An ideofact is an artifact imbued with meanings other than its technical function.
Thursday, May 22, 2003
Zack Ajmal has moved Procrastination to a spiffy new, high rent Moveable Type neighborhood, complete with bells and whistles. I've updated the permalink on the left as well. I've always found him to be an enjoyable read.
Alexandra has also moved to MT: Out of Lascaux is now here. I've updated the permalink as well. And I'm incredibly incredibly late in noting that Lynn B. of In Context has moved, and updating the link to the left.
I've also added a couple of new blogs to the Ideofact favorites list.
A few months ago, I reserved ideofact.com, and have been contemplating a similar move, but I'm sort of torn. On the one hand, as much as blogger has driven me bonkers of late, I do feel a certain amount of gratitude to it, and supposedly improvements are on the way. On the other hand -- and I say this in all honesty -- I'm a fairly mild mannered man who rarely loses his temper, but there have been times when I've come dangerously close to lobbing my iMac across the room out of frustration with blogger. Nothing is so frustrating as writing a lengthy post that suddenly disappears into the maw of blogger, never to be seen again. I don't know -- I'll give it some thought.
Wednesday, May 21, 2003
Whatever Xavier did, his archives are working (as of this writing) -- and here's his latest post in our ongoing discussion of tolerance. (Update: or maybe not; when I just tested the link, I got his previous post in the series; this post refers to his May 21 post.)
I feel though that we're at a bit of a crossroads, most likely because I've been so lax about defining terms, or specifying what it is exactly that I'm talking about. In this discussion of tolerance, I am particularly focusing on the rights granted to minorities by the majority culture. In medieval Europe, that means discussing the relations of the Latin Christians to deviant Christian sects and to non-Christians, a group that, except for a few brief moments, was strictly limited to Jews. In the Islamic realm, there were multiple groups -- Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Hindus, African animists, and Buddhists. Some groups fared better than others -- animists were regarded as polytheists, and given a choice of conversion or death. Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians were monotheists. The relations with Hindus were more complex; sometimes they were regarded as polytheists and brutally suppressed, at other times they fell under the "Sabian" exception, and were tolerated. While none of these groups enjoyed the same rights as Muslims, all of them fared better than Jews in Medieval Europe.
The modern age is different, a period when death on the industrial scale became practical. There was the Armenian genocide perpetrated by Muslims; and the Belgians, who seem to be operating under the delusion that their exalted history endows them with the right to be the court of last resort for crimes against humanity, turned their slice of the Congo into a human abattoir. Rather than dwell on the last cruel gasp of one empire and the sorry record of another -- it would be comic but for the slaughter -- let's return to the theme of how the Jews faired in the West.
Even after the Enlightenment, and the consequent diminishment of Catholic-Protestant religious strife, and even an ebb in the influence of religion generally, Jew-hatred continued unabated. In the early 19th century, perhaps recognizing that Jew-hatred appealed only to the superstitious masses, hatred on racial rather than doctrinal grounds was proposed. In 1879, a hack journalist coined the term "anti-Semitism," which allowed respectable people to say, "I don't hate Jews, I'm just an anti-Semite." (I know, that sounds rather like saying, "I'm not a bigot, just a racist," but the distinction was real. Instead of hating Jews because of the blood libel or the charges of deicide, you could do so because of the racial inferiority inherent in the Jew. By being an anti-Semite, in other words, you could hate and still be in step with scientific spirit of the age.)
If we are talking about Europe in the 20th Century, I don't know how one can look at that history and describe it as tolerant. One of the most advanced states in terms of culture, industry and science embarked on a program of mass murder as a final solution to the longstanding Jewish question. Yes, the Nazis were bastards, but what about ordinary Germans? What about Frenchmen only too happy to collaborate with them? What about Poles who were either indifferent or willing accomplices? What about Stalin, who, before drawing his last breath, was planning a campaign against "Jewish doctors" and "cosmopolitanism"? Where do we draw the line that denotes what is Western and what is not?
Xavier mentions that the Middle Ages were not just pogroms, the inquisition, intolerance, and what not. I heartily agree. It was an age, as he mentions, and as I've often written, of technological development par excellence. One of my favorite lines from the period is from St. Bernard, who round about 1100 A.D. said,
We are as dwarfs mounted on the shoulders of giants, so that although we perceive many more things than they, it is not because our vision is more piercing or our stature higher, but because we are carried and elevated higher thanks to their gigantic size.Bernard said in the context of a particularly medieval notion -- the idea of progress -- but he was smart enough to recognize that progress in his era depended on what came before. The West has produced many great men -- immediately Washington springs to mind, but also Jefferson, Madison and Burke; Lincoln and Grant; Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King. My list is ridiculously, insultingly brief, and I concede that each of the men I name had his faults. I would argue only that these are some of the giants on whose shoulders we stand, not that we ourselves are giants, as worthy as Belgians to put history in the dock, and judge it wanting.
By way of illustration, I find it odd that Xavier writes,
As tolerant as Islamic society was in the medieval period, it was simply impossible to imagine one of the caliphs signing a document similar to the Magna Carta or the various constituent parts of Islamic society defending their well-defined spheres sometimes by laws sometimes by arms against the umma or the caliph.I'm just a hack amateur, so I can't answer the second half of Xavier's statement, but as to the first -- I'm not sure I can imagine most of the rulers of Europe signing a document similar to Magna Carta, from Charlemagne through Napoleon to Stalin.
Xavier also writes,
Islamic thought froze the society of the 7th century in time; hence, the caliphs or any political authority couldn't reform due to changing circumstances. Or if they did they had to assuage the imams who would often reject the reforms because change was intrinisically bad. Or else the latter were ignored until the traditionalists rallied enough influence to stimie the reforms. In sum, Islamic tolerence decayed because the political authourities were prohibited by religious strictures from ever changing society no matter how obvious the needs for reform.I do not dispute that Islamic countries are among the most intolerant in the world today, but I think the reasons for that are varied and cannot be blamed directly on Islam proper, that is, the religion itself. Like the post on Christian anti-semitism (or Jew hatred, for my fellow low brows), that will have to wait for another time...
Tuesday, May 20, 2003
I have a dozen or so books that, either as their main subject or in passing, lament the execution of Giordano Bruno, the 16th century philosopher, neoplatonist and astronomer/astrologist, at the hands of the Inquisition. Some of these authors stress that Bruno's Copernican views led to his condemnation; others go so far as to say that Bruno represented the new scientific man, and had to be suppressed by the Church (in my humble opinion, this is far-fetched; some of Bruno's ideas resembled modern scientific ones, although he arrived at them by an entirely different, non-scientific process). Some lament that that the life -- and hence the intellectual activity -- of such an original hermetic thinker was cut short on charges of heresy. Few dwell on what is utterly obvious: Bruno's inquisitors were absolutely correct. He was a heretic, he espoused heretical ideas and published heretical texts. Given the opportunity to recant, he at first agreed to, then retracted, persisting in his errors and sealing his fate as an unrepentant heretic. Consigned to the flames.
Were I in the unhappy position of being one of Bruno's judges, I would have had no alternative but to convict. Indeed, the decision would have been obvious. I raise all this because Xavier of Buscaraons, in his May 20th post (yes, his blogger archives are still fried; mine seem to be back, as are H.D. Miller's -- Xavier, you might want to contemplate republishing them), writes,
The Inquistion was an ecclesistical court. Specifically it's what the lawyers call a court of attribution. A law establishes the courts existence and then lists what areas of law it has competency to decide cases. If it errs in the determination of its competency, then its decision can be appeale or even annuled for being outide its powers (ultra vires in the legal jargon)The context for all this is a friendly dispute over the question of the nature of the dhimmitude. I argued that, in contrast to their Christian contemporaries, Muslim rulers practiced a fairly tolerant system. Xavier believes I underestimate the impact of the dhimmitude; in his more recent post, he goes farther and writes,
By contrast [to the inquisition, which was abolished], jihad (and by extension the dimmitude) does have univeral jursidiction because it's the duty of all Moslems to bring the jihad to the Dar el Harb (the West being the region par excellence) Reality has intruded since the 7th century and most Moselms seem to eschew the militaristic aspect of the jihad; yet it hasn't been totally repuidated. In the 1860s, the Druze massacred large numbers of Maronites and reading through the accounts; one is struck at both how the psychological effects of the dimmitude still prevailed and Turks- who were ostensibly the neutral imperial power- ensured that the Maronites were totally disarmed in the face of the Druze....I think this is confusing the issue somewhat. I am not in any sense a defender of modern Islamic extremists who preach a perpetual jihad. I do not see, though, what they have to do with, say, the Ottoman Turks of the 19th, 18th, 17th or 16th centuries (whom the Islamists explicitly and rather vehemently disavow). In any case, I've read enough bitter Islamist polemics to know that they would dispute Xavier's notion that "As terrible as the Inquisition was, it had the paradoxical effect of pushing Europe to become more tolerant," but on very different grounds than I would. I would argue that it's a little like saying that as terrible as Hitler was, he had the paradoxical effect of pushing Europe to become less anti-semitic. It's no virtue of the inquisition that its barbarity forced courageous men to battle it. I certainly don't share their view, but Islamists would argue that Europe never became tolerant; that after subjugating the New World, India, much of Asia and Africa, it turned its attention in the 20th Century to the lands of Islam, and introduced intolerable things like Western laws, rights for women, and so on.
As to the historical question, I think Xavier is missing the point in my previous post on this subject: Western intolerance in the Medieval period was not limited to the Inquisition (the primary purpose of which was to persecute Christians who strayed into heresy), but was a far broader phenomenon. The blood libel had little to do with the Inquisition, for example. In Norman Cohn's excellent work The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, he writes of a sect -- the flagellants -- that were clearly heretical; it is interesting to note how he reports on their persecution of Jews at the time of the Plague
In the great massacre of European Jewry which accompanied the Black Death -- the greatest before the present century -- the flagellants played an important part. The first killings were carried out spontaneously by a populace convinced that the Jews had caused the plague by poisoning the wells. They had come to an end by March 1349; perhaps because by that time people had noticed that the plague was attacking Jews as much as Christians and was not sparing areas where all Jews had already been killed. Four months later a second massacre was launched by the propaganda of the flagellants. Wherever the authorities had so far protected the Jews, these hordes now demanded their massacre. When in July 1349, flagellants entered Frankfort they rushed straight into the Jewish quarter, where the townsfolk joined them in exterminating the entire community. .... During a flagellant ceremony at Mainz the crowd of spectators suddenly ran amok and fell upon the Jews, with the result that the largest community in Germany was annihilated. [emphasis added]I don't suppose that Xavier would argue that the Jews of Frankfort or Mainz, or anywhere else in Europe during the Black Death, had the niceties of an inquistion.
There is a fairly simple reason why the Medieval West was less tolerant than Medieval Islam; Bernard Lewis puts it nicely in Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice:
For most of the fourteen hundred years or so of the Arab Jewish encounter, the Arabs have not in fact been anti-Semitic as that word is used in the West -- not because they themselves are Semites, a meaningless statement, but because for the most part they are not Christians.It's worth noting that Lewis is absolutely aware (and quite eloquent in denouncing) modern Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism; but he rejects the notion that it had longstanding roots in Muslim culture. But that's a subject for another post...
The ever erudite H.D. Miller of Travelling Shoes has a post on a pair of odd manuscripts, one of which is the Voynich Manuscript, named for the collector who purchased it in 1912.
The manuscript is written in characters of an unknown script spelling out words of an unknown language. William Poundstone, in Labyrinths of Reason, notes,
Many of the most talented military code breakers of this century [the 20th] have tried to decipher it as a show of prowess. Herbert Yardley, the American code expert who solved the German cipher in World War I and who cracked a Japanese diplomatic cipher without knowing the Japanese language, failed with the Voynich manuscript. So did John Manly, who unscrambled the Waberski cipher, and William Friedman, who defeated the Japanese "purple code" of the 1940s. Computers have been drafted into the effort in recent years, to no avail.Dr. Miller notes that he too attempted a translation:
A few years back, while in still in graduate school at Yale, a friend and I became briefly preoccupied with the Voynich manuscript. We spent several delightful afternoons at the Beinecke studying the manuscript, its background, and all of the various theories about it. Since we were both excellent researchers and fairly well-trained paleographers, who'd done extensive work with medieval manuscripts in Latin and Arabic, our attempt was by no means an amateur one.This reminds me of a list a friend and I once compiled of nonsense dissertation titles, one of which was something like, "The Semiotics of (En)Gendered Archetypes: A Contextual Deconstruction of the Voynich Manuscript." Later, I thought of writing a few detective stories centered on a career grad student who promised for his dissertation a translation and analysis of the manuscript. Never got around to it, though -- maybe in my retirement.
Monday, May 19, 2003
I was getting to that...
First, there's an update in the post immediately below -- I do stupid things from time to time, and there's a perfect specimen on display.
Secondly, Xavier answers me (the last of the May 19 posts; blogger arvhives are proving to be incredibly reliable -- they never work), but before I had a chance to address his comments to me.
Xavier wrote, in part:
To state it coldly, the Moslems didn't need to persecute overtly -- the odd jihad might be lauched pour encourager les autres of Moselm dominance- the psychological trauma of the dhimmitude was far more effective in keeping the people of the book in line than the Inquisition.I don't know about that -- if the dhimmitude's purpose was to insure that Christians and Jews remained in an inferior social status, and had to walk in the muddy part of the street and wear distinctive clothing, that still doesn't strike me as being as bad as the various procedures of the Inquisition, which involved torture and execution. Of course, the Inquisition wasn't the only source of persecution in the Middle Ages; secular authorities, mobs, monastic orders, armies, craft guilds, etc. etc. were only too happy to get in on the act.
Of course, it's more complicated than that, but in general, whereas Islamic realms tended to have legally sanctioned relations among the religions, the Medieval Christians accepted only one true faith. It is interesting to note, for example, that when Johannes Reuchlin sought precedents for arguing that Jewish books shouldn't be burnt, he had to go all the way back to Roman legal codes.
Sunday, May 18, 2003
Through the past, brightly
Update/correction: Well, something is obtuse in the extreme in the post below, but unfortunately it's me. I obviously failed to grasp the plain meaning of the words I quoted from Fatimah's post. I'm not quite sure how it happened -- at some point last night I obviously read her words to mean that the Islamic past should be judged by the standards of the present Western notions, which isn't what she was saying at all. Rather than amend the post, I'll leave it as I originally wrote it -- a reminder of how bone-headed I sometimes can be.
I've worked and reworked the post to respond to Xavier (whom I think is very smart, and not just because he has a permalink to me on his fine blog Buscaraons and to Fatimah at Disaffected Muslim (see her May 16, 2003 post), who probably doesn't know Ideofact exists. At issue is the concept of tolerance in Islam. Fatimah wrote,
There are plenty of accounts (reproduced in books such as Bat Ye'or's The Dhimmi, as well as her other books) by Western travelers to the Ottoman Empire in the 1800s that report that Christians and Jews were still following the rules laid down in this document, such as having to wear distinctive clothes, not being able to openly practice their religion or fix their churches or synagogues, and being made to feel their humiliation and inferiority to the Muslims in every way, such as being shoved out of the middle of the street to walk at the muddy side of the road--the middle was only for Muslims. This is what Arabs insist that Jews now living in Israel would be happy living under in a Palestinian state. This is what Islamists really mean when they talk about how non-Muslims would be "tolerated" in an Islamic state, today! I'm not talking about whether it was/was not better than Christian Europe at that time, I'm talking about the fact that plenty of Muslims see this as a fair, reasonable example of "tolerance" today, in this day and age!This passage strikes me as obtuse in the extreme. Absolutely, the tolerance practiced in, say, the Ottoman Empire is far inferior to the ideals of Jefferson. But comparing the past to the present is a little bizarre. It seems to me worth noting that in the last 500 years or so there have been migrations of Jews, and they haven't been from the realms of Islam to the West -- quite the contrary. And I think Bat Ye'or is a bit of a crackpot. Consider this commentary of hers:
In the past, to advance their own ends, Muslim propagandists have often used Jews against Christians, provoking thereby Christian anti-Jewish reprisals, just as they are currently using Europe against Israel and America. Spreading animosity between Jews and Christians will obstruct their rapprochement and maintain the poisonous relations of dhimmitude, fomenting mutual hatred among non-Muslim groups in general, to the great benefit of the dominant Islamic power. Such a deliberate, cynical campaign — a jihad against Judeo-Christian rapprochement — cannot be permitted to degrade the over 50 years of serious post-Shoah reconciliation efforts between Christians and Jews. This remarkable conciliatory process, epitomized by the Nostra Aetate declaration of 1965, has been furthered by subsequent ecclesial documents and by a fruitful and ongoing Judeo-Christian dialogue.So, in other words, Muslims egged Jews on to provoke pograms. It wasn't the Christians' fault, after all. To put this another way -- after all, Israel is the European/American/Christian proxy in the Muslim world, and thus Christians are prodding Jews to provoke Palestinian suicide bombers. It's not the Muslims' fault, after all.
Of course, this is ludicrous -- and Bat Ye'or is not a historian so much as a polemicist. Tacitus wrote in response,
I admit I like Bat Ye'or. Her exposition of the dhimmi system is a necessary corrective to some of the ludicrously sugarcoated views of Islamic society that get propagated. (Though notably not by any of my Muslim friends. Back in college, I took a Mideast studies class from a professor who was markedly sympathetic to Islamist and Palestinian causes. So I got that way too; my final essay was a paean to the inherent justice and peacefulness of Muslim polities. His comment: "You haven't learned anything.") That being said, I must say that her latest essay in NRO doesn't make a whole lot of sense. "Using Jews to attack Christians"? Can't we justly criticize the dhimmi mentality as a brutal anachronism without rewriting history? I mean, I'm a defender of the Christian West myself, but were I a 12th-century Jew, I'm sure I'd pack my bags and head for the Cordoba Caliphate, no matter how cheap the sublets were in the Rhineland.This seems about right to me. The West, Christian or otherwise (I prefer to think of it as the American West, and I'll explain why in a subsequent post), developed a concept of religious freedom -- freedom of conscience -- unparalleled in human history. It's foolish to compare modern concepts of tolerance to their medieval counterparts.
An eleventh grader in an American high school with one year of chemistry and a familiarity with the Copernican system knows more science than Aristotle. Does that mean Aristotle was backwards? Of course not. But a man in the twentieth century who insisted that science not advance beyond what Aristotle knew (and this is precisely the argument made by scholars against Galileo in the Christian West) would be backwards.
I'll have more to say tomorrow.