We Cannot Abandon Humanity

Update 2018: David Shane Lowry’s series on the Anthropocene on anthro{dendum}, and especially his post on Welcome to the “eugenicene”, reminded me of this commentary from 2013. Lowry defines:

eugenicine (n): the current planetary age; the period during which policies & products of corporations & government work in tandem to systemically abandon & manipulate the lives of marginalized human communities.

This strikes me as very reminiscent of what Michel-Rolph Trouillot describes (see the very end of this post) as the plans and proceedings of what was called “the Gorbachev Club” in 1995.

Meanwhile, Alex Barker, the new president of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) has written Come Together:

AAA uniquely brings together this disparate discipline within a common fold so that, despite all our differences, we can celebrate and cultivate what we share–our belief in what anthropology does, and in the value of the insights anthropology offers into the human career and the human condition. Those are the insights that let us speak with authority on issues we care deeply about, including social equity, justice, race, harassment, heritage, health, immigration, development, and climate change. Those are the insights that enable us to address challenges in higher education, research support, and precarity in employment.

I wrote this post in 2013, midway through Barack Obama’s presidency, when Bill Gates was promoting Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker’s Better Angels. We are in 2018 arguably midway through Donald Trump’s presidency, and Bill Gates has declared Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now to be his favorite book of all time. Whether anthropology can be relevant, and contest the revitalization of the Savage Slot (Trouillot’s charge to anthropology) is very much at issue.

'the tradition of anthropology has long claimed that the fate of no human group can be irrelevant to humankind.' --Michel-Rolph TrouillotClick To Tweet

Public Anthropology & Bill Gates

At a time near the 4th of July, 2013, I was thinking about being an American Anthropologist, the journal American Anthropologist, Public Anthropology, and the USA. At that time, Bill Gates was reading Jared Diamond, and I had to get ready for the biggest Jared Diamond review of all time. With 12 million Twitter followers and over 72 billion dollars, the American Bill Gates in 2013 reclaimed the richest person in the world crown from Mexico’s Carlos Slim Helú. I was left repeating the delusional chant from the Celebrity Net Worth blog: USA! USA! USA!

For all those who doubted Jared Diamond’s effect on the telling of world history:

None of the classes I took in high school or college answered what I thought was one of the biggest and most important questions about history: Why do some societies advance so much faster and further than others? While people disagree with minor parts of Diamond’s argument, the basic idea–that the differences between societies are largely explained by geography–is very persuasive.

Well, Bill Gates, if you would have taken some real history and anthropology classes, the ones where you read books like Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History, perhaps geography as justification for power may not have been so excusable. But if you do have time to read into the ethnographic record, I’ll take a re-tweet for Yanomami Ax Fight: Jared Diamond, Science, Violence & the Facts. Please? Thanks!

Big Questions for American Anthropology: Who Are We? Qui Sommes-Nous?

Meanwhile, the 2011 American Anthropological Association Presidential Address by Virginia Dominguez, Comfort Zones and Their Dangers: Who Are We? Qui Sommes-Nous? was published:

Who and what then is the AAA and, more generally speaking, the profession of anthropology (esp. in the United States)? When I think of the American Anthropological Association and the fact that it is old and very large, indeed by far the largest national association of anthropologists in the world today, I consider the question especially significant for the profession. National associations exist in many parts of the planet, and the AAA is arguably just one of them, formally existing to serve anthropologists in the United States (whatever their place of birth or origin). But is an association that includes so many colleagues from around the world, that is located in the arguably most powerful country in the world in 2012, and that is so much larger than all other national anthropological associations not worth a closer and more critical look? The evidence offered here does not really support the view that U.S. anthropology is all that “progressive,” “liberal,” or “center left” especially within its ranks, that is, especially when looking at serious arenas of inattention and inaction within the profession itself. (2012:404)

Dominguez’s lecture was pointedly aimed at anthropology’s comfort zones, but it went mostly unnoticed on the anthropology blogosphere. Dominguez’s address is of course not-open-access, but it is right next to Why the AAA Needs Gold Open Access by Tom Boellstorff–who did get blogosphere notice. The Virginia Dominguez article seems a bit more critical of anthropology than my write-up of the lecture as Anthropology’s Challenge: We can be better. It may be worth noting that a minuscule percentage donation from Bill Gates could easily make all the articles in American Anthropologist open access. Forever.

The Long Tail of the American Anthropologist–and Bill Gates

On the issue of open access, Doug’s Archaeology has a fascinating analysis of AAA digital downloads. Doug’s post is aimed mostly at showing how important blogging can be, and the power of the AAA blog. However, what struck me (and I’m grateful to Doug for this comment back-and-forth) is really how huge American Anthropologist is in comparison to the rest of the bundle. It’s approaching the kind of winner-take-all dynamic discussed in Black Swan Anthropology.

This made me wonder if perhaps everything else except American Anthropologist could go open access. But as Doug points out, that would mess up the metrics, and much more importantly, it’s the big bundle that counts.

This also brought me back to the first thing I really published, Copyright 2002 American Anthropological Association, Inverting Development Discourse In Colombia: Transforming Andean Hearths. I went back and looked at the original copyright form, and it reads “Authors may post their articles on their own websites but are expected to notify AAA and to prominently display the following line: ‘Copyright 2002 American Anthropological Association.'” So that seems pretty straightforward, I’m displaying the line, and I’ve sent an e-mail via the AAA Reprints & Permissions site. There was a bit of hassle involved, but it seems that if enough authors examined their existing agreements, we’d basically have effective open access to AAA publications. Which seems like a workable solution until that Bill Gates donation rolls in.

It also strikes me how incredibly lucky I was to get an early article in American Anthropologist. I lucked out with two sympathetic reviewers who continued to insist I had a potential argument and helped me pull out the main themes (the third reviewer was never convinced). I also lucked into some favorable editorial decisions. At the time, I thought publishing in American Anthropologist would change my life–that everyone actually read those journals. It didn’t change my life that way–no one started calling or e-mailing out of the blue. Surprise, surprise. But it did change my life in that I was then able to look a whole lot better in the academic job lottery.

Of course, if there’s anyone who has shown us how winner-take-all can work, even with what was arguably inferior technology, it’s Bill Gates.

An American Anthropologist Looking Back July 2012-July 2013

Did American Anthropology just blow it with Bill Gates? Maybe, but consider this:

Although some aspects of anthropology appeal to various sectors of the public, the fact is that a large part of what anthropologists have to say requires intellectual effort, and moreover is often rather disturbing to people’s peace of mind.
–Jonathan Benthall, Enlarging the context of anthropology: The case of Anthropology Today 1996:136

And as I was pondering the last time I used that quote, for a post called What is American Antrhopology?, it was also the time of Michel-Rolph Trouillot‘s passing in July 2012. Trouillot was an incredible inspiration for me as an anthropologist and for this blog. Trouillot was very attune to the unwitting American-ness of so many anthropologists. I remember Trouillot reading Clifford Geertz in a seminar and remarking on how American Geertz was. It also seems that at the time of Trouillot’s passing, the issues facing anthropology were rather different. Sure, in 2012 there were significant problems of anthropology not being involved in public debates. But in 2012 there was at least a hint that when someone said “anthropology,” they were likely to think about David Graeber and Occupy Wall Street. In other words, Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years was certainly the biggest book–in Trouillot’s terms–to contest the Savage slot:

Anthropology’s future depends largely on its ability to contest the Savage slot . . . Solutions that fall short of this challenge can only push the discipline toward irrelevance, however much they reflect serious concerns. In that light, calls for reflexivity in the United States are not products of chance, the casual convergence of individual projects. Nor are they a passing fad, the accidental effect of debates that stormed philosophy and literary theory. Rather, they are timid, yet spontaneous–and in that sense genuinely American–responses to major changes in the relations between anthropology and the wider world, provincial expressions of wider concerns, allusions to opportunities yet to be seized. (Global Transformations 2003:9)

So even as the value of anthropology had come under attack, there was also a sense in July 2012 that it may have been a Great Year for Anthropology.

And then came Diamond->Chagnon->Pinker

But that was all before the one-two-three punch of Jared Diamond, Napoleon Chagnon, Steven Pinker, who together bash anthropology at the same time as they completely resurrect the Savage Slot that Trouillot spent his life trying to contest. Hardly a coincidence that Bill Gates is also a Steven Pinker fanboy. [And this all comes roaring back in 2018 as Bill Gates announces Enlightenment Now is his new favorite book of all time.]

Looking back to 2013, the missing piece for me is still Newtown and the gun reform debate the United States never really had. As a whole, American anthropology had nothing to say about gun culture and gun violence. As Hugh Gusterson pointed out–Making a Killing in the U.K. based Anthropology Today–American anthropologists had done almost no fieldwork or ethnography on such issues in the United States. In 2012, there was no professional statement or prepared position. Anthropological articles regarding gun reform continued to be eclectic, including a statement that no gun control is possible without Second Amendment repeal.

And so, American anthropologists studied violence in every other part of the world, in every other time, but hardly did enough in the United States. The Diamond-Chagnon-Pinker juggernaut claims of “decreasing violence in modern states” roll along, a comforting displacement in the wake of Newtown and drones and Afghanistan. Like Jared Diamond’s displacement onto geography, American power becomes accidental. We ignore a history of interconnection with others, so that we can now deign to save them: enter the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

American anthropology has yet to shift the story-line on violence. War, Peace, and Human Nature was a good start, but it was initially priced and targeted for academic audiences. Virtual War and Magical Death: Technologies and Imaginaries for Terror and Killing began with a better price, a better picture, and a disturbing message that all those computers might have something to do with terror. However, most non-academic readers were unlikely to make it past the introductory paragraphs. [Dean Falk’s January 2018 post in Sapiens, Is the Clock Ticking Toward Doomsday? also tried to turn the Pinker tide. But this seems to be a “too little, too late” moment, addressing empirical details in Pinker’s Better Angels just as Pinker moves on to Enlightenment Now.]

Of course we also need to be careful not to fall into another common American assumption–that things change simply by writing or blogging about them. Nevertheless, if American anthropologists were saying really smart things about gun reform, immigration reform, international aid, technological terror–if we could develop a position and keep plugging at it–we may not always need to be in reactive mode when people like Brooks-Chagnon-Diamond-Friedman-Pinker-Wade get their press splash. Or Bill Gates tweets out his Jared Diamond review.

Do American Anthropologists Need Saving?

For me in July 2013 there was some strangely good news at the end of this pay-walled article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Aid That Does Not Help: Lila Abu-Lughod was going to publish Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Abu-Lughod’s 2002 article was powerful:

Could we not leave veils and vocations of saving others behind and instead train our sights on ways to make the world a more just place? The reason respect for difference should not be confused with cultural relativism is that it does not preclude asking how we, living in this privileged and powerful part of the world, might examine our own responsibilities for the situations in which others in distant places have found themselves. We do not stand outside the world, looking out over this sea of poor benighted people, living under the shadow–or veil–of oppressive cultures; we are part of that world. Islamic movements themselves have arisen in a world shaped by the intense engagements of Western powers in Middle Eastern lives. (Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?, 789)

However, Abu-Lughod wrote the original article during the first invasion of Afghanistan. It could not be a continuing commentary on how much the world turned through Iraq–and Egypt, Libya, Syria, Turkey. I had very high hopes for this book-length treatment and used it for my 2014 Introduction to Anthropology. [Unfortunately by 2015 I had to admit that the book sometimes produced the exact opposite effect of its intended purpose.]

In 2013, similar signs of hope were evident at public-themed anthropology conferences. At American University, the Public Anthropology Conference and the 2013 annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association, Future Publics. American Anthropology may have been diagnosed in 2011 as White Public Space. But hey, we were not as white as The Edge or the “Being Human” conferences [in 2018 apparently defunct], or the Executive Leadership Team of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

American Anthropology: We Cannot Abandon Humanity

We cannot abandon the four-fifths of humanity that the Gorbachev Club* see as increasingly useless to the world economy, not only because we built a discipline on the backs of their ancestors but also because the tradition of that discipline has long claimed that the fate of no human group can be irrelevant to humankind. (Trouillot 2003:138)

'the tradition of anthropology has long claimed that the fate of no human group can be irrelevant to humankind.' --Michel-Rolph TrouillotClick To Tweet

* At the 1995 closed-door meeting of the Gorbachev Foundation in San Francisco, members of what has become a global oligarchy calmly agreed that at some point in this twenty-first century only two-tenths of the world’s active population would be necessary to sustain the world economy. The middle classes as we know them are likely to disappear. Chunks of humanity will become irrelevant. John Gage and Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems suggest the motto of that future: “to have lunch or be lunch.” And how will the prosperous fifth appease those who may not want to be someone else’s lunch? Former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbignew Brzezinski, the very one who coined the word globalization, provides the most successful answer: tittytainment–titty as in tits and motherhood, that is, enough milk for the poor to survive poorly and plenty of entertainment to maintain their good spirits (Trouillot 2003:56, drawing on The Global Trap: Globalization and the Assault on Prosperity and Democracy)


To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2013. “Public Anthropology and Bill Gates: We Cannot Abandon Humanity.” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/bill-gates/. First posted 11 July 2013. Revised 12 February 2018.

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