EDITORIAL: Sustaining culture

Sustaining culture

We live in a culture marked by its inattention to the unseen. Small wonder that as we trample on other cultures we neither recognize the damage we are doing nor anticipate the unforeseen and unwanted consequences we will later reap.

In “Ancient Nomads Offer Insights to Modern Crises,” the New York Times provides a fascinating glimpse into some of the less-considered reasons why America got Iraq wrong.

Ilan Greenberg writes:

Recent investigations have challenged long-held views of nomadic culture as purely transient, with little impact on the urban, sophisticated societies that emerged later.

Instead, scientists like [Washington University archaeologist] Dr. Frachetti are discovering that nomadic cultures are flexible, switching between transient and more sedentary ways of life, and assimilating and inventing new ideas and technologies. Nomads created durable political cultures that still influence the way those countries interact with outsiders or negotiate internal power struggles.

While the view that tribe and clan — the basic building blocks of nomadic, or semi-transient societies — influence the contemporary politics of some countries is nothing new, specialists in nomadic studies argue that policy makers have overlooked important “cultural intelligence,” like family relationships, when analyzing governments that grew out of tribal traditions.

“Families, tribes these are the things that matter here,” said Oraz Jandosov, co-chairman of a Kazakhstan opposition political party. “Foreigners talk about these things, but it’s only talk. They don’t understand them.”

Countries like Iraq and Afghanistan may take on the trappings of modern, Western nation-states, with parliaments, justice departments and other governmental agencies, researchers say. But politics are still driven by the customs and institutions of nomadism, in which political disputes were settled at the level of family, clan and tribe.

“In and of itself you can’t graft what happened two thousand years ago and say that’s what it is today, but it helps to understand how these societies have found successful strategies and how they respond to outside forces,” Dr. Frachetti said. “By not exploring the depth to which nomadic populations have contributed to local political systems, we are naive to an important aspect of the social fabric of parts of the Near East and Central Asia.”

The United States military has learned the importance of tribes in Iraq, as evidenced by its policy of arming Sunni Arab tribal chiefs in Anbar Province to fight the leading insurgent group there, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

Yet, despite calls for a deeper appreciation of cultures far from the mainstream, “the United States government hasn’t been willing to pony up the money to educate” policy makers on “these areas with deep nomadic traditions,” said a Central Asia specialist working for the United States government.

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The conceit of those of us who inhabit technologically advanced societies is that we are as advanced as our technology. (Keep that thought in mind next time your computer or your car breaks down.)

I would contend, to the contrary, that the more we (as Thoreau said) become the tools of our tools, the more we lose our mastery of and appreciation for the real building blocks of culture. The advancement, sophistication, and development of our societies has brought with it an unremitting cultural impoverishment.

As we become expert in text messaging, we become less adept in conversation. We acquire megabytes of iTunes but never learn or pass along a single ballad. We know the storylines in many a TV show yet are barely acquainted with ancient narratives from epic verse and drama. The cultural repositories that once provided the primary stock in popular image, phrasing, and metaphor, have been marginalized by a mass media that operates in the thrall of manipulative advertising techniques and commercial imperatives.

Before we can be expected to respect and understand other cultures, we first need to appreciate culture itself. And while, with justification, we worry about the loss of natural resources and an imperiled environment, we need to pay closer attention to those equally fragile resources that can only be sustained within and between human beings. Otherwise we will end up impoverished and ultimately destroyed by our own wealth.

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