February 06, 2006

So Many Enemies...

Elinor Burkett's "So Many Enemies, So Little Time": at first I couldn't make up my mind whether this was a nicely subtle satire on Americans abroad, or whether she had as much self-blindness as the Iranians she criticises midway through the book:
But [their] warmth was laced with a curious historical blindness, a fascinating blend of indifference, gullibility, hubris, and self-pity. Poor us, we're so misinterpreted and misunderstood.
Like so much US writing on foreign countries, she combines the occasional fairly insightful obervation on other countries and cultures with a wilful and sometimes bizarre blindness to her own country and culture (and to the effect that blindness has on her own observations of other cultures). For example, much as I absolutely despise theocracies (and fundamentalisms) of any type, it's hard not to sympathise a little with the targets of this typical aside: "Except that American credit cards didn't work in Iran, a country that still hadn't apologized for snatching our embassy and its residents twenty-one years earlier." Funny that. Iranian (and US-Iranian history in particular) didn't exactly start in 1979; modern Iran is at least as much a Western creation as it is self-created; and there's all that nasty stuff that the US hasn't exactly apologised for, either (like, oh, the Shah).

"Evil, after all, lurks in hovels and caves among the illiterate and undereducated. At least that's the prevailing assumption. Iran bore little resemblance to the refugee camps of the West Bank or the Tora Bora Caves." Or to the White House, or the Knesset, or the streets of Munich or San Francisco, or any of the other myriad places evil lurks. Isn't that the whole point of evil? Evil lurks at least as much in the eye of the beholder as out there in the hovels and caves.

"So in Iran there was no contradiction between Stone Age fundamentalism and modern technology, between Gucci shoes and polygamy." Let's try that again, with a slight change: "So in the US there was no contradiction between Stone Age fundamentalism and modern technology, between Gucci shoes and polygamy." Well, that last part works best in Utah, but you get my drift. More cuttingly, it could have been, "So in the US there was no contradiction between Stone Age poverty and modern technology, between Gucci shoes and barefoot beggars'.

I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, to discover she wasn't like this at all, to read of some incident -- some tragedy, whatever -- that happens to change her perspective, something that brings it all home to her. But no, it just keeps going on in the same jaunty, self-confident, slightly impatient, faux-iconoclast, condescending father-knows-best tone that I usually associate with The Economist. Combined with the overall air of implacable cultural superiority, and the impressions of a traveler utterly unable to contain her impatience at people who aren't yet quite at her stage of enlightenment and benevolence, it's a difficult read. But worth it in some ways -- while you'll learn some interesting stuff about Kyrgyzstan and the other surrounding Stans, what you'll really learn a lot about is Burkett's world and ways of thinking, and the limitations they have when faced with the reality of the rest of the world.


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