Monday, March 3, 2008

The Boho two-step

Tom Wolfe, in The Painted Word, describes a peculiar dance that artists have to do. On the one hand, they have to disdain the "establishment," refer to them as "proles," and generally deride their insensitivity to matters artistic. On the other hand, artists have to court these same people, be seen at their parties, sell them paintings, and -ultimately- join them (albeit in paint-spattered jeans).

I see the same form of this dance in approaches to terrorist regimes. It's the "let's figure out why they hate us," phenomenon. The sentiment sounds large-hearted, forgiving, and humanistic. But look behind the saying for a moment at the entailed assumption. The assumption is that these people who hate us can't really help themselves. They are children, really, who must be nurtured, led, and taught the right way. We, on the other hand, are mature, have restraint, and don't hate. Suppose we were, however, to suggest that the people who hate us were not that different from us. We'd then ask "What is going on?" in a matter that doesn't put the responsibility for their hate on our shoulders, but may suggest that they hate us because of other factors. Perhaps it's that the Timothy McVeigh's are in charge over there. Perhaps it's a political ploy. Perhaps they're envious because they have the beaches but we have two oceans.

The same thing is operative when we deal with other cultures. Let's suppose that we go visit a foreign country, and want to visit a religious shrine. We are told that it is the custom in their country to wear a mask inside the shrine. So, we dutifully don masks, all the while feeling silly but congratulating ourselves on our ability to deal with foreigners. Let's say then that some of the people in this same country want to visit us and see our shrines. It's the custom in some places for women to cover their heads in holy places. The visitors don't, which is an insult to us, but we say, "They are, after all, foreigners and don't know our ways." So, we honor their silly customs but don't expect them to honor ours. It's the same thing, isn't it? They are children. We are adults.

If we visit Japan, we sit in holes with legs crossed and eat live fish. Ah, but when the Japanese come to visit us, what do we do? Well, we sit in holes with legs crossed and eat live fish. We assume that the Japanese are so dense that they can't learn to sit at a table and eat with a fork.

I don't for a moment think we are really fooling anyone but ourselves. We pat ourselves on the back and praise our tolerance, while the rest of the world thinks we're jerks.

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