Tag Archives | Left and Right

Convivencia, In My Dreams It Always Seems

[cross-posted at BHL and POT]

with fields full of grain
I have to see you
again and again

A Muslim and a Christian playing dueling banjos (13th century).

A Muslim and a Christian playing dueling banjos (13th century).

Mediæval Andalusia, or al-Andalus, was the region of Iberia under Muslim rule, its constantly shifting boundaries comprising, at their greatest extent, the entire territory of modern Spain and Portugal (plus a bit more), and at their smallest extent, just the area around Granada. (So, not quite the same territory as “Andalusia” today.)

This period, known for its many scientific and cultural achievements, has long been hailed as one in which (for much of the period, anyway) Muslims, Christians, and Jews were able to coexist and cooperate on peaceful and productive terms – an island of interfaith toleration and convivencia compared to the Christian kingdoms to the north and the more conservative Berber Muslim kingdoms to the south (both of which made repeated incursions into the region, bringing less tolerant policies with them).

Libertarians in particular will be familiar with Rose Wilder Lane’s enthusiastic endorsement of this thesis; and the beautiful 2007 documentary Cities of Light: The Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain defends the same viewpoint:

There’ve always been dissenters from this interpretation, of course, and in recent years they’ve grown increasingly vocal. This historical dispute is also very much entangled with contemporary politics; even though nothing about the present-day prospects for peaceful coexistence follows with anything like apodictic necessity from what people a millennium or so ago did or did not manage to achieve (especially given how much all the relevant cultures have changed since then), there’s nevertheless a tendency for those who are optimistic about the prospects for interfaith toleration today to point to al-Andalus as a positive model, while those who adopt a more belligerent clash-of-civilisations view tend to view al-Andalus in a negative light as well.

For those interested in getting an accurate understanding of the period, I recommend the following three books:

As you might guess from their titles, Menocal’s and Fernández-Morera’s books occupy opposing sides in this dispute; Menocal paints an especially rosy picture of the Andalusian convivencia, while Fernández-Morera takes the opposite line, arguing that al-Andalus was not only intolerant and oppressive, but much more intolerant and oppressive than Christian Europe. Cohen, for his part, takes a moderate view, opposing both the “myth of the interfaith utopia” and the “countermyth of Islamic persecution.” (Cohen’s book is both broader and narrower in focus than the other two – broader, in dealing with the Muslim world as a whole rather than just al-Andalus, and narrower, in dealing specifically with the treatment of Jews – but it nevertheless covers much of the same territory. And while the first edition of Cohen’s book came out before those of Menocal and Fernández-Morera, the most recent edition has an introduction specifically addressing their views. Oddly, Fernández-Morera cites Cohen’s work with high praise, as though they were in agreement, which they aren’t.)

I think one will get a juster picture from reading all three of these books than from reading just one. In my view, Menocal greatly exaggerates the virtues of the Andalusian regime, and Fernández-Morera greatly exaggerates its vices. But that makes them both useful if read with caution, because each makes points that serve as useful correctives to the other’s excesses. And then Cohen (whose interpretations seem to me to be generally the most reasonable) takes a more moderate position that serves as a check on both. (But Menocal and Fernández-Morera cover much material that Cohen doesn’t, so one can’t simply steer by Cohen alone.)

A Christian man and a Muslim man playing chess (13th century).
(While I’m no expert, it looks to me as though the Muslim is winning.)

Interestingly, if read carefully the three authors turn out hardly ever to disagree about the historical facts (despite Fernández-Morera’s pose as heroic exposer of the lies of academic orthodoxy); it’s much more a matter of selection and emphasis. There was, in fact, quite a bit of peaceful economic and intellectual cooperation between Muslims and non-Muslims in al-Andalus; there was also, in fact, quite a bit of oppression and persecution. Which aspect was dominant varied by time and region, as one might expect from a nearly 800-year history comprising multiple changing regimes. I find both Menocal and Fernández-Morera to be a bit slippery in this regard.

As an example of where Menocal is misleading: she downplays some of the worst cases of persecution, such as one series of executions in Córdoba in the 850s, concerning which she suggests that the victims – Christians who had denounced Muhammad as a false prophet – were essentially asking for it; Menocal chillingly dismisses them as “wild-eyed, out-of-control radicals” and “would-be martyrs” who “knew for a certainty that they were forcing the hands of the authorities of the city by expressly choosing to vilify Muhammad.” Here Fernández-Morera includes some details that Menocal conveniently omits:

The first one to die as a martyr was a well-educated monk named Perfectus. In 850 [he] encountered some Muslims he knew, who asked him to explain what Christians thought of Christ and the Prophet Muhammad. He told them that they might not like the answer. When they insisted, Perfectus made them promise not to tell his answer to anyone. He proceeded to cite a passage from the gospel in which Christ declares that “many false prophets will come in my name,” and Perfectus added that Christians believed Muhammad to be one of these false prophets. … Some days later, the same Muslims saw him in the city, pointed him out to the crowds, and accused him of having insulted the Prophet. The monk was arrested and locked in prison [and eventually] was publicly beheaded.

This does not sound like the story of someone seeking martyrdom.

Again, when Menocal speaks blithely of the role of “women who sang for a living, young and attractive entertainers much prized in the Andalusian courts,” Fernández-Morera reminds us that most of these women were in fact slaves, and indeed essentially sex-slaves.

A Muslim woman and a Christian woman playing chess.
We’re in the end game now.

On the other hand, Fernández-Morera (who is incidentally a classical liberal of Austrian bent – gooble gobble, one of us!) for his part downplays the fact that these slave women of the Andalusian courts often fell, whether by sale or by conquest, into Christian hands, in the courts of the Andalusians’ northern neighbours – and their new Christian owners did not choose to free them. So as a special indictment of Muslim as opposed to Christian rule, the example falls short. (And certainly not all the women artists of Islamic courts were slaves.)

There is a still greater obstacle to Fernández-Morera’s suggestion that the Muslims were worse than the Christians in the area of religious oppression. He spends a lot of time talking about the burdensome restrictions placed on Christians by Muslim regimes, and fair enough; but he offers no comparable discussion of restrictions placed on Muslims by Christian regimes. That’s because there’s nothing to tell; in Christian regimes (with the exception of the Crusader kingdoms, whose rulers had to a great extent “gone native”), being a Muslim was illegal. By contrast, in most Muslim regimes, most of the time, being a Christian was not illegal. So if one wants to compare Muslim treatment of Christians with Christian treatment of Muslims, no number of examples of anti-Christian oppression is going to make the Muslims come out looking worse than the Christians’ complete ban on Islam.

And a Jewish man and a Muslim man playing chess.
This game looks a bit harder to call than the first one.

Any comparative thesis with regard to religious oppression is thus going to have to turn instead on the treatment of Jews, a group relegated to second-class status by both Muslims and Christians – and here Cohen shows pretty convincingly that, in general, mediæval Islam was “more tolerant toward nonconforming minorities than Christianity” and that the contrary suggestion “ignores, one might say suppresses, the substantial security – at times verging on social (though not legal) parity – that Jews enjoyed through centuries of existence under Muslim rule.” (And of course when the Christians finally succeeded in driving all the Muslims out of Iberia, they drove all the Jews out along with them; many found refuge in the more tolerant Ottoman Empire.) Cohen’s explanation for Islam’s being more tolerant toward Jews than Christians were is that a religion founded by a merchant is naturally less prone to a certain traditional antisemitic prejudices. Another possibility I would point to is that mainstream Christianity’s distinctive theological doctrines (e.g., trinity and incarnation) render it more different from Islam and Judaism than the latter are from one another. (As for why Muslims tolerated Christians more than Christians tolerated Muslims, I’d assume this is related to the reason that Christians tolerated Jews at all, despite not tolerating Muslims: Christianity and Islam each tolerated the doctrines they regarded as forerunners of their own, but not doctrines that proposed to be their successors. Christianity and Islam each wanted to be the final revelation.)

There’s also a certain terminological slipperiness that both Menocal and Fernández-Morera seem to me to be guilty of. Words like “tolerance” and “toleration,” for example, carry a range of meanings, from grudging sufferance at one extreme (“I don’t like my cousin, but I tolerate him”) to the whole-hearted embrace of diversity and equal rights at the other extreme. Menocal will offer persuasive evidence for the existence of toleration in a weaker sense, and then follow it up with rhetoric appropriate to having shown the existence of toleration in a strong sense. Fernández-Morera, for his part, will offer persuasive evidence for the non-existence of toleration in a strong sense, and then follow it up with rhetoric appropriate to having shown the non-existence of toleration in a weaker sense. Thus the two authors manage to give completely opposite impressions, despite for the most part never literally contradicting each other. (Similar remarks apply to the term convivencia.)

The usually more sober Cohen manages to trip himself up over terminology too. He tells us early on that his book is “not a comparative study of tolerance,” since “[n]either for Islam, nor for Christianity prior to modern times, did tolerance, at least as we in the West have understood it since John Locke, constitute a virtue.” In other words, it makes no sense to ask whether X is more or less tolerant than Y unless we are prepared to say that X and Y both meet some minimum liberal standard for tolerance. But is that really how these words work? Admittedly some terms do work that way; while I think Prague is more beautiful than Kraków, I would not express that by saying that Kraków is uglier than Prague, because that does ordinarily seem to imply that Kraków is ugly, full stop, which it certainly is not. On the other hand, if I say that a mouse is larger than a mosquito, that does not seem to imply that the mouse is large, full stop. It’s not obvious to me that “tolerant” works more like “ugly” than like “large.” In any case, in the rest of his book Cohen cheerfully forgets this opening stricture and speaks regularly of mediæval Muslim societies being more tolerant than their Christian counterparts.

Continuing the terminological theme: Fernández-Morera also seems to think that the common use of the term “Iberia,” rather than “Spain,” to refer to the Iberian peninsula during the Middle Ages, is a “politically correct” subterfuge to avoid offending Muslims (despite the fact that both the subtitle of Menocal’s book and the subtitle of the Cities of Light documentary unembarrassedly say “Spain”). I should have thought the more obvious motivation would be to avoid any confusion that might arise from the fact that “Spain,” today, is the name of a distinct nation-state that shares the Iberian peninsula with another nation-state, Portugal. (I’m leaving aside Andorra and Gibraltar as small enough to be ignored, as San Marino and Vatican City are in speaking of “Italy”; but Portugal is larger and more populous than, say, Austria.)

Another slipperiness I find in Fernández-Morera is this: As he notes, when Muslim regimes in al-Andalus pursued policies of (relative) tolerance, this was typically a decision of kings and princes, often opposed by clerics. But clerics, not kings and princes, Fernández-Morera says, are the true authorised spokesmen for Islam. Hence tolerant policies by Muslim princes do not count as establishing the tolerant character of the regime, because the real policies of any Islamic regime are those favoured by its clerics, not those favoured by its king – even in those cases where the clerics have no power to enforce their preferences, and the king is in a position to simply ignore the clerics. This seems a bit of a stretch – especially considering that in Islam there was no one institution with the authority to declare what was or was not Islamic, comparable to the power claimed (though not unchallenged either, FWIW) by the Catholic church. So it’s unclear why we should regard the clerics’ determinations as more “Islamic” than those of the kings. (Relatedly, Fernández-Morera tells us that “Muslims in al-Andalus lived under a …. hierocracy – a government of clerics”; but for Fernández-Morera this “government of clerics” remains in force even when the king’s decisions, in defiance of the clerics, are the ones that actually carry the day. Fernández-Morera’s clerics sometimes seem to savour a bit of Emperor Norton.)

All this doesn’t mean that Muslim rulers had enlightened and liberal motives for their more-tolerant policies. After all, under Islamic law Jews and Christians paid a tax from which Muslims were exempt, which could plausibly have had the economic effect of weakening any incentive, on the part of those collecting the tax, either to pressure Jews and Christians into conversion or to drive them out. Then again, on the other hand, those raised in a cosmopolitan court atmosphere might well have developed a genuine affinity, even if perhaps more an æsthetic than a moral one, for an atmosphere of diversity and intercultural exchange. In any case, whatever the reasons, Muslim regimes in al-Andalus did foster conditions for such exchange, even if not as thoroughly and consistently as in justice they should have, that their counterparts in Christian Europe did not.

So my final verdict is, broadly, one cheer for Fernández-Morera, two cheers for Menocal, and three cheers for Cohen.

Do We Need Government? No, But You Need This Anthology

[cross-posted at BHL and POT]

A long-awaited anthology I’m scheduled to appear in (with a couple of pieces on the question “Do We Need Government?”) has now, I hear, been split into two – one volume on metaphysics and epistemology, and the other on ethics, æsthetics, and politics – and in that form (and with a bunch of historical selections deleted) is/are finally slouching toward publication; see the tables of contents here and here. Some old friends are in it/them too, as you’ll see (if you know who my old friends are).

I’m told: “The eText will be coming out in February [2020], with hard copies soon to follow.”

Turned Into Tongue and Trim Ones Too

This video about PragerU is worth watching, especially for its first half on conservative critiques of feminism. Pull quote:

When women are lagging behind men, for example in the wages they get paid, this is no problem whatsoever; it’s just a natural result of men and women’s biological differences. But when men are lagging behind women, such as receiving lower grades in school, well, that’s “everyone’s concern,” and we need to institute system-wide reforms in order to reverse the trend. And I like how biology is used here: it’s presented as both the reason to preserve a system when men are ahead, and also as the reverse – to reform a system when men are behind. The message seems to be that any societal system should cater to male biological traits (or at least conservatives’ estimation of what male biological traits are).

The second half of the video (starting at 16:31), on economics, is more of a mixed bag, since it’s essentially a left-conflationist attack on right-conflationism, with no Ramsey’s Maxim in sight, and thus predictably offers a fairly even balance of good points and confused points. But the very end (starting at 25:22), on graphs, is funny.

Conscience of a Conservative

The full original French title of arch-conservative Joseph de Maistre’s 1821 Soirées, often translated as St. Petersburg Dialogues, is Les Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg; ou, Entretiens sur le Gouvernement Temporel de la Providence.

The full original French title of arch-liberal Gustave de Molinari’s 1849 Soirées, recently translated as Evenings on Saint Lazarus Street, is Les Soirées de la Rue Saint-Lazare: Entretiens sur les Lois Économiques et Défense de la Propriété.

That the similarity in titles is intended as a reply rather than an homage is obvious from the fact that all the hostile references to de Maistre are assigned to the Economist (Molinari’s spokesman in the dialogue), while all the favourable references are assigned to the Conservative (one of the Economist’s two opponents).

The following quotation from de Maistre’s Soirées will give a sense as to why Molinari picked him out as the antithesis of the liberal vision of society that Molinari’s book sets out to defend:

[T]his divine and terrible prerogative of sovereigns: the punishment of the guilty … results in the necessary existence of a man destined to administer the punishments adjudged for crimes by human justice. This man is, in effect, found everywhere, without there being any means of explaining how; for reason cannot discover in human nature any motive capable of explaining this choice of profession. I believe you too accustomed to reflection, gentlemen, not to have thought often about the executioner.

So who is this inexplicable being who, when there are so many pleasant, lucrative, honest and even honourable professions in which he could exercise his strength or dexterity to choose among, has chosen that of torturing and putting to death his own kind? Are this head and this heart made like our own? Do they contain anything that is peculiar and alien to our nature?

For myself, I have no doubt about this. In outward appearance he is made like us; he is born like us. But he is an extraordinary being, and for him to be brought into existence as a member of the human family a particular decree was required, a FIAT of creative power. He is created as a law unto himself. …

Scarcely have the authorities assigned his dwelling, scarcely has he taken possession of it, when other men move their houses elsewhere so they no longer have to see his. … A dismal signal is given. An abject minister of justice knocks on his door to warn him that he is needed. He sets out. He arrives at a public square packed with a pressing and panting crowd. He is thrown a poisoner, a parricide, a blasphemer. He seizes him, stretches him out, ties him to a horizontal cross, and raises his arms. Then there is a horrible silence; there is no sound but the crack of bones breaking under the crossbar and the howls of the victim. He unties him and carries him to a wheel. The broken limbs are bound to the spokes, the head hangs down, the hair stands on end, and the mouth gaping like a furnace occasionally emits a few bloody words begging for death. He has finished; his heart is pounding, but it is with joy. He congratulates himself. He says in his heart, No one can break men on the wheel better than I. He steps down; he holds out his blood-stained hand, and justice throws him from afar a few gold coins, which he carries away through a double row of men drawing back in horror. He sits down to table and eats; then he goes to bed and sleeps. Awakening on the morrow, he thinks of something quite different from what he did the day before. …

Is this a man? Yes. God receives him in his shrines and allows him to pray. He is not a criminal, and yet no tongue would content to say, for example, that he is virtuous, that he is an honest man, that he is admirable, etc. No moral praise seems appropriate for him, since this supposes relationships with human beings, and he has none.

And yet all greatness, all power, all subordination rests on the executioner; he is both the horror and the bond of human association. Remove this incomprehensible agent from the world, and in a moment order gives way to chaos, thrones fall, and society disappears.

Despair Could Never Touch a Morning

The air was cool, and smelled of sage. It had the clarity that comes to southern California only after a Santa Ana wind has blown all haze and history out to sea – air like telescopic glass, so that the snowtopped San Gabriels seemed near enough to touch, though they were forty miles away. The flanks of the blue foothills revealed the etching of every ravine, and beneath the foothills, stretching to the sea, the broad coastal plain seemed nothing but treetops ….

The sun was obscured by a cloud for a moment, then burst out again. Big clouds like tall ships coasted in, setting sail for the mountains and the desert beyond. The ocean was a deep, rich, blue blue, a blue in blue within blue inside of blue, the heart and soul and center of blue. Blinding chips of sunlight bounced on the swelltops. Liquid white light glazed the apricot cliff of Corona del Mar, the needles of its Torrey pines like sprays of dark green. Ironwood color of the sun-drenched cliff. … Behind him Orange County pulsed green and amber, jumping with his heart, glossy, intense, vibrant, awake, alive. His world and the wind pouring through it.

As you might guess (since it’s been the subject of my two most recent “guess the author” posts – here and here), I recently got around, at last, to reading the “Three Californias” trilogy (The Wild Shore, The Gold Coast, and Pacific Edge) by Kim Stanley Robinson, about whose other work I’ve blogged before (see, e.g., here and here). (For Robinson’s own account of the origin and meaning of his trilogy, see this interview.)

The trilogy concerns three possible futures for southern California: a) post-apocalyptic, b) urban sprawl, and c) ecotopia – three timelines linked by one character who occurs in all three (and who seems to have a vague inkling of his other lives, his alternative pasts and possible futures – see The Wild Shore, pp. 214-221, and Pacific Edge, pp. 63 and 181), as well as by some structural and thematic elements (for example, each novel begins with an archeological excavation and ends with an attempt at sabotage). There are echoes of Ursula K. Le Guin and Philip K. Dick (Robinson was a student of one and wrote his dissertation on the other), as well as prefigurations of his own later fiction, but the trilogy is very much its own thing – and, as one would expect from Robinson, thought-provoking and beautifully written.

While Robinson’s three futures represent, in effect, two bad possibilities and one good one, the portrait is not simplistic: the two dystopian novels offer glimmers of hope and spaces of freedom, while the third, utopian novel represents utopia not as a fixed end point but as something that needs to be continually fought for, defended, and extended – which seems to me to be the right way to think about it. (And his utopia is certainly not one in which all the protagonists live happy lives or find their way to happy endings.)

When it comes to the specific content of his utopia, as opposed to his abstract idea of how to think about utopia as such, Robinson’s vision is much more of a mixed bag, from my (or more broadly, any LWMA) point of view. As I’ve said before, Robinson’s economic and political ideals leave him with “one foot in vital, grassroots, quasi-anarchist radicalism” and “the other in dreary, top-down, paternalistic authoritarianism.” (This conflict actually gets lampshaded somewhat – e.g., at pp. 282-285 of Pacific Edge – though without resolution.) But the trilogy is well worth reading despite this.

I particularly want to recommend the trilogy, though, not just to readers in general but specifically to those who know and love California, especially southern California. Anyone for whom the towns and climate and natural landscape of the region are a geography of their own heart will find a special joy in recognising them in their varied incarnations through the three novels.

(There’s a certain irony in the fact that Robinson, who has the good fortune to live in the California of the present, has written a trilogy filled with longing for Californias of the past and possible future, but mostly frustration with the California of the present – which by contrast looks pretty damn good to me, despite its admitted flaws. Yes, I’m homesick!)

I Never Had a Secret Chart

In 1965, Murray Rothbard described socialism (or at least state socialism) as a “confused, middle-of-the road movement” that “tries to achieve Liberal ends,” such as “freedom, reason, mobility, progress, higher living standards for the masses, and an end to theocracy and war,” but does so “by the use of incompatible, Conservative means,” such as “statism, central planning, communitarianism, etc.”

If that’s right, and I think it broadly is, it suggests a somewhat different grid from the usual Nolan Chart:

An incompatibility between means and ends suggests, further, that the two quadrants I’ve marked in grey are unstable. Attempts to implement the program of the traditional left politically end up sliding in practice into the political right (as is evidenced by the general recognition that Kremlin hardliners were appropriately called “conservatives”); that’s why Marxist ideology can be preferable to Nazi ideology, even if there’s not much daylight between Stalin and Hitler. The Marxist vision of universal cooperation and solidarity is more congenial than the Nazi vision of superior races crushing inferior ones; but implementing the former vision through the centralised, authoritarian state tends to yield something looking more like the latter vision.

Similarly, right-libertarian attempts to uphold conservative, authoritarian goals (such as heteropatriarchy, white privilege, closed borders, hierarchical workplaces, the capitalist wage system, etc.) via free-market means are doomed to fail for the same reasons. Hence we see the breakdown of libertarian-conservative “fusionism,” the transformation of right-libertarians into alt-righters, etc. At the end of the day, as William Gillis says, “everything is philosophically unstable besides fascism and anarchism.”

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