Notes & Comments October 2021
Duchamp in Kabul
On a new cultural imperialism.
It is amusing to speculate about what Marcel Duchamp, the doyen of Dada, would have made of his appearance in twenty-first-century Afghanistan. That happened as part of a cultural outreach program sponsored by the United States. In an article on The Spectator’s website called “Did ‘gender studies’ lose Afghanistan?,” the writer known pseudonymously as “Cockburn” unearthed a video from 2015 that depicts a fresh-faced, posh-sounding academic instructing a small group of Afghan men and women about the wonders of “conceptual art.” The locals sit around a table in a dimly lit room exuding an air of puzzlement as their tutor shows slides and emits the usual art-speak patter. Exhibit A was Fountain, the unadorned urinal that Duchamp impishly offered to the art world in 1917. Anyone know what this is? the docent asked, noting that she didn’t necessarily expect “the ladies” to recognize it. One of the gents ventured “toilet” under his breath; the camera captured the look on the faces of some of “the ladies” and it is priceless. “What garbage,” they must have been thinking; “Why are we here?” This was just after their instructor told them that Marcel Duchamp was Very Important in Western capital-A Art and then assured them that the exhibition of Fountain in an art gallery was “a huge revolution.”
Well, those poor Afghans are even now learning about huge revolutions. Marcel Duchamp will not, we are confident, be on the menu. And besides, it’s not at all clear that Duchamp would have agreed with the assessment of this cultural ambassadrix. “I threw the bottle rack and the urinal into their faces as a challenge,” Duchamp said some years later, “and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty.” The “they” in question being the commissars of the art world, the ruminant herd of independent minds faithfully parroting the going clichés, lips firmly affixed to the teat dispensing the heady nectar of cash-saturated snobbery.
The cash is important, and it turns out that the pursing lips of the State Department are just as eager for their nutrient nipple as are those of the art world. Even our jaded eyes opened wider at the news, also reported by Cockburn, that the United States had over the years spent $787 million (that’s $787,000,000) on “gender programs” in Afghanistan. And that figure, Cockburn notes, “substantially understates the actual total, since gender goals [!] were folded into practically every undertaking America made in the country.”
Talk about Dadaist performance art! “Do-gooders established a ‘National Masculinity Alliance,’ so a few hundred Afghan men could talk about their ‘gender roles’ and ‘examine male attitudes that are harmful to women.’ ” (We wonder if stoning women to death was discussed.) We’re confident that Duchamp would have enjoyed joining us as spectators at those powwows. Consciousness-raising is never an easy task, however, and the gender crusaders (can we say “crusaders”?) had their work cut out for them. For one thing, as Cockburn notes, in neither the Dari nor Pashto languages are there any words for “gender” per se. “That makes sense,” he observes, “since the distinction between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ was only invented by a sexually abusive child psychiatrist in the 1960s.” Oh dear.
Things didn’t improve from there. Under the U.S.’s guidance, Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution set a 27 percent quota for women in the lower house—higher than the actual figure in America! . . . Remarkably, this experiment in ‘democracy’ created a government few were willing to fight for, let alone die for. . . . Police facilities included childcare facilities for working mothers, as though Afghanistan’s medieval culture had the same needs as 1980s Minneapolis. The army set a goal of 10 percent female participation, which might make sense in a Marvel movie, but didn’t to devout Muslims.
Now that America’s excellent, twenty-year, multi-trillion-dollar adventure in Afghanistan is at an end (except, of course, for the Americans left behind), it’s worth sparing a thought for those, er, manning the many gender programs paid for by your tax dollars. The commentator Tucker Carlson shared a plaintive tweet by Dr. Bahar Jalali, “Historian, Founder of the First Gender Studies Program in Afghanistan,” who on August 30 noted sadly that, after eight-and-a-half years teaching at the American University in Afghanistan and founding that first “Gender Studies Program,” it was all being “snatched away so needlessly.” As Oscar Wilde said about Dickens’s portrayal of the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, one would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh, just a bit, at Dr. Jalali’s predicament.
There is also a serious side to this whole episode, however, which Carlson put his finger on when he raised the issue of “cultural imperialism.” It used to be that leftists derided Western countries, especially Britain and the United States, for that retrograde practice. But it turns out that the Left is just fine with cultural imperialism so long as it is not traditional bourgeois values but rather their subversion that is being exported. Thriftiness, piety, hard work, and traditional social and moral norms are bad things to teach. But feminism, “gender studies,” racial obsession, moral relativism, and attacks on of the fabric of inherited morality? Bring it on.
Put it down as reason 6,875 that our adventure in Afghanistan ended in failure.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 2, on page 1
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