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The Good Society 15.1 (2006) 26-30

Response, or "The Question is Who is To Be Master—That's All"
Anne Norton

Let me begin with the essay contributed by David Laitin and Barry Weingast. This essay enacts a series of errors that plague the discipline: a determined refusal to confront challenges to an antiquated political science; a limited reading of the literature on culture and method, even in political science; a clumsy use of popular culture, and a drive to mastery ... in a small way.

Laitin and Weingast do not hesitate to make their critical enterprise easier by misrepresenting mine. Thesis 37 does not, as they claim, say "Being in one culture precludes being in others." It says "There is no culture without resistance." 1 I do not assert that no element of culture is measurable in thesis 15 ("The natural is a cultural category."). When I write in thesis 21 (and, for that matter, in thesis 23) that culture is not monolithic but syncretic, I do not limit that syncretism to the past — "amalgams of past cultures" as Laitin and Weingast put it. That is their interpolation, and it is mistaken. I argue, in Thesis 90, following Oakeshott, "The past is accessible only in and as the present." There are many such misrepresentations, even in so short an essay. They do an injustice not only to my work, but to any reader who takes these questions seriously and wishes to consider the relative merits of contending conceptions of culture. This is not fair, not cricket, not the clean potato, not doing the right thing, and it means that a full response to this article would require a good deal of rather boring clean-up work.

The pattern of misrepresentations is however, more interesting. Laitin and Weingast rely on these misrepresentations to reinstall concepts and definitions that (as 95 Theses lays out) have been effectively debunked. Their interpolation of "past cultures" into my remarks on the syncretic character of cultures enables them to avoid the critique of the view of cultures as monolithic and hermetically sealed, without internal tensions and oppositions (See theses 1, 2, and 21). Their purported demonstration of the superiority of the "equilibrium alternative to the study of culture" depends less upon argument than other rhetorical strategies. They purportedly demonstrate the superiority of their "equilibrium alternative" with reference to the interpretation of a particular episode in recent Somali political history: but they construct that episode for us. As I observe in Thesis 61, "Description entails analysis." Laitin and Weingast import the assumptions they need into the narrative they construct, making it useless as evidence for their claim.2

It would hardly be surprising if, having built a narrative to support their understanding of culture, Laitin and Weingast were able to say that the narrative supported the view of culture they had built into it. The wonder is that it does not. Their narrative fails to establish why Siyaad Barre would find it easier to protect the life of his Minister of Defense than his own (coups have indeed, been known to take out more than one figure in the line of succession) ; why the taboo that caused the officers to reject an outcaste would nevertheless fail to provide adequate reason for passing him over in the line of succession "according to army rank"; and why a succession according to army rank was sacrosanct to any and all coup-plotters. No attention is given to relations between the clans whom the narrative assumes (without warrant, and in defiance of a good deal of human history) to be in complete concert; and no attention is given to such material- and cultural-factors as degree of armament, and control of communications, much less the role of other states. If we accept that the officers in question were "willing to take orders from Samatar, a logistical genius" ignoring his status as an outcaste in the course of a military campaign, only to attend to it again in another context...


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