Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Blaming the Victims, Part II

Noah Millman seems to be coming in for a bit of a drubbing on this blog, which fails to do justice to the fact that Ajay and I are both avid Millmaniacs and my intuitive response to most of what he has to say is "Amen, brother!"  But that would not make for interesting reading, whereas those rare occasions when he provokes me to anger make me more loquacious.  This is one of those occasions, and once again, it was sparked by a debate over the age-old nature vs. nurture (or, in Millman's rendering, genetic vs. cultural determinism) question.  More specifically, it had to do with a predictable back-and-forth between Richard Dawkins and the liberal commentariat about whether Islam has stood in the way of the intellectual development of the Muslim world.  Dawkins thinks it has.  Other people don't.... This is the sort of exchange that I hope will never make it onto the front of this blog on its own merits-- the roles assumed by all the usual suspects are too predictable for that.  But the role played by Millman is more bizarre and perturbing, and therefore worthy of note.  As he did in a post that was previously defeathered by the Six Foot Turkey team, Millman here implies (by roundabout means) that there is a genetic basis to the differential economic and intellectual outcomes of the world's societies-- meaning in this context, I guess, that Muslim societies make fewer contributions to international scholarship because of the innate ethnic handicap of their members.  One expects this sort of neo-racist drivel from wingnuts over at the National Review Online, but coming from Millman it is surprising, if not unprecedented, and therefore worth arguing against on this blog.

It would appear that the secret to making a case for one's own side in this debate is to locate a sufficiently unworthy opponent-- a walking, talking, blog-writing straw-man.  So long as Richard Dawkins is facing down opponents like Millman who are willing to suggest that it is not culture or religion, but race that has led to the dearth of Muslim Nobel Laureates, he sounds positively egalitarian.  Mutatis mutandis, Millman's position starts to seem humane and forgiving in comparison with that of the (in his words) "'it's all culture' folks."  After all, they (Muslims) can't help it if it's all inscribed in their genes, right?, whereas Dawkins seeks to blame their own consciously held beliefs for whatever he sees as wrong with their performance, way of life, and so on.  

I'm left stranded there shouting: please don't sign me up for either alternative!  I suppose that if I had to decide between them, I would come down on the side of Dawkins.  His view, if less forgiving, at least portrays Muslims as human beings possessing moral and intellectual agency, rather than a pitiable sort of different-order being.  Moreover, Dawkin's position doesn't lead him into the absurdity of trying to identify genes held in common across all Muslim societies (which include Turkic peoples speaking Altaic languages from the steppes of Central Asia, Semitic Arabs, the polyglot peoples of Indonesia, and so on).  But fortunately, I am not obliged to join forces with either the "'it's all culture' folks" or the genetic determinists.  There are other, rather obvious alternatives, which Millman, here as elsewhere, refuses to consider as live options.  

The most obvious one is the view that Muslim societies, which were once thriving and cosmopolitan centers of learning and the intellectual powerhouses of the globe, lest we forget (though not by any means the incubators of religious pluralism they have been made out to be by some P.C. historians), lost out in the modern age to Western imperial powers who proceeded to cripple their economies and polities by drawing arbitrary national boundaries, rigging up dependent potentates in the oil-rich Gulf states, intervening periodically to restore Western-friendly regimes that had no popular legitimacy, etc.  Admittedly, this analysis would be incomplete.  By blaming everything on the West it risks excusing those indigenous phenomena such as political Islam which have also done incalculable harm to the stability and well-being of the region (though let us remember that even in the creation of that movement the Western powers' hands were not entirely clean).  Moreover, all those potentates and friendly regimes had to be willing to be bought and sold in the first place-- they too had some agency in this.  But at any rate, the consequences of imperialism at least bear upon the question of the academic success of Muslim societies-- and they have nothing to do with genes or culture.

Ah, says Millman, so I must be in favor of hidden option #3: the only reasons some religious groups or cultural or ethnic blocs perform better by certain measures of academic or intellectual success is that they cheat, they rig the game, they oppress everyone else and take the spoils for themselves.  Of course, that's not what I actually think.  Option #3, in addition to being implausible, also borders on the incoherent-- it leaves unexplained how the initial advantage was achieved that allowed one group to prosper at the other's expense-- unless we believe one group was more moral or altruistic than the others and thus allowed itself to play the victim's role, which, in the understatement of the century, does not describe the Ottoman Empire's position with respect to the Western powers.  Moreover, Millman, to the limited extent he addresses Option #3, is able to suggest that it is not the promising means of evading racism it appears to be-- for if Option #3 is the only one we allow into our explanatory framework, then it means that the disproportionate success of Ashkenazi Jews in receiving the Nobel Prize means that they must have all lied and cheated to get there, or benefitted from some Protocols-style international conspiracy.  But obviously, believing that there are some situations in the world in which some groups or societies or cultures behave callously or oppressively toward others does not commit us to thinking that "culture" can never help us to make sense of those or other situations.  Perhaps in accounting for the extraordinary scholarly and academic achievements of Ashkenazi Jews, we can meaningfully invoke culture.  Millman responds:

"At first glance, it would seem that if the 'it’s all culture' folks mean what they say, the implication would be that we should all become Jews. After all, if the Islamic world’s poor showing proves that Islam 'holds back intellectual development,' then presumably this extraordinary Jewish performance proves that Judaism massively promotes intellectual development. [...]
"But wait a moment. Because if you scroll through the pictures of those Jewish Nobel laureates, you’ll discover see few if any covered heads. Some of the winners come from traditionally observant backgrounds, but I’m not aware of any that live the life of a strictly observant Jew. It seems that Judaism is a great religion to be from, but you have to leave it behind in order to achieve Nobel-level greatness."

It's a rather cynical ploy to enlist the successes of Ashkenazi Jews in defense of genetic determinism, given the other associations that doctrine calls to mind in those with some sense of historical perspective.  But cynical or not, the argument has few merits.  Obviously, one is entitled to emulate and admire certain facets of other cultures without signing up for membership in those cultures whole-hog.  It sounds (and is) absurd to say that everyone should convert to Judaism if they want a Nobel Prize, but it is not absurd to say that if you desire academic success, there are elements of the Jewish culture in Western societies that are worthy of imitation-- in particular, the premium placed on education by many Jewish families.  Is this premium genetic in origin?  Possibly-- but it could also be accounted for rather easily by the fact that as a marginalized minority group for most of their history in Western societies, Jews had to seek out definite and tangible markers of status and success-- like academic degrees-- which did not depend so much on the sort of informal social "grace" that determined rank in much of the dominant Euro-American culture and which could easily become a cover for discrimination and prejudice (think of all those country clubs-- "Yes, he's a doctor, but he's not really our sort of doctor").  A Chinese-American friend of mine has analyzed his own family's value system in similar terms-- concerned that in those amorphous entities like "the business world" they will be discriminated against for being Chinese or for speaking with an accent, they taught their children to aim for academia, medicine, the law-- those learned professions where the hierarchy is more clearly defined and less liable to be subject to the various invisible constraints.  So yes, if you want to be an academic success, being more like the Jews (or Chinese-Americans) in certain regards might not be such a bad thing!

But if I'm willing to attribute so much to culture here, why not join Dawkins in insisting that it is the culture and religion of Muslims which prevents them from realizing their true potential?  Well, because the situations are different, and therefore call for a different analysis.  

I am not trying to say here that Islam, or any other religion or cultural system, should be exempt from criticism.  There are deeply authoritarian and misogynistic strains in its heritage, and these are neither "plants" by imperial powers nor chimeras invented by the dreaded "Orientalists" bent on stigmatizing the colonial other.  But I find it equally implausible-- not to mention deeply offensive-- to suggest that one of the world's great civilizations is somehow uniquely and utterly devoid of moral and intellectual value.  Moreover, I see little in the Muslim tradition that doesn't have its equally problematic analogues in Judaism and Christianity-- which leads me to think that the comparative success of Western societies in avoiding human rights catastrophes in the post-war era has to do with something other than the religious and intellectual background.  It leads me to think there might be something (but only just something) to the Old Left line that the political stability and economic success of the Western world are not signs of cultural superiority, but rather of those societies' success in displacing the true costs of their way of life onto the "backwaters" of the globe.

Ok, but what then about all the stuff I was arguing with Thomas Friedman about in the last post?  There I seemed miffed at the idea that the Syrian catastrophe was the product of "Middle Eastern culture."  But am I willing to go so far as to attribute it all to various hold-overs from Western imperialism?  And if not that, then am I prepared to endorse some form of determinism a la Millman?  No, I say, none of the above.  None of these options does full justice to the real explanation of the Syrian catastrophe (even though I think that explanation is fairly obvious if we are prepared to think outside of a range of preset alternatives).  In Syria it is clear that there is a holdover of imperialism at play in the fact that Syria was only created in the first place as an arbitrary set of borders by French colonists after World War I and that an authoritarian regime was all that held its ethnic blocs together after the fact.  I'm not saying different ethnic or sectarian groups can't get along, but being shackled together by a foreign occupier and then ruled over by a despot is not conducive.  There are also, of course, the cultural and religious developments which created those divisions in the first place-- but in this regard, the Middle East and Islam are not unique among the world's regions and cultures.  Most importantly, there is the fact that once these cycles of sectarian violence get started, it is not enough to tell people to "accept responsibility" for "remaking their culture"-- even if we were to attribute the origin of that violence exclusively to culture, which I do not.  This is because ordinary people trying to raise their kids and make a living really don't have a stake in ethnic or sectarian conflicts-- that is to say, they are not ideological, by and large.  But once the violence starts, they will of course side with the people who offer some protection for their own ethnic group and a chance at enough stability to open a business and send their kids to school.  We would do the same-- Thomas Friedman would do the same-- if it happened here.

As for genetic arguments, Millman affects confusion as to why people seem to find these morally objectionable, even "off-limits" in a way that religious and cultural arguments are not, though in this latest post he at least acknowledges some of the background of white supremacy and racial pseudo-science that help to account for this attitude.  But he still makes a show of failing to understand why we make this aversion to genetic arguments such a "shibboleth" of our public discourse-- especially when genetic arguments could conceivably be accurate, right?  So isn't it just an empirical-- hence morally neutral-- question whether they are so?

Possibly.  But the reason I am so skeptical is not due to any shibboleth, but to my understanding of history.  It has always been and always will be the case that the ideology of a dominant class will insist that it's own advantages are natural-- hence inevitable and not subject to change.  Plato in envisioning his Republic imagined that there would need to be a "Noble Lie" to keep its social classes from each other's throats-- the lie of innate differences in capacity and human potential between "guardians" and plebs, between "Gold" and "Bronze".  Plato knew this would be a lie when applied to a society that did not exist-- but his student Aristotle told a Noble Lie of his own about the the innate servility of the lower orders that he believed to be true, because in his case, the lie was about a real society, the one he actually inhabited.  It is titanically difficult to think about our real social world the way we think about Plato's Republic-- as something that was created by human minds and hands, rather than falling ready-made from the sky.  But we should.  The catastrophe that is the contemporary Middle East did not materialize by evolutionary decree or divine fiat.  It was created by countless acts of human agency-- many of them perpetrated by our own Western societies acting in our name.  If we say it's all genes or it's all Islam, we are washing our own hands of complicity.  We are, once again, blaming the victims.

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