Don't Let Me Stop You

What the heck, you'll do what you want anyway.

An Enjoyable Book

Posted by Dan Draney on January 10, 2007

We just finished reading So Many Enemies, So Little Time: An American Woman in All the Wrong Places by Elinor Burkett, and we highly recommend it. It’s the story of a journalism professor and her husband who spend a year in Kyrgyzstan on a Fulbright Scholarship. Through a twist of fate, they arrive just before September 11, 2001. The Burketts end up visiting just about every place that you wouldn’t want to be in that region (i.e. most of them) during that year.

She tells her story with humor and keen insight, learning in the process not only about the locals, but also about being an American. Amazingly, the book appeals to both liberal and conservative readers. Mrs. Abe (solidly liberal) also loved it.

Burkett writes of the struggle of the Kyrgyz to adapt to modernity (p 238):

I assume that, by now, you’re pretty sick of the word tradition and might well be suspecting that I’m overplaying my hand, or that no editor read this manuscript carefully enough to clue me in to the fact that I’ve repeated myself. But the word tradition was as fundamental to the vocabulary of Kyrgyz life as, say, local control was to the Gingrich revolutionaries. And since it’s the elephant in the closet feeding a dozen international angers, tradition demands a short digression.

I arrived in Central Asia infused with a full measure of starry-eyed illusions about “traditional societies,” which, in places like Manhattan, Los Angeles, Rome or London are said to be more genuine, more authentic, than the rituals of getting drunk on Super Bowl Sunday, the brawls at working-class London soccer matches or riding Walt’s Magic Mountain. I admit that I’m not sure what the adjective authentic means when used to modify a noun like society, since it suggests that those of us who reside in “inauthentic” ones are characters on the Truman Show or black-and-white citizens of Pleasantville.

Ultimately, tradition is like a millstone around the neck for many people trying to climb out of poverty and into the modern world (p 239):

Tradition wasn’t just holding people back–a value judgment even I made only hesitantly. It was killing them, literally, having become an excuse for every possible exercise in corruption, authoritarianism, and bad behavior from bribery to lethargy, xenophobia, powerlessness, homophobia, wife beating, the government murder of its citizens and the worst newspapers I’d ever read.

Since much of the international aid efforts place a premium on “respecting local traditions” (at least in theory), there’s a fundamental conflict between the aims and the actions that dooms these programs to failure.

The culture of America is one of optimism, and that’s a key to our past and future success. We believe in our own abilities to adapt, to control our fates, to succeed. For much of the world, and particularly in the East Asian countries Burkett writes of, the predominant attitude is pessimism/fatalism. This will be hard to overcome (p 287):

But there’s no greater human divide than the chasm between abject fatalists and those who see themselves as architects of their own fates, and few in Central Asia had begun to measure its depths, not to mention to plan the structure that would bridge it.

Fewer still had grasped the price they would pay for doing so. Entry into the modern world isn’t gratis, after all. The price of admission is reshaping a thousand assumptions about the role of the government, the responsibility of the individual and the permanence of tradition. Access to all those shiny refrigerators, widescreen televisions, convenient cellphones and smooth roads erodes the very fabric of life that defines members of traditional societies. Yet even the young men and women who drank kumuz while listening to Madonna, who wore miniskirts to their families’ yurts, who lived in limbo between the past and an unknown future, hadn’t begun to grasp that truth. I still couldn’t decide whether they would accept it even once it was staring them in the face, erupt in fury at the Hobson’s choice or, like so many others in India, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, opt to delude themseleves that the “good life” could be grafted onto the old.”

We have personally encountered that longing for the “good old days” of Communism among some Eastern Europeans, young and old, since the fall of the Soviet Union. It seems bizarre from an American perspective, but many would be happy to trade their freedom away again to avoid the scary responsibility of managing their own lives. Nevermind, that the promise of the state to take care of everyone was always an empty one.

A (liberal) reviewer on the Amazon page also noted that the book can be enjoyed by liberals and conservatives. He states that he really can’t tell Burkett’s political views even after reading the book. We had exactly the same reaction initially, but we’re pretty sure she’s not a liberal. She may have been one when she left, but not when she came back.

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