Tuesday, March 01, 2011

On Revolution in the Cradle of Civilization

I try not to comment on global issues too much on this blog.  However, I, like every other schmuck, have my own opinion on what is currently happening in the Middle East and what it means for the future of the planet and America in particular.  I would say that I know more than the average bear as I have spent a lot of time studying world cultures; Arab culture and the proliferation of Islam through the Sahara/Fertile Crescent region has always been a point of fascination for me.  I've spent a lot of time reading and trying to garner any video/film scraps I can acquire on the history and culture of the region.

I had the good fortune of spending a couple of weeks in Dubai several years ago but I can't really count that as a true learning experience when it comes to the Arab world.  Dubai is a simulacra....it's like Las Vegas without the vices.  Still, it left me thirsty for more knowledge on this culture of which Americans know so little. 

Since no one in this country reads any more, most of our knowledge of Arab culture comes from the moving image.  Yet the offerings we've been given are highly skewed and woefully inept.  There are so many amazing stories from Arab culture that Hollywood dare not touch; America must avoid the risk of glorifying a conveniently portrayed hostile adversary.  With the exception of a handful of gems, like "Syriana", most of our exposure to Middle Eastern culture has been through they eyes of a CIA agent or an American soldier cautiously patrolling through an IED infested village in Iraq....refer to "The Kingdom", "The Hurt Locker",  "Body of Lies". 

Perspective is everything.

Case in point, a film boldly entitled, "Lebanon", was recently released which turned out to be a story told from the sole perspective of an Israeli tank commander.  Can you imagine creating a movie entitled, "Mexico", which was told from the sole perspective of an American border patrol agent?

Well....yeah...I suppose you probably can....but do you get my point?

Anyway, I had the good fortune of working at the Smithsonian Institution when I was a younger lad.  It paid for shit, but I consider the experience to be better than any college in which I could have obtained a post-grad degree.  I got to meet some incredible scientists who not only studied in my undergrad discipline of anthropology....some of these folks actually defined it.

Right after the storm, I was asked to edit some video footage from a 2002 symposium honoring famed anthropologist, Magaret Mead.  The symposium consisted of scholars from around the globe and the topic of discussion focused on Mead's legacy and how it related to the post 9/11 world.

The words from those scholars have been ringing in my ears for the past month.  I went back to review them tonight and I just wanted to pluck a few bytes out of the series which are eerily prophetic considering what is happening right now...nearly ten years later.  So instead of ranting on a subject I'm not really qualified to rant about, I offer you some insight from folks who do know what they are talking about.

The first byte is from William Watts, President, Potomac Associates, former Senior Staff Member, National Security Council under Henry Kissinger:

 The next three bytes are from Judith Kipper, Middle East Forum, Council on Foreign Relations; Co-Director, Middle East Studies Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies, consultant, ABC News:

Petro-dollars and education....I think Kipper called this moment ten years ago.  While this country is looking on in awe of what seems to be a spontaneous revolution throughout the oil rich Arab countries, the truth is this movement has been a long time coming...we were just too busy playing fantasy football to see it.  Trust me, we will take notice now.  We're about to put our desire to spread democracy through the Middle East to the true test...not by war...but by economic sacrifice.

If the lives Americans have sacrificed in the Middle East over the past few decades were truly about democracy, this revolution is a triumph.  If the lives we sacrificed, and took, were about oil...things could get really ugly.  I only hope we have the courage of our alleged conviction.   

If you have the time you can sift through the other bytes on the Library of Congress website.  It's really enlightening material.



Leigh C. said...

Thanks for this. Large chunks of reading about the Middle East have been a part of my reading since a fairly one-sided and mightily condensed version of Israel's history was passed on to me in grade school. It's all as simple as the nurturing of despots in that area for our energy gain coming back to bite us in the ass - yet it's also gonna get more complicated than just cheering on the oppressed and repressed. This is the rest of the world, after all.

Jason Brad Berry said...

Youz Welcome. I woudn't write about it if I didn't think I had something unique to share, and I think Kipper's comments are amazing...she was warning us 10 years ago that this was coming down the pipe.

The whole symposium is actually amazing and it's all online...you would be particularly interested in it Leigh as there are some amazing exchanges between a Jewish scholar and an Iranian scholar.

When that symposium happened and the video was first produced we had yet to go into Iraq, it was highly contentious stuff for these guys to be discussing in an open playing field. Kipper was a firecracker, she didn't hold back at all. She was railing on our Middle East policy and how stupid we were. Remember, a year after we went in there was a surge of Iranian Shi'a operatives which flooded the vacuum we created in Iraq.....Bush later admitted he had no idea what the difference was between a Shi'a and Sunni Muslim. This is exactly the kind of ignorance of the region Kipper was pointing out.

In fact, Mead herself, was a firm believer that the Japanese would never have attacked the U.S. if they had actually understood our culture and prowess. They truly believed we were a weak, disjointed, lazy country which could be overcome. The lessons she tried to teach us in regards to the importance of understanding other cultures has mostly been ignored....it's a shame....cause she was spot the F on like she was with most everything else.

Editilla~New Orleans Ladder said...

I really enjoy it when you do these kinds of posts.
A student of Mead's work, I am also influenced by her ex-husband Gregory Bateson. The effect those two had on the intellectual vitality of our own culture is profound.

Coupled with that I am reminded of William James' quote: "A difference that makes no difference is no difference."

Although apocryphally tagged to FDR, this famous quote has been owned by nearly every President since Anastasio Somoza: "He may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch."

Jason Brad Berry said...

I am friends with Wilton Dillon, Professor Emeritus at the Smithsonian. He was Margaret's protege. He is possibly the most amazing mind I've ever met, lot's of amazing stories. Mary Catherine Bateson, Margaret and Gregory's daughter was at this symposium and she is an incredible mind in her own right, as one would imagine. She has a great byte here:


She points out that when it comes to education that Margaret was not keen on the idea of cramming information or a set curriculum down children's throats. She believed the most important aspect of education was to simply teach children to be curious...to question and explore the world around them. Sounds obvious but if you think about what our culture does, it's just the opposite....we tend to tell our children what to believe.

Jason Brad Berry said...

link got cut off...in the video section on the LOC site look at Cultural Awareness category under Videos by Topic

Anonymous said...

This was a great post. That job of yours sounds so cool.

One of the best pieces of advice about how to learn I've ever received was given to me by my sixth grade teacher.

He told us that when you are studying history or geography, for example, in addition to doing the assigned school work, you should read novels, poems, plays, kid's books that about that time period or region, and listen to music and pop cultural things from that time period or region, too.

This advice was amazing to me when I was eleven, and I went straight to my school librarian and got a whole bunch of historical novels about the period we were studying in history that year.

Later on, I would go to the main reference library in my home town and take mini "vacations" in countries that interested me by finding books of all sorts about that country and looking random shit up.

I came across Egypt in junior high, while researching a project on Propaganda (I went to a lefty school for smart kids).

Learning that the big chemical companies (pesticides)had advertizing budgets for Egypt and the other countries in the region which matched or exceeded the operating budgets of the local governments made my twelve year old self think "we are doomed".

I didn't know the word "globalization" yet, but I learned a lot about colonialism and corporate power by reading about Egypt when I was supposed to be doing my homework about WW II.

You ever read something, and the bottom drops out of the world, and then it seems bigger all of a sudden?

The Egyptian novel "Woman at Zero Point", which I read when I was fifteen, had a central female character whose power and struggles to survive were electrifying. I thought of her when I saw all those women in the square.

Kid's novels are great. They are fast reads, and you can learn a lot from them. The poetry, too, can help you to learn a lot about a place quickly.

Anonymous said...

What's really sad is that this same shit thats being played out in the middle east is the same shit that was played out in central in the 80's and south america in the 70's, We supported dictators and in the end they all got over thrown by their own people. But does our government ever learn from history? NOOOOOOO.
It's all about the money. America is a business and the business of America is business, it really doesn't care what happen to people, oh sure the government says it does and we say we do but in truth we really don't give a rats ass as long as we are making money.
As your self this would we give up driving our cars and raid a bike if it was to save 100 people in some far off land on the other side of the world?

Anonymous said...

If you are going to talk about movies that provide a glimpse into the mideast, YOU CANNOT LEAVE OUT "LAWRENCE OF ARABI."

In fact any book by T. E. Lawrence, partly on which the movie is based, is very insightful.

Jason Brad Berry said...

Yeah, I can leave it out. Colonial history. That simple. The heroics of a British spy do not tell the story of Arab culture any more than Rudyard Kipling could tell the story of Indian culture. That's not to say it isn't a great story and a great movie, but once again, the perspective is highly skewed.