2013

Cultural Nuances

So, my husband decides to plant a grape vine in our backyard. Nostalgia! The vine grows on the trellis that he erected. The Architectural Review Board requests a meeting. Nothing is supposed to go above the yard fence. The trellis did. Five people arrive and are out in the backyard. The vine had to go! No, no, they are told. “In our culture, a house without a vine is like a table without wine!” The vine stayed! Since when had my husband become a poet? And what was that outright falsehood about houses and vines and wine? I was horrified that they had believed and indulged him! This was the US at the time. Mindful and trusting, not Rambo!

Up until the sixties, Americans, in general, seemed to be still trusting of their government and elected officials. Their innocent expectations then were that their government would always do the “right thing.” Vietnam began eroding some of that and, after the wars on the Middle East, as well as the new communication devices, innocence began vanishing. Conspiracy theories flourished. Many journalists and writers were exposing the “dirty linen” in America’s closets. Extremist positions began taking root.

The inhabitants of the so-called Third World were never trusting or innocent in this regard. After all and as Bishop Desmond Tutu so aptly said: “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said: Let us pray. We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.” Substitute colonists in place of missionaries and Third World instead of Africa and you’ll understand why that trust was never there. Not for foreigners, or for collaborating domestic officials.

Unfortunately, this mistrust is changing the US too, after 9/11 especially. Many American people these days realize that their government has been an aggressor all over this globe. It has caused a lot of mayhem, aroused anger, antagonized those who had looked to this country as a beacon of hope and light and alienated so many who had admired us. We said we wanted to win “hearts and minds” but did everything to subvert our own aspirations.

In 1958, Lebanon was on the brink of a civil war. General Eisenhower was President. He sent the US Marines to keep the fragile peace. We all celebrated! My father drove us to the mountains to enjoy the occasion. Driving up the very narrow mountain roads, we observe a cortege coming out from a side street onto the main road. My father stops. Coming down the mountain on the other side are two American military trucks full to the brim with young marines. They immediately stop. The young marines stood up, took off their caps and, as one, put their hands to their chests and lowered their heads. It was an extraordinarily touching moment! That’s how you win hearts and minds! By genuinely sensitive gestures!

Fast Forward: We stomped into Afghanistan and Iraq tearing down doors, terrifying innocent families and murdering children so that now, the Iraqi people are ruing the Saddam era! Then we got all in a tizzy over the Arab Spring (and who knows what hand we played in choreographing those events?!). Did we really think that justification for our wars was around the corner as the Arab Spring begat “democracy”? That with shock and awe we could instantly redo the region to our own liking? That we could re-chart that map all over again?

Cultural and linguistic differences are very significant. We did not understand – as the young marines of 1958 certainly did – that “you can swallow honey easier than vinegar” as my mother-in-law used to say; that America can inspire democracy by example, cultural sensitivity and positive actions; that you can’t force yourself onto already frustrated societies without inviting senseless responses, radical thinking and extremist behavior. And then, that seems to surprise us and cause our pathetic knee-jerk reactions? Seriously?

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3 thoughts on “Cultural Nuances”

  1. These days I find myself reflecting a great deal and the words “ubi sunt” (Latin for “where are they?”) keep coming up. I imagine it is a yearning for the simpler, less convoluted and corrupt times. Though, I suppose, we were blissfully unaware then, in the pre-internet era, of the machinations of the imperial powers and their lackeys, Peter, Paul and Mary’s lyrics ring so true: “When will they ever learn?”

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