Trumping Toward the Storm


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.


Cultural Ignorance Kills–in Niger and Beyond

The sad story of how a contingent of ISIS fighters overran and killed four out-gunned US Green Berets in Tongo Tongo, Niger is in the news again. The Pentagon report on what transpired during an ill-fated “routine” mission will soon be published.  In a front-page story in the March 20th edition of The New York Times some details about the mission have been revealed.  According to preliminary findings, ”The leader of the ill-fated mission in Niger last fall warned before the mission that his troops did not have the equipment or the intelligence necessary to carry out a kill or capture raid against a local militant.”   In the report, which is not fully complete, the focus is clearly on why this mission was authorized and who is responsible for a tragically fatal screw-up. In the same article we also learn that there have been subsequent attacks against joint American-Nigerien military patrols. Considering the historical and cultural context of Western Niger, where the initial attack took place, there is a high probability that there will be more attacks and more fatalities in the future.


A Songhay village along the Niger River in Northwestern Niger (Photo by Paul Stoller)

Can we attribute these fatalities to equipment deficiencies or to problems in the chain of command? How will we explain away future mission failures that result in serious injury or in the deaths of civilians and/or military personnel?

What does the US military know about Niger?

Based upon what we know from the preliminary Pentagon report, our civilian and military leaders know very little about the history, cultural and ethnic politics of this part of the world. Stepping into a social arena about which “we’ are ignorant, American taxpayers are constructing in Niger a major drone base—an important tool in the battle against Muslim extremists, an increasing number of whom have found safe harbor in remote West African countries like Niger, one of the poorest places in the world.

Given the high stakes of these present and future operations, what will our ignorance cost us in terms of wasted treasure and wasted lives?

Having thought, read and written about Niger for more than 30 years, having learned one of the Nigerien languages (Songhay-Zarma) and having lived many years in villages like Tongo Tongo, allow me an anthropological intervention into this blind discourse about “intelligence” and “chains of command.”

As I stated in a previous blog post about this tragedy, Tongo Tongo is situated in the northern sector of the Zarmagunda region of Niger—the heartland (or the “belly”) of the Songhay-Zarma people. These are people long known for their bravery, their independence, and their perseverance. In and around Tongo Tongo you also find Tuareg and Fulani—peoples also known for their bravery and pride.  The mix of very different kinds of people in this region prompted a history of inter-ethnic conflict. The people in the area are also known for their resistance to French colonialism and to the Nigerien government, which means that the region has a long been an arena of political volatility.   There are other places in Niger, of course, that are equally volatile.

The proud Zarma people who live in and around Tongo Tongo don’t like strangers (called yo in the Songhay-Zarma language). For them, strangers can never understand what’s important to the child of the village (kwar’izo). This deep-seated belief means that strangers, which include Niger government officials as well as Nigerien, French, and American soldiers, can never be trusted. Strangers come, stay for a brief period of time, and then leave. As the Songhay proverb states: “Strangers are like the mist. If they haven’t left in the morning they’re sure to be gone in the afternoon.”

Given the social and cultural complexities of life in Niger, can the presence of soldiers, or drones, compete with the ever-increasing popularity of radical Islam?

Probably not.

As in much of the world, the central political issue in contemporary Niger is deeply entrenched poverty—not military tactics, chains of command, counter-terrorism strategies or the presence of a fleet of technologically sophisticated drones. The cost of ignoring this fundamental truth is monumental.

An America First ideology will not protect innocent villagers or American soldiers from attack.  It will not snuff out the spread of Islamist ideology in places like Niger, Mali, Chad and Burkina Faso.

Bombs, sophisticated drones, military meet and greets with village elders, or kill or special capture missions will not resolve inter-ethnic antipathies or diminish religious prejudice. There is no quick fix for radical Islam in places Niger, Mali or Burkina Faso.  There is a slow solution, though:  fully funded programs (education and technical training) that will make people more self-sufficient.  These programs will take many years to show results, but in the end they will result in social and economic improvement, which, in turn, makes radical Islam less appealing.

As wise Songhay elders liked to tell me: a slow path is usually the most rewarding way to reach your destination.


Fishing for the Truths of Our Times: Some Thoughts on Anna Badkhen’s Fisherman’s Blues (2018, Riverhead Books)

The sea is primordial.  The sea is powerful.  We are of the sea, which means that its waters—our waters—harbor the deep truths of the human condition.

Where did we come from?

What is the ebb and flow of our existence?

Where are we going?


(Photo by Paul Stoller, 2017)

Changes in the nature of the sea (its currents, its acidity, the pollutants that infect it and taint its fish, and rising water temperatures that shape weather patterns) change the nature of our social lives.

Most of the writing about climate change comes to us in the bloodless prose of plain style, the centuries old writing convention of science.  General audiences rarely are able to read works on climate change that describe its implications for the everyday lives of people in the world.  Anna Badkhen’s Fisherman’s Blues is a wonderful exception to this representational pattern. It is a marvelously rendered poetic evocation social life in Joal, a fishing village on the Senegalese coast.  Through breathtaking descriptions of sea, beach, village and people, Badkhen recounts a central story of our times:  how can people like Ndongo Souare, captain of the Sakhari Souare, a 30-foot ocean-worthy dugout, confront and adjust to changes (over-fishing, climate fluctuations, rising seas and rising sea temperatures) that have altered the sea?  How do these changes disrupt Ndongo Souare’s family’s historical linkages to the sea?  How do they alter the social relations among Ndongo Souare’s colleagues and their fisherman families? What can Badkhen’s riveting tale teach us about present and future life in the Anthropocene?

Fisherman’s Blues is about the power and majesty of the sea, a power and majesty most of us take for granted.  Consider this passage:

Dawn spills astern: lavender, violet, golden.  Capillary waves gently scale the ocean all the way to the horizon. Winds clots low fog. The Sakhari Souare glides at full throttle west-southwest, rolls over lazy six-foot swells.  The shore’s low skyline of baobab and eucalyptus and doum palms flashes in the light, sinks into the sea.  Its bruised cumulus vanishes too. Black against banded east a seabird, an early rise, falls out fog the fog and scoops something out of the water and banks away.  The pirogue’s six crew balance spread-eagled on the thwarts and on the foredeck, dig their bare soles into the slippery wood, lean into one another, watch the sea for fish. (p. 2-3)

How can six men face the ever-changing sea?  Will they haul in fish on this misty morning off the coast of Senegal, or will they return tired and empty-handed?  Will they return safe and sound from yet another voyage on the mercurial sea?  How can they endure the ever-changing currents of our rapidly degrading environment?

Through poetic description and riveting narratives Badkhen shows—rather than tells—how Senegalese fisherman attempt to co-exist with a sea that periodically gives to (provides food and a livelihood) and takes from (injures or kills) those who seek its bounty.  In the West African spiritual universe, this kind existential give and take defines the nature of the spirit world. In this world, spirits, which control the forces of nature, among other elements of social life, are fickle, volatile and unpredictable. As Badkhen shows, the power of spirits—of the sea—must be continuously respected through small and large ritual celebrations. Confronted by the immense power of nature, these events are humble human attempts to enhance the success of a harvest or ensure a good catch and a safe return from the sea.

The story of this Senegalese fishing community is a testament to the profound precarity of contemporary social life. How can they endure? Should we feel sorry for them?

Clearly, life on the Senegalese coast is quite challenging. But Fisherman’s Blues is more than a tale about climate change, rising seas and the ongoing depletion of fishing beds.  Badkhen also focuses her refreshingly unobtrusive ethnographic gaze on how life on or near the sea shapes family life in Joal. Guided by Badkhen’s skillful narration, readers are witness to family dramas–the complex tangle of relations of fishermen to their wives, sons and daughters. She also describes the set of reciprocal obligations that link the fishermen to their parents, their in-laws as well as to colleagues in their social and economic networks. From this intricately woven patchwork of stories there emerges one central theme:  the people of Joal confront their substantial challenges with deep dignity and enviable resilience.  In the face of precarity, they are quietly courageous and serenely resolute. As we confront our own social and ecological challenges, the story of this Senegalese fishing community, so ably described by Anna Badkhen, is a model for us all.

Fisherman’s Blues is ethnography at is very best. It demonstrates how narrative and poetic evocation are potent tools of social description.  Using narrative, Badkhen deftly evokes place and character as we follow the dramas of everyday life as they unfold in an ever-changing set of social economic and environmental conditions along the Senegalese Coast.  These dramas demonstrate a larger set of human connections.  Although the social dramas of a Senegalese fishing community may seem remote from our own set of social and cultural experience, they have much to teach us about living in the contemporary world.

In these times we all confront some sort of precarity. In Fisherman’s Blues, Anna Badkhen describes how we can adjust to existential uncertainty with dignity and resolve. In the end, her new book is a poetic example of how cultural critique can highlight the fundamental truths of our times.




Bad Faith in Our House: An Anthropological Take on Contemporary American Society

The daily news cycle of lies, half-truths, and scandal has reinforced the reality that there is much bad faith in our social house.  Like a ravenous flesh-eating virus, bad faith, which has reached epidemic proportions, is irreparably unraveling our social fabric.

As any anthropologist knows, the brick and mortar of any social house is the trust and confidence that people build through their social relations.  These relations gradually build trust in social institutions.  Trusted social institutions, in turn, legitimize, as Max Weber long ago argued, the exercise of power in a society.

In the mid-twentieth central the great philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre introduced the notion of bad faith—a process of self-delusion in which a person displaces her or her sense of self with illusion—that which builds an alternative universe on a foundation of big lies.   Put another way, things in our social and political relations have never been what they seem.

What would Jean-Paul Sartre have thought about bad faith in the age of social media?

He might well have been appalled to discover that in the age of social media—our age—the issue of bad faith has thoroughly saturated our social life, creating a social arena that is often vile and uncivil.  Bad faith has also brought systemic dysfunction to our political institutions. In these electronically contoured times, productive conversation has become a rarity.  In these times of fast news that give credence to conspiracy theories, bad faith has destroyed our confidence in the Office of the Presidency, the US Congress, the Department of Justice and even the FBI. It has undermined our assurance in the veracity of facts and our conviction in a scientific integrity which produces “inconvenient” truths

How can we confront bad faith in the age of American celebrity culture?

In this climate of powerlessness, a key feature of bad faith, is there any hope for a better world?

Who are the guardians of our core values?

Who has the wherewithal to treat the virus of bad faith that has infected our social relations and political institutions?

Sometimes we can use anthropological insights to find our way through the turbulence of contemporary social life.  In my research among the Songhay people I had the great fortune of being the apprentice of a great healer, Adamu Jenitongo.  He was a short slight man who lived in a grass hut at the edge of the town of Tillaberi in the Republic of Niger.


Sohanci Adam Jenitongo at a ceremony in Tillaberi, Niger (Photo by Paul Stoller)

What could this man  teach me—us–about living in the world?

He taught me a great deal about the vicissitudes of life.  He impressed upon me the value of slow learning.  When I asked him about the sohanci’s central obligation, he responded without hesitation.

I am the spiritual guardian of this place, he said.  If someone abuses their authority or betrays our core values, the sohanci works to set things straight.

Above and beyond his or her reservoir of knowledge and practice, the sohanci is first and foremost a keen observer of social and political relations.  In the same vein, anthropologists are keen observers of social and political relations.  Like the Songhay sohanci, anthropologists use their slowly developed knowledge in an attempt to make the world a better place.  In these troubled times, it is crucial that we engage in one of anthropology’s core obligations—cultural critique—an informed, sustained, scientifically rigorous assessment of our social and political life.   In plainly written texts, in accessible blogs, in provocative films, and in inspirational media installations cultural critics can point out again and again that:

  1. climate change exists; failure to recognize this fundamental fact condemns our children to climatic hell;
  2. income and social inequality are not socially sustainable; failure to rectify these inequities is a historically proven prescription for social and economic devastation;
  3. more guns will not solve the scourge of gun violence in America;
  4. ignorance is our enemy; hate has no place in society; and
  5. science is our friend; it is a pathway to the future;

This list, of course, is far from exhaustive.  There are many issues that public anthropologists  can productively critique.  There is much more to say about “fixing the truth” –manipulating false images and narratives for economic and/or political gain.  There is much more to say about how fewer and fewer people read books and/or articles.  There is much more to say about the profound ignorance of our public officials.  Indeed, there is much more to say about how ongoing cultural critique is a powerful first step toward presenting an alternative to the poisonous illusions of celebrity culture.

In the end, a sustained, rigorous and accessible cultural critique will go a long way toward sweeping out much of the dangerous bad faith that has settled so deeply into our social house.


Public Anthropology and the Quest for Wisdom


Sohanci Adamu Jenitongo of Tillaberi, Niger (Photo by Paul Stoller)

These days there is a shortage of wisdom in the public sphere.  Political pundits of every persuasion articulate shallow observations that usually consist of little more than talking points.  In the public sphere there is little, if any, conversation–a real exchange of ideas.  Our pundits have precious little time on-air and they use it to rapidly pile up their points, which means there is no time for listening, let alone learning something new or something out of the ordinary.

There is little time for any kind of reflection.  Our legislators don’t take time to read he legislation on which they are charged to vote.  How many people in Congress read the massive tax cut legislation that recently became law?  Why take the time to pour over the particulars?

In our techno-charged culture of speed, who has time to do anything?

Our public officials have no time to read, let alone reflect on the economic and moral ramifications of  cutting food stamps, Medicaid, and mental health programs.  They have not a moment to think about the social consequences of obliterating the Public Broadcast System and National Pubic Radio.  In the culture of speed, our leaders prefer short-term profit over long-term gain.  They want to open up to fossil fuel drilling beautiful US natural treasures like Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument.  Such drilling will likely desiccate a sacred landscape and accelerate the processes of climate change, which the scientifically ignorant conveniently deny.

We are witnesses to a frightening social madness.

In a culture of speed, there is little room for science or scientific exchange.  In a media saturated world, the flood of on-line information has made us less curious and less willing to listen.  Having a face-to-face conversation, the bedrock of social relations, has become increasingly stressful. In contemporary society, as the philosopher Mark Taylor has stated, “speed kills.”

Enter public anthropology. Anthropology is a slow science in a culture of speed.  Our insights develop gradually over long periods of research in exotic and not-so exotic settings. Our principal research tool is face-to-face conversation with the people we seek to understand.  More often than not, our interlocutors have much to teach us about living the world.  My teacher, Sohanci Adamu Jenitongo was one such man–the embodiment of wisdom.  It took him a lifetime of learning to understand his world. He used that insight to make things better for his people.  He patiently talked to people and gradually understood how he might use his gifts to guide them to a better life.  He knew how to heal the sick, how to mine the past to understand the present and see into the future. He understood how wisdom is conveyed slowly from generation to generation.  The charge of the healer–or sohanci–is to safeguard social justice. Indeed, he encouraged me to bring the wise knowledge of the Songhay elders to my own society–to make it a better place to live.

How can public anthropology make America a better place to live?

It can communicate to the public the wisdom of practices that enhance the quality of social relations.

It can expose public stupidity and encourage public excellence. It’s stupid to pass a piece of legislation without reading the bill.  It’s stupid to deny climate change when glaciers and the Antarctic ice shelf are melting at alarming rates.  It’s stupid to say we need more guns to stem the scourge of gun violence in America.

In a globally-integrated world, it’s smart for public anthropologists to steadfastly encourage reason, critical thinking, and cross-cultural awareness.  It’s smart to combat “alternative facts” with scientific reason.  It’s smart to listen to incontrovertible scientific evidence that our outmoded-conquer-the-earth exploitative practices will condemn our children and grandchildren to climatic hell.  It’s smart to listen to the Parkland school shooting survivors.  They may be young but they are inspirational, for they remind us how to speak truth to power. They are showing us the way to a better future.

Can engaged learning change stupid to smart? Adamu Jenitongo thought so.  The fires of stupid, he’d like to say, burn brightly. In time, though, they dim and die out. If you are patient and persistent, he would say, people slow down, open their eyes and follow a smart path to a future in which people can live well in the world.

In short, if we are patient and persistent, our path will open,