In the media world, it's been a bad time for anthropologists and anthropology. First, the Darth Vader of American politics, the incomparable Governor Rick Scott publicly stated that anthropology, his daughter's undergraduate major, was a subject without value. Governor Scott's demonstration of boastful ignorance sparked an outcry from anthropologists who fought back by presenting to the media many powerful examples of the economic utility of anthropological study and practice. That rebuttal hasn't seemed to have changed media or public perception of Margaret Mead's profession. Second, Kiplinger and Forbes, two business publications, par excellence, rated anthropology as the worst undergraduate major for getting a job. Taking their cue from these "facts" the triumphant trio of prudent governors, Rick Scott, Scott Walker and Rick Perry, now want to slash wasteful higher education funds for programs of study that don't prepare students for jobs in the real world. If those budget cuts weaken pesky disciplines, like anthropology and sociology, which produce critical thinkers and political activists, so much the better!
These are hard times in the humanities and social sciences, times made much worse -- at least in the world of the media -- by the latest anthropological flare-up over the publication of Napoleon Chagnon's new memoir, Noble Savages. If nothing else, Chagnon is a master of self-publicity. He has produced a work tailor-made for the contemporary media. In this tale, he is a heroic figure and his detractors, who don't understand him or the strictures of science, are villains. The perceptual brilliance of Chagnon's tactic is refracted in Emily Eakin's New York Times Magazine story, "How Napoleon Chagnon Became our Most Controversial Anthropologist. " Not mentioning the fact that most contemporary anthropologists don't give a hoot about what Professor Chagnon is doing, Eakin begins her piece with an evocation of a mythically brave anthropologist who knows how to deal with the privations of the jungle and the "primitive" natives who live there.
Among the hazards Napoleon Chagnon encountered in the Venezuelan jungle were a jaguar that would have mauled him had it not become confused by his mosquito net and a 15-foot anaconda that lunged from a stream over which he bent to drink. There were also hairy black spiders, rats that clambered up and down his hammock ropes and a trio of Yanomami tribesmen who tried to smash his skull with an ax while he slept. (The men abandoned their plan when they realized that Chagnon, a light sleeper, kept a loaded shotgun within arm's reach.) These are impressive adversaries--"Indiana Jones had nothing on me," is how Chagnon puts it--but by far his most tenacious foes have been members of his own profession.
Eakin goes on to suggest that Chagnon "may be this country's best known living anthropologist; he is certainly its most maligned." To make matters even more mythical, the essay features a recent photo of Chagnon, wearing an Indiana Jones fedora, but looking more like an anthropological curmudgeon than Steven Spielberg's swashbuckling archeologist. These images are fodder for a hungry media that delights in tales of heroism, primitivism, lost tribes and "fierce" Neolithic people. Chagnon's tale quenches our collective thirst for adventure among the "stinking brutes," who want to smash your skull in with an ax.
The problem for Chagnon and for anthropology is that although these stereotypes of heroic anthropologists and "primitives" are painfully persistent, they have become profoundly anachronistic. There are no more "lost tribes," no more missing links in the evolutionary chain. Even the Yanamano can no longer escape the long reach of transnational global networks. Even so, Chagnon wants to revive the past and cleanse his image. Consider Elizabeth Povinelli's review of Noble Savages, also published in the February 15 edition of The New York Times. Writing of the pain and suffering of the Yanamano, which was brought on in some measure through contact with of American (social) scientists, she writes:
...Does their pain and grief matter less even if we believe, as he seems to, that they were brutal Neolithic remnants in a land that time forgot? For him, the 'burly, naked, sweaty, hideous' Yanamamo stink and produce enormous amounts of 'dark green snot.' They keep 'vicious, underfed growling dogs,' engage in brutal 'club fights' and -- God forbid! -- defecate in the bush. By the time the reader makes it to the sections on the Yanamano's political organization, migration patterns and sexual practices, the slant of the argument is evident: given their hideous society, understanding the real disaster that struck these people matters less than rehabilitating Chagnon's soiled image.
Other anthropologists have voiced their concern. Once again the anthropological establishment has been forced to defend the besmirched media image of anthropologists and anthropology. In a letter to the editor of The New York Times, American Anthropological Association President Leith Mullings critiques Ms. Eakin's article as profoundly inaccurate. In so doing she defends a discipline that long ago put to rest the kinds of issues that Professor Chagnon has revived.
I'm afraid that these protestations will have little impact on the public perception of anthropology or, for that matter, the social sciences and humanities. For the moment, these counter-arguments can't compete with the deeply mythical texture of the life and times of Napoleon Chagnon. In the sweep of time, though, Chagnon's work is but a blip on the screen. In the nanosecond reality of the media universe, Chagnon's ideas and struggles will quickly revert back to what they are: "very old news." The real news in present-day anthropology is the ongoing work on structures of poverty and social inequality, work that exposes how contemporary economic practices trigger widespread real world suffering. That scholarship produces results that are politically threatening to men like Rick Scott, Scott Walker and Rick Perry. That's why they're slashing higher education budgets. What better way to undermine anthropology, sociology, and the humanities and protect their economic and political interests?
Now there's a story worthy of media attention.