The Big Step: In the Year of Obama and “Hope and Change,” How Do People Actually Deal With the Phenomenon of Change?

The following interview was conducted in November 11, 2008, part of a series of discussions called “44,” with people of varied background about their reactions to the 2008 election of Barack Obama. This interview was with Chad Hutchinson, an anthropology instructor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, while previously teaching at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and St. Louis University.

I look at the phenomenon of power a lot, and I’m seeing the face of it is changing drastically. It’s an historical thing, of course, but I am very interested to see how things will actually change. Whether policy will change, or power relations with change, and how that will effect racial tensions, especially.

John Kennedy said the only constant is change. As a cultural anthropologist, how do you understand people’s reaction to and also adaptation to change?

I think that a lot of minority peoples have in some ways more agency—the ability to act within our society—and that has shifted a bit. I don’t however think that Barack Obama’s election is really key to that. I mean, from the Civil Right’s movements, yes, but not since then. I don’t think his becoming president is a gate-keeping moment when everything is going to change suddenly because of this one thing. From some of the [Republican] rallies in Ohio some people were like, “Oh no,if he gets elected then all of the black people are going to take over and the white people are going to have to step off the sidewalk.” That’s not going to happen.

Where does both this great optimism and equally great pessimism stem from?

Fear. It comes from a fear of change, actually. So even though change is constant, the culture is really, really conservative, and people really don’t want change to happen. Only those little things, like a new stop sign or something. Real political change, or real things that are going to affect their daily lives, how they make a living, how they have to think about the world—that’s what scared people. This, for a lot of people, was a big step. And one that they weren’t ready to make, and probably would never be ready to make.

This group may now be the minority, and polls show it is the older generation that is still holding onto that idea fear of change. Whereas the younger generation, especially the college-aged, once they are older the world is going to be a different place. …If we can survive the environmental collapse.

I hope you enjoy this question: We are increasingly living in dispersed, disconnected personal lives, yet living more connected, impersonal lives. How does this affect our national conversation?

Oh, that’s a really good question. I don’t know; I mean, it obviously effected the whole election cycle. Instead of having huge rallies in Washington, or—well, obviously there were, and people came out for Obama in Germany—but, all fundraising was done online. Like you said, through dispersed means. And, unfortunately, I think that is having an effect on how people organize, throughout all of these issues Obama is trying to bring to the fore. It doesn’t always help to only say, “Oh, I signed a petition online, so I did my part.” And with change, maybe I’m an old fuddy-duddy, but I’m not sure an online petition is real change, or can affect real change over the long run on these huge issues.

What are the societal pressures that exist today, and how will these present pressures effect further realignment?

The environment is a huge pressure. The ecology theories that I’ve been reading recently shows it now doesn’t matter what we do. All of these things that have come out in this election: energy policy, changing light bulbs, recycling and all that. The theories I’ve been reading say that it’s all bunk. Meaning that it’s all useless. We’re heading towards a collapse no matter what.

Is it that we might change a light bulb, but factories continue to emit? We’ve just done too much in the past?

It’s just too late. It’s just too late no matter what we do—we can’t change policy enough to reverse the effects. Pretty much now it’s going to become a matter of natural selection, on who gets to survive.

You’re saying I don’t have to save for retirement.

Right, exactly. 2040 is the year that gets batted around quite a bit. So that is indeed a pressure. But that doesn’t mean that we all give up and not deal with things on the ground right now. People that are starving and all that stuff. It becomes a matter of prioritization, of how we want to maintain what we have as we have it. That is going to be the key as we deal with that socially.

Do w say, okay, let’s just become isolationists? Do we say that anyone not here is out of luck, we have the resources to keep our own selves going. Or are we going to start to put people in camps? What’s going to happen long term? How the political environment is going to deal with those kinds of pressures would be immensely interesting to me.

Please speak of the modern hegemony, and its relation to the responsible and irresponsible actions, on the part of both the powerful and the people.

That is the whole key. The whole key is making real change happen in society. We’re recreating society every generation, all the time, and I think that’s the hope that Obama brings. If he can change the hegemony and make people see a different way, then people’s behavior will start lining up behind a different way, and actually make things better, as opposed to being taught it’s all about money, it’s all about doing things for yourself independently and divisionally. We can then have some collective action to make social change, and maybe environmental change, whatever, but start treating people differently. The hegemony, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. That hegemony, that little bit of freedom that we give up for those in power telling us what to do can be a positive thing in our society. I think that’s what people are hoping with this election.

Are we, as Americans, who we say we are? If there is a bit of myth-playing, where does it end?

Man, such good questions. No, we are not who we say we are. We say we embody freedom and truth and science—rationality. We say we are moral, and ethical. If it comes down to it—and there are pretty number of people who do walk the talk—but, unfortunately it’s ultimately the people running the country, politically and economically. Again and again we find corruption and greed running the show. There’s always an economic angle to it, you know?

We don’t send HIV drugs to Africa for free? We can do it, but drug companies won’t because they need to make money. Our whole economy is premised on: there’s a greater good, but we can’t quite fulfill that greater good unless we’re getting paid. This whole idea of there being a greater good is kind of a false notion. So I think there is a pretty big difference in theory and practice. But that’s not just us, that’s all people.

The text helped inspire these next questions: Cultural anthropology underwent a shift in the 1960’s and the 1970’s, in which a paradox was discovered: “Open cultural creativity allows people to imagine possibilities, while on the other hand we are bound by material circumstances.” These responsibilities thus make most possibilities unrealistic. That seems to sum up the crossroads we find ourselves at, between Obama’s root appeal and his challenge.

Right, right. Again it comes down to whether he can shift people’s thinking enough to get us away from the hegemony we have been acculturated in all this time. That’s an enormous task. In a way Clinton did it; he got us to think about new ways, but he spent his entire two terms fixing the economy. And I am afraid that is what is going to happen to Obama. We’re of course in a much worse economic crisis, and I’m afraid the first day Obama steps into his office in January they are going to say, “Okay, you’ve got all of these program proposals, but you are not going to do any of them unless you fix the economy. And it’s going to take his entire first term to do that. So this idealism of “Change” is going to fall by the wayside, due to practicality. Due to keeping us going as a society.

The particular type of crisis we find ourselves makes us think differently, had altered our priorities, that if we weren’t in such an economic state then our temperaments would be different?

I think the problem is people really aren’t willing to do anything. They’re willing to take very small steps to make changes in their lives, and it’s not going to be enough. With the economy the way it is we have the opportunity to really make a change, like socializing all health care. And, we’ve already kind of socialized the banks to a certain extent. But we could radically change things so the whole economic and social landscape becomes something different. People aren’t going to want to do that.

There’s been no shortage of effort to connect President-elect Obama with Karl Marx, and I’m not attempting to here. Actually, Marx said something that should calm those who fear—for whatever reasons—a socialist state, complete with, as a Georgia Congressman said yesterday, a “secret police force.” The quote from Marx in out text reads, “The past weighs down like a nightmare on the living.” Simply, that opportunities to enact social change is ordinarily quite limited.

You’re limited to the amount of imagination people have, and the willingness they have to make that step. Like the example of the great wars; we took all of our American industry and know-how and switched it over within a year to make all the things necessary for war. We could do that now, and make instead solar panels and wind turbines. All of these things that could make our society better. But we won’t.

If there is enough willingness to take that leap of faith, then yes. There’s this wave of enthusiasm that came with Obama. I’m not sure it is going to follow through. And I’m not sure Obama—or any politician alive today—is willing to do that as well.

Changing to the international reaction: what kind of America exists beyond our borders? What do foreign countries get right about us, do you think, and what is skewed?

As most people are aware we’re pretty much hated at the moment. And I think that’s well founded. Part of it is colonialism that came out of Western Europe—and we were definately a art of that—and the continuing wave of colonialism schemes and conflict that we’re willing to take on in order to get resources we need. That kind of brutish “hard” colonialism is still in our blood, as well as of the “soft” colonialism, through development, is definately a part as well.

And social development to some extent. Think of South America and the use of the CIA: “No, even though you guys democratically elected a socialist government or country, we don’t want to see that, so we’re going to change your government. For which your society changes.”

Our government has taken it upon themselves that we don’t need cultural relativism, because we’ll just change things to how we like it. So we don’t have to accept other people’s ways and means. I think people’s attitudes around the world, then, are pretty well founded.

However, that does not mean there is not a huge contingent of Americans, especially on the ground, that are actually supportive of all this: “Hurray, you know, for the World Bank, and obviously for wars” that don’t have the support now they did right after 9/11. Then everyone was afraid, but we’ve seen it’s not working.

So I think there is a shift happening, and it’s only a matter of if that shift can continue to actually make change. As opposed to keeping that hegemony and that fear. Which is sort of my new fear, with what is going on in Pakistan. Stop dong—just stop! And with Russia going down and doing war games in the Caribbean with Venezuela—I mean, it’s trying to up the Cold War ante again.

My roommate is from Iran, and I felt he perfectly illustrated how human actions can cause specific, unintended reactions. He related to me that the policies President Bush enacted caused, in some part, the push in Iran for an “equally” reactionary leader, which came in the form of Ahmadinejad. Not to say that Bush purposefully “created” Ahmadinejad, but perhaps indirectly pressured Iranians to find a strong leader to feel safe with. Absolutely true or not, the possibility of this, at the very least I think, gives us reason to be more aware of ways in which our posturing can be negatively answered.

Just as with the whole missile defense system we put in Poland, within easy reach of Russia. Now they are reacting. As long as we keep pushing our interests-not N.A.T.O’s interests, no the U.N.’s interests, but ours as a singular entity—then people will react. And a lot of people, they’re getting tired of it.

And that’s the whole thing. That’s the hope I have, if nothing else, for this new administration. That they can change opinion about us; this whole idea about diplomacy before action, it would be a God-send if he could actually sit down with people and say, “Hey look, maybe we don’t have to build up missiles again, and start bombing each other, or sending in secret forces that would cause havoc.” We talked with some of the worst people in history, Mao Zedong and Stalin and all those people. Why can’t we talk to the people there now? Why do we have to react aggressively first.

We’ve so far talked about the macro, the governments. Could you boil this down to the common Venezuelan, the common American, or common Russian. What do we have in common and in difference?

If you want to look at people as individuals that I believe there are problems. A common Venezuelan is going to be worried about food, paying the bills, keeping their jobs because of the world-wide economic downturn, and making sure of things like making sure their kids get an education. Same as with Russia.

That’s not where the problem lies. It’s not with us, it’s with the people in power not having as direct a connection with what’s going on with their own people and their authentic lives. To some extent you can’t govern that way; obviously you have to work for the greater good. But again, that will also disconnect with what the people actually want and what would be good for them. It comes more about what is good for those in power. Now, because the world is globalized, those two things might not correspond. Especially for people in Venezuela, where it is oil, oil, oil. They’re so dependent on that, but they’re also still a developing country.

Our history has been one of nearly constant waves of immigration and slow integration. We are in the midst of another wave. How is the current influx of immigration and integration both parallel to and divergent from pas mass movements? And how is our 21st century reaction different?

It’s been continuing, the people’s complaining about immigration. Look at southern California, where all of the Mexicans come across the border. Our policy has been “It is illegal to hire illegal immigrants,” but they continue to not arrest the people hiring the illegal immigrants. They just pick up the immigrants and send them back. It’s obvious we need them, and want them to come over to fulfill some of those jobs that white folks won’t do. Again, it comes down to practice and theory. We have a problem by which people can come over and with a military enlistment you can get a citizenship. It was just reinstated recently.

It’s coming down to: do we want to build a wall, do we want to let people in? There are so many extreme reactions, as opposing to just saying with practicality, “We need to fill this kind of labor. Here is this source of labor.” Why can’t we figure a practical means of dealing with that? And you know it has to do with stereotypes, all kinds of racial issues about who Mexicans are and what they represent. For the part of the country especially where racism is dominant for folks in southern California and the Southwest. So that negates dealing with it on a practical level. I think you have to change the way people think, and I don’t believe that is going to happen.

In your question you asked about Mexicans, but on the Canadian border, along Montana during the growing season, there’s Canadians pouring over the border to come and do seasonal work. No one ever talks about the white illegal immigration from Canada, and all the work they do in the northern states picking fruit during the summers. We just don’t hear about that because they are white. And it’s enormous, the illegal immigration in the northern states.

Well, one difference is that they are generally not coming to become citizens. But if you ask most South Americans, Central Americans, Mexican Americans, they’re not coming to be citizens either. They’re coming to make some money to send back, with a very high percentage wanting to return to their home countries. They don’t want to stay here, they’re just trying to make some money.

Traditional values—how far back do our current concept of “traditional values” extend in time?

Well, in this country it is still based on religion. Really, tradition goes back here two generations. And then it shifts, because we don’t have a very long memory in this country. People pretty much know what their grandparents did, for the most part. But when you broaden it out as a whole nation, that’s kind of a battle. Conservative religious folks are trying to get back to that Utopian idea of what Christianity should be, intermixed with politics.

Speaking of traditions, that project’s been going on since the Puritans.

Right, right. At least our imagination of what they were like. But people also want their television, their cable for all the things they watch and see on the internet. I think traditional values is about to take a big leap sideways, as people get more disconnected from the past while also moving around more. And things being to change in that way.

There is sometimes a convention floated that society becomes more liberal after a war, yet more conservative during an economic downturn. For instance, it was noticed that the hair color of thePlayboy cover model was more likely to be blonde during fun, boom times, and a dark shade during more serious times.

The thing is, we’re not winning this war. There’s not likely to be a kind of “winning” situation. It’s more of a Vietnam situation, where we sort of just get out, and opposed to winning.

With the mix of economic currents I think it will be interesting to see, thirty of forty years from now, the parallels between the Great Depression and how people reacted to this downturn. I’m not sure it’s going to be that extended, but it’s going to be interesting to see.

As an anthropologist, what does it mean for a society—any society, really—to elect a member of its minority? Especially with our history.

To the first question, it gets to whether Obama’s election—or any minority being elected to high office—is because he’s just a mouthpiece for the dominant power structure in place, or is it indeed a sign that the minority group has equalized the playing field to some extent. The problem in our society—and I’m also thinking of South America and Evo Morales [Bolivian president elected in 2006 and still in office in 2016], who is a minority president. For them it hasn’t led to more indigenous rights, and I guess my fear is that in our country it would only validate a majority idea: “Well, see, we elected a minority president, so now they’re not a minority anymore. We don’t have to worry about them anymore. We don’t have to worry about equal rights, we don’t have to worry about racism. All of those bad things that happened, between us and them, now that Obama is president, don’t have to be considered.” I think that could be very damaging.

Could this paradigm open up a new avenue of study, of how people react to leadership and power?

I think after this presidency, after at least the first couple years, it will definitely be possible to start working at how it’s having an effect on society, and whether it’s actually effecting things, like affirmative action. Whether is it continued or discontinued.

Because people keep saying, “Well, now there’s a role model for black kids to really look up to. That idea that anyone can be a president, here it is.” But that doesn’t mean anyone can be president. If you’re growing up down the road in East St. Louis, and you’re using a textbook published in 1980, the likelihood that you are going to Harvard is pretty small. I mean, the economic and social pressures on you then are so difficult, that I don’t see that alleviated in the next four years.

I mean, it’s starting to happen now, and it’s a generational thing, I think there is
lessening, because they’re disconnected enough from the racism of their grandparents’ day, that it’s becoming less a topic for them. Of course there are extremists on all sides, but I think in general people are becoming more accepting of another ethnicity—for the moment. If tragedy happens, the economic downturn continues, or social conditions worsen, then that will change. Because people need something to hold onto.

***For more oral history interviews concerning the 2008 election of Barack Obama, click here:

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