As I finished the second edition of my introductory anthropology text for UPC in 2016, I tried—as most text authors do—to have at least a few up-to-date contemporary examples. One example was economic, specifically about the then-ending commodity super cycle. The resulting drop in prices of many commodities (oil, food, metals) threatened the development of many countries. It was a cautionary discussion about trends that affect all countries but are usually most detrimental to developing ones. The subsequent world economic expansion with all major parts of the global economy rising at the same time has made that discussion seem a bit out of touch. My professorial relevance quotient, simply put, was not very good on that topic—though it might be better again in a few years given the cyclicity of economics.
I was more on target on another contemporary matter, the Syrian refugee crisis. At the time I was finishing up the text in 2016, the US presidential primaries were still in play and one issue on which most Republican candidates were virulently negative was refugees. Even with an immigrant parent each, candidates Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Donald Trump lambasted Barack Obama for supposed plans to let in hundreds of thousands of people from suspect countries, particularly (but not only) from Syria. There is some irony here because refugees almost by definition come from suspect places. That’s why they leave.
At the time, I thought this new anti-refugee virulence could be combatted. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to write a Thanksgiving Day reflection on the topic for the American Immigration Council in 2016 in which I could note some obvious points that I have addressed in other books. America, for example, has a long tradition of accepting refugees. America as a haven for those fleeing oppression was at the very core of the vision of many of the Founding Fathers. George Washington, for example, wrote that “America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions.” Furthermore, many refugees—including many of the Syrian refugees—have been promising newcomers in terms of their social and economic background. They have often turned out to be both deserving refugees and solid contributors to American economic and sociopolitical growth. Good refugees and good immigrants.
None of that, of course, made any difference under the current administration. People from suspect countries were soon barred by directives from the new president in 2017. Even when those bars were themselves barred by the courts, the net effect was much the same. Everything slowed down. Everything became uncertain. Such delays are themselves a kind of denial. The shutdown of the refugee program after 9/11, for example, stretched out into a halving of arrivals for two years and then only a gradual increase in arrival numbers. There was never any makeup period for all those arrival slots that were not used during pauses in processing.
All that Trumpian action, however, came well after my work on the book was completed. What is actually in the text is instead a discussion of the limited response of the Obama administration to the Syrian refugee crisis. True, President Obama did create an additional 10,000 slots for Syrian refugees in late 2015 and eventually reached that number in 2016. In comparison, however, Justin Trudeau of Canada pledged to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees in late 2015—twenty-five times as many in per capita terms—and the Canadians managed to do that in mere months. So President Trump halved what many already believed was a too-limited US response to refugees. But that “too-limited” approach seems generous in retrospect. There is a parallel in considering President Trump’s aggressiveness on immigration enforcement. It was not too long ago that President Obama was chided as the “Deporter-in-Chief” for massive numbers of deportations and stringent actions against undocumented minors trying to enter the United States from Central America through Mexico. In retrospect, however, that too looks relatively humane.
Time moves on and academic publication is often quite slow. These distemporalities—a commodity super cycle closes but then economies advance, increased antagonism to foreigners makes old times look good—are perhaps inevitable in academic work. We as anthropologists (or scholars in other disciplines) can document the conditions on the ground at particular times and in particular places. That is valuable. But while we may be with it in terms of such anchored realities, we may be out of it in terms of the shifts in those realities over time. Here we might do better to find common cause with others: either our disciplinary colleagues who are manning the decks, desks, and barricades of practical life or journalists who are quite with it in terms of temporal changes but often comparatively out of it in terms of grounded cultural and historical understanding of people’s complete lives.
David W. Haines is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at George Mason University, co-president of the Association for the Anthropology of Policy, and author of An Introduction to Sociocultural Anthropology, published by UPC in 2017. Other recent books are Immigration Structures and Immigrant Lives: An Introduction to the US Experience and Maintaining Refuge: Anthropological Reflections in Uncertain Times (co-edited with Jayne Howell and Fethi Keles).