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09 May 2008

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Andy

My view is that such attitudes are best enlightened through travel. I know my own bubble of American cultural superiority was only burst after spending a some time living overseas and a lot of traveling in various parts of the world. Real travel - travel that forces one to interact with authentic locals (as opposed to those who cater to Western tourists) - seems quite rare for Americans, much less actually living outside the States.

Albertde

Think Bollywood.

TomByrd

In a nutshell, "Globalization" does not equal "Standardization." Often we, in the West, can learn from those in other cultures...if we'd only keep an open mind. Instead, we hark back to the "Ugly American" tradition of "we know best, so be like us." Shame.

Cold War Zoomie

Col Lang, why do you hate America?

OK, to be a little more serious.

I won't repeat all my anecdotes backing up your point that not everyone wants to be "us" although it's tempting to tell my little stories over and over and over again to anyone who will listen. (Why can't we be single, in our twenties, running around foreign lands forever?)

I am playing around with a new axiom, or notion, or postulate, or natural law...Hell, I don't know... whatever you call these things.

Here's the first stab at it:

A nation that has a culture in self-imposed, suspended isolation should have an isolationist foreign policy.

No value judgments. Just a fact.

We can call it the Roundhead Postulate...or Notion...or Axiom...you get the idea.

Being a Roundhead is opposite to Flatheads. And every low ranking enlisted guy understands what it means to be one of these:

Mushroom

Matthias

Colonel,

I've been reading your excellent blog for quite some time and finally felt the strong urge to chime in. You have made this point about other cultures not wanting to be like us on many occasions.

Considering the response of the faculty member, I wanted to emphasize how vast this revelation for many of us is. As a Westerner, I have been conditioned to believe in our "values" of competition and materialism from an early age.

Only a strong case of midlife crisis, together with a new effort to look at the state of our society after 9/11, I’ve been able to look past this veil.

It is most liberating to realize that, truly, it is we Westerners who live just as much, or perhaps even more, in such “subservience to a primitive way of life". I almost feel like an outcast since I have gotten rid of my TV, the prevalent tool of shaping peoples believes, or at least distract them enough to prevent them from forming their own.

The actions of our current government are a perfect reflection of these twisted values and their illusive superiority.

If anything, the current world politics are a grand opportunity to find oneself. What baffles me is that philosophers thousands of years ago could already see all this, yet what was passed on from generation to generation has been the same self-destructive egotism.

All humanity is in the same boat and, unless we learn that it is our differences that are our strengths and not something we need to eliminate, we may as well all sink together with it.

Matthias

Minnesotachuck

Col., thank you for a most provocative post. I don't intend to put words into your mouth, but I take away from it the implication that cultures are the ever-changing product of an random-driven universal evolution process, perhaps against a theological backdrop a la Teilhard de Chardin, or maybe a more secular one as in current day complexity theory. In any case I agree with your assessment of the pervasiveness of a cultural chauvinism among typical American citizens. The question I have is this: Do you think such chauvinism is any less dominant in the career American military?

chimneyswift

Col, you do good service in the cause of difficult ideas. As the current drama in the contest for the Democratic nomination shows all too clearly, pluralism is hard. What you are advocating for is essentially a pluralism, although on a global level and not within the "one" culture of the United States.

The thing that I have noticed about the cultural arrogance you describe is that it seems a kind of echo of the British idea of cultural superiority that was so prevalent in their days of empire. I always thought the English must have been awfully delusional to believe themselves so superior, but now I think that it is simply very hard to imagine living in any other way than oneself.

In this light, I believe that working towards more truly pluralist culture is one of the greatest services any of us can provide. After all, what is any kind of bigotry but a failure to be able to imagine what it is like to be in another's point of view, with their priorities and desires and motivations?

Michael singer

Dear PAt,
The dialogue you describe today is chilling. But isn't it exactly what you have been saying about the thinking of the Iraq war planners. Why does it have to be either/or?
Michael Singer

William RAISER

How scary that such a view could be held by a college professor in the US in this day and age!

Unfortunately, my experience suggests that what you report represents all too well the dominant American view.

Americans are in for a rude awakening in the coming years. I hope we learn quickly and begin to make positive contributions to the world's diversity.

Montag

Reminds me of when Edward VII was making his Goodwill Tour of France to counter popular sentiment against the Entente Cordiale. His Aide was astonished at the hostility exhibited by the crowds when they first arrived.

Aide: "The French don't seem to like us much, Sir."

Edward: "Why should they?"

b

Thanks for that Pat.

I agree. But I would put this further than "western" believes. There is no such thing as "western". The values of Swiss, Greek, British, Belgian and the U.S. people are very different when you really look into them.

This was pampered over by some Hollywood culture and Nato propaganda that is falling apart.

The ground is tribal. Even within nations. Do Prussians and Bavarians have things in common? Yes, but just as many things part them.

We have accepted different values within our westphalian nations. Why can't we accept them outside ?

watcher

It's a shame people insist on applying some form of manifest destiny on the rest of the world.

Duncan Kinder

Another way of putting it would be to state that expecting all other peoples to adopt Western culture is like expecting all other peoples to speak English.

The point is that these other languages work quite well; they often rest upon radically different principles than does English.

Yet, once we have granted that Chinese and Arabic and Urdu and Navajo have communicative and literary potential and accomplishments, it does not thereby strip Shakespeare and Byron and Yeats of their voice.

David W.

I agree with the thesis of this post, and happen to think that the US is merely the most visible practitioner. However, this practice is age-old nationalism/jingoism, which simultaneously comforts/stokes the weak-minded that they are indeed on the right side, and need to look no further. It also makes for a convenient excuse when some non-Americans get invaded and/or killed by Uncle Sam, whether it's in Iraq or the Phillippines, or the 19th-century American West.

The American sense of entitlement has always been fed by 'climbers' from other cultures, who have learned English and American mores, in order to get closer to the money spigot. This in turn has fed the entitlement, fooling many Americans into saying foolish things like 'The language of business is English.' While this may be true during recent history, the mantra-like way it has perpetuated itself through US culture will likely end up hurting the US, as its student culture has taken for granted that the rest of the world 'wants to speak English.'

Patrick Lang

Minnesota Chuck

I remember. You are a farmer, right? Mr Jefferson would be happy to know that people like you still exist..

IMO, today's army is reflective of the solidly middle class people from whom it is recruited. Most are from middle America.

They are just the kind of people whom you want to be with in a hard and close fight.

Having said that I would have to say that with the exception of officers who are specialists in overseas cultural affairs (FAOs) and soldiers from the Special Forces Regiment most officers and soldiers don't have a clue about the dynamics of foreign cultures and are not especially encouraged to learn more.

I would like to have someone demonstrate to me that I am wrong about that. pl

Walrus

Amen Col. Lang,

Attempts by me to question this essentially narcissistic worldview usually end up with me being labelled an "America Hater" and being thrown out of the associated discussion forum.

But what is really frightening and dangerous about this attitude is that it has engendered an absolutely breathtaking lack of curiosity - and knowledge, about the rest of the world on the part of the average American.

My view is that the American worldview has been manipulated and deliberately distorted for at least the last fifteen years by a variety of groups that believe that having a well educated and informed American public is not in their best interests.

For example, Americans are conditioned, like Pavlov's dogs, to react to certain words:

- socialism.
- communism.
- gun control.
- Liberalism.
and now terrorism and Islam.

If you care to look at an example, you will find the first use of the word "Homeland" to describe continental America, is in the PNAC publication "Project For The New American Century", it was a simple find an replace operation. That was published around September 2000 and if my memory serves me correctly, President Bush appropriated it and used it in a speech for the first time the following May.

I can only find one journalist who picked up on this word and called it "Kind of creepy", as well she might, since its' close cousins "Motherland" and "Fatherland" had already been appropriated and perverted by the USSR and Hitler respectively because these words are nominatives that mean nothing but generate strong emotions - which was obviously Christol's or Kagan's intention - and words DO matter.

Yes, the American worldview is slowly losing touch with reality, and that is dangerous. In the last few months certain right wing forums are now talking about "Energy Security", although this has yet to be launched in mainstream media thinkpieces.

And of course "Energy Security" means blowing the crap out of the Middle East and securing oil for Americas gas guzzlers.

To put it another way, I'll bet a donation of Ten Dollars to the charity of your choice that if Bush attacks Iran, the nominative of "Energy Security" will be part of the justification.

J.T. Davis

a faculty member in the business sciences asked me if I had really meant to say that the Iraqis and other Middle Easterners did not want to be "us."

I have to wonder what a guy in the "business sciences" woud know about enlightenment and how much of his own notions of American history and culture are more a product of myth than historical fact.

Great post, Colonel.

This short speech by historian Forrest McDonald given to some economists in 2006 might surprise the business science guy.

Forrest McDonald, "The Founding Fathers and the Economic Order"

J.T. Davis

Forgot to include this.

George Washington did write this (From Wiki):

Washington was an early supporter of religious toleration and freedom of religion. In 1775, he ordered that his troops not show anti-Catholic sentiments by burning the pope in effigy on Guy Fawkes Night. When hiring workmen for Mount Vernon, he wrote to his agent, "If they be good workmen, they may be from Asia, Africa, or Europe; they may be Mohammedans (Muslims), Jews, or Christians of any sect, or they may be Atheists."

Ramojus

I concur with Andy's comment.

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the southern Philippines island of Mindanao in 1978 thru 1980 and traveled through SE Asia upon completion of my commitment. I can honestly say that I was immersed in the SE Asian culture. My experiences there cause me to fully agree with Col. Lange’s point of view and this post.

When asked about my Peace Corps experience, I tell people that; “I saw more in two plus years over there than I have seen in twenty years over here”. The isolation/insulation of the average American is a very sad thing.

jr786

The opening sentence of the National Security Strategy of the United States, 2002 (NSS), reads: “The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise”.

This summation crams most of the ideological ‘key words’ of the last 60 years into one triumphal sentence: struggles, forces, liberty, freedom and victory tumble over each other in a rush to arrive at the ‘single model for sustainable success’ that won the cold war, given by the formula - ‘freedom, democracy and free enterprise’, i.e. capitalism. With history safely covered, the document proceeds with a visionary program for the future:

In the twenty-first century, only nations that share a commitment to protecting basic human rights and guaranteeing political and economic freedom will be able to unleash the potential of their people and assure their future prosperity. People everywhere want to be able to speak freely; choose who will govern them; worship as they please; educate their children—male and female; own property; and enjoy the benefits of their labor. These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society—and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages.
‘Right and true for every person, in every society…across the ages’. The blatant political Perennialism of this document follows the transformation of social, political and economic concepts into what have become the secular commandments of the Universal Ideology of the bourgeoisie; one feels that Jacob Riis would approve of them. This is not meant to minimize the value of these things, which have become necessary tools for life in the 21st century, but rather to emphasize that they were not such tools in other centuries, or necessarily in other places today.

If university professors don't understand that then we really are doomed.

pbrownlee

To echo Andy, in Australia we get this sort of thing ALL the time that "this (i.e. Oz) is the greatest country in the world; Australians the greatest/best/most-in-all-things-decent people" and so on.

If one should question in an way, however mildly, this creepy provincialism by asking "where else have you been?", "what languages do you know?", "what 'foreign' (i.e. not US , UK or even Australian) movies or TV do you watch?" there is often a kind of bewilderment or shock, as if one had questioned (and maybe one has) all the essential virtues.

Nearly always, it turns out that the noisiest "patriots" base these assessments on virtually total ignorance of other cultures/places/languages/literatures/people.

This is very fertile ground for those wanting to demonise "the other", especially the increasingly powerful "other" and this may not have escaped culturally retarded politicians and their consiglieri in the MSM.

I know quite a few Australians (including some relatively senior media ginks) who travel only to the UK and US -- with maybe France thrown in very occasionally for exoticism) and seem to think it literally incredible that you might want to visit Beirut, say, or Bulawayo in addition to -- or, more shockingly, instead of -- Buffalo or Burbank or anything with Disney in the title.

To want to go back to those "strange" places seems completely inexplicable.

Only in cuisine do other cultures seem acceptable -- and then frequently in an Anglo version unknown to those poor natives back home.

However, there may be some hopeful signs -- US and Russia in sandwich battle -- http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7391893.stm

Fred

I believe the concern should not be with ignorance, but with willful ignorance. We should be especially concerned with the growth of home schooling movement that is more concerned with cultural isolation/indocrination than with quality of education.

Ed Webb

I can't wholeheartedly leap to the defense of US college professors en masse, but many colleges and universities, and many professors, do have more cultural awareness than this and are trying to educate Americans accordingly. It is relatively easy for me, as a Brit who lived and worked for many years in the Middle East, to shake students out of their blinkered rut while I have them captive in the classroom. Many of my US-born colleagues make similar efforts. We are helped even more when speakers from outside the US (when they can get through the border), and speakers like Col Lang who have spent time out in the world, take the time not only to come to campus to deliver a speech but also to engage directly with students and faculty in debate and small-group discussion. (We have an Iraqi scholar visiting campus all this semester, which has been a revelation to many, many students.)

My concern is that even in the relatively conducive circumstances of an internationally-focused liberal arts college, there are some students who will not hear. And much of that comes down to the sort of deep conditioning to which Walrus refers. I will continue to do what I can to innoculate and/or deprogram. But until we can bring about more responsible mass media and more enlightened public school education, it's just drops in a very large ocean.

Babak Makkinejad

All:

US is not unique in this; a Westerner could have been in Saudi Arabia in 1980s and be asked by his cab driver why he was not a Muslim.

The disturbing thing about the incident that Col. Lang has related is that the fellow could not plead cultural or educational deficiency.

Mongoose

Colonel,

Most unfortunately I think this is a losing or lost cause. No matter how large or small the cultural differences, university students generally believe that everyone wants "to be like us." I teach World and European history and almost to a person, students can't imagine themselves outside the small box that is their culture. Most every attempt to encourage students to imagine things other than they've already experienced them meets with a dumbfounded expression that seems to say "but of course that's not really true." Trying to get students to learn to understand that which they cannot embrace may not seem too daunting but it is, in fact, too often the case. Of course it doesn't help when our "leaders" repeat ad nauseum shibboleths about the "other," i.e., that "terrorists," or Muslims, or whomever wants nothing more than to destroy "our way of life" (whatever the may mean).

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