Saying No to the CIA… and Other Anth Fantasies

For all the years I’ve been living outside my home country of America, I’ve been dogged by the assumption that I must be some sort of spy. Even during my PhD fieldwork, among people I had known for months, the idea persisted. Who is this American? Why is he asking all these questions? He says he’s a researcher, but that can’t be true. Why would he care about us and our culture? What else could he be doing here, if not spying?

Sometimes I was annoyed by the question–and some people did ask me directly, or let me know that other people had been talking about me behind my back. But I was also, secretly, a little bit pleased. It doesn’t go without saying, so I’ll say it: I’ve never worked for the CIA, or done any intelligence or security work of any kind, nor would I. But all through my years living abroad, in Indonesia and Australia, I harbored a secret fantasy, that maybe, one day, I would be tapped. I always hoped a CIA spook would try to recruit me.

Anthropology and spying

ANU trains exceptional people from Pakistan to the Pacific, and many of us take it for granted that our ranks are filled with spies or people who will someday become spies. I like to imagine the future leaders of these nations, who come to ANU for MA degrees in applied anthropology, international relations, security studies and so forth, building dossiers on one another, and liaising with their embassies, on the far side of Lake Burley-Griffin. It lends a bit of spice to the academic atmosphere.

It’s not a crazy thing to assume about anthropologists, either. It’s no secret that American anthropology, in particular, has a checkered history of working with the national security apparatus. Take, for instance, Ruth Benedict’s “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: patterns of Japanese culture,” written to assist with the American occupation of Japan after the Second World War. Then there was the military’s “Human Terrain System,” which deployed anthropologists, among other social scientists, to help forces in Afghanistan understand and influence local populations. David Price has written articles and books arguing that the entanglement of anthropology with the CIA has profoundly shaped the discipline.

Talking to friends and colleagues here, I found that many of them also had to face down assumptions that their studies weren’t legitimate, but just fronts for some kind of spying. And I have met anthropologists whose stories rang little alarm bells. Perhaps they worked in unstable countries with a blithe confidence in their personal safety, or had contacts at suspiciously high levels. The other students and I whisper over beers, until the rumors gain the weight of fact: this or that colleague is obviously a spy.

Knowledge without power

The appeal of spying, for an anthropologist, is simple: status, prestige, power. Mostly, just power. Like many scholars, I sometimes assume that the effort I’ve made to build expertise should earn me something: as Ghassan Hage said in a recent episode of The Familiar Strange podcast, a scholar likes to feel that their opinion has some weight, and that they have earned a right to be heard. I believe anthropologists should be involved in decisions regarding war, and taxes, and migration (I feel certain there would be, respectively, less, and more, and lots more). And, yet, we’re on the outside looking in.

To maintain my belief that anthropologists should be powerful, in the face of overwhelming evidence that they are not, I have to resort to a kind of fantastical, magical thinking. I can believe that anthropologists are powerful if I believe that their power is clandestine; basically, if I believe that anthropologists work for the CIA. In this unreality, maybe anthropologists are shaping the world, after all. Maybe I could be invited to be a part of that.

I know I’m showing my position here. Plenty of people have been so harmed by covert power that they would be aghast at any suggestion of cooperation with the CIA. I’m not Cambodian, or Nicaraguan. The fact that I can fantasize about it reveals my assumption that I personally would have nothing to fear from such a cooperation.

Virtuous Abstinence

The fantasy, however, doesn’t end with being asked. The question, “will you serve?” is just a setup for the real meat of the fantasy: the part where I say no.

Of course, anthropology has worked in the service of power many times. I don’t need to point any regular reader of The Familiar Strange to anthropology’s history of services to colonization, original sins that many in the discipline are trying furiously to expunge. The AAA has a code of ethics that begins, “Do No Harm,” and issues periodic statements urging anthropologists not to engage in national security work, which it deems outside the discipline’s calling to research, teaching, and public service.

In my fantasy, I stand in solidarity with this ideal. I tell the spook who taps me that no, I could never. My dedication to the discipline is too pure. My nationalism is too weak. My opposition to the security state, to violence, and to colonial domination are too strong.

My fantasy, of being asked, and saying no, has never been tested. I’m confident that it never will. It’s only because of that confidence that I even feel I can entertain the fantasy at all. I’m disturbed by my CIA fantasy, with its combination of willingness to subvert, deceive, and conquer, with a desire to explicate, illuminate, and serve.  

Anthropological fantasies: to do, to be, to feel

No matter how hard many of us try to rid ourselves of anthropological fantasies, they seem to persist. I dream of actions such as heroic feats of ethnographic endurance: the trek to the remote community, the all-night drinking sessions culminating in intimate confessions and great cultural insights. I dream of feeling the emotions that I imagine my heroes feel: to feel the glowing admiration of colleagues, and pious humility in acknowledgement of my interlocutors and their contributions. I dream that I might commit acts of virtuous abstinence–uncovering secret knowledge, say, and then declining to publish or trade on it. Others might nurture secret fantasies of sinful indulgence (one of my colleagues is fond of imagining an “erotic ethnography”). All of these, too, are dreams of power: the power to overcome societal pressure to seek power, and the power to decide for ourselves how our contributions to knowledge will be used.

Many of us dream that our work may have great value, and produce great change, and that we could view those changes with satisfaction, even if the world should never know our names. This is the fantasy of becoming a spy, and also the fantasy of refusing to become one.

If you want, leave a comment with your own anthropological fantasies, either sinful or virtuous. What’s something you wish would happen to you? Something you wish you could do, or a person you wish you could become? What emotions are you most hoping to feel, either during your field research, or during your academic career? What fantasies do you wish anthropology could leave behind?

[Image from the CIA’s Flickr, Titled “DCI Colby 1975 CIA Map”. Labelled for reuse]


One thought on “Saying No to the CIA… and Other Anth Fantasies

  1. The price of professional silence is clear. Silent lawyers let a legal system once making honest attempts at justice for all become a nest of cleverness seeking to serve the ambitions of a few and line its own pockets (those jokes don’t appear out of thin air). The medical profession took the bait from the insurance companies and became a dependent agency soon to be thoroughly corrupted by corporate models for care and profiteering (Jeanne Kassler M.D.’s “Bitter Medicine” is a good overview of those schemes). The APA put its foot in the swamp of designing torture and extreme interrogation for the CIA (only recently removing it after years of refusing to acknowledge its own malfeasance.) Scientists are just now waking from their insistence that the lab was their one and only Provence and what happens ‘out there’ was something beyond their scope of practice. It’s a sad story, an old story.

    But storytelling is what makes the world what it is. Anthropology, the consummate profession for translating and retelling the human story, has an even greater obligation to do the same in the face of those who distort and corrupt our stories. Some have. But there are still too many that file their reports, publish their monographs, and think they are done with the job. They aren’t.

    This little rant was brought to you by a crackpot who thinks a healthy modern society would have at least 1 anthropologist and 1 poet on every major scientific and social project, and on every corporate board. Unfortunately, he has never found a hammer big enough to crack that pot.

Leave a Reply