Saturday, April 22, 2006

Baby Steps

Introduction : Know Thyself

When I first got to London I read all four broadsheets and all four tabloids each day for the EA's media cuttings service. This threw me into the deep end of commentators and ideologies, as I saw the same stories rendered differently for each spectrum of the British newspaper reading public, from the retired Army officers who read the Daily Telegraph to the artists that read The Guardian to the *cough* less educated who read The Sun.

I developed a fondness for The Times that remains today, despite the fact that most people would assume that my natural home would be The Guardian. I found, in the midst of all that newsprint, that I have an intellectual habit that was obviously formed at home from reading The West Australian, The Australian and The Bulletin and informed my adaptation to the newspapers of Britain.

I only ever take my reviews of popular culture from the journals that align themselves with my ideology because I am a fan of popular culture. I only ever take my political commentators from journals that are misaligned slightly to my ideology because I am a questioner of political 'truths'.

I first recognised this intellectual tendency to challenging myself only in the arena of politics when I admitted to my father that I really missed reading Phillip Adams' columns in The Australian Magazine. His reaction was an astounded 'But why? He writes about things you don't believe in?' Once I thought about it I realised that Dad was only half right. Sure the controversial Mr Adams was the holder of beliefs that I objected to, but he was a brilliant writer who wrote from a deep sense of belief. Who am I to judge right and wrong when he is obviously so talented, and what better way to know the opposition than to read them?

I started questioning my choice of commentators more closely after this incident and began to realise that when it comes to politics I freely admit that I am a babe in arms, barely able to conduct faltering steps along the road to political intelligence. So I had unconsciously adopted a habit of challenging reading to help me along. I read people with whom I did not agree so I could better clarify for myself what I did agree on. I formed my limited opinions by challenging my opinions at all times so I could strengthen or discard them as they proved robust or weak in the light of debate.

But most of all I nurtured a climate of openness in my mind. Not openness so that everything fell out, but openness so that everything ran through and each new day polished or rearranged or carried away or left behind an idea that would mean I learnt something from the flood of information that reached my brain each day.

Which brings me to my political rant today. I, in no way, think I am qualified to write a political rant. This is something I have never attempted before on a public forum because I do not believe I have the concrete convictions nor the language to create something that will stand on its own two feet and roar. But baby steps must be taken if roaring is to ensue, so here is the first baby step!

Hypothesis : Fear

I don't think anyone would argue with me that the world is run at this moment by a climate of fear. I am a relative newcomer to fear, it having only entered my life when I left Australia and began striving for the adult goals of a career in the industry I loved, began working towards visas for countries I wished to live in and, since the events of July 7th, trying to maintain a balanced view of human frailty and ideological difference.

For two weeks after July 7th I watched everyone that stepped on public transport in London, letting the fear lurch in front of me like a madman as I travelled the city. It was the second wave of attempted bombings that set me free though, because if a city that vigilant could not stop a second lot of bombers, why nurse the fear when it was useless for preservation?

Far better that you find something else to rid you of the fear. And this is where my fondness for listening to ideas that I do not agree with enters the equation, why cripple yourself with fear when you can arm yourself with knowledge?

I left London for the safest city in the world, Perth, and I was no longer in the climate of fear. But I was reading the literature produced by it and talking to a variety of people still living in it.

Method : The Global Ideology of Fear

Intelligent and timely movies are a particular pleasure. You sit in a darkened room with a group of silent people and you watch Nostradamus weave his magic on the flickering silver magic of the screen. The West Wing was such a passion of mine, and my guilty secret was that I often missed the last ten minutes of Sex and the City for the start of it. Good Night and Good Luck, in my opinion, blew President Bartlett away.

Quite apart from the extraordinary elegance of the movie and the controlled power of the performances, it was the utter relevance of Murrow's words that make the mind want to cue in a jazz number and croon into a big silver microphone that THIS is what movies should be. Surely no greater good can be imagined than using a medium so often used to communicate empty messages to incense people to think?

"We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason … we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes which were for the moment unpopular. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen … to abdicate his responsibility."

Edward R Murrow

As with all words, these have a specific context but can be applied to almost any cause you want to align them with. Their author was fighting McCarthyism, but give them to Bush and you have the Iraqi War, give them to Ahmadinejad and you have the Iranian Nuclear Programme, give them to Mr Neville and you have the Stolen Generation, give them to me and you have a little piece of writing on reading different sources of news for your own informed acquisition of a world view.

I am a true William Gibson character - perpetually jacked into the net I read the BBC, CNN, ABC, Aljazeera, The International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, The Times, The Guardian, The Australian, The Washington Post, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Economist, New Perspectives Quarterly, The New Yorker, Strategic Forecasts, The Chaser, and The New Scientist. I also infrequently read, Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre, Palestine Report, Latin America Press and The Paris Review. Oh, and History Today of course.

Why all this press? Because human observation is biased and I do not believe that reading CNN is going to help you understand the situation in Iraq. It is only one point of view. How is that arming yourself with knowledge instead of crippling yourself with fear? No, I read a variety of sources so I learn something from people who think differently to me, even if I only learn that I still believe absolutely in my opinions. At least I have actively gone out and challenged my own convictions.

Occasionally I read something that breaks my rule of reading something that I do not agree with. Today I read an article by Tariq Ramadan that put all my scattered yet heartfelt thoughts into one, coherent whole. You will find the entire article here, but I would like to discuss just what this article did for me, especially prompting me to revive the majority of this piece of writing, which had been languishing in my drafts folder since late 2005 when I actually saw Good Night, and Good Luck.

Ramadan, writing in New Perspectives Quarterly, lists the three results of a Global Ideology of Fear:

- 'A binary vision of reality begins to impose the outlines of a protective “us” and of a threatening “them.”'

- 'In the new regime of fear and suspicion, to understand the Other is to justify him; to seek out his reasons is to agree with him.'

- 'We may well live in the communication age, but human beings seem to be increasingly less informed. We have witnessed the multiplication of “communication superhighways” that diffuse a dizzying excess of information in real time, saturating the intelligence and making it impossible to place facts in perspective.'

Here are my pet theories, argued by one of the leaders of the European Muslim community, and I could only itch to scream 'me too, me too! I think this too!'

Firstly, there is no 'us' and 'them' for me. On July 7th the only person I was frantic to get hold of to ensure she was safe was Arezo Mirzahosseinkhan, an Iranian Muslim. Arezo and her twin sister Elham are my sisters in London, my reason for knowing that there is no 'us' and 'them', just people with different beliefs you have met, and people with different beliefs that you have yet to meet.

Learning from the 'enemy' is what Western Culture does best. Have we forgotten where we obtained our living language, our cuisine, our intellectual disciplines, our wealth? We appropriated them from those we fought, those we killed, those we colonised. Our language is a mishmash of world languages, our cuisine a fusion, our science and maths and history and ideologies and philosophy and religions the offspring of differing cultures and our wealth based on exploitation of the resources and people of the world. Yet suddenly we are to forget that we are where we are by absorbing the knowledge of other peoples, and block selected knowledge out as treasonous and threatening? As a historian it makes me laugh ruefully and roll my eyes, truly, people should pay more attention in school.

Learning from the 'enemy' is the ultimate 'defeat' of their challenge to the 'us'. My first day back in Australia I was waxing lyrical about what I learnt in Turkey of humanity and intellectual compatibility, but all one member of my audience could ask was why I would want to talk to Muslims? Getting stuck on the idea that difference is dangerous instead of challenging is forgetting to learn from history.

Earlier this year I asked the Mirzahosseinkhan family a few questions on the Iran / US / UN standoff about nuclear capability and got a reply that made me sit and take some mental deep breaths. See, they told me the truth from their point of view and it was hard to keep the little voice that listens to CNN in the back of my head from screaming 'god almighty they are going to kill us all!'

The family was, by all accounts, split down the middle. One side asked why China and India and Russia and Afghanistan can have nuclear capability, but not Iran? The other side questioned the stability of the regime with nuclear capability, it may be trustworthy now, but in the future? I liked that answer immensely, because it just reassured me that there is no monolithic 'them'. Inside each belief that appears cohesive on the outside, there are the fault lines within, just as there is within 'us'. Arezo's final point was that Persia was the world's first civilisation, so they had an unarguable right not to listen to fly-by-night countries like the US. The concept of the cradle of civilisation telling everyone to go jump makes me laugh.

Ramadan's final point of the 'deafness' of society because of information overload made one of my conversational hobby horses seem more legitimate. I cannot count the number of times that I have argued that critical facilities must be engaged even more vigorously now that we have total information than when we have limited or no information. Especially with the increasing role of media and popular culture in communicating 'facts' and political commentary [The Da Vinci Code, V for Vendetta, What the Bleep do we Know? etc], the critical facilities must be flexed constantly. There are endless facets to each 'fact', just make sure you embrace more than one, whether that is with popular culture or with the news from the newswires.

Ramadan's other fascinating points were on the preposterous current situation of the most powerful nations in the world indulging fully in their 'victim hood', and the literal translation of Islamic ideas crippling the evolution of the Islamic ideology, but I am not qualified to comment, other than to say read the article, it is fascinating!

Conclusion : Good Night and Good Luck

"If none of us ever read a book that was 'dangerous,' nor had a friend who was 'different,' or never joined an organization that advocated 'change,' we would all be just the kind of people Joe McCarthy wants."

Edward R Murrow

These words are from a patriotic American to a country in the grip of a reaction to terror across the water. I would like to think that we can apply them to the global village of today, opened up by travel, communication and the media – we know that McCarthyism was a madness, we know that Hansonism was damaging, we know that Race Riots are shameful, we know that wiping out a continent of indigenous culture is genocide. These acts are a result of the ignorance of life in someone else’s shoes, a result of remaining safe in the confines of your own ideological comfort zone, of fearing to look over the wall between us and them and acknowledging that they have a right to their opinion and beliefs. I am not advocating the madness of total inclusivity that makes everyone special, which Dash in ‘The Incredibles’ points out, makes nobody special. I would like to think that just as they have a right to their opinions, so do we.

We have an obligation, in this world of fluid media and easier travel and communication, to seek out the thoughts and ideas of the other, so we can hold our beliefs in true honesty. Continually seeking the opposition’s arguments, trying them against our own, and made the best decision we can on the validity of them prevents ideological stagnation and keeps your mind on the future. Just one ‘dangerous’ book, just one ‘different’ friend, just one idea for ‘change’ a year and you will be able to look people in the eye and state your beliefs knowing you do so in wisdom and not ignorance.

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