Archive for January 2011
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: the Right has a similar elite vs. populist chasm as the Left when it comes to some non-economic issues. In this case it is evolution, where many elite conservatives have presumed to humor, and in the end ignore, the more unvarnished populists who espouse Creationism.
U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, a Republican congressman from Savannah, deserves credit for venturing into “unfriendly territory” on Bill Maher’s HBO show. In the show taped live Friday night, Kingston and the host got into a debate about evolution. Kingston denied the existence of evolution
“I don’t believe that a creature crawled out of the sea and became a human being one day,” Kingston says. Of course, nobody else does either — the process was a little more complicated than that. At one point, Kingston turns to fellow conservative Will Cain, of National Review, asking for a little support. Cain declines, explaining that he accepts evolution.
I am not a liberal because I think modern Left-liberalism does not take into account reality, in particular, it too often ignores human nature. There are probably issues where I agree with many Creationist social conservatives on the answer, if not the method by which I come to a particular answer, but one must draw the line at aggressive espousal on frankly primitive superstitions. A conservative movement without a religious segment would be totally ineffectual, as it was during the New Deal era. But a conservative movement without an intellectual element will also be ineffectual, as mass movements without elite guidance tend to founder and become incoherent.
In a long and interesting post over at the London Spectator Alex Massie thinks aloud over where the Egyptian revolution might be going. Agree or disagree, it’s all worth reading, but this caught my eye:
At the moment the protests and the grievances do not seem to show any support for turning Egypt into a religious state. Rather it’s a matter of economics and opportunity.
“Any” is too strong a word. Nevertheless while Alex is surely right that it is “economics” that are the underlying cause of the current uprising, that is no reason for those concerned about the rise of another Islamic republic to relax. History tells us that economic failure (compounded in this region by a massive increase in the population) can often open a door through which fanatics can come pouring in. In 1917 Lenin’s most effective slogan was “peace, land and bread”. That whole dictatorship of the proletariat thing was for (a little) later…
The self-righteousness oozing out of Bill Maher on the clip from his show linked to here by the Washington Monthly’s Steve Benen was neither a new phenomenon nor pleasant to watch. On the other hand, the comments from Republican congressman Jack Kingston were low comedy:
“I believe I came from God, not from a monkey….If it happened over millions and millions of years, there should be lots of fossil evidence.”
Good lord (so to speak).
Possibly more revealing than Kingston’s difficulties with science are the difficulties that he has in expressing them, particularly his insistence that he believes in “adaptation”. There was also his (faulty) assumption that the National Review writer on the panel would bail him out.
The former might suggest (yes, I’m being an optimist) that the congressman does sort-of-believe in evolution after all, the latter that he believes anti-evolutionism has now become part of the standard right-wing package. That could explain why he might defend creationism in terms traditionalist enough (the monkey business) to satisfy any litmus test, while preserving enough intellectual honesty to seem a little hesitant about doing so.
Then again maybe he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. That wouldn’t be a first for the political class – and it won’t be the last.
A friend of mine asked what I thought about the protests in North Africa. I’m busy with some scientific issues and problems now, so I haven’t devoted much attention to them. All things equal I support a democratic government over a non-democratic government. But I think modern Americans tend to fetishize populist revolts. Russia in 2011 may not be the enemy it once was, but it is no Czech Republic. Iraq is now verging toward a moderately sectarian Shia regime thanks to popular elections (though counterbalanced by secular Kurdish nationalism). Iran is a famous case, with its revolution turning toward authoritarian rule by clerics after an initial period of hope and promise.
Because of the nature of its secular civil society I have more hope for Tunisia being a civilized popular democratic state than Egypt, which I think is more likely to go in an unrecognizable direction because of the power of the Islamic Brotherhood. But at the end of the day, does this matter? Neither Egypt or Tunisia have significant oil reserves, nor do they have nuclear weapons. I am skeptical of the future of any liberal democracy in Egypt, though less so in Tunisia, but it probably doesn’t matter to the rest of the world.*
One thing I will say: the Copts should view with foreboding what democratic government wrought for the Christians of Iraq. The majority of Egyptian Muslims may not be willing to take up arms against their ancient Christian minority, but a motivated minority unrestrained by an authoritarian state can cause great suffering and havoc. Democracy empowers popular majorities, but it often oppresses dispossessed minorities.
* Unlike Iran a religious regime with popular support in Egypt does not have the luxury of petro-dollars. Additionally, I don’t think Israel is actually that important to our geopolitics either, if you are curious.
Via Andrew Sullivan, an intriguing (and very lengthy) discussion in Eurozine on multiculturalism, much of it from contributors coming (I’d guess) from a leftish point of view, something which makes it all the more interesting.
This (from Kenan Malik) caught my eye:
When I was growing up in Britain in the ’70s and ’80s, we weren’t interested in promoting and pursuing our own ethnic culture. We never recognized ourselves as ethnically different. There was no such thing as a Muslim community. I didn’t see myself as a Muslim. None of my friends did. Actually, we all saw ourselves as “black”, because black in Britain in the ’70s and ’80s was a kind of generic term for non-whites facing discrimination. It was not an ethnic term: we saw the issues as political. There was no such thing as a Muslim community in Britain till the end of the ’80s. Multicultural policies helped created that.
So the point I’m making is the rise of multicultural policies did not primarily come from below. Or only to certain extent, with the rise of identity politics, which is a different issue. It was not because there was a great demand from minority communities for official recognition to be given to our identities, our cultures, our values and lifestyles. What we wanted was official recognition for ourselves as individuals, we did not want to be treated differently by the police, by the immigration authorities, by the housing authorities and so on. What has happened is that the very notion of equality has transformed over the last twenty years. Equality used to mean that everybody was treated the same despite their differences. Now it’s come to mean that everybody is treated differently because of those differences.
As for the relationship between multiculturalism and constraints on free speech, an argument has developed that runs something like this: we live in a society where there are lots of different peoples and cultures, each with deeply set, often irreconcilable, views and beliefs. In such a society we need to restrict what people say or do in order to minimize friction between cultures and to guarantee respect for people embedded in different cultures. Hence the arguments for hate-speech legislation, for censorship against the giving of offence and so on.
I take almost exactly the opposite view: namely that it is precisely because we live in a plural society that we need the most robust defence of free speech possible. It seems to me that in a plural society, the giving of offence is both inevitable and necessary. It is inevitable because we do have societies with deep-seated, conflicting views. But it’s far better to have those conflicts out in the open than to suppress them in the name of respect and tolerance. But most importantly, the giving of offence is necessary because no kind of social change or social progress is possible without offending some group of other. When people say, “you are offending me”, what they are really saying is, “you can’t say that because I don’t want my beliefs to be questioned or ridiculed or abused.” That seems to me deeply problematic.
Count me unsurprised by this:
Tunisia’s underground Islamic movement has emerged at the forefront of nationwide protests against its leadership and appears set to emerge as the strongest political force in elections. Al-Nadha is lead by the London-based exile Rachid Ghannouchi who has said that he will return to the country as soon as the threat of life in prison is lifted.
Mr Ghannouchi has the best claims to an electoral following in Tunisia after the disintegration of the ruling party. He has wide core support at the country’s universities and his followers secured 17 per cent in 1989’s election – an unrivalled following in Tunisia’s rigged electoral system.
Senior lieutenants of the fundamentalist leader were yesterday prominent in the thousands strong crowd that demanded the resignation of all ministers – including Prime Minister Mohammed Ghanouchi – tainted by service to ousted dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Sadouk Chourou, a Tunis lawyer, has been seen organising groups within the protest. Ali Laraiedh, the Al-Nadha vice president, said that party activists of the banned movement had been mobilised.
While repeating the group’s message, he gives only guarded signals about the agenda the group would pursue if it tastes power. Mr met with the prime minister during the week to set out Al-Nadha’s demands.
“The people have not yet achieved everything they could have done. We want a government that is able to make a democracy and that means the prime minister must go,” he told The Daily Telegraph. “It is too early to talk about what happens after the election but we will move like other Islamic parties, just that we will be a little more emancipated.”
The operative word, I suspect, is “little”.
Via the Guardian, another story that only should only increase fears for the future of Pakistan:
All Sherry Rehman wants is to go out – for a coffee, a stroll, lunch, anything. But that’s not possible. Death threats flood her email inbox and mobile phone; armed police are squatted at the gate of her Karachi mansion; government ministers advise her to flee.
“I get two types of advice about leaving,” says the steely politician. “One from concerned friends, the other from those who want me out so I’ll stop making trouble. But I’m going nowhere.” She pauses, then adds quietly: “At least for now.”
It’s been almost three weeks since Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer was gunned down outside an Islamabad cafe. As the country plunged into crisis, Rehman became a prisoner in her own home. Having championed the same issue that caused Taseer’s death – reform of Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws – she is, by popular consensus, next on the extremists’ list.
Giant rallies against blasphemy reform have swelled the streets of Karachi, where clerics use her name. There are allegations that a cleric in a local mosque, barely five minutes’ drive away, has branded her an “infidel” deserving of death. In the Punjabi city of Multan last week opponents tried to file blasphemy charges against her – raising the absurd possibility of Rehman, a national politician, facing a possible death sentence.
Absurd? Not in Pakistan, a country where madness is clearly in the ascendant.
It’s become clear to me that the Fox commentator Glenn Beck has something of a Jewish problem. Actually, he has something of a modernity problem, and people with modernity problems tend to have problems with Jews, who more or less invented modernity (Einstein, Marx, Freud, Franz Boas, etc.).
Many Jews and anti-Semites are focused on the necessary and sufficient role of the Jewish people in the modern West. In the case of Jews I believe it derives in part from the same sense of national pride which is at the root of embarrassing imitations such as Afrocentrism. But the reality is that Jews did not become part of the mainstream of Western intellectual and cultural life until after their emancipation. For most of Europe this was at some point in the 19th century, and for Jews who did not convert to Christianity it was probably later in the 19th century at that.
To put a not too fine point on it, Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, and Rene Descartes were not Jews. Jeremy Bentham, Immanuel Kant, and David Hume, were not Jews. John Stuart Mill was not a Jew. There were plenty of gentiles involved in the “invention” of modernity, and because of the social constraints placed upon Jews, there were very few of that people of any note before the 19th century in Western public life. The religious minority often seen to be disproportionately involved in the French Revolution were Protestants, not Jews. The exception to the Jewish abstention from early modernity would probably be Baruch Spinoza (I don’t think Moses Mendelssohn would be noteworthy were he not a Jew, while Spinoza would have been).
The enormous Jewish contribution to the 20th century intellectual world is undeniable. Jews were critically involved in the maturation and ripening of Western modernity. But they were not present at, or instrumental, in its birth. Therefore, it is ludicrous to claim that Jews “invented” Western modernity. Whether the invention of Western modernity is something to be proud of depends on your perspective, of course.
Note: In Catholicism and American Freedom the author argues that after World War II American Jews turned away from the tacit “white ethnic” coalition with Roman Catholics, and aligned themselves with the liberal post-Protestant Eastern Establishment in the incipient culture wars. But the narrative seems to indicate that initially Jews were junior partners in the project, even if they eventually became peers, or even dominant, vis-a-vis the old W.A.S.P. coterie.
The New York Times Magazine has a Europe-themed edition. I thought it would be interesting to look at the five big Western European nations in Google Data Explorer.
Here’s an interesting point in relation to Tunisia:
…The protesters came together after circulating calls to rally over social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Many were unemployed college graduates, and they angrily demanded more jobs and denounced what they called the self-enrichment of Tunisia’s ruling family….
There will be no jobs. Many Arab countries have autarkic economics where good white collar jobs come from the government. Petro-states can fund these jobs through revenues which gush in during commodity booms. Tunisia is not a petro-state. In a modern economy only the private sector can drive real growth. Without reforms this revolution will sour.