Tuesday, August 19, 2008

I did not very get far reading this polemic by Marshall Sahlins against the proposed Milton Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago. I do want to dissect the first couple of paragraph as an example of really crappy writing.

Suppose you want to argue that the proposed Milton Friedman Institute is going to give rise to ideological research. This sounds like it could be a plausible argument, its a rather hard one to make. The institute is not up and operational yet, and so it has not really sponsored much research so far. One has to read its mission statements and news releases accompaning the founding of the institute for evidence of ideological bias, and those - as far I saw - do not include much besides a commitment to the study of markets.

What to do? How about this: instead of claiming that the institute will support ideological research, why not just claim that some people think the institute will support ideological research? Such a claim does not really need much defending. And viola,
...to many observers at home and abroad, the establishment of a monumental institute named after Friedman and directly subsidized by private funds, will brand the University of Chicago as an academic instrument of a certain ideology.
Of course, the reaction of any normal person reading this is to wonder why we are concerned about the reaction of "many observers" at all - shouldn't we be basing our decisions on whether these claims are, you know, true or not, rather than whether "many observers" think they are true?

By the way, the writers of the faculty petition against the institute pulled a similar trick:
Many colleagues are distressed by the notoriety of the Chicago School of Economics, especially throughout much of the global south.... The effects of the neoliberal global order that has been put in place in recent decades, strongly buttressed by the Chicago School of Economics, have by no means been unequivocally positive. Many would argue that they have been negative for much of the world's population....
Clearly, we should cancel the institute - we don't want to create distress for "many colleagues!"

Moving on, Sahlins gives us a dirty smear-by-association,
Does the university expect us to "disappear" the memory of the Friedman-trained Chicago Boys, who supplied the economic programs for the draconian regimes of Augusto Pinochet in Chile and the generals in Argentina? The sacrificial reduction of social values to monetary calculations is the essence of Friedman economics, and helps explain its historic taint as the complement of state terror. Not long before he was assassinated in Washington by Pinochet's agents, Orlando Letelier, ambassador of the deposed Salvador Allende government, wrote that the Chicago Boys "convinced the generals that they were prepared to supplement the brutality which the military possessed, with the intellectual assets it lacked."
Of course, helping a government with economic policy does not implicate you in any political crimes the government has made. I'd also note that helping to make Chile richer is nothing to be ashamed of.

Anyway, this is where I stopped reading. Final thought: being a distinguished anthropologist does not prevent you from making really shitty arguments. If you thought that success in anthropology implies some degree of mental rigor, you thought wrong.


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