Renegades


Our week of books continues with Gods of the Upper Air, by Charles King.

This is a collective biography of anthropologist Franz Boas and his students Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston, Ruth Benedict, and Ella Deloria, who took on the “scientific” racists, eugenicists, ethnocentrists, and anti-immigrant forces of a century ago. It is a fascinating story. They helped to transform how we think about race and sex, but they didn’t kill the reigning monsters off. This has been made all too clear in the excrement-personality, elected by a minority of America, to the Presidency. Trump has expressed eugenicist thinking, supported white nationalists and nazis, and is a misogynist of the first rank.

I’m a pretty close student of that era, but I was surprised to discover that the Married Women’s Act of 1922 stripped citizenship from American women who married non-white foreign men. Paging Stephen Miller, who, of course, would not have been considered white in the 1920s because he’s Jewish. (One imagines the nazis clustering around him as he tries to get credit for concentration camps, baby-kidnapping, and walls at the border: “Guys, we did it!” “What do you mean ‘we,’ Stevie?”)

As King reminds us, the original Nazis were careful observers of the American system of authoritarian apartheid. They modeled their race laws on America, substituting Jews for African Americans. The best-selling eugenicist Madison Grant, the originator of the “Great Replacement” myth in The Passing of A Great Race, and the man who exhibited an African at the Bronx Zoo’s earlier incarnation, was one of Hitler’s heroes. (See also Henry Ford.) The Germans made sure to catch up on the eugenics congresses hosted by Grant’s institutional base, the American Museum of Natural History, whose president, Henry Fairfield Osborn, was another leading eugenicist, and one of Boas’s detractors.

The American program of sterilizing “morons,” sanctified by a 1927 Supreme Court decision based on lies about the women at the heart of the case, was another model for the Nazis. Lies and bogus science were, in fact the basis of all this horror.

There used to be an attic at AMNH filled with the shelves of busts of the dozens of supposed “races” of humans, taking Johann Blumenbach’s 1777 notion of five races — American (i.e Arctic), Caucasian, Ethiopian, Malay, and Mongolian — to even more outlandish levels of absurdity. “Caucasian” is the only one of Blumebbach’s terms to have survived. Grant, by the way, changed the name of his top race from “Teutons” to “Nordics” once the U.S was in WWI: we couldn’t have the best race raping Belgians, now, could we?

The cranky, crusty Boas died in 1942. His reputation went south as successive generations of anthropologists took him to task for various things. The “critical studies” crew has been even more critical in the post-modernist, post-colonial era. The academy, after all, works best by eating its antecedents. (King’s second epigraph is from Max Planck, who said science progresses because the opponents of the new eventually die off.) But King makes a very good argument that Boas and Co. are worth revisiting in our ugly times.

Meanwhile, don’t take any b.s. from racist old Uncle Joe at the Thanksgiving table tonight. Happy holidays to you!

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