Anthropology & Politics in 2012 Elections

Obama Romney

A big thanks to my fellow anthropologist spouse, Sallie Han, and the SUNY-Oneonta Anthropology Club for giving me a chance to share some thoughts on the Obama Romney 2012 election at their Four Fields Friday series. What follows were my thoughts on the 2012 Obama Romney Election contest.

Underneath the wonkish policy details–the tax rates, the budget, the nitty-gritty of legislation and law–the Obama Romney election is about vision, perspective, ways of perceiving or understanding the world and our place within it: Race. History. Culture. Power. These are familiar terms for anyone studying anthropology. Indeed a four fields anthropology has quite a lot to contribute. In Eric Wolf’s 1992 inaugural lecture for Sidney W. Mintz, Wolf invoked a Boasian four-field legacy about these “Perilous Ideas”:

Ideas about race, culture, and peoplehood or ethnicity have long served to orient anthropology’s inquiries and justify its existence. As both offspring and critic of the human condition, anthropology bears a special responsibility to examine the commonplaces of its thought and the fighting words of its speech and to subject them to resolute analysis. . . . We must remind ourselves of the importance of Boas’s critique of typological thinking about races as we confront the intensifying racisms of our time, take much greater account of heterogeneity and contradictions in cultural systems, and recognize that ethnicities come in many varieties and to call a social entity an “ethnic” group is merely the beginning of the inquiry. (Perilous Ideas: Race, Culture, People 1994:1)

The political punditry surrounding the Obama Romney election is still about these perilous ideas. Race, culture, history, and belonging–who belongs inside the polity, or even inside the boundaries of human decency, and who is left outside. Anthropology should be at the forefront of this resolute analysis. Anthropologists should political commentary far beyond what is currently being served.

Anthropology and Political Participation

Of course the idea of anthropology as central to 2012 political punditry and Obama Romney may sound more than a bit absurd. Where is this anthropology? At a time when anthropology is singled out for scorn in higher education, what can our hopes be for anthropology enhancing politics? How can we call this anthropology into being?

Anthropology faces an uphill struggle. There are many reasons for anthropology’s marginalization in public discourse. Here I want to consider how anthropology navigates between two extremes. At one extreme, many people have no idea that anthropology should have anything to say about politics. At the other extreme are those who would make academic anthropology equivalent to an activist political position. I suggest that anthropology does have a role, as a provider of what Max Weber termed “inconvenient facts” aimed at particular political pundits.

Anthropology, Politics, Inconvenient Facts, Ethical Achievement, and Moral Optimism

At one extreme, many people do not have any idea anthropology can talk about contemporary politics, perhaps because anthropology must be the study of dinosaurs or ants. Anthropology seems to have trouble getting beyond the dinosaurs and ants, and then there’s the stones-and-bones idea, ancient humans, primatology. Sometimes anthropologists themselves fall victim to this thinking, believing that biological anthropology or archaeology has nothing to contribute to contemporary political analysis. However, if you study human evolution, then you are going to have to say something about race, and if you say something about race then you have something to say about the 2012 Obama Romney election. If you study archaeology, then you must have something to say about social complexity, history, and ideas of civilization. The moment you say anything about civilization, then you are playing with terms that have been used for the 2012 Obama Romney election.

Moreover, it is important to note how much anthropology as a discipline emerged as a direct engagement with the political. Political organization was always a motivating question for early ethnographic fieldwork. Evans-Pritchard’s classic work of anthropology, The Nuer, had a lot to do with the British colonial government desire to figure out what was going on politically in the Sudan. It is not overly exaggerated to say that a central concern was to understand how the upstart natives were organizing a successful resistance–when they did not seem to have anything resembling a government! Of course, early anthropology would point to the political importance of kinship, of interconnections with ritual and belief, but anthropology could later turn those very same insights back to Western societies, revealing the continued importance of kinship, ritual and belief in contemporary politics.

People need to know that anthropology has a legitimate and rich history of political commentary and analysis. They may not always like what anthropologists say, but there is nothing illegitimate about anthropologists discussing politics.

That said, at the other extreme is a strand of academic anthropology which seems to aspire to politicization. Now, often this is an overblown caricature, produced by people who have an interest in mocking anthropology and the academy generally, but there are those who see anthropology primarily as activism. To this, I remember what one of my mentors, Michel-Rolph Trouillot said in a graduate seminar: “You can’t have your job and eat it too.” His point, I believe, was that although anthropologists could and should have active political commitments, the academic job itself is not equivalent to activism.

Anthropology is not entirely unusual in this respect–academics in general sometimes have a self-styled flare for believing themselves to be radical trouble-makers. But we should look at our paychecks–if they are issued by the State of New York, we can be pretty sure we are indeed an arm of the state, a state functionary of sorts.

In some ways, this stance is similar to what Max Weber wrote in 1918 about Science As a Vocation:

The prophet and the demagogue have no place at the lectern. We must say to both the prophet and the demagogue: “go out into the street and speak to the public.” In other words, speak where what you say can be criticized. In the lecture room, where you sit opposite your listeners, it is for them to keep silent and for the teacher to speak. I think it irresponsible for a lecturer to exploit a situation in which the students have to attend the class of a teacher for the sake of their future careers but where there is no one present who can respond to him critically. It is irresponsible for such a teacher to fail to provide his listeners, as is his duty, with his knowledge and academic experience, while imposing on them his personal political opinions. (20-21)

Anthropology, then, must tread cautiously. We do have a legitimate political analysis and should be speaking, sometimes in the streets. On the other hand, we live in times when anthropologists can be condemned for saying anything political at all–just because it is from anthropology, or from the academy.

In these circumstances, I see anthropology’s critical contribution, at least from the academic classroom and into the political punditry, as an analysis of the terms that make our debates possible. In other words, when understandings of history, culture, race, and human decency are at stake, anthropology has a responsibility to point out the underpinnings and consequences of the way these terms are used–not just that they are misused, which is a guaranteed exercise in frustration, but how they serve as powerful organizing principles, drawing on reservoirs of shifting emotional resonance.

Although Weber was circumspect about prophets and demagogues in the classroom, he nevertheless posited a responsibility for teachers:

The first task of a competent teacher is to teach his students to acknowledge inconvenient facts. By these I mean facts that are inconvenient for their own personal political views. Such extremely inconvenient facts exist for every political position, including my own. I believe that when the university teacher makes his listeners accustom themselves to such facts, his achievement is more than merely intellectual. I would be immodest enough to describe it as an “ethical achievement,” though this may be too emotive a term for something that is so self-evident. (22)

Indeed, anthropology is all about inconvenient facts, and what Weber describes is close to what I believe Trouillot claims as anthropology’s “moral optimism”: The documentation of human possibility and creativity which challenges acceptance that the world-as-it-is must be the same as the world-that-must-be.

Trouillot also says anthropology must make “an explicit effort to publicly identify anthropology’s hidden interlocutors in the West who are the ultimate targets of our discourse” (2003:136; originally I wanted to title this talk along those lines, “the targets of anthropology,” but I’m wary of such metaphors in political times). In other words, we need to better identify those who shape current understandings of history, culture, and race, in order to better confront these ideas.

Anthropology on History, Jared Diamond, and Obama Romney

One of the first and rather unexpectedly anthropological moments of the 2012 election was Romney’s offhand remark in Jerusalem that his understanding of history and international politics came partly from reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond then responded with a widely-hailed essay in the New York Times that Romney Hasn’t Done His Homework:

It is not true that my book Guns, Germs and Steel, as Mr. Romney described it in a speech in Jerusalem, “basically says the physical characteristics of the land account for the differences in the success of the people that live there. There is iron ore on the land and so forth.”

That is so different from what my book actually says that I have to doubt whether Mr. Romney read it. My focus was mostly on biological features, like plant and animal species, and among physical characteristics, the ones I mentioned were continents’ sizes and shapes and relative isolation. I said nothing about iron ore, which is so widespread that its distribution has had little effect on the different successes of different peoples. (See Jared Diamond won’t beat Mitt Romney for a more detailed assessment, and see Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History – Geography, States, Empires for an update.)

What bothered me about Romney’s use of Diamond–a concern that was in no way allayed by Diamond’s essay–is how much Romney seemed to basically get right. In Romney’s worldview, as in Diamond’s, modern colonialism and imperialism are rather accidental results of ancient processes. Of course, this led to an easy counter-caricature from the Republican side, that Diamond was denying the achievements of Western Civilization, and did not understand that “we built that”:

I also have doubts Romney has actually read the book because if he did, he wouldn’t be enlisting it to his cause. Diamond’s argument is completely dismissive of cultural achievement and reduces history to the impersonal causes. Quite simply, Diamond’s argument is the academic equivalent to President Obama’s now-famous remarks to the founders of small businesses: “You didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” Diamond’s message to America and Western Civilization is, “You didn’t build that. Something else made that happen.” That something else is what he calls “biogeography.” (Jared Diamond on Western Civilization: ‘You Didn’t Build That’)

What is truly amazing about this caricature and counter-caricature is how much both ignore real history. By real history, I’m referring to the kind of work Eric Wolf was doing in Europe and the People Without History: trying to indeed account for the rise of the West–with due acknowledgement of how many debts were owed to the non-West in that rise–and to explain the spread of capitalism as well as its underside. Apparently we have now returned to a state in which one side glorifies the achievements of Western Civilization, with very little knowledge of how the West developed, and the other side minimizes and relativizes by invoking people like Jared Diamond. In between, the kind of real empirical history done by people like Eric Wolf seems to be learned by no one.

Anthropology on Culture, David Brooks, Obama-Romney

Romney hardly stopped with Diamond’s biogeographical determinism, and in some ways the Republican retort that Romney doesn’t understand the we-built-it theme of Western Civilization misses out on Romney’s other comments, his praise for certain people’s culture as the source of their success. This is probably no accident–Romney hails from a corporate realm in which corporate culture and cultural fit are popular buzzwords. For a convenient ally in the culture parade, it is worth turning to David Brooks, a political pundit who regularly serves up observations about culture and sub-culture.

For Brooks, talking about culture is precisely the way to sidestep considerations of political economy, inequality, and power. Culture for Brooks has little to do with economics or power, in the sense that social problems are rooted in bad culture, not inequality. Perversely, culture can be blamed for causing economic underdevelopment, but attempts to remedy inequality through economic aid and development becomes a waste of resources because you have to change the “culture.” This was most evident in what Brooks wrote about Haiti just after the 2010 earthquake:

As Lawrence E. Harrison explained in his book “The Central Liberal Truth,” Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.

We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them. (Brooks 2010, The underlying tragedy; see Culture Doesn’t Matter for more commentary)

Many anthropologists went justifiably apoplectic. Anthropologist, textbook author, and blogger Barbara Miller issued My challenge to David Brooks, that he take her Anthropology 101 course, and open his eyes and heart to other cultures.

But that’s not exactly the problem. Although David Brooks certainly talks more about culture in his New York Times columns than I do in my anthropology courses, the issue is not of cultural relativity. The issue is that culture is used as a way to again sidestep history; to ignore colonialism and political economy; to dodge politics and inequality. As Eric Wolf reminded us, the issue is that anthropology, at least at the Anthropology 101 level, has too much promoted the idea of cultural wholes, of “respecting other cultures,” and done too little to show heterogeneity and contradictions within culture (see Doubling Down on Culture in Anthropology).

Brooks has yet to endorse Romney, as even Brooks is smart enough to know that a straight-up endorsement would contradict many of the things Brooks has said. However, Brooks has been trying to build toward making that case. In a July 2012 piece called The Capitalism Debate, Brooks wrote that “Romney is going to have to define a vision of modern capitalism. He’s going to have to separate his vision from the scandals and excesses we’ve seen over the last few years. He needs to define the kind of capitalist he is and why the country needs his virtues.” I expect that following the debate, Brooks will now trumpet that we’ve seen Romney’s vision and his virtues–never mind that we may never see Romney’s tax returns.

Update 5 October: And that’s exactly what happened–in Moderate Mitt Returns! Brooks tries to tell us that this is the truly authentic Romney, a moderate who’s broken with the Republican party, never mind his vice-presidential pick, never mind the party platform, never mind his own speeches prior to the debate, never mind how the Republican congressional delegation votes.

Anthropology on Race and Obama Romney

Barack Obama has undoubtedly been a huge boon for the classic anthropological claim regarding the social construction of race. Just looking at Obama, juxtaposed with his mother Ann Dunham is proof enough that race, as John Relethford puts it, is a “culturally constructed label that crudely and imprecisely describes real variation” (Race and global patterns of phenotypic variation 2009:20). And it’s also nice that Dunham was an anthropologist!

As the New York Times reported, Obama would have had more than a dozen options for answering the race question on the U.S. census, but Asked to Declare His Race, Obama Checks ‘Black’. Obama’s options, reflecting what is for many an extremely complex history of mixture and mating, were also astutely aware of the powerful strictures of hypodescent and one-drop rules (for further discussion, see the July 2013 reflections on White Hispanic, White Black).

But while Obama has certainly been good for talking about race and anthropology, the prospects for Black Americans are not quite so rosy. The latest report from CNN Money:

White Americans have 22 times more wealth than blacks — a gap that nearly doubled during the Great Recession. The median household net worth for whites was $110,729 in 2010, versus $4,995 for blacks, according to recently released Census Bureau figures. (Worsening wealth inequality by race)

Let’s be clear. Before 2008, the average white family had a median household net worth around 10-12x that of the average black family. In 2010, the gap was 22x. Yes, anyone who has ever been told we now live in a post-racial society, or that Obama is an example of everything being just great, or that now there is such a thing as anti-white bias, a delusional idea if ever there was one, can feel entirely justified in getting very angry. Now certainly the people at the bottom of the white wealth ladder have been hurting–but let’s be very clear that the average wealth gap is enormous and does not seem to be getting better. Moreover, much of what caused this decline were the predatory lending practices, aggressively selling the American Dream of good old-fashioned home ownership and then yanking the terms around.

Obama is not responsible for this disaster. But Obama is not evidence that race, racism, and race-based inequalities have vanished. Hardly. And Obama’s election has not meant that race has disappeared from politics. In a very perceptive comment on one of Paul Krugman’s columns, someone named Glenn from North Carolina had this to say:

The abortion discussion, the economic discussion, the tax return challenge – all are beside the point.

I’m an old man and I grew up in Mississippi in the 50s and 60s.

Take my word for it. The entire Mitt Romney political strategy is simply this: “I’m the white guy”.

This was nowhere more evident than in the first Obama Romney debate. In the last lines of the debate, Romney stated he would “create 12 million new jobs in this country with rising incomes.” But how? With tax cuts? He then stated he would repeal the Affordable Healthcare Act, to put in what he did in Massachusetts–but good luck getting that through Congress. And then he’s going to pump more money into Medicare and not cut the military, while strangely missing any statement about budgets and his usual line about deficits.

These are not just inconvenient facts. They are not facts in any sense of the word. It’s as if a relatively liberal Democrat from Massachusetts showed up to the debate, to tell us he wants to make the U.S. more like Massachusetts. So was Obama tired, or was he just confused?

And so the final, the most inconvenient fact of all, is that this entire Obama Romney election is a test of U.S. gullibility. Will people really believe Romney’s impossibilities and fact-deprivation just because he’s the white guy?

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2012. “Anthropology and Political Punditry: 2012 Obama Romney.” Living Anthropologically website, First posted 4 October 2012. Revised 31 May 2019.