The Registan’s new managing editor, Noah Tucker, has asked for contributions on why Central Asia should still matter to Western policy-makers and funders, especially American ones, after the occupation in Afghanistan ends and the post-9/11 era officially ends. I think it would be best if Central Asians wrote for themselves,* but I’ll take the opportunity to put the first word in.
My academic training is in philosophy, religious studies, and history, but by profession I’m a journalist. So, from my perspective, the argument boils down to two very, very basic points: historical consciousness and cost effectiveness.
Judo’s lesson for the past and future
If you know the history of religions, ideologies, and great political systems, then you know that Central Asia has been the axis of the world. I briefly studied judo, and the most important lesson I learned was: when wrestling, don’t pay attention to the eyes and the head, pay attention to the waist. And he who controls the waist, controls the match.
The United States may be licking its wounds right now, but ultimately it still believes that it has an historical mission to bring liberty and unity to the world. These are not just nice ideals or, at best, political principles; they are a story about the nature and purpose of human beings. And there are certain regions where the very viability of this story is put to the test. Central Asia is one of them; arguably, it’s the most important one.
And the best thing is, it doesn’t really cost a lot of money to study, explore, and influence this region. Central Asia is still transitioning out from communism, and in many ways has yet to shed the command-economy mentality. At the same time, it is not an entirely undeveloped place, for the Soviets did leave an infrastructural legacy behind (problematic and decaying though it may be). That means: fantastic real value for every nominal dollar spent. The millions the American government spends on just one missile — or for that matter, the hundreds an American citizen spends on just one gaming console — would have an incalculable impact on five whole countries.
America, don’t drink the kool aid
By now, I’ve spent four years outside of my homeland, bouncing between Belgium and Kyrgyzstan. When I think about the professional plight of my colleagues back home in the United States, I find that I want to ask our countrymen to consider the following:
In our era of neo-liberal “austerity”, an ethos of unashamed and miserly penny-pinching has taken hostage our society’s policy-making process. Government leaders decry regional studies, language studies, the social sciences, etc. etc, anything not empirically measurable and materially profitable as not worth the investment. But how much money does it really cost our society to pay for a philosopher, a policy analyst, an anthropologist? Nothing when compared to the public money being spent on the academic-corporate-military research projects that result in private patents that ultimately only benefit the very few, massively violate our individual and collective privacy, and drive the logic of imperium that has made so much of the world despise us.
This is not to pitch a false battle between the so-called “soft” and “hard” sciences, because a lot of the hard sciences are also suffering. Environmental toxicologists, particle physicists, computer scientists, etc., get passed over and tossed aside for grandiose projects that, upon close inspection, really boil down to yet another version of Viagra. Nor is it to engage in a polemics about the pros and cons of military spending, universities embracing a corporation model, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”, etc. etc.
No, my point is: don’t believe the hype, don’t drink the kool aid. Austerity is not efficient, nor shall it make for a better economy, nor shall it help the United States remain potent and important in the world in a truly fair, uplifting, and non-exploitave way — the way in our heart of hearts we Americans really want to be.
Central Asia: the canary in the coal mine
And in this sense, Central Asia emerges as the canary in the coal mine: basically, how we decide to treat this region — literally, how we decide to spend or not spend money on it — shall reveal not our general priorities as a society, but the priorities that the powers-that-be want us to have, and to some extent how we have let those powers win. And those priorities are: do as you’re told; spend money; shut up; let the world descend into division.
The powers-that-be would rather suck Central Asia dry of its natural resources and have us turn a blind eye to not only the negative material effects that this has upon Central Asians, but also the negative spiritual effects that it has upon we Americans and the wider world. So, they insist upon promulgating a false narrative that the region is “marginal”, “obscure”, “exotic”, etc. In the name of your better selves as a nation, don’t listen to them.
* Registan.net хочет Центральной Азии писателей. Электронная почта Ноем.
* Registan.net орталықтың азиялық авторларын қалайды. Электрондық пошта Ноем.