3 Cups of Orientalism

I haven’t read 3 Cups of Tea, and I don’t really have any intention of doing so. (I haven’t yet seen any compelling argument for why I should read the book.) However, I did read another book in the genre, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, by the founder of Room2Read. I was interested because we became involved in a project to support a library/informal school in India while making our last film, and I wanted to see if I could learn anything from the book. While it was mostly about what a great guy the author is (I guess that is a requirement for this genre), I did like the fundraising model they use—in which local communities are expected to buy-in to the project. We are working on trying to replicate that on a smaller scale in the library project. (If you have any relevant experience and would like to help – please contact me.)

I tend to be very skeptical of such efforts, but I think anyone who sees the film will understand how important the library is to the community – and we wanted to have some kind of mechanism in place so that when the film cames out people could support the library. But we’ve also learned that it is important not to go too fast or try to do too much. For this reason, I really liked Timothy Burke’s piece on the 3 Cups scandal:

If I gave you an unlimited line of credit and carte blanche to run everything your way, do you think you could make a single secondary school work? I mean, really work so it was beyond reproach, was by almost any measure superior in outcomes and character and ethos to any alternative? Now what if I took away from you the choice of where your school was located and restricted you to pupils who lived within 30 miles of your school? Now what if I required you to obey all relevant national and local laws addressing education? Still confident? Now what if I made you operate within a budgetary limit that was generous by local and national standards but not unlimited? Getting harder yet? Now what if I put your school in a location with very little infrastructure and serious structural poverty?

The point here is that when one crucial task like that is hard enough, we should be deliriously happy to see a person dedicate their life and money and effort to make that task work. One. When we keep our checkbooks closed and our frowny-faces on because that’s not enough, not nearly enough, we create a situation where development messianism is inevitable. We invite not mission creep but mission gallop: make a hundred schools! change gender ideology! eliminate poverty! Under the circumstances, looking back, you have to ask how that was ever creditable, why anyone cheered and hoped and wrote checks.

But enough about saving the world. You’ve all waited patiently for some juicy postcolonial critique and I don’t intend to disappoint you. The best place to start is Aaron Bady’s excellent round up of online commentary on the subject.

One of the pieces listed there is Nosheen Ali’s article [PDF] (originally linked to by Carole McGranahan on Twitter) published in Third World Quarterly before the recent scandal broke. The article challenges the narrative of fear and danger which pervades the book:

The most troubling irony is that the focal region of Mortenson’s work—the Shia region of Baltistan with its Tibetan-Buddhist heritage—has nothing to do with the war on terror, yet is primarily viewed through this lens in TCT. While it has madrassas affiliated with different interpretations of Islam, the Northern Areas more generally is not a terrain teeming with fundamentalist madrassas and Taliban on the loose—the definitive image of the region in TCT, especially on its back cover, in its introduction and in its general publicity. Hence, despite the now characteristic token statements like ‘not every madrassa was a hotbed of extremism’, the subtext of TCT remains rooted in a narrative of fear and danger.

She also challenges the “taken-for-granted assumption that an American individual can casually talk about ‘changing the culture’ in places where culture and life itself has already been radically transformed through US support of the military and the militant.” Both important points to make.

A more subtle argument was also made by Manan Ahmed about the role of “expertise” in pursuing the War on Terror—an issue which touches on some of the debates we’ve had here about HTS:

In July 2010, The New York Times reported on the popularity of Greg Mortenson’s 2006 memoir Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations … One School at a Time among the US Military high-command. The report described General McChrystal and Admiral McMullen using the text as a guide to their civilian strategy in Pakistan. Mortenson’s book quickly became required reading in military academies (the report hinted at the role played by the wives of senior military brass in promoting the title) and Mortenson has since spoken to the US Congress and testified in front of committees. Mortenson himself, though a selfless worker for the most disenfranchised of Pakistan’s northwestern citizens, possesses no deep knowledge of the region’s past or present and is avowedly “non-political” in his local role. Still, his personal story, his experiences and the work of his charity are now widely considered to be a blueprint for US strategy in the Af-Pak region.

Both Stewart and Mortenson illustrate one particular configuration of the relationship between knowledge and the American empire – the “non-expert” insider who can traverse that unknown terrain and, hence, become an “expert”.

The HTS argument would be that what we need is simply better experts, ones who actually know something about the local culture (although from what I’ve read about HTS it seems that this is not always the case). Ahmed challenges the Niall Fergusonesque notion that we simply need to learn better ways of managing empire:

There is no better way to do empire. The condition of asserting political and military will over a distant population is one that cannot sustain itself in any modern, liberal society. The efforts to understand, will inevitably lead to the understanding that the people of Afghanistan or Pakistan or Iraq desire the power to make their own decisions – without the imposition of governments or militaries sanctioned and placed from afar.

I started by discussing how I liked the development model used by Room To Read. It involves treating local organizations as full partners in the development process. Just as thinking through power relationships is an essential part of effective anthropological collaboration, I think it is an equally essential part of development work. The problem with the approach taken by the US military and 3 Cups is that it wants us to think about culture without thinking about power, and I don’t think that can ever work.

11 thoughts on “3 Cups of Orientalism

  1. “The problem with the approach taken by the US military and 3 Cups is that it wants us to think about culture without thinking about power, and I don’t think that can ever work.”

    This is totally on the nose, except…. The US military is not allowed to use power. Sure, we can blow stuff up and all. However, we came into both Afganistan and especially Iraq with the concept that we we not “occupiers”.

    The fact is, when you destroy a government and take over a country you are occupiers – whether you’re comfortable with the concept or not. When you fail to provide the goods and services required of a governing body you are not in control. And, you are quite possibly committing war crimes by not living up to your responsibilities as occupiers. By allowing the society that you took control over to completely collapse you are responsible for all the pain, suffering, and death that results from your failure to live up to your responsibilities as an occupier.

    Further, if you want the society or culture to collapse so that you can influence the people to adopt your cultural beliefs, then you have to be prepared to destroy the old culture and to impose by force the new culture. Example: The Taliban don’t believe in letting little girls go to school. They throw acid on the girls’ faces and kill the teachers. Apparently, this behavior is supported by their religious beliefs (or maybe it’s really all about power with religion as the excuse). Of course, the West doesn’t agree with this cultural norm. So we try to fight it by building more schools and supporting the teachers. What is really needed is for us to use power to stop the Taliban. In other words, we need to kill enough Taliban that they cease to exist as a viable cultural influence.

    That sounds pretty rough, doesn’t it? No wonder we aren’t comfortable with empire – be it monetary or cultural. Maybe we should think about that kind of stuff before we go around trying to change the world.

  2. I just heard about this yesterday. It only seems to get worse. What disaster, especially for all the people who donated. I actually read the book a few years back because it was being assigned to undergrads in a lot of universities and I wanted to see what it was all about. You’re definitely not missing anything, Kerim.

    If you haven’t seen Krakauer’s response to this whole ordeal, check it out. He’s clearly not happy about this, and I don’t blame him.

  3. I’m reminded of a conversation I had last year with a student who’d recently returned to our International Studies program after several years as an Army translator in Iraq. I was telling him about the HTS controversy, and in particular the practice of hiring anthropologists without “local” experience or expertise — as Max Forte among others has documented, it’s apparently our expertise in Culture as such that HTS values and not in the particulars of Iraqi or Afghan culture. I had brought this up by way of saying that a soldier like this student who’d spent years in Iraq and was fluent in Arabic would probably be a better guide to the “human terrain” of Iraqi civilians than I would, for all my expertise in Culture elsewhere. He really thought otherwise, though, and went on about how helpful it would have been in the field to have input from someone who understood kinship and exchange systems and so on. I was and remain skeptical, but I do have to defer somewhat to his experience. Mainly it seems interesting in relation to these non-expert experts like Mortenson and the apolitical good that they do…

  4. He really thought otherwise, though, and went on about how helpful it would have been in the field to have input from someone who understood kinship and exchange systems and so on. I was and remain skeptical, but I do have to defer somewhat to his experience. Mainly it seems interesting in relation to these non-expert experts like Mortenson and the apolitical good that they do…

    It sounds almost as if what is desired are individuals able to apply OCM codes to locales and regions, maybe? There is a decent relevant article in a 2008 issue of American Anthropologist.

    I have to wonder if the degree to which the U.S. Military and academic anthropology are stovepiped off from one another doesn’t account for some of what we are seeing here.

  5. Adam, your conversation with your student reminds me of one I had with Clancy Engler, the Maryknoll father who was the Catholic parish priest in Puli, the town in central Taiwan where Ruth and I did the fieldwork for my dissertation. The year was 1970. When we met, Clancy had been in Taiwan for fifteen years; he spoke Taiwanese like a native. When he asked me what people like me, anthropologists who dropped in for year or two of fieldwork then disappeared could teach someone like him, I didn’t have an answer. A year later, I did. I had learned that my anthropological training directed my attention to things that Clancy, preoccupied with running his parish, had never noticed and the extraordinary privilege of two years to spend digging into whatever caught my fancy had allowed me to pursue answers to the questions that my anthropological training raised for me.

    Here, I suspect, is where the real problem lies with battlefield ethnography. The soldier fluent in the local language is focused on urgent military problems and may, even if she speaks the language fluently, not have the anthropological ideas that direct her attention outside that focus. But an anthropologist who has useful ideas to offer is unlikely to have both the fluency in the language and the unencumbered free time to pursue the questions her ideas suggest. Battlefields are not places to wander around chatting up people when something draws your attention.

    It occurs to me (just brainstorming, mind you) that a more relevant model for the anthropologist who is useful to the military would be someone like Ruth Benedict, doing the research that led to her writing The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. She was never on the front lines, never did fieldwork, but working with secondary sources and people to whom she had access for interviews, she worked out why the Japanese were, in her own words, “the most alien enemy” that the U.S. had ever encountered in its wars and was able to offer suggestions that proved useful to generations of foreigners interacting with Japanese both during and after the war.

  6. While I don’t support the Ferguson line on imperialism, he makes a point that is often overlooked. The local communities we so often extol as the yardstick of freedom and happiness are themselves incredibly oppressive. I don’t believe that large scale, urban-centered societies are in any way superior to small scale, community-centered ones but this goes the other way as well.

    Also our potential “expertise” in the local culture is always going to be conditioned by our situation. Just the very term “local” introduces a perspective that undermines impartiality. Each culture has a set of communication (incl. transportation and trade) needs and challenges it needs to overcome to fulfill those needs. The solutions range from practical (warfare, road building, trade, etc.) to mystical (witchcraft, cargo cults, building schools, etc.) And because communication is always messy and leads to blendings and continuua, calling something local is just as much “orientalism” as calling it “exotic”.

    What we need is multiple metaphors (thus my attempts at http://metaphorhacker.net) that can be applied to a given situation on an ad hoc basis with a lot of pain and soul searching involved. Do the best we can and stop doing it as soon as it outlives its utility. In a way a paraphrase of Google’s “Don’t be evil” motto for development efforts should be “Do as much good as you can with as little damage as possible and never stop questioning the boundaries between the two (oh, and be prepared to give up something you value)”. And remember that all empires were once little local communities just trying to satisfy their needs.

  7. The local communities we so often extol as the yardstick of freedom and happiness are themselves incredibly oppressive.

    I wonder how many of us here would have happily stayed home where we grew up.

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