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April 02, 2005

Daughter of the Enlightenment

An in depth profile of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Daughter of the Enlightenment, in The New York Times Magazine. To say that the article "speaks to me" is to understate the case. I can not compare my life to anything that Ayaan Hirsi Ali has experienced. I have known some women of Muslim origin (the children of immigrants) who I have had an acquaintance with since childhood who have "fallen away" from the faith, and I can attest to the fact that the tensions, strains and expectations that they have to satisfy are on a different level than what I as a male have had to deal with. "Boys will be boys" has some cross-cultural resonance. While my brother and I went off to attend university without any objection from our parents my sister has already been told by my mother that she will have to attend a 2 year college and live at home because this country is "bad for girls." But for the grace of Allah go I? Narcissistic and self-satisfied egoist though I am, I still experience head aches when I imagine what my lot would be if I had been an "XX" instead of an "XY." I still rage when I see the expectations and double-standards that are foisted upon Muslim American girls.

When I have had to endure a mild lecture from "open minded" and "culturally sensitive" white Americans about the "beauty" of other cultures, or even the offhand comment that in "some ways Muslim women are treated better than Western women," I actually want to reach for a blunt object and pummel the often pony-tailed and patchouli reeking ignorants to a pulp so that I can smear their worthless grey matter on the floor for the dogs to lap up. I am in general a mild mannered, self satisfied and casually unserious person not prone to caring enough about the opinions, lives and feelings of others to be roused to anger, but when I have to endure ignorant Americans "trivializing" medieval barbarity to puff up their own self-image my anger quickly spikes to nose bleed levels, and sometimes I have even wondered if I was going to pass out.

Why such intemperate sentiments you ask? I have lived in the mountain West, I have spent time with toothless people who donned mullets with pride and still used the term "colored," but these were never the types who have ever really bothered me. I blame their mildly racist or "insensitive" remarks and outlook on their narrow horizons and constrained circumstances. I could still shoot hoops with them, I could still go play tackle football without pads in the park with them, and sometimes I even went off-roading with them. These are often frankly people of somewhat simple tastes and monochromatic imaginations. They do not think on the "big scale" or beyond the next beer. I have also spent a fair amount of time with more typically bourgeois conservative upper-middle-class set, and occasionally I have also experienced insensitivity and confusion from these individuals. Generally they are parochial and quite righteous and bent on converting me from whatever heathenism I might be practicing. They are often irritating people, but many of them are good and decent and after the few educational sessions they figure out where I come from and who I am. The reality is that they are aware they are somewhat ignorant of "other cultures" and don't experience surprise when I contradict their preconceptions, because their ideas are so vague and unformed that the cognitive clay is still malleable. Misperceptions are no source of shame for this sort.

On the other hand, there is a subset, and I emphasize this is a subset, of the "wine & cheese" crowd (and yes, I am now the type of person who goes to wine tastings and watches art films, in part because of the social origins of the other significant in my life) that tend to set me off. The reason is that these are individuals who declare openness to new ideas, but have a peculiar and somewhat reactionary conception of other groups. Conservative Christians are all "hateful." Native Americans are "environmentalist." Muslims do have some issues, but their "heritage is beautiful, their religion is about peace." Hinduism's caste structure blocks the rise of "hyperindividualistic competition" and its ascetic tendency is an alternative to "Western materialism." "Nature" is good, technology is bad. I don't really need to go on. I will not fall into typological thinking, there are a wide spectrum of mindsets and personalities. Among the conservative types I described above there are no doubt some who would wish to do me physical harm...but I have never met them, even though I have traversed much of the intermontane West (in fact, I suspect I look like the relatively common Latino field hands and farm workers from a distance to many in the mountain states when I lived in the region or was passing through). Similarly, there is much good that comes from people who wish to learn about "my" culture. But, there is a subset who I perceive do not see me as fully human on a substantive level, that is, I exist to enrich their own self-actualization and experience of life through my "Eastern" wisdom and color, I exist to validate their contempt for less educated whites or conservatives by offering up my holistic alternatives, I exist to agree with them and be a passive receptacle for their "informed" preconceptions. I have recounted in detail several experiences with these sorts who berate me for my views because I "should know better," or, I "should not deny what is 'natural' because of my origin," and so on. I have even experienced anger from individuals who assert that "Hinduism is my natural religion" that the Islam of my family is simply an "alien graft." What do you say to someone who rejects "Western logic" and "linear thinking" and declares that it is unreasonable that that a "person of color" should valorize Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Newton and Hume?

This is what I say.

There is a world out there of human beings shaped by different experiences, informed by a history that is different from yours, from mine, than that of all other human beings. They worship different gods, consume different foods and even copulate in different positions. They babble in a thousand tongues and practice inhumanity on the scale that their devilish skills allow. They shit and spit, they beat their wives and cheat on their husbands, they love, hate, fear and experience jealousy. But they are human, being humans you can speak to them across the distance of culture, the distance of individuality, and they can always surprise, they can always change, they can always adapt. They are the ends of their existence, they do not exist to be "beautiful," to be "quaint," to be "non-Western," they exist to exist, to live and play and act. They are like you, but different. The difference does not define who they are, it is a statement of fact at that particular time. Who they are is their business, their choice, shaped by many variables. Who you are is your business. If who you are conflicts with who they are, that does not mean you must stop being who you are! For every rule in anthropology you will find an exception, and even if you must be guided by broad general assumptions in your day to day life, never be chained to them. The end of human life is not to just be the object of observation and admiration, but to be a participant in the social matrix, to mix and engage, to grow and shrink away.

By my blood I know that there was a day 300 generations ago that a forebear of mine turned from the life of the hunt and put hand to plow. By my birth speech I know there was a day 200 generations ago that a forebear of mine taught their own child an alien tongue that originated on the plains of Central Asia, perhaps the tongue of their overlords, or their husband, or their neighbor, or their religious leader. By my blood I know that 150 generations ago my ancestors abandoned their tribal gods and looked to the Brahmins for spiritual guidance. I know by my family history that one forebear was a soldier who descended down upon Golden India from the highlands of Turan as a ghazi but never returned to the cool gardens of his youth. I know by my family history that a forebear of mine turned on the gods of Mother India and professed faith to the One True God. I know by my family history that those who once shunned beef now relish it, that a Brahmin whose hair was shorn professed Allah and grew his beard and became a Muslim Pir. I know by my family history that my forebears have "exploited" the poor of Bengal to a far greater extent than Wal-Mart. I know by tautology that I am descended from all my ancestors, but I know by experience that I surprise those who believe that the hue of the skin should determine the nature of the soul.

Why should my grievance, my rage, my anger, my petty "Uncle Tom" wrath matter? If you read the article above Ayaan Hirsi Ali received death threats. As someone who was mildly active in the secular movement I have experienced some veiled threats from Muslims who do not look kindly upon apostates. I am not saying most Western Muslims have uncontrolled sentiments of murder toward apostates. I am not saying that most Westerners reject the possibility of apostasy for Muslims. I will though offer that in the modern climate of multiculturalism and the acceptance of "different values" there has been a tacit rollback of normative individualism, of bulldog reflexive defense of the heterodox kooks because of the need to balance such "Western" values with the feelings of "other cultures." If intolerance is a cultural value, should one be tolerant of intolerance? While sensitivity demands possible consideration of this possibility the objects of intolerance suffer. There was a time when I could halt the blathering of those who praised the beauty of Muslim culture in comparison to cold materialistic America by pointing toward the status of women...and yet, of late that is not such a surefire tactic, after all, "it is their culture," a black-box of mysterious and rich medievalism that exists to elicit awe and reverence...at least as you pass through to take in its tastes. Without poverty where would local handicrafts be obtained from? Without the segregation of women would the custom of open and unlimited hospitality for the traveler still hold? Let Fatima endure bigamy and beatings so the golden domes of the indigenous folkways rise, a rebuke to dead modernist Western cultural architecture, if that is the price let her pay it. Those who detest materialism from their McMansions and praise Nature after their flu shot never need worry that they will have to foot the bill for "indigenous culture."

The rise of the West has been accomplished via genocide, brutality, patriarchy, the rape of Nature and Tradition. Let other spirits rise so that the demon may be thrown down from the vault of the heavens. Voltaire considered non-whites subhuman, so banish him and what he symbolizes, Jefferson owned slaves, so tear up the Declaration, the idolization of the individual is the end product of Western culture so delegate some volition to other entities.

No! No! There are many who are happy with the faith of their fathers, the toil of their mothers and the rank poverty of their childhood. But this need not be the case for all. Just as all humans have basic motivations, basic mental capacities, so there is variation, variation which cuts across cultures. There are those of gross ego and self-love who brook no restrictions of custom and tradition, who take little interest in the wisdom of their fathers but pursue their own abstract and obscure preoccupations. Such brutal rebellion from the weight of the past has been accepted, tolerated, even encouraged, in the modern West. Its consequences have not all been positive. It may lead to the ruin of civilization yet. And yet is it not beautiful? Have we not split the atom? Have we not landed on the moon? Have we not constructed a beautiful theory that explains the diversity of life? Have we not given power to the people but retained respect for basic rights? Have we not put limits on nature and given women equality before the laws of man? Have we not banished starvation as an endemic condition?

We. We. We.

If you do not understand how I can say we, then perhaps you never will on an intuitive level. A choice is made. History is grasped. Values are imbibed. "True" ancestors are embraced. Individuals reshape themselves, create themselves and refine themselves. And they judge themselves to be good. They turn their backs on their blood, their cultural past and their personal memories. It has always been such. The gods of Rome are distant shades now that a Jewish prophet looms over the imagination of the Seven Hills. The speech of the days of old vanishes and the lore and mythology of the ancestors evaporate, to be replaced by new ancient tales. Elders become soil. The days of hunt and forest give way to field and plow. Such things might not be constant, typical or normative in any given time, but over time they are what defines who we are as a species, our ability to change, our ability to remake ourselves according to our mind's will. In some humans do you see the tumult and peculiarity that is our species, for here their ontogeny does recapitulate the specie's phylogeny. Here I am, a son of the soil of Bengal who embraces shadows of pagan Greece and Rome long dead in defiance of the painting rendered by blood. Here are we, humans, the lineal progeny of single-celled organisms, grasping the universe in our mindís eye, thinking that we may be gods no matter what our microbial pasts hold.

I have gone far enough. You need no more slices of my thought, impressions of my Weltanschauung. You know who I am, who I will always be, who I have always been, or at least my opinion of such things. There are others. We are not necessarily many, but we are loud. What we are is not "unnatural," we are just different. We choose no sides but our own, we make common cause when we must, but common causes are means to ends, they are not the ends themselves. We do not necessarily revile our past, our ancestors, our brothers and sisters, or the rest of humanity, we simply do not always share the same outlook. We are human as all are, intolerant, pig-headed, obstinate and venal. I wish more of us would realize others are not as we are, that for some roots are not restraining ropes or cutting chains, but rather a comforting refuge against a strange world. But there is great goodness in us as well, we who embrace the strange, explore it, analyze it, revel in it. Our values are human values, just as your values are human values. Perhaps in the end conflict is the nature of things, perhaps it must be the tyranny of one set of values over another. So be it. It is my nature to at least demand that war be declared loudly from the mountains, that the sides dress clearly and plainly, and hold in least esteem the false friends.

We do not hate ourselves. We can not hate ourselves. And if you do not understand that, you do not understand us.

Addendum: It was very difficult for me to be coherent in the above, or be cool and detached, because in many ways I was attempting to distill the reason behind many of my issues with a particular strain in the post-Enlightenment ideological zoo which embraces group difference but seems to dismiss individual difference. In light of other things I have said on this blog perhaps the above seems ironic, but if you read closely you will understand my intent and logic. Perhaps we are expandable in the coming order, but I suspect that the past can never be reborn, the old world of custom and tradition is melting away and the tools and lessons that those of us who are species atypical might be more valuable than the majority might realize. To be more serious and specific, if the Dutch intelligentsia believes that people like Ayaan must be abandoned to group normative values for the sake of "ethnic harmony" and acceptance of "cultural differences," even tacitly, then they should not be surprised by the radicalism of Ayaan, she is attempting to preserve who she is in the face of depersonification. A dead individual has nothing to lose.

Similarly, I understand higher level group organisms fear of the acidic effect of Western culture, and in particular the poison that individuals like Ayaan bring into the organism. Ayaan and her ilk are conduits for "Cultural Weapons of Mass Destruction," so the extreme reaction of the organism's "immune system" is no surprise. No worries. We are the microbes, we are the swarm of the many individual cells while they are the lumbering and ancient multicellular organisms brittle in their responses. We have clever chemical weapons.

Posted by razib at 06:48 PM