The Public Humanist

Countering the Orchestra of Orthodoxies: A UMass Amherst Fulbright Scholar Returns from Qatar

MednicoffimageHow has the US-led overthrow of Iraq’s former government and ongoing military presence changed American and Middle Eastern societies?Several broad answers are obvious. The 2003 war led Iraqis to more personal andpolitical freedoms. Yet this came alongside widespread death, violence, and insecurity, bringing back therelevance of philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, whoprioritize the need for political order over rights and democracy. Iraq’sHobbesian moment also helps rationalize how the post-2001 context has given newlife to several unpopular Arab authoritarian regimes and facilitated the growthof disciplined militias whose appeal lies in a straightforward message thatglorifies faith-based opposition to American influence in the Middle East.

In the US, the war has led to the direct or indirect painof loss, confusion and post-traumatic adjustment as young soldiers return deador damaged from Iraq. Also on the home front, growing worries about Washington’s ability to remake Iraq have precipitated wider doubts about our government and what it can accomplish in the world, as well as decreasing our capacity to deal with other foreign policy challenges, such as mounting Palestinian civil war or Iran’s emboldened role in the Middle East. In short, at least for now,the war in Iraq has made the US and the Middle East less stable and secure.

Yet, related to the mission of this blog, I want to highlight a less obvious result of the 2003 war; it has increased both the impediments to and the importance of reflective, open-minded discussion within and across the US and the Middle East. Such discussion is, ofcourse, one of the greatest goals and gifts of the humanities. Yet thepost-9/11 threat of terrorism has been used to justify government clampdowns on dissent and dialogue, in somewhat similar ways in the US and the Middle East. After 9/11, our sense of vulnerability as a nation has eased the way for government claims of what is needed in our national interest to trump reasoned arguments, evidence and tolerance for intellectual difference. Many of us whowere outraged by the 9/11 attacks and concerned about Middle Eastern democracyfound our views on what we saw as common-sense questions about whether a mostlyAmerican occupation of a diverse Arab society could bring liberal politics orstability to Iraq distorted and critiqued. In the Middle East, even moredraconian measures to silence open political discussion have occurred, such as Egypt’s crackdownon political bloggers. Whether through public pressure, police action orboth, government efforts to limit open debate in the name of national unityduring a crisis are easy to understand. Yet recent experience should lead us toask loudly — can such efforts truly work to streamline effective policy ormeet most citizens’ needs?

A professor steeped in liberal-arts teaching like myselfis generally prone to answer “no.” One of the reasons that governments orpro-government media outlets attack academia is not that we push biasedviewpoints or wield unfair Svengali-likeinfluence over our students. Rather, most of us genuinely want students to makeup their own minds and learn multi-faceted reflection about significant issuesand ideas in their lives. I believe one lesson of American and Middle Easternpolitical problems in recent years is that closing off dialogue with verydifferent points of view only exacerbates international problems and domesticthreats to security and stability. When we allow structural or intellectualbarriers to a wide range of perspectives, we are likely to be less sensitive toothers’ objections to our fightingfaiths, whether these are the spread of Western forms of democracy or aparticular vision of Islam. That reflective debate matters and sometimes needsdefense explains the power and influence of John Stuart Mill’s famous On Liberty.

Americans and Middle Easterners need dialogue and debateto help overcome the gulfs that have increased contemporary conflict andinsecurity; there are hopeful signs that such dialogue is not only possible,but ongoing. On the Middle Eastern side, my recent experience as the first Fulbright Scholar professor to teacha liberal arts course on political philosophy in the tiny Arab country of Qatar provided many opportunities toobserve open debate and inquiry on critical issues throughout the Persian Gulf.Examples of this in which I participated personally, include:

Similarly, in addition to the ways that free debate andeducation remain embedded in American law and practice, despite contemporarypressures, some specific post-9/11, post-Iraq war developments that I havefound heartening in the US include:

When smart analysts like Samuel Huntingtonopine that the contemporary world is a clashof civilizations with the “West against the rest,” their sweeping sense isbest countered by specific encounters with the ideas of diverse people fromwithin these faceless entities. People like me, who have had the fortune tobuild a career around such encounters, understand that overgeneralizingdifferences between one “civilization” and another is not merely dangerous, butbereft of the fun of learning and teaching inherent in these encounters.Despite the apparently broad differences that separate the post-9/11, post-Iraqwar US and Middle East, we are not experiencing a clash of civilizations.Rather, we are living through an orchestra of orthodoxies, loud noiseswith strong institutional supports trumpeting essential difference that candrown out quieter, individual voices of tolerance and dialogue. Rather thanworking together to produce beautiful harmony, such a directionless body turnspotentially interesting debates into frightening cacophony. It is the challengeand chance for the humanities, and the liberal arts discourse of open-mindedreflection that they champion, to counter this orchestra of orthodoxies with asteady chorus of collegiality and cosmopolitan community-building.

— David Mednicoff, professor of Public Policy and LegalStudies, University of Massachusetts Amherst

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