Get used to it. Anthropology will never be politically effective.

Let's face it. For all of the intense moralizing and half-baked political commentary that now passes for anthropological "theory," when it comes to political action anthropologists suck.

Why aren't we outraged? Why aren't we....? We see these questions online every bloody day. Have they made any difference? The evidence is thin, likely non-existent, and that's not surprising.

Outrage is an industry. There is so much of it online that another ranting voice is unlikely to be heard above all the other noise in the chorus of pain and anger that floods our email boxes, blogs and 24-hour news sources. 

Outrage is not a solution. It may call attention to a problem, even a life or death problem. But so what? Day after day we are bombarded with calls to take action, which comes down at the end of the day to sign an online petition and expose yourself to another plea for a financial donation. When you're drowning in appeals to guilt and anger, the natural defense is to hit the delete key. 

And let's take a look at ourselves. We anthropologists are a few thousand souls on a planet with a population of more than seven billion, and we can't even make up our minds, just talking to each other, what our priorities should be. Look at that through the lenses of Paul Wellstone's priorities (mobilize, energize, organize) or the models provided by Gandhi, Mao, Mandela or Martin Luther King. The idea that our outrage alone is going to change anything is ludicrous. 

I speak as someone who has been here before with one big difference. Back in the sixties I was active in the anti-Vietnam War movement and I heard a lot of voices with the same outraged tone I hear so much of today.Did we drive LBJ out of office? Yes. Did we stop the war? Eventually.  Did we overthrow "the system" and usher in paradise on earth? Just look around you.  How did we achieve what we did? That big difference I mentioned: There were millions of young men and the parents, sisters and girlfriends who loved them afraid that we would be drafted and sent to Vietnam. Our outrage was a mask for fear, and the fear was shared by the millions who became a mass movement. 

As Marx so pointedly put it, the serious question is "What must be done?" Outrage and "critique" alone are not serious answers. 

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Comment by John McCreery on February 28, 2013 at 1:50am
Donya, my pleasure. The incident you described struck me as a perfect illustration of what I was writing about. I imagine myself as a consultant to the administration writing a memo along the lines, "You idiots, why did you decide to make cuts at a nexus where so many different interests (faculty, students, administrative staff) converge? Didn't I try to tell you about divide and rule?"

Now back on your side, I suggest as an organizing principle that you (1) do not depend on moral or rational arguments alone, and (2)make sure that your arguments align with deeply felt fears that (3)are widespread enough to cut across specific interests and bring together a large enough mass to be effective.
Comment by donya alinejad on February 27, 2013 at 6:26pm

John, thanks for linking to my SM piece. I liked your call for boundary-crossing tactics; i think that's what we've been doing by making the links between academic and non-academic work at the university. I'm curious to know what you think of the analysis and possible implications for action/overcoming apathy, and also your response to the idea for starting exchange around these issues.

Comment by John McCreery on February 27, 2013 at 5:55am

Francine, are you aware of this thread on Savage Minds?

Comment by John McCreery on February 26, 2013 at 4:17am

Francine, wow, there is so much here. For me it's the middle of a day job working day, so just let me toss in a couple of thoughts to keep the conversation flowing.

Are you aware of John Judis and Ruy Teixeira'sThe Emerging Democratic Majority? When published a decade ago, in the middle of the Bush years, it seemed overly optimistic. Now, with the re-election of Barack Obama and the continuing stream of news about the demographic problems of the U.S.A.'s Republican Party, it is looking more plausible. What I'd like to direct your attention to, however, is the observation in it that all sorts of white-collar workers who thought that they had secure jobs are now finding themselves in the same position as the industrial craftsmen who founded the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The workers who founded the AFL reached out across the boundaries of their crafts (metal-working, brick-laying, etc.) to create a larger movement with serious economic and political clout. It's that reaching out across boundaries thing that I really want to focus on. To me, the political impotence of anthropology is only an instance of the political impotence of academia, and both reflect a self-centered focus on jobs in my trade, coupled with blindness to the reality that all white collar, want-to-be-middle-class, knowledge workers who do nothing but basically repetitive work face into today's global labor market. The adjunct or professor who fears MOOCs is in the same boat with the radiologist or programmer whose job is exported to India. Occupy Wall Street was a step in the right direction, bringing together all sorts of people. The question is, what can we do to keep moving in that right direction? Back when Socialist and Communist parties getting started, there was this idea called "the united front." There might be something to learn from there.

Re the Chinese program. I know that there is plenty of military hero and weapons worship in American TV and cinema. What struck me about the Chinese program was how a handful of stories about military and political heroes were interwoven with a larger number of civilian hero stories, the rural doctor with a paralyzed leg whose husband carries her up and down the mountains on his back so that she can see her patients, the filial school teacher taking his senile mother to school to be able to take care of her while still teaching his classes, that sort of thing. And, I observe, even in the stories about members of the military there was no rah-rah about weapons and war fighters. The introductory seen for the story about the general/explosives expert who was still working on his death bed opened with a scene from the construction of a highway through the mountains. The footage of the aircraft engineer kept the hardware in the background. The engineer and his team were all in civilian clothes and the focus was on well the team worked together under the engineer's leadership. The Navy ports and lighthouses guy was shown standing on quays projecting into the ocean and wresting with surveying equipment mounted on boats. There was none of the bravery in battle stuff that you see in the American programming you mention. 

Comment by Francine Barone on February 26, 2013 at 3:43am

I certainly don't think that this trend is peculiar to anthropology or anthropologists. Political apathy is definitely widespread and probably becomes more so each day, even considering Occupy and other recent protest movements. "Politics" and political-mindedness have become something that people don't want to be associated with. It has long been the recommendation not to discuss politics in certain social situations so as not to offend, but the rest of the time, this inability of citizens to talk politics borders on the pathological. I have never understood what makes too many people of my generation (and sadly, a lot of women), make statements like "I am not political". If you're human, you're political. Fear of causing offense or having to deal with "facts" has led public political debate – at least here in the US - to be reduced to mindless drivel, with more coverage of Oscar dresses than world events. Maybe people on the whole are less political because there is less evidence that it matters.

As far as anthropologists are concerned, I fear that our practice of retreating to the comfort of our ethnographic niches to protect them and ourselves under the guise of improving the world we live in, does not even begin to improve the world we live in. I believe a certain tension exists between the academic work we do and our lives at home. I have posted about this before elsewhere; on a disjuncture between what we do in the field and what we practice at home … which is not what we preach.

I wrote most of this before reading your last reply about the Chinese spectacle of self-sacrifice and now I am struck by just how similar what you describe (especially the latter half regarding national heroes) resembles what I see on American television every day. One example that comes to mind is the National Geographic TV channel, which appears to have moved away from its distinctly anthropological themed programming in favor of military hero and weapons worship. Current programs feature, to name a few, gun-loving rednecks, the "heroic" actions of military rescue crews ("Inside Combat Rescue"), and the return of military personnel to their teary-eyed families. Cue the wailing Middle Eastern music, the helmeted men squinting towards the distance in a dust cloud; cut to a crew air-lifting a wounded American soldier to safer skies, then to children clutching the American flag while widowed wives fall to their knees. Throughout these scenes we are meant to feel both gratitude and pride. Next come a few army and navy recruitment commercials featuring teen models ("we fight for democracy and fair treatment around the globe, join us, it'll be fun"), followed by the latest episode of Lords of War, tracing the activities of weapons fanatics looking for new toys. I guess National Geographic just got bored with anthropology and geography. Maybe if we had more firearms and cooler nicknames.

There is an unquestioning worshiping of all things military, patriotic and nationalist in the United States that obscures any real sense of political purpose or critical engagement with issues of domestic concern, while the country's infrastructure rots and poor public policy thwarts healthcare, education reform and workers' rights. Since when did we all become so uncritical of politics in everyday life and conversation? People claim to be "for" or "against" major issues, but that's as far as they go. Pretty much everyone knows that American news is full of crap, but few are that bothered about it to demand better reporting. Even as anthropologists we are quick to point out when the media gets it wrong and when facts are stretched too thin to tell the whole story, but are we really doing our parts in getting the whole story told?

It is rare to see - let's stick to American for now - anthropologists take a stand on politics en masse, except for major ethical issues that shame our discipline (like the AAA's statement against HTS) and even then sometimes make a mess of that (e.g. the Chagnon controversy). Another timely example for me is gun control. The US is struggling with this in a profoundly disturbing way and I feel like anthropologists have only just scratched the surface, throwing their hands up and demanding more research and less action, with the exception of a few isolated blog posts and the exceptional efforts by Jason Antrosio.

I believe you prompted me to come up with some solutions. If only it were that easy! But hey, let's take a stab at it.

Anthropologists aren't a special type of human who can solve all world problems. We cannot, as individuals, claim to be experts on all issues of political importance. So this imperative that we "fix" politics through action needs to be put in context. That said, our combined knowledge of cultural difference and similarities across the world puts us in a unique position - if we chose to exploit it - to guide certain major conversations in a way I don't think we're taking the opportunity to do like, say, journalists, historians, economists, or, increasingly, big data analyst types might. Instead of being afraid to stick our necks out or "take a stance", we can inform key debates by devoting some time to big anthropology in addition to incredible ethnography. I've said elsewhere that social anthropologists tend to catch up with and explain the news rather than make newsworthy discoveries. Given that, I feel like at the very least we can say more and stand for more, and not just wait for a press release by the AAA to relieve us.

We tiptoe around political issues even, or perhaps especially, in our own societies, as if giving away our own political views will tarnish our work or our credibility, and this is after reflexivity trumped objectivity. So we shy away from the press and politics while other disciplines court them both and then wonder why no one knows what anthropology is or what it’s good for.

Reality TV, celebrity news and hero-worshipping programs are as bizarre in their obsessive coverage as they are sickening. We have all become obsessed with "human interest stories" instead of interesting human stories, and resetting that balance is one area where anthropologists can do better with minimal effort.

Comment by John McCreery on February 25, 2013 at 7:49am

Why did I write this? Part of the context was having watched, fascinated, a program on CCTV, China's equivalent of the BBC. The program's title was 感动中国, "Moving (in an emotional sense) China." It is an annual program, broadcast as part of the Chinese lunar New Year celebrations and it celebrates individuals whose stories have moved Chinese viewers during the previous year. The format is a spin-off from an Oscars night, with Chinese elaborations. There are two MCs, one man, one woman, who take turns. One stands at a podium and announces the next award. A short video recaps the story. As the video ends, the name of the individual celebrated is unveiled in gleaming gold characters on a gigantic red stele.  Then the individuals celebrated or, when they are dead, someone (or two) close to them are invited on stage, where they are interviewed by the other MC. At the end of the interview they stand and turn toward the podium where the first MC reads a classical Chinese poem commissioned to commemorate the story. The poem is projected on the screen behind the stage. When the poem is finished they turn toward the audience. Two children (a boy and a girl) walk up to them carrying the award and a bouquet of flowers. They hand the award and flowers to the recipient(s), salute them, and then stand beside them as the recipient holding the award raises it overhead to thunderous applause. 

I am struck as I watch this program by the number and diversity of those who receive the awards. There are heart-rending human interest stories: a young teacher who to care for his mother who has altzheimer's and no longer recognizes him carries her to school everyday on his motorcycle and stops his class when necessary to attend to her needs—a classic example of filial piety; another teacher who threw herself in front of a bus to shove out of the way two students and is now crippled for life; a girl dying of a brain tumor who persuaded her parents to donate her organs after her death; a now elderly woman who has dedicated herself to caring for children with disabilities (130 in the last fifteen years). There are also examples with a more explicitly political edge: a famous military scientist, an expert in explosives, who insisted on working to the end, with his nurses helping him up from his deathbed to reach his computer; the chief engineer on the team that designed the fighter-bomber that will fly from China's first aircraft carrier and died of a heart attack while it was being tested; a local official who has personally engaged in every form of labor practiced in his rural community; a naval officer in charge of harbors and lighthouses who returned home only five times in a twenty-year career. All are celebrated for self-sacrifice, for putting others or the nation ahead of themselves. I have never seen anything like it in America. Yes, I have seen occasional news spots with a human interest angle and occasional programs devoted to heroes of one kind or another. But nothing like this, the celebration of self-sacrifice as a value that transcends difference in social position and role. Was it propaganda? Of course. Did it mark a striking difference from the neoliberal, me-generation, competition that sifts the winners from the losers ethos of consumerism and market fundamentalism? Oh, yes indeed, it did. 

Comment by John McCreery on February 25, 2013 at 3:31am

Francine. Thanks for speaking up. I feel very well understood. A question, though, are the weakness, muddle and apathy specific to anthropologists? Political apathy seems to be very widespread these days.

Comment by Francine Barone on February 24, 2013 at 8:09pm

Hmm ... the lack of comment appears to effectively prove the title of your post. I think some of what you are asking here ties in to this thread from way back in 2009 that has just been featured in This Week. At least one point addressed in the thread that I think is relevant to the questions here is that I find people I encounter on a daily basis are more likely to dedicate themselves to micro issues that are pertinent to their own lives, and less so to take a stand on more global political issues, even those of pressing concern. Can this also be true of anthropologists who seem more and more content to stick to their comfortable niches as knowledgeable experts, reluctant to take a public stance on wider problems or even to "get political" at all? You say that outrage and critique are not enough, but we rarely get around to action. In fact, it feels like anthropologists specifically shy away from it. The question I often hear in response is (from students and friends alike), "yeah, that's wrong, so what can we do about it?" But no one seems to have an answer. We are quick to point out the problems, but slow to offer any solutions. Demanding action is different from taking it and even more so from achieving ill-defined ends. Is it possible that being apolitical/non-interventionalist has become the anthropologists' default "ethical" position ... one that now reads simply as weak, muddled and apathetic?

Comment by John McCreery on February 23, 2013 at 4:58am

Good grief. I note that, as of the moment in which I am writing, 18 of us have looked at this post. Is it either so appalling or so stunningly persuasive that no comment is possible?


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