By Curtis Abraham
Ted Green in Suriname, South America among the Matawai, 1972
Edward C. Green (Ted) is a retired American medical anthropologist, who has served as a senior research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health at Harvard University, Boston, Mass, in the US. He was also senior research scientist at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies later becoming its director of the AIDS Prevention Project.
In addition, Green was appointed a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (2003-2007), and served in the Office of AIDS Research Advisory Council for the US-based National Institutes of Health (2003-2006).
Prior to his retirement, Green was not only a pioneer in the field of anthropological research on Africa’s indigenous healers, “witch-doctors” in colonial lingo, but he’s also a maverick in developing public health programs based on collaboration between African indigenous healers and western-styled biomedical personnel. He has guided such programs in Mozambique, Swaziland, South Africa and Nigeria.
Green grew up in privilege on America’s East coast. His father, Marshall Green, was a career diplomat who, among his ambassadorial appointments, served as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. In 1972, he accompanied US President Richard M. Nixon on his historic trip to China.
“My dad was one of the key advisors to Nixon’s successful trip to China,” says Green, “and he was considered by some to be the equivalent and counterpart to Chinese Foreign Affairs expert Zhou En lai [Chou En-lai]”
In spite of Nixon’s groundbreaking trip, Lisa Green had deep reservations about her husband’s boss:
“My mother argued that with a deeply flawed leader in the White House, there needed to be sane, responsible, ‘adult’ advisors like my dad making sure Nixon didn’t fly off the rails (as another Republican, Trump, would do later).”
Ted Green briefly attended the prestigious Groton School, said to be one of the most selective private college-preparatory boarding schools in Groton, Massachusetts (its notable alumni includes US president Franklin D. Roosevelt, The Munsters TV show actor Frederick (Fred) Hubbard Gwynne, and pioneering primatologist Sherwood Washburn). In Green’s time the school was for boys only who were from well-to-do families from Northeastern US, but in 1975 Groton became co-educational and is currently attended by kids from around the world.
(In 2014, Groton Affordability and Inclusive initiative, or GRAIN, ensured that no student application would be dismissed because of financial constraints by freezing tuition for three years)
The Rev. John Crocker, an OB of Groton, became its headmaster in late 1940 (a position he held for a quarter century). In terms of civil rights, Crocker was apparently ahead of his time. Three years prior to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision banning segregation in public schools, Groton accepted its first African-American student. In April 1965, Crocker and his wife, accompanied by seventy-five Groton School students, marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during a civil rights demonstration in Boston.
In the early 1970s, Green along with then wife Shannon and their young son Timothy traveled to Suriname (Dutch Guiana) in South America to live with the Matawai, one of five groups of Maroons (Saramaka), descendants of African slaves who escaped from the coastal plantations in the 17th and 18th centuries and thrived in the Amazon rain-forest, for his doctoral studies. The results were a debilitating disease, a divorce and developing friendships with the most humane of humans.
In March 2009, Ted Green caused controversy by publicly agreeing with His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI’s statement that condoms was proving ineffective in tackling the spread of HIV/AIDS in a sub-Saharan African setting (according to articles written by American conservative columnist, Kathryn Jean Lopez and John-Henry Westen, co-founder and editor-in-chief of LifeSiteNews.com, during a mid-flight news conference en-route to the west African nation of Cameroon, Pope Benedict had said: “If the soul is lacking, if Africans do not help one another, the scourge cannot be resolved by distributing condoms; quite the contrary, we risk worsening the problem.”)
His books includes: Rethinking AIDS Prevention (2003), Indigenous Theories of Contagious Diseases (1999), AIDS, Behavior and Culture: Understanding Evidence-Based Prevention (2011) and Broken Promises: How the AIDS Establishment has Betrayed the Developing World (2011)
In 2022, Green is to publish Tale of a Renegade Anthropologist, a revealing memoir about his life and career as a medical anthropologist. His research archives (including photographs and recordings) are stored at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Anthropological Archives in Washington D.C., USA.
He is also the founder of the New Paradigm Fund, which aims "to identify, develop and share superior models for addressing the problems associated with AIDS, addiction, rain forest and primate conservation, and aspects of poverty associated with stateless and minority peoples."
Ted Green is also a musician and cancer survivor.
HOW DID YOU GET THE IDEA TO WORK WITH AFRICA’S TRADITIONAL HEALERS?
In 1977, I was at a cocktail party in Accra, Ghana when I ran into Michael Warren, a medical anthropologist from Iowa State University. He was setting up one of the first serious programs to work with traditional healers (the term they themselves prefer) on aspects of Western public health. About 80 percent of all people in sub-Saharan Africa rely on these healers for medical diagnosis and treatment, even if many also visit clinics. Traditional healers are thus the de facto primary healthcare providers. Mike was teaching them to use oral rehydration salts on infants with diarrhea diseases, which are major baby-killers in Africa and beyond.
This was clearly a program with life-or-death impact. I realized I could be applying my knowledge to issues on a grand scale, instead of teaching anthropology to students fulfilling a social science requirement. So I made the decision then and there: I would become an applied anthropologist, maybe even an applied medical anthropologist. I have never regretted it.
DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST COLLABORATION PROGRAM BETWEEN THE TRADITIONAL DOCTORS AND WESTERN MEDICAL EXPERTS?
Soon after, I deliberately left the academic world and an opportunity to work in collaboration with healers came up almost immediately in Swaziland. It’s not the reason I was sent to Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), but USAID wanted to look into the feasibility of collaboration with indigenous healers. So instead of them hiring a consultant, I suggested that I look into it and write a report. By the way, USAID has always been open—minded about working with healers. We only got vigorous push-back from local doctors.
WHY WAS THERE PUSH-BACK?
The local doctors competed with traditional healers. It really annoyed the hell out of them
that people would go to traditional healers first, or instead of, consulting doctor. I think that
is what was really going on but what they would say is, “these people are completely
untrained! How can they treat patients?” Meanwhile, European doctors could see the public
health benefits of working in collaboration with local healers.
GROWING UP IN 1950s AMERICA, WHAT WAS YOUR EARLIEST ENCOUNTER WITH ETHNIC DIVERSITY?
I am a WASP [White Anglo-Saxon Protestant], but an overseas WASP. I spent most of my childhood overseas, from New Zealand to Sweden to South Korea. In between, I was in two boarding schools in Massachusetts. One was lily-white and the other had one or two Africans, and exactly one African-American. Since I more or less grew up with cultural diversity, with the exception of having no exposure to African culture, I suppose I took it for granted.
During my five years in Sweden, I had a very close friend who was an Israeli diplomat's son. His father and mine ended up in Washington DC at the same time, and so we continued our friendship.
Initially, my brother and I were placed in a Swedish school for three months where I had to struggle in Swedish. Later, an international school run by Brits opened and there we rubbed shoulders with kids from Indian, Pakistani, Turkish, Israeli and Latin-American families. I remember having the Turkish kid over one day to hang out, while he was struggling with English.
He later became the Turkish UN Ambassador, and Ambassador to the US. I remembered [also] that I had no American friends at the international English-speaking school in Stockholm I attended for five years.
When I later found myself in boarding school at age ten, between Sweden & Korea (1955-60), American kids seemed superficial, overly patriotic, and culturally naive. Also, I knew nothing about baseball or American football and so I didn't fit in. I missed living overseas.
In 1960-62, when I attended high school in South Korea, I hung out with my American peers on an army base, and with American soldiers. Most of my friends looked down on Koreans, while I saw them as extremely intelligent and motivated. I had an intuitive feeling that they might be among the leaders of the world someday. I did have fascinating glimpses of Korean culture on occasion. I remember talking to some Korean soldiers on a train, discussing whether or not it was considered alright to smoke in front of parents in our respective cultures. And I gave English lessons to a Lt. Lee when I was sixteen and he would have been in his late twenties.
WHAT WERE THE CIRCUMSTANCES SURROUNDING YOUR EXPULSION FROM GROTON SCHOOL?
I hated boarding school especially after my freedom I had living in Sweden. My mother made a deal with me: If I could get on the Groton Honor Roll (which was very difficult--my dad never quite made it himself), she would allow me to transfer to St. Albans day school in Washington DC (where Al Gore attended). So I worked really hard and I achieved it!
But then my mother changed the deal: she said "it would be a crime to take you out of Groton now that you are doing so well!" So I was lied to. I reacted by stopping to care or work hard.I went through the fall semester in 1959, not caring about much anymore. I had been promised that hard work would get me out of Groton and into St. Albans, but that turned out to be a lie. So why try? My attitude was certainly negative, and this did not go unnoticed.
The final straw came when a group of boys had a fight in the cavernous basement of Hundred House, where I lived. Jugs of apple cider were hurled and there was said to be abundant broken glass. Just the kind of thing Ted Green would instigate. I went home to Washington for Christmas vacation of 1959 and my mother asked me odd questions: Did the Rev. Crocker say goodbye to me (as he did to every boy)? Did he look me in the eye when he said it? I said yes to both. My mother sighed with relief. A week later, he expelled me.
In the letter, he said he felt it best if I went with my family to Seoul, Korea, and resume my studies with whatever might be available there. I was described as having “chronic, negative attitude,” and then there was the riot in the basement that they were pretty sure I masterminded, although I wasn’t even there. There was a faculty vote, and almost all voted to eject me.
WHY DID YOUR MOTHER IN PARTICULAR HAVE SUCH A NEGATIVE REACTION TO YOUR EXPULSION?
My mother was devastated. She told me that I was a failure and always would be a failure, words that stuck in my heart and are even there today. “The only career open to a boy who has been expelled (she spat the loathsome word out) is the army” (another loathsome word). “But if you've been expelled,” she continued, “you can never be an officer, so at best you will retire at age 60 as a private first class.”
But hell, my dad went to Groton, not my mother. Why was she the one so undone? I remember her saying to my dad more than once, “And he [the Headmaster] didn’t even have the guts to tell Teddy he wasn’t coming back! What a coward.” She remained bitter for the rest of her life. But then she never forgot any real or imagined slight. Yet as a favor to the family, my expulsion was to be expelled from the official record. They altered it to show that I’d withdrawn from Groton voluntarily to go to Seoul, where my dad had just been assigned. However, I am still considered a Groton OB, form of 1963. In addition to writing an invited article about the school and World War II for Groton’s quarterly magazine, I was interviewed by the same magazine for a lengthy article about my work in global AIDS prevention.
YOU’VE MENTIONED THAT YOU OWE THE MATAWAI MAROONS OF SURINAME IN SOUTH AMERICA A GREAT DEBT. HOW SO?
They made my initial field work experience (anywhere) so natural and positive that this would color all my subsequent research in whatever part of the world I happened to be working. They also taught me a valuable lesson that people don't have to let themselves be defined by the terrible things that others might have done to them, that people can transcend the circumstances they find themselves in, such as radical dislocation, slavery, warfare, torture, etc. and become authors of their own destinies--just as the Vietnamese did not allow the war with my country to define them, or Nelson Mandela didn’t allow years of oppression and imprisonment define him.
Living with the Matawai made me feel better about human nature in general. Maybe I am romanticizing or idealizing them, but they seemed to have forged a way of life in the Amazon forest that was fundamentally nonviolent and humane. I have heard it said that one can tell a lot about a society by the way it treats the least of its members. I remember that the one disabled and probably psychotic member of our village was given allowances because it was understood that normal rules of conduct could not apply to certain disabled people who wouldn’t have understood them.
WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM THEM?
I saw that racism is unnatural; it has to be learned. When we first arrived in the Paramount Chief’s village, two tiny toddlers took my even tinier son by his hands and led him off to show him where other kids were, in the village. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world. My wife and I didn’t think to worry [In 1977, I returned to the Matawai and one of these Matawai youngsters resumed his friendship with my son, even though they had no common language with which to communicate.
As for my wife and me on that first day, the Matawai didn't see us as representatives of some bygone period of history, but rather as who we were that day—then. I mention in my memoir that during my exploratory trip in 1970, the chief of a village where our canoe had been blown by a storm, told us that the encounter that day was not accidental. The ancestral spirits had selected one among our party of four to return and spend time getting to know the Matawai in order to tell the rest of the world that the Matawai were good, peace-loving people. Of course, that person had to be me.
YOU’VE ALSO MENTIONED THAT YOUR ANCESTORS MIGHT HAVE ALSO ENSLAVED AFRICAN DESCENDANTS LIKE THE MATAWAI. WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT YOUR FOREBEARS?
Matawai and all Maroons had every reason to hate White people. In their position, I would have probably hated me. My ancestors were English with some Dutch in the mix. The former lived all over New England for up to three centuries. None were from the South, where there was slave-holding. I descend from five New England colonial governors and the first Episcopal Bishop in the US. The Dutch ancestors I know far less about. But the point is, I came from the type of wealthy, privileged family that might have owned slaves, depending on where they lived.
WHY WAS/IS THE HIV/AIDS EPIDEMIC IN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA SO MISUNDERSTOOD BY MANY WESTERN EXPERTS AND POLICY-MAKERS?
The reasons are many. In 2002, I wrote an article for a general audience called Culture Clash and AIDS Prevention. In the article, I discussed how while attending an international health conference, I sat in on a session on AIDS prevention. Out of the four scheduled presenters, only one, an American, showed up to speak; the other three were all African and none could attend due to travel problems.
The American speaker spoke about HIV transmission among gay men, using the word "homophobia" a dozen times. The audience, mainly from Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean, seemed unresponsive, as if they didn’t understand what was being said, and while there was at least 90 minutes left for a Q&A session, no one said a word. The moderator had nothing to add, or even say. The situation seemed awkward.
The session moderator knew me and so asked if I would like to open up a discussion about AIDS prevention. I did, describing Uganda’s “off-script,” endogenous prevention program, based on behavioral change rather than condoms, testing and treating STDs or STIs. The room lit up! There was great interest and many questions were asked.
This illustrates not only the very different types of epidemics found in two regions of the world, [which was later called concentrated and generalized], with the latter found only in southern and perhaps East Africa but also a clash of cultures between [the global South] and the West.
Different types of responses were needed to address these different types of epidemics. In East and Southern Africa, for example, HIV/AIDS epidemics are fundamentally different from those of the rest of the world because HIV exists largely in the general, heterosexual population. In contrast, most or all HIV/AIDS epidemics outside Sub-Saharan Africa have not expanded from “key populations” such as commercial sex workers and intravenous drug users into the general heterosexual population.
Remarkably, this continues to this day, with the West dictating how funds are spent in AIDS prevention. Sadly, Uganda’s behavior change model has been all but dismembered by “international” AIDS organizations.
HIV/AIDS PREVENTION GLOBALLY WAS/IS SUCH AN ENORMOUS AND COMPLICATED ISSUE. WERE THERE ANY OTHER FACTORS?
There was also a clash of cultures and values between the West and Africa. Africans and others in the audience thought that promotion of monogamy/fidelity and abstinence among youth were exactly the right responses to AIDS, whereas this is usually thought by Westerners to constitute unwarranted infringement in people's personal lives.
Some of my colleagues called this approach "missionary terrorism," designed to interfere with people's right to experience having multiple sexual partners. The American and indeed Western model of AIDS prevention is to leave sexual behavior alone, but reduce risk by promoting condoms and treating the curable STDs (since these facilitate transmission of HIV). In fact, in the West, AIDS programs were judged to be sex-positive (good!), or sex-negative (bad!).
There was, and is, no evidence that mass promotion of condoms has paid off with a decline of HIV infection rates at the population level in Africa, according to UNAIDS assessments of condom effectiveness. In fact, countries with the highest levels of condom availability back then (Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa, Kenya) also had some of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world.
WAS THERE EVER A TIME WHEN THE POLICY WAS THAT CONDOMS WERE THE FIRST AND ONLY FIRST-LINE DEFENSE IN PROTECTING AGAINST HIV, AND HOW DID YOU ARRIVE AT THE CONCLUSION THAT CONDOMS ON THEIR OWN WEREN’T EFFECTIVE ENOUGH IN COMBATING THE SPREAD OF HIV IN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA?
Yes, then other experts critics like myself such as epidemiologist Rand L. Stoneburner, Daniel Low-Beer, then of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Norman G. Hearst of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) then several experts at USAID, and science journalist Helen Epstein, pointed to the actual evidence. Partner reduction started to catch on in HIV prevention among a few in AIDS research and documentation but then the ultra-expensive intervention of “treatment-as-prevention” came along (to ensure that AIDS prevention would become more expensive and good-for-the-AIDS-industry (to be cynical.) No one made a dollar if people were sexually restrained in any way.
We saw that most condom use, despite education about condoms and wide distribution efforts, was inconsistent, pretty much everywhere. And inconsistent use does not protect at the population level. In addition, the use of condoms can also create a false sense of security leading to a lack of sexual restraint. This is why in the 1990s, condom use and HIV infection rates rose together, suggesting a connection between the two. Condoms were probably a marker for sexual activity (outside marriage). We were still only talking about between 3-10 condoms per male, per year being used in the 1990s.
No surprise that condoms had little impact!
WHAT WAS THE BLOW-BACK FROM ACADEMIA AND ELSEWHERE AT WHAT YOU WERE SAYING ABOUT THE INEFFECTIVENESS OF CONDOMS IN HIV PREVENTION?
There was terrible blow-back. As early as 1998, I could only rarely get past peer review and publish my research Findings. Dr. Jim Shelton, a condom expert at USAID started to say the very same things I was saying and he was getting published! Yet he first heard his ideas from me. Why was I having such trouble getting past peer review in major journals? I was told I had made a reputation of being a “trouble-maker.” I took solace in an ancient Chinese proverb: “A Man’s ideas travel further if he does not go along with them.”
Later, a University of California researcher was asked to review condom effectiveness for UNAIDS. He found they were little effective. UNAIDS decided to shelve his findings (as happened to my similar findings for the World Bank, in 1998.) Hearst published his findings anyway, but not in an AIDS journal.
The AIDS prevention industry believed it had a solution, namely condoms, and there was
already a family planning industry ready to jump into the fight against AIDS. In addition, gay
men, who were the first victims of HIV in the US, liked the condom solution far better than
putting a damper on their sexual freedom. They became the first AIDS “missionaries” to go to Africa with the message of sexual freedom.
My position was: have all the sexual freedom you want—just as I did myself before AIDS. But if you want to avoid HIV, you might want to be a little more careful in the Age of AIDS by having fewer concurrent sexual partners. This somehow became dumbed-down and attacked as “Abstinence-Only!”
DIDN’T CONDOM USE HAVE LIMITED SUCCESS IN PLACES SUCH AS THAILAND?
It’s true that condom use was somewhat more effective in other parts of the world such as SE Asia. Thailand was held up as the great condom success story. But it was not that simple. In Thailand, which is considered the world’s great condom success story, the HIV epidemic was largely fueled by contact with sex workers. During the early 1990s, the number of men reporting consistent condom use when visiting a sex worker increased from 36% to 71%. But during this same time period, the number of men reporting premarital or extramarital sex was cut in half and the percentage visiting sex workers likewise declined by half. All of these trends, along with political support and increased STI control, likely contributed to Thailand’s declining HIV incidence during the early 1990s.
Years later, the famous Thai condom promoter, Merchai Viravaidya, the one who started the Bangkok restaurant, “Cabbages and Condoms” declared that Thailand was no longer a condom--or indeed an AIDS--success story. For one thing, it had higher HIV prevalence than other countries in SE Asia. Yet condoms as a rule are more effective in concentrated HIV epidemics—those outside of southern and eastern Africa.
Western-developed, “risk reduction” approaches to HIV prevention focusing largely on “key populations,” which is not where most infections are found in Africa, have been largely ineffective in the generalized HIV epidemics in Africa. Yet even today, in 2022, the latest UN consensus document is all about risk reduction-only and reaching out to Key Populations. Even if we were to lower infection rates among Key Populations, this would have little impact on overall prevalence rates in countries like South Africa, Botswana or Malawi.
Green on his Suzuki 1400k
WHY DO YOU THINK THAT THE POWERS THAT BE IGNORE OR OVERLOOK AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL APPROACH TOWARDS TACKLING SOME OF OUR MOST CHALLENGING GLOBAL PROBLEMS?
I don’t necessarily agree with the premise of the question. The USG agency I have the most experience with is USAID. It has used anthropological input since at least the latter 1970s, when “social soundness analyses” were required for new projects. There were then and are now many USAID officers with training in anthropology.
On the USAID contractor side, I was asked to serve on a board for a global social marketing project by the Academy of Educational Development, which specifically wanted an anthropologist to advise this board. In the field of international development, there were and still are many anthropologists, and this is true in so many diverse areas: education, business, health, agriculture. irrigation and dams.
Michael M. Cernea is one of the best anthropologists guiding and advising the World Bank.
There were and are many anthropologists working in US domestic affairs. In 1991, or thereabouts, I helped a friend design a project for a bid to the Office of Minority Health, DHHS. The target groups for this funding were African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, and others. I was happy to discover that two of the four DHHS officers questioning our plan held degrees in cultural anthropology themselves. (Our company, Tonya Inc., was awarded the grant, and was later renewed for a second period of time.)
More recently, we have the example of some anthropologists giving counter-insurgency advice to US diplomatic, military and intelligence officials. One controversial anthropologist is Montgomery McFate, who enlisted her services to the US military [and intelligence] services. She now teaches counter-insurgency strategies at the US Naval War College---and gets much criticism heaped on her by academic anthropologists.
But it raises the perennial question: should one work within a system that might be misguided, and try to change it, or should one leave the system alone to remain misguided while we ourselves can remain “pure?”
FRANZ BOAS, THE FATHER OF ACADEMIC ANTHROPOLOGY IN AMERICA, ONCE WROTE: “ANTHROPOLOGIST SPYING FOR THEIR COUNTRY SEVERELY BETRAYED THEIR SCIENCE AND DAMAGED THE CREDIBILITY OF ALL ANTHROPOLOGICAL RESEARCH…A SCIENTIST WHO USES HIS RESEARCH AS A COVER FOR POLITICAL SPYING FORFEITS THE RIGHT TO BE CLASSIFIED AS A SCIENTIST”. ANTHROPOLOGY ALSO HAS A LONG HISTORY OF BEING USED IN THE SERVICE OF AMERICAN IMPERIALISM?
There is sensitive history to such “prostitution of anthropological skills,” in the words of some critics. Actually, going back to World War II, famous anthropologists such as Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Gregory Bateson and many others lent their expertise to the Allied effort in World War II. I don't believe there was much criticism of anthropology in the service of fighting Fascism.
However, a generation later, there was something of a scandal when it was discovered that anthropologists were giving insights and transmitting information to military and CIA officials in Southeast Asia that had the effect of helping to crush what many anthropologists regarded as a nationalist peasant movement against first the French, and then the United States, imperialists-colonialists.
The discovery that a number of anthropologists had been secretly working for defense-and intelligence-related organizations in Vietnam and neighboring countries such as Thailand to promote counter-insurgency and support anti-communist efforts led to impassioned debates and self-examination by members of our field, our profession
ANY RECENT EXAMPLES YOU CAN POINT TO?
The sad case of Gerald C. Hickey comes to mind. He was an anthropologist who specialized in Vietnam and believed in the US anti-communist efforts early in the US intervention. Later, however, he] became disillusioned after the US began spraying Agent Orange and using other forms of chemical warfare against the Vietnamese people and their physical environment. But his reputation was dragged in the mud for his earlier enthusiasm.
All this led to the formation of the association's (AAA) first Ethics Committee, which recommended that “clandestine research, secrecy about sources of research funding and limitations on the publication of research results be condemned as inconsistent with the ethical standards of anthropological research.”
YOU PURPOSELY AVOIDED THIS DILEMMA BY SWITCHING YOUR AREA OF STUDY FROM SOUTHEAST ASIA TO SOUTH AMERICA
I was actually headed for dissertation research in probably Thailand, when I made my 1970 trip to the Suriname Maroons and abruptly changed my plans to study instead in Suriname. I didn’t want to get involved in research that might be used in a war effort. I was very public in my opposition to the War in Vietnam. This caused tension within my family, which was a common during occurrence during the Vietnam war years, except in my case, my father was Assistant Secretary of State for Asian and Pacific affairs and was advising Nixon, Kissinger and our personal family friend, CIA Director William Colby.
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON SOME THE HIGH PROFILE CONTROVERSIES INVOLVING SOME OF THE 20TH CENTURY’S MOST PROMINENT ANTHROPOLOGISTS AND POPULARIZERS OF THE DISCIPLINE- MARGARET MEAD, FOR EXAMPLE?
These are enormous topics! Remember that for most of my career, I have been mostly absent from the academic world of anthropology, and so I am no expert on these academic squabbles. Still, I have thought quite a lot about Mead and her naivete during her first fieldwork. We know how much she wanted to confirm the biases of her mentor Franz Boaz; we know her Samoan language skills were inferior to those of her accuser Derek Freeman, we know from direct quotes in Samoan and English from her main informant (and published in the American Anthropologist) that she and Mead’s otter her adolescent informants were so embarrassed by Mead’s intrusive questions about sex that that finally made up wild & crazy stories about all the boys that were having sex with—not thinking that Mead would ever believe them. But she did! (And Mead neglected to check teen pregnancy statistics, which would have told her the girls’ tall tales were just that.)
Of course, once the attack from Freeman came, Mead was already established as “The Mother Goddess of Anthropology.” Plus she had recently died, so the question immediately arose, “Why didn’t Freeman question her before she died? (I believe the response was that Freeman had tried several times. Also, chauvinism (and nonbinary feminism) played a role. She was being attacked by a (straight) New Zealander male, and most American anthropologists closed ranks.
I come out on the side of more accurate ethnography, which means Freeman—although MM did many good things in the world and helped attract many students to anthropology. One can forgive her inadequacies as a novice fieldworker—although her work had outsized influence on the inchoate science of sex and behavioral science in general.
THE AMERICAN CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGIST NAPOLEON CHAGNON, WHO FAMOUSLY STUDIED THE YANOMAMI, INDIGENOUS AMAZONIANS OF VENEZUELA AND WROTE THE FIERCE PEOPLE, WAS CERTAINLY A POLARIZING FIGURE IN MODERN ANTHROPOLOGY.
I have not attended that many annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association but l happened to be present for the two big controversies of my generation: Margaret Mead versus Derek Freeman, and Napoleon Chagnon versus Marvin Harris and his colleagues. I knew some of the people involved in the controversy, including David Maybury-Lewis from Harvard, who was not sympathetic to Chagnon.
Perhaps I have been unduly influenced by the book Darkness in El Dorado, and by Kenneth Good's book Into the Heart, but I found Good especially credible.
Chagnon has been quoted as bragging, “Indiana Jones has nothing on me!” He was talking this way to devoted grad students one night at an AAA party for people associated with Northwestern. I had been given an applied anthropology award that afternoon, so I was still in a coat and tie. I was recognized and soon, the Chagnon admirers drifted over to me, to ask about African spirit mediums. This apparently provoked the world famous Chagnon to feel abandoned and to ask, loud enough for me to hear, “I didn’t know we were allowing CPAs into our parties.”
According to an obit article I read very recently, much of the Darkness.. book has been discredited. It's interesting that Chagnon and Harris, like myself ended up being fed up with the mumbo jumbo of post-modern anthropology. We would all agree on that. But I found Ken Good’s Into the Heart very convincing and I can well imagine Chagnon threatening his then grad student with academic ruin—in fact, no PhD at Penn State or anywhere else—if Good disputed that the Yanomami were “fierce people.” That negative stereotype conflicts with what I know about the Amerindians of the Guianas, and apparently Marvin Harris, an expert on Amazonian Indians, never bought into it. Nor did Maybery-Lewis. A subtitle of a Chagnon book was “My life among two Dangerous Tribes,” which sounds to me like an invitation (or plea?) to impress students (and groupies), to admire the ethnographer’s sheer, manly bravery. (I should have thought of this ploy first!)
As I recall elements of the controversy, the Venezuelan Anthropological Association brought charges against Chagnon for some of his behavior, including the charge that his depiction of the Yanomami allowed commercial and other anti-Indian interests to dispossess the Yanomami of some of their lands and authority. Like Castaneda fans and peyote tourists disturbing the lands of the Huichol of Mexico, in search of Don Juan and drugs in their natural state, Chagnon’s legacy might be to have brought an unwanted and possibly unmerited negative attention on the Yanomami.
There were also charges that Chagnon paid Indians to stage fights for his “documentary films.” If true, this smacks of pseudo ethnography –yet Castaneda was worse because no one disputes that Chagnon worked among his Venezuelan tribe.
Marvin Harris’ Rise of Anthropological Theory was a great help when I needed to study for my PhD comprehensive exams long ago. He has more credibility with me than Chagnon, who strikes me like an attention-seeker and exaggerator.
THOUSANDS OF UNDERGRADUATE STUDENTS IN AMERICA, AND PROBABLY ELSEWHERE, ENTERED THE FIELD OF ANTHROPOLOGY BECAUSE OF CARLOS CASTANEDA’S WRITINGS ABOUT DON JUAN AND YET, IT WAS ALL A SCAM.
I was fascinated by Carlos Castaneda’s 1st 3 books, but it was all too good to be true. Before Book 4, it was apparent that timelines of CC & Don Juan’s didn’t fit; that CC was a complete fabulist, that “Yaqui” Knowledge” was not Yaqui but rather a synthesis of a wide range of Western and non-Western mystical lore, and that anthropology and CC himself would have fared better if CC had not called his work ethnographic. (In fact, CC has Don Juan show contempt for real ethnography.)
As noted in a Castaneda obituary, “The old Indian could not be found, which set off widespread speculation that Castaneda was the author of an elaborate, if ingenious hoax.” Yes, he made the cover of Time Magazine, probably the first and last time a grad student in anthropology would be so honored. But the magazine’s fact-checkers began to realize that they might have a fraud on their hands. CC’s group of followers became a New Age cult, a rather sinister one, as recounted in Amy Wallace’s memoir that exposes CC’s behavior toward the end of his life. Yes, he attracted a great many students to anthropology, but in the end, he was a charlatan. I know some Castaneda’s fans ended up very disappointed.