Dirty Hands: Scholar calls for solidarity with neo-Nazis in the new ‘immoral anthropology’


Canada’s decision to list far-right racist groups for the first time as terrorist organizations has grave criminal consequences for anyone who would provide them support.

What is less obvious is the risk this law might pose to anthropologists, ethnologists and other social scientists who study them up close.

For a scholar who studies violent fringe movements with a coolly critical air of objective detachment, or with outright hostility to their ideology, there are no obvious problems. But a provocative new article in a leading anthropology journal by an American ethnographer of Nordic white nationalists says these approaches are misguided and moralistic.

In “Collaborating with the Radical Right: Scholar-Informant Solidarity and the Case for an Immoral Anthropology,” Benjamin Teitelbaum argues that detached observation is the wrong way to seek deep insight about fringe communities, just as it was for the pith helmeted colonial scholars who looked on their subjects with condescension and arrogance.

Today’s anthropologists have strayed from their foundational ideal of solidarity with their subjects, he argues. He urges them to rediscover it, to collaborate with their subjects, as he has, and even advocate for them.

“We should not think that in doing that we can maintain moral purity,” Teitelbaum, assistant professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said in an interview. “We inevitably become accomplices.”

It may be immoral, he said, but it is “an immorality born of commitment to the people you are studying,” he said.

This week, claiming to collaborate with and advocate for figures on the extreme right just got a lot more risky in Canada. But is it good anthropology? Can anthropologists study the far-right without helping their cause? Should scholars have solidarity with their subjects when their subjects are neo-Nazis?

Teitelbaum described how the American Anthropological Association, the field’s leading authority, has lately been “striving to make space for researchers who want to work in open opposition to those they study.” He sees this as wrongheaded because it has made solidarity seem optional. His view, roughly, is that if your morals are irreconcilable with good anthropological practice, then your morals have to go.

This new “immoral anthropology” has caused consternation in the normally staid pages of the University of Chicago Press’s journal Current Anthropology.

One peer reviewer calls it “thought-provoking and challenging,” but accuses Teitelbaum of “sanitizing and white-washing” his subjects by adopting their own preferred terminology, and finds his “immoral” approach “unsustainable.”

One suggested he was “dancing with wolves” by helping to edit and revise a white nationalist’s novel. Others called his argument bold, honest, useful, timely and important, or “utterly confusing and contradictory.” One called him an “apologist” who is using ethnography as an “excuse” for solidarity with extremists.

Solidarity with the subjects of social science research is an easy sell when those subjects are oppressed minorities, isolated, colonized, or otherwise vulnerable populations. It is a harder sell when the subjects are skinheads, neo-Nazis and white supremacists with a tendency to violence. Teitelbaum’s paper is an effort to come to terms with this awkward position, and his solution is to simply accept it.

Working in solidarity with one’s subjects is “morally compromised but epistemologically indispensable,” he wrote. It is not the only way to do anthropology, but it is “our signature way.”

So he is “friends” with the Nordic white nationalists he has studied over the last 10 years. He has gone to their concerts, meetings, and demonstrations, and “laughed, drank, dined and lived with them.”

He said he started his field work intending to be a “neutral, dispassionate observer.” And he was for a while, but could not keep it up as he and his subjects “became interested in each other as people.”

“I was aligning with them as a scholar and a person, and my work grew more penetrating, informed, and sinister in the process,” he wrote. He found himself publicly defending his subjects against unfair criticisms as the “ultimate political pariahs.”

“And when I do criticize them, it feels like a defeat, as though I failed an opportunity to defy expectations, to uncover deeper complexities, and to prompt new learning,” he wrote. “In no way is it amusing or gratifying: it is to highlight and publicize the flaws of friends.”

These friends include the Swedish white nationalist singer Saga, who was favourably mentioned in spree killer Anders Behring Breivik’s manifesto. They include the former neo-Nazi skinhead Daniel Friberg, who has worked to create and “identitarian” alliance with the American alt-right, and John Morgan, who cofounded Arktos publishing with Friberg, to promote anti-liberalism.

“My aim has been to cultivate close long-term relationships with nationalists fed by honesty, personal exchange and trust. Friendships were both preconditions and by-products of such contact, as were instances of collaboration, reciprocity, even advocacy,” he writes.

One particularly controversial and troubling anecdote involves Teitelbaum helping Magnus Soderman, a skinhead with Third Reich tattoos, a self-identifying National Socialist, whom Teitelbaum found to be also “an exceptionally curious person, witty and articulate, with a sense of irony and humility rare in nationalist circles.”

Teitelbaum made editorial revisions to the writing style and plot development of Soderman’s novel The Defiant One, which Teitelbaum describes as “an allegorical treatment of ‘white genocide’ narratives,” focused on the life of a young white Swedish woman whose high school is dominated by Muslims and Africans.

In effect, he was close to producing hate propaganda. At times he felt like a “volunteer editor,” and he noted an improvement in Soderman’s writing.

“We need to let go of the notion that we are going to be appreciably righteous champions of the just in our research,” he said in the interview. “You’re going to get your hands dirty.”

Anthropologists should follow his lead, he said, and preserve the special perspective that comes with close collaboration, friendship and solidarity. To do so, he said they must sacrifice their “ego.”

Moral compromise is a necessary part of modern ethnography because “it is through exchange and partnership that we gain our signature claims to knowledge,” he said. “Good scholarship teaches us new things.”

Source: Dirty Hands: Scholar calls for solidarity with neo-Nazis in the new ‘immoral anthropology’

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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