First Responses: A To-Do List

Here, I reflect on ways to understand what happened and offer a set of initial provocations that may open up new ways to act against what is to come. These are intended as the beginning of a to-do list for the discipline.1

  1. Starting from scratch. If nothing else, we’ve learned that we need to understand our foundational concepts of class, race, status, gender, language and vocation anew. This means new commitments to ethnographic methods and insights.
  2. The public good. Anthropologists should help investigative journalists create a new vocabulary and symbolic politics around the values of the public good, tapping into the work of local communities, progressive municipalities, and communities of faith that buy into the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of freedom of religion (meaning not just tolerance for others, but working with one another for robust and self-sustaining communities). A new polarity should be established between greed and the social good. Anthropologists have the skills and connections to give statistics, mapping, modeling, and other techniques bite (or help to show them up as mirages), rather than just satisfying statistical measures and margins of error in abstract models. Anthropologists can help connect policy outcomes to investigative monitoring of government performance (such as the website TRAC, based at Syracuse University). Anthropologists can help communities create websites to catalog their problems and connect them to those of other communities (against the sequestration of information by corporations and states). This is not playing politics with anthropology: this is a commitment to objective truth in a world of information that is increasingly sequestered or destabilized by malicious disinformation.
  3. Mediation, counter-play, and organizational networks. What can we learn from the alt-right’s use of media and rhetoric, and particularly the ways in which it was allowed to be parasitic on the major news outlets? What can we learn from various electronic media wars in the Middle East, Colombia (the FARC countered the state in a video war), and the even more dangerous emerging cyberwars between Russia, China and the United States? If there is something called a “post-truth” environment of slogan words or memes that magically divide friends from enemies, then how do we establish counter-play that can move people toward dialogic platforms and organizational networks?
  4. Populism, masses, and the long class burn. The so-called populist backlash extends across Europe, and is fodder for those who have long warned that democracy is no longer a sufficient slogan, that voting without institutional checks and balances is a recipe for disaster. How do we construct a new contemporary international? Anthropologists have longitudinal and multilevel expertise in monitoring the ebb and flow of such movements. These should become part of cross-national vision-making: perhaps a new sort of political anthropology journal and/or website, richly linked, online, open-access, with content solicited from activists, journalists, and historians, as well as anthropologists and other social scientists.
  5. Alternative modes of critique and intervention. How do we constructively critique the humanitarian and human-rights industries and find alternative models supporting local initiatives? Might one conceive of a new international Peace Corps as a vehicle for training younger generations to deliver education, health care, refugee care, technology, and community building along with a commitment to representing local needs up the food chain, rather than treating them as foreign-policy instruments?
  6. Charettes and participatory theater. Could these forms bring people together to debate policy goals in a manner that brings out trade-offs, interest negotiations, and interactive effects, and that makes participants feel a sense of control and ownership over decisions? Charettes are increasingly used in community planning efforts to generate multiple visions and help adjudicate among them. The histories of puppet theater from Czechoslovakia to Ghana to Indonesia, and of street theater in India, are important precursors that need reactivation: not so much as propaganda, but as vehicles for eliciting problems and solutions that do not immediately stir up conflict or appropriations and that may act to dispel them. Video-making can be curated and targeted to help focus the discourse, involving anyone with a cell phone. The point is to activate society in communal ways, not to represent it. Larger events, including music festivals and social movements, can sometimes have lasting effects, but we need networks and vocabularies that are open and inviting, rather than closed and exclusivist.
  7. Historical models for future change. Consider the offer by Martin Luther King, Jr. to turn the civil-rights movement into a labor-rights movement if the white unions would join. Consider their refusal. How might history have looked differently if that offer had been accepted? What other lessons for the present can be drawn from the past?
  8. A programmatic statement for action. What would a new Port Huron statement for our times look like? What should its parts consist of? In the 1960s, rent control and opposition to racial discrimination in housing were major vehicles for organizing, as were community block-grant funding, community mental-health grants from the National Institute of Mental Health, and community drug programs from the National Institute of Drug Abuse. Today, such programs would likely have to be envisioned through municipalities rather than Congress and the states. Collecting information on such programs for use in new vision statements is now more important than collecting policy papers constructed out of what Annalise Riles calls bracketed statements, although those histories of negotiations are crucial for the politics of policy. We need to reactivate face-to-face, with teach-ins as pedagogy for university students and communities, including at town halls. We need to develop white papers on policy issues we care about, not just as hortatory statements, but as analyses of how these issues are formulated, the political actors involved, and alternatives. Charged slogan terms should be replaced with terms that can fit within larger tents and that are not already divisive flags of partisan battle.

In such ways, anthropology may once again reinvent itself as a vital public voice, activating society and supporting values of the social good for the contemporary worlds emergent around us.


1. See also a slightly longer version of this piece, with concrete examples and references to the work of anthropologists both past and present. That version is organized in two sections, with three parts each: What Happened (social analysis, changing media platforms, changing role of universities) and Future Action (domestic, international, new communicative ethnographic forms).