This blog is defunct! Check out my new music blog at Sonicrampage.org.
I hope everyone has a great New Year's. I'm off to a pub in Holloway, North London, then on to a house party in Camden. Normal service to resume soon (I hope).
I hope everyone had a good Christmas (if you celebrate it of course!), and has a good New Year's tomorrow. I've been away from the blogosphere for a bit, so as a return here's this biographical article about the first First Lady of Ghana, Fathia Nkrumah, written by her son. She was the wife of Kwame Nkrumah, the legendary anti-imperialist and pan-Africanist who led the Gold Coast (now known as Ghana) to become the first sub-Saharan African nation to achieve independence from European colonialism. I took a course on Ghana at university and I wrote a couple essays about Kwame Nkrumah - if I can locate the computer files I might post (edited) versions.
It was not meant to be a marriage made in heaven. It was a political union between Mediterranean-oriented North Africa and the rest of the continent, often pejoratively termed sub-Saharan or Black Africa. Yet Fathia Nkrumah's life story is a modern fable representative of a certain era. For fleeting moments in the late '50s and early '60s, it captured the public imagination throughout Africa. The young Egyptian woman who left her country to marry the most illustrious African anti-colonial leader of his time was inevitably invested with iconic qualities.
Fathia is my mother, of course, and my memories of her life as Mrs Nkrumah are necessarily skewed. She was thrust onto centre stage -- that much I know. In many respects she was rather ill-equipped for her role, but she coped reasonably well with being in the public eye. Her official persona was more demure Diana than imperious Eva Peron, although stardom did come naturally to her. After her husband's death, she seemed to disappear; I know she has handled that quite well too.
Cross-posted from The Dictionary of Received Ideas
Phew, finally I got to ten!
Thomas Sowell Ethnic America - A tour-de-force look at the historical impact on America of nine major ethnic groups (the Germans, the Irish, the Chinese, the Italians, the Mexicans, the black Africans, the Puerto Ricans, the Japanese, and the Jews). Although now thirty years old, this is a fantastic primer on the different achievements and historical impacts on America of these most important non-British ethnic groups. Highly recommended, and to my mind the best work that Sowell has done.
Jon Ronson THEM: Adventures with Extremists - Over the course of a five year period the British humourist Jon Ronson travelled around the wilder fringes of the Western world, a journey that took him from cack-handed Islamic fundamentalists (Sheikh Omar Bakri, the 'semi-detached ayatollah'), to Lizardoid conspiracy theorist David Icke, the family of Randy Weaver, assorted anti-New World Order activists, and the scoping out of Bilderburg Club meetings and a bizarre neo-pagan ritual in the woods of Northern California attended by a variety of influential political, business, and cultural figures. Thought-provoking and funny.
Anthony Beevor Stalingrad - A gripping recounting of Hitler's disastrous decision to invade the Soviet Union and the unbelievable carnage that resulted, up until the final annihilation of the German Fifth Army in the ruins of Stalingrad.
Visit the American Red Cross site and donate to the relief effort.
To everyone celebrating Christmas, have a great one! I'll be back in a couple days.
From today's The Guardian comes this story of how the militant wing of the Israeli settler movement are appropriating symbols of the Holocaust as a protest against Ariel Sharon's proposed withdrawal from Gaza.
Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip have adopted Star of David badges similar to those which Jews were forced to wear by the Nazis in the 30s in protest at Israel's plan to evacuate them from their homes.
Many of the settlers equate the prime minister, Ariel Sharon's plans to evacuate the settlements next year with the Holocaust in which 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis. Mr Sharon wants to remove the settlements by next autumn.
Moshe Freiman, 56, whose mother survived the Holocaust, and is now buried in a settlement, said he would wear the star on his shirt.
"We, the second generation of Holocaust survivors, always complained to those who were there - why did they not rise up, why did they not cry out and do something?" he said.
"Today, justifiably, this is said about us - why are we not doing anything against this plan?"
On Sunday, Haaretz reported that 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Northern Ireland has compared Israel's nuclear arsenal to the gas chambers of the Nazi concentration camps.
"When I think about nuclear weapons, I've been to Auschwitz concentration camp," Maguire said during a joint press conference with Vanunu in Jerusalem.
"Nuclear weapons are only gas chambers perfected... and for a people who know what gas chambers are, how can you even think of building perfect gas chambers?"
Humanity - proving forever that the temptation to make bad historical analogies cuts across all ideological boundaries.
A useful tool for entering web pages that require registration is Bug Me Not. Worth checking out.
Continuing from my previous post, here's another two of my favorite reads from this year (that I haven't reviewed yet). I'll get up to ten!
Phillip Gourevitch We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda - In 1994 the Central African nation of Rwanda experienced the fastest genocide in human history. In the space of a mere 100 days over 800,000 members of the Tutsi ethnic group were slaughtered by the majority Hutus (who also killed moderate Hutus who were against the massacres). In this powerful book Phillip Gourevitch, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, retraces how Hutu extremists had carefully planned the genocide, how they had used propaganda to create an atmosphere conducive to mass killing, and finally, when the time came, how they had unleashed the forces they had built up. It is also a meditation on ethnic extermination as a means of binding communities, as well as a look at the history of Rwanda, and the total failure of the United Nations and the leading Western nations to do anything about the genocide once it had begun.
Anne Louise Bardach Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana - In the 1950's Miami was a Deep South backwater, a minor city. The Cuban Revolution of 1959 changed that forever. Over the next several decades over a million Cubans would flee to South Florida (primarily from Cuba's white middle and upper classes), and these refugees were the driving force behind Miami's transformation from a minor Southern city into a major Latin American metropolis. This entertaining book is about the resulting cleavages between los exilados and the Cubans on the island, divisions that erupted into the minds of the rest of America with the Elian Gonzalez furore. Bardach discusses Cuban history, the links between Fidel Castro (a child of the Cuban bourgeoisie) and leaders of the exile community such as Jorge Mas Canosa, the role of race in Cuban society (particularly events such as the massacres of 1912), the authoritarian nature of the exile leadership (whose tactics of denunciation of dissidence mirror those Castro uses), support for terrorist violence against the Cuban regime, the changing nature of life on the island and how it has diverged from the 'Cuba of the mind' that so many exiles still dream of, and the antipathy of the pre-existing American communities of 'Anglos' (aka non-Hispanic whites) and African-Americans in Miami to the newcomers.
I'm flying off to London for Christmas and New Year's tonight. I will be doing some blogging while I am there. Just to say.
Via Randy McDonald I was very interested to find this article by Andrew Coates called 'In Defence of Militant Secularism' which compares the attitudes of the British and French Left to dealing with manifestations of Islamic identity. I am not interested in discussing the whole article, but there is one point I want to flag up.
In discussing the tendency of parts of the British Left to an unengaged Islamophilia Coates says:
Secondly, there is the adoption of the American model of "multi-culturalism". This, as Historical Materialism (Vol.11 No.4, 2003) details, is a model of social conflict in which different ethnic groups assert their "rights". The very particular conditions of American class formation (in which the heritage of slavery, different waves of immigration, the existence of a colour-based privileged layer in the working class, and an immensely powerful bourgeoisie have combined) are regarded as universal. In place of unified class conflicts, we have religious and cultural organisations from the different class and ethnic fractions as permanent lobbies. Each is held to be separate but equal. Those British groups, such as Socialist Action, which derive their politics from America, are quite open about this. Class unity is dropped in favour of the "right to be different". Lee Jasper, a key adviser of Ken Livingstone, has gone so far as to advocate racially segregated schools in the name of ... anti-racism!
As much as I dislike parts of multiculturalist orthodoxy, its tendency to reinforce divisive identity boundaries, this is not the whole story in American society. America also has a powerful universal 'American' identity, a belief in American nationality that cuts across these boundaries. Like all strong nation-states America is a concept as much it is the contents of a series of geographical boundaries. Even though few Americans can agree on the precise definition of what being American means there is still a broad consensus of the desirability of an American identity. This universalistic concept, of being American as something that all people who live in this country should embrace, helps to mitigate the sort of tribal impulses that multiculturalism panders to. This form of American identity may be built on many myths, and it is the historian's job to expose them, but in my opinion it is preferable to have these sort of binding myths than the divisive ones of much of multiculturalism, with their belief in eternal differences.
An example: last Wednesday night I was driving up to Connecticut with my old friend Ian and his friend Makai. We were talking (as you do) and we got onto the subject of why some Brits dislike Americans. Mak, who was in the Marines and had been in Iraq at the start of the current war, had met quite a few British squaddies who were overtly hostile to him as an American, so he was saying "after what we did for these people in World War II, what's their problem?" The thing that I found encouraging about this is that Mak is the son of Dominican immigrants, so his grandparents would not have fought in WWII, yet he still identifies with the history and the cause as part of being American.
This is, I think, an unqualified good thing. It is an area where I think American society departs from that of Britain (which is the other country I know intimately) in that here the vast majority feel at least some pride in being American. People who actively shun the idea of American identity are confined to the Chomskyite fringe. In Britain, however, a much larger part of the Left is actively hostile to British identity. I remember having debates with people who felt that the British flag was a symbol of nothing but imperialism and racism, and as such they disliked it. I think this is an unhealthy attitude in the long-term. A nation is composed not just of the people who live with it, but also of beliefs and myths that are commonly held. Without these universalizing currents the tendency is to withdraw into narrower quasi-tribal bonds. Without them you encourage problems for the future.
Hat tip: Eric the Unread
Over at Harry's Place, Harry and the regulars in the comments section have provided an early look at this year's seasonal opinion pieces. Making appearances are the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Noam Chomsky, Andrea Dworkin, Arundhati Roy, Boris Johnson, George Galloway, George Monbiot, John Pilger, Paul Krugman, and many more. Brilliant stuff. My contribution was a pastiche of New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks, but it pales in comparison to some of the other pieces, particularly the barn-storming brilliance of the contributions of man of mystery, Bill.
Since it is now that time of year, other bloggers have been writing up book recommendations lists. Not to be outdone, here are five of my favorite books that I've read this year that I haven't written reviews of yet. The second part is coming soon.
In no particular order:
William Dalrymple From the Holy Mountain: Journeys Among the Christians of the Middle East - In 1994 British author and journalist William Dalrymple set off from Mount Athos to follow the path of a journey taken by Saint John Moschos in the seventh century across the eastern part of the Byzantine Empire, Christianity's heartland before Islam erupted from the deserts of Arabia. Travelling through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, and Egypt he documents the continuing decline of Christianity in the lands of its birth, combining history and tales from the remarkably strange theological ferment of the Byzantine era with meetings with Christians of the region, from monks and priests to wealthy businessment to ordinary people. He shows how Christianity is draining out of the Middle East, partly as a result of violent intimidation from resurgent Islam (as in Egypt), partly as mistakes made by Christians (as with the Maronites in Lebanon), and political intimidation from non-Christian governments (as in Turkey and Israel). A wonderful book that is a sad look at a vanishing world.
Alex Kerr Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan - A passionate polemic from a long-time resident of Japan, raging against the systematic environmental destruction unleashed by the Japanese government and the construction industry, the sidelining of traditional culture in favor of cutesiness, the bureaucracy, the educational system, and the enormous wastefulness of the Japanese mania for building monuments. It is very much a work of the 'lost decade', and doesn't take into account Japan's recent economic revival. Overall, it is an excellent, hard-hitting, and provocative look at modern Japan that discusses all sorts of things that are usually ignored in Western reports of Japan.
Norman Cantor In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World it Made - In the middle of the fourteenth century a biomedical Holocaust swept Europe, eventually killing a third of the continent's population. In this book historian Norman Cantor draws together recent scientific and historical research to show the impact of the plague on England, how it swept away much of traditional life and transformed life in the future. It is a book full of unexpected insights, such as how much of modern Anglo-American property law was laid down in cases dating from the period, when the complete extermination of so many of the great aristocratic families created the need for new procedures for dealing with property issues. He also discusses how a lot of recent scientific research has shown that the bubonic plague was not the only disease, as anthrax (borne by cattle) also played an important role in the mass death.
Franklin Foer How Soccer Explains the World - American writer Franklin Foer looks at the world's most popular sport as a way of explaining modern responses to globalization. In the football context, globalization has meant both the breaking of barriers and the strengthening of tribal identities - Nigerians may be playing for Ukrainian teams, but the sectarian hatreds of Glasgow's Old Firm remain as strong as ever. This is a wonderfully entertaining book, discussing a great range of subjects, from the Red Star Belgrade hooligans who became some of the most vicious practicioners of ethnic cleansing in the Balkan Wars, to the bizarre hyperfame of referee Pierluigi Collina, to the problems of the game in Brazil, the intersection between anti-Semitism and football in Europe, the bizarre hatred of 'soccer' from much of the American media, and the role of Barcelona FC as the standard-bearers of Catalan nationalism.
Aidan Hartley The Zanzibar Chest: A Story of Life, Love, and Death in Foreign Lands - A war memoir from a white Kenyan, a child of British colonialism, who spent the 1990's working as a stringer for Reuters. Based in Nairobi, Hartley traveled throughout Africa reporting on events as they unfolded, from the horrors of the Rwandan Genocide to the chaotic collapse of Somalia to more prosaic everyday events. It's a beautifully written memoir that wryly catalogues the chaos he found surrounding him in the world and in his personal life, leavened with a great sympathy for his subjects and an unquenchable love for humanity that shines through even the most misanthropic and cynical moments.
Here's some interesting articles for the weekend.
Nigeria: governance, politics, and oil revenue - An explanation of Nigeria's political situation, its regional rivalries, and the role of oil money in corrupting politics and poisoning community relations.
Another crack in the wall of silence - An account of meetings between Armenian and Turkish historians to discuss the taboo subject (in Turkey) of the 1915 Armenian Genocide.
Gonul Bakay on Shakespeare and Turkey.
And there's always Exile's Whore-r Stories column about Moscow whores (not for the more prudish among you).
Quick note: I wrote this up about two weeks ago, but after umming-and-aahing about it for a while, I've decided to post it now. It's quite long, but hopefully it's interesting.
One topic that has always fascinated me has been the question of identity; how people see themselves, and how they see others. I consider my interest in this topic a logical outgrowth of my historical studies, because so much of history is wrapped up in these questions. Earlier this year I was thinking of writing a book about the ideology of multiculturalism. The plan was to write a critique of multiculturalism, the whole 'embrace diversity!' deal, that was sympathetic to the original ideas while decrying what it has become; more specifically, the idea was to approach identity politics from a centrist perspective as much of the criticism of it has come from conservative critics, many of whom I disagree with. I wrote up a proposal and showed it to a friend in the publishing industry but he said there were simply too many different topics (which was true), so instead of hacking bits out I decided to shelve it for a little while.
One of the central problems with writing about multiculturalism and diversity is that it is hard to pin down exactly what it is; like all other personal faiths and bureaucratic systems it means different things to different people at different times in different places. Nonetheless, there are broad outlines that can be drawn, and so that is what I will be working from in my comments.
My central problem with multiculturalism as an ideological system is that it, in its bureaucratic form (as I discussed here, is precisely that: an ideological system, a self-contained method for viewing the world that comes with its own high mandarins, its own bureaucracy, its own media, its Revealed Truths, and its own faith-based initiatives. I am instinctively opposed to utopian ideological systems that proclaim that redemption and understanding lie upon a single path that all must take (and that recalcitrants should be forced into). In this way I find multiculturalism to be very much in the mold of Marxism and monotheistic religious orthodoxy (both of which I feel it owes a tremendous debt to). Of course, it is doesn't parallel either ideologies exactly; for example it has no idealized paradise state posited as an end goal. What it does have is a deeply-felt, almost mystical, attachment to ethnic, cultural, sexual, and religious diversity as a concept in and of itself.
As far as it goes, I think it is useful to interact with a diverse range of people, to hear and read different perspectives, especially from people who live lives that are quite different from your own. I think that living overseas for so many years has greatly sharpened my perceptions about my native country. Yet, I believe in diversity as a give-and-take process, based on the sharing of ideas through debate and conversation, and one of the central problems I have with multiculturalism as it currently stands as public policy and worthy liberal cause is that it concentrates on only one part of the equation of diversity (of backgrounds) and it neglects the other (of perspectives). It reduces the human condition to a box-checking exercise; despite glorying in 'diversity' it encourages the creation of a purified mindset, a code of correct opinions, actions, and approaches that is every bit as complex and constraining as other belief systems.
More explicitly it assigns moral value to people based on their demographic characteristics. Black, hispanic, asian, gay, female, liberal, Muslim, poor countries - yay! White, male, Christian, conservative, industrialized countries - boo! It is too simplistic a way to boil down people, because everyone is, in some way, more than the sum of their demographic factors. By emphasizing, indeed championing, difference it also causes people to lose sight of their commonalities. By encouraging those isolationists in minority groups who fear assimilation and want to prevent the loss of what they see as their cultural/religious traditions it works to Balkanize society, needlessly creating fears among the majority that new immigrant groups are fundamentally unlike those of the past, and will prove to be indigestible. Inadvertently it benefits majoritarian populists and their plans for reactionary conservatism by providing them with a populist enemy: "here," they can say, "are people who hate themselves and want to bring the rest of us down with them, so riddled with decadance are they."
Cultural change is inevitable, it is simply how history works. No cultural perspective of any kind, ethnic or religious or other, is immune from change over time. This is especially the case in a modern capitalist society, where technological change, economic expansion, and ethnic flux are constantly rewriting the core of society. To claim that it is somehow possible for immigrant groups thrown into the maelstrom of modern American society to stake their ground without assimilating is foolish. To believe that it is desirable is pernicious. Furthermore, it is a betrayal of traditional liberal principles to unquestioningly romanticize 'traditional' cultures, to engage in 'noble savage' nonsense. The entire basis of progressivism is advancement, improvement, and reform - it is simply illogical to believe that one culture (the host culture) must change to accommodate incoming cultures, who should not change at all. Meeting points must be arranged. Although there is much to respect in many traditional cultures throughout the world, none are immune from the need to transform themselves.
In this sense multiculturalism is explicitly anti-individual, despite its origins in the freewheeling radical movements of the 1960's. This is particularly the case in the way it relates to ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities; although it is a positive change to move beyond reflexive demonization of such groups, it is no triumph to then mindlessly sanctify them. Despite loudly and constantly denouncing the paternalism of the traditional order of Western societies it replicates these methods in its approach to its chosen groups of Eternal Martyrs. It presents a certain kind of victimology that must be internalized and adhered to as the only solution to problems. Those who stray from the boundaries as defined by the diversocracy are denounced as self-hating traitors (like Condoleeza Rice or the Log Cabin Republicans). It also legitimizes certain forms of foolish ethnic nationalism, like the academic charlatans who make up parts of the Afrocentric movement and student groups like Mecha who would (rightfully) be condemned if they were white.
As it is a dogmatic approach to life, multiculturalism holds liberalism hostage through an avowed refusal to surrender on approaches to implementing principles, even if those approaches have outlasted their usefulness. It ties the traditional approach to the principles, believing that to back down on the approach means to abandon the desired outcome. A prime example of this can be seen on affirmative action. Pushing the black community towards parity with the majority quite rightly has been one of the most important issues among American liberals since the 1960's. The historical record of the white majority to the black minority in governmental, economic, and personal relations is strewn with shame. That is, I am sure, an uncontroversial position to take. For me, some form of affirmative action is a necessary corrective to the problems that result from this history in the form of social pathologies (family breakdown, crime, drugs, poor health, teenage pregnancy, and venereal disease) that in recent decades have struck poor black communities harder than any others in America. The causes of this social pathology were diagnosed by Senator Patrick Moynihan in his prophetic 1965 report "Why are black families in crisis?" as stemming from the particular dehumanization of slavery as it was instituted in America, the creation of slums in periods of rapid urban migrations, educational and employment discrimination, and the traditionally matriarchal family structures of much of black America.
These conditions among the black underclass have only worsened since Moynihan's day. Incarceration rates are higher than they were, even more children are born out of wedlock, and black urban civil society has crumbled in the face of de-industrialization and the onslaught of drugs. To these people, the ones who need uplifting the most, affirmative action has made little difference. I would argue that this is the result of a serious failure of nerve on the part of America, the shifting of goalposts from the original rationale of affirmative action as a compensatory gesture to the fuzzier concept of promoting diversity. For instance, although Harvard's enrollment is 8% black, a sizeable majority are African or West Indian immigrants or the children of such immigrants, leaving only a minority of students descended from slaves owned in the United States. Affirmative action for college admissions, bringing with it the prospect of entry into the higher spectrum of American society, is sexier than the hard work of repairing the building blocks, which is more important. Ensuring better standards of elementary education in inner-city schools is one part of this, as is improving the environment of black communities by lowering crime and increasing employment, and effecting a cultural shift of the type that Bill Cosby talked about so that more poor black parents take a leading role in their childrens' education; for instance, the success of Asian-American cram schools has had much to do with the rapid upward movement of so many Asians in America. Affirmative action mainly benefits the black middle-class, which is already reasonably well positioned. For the poor, little is done.
This is symptomatic of how as the basis of progressivism has moved away from economic class issues to those of cultural identity the effectiveness of reformism has lessened. Worrying about word choices and how to reflect diversity in every imaginable way is the sort of therapeutic gesturing that doesn't provide what is needed: better jobs, better educational foundations, and better housing. Indeed, much of the identity politics agenda adopted by modern Liberalism actively works against the people it once championed (and still pretend to). The best example of this is the complete lack of seriousness with which much of the American Left treats the phenomenon of massive illegal immigration, ignoring it except to shout that anyone who opposes it is 'racist'. Illegal immigration forces down wages at the bottom of the scale, disproportionately affecting those that traditionally the left most wanted to help. Illegal immigration's main beneficiaries are large American corporations (who get a never-ending supply of ultra-cheap labor that is mostly docile through fear) and Mexico's oligarchy (who get to merrily continue to ignore the idea of improving the lives of Mexico's impoverished majority by shoving hundreds of thousands north every year). There is no question that illegal immigrants need help, but treating it as purely an issue of human rights, and acting like there are no problems beyond 'racism' and 'nativism', prevents the creation of better solutions. The Republicans, although they may posture on the side of helping ordinary Americans, are unlikely to want to irritate their corporate backers by actively targeting those companies that employ illegal immigrants, so, really, this is an area where the Democrats need to take a stand.
Despite choosing not to write a book on it, it is still a topic I am very much interested in, because I feel that the way in which multiculturalism and identity politics have become orthodoxy among the modern progressive movement are both cause and symptom of its current malaise. One of the obvious effects of the 1960's on American politics and culture has been the sundering of the old New Deal coalition. This is a topic for which whole forests have died in discussing, so I need not do more than sketch out an outline of what happened. The coalition that Franklin Delanore Roosevelt built was a combination of the secular priesthood of academia and the intelligentsia, the union movement, the Solid South, the big city political machines, and immigrants and ethnic minorities. The reasons that this coalition died are many and varied. Partly was the result of historical inevitability, part of it was the demographic shifts that benefitted the Republicans, and part of it came from mistakes (real or imagined) committed by parts of the progressive movement.
From the 60's onwards this grand alliance has completely collapsed. First the white South moved tentatively, then in a mighty avalanche, to the Republican Party as a result of the Civil Rights movement and Nixon's Southern Strategy. Then, the economic malaise of the 1970's, the decline of industry (and with it the union movement) and the move to a service-based economy helped Ronald Reagan steal a huge amount of working-class votes for the Republicans (the so-called 'Reagan Democrats'). The mighty political machines of the big cities of the northeast and the midwest also saw their power decimated in this period. Long held by the main 'white ethnic' groups (particularly Irish- and Italian-Americans, but also Poles, Germans, Jews, and others) they were fatally weakened by the great demographic shifts of the period, as working and middle-class whites (always their main constituency) poured out of the old industrial cities into the freshly-built suburbs, and the population in general shifted ever more to the west and south. They were then finally destroyed by the sort of corruption scandals that had rarely touched them before (corruption having been an ordinary part of municipal business since the 19th century), due to greatly reduced tolerance for low-level local corruption from ordinary citizens and federal authorities. During this time period the Republican Party was also working very hard to rebuild itself and broaden its natural electorate, having vowed to transform itself, and America, in the wake of the Goldwater debacle in 1964. In response to these economic and cultural shifts the Democrats have moved ever further to the center on economic issues, leaving the sense that the only clear water that exists between the two parties was on cultural and social issues, an area where (as I explain later) the Democrats are at a definite disadvantage because of the influence, real and imagined, of campus activism and political correctness.
So, via Marc Cooper I was very interested to read this essay by Michael Lind from The Nation. I am going to reproduce it in full, because the editors stuck all the different essays on one page (the rest are either the usual demands for the Democrats to move further to the left, 'America is evil' yawnfests, or plugs for their own particular agendas like Jorge Ramos claiming the election was decided by Hispanics). The relevant bits I want to comment on will be highlighted.
IN AN ERA IN WHICH MOST US POPULATION GROWTH is occurring in the South, West and heartland, American liberalism is defined by people in the Northeast. At a time when rising tuitions are pricing many working-class Americans out of a college education, the upscale campus is becoming the base of American progressivism. In a country in which most working-class Americans drive cars and own homes in the suburbs, the left fetishizes urban apartments and mass transit and sneers at "sprawl." In an economy in which most workers are in the service sector, much of the left is obsessed with manufacturing jobs. In a society in which Latinos have surpassed blacks as the largest minority and in which racial intermixture is increasing, the left continues to treat race as a matter of zero-sum multiculturalism and white-bashing. In a culture in which the media industry makes money by pushing sex and violence, the left treats the normalization of profanity and obscenity as though it were somehow progressive, making culture heroes of Lenny Bruce and Larry Flynt. At a time when the religious right wants to shut down whole areas of scientific research, many on the left share a Luddite opposition to biotech. In an age in which billions would starve if not for the use of artificial fertilizers in capital-intensive agriculture, the left blathers on about small-scale organic farming. In a century in which the dire need for energy for poor people in the global South can only be realistically met by coal, oil and perhaps nuclear energy, liberals fantasize about wind farms and solar panels. And in a world in which the greatest threat to civilization is the religious right of the Muslim countries, much of the left persists in treating the United States as an evil empire and American patriotism as a variant of fascism.
American progressivism, in its present form, is as obsolete in the twenty-first century as the agrarian populists were in the twentieth. If you can't adapt to the times, good intentions will get you nowhere. Ask the shade of William Jennings Bryan.
Michael Lind, the Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics (Basic).
In my opinion, one of the most important factors in the decline of the Democratic Party has been the first thing I highlighted. The decimation of the union movement, as corrupt as it often was, and the 'where-do-we-go-now?' dilemmas of the black civil rights movement after its biggest battles were won, has increasingly shifted the center of gravity of progressive activism to college campuses. And it's been a disaster, as fifteen years of Republicans (and more particularly their allies in the press, on talk radio, and on the internet) gleefully making hay out of the excesses of 'political correctness' show.
The central problem with the greatly increased strength, relatively speaking, of college campuses within the broader progressive grassroots relates to the nature of university life itself. A university education prepares you for what you will do with the rest of your life, or at least train you to use your mind in whatever career you ultimately go into, but the specific form that university life generally takes is as a shelter from regular life. Especially at heavily campus-oriented schools in small towns where students and professors utterly dominate the local atmosphere.
Academia is a wonderful petri dish for ideas, but it is not so good on pragmatism. The old city bosses, crooked as many of them were, were intimately acquainted with the fact that compromise and cutting deals are a necessary part of doing business; they also knew that they couldn't pick-and-choose their constituents, and had to work with what they had.
At schools, however, the university officials have a comparatively much freer hand in deciding who enters their kingdom. So, for instance, they can choose to make efforts to maximise ethnic, religious, and sexual diversity among the student body and among teachers while enforcing ideological orthodoxy in curricular matters through hiring practices. This was graphically illustrated in recent study by Daniel Klein and Charlotta Stern of Santa Clara University that showed that Democrats now outnumber Republicans among university professorships by a ratio of 7 to 1. For Democrats the problems created by this state of affairs are two-fold: it hands conservative populists a giant club with which to bash Liberals, and among the Left it creates an echo-chamber culture among the most vocal part of the activist base, entangling activism with grand academic theorizing (of the proper and pseudo varieties) and divorcing it from the broader culture.
Of course, conservatives have their own cultural echo chambers. If you listen to Rush Limbaugh, watch Fox News, and read websites like Free Republic you can effectively opt out from what conservatives see as the biased liberal MSM. Politically, these sorts of cultural echo chambers are not as damaging for the Republicans, because they do not sincerely want to radically transform American society; their primary goal is economic transformation. Culture-war populism is just window-dressing, as Thomas Frank has pointed out. For the Republicans, it is enough that most ordinary working and middle class whites instinctually recoil from being demonized as eternal oppressors by the sort of guilt-soaked white liberals who seem to exist as a modern analogue to the Flagellants of the Medieval period (punishing themselves to purge their Original Sins of being People of Pallor).
However, Democrats do, sincerely, want to transform America for the better, and so that is why the overwheening influence of multiculturalist orthodoxy is so deadly. It acts against the normalizing effects of assimilation by rewarding communitarianism, it provides grist for the mill for conservative populists to get out the Republican vote for policies that have little cultural impact (while corporate lobbyists are granted a free hand to do as they please), and it divides people rather than bring them together.
Since I have been talking about religion and identity a certain amount recently, I feel like I should probably offer up my definitions of multiculturalism.
I see multiculturalism as four separate but related phenonema under the same name:
1. Statement of fact: we, in the West, live in societies where a variety of world cultures are present, with varying degrees of intermixture.
2. Basic approach to life and difference: a curiosity about other people and places, and a basic gentlemanly respect for these differences. Going to different types of restaurants, travelling, decorating your house with different sorts of artifacts.
3. Bureaucratic process: the process of making corporations and government bureaucracies more diverse in order to better reflect the community/nation/world.
4. Mystical force: Multiculturalism as a systematic view of the world, where the principle that trumps all others is 'embracing diversity'. Informed by a mystical sense of ethnic, religious, and sexual diversity as a good thing in and of itself.
For me, it is only number four that I object to, because I find it to be anti-individual. By reducing people to a walking bag of demographic checkmarks you deny them autonomy over their own approaches to life. This approach also encourages the most insular, conservative types within minority communities to put themselves forwards as spokesmen because it encourages communitarian viewpoints. It also assigns moral bonus points to people based on their background. While it is nice to know different kinds of people, there is no moral difference between my friends who are white and my friends who aren't white - they are all individuals and I like them each for individual reasons.
Continuing on (roughly) from my previous post, I've been thinking recently about the strange Islamophilia that has taken hold of so much of liberal thinking in recent years, especially in Britain. People who hold to this position believe (or at least publically believe) that Islam Is A Religion Of Peace, and that any sort of critical thinking or opposition to it is 'Islamophobic,' the new buzzword for what they see as irrational fear of Islam. Conveniently for them, they then equate Islamophobia to racism, today's greatest secular sin.
I don't need to go over again why I think it is muddled thinking to equate opposition to someone's religion to opposition to their skin color. I am more interested in why elements of the Left have gone so week-kneed at the thought of Allah. I suppose it comes from the fact that for much of the modern left the only principle that still matters is the worship of diversity.
I consider myself liberal-minded. By this, I subscribe to what I consider to be the key tenets of classical liberalism - democratic institutions, a strong civic culture, a robust support for free expression and freedom of conscience, free markets within a regulatory framework strong enough to control the excesses of capitalism, an interest in reducing inequality, a concern for the environment, and a basic respect and kindness towards people from backgrounds different from me. Fundamentally, I believe in the project of Western Civilization: in preserving the best elements of our past while always striving to progress further. I also believe that there are things that I personally, as well as Westerners more generally, can learn from other cultures, that life is a give-and-take process. Yet, I don't believe in 'embracing diversity' as some kind of mystical panacea for the problems of the world. The almost cult-like devotion of some on the Left to 'embracing diversity' means that, in practice, some very definitely illiberal stuff get championed out of sense of duty to the gods of multiculturalism.
Yes, I am talking about Islamic orthodoxy. One of the things that I have found strange in the post-September 11th world has been the iron-clad certainty of many liberals that Islam Is A Religion of Peace, and that is that. No need to discuss further. I have read members of the liberal commentariat bemoan the fact that Westerners don't understand enough about Islam, and that if they took the time to learn about it they wouldn't be so hostile to it. And that if the people can't become enlightened enough to share their perspective, then new laws against religious hatred must be brought in to protect Islam. I find these assertions utterly bizarre, precisely because these same sorts of commentators are generally aghast at the influence of Christian Conservatives in American politics. This sort of moral equivalence in the name of diversity is utterly intellectually bankrupt.
The funny thing is that I have spent some time trying to learn more about Islam over the last three years. Starting from the same orthodoxy point of 'it's a religion of peace!' I have read books, articles, watched documentaries and more about the history of the Muslim world, the factions and their various beliefs within Islam. I have tried to keep abreast of current goings on within the Middle East and the wider Muslim world. So, while I would hardly call myself an expert on the subject, I consider myself pretty well informed as compared to the average Westerner. After spending a certain amount of my time learning what I could about Islam, its ideas, its cultures, and its histories, I have to say that my opinion of orthodox Islam is considerably more nuanced than it was, and can freely admit that I have found a lot that wasn't to my liking.
Although obviously you cannot speak of Islam as a monolithic construct (there's certainly a huge amount of heterogeneity within its billion-plus adherents) I think it's entirely fair to make judgments about its main structures and some of its key ideological precepts that are held, to some degree, by all believers. My main problem with Islam lies in the fact that it, more than the other Abrahamic traditions, fuses spirituality and politics into a total system for life. I am by nature against systematic views of the world, stand-alone systems of belief that purport to explain all of life through one prism. And Islam, clearly, can function as one.
This is expressed most fully in the Sharia, Islamic law. I find the idea that there could be an entire body of law laid down by God for all eternity, able to provide answers to all of life's questions, pretty unconvincing. The idea that there is a correct 'Islamic' way to approach all aspects of life, no matter how mundane, is simply absurd, to my eyes at least. Yet few of Islam's non-believing defenders ever discuss this. Why?
In recent month the British government, led by Home Secretary David Blunkett (who resigned yesterday over a minor sex scandal), has been attempting to introduce laws against 'incitement to religious hatred' which would function as a complement to the existing laws against 'incitement of racial hatred'. As far as anyone can tell, these laws are being introduced to placate Britain's small but vocal Muslim minority. One of the interesting things about this proposal is that it has had the effect of making strange bedfellows of out-and-out secularists, nationalists, old-line conservatives and senior Christian leaders. Of course, many otherwise secular liberals support the introduction of such laws, because they have become so strongly Islamophilic over the last couple years (it's a turn of events that I find to be one of the stranger facets of British politics in recent years, but that's a topic for another day).
There are several basic objections to the introduction of such legislation. The first, and most obvious, is that Islam, like any other religion, is ideology tinted with God. In this way it is completely unlike race. I woke up white today and I will wake up white tomorrow. I was born white and I will die white. Nothing will or can change that. However, I could wake up tomorrow and become a Muslim. I won't, but I could. Islam is an ideology and as such people choose to be part of it. Ideologies are a matter of choice, but race isn't. If you truly believe in free speech it is kind of difficult to argue that certain types of believers have viewpoints that deserve special protection. Of course, I believe in basic human courtesy in dealing with opposing viewpoints, but you can't legislate for that either.
Secondly, what constitutes 'religious hatred'? If people dislike or even hate Christianity or Islam, why is that the state's business? There are already laws against 'incitement to violence,' which is enough. It is not the role of the state to punish people for their opinions on other people's ideologies. If someone is screaming 'butcher the Muslims in the streets!' then they can be charged with inciting violence.
This leads to the third problem, which is that I can see little prospect of such a law satisfying anyone. Muslim groups who have been pushing hard for it will end up frustrated when it turns out that it is much more difficult than they thought to sanction people for anti-Islamic criticisms. Opponents will be angry at the state for trying to shape opinion. No one will be satisfied.
The final problem with this legislation, as far as I see, is something that I believe is under-emphasized. That is that free speech is not just a good thing in and of itself, but also that it is good for democracy. If free speech is a given then extremists always uncloak themselves. This is, I believe, one of the key factors behind the strength of the extreme right in Europe and the weakness of their fellow travellers in America. In several European countries, like France and Germany, it is against the law to deny the Holocaust. Because of this far right groups have public moderation imposed on them which only helps them to present a message that is more palatable to the general public.
Without such restrictions in America it is much more difficult, if not impossible, for extreme right groups to maintain the discipline required to present reasoned cases for themselves without snapping into wild-eyed rants about 'the Holohoax' and Jewish conspiracies. Such laws only give extremist groups the cloak of martyrdom. Leaving them alone to say what they like (while protecting against them calling for bloody violence) generally ensures that they will remain powerless, because there just isn't that much of a constituency for the most extreme rhetoric. What is worse: having an ultra-fanatical National Alliance (in the US) who rave against 'race suicide' and the evil Jew while holding no discernible power or a more muted Vlaams Blok (in Belgium) who can command more than a quarter of the Flemish vote through a more straight-forward nationalism? I think it's worse to have a group like Vlaams Blok holding a fair amount of power than a bunch of loons like the National Alliance shouting at the margins.
The same principle, I believe, would hold true with Islam. While I have no great love for it as a religion/ideology, I instinctively recoil from the more frothing anti-Islamic rants you will see in the comments sections of sites like LGF and Free Republic. If such people were forced by law to moderate their more frenzied ranting then they (and political figures who think along such lines) would have to present a more nuanced case against Islam that would functionally create much more division, because it would automatically gain much more support among the majority community.
Update: I just want to clarify something. I know that religion is a major part of a person's identity, and that many people consider criticism of their religion to be a criticism of them personally. In this sense it is akin to nationalism, the tendency is to 'circle the wagons' under perceived attack. I'm guilty of this myself when I read hysterical generalized criticisms of America; even though I am not a misty-eyed patriot, I do like this country, and I am willing to defend it from attack. But I wouldn't dream of legislating against people disliking or even hating America. That's the point.
Ah, pre-9/11 America. So strange to return to it. This book, by current New York Times columnist David Brooks, was written at the heights of the Clintonian New Economy frenzy. It revolves around what Brooks dubs the Bobo: the bourgeois bohemian or the 1990's affluent professional who melds 1960's counter-cultural values with the agressive money-making ethos of the 1990's. This is a book that gleefully trades in stereotypes (of the funny and truthful, not nasty and vicious kind): the software engineer who arrives at work dressed like he is off to scale Everest on his lunch break (as opposed to going to Subway for a sandwich), the liberal professor checking up on his stock prices, the business consultant shouting at his clients to "embrace chaos!", the wealthy young professionals who spend lots and lots of money on homes and furniture that are expensively disheveled. It's a book that, as much as any rap record of the period, revels in the pornographic hypermaterialism of 1990's capitalism. Brooks endlessly namechecks those brands that offer not just functionality but an ethos, the sort of goods that offer a sense of authenticity, of balance, of correctness.
It is all so very zeitgeisty, and by now, although still quite amusing, it seems shallow in a way that is difficult to recall. The 1990's were, in retrospect, a big fluffy puppy dog of a decade in America for the middle and upper classes. Money seemed to be showering in from all directions and America, attention drawn inward from the end of the Cold War, found that it had plenty of nonsense on which to focus. It is strange to read a book like this that is so much of a time and place that was so recent and yet, looking back, so different. Occassionally I get to thinking that, because I tend to read weightier stuff and also because it's a couple years later, that 9/11 was mostly about being a spectacular summation of trends that had already been on the move for decades. While that is true, it is easy to forget the texture of American history in the period before 9/11 (although by then the internet bubble had burst). Psychologically, 9/11 was the switch between how things are now and a time when the pressing issue for the political and media elites was whether or not President Clinton had been blown by an intern.
So now we find ourselves in a different situation, and so the conclusions that Brooks reached in the final chapter, 'Politics and Beyond', of this generally amusing and well-written book are wildly out of date (as I mentioned below in 'Bad Historical Prophecies'). So, as a guide to the future of America, to the 'new consensus' that Brooks tries to pinpoint, it's basically no use in light of the increasingly frenzied ideological debate following on from September 11th and the Iraq War that culminated in the savage ferocity of the 2004 election campaign. As a look at the particular mania of the 1990's bubble economy it is great, though.
Brooks is at his best and most convincing when talking about how bohemian tastes have been recast through bourgeois sensibilities - the neutered hedonism of suburban BDSM clubs with their newsletters and workshops, corporate chains like Starbucks and Restoration Hardware that provide a shiny ersatz version of the old bohemian coffeshops and antique stores, the mania for casualness in the workplace (especially in the technology industry). He is also superb on how the enormous expansion of the media has brought American intellectuals back from the lofty pinnacle they occupied in the 1950's - because it is now a requirement of being an intellectual (someone who lives off their ideas) to market yourself, to parlay your ideas and intellectual prowess into lucrative think tank positions, guest appearances on television discussion shows, conference panels, op-ed columns, and beyond. He also shows how the confluence between these factors has led, in turn, to an increasingly Puritanical culture among the upper echelons of American society. Smoking is taboo, drinking is not the heroic pursuit it once was, and healthy living and diet are now essentials (this is pretty obvious if you compare poor neighborhoods to rich ones - in a weird inversion of the old patterns, it is now the poor who are fat).
He does overreach, though, especially on the conclusion (as I mentioned before) which posits that America had reached a period of cultural truce - of course he could not have known what was to happen. There is also traces of one of the strangest ideas that I can remember from the 1990's - the idea that somehow the normal laws of economics had been suspended, that this was it, the economy was going to continue growing indefinitely and that there would be no bust to this boom. I remember even my dad (who is quite fiscally conservative) saying at one point that he thought they could be right, that the technology revolution was tearing up the rule books (of course he came to his senses quite quickly and was not shocked when the bottom fell out of the dot coms in early 2001).
The names may change, but history always finds a way to echo into the present.
"At first glance Father Charles Coughlin, William Dudley Pelley, and Fritz Kuhn strike the observer as waste products of the Great Depression. There is a good deal of evidence that sustains this view. Essentially nonpolitical creatures, these men ignored normal channels for securing change and reform and preached a gospel of hatred and despair. Failing to clarifyt how they would lead their followers to power, the American countersubversives depended primarily upon self-avowed powers of charisma. Yet instead of galvanizing the faithful to action, their apocalyptic predictions and negative symbolism served only to sink their supporters into deeper apathy and alienation. For these men, protest became a matter of stylistic self-expression, not at all geared to the problem of persuading the masses. Indeed, although they claimed to be agents of destiny, Coughlin, Pelley, and Kuhn emerged as men who seemed to derive perverse delight from practicing the most brutal form of character assassination, disdaining common courtesies, and disregarding entirely the opinions of their adversaries." (p. 3)
For those who might be interested in learning more about the post-Van Gogh situation in Holland I recently found this documentary (56 megs, right-click, save as) from Denmark's Horisont television program. It's a very timely and frank look at the nature of multiculturalism in Holland, the failures of the Dutch model of indifference towards immigrant groups, and the new demands for integration. The subtitling occassionally features comments from the Danish nationalist who did it, which is a little annoying, but otherwise it's a very honest and interesting look at modern Holland. Definitely worth a look.
If you are the sort of sad person who loves demographic statistics (and I hold my hand up as one) then you'll love City Data, which has a wealth of statistics about various American cities, from ethnic groups to crime rates to educational rates and institutions to weather patterns to local media and so on. For an example, see this page about Savannah, Georgia, where my mother's from.
David Brooks, writing in 2000:
"We are living just after the cultural war that roiled American life for a generation...Each force on the bohemian left - from the student radicals to the feminist activists - awakened a reaction in the bourgeois right, from the Moral Majority to the supply-siders. This last spasm in the long conflict was a bumpy time, with riots, mass movements, and a real breakdown in social order.
"But out of that climactic turmoil a new reconciliation has been forged. A new order and a new establishment have settled into place...And the members of this new and amorphous establishment have absorbed both sides of the culture war. They have learned from both "the sixties" and "the eighties." They have created a new balance of bourgeois and bohemian values. This balance has enabled us to restore some of the social peace that was lost during the decades of destruction and transition." (p. 256)
I used to use my room-mate's desktop computer until I got the shiny new laptop that I currently use. The problem I have been having is that I'd like to transfer the stuff that's on the hard drive on the old computer to my external hard drive but the USB ports on her computer don't seem to work at all. When I go into system and then device manager they don't show up at all. So, with Google having failed to provide any answers so far, does anyone know how I could go about doing this? Her computer doesn't have a cd burner (as it's pretty old), otherwise I'd use that to transfer everything (slow and tedious though that would be). Should I (or even can I) download USB port drivers onto this computer and then burn them onto cd to install on the old one? Or is there nothing to do and I should just remove the old hard drive and stick it on another desktop to do the transfer?
Once again, here's a collection of some links to interesting articles that I've read over the past week. I'm currently reading William Dalrymple From the Holy Mountain: Journeys Among the Christians of the Middle East, which is fantastic. Review soon.
This week's links:
Jonathan Edelstein on settlers.
Randy McDonald on comparing Turkey and Iran.
Cali Ruchala on Mikhail Khodorkovsky's public relations campaign.
Abu Aardvark on controversial Muslim theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
Bird Dog at Tacitus on Democratic Navel-Gazing.
Ok, that's it for now.
A new occassional series discussing my favorite crime novel writers and their characters.
Ian Rankin is almost unquestionably the most famous and popular author in Scotland at the moment, and the biggest crime novelist in the UK. His Inspector Rebus series of novels, the latest of which is Fleshmarket Close (although A Question of Blood is the most recent US release), account for an astounding 10.6% of the UK market in crime novels.
The central figure in all of his novels is Inspector John Rebus, an Edinburgh detective in the classic, gritty mould. Born in Fife (the county across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh) he drifted into police work after a stint in the Army. Hard-drinking, chain-smoking, with magnificent ill-regard for his own health, he is a fantastically grouchy character. A divorced father of one, a loner and a general all-around prickly bastard he lives his life alternating between being smashed and being wracked by self-loathing and doubts. A wildly unpopular figure among his superiors he is generally shunted off to the most difficult and strangest cases. Of course, since these are novels, he always, somehow, solves the case.
A character that looms as large in these novels is the city itself. I lived in Edinburgh for four years when I was at Edinburgh University and it is always a pleasure to read Rankin's books because his depictions of the city are just so on. The Edinburgh of Rankin's books is a city of dark tenements looming up to block out the slate grey sky, of dark secrets behind the posh, buttoned-up exterior of the New Town, of desperation, drugs, and violence on the vast public housing schemes that ring the outer edge of the city. A city of scenes: shoppers walking up and down Princes Street, of the docks of Leith, students marching out of Marchmont and Newington to the University, the eternal rivalry between Hibs and Hearts, of working-class families from all over Scotland on the beach at Portobello in the summer, of the captains of finance and the law relaxing in their Barnton mansions and their New Town townhouses, of late-night revelry on the Cowgate. It is also a city of laughter, a city full of people who are amazingly friendly once you break through the outer shell that the weather conditions, and Rankin perfectly describes all this too. It is a city of facades, a city where the air seems impregnated with secrets hidden the ancient exterior of things, a place with the sense that there are some things you will never know, and Rankin takes you into this, revealing some of what lies behind.
If you like crime/mystery novels, then trust me, they're great books.
Obviously one of the major fault lines in modern times is between the Muslim world and the West. Personally, I am somewhat suspicious of 'Clash of Civilization' theses that the Muslim world and Christendom (as it were) are going to inevitably collide in apocalyptic conflict. Some of the assumptions underpinning such beliefs (at least on the Western side) are that Islamic orthodoxy (in particular Sharia law) is fundamentally illiberal and anti-individual (which I generally agree with), that it is inevitably isolationist and expansionist (in some forms, sure, but not in all), and that without a strict secular iron grip the majority of Muslims, because of their religion, will inevitably reject modernity and democracy and choose the path of war (madness, considering the huge pent-up demand for more secularism among the young of Iran, and the turnouts for elections in Afghanistan, to name two examples).
Only 28 percent of Saudi citizens indicated that they participate in weekly religious services. The comparable percentage is 27 for Iranians, 44 for Jordanians, 42 for Egyptians, and 45 for Americans. It makes sense to think that when state religious authorities enforce strict codes of behavior, people would tend to rebel, and move away from officially sanctioned religious institutions. Little wonder, then, Egyptians and Jordanians, who live in countries where the state does not enforce piety, are more religious than Iranians or Saudis, who are both faced with local “virtue” police that are associated with the state.
Cultural transition involves conflicts, debates, discussions, and negotiation over significant issues. Reflecting this process is the recent publication of two new dailies and three women’s magazines in the country. Recently, religion has become one of the most important contested categories. Who has control over religion, how religious texts should be interpreted, and what type of rituals and figurative behaviors are considered Islamic are the issues being discussed and debated in Saudi society. While young people, women, and intellectuals all profess to be Muslims, they demand a more inclusive, a more pluralistic and tolerant religion.
During our visit, we learned that some Saudis had criticized the United States for failing to listen to their admonitions about Wahhabis. They indicated that more than 20 years ago they warned the U.S. government of the danger that religious extremists posed to the world. They were referring to the incident in which a group of Ikhwan (brothers) Muslim extremists took over the Mecca mosque. Current Wahhabi terrorists, they said, are the scions and followers of this brutal group.
It's worth reading the whole thing, but it does tend to undercut some of the more ranting LGF/Jihadwatch inferences that Saudi Wahhabism has so brainwashed the whole population of the peninsula that they are ready to pour out and slaughter the infidel en mass.
Plus it's pretty amazing that Americans are over 60% more likely to attend a weekly religious service than Saudis, at least according to this data.
Update (6:40 pm): Razib at GNXP has some interesting comments about this article that are worth reading. I think he is right that is very difficult to map Middle Eastern religious conventions on to American ones. Indeed, what constutes religiosity is hugely variable because it is such a personal matter. People's perceptions of themselves rarely match up to other's perceptions, particularly in areas of such contention as religion. There is, after all, a long history of people deciding that others are not sufficiently observant and trying to do something about it.
What I think is most interesting about this article is what it says purely about the Saudi Arabian context, and what it means for the long-term health of piety in countries where state-sanctioned religiosity is forced to interact with globalisation and modern technology/information transfers.
I've been posting a certain amount of links over at the Dictionary of Received Ideas, so here's what I've posted about so far.
The history of tribalism within Iraq.
Documenting the Armenian Genocide.
Cali Ruchala's biography of Stalin's head of Secret Police, Lavrenti Beria.
Looking at The Bronx through census data.
And, the three Americas.
I was originally going to write up a review of the Thomas Frank book in the aftermath of the election; I got about a thousand words in and decided that it was, basically, too soon and my emotions were still too raw. It seemed that what I needed most was a little bit of time to organize my thoughts. As a blogger you are inevitably part of an ongoing collective analysis project, but I felt like my initial article was too much a re-hashing of other people's work. In the month or so since the election I have read literally dozens of articles and analyses, trawled through endless triumphalist or despairing commentaries, glazed my eyes over at the dozens of maps produced to illustrate this or that factor, and I couldn't really find an angle I wanted to work from.
During this time I was also reading Jason Burke's book about Al-Qaeda and, as I plowed through endless bloviation about 'red and blue America' I saw my way in to what I wanted to say. Perhaps the most important group in the rise of political Islamic activism (commonly known as 'Islamism') has been the provincial lower-middle class in the Muslim world, people whose rising aspirations, burnished by the spread of education and by increasing contact with the modern technology and images of prosperity imported from the West, have been frustrated by the economic and political stagnation of their nations. To many of these people, remaking the state in an Islamic way has come to be seen as their best chance to improve their station, a chance they see little chance of arriving from the corrupt, often American-allied, rulers and the oligarchical economic stranglehold of the elite classes. I should point out here that I am talking about the broader religious conservative movements and not the narrower militant Salafist groups (before anyone starts sending me ranting emails!)
Fundamentally, political Islam holds out the promise of alleviating the frustrations these people feel at seeing their aspirations come to little and at seeing the politically and technologically backward state of the Muslim world in comparison to the West and the Far East. The massive expansion of education in the last century and the barrage of images from the West have created a sense of deep humiliation. With the failures of Nasser-style Arab nationalism/socialism and the strangulation of liberal reformism, the relative independence offered to the mosques throughout the various autocratic states of the Arab and wider Muslim world gives a strong impetus to Islamism. It offers an alternative approach to modernity from Western-style secularism by promising to maintain traditional culture while re-asserting lost Muslim dignity and re-establishing the lands of Islam as crucial to global politics and culture.
"In the short term, aspirations have been raised in an unprecedented way both by the extension of education to so many and by the exposure of virtually everyone in the Islamic world to images of the West, with its apparent democracy, sexual opportunity and wealth...(consider) the experience of the 17-year-old Pakistani lower-middle-class youth torn between the mullah and MTV. If he accepts his desire to be part of the Westernized world he will have to address the fact that he will only ever enjoy an ersatz, inferior version of the 'Western' life of his equivalent in London or Los Angeles. His clothes will never be as up to date, his skin will never be the right colour, his chances of pre-marital sex will always be infinitesimally lower. An alternative of course is to reject the West and all it stands for in favour of the affirming, empowering certainties of radical Islam, which teaches him that he is no longer subordinate but merely denied what is rightfully his." (Burke, p. 283)
In America the big grassroots political story of recent decades has been the rise of the Evangelical Christian movement within the Republican Party. One of the things that I have always found strange in liberal discussions of evangelical Christianity is how little effort is made to understand these people, and how easily a lot of analysis slides into snotty stereotyping about these people being backwoods rubes with a predilection for sex within the family, obesity, ugly clothes, bad dental hygiene and so on. It's nonsense. Modern Christian fundamentalism is an aspirational movement. If you watch evangelical programs like the 700 Club you will see plenty of ads for stuff like 'how the Bible can help you to prosperity' and 'how to be part of God's plan for America'. Then there is the exponential growth of the so-called megachurches, a phenomenon of the suburbs as opposed to the mysterious rural lumpen-proletariat that the so many of the 'alternative' urban liberals I know in New York seem to think they are.
In the gaining strength of the Christian Right we can see several dynamics at work that are compellingly similar to the rise of Islamic political activism. One is that the activist core of the Christian Right tends to come from the provincial lower middle-classes, exactly as with the Islamists. Activist Christianity shares with Islamism a desire to re-brand modernity in religious themes. It is driven by a powerful sense of grievance, of being ignored and marginalized. They both share the feeling that their faith is under attack from nebulous outside forces (on the part of the Islamists it is the assorted forces of Zionism, the West, and their local apostate allies; for Christian activists it is 'the liberal elite' that plots against Christian belief). Both respond to economic malaise through a deeper zeal on social and political issues, on the feeling that their financial troubles are a test from God and that they have a role to play in pushing the nation back onto the right track. Both are united by the feeling that religious observance and traditional morality are being undermined by the forces of secular modernity.
"What afflicts us is a "crisis of the soul," wails Wichita congressman Todd Tiahrt. What motivates us, says a leader of the state's anti-abortion group, is disgust with the "immoral decadence in society." "We in America and we here in Kansas are in a moral crisis," thunders the state's conservative Galahad, David Miller, to his army of followers. What we need is to become "virtuous," as per the founding fathers' clear instructions; for if we fail, "our entire culture may be lost." And from the height of Capitol Hill the great Brownback denounces gangsta rap , inveighs against stem-cell research, and proposes that the U.S. Senate hold hearings to investigate America's "cultural decline."" (Frank, p. 69)
As with Islamic fundamentalism, there are two layers to Christian fundamentalism: one is the 'spiritual salvation' group at the bottom of society, and the other is the activists a bit further up the social scale. If you go to many poor parts of America, both in rural areas and in inner-cities one thing that is striking is the number of small Pentecostal and Evangelical churches. My cousin Ben lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, which is a poor black neighborhood (whites like my cousin probably make up no more than around 2 or 3% of the local population), and if you go through there you will see small storefront churches everywhere. You can see the same thing in the slums of cities in the Muslim world.
The activist part of both movements are, in contrast, drawn mostly from the aspirational but disaffected lower middle classes. This factor is crucial. These are the people that are educated enough to formulate grand political theories, and motivated enough to do something but not affluent enough to be satisfied with the condition of things, and to feel frustrated by their personal lack of success. All throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century these types of men (and it's usually men) have, time after time, been the leaders and foot soldiers of radical movements, driven by the belief that a total transformation of society will bring them the influence that they (and their cause) deserve. Benito Mussolini was the son of a blacksmith and a teacher. Lenin was the son of a civil servant. The students who sparked the events of May 1968 in France were from the classic boiler plate: lower middle-class youths, most of whom were the first in their families to attend university, deciding that radical transformationism were more attractive than reaching for, and possibly failing to receive, bourgeois conformism.
Both groups benefit heavily from economic insecurity and the particular conditions of our time. As conditions deteriorate in relative terms from what they were (and from what is desired) religious conservative movements attract recruits. As both Christian activism and Islamism explicitly reject Marxism and Marxist analyses of economic issues their activism relates to the intersection between theological, political, social, and cultural issues.
The lack of rigor in approaches to economic issues is shared by both groups. Unlike dealing with social and cultural issues for which the relevant religious traditions have an enormous amount of material to fall back on it is very difficult, if not impossible, to create an economic system that can deal with the highly advanced state of modern economics that can be related in any more than a cursory fashion to key theological concepts. So, as a result, little is done. When Christian Right activism thinks about economic issues, which it doesn't do often, it is generally content to follow the free-market orthodoxy as propounded by the corporate wing of the Republican Party which, as Frank explains, has been rebranded as a populist method of attacking the nebulous elite. The Islamists, where they have achieved some level of power, have wrangled with the problem of creating an Islamic financial approach that makes sense and have generally left the problem unresolved (or in a state of crony capitalism, as has happened in Iran) and returned focus to cultural issues that are easier to deal with.
"For decades Americans have experienced a popular uprising that only benefits the people it is supposed to be targeting. In Kansas we merely see an extreme version of this mysterious situation. The angry workers, mighty in their numbers, are marching irresistably against the arrogant. They are shaking their fists at the sons of privilege. They are laughing at the dainty affectations of the Leawood toffs. They are massing at the gates of Mission Hills, hoisting the black flag, and while the millionaires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demands. "We are here," they scream, "to cut your taxes."" (Frank, p. 109)
"Throughout the Islamic world, radical Islamic activists have found that the actual practice of formulating and implementing an Islamic state or a return to Islamic law in politics, business and economics is in fact very difficult and have found it easier to focus on women and the family instead." (Burke, p. 133)
Burke's book is mostly about Islamist terror groups, their interconnections, and the history of the movement, but it does lay out a pattern, time after time, of people who entered the movement through political activist groups like the Jamaat Islami in Pakistan or the Front Islamique du Salut before moving on to the gunmen. Obviously this is the point where comparisons to Christian activism in the United States no longer work. The Christian movement in America has not produced anything as grotesquely violent and nihilistic as the radical edge of Islamism. Abortion clinic bombings, although deplorable, were a tiny phenomenon compared to the beastial theologically-inspired violence unleashed by radical Muslims in recent years in Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Chechnya, Pakistan, Indonesia, Palestine and elsewhere. In the end this is the crucial difference between the two phenomena.
Over at Gene Expression, Razib has posted about the winner of the 2004 Miss World contest, Maria Julia Mantilla Garcia of Peru, adding a few comments about ideals of beauty in Latin America and South Asia. The real reason to check it out is for the fantastic discussion in the comments box. Go read.
I've gone back and re-worked my 'what Americans don't understand about Europe' piece. The new version can be seen here.
I'm working on a longer piece ('religious revivalism and lower middle-class man') which is not yet ready to be posted, and so in the absence of much to say myself (I did nearly 2000 words yesterday...give me a break!) here's a roundup of some stuff to read.
Johnathan Edelstein's The Head Heeb blog is celebrating its second anniversary. Congratulations!
Philip Gourevitch, author of the fantastic and harrowing We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, on Western reporting of Congo's long-running war.
Claire George on the Venetian ghetto.
The destruction of North Carolina's textile industry, from Yelladog.
In February 1993 David Isay decided to do a radio documentary about the lives of young black men growing up in Chicago's public housing projects for Chicago's WBEZ public radio station. After a series of interviews arranged through community workers and teachers he chose thirteen year-old LeAlan Jones and his fourteen year-old best friend Lloyd Newman. LeAlan and Lloyd lived in the Ida B. Wells Houses, one of Chicago's oldest black housing projects. Isay sent them off for ten days with tape recorders to describe their lives, their families, school, what they did for fun, and how things were in a community mostly ignored by the rest of the city. The result was Ghetto Life 101, which became one of the most celebrated public radio documentaries of all time.
"It's like Vietnam. I remember one time I was over at my auntie's house spending the night. We were playing Super Nintendo and I heard this lady say, "I heard you been looking for me, nigger!" Then she just - BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! She let off about eight shots. Then I heard the other gun fire off. And we were just still there playing like nothing happened. In Vietnam, them people came back crazy. I live in Vietnam, so what you think I'm gonna be if I live in it and they just went and visited? Living around here is depressing! It's depressing! Just look outside - this isn't Wally and the Beaver!" (p. 36)
Two years later David Isay returned to Chicago to do collaborate with LeAlan and Lloyd for a second documentary, Remorse: The Fourteen Stories of Eric Morse, about a five year-old boy dropped fourteen stories from the window of an Ida B. Wells building. The boys who dropped him were ten and eleven years old, and would go on to become the youngest children to ever be convicted on murder in the United States. In an attempt to understand what had led to the tragedy, LeAlan and Lloyd spent a year recording, doing interviews, and generally building the story into a full hour long feature for National Public Radio's All Things Considered. They talked to neighbors, the prosecutor, the state-appointed defence attorneys, school teachers, local cops, kids from the neighborhood, Tommy Jenkins (the incarcerated father of one of the boys), and Toni Morse, Eric's mother. They built a devastating critique of the amoral vacuum that is so much of modern ghetto life.
"They're talking about tearing down all the high-rises and putting everyone in low-rises as a solution. True, it's a start. But Tyron and Johnny could have thrown Eric out of a vacant apartment in the low-rises and he could have fallen and broken his neck. So what are you going to do - make the low-rise homes lower? It's more than just the buildings. You don't know how it is to take a life until you value life itself. Those boys didn't value life. Those boys didn't have too much reason to value life. Now they killed someone and a part of them is dead too." (p. 141)
This book is a collection of transcripts from Ghetto Life 101 and Remorse, including material unaired for lack of time, as well as a third section, Life, done by LeAlan and Lloyd in their junior year of high school, where they bring the reader up to date with their lives, their families' lives, and the events in the neighborhood since the end of Remorse. It's an excellent book, taking place as it does over a span of four years, and it benefits from being told directly from their perspective; often books and articles about America's poorer communities are written by middle-class liberals who, however well-meaning, are still communicating through their own perspective and whose reportage is inevitably colored by their own particular interests.