As the world speaks more and more about war in Iran, every citizen of the American democracy has a duty to know more about Iran. This goal stands out of reach of US citizens now, but every American in the humanities or professional groups should take the first steps towards achieving it. Every American must first realize that when our democratic country speaks about war, we are morally required to influence our government based on broad, intelligent information.
Iran possesses an ancient history and rich literary and artistic heritage. Their large, diverse country constantly deals with complex political and economic realities. Our moral imperative to influence our government based on broad, intelligent information requires us, ultimately, to know the Farsi language. Language is a basic step towards achieving a more knowledgeable population. We must grasp the reality of what Iran is before we can allow our country to prepare for war; otherwise, innocents will suffer because of a war against a straw man.
Money controls education. Those who fund education influence what we learn and how information spreads through the culture. We can see how this plays out in the interaction of Farsi language education and the most widespread information about Iran. Significantly, the US government funds most of the Farsi language education in the US, especially in the areas of foreign service, intelligence, and the military. As a result, the American people enjoy a plethora of information about Iran in these areas; if Americans know anything about Iran, they know about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad‘s foreign policy (anti-US, anti-Israel) and military intelligence (potential to develop nuclear weapons). It is not likely a coincidence that the information that the US population knows about Iran coincides with the areas where the US government funds Farsi language education.
The American people lack broader information about Iran because so little money for language education comes from other channels. Americans know so little about the humanities or businesses in Iran. Where would an artist turn to learn more about the traditional Persian visual arts? Where would a vocalist find out about Persian musical culture? How can a business person learn about traditional views on trade and business? The artist, vocalist, and business person would have to learn Farsi or find a teacher in their field who knows Farsi. No area of interest or business can separate itself from world events, yet our information about Iran is limited to so few areas of knowledge.
Community and professional organizations can fill this gap. Local artistic groups can hire guest speakers from Iran to speak on music or art in Iran. The speakers can also teach the language so that artists will stay engaged in the discussion of the particular area of art–visual art, music, anything. Professional and business groups can make up rosters of local or web-based language teachers who can teach many levels of a language, so that the members can learn how Iranian society navigates business, or even law or medicine.
Members of these groups need to spend time and money to ensure that they are learning the language if they want reliable information. One could argue that the language is not necessary, since the groups can always refer to bilingual Farsi and English speakers. These groups, however, need the ability to synthesize the information on their own. The difference is between reading a poem in translation and reading a poem in the original language; or between listening to a meeting through an interpreter and listening in the original language–and engaging all the parallel conversations taking place. You can understand the gist, but can’t grasp fine details. Significantly, the US government recognizes this distinction. US government agencies do not depend solely on the large Iranian expat population in the US; they train new speakers. Artistic and professional groups need to take the same amount of responsibility in putting time and money into language-training. In that way, Americans will bring knowledge about Iran to the US about their sphere of interest, producing knowledge to complement what government sources produce.
Once these groups fill in the gap for language education, more Americans will know about the nuances of Iranian culture that relate to areas where the US government does not hold vested interests. Ideally, every American could access high-quality language education. With knowledge of the language, specialists in our population are better informed about the broader Iranian culture. Then the level of knowledge in the US about Iran will rise. The discussion will nuance the relationship between the US and Iranian populations, and the US democracy will find itself in a better position to decide for or against war in Iran. But such a drastic action morally requires thorough knowledge of the affected population, and this knowledge will only come through knowledge of the language. More groups must offer their money and time for language education for the level of foreign-policy discussion to progress beyond foreign policy and the military.
Have you witnessed grass-roots language efforts, in Farsi or other languages? How have they helped your local community?
Would you like to see grass-roots language efforts? In what area? How could we start up such efforts?
What will it take to convince more people that grass-roots language knowledge is necessary for democracy?