Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Going Native

When the British oversaw an empire "on which the sun never sets" - meaning that, because it had large territories around the world, it was always daylight somewhere in the empire - they used the phrase "going native" to describe a certain phenomenon: when an Englishman, sent to work in one of the colonies, would be begin to adapt himself to the ways of the local cultures. An British man who began to dress according to local fashions, converse with the natives, eat their type food, perhaps marry a local woman, learn their languages, and - the ultimate step - begin to identify with them instead of with his fellow Englishmen and to see things from their point of view, they said that he had "gone native."

Now, to be sure, this was sometimes a negative evaluation, and sometimes merely a neutral observation.

The British Empire has faded away, but this concept can help us to understand a current situation.

The politics of the Middle East are very complicated, and it would be foolish to think that they could be completely explained in one small blog posting. How can one ever completely analyze the intricacies of Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Syria, Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, and Egypt, with their various languages, cultures, religions, and histories? No, I will not present a comprehensive examination of the entire political situation in the Near East.

But I will examine one small part of this big puzzle.

In 1948, when the modern state of Israel was organized, it was done for several different reasons: one of them a hope to transplant a handful of European Jews, and with them, the western concept of democracy, and of a democratic republic; the hope was that these concepts would take root in the Middle East, and spread the notion of this type of government and society. The dream was that the Near East would begin to look like Europe, and that the nations there would begin to operate on a basis which would allow them to make peace with each other, and with the rest of the world, and to enter into a more normalized relation with the states in the rest of the world. The modern state of Israel was supposed to be a "seed" of a modern democracy republic in the region.

That was one thought behind the founding of the nation. There were others, perhaps more important, or at least more dominate, which we will not discuss here.

How did matters fare? Well, there will be different interpretations of the last fifty years of world history, but one interpretation is to say that some of those European Jews, who were to plant democracy in the region, "went native" - that is to say, instead of changing the region, the region changed them. They may have adopted the ancient attitudes of the Near East, attitudes alien to democratic republics, even alien to the peculiar way in which western civilizations value human life, and value peace over war.

The Middle East, at war for centuries, is, or has become, comfortable with war as a way of life; this is a a worldview which is at odds with Eurocentric ideologies, a worldview in which human life is not necessarily extremely valuable.

Have some of the citizens of modern Israel adopted this viewpoint - have they "gone native"?