An ideofact is an artifact imbued with meanings other than its technical function.
Friday, July 04, 2003
Virginia is for...
I've lived in Virginia for six years now, after spending most of my life in Pennsylvania. While I still have fond feelings for my native state and my adopted hometown (I wasn't born there, but I spent as many years there as anywhere else) of Philadelphia (truly the cradle of liberty), I have come to love Virginia.
Yesterday evening, I swung by the nearby grocery store, and picked up some wine and fireworks. In Pennsylvania, you can't buy a bottle of wine at a supermarket--you had a choice of a state store (imagine a Department of Motor Vehicles office selling alcohol) or one of the few specialty shops licensed to sell wine. As for beer, you couldn't get that at a supermarket either, although there were more options. I think the law was that a restaurant (it had to be a real restaurant that served food and had a place for patrons to sit) with a license could sell take-out beer. I'm not sure that you could legally buy fireworks anywhere. It's true that you can only buy hard alcohol -- Rum, Whiskey, Scotch, and what not -- at state stores in Virginia (they're called "ABC" stores, which I presume stands for Anything But Capitalism, and they're as dreary as any Pennsylvania state store). While any state demanding a monopoly trade in spirits bothers me in principle, in practice I don't drink all that much and limit myself to beer and wine. So I won't be charging the barricades of the ABC stores anytime soon.
Incidentally, we had a lovely Independence Day. We visitied Gunston Hall -- the home of George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, part of which Jefferson paraphrased in the Declaration of Independence:
That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.Jefferson's version has more literary merit, but Mason is more specific.
We set off our reasonably modest array of fireworks after dinner (the four year old was nevertheless impressed, particularly when I assured him that I was lighting fuses that would make gunpowder explode). Then we watched Washington, D.C.'s fireworks show from a little soccer field a little way from our house. My son was already in his pajamas -- he watched the show from my shoulders, then the three of us made our way back home.
Yes, it's good to be a Virginian...
Thursday, July 03, 2003
The greatest question
From a letter from John Adams to his wife Abigail, dated July 3, 1776:
Yesterday the greatest Question was decided, which ever was debated in America, and a greater perhaps, never was or will be decided among Men. A Resolution was passed without one dissenting Colony "that these united Colonies, are, and of right ought to be free and independent States, and as such, they have, and of Right ought to have full Power to make War, conclude Peace, establish Commerce, and do all the other Acts and Things, which other States may rightfully do." You will see in a few days a Declaration setting forth the Causes, which have impell'd Us to this mighty Revolution, and the Reasons which will justify it, in the Sight of God and Man.The concluding sentence of the Declaration, written (mostly) by Thomas Jefferson:
And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.Both texts are reproduced in the excellent anthology The American Revolution: Writings from the War of Independence. And I especially like this passage, from David Hackett Fischer's Paul Revere's Ride, about one of the men who fought at Concord:
Many years later Captain Levi Preston Danvers was asked why he went to war that day. At the age of ninety-one, his memory of the Lexington alarm was crystal clear, and his understanding was very different from academic interpretations of this event. An historian asked him, "Captain Preston, what made you go to the Concord Fight?"We always meant to, and we always have.
Happy Independence Day!
Wednesday, July 02, 2003
Yes, I'm going out of order. I'd rename Qutb 8:5, but neo-blogger doesn't seem to want to let me into the post, so here we are.
In Qutb 8:4, I noted that Qutb views Europe as monolithic. I think he does so because he views Islam as monolithic as well, open to one interpretration, which, perhaps not coincidentally, happens to be his.
In one sense, one could argue that Islam -- referring not to the faith, but using the word in the same way we use Christendom -- is uniform. C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, described the basic things that differentiate or define a Christian, for example, believing that Christ's life and death were of primary importance in the salvation of man. Lewis did not bother with questions of transubstantiation or consubstantiation, or penance and penitance, or whether one should cross oneself with three fingers, two, or none at all. (Interestingly, Europeans slaughtered one another over such questions for a few hundred years.)
The historical situation in Islam was different. Another Lewis, Bernard, noted in The Jews of Islam that classical and medieval Islam (imprecise terms, I know), was relatively lax in enforcing orthodoxy:
In the history of Chirstian churches, heresy had been a matter of profound concern. Heresy meant a deviation from correct belief as defined by authority, the deviation being recognized and defined by authority. In Islam there was less concern about the details of belief. What mattered was what people did--orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy--and Muslims were allowed on the whole to believe as they chose so long as they accepted the basic minimum, the unity of God and the apostolate of Muhammad, and conformed to the social norms. Even heresies deviating very considerably from mainstream Islam were accorded tolerance. Heresy was persecuted only when it was seen to offer a substantial threat to the social or political order.From my reading of Qutb, I do not believe he imagined his prospective Islamic state in such a way. I will get into the questions of economics later, but essentially, Qutb advocated a single Islamic polity -- a restored Caliphate. He also notes,
As 'Uthmann ibn 'Affan said: "Allah restrains man more by means of the ruler than by means of the Qur'an."...suggesting that political control is more important than any religious feeling. And he imagines that the head of state, as noted in Qutb 8:5, would have "wide powers," which would include control of education and the economy. A single man, in other words, would rule Muslims from Morocco to Malaysian, from Bosnia to Bahrain.
It is perhaps understandable that a Shi'ite with Sunni neighbors might be skeptical of Qutb's notion of Islamic homegeneity, which is why, I think, Qutb goes to such great lengths to paint Europe as a single homogenous entity. Also why, as I noted before, that Qutb would suggest that the Jews who settled in Israel in the wake of the Holocaust, and Europe's attempt to exterminate them, were Crusaders (never mind that the real Crusaders slaughtered quite a few Jews in the Holy Land). It is also why Qutb writes that
...the instincts and interests of Occidentals are bound up together in the crushing of that strength [of Islam]. This is the common factor that links together communist Russia and capitalist America.Capitalist America funded and armed the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan (who were not, of course, identical to the Taliban) to fight communist Russia, which in turn armed Egypt and Iraq, trained Palestinian and Libyan terrorists, which led to the Carter doctrine of automatic support for Saudi Arabia, and so on and so forth. There was, in other words, very little collaboration against Islam (none, as far as I can recall) on the part of the two Occidental blocs, and a great deal of competition for Islam's support (as there was for Africa's or Latin America's support).
At the same time, Islam (in the cultural and national sense) was splintered, as it had been for centuries. There exist certain unities -- as our two Lewises point out -- minimums that make one a Muslim (or a Christian or anything else).
For Qutb, whose goal was to create a universal empire, such nuances could not be, must not be, taken into account. The notion that the interests of a Western democracy and a Muslim state could coincide was anathema to his larger project.
Tuesday, July 01, 2003
Roots of dysfunctional polities
I may have misjudged Amir Taheri. This article tracing the development of tyranny in post-Ottoman Arab states is simply incredible. Read the whole thing, but I found this part particularly trenchant:
The elimination of the independent press, state ownership and control of all radio and television networks, and the vast resources allocated to "information" ministries enabled the new Arab regimes to stifle dissident voices and impose their version of reality.I'll get to it eventually, but it's worth noting that Qutb enthusiastically endorsed the notion of tight state control over educational curriculum, and the nationalization of oil wealth -- concentrating in the hands of the powerful "head of state" economic and cultural control over the people.
Later in the piece, Taheri echoes the Black Book of Communism, writing of the post-Ottoman states: "IT WAS NOT ONLY against its own people that the new Arab regime waged war." The chapter on the Soviet Union in the Black Book was called "A state against its people." So is it ever with tyrannies...
Monday, June 30, 2003
(For background on this series, see the previous post.)
I can't help wondering what the fascination is for dictators. Sayyid Qutb is a case in point. He notes that some borrowing from the West is permissible; that it is the duty of Muslims to seek knowledge. He writes,
In the case of the pure sciences and their applied results of all kinds, we must not hesitate to utilize all things in the sphere of material life; our use of them should be unhampered and unconditional, unhesitating and unimpeded.Fair enough. Yet in the next paragraph, he writes,
But when it comes to philosophy, which is the intellectual interpretation of the universe and life; to literature, which is the emotional interpretation of these things; to history, which is a factual interpretation; and to legislation, which is an interpretration of the relationships between individuals and socieities, we must be cautious in making use of them.And who is to exercise that caution? A few graphs back, he wrote:
Continual growth based on this universal theory [of life] by development or by adaptation is a natural product of the nature of Islam; it is encouraged by Islam, the institutions of which are adapted to recognize it. Analogy, interpretation, and the wide powers entrusted to the head of state -- all these are living methods of ensuring growth through development and adaptation, in order to keep pace with life and to meet its needs as they emerge. (emphasis added)...and the head of state also keeps the train running on time.
Sunday, June 29, 2003
Suppose in the 14th century, a year or two after the Black Death had finally waned, the powers that were in Europe decided to launch a new crusade against the Holy Land. And for their champions to go to war against the infidel and secure Jerusalem for the Christiandom, they decided to send an army composed of those Jews who had survived both the plague and the general massacres of Jews that accompanied it.
Perhaps I spoke too soon in the post immediately below; perhaps it is worthwhile to finish the book blog on Sayyid Qutb after all. Forgive me for repeating the boilerplate if you're among those few brave souls who read Ideofact fairly regularly, but Qutb was an Egyptian Islamist, an early theoretician for the Muslim Brotherhood, and has been described by some as the brains of bin Laden. He died in 1966 in an Egyptian prison. I last wrote about Qutb here, which has links to a pair of bloggers who have been kind enough to link the rest of the series. (It's not quite the right adjective, but I'm a desultory blogger at best -- If I can barely be bothered to link other people, I'm not going to go to all the trouble of linking myself.)
In the eighth chapter of Social Justice in Islam, the title of which is translated as Present State & Prospects of Islam, Qutb catalogs the catastrophes that have befallen Islam. He begins with Umayyads and Abassids, then gets fairly fired up talking about Turks, Circassians and Mongols (which was the subject of Qutb 8:2). But the greatest catastrophe was the era of European ascendancy and colonialism. This is worthy of a post (the next in the series) in its own right, but Qutb posits an undying enmity of Christian and post-Christian Europe for Islam. On theological grounds it is easy to understand the hostility -- both Christians and Muslims believe they possess the final revelation from God. Qutb notes that even though Europe had become less devout and more materialist, the enmity remained. I don't necessarily dispute this (although it is obviously an oversimplification); there is another excellent, well-documented example of what was essentially a religious argument being recast in "scientific" terms. I am referring of course to anti-Semitism.
Anti-Semitism was an attempt to update the ancient prejudice agaisnt Jews, guilty of the crime of deicide, and make it respectable in a scientific age. The contemptible idea was that while no educated European would fall for the blood libel, or believe that Jews were poisoning wells, there was nevertheless a racial inferiority that Jews carried in their blood. I believe the term anti-Semitism dates to 1871, and was elaborated on over the years. I've read enough of Hitler's Mein Kampf to know that he goes to great lengths to invoke crackpot science -- not religion -- to justify his hatred. By 1945, respectable scientific anti-Semitism had led to the deaths of six million Jews. In 1949, Qutb suggested that ... well, let's let him explain:
Thus each imperialist state has proceeded by one means or another to oppose and to throttle Islam since the last century, and even before that. And that they still proceed to do essentially the same thing in concert is obvious from the position taken up by the Western nations on the question of Indonesia and Holland; on that of Kashmir, India, and Pakistan; and on that of Hyderabad, India and the Nizam. Finally, the same thing is supremely evident in the position on Palestine.The quote is interesting on several levels (I must have slept through the Soviet-American entente to crush Islam), but what is fascinating is that Qutb, writing in 1949, four years after "Europe" had embarked on a systematic, methodical attempt to eliminate the Jews, sees the creation of Israel as part and parcel of a Crusader plot against Islam.
(Note: I used the scare quotes only because the Europe that Qutb sees as monolithic was anything but. Over the centuries, leaders of various European states adopted different stances toward the realms of Islam. To give one example, British policy for years was to support the Ottoman Empire to preserve a buffer zone between India and their rival, Continental powers.)