Academic Nastiness: Is This The Worst “Academic” Blog on the Internet?

For some years now, I’ve been rather partial to reading the rantings and ravings of a blog called “Zero Anthropology“. I won’t deny that this has been something of a guilty pleasure of mine – dipping into the erratic online biblios of lefty anthropology. Sometimes I worry if I read Zero Anthropology too much and if the NSA is going to get wrong idea about me and come after me (lol). Similar thoughts sometimes enter my mind when my research inquiries into the global phenom that is militant jihadism sees me sifting through the online articles in Al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine or ISIS’ Dabiq rag.

Lately however, I decided that despite this secret guilty pleasure, it’s time the anthropological blogosphere actually did something to contest some of the rubbish which gets posted on this website. Our discipline is full of measured, critical thinkers, I want to show the outside world – we are more than just a cult of left-over Marxists dancing around a cauldron in the woods, fuelling the cauldron’s fire with our own self-importance.

But what is Zero Anthropology all about? And why do I really care?

Zero Anthropology is about as high-profile as anthropology blogs get (which, if we’re being honest with ourselves, isn’t really that high profile anyway). It has a blog archive numbering in the hundreds of posts and a Twitter following numbering in the thousands (thousands of Twits?)… it’s pretty popular.

It’s run by a guy named Maximilian Forte – who, though his name suggests that he is a trench-coat wearing character from The Matrix come to liberate our minds from machine-enslavement – is a professor of anthropology at Concordia University in my Canadian hometown of Montreal. His Wikipedia page looks suspiciously like he or one of his grad students wrote it but at various points in his life, it seems, he has taught Anthropology 101 at Concordia and published various works on the topics of militarism, US foreign policy, imperialism and anti-imperialism (or “struggles for human dignity in the face of empire” as he puts it). In and amongst this, one learns after reading his bio pages, Max Forte has also “achieved Permanent Resident status in Trinidad and Tobago” – a most inspiring achievement indeed (no really, kicking it back in the Caribbean sounds idyllic).

Forte’s side-kick in his blogging venture is the disgraced but since-resurrected Jamil M Hanifi, an admittedly highly-knowledgable Afghan-American anthropologist whose long and expansive academic career has shone light on Afghanistan in a refreshing post-Orientalist (he often writes from an emic perspective) kinda way. Lately it seems, Hanifi has taken to the inter-webs in cahoots with Forte to rage against the horrors of US imperialism – especially as it applies to Syraqilibyafpakistan.

All of the above is fine/unremarkable/not really problematic in and of itself. You can click on the various articles, get your fill of anti-Americanism and then carry on wasting more time elsewhere on the internet. But more and more as I come back to this blog (and here, I admit, I am solely to blame), it all starts to become a little too much.

OK, Max and Jamil. I get it. You don’t like “empire”. OK, Max and Jamil. I get it. You don’t like the US. OK, Max and Jamil you don’t like “puppets”, “collaborators” and anthropologists whose research sees them engaged in “scientific imperialism”.

And here again, I should add that I have no problem with any of the above. I love a good rant against America as much as the next Canadian/Australian. I love cranking out the “e” word from my list of descriptors for expansionist nation-states when conversationally raging against the machine with my mates. Although in academic writing I have typically strayed away from the use of the term “imperialism” in post-colonial contexts (I see “imperialism” in much the same way as I see “terrorism” – a word that is so loaded with subjectivities that it has lost most of its utility in objective academic contexts), I can read Noam Chomsky without burning his texts in a book-burning effigy with my other mates – the evil neo-con ones.

But while the anti-empire/anti-everything blog theme is totally fine, what I really have against this blog is what I will call “academic nastiness” – that is, the use of pseudo-academic discourse to deliver personal attacks against other academics (typically other anthropologists whose findings differ from those of Forte and Hanifi) and the unique vitriol with which Zero Anthropology’s criticisms are delivered.

In essence, Hanifi and Forte’s style of academic criticism takes the form of “fisking” (named after the father of this style of rebuttal, Robert Fisk) whereby the author will selectively reprint passages from the target’s source material before embarking on a line-by-line dissection and refutation with the intent of “savaging an argument and scattering the tattered remnants to the four corners of the internet” (as the Guardian so wonderfully put it).

While technically a valid way to critique somebody’s work (since “fisking” is effectively a form of systematic review), rather than politely “reviewing” somebody’s work these two Fiskers prefer to denigrate in a way which is unusually vindictive and, put concisely, just mean.

Let me demonstrate what I mean by this, beginning with a series of posts dating back to 2010.

Over the years, one of Hanifi and Forte’s favourite targets has been the now-defunct and highly-controversial US Army Human Terrain System – a military social science program designed to put anthropologists on the ground in Afghanistan in support of brigade-level operations. The trove of literature both for and against the HTS is immense (Montgomery McFate, the founder of the program, has some early thinking on a military-anthropology marriage published here and some of the better criticisms of the program can be found here and here and pretty much everywhere).

In joining the ranks of those anthropologists who rose against HTS, Forte and Hanifi took their criticisms of the program and its participants to new lows with their vindictive attack on Ted Callahan who deployed with a Human Terrain Team to Paktika province in 2009 and whose dispatches they Fisked in a series of posts found here and here).

Their online castigation of Callahan began by labelling him a “pinecone anthropologist” (a very odd insult, I thought), ostensibly because after spending some time with the Zadran Pashtun, Callahan surmised of a solution for the recruitment of young men into the Taliban by developing a local pine-nut business. To Forte and Hanifi of course, Callahan is a “mercenary”, an “imperialist”, a despicable spy, a Manchurian post-doc candidate who has deep-seated himself inside their beloved discipline and is worthy only of professional denigration – and all this just because he once took the King’s shilling (or perhaps “McFate’s shilling” is more accurate?).

Indeed, rather than actually reading and then dispassionately critiquing what Callahan is actually saying in his dispatches, Hanifi and Forte choose simply to nitpick what can be used against him and burn him at the stake.

When reflecting on his investigations in Afghanistan for instance, Callahan self-deprecatingly remarks on the role which ego might have played in his research: “to investigate the world of the Zadran comes close to my dreams of an ideal HTS,” he writes. “I drive to remote places and do work which hopefully saves human lives. In my imagination I transform more and more into a kind of Lawrence of Arabia, and I take more risks. I venture out on trips along the ‘rat line’: Taliban supply routes. I venture out on the streets without protection by the GI’s, a stupidity which violates all rules.” (Callahan quoted in ZA 2010: 18)

If you read it a few times it does sound a little bit awkward but rather than appreciating this as an honest moment of candour however (an excellent expression of self-critical reflexivity if you ask me), Forte instead compresses this passage into a big-banner pull-quote which reads:

“In my imagination I transform more and more into a kind of Lawrence of Arabia…”

The implication of course is that Callahan is an egotist, a fantasist, just another neo-imperialist (and blah-blah whatever else) who is not worthy of our time and not worthy of our consideration as a professional in the field of anthropology. An attack on the character, not the content produced by that character.

In a follow-up post by Hanifi, the personal attacks against Callahan are more severe. Callahan is “pretentious” and “lethal” – a “savage killing machine” whose diary is little more than the “confused imaginings of a young American adventurer” (Hanifi 2010).

At times some of Hanifi’s criticisms do seem reasonable. Hanifi is Afghan-born and his linguistic and cultural proficiency is clear when he offers the following in his critique:

“With his Dari competence Callahan could have interacted without an interpreter with the local Zadran and Kuchi population. Why then the presence of Rex, the interpreter? Here is a stark collision between Callahan’s claimed linguistic competence and local cultural and linguistic reality. Callahan writes: “As soon as they (the Kochis) noticed that I understand, they’ll lift their hands and say: ‘Azeemat’, Well done”. But, the morpheme ‘azeemat (in Dari and Paxtu [from the Arabic root ‘azm, firm resolution, determination]) means departure, leaving, starting to leave. The accompanying body language (lifted hands) underscores this equivalent of “goodbye.” The Kuchis say goodbye, Callahan thinks he has done well! In the absence of adequate local cultural competence, especially linguistic competence, how can an ethnographer, especially an anthropological ethnographer, meaningfully and properly process the surrounding social and cultural multilayered complexity?”

It is here that Hanifi’s argument reaches its efficacious zenith. Unfortunately however, Hanifi loses it when he describes Callahan’s efforts as just part-in-parcel of an “enterprise against preindustrial Muslim Afghanistan initiated and maintained by fascist Zionists”. The crazy it seems, just cannot be contained.

Aside from the natural sympathy I feel for Callahan (as someone who has mistranslated and misunderstood many times over in the areas I have visited as a language student and as an ethnographer), perhaps what is more “pretentious” (to use Hanifi’s own lexicon) than Callahan’s claims about himself (e.g.: proficiency in Dari) is the implication that anyone who doesn’t speak the language as well as Hanifi does is automatically lacking in local cultural competence.

The entire fieldwork underpinning Frederik Barth’s “Political Leadership amongst Swat Pathans” (a foundational text in political anthropology) is invalid, Hanifi might argue, because Barth himself acknowledges in the introduction that he sometimes used a translator in the field.

The greater implication being made of course is that there is no place in anthropology for the non-native ethnographer – the one who sometimes fumbles and stumbles with the language. Indeed, Hanifi seems to be arguing, there is no place for the “etic” account at all and white men will never really get it because… well, they represent White Man.

From my own reading of his field notes, rather than coming across as a culturally-inept fool or a mindless cog in the American war machine, what is most striking about Callahan’s perspective are the concerns he has about the program’s efficacy.

He’s aware of the ethical dilemma posed by working under a military chain-of-command:

“Most scientists think it’s objectionable to go to war. The American Anthropological Association condemned the program: Can people get killed with the knowledge provided by social scientists? Does a respectable science risk degenerating into espionage? Who determines that the Afghans speak freely to the scientists and are not forced? Can one conquer hostile people? Even I asked myself the same questions.” (Callahan quoted in ZA, 2010: 8)

Callahan is aware of the cultural divide between himself and his Pashtun informants (and the problems that poses for his dataset) which comes with living and working inside an FOB:

“The area in which I will live is a gigantic transit region for fighters of the holy war. The Afghans name it “Yagistan” – “Country of the Unruly”. In FOB Salerno one does not notice that aside from the occasional rocket attack. Here are fitness studios, fast food restaurants, massage parlours. Every meal we have comes with ten choices: four sorts ice cream, three sorts of pie: cherry, apple, pecan. Everything is flown in, nothing’s recycled. We use 30,000 plastic bottles of water daily. Once per week, there is lobster, shrimp, crab. An army of Indians, Nepalese, Kyrgyzstan nationals and Afghans look after our comfort.” (Callahan quoted in ZA, 2010: 10)

Callahan sees the program’s functional shortcomings and is not afraid to talk about them.

“… The army does not always hire the most qualified people for the HTS. I also believe that ethnographers should do research alone and not in a team.” (Callahan quoted in ZA, 2010: 10)

“Ethnography is a chaotic discipline, more art than science. It’s important to ask the right questions at the right time. The problem is that the Army expects concrete investigative leads… I start with friendly chit-chat [but] the soldier that’s assigned to protect me interrupts and requests that I get to the point. So, the murdered girls? The men claim no knowledge about that. The Taliban? They never saw any. I don’t get any further with that, so I asked about their daily lives, about trade and camels… The soldier looks bugged, carefully I try to redirect the conversation to my original questions.” (Callahan quoted in ZA, 2010: 11)

Indeed, what is most illuminating when reading “Ted the Tongue’s diary” is that he is able to appreciate the fundamental incompatibility between ethnographic research and brigade-level operations:

“The [Kuchis’] message is clear, “if you don’t help us, we take side with the Taliban.” The logic of the rebellion is of compelling clarity: no ideology plays a role, no religion. Only the conflict around resources and the desire for safety and progress… I would like to get back to [the] Kuchi to get to know more, however, the rules are that several soldiers are needed for patrol. And to run the 100 meters to the village is considered a “patrol.”… The result: 69 hours on our way, an eight-hour interview with the Kuchi, and of that maybe four hours of useful information about the reasons for the outbreak of violence in the area. This first mission taught me the most important military rule: time is not at one’s disposal. With such restrictions I will hardly succeed in diving into a foreign way of life. Patient research is regarded as the greatest ethnographic virtue–it doesn’t play a role in HTS.” (Callahan quoted in ZA: 2010: 12)

With Callahan’s own views in mind, it’s worth voicing my own opinion that many of the criticisms levelled against HTS and its surrogates were/are sound. Speaking as someone who has served (without distinction) in a Western military, I believe that the HTS concept was probably always destined to fail and the idea of incorporating anthropologists into a military-intelligence cycle was probably an idea that was best left un-thought. There are many unanswered ethical issues associated with doing anthropological fieldwork in the context of a war but there are obvious ethical issues with doing anthropological fieldwork as a part of a military unit’s on-the-ground capability. The function of military forces is to kill the enemy. The function of the anthropologist is to collect information about people and to translate this information cross-culturally (taking care to protect one’s informants). It doesn’t take a genius to see the ethical conflict here.

Even if one is happy to put the ethical questions aside, one wonders, given Callahan’s observations, how useful the HTS was anyway. What was the point in marrying social science with the US army, other than Montgomery McFate’s desire to be a force for cultural change inside the military?

The ethnographic dataset was compromised by Callahan’s inability to work independently. The locals thought he was a Special Forces soldier. The soldiers thought he was in the CIA. No one really trusted him because they didn’t really get him. It’s clear to Callahan, and it’s immediately clear to anyone, that collecting any useful ethnographic information was going to be an uphill battle so long as the ethnographer was working directly with the military, in a uniform, kicking around with a military patrol.

But regardless of how flawed the Human Terrain System was in the first place, Forte and Hanifi’s method of criticism is the problem being raised in this post. The point is that by using what effectively amounts to an ad hominem attack on Callahan the man, any useful commentary which these so-called intellectuals could have added to the HTS debate immediately falls by the wayside.

As a response to Hanifi and Forte’s fisking, one commenter – a colleague of Callahan’s at Boston University – wrote:

“[Callahan] is both a rigorous academic and an astute fieldworker. This slanderous post amounts to little more than a personal attack and is an awful welcoming to an aspiring PhD candidate to our discipline. Without seeing his dissertation, how are we to judge his academic and cultural competence in a fair and sound manner?

Far from considering himself to be a detective or special forces operative, my impression of Ted is that of a humble character genuinely interested in making a difference.”

Given all of the above, Callahan seems like he’s probably a good guy. Forte justifies his attacks on him because “the issues we are debating go well beyond any one person’s bruised little ego”. I beg to differ and would argue that even if you’re right about something – if you’re an asshole about it, you’re still an asshole.

Callahan is now working in an anthropology/behavioural science role for RAND directly supporting SOJTF efforts in Afghanistan… So I suppose he remains on Zero Anthropology’s “Top Ten Most Wanted Agents of Imperialism”.


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