Archive for June, 2008

Muhammad and Jihad

This is part 5 in the series “Islam and the West.” Click the link under pages or at the top of the page to read what the purpose of this series is. Only about one blog entry a week is dedicated to this series. There are links to the first four parts of the series at the end of this post.

As noted last time, Muhammad’s teachings challenged the very nature of Quraysh rule in Mecca. It wasn’t because he was a monotheist – the Quraysh had tolerated many of those. Rather, he was challenging the distribution of wealth, the treatment of the poor, and doing it from inside the Banu Hasim, a powerful Quraysh clan. So powerful was the clan that until Muhammad’s uncle Abu Talib died, Muhammad was protected. After his death, and that of Muhammad’s wife Khadija, the Quraysh decided to simply eliminate the Prophet.

Muhammad was smart enough to realize that if he stayed in Mecca he’d die; if his followers left en masse they’d be noticed and likely slaughtered. So instead they slowly left town, Muhammad missing death by one day, heading for the city of Yathrib, where Muhammad was to act as an Hakim to settle a dispute. It’s unclear how Muhammad rose to prominance in Yathrib, a city known for producing dates, with a large number of Jewish clans. Islamic tradition makes it appear that upon his arrival Muhammad was greeted as leader; that seems unlikely. However, over time he and his community became dominant.

Rather than go through the details of the battles between the Quraysh and the Ummah, or community of believers, I want to focus on Muhammad’s notion of Jihad, developed during this time. In my opinion many non-Muslims and some Muslims have lost sight of Muhammad’s intent. First, he made a distinction between higher and lower jihad. The higher jihad is the most important; it is the ‘fight of faith’ to stay pure and moral in a world filled with temptation. It is ones’ personal battle against ones’ own desires. The lower jihad meant to defend Islam from those who would do it harm. It was based on the need to defend the early Ummah from the Quraysh.

Thus part of the Koran is concerned with those battles. In one infamous passage Muhammad says to his followers “kill the polytheists, kill them while they sleep…” This is in preparation for the battle against the powerful Meccans, but has been interpreted by many in the West and even some Muslims as a command to kill polytheists anywhere. Christians are polytheists from the Muslim perspective, since they believe the trinity represents three Gods. Of course, Muhammad did not mean that. There is no way one can have such an interpretation alongside the special privileges given to the ‘people of the book’ (Jews and Christians), the demand that there be no compulsion in religion, and more importantly, the Quran’s command that one not fight against a foe who does not want to fight.

In another famous incident, the Ummah butchered the Banu Qurayza, a Jews tribe living in Yathrib (later renamed Medina – the city of the Prophet), killing the men and sending women and children into slavery, as per Arab custom. This is often put forth as a sign of Muhammad’s brutality and anti-Jewish bigotry. However, such an interpretation is completely ignorant of the historical context. Muhammad had been betrayed by other local tribal leaders, who bet that the Quraysh would defeat the Ummah, and thus be in a position to grant them favors. Muhammad had defied Arab custom and the law of retribution by refusing to kill the men and enslave the women and children. Instead, he allowed them to leave in peace. He did this a couple times, causing many of Muhammad’s followers to believe that this emboldened groups like the Qurayza to decide they had little to lose if they betrayed Muhammad — and a lot to gain from the Quraysh. So when they betrayed the Muslims at a crucial point in the conflict Muhammad’s people were incensed — not just at the betrayal but at how Muhammad’s apparent softness had made it seem like the worst that could happen if you failed is that you’d be sent into exile (perhaps to return once Muhammad was defeated).

Muhammad thus acquiesced, though he himself could not order the destruction of the Banu Qurayza. Instead, he left it in the hands of an Hakim, who ruled that traditional Arab custom should be followed. Looking at the story as a whole, Muhammad was clearly not anti-Jewish (some of the tribes he let go earlier were Jewish), and in fact the religion of the tribe had nothing to do with what happened — it was the betrayal to the Quraysh. These kinds of misunderstandings pepper the western comprehension of “jihad,” and give ammunition to Islamophobic propagandists who apparently want a conflict with Islam, even though they can’t quite explain how one might win such a ‘clash of civilizations.’

All that said, there remains a fundamental difference between the pacifistic other-wordliness of Jesus and Augustine, and Muhammad’s fight against the Quraysh. Jesus preached an essentially spiritual view of religion, more oriented toward faith than practice. Muhammad was a social reformer, and the Ummah would develop rituals of practice to solidify community bonds. Like Judaism, Islam is a praxis-oriented religion rather than faith-oriented. While Jesus and Augustine focused on saving ones’ soul, Muhammad focused on fighting injustice and improving society. Early Christianity was in the world but not of the world. Islam was in the world with the goal of transforming the world. Moreover, Christianity became powerful as Europe declined into the dark ages; Islam was a force by which the Arab and Persian worlds would form great empires. In politics, the leaders of both the Christian and Muslim worlds would often veer far from the ideals of their founders.

In future entries into this series we’ll delve more into what these differences mean. However the “lower jihad,” like “just war” was meant to limit acceptable acts of war and civilize Arab customs. Both want the innocents to be protected, both want warfare to be defensive, and both condemn trying to use war to spread their religion. Because Muhammad’s reforms were in the practical world of politics, and Islam defended itself through war while the early Christians suffered from the political powers, Islam more quickly moved to turn the religion into a rationalization of violence, something it would take the Christians hundreds of years to accomplish. But at base, the two faiths have more in common than not, and both are justifiably labeled religions of peace, even if political leaders have often used religion as a rationale for war.

Previous entries in the series:

Part One: Rome and Paul (May 31st)
Part Two: Plotinus and Augustine (June 6)
Part Three: Just and Unjust Wars (June 15)
Part Four: Muhammad and Arabia (June 22)

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New Media, New Thinking

No matter what bad habits, negative behaviors, or problems people possess, they usually stick with them until reality becomes so bad that they are forced to change. Alcoholics have to hit bottom, credit card debtors with a real problem have to get the point where they can’t find more credit, gambling addicts lose their home and family. Up until reality forces change it is easier to blame others, blame the situation, or see oneself as a kind of victim. This is also a problem in politics.

In politics, people stick to the same policies, ideologies and beliefs they held in the past, no matter what the consequences. Democrats remained convinced governmental solutions are best, even though there is evidence that one should really be skeptical of government bureaucracy, while Republicans often believe that the market will solve all our ills, and seem oblivious to our weaknesses on the world stage.

An example is the issue of global warming. It’s easy to avoid confronting the problem by just chalking up tornados, floods, melting ice caps, record heat and consistently rising temperatures to something natural — as if we could dump massive amounts of CO2 in a dynamic atmosphere without it having an impact. Not only that, but there is a cottage industry of well funded deniers out there who will go to great lengths to argue their position, driven by a political or ideological agenda rather than science. Many aren’t malicious; they’ve truly convinced themselves that they are the ones who can see the situation clearly — even though they are usually like minded political types who are in contradiction from scientists across the political spectrum.

I witnessed that on one blog, Q & O, where the main blogger routinely scours the news for anything that might lean one to question any aspect of global warming research. He posts it as if it is a refutation of the entire theory, ignoring the numerous studies and the vast consensus that otherwise dominate. He comes up with wild claims about volcanoes causing the ice melt, and ridicules the scientific community as if somehow any rational person would reject the idea of humans being part of the cause of global warming. It’s so bad that some of one blog commentator, caught up in groupthink, said he thought it is irrational for one to actually believe scientific consensus. They are absolutely convinced are they that they’ve shot holes in the theory, which somehow the real scientists don’t see. They ignore the arguments and studies supporting the consensus and often make arguments that are anti-scientific (e.g., science has been wrong in the past so it’s likely wrong now) or post conspiracy theories very insulting to scientists, claiming, for instances, scientists just want government money and that requires they toe the global warming line.

A similar dynamic is seen from those denying evolution. You read the websites by creationists, and they have the same myriad of studies which, if read without regard to the real science, would make it appear that the theory of evolution is absolutely untenable. They have the same kind of alternate explanations, and hurl the same derision and scorn on the scientific community. Irony of ironies, both the global warming deniers and the evolution deniers try to claim the other side is driven by political bias not to accept the “true” science. Yet the consensus against them runs across the political and even religious spectrum, while the denier communities tend to be narrow, like minded folk talking more to each other than trying to really examine the vast array of data out there.

To be sure, it is possible that global warming is natural, just as it’s possible the world was created by intelligent design and evolution is misguided. It is worth looking at and considering the counter evidence. But to simply choose that which fits ones’ beliefs and grasp it while ignoring the rest or ridiculing it is outside the realm of clear thinking.

Yet while such groups stand out, they aren’t necessarily the majority. Blogs, a fragmented media, and an information revolution create the possibility to move beyond such ideology-driven thinking. And those who now use the new media the most — students — are becoming cynical about pat ideologies and seem to see through the community-oriented group think of people like the evolution and global warming deniers. Perhaps being part of this information revolution from the get go, the up and coming generation is discovering how to think across various perspectives and spectrums. They are emerging as a post-ideological generation, which I believe is a good thing. Perhaps this will yield a society that avoids the kind of battles of the 20th century, where groups divided up, were happy with labels like ‘left’ and ‘right,’ and defined some group as an ideological boogey man (socialists, liberals, conservatives, etc.) and put their group as the truly thoughtful and reasonable ones, more in touch with reality.

Anyone who traverses the new media and variety of perspectives can’t help but see just how silly such an ideology-based version of reality is. In the past, that was easy to maintain, and if one stays in a small blog world focused on ideological conflict with the other side, or talking to like minded folk, this can still be maintained. However, young people seem willing to talk across perspectives and think outside of ideological blocks. For them, the vast array of available information gives them tools to avoid that kind of ideological straight jacket.

Maybe I’m being idealistic, but if we’re going to solve the problems that are causing rising energy prices, strange weather, and terrorism, we need a generation to break out of the stale kind of ideology-driven thinking of the past. To do that, my generation can learn a lot from today’s youth.

UPDATE: I should point out that I have not taken a stand here on what to do about global warming; I’m not sure.  I think working for a culture shift is more effective than just regulations.  In fact, I think those who use global warming denial as the tactic for fighting against regulations do themselves a disservice, they’d be more effective if they’d actually talk about the problems with regulatory answers.

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Irrational Hillary Diehards

Hillary Clinton ran an excellent campaign during the primary season, and if the structure of the primaries had been different, she might have been the nominee. She has handled herself with class and grace since the defeat, quickly reading the writing on the wall, apparently having an easier time coping with reality than her husband. Yesterday she met with Barack Obama in Unity, New Hampshire — a place where they split the vote evenly during the New Hampshire primary — to reinforce the idea that they are working together to defeat Barack Obama.

What I find more interesting are the “Hillary Cultists” out there, almost psychotic in their rabid hatred of Barack Obama (and his supporters) determined to claim some kind of victimhood over their candidate’s loss. You can find their rants at “the Confluence,” which sounds like they are trying hard to convince themselves they are right, or “no quarter,” a place where the man who gave us the Michelle Obama video rumor continues to try to fly rumor whispers about Rezko, Obama’s birth certificate, or probably soon, his association with Martians. And though he has been shown to be wrong so often, the true believers who want to believe that Obama will somehow disappear keep coming back. Finally there is a truly bizarre site, “Hillary is 44,” with a photo of Hillary which appears to be from back when she was 44 years old. These folk wear their hatred of Obama on their sleeves as they whine about how they’re victims to the sexism of the Democratic party. Lastly, there is “Hillbuzz,” which seems to be obsessed with with the Chicago gay pride parade (huh?)

What drives these people? To be sure, if Hillary had won and Obama had lost I would probably be posting about Obama diehards, who would be complaining of racism, cronyism, and inside party big wig deals. They would be perhaps even more evident on the web, given that Obama’s supporters tend to be more active in the blogosphere and web discussion groups. This isn’t about Clinton or anything particular about her supporters, it’s about that subset of supporters in both campaigns who can’t let go of their emotion and instead become dogmatic, irrational, and angry.

Moreover, this does not include everyone who doesn’t switch support from Clinton to Obama. Many people aren’t driven by ideology and just go by who they identify with more. Some who liked Clinton just prefer McCain to Obama. Some have decided that they want to support Nader. That’s fine. I’m talking about that small minority who hold on to their bitterness and anger, turn it into rage against Obama and his supporters, and despite claiming to be life long Democrats or progressive/liberals have decided they prefer McCain to Obama. I mean those people who have fallen into a state that brings to mind the phrase the ‘cult of personality,’ where they are so focused on the person they identify with that the issues and larger picture becomes secondary. They truly believe the DNC conspired against Clinton, that this is unfair, and that they have been mistreated. It is not a rational belief.

The most bizarre argument they make is that Roe v. Wade doesn’t matter because the Court already has the votes to overturn it. That’s doubtful, but if that were true that would be all the more reason to take that issue seriously, you would think they’d want a President who could change that balance, or at least prevent it from getting even worse. But they are definitely not thinking rationally, it’s raw emotion.

Part of this is par for the course in politics. Campaigns are emotional, and people naturally become very intensely bound up in their candidate, especially if they are contributing money, time and effort on her behalf. It’s not easy to break that; it’s not easy to go from seeing the opponent and bad, someone who must be defeated, to accepting that the game is over and while close, your person lost. People want to blame the loss on nefarious elements, people in our culture embrace a victim mentality.

Most pundits believe that despite it’s close and hard fought nature, the Clinton-Obama fight was relatively mild; both held back because they knew that going negative would hurt them in the eyes of the Democratic electorate. Yet in the emotion of a campaign, supporters remember those moments when there was something offensive said, or an attack that seemed unfair. They remember process questions they lost, things that maybe should have been done differently. They fixate on these, go over them in their minds until they become so important that they construct a barrier that makes it impossible to let go. Both sides do it, but the winner can more easily let go since they have the prize; those on the losing side find it difficult.

On top of that, websites and discussion groups allow supporters who don’t want to let go of the emotion and accept that they lost to reinforce each others’ sense of victimization and unfairness. They bolster each others’ denial. And because of their bitterness, they draw angry comments from the other side, insults from Obama supporters which serve only to reinforce their sense of righteousness and victimhood. In fact, I suspect a lot of Republicans are playing this game pretending to be Hillary or Obama supporters in order to try to keep bitterness alive.

So the result is a small cadre of true believers, unable to distinguish reality from their emotional connection to an individual, driven to hate the other side and the other candidate. They feel self-righteous, believe that they see better the reality than do others, become more like cultists than activists. And if they are active on those websites, they’ll start feeling a groupthink loyalty to other like minded folk, and thus push aside any temptation to rethink their position. It becomes more jihad than political campaign.

The sad thing is that if Barack Obama wins, they will not enjoy the Democratic victory. While most Democrats would feel that this would clear away the wounds of the 2000 election, and create a chance at a real Democratic majority (since the Democrats are almost certain to gain in the House and Senate), the Hillary diehards will feel angry and impotent. They will be those few Americans who felt cheated in both 2000 and 2008, unable to join their fellow progressives and Democrats in celebration. If Obama loses, they’ll have a Pyhrric victory. It’ll be the kind of petty “I’m glad something bad happened to someone I don’t like” satisfaction, even while watching their policy preferences become less likely to be achieved.

For their sake, one hopes that the group of Hillary diehards slowly wake up to reality, and the emotion of the fall campaign starts pushing out the residual emotion of the spring campaign.


The Answer

This is the final entry in a week of blog entries responding to various readings discussed at the UMF Summer experience. Today I consider “The Answer,” by Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962).

When I first taught at Summer Experience, I was researching Robinson Jeffers and found a quote from him that I really liked: “Long live freedom and damn the ideologies!” In The Answer, one gets the sense that Jeffers could see the gathering storm. He wrote it in 1937. Perhaps he was thinking of Germany when he wrote “To know that great civilizations have broken down into violence, and their tyrants come, many times before.” Perhaps as we deal with the possibility of our society in crisis due to terrorism, oil price increases and potential economic collapse we can remember his advice: “When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose the least uglyl faction; these evils are essential. To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted, and not wish for evil, and not get duped by dreams of universal justice or happiness.”

There is so much in that section! First, concepts such as integrity, mercy and remaining uncorrupted are outside any particular ideology or faction. They are human values that almost everyone cherishes, whatever ones’ views or perspectives. Perhaps we should focus there first. And in 1937 he no doubt saw many being duped by dreams of universal justice and happiness. Ideology provides a world view that tries to diagnose what is wrong with our society, and then offer a solution. The solution sounds wonderful — universal justice, happiness, and a better world. But it doesn’t work, and when it doesn’t work, these ideologies find villains, people whose action or ideas are blamed with preventing the attainment of that perfect society. These villains must be eliminated, their selfish interests prevent achievement of the greater good. That sounds seductively logical, but leads to horrific evil, evil seen far too often in the 20th century.

Jeffers was criticized for opposing US involvement in WWII. We’ll never know what would have happened had the US not gotten involved; the winners write the history books and it’s unquestioned conventional wisdom that WWII was a ‘good war.’ I’m not sure; perhaps if the US had not embraced going to war we could have been in a position to prevent the holocaust, perhaps neither Communism nor Fascism would have survived. But it’s a sad testament to political correctness that standing on ones’ principles can lead one to be ostracized, after his opposition to the war he was never as popular again.

He goes on: “To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear the whole remains beautiful.” This shows another problem with ideological and utopian thought. Instead of seeing the whole and recognizing a fundamental beauty (or as Aldo Leopold says in his piece, to “think like a mountain,”) we see bits and pieces of ugliness and try to figure out a way to remedy it, often ignoring the unintended consequences of such action.

A severed hand is an ugly thing, and man disservered from the earth and stars and his history…for coontemplation or in fact…often appears atrociouusly ugly.” I’ve thought a lot about this line. We humans often like to see ourselves as completely independent and autonomous. We are not part of the earth, we dominate it. History is not a part of us, it is something that happened before us. Thus we ignore that we are a product of both nature and our past, and when we disconnect and try to simply analyze reality and come up with our answer of what to do to make things better, the result can be extremely ugly. Ideology, religious fundamentalism, dogmatism of any sort, abstract thought which dehumanizes others and sees nature as merely an object to control, all yield ugliness of the worst sort.

“Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty is organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty of the universe. Love that, not man apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions or drown in despair when his days darken.” Such an appropriate statement during the depression and just before World War II! Living in times or places of injustice, poverty and despair can suck the soul out of someone. It’s easy to get depressed, or grab on to an ideology that promises some kind of salvation from these conditions. But if that salvation separates humans from other people and from nature, denies the ‘wholeness of life and things,’ and replaces the divine beauty of the universe with the faux beauty of how people imagine the universe should be, it leads to “man’s pitiful confusions,” which to me means ideology, dogmatism and extremism.

Now we are in a time of crisis and transition. It’s unclear from where the challenge will come. As the stock market continues to drop, oil prices rise, and pessimistic predictions increase, people will be tempted to embrace answers that blame others and push an extremist agenda. Leaders will demand loyalty, excuses will be made for fighting wars, imprisoning innocents, and turning people against each other. Others will look at increasing difficulties in life and despair. What kind of world are we leaving our children?! Will our jobs be here ten years from now? Twenty? Will we be able to travel and enjoy the kind of lifestyle we’ve gotten used to?

To Jeffers there is one way not to drown in either despair or delusion: keep integrity, remember that the whole is beautiful, and that reality unfolds the way it will, the ugliness is necessary, even if we can’t understand why or how at any given point in time. We need to cling to our integrity, honor and mercy, and avoid as much as possible the violence and anger that consumes so many.

Remembering that, we can consider the genocide in Rwanda, the horrors of the 20th century, the poverty we see today in the third world, and the potential disasters of the future without losing our optimism, idealism and love for life and nature. Because, after all, a life without optimism and joy is a wasted life.

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The Violent West

As noted, this week is summer experience for first year students at UMF, so I’m commenting each day on one of the readings students are discussing. Today I’ll react to “Violence: the Double Standard” by Howard Zinn (1922 – ).

Howard Zinn notes the violent way in which our society developed; that goes along with the talk we had Tuesday by artist/peace activist Rob Shetterly on the struggle it took to move from a constitution that guaranteed rights only to part of society, leaving out women, blacks (who were slaves) and the poor. Indeed, looked at through Zinn’s analysis, the US has undergone a constant low level civil war, in which over time the privileged elite have been forced against their will to grant rights to those lacking privilege and wealth. And, given the extreme polarity in the current distribution of wealth, the elites are obviously still in control.

It occurs to me, though, that this criticism of how Americans view their own history can be extended to how we in the West view our culture and society. We see progress and enlightenment and ignore, excuse or dismiss the violence that defines it, even today in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. If you read pundits on the right, for instance, you would think that Islam and the Islamic world is a uniquely violent culture. They point out, correctly, that Islam spread by force through northern Africa, into India, Asia, and parts of Europe. They note that non-Muslims, while tolerated, had to pay a special tax which denied them equal rights. They also point to texts from the Koran, taken out of context, which suggest that Muslims should fight the ‘polytheists and idolaters’ to the end – conveniently ignoring that these passages refer specifically to the Quarysh, who were in a bitter struggle against the Ummah, or community of believers, and not to all non-Muslims. They also ignore how the Koran admonishes Muslims not be aggressors, not to fight if the enemy does not wish to fight, and to protect the lives of innocents.

If you really want to see a culture that has a violent history, look in at the West. From the reformation to WWII, from development of modern weaponry to nuclear bombs, the West has been the most violent and destructive culture on the planet. The West has spawned ideologies like communism which has lead to genocides and severe repression. Colonialism from the West destroyed political cultures across Africa, Latin America, and Asia, leading to broken systems now torn apart by corruption and poverty. It was the Belgians who divided Tutsi and Hutu and gave the former special privileges, setting up the violent ethnic clashes that would lead to the Rwandan genocide. Spain was slaughtering native American tribes with a ‘convert or die’ message. It was Germany, the home of many great western ideas, which gave us the holocaust and Nazism. Even America, built on ideals of freedom and liberty, has engaged in imperialism, destroyed numerous indigenous peoples on the continent in what now would be labeled genocide, and now spends half the world’s military budget, using violence that kills more innocents than insurgents to try to shape the political systems of other parts of the globe.

Before you get defensive, I am not saying the West is evil, nor do I think we who inherit that tradition have to live in shame or try to undo all past wrongs. Rather, I’m pointing out that it is hypocritical to attack Islam for its past while turning a blind eye to the history of the West. This is precisely the kind of thing Zinn is talking about in his article, there is a real double standard at work here. We ignore how at the time of the crusades, for instance, the Christians demanded the Muslims ‘covert or die’ when Jerusalem was taken, while the Muslims refused to avenge those acts when they took Jerusalem back. It was the Muslims that showed far greater compassion and civilization at that time.

It is hypocritical to focus on the good the West has done while ignoring the good in Islam and the Koran. The fact of the matter is that Islam and the West both have violent pasts, and both have honorable ideals. And, while political correctness on the left is wrong to say we shouldn’t talk about the dark side of Islamic history, political correctness on the right is wrong to say we shouldn’t talk about the dark side of Western history. Let’s start from an admission that neither culture can really claim virtue in its history, no matter how honorable and beautiful many of the core ideals behind each are. Right now the violence from the West I list above is cited by Muslim extremist as proof that we are a violent, evil people. Our extremists cite Muslim history as proof that Islam is a violent, even evil faith. Both sides are taken a warped a biased view on history, and this works against efforts at real reconciliation and co-existence.

For example, our leaders say that some Muslim extremists want to spread Islam and thus represent a violent aggressive political ideal which must be stopped. Then in the next sentence they say we want to spread democracy and implement regime change for the good of the people in other states. The obvious hypocrisy in those two statements cannot be overlooked – they are evil to spread what they believe to be the best way of life, we are honorable if we do the same thing.

So perhaps by refusing to embrace a double standard, we can think about the principles Zinn has at the end of his article. Official violence should have no special privileges over private violence, violence done by others should be weighed equally with violence done by ourselves (we’ve killed more innocents in Afghanistan than were killed by terrorists on 9-11, for instance), we should assume that all victims are created equal, a dead Communist or Muslim has no less value than a dead American or even UMF student. Violence with property should not be equated with violence to people. We should be wary of symbolic efforts to justify violence (nationalism, abstractions) and look at the long term implications (what kind of society will Iraqi children raised in violence create?) Just thinking in these terms can help overcome the double standard, and perhaps put us on a path towards a more peaceful world.

That doesn’t mean we can handle the challenges of globalization easily, and clearly there are extremists on each side that want to see the other as an enemy because they can’t accept anything but their own dogma. The strong will use military force, the weak will use terror, and each will point to the damage done by the other to try to inspire militarism and radicalism in their ranks. Those of us who recognize the importance of our common humanity and take the time to learn about the reality human worth, rather than self-serving myths, know that we can find a way to live peacefully and respect each others’ ideas.


The Hecticity Culture

As noted, this week is summer experience for first year students at UMF, so I’m commenting each day on one of the readings students are discussing. Today’s is “Channeled Whelk,” by Anne Morrow Lindbergh (1906-2001).

Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s piece about her ‘channeled Whelk’ spoke to her confrontation with the demands of a modern, hectic, world of demands on ones’ time and energy. In some ways, writing in 1955, she was experiencing the beginning of a new kind of world, one created by the post-war economic boom where the ability of people to acquire ever more material wealth led to a proliferation of tasks, opportunities and changes. The generation born in the post-war world thus emerged as one immersed in a society growing, expanding and ever more materialist. Raised by parents who recalled the depression, they were motivated to succeed, working ever harder, needing something like Lindbergh’s time on a beach to recover, reflect and get ready to continue apace. There are signs, however, that the up and coming generation has had enough. Raised by parents who had never truly gone without, the idea of material success is not seen as the end all and be all. There is more to life.

NPR had an interesting report awhile backabout how this generation of professionals are unwilling to do what the last generation did in terms of working 50 to 70 hour weeks in top positions at major corporations, accounting firms and law firms. Companies are worried about filling leadership roles when the current generation retires, or to replace current management staff as they ‘move up the ladder.’ People want more of an ability to work from home, they want to work fewer hours, they want more flexibility, and they’re willing to give up pay to get it. In short, quality of life trumps raw ambition and accumulation.

One can only hope this report is accurate. While the Europeans long ago embraced the notion that it doesn’t really pay to live in a world of material prosperity and wealth if you aren’t able to enjoy it, the American work force has been working longer hours and sacrificing family time and personal time in order to compete for the best jobs and the best pay. The result has been an insane culture of hecticity. Hecticity? Yes it’s a word — and has been one now for thirty seconds. I just coined it (and added it to my spell check dictionary). Hecticity is the constant stress and hectic pace of life, where people go from task to task, getting things done, taking care of mini-crises and problems, without time to really sit back and reflect.

Hecticity is a self-imposed condition, but most people don’t recognize it as such. The culture pushes us towards hecticity. In the workplace people won’t get promoted or get raises if they don’t compete. If you don’t get a raise or get promoted, you can’t get all that cool stuff that advertisers convince us is absolutely necessary for our happiness. Worse, people fear failure, and believe staying on top of things and being constantly busy is the only way to assure failure is avoided.

That’s perhaps the worst side effect of hecticity. People don’t have time to reflect on their lives, think about what is truly important to them, and enjoy life. A person suffering from hecticity has a life defined by schedules and tasks. Exhausted at the end of the day, and perhaps afraid to truly confront the inner self that needs a change, television or maybe a book is the escape. When not engaged in the hectic and stressful pace of the modern world, one chooses to escape into a film or story. One knows “yeah, I’m too busy, I need a break,” but people don’t want to confront what it would take to do that (it would require rejecting hecticity), and seriously consider major changes in life style and values. Hecticity can be comfortable, it gives you something to do, an excuse not to reflect on whether one is leading a truly meaningful life.

For my generation, it’s probably too late. Those who are caught up in the hecticity culture will find it hard to break away, it can be addictive. But it’s heartening that the new generation of young workers recognize this problem and are rebelling against it. One only hopes that the tools that enable hecticity (cell phones, palm pilots, etc.) are kept under control, lest they control us. It is a shame that in a society where we have so much convenience, luxury and comfort — and so many toys — too many of the brightest and most successful people zip through life without enjoying the opportunities they have, too caught up in the hectic pace of the modern world.

And that brings us back to Lindbergh, writing over a half century ago when all this was starting. She was a successful woman, married to a celebrity, experiencing the early fruits of the emerging post-war world. She couldn’t know that the economic boom would continue for decades, with only brief interruptions. She couldn’t see that at some point a beach cabin with virtually no technology would be an almost impossible to find vacation site in a world wired and connected. She would probably be startled that her hectic and busy life would look rather slow paced by today’s standards. Yet she saw the threat: so many demands makes it hard to achieve what she wants: “…to be at peace with myself. I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enablel me to carry out these obligations and activities as well as I can. I want, in fact — to borrow from the language of the saints — to life ‘in grace’ as much of the time as possible…By grace I mean an inner harmony, essentially spiritual, which can be translated to outward harmony.”

I would prefer to live in a state of grace rather than a state of hecticity. Grace doesn’t mean boredom, but being in control of one’s myriad of projects, not getting consumed by demands that one can’t be oneself. Working 60 to 70 hours a week in an obsession with career and material possessions means giving up ones’ soul to external demands. That’s hecticity. I hope our culture is moving away from there, towards grace.


Education and liberation

Note: this week is Summer Experience at UMF, at which students spend the week in seminars doing some interdisciplinary reading, and putting together an academic journal. This week’s blog entries will, each day, focus on one of the readings for summer experience. The readings are all across the board, from politics to philosophy to experience…hopefully blog readers will find it an interesting change of pace. Today I choose to write about “The Banking Concept of Education” by Paolo Freire (1921- 1977).

I spent the afternoon Monday in a meeting about how the UMF website is being used to recruit students. One major focus was our ‘record of success,’ which includes the work one does in the field after graduation, as well as those students how go on to graduate, law, or medical school. People want an education because a four year college degree dramatically increases ones’ income potential, and gives access to better employment. Education is an investment, Farmington offers a “value” because we’re providing the liberal arts experience (personal attention, community support, professors not graduate students teaching, etc.) at a public university price.

For most people teaching, that’s not the primary goal of education. Many of us cringe when education is talked about as an ‘investment,’ with an emphasis on pay back in dollars and career options. Obviously if we didn’t provide that we wouldn’t have so many students and we’d be out of work, so I’m glad a college education provides that valuable outcome. But for most of us the primary goal is to help students think for themselves, take responsibility for their lives and education, and in a real way liberate themselves from simply following patterns of thought and behavior programmed into us by our culture.

For Freire that meant getting away from the ‘banking concept’ of education where the professor is the expert, instilling knowledge into a student the way one puts money in the bank. That, Freire argues, is a tool for oppressors. If they control how you think, what truth you consider valid, what knowledge you possess, then you’ll behave the way they want. If you don’t question authority, authority wins.

Consider education in Eastern Europe and the former USSR. During the Communist era few were as knowledgable about science, mathematics history and literature than those educated in the east bloc. Their level of knowledge would shame most Americans. Yet when learning criticism of a literature piece they had to regurgitate exactly the instructors’ notes or what a book stated. There was no room for independent critique, students were to learn, like a sponge being filled with facts. And, of course, those systems were the most repressive, even with a well educated citizenry.

Therefore many of us in education are worried by moves like ‘no child left behind’ with mandatory testing and funding for schools tied to performance on standardized, government tests. However, while I agree with Friere that the goal of education should be to liberate students to be able to think independently, questioning their culture, rulers and yes, their professors, achieving that goal can’t be done on the cheap. Students need to learn lots of essential knowledge before they have the tools for liberation. Otherwise, it’s easy to simply believe the most recent argument made. So how do professors and students deal with the desire for a liberating education without forgoing the need to learn facts about the world? One cannot think critically about politics, history and ethics just by the seat of ones’ pants. Opinions are a dime a dozen without thoughtful introspection and supporting arguments.

To me it means looking at issues from a variety of perspectives. So in studying the Cold War, I assign students different interpretations. People read some conservative, some revisionist, and some realist perspectives, and in class we debate, compare and contrast these arguments. The same goes for considering, say, the war in Iraq, the history of Islam and the West, or various views on ethics in world politics. By learning facts embedded in diverse perspectives, students not only learn about the world, but they have modeled for them the fact that knowledge about the world is always seen from an angle, a perspective that is shaped by assumptions, the beliefs of a discipline, and the choice of data considered. The best courses I’ve been involved in are interdisciplinary; I’ve co-taught with people from education, music history, art history and literature. Every time I am surprised by how much I gain going outside my usual set of perspectives and thinking about, say, links between music and politics.

So liberation is an ongoing process of learning, reflecting and questioning. It never ends, it’s a process, but one that makes life intriguing, fun and intellectually stimulating. There is a deep joy in crafting ones’ own identity and values, shaping and refining as we go. Everyone has choice: one can live a life just being carried by the currents of culture and trends, not truly discovering and creating the person he or she want to be. Or one can take control of ones’ life. The former is easy, you just sit back, go along for the ride and find distractions – troubled by a nagging sense that time is frittering away. The latter takes effort, but the rewards are immense.

That may not be a good argument for marketers trying to recruit students. And, of course, a good career and a rich life of the mind are not mutually exclusive things. Indeed, people who take control of their lives are more likely to succeed, and in fact have the power to define for themselves what success means. Being a part of that makes the role of teacher the most satisfying profession I can imagine.

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On Happiness

Note: this week is Summer Experience at UMF, at which incoming first year students spend a week in seminars focused on common interdisciplinary readings. This week’s blog entries will, each day, focus on one of those readings. The readings have a variety of subjects from politics to philosophy to experience…hopefully blog readers will find it an interesting change of pace. The piece I choose to respond to today is “What Every Girl Should Know” by Robertson Davies (1913-95), written in 1977.

The title of the piece “What Every Girl Should Know” is misleading. The writer, Robertson Davies, was writing this for (I believe) his granddaughter. What he talks about here, however, is important for everyone. Here is a short quote to give blog readers not in the class a taste of the piece:

“I hope you won’t bother your heads about happiness. It is a cat like emotion; if you try to coax it, happiness will avoid you, but if you pay no attention to it it will rub against your legs and spring unbidden into your lap. Forget happiness, and pin your hopes on understanding.”

Davies is speaking to that universal desire in humans to be happy. And he notes that most people who seek it do not find it. That is because most people live shallowly, not taking the time to know themselves or why they do what they do, but instead to simply go from one activity to the next, finding gratification for at least the short term, searching desperately for some sense of satisfaction for forces outside oneself. Living this way becomes something hard to break out of because, as he notes, “Live shallowly and you will find yourself surrounded by shallow people.” Shallow people are annoyed by people who live deeply, in part because the inner contentment of the latter starkly shows the former what they lack. Shallow people cling to shallow people.

‘Living deeply’ is something one gains not by success in the external world, or even by making wise choices. These things are not the same as living a deep, satisfying life. One can have immense worldly success, making good choices in life, and still not be happy. Indeed, happiness seems disconnected from ones’ success or accomplishments; those who are unhappy seem unhappy no matter what happens, while those who are happy can find joy in a very simple life.

Davies advises taking one hour a day – one hour away from every demands from children, work, ones’ spouse, family members, television, and the internet (well, he wrote before that little distraction was invented) provides, and set it aside for oneself. Take time to think about what one is doing, to understand ones’ own motivations, thoughts, and desires. Taking this time will yield understanding and once one has that understanding happiness will happen. It becomes a part of ones’ life, not as some rush of excitement or exuberance, but simply finding life to be something worth living, with a sense of mystery and joy.

I choose Davies’ piece for today because I think he is right. I agree with him. I don’t know if that’s because he is right, or if it’s because I simply am biased towards his perspective because I share it. I’ve always been introspective, trying to dissect why I think the way I do, why I want what I want, what motivates me. I try to be self-critical as well, noting times when I do stupid things, taking responsibility for them and not trying to blame the situation or other people. I love and enjoy life, I find learning the most interesting aspect of this existence. Instead of worrying about how underpaid we are at UMF, or that teaching here isn’t as prestigious as teaching at a place like Colby, I think about how lucky I am to have this kind of lifestyle, able to reflect, keep a blog, research what I want, teach and learn with students, and how wonderful Maine is for raising family.

However, this bias might simply mean that this kind of path to happiness works for my personality type. Other people, more extroverted and experimental, may find it less important to be introspective, and more pleasurable to have numerous interests and endeavors. Still others might focus on nature as a kind of natural meditation, rather than the kind of introspection Davies describes. An hour immersed in nature may yield the same benefits as an hour of introspection for many people. Finally, many people emphasize family and friends, seeing those bonds as the key to happiness. These would be bonds built by deep relationships – talking about life, problems, and sharing meaningful moments, not just shallow pursuits.

So ultimately, I think there are many paths up the mountain. Two things doe seem clear: 1) guilt will undercut any effort to be truly honest with oneself – so learn from mistakes but don’t feel guilty about them, humans are imperfect creatures who make mistakes all the time; I define guilt as the condition which prevents us from learning from our mistakes because it leads us to hide them from ourselves.  If guilt can’t be avoided, it is best used as an impetus to change; 2) unhappiness is not a state that can be cured by just changing external conditions. The change has to come from inside, one has to take responsibility for ones’ life and not feel sorry for oneself or feel a victim. In cases like that I think Davies’ notion of ‘living shallowly’ becomes likely; people will seek a life of shallow distractions to avoid coming face to face with themselves and confronting the hard work necessary to alter that state. Perhaps in this is the biggest life lesson: take responsibility for your life, your choices, and trust that if you do, happiness will simply happen. Because, ultimately, if happiness depends upon what others do or what the world provides, one is giving immense power to people and forces acting for their own purposes. That’s almost sure to lead to failure.

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Why the Republicans failed

December 2000 was a heady time for Republicans. After the Supreme Court ruled that Florida votes need not be recounted and the election as certified would stand, it was clear that the GOP had a majority in Congress and the held the Presidency. Despite a short loss of a Senate majority in 2001-02, it appeared the decade would belong to the Republicans.

And they had ideas. To the problems facing the United States President Bush offered a solution: the opportunity society. With the budget now in balance, he argued, the US could move towards helping Americans take control of and responsibility for their own lives. This included privatizing social security (after all, the stock market had been soaring, why not allow people to put their money there?), re-writing the tax code, altering social welfare programs to focus on getting people trained for work, and nothing short of creating an American alternative to the European social welfare state.

While I am very skeptical that all this could have worked — I think most people are glad they weren’t putting their social security money in the stock market he last eight years, for instance — give President Bush his due: He had plans for real reform. The GOP had a vision for an America with less government, more individual responsibility, and balanced budgets. All of this, they argued, would be paid for by projected budget surpluses. Having too much of a surplus or paying down the debt too fast would be dangerous, but that money could be used to create a transition to this new economy.

Eight years later few remember that President Bush was elected on this notion of individual responsibility and ‘compassionate conservatism.’ Almost none of what the Republicans set out to do was accomplished. Despite having a majority in Congress and holding the Presidency, most of their bold domestic agenda failed. Why?

Part of the reason, of course, is conditions beyond their control. The budget surplus projections were bogus, ignoring the fact that the balanced budget and the economic optimism of 2000 was build on a stock market bubble which already had burst. Even their belief they could remake the Supreme Court failed, as liberal justices refused to quit, leaving Bush with the task of only replacing two GOP appointees. The Democrats became effective at using the filibuster in the Senate to stop action on many Bush plans, and by 2006 the Republicans were on the rocks, and now the Democrats are poised to be where the GOP was in 2000 — at the head of government.

For the Democrats to succeed, they need to understand why the Republicans failed. And the reason is clear: Iraq. The most dramatic political casualty of the Iraq war was the Republican agenda. After getting early tax cuts passed, Bush could get little significant legislation through Congress afterwards. Major legislation passed would instead be things like the Patriot Act, passed in reaction to the terrorist attacks of 9-11.

9-11 and its aftermath was a pivotal point for President Bush. At the height of his popularity, with a country suddenly unified, and liberal dissent considered almost treasonous by many, he had the chance to build on a relatively easy victory in Afghanistan to bring the country around to his view of the future. With the property bubble replacing the stock market bubble, the economy actually appeared in much better shape than it was. This meant that Bush could remain popular, and the GOP could provide a coherent message about their plan for the future. If the President had handled events post-9-11 differently, we might be looking at a very different political landscape. The Democrats may not have had the will to sustain Senate filibusters if Bush had remained popular, the GOP majority may have continued to grow, and the President might now be talking openly of the new “opportunity society,” complete with private social security accounts, and major reform of the tax code and social welfare system. We’d be debating the long term consequences of these actions, and the Democrats might seem to be representing the ‘failed policies of the past,’ while the Republicans were innovative and different.

Instead, the decision to invade Iraq dashed every Republican hope. It drained hundreds of billions from possible budgetary funds, meaning the deficit would grow and any effort to create a transition to a new tax, social security or social welfare system was infeasible. The President’s lack of popularity meant he couldn’t make a convincing case to the public for change, meaning that the Democrats paid no political cost for obstructing the GOP agenda — quite the contrary! The country became fixated on Iraq to the point that the phrase ‘opportunity society’ became virtually meaningless; instead of the center point of the Bush Presidency, it was simply a forgotten political slogan.

To those in the GOP who truly believe that less government and more free markets would work, this has to be very painful. They had the chance. They had the majority, the President was popular, their ideas intrigued the American public. The Democrats were on the defensive, especially after 9-11. For better or worse, they could have made their agenda political reality. Instead, the Administration engaged in a social engineering experiment in a post-Ottoman authoritarian state, believing if it removed the dictator they could engineer a stable pro-American democracy that would pressure other states in the region towards similar reform. The seductive illusion of this vision — US power not only protecting American oil interests but reshaping the Mideast into becoming more pro-western, less friendly to terrorists, and more amenable towards accepting Israel’s right to exist — caused Bush to gamble his Presidency. He lost.

If Iraq becomes stable the pro-war side will try to claim success. They’ll say it took longer, but say that ultimately Iraq emerged better off than under Saddam. They are already claiming we’re on the road there, though I strongly suspect that once again they’re miscalculating. The cost of the war in Iraqi lives lost, destruction of that society, and of course the loss of American lives and money is so enormous that there is no way the policy could possibly be a success, especially since it’s rationale was proven wrong and the region is even more hostile to US interests: Iraq was in many ways a gift to Islamic extremists, helping them recruit and fostering increase anti-Americanism.

After the Iraqi people, the biggest loser might be President Bush and the Republican party. They had their chance to reshape the American political landscape and engage in dramatic policy reform. They had the chance to experiment with cutting government and expanding markets, privatizing and putting their vision to test in the largest economy in the world. That chance won’t come again for a long time, if ever.


Muhammad and Arabia

This is part 4 in the series “Islam and the West.” Click the link under pages or at the top of the page to read what the purpose of this series is. Only about one blog entry a week is dedicated to this series. There are links to the first three parts of the series at the end of this post.

As Rome fell and Europe went into the dark ages, guided by a new, spiritual form of Christianity which eschewed progress in favor of stability and tradition, Arabia was a violent, volatile place. Politics involved clans and tribes vying for power, governed by one fundamental principle: the law of retribution. If you or your tribe were treated unfairly you would retaliate, violently. Custom dictated that when one tribe defeated another the men would be killed, and the women and children enslaved. Harsh stuff, but reasonably effective; if the price of trying to take advantage of another is large, people tend to play it safe.

Within this environment, Mecca emerged as a cosmopolitan city, focused on commerce and tolerance of a vast variety of religious beliefs. The tribe ruling Mecca, the Quraysh, had turned a rather out of the way city into a trading hub and a place for religious pilgrimage. They had essentially bought up many of the idols worshipped across Arabia and put them in the Kaaba, turning Mecca into not only a place to go worship ones’ particular deity (they collected about 350 of them) but also a place where trade and commerce could take place peacefully. In many ways the Quraysh were rather enlightened: trade replaced warfare, religious tolerance was absolutely necessary, and thus traders and travelers from all over converged on Mecca. This also included Christians, Jews (mostly Arab Jews), Zoroastrians, and Hanifs.

Yet the Quraysh were also guided by traditional Arab customs which, as noted, were often brutal. The customs had been developed when tribes were smaller; applied to a large prosperous city like Mecca they produced a striking maldistribution of wealth and privilege between the haves and have nots. Throughout Arabia this was causing dissent, the traditional set of customs governing Arab life were becoming obsolete; one reason Islam would spread so quickly is that Arabs were ready for a message of change.

There were some things you didn’t want to be in pre-Islamic Arabia. First, you didn’t want to be a woman. Women were considered no better than property, men could divorce at will, and women had no rights. Rare was the successful woman in the business world, sexism was endemic and severe. You also didn’t want to be an orphan. So much was based on family that orphans usually became slaves, unless some other family member of status took the orphan under his wing (emphasis on his).

So when a young boy named Muhammad (570-632) lost his parents at a very young age (his father died before his birth, his mother when he was six), the future looked bleak. Luckily for him his very influential uncle Abu Talib, head of the Banu Hashim clan, took responsibility for him. Muhammad was by all accounts an impressive individual, gaining the trust of family and associates. He also was very introspective, listening to the various religious teachings that came through Mecca, learning about Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Judaism, and the teachings of the Hanifs. He would often treat to the desert to meditate and think about these ideas, and the state of Arabian society.

Muhammad was clearly well aware that he was lucky not to have become a slave, and his later teachings will make clear that he was outraged by the differences between the wealthy few and the poor masses. No doubt as he meditated he thought about the various religious perspectives he had heard, and the material injustices all around him. His wife Khadija was a rarity in Arabia: a successful business woman. Her wealth brought her many suitors. Of course, if she had married she’d become property to the man who she chose, and he could essentially take her fortune. So at age 40 she was an unmarried woman, another rarity for that time.

The young Muhammad must have impressed her. By all accounts he had a reputation for honesty, and perhaps he was open about his disgust at the way the Quraysh ran Mecca, and Arab customs in general. Perhaps she was intrigued by this introspective, intelligent caravan leader. She hired him and then later married him. They would have a monogamous relationship until her death in 619, at the age of 64. Khadija also had a Christian cousin, and no doubt Muhammad learned a lot about Christianity from her. The orphan who escaped slavery thanks to his uncle was married to a woman who showed an independence and success that defied Arab custom.

For 14 years Muhammad continued being a business success, respected in Mecca, and gaining renown even outside Mecca as an impressive, honest, and thoughtful man. Although some traditions have him illiterate, that is unlikely given his position. One can only imagine his meditations as he reflected on all he was learning about different people and different religious traditions. He certainly had to view existing Arab customs as backwards and unjust; by all accounts he should be a slave and his wife someone’s property.

In 610 at age 40 Muhammad went to meditate at a mountain near Mecca, as he often did, sometimes for weeks at a time. Non-Muslims will speculate that he either hallucinated or made a conscious choice to try to construct a religion to radically reform Arabia, borrowing heavily from Christianity and Judaism. Muslims believe that the angel Gabriel appeared and commanded Muhammad to recite. Whatever the case, Muhammad came back and shared his story with Khadija, who became his first convert. Those first recitations marked the first passages of the Quran, the holy book of Islam, and by all accounts some of the most beautiful poetry in the Arabic language. For Muslims the beauty of the prose is proof it came from God, for non-Muslims, it shows that among his other talents, Muhammad was a brilliant poet. In any event, as Muhammad came back to Mecca from his meditation, he was about to start a new civilization. It would not be easy. The Quraysh would be determine to eliminate Muhammad and his followers, and the Ummah — the community of believers, Muslims, would have to fight to prevent their faith from being eliminated before it could grow.

The first three parts of the Islam and the West series:
Part One: Rome and Paul (May 31st)
Part Two: Plotinus and Augustine (June 6)
Part Three: Just and Unjust Wars (June 15)
Part Five: Muhammad and Jihad (June 30)