paleo Ideofact

Friday, August 23, 2002
 
Injustice
Perhaps that's not quite the right word, perhaps suffocation would be more apt to describe these lines from Zbigniew Herbert, from a poem called The Trial (ably translated by John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter), that really need no description, beyond a little context. Herbert was a Polish poet who lived through both the German occupation and the Soviet-sponsored People's Republic.
policeman the tribunal witnesses the audience
they belonged to the party of the those without any pity
and even my defender smiling pleasantly
was an honorary member of the firing squad


Thursday, August 22, 2002
 
Pascal
Ram Ahluwalia over at the Post Politics blog writes that it was a shame for science that Blaise Pascal diverted his talents into obscure theological debates. I tend to think the contrary argument could be made: it was something of a shame for theology that Pascal spent so much of his early life puttering around with mathematics and mechanics. Both propositions, though, are wrong.

Like Swedenborg, to a lesser extent like Descartes, Pascal was a man of science who drew back from the precipice of the implications of his learning. Swedenborg invented his own theology, perceived through visions; Descartes clung to the ghost in the machine; for Pascal, there was a momentary visionary experience, the date and time of which he had written down and sewn into his cloak, to forever remind him of the transcendent. I sometimes get the feeling, reading Pascal, that all the asceticism, his very logical wager, even the fragments of his planned but never completed Pensees--which was to be a grand work of Christian apologetics--seem like a grasping at something that eludes him, and attempt to hold onto a moment of certainty in a world in which science had shattered all the certainties.

I should add, in all fairness, that it seems Ram is less concerned with Pascal than with an interesting column he links to.

Wednesday, August 21, 2002
 
Smooth
I wonder if this lawyer has any idea what kind of media he'll get if he sues the United States and news outlets (the Arab News piece doesn't specify which companies will be sued, but since the article says media reports about his clients will be part of the suit, it appears media companies will be among the defendents) for causing physical and psychological damages to Saudis in the wake of September 11? Not that he's not concerned about it:
"We need money to appoint American lawyers to defend our cases and ensure good media coverage to influence US public opinion," he added.
Sometimes, a lawsuit or the threat of a lawsuit has a chilling effect on newspapers, magazines and the networks. I somehow think this might not be one of those occasions. Of course, if it is, it's unlikely that he'd get any coverage at all. Smooth move.

Tuesday, August 20, 2002
 
Threat
Joe Katzman, whose blog I always enjoy, mentions a Stratfor piece arguing that the Bush administration is backing down from a near-term war with Iraq. Joe's certainly a more astute observer of this stuff than I, but what interested me about the Stratfor piece more than its discussion of Iraq is the implication that al Qaeda is still a threat:
A reversal of policy on Iraq was necessary in terms of both long- term U.S. anti-terrorism goals and short-term preparedness for new al Qaeda attacks.

***

...the administration accepted that Iraq is peripheral to its primary strategic concern: al Qaeda. And while the United States may have the firepower to defeat the Iraqi army, it needs intelligence as much as rifles to defeat al Qaeda. That intelligence comes from allies in the Middle East, and the United
States cannot afford for it to dry up.

Aside from some small skirmishes in Afghanistan and a few thwarted solo efforts, al Qaeda has been inert since Sept. 11. With elections approaching and the market psychology uneasy in the United States, now would be an opportune time from its standpoint for an attack.

Moreover, al Qaeda has placed itself under pressure to demonstrate that it remains intact and effective, after a spokesman announced in June that the group would strike again soon. And as Al Qaeda cannot afford the perception that it was crushed by the United States, Washington cannot afford to be expending all its political capital on a war with Iraq, only to be blindsided by an al Qaeda attack in the United States.
Stratfor isn't predicting an al Qaeda attack, but they seem to be operating under the assumption that such an attack is possible. I found this striking, because reading the papers and reading blogs, one rarely encounters mentions of an imminent threat posed by al Qaeda to Americans on U.S. soil. I'm not saying there is one, but then again, had you asked me, I would have said the same thing last September 10.

 
Sympathy
Aziz Poonawalla links a post by NZBear titled "Religion of Peace Update" which, as one can probably imagine, details yet another example of backwardness supposedly justified by Islam. Aziz writes,
NZBear's use of the phrase "religion of peace" is as offensive as the idiot tribals morons who make boneheaded and immoral decisions based on tribal cultural traditions and then wrap them in an out-of-context Qur'anic verse to make sure no one dares argue.
to which NZBear replies in part (as will be clear from the numbering)
4) In fact, I think it's patently obvious that Islam (or any dense religious or cultural tradition) is sufficiently complex that it can be, and has been, interpreted in vastly different ways by various peoples. Some are good, some are bad, and some are indifferent.
5) The point being: it is stupid to condemn Islam as a whole for the actions of some of its followers. However, it is equally stupid to absolve Islam entirely.
For what it's worth, I have some sympathy for Aziz. Like NZBear, I've corresponded with him via email, and traded chat about everything from SUVs to religion to family to work. He's recommended one fine book to me (by the way, sorry Aziz, I've read all of 30 pages so far -- it's the sort of book that demands a certain amount of thought and contemplation, and doesn't lend itself to being read on the train on the way to work, where I seem to do most of my reading), and suggested a few others that I haven't acquired for Ideofact Central's eclectic library.

Beyond the fellow feeling I have for him as an individual, I also can't help feeling some sympathy beyond that. I read quite a bit of the blogosphere every day, and I find that the distinction between what is genuinely Islamic and what is Arab or Pakistani or Afghani etc. cultural practice is often blurred, or not made at all. And I have to add that I feel a little guilty, since I'm not always careful to make that distinction myself. And as I've said before and hopefully will say again, I've never been convinced that it is Islam in and of itself with which we are at war, but rather with a bunch of lunatics who believe that Islam justifies flying a few airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Beyond that, I tend to think the main problem of the Middle East is tyranny.

I'm not a great fan of Thomas Paine, but I've always liked the fact that he began Common Sense by referencing the Old Testament (which few people today would regard as a source of democratic ideals). I'm with Paine on the Middle East though, and the rotten societies there -- whether run by the local variety of homegrown Islamist tyranny (the Saudis, the Iranians) or Western-style gangster states (Iraq, Syria) or a bizarre hybrid of the two (Arafat's Palestinian Authority) -- have one thing in common, and it's not a particularly orthodox interpretation of the Qur'an.

I'm not a practicing Christian, but I do have a certain affinity for truth. I find it insulting to read Islamist websites, or secular ones for that matter, which characterize Christianity on the basis of the bloody religious wars of the 15th and 16th centuries, or the witch hunts, or the Inquisition, or the pogroms against Jews, as if that were all that Christianity entailed. Part of our Judeo-Christian heritage is the notion that all souls are equal in God's eyes. This found expression in a phrase among the most profound words in the English language: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness..."

Islam shares the concept of the equality of souls before God. It has not found expression in anything like our Declaration, it is not the organizing principle of any predominantly Muslim society, but the concept is there, and is something which perhaps can be built upon.

 
Hoax
I mostly enjoyed the U.S. News & World Report issue devoted to one of my favorite subjects, hoaxes. They cover quite a bit of ground, although I was a little uncomfortable with some of the things they characterized as hoaxes. Crop circles, the 1770 automaton that supposedly beat humans playing chess, and the Sports Illustrated story about a Mets phenom able to throw a baseball 165 miles per hour all seem to fit the bill. But the Scottsboro boys? And even worse, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion? Norman Cohn wrote a book on the Protocols with the horrifyingly appropriate title, Warrant for Genocide.

I quibble with some omissions as well. Why didn't they include, say, Walter Duranty's Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting for the New York Times of the lack of a famine in Ukraine in the 1930s (when something like 7 million people were starved to death as a matter of state policy), which was surely as much of a hoax as the Protocols, or say Steven Glass, the New Republic reporter who wrote 27 fabricated stories (and is mentioned)?

Of Duranty, the great historian Robert Conquest wrote in The Harvest of Sorrow:
...an even clearer proof of the discrepancy between what he knew and what he reported is to be found in a despatch of 30 September 1933 from the British Charge d'affaires in Mosocow, which we quoted earlier: 'According to Mr. Duranty the population of the North Caucasus and the Lower Volga had decreased in the past year by three million, and the population of the Ukraine by four to five million. The Ukraine has been bled white...Mr. Duranty thinks it quite possible that as many as ten million people may have died directly or indirectly of from lack of food in the Soviet Union during the past year.'

What the American public got was not this straight stuff, but the false reporting. Its influence was enormous and long-lasting.
I don't mean to dredge up Walter Duranty gratuitously, but as long as U.S. News is going to label fabricated stories and genocide as hoaxes, they might as well combine the two.

Incidentally, I was sad to see that my favorite historical hoax was not mentioned: the Fama Fraternitatis, or Rosicrucian manifesto, which fooled even Descartes.

Sunday, August 18, 2002
 
Primer
Arab News has published a ten point primer on Islam for American readers, written by Gary Leupp, a professor at Tufts and author of Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan. I point this out only to note that it appears that Islam is not Prof. Leupp's primary area of specialization.

For what it is worth, I happen to agree with the main thrust of his ten points: Islam, the religion, is not what we're at war with. (Although I'm not entirely sure that the good doctor would agree with me when I note that we do have a problem with those people who murder and justify it with reference to Islam.) There's very little else I agree with in his diatribe.

The first thing that raised my eyebrows were these lines, written about the United States:
This is a country, after all, in which only a small minority of high school students can readily locate Afghanistan on the map, or are aware that Iranians and Pakistanis are not Arabs. As an educator, in Asian Studies, at a fairly elite university, I am painfully aware of this ignorance. But I realize it serves a purpose. It is highly useful to a power structure that banks on knee-jerk popular support whenever it embarks on a new military venture, at some far-off venue, on false pretexts immediately discernable to the better educated, but lost on the general public. The generally malleable mainstream press takes care of the rest.
Well, yes, and I'm sure your students must love being told how ignorant they are every fall. I'm not persuaded that students in other countries have a very accurate picture of United States history (I'm not persuaded that our own students do either), but let's pass over his calling his intendend audience a bunch of manipulated dupes and see how he does in the next graph.
I don't mean to suggest that the academic cognosenti, as a "class," habitually counter this ignorance and protest the imperialist interventions that Washington routinely undertakes. Some of them may indeed support the venture, cynically asserting that the advertised pretext fulfills some sort of valid function, regardless of the lies and distortions that surround it. (I think of the depiction in the media of the "Rambouillet Accords" concerning Yugoslavia in 1999 as "the will of the international community," when one Contact Group member, Russia, rejected the US-dictated plan for Kosovo outright, and several European states only signed on after their arms were twisted nearly out of their sockets. I think of the calculated, extreme exaggeration of the number of Kosovar victims of Serbian forces as the bombing of Yugoslavia began. The lies surrounding that bombing were obvious to anyone studying the situation, but even some rather progressive academics were all for "Operation Allied Force.") American academe is---unfortunately--- whatever its right-wing critics may contend, not particularly left or anti-imperialist. In any case, such ignorance is not just a national embarrassment; it's really dangerous. Raw material for a made-in-USA version of fascism.
But of course. The horrors of the Kosovo intervention. Why didn't we let that progressive force in history, Slobodan Milosevic, run over the Kosovars? Obviously, the fortune to be made from Kosovo. And of course, Americans were too ignorant to know that their government was engaged in a campaign to save Muslims from Orthodox Christrians (if they even know what a Muslim is).

Having set himself up as an utterly trustworthy dispenser of information, with a sound moral compass (when in doubt, go with Milosevic), he next tells us
I have prepared this little primer on Islam for Americans (suitable for ages 13 and above, so appropriate for high school use), dealing not with its theology so much as its general character as an important force in the world, presently encountering unprecedented, unprincipled attack from various quarters. (Oh, and by the way, I'm not a Muslim, but what those on the Christian right revile as a "secular humanist.")
Ah, yes, a secular humanist. No doubt Osama would love to have you over to his undisclosed location for tea, crumpets, and a lively discussion of homosexuality in early modern Japan, if only it weren't for the Christian right stultifying all intellectual discussion and scanning the landscape with high tech satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles, just waiting for a professor from a fairly prestigious university to poke his head out of the tent so they can strike. I loved the line about "suitable for 13 year olds," and of course, it is neither unprecedented nor unprincipled for Americans to attack anything. Just ask Richard Nixon.

Next we have the ten points. The first is that Islam is roughly 1,400 years old, so it was not started as an anti-U.S. conspiracy. Prof. Leupp's scholarship never lets one down. As to the second point,
Islam's teachings are contained in a fairly compact book, the Qur'an, which Muslims believe was dictated to the Prophet Muhammad by the archangel Gabriel. They believe of it precisely what Jews and Christians believe of their scriptures: that is, it's the Word of God. This book, like the Bible, demands belief in monotheism; refers to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jesus, etc. (far more space is given to Mary, mother of Jesus, in the Qur'an than in the New Testament); has a substantial legalistic component reminiscent of the Old Testament Book of Leviticus, and poetic content as beautifully uplifting as the Book of Psalms. For religious and secular scholars alike, it is absolutely clear that Islam stems from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Indeed, we should think in terms of the "Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition."
I beg to differ. First, the Qur'an is about the length of the New Testament, not exactly a compact book. Secondly, while various Christian sects interpret the Old and New Testaments differently, and various Jewish sects treat the Old Testament differently, I know of no Islamic sect that does not regard the Qur'an as being the perfect word of God. The relation of the different faiths to their sacred texts is something that interests me, but that's beside the point. You can be a good Christian and still believe that the Gospels contain some errors; I'm not persuaded you can be a good Muslim and believe the same about the Qur'an. Again, I'm not making a value judgment, just pointing out a rather fundamental difference.

I also liked this little aside:
The point is---for better or worse---Muslims have a whole lot more in common with the dominant religious trends in the US than do, say, Buddhists or Hindus.
Of course, legally, there is no "dominant religion" in the United States, and beyond that, what precisely is the point? Is the good Prof. Leupp trying to redirect the ire of the Christian right from secular humanists and Muslims toward to Indians and Buddhists?

I'll skip ahead a bit. Point five tells us,
The Qu'ran does NOT call upon Muslims to KILL all non-Muslims. It calls for the destruction of "infidels," meaning principally Arabs who, during the time of Muhammad, practiced idolatry and polytheism. Again: this is a seventh-century book, produced in a specific historical context! It, and the Muslim religion, should be studied and understood objectively, dispassionately.
The problem here, obviously, is that Islamic extremists do not study and understand the Qur'an obectively or dispassionately. There are quite a few people who read injunctions to slaughter infidels and interpret them as justification for blowing themselves up in a crowded restaurant full of women, children and the elderly. And, more broadly, anyone who is a believing Muslim won't be dispassionate about the Qur'an, just as a believing Christian won't be dispassionate about the New Testament or a believing Jew won't be dispassionate about the Torah. That doesn't mean that any of the three will feel the need to wear an exploding belt, but unless we all wake up as secular humanists tomorrow, this point has very little to offer us.

I'll skip over the rest -- there's plenty more idiocies to read, too many to tally. He ends with this line:
But such ignorance, in action, in a world where religious prejudice generates idiotic action from Belfast, to the Balkans, to Gujarat, to the Moluccas, is perilous ignorance indeed.
It amazes me that he includes the Balkans, unless he views poor Milosevic as a member of a persecuted religion...