All of world history is the failure of cultures to imagine one another.

Human beings accept their current reality as all of reality - so their historical epoch, their cultural milieu, is what God and nature intended.

This is most obvious in the case of religion - "We are so fortunate that God revealed true Christianity to us in the West, while they have strange and wrong religions and sets of spiritual beliefs - Shintoism, Buddhism, pantheism (worship of nature), Islam, Judaism - in other parts of the world. Thank God we are so blessed." We then set about conquering, subjugating, and converting (think the Crusades; the Inquisition; Christian missionaries in Africa, among Native Americans, in China). "Now a lot of them accept our beliefs - that proves we possess the genuine revealed truth." For more local examples, think of the Jewish family in Long Island whose objections to the imposition of Christian worship on their children resulted in banning school prayer. The family was - of course - ostracized and their home physically attacked.

Modern American culture has developed some awareness of alternative religious and spiritual world views (although this awareness is not apparent in the Tea Party and the ruling elite in American politics alike - Barack Obama is more likely to call on the Christian God than John Boehner is). But, in many cases, we have simply transformed our lack of cultural imagination to claims made on behalf of science. Christopher Ryan's blog on PT (and his book Sex at Dawn) explains that the advent of pair monogamy as the central form of social organization is a come-lately development in primate and human history due solely to the recent social phenomena of private property and individual ownership. Evolutionary Psychology - typical of Western arrogance - then set about placing these things at the center of a fantasy of human genetic evolution. In an approach identical to the one practiced by Christian crusaders (although in this case cloaked in the mantel of science), EvPsych intones, "What we are is what humanity was meant to be."

In clinical psychology and neuropsychiatry, the same process unfolds. When the NIMH and WHO conducted a cross-cultural applicability project to prove that DSM-IV's clinical categories transcended cultural boundaries, American and Western European scientists were stunned to discover that cultures as similar to our own as Greece didn't conceive of the fundamental building blocks of our mental disorders - the Greeks didn't visualize or comprehend tolerance and withdrawal in the case of alcohol, for instance. Nonetheless, driven primarily by America, the world is embarked on a process of subjugating all local beliefs into a neurobiological model of mental illness and addiction - such that early drinking = alcoholism - how could it not be, since alcoholism is a brain disease caused by being exposed regularly to alcohol?

But let's jump back to world power politics. America had some success - halting and imperfect as it was - in imposing English-speaking Democratic values and government on Western Europe. The more remote cultures were to ours, the less successful this foreign policy is - witness the disintegration of Yugoslavia and resulting genocide in Bosnia, along with the current Russian travesty of democracy under Putin. But Eastern Europe is still somewhere in our cultural ballpark. When we moveed to Iraq and to Afghanistan, our whole conception of a nation, of sacrificing individual religious and clan interests in favor of a national identity, makes no sense in local cultural-religious terms. And so, we lecture endlessly - "You can't feather your own nests at the expense of other families and groups, you must sacrifice these in the nation's best interests" - then we lament, "Oh why can't these heathens comprehend the way the world is (supposed to be)?" Have we really gotten beyond John Wayne's attitudes towards the Indians in "The Searchers," John Ford's classic story of a man at loss in a sea of eddying, divergent, competing belief systems and world views?

Pictures: John Wayne in John Ford's The Searchers: lost in Monument Valley; on the outside looking in after all.

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Dedication: To Judith Wooldridge

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