Taking Stock of the Now: An Anthropological Persepctive

Silly season in America is going into high gear. The webs of fiction that spinners spin at our national political conventions--both Democratic (DNC) and Republican (RNC)--will be broadcast and re-broadcast to millions of people, some watching television, others wired into the Internet. We'll hear about "The Wall" and "Law and Order" and "experience and competence" as opposed to "inexperience and incompetence." We'll listen to talk about temperament and qualifications. None of it, sadly, has much to do with the grim social realities that most Americans face each and every day.

Much of the political commentary we read these days comes from journalists, former government officials, politically connected lawyers, political scientists and economists. Much of what they have to say is fascinating and spot on in the here and now of political debate. From my anthropological perspective, however, this here and now commentary is usually blind to the larger social issues that define the human condition.

Right now the human condition is in dire straights. When police murder unarmed African American men, there are calls for unity. There are vigils. People say prayers and build makeshift memorials. Officials plead for dialogue and understanding. Families grieve and seek justice. When police officers are ambushed and killed, there are also vigils. People recite prayers and build makeshift memorials. Officials plead for healing and understanding. When active shooters kill children or people watching a film or attending a class, there are more vigils, prayers and makeshift memorials. When terrorists kill innocents on the street or in airports--more vigils. prayers and makeshift memorials.

In the wake of horrific events that shred the social fabric, these ritualized bromides make us feel better. Sadly, these ritual efforts will not solve the problems that have seriously undermined our social lives. When it comes to human misery, words of comfort may well bring good feelings, but those positive sentiments quickly fade away as we eventually slip back into the social norm--extreme economic and social inequality, pervasive racial and ethnic prejudice and expanding religious intolerance. This social norm has produced a deep reservoir of frustration, anger and hate, which, in turn, has triggered all kinds of violence--domestic, public and political.

Social and economic inequality has also built an intolerance of difference. In America Republicans don't like Democrats. Democrats revile Republicans. There is little room for common ground between conservatives and progressives. We are critical of those who speak different languages, eat exotic foods or engage in different customs. Why can't "they" be more like "us?" Accordingly, our conversations increasingly consist of mindless angry sound bites. Isolated in our own groups or in our own families, we learn little from the experience of others. Put another way, the social contract in which members of society work together for the common good has been seriously damaged.

These fundamental issues are not likely to be mentioned, let alone debated in the spin rooms of the RNC and DNC. The agendas set in the platforms of the Republican and Democratic parties are not likely to seriously address our fundamentally divisive social problems.

In intolerant times we need more than empty spin that reinforces a destructive status quo. As anthropologists have long known, it is wisdom that mends the tears in the social fabric. The ethnographic record has extensively documented this kind of wisdom in the world. As anthropologists like the late Keith Basso well know, wisdom sits in quiet places, waiting to be tapped for the common good. If you take the time to look for it, wisdom can found. You can find it in old texts or in the old words of the sages who live in the social shadows--men and women whose inspiring knowledge has been obscured by the glaring lights of the public sphere.

As an anthropologist I've had the privilege to sit with sages of the Songhay people of the Republic of Niger, the poorest nation in the world. Despite their economic destitution, Songhay people are rich in wisdom. Living in poverty that most Americans can't imagine, Songhay elders are realists. They say that life is a long path that consists of many false starts, countless dead ends, and incessant suffering. They also say that with patience and forbearance, a person's path will eventually "open" to lead him or her to a better life. The Songhay people I've known have extended this practical wisdom to develop an impressive social resolve that enables them to get through the daily grind of surviving on less than one dollar day in a hot, harsh and famine prone land.

No matter who wins the American presidential election, our path will "open" only after a prolonged struggle during which our lingering problems (violence, terrorism, religious intolerance, racism, ethnic discrimination, and income inequality) are gradually and painfully resolved. As is evident from our heated political rhetoric and the tragic killing season in our streets, the struggle is upon us and will probably get worse before it gets better.

Will the speakers at the RNC or DNC address a future of social reconfiguration, economic restructuring or political struggle?

Probably not.

Although it may take many years of prolonged struggle, I am convinced that our children and grandchildren will eventually tap into the power of difference and extend the wisdom of sages to meet the challenges of our entrenched social and political problems. In so doing they will repair our broken social contract and establish a more perfect union.