Friday, November 21, 2008

On teachers, civilization and courage

I. Bertrand Russell, in one of his Unpopular Essays, tries to explain that the role of a teacher is to be the guardian of civilization. A teacher, says Russell, "should be intimately aware what civilization is'.

But what does Russell mean when he invokes the term "civilization"?

It's much more than advanced technology. It is "a thing of the mind"

"it is a matter partly of knowledge, partly of emotion... A man.. should see his own country not only as home but as one among countries of the world, all with an equal right to live, and think, and feel. He should see his own age in relation to the past and the future".

The danger and impossibility to fulfill the true role of the teacher is much less present in democratic countries. A teacher, however, in totalitarian countries, cannot hope to serve his noble goal, for

"In each of these countries fanatical nationalism was what was most emphasised in the teaching of the young, with the result that the men of one country have no common ground with the men of another., and that no conception of a common civilization stands in the warlike ferocity". In such countries, he goes on to say, "Collective hysteria, the most mad and cruel of all human emotions, is encouraged instead of being discouraged".

II. I was reminded of Russell's unpopular wisdom when I watched this video of an an interview with Syrian actress Amal 'Arafa, which aired on Al-Hiwar TV on October 4, 2008:

"Policies may change, but there is something that is already in my genes. We've been brought up to hate Israel. It's in our genes. If Arab countries make political decisions, and there is peace, and so on and so forth... First of all, who would be against peace? I am not against peace.

...But as far as I am concerned, Israel will continue to be a black, dark, and murky spot in my memory, in my genes, and in my blood. Even though I am Syrian and not Palestinian, the Syrian upbringing we received and by which we lived – we've sucked it with the milk of our mothers. There is no playing around with this, it's in our genes, and we will pass this down for many more generations."

III. Yet sometimes we do encounter the miracle of civilization doing its work, despite the indoctrination, the teaching of implacable hostility, as evident in the figure of the Egyptian author and intellectual, Ali Salem. David Price-Jones is witness that genuine teaching is possible even in authoritarian states:

"The world needs men like Ali Salem. He’s one of Egypt’s most distinguished writers, aged 72, with a long list of books and plays behind him. In every way, intellectually and physically, he’s very big. There is tremendous humour in his face. He’s not afraid to say what he thinks, being an outspoken critic of Islamism and an active campaigner for a real peace with Israel. In 1994 he first visited Israel, and the book he wrote about it was a runaway best-seller. Since then, he’s been to Israel many times, and has received an honorary doctorate there. He keeps saying that Arabs have nothing to fear from Jews, that there’s no place for hate, and that peace is better than war. Back home in Cairo, the elite boycott him and his writings, and those on the street can kill anyone who talks and acts as he does.

Yesterday he was awarded the Civil Courage Prize which comes with a handsome check....

What an occasion! Ali Salem’s humour came out the moment he started his acceptance speech. He quoted the scene in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesarwhen a citizen attacks Cinna the poet, shouting, “Tear him for his bad verses.” He also gave a great and apposite example of an Egyptian joke, told about a man going home one evening, only to find himself surrounded by an armed mob who demand “Are you with Us or The Others?” With Us, he replies, whereupon they shoot him dead declaring that they are The Others."

How appropriate, from a Russellian point of view, that this particular Arab teacher should be awarded a prize named "Civil courage".


At 1:03 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What endeared Russell to that charlatan Ralph Shoenman? You know, the dude who wrote this:

At 2:13 PM EST, Blogger The Contentious Centrist said...

I read Russell repudiated Shoenman in 1969.

At 1:15 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your enthusiasm for Russell is misplaced.

In 1947, he advocated that the US nuke Russia, before that country got the bomb. Quite a turnaround from his previously vocal pacifism. And even more immoral.

At 10:07 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I read Russell repudiated Shoenman in 1969."

Good for him. Shoenman is such a kook.


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