Monday, July 04, 2005

10,000 Maniacs In My Tribe

Even blind squirrels sometimes find nuts. Or, as a more earthy local colloquialism has it, the sun shines on a dog's ass at least once a day. Or, a broken clock is right... You know what I mean. George W. Bush is right about steroids in baseball. Pat Buchanan is right about Free Trade. Adolf Hitler treated his pet german shepherds well. So it goes. And John Tierney is absolutely positively correct in his latest opinion piece:

In those early days, when the memory of Saddam was still fresh, you could walk down a street in Baghdad and be greeted by an Iraqi stranger thanking you for bringing freedom. But even back then there were plenty of Iraqis like Saleh Youssef Sayel, who proudly told me of the reaction of his 5-year-old son, Mustafa, to an American soldier.

"The soldier tried to shake his hand, but my son refused," he said. "He knew enough English to say, 'No. You go.' Later he told me he wanted a gun to kill Americans. This is a natural feeling. Nobody wants a stranger in your house or your country."

The natural impulse to dislike outsiders is so strong that it barely matters who the outsiders are.

When experimental psychologists divide subjects into purely arbitrary groups - by the color of their eyes, their taste in art, the flip of a coin - the members of a group quickly become so hostile to the other group that they'll try to deny rewards to the outsiders even at a cost to themselves.

And when the members of a group really have something in common, like family ties, they're willing to fight outsiders even if it means their own deaths. Xenophobia produced genetic rewards for hunter-gatherer clans. When the evolutionary psychologist J. B. S. Haldane was asked whether he would lay down his life for his brother, he replied, "No, but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins."

Iraqis have their own version of that line: "My brother and I against my cousin; my cousin and I against the world."

Because marriage between cousins is so common in the Middle East - half of Iraqis are married to their first or second cousins - Arabs live in tightly knit clans long resistant to outsiders, including would-be liberators. T. E. Lawrence learned that lesson when trying to unify Arabs early in the last century.

"The Semites' idea of nationality," he wrote, "was the independence of clans and villages, and their ideal of national union was episodic combined resistance to an intruder. Constructive policies, an organized state, an extended empire, were not so much beyond their sight as hateful in it. They were fighting to get rid of Empire, not to win it."

Today's liberators in Iraq like to attribute the resistance to Islamic fascists' fear of democracy and hatred of the West. But those fascists know that an abstract critique of Western ideology isn't enough to attract followers. In their appeals they constantly invoke the need to expel foreigners from their soil, a battle cry that is the great common denominator of suicide bombers around the world.

Maybe, as President Bush hopes, Americans can stay long enough in the Middle East to jump-start democracy and reduce the long-term risk of terrorism. But in the meantime, they're bound to face resistance, no matter how noble their intentions.

During the Civil War, Union soldiers were amazed to see poor Southerners without any stake in the slavery system defending it in suicidal charges. But there was a simple explanation, as a barefoot, emaciated Confederate captive famously put it when a Union soldier asked him why he kept fighting: "Because you're here."

Everyone, more or less, is like this: it's cross-cultural. One has "spheres of loyalty", and they can be visualised as a sort of atomic diagram (or in the analogy of an onion's skin) whereby the more outward "shells" or "spheres" demand less loyalty than the inner ones. It can be laid out as such: Self>Family>Clan>Tribe>Race/Class/Sect/Nation>Species. Sometimes one of the four grouped next to last takes precedence over the others; as in the case, stupidly, of race and ethnicity.

It's just a fact that you're more likely to side with someone who looks like you, who has a culture in common with you, than you are to side with an outsider. It's not logical; it's a bias that can be ugly. But it's a fact of nature. We are imperfectly evolved, after all.

Tierney was smart to include in his last paragraph the Confederate anecdote. Though the current mushy liberal consensus holds that every Southern soldier was the 1860s equivalent of a Nazi, anyone who knows anything about history knows that this notion is foolish. Similarly, the vast majority of insurgents -- or, at least, those in Iraq who resent our presence there -- are not Ba'athists nor jihadiis nor "islamofascists". Each contain people who had and have no economic interests in their ostensible cause. Each contain people who, otherwise, would agree with the morality of the invader. But each decided that the invader is the greater concern.

But then Tierney argues as if acceptance of ingroup/outgroup biases is something only conservatives are capable of. Bullshit. The whole philosophy of multiculturalism acknowledges this fact, and so wishes to smooth the results of it by focusing on the benefits of cross-cultural exchange without compromising the autonomy of said cultures.