February 4, 2009

Category Error

By: Damir Marusic

A marine writes to Andrew Sullivan (in part):

…I recalled our training on Iraqi culture prior to our deployment.  A professor from Georgetown University had warned us (mostly college educated officers) how different it would be to interact with illiterate people.  Most people in Al Anbar could not read, she said, and therefore they had only their limited personal experience, and the words of their elders, to provide context to their reality.  For a literate person, it is virtually impossible to comprehend how an illiterate person processes information.  How true this observation turned out to be. The idea that our civilian leadership thought liberal democracy would spring up naturally in this environment still seems incomprehensibly foolish to me.

I highlight this passage in the context of the Kennelly/Larison/Peters debate. Peters’ article is so offensive because it pegs the difference between us and “them” as one of “values”. That this is a gross oversimplification of things is wonderfully highlighted in the above-quoted passage. Compare it with Peters’ insights:

So: These humanoid forms with which we must deal don’t all want or value the same things we do. They form different social aggregates and exchange goods and services within wildly different parameters (and exhibit hypocritical sexual tastes that diverge from procreative mandates – ask our troops about that).

How “these humanoid forms” view sex and trade is very much besides the point when it comes to our failures to “fix” their societies. And this is giving Peters all too much credit in assuming that he can accurately divine any sort of values system from interacting with our alien enemy in the first place.

[EDIT: I’ve changed the post subject to be less vituperative. There’s no need to go there, regardless of my feelings on the quality of Peters’ argument.]