A dust storm approaches Tillaberi, Niger. Photo by Paul Stoller
In defiance of history, facts, and any sliver of good sense, DJT, our presidential champion of divisive hate and “alternate reality” has pulled out of the multi-national nuclear agreement with Iran, a move that certainly destabilizes the already unsettled Middle East, a decision that brings the world ever-closer to a catastrophic nuclear war. DJT’s withdrawal is a perfect storm example of a central concept in anthropology: ethnocentrism.
Ethnocentrism has long been the defining feature of American foreign policy. It drove G.W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq as a way of spreading “democracy” in the Middle East. It was the defining feature of Barack Obama’s more pragmatic foreign policy, which, at least, considered the global impacts of climate change and the local complexities of Islamic politics. In the era of Trump, we have ethnocentrism on steroids. Indeed, we have entered the era of the politics of “America First.”
What’s so bad about ethnocentrism.?
Anthropologists, after all, have long admitted that everyone is ethnocentric.
Put bluntly, ethnocentrism is a “my way or the highway” set of beliefs. There are two types of ethnocentrism: ethnocentrism with power and ethnocentrism without power. In the former type, people or nations have the economic or military capacity to force people to adopt their beliefs, their values, and their system of government. This example is the ethnocentrism of conquest and domination, a practice that has brought to the human condition a seemingly endless series of conflicts and wars. In ethnocentrism without power people believe that although they are powerless, they nonetheless possess moral and cultural superiority.
In DJT’s dystopian America First world, we occupy a mythical ethnocentric world that is structured by an ethos of reality television in which “alternative facts” displace facts, in which conspiracy displaces science, in which arrogant ignorance overshadows modest reason.
Does DJT know or care about the social and political issues in the world?
Does DJT know or care about international laws or the rule of law?
Does DJT know or care about the US. Constitution?
No, he does not.
He does know how to build buildings and, if the recent history Trump property bankruptcies, fires, and name-removals is indicative, he’s not very good at that.
It comes as no surprise that DJT would ignore the advice of his advisors and our allies, for he alone knows best–which, of course, is symptomatic of the ego centrism and credulity of those who are woefully and ethnocentrically ignorant. Why listen to people who have studied Iran or the Middle East? Why listen to egg-head scientists and scholars who have slowly developed their sage expertise about the history, politics and society–about the human condition. They were the smart ones in school.8
What do they know?
We live in increasingly dangerous times. Given the politics of ignorance that DJT champions we must fight back each and every day–to protect reason, to save science, to ensure our social future. Anthropologists have a major role to play in this fight. We understand and can explain the dangers of ethnocentrism in the America First world. We can bring forward the wisdom of the peoples we’ve studied and use it to illuminate our social problems and find alternatives to our social and political dysfunction. We understand the hidden of dimensions of the exercise of power. We understand the social and cultural ramifications of the information age and how it shapes social and political life. We understand how climate change will precipitate massive social disruption. We understand the whys and wherefores of the what it means to be a human being in the world. And we know how to use ethnography to powerfully bring our important insights into the public sphere.
Given the onset of DJT destructive policies, it’s time for anthropologists to use media to practice an engaged, rigorous and ongoing social and cultural critique. As I’ve said in previous blogs, it will not be easy for anyone to combat the rise of ignorance in the culture of speed.
But as The Grateful Dead lyric informs us: “speed kills.”
The stakes are high. As the elders of the Songhay people of Niger and Mali like to say: The person who looks back as he or she walks forward eventually walks into a deadly storm or, falls off a cliff.