Fieldwork in the Trumpian Future

An anthropologist from Turkey looks at 9/11 memorials and Trump politics.

“You are one of us now,” my informant said after he asked me to hold a piece of a steel beam that once belonged to the World Trade Center (WTC) buildings. After September 11, pieces of steel beams recovered from the WTC site were distributed across the country as sacred relics and incorporated into local 9/11 memorials. My informant was one of the many people who voluntarily took action to obtain a steel beam from New York City and build a 9/11 memorial in their hometown. Holding the steel in my hand that day, he deemed me—a Turkish anthropologist—one of them.

9/11 Memorial, Natick, MA. Senem Guler-Biyikli, 2015.

I visited more than 70 9/11 memorials between 2014 and 2016 as part of my dissertation fieldwork. I met with people who took part in the acquisition of the steel artifacts and construction of the memorials. As an anthropologist from Turkey—a nominally secular state with Muslim majority—doing research in the US about 9/11 memorials had the potential to present certain challenges in the field. I was prepared to face distrust and resistance from my eventual informants. But, I was confident in approaching them, and experienced almost no hostility. Of course, the situation might have been different if I had extended my fieldwork to a geographical area outside of the Northeast, or if I fit into stereotypical images of the Muslim Other—wearing hijab—or if my name were easily recognizable to Americans as Muslim. Yet, I thought I could still be confident that the social and political norms in this country, at least ideally, would disapprove of such behavior.

President Trump’s candidacy initiated an erosion of trust in the social and political norms in the US. He gained support despite his many derogatory remarks—taped comments about women, blaming Mexican immigrants for crime, and campaigning on banning all Muslims from entering the country—that would under other circumstances be considered incompatible with the ideal social and political norms in the US. Yet Trump’s victory seemed to justify all these. Moreover, his extremist and provocative statements on issues ranging from environmental concerns to national security, and his promises of anti-immigration policies seem to have helped him to gain support. Trump did not invent racism or xenophobia in the US, but he took advantage of existing tensions and thus released hate.

After having seen Trump blaming immigrants for crime and campaigning on banning all Muslims entering the country, as an anthropologist from Turkey I would feel less confident. Perhaps I would choose not to do research in the US.
When I think of the interlocutor who told me, “You are one of us now,” the speed with which hate erupted in the US surprises me even more. It is true that Trump did not win the popular vote, and that not all who supported him are bigots—intense dislike for the Democratic Party’s candidate was also influential in many voters’ decisions. Yet, hate and fear played a significant role in mobilizing Trump supporters and polarizing society. His success further legitimized discriminatory attitudes in the political and public sphere. We saw an example of this in August 2016 when neo-Nazis and white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville, VA, and Trump failed to take a strong stance against racism and violence. On the one hand, Trump’s presidency faces strong opposition. On the other hand, his administration’s xenophobic policies are what many of his supporters asked for and they see no wrong in them.

This new political and social climate raises several issues for me as an anthropologist and “alien” in the US. In 2010, when I first visited the Flight 93 National in Shanksville, PA, for a course project, I was not only shy and nervous about my accent but also excited to see how visitors would react upon learning that I was a student from Turkey researching 9/11 memorials. The memorial was under construction then. Visitors were coming to the site to see the temporary exhibit and the spot where the fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, crashed on 9/11. I had multiple conversations with the volunteers and visitors there about the site’s significance for them. Being a non-American graduate student interested in the 9/11 commemorations stimulated these conversations, since people were curious to know why I was interested in this subject. They often provided me with the details of the event and their memories, assuming that as a non-American I might not be familiar with what had happened.

Now, I live in a town in Massachusetts that has a growing immigrant population and a history with an extremist anti-immigration group (although it does not much support). Yet,  Trump’s anti-immigration attitude intensifies that history. Every day I pass a house with a Trump sign staked in its yard, and it’s now  impossible to ignore this sign or any other supporting Trump. Seeing ongoing support for the President despite his actions worries me. Although I never had a hostile encounter, I wonder if it is inevitable and think that I should be ready for it.

Nearly two months before the presidential election, on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, I began to realize how Trumpian politics might affect my research and fieldwork. While I was driving to a local 9/11 memorial for the anniversary ceremony, I entered the memorial site behind a car with a Trump bumper sticker. At that moment, I felt withdrawn. For the first time I thought that if they knew that I came from a Muslim-majority country, people in the ceremony might prefer that I leave. The ceremony was solemn and focused on the people who died on 9/11. I never met with the driver of that car, but that brief moment was enough to make me feel alienated.

9/11 Memorial, Hudson, NH. Senem Guler-Biyikli, 2015.

Another shock came in January 2017. On January 23rd, Trump’s first day in office, I was flying from Turkey to the US. I half-seriously thought that I might have some trouble in entering the country, yet nothing happened. Only four days later, on January 27th, Trump issued the executive order restricting travel and banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. Turkey was not on the list, but knowing that hundreds were stuck at the airports was frustrating enough. Though federal judges revoked that executive order, a softened version was issued in March. Most recently, a third order was issued in September 2017 restricting immigration from a broadened number of countries including Chad, North Korea, and Venezuela. The situation remains ambiguous and the feelings of alienation for those who may be affected from such restrictions have grown even stronger.

Unity and inclusiveness have never been fully achieved in the US, and yet they were the core values that interlocutors emphasized. For those people active in establishing the memorial sites, it was important to be inclusive and affirm this unity. For this reason, the memorials do not categorize the dead by race, ethnicity, religion, or citizenship: to the contrary, all are considered victims. The Trump campaign and administration has disrupted this notion of unity, to such an extent that even seeing a Trump sticker recalls the administration’s divisive views and upsets imaginations of unity in everyday life and memorial settings. In light of this sudden political and social change that came with Trump, I wonder whether my informants would—or even could talk—about being united in the same way they did almost two years ago.

If I were to start doing my fieldwork now, after having seen Trump blaming immigrants for crime and campaigning on banning all Muslims entering the country, as an anthropologist from Turkey, I would feel less confident. Perhaps I would choose not to do research in the US because it is likely that Trump administration will continue to criminalize people from Muslim-majority countries, and restrict their entrance to the US. There is no guarantee that Turkey will not be on the banned countries list some day, and that my stay in the US will not be restricted. Ironically, Turkey itself is increasingly becoming an authoritarian state under the rule of a pro-Islamist government, and the opposition there is also feeling alienated. It is not uncommon for someone with a secular appearance, including me, to be chastised for not being “Muslim enough.” In the future, I may face the possibility of winding up too Muslim to stay in the US but not Muslim enough to live in Turkey—my actual beliefs and practices not taken into account in either case.

In this political and social climate, North American anthropology and the study of mainstream American culture remain crucial, and the study of these subjects by non-American anthropologists is especially important. We bring in different perspectives and provide new insights. To what extent current circumstances will allow us such study, however, remains to be seen.

Senem Guler-Biyikli received her PhD in anthropology from the University of Pittsburgh in 2017. Her dissertation, “Sacred Secular Relics: World Trade Center Steel in Off-Site 9/11 Memorials in the United States,” examines the transformation of the World Trade Center debris from rubble to sacred relics and their memorialization across the US.

Cite as: Guler-Biyikli, Senem. 2018. “Fieldwork in the Trumpian Future.” Anthropology News website, February 26, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.783

Comments

very insightlful, thanks! it might make sense in trying to understand the role of memorials to distinguish those whose impetus was more immediate. i conducted visual studies of such spontaneous monuments shortly after 9/11 and annually for many years thereafter. here is a link to some expressions which might of value to this exploration.
http://www.brooklynsoc.org/WTC/
also see:”Park Slope, Brooklyn, in the Aftermath of the Destruction of the World Trade Center,” in Recovering 9/11 in New York Edited by Robert Fanuzzi and Michael Wolfe, Cambridge Scholars Publishing: Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: 2014: 28-48.

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