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There's a post on the At War blog (a NY Times blog that discussed various topics related to the military), by British cultural attache Paul Smith:

They heard the word culture, and they reached for their guns

Mr. Smith is reacting to the August attacks on the British embassy back in August. He was working there (though he was out of the country at the time). I honestly don't know what a cultural attache does; I always imagined they were something like emissaries or diplomats, but Mr. Smith makes it seem like he is more of a community builder. He talks about working with aspiring Afghani filmmakers, and developing art and culture and even working for gender equality. The idea is that will fight against extremism and safeguard Afghani culture at the same time.

The problem is that, unlike most community organizers, this isn't Mr. Smith's community. He's British. If I sorted out my history right (a big "if," since my main source here is Wikipedia, Afghanistan was never colonialized properly, but it was a buffer between the British and Russian empires. Certainly other countries in the area were colonized (India, Iran, North Africa, etc.) If I was a modern day Afghan, I think having my country invaded by the Americans and then having a Brit come in and organize my new and improved culture would have me pretty near the threshold for violence anyway. I'm not saying this excuses the violence - at all - I'm just saying I can see why this whole project would touch on a hypersensitized nerve.

Actually, Mr. Smith's whole description of his work raised the hair on the back of my neck. He's talking about importing democracy and the need for a unified nation-state and the importance of gender equality and even the drive to filmmaking (a fairly Western way of recording and preserving culture, I'd say). And those strike me as the kind of things I would want if my culture didn't have them. But they also seem like a very Western way of viewing the world. It all seems so imperialistic. Actually, I was reminded of nothing so much as the humans' drive to build a school on Pandora, in Avatar. The concept that the school and clothes and cities wouldn't be how the Na'vi want to structure their world seems, well, barbaric to the humans. And unthinkable. That's the sense I got reading about Mr. Smith's reaction to the embassy attacks. I'm sure Mr. Smith means well - he seems genuinely caring and kind-hearted - but this whole approach does seem imperialistic. A kinder, gentler, imperialism, perhaps, but imperialism nonetheless.

Which makes me sad. More than sad, really. I don't see how to move from here. In practical terms, the other option seems to be military clashes, which is no good, or terrorists flying their planes into buildings, which is even less good than no good. Philosophically I'd rather have bodies fight than have one guy brainwash the other, but then you see the practical consequences. And would I really be willing to see a woman killed for adultery or a girl kept from going to school or anything else of the sort? Because I really do believe there is a human nature, Afghans included, and that many of the things that are good for me are good for them as well, because we're all brothers under the skin, as the saying goes.

But how to get from A to B without stripping away the diversity that's also a human good? I have serious problems with the old approach, and while I respect Mr. Smith's motives, I can't support his actions. At least not as I understand them (which may be misplace). But I really don't have a better option.

Which is just disheartening, in the extreme.

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August 2012

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