Afghans And The American Racial Dilemma
The mass murders of
9/11 plunged America into the volatile vagaries of
Afghan politics. We currently find ourselves perplexed
by trying to assemble
a post-Taliban government in a land where
every extended family has been at one time or
another the sworn enemy of practically every other
family. Americans, who probably rely less upon their
extended families than anyone else on Earth, run into
severe conceptual problems in trying to understand
Afghans, who rank clan honor over the kind of civic,
corporate, ideological, class and national loyalties
that Americans comprehend.
how Afghans think – and, for that matter, how most other
human beings think – will give us some insight, not only
into our most pressing diplomatic problem, but also into
our most persistent domestic problem: race.
fought in a punitive expedition on the Afghan border in
1897. In his enormously entertaining memoirs
he offers a description of the Pathan-speaking
tribes, from whom the Taliban regime is drawn, that`s
one of my all-time favorite pieces of prose. (Recently,
People Who Are in Charge of These Things have
changed the transliteration from "Pathan" to "Pashtun"
in their frenzied attempt to use words, not to
communicate, but to expose the rest of us as being
shockingly less trendy than they are.)
harvest time, when self-preservation enjoins a temporary
truce, the Pathan tribes are always engaged in private
or public war. Every man is a warrior, a politician, and
a theologian. Every large house is a real feudal
fortress made, it is true, only of sunbaked clay, but
with battlements, turrets, loopholes, flanking towers,
drawbridges, etc., complete. Every village has its
defense. Every family cultivates its vendetta; every
clan, its feud. The numerous tribes and combination of
tribes all have their accounts to settle with one
another. Nothing is ever forgotten and very few debts
are left unpaid… The life of the Pathan is thus full of
Into this happy
world the nineteenth century brought two new facts; the
breech-loading rifle and the British Government. The
first was an enormous luxury and blessing; the second,
an unmitigated nuisance. The convenience of the
breech-loading, and still more of the magazine, rifle
was nowhere more appreciated than in the Indian
highlands. A weapon which could kill with accuracy at
fifteen hundred yards opened a whole new vista of
delights to every family or clan which could acquire it.
One could actually remain in one`s own house and fire at
one`s neighbor nearly a mile away.
hilarious and heartbreaking movie
The Man Who Would Be King, based on a Rudyard
Kipling short story set in a region of Afghanistan now
called Nuristan, offers a similar perspective. In 1997
Jonny Bealby retraced the fictional steps of
Kipling`s rogues Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan and
found nothing had changed.
"On the four week
journey, I`d heard of twelve murders and enough tales of
thieving and brigandage to fill a small book," Bealby
recounted. "When I asked Ismael, our Nuristani
translator, why this should be, he simply shrugged, `It
is our culture,` he said."
amusing account in the
NY Times on 10/21
found a world with which Churchill and Kipling would
have been familiar:
When a male child is
born in a Pashtun village, gunfire is the first sound he
hears. Pashtun men celebrate the birth of a brand-new
warrior by firing their rifles into the sky, and the
lead falls back to the powdery earth like drops of hard
rain… Muskets did not shoot very high and the bullets
were tiny, say Pashtun elders, so there was little risk
from falling lead during the celebration. Then,
generations later, Pashtun took Kalashnikov rifles from
Soviet soldiers they killed in the war that led to an
ignominious Soviet retreat in 1989. "But the Kalashnikov
bullet was so big and heavy that, when we fired it in
celebration, it dropped back down back out of the sky,
and killed us." … That does not mean the shooting
stopped. Tradition, the elder said, holds firm here.
Even the police, who frown on the power of tradition,
are ignored. "A law, a government, is not so much a
factor here," Mr. Taizi said. …
This is a tribe that
anthropologists consider one of the oldest on earth,
bound by a common language, but also by millenniums of
marriage, and by blood. As Islamic militants use
religion as a rallying cry all around the Muslim world,
here on the border it is ethnicity as much as Islam that
ties Pakistanis to their Afghan cousins — even those in
the Taliban. A proud, almost arrogant people who fought
Alexander the Great, they have fought among themselves
for centuries, as families do…
"You people in America
say that human life is sacred," said Mr. Khattak. "Here,
life is nothing without honor." Outsiders have, over the
centuries, sometimes developed a lower opinion. … A
British officer once advised his superiors not to waste
bullets on the Pashtun. Buy them, he said.
concludes on an optimistic note, though, by offering a
way to bring peace:
There is, in
Pashtun law, an alternative to war. If one village or
clan wrongs another by killing one of its members, the
village of the killer can offer to the wronged village a
girl, to be taken as a wife by one of the villagers. But
the woman, Mr. Taizi said, is mistreated all her life.
She is never regarded as an equal. "She is persecuted,"
he said. It is tradition.
or Hillary Clinton might be persuaded to volunteer.
division into warring families is tragic-comically
extreme, probably due to the severity of the terrain.
But it`s important to realize that the Pathans are much
closer to the default form of human society than we are.
Outside of North America and Northwest Europe in the
last few centuries, most people have instinctively
viewed the world as consisting of concentric circles of
blood relations radiating out from themselves to include
their clan, tribe, ethnic group, and/or nation. The
names for the various levels are naturally vague, as are
the levels themselves. They are all just versions of
extended families, ranging from small but close to large
but highly diffuse.
Americans, when not watching
The Sopranos, generally just don`t get the
importance of extended families in the rest of the
world. American intellectuals are especially oblivious,
for emotional reasons – they tend to despise their
relatives, who often aren`t as smart as they are, but
frequently make more money.
That many Americans
don`t have to rely much upon their relatives is one of
the great triumphs of American civilization. It didn`t
come easily. It requires a stable government that
possesses a near-monopoly on violence, yet treats
citizens honestly and as equals before the law. The
government must obey the rule of law itself. It must
enforce property rights and private contracts. Beyond
that, the citizenry must be commercially adept enough to
create a competitive economy that makes nepotism highly
expensive. Americans must – as Francis Fukuyama has
pointed out –
each other enough to form large, meritocratic companies.
We can even make outsiders into Americans – as long as
their numbers are limited, we choose them carefully, and
we rigorously impose our language, values, and
patriotism upon them. (Whether we have been doing that
for the last 30 years is a whole `nother question.)
But the problem
Americans have never been able to solve is race. We
probably won`t ever be able to fix it. We could
certainly, however, handle it better if we managed to
understand what race is.
Most people from
primitive cultures have a sophisticated, bottom-up
understanding of race. Race to them is just family writ
For the average
human throughout history, as for the average Afghan
today, his own village has been full of his close
relatives. Other villages nearby would be populated by
his more distant relations. His village has its
differences with them, and may go to war now and then.
But if the people across the river attack, then all the
villages on this side of the river will forget their
feuds until they jointly drive the enemy away.
Yet even the people
on the other side of the river are remotely related. So
if the outsiders from over the mountain range invade,
then all the river villages will unite. And so on and
on in ever larger concentric rings of family and race.
was populated from across the seas. So this natural
pattern of extended family blending imperceptibly into
racial group is less obvious here. And American thinking
about race has been particularly crude because we are
distracted by the striking contrast between blacks and
whites. This has led to the American dogma that only
people from different continents belong to different
"races." Within the white or black race you are supposed
to find only "ethnic groups," who are alledged to differ
only culturally, whether Greek or Icelander,
since our concept of race is so unsophisticated, we are
prone to fads and fantasies like the now-dominant
"race does not exist" line of cant.
I am about to
The Seven Daughters Of Eve,
a fascinating new book by Oxford geneticist Bryan Sykes
about European DNA patterns. I`ve been a little stumped
by how to approach it, however, since Sykes almost
understands what he`s talking about, but is still
hogtied by his failure to grasp the big picture: that a
racial group is an extremely extended family that is
inbred to some degree.
So I write this as
a preface to explain why the study of population
genetics touches on the great issues of the day. In my
next article on Sykes` book, I`m going to explain what
he fails to: why racial loyalties, disastrous as they`ve
often been, are rooted, not in particular genes, but in
the very fact of our having any genes at all that are
passed on by sexual reproduction.
Race, it turns out,
is as fundamental to life as sex.
[Steve Sailer [email
him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and