Monday, August 27, 2007

Breaking the Bonds of Culture

It is the rare individual who can break the bonds of culture that bind us all in its iron grip. The culture that we live in or grew up in pervades our thoughts and ideas in ways that most are oblivious to. Culture dictates how we dress, our world view, what kind of food we eat and the way we think. For example we could consider the case of the Indian mounds found in the South Eastern area of the United States proper. In the nineteenth century anthropologists were studying these mysterious mounds and were at a great loss as to who could have built these artifacts. Never mind that Native Americans were living in that part of the country and had been long before the European invasion of their land it just could not have been the Indians because well, they were Indians weren’t they? These brown people were inferior barbarians who did not posses the marvelous technologies of Western civilization which was proof positive of the inherent inferiority of Native Americans to Western man. The question of the Indian mounds was obvious and though we might wonder in incredulity at the inability of these nineteenth century anthropologists to see the obvious it is not all that hard to understand why this was so. Despite that these anthropologists were members of the scientific community of the day and as such were supposed to view the world in an unbiased manner as befits science we need to understand that even the rigorous fact finding method of scientific study is not beyond the reach of culture a powerful all encompassing force. It was an assumption of the time that Indians were inferior in intellect to that of the superior European white races and the scientists themselves were in no way immune to the culture they lived in. Amazingly they even went to the trouble to take an Indian skull and a Caucasian skull filling them both with sand then measured the amount of sand each skull could hold in order to prove that Indians had smaller brains and therefore were incapable of building the mounds. Of course this is laughable today but to laugh at these nineteenth century people is to laugh at you yourself because no one is immune to the influence of their own culture. And if you believe that you are immune to your culture the joke is on you.

Returning to the present, keeping in mind the lessons of our nineteenth century scientists, what does my pretty (or not so pretty) little tale have to do with current events? The answer is simply everything. If we take a look at our political leader class we can see the same insidious influence of the assumption of Western superiority over that of Eastern cultures. For example we can see this assumption of American exceptionalism in this excerpt from a Hillary Clinton speech.

“Whether I was meeting in Kabul with President Karzai about the threat of the Taliban and Al Qaida or Israeli leaders about the threat of Iran or meeting with defense officials in Europe about shared security interests or pressing officials in China about human rights, I have confronted the complexities of the world as it is, not as I hoped it would be, because you have to start with what the world is today and with hope and determination and understanding, move it toward what we hope it can be.”

The arrogance of this statement is almost unbearable to the point of being painful. Start with the world as it is and change it to what we think it should be. Hillary is not even aware of the monumental conceit and almost brainless non-thinking assumption that America has the right to mold the world to our own special ideals as we see fit. My point here is not to pick on Hillary for she is not alone in her assumptions. If we look at this Bush speech we can see exactly the same kind of assumptions we saw in Hillary’s speech.

‘We did not ask for this present challenge, but we accept it. Like other generations of Americans, we will meet the responsibility of defending human liberty against violence and aggression. By our resolve, we will give strength to others. By our courage, we will give hope to others. And by our actions, we will secure the peace and lead the world to a better day.”

Yes, certainly, we shall secure the peace but most importantly America’s destiny is to lead the world to a better day and it is easy to see that in this matter Hillary and Bush are peas in a pod. One begins to wonder how the world managed to survive before the coming of America, must have been tough eh? Charles De Gaulle once said that the graveyard is full of indispensable people and the same could be said for indispensable nations.

I have no doubts that our politicos believe this rhetoric without question. Still, the forces at work which have resulted in the occupation of Iraq are more complex than the firm belief that America needs to show the world how to live. Time and time again I read how our campaign in Iraq is a failure which in fact it is yet in another sense it is quite a success story. Billions of dollars in profits have gone to Bush’s corporate supporters such as weapons manufacturers and others and of course the all important oil that Iraq floats atop which becomes more and more important as oil supplies dwindle has provided the main reason for the invasion and we should not forget that fact. If it were not for the oil we would not be in the Middle – East at all despite the noble speeches of our leaders but I digress.

As sickening as this unreasonable belief in American superiority is it is all too real and is embraced by many Americans other than our leaders. And no wonder, for we are subject to this way of thinking from the time we are little to all through our adult years. How many times have you heard a politician say we are the greatest nation on the Earth? Thousands of times is the likely answer, so many times that after a while we hear it but do not think about it or its consequences on the lives of countless human beings around the world not to mention our own lives.

Despite the claims of progress in Iraq from Republicans and Democrats alike one thing has become clear and that is that there are limits to American military might. In fact the vaunted power of America as well as its influence upon the world is waning. We cannot control the people of Iraq, we cannot bend them to our will through the use of force yet we are spending trillions of dollars with the blind hope of doing just that. Juan Cole has written an exceptionally fine piece on the limits of imperial power over at TomDispatch as it relates to our own little jaunt into the world of neo-colonialism and I recommend you read the whole thing. Here is a little

“Between 1801 and 2003 stretched endless decades in which colonialism proved a plausible strategy for European powers in the Middle East, including the French enterprise in Algeria (1830-1962) and the British veiled protectorate over Egypt (1882-1922). In these years, European militaries and their weaponry were so advanced, and the means of resistance to which Arab peasants had access so limited, that colonial governments could be imposed.

That imperial moment passed with celerity after World War II, in part because the masses of the Third World joined political parties, learned to read, and -- with how-to-do-it examples all around them -- began to mount political resistance to foreign occupations of every sort. While the twenty-first century American arsenal has many fancy, exceedingly destructive toys in it, nothing has changed with regard to the ability of colonized peoples to network socially and, sooner or later, push any foreign occupying force out.”

Bush’s invasion while a failure it is a failure that will be a long, long time failing and we will be in the Middle-East for years. Some are predicting Bush will start a war with Iran sometime in the next two months followed by an attack on Syria by Israel. And even if a democrat is in the Whitehouse after Bush leaves all the major democrat candidates have said that nothing is off the table when it comes to Iran so I am not looking for any changes in American imperialism any time soon. Oh gosh, I forgot, democrats don’t get us embroiled in wars not FDR, not Kennedy nor LBJ or Bill Clinton and the tooth fairy is real.

Breaking the bonds of culture is well nigh impossible yet not completely. However if the present administration and congressional leadership is any example my hopes are not high and America is now traveling down the same road past empires have trod leading to the same destiny of has-beens that litter the pages of world history.