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.