Rants, Ranting, Flame Wars, and the Like

Most of us like to rant now and then.  Usually we do this in the quiet of a bar, with the assumption that as long as we never run for political office, the rants stay in the bar.  But with the invention of the world wide web, there are new parameters to the dissemination of rants.  Witness what has happened here on www.ethnography.com during the last week where Mark Dawson shot his virtual mouth off with the rant right below this posting.  Witness too the responses over at zeroanthropology.net.  Two guys in virtual bars a continent apart rip into each other, calling each other “moron” and “bigoted” across cyber space, while the rest of us vicariously and anonymously enjoy the fireworks.  The good news for www.ethnography.com is that the two rants by Mark Dawson during the last month or so have sent the hit rate, the thing that counts in cyber-space, through the roof.  His first successful rant was an April Fool’s joke about the dissolution of the AAA, and in May there is the “butterfly” rant.  It seems that some people like rants much more than ethnographic commentary; I guess that it gives us déjà vu to when we were eight years old.  In contrast, Mark has done some enchanting writing about the ethnography of clowns, and some girl’s picture on his bedroom dresser which have attracted less than 100 hits even after 3 years.  All people seem to care about are his rants—which can go into four digits within a few days of posting.

Rants by definition are rooted in opinion and emotion.  They are not logical or analytical.  Good rants make us look at the ridiculousness of life.  As Max Forte has implicitly pointed out, Mark Twain was a great ranter.  On the other hand, bad rants make us roll our eyes and mumble “there he goes again.”  Mark did this for me last week with his first rant about Anthropologists for Justice and Peace.  The rant was emotional and made a big deal about other people who were making a big deal over not much.  In other words, there was ranting about others’ ranting.  Big deal.  This type of rant is common on talk radio.  If you want to hear more such ranting from the right, I recommend Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck.  On the left you can go to a Michael Moore movie.  Depending on your political views, you will find them funny or not (for the record I typically put on rock and roll when Hannity intrudes into my evening commute).

But to Mark Dawson’s credit, he caught himself in a boring rant, and posted a mea culpa about butterflies and the Anthropologists for Justice and Peace.  This riposte in my view was a really good rant, and had me laughing.  I laughed at the rant because the rant made more general fun of cultural anthropology’s tendency to put their own political views at the center of their discipline.  Max Forte has in turn responded with an astute and thoughtful paragraph about the contagion of laughter, and what it might (or might not) mean about the one person in the room who is not laughing.  If you want to read it, scroll down into the comments section of Forte’s blog—it is thoughtful.

Anyway, to stick to Mark’s version of ranting, I have seen the political self-absorption described in Mark’s rant in any number of disciplines in the academic world, and agree that is a great thing to make fun of.  Much such ranting is on the left, but over in the Business and Engineering schools, there are plenty of people doing it on the right.  Perhaps I like hearing cultural anthropology made fun because the condition is worse there, but I doubt that it is any worse than Physics, Business, English, Biology, Sociology, or anywhere else.  Maybe I enjoy seeing cultural anthropology made fun of is more likely for more selfish reason, i.e. because my own application for graduate study was rejected in 1987-1988.  Whatever. Like I mentioned earlier, rants are not about analysis, and certainly not about self-analysis.  But, speaking of Mark’s butterfly posting, judging from the hits we’ve taken to the site since the revised version was posted last Wednesday, lots of people are laughing with us, since they have been linking it to their Facebook accounts to share with their friends and family.  In the blogosphere this is a definition of success, so whoop-ti-do, and good for Mark.

I will admit to wishing that my more academic and boring comments on www.ethnography.com would be a bit more popular.  I would really like it if readers posted them to your Facebook account like you do the rants that Mark writes.  For that matter, Mark would appreciate it if you read his ethnography of clowns, and the girl’s picture on his bedroom dresser.  But warning:  Such posts tend to describe ethnographic techniques, research methods, cite guys like Erving Goffman, and talk about the British Library rather than ranting about morons, fascists, and bigots, words which I think should be excised from ranting vocabulary.

Bottom line: Such serious ethnographic postings get far fewer hits than rants.  All I can hope for is that Mark’s rants besides making some of us laugh, point people to the more serious and boring stuff that Mark, Cindy, Donna, Jennifer, and I have posted to www.ethnography.com over the last 5 or 6 years.  But I have little hope.  In our post-modern world rants work, and Malinowski doesn’t.  Just ask Glenn Beck over at Fox News.  He never cites Malinowski!

10 thoughts on “Rants, Ranting, Flame Wars, and the Like

  1. You are making the assumption, and I think wrongly, that this isn’t a relevant conversation that we should be having in the discipline right now. The fact that the far, radical, and often irrational aspects of the left have had free rain on defining the discipline is a very big deal and is not reactionary or hyperbole. The rant doesn’t come from a man being unreasonable, or over-reacting, it comes from a man that simply can’t seem to take it and say nothing anymore.

    There’s this unspoken assumption that every anthropologists has the same set of political and social sympathies, and therefore those that don’t pass a kind of litmus test can never really be full anthropologists; when in fact most of us are pretty much willing to allow the facts and situations dictate our particular opinions on subjects.

    I think that this comes from too many decades being locked away in the academy, and stubbornly cleaving to old methods in a rapidly changing world. When I say old methods, I mean to work within a small scale environment, but incorporate global shifts in ones analysis. So, you get someone working with the “subaltern” and then say a logging company comes in, and the anthropologist takes on the views and opinions of “their” people at the small scale to explain what is happening in very old Marxist terms. It’s just lazy scholarship. I mean there’s not even the attempt to go and talk to the loggers (or whoever), or corporations, or to government officials, or really anyone else. They essentially ‘tell the rest of the story’ without getting it.

    That is as big a deal at the post-modern turn, yet there’s no conversation. Any of us that feel that we should come to situations as unbiased as possible are branded traitors.

    As far as other popular anthropology not getting out there, it’s because most of it is believably boring. I mean, I’m an anthropologist, and I don’t want to read most of what the discipline produces in the way of knowledge. There’s this kind of aversion to studying the direct and relevant to a wider audience. Too many of us don’t consider something anthropology unless it involves something like transgendered, Filipino, little people, who are recovering from drug addiction, while trying to raise an adopted child.

    Or, they insist on using obscure jargon, and feel the need to use titles that are designed to turn people off. For example, in the first issue of Popular Anthropology Magazine, you have titles like:

    “Necessary Shift: A Paradigmatic Oscillation in Public Anthropology”


    “A Metaphorical Cognitive Approach to the Roles of Women in Shephardic Families.”

    Are you kidding me!! That’s supposed to be for a general audience! Those are journal articles, not reading for a general audience. If they wanted anyone to read them they would say write something like, ‘Necessary Shift in Public Anthropology’, and, ‘A New way of Understanding the Roles of Women…’. I’m secure enough in my own intelligence that I can admit I have no idea what a Shephardic Family is.

    I don’t want to read that stuff for my free time, recreation reading, so why would I be the kind of asshole that would push it on my friends outside the discipline. I don’t want to be “that guy” on face book that assumes everyone is really into whatever they happen to be into, when it is so narrow.

  2. Rick:
    Good points here, and thanks! I am buried in finals week, but will add to the discussion in a couple of days.


  3. Rick you really couldn’t get any further outside the discipline. Yes, you write long boring ranting posts designed to name drop like a cramming grad student, but you don’t really get anthropology so much as you get the tired old applied version of sold-out anthropologists. You need to learn to think before ranting so much about topics you are so new to.

    Tony: there is nothing quaint about the slander and uncontrolled meltdown of Mark Dawson. If I ever saw one of my employees act like this, I’d fire him (and make him take a sobriety test); and I certainly wouldn’t hire him for any sort of work.

  4. So, then you’ve worked outside of the academy then napkin? I have to say you make a strong argument. It’s hard to argue with the “sold-out” line of reasoning. Damn you must have been in the game for a long time to amass such knowledge.

    I’m not a grad. student btw, I just paid attention in class so I’d be able to put two sentences together and destroy weak, poorly thought out arguments.

    Short enough for ya?

  5. Rick:
    I agree that there is typically a “left-ward” bias in Anthropology (and Sociology, English, etc.) departments when it comes to graduate admissions. What is often not said is that there is a “right-ward” bias when it comes to admissions and hiring in business schools. There is also a rightward bent in the US military, which tends to attract and promote Republicans. In my view, none of this is healthy for any of the disciplines. The military will be a better institution, and make better decisions, if it invites the critique of left-leaning academics. Likewise, the anthropology departments of the country would be healthier if they included people with experience in the military, big business, and other sectors they are fond of critiquing.

    Having said that, the nature of the academic committees which make decisions about admissions and hiring tend to select for candidates who will reinforce the status quo in terms of ideology, subject emphases, etc. There are academics who would like to diversify, but even if they are a majority, collegiality means that the one (or two) ideological loud mouths are deferred to, and the really different candidate is passed over in favor of someone from the more mushy middle. The loud mouths may not get the way in terms of their preferred candidate, but there is also little attempt to move in a radical new direction, either.

    There is also the problem that there is little hard data on where and how these biases emerge. Admissions and hiring is typically shrouded in secrecy because it involves “personnel.” This again gives insiders the advantage. I would love to see academic departments held accountable for hiring and admissions in a transparent fashion, but am not sure how this might work in a world where personnel decisions are considered confidential. Maybe you have some ideas?

  6. Napkin:
    I guess we disagree about Mark Dawson, and definitely appreciate different types of humor. If you don’t like his sense of humor, don’t read his blogs.

    For what it is worth, no employer can first fire an employee, and then demand he take a sobriety test.

    I guess we also disagree about the importance of using real names when posting on-line.


  7. Tony,

    I cannot disagree with a thing you said. I don’t know much about the shrouded world of academic hiring. There has been a recent ethnography written from business anthro Karen Ho, about the hiring world of high finance, that make the exact point you just did. In Wall Street she tells us that there is a very strong bias towards hiring and promoting people only from Ivy league schools, in a buddy system. My wife, whose Japanese, told me that it was also a common practice in Japan.

    You’re also right about the military, although I don’t think people realize how diverse the various branches in the military are. There is no biasing in the selection process however, so this is a very different thing. The biasing is only in who joins. Anyone without a criminal record, legal residential status of an ally nation (over 70 nationalities are represented), and physically healthy can join. It’s harder to join the military than people think, and within the military there are many hierarchies and branches. If you want to drive a truck, your not going to find it hard, but if you want an elite position (nuclear, spec ops, engineer, linguist, etc…) you’ll find a position similar to trying to get into an elite university. During the last presidential campaign military members donated more money to Obama’s campaign than McCain’s.

    Like in anthropology, it is more of a situation with a few far right loud mouths who are ignored as they say stupid shit. For the most part there isn’t a more diverse organization than something like the US Navy. People also forget that the officer class are highly educated professionals with multiple master’s degrees. They are more open to ideas than academics give them credit for. If people feel like you don’t respect them, or you feel superior to them, etc… they aren’t going to listen to you. That’s everywhere.

    Right now our military, for better or worse, consists of the people that represent us on the ground around the world. I wish is was more diverse, but I think people would be amazed at how diverse it is. Mostly these are stereotypes that leftist academics have. More then “Republicans” the warrior class in the military are made up of the working class; people that didn’t have a lot of options, or who have a family tradition. Right-wing forms of patriotism are not the most common reason people join, and it isn’t why people fight.

    In anthropology there’s a bias in the literature that tells us that others simply won’t understand things in a holistic way, as though the world we live in hasn’t changed in the last 40 years. All of my experience with educated professionals in the public and private sector tell me the opposite. In Dallas City Hall for example, I’ve seen nothing but immediate acceptance. Everyone I’ve talked to understands that they need to do what the discipline tells us needs to be done, they are taught in their fields that they need to have an ethnographic understanding and better bottom up communication. They simply don’t know how to do it. I talked with the environmental quality director and in 5 minutes he wanted me on his team. After I started a project for him, directors from other departments started saying they want their own anthropologist too. There was this incredible felt need for what we can do, and there was no one filling that need. The Dallas design studio (architects and planners) asked me to help them get local residents to partner with them so they could come to their office and tell them how they wanted their communities to look in the future. They took vans to low-income communities and residents literally worked with architects shoulder to shoulder with the help of an anth grad student so their communities would better reflect their needs. And on and on. The only issue right now is funding. I have to rely on federal grants, because local governments are broke. An academic is much better positioned to do this work, because they can work for free.

    This reality is invisible in the academic branch of anthropology, because people don’t look beyond the Ivory tower. Their Marxist paradigms don’t allow for these now more common interactions, and they are actually responsible for this state of affairs. Why the hell was I the first anthropologist to go to city hall and offer my services?! I should not be the first anth they’ve worked with.

  8. Rick,
    I think you are right that the military, business, etc., are open to anthropological ideas. But they are also in their own habits and ruts, just like all professions (including academics). It is easy to criticize your own organization, and then quickly accept that the latest greatest new idea (e.g. take culture into account) is helpful, but in the day to day we all tend to slip back into the routines. I guess this is why they call it a “rut.”

    I’m going to think a bit about the points you make here about the military, and get back to you. As always, thanks for your comments.


  9. I think your absolutely right. People in the military do almost nothing but complain about the seemingly stupid things that are done. I don’t want to come off like I’m defending the military over the academy, or any other group. But, we need some balance and pragmatism.

    I would also like to recant a little of what I wrote about the boring and obtuse nature of the discipline. There are vibrant and interesting researchers out there, but they seem to be drowned out and attacked. Still so many anths that think they are philosophers. I was mainly referring to the fact that there are more available forms of pop psychology or economics. Marvin Harris has written stuff that would be our version of Freakinomics or Blink, but again he’s attacked quite often. Psychology has webpages like this: http://www.spring.org.uk/

    We need something like that, which would require people to not be so self-righteous, and take themselves less seriously. I also agree with everything in your critique, but I feel that the discipline is being suffocated by a an angry minority that feels that it can define the discipline for everyone. I think people have let them scream at others for so long that they think we’re all like that. I’m all for good solid debate, that’s very healthy, but personal attacks are not called for.

  10. Psychology Today is the classic magazine which has crossed over from academia to the popular media, and does wonders for the discipline of Psych. For that matter, National Geographic does the same for Geography. (And some of the glossy Archaeology magazines for that matter). Neither Sociology or Cultural Anthropolgy have the equivalent, though. The American Sociology tries a bit with Contexts, but it is over-priced, and under-capitalized. As you note above, Popular Anthropology does not yet have the content that will drive readership.

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