It galls me to agree with the proposition that Western philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato, but it is at least fair to admit that Western intellectual thought exists in dialogue with him and his thinking. But the spare and arrogant idealism which Plato and his followers promoted is not entirely alien to the landscape of human cognition. It is not purely invention, but has a basis in intuition. A tendency to abstract, and confuse the abstract with reality, seems hard-wired into our mental architecture. As Paul Bloom would say, we are natural born essentialists (and dualists).
One implication of Platonic idealism seems to be that striving for the perfect form of truth bleeds over into a conceited belief that one’s understanding of the truth is Truth itself. I do not believe that Christianity is necessarily understood only in the light of the mental universe which Plato and his detractors created, but it is hard to deny the Platonic tincture of much of early Christian thought as it diffused throughout the ancient world and began to make converts among the elites. Christian thinking may hinge upon divine revelation, but its theistic illuminations gained rigor and steel via philosophical certitudes.
St. Ambrose was a man of such steel. A scion of the West Roman elite he matured in an era when the heights of society were still religiously pluralistic, with the most eminent and ancient families and men of renown, such as Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, exhibiting clear pagan sympathies. Or perhaps they might characterize it as a fondness for the customary gods of Rome.
In 382 there was a dispute in Rome over the removal of the Altar of Victory from the Roman Senate. Symmachus entered into the record an apologia for the restoration of the statue. He makes a plea:
We ask, then, for peace for the gods of our fathers and of our country. It is just that all worship should be considered as one. We look on the same stars, the sky is common, the same world surrounds us. What difference does it make by what pains each seeks the truth? We cannot attain to so great a secret by one road; but this discussion is rather for persons at ease, we offer now prayers, not conflict.
St. Ambrose, whose faith was on the march, and the future, did not mince words:
But if you deny Christ to be God, because you believe not that He died (for you are ignorant that death was of the body not of the Godhead, which has brought it to pass that now no one of those who believe dies), what is more thoughtless than you who honour with insult, and disparage with honour, for you consider a piece of wood to be your god. O worship full of insult! You believe not that Christ could die, O perversity founded on respect!
Symmachus asked for tolerance, because that was all his kind could ask for. St. Ambrose and the other militants saw no gain to such tolerance, because they had truth before them, and denying the truth was an insult to all. Tolerance of idolatry and superstition was no tolerance.
In 1965 Herbert Marcuse wrote Repressive Tolerance. He begins:
THIS essay examines the idea of tolerance in our advanced industrial society. The conclusion reached is that the realization of the objective of tolerance would call for intolerance toward prevailing policies, attitudes, opinions, and the extension of tolerance to policies, attitudes, and opinions which are outlawed or suppressed. In other words, today tolerance appears again as what it was in its origins, at the beginning of the modern period–a partisan goal, a subversive liberating notion and practice. Conversely, what is proclaimed and practiced as tolerance today, is in many of its most effective manifestations serving the cause of oppression.
These ideas find relevance today, where one descendent of Critical Theory has transformed dissent and offense into violence, and so justifies suppression of disagreeable thought. St. Ambrose would have used different logic because of a differing metaphysical basis, but I believe the psychological impulses are not so different. Tolerance of error is problematic when that error leads to injustice, impiety, and diminishes the “good society,” however it is imagined.
There are those who believe that they know the Truth. Plato and his acolytes had their conceit as philosopher kings. St. Ambrose and his fellow believers had divine revelation, and were seeking to bring all those in the darkness who disagreed with their views to the light. Following St. Augustine the pre-modern Catholic Church asserted that “error has no rights”.
The latest flare up of this sentiment among particular cultural elites, sometimes termed the “regressive Left” (somewhat of a contradiction clearly), is but latest incarnation of this viewpoint. They believe that the time for tolerance is over, as tolerance gives sanction and space to error and impiety (these are called “oppression” now). The liberal “end of history” seems to be evading us, the old battles reoccur with a regularity that hints at an eternal recurrence. Every few generations the battle with Tiamat must be joined, as monsters issue from the darkness of our cultural Id.
As a descriptive matter it strikes me that some have now denied that words as a tool of discussion, dialogue, and dispute, have utility to discover truth. Those who object with words are engaged in a likely futile exercise, just as pleas for the tolerance of the old religion were futile. A new world was upon them, they simply lacked our hindsight to see the dawning of the age of the One True God. Perhaps in a different universe history took a different course. In those universes I doubt the old gods survived through persuading the believers of the new Lord with words.
The age of words is over. If words become violence, then violence becomes the tool of ultimate persuasion, compulsion. If truth is all about power, then power is all there is. In a Whiggish telling we as a species came out of the blood and darkness, the struggle for power and zero-sum contests for collective domination. But perhaps we are destined to become what we were, creatures forged in blood and power, unable to resist the temptations of coercion and compulsion.
Sarah Haider is co-founder of ex-Muslims of North America. She is prominent in social media as an activist, after bursting onto the scene by giving a speech at The American Humanist Association conference in 2015. More recently I would highly recommend watching her defend the novel idea that there shouldn’t be safe spaces on a panel discussion. Sarah has also been profiled recently in Quillette, On Betrayal by the Left – Talking with Ex-Muslim Sarah Haider
1. I know that you were a sincere believer in religion at some point. Did this affect you in your day to day life in any discernible manner?
When I was religious, I practiced what I believed. Even today, I have difficulty understanding the perspective of believers who choose aspects of the faith to practice or ignore. If you have an ethical code you believe to be true and you *don’t* follow it, you are admitting yourself to be an immoral person. Having said that, my parents were liberal Muslims (liberal being a strictly relative term), and I was educated with a more humanist version of the faith than commonly practiced.
I left the religion at about 15, the age when it no longer seemed sufficient to parrot the beliefs of my parents. I had begun to look deeper into the faith, questioning aspects that seemed nonsensical or immoral in an attempt to better understand (and therefore align closer to the revealed truth). I dressed modestly to deflect attention from my body, and to the bemusement of my parents, I chose to don the hijab for a short period. I stayed away from drugs or sexual encounters of any kind, complied with dietary restrictions, and prayed as regularly as I could. My practice decreased as my doubts grew – and by the end of high school, I no longer felt tied to any observance. Given the years of shame over my body, however, I continued to have hang-ups about sex and sexuality for some time. I remember (at 18 years of age) putting on thigh-length shorts in public for the first time – I had never felt more naked.
2. Do you believe that Islam is in some way sui generis when compared to other world religions in how capable of embracing modernity?
It is hard to dispute the idea that Islam has remained resilient in the face of modernity. Vast majorities of Muslims and Eastern Islamic scholars believe literalism alone can bring us closer to the commandments of god – while biblical literalists are truly a fringe phenomenon. Meanwhile, the unchanging “perfection” of the text is a central claim of the faith – it is what gives the Quran supremacy over the Bible, why Muhammad is the “Seal of the Prophets”. There isn’t a long history of revisionism either, but there have been many efforts to revert religious practice to the time of Muhammad.
Despite all of that, I am hesitant to make broad claims of the “capability” of the religion to embrace modernity, although I will say I expect the faith is as likely to break as it is to bend. Comparisons to the slow modernization of Christianity fall flat in the face of the very different world we live in today. Islam’s backwardness and limited ability to flex may be its undoing – I’ve noticed an increase of atheists and agnostics as literature/media critical of Islam becomes more widely accessible. Christianity never had to face such a rapid onslaught of challenges.
3. Is there any particular philosopher who most exemplifies your own thought?
I’ll admit I can’t think of one in particular – but I’ve been influenced by John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell and Peter Singer. Lately I’ve been exploring Hannah Ardent’s work more closely, particularly her essays on civil disobedience and violence in politics.
4. Do you read any languages besides English? If yes, does this impact how you view the world (e.g., being able to access a wider array of news sources)?
Sad to say, not particularly.
5. People of a materialist and irreligious orientation seem to align in the United States, and more broadly internationally, on the political Left. Do you think this is contingent, or a necessary outcome of the psychology of the irreligious?
It appears to be a bit of both.
Most versions of conservatism understand religion to be a worthwhile institution in society, and so long as that stands it is safe to assume atheist sympathies will continue to lie (on the whole) with the Left.
GOP leaders often use an appeal to religious authority in order to justify policies and regularly bend over backwards to court the most religious Americans – terribly repellant to many atheists. The American political right appears to be subservient to dictates of Christianity rather than secular morality or reason.
I don’t think that other conservative or right-wing values are inherently unappealing to nonbelievers, however. I’ve also noticed some recent trends which may affect political allegiance.
I’ve felt an increasing hostility to some fields of science coming from the political Left, particularly a denial of biological influence in human behavior and outcomes. As this tendency becomes better known, so may some scientific-minded atheists distance themselves from the politics that fuel it. Islam may be the biggest game changer of all – the Left’s refusal to acknowledge the problems within the religion have left some atheists (myself included) feeling betrayed and abandoned.
6. Do you think it is possible in the future, barring trans/posthumanism, that human beings could ever become a mostly nonreligious species?
If by religion, you mean simply “a belief in the supernatural”, then yes, given a greater understanding of the natural world it is possible humans become a mostly nonreligious species. However, irrational “faith” is not exclusive to religions and I am not too sure that we can overcome dogmatic tendencies and instill skeptical thinking within the majority.
I think a greater danger than religion in and of itself is the propensity to reject the existence of an objective reality and disavowal of our own rationality as a means of understanding the world.
I can sometimes find quite a bit of irrational behavior among secular individuals, and I find their inability to see the similarities between religious and nonreligious dogma to be distressing. Is this tendency something deeply and irremovable human?
7. You’re a Texan. I’m curious whether that’s influenced your outlook on life in any way.
While in Texas, I was staunchly progressive but ever since I left the state, I find myself moving gradually to the political center. This may mean that a contrarian spirit rather than a true ideological alignment motivated my leftist tendencies – but I believe that isn’t entirely the case. I had a very negative view of conservatism and libertarianism while surrounded by their excesses, and since I’ve left that particular bubble (and walked into another) my feelings have tempered.
8. You go home to Texas and visit your family, but do you ever go to Pakistan? If not, do you plan to?
I do not regularly visit Pakistan, and since I’ve become more public with my activism I believe it would be unwise to do so in the future. I find it curious (but unsurprising) that in discussions of the supposed unbearable hostility experienced by Muslims in the West, the plight of non-Muslims/apostates in Muslim countries is never really brought up. Safe to say that a Muslim is far safer in any Western country than a public apostate like me is in any Muslim one. In fact, I can go further than that. Safe to say that a Muslim is far safer in any Western country than someone like me is *in that very same* Western country.
9. What’s your most unpopular obscure opinion that those who follow your work might be surprised by?
Generally speaking, individual rights and freedoms are central to my understanding of a healthy, functioning society. I also lean progressive, so I hold many leftist ideas about what constitutes a family. Having said that, I’m not “on board” with the idea shared by some progressives that a society that moves beyond the two-parent family is desirable. I am alarmed by the rise of single parenthood, and I believe that, on the whole, children raised by single parents are at a severe disadvantage compared to dual-parent households, no matter how loving and dedicated the single parent. While shaming such parents is despicable, women should be discouraged from having children without a committed, long-term partner. In fact, I think an ideal atmosphere for child rearing is closer to the joint-family common in South Asia. It may not be the most desirable or “liberating” environment for some individuals (certainly wouldn’t be for me), but parents have a duty to consider their children’s needs. Conservatives reading this might think that was a spectacularly benign thing to say – but it really is controversial in some circles I frequent.
10. In no particular order, could you list five books that have influenced you? Don’t spend more than a minute or so, not an issue if you’d give a somewhat different list if asked again tomorrow! (here’s mine: Principles of Population Genetics, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, From Dawn to Decadence, In Gods We Trust, and The Blank Slate).
1. Kindly Inquisitors – Jonathon Rauch
2. Thinking Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
3. On Writing Well – William Zinsser
4. The Red Queen – Matt Ridley
5. Why I am not a Christian – Bertrand Russell.
In response to my earlier post some people suggested that the language was impenetrable. Nathan Taylor offered to make it more plain spoken, so here is this go at it. I think it’s pretty good.
(text below is from Nathan)
1) Modern humans stayed in Africa for tens of thousands years of before expanding beyond it. Most of the ancestors of non-African humanity seem to have started expanding rapidly from a small founder group of less than 1,000 people, starting around 50-75 thousand years years ago. African humanity has a more complex pattern. Some groups diverged as early as 200,000 years ago, then mixed back together.
2) Don’t think of humanity as a branching tree. Rather think of humanity as groups of streams. Some streams end, many fold back on one another, and some suddenly have massive expansions. Surprisingly, all major human population groups we know today seem to be the product of relatively recent fusions. Even Africa, the source of modern humanity, has seen streams flow back from Eurasia.
3) Many of the characteristics people focus on today are of recent origin. At least as measured in thousands or tens of thousands of years. 8,000 years ago parts of Europe were populated by brown skinned hunter gatherers with blue eyes. Whiter skin is a (relatively) recent development. And the thick straight hair now common among East Asians is recent as well.
4) The genetic variant which helps Tibetans tolerate very high altitudes comes from a human lineage as divergent from modern humans as Neanderthals are. The Denisovans. This illustrates a general trend: we have adaptations from other very diverged human lineages in our genes today. Even if the genetic percentage is small.
5) The transition to agriculture and complex civilization seems correlated with the explosive growth of a few select male Y chromosomes. Think Genghis Khan.
6) It seems unlikely there is one genetic change which made humans humans. This is less certain than 1-5, but I’m pretty sure it’s true. Researchers have been looking for this for years and haven’t turned up anything definitive. I think the reason is simple enough: many genetic changes came together to make us distinctive.
7) A lot of variation between human groups is not due to novel genes. Rather it comes from increasing the popularity of pre-existing genetic variants. For example, the lightening of skin across parts of Eurasia is due to an increase of genetic variants which are common to many human populations. Height is another example.
8) Cultural flexibility does not means humans are not evolving. On the contrary, strong shifts in cultural norms seem to drive human evolution. Lactase persistence (the ability to drink milk as an adult) is a clear case. But even genetic tolerance to malaria was ultimately driven by human created environmental changes.
9) There are no “most ancient” human group. By definition, we are all equally separated in time from our common ancestors.
10) There are hints of possible new discoveries coming from ancient human DNA. For example there is evidence of humans leaving Africa ~100,000 years ago into Eurasia in both genetic and fossil data. These earlier humans may have been overrun by a later group. But this is hard to determine with the current data. The DNA of current and ancient humans still has many stories to tell.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research. He is also the host of Finding Your Roots, and Africa’s Great Civilizations (among many other documentaries).
Below are 10 questions.
- If you were eighteen and had to choose a different profession from the one you have now, what would that be? (a professor in a sufficiently different scholarly discipline would count.)
Hollywood Film Producer or Psychiatrist/Novelist.
- About ten years ago you began bringing genealogical research to the public. Personal histories, if you will. Obviously you’ve continued down this path and expanded your purview in terms of topic, as well as the methods you use. The ‘use case’ for why genetics and genomics matter for personal health straightforward. But for genealogy, one’s ancestry, it is often more vague, and perceived to be a matter of entertainment. And yet I know many people for whom it is an emotionally rewarding endeavor. Why do you think this is so?
When I conceived of the series that has become Finding Your Roots, my goal was to use the new science of ancestry-tracing through mt- and y-DNA to enable African Americans to learn more about their distant ancestry in Africa. I had no idea how the science worked, but I had been tested by Dr. Rick Kittles and given a startling result, a result, as it turned out, that turned out to be much more complicated than it initially appeared. (But that is another story.). I approached my friend, Quincy Jones, and asked him if he would be in the series, should we raise the funding. He readily agreed. Quincy himself was fascinated with genealogy, as it turned out; he had scored the music for “Roots,” and had introduced me to Alex Haley, the king of black genealogy. When I pitched the story to potential corporate sponsors, I sold the idea around the recovery of lost African ethnic ancestry. “How would you like your corporation’s brand associated with the world learning the ‘tribe’ from which Oprah Winfrey descended?” That was the pitch. And that was it! So we launched “African American Lives,” and it was a hit. We followed it, at PBS’s urging, with “African American Lives II,” another hit. When I received a letter from a woman of Russian Jewish descent, asking if I was a racist because we only tested black people in the series, we “expanded the brand,” as they say, and decided to trace everybody’s roots. I shall forever be grateful to that person for making that bold suggestion to me. It had never occurred to me before that I could test white people, and that they might find the process as riveting as black people did.
Here’s the surprise: initially, I thought the climax of the reveal would be the discovery of an African American’s African ethnic ancestry, on their mother’s mother’s line, or their father’s father’s line. But to my surprise, this is not the part of the process that moved my guests the most. What moved them was learning the names of their recent ancestors on their family trees, their great-grandparents and great-great grandparents, etc., the names of the people who had survived slavery and then the Jim Crow era. I almost fell off my chair when the first person we interviewed began to cry, just seeing the name of an enslaved ancestor on a musky old document. It was a revelation to me! Distant ancestry–always, by definition, anonymous– is intellectually fascinating; recent ancestry–learning the names of the people on your own family tree going back a few hundred years–can be powerfully gripping emotionally. And that has turned out to be true for all of the guests in all of our genealogy series.
Why? Because genetic genealogy is, in the end, ultimately about yourself. It is a way of learning more about the human being you have become. You literally inherit DNA from all of the ancestors on your family tree going back 5 or 6 generations; but you also, it seems some-times, inherit preferences, habits, choices, inclinations, from recent ancestors, ancestors whom you have never met and will never meet. It’s uncanny. But it is true. Habits are passed down, invisibly, generation to generation, just as surely as DNA is. My work has been blessed with wonderfully generous mentors in the field of genetics, who have shared developments in this fascinating field as they have unfolded. So each year, our DNA reveals have become more and more sophisticated. I’m thinking of people such as George Church, Eric Lander, Mark Daly, David Altshuler, Steve Hyman, Joanna Mountain, Kasia Bryc, Razib Khan, CeCe Moore and most recently David Reich.
- No matter how intimate you are with someone it is not possible to understand an individual in every single detail of their thought process and viewpoints. But oftentimes it is useful to collect some informative data so as to make one’s own inferences. Here is an example. I’m going to name two philosophers who shape my thinking and align with my own viewpoints who both lived before 0 A.D., one Western and one non-Western. That would be Aristotle and Xunzi. I’d be curious as to your picks.
Kant and Hegel fascinate me, in part because of what they wrote about race. What they wrote was not, shall we say, very flattering to people of African descent. But my all time favorite philosopher is Plato. I am also partial to the great Greek tragedians as well, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. But that’s my day job, teaching literature!
- Genetics and history are progressing rather fast. Because of the cost and lack of information a lot of the work on ancient DNA has involved prehistory. But soon that will change. I know that some African Americans hold Egypt to be a ‘black’ civilization. When ancient DNA begins to come back my prediction is that ancient Egyptians will be shown to be a predominant mixture of Levantine farmers, Natufians, with a minority component of Sub-Saharan ancestry with strong affinities to the populations which in-habit the current Sudan. This mixture is probably old, and may date to the ‘Green Saha-ra’ period, so well-mixed throughout the population. For those of Afrocentrist perspective would this be sufficient? Would it be controversial? To be frank, I know that in many circles population genetics is ignored when it is inconvenient to the narrative, so perhaps it would only be of scholarly interest?
Though we’ve inherited many representations of Egyptians created by themselves, we don’t yet know what the Egyptians actually looked like, because their mode of portraiture was not realism. However, if you consult “The Image of the Black in Western Art,” volume one (edited by David Bindman and myself), you will see that we know what colors they used to represent themselves, and the skin tones they used to represent Nubians, who lived south of the 3rd cataract. And from what I can tell, they were the color of North Africans today, not white, not black, but somehow in-between. The Nubians–Egypt’s sometime trading-partner, sometime friend, sometime enemy, sometime conquered sometimes conqueror–however, are always represented as darker and with what anthropologists used to call “Negroid” features. Just look at the statues recently recovered by the great anthropologist, Charles Bonnet, of the Black Pharaohs of the Nile, the Nubians who conquered Egypt and established The 25th Dynasty. Let’s just say that had they shown up in Mississippi in the 50’s, they’d be sitting in the back of the bus. The Egyptians and the Kushites or the Nubians exchanged many things, including, without a doubt, genetic material. But on the whole, I believe that DNA will reveal exactly what you predict, and will show that the Nubians, by contrast, have a much larger component of sub-Saharan autosomal DNA, just like their descendants do today in the country of Sudan. I’ll take Nubia any day! It was an extraordinary civilization, it lasted through three iterations from 3000 BC to about 400 AD (as Kerma, Napata, and Meroe), it had a written language (Meroitic), and it was undeniably and indisputably “black.”
- As a scholar there is always a tension between production of knowledge geared toward colleagues, and that geared toward the broader public. The tension is not something that many in the public are aware of, but within the scholarly world there is a spectrum of acceptability, with some academics asserting that anything geared toward the broader public is a ‘waste’ of time. Those who hold this view in public are the minority, but my experience has been that this position is held privately to a much greater degree. Most people would say you are a ‘public intellectual,’ so you clearly have opted for engagement. Have there been ramifications or consequences in the world of scholarship? And why do you choose to engage the public? Is it because you think it is important for the public? Because it is important for you to share what you know? Both?
I have had a long, fruitful and blessed career. At its beginning, understandably, I wrote scholarly pieces in the jargon of critical theory which only a few people could read–only people within the guild, as it were; the initiated. I enjoyed–and enjoy–that kind of writing. One of the happiest days of my professional life was the day I received an acceptance letter about my first essay on “The Signifying Monkey” from Professor W.J.T. Mitchell, the Editor of “Critical Inquiry,” still the finest journal in the field of critical theory. I became the first African American to publish an essay on critical theory in that august journal, and that was hugely gratifying for me. But I also want to be able to share my views of the world, how I see things, with people fluent in languages other than that of critical theory. So I like to thing that I’m multi-lingual. And I love good storytelling, like my father used to do.
- The ‘futurist’ Ray Kurzweil talks about exponential change and the Singularity. Setting aside your specific opinions on the Singularity, what is the greatest technological change you hope to see by 2030? (I’ll give my answer to give you a flavor of what I’m looking for: gene editing technologies becoming advanced enough to cure adults with Mendelian diseases)
I want to know what color Homo sapiens were 50,000 years ago, and what the Egyptians looked like.
- I was a bookish child, and I’m a bookish adult. But I know others who had a life changing moment when they realized that they wanted to explore the world of ideas. When did you realize that your aim in life was to become a professional scholar?
When I went to the University of Cambridge and met Professor Wole Soyinka and my fellow student, Kwame Anthony Appiah. They brought me to the party. Until that time, I thought I’d become a medical doctor. They told me, in their own different ways, that I had been called to be a scholar. The call is irresistible.
- We live in a world of paradoxes. On the one hand economic development in China has resulted in a massive gain in human well being. On the other hand inequality in developed societies, and the possibility of a ‘post-work’ world looms for many lower on the skill hierarchy. I’m pessimistic about any real solution to this problem in the medium term. It doesn’t strike me that the political Left or Right have any ideas beyond rhetoric and appeals to 20th-century social-political tools in response to 20th century conditions. What is your stance on this? Are you optimistic? Pessimistic?
We just aired “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise” on PBS in November. It’s about the class divide within the black community. It’s a wake up call. While the black middle class has doubled since Dr. King died and the black upper middle class has quadrupled over the same period, the percentage of black children living at or beneath the poverty line has dropped from about 42% to about 38%. In other words, there is a huge class gap within the black community and those of us most privileged, those of us who have benefited from affirmative action, need to insist that the government and private industry undertake the wide variety of programs necessary to restart class mobility in this country.
- I know that you’ve dug really deep into human prehistory of late, with a focus on human evolution. If the public take away one thing, what would that be?
We are all Africans. And mutations matter.
- In no particular order, could you list five books that have influenced you? Don’t spend more than a minute or so, no worries if you’d give a somewhat different list if asked again tomorrow! (Here’s mine: Principles of Population Genetics, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, From Dawn to Decadence, In Gods We Trust, and The Blank Slate).
A Tale of Two Cities, Les Miserables, Death and the King’s Horseman, Macbeth, Cosmopolitanism (by Kwame Anthony Appiah), Notes of a Native Son, Cane, Invisible Man, Frederick Douglass 1845 Narrative of the Life, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
In 2011 I had dinner with a friend of mine from college. He’s a smart guy. Ph.D. in chemistry form M.I.T and all that. I mentioned offhand how it was rather proven to good degree of certainty there was Neanderthal gene flow into modern humans (our lineage). He was somewhat surprised by this information, and I was aghast that he didn’t know. 1It was one of the biggest science stories of the year. Right?
What that brought home to me is that something that seems revolutionary near to your heart or field of occupational interest may not be so visible to those who are not similarly situated. My friend is a well educated person with a science Ph.D., but it was just not on his radar. Similarly, I had very smart friends in college who were evangelical Christians who were surprised by the high degree of identity between the chimpanzee and human in regards to our DNA sequence (they were Creationists, and skeptical of any close kinship).
Here’s a final example that might interest readers. I had a long conversation with a relatively prominent journalist a month or so ago. Someone who writes in biology, and in particular genetics (who is not Carl Zimmer). I mentioned offhand to them that the work of various labs utilizing ancient DNA is showing rather conclusively that the vast majority of human populations are relatively recent admixtures between highly diverged lineages. To put it in plainer language: we are all mestizos! This journalist was totally surprised by this fact.
This indicates to me again that facts which are “known” in the “in-group” may be surprising to those who are not as hooked in. It isn’t a matter of being educated, smart, or interested. It’s a matter of narrowly constrained social channels.
Here are 10 facts that we’ve recently discovered about human evolution, with a focus on genetics since that’s what I know best, which you should probably know. Or might find interesting.
1) The expansion/development of modern humans occurred within Africa for tens of thousands of before their expansion “Out of Africa.” Most of the ancestors of non-African humanity seem to have started expanding rapidly from a small founder group of 100-1,000 50-75 thousand years years ago. African humanity has a different and more complex historical pattern, with lineages which began diverging as early as 200,000 years before the present, and then mixing back with each other.
2) Related to #1, we’re one species, so rather than an expanding “tree” from common ancestors, it’s better to think of a mesh which keeps coming back together, as some branches are pruned, and the whole pulses out periodically. All major human populations seem to be the product of relatively recent fusions between diverged branches. Africa was the source of modern humanity, but clearly there has been “back migration” from Eurasia.
3) Many of the phenotypes we define as characteristic of various human populations are relatively recent. E.g., the depigmented look of Northern Europeans, or the thick straight hair of East Asians.
4) The Denisovan version of EPAS1 which is found in Tibetans illustrates a general trend: we have adaptations from other very diverged human lineages through low levels of gene flow.
5) The transition to agriculture and complex “civilization” seems correlated to pulses of highly fecund male paternal lineages. Many of the common Y chromosomes today exhibit a pattern of diversification indicative of explosive population growth.
6) It seems unlike there is one singular genetic change which makes us sui generis or distinctive in relation to our hominin cousins. This is less certain than 1-5, but I’m pretty sure that this is so. Researchers have been looking for years, and not finding anything definitive, and I think there’s a reason. There isn’t anything definitive. Many genetic changes come together to make our lineage distinctive.
7) A lot of adaptation occurs through reemergence of old variation which is floating around in the human population. For example, the lightening of skin across parts of Eurasia co-opt common mammalian pigmentation pathways.
8) Cultural flexibility does not negate biological evolution. On the contrary, strong shifts in cultural norms seem to drive biology. Lactase persistence is a clear case, but even something like malaria adaptation is ultimately due to anthropogenic environmental changes.
9) We are all equally descended from common ancestors. There are no “most ancient” human lineages. We’re all equally recent by definition.
10) There are evolutionary genetic events in our history which are hinted at in the most recent data, so there are major lacunae in our knowledge. The picture is well formed, but not complete. E.g., there is evidence of pulses out of Africa ~100,000 years ago into Eurasia in both genetic and fossil data. These lineages may have gone extinct, or, their contribution may be difficult to detect with current data sets. But there is clearly more to be told in this story.
In the years that I’ve had this blog I’ve had many correspondents and communications with people who I’ve come to consider friends. Some of these correspondences go back over 10 years now. Some of them are people you would know. But many are not known to you insofar as they do not leave comments in this space, nor do they interact with me on Twitter, etc.
One of these individuals is Mike McKeown. When he began emailing me in the middle 2000s Mike was a tenured professor of biology at Brown. I was a dilettante blogger and web developer. I’m not sure he “mentored” me as such, but he gave me a lot of encouragement and feedback on my various projects over the years. It was through Mike that I was introduced to Ken Miller, the biologist who has written against Creationism over the years, as well as religion and science.
Here’s the last email I received from Mike, on February 13th of 2012:
Congratulations on your lovely daughter.
You probably intellectually understand that you have already done all you can to mold her personality. I had the luck to have this pounded into me when our DZ (XX & XY) twins were showing completely different personalities from the very start. For me it was liberating because ‘IT IS NOT MY FAULT.”
One other thing, reading to her even now will get you and her into the feel of it. Of course you can find kid books you like, especially when she gets a bit bigger you get into various classics. I amused myself by trying to give each character a personality-linked voice, now all three kids can tell just a little bit from a line and they understand the whole context.
Best to all,
I had never ended up meeting Mike in person, though we wondered if we’d ever overlap at a conference when I began grad school. Today I realized that I hadn’t received an email from Mike in years. Five years in fact now that I checked!
There’s a reason. A little Googling immediately yielded the fact that Mike died from Alzheimer’s this last December. I’m sad that I didn’t know what he was going through, because I did consider him a friend, but such are the wages of a purely cyber-friendship. Presumably over the years emailing became more difficult for Mike.
I put this post up partly to acknowledge all the people I’ve met via email over the years, including those who I’ve never met in person. These relationships matter. I know they matter because I am feeling rather sad right now after finding out about Mike.
Anyway, I’m privileged to have known Mike. When I have time I’ll probably be rereading my emails with him, since I have all of them still.
Addendum: I still haven’t processed Henry Harpending’s passing. I’ll write about that some day perhaps when I can say something worth sayin
Updates on the changing situation…
Shadi Hamid is Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World Kindle and Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.
1. You recently wrote a book on Islamic exceptionalism (called, Islamic Exceptionalism). Many years ago I recall you suggesting that perhaps secularization would never occur in the Muslim world. So this seems to be a long-standing belief of yours. Is that so? If so, was there a specific moment you realize that you held this position?
I think my skepticism on secularism taking hold in the Muslim world was always there somewhere, but they were initially just impressions that weren’t really well thought out. It’s sort of just something I began to feel more and more during my fieldwork in the late 2000s. If you spend a lot of time with Islamists, you can’t help but realize that, when you ask them to explain why they do what they do, they themselves don’t (can’t?) make clear distinctions between “religion” and “politics.” So, I kind of started absorbing this through those conversations, many of which were just pretty much me hanging out with them, with some structured questions to start, but most of it would devolve into free-form conversations, especially with the younger guys. I guess I was just more interested in understanding what really drove them more than in answering the questions I had scribbled down in my notebook.
It really hit me, though, after the Arab Spring, seeing democratic transitions collapse and trying to understand why. Politics – in Egypt certainly but also in supposedly bright, hopeful Tunisia – felt increasingly existential, and the role and power of religion was a big part of that. People weren’t debating the finer points of tax policy or healthcare; they were debating the most fundamental questions you could possibly ask, about the relationship between Islam and the state and what it meant to be an Egyptian or a Tunisian or a Turk. So that led me to a more basic set of observations about what drives not just Islamists or Muslims, but voters (and people) more generally, and that became a theme in my previous book Temptations of Power, in which I began exploring the tensions between democracy and small-l, classical liberalism.
When you see people who you care about and maybe even love – in this case my secular elite relatives in Egypt – supporting the mass killing of their fellow countrymen (during the August 2013 massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters), it really has a lasting effect on you. We all know about the quotidian elements of evil. We read Hannah Arendt in graduate school, or whatever. But it’s one thing to theorize about it in a seminar and another thing to see it time and time again with people who you know or in the places where you live. All in all, it helped me think of liberalism more as something that was externally imposed, even in our own case in America. In other words, here in the U.S., our norms were so powerful as to overwhelm these darker, base impulses, but that never meant the impulses weren’t there, ready to reassert themselves. And they have.
2. My family is from Bangladesh, and in the world of religion that nation is divided in two, between Hindu and Muslim. Though we had Hindu friends in the small Bengali and Bangladeshi community of upstate New York in which I grew up, there was always the unspoken religious chasm. It wasn’t until I was seven that my mother told me about a third group in the United States: Christians. I was rather fascinated to have the duality of my world shattered in such a manner. Obviously my schoolmates were mostly Christian, but I had never bothered to think about what their religion was (I had not realized Christmas was a religious holiday obviously). My question is rather simple: you grew up in the United States as a Muslim when the religion was a less salient aspect of the scene. How did your parents prepare you to cope with growing up as an exemplar of your religious group when they themselves presumably had not had that experience as young people themselves (as in their environments Islam would have been normative)?
I think my Muslim identity resonated more when I was younger, in part because my parents went out of their way to promote a sense of community, particularly with the local Egyptian community outside of Philadelphia where I grew up. My parents, though, had a particular life philosophy that I’m, in retrospect, even more grateful for today than I was at the time. They may not have agreed with something (their culturally conservative views on dating for example), but it was always like: ‘Shadi, you know that we have concerns about x thing. We might even disapprove of it, but it’s up to you to make the choice for yourself.’
In some ways, Islam as a cultural and community proposition, was very much there, even if in other ways our community was relatively liberal. My parents knew I had a girlfriend in high school for example (although, to be fair, she was Egyptian and a family friend so that probably assuaged some of their fears). I remember I would flirt (or, to be more accurate, try to flirt) with her at the mosque – although I should probably mention, so I don’t get in trouble, that of course that’s not something anyone would (or could) do in the actual prayer area.
But one really important point, here, is that some of this was new for my parents, when it comes to the idea of a community that was more based around being Muslim then, say, being Arab. When they were growing up in Nasser-era Egypt, it was still during the height of the secular nationalist experiment. Religion was there, but no one felt a particular need to assert it. People prayed and fasted. Some didn’t. It wasn’t a big deal. It was more fluid. When my parents were in college in Cairo, it would be unheard of to see a girl wearing the headscarf. There is some internal debate about this within our family, but one of my uncles claims that my grandfather would occasionally have a beer, even at home (although when I asked my dad about this, he wasn’t sure). Unless you’re familiar with attitudes toward alcohol in Egypt today, it’s hard to describe how foreign this (however apocryphal) recollection sounded to me, when I first heard it from my uncle.
As for Christianity, I thought about it intellectually, but I didn’t think about it much as something real and lived-in, in part because it’s actually not super easy to meet outwardly and openly Christian people in the generally liberal setting of Bryn Mawr, PA. I guess, even if subconsciously, this must have had an effect on me – this idea that the Christians I knew generally didn’t seem all that serious about their faith, where at the local mosque it was pretty clear that there were Muslims who were pretty serious about their faith. I’ve always tried to be careful in how I talk about this, because it can pretty easily be misconstrued, but I remember talking to some friends a couple years back and someone described Islam as the “last badass religion,” which I thought was an interesting turn of phrase. It’s this part of Islam that helps me understand and even empathize with why some atheists or secularists might be suspicious of Islam. (But it’s this part of Islam that also helps me understand why Muslims themselves, even those who aren’t particularly religiously observant, seem so attached to the idea of Islam being unusually uncompromising and assertive).
If you’re nominally Christian and you see that your own faith, for whatever reason, can’t compete with Islam’s political resonance, then you might find yourself looking for non-religious forms of ideology which can offer a comparable sense of meaning. That’s why the rise of Trump as well as the far-right in Europe is so interesting to me; these are fundamentally non-religious movements that are, in some sense, reacting to Islam but also mimicking the sense of certainty and conviction that it provides to its followers.
3. The fact that you hold beliefs in a descriptive and positivist sense about the world you would prefer not to be true is something you’ve admitted. What specific belief is one which you hold as likely correct, but which you would prefer not be correct? (list the one that you are least happy to believe to be true)
So, in my new book, there are definitely some ideas and conclusions that I’m not quite comfortable with, which is sometimes a bit of a weird feeling. When the book came out, I was nervous, not just for the usual reasons, but also because there were certain distillations of my argument – the sound bites – which, when I said them, it was almost like I was straining myself. This is an era, perhaps the era, of anti-Muslim bigotry, and I couldn’t bear to think that I was contributing to that. The thing, though, is that I know that I have. But, just the same, I can’t bear the idea of not saying the things I believe to be true just because someone might use it for purposes I find objectionable. To me, the alternative is worse, the whole “Islam is peaceful” nonsense. “Islam is violent” is just as nonsensical, but we don’t fight those stereotypes of Islam by pretending the exact opposite is true. Why should Islam be peaceful? Why should any religion be? War is as much part of the human experience as anything else, so it would be odd if our religions had nothing to say about war or violence, and how to regulate it.
The other thing I should mention is a bit more complicated, and it’s not something I really touch on in the book, in part because I don’t believe my personal views about Islam matter all that much. I did discuss this a bit in my recent interview with Sam Harris. I personally believe in a progressive, even liberal Islam, but I believe it for myself and I wouldn’t presume to think that others should share my views. So when someone asks me about controversial verses in the Quran (and remember, for Muslims, these aren’t easy to deal with, since this isn’t merely “God’s word,” as many evangelicals believe about the Bible, but God’s actual speech), I take a “progressive” approach. So verse 4:34, for example, which is sometimes interpreted as allowing for beating one’s wife “lightly.” There are literally hundreds of thousands of words written on this one verse, but, for me, the details of the reams of exegesis matter little. If God is the Most Just then he is not capable of injustice, so he wouldn’t (or couldn’t?) command us to do something unjust. Justice, then, exists as a kind of absolute value, outside or even independent of scripture. This is what I think, but I also have this nagging suspicion that I might be wrong – that my view is not “true,” or at least it’s not what Islam normatively considers to be true. How, after all, can God be bound by something that he himself is the cause of? So I’m in the minority. The mainstream position, at the risk of oversimplification, is that whatever God wills to be just is, or becomes, just.
Why should my presumably time-bound and contingent perspectives of justice take precedence over the views of those who would disagree with me, for reasons which make as much sense to them as my views make sense to me? Sometimes I worry that I come to my conclusions about what I would like Islam to be – reconciling it with modern notions of liberal democracy, gender equality, and gay rights – and then working backwards to find things in scripture that would support the things I already decided I believe. This seems to me to be at least somewhat contrary to the purpose of religion, particularly Islam, where the idea of submitting to God’s will, regardless of what you think, is supposed to be important and even determinative.
As a descriptive matter, I’m also well aware that universal values are not, in fact, universal, in the sense that they’re not universally held. But even if I grant you that there are universal values, today, that cut across culture and geography, I don’t think anyone can argue that universal values are universal across time. In other words, Locke and Madison were liberals par excellence in their time, but if people believed the things today that they believed then (that owning slaves was okay or that Catholics and atheists were exempt from toleration), then, well, we wouldn’t consider them liberals. In 2017, we consider not supporting gay marriage to be illiberal, yet 10 years ago, when Obama and most Democratic party elites only believed in civil unions, we considered that to be falling somewhere within the liberal consensus. Can we retroactively decide that the 2008 version of Obama wasn’t liberal? If we did that, then no one at any point in the past could be liberal according to liberalism’s ever changing and ever progressing standards of equality or justice.
Lastly, on this issue of justice as an absolute value; this has perhaps other moral implications. If justice exists outside of space and time (if it is not, in a sense, created), then wouldn’t that necessitate the existence of hell (assuming here that God exists)? If God exists, I can’t imagine there also wouldn’t be a hell. I have trouble believing in a God who wouldn’t punish those who had reached a certain level of unequivocal evil (the Hitlers, Saddams, Maos, Assads for example). I’ll keep Castro out of it since people will freak out (I find the left’s soft spot for Castro endlessly fascinating. The bad leftist I have a soft spot for is Che, but that’s just me). Can the universe be just if Hitler hasn’t been made to suffer for his transgressions?
Wow, I just really digressed. [that’s OK! -Razib]
4. I recently read a book called The Atheist Muslim. This concept, that one can be an atheist and have a Muslim identity, is one I’m rather skeptical about, though the author makes a reasonable case given his background. What is your position in regards to this?
Sure, I think someone can be an atheist and be “culturally” Muslim, just as there are Christians who don’t believe in Christ but welcome the cultural or ritualistic aspects of the religion. Religion isn’t just about faith; it’s also about identity. But an atheist can’t really be Muslim in the fuller sense, just as a Christian isn’t theologically Christian if he or she believes that Jesus was some random carpenter dude, who just happened to be rather wise. I’m always concerned about stretching language to the point where what we call things is hollowed of meaning. Every religion has its theological boundaries, otherwise what would be the point of different religions, if each religion can somehow seep into the other? We can’t simply will things to be whatever we want them to be. To put it differently, religions are partly about identity, but each religion will still have creedal requirements that make the religion both what it was, and what it is. That said, I haven’t read the book, so maybe he’d be persuasive enough for me to come back and rethink some of my ideas on this!
5. Your work, from what I have seen, focuses on the core Middle East, in particular, though not exclusively, Arab nations. Part of this seems to be due to the fact that it is what you are personally familiar with. But, I believe part of it is due to the reality that in regards to “Islamic world” this region is always going to be more influential than the “periphery”, even if that periphery in the form of Asia and Africa is home to the vast majority of the world’s Muslims. In contrast, there have long been those who have suggested that nations such as Indonesia, or perhaps European Islam, might serve as a model and trailblazer which would ultimately reshape Islam in the Middle East. Where do you stand on this question?
In the book, I argue that Indonesia and Malaysia are the closest things we have to a “template” (the word “model” scares me; I don’t want to tempt fate). This is not to say that they’re exemplars of some kind of “secular Islam.” If they were, then they wouldn’t be models at all, because they wouldn’t be resolving, or at least addressing, the fundamental “problem” of Islam’s relationship to politics.
So, Indonesia and Malaysia are often held up as examples of democracy, pluralism, and tolerance. They’re certainly more democratic than most Middle Eastern countries. Yet, they also feature significantly more sharia ordinances on the local level than, say, Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, or Tunisia. Islam might have still been exceptional, but Indonesia and Malaysia’s political systems were more interested in accommodating this reality than in suppressing it. There aren’t the same kinds of entrenched secular elites that you see in the Arab world. Islamism isn’t the province of one party, but of most. Accordingly, Islam’s role in politics is “normalized,” which means that its role is less likely to fuel violent conflict or intractable polarization. Of course, this comes at a cost for liberalism, since Islamist and “secular” parties alike are constantly trying to outbid each other on who’s more committed to Islam and even Islamic law. Democratic politics in religiously conservative countries means that all parties need to appeal to conservative voters. In Indonesia, adultery is already technically illegal, but Islamist organizations have been pushing to criminalize premarital and extramarital sex, and it’s something that Indonesia’s Constitutional Court has had to consider.
I should perhaps be clear about my biases here. I only really have two “non-negotiables” –respecting democratic outcomes regardless of how much we might not like them, and opposing mass slaughter and genocide (not just in theory like most people, but in practice, including through the use of military force). In my view, the only way to produce better outcomes in the long run, then, is to let the complex, messy process of democracy play out, which allows Islamists and liberals alike to make their respective cases to the electorate, and then the rest flows from that. This is also incidentally why some people think I’ve been too soft on Trump. I’ve spoke out against the #NotMyPresident stuff and the attempts to get the electoral college to basically overturn the results of the election. That doesn’t mean Trump doesn’t scare me; he does, and not just in policy terms, but in existential terms. I remember the night of election, which was so surreal, I felt compelled to live-tweet the DC election party I went to. I left, in a bad mood. My brother called me at midnight and he started crying. “I’m not so much worried about us. I’m worried about mom and dad,” he told me. When I heard him put it like that, after a long, depressing night, I started to cry as well – the first time I can remember crying about politics in my life. But this is what our system produced and I have no choice but to respect that.
6. The 2008 economic crisis in many ways was a crisis for macroeconomics. In political science there are certain formal models, such as rational choice theory, that are very common. How do you feel about theory and statistical analysis in your field, as opposed to narrative description? Has theory yielded results? (e.g., Robert Pape’s work on suicide bombing seems to be one instance where statistical analysis yield interesting findings)
What I think political science really offers, at least from my perspective as a political scientist who writes for a mostly a non-academic audience, is a framework for understanding causal relationships and for making generalizable observations and conclusions that go beyond the specifics of any one single case. This sort of thing can be helpful for really anyone who’s interested in distinguishing between correlation and causation, since I see the two conflated all the time. Just because two things are strongly correlated doesn’t mean one causes the other (there’s also the question of which way the causal arrows flow).
My bigger issue, though, has to do with political scientists’ unwillingness to take religion seriously as a prime mover. In other words, because most political scientists in the academy aren’t particularly religious or haven’t spent much time around religious people, they usually see religion not as a cause, but rather as something caused by other more tangible, material factors, the things we can touch, feel, and of course measure. So if someone joins an Islamist organization like the Muslim Brotherhood, the tendency is to explain it with things like rural-urban migration, underemployment, poverty, being pissed off at America, the list goes on. Sure, all those things matter, but what does political science have to say about “irrational” things like wanting to get into heaven? It’s not everything, but it’s one important factor that has to taken into account. This is something that becomes more obvious when you talk to Islamists about why they do what they do. They don’t say, “hey Shadi, I’m doing this because I want to get into heaven.” It’s more something that you feel and absorb the more you sit down and talk to a Muslim Brotherhood member. It matters to them and it’s something that drives them, especially when they’re deciding to join a sit-in and they’re well aware that the military is about to move in and use live ammunition. It’s not so much that they want to die; it’s more that they are ready to die, and it doesn’t frighten them as much as it might frighten someone else, because they believe there’s a pretty good chance that they’ll be granted paradise especially if they happen to killed while they’re in the middle of an act that they consider to be in the service of God and his message.
Another example: after the failed coup attempt in Turkey last year, President Erdogan said something that raised a lot of eyebrows. He called the coup attempt “a gift from God.” What could he have possibly meant by this? Does that mean he wanted it to happen or even that he was behind his own attempted assassination? No. There’s nothing weird about what he said. There’s no doubt in my mind that Erdogan really believed that this was, quite literally, a gift from God and that God was sending him a somewhat tailored message.
Which brings me back to the question of “rationality.” If you believe in this kind of cosmic universe – a universe where one experiences daily God’s magic, if you will – then sacrificing something in this world for the next is pretty much the most rational thing you can do. After all, this is eternal paradise we’re talking about.
7. Epoche is a stance where one detaches oneself from one’s own subjective personal position and opinions to examine a topic objectively. To give an extreme example, imagine one surveys the labor policies of German in the 1930s, and agrees that they were positive in some fashion. Obviously that does not entail that one supports Nazi Germany or thinks that Nazism is good, but today many people might want to engage in that conflation. I myself regularly get accused of being all sorts of things because I examine ideas which I don’t agree with. It seems to me that we are moving toward a state where people assume that everyone engages in the is/ought fallacy, insofar as any examine of an is connotes that one is also considering an ought. Do you think this so of conflation is common in contemporary discourse?
Yea, I run into this problem a lot, and I have to offer disclaimers where I say, hey, this is a descriptive argument (the way things are) rather than a normative one (the way I wish things were in the ideal world of my own imagining). So, even if you’re an arch-secularist and think mixing religion and politics is a terrible thing, I’d like to think that you could suspend your personal biases and make the extra effort to understand Islam’s role in politics, without hoping, with little evidence, that Islam will somehow be secularized or privatized the way Christianity was. Why hold out hope in something which is extremely unlikely to happen? Keep in mind that Islamists think secularists are just as fucked up as secularists think Islamists are.
I wouldn’t call myself a secularist, but I do consider myself a liberal, in the classical sense. I’m skeptical of religion playing an outsized role in government and, personally, I would never want to live in a country governed by Islamists, even if they were democratically elected in the most free and fair elections imaginable. I don’t want people, least of all people in government, to tell me that I have to live my life in a certain way. This is why I’m pro-gay marriage, pro-choice, pro-marijuana legalization, and so on. This is why I tend to vote for liberals in American elections, even though there are certainly scenarios where I can imagine a conservative (say Romney or McCain) having a more moral and effective foreign policy, than, say, Obama did (for my Romney counterfactual, see here).
Here’s the thing. I’m pretty sure that my liberalism is a product of my own particular experiences, the places I’ve lived, the friends I spend time with, and the fact that I was born and raised in the only country I’d ever want to be born and raised in, which happens to be a country that enshrines classical liberal ideas in its constitution. But what if my parents had ended up somewhere else, in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, and raised me (with my same genetic and biological dispositions) in a more conservative society where very few people I knew were proper liberals. Presumably I’d have different beliefs, and there’s a good chance I’d be less liberal than I currently am. Maybe I’d even be a religious conservative! People accuse me a lot of being a moral relativist, and I get why they do. But that’s, as you can probably guess, not how I see it. I’ve just really come to appreciate how the things we take for granted – how we interpret the world around us, what we come to believe – are extremely contingent. And for me to presume that people would or should share the same convictions I do (beyond the two non-negotiables I mentioned earlier) would be, well, extremely presumptuous. Why should they?
And, by the way, I must confess I didn’t know this was called epoche, until you used it in your discussion of my book…
8. As a scholar at a think tank you engage in a lot of “outreach.” In particular, you use Twitter a fair amount. Can you explain how you began using Twitter?
I like Twitter, but I sort of had to discipline myself to use in a way that would justifiably useful and productive. For example, I use it to test out ideas and to get feedback in real time. Many of my articles, especially my more exploratory stuff, start off as tweet threads. I see how people respond, and I learn from their responses. I try to be open to (legitimate) criticisms as much as I can and modify and adapt my arguments accordingly. It only makes sense that I develop my ideas in dialogue with others, since a lot of the stuff I write these days is a product of my own ongoing internal dialogues and moral struggles. This is especially the case when it comes to counterfactual arguments, which I’m a fan of, because I don’t think it’s helpful to think that things had to be the way they ended up being. There are alternate realities and alternative histories that were presumably possible before those histories happened. And these histories unfolded because we, as humans, have agency. The social historian E.H. Carr once said: “In practice, historians do not assume that events are inevitable before they have taken place.” But it’s just as fair to say that they weren’t inevitable even after they took place.
So this particular, even peculiar, understanding of history and human agency colors how I view my role as a writer. This is why I believe in not just analysis, but also in “argument,” because I think we all have a moral responsibility to try to persuade people not that our facts are right, but that there are different sets of moral assumptions and narratives within which we embed facts. Facts in a vacuum are just data points, after all, which is why the American liberal obsession with wielding “facts” and charts to persuade people that whatever they feel is wrong is pretty irritating to me. Politics, to me, is about ideas more than it’s about facts (which, incidentally, is why technocracy rarely works well except in relatively small, homogenous countries). We feel things; we desire things; we “hate,” even when we wish we wouldn’t. We’re all capable of evil. Most of all, we just want to belong. We want to have, or at least in believe in, the possibility of a politics of meaning. Center-left managerial technocracy doesn’t quite offer that. To put a finer point on it, what the center-left in America has become is at odds with who we are. It’s also at odds with basic understandings of good and evil as we’ve understood them throughout most of our history.
Oh, right, you asked me about Twitter. Well, it’s also how I get my news. There are people who I follow who are smart. I trust them, and when they tell me there’s an article I have to read, I probably should read it.
If there’s a topic that’s outside my area of expertise, for example Christian theology, Twitter can help. For chapter two of my book, which focuses on Christianity’s evolving attitudes toward law and governance, I spent endless hours diving into Christian theology and commentary. But I also made new Twitter friends, including the brilliant Christian theologian Joshua Ralston, and they helped me navigate this complex world, pointing me to sources and answering my questions in real-time. Other tweeps would jump in and offer their thoughts. And, to me, that’s the best of what Twitter can be. Ralston’s work has had a huge influence on me, and I finally had the pleasure of meeting him in person in November for the first time. I felt I already knew him, though, which is pretty cool.
9. The Middle East is now going through a demographic transition. What do you think the geopolitical implications of this are? (for example, one reason I’m a bit more skeptical of Iranian bellicosity in comparison to the 1980s is that the Iranian “baby bulge” is moving into their 30s)
Well, as a relatively young person myself, I can’t say I have a lot of faith in young people – or, for that matter, people. I’m in my 30s and a lot of people think that I’m a dangerous neocon-orientalist-imperialist (and an Islamist apologist to boot!). But, seriously, we love to fetishize youth. We did that when the Arab uprisings started: ‘Oh look a bunch of young people who use Twitter and speak passable English are protesting. Liberalism is to come!’ It’s certainly true that young people are sometimes more tolerant, open, or whatever. But that’s not necessarily the case. Young people are generally more likely to blow themselves up or join extremist organizations like ISIS. ISIS is, in a sense, a youth movement. To use a less extreme example, take younger generations of British Muslims: According to a 2007 Policy Exchange survey, 28 percent of British Muslims said they would “prefer to live under sharia law.” The number shoots up to 37 percent among 16-to-24 year olds.
10. Name a book not related to Islam or the Middle East that shaped the way you think.
Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society is up there. Also, despite my strong disagreements with Paul Berman, reading him for the first time was a kind of revelation. I loved the romance, if I can use that word, of his prose in Terror and Liberalism. I couldn’t but respect that he cared about ideas and he believed in things and he wanted to fight for them. He felt something I feel: that so much, maybe too much, is at stake, and the urgency of his prose reflected that. He was enlisting readers in a fight about something bigger. Which reminds me of this passage from David Runciman:
Political romantics are driven not by the quest for pseudo-religious certainty, but by the search for excitement, for the romance of what he calls ‘the occasion’. They want something, anything, to happen, so that they can feel themselves to be at the heart of things
This can be dangerous of course, but often times it’s better than the alternative of believing in nothing strongly enough. I then moved on to Berman’s A Tale of Two Utopias and then Power and the Idealists, which he wonderfully subtitled “Or, The Passion of Joschka Fischer, and its Aftermath.” Lastly, another person who I disagree with on an endless number of things, but who influenced me and still influences me, because I keep going back to one particular book, is Niall Ferguson. His perhaps least well-known book is Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals. Counterfactual history is often viewed with scorn and skepticism by practicing historians. It’s a controversial and underdeveloped subfield. In some ways, though, it’s utility seems both obvious and inescapable. As Ferguson writes, “To understand how it actually was, we therefore need to understand how it actually wasn’t.”
What’s going on…