If they didn’t, they would just be like other, ordinary stuff.
If symbols didn’t matter, we wouldn’t fight over them. As in, people burning or otherwise desecrating flags when they’re mad at their government, and other people fuming at the sight or even thought of such actions.
If symbols didn’t matter, we wouldn’t protest when the wrong symbol appears in the wrong place for the wrong reason—say, a statue of a Confederate leader in a public square, visually celebrating the institution of slavery. As in: Why is there STILL a statue of Jefferson Davis in the “Statuary Hall” section of the U.S. Capitol?
If symbols didn’t matter, we wouldn’t proclaim the need for the right symbol that never appears when it should—say, an image of a Black woman on a piece of currency.
As in: The new quarter featuring legendary poet and activist Maya Angelou on the back of the quarter that bears George Washington’s image on the front.
There are two notable components of this new quarter.
First, on the “heads” side, we see George Washington. Founders of nations are a big deal. No matter who they are, they carry their own symbolic weight. Anything occurring with them borrows some of their power. The semiotician would point out: It’s a metonymic transfer, its own type of magic. Sound too theoretical? Here’s a more down-to-earth way of making the same point. Anything, or anyone, appearing on the flip side of George Washington announces: I am worthy of sharing space with this venerable ancestor . . . and becomes even more important, the minute the space is shared.
There’s also the irony that the nation’s founder was, himself, a slave owner. In the double image on the new quarter, the author of I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings could also be said to be rebuking our collective father for his moral failures.
Second, Maya Angelou isn’t just appearing on a coffee cup, a shoelace, or a fencepost. She’s appearing on money. For a capitalist system, that’s also a big deal.
Money is, literally, the object that signifies value par excellence in a capitalist system. Since money serves as the symbolic foundation of any capitalist economy, whatever images gets stamped on its “legal tender” is chosen very, very carefully.
If mostly the faces of men, or of White people, show up on coins, that makes statements about who we value. And, those statements are seen every day by Americans. According to the U.S. Treasury, a given coin will circulate for a good thirty years or longer. Quite a lot of people will see and hold it. That’s another reason that who shows up on coins is subject to a lot of thought.
Announced this month, a new American Women Quarters Program will feature a series of notable (but under-appreciated) American women on the “tails” side, beginning with Maya Angelou.
This may be the biggest teachable moment in any contemporary schoolteacher’s career. Teachers: grab it! What might new syllabi look like?
Crafting active-learning exercises across 45 years of teaching college students has inspired me to rethink current pedagogical challenges. Let’s imagine some Covid-inspired curricula.
History: In what ways did, and didn’t, the Covid pandemic replicate the 1918-20 influenza pandemic? The Black Plague? What lessons do past pandemics hold for the future? How should students evaluate divergent data, rival interpretations, and competing claims?
Math: Teach students to read charts tracking Covid infections and vaccinations. Compare the utility of different ways to visualize quantitative data. Do tables or bar graphs best illustrate certain kinds of data?
Do pie charts better illustrate other kinds of data? Are all published tables equally accurate? How should students evaluate divergent data, rival interpretations, and competing claims?
Biology: How do viruses infect people? What are all those spikes on the Coronavirus, anyway, and why is it called a “coronavirus”? How do vaccines work? How should students evaluate divergent data, rival interpretations, and competing claims?
Geography: Map supply chains for product shortages students experienced. Brainstorm new technologies to halt climate change. How should students evaluate divergent data, rival interpretations, and competing claims?
Art: How can artists powerfully express their own engagements with the past year and speak movingly to others? For inspiration, check out the Plywood Protection Project. Have students scavenge materials and recycle them into artworks to promote social justice.
Beneath all the specific subject matter ripe for discussion, notice the refrain?
How should students evaluate divergent data, rival interpretations, and competing claims?
Denmark’s public health system is so comprehensive, so systematic, so thoughtful, and so FREE, that it’s hard to imagine them NOT having the highest vaccination rate of children age 12 and up. According to the Borgen Project, here are some of the laudable features of Denmark’s public health system:
“All citizens in Denmark enjoy universal, equal and free healthcare services. Citizens have equal access to treatment, diagnosis and choice of hospital . . . . Healthcare services include primary and preventive care, specialist care, hospital care, mental health care, long-term care and children’s dental services.
Denmark organizes child healthcare into primary, secondary and tertiary healthcare systems. The primary level is free for all Danish citizens.
Tax revenue funds healthcare in Denmark. The state government, regions and municipalities operate the healthcare system and each sector has its own role.
The healthcare system runs more effectively than other developed countries, such as the U.S. and other European countries. For instance, experts attribute low mortality in Denmark to its healthcare success. . . . Denmark spends relatively less money on healthcare in comparison to the USA. In 2016, the U.S. spent 17.21% of its GDP on healthcare, while Denmark only spent 10.37%. By contrast, in 2015, the life expectancy at birth in Denmark was 80.8 years, yet it was 78.8 years in the U.S.
The high-quality healthcare system increases life expectancy. Danish life expectancy [even] slightly exceeds the average of the E.U.
Healthcare in Denmark sets a good example for elderly care in other countries. . . Danish senior citizens have the right to enjoy home care services for free, including practical help and personal care, if they are unable to live independently. Similarly, preventive measures and home visits can help citizens above 80 years old to plan their lives and care.“
The U.S. doesn’t have anything like any of the above systems. Instead, we value individual choice and effort over any notion of either community health or collective rights. That sounds good — until a pandemic reminds us of how lethal that value can prove.
Is it any wonder that Denmark is doing such a better job than the U.S. in vaccinating its teens against Covid?
This past month, the swans have taken up residence in our local cove, for the first time in the six summers we’ve lived here.
What could be a more beautiful way to celebrate the birth minute of my husband’s milestone birthday than a sunrise with swans?
What smiles the swans have brought to all who pass by. Plus, they’ve provided a great opportunity for conversations with admiring strangers. (“We just counted 81! How many did you count?”)
They’ve also motivated me to do some quick online research.
Turns out those oddly-shaped black blobs that sometimes rest on their backs are a leg. One leg. What’s going on with that? Does one webbed foot suddenly get tired and need a rest? Does resting a leg on a back stretch out taut muscles tired from too much paddling? Does a wet foot on some overheated feathers add a cooling touch under the hot sun? And how do they manage to navigate, anyway, without going awry from having only one limb for paddling? (Yes, I’ve seen them locomoting with a webbed foot lying on their rump.)
The anthropologist in me is frustrated no end that I can’t ask them for a direct response to these growing questions. I’ll have to keep testing out my theories using that other classic ethnographic method (which I honed while studying babies in West Africa): observing behavior and ruling out unlikely hypotheses. I wonder how likely this experiment in inter-species ethnography is to succeed.
Meanwhile, never mind their human fan club. Oblivious of us, and despite their reputation for nastiness, the swans that have taken up residence in our local harbor have co-existed happily all month with geese, ducks, egrets, seagulls, and terns.
Dare I hope the waterfowl offer a model for us bickering humans to re-gain a sense of community spirit?
We needed to find a new plumber. I called around. The first business that seemed willing to clean our boiler and replace a problematic hose spigot had availability soon. Before settling on a date, I remembered to ask the woman answering the company’s phone–let’s call her, Mary–a non-plumbing question: Will the plumber who comes into our house to work on the boiler for a few hours be fully vaccinated?
That inquiry took us to a place I hadn’t prepared to enter while finding the right vocabulary to explain our garden issue. Indeed, Mary’s unwelcome answer brought us into one of those difficult conversations we all dread these days. Here’s my best memory of how it unfolded:
Mary: I can’t guarantee that the plumber would be fully vaccinated.
Me: Are SOME of your company’s plumbers fully vaccinated?
Mary: We don’t require our staff to be vaccinated. The owner can’t force them. We’re not legally allowed to do that.
Me: Absolutely. But, the owner doesn’t have to keep paying people’s salaries if they won’t get vaccinated. That’s not forcing, that’s just his legal right to hire whoever he wants to hire. He’s got that freedom.
Mary: He won’t require it.
Me: But, are ANY of the plumbers who work for you vaccinated?
Me: Hmm. In that case, I’ll probably wait to use your services until after the pandemic is over.
I sensed that Mary was struggling to refrain from going into a political tirade about how Democrats and scientists were lying to Americans, and the vaccine would make people magnetic or sterile or digitally trackable or . . .
A normal person would have ended the conversation there. But I’m not a normal person. Suddenly, this conversation offered new possibilities for engaging with someone outside my usual social circle. The anthropologist in me was activated. I forged on.
Me: My husband and I are both vaccinated, but this aggressive Delta variant is now causing some mild, breakthrough cases that people might pass on without knowing. Since we have young grandchildren who can’t yet get the vaccine, and we’ll soon see them, we’re being extra-cautious.
Now the citizen in me was activated. Reckless, I plunged ahead.
Me: Meanwhile, since only the unvaccinated are dying from Covid now, you might want to recommend that your plumbers get vaccinated–not only to protect themselves, but also your customers.
Mary: We won’t do that.
Re-enter the anthropologist.
Me: Ah. [Pause.] Out of curiosity, I’m wondering why you don’t urge them to get the vaccine.
Mary: All our plumbers are very healthy and have great immune systems. They won’t get sick.
Me: Oh, that’s wonderful that they’re so healthy. [Pause.] Still, I keep seeing videos of people in the hospital with Covid, on ventilators, who said exactly that. This Delta variant seems to be extra-contagious and is getting so many people sick who had strong immune systems. The vaccine is a great way to protect your plumbers.
Mary: My husband and I don’t believe in the vaccine. We’re not vaccinated, and we don’t want our employees to get the vaccine, either.
Me: Really? Why’s that?
Mary: [Hangs up.]
So much for my long-honed interviewing skills. I’d have to grade myself an “F.”
But I’m never one to take failure lightly. The anthropologist in me wanted to call back and see if I could gently persuade Mary to explain her opposition to a vaccine that has so much overwhelming scientific evidence supporting its efficacy. Exactly what unfounded fears had grabbed Mary’s imagination? Who, or what, was her source of information? Why did she trust that source?
Still, the plumbing issues beckoned. Rather than re-engaging with Mary–trying to conduct instant phone ethnography that was, undoubtedly, doomed–I sighed and returned to an inventory of plumbers recommended on a neighborhood list-serv.
Phone call #2 produced an outcome at once similar, and worlds apart.
The woman answering the phone of the second business I rung up–let’s call her, Carol–offered a complicated reply that invited a conversation. Here’s what I remember of the non-plumbing portion of our exchange.
Me: Will the plumber who comes into our house to work for a few hours be fully vaccinated?
Carol: Probably, yes.
Me: Ah, that’s great. My husband and I are, too. But since we have young grandchildren who can’t be vaccinated yet, we’re being extra-cautious. Are all your plumbers fully vaccinated, then?
Carol: All but one. But, I can make sure that the one who isn’t vaccinated isn’t the one who comes to work in your house.
Me: Thank you, I appreciate that. [Pause.] Out of curiosity, is your boss encouraging that plumber to get the vaccine, to protect himself and your customers?
Carol: Actually, he’s already gotten the first shot. He just hasn’t gotten the second one yet.
Me: Oh, great.
Carol: Yeah, our boss is very big on the vaccine. He’s encouraged everyone in the company to get it. I’m the only one who hasn’t!
Me: Oh. [Pause.] Well, since you won’t be coming to work in my house, that’s not a problem for me. [Pause.] But, would you mind me asking why you haven’t gotten it, if your boss is encouraging you?
Carol: I’ve heard there are a lot of bad sideeffects. Did you have any bad side effects after your shots?
Me: Well, after my second shot, I was tired for a few hours, and the spot on my arm where I got the shot hurt a lot for about a day. But, really, it was no big deal. I’d much rather have a sore arm than die from Covid!
Carol: Oh! [Giggles, pauses a few seconds.] But,I have underlying conditions, and that’s what makes me very nervous about the vaccine.
Me: Ah, I can see that would make you nervous. Have you discussed your situation with your doctor?
Carol: No, I haven’t. I’m just reading stuff on social media.
Me: Maybe your doctor might have more information about whether your condition would make you a good candidate for the vaccine — whether it would be safe for you.
Carol: I guess so. But, I had [pauses] cancer some years ago, and I wouldn’t want the vaccine to bring that back. That was a nightmare. The treatment was so awful. And, the vaccine’s so new, no one knows what it will do, years later.
Me: I hear you. My husband was actually in treatment for cancer the past year, and his oncologist urged him to get the shot as soon as possible. He got it very early. I was online every day for a few hours, starting in January, looking for an appointment for him.
Carol: Wow, really?
Me: Yes. My husband got the first shot as soon as he could. Even though he’s now completely recovered from his cancer, now that booster shots are available, he’s going to get that third shot as soon as he’s eligible. His doctor thinks that’s a good idea.
Me: Yes, there’s a list of underlying medical conditions that make you more vulnerable to catching Covid, and suffering more, if you do. Cancer is one of them. Diabetes and asthma and obesity are some others. That’s why people with those underlying conditions were being urged to get the vaccine early on, before other people.
Carol: Hmm. You sound very knowledgeable. [Pauses.] Maybe I should consider it.
Me: Just this morning, my husband was almost in tears when he read a profile of an ER doctor in Los Angeles who is so, so frustrated with her Covid patients. None of them was vaccinated, and now, many of them are dying. As a doctor, she wants to do everything she can to help people survive, and she can’t believe that people are refusing to get vaccinated, since the vaccine pretty much guarantees that, even if you come down with Covid, it’ll probably be mild, and you won’t end up in the hospital and won’t die from it. Just about everyone in the hospital with Covid now is unvaccinated.
Carol: Where did your husband read that story?
Me: I think he said it was in the Los Angeles Times. If you like, I can ask him and maybe send you the link.
Carol: Oh, yes, please, I’d like to read that.
Me: Sure, I’ll send that to you as soon as I can.
We scheduled our plumbing appointment and Carol dictated her e-mail address so I could send her that newspaper article link. A few minutes after ending the conversation, Carol called back to double-check our street address. But first, she said, “I haven’t gotten that link yet. Are you still going to send it?”
I reassured her I would, then told her some updated statistics about Covid’s ravages that I’d read in the past few minutes. Carol eagerly resumed our conversation.
Carol: You sound so knowledgeable. I’ve enjoyed talking with you.
Me: Thank you. Same here!I do spend a lot of time every day reading updates, since the pandemic has taken such a toll.
Carol: I think I need to stop looking at social media and stop listening to people telling me not to get the vaccine.
Me: I know there’s a lot of claims out there about how the vaccine is unproven or dangerous. But, there’s definitely a lot of scientific evidence now that shows that the vaccine is super-safe and super-effective to keep you from dying from Covid. So far, something like 200 million Americans have gotten the vaccine, and no one has died from it. But we’ve had over 600,000 deaths from Covid.
Carol: Wow, really? [Pauses.] I think I’ll get it soon.
Me: That sounds like a good decision for you.
Carol: Yeah, I’m sure I’ll get it, now.
On the surface, the two women I spoke with share a lot of demographic characteristics. They’re both white. They both sounded within about 10-15 years of each other (I’d say, in their 40s to 50s). They’re both part of the working class. From a variety of speech styles and other markers, I’d guess they both stopped their formal education after high school. They’re both native English speakers. They’re both American. And they’ve both resisted getting the vaccine to protect themselves, their families, and their communities against Covid-19.
But, that’s where the similarities end. Together, Mary and Carol occupy two distinct points on the non-vaccinated spectrum in the U.S.
To put the contrast at its starkest . . .
Mary opposes the vaccine for political reasons; Carol opposes it for personal reasons.
Mary is angry about the vaccine; Carol is afraid of it.
Mary is sure in her decision; Carol is uncertain about hers.
Mary refuses to listen to counter-evidence that would challenge her decision; Carol is willing, even eager to listen to counter-evidence that might impel her to rethink her decision.
What does this tale of two women tell us about the people who have yet to get a free vaccine in the U.S. against COVID-19, despite incredible effectiveness and widespread availability? True, they’re only a sample of two. I can hardly claim that’s a scientifically representative group. But between them, these two women cover a lot of fascinating territory that I think is important, and instructive.
I draw some admittedly big lessons from my conversations with those two plumbing company receptionists. At the ethnographic level:
The “vaccine-hesitant” are not a single, homogeneous block. They include a variety of people who have arrived at their caution–or refusal–from a variety of subject positions.
If Mary and Carol offer strikingly different reasons for rejecting the Covid vaccine, they still do not represent the full range of reasons. Notably . . .
Some undocumented immigrants remain nervous about deportation, in case they have to show an ID at a vaccine clinic (as with some in the Cape Verdean community I research in Rhode Island);
Some blue-collar laborers work such long hours that they don’t find time or energy to go get a shot (as with the Stanley Steemer employee who came to clean our carpet earlier this spring, pre-Delta);
Some young people find it impossible to imagine that they could die (who among us hasn’t been there?);
Some “gig economy” workers live so precariously, from paycheck to paycheck, that they can’t risk missing a single unpaid day or two of work (why can’t the federal government address this with direct compensation?);
Some people of color retain such deep distrustof a medical system steeped in racism that they see no reason to let down their guard now (happily, physicians and nurses of color are starting to effectively address these concerns).
At the pragmatic (or, should I write, methodological?) level: Because “vaccine hesitancy” has many, diverse foundations, addressing it requires a multi-pronged approach.
“Meeting people where they are” has recently become a catch phrase among some in the medical community. That pithy motto is really just a simple way of signaling that what’s needed is an army of anthropologists. Who better to plumb people’s hidden, implicit values?
If the Biden administration were on the ball, they’d be recruiting anthropologists left and right for their medical team.
At the truly big-picture level: Education matters. Without research skills training us to evaluate the clearly false from the potentially true from the absolutely true, we are at the mercy of anything passing for “fact” that crosses our screen. Whatever the grade level, whatever the class subject, whatever the instructor’s expertise, every teacher’s first task should be to teach basic skills to evaluate evidence. The story of Mary and Carol makes it clear: our lives depend on those skills.
Meanwhile, here’s a rash prediction. This Monday, the F.D.A. is said to announce full authorization of the Pfizer vaccine. For some of the under-informed and mis-led Carols of the world ruled by a troubling combination of fear, misinformation, and eagerness for reliable advice founded in facts that regularly evade them, that authorization should provide some assurance that may motivate them to roll up their sleeves for their first shot. In short, I anticipate an enormous wave of new vaccine doses in the coming week or two, as several dams of hesitation break.
And, a wish. Maybe, just maybe, as the Marys of the world watch more people they know and even love die needlessly of Covid, at least a few of them may find some face-saving cover in the F.D.A. move and finally decide to go for a shot. After all, joining the pro-life camp of the vaccinated will confer the ultimate freedom.
The great French anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, organized his nearly-80-year-long career around a single, foundational principle: “culture” basically comes down to classification. If something is “this” (whatever “this” is), then it’s not “that.” Reciprocally, if something is “that,” then it’s not “this.”
If that observation seems banal, we rarely dwell on it precisely because it seems so obvious that it becomes invisible, like the air we breathe. Nevertheless, it’s a powerful lesson that summarizes quite a lot about the human condition. In a nutshell, our relentless urge to classify the world is one of the most important (if not first-that-comes-to-mind) features that distinguishes us from other intelligent species.
Perhaps nowhere is this species marker more sensorily evident than in an ordinary space that seems far removed from deep philosophical tenets — a garden.
True, what we choose to plant depends a great deal on soil composition and rainfall patterns. But it also reveals our values, as well as the power structures buttressing those values.
Planting a flower garden? That requires the rare privilege of having enough leisure time to value labor expended for no economically useful payoff, just sensory and aesthetic pleasure.
And, not just any flowers. A riotous garden crammed full of mixed wild flowers produces one effect.
A clearly delimited plot of begonias or rose bushes neatly lined up next to a carefully trimmed lawn produces quite another.
As for a vegetable garden — that project may result from a careful calculation to provide dinner ingredients for a small fraction of the cost of supermarket prices. Or it may derive from a busy, weekend gardener’s passion . . . or a bored retiree’s new hobby.
Likewise, the selection of exactly which seeds to sow rests on whole worlds of cultural values, conjoined with economo-political structures. Pierre Bourdieu might as well have devoted a whole chapter in his book, Distinction, to analyzing what a rare breed of Japanese eggplant versus a common variety of iceberg lettuce signals about a gardener’s educational level, financial resources, and social network expectations — all of which shape our (seemingly) personal palates.
Not only that — we like to think about gardening as a paean to life. But, to be honest, we should acknowledge the reality of the euphemism we politely term “weeding.” Gardening relies on at least as much destruction as nurturance.
All those gardens (whether filled with dinner-worthy tomatoes or vase-worthy hydrangeas) require regular “weeding” — clearing space for “this” plant to derive enough nutrients from the soil to thrive, while “that” plant sacrifices its existence for its neighbor. The decision of what to “weed” announces our values about what we consider worthy of life, and what we feel justified to kill.
All of which is to say: Today, when I decide to spend half an hour “weeding“ our backyard, every plant I choose to uproot will also make a cultural statement. Indeed, in my (culturally influenced) classificatory calculus, perfectly lovely plants meriting space in the garden take on another identity when they invade the narrow gap between cobblestones lining our driveway. That, as the anthropologist Mary Douglas would have termed it in her magnum opus, Purity and Danger, is clearly “matter out of place,” and won’t evade my trowel’s ruthless digging.
We can take the cultural foundations to gardening (suburban U.S. style) even further, seeing in it a veritable political parable. The delicate blades of Kentucky bluegrass count (for me) as worthy of life; those tall, thick stalks of “crabgrass” that threaten to crowd out their frailer neighbors merit death. In our garden, the never-ending drama of colonial domination and resistance plays itself out, one blade of grass at a time.
What can anthropology contribute to the critical conversation about race in America, following the welcome jury decision in the Derek Chauvin trial?
After they amassed and presented a week’s worth of technical details–medical, anatomical, temporal, legal–in the end, the prosecuting attorneys’ case against Derek Chauvin rested on a simple claim: A “reasonable” police officer would have removed his knee from George Floyd’s neck well before the excruciating 8 minutes and 46 seconds it took to kill him.
Miraculously, a jury of 12 peers unanimously agreed with that argument.
He didn’t put it in quite that way. In analyzing the legal system of the Barotse or Lozi people of Zambia, he wrote:
“as Barotse judges define the reasonable man, they bring into their definitions many facets of Barotse life which are not ostensibly part of the law. These facets include a variety of social and personal prejudices. I believe the same process can be detected in the decisions of our own judges and juries.”
From: Max Gluckman, “The Reasonable Man in Barotse Law,” in Order and Rebellion in Tribal Africa (New York: Free Press, 1963)
Those “prejudices”–which we might as well consider equivalent to “values”–dictate what members of particular societies consider what is, and is not, “reasonable.” Like most cultural values, these cultural models are neither universal nor unchanging.
Last week, a jury in Minneapolis gave America a gift. Suddenly, the racist justification for (white) police officers easily killing (Black) civilians is no longer a basis for a “reasonable” decision.
As Black commentators have been pointing out since the moments after the verdict was handed down in court, it will take far more than one trial to change cultural values. For, in the end, cultural values are at stake–and such values do not change quickly or easily.
Yet, thanks to the past year of BLM events remaining front and center around the country (even the globe), racism is one cultural value that no longer holds primacy in the white American imagination. Now that the eyes of the nation were trained on the Minneapolis courtroom, there is no going back to assuming that a white officer killing a Black civilian is, automatically, “reasonable.”
We must, of course, keep pushing for accountability in all police killings. Even more importantly, we must keep pressing for structural change not only to put murderous police officers on trial, but to retrain all police officers in de-escalation tactics. Re-labeling them as “peace officers” or “safety officers”–emphasizing their potential for nurturing rather than violence–might be a good, discursive start. Incorporating mental health professionals and social workers into their departments–as the city of Santa Fe did last week with their new “Alternative Response Unit”–would be a great, more tactical start.
Meanwhile, I remain proud of my discipline. The late Max Gluckman fundamentally got it right when he argued that, ultimately, legal systems rest on cultural values.
But, community standards of “reasonableness” hold sway–until they don’t. If he’d been around to hear last week’s verdict, I’d like to imagine Gluckman breathing his own sigh of anthropological relief as he nodded approvingly.
The political and military professionals ignored the warnings presaging last week’s Capitol invasion. But many who conduct research in rural Africa, while untrained in cyber-espionage, could have predicted the attack.
From living in small, rain-forest villages hosted by the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire for nearly two years, here’s what I learned about the risks of the interregnum.
African villagers know that any transfer of power is always fraught—sociopolitically, ritually, emotionally. This liminal period–“betwixt-and-between,” as anthropologist Victor Turner described it–leaves the nation neither fully in one political space nor another. Whether they last minutes or months, liminal moments beyond life’s normal categories invite creativity, artistic license—and danger.
In Ivory Coast, Beng practices for seating a new king are a study in (ritual) risk management. Spiritual peril precedes every king’s inauguration. Before the installation, it is said that witches roam freely during the daylight hours, exploiting the temporary power vacuum. Normally, witches reportedly wreak havoc only at night; their daytime boldness is taken as especially disquieting.
Nevertheless, Beng witches are neighbors. At night, they may transform into animal familiars or other abnormal forms, but by day, they revert to their normal human appearance. One might not know that the ordinary-looking person next door, or even one’s cousin or uncle, is plotting evil using mystical means.
As the king’s ritual seating approaches—the Beng equivalent of hand-on-the-Bible-swearing—the witches’ work reaches a fever pitch, culminating in maximal damage during the moments preceding the climactic ritual. A Beng friend claimed that more people die from witchcraft during the interregnum than any other time. Babies, children, and pregnant women never attend a king’s investiture: youth of all ages are considered especially vulnerable to the witches’ power.
One might dismiss such accounts as irrelevant to a modern democracy. I suggest otherwise.
Let’s take “witchcraft” as a metaphor for any illegitimate power unleashed by evil and spiritually powerful actors aimed at harming regular humans. (That’s the Beng perception.) Defined thus, the ritual drama of Beng kingship illuminates last week’s insurrection in Washington.
The insurgents might as well have been witches. Like Beng witches, they plotted their moves secretly, online. The Internet served as the high-tech equivalent of the Beng witches’ night—complete with mysterious spaces known colloquially (with its undertone of racist imagery) as the “dark Web.”
After stealthy planning, the insurgents accomplished acts of violence ranging from physical to moral to spiritual. After all, the building they assailed was, as American schoolchildren learn, the quintessential symbol of America.
Trump even attracts acolytes espousing outlier religious traditions. One much-photographed participant in last week’s assault—a buffalo horn- and bearskin-toting QAnon follower–called himself a “QAnon shaman,” ostensibly impersonating the classic shamans of the Mongolian steppes. Such flashy devotees merely exaggerate the religious fervor Trump himself ignites; his toxic narcissism flaunts the charismatic charlatanism in which religious cult leaders often specialize.
Last week, the energy of Trump’s mob erupted so intensely that the great French sociologist, Emil Durkheim, might have termed it positively effervescent. Over a century ago, Durkheim took the explosive bubbles of a champagne bottle as an apt metaphor for the religious excitement generated by large crowds of worshippers. Durkheim had in mind large ceremonial gatherings of Aboriginal peoples of Australia convened to venerate ancestral spirits of the land. Tragically, the religious fervor we witnessed in the U.S. capital aimed at murder, not spiritual enlightenment.
Until January 6th, the genius of the American political system had managed to contain the potent energy of previous interregnums, accomplishing handovers peacefully. Following last week’s attempted coupd’état, the relevance of Beng kings’ installation rituals becomes urgently clear: moments of political transition pose the most perilous times of civic life.
Modern-day witches sport all manner of dress. Most appear commonplace, while some appropriate intimidating regalia ranging from would-be garb of the military to pseudo-shamanic adornment of Mongolia. Like their African counterparts, these American witches—unnervingly, our neighbors and relatives–simultaneously wield and mock potent symbols to perform sedition.
1. The moment that any transfer of power occurs from one individual or regime to another is fraught—ritually, sociologically, emotionally.
Why? This is a liminal period–“betwixt and between,” as the great anthropologist Victor Turner described it–neither fully in one political space, nor in another. Liminal moments offer options for creativity, inviting artistic license. They also represent spaces of danger.
Here’s what I’ve learned about the liminal times of interregnum–those intervals between political regimes–from West Africa.
For the better part of two years, I lived in small, rain-forest villages hosted by the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire. Their practices for seating a new king are a study in (ritual) risk management.
Beng people rank a king’s inauguration as an extended moment of extreme spiritual danger. During the days and, especially, hours before the installation concludes, witches reportedly roam freely during the daylight hours, taking advantage of the temporary power vacuum. As the time approaches for the king to be ritually seated, the witches’ work increases to a fever pitch, culminating in maximal damage during the moments right before the climactic ritual. It is said that more people die during the interregnum period than at any other time. Babies and children never attend a king’s investiture: parents fear that their weakness and youthfulness would render them especially vulnerable to the power of witches. Likewise, a pregnant woman assiduously avoids the event, protecting her fragile fetus.
Some in the modern world might dismiss such accounts as anachronistic relics of an ancient era. I suggest otherwise.
At the broadest level, let’s take “witchcraft” as a metaphor for the unleashing of any illegitimate and mystical power aimed at causing harm in the lives of ordinary humans. (That’s how the Beng perceive witches.) It becomes clear how the ritual drama of Beng kingship illuminates the events of last week in the American capital. The insurgents attacking the U.S. Capitol building played the role of witches, spreading spiritual chaos.
The much-photographed costume of the fiercest-looking insurgent was worn by one Jacob Anthony Chansley–an Arizonan man who forsook his prosaic name in favor of “Jake Angeli,” with its obvious religious reference to “angel.” But his attempt to wield spiritual power was not only through reference to Christianity. In a second perverse act of cultural appropriation, the terrorist also drew on indigenous religious traditions, calling himself a “QAnon Shaman.”
That is not just a meaningless moniker. The now-notorious Arizonan claims spiritual powers equivalent to those of the classic shamans of the Mongolian steppes. Chansley has categorized himself as a “multi-dimensional or hyper dimensional being” and claims he can “see into these other higher dimensions that these entities – these pedophiles, these rapists, these really high up people … that they can almost hide in the shadows in.”
Beyond Chansley, QAnon–the amorphous collection of groups with which Chansley associates himself–itself displays many qualities of a religious cult. For one thing, its strangely spelt name hints at a secret identity: Anon[ymous]. The secrecy encoded in its very name implies mystical foundations.
Then, too, the conspiracy-oriented group promotes hyperbolic but vague claims drenched in sensationalist innuendo: Satanic kidnapping, pedophilia, child trafficking.
Moreover, according to NY Times reporter Kevin Roose, QAnon followers have also been “flooding social media with false information about Covid-19, the Black Lives Matter protests and the 2020 election.” Some have, additionally, embraced anti-vaccine and anti-child-trafficking movements; others make further “claims about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the existence of U.F.O.s, and the 9/11 ‘truther’ movement.”
What’s more, its messages are sometimes penned in cryptic language.
All these features smack of religious cults.
Dare I point out that this shambolic collection of creative but unrealistic fears constitutes a veritable witches’ brew?
Chansley is now in custody. I’m guessing that the higher powers with which he claims to be in touch may not prove persuasive in a court of law.
But Chansley is just the side show. The main act, of course, is Donald Trump. These past four years. Trump has turned into a religious cult leader par excellence.
Trump may not drape himself flamboyantly in bearskins or sport buffalo horns, but his toxic narcissism produces just the sort of charismatic charlatanism in which certain types of religious cult leaders have long specialized. Allying himself with flashier devotees merely highlights the religious fervor he ignites on his own.
As I watch reruns of the mob scene that Trump incited, I imagine that the great French sociologist, Emil Durkheim, would have recognized the energy as effervescent, when large gatherings of people create great emotional intensity dedicated to serving ancestral spirits. Tragically, the religious fervor we witnessed in the U.S. capital produced tragedy rather than spiritual enlightenment.
Last week in Washington, D.C., the bureaucrats in charge of security failed our nation miserably. Eventually, a systematic inquiry will determine whether this failure originated in inattentive incompetence or coordinated sedition. (All signs are currently pointing toward the latter.)
For now, I humbly point out what those in charge might have learned from Beng villagers (assuming they actually wanted to protect the nation): moments of political transition represent the most dangerous times of civic life.
During periods of political interregnum, society cannot be too cautious. Leaders must take all conceivable steps to protect the vulnerable and safeguard the polity, lest the forces of chaos–modern-day witches–avail themselves of the power vacuum and take charge.
2. The institutionof democratic rule is strong, sturdy, and stable–until it’s not.
In the village, my Beng friend Yacouba once told me, “When the walls have holes, the cockroaches get in.”
Yacouba had in mind the ravages of his two co-wives. In his view, their endless bitter arguments were causing all their children to constantly fall sick; one had even died.
Yacouba’s cockroach lesson might be applied to the broader house of civil society. Once foes scratch cracks into the walls of an institution, elements of destruction expand those chips and find their way in.
In Côte d’Ivoire, the initial challenge to the modern nation’s first democratic elections occurred in 1994. The past 26 years have seen more failed coup attempts than I have counted, punctuated frequently by violent civil unrest and two periods of out-and-out civil war. Today, the nation remains as unstable as it was at the beginning of those early political challenges. Côte d’Ivoire’s recent history should serve America as a warning.
During the past week, we have heard many journalists and political experts write that America is on a precipice. But, if we want to be honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that, from the nation’s earliest days, America began in violent efforts to either subjugate or annihilate people of color–first, native peoples; then, Africans kidnapped and brought to these shores while enslaved. To claim that we are on a precipice now implies that this is the first time we face stark choices concerning racism. In truth, we have been balancing uneasily on that precipice since the founding of the republic.
Nevertheless, each time we venture farther out on that cliff, we come closer to toppling over its edge.
The lessons of Côte d’Ivoire’s difficult modern history are still something from which it’s not too late to learn. There’s still time to conduct thorough inquiries into who organized last week’s insurrection and then prosecute them. All of them. Even if he neither resigns nor is removed from office via the 25th amendment nor is impeached, Donald Trump can, and should, ultimately be judged–ideally in court, but certainly by history.
Meanwhile, we have an interregnum to plow through.