An ideofact is an artifact imbued with meanings other than its technical function.
Friday, April 18, 2003
Via the Corner, I came across this story on Madonna's latest interest:
The wake-up call came seven years ago, when Madonna began studying Kabbalah. The Jewish mystical tradition predates organized religions and offers a path to fulfillment based on spiritual laws of the universe. Some aspects parallel Judaism. Rather than studying the Talmud, an academic interpretation of Jewish law, Kabbalists embrace the Zohar, a mystical interpretation devised by decoding ancient texts rather than accepting literal accounts. Conversant in Kabbalistic teachings and origins, Madonna considers herself a student, not a guru.There was some criticism (and here too) of USAToday's characterization of Kabbalah, and whether Madonna was a serious student of the tradition.
I have read a few books on the subject, but I certainly wouldn't consider myself a Kabbalist. (I have also read Ted William's book The Science of Hitting but I still can't hit a curve ball.) My understanding is that the sine qua non of the Kabbalah is a knowledge of Hebrew -- which stems from a belief that the words in the Torah were the actual words spoken by God to create the universe, and that the adept can directly experience God through meditating over the Hebrew text of the Kaballah.
So the obvious test, it seems to me, of Madonna's sincerity in pursuing her studies is whether or not she's learned Hebrew, a question that USAToday doesn't answer.
Everything's Gone Green
...on my hit counter at least. Thanks to Aziz at Unmedia and Jaed at Bitter Sanity, this has been a banner day for hits (unusual for a Friday too).
Ublog, in response to my quoting of George Steiner's description of America in this post, writes (or would write if blogger's damnable archives were working -- it's an April 17 post; go here and scroll down):
an eloquent description of american society, probably representative of what most americans feel is and should be the right description of american democracy and what it has to offer the world. the question for me, as someone who was raised in a different and far more conservative environment, is this: is the idealistic picture painted by steiner consistent with my everyday experience?I can't speak to anyone's everyday experience, but Steiner's quote does not refer to the attainment of goals, only of the striving to reach them:
And when America says, “Just be yourself,” it is not saying, “Do not better yourself.” It is saying: “Go after that Nobel Prize if that’s what fires your soul. Or that heated swimming pool.” Not because America believes that heated swimming-pools are the Parthenon or even a necessity. But because they do seem to bring pleasure, and not very much harm. “Move up the ladder, if you can,” says America, “because the desire to live decently, to give your family a comfortable home, to send your children to schools better than those you attended yourself, to earn the regard of your neighbors, is not some capitalist vice, but a universal desire. Do you know, Professore, America is just about the first nation and society in human history to encourage common, fallible, frightened humanity to feel at home in its skin.Perhaps Ubaid does not experience these desires, or perhaps he believes that they are unattainable and hence not worth pursuing; either way, it's a shame.
To take just a few points from his second paragraph -- he complains of "curbing rights in the name of national security..." This is true, and disturbing, and something I'm deeply concerned about, but nevertheless some perspective is in order. I am among those who regard Abraham Lincoln as our greatest President. The Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural are among the finest speeches ever delivered by an American. Yet during the Civil War, Lincoln went far further in restricting Civil Liberties than the current administration:
As the Civil War started, in the very beginning of Lincoln's presidential term, a group of "Peace Democrats" proposed a peaceful resolution to the developing Civil War by offering a truce with the South, and forming a constitutional convention to amend the U.S. Constitution to protect States' rights. The proposal was ignored by the Unionists of the North and not taken seriously by the South. However, the Peace Democrats, also called copperheads by their enemies, publicly criticized Lincoln's belief that violating the U.S. Constitution was required to save it as a whole. With Congress not in session until July, Lincoln assumed all powers not delegated in the Constitution, including the power to suspend habeas corpus. In 1861, Lincoln had already suspended civil law in territories where resistance to the North's military power would be dangerous. In 1862, when copperhead democrats began criticizing Lincoln's violation of the Constitution, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus throughout the nation and had many copperhead democrats arrested under military authority because he felt that the State Courts in the north west would not convict war protesters such as the copperheads. He proclaimed that all persons who discouraged enlistments or engaged in disloyal practices would come under Martial Law.I may be mistaken, but I can't recall antiwar protestors being arrested for their rhetoric, or tried by military courts for opposing the war in Iraq. And I think the Civil War example is a demonstration of those checks and balances, which still function, albeit imperfectly.
As to the "ever widening gap between the rich and the poor, an economy that has steadily spiralled southwards..." all I can say is that compared to past periods of history -- the robber baron era of the post-Civil War years, the great Depression, even the stagflation that I grew up with in the 1970s, with double digit inflation, interest rates, and unemployment, the current economic downturn is mild. That doesn't make it any easier for those who have lost their jobs, of course, or those who have difficulty finding a first one. But, like the "sinful lack of reasoned statemenship amongst the country's leaders," voters can choose different leaders in the coming election if they believe the administration's policies are responsible for the current downturn -- another one of those checks and balances. And in any case, the striving for betterment -- the desire for the swimming pool or the Nobel, or, for that matter, to follow Steiner in another part of the passage, to be a couch potato or an auto-mechanic, a break-dancer, a mile-runner, a broker, a truck driver or a drifter, will go on regardless of who is in the White House, or what the GDP is.
Again, I can't speak to Ubaid's personal experiences, but I suspect that the Steiner quote still holds true for America. Our next door neighbors had a baby recently, and I ran into the proud father a few days ago on his way back from opening her college savings plan. Tonight I poured through a picture book of the ruins of ancient Egypt with my ever-inquisitive four year old, while my wife researched microwave ovens online. If the weather's decent, I'll work in the yard tomorrow morning and take the family for a walk some place quaint in the afternoon. Because such things fire my soul, I'll try to find an hour in the afternoon to read a good book, and a little time in the evening to spend on this blog. Undoubtedly there will be some minor home repair job I'll have to tackle, and, assuming my normal results, turn into a major project for a contractor. I might get my telescope out to gaze at the stars, or perhaps the wife and I will manage to watch one of the movies we rented. And while I do all these things, I'll be fairly comfortable in my own skin. I won't have to worry that a member of the regime decides that the hours I've spent getting rid of weeds or trimming the bushes make my house so desirable that he's going to kick me out of it. I won't have to gaze lovingly at a colossal statue of my dear leader as I stand in an endless line hoping that the party members haven't bought all the desirable goods. I won't have to worry that a chance remark -- let alone a blog entry -- offended the regime and thus my wife will be tortured and my child thrown into prison. Ubaid seems to think that imposing such a system on the rest of the world (something the U.S. is not prepared or even attempting to do) would be a bad thing. I agree with him to the extent that it would be a species of Utopian thinking to imagine such a thing is possible through military might alone. But then, one country (Iraq) does not a world make...
Wednesday, April 16, 2003
I've added a few more blogs to the blogroll -- some long overdue, I should add. The list has gotten so crowded that it's on the verge of becoming useless. I've thought about categorizing it, or providing some kind of hierarchy, but it seems like such a pain to do so. Which is one of the reasons why alphabetizing it makes me shudder. Also, I should get rid of some old links that don't work.
But speaking of links, might I suggest this one...Joe Katzman's post on the ten plagues of Iraq.
Time for a brief break from the Great War. But nevertheless, one of the next figures I was going to mention, Sati al-Husri, figures prominently in this commentary from KurdishMedia:
Somewhere in the 1920s, the Arab national idea, which had hitherto been a reformist and even liberal notion allied to a moderate Islam, and well-integrated into the socio-cultural map of the Middle East, took a wrong turn. It began to develop definite racist overtones, hegemonistic values, and an exclusivist and intolerant perspective on politics and society.The whole piece is of interest. (Also, a note about KurdishMedia: When I first started reading it, I found that the vast majority of articles were written in broken English -- either they were translations by not very competent translators or the writings of non-native English speakers. Now the bulk of the articles are written in fairly crisp English prose -- a vast improvement.)
The reference to "exemplars of Arab 'democracy'" reminded me of a this post on Ublog:
The West's and, increasingly, America's assurance that ideals like freedom, democracy, government and a free economy as defined and studied in the West is the only possible way humankind should practice them, is in serious need of questioning by the West's philosophers and thinkers. What is pitiful is that Western democracies have chosen to ignore these ideas when it suits them, think China's volume of trade in the U.S., and have enforced them when there are factors other than concern for fellow human beings influencing their decisions.Of course, the West's philosophers and thinkers have questioned this -- with somewhat calamitous results. Crackpot biology (the freedom of a race) and crackpot economics (the freedom of a class) were posited as greater values than the freedom of the individual, with millions sacrificed to such 'questioning.' But beyond that, there is a bit of nonsense in the way the question is posed -- no Western society is a libertarian ideal, no market is entirely free from government regulation, no country in the West exclusively practices "democracy" after the fashion of Athens. The West has tried (and, regrettably, sometimes failed) to balance freedom with justice, majority rule with minority rights, a free economy with a social safety net. If the scales tip too far one way or the other, there are elections to tip things in the other direction. Meanwhile, if you were an Iraqi up until a few days ago, and you thought that maybe there were one too many massive portraits of Saddam on your block, there wasn't much of an opportunity to lodge a complaint. (A point I'll return to in a minute...)
I find I keep returning to this bit from George Steiner over and over again, but I think it expresses so well what the American -- and here I think this is specific to America, as opposed to other Western democracies -- notion of freedom implies:
About which, I mean American, you and I really know very little. To me it sounds like the society that says to every man and woman: “Be what you want to be. Be yourself. The world was not made only for geniuses and neurotics, for the obsessed and the inspired. It was made for you and you and you. If you choose to try and be an artist or a thinker or a pure scholar, that’s fine. We will neither inhibit you nor put you on a pedestal. If you prefer to be a couch-potato, an auto-mechanic, a break-dancer, a mile-runner, a broker, if you prefer to be a truck-driver or even a drifter, that’s fine too. Perhaps even better. Because it so happens that ideological passion and ascetic illumination, that dogma and sacrifice, have not brought only light and aid to this approximate world of ours. They have sown interminable hatred and self-destruction.” And when America says, “Just be yourself,” it is not saying, “Do not better yourself.” It is saying: “Go after that Nobel Prize if that’s what fires your soul. Or that heated swimming pool.” Not because America believes that heated swimming-pools are the Parthenon or even a necessity. But because they do seem to bring pleasure, and not very much harm. “Move up the ladder, if you can,” says America, “because the desire to live decently, to give your family a comfortable home, to send your children to schools better than those you attended yourself, to earn the regard of your neighbors, is not some capitalist vice, but a universal desire. Do you know, Professore, America is just about the first nation and society in human history to encourage common, fallible, frightened humanity to feel at home in its skin.The quote, by the way, is from Steiner's excellent novella Proofs, which in many ways is an ideofact of 1989 -- the end of the twentieth century, or so we thought.
Finally, an April 9, 2003 post from War Words caught my eye. Benny's archives don't seem to be working (the blogger curse) so I'll reproduce the post in full. But first a note on his methodology -- he runs a pair of quotes side by side under a headline, with the intention, I imagine, of making one think, or see inconsistencies, or contrasts, or what not. So, here's the post:
IconoclastsI confess that I don't understand the juxtaposition. Surely Benny isn't suggesting that Saddam and the Buddha are equally worthy figures? Or that the products of totalitarian art are the equivalent of those of the unknown sculptors that carved the massive figures that were levelled by the Taliban? Or that Coalition forces are the moral equivalents of the Taliban?
Speaking of Saddam, while looking for the Steiner quote, I came across this post, on the totalitarian's reaction to Sept. 11:
The national security of America and the security of the world could be attained if the American leaders and those who beat the drums for them among the rulers of the present time in the West or outside the West become rational, if America disengages itself from its evil alliance with Zionism, which has been scheming to exploit the world and plunge it in blood and darkness, by using America and some Western countries.Somehow, I can't see the Buddha saying quite the same thing...
The Great War, continued
In the first post in this series, I wrote:
I recall reading that the 20th Century lasted for a mere 75 years -- from the onset of the First World War to the collapse of Soviet communism. We might all recall that the first President Bush declared a New World Order -- to the consternation of Pat Robertson (whose book on the subject, by the way, is a masterpiece of paranoid delusions, replete with the Illuminati of Bavaria) ushered in by the international cooperation in Kuwait. That foundered, of course, in Bosnia. Kosovo was not declared as such, but represented something of a different order from the one declared at the end of the Cold War. And then Sept. 11, and another new era -- the 90s reduced to a vacation from history, and a new new world order, or new world crisis, born.I was thinking in terms of maps, of peoples, societies, governments and states. One of the interesting things in reading histories of the Great War is the divergence between what governments gave as their rationales for going to war, and what their aims in the conflict were. I was thinking of some of that in the context of the end of the Ottoman Empire, and the reordering of the lands of that empire -- much (though not all) of the modern Middle East -- one of those unresolved issues of the Great War.
Paul Berman, in Terror and Liberalism, takes a rather different tack, seeking the evolution of modern ideologies like Islamism and Ba'athism (both of which he labels totalitarian) in intellectual currents that argued for the terrorism of the sort that shattered the world one summer day in Sarajevo in 1914:
There was a period in the 1990s when it became fashionable among intellectuals to speak about the "short" twentieth century -- a century that got started a little tardily in 1914 and ended a little prematurely in 1989. This remark about 1914 and 1989 expressed a fairly specific view of modern history, and we had better glance back at that view today, if only to identify a few more ideas and delusions that led so many people -- in the United States, nearly everyone -- to underestimate the dangers of the moment.Berman notes something I discussed in the post immediately below -- an omission from the map:
The Islamists already knew that, under the right circumstances, they could establish societies of their own, as Khomeini had done. By 1989 the Sunni of Afghanistan were visibly gliding toward an Islamic state of their own, just to show that Islam's principal denomination, and not merely the Iranian Shia, could reinaugurate the reign of the shariah. In Algeria, the Islamic Salvation Front seemed on the brink of victory. The Islamist revolutionaries had every reason to feel cheerful (if such a movement, with its lugubrious and funereal obsessions, can be said to feel cheerful) about their prospects in Lebanon, in Egypt, in the Sudan, in black Africa, and beyond, to the horizons of the Muslim world, and beyond even that. In that same 1989, Khomeini issued his fatwa against Rushdie, commanding -- I qoute the fatwa -- "all the intrepid Muslims in the world" to murder not only the novelist but his publishers "wherever they find them": a plain affirmation of Islamism's zeal to rule the world.The danger with quoting something like this is that one loses context -- Berman certainly doesn't equate totalitarianism with traditional Islam, but rather with the political movements, totalitarian in nature, that, as part of their programs, adopted Islamic symbols. He notes as well that Mussolini invoked the Roman Empire, Franco the Catholic Crusades, and Hitler the pagan Germanic past. Underlying all was the notion of a party as government, the ideology as a belief that brooked no dissent, and foreign enemies holding back the chosen people from their mythical destiny.
Monday, April 14, 2003
The Great War, continued
Among the many poorly perused volumes that make up the Ideofact library is a slim volume called The Ottomans: Dissolving Images, by Andrew Wheatcroft. Not so much a history, it's a collection of perceptions, misconceptions and moments through history. Wheatcroft notes in his introduction,
My mental subtitle for this book -- 'disolving images' -- is not simply some convenient verbal play, but suggests both the problem and the approach I have taken. The original certainties with which I began this book have dissolved as I came to realize that my original image of the Ottomans simply did not bear up under the weight of the evidence.I don't share a lot of Wheatcroft's ideas on the subject of the Ottomans (this paragraph, from his conclusion, seems to wildly miss the mark -- ):
Modern Turkey is encumbered with its origins, but in the West it carries an additional burden of terror and loathing whose origins vanish into the far distant past. The image of the Turk, dissolving and constantly reforming, will never be free from its deep roots: in European fears of sex and violence looming out of the East.It seems to me, on the whole, that European attitudes to sex are far more frightening (and in the past were far more frightening) to the East than Eastern attitudes were to the West, particularly the relative freedom of women, which Ottoman reformers began noting and commenting on in the 19th century as being, perhaps, one of the ways in which the West outstripped the East. But let's leave all that aside for a later date.
I noted immediately below the rather cursory treatment the end of the Ottoman Empire received in one short treatment of the history of the First World War. (I also promised something on Arab nationalism, but that will have to wait until I get through this piece -- sorry for the delay.) I don't mean to single out Michael Howard's book for this criticism, which I enjoyed immensely, largely because it reintroduced me to a subject I hadn't given much thought to since my college days. I vaguely recall a course I took on the Great War that similarly ignored the end of empire -- regarding it as something long overdue, and nothing to trouble oneself over, beyond that business of Turks slaughtering Armenians.
As I think back to that class, to some books I've read on the subject, I can't help but feel cheated by this view. The Ottoman Empire was, even in 1914, the pre-eminent Muslim polity. It had been so for some centuries -- in 1453, the Ottomans fulfilled a longstanding goal of various Caliphs, Amirs and Sultans by conquering the Byzantine Empire. At its peak, the Ottoman Empire ruled an area that stretched in a vast arc from the Dalmation coast, through Hungary, north of the Black Sea to the western coast of the Caspian, sough to the Persian Gulf, and west again over the coast of Northern Africa as far as present day Algeria. There were other Muslim governments concurrent with it in Persia and India, later in Egypt, but none so grand.
I'll borrow slightly from Wheatcroft's approach, and note that the Ottoman Empire was not merely the Jihad state par excellence (and I mean the term in the sense of expanding that portion of the world in which the revelation of the Prophet was paramount). After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, many of them sought refuge in the benign bosom of the Ottoman Empire. Sarajevo's Jewish community dates to that period, as did the Jewish community in Thessaloniki in Greece -- now, as in Sarajevo, largely extinct.
But those are posts for another time; let's return to the era of the Great War, or rather the run up to it. In the post below, I quoted a reference from a European -- specifically, Sir Henry McMahon, writing to Husain Ibn Ali, the Sherif of Mecca -- to "the Turkish yoke," and how the end of the Great War would lead to throwing off that yoke (of course, it did). But how did those wearing that yoke perceive it?
Bernard Lewis notes in The Political Language of Islam that in the 18th century, a bit of political myth became current -- the notion that, when the Ottomans conquered the Mamluk sultanate in Cairo in 1517, the last of the Abassid caliphs (they held no political power at that point) transferred the caliphate to the conquering Ottomans. (Ugly sentence, I know. Bear with me.) The story does not date from the 16th century; according to Lewis, it was almost certainly untrue. If the Ottomans were not the spiritual leaders of the Ummah, they certainly were the political leaders:
The Ottomans, from time to time, used caliphal titles, but so did many other relatively minor Muslim monarchs. What gave added weight to the Ottoman use of these titles was, of course, the great military and naval power of the Ottoman empire and its position as the champion of Ilsam against Christian Europe on the one hand and Shi'ite Iran on the other. This seems at times to have won a certain recognition for the Ottomans, in other Muslim states, as leaders, though not rulers, of the Sunni Islamic world. This did not, however, represent any claim on the part of the Ottoman sultans to jurisdiction, as disctinct from a vague primacy, over non-Ottoman Muslims. The age of the universal caliphate had come to an end, and no Muslim sovereign advanced a claim to the universal caliphate until the revival of the idea by the Ottomans in the late eighteenth century.It's worth noting that the idea of the Caliphate returned in the context of a treaty in which the Ottoman sultan was forced to cede independence of Crimean Muslim lands for eventual annexation by the Russian empire; he asserted -- as Lewis notes to save face -- the notion that he retained their spiritual allegiance. Lewis goes on to note that while the notion of the caliphate having passed from the Abassids to the Ottomans was most likely a fabrication...
...it won increasing acceptance, and developed rapidly in the late nineteenth century. Associated with the new pan-Islamism, it appealed strongly to Muslim loyalties at a time when the western and eastern European imperial powers were asserting themselves as the effective rulers of most of the lands of Islam. The Ottoman Empire, as the last independent Muslim state of any size and power, served as a rallying point, and the claim that the Ottoman sultan was the head of all Islam had a ready appeal. This claim was formally asserted in the first Ottoman constitution of 1876. It remained official Ottoman doctrine until the caliphate was abolished by the Turkish Republic in 1924.Lewis notes elsewhere, in a footnote, in regard to the Great War, that the Ottoman Empire declared jihad against the Allied and associated powers:
This jihad -- contemptuously styled "the holy war made in Germany" by the Dutch Islamicist Snouck Hurgronje (reprinted in Verspreide Geschriften, vol. 3 [Bonn and Leipzig, 1923] pp. 257ff.; cf. the comments of Becker, Islamstudien, vol. 2, 281ff.) -- failed utterly in its purpose of arousing the Muslim soldiers in the British, French, and Russian imperial armies against their European masters.Lewis notes that the older concept was later revived. While the Ottoman call of the Great War fell largely on deaf ears, it would return, issued by the likes of Qutb and bin Laden. Unlike the Ottomans, they both found a way to adapt that call to the demands of a particular species of modernity...