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Monday, July 11

Setting free the Parrots of Heaven: How to talk democracy to minds that have only known despotic rule

"Dear Pundita:
Inspired (if that's the right word for it) by your Law of Leaving post I've written something you might want to take a look at: Orality and Iraq
Dave Schuler
The Glittering Eye"

Dear Dave:
To orient the reader, "orality" is a term coined by Reverend Walter J. Ong for his famous book Orality and Literacy, which you reference in your essay. Orality is another way of saying illiteracy or to be more precise, the kind of thinking that arises from illiteracy.

As to the list of orality characteristics your essay provides, and which I assume is a summary of Rev Ong's conclusions, I have noticed something quite odd about it. First we'll let the readers in on the discussion by asking them to glance through the nine items on the list:

"Orally-based thought and expression are:

1. Additive rather than subordinative. Complex constructions are avoided in favor of simple conjoining of ideas.

2. Aggregative rather than analytic. Standard expressions, stock phrases, and cliches are preferred over novel descriptions.

3. Redundant or "copious." Repetition is an aid to memorization.

4. Conservative or traditionalist. Knowledge is hard to come by and traditional ways should be conserved.

5. Close to the human lifeworld. Knowledge of skills is passed person-to-person rather than through manuals or books.

6. Agonistically toned. [confrontational]

7. Empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced. (Gaining knowledge is an empathetic and participatory process: don't expect objectivity.)

8. Homeostatic. Memories without relevance are discarded.

9. Situational rather than abstract. Objects are grouped pragmatically rather than in abstract categories."

I will exclude #5 in particular because illiterates have means other than oral of encoding information and passing it down; e.g., arts and crafts, but of course knowledge is harder to preserve and transmit without writing.

But I'd like you to look down the list and tell me if the majority of points could apply to the thinking of a group of literate peoples. What about Germans under Nazi rule? What about members of the Jim Jones cult? What about North Korea's ruling class? What about the Catholic priesthood in Spain during the Inquisition?

Dave, the list you provide does not identify exclusive characteristics of illiterate thinking patterns. It's a summary of psycho-epistemological traits that humans, both literate and illiterate, demonstrate when trained by a governing force to suppress reliance on the discursive aspect of intellect.

It's a list of what happens to the human mind when the state or other ruling force demands that indoctrination be the primary purpose of education.

I suspect I would find Reverend Ong's work on illiteracy to be a study in Western cultural bias, sloppy research and sweeping generalizations. Yet it seems he unwittingly isolates factors that typify the thinking of peoples conditioned to adopt a posture of unquestioning obedience to a governing authority. Whether they are literate or illiterate.

You noted in your essay, "This post is based on ideas that occurred to me nearly two years ago and I've been researching them ever since. The more I researched the more I realized that this was not a post or even a series of posts but a book and to do the topic justice I'd need to master skills that, themselves, would require years. That's simply not going to happen so I'm putting these ideas out there and what you see is what you get. Nearly everything in this post is disputed or controversial and a lot may be just plain wrong."

Have I taught you nothing? Or have you not noticed that my learned colleagues are furred and feathered? Pardon my being instructive but you have an irritating habit of linking very interesting results of your own cogitation with those of academics you admire. You should think about breaking the habit.

The advice* your essay gives to the Bush administration is sound, although I doubt it could be defended by any argument in Ong's work. However, it can be defended by an exercise of reason. Consider Peter Lavelle's Lost in Translation: A Russian Political Lexicon. The essay, which explains how differently Russians interpret abstract political terms dear to the hearts of Americans, is a crash course in how Americans can be sensible when talking to people of another culture -- particularly those who do not have a long history of democracy or are new to it. His points, by implication, support your advice.

My quibble is that your advice should not be limited to talking to Iraqis -- literate or illiterate. Americans must learn that the referents they carry around in their heads are not necessarily present in the heads of those who live outside America.

In this way we might avoid a replay of the situation that saw American soldiers helpfully putting up a sign in English, "Radioactive: Keep Out" outside the abandoned Iraqi al Tuwaitha facility, which was so radioactive Vladimir Putin had to call George Bush and warn, "For God's sake don't bomb anywhere near the place or you'll light up the entire Middle East and half of Central Asia!"

Yes, this is the same al Tuwaitha that Mohamed ElBaradei walked through blindfolded then reported to the IAEA, "Nuclear weapons grade stuff? We don't see no stuff."

But I digress -- or maybe not. The above sentence contains a cultural referent; specifically, a reference to the banditos in the classic American film, Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Alfonso Bedoya's sneering retort ("Badges? We ain't got no badges.") has worked its way into the American culture, so that variations on the retort are code for a sardonic reference to any scoundrel blustering it out.

Yet outside North America virtually no one but a film buff would find anything but awful grammar in my reference to ElBaradei's rubber-stamp inspection of a nuclear facility. The Bedoya reference is highly abstract, as with many cultural referents.

That observation is the best argument for following your advice when Americans strike out to promote democracy.

Now to return to your two years of wandering in the desert with your idea. It would not require years more study and mastery of special skills to develop your advice into a handbook for how to talk with people who are living under, or emerging from, totalitarian or extremely authoritarian rule. It wouldn't need to be a scholarly work; businesslike bulleted points for Americans to remember would be just fine.

But for this, I venture you would need to de-couple from Ong's ideas about illiteracy and hook up with research in areas such as cultic behavior, brainwashing techniques, and similar topics.

If you are interested in this approach, I can suggest the best place to start: An account of what is the most horrifying behavioral experiment known to be conducted on American shores. The research is famously summarized in a 1970 Esquire magazine piece by Philip Meyer titled If Hitler Asked you to Electrocute a Stranger, Would You?.

For readers who don't know about Stanley Milgram's experiment, I'm tempted not to give anything away in order to preserve the full shock value, if you'll pardon the expression. But I will mention this much before you embark on the reading:

The kind of experiment Milgram conducted in the 1960s could not happen today; it's been banned from American science because it is unethical.

Yet it is an enormously valuable experiment because it explains, as no work of literature or account of war crimes can do, that unquestioning obedience to authority is rather easy to bring about, even without use of lethal force or brainwashing.

And the research conclusions are the starkest warning that once the critical reasoning faculty is suspended, even "good" people can abandon conscience and transform into fiends.

Once you've digested that, you might want to read (or reread) a 2004 Christian Science Monitor report by Owais Tohid titled Pakistan, US take on the madrassahs, which returns us to the grim warning in "Law of Leaving". And which points up the need for the advice you gave.
They sway as they recite the Koran under the glare of their teacher...who swings a tree branch in the direction of any pupil who errs.

"These are parrots of heaven," says the young cleric..."We teach our students purely Islamic teachings to make them pure and ideal Muslims who will not hesitate to sacrifice their lives for the cause of Islam."
* Dave's advice, which I present in list fashion:

> Communicating effectively with the people and making freedom part of the prevailing wisdom in the society requires using modalities of communication that are meaningful to the people.

> Mr. Bush or his surrogates should speak directly to the Iraqi people frequently on radio or television.

> The speeches should be repetitive and should use stock phrases.

> The translation should actively employ constructions that have resonance in Arabic even at the expense of literal meaning.

> Abstractions e.g., freedom, democracy should be avoided in favor of concrete examples of the exercises of freedom and democracy.

> The speeches should be aggressive, energetic, and argumentative rather than conciliatory or temperate.

> Hardest of all, liberal democracy should be sold using an appeal to traditional values.

11:00 AM
"Pundita, after reading the Esquire article, Dave's advice strikes me as guidance for how NOT to talk to people who've known only despotic rule! He's advising to [use] repetition and other verbal postures that the researchers used on the hapless subjects in the experiment!
Lynn in Toronto"

Dear Lynn:
If you are opening communication with someone who is already 'programmed' (as in brainwashing, etc.), deprogramming initially requires very strong, unequivocal repetitive statements and essentially the same approach Dave suggests.

If you ask someone who has been programmed by a cult, "What do you think, you'll receive a recorded message in reply. So you first have to clearly establish your position.

This said, you've brought out an important point. There is a huge difference between teaching and 'sending a message.' Students should be encouraged to develop the discursive intellect and in general sweat out reasoning on their own instead of blindly relying on authority to tell them how to view information.

For all that, the teacher needs to encourage classroom dialogue and debate in a structured way -- and of course, encourage the students to ask questions of the teacher. And teen students should be introduced to the fun exercise of learning to spot the standard reasoning traps; i.e., pseudo-logics, and how to avoid them.

Thinking for oneself, like everything else, is a matter of learning the ropes then practice, practice, practice. The Socratic method -- which, I might add, is an oral teaching method -- is the key to teaching students to reason things through and check and re-check their assumptions and the assumptions of others.

All this should be done in a highly structured way so that the student retains respect for authority -- respect, not blind obedience.

12:10 UPDATE
"How interesting that your post today is at least a little bit about talking to Iraqis about democracy! I finally wrote last night about how I think it would be fun to help Iraqis (or anyone anywhere) to "get" this idea of democracy by using classic American movies and music and biographies and discussions of them. It would certainly help with those cultural references...
Beth in the Midwest"

Dear Beth:
Before the US invaded in Iraq, the #1 TV show in the country was Baywatch. Iraqis, and indeed the entire developing world, have a terrribly distorted idea of America. And they don't realize that this country was built by people very much like themselves. An "American Democracy Film Project" would be a great idea, if the movies show Americans struggling to make their democracy work and the difficult life that most experienced in building this country.

The project could include people from the local viewing audience explaining the storyline to the rest of the audience and describing the film characters in a way that connects with people in their own land.

It's really important for peoples in developing lands to understand how hard early Americans worked and how many mistakes they made while trying to build a strong democracy. People in other lands need to understand that if we can do it, anybody can do it. It just takes persistence and a lot of sweat -- and of course a good Constitution and a dedication to democratic government.

Also, American visitors to the poorest countries can help correct false impressions if their family came from humble beginnings. They can tuck photos of their family's hardscrabble days into their wallets and pull them out for viewing at the drop of a hat. And make good use of their time waiting in airports, bus and train stations to recount immigrant hardship tales told by their relatives. We can't expect the VOA and such to do all the work of telling people who we are.
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