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UC Berkeley Point of View

In a divided nation within a divided world, never more has an anthropology degree been as valuable or as needed

– Congratulations class of 2005 … You did it! Hats off to you, to your parents, to your partners, spouses, children and friends who stood by you and never lost faith in you. Stand up tall, be proud because you have graduated from the number one public university in the world in the number one state in the nation!

Berkeley graduates more B.A. students who go on to receive doctorates than any other university in the United States. The Berkeley faculty boasts more than 200 Fellows of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, some 150 Guggenheim Fellows, 16 MacArthur (so called "Genius" ) awardees, 130 members of the National Academy of Sciences, three Pulitzer Prize winners, and seven Nobel Prize winners. Thanks to the Free Speech Movement, UC Berkeley has more clubs, organizations, political, and cultural groups than any campus in the state, including UCLA and Stanford. This campus has sent more Peace Corps Volunteers overseas – well over 3,000 of them – than any other U.S. university.

Through good times and bad, a degree from Berkeley means a lot; almost anywhere in the world, a Berkeley degree opens doors and brings a smile to faces of admiring fans of this institution. Internationally, a Berkeley degree means that you can be trusted to be intelligent, informed, well read, culturally sensitive, fair-minded, and open to the rest of the world. You might even be expected to know where Darfar, Kabul, and Baghdad are on the map.

I'm pleased and honored to be your commencement speaker. But when I was invited to do so I wasn't told how long I should speak. So I did a little research. The longest commencement speech on record was given at Harvard College in the early 19th century. It lasted more than six hours and was delivered first in Latin and then repeated in Greek. I thought I might give mine in English followed by Portuguese, Gaelic, Xhosa, Moldovan, Tagalog, and Hebrew translations to honor a few of my anthropological field sites. But as my graduate students can tell you, I am no linguist. So English followed by Pigeon might be more appropriate.

Another school of thought, however, is that shorter is always better. On one occasion the Queen of England was scheduled to visit a small out-of the way village where she was to attend Church services. The nervous minister called the palace for advice. A royal assistant advised: "If you preach for 30 minutes the queen will be greatly displeased. If you preach for 20 minutes the queen will be patient. But if you preach for 10 minutes the queen will be delighted. "But what can one possibly say in 10 minutes?" the minister protested. "That," said the royal assistant stiffly "is of absolutely no concern to the Queen."

Closer to home, Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York, compared the role of a commencement speaker to that of a corpse at an Irish wake. Both bodies need to be there in order to have a celebration but no one expects it to say very much. Which put me in mind of Father Dennis Leahy, the parish priest of Cloghane, the tiny mountain parish on the end of the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry where I did my first anthropological research in the mid 1970s, Father Leahy was very popular with his parishioners because of his famous seven- minute Mass. In fact the shortest commencement speech on record was delivered by the late Nels Smith, former governor of Wyoming. When it came to his turn to speak, Smith rose slowly from his chair, approached the podium, surveyed the rows and rows of gowned graduating students and he said slowly : "You done real good." Then he turned and went back to his seat.

By tradition Berkeley allows its graduates to select their commencement speaker as long as it is one of the faculty. Otherwise, they would most certainly pick someone from the entertainment world. (So would I!). Like the Queen of England, most students appreciate brevity and wit. For this reason Professor Alan Dundes was consistently the pick of students (with Professor Kent Lightfoot close behind) because Alan combined humor, grace, and gravitas. Moreover, Alan loved and understood this institution almost as much as he loved scholarship, research, and writing. Above all Alan loved his students and he loved teaching. He was a master of the lecture hall and were it not for his untimely death last month, Alan would most likely have been up here rooting for you, making you laugh, making you think twice, and challenging you to think outside the box, as Professor Nader puts it.

With Alan Dundes gone it seems as if the curtain has dropped on the theatre of anthropology at Berkeley. Now we have to do our best without our beloved, irreverent anthropological humorist, our coach in the art of living and laughing to tell the tale. Larger than life, his presence in any room, always accompanied by a wicked grin, made you suspect that something wonderful and very, very funny was about to happen. So I'll try to honor our favorite trickster by recalling a few of the tricks of his trade garnered from some previous public (and some private) speeches of his: 

  • "Why are cucumbers better than men?'

    "A cucumber won't tell other cucumbers you're not a virgin

  • "What is the difference between a Jewish mother and a vulture?'

    "A vulture waits until you are dead to eat your heart out.'

  • "Names are not always what they seem. The common Welsh name spelled BZJXXLLWCP is actually pronounced…Jackson."

  • Hear about the man who complained to his psychiatrist," Nobody pays attention to me".

    Psychiatrist says, "Next!" 

  • Hear about the optimist who fell from the window of a 30 story building and as he passed the 15th floor he says: "Well, so far, so good".

  • Or the joke within the joke: "A priest, a rabbi, and a minister walk into a bar. Bartender says, 'What is this, a joke ?' "

Alan was sometimes criticized for circulating politically incorrect jokes. But following Freud, Prof. Dundes held nothing to be too sacred, taboo, or even too disgusting to be a source of humor. Sacred Cows made the best hamburgers. But Alan was dead serious about jokes. He saw them, especially the sick ones, as Geiger counters of the spirit – as expressions of deep-seated social anxieties and conflicts. When I was in the midst of writing my book Death without Weeping on mother love and child death in Brazil, Alan mischievously stuffed a reprint of his analysis of "Dead Baby" jokes in my campus mail box. I was shocked at first but then I sat down to read the article and found his analysis both sobering and insightful. Prof. Dundes argued that all those stories of babies spinning around in blenders, sucked down into garbage disposals, or exploding in microwave ovens were an unconscious cultural expression of almost pathological ambivalence toward babies. He argued that the dead babies joke cycle was fallout from the sexual revolution that had produced a new generation of adults who wanted sex without consequences, especially sex without babies.  Alan treated jokes, nursery rhymes, and fairy tales as serious business, anything but harmless and childish nonsense.

Before one of my last research trips to Israel, Alan asked me to take some photos of Shabbat elevators , those 'Friday night specials' that allow orthodox Jews to ascend and descend without having to press a button. My clumsy attempts to do so got me quickly invited out of the lobby of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, and the photos I brought back were so blurred that Alan couldn't use them for his subsequent book: The Shabbat Elevator and other Sabbath Subterfuges: An Unorthodox Essay on Circumventing Custom and Jewish Character.

Alan knew that folklore is powerful fantasy and that it has the capacity to act as a force for evil as well as for good, as his book on the Blood Libel Legend – as a history and projection of centuries of anti-Semitism powerfully demonstrated. Ironically, Prof. Dundes was himself accused of anti-Semitism by a group of conservative American Jews who asked for his dismissal in 1988 following an article he wrote about German jokes set in Auschwitz that had been excerpted in Harper's Magazine. Alan's accusers were outraged by the subject but likely had not read Alan's analysis. Dundes saw these jokes – as offensive as they were – keeping alive the memory of Auschwitz in the German collective consciousness. Comedy and tragedy were two sides of the same coin and humor – even Auschwitz jokes, Alan said, was a way – albeit insensitive and inadequate – for Germans to try to come to terms with the unimaginable and unthinkable horrors that occurred at German death camps. At the very least the jokes were an acknowledgement of, rather than a denial of the tragic history of the Holocaust.

Alan, how we will miss your beautiful face and large presence. Anthropology at Berkeley will never be the same without you. So we want to salute you today for all that you have given us here personally and for all that you have given to the world.

We are living today in tense and difficult times facing an out of control, escalating war in Iraq, and destructive cultural wars at home. We are a divided nation within a profoundly divided world despite globalization and its allegedly democratizing effects. In fact, the global gap between North and South, rich and poor, Middle East and Mid-West has become a chasm, and growing tensions among Islamic, Jewish and Christian fundamentalists have made all of us less free and less safe. And you, dear class of 2005, you are walking into this booby-trapped terrain, a world not of your making, and ill-equipped, you might think, with little more than a degree in anthropology. But I am going to suggest that never more was that degree more valuable and more needed.

In Iraq today there are many invisible wars going on. Last October, The Lancet, the world's premier medical journal, published an epidemiological research report which concluded that as many as 100,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. Since then, war-related violence is the No. 1 cause of death among Iraqi households surveyed by the America-led team of medical researchers. More than half of the people who died from the war and its aftermaths – infectious disease, dehydration, malnutrition – since the invasion began are women and children. The US response to the report was muted. American newspapers only noted how much higher the Lancet report's estimate was than official government estimates. Neither the Defense Department nor the State Department responded to the article. The findings were simply buried. This is what the denial of history looks like.

As a medical anthropologist I have frequently researched and publicized the fact that only certain deaths count or are even counted. A great many lives and deaths are deemed hardly worth counting at all. In Brazil, the deaths of thousands of malnourished angel-babies from rural North East Brazil and of street children executed by police-infiltrated death squads in Brazilian cities are uncounted. These deaths are too uncomfortable – they belie the modernity of Brazil. Similarly, the deaths of Iraqi civilians are not counted because they belie our military's claims of using technologically smart and precise bombs that can presumably discriminate between combatants and children. Making invisible lives and deaths visible has always been a task for anthropology and anthropologists, long before the invention of medical anthropology.

Over a year ago – and months before reports of torture and prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib had come to light, a New York Times journalist wrote an essay asking where all the anthropologists had gone and why they weren't actively intervening and helping the country disentangle itself from the chaotic situation in Iraq. He recalled that toward the end of World War II, Ruth Benedict, the famous Columbia University anthropologist, had advised the state department on how to better understand and treat our former enemy in U.S. occupied Japan. Her report on Japanese society and culture, quickly published as a book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, was distributed among the American troops involved in the post war occupation.

The analogies between occupied Japan and occupied Iraq, are startling. Both nations were viewed by Americans as exotic, forbidding, ideological, and un-democratic. Japanese Kamikaze pilots were as frightening and incomprehensible to Americans in the 1940s as suicide bombers are to us today. What is different, however, is that during WW II, American policy makers actively sought out intellectuals and scholars to help them understand the societies, cultures, and psychologies of the people they were fighting. They listened to scholars from diverse backgrounds and political sympathies who were knowledgeable about Germany and Japan. Ruth Benedict had famously characterized Japanese culture as based on "honor" and "shame," as opposed to cultures, like the U.S. and England, which were "guilt" cultures. Guilt cultures (she argued) tended to be stubborn, rigid, and hard to change. Shame cultures were other-directed and very responsive to external judgments. Standards of behavior tended to adapt to changing circumstances and social perceptions.

Benedict advised the U.S. war office that occupying forces should try to effect changes by working within the norms of Japanese culture rather than by obliterating them. Above all, it would be a grave mistake, she said, to humiliate a people whose lives and well-being were so closely connected to honor and to saving face. Ruth Benedict understood that cultural traditions and religions, to which people give their most intense loyalties "cannot be changed on demand from outside without the gravest consequences." The NY Times essay ended with a plea to us sitting right here in this auditorium: "As the occupation of Iraq becomes more complex each day, where are today's Ruth Benedicts and Margaret Meads, the authoritative anthropological voices of reason who will carry weight with both Iraqis and with Americans?"

William O. Beeman, an anthropologist at Brown University, responded months later with an op-ed piece in which he asked what Margaret Mead might have said about the political polarization that has divided the country into "red" and "blue" zones. Mead, he said, would have warned us against isolationism in both foreign and cultural affairs because diversity – diversity of thought, nature, culture, and of people – enriches and protects our intellectual survival, just as bio-diversity guarantees our physical existence.

Human evolution – which is increasingly under fire in the curricula of our public schools – teaches that all forms of life depend on diversity. All species, simple and complex, interact in the grand biological enterprise that ecologists call the web of life. Diversity is equally essential to the grand social enterprise we call human civilizations.

As for the cultural wars at home, what could the wisdom of anthropology have lent to the tragic and unseemly tug-o-war over the life and death of Terri Schiavo and her hapless and feuding kin – all of them held hostage to the excessive zeal of divided expert opinion – the medical professionals lawyers and judges, religious leaders and members of Congress – each seeing themselves as the designated arbiters of Terri's contested right to live or right to die? Would anthropologists be just another stranger at the bedside? What makes our brand of expert knowledge – which Geertz calls' local' knowledge -- any different?

For one, all anthropologists know that death is a cultural judgment, not a scientific fact, and that death is often understood as a process rather than a single, definitive moment. The Irish wake was such a long and rollicking affair in County Kerry up through the mid 20th century because, as my friend Morisheen put it, "We don't like to put the person into the grave too fresh-like for you don't know if the soul is still hovering around the body…" Prior to the spread of medical technologies the right to declare a person dead belonged to families and to communities and relied on common sense and intuitive perception. An old Algerian peasant explained to the anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu what it meant to be sick and die before doctors became a permanent feature of village life: "In the old days, folk didn't know what illness was. They went to bed and they just died. It's only nowadays that we're learning words like liver, lung...intestines, stomach...and I don't know what!..."

In the old days people died of 'natural causes,' a phrase that hardly exists anymore in our medical lexicon. Today, death is never deemed 'natural' but increasingly seen as a medical-technical failure, although one that occurs with alarming frequency. In the little mountain village of Ballybran in western Ireland 38 old ones passed away during the first year of my stay. In this aging community of shepherds, fisherman and dairy farmers people were very mindful of death which they tended to personify. Death was familiar and they had a script for it. Death was part of life not alienated from it. Villagers, even young people, prayed for a 'good death,' meaning a death in one's own bed attended by family and friends and blessed by the local priest. They spoke of their horror of dying in a hospital or old age home over the mountain pass in Dingle, a new-fangled thing that was beginning to replace a more friendly death at home. A common Irish curse was to wish a person a death among strangers (that is, a death in hospital).

In Ballybran the local priest signed the parish death registry, not the doctor who was rarely called in at the end because, people said he'd be useless: "You can't stop Death once he crosses the threshold." Many villagers announced their own death, taking to bed with words: "Today is my dying day" or "Sure, I won't last the night." To make sure of it, they would refuse food and drink, and thus a great many old ones eventually died of severe malnutrition, dehydration. Advanced age and approaching death are natural appetite depressants. "Yerra, I can't be bothered to eat any more" many old folks would say, refusing to be coaxed to eat or drink. A middle aged woman commented on her father's adamant refusal to partake his last meal – in Irish it is called the Lon NaVash – a large bowl of tea and two thick slices of fresh baked bread. "'No, my girleen,' he said, I have no more use for that. Today I am going to see my God.' The old man just sat up in bed, smiling at it, until death came to claim him. 'Wasn't that a beautiful death?' Annie asked me."

A beautiful death indeed, I said. I wonder if we have all lost our senses considering the way Terri Schiavo was condemned to a living death despite her body's desire to close down.

So, we are a nation and a world in great need of the anthropological imagination, one rooted in a deep appreciation of biological, historical and cultural diversity. But often our wisdom and worldview are misunderstood. The new Pope, Benedict XVI, is a critic of cultural relativism. In a much cited homily the former Cardinal Ratzinger held forth against the tyranny of "relativism" which he described as letting oneself be 'swept along by every will-o-the wisp idea or teaching.' The 'dictatorship of relativism,' he said, does not recognize anything as real or certain and is driven by egoism and personal desires.

I hope the new Pope grows to fit his new global role and that he comes to understand that cultural relativism is neither about moral indifference nor modern egoism, but to the contrary is about approaching others – the strangers at the well and the pilgrims at the wayside – with intellectual and emotional generosity, recognizing in them our shared humanity despite our inhabiting "many different mansions," or cultures, each representing a different way of being good, moral, and intelligent.

If we ever needed a dose of modulating cultural relativism it is now. Otherwise, what is the alternative? Cultural fundamentalism?

Higher education initiates students into a discipline, a word that derives from discipleship. In any discipline there is the shaping of reflection, discernment, and emotion. As a bridging and holistic discipline anthropology, itself, is diverse and comes in many different shapes and guises – as a biological science, a social science, a moral philosophy and a humanism. All aspects and all parts of the discipline are needed.

All anthropologists are restless and nomadic people – we are a tribe of hunters and gatherers of human artifacts, human cultures, lifeways, and human values. Among cultural anthropologists our key method – participant observation – requires us to try in so far as possible to become like the people we want to understand – it's a getting inside their skin, standing in other peoples shoes kind of thing. The work of ethnography, cultural description, is a work of translation that demands all the senses – the observant eye, the attentive ear, a keen sense of smell, touch and above all a sense of taste – a "gusto" (in Portuguese) that carries a double valence – a taste not only for new foods and spicy condiments, strong drinks – but also a taste for the sensory life through which a culture is embodied, catching as it were, its sense of time and timing, its movements and gestures, its patterns of work, play, and devotion, its sense of humor and its sense of justice, its sense of dignity. In all, the anthropologist-ethnographer has to acquire a "taste" for the life of the other. This is what I mean about being at home in the world.

Anthropology also requires strength, valor, and courage. Pierre Bourdieu famously called anthropology a combat sport. It is an extreme sport of sorts – a tough and rigorous discipline. Anthropologists are the green berets of the social sciences. Like the old Peace Corps recruiting poster, anthropology asks: "How much you can you give? How much can you take?"

Archeology teaches not only a deep appreciation and reverence for the past, the very long past, and for "small things forgotten," as Jim Deetz described historical archeology. It teaches students not to be afraid of getting one's hands dirty, never to be afraid to roll up your sleeves, to get down in the dirt, and to commit yourself – body and mind, passion and persistence, to your life's work. Susan Sontag called anthropology a 'heroic' profession – one that required brains and strength, sensitivity and guts. It was not just a job, not just a profession – it was, she said, one of those very few rare and true vocations.

You are the ones in whom your professors have invested their hopes, their trust and their generativity. We desperately need your initiative, your risk-taking, and your energy. We look to you as the next generation of "loyal rebels" – loyal to what anthropology at Berkeley has taught you about the human condition: to value diversity; to embrace and enjoy, not just tolerate human difference; to be open to the wisdom of strangers, and to be resolute in refusing any demands or proposals that denigrate other ways of living and being in the world.

You are heirs to a great tradition of anthropology at Berkeley beginning with Alfred Kroeber and Robert Lowie, down through Sherry Washburn, David Mandelbaum, Robert Heizer, Jim Deetz, John Ogbu, Desmond Clark, William Shack, John Rowe, and Alan Dundes to mention just a few of your grand ancestors. It's no wonder that in celebrating the centenary of the Berkeley Department of Anthropology, California Monthly entitled its essay: "100 Years of Attitude."

So march out of here with plenty of that Berkeley attitude. May it give you the courage to work in the service of humankind and toward a global order built on solidarity, peaceful engagement, and unity amidst diversity. Anthropology has taught you to be at home in the world – it is a skill that will serve you well, wherever life brings you.

"Good luck, Godspeed, and Fare thee well in life, Class of 2005!"