The games people play

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Reza Aslan and Rod Dreher had a disagreement about the general concept of “Clash of Civilizations” on the latest bloggingheads.tv. I think people who actually read Samuel Huntington’s original book would feel that the caricature of his thesis is a bit unfair; granted, such macro-scale typologies invite criticism, and there were some embarrassing factual errors. But Aslan himself himself is coming back with Platonic seeming typologies (e.g., “Arab culture”) while at the same time ridiculing the whole enterprise.1 The reality is that the human mind is geared toward these clear and distinct types, despite the fact that reality exhibits continuity. I am, for example, always surprised at the alliances of convenience which confound our expectations based on higher-level categories. For example, the Abbasid caliphs & the Carolingians engaged communications in the interests of forging common cause against the Byzantines, prefiguring the later French alliance with the Ottomans against the Hapbsurgs. This is a case where it seems geographic parameters overruled the historically contingent cultural affinities between various states (during the time of Charlemagne the Latin and Greek churches were not even in schism!). The Umayyads of Spain similarly attempted to act in concert with the Byzantines against the rising Muslim powers of North Africa who were pushing into southern Italy and challenging their status as the paramount Islamic power in the western Mediterranean. And in the last case, cities such as Amalfi long served as federates in the North African Muslim cause against other Italian Christians for decades, enabling the endemic depredations of the Muslims upon their co-religionists in exchange for a cut of the plunder and strategic alliance. In China the Hui (or Dungans), the Chinese speaking Muslims, were used by the Manchus to conquer & suppress the Turkic speaking Muslims of Xinjiang toward the interests of consolidating the hold of the Chinese Empire upon these marginal regions. And in a peculiar case, rebellions of the Hui against their non-Muslim rulers predicated on religious differences tended to succeed only when Muslim preachers embedded within their sermons metaphors and analogies drawn from common Chinese (often Daoist) mythology! And yet, you often see this:

Omar, the Kurds claim, was once an inconsequential deputy to the now-deceased terrorist chieftain Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Omar disputed this characterization. By his own telling, he accomplished prodigies of terror against the pro-American Kurdish forces in the northern provinces of Iraq. “You are worse than the Americans,” he told his Kurdish interrogator. “You are the enemy of the Muslim nation. You are enemies of God.” The interrogator-I will not name him here, for reasons that will become apparent in a moment-sat sturdily opposite Omar, absorbing his invective for several minutes, absentmindedly paging through a copy of the Koran.

It is true that may Islamist Arabs have an operational tendency to conflate the “Muslim nation” with the “Arab nation,” but, I do not think one can deny the internationalist tendencies of a particular tendency with Islam. Reza Aslan in the diavlog with Rod asserts the multiplicity of identities which individuals tend to have. Cultural anthropologists also tend to make this claim. It seems an obviously true claim. But, the problem to me is that Aslan (and cultural anthropologists) take this complexity and use it as a cudgel against any attempt to construct general trends or patterns of relations (outside of their own preferred narratives!). There are sociological and historical analyses of the manner in which people identify; for example, middle class Bengali speaking Muslims before the partition, and under British rule, tended to coalesce around their identity as Muslims who were marginalized by the Hindu elite of Calcutta. After independence under Pakistan Bengali speaking Muslims were dominated by a non-Bengali speaking Muslim elite; whereas before they were marginalized as mussulmans, now they were marginalized as crypto-Hindu kala Bengalis. In my own family this has manifested in a generational difference; my mother noted that her parents, especially her father who was often the only Muslim physician among his colleagues (he was born in 1896), was extremely attached to the idea of Pakistan. In contrast, her own generation experienced little discrimination from Hindus, who were by that period a minority out of power, as opposed to Urdu-speaking immigrants from India (“Biharis”) who would engage in attempts to assert naked dominance in public such as forcing Bengalis out of seats on a bus if all spots were already taken (and yelling loudly in Urdu, which the bus driver might not understand, when they were denied what they wanted).

Context matters. Most of us get that. Obviously we use them as heuristics in our day to day life (among a bunch of white Americans I suppose I’m the “brown guy,” and among a bunch of non-American brown guys I’m “the American”). Rather, people should engage in more scholarship to map out how how these identities apply in particular contexts and what their long-term effects are. For example, it is trivially easy to find alliances across the religious chasm for states during the medieval period; but it might be interesting to see how much deviation from expectation based purely on real-politik there was over the centuries. I think that the sincere Christian religiosity of Louis IX of France did have geopolitical consequences which could not be inferred from pure calculation of interest. It may be that though most state-action can not be derived from civilizational adherence (after, most conflict is intra-civilizational), the deviations from expectation can be, and those deviations might be particularly significant hinges of history.

Finally, I think that though broad social and historical studies are essential, we need to explore the psychology of identity in more detail. There is a difference between what people say, and what people do. I suspect many Syrian Muslims would avow more affinity to a South Asian Muslim than to a Christian, at least to the South Asian Muslim. But I also suspect that racial prejudice and to a lesser extent Arab chauvinism strongly shape realized choices, and in reality association with a Syrian Christian might actually be more likely (this doesn’t take into account variables such as food, where local geography and culture matters a great deal). Ultimately, these questions of identity are empirical, and it would be nice if people spent less time arguing and more time collecting data and analyzing it.

1 – Do Syrian Christians, Arabs of Khuzistan in Iran and the Arabs of Morocco truly have in common with each other than each does with an Armenian Christian of Syria, a Persian from Fars and a Berber from the Rif?

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28 Comments

  1. Good points, Razib! 
    Aslan seems to be enamored here of a few anthro-speak talking points–if that’s what his education amounts to, I certainly hope he doesn’t become more prominent–that wouldn’t do his or anyone else’s agenda any long-term good. 
    It’s difficult to answer the Arab Moroccan v. Berber question–in one sense, as you say, they are more likely to fight each other (due to proximity) than to fight, say, Egyptians, on the other hand they would likely join up to fight with Egyptians were there to be an influx of them into Morocco.

  2. Reza really annoyed me so I wrote a long winded complaint/explanation of Huntington here. I probably should have gone to sleep and then written something reasonable, but I had to get it out of my system.

  3. 1) i don’t think that dreher is really promoting the caricature that aslan asserts he is promoting. the critique would have been more effective right after 9/11 when dreher, and many others (including me) got a little carried away with a reductive analysis (though i think you can understand why, that really hasn’t led to the best outcomes for the united states at this point). 
     
    2) a skeptical rejection of overly broad typologies brings us to the question of what categories we should use, how we should use them, and so forth. additionally, we should go beyond categories and assign weights and probabilities to our parameters that we use in constructing a sense of a population or person. aslan doesn’t do this, and he doesn’t want to because he has to take dreher’s critiques more seriously then.

  4. If you watch the full bloggingheads, Reza Aslan posits that Bush’s not being able to pronounce Olmert’s name correctly is a national security issue for the US—that has to be about the dumbest comment I’ve seen in some time. I mean, really–that just makes me laugh–is he that much caught up in identity politics? Does he think pro-Israel Americans give a damn about the freaking pronounciation, as opposed to substantive things? What a tard!

  5. I was thinking pronounciation was a dumb issue too, but I think Reza was talking more broadly about Bush’s ignorance.

  6. Bengali speaking Muslims before the partition, and under British rule, tended to coalesce around their identity as Muslims 
     
    I recently read Autobiography of an Unknown Indian by Nirad Chaudhuri (very interesting despite or because it is quite idiosyncratic, old-fashioned & unfashionable). Speaking about relations between Hindus and Muslims in Bengal, he says that despite the talk of secular Congress politicians, the existence of 2 religion-based nations (which was what Jinnah argued) was a fact of life growing up there. 
     
    I wonder if most Bengali Muslims, say in the UK where they are there in large numbers, make common cause with Pakistani Muslims under a common Muslim identity, or whether they prefer to emphasis the Bengali aspect of their identity. 
     
    Urdu-speaking immigrants from India (“Biharis”) who would engage in attempts to assert naked dominance in public 
     
    What happened to them after 1971?

  7. This is slightly off topic, but you might be interested in taking a look at an amazingly foolish article published in Foreign Policy magazine: 
     
    http://www.foreignpolicy.com/index.php 
     
    The article is titled “A World Without Islam,” and the author’s astounding thesis is that we can’t blame Islam for the troubles in the Middle East because we would have had all those same troubles even if Islam had never been founded. He even thinks that European imperialism would have worked out the same, leading to resentment of Europe in the Middle East; that the Holocaust would still have happened, leading to a State of Israel being created; and that the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians would be the same, the only real difference being that the Palestinians would now be Christian. Truly amazing! 
     
    Unfortunately the full article isn’t on line, but the article isn’t that long, and if you can find it in a bookstore you should take a look.

  8. Without Muhammad I daresay the Arab world would have produced some other unifying ideology and probably just another one based on the Old Testament.

  9. I recently read Autobiography of an Unknown Indian by Nirad Chaudhuri (very interesting despite or because it is quite idiosyncratic, old-fashioned & unfashionable). Speaking about relations between Hindus and Muslims in Bengal, he says that despite the talk of secular Congress politicians, the existence of 2 religion-based nations (which was what Jinnah argued) was a fact of life growing up there. 
     
    right, but it was mostly elite discourse. on the village level these fissures did exist, but it was often relatively fluid. also, in a place like bengal there wasn’t much of a bengali speaking middle class before the 19th century, bengalis muslims who went up the social ladder became urdu speakers since that was the muslim language. the peculiarities of bengali muslim nationalism have to do with the emergence of a new identity relatively recently which challenged both the urdu-speaking muslims and bengali-speaking hindus. 
     
     
    I wonder if most Bengali Muslims, say in the UK where they are there in large numbers, make common cause with Pakistani Muslims under a common Muslim identity, or whether they prefer to emphasis the Bengali aspect of their identity.
     
     
    one problem is that pakistanis are mostly 2nd generation while bangladeshis are mostly 1st gen. and common coss between 1st gen & FOBs isn’t easy. amartya sen is concerned that the british gov. is enabling ‘communities activists’ in shifting bangladeshis to a mostly muslim-identification as opposed to a more synthetic one. i would bet on a muslim identity because it is more portable; being bengali outside of bengal gets progressively more attenuated as elements of language, food and dress disappear due to assimilation. 
     
    To answer my own question: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Str…nded_Pakistanis 
     
    i have people from urdu speaking backgrounds in my own family; up the line of descent (my paternal grandfather’s family) as well as horizontally (aunt-in-laws), so i wonder if it isn’t exaggerated to the extent that many traditional urdu speaking families have simply become bengali.

  10. Without Muhammad I daresay the Arab world would have produced some other unifying ideology and probably just another one based on the Old Testament. 
     
    no.

  11. “no.” 
     
    The underlying disorders in social and economic relations among Arabs that resulted in Islam sweeping the Arabian peninsula would still have existed. Muhammad was the catalyst for change not the ultimate cause of it.

  12. Danny, 
     
    Try Chaudhuri’s sequel, Thy Hand, Great Anarch, which is even better – it takes on Indian politics much more squarely, and it has far more actual biographical content.  
     
    Chaudhuri was the personal secretary to Sarat Bose – brother but not supporter of the infamous Subhas Chandra Bose – and his reminiscences of the period preceding Indian “independence” are worth more than the entire so-called discipline of “postcolonial studies.” Naturally, most Indians, Pakistanis and Bengalis today have never even heard of Chaudhuri, the Jeremiah of the late Raj. It’s neat to see him mentioned here.

  13. The underlying disorders in social and economic relations among Arabs that resulted in Islam sweeping the Arabian peninsula would still have existed. Muhammad was the catalyst for change not the ultimate cause of it. 
     
    sufficiency is not necessity. be careful about the power of post facto abduction.

  14. I find the scholarly research into the social pathologies of Bedouin society leading up to the Islamic revolution to be more than sufficient to explain the success of Mohammad, just as I find the socio-political condition of Roman society to explain Julius Caesar, and the anarchy of revolutionary France to explain Napolean Bonaparte. 
     
    Humans require a certain minimum level of justice and order. And when absent they rally to those persons or institutions that can provide it. 
     
    However if you are a Thomas Carlyle literalist or worse yet a believing Muslim, we probably have nothing to discuss.

  15. Another person assuming you’re a muslim, razib. Maybe you should go back to calling yourself “razib_the_atheist”. 
     
    The Arabs seemed to have been a disorganized and unimportant bunch for a long time before Muhammad and I am not sure what materially changed around his time. He definitely seems to have had a big effect, but whether that could have occurred without him I am nnot sure.

  16. “Another person assuming you’re a muslim, razib.” 
     
    Not really. I’m just trying to narrow down the possible reasons for his implied “great man” theory of history.

  17. sufficiency is not necessity. be careful about the power of post facto abduction. 
     
    Well, that is true, however, I think we can be certain that there were many would-be leaders who aspired to become great. 
     
    Also, the situation today seems contingent on many past missteps and lucky breaks on the part of many players, but there seems to be no lack of aspirants willing to step into the void and try to make things work to their advantage.  
     
    And, of course, with plenty of data points, some of them are bound to be more than just ordinary. 
     
    Oh, wait …

  18. I find the scholarly research into the social pathologies of Bedouin society leading up to the Islamic revolution to be more than sufficient to explain the success of Mohammad, just as I find the socio-political condition of Roman society to explain Julius Caesar, and the anarchy of revolutionary France to explain Napolean Bonaparte. 
     
     
    what scholarly research? citations? 
     
    1) there were multiple arab eruptions prior to muhammad. the ghassanids and lakhmids were both christianized. the ‘muslim’ eruption is an anomaly in generating a alternative religion. 
     
    2) we know there are monotheists around the arabian peninsula. jews, christians and “hanifs.” these last usually converted to judaism and christianity after an exploratory phase, though there was usually an extant number in arabia during muhammad’s life. so the typical response of arabs to monotheism wasn’t to make up their own religion, it was to convert to the ones that were extant. 
     
    3) there is a lot of revisionist work which throws a lot of doubt around how islam arose. there is a spectrum, from what the muslims say (that is, islam arose in arabia in the time of muhammad) to those who would argue that islam as such didn’t really exist until the early abbasids. see crone et. al. i suspect the revisionists are pushing things too far, but there’s a lot of confusion about the early period, and much of the current mainstream model relies purely on muslim legend (legends are worth taking seriously, but not alone without other lines of evidence). 
     
    4) even muslim scholars cast a pall over the muslim bonafides of the ummayyad period (650-750). here are two facts of note: 1) there is attested de facto and de jure discrimination against non-arab muslims 2) there were north arabian christian tribes which were allowed into the arab muslim armies without the requirement to convert to islam but given all the privileges of arabs as the ruling race (sinecures, taxation exemptions, et.). the codification of the koran is also likely a feature of the 8th century, not the period of the early ‘muslim’ conquests. 
     
    5) so, there is debate about exactly when and how islam arose. it is plausibly a causal agent if islam actually did arise and manifest in the form that muslims tell us by 630 in arabia, but islam is more likely to be a byproduct of the arab encounter with civilization after their conquest if the revisionists are correct. that is, there is a lot of circumstantial data that the arab conquerers constructed islam as a special revelation to the arabs to boost their prestige as the ruling caste after the encounter with christians, jews and zoroastrians. but as i note above, there were other arab eruptions (remember that one roman emperor, phillip, had arab ancestry) which didn’t produce a new religion, so this isn’t inevitable. it was perhaps a peculiar response to extraordinary conquests. 
     
    6) i’m a little confused as to why you focus on the bedouins. even islamic tradition seems to indicate that the original muslims were not bedouins, they were the city-dwellers (merchants and oasis farmers) of mecca and medina (as i note above, there is reason to be a bit skeptical of this narrative, and reza aslan himself has presented the revisionist argument in his works that suggest that mecca as a entrepot is a fiction). additionally, it seems quantitatively most arabs were probably not obligately bedouin in their lifestyle, since there were tributary states of some heft to the north until the recent roman-persian wars (the ghassanids and lakhmids who i refer to). from what i have read the bedouins were actually relative latecomers who arrived for the plunder (there was some resistance to the muslim demand that they cut out the intertribal warfare, but made up for the fact that they had new lands to seek rents from). 
     
    7) there are other major eruptions of nomads historically in this period. e.g., the avars and the turkish empire antedated the muslims by a century or so (the avars lingered on for centuries, though were in sharp decline contemporaneously with the rise of islam). later there were the mongols. the arabs are exceptional in constructing a ‘world religion’ which their civilized subjects assimilated to. rather, the typical pattern is for barbarians to acclimate to the religion of their subjects, or, adopt a rival religion (e.g., the turko-mongols in russia). 
     
    8) so, the arab muslim event is to some extent sui generis. i didn’t say that muhammad was responsible for it, there might not have been a muhammad just as there might not have been a jesus. because it is sui generis to a great extent i think it is critical to look to the contingent historical events which serve as the context for that eruption. 
     
    9) e.g., the eruption of the 7th century can not be considered by only the noting dynamics in situ within arabian society. “unrest” is not atypical for marginalized barbarians, and arabs were a part of middle eastern politics since at least the time of the roman republic. what was exceptional about the 7th century? as everyone knows, there were tensions within roman society (the monophysite/chalcedonian controversy) and perisan society (the suppression of the mazdakites) and a recent ‘world war’ between the two states which had pushed both to exhaustion (which the east romans won nominally). i think it is a bit much to attribute all arab success to these exogenous events, but they can’t be denied, and were probably necessary preconditions for the fact that they spread so far and overran ancient societies so quickly.  
     
    10) there were many religious factions before and after the arabs and their islam. many of these are attested during the first few centuries of the rule of the caliphs (often they came out of a shia-zoroastrian milieu in iran). none of them succeeded. since i’m an atheist i don’t attribute their failure to divine providence, rather, almost all new religions fail. that being said, paganism, or non-institutionalized reliigon, tend to cede ground before ‘higher religion’ over time (see the mongols, whose shamanism ceded to islam in the west and lamaism in the east). so if islam had not arisen, i doubt that the arabs would have been pagan to this day. even during the period of muhammad’s life before islam allah was the high god in mecca (though there were other gods). it seems likely that arabs without islam would have been christianized or judaized, just as ethiopians, nubians and mesopatamians were (zoroastrianism tended to have strong ethnic connotations, with very little outreach to non-persians except for the armenians). 
     
    so my main point is that saying that some sort of new arab religion predicated on jewish or christian antecedents seems unlikely. rather, the precedent before the muslims was for arabs to become christians (the allies of the persians, the lakhimids, became ‘heretical’ christians aligned with the persian church). it seems likely that arabs were in a position to expand and acquire byzantine and persian territory in the 7th century (both the ghassinids and lakhimids as buffer states were destroyed by the early 7th century war so tribes to their south now had room to move and grow). but an eruption from the atlantic to sindh to transoxiana was obviously a deviation from expectation. that being said, the turkish empire of the 6th century encompassed the region from the borders of china to the ukraine. one could say that this was due to the special psychology of islam…but as i stated, there is some doubt as to whether islam as such existed in the mid-7th century.  
     
    all that is to say i don’t know why islam arose. but, i bet it is more likely if we rewound history that the arabs would be christian. how confident am i? not very. but more confident than your hypothesis that the arabs were bound to invent a monotheistic religion which they would adhere to as opposed to a world religion already extant. 
     
    since i took some time out to explain myself i await your illuminating response.

  19. The Arabs seemed to have been a disorganized and unimportant bunch for a long time before Muhammad and I am not sure what materially changed around his time. He definitely seems to have had a big effect, but whether that could have occurred without him I am nnot sure. 
     
    they were a minor people, but they were a presence on the fringes of the persian and byzantine world for centuries. as i noted above, two north arab confederacies were long allies of the two empires. prominent arabs even assimilated to roman culture, ergo, ‘phillip the arabian’ as an emperor in the 3rd century. also, see the palmyrene empire, which seems to have had an ‘arab’ ethnic core.

  20. Very good razib, I knew you could do better than a simple “no.”

  21. Very good razib, I knew you could do better than a simple “no.” 
     
    most regular readers know that a simple “no” carries a lot of weight from me. i don’t express opinions without knowing something about a topic, you understand? your attitude though is noted.

  22. What gave the Arabs of Muhammad’s time a military advantage? Reza Aslan’s book pointed me to Richard Bulliet’s The Camel and the Wheel. Bulliet argues that improvements in the camel saddle had vastly increased the usefulness of the camel both as a military mount and a trader’s beast of burden. Camels didn’t require roads; they were cheaper than the wheeled transport. Arabs were the camel breeders; Arabs had an advantage.  
     
    I can tell that Razib has been reading Patricia Crone :)

  23. zora, that sure sounds plausible. the arab strikes around the ‘fertile crescent’ during the 7th century kind of remind me of the mongol sweeps across central asia. they simply showed up where they weren’t supposed to because they took straight line paths through difficult territory. that being said, in infidels andrew wheatcroft claims that the original arab armies that defeated the byzantines were predominantly foot. this doesn’t negate a big role for the camel. after all, we just discovered a new lactase persistence allele which seems to have emerged among the arabs and the causal cultural factor is the camel.  
     
    of course, none of that “explains” the rise of islam. there were plenty of nomadic & barbarian conquerers in the history of the world. very few of them left as strong an imprint as the arabs through their religion (and they managed to arabcize linguistic very different populations, such as egyptians). if you read ferdowsi you note how aghast civilized peoples like the persians were that the arabs could conquer them so easily and turn them in a servile nation. christian apologists make all sorts of claims that the absurdity that an obscure sect could conquer rome is a testament to its veracity as a witness to the hand divine providence. muslims of course make the same claims, and just as plausibly.

  24. 1) yes, i have read crone. 
     
    2) let me be clear and offer that i think that the revisionists probably go a bit too far. absence of evidence is not always evidence. i think the herodotus’ etruscan ‘myth’ should make us more cautious about disregarding what the people of past thought about their own origins. 
     
    3) that being said, from what i know i think it’s pretty clear that islam evolved in the centuries up to the final suppression of mutazili ‘heresy’ and the construction of a sunni orthodoxy as we understand it. if we understand cultures as functional units via an organismic analogy the nature of islam, as such, needs to be assessed before we can claim that religious zeal was the underlying factor behind the arab conquests, as some claim. the circumstantial evidence that muslim religiosity might have been more a feature of the period after 750 (the ummayads were famously impious, one could chalk this up to later annalists trying to curry favor with the abbasids, but i’ve read art history works which suggest that the ummayad hellenism verged toward support of art which would have pleased a renaissance patron in its sumptuous paganism!), as well as the big picture reality that many barbarians driven by obviously corporeal impulses conquered all before them, suggests we should be careful about attributing the early conquests to ideology as opposed to contingency, opportunity and a particular technological or cultural superiority.

  25. Realpolitik usually trumps religion. There are plenty of European examples. Protestant Elizabethan England allied with France against Habsburg Spain, and Christians were willing to ally with the Turks when they had a common enemy. 
     
    But Realpolitik has its limits in the modern world, where power and influence are often exercised by fanatical movements rather than coldly calculating diplomats.

  26. Realpolitik usually trumps religion. There are plenty of European examples. Protestant Elizabethan England allied with France against Habsburg Spain, and Christians were willing to ally with the Turks when they had a common enemy. 
     
    the limits the key. what are they? we know they’re there; the french were criticized whenever the hapsburgs seemed about to be overrun by the ottomans. i recall that the sun king actually didn’t hit the austrians as hard on some occasions as he should have in following through with back channel agreements with istanbul because he didn’t want to seem a traitor to christendom. but this might be an exception which points us to a counter-trend: idealism is the indulgence of the powerful. louis had power to squander (and he did!). in contrast, small states and peoples can’t be idealistic and will take allies where they can get it in the interests of survival. and sometimes the near enemy is a greater danger than the far enemy, protestantism (reform) survived in hungary in regions where the ottomans were dominant because they obviously weren’t going to give the counter-reformation the backing which the austrian monarchy did. so for hungarian protestants the turk was their savior! (the distribution of reform still reflects the partition of hungary between the hapsburgs and the ottomans in the 16th and 17th centuries). 
     
     
    But Realpolitik has its limits in the modern world, where power and influence are often exercised by fanatical movements rather than coldly calculating diplomats.
     
     
    i’m a little skeptical about the ‘cold calculation’ of diplomats ;-) one of the issues here is that we’re acting like economists and assuming that these people/states are rational actors, but there’s probably all sorts of implicit processes going on. robert pape’s work shows the statistical relationships between macroscale geopolitical events and acts and microscale sociological response. i doubt though that most young men involved in terrorism explicitly connect the two dynamics; rather we’re talking about sufficient background conditions which foster the emergence of social networks which channel psychological animus which might normally be inchoate.

  27. p.s. if i didn’t make it clear in the post itself: i do think it is critical consider how important the small deviations from expectation that ideological parameters might induce.

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