By Eric Vandenbroeck

Cultural interaction, ethnic conflict, social stratification, and the workings of race and gender-all issues book sale-pundits write about. But whether liberal or conservative, they are often not based on evidence-based research, but on rhetorical assumptions about human nature and culture.

Unlike with the other arts, major errors in history writing entering the public mind can be unconstructive as shown for example in 1998 it was not a University that was asked to clarify the etic or emic historiography of holocaust denial. Instead, an English court had to test standards for historical truths by means of evidence-based research.

Maybe we also need history because it contains, if sometimes in vestigial form, the elements of the present and the future.

Cultural interaction, ethnic conflict, social stratification, and the workings of race and gender-all issues book sale-pundits write about. But whether liberal or conservative, they are often not based on evidence-based research, but on rhetorical assumptions about human nature and culture.

Thus bestselling book writers are of contributors to a set of "myths we live by." However on can ‘evaluate’ myths that societies tell about themselves and others, and try to understand where these stories came from, why they endure, and most important why some myths justify unnecessarily.

Like liberalism and Marxism, geopolitics is based on one sole main principle. Liberalism explains everything in terms of money, Marxism in terms of production relations. And the ideologically conservative character of geopolitics can be seen in its main principle geography and space.

Thus Samuel Huntington's 1993 “Clash of Civilizations” model was largely a reworking of the classical “realist” theories that have long dominated the study of foreign relations, in which international politics is essentially an unending struggle for power between coherent but isolated units. In fact, as we have detailed as a term, also something like the West (and its variants such as Western civilization, Western society, etc.) appeared surprisingly recent.

But also a popular Post-Modernist writer Francis Fukuyama in “The End of History” was rigidly determinist in its insistence that humanity's fate had been preordained, whether ideologically or culturally whereby we showed how the very much did. Thus both have been grotesquely reductionist in their refusal to acknowledge the complex pluralities that constitute those vague abstractions “history” and “civilization”. Just as Fukuyama effectively erased Nazism and Stalinism from his account of the past 200 years because they didn't fit, so Huntington ignored the fact that neither the number nor the causes of conflicts had changed much over the years. People still took up arms for traditional reasons - terri­torial hunger, economic desperation, religious zeal, lust for power, defense against external threats or internal rivals. Nevertheless, the polished sheen of his neat Manichean theorizing dazzled many Western policy-makers - not least because the phrase `global chaos theory' gave an extra veneer of scien­tific method to his coarse generalizations. Although he would be horrified by the comparison, Huntington aped the tech­niques of Soviet Communists who boasted of the inevitability and irrefutability of "scientific socialism"; and perhaps he had learned a trick or two from the post-modernist intellectuals of the 1980s whose freestyle riffs about truth and reality were given a semblance of empirical rigor by being expressed in the language of advanced physics and mathematics.

Even Thomas Jefferson saw historical education as vital to members of a free society-if they are to remain free in the longer run. History is, in fact, that part of the humanities which enables us to look back with a real perspective and so, also, to look forward as well-briefed as we can be.

After all, some myths justify unnecessary doomed to perpetual strife because of ancient feuds and grievances dating back to the Middle Ages and so on. For example, those that set Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim citizens at each other.

For example, Robert Kaplan who wrote “Balkan Ghosts” was not an expert in Balkan history or culture, the commonsense appeal of his "ancient hatreds" argument combined with a muscular and vivid writing style won his book a wide audience at a time when newspaper and television screens were full of searing images of atrocities from the Bosnian war. Bill Clinton read the book during his first term as president, and it is said that Kaplan helped persuade him for a long time that people in this corner of the world had always hated one another and probably always would, and that the United States should stay out of their conflicts. Balkan Ghosts is a discomfiting reminder of the terrible damage that can be done by an author with a persuasive writing style and a good publicist, even if the account is largely a mishmash of myth, superficial impressions, and recycled stereotypes.

In contrast, while Kaplan would have us believe that people in this part of the world were just itching for a chance to revisit old grievances, until the ethnic cleansing of the 1990s, Muslim and Catholic villagers had strong neighborly friendships. These interethnic friendships had been the rule rather than the exception in this part of the world and were blown apart only under the pressure of a war begun by Serb separatists in Belgrade.

Far from being eager to attack one another, villagers finally turned against one another only after hard work by nationalist politicians. Therefore Kaplan's question-can these people ever be expected to get over their differences was the wrong question to ask. How were people who had lived quietly together as neighbors for forty-five years manipulated into killing one another and burning each other's houses down?

Kaplan’ s subsequent book, The Coming Anarchy, was no less influential and, unfortunately, no less misguided. The book was preceded by an Atlantic Monthly article of the same name that was, remarkably, faxed by the U.S. State Department to every U.S. embassy in Africa. In it, Kaplan argues that the world is increasingly divided between the orderly, affluent societies of the West and anarchic, crime-ridden, overpopulated Third World societies headed for environmental degradation, outbreaks of dis­ease, downward spirals of poverty, and civil strife. He likens the citizens of the West to passengers in a stretch limo, saying, "Outside the stretch limo would be a rundown, crowded planet of skinhead Cossacks and juju warriors, influenced by the worst refuse of Western pop culture and ancient tribal hatreds, and battling over scraps of overused earth."

Warning about "places where the Enlightenment has not penetrated," and predicting that "distinctions between war and crime will break down,"' he fears that globalization will make it harder and harder for the people in the stretch limo to avoid "the coming anarchy." Telling us that democracy is culturally unnatural in many parts of the globe, and that some cultures are too weak or pathological to cope with the stresses of globalization, he predicts that anarchic waves of crime and violence will wash across various regions of the globe, particularly Africa.

The impression Kaplan gives of the African continent as an imploding zone of chaos and crime is empirically selective that while Africans may be poor, in many parts of the continent their societies are peaceful and orderly. And one could also argue that colonial powers in Africa practiced a form of divide and rule that created and exacerbated tribal identifications, and that these "hatreds," far from being "ancient," are recent inventions.

Kaplan however gives the impression that Third World societies are being eaten away by their own internal weaknesses (tribal hatreds, a congenital inability to create strong states, and an inability to control population), they are actually being undermined and deformed by exploitive relationships with the West. Western nations have made them a source of cheap raw materials and underpaid labor, and agencies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have forced them to cut social programs in order to demonstrate fiscal discipline. It is not that their unique cultural weaknesses are creating a wave of anarchy that may spread like a tidal wave from the Third World and drown us all, but that our relationships with them are generating suffering and exploitation that may blowback on us in the West.

The deformities in Kaplan’ s writing are, sadly, not unique to him. They form part of a broader pattern of distorted vision on the part of contemporary commentators.

Probably one of the most celebrated authors that can be called ‘pundit’ during the 1990s, was Samuel Huntington yet he exemplified the same problems with basic definitions and stereotyping cultures. And though wary of accepting the whole "clash of civilizations" package, Huntington’s disciples in the 1990’s where even perceived by anthropologists as doctrinaire and overly scientistic.

Though, Huntington conveyed an understanding of kinship, as a static and limiting force in the world. What it lacks is any reflexive sense of the cultural specificity of that view of culture. As David Schneider, in contrast, put it ten years before Huntington, "some social scientists use their own folk culture as the source of many if not all, of their ways of formulating and understanding the world around them” (See Schneider, A Critique of the Study of Kinship, 1985).

In fact, there is an astonishing variety of kinship practices around the world. Huntington’ s argument depends upon a crude determinism that assumes civilizational "kin" will always tend to take one another's side against outsiders-like the Orthodox Russians tilting toward the Serbs in Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Huntington in contrast adhered in his “Clash of Civilizations” to an old-fashioned model of primordially rooted loyalty seems a classic case.

Similarly, the assumptions about frozen traditions, conflicts, and cultures that one finds in the work of Friedman, Kaplan, and Huntington are premised on a stunning ignorance of the professional literature on culture and tradition-a literature that emphasizes the fluidity and malleability of culture and argues that ethnic conflict in such places as Rwanda and Bosnia has been the product of recent pressures, not ancient hatreds.

Huntington says, for example, in an argument that echoes Kaplan’ s warnings about the perils of multiculturalism, that the influx of Mexican immigrants into the United States creates a sort of Latin American fifth column within the United States that may eventually cause the loss of territory the United States once took from Mexico.

Also, Huntington's separation of "Western" and "Orthodox" civilizations (the latter including both Russia and Greece) is odd, since so many cultural conservatives in the United States trace Western civilization and its democratic traditions back to the ancient Greeks. Also, Huntington's characterizations of different cultures are often based on egregious stereotypes that blur the diversity of opinion acid belief within a society and deny the ability of societies to change over time.

Taking Huntington's representation of civilizations as enacting a timeless essence, if Europe "could evolve from a period when there was ... no schism between Protestantism and Catholicism, and an assumption that kings ruled by divine right, to today's secular and pluralistic democracies," then surely the other civilizations of the world can also change in substantial and unpredictable ways.

In fact, an awkward but striking exercise yields insight, if we compare Huntington with a metaphoric "bin Laden" called for the sake of convenience "Osama Huntington".

Osama indeed anticipated that globalization will produce a "clash of civilizations" at the center of which will stand a conflict between Islam and the West. Osama, like Samuel, believed that it is dangerous to mix different cultures, and he was particularly concerned that the purity and vitality of Islamic culture are threatened by Westernization. Pointing to the Crusades of the medieval period, he said that history shows that Islam and the West could not comfortably coexist. Peaceful coexistence is made more difficult, he argues, by the West's intrinsic militarism and love of violence. Here he points to several centuries of colonial expansion by the West, two world wars that originated in the West, the fact that the United States has, since the end of World War II, fought wars in Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, and Kosovo, and the relentless celebration of violence in Hollywood culture.

Thus, for example, if Kaplan presents human beings as captives of timeless, frozen cultural imperatives, a similar assumption mars Thomas Friedman's writing on "olive tree" cultures said that he framed this theory in terms of McDonald's Golden Arches, Samuel Huntington's work on a supposedly predetermined "clash of civilizations," and Thornhill and Palmer's argument that contemporary men are compelled by ancient evolutionary imperatives to behave like sexual cavemen. In Kaplan's writing about the Balkans and about a rising tide of violence in the Third World, we see a penchant for blaming the victims. Similarly, Dinesh D'Souza blames poverty on the indolence and incapac­ity of the poor, Herrnstein and Murray say that intellectual inadequacy has held back African Americans, and Thornhill and Palmer tell us that women who do not want to be raped should not wear short skirts.

Such new social Darwinists preached the inescapability of conflict and competition, the unreformability of those who are not like "us," and the responsibility of the poor, the weak, and the oppressed for their own suffering. In writings on international affairs, expressions of this ideology range from Friedman's strident neoliberalism to Huntington's smug cultural separatism.

In fact, the ideas that recur in different forms in the work of all the bestselling authors discussed above are indeed the inertia of ancient cultures and conflicts.

For the investigators who explore new ways of thinking about the world, the debate over whether culture shapes the world and politics is over: of course, it does. The question that remains, and the question that bestselling writers previously skirted, is how and why this best can be understood from a processual perspective.

Late academic geographer Harm de Blij has criticized Kaplan's book The Revenge of Geography for tending toward what de Blij interprets as environmental determinism, a school of thought often regarded as a discredited paradigm by geographers. He also argues that the book lacks acknowledgment of thinkers associated with postmodern schools of geographic thought, such as critical geopolitics. Finally, he describes Kaplan's book The Revenge of Geography as one of several "misleading" books on geography by non-formally trained geographers, and as such misrepresents the field to those unfamiliar (other examples that de Blij alludes to include Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel).

Thus postmodern relativism has often been attacked on the grounds it holds, that my truth is as valid as yours, whatever the evidence. However, no credible social commentator held such a view. Not Jacques Derrida, not Richard Rorty, not Michel Foucault. But it allows Marxists and conservatives alike to portray themselves as defenders of the truth in a world of postmodern subjectivism and cultural determinism.

This while the only thing we can really do is imagine the future because nothing can give us a definitive answer even if we did research for years, the future will always be reshaping and changing as our world does, culturally and technologically.

 

For updates click homepage here