If there was ever a time when anthropology was needed, now is it. The specific struggles in the past few years demand more than relativism as a moral/political imperative – even as recent political discourse forces us to return to the so-called “culture wars.” Each are about humanity, the Anthropos. What does it mean to be human? Whose lives matter? And as humans, will we survive our own shortsightedness?
As many have articulated before, this knowledge needs to come with real engagement. Charles Hale has written extensively about, and provided a platform for, activist anthropology. The ultimate test of anthropological theory is its practice, its praxis, its application. That’s why we’re here. Feminist scholars offered standpoint theory: as a recent volume by Craven and Davis demonstrates, an activist feminist anthropology by necessity challenges the status quo. As Faye Harrison intones, to remain neutral is to be complicit.
Anthropology has a special responsibility to subaltern peoples and communities and their struggles – be they indigenous people displaced by the Chixoy Dam in Guatemala; women risking their lives crossing the Sonoran desert to reunite with their families; Dominicans with French surnames and black skin fleeing the country to languish on the border with no humanitarian assistance and only a bordello for housing, cut off from mainland Haiti with no water, food, or means of scraping a living; families in Flint or the Tennessee Valley or West Virginia drinking and bathing in contaminated water; doctors, nurses, and patients, including women giving birth killed in Gaza by Israeli rockets; or hotel workers seeking a fair contract in Baltimore – putting into practice an anthropological imagination also necessitates action, not just cultural critique.
The word “public” rings hollow when it is just this, the public, which is being systematically challenged, undermined, underfunded, militarized, and privatized. Increasingly our profession is under attack. In addition to disparaging remarks about anthropology by the governor of Florida, the governor in Wisconsin formally proposed doing away with tenure. Not just for our peers in Haiti, in Gaza, or in Honduras, but for our students at home, we must stand up and directly engage the political, to defend the public. To defend public higher education. Historically Black college, Chicago State University may be forced to close its doors this year after 130 years. Or defend education full stop. Ignorance is far more costly than education. That said, to peer down from our ivory tower, or even safe spaces in $700 conferences in corporate hotels, and throw up our hands as the Ku Klux Klan finally ripped off the hood of neoliberal economic policies in this presidential election, tapping into a wellspring of an emasculated white supremacy, is to abdicate our responsibility to engage this culture war set forth by our predecessors like Mead. And like Eric Wolf, who found himself censured by this award’s namesake, we need the courage to speak truth to power. In addition, we must also act. And our actions must in the words of the Midwest Academy give people a sense of their own power and alter the relations of power, what might be called anthropolitics.
The group of thoughtful, committed citizens is not actually so small anymore. I am honored and proud to be part of it. Thank you. Now, while we still can, let’s change the world.