Ashamed to be apolitical

What happened to activist anthropology? To solidarity and support for those fighting injustice and inequality? At the AAA meeting in Montréal support for the Occupy Wall Street movement was conspicuously absent. As the masses converged upon Le Palais, I was anticipating a strong show of support. Yet, when the activists began shouting “Occupy….Montréal….Occupy…Wall Street,” they were met with disdain and not open arms. Are we just armchair anthropologists, all about observation and indignant toward participation? I was told activist anthropology was gaining steam, but that did not seem to be the case in Montréal. Where were the impromptu meetings or discussions dedicated to the most important movement of our day?

It is said that those who do not think something can be done should get out of the way of those people doing it. I guess that is what the majority of anthropologists chose in Montréal— simply get out of the way. When the activists stormed the meetings, I heard several anthropologists uttering “This is not the time or place,” “Someone should alert security,” or “They’ll let anybody in here.” Others ignored their chance to join the movement…

…It is because of corporate greed and profits over people that there are not enough jobs in anthropology and in education in general. Margaret Mead once said: “It only takes a few like-minded individuals to change the world, indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” Unfortunately, it seems many anthropologists have no interest in changing the world. They seem content doing anthropology from their armchair, waiting on the younger generation to fix the problems that they helped create. For the first time in my life, I was ashamed to say that I was an anthropologist.

I have some quick comments on this. I was there too, and I agree with Montgomery that most anthropologists reacted with indifference to an effort to have an Occupy-style assembly in the lobby of the convention center. I didn’t hear the outright contempt or snark that Montgomery reports, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there had been some of that too. And, generally speaking, I strongly relate to his frustration with academics who think their role in the world is to study other people’s politics, but not to act themselves.

We have to ask ourselves, though: what kind of political space can a professional meeting be? I think this is something that is frequently being renegotiated within anthropology, and probably within other disciplines as well. Plainly, such meetings are not strictly apolitical. The generation before ours tried to make the Vietnam War an issue in these meetings, I’ve heard, and even today we hear about groups like the “Radical Caucus” of the Modern Language Association.  Even in anthropology, there has been intense discussion about the labor politics of the hotels where the AAA annual meetings will be held, and about whether anthropologists will cross a picket line at a hotel whose workers are striking. (Most won’t, according to a survey, and in 2004, the meetings were moved to Atlanta from San Francisco to avoid doing this.)

I don’t have a problem with trying to get professional associations to issue statements on major national issues of the day, or to support union hotel workers. But speaking for myself, I don’t know that I feel very political at a professional conference. That doesn’t mean I’m not an activist in Chicago, or on my own campus. But a professional meeting is a very transient, very inward-directed, very instrumental space, one that people don’t usually have any lasting connection to, one that only lasts a day or two. The brevity of the meetings makes it hard to feel the kind of deep investment and practical knowledge that, in my experience, are the usual prerequisites of effective activism. The meetings are, in a sense, nowhere, a nonplace, in Marc Augé’s sense of somewhere that doesn’t have a dense history or sociability. It’s like trying to do politics in a big highway intersection: there’s only so much you can do in a place like that. You can block traffic. You can stop traffic from going a particular way. But it’s hard to engage deeply with all the drivers who are just there in transit towards some other destination. I’m in favor of a more socially and politically engaged anthropology, but I think that it has to be built largely at home on our individual campuses first, where we are more invested and have more at stake.

2 thoughts on “Ashamed to be apolitical

  1. i suppose another option is for the AAA and its equivalents in other disciplines to engage more directly in political action before and after their annual conferences, i.e. via web forums that allow individual members to debate, coordinate action, issue position statements etc.

    as far as anthropologists or american anthropologists go, i really do feel that there are mixed messages about the extent to which academics are encouraged or expected to express political positions. it’s something i’ve been wondering about lately. in and of itself it’s a political question, of course, because being apolitical is being conservative in the sense that it upholds the status quo. there must be a big range as to how much activism one sees one’s professors engage in from campus to campus and discipline to discipline, but so far i haven’t heard much direct discussion of the issue as a grad student (except in a research ethics class, where it was one of the most engaging conversations we had all semester).

  2. I think “mixed messages about the extent to which academics are encouraged or expected to express political positions” is pretty much exactly right!

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