Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Teaching American Students About Africa: Lesson One, Part One

Now that the rant is over, I think its useful to elaborate on some teachable moments in the last post. Most (but, most definitely not all) of my first-generation--raised in the Bible Belt--raised during the 9/11 years--students would see little problem with a faith-based solution to the "problems of Africa". I think we can all agree that the best we can give our students is the view that the assumptions of their own socialization process need to be rethought in a college environment.

These are the issues I would like to come out in discussion:

Non-interference versus we need to teach them to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior.

This is the "easy" one, after all: a religious agenda is interference. Yeah, right, she says, voice dripping with sarcasm. If you are a person of faith, as some of my students are, this argument is difficult because the non-interference doctrine of anthropology is directly contrary to evangelical goals. This is a good moment to let other students make your arguments for you. With luck, this happens. If not, then I have learned that you have to draw careful distinctions between the goal of anthropology and the goal of proselytising. I am very upfront about telling them that they are free as individuals to do as they please and it is not my job to tell them what their choices should be but it is very clear what my choices must be as an anthropologist. I never back down from that perspective and repeat it many times in many discussions, in many contexts.

"But it isn't interference if they already believe, is it? Aren't Africans Christians already? Wait, no, they are heathen pagans who practice Voodoo and witchcraft" is usually the next discussion on the plate, so, let's deal with that now.

My students usually, need a good discussion on the historical context of religious belief in Africa. I like to use Tanzania as example for this discussion; which is nominally labeled one-third Christian (Catholic, Anglican, and, increasingly, evangelical--Assemblies of God, for ex.), one-third Muslim, and one-third "other". We discuss the east African slave trade and the spread of Islam from the coast and into the interior. Then we have a discussion of the situational nature of religious conversion

I tell them about the village of Mtamba in Morogoro. The French built a Catholic Mission there in the 1880's (pictured above on the left). When I arrived there in 1987, a group of elders were waiting for me when I pulled up in my truck (pictured above). They had heard I was collecting stories about their past and they wanted to tell me theirs (yes, it was an anthropologists wet dream--awesome beyond belief). Among the things that they shared with me is that the above pictured men, were almost all christened with Christian names and now have adopted Muslim names--So, Peter has become Mohammed. At this time in Tanzania, support--both financial, educational, and ideological, was most readily given through Muslim channels. The only books in the village were Korans given to the local mosque, madrasas were providing educational opportunities for young men, and although I am glossing a complex situation--Islam was perceived, at that time, as a male power choice. Interestingly, women were not interested in this conversion and the wives gathered around me in the picture above remained staunchly Catholic--Beatrice is still Beatrice.

With this story I hope to get my students used to the idea that religious conversion isn't simply a matter of the power of faith or the acceptance of spirit.

And, of course, here is the opportunity to bring up the possibility of all those "other" complicated African beliefs that still exist and happily co-exist with major world religions. That other one-third in Tanzania. Cue E-P and both the Nuer and the Azande for this one. This discussion is easier for me these days because I have so many students who are latino/latina and I can reference their grandmother's beliefs (and their own) in Ojo. The Anglos in the class always learn a lot from this moment of sharing. I always feel great in my anthropology shoes during this discussion because you can see the relief on my students faces that I am not surprised or offended by these beliefs--for many, it will be the first time they have talked about "such things" in an educational format. They feel great. I feel great. Its a teaching high.

Next Post in our series on Teaching Africa and Push back to Rick Warren: Lesson One, Part Two: The Growth of the Evangelical Movement.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Why I am Sickened by Obama's Rick Warren Choice: The Meaning to Africa: One Anthropologist Strikes Back

First let me disclose that I have close and beloved friends who were "married" here in Houston by a renegade Catholic priest in the back room of a restaurant in the "gay" part of town. They were married there, not in a church because, as you have guessed, they are gay. In ways that every anthropologist can understand, we who loved and honored them came together as a community and witnessed their joining. I was honored to serve as "best woman" to my dear friend of many, many years. The marriage is not recognized by the church or the state, here in Texas.

A few years ago, I joined them at Houston city hall in an act of protest. Gay couple after couple entered the city hall and attempted to apply for a marriage license. I waited below on the sidewalk with other friends and family and the press and the haters. In my naivete, I did not anticipate the hatred and virulence of the opposition to our protest. I had brought my daughter who must have been about 14 at the time. At one point, it was necessary for me to shield her with my body from a wall of profanities and spittle aimed at us by those bearing signs with biblical verses scrawled with angry red markers. But it was worse for my dear friend.

I remember my cell phone ringing and opening the cover to hear a good, mature, supremely-controlled man face his breaking point. This dear friend was a man who had worked for ten years teaching special needs kids; a man who in that capacity was used to being spat on, kicked at, cursed out, and who was able to talk coherently on his cell phone about the cost to his new Banana Republic pants while vaulting up the school bleachers to talk a child down from jumping off them:"Girl, I need to call you back...damn, not my new pants, I just got these at the Banana..I've got to get this kid down.". But when I answered the phone this time all I heard was sobbing. When he finally made it back outside, his mother, my daughter, and I held him close as years of socially-induced shame and denial racked his body. As the clerk in the license office read the prepared statement denying him the right to marry, he was lost; less than human; not fully whole.

Barack Obama: Rick Warren is not sitting at the table with you. You are not meeting with him. You have asked him to pray for us. You have asked him to be the one to mediate our relationship with the sacred. This does not carry the same meaning as sharing the cooking pot. Prayer is not food. And in Rick Warren's eyes, we are all not equal.

But, I am not done. This is a long post.

We are to honor Rick Warren for his AIDS work in Africa. Not me. I don't sleep at night thinking about his work in Africa. I sleep less thinking about the meaning of Barack Obama's choice of Rick Warren to the people of east Africa.

I am condensing, but, in a nutshell, while giving superficial lip service to condom usage in prevention programs, Rick Warren and his wife, Kay, are heavily embedded in abstinence-based teaching. Here is a quick summary (given by Kay) of their philosophy. Virginity. *sigh*. And here is Rick Warren's "spin" on the empire-building potential of the church complete with some seriously twisted assumptions about human behavior--so, all you men out there would be cheating but for your faith, huh? First: TMI alert....Eeeuwww. Second, oh never mind, typing statements defending male integrity is just too stupid, even for a blog.

As the postmortems of Bush are piling in, the general consensus is that he should be commended for his fight against AIDS in Africa. If you have followed the details, however, you will know that in 2005, evangelical Christians, were able to direct the funding formula for AIDS money to include a couple of key provisions: about one third of funds were to go to abstinence-based initiatives and any organization receiving U.S. aid money must condemn prostitution, (Brazil, notably, said thanks but no thanks to these terms.) Really. Honest.

Somehow, they have managed to control this message so tightly that you find arguments like this one, in the Catholic Education Resource Center. (Read it carefully, abstinence is not "real" in Brazil but a remarkable success in Uganda.) Those of you who follow these issues will be familiar with the work of Edward C. Green who was hired by USAID to confirm these beliefs. Most of the debate about his work is not freely available online but you can get a flavor of it here, in a synopsis of his work followed by a gentle but effective critique by Paul Farmer. A further critique would push this blog post into the book category, so I will defer that delight to a future rant.

Having spent months in Tanzania in 1994 developing a research strategy, hiring a team, collecting the data, and writing up the results for a "rapid assessment" of AIDS orphans in the country, I feel I have the experiential and moral authority (yes, Kay Warren, I have spent many months crying myself to sleep for the horrors I witnessed--when I could feel, again) to say that these views are not only factually incorrect but seriously damaging and delusional.

In 1994, first I went to Dodoma. The seroprevalence rates there were thought to be low. The population densities there were so low and people so poor there wasn't much "business" of any kind going on. HIV/AIDS was not yet on their radar screen. On to Morogoro, back to my favorite village of my 1986/87 dissertation research. I hardly recognized it. Rubies had been discovered in my beloved mountains and throughout the village young girls had been sweet-talked by young men with dirty red pebbles in their pockets, quick sex on their minds, and no condoms in the market kiosks. The young girls died alone. Stigmatized by the disease, no one would care for them. They were bad girls. At these early stages and in areas of low seroprevalence, stigmitazation was common.
Once the seroprevalence rose in a region, that all changed. We learned that from Uganda. We learned that from America.

USAID put me in a fancy Toyota Land Cruiser, sign of Tanzanian opulence and whiteness (I am very white) and sent me out to the Kilombero Sugar Estates. I had never seen anything like that place and in the years since then, nothing else has compared. Shanty towns for miles. 12-13 different types of home-brewed beer in 55 gallon oil drums, brewed by women (most kicked out of their homes for unwanted pregnancies), men gathered around drinking in the fire light. For miles. And miles. I drove out among them and made the driver stop. I went to the kiosks and saw the condoms hanging in their foil chains here and there. Do they want them, I asked the kiosk owners? Do they pay for them? Oh yes, I was told, we can't get them. We are running out. Can you get us more, we will pay. The men who were purchasing the condoms knew AIDS and didn't want it--right or wrong. You see, they all knew someone who had died from that behavior.

Give them what they want. They will pay for it with money. Don't make them pay with their lives. Did all men have sex in those conditions? Of course not. I knew many Tanzanian men who did not. Many men in those shanty towns did not. They all made choices. For themselves. Let people make their own moral decisions with all the options that we possess. Let, God, sort them out, Rick Warren--if you must attach a spiritual lesson--let, God, sort it out. At some undetermined time, in some undetermined future. You haven't got it right. You haven't got the right.

Ask yourself the question: is this what we do in America? Why do we treat them differently than ourselves? Anthropologists ask those questions.
On the eve of 2009, the policy decisions of 2005 are being felt. Read this report from Uganda. Because, you know what, those of us who were and are on the ground in Africa, talking to real people, dealing with an objective reality, know that the condom message works and is essential. People have sex. Provide them with the opportunity to protect, themselves when they do so. Get the morality out of the message.

And, you, Barack Obama, do you realize what your elevation of this man will mean to the people of East Africa, where they took to the street ululating in celebration of your election and happily naming their babies for this historic event, as they once did for JFK? Do you intend to solidify Rick Warren's spiritual empire? Because you have, assuredly, done so. Rwanda is on-board as the first Purpose-Driven Nation, Uganda is coming on board and his eye is next on Kenya. Is this what you want for your father's homeland. A complex father, an absent father, a less than father-father but is this what you want for his home?

In honor of those young girls raised with good values who died alone in their beds seduced by visions of rubies and to the young men celebrating their first pay packet with a beer and the assertion of their masculinity, teach your students what it means to be human, to make mistakes. Tell them they should not have to pay with their lives for such mistakes. We don't have to and we make mistakes every day. As do our students. As does our President-elect. Let's all learn from those mistakes. And let's teach students to think, critically, about these issues.

It occurs to me in editing that "mistake" may not be the best of terms here. An act of sex is not necessarily a "mistake". I think in the free-form flow of blogging, my brain was still reacting to the reading I had been doing. I am leaving the term up as a cautionary tale. The more you read the judgment, the more easily you make the judgment. Interesting, huh?

Updated on 31st December to add a link to another blogger at RH Reality Check a blog with "Information and Analysis for Reproductive Health who is, also, concerned with Rick Warren's presence in Africa. Its highly recommended. Check it out.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

May You be Enjoying the Courtesy and Decorum of this Holiday Season

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens:
"From the centre of the ceiling of this kitchen, old Wardle had just suspended with his own hands a huge branch of mistletoe, and this same branch of mistletoe instantaneously gave rise to a scene of general and most delightful struggling and confusion; in the midst of which, Mr. Pickwick, with a gallantry that would have done honour to a descendant of Lady Tollimglower herself, took the old lady by the hand, led her beneath the mystic branch, and saluted her in all courtesy and decorum."

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Barack Obama meets Oscar Lewis: Sunday Morning Musings about the New Post-ideological Pragmatism

Thinking about the issues raised in this week's New York Times magazine feature article:

A Payoff Out of Poverty?

Points I am pondering: Isn't it terribly naive to suppose that conditional cash transfers are without ideology? Selecting which behaviors the money will reward is clearly an ideological choice. In an analogous situation, Rick Warren isn't a simple pragmatic choice. You aren't just sitting down to a table with him. He is being called upon to mediate with the sacred. It has meaning, damn it! Stop pretending it doesn't.

Nation versus NGO: Given the discussion in my last post discussing the Foreign Policy article about weak, failed states being further weakened by strong NGO involvement, would this procedure point to a possible solution to reinvigorating government--IF, and only IF, governments could, in fact, find the money in their budgets for such programs and the cash payouts were not given by NGO's, themselves. this just more power and control and interference. Am I more comfortable with national control than NGO control? But only in a nation were people have a voice and a vote?

Keith Hart reminds us not to assume that money is a "bad thing". Over the years he has taken anthropologists to task for our assumptions that money is inherently a bad thing to be brought into the mix for the world's people. And he has discussed in detail the ways in which money creates and defines identity and community and memory.

I am reminded of the vignettes in the film First Contact when the New Guinea Highlanders desire shells in trade and payment, only later to discover the value of their gold and money. We all know the fate of shell in New Guinea societies. My students are always quick to argue that the New Guinea Highlanders got what they wanted when they were paid in shell. Until I remind them that with money they could buy all the shell they wanted, what the New Guinea Highlanders lacked was the knowledge of the value of money in an outside world, once, they had that knowledge their desires quickly changed as did their sense and identity of community and their understanding of your own place in it.

As a member of a national community does it make sense to earn money for your own reproduction --in the form of education and healthcare--or not? After all, with money comes self-determination and community. Should the role of the nation-state be to pay its citizens for the labor of caring for themselves? Are national communities something we should be trying to achieve in an international world? Is this freedom or oppression or the potential for both? Have I got that right?

BTW, aren't we all just loving the whole "shoe" protest. Delightful in every way.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Failed States R Us: The Co-dependency of the Saved and the Saving in the Developing (?) World

Time for whack-a-mole, again. I keep hitting and hoping that someday time will be up. Preparing for three and a half hour flight where I was forced to select a middle seat from the plane diagram, I had the forethought to stock up on light reading. I was happily ensconced with my pile of magazines when I found this great article, The New Colonialists, in the Utne Reader, a reprint from a summer edition of Foreign Policy. Its a good, readable, usable discussion of the counter-productive growth of NGO activity in the world's "failed states".

The article makes a clear case for the ways that the functions and competencies of the state are weakened and undermined by the growing interference of western donor-agencies. Digest this info recorded on Page 62: "Today 80 percent of all Afghan services, such as health care and education, are delivered by international and local NGO's." Keep reading from there and you will have an entirely different perspective of the difficulties faced by the Afghan government and the opposition of their people to our interference than standard press coverage reports.

The authors don't discuss the role of the Human Terrain System soldiers in paving the way for this activity.

Anthropology teaches us to turn the lens on ourselves and, yet, the West is more concerned with transparency in weak to non-existent governments than in our own "charitable" intentions and actions. This is a hard one to present to a class. I have been screaming for years about the offense implied in our quest at "Saving" Africa. This article helps buttress our own legitimacy in making that argument.

Please note: no moles were harmed in the production of this post. And, a word of advice, think twice about repeating the words "yes, yes, yes", when occupying the middle seat in the coach section--such things might be permitted in Business Class but I wouldn't know because, Mr. Veblen, I know my place.

Year-End Blogalooza at Neuroanthropology!

The Award-Winning (and fan of the prehistoric life toob) Blog, Neuroanthropology, is hosting the first annual (drum roll, please):

Best of Anthropology Blogging 2008

Details are available here. In a nutshell, anthro bloggers will be submitting blog posts in two categories: Most Popular Post (oh, jeez, its High School again--deeply embedded insecurities have torn loose--a quantitative evaluation) and My Self-Selected Best Post (oh no, a qualitative assessment, but, I love all my babies.)

If you blog, suffer alongside me and submit your choices. If you read, log onto the blog on December 31 and do what you do best.

Any votes on "Best"?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Distance Learning: the meaning of meaningless bits of flair

I recently opened a Facebook account. My daughter has, consistently, refused to allow me to do so. She thinks its a pathetic act for a woman of my age and stature. More fundamentally, I would be invading the turf and domain of another generation: hers. Its the modern day version of "you're not going to wear that. Mom?" Middle school, six years on.

I researched it, carefully, and the balance of student expectations seems to be shifting. As near as I can tell, there are more students in favor of faculty Facebook presence than against. But my consistent pet peeve is the way we treat students as a monolithic category. Anthropologists have no business making vast pronouncements about "students today". It is the sloppiest kind of scholarship, never to be tolerated in refereed journals but freely tossed about on the Internet. So, I expect some, like my daughter, will continue to find it lame while others will "friend me" enthusiastically. I admit to being thrilled to discover an old and dear friend from High School and to easily be able to stay in touch with former students. Being at a two year school means they are quickly lost to me (at least the successful ones) and I yearn for the sense of meaning in my life that comes from seeing them grow and succeed.

And, so, I have jumped aboard the Facebook train and begun the process of accessorization. Its a train ride in the sense that I am forced to go forward by the template through tunnels and mountain passes and, yet, I can rock the bling all I want. I am a fan of Karl Marx, Meyer Fortes, Evans-Pritchard, Emile Durkhem, Melville Herskovits (Go, you, NU), Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Buc-ees--home of the largest collection of beaver jokes, dried dead animals, and clean restrooms in the Lone Star State. It was Archeology (without the "a") that taught me that through process comes meaning, so, I have joined the Lewis Binford group. And in a nod to the beautiful mountains that were the home to my anthropological rite of passage, that overwhelmingly, embarrassingly arrogant "thing" we call fieldwork, I have joined the travellers to Morogoro group. I am made anew, born again, defined and redefined through point and click. My fingers are tired.

And I am contemplating the meaning of participation; what we faculty often pose as "you don't get credit for showing up". Because, I think, more and more students do. And I think this is more and more evident in Web 2.0 worlds and in classes where students (of all levels of accessorization, those with flair and those without) are Distantly Learning. I have an online student who has been emailing back and forth and back and forth about her grade. We submitted final grades on Monday and she did not like hers. Seems she has had hours and hours of Distance Learning courses, earning all As and Bs. She is frustrated by her C. Embarrassed to submit it to her employer for reimbursement and, personally, frustrated with me for not recognizing her well-travelled existence, she has fought valiantly and politely with me through two weeks of emails.

I have gleaned this from our correspondence: she has been through course after course where she had been given credit for participation. And she participates. She has, actually, shocked the bejeesus out of me with her level of participation. She has posted everywhere--responding to every single Discussion Board posting of other students, giving shout-out on top of shout-out. And she has worn me out, correcting and re-directing her. Because she just doesn't "get" anthropology. Born in Scandinavia and living in Latin America, she has travelled extensively. She posted pictures of the Sami, pontificated on Susto, and cheerfully contributed in her final post (long past the whole cultural relativism discussion) that the Maasai depicted in a Tanzanian hip hop video (the video that was posted here for Blog Action Day) had barbaric (her word) cultural practices.

She was like a run away toddler, I couldn't catch. In a face-to-face class, I would have shut her down in the first week. Cut her off, moved away from her, avoided eye contact; suggested disapproval of her conclusions in strong and monkey brain-stem ways. Online, I could only chase after her hours after she ran into the street. I, actually, started worrying about the cars that might hit her. She was so BIG, posting so much--the Stay-Puft Marshmallow man, lurching like a toddler but deadly sticky. Would other students read her conclusion, pontifications, and pronouncements and get the wrong impression, learn the wrong thing, be impressed by all the travel bling, the bits of Sami flair? They couldn't know that her quiz average grade was a D. She didn't even "know" this.

Participation-A; Content Mastery-D. I am glad it was a C, so I don't have to "face" her another semester. She wore me out.

You can find, point, and click; fan this, friend that, post, upload, interact but if you are only a vacation traveller, a tourist on the Net, shallow is what you will remain. We still need to look for the deep immersion in content: for the process is not the learning of technology, it is the learning.

And in the great (narcissistic) minds think alike category, you must check out this blog post on "students today" and Teen Narcissism by Mark Bauerlein at the Chronicle of Higher Education for the psychological underpinnings of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow student. But then, that is only my opinion, perhaps yours is better, cause after all its yours. Just don't ask me for extra points for having it because it might be WRONG, idiot. (Sorry, the pent-up hostility escaped again.)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Prehistory World Sim: The Ice Age Endeth

We have this thing in Texas called Hobby Lobby. My daughter forces me to go there to buy yarn--although now she has found a much better online site--for her crocheting, which is one of those things passed down matrilineally. My grandmother Helen Nora taught me and I taught my daughter Katherine Nora. Anyway, we took a wrong turn and I discovered an aisle full of treasures--including the prehistoric life toob (it was, totally, spelled that way). The prehistoric life toob was a plastic tube full of really amazingly dorky plastic figures of megalithic wild life, mega-buff early modern humans, and a few scenic additions like a tree and a volcano. All semester long my students have had great fun enacting scenes on the desk in my class. Usually one guy in the class will do the renactments and usually the animals; sometimes in pairs, sometimes in groups are positioned to be either killing each other or having sex. Or both. At the same time. Go figure.

Wednesday night we had an unusual event in Houston. It snowed. Several inches. The next morning, I came into a final exam with a couple of unused snowballs. So we re-enacted the beginning of the glacial retreat. Mid-way through the final, the volcano fell off the ice and all hell was breaking loose--not the Dante one but the other one.

See, I can do World Simulation exercises, too.

Thanks to the World's Most Beautiful Sociology Professor for the picture, since I am too tired to get mine off my phone. (Aren't those IPhone people smugly superior?)

I can't wait to get the Jamestown Settlers Toob.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Whopper Virgins (yes, you read that correctly): the taste-pure, chaste-pure "other"

Another atrocity to post, thanks, once again to those wonderful folks on the Society for Anthropology in the Community College listserv (really a great resource), we have this discussion looming:

Whopper Virgins for you Burger Kings and Queens: "Real People doing Real Taste Tests." "People who are really off the grid." "Extraordinarily gracious people" who have never tasted a hamburger before (?), and don't know "how to hold one", filmed at the moment of their deflowering. I am having a hard time swallowing it, having lost my hamburger purity some time ago.

Here is a link to the You Tube version of the commercial using (and abusing) the Hmong, and here is the Romanian one.

It is truly horrendous and I don't even know where to begin with the critique and analysis. Anthropologists everywhere are going to be running to the dentist for mandibular adjustments when their jaws become unhinged.

(Excuse my temporary absence, btw. Returned to the ancestral homelands of New Jersey to return my Grandmother's ashes to where her heart has always been, had a nice break at the Algonquin Hotel and now am hip deep in student excuses, pleas, and pitifulness. Thanks for all the nice comments and posts. I will return shortly.)

UPDATED to add student responses from class today:
Some of my students, today, had seen the ads. They enjoyed critiquing them. Some thought them offensive and exploitative. Most did not "buy" the "pure" message. They questioned the accuracy of people not knowing about hamburgers. And they questioned that Whoppers were something which represented a positive contribution to people's lives. One offered the analysis that it was insulting to "us" as well, since we are portrayed as victims' in the McDonaldization of our society, unable to judge for ourselves the "better taste". If they are "pure" then we are "dirty".

Having completed the entire semester some pointed out that asking people to pick up foods with one's hands and inserting the food directly in the mouth might be offensive. But they know my story about how in the 1980's in Tanzania this would have been considered disgusting. Only the size morsel that actually fits in your mouth should inserted in your mouth. They felt the film makers were completely missing people's discomfort with that process.

In general, most thought is was a fairly stupid commercial because they couldn't accept the conclusion that other people eating Whoppers was much of an argument for them eating them. They have been raised with continual advertising assault and they are far to cynical to fall for that argument, seems to be the generally agreed upon sentiment. Although the extension of that argument made me uncomfortable, for, as my student said, it worked to the extent that we are all discussing it which is, after all, what Burger King wants.

All in all, many teachable moments.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Academic Freedom: The Professorial Right to Make Stupid and Dangerous Analogies and Get Spanked for Doing So

This is a busy time of year. And not a successful one for most of our students. Having just completed my massive pre-Thanksgiving essay grading extravaganza, I have been spending a lot of spare time gazing at puppy-cam--its all my brain is good for. Keep your eye on the one with the green collar--its trouble.

While others are fighting the good fight against the militarization of our discipline, I have been fighting the same much smaller, local version. The Sarah Palin/Sean Hannity/Brit Hume minority has been expressing its displeasure. Mysterious forces hit the College Democrats bulletin board (across from my office) systematically removing all references and celebrations of the Obama victory. Then one of the smallest blobs of intellect in the History Department decided to post on his door a right-wing blog accusing Obama of trying to build his own personal army of Hitler's Brownshirts. Posted next to the blog on his door were some nice (?) depictions of Hitler. If you are not aware of it, we have gun shows here in Texas--frequently.

Over at Contexts The Color Line blog has a nice summary of Post-Election Racist Incidents. With my heightened sense of awareness, I couldn't help but feel that our students did not need any faculty support for hate. But I am a supporter of free speech. So I embarked on a push-back campaign. had a nice critique of the "Brownshirt" accusation. I emailed it to the intellectual midget and hung copies on my door and the Democrats board. I noticed two days later he pulled his crap off his door. Score one for academic arm-wrestling and thanks to my brother for teaching me never to back down (until you have a free path to run like hell and you just can't take one more thump). Although, really, I wish he would have left it up. He said he thought it was a topic for discussion--so, let's discuss, dude.

Teaching here--in a Community College in a red state with colleagues with Master's degrees from the local University of Houston satellite campus--has challenged every perspective of academics, I have ever had. No one at the University of Virginia or Northwestern prepared me for this. Should sheer stupidity (assertions with no analytical validity, quotes taken out of context) be protected by Academic Freedom? In institutions which have no tenure system, no evaluative measure of the worth and quality of a faculty member, should we just let this stuff go?

Stanley Fish has a piece over at the NYTimes exploring a forthcoming book on academic freedom. Here is a brief summary of the argument:

Now, in a new book — “For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom,” to be published in 2009 — two distinguished scholars of constitutional law, Matthew W. Finkin and Robert C. Post, study the history and present shape of the concept and come to conclusions that support and deepen what I have been saying in these columns and elsewhere.

The authors’ most important conclusion is presented early on in their introduction: “We argue that the concept of Academic freedom . . . differs fundamentally from the individual First Amendment rights that present themselves so vividly to the contemporary mind.” The difference is that while free speech rights are grounded in the constitution, academic freedom rights are “grounded . . . in a substantive account of the purposes of higher education and in the special conditions necessary for faculty to fulfill those purposes.”

In short, academic freedom, rather than being a philosophical or moral imperative, is a piece of policy that makes practical sense in the context of the specific task academics are charged to perform. It follows that the scope of academic freedom is determined first by specifying what that task is and then by figuring out what degree of latitude those who are engaged in it require in order to do their jobs.

In critiquing the text Fish makes this argument:

Finkin and Post are correct when they reject the neo-conservative criticism of professors who bring into a class materials from disciplines other than the ones they were trained in. The standard, they say, should be “whether material from a seemingly foreign field of study illuminates the subject matter under scrutiny.”

Just so. If I’m teaching poetry and feel that economic or mathematical models might provide a helpful perspective on a poem or body of poems, there is no good pedagogical reason for limiting me to models that belong properly to literary criticism. (I could of course be criticized for not understanding the models I imported, but that would be another issue; a challenge to my competence, not to my morality.)

But of course what the neo-conservative critics of the academy are worried about is not professors who stray from their narrowly defined areas of expertise; they are worried about professors who do so in order to sneak in their partisan preferences under the cover of providing students with supplementary materials. That, I think, is a genuine concern, and one Finkin and Post do not take seriously enough.

Responding to an expressed concern that liberal faculty too often go on about the Iraq War in a course on an entirely unrelated subject, Finkin and Post maintain that there is nothing wrong, for example, with an instructor in English history “who seeks to interest students by suggesting parallels between King George III’s conduct of the Revolutionary War and Bush’s conduct of the war in Iraq.”

But we only have to imagine the class discussion generated by this parallel to see what is in fact wrong with introducing it. Bush, rather than King George, would immediately become the primary reference point of the parallel, and the effort to understand the monarch’s conduct of his morewar would become subsidiary to the effort to find fault with Bush’s conduct of his war. Indeed, that would be immediately seen by the students as the whole point of the exercise. Why else introduce a contemporary political figure known to be anathema to most academics if you were not inviting students to pile it on, especially in the context of the knowledge that this particular king was out of his mind?

Sure, getting students to be interested in the past is a good thing, but there are plenty of ways to do that without taking the risk (no doubt being courted) that intellectual inquiry will give way to partisan venting.

And you know for a brief moment, that sounded good. I transposed the Bush example, in my mind, to the Obama's Brownshirts scenario, and thought how nice it would be if Mr. Peabrain would be forced to be a good academic and not permitted to repeat such drivel.

And then where would we be? Here in Texas, I would be teaching creationism and the "all Muslims are terrorists" philosophy. lest I be accuse of "partisan venting". So, Stanley Fish, I am going to resist the appeal of your control issues and put my faith back in my students and the process of education. Most of them will figure it out--as long as we keep standing up long enough--before we run like hell.

Thanks to the World's Most Beautiful Sociology Professor for the picture of the board (pre-vandalism). As she says, its bigger and better now--cause we are the ones with the printers!

And, by the way, Bong Hits for Jesus!!!!!

(and, yes, I do think that Obama's desire to expand the Peace Corps and the State Department is imperialistic--but that is a different discussion)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

First Contact Clip: A Short Visit with an Amazing and Highly Useable Documentary

LOL. It is Sunday night and I am giving exams tomorrow and Tuesday. I just got a panicked email from a student who has only just begun to try to deal with missing the class (some weeks ago) with the showing of the documentary First Contact. I give her credit, she managed to find a preview clip that had been recently posted on YouTube. So, I am passing on her find.

I love the documentary, it is packed full of teachable moments and having seen it what seems like an infinite number of times, I see something new each time. Here are some of our discussions:

I use it to illustrate the Theory of Unilineal Evolution, 19th century evolutionary thinking. The opening newsreel footage uses the language of that view in referencing the New Guinea people "shaking off the shackles of barbarism..on the path to civlization". I try to get them to discuss notions of "progress".

We then discuss how what plays out is a good example of theories of underdevelopment/world systems theory/dependency arguments. We discuss the capture of resources and labor and who earns profit and what that continues to mean today.

I have to address the issue of the value of shells versus gold and point out disclosure laws existing in the U.S. today. Since we live in Texas, I make an analogy to oil.

We always have a spirited discussion of the shooting incidents. I have read the companion book so I have a bit more info about the incident presented in the film. A lot of students these days want to shoot anyone with a spear but there are always enough others to help out with the debate.

I use this also as an example of what oral history is like and how "truth" of any incident is hard to come by in the interview process. Sometimes we can push the discussion higher, sometimes not.

I love to point out to them that in the shit-smelling scene the New Guinea Highlanders are using scientific method to test their theory about white people being spirits...nope, the observable world reveals that their shit sticks just like ours.....not spirits.

Once we see this film, it serves as an example for the rest of the, marriage, bridewealth, collectivistic/individualistic, Moka, commodities/possessions, and then some.

It reminds me, also, the good part of interacting with the "other"; the joy of being able to participate in the sharing of their history. It is a shame it cannot be done as equals. I have to think that it is still worth doing.

(BTW the follow-up pieces (like Joe's Neighbours), also, have previews posted as well.)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

(Re)Framing Darfur

International Scandal: Don Cheadle Planned Darfur Genocide To Create Film Role

An interesting satirical piece about the manner in which the Darfur conflict is co-opted by Americans. Once again, the reality of "Africa" is defined and "made" from an American perspective--for personal aggrandizement.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Mama Africa goes home

Maybe today of all days, we should pause and appreciate the beauty to be had on this earth.

"I just told the world the truth, and if the truth then becomes political, I can't do anything about that."--Miriam Makeba

Monday, November 10, 2008

Hedgehogs and the Internets

I have temporary custody of my daughter's hedgehog. He can't go to college with her. She promises me that next year she will live in a house in Austin and will take him. This I am counting on. I am tired of boiling eggs for him. I am tired of his shit encrusted wheel. He is, however, terribly cute. And not named Sonic. Say hi to Theodore. He is very shy. But very sweet. In a hedgehog kind of way.

We have issues. After living with him since last Spring, I appear to have become allergic to him. I can't get anywhere near him without my eyes itching and swelling and non-stop sneezing. This makes it difficult to meet his minimal hedgehog needs. And I have pulled a back muscle from all that sneezing. I do not believe that it is psychological. But the good thing about psychology is that you never know...and the bad thing is you never know.

What does a pseudo-academic do when faced with such a challenge? Off I go to Google "hedgehogs and allergic reactions". What do I learn? Every hedgehog information site has the exact same cut and pasted, copied, plagiarized (?) snippet. Quite a few. Same thing. Over and over.

Seems I can't be allergic. Hedgehogs don't have dander. The same thread of reasoning on site after site. My students would assume that was "fact". At least, that is what I have been told.

I understand "students today" don't understand plagiarism. They are so used to this phenomenon of cutting and pasting the same "truth" over and over that they think all knowledge is open season.

Except, a ha! Pulled up were also the posts you usually ignore. But the ones with all the truth. Posts written by owners, offering hedgehogs--with all their hedgehog accessories--to good homes because their owners have developed allergies to them. Many have long sad stories of love and commitment backed up by commodity fetishism. I have bought this for them...that for them....tried this bedding...that bedding...

Most clicks does not equal most accurate is my supposition. Nice example of the Google version of truth and reality.

Don't worry. Teddy and I will make it through. New bedding is on the way. This weekend I managed a bath--for the hedgehog. I will keep pretending that a solution is in sight. Baby girl, you better make it to Austin.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Teachable Moment in Linguistic Anthropology: the great post-election talk hang-over

Are we hungerin' for a more intellectual discourse having drunk one too many beers with joe six-pack?

Those of us seeking to turn this electoral moment in time into teachable moments, will be thrilled with this marvelous blog post on Linguistic Anthropology. Peter Haney draws on Pierre Bourdieu's notion of the strategy of condescension to evaluate the success and failure of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates to appeal to the American electorate through their speech styles.

No more summary on my part. Read the post. A highly recommended teachable moment. He wrote the lecture for you.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

A Blue Anthropologist in a Red State: Our Job is Not Done

I suppose I should make the standard joke about that making purple. But that won't be happening. Those molecules just won't bind. Heck, they won't even do lunch. And here is why....we anthropologists are very far from succeeding at the only agenda that we ever truly had: getting the 'us-es" to understand and accept the "them-s" as fully and completely human. If we had succeeded at that simple goal would we even need to bother debating the Human Terrain System-mockery of our discipline? If that message had pierced the psyche of those of us who hold wealth and power over the world, would we even have wars to fight? These weeks...this election, should be highlighting for anthropologists the extent of our failure.

The press is debating whether it is truly possible that Sarah Palin does not know that South Africa is an independent country and not a region of the wider country of Africa. Journalists, bless their egocentric, narcissitic, biased hearts can't believe that it is true. I do. I have students that ignorant. No biggie, they are young. The real problem is that I have colleagues, you know, College "professors" that dumb. The dumb leading the dumb. Dumb and dumber. Dumb from the top down. Bottoms up? Dumb. Worse than dumb, though, they are scary. Batshit scary.

Its been a rough time of late. We are expected to finish out the semester having lost two and a half weeks to Ike. Which translates to absolutely no margin of error. No missed lecture. No discussion that goes on beyond the clock ticking in the back of my head. But I am way behind having to explain the most fundamental concepts that they should have got in other classes.

I assume like most anthropologists, I have always held myself distant from political party affiliation and electoral issues. While disagreeing with everything the Republican party stands for, I have cast my own vote dutifully for the Democratic party primarily to avoid the philosophies of the opposition. I would happily participate in a global revolution, hey, hey, you know, we all wanna change the world (thanks, World's Hottest Poli Sci Prof) but, as yet, one hasn't passed my way.

But this year I jumped in and allowed myself to hope. I suppose with advancing years my expectations had lowered significantly. Or that having protested repeatedly and loudly against the Bush Doctrine and our growing imperialism and been attacked and criticized for being "unpatriotic", I was just so happy to recognize a message with a rational thought process behind it. And the package that the message came in was so appealing. A beautiful family. A (non-allergenic) pound puppy in the White House. Ground swells. Racial healing with a thousand soundtracks. Angels having orgasms. And a President who speaks with subject and verb agreement. And, yes, not only can he pronounce nuclear but I might actually trust him with that power.

Anyway, caught up in my fantasies of a President that would not embarrass me (and hopefully not invade any more countries killing vast numbers of human beings), I did not notice how isolated I was here in the Lone Star state. You would have thought that that "lone" would have been a dead give away but de-nial is a sneaky river, its upside down, you know. It wasn't that I didn't know Texas. It was that I didn't really know how bad my College environment is. Not really. Okay, I knew it was bottom up dumb but I was really hoping it wasn't top down dumb. Okay, I knew the top top was dumb but I had some hopes for the middle. I mean, that is usually were the yummy filling is, right?

I am trying to cover "Redistributive" economies. I am trying to get to the Moka and the Potlatch(oh no, Alaska!). We have watched "First Contact", a film I adore. Love teaching from it. Would talk about it for hours. All of the sudden, we are talking American tax system and I get "Obama is a Socialist". Oh, Sweet Baby Jane, how long is it going to take to explain this....fairly, academically, thoroughly, properly.

And I am now sure that I never really did, never really could. Like those Kwakiutl salmon, I was swimming upstream.

In the last week and a half, I have, had to swallow the realization that some 3-4 of our government (the Texas word for Poli Sci) teachers and 2 of our history (should I call them professors?) and geography guys believe just that. Obama is a socialist who has pal-ed around with domestic terrorists and the only proper solution to the world's problems is MORE war. And the cessation of all possible "welfare" with any social support being distributed through one's church because even though the mantra is "Country First", the group they wish to support is not their "country" but their own tribal compounds. Joe the Plumber gets welfare and that is okay. But not one of "them". But, oh, they are so cadgy about who "them" are. Just a little too smart to play the race card, they tar and feather with a different brush. And they freely share their views and imbue their lectures with those philosophies.

One year of American history and one year of American government are state-mandated in Texas. No one has to take me. We have a long way to go, baby.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Power to the People: Right On! Queing up for the Vote

I can't help it. I am completely addicted to the election. I can barely focus on Anthropology long enough to give a lecture. And I must suppress urges to post either long rants or hopeful, optimistic school-girl blatherings about my country. In the latter category, a diarist on the Daily Kos has put together a nice photo retrospective, entitled Why We Stand In Line to Vote. It starts with the image to the left, South Africans in Soweto lining up to vote for the first time. Its a lovely collection of memories and moments. Have a look.

I was saddened to hear of Studs Terkel's death. As a one-time Chicagoan and oral historian and a full time human, I admired him greatly.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

MTV's "Exiled" Continues, Pushback on Stereotyping Students and Islam, Teachable Moments Abound

Punishment and Transformation: Dirty Living or Dirty Working for those who are Living and Working Dirty? But follow it through to an Ending of Grace and Beauty.

If you go back and look at the September posts (I call them the Pre-Ike period). You will notice that people continue to post new comments to the two posts about MTV's television show, Exiled, the first here and the follow-up here. The show has continued to air on Monday nights on MTV. Episode 7, set in Morocco, finds one Bjorn being exiled to a week with a Berber family as punishment for maxing out his father's credit card. (I kid you not.)

The enduring delight of watching the spoiled be forced to endure unspeakable deprivation in the land of the "other" continues. My students continue to discuss the "train-wreck" enjoyment the show brings. But like heroin, what feels good is not always a good thing. Simply put, the lived experiences of the "other" are not a punishment. And many continue to feel uncomfortable with that message.

Heather a student at Tulane's School of Public Health and former volunteer in Mozambique, posted her own excellent criticism of the show on her blog before finding her way here.

So, I have a new idea for an MTV show. Instead of making people be the punishment how about if we demonize employment, think of both the messages of political economy and spirituality which question the nobility of some occupations. So, a la the Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs, how about we seek out the offenders of society and make them do (literally) crappy jobs. I would so love to see the managing elite of AIG ruin their manicures cleaning out septic tanks. Shiners and chips at my house for the first episode.

But seriously, I am enjoying the discussion that this show engenders. My continuing pet peeve with my profession and my colleagues is our tendency to treat our students in ways we would never treat our informants or that broad category that we all so hate our "culture". Students don't all think alike. They come to the table with different perspectives and different knowledge levels. The show allows them to teach each other in terms they understand. There are very good discussions to be had with minimal professorial interruption. I have yet to teach a class where at least one student was not offended at the implication that other people's lives are punishments. Many students come away rooting for the other side of the spoiled brat equation.

But, IMHO, to be a truly effective Anthropology professor, you need then to kick it up a notch. You need to step back and contextualize their conclusions and move them to a wider perspective. Once, they learn that humans have the right to be respected on their own terms not just as the stereotypical "other" whose lives are a "punishment", you need to argue for how to relate to them. Not only the fieldwork issues of rapport and non-interference but the wider implications of a foreign policy which lacks rapport and respect. Those implications are nicely summed up by NYTimes' Nikolas Kristof (who I don't always agree with). Kristof cites the case of Somalia, who students are likely to know through Blackhawk Down. Its a good opportunity to push the discussion further and pushback on Islamophobia.

Speaking of which, did anyone catch Queen Rania on Fareed Zakahria's GPS show on CNN last Sunday? Here are Parts 1 and 2. I encourage everyone to have a look at her YouTube Channel which is "(d)edicated to breaking down stereotypes about the Arab and Muslim worlds and to bridging the East-West divide". And nobody does it better.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Calling All "Real Anthropologists": moving from pepto bismol to Keith Hart, definitely a case of rapid rising

Well, Batman, it looks like our work here is not done. Michele Bachmann (yes, her of the "bring back the McCarthy era" fame) has been having a good time with her discriminatory views, easy labeling, and even lazier interpretations of a wider world for quite some time. Check out her arguments for the 2005 riots in France:

What is really great about this bit of nauseating drivel is that it provides an awesome Teachable Moment!!!! Because the Social Science Research Council has a terrific teaching module dedicated to the subject. I hope students have a great time critiquing the heck out of this nimnut.

Should any of you feel compelled to donate large amounts of money to me to oppose her viewpoints, rest assured, my checkbook is at your disposal. I just need to get those charity tax-sheltered forms completed and we will be good to go. Just kidding... I think. At least I can safely promise I won't be needlessly wasting your donations at Neiman's. I'll be rubbing shoulders with real plumbers at the Home Depot.

(BTW, I am a little disturbed that her Pepto Bismol pink self is covering up my lovely green profile. I am afraid to mess with the embedded code, though, so, we will suffer through. I mean, after all, her fifteen minutes of fame are about up; wouldn't you say?)

Edited to add. And for those of you who need a higher level justification of, exactly, why Anthropologists should be standing front and center in discussing these issues, I point you to a Keith Hart blog post on the French riots from two years, ago, where he, once again, argues intelligently and elegantly, for that perspective. Transforming this Teachable Moment into an Inspirational Bit.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Help a Philosopher by Pretending to Be One

If you enjoy reading The Ethicist in the New York Times Magazine, than this one is for you:

Eric Schwitzgebel (a philosopher at U.C. Riverside) and Fiery Cushman (a psychologist at Harvard) have designed a "Moral Sense Test" that asks respondents for their takes on various moral dilemmas. They're looking to compare the responses of philosophers and non-philosophers, so they've asked me to post a link to their test from this blog. They say that people who have taken other versions of this test have found it interesting to ponder the moral dilemmas they ask about. The test should take about 15-20 minutes and can be found at

In the interest of full disclosure, I have cut and pasted the above statement, so, as to give them our best effort at consistency. I wouldn't want my wording to invalidate their research. They promise a synopsis of their findings at some point in the future. So, have fun.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Political Action: Urgent and Important

The link to this statement just appeared on the AAA website

Statement of Concerned Scholars about Islamophobia in the 2008 U. S. Election Campaign

Follow the statement down and email your support to its author.


Blog Action Day: Poverty: "It's no longer a fair game. The referee is biased. The field itself is dry."

Today is Blog Action Day. An action designed to remind us all of the unjustness of a world in which poverty is permitted to exist. A world were exploitation reigns, hidden by the smoke and mirrors of greed and immorality. Being an Anthropologist, I leave it to the words of others to speak their pain, anger, and frustration. Faza Nelly, born as Nelson Buchard, (unfortunately, now deceased) of X Plastaz, can tell you far more effectively than I, how hunger, disenfranchisement, and injustice feel. Watch the video here.

The words he sings are translated here:

Nini dhambi kwa mwenye dhiki?

Translated from Swahili into English - original lyrics by Nelson Buchard for X Plastaz

What's the offense of the poor?
All my people
East Africa
Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya
Dar es Salaam, A town
Wherever you are
Kneel and pray to God
Is this politics, religion, tyranny, slavery, judgement day, Sodom and Gomorrah?
Hold on strong, take a look around each corner
Left, right, front, back, make sure you look everywhere
And if you persist, just listen and be patient, so that you won’t regret later on

This goes out to my people
The cripple, blind, albinos and the insane
Street children, beggars, the poor and those who are mentally sane
This is a thick rope
You should know that we are pulling it against those in power
Fat bellies and cheeks
It’s no longer a fair game
The referee is biased
The field itself is dry
Work is hard to find, payment is little
What’s left is to play the hard way
We’re tired of the upper class, capitalism and dictatorship
This is the time
This is the redemption
And I order that those who are down must get that wine
I tighten the strap of your opponents
I pour poison over them
So that they will scratch themselves without shame
First of all, a salute to those who passed away before us
Second, let’s pray to God
Our father, please give us our daily bread
Fill us with strength
So that we can succeed in the game
When we pass away, the day of judgement
Give us the chance to regret
Because we know that we act evil
We eat forbidden fruits
We use every possible method
Juju or crime...
So that we can get food & clothing
But that shouldn’t be a reason for other people to be robbed of their rights
To prevent us from fulfilling our destiny
To call us infidels and insult us
Because what’s the offense?

What’s the offense of the poor
What’s wrong, what is right
Everyone just wants his destiny
Riddle: stir up the match
You can’t look into the future

Why? Ask the question, if we would all be intellectuals and rich
Who would do the dirty and dangerous work like working in the mortuary
Everyone here in town came for a ‘business’
Everything and everywhere
And even a human skin is for sale
Others are fake witches and wizards
Conmen, illegal travellers
While others are gentle-mannered like the Born-again Christians
In the afternoon offices are buzzing
While the night is hard, prostitutes,
Sugar daddies, criminals, and other things to be covered up
There are those who died when fighting for their lives
Their memories have remained in the graveyard
And there’s those who lost the hope that they will ever win
You’d think they have taken their souls out of mortgage
When they stop you in the road
You have to give them your last remaining salary for this month


Really, in Tanzania it’s a matter of finding your way
You will regret when you find out that you don’t even have a pair of shorts
Your decision, just hold it like a goalkeeper
And those who you’d depend on until the end will let you drown
You’re not educated, don’t have any special talent
But strength, tongue, economy you have it, you sit on it
To gain and to loose, it’s all normal
Sometimes you sleep and dream and eat
You drink, you French kiss
And make love to a lovely girl
To your surprise you find that the place is empty
There’s nothing

(Chorus, Yamat singing a traditional Maasai song)

Copyright - Lyrics by X Plastaz – Rumba-Kali publishing

(Fellow Anthropology Profs: I use this video in class. Students enjoy it and seem to relate to it.)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Bill Maher would love this one! Missionaries versus Anthropologists

Open Anthropology, my authority on the Human Terrain System, had an interesting discussion of pseudo-Calvinist religious groups. I was, again, reminded about how strange we Americans, and specifically, we Texans (who do not like to be called Southerners) are. I am not a native Texan. I never expected to end up in Texas. I was a well-traveled military brat. But, here I am. Teaching in the city which formerly housed the headquarters of the KKK. Site of some of the greatest concentration of oil refineries and their associated industries. The area is not a traditional "southern" stronghold, having been founded by mid-westerners searching out jobs post-WWII. Sort of Indiana meets the South. Swing a stick and you will hit 20-30 Baptists. We have so many Baptist churches they have to number them: first, second, third, you get the idea. And that is mainstream, "normal" ones.......

I tread very shaky ground teaching Anthropology here. I have learned to make clear distinctions. "This is the anthropological perspective".....we are going to use that perspective, we can't be biased..missionary activities constitute interference... and my discipline cannot interfere. Perhaps more than any other anthropologist, I, on a daily basis, feel our role is to "preach" cultural relativism. They need it. Over and over again.

With that in mind, I found the most fascinating update at the Katine Project blog, entitled, Religion and Sex in Uganda: the power of the pulpit. Uganda has long been one of the great success stories of the the African HIV/AIDS epidemic. (I had the great joy to work with Susan Hunter in Tanzania just after she left Uganda back in '94. She left Uganda just as the country was showing some positive responses to what was truly a horrendous crisis and tragedy. She brought hope with her.) In recent years, however, it seems that Uganda has also thrown itself into a full embrace with evangelical Christian groups so that, the blog reports, fully half of all Ugandans are "born again". Last time I was in Tanzania, tent revivals with Ugandan preachers were, like Baptists in the American south--thick on the ground.

The consequence of these fervent beliefs has been an involvement with the issues at the heart of our own election: a growing belief in abstinence-based teaching and (dare I say) cultural messages of condemnation for those who chose other paths, funded generously by the Bush Lily- White House. And the end result of that? A decrease in condom-usage and a growing stigmatization of those who fall victim to the disease.

Does anyone truly believe that Levi Johnson could have walked into a drug store and bought a condom without earning a righteous whooping from the small community in which he lived. Does anyone truly believe that "happiness" (whatever the hell that is) can come from, in the words of my favorite troubadour, Bruce Springsteen, "a union card and a wedding coat"? Does anyone truly want to return to a young girl dying alone in a hut in her village when no one will care for her because she has earned the designation of "whore" and deserves what she gets? All for the lack of a condom. For the lack of a commitment to a small life-saving bit of latex. For the refusal to accept the reality of humanity. People have sex, get over it.

After I have spoon-fed the cultural relativism lesson, do I allow them to judge? Absolutely. Do I judge? Absolutely.

BTW, tomorrow, there will be a special blog post on National Blog Action Day. Subject: World Hunger. You can click on the icon to the right (aka the non-left) to find out more information.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Kenya is not an Obama Nation (and that is a good thing): Rich irony alert

Having become a full time political junkie, this is hard for me to say is a teachable moment without, necessarily, only a political spin. Several news sources including the New York Times, are posting an interesting vignette I have been bringing up in class. Seems Mr. Swift Boat Veteran for Truthiness, Corsi (the author of Obama Nation) went high-tailing it off to Kenya, no doubt, to rake up some muck. But he found his goals cut short when his paper work was not in order. Seems a tourist visa is not sufficient clearance for those seeking to make a buck and sling some shit, at least, according to Kenyan immigration. Well, Duh! Any scholar of east Africa could tell you that. I have several stories of American academics being deported from Tanzania for lacking the requisite documentation. Damn you, monkey behaviorists, you were not tourists! Those of use who came after you suffered the consequences.

Here is the NTVKenya Youtube of the story. There is an interesting insider perspective at a Kenyan journalist's blog and a quick Google generates a plethora of links and interpretations. Internal Kenyan politics or not, dissing the procedure does not a respectful visitor make. So "that one" got an escort to the airport and now he's leaving on a jet plane. And, too bad, so sad, he was adios-ed before his planned photo op of presenting his generous donation to a so-called poverty-stricken relative (half brother) of Obama's. Next time, maybe Mr. Attack could do some real, accurate research about laws, codes of behaviors, and appropriate "use of the other".

But I guess he couldn't see Kenya from his house.......

(Okay, I couldn't turn off the sarcasm but it is a legitimate anthropological discussion. That whole Research Clearance, respect for host country thing. I did better with it in class--honest.)

If you are interested the picture of the "Obama tree" I have added was taken by my daughter who was in Zanzibar this summer. That is Tanzania and not Kenya but in the Sarah Palin version of the world, I guess it counts.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Development Pornography in my mailbox, yet again

Trying to catch up with my normal "aimless surfing" reading. Like most of my friends and associates, I have become a political junkie and waste hours and hours on the minutia of our ongoing electoral process, based on the ridiculous assumption that if I just know more and more about it, I will have some degree of control of the situation. Typical academic bullshit. More knowledge=a greater degree of control=peace with a world which is clearly fucked-up.

Anyway, digging through my mailbox and raking up the sticks and leaves piling up in the gutters, I ran across the TED campaign against "extremely drug-resistant TB" (XDRTB). I ran into XDRTB back in '94 in Tanzania; very scary. But, of course, the campaign must team up with an (ex-war) photographer who can create the poignant images for us to respond to. As he states,

“I’m working on a story that the world needs to know about. I wish for you to help me break it, in a way that provides spectacular proof of the power of news photography in the digital age.” James Nachtwey

So, in all 50 states, his photo essay was projected last Friday night. At least, that is what my email said. You can view the essay here:

37 pictures the world must see.

They are very beautiful pictures. They are very heartbreaking pictures. And the question lingers: should heartbreaking be beautiful? I remember the now-famous picture of the Sudanese child struggling to make it to the feeding station while being stalked by a vulture. I pass on reproducing it here. The photographer, Kevin Carter, committed suicide after having won both the Pulitzer Prize and the disapprobation of most of the free world after the information was spread that he had not tried to save the child . His daughter says she has come to view the picture, differently, seeing the vulture as the press who hounded her father and the child as her father "the victim". A tragedy so painful to contemplate that is rates its own recently-added Snopes entry.

There is a pretty good (non-academic) article, outlining the difficulty of the contextualization of the "victim image" and the ethics of "selling" international aid, so-called "development pornography here. One response of the awkwardness of "white-controlled" images of "black poverty" has been to promote the efforts of indigenous photographers. Majority World (love the name) is one such organization.

What would I say to my students? In any Bruce Springsteen song, from his years with the E-Street Band, despite the tragedy of the words and the mournfulness of the sound, will be the moment I wait for, the lilt of optimism in the music. Bruce threads it in just about every song; often announcing the bright moment by the sound of Clarence Clements sax ripping and soaring, cutting through with the rising wail of optimism. I seek that moment. In 1936 (published in 1941), James Agee and Walker Evans produced that unforgettable work, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The images and narration are of cotton farmers in Central Alabama during the Great Depression. A gallery of the images is available at my Alma Mater here.

I have a well-worn copy, given to me by the father of my much-beloved daughter, as he shared with me the story of his family who are represented in the book. Not a source of pride in his family. A source of shame. Time and distance cannot, always, successfully, dampen down the shame of victimization. And, yet, world's away, among the people who were kind enough to share their stories with me back in Tanzania in 1986-87, are another group of cotton farmers who experienced the Great Depression. Can we not share in the moral outrage of an economic system that can not, does not, will not insure the same developmental potential for every human being, for every human society?

I leave you with the words of James Agee, those both playfully tongue-in-cheek and those powerful:

....this is a book about "sharecroppers," and is written for all those who have a soft place in their hearts for the laughter and tears inherent in poverty viewed at a distance, and especially for those who can afford the retail price in the hope that the reader will be edified, and may feel kindly disposed toward any well-thought-out liberal efforts to rectify the unpleasant situation down South, and will somewhat better and more guiltily appreciate the next good meal he eats... Above all else: in God's name don't think of it as Art.... Get a radio or phonograph capable of the most extreme loudness possible, and sit down to listen to a performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony or of Schubert's C-Major Symphony. But I don't mean just sit down and listen. I mean this: Turn it on as loud as you can get it. Then get down on the floor and jam your ear as close into the loudspeaker as you can get it and stay there, breathing as lightly as possible, and not moving, and neither eating nor smoking nor drinking. Concentrate everything you can into your hearing and into your body. You won't hear it nicely. If it hurts you, be glad of it. As near as you will ever get, you are inside the music; not only inside it, you are in it; you body is no longer your shape and substance, it is the shape and substance of the music. Is what you hear pretty? or beautiful? or legal? or acceptable in polite or any other society? It is beyond any calculation savage and dangerous and murderous to all equilibrium in human life as human life is; and nothing can equal the rape it does on all that death; nothing except anything, anything in existence or dream, perceived anywhere remotely toward its true dimension.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Post-Ike Blogging and Academic Clean-Up

We started back this week with an interesting solution to our loss of class time. It was about two and a half weeks, although the official time announced at one meeting was 7 and a half class hours. Other area Community Colleges are extending their calenders but we, apparently, worked out a deal with the Co-ordinating Board for Higher Education and the Southern Association to have faculty, discipline-wide, develop plans to make up the content missed through methods of their own choosing. The theory is that a course is no longer measured solely by hours met but by content mastered. Individual disciplines can choose to add extra course time but most are choosing to turn to technology and textbooks to require students to "learn on their own".

Its easier to think about the meaning of a course not being measured by time met when you have taught the Distantly Learning courses. I have already had to ponder the philosophical question: what, exactly is a course? 3 hours of credit for what? In our case, its Student Learning Outcomes (SLO's). Students must demonstrate competency in a list of concepts I wrote years ago. Its always been a goal of mine to collect everyone's Cultural Anthropology SLO's (or whatever they cal them) all over the world. What would that look like?

Well, guess my solution? Blogging. I am blogging lectures. So, even though you haven't had me around I am still blogging; I am just on the "Learning Anthropology" blog and not the "Teaching Anthropology" blog. I will probably do some cross posts but this blog is still anonymous and not known to my students, so, sshhhh.

Anyway, in an unrelated discussion, I know you will all be relieved to know that I have used my spare no power, no internet, no television, time to keep a careful watch on the skies here in Texas, both in an effort to make you all feel safer and to increase my foreign policy experience. At this time, to my knowledge, no Mexican planes have crossed into U.S. air space. Not on my watch. Nope.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Hurricane Ike: Tina was right, kick that to the curb

I am still without power and dealing with the consequences of our very own Ike, who came in like Phil Spector's Wall of Sound and all the lasting power of Ms. Turner. The house is intact but precious else remains--multiple trees down, fence down, pier and beam shifted, roof looking a little less perky. Mourning the loss, only, of my beautiful 30 foot (swear) avocado tree which was uprooted. I have salvaged two avocados and in true anthropological fashion there will be a replanting ceremony for the seeds. Meanwhile, there will be some massive clean up efforts required. I will return when able.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Service Learning: The Hidden Imperialist Agenda--(Mis)using the "Other"

My promised post:

Sooooo, The World's Most Narcissistic Psychology Professor Who Daily Validates the Claim That Psychologists Are Fucked Up hit upon the trick of using the venue of Service Learning to turn the bright light of administrative admiration upon himself (okay, its really only a dim bulb but let that go).

Down here, in the land of undergraduate teaching, we are seeing a wave of interest in Service Learning as the band aid for a hemorrhaging student population. Its supposed to "engage" students and make them seem less spoiled, kind of a quick let's nip this rampant overly-materialistic student value-system before they need to be shipped off to an MTV Exiled experience, and we can get them to help people right here in the yoo-ess-ayy where its safer.

Myself, I teach a student population that could be a recipient of service learning, so I am a bit bewildered by the focus on Service Learning at a community college. And most of the research, actually, argues for a generation that is more focused on "contributing" than previous ones. But, I guess, the overall concern in America for the "purpose-driven" life leading to fulfillment drives this agenda. *sigh* Once again, the American debate is about forcing others to do what we deem correct and proper with an almost evangelical fervor, instead, of having the faith that people will find their own way to fulfillment or respecting their right to do so. Its good to know we don't limit our desire to save the world to the world but, also, are busily doing it to each other. Restores your faith in logical consistency, at a time when there is none. Logical consistency, that is. We seem to have an excess of Faith.

But enough personal commentary--the rather narrow focus of this blog is teaching anthropology and I find that being an anthropologist--at least of the kind I am--means that I am just not down with Service Learning.

Because, first , I need to look at what students are learning. And. second, and perhaps most importantly, I need to think about the communities being "serviced". Need I remind everyone that the last chapter of almost every intro textbook is "Development Anthropology". I have to teach that--many times every semester. And I did live it, having worked as a consultant for USAID and the International Red Cross way back in 1994 at the beginning of international concern with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Tanzania. Its an issue for me.

Those of you skimming this entry for the juicy bits, they begin now:

Enter our Psychology Professor of the Long Title. Email goes out on the Faculty and Administration distribution list soliciting (I kid you not) travel-size shampoo bottles, toys, and PAMPHLETS ABOUT SPOUSAL ABUSE WRITTEN IN SPANISH (yes, I am shouting) because, because, because, dude is going on a "Medical Mission" to the Texas/Mexico border, taking a group of our students along on a pre-existing visitation by the University of Houston's pharmacy students. Seems that a couple of years ago, a small handful of church-goers decided it would be a good idea to reach out across the border and do some good. One of the church members teaches at the Pharmacy school and organized her students to, periodically, drive down to Mexico to an area of population aggregation centered around those American-owned export-assembly plants on the border known as Maquiladoras . The stated goal of the visit was for the pharmacy students to hand out (donated) pills for Type Two Diabetes to the many sufferers in these border communities. I almost exploded with the effort of trying to figure out what to protest first. I started small.

I went for the shampoo bottles. Shampoo bottles to communities that don't have access to clean water? That may bathe in the Rio Grande. Little plastic bottles. Hello, Marie Antoinette! What next--cake for diabetics. Can we talk about the, absolutely, horrendously foul disgusting moment of placing a student in such a power relationship? Oh, by all means, lean down from the float of the good ship America and hand out beads and trinkets to the "natives". Hey, no more tears--ya got clean hair for the day and an empty plastic bottle. And I gave it to you. Isn't it wonderful. Don't I feel good about myself for a moment. Where's the bus? Can we go now? Exiled is on tonight and I haven't Tivoed it, yet.

Then, I moved on to the "Mission" part. Yes, he confirmed via email it was part of a church effort. Do you hand out bibles? Well, yes but there is no overt missionizing. In shock, I responded, saying that to say handing out bibles is not overt missionizing is disingenuous. I was told I was patronizing. *blink*

Doctor Narcissism posts the pictures of the trip on Flikr. (He is featured in every shot). He is in green scrubs (shades of HTS--he wears the uniform of what he is not). I can't figure out what, exactly, they did. No one is actually qualified to do anything medical, I am not sure even if the pharmacy students can legally hand out pills--that is if they were in America, but I guess since its Mexico they feel our legality and morality and ethics don't matter--something about that border just transforms everything, huh? It even allows a Chinese-American, non Spanish-speaking psychology professor to "counsel" individuals in a maquiladoras community. Is anybody wondering what the crises hotline number will be on those Spanish spousal abuse pamphlets?

Call up a colleague at UT-Health Science. *deep sigh*, yes, we know about this, we don't care for it. We have been operating clinics on the border for years now and there is a lot of thinking going into our projects (I have a list of links about the issues far too extensive for this post if you are interested). We particularly don't like the message that Type Two Diabetes should be treated with pills. Its a poor message when what needs to happen is a change in diet. Coca Cola. High Fructose Corn Syrup.And, don't get me started on the spousal abuse issues. Oh, now its my turn for the deep sigh. I see. Worse than I thought. Could have guessed it if I hadn't been so focused on those damn shampoo bottles.

And now my problem, I am now just a lone voice in the wilderness, raining on their parade. No, don't do this is not a message they want to hear. But if I am committed to my discipline this is what I must say. Think of those communities. Think of the nature of the interaction. Think. Think. Think.

These issues continue and should resonate with all those teaching those introductory level courses. Read this post on the SACC (Society for Anthropology in the Community College) blog, which begins with the problems experienced by a fellow anthropology prof who is required by her institution to incorporate a Service Learning component into all her courses, even the Distance Learning ones. A nightmare, an absolute nightmare.

So, now you can see, my need to post a positive view of a development project. Money and effort legitimize. If I can point to those who overtly reject these perspectives, my criticism are legitimized. I think. I hope. But, riding the wave of a North America-centric view of the world, I realize, I haven't a chance in the world.

But, just so we are clear. This is what we should be teaching our students about life in the Maquiladoras.