Fearful Asymmetry

15 February 2012

In the context of all the sabre-rattling going-on these days, a quotation is gaining some traction:

The world is not divided between East and West. You are American, I am Iranian, we don't know each other, but we talk and we understand each other perfectly. The difference between you and your government is much bigger than the difference between you and me. And the difference between me and my government is much bigger than the difference between me and you.

And our governments are very much the same.
Marjane Satrapi
(Iranian graphic novelist)

I don't know what the original context of Ms Satrapi's remarks were, but now they are now being used as-if she were a proxy for the Iranian people and the listener for the American people. If either person is admitted to be exceptional in some relevant way, then there is no general lesson to be drawn! Ms Satrapi in fact lives in France, rather than in Iran; there wouldn't be much reason to fear her being bombed qua Iranian by Western military forces. So we're to take it that the typical American and the typical Iranian are so similar as to be able each perfectly to understand the other.

We're also told that our respective states are pretty much the same. With the previous claim about people, this would imply that very similar relationships obtain between the peoples and their respective states. But, more than this, we are further told that the differences between the peoples and their respective states is greater than the difference between the peoples.

Well, logical alarm bells go-off in my head. This set of claims of similarity is not consistent with direction of such remarks more to one people than to another. If the relationships are as claimed, then such remarks should and could be directed to both populations. But they're not, and for good reason.

The claims of similarity between peoples and of differences between peoples and states being greater than differences between peoples should at least be questioned, though they are not evidently false and might prove true.

My experience of non-Americans from almost anywhere is that they greatly over-estimate how well they understand Americans. However, though a claim of similarity of peoples being proved by mutual understanding is false, people can be quite similar each without understanding the other; perhaps indeed the differences between Americans and Iranians are not so great. I wouldn't simply reject the claim, but it would need some substantiation.

I'm not sure how to measure the difference between peoples and states relative to the difference between people and people, but let's accept the claim that that the former is greater than the latter.

The states are not very much the same. It would be hard to falsify a claim that the proportions or absolute numbers of knaves and of fools in each state are the same, but also hard to prove such a claim; in any case, the powers of the knaves and of the fools are not the same in one state as opposed to the other. While the United States indeed has got more repressive in some important respects, and unfortunately can be expected to continue to do so, it is simply not as repressive as is the Iranian state. For example, in America, one can still easily and openly criticize the state and social norms, and consume such attacks, without fear of being criminally charged. (I suspect that Ms Satrapi's claim that the states are very much the same results largely from a combination of nationalistic embarrassment and insufficiently critical consumption of French antipathy to America.)

(I note en passant that it would be a d_mn'd fine thing if the anti-war political left would remember the propensity to wickedness of the state when it starts to get excited by thoughts of expanding the state for the various purposes that the left favors. The anti-war political right and classical liberals don't lose sight of that propensity when talk shifts from war to other matters.)

The relationship between the Iranian people and the Iranian state is plainly quite different. The United States may have a very flawed democracy, even as democracies go, but neither major party in the United States is able to control elections to the extent that the Iranian regime has. (Elsewhere, Ms Satrapi has claimed that the ruling Iranian party actually received only 12% of the vote in the national elections of 2009.)

One makes the case for peace not to the Iranian people but to the people of the West because one can make the case to them, and because they can more readily insist upon peace to their respective states. I strongly suggest that, when the case is made, it be better made than by misrepresenting the relationship between state and state or between peoples and states. Proceeding with a reckless disregard for the truth persuades people that one is not to be trusted, and they may leap to the spurious conclusion that they should invest their trust in one's principal opponents.

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4 Responses to Fearful Asymmetry

  • Zenicurean says:

    As a European I've occasionally found myself touching on an issue you bring up here: I expect that at least some of our penchant for overestimating our understanding of American culture derives from a sense of false familiarity, invested in us by the extreme success of American cultural exports. We are engaged daily with American news, ideas, products and notions. We speak your language. We know your celebrities and your politicians by name. A great many of us want to do so, obviously; otherwise it would not be such a commercially succesful phenomenon. And I'm inclined to suspect that we are extremely prone to drawing false inferences from what, and how much, this daily engagement actually means.

    What it does not mean is that we own or grasp American culture; that is to say, we should not make special claim to it entirely on the basis of our quotidian, piece-meal familiarity with those narrow cultural phenomena that Americans most actively share with us. Yet, I think, it is precisely this that many of us keep doing.

    "We" tend to assume that we know all that is important about "you" -- and on that basis we proceed to assume that the both of us essentially inhabit the same cultural and emotional rubric, inevitably the one where "you" must be judged and evalued entirely according to "our" standards. There's been no shortage of vacuous or shallow cultural critics of the United States in Europe whose chief accusation against it is that it is not some part of Europe, or, bizarrely, that it somehow lacks some ineffable key component of civilisation present in some part of Europe. Jean Baudrillard is a particularly egregious (and inexplicably influental) example, perhaps because he actually went through the trouble of visiting the country he was supposedly analysing, and should have known better. I do not think Mr Baudrillard would've been quite as comfortable fielding the same sort of analysis about China, or Russia, or some distant part of Africa. These far-flung places do not appear to us as prospective chew-toys the way the USA does; perhaps we do not subconsciously think of them, as it were, as part of our spiritual property.

    Summa summarum, many of us are acting over-familiar; I'd like to take this opportunity to apologise for it.

    • Daniel says:

      The misunderstanding as such strikes me as fairly natural. What I find more remarkable is that, on more than one occasion, when I've tried to explain — and I say explain rather than justify — this-or-that misunderstood aspect of American culture to some non-American, I've found the non-American getting actively belligerent at the implication that he or she doesn't perfectly understand our culture.

      But I don't really feel that you (sing.) need to apologize for the presumptuous misunderstanding of America by the rest of the world, by Europeans, or even by just Finns. And I expect that if I offered you some disagreement on a point, then you'd give it a reasoned consideration.

  • David Alton Dodd says:

    Tossing aside Satrapi's statement for the moment as being overly romanticized and intentionally nebulous so far as a true cultural comparison could possibly be judged, You made a statement here I found interesting.

    "My experience of non-Americans from almost anywhere is that they greatly over-estimate how well they understand Americans."

    Consider this: As someone American-born and raised for my first 30 years, then went on to live in Baja for the last 20, I offer that - especially recently - Americans greatly overestimate how well they understand Americans. Yes, I see this a little more now from outside of the trees in that forest over there, so feel free to tint that statement as you see fit. However, once I've made that observation - and I don't mean you singularly, nor him nor her nor any one person in particular, but more as a group - there is something in Satrapi's statement that I find intriguing, although I very much doubt that Satrapi would understand why. I think humankind would be much better off examining how much they understand their own culture, because I'm finding that the older I get, the less it seems that they do. Even Mexicans. Really, everyone.

    • Daniel says:

      I agree with a claim that typical Americans greatly over-estimate their understanding of American culture. And it is at least very plausible to me that much the same holds true for people of all or almost all other cultures, but about this proposition I have far less experience upon which to draw.

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