MAXWELL:  Read, reflect and make a difference

10/7/2001 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE Section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


As a former teacher and one who still teaches part time, I am thrilled that Americans are now reading about the Mideast and the Muslim and Jewish worlds. Bookstores report that works on the subject are flying off the shelves.

Few human activities are more important than reading. Positive concomitants of reading are reflection and action. When we read, we should at least ask the following questions: What does our reading mean? What should we do with it, or how should we use it?

We should learn from our reading. We should use what we learn to improve ourselves, to enlighten others and to perform good deeds for the benefit of the greatest number of people.

A tall order? Yes. Idealistic? Absolutely. But beyond entertaining ourselves, why read?

Now that we Americans have a reading interest in everything about terrorism, Osama bin Laden and Islam, we should commit ourselves to serious learning.

I fear, however, that instead of trying to learn and understand, we are trapped in the short-term, albeit natural, condition of allaying our fears of a “strange” world we heretofore ignored or discounted.

I am reminded of Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who recently declared that Western civilization is superior to Islam. Such a sentiment _ laced with rhetorical opiates and traditional fallacy _ comforts Berlusconi and others. But it probably does nothing to give the Occident a sensible view of the Middle East and beyond.

At least Americans are reading.

The big question, though, is whether our reading will teach us anything of value. I long have believed that for all of our wealth, technology and great colleges and universities, we are a nation of missed opportunities, wisdom-by-hindsight and producers of unintended consequences.

Now that Islam has our attention, I wish that we truly would learn all that is possible for Westerners to learn about it. Here in the United States, let us not miss this opportunity to learn about a part of our culture that is not going away any time soon. By the same token, Muslim nationals in this country should not fail to reach out. How many Muslims invite non-Muslims into their homes? How many Muslims visit non-Muslim homes?

I can tell you that most of what I know about Muslims, I learned strictly on my own, by traveling in the Mideast and by reading and asking questions. I have learned next to nothing from Muslims right here in the Tampa Bay area where I live and work. This is a missed opportunity for everyone.

Americans are good at learning from hindsight. We fix problems only after, say, lawsuits and tragedy. Our current reading craze could help alter this condition if we try to think ahead intentionally. But if we use our reading simply to affirm our prejudices, we gain nothing by poring over unfamiliar ideas.

And unintended consequences are another of our specialties. How often have we devised policies, such as immigration, that produced results we did not want? So much of what we do is derived not from reading and intellectuality but from short-term, crass political brinkmanship.

What about our current rush to toss out many of our constitutional rights? What will be the long-term consequences? Are we reflecting adequately? Writers have warned us. Are we reading them?

Frankly, I am surprised by the number of liberals, even some who claimed to be pacifists, who now sound like conservatives of yore, who want to muzzle, for example, the American Civil Liberties Union until further notice. Ample literature discusses other times when we have surrendered to fear. We need to go back and read. We need to reflect.

As to our new national interest in reading, I hope we learn and grow, that we reassess our place in the world. I hope that American travelers resume their international junkets when things calm down. I cannot wait to return to the Mideast, Eastern Europe and Africa.

Instead of simply mining Lonely Planet and Fodor’s for the best nightspots and sidewalk cafes, we should read a political history of our next foreign destination. We should try to understand that nation’s economy in relation to our own.

The more we learn about other cultures and political systems, the more we become citizens of the world.

No, I am not so naive as to believe that mere reading could have prevented the World Trade Center disaster.

I do believe, however, that new generations of truly interested Americans _ who read, reflect, travel to troubled spots, who genuinely care about other peoples _ will make a difference.