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October 18, 2000
I have been following the "Darkness in El Dorado" controversy from a very safe distance, on research leave in Australia, so I don't have the perspective of colleagues who are in the thick of the thing. But it seems appropriate to use the advantage of the antipodean location, and turn the affair upside down.
My first point is not upside-down at all: I congratulate AAA President Lamphere and the Executive Board and Program Committee on arranging a full airing of the charges and countercharges at the Annual Meeting, and I hope there are many thoughtful colleagues in attendance.
The second point is the upside-down one: Is it possible to turn this public-relations disaster not only into a "teachable moment" inside the profession, but into an unforeseen opportunity to get out the good word about anthropology and anthropologists? Because the truth is that we are, by and large, dedicated to the betterment of the world to a degree seen in very few other professions. And I don't mean just through immediate practical work by the thousands of anthropologists who labor in the trenches for indigenous rights, for humane treatment of refugees, for innovative legal responses to racism and sexism, and so many other decent goals, often against dangerous and determined opponents. Or the other thousands who've beaten the funding bushes and even dug into their own pockets to help consultants and communities with everything from road repair to university tuition. I also mean through all the work that produces delicate and rigorous accounts of the magnificent diversity of human thought and experience, work that recognizes that the ideas and accomplishments of human communities remote because of time and space and class from the current centers of dominance deserve to be part of the common global store of knowledge.
So every sneering op-ed piece or credulous bit of wire-service tripe can be seen as an opportunity for "spin" -- put less cynically, as a chance to get out the real story. If the press is interested in anthropology just now, even for all the wrong reasons, we can use that interest, and appeal to the ideology of "balanced coverage" to make the public aware of anthropology's contributions.
I encourage everyone to write the local paper and phone the radio station and brag about their own work, their friends' work, and the work of our professional ancestors. It's an enormous source of pride to me that my picture on the "President's Wall" in the Association offices hangs, a couple of rows down, directly under that of Franz Boas. He did many things that we wouldn't do today (I cringe when I read about him digging up graves on Vancouver Island over the vigorous objection of the Kwakiutl). But he was a fearless fighter against racism. He gave his indigenous consultants full recognition and encouraged them to publish their own work. He brought women and people of color into his seminars and into the profession at a time when this was very unusual. Not too shabby, and we are his heirs. No doubt our descendants will find a few things to cringe about in our own practice. But they will also find much to praise, especially if we make sure that the public knows, not only about our inevitable embarrassments, in-house spats, and ambivalencies, but about all the contributions about which we are most proud.
Jane H. Hill, AAA President, 1998-99
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