Category Archives: Power

On Culture and Power

This essay originally appeared in Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?, a monthly feature in my newsletter. It has been edited slightly for this format.

Like many of you, I’ve been preoccupied by the issue of power in the United States. I’ve been thinking about how cultural change and policy interact; how power is conferred and reinforced, and how exactly to understand where our national cultural is at this moment in time. The last preoccupation is likely impossible until historians get a crack at things a few decades from now. Things are moving so fast that it’s difficult for social scientists to get a true handle on what’s going on.

Knowing full well that distrust of institutions is partly what contributed to our present, incomprehensible reality, I find myself wary of those with institutional power who have failed, over and over, to push back against the unilateral directives coming from our Executive branch. Deep down, I had more faith in both parties, and perhaps especially in the party with which I most frequently disagree. Surely Republicans held the sanctity of our national narrative in higher regard than this. Surely they would be the ones to say, “Enough” and take action to protect, if not the people being harmed, then the Constitution. I didn’t realize how much I was counting on them until I found myself shocked, again and again, by their lack of action. Here I was, assuming they were the party who truly cared about America. And now I’m not sure they even have the power to do anything, much less the will.

Power is tricky. At once simple and complicated, it can be easy to locate but difficult to trace. The origins of power are distinct, yet related to, the execution of power. But where is power located?

  • In individuals whose actions have consequences for others. An individual’s authority is granted by the populace over whom they have power – either explicitly (via democratic elections) implicitly (via cultural tradition) or by violence (see “military might,” below). Leaders have a social contract with the public over which they have power – without the public’s support, an individual cannot impose their will without additional sources of power (see below). Authority is earned and can erode if the social contract between the public and the individual leader is broken.
  • In institutions that provide the scaffolding of civil society. A few days ago, I read in the LA Times that the Getty released a statement condemning the recent executive order that resulted in a travel ban. The fact that an arts institution wrote a statement commenting on a federal action, released it, and was taken seriously by a media organization speaks to the power that institutions have within our society. But institutions, like individuals, also owe their cultural cache to the unspoken acknowledgment of the public, who confer upon them the status of institution within the broader social landscape. Institutions are authorities when it comes to certain types of knowledge, leaders by virtue of their reputations as depositories of society’s “best.”
  • The media is a special type of institution that has enormous power of information and the dissemination of knowledge. They often steer the direction of public discourse by choosing how to represent reality, and as such act as intermediaries between the state and its citizens. But the media, too, is dependent upon the public for their authority. The power to produce information as knowledge is granted by the people who interact with this institution and its knowledge. Once people distrust a source of information, that source’s power is diminished.
  • In military might – physical power. This is related to the power of individuals and the state/institutions, in that most state power is underwritten by the possibility of military force. That is, the threat of violence. I don’t agree with everything in this sobering Politico article, but this line illustrates the primacy of violence to any system of power: “We must (re)accept the notion that hard power is the guarantor of any international system: security is a precondition for anything (everything) else.”
  • In capitalist societies, power also lies in money. This is why you are often addressed as a consumer, and called upon to exercise your power by buying or refusing to buy certain items produced by certain companies. This is why the Citizens United decision was so important. Why people are up in arms with billionaires gaining direct access to government through cabinet appointments. The power that accumulated capital has over our institutions cannot be overstated, and it’s the reason – and it pains me to say this – a corporate response to the federal government may be our best hope to stop the deterioration of our national institutions and social structure.
  • But there’s an important location I’ve failed to devote separate attention: the public. The public is a consistent source of power, as many of the entities where power is located draw their authority from the complicity of the people. So ultimately, power is located in society.
  • In culture. People who shape policy respond to public sentiment, to cultural shifts. To shift the execution and consequences of power, culture must shift. Understandings of what power is, who or what can wield it, and in what ways, can change and thus alter the social fabric.

Our social fabric is partially held together by the nation-state and the ideologies it reinforces. The nation and the state are distinct, yet interrelated, entities. The nation is a cultural entity – comprised of its citizens. The state is the institutionalization of that national culture, backed by military might. Our national culture has always dehumanized people arriving from different places. Our state has always afforded different strata rights and privileges to groups of people arbitrarily delineated and made distinct from the un-marked “white” category of person who is automatically afforded full rights and humanity. How do we change culture and enact policy that aligns with our values and serves everyone; treats everyone as fully human?

Our nation has always been broken. Our country exists because of colonialism: we are colonizers, reaping the benefits from land stolen from people white colonizers considered sub-human. Anthropology is itself a product of colonialism, and we have a moral responsibility to do no further harm with this form of knowledge production. That means listening to the people we aim to understand, ensuring they speak for themselves, bringing their truths to light. Deconstructing the many meanings of cultural practices.

We are constantly creating and reinforcing aspects of our society and culture as we go about the practice of living. This means we all have some power to shape reality, to effect change. I’ve been thinking about what I can do, besides calling my representatives, to help heal our nation. How cultural change can influence policy. It’s my duty to expend effort in service of the greater good, especially if my efforts can benefit those who have been repeatedly disadvantaged by our government, institutions, and other social systems.

After spending the past year half-heartedly trying to be a freelance writer, and falling back into grant writing and nonprofit communications, it’s clear that what I need to do is draw on my training in the social sciences and get to work. I’ll be looking for ways to contribute to organizations that are working for social justice, and that means acknowledging that while my experience of obtaining my MA was traumatic, it in no way negates the social science training that I have at my disposal. It’s my obligation, and my desire, to apply my training to the betterment of society.

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Filed under Contemporary, Power, Why Can't I Eat My Dog?

Poetic Interlude: Shadow Brand

large rectangular shadow stretches into a road

Mercedes monolith
Rises from the dusty heap of civil society
Shrouds the cracked public sphere

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Filed under Contemporary, Power, Wordplay

Watching Mel Brooks in 2016

On November 9, I sent myself an email. The world breaks, again and again, read the subject line. Maya Angelou supplied the body of the message with her poem “Still I Rise.” I don’t care if that’s a cliche.

Yesterday I wrote myself a note: “The culture comes into consciousness and is repeatedly repressed. Constant vigilance!”

The dangerous myth of progress is that it’s cumulative and linear. But progress isn’t set-it-and-forget-it. Progress toward social justice, toward a world in which everyone has access to basic resources and can exercise their human rights, requires constant maintenance. People in power are loath to cede any of it, never more so when their positions have become reified to the point that they believe any questioning of who occupies positions of power is an encroachment upon their occupation of said positions. One group’s gain is another’s loss in the zero-sum paradigm that governs our society.

Backlash is never not a possibility. People are never not at risk.
A few weeks ago, I sat down with my family to an enjoy a diversion: Mel Brook’s History of the World, Part I. We chuckled a few times, but it was not as funny as I remembered. There are many reasons for this, but chief among them is that we’re living in the aftermath of November 8.

Somehow, the sequence where a caveman assaults a cavewoman with a stone club, thereby enacting the first marriage, did not inspire laughter, nor did bearing witness to a monarch’s serial sexual assault of his ladies in waiting. Watching an enslaved black man repeatedly argue for his life, never mind his freedom, was distinctly uncomfortable. The abuse of power was rampant, and played for laughs.

The movie, which came out in 1981, had a particular temporal relationship to tragedy. A perceived–discursive, at least–distance from assault on marginalized bodies. Times were relatively good; collective suffering was a distant memory. There was space to skewer that which had plagued previous generations.

Today, we’ve come too close to these realities, too near the precipice of the possibility that our material circumstances are about to get worse, our rights may be called into question, our environment–and by extension, humanity’s future–may be laid waste in sacrifice to the altar of extraction capitalism.

The discomfort that came from watching History of the World, Part I made me think of Brook’s other comedies that wouldn’t play as well today, chiefly To Be or Not to Be and The Producers. Both rely heavily on lampooning Hitler for their comedy. “Springtime for Hitler” was a hilarious showstopper in 1968–and again in the late 1990’s. But today, in a country where we can no longer agree that Nazis are bad, that premise becomes less humorous and more tone-deaf. Sinister, even.

“Never again,” we keep declaring. Except it’s already happened.

When I was a teenager, I thought there was nothing left to fight for. Then the U.S. declared war in Iraq. The more years that pass, the more intractable achieving social justice seems to become. There is always something to fight for. And that means that sometimes, laughter has to wait.

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Filed under Beginning of the Body, Contemporary, Gender Trouble, Historical, Power, Racism, Television and Movies

Liminal States

This is a recent column from Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?, an ongoing Q&A series about the strange inner workings of U.S. culture. The column is a monthly feature in my newsletter.

Quandary 

What are “liminal states,” and do they tend to vote red or blue in elections?
~from M.C. Mallet

Anthropological Explanation 

I was tempted to just leave this one as a joke, it tickled me so. But politics is not (entirely) a laughing matter, so I thought I’d tackle this quandary from two angles:

 

  1. Liminal states as a cultural concept [the part where I ruin the joke]
  2. Liminal states as those we think of as “undecided” (aka, swing states) in the context of U.S. presidential elections [the part where I answer the question anyway]
First, liminality as a cultural concept. In anthropological circles, this concept often comes from Victor Turner’s seminal work, The Ritual Process, wherein he describes the sequential components of ritual: removal from society, liminality (where transformation occurs), and return to society. We can apply this model of ritual to anything, from the grand pageantry of a presidential inauguration to the mundane exchange of insults over social media.

It’s much more complicated, of course, but what’s important in the context of M.C.’s question is that liminality is a state of being apart from the everyday goings on that comprise life as we know it. It’s a “between” state–not quite one thing or another.

Moving along to the second part of our analysis, this means that we’re talking about purple states! Neither red nor blue, purple states exist outside even the color-spectrum of hues that represent America. Until election night, when (enfranchised) residents of these liminal states cast their ballots, it won’t be clear which “normal” color–red or blue–a purple state will transform into, bringing it back into the normative cultural structure from which it had been set apart. Whew!

Now we can talk about these liminal/purple/swing states in more detail, and address the latter half of M.C.’s question, which deals with each state’s voting history. I’m only going to go back as far as 2000 because ugh, and also that’s when I remember this whole red-state-blue-state-drunk-state-pew-state rigmarole infiltrating our political discourse.

2000: Most of us remember Florida, but there were other undecided states that election, as well, principally New Hampshire. New Hampshire swung red that year, and together with contested state Florida, decided the election for the Republican candidate.

2004: Ohio turned out to be the liminal state that would decide the election in ’04, and it swung red. Pennsylvania and Florida were also purple at the outset of the contest, eventually swinging blue and red, respectively. (Fun fact: that year, New Hampshire swung blue.)

2008: The usual suspects (Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, Pennsylviania) along with often-purples (Colorado, Indiana, Nevada, North Carolina, and my god there are a lot of states in the Union…) swung every which way that year. Florida went blue! Indiana went red! By the end of the electoral ritual, nary a territory was purple. (Liminal states rarely last, folks.)

2012: According to Politico, swing states included Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. All but the final two swung Democrat that election.

2016: This year, there’s been more discussion about the “Rust Belt” swing states. These states’ economies once relied heavily on manufacturing. Because manufacturing has, thanks to globalization and other nefarious forces, moved operations elsewhere, many Rust Belt states have become economically depressed. This has led to a voter base that is unpredictable as compared with their voting record. A few months ago, politicos were calling these states for Republicans, but now they’re not so sure. The point is, past elections won’t be as reliable of a touchstone when it comes to how likely each of these states is to vote Republican or Democrat come November. Especially since this year is [insert hyperbolic, apocalyptic  phrase of choice].

In conclusion, it’s complicated and I don’t know, and everyone should read widely and consider participating in the democratic process on every level they can stomach.

Miscellany
For those of you who are politically inclined and would love a more nuanced discussion of these types of topics from someone with an actual political science degree, I highly recommend you check out WTF is America, a newsletter by the delightful and intelligent Amy Diegelman.

You can submit your own question about social norms and cultural practices to “Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?” whenever the mood strikes you. The ‘advice’ column welcomes all inquiries, animal-related or not, but cannot guarantee an answer to each submission.

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“Rigged” Elections & Mutually Exclusive Realities

a quick take

Part of the problem with not associating with people who disagree with us is that we’re all under the impression that we’re right all the time, and that the other side is delusional.

The assertion that the election won’t be rigged* will only ring true for those who support the winning side. Those supporting the losing side will look around, see only those who voted similarly, and have further “evidence” that the election results do not reflect the reality they see around them.

Sigh. Guess we’ll have to start talking to people who make us uncomfortable…

*It’s worth noting that the person delivering this message–the President–is someone those crying foul of a potentially-rigged election won’t believe under any circumstances. They deny him the authority to speak their truth.

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Filed under Contemporary, Media, Power