The Cultural Defense
I am reading Alison Dundes Renteln’s book The Cultural Defense. The author is described as an anthropologist but writes decidedly like a lawyer: it always strikes me how “critical lawyers” are more radical relativists than any anthropologists. Renteln’s summaries of anthropologists and political philosophers are rather simplistic and, I think, often mistaken (she writes, for instance, that Kymlicka believes migrants have “no culture” and roundly dismisses “postmodern” anthropologists like Abu-Lughod for “writing against culture,” in which I think she is only partly right). Anyway, the book makes fascinating reading because of its numerous examples. I never thought that cultural arguments have successfully been used in courts since the 1970s, and resulted in the acquittal of killers in some cases that I think are unbelievable! The argument was invariably about tradition, treating the contemporary state of affairs — such as law — in the countries the migrants came from (Japan, China, Turkey) as immaterial to the argument. One particularly interesting point is that American courts have, in the past, ruled insanity in cases where they really meant, obviously, that the defendant had been in a state of mind where she sort of relapsed into a cultural tradition and ceased being a modern person.