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June 16, 2006


I want to ask more about the cultural differences you describe, and am hoping someone will stop in and ask the right questions. (Me, I'm going to have to go look at a map first.) But as much as I want to talk more about that, I have to ask separately about your main point: that it is the duty of a citizen in a democracy to be knowledgeable at this level. It does not seem realistic to ask every American to be competent to ask "specific and detailed questions" about anthropology, for if we do we must also expect it for the economy, law, the sciences. Effectively we must each be an entire government policy machine -- it is just not possible. This is a basic tension of representative democracy -- its very purpose is for us to pick leaders who are more expert than we are, and who we thus have no sound basis for evaluating. It's not obvious to me that there is any solution to that problem.

You might find Sarah Chayes work interesting. She sells soap and oils with a bodyguard and alot of guns in Afghanistan.

She is supposedly CIA and hired an RPCV in Afghanistan who was assassinated for going to destroy a house.

BUT....She has the language and culture evaluated and is an RPCV from Morocco. Check yahoo news for her latest article.

I think that emptypockets hits the nail on the head, and I agree wholeheartedly. What is the best form of democracy is an interesting question and IMO the issue really is trying to decentralize power as much as power while still not imposing a lot of burden on everyone.

Can one learn about other people/cultures sitting thousands of miles away? It is almost impossible to get an accurate picture given that a) people/societies are changing, b) not everyone within a society thinks/feels the same, and c) whoever is reporting information will have some biases.

Take Iraq as an example. There is no one monolithic Iraq. Even within a group (for example Shia or Sunni) people have differences. And whoever is reporting from Iraq will have their own biases. Some people will have greater biases than others. It should have been a safe bet that pre war Chalabi had a huge vested interest in painting a picture that would get us into the war, yet Chalabi was then the favorite of the Bush administration and people did not question that.

There is simply too much spin from both sides of the spectrum that one cannot get an honest picture of the situation in Iraq (and there is no one picture either - it is a collection of mosaics).

The one point I agree with Sara is that our attention is too much diverted to the "issue of the day" and that we ignore a lot of other issues that we should be paying attention to.

Very, very interesting article, Sara. The distinction between "tribal" and modern or potentially modern societies is fascinating and seems intuitively potent.

Interesting in this context to remember that Paul Wolfowitz was Amabassador to Indonesia in the Reagan Administration. By several accounts he loved the country and found it fascinating. I wonder if this experience with a meriocratic and commercial society informed his views about Islam in general and how it could develop into a modern society? I don't think he or any of the others had any real first-hand experience with any of the Arab countries. This could explain some miscalculations on Wolfowitz' part. Someone who instinctively draws connections can be a powerful thinker as long as the connections are sound, but can be way off base when they are not.

I've never been to Pakistan or to any Arab country, but I have been to India, Nepal, China, Malaysia and parts of Indonesia. There is definitely a long-ingrained culture of small shopkeepers and businessmen (even capitalism) in all those societies that survived communism and socialism. The Arabs were great traders historically, but tribalism certainly seems to have survived well into the present day in those societies, as well as in western Pakistan and Afghanistan.

What about Iran? Persian and imperial from way, way back?

It does not seem realistic to ask every American to be competent to ask "specific and detailed questions" about anthropology, for if we do we must also expect it for the economy, law, the sciences. Effectively we must each be an entire government policy machine -- it is just not possible.

I could not agree more, ep.

I've read widely and fairly deeply about Indonesia - particularly Bali, but other islands of the archipelago as well - anthropology, archaelogy, politics, economics. I've spent considerable time on the ground (although with a rudimentary understanding of the language), and I have not come close to truly understanding what makes life tick there, whether among Muslims or Hindus. I've seen the good and less good effects of tribalism, island-wide down to village customs.

I come away with no better options for U.S. policy than a slightly altered version of Star Trek's Prime Directive.

oh, right. like kirk ever followed that.

Iran is yes, a very old civilization long ruled by a central government and a Monarchy -- but the eastern parts of Iran are essentially tribal, linked with parallel tribes in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. SE Iran, for instance is Baluchi. Herat in Western Afghanistan is much influenced by Iranian "cousins." What makes Iran somewhat unique is that the central government structure does allow persons born into a tribal identity to opt out and into the more cosmopolitian society.

Geertz's idea of the line NE to SW in Pakistan roughly corresponds with the borders of first the centrally administered Mughal Empire -- which provided relatively good Government for about 300 years, and should be understood to include many small princely states dependent on the Mughal center. Many of the institutions and practices of the Mughals were adopted by the British in the first half of the 19th century, -- which if you then add it up suggests nearly 500 years of centrally administered governance that made major investments in things people valued -- irrigation systems, roads, rules for commerce, courts to adjudicate conflicts and the like. And while the Mughal Empire was Muslim -- it was also pluralistic. The ruled majority were Hindu, and the Sikh culture and religion emerged in its midst. At least some of this culture informed Pakistan at its creation, but it is weaker now as the strength and indeed writ of central government is challenged.

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