Western Civility is Overrated, though

by zunguzungu

  “Trinitarian Don,” a blogger who I snidely attacked as having ripped off Weber’s protestant ethic without giving due credit, posted this very mild update a week or so ago:

“The blog zunguzungu has taken issue with this post by claiming I am giving Max Weber’s theory of the protestant work ethic without giving credit to Max. I certainly do not intend to do so. I agree with Leo Strauss’ critique of Weber that Weber does not seem to understand what Calvinist Protestant Christians actually believe. Calvinists believe the assurance of salvation comes from faith in the teachings of the Bible about Jesus and his person and work, not from our own wealth or poverty. Poor people are often more easily saved than the rich. People can also be blessed by obedience to divine principles without being elect at all. In fact, as Jesus said, the Children of this age often seem cleverer than the Children of God.”

This is at http://trinitariandon.blogspot.com/ So far so good, pretty much. I was being snarky, and I’ll admit that its hard to do social science without running across the long shadow of Mr. Weber (with whom I prefer not to be on a first name basis). I would also like to note that T. Don has, in contrast to the way the internet usually works, turned the other cheek to my snark. And I’m in semi-agreement with him so far, though I didn‘t get there from reading Strauss. Like them, I also think a shortcoming of Weber’s book is his disinclination to actually understand how radical protestants actually thought, and so (for example) he recuperates Ben Franklin as a kind of puritan, only without all the religion (and he can ignore all the wild and important differences because he presumed, correctly, that most of his readers know nothing about puritan theology). This gets him in trouble with folks like Trinitarian Don, who actually know their stuff, I presume.

Weber argues, roughly, that a proto-capitalist like Franklin embodies many of the most important tenets of “hot protestantism” (not Weber’s term, sadly) without the central core of belief, an illustration that bourgeois society’s “spirit of capitalism” tended to develop best in places where Calvinism had already established the importance of things like secular vocation, thrift, and hard work, practices which had led to people having a bunch of cash lying around that they could re-invest and capitalize. Weber also, interestingly, points out that Calvinism is a scary form of religion. A tenet of Calvinist predestination is that God marks us all out for salvation or damnation before we are born, so we have no choice in the matter and cannot save ourselves. This is exactly as strict as it sounds: in fact, to suggest otherwise is Arminianism, a heresy which the puritans took really, really seriously (in fact, they tended to be more concerned about points of doctrine like that than they were about sex; puritan prudishness is an anachronistic misreading produced by a later age’s obsession with sex, though that’s another story).  And the idea of election is definitely still kicking around; you can read about it here if you’re interested:


Now, if you think that through (and people did in those days) the implications are pretty heavy: if you were marked for damnation, there is absolutely nothing you can do to save yourself. You can read the bible, do good deeds, pray your sinful head off, anything, and when the time comes you will still burn in hell for all eternity. So, unlike the kind of faith that modern evangelical Christianity offers (where you are pretty sure that if you’ve been saved, you’ll go to heaven, and all you have to do is try), early Calvinists lived their lives with the fear of God in them (literally) that they might already be marked for damnation. The result is, as Weber theorizes it, that such people scrutinized the world for the slightest sign that they might be saved (putting tremendous weight on signs and wonders since it might give you a clue to your ultimate destination), and since the way that God rewarded believers (they believed) was often material, they got very, very interested in worldly success, seeing it as a sign of spiritual prosperity, and one of the few ways of reassuring yourself that you were on the path that does not stray. So, Weber concludes, these people tended to be a much readier to become capitalist than other people (as well as being a bit more repressive and neurotic, which Weber calls the “Iron Cages” of capitalism). Good stuff; I disagree with it in substance, but it‘s a great piece of thinking.

In his blog, T. Don continues:

“What I can say since I wrote this post is that I have started the book “The Victory of Reason” by Rodney Stark. Stark’s arguments have convinced me that the prosperity of the west started well before the reformation, during the so called dark ages. Stark agrees that freedom, inventiveness, science and the western idea of the rule of law all come from Christianity as a reasonable faith. I still stand by my belief in the principle that God created the world to work in such a way that meeting the needs of others is usually the best way to be blessed. I think this is Biblical and backed by Christian teachings such as the prayer of St. Francis.”

I have not, and don’t plan to, read Mr. Stark’s opus. After a bit of internet trolling, I found this quote from his literary achievement: “Had the followers of Jesus remained an obscure Jewish sect, most of you would not have learned to read and the rest of you would be reading from hand-copied scrolls.” This is a funny quote; is his implication that the early followers of Jesus were not Christians (but were Jews)? There is basis for this argument, so he might be one of the folks who take the split between Jesus’ brother and the St. Paul people (which did center on the relative importance of certain “Jewish” rituals) to be the difference between Christians and Jews; as I understand it, such doctrine holds that the really “Christian” church only began with the Pauline revision of the life of Jesus, the revisionary process which produced the four gospels. I find it funny, though, that such readers (who tend to be “literalists” on matters both scriptural and constitutional) find themselves arguing that Jesus, the source of all Christian doctrine, was not himself a Christian.  “But!” you say, “What if it were possible that Jesus was both a Christian and a Jew?” and I would reply, well, then talking about the difference between Christianity and Judaism doesn’t seem to be a profitable way to proceed, does it?     

In any case, as Alan Wolfe has the pith to mention (you can read the review at http://www.jewsonfirst.org/06a/back012.html), Stark’s dark scenario would not really be all that bad, since we would then be spared Mr. Stark’s book. So I’ll instead address T. Don. I find, on reflection, that I can respect his decision to believe that God created the world to work in a particular way and to think that such a belief is biblical. Though I am not a Christian of the sort he is identifying (and therefore, by his reasoning, opposed to freedom, inventiveness, and so forth), it doesn’t bother me that he believes pretty much everything good has to stem from a set of beliefs I lack. In fact, my disinterest in what he believes, even my desire that he be free to believe it if he likes and I be free to not care, stems from my respect for the limitations of belief: if you simply “believe” something, you are at least aware that you see things from a different perspective than other people. That’s a central tenet of “Western” liberalism, and though tolerance has its limitations, I do feel it’s not a bad ideal to keep track of in thinking about how to structure a society.

Instead, I want to note that while Trinitarian Don was quick, at my prompting, to disassociate himself from Weber and clarify that he was not in some crude way plagiarizing old Max, he didn’t choose to respond to my insinuations that he, Trinitarian Don, was a racist hack. I find that interesting. Now, it is rude to call someone racist, and I do not like to be uncivil. So let me quickly clarify that I don’t know Trinitarian Don to be a racist, I merely believe this to be true after having read a very brief selection of his writing. And I regret giving the impression that I know anything about him as a person. Blogging makes it easy to make comments that “feel” private, but are in fact (as this episode reminds me) startlingly public. In my original post, I was snide and contemptuous, without being clear about why. So I’d like to take the opportunity to explain why I think the things he said are racist, stupid, and politically frightening. It is not, I would like to assert, precisely the same thing as saying that he himself is these things; I don’t know T. Don, I only know a few columns of things that he has written, and it is to that single blog post that I address myself.

When people talk about “the West,” they rely (like Weber) on their reader’s ignorance of what they are talking about. Show me, for example, where the West stops.  I’ve heard that in Turkey, which is trying to join the EU, the government has been taking down the “Welcome to Asia” signs that greet you as you cross into the country, which just illustrates the problem. Now, don’t get me wrong; I use the words “the West” sometimes, and I use the term “Westerners” to distinguish people who self-identify in such terms.  I don’t know how you could talk about a lot of issues if you didn’t.  But recognizing that “the West” is a kind of identity that has a great deal of social meaning is not the same thing as thinking that it’s a term that can have analytic meaning.  Let me gloss that.

When someone says that a person is “black,” we know that it means: that person is  socialized in a certain way.  That person has spent their life being called black, has most likely identified as black, and may even have some “cultural” traits in common with other black people. But the first two parts of that trio of traits are the strong ones: while “white people” are unlikely to have been called black or identify as black, it’s difficult to find “cultural” traits that aren’t widely shared outside the social groups they’re meant to demarcate.  Yes, hip-hop is a “black” music in one sense, but you’d have to be an idiot to think that only black people listen to hip-hop. “Black” is, in this sense, a social meaning, not a cultural one.  In terms of an analytically distinct culture, “black” people are not different from “white” people, or rather, the differences between white people and other white people (and between black people and other black people) are so enormous and multifaceted as to make “racial” cultural differences both exceedingly minor and pedestrian, if indeed you can even find any.  This is why the idea that some medicines work better on black populations than on white populations, for example (and there are studies that make such assertions, and idiots like James Watson), are so pernicious: in a scientific sense, there is no substantive difference between “black” and “white” people, except insofar as social processes create those differences.

The same is true of the “West.” In joining the EU, Turkey wants to join “the West,” in a certain sense, but it isn’t like they want to become Western. Joining the EU brings with it a variety of very real benefits (like being “American”); for example, while the United States believes it has the sovereign right to invade non-Western countries when it feels like it can benefit itself by doing so, the US would never invade a member of the EU so casually. This is the logic of “intervention”: it’s something that Western people get to do to non-Western people. But if you think that Turkey wants to become less “Turkish” and more “European,” you’re living in the wrong century, by at least one, maybe two.             

My point is that “West” is a very real social identity, but has no analytic value as a cultural category.  The differences between different Westerners are so profound (and the similarities between “Westerners” and “non-Westerners” are so great) that to try to use the term as if it referred to anything objective is just flat out stupid. One of the oldest Islamic traditions in the world is regular bathing, a little piece of “culture” that Christians were very slow to adopt; if you take a shower everyday, are you therefore a Muslim?

T.D. wants to claim that “the prosperity of the west started well before the reformation, during the so called dark ages.” But talking about “the West” in the “dark ages” is as silly as talking about a legal history that goes back to the creation.  The terms just don’t match up. I don’t know a lot of medieval history, but I know this: after the Roman empire fell, there was a period of “Islamic” dominance around the Mediterranean that lasted many centuries, and while Christians were burning old books and persecuting Jews, the various imperial minded Muslims out there were getting busy inventing science, law, and practicing a brand of tolerance that the “Christian” world rarely even aspires towards. By the fifteenth century, renaissance science (and a great deal of “enlightenment” humanism) looked to the classical world for guidance, but those old books and writers like Aristotle only became available to them after they had been translated from the Arabic (and Thomas Acquinas’ theology, which has now become pervasive, was originally looked on with great suspicion because it was so Aristotelian). TD writes that “freedom, inventiveness, science and the western idea of the rule of law all come from Christianity as a reasonable faith.” But Christopher Columbus went to Spain to get backing for his venture because those kind Christians had just finished driving the Muslims out of the Iberian peninsula, and he knew they would welcome the opportunity to conquer new lands in the Orient (in fact, Columbus died thinking that the lands he had conquered were in “the indies”). Columbus’ departure from Palos just happened to coincide with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and he observes in his journal that he set sail at the same time as the Jews were leaving (without, of course, all their goods and property, which the crown had seized). His voyage is often held up as an example of the West’s great triumph, but it is less often remembered that he had to navigate around hundreds of little boats that refugee Jews were using to sail down to north Africa or Turkey, where they knew the Muslim states would not persecute them.

This is why the idea that “Western prosperity” stems from cultural characteristics derived from Christianity is hackwork.  You have to be studiously ignorant of a tremendous amount in order to think the things you want to think, so instead of trying to grapple with pesky facts that disprove your hypothesis, you fudge the data. A non-hack, on the other hand, lives in the “reality-based” community.  But the particular kind of ideology that it’s in service of is racist in the sense that it seeks to justify material success by pretending it’s a sign of spiritual success. Where do such people get off claiming that prosperity is a sign of spiritual grace?  That’s certainly not biblical, and I don‘t think I‘m going out on a limb to make this claim. Since Jesus doesn’t exult material wealth as the pathway to grace (exactly the opposite, remember the bit about the camel and the head of a needle?), I’m a little mystified where T.D. finds that material blessings are somehow derived from spiritual grace (as opposed to running directly contrary to it) . This, by the way, takes us back to Weber’s misreading of the puritans, who read the bible much more clearly than T.D.: the thing that makes capitalism different than Protestantism is that early protestants absolutely didn’t think that material blessings were a sign of spiritual success; in fact, they feared and distrusted it.  About the point when they started seeing wealth as a sign of God’s blessing (Weber’s “spirit of capitalism”) was the point when they stopped being protestant in the sense that makes any analytic sense. To think that the lack of material wealth of people and populations in the “non-Western” world stems from an irrational lack of “freedom, inventiveness, science and the western idea of the rule of law” requires total ignorance of those people (and of the history of how they got where they are), but the decision to choose that ignorance, to believe the worst about people you know nothing about, well, “racist” is a strong word, but darn it if it doesn’t seem appropriate. I see very little that strikes me as Christ-like in such language or such arguments, and its people like T.D. and Stark that give Christians such a bad name.