So here’s part two in a continuing series of posts about anthropology and democracy.
Here’s what I have in mind for this one: there are a lot of you anthropological folks out there in the world, and I think it might be interesting for some of you to put your skills into practice and see what you can come up with. This invitation is open to all: grad students who are so busy you can’t even fathom democracy, assistant profs, undergrads, famous anthropologists, and everyone in between. Let’s see what we got. Here’s the prompt: What is democracy looking like through your little peepholes into the world? Where is it and what’s it all about? Let me know what it’s looking like on your street, at your college, your field site, excavation, lab, or in your neighborhood, city, or community. Is democracy just some rumor, some fantasy–or is it unmistakeable, concrete, and material? Is Democracy the local chapter of a political party that’s going door to door trying to rally support for their candidate? Is it a bunch of signs stuck in lawns? Or someone driving through town with a megaphone blaring? Is it some whisper in a restaurant–or graffiti screaming about politics from some freeway overpass? Let’s hear some details, folks. I am looking for the good stuff, the real nitty-gritty of democracy as you see it, taste it, feel it, and crash into it like some sharp-edged table in a dark room. Ya, that stuff. Don’t over think it all, just post it. 250 words? 500? 100? Whatever, just post something.
Since it’s my idea, I will be the guinea pig and go first. Here’s my off-the-cuff response:
To me, democracy seems to have a bit of a problem crossing those little international lines in the sand we call borders. I am in Mexico right now doing fieldwork. They just had elections not too long ago, but that wasn’t my democracy. I grew up in San Diego County, at the edge of a massive international border. While all kinds of things manage to flow back and forth through that line, I don’t really think that democracy is one of them. Even the coke and the marijuana gets through, but democracy seems to dry up and wither away like the gushing rivers that once flowed from el norte, now reduced to desolate mud flats. This happens to each system, Mexican and American: they only go so far.
I am not saying that there’s no democracy here in Mexico–not at all. What I am saying is that we seem to be running on different operating systems, and the rules and freedoms and rights from one place don’t really transfer to the other. Well, depending on who you are, I guess. I got mine, you got yours–that’s how it seems to work for the most part. Democracy and democratic ideals stop when you get to that border checkpoint. You get the green light, pull up to the little kiosk, grab your passport, and get ready for the shift from one system of rights to another. All men are created equal, except when they cross certain political boundaries–then all bets are off. Constitutions speak about the universal, but have absolute geographic limits. So when I think of democracy, I tend to think of the one that I am connected to, the one that I take part in, the one where I get to walk into a curtained voting station at the little grade school down the street and pick between option A and option B and call it a day. Then I get a sticker as my prize, just like grade school: I VOTED.
Democracy is back home to me, so I look for it there, seek it out–these days it’s something I experience through this laptop thing, as a series of words and images on a screen that tell me the latest news about debates, candidates’ gaffes, pundits’ reactions, public opinion, and polls polls polls. My laptop is my way back in. My portal. I see democracy through a funny little glowing box, like I see the news, movie reviews, and weather reports. It looks even stranger from here, I think. Like just another show among the many in the prime time lineup. Just another show. Watch it, vote, and then move on to the next thing. I’m going to be away from the US on November 6 so I am voting absentee. Detached–that’s how it seems. But I always find election season surreal–this one just steps it up a notch because I’m looking into the fishbowl via satellite internet of all things. Mostly, though, I am stuck on this question about borders and democracy, wondering why it is that certain rights, ideals, and democratic process can get so congested, if not completely strangled, because of those lines we draw in the sand. Democracy is bounded, and we all seem to be ok with that fact. I don’t understand why. Maybe we have it all wrong.