I deluded myself into thinking that Barack Obama had, at the least, embodied an inclusive and affable leadership style. I did not question whether his gregariousness would appeal to everyone. Nor did I realise how many he left behind trying to peddle democratic values in a corrupt system. I am also guilty of romanticising the influence of Obama’s mother, who was an anthropologist.
Now, in a time of epistemological insecurity, I find myself returning to questions of why anthropology matters. As the overlooked discontent with establishment politics has found a powerful voice, with words not to be taken literally, and plenty of feelings with loose ends, these loose-ended feelings might prompt some more careful introspection from everyone. So, perhaps selfishly, out of a need to express my own restlessness before I self-medicate again with single malt, I want to try to reach out about what I feel and think is at stake when we detach and delude ourselves from uncomfortable contradictions amplified by the Dividing States of America.
To me, the anthropological pursuit is to somehow articulate better a basic dilemma in the human condition: the longing for simple truths and realities that cannot explain, or be reconciled with, a complex and contradictory world. I strive to be intrigued rather than afraid of the unfamiliar, but I am left feeling mainly outraged by America’s complex and contradictory pushback for which Donald Trump has become the vessel.
Obama’s ‘soft power’ was not enough, while the narrative around ‘apologist’, ‘regressive’ Leftist views also resonate in what what it might mean to do anthropology – handmaiden to both social equity and ‘elitist’ meritocracy and education (as it stood)… But I should first wind back to my reaction to Brexit.
On the 26th of June, three days after the UK referendum, I could not sleep, and tried to order my thoughts. Here’s an excerpt from the 4am essay saved on my phone:
‘We need change from within populist movements, not just more prodding and ostracising from the outside … It’s the carelessly labelled xenophobia that needs careful attention, and should not be simplified. Remain advocate Jo Cox knew this well, and we should take note of her diligence in empathising and reasoning with the Other (Brexiters) … In the US, Trump fans will vote because they don’t feel a part of Hilary’s agenda … We need to start by recognising that: a) people are not that different and we can thus find points to relate to that can then be worked with; b) ostracising the Other by calling them ignorant will only make them run further in the other direction, or push back violently, and; c) people have to want to change from within, but we all benefit from feeling like a part of something bigger than ourselves so the ‘something bigger’ needs to feel popular among those who we most identify with.’
As you might gather, I was emotional and frustrated, my heart still ‘haemorrhaging’ (as my father has said of my sometimes naïve bursts of compassion). I was thinking empathy was the answer, and my attention to inevitable contradictions had begun to slip.
Three days later, I was flying to the UK to resume some PhD fieldwork. I was seated next to a 31-year-old second generation American Republican for 8 hours on the Dubai to London leg of the flight. He was visibly fatigued, shaky and frustrated about having to fly economy class due to last minute ticket availability – especially because Grey Goose vodka was not available to him on this airline, nor were in-flight pyjamas. Clad in designer labelled clothing and accessories, he complimented me on my new leather handbag and probably noticed my luxury Bose headphones. Perhaps sensing that I shared his taste for materialism, he engaged me in conversation.
Not yet aware of his political affiliations, I was curious to know his thoughts on Brexit. He enthusiastically explained that he, along with ‘everyone in Dubai’, had been ‘celebrating’, elaborating that the manufacturing business his grandparents, immigrants from Pakistan, had set up ‘from scratch’ in the US, had taken a particularly lucrative turn following the Global Financial Crisis over 2007-2008. He had since set up a head office in Dubai, and now frequently travels between offices in the US, the UK and Asia. He financially supports his mother, sister and a cousin who do not work back in America, and feels this to be his duty and privilege. I channelled my curiosity to his potential support for Donald Trump, given Trump’s immigration stance. On the differences between his family emigrating to America and current/future immigration fears promulgated by Conservative movements, he said that, ‘unlike today’s immigrants who take other people’s jobs’, his grandparents worked very hard and took many risks to set up their own family business – a work ethic he continues and feels he does not take for granted.
Above all, my fellow traveller was focused on securing his family’s collective wealth. I concealed any judgement and validated some of his opinions, observing how physically uncomfortable he seemed. When it was my turn to elaborate on my situation, I became self-conscious of how patronising I sounded trying to communicate my passions for social inequities, as ‘a researcher’. But he seemed sympathetic when I tried to explain some public health disparities. Looking down at our respective tray tables where we had placed our Kindles, we found a mutual interest in reading. We eagerly exchanged book recommendations, despite having different literary appetites.
Upon recommencing my fieldwork in a ‘Remain’-voting UK city, based in a mental health clinic that has opened my eyes to the power of the human spirit in the face of extreme social disempowerment, I also took ethnographic interest in the wider post-Referendum society around me. But the views between this city and London merely validated by own; most of my time was spent mixing with people who shared my concern for future uncertainties and social prejudice (although some were more interested in pulling out economic aspects from the morass). The starkest contradiction I came across was that medical professionals who had immigrated to England were treated by their colleagues as positively different from ‘other’ immigrants who do not share the same professional identities.
Then I visited an old school friend living in another small town outside of London. She said that while she does not follow politics she had indeed voted to remain in the EU. She, a school teacher and mother, then added fervently, ‘but I just cannot believe they think it is a good idea to have a female Prime Minister!’
Quietly shocked then enraged for different reasons, I changed the topic of conversation. I wish I had not, as I spent months ruminating over my cowardice, resulting in my subsequent disinterest in maintaining a friendship with diverging values. I might have at least asked her, just to clarify, what she thought of Hillary Clinton (on these gender considerations alone).
On the morning of the 9th November as the US election results rolled in, Australia time, I passed our One Nation Party leader, Pauline Hansen, walking along a Canberra street. That evening she was on the local news, toasting to President-elect Trump outside Parliament House.
I’m now wondering whether I would say anything to her if I were to see her again. I would like to think that I would treat her with dignity. Wearing my anthropologist hat, I know that Hansen’s views would not be reflected in everything she does. Moreover, I do not want her and her supporters to feel further backed into a corner of dangerous isolation and resentment (I feel this way whether or not my heart is haemorrhaging).
Secondly, observing Donald Trump’s change of tune following his Presidential nomination – choosing ‘softer’ rhetoric aimed at all Americans instead of provoking hate-filled sentiments – there will be many contradictions ahead. People are perfectly capable of changing their minds given the support to do so.
Meanwhile, Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has cautioned us against myopic distractions of the ‘elite media’, in order to engage more critically with other views around us. Turnbull, who’s leadership is laden with conflicting messages of ‘elitism’, continues to push the focus on jobs, economic growth and border security. But neither this economic narrative nor alternative moral outpourings will bring all the answers to our societal oversights.
Views will never neatly align, but contradictions and ambiguity do not play out well if merely dismissed in favour of abstract neoliberal ideologies that delude and divide us.
Why we aspire towards the lifestyles and ‘growth’ that we do and who in our societies are being socially, not just economically, excluded, needs careful and personal interrogation. We, anthropologists or otherwise, certainly do not have all the answers from within our own social or professional groupings. We are led astray by detached feelings and in-group persuasions. Identity boundaries are tenuous and lead to uncomfortable, walking contradictions of which we could all take more notice – especially if we would like people with alternative views to do the same.
[Image by Julia Brown]