Thursday, October 1, 2009

Love America

More on the theme of my last post. So is Pakistan changing too quickly? Is progress playing at conqueror rather than agent of change? Is there a difference? Maybe progress needs to be imposed, maybe it has to be stuffed down people's throats like broccoli and carrots. It's good for them, though they may not realize it just yet, those poor ignorant barbarians. But once they're enlightened, they'll understand.

Something tells me that's simply not true, call it intuition.

What if on the other hand, we let history play out on its own terms, at its own pace. We leave Afghanistan and Pakistan to their own momentum. They will develop will they not? It will take more time but they will progress in their own way. Isn't that the nature of civilization: to go from simple to complex, tribalism to monarchism to dictatorship to democracy? Isn't the revolution inevitable?

Somehow I doubt it, call it pessimism.

There's been a lot of hullabaloo lately in the Pakistani press over the expansion of the U.S. embassy in Islamabad. In 2009, the Americans are projected to increase their spending by 500% over 2008 on embassy enhancement activities. Pakistanis, demonstrating their brilliance for conspiracy theories, see in this an insidious takeover plan: "The U.S. is sending 5000 marines to Pakistan!" the more inspired among us warn. "It's an invasion!"

Well, not quite.

Invasion it may be, but not of the militaristic kind. The bulk of the money, according to the State Department, will be spent on promoting America, fixing its image and spreading its culture in Pakistan. The plan is to "expand English language programs, enhance communications and journalism training, support book translation, increase television and radio programming targeted to youth, and augment support of moderate local programs and organizations." The effort is not dissimilar to other efforts in other troublesome countries in the region, like Iran, where shaping the public's opinion is preferable to pugilism.

I have no qualms with admitting that I love America. I love its literature and its arts. I love its ability to re-invent itself, which is simultaneously the source of its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. I love the way it lets people speak their minds, or at least did so at one time and I'm confident under the Obama administration will do so again. I'm also in love with an American (it's a fatal kind of love but genuine); my brother is married to an American (she's a sweetheart). What I don't love is the prevailing belief in America that it has somehow struck on the Rosetta Stone of cultural perfection. Somehow, over its illustrious history, Americans have become enamoured with their own success, or the success of their forefathers, forgetting the reasons that made success possible in the first place. I'm of course talking about that ability to re-invent, not society as a whole necessarily - a daunting task - but rather the individual, the unique building-block of a society. The freedom to express oneself without the threat of official, or unofficial, censure lies at the very heart of American, and more broadly, Western advancement. It has produced some of the greatest writers, painters, composers, scientists and leaders the world has ever known (as well as some of its leading wackos, but that's the price one must pay).

Rather than draw on that history, America, and western countries broadly, are trending toward cultural reductionism. The trope reigns supreme, at the expense of plurality. I wrote something about it a while back:

"In this rapidly shrinking world, cultures are constantly being confronted with the reality of the Other. In fits and starts people are beginning to recognize the value of other cultures as a source of enrichment. And not only other cultures, but also the value of our own other selves. To take that thought a step further, singular identities don’t exist, a theme Herman Hesse explored so beautifully in Demian. They are a false construct, like God, the product of fear, a fear of the unknown, a fear of the Other. Singular identities, like God, become an object of worship, a source of dogma, and inevitably a source of conflict. Applied to current events, the wars we see around the world today are not a Clash of Civilizations but rather a Clash of Identities. As the world shrinks, as histories, and the languages that transmit those histories, mix and new identities challenge the old, established ones, societies in general and the people who specifically make up those societies will naturally struggle against what they perceive as a loss of identity.

So the challenge in the world today is to find a way to overcome the dogma of singularity, to create a space where multiple identities are accepted as the natural state of being. It will be a long and difficult road: to challenge the religion of the singular self is to oppose the power structures that derive legitimacy from that religion, those - like the Taliban, like the neo-cons - who reinforce the illusion of dominant cultures and superior modes of thought. Language is, at one and the same time, the lock and the key."

I'm sure the U.S. administration understands this: language is the key to understanding a culture, hence the emphasis on the english language in Pakistan. The unfortunate reality is that the linguistic exchange is unidirectional - very few people in the west are clamouring to learn Urdu. But alas, there can be only one global language (foreseeing the dilemma to come, some people have even tried to create one - Esperanto, for example, codified in the late 19th century to promote world harmony). In the Language race, English is running furlongs ahead.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not proposing another conspiracy theory here - some linguistic plot cooked up by a secretive cabal of Harvard Comp. Lit. graduates. I just think it's an inevitable consequence of globalization. The downside is that Pakistan - because of its own cultural diversity - isn't uniformly marching in lockstep into the 21st-century. Large swathes of it are being left behind, or choosing to stay behind. The conflict in the northwest is, at least in part, related to this:

"There is one thing I’ve noticed over the seven year’s I’ve been coming to Peshawar: the explosion of English language media. It’s everywhere now, on television and in DVD shops, over satellite feeds and in internet cafes. Back in 2002, when I first came, there was only a smattering of it, the odd satellite-equipped television at a better-than-average restaurant, beaming in Hollywood and MTV. But as the cost of technology has gone down, the ubiquitousness of it has gone up exponentially. Every home now has a DVD player, satellite dishes top high-walled mud compounds in the Tribal Areas like gifts from outer space, and cable television is all the rage."

The Taliban reject the culture accompanying the influx of the english language into their areas, the deeply conservative Pashtun regions along the Pak-Afghan border. They have no patience for intellectually-developed concepts like women's rights (they equate it with what they see on imported DVDs and CDs, or on MTV and Bollywood). So when the West obsessively (to them) demands girls be educated, they perceive ulterior motives.

I'm not sure if aggressively pursuing more "cultural understanding" will be in the best interest of the U.S., not if it remains so unidirectional. I admit, there is a need to dispel some of the more serious misconceptions about the west that Pakistanis hold. But equally, the reverse is true. Rather than approach a culturally proud people like the Pashtuns by towering over them in the charade of pseudo-superiority, wouldn't it be more prudent to approach them in an atmosphere of mutual understanding (with the emphasis on 'mutual')?

Or does loving America mean not asking these kinds of questions?


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