Cultural peculiarities

I’m not really sold on the value of theory. Particularly when it comes to the social sciences, I find it often impenetrable, frequently impossibly abstract, and generally inapplicable to meaningful situations. These objections aside, today’s anthropology discussion was actually reasonably captivating. Our theoretical drift was motivated by the question of development: why do efforts at development (meaning in this case that of the third world) consistently fail (by the standards of their own supporters)?

Now one possibility is sheer incompetence. But considering the considerable expertise going into many of these efforts, this is less than satisfactory as an explanation. Another is ill intent. But given the variety of the actors, and the motivations of many of them, this too seems absurd.

A third position is that the fault lies not at the level of implementation, or even really planning, but at the formulation and examination of the problem itself. Development is a process shaped not merely by individual free agents, but by its own internal dynamics: the discourse that contains it, and the epistemology that governs its conception. To take one example, the problem is not merely that bad statistics lead to poor project-planning, but that the way in which we think about knowledge cause us to collect those bad statistics in the first place. Knowledge (Egypt is overcrowded) is socially constructed (our assumptions about valid population distribution as drawn from our experiences and surroundings), as is our knowledge of that knowledge (how we can go about ‘measuring’ overcrowding).

This does lead one to a rather pessimistic view. Since the morning was full of Arabic which I wasn’t wholly on top on, and the evening led to snow as I read a text on Wahabbism, that seems entirely appropriate.

In the meantime, we have an unfolding internet drama pitting our homegrown theocrats against some of the best and brightest of the leftish bloggers. Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan have resigned from the Edwards campaign. The two were attacked by the Catholic League (a Christianist outfit run by William Donohue) and its deranged and abusive followers for having the gall to mock and criticize the misogynistic and patriarchal practices of the Catholic church. This their (Marcotte’s and McEwan’s) opponents called ‘hate speech’, before proceeding to threaten them with violence, rape and the like. Edwards refused to stand fully behind them, keeping them as employees, but disavowing their comments as ‘offensive’ and doing nothing to force a halt to the vicious campaign against them. Thus both have resigned.

Once again, we have a clear example that in American public life, you can be a homophobe or a racist, but being critical of Christian religion is a no-go. Until that changes, McEwan and Marcotte are quite justified in their strident criticism of the Catholic Church, an organization with an assuredly mixed record up to the present. ßGo Pandagon and Shakes’ Sis!

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