To the Editor:
Caitlin Zaloom offered an excellent defense of libraries with her piece about the imminent closure of the anthropology library at the University of California at Berkeley (“The Fight Over a Berkeley Library Is a Fight for the Future of Higher Ed,” (The Chronicle Review, May 4). However, she unfortunately repeats several standard but mistaken tropes that denigrate that very discipline.
Professor Zaloom rightly points out that “anthropologists are their own fiercest critics” and then repeats two of the least worthy of those critiques when she speaks of “the complicity of anthropologists in war making and colonialism around the world.” American anthropology was practiced almost wholly within the United States until after World War II, and the relatively few who were fortunate to do research overseas did most of their work in independent countries such as Mexico, Brazil, Japan, and Ireland. Margaret Mead, Ralph Linton, Melville Herskovits, Joseph Greenberg, and a few others who did research in European overseas colonies, did not work on behalf of colonial governments but for the sake of understanding other cultures and languages.
It is hard to understand where Professor Zaloom got the more unusual idea of anthropologists practicing war making. It is true that many American anthropologists were involved fighting Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in WW II, some in uniform and some with knowledge and expertise. Those of us old enough to remember that era still think it was a good thing to fight murderous empires bent on world domination. The idea that anthropologists were involved with the stillborn “Project Camelot” is completely wrong, and allegations that several anthropologists were engaged in counterinsurgency in Southeast Asia is overblown and probably unjust. In any case such suspicions should not be the basis for a blanket condemnation of a discipline practiced by thousands of scholars for about 125 years.
Professor Emeritus, Anthropology and African Studies
University of Wisconsin-Madison