Teaching and Learning

James Zogby’s Column

Davidson, NC I spent this Spring as the Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College in North Carolina.  It was a wonderful opportunity to leave Washington and spend five months teaching a remarkable group of young people.  It also provided me with the opportunity to relearn some important lessons about politics and history.

There were times, to be sure, when it was hard being away from Washington.  This was the first time in 25 years that I was not in the Capital as major events were unfolding in the Middle East.  With continuing upheaval in Palestine and the war in Iraq, there was so much to do, and I was not there to do it.

My office however, did what needed to be done.  Press releases went out, TV appearances and interviews were done and calls to action were sent to community leaders on a regular basis.

From my distant vantage point, I played a different role.  I did return to Washington one day each week.  I did some press and television interviews and I wrote a few articles.  At one point, I did publicly challenge the Democratic Party to demand answers from President Bush about the war, and I led the anti-war debate at the Party’s Winter meeting.

Finally, thanks to Abu-Dhabi TV, I was able to host two televised conversations between Americans and Iraqis-both before and after the war.  These efforts generated national press attention.

So it was not that I was inactive or AWOL, I was just in a different place doing some different things.  And what I escaped, while being in Davidson, was being part of the exhausting “ping-pong ball-like” game of being bounced back and forth from network to network, interview to interview, dispensing disposable quotes or engaging in the three- and-one-half minute “all heat and no light” debates that have become standard fare on too many U.S. networks. 

What teaching provided was an opportunity to read and think, to reflect and learn-in particular to reflect on Arab history and to place the events playing out in today’s Middle East in the broader context of that history.  

It is so tragically clear that most Americans ignore history.  For many U.S. news reporters, for example, history begins the day they receive the assignment to cover a particular story.  They either ignore the context of the events they are covering or accept, as given, the interpretation or context provided by the U.S. officials who have briefed them.

Details like “Balfour”, “Sykes-Picot”, “Versailles” or “Mandates”, etc are considered too cumbersome; “Arab nationalism” too irrelevant; “Abbasid Caliphate” or “followers of Ali” too ancient to factor into a story.

This is not true for all journalists.  Out of the interviews I did do during the past few months, there were some that stood out because of their attempt to understand the day’s events by placing them in a broader historical context.  There was, for example, an extraordinary piece done on “Baghdad, the City of Dreams”, an attempt to define the meaning of the city in the mind of the Arabs.  And a few CNN interviews that focused on the different perceptions of Arabs and Americans.

I did those few, and only a few more.  The rest I was able to avoid because I was teaching, learning and remembering.  Learning that sound bites, the stuff of contemporary politics, are not enough.  And remembering that the history of the past 100 years is one of the Arab peoples most important assets in the contemporary struggle for justice.

Caught up in the whirlwind of debating and responding, at times the importance of history and context are forgotten.  But just reciting history is not enough.  The story must be told right to make sense, and it must be told from a platform where it can be heard.  In fact, if it is true that Americans have too little appreciation for history, it is equally true that Arabs have too little appreciation for the need to tell their story in a way to make it relevant and understood.

For example, the problem with the Palestinian performance after Camp David II, was not that they did not offer a counterproposal to Barak’s so-called “generous offer”.  The more serious problem was the failure to use the opportunity to explain to a world audience why, given history, it was not a “generous” or even “acceptable” offer.  By not telling their story, Arabs lost the policy debate.  As a result, the accepted narrative has become “Barak made the most generous offer, Arafat turned it down and resorted to violence”.

Tragically, this has happened time and again.  Zionists defined the meaning and events of the “mandate” and Israelis have successfully imposed their interpretation of all of the region’s wars.  Once they won the debate over history, it was inevitable that they would win the policy debate as well.

The lesson: building political power and relationships in politics are important, but being able to utilize that power and those relationships to tell your history is also important. 

And so I come to the end of this teaching assignment refreshed.  My students rewarded my efforts with extraordinary research papers on a variety of topics in contemporary Middle East history.  My colleagues here at Davidson enriched me with lively conversations about U.S. politics and Middle East policy grounded in a solid understanding of the history and culture of the region.  And this entire community delighted me with the appreciation they demonstrated after our conversations with the people of Baghdad.

I return to Washington better prepared to engage with policy debate and ready to apply what I have learned to our continuing effort to create more understanding-all because I didn’t just teach here at Davidson.  I was also fortunate enough to learn a great deal as well.  

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.