It’s Never “Just a Symbol”

Symbolic anthropologists, take note.  What’s in a symbol?  Everything, when it comes to politics.  Especially, election-year politics.  And especially when a major political candidate claims ignorance of centuries-old symbolism used to discriminate against an oppressed minority.

Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 9.33.50 PM

Was Trump being anti-Semitic, or was he being stupid, when he Tweeted an accusation that Hillary Clinton is “the most corrupt candidate ever”–with Clinton’s photo accompanied by a Star of David overlaying countless dollar bills?

For someone who is one of two candidates credibly vying for the planet’s most politically powerful position, either scenario is deeply troubling.

Rethinking BDS

A shorter version of this post has just appeared online as a podcast, in coordination with the motion put to a vote among the membership of the American Anthropological Association to boycott Israeli academic institutions.  Here’s the text . . .

 

The first thing I want to say is that I firmly support Palestinian rights and a Palestinian state; I firmly oppose the Israeli government’s occupation of Palestinian communities; and I strongly critique Israeli policies mistreating Palestinians in myriad ways.

 

In fact, I grew up in a household in which Palestinian rights was, literally, a nightly dinner-table conversation because my father worked as a public relations director of the only Jewish, anti-Zionist organization in the US, through my childhood in the 1960s.

 

The second thing I want to say is that I’m also deeply troubled by the prospect of boycotting any scholarly colleagues, whether Israeli or anyone else, because of the abuses of their government.

 

I get the logic of economic boycotts. These involve refraining from buying products that have ethical issues deeply implicated in the social conditions of their manufacture. Damaging a corporation or government where it most hurts—their bottom line—is also pragmatic. That produces an optimal fit between means and end.

Nestle Boycott

Academic boycotts are another creature. I’m convinced that the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, like all academic boycotts, takes aim at the wrong target. I oppose academic boycotts on philosophical and ethical grounds for four reasons:

 

First: The claim by supporters of this boycott that the boycott targets “institutions and not individuals” is disingenuous. As anthropologists, we’re trained to pay attention to the human effects of institutional processes. Indeed, that’s our stock-in-trade.

 

Boycotting an institution means, by definition, boycotting the people who work for the institution.

 

In the case at hand, if a majority of AAA members vote to support the proposed boycott, faculty and students at Israeli academic institutions, for example, would no longer have access to journals published by the AAA that are supplied to their institutions by the AAA’s distribution network, AnthroSource.

AnthroSourcepng

They wouldn’t be permitted to participate in the AAA’s Career Center or Graduate School Fair—if, say, they wanted to leave Israel for a US institution, either as a student or a professor.

AAA Career Center

They wouldn’t be listed in the AAA’s Guide to Departments. In short, they would be considered non-persons as far as our social universe is concerned. What sense does this make as a way to engage with our scholarly colleagues?

AnthroGuide 2015-16

Assuming all these effects would actually be upheld legally (and some of them might not–already, the American Studies Association is being sued by four scholars for its BDS vote), how would they possibly further the cause of Palestinian rights?

 

Secondly: By tarring a group of scholars with the same brush, we essentialize people by reference to their nationality. Surely, that’s a move we anthropologists have been in the forefront of opposing in so many other contexts.

 

In the case of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, we would target precisely—indeed, perversely–many scholars who are among the most vocal opponents of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands—the very occupation that supporters of the boycott themselves oppose.

 

This is upside-down logic.

 

Thirdly: Beyond the specifics of this boycott lies an even more important issue: the broader political question of global ethics. If we decide to hold scholars and their scholarly institutions responsible for the misguided, unethical and brutal policies of their governments, why stop at Israel? Why not include all scholars based in China? All scholars based in Myanmar? All scholars based in Saudi Arabia? Sudan? Russia? N. Korea? When we start voting against our favorite repressive regime, the candidates start multiplying alarmingly.

 

Will we have any colleagues left in the world with whom to engage?

 

What about those of us in the US? Should we not boycott academic institutions of higher learning in the US for being complicit, both in the past and present, with objectionable policies?

 

Take your pick—racist “stop-and-frisk” practices, Iraq and Afghanistan bombing, ROTC recruitment on campuses to our unethical military, TSA over-reach, campus investment in environmentally polluting corporations, university hiring policies that promote exploitation of part-time/adjunct faculty—there’s plenty to hold American scholars accountable for, if our tactic is to equate scholars and their institutions with their governments’ (or campuses’) policies.

 

If we want to be consistent—and, surely, that’s one of the central aims of strong scholarship–where should an academic boycott end?

In designing any sort of political action, it’s crucial to keep the goal front and center. Losing track of the goal risks imitating the behavior we wish to condemn.

 

Fourth, and finally: we need to be mindful of the precise target of this proposed boycott. The vast majority of scholars who would be affected are Jews.

 

Deciding to target Jews for the abuses of their government, when we are not similarly targeting members of other religions and nations for the abuses of their governments, starts moving implicitly—if not unintentionally–toward anti-Semitism.

 

Given the history of anti-Semitism, which has produced brutal forms of oppression across over 2,000 years, including the Inquisition and the Holocaust, I think were ethically bound to be sensitive to the historical overtones and symbolic resonance of this boycott. To Jews, this academic boycott—targeting only residents of one of the many governments that has disturbing policies oppressing minority populations–is starting to feel all too familiar.

 

As a body of thoughtful scholars, the AAA should indeed forge means to oppose Israeli occupation of Palestinian communities and support the creation of a Palestinian state—means that will actually be consistent with, and promote, our goal.

 

The Power of Menstrual Politics

The latest in the abortion wars:

“One Indiana woman recently created the Facebook page Periods for Pence where she encourages others to call the governor’s office to report their periods, since they could technically be having a miscarriage.”

 

A new generation of feminists is defying classic menstrual taboos by the simplest possible method: just talking about menstruation.  The latest brilliant tactic by an anonymous menstrual/abortion rights activist may be the most creative means yet to inform male politicians that they don’t have the right to regulate women’s wombs.

 

P.S.  Menstrual politics are dominating this week’s news!  Check out this awesome article giving us a glimpse at what a menstrual entrepreneurial spirit looks like.

Science and the National Interest

Who should judge what counts as “worthy science”?  Who should judge what counts as “in the national interest”?

New legislation just passed by the U.S. House of Representatives would require that all scientific projects receiving federal funding be approved by elected politicians according to criteria they set out as measuring “national interest.”

Is it just me, or should we be worried about shades of national socialist science in Hitler’s Germany?

Nazi Race Scientist, 1935

I’m not saying that our current elected officials have Nazi sympathies.  I am suggesting that once we empower politicians as the arbiters of scientific research, we empower them to make decisions in arenas in which they have no special expertise–arenas that can have enormous consequences for the well-being of our citizens and our planet.

And it turns out that the well-being of our planet is just what the politicians passing this legislation have in mind. Archaeologist Rosemary Joyce has investigated all the research projects protested by Republican legislators last year as being a trivial waste of taxpayers’ money.  Guess what?  In one way or another, they all explore historical, geological, economic or other implications of climate change in earlier eras, and how humans dealt with such changes.

Do these legislators really have no grandchildren?

 

 

How BDS Risks Going over to the Dark Side; or, Why I am Ashamed of My Association

I get the logic of economic boycotts for political reasons.

In high school, I stopped buying grapes to support Cesar Chavez’ protest of the slave-like working conditions of Mexican farm workers in grape vineyards.

I also stopped buying Saran Wrap, to protest Dow Chemical’s manufacture of napalm for killing civilians in Vietnam.

Dow Chemicals Boycott

When I became engaged, I informed my fiancé that I was disinterested in a diamond ring, to avoid supporting the apartheid regime that produced much of the world’s diamonds.

DeBeers Boycott

Since the 1970s, I haven’t bought gas at Shell stations—to protest the corporation that was supplying oil to the apartheid regime of South Africa, as well as polluting the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, where it has destroyed the livelihood of Ogoni fishers and impoverished surrounding communities.

Shell Boycott

In the 1980s, I stopped buying all products manufactured by Nestlé, to protest the aggressive marketing of infant formula to impoverished women in the global South, sold by saleswomen wearing white uniforms that made them look like nurses.

Nestle Boycott

Until 1989, I avoided buying cars made by Ford, which supplied military and police vehicles to the apartheid regime of South Africa.

All these economic boycotts make sense to me.  In every case, they involve refraining from buying products that have ethical issues deeply implicated in their manufacture.  Damaging a corporation where it most hurts—their bottom line—is also pragmatic.  Corporations make decisions based on profits.  Punishing the source of the ethical quagmire in the way that hurts that source the most seems an optimal fit between means and end.

There are boycotts . . . and then there are boycotts. 

The boycott of Israeli academic institutions that a majority of members of the American Anthropological Association present at the AAA Business Meeting in Denver recently voted to submit to the full AAA membership, for consideration of a AAA-sponsored statement, is a boycott of a different sort.  This is the right boycott of the wrong target.

In this boycott, we would target those who are among the most vocal opponents of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands—the very occupation that supporters of the boycott likewise oppose.

This upside-down logic is reminiscent of the “death penalty.”  Killing killers–to make a public statement that killing is wrong–makes as much sense as does boycotting opponents of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, in order to oppose Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

The claim that the boycott targets “institutions and not individuals” is disingenuous at best.  As anthropologists, we are trained better than just about anyone else to pay attention to the human effects of institutional processes.  Indeed, that’s our stock-in-trade.  Unless an institution is devoid of humans, boycotting an institution means, by definition, boycotting those humans who work with and for the institution.

In the case at hand, if a majority of AAA members votes to support the proposed boycott, faculty and students at Israeli academic institutions, for example, would no longer have access to journals published by the American Anthropological Association that are supplied by AnthroSource.  They would not be permitted to participate in the AAA’s Career Center or Graduate School Fair.  They would not be listed in the AAA’s guide to departments of anthropology.

What next steps would individual scholars take, in solidarity with the spirit of the boycott? Shout down Israeli LGBT activists at a gay rights conference and then block them from existing the room?  Refuse to debate Israeli students in campus debates?  Prevent pro-Israel student groups from being allowed to exist on campuses?  Vote down Jewish students from joining student councils because of their religious affiliation?  In fact, all these troubling occurrences are already documented, with a recent report chronicling “54 percent reported instances of anti-Semitism on [US] campus[es] during the first six months of the 2013-2014 academic year.”  The AAA resolution would legitimate such actions, and hence expand the trend.

The AAA’s full membership will begin voting on the BDS resolution on April 15, 2016.  The resolution directs the American Anthropological Association to “refrain from any formal collaborations or other relationships with Israeli academic institutions, including the Israeli Anthropological Association.”  If it is passed by a majority of AAA members, will we see refusals by US universities to admit Israeli graduate students to their doctoral programs?  Will US scholars feel motivated, or pressured, to sever ties with Israeli co-authors and collaborators?  Will we see invitations to Israeli researchers to speak on US campuses or at US conference sessions rescinded?

In short, anthropologists who are affiliated with Israeli institutions would be considered non-persons as far as our scholarly universe is concerned.  The slope toward out-and-out anti-Semitism begins to appear ever more slippery.

Assuming all these effects would actually be upheld legally (and some might not, given, for example, the AAA journals’ publication by Wiley publishing company, which has its own legal requirements), how would they possibly further the cause of Palestinian rights?

Beyond the specifics of this misguided boycott lies an even more important issue: the broader political question of global ethics.

If we are to hold scholars responsible for the unethical and brutal policies of their governments, why stop at Israel?  Why not include all scholars based in, say, China?  All scholars based in Myanmar?  All scholars based in Saudi Arabia?  Syria?  Sudan?  Russia?  When we start voting for our favorite repressive regime on the basis of human rights violations, the candidates start multiplying alarmingly.

If we really take this imperative seriously, will we have any colleagues left in the world with whom to engage?

Hell, what about those of us in the US?  Should we not boycott our own academic institutions of higher learning for being complicit, both in the past and present, with objectionable policies?  Take your pick—racist “stop-and-frisk” practices,Human Rights Abuse-Ferguson

Iraq/Afghanistan bombing, TSA over-reach, (nutritious/fresh) “food deserts,” shameful incarceration rate of black men, below-poverty minimum wage,

 

WAGE nws kg 1ÑBrian Verdin, of Milwaukke holds up a sign as part of a protest of the lack of a minimum wage increase in the last three years. Low-wage workers joined with government officials, along with hundreds of supporters launch the campaign to raise minimum wage. PHOTO BY KYLE GRILLOT/ KGRILLOT@JOURNALSENTINEL.COM

WAGE nws kg 1ÑBrian Verdin, of Milwaukke holds up a sign as part of a protest of the lack of a minimum wage increase in the last three years. Low-wage workers joined with government officials, along with hundreds of supporters launch the campaign to raise minimum wage. PHOTO BY KYLE GRILLOT/ KGRILLOT@JOURNALSENTINEL.COM

health care system still in crisis, absence of sane and enforced gun ownership laws, ever-widening racial achievement gaps in education, unacceptable lack of meaningful jobs in inner cities—there’s plenty to hold American scholars accountable for, if our tactic is to equate scholars and scholarly institutions with their governments’ failed and abusive policies and practices.  But wasn’t anthropology the first discipline to point out that condemning abusive policies and practices in other societies is hypocritical when we don’t first protest our own societies’ abusive policies and practices?

Racism as Terrorism

In short, if we want to be consistent—and, surely, that’s one of the scion aims of strong scholarship in general, and a hallmark of social science in particular–where should an academic boycott end?

*

I get the feelings of frustration that impelled my anthropology colleagues to vote for this motion to boycott our Israeli colleagues.  But frustration over the lack of progress in ending Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands does not justify targeting colleagues who have nothing to do with that policy and, in many cases, strongly oppose it.  As an association, we need to go back to the drawing board and design measures that will have appropriate effects relevant to our goal: ending Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.

And we need to remember the basics of Social Protest 101.  In designing any sort of political action, it’s crucial to keep the goal front and center.  Losing track of the goal risks imitating the behavior we aim to condemn.

 

Time for a New National Anthem?

Whatever the political and economic rationales existing beneath the surface, the modern nation of the US was created by European refugees fleeing religious prejudice. The Huguenots and Puritans arriving on the shores of New England helped create a new nation founded with the ideological goal of religious freedom.

Donald Trump is either ignorant of his nation’s history or wishes to rewrite it. If his proposal to exclude all visitors to the nation on the basis of their religious affiliation is taken seriously, the US risks losing its motivational moorings.

With a President Trump, would our national anthem boasting of “The home of the free and the land of the brave” have to be replaced by a new anthem extolling “The home of the bigoted and the land of the afraid?“
Trump Banning Muslism?

Trump Furious

We Are All Africans

An impressively interdisciplinary team of geneticists, biological anthropologists, archaeologists, and geologists has just published an article detailing the genetic makeup of a man who lived in Ethiopia some 4,500 years ago. Why is this relevant today? The analysis shows close genetic ties between some contemporary Sardinian farmers, German farmers from 7,000 years ago, and contemporary people living in Ethiopia and elsewhere in the Horn of Africa. That’s big news in these days of far too many complaints about “too many immigrants,” and far too much discussion about “race” as if it were a simple category with immutable boundaries.

But the larger story embedded in this research packs an even bigger punch. We humans have been on the move for a good 70,000 years, and our connections across Africa, the Middle East, and Europe have been actively maintained, with criss-crossed migrations and gene sharing ever since. Leaders of today’s far-right parties claim that ethnic and racial mixing is unnatural, and that migration goes against our nature. Donald Trump, Scott Walker, and Marine Le Pen need to study their history.

Racist Anti-Immigration Poster Racist, anti-immigration poster of the English Defence League, a far-right street protest group dedicated to opposing Muslims living in the UK

Anthropology and the MidEast Crisis

There’s surely something to offend every political sensibility in a provocative essay, “Let the Palestinians Have Their State,” just published by Liel Leibovitz in The Tablet.  But for that reason, it’s worth reading.  Equal-opportunity-offender essays are bold enough to propose solutions that–dare I say?–might just be viable, if all those who are offended actually considered their proposals.

Anthropology teaches us that we remain comfortable in our preconceived assumptions and prejudices at our peril.  Why not imply the insight to the mess that is the MidEast?
Examine Your Assumptions

As Usual, The Devil’s in the Details; or, Why Ethnography Matters for Everything

A new study reports that pre-kindergarten programs in Tennessee fail to achieve any long-term gains. Republican lawmakers are already seizing on the news as evidence that pre-K programs don’t work in general, and should no longer be funded.

By contrast, the same study reports that pre-kindergarten programs in Boston are achieving significant long-term gains. Democratic lawmakers will no doubt seize on the news as evidence that pre-K programs do work in general, and should be further funded.

As usual, the devil’s in the details.

The Tennessee program emphasizes passive classroom strategies that are dull even for college students, let alone three-year-olds: children sit and listen while a teacher talks.

Students Sleep in Lecture
The Boston program emphasizes active learning strategies that are tried-and-true even for college students, let alone three-year-olds: children learn to measure distance by measuring the shadows their bodies cast on the ground, and brainstorm about making their city a better place by using skills they learn in reading, math, art and science to present a proposal to City Hall.

Boy Measures Own Shadow
My conclusions:

1. Conclusions are only as good as the data they draw from.

2. “Think global, study local” should be the official Congressional mantra.

3. Everything is better with ethnography.

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