Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Judging Others By Ourselves

America is “The United States of America,” meaning that as a Californian I am first an American. We have this neat flag, with red, white and blue colors; everybody stands up and gets all emotional when it is waved or goes by in a parade. We have this neat anthem that nobody can sing; but everyone stands before the football game while someone tries to sing it, and fails miserably but still draws thunderous applause, presumably for having the courage to try singing it. A whopping 1% of our youth sign up for our armed forces to “defend our nation” from some vaguely defined enemies.

But suppose that were not the case; suppose we didn’t have that neat flag and unsingable national anthem. Suppose that the only thing that I cared about was my state of California.

If you invaded California, I would take up arms and fight like a demon to drive you out, but if you invaded, say, Missouri my reaction would be complete indifference. “I could care less about Missouri,” I would say, “Missouri is Missouri’s problem.”

We would be Afghanistan.

Suppose, in that scenario, a foreign force occupied all of our states and tried to drum up support to turn us into a nation called “The United States” that none of us cared about. They wanted all young Californians to join an armed force that would bear arms in defense of that “United States” and told us that those troops, once enlisted, might be going to Missouri and maybe New York to defend Missourians and New Yorkers.

What or whom we would be defending those Missourians and New Yorkers against is a little bit unclear, actually; something or someone that the invading force is very fearful of, but which is not really potentially harmful to us and which we don't actually dislike all that much, even if they were in California, let alone Missouri or New York.

I think our young Californians would sign up for that armed force, get the weapons and training and then, instead of going to Missouri to defend Missourians from God-knows-what, would defect and use the weapons and training to try to drive the foreigners the hell out of California.

Which is what's happening in Afghanistan.

We think that because we place nation over locale that all peoples do the same. Many do, but not all, and Afghans don’t. Afghans’ first loyalty is to their tribe and village. Afghanistan is a vast and very poor country; they barely know that their national government exists and, to the extent that they are aware of it, they don’t trust it to serve their interest.

Not that we should trust our government to serve our interest, but…

The point is that we keep basing our strategy on judging peoples as if they were precisely like us, as if they have the same priorities and same ambitions as us. What creates the problem is that peoples react not just to what we do, but in terms of how their culture leads them to interpret what we do, and when we act without attempting to understand their cultures we do not serve our own best interest.

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