Reason #10: He’s Hip to Anthropology

Why is America so consistently dense to other cultures?

This (paraphrased) question was posed to Barack Obama by a former student of anthropologist Margaret Mead.  The forum?  Not a college campus, but a foreign policy discussion in New Hampshire in November 2007.

Obama answered the question in a refreshingly serious take on why anthropology might be important for foreign policy:

In a lengthy answer, Obama suggested that part of the problem is that this generation’s best and brightest were working overseas for Merrill Lynch in Hong Kong and not for the government. But then the fledgling Illinois senator offered an observation about understanding non-Western cultures that transcended the particulars of the question and spoke to a larger foreign policy perspective.

“You can’t wait to do some of this work until there is a crisis,” he said. “This is a chronic problem in Washington. It has to do with our 30-second attention span. You want to get to know a country and figure out what are the interests and who are the players. You can’t parachute in. Iraq is a classic example, and Iran now may be another example, where we are entirely isolated from these countries and have no idea what’s going on. We don’t have good intelligence on them. And we’re basically making a series of decisions in the blind. And that is dangerous for us.”

His mother, Ann Dunham, had an MA in anthropology from the University of Hawai’i, and when he was a young boy they lived in Indonesia where she did her research.

Obama told his NH audience that he was “hip to Margaret Mead.”

So, what might it mean for a US President to be hip to anthropology?

In the present, it might mean a newly rethought use of anthropology in US foreign policy.  Following highly controversial participation of anthropologists in Vietnam War intelligence (as part of Project Camelot), the US Army has recently begun working with anthropologists in the Middle East as part of their Human Terrain Team.

Anthropologists are highly critical of this program, but some argue for a real need for ethnographic voices in US intelligence and security operations–such as Jeff Bristol, a former army soldier and current anthropology student.  At any rate, discussions between anthropologists and representatives of the US intelligence community are now taking place with increasing frequency.

Where do we stand on this?

Hockey Moms for Obama skate locally, but think globally: we absolutely support the use of anthropology in better understanding the world.  We don’t, however, support putting anthropological knowledge to use against people during wartime.

When Barack Obama says he’s hip to Margaret Mead in reference, we presume, to this quote:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

We interpret this to mean that he believes in the power of the people, and that as instilled in him by his anthropologist mother, sees the value in all cultures (as opposed to the views, for example, of US Rep. Michelle Bachman that “not all cultures are equal”).  We believe he sees the value of anthropology in potentially redirecting the narrow, imperial, and at times xenophobic direction US foreign policy has taken under G.W. Bush.  Obama’s critique of Bush Doctrine is loud and clear.

So, here’s to a revitalized American built not on fear of the world, or being “dense to other cultures,” but to knowing, appreciating, and cooperating with our neighbors around the world.  And, here’s to some Anthropology 101 in the highest office of our country, to a humane US foreign policy premised on the idea that all cultures are created equal.

–Carole, mother of two and card carrying member of the Anthropologists for Obama club, Gunbarrel, Colorado


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One Response to “Reason #10: He’s Hip to Anthropology”

  1. Sandra Says:

    I fear that Obama will support Human Terrain. We can hope all day and night that Obama is just pretending to be so mainstream and that he’s sercretly more progressive than his policies.

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