Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Passing of an Illusion

Many of Francois Furet’s judgements in The Passing of an Illusion: the idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century are deeply perceptive, particularly the complex connection between the French and the October Revolutions. In other ways, it seems very French: in love with generalising abstraction; showing a poor grasp of the profound differences between the American and French Revolutions; suffering at times an over-emphasis on the importance of the French Revolution (whose influence in the Anglosphere, apart from sections of the intelligentsia, is negligible), though this improves notably as the book progresses – Furet is aware Anglo-America has a democratic history completely independent of the French Revolution. His description of Great Britain as more liberal than democratic (p. 268) is judicious.

The book is a major intellectual achievement. Furet has a very sophisticated understanding of how the Fascists/Nazis and the Communists fed off each other:
in many countries, the movement to stop Hitler gave Communism its most glorious moment and whatever nobility illusion could bestow (p.223).
Soon, of course, to be completely, but in the end temporarily, betrayed by the Nazi-Soviet pact.

The book concentrates on the period from World War One, which Furet correctly sees as the great, tragic break in modern history, to the death of Stalin. He sees what followed after Stalin as a prolonged thrashing around within ultimately fatally constrained possibilities – some of Beria’s moves immediately after Stalin’s death prefigured Gorbachev, for example. Furet is excellent at teasing out the ambiguities and paradoxes of history, the complexities of the interwar period. He charts how the concept of totalitarianism pre-dates the Cold War, how early the continuing patterns of criticism and analysis of the Soviet experience were established. And how ignored they were for so long.

One of the major themes of the book is how easy so many intellectuals are to fool, how prone to comforting illusions. Furet makes it particularly clear how dominated the Western Left has been by the illusions of 1793, most of all the glittering illusion of the revolutionary resolution of the problems of modernity.
There were those who were clear about Hitler (typically, the socialist Left). There were those who were clear about Stalin (typically, the pacifist Left). There were very few who were clear about both. Furet is a perceptive admirer of Raymond Aron, and George Orwell, always a sign of intellectual health. But they, like Churchill, were lonely figures.

The book provokes questions. Values are supposed to be a guide to action in the world: but what if the world merely becomes a backdrop for one’s values?
The debate over Fascism was no better informed than the debate over Communism, and for the same reason: real observation played a very limited role (p.307).
What are facts compared to values, illusion and convenience? Thus the Soviets refused specific mention of Jews in the monument to Nazi mass murder:
so the Jews lost everything, even their misfortune (p.353).
Furet is very powerful on the post-Holocaust plight of the Jews, whose horror lacked even a name as yet. No-one wanted to concede to the Jews number-one place on Hitler’s hate list.
After Auschwitz and Treblinka, Jewish survivors continue to pay the heavy price of statelessness (p.383).
Furet is very good at quietly, without fanfare, exposing the madness of seeing Leninism as any sort of liberation, or of failing to see the underlying deep structural affinities between Leninism and Nazism (and, to a lesser degree) Fascism. Of exposing how inadequate it is to see either Fascism and Nazism as mere reactions to Leninism, what a mistake not to see that they were social movements in their own right.
Fascism originated as a hostile sibling of Communism (p.303).
He is very aware of the differences between Fascism, as a nationalist project, and Nazism, as a racial one.

But Furet has his blindnesses. Furet continues the tradition of not understanding Edmund Burke, of treating this life-long Whig and defender of liberty as if he were a Tory: hence comments such as Burke spoke only of traditional society (p.278). Burke was the first modern partisan of liberty to confront the reality that fellow-partisans in that camp could be liberty’s worst enemies.

Furet’s dissection of the 1930s and 1940s is deeply penetrating, an intellectual tour de force. He demonstrates what a brilliant strategy "anti-Fascism" was, creating a two-dimensional political matrix where Communism was at the forefront of the camp of democracy and liberty. He notes the extraordinary discipline of the Communist movement in September 1939 in following Stalin’s new line of working with Hitler at once impressive and terrifying (p.325). He marks how devastating the Nazi-Soviet pact was for France internally as well as geo-politically, as the
mediocrity of public life contrasted with the texture of ideological passion (p.327).
Nationalism having been discredited by the slaughter of the trenches, anti-Fascism was fatally compromised by Stalin’s defection just as the War started. Stalin’s defection destroyed the democratic credibility of Communism (that it had any was a mark of the comfort of illusions), at once territorially reversing the treaty of Brest-Litovsk while following Lenin’s original strategy – aid German expansionism so as to expand Soviet power.

But Stalin was rescued from the full consequences of his actions by Hitler waging the true Nazi war, which started in June 22 1941:
An ideological war, the Nazi war paid an ideological price (p.342),
mobilising support for Stalin domestically as preferable to the Nazi exterminators and providing credibility internationally as the forefront of the camp of democracy against Nazism and Fascism. Furet brilliantly explores the ambiguities of the victory: of the Soviet Union as a member of the "democratic" camp and liberator which imposed its own satellite tyrannies on the liberated countries of Central Europe: that until 1941, Nazism had been far less murderous than Leninism, and Italian Fascism was never even remotely so, was blotted out. The war was a victory for democracy in Anglo-America. Elsewhere, it was a victory for anti-Fascism, a victory against a Fascism that had to be a mere puppet of capitalism, since otherwise anti-capitalism was implicated in Fascism and Nazism. (A dynamic that still lives, with all the nonsense linkings of George W. Bush with Fascism and Hitler, the refusal to examine the nature of Islamism and the attempts to deny George W. Bush democratic legitimacy.)

Furet points out that far more of Europe experienced Fascism/Nazism than Communism, though anti-Nazism gave Germans a collective "out". The differences in the experience of those occupied by the Soviets and those liberated by the Anglo-Americans was quite profound and still operates. Communism retained a "democratic", anti-Fascist credibility in the West it rapidly lost in the East. (In 1939 the Soviet Union "invaded" Poland, in 1944 it "liberated" it, on both occasions it occupied it.) As for Marxism-Leninism’s value elsewhere,
this ideological bric-a-brac owed its spectacular success to the fact that it offered a univeralistic justification to absolute power (p.371).
With the banishment of Fascism/Nazism from history, anti-capitalism was given new life as purely left. The genuine victorious democracies, Anglo-America, were hopelessly mired in "guilty" capitalism.
The paradox of postwar moral situation was that Western public opinion seems to have forgotten the Hitler-Soviet pact, remembering only the Munich Agreement (p.384).
But with Churchill and de Gaulle, Western Europe had patent anti-Fascist icons to rescue anti-Fascism for anti-Communism.

Furet is very good a portraying the alienness and separateness of the US from Europe, from the nature of its democracy, to its unabashed free enterprise ethic and religiosity.
American democracy was a social condition, whereas democracy in Europe was a subversive force, constantly at work in the fabric of history (p.365),
a distinction still true.

Through Furet, I can see how compromised the democratic idea is in continental Europe. Democracy in France and Britain did not stop the slaughter of the trenches. Democracy in Germany gave Hitler a plurality of the vote. Democracy is the only acceptable source of political legitimacy yet has these unexorcised demons.

Demons Anglo-America does not share – or, at least in the British case, was expiated by honourable resistance and victory rather than being further damaged by defeat and collaboration – except in so far their intelligentsias have taken on the congenial role of would-be gatekeepers of democracy. The role of deciding which views are "acceptable" or not.

No wonder gatekeeping politics has such appeal in "Old Europe" – fearful of their own democracies, the European elite has adopted a global project of degrading other people’s democracies through exporting the democratic deficit via global governance, and of projecting their fearfulness on the most powerful of existing democracies. With all sorts of consequent absurdities: such as talking of American democracy as "primitive" – using a term for the world’s most technologically dynamic society they would never use for indigenous folk – or deeming that the world’s most powerful state is a democracy as somehow the central problem of our time.

As for the Americans, if they say "but we are a democracy and you are democracies because of us". that is not a defence, that is precisely the problem – in Western Europe, democracy is neither a European achievement, nor a consolation. The blood-debt to the US, and the US's self-confident, flagrant democratism, are precisely what bothers the European elites, and drives their antipathies and projects.

NB: This post has been edited to improve clarity.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Rainbow Palace

Much of The Rainbow Palace by the late Tenzin Choedrak is a harrowing memoir of imprisonment and torture under the Chinese. As one reads the simply told story, the horror of the Chinese occupation of Tibet is set out yet again. For all the scholarly scepticism about the concept of totalitarianism, there is something distinctive about the attempts to control all aspects of society and, in this case, to obliterate all aspects of Tibetan culture. From the perspective of the millions of dead in each case, there is little to choose between Leninism and Nazism. In a Mengele touch, the Chinese even engaged in medical experiments and harvesting of body parts from their Tibetan victims (p.224). What paraded itself as the cutting edge of history was an exercise in brutal, distilled and pervasive sadism allied to a ruthless exploitation of Tibetan resources and people.

Tenzin Choedrak grew up in rural Tibet, suffering a stepmother who neglected him. Eventually, he took up studies of Tibetan medicine, becoming one of the Dalai Lama’s personal physicians. Then the Chinese came to ‘liberate’ and ‘modernise’ Tibet. Nothing they brought was worth the horrific cost they imposed. Choedrak’s report of the Chinese war against even Tibet’s fauna and flora seems weird, until one considers how much the Han perspective is of wilderness-as-enemy, further inflamed by the Maoist enthusiasm for industrialisation, and that it was a strange and unfamiliar wilderness
After twenty-one years of often horrific penal servitude, from which there were desperately few survivors of those he was imprisoned with (his medical knowledge helped), Choedrak eventually was able to leave Tibet. He took up a position once again as the Dalai Lama’s personal physician, with the added task, strongly encouraged by the Dalai Lama, of keeping alive and spreading the practice of Tibetan medicine.

The way Tibet has become a land of belief, living in the aspirations of its diaspora comes across strongly.

Choedrak’s deep Buddhist faith was obviously central to his life. He notes that various Catholic and Muslim prisoners were also able to achieve some serenity against the abuse of their captors:
I could see at Jiuzhen Catholic women and Muslims facing suffering with as much tolerance as certain lamas (p.197)
But his own sense of what was appropriate it seen in his immediately preceding comments:
As for me, anger filled me as soon as the blows began to rain down. I did finally succeed in mastering my reaction and even in erasing the very idea of anger from my mind. However, I still had much work to do to acquire the serenity of the tulkus in the face of all ordeals. (pp 196-7).
He came to practise compassion by providing medical advice to his captors.

His story also records how some Tibetans despaired or collaborated, often behaving quite despicably. Later, Choedrak would fight the traditionalism of some of the émigré Tibetans to get, with the Dalai Lama’s support (whose enthusiasm for machines and matters technical is notorious), grinding machines for Tibetan medical pills.

That the Chinese occupation of Tibet has been horrific is widely known. Now, Tibetans are a minority in their own country, as Han colonists make Lhasa and other centres majority-Han cities. Choedrak’s story is well worth reading just as a story of witness of behalf of himself, and those who can no longer speak, of what they experienced. This is quite explicitly part of the purpose of his memoir.

But it is also a memoir about trying to see beyond the surface of things to deeper truths and capacities.
Love and compassion play a primordial role in our existence. And tolerance. We should exert ourselves to lead a life directed by the awareness of our actions. Thus, whatever happens, we will have nothing to regret. (p.294).

Friday, May 29, 2009

Homosexuality and Civilization

Louis Crompton is a pioneer of gay studies. He helped organise perhaps the first such course in 1970, which prompted a state legislator to propose a bill that would ban such courses except at the state medical school (the bill failed). But, as Crompton says, it was a reminder of sodomy as peccatum mutum, the silent sin (p.xi).

His Homosexuality and Civilization cannot, of course, cover its declared subject matter. The author restricts himself to Classical antiquity, Christendom, medieval Islam, Imperial China and pre-Meiji Japan. But that is still an enormous range, which he covers magnificently, clearly the results of decades of research.

A fundamental problem in covering homosexuality across such a cultural and historical range is the problem of definition—is homosexuality just a social construction or is there a continuing human type? Crompton focuses on the enduring. In his words
whatever the vocabulary, two elements are present—the sexual fact and the possibility of human love and devotion (p.xiv).
Which is enough to be getting on with.

Greeks and Jews
Crompton starts with Early Greece 776—480 BCE, taking us through literature and biography. Two same-sex lovers, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, the original tyrannicides, were the enduring icons of Athenian democracy. Associating love between men with free politics was a rhetorical commonplace in Classical Greece: including a popular drinking song sung for at least seven centuries after the original act (Pp25ff).

Then to Judea 900 BCE—600 BCE: or Leviticus, Sodom and all that. Crompton points out that the Levitical prohibition extended to any stranger that sojourneth among you, so is one of the Noachid precepts, binding on all humanity. Crompton notes that the shifting characterization of the sin of Sodom:
What we may call the “Sodom of selfish wealth” considerably predates the later Philonic-Patristic conception of the “homosexual Sodom” (p.39).
Dismissing as dubious the “keep population up” explanation for the Levitical prohibition, and the Sodom story as scarcely relevant, (p.39) Crompton considers the kedeshim or “holy ones”, temple prostitutes, arguing that the Levitical prohibition makes sense as reflecting concern for religious and tribal solidarity (p.43) given the use of “third sex” priests in various of the surrounding polytheisms.

Crompton properly gives considerable attention to Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher at the time of Christ and St Paul who sought to reconcile Mosaic law with Platonic philosophy (particularly Platonic natural law philosophy), the only Jewish writer from antiquity (that has come down to us) who dealt with homosexuality in any detail. Though a faithful Jew all his life, Philo was so widely read by Church fathers as to be regarded as almost a Father of the Church himself (Pp 43-4).
Philo’s intellectual importance is that he brought together Jewish and Greek thinking. Indeed, it is very likely that St Paul’s use of the term unnatural (para physin) —which occurs nowhere else in Scripture other than Paul’s Epistles—was due to Philo’s influence. St Paul was, after, very interested in speaking to Gentiles, so Philo’s interweaving of Platonic thinking and the Judaic Scriptural tradition had to be an attractive model.

It is to Philo that the Western world owes the marriage of Plato’s notion that same-sex activity is unnatural (i.e. is not done by animals: a claim that is quite false) to the Levitical prohibition and the story of Sodom. Philo was very firm that men who acted like women deserved death, thought apostates from Judaism should be killed by mob action, was homicidally revolted by effeminate priests parading through Alexandria and justified the Levitical prohibition applying to both active and passive partner because such sexual activity
renders cities desolate and uninhabited by destroying the means of procreation (p.46).
Philo’s homicidal intolerance—his damning of same-sex activity as unnatural, his construal of the sin of Sodom being same-sex activity, his insistence that death was the appropriate penalty—became the basic template for Christian attitudes to homosexuality.

Hebrew scriptures make no mention of lesbianism and the Talmud explicitly states that female-to-female sexual activity is no bar to marrying a priest (p.46). Crompton suggests that if female-to-female sexual activity had no role in the surrounding religions, then it did not raise issues of defining Jewishness. Male homosexuality continued to be condemned—indeed, the penalty was stoning—though the Talmud characterises not so much as a sensual indulgence, rather as an indignity a Jewish male might suffer: for example, as a captive (pp 46-7).

Crompton notes that prominent Jewish intellectuals such as Magnus Hirschfeld and Sigmund Freud spoke up for homosexuals, that Reform Judaism has been far more friendly to homosexuals than most Christian Churches, even if Orthodox Judaism has not been so, that Israel is one of the more gay-friendly countries:
Taking the world as a whole, Judaism in itself had very little influence on the fate of homosexuals. Indirectly, however, through the prejudices it passed on to Christianity, its influence has been enormous … Above all, it was one of the tragedies of world history that the Jewish convert to Christianity who did most to shape the theology and ethics of the new religion—Saint Paul—was to approach the subject with Philo’s vehemence rather than in the spirit of the new faith’s founder (p.48).
From one of the root cultures of Western civilisation, we move back to the another Classical Greece 480—323 BCE, covering literature and philosophy before concluding with a discussion of the Sacred Band of Thebes and Philip and Alexander of Macedon. The Jews associated homosexuality with effeminate idolatry, the Greeks with warrior heroism.

Crompton then examines Rome and Greece 323 BCE—138 BCE. Roman culture never privileged male friendship in the way that Greek culture did. Romans did openly acknowledge same-sex desire, though typically as an expression of dominance (p.80). Crompton ascribes to the view that the rather obscure Lex Scantinia protected freeborn boys as part of the defence of the authority of the paterfamilias (p.81). He takes us through the different characterisation of same-sex desire and relations in various Latin writers before finishing with one of the great same-sex love affairs of all time: Hadrian and Antonius which spawned a popular religious cult that persisted for some centuries—more than 200 hundred portraits of Antonius have come down to us (p.110).

But a far more enduring religion was taking hold in the Roman Empire at this time. In Christians and Pagans 1—565 CE, Crompton takes us through the rise of Christianity and its achievement of power in the Roman Empire.

Jewish references to homosexuality from the early Christian period are hostile, if generally terse, often denouncing it as part of pagan iniquities. St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans continues this tradition—though with Philo’s vehemence, not the more typical terse aside—rather than the conspicuous silence of the Gospels. Crompton notes the continuing debate over Christ’s sexual orientation (there is a long tradition of suggesting that Jesus was same-sex oriented) but judges any conclusion as speculative.

The Rise of Christianity
The Christian tradition of erotophobia was established very early. Notably Clement of Alexandria’s “Alexandrian rule” of sexual conduct that
pleasure sought for its own sake, even within marriage, is a sin and contrary to both law and reason
so to engage in intercourse without intent to produce children was to outrage nature (p.117). Crompton helps show how the Christian tradition of brutal anathematisation of same-sex activity owes (literally) nothing to the word of Christ and everything to the homicidal intolerance of Philo of Alexandria since his thought, refracted through St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and then directly to Church Fathers such as Clement, meant that the sexual prohibition of Leviticus (repeated nowhere else in the Hebrew scriptures) survived the New Testament’s rejection of the rest of the Levitical Holiness Code (rejected particularly emphatically by St Paul himself, notably in Galatians).

Compton traces how the Greek tradition continued on into late Antiquity in literature and philosophy. While pre-Constantine Roman Law included several judgments that civically degraded adult passives and made seduction of a freeborn male a “capital” crime, liable to punishments such as exile.

With the Christianisation of the Empire came the Christianisation of Roman law, and increasingly harsh penalties for same-sex activity (Pp 131ff). (The Jews were also subject to increasing legal penalties.) The story of Sodom became firmly established in theology as being about same-sex activity (Pp 136ff). In a redolent irony of history, St John Chrysostom both purveyed the homicidal vehemence of anti-same sex activity of Philo of Alexandria—right down to using the same metaphors—while engaging in anathematisations of Jews which are the most intense in Christian tradition (Pp 139ff).

Of course, the problem with the propagating the language of moral degradation and the rhetoric of abomination, is that one has no control over whom it may be used against.

Crompton concludes with the persecutions of Justinian (Pp 142ff).
With the laws of Justinian, the medieval world was inaugurated (p.149).
The next chapter is simply called Darkness Descends 476—1049 and takes us through theological, and consequent legal, persecution, with an interlude to the male-male love poetry of Arab Spain. A hadith from Muhammad that he who loved and died without expressing this love is a martyr provided an avenue for accepting expression of same-sex desire (Pp 163ff). (It is very likely that Omar Khayyam's refrain
a loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou
was part of the genre of extolling the beauty of wine-boys.) Christendom was far more brutally against same-sex acts, and more intensely hostile to same-sex desire, than Islam until the C20th.

I would argue that that was, in part, because Christianity was more consistently universalist. Christianity deemed there to be one moral law for all, so any group cast outside that moral law (in whole or in part) had to have a particularly intense story of anathematisation told against them. Hence the Primal Woman (Eve) became the avenue whereby sin entered the world, the Jews were Christ-killers and the “sodomites” abominable traitors against the natural order. Islam’s more layered morality meant was it less concerned with such narratives: particularly if it interrupted the sexual benefits of conquest to Muslim men—as Crompton points out, Islam did not (unlike Christianity) bar sexual relations with slaves (p.172). This also meant that Islam replicated far more closely than Christendom the social patterns of Classical Greece: respectable women being excluded from public society, a warrior ethos and lower-status males (particularly slaves) available for the pleasure of higher-status males.

Crompton them continues into The Medieval World 1050—1321 in which theology, law and literature all anathematised same-sex acts and desire. This was the period when a medieval “best-seller”, the Golden Legend, compiled by a beatified Archbishop of Genoa, declared that Jesus refused to incarnate in a world with sodomites in it, so when Jesus was born all the "sodomites" died. Crompton does explore a striking exception: Dante’s surprisingly lenient characterisation of sodomites in Inferno as “admirable sinners” (Pp 208).

Moving on to something completely different, Crompton shifts to Imperial China 500BCE—1849, exploring its long literary and historical tradition of celebrated same-sex loves. There was a brief period of sexual Puritanism under the early Qing emperors, but this did not persist. The Maoist takeover rejected Chinese literary traditions, characterising homosexuality (in the standard Leninist way) as a corruption of capitalism (p.244).

Italy in the Renaissance 1321—1609 was a paradoxical period. On one hand, the self-conscious classicism led to an awareness of Greek attitudes, positive literary and artistic references to same-sex love and desire: indeed, to some blatantly homoerotic iconic art. On the other hand, murderous legal repression intensified. About which we begin to get the first systematic studies (which regularly reveal how much victims were a cross-section of society). Classicism also meant wider use of Roman law—but of the Christianised variety. While a period of increasing change also meant a period of increasing anxiety.

In the case of Spain and the Inquisition 1497—1700, repression of the same-sex active both defined Catholic Spain against other cultures (Andalusian Islam, Amerindian cultures) as well as helped to justify war and conquest.

France from Calvin to Louis XIV 1517—1715 takes us through the effects of the Reformation and the establishment of the image of French homosexuality as aristocratic vice. England from the Reformation to William III 1533—1702 explores the English self-image of a country where that sort of thing didn’t happen along with the introduction of various secular laws against buggery. In both chapters, Crompton also explores the irony that, in a culture which so excoriated same-sex acts and desires, the hereditary principle repeatedly put homosexual rulers on thrones (such as Henri III, James I, Louis XIII, William III), even if biographers (particularly favourably disposed ones) have often not been able to face clear evidence of such orientation—particularly in the case of William III, in many ways an admirable monarch.

Then Crompton provides another relief from intense cultural hostility against same-sex love and desire with Pre-Meiji Japan 800—1868 where same-sex love became associated with warrior heroism (samurai), religion (Buddhism) and high culture (literature, art and theatre). With the coming of European influences, same-sex activity became illegal for a while (as part of Japan showing itself to be “modern”) and has since become more something not much talked about (p.443). Between Christianity, “being modern” and Leninism, the West has managed to export anathematisation of same-sex desire, love and activity across much of the globe.

Crompton is quite specific on how the examples of Muslim Spain, Imperial China and pre-Meiji Japan throw into sharp relief the intensity of Christian anathematisation.

The Modern Era
With Patterns of Persecution 1700-1730, Crompton takes us through fluctuating patterns of tolerance and persecution—the latter typically taking the form of murderous moral panics of varying duration. Of course, from Justinian on, Sodom-as-wrath-of-God was the ultimate moral panic. In the case of France, the moral panic burned itself out so that, by the second half of the C18th, the notion that sodomites should be burned was the butt of satire.

Britain, meanwhile, moved in the other direction, with the use of hanging and pillory if anything intensifying as the C18th marched and into the early C19th. The Netherlands also experienced murderous bursts of persecution. In all three countries, there is also a growing self-awareness among the same-sex attracted of being a distinct group.

In Sapphic Lovers 1700-1793 Crompton tells the increasing awareness of same-sex attraction among women, largely via biographical sketches of female couples of varying degrees of fame. Accusations of “Sapphism” were also wielded during the French Revolution against Marie Antoinette.

In his penultimate chapter, The Enlightenment 1730—1810, Crompton examines the slowly developing intellectual attack on the anathematisation of homosexuality. So Montesquieu’s search for mundane explanations of homosexuality worked to normalise it, as did that of Diderot, while Cesare Beccaria’s seminal book on law reform discredited torture as part of applying critical method to law.

The burden the anathematisation of homosexuality could place even on the mighty is examined through the tragic early life of Frederick the Great. Voltaire is an example of very mixed attitudes—anticlerical yet happy to invoke homosexual slurs in satire—while Sade was an extreme freethinker whose advocacy was probably counterproductive.

The decriminalisation of sodomy by Revolutionary France in 1791 was the first great reform of laws against same-sex activity, spread across much of Europe via the Napoleonic Code of 1810. A breakthrough, but one Crompton cautions against over-celebrating, since police persecution continued:
The special department set up by the police in Paris to control homosexuals was not abolished until 1981 (p.528).
The chapter concludes with the section Bentham vs. Blackstone. Jeremy Bentham thought the criminalisation of sodomy completely unwarranted, but so intense was public feeling that he felt unable to publish anything to that effect (Pp 530ff). There was no equivalent in England of public advocacy for reform that existed in France or Italy. Indeed, the tempo of judicial murder (hanging) and public scorn in the pillory intensified into the early C19th.

Much more representative was Sir William Blackstone in his magisterial Commentaries on the Laws of England who thoroughly approved of the death penalty for a crime that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah “proved” was part of God’s universal law (p.529).

Crompton concludes with a whirlwind trip through decriminalisation, ending the chapter with some pointed comments about American tardiness:
In Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) the US Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of sodomy statues by a vote of five to four, though Justice Lewis Powell, who cast the deciding vote, later admitted that he had “made a mistake.” As a result, sixteen American states entered the third millennium with laws that Montesquieu thought archaic a generation before the French Revolution
though he notes that the Court has since changed its mind (Pp 534-5).

Though it is not covered in Crompton’s book, there were considerable ironies in Powell J’s deciding vote in Bowers v. Hardwick. Mr Justice Powell claimed at the time that he had never met a homosexual: in fact, he had a history of employing (entirely unwittingly) homosexual law clerks – one of his law clerks at the time of Bowers v. Hardwick was gay and later suffered some anguish over not having revealed this to the good Justice when the case was under consideration.

In his brief Conclusion, Crompton summarises the book, noting the lack of equivalent legal prohibitions in civilisations not dominated by the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), the importance of Philo of Alexandria in Christian attitudes, the depths of brutality the anathematisation of descended to, concluding that no Christian can claim ignorance of this legacy any longer (p.540).

Louis Crompton’s book is a magisterial achievement, telling an often horrific history with clarity and in a style more effective for its measured tone.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Building and replacing the medieval

In the mid-C9th, Muslim geographer ibn Khordadbeh described Western Europe as a source of:
eunuchs, slave girls and boys, brocade, beaver skins, glue, sables and swords
and not much more. The Making of the Middle Ages by R.W. Southern is the classic, highly readable, 1953 summary history about how Western Europe clawed itself up out of the Dark Ages, moving from a situation where simply retaining past knowledge was a losing struggle, to the emerging of a new questioning of the world around them. Southern is very much concerned to place mental outlooks (his prime interest) in social contexts. A great read.

If Southern gives a grand sweep of the beginnings of the medieval period, Eamon Duffy’s The Voices of Morebath provides a wonderful, evocative examination of a single parish after the end of it. Using the original parish account book of the time, he traces the impact of the Reformation on a single parish – Morebath in Devon – under a single priest – Sir Christopher Trychay, parish priest from 1520 to 1574 (the 'Sir' is just a customary title of respect). He was their priest from when traditional Catholicism – with all its rich panoply of saints, devotions, and local structures to support that (the elected Parish officers, both general and those specific to the accounts of particular saints) – held sway through Henry VIII’s break with Rome; Edward’s vigorous, highly intrusive, reforming Protestantism; Mary’s Catholic restoration (clearly popular in the parish) and Elizabeth’s mild-but-firm Protestantism.
The degree to which the English Reformation was a rationalising, and institutionally ‘flattening’, imposition from above is very clear – most of the Parish offices fell by the wayside, tied as they were to the cults of saints. An imposition that was financial (both in money extracted and obligations imposed) as much as doctrinal. The degree to which the Reformation was – as so many political struggles with strong ideological elements are – a fight within at least as much as between people is also very clear. Not least in the personal history of their priest who goes from avidly trying to get a relic of a local saint, and Latin masses at the altar, to presiding over the rooting out of such saintly devotions, and the wealth laboriously invested in them, while giving communion at the communion table. All this with an interlude of, almost certainly, encouraging young men of the parish to fight in the Prayer Book rebellion of 1549 against the Edwardine stripping of the altars. Yet this was no ‘Vicar of Bray’, merely a decent man trying to do right for his people of his parish.

Duffy writes (p.67):
Routine, in any case, leaves few records, even though most of what is fundamental to ordinary existence is a matter of routine – undocumented, invisible and, as a consequence, far too easily discounted by the historian seeking to touch the texture of the life of the past.
We think of the medieval Church as an authoritarian and hierarchical organisation. But what struck me from Morebath is the democratic and locally-grounded nature of parish life. It is full of elections, disputes and striving for consensus, with the poorest cottagers willing to dig their heels in and stand up for their perceived rights. Of course, England was overwhelmingly a post-serf society by that stage.

We should be careful of thinking ourselves too superior (or too different) to our ancestors. No book has given me as rich a sense of the nature and ‘feel’ of the Reformation, and the nature of late medieval Catholicism, as this one.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Terror

The French Revolution is one of the seminal events of history, ushering in two decades of war followed by the most peaceful period in European history. In The Terror: Civil War in the French Revolution, David Andress examines the pattern of civil strife in the French Revolution.

Andress emphasises (correctly) that American Revolution generated as much civil conflict, and more emigres (in total numbers and, strikingly more, as a proportion of the population), than the French Revolution (p.2). Yet the American Revolution generated an enduring constitutional order: something that the French Revolution (and all the Revolutions descending from it) conspicuously failed to do.

Andress sees conservatism, liberalism and socialism as all children of the French Revolution (p.3). But it is misleading to see the French Revolution as the crucible of all modern politics. It is precisely a key characteristics of the Anglosphere that its politics do not proceed from the French Revolution. Not its conservatism, its liberalism or its socialism. Edmund Burke may have reacted against the French Revolution, but in terms which were very Anglo. In the Anglosphere, politics derived from the French Revolution (most obviously revolutionary nationalism and revolutionary socialism but also the more doctrinaire forms of liberalism and fearfully restrictive forms of conservatism) has never been more than that of alienated, small minorities.

Andress’s prose is less than sparkling, with the complex tapestry of events being at times rather hard to follow. He concludes with a somewhat laboured extrapolation between Saint Just’s revolutionary purism (pp374ff) to good intention politics of the War on Terror. Particularly laboured, as the enemies in said war are not mentioned, even though one of the genuine achievements of Andress’s narrative is to make it quite clear that the Parisian populace did have enemies.

What Andress reveals quite clearly is that ancien regime France suffered a structure of politics that blocked information flows in both directions, with an increasingly expensive, and decreasingly useful, elite.
In her rather fun Those Dreadful Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths, Regine Pernoud points out that ancien regime landowners sought to revive and enforce “feudal” rights without providing the compensating services of actual medieval seignours. The latter were instead provided (or not) by the absolutist state, exemption from the taxes to pay for which the same “feudatories” deemed their rightful privilege. This was an elite that not only wasn’t providing its side of any putative social contract, it had no sense of there being some implicit social contract.

The contrast with the Anglosphere is dramatic. In Britain, only the actual holder of the title was noble, not the entire family. So the British nobility did not expand faster than the surrounding population and had a deep interest in how the law treated commoners. Moreover, it was embedded in a system of local and Parliamentary government that although hardly democratic, certainly understood the politics of consent, of give and take. In the case of American Revolution, all the major participants were well versed in the politics of consent via participation in colonial legislatures. No taxation without representation is the politics of consent summarised in an evocative slogan.

Ancien regime French “politics” was the politics of privilege, patronage and hierarchy. Just as the first British Empire fell apart because there was no Transatlantic political mechanism up to the strain that George III’s government put on it, so ancien regime France had no political mechanisms capable of managing the fiscal crisis of the Bourbon state. (A fiscal crisis that, ironically, came from Louis XVI managing to be the only Bourbon King to defeat Britain by supporting the Americans in their War of Independence.)

Which meant that the “politics of discussion” had to be invented largely un nouvo by folk with precious little relevant experience. The French Revolutionaries did not know when to stop. The contrast between their ideas and those of the American Revolutionaries is quite clear in their speeches. After all, opposition politics in ancien regime France was the politics of discussion without responsibility, of ideas selected on the grounds of their apparent grandeur, not subject to any test of practicality.

But, as Andress makes clear, their opponents didn’t know when to stop either. They insisted on no change and so ended up with nothing. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were also fairly impossible to deal with, as they clearly had no intention of sticking by any new constitutional order, despite sworn oaths to uphold the new constitution.

Ever since Edward I decided that Simon de Montfort’s Parliamentary innovations had something going for it—that is, it made it cheaper and easier to collect taxes—it was quite clear that the English Crown could raise proportionately more money out of (smaller) England than the French Crown could out of (much larger) France, a difference that persisted. (And, arguably went back to Anglo-Saxon times, the Wessex kings were notoriously wealthy by the standards of the time.) Revenue raising in England was a process of negotiation. Folk paid more but they also got more (in terms of more and better from public goods). This was a general tendency in commercial polities. Before the invention of the welfare state, commercial polities (Venice, the Netherlands, Britain) tended to be higher taxing than autocracies.

In such polities in general, and in Great Britain in particular, revenue raising involved the “political nation” who thereby learnt the practicalities of government. As, of course, did the American colonists: hence the American Revolution, given that there were no linking institutions for negotiation between Colonies and King-in-Parliament. (Pitt the Elder endorsed the American colonists’ claim that taxing them was unconstitutional.)

In France, revenue raising had involved excluding, or “paying off” via special privileges, the “political nation”. The arts of politics were greatly attenuated. (In another of these continuing historical ironies, much of the development of French centralism was a late medieval response to the depredations of the English.)

So they ended up with very different Revolutions. The American revolutionaries wanted folk to be free to pursue their own happiness. The French revolutionaries intended to build happiness and make virtue compulsory. Revolutionary purpose trumped the politics of consent: which led to the French Revolutionaries guillotining each other for insufficient, or wrongly directed, Revolutionary virtue – a dwindling into a murderous, internecine politics conspicuously absent from the American Revolution. Just as, despite all the civil strife, there was no equivalent in the American Revolution of the savage butchery of the Vendee.

French Revolutionary Republican virtue was also very much anticlerical, very much in opposition to the Catholicism. (Pernoud makes the point that the Concordat with Francis I gave the King power over appointment of bishops and abbots—which directly incorporated the Church into the same structure of centralised privilege and patronage as the French state.) Conversely, the American Revolution had no problem with religion as such. (So being Muslim, for example, is not an inherently anti-American identity, while it can very much be an explicitly anti-French identity.)

All of which, along with the exit of the American Tories to Canada and other conveniently nearby British jurisdictions, made it possible for the American Revolution to speedily become the central icon of American nationhood in the way that the French Revolution has never managed in France.

By setting out in striking and informative fashion the patterns of antipathy and violence in the French Revolution, The Terror: Civil War in the French Revolution makes much about the French Revolution clearer.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

On the Reliability of the Old Testament

K. A. Kitchen’s On the Reliability of the Old Testament is a book clearly written against reductionist views of the Old Testament’s historical reliability and particularly against the the Finkelstein reading of the archaeological evidence.

And Kitchen makes a very good case, particularly against the Finkelstein reading. He does that by marshaling an extremely wide array of evidence—so wide, it’s the sort of book only an emeritus professor is likely to write. Kitchen’s critique did throw into sharp relief a discontinuity in the thesis of Finkelstein's The Bible Unearthed—that it largely accepts the Biblical history of the period of the two kingdoms and immediately after as supported by the archaeological evidence, but not anything before that: and particularly not the period of the united monarchy of David and Solomon.

The Finkelstein explanation is that that is when the invention of a justificatory story based on tribal myths starts. This is a rather sudden discontinuity: as in, from one generation to the next. Nor is this the only odd telescoping required. Kitchen points out that the Finkelstein re-reading of the archaeological evidence requires long periods of building and other stability during periods known to have been subject to sudden shifts in power relations and cultural patterns, the addition of a third wave of “sea people” invasions mentioned nowhere in the written record and then frenetic levels and shifts in building activity during known periods of political stability. This lacks a certain plausibility.

Particularly when Kitchen points out that the patterns of village spread and retreat and urbanisation follow a pattern that is very plausibly that of the development of a united monarchy followed by its division. That the Biblical description of Solomon’s empire follows the same pattern as three other “mini empires” from that period in history (between the retreat of Egyptian dominance and the rise of Assyrian dominance) and which are not like the patterns of any other period. That the Biblical description of Solomon’s Temple is entirely in line with other temple structures before, during and after that period. That Biblical descriptions of Solomon’s wealth are also in line other references to that period and in no way extraordinary. And so on.

This is very much the flavour of Kitchen’s approach. What does the Hebrew text actually say? What is the evidence from that period, either in the Judah/Israel territory, or in neighbouring areas? What problems would there be in evidence coming down to us? What are the plausible anthropological/sociological inferences? What does the evidence support and not support? Where do the patterns of the text—the forms and use of rhetoric, the length of sentences, the metrical forms—fit in comparison with other cultures and their timings?

It also means that Kitchen does not have to draw a line and postulate sudden unreliability in the Biblical texts.
Kitchen starts with the period with the strongest and most direct archaeological evidence—the period of the two Kingdoms, the Assyrian destruction of Israel, the Babylonian destruction of Judah and exile, the Persian restoration—and shows how strong the archaeological evidence is, even for quite surprising side details. One has to separate rhetoric (and he points out that some standard rhetorical forms are used) from the factual claims. But, once one does so, the Biblical history from the start of the two kingdoms onwards seems fairly reliable. (Kitchen makes no comment whatsoever on theological claims, apart from noting that claims of divine intervention are standard in documents of the period from many cultures: his interest in merely in the evidence regarding the history.)

Having done a chapter on the divided monarchy followed by one on exile and return, Kitchen then works back successively, dealing with the united monarchy of David and Solomon, the period of Joshua and Judges, then Exodus and Covenant, then the Patriarchs. Kitchen argues that—particularly if one is careful with translation of the original Scriptures—the general history holds up well. That it often conforms to patterns from other cultures (such as use of tabernacles, p.278). That there are often references to matters that were not likely to be known in later periods and—particularly telling—conform to patterns from rather specific periods. Or simply conform to known patterns. For example, in dealing with the Israelites in the period of Joshua and Judges, it is clearly true that movements between nomadism and farming are hardly unknown in the region across its history. And that archaeological evidence is frequently supportive—even such things as pig bones turning up in refuse in some areas and not others (p.230).

It is clear Kitchen thinks the bulk of Leviticus (and Deuteronomy: its disobedience-punishment-contrition-deliverance pattern also occurring in texts of that period, p.301) was originally composed in the late second millennium BC (pp 288ff), though it is less clear whether he thinks there might have been later additions.

I enjoyed the discussion of the Biblical plagues (pp 249) as well as the role in mistranslation in creating the story of the parting of the “Red” Sea—escaping through swamps (that chariots couldn’t follow through) is certainly much more plausible (p.262). One of Kitchen’s regular points is that—leaving aside rhetoric and (fairly standard) claims of divine intervention—there is remarkably little fantastic elements in the Old Testament, which rather sets it apart from many other period texts. Indeed, it is often well-grounded in local geography and ecology. Even regarding events such as the walls of Jericho, walls falling down did happen (pp 187-8). (Happen fortuitously enough and folk can read all sorts of things into it.)

One of Kitchen’s useful habits is tabulation. He sets out clearly the specific patterns of various sections of the Bible—particularly what specific events are actually being said to happen—then systematically goes through them. Often providing comparison tables for writings from other cultures. (Of which we have far, far more than we did when systematic Biblical analysis began 200 years ago.) But also looking at what evidence is not likely to survive or be present (e.g. papyrus rotting in Delta mud, mud huts being transient—Delta mud even swallowed up stone buildings, or they get reused—p.246, Assyria having no direct contact with Canaan before 853, the inaccessibility and much re-building over of central Jerusalem for archaeology).

He then takes a step forward in time, with a chapter on the Prophets. Kitchen points out that prophetic writings occurred in other cultures, were regularly (often systematically) written down—partly to see if they came true—and that a prophet making a correct prediction is not a reason—without any other evidence—to presume that was added later. (It might, however, encourage folk to take the utterer seriously.) Kitchen tends to take a somewhat minimalist view of such predictions, reading them down, almost mundanely.

He then moves to the genealogies, again showing that they conform to patterns in other cultures, including early periods of clearly incorrect, and greatly exaggerated, life spans. The creation and genealogy parts of the Genesis Kitchen sees as the creation of a “prehistory” of a form done by the cultures who knew they were old. But nevertheless preserve surprisingly accurate information—the description of Eden, for example, preserves memory of a river that dried up thousands of years ago (pp 427-30).

His final chapter is the most pointed, involving a point-by-point attack on various previous commentators, again starting with the most recent and working back. Some of his comments are extremely blunt.

Each chapter has a useful summary at the end. Kitchen is taking pains to make his work as accessible as possible.

On the theology of the Israelites, Kitchen is perfectly happy that other cults competed for the devotion of Hebrews—the Old Testament says as much and there is supporting archaeological evidence—but it not impressed with claims that Hebrew monotheism is a later development, pointing out that monotheism (or at least monolatry) also had manifestations in other cultures before and during this period and that the evidence supports YHWH-alone as being the dominant religious perspective from very early.

I found Kitchen’s approach congenial and persuasive. He makes a good case for the actual history (as distinct from rhetoric and theological claims—though both conform to patterns seen in other cultures) being largely accurate and being composed over long periods of time. On the point about the length of time over which some of this would have been transmitted, Kitchen is able to point to cases in other ancient Near Eastern cultures where information was transmitted accurately across centuries, with big gaps between when written texts were produced.

Where I did demur somewhat is in the absoluteness of Kitchen’s dismissal of the documentary hypothesis. With his basic claim that, if one is going to infer from texts to the outside world, one should carefully examine such evidence (and at least have some such evidence) I have no quarrel. And that the original proposer of the Hypothesis, Julius Welhausen, had little or no such evidence available to him (and, somewhat less creditably, was actively hostile to such evidence) is a telling point.

Nevertheless, examining text-as-text is not an empty activity. If, for example, there are contradictory creation stories in various parts of the Old Testament, that needs explaining. As Kitchen himself does, using textual analysis coupled with references to (contemporary to the writer) patterns to hold that the Chronicler is clearly writing post exile (p.427).

If different words are used to describe God in different places and these are associated with different presentations of God, that needs explaining.

If there are distinctly different patterns of literary style and subject matter, that needs explaining. And yes, while itself a matter of history, it needs doing even if the history in the Old Testament remains substantially accurate throughout.

That being said, Kitchen does cast doubt on the E, J, P, D schema for the Pentateuch. His point that no such manuscripts have been found (or even hinted at by the external evidence) has power. That the various parts of the Old Testament follow distinct patterns for distinct periods going back at least to the late second millennium BC and beyond is persuasive of at least the antiquity of the original materials.

I very much enjoyed the book. (Even a critical, though generally positive, scholarly review is impressed, as is this summary review.) I particularly enjoyed the methods of analysis. I have no particular commitment to the historicity of the Old Testament either way, but it does amuse me to have human achievement supported rather than written off. (Especially via the “people in the past, they were so dumb” belittling.) And I very much appreciate someone taking so much effort to make the fruits of decades of study available to a lay audience.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Storming the Heavens

The fall of the (Western) Roman Empire is one of those endlessly debated and rediscovered historical topics. Our knowledge is sufficiently sketchy that people can, and have, read into the gaps whatever explanations of the fall that they find congenial.

I have become particularly interested for two reasons. First, I have to teach it. One version of our Weapons/Arms & Armour topic begins with the Roman Army versus the barbarians. Second, because, in Europe, the medieval arises from two things—the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire and the replacement of the Western Empire by Germanic kingdoms.

I picked up, while Hylands Bookshop in Flinders Lane (the place for military books in Melbourne), a copy of Antonio Santosuosso’s Storming the Heavens: Soldiers, Emperors and Civilians in the Roman Empire, a wonderful study of the most important institution in the Roman Empire—the Roman Army.

Prof. Santosuosso takes us from the army of the Senatorial Republic, through Marius’s reforms to Caesar’s career and restructuring of the army, Augustus’s further changes and then the steady evolution of the Army until the collapse of the Western Empire in the C5th.
The army built the Roman Empire and it consumed the vast majority of the financial resources of the Roman state. The cost, quality, make-up and relationship of the army to the political structure and wider society is the most important factor in that state and its evolution. Thus Marius’ reforms in broadening its recruitment (to the poor and even non-citizens) and increasing the professionalisation made the Army more effective as an imperial Army but also fatally undermined Senatorial authority (by greatly weakening the Army's links to the Roman social hierarchy). Caesar both made the army his tool for political supremacy while purging it of the more deleterious effects of the civil war struggles. Augustus made it both an instrument of Imperial dominance within the state while enabling it to remain a high quality professional army for the next two centuries.

Just as the Republican Army after Marius became less connected to the Roman social hierarchy and, until Caesar, more an army of pillagers than protectors, so the Imperial Army after Septimius Severus became less connected to the Roman population (particularly of the central provinces) as more and more barbarians were recruited. The Army was also greatly expanded in number, while declining in quality. Its costs went up, its benefits went down while the Roman economy and population (particularly in the West) appears to have been in slow decline.

Prof. Santosuosso is excellent at explaining the reasons why Roman power reached the territorial limits it did, particularly in the West (the book, alas, gives only cursory treatment to the interaction with Sassanid Persia). I liked the way he treats the various personalities as people-with-characters while explaining well the constraints and opportunities they were dealing with. His treatment of the lead up to the battle of Adrianople is particularly informative, as he does not hesitate to point out that Valens made a series of poor decisions. He alludes to something I have come to believe was an increasingly important factor—that Rome’s German opponents were getting economically stronger and organisationally more sophisticated. Another way the balance of advantage was shifting against the Empire. He sees the Army as an institution which has to be paid, organised, supplied, recruited for. Thus he points out that the Adrianople disaster can hardly have helped recruitment. His description of the official attitude of Rome at the height of its power is one strikingly like that of the Middle Kingdom.

Prof. Santosuosso explains the survival of the Eastern Empire compared to the collapse of the Western as basically being because the Eastern Empire had more resources and was less territorially vulnerable yet its Emperors failed (except briefly in the middle of the C5th when it was all a bit late) to assist the Western Empire: a very plausible view also taken by other recent scholars.

Storming the Heavens is a highly readable, informative and enlightening book.

Medieval village life

Life in a Medieval Village is by the inveterate medieval history popularisers (I mean that in a good sense) Frances & Joseph Gies. It concentrates on the village of Elton in England. (I wondered if there was a bit of an historian's in-joke in the choice.)

The advantage of England is that it is, along with Japan, the historically best-documented (in the sense of the range and depth of surviving written records) society. The disadvantage of England is that it was institutionally distinctive in various ways from much of the rest of Latin Christendom.

Still, the book is highly readable and gives a nice, nuanced overview of village life. Only picked up one obvious error—the common law was from the first Plantagenet king Henry II, not William the Bastard. (Hence time immemorial—the limit to legal precedence—starts with the accession of his son Richard I.)

G. G. Coulton’s The Medieval Village is an older work (originally published in 1925) with much wider coverage geographically. It is so saturated with quotes from medieval sources that one gets a very good view of the complexity of medieval life (apart from the book’s assumption that its readers will all be literate in French as well as English, so none of the French quotes are translated). The book is mainly concerned with the interaction of peasants with the Church (particularly the Church as landlord). Even though it is a good 70 years older than the Gies book, there is little difference in the picture each gives of medieval village life.
Coulton clearly loves the sheer variety of the medieval. (He is particularly down on polemical generalisations, whether Church-apologia, Reformation romanticism or materialist reductionism.) It was a bit startling to discover that Queen Elizabeth I still had bondsmen and women on her estates (mainly those acquired from former abbeys).

One of his themes is that the Church had no problem with slavery or bondage. Indeed, Church serfs were less likely to achieve manumission than those with lay landlords, since Canon Law forbade the alienation of Church property. The Council of Toledo decreed that the children of priests were condemned to bondage (which makes sense as a barrier to alienation of Church property). Later Church decrees extended that to the wives of priests. The soon-to-be-burnt-alive Archbishop Cranmer was reminded by one of the (Catholic) clerical lawyers at his trial that bondage to the See of Cantebury would be the fate of the (married) Archbishop’s children. As late as 1789, the Abbey of St-Claude in the Jura had 20,000 bondsmen and women.

Yet it is equally true that much of C18th and C19th anti-slavery agitation in Britain and the US was deeply inspired by Christian sentiments. (Amazing Grace is a musical legacy of that.) Which just shows how a religion can be (quite sincerely) reinterpreted.

Two very useful and informative books.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

About jihad

In David Nicolle’s Osprey™ Campaign book Hattin 1187: Saladin’s greatest victory, there is (p.8) this comment:
The concept of jihad as war against the infidel, long dormant, was revived by 12th-century Sunni Muslim scholars.
Now, as a simple reaction to the arrival of the Crusaders, in the context of the region, this makes sense. The Sunni Abbasid caliphate had long been in decline, the Shi’a Fatimid caliphate of Egypt had neither been particularly militarily efficient or aggressive and had, until the arrival of the Crusaders, lacked significant Christian neighbours. The conjunction of military effective Sunni rulers and Christian neighbours had not occurred in Egypt and Syria for some centuries, so, when it did, it was natural that jihad-as-holy-war would get a revival among Sunni scholars.

This is a longstanding pattern in Islam. We commonly see the revival of jihad-as-holy-war and use of ghazis (jihadi religious volunteer warriors) when there is the conjunction of militarily effective Islamic rulers and Christian or other unbeliever neighbours. The Maghribi (North African) dynasties invading Al-Andalus used ghazis, particularly the C12th Almohads. Ottomans used ghazis regularly in their wars of conquest in Anatolia and the Balkans from the C14th onwards; the last Khwarazamshah (an Iranian Muslim ruler) was known as al-Ghazi (‘warrior against infidels’) because of his enthusiasm for military resistance against the pagan nomads of the steppes (unfortunately, said steppe pagans came to be led by Genghiz Khan: the Khwarazamshah state did not survive the interaction). The example of the Mahdist state in C19th Sudan I have already mentioned in my previous post. The contemporary jihadi, if one takes terrorism to be a new way to be militarily effective and the ‘global village’ as making us all neighbours, are reviving a very old pattern.
The concept of jihad-as-holy war has always been part of the intellectual and cultural armoury of Islam – indeed, of its original founding and spread from Arabia – and, as such, available for recall and re-use.

Jihad-as-inner struggle
In David Nicolle’s Hattin 1187: Saladin’s greatest victory there is also this passage:
The responsibilities of rulers were also described in a number of books known as ‘Mirrors of Princes’, and one of the most interesting was written by an anonymous Syrian living near the Crusader frontier a year or so after Saladin’s death. It went into great detail about jihad and although the best jihad was still against evil in one’s own heart, fighting the unbeliever came a good second.(pp8-9).
This also makes sense. Islam is first and foremost a religion about submission to God. So, of course, the most important struggle is the inner spiritual one. Which concept of jihad gets stressed to what extent is going to change according to purposes and circumstances. If you are not near unbeliever-ruled territories, or are militarily ineffectual, or are not primarily a military figure nor trying to appeal to military figures (or are trying to put on a good face to unbelievers), well, talk a lot about jihad-as-inner-struggle. Conversely, if you are militarily effective, or trying to appeal to military figures, and are near unbeliever-ruled territory, then jihad-as-holy war is going to get much more of a run.

But, in the world of politics and events, the theology of pietism (inner struggle) is simply not going to cause the same ructions as the theology of military action.

Moreover, the concept of jihad as holy war is much more integral to Islam than crusading is to Christianity. The Prophet himself said those who die fighting the infidel go to Paradise. Islam started as a religio-military exercise. Jesus never preached crusade in that sense and Christianity spent its first three centuries spreading without military action (or state assistance) as a purely missionary exercise.

Of course, Christianity caught up with the idea that having the reigns of power was a good thing and eventually got around to blessing military action and even (after a millennium) launching specifically religious wars with the First Crusade. Two militarily aggressive monotheisms in often-violent interaction: if one of them got the idea, the other was bound to catch it sooner or later. But the notion of crusading as religious war eventually died within Christendom as a serious exercise and the term itself has since been secularised. The notion of jihad as holy war never died out in Islam. Nor has it been secularised.

After all, secularisation is hardly a natural concept in Islam. Jesus’s dictum render unto God the thing that are God’s, render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars’ has no equivalent among the sayings of the Prophet. Even the Christian marriage with Roman power underwent a profound shock with the sack of Rome, so much so that St Augustine, in reaction to said shock, developed an entire theology of religious authority as separate from the vicissitudes of worldly power. A theology that stood the Church in good staid as it dealt with secular weakness (in the early Dark Ages) and secular power later on.

So, should we judge Islam by the jihadis? Of course not. Are they using ideas that are part of Islam? Of course they are. (See my earlier post on Andrew Bostom's compilation The Legacy of Jihad.)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Ibn Khaldun

Read an abridged version of The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, written in 779 AH (1377 AD) by Abd-ar-Rahman Abu Zayd ibn Muhammed ibn Muhammed ibn Khaldun, statesman, jurist, historian and scholar. The first great work of historical sociology. Came across this passage (p.183):
In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and (the obligation to) convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force. Therefore, caliphate and royal authority are united in Islam, so that the person in charge can devote the available strength to both of them at the same time.
Ibn Khaldun goes on to say:
The other religious groups did not have a universal mission, and the holy war was not a religious duty to them, save only for purposes of defence ...
so their religious authorities do not wield royal authority.

Ibn Khaldun’s words cut through a lot modern cant about the meaning of jihad.
The idea that the Crusades had some profound causal effect on the Muslim world and the Middle East is a fashionable piece of nonsense at the moment. I have, for example, read many comments blaming the instability and violence of the Middle East on the Crusades. On a more respectable note, a friend who is a medieval scholar mentioned to me in passing scholarship that claims that the Crusades revived the concept of holy war in Islam. Historian Bernard Lewis, by contrast, tells us that:
In the vast Arabic historiography of the Crusades period, there is frequent reference to these invaders, who are always called "Franks" or "infidels." The words "Crusade" and "crusader" simply do not occur.
(The quote is from Jihad vs. Crusade A historian's guide to the new war. Wall St Journal Thursday, September 27, 2001.)

Despite ibn Khaldun’s penchant for wide-ranging historical examples, the only references to the Crusades in the abridged version were about the Christian (re)conquest of Jerusalem as part of a general Christian resurgence in the Mediterranean (p.211) and how Christian naval power frustrated Salah-ad-din Yusuf b. Ayyub’s attempt to
recover the ports of Syria from the Christian nations and to cleanse Jerusalem of the abomination of unbelief
(p.212, abridged: Vol.2, Pp42ff full version). This piqued my interest, so I checked the full version in Baillieu Library (Melbourne University). The only other references were a paragraph covering the Crusaders first conquering Syrian ports and Jerusalem and Salah-ad-din’s retaking of Jerusalem (Vol.2, p.263) and a passing reference about Crusaders taking the city of Jabalah in an anecdote about the Judge of Jabalah (Vol.2,p.263). The final conquest of Outremer in 1291, which took place 86 years before ibn Khaldun wrote, is not mentioned at all.

Yet his understanding of Christian (and Jewish) doctrine and history is quite good. Nor is he precious about Christian achievement. The Christian role in preserving Greek science and transmission to the Muslim world is happily acknowledged (Vol.3,p.115), for example. As is the (successful) soliciting from the Emperor in Constantinople the use of Rumi ("Byzantine") craftsmen in building the mosques of Medina, Jerusalem and Damascus because the Arabs of the day lacked such skills (p.321) and similarly for Greek scientific writings (p.374). The Muslim destruction of the scientific writings of the Persians is also acknowledged (p.373).

References to holy war are more numerous. In Vol.1, there are references to the founder of the Almohad dynasty (mid C12th), calling for holy war against his enemies (p.53); to jihad being a basic religious function of the caliphate (p.449); being a basic activity of early caliphate (p.454); that judges were regularly entrusted with leadership of the holy war summer campaigns (p.456); that, with the fading of the power of the caliphate, the official function declined except in a few dynasties, where it was a governmental rather than a religious role (p.465); the above-mentioned explanation of why the caliphate is both royal and religious (p.433).

(Osama bin Laden has talked of the shame of the abolition of the caliphate. This was done by Ataturk in the early 1920s. See comments by historian Bernard Lewis, Revolt of Islam, New Yorker, Issue of 2001-11-19. The bombings in Turkey may be echoes of that.)

In Vol.2, the movement of Arabs into Mediterranean naval power is explained as a result of a desire to wage holy war by sea (Pp 39-40). Ibn Khaldun also mentions the Almohad dynasty waging holy war by sea (p.43); Merinid Sultan Abu ‘-Hassan waging holy war by sea in the early C14th (p.45); describes holy war as one of the various types of wars (p.74); explains that Maghirib rulers do not use Christian troops in holy war (p.80); that the willingness of Muslims to die in holy war gave them victory over the Persians and Romans (p.134); and the above-mentioned reference to Salah-ad-din b. Ayyub al Kurdi’s holy war reconquering Jerusalem (p.263).

Clearly, the concept of jihad-as-holy war has always been part of the intellectual and cultural armoury of Islam – indeed, of its original founding and spread from Arabia – and, as such, available for recall and re-use. For example, by the Mahdi in Sudan in the late C19th (whose successor, we should remember, was the khalifa) and by the jihadi of the present day.

One suspects ibn Khaldun would have either been highly offended, or derisively amused, if you tried to imply that Islam had essentially forgotten or given up on the concept and only recovered it thanks to the Christians. Indeed, he explicitly holds that the Christians don’t have a concept of offensive holy war that Islam does. But that is a common problem of blaming the West for others’ actions – it typically ends up being very condescending to the non-Westerners. It doesn’t avoid being Eurocentric, it just finds new ways to be so.

One of the depressing things about reading ibn Khaldun is realising how much more intelligent this C14th writer is about matters economic than almost any ‘progressive’ Western intellectual, particularly Marxist or Marxist-influenced ones. He has the concepts of gains from trade (pp300, 308-9), of what we would now call ‘the Laffer curve’ (pp.230-2), of the destructive impact of government production (pp232-3), a nuanced labour theory of value (p.298), of scarcity value (p.310), of supply and demand (pp316-7), the importance of property rights for economic activity and of leaders respecting the property rights of their subjects (pp238-40), of division and specialisation of labour resulting in different levels of income for the same jobs in different places (p.274). He is very aware of continuity in institutions encouraging growth of knowledge and technology (p.282ff).

Ibn Khaldun wrote from practical experience and did not suffer the deadly delusion that human nature is malleable. History was a source of knowledge and lessons to him, not a mere record of follies and crimes to be surpassed by those of superior understanding.

But what most accounts for his lasting intellectual fame is his analysis of the rise and fall of dynasties (which he equates with states – the distinction being much less useful in Islamic history than in the West). It was in this context I first heard of ibn Khaldun.

His analysis is that rule is based on the rise of group feeling that leads to rulership over others (pp 107-8). Having conquered urban lands, the ruling group becomes distracted by the luxuries available that weakens group feeling and courage. This proceeds until it is swallowed up by other nations or dynasties (p.109). Ibn Khaldun elaborates on this theory, looking at internal dynamics. Expenses grow (p.134), the ruling group become complacent and lose their edge (p.135), rulers become more isolated seeking people directly beholden to them (p.137) leading finally to dynastic senility and wastefulness, making them ripe for eventual replacement (p.142). Decay in authority usually starts at the edges of the dynasty’s territory (p.250). He repeats the theory in different words at various places (e.g. p.246ff). He usually provides historical examples of the various processes.

There is much more on many more subjects by this Arab polymath. A remarkable intellectual work by a remarkable mind.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Unequal Bargaining Power

An overblown shibboleth of labour market regulation is unequal bargaining power (pdf) (basically an application to the labour market of the Marxist notion of unequal exchange). The great irony in this is that labour market regulation (presuming that enforcement is effective) can destroy worker bargaining power. A would-be worker whose expected productivity is below that of the minimum wage, has no bargaining power. A would-be worker whose associated employment risk is above the level set by the difficulty in sacking folk, also has no bargaining power. (On the other hand, if there is effective collusion by employers, banning certain practices can increase worker bargaining power.)

A striking feature of actually existing socialism is that there is no sin of capitalism which actually existing socialism did not commit worse, usually far worse. The collection of articles in The Economics of Forced Labor: The Soviet Gulag describe a society—via a mixture of general analysis and case studies—with genuinely unequal bargaining power, using information now available from the former Soviet archives.

How unequal? In a law of 26 July 1940, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet decreed that no worker could leave their job without the permission of their workplace (p.25). That is the essential characteristic of serfdom. Soviet records show almost 4 million convictions of workers for unauthorised leavings from 1940 to 1952 plus almost 11 million convictions for absenteeism (p.28). (Yes, taking a “sickie” was a criminal offence.)
The law was repealed in 1956 (p.38). It turned out that industrial serfdom was not an efficient way to run a modern economy. Even in a situation of a command economy where one’s ultimate employer commanded all the power of a totalitarian state, the workers were not without some bargaining power, fraught though exercise of that bargaining power could be. They had bargaining power because managers desperate for skilled (or even willing) workers could turn a blind eye to new workers’ lack of permission. And because the managers did want them to actually produce.

Prior to creating industrial serfdom, the Soviet regime had revived state slavery, a process that started in 1929. It is clear that the GULAG had both economic and political purposes. These could work at cross-purposes. Thus, the collectivisation famine adversely affected GULAG productivity by greatly increasing prisoner mortality (in 1933, 15% of camp inmates died) while the huge influx of prisoners due to the Great Terror was also very disruptive of production.

It is clear that Stalin’s regime regarded the new slave labour as a potential economic boon. Labour camp inmates could be sent where directed, be “paid” at subsistence level yet it was presumed be as productive as ordinary workers. In fact, the regime constantly underestimated the costs of coercion and was continually frustrated with low productivity, trying a variety of expedients—such as ration penalties (particularly counter-productive when rations were already at subsistence level), bonuses, honorific titles—to improve productivity. Contributors to The Economics of Forced Labour argue that the forced labour effort was destructive to the wider economy. Many of the projects were ill-considered and coordination problems were rife. The level of waste was high. Anyone familiar with the socialist calculation debate will find the discussion of the inefficiency and wastefulness of central planning provides further and better particulars. (I particularly liked the reference to the pervasive unpredictability of the Soviet planned economy [p.185] : market economies are, in fact, more reliable in their patterns of normal provision.)

There were also levels of servitude (something familiar to any student of medieval serfdom). There were the camp inmates, “tied” workers who were no longer inmates but tied to the projects and subject to various other restrictions and penalties and “free” workers who suffered only the restrictions which applied to all workers.

Perhaps the most telling commentary on the economic efficiency of the system is that, upon Stalin’s death, the figure who had had most to do with it—Lavrenti Beria, responsible for the entire system for over a decade—was very quick to start dismantling the entire systerm. He knew its problems intimately.

Indeed, part of the discussion includes a nice little critique of simple-minded public choice theory, since the MVD became very uninterested in maximising its “bureaucratic empire”, given persistently poor productivity performances (pp72-3). (It is always good to keep in mind that functional utility rarely has zero importance in public policy bargaining.)

As the volume itself points out, the Soviet forced labour system provides a fascinating (if horrible) case study of the economics of forced labour. It is a tribute to the contributing scholars that the volume manages to do considerably more than that, providing an excellent study of the failures of command economics.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Stranger Next Door

What was a nice, Jewish, lesbian, feminist, academic sociologist doing in a “redneck” town like Timbertown Oregon? Finding out why a town with not much sign of a visible queer community was getting so exorcised over homosexuality. Arlene Stein—the aforementioned Jewish, lesbian, feminist, academic sociologist—later wrote up as The Stranger Next Door: The Story of a Small Community's Battle over Sex, Faith, and Civil Rights.

The book is an excellent and sympathetic field study of how the fight against granting homosexuals civic equality played out in a small town—which, in accordance with common research practice in such sociological studies, Stein gives the pseudonym Timbertown.

She does, however, occasionally lapse into less thoughtful comments. Early on, Stein claims that that America defined itself via Communism (p.9), a claim that is grossly exaggerated, as if the US had no history, and no sense of identity or defining characteristics, before the rise of Leninism. Leninism was itself profoundly antithetical to the US at so many levels. As a peacetime foreign threat—something the US had not experienced for well over a century—it violated the US sense of being a haven from the outside world and its wars and hatreds. As avowedly atheistic, it violated the religious sensibilities of the overwhelming majority of Americans. As a deeply tyrannical structure, it violated both democratic and libertarian sentiments. As system of state economic ownership and control it violated propertarian sentiments. In its nature, it was the antithesis of the American Revolution.
Moreover, it was a genuine threat. American Communists spied and organised for a foreign power. It was an aggressive ideology, spreading itself by violence. Leninist states were highly militarised (far more so than the US). The Soviet military sought to be able to defeat the US in war. Even the US having a large peacetime military established and elaborate systems of “entangling foreign alliances” in response was a form of violation of American historical identity. But perhaps one has to grasp the genuinely threatening nature of Leninism, and a sense of continuing American identity—particularly an identity with much that was positive—to see so.

There was some burden to the US in the collapse of its Cold War foe in that it opened up the proper role of the US in the world in an apparently open-ended way. In practice, the US is so central to the global state and economic system, its genuine freedom of choice has actually been quite limited. But how to characterise that centrality has been much less clear. Characterising that as having a “burden” from the lack of a Communist enemy is, again, to miss the real dilemmas and responsibilities.

Towards the end of the book, Stein classes welfare reform as “blaming the victim” (p.226). Not a fair characterisation of a set of reforms that have been successful in reducing welfare rolls and poverty.

Both instances suggest a problem with having operating assumptions that get in the way of understanding. But they are far from indicative of the book as a whole—precisely, one feels, because they don’t come from Stein being the careful observer in the field she clearly is.

The Introduction is both a personal statement of her own experience and a thoughtful consideration of the disorientating nature of the cultural and social changes of the last five decades. The first chapter (“The Personal is Political”) places competing view of homosexual identity (a choice in the view of conservative Christian activists and gay liberationists, an inbuilt identity analogous to race in the view of mainstream gay rights activists) in their local context. The next (“Resentment’s Roots”) examines the declining fortunes of the town as the timber industry contracted and the resulting social changes (particularly decline in male breadwinner-female homemaker family structure) and migrations into the town. Stein then sets out (in “Community Reimagined”) how people reconceived themselves, their community and their place in it particularly through religion and particularly through the more passionate forms of religion, continuing that in the next chapter (“Decorating for Jesus”) examining the appeal of Christian identity and activism for women. The experience of local gays and lesbians, and the role of homosexuals-as-imagined, is woven through the narrative.

Having set the scene, Stein now concentrates on the battling activisms. The conservative Christian activists—who had to deal with a widespread reluctance to interfere in people’s lives and wish to keep religion a private and personal matter—and, a little later, their opponents—who had to deal with a sense of homosexuality as an unwelcome and improper alienness. The chapter “Angry White Men and Women” particularly examines the former. Stein notes: “the campaign’s secular framing distinguished between what people do in privacy of their own home—which it considered their own business—and politicized homosexuality—which violates public trust” (p.123): that is, the notion that homosexuals were a “special interest”/”at risk” group requiring anti-discrimination protection and public recognition of their relationships since, the view was, anything that was required the Constitution already covered. (Needless to say, the actual experience of gay and lesbians was not merely irrelevant, but outside their frame of reference at all.) The emphasis was on the alienness of the “bad (political) gays”.

This campaign provoked a response, examined in “We are all Queer—Or Are We?” among people who were at first startled that such a fuss was being made about a non-issue and then had to confront how to defend homosexuals in a town without a visible homosexual community—many of the local gays and lesbians just wanting to continue living quiet, private lives: Stein herself hid her homosexuality and that she was raising a child in a stable-same-sex relationship so as not to create a barrier with her subjects. Stein argues that the counter campaign was handicapped because its activists essentially stayed within a vocabulary of human sexuality that meant homosexuals were still outsiders (pp 163-4).

In “I Shout Therefore I Am” Stein looks at dynamics of the conflict in a situation where activists on both sides were not many degrees of separation away from each other. The pro-gay civic equality activists used Nazi analogies, which the Christian conservatives bitterly resented—indeed, it was a common idea among them the latter that many top Nazis were homosexuals. (Of course true of some; they were also the ones Hitler killed in the Night of the Long Knives while tens of thousands of homosexuals were sent to the death camps, hence the pink triangle as a gay symbol.)

But the Nazi comparison which pro-civic equality activists ran does not really work, there is far too much extra baggage involved. But, having recently read two books on Jew hatred, particularly Peter Pulzer’s The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria, the resonances with pre-1914 anti-Semitism in continental Europe are patent. The resentments at social disorientation; scapegoating a minority with a long history of being excluded from public affairs or acceptable social life; projecting malevolent and corrupting power onto them; the key role of activists. The patterns are very similar.

The conservative activists resented the Nazi analogy at another level: because they deeply resented the notion that homosexuals were their victims. On the contrary, they felt themselves to be victims: to be an embattled minority in a country whose public arenas had become hostile. (Given that they defined Christian as meaning only born-agains, the last wasn’t as silly as it sounds.) But the sense of being embattled victims is another resonance with pre-1914 anti-Semitism.

One of the amusing aspects of the book is how Stein found her Jewishness worked for her. To modern American evangelicals, Jews are a comfortable concept—the Old Testament is all about them. It was pleasant exoticism for many of her interlocuters to meet a real-life Jew. Of course, this Judaeophilism also helped shield conservative activists from any sense that their behaviour and outlooks had Jew-hating resonances.

The next chapter, “Whose Side Are You On”, examines the final stages of the campaign over the anti-anti-discrimination ballot measure the conservative Christians had managed to get placed on the ballot and the polarising effect it had on relationships between people. Their measure won in the end, with 57 per cent “Yes” vote from the about one third of eligible voters who turned out, as did similar measures in surrounding towns.

In the final chapter, “Living with Strangers”, Stein reflects on sense of community, the limits of liberalism and the culture wars and the need to live with strangers.

The book also has two appendices, one examining methodological questions raised by the study and the other reproducing the text of the various ballot measures discussed.

The Stranger Next Door is a careful and enlightening study of how the wider push for civic equality for homosexuals becomes a focus for wider resentments about disorientation from social and economic change. Stein does a particularly good job of reporting the perspectives of people whose outlook and life experiences are very different from hers.