There’s an old saying, he said, about how the foreign journalist who travels to the Middle East and stays a week goes home to write a book in which he presents a pat solution to all of its problems. If he stays a month, he writes a magazine or a newspaper article filled with ‘ifs,’ ‘buts,’ and ‘on the other hands.’ If he stays a year, he writes nothing at all.
My brother looked unimpressed. I see what you’re saying, he said… but wasn’t it also Crane who said that an artist is nothing but a powerful memory that can move itself at will through certain experiences sideways?
– Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday
For as long as any of my generation can remember, the United States has had a substantial military presence in the Middle East. Fallujah and Baghdad may have been half a world away from our elementary schools, little league games, and senior proms, but their image still constantly hung over us, lingering on the front pages of newspapers, in popular culture, and after a certain point, in the classroom. If our parents had the Cold War, our generation has the War on Terror. If our parents were taught to fear the creep of communism, we’re taught to fear religious extremism. They had missile crises and duck-and-cover; we have 9/11 and TSA.
Last week, my professor lectured on ethnocentrism, the level of cultural awareness in which an individual, believing himself superior, judges another culture by the standards of his own (Paul Kimmel, 1994). As he did, I considered the bizarre connection between the U.S.’s foreign policy and its domestic culture, the effects a nation’s interests abroad have on its school children at home.
They’re probably not good, I thought. Surely, when politicians talk about “Islamic terrorism,” when cable news networks blast images of war-torn Syria day and night, and when a certain someone inhibits the entry of perfectly deserving immigrants based on their religion, the current and subsequent generations of impressionable Americans will grow up fearful of anything east of Italy’s boot. They’ll fit right into Paul Kimmel’s definition: supercilious in thought, censorious in action, ethnocentric in character. After all, it’s exactly what their culture is imploring them to be.
Fortunately, it seems as if my formula is short a variable. For all the xenophobia, Islamophobia, and general vitriol directed at those beyond our borders by those that reside within, none of it seems have been digested by my classmates, students of society and culture that actively combat ignorance with each book they devour and word of Arabic they acquire. A major theme in Asymmetry, the novel quoted above, is the question of whether or not we can truly empathize with a culture other than our own, so much so that we can then communicate its intricacies with other foreigners.
The narrator, an Iraqi-American, suggests that we cannot; “after all,” he says, “humility and silence are surely preferable to ignorance and imperiousness.” It’s as if he’s saying, “Everyone, especially those cable news networks and politicians, should just shut their mouths. Then, rampant xenophobia wouldn’t be such an issue.”
His brother pointedly disagrees. Citing Stephen Crane, he seems to ask, “Shouldn’t we aspire to more than silence? The pundits and politicians will always talk. Can’t we talk back?”
I think so. Every afternoon, I watch my friends reach for their Arabic workbooks even after spending four hours in language class that morning. On Mondays and Wednesdays, my friend Rolando utilizes his English, Spanish, and Portuguese to help the NGO where he interns reach out to embassies for project grants. Maria, who never dreamed she’d study Arabic before college, is writing a research paper in Arabic on sustainability, and Daisy, who has wanted to work in the FBI since she was a kid, is well on her way to becoming fluent in Jordanian dialect.
Whenever I turn on the news and see the latest iteration of ethnocentric-rooted hate, I comfort myself in the fact that these are the faces of the next generation of American professionals, policymakers, and leaders. They are Crane’s powerful memories, capable of countering arrogance with humility, ignorance with wisdom, and ethnocentrism with awareness.