February 10, 2013 § 3 Comments
A book that I wish I had read many years ago. JJ Clarke’s Oriental Enlightenment is a superb study of ‘The encounter between Asian and Western thought’, as the subtitle puts it. It is primarily a historical study of Western perceptions of Chinese and Indian cultures and philosophies. Any exploration of the role of ‘Eastern’ thought in the Western intellectual tradition necessarily lies in the shadow of Edward Said’s 1978 work Orientalism, which has effectively set the terms of the debate. Western historians, philologists and philosophers, Said argued, have fabricated a complex set of representations about the Orient through which ‘European culture was able to manage – and even produce – the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period’.
As the title of Clarke’s book reveals, he is not only aware of Said’s importance in this debate, but takes Orientalism as the starting point for his own study. But if Clarke draws upon Said’s insights, he also rejects much of his argument. ‘Where Said painted orientalism in sombre hues, using it as the basis for a powerful ideological critique of Western liberalism’, Clarke writes, ‘I shall use it to uncover a wider range of attitudes, both dark and light, and to recover a richer and often more affirmative orientalism, seeking to show that the West has endeavoured to integrate Eastern thought into its own intellectual concerns in a manner which, on the face of it, cannot be fully understood in terms of “power” and “domination”.’ « Read the rest of this entry »
October 20, 2011 § 43 Comments
I wrote some notes a few months back on Pandaemonium on Rethinking the idea of ‘Christian Europe‘. I reworked that post into an essay, which has now been published in the latest issue of New Humanist. And I’m posting it here, too.
In the warped mind of Anders Breivik, his murderous rampage in Oslo and Utøya earlier this year were the first shots in a war in defence of Christian Europe. Not a religious war but a cultural one, to defend what Breivik called Europe’s ‘cultural, social, identity and moral platform’. Few but the most psychopathic can have any sympathy for Breivik’s homicidal frenzy. Yet the idea that Christianity provides the foundations of Western civilization, and of its political ideals and ethical values, and that Christian Europe is under threat, from Islam on the one side and ‘cultural Marxists’ on the other, finds a widespread hearing. The erosion of Christianity, in this narrative, will lead inevitably to the erosion of Western civilisation and to the end of modern, liberal democracy.
The claims about the ‘Muslim takeover’ of Europe, while widely held, have also been robustly challenged. The idea of Christianity as the cultural and moral foundation of Western civilisation is, however, accepted as almost self-evident – and not just by believers. The late Oriana Fallaci, the Italian writer who perhaps more than most promoted the notion of ‘Eurabia’, described herself as a ‘Christian atheist’, insisting that only Christianity provided Europe with a cultural and intellectual bulwark against Islam. The British historian Niall Ferguson calls himself ‘an incurable atheist’ and yet is alarmed by the decline of Christianity which undermines ‘any religious resistance’ to radical Islam. Melanie Phillips, a non-believing Jew, argues in her book The World Turned Upside Down that ‘Christianity is under direct and unremitting cultural assault from those who want to destroy the bedrock values of Western civilization.’ « Read the rest of this entry »
October 4, 2011 § 16 Comments
‘Why talk of morality?’ It’s a question I get asked a lot, especially as I am writing a book on the history of moral thought. Many on the left are uncomfortable with, indeed hostile to, moral arguments. Morality, they insist, is the province of the right. Politics is the true terrain of the left. Engaging in moral debate is, in their eyes, a means of constraining, not of promoting, social change.
It is true that the right often exploit morality as a means of individualizing social issues, a way of pinning the blame on some of the weakest in society for the problems caused by public policy, social inequality and economic failure. But as I have argued before, for instance with respect to the riots earlier this year, ‘Morality is as important to the left as it is to the right, though for very different reasons’. It is important to the left because ‘There is no possibility of a political or economic vision of a different society without a moral vision too.’
In his book On Evil Terry Eagleton neatly skewers the anti-moral arguments on the left:
The American Marxist Frederic Jameson writes of ‘the archaic categories of good and evil’. One is forced to assume that Jameson is not of the view that the victory of socialism would be a good thing. The English Marxist Perry Anderson implies that terms like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are relevant to individual conduct only – in which case it is hard to see why tackling famines, combating racism or disarming nuclear missiles should be described as good… Jameson and some of his leftist colleagues… tend to confuse the moral with the moralistic. In this, ironically, they are at one with the likes of the US Moral Majority. Moralism means regarding moral judgments as existing in a sealed domain of their own, quite distinct from more material matters. This is why some Marxists are uneasy with the whole idea of ethics. It sounds to them like a distraction from history and politics. But this is a misunderstanding. Properly understood, moral inquiry weighs all these factors together. This is as true of Aristotle’s ethics as it is of Hegel’s or Marx’s. Moral thought is not an alternative to political thought. Ethics considers questions of value, virtue, qualities, the nature of human conduct and the like, while politics attends to the institutions which allow such conducts to flourish or be suppressed.
I agree with all of that. And yet the predicament lies deeper than simply the left misunderstanding the relationship between morality and politics. At the root of the problem is the ambiguous place that morality occupies in the modern world, and the way that political and social changes of the past few decades have exacerbated that ambiguity. « Read the rest of this entry »
September 3, 2011 § 4 Comments
In June I wrote a post questioning Brazil’s ‘no contact’ policy towards uncontacted Amazonian tribes. A version of that blog post was published as an essay in Göteborgs-Posten. The essay (like my post) attracted a lot of critical comment. It led to a short debate last week on the pages of the newspaper between myself and Dan Rosengren, associate professor of social anthropology at the Institute for Global Studies at Göteborgs University. The Swedish version of the debate is not available online, but here is an English translation.
Kenan Malik recently wrote about the immorality in denying ‘unknown tribes people’ the progress of civilization, and in doing so expresses antiquated notions belonging to the 19th century. His premise is that modern society is superior to indigenous people. If Malik had bothered to study the matter he would have realized that the isolation of these groups is a result of their previous contacts with the industrialized society. A contact which, in the early 20th century, led to the extinction of nearly 80 percent of the indigenous people in the western part of the Amazon forest in order to provide rubber for car wheels to the industrialized society. This is normally called genocide, but in this case it is tantamount to ‘the progress of industrialization’. « Read the rest of this entry »
August 19, 2011 § 30 Comments
UPDATE: this post won the 2011 3QD Politics and Social Sciences Prize.
In the warped mind of Anders Behring Breivik, his murderous rampage in Oslo and Utoøya were the first shots in a war in defence of Christian Europe. Not a religious war but a cultural one. Breivik acknowledged that he was not religious but, he wrote in his manifesto in a section entitled ‘Distinguishing between cultural Christendom and religious Christendom’:
Myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God. We do however believe in Christianity as a cultural, social, identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian
Few but the most psychopathic have any sympathy for Breivik’s homicidal frenzy. And most Christians have rejected the Breivik’s claim to be one of them. Yet the idea that Christianity is a ‘cultural, social, identity and moral platform’ that provides the underpinnings of ‘Western civilization’ and that ‘Christian Europe’ is under threat finds a widespread hearing. From Mark Steyn to Christopher Caldwell to Melanie Phillips to Martin Amis and beyond, alarm about Muslim immigration, the rise of ‘Eurabia’ and the collapse of the Judeo-Christian tradition is rife. « Read the rest of this entry »
June 25, 2011 § 12 Comments
The Prime Directive. As any self-respecting Trekkie knows, it is Star Trek‘s most important ethical rule. And possibly the most stupid. ‘Thou shalt not interfere with the natural evolution of another culture by giving primitive peoples technology or knowledge beyond their years.’ Or as Starfleet Regulations put it:
As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Star Fleet personnel may interfere with the normal and healthy development of alien life and culture. Such interference includes introducing superior knowledge, strength, or technology to a world whose society is incapable of handling such advantages wisely.
In the Star Trek universe, the Prime Directive has particular force in the case of ‘pre-warp’ civilizations – societies, that is, that have not yet developed warp drive and hence are incapable of interstellar travel. Such peoples are to be denied not only advanced technology but also any knowledge of extraplanetary civilizations or of the possibility of interplanetary travel. In the words of James T Kirk prior to a mission to a ‘primitive’ planet, which the Enterprise crew were about to visit by disguising themselves as locals, ‘No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space, other worlds, or advanced civilizations.’