Being At Home in a Hateful World

In the age of social media it has not only become more normal to demonize people who are “different,” but to cage and kill them as well.  Through the prism of ever-expanding white nationalism, Others are characterized as sub-human beings whose very presence represents an infestation that must be quarantined or better yet, exterminated.  Intolerance of Others has reached epidemic proportions.  The white nationalist killing of 50 Muslim innocents in New Zealand is the latest grim reminder of what social life has become in a homophobic and misogynistic world in which Muslims, Jews, African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans have become targets of Neo-Nazi white supremacists. Mosques have been fire-bombed and defaced.  Jewish cemeteries have been frequently desecrated and synagogues now routinely hire armed guards to protect sabbath worshipers.  Forcibly separated from their families, Latino children languish in cages like animals. Police routinely shoot unarmed African American men.

The details of these mind-numbing atrocities are well known.  But in such a heinous climate, both in America and Europe, how can minorities—the non-white population, which now includes Muslims, Jews, Latinos, Asians (south and east), Native Americans, Africans and African Americans, adjust to a hateful world that denigrates their ethnic origin, their religion, their sexual orientation or their race? 

The Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem Photo by Paul Stoller

To ask an anthropological question:  can minorities feel at home in contemporary America?

The concept of home is deceptively simple.  Home is much more than the dwelling where you and your family reside. Home is more of a feeling—of unstated peace, of normality, of feeling comfort in your skin.  Home is often defined through our senses. It is the smell of baking bread, or the aroma of grilled meat spiced in a certain way.   Home is reflected in the quality of light, in vistas where the sky meets the horizon, in the bite of the wind in your face, or the intensity of sunlight on exposed skin.  Home is about how life is lived—slow, fast, cool and hot.

In a contemporary America filled with so much hate, how can the aforementioned minorities adjust to a place where a shrinking yet still powerful majority makes you feel stressed and unwanted? I cannot speak for other minorities but can reflect directly on my experiences as a third generation Jew in America.  My grandparents, Jews from Latvia (maternal) and Lithuania (paternal) immigrated to America toward the end of World War I.  My parents grew up in Jewish enclaves in Washington D.C.  They never felt comfortable living among non-Jews.  My brother and I also grew up in a Jewish neighborhood.  In high school almost everyone I knew was Jewish.  That was good for me because non-Jewish classmates often taunted me about my difference—both physical and cultural.  On one occasion, a gang of teen-aged gentiles attacked me in a school bathroom.  My parents had warned me about the pervasiveness anti-Semitism.  They told me I had to be careful.  They said that I should not bring too much attention to myself.  As I got older the sting of anti-Semitism became less intense.  In time, I went to college and graduate school and became a university professor of anthropology. Like all people I’ve had my share of disappointments and challenges, but knock on wood, I have a good life, a wonderful family. I live in a nice house–not situated in a Jewish enclave.  You could say that I feel at home in the world, but that would be too simple.  Far in the background of my consciousness I fear that there are gun-toting white supremacists who wish me physical harm just because I am a Jew.  In Trump’s America I am an Other.

It is exhausting to be a progressive Jew in contemporary America.  We are potential targets of right-wring white supremacists. We are also subject to critics on the left who make simplistic claims that American Jews profess an allegiance to Israel’s Trump-supporting right-wing government, the very antithesis of a progressive politics.  Consider the discomfort of Max Sparber writing in the March 9 edition of the Forward, a newspaper my maternal grandmother liked to read in Yiddish.

“I’ve become convinced that the most important image of early twenty-first century Jewry is a screengrab from YouTube purportedly taken from an introductory Yiddish lesson.

‘The Jews are tired,’ it says.

And right now, just this very moment, we’re not just tired. We’re exhausted.

It’s never easy being a Jew, but at this moment, stuck in a now near-continuous Ilhan Omar news cycle, being Jewish feels like being stuck between a rock and a hard place, with the rock being the whole gentile world and the hard place being every other Jew.”

So how would a progressive Jew, who thinks it is wonderful that two outspoken Muslims are members of the US Congress, respond to Representative Omar’s references to Jews, the Jewish lobby, the hidden power of the International Jewish Cabal that seeks world domination, or the presumed allegiances that American Jews have to Israel.

As an anthropologist, I would caution Representative Omar about essentializing Others.  Can anyone say that all Jews owe blind allegiance to Israel, that all Muslims are terrorists, or that all Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers.  Any trope that underscores this kind of essentialism is not only wrong but dangerous. It wittingly or unwittingly fans the fires of hate.  In some respects, I agree with Representative Omar.  Like her, I disagree with the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.  I disagree with the Israeli Government’s discriminatory treatment of its Arab citizens.  I believe in a Palestinian Statehood. The list goes on and on.  Even so, I cannot bring myself to essentialize Jewish people whether they live in Israel, the United States, France, or Argentina.

Here’s the rub.  Can a progressive Jew like me feel at home in an ever-growing hateful American society?

I never much thought about being at home in the world until colleagues invited me to present a lecture at Tel Aviv University in 2016.  Like many American Jews, I had never been to Israel. Given my objections to the Netanyahu Government, I expected to find a violent and deeply racist society.  Instead, I felt immediately at ease.  At Ben Gurion Airport, the border agent, who was the spitting image of a younger version of my first cousin, looked at me, smiled, and said: “Welcome home.” 

Everywhere I went I saw “familiar” faces from my past and present.  Could some of these people be long lost relatives?  The way people smiled at me on the Tel Aviv University campus and in Tel Aviv neighborhoods created a kind of unspoken bond of kinship.  The pace of life, the food, the smells in the street, the movement of people all flowed effortlessly into my being, which filled me with wonder. 


Aromas of Social Life in Old Jaffa Photo by Paul Stoller

I wondered about these feelings of connectedness and how they underscored my own insecurities about being an “Other” in America.  My brief sojourn in Tel Aviv did not convince me to move to Israel or to pledge my allegiance to the Israeli State.  Spending time in Israel, though, taught me about the importance of being at home in an imperfect world–in my case being at home in the United States.  Having sensed the existential significance of being at home–even as an Other—has compelled me to do everything I can (mentoring students and colleagues, presenting public lectures, writing blogs, essays and books) to promote a more inclusive, more egalitarian, and more just America.  In a world saturated with chaos, hate and division, the task is to create spaces in which more of us feel the wonderful sense of existential comfort that comes with being at home in the world. Is it not our obligation to make sure that we bequeath that comfort to our children and grandchildren?

Beyond the Insanity: An Open Letter to My Students

Bonberiko, hay kulu s’a ra.

The owner of the swollen head has nothing inside –Songhay saying

Dear Students:

In these insane times you are surrounded by people with swollen heads that are empty. Sadly, they often occupy positions of political and corporate power. How else can you explain what’s going on in the world?  In America a crime boss occupies the world’s most powerful political office.  In the words of his former personal attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, the crime boss is “… a racist, a conman and a cheat.” You live in a society in which the crime boss routinely insults and threatens those who disagree with him, embraces baseless conspiracy theories, and creates an alternate reality based upon “alternate facts.” He dismisses inconvenient scientific findings and questions the ethics of scientists.  To make matters worse he is protected by thousands of empty-headed lawmakers whose blind loyalty to his unending lies and conspiracies has enabled and reinforced previously unimaginable expressions of hate and ignorance. His behavior has provoked the meteoric rise of hate groups, encouraged widespread corruption and triggered an endless array of scandals. And yet, none of these developments has undermined the crime boss’s support among a mesmerized base of supporters, who, like the unsuspecting students of Trump University, are getting fleeced—especially under the provisions of the new tax law. 

There are millions of people today with swollen heads that are empty of facts, reason, and yes, compassion for others.  You live in a world that lacks civility, a world in which people judge you as a winner or a loser.  If you are a winner, you have to do what is necessary to win—at all costs.  That means that you may, like the head crime boss, resort to lying, inventing convenient facts, and practicing expediency—taking the shortest, easiest path toward the finish line.  The desire to win at all costs may result in your success, but at what cost?  Life in a fantasy world eventually catches up to you. 

You’ll eventually be caught in a lie.

You’ll eventually be exposed as shallow and thoughtless.

You’ll eventually realize that your life could become as empty-headed as that of the crime boss, his family and his followers.

In such a climate of social hysteria no wonder so many of you suffer from such heightened degrees of anxiety.

A post-apocalyptic way station for survivors of social hysteria in Philadelphia
Photo by Paul Stoller

How might you fill your heads with knowledge and wisdom that might well make your future less stressful and more meaningful?

Facing the very strong head winds of our winner-loser society in which the speed of social life has created mass alienation and widespread dysfunction, it will not be easy to march toward a better future. 

But it can be done.

When I listen to my anthropology students and see how they are actively attempting to shape their future, I am inspired. My students are very concerned about their future.  How will they live in a world devastated by social dysfunction, climate change, social dislocation?  Many of them support the Green New Deal.  One of them has traveled repeatedly to the Halls of Congress where she has protested outside the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.  On one occasion her civil disobedience resulted in an arrest. In so doing she extended academic theory (the anthropology of the Anthropocene) into political practice. Through her activism, she is shaping her destiny. In the future such courage will be remembered.

It is not easy to change entrenched public policy. It is harder still to transform longstanding attitudes about race and the conquest of nature.  Indeed, the evolution of social and cultural change is an admittedly slow process.  The Civil Rights Movement began with a relatively small band of activists who put their bodies on the line for social justice. Authorities jailed many of them. Some of the were beaten. Some of them lost their lives.

Remembering Activists who who died during The Troubles in Belfast, Northern Ireland Photo by Paul Stoller

In time the movement gained momentum and provoked substantive change in American social life.  Civil Rights activists, however, were not naïve; they knew that it would take a very long time to change a fundamentally racist society.  Like my courageous student, Green New Dealers understand that they, too must be persistent and patient. They also know that it will take a massive and carefully organized grassroots social movement to provoke a critical mass of people into a species-saving environmental activism. Like the engaged anthropologists of the past, our students realize that if you are seriously committed and take the long view, the wind direction will eventually shift. When such a wind shift comes–and it will–we should not forget to thank our pioneering student activists for their embodied courage, a courage that will have made it possible for us to salvage our human being.

In Solidarity

Your Professor

Back to School: More Notes from the Academic Underground

There is always a buzz in the air when university students return to campuses to begin their spring semester courses.  In these troubled times, what can they expect from our institutions of higher education?  Will new programs, systems, and plans improve the quality of academic life?

Wither the American University? Photo by Paul Stoller

As many scholars have argued, public higher education has become more and more politicized, which means that officials—some elected, many appointed—have starved academic budgets, and eliminated courses of study (music, philosophy, foreign languages, literature) that they consider marginal to the pursuit of a “good job.”  These same experts, many of whom know little about the dynamics of face-to-face teaching, employ business models to streamline the university.  Students become consumers who are supposed evaluate a product—their education—the way a buyer evaluates something he or she has bought at a store.  In this “brave new world” administrators busy themselves with five-year plans, structural re-organizations, course outcomes, mission statements, and never-ending assessment exercises, all of which mire faculty in time-consuming busy work that does little to improve scholarly expertise, intellectual innovation or teaching. 

What are the results of these “pragmatic” moves?  Public universities now have larger and larger classes, fewer full-time tenure and tenure-track faculty, more “efficient” budgets, and an ever-growing cadre of administrators and staff who design more and more programs that have little to do with the intellectual mission of higher education—to safeguard the future by teaching our students how to think and how to write so they might become creative, inventive and engaged citizens of the world.

The spread of university corporatization is by no means unique to American higher education. In the United Kingdom, scholars have to adjust their scholarship to the redesign plans and the “ratings” competition of “audit culture,” which has transformed—not for the better—higher education in England.  In Norway, the venerable and excellent Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo is being merged with Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture, two scholarly units that have little in common.  In an important blog Professors Keir Martin and Thomas Hylland Eriksen, both of whom teach anthropology at the University of Oslo, recently wrote:

“A university is not a car factory.  And our students are not components to be assembled and processed on a production line in the most technocratically efficient manner without a thought for the culture or working environment in which they learn and develop. What we produce is unique, not standardized. This is a point so obvious that one could imagine or hope that it wouldn’t need pointing out.  Unfortunately, on occasion it does, such as on those occasions when a tendency to view the world as a problem to be fixed with spreadsheets leads to the prioritisation of hitting the numbers over the nurturance and development of the human environments that those numbers were intended to measure. It is a tendency that if left unchecked can cause immense problems.  As the anthropologist and financial journalist Gillian Tett observes, this – often unquestioned – logic was one of the major factors behind the Great Financial Crisis that threatened to collapse the world economy ten years ago. Banks, which had become increasingly distant from their customers, trusted instead in numerical data and engaged in a race to repackage their customers’ in ever more profitable, yet ultimately unsustainable forms.

Despite such repeated disasters, the habit of pushing a bean counting managerial style too far at the expense of the original purpose of the institutions that it is supposed to curate is a hard one to break.  Our public services, including universities, are increasingly the victims of an obsessive managerial focus on hitting targets or numerically driven reorganisations that cause great disruption, often lead to increasingly tense and inharmonious work environments and ultimately threaten the very provision of the services that we are supposed to provide.  It might appear obvious that closing down or merging successful units in order to make marginal short-term savings is the very definition of a false economy, but once the reorganisation fever takes hold it is easily forgotten. History tells us that such reorganisations rarely work.  The balance sheet-savings that they provide are almost always more than offset by the damage to morale and productivity that ensue.”

The university is neither a car factory nor a corporation. Professors are not corporate employees. Students are not consumers buying a product. Despite professorial objection and student dissatisfaction, university corporatization persists.

Working in the depths of the academic underground, what can scholars to do to preserve the integrity of higher education?  It would be foolish to turn our backs on technology and social media, ignore the persistent wrongheadedness of assessment exercises or the Deja-vu of yet another system redesign.  But we can remember that despite the bureaucratic obstacles placed on our path, our primary mission is to teach our students how to think, create, and invent.   That mission is stronger than any assessment program, big data analysis, or five-year plan. That mission defines the “future of us all.”

Weaving the World: Workshops on Evocative Ethnographic Writing

For several years I have had the pleasure of teaching three to four-day workshops on ethnographic writing. I have found the workshops to be rewarding and satisfying. They offer me the opportunity to share my experience as an ethnographer and writer and extend my commitment to inter-generational mentoring.


The Ethnographer’s Study. Photo by Paul Stoller

The aim of the three to four-day workshop, “Weaving the World,” is to introduce participants to the fundamental features and essential practices of ethnography, ethnographic writing and blogging. During the workshop participants will learn what distinguishes ethnography from other forms of academic and nonfiction representation. The technique of “Weaving the World,” a seamless linkage of ethnographic description to social analysis will be presented. Participants will be asked to read examples from the work of ethnographers who have, in various ways, attempted to use this technique to describe social worlds through the evocation of space/place, character, and dialogue. These are strategies that ethnographic writers can use to ensure that readers come to know a people who live in a particular place

Scene from the Berlin Writing Workshop, February 2017 Photo by Nasima Selim

The workshop is designed for anyone interested in ethnographic writing, particularly advanced graduate students and junior scholars. It is intended to give practitioners the tools to extend their scholarly insights to a wide audience of readers. Participants will engage in writing exercises to learn how to evoke space/place, how to write dialogue, and how to construct character. By the end of the workshop each participant produces a polished piece of ethnographic writing that “weaves the world” by combining descriptions of place/space, demonstrating the power of dialogue, and presenting portraits of character. Workshop writing projects have resulted in published ethnographic essays and blogs.

Testimonials:.

“Thanks Fiona and Evi for organizing this amazing workshop and thanks to Paul for amazing teaching! I am so glad to have this opportunity to participate. I learned so much from others research and writing.” –Participant in the Queen’s University Workshop

“Thank you so much for a great week of stories and story writing. I feel I have traveled some more in the world” -Participant in the Queen’s University Workshop

“A big thanks to all of you for being such a creative and lovely group!
Special thanks to Fiona and Evi for the effort, stamina and delivery of a wonderful workshop. And of course to Paul for a truly transformative experience!”–a participant in the Queen’s University Workshop.

“In Berlin, for sure, you managed to inspire a bunch of PhD candidates to experiment with sensuous descriptions in their ethnographic writing.” –Participant in the Free University of Berlin Writing Workshop 2017

…a huge huge thank you for doing this…the students have all sent glowing reports…You have probably changed quite a few young people’s lives–organizer of the University of Helsinki Writing Workshop 2015

“Last week I…attended an intensive four-day workshop called “Weaving the World…The course inspired me to craft new answers and respond to the usual questions, but I also learned how to re-evaluate my own position as an anthropologist…”–a participant in the University of Amsterdam Writing Workshop 2018

“Thank you again for a great workshop. I think I can say I’ve learned more about evocative writing in these four days than in my entire career combined. And, importantly, I regained pleasure in the writing so thank you so much for that!”– a participant in the University of Amsterdam Writing Workshop 2018

Paul Stoller at the Free University of Berlin Writer’s Workshop, February 2017 Photo by Nasima Selim

Paul Stoller is Professor of Anthropology at West Chester University and has been conducting ethnographic research for more than 30 years. He is the author 15 books including ethnographies, memoirs, a biography, and three novels. In 2013 King Carl XVI Gustav awarded him the Anders Retzius Gold Medal in Anthropology. In 2015 the American Anthropological Association awarded him the Anthropology in Media Award. Since 2010 he has published more than 150 blogs most of which appeared in The Huffington Post.

If interested in offering a Weaving the World Workshop in 2019 please contact me at pstoller@wcupa.edu to discuss where and when we might organize it.

Edith Turner and the Anthropology of Collective Joy

Edith Turner Visiting with my students Shane Metivier, Erica Walters and Sarah Sutton at the AAA Annual Meetings in Washington DC 2014 Photo by Erica Walters

Note: Earlier this month I traveled to London to participate in a three- day workshop, The Ritual Process: An Anthropology of New Beginnings, during which a diverse group of anthropologists, male and female, older and younger reflected on the monumental scholarship of Victor and Edith Turner.  Organized by Marina Gold, Bruce Kapferer and Julia Sauma (University of Bergen), the workshop enabled us to revisit, reflect, and debate such important anthropological concepts as liminality (being betwixt and between) and communitas (the ineffable feeling of collective joy) that the Turners first introduced 50 years ago.  During our discussions, we discovered that despite the passage of time, these fundamental concepts still stimulate lively and inventive intellectual debate about the whys and wherefores of the human condition–the true test of a concept’s worth.

I never met Victor Turner, but like any graduate student in the 1970s I had read his important work on ritual, symbolic expression and performance.  It met Edie Turner when she published Experiencing Ritual as a title in a book series that I co-edited at the University of Pennsylvania Press.  After that we became friends and remained so until her death.  Having learned so much during the workshop, I wanted to pay tribute to the scholarly legacy of the Turners by re-posting a blog I published in The Huffington Post shortly after Edie’s death in 2017.  It has been updated and slightly revised.

In these days of social, political, and ecological gloom, it’s easy to become cynical. Every day we are bombarded with news of racial prejudice, religious intolerance, economic inequality and xenophobia. Donald Trump, a man who is unabashedly racist, homophobic and misogynistic has been President of the United States for two years. In the UK, British voters opted to leave the European Union. Many of them appear to be unaware of the economic and social consequences of their vote and no one appears to know what will transpire in a future shaped by a Hard or Soft Brexit.

As scholars it’s hard to know how to confront these dismal events. How do we discuss ongoing problems that threaten to shred the global social fabric and bring widespread social, political and economic chaos?

Is there a measure of well being to be found in the world? Is there space for wonder?

In cynical moments when I need to ponder the wonders of human existence, I think about the work of Edith Turner, a monumental anthropologist who died on June 18, 2017, one day after her 95th birthday. In all of her work Edie, as her friends, students, and colleagues knew her, succeeded in describing what is special about the human condition.

In 1985 Edie Turner returned to Zambia in South Central Africa to continue the ethnographic research she had shared with her husband, the late Victor Turner, one of the great anthropologists of the 20th century. During a curing ceremony among the Ndembu people, the religious rituals of whom the Turners described in a series of classic books, Edie learned about the importance of understanding Ndembu rituals in Ndembu terms. In her book Experiencing Ritual Edie wrote about opening herself to the sensibilities of the Ndembu world. Witnessing that curing ceremony Edie wrote about being able to see…” a six-inch blob — a kind of plasma or gray spherical ghost — emerging from the patient’s back”. The spiritual extraction of what the Ndembu call Ihamba, a dead hunter’s tooth, healed the Ndembu patient. For us, the passage takes us to the edge of the possible and challenges our sense of reality. It compels us to think deeply about the human condition, about what is important in our lives and in our work.

Following the publication of Experiencing Ritual in 1992, Edie began to study healing rituals among a variety of peoples, publishing important works on the reality of spirits, on the nature of spirituality and on healers among the Iñupiat people in Northern Alaska.

For me her most important ideas are found in her final book Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy, which she published in 2011. In the first paragraph of this book, Edie deftly tackled the unenviable task of defining something as elusive as communitas, a silent and sudden sense of social bonding. She wrote:

 “…The characteristics of communitas show it to be almost beyond strict definition, with almost endless variations. Communitas often appears unexpectedly. It has to do with a sense felt by a group of people when their life together takes on full meaning….Communitas can only be conveyed through stories…”

Here Edie tapped into something extraordinarily significant: the power of narrative to connect writers to readers, the power of narrative, in the words of the psychologist Jerome Bruner, to construct realities — a narrative construction of a reality that is irreducible to formulae to or a set of abstract theoretical principles.

There is something about narrative that can convey to readers the mystery of the ineffable or the wonder of, as Edie would put it, collective joy. Even so, anthropologists, like most scholars, are trained to tell and not to show, to denote rather to evoke. Edie’s work compels us to wonder what is missed through such academic socialization. As teachers and writers many of us are hesitant to take thematic or representational risks. In this domain Edie’s life work is a beacon of inspirational light. Evoking the specter of communitas, Edie wrote:

“… This book… tackles communitas, togetherness itself, taking the reader to the edge of the precipice of knowledge — and beyond, over the barrier of the scientists’ analysis and into experience itself. Light dawns on what the real thing is, and we feel lucky it exists. Then we can make discoveries.”

The stories of communitas that Edie recounted in her writing not only defined a place of togetherness but also the nebulous space between things. As such communitas shows us the way to an arena in which we can sometimes experience a rare feeling: collective joy.

When I discuss Edie’s life work, I don’t think about reviews, or critiques, or citations. Unlike most academic work, Edie Turner’s contributions to anthropology and to humanistic scholarship provide us a framework for thinking about well-being-in-the-world. Her clear prose and conceptual daring have inspired many of us to stretch our imagination and extend our sensibilities to the outer limits of the possible. In so doing, Edie’s work moves us to explore the unknown, the indefinable, the indeterminate, a path that is not always easy to follow. Despite the difficulties we encounter on this path, Edie Turner has shown us a way forward. In her life and work she marshaled the courage to explore the powerful indeterminacy that you find in the silence between two notes of music, or in the creative incomprehension you find between two cultures, or in the conceptual turbulence you find between spirit and reality. Indeed, Edie Turner’s celebration of social life guides us to a place that has deepened our professional and personal well-being-in-the world.

In the end, Edie’s notion of collective joy is a tonic for contemporary social life. It is a model for reaching our students and extending to the public our important insights about social life. Her joy of living the anthropological life is a model for being well in the world — a model that can bring us a measure of comfort as we confront the imponderables of our turbulent times.

To Jared From Uncle Paul, the Anthropologist

Dear Jared,

So, it’s been some time since I last wrote you.  You’re a busy and important person, so maybe you don’t remember that we may be related.  I grew up with Kushners in and around Washington DC and my family would often gather at Kushner’s Restaurant for celebratory meals.   Who knew that you would grow up to work in your Father-in-Law’s (FiL) White House and I would become an anthropologist?

It would be nice to hear from you sometime.

The last time I wrote I was worried about you.  You had so much to do. My God, it can’t be easy to reform the entire Federal Government.  And how difficult it must be for a Jew—Orthodox no less—to bring peace to the Middle East.  Oy, it’s a burden that must keep you up at night!

In that letter, if you remember, I wrote about the perils of ethnocentrism, about how treacherous it is for you—or anybody—to use a business model to resolve the considerable and complex social and cultural problems that plague our contemporary world.  As you may have realized by now, business models don’t work very well in international politics. I also suggested in my previous letter that you would feel much better if you and your lovely family moved back to New York City.

Please forgive me, boychik, but your Uncle Paul digresses.  When I think back to all those tasty dinners at Kushner’s Restaurant I am compelled to talk too much.  Sorry.

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Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin Ireland  Photo by Paul Stoller

You see, I am very worried about you.  Given the grim realities of the Mueller investigation, things don’t look good. You might get indicted.  You might have to go to jail.  Given his history, your mumser FiL might just throw you under the bus.  In the world of family relations, as any good anthropologist knows, consanguineals (blood relatives) take precedence over affines (in-laws).

Kiddo, you should prepare for the worst, no?

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Hanukkah Candles, 8th Night 2018 Photo by Paul Stoller

As bad as your legal exposure might be, I am much more worried about the culture of hate.  How do you feel about your FiL’s ignorant comments about Jews in the Diaspora.  You must have been at the recent White House Hanukkah ceremony.  Yes, your FiL praised his Jewish American supporters, but then, when talking about Israel, he referred to the Jewish State as “your country.”  The robotic Vice-President, who also spoke to the same room of American Jewish presidential supporters, also referred to Israel as “your country.”

Were you not offended?

Were you not mortified?

This kind of discourse, of course, is part of the culture of hate that, thanks in large measure to the ignorant and hateful rhetoric that spews from the mouth of your FiL, is sweeping across America.  Hate crimes are increasing, including now, of course, antisemitic acts.  Acts of antisemitic hate have spiked during the past two years, including the massacre in Pittsburgh.

Coming back to the White House Hanukkah celebration, when someone says that American Jews owe their allegiance to “their” country (Israel) and not the United States, he or she also suggests that Jews have divided loyalties, that Jews can’t be trusted, that Jews will cheat you—all longstanding antisemitic canards.  I, for one, am offended that your FiL would suggest that Israel is “my country.”  My dad fought in the Pacific during World War II.  He was a proud member of the Jewish War Veterans.  Did he or the thousands of other American Jews who fought in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam have divided loyalties?  Just because a person happens to be Jewish, doesn’t mean that she or he blindly supports Israel.

In the culture of hate people who want to preserve their power attempt to divide an increasingly diverse population.  Those who want to divide a society say that difference is dangerous.  Those who look different, have divided loyalties, eat exotic foods, speak a different language, or practice a different religion are “others.” The social and cultural practices of these “others” threaten the purity of established norms—in America, the ethos of being white, male and Christian.  Others are “you people,” some of whom owe their allegiance to another country. These “others” must be denigrated and humiliated.  In cases like Charleston, Ferguson, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh, they are killed.

What an ugly reality to confront!

One way to make this ugly reality more palatable is to spin false narratives and practice what Jean-Paul Sartre called “bad faith,” which is believing in the illusions you create. Your FiL does it all the time.  He lives in a dangerous fantasy world

Do you as well, Jared?

Do you really think that your personal relationship with the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince, the murderous MbS, will bear fruit and bring about peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors?  Do you really think that you and MbS have a special relationship?  What do you think he says about you when he speaks Arabic to his family?  What do you know of the Saudis and their ways?

Do you speak Arabic?

Have you studied the history of the Middle East?

Do you have any idea what the Saudis think of Jewish people like you and me?

You may think you’re safe, but you’re not.  In your FiL’s dysfunctional America, Muslims, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians, LGBTQ people, and Jews are non-white, which, as any anthropologist can tell you, is a social and not a biological category. Boychik, you may work in a West Wing office, but you are still “other,” Don’t think “they’ll” never come for you.

They will.

So, if you ever feel like you need a avuncular visit, just let me know.  I’d be happy to see you–even in prison–to chat, talk a little anthropology and suggest some books that will transform the quality of your life.

Happy Holidays from your Uncle Paul, the Anthropologist

An Anthropologist Confronts the Culture of Hate

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The Wall of Terror in Berlin, Gestapo and SS Headquarters (Photo by Paul Stoller)

Even though I was long ago the object of anti-Semitic scorn and abuse, I have steadfastly remained an optimist about my personal and professional life in America.  The memories of people calling me “kike” or a “dirty Jew,” or sale juif (in the Paris Metro) have drifted deep into the background of my consciousness.  I hardly ever think about a gang of young boys sticking my head in the junior high school toilet, flushing it, and saying, “you Christ killing dirty Jew.”  In the 1950s and early 1960s such events were not exceptional and rarely reported. I, for one, was too afraid to report these anti-Semitic acts to the school principal.  I thought that no one would punish their behavior.  Whenever those boys saw me, they laughed or gave me threatening stares—all because I happened to be Jewish.

I was lucky, though.  Unlike my African American, Latino, Native American, LGBTQ and Muslim friends and colleagues, I didn’t have to long endure the ugly everyday presence of racism, ethnic prejudice, homophobia or Islamophobia.  Unlike my female friends and colleagues, I didn’t have to confront a daily barrage of gender bias. Instead, I tried to hide my Jewishness and pretend that I was white.

Passing for white made it easier for me to get over the anti-Semitism I had experienced as a child and teenager. I went to high school, college, and graduate school where I studied linguistics and anthropology. I lived in West Africa where I conducted research in rural villages in the Republic of Niger. I learned to speak French and an African language.  I became a university professor and have been teaching college students for more than 30 years.  I’ve written books and won some awards.  I have a nice house and a beautiful family.  You might say I have a lovely life. Why would I think about those past events?  Why would I worry about hate in America?

The events of the past week, though, have brought those worries to the surface.  A racist anti-Semitic Trump-loving loner sends pipe bombs to the most prominent people on Trump’s “enemies list,” including two former presidents, a former vice-president, a former secretary of state, former directors of the CIA and of national intelligence, two Jewish billionaire activists, and several members of Congress—all highly visible critics of the current president. In Kentucky an armed white man unsuccessfully tries to enter an African American church in an effort to kill black folk. Determined to carry out his mission, he goes to a Kroger grocery store and executes an elderly African American man. Still not satisfied, he exits the store and executes an elderly African American woman. His work completed, he passes a shocked onlooker, who is white, and says: “Whites don’t kill whites.”  In Pittsburgh a white man armed with and AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and several hand guns enters a synagogue on the sabbath, a day of peace and announces that “all Jews must die.” He then brutally kills eight men and three women—the worse incident of anti-Semitic violence in American history.

In Trump’s “nationalist” America, can Jews like me, or for that matter Jared Kushner, still pass for white?  Consider the perceptive words of anthropologist Karen Brodkin in an essay “How Jews Became White Folks and May Become Non-white Under Trump” published in the Jewish Daily Forward, December 06, 2016.

In the wake of World War II, the horrors of Nazism were becoming public and publicly repudiated. Eugenics and political forms of institutional anti-Semitism lost much of their hold. A good economy and a progressive political climate enabled America to dismantle some aspects of legal discrimination and segregation. One result was that Ashkenazi Jews became white; for a while, in the ’50s, we even became a best-selling flavor of American popular culture. Those benefits weren’t extended to African Americans, Mexican Americans, Japanese Americans and other Asian Americans. Racism itself didn’t take a hit. The category of white just expanded to include Southern and Eastern Europeans. I figured it was permanent.

Now, Trump’s election and the closet of bigotry it has opened raise a question. Have the decades of whiteness we’ve enjoyed affected American Jews and Jewishness permanently, so that Jews would still be considered white, in the sense of still being included among the racially privileged, those safe from persecution?

Or is it possible that the new Trump regime will “unwhiten” and mark Jews racially on a national scale?

Following Trump’s election, of course, hate crimes, according to the FBI, spiked significantly.  According to a June 26, 2018 report published in the online journal, The Conversation: Academic Rigor and Journalistic Flair, a team of sociologists and criminal justice scholars who study hate crimes considered the increases in US hate crimes:

We see three factors behind the moderate overall increases in 2016. First, there was a precipitous spike around the election. Second, on top of sustained levels of hate crimes against African-Americans, and a small increase against Jews, were larger percentage increases against other groups. Third, hate crimes increased by double-digit percentages in several large states, including New York, California, Florida and Illinois.

In 2017, our data show that hate crimes rose 12 percent over 2016 levels in 38 of the largest cities. There were 1,038 hate crimes in the nation’s 10 largest cities – the highest in more than a decade.

Trump’s direct and indirect affirmation of hate through continuous public vilification of women, African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, LGBTQ people, Muslims and Jews has clearly opened the floodgates of hate in America. As the disturbingly deadly events of the past week indicate, many “nationalists”, a designation that Trump assigns to himself, think it is now okay for white people to openly hate, vilify and in some cases kill African Americans, Muslims, Native Americans, LGBTQ people, Latinos, Jews, and even politicians who are Democrats) –all to “purify” America and prevent white genocide.

In Trump’s America I’m afraid Jews are no longer white folks.  We now join all the stigmatized Others who in this culture of hate must vigilantly look over their shoulders and wonder why the white dudes in the pickup truck are staring at us as we walk our dogs or when we stroll with our children and grandchildren in our neighborhoods. Is   the white man lingering outside the synagogue or Mosque packing?  Would he kill Jews attending a bris (male circumcision ceremony) or Muslims praying during the Friday Jumu’ah prayer?

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Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.  Photo by Paul Stoller

Have we reached an deadly impasse in American social life?

In the short term, we live in tragic and troubling times.  The hate crimes of the past week have probably made made many of us angry and less optimistic about the here and now. Those crimes have reminded me of troubling incidents from my past. They have made me reflect deeply about my Jewish identity. They have also compelled me to worry about America’s unraveling social fabric.  As an anthropologist I know that social bonds are fragile. I know that senseless violence can erupt at a moment’s notice. Even so, hateful domestic terrorists have not sapped my spirit.

During my time as an anthropologist, my mentors in West Africa always advised me to take the long view of things  I have learned from them that human beings are resilient. Even in times of tragic sadness, there is space for hope.  Indeed, the students I’ve met in my classes and the young professionals I’ve met on my travels in the US and Europe have given me hope for the future.  They are passionately committed to a more perfect union in which we work together for social justice, in which we demand respect human difference, in which we take care of those who cannot take care of themselves.

Taking the long view, the contemporary culture of hate looks like a bright fire that will eventually burn out.  On the long road to social recovery, it will take some time for us to wake up and force the “rats,” as depicted in Albert Camus’s The Plague, back into their holes. Considering the impressive qualities of the next generation I am confident that despair and hopelessness will slowly dissipate and be replaced with hope and resolution–a prediction that reinforces my optimism–even in this tragic and troubling moment of American history.