“No animal shall kill any other animal… without cause.” – the pigs (George Orwell, Animal Farm)
When I was in the second or third grade I asked my parents about the Ten Commandments, which we had just learned in my Catholic school. Specifically, I wanted to know about the fifth commandment: “Thou shall not kill.” As my father was in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, I was concerned whether he had broken the commandment. To my relief he told me that, as far as he knew, he had never killed anyone.
Beyond my own father’s past —and I know this isn’t an original thought— I wondered how to reconcile this sacred instruction with all of the killing that must have taken place in the wars across history. Were they all sins? Were all those soldiers doomed to hell?
It’s been a long time since that day, and I only have a vague memory of my parents’ response. They said that killing in war was different. Somehow, the rule was lifted when soldiers killed for their country. In the eyes of a child, I guessed that even divine decrees had exceptions.
From an anthropological perspective, it is worth considering how individuals and societies negotiate what forms of violence are permissible. Some religious scholars, like Rabbi Marc Gellman, have written that a more accurate translation of the fifth commandment should be “Thou shalt not murder” instead of “kill.” Gellman noted that while killing entails ending a life, murder is “taking a life with no moral justification.” Similarly, in his book The Warriors, Glenn Gray wrote that “The basic aim of a nation at war in establishing an image of the enemy is to distinguish as sharply as possible the act of killing from the act of murder by making the former into one deserving of all honor and praise” (1959: 131-2).
However, determining when violence (lethal and non-lethal) is morally justifiable can be a gray zone, with people positioning themselves on a continuum between completely nonviolent “doves” to hyper-aggressive “hawks.” While many people hold nonviolence as an ideal; living up to that ideal perfectly has proven difficult to almost impossible. The question is where people draw their line.
This is funny, sad, and thought-provoking at the same time. It can be easy to laugh at ignorance, but I wonder if we did a better job of explaining to people about our species if we’d have a better grasp of our place in nature.
I’ve been watching the news on current events around the world, including the massive wildfires in California that so far have killed at least thirty people and displaced hundreds of thousands. I know a number of people in the area, and even though they are not in the direct path of the fires they’ve been on my mind for the past several days. We’re still due to arrive in San Jose in just a few days for an anthropology conference, but it seems surreal to travel so far to talk about anthropology while there are many people suffering not too far away. From what I understand the smoke has traveled far and wide across the state. In fact, we just got an email from the American Anthropological Association reaffirming that the conference will proceed as planned, but also warning us that the air quality may not be suitable for older adults, young children, and people with health problems. Maybe that’s what we’re supposed to do—try to live life as normally as possible in times of stress. I’m not sure that it feels totally right, but I also donated to help some of the people affected (some suggestions here ).
“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” – MLK
Are we all related? Yes. Now, act appropriately.
Unbending rigor is the mate of death,
And wielding softness the company of life
Unbending soldiers get no victories;
The stiffest tree is readiest for the axe.
(Tao Te Ching: 76)
Early in life, our bodies are like unmolded clay, ready to be shaped by our experiences. For some of us, that matching process can create problems. If circumstances change, we could end up poorly adapted to our adult environment. A child born into harsh conditions, though, may have to take that risk in order to make it to adulthood at all.
The Hmong in French Guiana may be an example of this process. They are a fascinating population for many reasons, the most obvious being that they are there at all. A few dozen refugees from Laos first resettled in French Guiana in 1977, a few years after the Vietnam War, after they and the French government agreed that life in small, ethnically homogenous villages in a tropical environment was a better option than acculturating to the cities of Métropole France. The experiment paid off. Today, more than two thousand Hmong are farmers in the Amazonian jungle, producing most of the fruits and vegetables in the country. The result is a level of economic autonomy and cultural retention that is likely unique in the Southeast Asian refugee diaspora.
Scenes from Hmong villages in French Guiana. (Clockwise from top left: fields of Cacao, young men going on a hunting trip in Javouhey, swidden agriculture of Cacao, a street lined with farmers’ trucks in Javouhey.
“I’ll meet you further on up the road.”
Dragon’s blood tree on the island of Socotra, Yemen. Source.
I sometimes wish we could fast-forward through this messy period of human history. I imagine that our descendants will be embarrassed by how sectarian and insular we were. It will probably take generations, but it seems almost inevitable that the world will keep shrinking until it becomes the prevailing wisdom that all people share a common ancestry and that our commonalities outweigh our differences.
Yet, here we are. Ethno-nationalism is on the rise in Europe, with many people increasingly angered by the influx of Muslim refugees. In the United States, I.C.E. is rounding up and deporting people who have lived here for decades and who pose a threat to no one, including military veterans, a doctor, a mother of four children, and a college professor. President Trump infamously referred to several countries — including El Salvador, Haiti, and all of Africa — as “shitholes, and implied that people from those places should not be allowed to immigrate to the U.S. Left unspoken, this presumes that a country’s political or economic struggles are a reflection of the character of all of the people who live there.
A common refrain in these stories is the perception that outsiders are a threat, either in the form of direct violence or indirectly to “our way of life.” Again, in 2016 when Trump was still a candidate, he visited my home state of Rhode Island for a fund raiser and suggested that thousands of Syrian refugees were being resettled there without any screening and that they were akin to a Trojan horse:
“We can’t let this happen. But you have a lot of them resettling in Rhode Island. Just enjoy your — lock your doors, folks.”
At the time, there was one resettled family from Syria — a young couple and their three beautiful young children. The calculated wielding of fear as a weapon against five harmless human beings struck many people, including me, as cynical and reprehensible.
As for the threat to “our way of life,” a state senator from New Jersey named Mike Doherty epitomized this sentiment when he said that the U.S. should limit immigration from “non-European” nations that are not part of a “Judeo-Christian culture” because:
I recently saw the video below featuring the humanitarian organization No More Deaths, under the title “Is Giving Water to Migrants a Crime?” However, an alternative title could have been “Is Destroying Water Left for Migrants a Crime?” In the video, we see U.S. Border Agents in southern Arizona destroying water left by volunteers for migrants crossing via Mexico. We also learn that one of the group’s volunteers was arrested for “harboring two undocumented immigrants and giving them food, water and clean clothes.”
The area is home to the Sonoran Desert and is notorious for migrants dying from the heat and dehydration, from hypothermia (in winter), and from injuries and getting lost during the exhausting journey. Between 1999 and 2013, an estimated 2,400 people died in the area, according to the organization Human Borders. Certainly, more have died since. According to Betzi Younglas, a volunteer with the organization, “When the US began walling off the border cities and erecting a barrier right across Texas, they thought the danger of coming through here would deter the migrants. But they underestimated their desperation.”
Therefore, groups like “No More Deaths” are literally saving lives. Leaving aside the nuances of the debates about undocumented immigration, most (reasonable) people would agree that crossing an international border without proper paperwork should not be a death sentence (though here is an unreasonable example).
It occurred to me that border agents who damage food and water supplies left for migrants is something that would not be tolerated in war time. In 2016, referring to the war in Syria, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon bluntly stated “Let me be clear: The use of starvation as a weapon of war is a war crime.” Of course, this applies to the deliberate deprivation of drinking water as well. According to Leslie Alan Horvitz and Christopher Catherwood’s book “The Encyclopedia of War Crimes and Genocide” (2014: 406-7):
“The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.” – Ruth Benedict
“Imagine what seven billion people could accomplish if we all loved and respected each other.” – Anthony Douglas Williams
I just received notice from WordPress that it is the 8th anniversary for this site. To be honest, I have not been feeling too great about this site lately. Readership is down noticeably, and it has been harder to get the attention of my targeted audiences. I’ve even contemplated folding the tent.
Surely, part of that is me, as I’ve found it hard to maintain the volume of essays compared to prior years. Perhaps it’s merely the nature of today’s Internet. Eight years ago, there were fewer personal blogs and sites to compete for readers’ attention, and people seem to prefer shorter, more digestible, essays before moving on to the next item on their list. I understand. Time is finite, and we have things to do.
If you live in southern New England as I do, it can be hard to avoid the name Putnam. Putnam Cottage, Putnam Memorial State Park, Putnam Monument (Brooklyn), Putnam Monument (Hartford), Putnam Street and Putnam Pike in Rhode Island, Putnam House, Putnam County (several), Putnam Farm, Put’s Hill, Putnam Pond. My cousins grew up right near the town of Putnam Connecticut. There’s even a beer named after Putnam, brewed in Connecticut of course, and described as “full of flavor and unabashed amazingness.”
Traveling through the area, there are road signs for all of these memorials, dedicated the Revolutionary War general Israel Putnam, who was called “the provincial army’s most beloved officer” by historian Nathaniel Philbrick. Putnam was born in Massachusetts and lived most of his life in Connecticut, so it makes sense that any monuments of him would be found in this region. It’s interesting to note that many of these tributes were established years, decades, or even nearly two centuries after Putnam’s death in 1790. The town of Putnam, Connecticut was named in 1855. His monuments in Hartford and Brooklyn were dedicated in 1874 and 1888, respectively; the state Park was created in 1887, and his statue there was made in 1969.
Israel Putnam Monument in Brooklyn, Connecticut. Source.
The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins (1976) once told a story of a sociologist who studied equestrian statues in New York, noting the relationship between the number of feet the horse had in the air and the status of the rider. One foot in the air connoted something different than two feet or none. One observer argued that the study was complicated by the fact that people didn’t ride horses anymore. Because horses were largely obsolete, societies were less restrained in how they could consider and present them. To which another observer replied, “It’s true that people don’t ride horses anymore, but they still build statues.” Continue reading
“War is an absolute failure of imagination, scientific and political. That a war can be represented as helping a people to ‘feel good’ about themselves, or their country, is a measure of that failure.” – Adrienne Rich
Last month, anthropologist Hugh Gusterson wrote a thought-provoking essay on Sapiens titled “Reconsidering How We Honor Those Lost to War.” In it, he compares the ways that some war monuments in Germany focus largely on the victims of war, rather than glorifying combatants. These include the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, also known as the Holocaust Memorial. Gusterson wrote:
“Whether you like the design or not (and opinion is divided), located in the heart of Berlin, just a block from the Brandenburg Gate, it is a very public proclamation of Germany’s declared responsibility and remorse for the Nazi Holocaust.”
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. (Source)
Statues and monuments are all over the news these days, including the debates over possibly removing Confederate statues across the southern U.S. (and to a lesser extent in other regions). Statues and other public memorials have the power to influence the way we think about what is valued by the state, and perhaps what its citizens should value in turn. The fact that statues and monuments are semi-permanent means that sculptors, and the people who commission them, can impact minds for generations.