Reader Letters #2: Trump Edition

Here’s the second round of Savage Minds Reader Letters! We asked our readers to share their thoughts about anthropology in the Trump era for this round, and we got some great responses. Thanks for sending your letters, and keep an eye out for the next call. We need more letters!! –RA

The descent into incivility?

In your “Call for Reader letters:” you reminded us to “recognize that when you are critical of people’s ideas, you are also ultimately being critical of them as well.

Donald Trump was not only critical of the ideas of Democrats but was particularly critical of Senator Elizabeth Warren when he taunted Democrats by saying “Pocahontas — his insult of choice — is now the face of your party“.  From an anthropological perspective, Trump is changing the rules of discourse among civilized people developed in Greece and China hundreds of years ago to avoid conflicts.

Rules of discourse are a part of civility. Civility can be confused with disengaging from others so as not to offend, which Trump disparages as “political correctness”.

Trump’s 140 character tweets are mostly used to influence with mocking, ridicule and “alternative facts”. In a Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) survey teachers said schoolchildren are adopting Trump’s overall tone of more hatred for more people. (3)

Civil discourse generally requires agreement on a common set of facts. Modern communication tools, like Twitter, however, mean anyone with access to a computer has access to a megaphone to broadcast their unquestioned, “alternative facts”.

During a hard fought presidential campaign John McCain praised Barack Obama for a terrific speech that “comforted and inspired the country” and performed an important service by encouraging “every American who participates in our political debates to aspire to a more generous appreciation of one another and a more modest one of ourselves.” (4)

Senator McCain was almost prescient, asking Americans to aspire to a “more modest appreciation of ourselves” when one of the most immodest men in history is now President of the United States. Hopefully anthropologists will not look on 2017 as the year America began a descent into incivility.

-William M. Smith

Participant Observation at the Barricades

There have been numerous responses to the “new” situation we find ourselves in (one all too familiar to scholars of color, women and gender-non-conforming academics, and others): We need to speed up in response to the crisis, paving the way for rapid response ethnography. We need more public scholarship, opening the gates of knowledge in a face of swelling anti-intellectualism. We need to research this shift to the right with ethnographies of the disenchanted white working class and the monied capitalists that voted for Trump. There is another way that anthropologists can respond to our contemporary politics: participate.

We can and should hone in on the participant aspect of participant-observation and join those struggling against ascendant fascism on the frontlines. Anyone who has tried to outmaneuver the police knows this requires thinking quickly; anyone involved in consensus-based decision-making knows it is a methodical process. Direct action is often public, but it requires quiet, secure organizing not necessarily conducive to your typical published article. Ethnographies of Trump supporters can shed light on much – so can a renewed anthropology of social movements. By dedicating ourselves to the movements doing the work, anthropologists can put their bodies at the barricades, experience the intricacies of consciousness-raising and direct action, and engage with a world outside of academia, all while contributing to the anthropology of activism. The concerns of activists may not lend themselves to a traditional ethnography, but through praxis we can encounter theories of action and live the solidarity with communities that many ethnographies propound.

-Scott Ross

The master’s rhetoric will never dismantle the master’s Executive Orders

In late January, President Trump signed three Executive Orders concerning immigration. The “Muslim Ban” galvanized attention, from protests and Op-Eds to legislative action. Given the patently unconstitutional practices sanctioned by that Order, the maneuvers promised by the other two—including increased agency powers to profile and criminalize immigrants, mass raids, detentions, and deportations—possibly appeared less immediately pressing.

Academics’ responses hint at a more worrying reality. An open letter to the President signed by 43,000+ scholars, including prominent anthropologists, concludes:

The unethical and discriminatory treatment of law-abiding, hard-working, and well-integrated immigrants fundamentally contravenes the founding principles of the United States.

The qualifiers are deeply alarming. Racialized groups of people have been systematically criminalized, exploited for their labor, and marginalized in the United States since its founding. Terms like “law-abiding,” “hard-working,” and “well-integrated,” are furthermore malleable to pernicious ends, and frequently deployed by right-wing voices.

As scholars, teachers, and activists, we must refute, not echo, the “good” vs. “bad” immigrant rhetoric of this (and earlier) administrations. As anthropologists, we must reflect critically on governmental categorizations of people, not take them for granted. We must expose the xenophobic constructions at the heart of each policy statement. As Trump makes good on his promises, we must advocate for all immigrants—regardless of taxes paid, skill sets, or ascribed work ethics; regardless of faith, language, or family ties; regardless of records, status, or papers. Lines drawn in the sand around state-approved “deserving” immigrants will only fortify the foundations of future border walls.

-Siobhán McGuirk, Georgetown University

On alternative factualities

In the debris left by “alternative facts,” one is tempted by nostalgia for singular truths. After all, “alternative facts” code lies. March for Science advocates tend to reaffirm science as a value-neutral, objective pursuit tied to teleological histories of Western progress. Critics problematize the march as further politicizing science. In these accounts, to go forward is to go back.

I am haunted by an uncanny resonance between alternative facts and the construction of truth. In some ways, the resemblance is superficial: asserting facts and scientific knowledge are constructed points to material, historical, and discursive conditions and effects, not free floating signifiers.

But I still wonder: did Trump take an anthropology course and miss the point? What about Weston’s reminder that climate change skepticism is not inherently anti-science, but deeply sympathetic with Enlightenment ways of knowing, of transforming sensory phenomena into facts?

Is there space for feminist, Indigenous, and anti-racist methodologies, for knowledge as necessarily partial, positioned, and political? In some (radically different) sense, anthropologists deal precisely in alternative facts: disrupting epistemological and ontological securities, attending to silences in totalizing knowledges. Our bread and butter is that which remains uncounted (and uncountable) in dominant ways of constructing facts and accounts.

Alternative factualities seed worlds otherwise, however morally ambiguous. They are vital and dangerous, but there is no going back. As my colleague, Binte-Farid, said: there are multiple truths, but also lies. We might push to fold rigorous accountability for the construction of facts and politics of scientific practice into our organizing.

-Lee Bloch


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.