Sunday, September 18, 2005

Malevolents Abroad: A Dialogue

An exchange from earlier this year with M.A., an American writer living overseas:

M.A.- I have suddenly today synthesized and crystallized an American duality- guys like you go out interested in the rest of the world, fascinated by and respectful of multiculturalism at its various sources and in all its shifting, kaleidoscopic implications; others -- let's, between us, call them proud C-students --go out to develop those other cultures, motivated by a genuinely missionary or profitable but ultimately practical impulse to raise standards of living. When other cultures don't see the light, however, and refuse to change their "backward" ways, the second type of American dismisses them as benighted. And isn't that exactly what the Taliban did to the Buddhas of Bamiyan? It would be inflammatory, unto losing the point, to draw the parallel with what you so deftly term the current Republican theology...but they sure as hell are American fundamentalists.

C.D.- It’s a duality that goes back at least to the time of “The White Man’s Burden” and the Anti-Imperialist League of 100-plus years ago.

M.A.- The WM's Burden isn't quite what I meant, which was more about a contradictory tension in the American personality...

C.D.- All Kipling's biographers agree he meant it seriously as an exhortation to take up the burden. I read it as deeply ironic and an appreciation of the kind of duality you're talking about. Kipling was, after all, the ultimate Orientalist. Even Edward Said, in his introduction to Kim, grudgingly admires him for that. But Americans are not Orientalists, they're missionaries, at best, or "Quiet Americans," and at worst they're just blundering tourists. They're not interested in the actual culture where they're trying to sow their message of religious or political or economic salvation. It's not a problem to be understood, it's just a problem to be solved. Which is what I took you to be saying about those C students.

M.A.- You say it exactly: problem solved, but not understood. And what I meant by the American fundamentalism is how fast that salvationist practicality turns into dismayed resentment of the ungrateful frogwog. It goes back psychologically through our own Manifest Destiny and the Indians we didn't bother to colonize, despite Jefferson's British-model plan that began with the peace-through-trade overtures of Lewis &Clark. As a national trait, it's a deep distrust of confusion and the curiosity that kills the cat, an impatience with abstraction and anything else that keeps the job from getting done. In God we trust, and the surrender monkeys can keep all that cultural hoity toity and free sex. And doesn't that also describe the Taliban?
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