Foreign Policy: Studying the World Culturally

The State Department, Foreign Service Institute, and our Current Ignorance of the World.

Why are we doing so poorly in understanding those who oppose us: terrorists, enemies?

Are we studying toward understanding their worlds, or engaged principally in inferring from our thinking to how their’s must be?

The Original Ugly American, photo by cote

Several recent journalistic books agree that our ways of studying the Mideast have fallen way short of the actual situation, mind-sets, and thinking of our declared enemies. (E.g., Dennis Ross: “Statecraft: And How to Restore America’s Standing in the World.”)

Studying the 9/11 terrorists, they’re not poor, uneducated, merely “evil” people. They came from middle to upper-middle-class persons in England, Brussels and Germany: had a deep sense of the loss of meaning, sought for direction and help, and dedicated themselves to their mission. They were thoughtful, rather than merely stupid and angry – sought and apparently found mission and meaning in their horrendous (certainly to us) activities.

We have misread the people and factions in Iraq, and seem bent on continuing our ways, irrespective of whatever is happening, and the costs to our soldiers, to the people of Iraq (and elsewhere), but muddle on, apparently content that we “know what we are doing”.

The journalists agree that we have done a poor job of examining our opponents, and I want to report on some fairly personal history of my teachers who had been members of linguistic units during WWII and then part of the newly created Foreign Service Institute right after the war. They were anthropologists and linguists who examined first hand the cultures, languages, thinking.

I was one of their first two students at SUNYBuffalo, where several of these persons were hired as their place in the State Department was terminated. And the then Dean of Arts and Sciences at Buffalo (who my spouse worked for as his child’s care-giver) hired them to begin the Department of Anthropology and Linguistics where I earned my M.A. — Henry Lee Smith, Jr., and George Trager (link to PDF noting his influence on E.T. Hall) were their names. Others went to other universities: Northwest and Pittsburgh – where they lived productive lives as scholars and teachers.

As far as I can tell – I know this through the 1990’s, for sure, and it seems very obvious to this day – that the State Dep’t doesn’t much study others in the world – to explore how they live, talk, think: my training. How did this happen, may reveal a good deal about how our foreign service operatives know and think.

My teachers were canned as John Foster Dulles came into be Secretary of State under President Dwight Eisenhower. Dulles had a particular view of America, and how we are with respect to the rest of the world: America is the “City upon a Hill.” We are the best country, the example and exemplar for all others: the best, the highest. Never mind how other countries are or think: they are long ago. It was, apparently, Dulles’ way of dealing with the Cold War: to oppose rather than to seek new or other ways of talking to our “opponents.”

And my teachers’ heirs have never gotten back into the State Dept – we do not train or use linguists – almost no one speaks the languages of the mid-east, or studies their cultures, educational modes, religions – they are not students of the world who actually go there, live, study, learn. The State Dept, and our foreign policy persons, are not skilled in the world-views of others, but more stamped by how our more military/religious thinkers tend to label them: e.g., we are good, and they must be evil – if they oppose us. If poor, just become active American-type capitalists, and all will work out, good, right.

So sadly, our understanding of the cultures and languages of the rest of the world is not much part of how we deal with that world. Isn’t it finally time to rethink how our diplomatic world is – just that – diplomatic, rather than from the “best country in the world” whose job it is, apparently, to impose “democracy” on all others.

(Just a few months ago, an Australian anthropologist was actually hired to work in Afghanistan, advising our guys at least in that context. Let us hope!)

Bureaucracy can be very strange…!

  • Daniel Latorre

    Harvey, just want to share mentions of your Teachers in Edward T. Hall’s autobiography “An Anthropology of Everyday Life” that also relates to the point you make of the need for U.S. diplomacy to resume deeper study and practice of understanding different cultures as well as the out of awareness reality of our own American culture and how others see it. Many say “we” need more “human intelligence on the ground” instead of the sky, but maybe what we really need are more anthropologists and the like to study the human deeply before we can claim to be intelligent about humans, us, ourselves.

    From E.T. Hall’s autobiography, Part IV “Washington D.C. 1950-1963″, Chapter 15, “The Diplomats at State”

    ” … I was bewildered that our leaders could even contemplate going to war all over again in Korea and later Vietnam. Was culture programming us all in insane ways, causing each group to act as though it was put on earth in order to wipe out all the other? Why did the representatives of each culture act as though its primary purpose in life was to dominate everyone else? And what was culture anyway? …

    “It was questions such as these that kept popping into my head when I was making the transition from academic Bennington to bureaucratic Washington. I had been chosen to head up a new program at the State Department’s training branch, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI)…

    “What was fortunate about FSI in the fifties was the choice of Henry Lee Smith, a respected scholar and linguistic scientist with a feeling for public relations and management skills, and with courage to innovate, to act as dean of the School of Language Studies. Haxie Smith gathered around him an unusually creative and innovative group of young linguistic scientists. They included men and women of the caliber of George L. Trager (one of Edward Sapir’s most gifted students), Charles Ferguson, Eleanor Jorden, and John Stockman. Any university would have considered itself blessed to be able to assemble such an array of talent….

    “I knew that if the program I was putting together for Dr. Bennett’s technicians was to succeed, not only must there be a significant amount of material on the type of culture– the tacit variety– that later filled my books, but it was essential that linguists and I be able to work together… There wasn’t even enough time to teach the technicians enough of the language to get around effectively, but just enough time to get my people started, to give them confidence in a method for learning from native speakers and a feeling for what it was like to learn by doing…. It meant freeing time of individuals such as Carleton Hodge and Charles Ferguson, who were fully engaged in developing a writing system and an analysis of colloquial Arabic….

    “The training orientation model I had in mind was innovative in two ways: it was intercultural not intracultural, and the concentration was on what people took for granted and did not verbalize (whereas most cultural research was devoted to material that could be explicitly sated in words)…

    “The point I wanted to make at FSI was that enforced programs based on European philosophies, degree of economic development, and good intentions, while balm to American souls, were highly unreliable, frequently irrelevant, and almost certain to be misunderstood by the people we were dealing with at the cultural interface. My message was frequently misunderstood and actively resisted by most of the administrators as well as by members of the Foreign Service (who had chosen instead to use a “Realpolitik– twist their arm, gun to the head” approach to Latin America and anywhere else where they could get away with it). …

    “Because the dust had not had time to settle after the war and new policies were not yet set in concrete, I intuited a “window of opportunity” which might be open long enough to make a little progress on defining the basics of cultural understanding at FSI. I couldn’t have been more right concerning the limited amount of time available….

    “… I could see that my greatest need was for a conceptual model of how the complex constituent parts of language and culture were structured and how they fit together. Some answers to these important questions were locked up in the heads of the linguistic scientists. Other would have be developed on the spot…

    “… Haxie provided lucid lectures on language as language, but since it was essential for the cultural material we were teaching to mesh with and be reinforced by the theory and practice of the linguistic side, I was brought in direct contact with George Trager, FSI’s director of linguistic research. Trager had worked out a way of approaching the descriptive linguistics of the times so that what had been quite abstract was transformed into a wonderfully precise set of procedures along lines closely parallel to my own work. [The Silent Language] …

    From Chapter 16, “Definitions of Culture”

    “One day upon my return from a trip through Latin America and the Middle East, I found George Trager in the process of dismantling the language portion of my training program. I had underestimated the level of his interest in what I was trying to do, as a consequence I failed to involve him in the planning of my program (which clearly was a mistake)… I had been told to expect him to be recalcitrant and confrontational and was pleasantly surprised by his cordial reception. Not only did we not fight over the program but, before either of us had realized it, we were immersed in the the whole question of the nature of culture and the relationship of language to culture. By mutual agreement we decided to set up a schedule of regular afternoon meetings to be devoted to an analysis of what our field was really all about… he had a mind that was both quick and incisive, and he was considered one of the leading theoretical linguists in the country…

    “Our hope was that our colleagues would recognize the importance of our work. In this we were to be disappointed– my own contributions, which had formed the corpus of the ten-by-ten matrix of basic cultural systems, had their roots in as many fields. Remember that American culture is not an integrating one but a compartmentalizing one. All of this worked against us. It was difficult for the average social scientists to make the leap to a comprehensive approach from their own highly specific research, in which every step along the way is carefully specified and every move accounted for and measured. If one followed what we had done, setp by step, there was nothing complicated about it– it was just that people simply were not used to thinking in comprehensive terms. We were living in a fragmented world in the grip of a trend which was unfortunately growing, not diminishing…”

  • Daniel Latorre

    Harvey, just want to share mentions of your Teachers in Edward T. Hall’s autobiography “An Anthropology of Everyday Life” that also relates to the point you make of the need for U.S. diplomacy to resume deeper study and practice of understanding different cultures as well as the out of awareness reality of our own American culture and how others see it. Many say “we” need more “human intelligence on the ground” instead of the sky, but maybe what we really need are more anthropologists and the like to study the human deeply before we can claim to be intelligent about humans, us, ourselves.

    From E.T. Hall’s autobiography, Part IV “Washington D.C. 1950-1963″, Chapter 15, “The Diplomats at State”

    ” … I was bewildered that our leaders could even contemplate going to war all over again in Korea and later Vietnam. Was culture programming us all in insane ways, causing each group to act as though it was put on earth in order to wipe out all the other? Why did the representatives of each culture act as though its primary purpose in life was to dominate everyone else? And what was culture anyway? …

    “It was questions such as these that kept popping into my head when I was making the transition from academic Bennington to bureaucratic Washington. I had been chosen to head up a new program at the State Department’s training branch, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI)…

    “What was fortunate about FSI in the fifties was the choice of Henry Lee Smith, a respected scholar and linguistic scientist with a feeling for public relations and management skills, and with courage to innovate, to act as dean of the School of Language Studies. Haxie Smith gathered around him an unusually creative and innovative group of young linguistic scientists. They included men and women of the caliber of George L. Trager (one of Edward Sapir’s most gifted students), Charles Ferguson, Eleanor Jorden, and John Stockman. Any university would have considered itself blessed to be able to assemble such an array of talent….

    “I knew that if the program I was putting together for Dr. Bennett’s technicians was to succeed, not only must there be a significant amount of material on the type of culture– the tacit variety– that later filled my books, but it was essential that linguists and I be able to work together… There wasn’t even enough time to teach the technicians enough of the language to get around effectively, but just enough time to get my people started, to give them confidence in a method for learning from native speakers and a feeling for what it was like to learn by doing…. It meant freeing time of individuals such as Carleton Hodge and Charles Ferguson, who were fully engaged in developing a writing system and an analysis of colloquial Arabic….

    “The training orientation model I had in mind was innovative in two ways: it was intercultural not intracultural, and the concentration was on what people took for granted and did not verbalize (whereas most cultural research was devoted to material that could be explicitly sated in words)…

    “The point I wanted to make at FSI was that enforced programs based on European philosophies, degree of economic development, and good intentions, while balm to American souls, were highly unreliable, frequently irrelevant, and almost certain to be misunderstood by the people we were dealing with at the cultural interface. My message was frequently misunderstood and actively resisted by most of the administrators as well as by members of the Foreign Service (who had chosen instead to use a “Realpolitik– twist their arm, gun to the head” approach to Latin America and anywhere else where they could get away with it). …

    “Because the dust had not had time to settle after the war and new policies were not yet set in concrete, I intuited a “window of opportunity” which might be open long enough to make a little progress on defining the basics of cultural understanding at FSI. I couldn’t have been more right concerning the limited amount of time available….

    “… I could see that my greatest need was for a conceptual model of how the complex constituent parts of language and culture were structured and how they fit together. Some answers to these important questions were locked up in the heads of the linguistic scientists. Other would have be developed on the spot…

    “… Haxie provided lucid lectures on language as language, but since it was essential for the cultural material we were teaching to mesh with and be reinforced by the theory and practice of the linguistic side, I was brought in direct contact with George Trager, FSI’s director of linguistic research. Trager had worked out a way of approaching the descriptive linguistics of the times so that what had been quite abstract was transformed into a wonderfully precise set of procedures along lines closely parallel to my own work. [The Silent Language] …

    From Chapter 16, “Definitions of Culture”

    “One day upon my return from a trip through Latin America and the Middle East, I found George Trager in the process of dismantling the language portion of my training program. I had underestimated the level of his interest in what I was trying to do, as a consequence I failed to involve him in the planning of my program (which clearly was a mistake)… I had been told to expect him to be recalcitrant and confrontational and was pleasantly surprised by his cordial reception. Not only did we not fight over the program but, before either of us had realized it, we were immersed in the the whole question of the nature of culture and the relationship of language to culture. By mutual agreement we decided to set up a schedule of regular afternoon meetings to be devoted to an analysis of what our field was really all about… he had a mind that was both quick and incisive, and he was considered one of the leading theoretical linguists in the country…

    “Our hope was that our colleagues would recognize the importance of our work. In this we were to be disappointed– my own contributions, which had formed the corpus of the ten-by-ten matrix of basic cultural systems, had their roots in as many fields. Remember that American culture is not an integrating one but a compartmentalizing one. All of this worked against us. It was difficult for the average social scientists to make the leap to a comprehensive approach from their own highly specific research, in which every step along the way is carefully specified and every move accounted for and measured. If one followed what we had done, setp by step, there was nothing complicated about it– it was just that people simply were not used to thinking in comprehensive terms. We were living in a fragmented world in the grip of a trend which was unfortunately growing, not diminishing…”