All posts by Michael F. Brown

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.

Beyond hoop earrings: The damaging impact of the cultural appropriation meme

The Moana-themed costume that Disney pulled out of stores after intense public criticism, Fall 2016

The vapid debate about cultural appropriation continues in social media, the latest reductio ad absurdum being the claim that hoop earrings belong to Latina culture and shouldn’t be worn by Anglo women.  The neocon press loves these stories because they illustrate the alleged excesses of identity politics in American colleges and universities.

Conservative interest in accusations of cultural appropriation may explain why I was called by Alice Lloyd, a reporter for The Weekly Standard, and invited to explain why appropriation has become such a pervasive meme.  To her credit, she was more interested in efforts to limit the appropriation of indigenous knowledge than in tempests-in-teapots like the hoop earrings issue.  Her curiosity appears to have been sparked by criticism of the glacially slow efforts of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) to develop protocols for the protection of traditional knowledge and indigenous genetic resources.

Although I admire the efforts of legal thinkers such as James Anaya to nudge WIPO to promulgate global policies that provide an umbrella of protection for indigenous peoples, I’m skeptical that protocols on that scale can effectively address the particularities of local situations and multiple conceptual domains (e.g., genetic resources, biological knowledge, expressive culture, sacred understandings, etc.)  One has only to read WIPO’s draft documents to wonder whether endless micro-editing of terminology can lead to successful solutions in our lifetime.

Any way one slices things, legal protocols must resolve knotty questions.  Who qualifies as indigenous?  Who legitimately speaks for communities given local disagreements about whether formally constituted Native governments (e.g., the tribal councils of federally recognized Indian nations in the United States) are qualified to represent the community in matters relating to religious knowledge?  Can one ever reconcile a global IP system predicated on time-limited monopolies—patents and copyrights— with what indigenous peoples typically see as the eternal status of their values and practices?  Should the cultural-protection rights of indigenous communities always trump the right of indigenous individuals to share life histories that may include religiously sensitive information?  Can WIPO’s necessary focus on nation-states ever be fully reconciled with the complex and often fraught status of indigenous communities within those nation-states? These and other tough questions have made the journey toward international protections a painfully slow one.

The article that emerged from the Weekly Standard interview is more thoughtful than most, and I’m flattered that Lloyd says nice things about a book I wrote years ago.  Still, I feel obliged to correct an error in the account.  For the record, the School for Advanced Research wasn’t founded by “frontier-minded and Bryn Mawr-educated heiresses with cash to burn.”  It emerged from the efforts of an early anthropologist, Alice Cunningham Fletcher, and the archaeologist Edgar Lee Hewett to establish a center for the study of American prehistory that would rival institutions that studied the archaeology of the classical world.  The Bryn Mawr graduates mentioned by Lloyd are presumably Martha Root White and Amelia Elizabeth White, who built a home in Santa Fe in the 1920s.  Amelia Elizabeth White bequeathed the estate to SAR in 1972, 65 years after SAR’s founding.  Details here.

It’s fair to say, as Lloyd does, that many members of Santa Fe’s Anglo elite had an appropriative attitude toward Native American culture.  Early in the twentieth century, Santa Fe and Taos served as meccas for educated Anglos searching for an America that owed little to European high culture.  They found this primal authenticity in the New Mexico landscape and its indigenous and Hispanic populations, especially the Pueblo peoples of the region.  Although Hewett, the White sisters, and others like them were deeply sympathetic to Native Americans and in some cases fought vigorously to defend indigenous land rights and religious freedoms, their attitudes were often condescending.  They presumed that they were more qualified to speak for Indians than Indian people themselves.  In this sense they were creatures of their time.

The SAR of today is a different place.  In particular, SAR’s Indian Arts Research Center is committed to doing what it can to facilitate the transfer of indigenous knowledge between generations and to work collaboratively with the communities in which the IARC’s collections originated. And the IARC is extremely careful about maintaining the confidentiality of sensitive religious knowledge, to the limited extent that it can be found in the IARC’s records. Perfection achieved?  Not by a long shot.  But we are making progress despite the current economic and political headwinds.

It remains to be seen whether public understanding can move beyond trivial arguments about hoop earrings, yoga, and Asian cuisine to acknowledge the real injustices suffered by indigenous peoples when their hard-won traditional knowledge is commercialized or otherwise misused by outsiders.



On trademarks.
  The recent Supreme Court decision in Matal v. Tam has defined trademarks as a form of speech, thus voiding restrictions on disparaging marks and opening the door to continued legal protection of the controversial name of Washington D.C.’s football team.  I’m no legal scholar, and I understand that complex issues of free speech are at stake, yet common sense (for what that’s worth these days) says (1) that commercial speech is different from political speech, and (2) that trademarks are not a fundamental constitutional right but a license granted by the government upon satisfaction of a set of stringent conditions. Commercial speech is held to standards of accuracy that prevent a company from making wildly inaccurate claims (“Our toothpaste cures five forms of cancer!”) that are protected in the context of political speech (as when Donald Trump claims that his election victory was the greatest in American history).

I thus fail to see why the government should be obliged to authorize trademarks that disparage and hurt specific communities, especially minority ones.  Granted, the use of disparaging trademarks doesn’t seem likely to become widespread; after all, it will drive away many customers, thus defeating a trademark’s commercial intent.  But in an era as polarized as ours, I can imagine some people being moved to register and use offensive trademarks . . . well, just because they can.  Even legal scholars who defend the decision accept that it may also  void restrictions on “scandalous” trademarks, meaning that we can look forward to more vulgarity in popular media and on the shelves of our local shops.  It is hard to celebrate this decision as a positive validation of American free-speech rights.



Update on the STOP Act.
  On a more encouraging note, Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) has just introduced to Congress a revised version of the STOP Act (Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony).  The director of SAR’s Indian Arts Research Center, Brian Vallo (Acoma Pueblo) was involved in revisions to this bill and in promoting conversations between Native American leaders, attorneys, and dealers in Native art that have led to refinements in the proposed legislation.


Update, 17 July 2017.  Don’t miss Arthur Krystal’s essay “Is Cultural Appropriation Ever Appropriate?” L.A. Review of Books, 17 July 2017.

Anthropological writing for troubled times

editingWhen I made the shift from college teaching to the world of fundraising in support of anthropology and Native American arts, I quickly learned something about which I’d previously had only a vague suspicion: that as an occupational group, anthropologists do a poor job of making a case for the importance of our work.

In offering such a sweeping judgment, I’m mostly referring to cultural anthropology, my own subdiscipline.  Biological anthropologists have the advantage of being increasingly involved in genomics research as well as studies of human growth and development that have scientific cachet and often some practical utility.  Archaeologists can draw on consistent popular interest in cultural history.

If you ask an average American what recent work of anthropology he or she has read or at least is aware of, the reply is likely to be something by Jared Diamond, who isn’t an anthropologist at all.  (He was trained in physiology and now holds an academic position in geography.) This causes no end of consternation to anthropologists, who with few exceptions find Diamond’s work simplistic, derivative, and often wrong-headed.  What accounts for his popularity?  I’d say two things: the clarity of his writing and his willingness to explore big ideas. These qualities earned him a Pulitzer Prize for Guns, Germs, and Steel in 1998.

Clarity of expression and big ideas are not easy to find in the everyday writing of anthropologists.  There are occasional exceptions—one is David Graeber, whose work I’ve written about before—as well as the writers recruited by the website Sapiens, whose success since its founding in 2016 is a tribute to the vision of the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the leadership of the site’s editor-in-chief, Chip Colwell.

These exceptions and a handful of others aside, I’ve come to think of anthros as living in a dream-world in which we take for granted the importance and moral urgency of what we write without seriously considering its off-putting characteristics for the public we aspire to reach.   This suspicion was confirmed by the campaign to hold public readings of work by Michel Foucault to protest the inauguration of the current occupant of the White House.  I’m casting no aspersions on those who venerate Saint Michel, only noting the improbability that anything written by him would change the hearts and minds of Americans in a time of marked coarsening of our national discourse.

What do I mean by off-putting characteristics?  There is little point in belaboring the problem of jargon, which afflicts all academic disciplines. (Addendum, 2-24.2017.  That said, don’t miss this essay on academic BS by Maximillian Alvarez.)  But anthropology seems more prone than most to embrace weird linguistic tics, such as the compulsion to pluralize everything (“anthropologies,” “sexualities”) or claiming to “theorize” an issue when the author is simply undertaking comparison or offering inductive generalizations.  These are normalized in the discipline but are likely to baffle readers who aren’t dues-paying  members of the club.

More substantive problems include frequent, plodding references to the structure of one’s presentation—”In this paragraph I talk about X; in the next I discuss Y,” thus presuming that the reader is too dense to figure out where the author is going and why, which might indeed be the case if the prose is weak.  Or the now almost inevitable declaration that the author’s goal is to “complicate” an issue.  Some questions merit complication, of course. Many don’t.  One could even make a case that a good piece of writing is obliged to simplify or at least offer a concise interpretation of the complexities that it addresses.  Equally distracting is the perceived need to cite Big Theorists as a way of displaying cultural capital rather than illuminating an argument.  (Maximilian Forte discusses this in his video lecture “Beyond Public Anthropology,” beginning at the 36 minute mark.)

Brevity is an underrated virtue in contemporary anthropological writing despite the shift in the culture at large to ever shorter forms of written expression.  I’ve lost count of the number of ethnographies I’ve read in recent years that would have been twice as powerful if they’d been half as long.  As many gifted writers have noted, what one leaves out of a book or article is often as important  to clarity of expression as what stays in.

I was prompted to think about the future of anthropological writing by a recent message from a longtime supporter of the institution for which I work.  He heads a family foundation that funds a number of cultural institutions and progressive causes.  The present political crisis is leading him to shift his support in the direction of organizations that can effect positive social change and counter the nation’s turn to the populist right.  His advice to me: “No more esoteric stuff.  Deal with real issues and offer answers rather than narratives.”  He urged me to come out of what he called the “academic cave.”

Even if we discount the urgency prompted by recent events, his view has merit.  For anthropology to survive and prosper, its practitioners must become much better at bringing informed perspectives to issues of broad import, writing about them with impeccable clarity, and proposing practical solutions when appropriate.  This doesn’t limit work to applied or engaged or activist anthropology, although these are certainly valuable contributions to the field. There remains a place for big-picture research—on deep history, human evolution, ancient cultural traditions, and the like—that helps to contextualize current preoccupations within a larger frame.  This work has to be clear, inventive, and engaging.  If we can’t make this transition, we’ll be abandoned in our academic cave, reading Foucault by the flickering light of a dying fire.

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A short but useful blog post on writing and editing, drawing on the pithy advice of the late William Zinsser, can be found in the website of Bhaskar Sarma.

The March 2017 issue of Harper’s includes an amusing review by Nat Segnit of the latest crop of writing guides.  Not all of the review is relevant to non-fiction writers and social scientists, but it’s worth a look, especially Segnit’s witty editorial critique of the preamble to the United States Constitution.

More on cultural appropriation

williams_elle

Hats off to a friend for directing me to a recent blog post by Fredrik deBoer questioning the widespread abuse of the idea of cultural appropriation.  His views complement and move beyond my own discussion of degrees of cultural appropriation posted early in 2016. [July 2017: It looks like the post has been taken down from deBoer’s site.]

I confess that I’m a sucker for feisty, against-the-grain assessments of thoughtless pieties of this nature, largely because recognition of the real injustices of certain kinds of inter-cultural theft are undermined by indiscriminate accusations that one group is stealing cultural elements from another..

Living in the Southwest and regularly engaging with Native American nations has sensitized me to the harmful effects of thoughtless imitation, even when well intentioned—a prominent case in point being the history of the Smoki People, a group that imitated Hopi rituals and dress for decades.  In short, cultural appropriation is a real problem worthy of informed criticism.  But critical distinctions need to be made lest it be reduced to an empty slogan, which I take to be the point of deBoer’s post.

A useful place to start a more informed discussion is an online publication by the IPinCH project in Canada: “Think Before You Appropriate.

A compelling case of biopiracy: The Stevia story

stevia_cultivationToday we hear less about biopiracy than we did a few years ago.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, some cases of alleged biopiracy are more ambiguous than critics of cultural appropriation typically admit.  But one case of flagrant biopiracy, that of sweeteners drived from the South American species Stevia rebaudiana, is finally starting to get the attention it deserves.

S. rebaudiana is an herbaceous plant native to eastern Paraguay that was long used by indigenous Guaraní peoples as a sweetener for teas and medicinal preparations.  The sweetness of Stevia comes from several glycosides, including stevioside and rebaudioside, that produce a sensation of intense sweetness without increasing the blood glucose of those who consume it.

Use of Stevia as a sweetener was documented by Western science in the late nineteenth century, although its chemical constituents were not identified for another sixty years.  As developed nations began to search for calorie-free sweeteners, the properties of Stevia became of considerable interest.  Stevia seems to have been embraced as an alternative to sugar first by Japanese and Chinese corporations.  In the U.S., use of Stevia initially stalled because of preliminary evidence that its chemical constituents might be carcinogenic, although effective lobbying by manufacturers of competing artificial sweeteners was also a factor.  The carcinogenicity claim was eventually refuted, however, and Stevia‘s commercial value has grown substantially since the 1980s.

The Guaraní, one of South America’s poorest and most endangered indigenous populations, have received negligible benefits from the global market for this potentially billion-dollar product.  Ironically, marketing campaigns for Stevia-based sweeteners often identify it as “traditional” or “indigenous.”

stevia

Smallholder farmers in Paraguay derive some income from cultivation of the plant for the market.  But even this modest compensation is being undermined by commercial biosynthesis of Stevia‘s key compounds in the developed world.  In other words, industrial producers no longer need the Stevia plant to manufacture the sweetener that has become a hot product in the competition for zero-calorie alternatives to cane sugar in parts of the world where obesity and diabetes are major public health problems.  The scale of this obvious injustice is staggering.

For more information on this situation and efforts to address it, a good starting point is the publication The Bitter Sweet Taste of Stevia, a report published by a consortium of European and Paraguayan NGOs.  A protest petition directed to Coca-Cola can be found here.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Challenging the Fiesta de Santa Fe

entrada_2016

The Fiesta de Santa Fe is a fascinating example of an invented and evolving tradition.  Its historic roots date to 1712, when the Hispanic residents of Santa Fe came together to celebrate the Reconquest of Santa Fe in 1692 by don Diego de Vargas.  A general uprising of Pueblo communities in 1680, famously led by an Indian named Popé, resulted in numerous Spanish deaths and the evacuation of most of New Mexico by Spanish colonists.  De Vargas returned with a military force in 1692.  The first phase of the Reconquest was fairly peaceful, but by 1693 conflicts between Spaniards and Pueblo people had erupted and continued for years.  The Reconquest, in other words, was not nearly as peaceful as advocates of today’s Fiesta assert.  (Details of the Reconquest are available in a summary provided by the Office of the New Mexico State Historian.)

The Fiesta was primarily a religious event through much of its early history, although it went through various changes as control of New Mexico shifted from Spain to Mexico and then to the United States in 1846.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, Fiesta had fallen onto hard times and was apparently abandoned in 1912.  In 1919 a revival was spearheaded by SAR’s president, Edgar Lee Hewett.  Hewett’s goals were multi-faceted.  He and other members of the Anglo elite wanted to celebrate all of the region’s cultures while promoting Santa Fe’s commercial aspirations.  Hewett’s efforts to control the increasingly elaborate event generated resistance by Santa Fe’s artist community, who organized counter-events that parodied the seriousness of Hewett’s version of the Fiesta.

In subsequent years Fiesta seemed to have returned to its original roots primarily as a celebration of Santa Fe’s Hispanic heritage.  As Native American militancy intensified, however, local Pueblo leaders began to protest the whitewashed portrayal of the Reconquest.  There protests are voiced in a powerful documentary, Gathering Up Again: The Fiesta in Santa Fe (dir. Jeanette DeBouzek and Diane Reyna, 1992).

The 2015 Fiesta, especially the so-called Entrada or arrival of a mounted dignitary representing de Vargas as he enters the plaza to retake Santa Fe, generated fierce criticism from Native American quarters.  These became much more marked in 2016, when raucous protests forced the horsemen representing de Vargas and his assistants to dismount.

Dignitaries dressed as Spanish conquistadores attempt to ride through a crowd of protesters during the 2016 Entrada in front of the Palace of the Governors.
Dignitaries dressed as Spanish conquistadores attempt to ride through a crowd of protesters during the 2016 Entrada in front of the Palace of the Governors.
Police observers in military camo keep an eye on the Entrada protest.
Police observers in military camo keep an eye on the Entrada protest.

On September 17, an editorial in the Santa Fe New Mexican made a case for conversations between Hispanos and Indians that could change the event in ways that would bring the community closer to together.  It remains to be seen whether this will happen.

This year’s protests put a sympathetic outsider in an awkward position.  Fiesta is an occasion when Santa Fe’s Hispanos can express pride in their cultural heritage, which in the case of New Mexico has produced one of the most distinctive and in many ways admirable regional cultures in the U.S.  At the same time, Native Americans can legitimately protest a public ritual that misrepresents the brutality and imperialism of the Reconquest.   The conflict is further complicated by the many threads of history, family, and religion that unite the two communities.  Still, Fiesta has adapted to new realities over its long history, and there’s reason to be optimistic that it can change yet again in response to the vitality of Santa Fe’s multicultural civic life.


Sources on la Fiesta de Santa Fe:

–A short article in New Mexico Magazine.

–Don’t miss a charming and informative El Palacio article by Carmella Padilla that describes a painting by the artist Gustave Baumann that playfully documents the Fiesta parade as performed on the Santa Fe plaza in 1926.

–For details of SAR’s pivotal role in the revitalization of Fiesta in the 1920s, a good source is Nancy Owen Lewis and Kay Leigh Hagan, A Peculiar Alchemy: A Centennial History of SAR, 2007.

–Ronald L. Grimes, Symbol and Conquest: Public Ritual and Drama in Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2nd ed., 2013. Grimes has produced an album of seven videos about the fiesta. In addition, two chapters of his recent book, The Craft of Ritual Studies. are about the fiesta. The book discusses Sarah Horton’s The Santa Fe Fiesta, Reinvented, as well as Jenny Debouzek’s 1992 documentary, Gathering up Again: Fiesta in Santa Fe.

–Sarah Bronwen Horton, The Santa Fe Fiesta, Reinvented, 2010.


Update, September 22, 2016:  Distinguished SAR alumnus Estevan Rael-Gálvez published an excellent comment on the Fiesta situation in the Santa Fe New Mexican on 9/17.

Protecting Cultural Patrimony: The Debates Continue

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and NM tribal leaders at a July 2016 press conference held to publicize the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act, which has been submitted to the US Congress. Source: http://www.heinrich.senate.gov.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and NM tribal leaders at a July 2016 press conference held to publicize the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act, which has been submitted to the US Congress. Source: http://www.heinrich.senate.gov.

Laws, policies, and attitudes about cultural heritage–especially the heritage of indigenous peoples–continue to evolve, largely in the direction of acknowledging past injuries and formulating protection strategies for the present and future.

It’s fair to say that relevant policies are somewhat easier to develop when dealing with material goods such as human remains and objects of religious significance.  These can only exist in one place at a time (unless they’ve been replicated digitally), which means that in principle they can be returned to the control of the communities that created them.  This process is made more complicated by global trade, a problem that has come to public attention as a result of recent attempts to auction Native American religious items in Paris.  These auctions sparked a public outcry in the United States, but thus far efforts to stop such sales have had only partial success.  This unfortunate situation has prompted US lawmakers, with the full support of Native American leaders, to draft S. 3127: Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act of 2016, currently under review by the relevant congressional committees.  If passed, this law would would increase penalties for the exportation of items of Native American cultural patrimony obtained illegally.  Whether this bill will gain traction in a deadlocked Congress remains to be seen.

A couple of recent publications that frame the broader problem of cultural theft and appropriation are worthy of mention. One is the Texas Law Review essay, “Owning Red: A Theory of Indian (Cultural) Appropriation” (2016) by prominent Native American legal scholars Angela R. Riley and Kristen A. Carpenter, which is downloadable here.  Riley and Carpenter attempt to formulate a unitary approach to understanding and dealing with cultural appropriation.  They recognize that this isn’t easy because claims to intangible property are, in their words “particularly fraught.”  Native Americans, they observe, tend to see intangible heritage as indistinguishable from material heritage even though Anglo-American law treats intellectual property differently from real and personal property.

Riley and Carpenter frame their analysis within the long history of appropriation of Indian resources by the United States.  They explore a number of familiar cases, including the ongoing legal tussle over the name of the Washington, DC, football team.  (Although they see the latter as part of a long history of appropriation, it seems to me  more persuasively treated as a case of defamation.)  In the end–and perhaps surprisingly for legal scholars–they don’t see law as the solution to some forms of appropriation.  Native people, they insist, are mostly calling “not for laws, but for understanding and education,” including respect from the dominant society.

A shorter op-ed piece, “The Problem with Heritage,” has just been published in the anthropology website Sapiens by Joe Watkins.  Watkins is a Native American anthropologist with vast experience in the legal and cultural complexities of repatriation, but his approach in this essay is more global, touching upon cases such as the intentional destruction of historic sites in Mali by Islamic extremists. “So when does heritage become a matter of grave concern? When one group uses it as a weapon against another, or possesses it when it’s important to another, or destroys it for political purposes.”  (In March 2016 Joe Watkins participated in a panel discussion about repatriation sponsored by SAR’s Indian Arts Research Center.)


Watkins bluntly states, “Heritage is a property—something that is passed down from previous generations.” This is a defensible claim in the context of his essay.  But exactly what kind of property is it?  Most property is reasonably stable, with well defined limits.  Some elements of heritage may enjoy such stability; others may not.  And what are its boundaries?  Apparently they are whatever the community of origin says they are at any given moment.  To what extent, if any, is heritage “non-rivalrous” in the sense that one group’s identification of an element of heritage doesn’t preclude other groups from embracing it as well?  Which members of a given community are qualified to anoint elements of heritage as cultural patrimony?

Another perennial problem in heritage debates is presentism, the judgment of past actions by the moral standards of a later time.  Looking forward, it’s not unlikely that an object or cultural production considered an item of commerce today will, at some later point in a group’s history, be redefined as “cultural patrimony.”  This is evident in the way that some European nations pass laws to prevent the export of great works of art that despite their commercial origin are now closely identified with British or French or Italian heritage.  Closer to home, developers in New Mexico sometimes find themselves pitted against local preservationists committed to protecting the remnants of Route 66, which to them represents a form of shared American heritage.

I’ve heard art dealers complain that the proposed STOP legislation doesn’t protect them from the possibility that objects legally purchased or sold today will at some point in the future be redefined as the cultural patrimony of the Indian nation that produced them, thus compromising the objects’ market value.  In my view this isn’t a powerful enough argument to warrant opposing the legislation.  That said, it’s not an entirely meritless concern.

The fast-growing field of Heritage Studies needs deep thinking about the essential qualities and limits of cultural patrimony.  The unanswered questions about patrimony shouldn’t stand in the way of progressive policies and legislation designed to prevent further injustice.  Nevertheless, until the field produces a comprehensive theory of cultural patrimony, cultural protection laws will be built on an inherently unstable foundation.

When modernity stumbles: An airline saga

SWA chaosAs many social theorists have pointed out, key characteristics of modernity include the reorganization of space and time, the precise coordination of productive processes, and the rationalizing impact of money.  We take these processes for granted and perceive them as “natural” until the system fails, revealing how precarious these integrated networks are beneath their veneer of order.

I and 250,000 other airline passengers experienced this on July 20-21 when Southwest Airlines’ computer system experienced a catastrophic meltdown.  The source of this collapse and the failure of the company’s backup systems have not to my knowledge been revealed in much detail.  And in reality the why didn’t much matter to me and, I suspect, most of the passengers who found themselves camped out in airports with no flights available for many hours and in some cases days.  What we knew is that the system was in collapse, Southwest ground personnel seemed as uninformed as the rest of us, and the cascading failure spread from the airline in all directions to include car rental agencies and hotels.

Here’s my saga.

Albany (ALB), 7/20,  2100 hrs, ET.   My evening flight to Albuquerque with a connection at Chicago Midway is running late.  No big deal.  Ground personnel in Albany announce that there is a computer “problem” but that most of our connecting flights are running late, too, suggesting that when we get to Chicago, most of us will make our connections.  Some of them may know or suspect that the computer systems are down and that the finely tuned coordination of Southwest’s flight system would most unlikely unravel.  But no one suggests that we return home and fly after the mess is cleaned up.

Chicago (MDW), 7/20, 2215 hrs CT.  Chaos in the terminal.  The list of canceled flights, including mine, scrolls by endlessly.  There’s a long line to a gate desk, and I get in it with a few others from my flight, although there are no Southwest personnel working the halls to explain where we should queue and for what.  Two hours pass and I’m still probably 90 minutes away from reaching a Southwest staff member.  Comments from passengers who make it to the front of the line indicate that it’s pointless to wait because the computers aren’t working well and there are no flights to transfer to, now or tomorrow.  (Later it’s revealed that Southwest has canceled 700 flights that day, which must represent–what?–at least 100.000 passengers.)  Southwest personnel are giving away bags of peanuts and bottles of water but no information.  There are rumored to be cots and blankets available in Terminal A.  My fellow passengers seem surprisingly cheerful or at least resigned. Presumably Southwest flight crews have hit their FAA-determined service limit and are forced to rest.  No other crews are available to replace them.

What to do?  Wait around and hope that something opens up?  Head for a hotel and come back in a few days?  Take a midnight cab to O’Hare and pray that another airline can accommodate me?  A riddle.

swa-passengers

Then I discover, more or less by accident, that a Southwest flight to Denver is departing and that it has a couple of seats available.  To my astonishment, I’m allowed to board even though the maimed system can produce no boarding passes.  What the heck; Denver gets me within driving distance of Santa Fe, my ultimate destination.

Denver International (DEN), 7/21, 0230 hrs MT.  Hundreds of passengers are wandering around like survivors of a zombie apocalypse.  A courteous Southwest employee tells me that there might be a seat on a flight to Albuquerque in 10 hours.  Maybe.  (I later learned that this flight was canceled, along with 450 others on 7/21.)   OK, I think, time for a rental car and a motel room.  There’s one room left at the airport hotel, a Westin.  $575 plus tax, I’m told, which is above my pay grade.  The nice desk clerk at the Westin, who has little else to do at 0300 hrs, tells me that every hotel room within twenty miles of Denver International is booked.  Worse still, every rental car in the airport has been snapped up by evacuating Southwest passengers, a story that I confirm by calling the toll-free numbers of three rental companies, after which I give up.  At this point I feel not like the survivor of a zombie apocalypse but like one of the zombies.

Last ditch strategy: American Airlines has ticket agents in the check-in area at 0400 hrs.  One tells me that there’s a seat available on a United  flight to Albuquerque leaving at 0755 hrs.  The flight, which lasts about an hour, costs considerably more than my entire round-trip ticket on Southwest.  But I purchase it without hesitation.

Albuquerque (ABQ), 7/21, 0930 hrs MT.  On the ground in New Mexico and headed for a shower and sleep in Santa Fe.  My luggage isn’t there of course.  It is delivered to me 36 hours later in Santa Fe on a day when Southwest canceled 250 more flights.

Lessons?  For me the lesson is not that Southwest is an incompetent airline, although it arguably should shake up its IT staff until they can make its systems suitably robust.  I actually like Southwest: its simplicity and democracy and the absence of Mickey Mouse fees and the ability to change flights without penalty and its transparent frequent-flyer program.  It doesn’t promise more than it (usually) delivers, which I guess is consistent with the fact that so far it hasn’t  offered compensation commensurate with the financial harm that I and many other passengers suffered.

To a social scientist the Southwest meltdown is an inevitable expression of capitalist logic, the unceasing effort to squeeze more profit out of operations.  For Southwest this has given its shareholders 160 consecutive quarterly dividends.  How does it obtain these profits?  Among other things, it gins up a high load factor (87 percent average occupancy in June 2016 and close to 100 percent on most of the flights I’ve been on in recent months).  It tightens up its flight turnaround times to keep its expensive planes in the air generating revenue.  All that’s fine until there’s a hiccup in the system, with ripple effects that can last for days.  After all, if your planes are already full, you have a limited capacity to re-book passengers when a flight is canceled.  When you cancel a thousand flights, the system totally seizes up.  This is an inevitable result of designing your system for profit rather than robustness—the ability to adapt successfully to the challenges of a complex, unpredictable world.