Posts Tagged ‘Yemen’
American Exceptionalism is Dead
By 1945 the U.S. had emerged indisputably as the world’s strongest nation, physically and financially. War spending had helped end the Depression. The country had been spared the devastation of once-dominant Europe and its far-flung colonial system. The booming 1950s reinforced America’s underlying faith in its own moral and political underpinnings. Goaded by the worldwide challenge of communism, this “first new nation” set out to teach the “third” or “underdeveloped” world, by soft and hard power alike, the benefits of the American way. Behind this effort was a longstanding set of internal attitudes and assumptions that historians would dub “American exceptionalism.”
During the second half of this “American Century” the U.S. became involved in proxy wars in places such as Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East and Latin America. The results of these conflicts were often, at best, indeterminate. Far more successful, below the radar, were America’s exports of knowledge-based, open-lifestyle aspects of its consumer-based civilization: science and education, manufacturing and retail, mass communications and entertainment. Enlightened self-interest assumed that a rising tide of living standards worldwide (across oceans policed by the U.S. Navy) would lift all boats. Public and private agencies poured massive resources into helping the world imbibe Progress.
But by the year 2000 the success of this “soft power” transfer had produced unforeseen consequences. Populous and increasingly prosperous non-western civilizations, having acquired industrial and economic modernization, were now reconfiguring their societies in ways not necessarily predicted or understood by their western mentors.
Worldwide economic relationships were increasingly interconnected and interrelated. Low-cost Asian labor was as much a fact of life in Berlin or Los Angeles or Mexico as were the inventions of Apple or Caterpillar or Boeing in Mumbai or Sydney or Cairo. No one anywhere could any longer claim a monopoly on righteousness, pornography, or nuclear fusion. Provincial U.S. politicians might still try to pander to the hustings with sentimental yearnings; but the greater world knew that the idea of ”American exceptionalism” was now as last-century as “the American Century” itself.
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.