The great writer and intellect Isaac Asimov once said “The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant threat winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is as great as your knowledge.” He is, of course addressing a political and social trend in America that has lead to polarization and frustration. When I came across that quote in a newspaper article it got me thinking about political discourse in its most basic form, which is two people openly discussing and debating political opinions and views. In a very real sense that is the most basic right and privilege of responsible citizens in a free country.
But the reality is that too often, as Asimov suggests, we close our eyes and ears to opposing points of view and, in so doing, flaunt our ignorance. I say ignorance because we are not acknowledging the logic of an opposing position. And in so doing we diminish our arguments and beliefs. This is apparent at local coffee shops and in the Congress of the United States. I have observed this and, sadly, been guilty of it.
Enter my friend Farhad Arasteh. Farhad is a professor of Mathematics at Western New Mexico University. Born in Iran he left at age 23 (6 months before the Shah’s government collapsed) and moved to England and then to the United States. He was lured to New Mexico largely because of the great hunting and fishing opportunities available in the southwest. He completed his Doctorate in Las Cruces, New Mexico and now resides in Silver City.
I was staying in the area working on a project when we became acquainted. It was largely due to his skill and proficiency on the guitar. After years of studying Classical Guitar he began a very serious exploration of Flamenco music. I had heard of him from mutual friends but on seeing him play I was overwhelmed. He is good. Very good.
It was through the guitar that we began to converse and eventually become good friends. Strangely, after a brief time we rarely if ever spoke about guitars or music. We did, however, spend many hours in discussions of subjects ranging from the Gold Standard, current and historical monetary policy, national elections and other current topics. But here is the kicker. Farhad and I agree on almost nothing. He is a firm and ardent Libertarian and I am not. Not even close. But we managed to spend hours discussing opposing political views and interpretations without ever raising our voices, walking away or even expressing any disrespect for each others point of view. After a little bit of thought on the subject it became apparent that it was because not only was Farhad incredibly bright and articulate, he respected and valued other opinions. He seemed to collect them like a cook gathers recipes. They help him better understand his own, well thought out, views. It was sobering for me. When I would offer an opinion that I knew was diametrically opposed to his belief I could see him listening to every word and digesting the thought process I had used. He not only crafted better arguments but he respected my point of view and the theory behind it.
It seems that the essence of Democratic thought and discourse and responsibility as a citizen was totally embraced by this scholar/musician who grew up in Iran. He not only listened carefully he demonstrated his deep knowledge of our history and our Constitution. Which, I might add, is his constitution too.
Have I become a Libertarian? No, not even close. But have I learned from him? You bet I have. Not only have I learned technical aspects and practices of, for example, monetary policy, (which have sent me more than once back to the library) but I have learned the incredible value of true discourse. This really is a sacred right and we sell it and ourselves short when we lock ourselves into a position or philosophy. Farhad has taught me that we give our beliefs a disservice if we can’t listen to opposing views, understand them and then express our opinions. These are basic lessons in that old course they used to teach called “Civics.” It is a real eye opener when you learn to appreciate these skills and lessons from a man who grew up in a country where such rights barely existed.
There are many reasons why I travel. Clearly the possibility of meeting and learning from someone like Farhad is enough to keep me going. He is a friend in the truest sense. And when I visit I can count on leaving with more than I came with.
Until next time….