“Let them come to eat and buy food and go back, as long as they are not carrying weapons,” said Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, in reference to the numerous Palestinians flooding over the newly opened border into Egypt. The implications of his words are clear: Egyptians have deep sympathy for the humanitarian needs of a blockaded fellow Arab community, but as a head of state, Mubarak must be responsible to the international community and, therefore, cannot condone the smuggling of arms. For him, there is no easy distinction between “us” and “them.”
The difficulties implicit in Mubarak’s position speak to the complexity of the situation. Israel has called on Egypt to secure its border with Gaza, yet Egyptian border guards find themselves mostly outnumbered. Given the rocket fire emerging from Gaza, an Israeli embargo seems necessary, yet in attempts to regulate terrorist activity, citizens are now going hungry. Further complicating things, the Palestinians have elected the notorious terrorist group Hamas — not necessarily because of a shared political opposition to the state of Israel, but because of the group’s humanitarian and charitable involvements in the Palestinian community. As both believe that they are in the right, cries of pro-freedom and pro-democracy can get nods of agreement on either side of the Israel-Gaza divide.
“Us versus them” constructions are deeply embedded in our thinking, our speech and our very education. Michael Pomeranz, in his column this week (“The Western Canon informs our sense of Right” 1/22), demonstrates how insidiously misleading such assumptions can be. In juxtaposing a Western Canon-influenced, democratically run, progressive society against the hordes of non-Western, racist radicals, he draws a strict line in the sand. The Bible, Aristotle, the Reverend King, Israel and “us” on one side, and the Koran, Arabs, terrorists and “them” on the other. Unpacking these assumptions, even briefly, reveals how ephemeral such a line is.
No group can be strictly defined as “good” or “evil.” Israel may be a democracy, but Israelis have practiced their fair share of racism against Sephardic and Ethiopian Jews, as well as Russians, both Jewish and Christian. To characterize Muslims or Arabs as uninfluenced by the Western canon doesn’t just fall short of the truth — it ignores it completely. Many of Pomeranz’ revered works would not even be in our hands were it not for the Muslim scholars who preserved the translations of classic Greek texts. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. drew inspiration not only from the Western Canon and the American experience, but from struggles for equality and human dignity in every hemisphere. Jesus Christ, Dietrich Bonhoffer and Gandhi can all be found in King’s philosophy.
I fancy America a dark knight of sorts, with the right ideals and intent but shortcomings all too often in their execution and application. For instance: When Haitians won their national freedom in 1804, the very same Americans who supported the liberal democracy enshrined in their own constitution reacted with fear at a slave rebellion. Because black Haitians did not fit normative qualifications of those deserving liberal democracy, America wrote their struggle out of history. In 1954, the United States similarly deemed unnecessary a budding constitutional democracy in Iran and subsequently overthrew it. The pattern has repeated itself a countless number of times in Latin America. Even as “leaders of the free world,” we have blood on our hands.
If only the Western Canon could magically create peace, justice and liberty everywhere it was studied! I understand why Pomeranz seeks such an answer; everyone feels the drive to find a single source of unbridled truth and stick with it. But if we humans have excelled in one thing, it is corrupting good ideas. The Koran, used by extremists to justify terrorism, also served as the foundational document for empires like the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, known for their tolerance of religious diversity.
Only open minds can breed tolerance, and closed minds — regardless of philosophical underpinnings — breed intolerance and violence. The real answer can only be found if Israelis study the Koran, Americans study Haitian history and — sure, I’ll say it — Palestinians study the Western Canon. Not because any of them have all the answers for today, but because each contains a different, valuable perspective. Such an education would illuminate the true complexity and subtlety of the varied human journeys that intersect today. The question is not which philosophy is read, but rather how the ideals of each — most of which are unfulfilled — can be used to realize their promises in a way that benefits everyone.
Dariush Nothaft is a senior in Saybrook College. His column usually runs alternate Tuesdays.