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The Contemporary Monomyth

A culture, to participants within it, consists of nothing so much as the stories we tell one another about ourselves. The literal truth of these stories isn’t particularly important, although their power derives from a cultural convention that they are, at some meaningful level, truth. Those who have felt the intellectual thrill of Joseph Campbell’s writings recognize such a story as the very definition of a myth.1 In such a definition, a myth is a good thing, something essential to a culture. Indeed, one might suggest that a sufficiently powerful myth for a culture is the culture.

One of America’s great myths tells the story of a hero so iconic that we need no longer know the details of his story at all to know what the story stands for. Indeed, we have forgotten that the name “Horatio Alger” was not the hero of the story, but rather its author — Mr. Alger wrote dozens of books with essential the same rags-to-riches story, aimed at enriching the author by way of inspiring young boys. Alger’s name has become a standalone phrase for the concept that an American who zealously and diligently works will sooner or later dramatically elevate his economic and social circumstances, which in turns implies the concept that the culture and polity of America will allow such a thing to happen to anyone who deserves it.2

I’m not certain that people broadly believe in the Horatio Alger myth anymore. This myth debatably motivated America from the end of the Civil War to the Second World War and its immediate aftermath: it is a myth seemingly calculated to motivate and inform rapid economic expansion, and in turn derive mass acceptance of its truth from the energy of that expansion. Today, I perceive that people are more willing to embrace the notion of generational economic stasis once associated with the economic class stratification of Britain: most people I interact with seem to accept the notion that “I will be roughly as wealthy as my parents were, and my children will be roughly as wealthy as me.”

So if I’m right that we’ve largely walked away from Horatio Alger, what is the national myth of the United States, and by extension, the America-influenced West? According to Virginia Postrel, our current national myth is one of Desperate Entrenchment. That which made our nation great in the past is under siege: it is being subverted from within and eroded from without. The “conservative,” or more accurately “nationalist,” version of this myth is that we have lost our national greatness to political correctness, an unwillingness to embrace our European and Christian heritage, and a pursuit of redistributive economic policies; we are simultaneously beset by economic refugees from Spanish-speaking nations to our south and Arabic-speaking terrorists seeking to do violence upon us in the name of Allah. This is the American Red Tribe’s Myth of Desperate Entrenchment, a myth of a large and still-pure, but steadily dwindling and besieged, group of pure and morally good people.

Postrel elides, though, that there is another myth in circulation now, reactive to the nationalist myth of entrenchment — and it is that myth’s mirror image. I admit a bit of partiality to this myth. On that side of the coin, America has abdicated its noble past of commitment to liberalism, democracy, and freedom; it has abdicated its place of leadership in the world. A poorly-educated segment of the electorate, and the ill-informed, malignly-motivated, and anti-intellectual leaders who have taken cynical advantage of those gullible voters, created this dangerously self-destructive state of affairs, and they must be fought and purged from power internally if America is to regain her strength and vitality as a nation. The American Blue Tribe, you see, really does have its own version of the Myth of Desperate Entrenchment and at one level, it really isn’t that different from the Red Tribe’s.

In both the nationalist and the liberal sides of this myth, America the once-great is now teetering on the edge of economic, military, and most of all moral collapse. And the Other Tribe is to blame. This is our myth, and I submit that it matters not whether one sympathizes with the Blue Tribe or the Red Tribe, we all buy into this myth to at least some degree. Note further, if you will, that the pathway to survival for the Desperately Entrenched is through achieving a greater purity of That Which Makes Us Good. It is most certainly not Finding Common Ground With The Others.

Postrel goes further and points out that this doesn’t necessarily have to be our myth. We have examples, perhaps grim, of unity and togetherness and kindness and a common identity and all sorts of other civic and moral virtues. But these are not the stories that we like to tell each other. These are not the stories we see in the media and in particular due to the polarizing effect of instantaneous communication, the reason for that is that the media finds that stories which gain purchase with the audience are those which generate economic reward. Thus, as consumers of ideas, we have chosen the Myth of Desperate Entrenchment as our cultural emblem.

With this in mind, I took time in the wake of the latest report of appalling terrorism in London to listen to Tom Holland’s 2015 Hay Festival lecture:

Tom Holland 'De-Radicalising Muhammad'

Dr. Holland’s central argument is predicated upon the assumption that Muslim-Arabic culture, in broad strokes, looks to the aggregated stories in the Koran, the hadith, and the sharia, as their source material for their mythology. Perhaps this seems so basic that he does not feel the need to elucidate this foundational notion. He does make explicit, during Q&A after his prepared remarks, that just as the Bible offers Christians a great amount of source material from which they might extract the stories which are employed as myths, so too do Muslims.

Now, Holland is a Westerner, from a traditionally Christian culture, and an academic. So in one sense he isn’t telling his story. I looked to a Muslim writer to offer a perspective that is more of an “insider’s.” I turned to Shadi Hamid’s Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World, published a few months after Dr. Holland’s lecture. Hamid’s argument so closely parallels Holland’s that they might as well have been prepared collaboratively. In a very condensed version of his book prepared for The Atlantic, Hamid points out that what we are seeing play out in Islamic political circles is a generation’s-remove from an academic argument among Muslim scholars called “Salafism,” which hearkens back to looking at the lives and actions of the Salafi, the first Muslims who personally knew and interacted with Mohammed, and their immediate descendants.

Salafism is, as Hamid describes, usually associated with “ultraconservative literalism, theocratic rule, and religious violence.” But Hamid tells a story that is a bit more complicated than this: The movement looks to the example of the al-Salaf al-Salih, the first two or three generations of Muslims, the ones who knew Mohammed personally, or who took guidance from those who knew Mohammed personally. Still, this description suggests a backwards-looking, historically-focused emphasis, which Hamid rejects: “the purity and purification of Islam mean[s] moving away from bland imitation and literalism, not toward it,” because authors of successive generations of sharia grew more and more technical and removed from the realities of everyday life, not to mention subject to the vagaries of day-to-day political influence. At the same time, uneducated Muslims fell prey to “superficial and superstitious understandings of Islam,” as well as a vision of “the inferiority of Islamic civilization.” Thus, they reacted to the tanzimat, an effort by the failing Ottoman Empire to mold the sharia into creating a religious duty to support the state, and a competing school of thought that Muslims should emulate the West’s adherence to public secularism so as to join Europe’s power and prosperity.

Salafism more or less won the war for Muslim hearts and minds — meaning that it became the dominant myth of that culture. And whether it expresses itself in peaceful theological study or violent terrorism, it too has become the Myth of Desperate Entrenchment. When Muslims apply the Quran to their lives, they prosper and succeed; when they stray into mysticism (as had the Sufi) the loss of moral rectitude led to a loss of temporal power and a reversion to a less civilized state of existence. Salafism’s original authors portrayed Islam as allied with science and reason, sneering at the Christian Bible that does not mention reason, and instead relies upon secondhand accounts of purported miracles. Universities, therefore, should teach science and technology rather than airy theology; such theology as was taught should reconcile Islam to reason and logic.

The facet of Islam that seems pressingly important to those of us in the West who look with horror at Daesh and other acts of violence perpetrated in various permutations of association with Islam, is the use of the concepts of jihad, war, and violence. As described by Hamid, the original cast of Salafism was opposed to the concept of jihad as the focus of temporal power and territorial war. Instead, to the Salafist of the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, jihad is a “struggle,” and to the extent that it has a temporal, military dimension, it is defensive. The original writings describe ideas that Christians would recognize as closely congruent with their own “just war theory.” In this way, the Salafists sought to adapt direct Koranic verses and early concepts of Muslim life to a modern world dominated by nation-states and scientific sophistication.

Those in the West who yearn for Islam to undergo a Reformation as did Christianity and thus transform itself into a force aimed at peace and growth ignore a frightening truth: Islam is in the midst of such a reformation right now. Dr. Holland uses another rather scary analogy to, strangely, offer long-term hope — the Thirty Years War. It took a generation-long struggle consuming an entire continent, with the underlying theological issues never fully resolved, before Christendom became Europe and its people developed a durable weariness for engaging in religious violence. Such reformations, he suggests, come with both internally-directed and externally-directed war.

So what happened? It is tempting to say that another school of thought, Wahhabism, came along and corrupted the Salafi religious reformation, But in fact, the scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab died in the middle of the eighteenth century and his school of back-to-basics Islam, and its arms-length wary co-existence with the House of Saud, preceded the emergence of the Salafists. While it is true that the Wahhabi differ from the Salafi with respect to the issue of whether it is possible to use persuasion on a non-Muslim, the problem was not a bellicose lens of Islam as an expansionary force, but rather something more fundamental. Al-Wahhab, after all, would have been much more concerned with the religious practices of other Muslims rather than with things that Christians or Jews were doing, given the political circumstances in which he and his movement emerged.

What happened was the emergence of a school of thought that the key to finding power, prosperity, and public success is a return to the basic ideas of Islam, adapted to the modern world. The issue is not that Muslims seek to expand the scope of sharia law, it is that those Muslims who seek to expand their temporal power eschew nearly a millennium of sharia as spiritually untrustworthy. Blend that with the obvious truth that the Western world asserted its grip on political power globally during the age of European imperalism and remains the dominant political and economic force of the planet. It is unsurprising that a group of people who feel a lack of relative power should succumb to the seductive appeal of the Myth of the Desperate Entrenchment. It is with this lens that Islam’s storytellers today mine the early hadith for the traditions of the Salafi. It is with this lens that those who invoke Allah’s greatness as they engage in appalling acts of violence justify their actions, if only to themselves.

Holland cautions, and Hamid offers no emotional succor against, the notion that if the myths of one’s culture are stories of violence and the gaining or loss of political supremacy in pursuit of some sort of spiritual purity, it should be no surprise that the behaviors of people who grow up within that culture produce people who use violence to gain political control. Until Muslims start telling each other stories about themselves that point in a different direction, they will instead tell their own version of the Myth of Desperate Entrenchment — just as those of us in the West have the option to use a cultural super-narrative of inclusiveness or progress (or both) but instead adopt our own Myth of Desperate Entrenchment, which guides us to a cultural place of violence.

Every day, it seems, the news reinforces this grand narrative of Desperate Entrenchment more and more. We do ourselves a disservice to suggest that differences in religion are the root of the problem: the problem is that two trans-national cultures have adopted mirror images of the same myth.

I sure hope we can start telling each other different stories.

 

Image by btaroli Notes:

  1. I shall continue to use the word “myth” here as I find the phrase both elegant and expressive, but you may substitute other phrases like “philosophical superstructure” or “intellectual interpretive lens” if you prefer, to describe the concept of a common notion and understanding of how the world works expressed in a narrative or quasi-narrative fashion. Note, though, that as used in this essay, the word “myth” should not include any connotation of deception; it is neutral as to the concept of objective, factual truth. []
  2. Note that this myth displaced a previous myth, a myth of humanistic progress that was the intellectual emblem of the Era of the European Enlightenment, which in turn displaced an even earlier myth pervasive through the Medieval Eras, a myth that taught that worldly experiences were spiritual preparation for the afterlife. []

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111 thoughts on “The Contemporary Monomyth

  1. I’m not so sure on the Horatio Alger thing is true or not. It seems like the current fight is between people who want Horatio Alger to be true and those who argue that it is not. This fight seems as old as the Republic.

    There was more than Horatio Alger back in the day. Those kind of stories were a whole cottage industry seemingly. In the excellent book, the Prize, on the Oil Industry, there was picture of a magazine from the 19th century. The magazine had a subtitle like “Stories of Boys Making Money.”

    I also think back to the mockumentary Bob Roberts where they interview two young men (no more than 20) and ask why they voted for the right-wing faux populist and the answer is “because he cares about the same thing we do, making money.” I also think of people like Martin Shkrelli whose response to being called out for price gouging is not reflection but a smirk and bring it on haters! Or Steve Banon who argues for keeping the white working class alive but then advocates for policies that only help the wealthy like himself now.

    Perhaps this is a Manslow’s hierarchy of needs things. Many middle-class liberals feel contented with the material lives and have moved on to higher and more esoteric goods. Perhaps others are still feeling left behind and saying “No what matters most is making money!!!!” But it seems to me that there are still a lot of people who want Horatio Alger to be true and still have the heart of the old magazines and get enthralled by “stories of boys making money.”

    The Republic is over 200 years old, not 30 years old. So we could be in for a long haul either way.

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  2. “Today, I perceive that people are more willing to embrace the notion of generational economic stasis once associated with the economic class stratification of Britain…”

    I think that we are probably at the beginning of what will eventually look like a somewhat-Scandinavian model, where we eventually use re-distributive policies to create a generic middle class that most people track into. Unemployment is really low right now. It’s messing with all kinds of things like the housing market and the availability of non-immigrant labor. Eventually, we’re going to have to keep everyone fed and happy and I don’t know what else would work other than socialism.

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    • Unemployment is really low right now.

      So is labor force participation. Following the 2000-01 recession, participation fell a full percentage point and did not recover. Following the 2007-08 recession, participation fell an additional three percentage points and has not recovered. The last time participation was as low as it is today was the late 1970s. My suspicion is that what has happened over the last 40 or so years is the usual Baby Boom “pig in a python” thing, where participation was driven to an unsustainable high and is now declining as the Boomers leave the workforce (but haven’t died off yet).

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        • The Nordic welfare model, when combined with massive Islamic immigration, is not going to end well. It’s already producing National Socialists who insist the welfare state is only for white people.

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            • Yes. They are produced by native Scandinavians, the descendants of Vikings, who brought their children up under some generous Scandinavian socialist model. Then hundreds of thousands of unemployable non-Europeans show up demanding a free house, free health care, and welfare paid for by all those shockingly white Scandinavian socialists, and bang, you have all the conditions for lots of Scandinavians to think that maybe their generous welfare system shouldn’t be supporting tons of unemployable foreigners who hate them and who will never assimilate. At some point, as their social welfare net is strained to the breaking point, the national conversation could hit a tipping point and suddenly all the native Scandinavians say they’ve created a disaster and the newcomers have to leave because they don’t fit in. And next thing you know, you have a National Socialist state, though not nearly as socialist as Nazi Germany was. Western Europe long ago backed off hard-core coercive socialism that had no real respect for property rights.

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    • Mike,
      Leave off that train of thought entirely.
      Current plan is to kill about a third of us.
      Then, yeah, maybe, socialism.
      If you want we should put people in camps, and see how close we can get to slavery.

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  3. “Those in the West who yearn for Islam to undergo a Reformation as did Christianity and thus transform itself into a force aimed at peace and growth ignore a frightening truth: Islam is in the midst of such a reformation right now.”

    The problem some would point out is that Christianity is a religion of peace that went askew for about a millennia and eventually went back to its core beliefs. On the flip side, it has been argued that Islam is fundamentally a violent religion and so when we hope for reform, we are actually hoping that will move away from their core beliefs. Two different dynamics.

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    • Mike,
      I’m tempted to make some comments on the True Nature of Christianity, but as they’d involve matters best left in the bedroom (Well,that’s MY opinion, I suppose) and blackmail, I’ll cease and desist.

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    • Christianity is also a comforter of the afflicted and afflictor of the comforrtable – that was a minor regional cult until it co-opted the power of the Roman Empire…

      Islam, to date, is a box that shapes its contents, while Christianity has become a bag that accomodates its contents and in many ways shapes itself to them. Maybe a similar loosening of rigidity is what we’re waiting for.

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    • I wonder to what extent a culture which maintains a distinction between the worldly and spiritual can account for this difference. Seems to me the west, even tho it was a bit of a struggle, created a culture in which religion was viewed as formally distinct from governance in a way which Islam, and certain Islamic countries in particular, hasn’t. Or stated differently: the West has made conscious decisions to institute formal barriers to governance which religion cannot transgress while no such barriers in Islam exist.

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        • Makes sense – when religion no longer has access to the monopoly of force a government must have, it is forced to engage in more peaceful pursuits, lest it find that force wielded against it.

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      • I would argue that the notion of the temporal-spiritual split in the West was a product of the Renaissance, if not the Enlightenment. Which is to say, for between 1,500 to 1,750 years of the Christian era, Western peoples did not draw a bright line distinction between these magisteria and even to this day, many Westerners resist such a distinction when asked to enshrine it into law.

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      • Even during the days when every Western country was officially a Christian country, there was always some distance between the secular government and the Church regardless of whether it was Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox. The secular leaders and spiritual leaders were different people. The clergy played something of an administrative role in the state during the Middle Ages to early Modern Era but not to the extent of Islam. In the Catholic West, the Church frequently fought with Kings over religious prerogatives and this conflict continued well into the 20th century.

        Islam always seemed tightly intertwined with government. During the Caliphate, the Caliph was both a temporal and spiritual leader. Emperor and Pope in one body and one office. Many of the important government officials including those at the most local level, the Qadi, were also Muslim clerics. The West always understand secular law and cannon law to be different things but Shariah was both religious and secular at the same time. Separating Islam from state has proven consistently hard.

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        • One of the more trenchant points Hamid’s book makes is that although there is no centrally-organized structure of religious authorities in Islam, there is and pretty much has always been a considerable body of both scholars and clerics, who work outside of the prevailing governmental structures. These Muslims have a degree of cultural license, whether the authorities like it or not, to pass moral judgment on the actions of the political authorities, whether they be kings, caliphs, presidents, or prime ministers.

          So while the state may participate in the mosque, there is almost always a parallel and independent religious structure that sometimes is the only real public voice of critique the prevailing political authorities hear. And so long as the political authorities lean on Islam as one of their claims to legitimacy, they cannot silence that voice completely.

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          • Burt,
            And this is wrong, and more than wrong. For a smart government co-opts the church, as Hamas has done. Their judges, their clerical leaders, won them much respect from the body politick.

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        • Lee,
          The Church has always owned vast realms of land in Christendom. You are forgetting this.

          Shariah is merely an extension of “God’s Will Be Done” (and the whole idea of Submission to God in Islam). In Actual Practice, Shariah varies wildly in interpretation and belief in many Muslim countries.

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        • “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” has been the differentiating factor between Christendom and the other Abrahamic cultures (as well as -through a different myth- Confucian cultures.)

          It is at the source not only of the separation between church and state, but also of the concept of secular knowledge – that there are things to be learned that have nothing to do with what God(s) want- which underpins Europe’s technological leap over the rest of the Old World cultures from the XIII century onwards

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    • My real focus here is the kind of stories people within a culture tell themselves about themselves. So

      it has been argued that Islam is fundamentally a violent religion and so when we hope for reform, we are actually hoping that will move away from their core beliefs.

      This is a thing said of Islam by non-Muslims, and indeed mainly by Westerners and in particular Christians. Is this what Muslims think of themselves? I wouldn’t think so but I could be educated otherwise. What would be persuasive to me here would be something written by a Muslim, rather than something written by a Christian, a Jew, or a secular Westerner.

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      • Burt,
        I have spoken to Muslims (albeit proselytizing ones — it is such a religion, as is Christianity), and they would say that their religion is Peace and Submission to G-d.

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      • There are many Islamic thinkers who reflect on the disasters of their own making. One Saudi professor said that the West is frightening because she imagines it as two ships passing on the ocean, one full of rich people having fun and one full of frightened and oppressed refugees, and the frightening realization is that the refugees made their ship such a horrible place through choice after choice. They could have been rich and free, but didn’t allow it. Truly innovative thinkers emerge in Islam quite often throughout history, ones who could have transformed their culture, and invariably the Muslims have hacked them to death with swords.

        I watched a video by a prominent Saudi who said the main thing crippling their culture was the unwarranted by universal belief that their culture was superior to all others. He said that means they won’t accept any outside ideas, even though those outside ideas are clearly better. He also said they were almost incapable of independent thought. On almost any topic, a Saudi will choose to believe what they think other Saudis believe. It’s group think writ large, the assumption being that millions of Saudis can’t be wrong about anything, so just agree with the group and you’ll be right too.

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          • The clip I’m thinking of is archived somewhere at MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute).

            But here’s some other interesting ones.

            Saudi Author Turki al Hamad: Our youth are brainwashed. At one point he says religion is like medicine. A little bit is good, but too much is poison.

            Here’s another interesting article from MEMRI

            An excerpt:

            The jihadis who perpetrate these horrific crimes are neither losers, nor nihilists, nor worshipers of death, nor sick cowards. On the contrary, the overwhelming majority of them are devout and fanatic believers. They are idealists who sacrifice their lives for the sake of a utopian future: a world ruled by their faith. The attacks they commit are extreme acts of piety. They seek to emulate the dedication of the early believers in order to revive the glory and grandeur of the past.

            I recommend the whole thing.

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            • Truly innovative thinkers emerge in Islam quite often throughout history, ones who could have transformed their culture, and invariably the Muslims have hacked them to death with swords.

              While I’m not entirely on board with that blanket statement, it is true at least a bit…as I understand it: Iran, if it ever will throw off their religious veto point in their government, will own the Middle East.

              This is mostly because, as bad as it sounds, it forcibly got ‘enlightment’ under the Shah, and while the Shah was overthrown, the exposure to Western culture couldn’t be undone.

              So now they have a very well educated population, who understand Western culture pretty well and has also literally thousands of years of history of trade with it. They have a thriving middle class, and at least some of industry that isn’t just ‘pump oil out of the ground’, unlike what Saudi Arabia relies on.

              Even WRT women’s rights…well, the women want them, which is sorta a vital step (Unlike women in Saudi Arabia, who often seem somewhat dubious about having rights.), and have some rights, but, society moved backwards under their idiotic religious ‘Supreme Leader’ structure, despite making progress in the 1990s. (That’s what happens when someone can literally just ban people from running from office.) And Iranian women are actually educated, unlike some places. Iranian girls outnumber Iranian boys in grade school 1.22 to 1! I do not know why this is. Iran also supposedly has the highest percentage of female engineering students in the world.

              And yet they still suffer under dumbass sexist laws that no one, not the women, not the men, want. It’s not impossible to see Iranian society moving extremely quickly on women’s rights, if they would get out from under their dumbass religious government veto.

              And it’s not just women’s rights. There are all sorts of religious laws that hinder their economy. But the people of Iran are not particularly ‘religiously conservative’. It’s a very secular society.

              But they just can’t seem to do that last little step of removing the governmental religious veto point of the ‘Supreme Leader’. They have had more ‘liberal’ Supreme Leaders, but that all gets undone when the next guy comes in.

              But at some point either they will get rid of the Supreme Leader position, or get a guy in there who removes the power of the position, and Iran will be unleased and basically rule the Middle East, economically, because they actually understand this stuff. (And, on top of that, the overthrow of the Shah resulted in a wide diaspora, and it’s entirely possible some of those people, or rather their children, would start moving back if the government became secular.)

              This is unlike Saudi Arabia, which really is sorta full of the Muslim equivalent of backwater hicks, under a tiny, well-educated leadership.

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              • There’s a long twisted history of a major strain of Muslim thought that explains why Iran can build cars, missiles, and air conditioners and her neighbors can’t.

                Long long ago in Iran there emerged an idea that maybe the Koran isn’t absolutely true, which of course got suppressed, but during the usual slaughter and counter-slaughter, the escaped an idea that became the norm throughout the rest of the Muslim world. That idea is that everything exists as it is because of the will of Allah.

                When we measure the mass of an electron to 9 significant figures, an Iranian scientists believes that to be the mass of the electron forever and all time, and that it orbits the nucleus in accordance to quantum mechanics, and all the rest. They accept scientific observations as revealing eternal and universal laws and constants. Basically, they share our view of physical reality.

                This apparently is not true for most other Muslims. Show them the mass of an electron to 9 significant figures and they might respond that it’s the mass of an electron today, but perhaps not tomorrow because Allah might change it. The electron, if their really is such a thing, orbits the nucleus, if it indeed orbits, only because Allah wills it to. At any time he could change his mind. So all our theories and measurements are essentially meaningless observations of Allah’s will, which we could better understand by reading the Koran.

                Needless to say, this outlook does not produce top notch scientists and engineers.
                .

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                • George,
                  Philosophy does not enter into science much. Empiricism means that you do take the measurement. Every day, every minute. And maybe, one day, it changes. On that day, and no sooner, do you upend everything.

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              • David,
                Hi. You don’t understand Iran at all.
                Please read Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks.
                1) For the average Iranian woman, the revolution was NOT a step backwards in rights. Before then, the rich and urban had more freedoms, but the rural and not-rich had significantly less (owing to cultural attitudes which said that running around without a scarf on was immodest, and without the ability to wear said scarf, the women often got locked at home).
                2) It’s not JUST western culture, that’s elitist, chauvinistic, and wrong. Iran (Persia) was its own empire. They have a history of pluralism that the rest of the Middle East hasn’t got.
                3) The Middle Class in Iran doesn’t suffer under the sexist laws. They have an understanding with the Priests that if they keep their bars, women mixing with men, and alcohol “under the table” that the Priests will ignore it. This allows the middle class to flourish, while the more parochial and conservatives can say “We Won!” because nothing sinful is being openly advocated. This is why when ONE woman is found in a bar with men, and the Priests go koala on her ass, it’s a HUGE news story. Because it represents a dramatic deviation from the status quo.
                4) Religious laws aren’t nearly as much of a hindrance to Iran as you’d expect. Khomeni was a literalist, not a conservative. So women serve in the Revolutionary Guard, because Mohammed had women serving. Women have total freedom of movement (generally on motorbikes). Women are even prostitutes (under the “temporary marriage” idea — and this also gives women MORE power than permanent marriage, as that’s something their Fathers and Brothers negotiate, and temporary marriage is something the woman does on her own).
                5) You misread Saudi Arabia, who is both smarter than you think, and stupider. The Wahabist poison is a deliberate thing allowed and spread by the Sauds to keep themselves in power (also, a lot of anti-Zionist propaganda).

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                • I didn’t say anything about #1, and you appear to completely agree with me about #5 so I don’t know why you think you are disagreeing.

                  As for #3 and #4…it doesn’t matter if middle class women have loopholes they can escape through. Any sort of institutional sexism like that hurts the productivity of society, and even if people can get away with something, business will hesitate to publicly do it. Just because a single woman can drink with men 99 out of 100 times without problems doesn’t mean a company that has to think about legal liability is going to send a single woman somewhere in the company of men.

                  Moreover, as you point out, this is limited to middle class women…which means poor women are nowhere near productive as they could be, and don’t have the capability to rise out of poverty. The ‘morality rules’ of society are always for the poor, never for the rich, and usually not for the middle class as long as they are discreet.

                  As for #2…okay. If you want to assert they had a long history of pluralism before the Shah, I won’t argue with that. It seems reasonable. Like I said, they have thousands of years of history of trading with both Europe and China. Turkey also turned out much the same away, for exactly the same reason.

                  Iran still had a hell of a lot of Western influence that came in under the Shah. It’s the reason they’ve been dressing in suits since then. It’s the reason that rights for woman are so far advanced compared to other Middle East countries.

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    • It always seemed to me that, unless you really believe that the core tenets of a religion literally are laid out by their deity and objectively true by definition, you’re pretty much stuck with the religion being what its practitioners practice. That’s why I never got onboard with people who say, “Religiously inspired atrocity X is a perversion of the faith!” Well, maybe, but that kind of assumes that God is up at his computer saying, “No no no! That’s not how I meant for you to do it!”

      If you don’t believe that’s the case, it seems inescapable that whether a religion is “fundamentally” about something is really just a function of whether its followers take that meaning from its texts/tradition.

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      • I think this is not quite right, because in practice it appears fiendishly difficult to separate descriptive and normative statements about religion. Adherents of religion, after all, tend to desire to adhere to their religion and care a lot about what it actually is, and are rather put out if it’s described in a way that excludes them and their practices. Unless nobody involved in the conversation is an actual adherent, you can’t entirely avoid the question of whether someone is practicing a religion properly or not.

        On the other hand, almost any religion with a large number of adherents has a riotous diversity of beliefs and practices, and deciding what’s right is (at best) a matter for spirited debate among them. They disagree amongst themselves but tend to sincerely believe that they’re practicing their religion right and those other guys are making a mess of it.

        If a bunch of Flying Spaghetti Monsterist extremists burn a fettuccine factory to the ground, and a moderate Flying Spaghetti Monsterist reacts in horror because they see His Noodlely Appendage reflected in all forms pasta, it’s not so clear that any reaction but a disinterested shrug can spare you from having to take a side.

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    • I’d question the assertion regarding Christianity being a religion of peace that went astray. I mean it’s been what, 2017 years since Christ’s birth. Let’s (very generously) say that Christianity became militarist and violent around Constantine in 306 AD (when it basically became the official state religion of the Roman Empire) and (ludicrously generously) say it became non-violent after the 30 years war 1648 that leaves us with 1,342 of Christianity’s 2017 year lifespan spent in unabashed religious violence; roughly 2/3rds and that’s only if we accept 1648 as a point at which Christianity became peaceful which would probably make most historians laugh themselves to death.

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        • Oh agreed, though the “many” in this case appear to be generally predominantly Christians. But that’s really the rub. I am dubious that many Muslims would describe Islam as the religion of war and Christianity as the religion of Peace. It’s not like it’s hard to root around in the respective texts and find a basis to make any claim one wants about it.

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          • North,
            Rooting in the texts is for chumps. During the crusades, Christians slaughtered thousands of God-Fearing Christians because they looked different and spoke a different language.

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        • You’d think Buddhism’s theology is primed for pacificism, but societies have turned it into a warrior religion at times, most notably in Japan.

          I wouldn’t be confident that theology is much of a constraint, I think a religion becomes what a people collectively decide it needs to be. Christianity is supposedly a religion of peace, but its doctrines were adapted as thoroughly or even more so to the concept of holy war even more than Islam did when the correct circumnstances came about.

          I would think of this as a feature of belief systems in general. Liberalism, Capitalism, Communism, etc. have all been used both as beliefs of peace and as beliefs of war in different times and places. Successful belief systems tend to be malleable that way.

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            • Exactly. Hymm for war, hymm for peace. The important thing for a belief system is that it can be used for hymms to inspire collective action, the content of them tend to be negiotiable.

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              • Yes. “What Would Jesus Do” has a whole lot of surprisingly different answers. I come from a culture (Appalachia) that included bits of Scottish culture that were considered backwards in the 1600’s. If you were out hunting and spotted a family enemy squatting by his campfire, and you raised your rifle and put a bullet through the back of his head, and got away with it, it proved that God was smiling down upon you, and that Jesus loved you.

                Pablo Escobar’s famous hitman, Popeye (who killed several hundred people and oversaw the murder of thousands), said that if you wanted to hold someone responsible for Columbia’s violence, charge the Virgin Mary. He is very devout, and says that the Virgin watched over and protected hit men, who always returned from a kill to pray to her and thank her for their success.

                Fascinating interview with Popeye.

                I’d vote for him.

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                • You know, its remarkably easier to understand the Pashtuns in Afghan/Pakistan when you realize they’re the local version of Scots-Irish. Its why the ISAF was never going to win, its like trying to conquer the Appalachians.

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        • It was either state sponsored and enforced or literally the state during that entire period. It’d be a hard case to make that it was the religion of peace it has become.

          And I grant, readily, full credit to Christianity for its part in shaping and creating the conditions for the modern eras that came after.

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          • Christianity didn’t make it 100 years as the religion of Rome before the Roman authorities tried to write Jesus’s divinity out of it. Then, that got squared away; then, Rome fell. Some Germanic tribes were converted in the next couple of centuries, even as Islam swept through the Middle East, Africa, and Spain. Christianity slowly worked its way northward, doing a lot better in the cities than in the countryside. Kievan Rus was a nice get, as long as the Mongols weren’t around. Florence was under interdict off and on, and Spain and France wandered off during the Great Schism. There was a good solid 100 years of semi-united Christian Europe. Then Luther broke that up. So when and where was Christianity (a) the state, (b) “the” state, and (c) able to relax and be peaceful?

            And even that isn’t quite right, because most Christians were peaceful as most are now. There were wars going on around them (man, I didn’t even mention Vienna in the last paragraph?) but the majority of people were trying to live good, quiet lives.

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            • Sure and within those communities it was “worship Jesus or get bonked on the head either by the authorities or your Christian neighbors”. Also you’re leaving out the papal states, sacking the various pagan institutions and temples, the crusades etc..

              I mean look, Christianity was the ipod of theology, a massively innovative and deeply appealing set of doctrines that aimed right at the kinds of people that the older theologies overlooked (the powerless, the slaves, the women etc…) so I’m not trying to downplay it’s significance of call it abhorrent. But, when one slinging around definitions like Islam being the religion of War and Christianity being the religion of Peace there’s a lot of inconvenient history that needs to get swept under the bed. Like.. most of it. Most of the Muslims were peaceful then, as they are now- just trying to live good quiet lives.

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              • You’re challenging a generalization with a slightly less correct generalization. Any generalization is going to miss things, of course. But the generalization that you’re making that Christianity is violent misses more than it catches.

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                • As a non-Christian characterizing Christianity I think I have the same authority as a non-Islamist characterizing Islam. I also don’t think that my generalization is any less accurate. Islam and Christianity both have sprawling texts from which to cherry pick any nonsense we want so it’s a wash there. Both have long histories of horrific violence in particular cases* and general peaceful going along-ness in general cases so it’s a wash there too. So I fail to see how one gets to be branded the “Religion of Peace” and the other the “Religion of War”? Doesn’t pass the sniff test.

                  *Name me a religion that doesn’t? Well maybe the Cult of the Flying Spaghetti Monster**
                  **YET!!

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                  • So I fail to see how one gets to be branded the “Religion of Peace” and the other the “Religion of War”? Doesn’t pass the sniff test.

                    The problem with those debates is that “Religion of Peace” or “Religion of War” isn’t really a boolean variable. All religions will have some distribution of followers with tails on each side. That’s not to say that all religions will have the same mean or standard deviation–it would be a really surprising result if that happened to be true.

                    It’s probably all just a function of how violent your texts are combined with how good your people have gotten at reinterpreting the violence out. Given that those texts were usually written by random folks during violent and bigoted times, those passages probably are just reflections of literal violence and bigotry, but sooner or later most people seem to do the leg work to make them into allegories that a deity uses to obliquely tell us how to live in peace and harmony.

                    Some religions have more work cut out for them than others and some religions are farther along than others.

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                • Hey, what about Christians all being cannibals because they eat Jesus?

                  I like to go back to the core of the New Testament, the central message that so many overlook: Don’t mess with Italians or they’ll nail your a** to a cross no matter who your daddy is. The rest of the text is just a lot of words fleshing out the character of the guy who messed with the Italians. It’s not at all surprising that Rome would eventually embrace the religion and spread it everywhere.

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  4. Like Mike, this line stood out to me:

    Those in the West who yearn for Islam to undergo a Reformation as did Christianity and thus transform itself into a force aimed at peace and growth ignore a frightening truth: Islam is in the midst of such a reformation right now.

    One of the stories that “the West” tells itself is that its evolution from Constantinople to today is one of Couéism. Every day, in every way, the West was getting better and better. The arc of history is long, but it bends toward where we are now.

    But when you look at the Reformation, it’s a guy saying “What the hell is up with this crap? We need to get Back. To. Basics.”

    It was only on the other side of the Reformation were the seeds of Enlightenment planted in the aftermath of Luther’s fission. As we get/got more and more atomized in this new freedom from a catholic tradition, we got to see all kinds of systems up close and personal right next to each other and experimentation let us discover new ones where some were really, really good in practice and others were only really, really good in theory.

    And Islam is, indeed, going through something very similar.

    The problem is that it’s possible to look at pictures of Iran in the early 1970’s and see fashionable women wearing fashionable clothing as they fashionably sit in the quad of their fashionable college and see speeches in Egypt where people on the floor of parliament mocking the idea that the hijab would *EVER* make a comeback outside of a few religious nuts and you look now and you can’t help but think that this particular arc moved from the Enlightenment back into Reformation.

    They’re not following the script.

    Maybe the lesson is that you don’t get to jump over the Reformation before you get to the Enlightenment. The only way out is through.

    Goodness, I hope so.

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  5. Excellent post .

    I only have one quibble, that being the 30 years war I would say that the schism in Christianity was not settled at that point, but instead has moved and reformed in actions such as the Franco-Prussian war, the two world wars, the Troubles, etc (I am not a christian nor secular, so it is often hard to pinpoint). In other words, it has been going on for much longer. And as Islam seems to be at that point, its troubles might keep going on for a long time. As I said, just a quibble.

    One of the things I have always admired about your writing has been that you never shy away from the fact that your politics (and hence how you see the world) have been changing as you move through the world. It makes for good, honest writing from a very interesting perspective. And while I may not be on the same path as you, your works do help me focus on much that is important.

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    • I think we need to recognize that we aren’t really at war with Islamic countries, though we have sometimes gone in to make war on a bad actor like Saddam. Iran is trying to become a threat to Western countries, but virtually all the other leaders have centuries ago given up on any idea of conquest over the infidel West. They lack the military power and social organization to achieve any major victory anywhere, and seem content to just sit in the sandbox and buy expensive toys. Many are even fine with Israel’s existence, which in part infuriated them because it was humiliating to think they couldn’t collectively even stand up to a small group of European refugees left over after a genocide.

      But their countries also produce lots of Islamists who take it as a core principle that they must personally fight and overthrow the infidels by any means available. Without those, Islam would be perceived as a peaceful religion and Islamic countries would be seen as peaceful. Unfortunately, they have a whole lot of Islamists, especially young males. It’s rooted in the core of their religion, so it’s easy to recruit such people for all kinds of mayhem. And of course the first place such fundamentalists stomp their foot is in their own communities, making sure nobody gets out of line.

      There are many approaches to the problem of fundamental reform, but most of them will have to come from within Islam. The key hurdle is that Islam is very brittle. They believe the Koran comes directly from Allah and is perfect, so it’s hard to explain any part of it away without drawing their core belief into question.

      If even one line in the Koran is wrong, then it couldn’t have come from Allah – and Muhammed was lying. At that point the whole belief system could unravel. One of the reasons Muslims freak out at the slightest insult to the Prophet is that the clerics know how fast it could all go south. Any doubts about one part could cause people to think about other parts and say “Wait a minute. That is just crazy. A flying horse? Milk mothers? Stoning rape victims? It’s all insane!” And then they’d jump right to “Muhammed was a violent psychopath child rapist!” and boom. Violence in the streets, clerics getting car bombed, the implosion of 1300 years of order, the complete rejection of their past.

      I would consider that a good thing, but the possibility of such an outcome will obviously cause strong resistance. So the trick for them is to figure out how to stop the jihadist interpretations of the Koran (which amounts to just “read the text!”) and get back to pretending that those bits are unimportant, or no longer applicable to the modern world. Of course that’s just kicking the can down the road, because the suras will still be there. A thousand years from now they’ll still be there, as will all the jihadist clerics’ writings about them, urging true Muslims to become martyrs. And of course those are also all over the Internet, and what’s on the Internet stays on the Internet.

      So you have an essentially an unreformable religion and the choice is between rejecting it entirely or only allowing it to be taken in small, harmless doses, and perpetually trying to clean up the messes when a group of believers OD’s on it.

      Of course the worst possible approach is the one we pursued, to eschew reforms, to arm unvetted insurgent groups, to let them flock into Europe in unlimited numbers, and to let the worst of them, the most ardent, fanatical, delusional believers, to have long range nuclear missiles.

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      • And yet there are historical examples of Muslim nations that can make peace with Western (or at least non-Muslim) nations and enforce the keeping of that peace against their own people (the Ottoman Empire, Mughal India, pre-revolutionary Iran, pre-Saddam Baathist Iraq, contemporary Indonesia, contemporary Pakistan, contemporary Jordan). Obeying a call to religious violence is not necessarily hard-wired into being Muslim.

        If the Moors in Spain and Sicily drank wine and considered it a blessing from Allah and entirely consistent with the Koran, then there’s no particular reason that Muslims must see themselves in an intractable, irreconcilable conflict with the West. Any more than Christians can divorce and remarry.

        Nor is it inevitable that Westerners see themselves in an intractable, irreconcilable conflict with the Muslim world. Indeed, up until about the Iranian Revolution, the notion that the Muslim world was necessary in conflict with the West (over anything other than the existence of Israel) would have been thought simplistic and indeed bigoted by westerners and Muslims alike.

        If that’s a difficult thing to recall or conceptualize, that’s a symbol of the power that the Myth of Desperate Entrenchment exercises over your thinking.

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        • It doesn’t help that a lot of Middle East governments are not interested in actively tackling or marginalizing the clerics that hold to the old interpretations, either because they are useful, or because they have just enough power to be dangerous. I’m curious if the threat of Daesh has done anything to change those attitudes among those governments, since Daesh seems to be much more of a threat to the established order than the Taliban or AQ ever really was.

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        • I would suggest that everyone with too much time on their hands read The History of Islamic Political Thought (Amazon link) (free PDF)

          So just speaking extemporaneously:

          In modern history, Islam was at peace with the West, and largely at peace with itself, the Jews, and absorbing European ideas about governance and society up until the horrors of WW-I. Whereas they had been realizing how backwards they were and how badly they needed to catch up, WW-I created the impetus for traditionalists and conservatives to say “See! The West really is the domain of war! They’re barbarians! We must reject their ways!” Carving up the Middle East in the war’s aftermath didn’t help either.

          But they focused on using their newly won independence from the Ottomans to build functioning nations, and then came oil, and then came WW-II, and then came Israel. But they stayed with modernizing. But the forces of traditionalism were building, fed by continued failures against the West or against Israel, and sometime in the 70’s liberal countries like Egypt and Lebanon began to turn back to a much more rigid Islam. The struggles of the PLO, the jihad in Afghanistan, and other currents created an “us verses them” mentality, and under stress the Muslim instinct is to go back to the roots. It’s like Islam has a little red hammer and a glass window that says “In case of fire, break glass to return to the 7th century”

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          • The forces of Traditionalism is a fucking lovely way to say Saudi Arabia.
            Iran isn’t doing anything other that feuding with the Sauds, not really.
            We’re better off supporting Iran, anyway — at least they’re a functional democracy.

            Think Christianity doesn’t have a Little Red Hammer? Haven’t heard from Spain in a long time, now, have we?

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        • Obeying a call to religious violence is not necessarily hard-wired into being Muslim.

          There’s a billion Muslims in the world. (Literally).

          If it was hard-wired into the religion, we’d not be needing to debate it.

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  6. In both the nationalist and the liberal sides of this myth, America the once-great is now teetering on the edge of… military… collapse.

    This one is worthy of expansion. The US has the ability, over the course of this afternoon, to kill 80-90% of the world’s population. Even limited to conventional weapons, the US has the ability to take on and defeat all but a handful of other countries. The US spends more on its military than the next ten biggest spenders combined.

    The nationalist side of the myth is, I suppose, that we lack the killer instinct needed to win wars — total war, kill enough soldiers and civilians, bomb enough infrastructure into oblivion, and they’ll surrender and behave afterwards. I’m less sure what the liberal side of the myth is… perhaps that there are no enemies worthy of using that vast military power on?

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    • As an old soldier once explained to me, unless you are willing to go to the point where you annihilate the other side, a war ends only when the loser says it ends. Only a handful of countries could cause the US even to break a sweat if we were willing to fight to the point of annihilation. But who would do anything to us that would justify a war of annihilation? What goal we could reasonably want to accomplish short of national survival would justify a war of annihilation? So when we get involved in discretionary disputes over which contending bunch of thugs runs what crappy country, if the answer to that question matters more to the thugs we don’t like or their respective supporters than it does to us, we can’t justify turning the crappy country into a parking lot and we eventually have to find a way to give up without looking like losers.

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  7. I don’t see strong evidence that we have a single national myth, even a two-sided one. Our current analysis is too burdened by the past election, due to both its intensity and its surprising outcome. We’re changing our analysis of pretty much everything into this “both sides of America are hurting” story. But we should be recognizing the multiple divisions which have been exposed in the past year or so. Aside from a blue state and a red state narrative, we’ve seen a Hispanic narrative, an urban technocrat narrative, an urban libertarian / alt-right narrative, an Evangelical narrative that may be different than we thought, and a blue state low-income narrative. And those are just some of the bigger ones. A national narrative or myth implies a common culture and a commonly-shared sense of history (and we might not have any sense of history, much less a commonly-shared one).

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    • Can you condense these other narratives into relatively brief archetypal descriptions? (Along lines similar to the ones I attempted to articulate in the OP with the Myth of Desperate Entrenchment.)

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        • Pity. That makes it harder for me to engage with your objection. I shall try nevertheless:

          I can certainly see that there might be principally economic myths, or principally ethnic myths. Some are more obnoxious than others. But these, as I see things, become co-opted by either the Team Red or Team Blue myths. Thus we identify what I think you’re getting at with, say, the Latino myth with Team Blue, and Team Red recoils from and rejects that myth completely.

          I’d resist the notion that “both sides are hurting.” I don’t think it particularly hurts to be an American right now at all. If we actually lose our Constitutional government that will be a different matter, but I’m not at all convinced that the Blue Myth is accurate that we’re really particularly close to such an event. I think Team Red is selling, and to a disappointing but large extent Team Blue is buying, the notion that “whichever tribe doesn’t have the White House is hurting and whichever tribe does have the White House gets to exact revenge for past hurts.”

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      • Along this line of thought, I would argue that we’ve been on at least a generation long battle to unpack the various myths that post 1970 white suburban America took for granted. Some of these myths were well worth demolishing (‘racism is over’), but others are still useful fictions, because they can be generally true, if not necessarily universally true. (you can achieve a middle class lifestyle in America if you work hard and delay some gratification).

        But now we are getting to a point were every myth has been stripped so bare, new, more insidious myths are taking their place. Both the alt right and ‘down with capitalism’ folks are re-creating myths that the conventional wisdom thought were thoroughly discredited already.

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      • I’ve been thinking about this, and I think my problem is that Postrel and you both fail to make a distinction between stories and myths. There is a connection between the stories we talk about every day and the myths that bind our society, but they’re different things. Postrel neglects this fact completely. And what she talks about as myths, and you to a lesser extent, strike me as moods or states of mind.

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        • I think maybe you miss the point of Postrel’s argument, which is that a particular story does not necessarily have to be a myth; we have plenty of different stories available but not all of them get elevated to the level of cultural lens.

          As for a myth being actually a mood or a state of mind, well, YMMV. Seems to me that a narrative of any sort exists, if not in whole then in significant part, for the very purpose of evoking an emotion.

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          • I just read Postrel’s piece for the third time, and I don’t see anything in it worthy of your defense. She doesn’t make the argument you suggest; she just fails to make any distinctions between stories, myths, and attitudes.

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    • I wouldn’t be so sure of that. As a non-American I tend to notice a unity to how Americans think on these subjects, regardless of where they fit into your ideological divides. This is noticeable even to a fellow Anglospherian. Maybe the narrative isn’t universal, but I think there is an American way of thinking about the world, like there is a noticeable Chinese or Arab way of doing the same.

      Meanwhile, if you are an American I don’t think you’re going to notice this because its like a fish noticing the water it swims in.

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      • Psst… All Anglospherians are really Americans who are just living in a place with different weather, quainter customs, different sports like cricket, darts, and rugby, and the Queen on their currency. We have a shared set of celebrities, and celebrity culture is all that really matters.

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        • Pfft. You and Saul might seem very different to yourselves, but from where I sit your both sides of the same ugly green dollar bill.

          (I’m not being entirely serious in case that wasn’t clear, but your money is aesthetically inferior. Learn to use some colour.)

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  8. One completely tangential thing that I just noticed for the first time today because I’m dumb is that the basic premise of Salafism seems remarkably close to the whole Originalism thing in Constitutional interpretation. “Back in the day, our ancestors had a good thing going, and really understood this very important text and applied it correctly, but in the intervening years, it got all screwed up and we have to go back to that.”

    However, strangely, I’m not aware of similarly influential movements in Christianity, where believers talk about how Christians really need to do things the way they did back in the second century. Christianity obviously has its fundamentalists, but IME they tend to take the line that the meaning of the Bible is totally self-evident and all you have to do is read it with an open heart.

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    • One of the problems is that Muslims still read their holy book in the original language. (I kind of got into that a million years ago here.)

      Short version: there are all kinds of Bibles. From the King James version to the NIV (bleh) to the RSV to the… hell. Just grab the dropdown here. I might have counted wrong but I got 56 translations when I counted. If I’m off, I’m off by no more than one or two in either direction.

      That’s 56 ways to read that verse, that’s 56 ways to read *ANY* verse.

      And if you want to reach a different conclusion, you can always lean into the “well, if you read the original Greek” thing and talk about how Jesus most likely turned the water into a tasty non-alcoholic raisin paste or whatever.

      But Christianity (American Christianity, anyway) has a funny little subsect that believes in the King James Version Only. Well, a couple of subsects. The 1611 KJV people and the 1635 KJV people have a friendly rivalry where both argue that the other team is going to hell.

      Islam has a bit of the KJV Only thing going on except they don’t get to hide behind “if you read the original language” game. The Koran is intended to be read in the original language.

      Not that it’s not still possible to still play “the clause means *THIS* and not *THAT*” games (similar to those played with, yes, the Constitution) but I wonder how much wiggle room Christianity has been granted by the whole “translation of a translation of a translation” thing that the book had for a good long while there.

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      • The Bible was also accumulated over a long time span, of course having multiple authors, and they often didn’t agree on the same events. They don’t even agree on some of the big picture issues. So it largely fails as an authoritative text as opposed to a rough guide. That created a lot of wiggle room.

        Then it got taken into Europe, and Europe had a very different culture from bronze age Semitic culture. The Old Testament wasn’t a good fit for European values. Leviticus was shunned into a corner. Instead of explaining with the Bible, much of what society did was use logic and reason to explain away the inconvenient or embarrassing bits. They of course placed the emphasis on the New Testament (nearly rejecting the Old Testament entirely), and were faced with the obvious conundrum that the two books don’t really fit together. They don’t even seem to be about the same God.

        Part 1 of an interview with Harold Bloom of Yale, on his book “Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine. He is adamant that the two texts don’t belong together, and can’t be reconciled.

        I would explain it differently to him. The Bible is like a boxed set of Star Wars the Original Trilogy and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. You can’t understand Jay and Silent Bob unless you’ve seen Star Wars, because the later work is about real events that happened in the lives of some superfans of the Original Trilogy (OT), which may have been a self-contradictory, poorly executed piece of crap, but one strongly followed by the characters in the more important work.

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      • Although this would appear as if the Bible is more open to interpretation, this is an error introduced from insufficient knowledge of the culture.
        Muslims have their clerics interpret the scripture for them, and there are many more clerics than translations of the Bible.
        The oral tradition is very important in the training of a cleric, and sometimes superstition is intermingled. But they tend to be very proud of their lineage, that they studied under So-and-so, who studied under So-and-so, etc.
        Hindu swamis also observe such a system, or similar, to my understanding.

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    • No, the strict Constitutionalists just want to make sure the contract between the people and govenrment is enforced as written and agreed to. When not held accountable, people in government tend to do things that are good for government. The founders rebelled against such a system and tried to make sure our government wouldn’t repeat the same mistakes. If the government is trying to bend and stretch the rules, it’s probably doing so because people in government are trying to take a shortcut to governing in a way that we rejected, as our Founders had been previously subjected to such measures. So we’re always going back to the text of the contract and saying “Look here, in clause 3. I didn’t give you the power to do that.”

      That would describe virtually all Muslims, not just Salafists. All Muslims adhere to the original text, the Koran. Salafists would be like Americans who insist that we not only enforce the Constitution, but live under 18th century values. They’d look at property law and debate the inheritance rights of a fem covert, or cite a 1790’s child labor ruling as controlling. Perhaps it would suffice to say that our version of Salafists would be some kind of violent Amish lawyers.

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      • The point I was trying to make about Originalism is that Originalists, not particularly uniquely, often find that when they go back to the text of the Constitution, it’s not immediately clear what it means. They usually attempt to resolve the ambiguity by looking at contemporaneous documents to shed light on what the words mean to the people who wrote them, sometimes convincingly and sometimes not so much. By returning to the way people thought about the texts near the time of writing, you gain insight into what they mean and why they were written that way.

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        • I think the difference is that the Salafists read other texts to gain context to tell them how they should live. Constitutionalists don’t advocate that we try to be like John and Abigail Adams, or George and Martha Washington, or live according to the mores and customs in the Revolutionary War era, or would agree that those customs were particularly good. “George Washington owned slaves!” is not going to be followed by “So we should have slaves!”

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          • The difference is that the Q’ran, and the Torah, unlike the NT -or the Constitution- tell you how to live, not what to believe.

            Hence looking at how people lived just after the Q’ran was proclaimed is relevant to understanding how the Q’ran requires people to live.

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    • The mendicant orders, the Franciscans and Dominicans, represented a move back toward Biblical poverty. There were a lot of movements that denounced wealth, but these had a tendency to follow down a certain path – denouncing the wealth of clergy, then clergy, then sex and the human body, then the Incarnation. Francis denounced his wealth but stayed orthodox. Dominic had no particular attachment to wealth, and when he tried to convert the Albigensians (who followed the above pattern) he found it beneficial to live like they did. The Franciscans and Dominicans were tremendously influential in Western history.

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    • That’s a mighty thin reed. For one, some of those countries, by US standards, barely burn any gasoline at all. When they do, it’s on their long drives between cities. Their lead exposure was very low.

      Second, lead exposure might be linked, via lower IQ, to crime, but terrorism isn’t like street crime. It’s not done on impulse. And of course thousands of people born in Europe, who’d never been exposed to lead, flocked to ISIS.

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      • Second, lead exposure might be linked, via lower IQ, to crime, but terrorism isn’t like street crime. It’s not done on impulse.

        Yes and no.

        First, it’s not really the damage to IQ, which lead also does, but lead’s specific damage to impulse control. That doesn’t change your point, though, it actually makes it stronger.

        Terrorism might not be impulsive, but it is linked to being stuck in poverty but surrounded by wealth, and poverty is, in the West, somewhat linked to lower IQ and impulse control.

        I.e., while lead doesn’t directly cause terrorism, it does cause people to end up in circumstances where they will be likely to turn to terrorism. But lead is not what is causing poverty in the Middle East.

        And I’m not really sure that poverty is what is ‘causing’ terrorism there, anyway. It’s a necessary component, there is a reason you will almost never see non-poor terrorists, but it’s only one of the causes.

        And here is where I am forced to point out that there’s a large difference between internal terrorism, or things like ISIS, which have a completely different purpose than things like attacks in Western countries.

        What’s causing terrorism there, and attack originating from there like 9/11, is lack of education, stuck in poverty, and extreme autocratic tendencies of rulers, all of which make people feel impotent. (There is a reason that the 9/11 attackers were Saudi.)

        What is causing it here is just…unbalanced people who fall into some ideological trap. We all pretend that falling into the trap of ‘fundamental Islam’ is somehow more important to worry about than people falling into some sort of political fanaticism or white nationalism or whatever. We confuse the issue by insisting that both that and the previous things are ‘terrorism’ and somehow connected.

        When in reality crazy people have always done crazy things, and they always ascribe it to something. It’s possible that certain ideologies are resulting in them picking crazy things that are more harmful to society, and that if they hadn’t read extremist Islamic propaganda they would have instead just stalked and killed some random woman, or whatever, instead of driving their car into a bunch of people…but the actual problem we need to solve is people going of the deep end, not the thing that told them specifically what to do when they did.

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        • I will counter part of that with an Israeli study of the factors that create suicide bombers. They expected to show links to poverty, oppression, wealth disparities, religious upbringing, or any of the host of things that a Western educated sociologist or psychologist would suspect. The only link turned out to be the existence of terrorist recruiters who would motivate young people to go blow something up.

          The Saudi 9/11 terrorists weren’t poor, oppressed, or poorly educated. Poor uneducated people don’t get to come to America and learn to fly 757’s in Boeing flight simulators.

          This makes sense given what Lt. Col Dave Grossman wrote in On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society

          Human’s have a lot of built in governors that prevent them from killing people. A person they respect, an authority figure, can remove a lot of those constraints simply by urging them to “kill those people!” This is probably an evolved brain feature so the tribe’s members don’t run around wantonly killing people, but kick in to slaughter any group the tribe’s war chief aims them at, giving them sanction and shifting the life-taking acts from murder to honored duty.

          It has long been noted that some generals’ presence on the front lines was worth several divisions of additional troops. That is because when the magic general shows up (we know them by name), the infantry would stop shooting over the enemy’s heads and start shooting at the enemy. There were many Confederate soldiers that would never shoot a man unless an esteemed and high status general was nearby rallying them to “shoot those men! Kill them all! Drive them back! For Virginia!’

          We’re wired to avoid killing unless someone we regard as high up on the social scale, the social chain in our head, which in some cases extends all the way up to God, tells us to do it. Thus we remember Caesar, Grant, Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Charles Manson, and Osama bin Laden, some because they were very good at strategy and tactics and some because they were so well regarded by their followers that those followers would kill and die for them.

          Consider it a brain hack of our heroism wiring.

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          • The Saudi 9/11 terrorists weren’t poor, oppressed, or poorly educated. Poor uneducated people don’t get to come to America and learn to fly 757’s in Boeing flight simulators.

            The thing is, the 9/11 terrorists, despite us apparently desperately wishing otherwise (Seriously, we make TV shows about it and everything.), are not very indicative of terrorists at all, and we functionally haven’t had another terrorist attack like that since then. One wonders how many years it took to collect them all and convince them.

            At this point I’m sorta wondering if there are three, entirely different sorts of people we are calling terrorists.

            1) The sort that are barely terrorists, the ISIS fighters. Yes, ISIS uses terror tactics, so they can be called ‘terrorists’, but they are, in a practical sense, an army. (Even, technically, a government, albeit one that no one wants and doesn’t govern by the consent of the governed.)

            People are recruited into that the same way that everyone is recruited into an army during a war. Note, despite us thinking otherwise, this sort of recruitment is basically just for the army. There, you get the sort of people who have always signed up for the military…basically people who are either poor or extremely patriotic(Or, here, religious.).

            2) The people who are clearly mentally unbalanced and, having read propaganda, decide to become ‘terrorists’ and kill some people.

            It is clear these people are looking for something to do, and if they aren’t Muslims they turn into school shooters or, for a recent example, try to assassinate politicians. Remember how the Boston Marathon bombers had read a bunch of white nationalism conspiracy stuff, despite being the sort of people that white nationalists would have a problem with? It’s all just a big mess of crazy violence in their head, and if they aren’t shooting up places that have ‘Jews’, they are shooting up places that have ‘women that won’t go out with me’ or ‘politicians that disagree with me’.

            3) And then, the terrorists that are actually recruited, trained, and sent out. If #1 is basically an army, these are basically spies. This is what we think of when we hear ‘terrorism recruitment’, but it is incredibly incredibly rare. So rare I’m not sure there’s an example of ISIS doing it. So rare it’s hard to think of anything since 9/11 that is an example of this. There’s a lot of #2 we like to try to pretend is #3, but it’s not.

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    • I still am struggling with why, as I country, we should give a damn about the ME. Sure, they got the oil, but what are they going to do with it but sell it? We should just pull out of the area and just buy the oil. What happens. Screw em. Then all we have to do is prevent Muslims from coming to this country. We shouldn’t have been meddling there anyway.

      Done and done.

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      • Damon

        In one word: stability.

        Variations in the price of hydrocarbons can be far more destructive to a modern economy than a stable, higher price.

        That, and we really don’t want the Russians (or Chinese) being the predominant power in the ME. Ceding that much power to our peer global competitors is very risky. What else could they do with the oil? Leave it in the ground at a time when demand is high.

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        • The “chinese model” seems to work just fine.

          Yes, let’s make sure we screw up a place first rather than letting the ruskies or the chicoms do it. Hurrah colonialism.

          “Leave it in the ground at a time when demand is high.” I thought that’s what OPEC was for?

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