Monday, July 31, 2006

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The tricky thing about mythologizing history....

Robert Pringle, who served as U.S. ambassador to Mali from 1987 to 1990, wrote in the spring issue of The Wilson Quarterly on how Mali was able to preserve its democracy. This is not a trivial question -- socioeconomic indicators would predict, Fareed Zakaria-style, that Maliian democracy should not work.

Pringle's article is now available online. What's his explanation for Mali's success? Mythology:

Was Mali’s record simply the result of fortuitous good leadership, or was something more fundamental at work? To find out, I returned in 2004 and traveled throughout the country conducting interviews. When I asked Malians to explain their aptitude for democracy, their answers boiled down to “It’s the history, stupid,” of course expressed more politely....

The Niger River was the launching point for trade routes across the Sahara until they were marginalized by colonial-era commerce through coastal ports. Trans-Saharan trade nurtured ancient cities, the most famous in Mali being Jenné and Timbuktu. There were three early states: Ghana (eighth to 11th centuries), Mali (13th to 15th centuries), and Songhai (14th to 16th centuries). Two of the three lay largely outside modern Mali: Old Ghana inspired the name of modern Ghana, but was located in today’s Mali and Mauritania, while old Mali was mainly in modern Mali, with a portion in Guinea. There were other states, but it is these three that the Malians refer to when they talk about the “Great Empires.”

It is because of the Great Empires that Malians—from villagers to college professors—believe they have a gift for democracy and its twin, conflict resolution. The history they cite is not merely their extensive experience of precolonial, multiethnic government, unusual elsewhere on the continent, but also an associated system of beliefs and customs. The centerpiece of this tradition is the epic of Sunjata Keita, who overcame exile and physical handicap and founded the Mali Empire in the 13th century. Sunjata’s story, primarily oral and circulated in numerous versions, has played a role in West Africa similar to that of the Homeric epics in Western civilization....

From these many materials, Malians are creating a national foundation mythology. Like Americans, they are selective. We stress the Bill of Rights, not the Pullman strike or what we did to Native Americans, and we like to believe the story about the young George Washington making a clean breast of it after he chopped down his father’s cherry tree, even when we know that this appealing story was invented by an early biographer. The Malians emphasize the three Great Empires and pass lightly over their ancestors’ later complicity in the Atlantic slave trade, though they do not deny it.

What is most important about Mali’s mythology is not whether or to what extent history is being embellished, but rather the underlying assumption that reason and creativity can maintain harmonious relations among people of different cultural backgrounds. The Malians believe that equitable, responsive government has become a national tradition in part as a response to harsh conditions. Malian historian Doulaye Konaté, a leading scholar of the subject, notes, “It is precisely because violence was omnipresent that West African societies developed mechanisms and procedures aimed at preventing or, if that didn’t work, at managing conflict.” The value of such a mindset in a modern African setting, with warring, unsettled, or dictatorial neighbors still all too common, is hard to overestimate....

The most striking thing about Malian democracy is its success in drawing intellectual and spiritual sustenance from an epic past, and actively incorporating homegrown elements, such as decentralization. If there is occasional fiddling with historical truth, the past provides plenty of room for differing viewpoints and for shaping tradition to meet modern needs. It is this aspect of the Malian experience that is least appreciated, and it deserves more attention from policymakers, both African and foreign, who have a tendency to assume that “tradition” equates with “bad.”

This is interesting, because the trouble with mythologizing the past is that it cuts both ways. Pringle might be correct that Mali's construction of history has led to the flourishing of a relative stable democracy in an unlikely locale.

However, one can point to other parts of the globe [Cough, cough, Serbia, cough--ed.] where mythology has been used to promote extremist ideologies instead.

So I'm not completely convinced that Pringle is correct in believing that the promotion of traditon is the way to promote democracy in Africa. The promotion of tradition can lead to a lot of things -- and not all of them good.

posted by Dan on 07.31.06 at 11:59 AM


'Promotion of tradition' is a red herring since, generally, politicians will 'discover' traditions that just happen to suit their ambitions. There's no silver bullet.

posted by: Matt on 07.31.06 at 11:59 AM [permalink]

Being familiar with the history in question, one may put some things in context.

(i) While Mali is indeed multi-ethnic, it is largely unified by religion (Islam), without severe splits a la Shia versus Sunni. Religious practice itself is rather focused on community rather than ideology. [Although historically the core Malians ethnic groups were moujahidine]
(ii) The ethnic groups themselves are in fact largely inter-related on a grand family scale. Rather like "Germanic peoples" that provides a template (a la Slavic or South Slav) peoples for unity or at least tolerance and cooperation, without the really severe counter-vailing Catholic-Orthodox rivalries a la Yugoslavia.
(iii) Shared history as one state over a long period. Counter example to Nigeria, where a South and a North - long rival and hostile - were mushed together by colonial rule, and the differences never truly digested.

Obviously counter-narratives could be constructed, but the national unity strain is a strong and fairly stable one in Mali (unlike say the Yugoslav example).

posted by: The Lounsbury on 07.31.06 at 11:59 AM [permalink]

Having implemented democracy promotion programs in Central Asia and Russia for many years, I think there is a place for tradition and national myth, alongside economics, culture, history and individual leadership.

Kyrgyzstan, for example, is arguably the most open and pluralistic (calling it democratic is a bit of a stretch) state in Central Asia, despite being extremely poor. Its relatively open and pluralistic style seems to stem, in some measure, from nomadic roots. The central figure in national mythology, Manas, had a healthy distrust of authority.

Its neighbor, Uzbekistan, is quite a contrast. The Uzbeks are a settled people with a very long tradition of strong leadership. Tamerlane plays a central part in their national myth. Today, Uzbekistan is among the most oppressive regimes in the world.

I would argue myth is not unimportant because myths play a significant role in how a society frames an argument. Witness the current debate over our own founding fathers today. To hear the religious right tell it, the founding fathers were all God-fearing church-going evangelicals. If you accept that premise, it becomes easier to buy the whole 'America is a Christian nation' argument, which is used to promote intelligent design, prayer in school etc... Needless to say, this is somewhat at odds with how secularists view the founding fathers.

Myth, particularly founding myth, helps a society discern appropriate behavior in its present-day leadership. It can and should be a tool in the democracy promotion toolkit.

Are mythology and tradition the sole factors in a country's democratic development? As Matt rightly notes, there is no silver bullet, but tradition may play as important a role as per capita GDP and other commonly cited indicators.

posted by: SteveinVT on 07.31.06 at 11:59 AM [permalink]

Righto, I am sure. But the core issue in using is how well rooted and saleable the said myths are. Tito's myths failed, others with more natural roots seem not to.

posted by: The Lounsbury on 07.31.06 at 11:59 AM [permalink]

Promotion of tradition in the US would seem to favor habeas corpus, the right to a speedy trial, the right to face one's accuasers, blah blah...

posted by: Buce on 07.31.06 at 11:59 AM [permalink]

While I agree on the basis of this post, one thing worth mentioning is that Zakaria/Huntington/Lipset Martin are, nevertheless, still wrong.

Go to a little known book put out by Council on Foreign Relations and written by, among others, Morton Halperin called The Democracy Advantage. In this case, a liberal democrat puts forth the strongest case of how social indicators are not nearly the most important for a democratizing country. Furthermore, with a few notable exceptions - all of which Zakaria bleeds for all they are worth - dictatorship has actually impeded rather than helped along democratization.

Also worthwhile is a study run by the Political Instability Task Force, including SAIC, CIA and others. Jack Goldstone (among others) has written about its findings.

posted by: Alenda Lux on 07.31.06 at 11:59 AM [permalink]

Hmm. Anyone who thinks people in the US emphasize the bill of rights, freedom, etc. over what we did to Native Americans clearly hasn't taken a modern college course in US history.

posted by: DK on 07.31.06 at 11:59 AM [permalink]

Senegal, close to Mali, is a democracy since 1960.

Socio-economic indicators doesn't matter.

A nobel Prize (Gunnar Myrdal) predicts, after Second World War, that democracy will fail in India because people were illiterate and very poor.
It's quite possible to be poor, illiterate and Muslim and have a democracy.

posted by: JLS on 07.31.06 at 11:59 AM [permalink]

Ah the democracy promotion toolkit. I can see it now: Seminar on Creating a National Mythology, Tuesday at 2:30 in the Jefferson Room.

posted by: bjk on 07.31.06 at 11:59 AM [permalink]

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