Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Duke of Damascus

So it appears that being a great admirer of Sheikh Nasralla (the “spiritual leader” of Hezbollah) isn’t enough for Syrian President Bashar Assad; now he’s under the spell of David Duke, former head of the Ku Klux Klan, former U.S. Congressman from Louisiana, and current white supremacist. Duke paid a visit to Damascus – all expenses covered, no doubt, by his host – spoke at spontaneous rallies organized by the Syrian government to demonstrate support for itself among the public hired for the occasion, gave interviews to the notoriously independent Syrian media, and otherwise ingratiated himself with Wonder Boy.

I’m not really all that interested in David Duke or what he had to say; you can read about it here if you want, or take my word for it that he didn’t come up with anything unpredictable. The Zionists control this, dominate that, and have hijacked the agenda of the other; Judaism is a supremacist, racist religion, yadda yadda yadda. It was all boring stuff; and if he can’t come up with anything better after all his years in the business, it’s no wonder that he seems to be playing the small-town circuit these days.

What interests me about the ex-Grand Imperial Wizard’s visit to the Beloved British-Educated Ophthalmologist (has anyone ever found someone this guy actually treated? a prescription for glasses that he wrote? a professor in London who remembers teaching him? any indication that he speaks enough English to survive for more than two hours in England?) is that a head of state – the head of a fairly major state, or at least what passes for one in our part of the world – felt that it was worthwhile to bring Mr. Duke to Syria to bolster his regime. Is there any other part of the world where David Duke could conceivably be thought of as a spokesman to increase a government’s credibility and popularity?

There are a few thoughts that shield me from complete panic and despair when I observe what’s going on in the Middle East. One of the most important ones has always been the belief that despite what the popular press publishes, despite Mein Kampf’s status as a perennial Arabic-language bestseller, despite all the other craziness and ignorance around us, the actual leaders of the various nations of the Middle East were educated, serious, well informed, and professional. In some cases my belief appears to be accurate enough: the Hashemites seem to be pretty intent on getting good educations for their princes, and (particularly after King Hussein’s monumental blunder in following Egypt into the 1967 Six-Day War) they make a genuine effort to be responsible leaders of their country. But Jordan’s ruling family seems to be the exception, rather than the rule.

It’s not really very important whether Bashar Assad is a genuine ophthalmologist; after all, that’s not what we pay him for these days. But the son of Syria’s long-term dictator should have received some form of education to prepare him for responsible positions, even if his brother was the heir apparent.

The important part of an education (at least for the aspiring politician/despot) is not, after all, memorizing a bunch of facts and techniques; it’s the development of critical thinking skills. This means, in part, the ability to reason with a set of facts; but even more importantly, it means the ability to evaluate information, determine what is true and what is spurious, and thus to form a coherent and accurate picture of the world. A competent critical thinker may not be the world’s greatest expert in any subject, but s/he will not be easily led astray by false “experts”. This set of mental skills is perhaps best described as a sensitive “bullshit detector”: a piece of equipment that President Assad appears to lack.

Of course, there is nothing new, original, or exciting in lamenting Assad Junior’s inadequacies, particularly in comparison to his illustrious – or at least continent – father. Nor am I the first, or even the thousandth, observer to point out that many inhabitants of the Middle East have a remarkable capacity to believe things that are manifestly untrue. But perhaps I can contribute one useful suggestion: Instead of worrying about “incitement” the next time we sit down with the Palestinians to negotiate an agreement, maybe we should focus on teaching critical thinking to all children in Israel and Palestine. This would be less contentious than the “incitement” issue, since critical-thinking training doesn’t require accepting or abandoning any particular set of beliefs; further, while incitement can be resumed after a hiatus, critical-thinking skills, once taught, last a lifetime.

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