If we can treat ghetto culture in the U.S., we can do it elsewhere, too.
Afghanistan is a ghetto.
If you can see beyond the exotic clothes, the mountains and the overwhelmingly rural aspect of the country, it’s obvious. No, Afghanistan doesn’t look like an inner-city slum. But over the course of 11 visits of a month or so each, I’ve come to believe that Afghans in many respects act like people trapped in “the culture of poverty.” Yes, they are a warm, hospitable, vastly social people, but they are crippled by a dysfunctional culture.
By and large, Afghans are relentlessly present-oriented, unable to delay gratification, macho, authoritarian, fatalistic, passive, disorganized and feckless when it comes to responsibilities. They spend time almost exclusively with relatives, have few affiliations with civil society and mistrust others outside their family groups. There is little to no privacy in an Afghan family, and little individuation.
The majority of Afghans are illiterate, but even most of those who are educated are oriented to oral rather than written culture. Learning in schools is by rote memorization; class sizes are huge, dropout rates high. Religion is practically the only activity that unites Afghans who aren’t blood relatives. Independent thinking and critical reasoning are not much in evidence, and very few Afghans seem to have internalized moral codes, even based on religion. Fewer still are able to stand up to peer pressure and do the right thing when called for.
While Afghans aren’t nearly as violent as Americans on an individual basis, as a group, they have had trouble figuring out ways of working out their differences through discussion rather than warfare. Very few of their rulers in the last hundred years have peacefully relinquished power to a successor. Tribes operate more or less like gangs, albeit white-bearded gangs.
And so we Westerners (and Indians and Japanese)–and more particularly, we Americans–are engaged in the business of what is euphemistically called “reconstruction,” though there was nearly nothing in the way of human or physical capital in Afghanistan when we arrived. (I will leave aside for the moment the question of why a country that had world-class architecture, poetry and art from the ninth to the 15th centuries was reduced to a basket case by the 20th.)
What the U.S. and its allies are really trying to do in Afghanistan is social engineering on a grand scale, scarcely seen in the whole history of the world, and the most wonderful good luck for the Afghans. We are bringing to the ghettos of the Islamic world the same conviction that we brought to our own slums: that the cycle of poverty is breakable. (more…)