Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Afghan Campaign

There's an incident depicted in Steven Pressfield's "The Afghan Campaign," in which Macedonian soldiers threaten a Mesopotamian shopkeeper that they will cut off his son's foot unless he returns a stolen purse. The shopkeeper feigns innocence until, as the blade descends upon the boy's foot, the boy's young sister screams and points to the money's hiding spot. As the soldiers leave, the senior one points out to the junior ones that the shopkeeper and his wife were going to let them cut off the boy's foot. He then adds that even now, they were very likely thrashing the young girl to within an inch of her life for giving up the purse, even though she saved her brother's foot (and probably his life) in the process.

This incident reminded me that nothing much has changed in the region in 2000 years and that cultural barriers to understanding are often immense. When I was working at the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain, one of the Marines who provide security to the post fell ill. He was down hard and on bed rest at the Marine House for several days. One of the secretaries, a local Arab girl, was friendly with the Marines and asked her friend to drive her by the Marine House so she could drop off some hot soup for the sick Marine. When they arrived, noone was there except the bedridden Marine and the gate guard, so the guard told her to leave the dish inside on the foyer table. She did so and left.

She didn't show up to work for two weeks. When she did she still bore the bruises from the severe beating her brother administered upon hearing that she had entered a house alone with other men, and infidels on top of that. Even though she was in the house for the briefest of seconds, the family honor had been jeopardized. So she was beaten. This was not the only such incident I had heard about while in that region of the world, but this was the closest to me. I had chatted with the young lady. She was bright and smiling most of the time before her assault. Very reserved and withdrawn afterwards.

Such events cause me to wonder, along with Christopher Hitchens, why Western liberals seem to give a pass to this barbarism under the name of multiculturalism. I rarely hear it addressed by feminists, Ayaan Hirsi Ali being at least one exception. Why is this?

I don't pretend to have a grand framework of cultural understanding by which to pass judgement, but I feel strongly that free people, right, left, or center, must stand against this kind of thing, of whatever culture.


Vincent said...

I don't pretend to have a grand framework either, but must express dissent with your conclusion. Every nation has its own barbarism. It is easier to see the other nation's barbarism than one's own.

A blogger I know, very idealistic and spiritual in his way, a retired old curmudgeon and critic of everything (ha! like me in that, perhaps), declared that we must eventually tear down barriers and have one world government so that there may be peace.

So far so good. On another topic, another day, I tackled him about the right to bear arms in the US. He got so furious I was glad we weren't face to face, for I'd have felt endangered.

I would have liked to point out to him that the advent of his desired world government would either have given everyone in the world the right to bear arms ("for their own safety" as he saw it) or required that US citizens abandon their own constitutional right, something he would never contemplate.

From this incident I understand that it is not for me, an Englishman, to stand against the customs (gun possession, gun crime) of another country, before I have managed to put myself in their shoes. Suppose England were strong and American weak, and we had no pact of friendship. Should England justify invading the US for its being a country which allows its poor citizens to limp or die as best they can without medical assistance?

In short, "free people" will have the most beneficent influence on "unfree people", if you wish to call them that, by not interfering with the latter, but looking to their own local shortcomings, and setting examples of behaviour that inspire others to follow.

Apart from the violence described in your two anecdotes, I find it easy to imagine myself as an Afghan in those situations, attempting to deal with the sense of violation caused by the presence on his soil of foreign invaders, greedy for his money and his women.

I can see that this may be one of the hardest things for an American to understand, even though he may have some Native American ancestors, who suffered similar fates at the hand of the white men. For he will have been taught only the winners' history.

PatricktheRogue said...

Points taken, and I appreciate the feedback. There are areas where we agree, others I think I should clarify, and others where I must disagree.

First, I did not mean to imply support for invading those countries mentioned, I wrote to reveal a snapshot into their cultures. But I have lived in the Arab world, and traveled through every country in that region enough to know that examples of such family violence are present not only when "imperial" influences are involved. Such practices are routine, such as the tens of thousands of young girls mutilated during female circumcision which has nothing to do with any imperial presence (see the biography of Ayaan Hirsi Ali for further info there.)

By "standing against" such things, I mean that we should speak out against them and not equivocate that such behaviors are ok because "their culture is different," or "they suffered under imperialism," because, though those things may be true, it does not justify abusing, beating, or mutilating women simply to soothe bruised male egos.

In fact, I believe "free peoples," whom I define as those with the right to speak out, should of course look to their own local shortcomings, such as, for example, fixing the wretched criminal justice/prison system in the U.S., but that should not preclude us from holding up a standard for the developing world where women (and weak and poor men) are routinely oppressed, undervalued, and enslaved.

Furthermore, I have heard this "winner's history" charge expressed quite a bit, but unlike many countries, I must contend that America actually does teach about its own shortcomings and failures. I learned the following things in Elementary (Primary to you) and Middle School: America practiced slavery for several centuries, and continued to oppress freed slaves and their descendants under Jim Crow, the arrival of Spain in the New World resulted in the deaths of most of the indigenous people by disease and slaughter, the U.S. government practiced genocide and ethnic cleansing against all the American Indian tribes, or First Nations, as Canada cals them, in the name of Manifest Destiny, and I could go on. And I learned this all in the 1970's. I am sure the histories are more comprehensive now. What we learned as schoolchildren in essence, was that America was not a perfect place, but that we constantly strived to improve. We oppressed minorities, but also saw the success of the civil rights movement. We saw hundreds of thousands starve in the Great Depression, but passed the New Deal and created a social safety net. It is not ideal but is better than before. And now President Obama intends to widen and strengthen it. In other words, America is not a perfect place, but it is a place where there can be progress. And the same is true in many liberal democracies around the world.

In fact, I very much agree that the power of America and of other admired democracies is their virtue as an example of how live in tolerance and relative liberty. It seems trite to us, but to the young girl and boy who want a way out of a dead end life in the West Bank or Syria, America and the West still stand as beacons of possibility. And this great virtue is often undermined by imperial actions that sully our reputation in their eyes. Electing President Obama, for many of us, was an effort to restore that confidence.

And I would ask you to continue imagining yourself in the shoes of the Arab male, but also in those of his daughter and sister. In fact, I have no problem with you weighing in on issues in America such as gun control. These issues have to do with human rights, not just American or British rights. so weigh in, by all means. The debate in america can only be strengthened by having a different perspective offered.

Vincent said...

I'm very happy with your response, Patrick, and though as you say we may disagree on some aspects, these are different viewpoints, no more. I'm happy that it is possible to say these things in front of the whole world, if the world should choose to eavesdrop and make it a public conversation.

Anonymous said...

Rescuing the 'unfree'

I am a newcomer to your blog, Patrick. Vincent pointed me here, and specifically to this very interesting post.

'Feminism' is a relatively new cultural construct, and its reach is limited.

If I see that a woman in my own cultural milieu is being treated in a way that I construe as being negatively discriminatory due to her gender, I can speak out about this and be reasonably certain of getting at least some and possibly quite a lot of support, from both men and women, as it is now fairly widely accepted (genuinely in many cases, lip service in many others) that gender is not an acceptable ground for discrimination. It's nonetheless perfectly clear to me that, although progress has been made, we are a long way from parity between men and women in the western liberal society I live in.

If I see that a woman from a different cultural milieu is being similarly treated, I may view this as 'wrong' (and indeed I do view many practices of other cultures towards women as very decidedly 'wrong'), I can again be reasonably sure of support for protesting about it within my own milieu - but not at all in the milieu where the treatment is being meted out, not even by women there, or even the specific woman being subjected to the treatment of which I disapprove.

I guess we are all pretty convinced that our own way of looking at 'right' and 'wrong' is 'obviously' the correct one, which all right thinking (or 'free' in your terms) people would concur with, but the real world keeps jarring against this notion. We don't have a universally agreed standard of 'rightness' - only a mixed bag of culturally conditioned notions of how to live. Telling other people how to live (i.e. telling them to live like me) is not going to go down well.

So I think I am rather with Vincent on the notion that we can only 'model' what we feel to be right, and look hard at what we ourselves are getting wrong. We can contribute to discussion and the spreading of information, but it seems to me that the real changes only come when people's own consciousness is stirred to question themselves and they begin to change things from within their own culture. I can't think of any examples of moral cultural changes which were adopted 'because somebody wiser told us to do it' or 'because we want to be like those people over there'.

Anyway, I can't help but be struck by the coincidental appearance at this time of the following fascinating items on related matters!

All will be done again as it was in far-off times


Black Like Me

PatricktheRogue said...

First, thanks for the comment.
Second, I checked out your blog and love the idea - what an inspired subject matter. BTW, have you heard "The song Of Scheherazade" by the band Renaissance? I think you would find it appropriate.
Finally, I must say again that modeling what we perceive to be the "best" or the "good" (sort of like Plato's "good") of our own culture is a very powerful method by which to influence the world. But regarding the comment: "I can't think of any examples of moral cultural changes which were adopted 'because somebody wiser told us to do it' or 'because we want to be like those people over there'." - I submit, unless I am misinterpreting the comment, that the U.S. Civil Rights movement for African-Americans was propelled exactly by the desire to 'be like those people,' in other words to enjoy all the rights and privileges that white Americans enjoyed (right to vote, to own property, to work, etc.). Black Americans were very aware that other 'Americans' were living with more privileges and more wealth than they were and they wanted the same. Come to think of it, the similar movements in India and South Africa were propelled forward for the same reasons. They wanted something that other groups close to them enjoyed and they didn't (independence in the case of India, and civil freedoms in the case of black South Africans. Of course, it wasn't because "someone wiser told them to do it" but those movements did arise out of a comparison between what the demonstrators had and whatthey wanted.
This is actually quite an interesting exercise in perspectives. I must admit that I think Vincent and yourself are carrying the concepts of multi-culturalism and moral relativism too far. I would bet that most human beings could agree on a baseline of rights and standards of living if exposed to the concepts.
I recall a fellow I was working with in Fallujah, Iraq - helping him to start the first newspaper in that town, ever. This was about six months after the major battle there in 2004. His name was Najm. One day he came in very excited. I had given him a copy of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and as he read through it, he was overwhelmed with amazement and joy. He continually asked if there were nations where people lived by these rules and concepts. I had to admit that there were probably none that lived up to them completely but many tried to, with some measure of success. He would say, "this is what we need here, these rights. This is wondeful." He didn't need someone to tell him the difference, he looked at where he was living and how his people were living, and reading about a different way to live. The contrast was immediately apparent to him. While I think we should respect different cultures, I also think there is a basis for human conduct. Not quite a universal sense of right and wrong, but a universal sense of fairness and behavior. I will have to blog more on this and post oome of the items that shaped my thinking on this.

PatricktheRogue said...

I just clicked your links. I remember reading Black Like Me in high school. It was startling, and brilliant.