Saturday, September 30, 2006

a gadfly's day

I spent most of today writing emails and comments on other people's sites. I even did something I normally don't do, and left three (count 'em-- THREE!) comments over at the Marmot's Hole in rapid succession, one comment of which was immediately pounced on by an apologist for the Japanese occupation of Korea who really ought to know better. The apologist's assumptions are those of a sloppy historian: anecdotes provided by the people (e.g., tortured Koreans, such as some of my mother's relatives) are "guilty until proven innocent" as opposed to being held in suspension until more data can be accumulated-- the latter being the attitude of a true scholar. All scholars have biases, to be sure, but no scholarship is trustworthy when not even a minimal effort toward fairness has been made.

I wrote another long comment over at Hojuin that I'll copy and paste here. This was in partial response to a question Hojuin asked re: whether it takes balls to create an image like the one found here. My response actually comes at the end of the comment; most of the comment is a rambling disquisition on my personal politics, which I now inflict on you.

Hojuin writes:

Does this indeed take a pair? none of my Muslim mates would give a shit.
(via: the Big Ho)

To be clear, I have no disagreement with Hojuin (his blog is quite interesting; check it out), and I hope my comment to his post reflected that. In fact, because Hojuin's post is short, it'd be insane for me to impute any position to his question and statement, other than some doubt about whether all Muslims would react badly to visual-media spoofs of Islam. I think Hojuin is right to point out that there are Muslims out there who don't give a shit. My comment, then:

re: your Muslim mates

I’m glad they wouldn’t give a shit, and it’s my hope that that’s how the majority of Muslims are. The Muslims I know in the States are kind, decent people, and they never once hit me over the head with the Koran, nor did they ever try to steer the conversation toward religion.

There’s a risk that the American right is overstating the case by implying-- as many righties unfortunately do-- that ALL of Islam is INHERENTLY pernicious. Just to be clear, that’s never been my position. My position is: there’re about 1.2 (or so) billion Muslims, and they’re not all out on the streets sawing heads off infidels. I suspect that most Muslims simply want to get through the day, like the rest of us.

However, I do worry about how the West reacts to the hardline, jihadi Muslims who view conciliation as weakness, and who are striving in the service of a greater vision-- be it the reestablishment of the Caliphate, the global dominance of the Dar al-Islam, or whatever utopian scheme motivates them. The cartoon flap is one case in point (I assume your mates don’t care about those cartoons, either-- to their great credit); the recent death threats against French and German professors who have written articles critical of jihadist Islam are another. If people in the West react by routinely cancelling potentially offensive performances, or by going into hiding instead of speaking out bravely, etc., then it’s Neville Chamberlain all over again. The bullies win.

I advocate a balanced approach: a more articulate PR campaign that makes CLEAR who the enemy is; a refusal to bow before any ideology that deplores freedom of expression; a refusal to demonize the entirety of Islam; and-- what’s probably most politically incorrect-- a very aggressive approach to handling those Muslims who (1) preach religious and cultural hatred from the mosque, (2) kill Western and non-Western citizens “in the name of Islam,” (3) jockey for Shari’a to take precedence over Western law within Western countries.

Islam in the West needs to concede to the ethos of Western secularism or there can be no peace within our borders. Many Western Muslims are already pretty secular, so I’m not referring to them. But throngs of Muslims in the West refuse to assimilate even to a small degree (France providing the best example if the French news be trusted), and that’s a problem.

I was against the Iraq war and still don’t see the utility of our campaign to impose democracy on the region. This is fundamentally a war of ideas and it won’t be won by attempting to kill the other side, especially when we haven’t quite defined who the other side is. Nevertheless, there do appear to be some clear-cut cases, such as these fuckheads who threaten the lives of newspaper reporters and editors who print anything even remotely critical of Islam. My sympathy for such folks is down to about zero now; the West can’t give in to them.

As to your question: I’d say that it’s no big deal for someone like me to publish such a picture-- after all, I’m small potatoes in the blogosphere. But it’d take a huge set of balls for the editor of a large European daily to run such an image. The death threats would start up pretty quickly, and it doesn’t serve the Muslim cause for certain Muslims to claim “We are a religion of peace and so you must die for your insult to our honor!”

Islam-- like any religion-- is as it’s practiced. It’s peaceful if its practitioners are peaceful, warlike if its practitioners are warlike. Buddhism’s not inherently peaceful, either: look at Sri Lanka. So, trite as it may sound, this is ultimately about “increasing da peace.” The argument among Westerners seems largely to be about HOW this should be done.

OK… I’ve talked your ear off and will shut up now.


I'd add that I've written on this blog that we still have little idea as to how many Muslims count as "moderate" in the Western sense of the term. "Peaceful" and "peace-loving" and "moderate" are three different terms: the first simply means "non-violent" without necessarily implying pacifism. The second term might be taken to mean "pacifistic," while the third term might mean, for a Westerner, "able to accept the coexistence of a secular ethos alongside one's religious ethos." Many Muslims in the West do practice this acceptance, but it's an open question as to whether this is true in primarily Muslim countries.

On Dr. Hodges's blog, I also left a long comment. This was in response to his post titled "Why the Pope Quoted Emperor Paleologus." My comment didn't address the substance of his post, mainly because a large part of it deals in matters of Christian history with which I'm unfamiliar. Instead, I spent my time commenting on superficial items, such as German vocabulary and the byzantine mind of Benedict/Ratzinger.

My comment, then:

[WARNING: Looooong comment.]

I wish I knew more Christian history so I could comment more substantively on this post. I vaguely recall some textbook passages about Duns Scotus, but I can't say I ever dwelt on the man's thought.

My question, rather, is one of translation. While I don't speak German (unless we count two mostly-forgotten semesters of German as "speaking German"), I wanted to ask you about the ambiguity of the adjective "schlectes" based on what I know from English and French. Since you're able to translate French, we can use that language as a point of departure, move into English, and then I'll cede the floor to you re: German.

In French, the words "bien" and "mal" can be adverbs, nouns, or adjectves. If I ask someone, "Ça va bien?", I'm asking whether everything is going well. A reply of "Ça va mal" will mean that things are going badly. Obviously, then, in practical, everyday discourse, "bien" and "mal" just mean "well" and "badly/poorly."

In their nominal incarnations, i.e., "le bien" and "le mal" (especially when paired together in the phrase "le bien et le mal"), these words are more likely to be read as "good" and "evil." That much is clear. Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mal is therefore "the flowers of evil" or "evil's flowers" and not the more pedestrian "bad flowers."

This isn't to say, however, that there's a clear semantic demarcation between "mal" as "bad(ly)/poor(ly)" and "mal" as "evil." To be "malmené," for example, means something like "violently mistreated," quite a difference from an expression like "mal poli," which merely means "very impolite." Violent mistreatment contains something of the malefic, whereas mere rudeness doesn't necessarily connote evil. So "mal" obviously straddles semantic borders.

In English, too, the semantic fields of these words overlap. "This food is bad" has a pedestrian meaning: "This food is of poor quality [i.e., poorly prepared]." However, when someone asks during a movie, "Which one's the bad guy?", they're asking about who the evil party is (in French, this is usually marked by the ambiguous noun/adjective "méchant," which can mean [a] "naughty," "bad," or even "wicked" [person/animal]).

My question, then, is whether German also has this sort of ambiguity between, say, "gut" and "schlecht." If it does, then I want to know what makes you opt for the more pedestrian "bad" as opposed to "evil" in your translation of the German rendering of the Paleologus quotation. My instinct is to say that Paleologus, speaking about deep and serious matters, might well have intended the stronger "evil." But again, that's an intuition based on almost zero knowledge of German.

Ah-- come to think of it, I do have a more substantive comment!

You wrote:

Now, Ratzinger might also, secondarily, be asking Muslims, "Which sort of deity is Allah?" -- and if so, he has received a preliminary answer -- but he's more centrally concerned with what Westerners think about this.

I'm banging my head against the wall here-- not because I disagree with your insight, but because Benedict, as Ratzinger, has gotten himself into trouble with other religions in precisely this manner before.

The 2000 CDF document Dominus Iesus (a document I regularly flog on my blog), spearheaded primarily by Ratzinger, ended up offending people of many religions, but especially Jews. In a sense, it was merely a reaffirmation of the Church's post-Vatican II stance toward other religions, but many non-Catholics saw the strident language-- and the more obvious exclusivism pervading it-- as a great leap backward from the 1965 Nostra Aetate document of Vatican II.

In its defense, the CDF said that Dominus Iesus wasn't intended for non-Catholics-- a defense I've always found disingenuous when we consider the hyper-connected, mediatized world in which we live. News of such a document can and will spread quickly. How can it possibly be "for Catholic eyes only"? Displays of surprise and professions of innocence are hard to trust. Even if such displays and professions are sincere, they still betray a great naiveté about the power of technology and global culture. Any document crafted for a community will inevitably have to take into account that the document's release will not occur in a vacuum. If the current pope is saying that his words weren't meant for Muslim ears, then... I'm not sure what to think.

There's a good deal of speculation going on right now as to whether the pope quoted Paleologus "with implicit approval." I suppose we'll never know the answer to that question. I agree with you that Benedict has "received a preliminary answer" from certain elements in Islam, but I'm still wary of fully exonerating him. He's a man who has put his foot in his mouth before.

Let me put it this way:

Suppose the KKK promulgates a document titled "Solving Our Black Problem." The document is uploaded to a public KKK website, where anyone in the world can see it. Public outcry is immediate, but the KKK's Grand Dragon, pleading wide-eyed innocence, calls a press conference and says, "This document is merely a statement of a position everyone is already aware of, and was never intended for anyone other than KKK members." This may be true, but because the document pertains to people outside the KKK, such a defense is untenable.

While I certainly don't equate the Catholic Church with the KKK (I have far too many Catholic friends and acquaintances to do something that silly), I hope my extreme example has made the point that a document (or speech) by a member of one religion cannot reasonably be construed to have coreligionists as its sole audience.

OK... I've gone on far too long. I've done more commenting than blogging today, and I might just copy and paste the day's comments on my own blog. Heh.

Apologies for length. Feel free to ignore.


I would add to the above comments that Arabic-language speeches and fatwas are given in the full awareness that people in the West will read and translate them. Public hate speech is very much intended for more than the believers. It has multiple goals, among them (1) reinforcement of faith among the faithful, (2) announcement of proud defiance of the Great Satan and the Little Satans, and (3) attempted persuasion of fence-sitting Muslims, whose hearts might resonate with the rhetoric.

And there we go. I was hoping to write something about Giuliani, but I might save that for later.


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