About Rationally Speaking


Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, October 01, 2012

My society is better than yours


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by Massimo Pigliucci

When it comes to discussions about the human worth of different societies two things irk me to no end: American exceptionalism and politically correct cultural relativism. Let’s start with the first one.

In 2005 I became a citizen of the United States of America. To achieve that goal I had to study on government-provided booklets about the American Constitution and American history (about which, I think I can safely say, I know significantly more than most Americans). I passed both “tests” with full score (10/10 correct answers in both subject matters). But I was astonished to see that the booklet on American history still talked about “manifest destiny,” a belief that — rather hopefully as it turns out — Wikipedia describes in the past tense: “[it] was the belief widely held by Americans in the 19th century that the United States was destined to expand across the continent.” Apparently, it is also held by the Federal Government, in the 21st century.

Needless to say, there is no such thing as destiny — certainly not in the Bible-inspired naive way implied by the above phrase — and Americans should never forget that their free nation was established on a combination of genocide and slavery. But hey, sometimes people have rough beginnings. The United States has done some (minimal) reparation to native Americans, slavery was abolished after a bloody “civil” war that people in the South still refer to as “the war of Northern aggression,” and since 1920 even women can vote in this great nation.

So, all this current talk of “American exceptionalism” (typically from neo-con / Republican quarters) sounds pretty sinister to me, and is a sure sign of a significant residual degree of cultural immaturity. The United States is certainly an unusual place in the world, for both good and bad reasons, and it is a pleasure to live here if one can afford it (particularly in terms of healthcare and pension), but it neither factually or ethically ought to be considered “exceptional.” Consequently, the US shouldn’t be able to violate international law without impunity, or reject baby steps like agreeing to join the International Criminal Court.

All of the above said, the recent riots in Muslim countries clearly show that the United States, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and several other Asian countries are a hell of a lot better places to live if one is minimally concerned with human flourishing. Which is a nicer way to state that many Muslim societies have a long way to go before rising to the (always imperfect, sometimes troubled) level of societies like the American one.

Yes, I realize perfectly well that the riots, burnings and killings were not just in response to a perceived offense to Islam nor were they supported by all persons within each of these societies. I understand that local governments (apparently, including some of the fledgling democracies, not just the theocracies) are taking advantage of a largely uneducated, poor and unemployed population for their own political purposes. But that’s the point: a society in which a notable portion of the population can so easily be manipulated, where people take to the streets and chant “Death to America” or “We are ready to die for you Muhammad” because some idiot puts an horrendous video on the internet has serious maturing to do. A culture where “offending” a religious figure (or anyone, really) is sufficient reason to go on a violent rampage, or to demand another government’s apologies, or to push anti-blasphemy laws at the United Nations is not a good society. And I am using the term “good” in an unequivocally moral sense here.

Is it just Islam? Is this an admission that — as many American right wing commentators would have it — there is something particularly warping about the Islamic faith that leads to these sorts of outcomes?

Of course not, and anyone with even a cursory grasp of the history of religions would know better. Just look at the history of all three Abrahamic faiths: Jews used to go around pillaging, raping and merrily engaging in (god-sanctioned) genocide; we owe to Christians the invention of the words “crusade” (which I urge you never, under any circumstances, to use in a positive sense, please) and “Inquisition.” Islam is just late to the party, and hasn’t (yet, hopefully) moved away from Christianity's situation during the Middle Ages, or Judaism's before the Roman empire.

What about other religions? It is hard to find comparable levels of violence inspired by non-monotheistic religions. Even though Hinduism has led to several such episodes in modern India, it is worth pointing out that it has largely coexisted peacefully with Buddhism in ancient times. The serious trouble started with the Muslim invasion of the Indian subcontinent, with Timur’s massacre in Delhi ranking as one of the largest atrocities of the Middle Ages. There may really be something to the idea that belief in a single god is a particularly pernicious type of metaphysical nonsense.

Then again, contra popular lore among some atheists, it’s not like secular regimes have fared that much better. The Reign of Terror was unleashed by the entirely secular (and, indeed, viciously anti-religious) Revolutionary Assembly in 18th century France (you know, very shortly after the so-called “Age of Reason”), and two of the greatest social disasters of the 20th century were the result of atheist regimes in Stalinist Soviet Union and Maoist China.

Yes, yes, those people were not really atheists. But of course “true” Christians, or Muslims, or Jews, can make the same argument, all of which end up being varieties of the no-true-Scotsman fallacy.

The reality is that whenever people start blindly following an ideology — secular or religious — violent trouble soon follows. And this is made much more likely by two sets of factors: external conditions, like poverty, and internal ones, like the degree of sophistication of a society’s citizenry (and yes, the two are not at all independent). What we have been witnessing recently in many Islamic countries is, unfortunately, a perfect storm of those kinds of factors. And in the process of observing we are also quickly learning that democracy ain’t a magic fix either (pace W. and his neocon ideologues). Then again, Plato had already figured that one out  24 centuries ago.

41 comments:

  1. In some sense, I feel like we are climbing a hill in trying to advance human flourishing. It feels like the exceptionalists want to look backwards and brag about how much higher we are than those more "primitive" than us. Ironically, they don't note the irony that they will be able to follow in someone's footsteps and advance more quickly than previous movements, but history can move too slowly for the oppressed in these other societies. Sometimes those of us who want to press onwards are asked to take a break and enjoy the view.

    There are also those focused only on the climb ahead, noting how imperfect we are, focusing on those nations hundreds of yards laterally, despairing that they're so much further ahead and we should just follow their path. Surely, there are things to learn, particularly from other governments (mostly those that share the enlightenment ideals), but we don't even know if there's an actual summit or a plateau that we are working towards...a broad area of philosophies that produce governments that maximize human flourishing that are going to be culturally relative (which isn't to say that they will be arbitrary).

    Also, I think I've killed another metaphor.

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  2. I'm wondering what you think of the late Christopher Hitchen's claim that these so-called secular societies were not, in fact secular at all? As I'm sure you are aware, he would quickly follow with a bullet-list of characteristics of those societies that, he claimed, looked more religious than secular. Is this just another example of the No-true-Scotsman fallacy?

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  3. Massimo is right to point out that also in a secular society blindly following an ideology can turn into high level of violence. But the mere fact that a secular state tends to give much less space to a large group of potential ideological movements (i.e. the religious ones) to hijack the government and the power at its disposal makes a secular state by definition less susceptible to turn to ideologically motivated violence.

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  4. Why were you astonished that a very influential nineteenth century belief was talked about in a history book? Do you mean that the book took the idea seriously? I'd be more troubled if history books left out the bad stuff.

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  5. Please note, the following post by Tom D. was inadvertently deleted:

    Tom D. has left a new comment on your post "My society is better than yours":

    Massimo, you write:

    "But that’s the point: a society in which a notable portion of the population can so easily be manipulated, where people take to the streets and chant 'Death to America' or 'We are ready to die for you Muhammad' because some idiot puts an horrendous video on the internet has serious maturing to do."

    Is it a long way from a society in which a notable portion of the population can so easily be manipulated as to believe that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction? Or, that Saddam Hussein was in league with the perpetrators of 9/11?

    A sizable portion of the US population believes in angels, UFOs, and miracles. We have a presidential candidate who believes that Jesus will return to Jackson County Missouri. I'd say that the main difference is that we in the US have different levels of affluence and different feelings of slights to our personal dignity so that we do not feel obliged to go out into the streets in desperation over our own weird beliefs. It was different in the early years. Back then, the "Sons of Liberty" would burn someone's house or horsewhip them for saying something favorable about King George.

    You also wrote:

    "A culture where 'offending' a religious figure (or anyone, really) is sufficient reason to go on a violent rampage,
    etc."

    May I remind you that it is an offense in Europe to deny the Holocaust? Also, several US laws provide that it is illegal to disrespect a piece of cloth: the US flag -- (thankfully deemed unconstitutional).

    So, I am not so sure that Muslim societies have such a "long way to go before rising to the (always imperfect, sometimes troubled) level of societies like the American one".

    To your credit, you note other factors are at play and reject American exceptionalism. But, I'd hate to see you tangentially flirt with the type of anti-Islamic garbage that people like Sam Harris typically spew out.

    P.S. Did you mean to write, "US shouldn’t be able to violate international law without impunity". When you unwind that one, it is a triple negative: "the US should NOT be able to violate international law with NO NON-punishment", which means the US should not be able to violate law with punishment -- which is not what I think you intended to write. And as long as I am playing "Grammar Police", most writers prefer "a horrendous" to "an horrendous". I am bringing attention to these items in all humility, as I am quite aware that I make many errors in spelling and grammar, and that these post are often written in a hurry, without time for review and corrections.

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    1. I think that "an" is used before h-words in British English, Massimo probably learned British English before American.

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    2. "Oh, why can't the English learn how to SPEAK?"

      Thanks Finn, I didn't know that about the Brits.

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  6. Monotheism is a detrimental to human society because it makes people believe that there is only one Truth, and they own it. It may be one reason why some European nations are more advanced than the U.S., that religion is largely a matter of tradition and social engagement, not of faith, in Europe today.

    As for cultural relativism: I think there are two different questions. One is whether we can see which culture we prefer individually or even which is philosophically better. Another is whether we have a brief to enforce our own values on other societies / countries, and if so, how far does it go?

    Instead of discussing the Muslim nations, maybe we should ask: do Europeans have the right to force the USA to stop the death penalty, sentencing anyone under 16 to prison (indeed sentencing 13-year-olds to life), using torture, abduction & imprisonment without charges, etc.? Unless we get an unequivocal "Yes" to that, how can we believe ourselves justified in forcing "western" values (even those that the US shares) on Muslim nations?

    @ TomD.
    Denying the Holocaust is an offense in some European countries because denying a genocide is considered an act of racism. Making such a denial illegal is not quite the same thing as going on a murderous rampage when someone "offends" the prophet.

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    1. @ablogdog

      Well, any analogy breaks down at some point.

      While I believe to deny the Holocaust is racist, still, a denier is employing only words that physically hurt no one -- not even illegal in the U.S. Surely the analogy is clear to someone who insults Islam: not illegal in many countries, but highly offensive and tantamount to racism in other countries. I see a small difference in making illegal a racist statement intending to insult an ethnic group, or doing so with a blasphemous statement intended to insult a religious group. Our own American history is filled with religious based laws. (e.g. bars must be closed on Sunday).

      Speaking of racism, how racist are the following statements:

      "...the recent riots in Negro neighborhoods (Harlem '64, Watts '65, Detroit '67) clearly show that White neighborhoods are a hell of a lot better places to live if one is minimally concerned with human flourishing. Which is a nicer way to state that many Negro neighborhoods have a long way to go before rising to the (always imperfect, sometimes troubled) level of White neighborhoods like mine."

      "Yes, I realize perfectly well that the riots, burnings and killings were not just in response to a perceived offense to Negroes nor were they supported by all persons within each of these neighborhoods. I understand that leaders are taking advantage of a largely uneducated, poor and unemployed population for their own political purposes. But that’s the point: a neighborhood in which a notable portion of the population can so easily be manipulated, where people take to the streets and chant "Burn Baby Burn” or “We Shall Overcome" because some idiot uses the N-word has serious maturing to do. A neighborhood where “offending” a popular member (or anyone, really) is sufficient reason to go on a violent rampage, or to demand apologies, or to push anti-racism laws is not a good neighborhood."






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    2. @TomD.
      You've completely missed the point.
      You're comparing making something illegal - and punishing it by fines, or light prison sentences usually suspended on probation - with murdering lots of (often entirely unrelated) people.
      If denying the Holocaust carried the death penalty (for offender and others deemed "like" him e.g. of same skin colour or nationality) you might have a point, otherwise it's nonsense.

      And if you are concerned with human flourishing it is better to be in an environment where dialogue and not violence is the order of the day.

      I concede that language like "rise to the level of" and "maturing" can be interpreted as condescending, but I did not read it that way as it is applied to societies, not to individuals. Applying it to much smaller chunks of society, namely neighbourhoods changes this: you may "make" your neighbourhood, but society makes you.

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    3. @ablogdog:

      >...how can we believe ourselves justified in forcing "western" values (even those that the US shares) on Muslim nations?

      I don't want to engage with absolutely everything I could in your comment, but regarding this passage, I just wanted to note the important fact that there exist varying shades of secularists and moderates in majority-muslim countries. These people may take issue with your monolithic conception of "western" versus "islamic" values as they share many of the values here called "western."

      Unfortunately they are all too often ignored by the Western left, which for some reason seems to want to build bridges with conservative islamists.

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    4. @ablogdog

      My point was addressed to the similarities in underlying cultures: feeling the need to punish something said.

      I agree that there is a range of response, but that is a matter of power. For example, you don't think the European police will get violent with you if you refuse to co-operate with the law? The police usually don't have to use more drastic means because they have the power to enforce lesser punishments. The protesters at Benghazi would have also been contented with lesser punishments but were powerless to implement them. The killing only occurred after storming the grounds, mutual shots fired, may not have been intended, and may not have even been related to the anti-Islamic video.





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    5. @ianpollock
      I'm all for building bridges to those voices in other countries that support values we share, a method of choice in the non-violent conflict-solving kit.

      @Tom D.
      The point of the denial laws is not to punish, but to prevent these "opinions" being used in political platforms.
      I don't think punishment is still on the agenda of the judicial and law enforcement systems of (m)any of the European countries, though I'm not sure about the UK.

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  7. Interesting article, Massimo. On this point though:

    "Yes, yes, those people were not really atheists. But of course “true” Christians, or Muslims, or Jews, can make the same argument, all of which end up being varieties of the no-true-Scotsman fallacy."

    I was under the impression that the problem with bringing up the misdeeds of atheist leaders and dictators wasn't that they weren't "real atheists" but rather that they did not commit the acts because of their atheism.

    I'm not sure how well that claim actually stands up in the face of historical evidence but it seems to be a slightly more defensible position at least due to the fact (as you mention) the "real atheist" argument is an obvious fallacy.

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  8. Stewy,

    > I'm wondering what you think of the late Christopher Hitchen's claim that these so-called secular societies were not, in fact secular at all? As I'm sure you are aware, he would quickly follow with a bullet-list of characteristics of those societies that, he claimed, looked more religious than secular. <

    And he would be right, but "secularism" is not an all or nothing condition, it's a matter of degree. One could reasonably argue that even modern American society isn't completely secular, because despite the Constitutional separation of Church and State there are plenty of instances of meddling between the two. So I doubt Hitchens' observation would undermine my basic argument.

    Tom,

    > Is it a long way from a society in which a notable portion of the population can so easily be manipulated as to believe that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction? <

    Yes, I think it still a long way down. Particularly because I am not talking about specific irrational beliefs, but rather the societal milieu in which people are not (usually / often) killed or assaulted for their beliefs. As I said above, it's always a matter of degrees, but degrees do matter.

    > I'd say the main difference is that we in the US have different levels of affluence ... Back then, the "Sons of Liberty" would burn someone's house ... for saying something favorable about King George. <

    You are certainly right about affluence, which is one of the external factors I did mention. The degree to which that sort of thing plays a role, however, is debatable. As for your example of the Sons of Liberty, the key word there is "back then." I think American society, for all its faults, has progressed during the last 200 plus years.

    > May remind you that it is an offense in Europe to deny the Holocaust? Also, several US laws provide that it is illegal to disrespect a piece of cloth: the US flag (thankfully deemed unconstitutional) <

    Precisely: the latter is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. Those laws are deemed unconstitutional, and people are not prosecuted (let alone lynched) for those acts. As for the Holocaust, that holds for only some European countries, not Europe as a whole. And, again, even then the consequences are nowhere near, say, being beheaded in Saudi Arabia for offending public decency.

    > I'd hate to see you tangentially flirt with the type of anti-Islamic garbage that people like Sam Harris typically spew out <

    Yes, I'd hate that too. I hope my essay was a bit more nuanced than that.

    > When you unwind that one, it is a triple negative ... I am quite aware ... that these post are often written in a hurry <

    No worries, I appreciate the feedback. We try to publish posts that are a bit more polished than a typical blog's, and Phil Pollack is actually our editor-in-residence, taking care of going over each post before it's published.

    Still, I wrote "the US shouldn’t be able to violate international law without impunity." I only see two negatives there, not three. But I'm sure it could have been written more clearly.

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    1. > ...it still a long way down. Particularly because I am not talking about specific irrational beliefs, but rather the societal milieu in which people are not (usually / often) killed or assaulted for their beliefs. <

      But we are also talking about supposed basic cultural differences here ("a long way down"). It is a cheap dodge to confine the discussion to the type of specific actions common to the other guy and ignore similar actions of our own culture that are based upon the same type of irrationality and human failing that speak to the culture.

      > As for your example of the Sons of Liberty, the key word there is "back then." I think American society, for all its faults, has progressed during the last 200 plus years. <

      I mentioned the "Sons of Liberty" example to recall to mind what our own culture did when they felt powerless and put-upon. These incident were common: assaulting British occupation troops (Boston Massacre), or vandalizing property (Boston Tea Party). Horsewhipping people, tar and feathering (this is not a harmless prank -- hot burning tar is poured over your body), and the burning of houses, barns, and destruction of livestock was common. Even Benjamin Franklin was not politically correct enough and had to use a shotgun to defend his house from an angry mob.

      As for our society having progressed, it is true that we no longer feel powerless. But we have hardly become non-violent. When a Muslim cleric says something we do not like, we do not send an angry mob to their embassy. We send a Predator Missile to kill the offender and his family or any children who happen to be standing by. We kidnap him off the streets and "rendition" him to foreign countries to be tortured. We commonly install and support dictators who kill dissenters for their beliefs. We have progressed in power, but not in character.

      The power difference was my point in my parody of your comments where I substituted "Negro neighborhoods" and "white neighborhoods". The White neighborhoods don't riot because they don't have much CAUSE to riot, not because their culture is a long way over the Negroes. If you are White, it is much easier to tolerate being called "boy" or being stopped by the police. The powerful don't have to go out and redress slights to their dignity because they already feel quite secure.

      It is easy for a society to be tolerant when they are powerful, rich, safe and secure. What happen to that tolerance when it was even slightly threatened? After 9/11, people went out into the streets beating (and sometime killing) people who even LOOKED Arab (many victims weren't). And of course, the Iraq war killed hundreds of thousands with many Americans irrationally believing that it was a justified response to 9/11. Why shouldn't that listed as innocent people dying due to irrational beliefs?

      When you speak of a culture that kills innocent people for trivial reasons (including beliefs), first and foremost is the State-sponsored terrorism authored by our own culture. As a famous philosopher said, "Remove the log from your own eye. Then you shall see clearly to remove the speck that is in thy brother's eye".

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    2. P.S. I got my third negative from the definition of "impunity": non-punishment. So, "the US shouldn’t [should NOT] be able to violate international law without [with NO] impunity [NON-punishment].

      Why not say, "the US should be punished for violating international law"? Without impunity means no non-punishment. So you are saying we should NOT have a case of NO NON punishment.

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  9. Steve,

    > Why were you astonished that a very influential nineteenth century belief was talked about in a history book <

    Because of the way such belief was presented, as still currently viable.

    ablogdog,

    > do Europeans have the right to force the USA to stop the death penalty ...? <

    I don't think I ever spoke of forcing anyone's beliefs on anyone else. I simply said that modern Muslim countries ought (moral) to learn something from the tortuous history of Western countries and aspire to a more open society.

    Mike,

    > I was under the impression that the problem with bringing up the misdeeds of atheist leaders and dictators wasn't that they weren't "real atheists" but rather that they did not commit the acts because of their atheism. <

    Yes, that's a good point. But of course religionists can use the same argument, arguing that theocratic dictators are really after their own advantage and are not true followers of the true good. And, frankly, they may have a point too.

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  10. So deeply religious cultures have engaged in massive extermination at some point in history, and the deeply secular ones have done the same; and then the pluralistic, democratic, dissent-and-debate-are-good modern cultures dropped the atomic bomb and thoroughly razed Vietnam and more recently Iraq to the ground. Looks like the government system isn't a good predictor for war and peace (although everyday life is better, no question).

    Is this a "humans gonna be humans" kind of thing? I heard the Mynoans were quite peaceful throughout their existence, a happy exception until a volcano erupted on them. What was so special about them?

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  11. @Massimo:

    "Yes, that's a good point. But of course religionists can use the same argument, arguing that theocratic dictators are really after their own advantage and are not true followers of the true good. And, frankly, they may have a point too."

    Certainly, but that would be a No True Scotsman - it just so happens that, sometimes, people in kilts aren't really from Scotland. The atheist claim on the other hand, that the horrific acts were not committed as a result of their atheism, would hold more weight as highlighting their atheism would be just as relevant, or irrelevant, as (according to Dawkins) highlighting the fact that many genocidal dictators had moustaches.

    That is, if someone bombs a building with the reason "You insulted our prophet!", then attributing the cause of the violence to their religion is reasonable. However, if someone bombs a building with the reason "I disagree with abortion!" it seems less reasonable to attribute it to that person's atheism.

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  12. Ah, Plato. Close relative to two of the Thirty Tyrants that he was, he could never see any sense to letting the people themselves have a say in their destiny (the word can be used without a Biblical slant) and so conceived his terrifying and totalitarian "Republic."

    In this world, we can only make informed judgments regarding imperfect alternatives, but reasonable judgments can nonethless be made. I assume you had what you considered good reasons for becoming a citizen of the U.S. and believed there were benefits to being one. What you say of Christianity and Judaism is true, but it is interesting that the examples of violence you refer to took place centuries in the past, and the religious violence of certain Muslims is taking place now. I'm not certain this can be ascribed only to being "late for the party."

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  13. Mike,

    > if someone bombs a building with the reason "You insulted our prophet!", then attributing the cause of the violence to their religion is reasonable. However, if someone bombs a building with the reason "I disagree with abortion!" it seems less reasonable to attribute it to that person's atheism. <

    No doubt. The more subtle issue is whether someone's stated reasons are the actual reasons that person took that action. And by the way, the French revolutionaries were explicitly atheistic and anti-religion, and yet...

    ciceronianus,

    > What you say of Christianity and Judaism is true, but it is interesting that the examples of violence you refer to took place centuries in the past, and the religious violence of certain Muslims is taking place now. I'm not certain this can be ascribed only to being "late for the party." <

    That was my point, that societies change over time and I don't think there is any reason to strongly suggest that Islamic societies are intrinsically any more or less violent than early Judaic or Christian ones. At the very least the burden of proof is on those who claim that there are such intrinsic differences.

    Tom,

    > you don't think the European police will get violent with you if you refuse to co-operate with the law? <

    Yes, but do you honestly think there is significant difference between anti-Holocaust denial laws (and their enforcement) and laws that allow beheadings for blasphemy?

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  14. I just wanted to add a few related criticisms along the lines of Tom D's contributions. The first is that the original post, although rejecting destiny, maintains a sense of linear progress. Historians increasingly find this highly problematic because it tends to gloss over the role of power and struggle in shaping societies that remain heterogeneous. Societies don't move forward in some even fashion- history is lumpy and patchy. As Frederick Cooper and others have pointed out, the problem with modernization theory in the 1950s and 1960s was that it assumed all aspects of society progress along with each other, yet the historical record shows this to be wrong. Indeed many historians have given up on "modernity" and "modern" as analytic categories.

    The second is the related point that few societies have taken shape in isolation from others. Tom D rightly points out that "Western" societies, especially the US and UK, have had little regard for the democratic claims and aspirations of non-Western peoples, often supporting corrupt dictatorships and oligarchies that have kept their people in poverty. Many observers who are close to events in the Middle East have commented that the violence stems from a wider anger, not just religious fervour, and if we're honest about the past its hard to argue that we in the West have not contributed to the poverty and conservatism of these countries. I agree with Tom D that we need to keep in mind the wider political and economic context rather than assume there is something intrinsic to Islam that is responsible. I may also suggest that postcolonial scholars are on to something when they have argued that Europe/the West was a product of imperialism. Much of the wealth and power of our societies has come from the violent conquest and exploitation of the land and labour of others, so I would be wary of feeling proud of Western progress. Its a tragic irony that at the very moment that European liberals were proclaiming the virtues of democracy and rights they denied those very things to peoples in Asia and Africa who also demanded them.

    Alex

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  15. >Yes, but do you honestly think there is significant difference between anti-Holocaust denial laws (and their enforcement) and laws that allow beheadings for blasphemy?<

    [I assume that was a typo and you meant to ask if I feel there is NO significant difference]

    Yes, of course there are differences. But, it is like asking, "do you honestly believe that there is no significant difference between a white man and a black man?" There are differences, but people are fundamentally the same.

    Surely you do not claim any demonstrable physical differences between yourself and a devout Muslim? You do not claim that his DNA is any different, that his blood would not work in your veins, his brain is composed differently, or that if the Muslim had been raised in Alabama he would not have made a passable Baptist?

    Barring physical differences, what you are left with is the "social milieu" -- which is just the attitudes of people like ourselves writ large. Societies differ, but they differ due to many factors: geography, history, natural resources, fortunes of politics, etc. (see Diamond's "Guns Germs and Steel).

    It is offensive to suggest that other people "have a long way to go", as if they were defective in some manner* -- while ignoring the fact that it is often people like ourselves keeping them down, preventing democracy, fostering ignorance, exploiting them economically and installing dictators over them.

    You mentioned Saudi Arabia beheading people for offending public decency, but neglect to mention that Saudi Arabia is a trusted friend and ally of the United States. They regularly receive military equipment and aid. They used such U.S. provided military equipment to put down the "Arab Spring" revolt in Bahrain. The U.S. did not call for regime change or threaten sanctions despite the sadistic methods used in dealing with the Arab Spring protesters.

    In contrast, government leaders with far milder laws than in S.A. have been regularly overthrown by the U.S. The list includes Arbenz in Guatemala, Allende in Chile, Mossadegh in Iran, etc. The U.S. installed successors to these men were often savage tyrants. Part of the reason that the Ayatollahs gained prominence in Iran was as a response to the brutalities of the U.S. installed Shah.

    In terms of dishing out violent deaths, the U.S. far exceeds the totals of all Muslim groups combined. The U.S. is not above dealing with trouble makers through very brutal methods: torture, napalm, white phosphorus, cluster bombs, etc. The "trouble makers" can include the elderly, children, women, the disabled, etc. So why your squeamishness over beheadings with no complaints about burning someone alive with white phosphorus? You seem o.k. with beheading someone as long as it is done with the blast from a Predator Missile instead of a cut from a sword.

    I do not endorse a "cultural relativism" attitude that says it is o.k. to behead someone for their beliefs. On that, I am with you 100%. Where we part company is in your seeming to have a quasi-racist attitude that some people are fundamentally different, have a long way to go, or can so easily be manipulated in comparison to "their betters".

    I urge you to look to your society's own faults before decrying the faults of others.

    # # #

    * Your remarks are redolent of Romney's contemptuous attitude towards the "47%", whom Romney sees as being "other" than himself.

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  16. There is an example of violence prompted clearly by atheism, and that is the "cristiada" in Mexico. Plutarco ElĂ­as Calles persecuted christians BECAUSE he didn't like religion. There may have been political reasons too, but it's true that his contempt for religion made him do what he did, largely.

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  17. Alexander,

    > although rejecting destiny, maintains a sense of linear progress <

    I don't think I implied any conception of cultural history as linear progress. My argument depends solely on the fact that some societies are more conducive to human flourishing than others, and that it usually takes work to get there.

    > few societies have taken shape in isolation from others <

    Again, true, but it doesn't follow that all societies are roughly equal in terms of human flourishing.

    > Middle East ... violence stems from a wider anger, not just religious fervor <

    Indeed, and I have made the same point. But there is no denying that religious fervor is a major conduit of that anger.

    > Much of the wealth and power of our societies has come from the violent conquest and exploitation of the land and labor of others <

    Which is why I began the essay by reminding Americans that their land of freedom was initially built on genocide and slavery. But American society has moved to a point where either of those would be unthinkable. Is this not progress?

    Tom,

    > it is like asking, "do you honestly believe that there is no significant difference between a white and a black man?" <

    No, it is nothing like asking that question, it is a grossly false analogy.

    > Surely you do not claim any demonstrable physical difference between yourself and a devout Muslim? <

    No, I don't, but that analogy - again - has precisely nothing to do with my argument. There doesn't need to be any physical difference at all for there to be significant cultural differences.

    > Societies differ, but they differ due to many factors <

    I have no objection to that rather trivial observation. The fact is, they differ, and some are better (in the sense of more conducive to human flourishing) than others.

    > It is offensive to suggest that other people "have a long way to go" <

    Tough, it is still an accurate description of cultural history. It took centuries for some societies to recognize the right of women to vote, or the horror of slavery and racism.

    > neglect to mention that Saudi Arabia is a trusted friend and ally of the United States <

    I'm sorry, did you take my post to be a glorification of the United States? Because if so, you may want to take a second look. The fact that our society has questionable "friends," or that our political "leaders" behave in contradiction to our ideals does not negate that the US is an immensely better place to live, especially for women.

    > You seem ok with beheading someone as long as it is done with the blast from a Predator missile instead of a cut from a sword <

    No, I'm not, just check some of the other essays on RS to verify it. But you don't see a difference between an (admittedly alleged) war against external enemies and the way a society treats his own citizens? Your argument is one that leads the perfect to be the enemy of the good, you make no distinctions and would rather put everything on the same level. I think that's a gross mistake. We can recognize our own errors and limitations without having to concede that we are not a better society than others (and also that there are better societies than ours, particularly in northern Europe).

    > you seeming to have a quasi-racist attitude that some people are fundamentally different <

    I never said anything of the sort, you must have been reading someone else's essay.

    > I urge you to look to your society's own faults before decrying the faults of others <

    I urge you to re-read the beginning of my essay, which did precisely that.

    > your remarks are redolent of Romney's contemptuous attitude toward the "47%" <

    If you truly think so you have understood next to nothing of what I think and what my political and philosophical attitudes are. Well, I tried.

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    1. Thanks for your response Massimo, but I just wanted to reiterate a few points in light of your comments. I take your point about genocide and slavery having become unacceptable in Western societies, and I concede that they have become more just in other areas as well. Its worth pointing out, however, that such improvements didn't occur as some realisation or awakening but as the result of political struggle and contestation, very often by groups that had been on the receiving end of discrimination and colonial domination for centuries. I'm not suggesting that you think the opposite, just that such an historical fact makes it problematic to assess progress as having resulted from cultural traits or traits intrinsic to societies that aren't monolithic. Slavery had to be challenged, often most consistently by Christians I might add (I'm not Christian by the way, quite atheistic). The British ended slavery in the Empire in the early 19th century, yet replaced it with brutal indentured labour regimes to sustain an overseas empire. European states doggedly clung to their colonies, often going to extremely violent lengths to resist indigenous opposition in the 1950s and 1960s. In Australia and the UK indigenous people and black migrants respectively had to fight to end official discrimination. It's not hard to understand why British police had bricks thrown at them in the 1970s. The US was perfectly happy to undermine democracy in Latin America, Asia and the Middle East during the Cold War even as African-Americans were contesting persistent state racism. I may have belabored the point by now and I don't mean to impute opposing views to yourself, but once we examine the political struggle inherent to history I think it becomes difficult to see "human flourishing" as the result of inherent features of a society.

      I'm not making an argument for cultural relativism here. Obviously life in Western Europe, the United States, Australia and elsewhere is better than in the Middle East, in terms of wealth, rights and openness. But its problematic to attribute this to cultural difference and not only because societies heterogeneous. The Arab Spring has been a response to the denial of ordinary rights and privileges by authoritarian regimes that were supported by Western states, particularly the US and Britain, but not necessarily a denial of Muslim culture. Indeed many non-European peoples have in the past demanded recognition of their rights only for colonial governments to assert that they were unworthy of exercising them, particularly from the latter 19th century onwards (see for example Erez Manela's book The Wilsonian Moment). The point here is that Indians, Africans, Arabs and many other peoples have often had their hopes for progress denied by the self-interest of powerful European and Anglophone states, leaving room for religious fundamentalism to exploit political anger. In short, it is difficult for us to judge another society when we have had such a prominent role in restricting its opportunities.

      Ok, that seems like a long post. I hope it successfully blended civility, coherence and force to the extent possible over the internet. I just wanted to say that I have only been reading your blog for a short time but as an historian you can see why I have greatly appreciated your articulate critiques of scientism.

      Regards,
      Alex.

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    2. Massimo wrote:

      >I'm sorry, did you take my post to be a glorification of the United States? Because if so, you may want to take a second look. The fact that our society has questionable "friends," or that our political "leaders" behave in contradiction to our ideals does not negate that the US is an immensely better place to live, especially for women.<

      If you weren't wrapped up in glorification, you would never commit the absurdity of describing murderous thugs and dictators with the anemic sobriquet of "questionable friends". No would you describe the dealing out of mass murder by such horrible means as white phosphorus as a "contradiction to our ideals".

      There are indeed better and worse places to live, but the question is whether it is due to history, geography, and colonial oppression or due to a character failing of a people (particularly Muslim people) as you seem to imply.

      As Alex wrote:
      >Obviously life in Western Europe, the United States, Australia and elsewhere is better than in the Middle East, in terms of wealth, rights and openness. But its problematic to attribute this to cultural difference...In short, it is difficult for us to judge another society when we have had such a prominent role in restricting its opportunities.<

      And as Glenn Greenwald has written:
      >It's much more fun and self-affirming to scoff: "can you believe those Muslims are so primitive that they killed our ambassador over a film?" than it is to acknowledge: "our country and its allies have continually bombed, killed, invaded, and occupied their countries and supported their tyrants."<

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    3. Massimo wrote: >But you don't see a difference between an (admittedly alleged) war against external enemies and the way a society treats his own citizens?<

      Well, if the first place, Predator Missile attacks HAVE killed several U.S. citizens, such as 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Aulaqi. So the comparison of decapitation by Predator Missile to the slice of a scimitar is apt.

      But you are correct: I do indeed see a difference. Namely the difference is that dealing out death to external alleged enemies based upon no objective evidence that is reviewed is far worse. At least when the Saudis behead someone it is done is the open and above board. The beheading complies with their laws, the victim has a day in court and receives due process from a panel of three judges. There is an appellate court that reviews decisions. The victim knew in advance about the laws and what the punishment was for violation. There is nothing hidden or secret. By continuing to live in Saudi Arabia, the victim at least gives implied recognition of S.A. authority, S.A. laws and punishments, and there is an implied social contract. There was, at least, the possibility that the victim could have left S.A. and removed himself from their authority.

      In contrast, the U.S. demands the right of extra-judicial murder world-wide. Even the names of the victims are unknown (until after the fact). There is no due process, not even the pretense of a court. There is no review, except by a small cabal of like-minded conspirators. Operations are carried out in secret. There is no implied social contract or implied recognition of U.S. authority on the victim's part. Since the operations are world-wide, there is no way for the victim to remove himself from a U.S. authority that he does not recognize..

      The claim is made that the victims are the equivalent of enemy soldiers. In fact, the president demands the right to execute anyone at his whim. There is no legal process, no review, no examination of evidence. A Muslim cleric can be executed simply for saying something that the President doesn't like. Correction! The cleric need not say anything -- there merely has to be a report (from someone named "curveball") that the cleric has said something the President doesn't like -- blasphemy against the god of State. You are an enemy combatant if George Bush or Barack Omaba says that you are -- and that is enough to sign your death warrant. The Saudis at least go through the formality of having a trial.

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  18. Massimo, simply excellent, both on the cultural immaturity of American exceptionalism, and on the Gnu Atheist fail with the Reign of Terror. Of course, many Gnus claim Stalin wasn't an atheist because he went to seminary, in which case neither are I, John Loftus and others. Other Gnus claim that because Stalin reopened some churches during WWII (to rally the public) THAT proves he wasn't an atheist.

    So, that said, I would say "those people" really, really WERE atheists, first of all, just as much as Robespierre, et al. (And we haven't mentioned Pol Pot and others.)

    And, for that said No. 2, I think you go too light on Eastern religions. The Gita, after all, has Krisha appear on a battlefield. And, as Hitchens noted, Japanese warlords prayed at Shinto shrines before Pearl Harbor, etc. Even Buddhism, if not toward outsiders, endorses violence as part of learning, as many a Zen story shows.

    And, as Izzy Stone (and others) have shown, and I'm sure Ciceronius knows, I sure wouldn't start with Plato if I wanted to read well-thought-out critiques of democracy.

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  19. Alexander,

    I don't disagree with your description of how (in part) social change comes about. (I say in part because I don't think it's just a matter of struggle, but also of education and internal discussions: the Civil Rights movement in the US succeeded in part because so many whites supported it, particularly outside of the South.) But when you say:

    > I think it becomes difficult to see "human flourishing" as the result of inherent features of a society. <

    I don't know what an "inherent" feature of a society would be. I have made clear that I don't think societies are inherently superior or inferior, certainly not biologically so. I am just saying that - as a result of a number of factors, including those you emphasize - societies change and some become better suited for human flourishing.

    Tom,

    you may want to tone it down a notch or two. This blog is open to dissenting opinions and frank conversation, but not to insults.

    > There are indeed better and worse places to live, but the question is whether it is due to history, geography, and colonial oppression or due to a character failing of a people (particularly Muslim people) as you seem to imply. <

    I implied no such thing. You keep referring to what you think I wrote, rather than to what I actually did write. Where do you think the character of a society comes from, if not from the elements you listed (and others, such as their laws, their religion, their openness to debate, etc.).

    Concerning colonialism, we have all agreed - many times - that it was awful and had and still has consequences. But that can't be the only story, since some countries (India) recovered much better than others). Also, there should be some sort of expiration date on that sort of thing: the more time passes, the more the current governments have to take responsibility for the state of their societies.

    And then you lost me at the comparison of beheadings with missile strikes. As I said, I have never defended the latter, but comparing the two is going after apples and oranges, since the former are an accepted way to repress one's own people, while the latter are meant (yes, imperfectly; yes, probably unethically) to go after enemies.

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    Replies
    1. Massimo,

      Please forgive me if my remarks have been intemperate. Know that I have great respect for you. I have offended you and for that I sincerely apologize.

      But, at the risk of insulting you further, you seemed to me to be flirting with Sam Harris style Islamophobia by writing such things as:

      * Muslim societies have a long way to go before rising to the (always imperfect, sometimes troubled) level of societies like the American one

      * [Muslim people are] easily mislead

      * [Muslim societies have some] serious maturing to do

      * [Muslims haven't ] moved away from Christianity's situation during the Middle Ages, or Judaism's before the Roman empire

      * [Muslim countries have a] culture where "offending" a religious figure (or anyone, really) is sufficient reason to go on a violent rampage [as if that were the only motivation to violence, and that other countries don't get violent]

      If I am missing something, I can't see what it is. Your argument seems, at times, to be on both sides of the fence. You seem to me to deny American exceptionalism one minute and endorse it the next. You seem to acknowledge effects of oppression and colonialism one minute, then speak of "easily mislead" people the next. You acknowledge that Predator strikes are "imperfect" and "probably unethical", yet can't see the connection of execution by missile to executing a perceived threat to society by means of a sword. You write, "Is it just Islam...of course not", but then focus almost exclusively on the sins of Islam. You speak of the sins of other groups, but use the past tense: "Jews USED to go around pillaging". Christian WERE responsible for the Crusades. But this is all in the PAST.

      Even in your recent reply to me you write, "colonialism WAS awful", and "there should be some sort of expiration date" -- as if it were all in the past. Can you not see any CURRENT oppression? Did you miss my remarks about US military equipment being used to brutally put down Bahrain rebels during the "Arab Spring"? Do you think Muslims are not outraged by CURRENT issues such as slaughter by drone warfare and torture at places like Abu Ghraib? Do you think the U.S. is currently stationing troops all around the world and spending more money on warfare than everyone else combined solely for defense and not a whit for hegemony or repression? Have you never read Robert Pape's paper (by far the most comprehensive study) demonstrating that foreign occupation troops (not religion) are the major cause of suicide bombings?

      You seem to gloss over the sins of our own society as "always imperfect, sometimes troubled" and not fully appreciate their depth or their effects on other people, seeming to prefer to say that an oppressed people's reactions are due to their backwardness and religious fanaticism rather than due to the outrages I have listed above.

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  20. Massimo, you wrote, "you lost me at the comparison of beheadings with missile strikes".

    Can you see no similarities in killing someone deemed to be detrimental to society via a missile or via a sword? Would you feel better if King Abdullah secretly and arbitrarily called his victim an "enemy combatant" and killed him with a missile, without ever allowing review of the situation or giving any evidence as to why his victim deserved death? Do you not think that King Abdullah would also piously plead necessity and protection of society as justification for the killing?

    I think you are grasping at straws in order to exonerate the U.S. on this point: when THEY do it, it is evil, it is backward; when WE do it, it is different, it is justified.

    You seem to me to be under the illusion that all victims of U.S. missile strikes are violent people that are a real threat to our society and deserve to die. They are not. As I have written previously, the U.S. President demands the right of extra-judicial murder world-wide, based solely upon his whim without due process and without review. The victims include U.S. citizens, women, children, the old, the infirm, and people that are not even alleged to be terrorists. Funerals and religious services are targeted. "Signature Strikes" (as opposed to "Targeted Strikes") are performed upon victims whose names are not even known -- based solely upon reports of activity that are deemed to be "suspicious" according to guidelines that are held secret and are not subject to review. Frequently, a second strike is performed in the same location, shortly after the first strike, in order to target medical aid or fire prevention and intimidate anyone who would dare try to ameliorate the carnage. Yet you say it is the Saudis who have a long way to go because they execute a perceived threat to their society: lawfully, openly, with due process, while allowing the person in question an opportunity to escape such judgment by leaving the country if they disagree with the laws or the associated punishments.

    If we have come a long way, we have come a long way away from the Magna Carta, which opined that even kings could not kill people arbitrarily, as the U.S. does today.

    P.S. Once again, I have great admiration for you and do not intend to insult you personally. I simply think you have the wrong point of view on some things.

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  21. Tom,

    thanks for the apology, it is gladly accepted. I am interested in open dialogue, as you know, and am trying to keep a positive tone on this blog (as much as I myself sometimes fall short of it!).

    Concerning some of your specifics:

    > you seemed to me to be flirting with Sam Harris style Islamophobia <

    I think I made clear several times my distance from Harris. I don't consider Muslim intrinsically inferior or dangerous, or anything like that. But I do think we need to face that, broadly speaking, most (not all) Muslim countries just don't compare with most Western nations in terms of civil liberties.

    btw, you keep writing as if I were defended the US, but I'm not. Besides the fact that a quick perusal of this blog will make it abundantly clear that I am a critic of many US institutions and policies, my original post referred to Western countries broadly. Many of those (Australia, New Zealand, the EU as a whole) do not engage in the sort of behavior you rightly criticize, or at the very least not nearly to the same extent.

    > You seem to me to deny American exceptionalism one minute and endorse it the next <

    No, I deny exceptionalism, but I don't deny current qualitative differences. There is no contradiction that I can see there.

    > Jews USED to go around pillaging". Christian WERE responsible for the Crusades. But this is all in the PAST. <

    Broadly speaking, that is correct, historically speaking.

    > Can you not see any CURRENT oppression? <

    Yes, I can and I condemn it. I just don't see it as undermining my broader point. Again, current Western societies (not just the US) are far from perfect, but they are still far more conducive places to human flourishing than most Muslim societies. That, I think, it's a fact that it is simply impossible to deny.

    > Can you see no similarities in killing someone deemed to be detrimental to society via a missile or via a sword? <

    Yes, I can. But do you not see the difference between a society's treatment of his own citizens and the treatment of that society's perceived enemies? (And, again, this is no excuse of US aggression, nor should we confuse the differences between the US and other Western nations. Or some Eastern ones, for instance Japan.)

    > I think you are grasping at straws in order to exonerate the U.S. on this point: when THEY do it, it is evil, it is backward; when WE do it, it is different, it is justified. <

    No, I have no interest whatsoever in excusing the US. I am just pointing to differences where I see them.

    > You seem to me to be under the illusion that all victims of U.S. missile strikes are violent people that are a real threat to our society and deserve to die. <

    I am under no such illusion at all. But be careful not to fall into the opposite illusion that they are all blameless victims. They are not.

    > Once again, I have great admiration for you and do not intend to insult you personally. I simply think you have the wrong point of view on some things. <

    I appreciate that. And I actually don't think we are as far as you seem to think about the faults of the US.

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  22. Massimo,

    At the risk of carrying this on to the point of being tiresome, here are some thoughts:

    I more or less agree that we probably are not too far apart. It is a matter of degree in our perceptions of how "bad" each party is and how much of the "badness" is due to religious fanaticism (particularly being of the Muslim faith). Perhaps I misinterpreted some of your statements.

    I agree that Muslim countries don't compare well with Western countries on the basis of civil liberties. But again, is that due to religious beliefs, character of the people, or a response to hegemony, colonialism and violence?

    On a less conciliatory matter: you write:

    >[Jews USED to go around pillaging". Christian WERE responsible for the Crusades. But this is all in the PAST.] Broadly speaking, that is correct, historically speaking.<

    Surely you jest. You've never heard of the bombing of Lebanon? The bombing of Gaza?

    The UN Security Council voted 14-0 that the Fourth Geneva Convention applies to Israel occupied territory. That makes virtually everything Israel does there a war crime.

    You might well have used Orthodox Jews as a poster-child for the suppression of human flourishing instead of the Muslims. They are as rigid as any Muslim society: forbidding marriage to non-Jews, stoning people for driving a car on the Sabbath, etc.

    Of course, Christian majority nations (the U.S. in particular) engage in the type of behavior I adumbrated previously. On a smaller scale, Christian groups bomb abortion clinics, and shoot doctors. There is a current high spike in attacks on Mosques (vandalism, arson, beatings, bomb threats, harassment, etc.)in Christian nations.

    Your statement stuns and puzzles me. Again, is it an example of evil when the Muslims do it and an example of being "less than perfect" when Jews or Christians do it?

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  23. Tom,

    > I agree that Muslim countries don't compare well with Western countries on the basis of civil liberties. But again, is that due to religious beliefs, character of the people, or a response to hegemony, colonialism and violence? <

    Why do you think those are mutually exclusive explanations?

    > You've never heard of the bombing of Lebanon? The bombing of Gaza? <

    Yes, as well as the bombing of Dresden, just to name another one. But I am not a defender of Israel or the US, I am simply pointing out that there are quantitative differences. You also keep confusing the internal quality of a society (which is what I was mostly referring to in the post) with a given nation's foreign policy. And you keep ignoring that I was talking about the West in general, while you dwell on the worst examples (the US, and now Israel).

    > You might well have used Orthodox Jews as a poster-child for the suppression of human flourishing instead of the Muslims. <

    Except that Orthodox Jews are not in charge anywhere in the Western world, except in Israel, and even there only in part.

    > Christian groups bomb abortion clinics, and shoot doctors. There is a current high spike in attacks on Mosques <

    Indeed, but you seem to imply that I'm trying to paint a black and white, good guys vs bad guys, sort of picture. I'm not. The instances you are talking about are true enough, but they are broadly condemned by the society in which they happen, and they are prosecuted on legal grounds.

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    1. Massimo,

      Perhaps I misunderstood. I thought that you were the one making the case for the evils in a society being due to “blindly following an ideology”. As such, I would think the burden of proof would be on you to show that is the cause. For my part, I cited Pape’s paper (the best scientific study around) which claims that suicide bombing (for one measure) is more due to foreign occupation that due to “blindly following an ideology”. And I also claim that geography, history, colonialism, hegemony, and current drone warfare are more significant factors. Where is your evidence?

      You wrote, “You also keep confusing the internal quality of a society … with a given nation's foreign policy.” What do you think the internal quality of life is for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation? And why restrict comparisons of societies to the internal quality of life? I imagine life in Nazi Germany was very good (for Germans) during the early years of the war. Isn’t life always better in the oppressor country than in that of the oppressed? This goes back to the point about factors other than “blindly following an ideology”. Under harsh conditions of oppression, only the most cruel and warlike will rise to power (recall my example of the Ayatollahs rising to power in the wake of the Shah). And, by the way, do you mean to imply that you DO NOT “dwell upon the worst examples” of over 1.6 billion Muslims?

      You wrote, “The instances you are talking about are true enough, but they are broadly condemned by the society in which they happen.” The Benghazi killings were condemned by most Libyans, as most violence is condemned by most Muslims. Your initial indictment started with, “the recent riots in Muslim countries clearly show…” – those riots were illegal in the countries in which they occurred and were put down by the local authorities. How do they differ from abortion clinic bombings or the anti-Muslim activities by skinheads?

      One point I forgot to mention from your previous post. You wrote, “..be careful not to fall into the opposite illusion that they [Predator victims] are all blameless victims”. Well, a recent study by Stanford/NYU (“Living Under Drones”) states that “The number of ‘high-level’ targets
      killed as a percentage of total casualties is extremely low—estimated at just 2%”. Also, if you believe in the principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty, then ALL of the people killed by US drone strikes are innocent, while ALL of the people executed by the Saudis are guilty (having been judged “guilty” by the relevant court with jurisdiction over them).

      P.S. I enjoy arguing these points with you. I swear I am not doing it just to be a “troll” or for the sake of being argumentative. I hope I am not being tiresome by my being persistent in my viewpoint!

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  24. Tom,

    well, I think we are now reaching diminishing degrees of return from this discussion, as useful as it was (to me, at least) to clarify our positions.

    For instance:

    > Pape’s paper (the best scientific study around) which claims that suicide bombing (for one measure) is more due to foreign occupation that due to “blindly following an ideology”. <

    But you don't think that blind ideology made that easier? I mean, all sorts of other countries have suffered foreign occupation at different times, and very few have seen anything like suicide bombers taking shape.

    Or:

    > I imagine life in Nazi Germany was very good <

    I don't know, but Nazi *society* was bad by my criterion of human flourishing, so this isn't a counterexample at all.

    > How do they differ from abortion clinic bombings or the anti-Muslim activities by skinheads? <

    They are much more widespread and societally acceptable. Yes, there was widespread condemnation in Libya, which should have been better covered in the Western press. But it was a surprisingly unusual occurrence, contra to what, say, regularly happens in Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and a long list of other countries.

    > if you believe in the principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty, then ALL of the people killed by US drone strikes are innocent, while ALL of the people executed by the Saudis are guilty <

    That's another example of oversimplification. The principle, as you well know, does not apply in war. We can have a god discussion about the legitimacy of the war in Afghanistan, and I would probably - again - be closer to your position than you might think. But comparing that with state-sanctioned treatment of its own citizens is, again, a category mistake.

    Anyway, thanks for being interested in a discussion and not just trollying around!

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  25. I think I'll post the most politically incorrect article some of you may ever read, by the apostate from Islam Ibn Warraq:

    Why the West Is Best: http://www.city-journal.org/2008/18_1_snd-west.html

    I'd say that if you don't agree with at least the broad outline of it, you are full of shit. Really. Those of you who are putting up defenses for frankly backward societies are in fact making these societies and their peoples a great disservice in the long term. Their descendents, who will eventually live in secular, open societies will not look kindly on you.

    As for ascribing Western prosperity to colonialism, get real! Switzerland has never owned a single cdolony. Canada, the US and Australia are former colonies. All of these are among the most prosperous countries on Earth. Thus if a country has been a colony or has had colonies in the past is in the long-term (och heck even medium term) utterly irrelevant to its prosperity. Slave trade is also irrelevant. I live in a country that outlawed slavery within its borders in the Middle Ages and had minimal participation in the Altantic slave trade, yet is one of the most prosperous countries in the world today (it's in Europe and guess what, Holocaust denial is not illegal, please stop to think of Europe as a country). Meanwhile the still on-going Arab slave trade doesn't seem to deliver much prosperity.

    Looking forward to your responses, unless this post meets the censor.

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  26. I'd have to say that the position(s)taken by the author in the article don't necessarily agree with some of the subsequent comments.

    Perhaps this is because reality has a way of intruding when push comes to shove?

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