Sunday, December 31, 2006

Last minute execution

The execution of Saddam Hussein in the hours before the start of the feast of EID demonstrates one of the key aspects of the ongoing tragedy in the Middle East, riddled as it is with huge intercultural errors. However it may have been officially managed, it looks to the world as if it was engineered according to some recognizable principles that have been at work throughout the period of American occupation.

The official comments by various world leaders (always meant to reassure their own electorate) reveal the cultural logic behind the operation. The first thing to notice is the importance given to the "formally legal" within US (and to some extent Anglo) culture. It can become a tragic source of cultural blindness. One only has to be convinced that a particular act is consistent with the law (i.e. not in flagrant contradiction with it) and all other considerations -- including the potential impact of the act on other people -- may be waived. Because "no one is above the law" (would this were true! -- but that's another question), the law is above everyone.

An act that is vindicated by the "law of the land" may not be appreciated by all but it cannot be called into question or criticized on moral, psychological or cultural grounds. Even when objections are recognized as "subjectively" real or sociologically true, the "objectivity" of the law always trumps the "subjectivity" of personal feelings. Low context cultures find it difficult to see feelings -- even when shared by a significant swath of the population -- as being anything other than individual "opinions", whereas history teaches us that when shared by sigfinicant numbers they may become social forces capable of producing revolutions and radical change.

What is now being presented as a "clash of civilizations" in the Middle East (what Condoleezza Rice describes euphemistically as "birth pangs") derives from the deeply held cultural conviction of Western political leaders that the existence of a legal framework (the "rule of law") cancels out and invalidates considerations of moral relationship, seen to be messy and undefinable. The law constitutes the sole standard of public morality, binding on all. It's also worth remembering that, in spite of appearances, the current "clash" was precipitated not by the logic of war (rivalry, aggression, revenge, domination), but by well-prepared Western low-context government decision-making (i.e. legal) as a response to terrorist attacks (illegal)*. The battle was and is over legal frameworks (regime change), legal philosophy and legalist culture, not over territorial control as in traditional wars. Legality replaces morality. In spite of the official rhetoric or propaganda, it isn't at all the clash of good and evil, concepts that belong to the domain of morality, although it's also true that the prevailing culture assumes and insists that "rule of law" = good and anything else = evil..

Here is what Bush had to say: "Bringing Saddam Hussein to justice ... is an important milestone on Iraq’s course to becoming a democracy that can govern, sustain and defend itself, and be an ally in the war on terror." "Milestone" unsurprisingly reflects a managerial culture (business within the law, much of the law being concerned with how business is conducted). "Bringing... to justice" in a "democracy" sets the legal framework (it also implicitly recognizes the US as the police force and the Iraqis as the judiciary). Once the framework of judicial procedure is clearly established, there can be nothing to criticize or regret. Executing Saddam is a milestone on the road to progress and profitability. Bush characteristically takes it one step further by pushing his standard political agenda, identifying the good not only as "democracy" but also as being "an ally in the war on terror". This fittingly reminds us that, according to his logic, the law isn't designed to bring peace and reconciliation, but to justify war. Quite the opposite of the spirit of Eid. Which makes the act of pushing the execution to the pre-dawn of Eid doubly insulting to many in the Muslim community. The timing (last minute, before the official start of the feast) smacks of legalism, a US speciality.

The critical factor in all this appears to be the conviction within US culture that recourse to a legal and judicial framework (a democracy with a constitution and "a fair trial by one's peers") -- even in an extremely unstable and historically ambiguous political environment -- authorizes the neglect of all the standard elements of human relationships: identity, empathy and even self-preservation or survival. Interestingly, the British put the emphasis on personal justice:
In London, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said Saddam had “now been held to account for at least some of the appalling crimes he committed against the Iraqi people,” while at the same time condemning the death penalty.
Perfidious Albion (as the French would say)! They'll always try to have it both ways. Justice is served (at least partially) but the way barbarians carry it out is reprehensible (or merely distasteful). It's the "at least" that I find intriguing. Does she mean that if the Brits had had their way Saddam would have been condemned for more of his crimes... but still not executed, of course? I detect behind the rhetoric an appeal to the standard Blairist justification for invading Iraq: punishing an evil man. "Held to account", like Bush's "milestone", also reveals a nod to low context managerial business culture.

Curiously I find a parallel in the reactions of the Arabic community -- a part of which sees Saddam as a martyr to Western "management" of the Middle East -- and the the acquittal of O.J. Simpson in his murder trial in Los Angeles a decade ago. Those who felt a form of justice was served by acquitting OJ (essentially the black community) did so not because they thought the man was innocent (they didn't), but because they saw it as a symbolic victory of their community against a legal system heavily weighted against blacks. I remember seeing a black man interviewed on TV who described it succinctly: "The support of our community for O.J. was a mile wide... and an inch deep." That's a high context comment, if ever there was one! OJ, the murderer, was seen as a successful resistant to a system that oppressed blacks. Saddam, the mass murderer, is a resistant and martyr to a system that oppresses Arabs. For both communities, official justice (the laws and the courts) is what money and power can purchase, neither more nor less. It is clearly not the idealized "rule of law" that sets everything right and makes everyone equal.

What could interculturalists have done to limit the damage? (We shouldn't forget that some intercultural experts probably were in fact consulted in all this business, but what they may have said we don't know and whether they were listened to at all begs another question). They might nevertheless have reminded the US authorities that revenge is a dangerous horse to back and that Saddam's Shiite enemies were motivated by revenge. They could have highlighted the moral contradiction associated with the feast of Eid, especially as US citizenstend to see such things as "holidays" rather than "holy days", devoid of any meaning other than historically anecdotal and serving principally as a pretext for taking time off to pursue one's leisure activities. (The status and meaning of "feasts" is a factor of cultural differentiation at least as important as power-distance and the other traditional dimensions). They could also have pointed to the role of martyrdom in all cultures and in middle eastern Muslim cultures in particular (the West still has difficulty understanding the psychology of suicide bombers and therefore appreciating the "extent of the risk", to put it into management terminology).

What the interculturalists couldn't do was to influence an overall political situation that has been based from the start on culturally insensitive calculations -- from the price of a barrel of oil to the cost of regime change -- and is now concerned with manipulating whatever forces that remain (or appear to remain) manipulable to create a semblance of stability. Unfortunately, the very act of manipulating certain people, parties and communities renders them suspect, augmenting the instability and undermining the "progress" represented by the significant "milestones".

For a more realistic reading of the situation, I suggest this article:

Monday, December 04, 2006

The waves of the past and tsunamis of the present

Many years ago, when I was living in the UK as a student, the bitterest struggles in the headlines were in South Africa, Nigeria (the Ibo rebellion), Pakistan, Bangladesh, Palestine and Northern Ireland. It occurred to me that all of these issues were the part of the sour and sulfurous heritage of Empire and, perhaps worse, of post-imperial political and economic rationalism. In the intercultural community the issue has recently come up concerning, quite obviously, Iraq, Sri Lanka and even Fiji. The list is far from exhaustive. The long and the short of it is that the Brits spread more durable havoc across an empire on which the sun never set than anyone else. How did they do it? Where did the talent to do it come from? And how is it that the spirit and the beat goes on, more than half a century after decolonization?

Britannia ruled the waves and made new ones wherever it went, producing a few tsunamis along the way. Of course some of the ingredients were: pragmatism (capitalistic rationality or working for profit), organizational skills (political and entrepreneurial management), scientific research (the mastery of the physical universe along with the domineering attitude that mastery entails), industrial production (requiring the massive transfer of resources -- including human ones -- across vast distances, taking only minimal account of borders, populations or local conditions), a sense of destiny (manifest or not) and finally the subversion of the notion of "common wealth" by turning it into "the Commonwealth" with the implicit governing principle of the sacredness of private property, individual ownership as well as "initiative" and manipulative control (military, economic, cultural) under a sun that never sets.

The rise of Britannia's subsidiary, the US (flanked by the wholly owned local branch of Brittania, Canada) made it possible to consolidate and spread radical individualism and invasive capitalism under the banner of democracy, which was already the trend in the mother ship in spite of a lingering affection for an animated figurehead (especially as a female avatar). In this permutation, what started off as "commonwealth" became the "common individual quest for wealth", the ultimate "common denominator" of global culture.

What can any culture do in the face of such powerful forces of organization and ideology apart from build its own museum to preserve some tenuous visual vestiges of its ill-remembered past and lost values? There is, of course, one alternative: cultural and religious fundamentalism, which is another variation on how to pervert rather than how to preserve the past. Once the vital principles underlying the spontaneous (i.e. culturally conditioned) perception of the world, its inhabitants, its structure of meaning, etc. are replaced by an alternative configuration of perception and reasoning (i.e. pragmatism, profit, control, manipulation), a return to the original culture becomes as utterly illusory as a Jurassic Park-style dream (and nightmare) of discovering or reinstating a lost world of dinosaurs.

The challenge for interculturalists is, as my friend George Simons has pointed out, keeping track of history and realizing that today is part of history as well. The other challenge is to bear in mind that culture is like prose for Monsieur Jourdain: it's there whether we recognize it or not ... unless replaced by poetry! It doesn't die even when it's totally metamorphosed. Because it's there, and because its rules apply to everyone within its purview, we can have some very limited influence over how it evolves, depending of course (in today's world) on how good we are at... appropriating resources, controlling and manipulating!

Or simply communicating through the "social Web"????

Therapy for Michael Richards

I'm surprised that I haven't seen anyone in our intercultural community voicing an opinion about the Michael Richards affair in the US. (Richards was famous for playing the character "Kramer" in the TV series, Seinfeld) For those who haven't followed the story, several weeks ago, he was caught in the act of insulting black members of the audience in a night club where he was performing as a stand up comic. He shockingly used what in the US is now called "the n-word", a fact which has led to a complex debate about its use and non-use... but not, of course, about the absurd appellation, "n-word". I managed to see the scene on the Web, as captured in video on someone's mobile phone during the performance, and was shocked myself, but by the speaker's attitude, not by the word. Used to express hatred and contempt against people of a certain ethnic origin and, worse, cultural condescension, it is quite rightly considered to be utterly reprehensible, which is why blacks alone can and do call each other "nigger" (sorry, I wrote it!!!!). No one could suspect them of using it to express racial hatred.

Richards used the word repeatedly in the most odious way, directed at specific individuals, and that is disturbing. But far more troubling was his statement, "Fifty years ago you would be hanging upside down with a fork up your ass". (The press in the US squeamishly refuses to print the final word in full!!!!). Never having participated in a lynching, I remain blissfully unaware of the the ritual use of eating utensils (though I suspect that if you cover your entire figure with a tablecloth you might be thinking of what to do with the cutlery).

Whatever Richards manages to work out with his psychotherapist, he has revealed something that, in my naiveté, I find difficult to understand: the persistence of a semi-conscious nostalgia among modern "liberals" (Richards claims to be one) for a time when racial violence was "permitted" (of course it wasn't permitted even 50 years ago; it was merely practiced!). Is there any way anyone other than a died-in-the-cotton Ku Klux Klansman could regret no longer having the right to torture and murder blacks? And am I wrong to think there isn't a cannabilistic impulse that has come to the fore? (What, indeed, are the "literary" origins of the image of the fork?).

Rather than spend hours on the couch with an analyst, perhaps he could just be sentenced to spending a day listening to Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" (Nina Simone's version could also be used, for variety). For anyone who doesn't know the lyrics to that song -- composed by a New York Jew, Abel Meeropol, in the 1930s -- here they are:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is the fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

For more about this very special song: Strange Fruit