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Editor’s Note, July/August 2006

A Dialog of Civilizations

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, July/August 2006 | Volume 27, Number 4

"There have been many civilizations in the world and the normal practice of civilizations has been to dismiss with contempt those outside," historian Bernard Lewis observes. "The world is divided into civilized people--that means us--and barbarians."

Lewis discusses with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole the "us" and "them" mentality of current affairs in the Middle East and ponders the chances for rapprochement.

The author of twenty books on that part of the world, among them What Went Wrong: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East, he cautions against using all-embracing labels and about the difficulty of defining and applying the meaning of the word democracy.

"Remember that when Germany was divided, it was the Communist dictatorship that was called 'The People's Democracy.' The term democracy was used by General Franco in Spain to describe his regime. It was used by the Greek colonels and all sorts of other people. So let's be careful when we talk about democracy."

Lewis adds: "We should avoid going to the opposite extreme and assuming that democracy means our type of government; that anything that differs from our type of government is not democracy and that all things that are not democracy are equally bad and evil. These are self-flattering delusions. Democracy comes in many different forms."

We encounter a similar dichotomy between societies in a place four thousand miles east and a thousand years earlier. The people were the nomadic Liao of tenth- to twelfth-century China. A collection of two hundred recently excavated Liao objects, most of them being seen for the first time in the United States, go on display in October at the Asia Society in New York City.

"Official Han Chinese histories treat the Liao as borderland barbarians with foreign cultural practices," says Adriana Proser of the Asia Society. "The picture that objects provide is quite different: They show a settled people who developed rich and complex political, social, and trade relationships." The Liao were known for their architectural skills as well and built the tallest wooden structure in China, the Timber Pagoda in Shanxi Province. It has withstood ten earthquakes and stands to this day.

We continue our perusal of "the other" in our own United States. During the Great Depression, two hundred thousand Americans took to the road in search of a better life. The story is told in a film airing in July about the singer and songwriter Woody Guthrie.

"I looked into the lost and hungry faces of several hundred thousand Okies, Arkies, Texies, Mexies, Chinees, Japees, Dixies, and even a lot of New Yorkies," Guthrie says, "and I got so interested in the art and science of Migratin' that I majored in it--a school so big, you can't even get out of it."

He picked up his guitar and shared his ballads with the people he met. The titles told the story: "Hard Travelin'," "Hard, Ain't It Hard," and "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh." In Oregon, he wrote twenty-six songs in thirty days about the massive dam project on the Columbia River.

And along the way he gave America an informal national anthem: "This Land Is Your Land."