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12.9.03

A self-hating archaeologist?

As I was thinking through possible charities to name in my response to question 5 in the previous post, I considered mentioning some archaeological/historical heritage cause, like the Smithsonian or the Dayton Natural History Society (where I worked this summer). Certainly I value those things a lot, and I'm grateful that the Oneida Nation and the Wallace Foundation have invested part of their resources in the archaeology programs that I've been part of. And as I wrote earlier, people often underestimate the importance of heritage. Yet on the other hand, I am often distressed by the overimportance that people involved with heritage place on their own work -- things like the inflated claims about the scientific value of human remains. In the end, it was too hard to put excavating an 800-year-old village above, say, feeding starving people.

Yet I didn't list something like Oxfam or even my local soup kitchen. The two examples I chose are, like archaeology, things that hit a personal note for me -- Mr. Holland's Opus because of the importance of music to my school career, and the ACLU because of my interest in politics and in particular in first amendment issues. Perhaps the difference here is that both of those groups are doing something for the oppressed, either kids in underfunded schools or people unjustly deprived of rights. It's hard to see archaeologists as being particularly oppressed (indeed, we take plenty of flak for being oppressors).

Ultimately, I think needs can't be met in strict order of importance. Archaeological material won't just sit there waiting until we end poverty -- it will be gone, damaged by either nature or humans. So while we should certainly emphasize the most urgent needs, we have to work at least a little on everything. This greatly complicates the question, because instead of simply determining which cause is the most important, we must determine which cause is proportionally most underfunded. I wonder how well I could trust my own interests -- now or as cultivated by greater study of the world -- to serve as a guide to that, since an objective empirical assessment would consume far too much time and resources (time and resources that could be dedicated to a better cause, even if their distribution is not optimal).

Of course, this all assumes I'm making a fixed level of charitable donation, and need only decide the distribution equation. That works fine in the example at hand, since Dave Pollard hypothetically gave me a million dollars to spend. But it's trickier in the real world, where the nature of the cause can alter whether I think I can afford to give. For better or worse, it would be much easier for me to turn down a donation request from, say, the school soccer team than from the marching band, even though the latter is probably not a much more deserving cause from an objective point of view.

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