Anthropologist as talking head

Yesterday I did an interview with USAToday on the t-shirts, coffee mugs and other memorabilia that greeted the death of Osama bin Laden.  And seconds ago I did an interview with the BBC. 

The USAToday approach was “what are we to make of these crazy t-shirts, the ones that read things like “Obama got Osama. You’re an anthropologist, you figure it out!”

I welcomed the challenge and fell to thinking how useful t-shirts are as a kind of bulletin board.  They are cheap, cheerful, and almost instantaneously available.  

I figured you could say at a minimum that t-shirts have three functions from an expressive point of view, that allow us to share in the event, in this particular case, they give the wearer an opportunity to diminish Osama culturally, and finally, to reuse the words quoted in the USA Today article, people wear these things “to inflict a final indignity on bin Laden.”  Functions 2 and 3 are a little close, I agree.  I would nudge them apart by suggesting that function 2 says, in effect, “you are now a t-shirt,” and function 3 says, “you are now a punch line.”  

The BBC phoned to ask for an interview.  As a child raised at the knee of the CBC, I was happy to oblige.  But I must say I drew breath when the interviewer said his Skype handle was “opsbush.”  Was this to be an interview or an ambush?

It turned out to be an interview.  And I am sorry to say that I rambled in answer to several questions.  Worse than that I stumbled once or twice.  It was one thing to be bad television, and I believe my Oprah appearance demonstrates that I can be very bad TV indeed.  But to be bad radio.  Really, what excuse can you possibly have?

I opened by saying that most Americans were feeling conflicted, that most people felt the occasion called more for solemnity than joy.  But this was not the point of the interview.

Acting as if I had not just said that Americans were feeling conflicted, the interviewer pressed on to ask whether these t-shirts were not perhaps “a little sick.” To which I replied something like “Americans had suffered cruelly as a result of Osama.  Perhaps it was not be surprising that they should feel relief and even joy at his death.”  

There was one of these long silences that only the English do with real gusto.  (We Americans say nothing comes of nothing, speak again.)  I had delivered exactly the answer hoped for in these circumstances.  I had confirmed the English suspicion of our barbarity.  

To which I say, again anthropologically, that one of the differences between the US and the UK is precisely on this side of the ocean we own our emotions, even the ones of which we are not especially proud.  

8 thoughts on “Anthropologist as talking head”

  1. I’ve been thinking a bit about this since the news broke in the UK about Osama’s death. Whilst I’m glad he’s dead, I have to admit that the sights of chanting crowds in Times Square was definitely not to my taste.

    However, your final point is valid. I suppose the blind patriotism that us Brits can feel a little snooty about is the flip side of an emotional openness and passion that I for one am quite envious of.

  2. I’ve sometimes argued that the function of political t-shirts (such as that one) is to allow the bearer to “say” something without actually committing to it. You know “chill, it’s just a t-shirt”. Especially if there’s a hint of irony or wordplay in it. It’s the perfect medium for voicing your opinion for the hipster generation where latching out to ideals or the “seriousness” of politics is faux pas.

  3. This is an interesting and engaging read – and whatever one may think of the issues, your last point is perfect, admirable and inspiring – “we own our emotions”. Thank you.

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