Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 20, 2010

A guest review of “Outsider’s Reverie”

Filed under: science,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 4:15 pm

Cliff Conner
Outsider’s Reverie: A Memoir by Leslie Evans (Los Angeles: Boryana Books, 2009).

Les Evans was my mentor. No teacher, no professor, no counselor, no guru was more influential in developing my worldview, my ability to think, whatever literary talent I have, and even my physical fitness. Reaching that conclusion forces me to acknowledge that I was a rather late bloomer, because according to Leslie Evans’ memoir, the period during which we worked together closely was October 1972, when my thirtieth birthday was already in the rearview mirror, through February 1975.

It is evident that I owe an immense debt to Les Evans. I see the Les Evans I knew and admired looking out at me from the cover of this memoir written by Leslie Evans, and I am forced to conclude that they are one and the same person. But as I read the text, I often found it difficult to reconcile the alter egos. I see some significant continuity between Les and Leslie: both were/are highly talented writers, with a gift for storytelling and finding the interesting anecdote or literary allusion necessary to illustrate any point. Leslie’s intense interest in ideas, the ability to clarify those ideas, the subtle humor, the attention to detail—all are familiar characteristics of Les’s prose.

But the ideological content of Leslie Evans’ reminiscences is as foreign to me as the Pandorian landscape in Avatar. The person who most strengthened the foundations of my own rationalist view of the world now apparently embraces the most outlandish forms of irrationalism! A relatively minor corollary of the transition is a shift from strongly defending Marxist philosophical and political views to renouncing them.  This is somewhat unsettling for me. External challenges to one’s own worldview are not nearly as distressing as the revelation that the integrity of its foundations may have been somehow compromised. If I am to maintain my own bearings, the Les–Leslie conjunction demands examination and analysis.

Is the difference between Les and Leslie simply a function of the passage of time? Is it a familiar tale of a radical mellowing into moderation—a leftwinger “moving to the right” as he ages? Apparently not, because on the evidence of Leslie’s testimony, the irrationalist element of his outlook was present from his earliest years as a family legacy. His parents were hardcore occultists who participated in—and involved young Leslie in—séances and other forms of communication with the spirit world. As I was reading Leslie’s straightforward account of his parents’ idiosyncratic beliefs, I assumed he was reporting them with a degree of tongue-in-cheek skepticism, but after learning from later chapters of his present outlook, I suspect I may have been lending my own interpretation to his words.

It is not particularly remarkable that a lad raised in that belief system would engage in astral travel and fear ghosts in adulthood, but what astonishes me is that not the tiniest hint of any of this was even remotely evident to me during the two-and-a-half years when I spent eight to ten hours a day in a small office and in almost constant conversation with him. I don’t think I was so comatose that I could have missed it. The Les I knew was a Marxist theoretician and proponent of philosophical materialism of the first order. Forgive me a brief descent into pop Freudianism, but I can only suppose that during that period of his life Les sublimated his interest in the occult into intense political activity, and when the political movement he chose proved disappointing, his otherworldly side—Leslie—resurfaced.

Although subordinate to larger ideological issues, it was Leslie’s about-face from Marxism to anti-Marxism that first manifested itself and was of greatest concern to me. Many of you who are reading this review will know the organizational background that Les and I shared (because you, too, shared it), but for those who don’t, I will back up here and explain how I came to be working with him in the first place. In 1966 I became outraged by the monumental, world-historical crime against humanity known in American textbooks as the Vietnam War. I channeled all of my youthful energy and passion into opposing that horrendous imperialistic murder spree and soon found myself in a small protest group called Atlantans for Peace. There I met a socialist activist named Nelson Blackstock who recruited me to an organization named the Young Socialist Alliance. (We really were young once!)

The YSA’s Marxist ideology appealed to me as a comprehensive worldview.  It offered (to use a medical analogy) diagnosis, prognosis, and therapy for the ills of the human race. Diagnosis: capitalism; prognosis: deepening crises ending in utter destruction; therapy: socialism. Whatever the shortcomings of Marxism and its large variety of practitioners, I continue to this day to find it a more satisfying weltanschauung than any of its rivals. The attraction is more than intellectual; it is visceral. The fundamental values of Marxism as I understand them reflect those I feel most deeply: human solidarity with the slumdogs of the Earth, abhorrence of injustice, and loathing of hypocrisy. I think that when people abandon Marxism, their commitment to those values wanes first and then they adjust their belief system to justify their new value system.

From Atlanta and the YSA I graduated to New York City and the Socialist Workers Party, and in October 1972 I was asked to join the staff of the SWP’s theoretical magazine, the International Socialist Review, or ISR.  Les was the editor of the ISR and I was one of two associate editors.

When I arrived at the ISR office, my writing skills were raw and amateurish. I became a professional writer under Les’s tutelage. Whatever ability to formulate a coherent narrative or argument I had gained from formal education was a blunt instrument that my experience on the ISR staff honed into usefulness. I now learn, from Outsider’s Reverie, that my instructor was often himself just a step or two ahead of his pupil. In recounting his own tutelage under Joseph Hansen, Leslie cites numerous “lessons” that were identical to those he imparted to me. Knowing that does not lessen my gratitude to Les.

Another of Les’s remarkable talents was not so easily transmitted. He could stand up in front of an audience on a moment’s notice and deliver a perfectly coherent hour-long lecture on any number of topics, from the history of the Chinese Revolution to the theory of the declining rate of profit. There was nothing superficial about these instantaneous discourses. If recorded and transcribed, they would constitute well-organized essays requiring very little editing to be worthy of publication. Apparently that ability to speak extemporaneously requires qualities of mind that cannot be taught, because I don’t think I could develop it with a lifetime of trying.

I mentioned in the first paragraph that Les’s positive influence on me extended even to my physical state, and I suppose I should explain that.  When I joined the ISR staff I was 31 years old, weighed 235 pounds, and had struggled against obesity my whole life. In Outsider’s Reverie Leslie charitably describes me at first acquaintance as “a big affable man.” Long story short, Les introduced me to the Atkins low-carbohydrate diet, explained its entire theoretical basis to me with great gusto, and convinced me to give it a go. I did and it worked. Six months later I weighed 165 pounds, and have maintained more than half of that weight loss ever since.

The middle chapters of Outsider’s Reverie, which cover the period of Les’s years in the SWP, are the core of the autobiography; they portray the subject in his prime. They were the most interesting to me because they describe his interactions with many other members of the organization, some of whom I knew well and some not so well. As a member of the leadership bodies of the Party, Les had interactions with central leaders—Jack Barnes, Barry Sheppard, Tom Kerry, Farrell Dobbs, Joseph Hansen, George Breitman, and the patriarch, James P. Cannon—most of whom were only remote presences to me. In spite of his later alienation from Marxism, Leslie’s insights into the characters of the people he describes are incisive and valuable in understanding the further development of the SWP.

But how trustworthy is Leslie’s retrospective account of Les’s activities and beliefs? As an eyewitness to much of what he describes in these chapters, I can vouch for their fundamental honesty. In contrast to most “renegades’ narratives,” Leslie’s explication of the Marxist views Les and I once shared strikes me as remarkably accurate. There is no attempt, as far as I could see, to rewrite history and deny committing what he now considers to be the errors of his youth. In fact, there is a page at the beginning of the volume, just after the title page, that lists a number of the books Les wrote and edited in his Marxist days—books of which Leslie is apparently proud although no longer in agreement with their contents. There are frequent intrusions of Leslie’s current critique of Les’s Marxist views, but the dividing line between past and present is kept sharp enough that readers should not be confused.

A phrase I used above—“ the further development of the SWP”—was euphemistic. From the perspective of both Les and myself the Party crashed and burned in the 1980s. Again, Leslie’s account of its decline and fall is, in my opinion, essentially accurate. What he writes about our separation from the SWP (we were both ejected after Kafkaesque “trials”) and what happened afterward is a valuable contribution to the growing body of literature on the Party’s transformation into a grotesque caricature of its former self.

Outsider’s Reverie thus joins Barry Sheppard’s The Party and Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s When Skateboards Will Be Free on the bookshelf of recent SWP memoirs. Comparing these three is difficult because they are for the most part incommensurable. Barry’s book is, as its subtitle states, a political memoir, while Leslie’s and Saïd’s are intensely personal. The latter two are similar both in their high literary value and their antipathy to Marxism but differ in that Leslie (as Les) was actually a central participant in the events he describes, while Saïd was a child (a true “outsider”) observing his parents’ activities in the SWP. Nonetheless, they both offer useful insights into the SWP’s demise. Sheppard’s The Party focuses on the upside rather than the downside of the SWP’s history, but he is working on a second volume that will cover the Party’s self-destruction and his own role in it. Sheppard’s approach is as straight-ahead as it could be. The other two books come at the subject from oblique angles and add an emotional dimension to understanding it. A forthcoming memoir by the late Peter Camejo, which should be in print very soon, will no doubt be another valuable addition to this body of literature.

Joseph Hansen died in January 1979. In retrospect it seems that his departure left a leadership vacuum in the SWP allowing a younger leader, Jack Barnes, to assert full control over the Party and initiate a drastic transformation in its political program and organizational procedures. Les was among the first to recognize these changes as a process of terminal degeneration. Sometime during 1982 he shared his fears with me, but I had already reached similar conclusions. We both joined the opposition current led by George Breitman, Frank Lovell, Lynn Henderson, Jeff Mackler and Nat Weinstein, and within two years the entire opposition had been expelled. Les and I then both joined Socialist Action, which was formed to uphold the historic Trotskyist program of the SWP, but Les did not remain a member long.

I think the last time I saw Les was probably about 1984, and the last time I heard from him as Les rather than Leslie was 1988, when he sent me a copy of an article he had written. By then I already knew that he had begun to question some of the political views we had formerly shared, most notably with regard to the Chinese Revolution. The article, “The Limits of Socialist Planning,” although not an explicitly anti-Marxist critique, seemed to me at the time to represent a decisive step in that direction. And indeed, in Outsider’s Reverie, Leslie confirms that it was “sometime in 1988” when “I was no longer a Marxist.”

I didn’t have to wait for the publication of Outsider’s Reverie to know that Leslie’s ideological outlook had undergone significant revision. Some e-mail correspondence with him a few years ago revealed that he had developed a great deal of sympathy for the Israeli position in the Middle East. I was curious about how such a conversion to Zionism could have come about but could only speculate. I had earlier reached a tentative conclusion that Leslie had adopted “neocon” politics, but I see now that his transformation was far more complex than that.

The key to understanding Leslie’s complicated ideological trajectory appears to me to be found in the title of his memoir. Why did he consider himself an “outsider”? As one of the SWP’s leading journalists and theoreticians, and a member of the Party’s National Committee, he had always seemed to me to be much more of a movement insider than I was. But it seems that he perceived himself, from early childhood on, as in some sense external to the human race as a whole, or at least outside the mainstream of human events. (I am reminded of Temple Grandin’s description of herself as an “anthropologist from Mars” who studies the human race as an external observer, but hers is a case study in Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.)

As a child whose parents immersed him in the fringe world of spiritualist true believers, it is not surprising that he would have felt alienated from “normal” society and separated from the mundane concerns of ordinary human beings. As a result he seems in his youth to have always been drawn to esoteric pursuits. When in young adulthood he encountered the small Trotskyist movement, it was its apparently exotic nature and pariah status that attracted him.

This was a revelation to me, because it is so completely opposite to my own attitude when I first discovered the socialist movement in Atlanta, Georgia. Its smallness (five members, counting myself), its peculiarity in the eyes of nonmembers, its distinct Marxist lingo, its foreign-sounding tradition of calling each other “comrade,” and all the other things that set us apart from the rest of humanity were not selling points that recruited me; they were barriers I had to overcome before I would join. I had no interest in being part of a small group of virtuosi possessed of arcane knowledge. The movement’s only value to me was in its potential to grow to mass proportions. I took the last line of the Internationale seriously: “The international party will be the human race.” As I saw it, the YSA and SWP were the most effective organizers of struggles—against war, against racism, against bigotry and oppression of all kinds—that I thought should and could win majority support.

How did that work out? It was a partial success, because we did indeed play a significant role in building a mass movement against the Vietnam War. The SWP itself, however, did not turn out well, but I still consider the attempt to build it to have been a worthy effort. The point is that I was motivated not by esotericism but by its opposite—not by the SWP’s remoteness from the rest of the human race but by its potential connections to it.

In his memoir Leslie restates his pro-Israel conclusions at some length.  As an indication of the extent to which I did not know him, he now says he considers himself to have been Jewish all along, but there was no hint of any such identity in the years we worked together. I don’t recall whether he ever explicitly told me so, but I remember thinking that he was of Scandinavian ethnicity.

A conversation with Jack Barnes after the June War of 1967, Leslie writes, led him to conclude that although the Party’s official stance had always been against Zionism rather than Jews, the “unchallenged leader” of the SWP held views that “seemed nothing less than anti-Semitism.” Going along with the party line against Israel, he says, “is the one political position I took in those years that I was ashamed of afterward.” I cannot know what Jack Barnes’ private attitude toward Jews may have been then, but I strongly reject any suggestion that the Party’s anti-Zionism was in any sense anti-Semitic. Our pro-Palestinian political stance was founded first of all on solidarity with the Palestinian people as the victims of Israeli repression, but we also made clear our genuine concerns for the Jewish people, who have been misled by Zionism into a death trap in the Middle East. That danger continues to intensify.

Aside from that general statement of position, I won’t attempt a rebuttal of Leslie’s defense of Israel. Much could be also said in response to his new stance against the Cuban Revolution, but it has all been said elsewhere, so I will not repeat it here. As for his explicit embrace of the paranormal and the supernatural, that is not something that lends itself to argumentation anyway. As Jonathan Swift wisely observed, “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.” I will simply remind Leslie of something Les told me long ago that seems applicable to the present situation: Trotsky once observed of James Burnham that his renunciation of the materialist philosophy of Marxism could ultimately be attributed to “a spark of hope for an after-life.”

Leslie’s lengthy defense of the plausibility of paranormal and supernatural phenomena urges readers to keep an “open mind” on issues such as the existence of ghosts and astral travel. That admonition may seem unexceptionable, but there are limits beyond which giving the benefit of a doubt becomes untenable. As the song  says, “If you open your mind too much, your brain will fall out.”

I will also forego the great temptation to respond in detail to Leslie’s resurrection of all the old quantum theory chestnuts for yet another assault on philosophical materialism. This is what I call “physics mysticism” and it has become something of a bête noire for me. Contrary to the claims of various mystical authors, modern physics, properly understood, does not offer any support at all for paranormal or occult phenomena.

Leslie’s primary argument boils down to an appeal to the authority of physicists. He writes that his investigations revealed that “the common-sense and philosophical-materialist views of reality are quite far from the thinking among cosmologists and physicists” today. Among the ideas that “raise questions about the underlying nature of reality that challenge both ordinary common sense and the viewpoint known as philosophical materialism” is the Many Worlds hypothesis, which, he says, has “become mainstream, with some 30 percent of physicists at a 1999 conference declaring their agreement.” Another such idea is “the quantum mystery of entanglement,” which is bolstered by the authority of “Nobel laureate physicist Brian Josephson at Cambridge,” who suggests that it “may offer a physical basis for reports of telepathy or clairvoyance.”

I never thought debunking the claims of psychics, spiritualists, and assorted purveyors of supernaturalism would be a good use of my own time, but I used to enjoy reading a little magazine named The Skeptical Inquirer, which was devoted to doing exactly that. Some of the magazine’s stalwart contributors were professional illusionists—stage magicians. These were latter-day followers of Harry Houdini, who tirelessly exposed fraudulent claims of other illusionists who pretended to possess supernatural powers. Their exposés of “scientific” ESP studies, flying saucer reports, and phony magicians often involved demonstrating how skillful illusionists like themselves could fool anyone who was predisposed to falling for their illusions.

Charlatans like Uri Geller would frequently trumpet the endorsement of scientists who he had persuaded that he really could bend spoons with his mental powers alone. The illusionists of The Skeptical Inquirer would then pay the same scientists a visit, also fool them with similar parlor tricks, and then show them how they had been duped. After many years of this, they concluded that the easiest people in the world to hoodwink are physicists—because they think they are too smart to be fooled. I am therefore underwhelmed by Leslie’s appeal to the fact that some gullible physicists give credence to reports of clairvoyance and other paranormal phenomena.

I have focused mainly on the chapters of Outsider’s Reverie that concern the author’s life at the time I knew him, but for both of us there was life after the SWP, and Leslie’s memoir continues to be interesting as it proceeds into the 1990s and beyond. Perhaps as another manifestation of his “outsiderness,” he and his wife Jennifer moved into the notorious part of Los Angeles that now serves as the bleak setting for the television drama Southland. As white folks in a mostly nonwhite and immigrant neighborhood, they stood out, and despite the constant gang activity and drug-related violence that surrounded them, they stayed. The matter-of-factness with which Leslie describes witnessing murders from his window is remarkable.

He and Jennifer didn’t see themselves as social missionaries or anything of that sort; they simply wanted to live and let live. They united with other homeowners in their immediate vicinity to form a neighborhood improvement association, and through struggle they survived. They now have “neighbors we have known for two decades, who make this place a small town within the great impersonal city.” The transformation from Les to Leslie has reconciled him with “the actual society we live in,” so that he no longer sees “the United States, its government, its press, and its major institutions” as evil. Leslie has come in from the cold; he is no longer an outsider.

(Cliff Conner is the author of the magisterial People’s History of Science.)

February 8, 2009

A Flock of Dodos

Filed under: Film,science — louisproyect @ 7:26 pm

The other night I stumbled across “A Flock of Dodos” on the Showtime cable network, a somewhat overly whimsical documentary on “intelligent design” that I still recommend heartily. It is directed by Randy Olson who received a PhD in evolutionary biology from Harvard while studying under Stephen Jay Gould. Olson changed careers in the mid 1990s and became a documentary film-maker with Michael Moore as his most obvious influence. Using himself as a central figure, Olson interviews both sides of the debate seeking to make it entertaining to a mass audience. He largely succeeds although nobody is better at this than Michael Moore obviously.

Olson got the inspiration for this movie in 1999 after he his mom began sending him clippings from her hometown newspaper in Kansas about the state school board’s decision to integrate intelligent design into the high school science curriculum. On top of that, she lived next door to John Calvert, a lawyer who was spearheading efforts to promote intelligent design both in Kansas and nationally.

One of Olson’s first interviewees is Dr. Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University who wrote “Darwin’s Black Box”, a kind of bible for the intelligent design movement. Unlike the more openly fundamentalist advocates of creationism such as William Jennings Bryan, people like Behe try to couch their arguments in scientific terms, albeit in a specious manner. For example, they like to compare two mountain ranges, one in the Rockies and the other in South Dakota that just happens to include Mount Rushmore. Behe holds up the two pictures and asks Olson what conclusions you can draw from them. Obviously, it is easy to state that the first mountain range is a product of seismic events, erosion, etc. But you must conclude that Mount Rushmore was designed. By analogy, something as marvelous and as elegant as the eye must be a product of design as well since the contingency of Darwinian evolution would surely be incapable of producing such a result.

In one of the more successful attempts at humor in the movie, the frequently inelegant outcomes of evolution are depicted, especially those that relate to the digestive system, a rather less inspiring example of plumbing-particularly when it comes to rabbits. It seems that the rabbit first has to excrete out the semi-digested food it takes in and can only absorb it fully after eating it in the form of feces, which “A Flock of Dodos” films in its less than glorious dimensions.

Much of the film is devoted to an investigation of the Discovery Institute that is largely responsible for promoting intelligent design through its access to rightwing foundation funding. If you go to their website, you won’t find much in the way of dinosaurs being only a few thousand years old. When addressing the question of whether intelligent design theory is the same as creationism, their FAQ replies:

No. Intelligent design theory is simply an effort to empirically detect whether the “apparent design” in nature acknowledged by virtually all biologists is genuine design (the product of an intelligent cause) or is simply the product of an undirected process such as natural selection acting on random variations. Creationism is focused on defending a literal reading of the Genesis account, usually including the creation of the earth by the Biblical God a few thousand years ago. Unlike creationism, the scientific theory of intelligent design is agnostic regarding the source of design and has no commitment to defending Genesis, the Bible or any other sacred text. Honest critics of intelligent design acknowledge the difference between intelligent design and creationism.

Although there is little hope for serious change coming out of the Obama administration, it seems likely that public schools and colleges will not be as receptive to creationism and intelligent design over the next four years. After all, it doesn’t cost a Goldman-Sachs manager anything to preserve the separation of state and church.

For a good introduction to the issues surrounding intelligent design, rent “A Flock of Dodos” from Netflix.

July 27, 2008


Filed under: Africa,Latin America,science — louisproyect @ 4:06 pm

I was president of the Tecnica board in the late 1980s through 1992 when it went belly-up. Relying heavily on donations from liberal and radical foundations, it was victimized by the FSLN getting voted out of office in 1990. Nicaragua was no longer sexy. We had already launched a technical aid program for the ANC and the frontline states but it was not well-established enough to survive the downturn in funding.

In 1984 I went down to Nicaragua to observe the elections with a delegation from the Guardian newspaper, a weekly radical publication that went out of business in 1992. Nothing in my experience in the SWP prepared us for what a living revolution would be like. The same kind of peasants who were fighting for land in El Salvador were now enjoying a much better life on cooperatives in liberated Nicaragua. Health care was now universally available and literacy programs were making people real participants in the political life of the country.

When one of the members of my delegation found out that I was a computer programmer, he slipped me a leaflet that some people in the Bay Area had put together. They were looking for computer programmers and other skilled professionals to work in Nicaragua. After the Sandinistas had taken over, a lot of the better paid workers had fled to Miami just as had happened in Cuba after 1959. As soon as I got back from Nicaragua, I called the number on the leaflet and spoke to Michael Urmann, an economist who had launched the project called Tecnica. I agreed to go back to Nicaragua for two weeks with a delegation of about 15 other technical specialists and give some classes on structured programming techniques. I brushed up on my high school Spanish and returned with my course notes.

I ended up teaching at the Central Bank in Nicaragua, their version of the Federal Reserve. About one out of four students seemed like committed Sandinistas but the rest were like young people anywhere. They simply wanted a better life. Like young computer programmers everywhere, the job was a means to an end.

I was all set to take on a new job at the Ministry of Construction supporting the largest mainframe in the country, which was about 1/10th the size of the computers I was used to working on at home. The people at this agency were more political than at the Central Bank and I was knocked out to hear revolutionary folk songs being sung over lunch. Things were never like that at my jobs at Houston and Boston banks.

On my last night in Nicaragua, Michael Urmann persuaded me to go back to New York and start a chapter of Tecnica there. At that point they were primarily based in the Bay Area and he was trying to build a national organization. He had hopes that we could eventually become a kind of radical version of the Peace Corps. He needed a political veteran like me to get kick-start things on the East Coast. Largely in recognition of my organizing skills, I was named President of Tecnica after it became incorporated as a nonprofit.

In trips out to the West Coast, I got to know Michael Urmann well. Like me, he was a veteran of the sectarian left and around the same age as me. As a member of the Maoist Progressive Labor party, he went to work in a warehouse in the 1960s long before the SWP made its “turn”. After a few months of backbreaking work with little to show for it politically, he dropped out of the PLP and went back to grad school. We had lots of laughs when we exchanged stories about factory work. We also laughed at the absurdity of turf wars between the Maoists and the Trotskyists in the 1960s. Like Peter Camejo, we had moved on to a more sensible place.

The project flourished through most of the late 1980s. Every month we sent down about twenty volunteers to work with Nicaraguan agencies, including the engineer who had responsibility for repairing electrical pylons blown up by the contras.

We also worked with a young American engineer named Ben Linder who found his way down to Nicaragua on his own. We raised money and provided some technical assistance for a small-scale hydroelectric project he had initiated in contra-infested northern Nicaragua.

On April 28, 1987 Ben was killed by contras while working on the small-scale hydroelectric dam that was his pet project. It sent shock waves through the movement and drove home the risks of working in Nicaragua. As a sign that we would not be intimidated, volunteer applications doubled in the months following Ben’s murder.

We received another shock the very same month. FBI agents went to the personnel offices at the workplace of twelve returned Tecnica volunteers and called them in for interviews in front of their boss. They were told that Tecnica was at the center of an espionage ring that was running high technology out of Nicaragua to Cuba and the Soviet Union. Anybody who had ever been to Nicaragua would realize how ridiculous this charge was. There was only one elevator in the entire country.

A number of important newspapers and politicians condemned the investigation and forced the FBI to end its harassment. This opening paragraph from a May 19 1987 Washington Post editorial was typical:

IT IS NOT ILLEGAL to travel to Nicaragua. Any American has a right to go there and to teach, repair tractors, help with the harvest or work in a clinic. Many do go, some as a concrete expression of political opposition to the Reagan administration’s policies in Central America, others for purely humanitarian reasons. This can be extremely dangerous. One American volunteer, Benjamin Linder, who went under the auspices of a group called Tecnica, was killed there last month. And it can be unpopular, since the Sandinista government understandably does not have many friends in this country. But it is not illegal.

In December of 1987 I traveled to southern Africa with a small Tecnica delegation, including Michael Urmann. We were to meet with the African National Congress and leaders of some of the “frontline” states, including Mozambique, in order to see if an expansion of our volunteer program into Africa was feasible.

Since the ANC was still in exile in this point (apartheid was on the ropes but not ended), we ended up in Lusaka, Zambia where most of the top officials lived, including Thabo Mbeki, the future president of South Africa.

We were invited to his house for a meeting to figure out whether there was a basis for future work. Mbeki lived in a two story house in a rather upscale neighborhood that was unlike the rest of the city. I noticed a Mercedes-Benz in the driveway.

His life-style was different from the average Zambian’s. On the way over to his house in a cab, Urmann asked the driver why so many office buildings were uncompleted. Since housing was one of his academic interests, such matters were always uppermost in his mind. The cabbie glared at him and said, “The buildings are not finished because you people took all the money with you.”

After our discussion with Mbeki ended, his wife Zanele asked me to take a look at her laptop computer. She was having trouble saving the file she was working on, which was Oliver Tambo’s speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the ANC.

Me: Mrs. Mbeki, you need to put in a formatted floppy diskette into the B drive in order to save Tambo’s speech.

Zanele: What is the B drive?

Me: It is right here (I pointed to the slot.) Let me take care of it for you. (I formatted the diskette and got everything in order.) You are all set now.

Zanele: Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you. I was so desperate.

I felt like my existence had finally been vindicated. Other people would be chosen to make monumental speeches. My purpose was to make sure that the speech would not disappear in some technical black hole.

On June 10, 1987, a couple of months after Ben Linder’s murder and the FBI sweep, NY Newsday did a big story on Nicaragua activists and included a mini-profile on me. The author, a likeable fellow named Jonathan Mandell who was clearly sympathetic, wrote about me:

Lou Proyect works in a Wall Street investment bank, one of 25 “database administrators” who sit in a numbing row of fluorescent-blanched cubicles and stares at computers until the end of the day. It is the latest variation on the kind of job he has held for 19 years. Tacked to the wall of his cubicle is the latest article cut out from PC Week, a personal computer trade magazine: “IBM’s PS/2s aren’t all that revolutionary.” Neither, he says, is Lou Proyect.

I can’t even remember what point I was trying to make at the time. Was I trying to say that I was not some stupid sectarian blathering about revolution? Or was I just trying to make sure that Goldman did not decide to fire me after the article appeared?

Goldman did eventually get rid of me but it had nothing to do with politics, but the need to cut costs after the stock market crash in 1987–although I suppose that this is political as well. After 3 years of consulting I ended up at Columbia University where I lived happily ever after.

July 21, 2008

Butterflies and Wheels

Filed under: science — louisproyect @ 3:13 pm

Last Thursday a link titled “The case against Christopher Hitchens” on Bookforum pointed me to an article on the website Butterflies and Wheels. April Fools must have fallen on July 17th this year since the article really was making the case for Hitchens:

A one-time Marxist, Hitchens’s politics could be defined not so much as ideological but a broad opposition to establishment power and discourse, and solidarity with victims of cruelty.

Something suggests that the author of the article, a 27 year old aspiring novelist, might have been attempting fiction when he wrote that Hitchens was opposed to “establishment power”, but apparently not. The defense of Hitchens jibes with the editorial slant at Butterflies and Wheels (referred to subsequently as B&W), a fountainhead of Islamophobia that you can also find on Harry’s Place and Norm Geras’s blog. There is the usual defense of the Danish Mohammad cartoons, etc. There are attacks on other religions as well all in the name of the kind of scientific rationalism epitomized by Richard Dawkins’s recent atheist tome.

In addition to religion, the website mounts attacks on multiculturalism and other forms of “fashionable nonsense.” Kenan Malik, a Spiked Online regular, seems to be a designated hitter when it comes to such matters. In an article titled “Identity is That Which is Given” that currently appears on B&W, Malik argues:

You do not even have to be human to possess a culture. Primatologists tell us that different groups of chimpanzees each has its own culture. No doubt some chimp will soon complain that their traditions are disappearing under the steamroller of human cultural imperialism.

This clever phrase is just the sort of thing you can find on New Criterion, a magazine edited by the neoconservative Hilton Cramer or any other rightwing standard bearer in the “culture wars”. Under the guise of enlightenment values and the brotherhood of man, what you find basically is seething hostility toward any national minority trying to defend itself against forced assimilation. B&W, of course, defends the French government’s banning of the hijab.

Alan Sokal

Curious to see what drove these people ideologically, I went to “About B&W” and discovered that my old friend Alan Sokal was their primary inspiration:

Butterflies and Wheels has been established in order to oppose a number of related phenomena. These include:

1. Pseudoscience that is ideologically and politically motivated.

2. Epistemic relativism in the humanities (for example, the idea that statements are only true or false relative to particular cultures, discourses or language-games).

3. Those disciplines or schools of thought whose truth claims are prompted by the political, ideological and moral commitments of their adherents, and the general tendency to judge the veracity of claims about the world in terms of such commitments.

There are two motivations for setting up the web site. The first is the common one having to do with the thought that truth is important, and that to tell the truth about the world it is necessary to put aside whatever preconceptions (ideological, political, moral, etc.) one brings to the endeavour.

The second has to do with the tendency of the political Left (which both editors of this site consider themselves to be part of) to subjugate the rational assessment of truth-claims to the demands of a variety of pre-existing political and moral frameworks. We believe this tendency to be a mistake on practical as well as epistemological and ethical grounds. Alan Sokal expressed this concern well, when talking about his motivation for the Sokal Hoax: ‘My goal isn’t to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit (we’ll survive just fine, thank you), but to defend the Left from a trendy segment of itself. Like innumerable others from diverse backgrounds and disciplines, I call for the Left to reclaim its Enlightenment roots.’

This confirms for me once again how troubled the Sokal hoax was, even though at the time I greeted it with great enthusiasm. Initially, my impulse was to hoist Alan on my shoulders since I thought it was about time that somebody stuck it to the dirty postmodernists who were writing all those attacks on Marxism as an oppressive “grand narrative” using language of the kind that was eligible for Denis Dutton’s yearly “Bad Writing” award.

It took about five years to figure out that things were not so simple. To start with, Social Text, the journal that was suckered into publishing Alan’s hoax in a special “Science Wars” issue, had been prompted to put out a special issue as a reaction to a conference at NYU that had been organized by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt, two of Alan Sokal’s colleagues. Levitt, a mathematician who taught at NYU alongside Sokal, was acknowledged by Sokal as a primary inspiration for his hoax.

I did not know at the time that the Gross-Levitt conference was made possible by funding from the Olin Foundation, a long-time backer of ultra-right causes. If I had, I never would have been so enthusiastic about Alan’s hoax. While he was politically to the left of Gross and Levitt, and had even taught in Nicaragua as a Tecnica volunteer, there was sufficient reason for me to be a bit more wary of the hoax given the initial inspiration.

What would be the Olin Foundation’s motivation in funding a conference on the Science Wars? Did it think that “intellectual relativism” was eating away at the fiber of the American academy? I don’t quite know how to put this, but the idea of the Olin Foundation coming to the aid of “enlightenment values” strikes me as almost as ridiculous as Christopher Hitchens opposing “establishment power”. Their main interest should be obvious. Olin doesn’t want leftwing scientists mucking about on issues such as global warming, carcinogens in the food we eat, water and air pollution, etc.

Just to take one example, the Olin Foundation donated more than $25,000 to an outfit called the American Council on Science and Health.  Other donors included the General Electric Foundation, the Monsanto Fund and other such bodies dedicated to fighting bad writing and fashionable nonsense.

If you go to their website, you will find an article on the home page titled “Claims of Industry Tampering with Science Are Overblown”. Well, I should have known. The executive director of ACSH, who claims that “A new scientific McCarthyism is alive and well in America today”, was introducing an ACSH study titled “Scrutinizing Industry-Funded Science: The Crusade Against Conflicts of Interest”, written by one Ronald Bailey. Bailey argues:

Why should having once consulted with Pfizer or DuPont disqualify a scientist from serving on a government advisory board or writing a review article in a scientific journal, while being a lifelong member of Greenpeace does not? And if owning $10,000 in Dow stock represents a potential conflict of interest, surely $10,000 in funding from the Union of Concerned Scientists does too.

This argument raises speciousness to stratospheric levels. The mission of the Union of Concerned Scientists is to search for science-based solutions to problems facing society as a whole. Nobody has ever accused the Union of bias, except perhaps against corporations that have a well-documented history of screwing the public in pursuit of profits.

Ultimately, outfits like B&W and Spiked Online, which focus on restoring “enlightenment values”, are really more about defending the status quo than debunking “fashionable nonsense”. It is easy for some naive leftists to get confused about their goals since who could possibly be opposed to clear thinking and scientific rationalism–that is, unless you have a class analysis of bourgeois society. When I once suggested to Alan that he read Richard Levins or Richard Lewontin, he appeared loath to waste his time reading other scientists who were far more skeptical of the “free marketplace” of ideas than he was. When Pfizer, Monsanto, General Electric and the Olin Foundation are doling out millions of dollars to refute their leftwing enemies, the idea of a level playing field seems utopian at best.

The last time I saw Alan Sokal was at conference at the New School co-sponsored by the libertarians at Spiked Online and Reason Magazine. His colleague Norman Levitt was one of the main organizers. The purpose of the conference was to refute the environmentalism associated with Greenpeace, the Union of Concerned Scientists and other groups that have not been corrupted by corporate payoffs. This was the trajectory of the Sokal hoax, a virtual repeat of the Gross-Levitt conference funded by the Olin Foundation. I have no idea who funded this one, but imagine that there are always buckets of cash available for any attack on outfits such as Greenpeace or the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The B&W website is not particularly concerned with such issues, preferring to bash religion rather than environmentalism. There is one exception, however. They do seem to get worked into a lather when it comes to the animal rights movement, which they obviously consider an impudent assault on the absolute rights of Scientific Research. They have taken up the cause of Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), a company that has been the target of the Animal Liberation Front.

I first came across Huntington in the course of a movie review of “Your Mommy Kills Animals“, a documentary that is sympathetic to the Animal Liberation Front. Things sort of come full circle now that I look at what I wrote at the time:

There’s quite a rogue’s gallery in opposition to animal rights. We see Christopher Hitchens holding forth on how the activists become self-righteous absolutists in their desire to crush their enemies. Hearing these words coming out of his mouth was sufficient to get me to bag up all my leather shoes and bring them down to the thrift shop and to swear off chicken and fish (I have already given up red meat because of my blood pressure.) We also see Ron Arnold, the author of “Eco-Terrorism”, making the case against animal rights. Although I am very familiar with Arnold from past debates with his British allies, the ex-Marxists organized around the website Spiked Online, I have never heard him before. Arnold is an odd character. He couches his anti-environmentalist and anti-animal rights arguments in populist rhetoric, but has been exposed as a tool of big timber and mining interests.

I would not be surprised to discover that B&W gets some funding from Huntington and other such animal torturers. One of these days, the victims of the corporations and the governments that act in their name will get sick and tired of the pollutants that kill them, the rotten health care system that fails to treat them, the foreclosures, the job losses, and the daily indignities of wage labor and rise up against the system that perpetuates them. A working class in power will then have access to the dossiers that contain all this information about who paid the piper. God protect the souls of those who fed at the trough of the big corporations and the intelligence agencies since an aroused people will have properly earned the right to extract justice.

October 7, 2007

Colonial anthropology

Filed under: Academia,imperialism/globalization,science — louisproyect @ 7:05 pm

Last Friday the New York Times reported that anthropologists have been working alongside the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to make the occupation more effective:

In this isolated Taliban stronghold in eastern Afghanistan, American paratroopers are fielding what they consider a crucial new weapon in counterinsurgency operations here: a soft-spoken civilian anthropologist named Tracy.

Tracy, who asked that her surname not be used for security reasons, is a member of the first Human Terrain Team, an experimental Pentagon program that assigns anthropologists and other social scientists to American combat units in Afghanistan and Iraq. Her team’s ability to understand subtle points of tribal relations — in one case spotting a land dispute that allowed the Taliban to bully parts of a major tribe — has won the praise of officers who say they are seeing concrete results.

This is not the only instance of professionals becoming handmaidens to the Bush White House. It has recruited psychologists to fine-tune interrogation techniques in Guantanamo over the protests of some members of the profession.

David Price

Anthropologists have also intervened to challenge the misuse of their skills. Chief among them is David Price, who has launched a Pledge of Non-participation in Counter-insurgency. Background articles can be found here. A number of them were written by Price and are included along with others in his excellent website. One of them that originally appeared in the Nation Magazine quite rightfully lauds Franz Boas:

On December 20, 1919, under the heading “Scientists as Spies,” The Nation published a letter by Franz Boas, the father of academic anthropology in America. Boas charged that four American anthropologists, whom he did not name, had abused their professional research positions by conducting espionage in Central America during the First World War. Boas strongly condemned their actions, writing that they had “prostituted science by using it as a cover for their activities as spies.” Anthropologists spying for their country severely betrayed their science and damaged the credibility of all anthropological research, Boas wrote; a scientist who uses his research as a cover for political spying forfeits the right to be classified as a scientist.

Franz Boas 1858-1942

While there are many reasons to admire Boas’s courage, his academic record was not entirely unblemished. While at the Museum of Natural History, Boas decided that Eskimos were suitable objects for study, because they represented a kind of “living fossil” that demonstrated a connection to Ice Age hunters in Europe. So eager was he to have some useful specimens that he commissioned Robert Peary to bring back some back from an Arctic expedition on his ship “The Hope.” Some 30,000 New Yorkers paid 25 cents each in 1896 to view the six Eskimos that Peary retrieved from their home. Later on they were transported to the basement of the Museum in order to be studied. When a reporter asked Boas how they were kept busy, he replied:

Oh, we try to give them little things to keep them busy. Their work doesn’t amount to much, but they have made some carvings, and occupied themselves either indoors or around the place with any employment that suggested itself to them. They do not seem discontented.

Only 8 months after their arrival, four of the six Eskimos had died of tuberculosis. One returned to Greenland and the last, a young boy named Minik who was the son of Qisuk, one of the deceased, remained in the custody of William Wallace, the Superintendent of the Museum. When Minik learned that tribal customs required the bones of ancestors be interred in their homeland, he was convinced by Boas and Wallace that a burial of the bones in New York City would suffice. When he reached the age of 15, he learned that Boas and Wallace had lied to him. The skeleton was being warehoused in the Museum’s basement, alongside hundreds of other bones that belonged to indigenous peoples. In “Skull Wars,” a book focused on the Kennewick man controversy, David Hurst Thomas, a curator of anthropology at the Museum of Natural History, recounts Boas’s flippant attitude toward the entire affair:

Pressed as to why the museum could claim Qisuk’s body when relatives were still alive, Boas replied, “Oh, that was perfectly legitimate. There was no one to bury the body, and the museum had as good a right to it as any other institution authorized to claim bodies.” When an Evening Mail reporter wondered if the body didn’t actually “belong” to Minik, Boas bristled “Well, Minik was just a little boy, and he did not ask for the body. If he had, he might have got it.”


Minik in New York

Minik’s lifelong struggle to retrieve his father’s skeleton and return them to his native soil has been documented in Ken Harper’s “Give Me My Father’s Body: The Story of Minik, the New York Eskimo.” A review of this book by Rhode Island College professor Russell A. Potter includes this observation on the cold-blooded “scientific” stance of Boas and Alfred Kroeber, a student of Boas’s who became famous for his writings on “Ishi”, the last hunter-gatherer in California.

They were brought to a damp basement room, and as might have been foreseen, most of them soon came down with tuberculosis, against which they had little resistance. Studied, even as they were dying, by some of the most prominent anthropologists of the day, including Franz Boas (also remembered as Zora Neale Hurston’s thesis advisor) and Alfred Kroeber (“discoverer” of Ishi and father of science-fiction novelist Ursula K. LeGuin), their last days were spent in agonizing pain without benefit of meaningful medical attention.

Considering that Franz Boas was one of the foremost critics of racial doctrines in the US, as well as a fierce opponent of the kind of misuse of anthropology now on display in Iraq and Afghanistan, one must surely wonder about the nature of such a social science. It is fairly easy to understand why an ardent Zionist and cultural anthropologist like Raphael Patai would write trash like “The Arab Mind.” But what explains Boas’s callous attitudes?

I think the key to understanding this kind of tunnel vision is unequal power relationships. No matter how enlightened the scientist, there is a built in imbalance in the way that one side is doing the studying and the other side is being studied. This imbalance rests on economic inequality. “Primitive” peoples simply lack the capital to fund scientific expeditions of the sort that Boas thought useful. Historical laws of capital accumulation made it impossible for Eskimos to send ships to countries like the United States to retrieve specimens to be studied in Greenland or Alaska. Fundamentally, anthropology rests on imperialist inequality no matter the good intentions of the scholars involved.

Some of the earliest attempts to institutionalize anthropology reflect this tendency, no matter the benign goals of those involved with the enterprise. In an article titled “The Discipline and its Sponsors” that appears in the collection “Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter” edited by Talal Asad, Stephan Feuchtang describes the birth of British anthropology as having an umbilical cord in the Empire.

Formed in February 1843 as a breakaway group of the Aborigines’ Protection Society, which had been founded in 1837 in the aftermath of the early 19th century Quaker campaign against the African slave trade, the Royal Anthropological Institute was to be “a centre and depository for the collection and systematization of all observations made on human races” as the RAI describes itself on its website.

Incorporating Wilberforce’s evangelistic fervor, the RAI sought “not to halt European colonisation overseas, but to change its character.” Feuchtwang sums up their approach:

The scientific aim, repeated into the present day, was archival, historical, and an academic reason for focusing on small-scale social units and not on large-scale systems, namely to record data from peoples vanishing through contact with Europeans—the aborigines of Australia, Oceania and the East Indies, the so-called tribals of India and tribes of Africa, not the so-called civilisations of the Far East and India, Malaya, Burma, Siam, the Middle East. The administrative aim was to co-ordinate information on the subject peoples for the preparation of colonial administrators so that they would not make anew the mistakes of the past.

Lord Hailey, a colonial administrator and member of the RAI, was a perfect symbol of this marriage between social science and social control. While in South Africa, Hailey employed a staff of anthropologists to conduct surveys of native peoples intended “to study the problems of culture contact and the application of anthropological knowledge to the government of subject races.” Feuchtwang describes Hailey’s mission in terms that will be instantly recognizable in terms of the tasks facing General Petraeus and his right-hand man, an Australian Lieutenant Colonel named David Kilcullen who has a PhD in anthropology with Islamic extremism in Indonesia his research topic.

Lord Hailey was obviously central in the articulation of colonial administration and professional anthropology. Writing from the vantage point of 1944 he described colonial development as passing through three stages, the first being introduction of law and order and creation of basic infrastructure for the economic development (i.e. extraction) of natural resources, the second, which he judged had then been reached, being one in which the colonial administration is faced with the ‘problem of assisting the indigenous communities to advance their social life and to better their standard of living.’ This would lead to the next stage, which he envisaged as the political advance of indigenous peoples. So his practical and effective interest in anthropology coincided with his second stage of colonial development. The anthropology which took his administrative interest was not the study of human origins, it was the study of how societies work. And the societies with which he thought administrators needed most help from anthropologists were not societies where an easily understood and compatible system could be incorporated easily to colonial rule using native personnel. These, we may note, were the ‘civilisations’ and ‘despotisms’ of the East, given to another set of academic disciplines and institutions altogether —namely, Oriental studies. Anthropology could help with another kind of people and imperial problem, tribal peoples of India and Africa and the Pacific ‘where administrators encountered cultures which were to them of a novel type, and where they did not find personnel of a class which they could readily associate with themselves in the formation of the legal administrative institutions of the country’ (i.e. colony).

Montgomery McFate

One of the odder figures to emerge out of the controversy over anthropologists and the US military is the oddly named Montgomery McFate, a Yale professor, who tries to strike an unconventional image no matter how conventional her ideas about American foreign policy. In an April 29, 2007 SF Gate profile, she is described as a “a punk rock wild child of dyed-in-the-wool hippies, a 41-year-old with close-cropped hair and a voice buttery with sardonic amusement, a double-doc Ivy Leaguer with a penchant for big hats and American Spirit cigarettes and a nose that still bears the tiny dent of a piercing 25 years closed.”

McFate also attracted the attention of New Yorker contributor and liberal hawk George Packer, who reported on her and David Kilcullen in an article titled “Knowing the Enemy: Can Social Scientists redefine the ‘war on terror’“. Although Packer has arrived at a somewhat pro forma opposition to the war in Iraq, it seems obvious that he would revert to his original pro-Bush outlook if people like Kilcullen and McFate produced results. Packer writes:

McFate grew up in the sixties on a communal houseboat in Marin County, California. Her parents were friends with Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and one of her schoolmates was the daughter of Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick and Paul Kantner. Like Kilcullen, she was drawn to the study of human conflict and also its reality: at Yale, where she received a doctorate, her dissertation was based on several years she spent living among supporters of the Irish Republican Army and then among British counterinsurgents. In Northern Ireland, McFate discovered something very like what Kilcullen found in West Java: insurgency runs in families and social networks, held together by persistent cultural narratives—in this case, the eight-hundred-year-old saga of “perfidious Albion.” She went on to marry a U.S. Army officer. “When I was little in California, we never believed there was such a thing as the Cold War,” McFate said. “That was a bunch of lies that the government fed us to keep us paranoid. Of course, there was a thing called the Cold War, and we nearly lost. And there was no guarantee that we were going to win. And this thing that’s happening now is, without taking that too far, similar.” After September 11th, McFate said, she became “passionate about one issue: the government’s need to actually understand its adversaries,” in the same way that the United States came to understand—and thereby undermine—the Soviet Union. If, as Kilcullen and Crumpton maintain, the battlefield in the global counterinsurgency is intimately local, then the American government needs what McFate calls a “granular” knowledge of the social terrains on which it is competing.

Meanwhile, the NY Times cited at the beginning of this article is clear that the real Montgomery McFate has far more in common with Condoleezza Rice, no matter the outre appearance. It reported:

The process that led to the creation of the teams began in late 2003, when American officers in Iraq complained that they had little to no information about the local population. Pentagon officials contacted Montgomery McFate, a Yale-educated cultural anthropologist working for the Navy who advocated using social science to improve military operations and strategy.

Ms. McFate helped develop a database in 2005 that provided officers with detailed information on the local population. The next year, Steve Fondacaro, a retired Special Operations colonel, joined the program and advocated embedding social scientists with American combat units.

Ms. McFate, the program’s senior social science adviser and an author of the new counterinsurgency manual, dismissed criticism of scholars working with the military. “I’m frequently accused of militarizing anthropology,” she said. “But we’re really anthropologizing the military.”

If nothing, McFate is certainly familiar with the anti-imperialist wing of her profession. In an article titled ” Anthropology and counterinsurgency: the strange story of their curious relationship” that appeared in the March-April, 2005, Military Review, McFate cites Feuchtwang’s article in notes 21 and 22:

In Britain the development and growth of anthropology was deeply connected to colonial administration. As early as 1908, anthropologists began training administrators of the Sudanese civil service. This relationship was quickly institutionalized: in 1921, the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures was established with financing from various colonial governments, and Lord Lugard, the former governor of Nigeria, became head of its executive council. The organization’s mission was based on Bronislaw Malinowski’s article, “Practical Anthropology,” which argued that anthropological knowledge should be applied to solve the problems faced by colonial administrators, including those posed by “‘savage law, economics, customs, and institutions.” (21) Anthropological knowledge was frequently useful, especially in understanding the power dynamics in traditional societies. In 1937, for example, the Royal Anthropological Institute’s Standing Committee on Applied Anthropology noted that anthropological research would “indicate the persons who hold key positions in the community and whose influence it would be important to enlist on the side of projected reforms.” In the words of Lord Hailey, anthropologists were indeed “of great assistance in providing Government with knowledge which must be the basis of administrative policy.” (22)

Citing Feuchtwang is of course not the same thing as agreeing with him. Indeed, she obviously views his aversion to colonial administrators exploiting the services of his profession as a hangover from the Vietnam era:

Although anthropology is the only academic discipline that explicitly seeks to understand foreign cultures and societies, it is a marginal contributor to U.S. national-security policy at best and a punch line at worst. Over the past 30 years, as a result of anthropologists’ individual career choices and the tendency toward reflexive self-criticism contained within the discipline itself, the discipline has become hermetically sealed within its Ivory Tower…

The retreat to the Ivory Tower is also a product of the deep isolationist tendencies within the discipline. Following the Vietnam War, it was fashionable among anthropologists to reject the discipline’s historic ties to colonialism. Anthropologists began to reinvent their discipline, as demonstrated by Kathleen Gough’s 1968 article, Anthropology. Child of Imperialism, followed by Dell Hymes’ 1972 anthology, Reinventing Anthropology, and culminating in editor Talal Asad’s Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter.

It is this “reflexive self-criticism” of course that David Price wants to keep alive, over and against the efforts of people like David Kilcullen and Montgomery McFate. Against the unseemly desire of principled anthropologists to keep the academy out of the business of killing, McFate urges reconciliation between the two estranged parties:

DOD [Department of Defense] yearns for cultural knowledge, but anthropologists en masse, bound by their own ethical code and sunk in a mire of postmodernism, are unlikely to contribute much of value to reshaping national-security policy or practice. Yet, if anthropologists remain disengaged, who will provide the relevant subject matter expertise? As Anna Simons, an anthropologist who teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School, points out: “If anthropologists want to put their heads in the sand and not assist, then who will the military, the CIA, and other agencies turn to for information? They’ll turn to people who will give them the kind of information that should make anthropologists want to rip their hair out because the information won’t be nearly as directly connected to what’s going on on the local landscape.”

The goal of this reconciliation would be to destroy the insurgency in both Iraq and Afghanistan and to consolidate puppet governments that would be obedient to the will of the American ruling class, although McFate puts in a somewhat different manner:

Successful counterinsurgency depends on attaining a holistic, total understanding of local culture. This cultural understanding must be thorough and deep if it is to have any practical benefit at all. This fact is not lost on the Army. In the language of interim FM 3-07.22: “The center of gravity in counterinsurgency operations is the population. Therefore, understanding the local society and gaining its support is critical to success. For U.S. forces to operate effectively among a local population and gain and maintain their support, it is important to develop a thorough understanding of the society and its culture, including its history, tribal/family/social structure, values, religions, customs, and needs.”

To defeat the insurgency in Iraq, U.S. and coalition forces must recognize and exploit the underlying tribal structure of the country; the power wielded by traditional authority figures; the use of Islam as a political ideology; the competing interests of the Shia, the Sunni, and the Kurds; the psychological effects of totalitarianism; and the divide between urban and rural, among other things.

My guess is that colonial anthropology will meet with the same success that it met with in Vietnam, for after all the problem is not us understanding the native, but the natives understanding us all too well.

May 18, 2007

Creationist “science”

Filed under: science — louisproyect @ 4:03 pm

More than anything, the debate offered Republicans voters, and the nation, a chance to see the cast of candidates side by side for the first time. The debate was at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, with Nancy Reagan sitting in the audience.

There were revealing moments that went past the well-rehearsed lines by all the candidates. Three of the candidates — Mr. Huckabee, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas and Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado — raised their hands to signal that they did not believe in evolution.

NY Times, May 4, 2007

Today, not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside of the twentieth century the tenth or the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms. The Pope of Rome broadcasts over the radio about the miraculous transformation of water into wine. Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man’s genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance, and savagery! Despair has raised them to their feet, fascism has given them a banner. Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the psychology of National Socialism.

Leon Trotsky, “What is National Socialism”, 1933

Last night I attended a terrifically enlightening and entertaining lecture titled “What do Creationists Believe About Human Evolution” at the Museum of Natural History by Eugenie Scott, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education.

It gave me a chance to hook up with Marxmailer Mike Friedman who is working on a PhD in evolutionary biology at City University in New York out of the Molecular Systematics Laboratory at the Museum. His thesis involves a study of the Coral Snake and its non-venomous relatives from the standpoint of “co-evolution“.

I first met Mike about 20 years ago when we were both involved with Nicaragua Solidarity in New York. He had left the Trotskyist movement in order to enjoy a more productive personal and political life, as had I and thousands of other ex-Trotskyists.

Although I had a superficial understanding of creationist “science”, the talk really gave me a much better idea of what it was about and how important it was for people like Eugenie Scott to challenge it. As she put it, if they were simply about propounding theology, nobody would really care. But when they try to represent themselves as doing science, they must be answered.

Scott began by explaining that the creationists harp on what they regard as inconsistencies in evolutionary theory. If there are contradictions or seeming lapses in Darwinism, then it is regarded as false. From this, they draw the conclusion that their own beliefs are true. As soon as I heard this, I turned to Mike and said that this is exactly how 911 conspiracy theorists operate.

Within the creationist camp, there are two broad categories. There is “creationist science”, which tends to a strictly literal interpretation based on Scripture. There is also a subset within creationist science called intelligent design that tries to represent itself as more amenable to evolutionary theory and data without letting go of the basic creationist schema.

This schema pivots around the belief that God created everything at once that has ever existed, from dinosaurs to homo sapiens, including–most conveniently– fossil remains. Closely related to this belief is a denial that all living creatures have a common ancestor in ocean-based single cell organisms. Instead of an evolutionary tree, they posit something structured much more like a lawn in which the different blades of grass amount to “kinds”. God created these kinds within seven days, as described in Genesis. Once the kinds were created, there could be natural selection within them–thus the differentiation between bison, antelopes and cows which are all part of the same kind. Yes, I know. It is a perfectly ridiculous idea but millions of Americans believe it. It should be added that man and chimpanzee are not members of the same kind, even though their genetic makeup is much closer than that of bison, antelopes and cows. Unlike the film character “Morgan”, the creationists have no identification with the noble primates. For myself, I sometimes have the feeling that the world would be better off if it was ruled by the orangutan or the bonobo chimpanzee.

The notion of kinds is key to explaining how all of God’s creatures could have fit on Noah’s Ark, a Biblical legend that occupies the same kind of central role in creationist science that E = mc2 occupies in nuclear physics. It would be a big problem for scientists to explain how two of every animal in the world could have fit on the ark, but if you narrow that down to kinds, there’s no problem.

The preoccupation with kinds has led to a subdiscipline within creationist science, namely baraminology. This neologism comes from Hebrew: bara, created, and min, kind. Perhaps some of you are aware of a flap that took place in June 2004 when an article defending intelligent design appeared in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, a peer reviewed scientific journal. Von Sternberg was the editor of that issue and an employee of the Smithsonian Institute. Publication of the article was considered a coup by the creationists, but led to calls for Von Sternberg’s firing by genuine scientists. Defended by the imbecile former Senator from Pennsylvania Rick Santorum, Von Sternberg claimed religious persecution. If you look at his CV, you will see why it is so necessary for Scott and others to challenge him. Unlike Santorum and the boneheaded candidates who denied evolution at the Republican debate, he has a PhD in Biology.

I strongly recommend a visit to the website of the National Center for Science Education. It is a tremendous resource for the struggle against what Trotsky described as “cultural excrement”.

Back in 1960, when I was in high school, the drama club mounted a production of “Inherit the Wind”, a play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee that was written only five years earlier. It dramatized the famous Scopes Trial, which pitted Clarence Darrow against William Jennings Bryan. Darrow was defending John Scopes, a high school teacher who had defied a law passed on March 13, 1925, which forbade the teaching in Tennessee public schools of “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.”

Since the Bush administration is trying to turn the clock back to the 1890s, when McKinley was seizing Cuba and the Philippines, it is no surprise that it is also looking benignly on the creationism of the period as well. When I think about this, I am inspired to repeat Diderot’s observation that “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest”–substituting president for king of course.

March 22, 2006


Filed under: Film,science — louisproyect @ 9:32 pm

Can science and spirituality be reconciled? Probably not, but the documentary “Genesis” comes about as close as can be imagined.

This 2004 film was directed and written by Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou, a husband and wife team, who also were responsible for the highly regarded 1996 “Mikrokosmos,” a study of insect life that critics generally hold in higher regard than “Genesis.”

Although “Genesis” might sound like an overly ambitious project, aiming at nothing less than depicting in photography the entire gamut of life starting with its inception on Earth, it is really much more intimate than that. By avoiding Grand Statements about the meaning of life (in keeping with the filmmakers’ obvious belief in the sheer contingency of natural evolution), they allow nature itself to tell its own story, which is by turns cruel and loving. The film also focuses on “lesser” creatures, many of whom have operate at the more intimate margins of forest and ocean. Although this is obviously par for the course in the world of wildlife documentaries and the National Geographic network on cable, Nuridsany and Pérennou have a much different perspective.

“Genesis” relies on the narration of Sotigui Kouyaté, a Malian griot and stage actor who performed under Peter Brook’s direction in Paris, to convey the directors’ distinct sensibility. This includes observations on the significance of death following a series of remarkable images including a snake swallowing an egg at least 10 times its diameter:

“Everything that begins must end. Otherwise what is time? And no one has ever contradicted time. Who has ever seen a river go back to its source or a chick return to its egg? In the end the consuming flames always lose their appetite and die. The towering mountain finally kneels and stretches out like a plain. As for life, it goes against the grain of time. It appears, grows and blooms in a world where everything rushes toward greater disorder. It flees the peace and quiet of the inanimate and advances like a high wire artist along a tightrope, forever delaying the day of reckoning. But we cannot dodge indefinitely the slings and arrows of time. That is forbidden.”

Sotigui Kouyaté

In an age of deepening superstition and challenges to scientific understanding in the name of the spiritual, it is reassuring to view a film like “Genesis.” It clearly embraces the physical world and the ineluctable natural laws that govern it, but is imbued with an almost pantheistic spirit. Despite the reputation of Marx and Engels in some circles as being utterly indifferent to the natural world, it was clear that they sought a kind of oneness with nature that the film embraces. Perhaps the clearest indication of this are these words from Engels’s “The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man“:

“And, in fact, with every day that passes we are acquiring a better understanding of these laws and getting to perceive both the more immediate and the more remote consequences of our interference with the traditional course of nature. In particular, after the mighty advances made by the natural sciences in the present century, we are more than ever in a position to realise, and hence to control, also the more remote natural consequences of at least our day-to-day production activities. But the more this progresses the more will men not only feel but also know their oneness with nature, and the more impossible will become the senseless and unnatural idea of a contrast between mind and matter, man and nature, soul and body, such as arose after the decline of classical antiquity in Europe and obtained its highest elaboration in Christianity.”

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