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

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