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August 24, 2009

The horses of instruction

The following is a posting I have just made to a military anthropology discussion group. I am only posting my reply to earlier posts as to do otherwise would be to violate the confidentiality policy of the group. To that extent, I am part of the problem.

One thing I am not is a bloodless academic incapable of making, let alone expressing, a clear moral judgment (ritual condemnation of George Bush or Sarah Palin does not count). It occurred to me some time ago my political views most probably precluded a career in academic anthropology.

Good. I would rather be a man.


Dear Professor __________,

First, I want to thank you for expressing some of the same concerns I have had with regard to recent postings to this group. I found it difficult to do so in a way that did not descend into polemic.

The trouble, it seems to me, is how to reply in an academic discourse (made up not only of disciplinary concerns, standards of evidence, care to take into account differing perspectives, etc. and so forth but of a careful - and I would argue middle-class - etiquette) to statements that are overtly polemical and incendiary. The difficulty is by no means limited to this group but is common to most attempts by academics to participate in - let alone influence - broader public debates on matters of policy. To be blunt, there are contexts where an academic discourse, including and especially academic etiquette, can serve to obfuscate rather than to clarify differences.

I hope everyone will understand I intend a courtesy, and not a breach of manners, by putting the following in frank terms:

i - I see no factual - let alone moral - equivalence between the status of women in any polity with representative government and the status of women in the Taliban theocracy or the Saudi kleptocracy. To make a play on a well known observation: We must not let the needle in our own eye obscure the plank in the eyes of the Taliban. The status of millions of Afghan women under the Taliban - including countless teachers with whom I hope we would all immediately empathize - cannot reasonably be placed in the balance against societies where women participate in the public sphere. The fact that Canada has yet to fully realize our aspirations toward the full equality of women does not mean the status of women under Canadian law is in any sense equivalent to that of women under Taliban law let alone the status of women in Canadian society relative to the status of women in Taliban society.

I am an advocate of universal human rights including and especially the rights of women, not an advocate of an unrestrained cultural relativism (to be clear, I do not mean to suggest you are an advocate of an unrestrained cultural relativism). As academics, we have professional and intellectual (and career) interests that may preclude political assertions of this kind. I believe our academic interests are often counter-productive not only to open debate but to a clear expression of our views.

I believe the treatment of women under the Taliban was and is reprehensible. I believe any outcome of the war in Afghanistan that does not result in the liberation of women would be a tragedy.

I do not care if there are Afghan men who think differently except in so far as these are the men whose views need to be opposed by force.

ii - The stated war aims of the United States in Afghanistan did not include the liberation of women. That this has been - to a limited extent - an effect of American and allied intervention (and serves the rhetorical aims of war supporters) does not mean we can retroactively condemn the hypocrisy of the Bush administration for a war aim it never advocated. Furthermore, in my opinion we would be better served by an American administration that explicitly favoured policies - including the use of force - to advocate the universal rights of women.

If anything, recent exchanges in this group have convinced me the Canadian government should never have agreed to participate in military intervention to overthrow the Taliban only to re-impose Islamism upon the Afghan state and, by extension, upon Afghan women. Cultures do not "have" religious views much less should states; individuals have religious views. It is shocking to me the United States - a secular republic founded upon revolutionary and emancipatory aims whose expression are demonstrably alive in contemporary American life - should have expended its blood and treasure - in its own defence - only to re-impose the enemy's ideology upon the enemy's subject peoples.

iii - Finally, and most importantly, I cannot continue to participate in a group passively supporting the rhetoric of "Zionist infected" government expressed twice over the weekend by the same man who thinks we will be edified by the Taliban anthem. This is not Stormfront or an alien conspiracy forum, this is an anthropology discussion group. I hope I am not alone in this view not because I have any particular investment in my ongoing participation in this group but because if I am alone in this view I weep for what has become of the once emancipatory aims of anthropology.

To be clear, I am addressing these observations to the group as a whole and not attributing any specific views to an aporia in your posting. I found your intervention measured, reasonable and appropriate to an academic discussion. Unfortunately, this aspect of academic discourse is precisely what disarms us in the face of bald evil.


The Flea

Posted by Ghost of a flea at August 24, 2009 08:28 AM


It is shocking to me the United States - a secular republic founded upon revolutionary and emancipatory aims whose expression are demonstrably alive in contemporary American life - should have expended its blood and treasure - in its own defence - only to re-impose the enemy's ideology upon the enemy's subject peoples.

I concur, and I think this goes a long way toward summarising the futility of current efforts in Southwest Asia. Recreating cultural misogyny through the ballot box is not heads and shoulders better than doing it through clerical diktat. And people do not learn to stop treating others like second-class citizens through clean water, better schools, and a loya jirga.

The West has fallen victim to cargo cult logic, thinking that if one creates the accoutrements of democracy, an egalitarian public consensus will emerge. It has failed to realise that the consensus has to exist first, before the machinery of democracy can produce any salutary effects.

Posted by: Chris Taylor [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 24, 2009 10:58 AM

This is my thinking exactly. And small wonder given our own political system is dominated by the Cargo Cult that is socialism.

Posted by: Ghost of a flea [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 24, 2009 11:11 AM

I'm afraid much of the problem stems from an endemic misuse of terminology in the United States. The rhetorical emphasis, always, is on democracy. As a result, many Americans live their entire lives believing that democracy is what makes us unique.

Of course, what has truly made the United States unique is individual liberty, maintained by a political system designed to limit the ability of democracy to infringe on that liberty. (Else the democracy would have done, repeatedly.)

Too many Americans, including the bulk of our political class, are entirely unaware of the distinction, and act as though the former trumps the latter.

Posted by: Dan [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 24, 2009 01:14 PM

I think that you are being profoundly unfair to Cargo cultists, as they did in fact occasionally have shit fall magically from the sky.

Socialists have no such excuse.

Posted by: dpatten [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 24, 2009 06:06 PM