Sunday, November 28, 2010

Transmitting knowledge

Dear Family and Friends,
I recently read the book shown in the photo.
My friend, Metta, has been working towards it almost as long as I've known her. As I've said in my review, below, it made me think a good deal about the importance of cross-national, cross-cultural transmission of knowledge.

The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy by Metta Spencer.
Lanham, USA: Lexington Books, 2010.
Joanna Santa Barbara
In 1982 I was in Moscow with Metta Spencer, the author of a remarkable book on the transmission of ideas, in this case, ideas about peace. We and several other Canadian peace activists were on our way to participate in an international peace conference in Vienna. Metta had a telephone number of a dissident peace organisation in Moscow. We found our way to a small apartment and met with members of the Trustbuilders Group. This group aimed to counter Cold War mentality on both sides of the Iron Curtain by fostering people-to-people relationships and joint projects. The members were being persecuted, for example by being fired from their jobs, because they stood as independent thinkers outside the government system. Metta established relationships with the people in this group that have lasted to this day, and began pursuing a 28 year-long trail led by her curiosity about the impact of western peace researchers and activists on the tortuous development of Russian peace and democracy.
The Trustbuilders exemplified what Metta called ‘barking dogs’, those who spoke up outside the system, the critics. These people suffered, often seriously, from their courageous expressions. Her typology of actors includes ‘termites’, those within the system who were quietly critical and actively searching for new ideas. When Mikhail Gorbachev, a termite who had assimilated the most important concepts peace research had to offer, assumed power, history took several dramatic turns. The typology is completed with ‘sheep’, the large majority of citizens who accepted life as it was, and largely accepted the framing of reality presented by the state.
We learn how the ideas of the great 20th century peace researchers, such as Anatol Rapaport, Johan Galtung and Dietrich Fischer reached the inner circle of Soviet policy-makers around Gorbachev, and how, much earlier, President Kennedy, influenced by Charles Osgood’s ideas on Graduated Reciprocation of Tension Reduction (GRIT) made several unilateral disarmament moves. Each was immediately reciprocated by Khrushchev in a series abruptly ended by Kennedy’s murder. GRIT, the ideas of common security, non-offensive defence, reasonable sufficiency in weaponry (rather than ruinous arms races), confidence-building measures, non-intervention in other states, the necessity for nuclear abolition were assimilated by Gorbachev and became part of his ‘New Political thinking’. Lithuania, after becoming an independent state, even adopted the idea from peace research of civilian-based defence.
While peace theory took root, a highly creative process of citizen diplomacy occurred through the 1980s. Brilliant solo players such a Norman Cousins, Jeremy Stone, Bernard Lown and Ernst van Eeghen played their parts, backed by organisations such as the Dartmouth Conferences, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, Pugwash, and Parliamentarians for Global Action.
These processes seeded new ideas in receptive Soviet minds, worked out implementation processes together and formed relationships of trust. Many readers of this review will have played some role in this chapter of history. Metta reviews the outcome to the present – the transformation of Eastern Europe without violence, the end of proxy wars, avoidance of nuclear war and progress in nuclear disarmament. She examines the sad question of why Russians are willing to tolerate authoritarian government, reversing the moves towards democracy that Gorbachev began. She focuses on the low levels of social trust in Russia, between people and between citizens and their government. It is worth considering what community-building processes might remedy this.
Metta has an engaging style of writing, very like a personal conversation. The book is deeply interesting for its theoretical content, and fascinating for the cameos of extraordinary people who appear in the pages. Metta has created a website with photos of these people, and the full texts of the hundreds of interviews that provided the substance of this work. ( )
I found myself pondering after I finished reading. When the cross-national transmission of ideas can yield such important results, what are the responsibilities of intellectuals and activists? Are these processes relevant to the other daunting task many of us face – how to end the destruction of Nature through human economic activity and population growth, most acutely in climate change and biodiversity loss? It is extraordinary to consider that, whereas in the historic episode Metta documents, it was the impact of ideas on Soviet minds that was the focus, now it is US and Chinese minds, as well as those in our own societies that might be thought crucial. Might cross-fertilising conversations with two-way learning get us over the present terrifying stalemate?

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