Don’t Blame the Boasians
Jennifer Wilson’s review of Charles King’s Gods of the Upper Air [“The Circle,” May 18/25] missed important aspects of the work of anthropologist Franz Boas and his students. Their goal was less to “explain human diversity” than to understand the unfamiliar on its own terms, with cultural learning rather than biology as the main causal factor.
Of the group, only Zora Neale Hurston receives praise, for her contribution to “literary anthropology,” but blaming other Boasians for making racism “more palatable” in the 1960s and ’70s is nonsense. Perhaps Oscar Lewis’s concept of a “culture of poverty” was used in that way by politicians, but the main thrust of Boas and his students was the creation of scholarly work that embraced relativism over ethnocentrism and rejected race as an explanation for cultural development. To blame them for “liberal racism,” whatever that may be, is simply wrong.
Philip K. Bock
Emeritus Professor of Anthropology,
University of New Mexico
Wilson’s review of Gods of the Upper Air provides some interesting insights into Boas and his most eminent anthropology students at Columbia in the 1920s but is wearyingly of our time. Discounting King’s praise for the group’s salutary effect on prevalent American prejudices, Wilson observes in the manner of almost any respectable academic scholarship of recent decades, “It becomes clear that their ideas about culture and cultural differences were not as distinct as they imagined from the notions of racial difference they sought to overturn.”
I don’t doubt it. It’s a point that needs making. But it shouldn’t be the main point. Like all of us, they were to a large extent prisoners of their era. To me, what is interesting is the degree to which they weren’t.
Ruth Benedict’s most widely read book, Patterns of Culture, which Wilson doesn’t mention, is a truly liberating and mind-expanding work. Her scholarship has been criticized for its deficiencies but, to my knowledge, has not been debunked. Benedict’s book is an invaluable reminder that our propensity to normalize our presuppositions proceeds from our culture and not from human nature per se.
Tilting at Windmills
Re “Organizing on the Coasts Won’t Save the Planet” [by Jane Fleming Kleeb, May 4/11]: Windmills are so beautiful? Those coastal aesthetes have to be kidding. One or two in isolation and seen from a slight distance might be, but scores or hundreds, all too near the road and extending sometimes for miles, are as ugly as any other industrial excrescence.
I would bet even money most of those people grew up in cookie-cutter suburbs and have routinely referred to “flyover country” ever since they first heard the phrase. They have never been there, and they have no knowledge of the beauty of a landscape under a vast sky that stretches from one uncluttered horizon to the other. They do not care whether that is spoiled, since it’s not in their backyard.
Windmills may be necessary. The Midwest may be a good place for them. But don’t try to justify foisting them on other people by pretending you’re offering some sort of aesthetic gift. Arrogant ignorance will not foster the alliances Kleeb rightly says are needed.
Katharine W. Rylaarsdam
It was a pleasure reading Elie Mystal’s treatment of the Supreme Court justices in the current controversy over the court’s procedures during this period of social distancing [“Lights, Camera, SCOTUS!” May 18/25]. He makes an excellent case for the Supreme Court to be treated just like any other political organization, which it most certainly is, despite the attempts of many in the pseudoprofession of law to create an aura of mystery and an existence separate from and above the rest of society. Mystal’s article is timely and sheds much-needed light into the dark recesses of the practice of law. “Woe unto you, lawyers!” (Luke 11:52), for the public is catching on to the game.
woodland hills, calif.
The Road Already Taken
When I was a kid, my mother would leave us a note before going to work. We called these her “or else” notes—straighten your room before I get home, or else; vacuum the carpet before I get home, or else. In “Can Biden Go Left?” [May 4/11], D.D. Guttenplan writes that Joe Biden needs to disown his past concern with balanced budgets, needs to amend his relationship with the Latinx community, and needs to show he understands that returning to the past in terms of our broken health care system is no longer an option. There was no need to ask my mother what “or else” meant, but what’s the “or else” implied in Guttenplan’s editorial? If it’s a threat, do we really want to go down that road again?
Submerging the Valley
Re “The Extinction Crisis Comes Home” [Jimmy Tobias, May 4/11], about the San Francisco Bay ecosystem: Beyond the region’s fisheries, another tragedy begs mentioning. After the earthquake of 1906, the spectacular Hetch Hetchy Valley, which was created by the Tuolumne River and is part of Yosemite National Park, was dammed to create a reservoir for the city—a unique abuse of a national park and a catalyst for the environmental movement. The naturalist John Muir wrote of the devastation, “Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”
Thomas J. Straka