Thursday, April 16, 2009

Of Microbes and Men

The headline in the New York Times, dateline April 13, was UNITED MILITANTS THREATEN PAKISTAN'S POPULOUS HEART. The story dealt with combinations of Taliban and local militants in several areas, and cited as examples the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore and the bombing of a Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, both done by lash-ups of locals and external groups. The article emphasized that intrusive activities by the United States have stimulated combinations in Pakistan of groups that have not always worked together. Brigitte read this story and saw analogies to biological phenomena—namely the body’s mobilization against invasion. I thought the analogy very neat indeed, especially in the context of cultures that, having an organic character, behave in the manner of an organism.

Pakistan, India. These two, of course, are parts of a decadent empire, more of a huge seedbed of cultures than a living organism, and within them new cultures have formed and compete against each other trying to win dominance. Our conventional view from here is obviously not sophisticated enough. We’re able to see only states and so-called “failed states.” We see neither Muslim fundamentalism in Pakistan nor Capitalistic India as both being contenders in a battle of cultures. We assume that modernizing India is the legitimate future and chastise it for not bringing rural India up to tractored and fully-irrigated snuff fast enough. We imagine that Pakistan ought to buckle down and bring its western regions under proper control, unable to see that its regions bordering Afghanistan (and those of Afghanistan bordering it) are culturally cohesive and fiercely resistant to so-called higher civilization. Our Western concept of progress is like a blinder. We can’t imagine any other future for any large population in the world that does not feature mass democracy and free-market economics dominated by capital.

But this is not Brigitte’s insight so much as a way of saying that we can’t see organically enough. Brigitte’s point is that excessive intrusions produce exactly the opposite of the desired result. Modest doses of antibiotics may help a body rid itself of harmful elements, but too much (read: a lot of collateral damage) rallies the body to an energetic rejection of the intruder, no matter how beneficial the gifts that it bears. Elements accustomed to operate competitively unite against the common enemy. Why can’t we see that? Brigitte asks.

I would answer that civilizations are rootless and therefore unaware of forces that maintain societies over the longer haul. If elements in Pakistan resist us, it is because they know that our intention is pure national interest. Our real attitude towards Muslim culture is contempt. We want access to Afghanistan to protect us against Al Qaida. We could care less about the strange cultural process taking place down on that far-off map. We are the user—and elements down there would be God damned if they’ll be used. Special Ambassador Richard Holbrook is talking to the wrong people. He is communing with Pakistan’s rootless elements who, in turn, are really just as helpless against the organic formations within their geography as we are. Folly. Folly.


  1. What a wonderful way of looking at these human relations developments. Very refreshing perspective!

    I liked the discussion of the difference between culture and civilization too. I don't think I ever thought much about the difference between these two concepts which are so often used interchangeably.

    Two very provocative essays. Thanks.

  2. Looking at different phenomena from many different perspectives enriches one's view--which is why I do it. The analogies stick in the mind. Glad you enjoyed these two.

  3. Great post. That's a really interesting framework for viewing these sorts of clashes.

  4. Hi,

    A great way of looking at things.we had a long discussion about what went wrong with Pakistan and what makes India click even with more muslims than there are on the other side of our border.
    Pakistan was built on hate,like and anti matter to India and while they kept on fooling themselves and others that we are comparable and competitive India went far ahead.This has lead to further disillusionment within Pakistan and now they have more unrest within themselves.Muslims live more peacefully and are more secure in India than they are in Pakistan.It is really not a question of religion but a question of discipline and governance.
    You get the leadership you deserve so while India had Gandhi ,Pakistan had Jinnah and thereafter a number of power hungry dictators.
    The truth is that Indian Hindu or Muslims do not want to have anything to do with the ghetto called Pakistan and feel cursed to have them as our neighbours.The best relationship to have with the people of pakistan is to just avoid them.


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