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University of California Press
Why America's Top Pundits Are Wrong: Anthropologists Talk Back / Edition 1

Why America's Top Pundits Are Wrong: Anthropologists Talk Back / Edition 1

by Catherine Besteman, Hugh GustersonCatherine Besteman


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Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|In this fresh, literate, and biting critique of current thinking on some of today's most important and controversial topics, leading anthropologists take on some of America's top pundits.

This absorbing collection of essays subjects such popular commentators as Thomas Friedman, Samuel Huntington, Robert Kaplan, and Dinesh D'Souza to cold, hard scrutiny and finds that their writing is often misleadingly simplistic, culturally ill-informed, and politically dangerous. Mixing critical reflection with insights from their own fieldwork, twelve distinguished anthropologists respond by offering fresh perspectives on globalization, ethnic violence, social justice, and the biological roots of behavior. They take on such topics as the collapse of Yugoslavia, the consumer practices of the American poor, American foreign policy in the Balkans, and contemporary debates over race, welfare, and violence against women. Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|In the clear, vigorous prose of the pundits themselves, these contributors reveal the hollowness of what often passes as prevailing wisdom and passionately demonstrate the need for a humanistically complex and democratic understanding of the contemporary world.

Available: November 2004

Pub Date: January 2005

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520243569
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/17/2005
Series: California Series in Public Anthropology , #13
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 282
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Catherine Besteman is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Colby College and author of Unraveling Somalia: Race, Violence, and the Legacy of Slavery (1999), among other books. Hugh Gusterson, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Science at MIT, is author of Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War (California, 1996) and People of the Bomb (2004).

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Why America's Top Pundits Are Wrong

Anthropologists Talk Back California Series in Public Anthropology, 13

The University of California Press

Copyright © 2004 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-24355-2


Hugh Gusterson and Catherine Besteman

This book confronts some of the most controversial and divisive issues of the day. Why does poverty persist in the United States? Do the poor, through laziness or lack of initiative, somehow deserve their plight? Why do African Americans continue to get left behind in the American race for success? Are feminists right about violence against women in our society? How much of our behavior is genetically programmed? Why do some countries do better than others in the global economy? Why has the U.S. military found itself fighting Muslims so much of late? Will globalization and U.S. intervention abroad create a more peaceful or a more polarized world? Should the United States have intervened in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, or is that part of the world doomed to bloody and irremediable ancient hatreds?

In Congress, in coffee shops, in classrooms, in dorm rooms, on talk shows, and over the dinner table, these have been some of the most debated questions in American public life in recent years. Some of these questions-about race, gender, and class-are hardy perennials of American disputation; others, such as those aboutglobalization and the apparent conflict with Islam, are particular to our times. In our national debate about such questions, some of the loudest voices belong to pundits: men (and, yes, they do almost all seem to be men) such as Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, Robert Kaplan of the Atlantic Monthly, Samuel Huntington of Harvard University, and Dinesh D'Souza of Stanford University's Hoover Institute. Some of these pundits are based in universities, others are not, but they share an ability to reduce controversial issues to sound bites and, consequently, to harness the full power of the media to project their opinions. Some are self-identified liberals, while others are conservatives; some focus their attention on international relations, while others write about domestic politics within the United States. Although they do not all come from the same side of the political map, they draw on and embellish a loosely coherent set of myths about human nature and culture that have a strange staying power in American public discourse: that conflict between people of different cultures, races, or genders is inevitable; that biology is destiny; that culture is immutable; that terrible poverty, inequality, and suffering are natural; and that people in other societies who do not want to live just like Americans are afraid of "modernity." We have put together a book subjecting these pundits to cold, hard scrutiny because of our concern that, while their voices are often the loudest, they are not necessarily the wisest. Although they may be glibly persuasive writers with strong points of view, their writing is also dangerously simplistic and ideologically distorted.

Pundit comes from the old Hindi word pandit, used to refer to a teacher of Indian religion and law. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a pundit as "an authority on a subject." Merriam-Webster's gives two definitions. The first-"a learned man; teacher"-echoes the Oxford English Dictionary. The second-"one who gives opinions in an authoritative manner"-is more to the point here. The pundits we discuss here are not particularly learned and are only superficially authorities on the subjects about which they write. Their skill lies not in detailed knowledge about their subject but in their ability, in an age of mass media and short attention spans, to learn quickly about the broad contours of a wide range of subjects and to project confidence and authority in talking about them. Indeed, their skill often lies not in authoritative knowledge of their subject but in their ability to hide their lack of authoritative knowledge. Pundits are people who, like the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, speak to a general audience rather than to specialists, often on many different issues. To win and keep a wide audience, they have to hurl out bold ideas, make big generalizations, and speak colorfully. While they are expected to pepper their arguments with facts and information, they know that their audiences will not-and usually cannot-judge them on their detailed knowledge of the subject at hand and will, instead, judge them on their ability to appear knowledgeable and be entertaining. This means that the pundits who thrive the most are those who cater to their audiences' existing prejudices, rather than those who upend their easy assumptions about the world and challenge them to see the world from a new angle. As the cultural critic Edward Said puts it, in reference to the appeal of Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations, one of the works we discuss in this book, "What has made it strike so responsive a chord among post-cold war policy makers, is this sense of cutting through large amounts of unnecessary detail, of masses of scholarship and huge amounts of experience, and boiling all of them down to a couple of catchy, easy-to-quote-and-remember ideas, which are then passed off as pragmatic, practical, sensible, and clear."

Pundits, then, are modern-day mythmakers. All societies have mythmakers-people who provide a comforting explanation of why things are the way they are. Mythmakers provide a way to make sense of complexity, to reconcile contradictory realities, and to justify a particular course of action or worldview. They help a society imagine itself and its role in the world. Mythmakers in "primitive" societies explained why children died, why crops failed, and why chiefs were chiefs and the rest were not. They found design and purpose in pain and suffering. Mythmakers in contemporary America provide just-so stories to explain, for example, why many foreigners are angry at the United States, why the poor are poor, and why racial inequality persists.

The pundits we review here are American mythmakers with authority. They have captured our attention because of their book sales, their high profiles in public discourse, and their ability to influence the highest policy makers in the land. They are not the most extreme of America's contemporary commentators-the Ann Coulters and Bill O'Reillys. Rather, they hold positions at famous universities, publish in mainstream news magazines and newspapers, and are read by American presidents. While they successfully present themselves as globally knowledgeable and reasonable commentators, the myths they promote exert a reactionary force in public life. Often based on stereotypes of other people, these myths hobble our ability to think critically or to empathize with different kinds of people, and they have the effect of legitimating the status quo. They are also based on wrongheaded assumptions about human nature that we are determined to debunk.

All the contributors to this volume are distinguished and experienced anthropologists who can no longer watch America's pundits at work without speaking up. As anthropologists, we specialize in studying human nature, cultural interaction, ethnic conflict, social stratification, and the workings of race and gender-all the issues the pundits write about. In the following chapters we demonstrate over and over that the myths of the punditocracy, whether overtly liberal or conservative, are based on loudly voiced rhetorical and not scientific claims, and on the cultural assumptions of the privileged. Uncorrected, their assumptions about human nature and culture are not just wrong but also, given the pundits' influence in American public life, dangerous. Although most of the contributors to this book are to the left of political center, we do not have a shared political agenda; we are less concerned with speaking as exponents of a particular political philosophy than as anthropologists offering an alternative view of America's pundits not as partisans of a debate between liberals and conservatives but as joint contributors to a set of "myths we live by." Anthropology's traditional charge is to understand myths as charters for worldviews and ways of life. We evaluate myths that societies tell about themselves and others, and we try to understand where these stories came from, why they endure, and most important for our purposes here, how they might be dangerous. After all, some myths justify unnecessary human suffering while breeding fear, xenophobia, and ignorance about other ways of life.

As anthropologists who have all done fieldwork, we get our knowledge by deeply engaged, intense, face-to-face research, often in settings where disease and violence pose a real threat. Along with reading all the learned books and professional journals related to our subjects, we spend years in local communities, listening, observing, interviewing. Wanting all sides of the story, we talk with everyone from government officials and executives to peasants, activists, workers, and criminals. We are experts in the history, the politics, and the economics of the places we study, but we also understand these places in terms of the human interactions we have had with the people who live there. Significantly, our methodology encourages in-depth relationships with people generally ignored by pundits-those on the margins of society, rather than just the elite. Anthropology has a historical commitment to take seriously the perspectives of non-Western societies and non-elites. Such perspectives are front and center in our analyses, and they undergird anthropology's distinctive view of the world. Ours is the discipline whose best-sellers include the biography of a !Kung bushwoman in South Africa and the story of Ishi, "the last of his tribe" of Native Americans. Now, in the era of globalization and cyberspace, we are reporting on conversations with war refugees in the Congo, Islamic militants in the slums of Egypt, illegal immigrants who clean your local Wal-Mart and can barely make the rent, and young women who lose their eyesight assembling computers in sweatshops in Malaysia and the Philippines. We bring into the global conversation the voices that would otherwise be lost. Good anthropology, like good literature, challenges readers to see the world from inside someone else's skin and to rethink taken-for-granted assumptions.

The arguments we challenge here were published in articles and books that received widespread media attention in the 1990s, but our decision to write this book took on particular force with the renewed power and prominence of these writings following the September 11, 2001, tragedy and the American invasion of Iraq. The need to define the contours of the post-cold war world has taken on a new urgency for Americans reeling from the shock of a devastating terrorist attack on American soil and mired in the chaos of a post-Saddam Iraq. When we discovered that books by some of the pundits we target-Robert Kaplan, Samuel Huntington, and Thomas Friedman-were being promoted by a major national bookstore chain as useful roadmaps to our global reality in the era of the war on terrorism, we realized that our task-to draw on our anthropological knowledge to tell more accurate stories about the post-cold war world-was more important than ever. There was a time before the Vietnam War when anthropologists were themselves pundits playing a vital role in public debate. Franz Boas, the founder of modern American anthropology, championed Native Americans and was an outspoken public critic of eugenics and of racially biased intelligence testing in the early twentieth century. Margaret Mead, the most famous anthropologist of the twentieth century, used knowledge she gained from her research on adolescence and gender among Pacific Islanders to intervene in public debates about American sex roles and education. With less happy consequences, Margaret Mead also intervened in public policy debates about American foreign policy, including the Vietnam War. The debates of the Vietnam era, which left the American Anthropological Association deeply divided over the ethics of military research and over the propriety of the Vietnam War itself, scarred anthropology and left many anthropologists feeling that it was safer to avoid participation in national policy debates. We came together to write this book out of the conviction that it is time for anthropologists to reclaim Margaret Mead's legacy and find our voice as public intellectuals once more.

The Pundits Look Abroad

Let us begin with Robert Kaplan. Described by the New York Times as combining "the attributes of the journalist and the visionary," he is the author of the influential books Balkan Ghosts and The Coming Anarchy. Balkan Ghosts was published in 1993 just as the former Yugoslavia was beginning to come apart at the seams and the newly elected U.S. president, Bill Clinton, was deciding whether or not to reverse the policy, inherited from his predecessor, of nonintervention in the Bosnian conflict. In Balkan Ghosts Kaplan sketched a picture of the Balkans as a region doomed to perpetual strife because of ancient feuds and grievances dating back to the Middle Ages that set Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim citizens at each others' throats. Although Kaplan was not an expert in Balkan history or culture, the commonsense appeal of his "ancient hatreds" argument combined with a muscular and vivid writing style won his book a wide audience at a time when newspaper and television screens were full of searing images of atrocities from the Bosnian war. Bill Clinton read the book during his first term as president, and it is said that Kaplan helped persuade him for a long time that people in this corner of the world had always hated one another and probably always would, and that the United States should stay out of their conflicts. Balkan Ghosts is a discomfiting reminder of the terrible damage that can be done by an author with a persuasive writing style and a good publicist, even if the account is largely a mishmash of myth, superficial impressions, and recycled stereotypes.

In the present volume, Tone Bringa sets the record straight on Bosnia. Unlike Kaplan, Bringa did not simply pass through the Balkans between book tours. Bringa is an anthropologist who won her knowledge the hard way-by living in a Bosnian village before and during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, getting to know its Bosnian Muslim and Croat Catholic inhabitants intimately. She was there when the villagers turned on one another. While Kaplan would have us believe that people in this part of the world were just itching for a chance to revisit old grievances, Bringa points out that, until the ethnic cleansing of the 1990s, Muslim and Catholic villagers had strong neighborly friendships. These interethnic friendships had been the rule rather than the exception in this part of the world and were blown apart only under the pressure of a war begun by Serb separatists in Belgrade. Far from being eager to attack one another, villagers finally turned against one another only after hard work by nationalist politicians. Bringa suggests that Kaplan's question-can these people ever be expected to get over their differences?-is the wrong question to ask. The right question, and the question Bringa addresses, is, How were people who had lived quietly together as neighbors for forty-five years manipulated into killing one another and burning each other's houses down?

Kaplan's subsequent book, The Coming Anarchy, was no less influential and, unfortunately, no less misguided. The book was preceded by an Atlantic Monthly article of the same name that was, remarkably, faxed by the U.S. State Department to every U.S. embassy in Africa. In it, Kaplan argues that the world was increasingly divided between the orderly, affluent societies of the West and anarchic, crime-ridden, overpopulated Third World societies headed for environmental degradation, outbreaks of disease, downward spirals of poverty, and civil strife. He likens the citizens of the West to passengers in a stretch limo, saying, "Outside the stretch limo would be a rundown, crowded planet of skinhead Cossacks and juju warriors, influenced by the worst refuse of Western pop culture and ancient tribal hatreds, and battling over scraps of overused earth." Warning about "places where the Enlightenment has not penetrated," and predicting that "distinctions between war and crime will break down," he fears that globalization will make it harder and harder for the people in the stretch limo to avoid "the coming anarchy." Telling us that democracy is culturally unnatural in many parts of the globe, and that some cultures are too weak or pathological to cope with the stresses of globalization, he predicts that anarchic waves of crime and violence will wash across various regions of the globe, particularly Africa.


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Table of Contents

1. Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|Introduction
Hugh Gusterson and Catherine Besteman
2. The Seven Deadly Sins of Samuel Huntington
Hugh Gusterson
3. Samuel Huntington, Meet the Nuer:
Kinship, Local Knowledge, and the Clash of Civilizations
Keith Brown
4. Haunted by the Imaginations of the Past:
Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts
Tone Bringa
5. Why I Disagree with Robert Kaplan
Catherine Besteman
6. Globalization and Thomas Friedman
Angelique Haugerud
7. On The Lexus and the Olive Tree, by Thomas L. Friedman
Ellen Hertz and Laura Nader
8. Extrastate Globalization of the Illicit
Carolyn Nordstrom
9. Class Politics and Scavenger Anthropology in
Dinesh D’Souza’s Virtue of Prosperity
Kath Weston
10. Sex on the Brain: A Natural History of Rape
and the Dubious Doctrines of Evolutionary Psychology
Stefan Helmreich and Heather Paxson
11. Anthropology and The Bell Curve
Jonathan Marks
Suggested Further Reading
List of Contributors

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