A Grating Of Desert Ideals

Ellen Goodman

September 14, 1990|By Ellen Goodman

Boston THE BULLETINS from the front these days are of skirmishes between allies as well as enemies. There are reports of uneasy encounters between Saudis and Americans. Even the military is talking about what it calls, in a burst of sensitivity, ''a cultural clash.''

The old Middle East hands on talk shows say that our differences must be handled delicately. No ideological tanks for this engagement, no Stealth bombers, just some understanding of their ways. When in Saudi, do as the Saudis. That sort of thing.

Well, I am first in class to raise my hand in favor of international understanding. With luck we've learned something since our days in South Vietnam. Our cultures not only clashed; we nearly exterminated theirs.

Moreover, I am amused to find fans of moral relativism in the Bush administration. Not a spokesman has said that our ways are better than the Saudis. They sound as benign as Mr. Rogers: We are each special in our own way. It's an acceptance that's absent when conservatives deal with a domestic clash of values.

Nevertheless, I am wary of the anthropological tone of this expedition. The most cited difference is, after all, between the way American and Saudi laws and customs treat women. The ''cultural clash'' most mentioned is between American women in uniform and Saudi women in chadors. Between a rough egalitarianism and segregated submission.

In the desert kingdom that forbids women drivers, our vehicles are ''manned'' by women. This has garnered more than disapproval, indeed studied outrage, from the Saudis.

ABC reported recently that a park was closed after complaints that the nearby scene was unfit for decent women and children to see. The scene was of American women in short sleeves. Our women, working in the heat, were told to cover their bare arms so they wouldn't offend Saudi sensibilities.

An Associated Press story said that female soldiers who go shopping must now be accompanied by men who make their purchases. American women are instructed to keep their eyes ** down to avoid upsetting the male shopkeeper, who may regard eye contact on a par with alcohol and pornography.

These are not onerous adjustments. Americans would be uneasy if 100,000 foreign G.I.s started hanging around their malls. Caution is in order.

But you don't have to be an ugly American, or an imperialist, to wonder about the larger implications of ''cultural clashes'' -- to wonder about our values and our allies. When we embarked on this military action, President Bush said it was to protect ''our way of life.'' Surely our way of life, includes, along with oil, a commitment to democracy, equality.

It is notable that Saudi women are neither allowed to drive nor to govern. It's notable that women cannot vote. It's equally notable that men can't vote. Our ally is a monarchy with no constitution, no free press, no free elections.

What happens when cultural clashes go beyond those of T-shirts and bare arms? Do we defend a way of life that clashes with our way of life? Are Americans only the protectors of pipelines and the status quo? If that is true, then we are truly mercenaries.

Americans used to believe, often naively, in exporting our values. Our way was the best way. We converted old enemies -- Japan and Germany -- into democrats. We also alienated and misunderstood others. Our vision was too simplistic.

But of late we've made some strange allies indeed. Afghanistan, and before Saudi Arabia, Iraq. Now even Syria. More than once, )) as a woman, I wondered whether I'd rather be under the rule of Moscow than the men of Kabul. Under Saddam Hussein, there is no penalty for a men who kills a female relative if she's committed adultery.

We have rationalized some cynical alliances with the admonition that we must understand these cultures in their own context. But the great ideological struggles over justice, equality and human rights can't be dismissed as mere ''cultural clashes.'' The difference between a country that does and doesn't believe in human rights is far more than the difference between a jitterbug and a square dance. Ideals are still our most important, most popular, most sustaining product.

As for the Saudis, our nervous hosts and allies, change is due. As an American, I must hope that the upheaval in that place results in some movement to democracy. As an American too, I must hope that the woman in the chador ends up behind the wheel.

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