|Sidney Mintz and Jacqueline Mintz in Fars Province, Iran (1966). Via American Anthropologist.|
In the 1960s, as the United States stretched and flexed its money and military across Asia and elsewhere, criticism of the social sciences’ entanglements with the American war-machine became an increasingly necessary part of anti-imperialist politics. It was clear then that the intellectual production of social scientists, “area” experts, and technocrats made American war possible. At the time, Noam Chomsky famously called these men “new mandarins.”¹Later, during the first Gulf War, Edward Said called a similar coterie of imperial sycophants “scholar-combatants.”² While opportunists, profiteers, and true-believers peddled cleverly crafted narratives of racial superiority and spirited defenses of “freedom” in the pages of Foreign Affairs, the reports of RAND, and in countless government memoranda, critical scholars in the United States expressed solidarity with their comrades around the world who were the victims of American ways of knowing and killing. The establishment of a set of radical organizations and publications in the late 1960s and early 1970s by anti-war students, scholars, and activists, including the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) and the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars (CCAS), constitutes an altogether different intellectual history of American war.
In 1966-67 Sidney Mintz, already well-known as an anthropologist in the United States for his book Worker and the Cane: A Puerto Rican Life History (1960), found himself in Iran on a Fulbright with his wife Jacqueline Mintz, a linguist. A Marxist attuned to the power of capital and the fortunes of peasants, Mintz was staunchly anti-Vietnam War. In the second issue of Iranian Studies, the bulletin of the Society for Iranian Cultural and Social Studies founded in 1967 and edited by Ali Banuazizi and Roy Mottahedeh, Mintz reflected on the condition of the American social scientist abroad in the age of American Empire. Read his words below.
The break-up of colonial empires in Asia and Africa since World War II; the rise of sternly nationalistic regimes in many non-western countries; the great unpopularity of America's undertakings in Viet Nam; and persisting international tensions have all contributed to the difficulties faced by American social scientists engaged in research abroad. These difficulties have mounted so in recent years that the central problem for North American social scientists could soon become not what to study, but where to study; and one may expect the situation to grow worse, not better. In the Middle East, recent hostilities have made North American social scientists less than welcome in many countries; while "Operation Camelot" in Latin America—when Department of Defense funds were secretly employed to support allegedly "pure" research—did the cause of honest social science much harm.
Hostility toward North American research workers in foreign lands seems to spring from many sources, but I think that we North Americans should be prepared to admit that much of the responsibility is our own. Too often the North American anthropologist, political scientist, or sociologist has treated the country in which he worked as no more than a convenient stopping-place on his way to a doctoral degree, exploiting his hosts without any serious thoughts of intellectual reciprocity. Latin America, for instance—and it strikes this writer as stunningly disingenuous to deny that the relationship of this vast area to the United States is quasi-colonial in character—used to be called "our backyard"; and many of us have treated its countries and peoples in just this way. We may think nothing of "doing research" in a Latin American country without paying respects to our foreign colleagues, without lecturing (if invited) at their institutions, without learning the national language. Even fundamental courtesies—letters of thanks, farewell visits, sending back reprints, etc.—may be forgotten. When these slights can be interpreted as revealing an "imperialistic" attitude toward the host country on the part of the foreign researcher, they are doubly damaging.
Read the full text here. Sidney W. Mintz, “Social Science Research by North Americans Abroad: Some Reflections,” Iranian Studies 1:2 (Spring, 1968), pp. 34-40.
¹. Noam Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins (New York: Pantheon, 1965).
². Barbara Harlow, “Intellectuals and the War: An Interview with Edward Said,” Middle East Report 171 (July/August 1991). For the long history of these scholar-combatants, see: Osamah Khalil, America’s Dream Palace: Middle East Expertise and the Rise of the National Security State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).