On Implosion

Manderson.jpgLenore Manderson
School of Public Health, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa 

I was too young to register the McCarthy trials, held to expose alleged communist infiltration of the US government in the early years of the Cold War[i]. And so I was a retrospective witness of the ways that political ideology made war against those with different standpoints and convictions. At the time, though, Australia was accommodating. We were deeply scarred by the Second World War, and were waist deep in battles in Korea.  Local and global examples of spies with Russian connections fuelled this zeal. The Petrov affair in Australia in 1954, and accounts in the UK from the early1950s also of conspiracy, treason and the Cambridge Spy Ring, proved to a broad public that ‘reds under beds’ was real. Sympathy for the Communist Party shrank, with growing alarm even within the mainstream Labor Party of the dangers of energetic socialism. 

At the same time, we were eager to accommodate European refugees fleeing from Soviet expansionism. Australia needed migrants to meet the labour needs of infrastructural development, and we exploited the alignment of ideological stance and brutish mid-century capitalism. Moreover, Australia sat on the edge of Asia; it was even, according to some commentators, part of Asia. Domino theory bolstered our military presence in South Korea, then in Peninsula Malaya, and then most significantly in Vietnam. We were made mindful of a risk to Australian security from communist Asia, and we celebrated SEATO’s role (from 1955) and its putative powers in leading this resistance. 

SEATO included what now seems an unusual coalition of states – FranceNew ZealandPakistan, the PhilippinesThailand, the United Kingdom, Australia and the US. Britain’s role was muted in our minds, although the Union Jack in the corner of the national flag, then as now, was a persistent reminder of colonial history and our continued ties with the UK.  But in the Australian imaginary of SEATO, the US was dominant.

In 1954 too, the Australian-American memorial – known locally still as Bugs Bunny (a misperception of the eagle’s wings) –  was erected in prime location in Australia’s national capital, Canberra. Funded by Australian donations to honor the role of the US in the Pacific War, it symbolised an unequal friendship. The period foreshadowed “All the way with LBJ.” Those of us who protested faced police stand-offs and occasional violence. 

So US culture, economics and politics seeped into Australian life. Television began to be broadcast in 1956, and those of us who consumed it grew up on a diet of The Mickey Mouse Club and Broadway.  As I grew up, the US strengthened its role in building a profile as a democratic state, with muscular rhetoric throughout the Cold War, the war in Vietnam especially, and supreme confidence in the right to lead. But during a time of aggressive patriarchy and racism, when the connections of like-minded states were only slowly mediatized, we had little reason to doubt US claims of global leadership. 

Some things surprised us in Australia (and still do), and this included America’s unique reverence for the symbols and institutions of democracy. Respect for authority, the flag, and the structures in which government took place, were part of this. And so we were appalled when these institutions and persons were attacked. We were shocked here as there in the 1960s by the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy; as proud of the moon landings; as eager to consume burgers, fries and KFC; as prepared to follow the US into  the Persian Gulf, Somalia, East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq. Our ties were as sticky as chewing gum. We remained tenaciously loyal. 

This might seem somewhat harsh. To temper this: during this same period, the US without question gained ascendency intellectually for the right reasons. It consolidated its establishments of learning; shaped English-language education, research, and knowledge systems; supported major programs in the physical, life and social sciences, and the humanities within and beyond the country. All of us in the English-speaking world are indebted to US cultural and scholarly institutions, resources and colleagues. 

For nearly thirty years, until this lifeline was severed by the risks and restrictions of coronavirus, I travelled to and fro across the Pacific, often several times a year, for conferences, board meetings, university visits, sabbatical, five years working at Brown. I have had the privilege of working with truly exceptional scholars; I value deeply my friends and colleagues. I talk to many weekly, I write to them all the time. Hence my horror by the present turn.

Over the past four years, we have watched as America’s self-proclaimed role as leader of the free world was slowly dismantled. The storming of the Capitol on 6 January was unprecedented, but there was portent of this early. I was at Brown University in Providence, RI on November 8, 2016, when Donald Trump was elected. The next morning, Waterman Street was almost deserted. I walked out of my office at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society. There and along the street, past the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, past the Visitors’ Center and the portal to Main Green, past the Population Studies and Training Center, and down the hill to Main Street, the silence was eery and pervasive. Within a day, Brown President Christina Paxson had organized counselling for students of color, and others who, rightly, were overwhelmed by a sense of fear and foreboding. Protests followed (https://www.browndailyherald.com/2016/11/17/students-faculty-protest-light-election/). But those of us on campus – and perhaps all of us, including applied anthropologists and our professional allies – have since lived with dismay and increasing paralysis in face of the decimation of the most promising interventions of the Obama presidency, the recourse to government-by-twitter, continuing gun violence, sustained personal and structural racism, and the crumbling of the core principles of democracy. As I write, the mood of hope is subdued by the continued spread and impact of Covid-19, the scope of inequality that it has laid bare, and the implications of this savage rent in cities, families, communities. And it is soured by anxiety for the moment. 

Compared with Americans, Australians are irreverent, but I cannot even imagine people breaking into Parliament House with murderous intent. And I, like others in Australia and South Africa – my feet in both camps— fear that the invasion of the Capitol is not the last. Mindful of parallels with the burning of the Reichstag in 1933, we struggle to be optimistic. We worry for the safety of our friends and colleagues, and grieve for the collapse of some of the most sacred things in the US. We struggle to explain the country’s unravelling, and what this means in terms of the erosion of respect and the loss of moral leadership. Worse, we see the growing incursion of right wing extremism in Australia, and with this, the retracting rule of law.

Applied anthropologists now face a daunting challenge. With new leadership at a federal level, we need to find ways to turn around this anarchy, and to unpick the terrible hat enabled over the past four years. Despite the urgency, this will be a slow process. We need to find strength through our professional and personal ties, and to do so by reinstating and acting on the core values that underpin these.

Lenore Manderson AM is Distinguished Professor of Public Health and Medical Anthropology in the School of Public Health, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa; she also holds honorary appointments with Brown University, US, and Monash University, Australia. She is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) and one of a collective which steers SfAA Global.


[i] See Notes from the Editors, this issue, for more on McCarthy

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