Monday, April 14, 2008

What Peter, Paul, and Mary Can Teach Us About Iraqis

Or, rather, what they can teach us about why an "impoverished historical imagination" prevents us from understanding non-Western cultures.

Over on the History News Network, William J. Astore, associate professor of History at the Pennsylvania College of Technology and previously of the U.S. Air Force, posted a recollection of his first-hand experience with the clash of civilizations. Here's the introduction:

While I was the Associate Provost at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, we received an urgent request early in 2004 from a U.S. official working with Iraqi schools. The official wanted help translating the song, "Don’t Laugh At Me," from English to Arabic. The song, which appears on the Peter, Paul, and Mary CD Songs of Conscience & Concern, is used in U.S. elementary schools to promote tolerance. Its first lines are "I’m a little boy with glasses/The one they call a geek/A little girl who never smiles/’Cause I have braces on my teeth." The refrain urges: "Don’t laugh at me/Don’t call me names/Don’t get your pleasure from my pain/In God’s eyes we’re all the same." Rather safe and innocuous lyrics, one might think.

Well, some might think that. [Hear the song for yourself] But the translation didn't go smoothly at all, which would not surprise those of us who do not share the wide-spread assumption that inside every foreigner is an American trying to get out. Astore concludes:

I learned much from this experience. If we can’t translate song lyrics to promote diversity and tolerance, how can we "translate" democracy? It seems as if the Bush administration assumed no translation was necessary: the Iraqis would embrace democracy because it was "the end of history," in the Francis Fukuyama sense, the unchallengeable culmination of our political evolution as humans.

All too true. By the way, Fukuyama [see his web page at Johns Hopkins University] was once a member of the Policy Planning Staff of the U.S. Department of State, and his philosophical influence still lingers in the Department.

On a personal note, I was appalled to learn that innocent schoolchildren are still being force-fed Peter, Paul and Mary songs. Mrs. Bailey, my Junior High School social studies teacher, played their songs over and over again in class - which tells you how ancient P, P, and M are, since I'm a grandfather now! I dreaded seeing her haul out that portable record player and spinning up "If I Had a Hammer," "Blowin' in the Wind," "Puff, the Magic Dragon," and the rest of the Hippy folk song canon, presumably trying to inculcate in us kids a mid-1960s style of consciousness and concern. Her attempt backfired in my case. Whenever I hear one of those songs now, which is usually when I'm channel-surfing past a Public Broadcasting Service station, I wince, and remember thinking "if only I had a hammer, Mrs. Bailey, it would be the last damn time anybody played that record."

No comments: