06/10/2011 01:34 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2011

Politics And Cultural Critique

Granada, Spain. From the vantage of Europe, American politics seems like the circus -- many exciting activities being played out under the big top, activities that have little bearing upon the social and economic realities most Americans confront each and every day. I've been traveling for two weeks first in Switzerland and then in Spain and have been struck by the almost idiotic recent play of American politics.

Anthropologists like me are used to displacement. We usually travel great distances, often to remote spaces, to learn about the life ways of people who are usually very different from us. Traveling gives us a relatively critical vantage from which the life ways of home are brought into clearer resolution. That resolution enables us to engage in one of our most important task -- cultural critique or using our experience among others to see more clearly what makes our society work.

In the spirit of cultural critique, my European trip has underscored a number of themes usually submerged in everyday political debate.

  • Race and Ethnicity. No one in American politics wants to talk overtly about race or ethnicity. Visiting Switzerland and Spain reconfirms the centrality of race -- and yes, racism, to American social life and to American politics. Although Switzerland and Spain have their fare share of xenophobic racism -- anti-immigrant sentiments against Africans and Middle Easterners -- it is truly impressive to see just how inclusive everyday social relations have become in these countries. In short, I've noticed a profound degree of racial and ethnic integration. Although there is European political opposition to this kind of integration, there seems to be a groundswell of social change that may well be transformative. In the United States, many politicians, mostly Republicans and Tea Party members are covertly racist, playing on fears of crime, racial otherness, and ethnic difference. It is not surprising then that the social and economic policies advocated by Republican candidates -- anti-immigration measures, the elimination of Medicare and Medicaid -- as we know them -- disproportionately impact the most dispossessed members of American society -- immigrants and African-Americans -- especially the elderly in those categories.
  • Social Class. Other than the false claims that President Obama is engaging in "class warfare," whatever that means, no politician of any political persuasion wants to talk about social class in America. The reigning myth in America is that everyone is middle class and that we all have the (equal) opportunity to become rich. In Switzerland everyone "seems" prosperous and even though the cost of living in prohibitively high, people seem to get by -- with varying degrees of aid from the State. In Spain, which is currently suffering economically, there is high unemployment, especially among people in their 20s, as well as an ever-increasing cost of living. And yet, you get the feeling here that despite these troubles, the State will find a way to help the unemployed. Like most of us, people in Europe don't like to pay taxes, but understand that revues do provide many services that are particularly important during hard times. In the US the contrast couldn't be sharper. Millions of Americans, including many of my students, buy into the myth, exploited by many conservatives, that there is equal opportunity for all. People like to believe that with hard work, anyone can make it. The State can't fix our social and economic problems -- leave those to more local jurisdictions or, better yet, the individual. These myths, of course, hide two central political issues: increased income redistribution and the erosion of the middle class, two processes that will restructure American society making it less inclusive, less optimistic and more fearful of the future.
  • Political Smokescreens. In America, politicians and media will go to elaborate lengths to avoid discussing seriously the issues of social class and race. We spend our time focusing on sex scandals -- Senator Vitter's dalliance with prostitutes, and more recently Representative Weiner's treading hopelessly in a pond of virtual sex. To take us even further away from serious issues of global import -- the debate about default, for example, we are bombarded by meaningless spectacles. Consider Sarah Palin's magical mystery tour of invented -- and hopelessly tangled -- American history. This kind of circus act not only diverts attention away of painfully important issues, they also disengage us from the political processes, making politics something that you follow on television or on social media. In Spain, serious economic and political issues are being confronted more directly. The result is a grassroots youth movement, not unlike those in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Syria, in which the growing number of participants are directly engaging their social, economic and political future -- a breath of fresh air on the Iberian Peninsula that could result in significant social and political change. Let's hope that American young people, like their Spanish age-mates, are soon jolted from their media-contoured passivity. Our future is in their hands.