Thursday, March 14, 2013

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Have I mentioned lately that I have a book out (Follow above link to In the Absence of God)? Now you can help get the word out by "liking" it (whatever that might mean) on Facebook. It'd be great if you could take a moment and stop by. Thanks.

Cultural Chauvinism

We sometimes hear the claim, though not as often as formerly, that all cultures are equally worth celebrating and that it's chauvinistic, which is assumed to be a bad thing, to believe that some ways of thinking and living are superior to others.

On the other hand, we also sometimes wonder why it is that some groups of people never seem to advance but appear content to live as they have for thousands of years. We're reluctant to think that this is not good because we don't want to be thought to be chauvinists, but deep down we really do think that we'd much rather live in a society that has electricity, indoor plumbing, and human rights than one which doesn't. Deep down we believe that a culture which promotes hard work and discipline is superior to one in which indolence is a way of life.

In fact, we tacitly admit this when we raise money to send to those who are suffering in cultures, whether foreign or domestic, which never seem to progress. I thought of all this as I was reading a piece on Strategy Page about why it's so hard for Americans and our European allies to work effectively with Arabs.

I quote the article at some length because it gives us a good insight into the Arab mindset and culture:
[T]he unemployment rate in Saudi Arabia is 12 percent and many of those men are unemployed by choice. Not even counted are most women, who are barred from most jobs because they are women. Arab men tend to have a very high opinion of themselves and most available jobs, even to poorly educated young men, do not satisfy.

Thus most Saudis prefer a government job, where the work is easy, the pay is good, the title is flattering, and life is boring. Thus 90 percent of employed Saudis work for the government. In the non-government sector of the economy, 90 percent of the jobs are performed by foreigners. These foreigners comprise 27 percent of the Saudi population, mostly to staff all the non-government jobs and actually make the economy work. This means most young Saudi men have few challenges. One might say that many of them are desperate for some test of their worth, but a job in the competitive civilian economy does not do it, nor does the military.

The Saudi employment situation is not unique. The UAE (United Arab Emirates) has foreigners occupying 99 percent of the non-government jobs. The unemployment rate is 23 percent, but only a tenth of those are actually looking for a job. A survey indicated that most of the unemployed are idle by choice. Kuwait is more entrepreneurial, with only 80 percent of the non-government jobs taken by foreigners. The other Gulf Arab states (which have less oil) have a similar situation.

Arabs in general don't care for the Western custom of establishing minimum standards for, say, fighter pilots. It's long been known that it's very difficult to wash out an Arab pilot who is well connected (especially a member of a powerful local family). There are some very good Arab pilots but they are a minority. The rest get by. As long as they can take off and land, they can stay in a squadron.

During combat exercises, especially with American squadrons, it's understood that the low overall performance of Arab pilots is not to be discussed with the Arabs, or anyone else. Junior American officers get irked by this but it is career suicide to disobey orders on this point. The Gulf Arabs do spend a lot of money on training and letting the pilots fly. For this reason, they are considered marginally better than other Arab air forces. But against the Iranians, who more enthusiastically accepted Western training methods, they would have problems. Iranian aircraft are older and less well-equipped, but pilot quality would make up for a lot of that.

The problem extends to ground crews, who don't take responsibility seriously and have to be constantly hounded by their foreign advisors and specialists hired to make sure the aircraft are flyable. And when something goes wrong, the foreign experts are expected to take the blame. That's what the foreigners are there for. In many cases the foreigners simply do most of the work and let their Arab maintainers take very long coffee breaks.

Many Arab leaders are aware of the problem, especially those who have studied in the West or spent some time there. As a result, there are some very competent Arab doctors, scientists, and bankers. But this minority knows they are up against an ancient and well-entrenched culture that does not seek out innovation and excellence as it is done in the West. The more insightful Arabs seek ways to work around these problems.

It comes down to a different cultural attitude towards taking responsibility for your actions. It's human nature to avoid failure or taking responsibility for a mistake. Thus we have the concept of "saving face." One reason the West has made such economic, cultural, military, and social progress in the last five hundred years is because they developed a habit of holding people responsible for their actions and giving out the rewards based on achievement. In the West, this sort of thing is taken for granted, even if it is not always practiced.

But in much of the rest of the world, especially the Arab world, things are different. Most Arab countries are a patchwork of different tribes and groups, and Arab leaders survive by playing one group off against another. Loyalty is to one's group, not the nation. Most countries are dominated by a single group that is usually a minority, as in Bedouins in Jordan, Alawites in Syria, Sunnis in Iraq (formerly), and Nejdis in Saudi Arabia. This means that officers are usually assigned not by merit but by loyalty and tribal affiliation.

Then there are the Islamic schools, which are so popular in Moslem countries, which favor rote memorization, especially of scripture. This has resulted in looking down on Western troops that will look something up that they don't know. Arabs prefer to fake it and pretend it's all in their head. Improvisation and innovation is generally discouraged. Arab armies go by the book, Western armies constantly rewrite the book and thus usually win.

All of this makes it difficult to develop a real NCO corps. Officers and enlisted troops are treated like two different social castes and there is no effort to bridge the gap using career NCOs. Enlisted personnel are treated harshly. Training accidents that would end the careers of US officers are commonplace in Arab armies and nobody cares.

Arab officers often do not trust each other. While an American infantry officer can be reasonably confident that the artillery officers will conduct their bombardment on time and on target, Arab infantry officers seriously doubt that their artillery will do its job on time or on target. This is a fatal attitude in combat.
There's a lot more in this vein at the link.

I am among the first to point to serious problems in our society, and a not insignificant fraction of our population is in several respects similar in mindset to what we just read above, but I think it's silly to think that a culture in which men lack the discipline to work, which oppresses women, and which produces nothing of any real value other than what others have been able to extract from their portion of earth is somehow just as much worth celebrating as one which has none of these liabilities.

Call me a cultural chauvinist if you wish, but as bad as things might be in much of the Western world and as much as some in the West might think like those young Saudi men, I wouldn't want to live in any country whose culture is not shaped by the values traditionally taken for granted in the West. I suspect that most of those who "celebrate" multicultural diversity and insist that no culture is superior to any other feel the same way I do, even if they won't admit it.