Sunday, March 29, 2009

On political writing

AlQuds alArabi prints an op-ed by Egyptian writer Mohammed Diab called "Political writing, and the issue of Liberalism and its relationship to projects for change".

He says political writing has become more like a form of armed combat than of civilized debate. The principles of tolerance, admission that true assertions can contain mistakes and vice versa, that circumstances can change truths into falsehoods--all of this tends to be forgotten in the heat of battle.

Let's distinguish, he says, between evil and error, the one being subject to correction by force, the other not.

Within all of the political currents in the region--state-nationalist, Arab nationalist, Islam-nationalist, Marxist, Liberal--there are parallels and cross-currents, and there is no reason why the proponents cannot live together in peace, provided that those above-mentioned principles continue to be respected. On the other hand, in all of them there is or can be an absolutist strain, for instance Islam-nationalism can degenerate into the intolerance of the takfiiris; Arabism sometimes risks consorting with racism; and so on.

The extreme case of absolutism is contemporary Egypt, where the group that holds power has build built for itself a systematic structure of corruption and self-interest.

Summarized in this way, the piece sounds like a string of liberal cliches. Particularly if you are not Egyptian and not Arab and have the Western homogenized picture of that region. Why would a big, radical paper and a regular columnist waste time with platitudes? I think the answer is that platitudes are in the eye of the beholder. When Diab says: Let's distinguish between those wrong positions that have to be dealt with by force, and those that can be dealt with in other ways, I think he is doing us the favor of burrowing his way back to the source of what we all think we hold in common: And it is that the nature of humans and human society is such that the exercise of force only needs to have a very limited sphere of application, while that of education and discussion ought to have a very wide sphere of application. (Here I snuck in that word "education"...)

This is a principle--minimize the use of force and maximize discussion and education--that has been subverted more than anywhere in America itself, where most political debates now revolve around military or a law-enforcement policy, and where education is seen as something in the service of either technical advancement to keep up with our enemies, or in the case of language-education is something in the service of national security. Moreover, to get back to his point about political writing, the problem isn't just in the Arab world, because in America the polarizing tendency is stronger than anywhere. What doesn't seem to be clear is the fact that this is a symptom of the same root cause--namely the loss of that original insight into what it is that is supposed to make us people and not manipulable objects.


That's not very well said, and it's not his fault, it's my fault. It's because I've run out of the kind of patience you'd need to come to grips with this. Or maybe it's that blogging isn't the right format. In any event, that's it for me, I'm going to be taking up small farming* instead. Warm thanks to those who commented, and those who didn't but still read the things with attention. And good courage to those who are able to still keep at it.

* I hear there's good money in chickens, and very little work involved. No matter how bad things get, people will always need eggs. Think about it. And feathers to stuff all those f*cking suits with, now that you mention it.


Blogger Mike said...

It was very nice to be able to read your blog up till now. Also nice that you decided to end it on a positive note.

The question you raise is a difficult one. Who knows if, e.g., in the U.S., liberals, self-styled conservatives, and others will ever be able to engage regularly in some serious, substantive (non-polemical) dialogue about the core principles on the basis of which America will conduct itself in the world? Or who knows if in Egypt, public life will be shaped more by discussion at some point, and less by the dialectic between the largely self-interested and corrupt Egyptian government and the (mainly) Islamists who act in strict defiance of them?

I really think you're onto something when you talked about the nature of education in America, by the way. For instance, for what purpose (primarily) do people here learn Arabic and learn about Middle Eastern culture and history? Answer: to help us to more effectively carry out war plans in the region. At one point in American history, perhaps only a few decades ago, many people would have been much more critical of the use of military or coercive power, whether in Vietnam or South Africa or elsewhere. Now, most people here simply take for granted that violence is necessary to achieve implicitly accepted aims of 'Americanizing' the world, and think about how to more efficiently do so, whether with 'soft' or 'hard' power, air strikes or bribes or aid.

To return to the question you implicitly raise in discussing that commentary: it seems to me unlikely that a much larger space for collective discussion and education (and a correlatively smaller space for violence of all sorts) will be shaped until the major geopolitical conflicts have played themselves out and the structure of American military power as well as military power in the Middle East undergo some massive transformations.

4:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your blog, and in providing an alternative view. Probably a more refreshing view.

I've lurked here for a while, and I haven't always agreed with some of your commentary...but I believe that all views should be considered for the sake of intellectual honesty. I work in life till now has been leading me on the path of government service. I find that I don't believe in 'the mission' anymore, or at least the level of intellectual dishonesty that comes along with it. Material like this blog is partially thanks for your efforts.

Farming does feel more honest. Maybe I'll be a chef.

9:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sad, I really enjoyed your Blog

12:23 PM  
Blogger Parvati said...

Thank you for all you've done, Badger. Still hope you'll change your mind as your work has been truly precious... but in any case - all the best!

8:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i'm really going to miss you. i hope you have a change of mind about this if the chickens don't fulfill you. we need you badger.


1:30 AM  
Anonymous LB said...

Back to wrting and you can get this book from me for free - Poultry Genetics, Breeding and Biotechnology

5:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for what has been a very useful (and educational) blog. I found the response of Anonymous at 9.17 AM to be a striking (and I hope honest) testimony to the fact that you, together with a few of the more "educational" bloggers are not just voices crying out in the wilderness.
You've certainly earned a well-deserved break from blogging, but should you ever decide to add a few more pages for your readers' edification, they will certainly be welcomed and read with renewed interest.

Hannah K. O'Luthon

7:06 AM  
Anonymous anna missed said...

I always respect people's decisions to bow out of the blogsphere, when it grinds up their lebenswelt, with little evident return. Your blog has been a blessing for those of us following the debacle in Iraq closely, as a rare, lonely, and of course MISSING LINK connector to the Iraqi voices themselves.

Good luck with the chickens, I have a couple dozen myself and are themselves, underappreciated in both their vital role as a crucial food source, but also in their latent entertainment value - there's nothing funnier than a chicken running across the pen in full Grocho Marx posture.

Hopefully though, you will see fit to once again to grace us with your insights.

Also, do you know what happened to Roads?

3:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ohes noes. I will miss you. I will miss the way you help me keep an open mind as I flail about trying to figure out what's really going on. You have done us all a great service and I hope you find such joy in chickens that you decide to once again help us search for the real meaning of faraway events. I will be checking back here for a very long time, just in

7:06 PM  
Blogger opit said...

Kindly leave the site up, Badger. Many bloggers find that their resolve and discouragement ebbs after some time away from the grind - and building back up from scratch is no fun - believe me. I'm doing just that.

9:34 PM  
Blogger Bruno said...

Aww, this blog was pretty damn good. A shame to see it go. Thanks for all the insights.

4:55 AM  
Anonymous Steve Connors said...

That's not fair.

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