Chesler Chronicles

Am I My Brother's/Sister's Keeper? The White Man's Burden in the Twenty-First Century

Although I knew and admired the late, great Dr. Margaret Mead and other pioneer-anthropologists, (Ruby Rohrlich and Eleanor “Happy” Leacock for starters), my ardor for anthropology gradually dimmed as the discipline became increasingly politicized. Ironically, anthropologists have judged western culture harshly and moralistically as “sexist, racist, class-ist, and anti-gay”–but have refused to judge Third World cultures even slightly by these same standards. Indeed, what began as a valiant attempt to understand the “Other” and the ravages of both poverty and oppression has degenerated into a valorization of barbarism and a demonization of any western attempts to either intervene or to introduce any principles of universal rights.

A minority of anthropologists deem the idea of “universality” as an example of rank, western “colonialism and imperialism.” And yes, they remain blind to Third World colonialism, imperialism, and apartheid. In some ways, anthropologists may be viewed as world-class “slummers” who want to keep the Natural Savage in his place so that they can safely visit the human past and return to the future at will.

Therefore, I strongly suggest that every anthropologist read Ibn Warraq’s new book, Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’. PRESS HERE TO READ SOME REVIEWS. More: I suggest that the United States government buy and distribute copies of this book to every United Nations Ambassador, Foreign Minister, and University President.

Ibn Warraq challenges the hijacking and poisoning of the Western intellectual imagination that Edward Said and his cult-followers have perpetrated. Ibn Warraq reminds us that in the past, the West and the East once learned from each other; that Orientalists were not immoral “colonialists” but were, in fact, deeply respectful of the “Orient” which in turn, respectfully received their work. Finally, Ibn Warraq creates a portrait of the West and of our virtues (rationalism, tolerance, self-criticism), that he suggests are universal values worth sharing and defending. For example, slavery has existed in every society. Only the West fought ideological and military wars to abolish it.

But will anthropologists listen to him?

Enter my darling friend, Dr. Barbara Joans, of San Francisco. Dr. Barbara is Chair of the Anthropology Department at Merritt College and the author of Bike Lust: Harley’s Women in America. (Yes, I actually have a friend who rides a Harley-Davidson and who is not a dyke.) She is a long-time married mother and grandmother, a Brooklyn-born Jew, and a relative of the legendary Colonel David “Micky” Marcus.

For those who don’t know or who have forgotten: Marcus was a West Point graduate and advisor to President Roosevelt. He helped organize the Israeli army in the 1940s and was eventually played by Kirk Douglas in the movie “Cast a Giant Shadow.”

But I digress.

Barbara is not a universalist. However, she wrestles with this issue earnestly and soulfully; she is also brave. For example, she just delivered a series of speeches at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington D.C. where she publicly characterized much of current anthropology as “hypocritical”.

“How dare tenured anthropologists claim the privileges of poverty and disenfranchisement? Just because we may have grown up poor that does not mean we can identify with Third World poverty today or speak on its behalf. It is hypocritical to do so.”

Barbara also views the “victim culture” among anthropologists with great dismay and is very concerned with the knee-jerk and lethal anti-Zionism that pervades that same anthropological culture. So far–great. Now, here’s the part where we disagree.

“The belief that American intellectual elites have the right to establish a moral foundation for the rest of the world is the grossest kind of colonialism.”

Say I: “So, you don’t think we should judge human rights atrocities in the Third World? What about stoning women to death for alleged adultery, honor killing, forced veiling, and clitoridectomies? Do we support our Muslim and ex-Muslim counterparts who oppose such human rights atrocities and who themselves reject the rule of multi-culturalism?”

Says Barbara: “I am horrified by clitoridectomies, stonings, and honor killings and am very grateful that I do not live in such a culture. Those who come from such cultures and who nevertheless oppose these customs have got to know that their dissent may or will lead to their deaths. They have got to be willing to take this risk. I view those who do so as genuine heroes. This is the only way real change can happen: from within, by group-members, who risk their lives.”

I view this as somewhat heartless, possibly even “racist” since such a view sets the bar much higher for heroism in the Third World and countenances the sacrifice of so many Third World heroes for what is, after all, a western principle–but since I know that Barbara is not heartless, I must wrestle with her principled view and try to find ways to win her over.

What she is saying is that help from the United Nations, the Marines, and from feminist humanitarians is bound to fail, that only indigenous heroes risking all will settle these matters in Africa or Asia and among immigrants from Muslim countries.

What if she is right? If so, then we have to re-double our efforts to have our best anti-totalitarian, feminist, and dissident work translated and made available in Arabic, Kurdish, Persian, Bengali, Dari, etc. And, we have to lobby our western governments to assist in literacy projects, free computers, computer training, and in alternative satellite television programming throughout the Third World. This educational outreach may create the very indigenous heroes that Barbara and others like her believe will be effective.

I challenge America’s anthropologists and all those who share their multi-cultural views to tithe themselves in order to fund projects which will share the “best of the West” without militarily or economically imposing these ideas upon anyone.

They and others may begin by donating to my not-for-profit organization: The Phyllis Chesler Organization. Write to me through my website and earmark your checks “For the Translation Project.”

Think of this as your holiday gift to heroes.