The Cracked Bell: America and the Afflictions of Liberty

Date: 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010, 4:10pm to 5:30pm

Location: 

124 Mount Auburn, Suite 200-North, Room 226, Cambridge, MA

Tristram Riley-SmithTristram Riley-Smith

About the Seminar
In The Cracked Bell, an ethnographic study of contemporary United States, Riley-Smith identifies a distinctive and intriguing American paradox. Despite a powerful national myth – or narrative – of individualism, entrepreneurialism, and innovation, the anthropologist finds features of traditional patron-client societies associated with Southern Europe. An established network of power-blocs and semi-secret societies exist at many different levels of society, ranging from street gangs of Los Angeles, college fraternities, and trade unions, as well as networks of corporations, lobbyists, and politicians.

There is a tension between two value systems here: the entrepreneur acts as a mythical icon for the social and political philosophy of individualism and freedom that America repeatedly reaffirms; yet this is a nation of joiners who eagerly subscribe to the security brought through associations and institutions. This can leave a chilling current of disappointment (a sense of utopia deferred) that cuts through the haze of optimism shimmering above the American Way. But should Americans suffer anguish over this? It can be argued that a revolutionary feature of the American political process has been the democratization of power-blocs. America may well have generated the largest portfolio of associations and corporations the world has ever known. These voluntary groups give the many access to benefits enjoyed by a privileged minority in the Old World: the levers of power are not restricted to the princes, bishops, landed gentry, or burghers of the Old World. There are scores of established interest-groups: the farming lobby, labor unions, and business corporations, not to mention women's groups, eco-warriors, gay rights activists, hunting enthusiasts etc. Each of these can argue, lobby, or pay those in local, state, or federal authority in the hope that their decisions and resources move in their favor. These opportunities are sustained by the rational, democratic principles of the American Revolution: separation of powers; regular elections; majority rule.

Nevertheless, a key question to emerge from “The Cracked Bell” is whether the sense of American disappointment about unfulfilled ideals is justifiable? Is it the case that the country's powerful commitment to the ideal of liberty is imposing such stress and strain on the national bedrock, that it is threatening to undermine the very society that this ideal defines?

About Tristram Riley-Smith
Dr. Tristram Riley-Smith is the author of The Cracked Bell, a new analysis of 21st Century United States that draws on his training as a social anthropologist at Cambridge University and his three-year posting as Counsellor in the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. (2002-04). He continues to work as a senior government official in Whitehall, and has recently established the Office of Science & Innovation in the cross-departmental Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure. He sits on the Strategic Advisory Group of the U.K. Research Councils’ Global Uncertainties Programme, and on the advisory board of Cambridge University’s World Oral Literature Project. His doctoral research was conducted in Nepal, followed up with post-doctoral research in Thailand. He has lectured on the anthropology of art at the Smithsonian Institution and contributed to A Dictionary of Classical Reference in English Poetry, The Travellers’ Dictionary of Quotations, and Macmillan’s Encyclopaedia of Art.

Democracy Seminar Series
The Democracy Seminar Series brings distinguished speakers to Harvard Kennedy School for the academic year to address critical challenges facing democratic governance.

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