Saturday, December 26, 2009

Initial thoughts on the Iraq Debate Workshop and Mesopotamian Debating Tournament--with more to come

Here's the real foundational stuff about the opening up of debate in Iraq, and an attempt to articulate how it relates to the concerns and values I took with me to Duhok:

Call this a World Debate Party, call it replacing weapons with words, but this is the vision concerning the role of debate education in building peaceful societies.

There has to be a general orientation towards verbalizing disagreements, conflict resolution, adjudicated verbal conflict, a tradition of debate at every level of social and political interaction--and I would contend economic interaction as well. We must place one another in situations of reciprocal discourse and judgement and agree to abide by one another's transparent and honest norms. We must debate about the norms themselves.

This project is generally egalitarian, at least moderately redistributive, and requires thinking about how other people think, which means it requires a massive campaign of public participation whenever it's done. I have my own beliefs about the economy and, in the spirit of deliberation, I have elected to bracket them at least concerning whether some kind of market distribution is desirable. In this instance, I am concerned about the way we communicate our problems and objections to one another, although the ability to communicate in this way is inevitably limited and contextualized by economic relations. But we should talk about that too.

This project is culturally respectful, but unapologetically universal--we understand we all have differences, but every culture communicates, and every culture has a culture of debate--although it's sometimes hidden and sometimes exclusively controlled by elites. Our desire to be Prometheus, stealing the fire of debate and simply offering it (we offer debate far more than we teach it) is really our only form of cultural arrogance, and we think it's a forgivable one. We think everyone should have the ability and be afforded the respect to speak and participate in public discourse. Believe it or not, there are some academics who accuse us of trying to impose a "liberal" model of discourse on the world in order to grease the skids for U.S. and Eurocentric hegemony. Far better, they believe, to leave repressive hierarchical societies on their own...or, I guess, to simply invade them, since such an academic-political strategy of "leaving people alone" has never been able to articulate a theory of how we inevtably communicate with these cultures.

I think the fear of universalism can be taken too far, and usually is.  Fear of being imposing means we eventually fear looking for commonalities with other people. It also mistakingly identifies all members of a "culture" (eg all Americans) with the interests of their ruling classes. My interests in Iraq were not Dick Cheney's interests, and we need to be capable of articulating that when we talk about engaging other countries.

The profound experiences I had communicating with these Iraqi students about violence, death, war, and security made me realize --once again, and in a real way this time-- that we have cut off ordinary Iraqi or Afghani citizens from the discussion about the invasions and occupations of their countries. That they are the people we on the progressive side need to be listening to the most. And we can't be afraid to listen to the people who wanted America to invade--there weren't many of them, but they were not all greedy death merchants. We have to articulate an alternative foreign policy, and the first step in doing that is communication with those affected most by our foreign policy. That's a progressive project, and it will produce inevitably progressive conclusions.

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