Cultural Learnings of Blogosphere for Make Benefit Glorious Blog of Ribbonfarm.

I found a couple of good blogosphere conversations that took me far off my usual reading routes this week. It started with an article about whether language influences culture, Lost in Translation.  Here’s the sort of insight the new research offers:

Pormpuraawans, we found, arranged time from east to west. That is, seated facing south, time went left to right. When facing north, right to left. When facing east, toward the body, and so on. Of course, we never told any of our participants which direction they faced. The Pormpuraawans not only knew that already, but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time. And many other ways to organize time exist in the world’s languages. In Mandarin, the future can be below and the past above. In Aymara, spoken in South America, the future is behind and the past in front.

This is Lakoff -Sapir-Whorf hypothesis territory so if you are interested in backtracking, you may want to read an old post by me, Sapir-Whorf, Lakoff, Metaphor and Thought. My online wanderings this week were sparked by two posts in this general cultural territory. The first is about a fascinating 19th century Algerian leader, Abd-El-Kader, who I’d never heard of. The other is a conversation about the use of Twitter in the Black community, sparked off by Farhad Manjoo of Slate (which was pretty much universally slammed), a subject I’d never thought about. Here’s the tour. Warning: severe online wanderlust ahead.

Abd El-Kader and the 1860 Siege of Damascus

The El-Kader thread of reading I did has to do with this superb post on colonial history in Algeria, and specifically with Abd-el-Kader and events in Damascus late in his life (after his Algerian days). His story so inspired the world in the mid 19th century that there’s actually a town in America, Elkader, Iowa, named after him. Today, the guy would have won the Nobel peace prize. The post is long even by Ribbonfarm standards, (it is 6000 words; only one of my posts is longer), but beautifully written, and perfect Sunday reading. It grabbed me in particular because I’ve been reading about the Roman empire, and in parallel watching some TV shows on the Hittite (pre-Greece Anatolia) and Byzantine (post-Rome Anatolia) Empires, and reading a lot about the Ottomans (post-Byzantine Anatolia, when it turned into Turkey) on Wikipedia. I am only now working my way up to the early-modern history of the region. Quite fascinating, as well as very sad, since it shows just how recent the radicalization of Islam is, and to what extent it was the creation of colonialism. This post telling the parallel stories of Napolean III and el-Kader is also interesting. If the French had managed to beat the British at world domination, this post would have been in French, and Abd El-Kader would be better known than Gandhi.

Damascus, at the time of the events, was under Ottoman rule, and El-Kader had made his reputation in Algeria fighting the French, who had displaced the Ottomans there. So there’s a strong Ottoman angle to this whole story. The reason this particular story (El-Kader’s role in the 1860 siege of Damascus) is fascinating is that it gives you a glimpse of the entire, complex 4000 year history of the region.  The events seem strangely similar in flavor to events in the same region almost 3000 years earlier, during the Battle of Kadesh, between the Hittite and Egyptian empires, in 1264 BC (which I learned about in one of the documentaries I’ve been watching).  Each story gives you a sense of the same rich, turbulent complexity. Taken together, the two events made me think about how  little humans have changed in thousands of years. With my more cynical hat on, it also tells me that the region is an irredeemable mess. Nothing has really changed since 1264 BC, so it seems foolish to think we can solve the Middle Eastern crisis (if crisis is even the right word). The region’s religious-political illegibility, instability and messiness stretch way back to pre-Islamic and pre-Jewish history.

The reading made me think (as I often do these days) about how interconnected world history really is. For instance, Abd-El-Kader’s story was part of the beginning of the eventual decline and fall of the Ottoman empire. When the empire finally began to crumble,  in the aftermath of World War I, far away in India a movement started among Indian Muslims called the Khilafat Movement, which was about trying to save the Ottoman empire (it became part of the Indian independence movement for obscure reasons).

When I first learned about that history in high school (it wasn’t on my history syllabus, but I was doing some random side reading), I wondered why on earth the Indian independence movement got all tangled up with the fate of the Ottoman empire. I am only now beginning to understand the complexity and interconnectedness of the world in those medieval and early-modern centuries. The Mughal Emperors of India (1526 – 1862) were partly of Turkish descent. The founder Babur was descended from Genghis Khan and Timur, so the empire was Mongol-Turkic in origin. Indians know this but they usually still think of the Mughal empire as an Indian empire that had little to do with the rest of the world. We tend to be frogs-in-the-Himalayan-well that way. But then, India only joined the Asian plate 55 million years ago, so we have an excuse.  We used to be an island, joined at the hip to Australia at one point. I am not actually surprised the Chinese, Koreans and Japanese don’t really think of us as Asians. We aren’t. We are Gondwanalandians (even though we actually populated the region post-collision. But geography is still destiny. Location, location, location in a plate-tectonic sense).

I never really thought much about what the rest of the world thought about the Mughals until I met a Turkish student in grad school. The Turkish student casually said something like “At the height of our glory, we ruled the world from India to Eastern Europe.”  I think he was right. The Mughals and Ottoman Turkey were to their centuries what Europe and America are today:  a single cultural block. It makes a certain amount of sense that early 20th century Indian Muslims would feel enough of a sense of connection to the Ottoman empire to fight against its dismantlement.  The Mughal empire in India was, in at least a weak NATO-like sense, the eastern wing of an Ottoman-led federation.

Last week we were dining at a rather posh Indian restaurant in DC, Rasika (easily one of the best Indian restaurants in the US). Our waiter was a charming Turkish guy who abruptly decided to have a conversation with me. “Just look at all these colors!” he exclaimed, indicating the food at our table. “India must be a very colorful country; are you Indian?” I am always mildly uncomfortable with such conversation openers, so after some ritual responses, I turned it around asked him where he was from. “Turkey” he said, “it is not so colorful.” And so we chatted pleasantly for a few minutes about Turkey, and I told him I’d been watching a documentary about Istanbul, the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, and that I wanted to visit one day. He said he wanted to visit India and that we should exchange notes after.

Ironically, though our waiter didn’t seem to know it, the food we were eating was more Turkish than Indian. Naan and tandoori food in general are Central Asian in origin. What is known as “Indian” food in the US is usually called “Mughlai” food in India (most Americans haven’t eaten truly native Indian food at all). Mughlai is a blend of Punjabi, Persian and Central Asian cuisines, and in case it isn’t obvious, it was the food of the Mughal elites. At best Indians can take credit for adding a few more spices and colors. While on internationalism in Indian food, it sometimes strikes me as amazing that the most characteristic elements of Indian food: potatoes, paneer (a kind of ricotta cheese) and chillies, are all colonial-era imports. Our favorite snack, the samosa, appears to be an Indian-ocean-rim species that is found everywhere from Ethiopia to Indonesia. I once read a description somewhere of pre-Islamic Indian cuisine, and the description seemed almost alien to me.

It’s a connected little world, isn’t it? The more you learn, the harder it is to get angry about any sort of historical unpleasantness and injustice. It is all so damn complicated, I sometimes wonder how the hell we even made it down from the trees and onto the Savannah. Guys like Abd El-Kader make the rest of us sorry idiots look good, and have been carrying us along, kicking and screaming, towards becoming more civilized. I sometimes think I have more in common with monkeys than people like El-Kader.  Give me a banana and leave me alone, or I’ll hit you with a stick.

Twittering While Black

On to a very different cultural wandering.

Manjoo’s article How Black People Use Twitter put him near the top of the “People I’d rather not be this week” list.  I was as puzzled by Manjoo’s article as the responses which followed.  I didn’t know what to think of either. Well, at least I got my introduction to the Black blogosphere. Let’s call it the “Twittering While Black” conversation, by analogy to “Driving While Black.” Here’s an overview.

The critical responses as far as I could tell, all appeared to start with variants/refinements of the “don’t group all Black people together” idea.  One thread of responses, a mostly sarcastic one, dismissed Manjoo as somewhere between clueless and unknowingly offensive (the only redeeming thing about his piece, according to one blogger, was that it was not as bad as this one from April, on Business Insider). My Urban Report took Manjoo to task for asking the question in the first place:

The Slate article does a great job of presenting the, “Why do they talk, walk, or dress like that?” perspective, but that is shallow and narrow minded.

Tim Carmody at Snarkmarket puts it a little more bluntly,

With “How black peo­ple use Twit­ter,” it’s the con­ver­gence of “Slate doesn’t write about race well” and “Farhad Man­joo can be a super­fi­cial tech colum­nist.

For the record I didn’t know Slate had this reputation, but perhaps that is because I usually ignore race-related writing on Slate (or anywhere else for that matter; I have to admit this conversation hooked me because of  “what does this reveal about Twitter?” curiosity, not “what does this reveal about Black people?” curiosity.)

This response post is worth a look simply for all the cute stereotypical-black Twitter-bird cartoons.

The Black Snob traces the general “gawking” at this particular aspect of Black culture to a November article last year in The Awl, and comments, in a post dripping with irony and sarcasm:

But, you know, a lot of those teenagers are black and they manage to get trending topics going so THIS IS A THING! And apparently it needs to be discussed and we need to understand “why.” Our friends at Slate.com (and their over-sized baseball cap wearing, black Twitter bird*) are on the case!

From irony and sarcasm, shift over to the other thread of responses, the earnest one, which suggests that Manjoo might have clumsily asked an important question. We have one blogger embarrassed and saddened by the “blacktag” phenomenon and implicitly suggesting a potential contributor to why non-Blacks lump the entire community together: possibly one sub-group is dominant enough to own the “brand.” (Makes sense when I think about it; no other race appears to be viewed in such monolithic ways).

Also in the earnest-reponses thread is possibly the most intellectually intriguing response,  Missing the Point, by Anjuan on Black Web 2.0:

So, he [Manjoo] became interested in black people on Twitter because he was entertained by what he saw them posting on Twitter.  This brings to mind the long tradition of minstrel shows and the work of actor Stepin Fetchit which both presented entertainment for white audiences by engaging in stereotypes about African Americans.

Which puts Manjoo in decidedly uncomfortable Amos and Andy territory. I wouldn’t have thought to put him there. And to round off the overview, I somehow found my way to two articles bemoaning the lack of diversity in Web 2.0 circles. This Chris Messina piece/graphic provocatively titled “The Future of White Boy Clubs.” and this interesting post arguing that conference organizers’ abdication of their responsibility for creating diverse events is not acceptable.

So much for Twittering While Black. About the only thing I was able to make of it was that the two threads of responses, (sarcastic or earnest) seem to be 2010 echoes of the older W. E. B DuBois vs. Booker Washington dichotomy in Black discourses. I could be way wrong. I usually am on these matters.

But overall, this just reinforces my strong view that people of Asian descent should just shut the hell up when it comes to weighing in on racial black/white matters in America. Even if they are American-born like Manjoo appears to be (his name makes him Persian, so he could be of either Indian-Parsi or original Iranian descent. I couldn’t figure it out. Curious how this thread connects up to the El-Kader thread via Manjoo).

Frankly, everything I’ve read by Asians on the subject of “Race in America” suggests that we basically don’t get it, and that I am not alone. We don’t really get reactionary White anxiety either. As far as socio-economic privilege goes, Asians in America can basically be “rounded up” to “White” and perhaps it isn’t such a bad thing to be excused from this conversation. This is dominantly a Black/White/Hispanic country and Asians should probably watch and stay informed, but otherwise just sit this out. Race is a conversation where the race of the speaker actually matters a lot, and Asian names are just unnecessary noise for now, that confuse an already complicated black-white conversation.

And if you don’t like that thought, just remember, I am not Asian. I am Gondwanalandian.

Now I remember why I don’t normally blog about the work of my fellow bloggers. I tend to wander way too much. I should stick to books.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Anjuansimmons Simmons says:

    Venkat,

    Thank you for your compliment about my article in Black Web 2.0. You perfectly captured the point I was trying to make. I do want to be clear that I think Manjoo had good intentions in writing his post on Slate. However, it is difficult to transcend the cultural views of the times in which one lives, and I believe that Manjoo’s piece shows some of the stereotypes that American culture has about African Americans.

    However, the best antidote to stereotypes is exposure. I hope that Manjoo does not shy away from writing about race in the future despite the beating he has taken over the past few days. A better response would be to view this as a teachable moment and engage in a more informed perspective about race.

  2. A much more interesting sociological phenomenon than the “Twittering while Black” is the apparent self-shunting of Black peoples’ webcam chat from the most popular sites (stickam, blogtv, etc.) to other smaller sites (Tinychat, most notably).

    What I found interesting in this field is that once the chat participant’s race is known, then the stereotypes and prejudice are immediately apparent (as opposed to IRC or other text-only chats). Tinychat ‘rooms’ with a high percentage of black participants are continually bombarded with racist insults from not-on-cam, allegedly non-black, chatters. Rooms with mostly white but one or two black participants don’t seem to gain the same level of insult, I suppose being that the majority-black rooms are selected intentionally by racists to spread hate.

    Dunno if anyone else observed this or finds this interesting, but I did.

  3. “Pormpuraawans, we found, arranged time from east to west. That is, seated facing south, time went left to right … ”

    This caught my attention. I’ve always seen time – weeks, months, decades – as “geographic”. It lives in my head as an immutable sort of topology, all colored. Lots of stuff is like this. Numbers, letters, music and sound. Wonder if some long ago synesthete spread that idea.

  4. I love the idea of the past being in front of you, because of course you can see it better than the future. It gives me this strange image that all of us are actually walking backwards, using the stuff we’ve seen pass us to imply what we will have to do. In some situations, this is pretty much exactly true!

    It also makes me wonder how much these people talk about time when walking. Perhaps they talk about time only when gathered together and standing still.