i got an email from the american embassy last week. they were bringing a touring american speaker to hamilton, and wondered if i would be willing to meet up with him.
the first time i was contacted by the embassy was a couple of years ago. one of their PR people rang me out of the blue and said that 3 of them would be in hamilton and they would like to meet up with me for a coffee. spooky. but i said "no problem, when and where?". the reaction of the woman on the phone was hilarious (she was actually kiwi by the way). she was all "really! you'll really meet us? are you sure?". i had to assure her several times that i would be quite happy to meet with them.
my reasons for saying yes are pretty much the same as why i get involved in interfaith activities. if you really believe in peace, then you have to be prepared to dialogue with people who you fundamentally disagree with. and you have to be prepared to not only raise the difficult issues, but to discuss them in some kind of sane and rational manner. it's the only way.
so i met roy glover and two others (including the woman on the phone), and it was most interesting. during the meeting, they started asking me if i was interested in visiting america in what seemed to be an embassy-sponsored trip. that was really spooky. not because i thought it was dangerous per se, but i kept thinking that there is no such thing as a free lunch, so what would be expected of me in return?
since then, i've tried to keep a distant but friendly relationship with the embassy. i'm wary of getting too involved, cos i'm still suspicious of ulterior motives. but most of the staff i've met so far are really nice, although they keep leaving every two years (that's the maximum term they get posted here).
so anyway, last week they ask me if i want to meet up with one chris heffelfinger of the jamestown foundation and i say "sure, why not". the name rings a bell but i can't think why. but my gut feeling is that this guy is a neo-con, based mostly on the topic of his speech in hamilton: "radicalisation and al quaedaesque doctrine" and other topics he has discussed elsewhere around the country. so i decide to dig further (thank goodness for google!). sure enough, it turns out that the jamestown foundation is a right-wing think tank. apparently with links to the center for security policy, an even scarier right-wing think tank. and looking at some of their funders didn't make me feel any better.
so now i'm wondering what i've got myself into, and whether it's going to be possible to have any kind of rational discussion with this guy without my completely losing my cool. i'm picking him for a middle-aged muslim-hating conservative, and thinking it's going to be a rather reserved kind of a meeting.
and of course it turns out (as i'm sure you were totally expecting) that mr heffelfinger is a clean-cut young fellow who was pretty easy to talk to, and was actually a muslim with full beard and flowing robes at one point of his life (today though, it was all suit-and-tie with designer stubble). we had a really interesting discussion around a variety of topics, and he didn't come out with any wildly neo-con arguments. although he told me he had read up some of the media stuff i've done, and he would have been informed that i'm a total lefty, so maybe he was just being polite. and the embassy staffer, phil, was very expert at keeping things flowing along nicely.
so, we had a dialogue. i don't know if he felt he'd gained anything out of it. i certainly don't know that i've learned anything from him, other than to not have stupid stereotypes and that it is worthwhile making an effort to get to know people on "the other side". oh, and it reminded me that i really have to work harder on making it illegal for men to have blue eyes.