Monthly Archives: June 2010
My desk, like the desk of most research scientists, sees an overwhelming traffic of scholarly journals and articles—reams of pages of the latest cutting-edge discoveries, destined to be outdated before next week. But one study, A Cross-Cultural Summary, written in 1967 by the Stanford anthropologist Robert Textor, has remained firmly planted there for some time now—and not only because, at 3,000 pages long, it’s rather hard to pick up and move. Textor’s massive tome contains a cultural correlation that bears disquietingly on the type of planet we humans have produced for ourselves today, and my mind turns to it more and more of late.
THE FALLOW AND THE FERTILE
Eleven thousand years ago Clovis nomads may have dwelled in the Great Sand Dunes of Mosca, Colorado, where the desert abruptly ends at an alpine forest. Their culture still rings true in our daily lives as the successful societies on Earth continue to adopt the ways of desert dwellers.
All across the world, the sort of culture you live in has something to do with the ecosystem around it. Traditional tundra societies are more likely to share cultural patterns with each other than with tropical rain forest societies, regardless of whether some descended from a common ancestral culture. High-altitude plateau cultures differ in systematic ways from fishing cultures in island archipelagoes. Some of these correlations are fairly predictable: Tuareg desert nomads are not likely to have 27 different words for types of snow or fishhooks. But as Textor found, some of the correlations are far from predictable and have helped contribute to the sociopolitical mess we now inhabit.
Attempts to link culture with climate and ecology have an old history (Herodotus did it long before Montesquieu), but with the rise of anthropology as a discipline, the effort became scientific. Early efforts were often howlers of dead-white-male racism; every study seemed to generate irrefutable scientific proof that northern European ecosystems produced superior cultures, more advanced morals, technologies, and intellects, and better schnitzel. Much of contemporary social anthropology represents a traumatized retreat from the sins of those intellectual fathers. One solution was to resolutely avoid cultural comparisons, thereby ushering in an era wherein an anthropologist could spend an entire career documenting the puberty rite of one clan of farmers in northeastern Cameroon.
But some anthropologists remained generalists, studying cross-cultural patterns while cautiously treading around ideological bias, and many continued to explore how ecology affects culture. One such pioneer was John Whiting of Harvard, who in 1964 produced a paper entitled “Effects of Climate on Certain Cultural Practices.” Comparing data from non-Westernized societies from around the planet, he noted that husbands and wives from cultures in the colder parts of this planet are more likely to sleep together at night than are spouses in the tropics. He also found that cultures in habitats that produce protein-poor diets have the longest restrictions on postpartum sex. Whiting hypothesized that to counterbalance the lack of protein, infants required a longer period of nursing, which placed a premium on well-spaced births.
Other anthropologists explored the ecological roots of violence. In 1982 Melvin Ember of Yale found that certain ecosystems are so stable and benign that families remain intact throughout the year, farming their plot of land or hunting and gathering in the surrounding rich forest. In less forgiving settings, family units often split up for long periods, dividing their herds into smaller groups during dry seasons, for instance, with family members scattered with subflocks on distant pockets of grazing land. In such situations, warrior classes—as one sees among the pastoralist cowherding Masai of East Africa—are more common. There are advantages to having a communal standing army in case enemies appear when many of the men are away finding grass for the cattle.
In the 1960s, Textor pursued a radically different approach to cross-cultural research. He collated information on some 400 different cultures from around the world and classified them according to nearly 500 traits. What sort of legal system did each culture have? How did its people make a living? Did they believe in an afterlife? Did they weave or know about metallurgy? When at play, did they prefer games of chance or of strategy? Then he fed all these variables about all these cultures into some gigantic paleo-computer, cross-correlated everything, and laid out the significant findings. The result, his monumental A Cross-Cultural Summary, offers table after table indicating, among other things, which cultural differences are statistically likely to be linked to ecological differences. While not the sort of book you toss in your knapsack for beach reading, there is something irresistible about thousands of pages of correlations. Where else could you discover that societies that don’t work with leather very well are disproportionately likely to have games of skill? How do you explain that one?
From these various anthropological approaches, a basic dichotomy has emerged between two types of societies from very different ecosystems: societies born in rain forests and those that thrive in deserts. Think of Mbuti pygmies versus Middle Eastern bedouin, or Amazonian Indians versus nomads of the Gobi. There turn out to be consistent and permeating differences between the two. Obvious exceptions exist, some quite dramatic. Nonetheless, the correlates are unnerving.
Begin with religious beliefs. A striking proportion of rain forest dwellers are polytheistic, worshipping an array of spirits and gods. Polytheism is prevalent among tribes in the Amazon basin (the Sherenti, Mundurucu, and Tapirape) and in the rain forests of Africa (the Ndorobo), New Guinea (the Keraki and Ulawans), and Southeast Asia (the Iban of Borneo and the Mnong Gar and Lolo of Vietnam). But desert dwellers—the bedouin of Arabia, the Berbers of the western Sahara, the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert, the Nuer and Turkana of the Kenyan/Sudanese desert—are usually monotheistic. Of course, despite allegiances to a single deity, other supernatural beings may be involved, like angels and djinns and Satan. But the hierarchy is notable, with minor deities subservient to the Omnipotent One.
This division makes ecological sense. Deserts teach large, singular lessons, like how tough, spare, and withholding the environment is; the world is reduced to simple, desiccated, furnace-blasted basics. Then picture rain forest people amid an abundance of edible plants and medicinal herbs, able to identify more species of ants on a single tree than one would find in all the British Isles. Letting a thousand deities bloom in this sort of setting must seem natural. Moreover, those rain forest dwellers that are monotheistic are much less likely to believe that their god sticks his or her nose into other people’s business by controlling the weather, prompting illness, or the like. In contrast, the desert seems to breed fatalism, a belief in an interventionist god with its own capricious plans.
Another major difference was brought to light by Melvin Ember. Desert societies, with their far-flung members tending goats and camels, are classic spawning grounds for warrior classes and the accessories of militarism: military trophies as stepping stones to societal status, death in battle as a guarantee of a glorious afterlife, slavery. And these cultures are more likely to be stratified, with centralized authority. A cosmology in which an omnipotent god dominates a host of minor deities finds a natural parallel in a rigid earthly hierarchy.
Textor’s work highlights other differences between desert and rain forest societies. Purchasing or indenturing wives is far less prevalent among rain forest peoples. And in rain forest cultures, related women tend to form the core of a community for a lifetime, rather than being shipped off to serve the expediency of marriage making. In desert cultures, women typically have the difficult tasks of building shelters and wandering in search of water and firewood, while the men contemplate the majesty of their herds and envision their next raid. Among rain forest cultures, it’s the men who are more likely to do the heavy lifting. Rain forest cultures also are less likely to harbor beliefs about the inferiority of women; you won’t be likely to find rain forest men giving thanks in prayer that they were not created female,
as is the case in at least one notable desert-derived religion. Finally, desert cultures tend to teach their children to be modest about nudity at an earlier age than in rain forest cultures and have more severe strictures against premarital sex.
Which kind of culture would you prefer to get traded to? When it comes to the theistic part, it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other to me. As for the other correlates, desert cultures, with their militarism, stratification, mistreatment of women, uptightness about child rearing and sexuality, seem unappealing. And yet ours happens to be a planet dominated by the cultural descendants of the desert dwellers. At various points, the desert dwellers have poured out of the Middle East, defining large parts of Eurasia. Such cultures, in turn, have passed the last 500 years subjugating the native populations of the Americas, Africa, and Australia. As a result, ours is a Judeo-Christian/Muslim world, not a Mbuti-Carib/Trobriand one.
So now we have Christians and Jews and Muslims in the wheat fields of Kansas, and in the cantons of the Alps, and in the rain forests of Malaysia. The desert mind-set, and the cultural baggage it carries, has proven extraordinarily resilient in its export and diffusion throughout the planet. Granted, few of those folks still live like nomadic pastoralists, guiding their flocks of sheep with staffs. But centuries, even millennia after the emergence of these cultures, they bear the marks of their desert pasts. Our vanquished enemies in Afghanistan, the Taliban, and our well-entrenched Saudi friends created societies of breathtaking repressiveness. In Jerusalem in recent years, Jewish Orthodox zealots have battled police, trying to close down roads on Saturday, trying to impose their restrictive version of belief. And for an American educator with, say, a quaint fondness for evolution, the power of the Christian right in many parts of this country to dictate what facts and truths may be uttered in a classroom is appalling. Only one way to think, to do, to be. Crusades and jihads, fatwas and inquisitions, hellfire and damnation.
Unfortunately, the rain forest mind-set appears not only less likely to spread than its desert counterpart but also less hardy when uprooted, more of a hothouse attribute. Logging, farming, and livestock grazing are rapidly defoliating Earth. Our age witnesses not only an unprecedented extinction of species but of cultures and languages as well. William Sutherland, a population biologist at the University of East Anglia, has shown that the places on Earth with the most biodiversity are the most linguistically diverse as well and that languages are even more at risk for extinction than are birds or mammals. And so the rain forest cultures, with their fragile pluralism born of a lush world of plenty, deliquesce into the raw sewage of the slums of Rio and Lagos and Jakarta.
DESERT, DESERT EVERYWHERE
Map by Matt Zang
Legend: Yellow: subtropical; dark blue: cool coastal; light blue: cold winter
At least a fifth of Earth is desert. As rain forests are destroyed by humans, deserts expand. Global warming, farming, and water use compound desertification. In the last 50 years, the Sahara, in Africa, which accounts for 8 percent of the world’s land area, has grown by more than 250,000 square miles.
What are we to make of the correlations between environment and cultural practices? Think of humans as the primates that we are, and it makes perfect sense. Go discover two new species of monkeys never before seen. Know nothing about them other than that one lives in the trees of an Amazonian forest and that the other walks the arid scrubland of Namibia, and a card-carrying primatologist can predict with great accuracy the differing sex lives of the two species, which is the more aggressive, which is the more territorial, and so on. In this respect, we are subject to the influences of ecology, like any other species.
Still, two big differences make us distinctive. First, human cultures allow far more—and far more dramatic—exceptions to rules than one finds in other primates. After all, our mean old Judeo-Christian/Muslim world has also produced peaceful Quakers and Sufis. In contrast, no olive baboon, living a savanna life that favors omnivory, has ever opted for vegetarianism as a moral statement.
The second distinctive trait of human culture is its existential bent. We’re not just talking about how ecology influences the kind of arrowhead you make or whether, during some ceremonial ritual, you shake the rattle before or after you do the dance with the hyena skull. What’s at stake are profound, and defining, human preoccupations: Is there a god or gods, and does your existence matter to Them? What happens when you die, and how do your actions in life affect your afterlife? Is the body basically dirty and shameful? Is the world basically a benevolent place?
In the end, if we want to understand how people find answers to these intensely personal, individuating questions, we must admit some biology in the back door. We already recognize the many ways in which genetics, neurochemistry, and the endocrinology of depression affect whether a person constitutionally views life as a vessel half empty or half full. We are even beginning to glimpse a biology of religious belief itself. There are neurological injuries that cause religious obsessions, neuropsychiatric disorders associated with “metamagical” thinking; there are brain regions that regulate how tightly an organism demands a link between cause and effect, potentially creating room for insight into that odd phenomenon we call faith.
To answer the question, How did I become who I am? we must incorporate myriad subtle and interacting factors, from the selective pressures that shaped our primate gene pool eons ago to the burst of neurotransmitters in the previous microsecond. Maybe it’s time to add another biological variable to the list: When our forebears pondered life’s big questions, did they do so while contemplating an enveloping shroud of trees or an endless horizon?
You know that something strange is happening when the usual crew of neocon critics takes out after Turkey — yes, Turkey! — a country that, as Inter Press Service’s Jim Lobe points out, they long cultivated and supported as a key ally and supposedly model democracy in the Islamic world. Of course, that was then. Now, Turkey’s involvement in a nuclear deal with Tehran and its prime minister’s outrage over the Israeli attack on a convoy bringing aid to Gaza that resulted in the deaths of nine Turks has soured them considerably on the country. In fact, the strength of the Turkish reaction — essentially a breach with Israel, once a close ally — sent the Obama administration scrambling awkwardly for a way to mollify the Turks without condemning the Israeli attack.
And don’t think it’s just the usual suspects on the right blaming Turkey either. The Washington Post editorial page denounced its government for “grotesque demagoguery toward Israel that ought to be unacceptable for a member of NATO,” while the Christian Science Monitor typically declared it “over the top,” raised the specter of “anti-Semitism,” and swore that its leaders now ran “the risk of further undermining Turkey’s credibility and goal of being a regional problem solver.” In a news story, the New York Times offered a classic statement of the problem from Washington’s perspective: “Turkey is seen increasingly in Washington as ‘running around the region doing things that are at cross-purposes to what the big powers in the region want,’ said Steven A. Cook, a scholar with the Council on Foreign Relations. The question being asked, he said, is ‘How do we keep the Turks in their lane?’”
And which lane might that be, one wonders? It looks ever more like the passing lane on the main highway through the Middle East. Talk about a country whose importance has crept up on us. It’s a country that, as John Feffer, co-director of the invaluable Foreign Policy in Focus website and TomDispatch regular, indicates, has been in that passing lane for some time now (whatever Washington may think), whether in its relations with Iran, Russia, or Iraq, among other countries. And what surprising relations they turn out to be. If one thing is clear, it’s that, as American power wanes, the global stage is indeed being cleared for new kinds of politics and new combinations of every sort. The future holds surprises and, as Feffer makes clear, it will be surprising indeed if Turkey isn’t one of them.
The latest in an interesting trend toward animating serious political arguments with viral cartoons:
Tony Judt writes:
THE Israeli raid on the Free Gaza flotilla has generated an outpouring of clichés from the usual suspects. It is almost impossible to discuss the Middle East without resorting to tired accusations and ritual defenses: perhaps a little house cleaning is in order.
No. 1: Israel is being/should be delegitimized
Israel is a state like any other, long-established and internationally recognized. The bad behavior of its governments does not “delegitimize” it, any more than the bad behavior of the rulers of North Korea, Sudan — or, indeed, the United States — “delegitimizes” them. When Israel breaks international law, it should be pressed to desist; but it is precisely because it is a state under international law that we have that leverage.
Some critics of Israel are motivated by a wish that it did not exist — that it would just somehow go away. But this is the politics of the ostrich: Flemish nationalists feel the same way about Belgium, Basque separatists about Spain. Israel is not going away, nor should it. As for the official Israeli public relations campaign to discredit any criticism as an exercise in “de-legitimization,” it is uniquely self-defeating. Every time Jerusalem responds this way, it highlights its own isolation.
No. 2: Israel is/is not a democracy
Perhaps the most common defense of Israel outside the country is that it is “the only democracy in the Middle East.” This is largely true: the country has an independent judiciary and free elections, though it also discriminates against non-Jews in ways that distinguish it from most other democracies today. The expression of strong dissent from official policy is increasingly discouraged.
But the point is irrelevant. “Democracy” is no guarantee of good behavior: most countries today are formally democratic — remember Eastern Europe’s “popular democracies.” Israel belies the comfortable American cliché that “democracies don’t make war.” It is a democracy dominated and often governed by former professional soldiers: this alone distinguishes it from other advanced countries. And we should not forget that Gaza is another “democracy” in the Middle East: it was precisely because Hamas won free elections there in 2005 that both the Palestinian Authority and Israel reacted with such vehemence.
No. 3: Israel is/is not to blame
Israel is not responsible for the fact that many of its near neighbors long denied its right to exist. The sense of siege should not be underestimated when we try to understand the delusional quality of many Israeli pronouncements.
Unsurprisingly, the state has acquired pathological habits. Of these, the most damaging is its habitual resort to force. Because this worked for so long — the easy victories of the country’s early years are ingrained in folk memory — Israel finds it difficult to conceive of other ways to respond. And the failure of the negotiations of 2000 at Camp David reinforced the belief that “there is no one to talk to.”
But there is. As American officials privately acknowledge, sooner or later Israel (or someone) will have to talk to Hamas. From French Algeria through South Africa to the Provisional I.R.A., the story repeats itself: the dominant power denies the legitimacy of the “terrorists,” thereby strengthening their hand; then it secretly negotiates with them; finally, it concedes power, independence or a place at the table. Israel will negotiate with Hamas: the only question is why not now.
No. 4: The Palestinians are/are not to blame
Abba Eban, the former Israeli foreign minister, claimed that Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. He was not wholly wrong. The “negationist” stance of Palestinian resistance movements from 1948 through the early 1980s did them little good. And Hamas, firmly in that tradition though far more genuinely popular than its predecessors, will have to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist.
But since 1967 it has been Israel that has missed most opportunities: a 40-year occupation (against the advice of its own elder statesmen); three catastrophic invasions of Lebanon; an invasion and blockade of Gaza in the teeth of world opinion; and now a botched attack on civilians in international waters. Palestinians would be hard put to match such cumulative blunders.
Terrorism is the weapon of the weak — bombing civilian targets was not invented by Arabs (nor by the Jews who engaged in it before 1948). Morally indefensible, it has characterized resistance movements of all colors for at least a century. Israelis are right to insist that any talks or settlements will depend upon Hamas’s foreswearing it.
But Palestinians face the same conundrum as every other oppressed people: all they have with which to oppose an established state with a monopoly of power is rejection and protest. If they pre-concede every Israeli demand — abjurance of violence, acceptance of Israel, acknowledgment of all their losses — what do they bring to the negotiating table? Israel has the initiative: it should exercise it.
No. 5: The Israel lobby is/is not to blame
There is an Israel lobby in Washington and it does a very good job — that’s what lobbies are for. Those who claim that the Israel lobby is unfairly painted as “too influential” (with the subtext of excessive Jewish influence behind the scenes) have a point: the gun lobby, the oil lobby and the banking lobby have all done far more damage to the health of this country.
But the Israel lobby is disproportionately influential. Why else do an overwhelming majority of congressmen roll over for every pro-Israel motion? No more than a handful show consistent interest in the subject. It is one thing to denounce the excessive leverage of a lobby, quite another to accuse Jews of “running the country.” We must not censor ourselves lest people conflate the two. In Arthur Koestler’s words, “This fear of finding oneself in bad company is not an expression of political purity; it is an expression of a lack of self-confidence.”
No. 6: Criticism of Israel is/is not linked to anti-Semitism
Anti-Semitism is hatred of Jews, and Israel is a Jewish state, so of course some criticism of it is malevolently motivated. There have been occasions in the recent past (notably in the Soviet Union and its satellites) when “anti-Zionism” was a convenient surrogate for official anti-Semitism. Understandably, many Jews and Israelis have not forgotten this.
But criticism of Israel, increasingly from non-Israeli Jews, is not predominantly motivated by anti-Semitism. The same is true of contemporary anti-Zionism: Zionism itself has moved a long way from the ideology of its “founding fathers” — today it presses territorial claims, religious exclusivity and political extremism. One can acknowledge Israel’s right to exist and still be an anti-Zionist (or “post-Zionist”). Indeed, given the emphasis in Zionism on the need for the Jews to establish a “normal state” for themselves, today’s insistence on Israel’s right to act in “abnormal” ways because it is a Jewish state suggests that Zionism has failed.
We should beware the excessive invocation of “anti-Semitism.” A younger generation in the United States, not to mention worldwide, is growing skeptical. “If criticism of the Israeli blockade of Gaza is potentially ‘anti-Semitic,’ why take seriously other instances of the prejudice?” they ask, and “What if the Holocaust has become just another excuse for Israeli bad behavior?” The risks that Jews run by encouraging this conflation should not be dismissed.
Along with the oil sheikdoms, Israel is now America’s greatest strategic liability in the Middle East and Central Asia. Thanks to Israel, we are in serious danger of “losing” Turkey: a Muslim democracy, offended at its treatment by the European Union, that is the pivotal actor in Near-Eastern and Central Asian affairs. Without Turkey, the United States will achieve few of its regional objectives — whether in Iran, Afghanistan or the Arab world. The time has come to cut through the clichés surrounding it, treat Israel like a “normal” state and sever the umbilical cord.
Syndicated Canadian columnist Gwynne Dyer writes:
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for an end to the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Britain, France, Germany and Russia have done the same. After Israeli commandos killed nine peace activists aboard a ship that was trying to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza, even U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the blockade “unsustainable and unacceptable.” But how can it be ended?
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, predictably, is brazening it out. He blames the victims for their own deaths. They were “violent Turkish terror extremists” on a “ship of hate”: people so violent and Turkish and terroristic and extremist that the poor Israeli commandos had no choice but to fire 30 bullets into the nine who were killed, and wound 30-odd others for good measure.
Anybody with the slightest experience of the real world knows what must have happened on the deck of Mavi Marmara, the aid ship in question. A bunch of over-confident, under-trained Israeli commandos ran into unexpected resistance from activists, a few of whom had improvised but serious weapons like iron bars. Maybe one or two had knives. And one or two of the commandos panicked and opened fire.
Then the rest of the commandos joined in, presumably thinking that the shooters were responding to a real threat. They all blasted away for 20 or 30 seconds, and when their magazines were empty there were 40 bodies on the deck, some writhing in pain and others lying very still. After that, there was nothing the commandos could do but come up with a story that excused their actions.
This atrocious event has put the Israeli policy of blocking supplies to the Gaza Strip in the spotlight and raises two questions. Does it really give Israel added security at a reasonable cost to Palestinians? And if it is doesn’t, then how can it be ended?
The blockade of Gaza began in 2007, after Hamas, which does not recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli state, won a brief civil war and took control of the densely populated territory. It launched thousands of crude, home-made rockets against towns in southern Israel, killing 10 Israelis, so in early 2009 Israel attacked the Gaza Strip.
At least 1,300 Palestinians died, and only 13 Israelis. Since then Hamas has observed a cease-fire. Other Palestinian militants still launch sporadic rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, but only one person in Israel has been killed in the past 18 months. Yet the blockade continues unabated.
Only one-quarter of the normal volume of supplies makes it through the sole Israeli checkpoint.
As a result, the 1.5 million people in the Strip have been reduced to abject poverty, and Israel seems determined to keep up the pressure until they reject Hamas (which they backed in free elections in 2007) and overthrow it. Just how they are to do that, however, is not clear.
Israel has the right to prevent weapons from entering the Gaza Strip, but it is hard to see how cement, macaroni, soccer balls, tomato paste and fruit juices (all banned) fit that description. In any case, the materials to make the rockets has always come in through tunnels under the frontier with Egypt, and is unaffected by Israel’s blockade.
The blockade is simply collective punishment, which is illegal under international law. It has not overthrown Hamas, but instead has strengthened its control over the population. It should be ended, but how?
The Israeli government is now on the defensive on this issue, and a cheap and effective tactic would be to send another aid ship or flotilla to run the blockade every week or so. The cargo should be inspected and certified as weapons-free by the port authorities in Greece, Italy, France or wherever they sail from.
The blockade-runners should not agree to go to an Israeli port, because then their cargo would fall victim to Israel’s blockade rules. (Almost all of Mavi Marmara’s 10,000 tons of cargo was construction materials, and would have been blocked by the Israelis.) The ships should not surrender at the first challenge, but sail on towards Gaza and compel the Israelis to conduct hostile boarding operations against them.
The crews should not physically resist the Israeli troops, but some of them would probably be hurt. Would some be killed? Possibly, though Israel will try to avoid another public relations disaster. Might they end up serving jail sentences in Israel? Maybe, if Netanyahu’s government is in a particularly self-destructive mood.
Volunteers can easily be found for these aid missions, and so can the money to pay for them. Carry out one operation a week for the next couple of months, and the blockade would almost certainly crumble. Netanyahu’s government would either change its policy or fall. Either outcome would be greeted with pleasure in almost every capital in the world, including Washington.