Once upon a time, in a city near Boston, I worked as a practicing anthropologist. Among my projects was a documentary of a local Saint’s Societies annual festival. Lights, parades, bands, the Saints marched through the streets; it was an exciting event. A vacant lot provided space to set up a complete carnival with rides and booths.
One evening during the festival, I was invited to dinner at the home of a participant. The meal was served in the large backyard under lights. They seated me with the Mayor and several other politicians.
The conversation ultimately turned towards politics. I did the typical anthropological fieldwork routine of close observation and just enough participation to stay in the mix. But in general, I was scrupulous in my silence. Then the Mayor turned to me and asked, ” so what do they teach in anthropology courses these days about politics. You know it’s not exhorting constituents for campaign contributions.”
I hardly had to hesitate over this and whipped out the current quote of the year among anthropologists interested in political phenomena, ” all politics are local.”
There was a brief silence and a series of quiet laughs. ” and where did you learn this?” I explained that it came from a favorite saying of the then Speaker of the House of Representatives “Tip” O’Neil. One of the city councilors looked over towards another of the quests and asked, “Is that true, Tip?” Tip O’Neil looked at me with a smile and said, “I’ve always found it to be that way.”
The following conversation was interesting because it was the Speaker of the House, the Mayors, City Councilors of two cities, and several other politicians discussing truisms in politics that told it as it was. A few of the goldies: “If five people call City Hall complaining, there are twenty-five madder than hell that haven’t called yet.” and concerning other politicians, “listen to what they are saying, but watch where they are actually going.”
The evening sticks in my memory almost forty years later. I heard enough to enable me to write a short paper for the American Anthropological Societies Annual Meeting. But, of course, I wasn’t interested in the possible blowback of disclosing what was then a private conversation.
Still, in light of current politics, I’d love to find out how relevant some of those quips remain.