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Sunday, October 03, 2004

Questioning the ‘National Geographic' Worldview

I have a lot of opinions and theories about why people think and act the way they do… but mostly I keep them to myself. It’s not that I worry that I might be wrong, but rather that in most cases being right isn’t all that important. After all, we’re talking about private opinions here… the sort of half-formed petty prejudices of which we all seem to have a surplus.

But sometimes I start to really examine one of these opinions, and because these examinations touch upon a previously ‘untouchable’ subject… some ‘sacred cow’… they demand some kind of outside validation (or repudiation). The problem is that it is very dangerous these days to take a casual stroll up to anyone’s sacred cow. The border of PoliticalCorrectLand, is a dangerous frontier, and the guards in the watchtowers have orders to ‘shoot to kill’ (or at least to silence).

What I’m about to discuss here is just that; an incomplete opinion on a sensitive subject… one that I am not yet sure I completely embrace.

I’m using my journal to ‘think out loud’ here for a few reasons. First, although my community and immediate circle of friends are fairly diverse, I don’t think that I would be able to find a wide enough range of opinions to honestly examine the issue from all sides.

Next, when one discusses things out loud… face-to-face, there is unspoken pressure to respond immediately, from instinct or conditioning… and that is exactly the kind of feedback I want to avoid. I want you to think about this for hours… or even days… and then respond.

And lastly, I trust the majority of people who come here to tell me honestly what they think, without vitriol… without staking out ‘turf’, and without intellectual dishonesty.

[Whew! How was that for a preamble?!]

This ‘opinion’ of mine stems from my attempts to understand how the rest of the world can consistently and almost willfully ‘not get’ the basic facts surrounding the Arab-Muslim/Israeli conflict. In today’s media-rich environment, the question of ‘How can something that is so clear to me in terms of cause and effect… right and wrong… be completely lost on intelligent people everywhere?’ demands an explanation other than ‘lack of information’.

When we read the word ‘worldview’, or use it in a conversation, I don’t think we give enough thought to what it actually means. To my way of thinking, one’s worldview is how one sees him/herself relative to the rest of the world. To help facilitate this, we have a broad spectrum of handy terms to describe the world’s many societies:

Westernized
Industrialized
First World
Developing
Third World (Are there actually any ‘Second World’ nations???)
Undeveloped
Primitive

I think it is safe to say that people sitting at, or near, the top of this list coined all of these terms. We rationalize that the judgmental relativism inherent in such a list is acceptable because we are engaging in something akin to scientific classification. In our scientific approach, an amphibian is no more responsible for its place on the food chain than a developing sub-Saharan society is for its being relegated to ‘Third World’ classification. The only difference is that the various human societies of the world can move up the food chain, so to speak, and are encouraged to do so.

But are they really?

I grew up reading National Geographic. Like many people my age, I never questioned the raison d’etre, or the goals of the National Geographic Society… I just enjoyed the magazine, and spent many a pleasant afternoon traveling to distant lands and experiencing the exotic cultures that existed between the familiar yellow-trimmed covers. Much of what I know about Asia, Africa and South America, and the people who inhabited these distant lands, comes from this venerable source.

But now that I look back, I have to wonder what the underlying messages were that I received from this magazine. In the post-colonial era, where Europeans and Americans began to recognize the inherent moral dangers in exploration and exploitation of the less developed world, The National Geographic magazine was (and continues to be) a loud voice of reason that states over and over:

“There is value in these less developed societies. There is honor and nobility on these untouched portions of the world. These strange and beautiful cultures that are so different from ours are part of a fragile world ‘ecosystem’, and we tamper with them at our peril!”

After the headlong rush of 17th/18th/19th century exploration and colonization (read: land-grabbing), this kind of responsible reaction was not only refreshing, but one could argue it was essential in order for the industrialized (read: civilized) societies of the world to assuage their collective guilt over the irreparable damage they had already done.

Here is where my opinion comes in.

I can’t help thinking that somewhere along the way, the industrialized west began to see itself as having all the valuable technology, but nothing of cultural value. Our steady diet of National Geographic-type images of exotic costumes, ‘primitive’ living conditions, inscrutable religions and philosophies, and dramatically different physical appearance, have somehow managed to brainwash us into believing that wherever a western-style industrialized nation comes into conflict with a more traditional society (especially one with exotic costumes, relatively primitive living conditions, and an unfathomable language/religion/culture), the western-style industrialized nation must be in the wrong.

Every lesson we learned from 17th/18th/19th century colonialism screams to us that if the western world bumps up against an older, ‘more traditional’ society, it is their culture that must be respected, and ours that must refrain from giving further offense.

What other explanation can one find for the European and American inability (or unwillingness) to see the basic facts on the ground here in the Middle East? If the Arab/Muslim world has come to realize that they are the proverbial 'guy in glasses' who can take a swing at anyone with impunity (because it would be against the rules to hit a guy with glasses), that puts Israel (oh, and the rest of the western world) in an impossible position!

Viewed through this lens, the punch line about “Never getting involved in a land war in Asia” becomes a very serious cautionary message about the impossible moral position of taking on a culture that wears exotic costumes, lives in ‘primitive’ villages and whose culture is beyond our western ability to comprehend. Anyone who seeks to wage war against ‘noble savages’ is wrong. Full Stop!

What I want to know from you, dear readers, is if you think there might be some merit to the direction my mind has taken me? Is the sacrosanct nature of Arab/Muslim society such that any western/industrialized nation that comes into conflict with them must be immediately be made to wear the black cowboy hat? And if so, is there no boundary or moral code that such ‘noble savages’ can transgress that will allow the ‘collective cultural guilt’ of the First World to be temporarily set aside?

What say you?

Posted by David Bogner on October 3, 2004 | Permalink

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Tracked on Oct 4, 2004 11:14:49 PM

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Dear David, I respond quickly because... I've been waiting for your post. I've been thinking about this problem very often.

You know I'm a native German and Germans are obsessive-compulsive about respecting other cultures. Germans have such low regard for their own culture (obviously I'm speaking here about the guilt ridden, intellectually inclined Germany I know) that they immediately respect and admire and idealize anything that looks and smells like pride, self confidence and unquestionable beliefs.

(Obviously, as soon as these values are NOT embodied by an US citizen! Then they immediately become unbearable self aggrandization based on ignorance... but anti-Americanism is another chapter.)

(BTW: first world is Europe, second world America, third world all the rest. this is the historical use of the terms far as I know)

So when a German meets an Islamist he will say, wow look at these guys, they really believe in something etc. Germans will find it hard even to criticize "circumcision" of girls (anti-Semitic term if you ask me).

The terrorists of 9/11 who studied in Hamburg were admired by other students. Maybe a non-academic "enlightened" neighbourhood would have reacted differently. But the German "Gutmensch" will admire anything as long as it's anti-West.

So what you say is something I have often thought about myself. I don't want to be a Colonialist. I'm the grand-granddaughter of a missionary who went to Indonesia to baptize people. I wish he had not done it. I can't expect the whole world to share my point of view. I can't make everybody like myself and judge them for being different. But if I respect others, I demand they respect me. It's so simple and trivial. I won't baptize them, but I won't have them de-baptize me.

This still doesn't solve the problem what to do with our neighbors who kill sisters and wives for "honor of the family". As teacher of Arab students, I cannot interfere or meddle without endangering them. I live through this dilemma.

BTW, I identified very much with your admiration for the Druze civilization, culture and value system. However, there is also much neither your nor I would support in Druze society. Still, as long as the Druze and we stand on the same solid floor of mutual respect and acceptance, I can say: let's clean our house and let the Druze clean their house.

I can't do that with people who don't only criticize my dirty floor but want to blow me up, floor and walls and roof. I have to draw a line, and this line has to be a very firm one.

And it will always baffle us why the world sees us as the BAD and the others as GOOD. if the rule of "admire what you don't understand" applies, it should apply to us, too, shouldn't it? But it doesn't. Why? Kacha. Lech ted'a.

[Why can't I say things in a short and concise manner? Don't know... ]

Posted by: Lila | Oct 3, 2004 11:30:55 AM

The terms "First World", "Second World" (yes, there was one) and "Third World" are products of the Cold War, and none of them mean what most people think they mean - i.e., First World=rich/white, Third World=poor/brown. In fact, the original use of the terminology was not economic, but ideological; and in rhetorical terms, there was a third world before there was a first or second.

The Third World as an idea was launched at the Bandung Conference in April, 1955. It was a meeting of leaders of 29 African and Asian states; the big players were Sukarno of Indonesia, Nasser of Egypt, Nehru of India, Nkrumah of Ghana, Chou En-lai of China and Ho Chi Minh of North Vietnam. The ideological motivation was to assert autonomy both from the US and its Western European/Canadian/Pacific allies (the "First World", in their terminology) one the one hand, and from the Soviet Union and its Central/Eastern European satellites (the "Second World") on the other.

The followup was the launch of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961.

For many years, members of the group engaged in a variety of confrontations with the US and the USSR; but time proved that the presumptive community had as many conflicts with each other as with oppressive foreigners - see the India/China war of the early 1960s. Much of the posturing by members of the movement amounted to little more to alternately shaking down the Americans and the Soviets for handouts.

Over time, several Latin American countries (and many of the African countries which got independence after the launch of the organization) joined the NAM, in spite of the fact that many of those countries had formal or de facto alliances with one or the other of the "imperialist" factions. And of course, many of the members of the organization have gone on to demonstrate imperialist policies of their own. But the diversity of opinion within the movement and the demise of Marxism as an ideology that excites anybody (including the Chinese and Cubans who still claim to practice it) has led to a much heavier emphasis on economic issues.

I just think people ought to remember where the term came from.

http://www.bartleby.com/65/ba/BandungC.html

Posted by: Peter Adler | Oct 3, 2004 12:16:01 PM

The preamble
"Whew! How was that for a preamble?!"
That was really something. I was just thinking, wow, this man can really write a preamble! :)

The Noble Savage
My immediate reaction (I know, I know, but I'll forget to say anything if I don't say it now - just take it as read that I am also just 'thinking out loud') is that I wouldn't have thought the Arab nations surrounding Israel would have fallen into the "exotic other" category sufficiently to fit into your National Geographic "noble savage" basket. I could be wrong - this is from my ignorant antipodean view, but to me they are no more noble savages than, say, most Europoean nations - it's all exotic other from down here!

And lastly

‘How can something that is so clear to me in terms of cause and effect… right and wrong… be completely lost on intelligent people everywhere?’ demands an explanation other than ‘lack of information’.
You do know the really obvious answer to this, don't you David? I'm just sayin'...

Posted by: Kay McCulloch | Oct 3, 2004 12:24:27 PM

David,

I admire your desire to delve deeply into this issue, and there is some validity to your analogy. However, sometimes I think that you run the risk of bypassing the answer when you try to "over-analyze" the situation.

IMHO, the issue is that the Middle-East conflict involves Israel, the Jewish State. There is an underlying, anti-Semitism at play in the formation of views regarding the conflict, which I believe, in many cases, is so buried beneath the surface, that adherents of the anti-Israel view may not even realize it is there. But in many cases, I think it IS, indeed, there. Not in ALL cases, but in many.

What do I mean? I think there is an almost ingrained sentiment that the Jews wield an unbelievable amount of power in all spheres of life and global conduct, and, even if they are ostensibly, the victims of terror, they bring it on themselves. When Jew meets "native", native must, by definition, be right, since the Jew must, by definition, be wrong.

Am I being paranoid about the situation? Perhaps. But look at the double standards applied to Israel. Also, since I believe in G-d, and the central Jewish belief that Jews are chosen to spread morality throughout the world, and will be much maligned and the "scourge" of nations, this theory fits in with my worldview.

So, in short: More The International Jew, and less National Geographic.

Posted by: Dave | Oct 3, 2004 12:42:18 PM

David,
One glaring manifestation of arrogance is the willingness to profess admiration only for those to whom one can safely condescend. The phenomenon you describe is not respect for other cultures; it's patronization.

Posted by: Ben Chorin | Oct 3, 2004 12:49:09 PM

Lila... I prefer that someone be long-winded and say everything they have to say - especially if it is worth hearing (as your insights usually are). I like the fact that you use Germans as the prototypical Westerners. I don't necessarily agree with that, but of all the Europeans, the German mind has always provided the deepest mystery for me. Thank you for opening a small window into that mind/mindset.

As far as Israel/the Jews being known or unknown... I would have to go with 'the known'. That doesn't mean the world knows the first thing about us, but they think they do, so we are no longer exotic. In fact, quite the opposite; they hold us in such contempt because of the familiarity they feel for the stereotypical image of the Jew.

Peter... Thank you for clarifying the terminology. Obviously I was working based on my contextual understanding of the terms, and Lila, although with a better grasp of the specifics, had mixed up the order somewhat. Comments like yours are one of the main reasons I love keeping this journal. I have - literally at my fingertips - a world of knowledgeable people willing to share their views, opinions, and hard-earned knowledge. The one thing I would love to hear from you though, is if you think my 'National Geographic Worldview' is a real global phenomenon, or just a flawed generalization on my part.

Kay... the reason I placed the Arabs/Muslims in that 'Exotic other' or 'noble savage' category is that almost without exception, the Arab/Muslim world has turned its back on decades of slow 'progress' towards modernization and have begun to re-embrace a costumed fundamentalism that the rest of the world finds, at turns, charming and frightening. I make no assumptions about whether they are aware of the way non-Arabs/Muslims perceive them.

Oh, and I almost forgot - Yes, you do have to spell it out for me (and everyone else) since the obvious is almost always lost on my.

:-) In all seriousness Kay, what is your position?

Dave... You seem to have zeroed in on Anti-Semitism. That doesn't explain the visceral reaction of the world to the U.S.'s incursion into the Arab/Muslim world (and no, this is not an invitation to discuss the relative merits of that incursion). Calling the U.S. a Zionist dupe doesn't explain it either. You might be right about the way Israel is viewed vis-a-vis the Anti-Semitism catch-all, but that was not the question I was asking.

Ben... Help me out here... does that mean you agree that such a world view exists, but that it is patronizing? Or do you feel that the very idea of a 'National Geographic worldview' is patronizing to problems of culture that are too complex or subtle to be defined with a catch-phrase.

I really want to understand!!!

Posted by: David | Oct 3, 2004 2:11:30 PM

David,
The US's incursion into the Arab/Muslim world IS largely explained as as act supported by "neoncons" (read: Zionists) to assist with Israel's security. Even though Israel is not directly involved, the "critics" nevertheless bring up Israel and the Jewish influence. You won't find THAT in National Geographic either!

Posted by: Dave | Oct 3, 2004 2:32:19 PM

I've often referred to the Arabs as the present day noble savages. Whether the world admits it or not, and many do admit, the Arabs are very much Noble Savages in the consciousness of the "World View" The view is condescending and patronizing, and is strongest among the left.

The left who assume their absolute superiority to the Quaint, Noble Arabs, see the Arabs as incapable of making good moral choices. That world view sees the Arab culture as one to preserve for their own amusement. That view holds that any attempt to help the Arabs modernize and join the modern world is an unneccessaary evil, an imperialist evil.

In its essence it boils down to a denial of man's duty to improve and repair the world.

... anyway just a few quick thoughts, the topic is well-suited for a dissertation.

Posted by: oceanguy | Oct 3, 2004 3:41:42 PM

To me, I think that the obsession with Israel has a lot to do with not wanting to face their own pasts (and presents in some cases). While there is a certain romanticization of the exotic, you don't see Europeans plunging themselves in the battle for respect and support of anyone, even the Tibetans, as much as Israel.

This is kind of a tangent, but in one of my classes we were reading some Canadian and Australian cases dealing with aboriginal rights/title. These were very horrifying, not from the distant past, but from the 1990s, and, on any objective view, far worse than the plight of the Palestinians. But nobody wants to look at themselves that closely.

Maybe part of the romantization is also a denial of responsibility. I don't know so much about the history, but I do think that European colonialism contributed significantly to the development of Islamic fundamentalism (the only concrete situation I've learned about is in India under British rule). But if they can say that no, this is authentic and valuable, then it's like they can erase their own actions.

Just some thoughts, not really anything concrete.

Posted by: Tara | Oct 3, 2004 5:12:00 PM

do tou remember the watts riots and nyc riots and the official (police response) or even the la riots. is there a difference?

Posted by: dave | Oct 3, 2004 5:53:25 PM

I don't have anything profound, but I want to add my voice to the chorus. I think that there are many people who do believe that as Jews we wield an inordinate amount of power.

I think that there are many who think that we deserve all of the suffering, that in some way we are the reason for it and that it is part of our penitence.

I sometimes wonder if Israel acted in the same fashion as the Russians if we would see the same response. No house to house in Jenin, just carpet bomb the hell out of it. Level Gaza and march halfway to Cairo with a message that the tunnels are history or so is Egypt.

It is not a comfortable position, it is not the moral way I hope we would behave in. But I sometimes think that the world will turn a blind eye to strength and jump on weakness.

In the end it still comes back to education. We have to continue educating people about out legitimacy and the illegitimacy of indiscriminate murder.

Some will hate us no matter what, but we need to work harder on the hasbara game.

Posted by: Jack | Oct 4, 2004 1:18:03 AM

"Oh, and I almost forgot - Yes, you do have to spell it out for me (and everyone else) since the obvious is almost always lost on my."

Well, it's just when someone says something like "Why is it that so many seemingly intelligent people all over the world don't agree with my view", you have to ask, "could it possibly be something to do with my view being wrong, not theirs"?

I'm not saying it is. I'm not even saying I think it is. Just that that's an obvious answer.

I *do* think that the view from where you are may give you a particular insight that those of us using binoculars necessarily lack. But I also suspect that it means you are stuck looking from a particular angle, and that the perspective from over here may have valuable aspects that yours lacks.

For instance, it seems to me that the conversation about Israel/Jews/anti-Semitism comes from a particularly US-centric view of the world. I may be completely wrong - it may be equally European. But to me in Australia it seems very foreign (pun entirely intended). As someone has pointed out, we have plenty of our own issues. The melting pot of Australia has as much bigotry and racism as anywhere else, not least with regard to Aboriginal Australians. But I don't think we have the view of Israel that American's might have. Quite frankly I don't think most Australian's give a rats arse, and those that think the Iraq war wasn't about WMD or freeing the Iraqi people from the Evil Dictator, think it was either about oil, about Bush's personal vendetta or (more than likely) both. Nothing even remotely to do with Israel.

I'm not saying there's no anti-Semitism in Australia, or even that there's no anti-Israel feeling, I've no doubt there is. I'd love to hear from some Australian Jews for their perspective. I just don't think, in general, that the Palestinians are seen as dramatically more exotic than Israelis, nor viewed with more sympathy.

On the other hand, I don't think that Israel is necessarily viewed with more sympathy than Palestine, as a nation, either. Maybe that's really your point?

Posted by: Kay McCulloch | Oct 4, 2004 2:07:52 AM

Dear David:

Interesting post.

Allow me my own brief preamble just to lay out my biases.

I’m a religious Jew (modern Orthodox) in my 30s living in Los Angeles. I was born in Romania. I switched from the Dems to the Republican party circa 1991. (A less well-written, but much shorter preamble, no?)

Romanticizing non-Western (actually non-European in origin) cultures is definitely a bad habit of the West which has become much more pervasive since the 60s, at least in the US. The civil rights movement correctly branded racism as a great evil, but then multiculturalism expanded this idea further and stigmatized any asymmetric comparison between cultures. One could not teach that the Native Americans had no alphabet or no wheel, since to do so would be to accept the racist Eurocentric value system that prizes literacy and technology (as opposed to the Native American value system that values hunting large mammals to extinction and constant inter-tribe warfare, but I digress).

So there’s no question that your thesis is partially right. Europe can’t say to the Arabs “Look at what little you’ve made of yourselves. Why have you constructed no representative governments? Why have the Palestinians not improved their living conditions in almost 40 years by pooling their efforts and resources, when the early Zionists in even worse conditions constantly worked to improve their surroundings? Why have Arab armies never won a war?” But it can ask Israel “Why do you treat the Arabs like that?”

But I think that there are at least two other elements that contribute to the world siding against Israel. (I exclude the US, since I believe that most Americans, especially after 9/11, are squarely with Israel.) (1) Pacifism. Much of the world has lost its moral sense and sees violence, not evil as the ultimate wrong. If pesky Israel would only stop defending itself, the conflict would go away. Hence the frequently used and very wrong phrase “the cycle of violence.” (2) Plain old-fashioned homicidal Jew hatred.

I look forward to reading more of your thoughts.

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Oct 4, 2004 6:22:51 AM

Dave... More often I hear the critics saying the US was after oil in Iraq... not trying to help Israel. The old 'taking natural resources from the innocent natives' theme ties in neatly with the concept about which I've been talking here.

OceanGuy... Good points all, although 'quaint' is a word I'd use to describe kitchen witches, not Arab culture. :-)

Tara... Oh, but you do see everyone going gaga over the Tibetans! Tibet has been a popular cause with the Tie dye and Batik crowd for a couple of decades. It is a classic example of the clash of modern and 'traditional' cultures. The fact that Tibet happens to be a cause worth supporting is neither here nor there, since the same Birkenstock-wearing bleeding ponytails couldn't find Sudan (a cause that doesn't get much press on college campuses) on a map! Why? Because there is no clear traditionally garbed good guy to root for.

Dave(J)... I do think there is a small difference. During the 60's, African Americans often affected native African atire (at least what they imagined native African attire to be), and were afforded the sort of fondling by the left that any costumed culture seems to get. But the Riots you describe were outside the scope of what I'm trying to explore here.

Jack... Whether or not Israel ever decides to act like the Russians is just dancing around the edge of the issue here. Whether Israel uses cluster bombs or tear gas is beside the point to the rest of the world. Our adversary wears decorative headscarfs (Kafiyas) and adheres to a quaint religion/Culture that reminds the world of 'The Arabian Nights'.... so we will always wear the black cowbay hat.

Kay... If you are seriously interested in reading a Jewish /Australian point of view, you should pop in on the Dave who commented earlier (http://www.Israellycool.com). He tends to be more to the right than you, but that might help give you another perspective that is sometimes missing from your commentary. I don't think either the right or left are consistantly correct on Israeli Politics. I do think that the right and left would benefit from listening to each other once in a while. :-)

Doctor Bean... You make some very good points, although I have to say that I think it has been going on far longer than you suggest. And also, the white settlers (see! It's always those pesky settlers causing trouble!!!) killed off most of the Bison, not the native Americans. The native Americans did indulge in a crazy amount of inter-tribal warfare, but their ecosystem was fairly balanced.

Posted by: David | Oct 4, 2004 9:12:50 AM

David,

Well I guess that's point - *even* the Tibetan cause, which has everything going for it as far as injustice and exoticism, is still a fringe cause, with nowhere near the amount of attention/coverage/personal involvement as in Israel. No less so the plight of aboriginals in everybody's own backyard.

Dr. Bean, do you seriously think that was all to the native American tribes? Every single one of them? I think it's fair to say that they didn't have writing or the wheel, but there's plenty that they had that we didn't, and plenty of it is admirable and fascinating to learn about.

It's not like the Jews in Judea were all that peace-loving and united themselves. Actually I think the case of aboriginals ought to be very important for Jews, since basically they are struggling to return to their old lands, while the rest of the world tells them, "we have no burdern of proof to show that the land is ours, other than that the Queen once said so, but you have to prove you were there continously over so many generations and that there was nobody else but you there. "

Posted by: Tara | Oct 4, 2004 2:49:11 PM

This ‘opinion’ of mine stems from my attempts to understand how the rest of the world can consistently and almost willfully ‘not get’ the basic facts surrounding the Arab-Muslim/Israeli conflict. In today’s media-rich environment, the question of ‘How can something that is so clear to me in terms of cause and effect… right and wrong… be completely lost on intelligent people everywhere?’ demands an explanation other than ‘lack of information’

Could it have something to do with perspective? You are too close to the conflict, indeed within the conflict both geographically and emotionally, to be able to see both sides. And perhaps that is your role. To live and argue for your “side”. But that is not the perspective nor the role of those away from the conflict. You seem to ascribe malice (“willfully”) to those who do not see YOUR cause and effect; YOUR right and wrong. It is as though you too are saying “if you are not with me, you are agin me”. This is adversarial and, without meaning to be condescending, but acknowledging that I probably am being so, not necessarily the way that other intelligent people view the situation.

Take my perspective. Something linguistic stood out in your post. You refer to the “Arab-Muslim/Israeli conflict”. This shows your perspective. Looked at from a distance it is the “Arab-Muslim/Israeli-Jewish conflict”. Later you go on to mention “Arab-Muslim” society. What your language does is narrow the perspective on one side of the conflict and yet broaden it on the other. Hence, you only talk about Israelis on the one hand (not Jews and not international Judaism) indicating that the nation is at one and that it is the NATION that is paramount. Whereas, on the other hand you contain ALL Arabs (regardless of nationality) and seem to indicate that all Arabs are Muslim (not sure if the hyphen equates them or subsets them). This seems to indicate that it is the PEOPLE who are paramount. From my distant perspective, I require that the net be cast equally.

From my perspective, I would like to see a solution in the Middle-East. My thinking is that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians want a solution – they each want a win.

I can’t help thinking that somewhere along the way, the industrialized west began to see itself as having all the valuable technology, but nothing of cultural value. Our steady diet of National Geographic-type images of exotic costumes, ‘primitive’ living conditions, inscrutable religions and philosophies, and dramatically different physical appearance, have somehow managed to brainwash us into believing that wherever a western-style industrialized nation comes into conflict with a more traditional society (especially one with exotic costumes, relatively primitive living conditions, and an unfathomable language/religion/culture), the western-style industrialized nation must be in the wrong.

I am not sure that I agree with this. I look around at the changes that have been wrought by the incursion of “western-style industrialized” nations into “traditional society” (Japan, India, Tahiti … only as way of example) and I see massive changes in the TS to accommodate both the economic demands of WSIN and the immediately attractive technology available. It would seem to me that what WSIN have of value is economic clout. TS do not need our cultural values (music, art, architecture, democracy, religion) because this is what makes them essentially a TS. What they do need is economic “injection” to enable them to develop and trade with WSIN.

The punch line about “Never getting involved in a land war in Asia” becomes a very serious cautionary message about the impossible moral position of taking on a culture that wears exotic costumes, lives in ‘primitive’ villages and whose culture is beyond our western ability to comprehend. Anyone who seeks to wage war against ‘noble savages’ is wrong.

That isn’t the lesson that I got from the Vietnam involvement. “Never get involved …” until you understand that Asian culture is different from western culture. Not better. Not worse. Different. “Noble savage” is a NG concept that is condescending and simply inaccurate. I don’t think that Asian cultures are beyond our comprehension unless we only consider them to operate in a similar vein to us … just with different clothes and food and religions. I don’t necessarily compare the Indo-china battlefield with the ME battlefield. All confrontations are unique and must be approached uniquely.

Posted by: Julie | Oct 4, 2004 4:05:12 PM

so we will always wear the black cowboy hat.


I understand that and I don't disagree. So if we take it from that standpoint, that no matter what happens Israel is going to be treated differently it makes me think that making our own rules is even more important.

The biggest issue is how to impact the children and provide them with a way to view this in a different light. There may not be any way to do this, but if you can dilute the indoctrination it will go a long way. It is more of a long term solution but it should be very effective.

Posted by: Jack | Oct 4, 2004 5:08:14 PM

Another thought-provoking post, David.

I can only speak for myself. As an American whose POV might be only slightly more educated than what is typical, I must say that I don't detect in myself even an ounce of this "noble savage" viewpoint you think some might hold. Some might, granted, but I certainly don't.

My perception of the Arab world is more "nouveau riche". I see them as a group who has largely eschewed it's "traditional costumes" in preference of the newly acquired business suit that oil has purchased. I also perceive them as morally un-evolved, much like the Western worldview of 500 years ago during the Spanish Inquisition.

I see nothing particularly noble about any Arab nation.

Granted, my viewpoint might be over-simplified, but I see the conflict as this: Israel was granted land after WWII. The Arab world does not want them as a neighbor. The Arab world struck. Israel struck back. Etc.

I am pro-Israel because of the basic motives of this conflict. Israel is struggling for survival, and the Arab world is mostly attacking from fundamentalist "principles" that are too narrow.

There are other issues that complicate things, but I certainly do not see Israel as a developed "bully" and the Arab world as the costumed victim. Far from it.

Posted by: Jim | Oct 4, 2004 6:53:34 PM

Tara... You make some very good points, especially the one about 'burden of proof'. I find it telling that so many of the Europeans read and have faith in the authenticity of the bible, yet willfully ignore the parts that spell out Jewish ownership and connection to the land.

Julie... Where to begin. First of all, I do not suffer from a perspective problem, having lived nearly my entire life far from Israel and largely ignorant of the finer points of its history. I would suggest that there might be someone else in this dialogue with a perspective problem, though.

My use of the terms "Arab-Muslim/Israeli conflict" was quite deliberate. Israel has two overlapping sets of adversaries, Arabs and Muslims. I didn't just use the term Arabs because the Iranians and Pakistanis (to name a few) are not Arabs. However, the attacks that are directed against Israel are indiscriminate and do not specifically target Jews. They target Israelis, meaning Jews, Arabs, Christians, Muslims, Druze, Bahai, etc. No Israeli is safe from a suicide bomber or a Kassam missile (or any of the missiles and weapons in the armories of the Arab/Muslim world). Julie, I may be fuzzy on my political theory and my opinions are admittedly transient. But I use language quite carefully.

I used the 'landwar in Asia' line as an inside joke to a fellow blogger... and also because in many of the anti-Vietnam protests the students constantly juxtaposed the U.S. military Industrial might against the innocent traditional villagers of Vietnam. This is exacly the worldview I was describing.

Jack... this is something that frightens the sh*t out of me. I've seen translations of the textbooks that the PA gives Palestinian school kids... there is stuff in there that makes 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion' seem tame by comparison. These kids are being taught from a early age to embrace violence and that their lives are only valuable as missiles against the 'Zionist entity'. Where is the possibility of peaceful coexistence when this is the next generation?

Jim... Perhaps you and I are using the term noble differently. I am using it deliberately condescendingly. The point of this post is that I worry that the world has assigned this mantle of condescending nobility on any nation that looks and acts like what we see in the pages of national geographic. These 'Noble Savages', in my humble opinion, have become the global equivalent of the guy with glasses. They can punch with impunity... but shame on you if you punch back!

Posted by: David | Oct 4, 2004 10:58:58 PM

I am still pondering on how to describe my thoughts about your initial question.

But can I leave an aside for now -- as much as I rant about the annoying philo semites [not only in Germnay], I would not come to the conclusion that neither

"they [the Germans] immediately respect and admire and idealize anything that looks and smells like pride, self confidence and unquestionable beliefs. "

nor

"So when a German meets an Islamist he will say, wow look at these guys, they really believe in something etc. Germans will find it hard even to criticize "circumcision" of girls"

as Lila has said.

Maybe that's a viewpoint that develops when living abroad. Generally, it pushes Germans into a corner of the naives, but it just isn't the truth, only welcome food for the ever old predjudices. There is and has been much outrage about girls' circumcision [why else is it that women authors writing about their experiences with it find an engaged audience here?], and there is much protest against Islamic activities, to put it in very simple words, up to closures of clubs that are known to be no other than harbour to fundamental Islamic activities. It is not that Germans fall on their knees in total blind admiration, in pursue to find a substitute for a lost self esteem [I believe they once had a good sort of that, but sure, that's some summers down the river]. That's about like saying "See, nothing has changed with them. Just different parametres."

Things are "slightly" different in this country. Says me, of German origin, living in Germany. And being Jewish on top.

Posted by: mademoiselle a. | Oct 4, 2004 11:49:40 PM

Dear Mademoiselle,

Well, I guess it's pointless to argue about how "Germans" are because there are quite a lot of them. And I don't live there anymore - I'm not Jewish but I left Germany many years ago and decided to share the fate of the Jewish people even without officially belonging to it.

I guess living in Germany you have to see the good sides too otherwise you can't live there anymore. And of course there are pockets of people who have a more balanced view. I guess you are lucky with the people around you.

I believed the same about my friends in Germany. Until the second Intifada. I had a lot of unpleasant discoveries then...

Once you scratch a bit on the surface of the German mind, you many find the old Antisemite has not gone away. Instead of blaming "the Jews", you blame "Israel".

Just try a search in blogg.de with the word Israel and you will find a lot of stuff about Israeli atrocities. Konstantin Wecker's Blog...

Attac, Amnesty, they're all anti-Israeli Pavlovs. Compare the headlines of Spiegel when they talk about Israeli victims vs. Palestinian victims. In every discussion, the same old anti-Israeli stereotypes come up. What Herzinger, Broder and others write about... I find that, too.

I don't say that easily because the illusion of the "different Germany" I grew up in was quite cozy. But I don't see that any more. It's hard enough to be German so I would love to see Germany today as different country. But somehow, it's difficult.

In German culture, admiration for the Oriental is deep-seated. Ethno-feminism and the admiration for the foreign, the exotic, the authentic... they are all dominant cultural topoi... in certain circles, of course. But these are the educated ones, people who studied and who read left-wing newspapers. People who respect others and don't want to be xenophobic. These same people decided that Arabs are weak and wronged, and Israel is the spearhead of Capitalism, Globalization and Evil.

One of these bleeding-heart ladies asked me once: what will happen to these poor (how'd'ycall'them'in English?) Wehrdienstverweigerer/Sarbanim? Will they all be executed? This is what she naively thought about the Israeli state. It just kills people who are of different opinion, hey.

"Arent you people ashamed to do ethnic cleansing?" is another one I heard.

"Sometimes when you look at the Middle EAst you can only sigh and say: what a pity Israel was founded. It causes so many problems." ("Historischer Stosseufzer") That was written in a letter to me, by a friend who is a journalist and writer.

These people talked pro-Israel for some years and were really my friends once. They are all educated and hold important jobs.

The rest of the Germans? The provincial and ignorant ones? Just two months ago a simple Schwaben farmer's widow said to me: you live in Israel? But it's full of Jews!

So I'm glad you have good experiences with Germans. After all, I grew up there. But: I have no illusions at all.

Sorry Dave for this thread which doesn't belong here. But... I had to say it.

Posted by: Lila | Oct 5, 2004 9:06:27 AM

Jack... this is something that frightens the sh*t out of me. I've seen translations of the textbooks that the PA gives Palestinian school kids... there is stuff in there that makes 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion' seem tame by comparison. These kids are being taught from a early age to embrace violence and that their lives are only valuable as missiles against the 'Zionist entity'. Where is the possibility of peaceful coexistence when this is the next generation?

Hi David,

I remember around the time of Camp David sitting in a hebrew school class and being told that we should give back the West Bank to Jordan, that the best thing we could do is to force King Hussein to deal with a problem.

I was very young, so they simplified this problem for us, but I remember being told that the people who lived there were taught differently than we were. That has always stuck with me.

In the years since I have wondered whether a mistake was made by not providing (mandating) a textbook to the Palestinian children that told a different story.

Part of what frightens me some times now is that I see a line of thought developing that is similar to "the pharoah that didn't know Joseph." You look at an explosive birth rate and children who are taught that we are occupiers and colonizers and you can come up with some terribly scary solutions. I know people who believe in transfer and think that at the next big funeral a daisy cutter should accidentall be dropped on the crowd.

I have no doubt that there will be another Baruch Goldstein. I don't like it and it makes me sad.

All that being said I think that one thing that needs to be done is a bigger and better job of hasbara. The preemptive move should be to find a way of marginalizing/neutralizing some of the PR issues that Israel faces now.

And some of that has to be done in more creative and more effective ways than is currently being done.

One burning question for me is this. Is there a product/service that Israel can provide to other nations that is similar to oil? What can Israel provide better than anyone else.

Because if you can bring in the financial influence it will generate new support. Perhaps this is already being worked on, I can't say that I am the first to present this as idea. Didn't Kohellet say that there is nothing new under the sun.

Anyway, those are some thoughts to share.

Posted by: Jack | Oct 5, 2004 6:29:06 PM

I think, considering Israel's situation and size, we do quite a lot. Just one example I came across some days ago: http://headheeb.blogmosis.com/archives/026329.html
Won't make it to the headlines, though. Just like the offers to Iran for earthquake aid, and the support Israeli doctors give all over the world.

For a little national pride, why not from time to time?, http://www.newsoftheday.com/israel/

You remember the terrorist fished in Megiddo junction and rehabilated to health in Afula hospital? Smiling happily from the photos in newspapers? Of course, only in Israeli newspapers.

Along with dubious record Israel has in some respects - and who would deny it, Israelis are the first to admit it - I think we definitely deserve better hasbara!

Posted by: Lila | Oct 5, 2004 7:01:53 PM

Mademoiselle a & Lila... It is interesting to me to see two such different viewpoints coming from people who are unquestionably qualified to state 'the German position'. I suppose this should warn me against generalizing about the way any particular group of people thinks and acts. I hope you both know that I do so with no intent to insult or cause trouble.

And please don't either of you apologize for having a side discussion. Your side discussion was much more on-point than some of the comments that were directed at the post.

Jack... If you were in Hebrew class during Camp David, that would make you, oh, about ten right? :-) Seriously though, the days when you can mandate textbook content were lost back in the era when countries actually surrendered. You'll notice that the countries who have lost wars to Israel have learned the lesson well from Nassar. In '56 Nassar knew he was defeated, but he also knew that if he waited long enough, the international community would step in and stop things before he lost his country... and so they did. Every other country in the region has followed his example. Short of carpet bombing, there is nothing that Israel would ever be able to do to get an Arab country to admit defeat and sue for peace terms. Those textbooks you talk about are a logical part of the peace terms.

Anyway, others can feel free to continue posting comments, but I think we have explored this opinion of mine quite nicely. Thanks to [almost] all for keeping things civil and devoid of personal baggage.

Posted by: David | Oct 6, 2004 10:11:15 AM

Jack... If you were in Hebrew class during Camp David, that would make you, oh, about ten right? :-)

Close. I am 35 now. It is good to be young. :)

Posted by: Jack | Oct 6, 2004 6:46:18 PM

Thanks for the recommendation David - I have been meaning to get back and find the link to Dave's site but of course I have been busy. Right now I should be working on another paper, but I have just been out to vote in our federal elections and am feeling rather pessimistic about the outcome, so... what better time to try to understand a somewhat more right wing view?

Anyway, I will go and have a quick look and at least bookmark for later.

Posted by: Kay McCulloch | Oct 9, 2004 6:46:17 AM

Hmm... yet another thought provoking post on my trawl through your archives.

*steeples fingers in thought*

Where to start? I think that you raise some good points, but it is a somewhat simplistic split of people into a few worldviews that is not mirrored in real life.

There are many ways of categorizing (and *ranking*) cultures and nations. Some of them fairly quantitative - economic measures, international political clout, military power, immigration levels, life expectancy, etc. These data do not assign any inherent *value* to each of these numbers, but they do allow categorization and grouping of nations. For example, although the 'third world' used to be a political and ideological term, it is now used in common parlance to loosely match economic strength. Does this mean that the people in the 'third world' are inferior? No, but it does mean they are a lot poorer. Even immigration data doesn't suggest one country or society is better than another; it merely indicates that X number of people chose to move into a certain country over a certain time period. Two countries that have fairly high immigration numbers - Israel and the US - have entirely different motivations for said immigrations, and may not really reflect that the country people move to is 'better' in every way than the one they left.

However, many other ways of categorizing countries cannot be as carefully ranked or quantified: systems of government, cultural and religious traditions, societal structure, adaption to technological advances, etc. Some of these most of the world would agree are abhorrent: brutal and corrupt dictatorships, female genital mutilation, and ritual human sacrifice, to name a few. But what about the rest? Is the Western way of life necessarily superior to other ways? I am not so sure.

The problem arises from the fact that our culture has grown to dominate the world in a large number of ways. It used to be military domination brought by European powers during imperialism, but that clunky method has been abandoned in favor of much subtler forms of dominance. The US alone directly controls one *fifth* of the world's economy, and indirectly controls about half of it. When you combine all of the 'Western' powers, that number climbs to more than three-quarters. Beyond mere money, American culture influences *everything* from diet choices to changing values of entertainment and the growth of impulse-driven consumerism. With unprecedented transportation and communication, the current hegemon of the world reigns supreme in a vast number of categories. This trend of 'globalization' is champoined by some as bringing the entire world forward into a technological age, with some merit. Yet detractors argue that just because American (or Western) culture is dominant does not mean that it is necessarily *better* in every way.

Thus, there is an understandable backlash against the (unconcious) imposition of our way of life on the world. Americans generally don't push this on purpose; we just naturally assume that something in our recipe of society we've found a winning ticket, as we now enjoy unprecedented dominance over the globe.

Nations react to this in different ways. Some welcome the mixing of native values with American ones to create a new, strong synthesis to raise up their standards of living and world stature. Others react warily, reserving a place for their own cultural traditions (ever read Canadian broadcasting content laws?), while yet others completely shut themselves off from American influence, seeing it as an evil that can only be combated by strict isolation.

There are two fallacies many people fall into: Either they believe that ALL of American culture is better by dint of us being at the top of the heap, or people see American culture as wholly evil because it begins to replace and superceded 'indigenous' ones.

However, I think that most thinking individuals fall into neither of these traps. We all recognize that there are valid parts to nearly every culture and society, and that it would be a terrible waste to completely destroy these traditions and ways of doing things just for expediency. Similarly, though, they recognize that some of the reasons that the US (and Western world) is where it is today can be traced to some cultural factors (which factors these are is a rather hotly contested topic; just read some of the controversy around 'Guns, Germs, and Steel' to get a taste, eh?), and there is nothing wrong about the growth of a homogenous GLOBAL culture that incorporates the best of each contribution.

Unfortunately, most people only see the influence of the worst of Western culture in developing countries, and there is no doubt that globalization is a mixed bag.

I think that this is where the whole Israel issue you raised begins to come into play. Most rational thinkers, whether pro-Israel or not, try to shy away from the language of 'clashes of cultures' that seems so popular today, as the contributing factors to the current conflict are extraordinarily varied. The likes of Bin Laden and reactionaries on all sides like to use those terms, but they are more for propaganda effect than anything concrete.

I instead feel that the outside world views the conflict through different glasses entirely. The casual observers with whom I have discussed Israel are *extraordinarily* surprised to learn that Israel is a highly sophisticated, technologically advanced Western country. Sure, they know that the Israelis have bigger guns than everyone else in the region, but they figure that's pretty much where the difference ends. Most of the ignorant statements I've heard are along the lines of 'let the two warring savages duke it out, and let's just ignore a small war in a faraway place.'

True, this is an entirely different view than those who actually know about the conflict - but we aren't talking about those people now, are we? The dialectic of 'culture clash' and 'Western encroachment' is a simplification of individuals deeply enmeshed in following the conflict, trying to find simple, pat explanations for such senselessness. (On both sides, mind you! Hard line right wingers will say that the uncivilized Arabs are refusing the gift of Western democracy and order, and crazy lefties will say that Israel and the US are imposing their wills on a society that works just fine, and is resentful of the intrusion.) But I think that everyone in the middle who both understands the situation is comfortable with complex answers to simple questions... all of them don't have this 'National Geographic' worldview.

*shrugs* Maybe I'm just awfully optimistic about people's intelligence.

Posted by: matlabfreak | Mar 13, 2006 6:02:29 AM

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