Sunday, March 14, 2010

Gleaning My Teeming Brain Again

I don't know if I'm exactly over what I've had the past week -- I'm still coughing a lot, and haven't decided whether to go to the doctor about it -- but at least I'm able to read again, and I feel a certain compulsion to write. Which is a very nice feeling.

So I'm dipping into a book called A Very Bad Wizard: Morality behind the Curtain (Believer Books, 2009), a collection of nine conversations between the philosopher Tamler Sommers and "ten acclaimed researchers in the burgeoning field of moral psychology" as the back-cover blurb describes them. I have a feeling I'll be referring to it here with some frequency in the days to come.

In the conversation with Joseph Henrich, a researcher with a background in anthropology at the University of British Columbia, there's this (page 127):
TS: What do you think the social and practical implications of your research are?

JH: One practical implication of all this is that things like formal institutions, legal systems, laws, formal government, they have to be well-fitted to the informal local norms. And so what you can't do is take a formal system from one place and just plop it on top of another place, and expect it to work. Because there's no fit. That seems to have all kinds of implications for economic development, for all kinds of things.

TS: Maybe a certain war we're engaged in? Trying to bring our values, democracy, to a region where it might not fit -- is that something you'd think is unwise?

JH: Sure, that definitely comes to mind. Of course, the Iraq situation is just the latest installment of this same notion that happened a lot throughout Africa. Instituting a British parliamentary system or something like that. And it's really hard to get those things to work because it doesn't fit with the local system of values. The idea of doing democracy in a Fijian village, for example, is actually insulting to its people there because they have a hierarchy that's based on the chief. And we've been studying why they think the chief has the right to make these decisions. They have an existing system which isn't a democracy, although it does give equal voice to everybody. But it is a decision-making system. If you tried to just stick a democracy in there, I can't imagine what would -- things just wouldn't go well.

TS: The norms are too entrenched for that to work.
Whew. That took my breath away all over again as I typed it in -- the sheer arrogance and stupidity that exude from every sentence, uttered by two very intelligent, highly educated and thoughtful men. One reason I want to pass it along is to see if anyone else has the same reaction I did.

Where to begin? Well, first, of course, there was never any intention on the US' part of bringing "democracy" to Iraq in the first place. Nor did the British have any such intention in India or the rest of their Asian and African empire. The US and its collaborators invaded Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime in order to gain control of its oil reserves and establish US military bases there. Elections were not on Bush's agenda until they were forced on him by mostly Shi'a nonviolent resistance, and then they were a mere public-relations formality, which he overrode at his pleasure. The election results in Iraq have signaled Iraqis' demand that the US withdraw its occupying army, a demand affirmed without compliance by the Status of Forces Agreement concluded at the end of Bush's second term. The situation has not changed under Obama, despite or because of all the handwringing over Iraqis' alleged refusal to take responsibility for their government. One might as honestly speak of Saddam's trying to "stick a democracy" on Kuwait in 1990. Yet neither Sommers nor Henrich seems to be experiencing any cognitive dissonance at their application of the term.

Second, then, I have to wonder what Sommers and Henrich mean by "democracy" in their exchange. The meaning of the word isn't clear under the best of circumstances, and it appears to me that they are using it here in its normal, North American propaganda sense: the American way, just like we have in the States: elections, a legislature, courts, an executive, lobbyists, mass media, corporate donations, with plenty of structural and practical barriers to keep the majority of Americans away from the levers of power. (Henrich was teaching in Canada at the time of the interview, but he had lived and worked in the US until 2006.) Of course you couldn't easily transplant such a complex, expensive, and corrupt system just anywhere overnight, but who in their right mind would want to?

Third, the Fijian setup Henrich describes doesn't sound all that un-democratic. (Without the quotes.) There's an executive, the chief, who "makes the decisions," but the Fijians do "give equal voice to everybody." If the Fijians have a "hierarchy," so does the US, even in theory, from local to state to federal, and ladders of influence and power within each branch.

Seriously, I can't imagine what Sommers and Henrich think they're talking about here. On the face of it they're simply indulging in a very familiar self-congratulatory white-guy view of the dusky races, and Henrich in particular seems to be gesturing toward the idea of anthropologists functioning as consultants to imperial power in the metropole on dealing with subject peoples in the far-flung protectorates. I'm just surprised, given the amount of self-criticism among anthropologists in the past half-century for having played that role in the past, to see him so complacent and open about it now. His criticism of past efforts seems not to consider that other people in other "regions" might have a right to direct themselves (that would be "insulting"), nor even that "informal local norms" should be respected for their own sake -- only that "you can't ... take a formal system from one place and just plop it on top of another place, and expect it to work." If the systems of control are tailored to "informal local norms", they might work very well -- for the outside controllers, anyway.

As I say, this is nothing new. I was just mildly surprised to find it rearing its head in such a nice liberal-minded discussion. Knowing what I know, I shouldn't have been; indeed, it's exactly where I should have expected to find it.