April 23, 2003


Crossroads of Culture (PETER WATSON, 4/21/03, NY Times)
[T]he golden age that Arab fundamentalists refer to was achieved only because Baghdad was wide open to foreign influences, much as the United States at its birth imported ideas of the Enlightenment from Europe and made more of them than did the Old World.

One can go further. Many of the scholars who translated the manuscripts of the Greeks, Indians and Chinese, and who flocked to Baghdad in the golden age, were Christians, Jews and pagans. Although the West as we know it didn't exist in the 9th and 10th centuries, one could say that the Arab world was, for a time, part of the intellectual circle that would become the West. Many of the Greek classics reached Europe via Muslim Toledo, in Spain, where they were translated from Arabic into Latin.

In other words, there is no need for the Arab world to fear the West--or to despise it, for that matter. If Arab history is any guide, more prosperity comes from openness, receptivity and curiosity than from the closed, self-referential world of fundamentalist religions. One of the reasons the golden age happened was that the natural sciences and the so-called Islamic sciences (or religious study) were kept separate in the colleges of the day. It seems no coincidence that only when the religious authorities started to interfere with the natural sciences, starting in the 11th century, did the golden age lose its glitter.

Historically, the place we now call Iraq has always been the most secular of Arab states. That is a precious asset. Whatever government follows Saddam Hussein, it must continue to turn its face against fundamentalism. The acrimony last week between imams and secular Iraqis at meetings on the shape of the new Iraq was worrisome, if not surprising. Unless the next Arab generation, in Iraq and elsewhere, embraces the intellectual openness that so characterized the Baghdad of the 9th and 10th centuries, a second Arab miracle is unthinkable.

However it came to pass--and it remains the most interesting question in all of human history--there arose in England at roughly the same time a set of theories that held that there should be a generally free market in religion (protestantism, with a small "p"), politics (democracy), and economics (capitalism). The process reached its highwater mark in 1776 with the publication of the Declaration of Independence and Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. Though it's been pretty much downhill ever since, Britain and America went on to demonstrate, thus far conclusively, that a society predominantly structured around these free markets affords unique competitive advantages vis-a-vis societies that restrict any one of the three, and enormous advatages against those that restrict two or all three.

Now, some would have us believe that this demonstrates that freedom is the ultimate value and end of humankind and suffices to render a great society. Freedom, in this vision, is an engine that produces itself. Would that this were true, for were it, all a nation would have to do is create an initial condition of freedom and it would endure always. In fact, few of the nations that adopted the Anglo-American model remained very free for any length of time (see for example the innumerable temporary democracies of Africa and Latin America); most of those where the general structure of freedom does still obtain are now rather statist and authoritarian, even if relatively benevolent (see for example Old Europe); and even the states of the Anglosphere, to varying degrees, are a good deal less free today than they were in the 19th Century. As it turns out, the great mass of men don't necessarily want to be free, or, at the very least, aren't prepared to accept the burdens which make freedom sustainable, a phenomenon that has long been recognized by conservative philosophers and expounded upon by them in various memorable ways, a few of which follow:
A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess from the public treasury. From that time on the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the results that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world's great civilizations has been 200 years. These nations have progressed through this sequence:

from bondage to spiritual faith;

from spiritual faith to great courage;

from courage to liberty;

from liberty to abundance;

from abundance to selfishness;

from selfishness to complacency;

from complacency to apathy;

from apathy to dependency;

from dependency back again to bondage.
-Sir Alex Fraser Tytler (1742-1813)

My thesis...is this: the very perfection with which the XIXth Century gave an organisation to certain orders of existence has caused the masses benefited thereby to consider it, not as an organised, but as a natural system. Thus is explained and defined the absurd state of mind revealed by these masses; they are only concerned with their own well-being, and at the same time they remain alien to the cause of that well-being. As they do not see, behind the benefits of civilisation, marvels of invention and construction which can only be maintained by great effort and foresight, they imagine that their role is limited to demanding these benefits peremptorily, as if they were natural rights. In the disturbances caused by scarcity of food, the mob goes in search of bread, and the means it employs is generally to wreck the bakeries. This may serve as a symbol of the attitude adopted, on a greater and more complicated scale, by the masses of to-day towards the civilisation by which they are supported.
-Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses

If freedom entails responsibility, a fair proportion of mankind would prefer servitude; for it is far, far better to receive three meals a day and be told what to do than to take the consequences of one's own self-destructive choices. It is, moreover, a truth universally unacknowledged that freedom without understanding of what to do with it is a complete nightmare.

Such freedom is a nightmare, of course, not only for those who possess it, but for everyone around them. A man who does not know what to do with his freedom is like a box of fireworks into which a lighted match is thrown: he goes off in all directions at once. And such, multiplied by several millions, is modern society. The welfare state is - or has become - a giant organisation to shelter people from the natural consequences of their own disastrous choices, thus infantilising them and turning them into semi-dependants, to the great joy of their power-mad rulers.
--ESSAY: Don't set the people free (Theodore Dalrymple, 12/14/02, The Spectator)
Well, you get the idea. So the question arises: what is it that has acted as a bulwark in the Anglosphere more than elsewhere, but most especially in America, to slow this slide and extend the period during which freedom--broadly speaking--has prevailed? It would seem self-evident that the difference lies in the basis upon which we've erected our freedom and the internalization of morality that acts as a self-limitation on extreme freedom. Thus, America at its Independence asserted that certain rights precede the State and derive from the fact of Man's Creation by a God who Thomas Jefferson described this as, "God, the creator, preserver, and supreme ruler of the universe, the author of all the relations of morality, and of the laws and obligations these infer". The importance of this derivation has been recognized by no less a modern democratic hero than Vaclav Havel:
I have often asked myself why human beings have any rights at all. I always come to the conclusion that human rights, human freedoms, and human dignity have their deepest roots somewhere outside the perceptible world. These values are as powerful as they are because, under certain circumstances, people accept them without compulsion and are willing to die for them, and they make sense only in the perspective of the infinite and the eternal. . . . While the state is a human creation, human beings are the creation of God.

And the matter has been written about quite brilliantly by Robert Kraynak.

If, on the other hand, you try to ground rights and freedom in the State itself, they must obviously be transitory. For, in a democracy, anytime there's a majority in favor of something, your "rights" can be redefined, and what recourse have you?

The importance of all this, as the reform of the Islamic world (hopefully) goes forward, is that mere openness is not enough. Freedom, in and of itself, will not restore the greatness of Islam. Freedom would be a welcome improvement over what prevails now and would give the Middle East a boost, but, if in the process of freeing themselves they lose their moral grounding, their new golden age will be as short and unhappy as that of France and Germany and the rest of post-Christian Old Europe has been. That would be a true tragedy. Posted by Orrin Judd at April 23, 2003 12:12 PM
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