Reviewed by Robert Leopold
Sunday, January 6, 2008
The Strange and Barbaric Tribes of the Beltway
By Dana Milbank
Doubleday. 276 pp. $26
The story is told of an anthropologist of yore, returning from fieldwork abroad, who is asked to report on the manners and customs of the natives. "Manners? None. Customs? Atrocious!" The location of the tribe is no longer in question, now that Dana Milbank has published Homo Politicus. In his latest book, The Post's Washington Sketch columnist reaches into the ethnographer's tool kit to take an amusing pseudo-scientific look at a curious tribe he calls Potomac Man, satirically surveying its kinship system, mythology, folklore, norms and, of course, taboos. If you're amused by the antics of lawmakers and lobbyists and delight in tales of political corruption, you'll enjoy Milbank's cheerfully wicked account.
In the spirit of Horace Miner's classic, Body Ritual Among the Nacirema, through which generations of anthropology students discovered American customs simply by reading the last word of the title backward, Milbank's mock ethnography playfully exoticizes Potomac Man's cultural institutions by juxtaposing them with those of other lands. "In India, there is the priestly caste . . . ," "The Arunta, an aboriginal tribe from central Australia . . . ," "In the tongue of the Piscataway Indians who first occupied Potomac Land. . . ." Of course, these cursory cultural excursions are merely tongue-in-cheek set-ups for the Potomac Land institutions that follow: the curious rituals (face time), rites of solidarity (fundraisers), fictive kinship (party affiliation), Kabuki theater (judicial confirmation hearings), purification rituals (the Gridiron Club) and shadow puppets (pundits), to name only a few.
When the conceit works, it works well. Take the book's discussion of lobbyist-cum-felon Jack Abramoff, whom Milbank likens to a Melanesian Big Man, those "self-made figures who gain power by showering gifts on their followers. The Big Man has no actual authority; his power comes merely from his ability -- usually fleeting -- to influence others. The Big Man amasses the largest possible assortment of tangible wealth: shells, sheepskins, yams, wives. He demonstrates his wealth, and thereby gains clout, by favoring his fellow tribesmen with large moka, or gifts. Through this generosity, the Big Man wins the hearts and minds of his followers, who do as he tells them." Like a modern anthropologist picking through trash to uncover patterns of conspicuous consumption, Milbank meticulously inventories the redistribution of casino boats, arena skyboxes and golfing trips that abruptly ended the careers of Abramoff and his moka partners.
In one of the book's funniest chapters, "Norms and Deviancy," Milbank dispenses with cross-cultural funalogies altogether (apparently because nothing in the anthropological literature can rival the eccentricity, paranoia and megalomania he uncovers in Washington). "Potomac Land is extraordinarily tolerant of behaviors that other cultures would immediately attribute to psychiatric disorders. Here, people who are thought by the outside world to be utterly mad are commonly embraced as respected members of the community. This is all the more strange because Homo politicus, in his public utterances, hews to the straight and narrow, pronouncing his fealty to 'heartland values' or 'traditional values.' The happy result of this calculation is that Potomac Land has long encouraged eccentricity." As elsewhere in the book, Milbank strings examples like cowries on a necklace: "There was Helen Chenoweth, a Republican congresswoman from Idaho, who held 'endangered salmon bakes' and sounded the alarm that federal 'black helicopters' were threatening the freedom-loving people of her state. There was 'B-1 Bob' Dornan, Republican from California, also known as the 'Mouth of the House.' . . . And there was James Traficant, Democrat from Ohio, who ended his speeches with 'Beam me up, Mr. Speaker.' " Potomac Man would rather suffer the weird than risk losing his seat to another clan.
But Milbank's faux social scientist isn't a notebook-toting ethnographer doing fieldwork. He's more of an armchair anthropologist whose stories, like those in Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, are a compendium of familiar facts, recast and retold. In fact, Milbank's illustrations are often so predictable that readers may just fill in the blanks themselves: ceremonial battle (Swift Boat Veterans for Truth), human sacrifice (Scooter Libby) and scapegoats (FEMA's Michael Brown). And it's worth noting that, although the rites of Potomac Land's rival parties are identical, Milbank the ethnographer reserves his sharpest pencil for only one clan. Thus, John McCain's amorphous party identity is an example of shapeshifting, while Hillary Clinton's voting record is not.
Homo Politicus is often most compelling in those rare moments when Milbank is least funny. His keen observations of the natives' social networking and sociality ("Fertility Rites and Mating Behaviors," "Festivals and Social Rituals") are more interesting than his chronicles of their crimes and scandals. Still, those who relish Schadenfreude on the Potomac will find no better book than this. *
Robert Leopold is director of the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.