Berghahn Books Logo

berghahn New York · Oxford

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Youtube
  • Instagram

Anthropological Issues and US President Obama

The following is an excerpt from the article “The President’s Mother, the Anthropologist and the Anthropologist’s Son: Anthropological Issues and US President Obama” by David Lampert published in the latest issue of our journal, Anthropology in Action: Journal for Applied Anthropology in Policy and Practice.
As of 2018, this journal is Open Access per the Knowledge Unlatched Select initiative. Read more in our related blog post.


Recent books from both outside and inside our discipline link anthropology directly to policies of the former US President Barack Obama1, whose mother was an anthropologist, as well as his half-sister. This essay examines the allegations made in a recent book by journalist Wayne Madsen (which partly rely on those made in another recent book by Janny Scott in 2011 about Stanley Ann Dunham, the first Presidential mother who was a Ph.D. anthropologist) that directly implicate Dunham and American anthropologists in the policies of President Obama and of the United States. Madsen charges that the American anthropology community not only collaborated for decades with policies of the national security state apparatus of the United States that he views as genocidal and internationally criminal, but that the world is now bearing witness to a new acultural identity in the socialisation of children resulting from this collusion, which is exemplified by the career and policies of Barack Obama, whom he identifies by his various names as Barack Hussein Obama/Soebarka/Soetoro. Rather than identify as ‘African’ or ‘Indonesian’ or ‘hyphenated-American’, Madsen claims that Obama has a new kind of identity that was ‘manufactured’ by Dunham and the national security state with no national attachments (i.e. national history, culture and land attachments, other than those to a specific governmental agency and its goals) or ethnic attachments. He sees this unsustainable ‘culture’ as one motivated by primitive drives of power, obedience and human control in service to a hidden elite bureaucracy.

Although many (perhaps most) of Madsen’s claims are unfounded innuendo, lacking in credibility and irresponsible to the point of libel, the implications of the issues raised in this book, I would argue, strike so closely to the heart of anthropology and the role of anthropologists – as professionals, as citizens, and even as parents and simply as human beings – that this is not a book that can simply be dismissed and ignored by the profession. In my view, there are three related and important anthropological issues raised in Madsen’s book that are important for discussion in our profession:

(a) The first is on the relationship between the national security state and anthropology as a result of anthropologists failing to establish clear professional adherence to obligations of international law.

(b) The second is on the implications of modern ‘identities’ and ‘multicultural ethnicities’ and what the implications may be for current and future generations who are being encouraged to ‘invent’ their identities and who may choose to fill the ethnic identity vacuum they face with hollow, institutional identities or drives of power, violence and control.

(c) The third is on what books like this one tell us about contemporary political culture and views of political power in the administrative security state and in the era of globalisation. They highlight contemporary mythologies and ideologies of the weakness of the individual against the apparent omnipotence of agencies of control and suggest the existence of a ‘dark’ or ‘shadow’ politics.

This essay will briefly present and deconstruct Madsen’s main argument. It will then scrutinise the arguments Madsen presents that are relevant to his critique of American anthropology, to Dunham as an applied anthropologist, and to the ethnic identity of Barack Obama, the anthropologist’s son, weighing them for their veracity as if they were presented in a court of law. The essay will then discuss the three key issues for anthropology that Madsen raises indirectly.

Implications for Anthropology

The implications of Madsen’s book for anthropology are nonetheless disturbing, and it is worth looking at each of three issues in turn.

The Relationship between the National Security State and Anthropology

The question that Madsen, a non-anthropologist, asks about how the son and brother of an anthropologist can apparently grow up without any consciousness of the most fundamental ethical principles of anthropology, particularly when these principles are firmly embedded in international law, should rightly make every anthropologist squirm.

It would be partly comforting if Madsen’s premise were true, and that some anthropologists had become corrupted and co-opted such that they no longer upheld the basic principles of law or human morality or the basic belief even of human or planetary survival, and that they passed this psychopathology on to their children in the way they taught and raised them. If a few anthropologists somehow went over to the ‘dark side’ for whatever reason, there would still be a way to identify them, hold them accountable and move on. But the picture that Madsen presents is not just of a few wayward anthropologists and their children. It is of a profession that has become detached from its own humanistic principles, from its standards and reason for being, and from international law (Lempert, 2012a).

What the argument in Madsen’s book is really suggesting, quoting anthropologists like Ralph Beals (and his 1966 report, which was long suppressed) along with Margaret Mead’s response in 1971, is that anthropology has so long been corrupted that it has now for decades done nothing to ensure that those whom it educates at any level, or who are members of anthropological organisations and who work as professionals, take any enforceable oath of any kind to international law and to the ethics of the profession when they work in practice.

Dunham only had a BA in anthropology (from the University of Hawaii) when she first went to Indonesia. It was only much later that she earned an MA and then a PhD there. But she received those higher degrees after working for those agencies that Madsen identifies as violating international laws, including the most basic laws that should be the basis for certification as an anthropologist – certification to ensure adherence to the discipline’s ethical code for protecting the survival and sustainability of cultures and against seeking to transform them for any outside (colonial) purpose.

If the presentation in Madsen’s book on this is accurate (it is possible that it is not), apparently at no time did Dunham stand firmly behind these principles or attempt to teach them to her son. While there is no evidence to suggest that Dunham directly participated in violations, Madsen suggests that the organisations that she associated herself with routinely did. He also asserts that others in the field, such as Clifford Geertz, anthropologists at her university, the University of Hawaii, and those in the American Anthropological Association, did nothing tangible that is on record to enforce these standards in any effective way. Instead, he suggests that they all worked to undermine international law and to open the door to financial and political manipulation of the discipline and its members in ways that favoured use of foreign cultures for foreign financial and political gain.

The area in which Dunham did work as an anthropologist on her dissertation research, that of small credit community banking projects for women and traditional craft s that are scaled up for export of their products, I have argued, is one that distorts local cultural sustainability in violation of international law in promotion of a globalisation agenda (Lempert 2012b) while also exploiting women’s and children’s labour (Lempert 2011). Madsen’s book, however, does not closely describe her work. Nearly 20 years ago, after finding myself routinely pressured to engage in acts that violated international law by some of the very same organisations in which Dunham worked, I authored an ethics code for practising anthropologists and published it in one of our leading journals, Practicing Anthropology (Lempert 1997). Recently, I have also been designing accountability indicators to hold international interventions directly accountable to international law (Lempert 2011, 2012a). I have called for the unionisation of professionals and for licensing and enforcement schemes. This isn’t just the ‘right’ thing to do or a question of self-interest for our profession, though it is also that. Upholding these principles and international laws are now prerequisites for human and planetary survival as well as stability. From my perspective as a lawyer who has taken oaths to the law, I find Madsen’s wider critique of anthropologists to have merit.

It should be an embarrassment to all of us that issues like these are now being raised in ridicule on us by journalists like Madsen because we, as anthropologists, have not shown the competence and do not appear to care enough to practise what we preach (and perhaps no longer even preach it). The suggestion that the son and half-brother of two anthropologists, who is also a lawyer but has no concept of or concern for these most fundamental precepts that are not only embedded in international law, basic moral doctrine in Western culture, and oaths of professional associations (in anthropology as well as oaths of lawyers) but are also part of obligations to raising and teaching children (and one’s students) is perhaps the most damning statement of our profession that one can make.

To read the entire article, visit the latest issue of Anthropology in Action: Volume 25, Issue 1.