Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Art That's More Interesting To Think About Than To Experience

Some art is more interesting to think about than to experience. Ideally art presents a unique object to experience and evokes a realm of ideas and thoughts – about some topic and/or about the relationship between art and the world. When art simply presents something to be experienced which is not evocative, the result is decoration, something that might be beautiful (or at least pretty) but which is generally less satisfying than truly great art. On the other hand, when art is too concerned to be about something, the result is often something interesting to think about (provided that the something the art is about is something interesting), but something that leaves one cold, without much to experience.

Much of Andy Warhol’s art strikes me this way. His Brillo boxes are interesting in their attempt to mimic in art form everyday mundane objects. Arthur C. Danto discusses the Brillo boxes as the end of the history of art in that they bring about a zero degree of differentiation between art world and real world. While I disagree, mainly because I don’t think there’s actually zero degree of differentiation between Warhol’s boxes and manufactured Brillo boxes, I find the idea interesting to think about. I don’t find Warhol’s boxes at all interesting to look at, though. To the extent that they succeed as art, they look like Brillo boxes, and to the extent they don’t, they fail – but either way, I really just don’t care.

Warhol’s screen prints are similarly interesting to think about, calling into question the uniqueness and authenticity of the work of art by their mass produced nature. (Not the first works to do so; for example, Rodin’s sculptures do something similar, even if the intent was not to explicitly call attention to issues of uniqueness and authenticity.) For me, though, once I’ve seen a few, I’m done. I find the screen prints more interesting to experience than the Brillo boxes, but not by a lot. The one exception I have experienced (at the Pensacola Museum of Art – not the place people might expect to encounter quality art exhibits, but actually a fine, small museum) is one that violates Warhol’s sentiment about the lack of uniqueness or artistic quality of the screen prints. I was struck when viewing several of his “camouflage” prints (which replicate the same camouflage shape, but using a variety of different colors in each printing) that the different prints of the “same” image side by side provided an interesting experience of the relationship between color and form, for even though the shapes were the same for each print, the different colorations created completely different visual experiences.

I wrote in a previous post (“The End of the History of Music”) about composer Gyorgy Ligeti’s work Poeme Symphonique for 100 Metronomes. While I find most of Ligeti’s work both fascinating to think about and to listen to, I have a different reaction to this piece. I do find that this is a piece that’s interesting to think about. It’s a study in the extremes of polyrhythm, and a musical application of information theory – as Ligeti described it, the piece moves from maximum entropy to lessened entropy back to greater entropy. It’s an attempt to question the limits of what can be considered music. It’s a slap in the face of the propriety of high culture (perhaps more an issue in the early 1960s when the piece was composed than now – the liner notes to The Ligeti Edition, V. 5 in which Ligeti describes the premier of the piece are quite amusing and alone worth the price of the CD). It’s even worth a listen – there are moments when the clicking of 100 metronomes set at different speeds creates interesting patterns of sound. But beyond a listen or two, it’s 20 minutes or so of clacking and noise – not so interesting to actually listen to, much less repeatedly.

Jean-Luc Godard has made some great films. I’m quite fond of films like Contempt and Le Weekend, but many of Godard’s films simply annoy me. (This is actually praise of Godard. I’m highly idiosyncratic in that I love to watch movies, and I enjoy few things more than watching a good movie, but I find most actual movies disappointing. I’m annoyed by all of the films of most “art film” directors.) Band of Outsiders is a case in point. There’s not much compelling about the story. There are a number of cinematic tricks employed in the movie, mainly having to do with sound editing. For example, while characters are running along, an upbeat jazz track might be playing in the background and then suddenly stop while the characters continue moving as before, but in silence. This has the effect of making the viewer aware of how things like music affect the overall experience of watching film. That’s mildly interesting, but after a time or two, it’s simply bothersome, especially when there’s nothing all that compelling about anything else happening in the film.

A recent article in Américas magazine (April 2007, pp. 44 – 51) by K. Mitchell Snow introduces the work of Peruvian photographer Ana De Orbegoso. Many of the photos are evocative, beautiful, and thought-provoking, such as those in the series The Invisible Wall and Urban Virgins. At the same time, photos from another series, My Childhood Album, struck me as another example of art that is interesting to think about but not so interesting to experience. The photos involve pasting self portrait head shots of Orbegoso onto photos of children from other families. In the head shots, the adult Orbegoso mimics the sort of facial expressions typical of children in such photos, and the series acts in part as a photo commentary on the stylized modularity of families’ photographs, where virtually every family has the same photographs, that is, photos of family members in virtually the same “spontaneous” situations as every other family, which is to say that family photos and other family remembrances comprise a sort of patterned genre in their own right. I find that intriguing to think about, but the photos themselves – I’m a bit amused, and then I’m done, more interested in trying to track down more photos from her other series.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

"Sometimes a Statue is Just a Statue": On the Interpretation of (Phallic) Symbols

The following was originally written as a paper presented at an annual meeting of the Southern Anthropological Society. It is in part a follow up to the material presented in my previous blog post.

This is a paper about a paper and the reaction it provoked. It is also a paper about a perennial anthropological topic: the interpretation of symbols and other signs, focusing especially on phallic symbols and icons.

In October, 2003, I delivered a paper to the Gulf South History and Humanities Conference, a conference dominated by Southern historians, with the title of “Race and Public Monuments in Pensacola, Florida,” though the paper itself addressed many components of memorialization beyond just race. In the paper, I focused particularly on two monuments in downtown Pensacola which unlike any other in the city are dedicated primarily to individuals who never actually set foot in the city: Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The monument to Lee sits within a traffic circle on Palafox Street (a main street in downtown Pensacola) at the peak of North Hill. The monument itself is a frankly phallic affair, with a four sided marble pedestal, atop which is placed a column and atop the column a sculpture of a Confederate individual who local historians insist is not Lee, though the monument overall is dedicated to him and the individual does at least resemble the Confederate General. The monument is surrounded by trees which largely obscure it from view when passing by, as well as a circle of outward facing cannons. The site is relatively inaccessible to pedestrians, not being located at a light for safe access. The overall impression when passing by is of circulating around something important – yet something secluded, protected – sacred even.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Plaza is located just a few blocks from Lee Square at the base of North Hill. It is hard not to look at this tableau – the monument to Robert E. Lee atop North Hill looking down toward or perhaps looking down upon the much smaller monument to MLK – as an icon of race relations in the city – and indeed I see no reason not to interpret the juxtaposition in precisely that way, even while there is much more going on. MLK Plaza is located within the median of Palafox St., with a bust of King upon a small pedestal of a different material, with low brick walls funneling the pedestrian/viewer towards the bust – an icon of accessibility and penetrability precisely the opposite that of Lee Square. From the perspective of the passing motorist (and in Pensacola one is almost always a motorist, almost never a pedestrian), the monument and plaza are a small affair, easy to miss while driving by, in contrast to Lee Square where it is impossible not to notice that one is passing by something of importance – even while that something is largely secluded from the gaze. Once noticed, though, - if noticed – MLK plaza is much more visible, more open to the penetrating gaze.

In the 2003 paper, I discussed the nature of public memorials and monumental architecture as repositories of public signs, presenting signs of a particular narrative of history or of what is significant. I also discussed the ways in which these two monuments are “about” a variety of things, including race, class, and masculinity, both through what is said and what left unsaid.

The thing which most clearly ties the two together is race. One odd thing about both monuments is their commemoration of specific individuals who never actually set foot in the city, but each is clearly associated with events and processes that transformed race relations in the city and region. An ambivalence towards race is noteworthy. In Pensacola, as throughout most of the South and country in general, race is a structuring element in virtually every interaction between black and white – though this is a basic social fact that largely goes unremarked in the sense that to remark upon it is virtually taboo. Perhaps to be expected, the monument to Lee and the Confederacy leaves race issues unmentioned. Its main dedication reads, “The uncrowned heroes of the Southern Confederacy, whose joy was to suffer and die for a cause they believed to be just. Their unchallenged duration and matchless heroism shall continue to be the wonder and inspiration of the ages.” There are additional commemorations to Jefferson Davis and Confederate secretary of the navy Stephen R. Mallory (after whom the local Sons of the Confederacy chapter is named), along with a quote from Mallory, “’Tis not mortals to command success; But we’ll do more sempronius, we’ll deserve it.’” Not surprisingly (at least to me as someone who grew up white in the South), there is no mention of exactly what the just cause of the Confederacy might have been – or that it might have had anything to do with slavery – nor for that matter just what in the heck to “do more sempronius” might mean. More surprising is the utter lack of mention of race equality or the civil rights movement at MLK plaza. The sole inscription there (aside from a plaque listing primary donors) quotes from King’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech from December 11, 1964, “Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” Certainly a sentiment worthy of commemoration, further standing as a reminder that King was a leader and hero for all, and not just a hero and leader for Black Americans – though he certainly was that. At the same time, though, if you didn’t already know much about King and his struggles, you leave the monument with no additional knowledge about King and his struggles, and the signification of King’s universal humanism, and only that, serves to present racism and civil rights as insignificant, not worth commemorating, or at the very least something best left unsaid.

Alongside this ambivalent presentation of race, I also talked in the 2003 paper about the ways in which the monuments present a discourse on class, though also largely through occlusion. For example, wistful nostalgia for the lost cause of the Confederacy, whether in the 1890s when the Lee monument was dedicated or more recently, depends in part upon erasure of the class dynamics among whites of the Antebellum South, and certainly today is based in part in contemporary class dynamics, based especially in the anxieties of working class white southerners in a time when working class Americans generally often fell rightfully anxious. With the King monument, King’s thoughts, words, and actions with regard to class and class inequality are potentially occluded to an even greater degree than his racial civil rights activism, in the sense that even though civil rights is not mentioned at the monument, it can be largely assumed that passersby will be familiar already with this aspect of his legacy in a way that cannot be assumed regarding his actions on class inequality late in his life.

I had expected when I presented the paper that if there were any controversy that it would be from these comments on race and class. I was after all talking about two of the most provocative topics in American culture – and talking about what was not being said, a controversial sort of discursive analysis since Foucault’s emphasis on presence and production in discourse. Instead this went unremarked, though I’m inclined to think that this was probably due to the great ambivalence and discomfort with dealing with and speaking about race and class in the South and the U.S. generally. Instead, it was a part of the paper – the phallic nature of monuments representing great men – that I had regarded as fairly non-controversial (I mean, really, who doesn’t think that war heroes atop giant columns are a tad phallic) that generated a mini-firestorm of reaction.

This was a part of my analysis I had assumed not only to be straightforward but also to be “objective” in the sense of being based in the interpretation of symbolic and iconic aspects of the empirical components of the monuments, in contrast to the other analysis which I myself regarded as more tenuous because based largely in what might be "said" in the unsaid. I drew attention to a general pattern of memorialization of great men in phallic symbolic and iconic form in western culture, while at the same time monuments of less obvious masculine and heroic figures or events tend to take other forms, e.g. the Wall commemorating Vietnam veterans in the absence of heroic triumph or the Holocaust memorial in Boston, which are decidedly non-phallic. In the case of Lee Square commemorating Great Man in the form of War Hero par excellence, the statuary itself takes what I saw as indubitably phallic form, to which is added the contextual components of forced circulation about the monument and its near impenetrability to the gaze and physical access (remember the trees shrouding it – not to mention those cannons). Even more interesting, I thought, was the case of King’s monument. King is often remembered as a clearly masculine figure and absolutely a Great Man, though in a quite different mold than the war hero more typically commemorated, being instead a vulnerable hero – as are all non-violent resisters, dependent ultimately as they are on the eventual acquiescence of their oppressors – and also a more open figure by virtue of his own universalism. I hypothesized then that for such a man would be found a monument phallic in nature (with the pedestal topped by bust fitting the bill nicely if on a smaller scale than with Lee Square) – but of a less typical nature – and here I addressed in the 2003 paper how the (severed) head bust atop pedestal of different material marked a vulnerability (if not arguably castration), as well as the accessibility and penetrability to the gaze and to physical access.

The reaction to my arguments by the audience of mostly Southern historians (an interpretation on my part based on mode of dress, self-presentation, discursive style, etc.) was interesting. Nobody talked about the things I had thought most controversial, which in hindsight is not so surprising since basically it meant that nobody talked about the topics of race and class that generally nobody talks about. Instead, there was an incredulous response to the idea of public monuments as phallic symbols or icons – and a frankly anti-intellectual response which consisted not of counterargument but of flippant attempts at dismissal. This was perhaps summed up by one comment of the panel’s discussant, “Sometimes a statue is just a statue.” A ridiculous assertion in general – a statue is rarely if ever just a statue, given that such monumental architecture always involves presentation of public values and what is deemed important for memorialization, and is generally expensive to boot. And a statue, erected in the 1890s just a few short years after the end of Reconstruction, and dedicated primarily to Lee and secondarily to Jeff Davis and Stephen Mallory, is just a statue? That aside, I found it amusing that a gloss of the famous quip that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar from Freud was being used in an attempt to dismiss the possibility of phallic signification.

I was reminded of another experience, this time on an archaeology field trip to a Native American site in the Everglades accompanied by several professional archaeologists. It was a village site on a raised mound with several projecting raised fields. One archaeologist who had worked on the site tentatively put forth an idea that seemed to make sense to me. In plan view, these projecting fields were distinctly phallic in shape; they even had irrigation channels running down their centers – iconic of urethras perhaps. Further, opposite the main “phallic” field, at the “rear” of the village was a garbage dump, an iconic anus accompanying phallic symbolization. Another archaeologist was initially dismissive, but when the first persisted, pointing out how the interpretation fit, this second shifted from dismissiveness to something more serious, “But you can’t prove this.”

While the crowd of historians had been mostly just incredulous (and scandalized by talk of Lee or King in terms of phalli), there was also I think a similar more serious undertone. Given its inherent polysemy, symbolic phenomena is irreduceable to definitive proof, and this can create a rift between different practitioners of the humanities and social sciences who work using different modalities of the production of knowledge. Historians and archaeologists, though of course not a homogenous lot, operating in a modality of proof, are typically wary, and as I have encountered occasionally dismissive, of symbolic interpretation.

There is much to be said for both historical and scientific methods leading to proof, and when dealing with social phenomena amenable to such approaches, as for example with many cultural ecological analyses, it would be silly to dismiss the value of proof (though that doesn’t stop some). At the same time, semiotic phenomena do not become less significant because less amenable to rigorous testing and definitive proof, and though also not a homogenous lot, cultural anthropologists, like scholars in some other humanities disciplines, tend to be more open to a variety of hermeneutic and interpretive analyses, taking as a matter of course things like the interpretation of men’s sacred flutes in the New Guinea Eastern Highlands or the Central Amazon as phallic symbols. Or, take the example of Robert Shanafelt’s excellent paper presented at the 2004 Southern Anthropological Society meeting – presented only a few months after my paper to the Gulf South meeting and also dealing, among other things, with public monuments to Confederate figures in the South. At one point he showed a slide of a monument quite similar to that I described for Lee Square in Pensacola, though this time to a room of mostly cultural anthropologists. At some point, he mentioned the clearly phallic nature of the monument, and in this case no one batted an eye.

But this is not meant as a self-congratulatory exercise. Instead, we must ask in the absence of absolute meaning and in fact the impossibility of proof of symbolic meaning, how do we know when our interpretations are convincing? Clifford Geertz argued that a convincing interpretation of cultural phenomena is one that sorts winks from twitches. I’d agree, but then have to ask how we know when we’ve done so without lapsing into a circular argument that amounts to something like, “The convincing interpretation is the one that convinces.”

To get back to pesky statues, I really don’t think a statue is ever just a statue, but it is certainly possible to see more than is really there. This I think is a key part of the response: A convincing interpretation is one that is consistent and fits the set of objects being interpreted. That is, just because we are dealing with semiotic phenomena does not mean we are engaging in a non-empirical enterprise. Just as with art and literary criticism, there is no definitive interpretation to the work, but some interpretations are “wrong” in the sense that they do not consistently address the qualities of the work or fit those qualities consistently. That is, a convincing interpretation has a systematic and iconic relationship with that which is interpreted. Barring this, we have a confabulation, that might be interesting in its own right, but which is unconvincing as an interpretation. The more consistently the interpretation meshes with and explains the full set of facts, the more convincing it becomes. Referring to any old thing with vaguely columnar shape as a phallic symbol is not particular convincing, but when the interpretation takes into account the form of a particular monument in relation to other monuments to other war heroes, in relation to other monuments to groups such as Holocaust victims or veterans of a non-triumphal (and even non-heroic) war, and in relation to surroundings like an encircling fringe of trees and cannons within a traffic circle, then we have something to me more convincing.

Even here, though, we must be cautious. As Emerson posited, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” and there is nothing quite so consistent as a conspiracy theory. But, we should also note that it is foolish consistencies that we want to avoid, and key here is that it is not just consistency that makes for convincing interpretation, but consistency plus fit. Conspiracy theories are usually internally consistent, but often fail to fit or have much of an iconic relation with the world of facts. But even once we have an interpretation which is consistent and systematically fits the facts at hand, what we have is not proof but a good basis to believe that we have a convincing argument – at least in the absence of counterargument more convincing.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Race and Public Monuments in Pensacola, Florida

The following was originally presented as a paper to an annual meeting of the Gulf South History and Humanities conference:

As with most cities, public monuments litter the landscape of downtown Pensacola. This is nothing new. Monuments and monumental architecture more broadly have always been a feature of urban landscapes. As signs representing the past, monuments can serve the interests of elites, and on occasion others, in shaping public memory, discourse about the past, and indirectly identities and discourse about the present.

The public monuments of Pensacola are mainly of two types: those which commemorate the achievements and the memory of particular individuals, such as Andrew Jackson, who had something to do directly with Pensacola history, and a more recent type, those commemorating the memory of generic groups of individuals, such as Vietnam veterans at the Wall South, a replica to Washington, D. C.’s Wall, or the Missing Children’s Memorial. Two particular monuments stand out as different, representing individuals who, while related to broad regional processes and events which clearly affected Pensacola, were not associated with Pensacola specifically, and never actually set foot in Pensacola: Martin Luther King, Jr. Plaza and its bust to MLK, and Lee Square (actually a circle) and its monument to Robert E. Lee and other “national” figures of the Confederacy.

The obvious commonality between the two monuments is that the two are tied (albeit in quite different ways) to the often troubled history of race and racism in the southeastern United States generally and in Pensacola specifically, even if there is more going on as well. In fact, if we look at the monuments in relation to one another, they say more about race than was perhaps intended.

The monument to Lee sits within a traffic circle on Palafox Street (a main street in downtown Pensacola) at the peak of North Hill. The monument itself consists of a four-sided marble pedestal, atop which is placed a column with a sculpture of a Confederate figure atop the column, which makes for a typically phallic monument. The monument is surrounded by trees, largely obscuring it from view when passing by. At the same time, the site is relatively inaccessible to pedestrians, not being located at a light for safe access. The overall impression when passing by is of circulating around something important – yet something secluded, protected – sacred even. In certain ways, Lee Square is similar to Lee Circle in New Orleans. That monument, similar in basic appearance though much larger in scale, is also located within a traffic circle along a major street offering one of the main entryways to downtown. It is not so inaccessible to pedestrians, nor is it secluded from view by trees. It is, still, separated in another way, by its base being situated atop a still larger pedestal which must be surmounted by a flight of steps, so that the inclination of the pedestrian simply walking past on St. Charles is to simply circulate around the monument without directly approaching it.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Plaza in Pensacola is located just a few blocks from Lee Square at the base of North Hill. It is hard not to look at this tableau - Robert E. Lee atop a tall pedestal atop North Hill looking down towards, i.e. looking down upon, the much smaller monument to MLK - as an icon of race relations in the city – and indeed I see no reason not to interpret the juxtaposition in exactly that way, even if there is more going on as well. MLK Plaza is located within the median of Palafox St.., with a bust of King upon a small pedestal, and low brick walls funneling the pedestrian/viewer towards the bust. From the perspective of the passing motorist (and in Pensacola one is almost always a motorist, almost never a pedestrian), the monument and plaza are a small affair, easy to miss while driving by, in contrast to Lee Square where it is impossible not to notice that one is passing by something of importance – even while that something is largely secluded from the gaze. Once noticed, though, - if noticed - MLK Plaza is much more visible, that is, more open/vulnerable to the penetrating gaze.

These monuments are about race in a variety of ways, and not just as iconic metaphors of race relations and racism in Pensacola. Ironically, they say something significant about race relations through their utter avoidance of overt mentions of race. At MLK plaza, the only inscription (aside from a plaque listing primary donors) quotes from King’s Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech from December 11, 1964, “Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” This is certainly a sentiment worthy of commemoration, and it further stands as a reminder that King was not only a leader and hero for black Americans – though he was that – but also a leader and hero for all. At the same time, though, if you didn’t already know much about King and his struggles, you leave the monument with no additional knowledge about King and his struggles.

The monument at Lee Square, being by far the larger of the two, bears more inscriptions, one on each face of the pedestal. On the front face of the monument (that is, the side visible when one is facing Lee atop the monument) is the main dedication: “The uncrowned heroes of the Southern Confederacy, whose joy was to suffer and die for a cause they believed to be just. Their unchallenged duration and matchless heroism shall continue to be the wonder and inspiration of the ages.” Continuing around the monument, one encounters on the next face the following dedication: “Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America. Soldier, Statesman, Patriot, Christian. The only man in our nation without a country, yet 20 million people mourn his death.” On the third face: “Stephen R. Mallory, Secretary of the Navy of the Confederate States of America. ‘Tis not mortals to command success; But we’ll do more sempronius, we’ll deserve it.’” Finally, on the fourth face, the one inscription relating to a Pensacolian: “Edward Aylesworth Perry, Captain of the Pensacola ‘Rifles,’ Colonel of the 2nd Florida Regiment, General of the Florida Brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia. Among the 1st to volunteer in the defense of his adopted state. Faithful in every position to which his merit advanced him. His life and deeds constitute his best monument.”

As with the King memorial, the issue of race per se is occluded from the Civil War context being memorialized (that is, being promoted as a particular form of public memory). There is the slightest tinge of defensiveness in noting that the uncrowned heroes of the confederacy joyously suffered and died for a cause they “believed” to be just, but overall, the memorial sets out to glorify the inspiring nobility of the lost cause of the Confederacy. Through a variety of significations, memorials can attempt to promote or critique dominant (or other) discursive constructions in the public memory (and the same could be said of museums, the other main repository of public signs of the past). Here, the construction is one of nostalgia for the nobility and honor of the lost cause of the Confederacy, with any mention of the relevance of slavery carefully censured. Given the prominence of place (though site selection was also clearly driven by the presence of a Confederate Redoubt on the site during the Civil War) and the obvious investment of resources necessary to construct the large marble monument, Lee Square was an embodiment of dominant discursive constructions at the time of its dedication in 1891. It clearly still has a great deal of power for some local residents today, as seen with annual salutes to Lee and Stonewall Jackson held at the site by the local Stephen Mallory chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, as well as a small trophy that had been left at the site with the letters “CSA” hand-etched upon it which I encountered left behind at the site on a recent visit. Similarly, when encountering numerous white southerners, both in Pensacola and throughout the Southeast, with T-shirts or bumper stickers displaying a currently controversial symbol, the Confederate Battle Flag, along with slogans, such as “Heritage, Not Hate,” I take them to be sincere, in the sense that theirs is a nostalgia for a better time (which never existed) characterized by noble values and honor, that is nostalgia for a discursive construction like that represented at Lee Square and not for an actual social and economic system based largely in slavery and human misery. (But then there was the bumper sticker reading, “If I had known, I would have picked my own cotton,” or the restaurant somewhere in northern Georgia named the Kountry Kooking Kitchen [with the K, K, and K boxed off in diamonds lest you miss the point].)

MLK Plaza, dedicated in 1993, represents a more recent and widely accepted construction – one which is not the polar opposite of that at Lee Square, but instead one which attempts to censure the Confederate legacy every bit as much as the nostalgic constructions of the Confederacy attempt to censure the associations of the Confederacy with slavery. Instead, a benevolent universal humanism is embraced – a laudable thing in itself, while at the same time, the very real social fissures of race which continue to be produced are occluded. The two monuments together index (by omission rather than intent) an important quality of race relations and racism in Pensacola. In virtually every interaction between blacks and whites, race is a factor shaping the interaction and racial inequality continues to be reproduced, but as with these signs of public memory, almost never is it mentioned. In fact, though the monuments assiduously avoid any mention of slavery or of the racism which MLK and the civil rights movement addressed, the fact that they are icons of regional/national figures rather than local individuals belies the pain of racism and of addressing/speaking about racism in the monuments’ displacement from the particulars of Pensacola even when commemorating the Confederacy or the civil rights movement.

As important as these monuments are in illuminating aspects of race relations and racism in Pensacola and beyond, it is not solely race which is signified. They are also about class, and as with race, they largely function by occluding important aspects of class relations. For starters, nostalgia for the lost cause of the Confederacy depends upon an erasure of the class dynamics amongst whites of the antebellum South. Many, if not most, of the southern whites nostalgic for the Confederacy had ancestors with little stake in the economic system of slavery or the political and economic interests of the Confederacy. Further, nostalgia for the better days of the noble Old South is based in part in the class dynamics of today, based in the anxieties of working class white southerners in a time when working class Americans generally often feel rightfully anxious.

With King, the issue of racism and the civil rights movement is occluded, though much to the credit of the monument designers, the plaza does stress important positive aspects of King’s legacy and it probably can be assumed that very few passersby will be unaware of King’s crucial involvement in the civil rights movement and the struggle for racial equality. King’s writings and actions with regard to class and class inequality are similarly occluded – and perhaps to a greater degree because it cannot be so easily assumed that passersby will be previously aware of King’s writings and actions addressing class as much as racial inequality towards the end of his life. As Michael Eric Dyson has pointed out, in most versions of the lives of both King and Malcolm X, the trend of both men’s actions and words towards the ends of their tragically short lives was towards working across racial lines to address not just racial inequality but also class inequality and exploitation generally. If it is painful and threatening to deal with race and the continued social production of racial inequality, it seems to be that much more painful and threatening to move across race lines and address class inequality simultaneously, and it is not surprising that class is largely absent from public memory and commemoration.

These monuments are also about gender. The men being commemorated are just that – men. Martin Luther King and Robert E. Lee are tokens of the Great Man, embodying qualities such as honor, nobility, strength, and dignity (albeit in different ways) which are also often gendered qualities, symbolically associated with masculinity. Their masculinity is represented iconically in different ways, however, bespeaking the different ways and different contexts within which they embody characteristics of ideal masculinity.

Lee’s monument is a (stereo)typically phallic one, whose importance is reinforced through the forced circulation around him. The monument in its relation to circulating traffic provides a barrier to approach, and as discussed above, is largely hidden from view by a ring of trees grown tall over a century. This provides a spatial and visual ambiguity to interpretation, appropriate for the ambiguity of the Confederate legacy in public memory. On the one hand, the relative difficulty of approach alongside the seclusion from view reinforces the monument as sacred site and Lee as the Great Man, and as a typical Great Man difficult to approach and largely masked from the penetrating gaze. On the other, at the same time that when passing by one cannot help but notice that one is skirting around something of importance, this same difficulty of approach and seclusion from view of the monument itself meshes with attempts to erase the Confederate legacy from public memory.

The phallic icon is a typical component of monuments to Great Men and heroes, while with other sorts of historical figures or instances, monuments often take on other forms, such as the Wall in Washington, D.C. commemorating veterans of the Vietnam War and its replica, the Wall South in Pensacola, or the Holocaust Memorial in Boston – cases where there is a felt need to remember the tragic deaths of individuals en masse, but where there is no heroic triumph or even lost cause perceived as great. With King, we clearly have a Great Man, generally characterized as noble, strong, courageous, and dignified, but also a non-typical Great Man, associated also as he is with nonviolence – making him in my book an admirable token of the Great Man type, if we must have Great Men. One would expect, then, a non-typically phallic monument, and MLK plaza provides just that, and as with Lee Square, it is one whose meaning is ultimately ambiguous. King’s monument is still basically phallic in shape, even if on a less grand scale than Lee’s monument. In contrast to Lee Square, MLK Plaza offers a setting with easy access, overall visual openness, and a disembodied bust. On the one hand, the monument is penetrated by the gaze and as phallic icon, the bust as disembodied head is a castrated or emasculated one. On the other, the monument, by resisting the more obvious and clear phallic image of the Lee memorial, resists also the incarnation of King as Great Man with strength in the form of dominance. At the same time that use of space may evoke a sense of vulnerability, it also emphasizes the specific qualities of dignity and nonviolent resistance in the face of injustice – a theme which is occluded from the monument in other ways, but which is indexed here in the use of space and the disembodied representation of King himself. Either interpretation is possible, as are combinations of the two, and that is ultimately where I wish to end, with meaning open, for my intent has not been to criticize (I think that there is much that is overwhelmingly positive with MLK Plaza), but to provoke and open up to contestation the construction of public memory.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Habitus of Poverty

In several posts in recent days, I have discussed the work of Oscar Lewis and the concept of a culture of poverty. Here I would like to discuss a change of terminology that I find useful in my own thinking about poverty and practices associated with contexts of poverty, a change from speaking of “cultures of poverty” to a “habitus of poverty,” using the concept of “habitus” from the practice theory of Pierre Bourdieu.

In Outline of a Theory of Practice (p. 72), Bourdieu defined habitus (he defines the concept in slightly different terms in several places in the book, though each time with essentially similar connotations):

“The structures constitutive of a particular type of environment (e.g. the material conditions of existence characteristic of a class condition) produce habitus, systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles of the generation and structuring of practices and representations which can be objectively “regulated” and “regular” without in any way being the product of obedience to rules, objectively adapted to their goals without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary to attain them and, being all this, collectively orchestrated without being the product of the orchestrating action of a conductor.”

I have several reasons for preferring the term “habitus of poverty.” A first and simple reason for switching terminology is to attempt to avoid some of the problems associated with using the term “culture of poverty.” “Culture of poverty” has negative connotations to many, most commonly of “blaming the victim.” As I discussed in my first post on the topic (“Oscar Lewis and the Culture of Poverty”), I think this has more to do with popular distortions of Lewis’ concept than with Lewis’ anthropological theorizing. In any case, the result is that use of the term “culture of poverty,” because of the reactions it so often elicits, gets in the way of seriously considering patterns of practice associated with poverty that must be considered if we care about alleviating poverty. If a change in terminology could help get around this, so be it. (This is possibly also the least persuasive reason to change to speaking of “habitus of poverty.” Those who see “culture of poverty” as fundamentally flawed will likely see this as simply new clothes for the same bad idea.)

A second reason to speak of “habitus of poverty” is an emphasis on practice – in Lewis’ and Bourdieu’s works. The traits and patterns Lewis associated with the culture of poverty, and which I’ve discussed in three previous posts in recent days, are mainly patterns of behavior or practice, rather than lists of cultural objects produced or settings or contexts for particular rituals or events. Lewis’ descriptions of the culture of poverty are very process oriented and to a large extent congruent with contemporary practice theory, in contrast to much anthropological theory contemporary to him that was more object oriented.

Finally, and I think most importantly, a shift to habitus clarifies the ways in which the patterns of behavior associated with a “culture of poverty” are produced and reproduced. Habitus consists of durably patterned dispositions and practices. These become regular without being the result of a conscious aiming towards producing such regularity. They are also regular without being the result of strict obedience to a set of explicit rules (though I’d argue that obedience to explicit rules does occasionally play a role in structuring practices and habitus) or the action of any sort of “orchestrator.” The patterns of behavior associated by Lewis with a “culture of poverty” and which I would here call the “habitus of poverty” are largely the result of many individuals each individually acting as rationally and/or irrationally as individuals in any other social context to meet their basic needs and interests, with this leading to certain tendencies in patterned practice. Further, once in place, the patterned practices of a habitus of poverty strongly predispose (which does not mean “determine”) towards reproduction of the same or similar tendencies and patterns – Bourdieu’s “structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures.” As with Lewis’ work, this does not blame the victim – the “structures predisposed to function as structuring structured” do not exist a priori, nor are they the result of individuals’ choosing or flawed nature, but are instead themselves “structured” through individuals having to act within highly constrained material conditions, with all the factors discussed by Lewis in La Vida contributing to these constrained options and possibilities for action and rational choice.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Urban Popular Movements (UPMs) and Cultures of Poverty

In my post from two days ago, I ended with the following two paragraphs:

“Matthew Gutmann’s fine ethnography The Meanings of Macho: Being a Man in Mexico City has as its main setting the colonia community of Santo Domingo. (A colonia is an urban squatter community, typically on the edge of a major city, such as Mexico City. Initially, colonias represent communities with truly dire conditions of poverty, with housing improvised out of materials at hand, generally unpaved streets, and a lack of even basic utility services. Over time, if not subject to mass eviction and elimination of the colonia, such settlements do tend to improve at least a bit, with individual residents and families improving their housing bit by bit, tapping into utilities, often illegally at first and gradually through legal means, having streets paved, and acquiring legal title to land.) Santo Domingo, though still known as a colonia, was at the time of Gutmann’s field work in the early 1990s a well established community in Mexico City – while it was once on the outskirts of town, further squatter settlement had long since surrounded it. It was also a community with relatively formalized infrastructure. What had brought this about, and what seems in part to have kept the colonia from developing a culture of poverty, even though poverty was an element of day to day life, was a strong tradition of community activism and the presence of UPMs.

“‘Urban Popular Movement’ is used in the social science literature to refer to a variety of social movements. Some are oriented toward very specific issues, such as paving roads in a community, improving a water supply, or building a school, others toward improving conditions of a community generally or of addressing important social justice issues, such as women’s rights or combating police violence. Though the terminology could be applied to other world areas, UPM usually refers to Latin American social movements, with the main thing in common being their urban orientation and the fact that these are grassroots organized movements. UPMs have played an important role in the economic and infrastructural development of Santo Domingo, and while they have by no means eliminated poverty, the UPMs (and the fact that many of the residents of the community seem to be the sort who join UPMs) seems to have inhibited the development of a culture of poverty.”

Here I ask, what is the relationship between some urban impoverished communities and the development of UPMs or some similar mechanism providing for a sense of belonging and collective action (with its combination of social and psychological benefits) and the lack of a culture of poverty?

A pessimistic interpretation would simply chalk up Santo Domingo as a statistical fluke. Mexico City is a huge metropolis, currently the second largest city in the world and growing. Over the past several decades, there have been countless squatter settlements-turned-urban-slums like Santo Domingo. With any large sample, we expect to find a few exceptions, and that could be what Santo Domingo represents (this is a case where more community by community ethnographic study is needed), an unusual case where at the start of the community, a cluster of people with the right qualities and aptitudes might have been in place to keep things going in terms of community action, and as a result a community where despite endemic poverty, the malaise of a culture of poverty never took root.

At the same time, UPMs seem too prominent in Latin America to be simply the result of statistical anomalies. UPMs sprung up in a number of countries in Latin America in great numbers during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and were an outgrowth of a number of factors, including rapid economic growth and transformation in much of the region, entailing large scale urbanization (e.g. the fact that Mexico City is today the world’s second largest city is the result of this) and a massive transition from rural to urban life, but without corresponding private or public investment in new affordable housing and other urban infrastructure for the millions of urban in-migrants. One result of these changes was colonia development, with countless new urbanites living in squalid conditions on the outskirts of virtually every major Latin American city.

In many, if not most, cases, a culture of poverty was also something that developed, but given that the people moving to these new settlements were active agents in their own right, individuals who were taking it upon themselves to try to improve their lives by their movements to urban areas, the particular combination of agitators, go-getters, altruists, and individuals simply trying ambitiously to improve the situation for themselves and their families that Gutmann writes about in Santo Domingo might be expected to have occurred with some frequency. The tragedy, perhaps, is that UPMs were not even more common, with this testament to the negative power of grinding poverty – and of course the repressive nature of most Latin American governments during the same period.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Thinking Problem: Rethinking Ethnographic Methods in Relation to a Study of Students' Cultural Models of Drinking

The following is a draft for a presentation to the Society for Applied Anthropology Annual Meeting next week. It incorporates revised material from two posts below, “Measurement and Interpretation: Let us Speak no more of Quantitative and Qualitative Research” from March 10 and “Southern Drinkways” from February 20.

I have long thought that the division between quantitative and qualitative research was a false divide. There is neither pure quantitative nor pure qualitative research. There is always a qualitative element in quantitative work – you might be counting things, but the choice of what’s relevant to count is an inescapable qualitative decision. Likewise, there’s always a quantitative element in any qualitative research, even if only in the rudimentary sense that it makes a difference whether there’s a lot of something or only a little, whether something is always occurring, occurs every day, or once a year.

In rethinking my own approach to ethnographic methods following attendance at a National Science Foundation supported summer seminar on mixed qual-quant ethnographic survey methods taught by William Dressler and Kathryn Oths, I have begun more and more to think that the use of the terms distracts from rather than facilitates scholarly communication and would be better replaced by an emphasis on measurement and interpretation. Many social scientists, when asked, pay lip service to the notion I outlined above that there is no pure quantitative or qualitative research, but then go on acting as if there were. This, I think, is done largely uncritically and at least partly (if not largely) out of mutual contempt for number-fetishizing quant types and muddle headed, fuzzy thinking qual types. If we chucked the qual and quant labels, perhaps we could better focus on things that all decent research has in common (whether everyone knows it or not): measurement and interpretation.

Measurement: There is no immeasurable

A lot of “qualitative” social scientists, including most cultural anthropologists (including myself much of the time), tend to be wary of “quantitative” research because they perceive it as ignoring things that are not easily counted and uncritically or simplistically counting things that seem easy to count. Frankly, a lot of “quantitative” work does do these things, though there’s also a lot that doesn’t. What could be better recognized by some quant types is the interpretive nature of choosing what to count, but what qual types could recognize is that we’re all engaged in measurement. There are phenomena that are not easy to count, but there are no observable phenomena that are not measurable.

There are different sorts of measurement. Some things can only be measured in fairly basic and imprecise terms – the binary measurement of the simple presence or absence of a phenomenon or trait, or rough measurement of quantity, e.g. something is absent, present in small quantity or frequency, or present in high quantity or frequency. Other things can be very precisely measured. So, highly “qualitative” ethnography involves measurement just as much as the most “quantitative” of quantitative sociological research. Once we recognize that we’re all involved in measuring, we all ought to measure things as precisely as possible – sometimes that might involve quantification and in other cases might simply involve notation of the presence or absence of something. There’s no reason to be wary of measurement, but good reason to be wary of measurement that is less precise than it reasonably could be or purports to be more precise than it can be.

Interpretation: What’s the Significance of Statistical Significance?

As with measurement, all research involves interpretation whether we realize it (or like it) or not. I alluded above to the interpretive quality of measurement – knowing what it makes sense to measure is an interpretive maneuver. Further, it is always necessary to interpret the results of measurement. (Just as quant researchers are often more aware than qual of the need to measure, qual researchers are often more aware of this fact than quant.) Measurements, and even basic analyses, alone never mean anything, e.g. an analysis indicating statistical significance of a set of data doesn’t indicate at all what the meaning of the data is. There’s no reason to be wary of interpretation, but good reason to be wary of uncritical interpretation not based on sound logical argumentation and good measurement or of interpretation by those not aware they are engaging in interpretation.

Rethinking Ethnographic Methods

What this has done for me is to free up my thinking about research methods in relation to styles of scholarly thought. Like many cultural anthropologists, my ethnographic methods training was mainly in highly qualitative participant observation – which is a fine set of methods to use for many research purposes. But now, rather than approaching any topic as a “qualitative cultural anthropologist” and attempting to fit participant observation to any and every topic at hand, I have begun to think of myself more as a researcher with anthropological interests and to ask myself what methods will work best and how I might best measure and interpret data for a specific research question.

Cultural Models of Drinking

Here I will present material from an ongoing research project conducted by myself and my colleague in the Department of Health Education at the University of West Florida, Dr. Debra Vinci. In this project we are interested in students’ cultural models of drinking and related activities, contexts, and concepts, and we are interested in this as a topic of interest in and of itself and as an applied anthropological subject, where we hope that our research will contribute to a safer campus for students and contribute to efforts to reduce risks of dangerous drinking patterns among students.

I should first address two issues before proceeding to what we have found so far: First, what do I mean by cultural models? And Second, what do I mean by drinking and related activities, contexts, and concepts?

By cultural model I mean something akin to what Sherry Ortner discusses as cultural schemas. In her discussion, she argues that culturally significant schemas are built up out of important cultural symbols, and certainly anthropologists have long focused on symbols as something that makes humans unique and as the basic building block of culture, though this alone doesn’t explain how culturally important symbols are related to one another nor to practice. C.S. Peirce’s discussion of the argument as one particularly complex type of symbol built up out of more basic symbols is useful here. The argument, as Peirce defines it, “is a sign whose interpretant represents its object as being an ulterior sign through a law, namely, the law that the passage from all such premises to such conclusions tends to the truth.” Or, as he puts it elsewhere, the argument is a sign of reason, building upon propositions to enact overarching logical systems (which is to say that argument involves theorization broadly understood) and is always composed of simpler symbols (specifically rhematic and dicent symbols). Culture, I would argue, is not just the learned and shared lifeways of minimalist definitions of culture, but also an all encompassing mesh of symbols, premises, and arguments. The argument, for human culture, is akin to what Ortner calls key scenarios or cultural schemas. She defines these “as preorganized schemes of action, symbolic programs for the staging and playing out of standard interactions in a particular culture. In her own analysis of Sherpa Buddhism in Nepal, she identifies such a cultural schema (Rivalry, Acquisition of a Protector, Defeat of the Enemy, Departure of the Loser) which recurs in Sherpa myth and ritual and which provides a prototype for culturally typical interaction situations – which is to say that (using Clifford Geertz’s terminology) cultural schemas or arguments provide both “models of” and “models for” cultural action, and further that culturally significant arguments or cultural models are grounded in practice and simultaneously function to ground practice.

What do I mean by cultural models of drinking and related activities, contexts, and concepts? Essentially, we are interested in ascertaining the basic assumptions and premises of students’ conceptualization of drinking, places associated with drinking, behaviors typically associated with drinking, and notions of responsibility or irresponsibility with relation to drinking. Further, we are interested in how such basic premises are related and combined to form larger arguments or cultural models. We are also interested in how the models represented in our data collected from a particular setting (A Southern setting, a student sample, a medium size university setting [with large proportions of commuter and “non-traditional” students], a small to medium size city [and a military and tourist town – and not so much a college town]) relate to other, potentially overlapping contexts.

There are a variety of methods and techniques that could have addressed this research topic, but given the primary interest in understanding the key terms and premises of students’ models and conceptualizations of drinking, methods that could directly elicit such material seemed clearly most useful.

Methods for initial data collection

The first stage of this project (and the one which I will report on here) involved the collection of free lists from 101 students from three classes at the University of West Florida, two sections of Introduction to Anthropology (46 and 33 students – chosen for convenience, but also because of the representation of many different student major interests in the classes) and one section of an upper level nutrition and health course (22 students – chosen again for convenience, but also for contrast – this was a course with mainly upper division students with an interest in nutrition and health, and who had already been asked in a variety of ways to think critically about health and nutrition, including alcohol related issues, in class). Students were asked to generate five free lists: 1.Types of alcoholic drinks or beverages; 2. Types of places or settings in which people drink; 3. Activities people engage in when drinking; 4. The characteristics of someone with a drinking problem; and 5. The characteristics of someone who drinks responsibly.

Interesting Trends and Reactions

Drinking Discourse and Drinking Behavior

Overall, the results of the first list are consistent with the findings of two other surveys that have been conducted on the University of West Florida campus that indicate that the vast majority of UWF students either do not drink or drink infrequently and in low quantities. To be more accurate, the surveys find that students claim to not drink or not drink in high frequency or quantity. The relationship between students’ discourse about their drinking and their drinking behavior (or lack thereof) is clearly something difficult to ascertain, though this freelisting exercise offers at least a slightly different window on the situation. A small handful of students provided us with frighteningly comprehensive lists of drink types (so, in fact much of the variety of items listed came from just a few students), but the rest provided much shorter lists (generally 10 – 15 items at most) with mostly general categories of drink that many non-drinking children would probably be familiar with from simply having grown up in the culture. This, of course, is still another example of drinking discourse and doesn’t prove that most UWF students in fact do not drink or do not drink much (i.e. the lists don’t indicate clear lack of familiarity with drinking, but they also don’t indicate clear familiarity with drinking), but it also is consistent with those other findings and doesn’t give any contradiction to students when they respond to surveys indicating low frequency and quantity of drinking.

Drinking and Food

This and the following examples address the relationship between public health discourse and students’ discourse in the ways in which students’ conceptions and expressions of thought on drinking correspond (or do not) to institutional messages.

In some ways, many students clearly associated drinking with eating. Fourteen students mention eating as an activity associated with drinking (with three more mentioning dinner), and “eating contexts” were even more associated with drinking – with restaurants mentioned by 25 students as a setting associated with drinking (and 11 more mentioning “at dinner” or “at a dinner” as settings). At the same time, “eating before drinking” was listed by only two students as an attribute of responsible drinkers (with both in the upper level nutrition and health course). This is not so surprising given the (understandable) greater emphasis in public health campaigns on not drinking and driving, though at the same time, eating before and during drinking is often mentioned in public health campaigns, brochures, etc., as one strategy to reduce potential dangers of overconsumption of alcohol. This pattern of associating eating with drinking in one set of domains, but not within the context of thinking of responsible or appropriate behavior, is possibly the result of one message being swamped by another (and in this case more important) one.

Drinking and Sex

In one way, students clearly associate sex and drinking. Aside from dancing, sex was mentioned by the largest number of students as an activity associated with drinking. At the same time that sex is clearly part of the model of drinking generally, responsible sexuality does not seem to be a significant part of students’ model of responsible drinking. “Promiscuity” was mentioned by one student as a trait of those who drink irresponsibly, and one student mentioned “Has condoms” as a characteristic of someone who drinks responsibly. This, and the previous example to a lesser extent, is indicative of the fact that as we engage in further research to fine tune our understanding of students’ cultural models of drinking, we will almost certainly be dealing not with a single or unitary model, but multiple overlapping models.

Irresponsibility and Responsibility

Possibly the most interesting example of the existence of overlapping but not identical models concerns the freelists of traits of irresponsibility and responsibility. For the most part, these appear as opposing domains – which is what I expected – in the sense that items frequently listed in one domain tend to show up in similar frequency in opposite form in the opposite domain. The major exception to this has to do with drinking and driving. Students have clearly absorbed the message that not driving drunk and/or having a designated driver are responsible thinks to do when drinking: Doesn’t drink and drive (36), chooses a designated driver beforehand (24) were common responses. When it comes to what makes a person irresponsible, though, drunk driving seems to have fallen out of consideration - only five students mentioned anything to do with drunk driving or not having a designated driver as being a characteristic of someone drinking irresponsibly.

Ongoing Research

The goal of this first stage of research was to elucidate the common terms of students’ models of drinking, which it has done. A second stage of research will ascertain relationships between the terms to understand the shape of the larger model(s). Those items commonly listed in the free lists were used to produce cards (with one item listed on each card) to be sorted by another sample of 30 students, with students in my Applied Anthropology course conducting this research. The results from this stage of research are still being tabulated and will be analyzed using non-metrical multi-dimensional scaling techniques to provide a “map” of the relationships between sorted terms. This in turn, along with the results of another ongoing survey, will be used to develop a fine tuned survey to ascertain degree of cultural consensus on various elements of the model.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Poverty without a Culture of Poverty

Following my previous post, I would here emphasize that “poverty” and “culture of poverty” are not synonymous, that a culture of poverty is one possible development as people attempt to adapt to conditions of extreme and persistent impoverishment. But the subcultural patterns of a culture of poverty (including present-time orientation with little future orientation, the emotional and physical grind to meet basic needs and the stresses resulting from that, social anomie and lack of real hope for a better future, often high rates of substance use and abuse, what Philippe Bourgois called a “culture of violence” in reference to parts of Spanish Harlem in his ethnography In Search of Respect, etc.) are not the only possible developments in contexts of poverty.

In La Vida (pp. xlviii – l), Oscar Lewis discussed four examples of social settings in which people lived in extreme poverty, but where a culture of poverty had not developed. He argues first that in most of the small scale “primitive” societies anthropologists have often studied (cultures in which people live through foraging or small scale cultivation), people live in physical poverty in an absolute sense, with very little in the way of material wealth, and often with little accumulated food surplus. They don’t constitute a subculture at all, though, much less one in relative poverty to a larger society. Instead, individuals have a strong sense of belonging to a well integrated and fully functioning society. This hasn’t precluded the development of cultures of poverty among such peoples over the last century and a half or so as many of them have been incorporated forcibly into larger state societies, turning them into no longer fully functioning, distinct subcultures living in both absolute and relative poverty (the social malaise of many Native American reservations in North America is a good example of this).

Lewis’ second and third examples concern distinct subcultures that were distinctly poor (lower caste Indians in villages in mid-twentieth century India when Lewis encountered them ethnographically, and Jews of Eastern Europe [up through the mid-twentieth century Holocaust – though Lewis doesn’t mention this – the communities he speaks of being obliterated at that time]) but which did not have a culture of poverty. The two cases have a number of things in common. First, the examples Lewis discusses involve distinct subcultural groups in rural or small community settings, rather than impoverished communities in vast and largely anonymous urban slums (Lewis in fact mentions the possibility of cultures of poverty seeming to be in development in Calcutta and Bombay at the time of the writing of La Vida). Second, these both involve groups seen as distinct and seeing themselves as distinct, but also providing a sense of belonging within the group for their members (the religion and common schooling for Eastern European Jews, unilineal clans for lower caste Indian villagers), mitigating against the malaise and anomie so often an important part of a culture of poverty. Finally, while extremely poor, both groups had at least some collective influence over the larger community, through the high quality of education and literacy, as well as voluntary associations for Eastern European Jews, through the panchayat, or formal caste organization, which provided local leadership and some collective influence for even lower caste Indians, at least in small villages.

Lewis presented his fourth example as a speculative and tentative one, Cuba after the revolution. Having visited a slum in Havana before the revolution, Lewis writes, “After the Castro Revolution I made my second trip to Cuba as a correspondent for a major magazine, and I revisited the same slum and some of the same families. The physical aspect of the slum had changed very little, except for a beautiful new nursery school. It was clear that the people were still desperately poor, but I found much less of the despair, apathy and hopelessness which are so diagnostic of urban slums in the culture of poverty. They expressed great confidence in their leaders and hope for a better life in the future. The slum itself was now highly organized, with block committees, educational committees, party committees. The people had a new sense of power and importance.” While I’m wary of the picture Lewis paints here, wary in particular of whether what he encountered in Havana on his second trip was a sort of “Potemkin Village” show for the visiting, sympathetic scholar, and while I certainly have no illusion that Cuba has achieved a socialist paradise, given everything I’ve read about the Caribbean, when comparing Cuba to other islands of the Greater Antilles, the features associated with a culture of poverty seem much less prevalent even in impoverished conditions in Cuba than in Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, or even Puerto Rico.

But poverty in a large urban area without the development of a culture of poverty is possible even without a socialist revolution. (Then again, the example I’m about to discuss is in Mexico City, and the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century was a socialist revolution of a sort, though it’s no longer particularly recent and not a Marxist socialist revolution. It is likely, though, that widespread education in Mexico emphasizing the virtues of the Mexican Revolution, as well as the post-revolutionary ideal of an effective social welfare state [even if not always well instantiated in practice], have shaped all Mexicans’ expectations and have facilitated the development of Urban Popular Movements [UPMs] there.)

Matthew Gutmann’s fine ethnography The Meanings of Macho: Being a Man in Mexico City has as its main setting the colonia community of Santo Domingo. (A colonia is an urban squatter community, typically on the edge of a major city, such as Mexico City. Initially, colonias represent communities with truly dire conditions of poverty, with housing improvised out of materials at hand, generally unpaved streets, and a lack of even basic utility services. Over time, if not subject to mass eviction and elimination of the colonia, such settlements do tend to improve at least a bit, with individual residents and families improving their housing bit by bit, tapping into utilities, often illegally at first and gradually through legal means, having streets paved, and acquiring legal title to land.) Santo Domingo, though still known as a colonia, was at the time of Gutmann’s field work in the early 1990s a well established community in Mexico City – while it was once on the outskirts of town, further squatter settlement had long since surrounded it. It was also a community with relatively formalized infrastructure. What had brought this about, and what seems in part to have kept the colonia from developing a culture of poverty, even though poverty was an element of day to day life, was a strong tradition of community activism and the presence of UPMs.

“Urban Popular Movement” is used in the social science literature to refer to a variety of social movements. Some are oriented toward very specific issues, such as paving roads in a community, improving a water supply, or building a school, others toward improving conditions of a community generally or of addressing important social justice issues, such as women’s rights or combating police violence. Though the terminology could be applied to other world areas, UPM usually refers to Latin American social movements, with the main thing in common being their urban orientation and the fact that these are grassroots organized movements. UPMs have played an important role in the economic and infrastructural development of Santo Domingo, and while they have by no means eliminated poverty, the UPMs (and the fact that many of the residents of the community seem to be the sort who join UPMs) seems to have inhibited the development of a culture of poverty.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Oscar Lewis and the Culture of Poverty

Oscar Lewis is remembered in anthropological circles for three things – (1) his ethnographic restudy of a community in Mexico which came to quite different conclusions than an earlier study of the same community by Robert Redfield, (2) the engaging quality of his ethnographic writing in general, whether he was writing of rural or urban Mexico, Puerto Ricans in San Juan or New York, or communities in India (Lewis is probably the only anthropologist to have an ethnography adapted into a Hollywood movie – The Children of Sanchez, starring Anthony Quinn), and (3) his most important theoretical contribution to anthropology and social science, the concept of the “Culture of Poverty.”

Today, the idea of the culture of poverty tends to be looked at with distrust at best. The use of the concept often brings charges of “blaming the victim.” This is largely the result of (I think well intentioned) misapplications of the concept in association with the U.S. federal government’s “War on Poverty” in the mid to late 1960s. This is most famously the case with the Moynihan Report, associated with Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (otherwise a politician with solid liberal credentials – the problem with the report is not the senator’s intentions, or even necessarily the empirical facts reported in it, so much as a misapplication of Lewis’ concept and a problem with the interpretation of the facts). The key problem with the Moynihan Report was that it confused the symptoms of poverty with its causes. In doing so, it did “blame the victim” by positing subcultural patterns empirically associated with persistent poverty as the causes of poverty (most problematically with a preoccupation with matrifocal family dynamics among poor black Americans), rather than seeing these patterns as effects of living in poverty and/or as short term coping mechanisms for living in poverty in certain contexts. (In some ways, it might have been better had it been, say, the Strom Thurmond Report – that at least would have made it easier for generally liberal scholars to reject the interpretations and conclusions of the report without regarding the concept it used as tainted.).

Lewis’ concept didn’t “blame the victim.” Instead, it involved recognizing that poverty doesn’t entail simply not having enough money, but also often entails the necessity for adaptive strategies for dealing with persistent poverty, which in turn create subcultural differences in patterns of living and perspectives and worldview. Such subcultural strategies and practices often do have the unfortunate effect of contributing to the reproduction of poverty (and so must be addressed as part of any overall strategy for dealing with poverty – with this the key reason to reassess Lewis’ concept), but they are not the ultimate cause of poverty, and addressing these symptoms of poverty alone will do little to affect endemic poverty.

Lewis first mentioned the culture of poverty in Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty (1959), though with more sustained discussion in The Children of Sanchez: Autobiography of a Mexican Family (1961). The book overall presents the personal narratives of members of the Sanchez family in their own words, but the introduction discusses the general context of their narratives and lives, and introduces the notion of the culture of poverty. In a few paragraphs in The Children of Sanchez, and in a longer discussion in La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty – San Juan and New York (1965), Lewis lays out some of the features the culture of poverty (recognizing also that exact details will change from context to context).

Some of the main things typically occurring as part of the culture of poverty include patterns to cope with the economic realities of poverty, as well as patterns to cope with the economic, social, physical, and emotional and other psychological stresses of extreme and persistent poverty.

Some of these follow straightforwardly from the fact of not having sufficient resources. If you don’t have much money, you can only buy foodstuffs and other important economic goods in small quantities, which means you have to buy them often, which in turn means both that you can’t take advantage of buying in larger quantity at lower per unit prices (which further means that a basic economic fact of poverty requires the poor to pay more for basic goods than those better off – which means that even the basic economic facts of poverty tend to reinforce poverty) and that much time and mental and physical energy is persistently focused towards meeting basic needs. This tends to inhibit the ability of the poor to plan for the future in any long term way, or even to develop the mental skills for long term planning, typically leading to a highly present-time orientation.

Persistent poverty is also highly stressful, and many of the particular examples cited by Lewis are examples of people attempting to cope with the stresses of poverty – or the consequences of those attempts to cope. These can include again the daily attempt to get by (requiring investment of much mental and physical energy) and a generally present or short term time focus, but also low education levels, frequent pawning of personal goods and/or turning to local money lenders at high interest rates (i.e. “loan sharks”), poor housing conditions and crowding and the stresses accompanying them, “the absence of childhood as a specially prolonged and protected stage in the life cycle” (La Vida, p. xlvii), a tendency toward mother-centered families and/or free unions, high rates of alcoholism or other substance use, lack of privacy, intrafamilial competition for limited goods and affection, etc.

Finally, Lewis also stresses that people living in a culture of poverty have quite low participation rates in national life, e.g. participation in politics, use of department stores, museums, art galleries or other institutions of high or national culture, or even systematic use of social services. Even within the impoverished community, most interaction is integrated mainly at the familial level, with community wide organization taking as often as not unstable and even violent form, with things like street gangs. Lewis says (La Vida, p. xlvii): “Most primitive peoples have achieved a higher level of socio-cultural organization than our modern urban slum dwellers.”

One important result of all of the patterns described by Lewis is a general lack of sense of integration or belonging to something larger than the self and immediate family, a lack of a sense of self-fulfillment, and a lack of a sense of hope or a sense that things can or are likely to get better.

This is an ugly picture of life in persistent poverty, but then poverty is in fact an ugly thing. I’d like to emphasize two things about Lewis’ delineation of the particular traits of the culture of poverty: (1) This part of Lewis’ discussion involves empirical description. The characteristics he describes are either actually present or not in a particular impoverished setting. Over the years, I’ve heard a number of anthropological colleagues over the years criticize Lewis’ writings for over-generalizing on the basis of information from a specific community, or sometimes even from a single family. That may be (I think it is, insofar as there is an unsubstantiated insinuation of typicality for, say, the Sanchez family), but that doesn’t invalidate the theoretical concept as much as call for careful attention to the specific details of subcultural patterns associated with any particular example of a culture of poverty. (2) The fact that Lewis paints an ugly picture does not in any way mean that he is blaming the poor for their condition. Instead, in La Vida, he carefully lays out the sorts of circumstances in which a culture of poverty is likely to develop as a set of mechanisms to cope with conditions, which is to say he lays out the conditions in which some are victimized by poverty. He also presents examples of contexts of poverty where the negative patterns of a culture of poverty are much less likely to develop.

Lewis writes (La Vida, pp. xliii – xliv): “The culture of poverty can come into being in a variety of historical contexts. However, it tends to grow and flourish in societies with the following set of conditions: (1) a cash economy, wage labor and production for profit; (2) a persistently high rate of unemployment and underemployment for unskilled labor; (3) low wages; (4) the failure to provide social, political and economic organization, either on a voluntary basis or by government imposition, for the low-income population; (5) the existence of a bilateral kinship system rather than a unilateral one; and finally, (6) the existence of a set of values in the dominant class which stresses the accumulation of wealth and property, the possibility of upward mobility and thrift, and explains low economic status as the result of personal inadequacy or inferiority.” Ironically, the Moynihan Report used a variation on this last theme, by positing a sort of cultural inadequacy or inferiority as the cause of persistent poverty.

For Lewis, a culture of poverty develops when persistent poverty exists and when the poor are thrown back upon their own resources, because little else is done to help them – and in fact they’re liable to be blamed for their own condition, but where their resources are typically insufficient to escape poverty. Instead, individuals, each acting as logically and rationally as people in any other sociocultural context, in their efforts to adapt to an extreme situation, end up engaging in patterns of practice which can easily reinforce themselves and can be often psychologically and socially dysfunctional, but where such patterns, which constitute a subculture of poverty, are the product rather than the cause of persistent impoverishment (even though once established, such patterns do contribute to the reproduction of poverty – but even this caveat should not be taken to imply blame to the practitioners of these patterns, for the culture of poverty does provide an adaptive strategy for some conditions, albeit also a dysfunctional one).

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

How Unique or Radically New is Our Situation Today?

Thomas Friedman’s book The World is Flat has been widely reviewed, read, and discussed. The book provides an engaging perspective on the current situation of globalization, even if the metaphor of the world being flattened becomes tiresome after about the twentieth or thirtieth repetition. There is one element of the book that I wish to disagree with here. This is the sense (not original to Friedman but very much present in the book) that most of us have much of the time that we live in a unique moment in history (though who hasn’t), with much that is radically new transforming how human life and culture work.

There is much that is new about our current situation, with much of it discussed intelligently by Friedman, including the importance of the internet and world wide web, personal digital technologies, shipping containers and mega-ships, just in time production, outsourcing of jobs – at first mainly manufacturing jobs but increasingly digitally based “information” jobs as well, 24 hour cable news, etc. All these and more do have immense impact on all of our lives, and this gives us the sense that we live in a unique moment of radical transformation. It’s more that we live within a world that is being continually socially transformed, but this has been happening continuously for a good century and a half, with the sense of living in a uniquely transformative moment occurring to people throughout this same period of time.

Modern life is characterized by a number of things that make it different from other ways of living. Some of the most important features of modern life are fast (and global) communication, fast transportation, mass media, and the dominance of a capitalist mode of economic production. Each of these was taking shape between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth century. Today we are surrounded by phenomena that represent important quantitative developments of each of these themes, and developed to the point that it makes a qualitative difference – life today is different than in 1950, or 1900, but the most radical historical distinction, practically a rupture with the past, occurred for a generation in the mid to late 19th century when the beginnings of modern communication and transportation, large scale mass media in the form of what Benedict Anderson has called “print capitalism,” and the fully developed industrial revolution all came together.

Fast Communication

In Simon Winchester’s book Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883, one of the most interesting facts discussed is that the eruption and devastation of Krakatoa was one of the first, if not the first, events which people all around the world knew about within a couple days, thanks to a global telegraphy network by then in place.

Today, we take for granted near-instantaneous global communication, with nearly up to the minute news from around the world readily available. While this, made possible via all the communications technologies developed since the telegraph, is an important improvement over the flow of information around the world in a few days, the development and implementation of a world wide telegraph system was a far more radical transformation of communication. That is, the spread of information around the planet within a few days is quite rapid and even near-instantaneous, compared to the months it had previously taken for such global communication.

Fast Transportation

The most important recent innovations in modern transportation, as discussed by Friedman, are probably the standardized shipping container and mega-ships to carry them around the world, with these helping to facilitate just in time production, the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, and the low prices at Walmart. Still, while many around the world still can’t take for granted the use of fast personal transportation or jetliners, and while these are just becoming readily available to the masses in places like India or China, these have been largely taken for granted by many in more economically developed parts of the world for decades.

Further, the truly radical and new invention was not of the airplane or automobile, nor the shipping container and mega-ship, but the harnessing of effective steam engines for transportation, whether in the form of ocean-going steam ships, river boats, or railroads. Not to diminish the significance of planes or cars, but the steam engine was the first modern transportation technology and made the world “small” to a greater degree, cutting transportation times for people or goods from months or years to days or weeks.

Mass Media

CNN, the world wide web, email, online news, and the blogosphere are important and make our lives today different than that of a generation ago. Again, though, the absolute new-ness of such technologies and media pales in comparison to the first mass media.

In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson talks about the significance of early mass media in the form of “print capitalism,” i.e. newspapers which had increasing prominence from the mid-18th through the mid-19th century. As Anderson argues, such early mass media had an important role to play in shaping how people saw the world and their place in it, and in the process helped to facilitate the development of national consciousness and the modern nation-state. For the very first time, large numbers of people within a particular national context were exposed to the same news in the same form at roughly the same time, facilitating a sort of national “dialogue” and the “imagined community” of the nation.


Capitalism has roots that stretch back before the mid-19th century, but it is during that period that capitalist production became dominant alongside a matured industrial revolution in an increasingly global economy. It was also in this period that quite large numbers of people in northeastern North America and western Europe were being “proletarianized” for the first time.

Most today take free wage labor for granted. Workers might fear the loss of their jobs or desire a larger slice of the capitalist pie in the form of higher wages or better benefits, but most workers, at least in places that have been thoroughly capitalist in production for several generations (Michael Taussig’s book The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America presents the very different perspectives of workers just being proletarianized in Colombia and Bolivia), don’t experience wage labor as unnatural or alienating (enervating, perhaps, but not unnatural or alienating – where instead pulling one’s weight or doing an honest day’s work can be a source of great pride). The process of becoming proletarian, of going from being a largely self-subsistent farmer or someone who sold the products of their labor to someone who sold their labor, a bodily process, without any ownership or stake in the products of their labor, was experienced quite differently. Today, and for a century or so in the earliest thoroughly capitalist parts of the world, labor unions typically fight for a better stake within capitalist production for labor, where early proletarians saw their new position as a radical and alienating experience, often resisting not only their low place within the system, but the system altogether.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Iran, “Regime Change,” and Détente

An article in the March / April, 2007 Foreign Affairs by Ray Takeyh, “Time for Détente with Iran,” raises interesting issues concerning how best to go about influencing the internal workings of a nation-state like Iran. The reasons to want to effectively influence Iran are apparent. Concerns about Iran’s pursuit of nuclear development, the country’s overall influence in the Mid-East region, the overt and extreme Anti-Semitism of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or human rights within the country could each be reasons not only for the U.S. government but also the residents of the U.S. and a host of other countries to have an interest in moderating the policies and practices of the Iranian government.

Takeyh argues forcefully that current U.S. governmental policies and practices toward Iran, premised as they are on “Regime Change,” are wrong-headed and ineffective. There are a number of reasons why regime change is not going to happen in the case of Iran, and thus, why a détente of sorts offers a better way forward, on pragmatic grounds at least. The Bush Administration continually insists that all options are “on the table.” The big problem with that is that any options or tactics which are geared towards regime change will not work, whether in the form of military action, supporting an opposition group or movement to reform and/or topple the government from within, or economic sanctions.

Military Action

Given the ongoing military debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military is in no position to take on another war currently, even if there were a good reason to do so, and the American public is clearly in no mood to perceive any good reason for war with Iran. The U.S. military could destroy the Iranian state, but the result would be region wide chaos, clearly not in the interest of anyone.

Supporting the Opposition

There is a reformist opposition within the Iranian government which is worthy of support. The trouble is that any effort to support them within the context of an overall policy clearly premised on regime change consistently ends up undermining rather than actually supporting those reformers. And as Takeyh points out, beyond the reformers, there is essentially no opposition outside of government looking to topple the government. Radio broadcasts and other efforts to support such non-existent anti-government revolutionaries have the effect of affirming nationalist resistance to outside interference if they have any effect at all.


Sanctions and other economic tools like embargos, when aimed at regime change, are ineffectual. Just look at North Korea, Iraq throughout the 1990s, or Cuba. To the extent that such uses of sanctions have an effect, it is to shore up the power of authoritarian leaders and it is usually the population at large that is hurt. This doesn’t mean that sanctions have no place, or even that they have no place in international policy towards Iran, but that their power is far more limited than anything like “regime change,” and that for them to be effective at all, they must be very carefully and specifically targeted and for a specific more limited purpose.


This brings us to Takeyh’s argument for détente with Iran. If the U.S. and other governments are to move forward with more positively influencing Iran, it must be in a transformed context no longer premised on regime change. As Takeyh also argues, doing so doesn’t mean refraining from criticism of the Iranian government. Instead, by at least recognizing the right of the Iranian government to continue, a way is opened to more positively recognize some real common interests between Iran, the U.S., and other countries, and to engage in a more open and continuous dialogue concerning items of contention.

As with sanctions and other methods, though, we should be aware of the realistic limitations of détente. My main criticism of Takeyh is that on occasion he seems to hope and perhaps even expect too much from détente. For example, he says (p. 29), “The United States has an interest in promoting a more tolerant government in Tehran, but it will not help itself by broadcasting tall tales from Iranian exiles or with Bush’s appeals to an indifferent Iranian populace. (True enough.) Integrating Iran into the world economy and global society would do far more to accelerate its democratic transformation.”

I would note that many on the left argue much the same with regard to Cuba, that if only the U.S. embargo were lifted, democracy would surely flourish. (Aside from the fact that both Cuba and Iran are targets of “regime change” by the U.S. government, I’d also like to note that I’m not suggesting any other real commonality between the two cases.) While I do support an end to the embargo of Cuba, and I do support détente with Iran (though possibly along with some specifically targeted sanctions, especially with regard to nuclear programs), I don’t believe that such actions would particularly democratize either country. Here, the People’s Republic of China is an important comparative case. Détente has done essentially zero to democratize China, even alongside one of the most dynamic economies in the world. True, the Chinese government is currently considering reforms concerning private property in order to assuage the concerns of the growing middle class (see two articles in the March 10, 2007 issue of The Economist, “China’s Next Revolution” [p. 9] and “Governing China: Caught between right and left, town and country” [pp. 23 – 25], for discussion), but it is not particularly doing so in a democratic fashion and is only doing so several decades after détente with the west. In short, Takeyh is right that détente should be a main goal for interaction with Iran, but while this would provide better options than current policies and practices, we shouldn’t expect too much.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Cherokee Self-Determination and Cherokee Racism

Members of the Cherokee Nation recently (Saturday, March 3, 2007) voted to change the Cherokee Nation’s constitution to revoke membership from approximately 2800 descendants of slaves once owned by Cherokees. As Murray Evans of the Associated Press writes in an article in the online Indian Country Today for March 12, 2007, the Cherokee Supreme Court had affirmed in a 2006 ruling that an 1866 treaty had granted then recently freed slaves formerly owned by Cherokees and their descendants tribal citizenship. The recent election was a ballot initiative to change the Cherokee constitution to strip descendants of these “freedmen” of this citizenship and restrict membership in the tribe to individuals with traceable descent to the tribe “by blood.”

Cherokee Principal Chief Chad Smith presents the vote as purely an example of tribal self-determination. He is quoted by Evans, “The Cherokee people exercised the most basic democratic right, the right to vote. Their voice is clear as to who should be citizens of the Cherokee Nation. No one else has the right to make that determination.” (Frankly their voice is not clear. Smith presents the turnout of over 8700 voters, more than in most Cherokee elections, as a high turnout related to the importance of identity. He’s likely right that the importance of this particular issue in questions of core identity drove a higher voter turnout than normal; at the same time, the turnout can be viewed quite differently in terms of the clarity of the results. As Ben Fenwick of Reuters news service reported on March 6, 2007, “The tribe has about 250,000 people, but only 8,500 cast ballots in Saturday’s vote.”) Smith is also right that the vote is about self determination, but it is certainly not just about self determination. Voters could have equally determined to not kick out the descendants of Cherokee slaves.

There are at least two issues at play in voters’ decisions – one is the importance of being able to assert self determination and autonomy, but second is economics. Self determination and autonomy are touchy issues for many Native Americans, and for good reason. For the past couple centuries, the ability of most Native Americans to autonomously determine their own destinies has been highly circumscribed when not eliminated all together. Today, when Native American groups are occasionally able to take proactive steps to place their communities on stronger economic or political footing, there is usually resistance – witness the controversy that tends to arise any time a particular group attempts to open a tribal casino, or the current controversy surrounding the opening of the Grand Canyon Skywalk by the Hualapai (see my post below from March 8). Quite often, real autonomy and self determination for Native American communities is restricted to actions of a partly symbolic gesture that have little or no effect on North American society generally (for example, the Umatilla tribe’s persistence in trying to retain the remains of “Kennewick Man” despite any even remote empirical connection to their tribe [though there is logic to their claim – since they claim that they have always lived where they live now, and that before Euro-Americans arrived only they had lived there, Kennewick Man can’t be anything other than Umatilla], or the Makah tribe’s attempts to engage in whaling as an expression of cultural heritage). Because self determination if usually so circumscribed, and because even in the case of symbolic gestures they are often resisted by the non-Native public, the ability to assert self determination in these limited circumstances becomes more important. Though this can’t be proven, I suspect that the vociferousness of the Umatilla in their claims for Kennewick Man or the Cherokee in revising their tribal membership would be altered or moderated if they had greater overall political and economic autonomy and self determination.

Money is also important here. Casinos are one way in which some Native American groups have been able to improve the economic position of their communities in recent years and assert greater autonomy. Problems can accompany casinos as well, though, and one common problem that arises is infighting over who gets to share in the spoils of gambling profits. Although this issue is strangely absent from much reporting I’ve seen on the Cherokee vote, Fenwick writes, “Exclusion from the tribe means the black Cherokees cannot vote in tribal elections or receive entitlements such as health benefits or a share of casino revenues on tribal lands.” There’s the rub. One thing people were voting to do when they voted to exclude Black Cherokees was voting to increase their own shares of casino revenues. This doesn’t seem to have been the only, or even necessarily the main issue, or it would seem that more news reports should have picked up on this dynamic, but at the same time, I find it hard to imagine the sustained effort of the ballot initiative (and the 77 percent vote in favor of excluding Black Cherokees) without this economic component.

It’s clear that Cherokees should have the same basic human right to self determination and autonomy as anyone else. It’s not clear that voting to exclude individuals who help to constitute the polity is constitutionally legitimate. The vote is highly disappointing in that it smacks of racism and it denies the very self determination to Black Cherokees that Principal Chief Smith so strongly asserts for Cherokees in general.