Practicing anthropology without a license

Sam Smith

{From a speech delivered to the 100th anniversary conference of the Berkeley School of Anthropology]

Ever since I got the invitation to speak to you all I have been bragging because to an anthropology BA this is a bit like an ex-con being asked to address a conference of the American Bar Association.

At a seminal moment in my career planning – which is to say around sophomore year – the sainted Cora Dubois wrote of my analysis of the Nagas, “This is pretty good journalism but it is bad anthropology,” revealing a disorder which, as you may notice, plagues me yet.

Part of what had attracted me to anthropology in the first place was the search for a society that would find my personal traits and rituals acceptable enough for membership. Like, I suspect, many real anthropologists, I was a subculture of one looking for my lost tribe.

I began this search for the lost tribe of Sams at an unusually early age thanks to the fact that my school – Germantown Friends in Philadelphia – was one of only two high schools in the country that offered a course in anthropology at the time. And in ninth grade.

At this precise moment of teenage alienation and confusion, the school offered the reverse of a Pandora’s box, for when opened, anthropology freed not evil but hope and possibility, leaving locked safely inside the myth of the single, homogeneous cultural answer.

In the middle of the stolid, segregated, monolithic 1950s, Howard Platt showed us a new way to look at the world. And what a wonderful world it was. Not the stultifying world of our parents, not the monochromatic world of our neighborhood, not the boring world of 9th grade, but a world of fantastic options, a world in which people got to cook, eat, shelter themselves, have sex, dance and pray in an extraordinary variety of ways.

Mr. Platt did not exorcise racism, and he did not teach ethnic harmony, cultural sensitivity, the regulation of diversity or the morality of non-prejudiced behavior. He didn’t need to. He taught something far more important. Mr. Platt opened a world of variety, not for us to fear but to learn about, appreciate and enjoy. It was not a problem, but a gift.

Of course, one of the difficulties with a school that teaches such things is that you can come to think the rest of education is like that, an assumption of which I was quickly disabused at Harvard U. Whatever intelligence I possessed did not seem the sort required to excel at Harvard. Long afterwards I would figure out that much of what Harvard was about was a giant game of categories, in which real people, real events and real phenomena were assigned to fictitious groupings such as the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, or the Freudian Tradition.

If you were brazen enough to examine evidence with as few paradigms and as many questions as possible — in short to use one’s innate capacity to imagine, to dream and to speculate — you risked being regarded as ignorant, or at least odd. In Harvard’s cataloging system, the accidental, the chaotic, the imagined, the malevolent, the culturally unfamiliar, and the unique often got misplaced. I would later learn that Washington wasn’t much different: education was something one received, rehearsed, and regurgitated. You didn’t play with it, experiment with it, and you certainly didn’t make it your own.

If I had chosen one of the conventional majors, I might never have made it through. Fortunately, or inevitably, I found my way — academically and geographically — to a backwater of the university: the anthropology department, which lived like an Amazonian tribe well off the main campus in the dusty, dim recesses of the Peabody Museum. Out of some four thousand undergraduates, only about 20 majored in anthropology, five of them former students of Howard Platt. To be sure, there were plenty of Principles, Theories, and Categories, but the greater time was spent on observation and reporting, not so far removed from my journalistic interests. Further, once among the artifacts stored with faded labels in long, ancient, wood rimmed cases, or passing a canoe or totem pole en route to class, you felt distinctly free of Harvard, fully liberated from the Major Ideas of Western Civilization. In those dark corridors was the path to a world of variety and exploration, a field trip into all that lay beyond Harvard Square.

Now I had no intention of actually becoming an anthropologist. There were practical problems such as a sybaritic streak that made unappealing the thought of living months with strangers and without radio, bars or jazz.

I admit to having thus taken up good space at the Peabody Museum and wasting the time of some excellent teachers. I used anthropology much the way a student headed towards law school sometimes uses the English Department, as a last quick look around the world before entering the endless dark tunnel of specialized proficiency.

Those who taught at the time included such figures as Clyde Kluckhohn who would pace up and down the lecture hall stage in combat boots. Steve Williams’ classes were as well organized as Kluckhohn’s were anarchistic. Cora Dubois strode into class in a trench coat as if just off a flying boat from the Pacific. I believe it was Dubois who told us of a Pacific tribe that thought a woman could only conceive as a result of multiple acts of intercourse, thus allowing the semen to accumulate in sufficient quantity to produce a baby. I liked this idea given a growing concern over the precipitous potential of personal relations and I thought it a considerable improvement over those arrangements actually in place.

On the first day of my freshman anthropology class, the professor – William Howells – drew an invisible evolutionary time line on the wall of the lecture hall. As we twisted in our seats the eras, periods, and epochs of musical name and mystical significance boldly circumscribed the room. Finally we came back to where the professor stood and when there was nearly no place further to go, he announced that this was the beginnings of us. We were only inches from the first fire maker.

My relationship with that fire maker, and with the creator of the stone ax, the inventor of the spear thrower, and the first potter, would never cease to be both humbling and glorious. Humbling because our true evolutionary insignificance daily mocks our pretensions. Yet also glorious because without the endless random reiteration of individual creation, choice, and imagination, we might still be shivering in the dark instead of reading a book with our feet up and wondering whether there’s another beer in the fridge. We are nothing and everything, inexplicably and inseparably bundled together.

Thus armed, I went out into what we call the real world. I did not understand the influence of anthropology on me and I make only a marginal pretense of understanding it now. And I don’t want to over-credit it. After all, there were many other influences. For example, I grew up in a large family, at times the ultimate cross-cultural experience. Politics, with which I gained an early fascination, also is far more culturally conscious than most trades. And I am married to a social historian who has influenced me greatly – although I suppose that social historians are really just covert anthropologists – filling in the tiny gap between archeology and ethnography.

I also suspect that I was drawn to anthropology in part out of an instinctive preference for inductive thinking, reflected in my love of reporting and detective stories. And my taste for irony is perhaps related as well since irony is but another form of cultural deconstruction.

Still anthropology has clearly stood me in good stead. For example, writing as a young man on two critical issues of the time – Vietnam and civil rights – I was, in the former instance, a cold war liberal and recently discharged Coast Guard officer struggling to get it straight, But in the latter case, I reflected confident if unpopular thought. Vietnam I had to figure out; civil rights just came naturally.

In the winter of 1966 I took part in a bus boycott in Washington over a fare increase and wrote a story about it afterwards. The leader of the boycott – and the head of the local Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee – called me and said he’d like to meet. Which is how this 28-year-old white kid, who had only a handful of black friends, ended up as Marion Barry’s public relations advisor. . .

Unlike most white Washingtonians, I would remain involved in local politics in a city that was two-thirds black. It could be tough – as it was the day Stokley Carmichael walked into SNCC headquarters and said that we whites were no longer welcomed in the civil rights movement. Black power had raised its fist.

My solution was to think of myself as a minority, such as a Jew in New York or a Pole in Chicago. I also drew from two wells – that of anthropology and that of my Quaker education, the former to help me understand what was happening, the latter to encourage continued witness of my own values regardless of what was happening.

And so I relaxed and plunged ahead anyway. In fact, just a few years later I was helping to start the biracial DC Statehood Party that actually held an office or two for a quarter of century.

I continued to fall into an odd series of biracial activities, including five years as the token white on a TV and then a radio show, otherwise comprised of black journalists. On our last show a caller phoned and said of my colleagues and myself, “I’ve finally got this show figured out. Adrienne and Sam are married and Jerry is Adrienne’s father and you all need family counseling.” I liked that because I shared the view of intercultural relations of my friend Chuck Stone – former top aide of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. He said treat everyone like they were a member of your family. It doesn’t mean false sensitivity or false harmony, but it does mean a sense of reciprocal liberty, underlying solidarity, and a willingness to share the window seat.

I sometimes think of good politics as the art of turning selfishness into virtue and I think good multicultural relations often work the same way – which is why ethnic restaurants are so popular. It’s a good deal for everyone.

Just like living in DC’s ethnic minority has been a good deal for me. Here are some reasons why:

– Black Washingtonians understood loss, pain, suffering and disappointment. They helped me become better at handling these things.

– Teachers, artists, writers and poets are highly respected in the black community. As a writer, I liked that.

– As a writer, the imagery, rhythm and style of black speech appealed to me far more than the jargon-ridden circumlocution of the white city.

– Besides, white Washington always seemed to want me to conform to it; black Washington always accepted me for who I was.

I had to discover such things by myself because no one – other than a few anthropologists – had ever told me that diversity could be fun.

Anthropology also greatly affected my reportage. For example, most urban plans are typically treated as phenomena with largely economic consequences. Their cultural impact, however, is huge. With few exceptions, every major urban plan I have examined has assumed that if you create a better physical design, people will adapt to it for the better. But these same plans also assumed that a major reason for the improvement would be that the physical design would attract a better class of people. And somebody had to get out of their way to let it happen.

One of my other interests has been political corruption. To many this is a simple matter, did the politician take the bribe or didn’t he? But in fact, there has repeatedly lurked a cultural story behind the headlines. For example, one of the big changes in the immigrant experience has been the weakening of institutions that acculturated the newcomer – and top on the list of these institutions were the church and the political machine. Richard Croker, a tough 19th century county boss of Tammany Hall, grew almost lyrical when he spoke of his party’s duty to immigrants: “They do not speak our language, they do not know our laws, they are the raw material with which we have to build up the state . . .[Tammany] looks after them for the sake of their vote, grafts them upon the Republic, makes citizens of them.” Alexander B. Callow Jr. has written that Boston politician Martin Lomansey met every new immigrant ship and “helped the newcomers find lodging or guided them to relatives.” James Michael Curley set up nationalization classes to prepare recent arrivals for the citizenship examination . . . But we don’t often hear things like that. Nor of the hidden agendas of those who called themselves reformers, often as corrupt as that those of the machines they were replacing but couched in nicer terms – such as economic revitalization.

Corruption has changed like everything else and today our corrupt politicians no longer even tithe to the people, they no longer carry out feudal responsibilities for their payoffs. . .

There is also for all of us the problem that the nature of culture is drastically changing from being something in which the individual is indoctrinated and absorbed, towards something the individual must preserve, restore or recreate in order to avoid the destruction of all culture save that of the corporate market and the political systems that support it. Whether we like it or not – as reporters or anthropologists we are forced every day to join others in either strengthening or destroying culture. We can write about it dispassionately later but this afternoon we are all part of the problem. We must find ways to blend the detachment of our trades with our existential responsibilities.

We live in what Marshall Blonsky has called a semiosphere which bombards us with the UV rays of advertising, propaganda, and interminable sounds and sights devoid of meaning – and which is controlled in large part by multinational corporations whose intentions include the destruction of both culture and individuality. Their goal, well described by the French writer Jacques Attali, is an “ideologically homogenous market where life will be organized around common consumer desires.”

This new world is unlike any in human history – a world in which the destruction of cultural and individual variety is high on the agenda of the earth’s political and business leaders; our human nature being to them not a reason for existing but just another obstacle in their path to power.

The strategies by which this onslaught can be countered depend on the imagination, passion, obstinacy, and creativity of ordinary people who refuse their consumptive assignments in the global marketplace, who develop autonomous alternatives, and who laugh when they are supposed to be saluting. The business of constructing culture is no longer an inherited and precisely defined task but a radical act demonstrating to others that they are not alone and to ourselves that we are still human. We badly need you in this. Join the fray, remember that objectivity is just another religion, celebrate what you have found, help us to preserve all our various selves, help us to replace what has been lost, and help us to avoid ending up with nothing but dead bones and still shards – the archeology of human hope that no longer exists.

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