Monday, November 17, 2008

This Pariah-to-Messiah Moment: Anthropologist John Comaroff on the Obama Moment

(I have been suffering from post-presidential-election burnout, avoiding most of the reporting on the aftermath of the election, but when I saw that Comaroff was going to weigh in on the significance of this moment I knew I had to tune in. I was not disappointed!)

This Pariah-to-Messiah Moment: John Comaroff
Open Source (Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies)
Host: Christopher Lydon

The Obama Moment in America reminds the Chicago anthropologist John Comaroff of the Mandela Moment in his native South Africa in the early 1990s. The whole world has embraced the Obama Moment as its own, Comaroff says, because it marks “the reentry of a pariah nation into the world” on the terms of a revived democracy.

There’s a bracing analysis here from a man who makes it his business to jar our perspective — whose definition of anthropology boils down to “critical estrangement.” Anthropology won the election, Comaroff says, only half kidding. He means not just that Barack Obama is the son of an anthropologist but has a mind to stand outside the consensus when he must.

“We’ve seen something like the the birth of a counter-Enlightenment in the Bush years,” Comaroff says. “‘Give me faith, and I’ll tell you the answer. Take my heart… as sufficient justification for the Iraq War, or for judging good and evil.’ Anthropology says: ‘Wait a moment. What do we sacrifice when we sacrifice reason?’ Digging at surfaces is the anthropological act. Anthropology as a discipline has a mantra: estrangement. Take nothing for granted. Whatever appears to you in the surfaces of everyday life is not an answer to anything; its a question about something. Obama, though trained as a legal scholar, is an organic anthropologist.”

The Obama Moment is an invitation to restore politics and a public space where nationhood “in any collective sense” almost died. President Bush’s invocation of the shopping cure after 9.11 helped define “a nation of individuals held together by a market.” The Obama Moment “reenvisions America as the sum of its differences.” The Bush years gave us “lying as a national practice,” with political impunity. “Forensic journalism” marks the path back to the estate of truth. Forensic journalism — argumentative interpretation of the evidence — is embodied differently in the Nobelist Paul Krugman of The New York Times, John Stewart of The Daily Show, and Charlie Savage, who broke the Bush “signing statement” scandal for The Boston Globe. But it will take more than a few heroes to sustain the euphoria in this unfamiliar Obama Majority. The rest is up to us.

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