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Friday, February 13

The Culture Front  

Last April I wrote:
We cannot count solely on our capitalist institutions to win this war. Egypt is an avid consumer of McDonald's and Coca-Cola, but its people are influenced in their churches, bookstores and schools by extremist Wahabbi ideas and literature. Indeed, many of our largest corporations are seen in the world as instruments of oppression rather than freedom. Osama bin Laden denounces the West all the while wearing a Timex Ironman. The Islamic world has absorbed our commerce but not our culture. Opening Iraq to the free markets of the world will be a significant step, but we must not think for a minute that there is a free market in thought in the Middle East. That market is dominated, almost to the point of monopoly, by the Saudi royal family. The fall of Saddam Hussein has created an emerging market in ideas for the citizens of Iraq, and with the world watching, the time is now to flood them with the writings of the same enlightenment philosophers that shaped the free and thriving Western world.
Over the past few days Juan Cole has taken several steps forward in this regard. He feels that it is important to start with American philosophers and thereby introduce not only the central tenents of Western liberty, but how we as a country have come to understand and interpret those tenents. To many people the idea of exporting Western thought in this manner is another form of imperialism. To be sure, it is a tricky line to walk because one wants to promote, not enforce, the ideas of the Enlightenment. Each Western government has taken the writings of a few philosophers and come out with significantly different structures of government and concepts of liberty. The same will be true in the Middle East. The most difficult aspect of creating a truly free Iraq is that its citizens will quickly bump up against many of the same issues we grapple with in America. What role does capitalism play in the country? How regulated shall the country's trade be? What responsibilities do corporations operating and trading in Iraq have to its citizens and government? How loud and strong will the voice of labor be? Prof. Cole's project is important because it will give the citizens of the region a blueprint for thinking about these issues. Just as in America, there is no one answer to these questions, and that may be the most important kernel of thought to plant in the Middle East. In the last century alone Western societies lurched and fought through a seemingly endless stream of political ideas. It is vitally important that we engage on this cultural front quickly because countries in political or economic crisis (or both!) tend to embrace an extremist solution for a period of time and that can be dangerous to their neighbors.


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