ExperimentalExperience

What A Tangled Web We Weave

In Journalism, Our Wars, Photography, Writers on January 6, 2009 at 1:12 am

Samuel Huntington, author of the infamous book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, died on December 28th 2008.

In an obituary in the New York Times, a newspaper famous for retrospectively bestowing garlands of respectability onto  the lives of even the most questionable of men, thought it ‘uncanny’ i.e. a reflection of his brilliance, that in that book he had written (predicted?) that ‘Somewhere in the Middle East, a half-dozen young men could well be dressed in jeans, drinking Coke, listening to rap, and between their bows to Mecca, putting together a bomb to blow up an American airliner.’

Huntington’s thesis that the modern world will see inevitable conflicts between what he claimed were separate ‘civilizations‘ with irreconcilable cultural and religious differences, captured the world’s imagination.  There is no doubt that this idea, offered first in an article in the journal ‘Foreign Affairs’ remains perhaps one of the most discussed, debated, celebrated and denigrated political and social constructs in modern memory.  And that is no small achievement.

It would be too easy to label him a hack and dismiss him. He was certainly not that. He was indeed a conservative, perhaps even a religious conservative, but he had the honesty to speak his mind even when it would surprise his erstwhile supporters, for example when he stated that ‘Western intervention in the affairs of other civilizations is probably the single most dangerous source of instability and potential global conflict in a multi-civilisational world.’

So I will discuss him in a slightly different way.

In 1874 Friedrich Nietzsche wrote his essay ‘On The Use and Abuse of History’ a rather dense treatise on the value and dangers of an excessive immersion in the study of history.  I will not go into a lengthy discussion on Nietzsche – I am certainly not qualified to do that, and I want to spare the handful of people who bother to read this blog in the first place.  I will though focus on a few points in Nietzsche’s piece that came to my mind as I was reading about Samuel Huntington.

The entire argument of Nietzsche’s piece is in its first few sentences.  Beginning with a quote from Goethe, ‘Incidently, I despise everything which merely instructs me without increasing or immediately enlivening my activity’, Nietzsche goes on to summarize that ‘…we must in all seriousness despise instruction without vitality, knowledge which enervates activity, and history as an expensive surplus of knowledge and a luxury, because we still lack what is still most essential to us and because what is superfluous is hostile to what is essential.’

The danger as Nietzsche saw it was that ‘…in the historical method of reckoning so many false, crude, inhuman, absurd, and violent things always emerge that the fully pious atmosphere of illusion in which alone everything that wants to live can live necessarily disappears. But only in love, only in a love overshadowed by illusion, does a person create, that is, only in unconditional belief in perfection and righteousness.’

History was then to be studied to serve man, to improve our world and our society, and to help us learn from our mistakes.  The worst that one could do was to become an historically educated man ‘…who believes He has to do nothing other than continue to live as he has been living, to continue loving what he has loved, to continue to hate what he has hated, and to continue reading the newspapers which he has been reading. For him there is only one sin, to live differently from the way he has been living.’

And that is what Huntington became.

His writings have been criticized by many so I will not repeat those here.  The criticisms hinge on the many erasures that Huntington had to employ to create the illusion of distinct and separate ‘civilizations’ and their inevitable clash.  Not the least of the erasures being an acknowledgment of real, lived human existence and the extensive and daily economic, social and cultural interactions taking place between the peoples of the world every moment of every day of every year of  known human history.

But for me personally his greatest mistake was his lack of a love overshadowed by illusion - the ability to see the possibilities of human life and human sharing.  Whether these possibilities ever existed could be debated endlessly, but what matters to me, and what I feel was missing in his thinking, was the idea that these possibilities should exist.  Huntington read the history that he wanted to read.  He found in his readings, lectures, writings and research the antagonisms that he was looking for and that he believed confirmed his world view.

For Huntington, and for the millions who support his world view, something called ‘The West’ stands for liberty, democracy, human rights, religious freedom, tolerance, respect for the individual and so on and so forth.  All that is good in man becomes all that ‘The West’ stands for and represents.  And in opposition to all this stands the rest, ‘The East’, ‘The Orient‘ etc. But much of this belief in Western culture and its supposedly unique values, the values for which Western powers have repeatedly found it necessary to kill and destroy, is based on a very simple, and in fact, concocted construction of the West’s idea of its own heritage.

These concoctions include the belief, to quote the French historian Marcel Detienne from his new book ‘The Greeks and Us’,  not only “…that both the abstract notion of politics and concrete politics one fine day fell from the heavens, landing on ‘classical’ Athens in the miraculous and authenticated form of Democracy (with a capital D), but also that a divinely linear history has led us by the hand from the American Revolution, passing by way of the ‘French Revolution’, all the way to our own western societies that are so blithely convinced that their mission is to convert all peoples to the true religion of democracy.”

And again from Detienne ‘In his Instructions, Lavisse declared that what secondary-school pupils need to be taught, without their realizing it, is that ‘our history begins with the Greeks’. Our [French] history begins with the Greeks, who invented liberty and democracy and who introduced us to ‘the beautiful’ and a taste for ‘the universal’. (Lavisse was an important influence in matters of French education in the 19th century)

These concoctions in other cases also included outright theft, as Jack Goody discusses in his book ‘The Theft of History’, in which he argues that ‘Since the beginning of the 19th century, the construction of world history has been dominated by western Europe.’ and ‘What has characterized European efforts…has been a propensity to impose their own story on the wider world, following an ethnocentric tendency…and the capacity to do so due to its de facto domination in many parts of the world’.  Goody argues that the study of history has to take a new direction and that ‘A more critical stance is necessary….That means…being sceptical about the west’s claims (or indeed Asia’s), to have invented activities and values such as democracy or freedom.’ And so on.

I am reading the book as I write this.  I have to thank a friend, a writer who wishes to remain anonymous, for pointing me to a recent Le Monde Diplomatique article that refers to  both these books.

Jack Goody is a British social anthropologist. He has been a prominent teacher at Cambridge University, he was elected Fellow of the British Academy in 1976 and he is an associate of the US National Academy of Sciences.  Marcel Detienne is a Belgian historian and specialist in the study of ancient Greece. Currently he is the Basil L. Gildersleeve Professor of Classics at The Johns Hopkins University.  He was also was at one time a directeur d’études at the École pratique des hautes études, where he taught until 1998.  He was also a founder of the Centre de recherches comparées sur les sociétés anciennes in Paris.

No light weights here.

How we read the world is a reflection of how we read ourselves.  Edward Said always loved to quote Cesaire’s Cahier d’un retour particularly these lines

and man must still overcome all the interdictions

wedged in the recesses of his fervor and no race has a

monopoly on beauty, on intelligence, on strength

and there is room for everyone at the convocation of

conquest

We as individuals are in need of history but that reveals to us the myriad connections, interactions, and pollutions that give our our culture (social, religious, political, human) the complexity, depth, beauty and righteousness we believe it possesses. Even until the end Samuel Huntington was unable to overcome all the interdictions.

He simplified history on the basis of an idea of his heritage, his ‘western’ heritage which in fact is a man made heritage, cleansed of its complexity and eastern influences, including Islamic.  It is a myth that the west traces its heritage to the Greeks and that it’s heritage begins there, exclusive of the rest of the world.  Even a brief review of David Lewis’ book “God’s Crucible’ reveals how deeply Arabic and Islamic thought, ideas, habits and values influenced European thought, ideas, habits and values.   And I will not even begin about China and her technical advances centuries before anything similar emerged anywhere else in the world, including Europe.  His idea of ‘the west’ was based on a false premise, a myth created in the late 18th/early 19th century and since made to appear as definitive and true! And he never  able to incorporate or understand the many challenges to this myth that have emerged in the academies of Europe, America and elsewhere.

His thesis not only simplified the world into a caricature of itself, but it erased histories.  Particularly modern, 20th century American history. The Middle East, Huntington’s maniacal young men in American jeans drinking Coke, are all constructs whose histories has been erased to satisfy a belief in the irrational, inhuman propensity towards violence, intolerance, injustice and repression that resides within ‘the other’.  They do not posses the American attitude.  They do not possess reason. They do not possess pain. They do not possess a sense of injustice. And most perversely, we have nothing to do with them there.

This reductive understanding of violence and confrontation is today being employed all over the world.  One cannot but be surprised at the ease with which Huntington’s ideas have armed the most bigoted and racist nationalist and religious ideologies around the world with an intellectual framework to justify their actions.

The most inhuman of humans, men and women with lives based on violence, expropriation, thuggery, greed and corruption, speaking to us of our vaunted values.  How much they all share and how little we seem to recognize the connections.

It may be easy to ask ‘Why do they hate us?’ and go home convinced that you have separated yourself from the evil.  Or to fall into the seductive trap of believing in the inevitable conflict between ‘Jews’ vs. ‘Muslims’.  But reality is more inter-twined, and the imagined protagonists greater collaborators than we are prepared to accept.  I was reminded of this by a recent piece by Joseph Massad, an Associate Professor at Columbia University, called ‘The Gaza Ghetto Uprising’.

There is no ‘us vs. them’. We are them, and they are us.

My latest photography project in India is about rediscovering the connections between India’s two most troubled communities – the Hindus and the Muslims.  Convinced of their ‘civilizational’ differences, not only did India’s Muslim elite, influenced by European ideas, construct a separate and distinct history and heritage for itself, but insisted that it required its own separate nation.  Millions died, millions more were displaced and today nearly 2 billion people, the residents of India and Pakistan, are held hostage to these same, ancient, outdated ideas.

Maybe Samuel Huntington saw something inevitable in that clash. His history and reading of it would suggest that.  But perhaps if had looked a little more closely into the history of the region he may have found that in fact the clash is a modern construct, a very 19th century construct, and one that was instigated less by irreconcilable differences, but more by the exigencies of the pursuit of political power and by a handful of European educated, elite men.  I will write more about that in a separate post.

We need history, but as Friedrich Nietzsche argued, we need it for living.  Samuel Huntington lives, in the hearts and minds of millions, particularly the powerful and the despotic.  That is not a legacy he would be proud of.  But it is the one that we, the rest of us who found something interesting and educational in Huntington’s writings but were not seduced by them, have to confront and address.

  1. [...] Switzerland is merely the beginning of this sordid episode. Europe’s hideous shift to the right will continue to make matters difficult for the region’s Muslim populations. Hence it becomes even more imperative that we know how to speak back – with history on our side and with the truths that can cut past the bigoted simplicities, delusions and paranoia being used to defend imagined and ahistorical ideas about Europe, her heritage and her culture. The false claims to a purely Judeo-Christian heritage are as meaningless as the claims to a purely Greco-Roman intellectual inheritance. I have written about this delusion in a previous post titled What A Tangled Web We Weave. [...]

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