Sunday, October 20, 2002

Virginia Postrel quotes Sean Kinsell from Japan.

CNN Asia covered it very thoroughly last weekend, when there were only sporadic updates and the death toll was steadily climbing from "about 140 people, some of whom may have been foreigners" to what we now know. I can't claim to know a representative sample of Westerners in the Pacific Rim, but even among the diehard (as it were) pacifists I encounter frequently, the reaction is very charged. The WTC represented capitalism. That meant that even though in reality it gave jobs to thousands of poor immigrants, both the left and the right who think the money economy evil could see it as an attack on a particular aspect of our civilization that they dislike. And of course, the Pentagon is central command for the Military-Industrial Complex.

But Bali to a lot of people still represents an art-centered, peaceful paradise in the middle of contentious Indonesia. It's where backpacker types averse to the money culture can indulge their soulful side while providing a living for the nice natives. And it definitely isn't the place to go looking for victims if your issues are specifically with America.

There is a fairly mobile expatriate culture throughout Asia. It consists of people who are comfortable moving from country to country, and culture to culture. East Asians themselves (particularly the Japanese and Koreans) are often not comfortable with this sort of cross cultural experience, so the sort of jobs that involve this sort of thing tend to fall to others. This expatriate community contains Europeans and Americans. It contains lots of Indians, too, especially in IT roles. It contains lots of Australians. This is due to the proximity of Australia, and is I think also due to the nature of Australians. As I wrote last week, we are not Americans and we are not Europeans. We have certain doubts about our identity. This is I think one factor in why are so obsessed with beating other countries in sporting contests, and I think it is a factor in why we travel so lot. In any event, we fit well into that East Asian, country to country expatriate thing. This is a culture of skilled people who possibly don't quite fit in at home, and who bring western expertise to poorer and more isolated countries, and who build things. (The spirit of this is captured wonderfully in this article by Neal Stephenson. It's six years old and very long, but well worth a read). It is generally a culture of people who work hard, drink hard, and party hard, and have a slightly cynical and world weary quality at times. You meet them in bars in certain districts of Asian countries. And you meet them in bars in airports. Clive James was sort of describing this

A few days after the towers collapsed in New York, I flew east myself, from London to Sydney, thence to keep a speaking engagement in Adelaide. I flew by Malaysia Air, on a flight in which the crew outnumbered the passengers. The transit lounge in Kuala Lumpur was where I had my revelation. There was a prayer room for the faithful and an open bar for the rest of us. The two schools of thought were getting along fine, but it wasn't hard to imagine another breed of traveller who wouldn't stand for it. Here was an obvious target, and there were plenty more on the way to Australia, including the whole of Indonesia, where the fundamentalists were getting a lot better hearing than they were in Malaysia, but only because the Indonesian government was even more scared of what they might do.

and certainly given the amount of Asian travel he has done, it's a culture he is familiar with. James isn't the same kind of expatriate, but he is one just the same. He has the type of global view that expatriates have. (As for instance, does Ian Buruma (who is a complicated cultural mixture, who again has travelled in Asia and written about it a log). This type of thing comes across in his books as well).

I don't think it is a coincidence that these are the two people writing clearheaded stuff for the Gaurdian. The expatriate experience illustrates what is at stake in this war pretty well. Bali is full of bars full of expatriates: it is the place they come (at least came) to unwind between jobs. And in a sense this bomb seems an attack on the expatriate lifestyle. These are western, crosscultural people, who are helping some of the poorer countries of Asia to modernise and westernise. They like to drink beer and party. A lot of them died last week. And in their murder it becomes clearer what it is the islamofascists hate. It isn't America so much as what America stands for. It isn't capitalism even. It is the secular, modern world itself.

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