Category Archives: Current Issues

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.

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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.

 

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.

Donald Trump vs. Blood Magic

Donald Trump has revived old stereotypes in claiming that Fox News commentator/Republican debate moderator Megyn Kelly was ruled by her hormones (“bleeding from her wherever”) when she critiqued his multiple sexist statements and stances.  Explaining away women’s anger by reference to the menstrual cycle is an old habit of those who wish to exclude women from decision-making positions.  Let’s see if I become a new target of Donald Trump after being quoted in this NPR blog post by Susan Brink . . .

PMS 5 Beware of PMS

Meanwhile, I’m honored that an essay I wrote about Beng menstrual beliefs and practices was just quoted in an article by Candida Moss, “Weak Men Like Trump Have Always Feared Menstruation,” in The Daily Beast.

Fabulous Art from Abandoned Flip-flops

Cleaning up beach waste in the form of abandoned rubber flip-flops . . . recycling landfill-able castoffs . . . training low-income men and women in job skills and providing them with living wages in Nairobi . . . creating beautiful art . . . saving fish, dolphins and baby turtles from choking on rubber detritus . . . educating local residents in recycling options . . . so much goodness in one small company!Dolphin Sculpture from FlipflopsThis small effort may not solve the world’s pollution and poverty problems, but it does highlight one local success story.

The Ocean Sole Company that makes sculptures from flip-flops funnels 5% of its profits into its educational foundation.  That’s not a huge percent, but it’s something.  Its website says: “The Ocean Sole Foundation works with communities, scientists, conservationists, artists, governments, industries and other not-for-profit organisations that are raising awareness and actively involved in marine conservation. We support actions that recycle, reduce and reuse marine and waterway debris.”

Contrast this encouraging account of garbage-to-art with the typical gloom-and-doom story about sub-Saharan Africa that lands in the Western press.  If more journalists published reports like this, instead of yet another lament about ebola, civil war, corruption, or AIDS, what might white people’s images be of the land from which their long-ago ancestors came?

I’m not advocating that Africa’s considerable challenges be ignored.  But how about a bit more journalistic balance?

Otherwise, there’s always the stereotype-reinforcing strategy that Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainana offers, instructing would-be authors how (not) to write about Africa:

Binyavanga Wainaina

“Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.”

 

P.S.  Check out the awesome “open letter” recently addressed to the producer of the popular CBS news show, “60 Minutes,” about the unacceptable biases in the show’s (rare) coverage of Africa.  Dare we hope this passionately and intelligently argued plea, signed by dozens of prominent scholars and other thoughtful people, might produce some positive changes in the show?

Social Change: One Petition at a Time?

As a high school student, I remember the excitement of going door-to-door to solicit signatures on petitions of various sorts.

Adding one’s name to a list of other names on a single piece of paper may not seem consequential.  But when that sheet joins hundreds or thousands of others, suddenly the list has the potential to gain notice.Sign the Petition! Clipboard

One petition I promoted urged people across the U.S. to boycott buying table grapes, in support of the Latino/a grape pickers on strike in California.  Organized by legendary union leader, Cesar Chavez, the movement united farm workers to demand a living wage and decent working conditions.

In the case of the United Farm Workers, such petitions contributed to what became a national boycott of table grapes (lasting from 1965-70).  Although many contemporary farm workers still suffer unacceptable working conditions and low wages, the boycott produced the first union contracts for farm workers, who began a national conversation about better pay, benefits, and protections–a conversation that continues today.

green-grapes

In those days, collecting thousands of signatures for a petition meant having a well-organized, healthy cadre of footsoldiers.  Nowadays, websites such as Change.org make the process infinitely easier.

Take the case of Amazon.  A current online petition urges Amazon to change the name of the Amazon Mom program to Amazon Family.

Sure, names are just one (small) part of the problem of challenging gender stereotypes and expectations.  But “starting somewhere” to promote social justice means just that: starting somewhere.  And changing the very public name of a very popular program is a great start.

At the individual level, we all know how names matter to our sense of personal identity. The case of a nine-year-old girl from New Zealand is instructive.  Desperate to change her name, she found legal redress: In 2008, “a judge in New Zealand made a young girl a ward of court so that she could change the name she hated – Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii.  Judge Rob Murfitt said that the name embarrassed the nine-year-old and could expose her to teasing,” such that the judge termed the name a “social disability.”

At the corporate level, CEOs know how names matter to a company’s bottom line.  In the U.S., despite the enormous expense and hassle involved, over 1,900 companies changed their names last year.  They had diverse reasons for doing so, but whatever the motivations, their directors decided that the benefit of changing the company name outweighed the cost. Financial managers would only undertake such an ambitious and complicated shift if the symbolic resonance to names mattered.

And they do matter.  While changing the Amazon Mom program to the Amazon Family won’t solve the problem of patriarchy in the modern world, that corporate name change will give boys who consider what kind of fathers they want to become (inseminators vs. hands-on parents?) one more model of where they might see themselves as involved fathers (as part of an “Amazon Family”) . . . and one less model of where their masculinity is not welcome (as an “Amazon Mom”).

mega-man-pram-manly-baby-stroller-3-1

Besides, from Amazon’s perspective, such a name change would make good business sense.  If a dedicated father can “see himself” in an “Amazon Family” program (but not in the “Amazon Mom” program), he’s more likely to commit precious resources–family funds–to buy consumer goods on that website, and not another.  And in a capitalist world, promoting business ethics from the standpoint of the financial bottom line may (for better or worse) be our most realistic option.

You can sign the Amazon petition here.

(How) Do Anthropologists Celebrate Valentine’s Day?

As an anthropologist, the first thought that comes to mind as we approach an upcoming holiday is typically, How do they celebrate this holiday in X?X being a faraway land where the celebration is likely to look quite different from how it looks in my hometown. The next thought that typically follows: Is this holiday even celebrated universally? And, if not, why not?

Cultural relativity may have taken a bashing at the hands of assorted theoreticians, but it remains a pernicious habit of mind for cultural anthropologists who’ve spent months or years living in places far from home. Once you’ve become used to eating new foods in a new way (say, using the first three fingers to delicately cup a small chunk of cooked yams pounded into a beautifully rounded, elasticky ball, then dip it into a delectable peanut sauce cooked by your West African hostess),

Foutou & Peanut Sauce

or walking down the street a different way (say, bowing your head gently to every stranger you pass on the sidewalk of Addis Ababa, to acknowledge your shared humanity), it’s hard to forget that no matter what folks around you are doing and saying, they might be doing and saying those things differently, if only they had been born elsewhere.

Take the small matter of love. This Valentine’s Day, while relishing the sentimental clichés we may, against all odds, enjoy reading in the greeting cards that come our way, and scanning delectable rows of fancy chocolates in the local gourmet food shop (some of which I have already enjoyed as gifts from my thoughtful husband), I can’t help but think about how love has looked (and felt) in other times and places.

valentines-day-gift-ideas-choclate-hearts

As a freshman in college, I felt shocked to discover that the medieval French love poems assigned by my French Literature professor all addressed adulterous lovers urged to leave the castle before dawn–and before the castle’s mistress, or master, awoke. In medieval Europe, romantic love was alive and well, but rarely within the scope of marriage.

Terry, Lays of Courtly Love

Among the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire, romantic love is an ideal state for a married couple to attain–but, in this society organized partly around marriages arranged by elders, romantic love is more often seen not as the catalyst for marriage, but as the result of several years of marriage and becoming closer through sharing the joys and challenges of child-rearing.

In any case, by no means does allying romantic love with marriage create happiness. The U.S. divorce rate of ~50% testifies spectacularly to the frequent failure of that effort.

As a new ideal, romantic love in some places may contribute to women demanding rights they previously lacked, as the anthropologist Janneke Verheijen says happens with Guatemalan women when they watch telenovelas. But a new ideology of romantic love may also ally with old problems. In Belize, anthropologist Joan van Wijn describes how local Afro-Caribbean men who romance white tourist women perpetuate all the racism of the British colonial color hierarchy.

In this century, romantic love continues to encounter an almost unthinkable and sometimes brutal array of challenges. In southwest China, anthropologist Shanshan Du has documented how, since the 1950s, unrequited Lahu lovers forbidden by their community to divorce the spouses they did not love all too often made a joint suicide pact while singing tragic love songs at a public gathering . . . producing the world’s highest suicide rate by far.

Elsewhere, ruthless anti-love laws continue to be enforced. In Uganda, gay couples still risk spending their lives in prison if government agents discover their sexual orientation, and marriage remains an elusive hope for many of the world’s gay couples.

Ugandan Anti-Gay Law Protester-Rainbow Mask
In the U.S., interracial couples were forbidden to marry in 16 states until 1967. Thankfully those odious laws no longer govern marriage, but while interracial couples now constitute some 7% of all marriages in the U.S., they still risk having their houses polluted with liquid mercury or their car windows shattered.

Even in such trying circumstances, the very possibility of love remains a luxury not all people can even imagine elsewhere. Do the thousands of teenage girls trafficked every year from Nigeria to Italy, to be forced into sex work, ever have a chance even to conceive of romantic love?

Next fall, I will include a section about sexual slavery when I teach my Women’s Bodies, Women’s Lives course.

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