Sunday, September 16, 2012

"They hate us for our freedoms" (updated)

When Americans were trying to understand 9/11, neocons in the Bush administration tried to convince us that we were under attack by Islamists because "they hate us for our freedoms." Of course it was a ridiculous attempt to gin up the anger and revenge so they could lie us into an unnecessary war.

But I'm hearing that same battle cry from too many people these days in response to current unrest in the countries of the Middle East and Northern Africa. In America we tend to value our freedom of speech over most any other constitutionally endowed right. And its clear that many Muslims in those parts of the world are angry that we allowed a citizen of this country to make a movie that is blasphemy to their religion. So do they really hate us for our freedoms?

This morning I let myself ponder that question. There are clearly some misunderstandings going on here. And rather than simply manipulate those for our own political ends, I think it behooves us to try to understand where they're coming from.

Without having an open dialogue with those who are protesting, its difficult to do that. So I'm going to be reaching a bit. But I thought about my experience of working with families who are recent immigrants/refugees to this country. In these parts, we've experienced waves of that over the last 2 decades. Back in the late 80's and early 90's, they were mostly Southeast Asian (primarily Hmong) and more recently African (primarily Somali).

One of the things that struck me about this issue of "freedom" is that - while most of these immigrants were indeed attracted to freedom in this country - they had very different social, cultural and familial expectations of what that freedom should look like.

What I learned is that they had expectations of incredibly strong familial and communal bonds. Individual needs and desires are often rejected in favor of what is best for the greater good. In addition, they placed great amounts of trust and respect in leaders - be that parents in the home or authorities in the greater community.

As you might imagine, that last one comes up very often when dealing with a teenager that is wanting to express their "freedom" in the way that young people often do in this country. It is the quintessential battle for most first generation immigrant families to this country.

Over the years I've done a lot of thinking about why that is. One of the conclusions I've come to is that perhaps there is a different concept of mental health in different cultures. We tend to think someone is self-actualized when they have a strong internal locus of control, whereas in many other cultures maturity is measured by the amount of fealty someone demonstrates towards their family/community.

It is in that context that I tend to view the anger these protesters are expressing about why the United States would allow the making and distribution of that atrocious film. They see this as a communal issue as much as an individual one.

I recognize that all this is probably an extremely over-simplied (and perhaps even mistaken) view of what undergirds this current conflict. But what I do know is that to assume that a uniquely American way of understanding freedom and to denigrate whole cultures when it comes into conflict with theirs is most likely another expression of white privilege (and it is very white in nature, most communities of color in this country that are not recent immigrants place a stronger value on the communal as well).

As I've attempted to understand these differences in my own work with immigrant families, I find that each culture's view brings something to the table that is useful. As someone who had to break the bonds with unhealthy family traditions, I highly value this uniquely American idea of individualism. And yet when I look at the strong commitment to communal responsibility in other cultures, I see tremendous value in that as well. In other words, I think we all have a lot to learn from each other.

And I also think of the very pragmatic look at this kind of thing expressed by Ta-Nehisi Coates when he reacted to Mitt Romney's clumsy denigration of the Palestinian culture.
When people invoke culture in the Romney manner, what they are really invoking is a scale by which humanity may be ranked from totally dysfunctional to totally awesome. The idea is that culture is a set of irrefutable best practices, when in fact it is more like a toolbox whose efficacy depends upon the job.
P.S. I feel the need to note that in talking about this I'm not suggesting that it explains or excuses the killing of anyone...ever. From what I've seen, most of those that are protesting would agree.


  1. The Field Negro pointed out that the protestors in question, the rougher ones in particular, were not protesting the film but that the film was a pretext. You're very right that the whole "hate us for our freedoms" line is nonsense, in a literal way, as in it really doesn't make any sense.

    You're right that there is a question of communality in this. I begin from the premise that the US has gone completely overboard in its fetishization of the individual. We have, basically, replaced communal connections with economic ones, as people identify through consumption. This is not, of course, 100%.

    I am convinced that if one wants to find a model of social mental health one needs to look at the social structures of pre-agricultural societies. Why? Because all of our evolution as a species, at least as far as our brains our concerned, fits that economic model. How do those societies work (because people still do live that way)? Individuals matter enormously, but it is through the group that individuals fully manifest themselves. You are not fully you until you participate in the community. This is freedom.

    You're right, the freedom canard has nothing to do with what's happening here. Rather--the assassinations aside, and those were assassinations rather than "mob violence"--we should be pleased about the protests. In fact, this is all really good news. Why? Because the more democratic modern societies in North Africa and Southwest Asia are the more stable and peaceful our world will be. This, with the knowledge that you can't really emerge from decades of US-supported violent, dictatorial regimes without an open expression of the resentment towards the US that that support necessarily inculcated in everyday people.

    The thing I took (cf. your other piece yesterday) from the Lewis article is that, quite the contrary to Sarah Palin etc., being a community organizer was probably the best training for being President Obama could have had. Why? Because the premise of community organizing is that you want to bring everything that's actually there out into the open so a real, coherent negotiation can take place. We want, and need, all of this anti-US sentiment to be openly expressed, and we need to support its expression. Why? Because in doing so we create a new precedent contrary to the old one. It counts that the US did not maintain an occupying force in Libya. People there noticed that. Stuff like this will take a lot of time to accrue and counterbalance decades of Cold War (etc.) policy.

    1. Your comment - especially there at the end - had me going back to something I wrote a while ago about Obama the agitator. It comes from an article Ryan Lizza wrote about Obama's experience as a community organizer way back in early 2007 (a link to Lizza's piece is in that post). I think "agitator" is a fascinating word to us. It is a much stronger way of talking about "leading from behind." And if Lizza is right about it applying to Obama, it would mean that he agrees with what you're saying about these protests being a good thing.

    2. This question is to you and to anyone reading this: have you read "Rules for Radicals"? I read it during the 2008 campaign and found it very helpful. Alinsky took a very different tack toward positive social change than the Stalinist (or even Leninist) far left of his time. Obama never ditched the model, on the contrary.

    3. Actually, I hate to admit that I haven't read the whole thing - just parts. But I really should knuckle-down and do so.

      There's an interesting part in that Lizza article from 2007.

      But, although he was a first-class student of Alinsky's method, Obama also saw its limits. It appealed to his head but not his heart. For instance, Alinsky relished baiting politicians or low-level bureaucrats into public meetings where they would be humiliated. Obama found these "accountability sessions" unsettling, even cruel.

      Obviously - as anyone would - he adapted some of Alinsky's style (that's different than ditching the model). I can't help but think that his mother, who he says is the one that taught him empathy, had a big influence on that adaptation.

      As I was looking for that quote, I found another one that speaks to something we've talked about on and off for a while now. I don't know what to call it, but perhaps it has to do with liberal's unease with power. Here's the quote:

      One of the things that community organizing teaches you is to do something called power analysis. You have to understand how to have a relationship with people in power, to be a peer with them, not to go on your knees begging but understand yourself as a co-equal and find a way that someone who has power will understand your power. That's the whole point of organizing: What is it that people in power need to accommodate your needs?

      Now you see, I'm pretty good at tangents too ;-)

    4. Those are great quotes. Yes, one reason people on the right and left of center are flipping about Obama is that he is not afraid to use power. It's a change.

      The book is a good read, very substantial but written to be read. You'll find that so much of it fits Obama to a t.

      I disagree to some extent with Lizza's suggestion that Obama dropped "accountability sessions." Maybe. The whole point for Alinsky was to get people to expose themselves for the assholes they are, though, and that's how Obama works. There might be stylistic differences in that sense but not functional ones.

      I would not be surprised to find out that Obama has conversations with himself that as painful (deeply and personally) as all this racist shite is, it is productive to have it out in the open. You can debate the point, but by being who he is he has catalyzed a lot of exposure of US racism as it is, and it makes it easier to identify. The GOP has had to now fully brand itself as the white party. Not good in isolation, but as part of a process a potentially devastative blow to the GOP.

    5. What I watch Obama do is - rather than try to humiliate people himself - he sets it up so the assholes expose themselves.

      Letting the GOP brand themselves as the white party is a perfect example.

    6. Right--and that's precisely what Alinsky recommended. I think Lizza suggests that Obama dropped something substantive from Alinsky where it seems he dropped something stylistic.

      Part of it is that Obama is really, really, really-really not a prick. That's clearly just how he was raised.

      Jeez, what a GOP we have. It's pretty intense when you stop and think about it.