Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Larison on historic causality

This post by Daniel Larison is worth reading, primarily for this paragraph:

A less obvious, but no less important reason I am discussing this at length is that I have no patience with historical arguments that stress broad, sweeping cultural and/or religious factors at the expense of discernible, specific causes. That partly informs my impatience with claims that jihadists attack Western governments because of “who we are” rather than what those governments do. When we want to avoid understanding the realities of terrorism, we simply say, “Their god compels them,” and leave it at that. What is most bothersome about this is that it doesn’t actually take cultural and religious factors seriously at all. On the contrary, it ignores the actual significance of cultural and religious factors by distorting them beyond recognition and using them as the framing for essentialist arguments that are designed to perpetuate conflict and facilitate vilification of other peoples. Such arguments pretend to pay attention to deeper causes, but in the end provide the most superficial analysis dressed up in condescending rhetoric. Instead of explaining a phenomenon, they are intended to explain it away. [Emphasis added]

One of the more important books I ever read - and I didn't appreciate that fact until some time had passed - was James P. Ronda's Lewis and Clark Among the Indians. If you haven't read it, do. Ronda traces the Corps of Discovery's famous trip from St. Louis to the mouth of the Columbia and back by recounting their encounters with the natives, explaining how Lewis and Clark misunderstood the Indians at every step of the way. That might sound like a writer scoring cheap and easy points off the stupid white guys, but it's a more subtle book than that.

Lewis and Clark - Lewis, especially - are considered pretty good ethnographers for their day, taking careful notes on the people they met, generally with more description than moralizing. As with their natural science notes, they are valuable records to this day. But everything they saw was filtered through their own agenda, which was to get all of the Plains tribes to quit fighting each other and direct all their trade to the Americans. The Indians, surprisingly enough, had their own agendas and explaining these, with the benefit of an extra 180 years of scholarship, is what Ronda is about.

And what emerges is not a race of people who fail to measure up to Americans, nor a race of noble savages who stand as a rebuke to the benighted white men, nor self-contained cultures that are forever inexplicable to outsiders. You get people, people who may have different beliefs and customs, but are not really as different as they seem at first. You have Arikaras reeling from a smallpox holocaust, with the survivors trying to recreate a viable community from the remnants of rival groups; Lakota men using a confrontation with the Corps of Discovery to posture for status in front of their peers; Shoshones who were willing to help the Americans, but didn't believe they could afford to give as much as was being asked; savvy Chinooks and Clatsops who had long experience trading with British ships and turned the tables on the Americans by driving hard bargains for food and boats.

Even the stranger cultural practices come to make sense. Lewis and Clark had no idea why Mandan men were so generous in giving their wives to the Americans for one night stands, to the delight of enlisted men. What they didn't realize was that Mandans believed skills and powers could be transferred through shared sexual partners; when they saw fifty Americans, with their boats full of guns and trade goods, they assumed "These guys sure have some powers. Maybe we can get some of that to rub off on us." A strange belief, to us, but a perfectly rational action for such believers to take.

In a similar vein, it's really not so hard to understand why someone might decided to wage war on a rich, arrogant, and overbearing country, especially if they have soldiers occupying your country. What's hard to understand is why anyone finds this hard to understand.

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