For over three decades, Wade Davis has been one of the most well-known anthropologists on the planet. He’s lit himself on fire among the secret societies of Haiti, drank blood with the nomads of Kenya, turned the taking of psychedelics into an actual science, and lived among more than 15 indigenous societies during his tenure as one of the National Geographic Society’s Explorers-in-Residence (“Obviously a bit of an oxymoron,” he says of the title). His 23rd book, Magdalena, River of Dreams: A Story of Colombia, which was published this past September, is a poetic tribute to the first country that kindled Davis’ passion for culture as a unique expression of humanity. “If there’s one lesson of anthropology,” he says, “it’s that culture is not trivial, culture is not decorative, culture is not the songs we sing, the clothes we wear, the prayers we utter. Culture ultimately is a body of ethical and moral values that every culture wraps each individual in to keep at bay the barbaric heart that history teaches us lies within every one of us.”
This summer, with his publicity tour for Magdalena having been quashed by the pandemic, it was American culture that grabbed Davis’ attention. A kayak trip around an island near Vancouver, where he is a professor at the University of British Columbia, found him coming to the realization that maybe Covid-19 wasn’t a medical story as much as it was a cultural one, and that maybe the cultural story it told was about the end of the United States’ supremacy in the world. “The Unraveling of America,” an article he wrote on the subject for Rolling Stone, went viral in August, becoming our most popular story of 2020 and igniting the question of what America’s fate might be in the near and middle future.
Rolling Stone talked with Davis about his new book, the response he got from readers about “The Unraveling,” and what it would take to see a new dawn in America.
You’ve had an amazing relationship with Colombia over the years and were made an honorary citizen in 2018. But what made you want to return to the theme of Colombia in your writing?
I have no sense of a bucket list of places I want to go. I’m always drawn by the story. In this case, I just think it’s really outrageous that Colombia has been reduced to caricature. I think it’s really outrageous that the American War on drugs — which just began as a political ploy, as we now know — has caused such agonies, a trillion dollars being spent, and more people in more places using worse drugs than ever before. It’s the greatest folly in a long litany of follies in recent United States history. In retrospect, this was a chance to give back to Colombia, to be a kind of a mirror that holds a light to all that is wonderful in Colombia.
What’s the significance of orienting the book around the theme of the Rio Magdalena?
Well, with the possible exception of the Nile, I can’t think of any one river on Earth that has more dominantly defined a nation than the Magdalena. And because it served as a slurry of the shapeless dead, a kind of cemetery of the nation [as bodies were dumped there during the drug wars], there’s this sense [among Colombians] that to heal ourselves, we must heal the river. Part of this is Colombian people coming together to protect their land and a growing sense that the richness of the nation is its biodiversity. There is no place in Colombia more than a day away from every known ecological niche to be found on the planet. No other country can say that.
Magdalena has so many powerful and poignant themes, but one that stood out to me is the frailty of civilizations. Which, of course, brings us to “The Unraveling of America,” the stunning piece you wrote for Rolling Stone back in August.
I mean, I love America. A lot of people thought that piece was somehow anti-American, but I say it’s a love letter to America. It’s like if you have a family member in trouble, the first step of an intervention is to hold a mirror to their face, to let them see how far they’ve fallen. That’s a first step on the path of rehabilitation.
And I think the power of that piece is that it was not polemical. It was not political. It was not pointing fingers at anyone. It said, “These are the facts. This is what we’ve become.” And the response to the article was interesting. People either were saddened by it but determined to save America, or vitriolic, hateful, vicious.
How did you deal with that backlash?
What I found interesting is how misogynist they all were. The article has nothing to do with women — to a fault — but every one of these crazy things said, “You must be a fucking woman lover, you must be a Hillary Clinton feminist feminazi” or whatever.
I thought about that. I said, “What’s going on here?” I think what’s going on here is that the changes I alluded to [in the piece] — gay people going to the alter, black people to the White House, women to the boardroom — represent profound transformations in a very short period of time, and they happened in the very years when globalization was destroying the working class, when the jobs were going abroad. I think what’s happened — at least how I try to explain the Trump mentality, which is not a monolith, not all racist, not all lily white, not all rich Republicans, quote, unquote — is that [people] are profoundly unsettled by those transformations and conflate them. They don’t associate the women’s movement with the fact that their daughters will actually be able to have a decent life on their own; they see it as all part of this miasma that went with globalization. I think that explains why there was so much misogyny in the comments that came back my way.
I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of that type of misogyny in the comments section.
It’s pathetic. I mean, a woman has a right to take it personally because it [goes] right to the heart of a woman’s identity, and I understand that. But on another level, with these people, it’s like the pathetic elements of a bully. I mean, every bully is a coward — that’s why I call Trump a “bone-spur president.” We’ve all known people like Trump, we’ve all known bullies, and we all know that bullies are, at the end of the day, the weakest of men.
Speaking of bullies, a lot of the civilizations that you wrote about in Magdalena were destroyed by other civilizations. America is in a different situation. Do you feel like there is a theme uniting the demise of civilizations that destroy themselves, as opposed to ones that are destroyed by other groups or cultures?
One thing that does seem to be consistent is that kingdoms, though they are born to die, never seem to anticipate their demise. That does seem to be a constant in history. What brings empires down also is somewhat consistent in history: expensive and unnecessary military adventures. Think of America, the fact that what was a demilitarized society before the Second World War has never really stood down. We have soldiers now in 170 countries.
And then there’s another element, which I think is really fundamental and does touch upon the Rolling Stone piece: When countries in general are on their way up, if you will, there’s an energy and a sense of collective duty. One of the things that I find really important in the American experience is what happened in 2016. It was 62 million people who voted for Trump, wasn’t it? Those people weren’t stupid, they weren’t a monolith, they weren’t hoodwinked. They were fully aware that this man lacked all traditional credentials for what is the toughest job in the world, and they knew that job really was an important job. Not only does he have the finger on the nuclear triggers, but he is the leader of the industrial world, at least for the moment, even as we face the ascendancy of China. What happened in 2016 is 62 million people, quite consciously and proudly, voted their indignation. They voted their grievances. They voted all about self — the country and the future of the world be damned.
Now, to my mind, when you think of what democracy is, that’s decadence. Only people who are complacent indulge such behavior. If your life is on the line and you know that the choice is between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler, you don’t vote your indignation because you don’t like the idea that [Roosevelt] lives in a wheelchair or smokes a cigarette in a long-stemmed cigarette holder or whatever. That is not the way a responsible member of a democracy acts.
I think one of the things that hit home for me in your article was this idea that America is turning its back on ourselves, our own immediate community.
I’ll tell you another story that did not get into Rolling Stone, that is in a way even more poignant. When my mother was 85, living alone in an apartment in Victoria [British Columbia], she got a headache at 11:00 in the morning, and by 2:00 she was being prepped for neurosurgery for an aneurism. Her life was saved by a brilliant immigrant, Indo-Canadian neurosurgeon.
In the adjacent bed in that particular ICU, there was a teenage farm girl from Manitoba, from a Mennonite family. She had by chance the same condition, and her life had been saved that same afternoon with the same procedure by the same neurosurgeon. We could have paid for that procedure. But that farm family from Manitoba could have faced, in another jurisdiction, the States, a choice between the wellbeing of their child and the financial wellbeing of the family.
Now the fanciest hotel in Victoria, which is a classic railroad hotel, had a policy then that any Canadian family member of someone in an intensive care unit at any hospital in the city got a free room for the night. So all of us, once the nurses kicked us out, poured into our rental vehicles and roared down to a legendary old bar called the Bengal Lounge. The Mennonites don’t drink, so I bought them tea and orange juice. My sister had a glass of wine and I had a beer, and then we toasted.
We didn’t toast our loved ones who had survived the day, and we didn’t even toast the doctor who had saved their lives, grateful as we all were. We toasted Canada, our country. Not with flag wrapped chauvinism or nationalistic chant, but with the quiet appreciation that we live in a place that defines wealth not by the currency accumulated by the lucky few, but by the strength of social relations and the bonds of reciprocity that somehow bind us all in common purpose.
How do I get a passport?
[Laughter] Again, it’s interesting: some of the criticism of the article in Rolling Stone came from Canadians. Canadians love to chop off the tallest poppy, so it was like, “Come on, Canada’s not that good. We’re fucked up too. We have racists. It’s all relative, buddy.” The point is that no one was saying Canada is a perfect place, but nevertheless, as I cited in the article, on July 30th, when America announced close to 60,000 cases of COVID, on that day in all of our hospitals in British Columbia, we had five cases.
The tragedy is America was a social democracy. The New Deal was about social democracy. There’s this horrible [argument] from the Republican right that social democracy will never work in America. Well, that may well be true, but if so, it’s a stunning indictment, isn’t it?
I’ll tell you a funny story: One of the interviews I did after the piece came out was with Steve Bannon on the day before he got arrested. In the piece, almost tongue-in-cheek, I said, “Not only has America lost its sense of community, it’s almost like they don’t believe in society.” Bannon was very sympathetic to the piece, he loved the piece. But his guy in the studio, who was much more polemical, literally said to me, “I don’t believe in society.” What an absurd idea. “I don’t believe in oxygen” — whether you like it or not, you are part of a society.
Considering that the decline of American civilization seems to be coming from the rejection of the social contract we have with each other, is there a way to come back from that? Is the end of the American era really a foregone conclusion?
One thing for certain is China’s ascending. China pours more cement every three years than America did in the 20th century. It’s very hard to argue that the torch of history hasn’t passed to China, whether you like it or not — and there are a lot of reasons not to like that. That’s why I say at the end [of the article] that it’s not a time to gloat or to castigate the American dream. If the torch passes to China, we’re going to be very nostalgic for the best of America, I promise you that. But again, you can look at the world as you’d like it to be or you can look at the world as it really is.
Most Americans get their news from Facebook, and the way the algorithms on Facebook coalesce the individual around like-minded individuals — together with the democratization of anonymous opinion — has meant the final disappearance of any notion of discretion and decorum. Now, if you go back to nomadic hunting and gathering societies, one thing you always see is a very strong prohibition on social discord. In Inuit society in the Arctic, there are no swear words. You would never say something vulgar to somebody. You express your disapproval with silence. Think about it: If we’re a small group of three nuclear extended families who share all our food, and if your husband doesn’t get along with me and is forced to leave the settlement, his children by definition have a two-thirds less chance of eating that night.
So in hunting societies, you have an amazing prohibition on criticism, and what that is really showing you is that discretion has a purpose. Manners have a purpose … So things that break down the bonds of community and culture are inherently threatening and dangerous.
We’ve been talking about the breakdown of the American community, about intense polarization. As someone who has lived with and forged relationships with so many different cultures in your life, what is your answer to the fear of the other?
It’s something that I find so bewildering that I’m not sure I’ve got an answer for it. The racial thing in the United States is so dominant, so heavy, so unresolved that it hovers like a shroud. It’s something I never feel in Africa, I never feel in the Caribbean, I never feel in Brazil, I never feel in Colombia, where 85 percent of Colombians declare that they have no particular ethnicity, even though Colombia is an ethnically diverse country with a very large Afro-Colombian population. There’s racial prejudice against African people all over the world, but in America, it’s very different. In the words that are carved into the Jefferson Memorial, Jefferson predicts the long reckoning that this original sin [of slavery] will imply.
Even as he participated in it.
Even as he participated in it. America’s always been full of extremes and contradictions.
You wrote at one point, “Fluidity of memory and a capacity to forget is perhaps the most haunting trait of our species.”
I used that expression because one of the most haunting abilities is our ability to adapt to new circumstances and take them to be the norm. In biology, they call it “shifting baseline syndrome,” which is a really boring term for our ability to adapt to any degree of environmental degradations. But we also adapt to any degree of moral degradation. That’s a trait of a social species that you can intuit as being very helpful, because if we were burdened by memory, our lives might be unbearable; but in a sense, it’s really disturbing. The end result of that is that human beings are prepared to live and survive and even thrive in conditions of moral and ecological decrepitude.
What would you think about the direction of America under a Biden presidency? Are there things that make you hopeful? Or things that could make you hopeful?
Oh, yeah. Yes. Look, aberrations happen in America. Let’s not forget how foul McCarthy was, the number of lives that were destroyed by that troll of a man from Wisconsin. McCarthy’s power was such that Eisenhower, who had led the crusade against the Nazis and was the most respected American since Lincoln, even he didn’t feel he had the political strength to move against McCarthy. So America’s been down this road before, in a way. The challenge is that the structural issues that I allude to in the Rolling Stone piece will remain: the discrepancy between those who have and those who have nothing, the racial divide, increasingly the educational divide.
There are a number of things that you can do. Something as simple as forgiving all student college debt — Christ, the amount of money that we bailed out these banks with, the amount of money that we’ve been tossing around in the wake of Covid, could easily allow us to cut a check and give the millennial generation a fresh start. How about bringing in national service, so that young kids from every socioeconomic and racial background mix it up together and serve something beyond the self? How about gun control? The fact that we define freedom as the right of an individual to have a personal arsenal of weaponry? Americans just don’t realize how crazy this looks to the outside. How about returning to the Fairness Doctrine, so you can’t just go on TV and say whatever you want to say? Regulate the internet. Legalize drugs for Christ’s sake, treat drugs as a public health problem, not a criminal problem. There’re so many things America could do that would send a signal that it’s a new dawn in America. But it’s going to take someone to do them.