Posts Tagged ‘tribalism’
The Current Candidates Can’t Cut It
In view of the gravity of the job he wants us to give him, Romney is a cardboard cutout, a talking puppet. He panders to a sentimental view of a 1950s USA, replete with a triumphalist foreign policy, go-it-alone economics, and class warfare. He shows zero sensitivity to the broad heart and soul of America at home. He displays zero understanding of the global realities of today’s business and politics. No major entrepreneur of the 21st century could survive if he followed Romney’s reductionist view of capitalism, or his isolationist outlook on a complex world.
Both candidates, in fact, project a sentimental ’50s vision of an America in isolation. Obama’s knee-jerk reversion to the populist rhetoric of class warfare is worse than Romney’s. Rather than floating nice emotional balloons about a mythologized middle class, as they did in their conventions, both candidates should be showing us world maps with trading routes and population numbers. One of the best articles I’ve read recently is the front page of one of the sections of today’s Wall Street Journal by Robert Kaplan. Simple geography goes a long way toward casting things like the Iran question way beyond the narrow focus of Israel and Hormuz. Both candidates could start by pointing out the geostrategic fact that, for better or worse, the US recently took out both of Iran’s worst long-term enemies — Iraq and Afghanistan — both of which are (of course) already reverting to their eternal tribalism.
As we are to ours.
By default, Romney appears not to disagree with Secretary Clinton’s foreign policy activities, for example in respect to the South China Sea. If he does disagree, let’s hear his alternative plan, relationship by relationship across that vast archipelago of islands, moderate religious affiliations, tight trade corridors and natural resources, starting with the differing views and interests of places like Pakistan and China and Australia.
Sorry, but I don’t give a damn about what either candidate’s mother fed them for breakfast. We need big-souled, broad-gauged, wide-view leadership. If the world’s most powerful man is going to have an opinion on appropriate capitols for Israel and Palestine (as he should), he needs to demonstrate a balanced understanding of the millennial conflicts over these eternally contested areas.
I agree with Romney when he attacks over-regulation of US business. But we need far more fact and detail on this: exactly which regulations he would change or keep, and why. Instead of treating us to cartoonish mom-and-pop mythologies, please posit a long-term reliable playing field on which managers and investors can plan their domestic and international strategies and risks. Take Wall Street: I happen to think the big banks brought regulation on themselves by the excesses that caused the 2008 collapse — requiring rescue with your and my taxpayer money. Obama lacks the sense, feel, experience of running a business, and business is the foundation of the economy; but Romney lacks the sense and feel of the globalized community his decisions would affect. Nobody wants to mention Fiat’s key role in rescuing Chrysler: okay, Obama’s boys worked hard on the auto debacle, but for all that only a foreign company was willing to step up and do it. Are we Americans, in the 21st century, too poorly educated to grasp such plain facts? Or to be told it is beyond any nation’s power to just call up jobs?
Any candidate who slashed the slogans and started with a simplified world map, overlaid with trade and population data, and interwoven with a modicum of historical perspective, and could abbreviate all this to under an hour — he or she would attract my vote. I’m less interested in specific policy predictions than in the demonstration of world class thinking. Such a speech could be given in, say, Long Beach, California, against the backdrop of all the container ships arriving from every point on earth. It should include a graph of trade dollars and deficits flowing in all directions, and what all this means for the future of humanity and the planet.
No candidate is worth his salt if he is afraid to stand up and say, “This is no longer the world of your fathers. There is no sentimental return to the 1950s. We are living in a world as highly integrated as its trade, as its broader economies, as its micro and macro political relationships, as its climate zones and as its languages and peoples. How many hot wars have you won since 1945? Get used to it, my friends, and live appropriately.”
In the Western press, the story of Syria’s beleaguered Kurdish population has been overshadowed by coverage of their immediate cousins, the U.S.-friendly Kurds of northern Iraq and those of Turkey. Michael Kennedy’s story on page A6 in the New York Times of April 18 changes that. In a deeply sourced and widely researched report, Kennedy quotes longtime Washington Post correspondent and author Jonathan C. Randal and other experts on the Syrian Kurds’ long and heartrending struggle for independence against the long-running hereditary regimes of strongman Syrian Presidents Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad.
An old personal friend of my wife and myself, Randal always had a reputation among his colleagues of daring to go where no one else would asking the provocative questions no one else dared ask. Following on the pioneering 1960s book on the Kurds by another friend, New York Times’ Dana Adams Schmidt, Randal’s updated and highly detailed book on the Kurds’ struggle landed him with a subpoena from a Turkish court which he, characteristically, flew from France to Istanbul to answer in order to assert freedom of the press in some of the more dangerous corridors within a strife-torn nation wishing to qualify for membership in the European Union.
Kennedy’s fine piece in this week’s New York Times alerts modern readers to the seemingly eternal reality of tribalism as a stumbling block to national identity everywhere in the Middle East and south Asia — the fundamental resistance to political “modernization” as earnestly attempted under the evolving value systems and political motivations, in the course of their histories, by Britain, Russia, and now the U.S. Good luck. Or maybe Godspeed would be the more appropriate term, given the religious undercurrents always involved.
Another fine photographer who covered the Kurds extensively is Susan Meiselas. Visit her website www.akakurdistan.com, “a safe and anonymous space on the web to share some of the complexities of Kurdish history.”
Here’s another photo to illustrate tribalism — a portrait of the famous Kurdish tribal chief, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, taken when I was traveling illegally in northern Iraq in 1965. This black and white version appeared with my six page article in LIFE Magazine the same year, and it reappears in my recent book, Causes and Spirits, on pages 264-265. Mullah Mustafa died in 1979. The original is in brilliant color (Kodachrome slide taken with Leica M2), which I could probably find and scan into my website if anyone is interested (ie, if enough readers write and ask). Another picture of Barzani taken by me at the same time illustrates the current Wikipedia entry on Mustafa Barzani.
The deep tribal affinity of the Kurds in their generations-long struggle for independence from the Iraqi central government is a textbook-perfect case of the enduring power of in-group tenacity throughout the Middle East and south Asia. Mullah Mustafa’s son, Massoud Barzani, has played a leading role in Iraqi politics since before and after his alliance with the US-Coalition invasion. He is the current leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iraq, and was re-elected President of Iraqi Kurdistan with 66% of the vote in July 2009.
The deeper reality is that the Barzani clan commands the fundamental loyalty of only part of the Kurds. The others traditionally adhere to a faction called the Talabani (unrelated to the Afgans by a similar name); Jalal Talabani serves as the sixth President of Iraq. He met with Barack Obama in Iraq on April 7, 2009. Past relationships between the two Kurdish clans were frosty at best, but (perhaps as a sign of changing political realities) the Barzani and Talibani appear to have evolved a cooperative relationship. The stories of the Kurds in Turkey, Iran, and Syria are politically different, yet ethnically similar in that, for instance, nearly all speak Kurdish and some have blue eyes; quite a number have also emigrated to Europe.
My step-daughter’s husband, Kushi Gavrieli, is a Kurdish Jew born in the Negev region of Israel whose family migrated there from a village in western Iran where the ancient Aramaic language is still spoken. The Middle East is speckled with such anomalies; I visited a band of Chaldean Christians living in a cave among the Iraqi Kurds.
Sure, all of above complexity will be beautifully sorted out and settled by whomever wins the U.S. election in November. Send over a few more bombs, and we can “get it behind us.”
The upper photograph of mine, below, is featured on the cover of the March 2012 issue of The Sun magazine, which, according to its website, “is an independent, ad-free monthly magazine that for more than thirty years has used words and photographs to invoke the splendor and heartache of being human.” You can sample over 50 of my photographs which have appeared on Sun covers and inside the magazine on my website here. Below the magazine cover is another photograph I took of two Yemeni children.
In 1964, when I first arrived in Beirut (where I would be based for two years as a photojournalist), I met Dana Schmidt, the New York Times Middle East bureau chief, who asked me to accompany him on a journey to Cairo, Yemen, and Aden. From Sana’a, Yemen, we traveled north toward a tribal civil war then raging between the Royalists (backed by the Saudis) and the Republicans (backed by the Egyptians). The country was extremely undeveloped in those days. We met this man on the road north. He wore his curved dagger as a traditional emblem of manly power. Stuck in his headband was a sprig of khat, a mild narcotic plant chewed by most Yemeni men in the afternoons to induce a state of semi-stupor. The photo is reproduced in my recent book, Causes and Spirits. The full un-cropped print, made in my darkroom, includes the long-abandoned ruins of a castle on the hill behind the man.
In the 48 years since taking these pictures, along hundreds of others across the region, I have often reflected how long it is taking the Americans (and the British before them) to begin to comprehend the intricacies and staying power of tribal relationships throughout the Middle East and Asia — and to understand the near-futility of trying to transform these insular societies, in our lifetimes, into Western-style democracies.
Tribalism is an innate human survival mechanism. The impulse to cluster together in small bands must have embedded itself in the human brain over thousands of years of evolution. Straying beyond boundaries meant getting eaten by animals or killed by competing tribes. So, those with strong in-group affinities were selected to survive. That is my view and that of the neo-Darwinian “evolutionary psychology” movement.
Equally crucial, among these societies, I experienced traditional patterns of human relationship and economic cooperation. Mate selection, child rearing, home management, land management, animal husbandry, trading networks and handed-down occupations are elaborately codified in language, ritual, and religion to form a tightly woven fabric deeply resistant to change from within or without. Since the dawn of recorded civilization, the peoples across this vast stretch of territory, stretching from the Nile Valley across the Fertile Crescent and over to the Indus Valley, have developed complex strategies of thriving internally while resisting external threats. Layers of cohesiveness bind in-groups together in a quilt-like diversity of languages, faiths, pride and identity. Like many another outsider, I was greeted with extraordinary warmth, underwritten by strong customs of sharing and hospitality. The poorest among my hosts were often the most generous. However, ostracism — or worse — faced one of their own whose attitude or behavior might undermine in-group cohesion.
We westerners have all experienced schoolyard cliques, ethnic slights, religious and social superiorities/inferiorities, countless other in-group/out-group expressions, overt and subtle, right down to the class warfare sometimes implicit in the Presidential debates. Nationalism is a way of belonging, as is the nuclear family. But now there are strong forces, worldwide, working working to dissolve all forms of group affinity. These include major trends such as the spreading demands for personal equality and religious liberty, the toppling of dictators, and the globalization of commerce and travel. Digital transmission may enable tribal chatter, but it also seeds the rapid dissolution of all sorts of boundaries worldwide. Deeply rooted instincts are now confronted by commercial facts on the ground, and seamless communications in the air. The pictures of conflict I took in the Middle East, armed with Leicas and press credentials, are now being supplanted by gritty videos shot by ordinary citizens wielding their i-Phones.
Like it or not, appropriate or inappropriate, this is how the world is going. I welcome your comments.