As most of you know, former television personality Scott F. Wolter will be delivering a lecture at the Masonic Lodge her in Albany. Unfortunately, due to preexisting commitments this evening, I won’t be able to attend. More’s the pity, but the thought of paying to sit through the same material I’ve read on the internet and watched on TV doesn’t strike me as a lot of fun either.
Today, though, I’d like to talk about a strange article that a rightwing writer posted to The Liberty Conservative in which the author alleges that the entire field of anthropology is a detriment to humanity. The writer, Larsen Halleck, earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Rutgers University and therefore has enough knowledge to be dangerous. (I, too, have a bachelor’s in anthropology, and I’m sure you will agree that I am also dangerous.) The long and short of his argument is that he believes that anthropology is in thrall to “leftists” and that the truth about humanity is “being swept under the rug in order to promote an ideological agenda.”
Halleck is part of the “red pill” / “men’s rights” corner of the alt-right, and the alt-right shares with fringe history not just a disdain for mainstream scholarship but also a sense that human intellectual progress somehow stopped dead around the outbreak of the First World War and most scholarship afterward is merely an ideologically driven effort to undo the Victorian world.
The trouble, as I mentioned, is that Halleck knows enough to be dangerous, by which I mean that he has absorbed the lessons taught in most anthropology programs about the history of the discipline but lacks the further interest to discover that the past is not merely prologue. History did not stop in 1914, and the discipline of anthropology has grown much since then. You wouldn’t know from Halleck’s discussion, which imagines that the events of c. 1900-1940 are the defining program for understanding anthropology.
But Halleck traces the problem back to before there even was such a discipline as anthropology. He discusses Jean Jacques Rousseau and his noble savage, an idea that once dominated very early understandings of human development back when science was still called natural philosophy. But he argues that modern “leftist” anthropologists insist on imagining non-white peoples as noble savages. “When you see leftists downplaying the unpleasantness of non-white cultures and over-exaggerating those same unpleasantries in white cultures, or speaking of ‘people of color’ as if they’re unspoiled simpletons without agency, it’s hard to see this as anything other than repurposed ‘noble savagery’.” This is a tough sentence to deal with because it contains a grain of truth in it. Some writers certainly have been influenced by prevailing ideologies, but by no means all. It is also true that there are anthropologists who have served as advocates for native peoples. There was a controversy, for example, a couple of decades ago over whether archaeologists and anthropologists were right to conclude that there was cannibalism among the ancestral Puebloan peoples because of the objections of some modern descendant groups, who were offended by the claims. Because of the practical need to secure cooperation from the peoples they study, there is always the risk that those studying them will minimize the characteristics Westerners consider objectionable. The issue of bias is the subject of much discussion in anthropological literature and it is literally something that anthropology programs teach their students about. To suggest that a specific researcher or a specific ethnography represents the general consensus of the entire field is commit a logical fallacy.
And there, I think, is where Halleck makes his fatal error. He doesn’t consider the fact that modern anthropology has had to deal with the fact that the discipline’s origins come out of the Western imperialist and colonialist experience, with the inherent racism that was part of it. The Victorians were enmeshed in that matrix, and those who reacted against it—people like Boas and Mead, whom he identifies as liars who fabricated data to make political points—did so in an opposite extreme. But their errors and ideas were those of a century ago, and time and scholarship have moved on. While no one would ever claim that any discipline has reached its platonic ideal, scholars today recognize and understand the ideologies that motivated past practitioners and have, in theory, taken steps to correct against this. But in the popular imagination, which lags a century behind scholarship, we are still in the reaction against the Victorians, and Halleck sees this as leftists undercutting the glorious rightness of the imperial era. He seems not to care that his own view is even more ideologically biased than those he criticizes:
Whenever you see some rich white liberal crying about invisible knapsacks, or see some hairy, barrel-chested man in drag barge into a lady’s bathroom…even though I doubt they wanted this, that is Mead and Boas’s legacy. When you see people crying about how science and objectivity are “white supremacist” and that black magic should be considered equally valid, that’s the legacy of cultural relativism.
He concludes from this that anthropology has made the world worse, but his argument is actually that knowledge itself is the problem because understanding other peoples and other cultures gives those of opposing views ammunition to argue that conservative ideology is neither universal nor self-evident. It will not surprise you that Halleck has started a YouTube show to refute cultural anthropology and to argue that human behavior is biologically determined. It is hard not to see that as an ideological argument in favor of the proposition that straight white men are inherently, naturally, and genetically superior. That Halleck would view this as an objective truth rather than an ideological preference is probably all that we need to know about his argument.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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