An ideofact is an artifact imbued with meanings other than its technical function.
Saturday, March 30, 2002
The news from Ramallah, that the Israelis have limited Arafat to a windowless office on the second floor of his headquarters, makes me think once again that Sharon doesn't really have a strategy, and is merely reacting to events. If Arafat had use of three floors of his headquarters, would Israel be any worse off? If he's forced to give up half of the second floor, does that make them better off?
Meanwhile there was another suicide bombing, this time another Palestinian woman. I caught a little bit of what was purported to be a video tape of her reasons for carrying out the attack on CNN; she seemed to spew more venom at the Arab regimes, with their regular armies sitting idle while they bemoan the plight of the poor Palestinians, than she did at the Israelis. I wonder how prevalent that view is among the Palestinians, and whether they'll ever recognize the cynical game that the Arab dictatorships play with them.
Getting back to Sharon, I think he has three options: 1) killing Arafat -- according to Colin Powell, they've ruled that out; 2) expelling Arafat; or 3) keeping him pinned in a more or less confined space in Ramallah, with the likelihood that nothing seriously would change. Three seems to be the least desirable option, largely because it means another several months of the status quo, which isn't good for either Israelis or Palestinians. (I should add that while I have sympathy for the Palestinian people -- I can't imagine that all of them are suicide bombers, although most likely Arafat and his fellow dictators would be perfectly happy for them to become so -- I don't have a great deal of sympathy for their leadership, or what appears to be the fairly large percentage of them that embrace terror as a means to achieving their ends.)
So what is Sharon trying to accomplish? The Israelis want peace and security -- how is Sharon trying to achieve these ends? By scaring Arafat? That simply won't work. I'm reminded of a line of Sam Spade's in the Maltese Falcon:
Gutman cocked his head to the left and considered these questions. His eyes twinkled between puckered lids. Presently he gave his genial answer: "Well, sir, there are other means of persuasion besides killing and threatening to kill."
Arafat is no Sam Spade, and I don't think the Israelis have any illusion that he knows where the rara avis of peace is. But without the threat of death behind the Israelis most recent actions, they're not really worth a whole lot.
I wonder if they read Hammett at the State Department?
Friday, March 29, 2002
The publication of certain things...
One last item from Arab News. Apparently the reporting of the Makkah school fire, in which 15 Saudi girls lost their lives (it was initially reported in the Saudi press and widely broadcast in blogdom that officials from the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice forced girls back into the burning building because they weren't properly attired, increasing the numbers of deaths), has touched a raw nerve. Subsequent stories say that the Promoters were not involved or not even at the scene. Now there's a new policy to make sure nothing like this happens again: if a press account is "inaccurate," the State will punish the reporter or editor, or both:
Okaz asked whether there will be any deterrent action taken against those who do not follow this rule, the minister replied: “Definitely. These measures have been specified in the new press law.” Prince Turki, however, said there are no red lines barring the reporting of events here in the Kingdom. “But all editors in chief and reporters know the things which harm the Saudi society ... The editors in chief also have the full knowledge that publication of certain things would do more harm than good.”
More from Arab News...
I found this open letter to Crown Prince Abdullah particularly sad:
My story: I bought a new mobile phone and discovered that the old chip did not fit my new phone so I went to the STC [Saudi Telecom Company] office in order to buy a new chip. There I was told by an employee that I should bring my “mahram” (the male relative responsible for me) with me. I presented him the original of my father’s identity card and my own passport as well. He said that these were not sufficient for him to process my application for a new mobile chip. Further — of course — he assured me that he was only following “instructions.”I don't know what's more depressing, the Saudi policy of not letting a woman leave the country without the permission or company of her mahram, or that this woman is arguing only that such a policy makes it more likely she'll pay her phone bill, and thus -- provided she has her mahram's permission -- she shouldn't be put out by the rules of the Saudi Telecom Company.
Phony as a $200 bill
Today's online edition of the Saudi Arab News repeats a perrenial favorite of anti-semites everywhere: that Benjamin Franklin warned his fellow Founders against allowing Jews in the country. The Arab News version says that in 1787, Franklin sent his warning in a letter to the Continental Congress, which at the time was operating under the Articles of Confederation, and nearly powerless; in fact, most states didn't even bother to send delegates. I may be wrong, but Arab News adds a new twist to the story by making it appear that Franklin is merely echoing the sentiments of George Washington. Of course, this story is totally bogus; but the author of the piece is enchanted with it:
Though I have read widely about the Jews, I have found no truer or more accurate an opinion than that of Franklin. His opinion was also shared by George Washington who became the first president of the United States.
Let me guess: the wide readings include books by Henry Ford, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, maybe back issues of the Voelkischer Beobachter?
In a post below, I mentioned a story I read in my undergraduate days about the chaos that resulted when a group of anthropologists introduced cheap metal hatchets to a primitive culture that had a shortage of stone axes. The stone axes were both sociofacts (only elders had them, and the young and socially inferior members of the tribe had to show deference to their elders to get them) and ideofacts (axes were so few in number because they were gifts from the gods); the cheap axes disrupted both the social order and cosmology of the group.
I toss this out for what it's worth: In my humble opinon, what separates the West from other cultures is its embrace of technology, which began in the darkest period of the Dark Ages. There was, as Lynn White points out, a religious dimension to this:
The labor-saving power-machines of the later Middle Ages were produced by the implicit theological assumption of the infinite worth of even the most degraded human personality, by an instinctive repugnance towards subjecting any man to a monotonous drudgery which seems less than human in that it requires the exercise neither of intelligence nor of choice. It has often been remarked that the Latin Middle Ages first discovered the dignity and spiritual value of labor—that to labor is to pray. But the Middle Ages went further: they gradually and very slowly began to explore the practical implications of an essentially Christian paradox: that just as the Heavenly Jerusalem contains no temple, so the goal of labor is to end labor.
I'll write more on this later (both bed and ESPN are calling), but in perusing various Internet sites devoted to Islamic proselytizing, I keep coming across various claims for Medieval Islam's contributions to science, economics, mathematics, jurisprudence, and so on. A good deal of these claims are true. I also come across various Islamist polemics arguing that Islam stands as the sole alternative to Western materialism--horrors like women driving. It appears that the Islamist creed is a celebration of the stone axe, an argument for a return to "monotonous drudgery which seems less than human" for many of those that embrace the faith, that it is in fact essential to drive humanity back into a technologically backward age. Winston Churchill said something to the effect that he did not know what weapons would be used in World War Three, but he knew what would be used in World War Four: Sticks and stones. That seems to be a result that the Islamists would relish.
An answer for everything
I got to thinking about cars after reading this Fatwa about women:
There have been numerous questions concerning the ruling of women driving automobiles. The response is the following:
I guess I missed all that promiscuity on my trip to Target.
Quite a few people have mentioned that in Saudi Arabia, women aren’t permitted to drive. But this Fatwa is directed to Muslim women living in America. So, even a woman with three kids living in a Florida suburb and a household to run, whose husband has a full time job—according to the good Shaikh ibn Baz—is not supposed to drive an automobile. He gives the reason:
"A man is never alone with a woman except that Satan is the third."
I do not think that the good shaikh speaks for all adherents of Islam, any more than, say, Pat Robertson speaks for all of Christians. There are Muslim women who drive, and who would think you were an idiot to suggest that they forgo the convenience and pleasure of the automobile because the Koran, written roughly 1250 years before the advent of the tin lizzy, forbids it.
My wife happens to be one.
Thursday, March 28, 2002
The automobile as artefact
I've been thinking about a lot of things lately, and I'll try to post as many of them as I can before I lose the desire to type and opt for a beer and hope the repeats of SportsCenter are loaded with baseball highlights. So, without further ado...
Given the way that cars and the love of Americans for them are sometimes described, you'd almost forget what a car actually is. An engine, a passenger area, cargo space. It puts at the disposal of the average and even the poor American a tremendous amount of power for hauling things, kids, groceries, pets, musical instruments, vacuum cleaners, etc. etc.
It's easy to take such a machine for granted, but it still strikes me as a little awe-inspiring that sitting out in my driveway is a machine with so much horse power. I tend to think that most Americans, in their guts, understand that their cars are fantastic tools that harness a fairly small amount of energy to do an amazing amount of work. I tend to think that all the schemes to redesign American life around pedestrian traffic, or to shrink the size of automobiles, or to foist tiny, light weight hybrid cars on people will never be successful, because it's a bit like trying to convince someone with a chainsaw that he should use a handsaw for all his wood-cutting needs instead. Once a technology catches on with the masses it's tremendously hard to put the genie back into the bottle. I think I'm a textbook case of that.
For much of my adult life, when I lived in Philadelphia, I didn't own a car. I remember what a pain in the neck it was to get out to the suburbs, or to arrange a trip to Ikea to buy furniture, or just to lug groceries the three or four blocks from Safeway to my house. Tonight, I took the tot to Target (if there's one person who's fonder of Target than James Lileks, it's my three year old); I bought a number of odds and ends -- food for the cats, a new dish for them, weapons for the oncoming onslaught of ants, an outdoor lightbulb, mouthwash, and a couple of Hot Wheels cars (at 79 cents a pop, they were the cheapest things I got). My only complaint is that despite having grocery items, they don't carry beer, necessitating a stop at the Shoppers Food Club just down the strip mall from Target.
The whole expedition took about an hour, the bulk of which was spent deciding whether to humor daddy by getting the boring Model A hotrod or instead to opt for the alluring green Mack truck hotrod. Without the automobile, I would never have attempted the trip. The Washington Metro area has an excellent public transportation system, but waiting for a bus with the tot to go there, crossing the vast parking lot, then hauling a huge bag of dry cat food plus everything else I bought across that same parking lot, then across a six lane roadway to get the return bus, all the while minding a three year old -- well, I can think of less stressful ways of spending an evening.
Wednesday, March 27, 2002
Would that include me?
Josh Treviño at i330 links to the same article in the Post on the teaching of the Civil War. He thinks James Tuten's distinction, between the cause of the war (slavery) and why people enlisted and fought (I'm still waiting for something other than "slavery" to insert here), is an accurate one, and adds,
It's a welcome example of clear thinking in the face of history-skewing idiots on both sides of the debate.
Understand, I like Josh's blog, I read him fairly regularly now, and I don't mean to pick a fight with him. But I think you can argue that attempts to cast the Southern cause as noble, or something deserving of sympathy and respect, are misguided without advocating reparations for slavery. Further, I think casting the Civil War as a War of Northern Aggression is idiotic in the extreme. Who, after all, fired on Fort Sumter? I don't mean to say that Southerners lacked courage, bravery, or personal honor. From reading books, collections of letters and the like I'm fairly persuaded that they were absolutely committed to their cause. My problem is that I can find little worth celebrating in that cause. Some say Southerners were fighting to defend aspects of their culture that had nothing to do with slavery. Well, somehow I don't think Union troops were fighting and dying to force the South to switch from molasses to maple syrup.
Josh also writes,
My father, going to elementary school in the Valley town of Edinburg, Texas, was taught about the War of Northern Aggression. This is certainly a sore point for some Northerners, who don't really understand the long-term psychological impact of being a crushed and conquered land, or why anyone would want to fly a Confederate flag. And it's a sore point for Southerners, who can't see why they can't honor their history as they see fit.
Well, I think that misses the fact that it's only some Southerners who want to honor that history. I don't think too many African Americans are eager to fly the Bonnie Blue Flag or the Stars and Bars. As to being a crushed and conquered land, well, you pays your money and you takes your chances. The South decided to forgo politics and take up arms against the Union. It lost. And that was a good thing, both for the Union, and for the Southern States, whether some of their current partisans want to acknowledge it or not.
Tuesday, March 26, 2002
The War of Southern Revisionism
A while back, I linked a story on Virginia Gov. Mark Warner's decision to take a pass on naming a Confederate History Month. Today, the Washington Post has an informative article on how the history of the Civil War is taught in secondary schools in the United States today. Apparently, the battle over the past still rages.
Shannon Mallard, 28, a graduate student who teaches history at Mississippi State University, learned as a youngster in Atlanta the Lost Cause version: that Virginian Robert E. Lee was godlike, Union Gen. William Sherman was "the devil," and states' rights caused the war. A professor in Florida set him straight.It's somewhat astonishing that Mallard, whose school age years would have ranged from roughly 1980 to 1992, could be taught such nonsense. But it gets worse:
James Tuten, assistant provost and assistant professor of history at Juniata College in Pennsylvania, is a native of South Carolina. He has a state flag in his office and tries to be provocative in class by calling Sherman "the devil" and the conflict "the War of Northern Aggression."
Yes, most Southerners did not own slaves, but that didn't mean they had no financial stake in the institution, or that they had no desire to better themselves and at some time in the future own slaves. And the letters of Confederate soldiers, a hefty sample of which were studied by James M. McPherson in his book, For Cause & Comrades, make clear their devotion to the slave economy:
"This country without slave labor would be completely worthless," wrote a lieutenant in the 28th Mississippi in 1863. "We can only live & exist by that species of labor: and hence I am willing to fight to the last." A captain in the 8th Alabama also vowed "to fight forever, rather than submit to freeing negroes among us...[We are fighting for] rights and property bequeathed to us by our ancestors
Of course, the war was brought about by Southerners, not the Union; they resorted to violence after the election of 1860. Those letters were written by slaveholders; the southerners who didn't own slaves fought, paraphrasing McPherson, to preserve property rights of a different sort, the value of their white skin:
"I never want to see the day whan a negro is put on an equality with a white person. There is too many free n-----s ... now to suit me, let alone having four millions."
Getting back to the Post article, we find that the teaching of James Tuten has been effective:
He influences his Northern-bred students, including Ruth Blaine, a freshman from Pennsylvania. "I always had a Northern view of the war," she said. "The South was the enemy. In Professor Tuten's class, I kind of get a better perspective of the South's pride. Before, I thought Southern pride was a bad thing, and they hated Yankees. Now I feel more sympathetic."
In March 1860, Lincoln gave a speech at New Haven, Connecticut. After noting that a little less than one-sixth of the population of the United States were slaves, and that the market value placed on these human beings was $2 billion, Lincoln said:
Certain it is, that they do not see it as we see it. Certain it is, that this two thousand million of dollars, invested in this species of property, all so concentrated that the mind can grasp it at once--this immence pecuniary interest, has its influence upon their minds.
This, ultimately, was at the heart of the war: Either there would be a new birth of freedom or as one of the soldiers McPherson quotes wrote, slavery would be "established for centuries."
What’s in a name…
Archaeology, like all intellectual disciplines, is rife with terms that don’t pass the muster of Microsoft Word’s spellchecker. Some of the terms are borrowed—“emic” and “etic”, for example, were taken from linguistics; they were coined by Kenneth Pike to denote the difference, respectively, the way an “insider,” say the native speaker of a language, and an “outsider,” or a non-native speaker, understands the language. I think I learned more about English grammar from studying foreign languages—Latin, German and Russian (although regrettably, I’m not fluent in any of them)—than from all the English grammar lessons I had in grade school.
In archaeology, the terms are applied in a similar way. Say you have a tool kit from a vanished, primitive culture. You can classify them by function, by form, by method of manufacture—in other words, by etic criteria, but it is impossible to understand them in the same way that the people who produced them did. I vaguely recall, from my undergraduate days, that someone tried an experiment to see if this were true. An anthropologist who had studied one of the few cultures still extant that used essentially a Stone Age tool kit attempted to come up with a classification of the tools based on his understanding of the culture. Then he asked the natives themselves to classify the tools, and found that they had a completely different system of classification. The anthropologists decisions to lump, say, arrow points with spear points seemed arbitrary to them, since arrows were associated with such and a such a god and spear points were blessed by the jaguar, which was an entirely different kettle of fish.
This puts me in mind of another story which I regrettably recall only in its barest details. There was a group of indigenous people with something not far removed from a Stone Age technology somewhere in the South Pacific—my memory is hazy on the details, and I should add it might actually have been an Australian tribe. Some anthropologists who were studying them noted they had a serious shortage of the small, stone axes—more like hatchets, really—that they used. So the Westerners ordered some metal hatchets from the Sears catalog or the like to replace the ornately decorated stone axes that always seemed to cause so much trouble (only the elders had them; to borrow one you had to go through a song and dance, etc. etc.). The gift of the metal hatchets caused a crisis for the culture. The old axes were (and here we find that archaeology too uses all sorts of terms that Microsoft Word’s spellchecker doesn’t recognize) not just tools, they were a means of social control. A younger man wanting to borrow an axe had to show deference and respect to his elder. A successful axe-borrowing might mean a future kinship tie (i.e.—the lender might marry off his daughter to the borrower). Thus, an axe had a social as well as a material function; it was not merely an artifact, but a sociofact. The stone axes also had a religious significance; the blades were a gift granted by the gods. Thus, the introduction of the metal hatchets contributed to a breakdown in social relations (why show deference to the elder possessing an axe when you have a much more useful tool in your possession). Just as troubling, the very existence of the new hatchets threatened the cosmology of the culture. Religion proved powerless to explain or come to grips with the existence of the new tools. In addition to being sociofacts, the old stone axes were ideofacts as well.
Originally, I wrote a roughly thousand word passage on the crises of the Aztec and Incan empires when they were faced with the alien Spaniard conquistadors. I’m going to spare you that, although at some time I’ll probably come back to the subject, which fascinates me, in another context. Instead, I’ll skip ahead here to a post that Adil Farooq made a while back, in response to some hate mail he’d received. First, from the critique:
The great Muslimpundit responded, in part,
I do not mean to attack anyone’s faith; I tend to agree with Adil that it’s a personal, inward and spiritual thing; I would also go further and say that there’s nothing wrong with communities of believers provided that they do not attempt to impose their beliefs on those who do not share them. But I think this exchange illustrates what I fear will be an irreconcilable clash for quite some time. The Qur’an isn’t merely a book, it’s an ideofact, and any attempt to place it in historical context, to study it using the tools of Western scholarship, to suggest that it’s something other than a “divinely-written” text creates the same sort of chaos in the minds of some believers as the introduction of mass-produced hatchets did to that far simpler culture.
We’ve seen much the same thing in the West, including the United States, over the past few centuries. On the one hand you have the Jeffersons, making their cut-and-paste versions of the Gospels, removing the passages that offend their reason and reducing Christ to a philosopher. On the other, you have the parents who besiege public school boards demanding that Biblical creation be taught alongside of, or sometimes—in extreme cases—to the exclusion of Darwinian evolution.
In the West, we’re fairly fortunate to have developed laws and institutions that can contain this contradiction, and, I would argue, profit from it. Rigorous, impassioned debate keeps a society healthy; the constant clash of interests and viewpoints informs all sides, and forces them to revise and refine their ideas, and experiment with new ones. I wonder how long it will take for the same sorts of dialogues to take hold among the Muslim world.