First off … I just want to underscore the non-partisan (or para-partisan) nature of my discussions about contemporary politics. So far, I’ve been dealing pretty much with American politics, but hopefully, anthropological consideration of how emotions get folded into political decisions can really help us to think about something more general, albeit in a fresh way: the very political foundations of human sociality. My upcoming posts will be a series on Anthropology and Philosophy, will be a bit more academic, and will aim to bring the focus back to that of biocultural evolution. But recently, I’ve been especially concerned about providing a rarely offered anthropological perspective on the way that marked, dramatic American cultural narratives–which we tell ourselves, selectively listen to, or stage and act in, through the processes of ritualization and mythologization–move likely voters emotionally… so much so that they and the political apparatuses who court their votes can develop quite damaging addictions to the resulting “high,” the sense of stability and control we gain from telling myths and participating in rituals. Yet, if we aren’t careful and critical before we let ourselves get carried away, from the everyday into the emotionally overwhelming realm of myth and ritual, the narratives involved can blind us to how our resulting sense of control or stability actually comes from something else: resolving to build barriers and effectively exclude people from society we consider proper. And this unfortunate moral blindness itself can be strikingly shortsighted, while actually creating further disruption, despite the aim of achieving stability and control.
The ongoing, quite painful and confusing political standoff in Washington is a dual cliffhanger. There’s the slow motion game of Democrat and Republican behemoths playing chicken over continuing regular Federal government funding. And there’s the simultaneous slo-mo race toward the edge over raising the Federal borrowing limit. All of this is a big deal. It’s political drama. It’s also a sometimes genuinely tragic and sometimes melodramatic confrontation with the fact that many of us either need or take for granted certain government services. And it’s definitely a spectacular bare-it-all moment, when it becomes clear that the American voting population is BOTH split AND ambivalent in their beliefs about how money and debt work across private-public and local-global boundaries.
This post addresses this last issue: the ambivalence we have about money and debt.
This ambivalence may be gleaned from survey data published by the Pew Center, in an opinion poll report that I addressed in my previous post on the government shutdown. In the top right panel, it is clear that most people polled state that if the debt ceiling isn’t raised, it’s cause for worry. In fact, the Pew Center report notes that the aggregate opinion favoring raising the debt ceiling has actually improved since the last Washington standoff over this issue, from 40% in 2011 to 47% earlier this week. Yet, the political partisan divide in opinion about how serious the debt ceiling persists. And it’s, well, really conspicuous. For non-Tea Party Republicans, the opinion pattern is almost precisely flipped, when compared to the overall population. 47% of “mainstream” Republicans don’t think it’s a problem if the Federal government cannot borrow enough money to pay existing bills and debt obligations. 40% see raising the debt ceiling as important. The opinion that the debt ceiling should not be raised is by far most common, though, among Tea Party Republicans, where a large majority (64%) are not worried about any consequences of going past next week’s deadline (after which the Federal government will have insufficient funds without the ability to borrow more).
Now, this is clearly a situation in which large groups of adults within a single cultural system simply have developed incompatibly divergent beliefs about how reality works–and is going to work in the near future.
Or … Normalizing Anthropology’s Engagement with the Centers of Power
When you think “Anthropology,” you probably don’t immediately think, “Yes, those are the academic types that get tapped as regular op-ed writers for major newspapers, write engaging books about broadly relevant topics that large audiences want to read, and get access to the corridors of political and corporate power to advise on big, mainstream political and elite media topics like tax policy, effective institutional organization, and international affairs.” More power to Paul Krugman, but anthropologists are like most other academics; the detailed, specialized concepts and observations we scrutinize and discuss are really comfortable for us to deal with, day in, day out … but as we inhabit this specialized world of work and thought, we have a hard time building and maintaining paths of relevance with communities other than those we study. Moreover, the communities we study tend to be on the margins of contemporary economic and political power. I’ve already discussed Keith Hart’s important ethnographic and activist work on the project of humanizing economic networks, something he addresses and references extensively on the website The Memory Bank. He is particular interested in how grass-roots open currency systems can exist alongside national and supranational ones, facilitating inclusion, empowerment, and resilience of individuals and small networks who are constituted by complex lives and identities … and perhaps most importantly, who have economic connections that fray quickly when larger monetary dynamics–inflation or deflation driven by employment cycles, global credit cycles, industrial commodity prices, or national or international politics–suddenly make everything a greater hardship, throwing into tumult any future plans or hopes. Hart’s vision may aim to reach the global scale, but his ethnographic engagement remains not only local, but with better connecting the politically and economically marginal. (Daniel Lende has a nice discussion of this issue at the Neuroanthropology Blog, showing the importance of such seemingly marginal small projects, which can have really high local impact, in growing the relevance of Anthropology.) The marginality of the communities I study is incomparably greater. Not only am I dealing with prehistoric communities, marginal to written history; I’m dealing with groups whose constituents will always be anonymous … and about whom there are legitimate scientific questions about whether they were actually different from us in some fundamental biological ways. And I mainly have just their garbage and the dirt they tracked around to go by. So, like most anthropologists, I have to admit that my research isn’t going to offer direct suggestions about how to humanize contemporary, massive economies all the way to their centers.
Still, anthropologists can offer relevant, constructive ideas for changing the cultural status quo around the centers of power, where big money and mass media tend to distort our interests and how we use dramatic, mythologized or ritualized narratives to resolve our conflicts of interest in emotional but all-too-often shortsighted ways.
Or, Why The Whole VMA Incident Is a Really Teachable Anthropological Moment
My older daughter (and probably my students) will confirm I’m too old for this stuff … The MTV VMA show isn’t on my entertainment radar screen. Certainly not before it happens. So this year, all I kept hearing after the VMAs aired was how Miley Cyrus’s performance was way way too ___________. (Fill in your choice of extreme negative description. In general, the focus was on tasteless, but that was by far the mildest characterization.)
From the breathless-sounding media tags and omnipresent OMG vibes, I felt compelled to check it out.
OK. Especially since this VMA incident seems to have striking staying power, there’s something about what she did–and what we’ve seen–that’s compelling and compounding the ubiquitious media discourse about it. Some serious symbolically structured cultural production going on. A bit of agency, some hegemonic structures, domination, resistance, all in ritualized and ritualizing context, nonetheless somehow reproducing dominant structures and leaving us grasping for sensible glosses about why it gets to us and why it turned out the way it did.
So there’s definitely something anthropological to consider. And perhaps against my better judgment, I’d suggest that it’s actually worth the consideration, if only because the Miley Cyrus/VMA incident has really taken us ritually to some kind of disturbing threshold, creating awareness of something–or several somethings–that we now need to talk through.
It is encouraging that the 50-year celebration of the 1963 March on Washington has unmistakably gotten the message out–that crime, violence, illegal immigration, and squalid poverty in the United States are not only all too prevalent, but are systemically tied to growing income inequality, which is driven in large part by a dominant ideology that having money genuinely launders how you earned that money, as long as the sovereign legislative, executive, and judicial apparatuses (the political leanings of which may well have been influenced by some of your money, however earned, that you have used to amplify your free speech, in the form of political advertising and other political mass communication forms, such as “robo-calling”) have given you the stamp of approval that your money was earned legally, no matter how exploitative or otherwise unethically you acted.
What is not so encouraging is this. The 50-year celebration of the 1963 March on Washington has not gotten a critical corollary message out–that this ideology of wealth encourages and even celebrates unlimited private comfort, consumption, and continuous entertainment, diverting our attention from simultaneously seeing both sides of contemporary American conservatism. It is a conservative position that possessing legally sanctioned monetary wealth is itself proof of proper morality and personal responsibility. But the other side of this conservative political ideology is that there is a moral inverse: the poor are irresponsible and immoral because they tend to be parasitic violent criminals, illegal immigrants, those who fraudulently receive welfare benefits or perhaps fraudulently vote, or some combination of these.