In Gods of the Upper Air (Penguin/Random House, 2019), Charles King unveils the story behind the early twentieth century’s revolution in cultural anthropology. Led by Franz Boas and his students, these social scientists used their research to confront and debunk the theories of racial science that structured social and political life in the United States and around the globe. Asserting that racial categories were biological fictions and cultural hierarchies were matters of historical circumstance, anthropologists created the principles by which rights and freedoms could be understood as principles for equality and social justice.
Zach Schwab [ZS]: In the Acknowledgements section of this book you attribute the original inspiration behind it to a series of conversations that you had with your wife. I was wondering if you could elaborate on how that took place, and maybe the moment when you first realized that this was a book you wanted to write.
Charles King [CK]: Yeah. Well, every home should have a house anthropologist, it’s a very useful thing to have (laughing).
But I think over the years I had written a number of different books about various forms of human difference, especially contexts in which forms of difference seem to lead to really awful ends – ethnic conflict in Syria, the civil wars in the Caucasus and elsewhere – and I think that in different combinations across my lifetime what I became able to see is that the stuff I was really interested in is where those issues of human difference come from, and how we raise up these imagined, constructed human divides and dividing lines in human society to the level of high politics.
And what I realized over time too was that I had a story here. And I thought, in conversations with my wife and other anthropologists, I remember being just arrested by the way in which they had the ability to overturn a way of seeing the world.
Let me give you a practical example that’s one of the most brilliant things she’s ever said to me – she’s so smart. We were having some conversation about drawing. I can’t draw, I’m a terrible drawer. And I said, “Gosh, why is it that horses are so hard to draw? I mean, they shouldn’t be any harder than a rabbit or a dog, but I keep having trouble drawing a horse, why is that?” And she said, “Well horses aren’t any harder to draw than rabbits or dogs, it’s just that we care more about what they look like.” And I thought “Oh my god, that’s absolutely brilliant!” and it seemed so anthropological to me to go from this statement which you think is a matter of, “Well, do you have the manual dexterity or whatever to draw this or that part of the animal” or “Horses must be very oddly or complexly shaped to be so hard to draw” – well, it’s not that at all, it’s because you care about what it looks like.
And I thought about that kind of insight that anthropology gives you, this ability to just overturn a way of seeing the world, and so much of the book is about how for a set of issues that are really rather more important than how you draw a horse, how this set of radical thinkers did that with the issue of cultural difference.
ZS: So it seems that much of your original interest then was in how certain cultural frameworks work to inspire conflict?
CK: Well, how the things that we do that are products of human society, the dividing lines that exist in society, the ways in which we naturally group different types of humans – where all of those things come from, and how they can end up inspiring really magnificent forms of human achievement and really awful things too.
So, given the fact that all dividing lines in society are to a large extent if not entirely human-made, why do they get made in so many different ways and why do those different ways seem to have such social power to us. It’s also the case that for years I had spent a lot of time in parts of the world where issues of ethnicity and nationalism were right on the surface, where they were the worst stuff of politics.
In the Balkans, in Romania, Southeastern Europe and so forth, and it dawned on me over time that there’s nothing that special about ethnicity or nationalism or race or caste or religion, the lines with which we were all raised dividing up human beings, and essentializing the differences between them. And I thought, what if I turned my expertise on these issues back to my own country, and how can I understand the things that are dividing us Americans in the United States, using some of these tools, and so that’s also a theme that runs throughout the book as well.
When I go back to the proposal for this book, that I ended up selling to Doubleday, quite happily, it is so triumphalist, because I was writing it during 2014 and 2015. And you know, my wife and I had been standing outside the Supreme Court when the decision for Obergfell v. Hodges was announced, and Obama was president, and it just felt like oh my god, I’m going to tell the story of how we all became so enlightened and got over those awful obsessions that used to haunt us.
And then of course 2016 happened and I realized, oh yeah, that obviously this was the story of a thread throughout American history, not an obstacle that’s been overcome.
ZS: That’s so interesting. As I was reading I was wondering about the extent to which it had been written in response to our current political atmosphere. But it sounds like it was initially addressed to a political reality that was very different from our current one.
CK: I think that’s fair. But then as I was writing the book, I was very conscious of not wanting to make the book “president spite” – and I think Donald Trump is mentioned maybe once in the book – but to not have everything be tied immediately into the present circumstances, because also I don’t really think any of this is new, in fact, it closely parallels the issues that Boas and so many of his students were battling against during their lifetimes.
I mean you can’t look at our racial immigration policy now without thinking of exactly the same issues that Boas was publishing articles against during the early twentieth century, as other immigration historians have pointed out, and so on. So I don’t believe that we’re in a giant circle, meaning I do believe that things are getting better, but there are these perennial threads of American social and political life that were there from the very beginning of the country, and come up to the surface in different ways across time.
ZS: So then in what ways is this book tangibly different than it would have been if it had been published before the fall of 2016?
CK: Well it would have been less good. For whatever one thinks about the book I think it would’ve been an inaccurate book. Living with these issues very much on the surface of American political life, witnessing them in real-time, made the book have much more resonance to me. And I don’t mean in terms of the popular appeal, I mean with myself. I felt an urgency of the story that I didn’t feel before. And I think for any writer, feeling that the thing you’re writing about matters in the here and now is really important. Even if you’re writing about things that happened sixty years ago.
ZS: So then on the whole, what do you think this book has to say to the current American political discourse? Do you feel that it has a platform?
CK: Well, it’s not really a platform-y book. And hopefully, it’s not preachy, I didn’t mean it to be preachy, but I also think that one of its takeaway messages can be seen as addressed to some liberal cosmopolitans. It’s easy to identify the savagery somewhere else, whether that’s, you’re hiking, you’re exploring, and you can identify it within an allegedly primitive society that would have practices that might strike you as particularly foreign.
But it’s also very hard for liberal cosmopolitans to see the way in which their own outlook on life, their own inconsistencies, their own deeply ingrained inconsistencies, and mythologies, contort the way they see the world and behave in the world. So if you’re really going to jump off the high dive, you have to be willing to do that all the time. Not only for pointing at the nationalists on the right, or the ethnic exclusivists on the right but pointing at one’s own behavior and asking, “Oh yeah, what preconceptions am I demonstrating that have the effect of dividing people?”
Charles King is the author of seven books, including Midnight at the Pera Palace and Odessa, winner of a National Jewish Book Award. He is a professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University.
Zach Schwab is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at The New School.
This interview was first published on March 16th, 2020 at the Creative Writing at The New School blog, thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School.