Opinion: Confronting paranoia born of propaganda, ignorance, secrecy, fear


Published: 08-20-2023 6:00 AM

Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.

Earlier this summer, in a Seacoast thrift shop I frequent, I began chatting with a young graduate student who was browsing its book section. It turned out they were majoring in diplomacy and intelligence and that we had some common interests. Although their geographical area of interest was different than mine we started exchanging book suggestions.

“Have you read ...?” “Do you know ...?” “You really should read ...” “I loved ...!”

I don’t know if they acted on any of my recommendations but on their advice, I ordered a copy of Ben Macintyre’s “The Spy and the Traitor” and read it while on my brief sabbatical on Star Island.

I couldn’t put it down. It was wonderful and certainly lived up to John Le Carre’s praise of it as “The best true spy story I have ever read.”

One line from “The Spy and the Traitor” resonates with me still, not just for it being part of a brilliantly-crafted Cold War intelligence drama but because its truth persists today: “Paranoia is born of propaganda, ignorance, secrecy and fear.”

I cannot live without books.

Inside books I find truths, treasures, and trouble-makers; memories of scent, taste, and touch; traitors, lovers, rushing seas, low tides and tormented souls; minarets and mirrors, daughters and dreams.

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I find laughter and light, new horizons to be crossed, challenges to overcome, blank pages waiting to be inscribed, drawn upon, and archived.

I am so thankful.

“I want to take my rightful share of life by force, I want to give lavishly, I want love to flow from my heart, to ripen and bear fruit,” Sudanese novelist Tayeb Salih wrote in “Season of Migration to the North.” “There are many horizons that must be visited, fruit that must be plucked, books read, and white pages in the scrolls of life to be inscribed with vivid sentences in a bold hand.”

I believe that such a life is neither Western nor Eastern but is rather about making a journey from darkness to light, that education is a way for us to know each other, a way to confront and turn back those who wish to suppress truth in order to terrorize the vulnerable and marginalized.

Education is not a crutch designed to reinforce existing prejudices — it’s about countering paranoia, propaganda, ignorance, secrecy, and fear — about recognizing that education often means being open to ideas that challenge hallowed and privileged traditions.

In Islam, in the words of Prophet Muhammad as recounted in a hadith, believers are instructed to “Seek knowledge even if in China, for the seeking of knowledge is incumbent upon every Muslim.”

Instructed, to my mind, to take risks, to journey to unfamiliar lands, to search for beauty and knowledge in the pursuit of truth.

To travel from Timbuktu to Samarkand, from the Ganges to Jerusalem, to witness the fullness of an earth with which we’ve been entrusted.

Today, as the new school year approaches, I’m increasingly fearful of the malign forces that are attacking education and distorting our history, malign forces coalescing around a theology of supremacist white Christian nationalism who have targeted our most vulnerable institution, en route to their intended dismemberment of our democratic institutions, is our public education system.

Public education, described by Horace Mann as “the cornerstone of our community and our democracy” is under attack, and with it the very foundation of America as a nation that believes that all people are created equal, a nation that values life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

That is who we are meant to be.

Today, in a book I’m reading this week, Abraham Verghese’s “The Covenant of Water,” when I came across the line “In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act,” I knew I wanted to write this column.

It would be so easy, at this moment, to list all the ways that education is being attacked in America; all the books that are being banned, all the resources being diverted from public education to private institutions, to wonder why people with no public school experience are in charge of our children’s futures.

But I won’t: you know those answers.

I live amidst the clutter of 5,000 books. I’ve reread many, others I treasure for a poem that haunts me still or a binding that inspires me. Some are centuries old, some in Arabic or French, others range from “Pat the Bunny” to “Winnie the Pooh”, from “Julián Is a Mermaid” to “The Wretched of the Earth” to “The Bluest Eye,” all accessible so that when my grandchildren visit they will pluck treasures to suit their tastes.

“One book,” Malala wrote, “one pen, one child and one teacher can change the world.”

One grandparent, with 5,000 books, telling one story at a time.

I am so thankful.