Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Jihad, McWorld, civic education and Dr Seuss

On 16 Nov I rapporteured a session on Iraq at a workshop at the London School of Economics on democracy and global governance.

Of the two principal speakers, the best and most challenging contribution, in my view, came from Yahia Said. He layed into both the deeply misguided policies of the US administration and the lazy, self-regarding sniping of so-called progressive critics, who have no real solutions. I will probably interview Yahia for openDemocracy, a follow-on to this one earlier in the year.

But Benjamin Barber - a very nice man (and former national security advisor to Howard Dean) - made some valuable points in his initial presentation too. Just one among several useful insights I noted crudely as follows:

The great theorists of society– from Plato and Rousseau forwards were all interested in civic education and the role of schools in building the just society

Too often today, thinkers pay only lip service to this central issue.

Civic education only exists within particular social and cultural contexts. The real question is not whether Islam and Islamic societies are compatible with democracy. Of course they are. The real question is whether civic education and Islamic education are compatible wth each other. The falutline is not terrorism/democracy or islam/democracy, but civic education/islam

Islamic fundamentalists understand this all too well. Hence their emphasis and huge energy on madrassahs, of which there are some 30,000 wahabist ones in Pakistan. The West puts its energy into supporting Musharaf. The Islamists put their energy into building up Islamic education.

This part of Barber's presentation seemed ever more pertinant tonight when reading an excellent assessment by John Fea of Theodore Geisel, aka Dr Seuss (Suess is one of my favourites - on an expedition to the high Karakorum this summer, the catchphrase was "Up! Up! A good day for up!"):

Giesel had a subtle, unintended, but yet irresistibly strong influence on the way children understood America

During World War Two, Geisel wrote editorial cartoons from the pages of the left-leaning New York newspaper PM that scathingly criticized Naziism, Fascism, American isolationism (Charles Lindbergh was a favorite target on this front), and racial discrimination in the hiring of defense workers...“PM was against people who pushed other people around,” Geisel told his biographers shortly before his death, “I liked that.”

...Most prominent in Geisel’s work are the liberal Enlightenment values of progress, self-improvement, and cosmopolitanism. Perhaps more than anything else, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment was a movement defined by the principles of human potential and the advancement of society. The best citizens of the Enlightenment’s “republic of letters” were those individuals who maintained primary loyalty, not to family, friends, faith, or nature, but to an international commonwealth of humankind.

...But the contradictions in Seuss’s canon between individualism and community, cosmopolitanism and local attachments, and self-interest and self-sacrifice reveal the inability of the left to inspire us—to offer any hope for those longing for a different kind of human flourishing. Can liberalism prompt us to get out of bed with voices of praise on Christmas morning even when all of our gifts have been stolen? Does it give us strength to risk our lives for the preservation of others—whether it is Horton’s Whoville or those in the crumbling towers of the World Trade Center? What motivates one to surrender cosmopolitan ambition and return home to face, sin, suffering, and trial? Where do we find the courage to defend creation against those seeking to destroy it?

The paradoxes and tensions in Seuss’s work offer a window into one of the twentieth-century’s most influential liberals searching—maybe unconsciously—for answers to questions that his liberalism, even on its best days, cannot seem to provide. For all of his true brilliance, one wonders if Seuss really grasped the limits of his own optimistic faith in ambition and progress.

For all the merits of this assessment - published in a magazine (The New Pantagruel) with a thinking Christian tenor - its dismissal of the nature of Enlightenment liberalism and its potential is a little too glib and collapses too easily into its own ill-grounded assumptions.

But this begins to touch on perhaps the most fundamental questions about being human and about politics in the 21st century - probably the subject for at least one future post!

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