There are lots of people here in Santiago wearing face masks – especially children. I’d like to be generous and say its for the pollution, but you just know its the fear of el gripe porcino.

Chile has had a few deaths from swine flu, but the face mask thing is just ridiculous. Before I left Chicago I saw (in Wicker Park of course – where else?) a man wearing a fashion face mask, in black with a red “tribal” design on it. It totally coordinated with his outfit. And his stupidity.

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I was woken up a few nights back by my neighbours, which is no surprise. It happens all the time, but not usually as late as 3 in the morning. My apartment building and theirs face each other over a small garden that, rather annoyingly, has perfect acoustics: pretty much any conversation held on the balconies overlooking the garden travels directly into the windows on the other side, making it sound like the speaker is standing over your bed having a little chat. Its creepy.

So, having been woken up at 3 by them pulling up chairs and popping open the champagne, I then lay awake the next few hours trying not to listen to their conversation. It seems one of the girls had recently broken up with an errant boyfriend. He said this, she said that, then you’ll never guess what she said to him!!

Well I didn’t have to guess, because I heard it all intimate detail through my ear plugs. I can inform you that her ex really was a naughty boy. But I don’t care what he did with that girl from over the road. when sleep deprived I have very little sympathy. Being a light sleeper has turned me into a terribly grumpy neighbour.

Anyway, it was a few days later that I worked out why they were sitting on their balcony at that time of the morning. It was the solstice! And I totally missed it!

Last year I spent the solstice at the ancient site of Tiwanaku, waiting for the sun’s rays and Evo Morales alongside several thousand Bolivians. They year before, I was in Peru celebrating the neo-indigenous ritual of Inta Raymi at Cusco. The previous two years before that, I was at Stonehenge, dancing the night away. This year, I passed the solstice in bed in Chicago, listening to teenagers lamenting their love lives. It was a bit of a let down, to say the least.

I should have known it was getting close though, as I’d read in the media a few days before that the police were going to be cracking down harder on visitors to Stonehenge this year. Because that’s what’s really needed in the wake of all the great press the police have had recently: more aggression. If they were being heavy handed its a pity, because the two times I went to Stonehenge for the solstice the already over-intimidating police presence was the only blight on an otherwise incredible experience. Right up there on my top ten things I think everyone should do is spend a solstice at Stonehenge, while you still can.

Its strange to have spent this year’s solstice in Chicago though, and even stranger to have missed it altogether. Its made me feel a little despondent about still being here so late. Over the last few years I’ve made my annual visit of pseudo-pagan/neo-indigenous/reclaimed solstice celebrations at archaeological sites into something of a tradition. At some point I wanted to write something about the contemporary uses of archaeological sites in this way, but researching it is a tad tricky when you only get one night a year to compare with. Missing out on this year’s example is a bit of a faux pas.

As a result, however, the solstice has turned into a personal marker for me. Not a marker in the “welcome the sun”/”connect with mother earth”/”mark the new year”/”blah blah blah” kind of way. Its just that, every year for the last four, its been a little bit of reoccurring research for me. That I missed it this year just reinforced the sense of frustration I’ve had for the last six months, hanging around in Chicago waiting for the bureaucracy to work out so that I can leave and go do my fieldwork. That I’m still in Chicago for the solstice, and hence missed it, becomes just another sign of having wasted too much time waiting this year. So in my mind, the solstice has become a ritual that marks me being “in the field”, doing research. Where ever I am that day, it reminds me of where I was that day for the previous few years. The solstice doesn’t mark the middle of summer so much as marking me watching other people marking the middle of summer.

My friend Keith, the one who spent last year at the South Pole, was telling me last week that the mid-winter solstice is a really big event there. Given that they really are affected by the turning of the seasons there, the midwinter marks the point when they can start to look forward to some sunlight returning in a few months time, and eventually to going home. I’ve always been a tad skeptical about the archaeological tendency to interpret every damn monument built anywhere in the world and at any time in prehistory as a calender for the solstice. Partly because I think there has to actually be some reason for caring about the middle of summer/winter.

The South Pole experience I can understand. My reason is a bit off-the-wall and personal. The usual explanation given in the archaeological interpretations is that its necessary for agricultural communities to know when to plant and so on. But I wonder if that’s really the case. Do farmers really need to know the exact date iof the middle of summer in order to be able to plant? As opposed to, say, being able to judge the weather that particular year? I heard on the radio this morning, for example, that farmers in Illinois this year have been totally fucked by the torrential rain we’ve had in the last few weeks, which means they are struggling to get crops planted this week while its still just about dry enough and warm enough. So I’d assume there are so many variables to growing crops than the exact date of the middle of the season isn’t really that important. I’d be interested to ask some contemporary farmers who live somewhere that doesn’t have an extreme climate whether they even notice the solstice. Maybe our contemporary tendency to think every archaeological site is somehow aligned to the solstice has more to do with our own obsession with accuracy and dating.

This time next year I’m not sure where I’ll be. Quiet possibly back here in Chicago, enjoying a break after a year of fieldwork. Where ever I am I’ll make sure I pay more attention. If only because, if I’m going to miss it, I might as well get a decent nights sleep.

Its an embarrassing time to be British right now. This “expense scandal”? Its humiliating. Particularly in Chicago, of all places. The reaction I keep getting from friends is unanimous: You British are so backward you can’t even get political corruption right.

Illinois recently earnt itself the quote: “If it isn’t the most corrupt state in the United States it’s certainly one hell of a competitor” (Robert Grant, head of the FBI’s Chicago office). Yes, from the perspective of a US state that has two governor’s in jail for corruption and one on the way, and a Mayoral oligarchy that has seen the Daley father and son team rule the city for 40+ years with virtually no opposition, quibbling about expense claims that were, after all, legal, seems a bit ridiculous.

As a dear friend so kindly (and gleefully) pointed out to me, the sheer pettiness just reinforces every annoying stereotype of quaint British eccentricity.

Headlines in Italy: Berlusconi holds debauched parties with gaggles of teenage girls and pin up models, flying them in on airforce jets and appointing the most attractive to his cabinet.

Headlines in Britain: Cameron claimed £947.29 more than he ought to, but will pay it back.

I’m not saying that I condone corruption. Chicago’s famously laid back ‘who gives a shit’ attitude to being robbed blind by its public officials stopped being amusing around the time I noticed the open wounds of poverty that are ripped into the face of the city. The dirt. The decrepit public transport. The third world standard roads. The weekly fatal shootings in public schools. The segregation. The accusations of police brutality and torture.

No, I’m not saying Britain needs to step up to “compete on the world stage” when it comes to crooked politics. My point is that that calling this farce over expenses “corruption”, dignifying it with status of a “scandal”, is to seriously misunderstand both what corruption really is, and where the real problems with British politics lie. So knowing what we are doing right (i.e. not being like Illinois), and what we are doing wrong.

The problem with the expenses is that MPs were not able to vote themselves a higher salary, and so civil servants created a way to give them some other form of compensation. There is nothing wrong with the concept of a second home allowance: on the contrary, it means that people other than millionaires can, potentially, be politicians, which I’m entirely in favour of. Anything that proactively enables more diversity in our political representatives should be encouraged.

Were the MPs “greedy”? I think its hard to say, because its difficult to condemn the impulse for personal profit when it is, after all, the underlying principle of capitalism (and in particular neoliberalism). Its also impossible to call them “greedy” when they were actually doing what they were told they should do. Besides which, if it really does seem like they were being greedy, the solution lies in taking a more nuanced look at the kind of politics we have right now, rather than voyeuristic pawing over receipts in the press to the accompaniment of some cliched class-tinged indignation.

This situation came about because it was not politically expedient for MPs to give themselves a pay rise. As long as decisions are made on the basis of whether or not it will lose or gain votes, then our politics will be superficial, shallow and hysterical. Beyond this issue of pay, why are politicians so afraid of making decisions that, while unpopular, need to be made in the name of social justice? For humane immigration laws. For gay marriage and abortion rights. For supporting the NHS and free education. Because it might cost them votes, and losing votes is more important than having a fair and free society.

But above all, what really depresses me is that this whole farce with expenses has caused more debate about the political system, and come closer to bringing down the government, than any other issue in the last decade. An illegal war couldn’t do it. The insidious undermining of the right to free education hasn’t raised the slightest whiff of a protest. Two police murders of innocent men passed without problem. Even the economy crashing down around our ears at the same time as a a global pandemic hasn’t caused as many problems as this cuffufle over legal expense claims!

But a duck house and a few dvd players? If this is what the British public really want to get angry about, then we really do have a problem.

I’ve been told on a couple of occasions by anthropologist friends who work in Chile that I should avoid mentioning the fact that I’m at the University of Chicago when I’m doing field work there. So its with some interest that I’ve been catching up on the latest saga in my home turf. After the last year of protests, meetings and mud slinging over the under funding of graduate students in the Humanities and Social Sciences, we were all rather dismayed to discover that although the good ol’ powers that be can’t afford to give us health care, they can afford to build a whopping great big new centre for the economists. Because those guys are in such a precarious position they need a little extra cash.

Aside from being pissed off at the unfairness of it, though, there are some more fundamental objections to the new centre. There are other departments at the UoC that have great reputations, but all of us carry this collective milestone round our neck that threatens to disrupt and discredit us at any moment: the reputation of the Chicago School of Economics. That the new centre will be actively continuing the work, as well as baring the name, of Milton Friedman has been a bit of a kick in the teeth. Having seen the new president, Robert Zimmer, slip and slide his way through the “negotiations” with the graduate students, however, I suspect he will be equally dismissive and arrogant on this issue. Anyway, there is a lot of info about it here, and a petition doing the rounds which I am coping below.

Chances that this will all be sorted before I start my field work in Chile? Low.

Chances I will be pretending I’m a student at UIC? I’d say they’re pretty high.

For one or more of the following reasons, we, the undersigned, oppose establishment of the Milton Friedman Institute (MFI) in the form that has been proposed (To sign, please go to http://www.stat.uchicago.edu/~amit/MFI/).

1. The scale of the University’s investment in the MFI seems disproportionate to other endeavors in the Social Sciences and Humanities. This is not a center like any other, but threatens to be a flagship that will define the way our University is perceived by the public at large. It is not credible to claim that the MFI bears Mr. Friedman’s name only in recognition of his technical accomplishments as an economist.[1] Rather, it will be widely understood that his political positions are also being celebrated and contributors will expect the MFI to champion, advance, and refine them.

2. In May 2007, the President appointed an ad hoc committee with the broad charge of creating “a major new institute at the University on economics and society.”[2] However, the committee, five of whose seven members teach in the economics department, proposed instead an institute whose stated goal is to provide vast resources to the economics department to improve its competitive position relative to its rivals in the field.[3] The committee’s report ignores approaches to the interdisciplinary theme of “economics and society” that originate in disciplines other than economics or that diverge from the particular approaches of the Chicago School. We welcome the President’s initial interdisciplinary vision, but want it realized in its full breadth.

3. We know of no other unit of the University whose research findings are as predetermined as this one’s apparently are, given the MFI’s stated intention to follow Friedman’s lead in advocating market solutions to policy questions, while regarding the state, NGOs, and all non-market actors with distinct suspicion.[4] Presumably then, to take one example, the question of whether to privatize Social Security would be moot; the only reasonable question is how.

4. The proposal ignores the many critiques of Friedman’s views that have been offered and the problems, including state terror, crony capitalism, declining life expectancy, food shortages, etc., that have arisen where he and his disciples implemented those views (Chile, Argentina, the post-Soviet republics, e.g.). We acknowledge that Friedman’s ideas have been influential, but are uneasy at the prospect of their constituting a new orthodoxy that will define the Institute for years to come. Ongoing critical interrogation of all theories ought be an essential part of this, like any other part of the University.

5. The level of donor/corporate control over this Institute seems unprecedented in University history or policy. It has been announced that donors of $1 million or more will become lifetime members of the Milton Friedman Society, “a highly selective group of contributors who will have special access to the people and work of the Institute.”[5] Establishment of a club where the wealthy gain privileged academic participation does not strike us as consistent with the principles of this, or of any self-respecting University.

6. Such arrangements also suggest increased privatization of the University and the cultivation of a symbiosis between scholars whose theories produce profits for a set of donors who then reinvest in those theories. This seems to us less a “free market of ideas,” than a cartel designed to promote certain academic products at the expense of others that might be intellectually — or morally — superior, but promise less return on investment. The analogy of research sponsored by drug and tobacco companies is not exact, but is too close for comfort.

7. The proposal makes clear that the MFI will engage issues of policy and not limit itself to matters of academic theory.[6] We are troubled by the prospect that it could come to play a role similar to that of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, or think tanks that lack the legitimating imprimatur of great universities.

8. Among the more worrisome details embedded in the proposal is the idea that beyond providing funds for visiting faculty, post-doctoral researchers, and graduate fellows, the MFI will also use its assets to recruit and mentor undergraduates.[7] Given other aspects of the MFI’s mission and profile, we are alarmed at the possibility of selection on ideological grounds and the cultivation of activist cadres, trained at Chicago and networked via the Milton Friedman Society.

Given the serious nature of these concerns, we welcome President Zimmer’s decision to convene the University Senate this fall as a venue for open debate on plans for the MFI. We intend to raise these issues in principled fashion and to propose substantial changes, as we passionately hope — for the University’s sake — that the MFI does not come into being as it is currently envisioned.

[1] Consider the following thought experiment. Would the Economics Department or the University imagine it could raise $200 million by founding a George Stigler Institute? George Stigler was a long-time colleague of Friedman’s in the Economics Department, was also an unambiguous supporter of pure laissez-faire economics and, like Friedman, was a truly distinguished scholar who won a Nobel Prize. But because he limited his publications to scholarly venues, rather than supplementing his scholarship with a free-market ideological crusade, his name would have considerably less value. The additional value of the Friedman name derives from his role as public champion of the free-market doctrines whose adoption in the United States and elsewhere has vastly increased the earnings of the very wealthy. Presumably, it is the latter who will be the prime contributors to (and investors in) the MFI.
[2] A Proposal to Establish the Milton Friedman Institute,” submitted by the ad hoc Committee chaired by Lars Peter Hansen, p. 1, available at http://mfi.uchicago.edu/pdf/mfi.final.pdf.
[3] Ibid., see esp. pp. 3-4.
[4] Ibid., p. 2: “Following Friedman’s lead, the design and evaluation of economic policy requires analyses that respect the incentives of individuals and the essential role of markets in allocating goods and services. As Friedman and others continually demonstrated, design of public policy without regard to market alternatives has adverse social consequences. The intellectual focus of the institute would reflect the traditions of the Chicago School and typify some of Milton Friedman’s most interesting academic work, including… his advocacy for market alternatives to ill conceived policy initiatives.”
[5] “Milton Friedman Society,” available at http://mfi.uchicago.edu/society.shtml. What kinds of access and influence members will have is not made explicit, but those schooled on Friedman’s dictum “There is no free lunch” may be expected to anticipate some commensurate return on their money.
[6] The concern for “policy” appears on every page of the proposal, as in the programmatic recommendation “to create one of the world’s most vital and visible institutes for economic research and policy analysis and evaluation” (“A Proposal to Establish the Milton Friedman Institute,” p. 1, emphasis added).
[7] “A Proposal to Establish the Milton Friedman Institute,” p. 7.

the subsistence-based economy of the Tarapaca valley in the North of Chile

Farming in the desert: the subsistence-based economy of the Tarapaca valley in the North of Chile

There aren’t so many moments, now that I’ve been here two years, when I get to use that ‘just-off-the-boat’ expression “Its just like the movies!!”. Familiarity of the real eventually begins to blur the memory of the imaginary, undercutting the primacy of fictional representation as the point of reference from which reality is compared. The question of which is the shadow of which that is constantly asked when one first encounters the origin point of all representations, becomes less urgent. But perhaps for that reason, moments when life imitates art imitating life occur to the point of parody – and thus force the question to ask itself – become all that more precious. This morning I visited a police station that was clichéd to the point of being gleefully so. It was all so serious – and yet so preposterously a rendering of the imaginary.

Now, the Chicago police have a fairly unsavoury reputation for being minority murdering thugs, so its not surprising that its taken me over two years to have my first serious interaction with them. I try to avoid them at all costs, something that is not so difficult being a white woman and therefore less likely to be pulled over and harassed at random, as is their wont. Last night, however, my car got smashed in a hit and run, and I was forced to go make a police report this morning in order to claim my insurance. So off I pedalled on my little bike to the nearest police station.

The building I found myself in felt like set of a bad 70s cop movie. I sniffed the air – no tobacco smell, of course, this is the year 2007. Yet it looked so nicotine stained – the grey and beige colours, the tired out furniture, the slightly grimy touch to the counter, the battered clock on the wall that helpfully explained the 24 hour system, the faded posters with their 1980s typeface, the dusty memorial photos to officers dead for 30 years… . A scathingly pedantic officer took my details, using monosyllabic grunts and the kind of belligerent more-than-my-jobs-worth sarcasm that makes the immigration bureaucrats at the border look like angels. When we had eventually managed to fill the form in, he sat his huge mass of fat down at a keyboard to single-finger type out the report, within the time frame it usually takes a small mammal to evolve. I got plenty of time to look around and take in my surroundings. Gradually I realised I had walked not into a real police station, surely not, but in fact into a surreal movie set, a self-parody of reality that could not possibly have existed outside of the banal imagination of a paper-back writer.

A door behind me opened and an officer walked in. The young man was tall and beautiful in his neatly ironed uniform, and looked for all the world like a young Italian farmhand who ought to be tumbling wenches in the hay on a hillside far far away. The innocence radiating from his face could not have been played better by Tom Cruise himself. A middle-aged fat guy leaning back in his desk chair glared at him over the rim of a coffee. This second dude was one of several killing time on their side of the counter, shirts squeezed over copious girths, the occasional scrubby white moustache setting off pasty dough-like faces. He watched with a look of contempt as the young newbie awkwardly made his way into the room. Eventually he spun his gut round in his chair to face the desk, and threw a question over his shoulder. “Which division did you say your father worked for again?” The newbie quickly stepped forward to answer. The precise division he replied with was lost on me, as I was trying not to giggle.

I turned to watch the action on the other side of the room instead. What had to have been ‘the genius’ – the only guy who knew how to use a computer properly – was sitting at a desk talking to the secretary. You could tell he was the socially awkward one in the plot line, by the fact he wore glasses and had badly died orange hair, receding over an already egg shaped forehead. Remember, this is a 70s cop-movie – the computer guy is always a distinctive and central character. No doubt later he will consult databases or something, provide an essential piece of info to give to the tough-guy heroes who will then dramatically solve the case. The secretary, however, never changes. A muscular bleach-blond, crumpled white shirt hanging over tight blue jeans, leaning on the desk and bitching about her day. That kind of lip-sneering bitching, one arm on her hip and the other tapping red nails over the desk she’s leaning on. At one point they were interrupted by a Asian officer who walked hurriedly through – we are now into 90s cop movie territory, where the token ethnic guy proves that its not just fat middle aged white guys who can beat up minorities. A discussion breaks out about where so-and-so is: he’s in looking after someone else’s prisoner, in a cell somewhere. On cue, so-and-so makes his appearance, bursting in from a tiled corridor outback, dressed in baseball cap and a sports team sweatshirt. The comic-relief, the cute all-American dude. He cracks a few jokes and leaves.

Just when I’m getting to grips with the fact this is now a 90s plot line (despite the obvious mislocation of the Italian hero – we’re in Chicago, not New York. Shouldn’t he be Greek?) in comes the classic 1970s cop. The grizzled old dude in the proper wide police hat (the kind you buy in cops and robbers costumes as a kid), big bushy white 70s moustache and a huge pair of black sunglasses, striding in and chucking his gun down on the desk. He surveys the scene with a self-satisfied smile on his face, taking in the pasty white dough-men, the lost young newbie, the bitching secretary…. All is right in the world.

There was just one thing I thought I would be disappointed by, in my experience of the parody of life and art. Sure, everyone was chugging down cheap coffee, but where were the doughnuts? I consoled myself with the fact that the coffee cups were all from Dunkin Doughnuts, and that therefore there must have been the real thing at some point, only I missed it.
Eventually, the fat fool filling in my paper work managed to get off the phone and drag his arse out the chair to give me my report with one last surly sneer. I made my way out to my bike, past the leering eyes of the baseball hat wearing officers in the corridor, the Hispanic guy trying to explain in broken English that he just wanted to see his kids, past the black kids hanging around looking miserable, and the women trying with no luck to elicit sympathy and help for the theft of her car. I unlocked my bike as a car drew up beside me. Another fat white guy got out accompanied by a tired looking female officer. They slowly rolled over to the door way, glaring at me on the way. In his hand – a bag of Dunkin Doughnuts.