Wine and Punishment

I’m curious: we’ve had some interesting discussions around here and elsewhere on whether or not it’s appropriate for one culture to use its own value system to judge another culture. I’m a cosmopolitan, and so I believe it is indeed appropriate in certain circumstances to compare cultures in a normative sense.

Thus, I think it’s fair to call the Saudi regime barbaric for planning to lash an elderly British man for having bottles of homemade wine in his car. And, objectively speaking, I believe my society’s values are better than those of a society that would sanction such activity.

What do you think? Another question: does this situation in Saudi Arabia have anything to do with Islam, or is it a coincidence that countries with questionable human rights records and countries where Islam is the dominant religion tend to overlap?


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Christopher Carr does stuff and writes about stuff.

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194 thoughts on “Wine and Punishment

  1. I don’t know if I would say the values you are supporting are objectively better, but I think it is pretty easy to say they are surely better.

    I can accept another nation’s culture and norms, but I don’t have to carry water for them. Having said that, I wouldn’t live in Saudi and make booze either. That seems to have been a pretty dumb choice.

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  2. My problem with these kinds of comparisons is that “our” society is very difficult to view objectively, and so trying to compare it with another one is a tricky business.

    Is it really so much better to lock people up in prison for years or decades for smoking pot?

    It’s not like long prison sentences don’t carry the same kind of risks to life and limb that caning does.

    (I think it’s abhorrent, what is going to happen to that man, and what happens to women in Saudi all the time. I just think our equally abhorrent things get a cultural pass, so there’s not much point in trying to valorize our own culture based on its ideals rather than its practices.)

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    • I came here to make that point.

      I have seen nothing to dissuade me from holding that drug prohibition has to be considered as a whole – whether the prohibited substance is ethanol, caffeine, THC, morphine, cocaine, LSD, etc., it is either barbaric, or it isn’t. There don’t exist two categories of drugs, one of which one can non-barbarically prohibit and the other of which one cannot.

      Given the above, the only question that might produce a contrast between Saudi Arabia and the US or Canada is whether caning is more or less barbaric than imprisonment or asset forfeiture.

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      • Thirded. Prohibition punishment is (or at least, any excessive form of it – an argument could possibly be made that mild forms of punishment that are effective in discouraging excess or addiction may not be) barbaric, full stop, no matter where it occurs.

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    • We can add to this the abuse of solitary confinement. I am loath to claim that the form of torture we favor is better than the form of torture some other country favors. Glass houses and rock-chucking, and all that…

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        • The gist: imprisonment here, and solitary confinement in particular, means repeated physical assaults, for small violations, often of protocol, and sometimes for no real reason. These assaults often result in injuries, sometimes serious ones, and occasionally in death.

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  3. 1. There is an objective right and wrong. It would, however be amazingly coincidental if the society I happen to live in happens to get most of it right while those people over there get most of it wrong.
    2. in this case, I think a fairly good argument can be made that you shouldn’t prohibit alcohol. So, we are in the right here.
    3. It is not purely coincidental, neither is Islam per se that is to blame. There are certain parts of the world that are prone to instability: Lots of places in Africa, Middle East and Southeast Asia, as well as China and India. Places which are prone to instability (or have had a recent history of instability) are more likely to be less liberal than places which have had continuous stretches of political and social stability. It also happens that some time ago, a bunch of Christian powers went about and successfully conquered other non-Christian places in the world.

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  4. Chris:

    The ban on alcohol is directly related to islam right? Given that it is, how can you say that the two aren’t connected?

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      • I don’t know about that. I am no expert on this subject, but I have recently been watching Tim Burns’ Prohibition documentary, and I was struck by how few actually wanted this legislation passed. It’s a lesson in political strategy, but I am not sure christians overwhelmingly supported its banning.

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        • I think we are only disagreeing over what “many Christians” means. It is certainly true that Christians did not “overwhelmingly” support Prohibition. My background is German Lutheran. We certainly didn’t! Neither, for the most part, did the Catholics. It comes from some strands of American Protestantism, typically those connected with the Holiness tradition. These strands were very influential in the late 19th and early 20th century. For that matter, they still are today. We call then “Evangelicals” nowadays, (though not all Evangelicals come from this). They have quietly dropped the obsession with alcohol. There are still vestiges, but it is an obsolete culture war, like Sabbatarianism, and has an air of quaintness to it.

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          • Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Catholics opposed Prohibition. Jews were also universally opposed. Most other Protestsnt denominations were officially for it. Prohibition can be seen as the last hooray for the strand of American thought that saw the United Stages as a White and Protestant country.

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        • Plenty of people actually did want Prohibition. That’s why it happened. What a lot of people did not imagine is that the actually law would have such a strict definition of alcohol. Most people only thought that high alcohol drinks would be banned.

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          • Plenty of people wanted Prohibition for *THOSE* people. Germans did nothing but drink beer, Italians did nothing but drink wine, and don’t get me started about the Irish!

            We all know that there’s nothing wrong with alcohol in moderation at a wedding party or something, there’s just something shameful with how *THOSE* people use it.

            So make it illegal and maybe *THOSE* people will quit coming here in droves.

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            • There was a lot of bigotry in the movement for Prohibition but there were also many legitimate reasons to think that it would be a good idea at the time. People are complicated.

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              • Yes, what people forget is Prohibition and that generation’s wave of feminism were very much intertwined. (While everyone does know that the 16th thru 19th amendments were part of one holistic poltical movement)

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  5. What Saudi Arabia is doing is barbaric and abhorrent. That being Maribou has a really good point, you can argue that is just as bad, if not worse in some or many ways, to lock people up for years and decades for drug offenses. Also stripping them of everything they own is rather bad. Didn’t people here seriously debate that canning might be a better punishment many times than incarceration because it hurts but then you are done with it?

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    • I am thinking this might be a way for Saudi Arabia to get the upper hand in a negotiation of some sort. I feel the same way about the journalist currently jailed in Iran, or when North Korea takes a foreigner hostage.

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        • notme as a point. The liberalism of the Western world owes more to Greco-Roman philosophy and a way out of the Catholic-Protestant conflict than it does to Judaism or Christianity. As I pointed out bellow, Islam is a political system and a religion like Judaism is an ethnic group and a religion. Judaism is also a potential political system and was intended to be such. An Islam compatible with liberalism is going to need to loose it’s political part.

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          • I would second . The Christianity that exists in the West is pretty radically different from its origins in the East. Hardcore protestant groups are right to identify that overly pagan character of the church as practiced by many groups.

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          • “notme as a point.”

            He’s also wrong, at least in this instance on this one single point.

            Alcohol is forbidden in certain sects of Islam, it is not eschewed by all Muslims. I’ve never met one that doesn’t at least occasionally drink, in the same way I’ve never met a Jew who doesn’t dine in non-Kosher restaurants or a Christian who believes women should not be allowed to speak in church.

            In the same way, there are actually a lot of Protestant sects here in the United States that preach very hard against the drinking of alcohol of any kind, and consider doing so a sin. In the early days of the United States, there were lots of regions that had prohibitions on wine in particular. Those prohibitions were entirely religious in nature. (It’s the reason apples spread with frontiersman, because cider not being made from grapes was more likely to be legal.)

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            • Also, it should be noted that in Muslim-dominated nations in the Middle East, Africa and Asia where alcohol is prohibited, those prohibitions are also overwhelmingly supported by those nations’ Christian population.

              In other words, if most Christians and Muslims in certain regions think all alcohol should be illegal, and most Christians and Muslims in another region not only don’t support prohibition but drink alcohol themselves, it should be something of a giveaway that the real differences we are talking about here aren’t really very well encapsulated by the Christian vs. Islam/Bible vs. Quran narrative.

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                • Actually back in the old days the only drinks that were safe had some alcohol in them for example if you made hard cider it would keep where as non alcoholic cider spoiled. I suspect that was why so much beer was drunk way back when it was safe to drink compared to polluted water and the like.

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                  • Hell, when you’re talking about miracles – stopping grape juice from becoming wine, with no refrigeration and the storage options they had available in Judea? That’s a miracle in and of itself – fermentation is stronger than most pantheons.

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        • I would argue that’s not really entirely so anymore. Christianity still has a few aspects of its Middle Eastern origins left – but it contains more of plagiarized Roman and Celtic paganism at this point than it does of the reforms Christ was trying to make to Judaism, or the communist sect Paul and co. ginned up after his passing.

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    • The big difference between what Saudi Arabia is doing and locking up people for drug use is that the latter isn’t backed by religion, for the most part. Since the War on Drugs is basically secular in origin, it can be debated and modified like we are doing now in a piecemeal fashion. The Saudis and other Muslim states believe that their moral system is divine and they seem to have a true and sincere faith. This makes any attempt at liberalism not easy.

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      • Rather than morality, isn’t this just an example of a strict adherence to the rule of law (which is suppose to be a good thing?) A law is on the books, and it is enforced. As mentioned on this thread, the US can look askance at this law, but in the same way that the Netherlands would look askance at the US drug laws and punishments. Even worse, a case can be made that in the US there is selective enforcement on these drug laws, particularly in terms of race and class.

        So the law of the land of a sovereign nation (which happens to be Sharia law) is enforced. There is no indication that it is enforced selectively. Isn’t that only the business of the citizens of that nation? If the “global community” should step in to stop “barbaric laws”, shouldn’t the US be subject to the same scrutiny and sanctions? Who gets to decide where the “mind your own business, we are a sovereign nation” line is drawn?

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        • I don’t read the OP as calling for military intervention to prevent the carrying out of the sentence or corporal punishment in Saudi Arabia more generally. I think it’s more of a question about when criticism of a foreign country or culture is appropriate.

          It’s reasonable to believe caning is wrong and to criticize governments that do it. It’s also reasonable to call out the hypocrisy of those who selectively criticize brutal criminal justice systems (i.e. focusing on the middle east while ignoring America’s own morally dubious policies). I would argue that our harshest scrutiny should always be of our own government.

          Nevertheless neither cultural sensitivity nor even a broader understanding that different cultures will always perceive justice differently should prevent us from calling a spade a spade.

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      • Does that have an impact on the degree of barbarism? If two countries do the exact same thing, but one does so for secular reasons and the other for scriptural reasons, which is the more barbaric?

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      • I think you could easily argue that our secular drug prohibition is worse than Saudi’s religious one.

        We don’t even have the obstacle of a state religion getting in the way of reform, and yet we haven’t fixed it. In Saudi Arabia, getting rid of alcohol prohibition would be much harder, so we should cut them more slack.

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            • A less pat answer than my original one is that secularism can allow for altetnative opinions while one based on God says so can’t. As horrifying as the War on Drugs is, people could point it out. This is not possible in Saudi Arabia.

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                • I’m posting from my cell phone so I can’t copy the links but a quick Google search revealed the following. Malaysia does not allow Muslims to buy or drink alcohol. Sudan prohibits it entirely. Egypt had serious restrictions that leads domestic drinkers to turn to questionable black market alcoholic beverages.

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                  • Maybe things have changed in Egypt since April, but unless the restriction is having money in a poor country, there’s nothing preventing Egyptians from buying alcohol aside from social pressure. There’s even a chain of liquor stores named Drinkies.

                    As for Malaysia, those policies don’t prevent the country from being the #10 global consumer of alcohol.

                    I also didn’t say anything about Sudan. Jakarta is in Indonesia (the most populous Muslim country in the world) and the alcohol restrictions there are restricting sales in mini marts. What’s funny is that it’s being called a “ban”, when the laws are significantly more liberal than are found in a number of US states.

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              • I think we’re looking at the same thing from only slightly different angles.

                I read what you’re arguing as: secular prohibition admits logical and humanitarian arguments against it, and the beginnings of progress we’re seeing toward winding down the “war on drugs” demonstrates that – therefore the war on drugs is less barbaric because there is hope for its end.

                I’m arguing: secular prohibition admits logical and humanitarian arguments against it, and after decades of devastated communities, civil war, and countless other horrors, those arguments are only now beginning to have any results at all – therefore the war on drugs is evidence of at least as great barbarism, because there is no excuse “what can we do, it’s God’s word?” The only explanation is callous blindness.

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      • Yes, the Saudis’ behavior is abhorrent, but can we refrain from implying that a religious-tinged criminalization of alcohol is something that could just never happen in the liberal US of A?

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        • Plenty of secular people like the IWW supported Prohibition to. Protestantism might have been the driving force behind prohibition but it had no swaying power with the law. People could change course rather than wait for God to do so.

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          • It wasn’t just a religious movement, particularly at first. A big driving force was social engineering – there are a lot of drunks screwing up their lives and families, so if we prevent them from getting drunk, everything will be hunky-dory.

            Then you throw in the sects that are so literal in their reading of scripture that they torture the prose until it screams (e.g. if the connotation is negative, it’s “wine”, if the connotation is positive it’s “grape juice” – regardless of the fact that it’s the same word in the Greek source).

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            • Prohibition had a basically secular purpose even if its main advocates were devote Protestsnts; to stop the social problems caused by widespread alcohol abuse. It failed like the War on Drugs and was ended as a result. Saudi Arabia seems to base their policy on Islam says so. It makes reform more difficult.

              If our laws against homosexuality were based on the Bible says so than the progress for LGBT rights would be slower.

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      • The big difference between what Saudi Arabia is doing and locking up people for drug use is that the latter isn’t backed by religion, for the most part.

        I was originally going to say another big difference is that the lashings are one punishment, get it done and over with while in the US there are mandatory minimums and prolonged punishments. I was going to conclude with a brief wondering aloud about whether it isn’t better to have a quick, but physically painful punishment than to have the years on end punishments we see in the US in some cases.

        And then I read the article. The “one punishment” is 360 (!) lashes, and the man has already served about a year in confinement. Yes, that practice is wrong and horrifying.

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    • That being Maribou has a really good point, you can argue that is just as bad, if not worse in some or many ways, to lock people up for years and decades for drug offenses.

      Saudi Arabia punishes drug offenses even more harshly, including by hanging.

      All cultures are flawed, but some are more flawed than others.

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  6. Separating religion and state is very difficult but it is more difficult for some religions than others. During the 19th century, untangling the Protestant churches from government was a lot easier than untangling the Roman Catholic Church. This was because the various state Protestant churches were basically always creations of their governments and just went along with the changing times. The Roman Catholic Church had a long and independent institutional existence and was more like a co-equal partner with a government than a subservient state church like the Protestant churches. This allowed them to fight against separation of religion and state with greater vigor. The Roman Catholic Church also saw itself has fulfilling more roles in it’s members lives than the Protestant Churches.

    Islam is another religion that seems very hard to separate from the state. A big part of this is because Islam originated as a political system and a religious community. During the Caliphate and subsequent Muslim states, the job of secular monarch and head of the religious establishment was basically combined into one office. Even in most Christian countries, church and state was more separated. During the Middle Ages, medieval Kings would frequently come into conflict with the Pope and various Bishops. The idea of “render unto Caesar” is not really that prevalent in Islam because Islam is supposed to be religious and political system. This is making it rather hard for Muslim-majority countries to adopt the principles of Enlightenment liberalism compared to the rest of the non-European world. The advocates of tradition can argue that such a thing is contradictory towards Islamic thought with sincerity. Some level of Islamic involvement with government seems popular in most Muslim-majority countries.

    We can’t force Enlightenment Liberalism on countries and societies that do not want it. It was tried during the 19th century. It didn’t work and made a mockery of liberalism. At the same time, the lack of liberalism in the Muslim world is a big reason for all sorts of problems. In an age of globalization and immigration, it’s not really good to have a lot of illiberal people in a world going towards greater liberalism. It can and will cause problems. I have no idea what the solution is.

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    • “We can’t force Enlightenment Liberalism on countries and societies that do not want it. It was tried during the 19th century. It didn’t work and made a mockery of liberalism. At the same time, the lack of liberalism in the Muslim world is a big reason for all sorts of problems. In an age of globalization and immigration, it’s not really good to have a lot of illiberal people in a world going towards greater liberalism. It can and will cause problems. I have no idea what the solution is.”

      I think we can and I think we ought to have no tolerance of unenlightened illiberalism. That doesn’t mean that we don’t trade or ally ourselves for defense purposes with despotic nations or that we do invade and displace dictatorships. But we should strongly oppose horrific acts committed by governments without the pernicious bullshit of cultural relativism getting in our way.

      As for this being the attitude in the past and it not working out, I think we have at least Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, India, and several former Soviet nations as shimmering counterexamples to the idea that we cannot effectively stride towards greater liberalization globally.

      Such cosmopolitanism doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be careful.

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  7. I will add that I think talk of cultural superiority is a lot like a pendulum swinging. I think that cultural relativism does go too but it often seems to go too far when cultural superiorism or moralism is also at its height. Currently the right-wing in the United States likes to criticize everything is wrong about Islamic culture and society. This does seem to cause parts of the left to go too far in the other direction and say you can never criticize another culture.

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  8. I think the language we use is pretty meaningful. If we say that such and such a policy is “barbaric”, that’s a blanket judgement, and probably reflects the cultural distance between us. “Barbarians” are never Us, they are always Them.

    I think it is probably possible to be critical of such a policy from within. For instance, it might be criticized as lacking in “charity” or “tolerance”, which are values that Mohammed espoused. (I’m by no means up to speed on the nuances of Islam)

    However, such a criticism might fail on two counts: It would identify us as with the peoples of those countries, and often people don’t want that. And it would lack a certain degree of emphasis. I think speakers in this sort of instance want to distance themselves from the act, they see it as shameful, and this sort of language emphasizes that.

    Corporal punishment has lots of issues: It’s hard to administer fairly. It has very different consequences depending on factors of the punished such as age and health. I’m sure there are others.

    And Prohibition is also a difficult policy, as we well know in this country.

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  9. Your teaser asks if it is racist to call “the Saudis” barbaric. The OP asks if it fair to call the “Saudi regime” barbaric.

    I’d say that, yes, it is racist (or some sort of bigotry) to call an entire nation’s worth of people barbaric because of the actions of their unelected leaders. But, if you find the actions of particular people or identifiable groups of people barbaric and can make the argument, by all means, do so.

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  10. We get into this in ecumenical discussions a lot.
    Is there such a thing as a universal norm, true always and everywhere? Or is everything up for grabs, subject to the mob?

    Its true that most of our norms trace back to intuition or revelation. Its not like someone discovered them pre-existing by analysis or something.

    And its not like they apply independently of human nature- they only exist where groups of humans gather because they are things we devise to regulate how we treat each other.

    In theological circles, moral norms are tested by scripture, tradition, and reason; debate and argument and negotiation are the process by which we arrive at a more-or-less satisfactory answer.

    I happen to favor this, since it incorporates aspects of universal norms (for instance, if we all feel a similar intuition, we can assert that it is universal) and it also allows for interpreting the intuitions to fit different circumstances.

    The moral norms across cultures are most of the time, long standing negotiated agreements. The drug war here, or lashing in Saudi Arabia weren’t imposed by some tyrant- they were agreed to by a consensus of the people.

    What we’re having so hard a time with is negotiating the intersection of the two. I think its helpful to point out that these things are tightly interwoven with our larger culture- the drug war is tied to race and class, lashings in the Saudi Kingdom are connected to their extremely hierarchical and class based society.

    Maybe there is a place where a devout Saudi Muslim and secular American can agree on the proper treatment of drugs and alcohol. And maybe we can arrive at a conclusive and morally accurate norm about beheadings and lashings.

    But without the complementary voices of the Saudis and Muslims themselves, it really isn’t possible to come to any sort of just conclusion- peeking thru their windows at how they live their lives and passing judgment really isn’t productive or a way to arrive at justice.

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    • If we’re in a completely materialistic universe than nothing is really universal because nothing really matters after death. This means that every culture can go it’s own way or the best system is the one with the most utility in allowing people to live together.

      In the not so distant past, none of this would matter because of relatively higher cultural isolation. In a globalized and multicultural age, we need to find away for groups with radically different moral franeworks to live together without killing each other.

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      • “If we’re in a completely materialistic universe than nothing is really universal because nothing really matters after death. This means that every culture can go it’s own way or the best system is the one with the most utility in allowing people to live together.”

        How exactly does materialism preclude this?

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  11. And, objectively speaking, I believe my society’s values are better than those of a society that would sanction such activity.

    I’ll respond that first by signing on to what Maribou said above.

    Second, there may be absolute, or “objective,” values. But once we make or deny that claim, we have to roll up our sleeves. it’s hard to judge a “society.” If I concede that we “can” “judge” a “society,” my work has only just begun.

    “[M]y society” and “a society that would sanction such activity” are words (or noun phrases) that do way too much work. In order to even begin to answer your statement/question in the way it deserves to be answered, we have to decide on who constitutes the “society” and in what way the “society” is an “it” or a group of groups, and whether we can assign any given set of “values” to that group. We have to take account of dissenters in that society, of people who may not dissent but who don’t sign on fully to the type of strictures that lead to the punishment, and of the claim by at least one person above that Saudi Arabia may be grandstanding a bit to negotiate with the UK. We also have to take account of a lot of other things.

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  12. This question doesn’t seem to require anyone to pull themselves out of autopilot to respond.

    This question, I think, would be more interesting:

    Is it racist to call the Saudi culture sexist?

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    • This is a much more interesting g question and basically gets to the heart of what these threads are about. Is Enlightenment Liberslism universal and is it wrong to call out non-Western cultures for not following them?

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      • “Enlightenment liberalism” committed genocide against the First Nations people of North America. “Enlightenment liberalism” colonized most of the world. It more or less invented the Hutu-Tutsi division that produced the Rwandan genocide. It used the divide and rule method of manipulating identity divisions to stay in power, in ways that produced the Lebanese and Syrian civil wars. Enlightenment liberalism stole land from Africans en masse using the excuse that people who had lived in a place for generations didn’t have the right paper, and used that land to enrich a few wealthy Europeans. Enlightenment liberalism left hundreds of thousands of Indians to starve in a famine while shipping the food grown in India around the world for profit.

        There’s a difference between what an ideology claims, and what it does.

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        • Typical far leftist self-righteous ahistorical hyperventilating. Enlightenment Liberslism did not even exist as a school of thought when Eurooeans began to settle the Americas. The Spsnish and later the English and the French were motivated by liove of money and the teachings of Jesus, not Enlightenment Liberslism.

          The same is true for the imperialism of the 19th century. Nearly all of the Imperialists claimed to be motivated by commerce and Christisnity. Even in Republicsn France, the Catholic Church played an important role in French colonialism.

          Christisnity is more to blame for imperialism than Liberslism.

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          • I think it’s also worth pointing out that, except in the last example (the Indian food one), all of those things happened while the monarchy/aristocracy was still in power, and democratic institutions were nominal at best, where they existed at all.

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            • So the scramble for Africa didn’t happen after democratic institutions came about in Europe and the US? The displacement of Native Americans from West? The transatlantic slave trade? It sure seems to me that enlightenment values failed badly too prevent western societies from engaging in much of the same “barbarism” as in the bad old days until the very recent past.

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              • Those things certainly continued into those eras, but they all began under the era of monarchies. Arguably, that era did not come to an end until after World War I.

                And I do agree, Enlightenment values did indeed fail to prevent that behavior until the very recent past. But Enlightenment values were not actually in place among the ruling classes in society until the very recent past.

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                • It might do well to look at one of the neo-conservative justifications for the Iraq War, though. The main justification was probably WMD’s, but another one was to spread freedom to a people under a brutal dictatorship. That’s idea has strong “enlightenment liberal” undertones.

                  Of course, there were also, I strongly suspect, many, many ulterior motives (the quest for oil, Bush wanting to be a “wartime president,” somehow getting revenge for 9/11 even if Iraq wasn’t responsible) and those liberal justifications were just window-dressing. But they were there and used nonetheless.

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            • So the Trail of Tears and the US wars against Indians during westward expansion in the 1800s don’t count?

              France was a democracy when it colonized Lebanon and Syria as well. Britain and France were democracies when the colonized Africa.

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              • I’m not at all saying they don’t count, or even trying to exculpate the West for those crimes (which were immense and awful, and there’s no disputing that). I’m saying that the causes of all of those things are considerably more complex than just “because Enlightenment Liberalism”.

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          • I think it’s very difficult to say an ism (or a religion) actually does anything. What’s done is usually so intermixed with people making choices within certain contexts and sometimes using the ism (or religion) as a justification. I’m not saying definitively that ism’s and ideas have no causal effect, just that that effect is hard to tease out from the motives of actors.

            When it comes to “enlightenment liberalism,” I think it’s fair to point out, as Katherine does, that the perpetrators of at least some of the bad things like imperialism and genocides sometimes used ideas we tend to associate with the enlightenment as part of their justification. The Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 was founded at least in part on the “enlightenment liberal” idea of personal rights to real property and against communal ownership. Whatever the merits of that law, I think it’s hard to deny that one effect was to weaken tribal governance.

            France’s colonialists at least in part saw their actions as part of a “mission civilisatrice.” That “mission” was probably bound tightly with the Third Republic’s self-conception as a “Christian (Catholic)” society, but also with its self-conception as a fount of “rational” values. I’m not well-versed in the Fourth Republic’s justification for colonialism, but I’d be surprised if putatively secular, “rational” values weren’t cited to defend France’s efforts to hold Vietnam and Algeria. Algeria is interesting because there were decidedly non-liberal strains in the independence movement in the 1950s–strains which became more evident after independence by the 1990s–and it wouldn’t have been entirely out of the question to defend France’s continued possession on “enlightenment liberal” grounds.

            I bet if we looked at each of the above examples, we’d find non-“enilghtenment liberal” values at play as well as the “enlightenment liberal” ones. So I admit it’s not an absolute connection at all.

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            • I’d feel remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that the Dawes Act was in some ways the type of policy a neo-liberal like myself might be expected to support. And frankly I don’t know what to make of it. But it’s hard not to say that it operated in a way that could be called “imperialist,” in the sense that it was the US legislating for a conquered people in such a way as to weaken their self-governance.

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            • That “mission” was probably bound tightly with the Third Republic’s self-conception as a “Christian (Catholic)” society,

              I think that’s a misunderstanding of the Third Republic. It was intensely, virulently anti-Catholic, because the Catholic Church had been a staunch supporter of the monarchy against republicanism for the previously nearly-100-years, and because hostility towards the Catholic church was one of the few things that held together the disparate left-liberal factions in late-1800s France.

              Putting laïcisme firmly in place was one of the first achievements of the Third Republic, and the values they espoused were the ideas of the French Enlightenment, civilization, and leaving behind the barbarism of organized religion and superstition. Heck, one of the reasons a lot of French liberals in the late 1800s opposed giving women the vote was because they feared women would be too supportive of the Church.

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              • I’m sorry I just now noticed this comment, so please forgive the tardy reply.

                You may very well be right. My knowledge of France’s 3rd Republic is skimpy at best. And for what it’s worth, I have no problem criticizing “enlightenment liberal” values: there’s a lot of good about them, but they’re not everything and taken by themselves or taken to extremes can be used as justification for all kinds of shenanigans.

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    • Again, what do we mean by “the Saudis”? Every man, woman, and child in the country or from the country? Ehhh… I get a little questionable.

      If you want to talk about the Saudi legal system or the dominant Saudi culture, I think you can make an argument that is not racist. You may be wrong, but you can craft that argument.

      You can also craft a really racist argument if you are so inclined.

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      • Fine, then allow me to start again.

        Today, in the year 2015, Georgia still has segregated proms, and the Governor of the state refuses to condemn it for fear that voters will disapprove. Is that culture racist?

        Indeed, is it OK to call US culture racist in any way, since after all, I don’t think such a statement could stand up to the “every man, woman, and child in the country or from the country” test? Come to think of it, I can’t think of a single criticism of American culture that would stand that test. Is American culture therefore something that should not be criticized?

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        • IMHO, cultures are ultimately a set of ideas that are not beholden to any one person, and thus can be criticized freely. The people who live in those cultures, to some extent, are in thrall to that culture, and so to some degree can’t be blamed for awful practices being perpetuated if they don’t have any realistic means of changing them.

          Basically, I would say it’s bigoted to say “Saudis are sexist”, but it would not be bigoted to say “Saudi culture is sexist”. No people are below dignity, but no idea is above criticism. And cultures are just a collection of highly memeticized ideas — they are, to borrow a term from Scott Alexander, Moloch.

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          • Zac: IMHO, cultures are ultimately a set of ideas that are not beholden to any one person, and thus can be criticized freely. The people who live in those cultures, to some extent, are in thrall to that culture, and so to some degree can’t be blamed for awful practices being perpetuated if they don’t have any realistic means of changing them.

            I think I come down somewhere in the middle here.

            It seems wrong, for example, to believe that since some Middle Eastern countries have cultures that are sexist (and IMHO, some to a horrifying degree) it therefore follows that all Middle Easterners and all people of Middle Eastern descent are sexist. It seems wrong as well to come to the conclusion that because other countries have cultures that are very sexist, that it therefore absolves us of any responsibilities to examine our own culture for sexism and take appropriate action.

            But it also seems a mistake not to hold people accountable for their culture, because a culture is created by its people just as much as people are created by their culture. If I cannot speak out against a culture that says its acceptable to stone women for adultery (but not men), what right to I have speaking out against a culture that pays women seventy cents on the dollar as compared to men?

            To say that you can’t criticize a culture because, well, because of whatever reason, is to give tacit approval to whatever a culture does.

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            • I think we actually largely agree, then. You can criticize the cultural ideas that individual Saudis hold, and say that the people who hold those ideas are wrong (or at least espousing beliefs not conducive to human flourishing and happiness, which amounts to the same thing). There’s nothing bigoted about that sort of critique. It’s when you say that Saudis are inherently sexist, and therefore their culture is too, that you enter bigot territory.

              Regarding Saudi Arabia, I think it is incumbent on the decent people who live there to overthrow the monarchy and the mutwa, and make radical changes to their culture to bring it to an egalitarian standard. How they actually do that…well, I assume if they knew they’d already be doing it. It will likely take a very long time before that point is reached, for all the reasons that we all know already and which thus I won’t bother to enumerate.

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              • Most of the actual serious challenges to the Saudi monarchy and the Wahabbi establishment occurred from people who thought they were not Islamic enough. One of the biggest protest against the Saudi royal family occurred when they decided to allow television in 1965. Than there was the protest in Mecca in 1980.

                A popular revolt against the Saudi royal family would not necessarily lead to a political and social system we find acceptable.

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                • Oh, I agree. But sadly, I don’t see any better alternatives.The Saudis will have to do this for themselves, one way or another. It’s not as though another culture would be able to successfully impose their values from outside, at least not directly. The best the rest of the world can do is support liberal reformers materially if and when they appear.

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                  • Yes, we can’t force liberalism on people. One big problem is that one person’s liberal is another person’s colonial stooge. The people I’d support are probably that the people that somebody to the further left would.

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                  • It’s not as though another culture would be able to successfully impose their values from outside, at least not directly.

                    The rest of the US did this with the American South, twice.

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                        • As soon as the Supremes gutted the VRA, a bunch of Southern states started restricting the franchise in ways that just so happened to mostly disenfranchise black residents. Did you think that was just a coincidence?

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                          • I heard about some shenanigans in Alabama, regarding highly-selective DMV office closures. What are the remaining states that make up the “bunch”?

                            Maybe we need to get a Supreme Court that isn’t so heavily-composed of Southerners, to prevent this sort of thing via the enlightened supervision of the rest of the country.

                            Oh, wait.

                            Look, you’re obviously already pulling back into messy reality from the “reinstate slavery” science-fiction bit, so I’m probably satisfied.

                            Plus, it’s hard to hear anything over the constant din of banjos playing “Dixie”, anyway.

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                              • Of course it’s the usual suspects. It didn’t apply in most other places. Indiana passed some of the toughest restrictions in the country, but it doesn’t appear in the link because they weren’t affected by the Shelby decision.

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                                • It’s even worse than I, or Glyph, thought. :)

                                  Adding: more seriously, I linked that article in response to Glyph’s comment that only Alabama has engaged in voting related shenanigans, and that only a few weeks ago. Most of the roll-backs took place before the Shelby decision was handed down.

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                          • Tangential, but I admit to a personal curiosity about how this Court would rule if the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, asserting perpetual federal authority over lands held by the feds at that point in time, which had radically different impacts on different states, were challenged. Not taking a position, just curious.

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                        • My eyes would have rolled a few weeks ago. Now with some talk show hosts bringing up the idea of forcing illegal immigrants and prisoners into forced indentured servitude, I dunno.

                          Huckabee was saying it was a common sense solution just last week.

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          • To elaborate, the problem with saying Saudis are sexist or Americans are racist is not only the implied universality, but also the implication it is inherent to them. Both of which are bigoted. But saying that a culture or society is racist or sexist — or, better yet, that it contains racist/sexist aspects — moves us from talking about people to talking about actions and ideas. And I think we not only can have those conversations, but should.

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              • Not if you are basing that argument on an actual analysis of Saudi culture and applying an objective standard.

                If your argument is, “Ew, brown people,” you’re being racist.

                If your argument is, “It’s okay when we do X but sexist when they do X,” you’re probably being some form of bigot.

                My (admitedly limited) understanding of Saudi culture tells me it is more sexist/misogynistic than most.

                I see your point: some sect of liberals want to say, “Evil awful Christians,” and follow them up with, “We can’t judge Muslims.” That is problematic. The problem is many folks who are gung ho about judging Muslims seem less interested in actually addressing sexism or homophobia and more interested in bashing Muslims. So it creates a really weird dynamic. But we should denounce sexism, homphobia, racism, etc. in all its forms, no matter the practitioner/perpetrator. But we should do it with an eye towards eradicating it, not just serving another form of bigotry.

                ETA: To answer your question directly… not necessarily, but it can be.

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                • “But we should denounce sexism, homphobia, racism, etc. in all its forms, no matter the practitioner/perpetrator. But we should do it with an eye towards eradicating it, not just serving another form of bigotry.”

                  I agree.

                  I think where I might part company with most people in this thread, however, is that I think that there are things that fall (mostly) outside of sexism, racism, homophobia that also require condemnation.

                  I’m pushing back in this thread because there seems to be a tacit approval of a culture that canes or flogs it’s citizens for non-violent infractions of the law. And while my perception might well be wrong, it feels to me like this tacit approval stems from a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” mindset. That is, condemning a brutal act by a Muslim country is something I think a conservative would do, so I’m going to act appropriately and at best let that brutality go unremarked upon or at worst shame those who do speak out against that types of brutality.

                  As with most political arguments here, I feel like I’m being asked to make a false choice: I am allowed to choose to believe like the Saudi culture is in many ways brutal and barbaric and in many ways in need of an overhaul, especially where it’s criminal justice system is concerned — or — I am allowed to choose to believe that the US has issues that make it less than perfect, and that racism here exists and should be fought. However, it appears that I am not really allowed to choose both, because it is apparent if I believe the former than I must be condemned for not believing the latter.

                  I reject this dichotomy; I believe both of these things can be true at the same time.

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                    • I said tacit approval, which I think it is.

                      Kind of like how if an employer knows that sexual harassment is going on in their workplace but refuses to address it over time, it is legally seen as tacit approval of the harassment.

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                      • I’m not sure “tacit approval” moves the needle all that much. Changing the latter part to “We’re not in a position to cast judgment on those who give tacit approval for caning given the things that we give tacit approval to” keeps my comment in tact.

                        (I’m a bit torn on it myself, seeing merits to the criticisms offered (glass houses, tend to your own yard, etc) while at the same time not being completely satisfied with them – at least where that lands the argument of who has standing to criticize whom. And also, to be honest, being a bit suspicious of an argument that I have seen made very opportunistically and inconsistently in the past. Though, I should say, Chris and Kazzy both have a really good record on this score.)

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                    • Tod may have forgotten how the questions were posed in the OP while reading the comments. The reaction is less to the barbarity of Saudi Arabia than to the suggestion that it is uniquely so, and that the barbarity itself is associated with a dominant aspect of Saudi culture. In that context, no one is suggesting Tod should make a choice. They are instead answering the specific question asked by pointing out that our system, without dominant Islam, can be quite brutal in its enforcement of prohibition as well. Less so? It seems so, but isn’t that where the interesting discussion can take place? Particularly given the size and brutality of our prison system, and that we, like the Saudis, remain on the side of barbarism when it comes to capital punishment.

                      We do have at least one person here from a country that uses caning as a punishment for non-violent offenses. And we’ve had interesting discussions here before about corporal punishment vs. imprisonment. The ethical case for one vs. the other isn’t as straightforward as the visceral reaction to caning might make it seem.

                      Granted, caning an elderly man raised other problems, but so would imprisoning him. We actually try to deal with those problems in our own system (taking advanced age or illness into account, say).

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                    • America has its problems, but I believe we’ve largely progressed beyond the government sanctioning and administering the caning of a feeble old man in remission from cancer.

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                  • I couldn’t agree with you more on this, Tod.

                    Really, I think you guys are overthinking this a bit. We can and should judge other cultures. We can and should judge our own culture. And the culture one was born into shouldn’t matter. Full stop.

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                • “Not if you are basing that argument on an actual analysis of Saudi culture and applying an objective standard.”

                  This is problematic for me. Either you can or you can’t criticize another culture’s values. Your methods shouldn’t matter.

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                  • Okay, I’ll say we can judge another culture’s values. But…methods matter a lot when it comes time to actually do the judging.

                    We can take a given action and judge it to be horrible. But how representative that action is of the culture in which it takes place, how it corresponds to or contradicts non-horrible or even positive things about the culture, how we’re defining the “culture” or the “society” in the first place, and for that matter, how we’re defining “horrible” or “barbaric”–those depend on some sort of methodology. And while Maribou’s very excellent point above doesn’t necessarily mean that we can’t judge (and by the way, I’ve just said we can), it should give us pause that when we expand our judgement past the action to the “culture” or the “society,” maybe we should investigate a little more.

                    There’s the anecdote methodology. Then there’s the methodology where we try to learn enough about the culture’s society to make the judgment.

                    When I say we have to be careful about judging other cultures, I’m not saying we can’t judge them, just that it’s a loaded exercise. I’m also distinguishing between judging a horrible aspect of a given culture–in this case, caning someone for violating prohibition–and using that datum, by itself, to make the sweeping judgment about the culture. So yes, “it is indeed appropriate in certain circumstances to compare cultures in a normative sense.” But we have to educate ourselves a lot about those cultures before our comparisons and our judgment hold much water.

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                    • ‘s point seems to be that it’s okay to judge another culture so long as you’re applying an “objective standard”. I’m looking for some clarification on that.

                      I agree with your points on being careful and wise and whatnot, but I think at the end of the day, along with and , it’s foolish to think that ceteris paribus we cannot and/or should not judge another culture for terrible behavior.

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                      • I didn’t mean objective standard. Rather, I was discussing how to judge culture without being racist. If you say Saudi culture is sexist because X, Y, and Z with each of those being an example of what you’d call sexism, we can evaluate your argument. It might still be racist if you are applying an inconsistent standard, but at least we can evaluate the argument.

                        If your argument is that Saudi culture is sexist because of course it is because ew icky brown people are just always sexist, there is nothing to evaluate: you are being racist.

                        As I said to Tod, we can and should judge the ideas and actions of others. Ideas and actions help constitute culture so, by extension, we can judge cultures. But the goal should be eradicating harmful ideas and practices, not furthering them.

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                          • Yes and no. I have encountered people who more or less make that argument. I have also encountered the more common and more insidious kinds. Which is why I mentioned that issue with inconsistent standards. If behavior X is fine for white folks but awful for brown folks — even if we might agree that behavior X is actually awful! — that position is racist.

                            It is why I am somewhat skeptical of the supposed concern among conservatives of sexism in Islam when they completely refuse to address sexism in Christianity or Judaism or America or conservatism or… There is definitely some bigotry going on there.

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                      • Thanks for your answer Christopher Carr. That clears things up for me.

                        I’d like to add something to ‘s point below (above?):

                        If your argument is that Saudi culture is sexist because of course it is because ew icky brown people are just always sexist, there is nothing to evaluate: you are being racist.

                        That’s one of those things that I imagine you (CC) and Tod, and most of us here, agree with. My addition is to suggest that it’s not always clear when “eww icky brown people” is in play. I also believe that such an attitude is perhaps inherent in, say, my attempts to judge Saudi culture, and I believe in most Unitedstatesians’ attempts to judge that culture. That doesn’t mean I or Unitedstatesians can’t judge that culture, just that that’s the baggage we’re carrying with it. And it’s tragically part of the mix.

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                          • Another dynamic — and I think that was getting at this — is that most judging of Muslims/Muslim cultures/Islam is happening in the conservosphere and is rather unseemly. Many (most) liberals resist the conversations. So the conversations tend to skew right — and hostile. This makes it harder to engage the topic constructively. Which shouldn’t serve as an excuse to not have the conversation — also, I believe, part of Tod’s point.

                            Perhaps it behooves liberals to take lead on this conversation so we can resist sexism in Muslim cultures without going full Islamaphobe (with all necessary caveats about resisting sexism everywhere and it not being unique or inherent to Muslim cultures etc etc).

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                            • How are liberals supposed to take the lead on this without effectively conceding the point conservative’s are making here, which is that Muslim countries embrace a bunch of values which our culture not only rejects, but view as actually harmful and potentially dangerous? I ask that seriously, cuz right now I don’t see how that needle gets threaded, myself.

                              I should add, I’m a big supporter of distinguishing between a person, and the behavior a person engages in. But insofar as Muslim countries support a bunch of types of behaviors which we view as clearly immoral, it becomes increasing difficult to not criticize Muslim cultures along pretty much the lines conservatives do. Seems to me anyway.

                              That doesn’t mean we should bomb them outa an irrational fear of The Terrah, btw, but rather that the grain of truth in conservative criticisms of (some!) Muslim cultures seems to be accepted by liberals as well, just along a different axis.

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                              • I think we discuss specifics. “Forcing women to wear particular clothing is sexist. It is sexist whether it is a burka in Saudi Arabia, a wig on Orthodox Jewish women, or skirts on girls in private schools.”

                                And the moment conservatives say, “See? Muslims are monsters!” We point out they’re wrong and continue conversing like adults with adults. Relegate them to the sidelines rather than let them steer the conversation.

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                                • It seems to me both you and Tod are concerned with defending that a person can criticize Muslim practices without that judgment entailing that Muslims are monsters. What I’m concerned with is whether expressing those types of judgments constitute an expression of (cultural) racism. And what I wrote above is that just as conservatives are expressing racism when they express judgment about certain Muslim practices and beliefs, so do liberals when they express their own judgments about Muslim practices and beliefs.

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                                    • Is it necessary to think that one’s culture is superior to another in order to judge it? I think that is a fundamental question we need to answer here.

                                      I don’t think that American culture is superior to Saudi culture (in part because I really don’t know the in’s and out’s of Saudi culture). But I, personally, think that a culture that allows all people (women included!) to wear what they want is better (Perhaps it is better to say preferable? Personally preferable? Now I don’t know…) than one that restricts what people wear. And I think it is even worse when those restrictions are aimed at a particular subset of society and seem motivated by a believe that that subset is worse than others. Now, America isn’t perfect in the whole, “Let women wear what they want!” thing. But it seems we are better at it than Saudi Arabia is, insofar as we define better as, “Letting more women wear more of what they want more often!” Which I personally define as better. So, on the metric of, “Letting women wear whatever they want!” I’m fairly confident saying American culture is “better” than Saudi culture.

                                      Does that make me a racist? I don’t really see how it can but, well, I’m inclined to think I’m not a racist!

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    • Is it racist to call the Saudi culture sexist?

      OK, I haven’t thought this thru all the way yet, but let’s start by making a distinction between observable properties in the world and the descriptive concepts we (ideally) build outa those properties, and stipulate that practices X1 …. Xn comprise what we, as well-trained westerners, view as instances under which the concept “sexism” can be correctly applied. As a descriptive matter, and given our accepted definition of what sexism means, it seems to me (and let’s suppose this is true, otherwise your question isn’t an interesting one!) that Saudi culture is sexist, that is, properties X1 … Xn predominate in Saudi culture justifying the (correct) application of the term “sexist” to it.

      What I’d like to say here is that as a matter of description – and again, assuming the description is correct – asserting that Saudi culture is sexist (as we use the term!) does not necessarily entail any normative content. It’s just either factually true or false insofar as Saudi culture is comprised of the various X1…Xn properties, and insofar as the term applies it does not convey any negative judgment. And if that’s the case, then it seems to me that a person could argue that Saudi culture is sexist (as we use the term!) without that argument entailing that the person so arguing is a racist.

      Course, two things emerge right quick that throw a kink in the works. The first is that it is very rare (so rare I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered it happening) for a person to assert that an action or state of affairs is sexist without that assertion both expressing as well as intending it to be viewed as expressing a logically entailed moral judgment, one that in this case would apply to the entirety of relevant social institutions which define Saudi culture. And that sounds a bit racist, no doubt.

      The other problem is the assumption that we can apply our concepts, based on our value-schemes and cultural institutions, to another culture and arrive at interesting normative judgments about that society. And that’s where I think the methodology breaks down a bit, since the normative judgment accompanying the descriptively correct application of the word “sexist” to a state of affairs requires the acceptance of a value system under which that description actually does entail viewing it as morally wrong. And of course, the Saudis (as a culture! by hypothesis!) fail to embrace those values. So applying a moral judgment to Saudis fully generally based on our own values, without additional and independent argument for the normative correctness of those values, strikes me as a form of ethnocentrism at the very least, but racism as well.

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      • Well, that’s an interesting argument. (And to be clear, I mean interesting as in thought provoking, not interesting as in weird.)

        Do you mind if I put it to a real world test?

        In Saudi Arabia, women are often considered legally at fault in cases of their own rape as well as their own domestic abuse. In a well-documented case from a few years back, an 18-year old woman was kidnapped by a group of men, held captive, and repeatedly raped and beaten. However, because she was in a car with a man when she was taken, the rape, kidnapping, and assaults were determined to be her fault. She was sentenced to 90 lashes from flogging and six months in prison for having put her assailants in a place of temptation.

        I believe the laws that allow this to be sexist. Furthermore, I believe such laws to be morally abhorrent. Am I right in believing from your answer that I am guilty of racism for believing this?

        If so, I’m curious: Were a white ultra-right-wing radio host to propose that the US have similar laws to Saudi Arabia (and to be true, I have heard some like Michael Savage come awfully damn close), I would find that person’s suggestion to be both sexist and morally abhorrent. Is that still racist of me to think so, or does the racism automatically disappear in that instance?

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        • Am I right in believing from your answer that I am guilty of racism for believing this?

          Yes. Well, “racist” might not be the best word here (I was following your lead on that) since we’re talking about culture more broadly. But yeah, you think you’re culture is better than the Saudi culture. And for that moral judgment to be an expression of anything other than ethnocentrism you’d need to argue, as CC suggested above, that your values are objectively better than Saudi Arabia’s.

          I’m not saying that can’t be done, by the way. I was just exploring the relationship between calling a culture sexist as an expression of racism.

          I think, anyway.

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          • To whatever degree you are right, I think that having the definition of “racism” expanded to a place where I am discouraged from disapproving of things like conditions of women’s right in SA makes that world less useful to me.

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            • I’m not sure it’s an expansion. Here’s the definition I was using (I checked before writing the post to make sure I was right about it):

              Racist: a person who believes that a particular race is superior to another.

              And again, that word doesn’t strictly apply to what we’re talking about since we’re talking about cultures rather than races.

              Adding: regarding being discouraged about a label applying to you if true: we all know you’re not *that kind* of racist. :)

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              • What I mean is, if we are defining “racism” in such a way that my saying “I believe that a law mandating the flogging of women for the crime of being sexually assaulted and beaten by men is immoral” makes me a racist, then one of two things has to be true.

                With that definition, either

                1. there is nothing immoral about about flogging a women for having been raped and beaten by men

                or

                2. Racism is something we should often strive for.

                And I think when we get to that place, then the concept of “racism” is kind of useless to me.

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                • if we are defining “racism” in such a way that my saying “I believe that a law mandating the flogging of women for the crime of being sexually assaulted and beaten by men is immoral” makes me a racist, then one of two things has to be true.

                  I don’t think redefining racism to accommodate your own views is gonna get you very far, actually. What I wrote above is just the standard definition. That some people associate the word with a narrower meaning, and use it as if that were the only meaning, is just par for the political discourse.

                  Also, what we were talking about above is the relationship between viewing Saudi culture as sexist and whether or not doing so constituted an expression of racism. What you said up there is on objection to a specific practice, and merely opposing that practice doesn’t mean you view Saudi society as sexist, tho it is probably one of the many properties by which that term would correctly apply.

                  Seems to me.

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                  • I don’t think I am redefining racism.

                    Look, lets take all the emotional baggage away for a moment.

                    Let say that there are two countries, Country A and Country B. Country A is populated by dark-skinned people and Country B by caucasian people. Both of these countries have highways and bridges.

                    My noting that Country A has highways and bridges is not racist. Not would it be racist if JR or Dennis came along and noted that Country B had highways and bridges. The fact that there are (or aren’t) highways and bridges in a country is the same regardless of what the skin color of the people who use those highways and bridges.

                    Similarly, for me at least, saying that flogging a woman for being raped is immoral is not a racist statement. The race, religion, country of origin, height or weight of the people doing the flogging is not in any way relevant to my decision that the action is immoral.

                    Similarly, I find genocide immoral in and of itself, regardless of all the same previously described criteria. I believe what this country did to Native Americans an atrocity. Does that make me a racist? I am not black or African, but I think the Rwandan genocide was an atrocity. Does that make me racist? I am not German nor Jewish, but I think the same about the Holocaust. Does that make me anti-Semitic?

                    I don’t think I’m changing any definitions to suite myself here.

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                  • No, it seems to me you’re moving the goal posts. The view we’ve been discussing is whether or not viewing Saudi Arabia as sexist, with all the associated normative judgments such a view entails, constitutes an expression of racism. It seems to me what you’re suggesting now is that a person could view every individual Saudi norm which they disagree with in isolation, judge them as immoral, and thereby get passed the judgment of racism by not having judged Saudi Arabia as sexist. But that sounds to me like saying a person could view Saudi Arabia as embracing practices X1…Xn without making a judgment that Saudi Arabia is sexist, even tho X1…Xn is precisely what constitutes sexism.

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                      • Don’t bow out! YOu’re the one who asked the initial question!

                        If you want to talk about something else, then by all means, let’s do so. But you asked a question, and I gave what struck me as a (coherent…) answer. Where we’re at right now is that you don’t like the answer I gave. So rather than reject it because you disagree with the conclusion, let’s go back and see where I made a mistake in my argument. Seems to me, as I said, that saying that Saudi Arabia is sexist, as those words are conventionally used, is an expression of racism, ie., that a person believes his own race (well, culture) is superior to the Saudi’s.

                        I don’t know why this is troubling to folks, actually. CC stated right up front that he thinks our own cultural values are objectively better (at least wrt the lashing for booze situation) than Saudi Arabia. Personally, I’m inclined to agree with him even tho I can’t come up with a good argument defending that view. (Mine are based on thought experiments. Booo!)

                        And it seems to me that you’re saying precisely the same thing: that our culture is better – and presumably objectively so – wrt promoting and protecting the interests and rights of women than the Saudi’s are.

                        Where are you getting off the bus? And why?

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        • Alsotoo, here’s a way to make sense of the Michael Savage example you mentioned above: it seems to me lots and lots of conservatives reject the predominant liberal value-scheme precisely because they reject the the liberal-ish moral judgments which follow from a perhaps agreed upon description. That is, conservatives reject that the moral judgments which liberal’s believe logically follow from that description. They have a very different value scheme in play.

          Which shouldn’t be construed as a defense of Michael Savage.

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        • Good question! I thought about that quite a bit while writing the above comments, actually, since if it were the case that argument and evidence could establish that certain types of practices and values are objectively better, then it sorta follows that a belief culture A is superior could be both an expression of racism but true as well.

          I think that’s a hard claim to defend in practice, for obvious reasons. But it strikes me as possible. Or maybe the better way to say it is I don’t see any reason why it would be NOT be possible.

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          • Then, at that point, we’re dealing with the possibility of an issue where we’re in tension between the whole “don’t be racist” thing and the whole “acknowledge reality” thing.

            While it’s probably true that being racist has caused more harm than keeping one’s gums from flapping, it’s probably better to have a policy where “don’t be racist” is the better policy for us, as a society.

            Insofar as we have that policy, we’re a lot better than societies that don’t have it.

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        • I do think it’s possible for something to be both racist and true, but only in the false ideal situation that race and culture/ideology are 100% correlated. I’m not an idealist, so I reject this question as meaningless.

          Of the major articulated world ideologies, notably, communism, Islam, Christianity, and democracy claim to be race-blind. Thus, I don’t see any racism problems with meeting good-faith criticism on any of those ideologies.

          Now, it is certainly possible to be a cultural chauvinist, but I’m not sure there’s anything inherently wrong with that, if your culture happens to be “better” at something than another culture. For example, the French make better food than the English; the Japanese are better at holding their tempers in check than the Americans; the Scottish are better at not caning elderly cancer survivors than the Saudis; etc.

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    • While it might be racist to call Saudi Arabia sexist, that’s different from institutional racism.

      I mean, it might be racist to call Saudi Arabia swinophobic but that still doesn’t change the fact that it’s illegal to have pigs or pig products in the country.

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  13. I tend to think comparing cultures against each other is just a way to feel better about ourselves.

    Does our culture do things that are barbaric? Is it barbaric to purchase products (sugar, chocolate, tea, and others) that are produced by slaves? Is it barbaric to leave people to freeze to death on the streets because they don’t have money? Is it barbaric to send police to destroy any tents, temporary homes and communities they create? Is it barbaric to send people to prisons where they will be raped, and to have media that widely regards the fact that they will be raped as funny or deserved? Is it barbaric to protect security forces from consequences when they kill people who posed no threat? Is it barbaric to kill innocent people overseas and make entire nations live in fear, in the hopes that some of the people we kill may have posed a threat? Is it barbaric to kill doctors who are selflessly caring for injured civilians, and to regard that as something that just happens sometimes in war, and yet to continue waging war? Is it barbaric to leave people to die of preventable illness because they aren’t rich enough? It is barbaric to drive people from their homes because they aren’t rich enough? Is it barbaric to have security forces who grab people off the streets and drop them outside of the city at night to freeze when it’s -40 Celsius? Is it barbaric to execute innocents, to recognize that we have done so, and to continue executing people? Is it barbaric to determine whether or not people go to prison on the basis of how much money they have (and hence whether they can hire a good lawyer)? Is it barbaric to leave people to starve to death because they don’t have enough money?

    Granted, the Saudis do a lot of this too (including using slavery more directly). But the fundamental point is: it’s very easy to look elsewhere and say “barbarity”, and be blinded to our own.

    As for the question of Islam and human rights: it wasn’t Islamic nations that colonized three-quarters of the world. It wasn’t Islamic countries that started the two most brutally destructive wars in human history. Every culture has its evils.

    We can say “this action is wrong”. It’s sanctimonious and arrogant to say “this culture is wrong” (and by implication, ours is right).

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    • So how good would a society have to be before some caparisons become okay? Perfect? Or are you saying that societies necessarily are morally equivalent, since they all have their evils? Or we just shouldn’t talk about it even if the differences are stark, so long one of them isn’t perfect? Or even if one of them were, because comparisons are odious?

      Are you sure you’ve never willingly engaged in a little bit of moral comparison of societal values between different societies that just happened to allow for America to be on the side of the comparison that you prefer to see it be on in such comparisons?

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  14. The problem with judgment is that for one thing it is a lazy calculation that is designed to make us smug.

    Another is that it allows us to narrow ethical behavior down to our preferred creeds and dictums.

    Is it possible that most Saudi women enjoy the patriarchal sex role definitions, even while a minority don’t and are harshly oppressed for it?

    Isn’t it likely that our universal moral intuitions, that everyone should be free to seek the good within certain consensus boundaries, can be accomplished in different ways?

    Again, without the active voices of Muslims to describe their own viewpoints, this is just a bunch of us talking about What’s Wrong With Those People.

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    • These types of things are very hard to determine. There were lots of Western women that didn’t like what the Feminists were advocating during the mid-20th century because they thought their role as wife and mother was disappearing. There were others that gave silent support but didn’t make noise because they found their roles chaffing. We know what the advocates of reform and tradition want because they make the most noise. Everybody else tends to stay more quiet.

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  15. Given that our countries do things that could easily be compared to what other countries do, doesn’t that imply that they do things that could easily be compared to what we do?

    Therefore, why should we care that we do anything? It’s not like Saudi doesn’t do something similar.

    Where in the hell do you get off judging me for doing any given thing? It’s not like you don’t do something that I can’t judge you for doing.

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  16. We’re currently going through a re-thinking of how people criticize other people and what it’s appropriate to criticize (“fat-shaming” is the easy example… there are other examples that strike me as being less lazy but I can also see how they’d inspire arguments over whether they’d be representative of anything but the existence of outliers).

    Given that we are currently re-thinking our ability to criticize each other as individuals, it’s not really like we can avoid issues of whether it makes sense to criticize individuals from other cultures doing things that seem somewhat rooted in their being members of another (foreign) culture.

    But that carried to its logical conclusion leads to some sort of weird determinism. You can’t blame the proto-American people in the 1600s for having slaves and you can’t blame the some of the people in the Southern states in the 1850’s for still having them, but you can’t blame the North for being willing to wage a war over slavery issues. But you can’t blame some of the people in the Southern states for Jim Crow laws following reconstruction but you can’t blame some of the people in the Northern states for fighting against these same laws (well, many were dragging their feet when it came to fighting these laws but you can’t blame them for that either).

    And anything that happens is something that logically follows what came before.

    Hey, Saudi doing something like this logically follows where they were in the 1200s. You can’t blame them for being like this now.

    The only thing that it seems you can really blame people for is trying to change other cultures.

    But, from here, I just want to say that you really can’t blame people for wanting to change other cultures. It pretty much logically follows from where they are right now. But if you can’t keep yourself from criticizing them for criticizing other cultures, I suppose I can’t blame you for that either.

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  17. Stillwater: How are liberals supposed to take the lead on this without effectively conceding the point conservative’s are making here, which is that Muslim countries embrace a bunch of values which our culture not only rejects, but are actually harmful and potentially dangerous? I ask that seriously, cuz right now I don’t see how that needle gets threaded, myself.

    I think the answer is that it’s a needle that doesn’t need to be threaded.

    The problem in the Conservasphere, I think, isn’t that conservatives are horrified by many of the things that happen in some Muslim Theocracies. The problem is really two-fold:

    1. People in the Conservasphere make the illogical leap that since some Muslim countries do Evil things, that all Muslims are therefore Evil and will kill us if we don’t prevent them from doing so. Even Muslims who are US citizens, were born and raised here, and have as much in common with those Saudi Arabians who stole women to death for having sex as that Catholic guy who works down the hall in accounting has to do with Pope Lucious III.

    2. They also make the error of believing that if we just kill enough theocratic Muslims in their own countries, all the surviving Muslims will love us and give us discounted prices on oil.

    You can be against genocide or state-sanctioned violence against women (or even theocracy) without having to go down the rabbit holes of either 1 or 2 above. Much in the same way that I can believe that addiction to drugs is a serious issue and certain drugs are down right scary and should not be legal, without having to support either the War on Drugs policies of the drug-related incarceration issues that have swelled out of control.

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  18. Christ,
    At 190 comments, I’m sure this has already been covered. He lived there, he knew the rules. I’m not shedding a tear.

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