The Region: Neither apologist nor absolute critic

What is the ideal role for the public intellectual?

October 29, 2006 20:59
4 minute read.
barry rubin 88

barry rubin 88. (photo credit: )


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What is the role of the intellectual in public life? Opinions differ. In those Arabic-speaking countries ruled by dictatorships, the dominant view is that such people should be soldiers in backing the regime and its aims. In Western democratic states, the dominant view is that such people should be soldiers in opposing the current government and its aims. Do you see the pattern here? Let's take Syria as an example of the first type. There, the job of the intellectual, teacher or journalist is to fight for the common goal as defined by the government, rather than to pursue truth, professional integrity or democracy in any independent manner. Anton al-Maqdasi, a Syrian political philosopher, complained in 2003 that the regime's apparent goal was to make citizens as identical as possible in their ideas and views, "as if they were cast in the same mold." That was, of course, precisely the point: They were supposed to echo government views. As Bashar Assad put it in an August interview, "The role of the Arab intellectual is not to weep or to cry over the ruins, but rather his role is to present people with the culture and the ideology of the resistance." While Syrian Minister of Expatriate Affairs Buthayna Sha'ban explained that "culture should be mobilized: literature, art, poetry, for the resistance. We must all work to inculcate these [values] in future generations, so that they will not know the taste of defeat and shame..." Inculcating the need for battle becomes more important than providing skills or knowledge. Thus, the dean of education at Damascus University explained that the culture of resistance must permeate every aspect of Syrian life. "We can teach the child the following mathematical problem: 25 tanks entered South Lebanon. The brave men of the resistance confronted them. They burnt down five tanks and damaged seven. How many of these tanks returned defeated back to where they came from?" Clearly, this is more to be prized than teaching mathematical equations about how many votes did each party get in a democratic election. Instead, each citizen is a soldier mobilized against the foreign enemy and his local lackeys. It is his duty to love big brother. As for the intellectuals and the cultural elite, they are richly rewarded for selling out. One of their main privileges is being able to posture as a hero for doing so. There are few things better than winning the right to live in luxury and have one's career advanced for pretending to be a champion of the underdogs. By and large, the thinking classes lap it all up. This veneer of being "left-wing" for praising or repeating the arguments of a repressive Syrian dictatorship also plays well with like-minded intelligentsias elsewhere. A EUROPEAN friend of mine once sat in a conversation with several leading Palestinian intellectuals. You would recognize their names and they are thought to be the most liberal voices in their society. In the course of the discussion, he was asked what he thought to be the proper role of the intellectual. He made three points:

  • That the intellectual should preserve and pass on the best ideas and cultural achievements of his own civilization. Everyone nodded.
  • That the intellectual should tell about the best ideas and cultural achievements of his own civilization to other countries. Everyone nodded.
  • And that the intellectual should bring the best things from other civilizations into his own. And they all shook their heads, "No." These are the deformations of Arab societies. In every country, there is a courageous minority that rejects the idea that they should function as government propagandists and bureaucrats. Those who do accept their role as privileged, well-paid servants of the dictatorship then blast the dissidents as traitors, foreign agents and so on. After doing so, the official intellectuals congratulate themselves on their courage in leading the resistance to the forces of imperialism and Zionism in defense of the underdog. In democratic states, however, privileged, well-paid intellectuals have increasingly come to see their main job as the permanent opposition. The late Edward Said, whose great achievement was to make totalitarian thinking popular in the West, called this "speaking truth to power." But the role of intellectuals and cultural figures is not to form a party with a permanent view of anything. RATHER, AS banal as it might seem, the use of such people is to seek the truth fearlessly wherever it might lead, to do the best job they can of describing the real world as accurately as possible. Not perfectly, mind you, but as best they can possible do. Their task is not to be either apologists or opponents of their societies but to examine them, apportioning praise or criticism, defense or change as is appropriate in each specific case and issue. I am haunted by a story told me by an Asian scholar who is an expert on Indonesia. Whenever he goes to interview extremist and even terrorist leaders, there comes a point in the discussion when they go to their bookcases and pull out the works of well-known contemporary Western writers to "prove" the bizarre ideas about the world that they hold. Hate George Bush if you will, complain about US policies if you want, criticize the shortcomings of Western society if you like. But the defamation of democracy, the justifications for dictatorships which systematically oppress your counterparts and the incitement or justification of terrorist violence are simply going too far. Pretending to be a hero and a benefactor of humanity for doing so is outright disgusting. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center.

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