Category: American Politics

Looking and Rending Identity

I actually wrote and posted this in June 2008, but I’m re-posting it (with a couple minor edits), just because.

In the bad old days, people like J. Edgar Hoover had an extraordinary inclination to conflate black agitation with communism. But while the state department and the FBI were never really sure if they were harassing people like Paul Robeson or W.E.B. DuBois because they were black radicals or because they were sympathetic to a Marxist explanation of history, they also didn’t lose much sleep over the distinction. Hoover’s project of surveillance and blackmail against MLK was, as he understood it, a specifically cold war campaign — he never got over being tapped to lead the FBI while Dulles got the newly formed CIA — and even though all the data they collected showed that King was not at all sympathetic to secular communism, and had no real connections to foreign groups outside the United States, they persisted in seeing the spectre of incipient communism everywhere they looked.

The easiest explanation is that people like Hoover were simplistic tools, sufficiently warped by cold war ideology that when they saw someone like Robeson, DuBois, or King dare to question the American way, they could only parse the data in manichaean terms: not American, therefore communist. That might be it; that shoe might fit. But maybe they also saw communism everywhere they looked not because they were bad lookers, but because of what they understood looking itself to signify, precisely because they were very good at looking. In other words, I wonder how much of what they saw was not a product of what they were obsessively looking for, but a byproduct of how “looking” was being conceptually understood by them: as with torture, while surveillance is supposed to be a mode of detecting crimes, in practice it can very quickly shade into evidence of a crime. If those guys incarcerated at Guantanemo Bay were innocent, then why were they picked up in the first place? If MLK was innocent, after all, why were the FBI bugging his hotel rooms? With torture, once the line has been crossed, the person being tortured has to incriminate himself or the torture cannot conclude (since the torturer will have difficulty admitting that the subject proved himself under torture to be innocent) and the fact of having been tortured, in practice, becomes a proof of guilt. And perhaps something very similar with FBI surveillance?

There’s a fine hair I’m trying to split here, the difference between seeing what you’re looking for because, say, you’re so obsessively looking for it (a fault in your seeing), and producing what you’re looking for precisely because of how your sight functions is quite a fine distinction. But the difference is in where we locate the origin of the perniciousness seen: is it a malfunction in the way things are seen (Hoover’s inability to properly judge the data because he was such a cold war freak) or a kind of perceptive function whose rationality is unimpeachable, however grotesque? There is nothing illogical, per se, about the reasoning that detained Guantanamo Bay terrorism suspects can never be released into the world: despite having been wrongly arrested in the first place, they have become guilty by the very process of having been interrogated, tortured, and rendered. It is not, in this sense, so much a having been convicted of anything as having been interpellated into an identity. And while the theoretical distinction might be fine but significant, the practical distinction may not exist at all. Is there a practical difference between being interpellated as a criminal type and having been convicted of a crime? How many accused pedophiles would you trust your children with? Would you allow an accused terrorist on an airplane? We know how the “stereotypical American,” that son of a bitch, would answer those questions.

Anyway, I started thinking about MLK and Hoover not because of Guantanamo, but because of something someone I met in a cafe recently told me about how “natives” understand tourist photography in parts of Indonesia. She said that when she was taking pictures of things and people, she was very careful–being a sensitive and liberal academic researcher–to ask people’s permissions first. She didn’t want to exploit them by taking their picture without their understanding of what was involved, didn’t want to “prey” on them with her camera. But she said that they (I think it was in Java? can’t recall now) didn’t see it as an exploitation at all; for them, it was a demonstration of their own power, their own charisma, that someone would come across the ocean to take pictures of them. For them, the power relationship was reversed: whereas she presumed that taking a picture placed her in the position of power, they presumed the opposite, that the fact of being photographed was a sign of the the photographee’s power.

As real anthropology, of course, the “snapshot” I’ve just given is most likely misleading and certainly inadequate. One of the most persistant fictions within anthropological literature is the idea that “natives” can have one set of beliefs while “the West” has another, a fiction because anthropologists only study “natives” who are already well acquainted with the “West” (and have often figured out their nativeness by long engagement with Westerners), because neither category holds up under scrutiny, and because it expresses so clearly something we would like to believe, usually without reference to whether there is actual evidence or not.

But the distinction being drawn there, a conceptual distinction whether or not it’s a distinction in practice, does raise an important question for me: do we conceptualize looking as an invasive and aggressive act because of its long imbrication, as practice, within the arsenal of police work? Within the practices of labor discipline? Within the exertion of authority to produce socially normal behavior? After all, looking at someone isn’t necessarily a hostile or aggressive act; it’s a passive form information gathering, and — one could think — easily ignorable. Yet I can recall quite clearly the disquieting feeling of being stared at by rows of strangers in Tanzania, an irrational feeling of a latent threat I had no idea how to deal with. To be the center of attention; why should that be threatening? After all, maybe they were merely paying tribute to my awesome power and charisma. Where did I get that expectation, that reaction? Do you have it too? What do you become when you look into someone else’s life?

The point I’m making, laboriously, is simply that the manner in which “the West” conceptualizes “seeing” (at least in situations of power imbalance) is so often already as a kind of violence, or at least a threat of violence (and let us not forget that, legally, “assault” merely signifies the threat of physical battery). And the fact that it doesn’t have to be should make us think about the consequences of the fact that it is. Maybe it was the very fact of having surveilled MLK, of having subjected him to the disciplinary apparatus of the FBI, that made it so clear to Hoover that he was a communist. Having looked at him, how could he subsequently become un-policed? Like with someone you’ve already started to torture, you can’t stop halfway through and decide you’ve made a mistake without some serious psychic consequences. Conversely, how, having once accused someone and set the wheels of surveillance in motion, could someone like Hoover step back and undo that act of interpellation? One cannot, in the logic of red-baiting, undo a smear, and they didn’t tend to do so.

“These Days”: conservative democrats then and now

From David Roediger’s 1991 Wages of Whiteness:

“When US elections are won or lost these days, the voting patterns of the ‘white worker’ receive considerable attention. In popular usage, the very term worker often presumes whiteness (and maleness), as in conservative Democrats’ call for abandoning ‘special interests’ and returning the party to policies appealing to the ‘average worker’ — a line of argument that blissfully ignores the fact that the ‘average worker’ is increasingly Black, Latino, Asian and/or female. Most fascinating are sociologist David Halle’s recent observations on the self-identification of white workers. Halle writes that the New Jersey chemical workers he has studied prefer to call themselvese ‘working men’ (and ‘lower middle class’ or ‘middle class’ when describing their consumption patterns). The phrase working class speaks at once, Halle observes, of a class identity and of a gender identity. But its actual usage also suggests a racial identity, and identification of whiteness and work so strong that it need not even be spoken. That is, the white chemical workers do not describe as ‘working men’ Blacks who do similar jobs and who are more likely to be AFL-CIO members than are the white chemical workers’ neighbors. That category is instead seen as ‘naturally’ white, and Black workers become ‘intruders’ who are strongly suspected of being ‘loafers’ as well.”

From Hillary Clinton, circa a couple days ago:

“I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on,” she said in an interview with USA TODAY. As evidence, Clinton cited an Associated Press article “that found how Sen. Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me.”

Plus ca fucking change.

Both the President’s Men

As the media teaches us, democracy is a delicate flower whose pale blossoms bloom only in temperate climes, and so, against the backdrop of the nakedly fraudulent elections in Pakistan and Kenya, our own democratic process shines forth like a shiny city on a shiny hill. After all, the fact that our primary candidates are basically coronated after standing in only two states is still democracy, right? And while those states are two of the whitest states in the union, well, the next major primary state is South Carolina with its substantial African-American vote, helping to complete the rainbow of diversity that is this American republic. And if you believe that the first state to join the confederacy is where you look for racial harmony, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

Anyway, I watched All the President’s Men and read the book a month or two ago, and it’s still kicking around in my brain. I discovered a few things that surprised me. You’d think the movie would have been based on the book, and in a way you‘d be right. But it also wasn’t, exactly: Robert Redford was the driving force behind the movie, and it turns out that while Woodward and Bernstein were still just kicking around the idea of writing something together, it was Redford who phoned them up and suggested that they write a book not about Nixon and Watergate, but about their reporting. He then offered to get a film of it made.

In other words, the idea to write a drama about successful journalism (instead of about corruption and democracy gone sour), came not from the reporters themselves, but from a movie producer looking to make a film. Perhaps as a result, the book itself is a little strange–and frankly, not very good–a bit more like a lousy prose screenplay than non-fiction. It’s written in the third person (“Bernstein thought to himself…” and so forth) and big chunks of it became the basis out of which William Goldman wrote the movie, so it feels oddly familiar after having already watched the film. But Redford’s advice was clearly sage: the duo got a Pulitzer out of it, and they’ve been legends of journalism ever since.

This is revealing , I think, but first, the next thing that surprised me. Mark Felt (Deep Throat) characterized the Watergate clique as, I paraphrase, “not very bright people who are in over their head.” Yet however not-bright they were, it’s also clear that a lot of people knew how corrupt and criminal they were (and how far up the chain of command went) without ever doing anything about it. Woodward and Bernstein pieced together a lot of the earliest stories by basically just asking people to tell all the dirt on their bosses or former colleagues, and a lot of people were surprisingly willing to do just that, albeit off the record. But Watergate was the not the first time that Nixon’s people had done something illegal of the kind– they had been getting away with it for years. And nobody had caught them, despite (apparently) tons of people knowing exactly what was going on. This is what surprised me: not that the Nixon people were so corrupt, but that they were so openly corrupt and still almost didn’t get caught. Given how lucky this pair of bottom rung reporters were in the first place, “Watergate” could easily not have happened, for a lot of reasons. For example, Woodward had already known Felt socially, and although Felt had a variety of reasons for keeping the story moving, it seems unlikely that he would ever have approached a reporter he didn’t already know pretty well (or that the story would have broken without the cooperation of Felt, the deputy director of the FBI). And a part of the story I never knew before was that while Woodward is surprisingly unaccomplished, he seems to know a ton of people: the phrase “who Woodward had met socially” occurs very frequently in the book, to remind you that he wasn‘t a republican in name only. I suspect that this was a huge part of what he brought to the table, especially since it’s so frequently observed that Woodward was a pretty bad writer in those days.

So I’m surprised to find myself surprised. It turns out that Nixon wasn’t run out of town because the tireless vigilance of the free press defended our democracy; instead, a bunch of “not so bright people in over their heads” got caught because they were dumb and unlucky, and they almost got away with it anyway. Nixon didn’t resign because of the Watergate burglary alone, but because there had been a pattern of abuses of power that had gone on, unchecked, for a very long time, and a couple of ambitious careerists happened to have the connections and be in the right place to uncover it. I’m surprised to find that cynical old I had somewhere along the line been persuaded to believe that Nixon was an anomaly that got caught by the system‘s safeguards, that the US voting public had somehow been tricked into voting for a criminal but that the institutions of democracy and checks and balances had sorted things out in the knick of time. Why did I have that belief? How was I duped? Where did I get that impression?

Take a bow, Robert Redford! Spinning straw into gold, he took what should have been a story about the utter failure of democratic process (the election of a fraudulent crook) and turned it into a feel good story about American journalism. Reassuring us that all is well with the world because of journalistic heroics, well, that sells better than muckraking, doesn’t it? So the movie isn‘t about corrupt institutions but about housecleaning. As my friend Ted pointed out recently, the movie is kind of an anti-noir: whereas real noir (of which there is no such thing, but bear with me) brings a not-quite nihilist failure of idealism to center stage, the great scenes in this movie (the ones that make me nostalgic for living in DC) are the ones where the grandeur of the city takes over, from the Library of Congress to the fantastic marble buildings looming in the background. These are the very famous shots where the camera starts in tight on Woodward and Bernstein and slowly pans back to reveal the enormous built architecture around them, engulfing the tiny ant-like figures in the great labyrinthine corridors of power. For example, in one, they are leaving a federal building and as the get into their car, the camera slowly, slowly pulls back, gradually widening the frame until their car is lost in the multitude of cars and traffic. The shot keeps going back until the massiveness of the metropolis takes over, until we look down on the lights and darkness of the district itself. Somewhere, far beneath, Woodward and Bermstein are ferreting out corruption.

On the one hand, the story being told by those amazing crane shots is of gigantic and impersonal power versus the people, the extraordinary difficulty of finding a truthful needle in that corrupt haystack. Yet on the other hand, there can’t be any doubt that they will find it. The ending to that story, after all, has already been told, and for that reason Redford doesn‘t even include it in the movie, doesn‘t let all the compromises, conflicts, and hesitating half-measures that actually characterized the Watergate investigation get shown. Instead, when Nixon takes his oath of office in the last scene, promising to uphold the constitution and so forth, the TV screen in the newsroom where they’re watching him fades out of focus and the camera keys in on Woodward and Bernstein, furiously typing. They, the film implies, can and will do what the president has not, this duo of republican golden boy and bicycle riding jewish radical. America, coming together!

What I don’t know, the Washington Post doesn’t know even more

The Washington Post headline yesterday was “Ethnic Fault Lines Emerge in Kenya’s Post-Election Turmoil,” which was about as predictable as getting wet in a rainstorm. Not that the headline is wrong, exactly. No one would deny that “tribalism” has, in an important sense, emerged as even more important in the last few days than it had been previously, and it’s been around for a while. And I’m not in any position to really know what’s really going on down there. But then, neither do they. No one really has a sense yet of what’s happening. Yet even when the situation on the ground is totally unclear, even to the participants, the Western media triumphantly pronounces the ultimate root cause of all this earthshaking to be “tribalism.” And we get profoundly misguided maps like this one.  Well done. That and $1.06 will get you a Canadian dollar.

The trouble is, what really is “tribalism” and why does it “emerge”? This choice of words is not coincidence: like global fault lines, the headline implies, which might be submerged and invisible but are always waiting to create destruction and turmoil (and never go away), Kenya’s tribal divisions are taken as the alpha and omega of Kenyan politics, always there and always a handy explanation for people that don‘t have time for complex history. My guess is that the casual reader will come away from this piece with two main impressions: 1. Africa is a violent and scary place, and 2. The source of this scary violence is tribalism. This perception, I would venture humbly, is wrong, and pernicious to boot.

It is wrong because ethnic and tribal divisions are not just there but are part and parcel of the socio-politico-economic structure of a community, and they “emerge” for very locally specific and explicable reasons. In Tanzania, everybody knows what tribe people belong to, but more in the way that Americans tend to know what ethnic background a person might be from their name. Is your name Kennedy? Well, someone in your family tree was probably Irish. Is your name Kimaro? You’re probably Chagga. But you will look in vain for periodic explosions of tribal unrest in Tanzania even though there are tribes; there has been violence, but it has taken a different shape, and it has a lot to do with Julius Nyerere’s struggle to “swahilize” the country and make people think of themselves as Tanzanian instead of Chagga or whatever. The TANU people had their faults, certainly, and there are other criticisms to be made of them, but the political decisions they made were such as to make “tribalism” the kind of issue it is in the United States (after all, when people were skeptical of John F. Kennedy’s “Catholicism,” they were talking in the same kind of code language (papist=Irish) as people use today when “urban” means “black”) but not the way it is in Kenya.

In Kenya, on the other hand, the first president’s policies were all about tribalism, and the Kikuyu people’s standing in the country is a little bit more like the Tutsi in Rwanda. Now, tread cautiously; I almost deleted that sentence, since I’m afraid that people won’t get what I mean, and a lot of really uninformed comparisons to Rwanda are getting tossed around already. And like my imaginary “casual” reader of the Washington Post article, I am afraid that you, my very real reader of this humble blog, will misunderstand what I mean because what I say will inadvertently (or advertently, you decide) lead you to a particular conclusion not necessarily defensible. What I don’t mean is that genocide is inevitably nigh, because just like tribalism wasn‘t just there in Rwanda, it isn‘t just there in Kenya. Lets start with Rwanda: the Hutu power killers in Rwanda were not mindless tribalists but ruthless politicians who did what they thought they had to do to hang on to power. The genocide came in response to many factors, but a major one was the fact that an army of Tutsi exiles based in Uganda were very successfully invading Rwanda, and all indications were that the largely Hutu government would eventually fall to them. In response to that threat, when the president who had been willing to negotiate died under suspicious circumstances (which are still not clear), the hardliners (the “Hutu power”) within the government took over and put in motion a highly organized campaign to purge the country of Tutsi who they feared would collaborate with the Tutsi invading force. But while they targeted Tutsi at large, they also targeted political activists and anyone else they saw as likely to be a threat to them, and this is my point: tribalism didn’t create the political situation, the political situation created the tribalism. And the story goes way back. If the Belgians hadn’t needed a class of Rwandans to collaborate with them in the colonial state, and hadn’t created ethnic pass cards to identify exactly who was and who wasn’t Tutsi and Hutu, the Hutu government that took over wouldn’t have been able to use the Tutsis as a scapegoat for the various failings of the postcolonial state (instead of eliminating the ethnic pass cards, they enlarged the tribalist system of governance). And if they hadn’t made the Tutsi population into a scapegoat as a way of unifying the Hutu majority behind them, the Tutsi exiles in Uganda might not have become as militant as they were, and if those Tutsi invaders hadn’t made liberating the country from Hutu power their stated reason for invading, the Hutu power might not have been so quick to see political dissidence as a product of ethnicity, and they might not have chose to use genocidal tribal warfare as a means of hanging onto power. But they did, and an absolutely staggering number of people were killed by a carefully organized and planned program of ethnic purges. It was not at all a reversion to “atavistic” or “primitively tribal” ethnic hatred or any other of the intellectually lazy stereotypes Western newspapers used to mask their lack of interest or knowledge, it was a project of violence by which an endangered government bolstered its power, by forcing Hutu citizens to prove their loyalty (and their Hutu credentials) by killing whoever the Hutu power government told them to kill, and killing them if they didn‘t.

In short, my point is that the genocide in Rwanda didn’t have to happen, but it happened because, at every stage, various actors chose to use ethnicity as their mode of conducting politics, the way anti-immigration fervor in the United States gets heightened every time a Republican (or Democrat, to be fair) wants to make a name for himself as a real American by frightening my grandmother into believing the Puerto Ricans are coming to Philadelphia to commit crimes. At each stage of this process, “tribalism” means something slightly different, in the same way that “Irish” has meant some very different things at different stages of American history, a process having everything to do with politics but not, ultimately, the cause of those politics. Other examples that spring to mind are the way Saddam Hussein used the Sunni-Shia division to create a class of loyalists that he could rely on to keep the rest of the country in check, the way that de-Bathification and de-Saddamification tended to dispossess and impoverish those very people, and incline them towards “ethnic” violence. It didn’t have to happen; it happened for a variety of very contingent reasons.

Or the way that people in Western Sudan now identify as “Arab” or “African,” when all of them are Africans and all of them are Muslims and none of them have spent any time on the Arabian peninsula. It makes sense now (in a way that it didn’t two decades ago) because of how the anti-Khartoum rebels in the Darfur region were targeted in ethnic terms, how the Khartoum government gave the “Arab” janjaweed carte blanche to attack and despoil the “Africa” people who were the source of the rebellion’s strength. But once you’ve made ethnicity into a battle line, and stamped it with blood, you can’t talk it away. Everyone in the region understands that, and particularly since the West wants to help “Africans” against “Arabs” and the Khartoum government wants to help “Arabs” against “Africans,” people on the ground figure out very quickly which category they can and desire to belong to and then, hey presto, those categories are real. It’s a very rational calculus, and the fact that people who were neither “Arab” nor “African” a few decades ago identify as such now isn’t an indication that those people are delusional or misguided, but that political battle lines have been drawn in those terms. The Janjaweed were largely pastoral people whose animals no longer have sufficient land to graze in (for a variety of complex reasons), so an alliance with Khartoum makes sense. The farmers who have been preyed on by the janjaweed had very good reasons to side with the rebels who initially had so much success in opposing the Khartoum government: the Darfur region has been neglected by the state for a very long time and economic conditions have gotten quite bad. Now they have very good reasons for appealing to the West as “Africans” being attacked by “Arabs”: the West dislikes “Arabs” and likes to help “Africans.” And the Khartoum government, by the way, benefits from being seen as intransigent in the face of demands by Western imperialists like the US who want to meddle in the business of everybody: by allying themselves with Arabs and Muslims (instead of “Africans“), they draw attention away from the fact that they are just another despotic regime struggling to maintain control by any means necessary (this is one explanation of the whole teddy bear named Mohamed fiasco).

To go back to Kenya, I hope the dire comparison examples I’ve chosen give an indication of how scary the situation might get, and why. Tribal divisions aren’t just there; they get produced by political violence, and the kind of violence that’s going on right now across Kenya is going to mark that country’s politics for years to come. The violence didn’t start because of ethnicity, it started because the ruling class transparently obstructed the democratic process and, from the perspective of the people living in a slum like Kibera, prevented the election of a populist politician that they hoped would allow them to enjoy the “matunda ya uhuru“ that a small group of Kenyans have disproportionately monopolized. It seems pretty clear that Kibaki and his cronies were not merely criminal in rigging the election, but were stunningly obvious and clumsy about it, and that makes a lot of people angry. This is not to say that Odinga would have won in a fair election (since it is seldom that only one side cheats), but what one can say for sure is that the electoral process wasn’t just given a black eye, but looks to have been decapitated. The government is deeply corrupt, but who’s going to believe that it’s possible to pursue political change via elections now? Who’s going to believe that its possible for progress to come by peaceful methods after even the United States has tried to legitimze a transparently illegitimate process? Who can be surprised that people who watched their votes get trampled on have concluded that peaceful politics are not working and have turned to violence? People who are starving don’t have much to lose by attacking people who do, so who can be surprised that slum dwellers have taken to burning down shops and stores? I’m not trying to justify or condemn the violence of course; it’s impossible for someone in my position to even know what‘s really going on out there. But there are better explanations for why some Kenyans are attacking other Kenyans than by trotting out tired and racist analagies with plate tectonics. Using geology to explain Africa tells us everything about the journalists in Washington and nothing about Kenya.

In any case, my fear and the fear of a lot of people is that when the ruling class is seen to be Kikuyu, the rage that impoverished and disenfranchised slum dwellers feel towards the wealthy and franchised members of the community will take a tribalist form and that if shop owners and businesspeople see themselves as threatened by ethnic-based violence, they will retreat back into ethnic enclaves, and the walls marked “tribalism” will get higher and higher. Tribalism has always been a part of Kenyan politics, but the dictator that succeeded the first president (Moi) was not Kikuyu, he just cozied up to the largely Kikuyu power brokers that have been running the country since independence. And the Kibaki people are not merely Kikuyus, though Kibaki is; ethnicity is just a part of the complicated alliances and web of negotiated power sharing arrangements that define how politics work. But when street politics take a “tribalist” turn, things can get very, very ugly, very fast, and it‘s a one way street.

To make another analogy, violence was worst in Iraq when Sunni and Shia lived side by side, and now that those neighborhoods have become solidly identified as Sunni or Shia (or, to put it another way, “ethnically cleansed“), statistics on ethnic violence might seem to indicate that things are getting better (this is why the Bush people don‘t get laughed at when they say that the surge is working). But a political solution only gets more and more remote as the lines between ethnic communities become more firmly drawn, as the walls get higher, and the trail of blood gets longer. And all indications are that something like this is happening right now in Kenya, where Luo and Kikuyu have always lived more side by side than one would think from the newspapers, but are unlikely to do so safely in the future. The newspapers say at least a hundred people have been killed, but that’s basically the number of bodies that have actually been counted; since it is safe to say that no fewer than that number of people have died, the number of actual dead is probably much, much higher: not only have shoot to kill orders by the police been reported, but the open displays of police brutality on CNN, when put next to Kibaki’s decision to make celebrating the new year his first order of business, suggest that authorization goes to the top. And the violence is terrifyingly widespread, not just in the slums of Nairobi as one might expect it to be, but in cities that have no such history of violence.

The point is that its hard not to think that an awful lot of irrevocable things have happened in the last few days (and this, really, is just my speculation and my fear). It probably means something different to be Kikuyu today than it did a week ago, and something different to be Luo. In exactly the way that tectonic faultlines do not shift, faultlines between ethnicities have changed and deepened and if “buried” tribal tensions have emerged, then a lot of dirt that had been laboriously poured into the huge ditches separating different ethnic groups has been excavated. Kibaki came to power promising to restore democracy, promising to be a one-term president, and promising to unite the country, and his decision to hold on to power by any means necessary hasn’t just made democratic reform seem hopeless, but its brought back the bad old days of the first Kenyatta administration. It seemed pretty unlikely that Moi would give up power in 2002, but he did, and a lot of doors that seemed then to have been opened sure look now like they’ve slammed shut.

It should also tell us something that the USA State department was so quick to support Kibaki, when they seemed in 2002 to be supporting the process of establishing real democracy. Maybe they just wanted a different despot in power, someone who could with continue business as usual, but do it with the fig leaf of elected legitimacy. That fig leaf is gone, and Kibaki’s junk is now in full view, so while there are some indications that the US state department has backed away from its early stance, its not clear that this means anything but an attempt to back away from the nakedness of Kibaki‘s power play. And its not clear that it matters, anyway; as with the pathetically bungled attempt to install Bhutto in Pakistan, the days when the West could dictate who occupied state houses in Africa is pretty much gone, and what matters now is what Kenyans do. And I sure as hell don’t know what that’s likely to be. But I hope I don’t flatter myself in asserting my ignorance to be slightly less pernicious than whoever wrote that headline.

Addendum:  I’m usually no huge fan of the beeb, but this article had its head largely screwed on straight, I’m shocked to be able to say.

Western Civility is Overrated, though

  “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.

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