In his book on the “clash of civilizations,” Samuel Huntington foresaw that the upcoming era of worldwide conflict would derive from distinct and irreconcilable disputes between cultures. His vision attained exceptional notoriety with the Twin Tower attacks because it appeared to explain the new phenomenon. Nonetheless, however attractive his theory seemed, it would not permit explanation of another facet of the cultural phenomenon: the shock found within each culture itself. The disputes that often characterize us transcend the limits of traditional rationality and can only be deciphered as owning to contradictory views, irreconcilable differences, and the inability to secure common solutions.
I have been reflecting for years on the phenomenon of the internal struggles emanating, at least in part, from cultural differences, but it was the reading of a recently published and exceptional book* that allowed me to assume a much keener perspective. On scrutinizing the Arab world, the book describes two manifestations of the shock of civilizations, which appear to have been adopted from a Mexican novel of manners.
Lee Smith comes to grips, on the one hand, with the differences characterizing the internal dynamic of Arab societies. The author observes that, contrary to what one could deduce from press reports and opinion articles regarding Middle Eastern societies, there is no one way that embodies the general sense; thus, the argument employed by political leaders to justify their inaction ‒that is, as not to stir up the “Arab steet”‒ is no more than a stratagem to skirt modification of the established order. From an analytical vantage point, the very notion of monolithism is absurd; however, if one reflects upon the history of the PRIist era, monolithism was precisely what was the pride of the system: i.e., there was a truth, and that was the one that counted.
The second manifestation of cultural struggles according to Smith refers to the incapacity of recognizing any responsibility: someone else is always guilty of the things that happen every day, of the problems the country faces, and of the impossibility of acting in the face of the evident evil characterizing the region’s economies and societies. Confronted by the inability to recognize and confront the problems, the solution has been to blame someone else, and, notes Smith, from decades past, the guilty party ‒and the convenient scapegoat‒ has been the U.S.
Some conclusions that the author advances are particularly relevant for our own reality. Certain phrases evoke sanguinity with our culture that makes us pay special attention. Some textual phrases: “the problem of Arab democracy is not the lack of supply, but the lack of demand”; “the people prefer a strong horse to a weak one;” “understanding the region is impossible if one fails to recognize the meaning of violence, coercion, and repression;” “the strength of any society depends on its cohesion… of the narrative that shapes it;” “tribalism ‒the sensation that society is defined, in essence, by the clash of groups and positions‒ is a formidable force”; “full recognition and respect is reserved only for believers”; “there is no disinterested intellectual… everyone is at the service of the powers-that-be”; anti-Americanism is not the result of U.S. policies, but rather of an organic element of local politics”, and “society changes, but the social narrative remains intact.”
Mexico is not an Arab country, but on reading the pages of this work, one is unable to stop meditating on the evident similarities. In Mexico, it is possible to observe two phenomena: the raw struggle for power and for personal and group objectives, and the employment of external resources (like the US, the PRI, the private sector) to evade responsibility and to allocate guilt. PRIist culture and narrative always bestowed privilege on national unity, a certain distancing from the rest of the planet, and, above all, a one-way world view. The system exploited (and manipulated) the population’s fears, the history of the American invasion, and the apparently endemic poverty to maintain and nourish the legitimacy of the system. Foraging for popular support, above all from the populist governments of the 1970s, never contemplated the consequences of their rhetoric or of their reinvention of history.
The Niños Héroes/Child Heroes narrative is paradigmatic. Created during Miguel Alemán presidential times to commemorate 100 years of the American invasion, the legend leaned heavily upon all of the utilitarian elements in order to be believable and generalizable: heroism; childhood; school; the flag. It was an essentially inoffensive narrative because it was constructed from within and did not generate a hostile climate. During the 1970s, the utterly nationalistic aapproach became aggressive and defensive, acting as the context for modifying many rules of the game in economic matters and finally beginning an era of crisis from which, all things considered, we have never emerged.
The PAN has not been reticent: its historical cohesion arose from its opposition to the PRI, but once it came into power, it did not know how to develop a positive program with a vision of the future. Instead of building a novel narrative, which focused perhaps on the development of institutions or on the development of a truly market economy, the PAN continued in its Manichean logic: the other is the guilty party. It is not different for the PRD: here we observe the use of the spurious argument by Andrés Manuel López-Obrador. Cohesion of the Mexican political class has depended on assigning fault to others instead of constructing a future.
Perhaps most symptomatic of the cultural war described by Huntington and Smith, each in his own, is that the country presently finds itself in the midst of internecine combat conditions in which the particular interests representing, or leading, many of our politicians are disguised in benevolent positions, when in reality they constitute fundamental threats to the development and well-being of the country. Irreconcilable positions may generate cohesion, but do not provide the country with viability, and even to a lesser degree, the possibility of emerging from its stagnation.
The internal feud, which has come to be called “the dispute for the nation,” is alive and well. Years, decades, of attempts on behalf of change have not yielded the fruits that satisfy the population, although the productive apparatus has been greatly transformed. The country will remain the same to the extent that we continue to simulate and pretend that defending particular privileges and interests exacts no price: change, but with no sense of direction. The lesson of the Arab countries -as illustrated by those with no oil- is that development cannot be feigned if everything to render it possible is rejected out of hand.
*Smith, Lee, The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations, Doubleday.