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Niches – or Connections?

Two columns, each with some good light in them, came out in this recent month, their positive notes helping to draw the year 2006 to a close – a year that could well use some light for us Americans, so otherwise paying for mistake after mistake that our delusional leaders have mired us in abroad.

In The New Yorker of December 18, George Packer had the first of these two columns, "Knowing the Enemy:  Can social scientists redefine the 'war on terror'?"  Packer had been interviewing widely for his own agonies at the arrogance, blundering, and lies that have characterized our invasion of Iraq.  This, after his hopes in 2003, when he'd enthused over intervention in the Middle East.  Then he'd had to write his 2005 book on how it all went so wrong, Assassins' Gate:  Americans in Iraq.

A new, key source of wisdom, he now recounts – for not only our Iraqi quagmire, but all our foreign policy – came with locating David Kilcullen, an Australian who has recently served as chief strategist in the counterterrorism office of the U.S. Department of State.  Kilcullen got his wisdom years earlier when, as an officer in the Australian army, he was studying how governments successfully fight counterinsurgency movements – in particular how the Indonesian government achieved its success over such a movement in West Java.  Kilcullen learned to see any fight with counterinsurgency "not primarily as a blunt military struggle but as a subtle propaganda war that required deep knowledge of diverse enemies and civilian populations."

The United States, by huge contrast, has not made anything like a commitment to knowing our purported enemies or understanding the civilian populations we have invaded and occupied.  In Iraq, for instance, of the 1,000 American personnel assigned to the heavily-fortified and secluded Baghdad governing center called The Green Zone, only six speak Arabic.  In his New Yorker piece, Packer discusses more instances of our leaders' failures that have come from too-exclusively relying on military might.  He quotes "James Kunder, a former marine and the acting deputy of the U.S. Agency for International Development," who "pointed out that in Iraq and Afghanistan 'the civilian agencies have received 1.4 per cent of the total money,' whereas classical counterinsurgency doctrine says that eighty per cent of the effort should be nonmilitary."

To some extent, Packer's article teeters to the negative, as when he says "In the information war, America and its allies are barely competing.  America's information operations, far from being the primary strategy, simply support military actions, and often badly."

He seems negative, too, when he lists further characteristics of an American people who, apart from our leaders' delusions, do not seem at all ready to subsidize the hegemony of the world for the sake of our corporate rich.  "American society," he writes is one:

in which few people spend much time overseas or learn a second language;
which is impatient with chronic problems;
whose vision of war is of huge air and armor battles ended by the signing of articles of surrender;
which tends to assume that everyone is basically alike.

Perhaps Packer's key wisdom here resides in the last item in his list.  He knows that, contrary to the "have-a-nice-day!" banalities we cheery Americans like to feign, others around the world are not so "basically alike."  Peoples vary widely.  "They" – if not us – have capabilities according largely to their cultures:  from their land and the shapes they give it, from the food they nurture on it, the buildings and transport whereon they utilize it, and the clothing variously apt for it.  Packer had originally known this from another context, as described in his memoir of six years earlier, Blood of the Liberals – his Farrar, Straus & Giroux-published account of his own family's longstanding, reform-minded ties to the land and history of his native Alabama.

Blood of the Liberals describes Packer's becoming attuned to both local and national history.  His December 18 article in The New Yorker goes further, indicating his yet-growing sensitivity to how people anywhere in the world exhibit their history and culture.  Kilcullen helped to teach him this.  Another did, too – an anthropologist named Montgomery McFate.  She, McFate, had learned how key any society's cultural instruments are, starting with her girlhood growing up on a houseboat in San Francisco Bay's Marin County, where she had a unique counter-culture perspective on America's larger culture of corporate marketing and advertising.  She learned cultural depths further as a young adult in Northern Ireland, where she could see the militarized conflict there from inside the cultures of both Irish Roman Catholics and English Protestants.  She learned, as her fellow Americans seldom do, how most in the world live at once both limited and enabled by their cultures.  Packer shows how Kilcullen learned this.  Vexed by our leaders' total blindness to how we affect other cultures, he adds that "McFate discovered something very like what Kilcullen found in West Java:  insurgency runs in families and social networks, held together by persistent cultural narratives."

A second column near the end of 2006 also shed some good light on our readiness to see "others" – especially to see into lands whose narratives can sink, and have sunk, into horrors normally unfathomable to us.  On December 27 >San Francisco Chronicle editorial writer Louis Freedberg wrote of an organization helping to arrange teaching to see this.   This organization, Facing History and Ourselves, has training programs and materials nationwide.  Freedberg interviewed many involved in its teaching efforts, from its Bay area director, Jack Weinstein, to classroom visits Freedberg also made locally.

His column, "Genocide in the Classroom," described Freedberg's own particular pleasure in seeing teachers and students taking on the imaginative challenge that, with Darfur still roiling in its currently-blatant genocide, and recent genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, evidently is a challenge that is not going away.

In one high school, in San Francisco, he saw ninth graders presenting memorial projects they'd put together through the then-concluding fall semester to make tactile the horrific experiences of WWII Jews and others.  At a high school in Pleasanton, in the interstate highway corridor southeast of San Francisco, heading towards the Central Valley, he saw yet another project in which the students had been engaged, and saw them yet discussing texts they had been reading.

Freedberg enthused over the literally hundreds of projects Facing History and Ourselves makes available for classrooms nationwide – especially, as he wrote, in light of the conference Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had just finished conducting in Teheran this recent December.  Ahmadinejad is dedicated to denial – to discounting the WWII Holocaust upon the Jews.  The work of all these teachers and students in the San Francisco Bay area, and in other American classrooms, seemed good remedy to Freedberg for the pedagogic nonsense in Iran, and for worse history actually yet abroad.

But I'm not as sure as Freedberg.  Good as the work that Facing History and Ourselves does – good as are its many hundreds of classroom projects, booklets, conferences, textbooks, and seminars – I'm afraid that, as self-contained curricula, they may all enable but more comfort zones if they simply recap more varieties of our normal academic modules.  Courses and materials like this may give everybody some perspective on history, but – without literacy skills requiring students and teachers also to acknowledge each other along with the course material – all may be repeating the same specialization habits whereby all in corporate academe withdraw into safe niches.  The otherwise good teaching units may have the words "and ourselves" as part of their titles, but "ourselves" may reduce to the basic narcissism and elevation-distancing that key all Americans' consumerism conceits.  Our corporate advertisers have done well in marketing us into these conceits – into what we think of as our variety:  our respective consumer demographics.  Our corporate academics have done as well for these same conceits, divvying us up as they have into their mutually-isolated specializations.

Can we good Americans learn to mistrust the niches from which we project our narcissism on others as if they, too, inhabit narratives like ours?  Or can we acquire the necessary sense of obligation to be alert for "others" and in enlarged literacy to quote them.  Can we learn how, even as "others," their stories may connect to some from among us and our peers – how their nations, their lands, their economies, their entertainments may also connect to ours and us in them.  Does Facing History and Ourselves challenge students and teachers to seek these connections?  Or do its activities repeat the other niche activities that bypass the literate difficulties of connections for the greater ease of what Packer, Kilcullen, and McFate feared as our assumptions "that everyone is basically alike"?

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