Yesterday (June 2, 2010), it was Prof. Thomas Barfield of Boston University, writing at ForeignPolicy.com. Barfield points out, quite rightly perhaps, that comparisons between the European Middle Ages and contemporary Afghanistan come fast and quick, most recently by the current UK Defense Minister, Liam Fox. Indeed, when looked at quickly, the religious and political situations seem quite analogous -- a decentralized power structure with several loci that have recourse to legitimately use violence, the permeation of religion into the discourse of everyday life, etc. Makes you wish that someone would study the intersection of religion and culture, doesn't it?
Anyway, after drawing the outlines for his comparison, Barfield concludes his essay by suggesting that any Western diplomats charged with helping modern Afghanistan should learn their medieval history, because "at least in medieval Europe, the centralized state emerged victorious."
This is what's called "neomedievalism" in foreign policy circles, and if you don't know about this, go read you some Bruce Holsinger. Basically, the idea is that all states follow the same basic evolutionary model that roughly maps onto the (Western) European experience -- anarchy, increasing centralization during the Middle Ages, finally emerging as strong, coherent nations in the 19th century or thereabouts. There are some problems with that.
Leaving aside the fact that my description of Afghanistan above (taken from Barfield's essay) could easily describe today's United States (think about it), and the fact that I would NEVER discourage people from studying the European Middle Ages, there are some other problems here. Let me count off a few, and I'm tired right now so I won't take too much time. I'll even bullet-point them:
- The European Middle Ages are not a repository for all that people today consider "backwards" and/ or "barbaric." It is not a synonym for "religous" (let alone "Islamic") either. The people who lived during that age were more cultured and intelligent than you think they were, and they were more violent and narrow-minded than you can imagine. Just. Stop. Generalizing.
- Relatedly again, there's something really patronizing about thinking that the European example has all the answers. We're not all on the same timeline. Historical context matters for the very simple reason that each situation is different.
- Relatedly again, the narrative of European political centralization that Barfield's relying on is very old. It goes back to Charles Homer Haskins, who attended the Peace Conference at Versailles in 1919 as an advisor to Pres. Wilson, and then to Haskins' student, Joseph Strayer, who worked for the CIA and wrote the famous On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State. There's been a lot of work done since then on how this model is problematic. It's almost like me looking at Prof. Barfield's Afghani tribes and using French Structuralism to explain their behaviors. Wait a minute...
Look, Afghanistan is a mess. But it's a mess because we THINK it to be a mess -- because we don't like the way the state functions. It looks "primitive" to us and that bothers us (and, to a degree, threatens our American interests and security, were the Taliban to regain power). But it is what it is. I do know, however, that turning Karzai into Louis IX or Henry II isn't really going to solve anything and could very well make things worse.