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June 13, 2005

Toward a conception of a liberal ecology of ideas

I was going to comment on the reprint of the The Nation piece that showed up in YAHOO NEWS, but Randy beat me to the punch. Nevertheless, I would like to offer some extended thoughts on the "European culture war."

First, as an American, why is it relevant to me? What has Europe to do with America? A great deal. The march toward economic integration is a matter of magnitude and timing, not one of possibility. We don't live in a "Global Village" yet, but in some ways we will within my lifetime. "The pond" isn't wide enough to insulate the North American polities from goings on in the "Old World." And importantly, the cultures of Europe are more or less the mothers of the cultures of North America, whether that be that of the American South, New England, Quebec or my own heimat of Cascadia. Roman Catholics look to Rome as their spiritual font while American liberals always declare "but in Europe...." The idea of Europe, the history of Europe is important to all North Americans, and realistically, all the citizens of the world. Over the past five centuries Europe has remade the world in its own image, more or less (and the matter of "more or less" is the work of generations of scholars to clarify).

Second, let me state that I am skeptical of some of the more dire predictions of the Islamicization of Europe. It seems that in some fora the fact that 50% of the children of Rotterdam are Muslims becomes conflated with the possibility that 50% of the children in The Netherlands are Muslim. True, the 5% who identify as Muslim are waxing, but we must not project our models into the future based on fixed parameters extrapolated from the present. The "Muslim community" is not an idealized Platonic type, a bubble expanding into the universe of The Christian Netherlands, it is a seething mass of individuals nominally cohered under vague rubrics and ideas that are often subject to a great deal of personal interpretation. Additionally, it must be remembered that the Muslims of Europe form more or less an underclass, economically they are marginal or parasitic. My study of history makes me skeptical that from such a base a dominant culture could ever arise. Contrary to popular imagination the Christians of the pagan period of Rome were not slaves, but rather the aspiring urban "middle class." They imposed their will on the pagan masses and elites through the patronage of the Emperors and produced their own eloquent rhetoricians and philosophers, from Origen to Ambrose.1 The self-confidence of European Muslims is in my opinion nothing but bluster and bluff, in the face of the material inducements of the pagan West they shall wither, and their screams of monotheistic fire are nothing but the last gasps of a culture without defense. Nevertheless, unlike some liberal of Left intellectuals I do not view the "Muslim threat" with sanguinity. Their likely absorption and digestion into the mass of post-Christian Europe maybe a painful process. Most especially for the Muslim and post-Muslims themselves, who will have to make the trek between here and there, often without the aid of sympathetic family or the mainstream culture. They will live the "theory" and prescriptions propounded by the pundits. Even if the process of assimilation is inevitable, the length of time and the travails are variables, and I believe that the inducements and constraints that are the purview of government fiat can have great effect. I also believe that the attitude of the substrate culture can have a great influence on the process of assimilation.

One important point that I want to emphasize is that it is important to engage in population thinking, and move beyond types. The relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims (in The Netherlands) is not cognate with the relationship between oil and water, that is, two liquids of such dissimilar character (non-polar vs. polar) they resist mixing without the aid of a powerful emulsifier. Rather, it is more like a drop of water soluble dye engaging with an H2O solution. Over time the dye loses its coherence as it melts into the water, changing the quality of the water only by a small difference of degree. Individuals like Ayaan Hirsi Ali are on the leading edge of the dye-water mixture, disappearing into the translucent liquid mass. The rate at which a dye diffuses into a solution is proportional to a variety of factors, and so with Muslims I suspect that a host of variables are at work resulting in their diffusion and absorption into the majority culture.

One of the main variables working against diffusion is religious distinctiveness. Anyone who reads this blog knows that I view the term "religion" with some suspicion because of its lack of full disclosure as to the richness and subtly of meaning inherent in it. Going back to populational thinking it is important to remember that within a subset of individuals who adhere to a given religion there are a wide range of opinions as to what characters cluster together to constitute that religion. There will be a modal value within the population, and there will be a verbally expressed coda, usually determined by a clerical caste or local elites, on top of the cognitive states, which further fix a particular relationship between that religion and the other religions in the local area. An assertion like "X has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with culture" for instance must be evaluated on multiple levels. Usually such an assertion presumes a Platonic conception where a religion can be thought of as a discrete and clear unit, when in fact few people would be able to agree on much besides the most basic of axioms outside of a socially mediated context (that is, consensus often emerges from a socially mediated process where the group decides on the rights and wrongs, rather than a reflective inner chain of logic where inferences are drawn from axioms). But one important fact is that Platonic perceptions can change, evolve and morph into wholly disparate states, while still holding emotional salience to the individuals in question. To give a specific example, many Roman Catholics have wondered why the liberal Gary Wills remains a Roman Catholic even though most of his prescriptions for change to the Roman Catholic Church seem to confirm that he is at heart a Protestant (even his love of St. Augustine echoes the orientation of Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk). But Wills remains a Roman Catholic because of ineffable emotional attachments. These emotional attachments are important in emphasizing why even though cultural practice X does not necessarily follow from religion Y, its association with religion Y triggers cognitive states which give sanction to practice of X. That is, it is rather irrelevant that people "misuse" a religion to reinforce a particular cultural practice since that is to some extent the raison detre of public religion. If the cultural practice has no association with religion than usually its ability to withstand fads, fashions or changed circumstances is far less than it would be if it was associated with a religion. If one conceives of a religion as a Platonic entity of a few spare axioms than one can decouple religion and culture cleanly, but the reality is that religion is usually not a Platonic ideal as it is practiced in day to day life.2

To some extent the rise of literacy and mass communication has resulted in a greater coherency to the world religions, so that a transnational Islam and Christianity are rising to stake a genuine claim to being Platonic religions.3 But still for the vast majority of people transnational religion is something that one sees on the news or reads about in literature handed out at a rally, it is not their day to day life. Volkisch Xenophobes, multiculturalist liberals and European Muslim elites speak the vocabulary of the Platonic Islam, as if it can be easily characterized by a few spare sentences, or a short list encapsulated as bullet points. Though this does not reflect reality today, this perception might affect reality tomorrow. Note above that I asserted that the attitude and character of the mainstream culture can affect the dynamic of Muslim assimilation. The extreme racialism of late 19th century Europe led Theodor Herzl away from assimilationism and into the conception that Jews would only be accepted within their own nation. But it is an irony that even during the apogee of racialism the pioneers of the assimilative Reform movement were experiencing a demographic crisis due to their impending absorption into the German volk because of conversion and intermarriage (both to Christianity and bohemian confessionlesism). Herzl was I believe right in that the Jewish people were under threat in the non-Jewish liberal democratic states of the West (the orthodox rump notwithstanding), but that threat is to the identity of the people, not the well being of individuals, who enter into relationships with non-Jews and many of whose children pass into the gentile mainstream with only the most nominal relationship to a Jewish "identity."4

This all sets the stage for my main contention in this post: moving beyond a Platonic typology and toward a conception of populational thinking will allow us to more clearly and realistically model the ecology of ideas and people which characterizes the dynamic processes at work in the 21st century in many Western nations effected by immigration. "Muslims" are not an amorphous mass identical in their thinking. Most people would concede this, but you would not be sure from the rhetoric espoused by some. In the article above some, spokesmen for assimilated Muslims and multiculturalist Leftists, seem to assert that Ayaan Hirsi Ali's blasphemy is driving Muslims to more fundamentalism. In quantitative terms this might be generally true, but that neglects the minority of "Muslims" who feel free to shed their identity, reshape who they are, and be proud and vocal in their apostasy. Additionally, this neglects the crucial foci that Ayaan represents as an individual which can serve as a nexus around which to leverage a strategy of triangulation. Instead, we have the following soundbites:

She suspects that what the Dutch really fear is not Islamic fundamentalism but the prospect of having to deal with a new generation of highly educated young Muslims who demand a fair hearing for their values. "We are telling them, 'We have rights, too. You have to change your idea about freedom or face the consequences.'"

In How the Scots Invented the Modern World the author begins with the last trial and execution of a blasphemer in Scotland, a man who denied the God of the Calvinist Church. I think blasphemy is a good place to start with the boundary between the almost-modern and the modern. Some observers assert that Muslims wish to import into Europe their own values about the sancity of their faith and their prophet, but in reality they wish to restore the modus vivendi operative throughout much of European history, throughout world history. This attack on blasphemy predates Christianity, Anaxagorous was reviled for his atheism, the Christians were attacked for their lack of reverence to the household gods of the Roman state and the deified Emperor. The modern West is a special place partly because of its protection of blasphemy. This consensus is not universal, many religionists do wish their own religion to be protected from desecration. I recall William Donohue of The Catholic League in the United States espousing a position which would ban desecration of religions motifs and objects. When queried about what constituted desecration and what religions would fall under the sanction of the law Donohue was a bit fuzzy because he had few specifics in mind, but it does show that the sentiment does lay latent within the West itself.

This is why West must remain steadfast in its defense of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and her hatred for her natal religion (hatred which is often modified or qualified upon further questioning). Tolerance of blasphemy is I think a the linchpin of Western tolerance for freedom of expression, because it goes to the heart of attacks against the most cherished ideas of a people. It is crucial witness to the character of a culture, might I even say its liberal maturity? A violent reaction on the part of the aggrieved seems to bespeak a lack of said maturity, so I wonder at the response of those who warn the blasphemer rather than educating the child who throws a fit. Is one admitting that a nasty child will always remain a nasty child, unreformable and uncivilizable? Or is nastiness a value which we now cherish in our post-liberal world?

But as I said above, the child in question is not a whole, but can be decomposed, portions hived off, elements invited to full congress with the mainstream culture. Though we are equal before the law in the liberal order individuals have their own personal hierarchy of affinity, usually determined by kith and kin, circles of like blood or fellow feeling. If one concedes that populational thinking must be paramount one will conclude that there is variation within the Muslim community. Certainly there are individuals who wish to return to the mythical ancien regime of their forefathers, but there are also those who wish to break free of unspoken bounds dictated by centuries of "custom" and "tradition." Is our sympathy to be dictated by numbers alone, or fellow feeling? Some "liberals" criticize Ayaan Hirsi Ali's assertions and characterizations as too tainted by her personal experience, but I am perplexed by this reaction because its seems that this lady's life experience is to some extent the apotheosis of the liberal quest for self-actualization in defiance of custom and tradition, a creation of one's own identity by pure force of will in the face of rather high odds. I will admit that these are the individuals with whom I sympathize, and those who retreat behind their veils or shout their tired Godly mantras leave me cold. As a human who believes in rule of law and freedom of conscience let all under heaven live as they wish so long as their wishes do not trangress the bounds of individual liberty, but as a human who feels with his heart I experience joy when others join my circle of fellow feeling.

Conceding to the "Muslim community" its unitary legitimacy, its identification as a whole with leaders who "speak for the community" is in my opinion a dangerous move in that it closes off the edges of the diffusion, it tightens the semipermeable membrane between the "mainstream" and the "community." "Community leaders" speak for the community, for the group identity, but they do not speak for the full range of individual feeling and opinion, and we should never confuse the two. As a matter of practicality a liberal society must deal with communities, with pillars, but as a matter of ideals it must always remember that these communities have no peculiar ineffable essence beyond the individuals who live and breath in this world. If it does recognize these communities by government fiat and through grants of monies and legitimacy in adjudicating intracommunity disputes than it serves to reinforce the strength of communal vs. individual identities (in the past few centuries whole identities have been created or destroyed by government fiat, see especially the Soviet Union and its relationship to various "Turkic" groups).

Those who appeal to the "practical" solutions needed for a multicultural society presuppose the inevitability of indefinite post-liberal multiculturality and propose solutions which actualize this inevitable multiculturality. They turn their back on the reality that the liberal Enlightenment project has to some extent been predicated on a denial of the "practical" past, and thousands of years of human custom and tradition, that the Enlightenment project has turned the world upside down by virtue of the single-minded will of individuals who would swim against any current to actualize their own vision of who they were. The society of 17th century Holland was predicated on the recognition of various communities, the dominant Reformed Calvinist faction, the Roman Catholics, Jews and other assorted Protestant nonconformists. But, at the boundaries and in the margins there existed a welter of variegated individuals who created their own relationship with God, and created their own Gods. Baruch Spinoza was "excommunicated" from the Jewish community, but he did not join a Christian community, but lived his life as a philosopher and glass grinder. The special character of Holland in the 17th century allowed this, in the Medieval period economic opportunities for self-sustainment and social contexts where one could meet intellectual fellow travelers through letters were more limited. In the 19th century in Germany the group termed "Confessionless" was by and large populated by Jews who had left their religion and community but had not embraced another.

I do not mean to assert that all individuals within a society will have such an ambivalent, even antagonistic, relationship to traditional communities based on faith or blood, but I do assert that the special place that liberal societies have for those who do prioritize abstract, rational and intellectual activities as opposed to the concrete bonds of kith and kin shaped by generations past in part defines a liberal society. My concern with the rise of group rights, whether for races, religions or even lifestyle coteries, is that the old norm of guilds and such corporate bodies will begin to erode the niche that the individualists have carved for themselves in the liberal society. I don't really think a liberal individual rights society is a particularly stable state for a society, rather, it is propped up by particular historical and political conditions which when shifted might result in a "reversion" back to a more modal social state. We do not have to use our imaginations to spin tales of what that "more modal social state" might be like, we need to look abroad in the "Third World," or read the sagas and testaments of the past.

I admit that Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a witch who trangresses the respectable boundaries and defiles holy traditions and makes a mockery of the sacred. The question is, do we still live in the burning times?5

Addendum: One of the Muslim intellectuals in question asserts that the arson attacks against Muslims are quantifiably a far greater concern than the isolated political assassinations of Fortyun and Van Gogh. One might respond that the crimes that Muslim youths commit out of proportion to their numbers is of a far greater concern than the isolated arson attacks. When we leave the high ground of clear principles of reverence for individual freedom or respect for communal sancity than we play a game of statistics that leads us nowhere. An evaluation and affirmation (or assertion) of norms and values must precede any examination of the facts at hand.

Related: Daughter of the Enlightenment.

1 - European Muslim intellectuals like Tariq Ramadan seem to see in the modern post-Christian Europe a region ripe for Islamicization, but I strongly suspect that they are mistaken in their perception that the intellectual arguments put forward by Muslims will impress the European elites. As for the masses, I am skeptical of the possibility of them ever being the driving forces of history.

2 - To be clear, reducing Islam to the shahada or Christianity to acceptance of Christ as one's personal Lord and Savior in the reductio ad absurdum usually leads to antinomianism that most religionists reject.

3 - Consider the alliance between conservative American Episcopalians and African Episcopalians. This is a unity of common belief and axioms that spans cultures.

4 - Though a Jewish identity as a ethnic-group + religion might be dissolving in the West, the spread of Kabbalistic thinking and what not indicates to me that Jewish religious ideas still hold great attraction, both to gentiles and Jews and part-Jews. Ultimately the 21st century might see the transformation of Judaism from a peculiar ethnic religion to another denomination within the broad family of religions, at least in the West.

5 - I know that "the burning times" is to some extent a myth, in its extent if not its qualitative existence. Nevertheless, I think it illustrates the power of communal ostracism translated into the power of the state to enforce that rejection.

Posted by razib at 03:53 PM