Thirty years ago, in a lecture hall at Boston University, I first began to gain an insight into the impenetrable wall of ambiguity that we face when we try to understand other cultures. I was an undergraduate majoring in Anthropology. Our professor had just completed a lecture for the American Indian (I seem to recall they were still called Indians back then) survey course. In that day’s lecture he had made a comment to the effect that it was not possible for an Indian woman of a certain tribe (I can’t remember which one) to leave her husband. A feminist student took exception and approached him after the lecture and I happened to be a bystander as the professor patiently tried a number of ways of explaining to her that there was simply nowhere for a woman to go- no matter what her reason for leaving. In the lives of nomadic peoples there are no homeless shelters and the only survivable economic unit is a traditional family in which every individual played a very specific and confined role. This was clearly not acceptable to my classmate. She put up a vigorous protest, “surely she could go to a friend’s tepee- or set out for another village- even, in a dire circumstance, go back to her parents.” The more the professor smiled and tried to explain that there were simply no resources in such a society to allow for such life choices and that it was a survival issue not a gender-bias one, the more incensed she became. It wasn’t clear to me whether she was arguing in order to get him to admit that he was wrong about his observation or because she somehow felt that putting up a fight about it now could effect some sort of retroactive change for her Indian sisters that lived over a century ago. Then I realized that she was so incensed because like so many students in class she had a finely detailed and impossibly utopian imaginary picture in her mind of what Indian life was like and she simply didn’t want to give up that rosy, personally relevant preconception. This made a very strong impression on me. She was speechless with rage that the professor was accusing her innocent, noble Indians, the people she was convinced were so much closer to truly enlightened and pure beings of being chauvinist, Neanderthal dorks. I was filled with a new appreciation of how prejudiced, ignorant and agenda-driven my fellow intellectuals-in-training were.
Some time later, perhaps as a response, that same professor used the following quote from D.H. Lawrence’s book, Mornings in Mexico. I think it conveys very well the problem of understanding a culture so different from one’s own and it offers an insight into the clash of cultures that is difficult for a westerner to grasp.
“It is impossible for white people to approach the Indian without either sentimentality or dislike. The common, healthy, vulgar white usually feels a certain native dislike of those drumming aboriginals. The highbrow invariably lapses into sentimentalism like the smell of bad eggs. Why? – Both reactions are due to the same feeling in the white man. The Indian is not in line with us. He’s not coming our way. His whole being is going a different way from ours. And the minute you set eyes on him you know it. And then, there are only two things you can do. You can detest the insidious devil for having an utterly different way from our own great way. Or, you can perform the mental trick, and fool yourself and others into believing that the befeathered and bedaubed darling is nearer to the true ideal gods than we are. The Indian way of consciousness is different from and fatal to our way of consciousness. Our way of consciousness is different from and fatal to the Indian. The two ways, the two streams are never to be united. They are not even to be reconciled. There is no bridge, no canal of connection. The sooner we realize this, and accept this, the better, and leave off trying with fulsome sentimentalism, to render the Indian in our own terms.”
I want to be clear, I am in no way saying (and Lawrence wasn’t either) that there is anything wrong, defective or inferior about the Native American. I am saying two things:
1. Once exposed to Western Civilization the Indian way of life was doomed.
2. The life and culture of Indians was so vastly different from ours that it is simply impossible for us to understand the magnitude of the difference.
That being understood, Lawrence had it exactly right and his perception is equally valid when applied to the modern confrontation with Arabian Caliphate Islam. The “highbrows” he was referring to correspond precisely to today’s modern liberals and the rest of the progressive left wing. That fulsome sentimentality he identified in the highbrows is more than matched by the guilty/romantic response of today’s left to the idiotic, provocative accusations of humiliation, cultural degradation and imperialism leveled at all of the west by the Caliphatists.
ShrinkWrapped has a true story on his blog of a client of his who had a particularly bad case of this contradiction. ShrinkWrapped generalizes from this patient’s pathology- “New York liberalism consists largely of sympathy for the deprived, guilt over one's affluence and advantages, and anxiety over aggression and competition. It is a political philosophy that rests on a deep well of emotion and a small dollop of rationality.” ShrinkWrapped is exactly right- what he says goes right to the core of the matter.
Guilt is indeed a powerful force and, in America. Liberal illogic and guilt are inextricably tangeled up together in the history of our relationship with the American Indian. The American Indian is the essential starting point (every bit as much as the colonial past and the holocaust are for Europe) for an American discussion of how to understand Islam in the modern world. There are two main strands in that tangle:
1. For many Americans our historic and emotional relationship with the “native” population is our emotional template for our reaction to the Israeli/Arabic drama If we respond only emotionally to it we miss the very real differences between the two situations.
2. The cultural confrontation with the American Indian and the change it effected between two unequal and very different cultures is a very powerful paradigm that can help us to understand the clash with Islam- if we read it carefully.
The mistake of, to paraphrase Lawrence, “rendering the Islamic Arab in their own terms” has caused many a true, reasonable liberal to become a dupe of the Caliphate and an unwitting dhimmi. Because the liberal mind-set predisposes a left-them to view all other cultures through that self-centered prism of guilt and primitivist love, they are almost powerless to see the danger. How else to explain the left’s blindness to the endless, gory catalogue of atrocities that have been committed in the name of Jihad? It makes understandable (if still unforgivable) how fervent feminists and devoted gay rights activists remain blind to the horrors gays and women face in Islamic countries across North Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
As we face an opponent, who captures unarmed civilians workers and journalists, humiliates them in front of a camera and then hacks their heads off with a butcher knife for a public relations stunt; the cowed and guilt-ridden left can do no better than to find fault with our professional armed forces (that are bound by and enforce an internationally sanctioned code of conduct). The beheaders become cultural heroes while the American prison guards at Abu Ghraib are viewed as getting off with a slap on the wrist even after being tried and punished for their behavior. Notwithstanding Abu Ghraib (where is the comparison?) is there any logic or moral responsibility in that preference?
No- it is entirely based on emotion. That emotional combination of sympathy, guilt, unsupported opinion and dreamy primitivism that lead my classmate so long ago to idealize the less complex culture of the American Indians is very common and disturbing. Among liberals there is a nearly fanatical desire to see other cultures as “nicer, freer and more desirable than ours”. This primitivism is a key feature of the personality of the modern left. It is amplified in practice by the tendency of many on the left to rely too much on emotion and opinion and too little on understanding and fact. The combination of good intentions, sympathy and intellectual laziness is the most dangerous geopolitical force the world has ever seen.
Karl Marx spun his fantastic intellectual web of class warfare and communism from it, basing his proposed paradise of the worker on a kind of pass/fail society where no one is allowed to suffer any more or less than anyone else. It has taken a century and untold millions of lost and shattered lives for the real world to prove that this egalitarian dream was a sham destined to evolve into an unworkable nightmare.
Nevertheless, it keeps popping up and causing the left to take the wrong side in just about any conflict you can name. It causes many feminists and activist gays to speak out in blind support of the Palestinians and Islamic countries where women are little more than abused chattel; and homosexuals, if they are allowed to live at all, are brutalized outcasts. It is threatening Israel’s existence today and it has weakened many western democracies to the point that their survival as true democracies, ruled by law and vote, is in doubt.
The west only has one option; we have to start talking honestly and openly about subjects like the American Indian and learning how to handle the guilt and other raw emotions in a rational way. My next post will expand on the painful subject of the Indians and their fate and how it reflects on our response to Caliphate Islam.