Be Seeing You, Part II

Last year we noted that the British system of tracking cars everywhere they went reminded us of their own 1960’s television show, The Prisoner. It’s only getting worse in the old country: now we have street cameras that shout at people who do things not to the authorities’ taste. In some ways it’s more personalised than the public address system used in The Village. (Rather reminds one of the way the chess pieces were moved around in the episode, “Checkmate.”) The only thing left to do is to install the cameras in people’s homes and to be able to dispatch Rover when things don’t go according to plan.  Be seeing you!

No, Bishop Lipscomb, We Are Not Going to Shut Up

The recent call by Bishop John Lipscomb, Episcopal Bishop of Southwest Florida (a neighbour for the diocese I grew up in,) for a “40 day fast” from blogs will fall on deaf ears here at Positive Infinity.

We don’t claim to be high on the list of Anglican/Episcopal blogs. We do carry Virtue Online’s news feed. And recently, when we expressed the opinion that the Diocese of South Carolina was not acting in its best interests by suing All Saints at Pawley’s Island, we were attacked by “moderate” Episcopalian from California. So we are a problem to somebody.

Perhaps the most incendiary thing we do here is to carry the 1662 and 1928 Books of Common Prayer for download, which make the 1979 one look bad.

So we will continue, working under the assumption that the truth is more important than aesthetic considerations or some kind of imposed unity. After all, “And you find out the Truth, and the Truth will set you free.” (John 8:32, Positive Infinity New Testament) No one will find out anything as long as those who speak the truth are silent.

9/11: Learning Little, Forgetting Nothing

Last year, I documented some of my encounters with a Sudanese friend of mine who was a Sunni Muslim imam. We went back and forth on a wide variety of subjects in our conversation. One day, we reserved a graduate study room in the university library and covered the waterfront on a wide variety of topics of interest: the Sunni/Shi’a divide, how a group of Muslims simply got together at a university and picked him to be their imam, the basic weakness of the whole Muslim fundamentalists approach, and many other things. I was and still am enriched by the experience.

What I didn’t realise at the was that, based on that experience and others, I knew more about the real nature of Islam and the Middle East than many in our government whose duty was to understand these things. Put another way, my Sudanese friend was indirectly laying out the whole “war on terror” in front of me, along with the help of other Muslims I encountered over the years, including those in the Fulham Road theatre in London.

As Americans, we live in a country with two distinct ideas on how to deal with problems such as radical Islamicism.

The first is that we must understand our enemy if we are to engage him, and engaging him means that, if we “understand” him, we will be nice to each other and everything will be better. This is the approach of the left. With most enemies, this leads to defeat, because they interpret your actions (rightfully) as a sign of weakness and will move against you accordingly.

The second is that, if we understand our enemy, we will become sympathetic to him and it will weaken us, so we must always do it “our way” and defeat him. This is the approach of the right. This can lead to victory but it will be costly.

What no one who has a voice in the public arena seems to grasp is that, to defeat an enemy, one must first understand him, so as to exploit his weaknesses while working from our strengths. Doing this will help facilitate the greatest victory at the least cost. It will also avoid making unnecessary enemies in the process.

As we commemorate the fifth anniversary of 11 September 2001, we need to realise that we are dealing with a “war of civilisations.” But we are also dealing with two sides with deep divisions within themselves. On the Islamic side, we have the Sunni/Shi’a business, the complexities induced by vicious power holder/power challenger politics, and many other factors. On the American side, we have a country that went into 9/11 deeply divided over whether it would be a Judeo-Christian or secularist country. Both sets of divisions have survived that event. The only people who seem to know where they’re at are the Europeans, and that’s in a downward spiral, induced by secuarlism and a collapsing birthrate which has turned their civilisation into an open grave.

So we both go into this remembrance like the Bourbon kings of France: having learned little, but forgotten nothing. Barring the return of the Messiah, we have three possible results: the “West” can win, the Islamicists can win, or both can destroy each other and those from the rest of the world can come in and pick up the pieces. As a Christian, the best news is that people have actually followed Christ’s command to take the gospel to the ends of the earth and that people will live and love as God intended them to long after the bastions of the faith of times past have taken their leave. Will this happen? It is up to us.

The Bourbons, the Democrats, and the ABC 9/11 Series

Without a doubt one of the most hilarious pieces of literature ever written is Blaise Pascal’s Provincial Letters. Written in the 1650’s, it consisted of a purported series of letters written by a Parisian to his friend in the provinces. At that time the Jesuits (with the help of the French monarchy) were attempted to suppress the Jansenists, those purveyors of serious Christianity. Pascal, coming off a dramatic conversion experience and sympathetic to the Jansenists, took an unusual tack. Instead of directly attacking the propositions of the Jesuits about their “probable opinions” (which moved in the direction of situational ethics,) he set up (for several letters at least) a Jesuit who baldly explained the content of their doctrines based on their own authorities. He clearly showed the nature of their ideas, such as how it was permissible to kill in a duel to defend one’s honour, it was okay to arrive at Mass as long as you beat the elevation of the Host, etc.

For anyone who is familiar with traditional Roman Catholicism, the work is an absolute howl. In explaining with clarity their doctrines, the “Jesuit” ends up making fun of them, just as Ned Lamont’s supporters trash their own cause in the way they attack Joe Lieberman.

But let’s look at things from another view: this was seventeenth century France, there was an absolute monarchy, books had to be printed “with the privilege of the King,” etc. Pascal wrote these anonymously; it took the public (who laughed with him) and the Jesuits (who were incensed) some time before they realised who had written it. The work put the Jesuits’ “morality” into public ridicule, but it was only a temporary reprieve: the Jesuits managed to eventually grind the Jansenists into the ground with the help of the state.

In this “modern” world of ours, we’re supposed to be past this kind of thing. But now we have the spectable of Congressional Democrats threatening to “review” ABC’s broadcast “privilege” unless it alters or pulls altogether its upcoming (hopefully) series on 9/11. This is especially amazing when we consider that ABC is certainly part of the “mainstream” media that the Democrats rely on so heavily to get their point across.

The problem with representative democracy in the United States is that it has gone on so long that we take it for granted. But, given our heavy-handed legal system, it wouldn’t take much for meaningful freedom of expression to dissappear. Naked pressure such as this is a more obvious example of this than most.

And there’s one more lesson the left needs to learn from the French. The suppression of Janesnism weakened the state of Christianity in France, opening the way for the French Revolution. The Bourbons made a pact with the devil when they joined with the Jesuits, and the devil got his balloon payment in 1789. (Remember, Rolling Stones fans?)
Weakening the security apparatus and then supressing the truth about your actions will only lead to the same kind of thing. None of the meaningful enemies of the U.S. will suffer the left to continue if they win. If the Democrats succeed in pulling this off, they will continue they suffer the same fate of Louis XVI at the hands of people who don’t mind doing it on the Internet.

Let’s hope this can be headed off, or, as the little rondeau at the start of the Provincial Letters: Retirez-vous, péchés!

Ayatollah al-Sistani: Getting out of Muslim Politics is Easier Said Than Done

Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s decision to get out of politics reminds us of the closing poem from the Chinese author Wu Ching-Tzu’s novel The Scholars:

For love of the Chinhuai River, in the old days I left home;
I wandered up and down behind Plum Root Forge,
And strolled about in Apricot Blossom Village;
Like a phoenix that rest on a plane
Or a cricket that chirps in the yard,
I used to compete with the scholars of the day;
But now I have cast off my official robes
As cicadas shed their skin;
I wash my feet in the limpid stream,
And in idle moments fill my cup with wine,
And call in a few new friends to drink with me.
A hundred years are soon gone, so why despair?
Yet immortal fame is not easy to attain!
Writing of men I knew in the Yangtse Valley
Has made me sick at heart.
In days to come,
I shall stay by my medicine stove and Buddhist sutras,
And practice religion alone.

Sistani has evidently decided to leave Shi’ite politics to the likes of Muqtada al-Sadr.

Retreat such as this makes sense in a religion such as Buddhism, where the whole idea is to escape desire and reach Nirvana. Some forms of Christianity encourage this kind of thing. But in Islam, especially with Sufism in retreat and Islamicism (Wahabbi and otherwise) taking over, we find the idea of a prominent Muslim leader retreating from politics an oxymoron, irrespective of his own desires in the matter.

Although most Americans dislike the idea of Muqtada taking over, and his theocracy would be a disaster for everyone else in Iraq outside of Shi’a Islam, putting him in the driver’s seat would give mullah and lay politician in Tehran a serious case of heartburn.

Quotation from Wu Ching-Tzu, The Scholars. Translated by Yang Hsien-Yi and Gladys Yang. New York: Grosset and Dunlap.

There’s Nothing Like Conversion Growth

We find al-Qaeda’s attempt to reach an American audience by convert Adam Gadahn interesting in one important respect: his appeal for Americans to convert. He tells us, “It is time for the unbelievers to discard these incoherent and illogical beliefs…Isn’t it the time for the Christians, Jews, Buddhists and atheists to cast off the cloak of the spiritual darkness which enshrouds them and emerge into the light of Islam?”

Well Adam, not really. As we noted in an earlier posting, Islam’s “consistent beliefs” have put it “behind the eight ball” for a long time. Islamic politics don’t help: Gadahn himself was turned out of a mosque for attacking its leadership. (Isn’t it amazing how converts get themselves up to speed so quickly?)

But his appeal underscores something that we too often forget: the battle going on presently is certainly political, but ultimately is one for the souls of men and women. So where do you stand in this?

The Dilemma of Islamic Civilisation: St. Thomas was Right

As the deadline for a proper response from the Iranians regarding their nuclear weapons programme passes, it probably behooves a few of us to step back and think: what is Islamic culture and civilisation all about? What would things be like if they actually achieved their objectives?  This is not an idle question. In the early years of Islam, conquest of vast civilisations was the rule rather than the exception. The early Muslim generals were right not to pursue conquest in Europe too hard; Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia were far more valuable places. All of these had been great nations at one time and even at the rise of Islam were still advanced from remote, crude places such as Britain and France.

Early Islamic civilisation was a wonder in many ways, especially when it got past the usual power holder/power challenger/careerist Arab politics. A good example of this were the Crusades. Muslims were not only able to (eventually) run the Christian forces out of the Holy Land, they were also able to demonstrate to same forces that they were living like pigs (and, as Moses Maimonides reminded us, with them) back home. Such was an impetus to do better. And Europe did. The whole genesis of modern Islamic radicalism is a shame-honour reaction to “Western” superiority, especially in the sciences. So how did this reversal take place?

One explanation comes to us in a book entitled The Ancient Engineers, written by one L. Sprague de Camp. He describes what happened to Islamic civilisation in the wake of the devastation of the Mongol invasions by the likes of Tamerlane as follows:

As a result of these devastations, Islam underwent another change: a return to religion. Many caliphs had been indifferent Muslims–skeptics, materialists, winebibbers. In view of the disasters that had befallen upon Islam, the time was ripe for a return to the true faith. In +XII and +XIII lived two of the greatest philosophers of the age. The first was an Iranian, al-Ghazzali; the second, a Neapolitan, Tomaso d’Aquino or St. Thomas Aquinas.

The pious and learned Saint Thomas (1225-74) spent much of his life arguing, at enormous length and in tiny illegible handwriting, that there was no conflict between science and religion; that all truth was one, and that therefore Aristotle’s logic must fit into the Christian faith. In face, Saint Thomas promoted Aristotle to a kind of pre-Christian saint.

The pious and learned Ghazzali (1058-1111) also studied the science and philosophy of the Greeks but came to different conclusions. After mature and searching consideration, he decided that these studies were harmful, because they shook men’s faith in God and undermined religion: “they lead to loss of belief in the origin of the world and in the creator.”

Europe followed St. Thomas, while Islam followed Ghazzali. For example, in 1150 the Khalifah of the moment proved his piety by burning the books of a philosophical library of Baghdad. As a result of these diverging trends, science and technology flowered in Europe so richly and advanced so swiftly that the rest of the world is still breathlessly trying to catch up. On the other hand, science in Islam withered away.

The real irony is that Ghazzali was right and Saint Thomas wrong. Sciences does shake men’s faith in God and undermine religion. It has been doing so for many years and shows every sign of continuing to do so . As to how it will all end, and whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, only our remote descendants–if any–will be able to say. (L. Sprague de Camp, The Ancient Engineers. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1993, p. 285 (original copyright 1960))

Although there is much truth to this quotation, Sprague de Camp overlooked an obvious fact: although he asserts St. Thomas was wrong, the Christian civilisation he contributed to moved forward in ways that the Islamic one Ghazzali contributed to did not. Like most secularists, Sprague de Camp both underestimates people with religious conviction and tends to run all religions together as the same when in fact they are not. This is why the secularists that inhabit the high places of North American and Europe just can’t quite fathom what they’re looking at when attempting to deal either with radical Islam or the Religious Right. (It also explains the many foreign policy errors that Western governments make when dealing with the “war on terror.”)

There are many was of explaining the disparity between Aquinas’ Christianity and Ghazzali’s Islam, but we prefer to go to the heart of the matter: the differing concepts of God. Anyone who has read St. Thomas Aquinas knows that he depicts a God who has free will, who chooses to consistently do good, and who has brought into being a creation that has order and structure (even though Aquinas and other Aristolelians don’t quite get how that order works.) That concept is backed up by the Bible, which shows us an orderly process from Creation forward. God himself has chosen to interact with his people on their level, which reached its culmination in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Such a concept invites people to look at the creation both inferior to its maker (an idea Christianity shares with Islam) and of interest to study and use. This proved a springboard for the Renaissance (which ended up being more than just a “rebirth” of the ancient world) and beyond. It survived its greatest challenge with the Reformation. For all of the positive things that came out of that, the radical Augustinianism that moulds Reformed theology is simply too close to an Islamic concept of God.

Turning to that, the Qur’an has an unbending consistency in setting forth the absolute sovereignty of God. Many of the self-imposed limitations (and we emphasise the phrase, “self-imposed,” we still hold that God is omniscient and omnipresent) of God as he interacts with his creation are out the window: goodness, caring and love for his creation and people, allowing his creatures free will, just about anything. Allah does as he pleases, and our only response is to submit. Such a concept leaves little room for anything else. This is why the two religions–and civilisations–went in two different directions.

As long as the Middle East and other Islamic areas were ruled by “local” rulers, especially the Ottomans, no one there gave the disparity much thought. It is the forced invasion of Western power, first colonial, then economic and last the establishment of a very Western (if not Christian) State of Israel proved a civilisational “shock and awe” the reaction to which the West is dealing with every day. It’s one thing to try to win by destroying your opponent, but what do you do for an encore? Islam has already dealt with this problem once. As we said above, the Crusades were a great victory for Islam. But the aftermath was centuries of decline. This may explain why most Muslims are defensive about the Crusades; they may have won the war but they followed up by losing the peace.

And this is the dilemma that thoughtful Muslims must wrestle with. We know from personal experience that there are many fine minds out there in the Islamic world labouring in scientific and technical fields. (We’ve helped a few along, too, with our free civil engineering downloads.) For the last half century, many Muslim nations have had the revenue to develop their countries in many ways, but far too much of this has been squandered. For example, the Iranians should have been able to develop their own nuclear capabilities without help from the Russians, but they did not. There are bright spots, but overall the impression is not a happy one.

Islamic radicals may be able to inflict a great deal of damage on the West, especially if our governments don’t shake off political correctness on the one hand and the raw, untempered desire to prove manliness on the other. But if such Muslims don’t adopt a more positive view of their purpose on this earth, someone will sooner or later defeat them, if they don’t inflict defeat amongst themselves. Can they find this in Islam? History, in this regard, is not encouraging. al-Ghazzali’s ghost still haunts the halls of power in Riyadh, Tehran and in bin Laden’s cave too, and until it is exorcised forward progress will be impossible.

The Sad End of Mao Dun

During my first trip to China in March 1981, I had no idea that one of the great figures of twentieth century Chinese literature was passing away: Mao Dun, the pen name for Shen Yanbing, novelist and author of Midnight, the social realist novel of Shanghai in the 1930’s. Long a place of interest, going to China only made the place an obsession. The following year, back in China, I was able to acquire Midnight for myself. Reading it left no doubt: Midnight is one of the great novels of its genre, certainly a rival to Emile Zola’s Germinal. It depicts a world where economics and war interact in an intricate way, certainly relevant for our own time. Mao Dun’s portrayal of this world isn’t two-dimensional; he saw the human complexities of the world around him in spite of his own Marxist ideology. “In spite of” eventually caught up with him. Accounts of his life present the fact that, for a while, he was Mao Zedong’s Minister of Culture. Ultimately he was caught, appropriately enough, in the Cultural Revolution. That event trashed him and many others in a way that people in the West can only imagine, with its “group struggle meetings,” public humiliations, long imprisonments, shipping intellectuals to the countryside to tend pigs, and of course capital punishment. Mao Dun survived many of these indignities, and was rehabilitated to become the president of the All China Union of Writers and many other positions. On 28 April 1978, he granted an interview with the Canadian theatre critic John Fraser, Beijing correspondent for the Globe and Mail. Having read Midnight himself, Fraser was ready for an interesting interview. Unfortunately, he was sorely disappointed:

Mao Dun turned out to be an aging mockery of what I had built him up to be. I caught him in the midst of what was clearly a difficult assignment for his somewhat confused state of mind: the assimilation of the new Party line on literature. He droned on and on about “the Party’s correct policies” and the “havoc wreacked by the Gang of Four.” Every question on contradictions facing Chinese writers were either ignored out of hand or sidestepped. I was present with a sad old man who had survived a horrible disgrace to rise again another day. He was certainly not going to be disposed of again if he could help it. Except for few moments, which I actually managed to get him to digress on his beloved daughter who died during the civil war, he declined to show his human face. Instead he lectured me on how Chinese writers now had the freedom to explore and speak out on any issue whatsoever–”except if they oppose socialism or seek to spread bourgeois ideas.” He delineated again the old Communist theories of “revolutionary romanticism and revolutionary realism” to prove that under Communism there really was true freedom of expression.

As I listened to him, noting his air of loyal confidence in the regime that had once relegated him to the dust heap of “revisionist irrelevancy,” he seemed transformed into a Chinese version of Vicar Thwackum in Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones: “When I speak of religion, Sir, I mean the Christian religion, and not just the Christian religion but the Church of England.” Mao Dun says much the same thing when he defines how a young Chinese writer should use the freedom of expression the Party has allowed him: “He [the writer] should be an optimist and put that optimism into his writing. In describing events and developing his characters, it would be be natural to look for this quality. With this optimism a writer should be able to see into the future, and by the future, of course, we mean Communism…” (John Fraser, The Chinese: Portrait of a People. New York: Summit Books, 1980 pp. 127-128.

Ever the theatre critic, Fraser’s account of the interview was capped off by Mao Dun’s own exit from the interview:

I felt toward Mao Dun the same sense of betrayal anyone feels when someone he admire turns out to be a bit of a fraud. For me, this fraud was symbolised by his departure. As I went out to my car, he was escorted with suitable fanfare to his waiting Red Flag limousine. The vast and sinister automobiles the Communist state makes available for its leaders are far larger than any equivalent vehicle a “feudal comprador capitalist exploiter” could have had in Shanghai during the thirties. Mao Dun got in and closed the door of the roomy back-seat passenger section. His chauffeur wheeled out of the entranceway with the blast of the car horn. The driver, as is usual in Peking, never stopped to see if there were any oncoming bicycle traffic: the horn blast was sufficient to alert the masses that greatness was descending upon them. Mao Dun set bolt upright in the back seat, holding his cane in front of him. One could just make out his image when a shaft of sun shone through the heavily curtained windows. As I followed him along the street for about half a mile, the limousine belched out loud honks while humble cyclists and pedestrians hurried to get out of the way. The scene could have been lifted straight out of Midnight. (Fraser, p. 128)

Below: Red Flag Limousine, the same kind as Mao Dun was whisked away in.  Beijing Hotel, 1981.

One of the appeals of left-wing movements to intellectuals is that they feel that they will be honoured and followed once the left-wingers achieve power. Unfortunately the opposite is usually the case, and Mao Dun’s life and tragic last years are as good of an illustration as one could want. Left wing leaders, politician and revolutionary alike, are fine with these people when they support their cause. But the needs of absolute power do not admit the free rein of people who see “contradictions” (the meaning of the name “Mao Dun.”) So they must be gotten out of the way. It is a cycle repeated time and again in the last century and is destined to be so again if allowed to happen.

Katrina Reflections, One Year Out

Last year, when Hurricane Katrina did her destruction on the Gulf, we spent a good deal time on the subject, as we had spent a good deal of time in South Louisiana in years past. Some of our postings were as follows:

We also had the sad task of eulogising an Arabi resident, business associate and personal friend who perished in the wake of Katrina.

We still hold that the glacial reaction of governments to the disaster is at all levels and crosses political lines. It is the failure of a generation which has lost a basic vision of the public good and sees government only to advance their agenda, be it in an active way (the left) or a passive one (the right.) This generational shift’s Waterloo took place in a state (Louisiana) where government is largely seen as a method of personal advancement for the participants. But, given the lack of shared values (which make a vision of public good possible,) we don’t see relief in the near future, or perhaps during the lifetime of anyone reading this site.

Politicising this will only make it worse.