My Life as an Honored Potted Plant

Meetings are rituals, and rituals need symbols, and decorations, in other words potted plants.  Ie been to a lot of meetings in my time as an academic where I sat bored and confused, but still clap on cue.  The most obvious place I am such a decoration is in May graduation ceremonies.  I sit in a hot black robe in May, with the faculty and react in unison with those around me.  Literally an honored potted plant.

But there are many more places where such potted plants exist—decoration at a meeting where pre-prepared decisions are served up.  Academic Senate meetings come to mind; but so do political conventions, Congress, and annual meetings at churches.  The malaria zone office meetings I sat through when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand, were the most difficult—they were in Thai which I only slowly learned, but I still clapped on cue.  What all of these have in common is that I am really but a room decoration—a potted plant.

But we potted plants at meetings are needed by the important people (peacocks if we keep to our park metaphor) to show up and legitimate foregone decisions to preserve the pre-existing social order.  They need us potted plants as Honoratiorien, i.e. the honored elders who think they are invited to the meetings to make real decisions, even if they don’t.  But we are really only there to provide legitimacy for the experts who really pull the levers and push the buttons of the bureaucracy.  We potted plants show up at a meeting, look busy, ratify whatever decisions have been pre-arranged by the organizers, eat cheese squares and olives, and then have dinner.  A nice dinner at a nice restaurant.  Oh yes, and then the peacocks tell us how well we made difficult decision, and are profusely thanked for our critical participation.

The funny thing is that often not even the peacocks really run the meetings.  The ones who really run the show are the functionaries, clerks, secretaries, and others who organize the meetings, and present us with information to “consider.”  Such information comes pre-packaged, and pre-arranged in so there is little real discretion on our part; if done well there is only one single conclusion for us to mumble “aye” on.  Oddly enough, at many such meeting I was at, the lower-level staff who served the coffee and shoved files under our noses, were the real deciders to whom whichever peacock chairing the meeting turned to explain “the numbers.”  The numbers then spill out, the peacock nods sagely, we potted plants nod even more sagely as if our opinion mattered.  We vote “aye” and then clap.

Ultimately, tout the ones running the shows—are the technocrats who organize “the files” that are reflected in the numbers so readily tossed out to provide more legitimacy for the evidence-based decision-making (we Honoratioren only make decisions with evidence!).

But this blog is mostly a way of introducing the German word Honoratioren, which I have plucked out of Max Weber’s essays “Politics as Vocation,” and “Bureaucracy,” which my wife and I are currently translating from German to English.  Honoratioren are the esteemed people of a community to whom others habitually defer, despite the fact that they are really “dilletantes” when it comes to knowing the nuts and bolts of an organization which they are  called on to legitimate.  Where do you find such Honoratioren?  They are from the right families, wealthy business people, performers of past glories, movie stars, sports figures, local nobility—i.e. the “better strata” of a community.  I guess that’s me with all my seniority at the university now; an Honoratioren who gets trips to exotic locales like Los Angeles, where I can dine on cheese squares and fine restaurants.

The most common habitat for Honoratioren are the boards, commissions, and so forth which ostensibly run corporations and government.  They really do not know what they are doing, but as long as their egos are stroked, and vanity appealed to, they lend the air of legitimacy to what really is going on. Weber described them as “voting cows” being led to approve what to legitimate what the technocrats are going to do anyway; Weber’s metaphor is good—but potted plants works, too.

Occasionally Weber writes, such Honoratioren make it into some meaningful office, but then it doesn’t always work out so well—think Governor Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California; two classic Honoratioren who somehow made it across the divide into political offices where power was wielded.  Perhaps they would have been better if they remained potted plants; I’ll let the historians figure out that one!

So what is a good translation for Honoratioren?  The traditional one for Weber translators is “notables.”  But because I was recently at such meetings, passing along my professorial imprimatur over things I knew little about, I’m thinking “potted plant” conveys Weber’s meaning better!  So if you see the German word Honoratioren in our translation some day, just think, “potted plant.”

Originally posted at October, 29, 2014

Gallows Tale III: The Hanging Files of Tanganyika, and Are We Hanging the Right Man?

Quick capital trials were undertaken in the remote corners of Tanganyika Territory, even those places that did not have their own gallows. But  the sentence could only be carried out at one of the officially designated gaols where execution by hanging was carried out on a permanent or temporary gallows built and conducted to official specifications.  A willing European officer also needed to be available to release the trap door. As you will read in this series, transport of prisoners along the rough roads, trails, rails, and ships of Tanganyika could be slow and complicated—it might involve a five week walk, a trip on a third-class boat trip accompanied by four officers of the court, or presumably other similar arrangements. This raises the question, could a switch be made of the prisoners en route, and the wrong man hanged?

In any event in the days before routine photography was available in the remote corners of the colony, how could you be sure that the person sentenced to hang was the same on who was presented at the gaol? This is apparently the question that occurred to A. W. M. Griffith, the Administrative Officer in Charge of Morogoro District. He asserts that the possibility of such a switch while remote, is possible, and proposes that fingerprints be taken of the condemned man be made, and checked by the Finger Print Bureau.  The Commissioner of Police and Prisons mulls over this possibility in a response, and concludes that pulling off a switch is difficult enough, and finger prints are not necessary.  Griffith was informed of this decision in another memo which concluded: the  “to inform you that it is not proposed to make any alternations in the present procedure.”


Political Office


25th September, 1922


The Registrar of the High Court




I have the honour to request you to bring before my mind-the present system by which the identification of a person executed at Morogoro, with the person sentenced to suffer death at Tabora or elsewhere, leaves room for the possibility of error.


I venture to suggest to His Honour that when a person of native status is sent to Morogoro for Execution his finger prints should be taken at Morogoro Gaol and forwarded to the Finger Print Bureau for identification and that the execution of a sentence of death should not take place until such identification is established.


Theoretically a mistake of this nature should hardly occur. To my mind in practice it is a distinct though remote possibility.



I have the honour to be,


Your obedient Servant

A. W. M. Griffith

Administative Office in Charge

Morogoro District



[Handwritten Response 1]

Honorable Chief Secretary,

The Chances of the wrong person being executed are negligible, unless, of course, there was a pre-arranged plan between the escort and the condemned man to substitute an innocent party,  which is ultimately unlikely as the innocent person would …make himself heard.

A full description of the condemned person with all his marks peculiarities are recorded in the “prisoners record sheet” which accompanies him on transfer to the place of execution.

It wold be quite easy to introduce the further check of finger prints as [recommended] by the A. O. Morogoro, but honestly I cannot see any necessity.


[illegible signature]


Tanganyika Police and Prisons



[no date]

[Handwritten Response 2]


Officer i/c Morogoro District


W[ith] R[egard] T[o]  your letter no l/4/2 of the 25th of Sept. Addressed to the Registrar of the High Court, on the subject of the identification of persons executed at Morogoro. I am dir’d to forward for yr. inf’n. a copy of a minute on this subject by the [Chief of Police and Prisons]. and to inform you that it is not proposed to make any alternations in the present procedure.




Other postings in this series

Gallows File I

Gallows File II

Gallows Tale II: The Hanging File of Tanganyika 1920-1928 and the Risk of Escape!

  • The risk of escape of a condemned prisoner who is required to undergo a long journey on foot [of 230 miles] to the place of execution must be considerable

Britain had took control of German East Africa and renamed it Tanganyika Territory in 1920. This meant that the German justice system, which had been found throughout the territory would be replaced with a British system. Among other things, this meant that death by firing squad would be replaced by hanging. But to do this required the installation of proper gallows (with sheds) to be erected at the gaols where death sentences would be carried out. Or alternatively, mobile gallows could be installed.

As specified in Gallows Tale I, for Morogoro in central Tanganyika, this meant that a proper pit needed to be constructed. And as specified in Gallows Tale I, one of the big problems there was the problem of a socket, which would catch the bar underneath the trap door. It seems that the bar was ricocheting off the concrete wall of the pit, hitting the condemned during or shortly after the drop where the neck was broken—clearly an inhumane situation not befitting of British justice.

Songea which is in the southwest corner of the country had another problem. It seems that the nearest place for the court to hang someone was 230 miles away in Tukuyu to the east. Tanganyika Territory at that time had few roads, and even fewer vehicles—which meant that the condemned man would need to walk for five weeks through a tsetse infested bush before he could be executed. Such a walk would presumably have involved several local police officers, and of course one European officer. It is not clear how they would have been fed, whether they would have carried their own food, or whether there were stations where they would be fed.

Irrespective of the organizational difficulties for such a trip, there was also the chance that somewhere along the way the condemned man just might try to escape—and have plenty of opportunities to do so. Thus Songeia’s request for that special execution apparatus, “the mobile gallows.”



DAR-ES-SALAAM, 26th February, 1921

Registered Number: H.Q. 40/36

The Hon’ble

The Chief Secretary of the Government



With reference to your file No. 3093 and further to my H.Q.40/18 of the 2nd of November last, I have the hour to recommend on the following grounds that a portable gallows be issued to Songea to serve the requirements of that district:-

  • The distance from Songea to Tukuyu is 230 miles
  • The risk of escape of a condemned prisoner who is required to undergo a long journey on foot to the place of execution must be considerable
  • The journey from Songea to Tukuyu occupies at least 5 weeks.
  • The District Political Officer is of the opinion that in many cases it will be desirable for executions to take place locally as an example to the population, in order to convince the native mind that the murderer has been duly punished for his crime.

The District Political Officer concurs with my recommendation.

(Signature illegible)


Tanganyika Police & Prisons

Gallows File II Songea Gallows

The story of the colonial gallows continues here with Gallows File III….

Gallows Tale I: The Hanging File of Tanganyika Territory 1920-1928 and the Extra “Whack”

Another point requiring your attention in the cross bar which holds the trap door in position. When this is released and falls into its groove in the wall, it should be caught by a socket of some kind, to prevent its rebounding on contact with the stone. At present it is quite possible that, in the rebound, it hits the hanging man as he drops from above. True, if the hanging is properly done, the man is probably dead before he receives the blow from the iron bar: but you will agree every possible precaution should be taken against any suggestion of inhumanity.

Some years ago I was working on a project in the Tanzanian National Archives in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. While there, I saw a file listed in the catalog called “The Hanging File.” I was not quite sure what to expect, so asked to see it. It turned out to be the bureaucratic correspondence, mainly from the Tanganyika Police and Prisons, about the implementation of the new British government’s policies on hanging prisoners. Tanganyika had only in 1920 been transferred from German to British colonial rule, and this meant proper British methods of execution needed to be established.  And that meant wherever possible, the condemned were to face the hangman’s noose rather than a firing squad.

Much of the file was correspondence back and forth about the nuts and bolts of establishing procedures for executions in a fashion consistent with British colonial law. I had the whole file photocopied in 2004, with the vague idea that there is a great story in the file—though I was never quite sure what it was, so never wrote it up. Now is perhaps the time.  So I will be writing blogs about in coming months in the hope that someone somewhere can tell me what the point of this file is.

This first memo I am posting is dated October 6, 1922, and it is from the prison in Morogoro, central Tanganyika, and addressed to the Director of Public Works, who has been charged by the Governor with establishing facilities to hang prisoners. As you can tell from this memo, such a program is not that easy—proper well-designed facilities must be established so that “every precaution can be taken against any suggestion of inhumanity.” Which in the case of the Morogoro gallows means a socket of some kind to catch the bar that is underneath the trap door. It seems there was some evidence that the bar was bouncing off the concrete wall of the pit as the prisoner dropped, and there was some chance he was getting whacked on the head before their neck was broken. Clearly a condition that suggested a degree of inhumanity incompatible with British colonial justice!


Office of the Commissioner of Police and Prisons

Dar Es Salaam, 6th. October, 1922

Registered Number H. Q. . 55/Gen/30

The Director of Public Works



I desire to bring to your notice the following unsatisfactory points in connection with the gallows at Morogoro, which were brought to notice during my recent Inspection of the Gaol at that station.


  1. In the first place it is absolutely essential that proper steps should be made leading to the pit, so that the body of the hanged man can be properly carried up for burial. At the present time, the entrance to the it is by an ordinary ladder and any one decending [sic] the pit, for instance the doctor, has to duck his head to clear the platform. It is quite impossible to remove a body with any decency by this exit.
  1. The present system is revolting to any decent ideas. The body is hauled up by the neck, through the trap doors, through which it has dropped, without undoing the noose. Last Monday a very heavy and big man was hanged, and his body had to be treated in this way, with unpleasent [sic] results to all who were present.
  1. At the time the gallows was made, the Superintendent of Police expostulated at the proposed plan, but for some reason or other, possible expense, it was decided to go on with the original design. At Lindi, Tanga and Mwanza Gaols, proper cement steps have been made, and are satisfactory. I desire to ask that the necessary improvements to remedy the existing state of affairs at Morogoro may be taken in hand at once.
  1. Another point requiring your attention in the cross bar which holds the trap door in position. When this is released and falls into its groove in the wall, it should be caught by a socket of some kind, to prevent its rebounding on contact with the stone. At present it is quite possible that, in the rebound, it hits the hanging man as he drops from above. True, if the hanging is properly done, the man is probably dead before he receives the blow from the iron bar: but you will agree every possible precaution should be taken against any suggestion of inhumanity.
  1. Finally the present chain supplied from your workshops is far from satisfactory. The other day it was necessary to take off some links to shorten the drop. At the first tap of a hammer, the link snapped. Surely this is not right. I have instructed the Assistant Superintendent of Prisons to send this chain to Daressalaam as soon as it can be spared for your inspection.
  1. I trust that you will be able to treat these matter as urgent, as they are of vital importance, if the executions are to be carried out without any regrettable incident.

Signature illegible

Source Tanzania National Archives, TNA AB 518

Hanging File 1 Morogoro

So how would you as a anthropologist or sociologist analyze a memo like this?  Would it be about colonialism, bureaucracy, or criminology?  Or the human condition?  I have been wondering about this during the ten years I’ve been sitting on the file, and hope to hear what readers think in coming months.

The story continues here

Gallows File I

Gallows File II

Gallows File III

Gallows File IV

Are There Two Kinds of Stupid? Gump, Nietzsche and “Stupid is as Stupid Does,” or “Power Makes Stupid?”

There are lots of good reasons to read Bent Flyvbjerg’s 1991 book Rationality and Power: Democracy in Practice.  But for this blog, I want to focus on his description of why people in power are stupid in one particular unique way. He writes that people in power have the opportunity to define what is rational, which means that they inevitably define some things that are irrational as irrational. And because they have power, no one challenges them when they make a mistake, with a result that “Power makes Stupid,” as Nietzsche said. Here is a longer quote from Flyvbjerg’s book:

Nietzsche puts an interesting twist on the proposition “the greater the power, the less the rationality” by directly linking power and stupidity: “Coming to power is a costly business,” Nietzsche says, “power makes stupid” (emphasis in the original). Nietzsche adds that “politics devours all seriousness for really intellectual things.” In a critique of Charles Darwin, Nietzsche further points out that for human beings the outcome of the struggle for survival will be the opposite of that “desired” by Darwinism because “Darwin forgot the mind” and because “[h]e who possesses strength divests himself of mind.”


…In sum what we see is not only, and not primarily, a general “will to knowledge” but also a “frame more powerful will: the will to ignorance in the uncertain to the untrue! Not as [will to knowledge’s opposite” but—as its refinement! Power quite simply, often finds ignorance, deception , self-deception, rationalizations, and lies more useful for its purposes than truth and rationality…(p. 230)

Get power, divest yourself of mind. It is of course not that power is not necessary.  But what Flyvbjerg (and Nietzsche) are observing is that power tends to corrupt the devotion to rationality that presumably we cultivate in academia.  People with power come to believe in their own omniscience, just ask the king who walked naked down the street while the people (except that little boy) described how beautiful his new clothing was!

But Nietzsche is of course only one popular usage of “stupid,” that is the type that is embedded in power, the irrationality of which is so easy to observe in our politicians as we silently and obsequiously cultivate our cultures of acquiescence. As a result, we let people in power go through their days as vain creatures, convinced that they have a gut-level for decision making which defies the rationality of data, facts, and other things of seriousness. In such a context you get politicians even bragging about how they can overcome facts through ignorance. My favorite is the oft-heard assertion by harried administrators that they have not time to read, think, or write. I’ve heard administrators brag that if it can’t be put on a single page (or two), it is not worth their valuable time, even as sycophantic courtiers stroke their vanity by agreeing with this illogic. This by its very nature is a “will to ignorance.” And why Nietzsche wrote “power makes stupid.”’

But there is second kind of stupid too, invented over a hundred years ago by Stanford-Binet and others, the i.q. test. I.q. tests are primarily tests of vocabulary, Answering the question of whether a student can read and understand words, phrases, equations, and paragraphs in the same fashion that the powerful who write the tests do. For what I am sure sound cultural reasons, vocabulary focused on the manipulation of numbers is privileged on the typical i.q. tests.

Famously, one of my favorite movie characters Forrest Gump did rather poorly at i.q. tests, and was labeled “stupid.”  Forrest of course knew that he was “stupid,” but wisely knew that there was more to wisdom and empathy than what is measured on an i.q. test. Which is why as Forrest muddled through the war protests, the Vietnam War, the 1970s, and finally into the HIV/AIDS epidemic he would point out that stupidity is embedded in acts which deny rationality, irrespective of one’s command of vocabulary. Or as he famously put it “Stupid is as stupid does.” Acts are more important than an i.q. test. I guess in smartness, Gump was right up there with Nietzsche. “Stupid is as stupid does” is perhaps just another way of saying “power makes stupid.”


Ethnography as a Contact Sport: the Mla Bri and the Long Family of Phrae, Thailand

Ethnographers and a Lack of Common Sense

How many ethnographers are crazy? This question came up for me in a Facebook post recently by Gene Long, a missionary/linguist/ethnographer who has lived with the Mla Bri (Yellow Leaf) hunter-gatherers of Thailand since 1981. In other words, he and his wife Mary Long have 34 years of participant observation data about people who have the rare habit of hunting and gathering for subsistence—an anthropological rarity.

Today the Mla Bri are somewhere between hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, and charismatic Thai television stars. Anyway, using their training in linguistics, Gene and Mary developed a sophisticated understanding of the nature of the Mla Bri language and culture. This is of course not unprecedented in anthropology—it is something like the anthropologically charismatic Ju/’Hoansi in Namibia—but more about that at the end of this blog. In the meantime, if you want to know more about the specifics of the high quality ethnography Gene and Mary Long can do, please see this 2013 article about Suicide and the Mla Bri published in the Journal of the Siam Society. Or of course there is a Wikipedia article, too.

Of all the ethnographers I know, I’ve known Gene and Mary the longest. I first met them in Phrae when I was in the Peace Corps in 1980-1982. I visited Gene and Mary recently (in August and July 2015), so of course we reminsiced, as old friends will. Somewhere in between this, Gene posted on Facebook, introducing my wife and I to his many Thai and American Facebook friends. He pointed out that when we first met in 1981, he thought I was “weird,” and that I thought he was “nuts.” I disagreed on Facebook—I might be weird, but Gene was not just “nuts,” he was crazy because of the goals he set for himself, his family, and his mission in 1981. In 1981 he told me that he would spend at least 30 years looking for a group that everyone else in Phrae said did not exist, live with them even though they were wanderers and had no permanent house (and did not exist), learn their unknown language (if there was one), and begin translating Christian scripture into that potentially non-existent language. He also said he had people in America who would pay for the whole venture. If that is not delusional in a rational world, I don’t know what is.

But thinking about it more, I think that this crazy irrational quality is something that Gene shares with ethnographer-types. Think about the physicist Franz Boas who sailed off to Baffin Island to study geography, but ended up asking the Inuit about colors in a world where everything was covered with snow. Or Bronislaw Malinowski who offered to spend his World War I internment on the Trobriand Islands where he became grouchy, grumpy, lustful, and ethnocentric, and wove tales about travelling kula armbands which even today first year anthropology students must read about. Nigel Barley, a patron saint of this blog, was also crazy—after all he had his teeth removed by a mechanic in Cameroon (see his book The Innocent Anthropologist), and more recently ethnographer Alice Goffman hung out with probationers and criminals for six years in Philadelphia in a world which was mostly boring, but in which illegal drugs were sold, running from the police was a sport, and most of her friends/informants were armed. From her ethnography On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City it also sounds like she spent much of the six years visiting people in jails and other lockups. Such behavior is not just “nuts,” but more accurately described in the vernacular as “crazy.”

Now I don’t know Boas, Malinwoski, Barley, or Goffman, so I can’t tell you how they became that way. But I have known Gene Long (known more commonly by his Thai name Bunyuen Suksaneh) for 34 years, so I thought it might be a good idea to explain to the world why not only Bunyuen/Gene is crazy, but so are ethnographers in general.

The “Spirits” of the Yellow Leaves in Thailand

In Gene’s case, he was convinced of his life’s work in 1979 after reading a 1963 article in the Journal of the Siam Society about an “expedition” to visit a group of hunter-gatherers living in northern Thailand who were known derogatorily as “spirits,” because they were so rarely seen. The other significant reference to the Mlabri was made in the 1930s by Austrian adventurer Hugo Bernatzik who visited them for about two weeks in 1936 or 1937, and wrote half of a book about his visit. On this rather slim record, Gene dedicated his life.

It turns out that “Spirits” of the Yellow Leaves is a northern Thai term used to describe people we now know call themselves Mla Bri (the Mla Bri do not mind being called “Yellow Leaf people,” but they do object to being called “spirits”). The northern Thai called them “Spirits” because the only evidence ever seen of them were lean-to shelters made out of banana leaves which had yellowed—the story went that the yellowing of the leaves was the signal for them to disappear. Anyway Gene chased these rumors around northern Thailand for about two years before settling in Phrae Province where I lived because first, there were rumors about the Yellow Leaf people there, and second because the Thai government would not let him settle in provinces where the Thai Communists had organized a violent insurrection which it seems was where most of the Yellow Leaf lived then.

So Gene and Mary Long are actually still in the Thai forest with the Yellow Leaf people in 2015. Their modest house is on the edge of a Yellow Leaf settlement, they speak the language well, have started a hammock making business to generate income for the Mla Bri and neighboring Hmong, and have for years been relating Bible stories to the Yellow Leaf. They are also sitting on 34 years of ethnographic and linguistic notes (Mary is a very methodical record keeper) is in my mind also crazy. And like Malinowski, they are taking some time writing up their decades of notes and observations about hunter-gatherers who have smashed into the world of modern Thailand, a country which includes some of the world’s largest shopping centers.

Anyway, the first installment of their ethnographic efforts was “Suicide among the Mla Bri,” described above. A second story about demographic change among the Mla Bri is being prepared. This will be a lighter story, since it is about drops in infant mortality, the eradication of malaria, and the birth of a robust cohort of children after about 2000. Hopefully, there will also be some writing about the experiences of the Yellow Leaf people starring in video productions, having blood samples taken by roving anthropologists, weaving in Washington D.C. for Refugees International, and bungee jumping in Japan.

So back to 1981. In 1981, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer at the malaria zone office in Phrae where Gene and Mary had moved. So I asked my co-workers at the Malaria Zone Office about the “Yellow Leaf” people. The malaria service people often travelled in remote areas (even those areas where the Communist insurrection was a problem) of Phrae and Nan provinces chasing malaria parasites, and spraying DDT to control the malaria carrying mosquitoes. They told me that they had heard of such a people, but they were fictional, which in their mind was why they were called “spirits.” No one they knew had ever actually seen a Yellow Leaf person, and they insisted that the whole story was just some rural rumor. They noted that there were Hmong, H’Tin, Yao, Akha, Karen, and other groups out there, but really they insisted, there was no such thing as the Yellow Leaf people.

On the basis of this authority I told Gene shortly after meeting him that he could go home to America and have all Krispy Kreme donuts he dreamed of. But he didn’t take my wise counsel, and continued hiking around the mountains asking rural villagers about the Yellow Leaf people, as he had for the previous two years. He would come back with great stories about sleeping in Hmong corn cribs, encounters with the Thai military, trouble with the Thai police, opium fields, and the Communist insurgency. In fact, truth be told, I too would have liked to have been doing some such exploration, rather than being cooped up in my office next to the DDT storehouse studying Thai, which was how I spent much of my time.

Anyway, one day in late 1981 or 1982, Gene came back very excited—he had found his first real live Yellow Leaf person! So of course I wanted to know more. How did he talk to the Yellow Leaf men he had met? In northern Thai, he responded proudly. Did you ask them about their own language I asked? Yes, he said, excitedly! “They said that they speak northern Thai like everyone else.” So I asked, what does this mean for your project regarding translating the Bible into a non-existent language for a people who insist they are northern Thai, albeit with an unusual lifestyle?

Gene said he was going to still do it—after all he still had thirty years or so to go in setting up his mission to the Yellow Leaf people. See what I mean about crazy? He was going to translate Bible stories into a language which did not exist, for a people who said they were northern Thai. He also had plans to live near them, even though as hunter-gatherers and had no fixed abode.

Anyway it got crazier when I pressed Gene further on this issue. Gene responded confidently that the “Yellow Leaf” men he had finally met after three years searching had lied to him about not having their own language—they really had one! He knew this because they used the wrong tone when saying the northern Thai for “ear”, which is “hoo.” He then gave me one of his mini-lectures on linguistics—it seemed that the fact that the men pronounced the tone wrong meant that there must be some kind of “interference” from another language which they used. Otherwise they would not have such a bad “accent” when speaking northern Thai. On this slim conclusion, he moved his family to a rural Thai village whose name translates into English as Sugar Cane Creek, located at the end of a very rudimentary dirt road, where they enrolled their son Allen in the local school.

Finding that he had frequent contact with Mla Bri people, but wanting more, Gene built a bamboo house for himself, Mary, and his two boys some five kilometers from Sugar Cane Creek in 1982. As an adventurous 24 year-old, I thought this was pretty cool—I like full-time camping. But for a young farang family? Wouldn’t you think he was crazy? The really crazy thing was that somehow he still got churches in America to pay for this years-long camping hobby among Communists, Hmong, and various renegades, but that’s another story.

Anyway, the bamboo hut did not last long—like Indiana Jones, neither Gene nor Mary do snakes, and snakes liked the bamboo hut. This was also the time that their children began to develop their annoyance with the unpredictability of work elephants, which were found in the area. So they built a more substantial house in the jungle where apparently the Yellow Leaf people did not really live, or for that matter speak anything but northern Thai.

As for me, I left Thailand in late 1983, and ended up in Tanzania in 1984. When I next visited Gene and Mary in 1985, they were settled into a small Thai-style house on pillars, and had a third child. They also after six years made more systematic contact with the Yellow Leaf people, a few who were put up their lean-tos nearby, and the Longs were starting to learn their language—it seemed that they actually had one after all! The key question it turned out was to ask not directly for the words they knew by pointing to the item, but to ask what the “old people” used to call something. In this way they were beginning to accumulate vocabulary and trust. Over the next few years they started to figure out the language, cosmology, kinship system, and religion. They were also surprised to find out that unlike other languages in the area, the Yellow Leaf language had a dual verb tense (in addition to the more typical singular and plural), but no extensive counting system.

The Mla Bri started slowly to settle down in the 1990s. It turned out that there were only a total of 300-400 people speaking the Mla Bri language (a Khmuic language). Other groups also settled in the area as the mountains of Phrae became more densely populated. In particular, in 1983 or so, the Communist insurgency in Thailand ended, and Hmong who had been in revolt were resettled near where the Longs had built their house—the Thai government even built a school and health clinic there. The Yellow Leaf were so marginal and itinerant that they did not use the government facilities at first. The Hmong also provided another context for the Yellow Leaf to settle in the area—it turned out that the Yellow Leaf were not only Hunter-Gatherers, but also when food supplies were low, would hire themselves out to do piece work for the Hmong farmers, tilling fields in exchange for used clothing and food. The relationship was unequal and exploitative—the Yellow Leaf were often underpaid—their response to such excessive exploitation was often simply to disappear into the forest which the expanding Thai state was seeking to control.

More Stories of Encounters with the Modern World

So far Gene’s crazy story has been about how difficult the Mla Bri were for the Longs to contact. But the Longs were not the only ones contacting “the last hunter-gatherers in mainland Southeast Asia.” Anthropologists were of course interested, but so were filmmakers, journalists, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and eventually tour operators. The Crown Princess of Thailand, has had a long-time interest in educating and protecting people of the hills, also has charitable interests in the Mla Bri. Particularly as paved roads were developed, ordinary Thai also take an interest in the Mla Bri, bringing with them gifts including food, clothing, bicycles and other items with which in the Buddhist tradition they can “make merit” by assisting the poor.

An Anthropologist for Every Mla Bri?

During the 34 years that that the Longs have had contact with the Mla Bri, there have been at least a dozen anthropologists seeking them out. After all, from an anthropological perspective, the Mla Bri, like the Ju’/Hoansi of Namibia, are charismatic super-stars! They are hunter-gatherers who lived off the land recently, presumably like humanity did for hundreds of thousands of years before settling down to farm and raise animals. Thus, anthropologists (and linguists) from near (Thailand) and far (Denmark, The United States, Japan, Germany) visit and publish about the Mla Bri. Some of this anthropology is very good, and recommended by Gene and Mary. Linguists have designed three alphabetic systems using Thai characters of writing Mla Bri, too, to supplement notes about vocabulary, grammar, etc., made with the international phonetic alphabet. Among the very best are the highly technical linguistic studies by Jorgen Rischel whose ashes were scattered in the Mla Bri village after he died.

Other anthropological writing is strange from Gene and Mary’s perspective—there were the blood typers and skull measurers in the 1980s, and then the genetic analysts who themselves never came to Thailand, but analyzed Mla Bri blood only in distant labs. Such lab-based results—which in the world of science gets publications—seem very distant from what Gene and Mary see on the ground.

What other group of a three to four hundred people has so much anthropological attention?

Media Stars in Thailand and Abroad

Thai have also taken an interest in the Mla Bri since their (re)discovery in the early 1980s. This has resulted in a sporadic attention on the Mla Bri—after all since 1999, they have officially become Thai citizens. Much of this attention addresses Thai cultural interests, and often romanticizes the relationship between the Mla Bri and Thailand and is of the “noble savage” school. Other media focus on issues of development—how can we get the Mla Bri to go to Thai schools, improve health outcomes, and assimilate the Mla Bri (and other hill groups) to Thai society. Important from the Thai world view is the fact that Mla Bri have begun to farm rice on the hillsides—just like rural northern Thai did in the past and indeed some continue do even today.

Perhaps related to the role of the Mla Bri as media stars is the need in Thai Buddhism to “make merit” by assisting the poor. And by modern Thai standards, the Mla Bri are poor. They do not own land, the adults are illiterate, their houses made of cinder block do not have air conditioning, and they rarely go to town. For transport, a few Mla Bri how have motorcycles, but none own their own car, like some Thai families do. Thus in recent years, particularly on Buddhist holidays, Thai merit-makers will arrive in the small village. The Mla Bri know how to line up behind their cars and vans, and graciously accept the clothing, food, and other gifts the merit makers bring.

More widely, the Mla Bri have attracted the interests of talented photographers and filmmakers from abroad. The Longs’ favorite movie was done by Danish filmmakers who made “The Importance of Being Mlabri,” though thre are others, both Thai and foreign, who arrive to make other films.

Tourist Attraction

The largest city in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai, is a mecca for western, Chinese, and Thai tourists. Western tourists in particular appreciate what is exotic from their perspective. This often means the “long neck” tribe from Myanmar (Kayan whose girls wear necklaces which give the illusion of lengthening their necks), anything having to do with opium cultivation, dancing, spirit ceremonies, and so forth. The Mla Bri have also attracted the attention of the tour operators, and periodically a van full of tourists will arrive to take pictures, and so forth. A small settlement of Mla Bri where Gene and Mary do not work, has thus has become a tourist attraction, advertised in Chiang Mai as being the home of the “last” hunter-gatherers. Tourists interested in the exotic are collected, and brought in on mini-vans. Before they arrive, the Mla Bri are told to take off the clothes they have received from Buddhists making merit, and put on their “traditional” loincloths. They then perform traditional dances for the tourists, climb trees, and do other acts which fit with the western imagination of what it means to be “primitive.”

NGOs to the rescue

The small but exotic Mla Bri have also occasionally caught the attention of NGOs as well. Refugees International from Washington DC had a program aimed at the Mla Bri for a while—they even brought two Mla Bri women to the United States to demonstrate weaving skills in Maine. A Japanese NGO interested in indigenous rights also managed to bring a few Mla Bri to Japan, briefly, where they were apparently introduced to indigenous people of Japan. Somehow, the Mla Bri man ended up on a bungee platform, with the cord tied around his ankles. Unable to communicate well, he was pushed off the edge, a ride which he told Gene he assumed to be his last one! Somehow whoever did this to him in Japan was not able to describe the elastic qualities of bungee cords!

Protection from a Princess

HRH Princess Sirindhorn has an office which involves her in charitable work, including in northern Thailand with the Mla Bri. In this context, the Mla Bri have been taken under her wing, and a number of development projects initiated, including the establishment of a reserve where any Mla Bri who want to can live in the forest.

More recently, a Royal Project has begun assisting the school which is near where Gene and Mary live. Two teachers have been assigned to the Mla Bri stream to assist the Mla Bri primary schoolers with acquiring basic literacy and numeracy in Thai, and encouraging them to go on to secondary schooling in the city.

Mary Long’s Piles of Ethnographic Notes

I know of much of this because Mary in particular is an inveterate note taker, and both Gene and Mary have long detailed memories. Mary has notes about Mla Bri folk tales, origin stories, experiences with individual Mla Bri. When I asked her about the blood samples taken for the genetics articles published in PLoS Biology, and BMC Genetics, she went through her notes, and found the exact date in about 5 minutes.

Many other questions can be addressed using such notes—keep in mind that Malinowski’s time on the Trobriand Islands was only five years, Barley a little more than a year in Cameroon, and Alice Goffman six years in Philadelphia. The advantage of 34 years of participant observation is that Gene and Mary remember the grandparents of the children living in the village today! Indeed, they are a veritable storehouse of kinship data, seeking to highlight the kinship relationships of the 300+ Mla Bri in the group today.

Gene and Mary Long’s Ethnographic Imagination

In the article about Mla Bri suicide, there is a discussion of the concept “paluh” which means something between scolding, laying a curse, and some version of clinical depression. This is an important Mla Bri concept, for reasons that we have yet to completely work out. There are also the origin stories of the Mla Bri, fears of the earth opening and swallowing people who displease the spirits, mortuary rituals, marriage practices, child-rearing habits, inter-ethnic relations with the neighboring Hmong, and a host of other practices. Much of these we think emerged from the nomadic hunter-gatherer contexts which the Mla Bri practiced recently, and indeed still occasionally revert to today. Based in Mary’s 34 years of field notes are many PhD dissertations!

And What the Long’s Actually Do Every Day

This all sounds exotic, but the Long’s life is actually quite tedious. The Long’s small house is a hubbub of rather mundane activity. They provide hard boiled eggs to Mla Bri children who attend the Thai school, conduct Saturday school for the interested children, do minor doctoring and ambulance runs into town, teach Bible stories to interested children, organize repairs of the water system and internet, assist with construction activities in the village, and so forth. The Mla Bri still hunt and gather when not working in the fields and, as is customary, divide up the kill with their kin—which today include the Longs.

Much of Gene’s efforts over the years have involved income-generating activities, too. Among the more successful projects have been hammock weaving, and a small coffee plantation. Both are advertised on the internet.  They have also encouraged the Mla Bri to plant their own rice fields, and a number of the Mla Bri in this fashion have joined the horticultural world over the last 10 or 15 years.

All day-to-day village is pretty mundane—many ethnographers have written about this. Gene no longer hikes around the hills, but snakes do still occasionally show up. Today there is a paved road to within 500 meters of the Mla Bri settlement, and the Mla Bri have electricity, Thai television, motorcycles, and grow their own rice. Mla Bri have flown on planes, and occasionally even visit the seashore and Thailand’s capital, Bangkok. Mortality rates have dropped significantly, large numbers of children are surviving, and the Mla Bri language is for the time-being even strengthening. As for religion, the Longs have translated a few Bible stories into Mla Bri, but have not themselves founded a church. A few Mla Bri do have an interest in the newly established Christian church in the neighboring Hmong village which was established by Hmong missionaries. There was even a Mla Bri man who had a nascent career as an elephant mahout!

Much of what has happened since 1981 was unanticipated. I don’t think that Gene ever imagined that he would observe the full-on collision of the Mla Bri with today’s modern Thailand with its motorcycles, resettled Hmong insurgents, merit-making Buddhist visitors, elephants, wandering anthropologists, and prolific filmmakers.

Still, the funny thing is that I think that the Long’s life has turned out pretty much what Gene’s crazy dream was when he first articulated it to me in 1981.

Originally posted at August 19, 2015






A Baker from Dresden

I returned home to Friedrichshafen on the train from central Germany last Sunday. My wife, daughter, and I had second class tickets on the slow train—which meant a lot of stops. On the second stop, an elderly man got on the train, and asked if he could sit across from me. Sure, I grunted. I liked him, but still had some hopes of escaping a conversation and not revealing my horrible American accent. Alas, my shyness was not to be rewarded. He started talking about how uncomfortable the benches were these days. Screwing up my courage, I said something to the effect that at least they weren’t as uncomfortable as in the past. Covering for my language deficiencies, my German wife piped in that she remembered when the benches were made of wood.

This got him going, and I found myself straining to listen over the rumble of the train. He was a retired baker, it seemed, who had left East Germany in 1954 to come to the West. He was pleasant, and knowing that my wife was also listening (and could translate what I missed later), encouraged him to continue by smiling, making eye contact, and muttering the occasional “Ja.” More of his story came out, of leaving the East, the problems of Communism, and the blessings of life in the West. Just the sort of thing you expect to hear from refugees, even long after they have fled their home.

At some point along the way, he asked us a question, and I let my wife answer again. But then inevitably, she interjected that we were from the United States, and that I was American.

“Ah an Ami, I did not know. Here I was rattling away in German and you do not know what I was saying.” He seemed embarrassed by the situation, and I felt a momentary flush of pride, realizing that I had actually passed as a German for over ten minutes, and probably eight or nine short sentences.

“No, no, it’s ok, the Ami understands some German,” my wise wife added helpfully (gee thanks Dagmar).

“Ah, the Amis! Did you know I am from Dresden in East Germany? And on February 13-15, 1945, the British fire-bombed Dresden. And then the next day the American planes came in over the river at about 40 meters and used their machine guns to shoot the people running away?”

My cover blown, I indicated that yes, I knew about the fire-bombing of Dresden. But he said it all in a friendly way, so I asked him to continue with his story. My wife interjected that many Americans know about Dresden from having read Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

He had never heard of Slaughterhouse Five, and asked what it was about, and my wife told him about Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and his crazy little book about the Dresden fire-bombing. My daughter Kirsten, who read Slaughterhouse Five in English class last year at Bear River High School, in the meantime got out a bag of gummy bears, and offered him some. He took them appreciatively.

He matter-of-factly repeated seeing the American planes strafe the civilian populations up and down the river Elbe. The Baker explained that he was born in 1936 and nine years old at the time, old enough to remember. He also said that the official German statistics that 30,000 civilian dead in the fire-bombing are bogus. He pointed out that there were millions refugees in Dresden at the time, and their deaths were not accounted for.* But he had to go. He thanked us for the conversation, and we thanked him, and he left the train.

Kirsten rides the bus to school every day here in Friedrichshafen. Quite often older men get on the bus; she thinks that there must be a retirement home on the bus line. A few of the old men end up talking to no one in particular. But she says the story is always the same: they talk about war and bombing. Perhaps they are survivors of the bombings of Friedrichshafen, or maybe they are just repeating stories they have heard from others. Friedrichshafen was heavily bombed by the Allies in World War II—the Germans built aircraft here, as well as some of the V-2 rockets which struck England in the last years of the war.

It is almost 63 years since Dresden and Friedrichshafen were bombed, and World War II ended. Wars last a long time, don’t they? I still occasionally meet American World War II veterans, though not so much anymore. After all, to be a World War II veteran, you need to have been born before about 1927, which makes them at least 80 years old today. Also, I rarely take public transportation in the Untied States, and so do not meet strangers as often. And I never meet war witnesses who were nine-year-old civilians. After all, the United States was not affected the same way as Germany, Poland, France, or the other countries where the battles were fought.

I wonder if people riding on street-cars in 1928 in Atlanta, Georgia, have similar experiences? Sixty-three years after the Civil War did Yankees visiting from New York have conversations with the children who remembered Sherman’s march, and former slaves who survived that War? Were there old people sitting on Atlanta’s street cars talking to no one in particular about Sherman’s march through Georgia? I guess also that this means that 63 years after the “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad in 2003, that is in 2066, some “Ami” will be riding public transport in Iraq and will hear tales of that event too.

In my Population class two years ago, we discussed the final pension payment made by the Department of Veterans Affairs made to a Civil War widow—it happened in 2003, 138 years after the Civil War ended. Wars last a long time, don’t they?


*I checked the baker’s memories against internet sources. The received wisdom is that…the charges of American strafing are controversial, meaning some say yes, and some say it didn’t happen. In terms of casualties the actual body count was about 30,000 dead. This represents all the actual bodies found between 1945, and about 1966. This of course is a very conservative estimate, since it does not include anyone incinerated in the fire storm, died after fleeing, or who was buried elsewhere for whatever reason. The consensus number of refugees in Dresden at the time of the is about 200,000 who had fled the advancing Soviet armies moving in from the east. All this is besides the point for this essay, which is about memories of war, and how it structures relationships 63 years later.


Originally posted at January 25, 2008

The Last Auschwitz Trial, Moral Guilt, and Criminal Guilt

On June 2, 2015, I attended the trial of Oskar Groening, a German SS officer who was assigned to Auschwitz in 1942-1944. He is being tried for being an accomplice to murder of 300,000 people at Auschwitz, the number of people sent to the gas chambers during the time he was there. Another 100,000 were sent to work during the same period, where many more died from hunger and the cold. Most were Hungarian Jews. His trial is in Luenburg, Germany, where I am a Guest Professor this summer. The trial is here because he lives in this judicial district.

At Auschwitz, Groening worked as a bookkeeper. His assignment was to catalog the luggage, money, and affects from the luggage of Jews brought to Auschwitz and send it to Berlin. By his own account, he was also occasionally assigned to guard duty, including at the entry point to Auschwitz, where an early decision was made about who would go to the gas chambers, and who would live a bit longer by one of the SS officers assigned that task.

After the war, Groening was sent to a British Prisoner of War Camp in Britain until about 1947. After that, he returned to Germany, and lived with his family near where I am staying in Lueneburg, and had a middle class lifestyle until retirement in the 1980s.

Groening told his wife never to ask about what he did during the war. And apparently this was the case until about 1984. Groening was a stamp collector, and very active in local philately club. One of his acquaintances in the club told him about a new radical view emerging in parts of Germany (and elsewhere) that the Holocaust was a fable-that it never happened, and that what happened at Auschwitz was not technically feasible. He recommended a book by a “Holocaust denier.” Groening took the book, apparently read it, and then returned it with a note: “I saw everything. The gas chambers, the cremations, the selection process. One and a half million Jews were murdered in Auschwitz. I was there.”

With this note, Groening, as an Auschwitz guard, became a minor celebrity. Over the next thirty years his testimony about death, selection procedures, gas chambers, and crematoria were written about in German and international publications. The message of the former “bookkeeper of Auschwitz” was the same: “I was there, I saw it, I still lose sleep over it, I knew what happened when I was there, I am morally guilty, and it must never happen again.” He accepted moral guilt for his participation in the Holocaust. He continues this testimony up to this day, and regrets his participation.

But moral guilt and criminal guilt are two different things. Courts are in charge of criminal guilt, and over the decades, they have established criteria for who should be tried for genocide and crimes against humanity. A number of the organizers and more sadistic guards at Auschwitz were convicted at the end of the war, and hanged or imprisoned by the victorious Allies. Others were given sentences, most of which were shortened in the 1950s, and then released. Most of 6,000 or so SS who served in Auschwitz between 1942 and 1945 have of course since died of old age.

But the question for the courts linger. At what level of responsibility should the perpetrators be held accountable? Who is a perpetrator, who is an accomplice, and who is just a bureaucratic functionary? Is there a difference? Recently, German prosecutors assert that being a cog in the machine, whether a guard or a bookkeeper at Auschwitz, was enough since how could the Holocaust have been committed, unless the “little people” following orders and participated? People like Oskar Groening, and others, even if they did not make the “big decisions” have criminal guilt, too. The fact is that if the little people had not been there, the 1.2 million people could not have been delivered to the crematoria of Auschwitz by just 6,000 SS.

So, consistent with this principle, German courts in 2012 issued what are probably the final arrest warrants for World War II war crimes. The indictments are for men who were guards and bureaucrats—and by now all are in their 90s. Groening continues to acknowledge moral guilty, but claims not to be criminally guilty—but is willing to let the court decide.

Groening’s trial for being an accessory to the murder of 300,000 people began here in Lueneburg this last April, and will be concluded in July. A few survivors of Auschwitz gave testimony in April and May—they are in their late 70s and 80s, and all acknowledge that they personally did not remember Groening being there. Children of survivors have also related the stories of their parents. The day I was in court on June 2, the witness was Angela Orosz-Richt. Her parents were sent to Auschwitz in May 1944 and she was born secretly in Auschwitz’ barracks just before Christmas in 1944.

At the ramp in May 1944, her father was sent one direction, never to be seen again—presumably went straight to gas chambers, and was turned to ashes at Auschwitz’ crematoria soon after. Her mother was eventually selected by Dr. Josef Mengele for medical experiments on sterilization. Mengele sterilized her in a series of experiments which involved injecting hot burning substances into her cervix, apparently without noticing that she was pregnant. And seven months later, in the dead of winter, Oroscz-Richt was born in the Auschwitz, weighing only one kilogram. Two months later, Russian soldiers liberated Auschwitz. The young mother and her baby made her way back to Budapest where she remembered being asked for her place of birth, and writing “Auschwitz.”

They later moved to Canada where Angela Orosz-Richt had a daughter. Oroscz-Richt had heard about Auschwitz from her mother on occasion: about the burning shots in her cervix from Dr. Mengele, the hunger, and the cold. But she said the stories really came out when her own daughter in 1986 questioned her grandmother about family history for a school report. And that apparently was the details we heard of her mother’s story tumbled out in court on June 5, 2015.

Angela Orosz-Richt visited Auschwitz, her birthplace, for the first time last January on the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the camp—walking her way around her birthplace, wondering if she was walking on the ashes of her own father.

My sense is that Groening will be convicted—but then what will happen? The penalty for accomplice to murder of 300,000 people is up to 15 years in prison for a 93 year old man.

A few court dates have been cancelled due to his health, but most have been conducted. Notably, the other defendants in the indictment have been excused from prosecution due to ill health, and other incapacity—it is generally believed that Groening’s will be the last of the World War II war crimes trial.

Germany today is of course a very different place than it was in 1944, and 1945 when it committed the Holocaust, and was bombed into submission by the victorious Allies. Still even in 2015, The War is always present. There are the understated memorials to those who died, which include the brass “bricks” in German streets identifying where the Jews lived before they were deported and murdered at places like Auschwitz.

There are also occasional memorials to civilians and soldiers who died. The obelisks of the Memorial the Murdered Jews in Berlin is the most well-known perhaps, and the most disconcerting. Disorientation was indeed its purpose. And there are frequent documentaries and stories in the German press each time a significant anniversary comes, or major figure dies.

In some ways, trials like Groening’s are in their own way also a memorial to World War II victims. I was impressed that the majority of the people attending the trial (which was translated into English, Hungarian, and Hebrew), were young people, many in the twenties. They struck me as modern Germans, too, some had piercings and other fashion statements of the 21st century. And yet they were there, to hear about the crimes of a really old man, and the testimony of a 70 year old woman who described the horrors of what can easily be thought of as a different time. But their presence, and the coverage by the press, asserted that the acknowledgment of the horrors of World War II is still important.

As for Oskar Groening himself, I do not yet know quite what to think. Germans I have talked to find his behavior at Auschwitz worthy of censure and conviction—they find the distinction between “moral guilt” and “criminal guilt” to be specious, and the scope of the crime committed to be so extraordinary that it is worthy of censure seventy years later. How can passively watching of the Auschwitz gas chambers and crematoria which Groening admitted, be excused? And yet, I also find Groening to be a tragic figure—he was after all the one who reacted so vociferously and vigorously after the Holocaust denier approached him at the stamp collectors meeting in 1985, and for thirty years has consistently insisted that it happened, it was criminal, and must never happen again.

One of my Facebook friends thought a play could be written about the case. I think that she may be right. Plays are well-suited to tragedy, and this is yet another appropriate way to tell the story of Holocaust and the ordinary people—people like me, if truth be told—who observe, but do not obstruct?

Such trials are of course never enough to equal the scope of the crime committed, but neither are memorials. But in a small way, such trials are a gift of Germany to the world, by a country that committed one of the greatest crimes ever. By pursuing Oskar Groening 70 years after the war, the young people with the piercings who were at the trial, or watching the television coverage, will relay to their own grandchildren in 50 years, what it was like to gaze into the faces of people who saw Auschwitz.

Related Writing

To read more about my thoughts regarding justice, genocide, and war please see Chapter 5 of When Killing is a Crime linked here, a recent blog about bodies from the Kagera River linked here, and what a baker once told me about the fire bombing of Dresden linked here.

Originally Posted, June 2015 at

Mirror Neurons and the Looking Glass Self: The Neural Sciences meet Sociology

Why do neural scientists need expensive MRI machines to “see” what classical sociologists Charles Horton Cooley and George Herbert Mead saw by simply looking into the eyes of children?  This is the subject of my recent article “Of Mirror Neurons and the Looking Glass Self” published in Perspectives on Science.

The Mirror Neuron is a hot thing today in the neural sciences.  The Mirror Neuron hypothesis postulates that a person watching another person do something, imagines that the other person is doing.  How do the neural scientists know this?  Because they can watch it on expensive MRI machines which show that blood flows to the same part of the brain in the person who acts, and the person who observes the person acting.  Pretty cool observation isn’t it?  In fact it is so cool that some people who know about such things are predicting a Nobel Prize in Physiology of Medicine for the scientists who first developed this line of research in the 1980s and 1990s.

I’m all for Nobel Prizes all around; but it is just too bad that they guys who first observed The Looking Glass Self, Charles Horton Cooley, and George Herbert Mead can’t share in it.  Using the same metaphor of the mirror, they described the Looking Glass Self beginning in 1902.  Cooley’s research subject was his two year old daughter who he simply watched, without a machine, sensors, or anything else.  He just watched her eyes, and saw how she evaluated the response of others, and then acted and reacted based on her interpretations of social action.  Funny thing of course is that he was able to reach very similar conclusions as the neural scientists did—they even used the same metaphor of the mirror/looking glass.

What Cooley saw in 1902 was that the two year old “perfect little actress,” mirroring the thoughts and actions she observed.  He went on to note that it was through this became a social being who developed a sense of “self” which comprehended the nature of the “I” and the “you.”  Over 100 years of social psychology has productively taken advantage of this basic observation to come up with idea popularized by Erving Goffman that “all the world’s a stage,” and that all social humans exist in a reflective world of Looking Glasses and Mirrors (Now that I think of it, isn’t this also the metaphor used by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland?).

Anyway, my critique of the Mirror Neuron hypothesis after years of rejections, harsh reviews, and the other wonders of the peer review process is now available in Perspectives on Science for those of you able to get behind the paywall. The rest of you can access a pre-publication version on my account here.  I of course hope that every sociologist and anthropologist will read it.  I like to believe that it is an effective challenge to the philosophical positivism that dominates the biological scientists with their reductions of society to genes, neurons, hormones, and other biological phenomenon.

Hey, I’m even hopeful that our more positivistic friends over in the biological sciences will take a look, and offer further critique.

(Originally posted at, May 2014).

Fellowship (Gemeinschaft) by Franz Kafka (1909)

Fellowship (Gemeinschaft)


by Franz Kafka



We are five friends, one day we came out of a house one after the other, first one came and placed himself beside the gate, then the second came, or rather he glided through the gate like a little ball of quicksilver, and placed himself near the first one, then came the third, then the fourth, then the fifth. Finally we all stood in a row. People began to notice us, they pointed at us and said: Those five just came out of that house.

Since then we have been living together, it would be a peaceful life if it weren’t for a sixth one continually trying to interfere. He doesn’t do us any harm, but he annoys us, and that is harm enough; why does he intrude when he is not wanted? We don’t know him and don’t want him to join us.

There was a time, of course, when the five of us did not know one another, either, and it could be said that we still don’t know one another, but what is possible and can be tolerated by the five of us is not possible and cannot be tolerated with this sixth one. In any case, we are five and don’t want to be six. And what is the point of this continual being together anyhow? It is also pointless for the five of us, but here we are together and will remain together; a new combination, however, we do not want, just because of our experiences.

But how is one to make all this clear to the sixth one? Long explanations would almost amount to accepting him in our circle, so we prefer not to explain and not to accept him. No matter how he pouts his lips we push him away with our elbows, but however much we push him away, back he comes.

The above is fast-becoming my favorite text for teaching about the German concept of Gemeinschaft. The concept is fundamental to the sociology of classical sociologists Fedinand Toennies, and Max Weber; both based their sociology on the German concept of Gemeinschaft.

Gemeinschaft is a social group or identity rooted in a sense of belongingness. Members of a Gemeinschaft share personal loyalties to each other because of who they are. They have an “origin story,” share a present, and by implication will share a future together. Families and marital couples are a Gemeinschaft. But so are college fraternities and sororities, doctors guilds, nurses associations, lawyers’ bar associations, fellow citizens, militaries make up their own Gemeinschaft within a larger society. The academic Gemeinschaft dominate universities, college graduate have such respect each others degrees, and political groups do so too. For that matter, it applies to ethnic and linguistic groups as well. The point being that loyalty and privilege is on the basis of inherited or earned rights. Thus when you understand that someone is a member of your group, you offer them a special type of fellowship out of loyalty and mutual obligation, just like the five friends, who did not need a sixth., and do not need to justify why they do not want the sixth.  It just is.

These are the groups in which we as human thrive.  But on the basis of Gemeinschaft we also exclude.

Gemeinschaft is in contrast to the German Gesellschaft, which is a instrumental relationship for which there is no loyalty or future obligation. The market transaction is the most obvious type of Gesellschaft relationship, where you sell your goods, labor, or anything else for hard cold cash in the anonymous marketplace. Money is the nexus, not loyalty or human connection, and once the transaction is complete you have no responsibility to each other.  This type of relationship is the most common one we undertake in the modern world, as we sell our own labor, and buy the labor of others in order to survive, respecting only the lure of cold hard cash.  The classic example of a Gesellschaft-type relationship is the hired killer described by Max Weber. You pay, the killer kills, and the next time you see each other on the street, you ignore each other. Classic Gesellschaft.

And unlike with Gemeinschaft, the Gesellschaft does not need to exclude, except when you do not have money. Thus in the Gemeinschaft, only when there is loyalty and privilege, is there exclusion. Not everyone can be a member of the Gemeinschaft, and in fact the point of a Gemeinschaft is that there is someone who is not part of your group. And of course the point of having a group is that someone else is not part of your group. To be an insider you need an outsider. Which is the Kafkaesque point that the ever-cheerful Franz Kafka made about the nature of the “Fellowship” which is Gemeinschaft.


Kafka, Franz (1909) “Fellowship.”   translated by Tania and James Stern, from Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories, edited by Nahum N. Glazer.  Random House, 1946.

Waters, Tony and Dagmar Waters, translators and editors (2015 in press). Chapter 4 “Classes, Staende, Parties” in  Weber’s Rationality and Modern Society.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan.