In his last phone call home, Lance Cpl. Gregory Buckley Jr. told his father what was troubling him: From his bunk in southern Afghanistan, he could hear Afghan police officers sexually abusing boys they had brought to the base.
“At night we can hear them screaming, but we’re not allowed to do anything about it,” the Marine’s father, Gregory Buckley Sr., recalled his son telling him before he was shot to death at the base in 2012. He urged his son to tell his superiors. “My son said that his officers told him to look the other way because it’s their culture.”
Rampant sexual abuse of children has long been a problem in Afghanistan, particularly among armed commanders who dominate much of the rural landscape and can bully the population. The practice is called bacha bazi, literally “boy play,” and American soldiers and Marines have been instructed not to intervene — in some cases, not even when their Afghan allies have abused boys on military bases, according to interviews and court records.
The policy has endured as American forces have recruited and organized Afghan militias to help hold territory against the Taliban. But soldiers and Marines have been increasingly troubled that instead of weeding out pedophiles, the American military was arming them in some cases and placing them as the commanders of villages — and doing little when they began abusing children.
“The reason we were here is because we heard the terrible things the Taliban were doing to people, how they were taking away human rights,” said Dan Quinn, a former Special Forces captain who beat up an American-backed militia commander for keeping a boy chained to his bed as a sex slave. “But we were putting people into power who would do things that were worse than the Taliban did — that was something village elders voiced to me.”
Read the whole thing. It’s horrifying — and it poses very difficult questions to us all. I mean, the outrage is easy — I certainly feel it — but the questions are hard.
I wonder how many Americans realize that one of the reasons the Taliban was welcomed by Afghan peasants is that it fought bacha bazi. The Washington Post reported in 2012:
A growing number of Afghan children are being coerced into a life of sexual abuse. The practice of wealthy or prominent Afghans exploiting underage boys as sexual partners who are often dressed up as women to dance at gatherings is on the rise in post-Taliban Afghanistan, according to Afghan human rights researchers, Western officials and men who participate in the abuse.
“Like it or not, there was better rule of law under the Taliban,” said Dee Brillenburg Wurth, a child-protection expert at the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, who has sought to persuade the government to address the problem. “They saw it as a sin, and they stopped a lot of it.”
… Afghan men have exploited boys as sexual partners for generations, people who have studied the issue say. The practice became rampant during the 1980s, when mujaheddin commanders fighting Soviet forces became notorious for recruiting young boys while passing through villages. In Kandahar during the mid-1990s, the Taliban was born in part out of public anger that local commanders had married bachas and were engaging in other morally licentious behavior.
If I were an Afghan peasant and the only way to stop Pashtun perverts from doing that to my son was to empower the Taliban, I would welcome the Taliban. Wouldn’t you?
In the NYT story, we learn that two US soldiers were punished by the military for beating up an Afghan commander they found with a boy sex slave chained to his bed. The idea here is that the US needs to work with these degenerates to fight the Taliban (who are also degenerate, but in a different way).
Think through the outrage, and understand how difficult this problem is for US strategists. I would sooner be court-martialed than sit there and listen while a man rapes a child, and do nothing about it because I have to follow orders. If men under my command had shot that SOB, I would have given them a commendation. That said, if the mission of our forces is to defeat the Taliban, then we have to work with those who fight them. If the Taliban in power is a national security threat to the United States, then it is arguably in our national interest to tolerate the evil that is not a danger to our country for the sake of defeating the evil that is.
I’m not saying that I agree with that argument. I’m saying that the correct course of action for the US here is not clear-cut.
Second, this is a pretty great illustration of the limits of criticizing “cultural imperialism” as an answer to Westerners trying to change the traditions of Third World peoples. The other day, I wrote critically of the way the US and other Western governments and institutions are trying to pressure Africans to adopt secular Western views on sexual morality, including homosexuality. This, I said, is “cultural imperialism.” And it undoubtedly is.
But one man’s “cultural imperialism” is another man’s “liberation of the oppressed.” I would have no moral problem imposing Western standards on Pashtun pederasts, at the end of a gun if necessary. Nor, for that matter, if there were, say, Ugandans who were lynching gays, and US soldiers were occupying that country and had the power to stop it, I would cheer our troops on.
(That is a different question than asking whether or not it is worth invading another country to stop Pashtun pederasty or Ugandan anti-gay lynching. Of course we should not. We cannot possibly save everyone in the world who needs saving. The reason the US military is in Afghanistan in the first place is not to civilize Pashtun barbarians, but to fight Islamic religious savages who harbored terrorists who mass murdered Americans. It is easy to believe that the Pashtuns or Ugandans are behaving like devils in those respective cases, but to also accept that the cost of trying to stop it would be too high, and unlikely to change things.)
More broadly, to religiously conservative Americans, the rich West trying to use the power of the purse to compel impoverished African nations to give up their traditional views of marriage is a case of the West attempting to impose its corrupt values on a relatively weak culture. To liberals and other pro-LGBT Americans, it’s an attempt by the enlightened West to use what leverage we have to compel morally corrupt African cultures to believe and behave more humanely towards LGBTs within those cultures. Who is the oppressor and who is the liberator depends on what you believe constitutes goodness and evil, slavery and freedom.
This is why the culture war never ends. On some fundamental moral principles, we have widely diverging views, and no way to resolve them. Culture war is an eternal thing within diverse cultures, and between them. Here is an essay by a far-left professor who denounces US cultural imperialism from a Marxist perspective. He begins:
U.S cultural imperialism has two major goals, one economic and the other political: to capture markets for its cultural commodities and to establish hegemony by shaping popular consciousness. The export of entertainment is one of the most important sources of capital accumulation and global profits displacing manufacturing exports. In the political sphere, cultural imperialism plays a major role in dissociating people from their cultural roots and traditions of solidarity, replacing them with media created needs which change with every publicity campaign. The political effect in to alienate people from traditional class and community bonds, atomizing and separating individuals from each other.
There’s more (misspellings in the original) — this from a section called “the tyranny of liberalism”:
Just as western state terrorism attempts to destroy social movements, revolutionary governments and disarticulate civil society, economic terrorism as practiced by the IMF and private bank consortia, destroy local industries, erode public ownership and savages wage and salaried household. Cultural terrorism is responsible for the physical displacement of local cultural activities and artists. Cultural terrorism by preying on the psychological weaknesses and deep anxieties of vulnerable Third World peoples, particularly their sense of being “backward”, “traditional” and oppressed, projects new images of “mobility” and “free expression”, destroying old bonds to family and community, while fastening new chains of arbitrary authority linked to corporate power and commercial markets. The attacks on traditional restraints and obligations is a mechanism by which the capitalist market and state becomes the ultimate center of exclusive power. Cultural imperialism in the name of “self expression” tyrannizes Third World people fearful of being labeled “traditional”, seducing and manipulating them by the phoney images of classless “modernity”. Cultural imperialism questions all pre-existing relations that are obstacles to the one and only sacred modern deity: the market. Third World peoples are entertained, coerced, titillated to be modern’, to submit to the demands of capitalist market to discard comfortable, traditional, loose fitting clothes for ill fitting unsuitable tight blue jeans.
Cultural imperialism functions best through colonized intermediaries, cultural collaborators. The prototype imperial collaborators are the upwardly mobile Third World professionals who imitate the style of their patrons. These collaborators are servile to the West and arrogant to their people, prototypical authoritarian personalities. Backed by the banks and multinationals, they wield immense power through the state and local mass media. Imitative of the West, they are rigid in their conformity to the rules of unequal competition, opening their country and peoples to savage exploitation in the name of free trade. Among the prominent cultural collaborators are the institutional intellectuals who deny class domination and imperial class warfare behind the jargon of objective social science. They fetischize the market as the absolute arbiter of good and evil. Behind the rhetoric of ‘regional cooperation”, the conformist intellectuals attack working class and national institutions which constrain capital movements — their supporters isolated and marginalized. Today throughout the Third World, Western funded Third World intellectuals have embraced the ideology of concertacion (class collaboration). The notion of interdependence has replaced imperialism. And the unregulated world market is presented as the only alternative for development. The irony is that today as never before the “market” has been least favorable to the Third World. Never have the U.S., Europe and Japan been so aggressive in exploiting the Third World. The cultural alienation of the institutional intellectuals from the global realities is a byproduct of the ascendancy of Western cultural imperialism. For those critical intellectuals who refuse to join the celebration of the market, who are outside of the official conference circuits, the challenge is to once again return to the class and anti-imperialist struggle.
The author of that piece is a sociologist named James Petras.
James Kalb, a traditionalist Catholic, has a great book called The Tyranny of Liberalism that takes a similar tack, though from the traditionalist right. Though Petras and Kalb no doubt differ strongly on fundamental questions of right and wrong, they are united, it appears, in questioning the hegemony of neoliberalisms of the Left and Right. They might even agree on the politics of architecture, I dunno. The thing about neoliberals of both the Left and Right is that they take their own WEIRD (White Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic) assumptions as universal realities.
But I digress. Going back to the Afghan thing, the main point here is that it’s not hard to identify the phenomenon we typically call “cultural imperialism,” though the term is pejorative. The real question is whether or not specific instances of “cultural imperialism” are morally justified. When the British crown began to rule India as an imperial power, Queen Victoria’s representatives in the Raj had to contend with the cultural practice of suttee (widow-burning). Their initial response was to tolerate it, because the British couldn’t risk riling Hindus and Muslims by banning a practice that was deeply rooted in religion and tradition. Eventually, though, British Evangelicals, both missionaries and believers in the British Army, led a campaign to stamp out the practice as cruel. Were they cultural imperialists? Absolutely — and real imperialists too! As the scholar of the Victorian era whose article about suttee I link to in this paragraph says, it’s simply not accurate to depict widows burned alive on pyres as nothing but victims. Some of these women wanted to do this, because it was what they believed was just.
Were they right to have fought suttee, the British? That depends on what you think about right and wrong, and the prudential application of your principles. My point about the “cultural imperialism” slur is that it is a loaded term, even when conservatives like me use it. It is politically useful, given the bad name imperialism has in contemporary democratic culture, but in truth, it doesn’t settle any arguments. The real argument has to do with the moral status of the belief or practice of the weaker culture, and with the prudence and justice of the stronger power’s intervening in the foreign culture to stop it.
All of which is to say that not all cultural imperialism is bad, but only that before we engage in it, we should be very clear about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it — and we shouldn’t be surprised when those we force to accept our values hate us for our action (nor, it must be said, when those who share our values but whom we refused to help hate us for our inaction).