Monday, May 05, 2008

Culture Doesn't Mean what the LA Times thinks it Means

Matt Yglesias has a great post up about this but I want to add my two cents. In Archaeology they like to joke that if they cant' figure out what something is for it must have a "ritual" purpose. Those ditches? ritual. This piece of pot sherd? Ritual. Culture has come to have the same bastardized whatthefuck nature to its usage in the American Press. Culture is that weird thing that exists in the absence of law and rules which we could otherwise use to understand what is going on. In the linked article the American military and its mouthpiece the American press express baffled contempt that Iraqi parents refuse to accept monetary damages for the slaughter of their children by Blackwater troops. Iraqis, we are told, have this weird "system" where they require both a monetary payment and some kind of social justice thingy, like an admission of wrongdoing on the part of the criminal. So weird! Who has ever heard of that? Like, in America, we don't have trials 'n stuff, damages, civil damages, pain 'n suffering, victims statements, or anything.

But culture isn't the weird, unstated, web of meanings that lies between the "real" stuff--culture is something that we infer from studying all those things: the hard rules and the soft customs. Culture doesn't mean "incomprehensible" it means "comprehnsible." For example its pretty clear from reading the linked article that homicide and reparations in Iraq were the purview of clans and tribes. A regularized approach to settlement includes some cash payment and quite a bit of social rebuilding of networks through apologies and other kinds of reparations. The victims family must be assuaged in a number of ways. That's not particularly odd although societies with very strong states and weak families/clans tend to go past that form of justice and introduce third parties like the state itself into the system. Sometimes modern states even push the families right to the periphery and prosecute and punish murderers regardless of the status of their victim! What is happening in Iraq isn't the result of a culture clash, its the result of the failure of the US government to assume all the duties of a government in a land it has invaded and occupied. Not only is it refusing to prosecute its own tools for murder, but it is refusing to cede to Iraqi authorities power to prosecute and settle the homicide dispute as they see fit. This isn't a culture clash--its enforced anarchy.

To reduce what is going on in Iraq, after five years of invasion and occupation, to a "culture clash" akin to whether you put the milk in your tea cup before or after pouring is almost obscene. The Iraqis have a way of dealing with homicide, and so do the Americans. Neither way includes *allowing the perpetrators* to walk with a mere monetary offering. There's no culture clash in this situation. There is an utter failure of law and governance.