Obama: Anti-American Anthropologist?

A blog at the BBC picked up this piece at Asia Times on Obama and called it “insightful, utterly wrong-headed, weird, incomprehensible all in one,” tagging it with the headline above. We already knew this, but we ought to be prepared, cause anthropology is going to figure prominently in the 2008 US election. I don’t think anthropology will always be lauded as a virtuous scientific or humanistic pursuit. Consider the scurrilous propoganda of the Asia Times article, as the author parrots anthropological critique:

America is not the embodiment of hope, but the abandonment of one kind of hope in return for another. America is the spirit of creative destruction, selecting immigrants willing to turn their back on the tragedy of their own failing culture in return for a new start. Its creative success is so enormous that its global influence hastens the decline of other cultures. For those on the destruction side of the trade, America is a monster. Between half and nine-tenths of the world’s 6,700 spoken languages will become extinct in the next century, and the anguish of dying peoples rises up in a global cry of despair. Some of those who listen to this cry become anthropologists, the curators of soon-to-be extinct cultures; anthropologists who really identify with their subjects marry them. Obama’s mother, the University of Hawaii anthropologist Ann Dunham, did so twice.

Obama profiles Americans the way anthropologists interact with primitive peoples.

That’s only the beginning. There is so much going on in the AT column that it is hard to know where to begin. Obama is slimed in a number of ways.

As a Third Worldist/communist revolutionary:

When Ann Dunham chose to follow Lolo Soetero to Indonesia in 1967, she brought the six-year-old Barack into the kitchen of anti-colonialist outrage…

Barack Obama is a clever fellow who imbibed hatred of America with his mother’s milk, but worked his way up the elite ladder of education and career.

As a whimp under the thumb of important women and therefore not a real man (…a meme also reproduced in the pages of the NYT fairly frequently by everyone’s favorite nutty columnist, Maureen Dowd):

…there is a real Barack Obama. No man – least of all one abandoned in infancy by his father – can conceal the imprint of an impassioned mother, or the influence of a brilliant wife…

…Never underestimate the influence of a wife who bitch-slaps her husband in public…

As a Muslim (the author reproduces suspicion while ostensibly rejecting it):

Barack Obama received at least some instruction in the Islamic faith of his father and went with him to the mosque, but the importance of this experience is vastly overstated by conservative commentators who seek to portray Obama as a Muslim of sorts… He shares the resentment of Muslims against the encroachment of American culture…

As mentally ill:

…he is the political equivalent of a sociopath.

It is conceivable that Barack Obama, if elected, will destroy himself before he destroys the country. Hatred is a toxic diet even for someone with as strong a stomach as Obama.

In this one column are condensed many recent threads here at SM, from the question of anthropology’s putative Euro-American bias (ironically, Asia Times accuses anthropology of being an arbiter of anti-American values and a fomenter of revolution), to the policing of the family (“As he recalled in his 1995 autobiography, Dreams From My Father, Obama idealized the Kenyan economist who had married and dumped his mother, and was saddened to learn that Barack Hussein Obama, Sr, was a sullen, drunken polygamist”) to the status of anthropological knowledge in contemporary political debates. This is coming from a publication called Asia Times, but the author is the anonymous Spengler, about whom not much is apparently known, including his nationality. Obama is an outsider in so many ways with regard to the typical profile of a presidential candidate, all of which this AT column indexes under the sign of ‘anthropology.’ “Anthropology” means: feminine or effeminate, non-white, leftist, elitist, dishonest, multi-personalitied, and so on. Sure, the AT piece is a rant in an obscure corner of the internet. But you can bet that should Obama receive the nomination, we will see much more bullshit like this. You can expect this kind of examination of Ann Dunham to leap into primetime on Fox News and MSNBC, if it hasn’t already. The question will be whether Obama’s brilliance and charisma can shine through. I certainly hope so.

Anyway, I don’t know. This thing leaves me nonplussed. What do we do with this?

8 thoughts on “Obama: Anti-American Anthropologist?

  1. Spengler. Hmmm. Could be a coinkidink, but Oswald Spengler was considered one of the intellectual precursors of Nazism; although he was mostly a superficially-clever grandiose crank whose poisonous cynicism didn’t admit participation in any mass movement, including the Nazis.

  2. These issues are serious, but I could not help laughing at myself for reading the headline for this post with the wrong voice-inside-my-head inflection, with the result being that I was curious to learn of Senator Obama’s critique of the AAA’s flagship journal. The journal has been a lightning rod for political controversy and armchair editorial criticism in anthropology since at least the time of its (n.s.) relaunch as a part of the AAA. I guess if the “anthropologist” label sticks, he will be forced to form a strongly held opinion about the journal.

  3. Ah. That’s covered in the wikipedia link. Thanks.

    The common thread seems to be the superficially-clever grandiose crank part.

    I’m not sure if we need to fret about this. The original Spengler was a nobody who got popular because he perfectly captured a mood of aggrieved privilege in post-Versailles Germany. Although there is a certain minority of Euro-Americans who do feel aggrieved in their privileges, we’re not deep enough into the recession to make that a groundswell, nor are we clearly enough losing in Iraq.

    Furthermore, Obama has nicely carved off the ‘rational’ resenters with his race/family speech. As for the rest, whether the candidate is Obama or Clinton there is going to be a hysterical fringe who produce all kinds of apocalyptic rubbish. (Just as a certain percentage of our friends will spout utter crap about the dire catastrophe that awaits if McCain is elected.) We’re just going to have to accept that as a cost of doing business. Any candidate who’s cool enough to excite us is by definition going to be anathema to the frightened shards of racist patriarchy.

  4. A much longer and brilliantly witty comment was lost because I was hyperlinking to Atrios and blog ads crashed my freaking browser, as happens too too often.

    My point wasn’t really that the substance of Spengler’s claims should be addressed – they seem nutty right off the bat; no, I don’t think Obama is planning to sabotage the US because his mother was an anthropologist. Nevertheless, I am glad Carl that you agree that his analysis is off base. 🙂

    I actually am on the hysterical fringe who think the catastrophe is happening right now in the form of what Kunstler is calling ‘the long emergency’ or a ‘clusterfuck’ of factors, a complex emergent SNAFU, where multiple feedback loops overlap into one very nasty scenario. E.g., oil prices skyrocket, peak oil/oil shortages, food price crises all over the place, sovereign power preying on structural insecurities, financial collapse, etc.
    See: http://jameshowardkunstler.typepad.com/ {Update: Needless to say, I don’t endorse everything Mr. Kunstler says, as for example, some of what he says today (14.04.08)… and in fact have argued with him via email once about whether it was appropriate to refer to architectural ornament as ‘faggotry’…not that I am in the league of people who do or do not have to endorse or not endorse anything or distance themselves from it, or whatever… it’s just little old me here.} It’s already happening. I think this makes me a further a example of anthropology’s suspicious status as a discipline.

    I guess the point is to begin tracking the way that ‘anthropology’ itself is featured in the ongoing novelization of the US political scene. Various personae for Obama are being trotted out by the celebrity journalist clique who shepherd public discourse in the US. The way the news works is that Democrats are always prefigured by a former loser, e.g., Gore, Kerry, Dukakis… or, Adlai Stevenson! (see ‘typological’ styles of exegesis as discussed by Crapanzano or Faubion) How anthropology will figure in this framing, spinning, or story-telling of Obama will be interesting to say the least, and perhaps vexing and chagrining by the time things really get going.

  5. I wasn’t fully aware that since I wrote this piece, apparently vast portions of the US media have devoted themselves to the word ‘bitter,’ and how this reveals that Obama is either Kerry or Dukakis already. But note Senator Lieberman’s comments in particular, in regards to the above:

    From “Think Progress”:http://thinkprogress.org/2008/04/14/lieberman-its-a-good-question-to-ask-if-obama-is-a-marxist/

    In his New York Times column today, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol claimed that Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-IL) now-infamous “bitter” remarks sound like Karl Marx’s “famous statement about religion.” On the Brian and the Judge radio show today, Fox News’ senior judicial analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano asked Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) if Obama is “a Marxist as Bill Kristol says might be the case?”

    “I must say that’s a good question,” replied Lieberman, before stepping back to say that he would “hesitate to say he’s a Marxist”:

    NAPITALIANO: Hey Sen. Lieberman, you know Barack Obama, is he a Marxist as Bill Kristol says might be the case in today’s New York Times? Is he an elitist like your colleague Hillary Clinton says he is?

    LIEBERMAN: Well, you know, I must say that’s a good question. I know him now for a little more than three years since he came into the Senate and he’s obviously very smart and he’s a good guy. I will tell ya that during this campaign, I’ve learned some things about him, about the kind of environment from which he came ideologically. And I wouldn’t…I’d hesitate to say he’s a Marxist, but he’s got some positions that are far to the left of me and I think mainstream America.

  6. Wow! It must be quite the thing living inside that Pynchon novel, Rocketman! 😉

    And not to worry, I got the long brilliant version of your post by w.a.s.t.e. this morning.

    As an intellectual historian I am familiar with the genre of apocalyptic metahistory. The original Spengler was a pretty fair version of the type and this new one seems a worthy heir. It all goes back to Jeremiah, or Noah, Gilgamesh, or another deeper ancestor for whom the signs and portents were all coming together in terrible doom (in cuneiform). I prefer to have these sorts of conversation with microbrewed ale in hand (another converging strand) so I’ll leave it at that.

    I like the observation that anthropologists are a bunch of wussy women, with which I’ll happily agree. So nice to get credit for being in touch with my feminine side. (Sometimes the ale works as camouflage, although the microbrewed is a dead giveaway.) You do know that all of us in the humanities have been told this, often physically, by he-men wannabes at least since middle school, right? 😉

    I’ll be interested to see if red-baiting still has any traction. Probably not with anyone who would consider voting for a black guy with a weird name in the first place.

  7. Funny Carl, I kind of got the impression you have been reading SM with ale in hand already. 😛

    I’d say red-baiting is still around in coded forms and it accounts for the shape of a lot of US politics today (you’ve probably heard the words ‘socialized medicine’ before and know what a truly terrifying prospect they represent). I actually know people in my family considering voting for the guy with a weird name, but I’m quite sure that the eager and anxious attempts to reframe this phenomenon within manageable narrative-ideological conventions that dominate the news will sway their feeling away from him.

    However, again, the point I was picking up on was not red-baiting per se, but the °linking° of this slur to a particular past, as when Lieberman says “the kind of environment from which he came ideologically”.

    As to theories of the present crisis (just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean your society isn’t going down the tubes; people have had theories of apocalypse for a long time yes, but, you know, societies have actually experienced catastrophes, including those of their own making, in history and stuff) I suppose those merit their own thread at some point in the future…

  8. Dude, best party blog evuh.

    I’ll actually be interested to see the crisis blog. I’m not too worried about the planet (it will sort itself out some way) or the human race (we had a good run) but now that we’ve exchanged teasings I’d actually agree that there are signs and portents of a pretty catastrophic convergence.

    My old man works on the dynamics of complex systems (see scale threads) with a bunch of Finns doing Latour’s nature/culture hybrids. The projections on global warming alone are pretty miserable. I asked him when the window of useful intervention is likely to close, and he said “1963.” Oops.

    There are also plenty of signs that the days of the U.S. working as the consumption pump for the global economy are winding down. It’s not just that this can tip to China and India and it’s all good. We’ve got a big military and we’re not going down without a fight. But not before the Chinese ask themselves if it’s really in their best interests to fund the student loans for our pampered idiot children to fart around in useless and uppity disciplines like anthropology and history. 😉 Dad and I laugh about whether my job at a marginal regional university will last out my lifetime. Probably not, is the answer.

    Historically peripheral populations like women, ethnic and lifestyle minorities who have been drawn into the economy and granted ‘human rights’ as a result of this economic engine will find their traction dramatically degraded as the economy contracts and they are no longer needed there. The tenuous social peace our wealth has purchased us will unravel and we’ll suddenly notice that we’re (again, talking U.S. here) a basket case of fundamentally incompatible diversities. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Monkeys will be born with two heads and the seas will darken and vomit forth their dead. Etc.

    OR someone could discover cold fusion and cheap, plentiful energy could catapult us into a golden age of plenty on this planet plus exploration of our galaxy. Have a nice day!

Comments are closed.