Pioneers of Cultural Relativism, a review of Charles King’s “Gods of the Upper Air”

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I’ve written a review of Charles King’s Gods of the Upper Air for The New Republic, examining the ways that the idea of “cultural relativism” has been used and abused in public culture and debate.

The idea of “cultural relativism” serves as a cudgel, somewhat akin to “political correctness,” to impugn the values attributed to liberal elites in general and humanities professors in particular. This dangerous idea, it is said, makes them responsible for many social ills (more ills than their humble enrollments would suggest possible.) Charles King, author of the new book Gods of the Upper Air, is undeniably also a professor. His position, in International Affairs and Government, is suspended ambiguously between the humanities and social sciences to such a degree that I cannot be sure whether he too should be considered responsible for the supposed moral rot of cultural relativism that has wormed its way through our undergraduate population like the Very Hungry Caterpillar on a Saturday. But Gods of the Upper Air is a group biography and intellectual history of the anthropologists who created “cultural relativism,” and something of a defense of its core principles. What is especially welcome about this effort in the current environment is that it removes the idea of cultural relativism from its status as a punching bag for its enemies. Instead it shows the context from which cultural relativism emerged—a particular moment in the study of humanity, brought about by an age of European exploration, colonialism, and pseudoscientific racism that has more than a few unfortunate points of contact with our own era.

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