The New Anthropology

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In their recent “Open Letter Demanding the Overhaul of McGill’s Statement of Academic Freedom,” the Anthropology Students Association and the Anthropology Graduate Student Association of McGill University have schooled us about the new anthropology. Here are some of its dimensions:

The benighted old anthropology began with questions and engaged in research to find answers. Cultural anthropologists would head to “the field,” to the people about whom they wanted to learn, whether in the Sudan, the American South, a Pacific Island, a Mediterranean city, or a Middle Eastern desert. They would then live among the people, speak with them, observe them in daily life, follow events as they developed, and collect ritual and other texts, in order to gain an understanding of how people thought, what they valued, how they related, what goals they had, and what they feared, which were sometimes summed up under labels such as “social organization” and “culture.”

The new enlightened anthropology does not begin with a tabula rasa and research to answer questions, but with universal answers. Its “methodology” is to seek cases to illustrate and prove the a priori truths. The central truth of the new anthropology is that everything is about power, and power is always manifested in a class hierarchy, in which the ruling classes exploit, oppress, and demean the subordinate classes. This universal model bypasses the orthodox Marxist economic class hierarchy and struggle in favor of the cultural Marxist identity class hierarchy and struggle. It is the new anthropology’s universal truth that whites always oppress people of color, that men always oppress women, that heterosexuals always oppress LBGTQ++, that Christians and Jews always oppress Muslims, and that “social justice” requires that the oppressed victims rise up and overthrow the oppressors, flip the hierarchy, and take control.

The mandate of the new anthropology is to advance “social justice” and the interests of the oppressed victims. This new version of anthropology could be justly labeled “victimology.” Social organization and culture other than the identity class struggle are seen as ephemeral, a distraction from the true essence of human life, and probably a purposeful obfuscation by an old anthropology aligned with the rulers and oppressors. “Research” in the new anthropology seeks out females, people of color, LBGTQ++, and Muslims to describe their unfortunate victimization at the hands of the usual suspects.

While the old anthropology finds distinctions among people and peoples due to their differences in social organization and culture, the new anthropology unites people and peoples through the magic of intersectionality. For example, African Americans and Palestinians are seen as allies, due to their being people of color suffering at the hands of American and Israeli whites. The new anthropology does not recognise that Israelis are many colors, or that Arabs are recognized as white by most governments, or that for over a thousand years Arabs traded African slaves, commonly mutilated, or that in Arabic, the word (abid) for black person is the same word for slave. For the new anthropology, these details obscure what’s important: the identity class struggle to overcome RACISM!, DISCRIMINATION!, WHITE NATIONALISM!, PATRIARCHY!, HETRONORMATIVITY!, and ISLAMOPHOBIA!

The new anthropological struggle is an international one. That is why cultural relativism, defined by old anthropology as a suspension of the researcher’s values in order to understand better the people being studied, has been expanded to moral, ethical, and epistemological equivalence. For the new anthropology, “social justice” requires that we recognize that all societies and cultures are equally good and valuable; think of it as “cross-cultural justice.” Well, there is an exception: Western Civilization, which is judged by the new anthropology as uniquely guilty of imperialist and colonialist oppression, as the inventor of slavery and the murder of indigenous people, and therefore uniquely evil. This view is dignified by the label “postcolonial theory.”

For the new anthropology, the world, prior to Western imperialism, was a peaceful and loving place in which everyone got along in a cooperative and mutually appreciative manner. Apparently, the new anthropology does not care to mention the hundreds of empires throughout history, their expansionary invasions, or their displacement, killing, and enslaving of indigenous people. Nor are the endless tribal raiding for foodstuffs, valuables, livestock, and captives to serve as slaves, or the tribal wars of expansion and displacement worthy of mention. Slavery and its capture of uncompensated labor was a part of every state system for thousands of years, and invasion and expansion were partially aimed at maintaining the supply of slaves. Pre-industrial states could not support state projects and the luxury class at the low level of production its population was capable of, so uncompensated labor was required.

Even the most superficial acquaintance with history would verify these points, apparently unwelcome truths for the new anthropology. The Achaemenid Empire, founded in 550 BC by Cyrus the Great, conquered and encompassed the Middle East from the Indus Valley though Mesopotamia to the Nile Valley. The Persian Empire fell in 330 BC to Alexander the Great (“Ishkandar” in Persian), whose succeeding empire covered the area of the Persian Empire but extended farther north, including Asia Minor and Greece. The Roman Empire dominated all around the Mediterranean and far north into Europe, up to five million square kilometers, drawing captives from lands as far as Britain to serve as slaves on Roman latifundia and in Roman households.

The Arab Islamic Empire, initiated in Arabia in the seventh century, rapidly invaded Christian and Jewish lands to the north in the Levant, Zoroastrian and Hindu lands to the east in Persia and northern India, Christian Egypt and North Africa to the west, and Christian Mediterranean islands and southern Iberia. Arab historians likened the conquering Bedouin armies to plagues of locusts. Hundreds of thousands of captives, particularly females, were enslaved and distributed to military leaders and Muslim soldiers. The Levant, Egypt, and North Africa remain Arab colonies in the 21stcentury. Following defeats by the Mongol Empire, Arab-dominated eastern lands were invaded by Turkic tribes, one of which succeeded in eradicating the Byzantine Empire in 1453, replacing it with the Ottoman Empire, which came to dominate Arab lands and the Christian Balkans, also taking over the formal leadership of Islam. The Ottomans drew white slaves from the Balkans to serve the Sultan and beyond, as North African Moors or Saracens slave raided in Europe as far north as Ireland into the twentieth century. In the 21stcentury, the Islamic State invaded and occupied large areas of Syria and western Iraq but was finally terminated by Kurdish and American military opposition.

We learn that in the new anthropology, no negative judgement must be made about any people, culture, or region, lest it hurt the feelings of (and make “unsafe”) some who may identify with that people, culture, or region. (The exception of course is Western Civilization and any of its constituent parts, which the new anthropology sees as deserving of being berated, vilified, disparaged, and denigrated in the strongest possible language.) Today’s anthropology students believe that to say “the Middle East is a place where doing harm and being cruel to others is regarded as a virtue and a duty” is a great and dangerous offense against individuals who identify with the region. But these anthropology students and those who identify with the region have not spoken out about the atrocities in which a half million Syrians of all ages and sexes were killed in the recent civil war fueled by Sunni-Shia opposition. Nor do they appear to be offended by the cruel practices of the Islamic State, such as cutting off the heads of prisoners and posting videos, the burning alive of opposition soldiers, and the mass capture of “infidel” Yazidi girls and women, gang raping them, holding them as sex slaves, and then murdering many of them. Apparently the “inclusion” of the new anthropology encompasses Syrian and Islamic State atrocities.

As we have seen, the goal of the new anthropology is “social justice,” of which “inclusion” is a major component. “Inclusion” means that people should never hear anything about their identity reference group that would hurt their feelings. (This, however, does not apply to unpreferred groups: males, whites, Christians, Jews, and, remarkably, East Asians. In practice, members of these categories are often excluded.) The McGill anthropology students who penned the aforementioned open letter are correct in asserting that “inclusion” and “academic freedom” are not compatible. They opt for inclusion, to the exclusion of academic freedom.

The old anthropology did value what the students claim is an outdated academic freedom and a diversity of ideas. This is because it believed that diverse ideas and their competition in the marketplace of ideas was the best way to increase sound knowledge and to approach truth. But all of that is unnecessary for the new anthropology, which believes it has already grasped the universal truths of social justice. For the new anthropologists, the goal is not to understand the world, but to change it into their own image.

The New Anthropology

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Philip Carl Salzman

Philip Carl Salzman served as professor of anthropology at McGill University from 1968 to 2018. He is the author of Culture and Conflict in the Middle East; the founding chair of the Commission on Nomadic Peoples of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences; the founding editor of Nomadic Peoples; and the author of Black Tents of Baluchistan; Pastoralism: Equality, Hierarchy, and the State; Thinking Anthropologically, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East; and Understanding Culture.

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