Offering Virtue or Porn

The SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER, Sunday, April 24, 2005

Offering virtue or porn?

By ERIN SOLARO

You can’t legislate virtue. But without it, no real democracy can be created or survive. Thomas Jefferson understood this when he wrote that “any form of government” can become destructive of the ends for which it is established. Benjamin Franklin understood this when he told the lady who’d inquired what the Constitutional Convention had brought forth: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

The machinery of democracy, the constitutions and elections and partisan haggling, has not been much on my mind this last year, as I spent two months in Iraq and Afghanistan as a journalist embedded with American forces, and sampled Kuwait and Dubai on my own. But virtue, civic and personal, has been. And I’ve come to realize that, in the largest sense, what we’re offering Islam is not just democracy but a world.

If they can keep it.

But first they have to decide if they want it. And the true test of whether they want it will not be elections or constitutions or partisan haggling. It will be whether they can develop the virtues, civic and personal, that fit them to be a democratic citizenry. These have less to do with religion than with an “enabling civic triad” of education, work and arms, and with the ability to use them effectively in the public world.

Our Founders well understood that effective citizenship requires political understanding, economic self-sufficiency and participation in the common defense: a participation that begins with individual and local self-defense. It also requires the dignity that comes from living an honorable life. Unless the Islamic world provides access to this triad and this dignity for all its members, including and especially women, democratization will prove at best partial, at worst a prelude to new oppression.

Iraq and Afghanistan are at opposite ends of the Arab world. Afghanistan is poor and medieval while Iraq is potentially wealthy and far more secularized. Afghanistan is fierce and proud. Iraq is passive and resentful, and it is there that the United States strives loudly to create, or impose, a showcase democracy. In Afghanistan, we are wisely engaged in a far simpler and slower process of trying to raise the standards by which Afghans treat each other.

No one can spend much time in these countries (or any country) without noticing the little things, things that can’t be imposed or changed by force, things that indicate a people’s soul and a nation’s future.

In Iraq, I was always struck by the trash that littered the roads, and by the shoddiness of Iraqi construction. I’m struck now by the fact that, two years into the insurgency, it still makes front-page headlines in The New York Times when a handful of Iraqis actually defend themselves with the assault rifles we permit every family to keep for their self-defense. Beyond agriculture and oil, I still have no idea what Iraqis actually produce, indeed, what most of them do all day. I know that, at all levels, they beg and demand. Give me this, give us that, and too often, we oblige them because in America, we have become accustomed to measuring success by input, not output.

Afghans are not unacquainted with work. Afghan construction is mostly mud brick and primitive but also very well done. I spent my last day in Kabul shopping on Chicken Street, the only Westerner alone, keeping one wary eye on the soldiers while I ran my fingers through dozens of cord-fine strands of lapis beads. The technique was primitive but the craftsmanship exacting. They also make rugs, some of museum quality, commemorating the Russian war, rugs depicting weaponry and battles. The Afghans are fighters. And the streets of Kabul were, by the standards of that world, clean.

I have heard Americans try to salve wounded Iraqi pride by reassuring them that they had been a great nation and would be great again. No American would dare insult an Afghan thus. They could make our presence there a tour of hell. They’ve done it to other occupiers, more than once. But America has suffered in Afghanistan 3 percent of the casualties we’ve borne in Iraq. Afghans are weary. They want better for their country than they’ve had: to many, from warlords to women, the 21st century isn’t looking that bad.

I met several Afghan interpreters who were naturalized U.S. citizens who’d returned. I met no Iraqi interpreters who had returned from exile to rebuild their country. I encountered Iraqis who faced us with sullen shame. I met no Afghans who carried themselves thus.

Still, the future of both countries depends on two things. The generations currently in power in both countries must somehow provide basic security and stability, while slowly changing the culture in order to give the younger generation, men and women whose formative memories are not of Taliban or Mukhabarat, full access to that enabling triad. And they must somehow deal with the porn.

By porn, I do not mean just the X-rated products, and worse; these we have wisely forbidden our troops. Nor do I mean the fact that, for 50 years, our forces have used the nations we’ve occupied and protected for their private bordellos, and for worse. This we have dared not do in the Islamic world. But that world knows us for what we are.

By porn, I mean the graceless, hideous, commercialized, predatory pseudo-sexuality of our culture in all its guises and forms. You do not have to be a wife-beating jihadi or a Taliban monster to cringe at the possibility that your country went through all it did, just to have the Americans make it safe for the culture of Baywatch and Britney, Playboy and Paris, MTV and Maxim.

I had two surprisingly intense conversations with interpreters. In Ramadi, with Ahmed from Diwaniyah and Rocco from Baghdad, for several hours while we watched the Marines play a bit of basketball in the summer night. We talked about relationships — was I married (no, engaged), and what did my fiancé think of me being alone among all these men? Well, I said, he has been a journalist, and before that a Marine, so he knows Marines and isn’t very worried.

“But the way these guys talk … ” Rocco said.

“So, Iraqi guys never talk trash?”

Rocco laughed, then told me he could hardly bear the pain of having lost his virginity to a woman he loved, and who loved him, but whom he could not afford to marry. Since then, he’d been sleeping around in an effort to hide from himself how hurt he was. Ahmed, who was suffering for the same reason, said he planned to save himself for the woman he would marry. Rocco called him soft. I said it seemed like Ahmed thought his past actions foretold his future, and that if Rocco kept on as he was, he would have a hard time finding a good woman who wanted to marry him. Ahmed agreed, then both men, startled, told me I sounded more like an Iraqi than an American, when all they’d seen of our entertainment showed men and women blithely bedding each other without commitment and without consequences.

“That’s our entertainment,” I said sadly. “It’s not how we live.”

In Afghanistan, at Ghazni Forward Operating Base, I sat for some time talking with nearly a dozen interpreters in their hut while the television was on, and very quickly, the subject of pornography arose. “We’ve looked at it,” they told me. “But we don’t watch it. It’s as if you use women as animals.”

“Most porn isn’t spice for people who love each other. It’s made by and for people who think women are animals. And men too.” They got that. “Most Americans are probably like you.”

“Then why do you let it be made?”

While I was thinking of how to answer that, I noticed the latest Hooters calendar above two of the guys’ beds. “Why do you hang those?”

One of the interpreters responded, “A soldier gave them to us. We said, it’s against our religion to look at this. He said, but you’re men, so you need this.”

“So you believed him, and hung them?” Several blushed.

The next night, I had dinner with a California National Guard soldier, a forward observer, one of these simple, humane men there seem to be so many of in combat units. We were talking about our favorite books when we were distracted by mostly American videos playing on the mess hall TV, a cable channel beamed in probably from the United Arab Emirates, grotesquely boring in their sexual emphasis. “Remember early MTV?”

“It wasn’t like this,” the sergeant agreed. “Are we proud of ourselves?” he asked sardonically.

So what’s the point? Perhaps just this.

While we’re coaxing and prodding the people of Afghanistan and Iraq toward becoming nations that can sustain democracy, we need to be aware that not everything we offer them has value, in their eyes or our own. Elections happen from time to time; a culture is continuous, fragile and enduring. Politicians come and go; how people live matters more.

Our Founders clearly understood that there was a necessary linkage between civic and private virtue. That they chose not to create a government that would force people to be virtuous shows only that they were wise, not that they denied the nexus. Perhaps it is time for us to ask ourselves what we care most to offer the world: our virtues or our porn. We can pretend that we don’t have to choose. But we’ll only be fooling ourselves.

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