Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Status and the Status Quo

                When I studied sociology in college, I remember learning that there were two general types of status: ascribed and achieved.  Ascribed status is the one conveyed by birth, and achieved status is conveyed by merit (or demerit).  The latter is generally more fluid than the former, and many modern people around the world are more concerned about the latter than the former. 

                Ascribed status does carry weight and meaning in given situations.  Since ascribed status would appear to be the oldest, it stands to reason that it runs deepest, embodied in rites and rituals.  Ascribed status is the status of kings, of religions, and of castes.  It tells us that we are connected to our parents and to our family-community.

                Achieved status is the status earned in the combat of modern life.  You may have been born poor or working class, and have gotten into Harvard on a combination of hard work, sheer desire, and social programs designed to help students like you.  When you graduate from Harvard, you have a high achieved status.  In some communities, just going to college gets you a leg up on the status chart.      Likewise, the daughters and sons of high achievers have a high ascribed status, but if they fail to perform like the parents they drop a notch or two on the achieved scale.  Life is like that in modern times.

                In Old Testament writings, when young Jacob was sold into slavery by his brothers out of jealousy.  Once Pharaoh was made to recognize this slave's abilities, Jacob prospered.  This is a case where the son of a noble line, and one favored by God—definitely high ascribed status—was given his due by Pharaoh based on a demonstrated set of skills—achieved status.  One might describe this as a moral lesson about God's will, or a modern lesson about overcoming adversity.  It works both ways.

                What happens when we live in two worlds like immigrants and minority communities often do?  One might say that one form of status works on the weekends and during community events, and another works during business hours.  Maybe so, but that doesn't approach the complexity.  Both are important. 

                Recently, Sonia Sotomayor was nominated, confirmed, and appointed to the United States Supreme Court.  Her ascribed status is off the chart as an Associate Justice, but to some she is simply an uppity Puerto Rican woman who has overstepped her boundaries.  How many African-Americans have heard the same words about themselves?  How many times have we heard President Obama spoken about as though he were an affirmative action president, somehow not as deserving of respect as people like George W. Bush, a man whose accomplishments define the term "average"?

                As it turns out, perhaps the only thing we can say about ascribed and achieved status is that they are more or less important given the circumstances.  On a professional sports team, who your parents were means almost nothing.  It might get you a pass to Training Camp, but it won't make you part of the team.  Only your talent—your achieved status—will do that, and your failure to demonstrate that talent for a sufficient period of time may cause you to lose the opportunity you were given.

                Likewise, Britain's princes are princes, and all the wrong they could possibly do won't undo their birthright.  Their ascribed status is simply beyond question, and there's no way they can lose it.  That does not imply that they will be respected if they choose to live in ways that the British people resent or are embarrassed by, but rather that they will always be their mother's sons.

                If you can imagine a graph with the X-axis labeled "Ascribed Status" and the Y-Axis labeled "Achieved Status", with values rising positively from the "0,0" coordinates, you could plot where people you associate with fall on the scale as a scattergram of your acquaintances.  Knowing where you think they are on the scale may tell you a few things about where you are.  If you're heavily linked to high ascribed status individuals, you may want to find a more diverse community of friends, and the same applies if you're linked to high achievers.  I encourage you to learn from the graph.

                Be realistic.  While many of my Punjabi Khatri friends are garrulous and high-born members of the larger Hindu community, a Tamil Iyengar has it all over a Punjabi Khatri in terms of ascribed status.  Leave the ethnocentricity off the graph and the scoring will be more accurate.  Just because people are doctors doesn't mean that Surgeons aren't higher status than GPs, and that Ambulance Chasers aren't lower than M&A lawyers in legal circles.  Maybe you should also plot where you would like to be and then decide what you can do to get there.

                One final caveat: don't confuse "being respectful" of someone with "having respect" for him or her.  A person who is respected is someone whose advice and counsel is sought by others, or one who is listened to by others who then act on those words.  One who is older, but otherwise no different than others, is treated respectfully, and some people confuse the two "respects".  You are respectful of a King whether you have respect for him or not.

                Now that you're yawning, I'll tell you why this stuff matters to me.

                We in the West believe in the rational and the objective.  There is room for the non-rational and the subjective in our lives—as in religion, and in personal emotional responses to situations and circumstances, but we are still committed objective rationalists.  When an objective rationalist world view collides with a subjective non-rationalist world view, there are bound to be deep gaps in perception.  This is the case between Jihadists and nationalists, no matter where these two groups interact.

                Our "War on Terrorism", a war that President Obama is now in the process of renaming and reconstructing to reduce the non-rational and subjective components of the Crusader Bush, is being fought by we, the objective rationalists, against they, the subjective non-rationalists.  We objectively believe that we were unjustly attacked on 9/11 because we hadn't attacked anyone, but our attackers subjectively believe that the attack was absolutely just because the West was responsible for dicing their world into indigestible pieces and who is more "West" than America.  We rationally state that attacks on non-military targets are morally wrong, and they non-rationally state that we are a collective in service to evil and that there is no practical distinction between a soldier and a civilian.  We are serving the world by stopping terrorism and imparting democratic institutions, and they are serving the world by bringing Islam and godliness. Quite a gap, I'd say, not that you have to address every gap, but it's probably good to at least understand this one.

                Osama bin Laden comes from a wealthy and well-connected family in the oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.  His number two in al-Qaeda, Ayman Zawahiri, is an Egyptian medical doctor.  These are both men of high status in their own environments.  Their fight for Islam, against oppressive governments in the Arab world, and against the Americans and their Israeli client state, has increased their ascribed status immeasurably among Jihad-oriented Muslims around the world, particularly the young.  Osama would have been powerful as a merchant, and Ayman as a doctor, but neither would have been charismatic leaders in the Weberian sense of that phrase.

                When we Americans consider ourselves targets of this movement, we sit befuddled, posing questions about why "they" don't like us, and making comments about what we should be doing to get "them" straightened out.  Neither the peaceniks nor the hawks sufficiently understand the issues that confront us.  The truth is that we, as a people, will never quite grasp what they, as a people, want of us.  It doesn't matter a bit whether we are sympathetic to the plight of Israeli Arabs, and of Palestinians in exile or in refugee camps.  Hamas is a political entity, like Fatah.  They can be reasoned with because their objective is not to bring the world to Islam, but to bring about a Palestine with proper borders.  These are not Jihadists, despite their comingling in the rather ignorant press.  So, it's difficult to address these issues by applying one framework or another, and it's even more difficult to separate the various teams of "them."

                The current Iranian government is a perfect case study of the difficulties.  It shares two important attributes of the jihadists: (1) it does not believe in the nation-state as an organizing principle, seeing it as an un-Islamic and Western construction; and, (2) it believes that its mission in the world is to lead the world to Islam.  At the same time and in the same physical space, Iranians know that they have a piece of turf with fixed borders whether they like it or not, and they know that they are unlikely to lead the worldwide Muslim community (ummah) when they represent a heretical minority in the eyes of many of the majority Sunnis.

                This may all be moot anyway when one considers that Iranians historically have seen themselves as separate and distinct from Arabs, cling strongly to Persian and Turkish Sufi poetry rather than to any of the (to them) incomprehensible language arts of the Arabs, and identify with a Persian past that predates Islam by a millennium or more.  To be sure, Iranians are Muslim, but they are also Persian, and that legacy is unlikely to change much after 25 centuries.  Persians won't even name their sons Omar or Othman, two early Caliphs of Islam, because they were part of the "conspiracy" that stole the birthright of Hassan and Hussein, direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad via his daughter and only child, Fatima (who the Iranians will name daughters after).

                There's also the problem that Iran has a lot of people who don't like the clerics as a group, and there are large numbers of powerful clerics who, themselves, do not believe that religion and government mix well, and do believe that clerics should stay out of the business of governance—not advice, just political office.  So, Iran is in the middle, sharing jihadist elements with stateless jihadists like bin Laden, but being populated by Persians, rather than by jihadists who simply find themselves on Persian soil.

                In all these things is status, both ascribed and achieved.  In a community like Islam, which is very flatly organized, leadership is inextricably linked to Islam.  No popular movement will gain any real traction until Islam is embraced and built into the structure.  Muslims understand this—just like Americans understand our powerful symbols of the flag and constitution—so every new leader will tie his (or her, in those rare cases) movement to Islam.

                Muslim scholars have an uphill battle when trying to wrest control of the faithful from people like bin Laden.  His ascribed and achieved status is high, as is Zawahiri's, and trying to identify al-Qaeda as a heresy is a herculean task, particularly in a flat organization.  Without a real clerical hierarchy, it's very difficult for rules to get made for the billion faithful adherents.  It's the status of the leader that communicants relate to as much as the message, and youth everywhere are attracted to hot blood and guns rather than to sanguine intellectual discourse.  Maybe we all are, I don't know.

                I can only say that I would not like to be in Obama's shoes today because the world is a complex and peculiar place to live.  Have the courage to open your eyes and take a long look, and then read a book or two to find out what experts (Americans HATE experts) are saying.  If you don't want to do that, do what you have always done: defer your responsibilities to your elected officials and gripe about the costs rather than the policy!  As you do that, consider that your continued ignorance is the recipe for disaster that is sure to keep the jihadists in bullets and kabobs throughout your lifetime.


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