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Thinking About the Ways Other People Think and Live: the Legacy of Marshall Sahlins

“We all die and we are all wrong. A good career is when the former happens before the latter.”

Marshall Sahlins

I sent Marhsall Sahlins a note on Monday afternoon with a link to his friend and colleague, Julie Chu’s provocative essay, “Sidewalk Terror and the Logistical Hauntings of the Flâneur”, which led our slate of stories that morning. I didn’t hear back from him immediately and, though he was usually unfailingly prompt in answering his emails, I wasn’t too concerned. These are strange times, when routines are broken. The next day, however, I got the dreadful news from our mutual friend David Price that Sahlins had died on Monday.

Marshall Sahlins was a titan in his field, not just in anthropology, where his ideas were as revolutionary as those of Lévi-Strauss, or in the classroom, where his students included David Graeber, but in academia itself, where he continually punctured institutional prejudices and excoriated the corrupting influence of big money and the political biases and, let’s face it, cowardice that warps so much research and pedagogy. Sahlins taught us radical new ways to think. But more than that he taught us how to think about the way other people from distant cultures think and to value those ways of thinking and learn from them.

Sahlins began writing for CounterPunch on a fairly regular basis a few years ago, unloading his mighty intellectual arsenal on the travesties of Trumpworld. Ultimately, Trump proved too easy of a target, plodding, predictable and cretinous. Sahlins told me Trump was only worth some limericks and doggerel, which he eventually distilled to a succinct couplet, as direct and obscene as Roman graffiti: POTUS FUCTUS, which he wanted us to turn into bumperstickers and t-shirts.

I got to know Sahlins back in 2000, when all hell broke loose over Patrick Tierney’s incendiary book, Darkness in El Dorado, which exposed the reckless, cruel and unethical treatment of the Yanomami people of Amazonia by two brutal luminaries of the scientific establishment: anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and geneticist James Neel. The counterattack on Tierney was savage, vindictive and merciless. When Cockburn and I sprang to Tierney’s defense, I called Sahlins and he talked to me openly about his loathing for Chagnon, scorning his risky practices in the field and his anthropological theories about violence, which Sahlins called reactionary rubbish.

A few years later, as the Iraq War began to unravel, Sahlins became one of its most acerbic critics, especially of the complicity of anthropologists and psychologists in helping to develop the Pentagon develop counter-insurgency and interrogation tactics used to intimidate and terrorize civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. As one of the world’s leading intellectuals, his resignation from the National Academy of Sciences over its lethal partnerships with the military (and its promotion of the work of Chagnon), rocked the academic establishment. In a life of fine moments, it was one of his finest.

I felt honored to be in his corner, helping to spread his beautiful, life-affirming heterodoxies and his unyielding defense of indigenous people and the value and complexity of their cultures.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent books are Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution and The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink (with Joshua Frank) He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

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