Preposterous Universe

Friday, August 27, 2004
Role reversal (or, the trouble with state societies)

Remember the good old days when big men secured political power by throwing huge parties for ordinary people? I don't--but the brilliant Dr. Cathy D'Andrea taught me all about these bygone ceremonial redistributions in Archaeology 101. I refer skeptics such fine ethnographic films as Ongka's Big Moka, or online exhibitions like Harvard's Gifting and Feasting in the Northwest Coast Potlatch.

American politicians used appreciate the value of a good political party. The Randy Newman song Kingfish gives the gist:

Who gave a party at the Roosevelt Hotel?
And invited the whole north half of the state down there for free
The people in the city
Had their eyes bugging out
Cause everyone of you
Looked just like me

Many pre-state societies have used lavish ritualized redistribution ceremonies to cement political influence. Time was when a leader had to publicly redistribute wealth by sponsoring massive public consumption. In many ways this was a more civilized and agreeable arrangement. Before lawyers and contracts, the great chiefs of the Pacific Coast would cement important claims with potlatches--extravagant festivals of gifting, feasting, and dancing. People came for the presents and stayed for the ceremonial boasting. The better the party, the higher the turnout. The bigger the crowd, the more people "on message" about the new fishing ground or the latest dynastic marriage.

Unfortunately, public gifting is obsolete in state societies. Vote buying has become so boring and impersonal. Ads have replaced dances. Free booze has given way to promises of drug benefits.

One of the little-noted drawbacks of modern life is that citizens now have to throw lavish parties in order to impress politicians. Consider the opulent celebrations surrounding the Republican National Convention [NYT permalink]. The "notoriously frugal" Bush campaign isn't shelling out to show the faithful a good time. This week the lobbyists are treating:

At Cartier, guests can shop while they mingle and munch with lawmakers. There will be dinners at Per Se and Daniel. Conventiongoers will cruise New York Harbor at midnight and gather on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Intrepid, a retired aircraft carrier docked in the Hudson River at 46th Street. And official Washington will, of course, be treated to some of the most elaborate events, sponsored by companies such as General Motors, Boeing, American Express and scores of others.

"It's a fancy city and it's a party that leans toward big business," said John Jonas, who directs public policy for the law firm Patton Boggs. "If it was hot dogs and street entertainers, I'd be worried."

I wouldn't mind the RNC if Zell Miller gave me a button blanket emblazoned with my family crest, or even a martini at Tavern on the Green. If this were Papua New Guinea, George W. Bush would slaughter thousands of fattened hogs and invite all of New York to feast on the Great Lawn of Central Park. This year, all we get is a court order to keep off the grass.

[X-posted with Majikthise.]

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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