Monday, February 20, 2006

Desert Sushi

My stepfather’s family was picked up in a security sweep a few weeks after Pearl Harbor.  He spent the bulk of his high school years unable to return to the Sacramento area because he had committed the crime of being a Californian who had ancestors in Japan.  At the end of his time away from home, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and thus went from being a security risk to security asset in the middle of his teens.  At the time, the single most terrifying image of Japan consisted of a kamikaze pilot strapped to hundreds of pounds of explosives bearing down on an American target.  The image symbolized a commitment of Japanese fighters and the utterly alien quality of Japanese culture to Americans.  Sixty years later, within my stepfather’s lifetime, America has embraced Japanese culture to a degree no one in 1942 would have imagined.  We no longer fear the Japanese flying into buildings.

When I was a child in the sixties, it started with judo, aikido, Sony televisions and radios, and zen meditation.  By the 1980’s, the emergence of Japanese high tech had Americans not only buying Hondas and Toyotas along with walkmen, but we were talking about imitating Japanese work teams and quality control.  Now it’s anime and sushi.  While Japanese and American culture remain separate, any modern observer would note the extent to which the two cultures have intertwined.  We don’t just both play baseball.  If you live on the west coast of the United States, it’s hard to tell with many everyday items which is American and which is Japanese in origin.

It’s possible that this level of peace won’t go beyond the next generation, still I’d like to believe that this is what “peace” looks like.  Yes, there is the matter of World War 2 and dropping weapons of mass destruction on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but there is something about the level of mutual cultural respect between Japan and the United States that I have seen grow in my own lifetime that tells me that U.S.-Japanese relations have found a path to extended peace.  

Over the last year, I’ve been constantly reminded that the war on “terrorism” is primarily military in nature.  We understand it as a mixture of explosions, troop commitments, and “intelligence” gathering.  Lately, the current administration has been insisting that it can play Constitutional Maxwell’s Demon without damaging either the first or fourth amendments and thus keep us “safe”.  In the meantime, the Department of Defense and the White House keep issuing National Strategies that appear to combine a military approach used to secure the spread of western style democracy across the Islamic world.  
I’d like to argue that it’s just as important to think about a cultural strategy.

I do recognize that the Administration has had something of a cultural strategy that eventually took the form of Karen Hughes’s work with the state department, but I’ve wondered what a serious cultural strategy might look like.  How many Americans known any Arabic or have ever read any part of the Qu’ran?  How many significant Moslems can we name?

I remember many years ago riding in a cab to Midway Airport just before the 2000 election with two others who had attended the same conference with me.  Not surprisingly, since we didn’t know each other that well, the conversation turned to politics.  We got caught in traffic.  The cab driver turned around and said, “Why do you Americans always talk about politics so much?”

It turned out that he was a displaced Palestinian engineer who claimed that he could earn more as a Chicago cab driver than he could as an industrial engineer on his side of the border in his homeland.  He then segued into a monologue about the political state of Israel/Palestine that was far more intense and obsessive than our talk in the backseat of his cab.  The only thing that stopped him was my interjecting the fact that I had once tried to read the Qu’ran in English.  

For some reason, this made our driver very happy.

“Five years in America and you’re the first American I’ve met who ever told me that he had tried to read the Qu’ran.”

I made it clear to him that I couldn’t make any sense of the book.  

“Why did they call a whole section of the book the Cow and yes everyone talks about how Abraham, Moses,  Noah, and Jesus all appear in the Qu’ran, but no one exactly told me how different their stories sound there.”

Our brief cultural exchange did make for a better cab ride and it did remeind  me of a time when I had a student whose family came from Egypt and who had just turned thirteen.  She was a very pretty girl and quite popular, but her family decided that it was time for her to wear a burkha.  It had the immediate effect of making her look like an elderly woman.  Two African-American girls in the class took to walking with her around school to make sure that no one said anything to her about it.  I was genuinely impressed with that symbol of cross-cultural friendship.  A couple weeks later, the student started taking her burkha off a few minutes after arriving at school and putting it back on  shortly before having to go home.  A couple weeks after that, the family decided to move back to Egypt.  

In other words, we’ve got a long way to go before we can even have any idea what a serious cultural strategy might look like.  Obviously, it has to be more than a couple Ridley Scott movies about the Crusades or Khalil Ghibran poetry slams.  There may be some clues out there though.  I suspect the most famous Moslem in the world still happens to be an American, Muhammad Ali. There’s also this fascinating relationship between the original Crusades, the Moslem breakout that led to a takeover of Spain, the Inquisition, and Columbus.  

As someone who doesn’t identify with any of the three monotheistic religions of the Middle East, I’ve long been struck by how poorly European style Christianity has done in its hometown.  No current country in the Middle East is  predominantly Christian.  The closest the world has come to that has been the Crusades when European Crusaders took and held Jerusalem for many years and post-Ottoman colonialism when European nations militarily and economically brokered Middle Eastern politics down to both the creation of Iraq as a country and the formation of Israel.  

Oddly, the Christian west over an eight hundred year span has never quite won the cultural war.  For more than a thousand years since the fall of the Byzantines more or less provoked the first Crusade, Islam has stayed the dominant religion in that part of the world.  Something about the region stubbornly resists the kind of reciprocal cultural exchange that has become the norm between the United States and Japan.  

This clearly makes me an outlier, but I remain convinced that cultures don’t ultimately win wars with the barrel of a gun or IEDs.  I believe that long term differences get settled through things like sushi, baseball, karaoke, rock and roll, and Allah forbid Coca Cola. Perhaps this one will take the form of falafel or architectural styles based on the dome, but my biggest fear is that Arab culture and U.S. culture are becoming more foreign rather than more familiar to one another.  Though I would point out that California has made “algebra’ as universal high school graduation requirement :}.  

The only sign that we Americans are becoming more Islamic in outlook is actually coming from the Bush Administration which seems intent on turning the Bill of Rights into the most intricate imaginable kind of arabesque.  If we look closely enough, we recognize some of the words, but they have become so abstracted and stylized that it’s become a wholly different form of art that only vaguely resembles the source. How’s that for a zen paradox?



At 2/21/2006 10:47:00 AM, Blogger pissed off patricia said...

I have always believed, and you have pretty much proven it, that people left to themselves will first try to get along with one another. It's just what we do. But once any sort of politics is placed on the table, the natural urge to come together is destroyed. It's sad that we miss so much by never really knowing one another.

At 2/21/2006 01:42:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I would say that it's also very common for cultures that know one another very well to do terrible things to one another anyway. The most obvious example is German Jews and non-Jewish Germans.
Some of it depends on the level of respect in the cultural exchange. It's one thing that seemed to be missing from Karen Hughes's adventures in the Middle East. She didn't know much about the culture and yet wanted to tell them what was good for them.


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