New Year, New Cultures
By A.D. Freudenheim

6 January 2002

In case anyone noticed, I skipped one week's column because I just did not know what to say. With the change to a new year, it is so typical - and typically so boring - to write about the damage done in the last year, and the opportunities for greatness that might lie ahead. Holidays bring out the worst clichés, and the New Year's holiday may be the worst offender of the bunch. However, not looking backwards at all risks our ability to learn from history, and from our mistakes.

With this problem in mind, I started thinking about two important moments of the last year, the destruction of two great sets of towers, representing - in their own ways - two very different cultures. In the 1870s, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: "The problem of culture is seldom grasped correctly. The goal of a culture is not the greatest possible happiness of a people, nor is it the unhindered development of all their talents; instead, culture shows itself in the correct proportion of these developments. Its aim points beyond earthly happiness: the production of great works is the aim of culture."[1]

In March, the first set of towers were destroyed in Afghanistan: the massive, carved sculptures known as the Buddhas of Bamiyan. These statues were ruined by the reigning Taliban regime because they represented idolatrous images not in keeping with their view of Afghanistan as a pure Islamic nation. The Taliban was uninterested in the sculptures' representative role in their nation's long history as a land of many cultures, a meeting place not just for trade but for people; they certainly did not view the Buddha sculptures as iconic of the peace and love that Buddha himself was supposed to emanate. Instead, the Taliban were resistant to all external appeals to save the sculptures, taking the view that if Afghanistan's past was not of benefit to Islam, then their nation's history lay only in its future.

Six months later, the World Trade Towers in New York were destroyed by terrorists (whose organization is believed to have been sheltered by the Taliban), causing the loss of more than three thousand lives. Although the Trade Towers were initially reviled upon completion in the 1970s, they came to be representative of New York and its skyline - of the glory and the power of this city, and the amazing things that take place within it. Over time, they even came to symbolize the very thing for which they were named: New York's central role in "world trade" and the global economy.

Nietzsche's statement offers much to argue with, and it may very well be too narrow a definition of the purpose of culture, but his fundamental point has some merit in an examination of the United States and Afghanistan. Both are nations where the dominant societal view truly is not about "the greatest possible happiness of a people," or "the unhindered development of all their talents." Afghanistan and the United States are - in their own ways, and with marked differences - nations of a very rough meritocracy, where the tough and the resilient (and the wealthy) survive.

As the world faces a new year, the people of Afghanistan and America are clearly looking to the possibility of rebuilding, in different ways. With the sense of rejuvenation that a New Year often offers, maybe what would prove most valuable for both countries is to look at how they define their cultures and the values that they seek to promote. I am not sure whether these two sets of towers truly represented the "great works" of American and Afghani cultures, but we have lamented the destruction of these objects almost as much as we have mourned the related loss of life. Perhaps that fact bears further examination.

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, as quoted in Philosophy
and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche's Notebooks
of the Early 1870's
, page 16, translated and edited
by Daniel Breazeale, Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey,
Humanities Press (1979).
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