For a Global Declaration of Interdependence

On Sept. 11, 2001, in the most successful act of asymmetric warfare since the Trojan horse, the world came home to America. "Why do they hate us?" asked Bush. This was not a rhetorical question.
12/27/2006 10:41 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Originally published in the International Herald Tribune, Paris, on July 6, 2002, and in
The Globe and Mail, Toronto, on the same date. Reprinted in González, Roberto J. (ed.) Anthropologists in the Public Sphere, University of Texas Press, Austin pp.165-169

On Sept. 11, 2001, in the most successful act of asymmetric warfare since the Trojan horse, the world came home to America. "Why do they hate us?" asked President Bush. This was not a rhetorical question. Americans really wanted to know, and still do, for their innocence had been shattered. The president suggested that the reason was the very greatness of America, as if the liberal institutions of government had somehow provoked homicidal rage in fanatics incapable of embracing freedom. Other, dissenting voices claimed that, to the contrary, the problem lay in the tendency of the United States to support, notably in the Middle East, repressive regimes whose values are antithetical to the ideals of American democracy. Both sides were partially right, but both overlooked the deeper issue, in part because they persisted in examining the world through American eyes.

America has always looked inward. A nation born in isolation cannot be expected to be troubled by the election of a president who has rarely been abroad, or a Congress in which 25 percent of members do not hold passports. As recently as 1940, with Europe and Asia already at war, the United States maintained an army that was smaller that that of either Bulgaria or Portugal. Wealth too can be blinding. Americans spend each year as much on lawn maintenance as the government of India collects in federal tax revenue. The National Post, Canada's conservative newspaper of record, reports that the 30 million African-Americans collectively control more wealth than the 30 million Canadians. The economy of New York is the size of that of Russia or Brazil. New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston together have a larger economy than China. If American cities were countries, they would comprise 47 of the largest 100 national economies in the world.

A country that effortlessly supports a defense budget larger than the entire economy of Australia does not easily grasp the reality of a world in which 1.3 billion people get by on less than a dollar a day. A land wired for the Internet readily forgets that the majority of the world's population has never had a phone call, let alone sent an email. A new and original culture that celebrates the individual at the expense of family and community -- a stunning innovation in human affairs, the sociological equivalent of the splitting of the atom -- has difficulty understanding that in most of the world the community still prevails, for the destiny of the individual remains inextricably linked to the fate of the collective.

Even as the United States came to dominate the geopolitical scene, as it has since 1945, the American people resisted engagement with the world, maintaining an almost willful ignorance of what lay beyond their borders. A Roper poll commissioned by the National Geographic Society in 2002 revealed that a sizeable percentage of Americans aged 18-24 could not put the Pacific Ocean on a map. Whereas 34% could identify the location where the most recent episode of the television series Survivor had been shot, fewer than one in seven could accurately locate either Iraq (13%), Iran (13%), Israel (14%) or Afghanistan (17%). Sixty-three percent of these young adults could not identify the location of England, historically America' strongest ally.

Such cultural myopia, never flattering, was rendered obsolete in an instant on the morning Sept. 11. In the immediate wake of the tragedy, I was often asked as an anthropologist for explanations. Condemning the attacks in the strongest possible terms, I nevertheless encouraged people to consider the forces that gave rise to Bin Laden's movement. While it would be reassuring to view al Qaeda as an isolated phenomenon, I feared that the organization was a manifestation of a deeper and broader conflict, a clash not between cultures, but between those who have and those who have nothing. Bin Laden himself may be wealthy, but the resentment upon which al Qaeda feeds springs most certainly from the condition of the dispossessed.

I also encouraged my American friends to turn the anthropological lens upon our own culture, if only to catch a glimpse of how we might appear to people born in other lands. I shared a colleague's story from her time living among the Bedouin in Tunisia in the 1980s, just as television reached their remote villages. Entranced and shocked by episodes of the soap opera "Dallas," an astonished farmwoman asked her, "Is everyone in your country as mean as JR?"

When the rest of the world looks to the West, and to America, in particular, they see many wondrous things. But they also see a culture that reveres marriage, yet allows half of its marriages to end in divorce; that admires its elderly yet permits grandparents to live with grandchildren in only 6 percent of its households; that loves its children yet embraces a slogan -- 24/7 -- that implies total devotion to the workplace at the expense of family. By the age of 18, the average American youth has spent two years watching television. Technological wizardry is balanced by the embrace of an economic model of production and consumption that compromises the life supports of the planet. Extreme would be one word for a culture or civilization that does little to curtail industrial processes that threaten to transform the biochemistry of the atmosphere. Our way of life, brilliant and inspired in so many ways, is nevertheless not the paragon of humanity's potential.

For much of the Middle East, in particular, the West is synonymous not only with questionable values and a flood of commercial products, but also with failure. Nasser's notion of a Pan-Arabic state was based on a thoroughly Western and secular model of socialist development, an economic and political dream that collapsed in corruption and despotism. The Shah of Iran provoked the Iranian revolution by thrusting not the Koran but modernity as he saw it down the throats of his people. Combined, the gross domestic product of the 22 Arab economies in 1999 was $531 billion, or about $210 billion less than Texas. Saudi Arabia, culturally conservative but economically fully engaged with the West, has an official unemployment rate of 18 percent and there are two job seekers for every job. Sixty percent of the population is under 18. Per capita income has dropped 75 percent since the early 1980s. It is a nation ready to implode.

The Western model of development has failed in the Middle East and elsewhere in good measure because it has been based on the false promise that people who follow its prescriptive dictates will in time achieve the material prosperity enjoyed by a handful of nations of the West. Even were this possible, it is not at all clear that it would be desirable. To raise consumption of energy and materials throughout the world to Western levels, given current population projections, would require the resources of four planet Earths by the year 2100. To do so with the one world we have would imply so severely compromising the biosphere that the Earth would be unrecognizable. Given the values that drive most decisions in the international community, this is not about to happen. In reality, development for the vast majority of the peoples of the world has been a process in which the individual is torn from his past, propelled into an uncertain future, only to secure a place on the bottom rung of an economic ladder that goes nowhere.

Consider the key indices of the development paradigm. An increase in life expectancy suggests a drop in infant mortality, but reveals nothing of the quality of the lives led by those who survive childhood. Globalization is celebrated with iconic intensity. But what does it really mean? In Bangladesh, garment workers are paid an average of 1.6 cents to sew a baseball cap that retails in the USA for $17. A shirt sold by Disney for $17.99 earns the person who made it roughly five cents. Eighty percent of the toys and sporting goods sold in America are produced in sweatshops in China, where millions work for wages as low as 12 cents an hour. The Washington Post reports that in Lahore, Pakistan, one Muhammad Saeed earns $88 a month stitching shirts and jeans at a factory that supplies Gap and Eddie Bauer. He and his five family members share a single bed in a one-room home tucked away in a warren of alleys strewn with human waste and refuse. Earning three times the money that he made at his last job, he is the poster child of globalization.

Even as fundamental a skill as literacy does not necessarily realize its promise. In northern Kenya, for example, tribal youths placed by their families into parochial schools acquire a modicum of literacy, but in the process also learn to have contempt for their ancestral way of life. They enter school as nomads; they leave as clerks, only to join an economy with a 50 percent unemployment rate for high school graduates. Unable to find work, incapable of going home, they drift to the slums of Nairobi to scratch a living from the edges of a cash economy.

Without doubt, images of comfort and wealth, of technological sophistication, have a magnetic allure. Any job in the city may seem better than backbreaking labor in sun-scorched fields. Entranced by the promise of the new, people throughout the world have in many instances voluntarily and in great earnest turned their backs on the old. The consequences can be profoundly disappointing. The fate of the vast majority of those who sever their ties with their traditions will not be to attain the prosperity of the West, but to join the legions of urban poor, trapped in squalor, struggling to survive. As cultures wither away, individuals remain, often shadows of their former selves, caught in time, unable to return to the past, yet denied any real possibility of securing a place in the world whose values they seek to emulate and whose wealth they long to acquire.

If there is one lesson of anthropology it is that culture is not trivial or decorative. It is the blanket of moral and ethical beliefs with which we envelop ourselves to keep at bay the barbaric heart that history reveals to lie just beneath the surface of every human being. It is culture that allows us to make sense out of sensation, to find order in a universe that may have none. It is culture that allows us, as Lincoln beseeched us to do, to seek always the better angels of our nature. Anthropology also suggests more darkly that when peoples and cultures are squeezed, extreme ideologies sometimes emerge, inspired by strange and unexpected beliefs. These revitalization movements may be benign. In Jamaica, 300 years of colonialism followed by the economic doldrums of independence sent scores of young men to the shanties of Trenchtown where, infused with perhaps too much marijuana, the Rastafarians cast Haile Selassi, a minor African despot, as the Lion of Judah. A peculiar notion to be sure, but ultimately harmless. More typically, such movements prove deadly both to their adherents and to those they engage. In China at the turn of the century, the Boxer Rebellion did not seek just the end of the opium trade or the expulsion of the foreign legations. The Boxers rose up in response to the humiliation of an ancient nation, long the center of the known world, reduced within a generation to servitude by unknown barbarians at the gate. It was not enough to murder the missionaries. In a raw, atavistic gesture, their bodies were dismembered, their heads displayed on pikes.

However unique in numerous and nefarious ways, al Qaeda is nevertheless reminiscent of these revitalization movements. Torn between worlds, Bin Laden and his followers invoke a feudal past that never was in order to rationalize their own humiliation and hatred. They are a cancer within the culture of Islam, neither fully of the faith nor totally apart from it. Like any malignant growth they must be severed from the body and destroyed. At the same time, we must strive to understand the movement's roots, for the chaotic conditions of disintegration and disenfranchisement that led to al Qaeda are found amongst disaffected populations throughout the world.

In Nepal rural farmers spout rhetoric not heard since the death of Stalin. In Peru the Shining Path turned to Mao. Had they invoked instead Tupac Amaru, the 18th-century indigenous rebel, scion of the Inca, and had they been able to curb their reflexive disdain for the very indigenous people they claimed to represent, they might well have set the nation aflame, as was their intent. Lima, a city of 400,000 in 1940 is today home to 9 million, and for the majority it is a sea of misery in a sun-scorched desert.

We live in an age of disintegration. At the beginning of the 20th century there were 60 nation states. Today there are 190, most of them poor and highly unstable. The real story lies in the cities. Throughout the world urbanization, with all of its fickle and forlorn promises, has drawn people by the millions into squalor. Five cities currently have populations larger than that of Canada in the year of my birth. The populations of Mexico City and Sao Paulo are unknown, probably immeasurable. Twenty-four cities have populations in excess of 10 million, sixty more than 5 million, and 150 more than 2.5 million. In Asia there are cities of 10 million people that most of us in the West cannot name. In the next 20 years the world's population will grow from six to eight billion and 97% of this increase will occur in nations where the average individual income is less than two dollars a day. By the end of 2006 for the first time in history the majority of human beings will dwell in cities. In another 35 years, demographers predict, there will be a thousand urban concentrations of more than a million people.

The nation state, as Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell wrote, has become too small for the big problems of the world and too big for the little problems of the world. Outside of the major industrial nations, globalization has not brought integration and harmony, but rather a firestorm of change that has swept away languages and cultures, ancient skills and visionary wisdom. Of the 6,000 languages spoken today, fully half are today not being taught to children. Effectively, they are already dead. Within a single generation, we are witnessing the loss of half of humanity's social, spiritual and intellectual legacy. This is the hidden backdrop of our era.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I was asked at a lecture in Los Angeles to name the seminal event of the 20th century. Without hesitation I suggested the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914. Two bullets sparked a war that destroyed all faith in progress and optimism, the hallmarks of the Victorian age, and left in its wake the nihilism and alienation of a century that birthed Hitler, Mao, Stalin, and another devastating global conflict that did not fully end until the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989.

The question then turned to 9/11, and it struck me that a hundred years from now that fateful date may well loom as the defining moment of this new century, the day when two worlds, long kept apart by geography and circumstance, came together in violent conflict. If there is one lesson to be learned from 9/11, it is that power does not translate into security. With an investment of $500,000, far less than the price of one of the baggage scanners now deployed in airports across the United States, a small band of fanatics killed some 2,800 innocent people. The economic cost may well be incalculable. The crisis was only exasperated by political leadership that declared war on a technique, thus pledging the nation to fight an open ended conflict against an abstraction, a conflict without end, as naïve as a declaration of war against evil.

Global media has woven the world into a single sphere. Evidence of the disproportionate affluence of the West is beamed into villages and urban slums in every nation, in every province, 24 hours a day. Baywatch is the most popular television show in New Guinea. Tribesmen from the mountainous heartland of an island that embraces 2,000 distinct languages walk for days to catch the latest episode.

The voices of the poor, who deal each moment with the consequences of environmental degradation, political corruption, overpopulation, the gross distortion in the distribution of wealth and the consumption of resources, who share few of the material benefits of modernity, will no longer be silent. Whether it is through the murderous bedlam of Bin Laden, the naïve hope of the rural Nepalese, the complex dreams of the myriad indigenous nations of the Americas, these voices will be heard.

True peace and security for the 21st century will only come about when we find a way to address the underlying issues of disparity, dislocation and dispossession that have provoked the madness of our age. What we desperately need is a global acknowledgement of the fact that no people and no nation can truly prosper unless the bounty of our collective ingenuity and opportunities are available and accessible to all. We must aspire to create a new international spirit of pluralism, a true global democracy in which unique cultures, large and small, are allowed the right to exist, even as we learn and live together, enriched by the deepest reaches of our imaginings. We need a global declaration of interdependence. In the wake of 9/11 this is not idle or naïve rhetoric, but rather a matter of survival.