An ideofact is an artifact imbued with meanings other than its technical function.
Friday, April 05, 2002
I wish I'd read the book when I had the chance (it seems that it's out of print, according to Amazon), but a friend did and couldn't restrain her laughter as she paged through it. The novel was called Towers of Trebizond, and chronicled the adventures of a group of Brits travelling around rural Turkey; I can't recall when the novel was set; it was first published in 1956, and I think that's probably the time period. The book was written by Rose Macauley; I found a couple of good lines of hers here:
It is a common delusion that you can make things better by talking about them.
In Towers, one of the characters is an Anglican missionary. He complains bitterly about the worthlessness of his Turkish-English phrasebook, because it didn't contain translations of useful phrases like, "Christianity is better than Islam."
I thought of this character, and his desire to reduce all the perils and pitfalls of comparitive religion to five words that would find there place among the banal phrases useful for ordering dinner, checking in at a hotel, or finding a bathroom, after reading Jonah Goldberg's recent piece, in which he says that what Islam needs is a Catholic Church. It's a little more complicated than that, actually. Goldberg argues that reformers in Islam -- among them Mohammed Wahhab, the founder of the Wahhabi strain that's so popular in Saudi Arabia -- have made the religion far more radical, and that an Islamic institution like the worldly, cautious, and somewhat politically savvy Medieval and Renaissance Catholic Church might rein in the radicals.
I don't mean to imply that Goldberg's piece, which tries to reduce a topic that could fill library stacks to column length, is as simplistic as the good Anglican missionary's sentiment. And I'm not particularly upset at the potshots he takes at the Protestant Reformation (which he raises to draw parallels to the Islamic "Martin Luthers"), although I'm not entirely sure that the Reformation was altogether a conservative movement. The idea that the laity -- the common man (and even woman!) -- should read the Bible, so that they can make sure the Church adheres to Biblical teaching, was a fairly radical idea in its day.
Rather, I wonder whether we're paying too much attention to religion, especially in the context of the current conflict. I don't mean to say that religion is unimportant, either now or historically. In the case of the Reformation, the idea that the laity should play a greater role in Church affairs led to the Presbyterian Church, in which members of the congregation elected elders and deacons -- whose offices were temporary. The elders and deacons chose ministers; the ministers acted more or less as the executive of the Church. We have the essence of Republicanism. I'd argue that the experience of running one's one Church led some to ask why they shouldn't run the government as well. I'm currently reading Alister McGrath's book In the Beginning, which gives a brief history of the origins of the King James Bible. At the time the translation was authorized, the most popular Bible in England -- the Geneva Bible, so named because it was produced by English protestants who sought asylum in Geneva during the reign of Mary Tudor -- had no patience for James' cherished notion of the divine right of kings:
The notion of the divine right of kings was often defended from Psalm 105:15. In the King James Bible, this would read as follows: "Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm." This was argued by many Anglicans to be a reference to the king. After all, was not the king anointed at his coronation, and thus designated as God's anointed one? ...
Which was one of the reasons, when King James authorized a new translation of the Bible, he insisted that there be none of those marginal, explanatory notes that were one of the main selling points of the Geneva Bible.
The flip side of all this is the question that I find most difficult to answer: Why did European societies put such a premium on technological advancement. Goldberg writes in his essay,
The same holds true for science. The Church — Galileo propaganda notwithstanding — was the main engine for science and learning through most of Western history.
In one sense he's right -- the Church was the repository for the scarce books that survived the Dark Ages, and preserved learning. Yet in another, he's wrong -- with the notable exception of the Cistercian Order, the vast majority of real progress -- technological progress -- was secular. The heavy plow, the horse collar, the water mills, wind mills, mining and metallurgy were all innovations that had little to do with the Church. Those who studied science had little to do with the men who actually went about the hard work of developing things like cranks and camshafts. There was some quality Europeans had which no other people in the world had -- a fixation on the benefits of technology, and a real desire to spread its benefits to as many people as possible.
Lynn White Jr., the late pioneering scholar of Medieval technology, has written that there was a religious component to this, a Catholic component. He sites, for example, the end of paganism (with its worship of water spirits and the like) and its replacement with a veneration of saints. Whereas before, a water mill couldn't be built because it might offend the river god, under the new Catholic theology, the river was a river, and water mills had their own patron saint (I'm truly doing an injustice to his argument by being so brief, but I'll make up it for it eventually with a longer post on the subject). The problem with White's thesis is that in the Islamic world, a similar shift to hydraulic and wind power never occurred. Yet they saw the same religious transformation, in many regions where they won converts, from polytheism to monotheism. If religion were decisive, then surely Muslims would have been just as keen to exploit nature -- to advance technologically -- as Christian Europeans proved to be.
Wednesday, April 03, 2002
When 'culture wars' were domestic
When I worked for The Philadelphia Inquirer, one of my favorite ways to pass time during down times (there were quite a few on late night sports shifts) was reading the wires. Back in those heady days, when the Internet was in its infancy, I had access to news, sports, financial, opinion and feature articles from the AP, the major papers, the syndicates -- you name it. Now of course we take all this for granted, but back then only the privileged few had the keys to the major media kingdom, and all it had to offer. For example, back then I first discovered James Lileks and his biting wit, an advantage I had over those who were dependent on the Inquirer for their news and commentary, since we didn't run his columns on our pages.
One of the highlights was when Patrick J. Buchanan's syndicated column moved. It wasn't so much that I agreed with Pat's screeds, but that his writing was so unlike the reasoned opinions, the conventional wisdom, the "serious issues" type of punditry that made up most of what moved on the opinion wire. You never had to worry that you'd have to sift through a Pat column to figure out what he was getting at. And once a year, just in time for Good Friday, Pat would unleash what a friend and I liked to call his Easter homily, a column in which he would sit in judgment of America like a Catholic Jonathan Edwards, dispensing his moral certainties, and ending with an absolution. Here's a few snippets from his 1995 homily:
America's culture is a running sewer. Our public schools turn out illiterates, our universities trousered apes. Much of modern art, painting and sculpture, is shock art or shlock art. While technically advanced, our movies are morally retarded, chaotic, nihilistic. And, by every social indicator -- drug abuse, child abuse, spousal abuse, murder, robbery, rape, teen pregnancy, suicide, abandonment, mental disease, divorce -- we seem to be going downhill.
But, like any good shepherd leading his flock, Pat would point the way toward salvation and offer benediction:
But, let us return to that first Good Friday, that first Easter.
Columns like this made me suspect that Pat's presidential runs were aimed more at gaining the attention of the College of Cardinals in Rome than the voters of America. As strident as Buchanan was, I never got apoplectic about his moral condemnations or his oft-repeated theme that America was turning into a modern day Sodom. America's civic culture was expressly designed for the likes of Buchanan, and those who took positions on the opposite end of the political spectrum, to vent their views. But it all seems strangely quaint now -- that people used to talk about Buchanan's incendiary writings, his bomb-throwing, his fighting of the culture war.
Buchanan ran a column this year that begins with an Easter motif:
On the first Holy Thursday, the night before He was crucified, Jesus sat down with the 12 and turned water and wine into his own flesh and blood. That first Last Supper was a Jewish seder.
I don't agree with too much of the analysis Buchanan then offers (which probably shouldn't surprise me because I didn't agree with him all that often before), and there are some ridiculous passages:
Two years ago, Prime Minister Barak offered Syria 99 percent of the Golan Heights, and the Palestinians 95 percent of Gaza and the West Bank, and a sovereign presence in Jerusalem, with Islamic control of the holy places of the faith inside the Old City.
Gee, I wonder if Arafat rejecting Barak's offer and Sharon's election as a repudiation of Barak's policies had anything to do with that withdrawal?
I'm not especially nostalgic for the days when Buchanan could push the buttons of a sizeable portion of the country with his own call to religious values (as in the 1992 Republican Convention Speech). And it wasn't just his intended audience whose buttons were pushed -- I remember getting several phone calls from horrified readers worried that Buchanan was going to launch his own putsch (and I'm not making that up -- they were particularly frequent after he won the New Hampshire primary in 1996). Still, it seems like a world in which Buchanan was someone people went to bed at night worrying about is preferable to the one we have now...
The uniqueness of the Palestinians
Apropos of the observation by Josh Treviño below is this story from Arab News:
The American readers who frequently visit our website keep on asking our opinion about Palestinian “suicide operations”, as though they are completely unaware of the gruesome human rights violations committed by the Israelis in the last occupied piece of land on earth.
Last occupied piece of land on earth? How about Tibet? Or closer to home, what about Lebanon?
Tuesday, April 02, 2002
Credit where credit is due
I came across this the other day, and ... well, read it for yourself:
Jerusalem is an invaluable part of the homeland of Islam. For more than 14 centuries, Muslims have lived there. They have not usurped it from the Jews who had already ceased to live there hundreds of years before that. The Jews' longest reign in Palestine lasted for only several hundred years, while Arabs and others have been there for thousands of years. The Christian patriarch of Jerusalem handed it to `Umar Ibn Al Khattâb. Among `Umar's conditions was that no Jew should live there.
As I'd always heard the story, it was Sophronius, the Christian patriarch of Jerusalem, who insisted that the Jews be banned from the city, and that `Umar, following the dictates of the Koran, refused. The story is generally used to show how much more tolerant Islam was than Christianity (and it was much much more tolerant) during the period.
A history lesson
A good piece on Opinion Journal about Arafat's history of terror. I particularly liked the opening graphs:
The crackdown was swift and brutal. Though the government was deeply divided between hard-liners and those favoring more negotiation with the Palestinians, the hard-liners won. Towns and refugee camps that had raised the flag of the Republic of Palestine were shelled, while Yasser Arafat proclaimed a "genocide" and urged his people to resist. There were numerous casualties on both sides.
This fleshes out an incident that Josh Treviño noted yesterday, and adds some subsequent events. Apparently, the Israelis have formally raised the subject of exiling Arafat. I suspect it will only be a matter of time. I also think I'll have to revise my "they think they can win" thesis; I'm still persuaded that this lies at the root of a lot of the terror, but now I wonder whether, without Arafat, there's a chance that the Palestinians might choose a different path. Although I suspect that too many elements of the population have been radicalized by Arafat, and his destruction of Palestinian civil society will leave very little in the way of moderate Palestinians to counterbalance the radicals.
Monday, April 01, 2002
The real tragedy of the Palestinians
Josh also has a long, well-reasoned post taking the Arab nations to the woodshed over their treatment of the Palestinians. I agree with much of what he's written, but find some fault with this passage:
Arabs act as if the expulsion of Palestinians from Israel proper in 1948 was a crime unique in history -- an irreconcilable act that must be reversed; a blood debt that passes from father to son to grandson; a vengeance that must be extracted from the grandsons of the perpetrators. They act as if millions of Germans between the Volga and the Oder were not expelled from their ancestral lands in 1945. They act as if millions of Greeks and Turks did not exchange homes and homelands in 1923. They act as if Pakistanis and Indians did not remove in the millions to their new nations in 1947. They act as if a million Frenchmen did not abandon their 130-year old farms in Algeria in 1962. Where are the irredentist Greeks, Germans, Pakistanis, Indians? Where are the suicide bombers named Papadopoulos slaughtering Turkish shoppers in Smyrna? Where are the lone German snipers killing Czech policemen in the Sudetenland? Where are the Frenchmen massacring commuters in Oran?
I think one key difference between, say, the Germans or the French or even the Greeks and Turks is that the Palestinians still believe they can achieve their aims militarily. It's not so much that Arabs argue that the Palestinian cause is unique in history, but rather, that Palestinians believe they can and will win. Thus, a lot of the rhetoric is designed to gain legitimacy for any means the Palestinians and their sponsors use to achieve those aims.
For a long time, probably up until the 1967 war and maybe until the 1973 war, Palestinians probably thought that the great secular Arab states -- led by Nasser's Egypt, backed up by Syria -- would do the dirty work for them. Thereafter, they took the burden of the fighting on themselves; tactics shifted from army-to-army confrontation to a guerrilla war. Arafat, who had been a marginal figure, became the sole legitimate Palestinian leader; I believe the Arab nations said so first, and the United Nations more or less ratified this in 1974. It's easy to see why Arafat might prefer this: If Nasser and Assad drove the Israelis into the sea, they'd carve up the remaining country between them. If Arafat finds a way to defeat Israel, he gets to be the local strongman.
As long as the Palestinians believe they can win, they will continue to fight. It may not be conventional warfare, it may ebb and flow, it may aim as much at European capitals and Washington as it does at Israeli institutions, but they have tactics and strategies which they believe, in the long run, will lead them to victory. In several areas, they are succeeding: 1) Who would want to emigrate to Israel now? 2) The United States has called for a Palestinian state (Hillary Clinton was pilloried for saying this just a short while ago).
Given the realities of the Middle East -- Israel is a friendless, pariah state in the region -- Palestinians will think they can win for some time to come. I'm not persuaded that Sharon's current offensive will definitively crush the Palestinians, and even it does, it's not as if actually being a Palestinian is a prerequisite for fighting as one. Arafat was born in Cairo; Edward Said spent most of his youth there, but both are in the forefront of the Palestinian struggle. Ken Layne in a Fox News column quoted a Gulf War era book on Iraq which said,
Saddam's campaign to enroll the past in the service of future glory is obsessive. He has embarked on a giant project to reconstruct a version of ancient Babylon .... Saddam is widely portrayed as a latter-day Nebuchadnezzar, the 6th Century B.C. Babylonian ruler, whose memory the Old Testament has preserved as a conqueror of Jerusalem, the leader who carried the Hebrews into captivity.The Syrians, under the first Assad and perhaps his successor, had a similarly lofty view of themselves, and went to bed dreaming of a greater Syria that included Turkey and Israel and Lebanon.
Had Israel broken out of its diplomatic isolation in the region (and I'm not blaming the Israelis for their failure to do so -- it takes two to tango), had they managed to forge a real peace, rather than the cold peace, with Egypt and perhaps established stronger ties to Jordan, there might be less enthusiasm on the part of the Palestinians for war. But as long as they believe they will win, they will fight, all the while arguing that theirs is a unique plight that must be redressed.
Civil War revisited
Joshua Treviño at responds to my response to him; I have to say he's certainly a gentleman, and is kind enough to add a permanent link to this site. Thank you, Josh.
One of the fascinating things about history is the way that we go back to it, finding in it different lessons for the present. I think it may have been Hegel, widely regarded to be the ugliest philosopher of all time, who said, "History teaches that history teaches." The sad thing is you can never quite break that cycle. An Islamofascist like bin Laden can evoke Andalusia, two bloggers steeped in the same democratic tradition could probably argue endlessly over the meaning of the Civil War. Somehow, I doubt either Josh or I would make our points with airplanes crashing into one another homes...
For the record, I tend to think that you can only say the North invaded the South if you accept the notion that, on secession, the South was an independent nation. We wouldn't say that the National Guard, called out to restore order after a riot in a major city, was invading the city (actually, some people would, but let's leave that aside for the time being). As to notions of popular sovereignty, it seems to me that without the consent of the other states (which obviously wasn't forthcoming) secession was an illegal act, and Lincoln was well within his Constitutional authority to put down the rebellion. In any case, this is probably a debate for another time...
It appears that Sharon does have a strategy; whether it's workable only the coming months will tell. Going after the terrorist leaders in the West Bank, arresting or killing them and their underlings, won't reduce the long-term and, in my view, insoluble hatreds; it's probably accurate to say that the Israelis are only creating new terrorists by attacking the old ones. The flip side of this is that even suicide bombers need to be trained and, once trained, need some kind of logistical support. It's not as complex a task as fielding a modern army, but still -- it's not as if you can go down to the local 7-11 and pick up an explosive belt, instructions on how to evade Israeli security, and directions to a target-rich environment. I should add that an increase in the frequency of suicide bombings this week might not necessarily mean that the Israeli effort is failing. If Hamas, the Al-Aqsa Brigades, et al, are convinced they've reached a "use it or lose it" point, they may send out all their remaining "martyrs" rather than see them be captured by Israeli troops.