paleo Ideofact

Saturday, May 11, 2002
I'm not gloating here at all. Several of my correspondents have shared their sense that Islamic culture, as presently constituted, ensures backwardness. I've briefly alluded to my suspicion that the Islamic clerics we hear from today don't accurately portray the religion; the Wahhabis are a particularly radical departure from, not an affirmation of, orthodoxy. People change over time. One of the passages from the Gospels I hear quoted most frequently is "Judge not, lest ye be judged." The other is "Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone." Both are wonderful sentiments, but it's not as if the Gospels or the other books of the New Testament are strictly about tolerance. I'm not knocking Christianity; I'm just pointing out that in the 21st century, you can be a devout Christian without, a la Savanarola, making a bonfire out of Renaissance paintings, books, and sculptures. There was a time when that was debated by a sizeable number of the religion's adherents. Similarly, you don't have to live like the Amish. But both Savanarola and the Amish have their scriptural justifications for doing what they do. For the mass of Christians, however, those views are fringe. (Also, understand, I'm not beating up on the Amish; I just wouldn't want to live like them. However, I wouldn't want to force an Amish man to live like me, either.)

In part, a new understanding of Christianity, coupled with what were probably more important developments in the secular realm (particularly the American Founders) saved us from the religious excesses of the Age of Reformation. It also made modernity possible. I think the same thing is possible for even the most -- well, okay, I'll say it -- backward areas of the Islamic world.

So understand, I find a story like this one to be especially depressing:
A random Arab News survey of Saudi students studying at various levels in the education system has revealed that most of them do not know the number of planets in our solar system, or their names.

The majority also admitted they were unaware of the existence of any heavenly bodies, except the moon and the sun. The vast majority, moreover, have never received any education on the existence of pre-historic creatures; nor have they received any lessons on computer science or the Internet, meaning they were left to learn it by trial and error.

A number of them claim that they are being given computer classes, but they learn from manuals on DOS that date from the 1970s.
I noticed that the lead story in USAToday Friday morning was about the dismal performance of U.S. students in school, particularly in history and the sciences:
Most U.S. high school seniors have a poor grasp of the nation's history, and their knowledge hasn't improved in seven years, says a Department of Education report out Thursday.

At a time when the United States is at war in Afghanistan and under terrorist threat, seniors' ''truly abysmal scores'' on the 2001 U.S. History Report Card are alarming, said Diane Ravitch, historian and education professor at New York University and a member of the test's governing board. It's especially grim considering how close these students are to voting age, she said.

''Our ability to defend -- intelligently and thoughtfully -- what we as a nation hold dear depends on our knowledge and understanding of what we hold dear,'' Ravitch said during the presentation of the report. ''That can only be achieved through learning the history we share, and clearly, far too many high school seniors have not learned even a modest part of it.''


Unqualified teachers are cited as one reason for the poor performance. Education Department statistics show 54% of junior and senior high school students in 1996 were taught history by teachers who neither majored nor minored in the subject, and a new study soon to be released shows similar results. The only subject worse than history is physical science, where 56% of students have teachers out of field.
I suppose it's worth noting that Saudi and American students suffer from some of the same problems: an educational system that doesn't provide them with the fruits of Western knowledge.

The Arab News story seems to confirm this, with two anecdotes that should remind us that no matter how inadequate our public education is, it could be worse:
Nada Tashkandi, 12, is in the seventh grade at a girls’ school in Riyadh.

She received her elementary education in the United States when she lived there with her parents. Asked about the main difference between the education systems here and there, she said: “Everything here takes place in the classroom. There aren’t any field trips.”

She added: “We also progressed faster there. Fourth grade there is like sixth grade here.”

Asked about why girls never went on field trips or to visit science or other museums, the reply was short and to the point: “There is a difference between America and here!”
Amen, Nada. Here's the other bit:
Arab News spoke to one Saudi teacher in the public school system who is married to a German woman. So little faith does he have in the Kingdom’s schools that he insisted on sending his own son to an international school. Usually, this is illegal, but he threatened the authorities that he would give his German wife permission to leave the country with his son unless they conceded to his demand.

“In the end, they gave us permission,” he said. “How could I give my son such a bad education if I have another choice?” he asked.
For those who don't have a choice, the ignorance that is their lot is tragic. I think this is far more significant than the MTV story, with far more pessimistic implications. Joe Katzman suggested I was wrong to discount the effect MTV would have on Arab youth, but I suspect that no amount of pop culture will overcome their basic backwardness.

The Arab News reports on Crown Prince Abdullah's conditions for recognizing Israel:
“The withdrawal of their forces will not be enough in itself. They must return to the pre-1967 borders, end their occupation of Jerusalem (which will be the capital of Palestine), and allow refugees to return to their homeland. Moreover, Syria should get the Golan Heights, and Lebanon its remaining occupied land,” he said. Prince Abdullah made this statement in an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, a sister publication of Arab News. The interview appears in the Arabic daily today.

“If this can end the plight of five million Palestinians and restore the lands of three countries, ensuring stability in the region, wouldn’t (full diplomatic relations) be a price worth paying?” the crown prince asked when queried on diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.
I'm reminded of the scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian, in which the People's Front of Judea are discussing their demands for returning the wife of Pilate (whom, of course, they haven't kidnapped yet): The complete dismantling of the Roman state in 24 hours. Like the hapless Reg of the PFJ, I think the Saudi Crown Prince is likely to be disappointed. What really strikes me, though, is the utter nonsense of his very ambitious demands and what little he's willing to offer in return. He wants Israel to unilaterally withdraw into what is a military indefensible position, allow all the refugees -- real and ersatz -- back in, and then, and only then, they'll consider recognizing...what? The new state formerly known as Israel? Greater Syria?

The other astonishing thing is that such nonsense is taken seriously. After all, if you want peace, you have to talk. If the Saudis are interested in peace, at a minimum, it seems to me, they should be willing to engage the Israelis in negotiations. When will the Saudis announce they're sending a high level delegation to meet with Sharon? Okay, maybe they don't like Sharon, but did they send a delegation to meet with Barak? Rabin? Did they invite one to travel to Riyadh? It seems to me that if the Saudis really wanted to be peacemakers, they would, as a first step, open talks, instead of issuing ridiculous demands that are impossible for Israel to accept.

Friday, May 10, 2002
Several thank yous
One of the things I decided when I started writing here was that I didn't want to worry about page views, or whether anyone was reading the site. I wanted to write because I enjoy writing, and writing for the drawer, as one of my favorite Eastern bloc poets once said, is tiresome. So I didn't put a hit counter on the page (rumors that I'm technically incapable of doing so are greatly exaggerated). The only vague indication I have of whether or not anyone is reading the page is from emails I get and from links I get from other bloggers.

I've gotten several thoughtful emails lately and I can't help thinking, one, that I'm very lucky to have been contacted by some very intelligent people who I hope will continue the correspondence, and two, that I owe some of these new acquaintances, critics, fact-checkers, and editors to the kind words about and links to Ideofact that Meryl Yourish and Joshua Treviño provided this week.

Thank you to everyone.

Thursday, May 09, 2002
Yes, this is what they want to spread...
Now that I've cost her sleep, the least I can do in return is to point out Meryl Yourish's post on the Arab News editorial I mentioned one post down, which argues that while it's wrong to blow up the French or the Pakistanis, it's also wrong for Israelis to get upset about Palestinians blowing Israelis up. (Clarification: That's what the editorial argues, that's not what Meryl argues.) Meryl is right, it's hard to be flip about this, and she's further right in saying this is a difficult piece to respond to seriously. How do you respond to someone who says that it's awful that innocents die, unless they're Jews? Or perhaps what they're saying is that no Jew is innocent. Either way, it's appalling.

Meryl asks,
The astonishing moral relativism sickens me more than anything I have previously read or heard by an Arab nation justifying terrorism against Israel and the Jews. These are the ideas they would spread through the world?
Well, apparently. At the recently concluded Seventh Conference of the Ministers of Endowments and Islamic Affairs held in Malaysia, the Saudis presented a paper on the translation of the Qur'an and other Islamic texts from Arabic into other languages. I can barely handle English, let alone a Romance language, so I'm someone who appreciates translations. The Saudi paper consists of several parts: what kind of translation (literal or interpretive) is best, for whom translations are intended, etc. etc. It also explains, near the top, that translation is sanctioned by the Qur'an and the Prophet and various Hadith, and it gives some examples:
On the authority of ibn 'Umar (may Allah be pleased with both of them) who said, , A Jew and a Jewess who had committed adultery were brought to the Prophet (p.b.u.h.). He said to the Jews, 'How do you punish them?' They said, 'We blacken their faces with soot and humiliate them'. The Prophet (p.b.u.h.) said, 'Bring the Taurah and read it if you are truthful'. So they brought (it) and said to one they trusted, 'O A'war, read!' He read, and when he came to a particular verse he placed his hand upon it {thus hiding it). The Prophet (p.b.u.h.) said, 'Raise your hand'. He raised his hand, and lo! there appeared the verse of stoning! He said, 'O Muhammad, they ought to be punished by stoning, but we hide this (law of the Taurah)'. The Prophet (p.b.u.h.) ordered them to be stoned, and I saw the man warding her off the stones.

Ibn Hajar (rahimahullah) says in Fath al-Bari':

Imam Bukhara means by (Arabic and other languages), i.e., what is in Arabic may be translated into Hebrew and vice versa. Is this permission (to translate) only for those who do not know the language or is it for all? The majority of the 'ulama hold that it is restricted to the first group only.

Imam Bukhari has quoted the verse 'Bring the Taurah and read it if you are truthful' (in support of his view). The inference is based on the fact that the Taurah is in Hebrew, and Allah subhanahu wa ta' ala has commanded it be read to the Arabs who do not know Hebrew. So permission to translate it into Arabic can be inferred from this.
Now, the purpose of the conference, according to this article in the Malaysian press, was improving the image of Islam:
Of immediate concern is how to confront the issue of the negative perception of Islam and Muslims since the Sept 11 deadly attacks on the United States linked to a group of people who happened to profess the Islamic faith.

The message that must get across is that despite the bad press mostly propagated by the Western media, Islam is a religion that advocates tolerance and does not in any way condone extremism or impedes progress.
Obviously, the way to accomplish that is to stick a story about a good old-fashioned Jew stoning, about lying Jews getting stoned for their adulterous affair thanks to the Prophet, the founder of the Islamic religion, into a paper which is ostensibly about translating the holy text from Arabic into other languages. So is this the justification for translation which shows Islam in the best light? Are there others that are worse, that would make one question whether "Islam is a religion that advocates tolerance and does not in any way condone extremism or impede progress?" Or did the Saudis figure, "Heck, this is a boring subject, how do we liven it up? Hey, let's include a story about stoning Jews!"

I do not believe that Islam is what the Saudi clerics or perhaps even what a large percentage of Muslims are claiming it is. I don't blame the texts -- there's plenty of quite awful stuff in Christian literature as well. But if you want to point out the greatness of Christianity, you don't start by quoting Martin Luther's anti-semitic rantings, or the passages of the Gospel of John that became warrants for pogroms in the Middle Ages and thereafter.

In the same way, if you want to prove that Islam is tolerant, that it in no way condones extremism, you focus on those things that prove its tolerance.

I also find ludicrous the assertion that the bad press the religion is getting is because of the Western media, particularly when some Muslims go to great lengths to surpass every intolerant stereotype we can think of.

Wednesday, May 08, 2002
Taheri IV
Yet another sequel to the Amir Taheri discussion. In brief, Taheri wrote a piece in the Arab News a while back which asked whether Islam condoned suicide bombing; he was fairly unequivocal in saying that it's forbidden, that there is no verse in the Qur'an or Hadith that justifies the practice. Now, let's see if I can remember all this: Joe Katzman at Winds of Change (incidentally, here's the megalink he helpfully compiled, which has all the links of our various reactions to Taheri) thought that the column was pretty good, and fairly important: a brave statement by Taheri and something that many in the Middle East and the broader Islamic world needed to hear. Adil Farooq, the great Muslimpundit, found Taheri's piece slightly depressing, in that he felt it necessary to state something that should be self evident. Unaware of their responses to Taheri, I weighed in with a long meandering post in which I was somewhat more critical of Taheri. Joe responded to me, I responded back, then I dug around the archives of Arab News and found a few other things Taheri had written that disturbed me.

And there it pretty much stood. Today Taheri has the featured article on Opinion Journal, in which he more or less restates some of the points he made in his initial Arab News column. Again, I can't help feeling vaguely disappointed by his effort. Sure, he elaborates on why suicide bombing is wrong, but again, there's almost nothing about the aim of suicide bombing: killing Israeli citizens. For Taheri, it seems that what's important is the method, but he leaves open the question of whether another form of attack on Israeli civilians -- a gunman with a reasonable chance of escape, a car-bombing -- would be just fine with him. Consider some of the first few paragraphs of his piece:
As President Bush and Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, met in Washington yesterday, the latest mass murder rocked Tel Aviv. A blast in a pool hall killed at least 16 people and wounded at least 57 others. So, will the Palestinian who here turned himself into a walking agent of destruction be regarded by his people as a "suicide bomber," a "terrorist" or a "martyr"?

Many in the West assume that the Muslim world has already answered by honoring the human bombs as "martyrs." And the chorus of voices from the Muslim world does support that assumption. Foreign ministers from 57 Muslim countries met in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, this month with the stated intention of defining terrorism and distancing Islam from terror. Instead, they ended up endorsing the suicide bombers.

Iran's former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, says he would accept the suicide of even 10% of Muslims in a nuclear war to wipe Israel off the map. Algeria's president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has described the bombers as "innocent blossoms of martyrdom." Ghazi Algosaibi, Saudi Arabia's ambassador in London and also a poet, has praised the human bombs as a model for Muslim youth in an ode. Ismail Abushanab, the Hamas leader in Gaza, says that 10,000 Palestinians should die while killing 100,000 Israelis as part of a strategy to "put the Jews on the run." And Saddam Hussein says the suicide bombers are "reviving Islam."

Many Arab television channels have enlisted their resources in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab world, presenting self-styled sheikhs who use sophistry to bestow religious authority on a cynical political strategy. But even these apologists of terror find it difficult to justify the bombers in terms of Islamic ethics.
Now, it's not that they're killing people, or calling for nuclear holocaust of Israel (I think it's a stretch to include this under the rubric of suicide bombing), or arguing in favor of killing 100,000 Israelis that seems to bother Taheri, but rather, the means of doing so involve suicide. Nowhere does he suggest that there's anything wrong with the ends. This was one of the criticisms I made in my first post, and it remains a criticism now. Yes, Taheri deplores a deplorable act. But his analysis remains one-sided; it's wrong because of the suicidal part of the equation, not the bombing part.

Maybe as Joe says, it would be redundant to point out that killing civilians--even Israeli civilians--is wrong. There are Qur'anic injunctions against doing so. Taheri ignores these. I still think his silence on this point speaks volumes.

Additional thought: After all, it's not as if Taheri does not express some outrage at loss of life. He criticizes those who provide the logistics for the bombers, and those who egg them on, and adds: "It is always someone else's child who must die." Yes, dear sir, yes, and now what about those "someone else's children" who are killed? Perhaps in your next column?

Analogy problems
Arab News has the tale of two bombings, the car bomb in Pakistan and the Tel Aviv human bomb. Here's what they say about the attack in Pakistan:
The reality, of course, is that Pakistan’s terrorists do not care who they kill. It might as easily have been a group of Palestinian, American or even Saudi foreign workers. What they want is maximum carnage for the shock effect. They are the ETA of Pakistan’s politics, its IRA.

They represent no one but themselves and are nothing but barbarous bullies who imagine that they can intimidate the Pakistani public into accepting their diktats.
Even Saudi workers! The horror! So how do they contextualize the massacre in Pakistan? Who in the Middle East is no different from the Pakistani terrorists? Who else is sending bombers to kill innocent civilians?
In their own way, they are no different to Ariel Sharon. They imagine that they can terrorize a nation into submission. They constitute Pakistan’s very own version of fascism. Musharraf must crack down on them.
There's more to the piece than this, but I can't say that quoting it would do anything to give a more favorable impression of it.

Who are the extremists?
Pim Fortuyn argued that immigrants should accept and adapt to the tolerant Dutch culture. Islamic immigrants should not continue to treat "their" women, who under Dutch law enjoy equal rights, as second class citizens. They should understand that in the Netherlands, gays and lesbians enjoy equal rights. For this, Fortuyn was labelled an extremist. Arab News argues that that's as it should be:
Pim Fortuyn was, after all, not merely a bigot who wanted to close the country’s doors to immigrants, he was an unashamed Islamophobe. This is the man who called Islam "backward", who believed that existing immigrants in the Netherlands (most of them Muslims) had to be integrated — by which he meant that they should be forced to abandon their Islamic beliefs and practices.


Of course as we know, the far right was already on the rise in the Netherlands, but that could have been contained and lanced by exposure to debate, as was done in France. The assassin has prevented that happening. He has opened a Pandora’s box that will not be closed. He has stripped away Dutch innocence and the result will be a cruder, more vicious brand of politics. It is not just that he has ensured that a thousand new Fortuyns spring up, hydra-like, in the wake of the dead leader, or that he has created a martyr who will be venerated by the far right across Europe — both of them appalling prospects. But by killing Fortuyn he has turned the entire Dutch political system on its head. Fortuyn will be seen as the victim, and those who opposed him as the bigots. That is an extremely frightening development.
Note to Arab News: Fortuyn was the victim, and, at least for those of us who share the pluralistic and humanistic ideals of the West, the Islamic reactionaries who opposed him (although, in all fairness, were not responsible for his death) are bigots, at least insofar as they would deny women and homosexuals equal rights. So count me among those who frighten you.

Tuesday, May 07, 2002
Asking the wrong question
I just finished reading Bernard Lewis' book, What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response. I can't help feeling that, while Lewis isn't asking the wrong question (it's the Islamic world that's asking it), his grasp of what differentiated the West, and when it began to follow a course unique in human history, is shaky, and that mars the work.

Long ago, in 1982 to be precise, I took an introductory anthropology class. Our teaching assistant asked this question: What is the fundamental skill man has that the rest of the animal kingdom lacks. Several ideas were tossed out: language, art, religion, the opposable thumb, but the answer was the tertiary tool. Man is the only animal with the ability to use a tool to make a tool to make a tool. Birds use primary tools; some of the primates will even use secondary tools, but -- I'll say this again -- man is the only animal with the necessary amount of cognitive ability to use a tool to make a tool to make a tool. It is technology that separates us from the animals.

Throughout most of human history, technology has advanced without benefit of science. Indeed, classical science for the most part ignored experimentation (although there was a fair amount of observation). The mechanic, the engineer and the toolmaker, by contrast, experimented and refined based on experience. You can tell right away whether the cask you designed is waterproof. The Ptolemaic model of the solar system made sense to all sorts of people who'd never observed the heavens, just as the Copernican system is now accepted by the vast majority of us as a matter of faith, rather than proof. I can get out my old physics textbooks and reread Einstein's Theory of Relativity, and even dope out a few of the equations. But I can test through experience whether or not the damn lawn mower's promise of "easy starting" is true or so much advertising bunk (it's definitely the latter).

Bernard Lewis describes history this way: The world of Islam (in contrast to Christendom) was the pinnacle of civilization in the medieval era. Scientifically, culturally, economically and politically, it was far ahead of Europe, rivalled only by the Far East. Islam was relatively tolerant. It preserved the classical inheritance of Greece and Rome, and it transmitted a great deal of learning to Europe. (All of this, except for the "pinnacle of civilization" stuff, is true.) At some point in the Renaissance, and in the succeeding centuries, Western Europe began to surpass Islam. Let me give a few quotes from Lewis on this:
[Islam] had achieved the highest level so far in human history in the arts and sciences of civilization. Inheriting the knowledge and skills of the ancient Middle East, of Greece and of Persia, it added to them new and important innovations from outside...To this rich inheritance scholars and scientists in the Islamic world added an immensely important contribution through their own observations, experiments, and ideas. In most of the arts and sciences, medieval Europe was a pupil and in a sense a dependent of the Islamic world, relying on Arabic versions even for many otherwise unknown Greek works. (p. 7)


In the medieval Middle East, scientists developed an approach rarely used by the ancients--experiment. Through this and other means they brought major advances in virtually all the sciences.

Much of this was transmitted to the medieval West, whence eager students went to study in what were then Muslim centers of learning in Spain and Sicily, while others translated scientific texts from Arabic into Latin, some original, some adapted from ancient Greek works. Modern science owes an immense debt to these transmitters.

And then, approximately from the end of the Middle Ages, there was a dramatic change. In Europe, the scientific movement advanced enormously in the era of the Renaissance, the Discoveries, the technological revolution, and the vast changes, both intellectual and material, that preceded, accompanied, and followed them. In the Muslim world, independent inquiry virtually came to an end, and science was for the most part reduced to a corpus of apporved knowledge. (p. 79)
So, in art, science, politics, etc., Europe progressed, while Islam (for convenience, I'll stipulate that by Islam I mean the rough equivalent of Christendom, and not the religion) began to stagnate, roughly around the time of the Renaissance. When the West's advances over Islam became apparent in the 18th and 19th centuries (thanks to the battlefield), many in the Islamic world asked, "What Went Wrong?" Lewis traces some of the attempts to answer the question. He doesn't offer his own answers, and he provides a tremendous amount of valuable insight as to how Islam, or some of its cultural and political leaders, saw itself over the past few centuries.

The problem with Lewis' book is that he misses a fundamental fact about Europe in the Dark Ages and Middle Ages. It was the technological engine of the world. As early as the eighth century, Europeans were accepting new technologies that radically altered the way they lived. The heavy plow. The stirrup (which initiated the age of shock combat). The horse collar. The three field system of agriculture.

By 1000 A.D., Europeans had embarked on a systematic program of harnessing the forces of nature -- water, wind, fire -- to power labor-saving machines, which were widely adopted across the continent. Windmills and watermills were regular features of the European landscape; in Islam, they were rare. It is also significant that, by the year 1000, slavery had all but disappeared in Christendom (replaced by a system of mutual obligation and rights among social classes), whereas slave labor remained a feature of the Islamic economy for another 8 or 9 centuries.

It is not wrong to say that Islam excelled in some areas in which Europe lagged far behind. Science (not technology) was one of them. But consider: In the eleventh century, a Muslim scientist wrote a treatise on the science of optics. About 185 years later, a European invented eyeglasses. I've never read the optical theory of Ibn al-Haytham (latinized as Alhazen), but I'm typing this while wearing a pair of glasses. Sure, you could argue that without Ibn al-Haytham, we wouldn't have eyeglasses, but I suspect you'd be wrong. Some of al-Haytham's optical theories were off, whereas eyeglasses have worked for more than seven centuries, regardless of the state of anyone's optical theory.

Like eyeglasses, the labor-saving machine was a common device in medieval Europe, easing the life of peasant and noble alike. Even religious orders were high tech; here's a description of a Cistercian monastery:
Entering the Abbey under the boundary wall, which like a janitor allows it to pass, the stream first hurls itself impetuously at the mill where in a welter of movement it strains itself, first to crush the wheat beneath the weight of the millstones, then to shake the fine sieve which separates flour from bran. Already it has reached the next building; it replenishes the vats and surrenders itself to the flames which heat it up to prepare beer for the monks, their liquor when the vines reward the wine-growers' toil with a barren crop. The stream does not yet consider itself discharged. The fullers established near the mill beckon to it. In the mill it had been occupied in preparing food for the brethern; it is therefore only right that it should now look to their clothing. It never shrinks back or refuses to do anything that is asked for. One by one it lifts and drops the heavy pestles, the fullers' great wooden hammers...and spares, thus, the monks' great fatigues. ...How many horses would be worn out, how many men would have weary arms if this graceful river, to whom we owe our clothes and food, did not labor for us....

When it has spun the shaft as fast as any wheel can move, it disappears in a foaming frenzy; one might say it had itself been ground in the mill. Leaving it here it enterst the tannery, where in preparing the leather for the shoes of the monks it exercises as much exertion as diligence; then it dissolves in a host of streamlets and proceeds along its appointed course to the duties laid down for it, looking out all the time for affairs requiring its attention, whatever they might be, such as cooking, sieving, turning, grinding, watering, or washing, never refusing its assistance in any task. At last, in case it receives any reward for work which it has not done, it carries away the waste and leaves everywhere spotless.
This description, quoted in The Medieval Machine by Jean Gimpel (and yes, part three of "The Strange Case of Jean Gimpel" is coming, for those one or two people who are curious), was written in the twelth century. Gimpel compares the medieval Cistercian monastery to the assembly lines of Henry Ford; that may be a slight exaggeration, but it's not a crazy statement. These were industrial parks, high tech workplaces, state of the art manufacturing centers. And again -- these were monasteries -- centers of religious devotion.

I think the most significant part of the quote is this: "How many horses would be worn out, how many men would have weary arms if this graceful river, to whom we owe our clothes and food, did not labor for us..." This attitude toward labor was, well, unique in human history. The idea that men--even common men, even the lower orders--should be spared a life of toil was uniquely Western, uniquely a feature of Latin Christendom. The idea that you should make tools to make machines to make the life of the peasant more congenial was revolutionary in human history. Its implications go far beyond any of the ideas of freedom posited in the classical world, whose philosophy (and attitude toward technology) informed the Islamic world. After all, watermills were known in the classical world, but were used sporadically. Why build an expensive watermill when a slave can do the work (never mind if his arm grows weary)? Windmills were first built in Islamic Afghanistan, but the technology didn't catch on there. It did in Europe. Think about this for a moment: Europe, with an abundance of rivers, adopted a supplemental power source (wind) to make men's lives easier. The Islamic lands, which were less blessed with rivers, did not adopt either technology. Neither did the Far East, for that matter.

In Lewis' eyes, in the eyes of many scholars, the medieval Islamic world outstripped Europe in the things that matter: science, philosophy, high culture. I happen to think these things matter too. But in and of themselves, they were no match for what was going on in Europe: a technological and societal revolution that impacted not just the elite, but everyone. So the question in my mind isn't so much what went wrong in the Islamic world, but what went right in the European world. This statement isn't intended as a criticism of Lewis; he's merely tracing the history of a question which has in fact been asked in the Islamic world. But I do criticize Lewis for his acceptance of the Islamic narrative, that up until the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, the world of Islam was far more advanced than Latin Christendom, and it was only comparitively late in history that Christendom surpassed the Islamic world. In one crucial area (and for the bulk of mankind, far more crucial than all the commentaries of Averroes) -- the most basic and important human skill of tool making, of technique, of technology -- Europe was far ahead of Islam.

Monday, May 06, 2002
Two quotes from the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert have been much on my mind of late. The first is from a 1981 interview with Marek Oramus reproduced in The Poetry of Survival:
...all my life, and I am nearly sixty, I have virtually stayed in one place and yet my citizenship has changed four times. I was a citizen in pre-war Poland, the Second Commonwealth; then Lwow was annexed to the West Ukraine, there is still a note in my passport stating that I was born in the USSR; then I became a Kenn Karte citizen in the German Government General and eventually I came to live in the People's Poland. I have lived through four political systems. This specific condensation is responsible for my sense of history -- some kind of empathy, an ability to understand distant epochs...
Herbert, who died a few years ago, lived to see a fifth political system, and perhaps obtained a fifth passport, when the Cold War ended. The second quote comes from an essay on a poem, "Why the Classics," that's reproduced in the same volume. Herbert reacts to a report from the Rand Corporation, written some time in the 1960s, on the approaching technological future: labor saving robots, space travel, the conquering of diseases, and instant coffee that actually tastes like real coffee:
The report is characterized by its identification of the progress of mankind with the progress of science and by its exclusion of history. As though the dull march of barbarism had never before destroyed, never before extinguished our bright visions of the future.
Herbert was a civilized man who survived the twin European barbarisms of fascism and communism. He was fond of America and Americans, but faulted us for not having the European sense of history. I tend to think we're better off without it. The price is too high, and, I'd add, the compromises it enforces are too dear. Better to destroy the march of barbarism than to sign peace treaties with it at Munich.

The Netherlands are a long way off
I'm glad I'm not the only one. I found out about the assassination of Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn from the great Prof. Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit fame late this afternoon, and I had a vague sense of a corner having been turned. Now I see that David Carr of Samizdata describes it as a tectonic plate shifting.

I'm just operating on a hunch, but I have a vague sense that Carr might be right. I also couldn't help thinking of a passage from Joseph Roth's novel, Radetzky March. A regiment on the Polish frontier has been celebrating all night, a drunken revelry. The year is 1914. The month is August. Suddenly news spreads of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, causing some consternation:
Herr von Babenhausen, a cavalry captain in the reserve, joined in the altercation. He looded hot and fanned himself with his handkerchief, pushing it into his sleeve and pulling it out again. He detached himself from the wall and came up to the table; he screwed up his eyes. "Gentlemen," he said, "Bosnia's a long way off. I attach no importance to rumors, I ignore them. If it is true, we'll know soon enough."
The Netherlands are a long way off. If Carr is right, we'll know soon enough. Of course, I certainly don't think this means a World War. But these days, the sick man of Europe is Europe, and given the continent's history, I'm not sure we'll care for the cure...

Sunday, May 05, 2002
An expected decision
The Monticello Association, which represents the direct descendents of Thomas Jefferson and his wife Martha, have decided not to allow the descendents of Sally Hemings to be buried in the Monticello graveyard, according to this article. I can't say I'm surprised, although the fact that they took three years to reach this decision is a little odd.

I'm not entirely unsympathetic to their viewpoint; about the most we can say, from the historical and scientific record, is that it's possible that Jefferson and Sally Hemings, who was his slave, had a sexual liason that produced one or more offspring. There is nothing conclusive either way, in my humble opinion, and human nature being what it is, one would not expect people who derive some measure of satisfaction from their relationship to a famous and important man to conclude that a charge made by his political enemies nearly 200 years ago was correct, and that their relative was somewhat less lofty than the more favorable biographies have painted him.

I'll have more to say on this subject in future posts.