My daughter is taking a required class at high school: “world cultures.” My first instinct was to scoff, since I prefer a more classical curriculum, but as I thought about it, I decided it is a very good idea. That is, of course, assuming it’s taught correctly. I’m inclined to doubt that it will be, and that’s because we, as a culture, have learned nothing in the last forty-four years.
Forty-four is a pretty specific number, isn’t it? It takes us back to 1967. Back then, a short, heated war raged in the Middle East. Raphael Patai in his book, The Arab Mind, relies upon an anecdote King Hussein of Jordan told in his memoirs to explain how how the Arab “honor” culture dramatically affected the war’s outcome (in Israel’s favor, thank goodness).
As you know, the Israelis, within hours, decimated the Eyptian airforce. However, when King Hussein spoke to a general in charge of the Egyptian fighting, he was assured that the Egyptians had destroyed the Israelis. The young king, who had been educated in Britain and was therefore unfamiliar with his own culture, took this statement at face value and did not send reinforcements — virtually guaranteeing the War’s outcome in Israel’s favor. Had he understood his own people better, he might well have delved behind the honor rhetoric, discerned the truth, and made a history-turning different decision.
The story is in the forefront of my brain this morning because of the news out of Libya over the past two days. Yesterday, the news reported, Tripoli was won, that Gaddafi was dead or on the run, and his son was a prisoner. Today the headlines explain that it’s unclear whether any of that is true. Tripoli may be taken, sort of; Gaddafi is still out there; and his son is rallying his supporters and scoffing and premature reports of his own incarceration. It’s entirely possible that these original, erroneous stories arose from the fog of war. However, knowing Arab culture, it’s equally possible that we’re listening to reports from a binary culture, one that is either wallowing in darkest despair or shouting its triumph from the rooftops, regardless of the accuracy of either statement.
It would be too crass to say that Arabs lie. Lying as a dishonorable thing is a distinctly Western notion. Instead, they say what they think their listener wants to hear, or what their own honor demands should be reported. We may have laughed back in 2003 at Baghdad Bob, but we should have learned from him. He was not unhinged nor was he was stupid. He was, instead, a product of a culture that describes victory, real or imagined, in hyperbolic terms because those descriptions are a necessary factor in the culture’s own self-image.
One would think that, after decades of wars and dealings with the Arab cultures, we would have figured out that truth, as we understand it, is an infinitely malleable concept in the Arab mind. Trust, but verify, is too naive an approach in the Arab/Muslim world. The way in which our media and our politicians should deal with news reports from the Arab world is to say “We’re not believing it until you come back with concrete proof.” (I was originally going to say “our media, our politicians and our military,” but I devoutly hope that, after ten years of hot war with Muslim and Arab honor cultures, the military is no long so easily misled.)
So, yes, learning about world cultures is extremely important. I suspect, though, that my daughter’s class won’t teach the important lessons. Instead, in true politically correct fashion, she’s going to learn that all cultures but our own are spiritually rich and emotionally meaningful. (I’ll tell you if I’m wrong.)