Among the Academic “Anywheres”: Illusions of Belonging

“I have three passports.”

A visiting speaker at UCLA, where I was a professor of anthropology from 1994 until this year, made this comment in 2019 at a dinner attended by faculty and graduate students. He named the three countries that had issued his passports. They are wealthy and they span the same ocean – otherwise they have nothing in common.

“That way, if things start to get dangerous, I can relocate to whichever is the safest.”

His voice and his facial expression radiated smugness. And with good reason: his listeners conveyed, with their nods and their quietly admiring remarks, that they regarded the possession of three passports as the omega of Cool. I said nothing. I felt slightly disgusted, but unsurprised. Almost all Western academics, especially at elite institutions like UCLA, are what David Goodhart calls “Anywheres” in contrast to “Somewheres.” The Anywheres are the well-educated, symbol-manipulating professionals who can work, well, anywhere, and who draw their sense of identity from their achievements. They are self-deracinated – uprooted. The Somewheres tend to be less educated and to draw their sense of identity from attachment to places (national and local) and to a community. For an Anywhere, the value of national citizenship is purely practical – a means by which to enjoy personal prosperity and safety. Emotional attachment to a country, or even the sense of obligation expressed by President Kennedy’s exhortation to “Ask not what your country can do for you…” is seen as foolish at best, and dangerous (i.e., leading to war and genocide) at worst. The possessor of three passports, in this view, has successfully gamed, and partially defeated, the arbitrary, unfair, and archaic nation-state system.

Alex Kaschuta writes that “Anywheres still need belonging” and that, lacking it in their atomized lives, many suffer from depression and anxiety. It’s my strong impression that academic Anywheres, having abandoned nationality, locality, and traditional religion as sources of belonging, tend to take refuge in two ersatz forms of belonging: educational institutions (universities and colleges) and (especially) scholarly societies. One of the under-appreciated lessons from the spread of Cancel Culture is that these so-called communities are held together, not by enduring, unconditional solidarity, but by a combination of fashion-following and fickle self-interest. To put it simply, you’d be a fool to expect the members of your academic “community” to stand with you if it cost them anything.

First, though, another observation about the Anywhereness of academia: even when they acknowledge their national heritage, Western academics tend to distance themselves from it with a mixture of embarrassment and self-mockery. At a meeting of a collaborative research group, comprising scientists from five countries, one presented the others with gifts of a traditional food from the region where she’d grown up. A kind gesture, certainly, but what struck me most were her verbal and non-verbal signals that said, in effect, “Isn’t this quaint?”

The theory and practice of science do, of course, transcend national and ethnic differences. The scientific method is available to all, regardless of cultural background. Two people trained in the same scientific discipline, so long as they are fluent in a common language, can converse productively even across a wide cultural gap. I’m not denigrating these great strengths of science. But it’s important to recognize their limits. When push comes to shove, shared scientific interests are no more a basis for mutual loyalty than any other shared profession. No one would expect that a French accountant and a Chinese accountant (or, more to the point, a Russian accountant and a Ukrainian accountant) can draw on a source of solidarity that outweighs their obvious differences and sources of conflict.

But isn’t it problematic that the Somewheres’ sources of belonging are based on either “accidents” of shared ancestry or proximity (nations, localities) or shared “irrational” beliefs (religion)? Aren’t the scholarly societies that are latched on to by academic Anywheres, based as they are on voluntarily chosen shared commitments to some domain of rational inquiry, psychologically and socially healthier sources of belonging?

That argument might have persuaded me a few years ago. But the mainstreaming of what Colin Wright calls sex denialism (aka transgenderism and gender fluidity theory) has destroyed its credibility. Wright’s account of his own experience of being driven out of evolutionary biology (the academic specialty with the knowledge base most relevant to understanding the male-female phenomenon) for criticizing sex denialism makes it crystal clear that membership in good standing in most of today’s scholarly communities is dependent on endorsing shibboleths (e.g. “Sex is a spectrum”) that have no stronger a rational basis than belief in the literal truth of the Biblical miracles.

Even for the most accomplished and established academic, expressing an opinion at odds with Woke dogma is likely to result in at least informal ostracism from scholarly societies. Anthropologist Elizabeth Weiss criticizes unscientific aspects of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), and so has been the target of a vilification campaign in the Society for American Archaeology. Joshua Katz, in addition to being fired from his tenured position by Princeton University, was recently subjected to extraordinary “disappearing” treatment at an international Classics conference: he was not introduced before giving his talk (unlike all the other speakers), and not one person clapped or asked a question after it.

Are universities and scholarly societies “communities”? Sure – just as the Soviet Communist Party of the 1930s was a “community.” Your friends and colleagues, with whom you hobnob happily today, might contrive to destroy you tomorrow for a trivial or wholly imaginary breach of a social norm — possibly one that was invented last week.

The late British philosopher Roger Scruton has written that a key feature of the modern nation-state is that it comprises a set of people who, if it came to it, would risk death defending each other. By contrast, the contemporary scholarly society comprises a set of people who, if it came to it, would betray each other in a heartbeat to safeguard their next promotion, grant, or other token of status.

Which is not to say that these societies are worthless. I belong to several of them, and am somewhat active in one. But I wear these memberships lightly – they’re not part of my sense of identity. I have, with no regrets and almost no distress, ended my affiliation with two organizations that became heavily politicized.

The visiting speaker who boasted of his three passports may well be onto something – the ability to escape war, persecution, and/or unrest in one or two of his three countries — in an increasingly conflict-riven world. But if he has swapped attachment to a nation-state for attachment to a global “community” of scholars, he may be in for an unpleasant shock. Nothing and no one will keep his academic career going if he runs afoul of one of a growing number of what George Orwell called “smelly little orthodoxies.”

So, what is to be done? After years or decades of “Anywhereness,” is it possible to become re-rooted in genuine communities? That will be a topic of future posts.

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