In 2014 I became president of the School for Advanced Research (SAR) in Santa Fe, NM, after serving more than thirty years on the faculty of Williams College. SAR is a 110-year-old research center dedicated to supporting innovative scholarship in anthropology and related disciplines as well as Native American art.
My academic interests include the indigenous peoples of the New World (especially the Amazon), religion, medical anthropology, ethnobotany, and the ethical dilemmas of intellectual property. "Upriver" is my sixth book.
Dr. Paul Farmer, humanitarian, physician, and anthropologist, died in his sleep on February 21 in Butaro, Rwanda, reportedly of a heart attack. He was 62.
Eulogies are pouring in from around the world in recognition of Farmer’s tireless efforts to treat patients in some of the world’s poorest nations—places where medical facilities were scarce and poorly equipped.
At the School for Advanced Research, we remember Paul Farmer especially for his participation in a 2006 seminar that he co-chaired, “Global Health in the Time of Violence,” the results of which were published by SAR Press under the same title. Also in 2006, SAR awarded Farmer the J.I. Staley Prize for his book Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor (University of California Press, 2004).
SAR wishes to convey its deepest sympathies to Dr. Farmer’s wife and children as well as the many patients and committed doctors he served in Haiti, Rwanda, Russia, Peru, and elsewhere.
New Mexico and Covid-19 are only now becoming acquainted. (The state had about 50 confirmed cases as I began this post on March 20.) Yet the impact on everyday life has been astonishing, beyond anything I could have imagined. This is partly because our governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, got out in front of the disease in a way that the federal government failed to do: schools, shopping centers, bars, and government offices closed earlier than in most other states, with hotels and restaurants on limited service if they remain open at all. In common with virtually all non-profit cultural institutions, the School for Advanced Research closed to the public on March 15, much of its staff working from home. The rest of us are spread out over the developed part of our 15-acre campus and keeping our distance with one another. I won’t be surprised if Santa Fe, and perhaps rest of the state, is soon in total lock-down.
What follows are some vignettes of the Plague Days.
A visitor from a Covid-19 hot zone. This must happen a lot now. A friend calls on short notice. He’s driving from one of the metropolitan centers experiencing a high rate of infection, headed to the Midwest. He’d like to get together for a drink. Ordinarily, you would agree to this instantly. You would welcome the opportunity to see a friend after years of separation. But the pandemic provokes other emotions. Hesitation. Wariness. Guilt. Then strategizing: where to meet so as to minimize risk. You agree to the meeting. Your friend bumps elbows in lieu of a handshake; he’s hip to the situation. You sit the required six feet apart. It’s good to share stories of family and work. Still, there’s a lingering sense of doubt and failure: failure to maintain stringent social isolation, and doubt that you have fully honored your commitment to your own safety and those who depend on you.
They didn’t get the memo. I decided that I needed access to a bicycle to survive—physically and mentally—the personal distancing that’s likely to continue for months. Riding as an antidote to cabin fever. Against the odds, I found a bike shop that was open. The pleasant, mostly twenty-something staff seemed completely oblivious to the Last Days look of the streets and surrounding stores, all closed up. Four young men with the requisite gimme caps and tats huddled close together in the repair shop corner of the store, peering at an exotic mountain bike on a stand. The young man in sales showed me a couple of basic hybrids. In the middle of the sales pitch, an older man, probably in his mid-70s and, by the look of him, the store’s owner, breaks into the conversation. He stands inches away from me, and I’m thinking, “WTF? Doesn’t this guy know that he’s in the cross-hairs of the epidemic? Doesn’t he care about his employees, who are cheerfully clueless about the situation?” But rather than explore those questions at such close range, I pay for a bike as fast as possible and load it into the car. Then grab the hand sanitizer.
Life calculus. The opening salvo of a debate certain to intensify was fired in today’s Wall Street Journal (March 23, 2020) under the headline “As Economic Toll Mounts, Nation Ponders the Trade-Offs: The cost of confronting the pandemic is millions of jobs and trillions in wealth lost to save potentially millions of lives.” What this means is that officials in Washington are starting to weigh the cost of saving lives through social separation against the damage this is doing to the economy. The calculus, in other words, is whether losing hundreds of thousands of lives (disproportionately the lives of seniors) is worth the national sacrifice associated with essentially shutting down the economy for months.
In a tweet released today, the president said (and I presume the all-caps format is his): “AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!” The scenario implied by this is that after a fortnight the restaurants and bars and shopping malls will reopen . . . and Devil take the hindmost.
A more plausible and, to some, marginally more palatable scenario goes like this: When roughly fifty percent (or some higher or lower number) of the American population has been afflicted by the virus and survived, presumably conferring immunity, the decision is made to put those people back to work, get the planes back in the air, and hope that the medical system can deal with the continuing flood of seriously ill victims.
This will present a moral dilemma for organizations such as SAR: Do we open our doors again at the risk of the health of a non-trivial percentage of our staff and members? SAR can probably weather a longer shutdown than many other non-profits, but at some point the more precariously positioned organizations will have to schedule their fundraisers, classes, performances, lectures, or whatever else their mission requires even if there is a significant risk to the public.
This is the kind of scenario that keeps me awake at night.
Southwest Airlines, “New Mexico One,” Albany International Airport, August 2017. Photograph by Michael F. Brown
A couple of interesting things are happening on the cultural appropriate front. The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque has just opened an exhibition on the appropriation of the Zia sun symbol by New Mexico state government and eventually by scores of businesses, tattoo artists, etc. The symbol is of considerable religious significance to the people of Zia and probably other Pueblo peoples as well. The Santa Fe New Mexican story on the exhibition provides additional information. (BTW, as I explain in Who Owns Native Culture, p. 91, the use of the Zia sun symbol by Southwest Airlines was approved and supported by Zia Pueblo.)
On a completely different front, it’s worthy of note that the Supreme Court has accepted for review a new case focused on whether the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office may refuse trademark protection for brands whose language is lewd or vulgar. The case concerns the USPTO’s decision to deny trademark protection to a line of clothing called FUCT. The case is interesting because it potentially revisits, at least by implication, a 2017 Supreme Court decision overturning a longstanding prohibition on trademarks that are “disparaging.” This category includes the marks of organizations such as Washington DC’s football team.
I expressed my dismay at the 2017 decision here. The court allowed disparaging marks primarily on free-speech grounds even though patents and trademarks are government licenses whose function is primarily commercial rather than political. Admittedly, I’m not a legal scholar or a constitutional expert, but common sense suggests that the government should not be in the business of endorsing and protecting obviously offensive brands that insult minorities, women, etc. Companies remain free to embrace hurtful images and slogans as much as they like; the issue is whether the commercial value (if indeed there is any) of these brands is eligible for protection by the federal government.
I’m grateful to Abou Farman (New School University) for sending me information on a recent tragedy in Amazonian Peru that took place not far from the major city of Pucallpa. On April 19, 2018, a Canadian tourist murdered a prominent Shipibo elder and healer, Olivia Arévalo Lomas, by shooting her in cold blood in her village. Individuals soon captured the perpetrator, Sebastian Woodroffe, 41, executed him, and buried his body in the forest. The story made its way into the international press, although many aspects of the murder, including the killers’ motive, remain unclear. Peruvian authorities subsequently arrested two men said to be primarily responsible for Woodroffe’s execution.
World interest in the killings has waned as these events recede into the distance, but Shipibo and Conibo people themselves continue to express concern about what some are calling “spiritual extractivism” associated with ayahuasca tourism. A document issued by the Shipibo Conibo Center of New York puts the situation this way:
People come to the Amazon to heal themselves of the culturally specific ailments of industrialized, individualistic societies – from addiction to depression to sexual, military and other forms of trauma to eating disorders and diseases and illnesses that have found no real cure in the halls of Western medicine. Then they get to leave but they leave behind traces of their ailments, trails of inequality, frustration, violence, and sometimes legal cases.
In August, a hundred Shipibo, Conibo, and Xetebo healers met to discuss these questions and organize a union of traditional healers along the lines of similar organizations in parts of Africa. They issued a declaration that, among other things, states their intention to “investigate the development of a mechanism by which foreigners taking advantage of indigenous medicine, healing and spiritual labour might be able to contribute to the cultural and political empowerment of Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo Peoples and their path towards self-determination.” The complete declaration and related information can be accessed here.
These events are a sobering reminder that engagement of Indigenous peoples with external market forces—even those associated with the spiritual marketplace—can lead to unforeseen consequences, some positive, others negative. It is imperative that seekers from the Global North assess the impact of their spiritual quest and do what they can to mitigate its potentially damaging effects.
Nearly twenty years ago, when I first pitched a writing project focused on emerging disputes over the intellectual property (IP) of Indigenous peoples, my favorite editor’s reaction was that the topic was too specialized and, frankly, too boring to sustain a compelling book. Eventually I was able to convince her otherwise, and her editorial ministrations helped to shape a work whose longevity has surprised both of us. Not that it hasn’t evoked its share of criticism, but that is to be expected when dealing with a highly charged and complex topic.
A recent and entirely unexpected development that turns the Indigenous IP issue on its head is usually referred to as the “sovereign immunity” question. As the journalist Adam Davidson explains in a wonderfully succinct New Yorker piece published in 2017, a revision of patent law passed by the U.S. Congress in 2012 made it much easier for corporations to challenge patents held by others, potentially leading to an explosion of expensive litigation. Exempt from the law are sovereign entities—typically nation-states but also federally recognized Indian nations. A creative patent attorney in Texas came up with the idea of helping corporations transfer their patents to sovereign Indian tribes as a way to minimize patent scrutiny. The first transfer took place between the pharmaceutical company Allergan and the St. Regis Mohawks. In exchange for the transfer, the Mohawks agreed to lease rights to patents associated with the best-selling drug Restasis back to Allergan for $15 million a year.
Anyone as sympathetic to Native American causes as I am will be tempted to celebrate the Mohawks’ strategic use of their sovereign status to generate badly needed revenue for their community. And there is a delicious irony in Native Americans benefiting, perhaps for the first time, from an intellectual property regime that has long allowed the appropriation and exploitation of their traditional knowledge by powerful outsiders. Yet from a social justice standpoint this use of sovereignty is flawed at best, since its goal, at least from Allergan’s perspective, is to delay generic versions of Restasis from becoming available to patients, presumably at a lower cost.
Chief Justice Earl Warren once declared, “In civilized life, law floats in a sea of ethics.” In this case, the ethical sea is notably unsettled and murky.
SAR scholars have pursued many unusual research projects over the decades, but one of the more memorable of recent years was that of Miriam Kolar (Weatherhead Resident Scholar, 2016-2017). Kolar, who received her doctorate from Stanford, is a prominent practitioner of the emerging specialty of archaeoacoustics, which brings together acoustic science and archaeology in an effort to understand how sound was used in used in prehistoric times to coordinate collective activity and, in some cases, to inspire awe during religious rituals.
Kolar’s work while at SAR focused mainly on one of the most mysterious and important archaeological sites of South America, Chavín de Huántar, located in the high Andes of central Peru. Chavín’s cultural influence was at its peak between about 900 BCE and 200 BCE. Rather than the capital of an empire in a conventional sense, Chavín seems to have been most important as a site of ritual pilgrimage whose cultural influence extended for hundreds of kilometers beyond the limits of the community itself. Kolar’s acoustic research and on-site experimentation suggest that “the ceremonial complex would have been wielded as a multi-sensory venue, a place where convincing experiential manipulations impressed visitors, whose proven connection with the Chavín ‘cult’ would bolster their home status.”
Kolar and two colleagues have recently published an open-access article in Heritage Science entitled “The Huánuco Pampa acoustical field survey: An efficient, comparative archaeoacoustical method for studying sonic communication dynamics.” This study focuses on the acoustic properties of a different archaeological site, Huánuco Pampa, a major Inca-period administrative center. Based on their highly technical study of the site’s principal platform, they conclude, among other things, that the platform served “as a tool for multi-directional communication, as well as to facilitate messaging about elite presence and imperial identity through the projection of sonic-visual displays.”
A short video of Miriam Kolar describing her SAR project is available here.
Perhaps because in recent years I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with Steven Feld, a senior scholar at SAR, questions related to sound have been on my mind of late. Steve is noted for many things, but his work on cross-cultural acoustics is widely regarded as inspiringly innovative. It’s also true that as I crossed into my mid-60s I experienced a degree of hearing loss —”consistent with your age,” as an audiologist told me, which was cold comfort. That has led me both to regret some of the wall-of-sound rock concerts I attended in the early 1970s and to be much more protective of my hearing than I was in the past. For anyone who cares a great deal about music, the prospect of losing the ability to fully enjoy it is troubling. As I noted in this blog several years ago, the improvisational genius of jazz is something that inspires my writing as an anthropologist, even if the connection is loose rather than direct.
So it was with some disappointment that I found myself forced to abandon a recent outdoor performance in Santa Fe by a terrific Kansas City-based Latino band, Making Movies, The group’s music can be described as an amplified, hybridized mélange of Latin American traditions. As the band explains in their website, the latest Making Movies album is “a bold mix of sounds: psychedelia, experimental rock, son cubano, cumbia and various rhythms descended from Yoruba music.” Aside from their formidable musical chops, the band members have been outspoken in their public support of DACA immigrants.
When Making Music started to perform on June 2, there was a crowd of perhaps a hundred, and the vibe was classic summer Santa Fe: cheerful, relaxed, ready to dance. But the sound! The amplified roar was beyond ear-splitting, beyond F16-taxiing-for-takeoff intensity. Most of the crowd seemed unperturbed, but I had to retreat— first to a distance of about 50 yards, then 100. At that distance, and behind rather than in front of the band’s PA system, the audio volume seemed about right. Conversations after the event suggested that I wasn’t the only person driven away by the unnecessary intensity of the amplification.
I had a similar experience a couple of years ago at a Dwight Yokum concert held at the Santa Fe Opera. (Okay, Yokum’s music isn’t my scene, but it was a fundraiser to which I was invited by a friend.). I had neglected to bring ear protection, and my wife and I were reduced to wadding bits of kleenex in our ears in self-defense. After twenty minutes our host was ready to evacuate, and we followed suit. From the parking lot of the Opera—which, by the way, has excellent acoustics with modest amplification—the volume was about right. The sonic assault seemed to have no effect on most of the audience, some of whom were two-stepping in front of the massive PA speakers as we sprinted for the exit.
What’s going on here? A little poking around on the web suggests that I’m not the first to wonder why performances have routinely become so loud that they make the sound of nearby jack-hammers seem almost meditative by comparison. Edward Tufte, known for his book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and related works, moderates a thoughtful exchange of views about this issue on his website. He and others refer to a 2003 article by Lewis Segal published in the L.A. Times that complains about the sheer acoustic brutality of many concerts. (See also this.). A 2016 article in the Daily Telegraphreported that thirty people walked out of a UB40 concert because the volume affected their heart rhythms and caused one person’s ear to bleed. Yet most of the concert-goers had no complaint about the sound level.
Various explanations for this phenomenon have been floated: (1) The increase in ambient noise levels almost everywhere, which habituates people to high levels of background noise, at some cost to public health; (2) the ubiquity of in-ear headphones, which is causing premature hearing loss in the nation’s youth, in turn suggesting that performances must be louder to register on an audience; (3) performances are getting louder because performers want to “turn their amps up to 11,” which isn’t a theory as much as an anecdotal inference; and (4) the possibility that the sheer physicality or somatic impact of ultra-loud music is what draws people to concerts.
I’m inclined to view the situation as “overdetermined,” to use a word favored by theory geeks. Urban Americans are now so habituated to high levels of ambient noise and ubiquitous digital music that concerts must achieve higher levels of volume to justify the price of admission. I wonder, too, whether part of the draw is a desire for embodied catharsis, which is hard to find in a society where people work ever-longer hours for ever-smaller salaries. From that perspective, the physical impact of ultra-loud concerts—ringing ears and the like—is a feature rather than a bug. It’s also true that concert-goers have little control over audio levels at the events they attend. Their only options, once they’ve gained admission, are to insert ear protection or head for the door.
Later this summer I’m traveling to a place where the only protection I’ll need is insect repellent and sunscreen: the Boundary Waters wilderness of Minnesota, which is blissfully out of cell phone range and where the dominant sounds are the splash of paddles on water and the haunting call of loons. The BWCA lies just to the east of Voyageurs National Park, which has been voted one of the ten quietest places in the United States. I look forward to giving my ears a rest.
On June 1, 2018, the School for Advanced Research and The Nature Conservancy of New Mexico hosted New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert at Santa Fe’s Lensic Performing Arts Center. The event drew a capacity crowd of more than 700. Kolbert presented a 30-minute talk that was followed by an on-stage Q&A by Terry Sullivan, director of The Nature Conservancy NM, and SAR president Michael Brown. This event, the title of which was “The Fate of the Earth,” was presented under the auspices of SAR’s annual President’s Lecture.
Kolbert’s work for the New Yorker has covered a diverse array of topics, but in recent years she has become known especially for her work on species extinction and global climate change. She was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2015 for The Six Extinction: An Unnatural History.
Although her talk discussed the astonishing rate at which species are disappearing in most parts of the world—a rate many scientists feel is comparable to five other mass extinction events dating as far back as 450 million years—many of the questions posed by her interviewers and members of the audience (via social media) turned on the matter of climate change. New Mexico and much of the Southwest are experiencing extreme drought conditions this year, as well as unusually high temperatures.
During Kolbert’s visit, the Ute Park fire in northeastern New Mexico was expanding to 37,000 acres. As of this writing, it has still not been completely contained. An avid hiker, Kolbert’s plans were partially curtailed when the U.S. Forest Service closed some of the most popular hiking trails around Santa Fe because of the extreme fire risk. In short, climate change was on the minds of everyone in the hall because it had a local salience that surpassed that of species extinction.
A question voiced several times during the event was why the American public is so divided on policies related to climate change. Among the most frequently cited explanations for this troubling hostility or indifference: mistrust of educated elites; the rise of anti-scientism; the cynical manipulation of public opinion by politicians and business interests who stand to lose if the U.S. frees itself from dependence on fossil fuels; and fear of the massive social changes required to reduce our carbon footprint. All of these factors play a role, yet they don’t seem entirely persuasive. Are there deeper reasons for public indifference?
An important distinction to make is between contemporary climate change and explanations of its ultimate cause. Evidence that the climate is changing is far more visible to the public than are the factors that drive it. This is especially true in coastal areas ranging from south Florida and Louisiana to Alaska. Boston and New York City aren’t far behind. Insurance companies are already figuring this into their risk algorithms and premiums, as is the U.S. military. True, we still have to endure the nattering of televised halfwits who don’t understand the difference between climate and weather, prompting them to point to the latest record low temperature as proof that global warming is a myth. On balance, however, people who are attuned to land and water—farmers, civil engineers, Arctic hunters, ski resort owners, and the like—are unlikely to dispute the reality of climate change.
As for causes, skeptics in this part of the world point out that cyclical drought has a long history in the Southwest and has been blamed for the apparent collapse of the Chaco Culture. Looking farther back, ice ages reshaped much of the planet long before humans were in a position to register a significant impact on earth’s atmosphere. By that logic, giving up our gas-guzzlers and coal-fired power plants is futile. Of course, for that argument to carry weight one is obliged to ignore the cumulative impact of adding 2.4 million pounds of CO2 emissions to earth’s atmosphere every second.
Which brings us to the issue of scale—that is, how to imbue people with a sense of planetary duty when their individual contribution to the problem verges on the microscopic, especially when the processes involved extend beyond a human lifetime or more. Would it truly make a difference to the earth if I skipped an annual vacation flight to Cancún? Why should I acquiesce to the closing of my local coal-fired power plant when it means that I and other members of my community will lose our jobs and be reduced to penury while moralizing elites charge their Teslas with energy produced by wind or sunlight? This is the tragedy of the commons on a planetary scale.
How to solve this problem is perhaps the greatest anthropological challenge of our time. A ray of hope emerged in a case mentioned by Elizabeth Kolbert toward the end of a panel discussion at SAR the morning after her lecture, an event that featured two scientists and a representative from Jemez Pueblo. Kolbert briefly mentioned the Danish island of Samsø, which over the course of a decade voluntarily turned itself into a net-zero community. This success story is easy to discount. The island’s population is less than 4,000; islanders benefit from abundant and cheap wind power; Denmark is a wealthy country. Yet in a case like this we can see a bridge between the individual and the collective. Solving the problem of scale may require thousands and ultimately millions of Samsø-like projects until a sense of a global commons can be created and embraced. Whether this can happen fast enough to make a difference remains an open question
[This post is mirrored in the Scholar Programs blog of the School for Advanced Research.] On Wednesday, April 17, 2018, SAR was pleased to host presentations by Nancy Scheper-Hughes (Chancellor’s Professor Emerita, UC-Berkeley) and Òrla O’Donovan (School of Applied Social Studies, University College, Cork). Les Field, chair of anthropology at the University of New Mexico, served as discussant.
Òrla O’Donovan’s presentation, titled “The Dead Body Commons,” outlined an Irish multidisciplinary project that is addressing questions of ownership of dead bodies and whether the idea of a dead body commons can begin to reframe public thinking about rights in and to specific body parts and human remains in general. O’Donovan noted that the Irish are more comfortable with dead bodies than many other Europeans; in traditional Irish wakes the deceased are often laid out in kitchens or sitting rooms while mourners carry on around them. The devastation of the Famine in the 1840s is reflected in the presence of mass graves throughout rural Ireland, which are still thought of as a major historical injury. She also briefly discussed the case of the “Tuam Babies,” a recently discovered mass burial of infants who died at an institution for unwed mothers.
It is widely assumed, O’Donovan noted, that this and under scandals surrounding the disposition of bodies and body parts can be resolved through legislation requiring evidence of choice and individual consent underwritten by a notion of liberal individualism. She and her research project colleagues, however, feel that this vision begs important questions, including attention to the factors that shape conceptions of individual rights and consent. Their goal is to shift attitudes associated with the dead in a new direction. They have been influenced by Derrida’s Spectres of Marx (especially the concept of “hauntings”), Laqueur’s Work of the Dead, and Anne Phillips’s Our Bodies: Whose Property? The latter work, O’Donovan said, is leading the research team to ask whether human bodies should be thought of as belonging to a commons, the obvious analogy being to traditional communal land tenure practices in which individuals are considered owners while they are alive to work the common land, after which the land reverts to the commons.
Nancy Scheper-Hughes’s presentation, “Cannibal Markets and the Tragedy of the Dead Body Commons,” developed themes she has recently explored with others in New Cannibal Markets. Her talk moved from issues of social inequality involving “voluntary” sale of tissues and organs by disadvantaged people in Brazil and South Asia to covert harvesting of organs by medical schools, a practice that has a long history that continues today in many places. The most shocking example of market-driven “cannibalism” is the documented removal of tissues and organs from the enemy dead in war zones such as Iraq and Syria. The texts and especially the images depicting these instances of “necropolitics” were not for the faint of heart.
In his discussant’s role, Les Field offered observations on the the links between bodies and territories—including the way that a commons may exclude a segment of the population from participation—as well as the effect of identifying anything, including human body parts, as “resources.”
In the subsequent Q and A, members of the audience expressed uncertainty about how a dead body commons could accommodate the wide range of death-related beliefs and practices found in multicultural societies. Although there is universal agreement that the “cannibalism” documented so powerfully by Scheper-Hughes is a crime, would a commons approach lead to a situation in which the needs of a wider community for transplantable body parts (hearts, corneas, kidneys, etc.) prevail over the cultural preferences of the deceased’s family or religious denomination? An illustration of the complexity of attitudes toward the dead is found in the range of responses that Native Americans have to the repatriation of ancestral remains. The news media are happy to report the many instances when tribes gratefully welcome the return of their ancestors’ bones and see it as an important step toward healing past injustices. Less frequently noted are those situations when communities decline to repatriate human remains. Some perceive contact with the dead to be spiritually contaminating. Others lack a traditional ritual of reburial. As a Native American elder once told me, “How can we bury these people properly when we know nothing about their family identity and the religious offices they might have held?”
This SAR colloquium reflects growing interest in death and dying in the humanities and social sciences, including anthropology. In September 2018, SAR is sponsoring an Advanced Seminar, “Death Culture in the 21st Century,” organized by Shannon Lee Dawdy (University of Chicago) and Tamara E. Kneese (UC-Davis). A report on the preliminary results of the seminar will be distributed in the SAR website after its completion.
Last fall I spent several weeks in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, where I had lived for more than three decades prior to my relocation to a new job in Santa Fe four years ago. Berkshire County is the farthest west and most rural county of Massachusetts. For New Yorkers and Bostonians, the Berkshires are known for their fields, forests, and outstanding cultural amenities, including the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, the Clark Art Institute and Williams College in Williamstown, and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams.
These are all wealthy, world-class institutions, yet under the glitz lies a darker reality. As a recent article in the Boston Globepoints out, poverty in Berkshire County has risen by nearly a third since 2000. The median age is rising as younger people leave for places with better job prospects, meaning that the population will continue to be older and sicker and poorer in the coming years. I caught a glimpse of this in a visit to Berkshire Mall in Lanesboro, the only major shopping center within 30 miles of Williamstown. Having been away for awhile, I was shocked by the mall’s post-apocalyptic vibe now that most of its anchor stores have packed up and left. The county’s economic decline helps to explain why the value of the house that my wife and I still own in Williamstown has declined by as much as 20 percent in the past five years.
To some extent the hollowing out of a place that I love has been under way for decades. In common with many once-prosperous smaller towns and villages in the northeast, the factories began to close nearly a century ago, a process that accelerated in the middle of the twentieth century. In the Berkshires, manufacturers of textiles, shoes, furniture, plastics, and electronics moved south, then offshore. Despite this change, in the 1980s and 90s, real estate prices rose dramatically. The Great Recession put a stop to that, and the economic arc has trended down ever since.
Journalists and to a lesser extent social scientists have now begun to take notice of this situation and assess its implications. (For examples, see this and this.) What caught the eye of many of them was the impact that rural and small-town voters had on the election of Donald Trump in 2016. According to the Washington Post, rural counties favored Trump by 26 points, whereas urban ones voted for Hillary Clinton by a 32 point margin. (Berkshire County was an exception to that pattern, favoring Clinton 67.5% to 27%, a majority consistent with Massachusetts as a whole.)
So far, I haven’t seen much ethnography focused on dying towns and rural areas. Notable exceptions include Christina Walley’s Exit Zero(which documents the travail of a deindustrializing urban neighborhood rather than a rural one) and Arlie Russell Hochschild’s much celebrated Strangers in Their Own Land.Reaching back to a time before the current political kerfuffle are books like Katie Stewart’s memorable A Space on the Side of the Road (1996). There are doubtless other insightful works with which I’m not familiar. Still, it’s hard not to get the sense that most ethnographers prefer to embed with embattled urban minorities—African Americans, Latinos, heroin addicts, LGBTQ youth—rather than with alienated and often angry white people hunkered down in blighted communities. There is little question, though, that their sense of economic and social abandonment is a major factor in our nation’s current political malaise. People who feel that they have nothing to lose aren’t likely to put much stock in the niceties of civil debate and dignified leadership.
For an upbeat view of a small American town that has managed to maintain its vitality despite the social and economic headwinds, don’t miss Larissa MacFarquhar’s article on Orange City, Iowa (“Where the Small-Town American Dream Lives On,” published in the New Yorker in November 2017). As MacFarquhar points out, Orange City is about as politically conservative a place as one can find in the US, yet it doesn’t seem to have embraced the bonkers anti-government and anti-immigrant ideology that has gained traction in other parts of the country. Therein lies a ray of hope.
Addendum, 2/19/2018. Just happened upon a new book by sociologist Robert Wuthnow that addresses the sense of abandonment that afflicts much of rural America. Wuthnow is one of the most prolific and reliably insightful sociologists of America working today. A book not to be missed for anyone interested in this issue.
This site offers information about the book UPRIVER (Harvard UP, 2014), other books by Michael F. Brown, issues related to Amazonian peoples, events at the School for Advanced Research–Santa Fe, and occasional meditations on anthropology and human social life in general.