The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, February 22, 2013

Ahistoric Blame Game

It happens every now and again, admittedly less often now that I live in Fresno, that I will be speaking with someone from Europe, and they will say something ot the effect of "I don't think that you Americans should assume that you have any right to talk about racial relations, after slavery and what you did to the Native Americans!"

They never seem prepared for my response, which is "yeah, you're right, our nation did continue to implement and further develop the policies put into place by England, France, Spain, Germany, etc."  I usually follow this up with "so, let's talk about your country's history in Africa/India/Asia/etc."

It has been my experience that Europeans often accuse Americans of being the slavers and genocidal maniacs who went after Native Americans, despite the fact that anti-Native American policies originated with early European colonists from throughout Europe, and the racially-based African slave trade as we would come to know it originated in Portugal and spread throughout Europe, from where it eventually spread to the Americas along with European colonists.  And, indeed, one of the reasons why slavery continued as late as it did in the U.S. is because cotton markets, including those in Europe, were comfortable with purchasing the products manufactured through slave labor.

Within the United States, we tend to blame the south for slavery, despite the fact that many northerners were not opposed to (and some even supported) slavery, and even where slavery was outlawed it would still appear under the guise of indentured servitude, prison-based hard labor passed out out of proportion to the crimes of the accused, and debt labor.

And on it goes.

The problem with this blame-game is twofold:  1) it is ahistorical, it requires us to be willingly (and often intentionally) ignorant of history; 2) it allows us to view the "others" who engaged in these policies as separate from us, different from us, and therefore allows us to ignore the role that our nation, or even we ourselves, may play in this.

Obviously, as someone who professionally deals with history, I have a special concern about #1.  I strongly feel that we should know our past, as accurately as possible, warts and all, and ignoring the culpability of our own culture in the sins of the past counts as a failure.

But #2 concerns me as a human who has to live in this world, in the here and now.  When we portray ourselves as being more enlightened and fundamentally different as creatures from those who committed past atrocities, we not only ignore the capacity of our own culture to produce equivalent atrocities, but we also ignore that we are sometimes culpable in the atrocities.  It's why the people of Ohio can feel superior to the American South's history of slavery and Jim Crow laws while fostering conditions in cities that have continued racial conflict.  It's why European government officials can persuade themselves that they are better and more enlightened than the U.S. in terms of race relations, despite the fact that Europe has increasingly worse problems with immigration and assimilation than the U.S.

Ahistoric blaming isn't just lazy scholarship, it's also a problem for those who are concerned about what is going on in the here-and-now.  It's a shell game that people (en masse in the forms of both regional and national electorates) use to tell themselves that their decisions are alright, or even good, while equivalent past decisions of other nations were horrible and should be looked down upon.  It allows us to put a false distance between "us" and "them" and therefore falsely assert that our decisions are better, smarter, and more just, when they are, in fact, almost identical.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Trying to Do Something New With It?

It seems that, whenever I encounter someone who is an advocate of some form of pseudo-archaeology, after I have exhaustively pointed out the flaws, inconsistencies, and made-up-shit that goes into their pet hypothesis, I am told something along the lines of "well, at least I (or the person who they are quoting) am trying to do something different with this information!  THAT has value!"

If you are genuinely trying to do something new and innovative with old information, and trying to do it in such a way that you are not engaging in fabricating information, using special pleading to make your case, or in some other way being a dishonest bastard, then yes, trying to do something new has value.

The people who use this as the last-line defense for their pet hypothesis, though?  Well, A) they are almost always just trying to maintain an older, stupid idea ("ancient astronauts," Biblical literalism, etc.) and aren't actually trying anything new, and B) they are pretty much always conflating "trying something new" with playing fast-and-loose with evidence and ignoring anything even vaguely approaching logic or honesty.

If you think I'm being overly harsh, then let's consider the fact that this explanation is pretty much only used in pseudo-science, and is not present in any other realm where people try to arrive at some sort of coherent explanation of events.

For example, in criminal investigations, you would rightfully dismiss someone as a nut if they insisted that a theft was committed by aliens, and then proceeded to "prove" this by making references to out-of-context information from unrelated crimes, pulling bits and pieces of conspiracy beliefs from pop culture, making up "facts", and ignoring relevant information from the actual crime scene.  They would certainly be "doing something new" with the information...but that something new would not only not get you anywhere closer to solving the crime, it would, in fact, move you farther and farther away from the real solution.  A person doing this would be immediately drummed out of the investigation and replaced with someone who was, you know, actually mentally competent.

And yet this same basic procedure - pulling out-of-context information from unrelated sites, pulling "facts" out of pop culture rather than data, making false claims about relevant sites, and often just making shit up - is the norm in pseudo-archaeology, and even people who are not directly involved in it often defend these practices by claiming that the pseudo-scholar is "trying to do something new" with the information.

Often, perhaps typically, implied under all of this is the notion that real archaeologists (or, as the pseudo-archaeologists often label us "establishment archaeologists - booo, hisssss, bad establishment!") aren't trying to find anything new.  Sometimes it is flat out stated - there are many claims from the pseudo scholars that actual scholars are just trying to maintain some sort of "status quo", which reveals the true depth of the ignorance of the pseudo scholars - but at least as often it's just sort of implied, clearly there as an accusation, but covered up enough that the accuser can deny it if called on it.

The truth, however, is that we are working far harder than any of these twits.  We are routinely trying to test and verify our methods and our results (see here for a summarized history of how archaeology has changed, or read this for a more thorough discussion).  I have opened myself up to criticism by my professional colleagues for presenting papers that were not in-line with established models of past cultures, I have also found and publicized artifacts that are out-of-keeping with established cultural chronologies, and I have long supported archaeologists who work on the frontiers of what we think we know (for example, those working on pre-Clovis archaeology in North America).  And I am not alone, some solitary warrior fighting against the "establishment" - every archaeologist that I know who presents papers or publishes their findings does similar things.  Trying to "do something new" is what archaeologists do.

Now, it could be said that we should be better at communicating this to the general public.  That is a valid criticism, and certainly one that I, and others try to address by keeping blogs, giving public lectures, appearing on podcasts, and so on.  Some of us are lucky enough to be able to participate in radio and television, which is where most people get their information.

However, while we might do a better job of communicating our work and our findings, that in no way absolves the pseudo-archaeologists who distort, lie, and obfuscate.  And, if you are someone who is going to  claim that real archaeologists aren't "doing something new" then I offer you a challenge:  When is the last time that you read an issue of National Geographic?  Smithsonian Magazine?  Or looked at professional journals such as American Antiquity?  If you haven't done so lately, then you don't know what archaeologists are up to, and you sound as ignorant as you truly are when you imply that we aren't doing anything, or are simply supporting the "status quo."

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

So, It's Been a While...

So, it has, indeed, been a while since last I posted an entry on this blog.  The reasons for this are simple - work and family obligations coupled with trying to complete an archaeological research project outside of work have kept me very, very busy.  And after a while, I didn't feel like posting routine posts that simply said that I would be getting back to writing soon when, as it turned out, I have not been able to.

That being said, I do enjoy writing this blog, and there are several topics that I'd like to cover, so I do intend to continuing just may be a while before I am able to get back to doing it on a regular basis.

In the meantime, I will mention that it looks like the PI on the research project with which I have been involved is getting ready to publish our results, so I will likely have another publication under my belt, soon.  I'll post here when that happens.

I would, in the meantime, like to point all y'all towards the CRM archaeology podcast Random Acts of Science.  Serr Head, of Archy Fantasies, is a panelist on the most recent episode, so it ought to be worth a listen.

Although we make up the vast majority of archaeologist, CRM archaeology is not well-represented in the media, so I support any effort to further our cause.