Americans: Geographically, Historically and Culturally Unprepared for the Challenges of a Global Century?

world-1600If my students in introductory college classes were any indication, Americans in general are ill-equipped to understand our world and American policies.  Just as bad, most students evidenced little understanding of or interest in American history and the nature of our political institutions.  A significant number  didn’t know how to analyze a map.  All of these are essential skills for citizenship in a globally connected world—and especially essential to act as an informed citizen who can parse competing political claims that affect American policies.

It is also important to remember that the majority of American students never attend a post-secondary institution; the knowledge these students possess on leaving high school is what they bring to their responsibilities as citizens.  It is true that American students must have STEM skills in order to have the freedom to select higher educational and career pathways leading to  STEM employment.  Too many don’t have the basic math and science skills necessary to major in these areas in college.  Unfortunately, it is just as true that without adequate preparation in history, geography, and culture, students can neither understand nor effectively respond to issues and events that affect their daily lives.

Here are a few of the areas of ignorance that these students brought to my college introductory classes, skills and knowledge that I had assumed they had mastered in high school:

  1. The causes of and participants in the American Revolution.  France was often identified as the nation the US had fought. Students were sometimes as much as a century off in dating the revolution. This ignorance was also tied to that of being able to identify the issues and debates that have characterized American history ever since.
  2. The nature of American society and its stresses at the time of the Revolution. Those students who could accurately identify the two combatants and relative time period of the revolution sometimes labored under the false sense that America was primarily British and Christian, with little appreciation for its diversity in terms of origin, language and religion that represented the global reach of the early modern period—and therefore brought diverse peoples to American shores.  These cultural stresses challenged founders to unite  and lead the nation;  these same stresses continue to potentially divide us as a people today.  The threat of division and destruction from within has been part of us as a people from our start.
  3. Geography and how to read a map. Too many students had to be taught to read a map and many could not place on a map the nations of the world.  In class after class, students would identify the Arabian peninsula as the location for Afghanistan and Pakistan. If these were majority Muslim states, they had to be on the Arabian peninsula, didn’t they?     One exchange student actually banged his knee with his fist in frustration at this ignorance, saying, “Every student in my country can place every nation in the world on a map. America is the world’s global power, and you don’t even know the countries of the world! How can America lead the world if you know nothing about it?”
  4. Current events. This is less surprising. Since none of these students would ever be drafted to fight, a significant number didn’t have the urgency to understand US policies and their effects on the world that earlier generations experienced.
  5. Comparative political process. From the point of view of a citizen, what effects on one’s life do the legislative, administrative, and judicial branches of government have? How does one understand these effects? What can citizens do about them?
  6. Islam and other religions.  Many students assumed all Muslims were Arab and all Arabs were Muslims. They had no sense that Islam spread through Africa, Asia and parts of Europe by a variety of means to become a major world religion (one of five) with complex relations with the cultures that the religion had encountered along the way. These relations produced a diversity of practices. When European nations began their colonial expansions, Muslims found their ways to the Americas. Some fought in the American Revolution and have served in our wars ever since. These students didn’t realize that, before recent conflicts, the Middle East had been one of the most religiously diverse regions in the world. They also didn’t realize that this region had served as the repository for the knowledge of math, philosophy, and medicine that crusaders brought back to Europe. It was this body of knowledge that had fueled the Enlightenment in Europe and contributed to development of science and technological innovations of today. But then again, history was a weakness in general. The network of connections among thinkers in Southern Europe, Western Asia, and Northern Africa as that had contributed so much to the development of western understanding was virtually unknown.

In short, too many of the students whom I experienced had few of the skills necessary to understand their own political history and civics in order to make use of that knowledge. They also lacked a basic understanding of the world in order to read the news critically. Today information is “weaponized.” Propaganda (fake news, manufactured news, fake research by fake think tanks) is used to arouse and manipulate people.  It is spread instantaneously and amplified by tweets, bots, and trolls. If STEM is essential for providing students with the skills for employment in emerging sectors of the economy, then it is just as important–in fact, it is critically important–to provide students with the knowledge of geography, history, and culture that will provide them the resources with which to think critically and act insightfully in the turbulence of globalization processes in the 21st century.



Post-election in our Uncivil Society: Online bar fights and posses

“Too many Facebook conversations are similar in style to the tweets of our President-elect.  Perhaps he has succeeded with his tweets for this very reason.”


It seems a long time since the Pizzagate blog.  Some of the questions raised in that blog–(Were there State actors encouraging and amplifying the Clinton pedophile conspiracy theory? Was it linked to the presidential campaign?)–were at least partially answered and discussed after the CIA/NSA/FBI released their joint report stating that Russia worked to influence the election in the president-elect’s favor.

In the transition to the January 2017 presidential inauguration, questions linger about the relationship between President-elect Trump, his close associates in the campaign and transition, and President Putin.  Intelligence investigation into these relationships is ongoing.  Anonymous is also investigating.  A number of other issues are attached to this transition–attempts by Congressional Republicans to weaken ethics investigations and oversight; insulting and demeaning tweets from the president-elect against television shows, entertainers, a senator who risked his life for civil rights, the media, pollsters, etc.  In this tumult, what is a social scientist to focus upon that anyone would care to read?

I am concerned about the loud, shrill divisions among some citizens–behaviors that seem more at home in an Eagles/Ravens football game.  Fans are rowdy, rude, and sometimes violent in this rivalry. They hate the other team and its fans. A democracy can’t function like this. What is going on? Again, the question is too big for a blog. So, this is a reflection, based on observations, that raises questions that may be central to the dynamic.

A recent Frontline (1) article recapped the Obama presidency.  In doing so, the article traced the rise of populism and incivility that have marked the last nine years of American political life.  The report noted that Republican voters did not admire the traditional respect Senator John McCain showed Candidate Obama in the 2008 presidential campaign. Frontline showed a clip of a woman expressing concern to McCain that Obama was “an Arab.” McCain responded that Senator Obama was a good man—to boos and jeers. Republican voters turned away from this tradition of civility to the populist, insulting style of his vice-presidential running mate, Sarah Palin.  Then, in an unprecedented break from Congressional civility, South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson, Sr. interrupted President Obama’s first State of the Union address, shouting, “You lie.” According to Frontline, Wilson received an outpouring of positive attention as a result.  This was one factor in setting the stage for the tenor of the Republican leadership ever since.

I wonder which Americans approved of this aggressive, hostile treatment that violated the comity of the legislative body–and why.  Was it racial/ethnic fear and loathing of “the other” that the woman in the earlier clip evidenced? Perhaps this is only one explanation.

According to Frontline, at the same time that we began to see an extreme erosion of civility in the body politic, populism started bubbling up.  In the wake of the financial crash of 2007-2008, the Occupy movement protested America’s increasing wealth inequality and the hollowing out of the middle class.  By the presidential election of 2016, it became obvious that there was enormous economic suffering not healed by the growing health of the economy in general. Senator Sanders’s unexpectedly strong candidacy was a manifestation of that suffering and fear.

So, what’s going on?  There are possible psychological and sociological explanations for the nature and tenor of the recent election and its subsequently polarized environment.  In this, it’s important to lay aside the Russian backed online “witch hunt” against Secretary Clinton. What did that effort take advantage of in order to work?  Some scholars might explore a variety of biases. Voters may have had an implicit desire to “hire” someone like oneself (an affirmational bias); relative status, in which one resents others who are from groups one deems as inferior; gender bias; and racial bias.  Other scholars might pursue the tensions that arise with the rapid increase in diversity due to the size and nature of the post 1965 immigration. Still other scholars might pursue an underlying economic causality:  the existence of a changing economy that leaves people unable to find work or who cannot find the sort of work that provides a reasonable standard of living. These scholars might also assert that economic factors drive increasing xenophobia, racial animosity, religious scapegoating, etc.

All of these are interesting directions for research and publishing.  My goal here is more modest: to explore the destruction of civility and its relationship to the media, social media, and what that means for our society.

In teaching conflict avoidance and resolution in introductory anthropology classes, I always start the discussion with “good manners.” Students are usually aghast: “Manners?  What do manners have to do with conflict avoidance and resolution?”  When people are polite, fights and arguments are avoided, for the most part. Society can function relatively efficiently and effectively.  Norms are maintained; work gets done.  When one shakes hands as a peacemaking gesture, one can repair broken relationships. Again, norms are maintained; work gets done.  In that sense, manners are powerful despite their ordinary, usually habituated, nature.  In fact, the more habituated the behavior, the easier life is and the more powerful the manners. A good deal of initial culture shock is related to habituated expectations for a well-mannered body–respectful distance between people, touch, eye contact or not, etc.

So, what happens when social inequality comes into contact with respectful behavior?

The highly regarded African American scholar, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., once explained (2) how whites in his community called his father”George” (not his name) despite  his father’s status as a respected member of the community. If you were black, whites didn’t have to know your name and did not have to use it if they did.  Manners here was a form of social violence: robbing African Americans of individual social identity in the public sphere. And of course, African Americans were held to a rigid set of manners to indicate that they complied with their social inferiority. When one struggles for equality, one must also struggle against the “manners” that reinforce that inequality.  And those who don’t wish to grant it may resort to more than manners to retain the status quo: threats, intimidation, and violence. Manners are powerful. The way they are used embody power.

The underlying assumption of our democratic process has been and continues to be that Americans are reasonable citizens, equal before the law. As such we are able to govern ourselves through substantial debate, discussion, and finding common ground.  The rude, aggressive, and demonizing form of populism that began to emerge on the national stage with the 2008 presidential campaign is therefore troubling.  Why so coarse?  Why so polarized? Why so pervasive? What’s changed about our expectations in the social space we share? What’s going on with power?

Since the election, I have dived into Facebook to understand this social media space firsthand.  I was first warned by young adults that they spend as little time as they can there because as one said, “It’s not a happy space.” They cocoon themselves in Snapchat, Instagram, and their own blogs, I was told.  They are correct: it’s not a “happy space.”

What I learned about my own behavior on the site after several weeks is that Facebook is constructed to make real conversation difficult– if not impossible.  The most effective way to garner attention to a newsfeed item is to present a dramatic picture accompanied by a brief, shocking or pithy one-liner, and then perhaps a link.  Facing a long news feed, I was tempted to the most dramatic items that offend or delight without reading the links.

I noticed that, in scanning replies to a news item, I had to resist the urge to not to read the longer, sometimes more thoughtful replies because they took too much visual attention. There too I felt the need to scan and go.  Brief one-liners were of several types, a “yay” cheer for the content of the post, a sharp rebuke, a personal fact.

Then there are the ever-present trolls.

There are a variety of types here too: flamboyantly aggressive, false, or hateful.  Many state bizarre allegations. It’s very hard to separate what is a heartfelt position from an expression intended to incite anger or confusion because the posts are so short and the attention to any one post is also very short. It’s more like sparring than conversing.  It’s “fact light”- if facts are there at all. Negative labels such as “crybaby liberal,” “Hillary lover,” etc. dot the landscape of liberal blog conversations—with such insults as “sore loser,” when a post brings up an ongoing issue such as access to medical care.

In other words, to me, Facebook posts and commentary appear to work against meaningful conversation, seeming to habituate individuals to use negative labels against those whose ideas are different. Facts get in the way in such environments.  Too many Facebook conversations are similar in style to the tweets of our President-elect.  Perhaps he has succeeded with his tweets for this very reason.

Problems of tone and reliability with news articles also persist.  These too may polarize. The need for a pithy “gotcha” in the post means that the headline for the link may stretch the truth about a controversial position.  Some blogs use inflammatory language or distort news articles from which they draw.  Therefore, the articles upon which people comment and their headlines also create the conditions for polarization.  I had to force myself to take the time to try to find facts on a variety of mainstream sources as I read my news feed.  This takes discipline and time.

In addition, the silo or cocoon effect of Facebook’s algorithm meant that I was increasingly reading the same sort of news with the same sort of postures toward issues.  One day, I h “liked” several political cartoons.  The next day my news feed was so inundated with cartoons that I could barely see anything else. I was suffocating in cartoons.

My experience with Facebook is not entirely negative, however.  I linked to associations, web pages of elected officials, trusted news outlets, and friends. All were valuable for me.  Sadly, but fortunately, I learned of a friend’s stroke through Facebook. I was able to contact an elected official through his page when I couldn’t connect by phone or his web page.  Friends sent me links to articles that were helpful to me.

In the end, I think it is very likely that social media can desensitize us to not just different positions, but to each other. It reinforces vapid “post-truth” conversations rather than the substantive discussions a democracy needs.  It’s not just the algorithms that suggest news.  It’s the very structure of Facebook. Thoughts?

(1) “Divided States of America.” Frontline.

(2) Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “What’s in a Name”(full attribution missing.)

Witch Hunts: Clinton, Trump, Russia

A month ago, I analyzed the Pizzagate conspiracy theory in response to Richard Beck’s interpretation that it is a modern-day witch hunt, motivated out of acute social anxieties that cause people to attack scapegoats. These witch hunts thus permit a feeling of personal power. If you recall, “Pizzagate” believers assert (still) that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta are running a child pedophilia ring. At the time, they believed the ring was secreted in a small mom and pop pizza parlor, Comet Ping Pong, on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. (See my last blog, “Are Clinton’s Pedophilia Ring Accusations Akin to Witchcraft Hysteria” for a fuller discussion.)

In my earlier blog, I had asserted there were too many unknowns for a complete analysis. Among the unknowns were the identities of significant actors in this conspiracy theory, especially given its online nature. I had noted that if there were State actors involved, then this would require more sophisticated analysis than either Beck or I could provide, for example.  The scope and nature of the witch hunt was, therefore, also unknowable.

We do know that Alex Jones’s Infowars site took down its article supporting the Pizzagate theory after the shooting in December 2016. As of yesterday, January 6, 2017, we also know that Russia was engaged in information warfare to attack Hillary Clinton and either prevent her from becoming president or to lay the groundwork for crippling her presidency, if elected (1). Based on information provided in that joint CIA, FBI, NSA report (2), we now know that Russia employed fake news, propaganda from its RT news organ, and trolls to harm Hillary Clinton. We also know from a July 2016 Business Insider (3) article that Russia was using bots to amplify tweets and other social media that harmed Clinton by overwhelming all other communications.

Russia’s targeted audience, which it sought to mobilize, was (and is) the more credulous in society. To support Beck’s hypothesis, the audience is also the more anxious among us: those less educated and those experiencing economic stresses. These sorts of individuals are precisely those who constitute the overwhelming majority of President-elect Trump’s true believers. The young man who felt the need to rescue the children whom he believed to be sexual victims at Comet Ping Pong was feeling economic stress. The fact that General Flynn’s son did not fit this profile is interesting, since he was affluent and successful—serving on the President-elect’s transition team at the time he was tweeting support for the theory after the shooting. Still unanswered questions there.

So, was this conspiracy  theory–and other theories such as the one that asserts the Clintons were/are serial murderers–witch hunts?  Yes.  Witch hunts that were likely supported, and perhaps manufactured by, an outside government.

What is even more troubling to me as both a social scientist and a citizen of the United States is that President-elect Trump has expressed appreciation to outlets such as Infowars and Breitbart for their support in his election.  He has attacked mainstream media, and he continues to do so. He has attacked our intelligence services, thus undermining confidence in them by his true believers and sending shock waves through our allies.  He has attacked the election process’s legitimacy (It’s rigged!) and accused California of massive voter fraud by “illegal immigrants.” He refused to state clearly that he would honor election results during and after a presidential candidate debate. He tweeted many outlandish statements and promised to imprison his opponent after the election.

All of these actions, perhaps coincidentally, align with Russian tactics for undermining elections and democratic nations in Europe. This troubles me a great deal.  Trump’s assertion that the intelligence research documenting Russian actions in the United States is a “witch hunt” (4) is just as troubling. We must ask, was Trump or someone close to him using knowledge of Russian tactics and/or benefiting from Russian cooperation?   This is an essential question, given Russia’s aggressive actions in Europe and Trump’s previous statements regarding NATO as outdated.

This leads me to discuss what we in the public can be told about Russian methods in Europe. Russia’s aggressive tactics have been researched by NATO and European think tanks. Unclassified summaries are available online in greater detail than yesterday’s joint publication from US intelligence services. NATO has published a great deal of what has been learned from the Ukraine election and it is available online in pdf’s.

Below, I refer to unclassified summary from Keir Giles, Chatham House, London (5) to summarize.

Russia’s information wars, its target audience and its tactics are identical to those used to attack Hillary Clinton’s candidacy in the US: fake news (lies), manufactured news (another kind of lie), trolls and bots to overwhelm the news agencies, sow distrust in them, and to plant distrust of the government officials and the government itself. Russia’s cyber-warfare in Europe involves efforts to gain access to critical infrastructure. Thirdly, Russia bribes and thus co-opts officials in the country it is targeting. In addition,  Russia financially supports extremist groups to destabilize the nation.  Finally, Russia engages in acts of military threat in multiple ways: Russia positions its troops along its borders in a way that permits rapid and undetectable deployment into the bordering nation; Russia engages in airspace incursions over its neighbors and reminds these nations of its nuclear capabilities.  Unfortunately, Giles concludes that, in Europe, information warfare has been successful in sowing distrust of government and mainstream media, while bolstering extremist groups.

Alarmingly, Stephen Bannon’s former news outlet, Breitbart is expanding into France and Germany in anticipation of elections there.  In Germany, Breitbart  recently published a totally fake story regarding Islamic attacks on a church. The press instantly condemned the story as false and was criticized for its lie from the highest government officials (6). It is well known that Angela Merkel is fighting strong anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim actors in her election bid. This fake news could only be intended to bolster her opponents and strengthen anti-Muslim sentiment. Another witch hunt.

It is apparent that witch hunts, and perhaps even the more destabilizing witch crazes, might be the newest, deeply troubling aspect of contemporary social and political life. As long as nations have difficulty addressing the new information warfare’s tactics, national stability and democratic life are at threat.

Late News that affects this blog article:

  1. The Guardian reports today, January 7, 2017, that British intelligence tipped off US intelligence regarding the many and frequent contacts between Moscow and the Trump Campaign, with the expectation that the FBI was to follow up. This adds further concerns regarding the similarity between Russia’s information warfare and the tactics of the Trump campaign. Borger, Julian. “UK intelligence gave US key tipoff about Russian hacking, report says.” The Guardian.
  2. The BBC yesterday reported that the US and NATO countries are amassing forces on Russia’s borders. There must be a concern that Russia plans to intensify its military threat. “US tanks arrive in Germany to help Nato defences.”  BBC News.

  1. NCIC Federal Bureau of Investigation. GRIZZLY STEPPE Russian Malicious Cyber Activity. Reference Number: JAR-16-20296 December 29, 2016.
  2. Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections. ICA 2017-01D 6      January 2017.
  3. Bertrand, Natasha. “It looks like Russia hired internet trolls to pose as pro-Trump Americans.” Business Insider. July 27, 2017, 8:23 AM.
  4. Nakamura, David. “Investigation of Russian hacking is a ‘witch hunt,’ Trump says. Washington Post. January 6, 2017, 11:21 PM.
  5. Giles, Keir. Research paper. “Russia’s ‘New’ Tools for Confronting the West: Continuity and Innovation in Moscow’s Exercise of Power.” Russia and Eurasia Programme. Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, London. March 2016.
  6.  Cerulus, Laurens. “Germany fires back at Breitbart for report on New Year’s ‘riot’: Police called the night ‘average to quiet.’ Politico.  January 7, 2017, 2:50 PM CET. Updated January 7, 2017, 2:52 PM CET.

Are Clinton’s Pedophilia Ring Accusations Akin to Witchcraft Hysteria?


Witchcraft hysteria in America is most famous through the Salem witch trials, which Arthur Miller used to critique McCarthyism in his celebrated 1953 play, The Crucible. In 2015, Richard Beck published We Believe the Children. Beck analyzed hysteria surrounding the daycare abuse accusations of the 1980s as a modern, secular witch craze. In a recent Slate article (“A Moral Panic for the Age of Trump, “Dec 6, 2016) he extended that analysis to the current events surrounding the recent shooting at a family pizza restaurant, Comet Ping Pong, on the outskirts of Washington, DC.  The shooter claimed to be investigating an online conspiracy theory that the restaurant fronted a Clinton-run pedophilia ring in tunnels beneath the business. Beck asserts that conspiracy theories have vitality because they validate people’s anxieties, provide them an outlet for acting on the anxieties, and give them a focus for blame. These stories allow people to create and share an anxiety monster that they can act to destroy.

It’s an interesting theory, one that allows us to think comparatively about witch crazes across time and space.  Well, that’s a book or more, and it requires careful research. So, here I’ll try to ask several contexted questions that put the pedophilia ring conspiracy theory into perspective.

Who is seen as a witch and how have witch hunts begun?

1.Background. Circumstances for witch hunts: existential crisis.

The European witch craze, circa early 14th century -late 17th century,  began in the wake of several crises that severely destabilized European society: a series of epidemics and conflicts that destroyed a large percentage of the population; technological innovations and trade that served to transform pre-existing structures; and a threat to the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church with the rise of intellectual questioning.  For centuries earlier, the Church had sought to avoid entanglement in local superstitions, focusing instead on bringing ignorant peasants into  its teachings and practices. Later, the Inquisition gave legitimacy and structure to local witchcraft accusations.  For example:  My cows foam at the mouth and die for unknown reasons (bacterial causes of disease were unknown); a neighbor takes ill and dies swiftly–both suggest witches.

2.What is a witch?

Throughout western history, witches have been conceptualized as an inversion of values: evil. This is why it had been enticing to see a woman (subject to a man’s control) as an evil power–although men were not immune from witchcraft accusations. It was often claimed that witches worshipped naked (rather than civilized and clothed) and in the dark of night; that they engaged in orgies;  and that they cannibalized people at these ceremonies. Children were sometimes seen as their victims. One can imagine, therefore, how foreigners, people who practiced other religions and the vulnerable among those villages made destitute from the ravages of disease or warfare could become vulnerable to witchcraft accusations. Accused witches were often those who lacked strong social networks and were therefore easy scapegoats…such as older women without kin for support.

So, how does this general conception of a witch (which varied locally across time and space) fit that of Hillary Clinton as a secular leader today? How are the dynamics of this situation similar to the post-feudal period in its transition to the start of the modern age?

The Inquisition gave legitimacy and structure to varied local practices and beliefs around witchcraft at a time of extreme social crisis. What today gives structure to the pedophilia ring accusations, which are continuing despite the events at Comet Ping Pong restaurant?

After all, the shooter admitted he did not find any evidence of child sex trafficking–but doesn’t disavow its existence (Goldman, Adam.  “The Comet Ping Pong Gunman Answers Our Report’s Questions.” December 7, 2016).  This appears to be a characteristic of Beck’s moral panic.

One way that structure is provided may be that operatives within the electoral campaign and transition of President-elect Donald Trump gave the story credibility. The tweets of Michael G. Flynn supported this story and led to his firing from the Trump transition team after the Comet Ping Ping incident, when he continued to tweet about the ring.  His father, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, National Security Advisor nominee, has tweeted about Clinton in incendiary language. As far as I can tell from the news media, President-elect Trump has not denounced the story itself.

Alex Jones and Infowars perpetuated this story as fake news and thus provided it the camouflage of respectability to those susceptible to such beliefs.

Another way that the story evolved and gained a following was through the hacked emails of John Podesta, who had a correspondence with the owner of the pizza parlor. This gave credence to those who believed that Hillary Clinton and Podesta led the child trafficking ring. The story is therefore connected to out of state actors, with their own motives regarding the United States.

So, unlike witch hysteria of yore, even the daycare hysteria of the 1980s, this is not a local story. The connections to deep social anxieties on the part of those who propagate this theory are unknown because they and their followers are an online community.  In fact, out of state actors and their connections to the recent election still need to be understood.

We need facts.  Fake news is used as foreign propaganda. Nato has studied and reported on Russia’s role in fake news in the Ukraine elections; Russia has also been accused by Germany and the UK to have published fake news to affect affairs in these nations. Even Business Insider in July of 2016 claimed that Russian trolls and bots were backing the Trump campaign.  We also know that some fake news is posted only to make money.  Are there also true believers involved in this dynamic? This is more complicated than the Salem witch trials.

What of the times in which we live? Are there massive social transformation and stresses that challenge us to function in a very different, very difficult world?  After all, the United States is not struggling with the massive depopulation that faced Europe during its witch craze in the wake of pandemics and wars.

Well, as Dickens said in the Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” For many Americans, including those in the rust belt and rural areas, this is the worst of times.  For young millenials like the Comet Ping Pong shooter, technological changes in the economy are reducing opportunities for young adults to attain a comfortable middle class life. These economic shifts are resulting in changed family composition as families adjust to these economic realities.  At the same time, the nature of gender and racial participation in society is changing. For those for whom this is the worst of times, anxiety about economic survival may overlap worries related to these emerging demographics.  So, it’s possible that some large sectors of society may find conspiracy theories attractive.  We don’t know.

But what of Clinton herself?  How is she perceived to be so evil that she might be capable of child sex trafficking and other social crimes, such as serial murder, for which theories float about the ether?  Again, we only can infer. Researchers need to study those who propagate these theories and those who believe them.

What does appear consistent with a witchcraft accusation in this case is that Clinton is a female seeking power at the highest level (is this still an inversion of the good, today??); she is accused of exploiting children in one of the worst ways possible and in an inversion of the nurturing female role; she does so “out of sight” in the darkness of underground tunnels; and she is in a dark conspiracy with others who are suspected of abuse of power (at least in other conspiracy theories).

If this is an age of hysteria, then we can expect others to be scapegoated and people to be endangered in response to that scapegoating. If there is institutionally encouraged, sponsored, and/or directed hysteria, then the question becomes one of the development of internal terror. Senator McCarthy’s senate investigations into communism is one such example of a modern political hysteria and witch hunt.

Therefore, it’s essential to start discovering the complexity of who propagates and spreads these conspiracy theories and their perhaps varied motivations; who supports and encourages such scapegoating conspiracy theories –and their motivations; and finally, who consumes and believes them—and why.

What Do Revitalization Movements and Elections Have in Common? And Why Does It Matter…Especially Now?

blog-revitalizationWhenever my Anthropology of Religion class coincided with an election cycle, I would task students to bring to class examples in which a campaign showed characteristics of a  religious revitalization movement.  Campaigns always do.  It’s how one motivates voters to vote: You either promise something totally new or you slap a “new and improved” label on the campaign, depending on whether you are from the party in or out of power.

So, what’s a revitalization movement and why should anyone care…especially now?

In stripped down terms, a revitalization movement is one that combines religious elements and political elements. These movements appear at moments of extreme social stress, and their members seek a variety of goals-political, economic and/or military- that allow them a to survive in a way that feels connected to core values and historical roots.

To achieve that sense of historic and cultural continuity, there are often calls to purify society in terms of its founding principles.   These movements reinterpret this distant, often mythical, past to address the novel challenges of the present.

Revitalization movements take many forms, both nonviolent and violent. They may be nativistic in that they affirm the rights of the “native” against the outsider. They are sometimes millenarial movements that claim that they are to create a radical transformation that ends the world as it is currently known.

Elections? Really?

A quick historical background helps to make the connection.

It was only in relatively recent European history that political power began to be disconnected from religious power.  The Thirty Years War of the early 1600’s was a brutal, religiously motivated war that raged in Europe and devastated the states involved. Thereafter, states separated from the Roman Catholic Church and adopted various Protestant sects.  Religion and politics remained deeply enmeshed in these states. The British monarchs, who separated from the Roman Catholic Church under King Henry VIII,  were relieved to grant land in the colonies for Catholics and troublesome sects of Protestants who were both a nuisance to the Crown and a threat to its hegemony.

In looking back at this bloody history and at the struggles faced by various religious groups in the American colonies, our founders enshrined freedom of religion in the first amendment of the Constitution.

Nonetheless, the language and motivating forces for political action continue to bear a strong resemblance to those of religious movements.  Indeed, it was religious progressivism in the nineteenth century that was a strong political force for abolition, women’s suffrage, and the creation of institutions to serve the vulnerable. Quakers and Methodists especially led the movement for a nation that reflected their religious principles of social equality, economic security, and social responsibility.  Schools, orphanages, and hospitals were built to provide for the welfare of the young and the vulnerable.

So, what about today?

“Make America Great Again” is a revitalization slogan.  As in all good slogans, it’s vague enough that everyone can define it in his or her own way.  My “great” may not be your “great.”  But how can one not agree that greatness is a good?

With “again,” the slogan looks to an unspecified purer past…vague and undefined.  As such, it can evoke both the nation’s founders and the mid-twentieth century, when the United States dominated the world economy in the aftermath of WWII.  To those who remember history, the slogan revives one that was nativistic. The slogan takes on multiple meanings, some of which conflict.

The slogan could have referred to the great progressivism of the nineteenth century.  However, when deployed at rallies and in advertisements, it did the opposite. Those vulnerable groups championed by religious progressives in the nineteenth century were not just left out of the campaign and its slogan, they were scapegoated.

The scapegoating of women and minorities gave this campaign and its heated rhetoric a particular nativistic character– valorizing white men. The bruising campaign rhetoric deployed at highly emotional rallies had the feel of a nineteenth century religious revival. Heady in its effect, profound in its ability to generate identity and action.  The rallies produced a sense of nationhood exclusive in its definition of benefits and one that challenges the first, thirteenth, and nineteenth amendments. Nativism limits who is a “real” member of the group.

What is the difference between a religious revitalization movement and an election in the United States?

Religious revitalization movements may succeed or fail in the end. They either remake or reform society in ways that address the distress which gave them impetus or the movements peter out.

In the United States, winners of an election don’t sweep the boards clean on behalf of their “devotees.”  The constitution was created with reliance upon the Enlightenment principle that reasonable people can and will work to compromise in finding common ground–in other words, to “make sausage.”

Therefore, under our constitution, a political revitalization movement has limits:  all stakeholders have a place in decision making.  Checks and balances also limit power.

The problem for a democracy is demagogues.

Put a demagogue together with a close circle of loyalists who wield power and a base of “believers” with the intensity of a revitalization movement in times of social stress, and democracy too easily comes unhinged. This was 1930’s Germany.

This set of factors is a threat to democratic societies. A threat that outside powers may seek to manipulate for their own benefit.

Political movements share elements of religious movements..and therein lies the danger.






To Richard Spencer: Diverse Races Governed, Fought and Died for Us since Colonial Times

This is a historical corrective to the premise of the alt-right movement’s cause as forwarded by Richard Spencer (in Dana Milbank’s “Trump needs to disown his neo-Nazi hangers-on.” WA Post, November 22, 2016, A2).  He is quoted as saying:

“…America was, until this last generation, a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.”

The United States has always been diverse and its minority populations have made major contributions since colonial days.  There are books written chronicling this in great factual detail… (Given today’s post-truth environment, it’s important to state that these details are supported via historical documents.)

African-American contributions to us began at the earliest point in our colonial history, as have all of our minorities.  A few points here:

1. From 1641-1642, a bi-racial man (African-American and European) named Matthias da Souza served in the Maryland General Assembly at St. Mary’s City, Maryland.

2. In the Revolutionary War, formerly enslaved African-Americans and Indians served in an integrated regiment known as The First Rhode Island. They fought fearlessly at the Battle of Yorktown, taking a heavily defended British fortification. This regiment was thus an important factor in the battle that led British commander General Cornwallis to surrender, ending the American Revolution. These soldiers had earlier fought in several battles in the northern colonies.

3. Jewish soldiers also fought in the American Revolution.  Sadly, George Washington had to admonish his Protestant troops for harassment of fellow Jewish soldiers.

4. Of course, African-Americans fought for the Union in the Civil War.  In the south, enslaved black men were sometimes required to attend to their owners, who fought to preserve slavery.

5. The contributions of African-American servicemen in both World Wars are much better known. The Tuskegee Airmen are the most famous.

6. Asian Americans have been present in our nation from the start. In the colonial era, Spanish colonial galleons had global crews, of which some were Asians who jumped ship to form the very earliest Asian American community in the vicinity of today’s New Orleans.

7. The most remarkable and humbling example of Asian American sacrifice is that of the “Fighting Nisei” in World War II. Most of these Japanese-American soldiers volunteered from internment camps. As the 442d Regimental Combat Team, US Army, they took enormous casualties in some of the bloodiest battles of the European theater. The 442d is legendary as  the most highly decorated unit relative to size in our nation’s history. These brave men shame us all for racist hysteria then and now.

8. Native Americans have also served our country and continue to do so. Of all our ethnic groups, including “white,” Native Americans have served in the highest numbers proportionally.  In other words, no ethnicity has contributed more of its people in defense of our nation despite its sufferings.

For example, Navaho code talkers were critical to secure communications in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Lori Piestewa was an army private killed in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

These are but a few examples of the sacrifices of blood and valor made by minority heroes from the colonial period onward.  They are the tip of the iceberg. We owe these heroes a debt that cannot be repaid. At the very least, we must honor their memories.

Too few Americans today even understand our history.  Some of my college students thought we had fought France in the Revolution.  Worse, that hazy and error laden perception is also marred by the erasure of our minority contributions.

The United States was born a diverse nation.  Not just military sacrifice, but scientific, artistic, and literary achievements encompass all of the nation’s ethnic and racial groups. From the start.

The entire premise for Richard Spencer’s neo-Nazi screed is false. Our minorities have made us great for more than 400 years.


Bots, Likes, and Rumors: Gossip’s Longstanding Role in Human Societies

According to John Markoff’s New York Times article,

( )

during the presidential campaign, there was an invisible war of the Twitter bots that Trump won by overwhelming Clinton’s with inflammatory and often untruthful comments. Bots are fake twitter posts that appear to be those of real people. They are deployed to bring attention and legitimacy to a person or product. In addition, Facebook appears to have transmitted  virulently anti-Clinton “fake news” from as far away as Macedonia through a contagion of “likes.” How did a few teens in Macedonia come up with this specific topic for making money?

Algorithms at Google, Facebook, etc. are designed to promote sites that give you more of what you already have, thus leading to a cocooning effect without your tacit knowledge or participation. And there’s nothing you can do to ask for an algorithm that offers a variety of viewpoints.  Nothing. On TV, you can flick through the channels, comparing Fox News to PBS Newshour, for example. You can do the same on the radio, but most of us live through our phones, where those algorithms sort us. (We are the products, in the end.)

This is gossip run amok. There’s something that is missing in the nature of online community and that is desperately needed.

As an anthropologist, I am reminded of the way that gossip has worked throughout human existence–from what are called small-scale societies (hunter-gatherer, subsistence agriculture, pastoral) to complex state societies.

Just look at how gossip functions in small-scale societies, which tend to be more egalitarian than large-scale state societies. Why? In small-scale societies, everyone’s work is essential for survival. In general, the greatest good is generosity; the greatest evil is selfishness. In these small face-to-face groups, gossip and the fear of gossip serve to enforce this essential norm. Face-to-face is the key characteristic for gossip to work correctly: people know who is more reliable; folks chat around and can determine the factual nature of any claim.

If someone is behaving selfishly, there are consequences. Because he or she needs the group to survive, the group has a great deal of power to either scold or punish. However, since everyone is needed in a group, punishment may take the form of healing rituals–expensive social gatherings that heal the social fabric.

Gossip still regulates face-to-face groups in complex societies–ask any teen counting Likes on Facebook!  Teen obsession with Likes demonstrates the competitive nature of complex society, even as cooperation is necessary.  Cooperation/competition require new forms of social control in large, impersonal settings: laws, regulations, as well as formal rewards (Nobel, anyone?). Standards of formal news dissemination, at least in a free press, regulate “gossip” that is at this larger, societal level.

Enter Bots and Fake news.

Face-to-face groups know how to react to gossip from individuals whom its members know well. We tend to trust what comes to us online, especially through Shares. My students, in discussing this topic, report the intimacy of online communication.  Interactions feel disarmingly similar to a trusted face-to-face circle, yet this is a setting that is barren of social resources to evaluate the reliability of the massive information flows that come across a personal site.    We know that those rags at the grocery store are funny distractions; we don’t easily recognize online “fake news,” especially when it speaks to our own biases.  Bots intensify this problem of creating a false social world.

Seemingly one thing, a Bot is actually something quite other.  The average Twitter reader has little idea how to identify Bots.  There is no gossip trail to discover who is behind them and what motivations may exist.  Similar statements may be said about incendiary fake news that is more appealing than the drier real stuff.

What has been created through electronic media is a sense of community that does not actually function as one. This is because the apps and programs in use today do not provide us the capability for those fully human, social responses to evaluate information and act upon our social world effectively —responses that have been part of human society since we began organizing in small bands tens of thousands of years ago. These responses have contributed to our success over time, in our travels across vast distances, and in confrontation of the crises.

This is not only troubling.  It’s very harmful to us.  Through technology, we need to create online community that provides us the same abilities to regulate knowledge and action that we have had since we became a species.  Otherwise, we not only may continue to separate according to”silos” but we may not be able to function as an integrated society. Many of us now live and act as a result of fantasy worlds that are created in response to our biases, fears, and anger. Scary brave new world.


“White” Race Is Not a Biological Reality

How do we know?  Scientists mapped the human genome.

[UPDATE: For an engaging presentation of the points in this earlier post, please see the episode “Decoding Our Past through DNA” in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s television series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  : ]

Scientists have also traced humankind’s migration history over the last 67,000 years by studying mutations called “markers” in our mitochondrial DNA (the DNA that powers our cells) and in the Y chromosome.

I recently received my results from the National Geographic Society’s genographic project, which studies the deep history of our species. This example may help to clarify why “race” is a false biological concept.

Here’s what my report stated: “The common direct maternal ancestor to all women alive today was born in East Africa around 180,000 years ago….[This] L branch is shared by all women alive today, both in Africa and around the world. The [later] L3 branch is the major maternal branch from which all mitochondrial DNA lineages outside of Africa arose.”

In other words, we are all genetically African. Those ancestors who left Africa to populate the rest of the world all descend from a later shared L3 ancestor. Our ancestors who went on to populate Europe and Asia also mated with Neanderthals and Denisovans, two archaic human species. Neanderthal genes make up between 1-4% of  people of European descent.  A few have a trace of Denisovan genes, which are also found in Asian populations.

My students were often shocked to learn that there is no genetic basis to “race” as defined in the United States and tracked in our census. What of skin color? It’s an adaptation to protect us from radiation and is found near the equator and at high elevations around the world…not just Africa. What of nappy hair? It’s found in diverse populations around the world too. The Nazis could not accurately define the “Jewish race” by facial features such as one’s nose size and shape.

And African Americans in the US? Thanks to slavery and the right of white masters to rape slaves, African Americans today usually have between 20% and 40% of their genome from Europeans. Some of Jefferson’s descendants by slave Sally Hemings  passed as white for generations and forgot their history in the process.

If you dig into American history, it’s obvious that our concept “race” was rooted in British colonial practices regarding migration, then changed over time. To Americans, “race” has come to refer to the continent from which people migrated, with all of the power imbalances caught up in these migrations.

As countries in Europe began to develop into modern nation-states, they began to homogenize diverse ethnicities, languages, and cultural practices within their borders. Each nation-state came to see itself as a single people with a single language, culture, and history: the German “race,” the French “race,” etc.  Then there were the inferior colonized peoples.

Ben Franklin disparaged what he saw as the inferior German race in the USA because it was too blond, for one thing.

So, what do geneticists say about modern populations?

When scientists map an individual’s genome, and not just the special DNA that reveals our ancient origins, that genome is compared to average genomes from 18 regions of the world. So, for example, the “average” Italian genome has 59% from southern Europe, 33% from Central, Eastern, and Western Europe, and a dash of genes from regions outside of Europe.  We all likely diverge from a statistical average.  Each person’s history is unique.

So, what does this say about “race” as a category at all?

In societies around the world, “race” is defined in a variety of ways– if at all–and relates to a society’s own particular history and power relations.

In the end, we are all biologically African at the root.  Our varied appearances are a result of physical adaptations to the particular environments our ancestors experienced.  But no one trait such as hair or skin types (or nose size and shape, as in the Nazi  handbooks) can serve to identify a single group of people as separate from all others.

“Race” is only real as a social category, i.e. one that a society creates for itself; and it’s a powerful one.  In the United States, “race” has been used to disempower certain migrant groups in order to reinforce the power of dominant migrant communities.  (Even the Daughters of the Mayflower are immigrants!) It isn’t just about slavery.  It’s also about the anti-miscegenation laws and refusal of citizenship to Asian Americans; it’s the genocide of native Americans; it’s the use of IQ tests in the early 20th century to brand German, Italian, and Eastern European immigrant children as biologically inferior in order to argue against their access to public education.

As a result of the recent presidential election, white nationalists are once again espousing an indefensible position of superiority and inciting fear.  There is no  biological “white” race.  Let’s move on as a civilization.  It’s well past time.



Welcome to Contexting

Welcome to Contexting, a blog that comments upon contemporary life with an anthropological bent.   Why?  As an anthropologist, that’s what I’ll do even if I don’t plan to, so I might as well just tell you.  Discussion is welcome.

Why bother with contexts?  Isn’t this the age of “Big Data,” with algorithms that permit us to dig deep to ferret out individuals to buy products, elect candidates, and otherwise become products themselves in this electronic age?  Yes, and yet people still have bodies that hug, punch, shield, shout, whisper, march, make things, break things, and wave them around.  I am thinking about the 2016 presidential election and the surprise of its context.

How was it possible that Democrats and pollsters were surprised that huge sections of the United States felt dispossessed by globalization processes?  Or maybe that it mattered enough to act on it?

Once chronic unemployment in manufacturing was known as the British disease, when mills in Great Britain were supplanted by others abroad, with cheaper labor and access to raw materials.  The American revolution meant that we no longer had to buy finished goods from Great Britain and send them our raw materials. Globalization is in our national DNA.  In Britain’s Edwardian age (think Downton Abbey), American farm products sold cheaply in England hastened the end of the landed gentry. Wealthy American debutantes married and supported British aristocrats.  Winston Churchill loved his American mother! About that time my ancestors from all over Europe arrived in New England to work textile mills that were beginning their own death spiral–labor was cheaper in the south after the Civil War.  Immigrant labor, including women and children, kept things going in New England awhile longer. My great-grandfather died of TB contracted in the mills, despite efforts on the part of immigration officials to keep the disease out of the country.

Today, it’s a far more complicated picture.  But those mills keep on moving in pursuit of low-cost inputs. Today’s workers can’t eat free apps or shelter from the blizzard inside of them. Paychecks are necessary. We also need purpose and meaning. We desire families and places to gather for community.  We need others around us.

Tomorrow, not only truck drivers but doctors and lawyers will face competition from software.  Online, sports articles are already written by software.  Our factory workers and miners are the canary in our economic coal mine.

So, why are so many  so-called “elite liberals” surprised that ordinary Americans in rust belt states, with no affirmed racist or  anti-immigrant sentiments, turned away from “their” democratic party?  This is the crisis of not just today, but of tomorrow.

Let’s talk about assumptions.  There’s a nasty little bias that underlies many liberal and conservative assumptions.  It found its place during the mid-nineteenth century wave of European immigration, when the impoverished, uneducated, malnourished and diseased came to work in mills and build our modern infrastructure.  They brought Catholicism, an alien and degraded religion to Americans of the time. These workers were a blight on our American utopia in the making.

At the same time, a nasty little idea was generated in jolly old England.  A man by the name of Herbert Spencer was not of the nobility but wanted in on  its elitism. He argued that it was ability and success that should make one elite–not birthright.  He, not Darwin, coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.”  This idea was perfect for the US society, where it festers still.  It’s past time to put a stake in Social Darwinism.

According to Spencer’s way of thinking, if one is elite, one is a better quality human being.  Liberal elites are still elites.  And class based societies segregate so that we don’t interact in meaningful ways.  We don’t share each other’s lives. “Lesser” folk become invisible. Hence liberal elites can forget that massive social transformations can displace workers permanently; elites don’t have to notice that retraining is often a waste of time; they have the luxury to forget that with structural economic change comes the need for not just new policies, but new ways of understanding society itself. Policies shaped for 20th century inequalities may not be relevant to the seismic technological shifts in current globalization processes.

Elites only pay attention to working class folks when elite interests are at stake. Thank God for elections.

What I have learned through my professional and personal experience is that class difference is also language difference.  Regardless of class, people have strong insights into the dynamic contexts of their social lives. If the elites who shape policies regarding the displaced working class know how to listen across language and social boundaries; if these elites know how to collaborate effectively with not only displaced workers but other stakeholders; if we first learn how to notice people who are invisible to those of higher status; then we can truly shape a democratic, fair society that works for us all.

Democracy is a discussion; it is also action.

Yup, a long polemic. Sorry, it was the election.  Later postings will be shorter and hopefully sweeter.