I was guest lecturer in a class studying the anthropology of America. I thought: Where do you start? How do you approach such a chaos of genes? Where do you seek a core sample?
There's the temptation to search for the meaning of America in its popular culture (God help us) in its movies, for example. I mentioned "American Beauty," and wondered aloud whether that meretricious piece of work said anything useful about America, or whether it simply represented a stab at profundity by slightly stupid moviemakers living overprivileged lives in places like Santa Monica and Brentwood. Some of the students, who liked the movie, reacted irritably. I admitted mine was the minority judgment.
Perhaps America's meaning might be sought in a presidential campaign? Can the study of human culture learn much by contemplating Al Gore and George W. Bush in the final days of their political combat across America?
Hmmm. An anthropologist, I guess, must be bemused to find that such a large, multi-ethnic, complex and contradictory country, after months of relentless and scandalously expensive politicking, found itself reduced to a choice between two white male baby boomers, sons of powerful politicians, dauphins from Harvard and Yale. A rather narrow band of culture represented there, one would think. At least Bill Bradley knew how to play basketball; at least John McCain's character was formed by the experience of war, and by years on the inside of a North Vietnamese prison. The great American diversity had labored and labored and brought forth an uninteresting pair of WASP bookends. Surely America has more vivid, urgent things to say.
I thought about what this campaign is about and what it is NOT about. It is not about big things, big destinies, big passions. It is not about war, for example. The entire administration of Abraham Lincoln, one of the two or three greatest American presidents, revolved around war. The meaning of another great president, Franklin Roosevelt, centered first upon great depression, and then upon world war. The war in Vietnam destroyed the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon (his Watergate schemes having been cooked up to counter the antiwar movement.) The Cold War dominated American politics from Truman to Reagan.
This one is not about war (except in very recent fears about the Middle East) and not about the economy (except in apprehensions that this prosperity is headed, somewhere, for a comeuppance). This campaign is about the geriatric package (Medicare, Social Security, prescription drugs), about the role of government (bigger? smaller?), about abortion (the anxiety about the woman's right to terminate early life coming to focus in geriatric calculations several of those Supreme Court Justices are getting long in the tooth). Above all, it is about the imperfections of the candidates' personalities.
But would an anthropologist learn much from all of that? I might take refuge in the predictable subject of television. Television dominates and distorts whatever it touches (witness American sports); it has skewed and corrupted American democracy by imposing the need to raise vast sums of campaign money, thereby putting too much of American public life up for sale.
I would look at the morally fascinating Nader Temptation the dilemma of those who must decide whether to preserve their indignant purity by voting for Ralph Nader, thereby helping to elect George Bush, or whether to go with the imperfect but serviceable vehicle of their principles, Al Gore. A classic bind, with psychological roots in the Glorious Lost Cause mentality virtue going down in flames, uncompromised.
In the end, I wonder if the election has any anthropological content. In many ways, it seems like "American Beauty" a phony, and not much of a reflection of America. The nation's deeper meanings, it may be, have fled from politics. We must seek them elsewhere.