By Jeff Stein
Now look here, and as you do, please find a couple of paragraphs that describe Charles King’s new book about cultural anthropology and the small group of people who, nearly 100 years ago, made it both a discipline and a game-changer in western civilization. I send you this, on a perfectly fine end-of-September afternoon, because I think where these people were back then with Franz Boas’ idea of cultural anthropology is where we are today, nearly 50 years on, with Paolo Soleri’s idea of arcology, ie, a group of folks just about ready to (somehow!) double down on an idea that has the potential to change people’s attitudes and behavior. Just in time!
GODS OF THE UPPER AIR
Charles King (Doubleday)
The rise of cultural anthropology is the subject of King’s book. It’s a group biography of Franz Boas, who established cultural anthropology as an academic discipline in the United States, and four of Boas’ many protégés: Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston, Ella Cara Deloria, and Margaret Mead. King argues that these people “were on the front lines of the greatest moral battle of our time: the struggle to prove that – despite differences of skin color, gender, ability, or custom – humanity is one undivided thing.”
Cultural anthropologists changed people’s attitudes, King believes, and they changed people’s behavior. “If it is now unremarkable for a gay couple to kiss goodbye on a train platform,” he writes, “for a college student to read the Bhagavad Gita in a Great Books class, for racism to be rejected as both morally bankrupt and self-evidently stupid, and for anyone, regardless of their gender expression, to claim workplaces and boardrooms as fully theirs – if all of these things are not innovations or aspirations but the regular, taken-for-granted way of organizing society, then we have the ideas championed by Boas’ circle to thank for it.” They moved the explanation for human differences from biology to culture, from nature to nurture.
And for our part – and I mean you reading this (I’m smiling as I type…) – the work of the Cosanti Foundation, continuing your pioneering work of the past (almost) 50 years, intends to nurture the idea of arcology in the next 50 years to bring it to real fruition in a world that is rapidly changing to require it.