to ascribe cultural difference to
"primitivism" in mentality. It was the spirit of the times.

The history of the Harvard/Washington axis in its reactions to Boas, and
the glee those folks expressed at having struck a blow against "the
Hebrews" when they got Boas dumped from the AAA board, is not a unique
episode. And it wasn't just physical anthropologists, either; witness
Malinowski's diary remarks calling the Trobrianders "niggers", e.g., or
the wild theories that ascribed primitive thought processes (whatever
those might be) to people with so-called "primitive" technologies.

Last time I looked, anthropologists came from Homo sapiens, meaning that
we are cultural animals. It has taken me many years to realize that I
can't fully transcend my cultural roots, no matter how much I am
convinced that some of the teachings of cultural relativity are essential
to my research as a social anthropologist.

Let me amplify. I was raised to believe that "Thou shalt not kill" is a
basic precept applicable to all humans. Eventually, I became a Quaker
and a conscientious objector to war. (My military service in the Korean
War was in the Medical Corps, U.S. Army. I thought at the time that such
service was morally acceptable. I'm no longer so sure about that.) That
is where my culture led me.

My research in Mexico and Central America puts me among people who use
assassination as an integral part of daily political behavior. Some of
my best informants have killed, or have hired gunmen to do their killing
for them, other people I knew. In Guatemala in just this past year, at
least four of my informants have been killed -- by the forces of "law and
order". In Chiapas, the community I studied longest has one of the
highest homicide rates of any municipio in all of Mexico.

One man in that community literally saved my life, and my wife's, by
extending his protection when a less powerful man had determined to kill
us. I will always be grateful to him, of course, and in some ways I
admire him. That's particularly true for his adherance to his own highly
developed moral code. I also know that this same man has himself killed
more than thirty human beings in his municipio, and several times that
number have been assassinated for his benefit. He is so famous as a
killer that there is a well-known popular song about him ("The Tiger of
the Southeast").

I've known that particular tiger since 1958. We have talked many times
about what he sees as right and wrong, and his conception that he is a
guardian of public morality. I can see where he's coming from. In
context, it makes perfectly good sense. Within the limits of his code,
he is a highly moral man.

To me, he's a killer no matter what he thinks about the rightness of
his killings. Even though I know that "murder" is a legal verdict, and
that this man has never been tried for murder in court, I react to him as
a murderer. That's my MORAL verdict.

At the same time, I'm always glad to see him, and I go out of my way to
visit him where he lives in retirement today. His sons still live in the
old municipio; each has a string of hired guns, and together they get what
they want most of the time in local politics. They kill to keep it that
way. I understand why, I know how it works, and I know that there are
others who also use deadly force to oppose this family. I know that both
the Mexican army and the state police sometimes line up with (and kill
for) the old man's family, and sometimes line up (and kill for) their
opponents in struggles over land and power.

As Jimmy Durante used to say, "them's the conditions what prevail".

Understanding how the system works does not mean I have to approve it.
My culture stands in the way: I really believe in the universality of the
commandment that says "thou shalt not kill".

What's that got to do with Carleton Coon, and his/our predecessors in
physical anthro? I know where their beliefs came from, and in context
they make sense. I even accept the fact that their explanations of some
of the observable facts they included under the rubric "race" were pretty
darned good attempts to make sense out of particularly difficult material.

But MY culture, anthropology in the 1990's, rejects their explanations.
This is not only because they were factually wrong, which they were; it
is because the human consequences of their conclusions were totally
noxious. I won't talk about the Third Reich, which is too obvious. Look
instead at the physical anthro underpinnings of the extremely racist
immigration laws of the 1920's, where the strong opposition of Boas and
company were unable to prevail. At another time, look at the division
within American physical anthro when the United Nations issued its
statements on race. There was a fairly well-known physical
anthropologist at Indiana in the 50's who proudly and prominently
adhered to a form of eugenics that would have fit perfectly within Nazi
Rasswissenschaft of the 1930's. I remember talking with him at dinner
during some conference, and being profoundly shocked.

But those anthropologists were of their time and place. It was the
decidedly upper-class State Department crew who turned back a whole
shipload of Jewish refugees who eventually were returned to Nazi Germany.
It was the great university leader, President Woodrow Wilson, who
instituted Jim Crow in U.S. Government facilities, under the Plessy vs.
Ferguson "separate but equal" doctrine. And in the early 1920's, when
some anthropologists supported clear racism in our immigration laws, the
Ku Klux Klan was a major force in national politics in this country.
Lynching, though technically illegal, was tolerated, particularly when the
victims were black. And it was a lot of "good Californians" who saw to it
that thousands of U.S. citizens were put behind barbed wire for years for
the sole crime of having Japanese ancestors. (Among those who supported
this total violation of human rights on a mass scale for racist reasons
was Earl Warren, later to be Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and
renowned for his support of civil rights.)

So what do I do about my intellectual ancestors?

I totally reject their racism. Whether they knew better or not is
irrelevant: I know better. We know better.

I accept what they were able to do despite the evils of some of their
views. I credit them with teaching those who would overthrow their
specious and dangerous conclusions, and with doing much of the basic work
that would prove how wrong their ideas were.

In the context of this statement, these are probably the wrong words--or
maybe they're exactly the right ones: It's not simply a matter of black
or white.

mike <> PEACE!