From the British Condescension Files, Pt. 8000000000

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by Joshua Foust on 9/17/2012 · 3 comments

What is it with British media and incredibly condescending articles about Central Asia? Behold the first hundred and thirty words of this BBC article about a (very good) exhibit of Kazakh archaeological finds at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC:

In the 2006 spoof documentary Borat, the eponymous hero travels from Kazakhstan to the US to learn about the American way of life.

Given the subtitle Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, the film is a sometimes funny and often discomforting send-up of American social values.

But many audiences remember more vividly its portrayal of Kazakhstan as a backward nation populated by peasants with little in the way of culture.

So indelible is that image that at a sporting event in Kuwait earlier this year, the film’s theme music was accidentally played during the award ceremony instead of the real national anthem of Kazakhstan.

But now that stereotype is being blown apart by an exhibition in Washington DC of ancient treasures that reveal the true “glorious nation of Kazakhstan”.

I can maybe understand a single reference to the film but this much dwelling on it (it’s even titled, “Kazakh US exhibition banishes country’s Borat image”) is just ridiculous and unnecessary.

For comparison, here’s the first few grafs from the New York Times’ coverage of the exhibit:

Ancient Greeks had a word for the people who lived on the wild, arid Eurasian steppes stretching from the Black Sea to the border of China. They were nomads, which meant “roaming about for pasture.” They were wanderers and, not infrequently, fierce mounted warriors. Essentially, they were “the other” to the agricultural and increasingly urban civilizations that emerged in the first millennium B.C.

As the nomads left no writing, no one knows what they called themselves. To their literate neighbors, they were the ubiquitous and mysterious Scythians or the Saka, perhaps one and the same people. In any case, these nomads were looked down on — the other often is — as an intermediate or an arrested stage in cultural evolution. They had taken a step beyond hunter-gatherers but were well short of settling down to planting and reaping, or the more socially and economically complex life in town.

But archaeologists in recent years have moved beyond this mind-set by breaking through some of the vast silences of the Central Asian past.

It’s night and day. Unbelievable.

Recently: see the Economist use a bunch of horse metaphors to describe Kyrgyz politics.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 3 comments }

Keith September 17, 2012 at 10:36 am

What exactly is condescending about a metaphor?
And the Kyrgyz story did actually involve a real-life horse, so it was not even strictly speaking being metaphorical. Would it be condescending to suggest you look up the words “condescending” and “metaphor.”
That said, the BBC article is atrocious, but trust you to undermine your own point by deploying your trademark supercilious sneer.

Joshua Foust September 17, 2012 at 10:38 am

OMG! If I could trademark my sneer, Billy Idol-style I’d be sooooo happy.

Anyway, it’s one thing to report on a corruption scandal expressed through a shady deal on a horse, it’s another to liberally pepper a news piece with horse metaphors, references to nomadism and horses, and horse comments.

Just so we’re clear: I think the metaphor is condescending.

Bishkeker September 23, 2012 at 1:24 am

Here you have more of a point because the author goes off topic in a cheap trick to attract more readers to an article that isn’t remotely related to Borat. But the economist piece is different.

If a PM actually tells his rival not to eat a horse he is offering to sell to him as in comic response to an accusation that in the first instance is about a horse, then the author is reporting, not engaging in metaphorical condescension. If there is something of a ‘tone’ to the article, then I think it is in keeping with the Economist’s articles in general, which you will either like or dislike.

At the end of the day, if Kyrgyzstan’s politicians want to play into nomadic stereotypes by ‘horsing around’ and elevating a steed to the level of a national discussion then they deserve what they get in the way of cynical commentary.

This exhibition deserved to be treated with respect, however, and perhaps the author originally did so until an unscrupulous editor told him/her: “Kazakhstan – isn’t that where Borat is from?”

Also the fact that they are both British publications is an irrelevancy. Of the people I know that have written for the Economist, none are British.

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