Sunday, February 05, 2006

Nobody's right, if everybody's wrong....

On the "cartoon" controversy: what Josh Marshall said is what's been running through my head, too. This is the unavoidable consequence of a "smaller" world.

Call it an unintended consequence of the "liberal virus." Not "liberal" in the political sense, but in the European cultural sense. "Liberal" the way Voltaire would mean it: Liberte, egalite, fraternite. Wonderful sentiment, if you agree with the cultural assumptions behind it. But if you don't: are you right? Or are you wrong?

Which unintended consequence is an extension of another unintended consequcnce of European liberalism. This is, in fact, where the Enlightenment begins to reach its limit. The "information revolution" was always, it turns out, imagined from a European (which includes America; we are a European culture) perspective. With more knowledge, with more "information," more "data," everyone would start to think like: us. This, I think, is the thrust of Samir Amin's argument (I haven't read his book yet, but I will soon). It was certainly the assumption of the Enlightenment: when everyone began to live and work and think in the light of sweet reason, the new millenium would be ushered in.

Only one problem: there are different understandings, different cultural definitions, of what "sweet reason" is. Almost nothing, it turns out, is a universal as we thought. Even anthropology is a European construct, and warps our view of non-European cultures. Such a warping is, of course, as inevitable as the existential critiqute of German idealism: one can no more stand outside one's culture (and the perspective it gives) than one can stand outside one's own existence and thus see everything from the point of view of the "system" (existence is real; the "system" is artificial; in the same way, culture is real, and "objectivity" merely a cultural construct).

It was reason which lead Islamic scholars to posit the concept of "zero," but it is also reason which allows Orothodox Christianity and Coptic Christianity and several branches of Islam to reconcile science and belief in ways quite different from European philosophies. We simply do not think in one uniform and monotone style, and the assumption that we ever would is, frankly, arrogant.

The riots provoked by these cartoons has now spread to Afghanistan, Iraq, the West Bank, and Lebanon. There has been a demonstration against the cartoons in New Zealand. [A correction of my earlier error on that point.] The Danish foreign minister has acknowledged that: "It is a critical situation and it is very serious." Embassies are being burned, and, frankly, blaming it on Syria (as the U.S. has done) is just a bit ludicrous, not to mention ignorant.

This is a clash of cultures, and it is probably only the beginning. Europe has a long tradition of mocking those in power. The Feast of Fools was very popular in medieval Europe, and to this day the editorial cartoons in Britain are far more biting and satirical than anything that gets published on this side of the pond. In fact, the controversy over the Thomas Toles cartoon is a case in point, drawing the line between American and European sensibilities.

But Islam doesn't even allow pictures of the Prophet, much less mockery of him. While the Europeans insist on their right of free expression, the Muslims insist on the sanctity of their religion, of their lives. That's another dividing line, in fact: the West long ago, following the lead of the Hellenistic Greeks, divided religion from secular life. That division has not been so strong nor so clear in other cultures. And once again, brought into contact by the "information age" and the "magic" of technology (and "magic" always means the mysterious force will work for good, but always "our" good; it will always do all the tedious, quotidian work necessary to protect "us" from harm), we find there is no magic in the world, and that the rest of humanity is not waiting breathlessly to partake of our particular culture.

The times, they are indeed a'changin'. Just not in ways we had imagined they would.

UPDATE: This column deserves consideration on its own, but it is an excellent examination of the issue, especially here:

And yet, as Oliver McTernan, author of Violence in God's Name, points out, there is a difference between a healthy secular state and the blinkered secularism that has grown up since Marx and Freud which denies the existence of God and so neglects the importance of the faith of strangers. When we negotiate with a man in a turban and long beard, we see an extremist, not a believer; we consider his religion, in McTernan's words, as 'little more than excuse for something else'. We misconstrue what is important to him, just as he is liable to underestimate the deep roots of our secular culture.
Although not necessarily in Amin's terms, we might call that an excellent summation of the "liberal virus." This problem is not going to go away. But there are ways it can be ameliorated. Perhaps if we start with that log in our own eye.....

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