Writing, World, and Well Being

Writing Anthropology in Perilous Times

Ground Zero for the Beatles, Liverpool, UK Photo by Paul Stoller

A few days ago as I was traveling through Germany and the Netherlands, I stumbled upon a video of James Corden’s The Late Late Show that chronicled  his recent tour through Liverpool with Sir Paul McCartney.  In the video, Corden and McCartney perform carpool karaoke, travel to Paul McCartney’s house where as a teenager he wrote songs with John Lennon.  Eventually, they end up in a Liverpool pub in which the young Paul McCartney performed.  It was a typical afternoon at the pub except for the presence of Corden behind the bar.  He asks a patron to pick a song on the jukebox. In response to the jukebox selection, a stage curtain opens and a makeshift Liverpool band featuring none other than Paul McCartney begins to perform Beatle’s songs (Hard Day’s Night, Back in the USSR, Love Me Do.  People rush in to see Paul McCartney. The last song is Hey Jude.  For a very special moment the pub audience as well as anyone on social media who clicked on the video link—slipped into a joyous world where they stomped their feet, sang along, and waved their arms as they immersed themselves in a universe in which they celebrated our common humanity.  People in the pub smiled and shed tears of happiness. Waiting at my gate at the Frankfurt Airport I, too, stomped my feet, smiled, shed a few tears and remembered that there is more to social life than our society’s ever-growing record of social and political atrocity.

Social life in America has become perilously surreal. The social fabric has become dangerously frayed.  If you look at commentary on social media, it’s evident that what’s left of our civility is quickly dissipating. The example of our bigoted, ignorant and authoritarian “Dear Leader” has unleashed a flood of hate to justify shamefully inhumane behavior that is shockingly reminiscent of Nazi Germany.  We now rip screaming babies out of the arms of their asylum-seeking parents who, to save their families, have uprooted their kin from unthinkingly violent conditions. Although these parents are asylum seekers, mostly from Central America, they are now erroneously considered criminals and are treated like animals. Following the cruel dictates of the “Dear Leader,” our heartless government has separated these parents from their children and has corralled the innocents into fenced-in locked-down detention centers where they cry in anguish for their mothers and fathers. In a state of utter fear, they try to sleep on caged-in concrete floors. Faced with mounting pressure to reverse this cruel policy, the “Dear Leader” will no longer separate these children from their parents but will indefinitely jail whole families–of non-criminal asylum seekers.

How many of the previously separated innocents will get lost in the system?

How many of them will be needlessly traumatized for life?

Have we no respect for the integrity of the family?

What have we become?

What can academics do slow the inexorable spread of hate in contemporary America?

Scholars have long been the custodians of knowledge who have spoken truth to power. Given our relentless descent into an unimaginatively fetid social swamp, we should redouble our efforts to convey our insights to the public. Beyond participating in protests and voter registration drives, social scientists, including, of course, anthropologists, are well positioned to speak to the social ramifications of the dissolution of the family, the expansion of income inequality, the acceleration of climate change, the tenacity of racism and bigotry and the steadfastness of socially disruptive violence in everyday and political life.

One very good way for anthropologists to speak truth to power is to write ethnographically contoured blogs about the vicissitudes of social life in these perilous times.  Although it is vitally important to engage in a sustained and trenchant cultural critique, it is also important to use the blogosphere to recount stories that demonstrate the ingenuity and social resilience of populations, both foreign and domestic, that mainstream politicians and their legion of followers like to denigrate as murderous animals. In perilous times, it is also important to bring into the public sphere portraits of people and descriptions of events, like the Corden-McCartney journey to Liverpool, that celebrate our collective humanity.

It is very important to bear witness to the grave dysfunction of our social relations and our politics, but it is equally important for anthropologists to saturate the public sphere with uplifting stories of anthropological others who are courageous, resilient, and wise.  Their stories bring light in times of darkness.  They remind us of human decency.

To write anthropology in perilous times is to commit yourself to fight a common enemy— ignorance.  Indeed. much of the pain and suffering that seems to shape contemporary social life devolves from ignorance—ignorance of science, ignorance of the other, ignorance of history, ignorance of poverty and the daily struggle to feed, clothe and house many of our children.  If we write public anthropology in perilous times, we put ourselves on the front lines in the fight against ignorance.

By the same token, are we not also obligated to write blogs that recount the foot-stomping, sing along stories of the inspiring people and remarkable events that constitute the ethnographic record?