Robert Johnson and the good old days

Mike Lieber (U28550@UICVM.BITNET)
Mon, 6 Feb 1995 08:15:15 CST

I've stayed out of the "decolonizing anthropology" thread thus far, although I
have followed it, mostly because it reminds me so much of the good old days of
the early 70s, about which Mike Salovesh spoke. What Mike failed to mention,
however, was the witch hunt that followed the distribution of the documents
that SDS folks stole from Mike Moerman's office. Led by Eric Wolf, whom I
think of as ERIC THE GOOD, the names of anthropologists working in Thailand
included in the documents, such as Charles Keyes and Peter Kunstader, were
bandied about in rumors of working for the CIA, etc.. The source of these
rumors was the AAA Ethics Committee, which had copies of the documents. No one
ever said explicitly just how these names were associated with Moerman's
project. Let the listener make his/her own conclusions. It was all very
exciting and all very ugly.

Keyes went to the AAA meetings in San Diego to clear his name. Now, I'm not a
big fan of Charles Keyes, but I know that he had and would have nothing to do
with counterinsurgency work or anyhing like it. I don't know who he talked to
when he was in SD, and he was closed-mouthed about it afterward (probably
wisely), but the accusations stopped suddenly. Peter Kunstader was not so
lucky. While ERIC THE GOOD continued to mouth accusations of anthropologists'
complicity in genocide, in colonial suppression of indigenes, etc., the rumors
of Peter's involvement in counterinsugency activities continued. At the 1971
AAA general meeting, ERIC THE GOOD was doing his thing--youall culpa--when
Peter stood up, looked ERIC THE GOOD in the eye, and asked, "What, exactly, am
I being accused of?" Suddenly ERIC THE GOOD wasn't so articulate any more. He
babbled some vague generalities about ethical behavior. Peter cut him off,
"I ask you again. What, specifically, am I being accused of?" ERIC THE GOOD
became ERIC THE YELLOW. He stammered and babbled some more, but that was that.
This is how I remember it.

One of the casualties of the digust that we all felt over this nasty, two year
witch hunt was the credibility of the AAA Ethics Committee. They'd botched it
badly with loose cannons and looser procedure. This was unfortunate, because
the next year, an anthropologist we knew approached some of us working in
Oceania with news of research being planned for Micronesia with DOD money. It
wasn't DOD that bothered us--after all Noam Chomsky had done most of his early
research on syntax with money from the Office of Naval Research. What
bothered us was how bad and incompetent the research was, involving sending
untrained grad students out to the islands with a questionnaire that was
so badly planned and ethnocentric that it was a joke. The logical place to
take this issue was the Ethics Committee, but it was the last place that could
have any effect by that point. The project went ahead, and those of us in
the field heard about it from Micronesians, who also thought it was a joke--a
moron joke. Is this what you people do? We heard a lot of that.

So now here we are again. Anthropologists are the agents of colonial
domination, guilty of complicity in murder, ethnocide, theft, oppression, and
general mopery. ROBERT THE GOOD, the self-appointed champion of the rights,
history, and property of all American indigenes, has taken up where ERIC THE
GOOD left off.

Most academics seem to carry big guilt loads, particularly social scientists.
Maybe it's because I'm growing older that I tend to be a bit more selective
these days about which culpa I'm willing to take on as mea. Maybe it's
my experience with the contrast between the complexity of life in the field
and life in the academy. But I find it a bit difficult to respond to any
all embracing stereotype of anthropology or psychology or neurobiology in the
same way that I find it difficult to take seriously any stereotype of all
Black people, all Jews, all Poles, all anything. Anthropology is a discipline.
Disciplines don't do anything. People do.

So I can do no better than Peter Kunstader. Tell me, ROBERT THE GOOD, who,
specifically, are you accusing? All anthropologists? Do you know the work of
all anthropologists? Have you data on all anthropologists? Or are there
specific anthropologists on whom you have specific information to substantiate
your charges? Let's see a bit of courage of your convictions--as you surely
know the laws of libel--and let's see you act like an anthropologist and show
us data. Name names, if you have the data and the guts. If not, then do us
all a favor and cut the crap.
Mike Lieber