A couple days ago, fellow Savage Mind Alex wrote on his own blog about David Graeber, the Yale anthropologist recently fired for his anarchist activism. Not so much, it should be noted, for his ideology: as Graeber explains in his Counterpunch interview, although there was some opposition to his work, the real tipping point was his involvement with campus politics. By defending one of the organizers of a graduate student unionizing drive, Graeber took his ideology out of the classroom, violating one of the central, if rarely stated, tenets of academic leftism.
In his recent book, Threatening Anthropology, David Price points out that anthropologists are not generally “let go” for their beliefs alone. Leslie White was as Red as they come, ideologically, but avoided FBI and other official scrutiny during the McCarthy era because he restricted his Marxism to his written work; meanwhile, activist anthropologists like Gene Weltfish and Paul Radin were hounded by government agents, forced out of jobs, and generally harassed, even when their connections to Communism were tenuous or non-existent. In every case he examined, it was activism, usually anti-racist, and not ideology that fueled the McCarthyist witch hunts.
In the wake of the teach-in movement, the ’68 student rebellion, and the Kent State massacre in ’70, the academy and the government came to a more or less one-sided “gentlemmen’s agreement” (as noted in one of the essays in The Politics of Interpretation — unfortunately I’m moving next week and my copy is packed away, so I cannot properly credit this). The terms were simple: professors were given the freedom to pursue whatever radical ideas they wished in the classroom without fear, but that freedom extended only so far as their classroom doors. Outside of their (our) classrooms, they (we) were expected to support the status quo — or face the consequences.
Graeber understood this — as he puts it in the Counterpunch interview, “I figured we all have to make our little compromises, mine would be: I’d be an activist in New York, and a scholar in New Haven.” The “activis[m] in New York” might have made some of his colleagues nervous — after all, he was flouting the terms of the agreement, though not as an academic — it seems clear that, if he’d kept his nose clean at Yale, he would have passed his review with ease on the strength of his research and publications.
This devitalization of professorial activism goes unnoted in the “liberal academia” debate, but it bears noting. It helps to explain the situation described by Jonathan Knight of the AAUP in response to the recent Rothman, Lichter and Nevitte study of campus leftism: “It’s hard to see that these liberal views cut very deeply into the education of students. In fact, a number of studies show the core values that students bring into the university are not very much altered by being in college.” Of course, we already knew that — while college professors are, according to the study, 72% liberal, a recent Harris Poll found that the general population is only 18% liberal — at a time when over half of all Americans have at least some college education.
A petition urging Yale to reconsider Graeber’s case is online for those who want to support his cause. But Graeber is just one figure in what is becoming an increasingly frightening academic climate. As in the McCarthy era, anthropologists are bearing the brunt of the attack. When McCarthy waved his paper in the air and claimed to have the names of 205 “known Communists” employed by and “shaping the policy of” the State Department, the only specific detail he gave was that one of the listees was “a professor of anthropology, a woman” (most likely Gene Weltfish). 50 years later, the American Council of Trustees and Alumnae published their report “Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It” (scroll down; you have to email ACTA for a copy, but that’s not important — they later changed what I’m about to reference), which included an appendix of campus responses to 9/11 that were not unequivocal enough for ACTA in their condemnation of the attacks. Of the 117 academics thus targeted by ACTA, 6 of them were anthropologists (9 if we count the linguists) — more than 5% (and nearly 10% if, again, we count the linguists), far outweighing our representation in academia as a whole. While this figure should make us very proud indeed — misunderstood and maligned by Lynne Cheney’s conservabots is nothing short of a badge of honor as far as I’m concerned — such attacks are cutting closer and closer to where we live: our jobs. Graeber may well find work elsewhere, or Yale may even re-extend his contract, but the word is out: watch what you say and, more importantly, what you do. Or else.
For a taste of Graeber’s thought, check out his Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, downloadable for free from Marshall Sahlin’s Prickly Paradigm Press.