paleo Ideofact

Thursday, April 25, 2002
Taheri again
Joe Katzman of Winds of Change (I'll get a permanent link up to the blog soon -- very thoughtful stuff well worth reading) has a post arguing that Amir Taheri, who wrote a piece called Does Islam promote suicide bombing? which I criticized somewhat obliquely here, is a fairly clear repudiation of suicide bombings. He raises some good points, particularly the notion that Taheri might have been going as far as he could. I may have been too hard on Taheri, as Joe was kind enough to point out; my main point, I think, was the gulf between Islam as enduring civilization and the Islam to which Taheri is reacting.

For me, the key phrases in the Taheri piece dealt with his introduction of the notion of "existential Islam," and not those that spoke to the Qur'an or the great philosophical and ethical heritage of the religion. Here are two quotes from his piece:
Suicide bombing must, therefore, be regarded as a deliberate act, decided, organized and promoted by politicians as part of a strategy. This is clear from statements by Palestinian leaders who say they had ordered a halt to such attacks to encourage positive evolutions in Israeli behavior. When that did not happen, suicide-bombings resumed.

To promote suicide bombing as a sign of political valor or nationalist fervor is one thing. To present it as a model of Islamic behavior is something else.


Islam, as an existential reality, is something else. As noted, there are politicians who glorify suicide bombing. But how representative are they? We will never know until there is an atmosphere in which opinions are aired without fear and, more importantly, without taqiyyah (dissimulation). In the meantime to brand a whole civilization as a “cult of death” is unfair, to say the least.
I would absolutely agree with Taheri (as I said in my first post) that branding the civilization of Islam as a cult of death is absolutely unfair. But when he draws a distinction between the two Islams, the great civilization of the past which drew its inspiration from the Qur'an as it was revealed to the Prophet on the one hand, and the existential, 21st century political reality of Islam on the other--well, I read this as having your cake and eating it too, an attempt to suggest that the political culture need not live up to any religious ideals. This is also how I read the "nationalist fervor" vs. "Islamic behavior" dichotomy. Again, not that Taheri is endorsing it, but I didn't necessarily get the impression that this was a resounding condemnation. And I disagree with Joe on this point, when he argued that one of my main concerns -- that Taheri focuses too much on the concept of suicide, and not on either the victims or those who plan the attacks -- was off-point. Joe writes,
Having stripped the act of any religious justification earlier in his article, the ideas above become self-evident, inevitable conclusions. If there is no justification, then the act must be murder - both of the victims, and of the bomber by those who make these actions possible. Taheri doesn't say this because he has a limited number of words in the column, and belaboring these points would be an unnecessary waste.
I once was asked to write a column explaining the U.S. tax code in 750 words, so if Taheri had limited column inches, I'm certainly more sympathetic. Still, one of the problems is that, for the Palestinian leadership and their operatives, there is a justification, determined by that existential Islam which Taheri raises in his critique. Traditional Islamic rules of war hold that innocents -- women, children, the elderly, the infirm -- are not to be harmed. Of course we know that this wasn't always put into practice, but then no society's military history is entirely free of acts of wartime barbarism. But Hamas, the Al-Aqsa Brigades, et al, have redefined who is a combatant. Any Israeli is a legitimate target, a combatant. It might not have hurt Taheri to point out that this redefinition isn't supported by the Qur'an either.

By focusing too much on the suicide part of the equation, rather than the murder side, it seems to me that Taheri leaves the door open wide for those Palestinian leaders to argue that existential Islam -- the contingencies of the military situation on the West Bank -- open the door to suicide bombings. What Islamist does not argue that each Palestinian martyr is ...
"someone who falls in a battle against aggressors. The martyr does not want to become one. He knows that the highest value is the preservation of life; he is put to death not by his own hands but by his oppressors."
The Palestinians argue that the occupation is akin to death, that those who commit these acts are driven to them not by some kind of personal despair, but rather because of despair over the plight of the Palestinian people. To preserve life, the life of the Palestinian people, they take the only means the oppressors allow them to fight back. We have heard over and over that the Palestinians are helpless against the might of the IDF; that it is the actions of Israel that create the suicide bombers, and that the recent offensive will create even more. I don't think it would have been an unnecessary waste had Taheri taken a paragraph to note this "reasoning," and then add that it is no justification for killing civilians, but maybe I'm being too picky.

I should add that like Joe, I'm most affected by this post from Adil Farooq, who reacts to Taheri by asking, this really how low Muslims have sunk, so much so that my co-religionists desperately need to to seek guidance on such a self-evident and axiomatic concept? It is a tragedy of their times when Muslims abysmally fail to give due recognition towards this most basic, yet so precious, reality that is enshrined within the gift of life. Further, differing explanations may abound for this surreal behaviour - some legitimate, others not - but no manner of justification for suicide terrorism, indeed any terrorism, can ever arise out of such explanations, since none can exist.
In any case, I think there's a few questions worth answering about Taheri's piece, which apparently also appeared in the L.A. Times, according to Joe. For whom was it written? Did it appear in Arabic anywhere? Or was this denunciation, like Arafat's statements in English, directed only to Western audiences, and not to Arabians or Syrians or anyone else in the Arab world? Just wondering...

Wednesday, April 24, 2002
Philadelphia story
A friend of mine who lives, as I once did, in the great City of Brotherly Love, writes:
So Philadelphia is totally bizarre.

On my way to work I walked past this old, somewhat run-down colonial house at 7th & Market flanked by beeper stores and everything for a dollar stores and people waiting for the bus, throwing McDonald's wrappers on the ground...

So I thought "This is odd. Why is there this old house here in the middle of all this crap and hubbub?"

Then I noticed that there's a little plaque on the building that explains that this was the building in which Jefferson lived and in which he wrote the Declaration of Independence. He wrote it in this building! People should be standing in line to grovel in the dust and rub salt in their wounds because of the greatness of this place, but instead they're throwing burger wrappers on it and the shutters are about to fall off. Totally ridiculous. More people know about the Bob Dole birthplace in Russell, Kansas, than this house in which the most powerful nation in the history of humanity was invented. I just don't get it. America was created in Philadelphia -- not in Washington, not in New York, not in Boston -- it's a really important place. Yet nobody even knows that, especially the people who live here. Most people probably think that Paul Revere wrote the Declaration during the Boston Tea Party or something. ...Philadelphia has got to be the most under-appreciated city in the country.
I tend to agree that the history of this country, particularly its founding, is poorly taught in the schools. And while I think Bostonians might argue that their city was every bit as important as Philadelphia was, my own parochial loyalties are to Philadelphia, which saw two miracles: the Declaration and the Constitutional Convention. As for the house on 7th and Market, I think David McCullough in his biography of John Adams notes the location, and adds that Jefferson composed the Declaration in the house without benefit of his books or papers. He did have a copy of George Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights, which begins,
That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
My recollection is that Mason's declaration had been published in a Philadelphia newspaper, and Jefferson certainly saw it. Nevertheless, Jefferson's writing -- perhaps because it is more familiar than Mason's, but I think largely because it is better written -- resounds to this day:
We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
In his autobiography, Jefferson does not describe the house, the special laptop he had built for himself by a Philadelphia cabinetmaker that allowed him to lie in bed or sit on a chair and work, or even the unbearable heat of that summer. He says:
The committee for drawing the Declaration of Independence, desired me to do it. It was accordingly done, and being approved by them, I reported it to the House on Friday, the 28th of June, when it was read, and ordered to lie on the table.
It was accordingly done in that little house on the corner of 7th and Market that still stands to this day.

One question, though, for my correspondent, who's now lived in Philadelphia for quite a few years: You just noticed this house today???

Correction: Actually, the house is a reconstruction of the original, which was torn down in 1883; the current building was erected by the National Parks Service in 1975 as part of the bicentennial celebrations, as this site makes clear. Which, as my correspondent says, may explain why mobs of tourists are not "standing in line to grovel in the dust and rub salt in their wounds because of the greatness of this place."

Tuesday, April 23, 2002
A strange introduction
The techniques employed by the various writers of opinion pieces in the Arab News are unusual, to say the least. Consider this open letter to President Bush, which complains about American policy in the Middle East, particularly in Israel. There's nothing so unusual about that, but what astonished me was the way the writer, one Khaled al-Maeena, "a concerned human being," begins his missive:
Dear President Bush,

I hope you will appreciate the spirit in which this letter is being written. I have been a long-time admirer of the political principles of the American Founding Fathers. However, I am also someone who has come to the conclusion that those principles have been so consistently undermined in recent times that they have little or no relevance now.
I wish Mr. al-Maeena had taken the time to spell out the political principles of the Founders that he admired before suggesting that those principles are irrelevant now. Let's see...could he be referring to Washington, who -- not once, not twice, but thrice resisted the temptation to turn military power into political power, who could have been king but chose instead first his Mount Vernon farm and then to stand for election as President? Perhaps John Adams, the colossus of independence, who as an attorney defended the British soldiers accused of committing murder in the Boston Massacre because he believed that every defendent had the right to a fair trial? (Adams won the acquittals of some and avoided murder charges for the remainder.) Perhaps Thomas Jefferson, who was a careful reader of the Bible and the Qur'an, and who thought so little of the sacredness of such texts that he edited the Gospels to produce a version consonant with his own religious convictions? The same Jefferson who wrote of the men who passed his Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, "...they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination." That same Jefferson who refused to put up with the extortions of the Barbary pirates, and, unlike his European contemporaries, launched a military action against them?

Perhaps he reveres Madison, one of the architects of the Constitution, who saw the federal government's powers as limited and enumerated, yet none the less expressed to Jefferson great reservations over the lack of a Bill of Rights, and helped rectify the omission in the first Congress. Or maybe Hamilton, one of the few founders with a solid grasp of economics, who understood that debt and interest payments would increase the capital flow of the young Republic, and favored rapid industrial development of the young nation.

I think most of those principles are largely intact. They haven't always operated perfectly, there have been terrible lapses in this nation's history, from its founding to the present day. We've elected crooks to Congress and even to the White House on occasion. We had to fight a bloody Civil War and amend the Constitution to end slavery. Even so, 100 years later, it took the civil rights movement to begin to secure the blessings of liberty to all Americans. That struggle goes on, as does the struggle to apply the political principles of the Founders to the present day. We do so imperfectly, as did they. But our jihad, Mr. al-Maeena, is to strive to do so more perfectly, to form as the Founders wrote a more perfect union: We do so in the voting booth, on the pages of our newspapers, across the fences in our backyards, in town meetings and at school board hearings, and now on the Internet.

I can't say which Founder, or which of their political principles he admires, because one graph on Mr. al-Maeena writes to President Bush:
You are soon to meet Crown Prince Abdullah, who embodies the qualities of integrity, truth, honor and conviction. He is a leader who speaks according to the strong logic of his mind and the deep passion of his heart. He never minces his words, which when spoken in your presence in a few days time, I am sure, will provide you — if you listen and act on his advice — with the key to bringing about real, lasting peace in the Middle East.
I think we can infer that the author respects the political principles of the Crown Prince, who unlike Bush, and all of his predecessors (well, except for Gerald Ford) was elected by no one, who does not file annual financial disclosure reports or make his income tax return publicly available, who cannot be turned out of office by an election or see his party in the legislature turned out of power after two years. The Crown Prince does not allow a free press or freedom of religion -- but this is the wrong way of putting it. The free exercise of religion and the freedom to speak one's mind are not boons granted by government but, according to our Founders, inalienable rights inherent in the individual; if they are usurped, then the usurper is a tyrant. So with all due respect, maybe when Abdullah wins an election, we ordinary Americans--at whose pleasure our President serves--will be more inclined to listen to his advice.

Monday, April 22, 2002
Thanks Adil
Thanks to the wonderful Adil Farooq of the equally wonderful Muslimpundit, and a very helpful email he sent me, my archives are back online. I should add that getting an email from him reminds me of what an uncouth and uncultured American I am; where I usually sign off with a curt "Best" or "Best Regards," he crafts a warm phrase that sends family and friends his greetings as well.

I should also admit that I'm entirely too selfish; I missed his postings while he took a brief hiatus. (I can well understand his doing so -- like me, he tends to offer long, discursive posts; for me it's draining to write so much, and he has the added burden of writing things that actually make sense.)

Also, I was happy to see Howard Kurtz mention Muslimpundit in his survey of blogging in the Washington Post this morning. I read the article on the Metro on my way to work -- it was nice to see it in print. Congratulations, Adil!

Sunday, April 21, 2002
The strange case of Jean Gimpel, part two
As Lynn White Jr. suggested, it is the advanced technology of the West – and not democracy, or humanistic culture, or anything else one would like to posit – that the rest of the world envies (and I think this should be a fairly obvious statement – Osama bin Laden wears a Swiss watch and often has a Kalashnikov rifle on display as he’s videotaped, but I somehow doubt he spends his spare hours reading the Federalist Papers, John Stuart Mill, or Erasmus). In Medieval Technology and Social Change, which has the advantage of still being in print, White notes three areas in which new technology was quickly adapted, changing social patterns. In agriculture, the introduction of the heavy plow and later the replacement of oxen with horses to pull the thing (thanks to the introduction of the horse collar and advances in hitching teams of horses) changed settlement patterns and the patterns of fields. The exploitation of power-driven machines in industries as diverse as food processing to metallurgy saved labor. And the development of mounted shock combat (the knight in shining armor, with his shield, lance, and – most important – his stirrups) led to professional armies and a consequent change in social structure.

That the West was uniquely open to cultural change driven by technology may best be demonstrated by a passage from Jean Gimpel’s book, The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages. Gimpel is writing of the acceptance in the Latin West of the mechanical clocks. Prior to the 14th century, the concept of an “hour” – an unchanging division of time composed invariably of 60 minutes, each of which is composed of sixty seconds, and all of these minutes and seconds being of uniform duration, was unknown. There were twelve hours in the day, and twelve in the night, so that in summer, a nighttime hour in London could last as little as 38 minutes, while a daytime hour could last as long as 82 minutes. Water clocks had been adjusted to compensate for this; in the 14th century, weight driven clocks measured out all the hours in equal increments. This was a radically different way of thinking about time, and it wasn’t universally adopted.
By making the churches ring their bells at regular sixty-minute intervals, Charles V was taking a decisive step toward breaking the dominance of the liturgical practices of the Church. The Church would bow to the materialistic interests of the bourgeois and turn its back on eternity.
The regular striking of the bells brought a new regularity into the life of the workman and merchant. The bells of the clock tower almost defined urban existence. Time-keeping passed into time-saving and time-accounting and time-rationing. As this took place, Eternity ceased gradually to serve as the measure and focus of human actions.
This shift in attitude of the Church in Western Europe—the Church of Rome—goes a long way toward accounting for what we have called the medieval industrial revolution. It signaled an acceptance of new technology and a readiness to compromise with new ideas. In the Greek Orthodox Church, there was no acceptance of new technology and no readiness whatsoever to compromise with new ideas. A remarkable demonstration of the strict observance of tradition in the Orthodox Church is given by the fact that until the twentieth century Orthodox priests never allowed a mechanical clock to be installed in an Orthodox church. For them it would have been blasphemy; for them the mathematical division of time into hours, minutes, and seconds had no relationship with the eternity of time. But the Church of Rome had no such objection to clocks being installed on the facades or towers of their churches, and today there are tens of thousands of mechanical church clocks in western Europe.

The same contrast can be applied more broadly to West and East. What is most remarkable in this connection is the different way time has been judged or measured in the two parts of the world. Until very recently the East had not systematically adopted our equinoctial time, but used a method of time measurement dating back several millennia. That they adopted our way of measuring time so late has, at least in the majority of Eastern countries, handicapped their economic and industrial development, and it must be pointed out that the reason it was adopted was because the European middle classes, in particular the Italian middle class, considered it expedient to their own trading purposes. The rational outlook of the merchants and bankers was fundamental to the installation of mechanical clocks in the West. With their capitalistic mentality they had observed the value of time. They already knew that “time is money.”
It seems to me that the question of why this happened, as opposed to how, is central to understanding where we are now. It is one thing to tack labels onto a feudal, deeply religious people – capitalist, rational – and quite another to explain why such attitudes developed in such and such a place and not in others. In China, for example, many of the same innovations that were adapted wholesale in the West – that were allowed to transform Western society – appeared earlier than they did in Europe. A partial list: gunpowder, movable type, the mechanical clock, paper. Yet whereas in Europe, these inventions caught on, in China, they didn’t. There’s little point in building a better mousetrap if no one will use it; in Europe, people clamored for the better mousetrap; in the rest of the world, people saw little point in switching.

In some of his more thought-provoking essays, Lynn White asks why this was. It would be wrong to say that he saw religion as being a prime mover, although he does note,
St. Augustine, the most penetrating mind of a groping age, expressed amazement at the ingenuity and variety of the arts, yet feared that the good coming from may be counterbalanced by evil of “so many poisons, weapons and military machines” in addition to the superfluities and vanities. The Latin Middle Ages, by contrast, developed an almost entirely affirmative view of technological improvement. This new attitude is clearly detectable by the early ninth century, and by 1450 engineering advance had become explicitly connected with the virtues: it was integral to the ethos of the West.
It’s not by chance I quoted this particular essay; the title is Technology Assessment form the Stance of a Medieval Historian. White was reacting to a 1972 Act of Congress to establish an Office of Technology Assessment to advise Congress “on legislative problems related to new technology and its probable impact.” White explains the rationale behind the act,
We must have assessment of technology: our national crises of energy, exhaustion of natural resources, and pollution of air, water and soil interlock with global crises of armaments, population and food. The real question is: Do we know how to assess a proposed technological change, whether it be a new invention or a new canal across Central America?
He was not exactly sanguine about the prospects for technology assessment unless the long view of history was incorporated, although he expresses this with his normal reticence and modesty:
Since history deals with nonrepetitive events, historians cannot help in specific ways to answer questions concerning assessment of technology in our time. I believe, however, that contemporary technology assessment will become sophisticated and more successful only if those who practice it are made aware of the complexity and ramifications of the effects of technological changes in the past. History can offer no solutions, but it may help to guide an acute mind toward kinds of questions that in the present state of systems analysis tend to be overlooked. Above all it may illuminate the limitations as well as the possibilities of assessing technology. (emphasis added)
The historian may have no solutions, but he can pose troubling questions. White notes that, in 1326, when the cannon first appeared, no one in his right mind would have preferred the thing to the trebuchet, which represented the apogee in development of the catapult. It was an efficient machine, could hit the same target over and over -- pounding a fortified position -- was mobile, and didn't blow up its operators. Compare that to the cannon, which, until about 100 years after its introduction (100 years is a long time), was cumbersome, inefficient, and dangerous to operate. It could barely be aimed, and even if you hit the broad side of a fortified wall, you had no guarentee you'd hit it a second time because the gunpowder you were using provided more or less explosive power depending on whether it was closer to the top of your powder keg or the bottom. To overcome this, you could remix it while on the battlefield, and risk blowing up your cannon, your battery mates, and yourself before firing a shot.

A nearer and dearer example (and I should have remembered this passage this afternoon, when my three year old mortified me when he pointed at, well, a rather obese man and said, "Daddy, look at his big fat tummy!!" in a voice loud enough for the gentleman to hear) is the button and the knitting needle: assessment becomes an enterprise of almost terrifying immediacy when we realize that our most intimate psychic structure may at times be influenced by seemingly minor external innovations. The modern American family is often a paidocracy, child centered to a degree unknown elsewhere; yet our pattern is the completion of one long developing in Europe. Philippe Aries's Centuries of Childhood is a blundering and often perverse book that nevertheless establishes that in the Middle Ages no one paid much attention to children before the age of seven, when they were admitted to the world of grown-ups. He believes that it was not until the later sixteenth or the seventeenth century that our culture discovered the "sweetness, simplicity and drollery" of small children, began to enjoy and coddle them, to accept them on their own terms, and to dress them in special clothes that were not simply small versions of adult attire. I myself would push the beginnings of change somewhat earlier, but must recognize that in the early fifteenth century a family like the Pastons [a fifteenth century English family] paid amazingly little attention to their younger offspring.

It is assumed that this indifference was an effort to defend adult emotions against the grim fact of infant mortality. No one could afford to invest great emotional capital in a child whose chances of survival were 50 per cent or less. Not until five to seven years had proved a certain durability could one risk great affection or interest. I belive that this hyposthesis makes sense, but it leaves unexplained the reasons for the presumed improvement in child survival that at last led parents to venture lavishing affection upon the very young.

I see no clues in sanitation, diet, or medicine. Explanation must be found elsewhere. Partly because their bodies are so small, little people are peculiarly vulnerable to cold and resulting pulmonary infections. We have already noted that in the later Middle Ages houses of all classes were better heated than before, and the increased glazing of windows helped to retain the heat. But the snugness of clothing was also much improved. The first functional buttons appeared in central Germany in the 1230s, and by the fourteenth century they were revolutionizing costume design. In the dress of modern American and European children knit textiles are basic. The first evidence of a knit body garment (as distinct from a few specimens of socks, gloves, and so forth) is on an altarpiece from Buxtehude near Hamburg painted in the last decade of the fourteenth century. It depicts the Virgin Mary knitting a shirt on four needles for the Christ child. It is a safe surmise that the development of knitting, along with functional buttons and heating devices, helped to keep more little children alive, and thus played a large part in fostering modern attitudes toward them. Late medieval mothers and grandmothers with clacking needles undoubtedly assessed knitting correctly as regards infant comfort and health, but in the long run a new notion of relationships within the family would thereby be encouraged could scarcely be foreseen.

How far into the future can even the sharpest eye look?
Jean Gimpel argues that the medieval historian can see quite far. Writing at roughly the same time that Lynn White argued that technology assessment was a troubled and troubling enterprise at best, Gimpel argued that the technological development of the West had come to an end. This is a point which I will address in my next post on this topic, although this time I'm going to refrain from predicting the moment at which I'll post it.