Friday, April 20, 2007

Shamanism, Fascism, Gulags, and Genocide

In lieu of the pragmatic or moral possibility of subjecting human culture and history to controlled laboratory examination, a comparative approach is one of our most important tools in attempting to come to an understanding of human experience and practices across historical and cultural contexts. One powerful and often useful way to do this involves the extension of words and concepts originally relating to one historical or cultural context to other settings where we find phenomena that are qualitatively similar in some essential way.

Shamanism, Taboo, Machismo

In the discipline of anthropology, there is a long history of theorizing and understanding cultural contexts in terms of concepts developed within the cultural context in question, but also of extending some of these concepts to apply them to other cultural settings as well. Some important examples include the extension of “shamanism,” “taboo,” and “machismo” to theorize a variety of cultural settings. (Other examples could include “fetishism,” “swidden,” or the use of vernacular English terms to understand similar phenomena in other cultures, e.g. the emphasis on “face” with regard to East Asian cultures, or “honor” and “shame” to conceptualize Circum-Mediterranean cultures.)

“Shamanism” is a word originating with Siberian languages, but has been applied to a variety of religious or spiritual phenomena involving individuals entering into trance or other altered states to interact with the supernatural world in a wide variety of Native American contexts, as well as with regard to cultural contexts in a number of Old World settings outside Siberia. “Taboo” is a term originating in Polynesia. Like “shamanism” it has been extended to a wide number of cultural and historical settings in reference to a variety of sorts of sacred prohibitions. “Machismo” is possibly a bit different in that there is some debate about whether the term originated in Spanish speaking contexts or was introduced to Spanish speaking contexts originally by anthropologists such as Oscar Lewis in reference to patterns of masculine behavior in Latin American contexts like Mexico. In any case, like “Shamanism” and “taboo,” it has been extended to refer to masculine practice and traits, especially characteristics such as intransigence, in a number of settings, though mainly in Latin America and to a lesser extent the Mediterranean region (mainly Spain, to a lesser extent Italy or the Balkans – not so much North Africa).

Each of these terms can be useful in indicating cross-cultural similarity, when used carefully. At the same time, it should be acknowledged that extension of terms can water down the specificity of the particular contexts in question. Extending “shamanism” to discuss non-Siberian cultures can potentially involve losing sight of the particularities of Siberian shamanism, though there’s no reason why an attention to detail cannot also be incorporated into cross-cultural comparison.

To me, the utility of such terms for comparative work depends on careful and consistent attention to issues of qualitative similarity. Each of these three concepts can be used problematically when this is not the case. Siberian and Native American individuals who enter altered states of consciousness to magically heal (or harm) other individuals or interact with a variety of spirits are engaging in different experiences, but experiences that are qualitatively similar in essential ways. Lamas in Tibetan area cultures who engage in ritual practice beseeching gods to intervene against demons and evil spirits, and who may or may not enter a sort of trance state when doing so, are engaging in experiences and practices that are similar in some ways, but less systematically similar – and hence it’s less clear that referring to lamas as “shamans” is a useful thing to do. (Comparing the Siberian and Native American examples is not comparing apples and oranges, but more like comparing different varieties of apples. Comparing lamas and Siberian shamans might be more like comparing apples and oranges – which do at least in fact have a good deal of similarity in both being fruits.) There seems to me a world of difference in the practices of Jívaro shamans in Ecuador, as described by Michael Harner in his 1970s era ethnography The Jívaro, and the sort of “shamanism” taught today by Michael Harner to New Age spiritualists (which seems to me more like comparing apples and collard greens).

“Taboo” seems to me to be stretched thin, rather than usefully extended, when inconsistently applied, not just to examples of sacred prohibition, but to proscription in general (an extension that’s also unnecessary in that there’s already a word for that – “proscription”). The main problem I have with much anthropological use of “machismo” is not the set of characteristics and practices of masculinity it is often associated with, but the often inconsistent manner of its application. In practice it is generally applied to Spanish speaking cultural contexts, and occasionally to other Latin American or European Mediterranean settings, only rarely to other settings. Which would be fine, except that to be conceptualized broadly enough to incorporate the diverse array of Latin American and Mediterranean practices of masculinity, it could easily be applied to a variety of other settings as well, though this is generally not done. In other words, “machismo” could be usefully extended to compare Latin American, North American and European masculinity (and probably other settings as well) on analogy with the extension of “taboo” or “shamanism,” but in practice is problematically used to over-delineate “Latin American” difference through the lack of extension.

Fascism, Gulags, Genocide

There are other concepts that I would argue should be carefully restricted to a limited number of settings. Most prominent among these are “fascism,” “gulag,” and “genocide.” I argue that these terms ideally should be restricted to a limited set of historical circumstances on practical and moral grounds. Practically, these are very serious topics which require careful delineation. This is especially the case with “genocide,” where in the case of ongoing or potential future cases, being able to make fine distinctions contributing to subtle understanding may be important in intervention to stop it. Further, these in fact are fairly unique phenomena – the degree of qualitative similarity is limited. Morally, these are terms that refer to some of the most serious and egregious violations of human rights and dignity in human history. Comparison with other historical contexts can be quite useful, but careless extension of the terms themselves, such as with George W. Bush’s use of the term “Islamofascism” or Amnesty International’s “American Gulag,” both undermines the credibility of the speaker and makes a mockery of the seriousness of the original contexts.


Fascism was a form of authoritarian populism, but not all authoritarian populism (much less anything that is vaguely “authoritarian”) is fascism. “Fascism” should be used to speak of political and social phenomena of the 1930s and 1940s, specifically of German Nazism and Italian fascism and related fascist movements in other countries at the time. (I don’t strongly object to use of the term to refer to contemporary neo-Nazis or other neo-fascists who take specific inspiration from the original fascists, though I do think it generally a good idea to use the “neo-” prefix for such cases.) There are a number of features that make German Nazism and Italian fascism quite distinct from other phenomena.

Fascism was not just authoritarian but totalitarian, aiming toward total identity between state and society and total control and transformation of every aspect of society, with this more clearly achieved in the case of Nazi Germany than fascist Italy. Fascism is not the only example of totalitarianism (Hannah Arendt’s classic book on the subject, The Origins of Totalitarianism, describes Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin as the two main cases of actually existing totalitarianism, to which could probably be added the People’s Republic of China during the Cultural Revolution and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge), but totalitarianism is a key feature of fascism.

Fascism also involved mass mobilization of people as part of the total identity between state and the populace, a sort of fetishization of technology, and use of mass media and spectacle (where in the case of mass mobilization, the people formed the very spectacle that they were to behold). Involved also with this was a paradoxical or contradictory simultaneous appeal to modernity and the primitive – an identification of state and nation with the might of modern technology and with blood, soil, and family. Alongside this, fascism promised a total social transformation, as did totalitarian communism, but unlike communism, this involved a conservative revolutionary transformation to restore an earlier ideal state of being (which included a romanticization of rural life, blood and race [especially for the Nazis], the Roman Empire [especially for the Italian fascists, but with Nazis also using much Roman imagery], and non- or pre-Christian folklore and mythos [e.g. the uses to which the composers Wagner and Orff were put in Germany]). In all of this fascism was relentlessly nationalist.

Fascism is essentially characterized by this suite of characteristics, and not just any one of them. Useful insights can be gained by comparing Italian fascism and/or Nazi Germany with other political or social systems, but little is gained by extending the term “fascism” in facile ways to contexts that have only a little in common with these cases, especially given that we have ready access to a variety of more usefully generalizable terms, such as “authoritarianism,” “populism,” “nationalism,” or even “totalitarianism.”

Finally, fascism is indelibly linked to not just any old set of historical and cultural contexts but to the destruction of much of Europe during World War II and to the Holocaust in the case of German Nazism. The seriousness of this to me makes any attempt to apply the term to other settings facile at best, distorting the reality of both contexts under comparison.

The Gulag

A few years ago, Amnesty International aroused a small controversy by referring to the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay housing “enemy combatants” as an “American Gulag.” (This is a phrase that has subsequently repeated by others. For example, in a recent column in The Nation [“Here Comes Another ‘Crime Wave,’” April 2, 2007, p. 9], Alexander Cockburn repeats the phrase, though in this case it’s not clear whether he’s referring to Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, arbitrary violent action against Iraqi civilians, or the American prison system within the U.S.) The characterization struck many as absurd and offensive, the most unfortunate consequence of which was that it undermined the credibility of Amnesty International’s report on Guantanamo, with the result that little attention was paid to the important facts and findings reported there.

Pragmatically, it seems foolish to carelessly throw about terms such as “gulag,” “fascism,” or “genocide.” Because these are highly loaded terms, the extension of them to a variety of contexts has the rhetorical effect of undermining one’s seriousness and credibility for many audiences. As with “fascism,” “gulag” is a term associated with one of the most egregious and systematic violations of human dignity and human rights in history – to glibly refer to other things as “gulags” is to diminish the seriousness of the original context.

There are vast qualitative and quantitative differences between the Soviet Gulag (especially under Stalin, but also earlier and later) and Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib that make the use of the phrase “American Gulag” simply inaccurate or misleading.

The Gulag interred millions, as opposed to hundreds (or a few thousands, perhaps, if you combine detention centers in Guantanamo, Iraq, and Afghanistan). That is, there are several orders of magnitude difference in the scale of the systems.

In addition to many differences of detail, there are at least two major qualitative differences that make the Soviet Gulag system quite distinct from the “American Gulag.” First, the Soviet Gulag was not just a system of imprisonment but also a slave labor system, while there’s no current evidence I’m aware of for anything of the sort in the cases of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, or CIA “black sites.” Second, the Gulag was an integral (and legal) part of the Soviet system overall, which focused especially on citizens who were counter-revolutionary, subversive, enemies of the states, or somehow ran afoul of Stalinist paranoia. Guantanamo is explicitly external to the normal American justice system. Even the Bush Administration recognizes the abnormality and specialness of it, arguing repeatedly, for example, that normal U.S. laws do not apply because internees are non-citizens detained while not follow Geneva Convention rules of warfare and because Guantanamo is not U.S. but foreign soil (an element of the argument I’m sure Fidel Castro finds interesting).

At the same time, I don’t want at all to diminish the seriousness of Guantanamo (or any similar sites). There are troubling commonalities between it and the Gulag, such as detention incommunicado, detention without hope of normal legal proceedings, no clear evidence of offense in many cases, etc. The fact that there are any similarities is quite disturbing, though Amnesty International could have more credibly pointed this out, and even made comparisons between the contexts, if they had done so without attempting to claim equivalency (an equivalency denied by the serious quantitative and qualitative differences) by the use of the “American Gulag” phrase.


“Genocide” is different in one way from “fascism” or “gulag.” Those two terms arose in a specific context, contexts that I argue they should be restricted to in their application. “Genocide” is a term applied externally to any number of settings. So, I wouldn’t claim that it should be restricted to only one or another context, but I would argue that “genocide” should be used very carefully in reference to specific sorts of cases.

Cases like the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide are of such seriousness that haphazard use of “genocide” can distort reality, undermine credibility, and needlessly cause offense. Further, for those interested in understanding historical events in subtle ways, accurate use of terminology is essential. For ongoing instances, this is even more crucial – any intervention that anyone might care to get around to in a place like Darfur depends in part on accurate and nuanced understanding to have any hope of success.

Genocide means the attempt to eliminate an ethnic or cultural group. There can be some room for debate about potential application of this term versus another for a specific context. For example, I wouldn’t generally refer to the ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Bosnian Serbs against Bosniak Muslims as genocide. The overall goal in that instance seems to have been the laying claim to certain territory for Serbs and the movement of Bosniaks out of these areas – but not so much to eliminate the cultural group altogether. Note that I’m not saying that this constitutes anything less serious than genocide (thousands were massacred at sites like Srebrenica) – I just think it constitutes something a bit different from genocide. At the same time, I’m also aware that good arguments could be made considering this instance “genocide,” as the U.N.’s tribunal for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia has done. Certainly the effects at Srebrenica were “genocidal.” I’m generally opposed to defining “genocide” in terms of effects, because in ongoing situations, defining by effect would mean waiting until after the fact to be able to label something “genocide,” though I can see the merit in doing so for historical instances.

While there is room for debate about whether cases like the Bosnian one constitute “genocide,” “ethnic cleansing,” or something else altogether but equally serious, “genocide” should not be extended to refer to simply any instance of ethnic tension or violence. For example, last summer I heard someone who was upset about Israeli bombings in areas of southern Lebanon (a reaction I could understand) refer to the Israeli actions as genocide. My reaction was that no matter one’s feelings on that small war last summer (whether one feels that Israel was engaged in an illegitimate action that resulted in serious human rights violations; that Israel did nothing improper at all; that Israel should have hit Hezbollah harder while simultaneously trying to more effectively diminish civilian casualties; that Israel’s actions were proper but disproportionate), one thing that wasn’t happening there was “genocide.” (There are, of course, other problematic uses of the word, e.g. the Ethiopian government’s labeling of opposition politicians, activists, and journalists as guilty of genocide.) The cursory extension of the term to cases such as these is facile and counter-productive at best, both undermining the credibility of the speaker and the seriousness of the concept.

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