Our lunches and dinners are getting ever more elaborate and expansive — last night, Group A made fesenjoon, served with salad, and sides of stir-fried brussel sprouts and broccoli, and garlic-sautéed mushrooms, before finishing off with a nectarine crumble (and not a cheeseboard in sight!). Lunch today was venison, with a side of beans, and a potato and leek salad. And the return of the cheeseboard.
We are all eating far too much. And drinking ridiculous amounts of coffee. But it’s all to fuel some serious thinking — and subtle changes in the way we are beginning to approach the readings. Today, ‘class’ was held in the garden behind the kitchen-cafe. As the sun arced over the sky, its heat seeped slowly into our discussions. There’s a lot more going on, undercurrents gaining strength, changing direction on a sea still calm. Responses to questions are slower, more careful, deliberate. Follow-ups keep pace, probing gently, not to promote a personal view nor to push a professional stance. Ahmad both directs and manages these deftly. There is a distinct sense of the boundaries of ta’rof, a form of Persian politesse, being recalibrated. We are more honest about not understanding assertions we are hearing, but it is accompanied by cues both verbal and non-verbal that we are open and willing to listen more actively and thereby seek clarity about new, and unfamiliar positions as we seek to integrate those ideas with our current worldviews.
The first reading, ‘The Real Work’ by Wendell Berry inspired and bored in equal measure. For those of us at a sense of loss, ‘no longer know[ing] what to do’ or ‘which way to go’, the realization that we may ‘have come to our real work’ or ‘our real journey’ was profound. For those of us perhaps less lost personally and professionally, these observations were obvious and expressed with greater poetry elsewhere. We all agreed, however, on the last line, ‘The impeded stream is the one that sings.’
The next reading, ‘Trying Out One’s New Sword’ by Mary Midgley put forward strong arguments against moral isolationism — the idea that ‘the respect and tolerance due from one system to another requires us never to take up a critical position to any other culture, that we can never claim to say what is good or bad there.’ Using an example from classical Japan of a samurai who could only test the efficacy of a new sword by wielding it, ideally fatally, on an unfortunate traveler, Midgley posed three questions: 1. ‘Does the isolating barrier work both ways? Are people in other cultures equally unable to criticize us?’ 2. ‘Does the isolating barrier between cultures block praise as well as blame?’ 3. ‘What is involved in judging?’ And, consequently, 4. ‘If we can’t judge other cultures, can we really judge our own?’ Especially because ‘there are plenty of things we don’t understand in our culture as well.’
The article went on to discuss how presentism and consent further complicate responses to these questions. This was certainly reflected in our discussions, which ran the gamut from the nature of (T/t)ruth to perceptions of (R/r)eality across examples taking in domestic abuse, patriarchy and quantum physics (Schroedinger’s Cat, anyone). Our discussion on this piece ended with the last line of the article, ‘Morally, as well as physically, there is only one world, and we all have to live in it.’
This segued us neatly into the next two readings, ‘Finding Allies in Tammany Hall’ from Kirstin Downey’s The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience, and ‘The Unbelievable Story of the Plot Against George Soros’ by Hanes Grasseger. These generated heated debates about in/authenticity, the value of compromise and how much this entailed losing oneself, whether the ends justified the means, and whether the success or failure — of projects, campaigns, and programmes — affected our perceptions of behavior being strategic or manipulative. In other words, is it okay to be inauthentic, to pretend, if it gets us what we want? We might be willing to do so if it ended in a public good, but far less likely to do so if it the payoff were entirely personal. Who decides? And against what criteria? And, finally, what role does privilege, racial, ethnic, and/or financial play in these dynamics?