When a person walks into a village and blows it up along with themselves we call it terrorism. But when a person drops bombs from a $100M fighter jet and blows up a village it’s somehow not terrorism. Why is that?This is an observation Laura made tonight that stopped me in my tracks. I don’t know why it did, I’m sure I’ve heard it before. Another thought that went through my mind was the question of what causes terrorism? The only single-word answer that I can think of which is not oversimplified is… imperialism. I’m sure I’d heard that somewhere before too. If you ever go to India, I highly recommend loading the movie Ghandi onto your iPhone to watch along the way. The power of his *ideas* is as unfathomable as the ideas are ancient and simple: non-violence; humility; service. Where have we heard these before? The better question is, what ancient belief system does not espouse them? Some would say imperialism is alive and well. Democracy and Freedom have replaced God and King, but the result is the same: bombs, death and suffering. Cultural imperialism is a real thing, a vestige of the standard kind. But I’ve come to understand what this means in a new way while in India. Where once I thought it meant selling our crap and pushing our values on “naive” and desperate people, I now realize that’s not it at all. Those who consume America’s culture are neither naive nor desperate. Cultural imperialism is looking at a stranger through your own cultural lens and refusing to consider that the problem is not reality but rather myopia. Everyone I know who had been to India told me two things: first, be prepared for the horrors of poverty like you’ve never seen before, and second, read the book Shantaram. Now it is quite possible that things have improved so drastically that I am unable to experience the stultifying nature of poverty one could even a decade ago. This would be extremely encouraging if true. But I suspect that economic uplift is only a small part of the puzzle. Shantaram is full of deep observations about India from an outsider’s perspective, one that captures it perfectly for me, both in the misplaced guilt and the myopia. An example:
Now, before you go off on either the author or me for being an apologist for a morally tenuous state of affairs, consider this. How is it that in a population of 1.2 billion, most of whom are living in unacceptable conditions according to most Westerners, and who live side by side with extreme wealth, that theft and violence are very rare? And how is it that it is perfectly safe for a well-dressed Westerner to walk in any slum in Mumbai at any time of day or night? These are not fantasies of my own making, they are truths corroborated by everyone I talk to here.I see the masses of people sleeping in the streets, the kids with filthy faces playing in cow dung, the crippled beggars dragging themselves on the ground. They are all still here. But when you put your hands together, smile and nod at any one of them they will invariably do the same right back (and mean it). It’s hard for us Westerners to understand how different Indian culture is, but think about this for a moment. If you knew you would be reincarnated either as a more fortunate person or a less fortunate person (or perhaps a cockroach) based how you treated other people in this life, wouldn’t that change just about everything? How would you treat people who yell at you? What would you think of them? Would you feel anger (as you probably do today) or would you feel pity? Cultural imperialism isn’t the unconscious forcing of one culture’s values upon another. No, it’s the audicty and gall one must have to pass judgment on a person’s lot in life (“oh, isn’t that heartbreaking?”) without knowing anything at all about them, their loved ones or their culture. A final thought that has been playing on my mind recently. It’s been known for a least 2009 years that true leadership is about serving others, something that is echoed today in just about any lecture on leadership. So if this is true then we have to wonder: who is more powerful, the servant or the one being served?