Tag Archives: Christianity

The internet, stupid-making, looney-bin simulacrum — from the ATLANTIC’s Andrew Sullivan: “I used to be a human being…”

7 Oct

Money quote section — call out — in my opinion.  The emphases are mine and the entire very sharp and moving Sullivan article is below.  Sullivan often lapses into mawkishness, especially when it comes to religion, which is especially sad, because his honest immersion in his faith is what makes and has always made him something of an intellectual hero for me.  This piece is one of those really moving and emotionally brave pieces he’s so often capable of.

“In his survey of how the modern West lost widespread religious practice, A Secular Age, the philosopher Charles Taylor used a term to describe the way we think of our societies. He called it a “social imaginary” — a set of interlocking beliefs and practices that can undermine or subtly marginalize other kinds of belief. We didn’t go from faith to secularism in one fell swoop, he argues. Certain ideas and practices made others not so much false as less vibrant or relevant. And so modernity slowly weakened spirituality, by design and accident, in favor of commerce; it downplayed silence and mere being in favor of noise and constant action. The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn.

“The English Reformation began, one recalls, with an assault on the monasteries, and what silence the Protestants didn’t banish the philosophers of the Enlightenment mocked. Gibbon and Voltaire defined the Enlightenment’s posture toward the monkish: from condescension to outright contempt. The roar and disruption of the Industrial Revolution violated what quiet still remained until modern capitalism made business central to our culture and the ever-more efficient meeting of needs and wants our primary collective goal. We became a civilization of getting things done — with the development of America, in some ways, as its crowning achievement. Silence in modernity became, over the centuries, an anachronism, even a symbol of the useless superstitions we had left behind. The smartphone revolution of the past decade can be seen in some ways simply as the final twist of this ratchet, in which those few remaining redoubts of quiet — the tiny cracks of inactivity in our lives — are being methodically filled with more stimulus and noise.

“And yet our need for quiet has never fully gone away, because our practical achievements, however spectacular, never quite fulfill us. They are always giving way to new wants and needs, always requiring updating or repairing, always falling short. The mania of our online lives reveals this: We keep swiping and swiping because we are never fully satisfied. The late British philosopher Michael Oakeshott starkly called this truth “the deadliness of doing.” There seems no end to this paradox of practical life, and no way out, just an infinite succession of efforts, all doomed ultimately to fail.

“Except, of course, there is the option of a spiritual reconciliation to this futility, an attempt to transcend the unending cycle of impermanent human achievement. There is a recognition that beyond mere doing, there is also being; that at the end of life, there is also the great silence of death with which we must eventually make our peace. From the moment I entered a church in my childhood, I understood that this place was different because it was so quiet. The Mass itself was full of silences — those liturgical pauses that would never do in a theater, those minutes of quiet after communion when we were encouraged to get lost in prayer, those liturgical spaces that seemed to insist that we are in no hurry here. And this silence demarcated what we once understood as the sacred, marking a space beyond the secular world of noise and business and shopping.

“The only place like it was the library, and the silence there also pointed to something beyond it — to the learning that required time and patience, to the pursuit of truth that left practical life behind. Like the moment of silence we sometimes honor in the wake of a tragedy, the act of not speaking signals that we are responding to something deeper than the quotidian, something more profound than words can fully express. I vividly recall when the AIDS Memorial Quilt was first laid out on the Mall in Washington in 1987. A huge crowd had gathered, drifts of hundreds of chattering, animated people walking in waves onto the scene. But the closer they got, and the more they absorbed the landscape of unimaginably raw grief, their voices petered out, and a great emptiness filled the air. This is different, the silence seemed to say. This is not our ordinary life.

“Most civilizations, including our own, have understood this in the past. Millennia ago, as the historian Diarmaid MacCulloch has argued, the unnameable, often inscrutably silent God of the Jewish Scriptures intersected with Plato’s concept of a divinity so beyond human understanding and imperfection that no words could accurately describe it. The hidden God of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures spoke often by not speaking. And Jesus, like the Buddha, revealed as much by his silences as by his words. He was a preacher who yet wandered for 40 days in the desert; a prisoner who refused to defend himself at his trial. At the converted novitiate at the retreat, they had left two stained-glass windows depicting Jesus. In one, he is in the Garden of Gethsemane, sweating blood in terror, alone before his execution. In the other, he is seated at the Last Supper, with the disciple John the Beloved resting his head on Jesus’s chest. He is speaking in neither.

“That Judeo-Christian tradition recognized a critical distinction — and tension — between noise and silence, between getting through the day and getting a grip on one’s whole life. The Sabbath — the Jewish institution co-opted by Christianity — was a collective imposition of relative silence, a moment of calm to reflect on our lives under the light of eternity. It helped define much of Western public life once a week for centuries — only to dissipate, with scarcely a passing regret, into the commercial cacophony of the past couple of decades. It reflected a now-battered belief that a sustained spiritual life is simply unfeasible for most mortals without these refuges from noise and work to buffer us and remind us who we really are. But just as modern street lighting has slowly blotted the stars from the visible skies, so too have cars and planes and factories and flickering digital screens combined to rob us of a silence that was previously regarded as integral to the health of the human imagination.

“This changes us. It slowly removes — without our even noticing it — the very spaces where we can gain a footing in our minds and souls that is not captive to constant pressures or desires or duties. And the smartphone has all but banished them. Thoreau issued his jeremiad against those pressures more than a century ago: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear.”

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Elsewhere he mentions the Philip Gröning’s beautiful documentary Into Great Silence, on an ancient Carthusian monastery and silent monastic order in the Alps.  Seriously have-to watching, but if you couldn’t turn all your gadgets off to watch it, we really don’t have anything to say to each other.  That also means, like, trying not to watch it on your tablet.

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I Used to Be a Human Being

By Andrew Sullivan

Screen Shot 2017-10-08 at 12.57.32 AM

Illustrations by Kim Dong-kyu.

Based on: Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, by Caspar David Friedrich (1818).

 

I was sitting in a large meditation hall in a converted novitiate in central Massachusetts when I reached into my pocket for my iPhone. A woman in the front of the room gamely held a basket in front of her, beaming beneficently, like a priest with a collection plate. I duly surrendered my little device, only to feel a sudden pang of panic on my way back to my seat. If it hadn’t been for everyone staring at me, I might have turned around immediately and asked for it back. But I didn’t. I knew why I’d come here.

A year before, like many addicts, I had sensed a personal crash coming. For a decade and a half, I’d been a web obsessive, publishing blog posts multiple times a day, seven days a week, and ultimately corralling a team that curated the web every 20 minutes during peak hours. Each morning began with a full immersion in the stream of internet consciousness and news, jumping from site to site, tweet to tweet, breaking news story to hottest take, scanning countless images and videos, catching up with multiple memes. Throughout the day, I’d cough up an insight or an argument or a joke about what had just occurred or what was happening right now. And at times, as events took over, I’d spend weeks manically grabbing every tiny scrap of a developing story in order to fuse them into a narrative in real time. I was in an unending dialogue with readers who were caviling, praising, booing, correcting. My brain had never been so occupied so insistently by so many different subjects and in so public a way for so long.

I was, in other words, a very early adopter of what we might now call living-in-the-web. And as the years went by, I realized I was no longer alone. Facebook soon gave everyone the equivalent of their own blog and their own audience. More and more people got a smartphone — connecting them instantly to a deluge of febrile content, forcing them to cull and absorb and assimilate the online torrent as relentlessly as I had once. Twitter emerged as a form of instant blogging of microthoughts. Users were as addicted to the feedback as I had long been — and even more prolific. Then the apps descended, like the rain, to inundate what was left of our free time. It was ubiquitous now, this virtual living, this never-stopping, this always-updating. I remember when I decided to raise the ante on my blog in 2007 and update every half-hour or so, and my editor looked at me as if I were insane. But the insanity was now banality; the once-unimaginable pace of the professional blogger was now the default for everyone.

If the internet killed you, I used to joke, then I would be the first to find out. Years later, the joke was running thin. In the last year of my blogging life, my health began to give out. Four bronchial infections in 12 months had become progressively harder to kick. Vacations, such as they were, had become mere opportunities for sleep. My dreams were filled with the snippets of code I used each day to update the site. My friendships had atrophied as my time away from the web dwindled. My doctor, dispensing one more course of antibiotics, finally laid it on the line: “Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?”

But the rewards were many: an audience of up to 100,000 people a day; a new-media business that was actually profitable; a constant stream of things to annoy, enlighten, or infuriate me; a niche in the nerve center of the exploding global conversation; and a way to measure success — in big and beautiful data — that was a constant dopamine bath for the writerly ego. If you had to reinvent yourself as a writer in the internet age, I reassured myself, then I was ahead of the curve. The problem was that I hadn’t been able to reinvent myself as a human being.

I tried reading books, but that skill now began to elude me. After a couple of pages, my fingers twitched for a keyboard. I tried meditation, but my mind bucked and bridled as I tried to still it. I got a steady workout routine, and it gave me the only relief I could measure for an hour or so a day. But over time in this pervasive virtual world, the online clamor grew louder and louder. Although I spent hours each day, alone and silent, attached to a laptop, it felt as if I were in a constant cacophonous crowd of words and images, sounds and ideas, emotions and tirades — a wind tunnel of deafening, deadening noise. So much of it was irresistible, as I fully understood. So much of the technology was irreversible, as I also knew. But I’d begun to fear that this new way of living was actually becoming a way of not-living.

By the last few months, I realized I had been engaging — like most addicts — in a form of denial. I’d long treated my online life as a supplement to my real life, an add-on, as it were. Yes, I spent many hours communicating with others as a disembodied voice, but my real life and body were still here. But then I began to realize, as my health and happiness deteriorated, that this was not a both-and kind of situation. It was either-or. Every hour I spent online was not spent in the physical world. Every minute I was engrossed in a virtual interaction I was not involved in a human encounter. Every second absorbed in some trivia was a second less for any form of reflection, or calm, or spirituality. “Multitasking” was a mirage. This was a zero-sum question. I either lived as a voice online or I lived as a human being in the world that humans had lived in since the beginning of time.

And so I decided, after 15 years, to live in reality.

Manet 16-distraction-2.w710.h473

Based on: Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, by Edouard Manet (1863). Photo: Kim Dong-kyu.

 

Since the invention of the printing press, every new revolution in information technology has prompted apocalyptic fears. From the panic that easy access to the vernacular English Bible would destroy Christian orthodoxy all the way to the revulsion, in the 1950s, at the barbaric young medium of television, cultural critics have moaned and wailed at every turn. Each shift represented a further fracturing of attention — continuing up to the previously unimaginable kaleidoscope of cable TV in the late-20th century and the now infinite, infinitely multiplying spaces of the web. And yet society has always managed to adapt and adjust, without obvious damage, and with some more-than-obvious progress. So it’s perhaps too easy to view this new era of mass distraction as something newly dystopian.

But it sure does represent a huge leap from even the very recent past. The data bewilder. Every single minute on the planet, YouTube users upload 400 hours of video and Tinder users swipe profiles over a million times. Each day, there are literally billions of Facebook “likes.” Online outlets now publish exponentially more material than they once did, churning out articles at a rapid-fire pace, adding new details to the news every few minutes. Blogs, Facebook feeds, Tumblr accounts, tweets, and propaganda outlets repurpose, borrow, and add topspin to the same output.

We absorb this “content” (as writing or video or photography is now called) no longer primarily by buying a magazine or paper, by bookmarking our favorite website, or by actively choosing to read or watch. We are instead guided to these info-nuggets by myriad little interruptions on social media, all cascading at us with individually tailored relevance and accuracy. Do not flatter yourself in thinking that you have much control over which temptations you click on. Silicon Valley’s technologists and their ever-perfecting algorithms have discovered the form of bait that will have you jumping like a witless minnow. No information technology ever had this depth of knowledge of its consumers — or greater capacity to tweak their synapses to keep them engaged.

And the engagement never ends. Not long ago, surfing the web, however addictive, was a stationary activity. At your desk at work, or at home on your laptop, you disappeared down a rabbit hole of links and resurfaced minutes (or hours) later to reencounter the world. But the smartphone then went and made the rabbit hole portable, inviting us to get lost in it anywhere, at any time, whatever else we might be doing. Information soon penetrated every waking moment of our lives.

And it did so with staggering swiftness. We almost forget that ten years ago, there were no smartphones, and as recently as 2011, only a third of Americans owned one. Now nearly two-thirds do. That figure reaches 85 percent when you’re only counting young adults. And 46 percent of Americans told Pew surveyors last year a simple but remarkable thing: They could not live without one. The device went from unknown to indispensable in less than a decade. The handful of spaces where it was once impossible to be connected — the airplane, the subway, the wilderness — are dwindling fast. Even hiker backpacks now come fitted with battery power for smartphones. Perhaps the only “safe space” that still exists is the shower.

Am I exaggerating? A small but detailed 2015 study of young adults found that participants were using their phones five hours a day, at 85 separate times. Most of these interactions were for less than 30 seconds, but they add up. Just as revealing: The users weren’t fully aware of how addicted they were. They thought they picked up their phones half as much as they actually did. But whether they were aware of it or not, a new technology had seized control of around one-third of these young adults’ waking hours.

The interruptions often feel pleasant, of course, because they are usually the work of your friends. Distractions arrive in your brain connected to people you know (or think you know), which is the genius of social, peer-to-peer media. Since our earliest evolution, humans have been unusually passionate about gossip, which some attribute to the need to stay abreast of news among friends and family as our social networks expanded. We were hooked on information as eagerly as sugar. And give us access to gossip the way modernity has given us access to sugar and we have an uncontrollable impulse to binge. A regular teen Snapchat user, as the Atlantic recently noted, can have exchanged anywhere between 10,000 and even as many as 400,000 snaps with friends. As the snaps accumulate, they generate publicly displayed scores that bestow the allure of popularity and social status. This, evolutionary psychologists will attest, is fatal. When provided a constant source of information and news and gossip about each other — routed through our social networks — we are close to helpless.

Just look around you — at the people crouched over their phones as they walk the streets, or drive their cars, or walk their dogs, or play with their children. Observe yourself in line for coffee, or in a quick work break, or driving, or even just going to the bathroom. Visit an airport and see the sea of craned necks and dead eyes. We have gone from looking up and around to constantly looking down.

If an alien had visited America just five years ago, then returned today, wouldn’t this be its immediate observation? That this species has developed an extraordinary new habit — and, everywhere you look, lives constantly in its thrall?

I arrived at the meditation retreat center a few months after I’d quit the web, throwing my life and career up in the air. I figured it would be the ultimate detox. And I wasn’t wrong. After a few hours of silence, you tend to expect some kind of disturbance, some flurry to catch your interest. And then it never comes. The quiet deepens into an enveloping default. No one spoke; no one even looked another person in the eye — what some Buddhists call “noble silence.” The day was scheduled down to the minute, so that almost all our time was spent in silent meditation with our eyes closed, or in slow-walking meditation on the marked trails of the forest, or in communal, unspeaking meals. The only words I heard or read for ten days were in three counseling sessions, two guided meditations, and nightly talks on mindfulness.

I’d spent the previous nine months honing my meditation practice, but, in this crowd, I was a novice and a tourist. (Everyone around me was attending six-week or three-month sessions.) The silence, it became apparent, was an integral part of these people’s lives — and their simple manner of movement, the way they glided rather than walked, the open expressions on their faces, all fascinated me. What were they experiencing, if not insane levels of boredom?

And how did their calm somehow magnify itself when I was surrounded by them every day? Usually, when you add people to a room, the noise grows; here, it was the silence that seemed to compound itself. Attached to my phone, I had been accompanied for so long by verbal and visual noise, by an endless bombardment of words and images, and yet I felt curiously isolated. Among these meditators, I was alone in silence and darkness, yet I felt almost at one with them. My breathing slowed. My brain settled. My body became much more available to me. I could feel it digesting and sniffing, itching and pulsating. It was if my brain were moving away from the abstract and the distant toward the tangible and the near.

Things that usually escaped me began to intrigue me. On a meditative walk through the forest on my second day, I began to notice not just the quality of the autumnal light through the leaves but the splotchy multicolors of the newly fallen, the texture of the lichen on the bark, the way in which tree roots had come to entangle and overcome old stone walls. The immediate impulse — to grab my phone and photograph it — was foiled by an empty pocket. So I simply looked. At one point, I got lost and had to rely on my sense of direction to find my way back. I heard birdsong for the first time in years. Well, of course, I had always heard it, but it had been so long since I listened.

My goal was to keep thought in its place. “Remember,” my friend Sam Harris, an atheist meditator, had told me before I left, “if you’re suffering, you’re thinking.” The task was not to silence everything within my addled brain, but to introduce it to quiet, to perspective, to the fallow spaces I had once known where the mind and soul replenish.

Soon enough, the world of “the news,” and the raging primary campaign, disappeared from my consciousness. My mind drifted to a trancelike documentary I had watched years before, Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence, on an ancient Carthusian monastery and silent monastic order in the Alps. In one scene, a novice monk is tending his plot of garden. As he moves deliberately from one task to the next, he seems almost in another dimension. He is walking from one trench to another, but never appears focused on actually getting anywhere. He seems to float, or mindfully glide, from one place to the next.

He had escaped, it seemed to me, what we moderns understand by time. There was no race against it; no fear of wasting it; no avoidance of the tedium that most of us would recoil from. And as I watched my fellow meditators walk around, eyes open yet unavailable to me, I felt the slowing of the ticking clock, the unwinding of the pace that has all of us in modernity on a treadmill till death. I felt a trace of a freedom all humans used to know and that our culture seems intent, pell-mell, on forgetting.

Edward Hopper 16-distraction-3.nocrop.w710.h2147483647

Based on: Hotel Room, by Edward Hopper (1931). Photo: Kim Dong-kyu

We all understand the joys of our always-wired world — the connections, the validations, the laughs, the porn, the info. I don’t want to deny any of them here. But we are only beginning to get our minds around the costs, if we are even prepared to accept that there are costs. For the subtle snare of this new technology is that it lulls us into the belief that there are no downsides. It’s all just more of everything. Online life is simply layered on top of offline life. We can meet in person and text beforehand. We can eat together while checking our feeds. We can transform life into what the writer Sherry Turkle refers to as “life-mix.”

But of course, as I had discovered in my blogging years, the family that is eating together while simultaneously on their phones is not actually together. They are, in Turkle’s formulation, “alone together.” You are where your attention is. If you’re watching a football game with your son while also texting a friend, you’re not fully with your child — and he knows it. Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what make us distinctively human.

By rapidly substituting virtual reality for reality, we are diminishing the scope of this interaction even as we multiply the number of people with whom we interact. We remove or drastically filter all the information we might get by being with another person. We reduce them to some outlines — a Facebook “friend,” an Instagram photo, a text message — in a controlled and sequestered world that exists largely free of the sudden eruptions or encumbrances of actual human interaction. We become each other’s “contacts,” efficient shadows of ourselves.

Think of how rarely you now use the phone to speak to someone. A text is far easier, quicker, less burdensome. A phone call could take longer; it could force you to encounter that person’s idiosyncrasies or digressions or unexpected emotional needs. Remember when you left voice-mail messages — or actually listened to one? Emojis now suffice. Or take the difference between trying to seduce someone at a bar and flipping through Tinder profiles to find a better match. One is deeply inefficient and requires spending (possibly wasting) considerable time; the other turns dozens and dozens of humans into clothes on an endlessly extending rack.

No wonder we prefer the apps. An entire universe of intimate responses is flattened to a single, distant swipe. We hide our vulnerabilities, airbrushing our flaws and quirks; we project our fantasies onto the images before us. Rejection still stings — but less when a new virtual match beckons on the horizon. We have made sex even safer yet, having sapped it of serendipity and risk and often of physical beings altogether. The amount of time we spend cruising vastly outweighs the time we may ever get to spend with the objects of our desire.

Our oldest human skills atrophy. GPS, for example, is a godsend for finding our way around places we don’t know. But, as Nicholas Carr has noted, it has led to our not even seeing, let alone remembering, the details of our environment, to our not developing the accumulated memories that give us a sense of place and control over what we once called ordinary life. The writer Matthew Crawford has examined how automation and online living have sharply eroded the number of people physically making things, using their own hands and eyes and bodies to craft, say, a wooden chair or a piece of clothing or, in one of Crawford’s more engrossing case studies, a pipe organ. We became who we are as a species by mastering tools, making them a living, evolving extension of our whole bodies and minds. What first seems tedious and repetitive develops into a skill — and a skill is what gives us humans self-esteem and mutual respect.

Yes, online and automated life is more efficient, it makes more economic sense, it ends monotony and “wasted” time in the achievement of practical goals. But it denies us the deep satisfaction and pride of workmanship that comes with accomplishing daily tasks well, a denial perhaps felt most acutely by those for whom such tasks are also a livelihood — and an identity.

Indeed, the modest mastery of our practical lives is what fulfilled us for tens of thousands of years — until technology and capitalism decided it was entirely dispensable. If we are to figure out why despair has spread so rapidly in so many left-behind communities, the atrophying of the practical vocations of the past — and the meaning they gave to people’s lives — seems as useful a place to explore as economic indices.

So are the bonds we used to form in our everyday interactions — the nods and pleasantries of neighbors, the daily facial recognition in the mall or the street. Here too the allure of virtual interaction has helped decimate the space for actual community. When we enter a coffee shop in which everyone is engrossed in their private online worlds, we respond by creating one of our own. When someone next to you answers the phone and starts talking loudly as if you didn’t exist, you realize that, in her private zone, you don’t. And slowly, the whole concept of a public space — where we meet and engage and learn from our fellow citizens — evaporates. Turkle describes one of the many small consequences in an American city: “Kara, in her 50s, feels that life in her hometown of Portland, Maine, has emptied out: ‘Sometimes I walk down the street, and I’m the only person not plugged in … No one is where they are. They’re talking to someone miles away. I miss them.’ ”

Has our enslavement to dopamine — to the instant hits of validation that come with a well-crafted tweet or Snapchat streak — made us happier? I suspect it has simply made us less unhappy, or rather less aware of our unhappiness, and that our phones are merely new and powerful antidepressants of a non-pharmaceutical variety. In an essay on contemplation, the Christian writer Alan Jacobs recently commended the comedian Louis C.K. for withholding smartphones from his children. On the Conan O’Brien show, C.K. explained why: “You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away,” he said. “Underneath in your life there’s that thing … that forever empty … that knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re alone … That’s why we text and drive … because we don’t want to be alone for a second.”

He recalled a moment driving his car when a Bruce Springsteen song came on the radio. It triggered a sudden, unexpected surge of sadness. He instinctively went to pick up his phone and text as many friends as possible. Then he changed his mind, left his phone where it was, and pulled over to the side of the road to weep. He allowed himself for once to be alone with his feelings, to be overwhelmed by them, to experience them with no instant distraction, no digital assist. And then he was able to discover, in a manner now remote from most of us, the relief of crawling out of the hole of misery by himself. For if there is no dark night of the soul anymore that isn’t lit with the flicker of the screen, then there is no morning of hopefulness either. As he said of the distracted modern world we now live in: “You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel … kinda satisfied with your products. And then you die. So that’s why I don’t want to get a phone for my kids.”

The early days of the retreat passed by, the novelty slowly ceding to a reckoning that my meditation skills were now being tested more aggressively. Thoughts began to bubble up; memories clouded the present; the silent sessions began to be edged by a little anxiety.

And then, unexpectedly, on the third day, as I was walking through the forest, I became overwhelmed. I’m still not sure what triggered it, but my best guess is that the shady, quiet woodlands, with brooks trickling their way down hillsides and birds flitting through the moist air, summoned memories of my childhood. I was a lonely boy who spent many hours outside in the copses and woodlands of my native Sussex, in England. I had explored this landscape with friends, but also alone — playing imaginary scenarios in my head, creating little nooks where I could hang and sometimes read, learning every little pathway through the woods and marking each flower or weed or fungus that I stumbled on. But I was also escaping a home where my mother had collapsed with bipolar disorder after the birth of my younger brother and had never really recovered. She was in and out of hospitals for much of my youth and adolescence, and her condition made it hard for her to hide her pain and suffering from her sensitive oldest son.

I absorbed a lot of her agony, I came to realize later, hearing her screams of frustration and misery in constant, terrifying fights with my father, and never knowing how to stop it or to help. I remember watching her dissolve in tears in the car picking me up from elementary school at the thought of returning to a home she clearly dreaded, or holding her as she poured her heart out to me, through sobs and whispers, about her dead-end life in a small town where she was utterly dependent on a spouse. She was taken away from me several times in my childhood, starting when I was 4, and even now I can recall the corridors and rooms of the institutions she was treated in when we went to visit.

I knew the scar tissue from this formative trauma was still in my soul. I had spent two decades in therapy, untangling and exploring it, learning how it had made intimacy with others so frightening, how it had made my own spasms of adolescent depression even more acute, how living with that kind of pain from the most powerful source of love in my life had made me the profoundly broken vessel I am. But I had never felt it so vividly since the very years it had first engulfed and defined me. It was as if, having slowly and progressively removed every distraction from my life, I was suddenly faced with what I had been distracting myself from. Resting for a moment against the trunk of a tree, I stopped, and suddenly found myself bent over, convulsed with the newly present pain, sobbing.

And this time, even as I eventually made it back to the meditation hall, there was no relief. I couldn’t call my husband or a friend and talk it over. I couldn’t check my email or refresh my Instagram or text someone who might share the pain. I couldn’t ask one of my fellows if they had experienced something similar. I waited for the mood to lift, but it deepened. Hours went by in silence as my heart beat anxiously and my mind reeled.

I decided I would get some distance by trying to describe what I was feeling. The two words “extreme suffering” won the naming contest in my head. And when I had my 15-minute counseling session with my assigned counselor a day later, the words just kept tumbling out. After my panicked, anguished confession, he looked at me, one eyebrow raised, with a beatific half-smile. “Oh, that’s perfectly normal,” he deadpanned warmly. “Don’t worry. Be patient. It will resolve itself.” And in time, it did. Over the next day, the feelings began to ebb, my meditation improved, the sadness shifted into a kind of calm and rest. I felt other things from my childhood — the beauty of the forests, the joy of friends, the support of my sister, the love of my maternal grandmother. Yes, I prayed, and prayed for relief. But this lifting did not feel like divine intervention, let alone a result of effort, but more like a natural process of revisiting and healing and recovering. It felt like an ancient, long-buried gift.

In his survey of how the modern West lost widespread religious practice, A Secular Age, the philosopher Charles Taylor used a term to describe the way we think of our societies. He called it a “social imaginary” — a set of interlocking beliefs and practices that can undermine or subtly marginalize other kinds of belief. We didn’t go from faith to secularism in one fell swoop, he argues. Certain ideas and practices made others not so much false as less vibrant or relevant. And so modernity slowly weakened spirituality, by design and accident, in favor of commerce; it downplayed silence and mere being in favor of noise and constant action. The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn.

The English Reformation began, one recalls, with an assault on the monasteries, and what silence the Protestants didn’t banish the philosophers of the Enlightenment mocked. Gibbon and Voltaire defined the Enlightenment’s posture toward the monkish: from condescension to outright contempt. The roar and disruption of the Industrial Revolution violated what quiet still remained until modern capitalism made business central to our culture and the ever-more efficient meeting of needs and wants our primary collective goal. We became a civilization of getting things done — with the development of America, in some ways, as its crowning achievement. Silence in modernity became, over the centuries, an anachronism, even a symbol of the useless superstitions we had left behind. The smartphone revolution of the past decade can be seen in some ways simply as the final twist of this ratchet, in which those few remaining redoubts of quiet — the tiny cracks of inactivity in our lives — are being methodically filled with more stimulus and noise.

And yet our need for quiet has never fully gone away, because our practical achievements, however spectacular, never quite fulfill us. They are always giving way to new wants and needs, always requiring updating or repairing, always falling short. The mania of our online lives reveals this: We keep swiping and swiping because we are never fully satisfied. The late British philosopher Michael Oakeshott starkly called this truth “the deadliness of doing.” There seems no end to this paradox of practical life, and no way out, just an infinite succession of efforts, all doomed ultimately to fail.

Except, of course, there is the option of a spiritual reconciliation to this futility, an attempt to transcend the unending cycle of impermanent human achievement. There is a recognition that beyond mere doing, there is also being; that at the end of life, there is also the great silence of death with which we must eventually make our peace. From the moment I entered a church in my childhood, I understood that this place was different because it was so quiet. The Mass itself was full of silences — those liturgical pauses that would never do in a theater, those minutes of quiet after communion when we were encouraged to get lost in prayer, those liturgical spaces that seemed to insist that we are in no hurry here. And this silence demarcated what we once understood as the sacred, marking a space beyond the secular world of noise and business and shopping.

The only place like it was the library, and the silence there also pointed to something beyond it — to the learning that required time and patience, to the pursuit of truth that left practical life behind. Like the moment of silence we sometimes honor in the wake of a tragedy, the act of not speaking signals that we are responding to something deeper than the quotidian, something more profound than words can fully express. I vividly recall when the AIDS Memorial Quilt was first laid out on the Mall in Washington in 1987. A huge crowd had gathered, drifts of hundreds of chattering, animated people walking in waves onto the scene. But the closer they got, and the more they absorbed the landscape of unimaginably raw grief, their voices petered out, and a great emptiness filled the air. This is different, the silence seemed to say. This is not our ordinary life.

Most civilizations, including our own, have understood this in the past. Millennia ago, as the historian Diarmaid MacCulloch has argued, the unnameable, often inscrutably silent God of the Jewish Scriptures intersected with Plato’s concept of a divinity so beyond human understanding and imperfection that no words could accurately describe it. The hidden God of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures spoke often by not speaking. And Jesus, like the Buddha, revealed as much by his silences as by his words. He was a preacher who yet wandered for 40 days in the desert; a prisoner who refused to defend himself at his trial. At the converted novitiate at the retreat, they had left two stained-glass windows depicting Jesus. In one, he is in the Garden of Gethsemane, sweating blood in terror, alone before his execution. In the other, he is seated at the Last Supper, with the disciple John the Beloved resting his head on Jesus’s chest. He is speaking in neither.

That Judeo-Christian tradition recognized a critical distinction — and tension — between noise and silence, between getting through the day and getting a grip on one’s whole life. The Sabbath — the Jewish institution co-opted by Christianity — was a collective imposition of relative silence, a moment of calm to reflect on our lives under the light of eternity. It helped define much of Western public life once a week for centuries — only to dissipate, with scarcely a passing regret, into the commercial cacophony of the past couple of decades. It reflected a now-battered belief that a sustained spiritual life is simply unfeasible for most mortals without these refuges from noise and work to buffer us and remind us who we really are. But just as modern street lighting has slowly blotted the stars from the visible skies, so too have cars and planes and factories and flickering digital screens combined to rob us of a silence that was previously regarded as integral to the health of the human imagination.

This changes us. It slowly removes — without our even noticing it — the very spaces where we can gain a footing in our minds and souls that is not captive to constant pressures or desires or duties. And the smartphone has all but banished them. Thoreau issued his jeremiad against those pressures more than a century ago: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear.”

When you enter the temporary Temple at Burning Man, the annual Labor Day retreat for the tech elite in the Nevada desert, there is hardly any speaking. Some hover at the edges; others hold hands and weep; a few pin notes to a wall of remembrances; the rest are kneeling or meditating or simply sitting. The usually ornate and vast wooden structure is rivaled only by the massive tower of a man that will be burned, like the Temple itself, as the festival reaches its climax, and tens of thousands of people watch an inferno.

They come here, these architects of our internet world, to escape the thing they unleashed on the rest of us. They come to a wilderness where no cellular signals penetrate. You leave your phone in your tent, deemed useless for a few, ecstatically authentic days. There is a spirit of radical self-reliance (you survive for seven days or so only on what you can bring into the vast temporary city) and an ethic of social equality. You are forced to interact only as a physical human being with other physical human beings — without hierarchy. You dance, and you experiment; you build community in various camps. And for many, this is the high point of their year — a separate world for fantasy and friendship, enhanced by drugs that elevate your sense of compassion or wonder or awe.

Like a medieval carnival, this new form of religion upends the conventions that otherwise rule our lives. Like a safety valve, it releases the pent-up pressures of our wired cacophony. Though easily mockable, it is trying to achieve what our culture once routinely provided, and it reveals, perhaps, that we are not completely helpless in this newly distracted era. We can, one senses, begin to balance it out, to relearn what we have so witlessly discarded, to manage our neuroses so they do not completely overwhelm us.

There are burgeoning signs of this more human correction. In 2012, there were, for example, around 20 million yoga practitioners in the U.S., according to a survey conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs. By 2016, the number had almost doubled. Mindfulness, at the same time, has become a corporate catchword for many and a new form of sanity for others. It’s also hard to explain, it seems to me, the sudden explosion of interest in and tolerance of cannabis in the past 15 years without factoring in the intensifying digital climate. Weed is a form of self-medication for an era of mass distraction, providing a quick and easy path to mellowed contemplation in a world where the ample space and time necessary for it are under siege.

If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation. Christian leaders seem to think that they need more distraction to counter the distraction. Their services have degenerated into emotional spasms, their spaces drowned with light and noise and locked shut throughout the day, when their darkness and silence might actually draw those whose minds and souls have grown web-weary. But the mysticism of Catholic meditation — of the Rosary, of Benediction, or simple contemplative prayer — is a tradition in search of rediscovery. The monasteries — opened up to more lay visitors — could try to answer to the same needs that the booming yoga movement has increasingly met.

And imagine if more secular places responded in kind: restaurants where smartphones must be surrendered upon entering, or coffee shops that marketed their non-Wi-Fi safe space? Or, more practical: more meals where we agree to put our gadgets in a box while we talk to one another? Or lunch where the first person to use their phone pays the whole bill? We can, if we want, re-create a digital Sabbath each week — just one day in which we live for 24 hours without checking our phones. Or we can simply turn off our notifications. Humans are self-preserving in the long run. For every innovation there is a reaction, and even the starkest of analysts of our new culture, like Sherry Turkle, sees a potential for eventually rebalancing our lives.

And yet I wonder. The ubiquitous temptations of virtual living create a mental climate that is still maddeningly hard to manage. In the days, then weeks, then months after my retreat, my daily meditation sessions began to falter a little. There was an election campaign of such brooding menace it demanded attention, headlined by a walking human Snapchat app of incoherence. For a while, I had limited my news exposure to the New York Times’ daily briefings; then, slowly, I found myself scanning the click-bait headlines from countless sources that crowded the screen; after a while, I was back in my old rut, absorbing every nugget of campaign news, even as I understood each to be as ephemeral as the last, and even though I no longer needed to absorb them all for work.

Then there were the other snares: the allure of online porn, now blasting through the defenses of every teenager; the ease of replacing every conversation with a texting stream; the escape of living for a while in an online game where all the hazards of real human interaction are banished; the new video features on Instagram, and new friends to follow. It all slowly chipped away at my meditative composure. I cut my daily silences from one hour to 25 minutes; and then, almost a year later, to every other day. I knew this was fatal — that the key to gaining sustainable composure from meditation was rigorous discipline and practice, every day, whether you felt like it or not, whether it felt as if it were working or not. Like weekly Mass, it is the routine that gradually creates a space that lets your life breathe. But the world I rejoined seemed to conspire to take that space away from me. “I do what I hate,” as the oldest son says in Terrence Malick’s haunting Tree of Life.

I haven’t given up, even as, each day, at various moments, I find myself giving in. There are books to be read; landscapes to be walked; friends to be with; life to be fully lived. And I realize that this is, in some ways, just another tale in the vast book of human frailty. But this new epidemic of distraction is our civilization’s specific weakness. And its threat is not so much to our minds, even as they shape-shift under the pressure. The threat is to our souls. At this rate, if the noise does not relent, we might even forget we have any.

*This article appears in the September 19, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.

21-andrew-sullivan.w710.h473Andrew Sullivan

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“The Myth of the Andalusian paradise…” — “…just modifying the history in a declared desire to extract a pre-established moral.”

7 Sep

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One reader’s comment that delves deeper into the book’s subject matter, repeats some of my thoughts and questions, especially that Spanish Christianity developed its militance and triumphalism in almost a millenium of constant warfare “in a society organized for war” against what for me is arguably a militant and triumphalist religion primarily organized for war, etc.; emphases are mine:

on April 16, 2016
Format: Hardcover
In ‘Al-Andalus au Miroir du Multiculturalisme; Le Mythe de la Convivencia dans quelques Essais Nord-Américains Récents’, the Arabist Bruna Soravia has reflected about the total absence of references to recent studies in books and articles published in the USA about Muslim Spain, including the important advances in essential fields such as archaeology, numismatic or epigraphy, as well as the lack of any work published in Spanish, French or Portuguese in the bibliographies of these American authors. Outside the United States, nobody doubts that the essential investigations in this subject are published in those languages, but the multiculturalism apologists obviously scorn any advance that proceed from their Spanish or French colleagues; they have paradoxically converted in a epitome and paradigm of intellectual endogamy.

The myth of that paradise of peaceful coexistence and cultural enlightenment had its origin in the long shadow that Américo Castro left in the United States (always copied, rarely cited), something obvious due the repetitive use of the Spanish word ‘convivencia’. A term created by Castro that gives the false impression that it was actually used in Spain during the Middle Ages. Today, there is no specialist who takes seriously the ideas of Castro, a Spanish scholar specialized in medieval literature that wasn’t actually a historian and openly admitted his lack of interest in the scientific methodology.

Darío Fernández-Morena not only demonstrates a remarkable knowledge about the modern European investigations in this subject but also a great knowledge of the primary sources. This is a well-written book that destroys, one by one, almost all the myths about al-Andalus repeated by those who pretend to refute the ideas of Samuel Huntington and his followers just modifying the history in a declared desire to extract a pre-established moral.

‘The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise’ follows the path of Serafín Fanjul’s works and present some similarities with ‘Al-Andalus y la Cruz’ by Rafael Sánchez Saus, also published this year, although independently. Both books reach the same conclusions, something that is not strange as both have the virtue of proving something that any Spanish historian has learnt in the first year at the university. I would say Fernández-Morera has done a better work, and his book has a great importance because it is an opportunity for the English readers to get the historical information that use to be conveniently omitted by the mainstream publications.

Fernández-Morena wrote a courageous introduction citing ‘political incorrect’ but true facts, as the financial dependence of many Western historians to foundations controlled by the governments of some Arab countries, the millionaire donations to American and British universities from Saudi and Muslim sources, the censorship that exists in the Muslim academic world and the risk that any investigator has to be labeled as ‘islamophobic’ if his publications refute the idyllic narrative about the medieval Islamic world. As happened with the academic lynching of Sylvain Gouguenheim, after the publication of his excellent ‘Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel’ in 2008.

Just to summarize, during the High Middle Ages the Iberian Peninsula was the most militarized territory of all Europe and the Islamic world, where it was actually known as Dar Djihad, ‘the house (land) of the jihad’. The Christian kingdoms were involved in an almost constant war with the emirs and caliphs of Córdoba, that organized annual military expeditions to the north to get prisoners and looting; something that Roger Collins has defined as ‘an economy based in institutionalized banditry’ (‘Caliphs and Kings: Spain, 796-1031’). Just during the government of Al-Mansur (977-1002), the hajib of the caliph Hisham II (controlled by him as a puppet ruler), were organized 56 military raids, and only in the campaign towards Barcelona of 985, according to the Arab sources, 75,000 prisoners were made, mainly women sold in Córdoba as sexual slaves.

Maybe Fernánez-Morera should focus this chapter in the socio-economical and institutional implications of this state of constant war that created, using the words of James F. Powers and Elena Laurie, ‘a society organized for war’. The records in the Muslim and Christian textual sources about the great amount of severed heads are true anyway. The first thing any traveler saw when he visited Córdoba crossing the Roman bridge was hundreds of severed heads decorating the Azuda gates of the alcázar, the fortress of the caliph situated 100 meters from the great mosque. The textual sources even describe muezzins calling to oration over a mound of severed heads after the raid of Ubayd Allah to Bacelona in 811, or after the Battle of Uclés (1108).

Regarding the domestic policy, Christians and Jews of Al-Andalus lived into an authentic apartheid. The Dhimma implied the legal interiority of the ‘protected peoples’, their judicial defenseless against any Muslim, their fiscal exploitation and their constant humiliation; something that forced the conversions and the mass emigration of the Mozarabic population to the Northern Christian kingdoms. The Muslims become majority during the Umayyad caliphate (929-1031) and soon the mass killings began, as the slaughter of 4,000 Jews in Granada in 1066. During the period of North African domination, the conditions for the ‘peoples of the book’ were even worse and ended with the mass deportation of the Christians to the Magreb in 1126. Since the middle of the 12th century, there are no Christians or Jews in al-Andalus.

As Fernández-Morena pointed out, Andalusian society was a theocratic state (or ‘states’, during the Taifa period) dominated by the ulema of the Maliki school of jurisprudence, the most strict of all after the Hanbali (now used in Saudi Arabia), that controlled every aspect of the daily life. It’s really hard to understand why any historian with a basic knowledge of the primary sources can ignore these facts that have so many implications in all the aspects of the Andalusian society, politics, economy and culture, and instead prefers to focus his research in the ‘spirit’ of the poetry and literature created in (and for) a courtesan context.

Finally, another important myth that maybe Fernández-Morena should consider deeper is the transmission of the ancient knowledge through the Arabic translations, that supposedly were the foundations of the European Renaissance. Anyway, as I have said, this book is essential for any English reader who wants to know the reality of the Medieval Islamic Spain.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain” by Dario Fernandez-Morera

7 Sep

Just saw it on Amazon.  Is it serious or “yellow” history?  Obviously haven’t read it.  If anyone has please share.

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The comments/review quotes seem to be from fairly “serious” sources:

“Shows in meticulous detail . . . that intolerance, segregation, formal inequality, and brutality were the order of the day [in Islamic Spain].”
The New Criterion

“[Fernández-Morera] must be commended for daring to wade into this hazardous arena. He has come well-armed: his The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise has 95 pages of notes, and the lionisers of political correctness will not find it easy to penetrate chinks in his bibliographical armour of primary and secondary sources, many not published in English. In an exhilarating and unput-downable read, Fernández-Morera debunks the fashionable myth that Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived together (convivencia) under ‘tolerant’ Muslim rule. . . . World-class academics—hailing from Yale, Harvard, Chicago, Princeton, London, Oxford—look like fools in their apologetics for jihad.”
—Standpoint

“Numerous books propagandize for Islam by calling Muslim rule in Spain during the Middle Ages a golden age of tolerance. Darío Fernández-Morera’s The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews Under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain (ISI Books) cuts against PR for Islam by giving specific examples of rulers cutting off heads or applying burning candles to the faces of sexual slaves.” —World magazine, naming The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise a finalist for Book of the Year

“Often a work of historical revisionism is a dubious exercise in discovering trendy, hidden agendas with little bearing on the actual record of the past. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise is decidedly not such a study and is instead a bracing remedy to a good deal of the academic pabulum that passes for scholarship on Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations.”
Middle East Quarterly

“A first-rate work of scholarship that demolishes the fabrication of the multiethnic, multiconfessional convivencia in Spain under Muslim rule. The book is also an exposé of the endemic problems of contemporary Western academe. . . . Space does not allow us to list all of the fables—some bizarre, others laughable, most of them infuriating—that Fernández-Morera dispatches with unassailable logic and ruthless efficiency.”
Chronicles

“I am in awe of The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise. . . . This book is an intellectual boxing match. The author shreds not just one opponent, but a series of intellectual bigots, prostitutes, and manipulators of the common man. . . . He uses research and objective facts to make his case. Nothing could be more transgressive in academia today.”
FrontPage Magazine

“The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise prompts readers to rethink their traditional notion of Islamic Spain. Fernández-Morera shows that it was not a harmonious locus of tolerance. Paying special attention to primary sources, he documents how Islamic Spain was in fact dominated by cultural repression and marginalization. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise is essential reading. It will soon find its place on the shelves of premier academic institutions and in the syllabi of pioneering scholars.”
Antonio Carreño, W. Duncan McMillan Family Professor in the Humanities, Emeritus, Brown University 

“I could not put this book down. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise constitutes a watershed in scholarship. Throughan unbiased and open-minded reading of the primary sources, Fernández-Morera brilliantly debunks the myths that for so long have dominated Islamic historiography and conventional wisdom. We were waiting for this great breakthrough to come to light, and Fernández-Morera has done it. Bravo!”
Raphael Israeli, Professor Emeritus of Middle Eastern, Islamic, and Chinese History, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

“Fernández-Morera examines the underside of Islamic Spain, a civilization usually considered a model of dynamism and vigor. Through the study of primary sources, he questions the historiographic and intellectual view of the superiority of that civilization. This is an intelligent reinterpretation of a supposed paradise of convivencia.”
Julia Pavón Benito, Professor of Medieval Spanish History, University of Navarra

“Desperately, desperately needed as a counter to the mythology that pervades academia on this subject. This book sheds much-needed light on current debates about the relationship between the West and Islam. It displays rare good sense and a willingness to face truth that is all too often absent in discussions of this era.”
Paul F. Crawford, Professor of Ancient and Medieval History, California University of Pennsylvania

“A splendid book. This sober and hard-hitting reassessment demolishes the myths of religious tolerance and multiculturalism that have hopelessly romanticized the precarious coexistence and harsh realities of medieval Spain under Muslim rule. Well documented and persuasively argued, this book is must-reading as a window into the lessons of the past.”
Noël Valis, Professor, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Yale University

“Fernández-Morera takes on the long-overdue topic of assessing medieval Muslim Spain’s reputation for ethnic pluralism, religious tolerance, and cultural secularism. Finding this view based on a ‘culture of forgetting,’ he documents the reign of strict sharia in Andalusia, with its attendant discrimination against non-Muslims and subjugation of women. So much for the charming fantasy of open-mindedness and mutual respect.”
Daniel Pipes, historian of Islam and publisher of the Middle East Quarterly

“Brilliant . . . A thorough and entertaining study, as masterful as it is pointed.”
Catholic Culture

“Reveals the awesome and awful truth camouflaged by many in the West who have written apologies for Muslim-ruled Andalusia . . . More than 90 pages of footnotes to contemporary sources in their original languages make his thesis unassailable.”
New English Review

About the Author:

Darío Fernández-Morera is Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Northwestern University. A former member of the National Council on the Humanities, he holds a BA from Stanford University, an MA from the University of Pennsylvania, and a PhD from Harvard University. He has published several books and many articles on cultural, literary, historical, and methodological issues in Spain, Latin America, and the United States.

But before I publish this I’ll commend myself for “daring to wade into this hazardous arena”, just about two weeks ago in: Barcelona addendum: why the Western, “leftist” intelligentsia bears a nasty share of the guilt, part I(part II should be coming soon):

OK…I’ve bitten off more than I can chew I think, so let me resort to bullet points.  Some Al-Andalus and Crusades fun bubbles I’d like to pop:

* The happy Muslim Iberia of convivencia — co-existence — only lasted for at most two centuries, as long as the Umayyad Caliphate with its capital at Córdoba lasted.  That caliphate was replaced by new and much more religiously orthodox and intolerant Berber kingdoms from North Africa under which Spain devolved into small Muslim emirates — the taifain which conditions for Spanish non-Muslims came to resemble those of dhimmi elsewhere in the Muslim world.  (See also rayah: “…both in contemporaneous and in modern usage, it refers to non-Muslim subjects in particular, also called zimmi.”  The “dh” sound of Arabic is usually replaced by a “z” sound in Irano-Turkic usage, as in Ramadhan and Ramazan.)

Taifas2 1031 after fall of CórdobaThe taifa of the Iberian peninsula in 1031. (By 1248, when Seville fell to Christian siege, the only other major city left in Muslim hands was Granada.


*
Check out this book about the Crusades: God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades by Rodney Stark.

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It’s a cruddy, badly written and amateurish book (but, you know…”Out of the mouths of babes…” Psalms 8:2 and Matthew 21:16; you can’t expect an academically serious historian to write something like this, as he’d lose all funding and probably his job), but it asks a serious question: why have we in the modern West come to consider the Crusades the beginning of aggressive Western imperialism, a kind of proto-colonialism, and not, as Stark asks, a perfectly predictable response to the aggression of Islam/Arabs?  I mean, sorry, it’s a question I’ve always been afraid to articulate: but who conquered two thirds of the Roman Christian world and the whole of the Sassanian world in less than a century to being with?

Next:

* That the Crusades have remained a traumatic memory seared in the collective consciousness of Arabs everywhere, that Syrian mothers still scare their children into obedience by telling them that Richard the Lionheart is coming to kidnap them, is an urban myth.  Arabs didn’t remember the Crusades any more than we (Greeks) collectively remembered the Fourth Crusade that dealt the fatal blow to the Eastern Roman Empire (the Ottomans really just mopped up what was left).  Arabs only “remembered” the “trauma” of the Crusades when the West and the above mentioned guilty Western intelligentsia “reminded” them

* On to another inconvenient truth that follows on the above: the Byzantines recovered fairly quickly from the loss of the Levant and Egypt to the Arabs in the 7th century, and in fact, may have emerged stronger as a more compact, ethnically and linguistically Greek polity.  Then, under the early Comnenoi in the 12th century (Alexios, Ioannes and Manuel), they showed their resilience again as they reconsolidated their rule over the Balkans and, taking advantage of the crumbling of the Seljuks caused by the appearance of new Turks in Asia Minor, reconquered a large part of western Anatolia, despite facing renewed aggression from the Italian/Sicilian Normans to the West and from these newer Turkic states on the East; with the First Crusade’s help, they even recaptured Antioch and the surrounding region for a brief period.  The Fourth Crusade’s conquest and sack of Constantinople in 1204, though, was an event it was impossible to recover from.  Several Greek successor states that emerged then reunited into an empire under the leadership of the Palaeologoi out of Nicaea and retook Constantinople in 1261, but from then on this remnant Roman Empire was, despite a new cultural and artistic flourishing, a political and military sitting duck.  Add to these facts that Levantine Christians and Armenians who ended up in the reconquered Crusader states — at the time of the Crusades the regions we’re talking about were, by some estimates, still almost 50% Christian — were subjected to violent reprisals by their newly returned Muslim overlords that diminished their numbers through flight and conversion and we come to the inevitable conclusion: in the long run, the greatest victims of the Crusades were eastern Christians.

* For Jews, whose horrific experiences with the Christian Westjust went from bad to worse over two millenia, culminating in the Holocaust, and for whom it seems to have been particularly tempting to see the historical lands of Islam as the “Goldene Medina” where Jews lived in peace and acceptance, it wouldn’t hurt to keep in mind that the biggest pogrom in mediaeval Europe in terms of numbers slain occurred in 1066 in Muslim Granada.  This was when a Jew-cum-uppity-nigger, Joseph ha-Nagid, became too powerful as the vizier at the emir’s court in Granada — that city whose languid beauty and graciousness is the Fetish-in-the-Crown of pro-Moorish apologists.  He was crucified and, by some estimates (many consider them discredited, but you have to ask why), 4,000 Jews were killed.  I don’t know if crucifixion was supposed to have some kind of retaliatory significance given he was Jewish.  But, according to Bernard Lewis, the Berber Muslim mob that carried out this pogrom were egged on by a poem of a certain Muslim, Abu Ishaq:

Bernard Lewis writes:

“Particularly instructive in this respect is an ancient anti-Semitic poem of Abu Ishaq, written in Granada in 1066. This poem, which is said to be instrumental in provoking the anti-Jewish outbreak of that year, contains these specific lines:

Do not consider it a breach of faith to kill them, the breach of faith would be to let them carry on.
They have violated our covenant with them, so how can you be held guilty against the violators?
How can they have any pact when we are obscure and they are prominent?
Now we are humble, beside them, as if we were wrong and they were right!
[my emphases]”

“My emphases” are obviously meant to highlight the zero-sum game that is monotheism and particularly Islam: “obscure/prominent” and “wrong/right”.  No sense that there’s room for both or many as in polytheism or Hinduism (let’s not get into whether Hinduism is really polytheism right now).  Just “right” and “wrong”.  If you’re wrong you’ll be tolerated as long as you don’t get too big for your britches.  And: “why am I obscure when they’re prominent?” sounds like the battle cry of curdled ressentiment we’ve heard from Sayyid Qutb to Mohammed Atta and his buddies and back to Abu Ishaq if not to the very beginnings and to Ishmael himself, the rejected illegitimate son of Abraham and of the slave Hagar

Lewis adds though: “Diatribes such as Abu Ishaq’s and massacres such as that in Granada in 1066 are of rare occurrence in Islamic history.”

Well, ok then…

* Spanish Catholicism has been (Yes – “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition…”) for great periods of our common history, terrifying, especially for the Jews and Muslims the Arabs left behind in Spain and for the subjected-to-close-to-genocide inhabitants of the New World.  I admit to having played around with Santiago imagery in the past, but the connotations became too hard to stomach (see this interesting article: “The Transference of ‘Reconquista’ Iconography to the New World: From Santiago Matamoros to Santiago Mataindios“).  The Spanish Catholicism of the Reconquista and the Counter-Reformation is easily the most abominable form Christianity has ever taken — along with the Puritans, of course, and Luther and his Taliban, of course, and American Evangelists, of course, etc. etc.  But, still, you have to ask: the legitimacy of force and conquest in the spreading of the faith; massacre or forced conversion as legitimate proselytizing methods, enslavement of the defeated enemy — where did Spanish Catholicism get those ideas from?  They’re not in the Gospels.  And forced conversion is not present in Judaism either, which — remember — is not interested in converting you, my little goy.  Maybe — just maybe — after 800 years you start to resemble your enemy.  Even the Spanish concept of limpieza de sangreblood purity — that you have no Muslim or Jewish ancestors, probably unfeasible to impossible in Iberia — seems to mirror the chauvinism of early peninsular Arabs, and the apart-ness status they lived under in early Islam.  Any ideas?

Santiago statue

Santiago Matamoros

I’ve had quite some fun with the response to this; like I said, I should get Part II posted in a couple of days or so.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

Barcelona addendum: why the Western, “leftist” intelligentsia bears a nasty share of the guilt, part I

21 Aug

Spanish flag Cibeles PalaceA Spanish flag at half-mast in front of Cibeles Palace in Madrid. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty

A lot of Greeks here have asked me “Why Spain?”  When the 2004 attacks on the Madrid commuter trains which killed 192 people were carried out, Spain still had troops in Iraq, which then new Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero shamefully withdrew as soon as could after defeating José María Alfredo Aznar López, who got Spain into Iraq in the first place.  Involvement in Iraq had been unpopular with the Spanish electorate from the beginning, and pressure had already been mounting on Aznar to withdraw troops after seven Spanish intelligent agents were killed by Iraqi insurgents in November of 2003, but the Madrid bombings were planned by Al Qaeda to occur just three days before Spanish elections.  I was not an Aznar man by any stretch of the imagination, but for Spaniards to cave in to Al Qaeda terror like that and elect a Prime Minister whose first act, essentially, was to withdraw the country’s troops from Iraq, was a show of collective cowardice from a people whose ballsiness I’ve always admired that seriously dismayed me.  But since Spain is no longer a nation with troops in Muslim lands, what’s the problem.

So here in the Guardian is the answer to “Why Spain?”:

Although most are thought to have been radicalised by the war in Syria, some jihadis find Spain a peculiarly atavistic target because of the country’s 700-year period of Moorish occupation. Islamic State was quick to look to the past and claim credit for the Barcelona attack, trumpeting: “Terror is filling the crusaders’ hearts in the Land of Andalusia.” [my emphasis]

See the New York Times’ video: “The Islamic State’s Claim to Spain”

OK…I’ve bitten off more than I can chew I think, so let me resort to bullet points.  Some Al-Andalus and Crusades fun bubbles I’d like to pop:

* The happy Muslim Iberia of convivencia — co-existence — only lasted for at most two centuries, as long as the Umayyad Caliphate with its capital at Córdoba lasted.  That caliphate was replaced by new and much more religiously orthodox and intolerant Berber kingdoms from North Africa under which Spain devolved into small Muslim emirates — the taifain which conditions for Spanish non-Muslims came to resemble those of dhimmi elsewhere in the Muslim world.  (See also rayah: “…both in contemporaneous and in modern usage, it refers to non-Muslim subjects in particular, also called zimmi.”  The “dh” sound of Arabic is usually replaced by a “z” sound in Irano-Turkic usage, as in Ramadhan and Ramazan.)

Taifas2 1031 after fall of CórdobaThe taifa of the Iberian peninsula in 1031. (By 1248, when Seville fell to Christian siege, the only other major city left in Muslim hands was Granada.


*
Check out this book about the Crusades: God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades by Rodney Stark.

Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 11.36.28 AM

It’s a cruddy, badly written and amateurish book (but, you know…”Out of the mouths of babes…” Psalms 8:2 and Matthew 21:16; you can’t expect an academically serious historian to write something like this, as he’d lose all funding and probably his job), but it asks a serious question: why have we in the modern West come to consider the Crusades the beginning of aggressive Western imperialism, a kind of proto-colonialism, and not, as Stark asks, a perfectly predictable response to the aggression of Islam/Arabs?  I mean, sorry, it’s a question I’ve always been afraid to articulate: but who conquered two thirds of the Roman Christian world and the whole of the Sassanian world in less than a century to being with?

Next:

* That the Crusades have remained a traumatic memory seared in the collective consciousness of Arabs everywhere, that Syrian mothers still scare their children into obedience by telling them that Richard the Lionheart is coming to kidnap them, is an urban myth.  Arabs didn’t remember the Crusades any more than we (Greeks) collectively remembered the Fourth Crusade that dealt the fatal blow to the Eastern Roman Empire (the Ottomans really just mopped up what was left).  Arabs only “remembered” the “trauma” of the Crusades when the West and the above mentioned guilty Western intelligentsia “reminded” them

* On to another inconvenient truth that follows on the above: the Byzantines recovered fairly quickly from the loss of the Levant and Egypt to the Arabs in the 7th century, and in fact, may have emerged stronger as a more compact, ethnically and linguistically Greek polity.  Then, under the early Comnenoi in the 12th century (Alexios, Ioannes and Manuel), they showed their resilience again as they reconsolidated their rule over the Balkans and, taking advantage of the crumbling of the Seljuks caused by the appearance of new Turks in Asia Minor, reconquered a large part of western Anatolia, despite facing renewed aggression from the Italian/Sicilian Normans to the West and from these newer Turkic states on the East; with the First Crusade’s help, they even recaptured Antioch and the surrounding region for a brief period.  The Fourth Crusade’s conquest and sack of Constantinople in 1204, though, was an event it was impossible to recover from.  Several Greek successor states that emerged then reunited into an empire under the leadership of the Palaeologoi out of Nicaea and retook Constantinople in 1261, but from then on this remnant Roman Empire was, despite a new cultural and artistic flourishing, a political and military sitting duck.  Add to these facts that Levantine Christians and Armenians who ended up in the reconquered Crusader states — at the time of the Crusades the regions we’re talking about were, by some estimates, still almost 50% Christian — were subjected to violent reprisals by their newly returned Muslim overlords that diminished their numbers through flight and conversion and we come to the inevitable conclusion: in the long run, the greatest victims of the Crusades were eastern Christians.

* For Jews, whose horrific experiences with the Christian West just went from bad to worse over two millenia, culminating in the Holocaust, and for whom it seems to have been particularly tempting to see the historical lands of Islam as the “Goldene Medina” where Jews lived in peace and acceptance, it wouldn’t hurt to keep in mind that the biggest pogrom in mediaeval Europe in terms of numbers slain occurred in 1066 in Muslim Granada.  This was when a Jew-cum-uppity-nigger, Joseph ha-Nagid, became too powerful as the vizier at the emir’s court in Granada — that city whose languid beauty and graciousness is the Fetish-in-the-Crown of pro-Moorish apologists.  He was crucified and, by some estimates (many consider them discredited, but you have to ask why), 4,000 Jews were killed.  I don’t know if crucifixion was supposed to have some kind of retaliatory significance given he was Jewish.  But, according to Bernard Lewis, the Berber Muslim mob that carried out this pogrom were egged on by a poem of a certain Muslim, Abu Ishaq:

Bernard Lewis writes:

“Particularly instructive in this respect is an ancient anti-Semitic poem of Abu Ishaq, written in Granada in 1066. This poem, which is said to be instrumental in provoking the anti-Jewish outbreak of that year, contains these specific lines:

Do not consider it a breach of faith to kill them, the breach of faith would be to let them carry on.
They have violated our covenant with them, so how can you be held guilty against the violators?
How can they have any pact when we are obscure and they are prominent?
Now we are humble, beside them, as if we were wrong and they were right!
[my emphases]”

“My emphases” are obviously meant to highlight the zero-sum game that is monotheism and particularly Islam: “obscure/prominent” and “wrong/right”.  No sense that there’s room for both or many as in polytheism or Hinduism (let’s not get into whether Hinduism is really polytheism right now).  Just “right” and “wrong”.  If you’re wrong you’ll be tolerated as long as you don’t get too big for your britches.  And: “why am I obscure when they’re prominent?” sounds like the battle cry of curdled ressentiment we’ve heard from Sayyid Qutb to Mohammed Atta and his buddies and back to Abu Ishaq if not to the very beginnings and to Ishmael himself, the rejected illegitimate son of Abraham and of the slave Hagar

Lewis adds though: “Diatribes such as Abu Ishaq’s and massacres such as that in Granada in 1066 are of rare occurrence in Islamic history.”

Well, ok then…

Some questions:

* Why does the Western liberal never tire of reminding us how bloody the massacre that accompanied the First Crusaders’ conquest of Jerusalem was, but if you dare compare that to one of the first acts of the first community of Muslims — the decapitation of an entire tribe of Jewish men and boys and the distribution of the women and younger children among them as slaves (sound familiar?) — or the orgy of bloodletting and destruction the Ghaznavids unleashed on India, or the comparable massacre and enslavement by the Ottomans of whatever remained of the population of Constantinople on May 29th, 30th and 31th, 1453 (when a city that has resisted falls you get three days to pillage, massacre and enslave and then you have to stop: let’s not get greedy), then you’re an Islamophobe like the creepy Sam Harris or the silly Bill Maher or even the flip-flopping Maajid Nawaz (I never trust a convert) who’s “cherry-picking” events and quotes in order to make his hateful, Islamophobe argument?

Banu_Qurayza Battle of the Khandak Detail from miniature painting The Prophet, Ali, and the Companions at the Massacre of the Prisoners of the Jewish Tribe of Beni Qurayzah, illustration of a 19th-century text by Muhammad Rafi Bazil. Manuscript now in the British Library.

(At least, as far a I know, no Western descendant of the Crusaders celebrates either the fall of Jerusalem or the 1204 Sack of Constantinople with this kind of clownishness:

turkisharchers8-superJumbo

…the fifth annual Conquest Cup, an archery competition that celebrates the anniversary of the conquest of Constantinople in 1453.” [my link] the Times writes, oblivious to the fact that this celebration commemorates an event which to some might mean a history of death and enslavement.  And they just cheerily put it in the sports section, when it’s as easy to find this offensive as it is to find a Confederate soldier or Robert E. Lee monument offensive.  But imagine the Times just putting Southern Civil War battle reenacters in the sports section as a wacky, cool, exotic event; there’d be a screeching riot of anger they’d have to deal with that they would never forget.  Let’s re-enact some slave auctioning too then.  I mean, whatever, Turks can have their fun.  I’m not going to turn into one of the jerks who kvetches until the Helmsley building takes down its Cross lighting display during Christmas.  But then drop the religion-of-peace argument.)

* I am so sick of the clichéd accusation of “cherry-picking” so beloved by the insufferable Mehdi Hassan (see below) and his like, but let’s take the term as textually literal and see.  If I took a basket and starting looking through Muslim scripture and history for legitimized violence and intolerance, I think I’d end up with a pretty hefty basket-load of cherries; c’est-à-dire, if something is “cherry-picked” it doesn’t mean that the cherries are actually light on the tree and we’ve picked the very few that there are this year, for whatever reason, or that they don’t taste like what we think they taste like.  And let’s rethink the word “tolerant.”  “To tolerate” is a word that in contexts other than Western liberals’ defense of Islam is offensive; it means, I’ll be merciful and compassionate, if you accept your second-class status.  Needless to say — it pisses me off to have to add this caveat — the Old Testament is just as loaded, if not more, with cherries ripe for the picking, as is the New Testament aside from the Gospels and Acts; pain-in-the-ass Paul’s re-Judaizing of the Gospels’ message with his moralism and legalism and chauvinistic zeal, is nasty and, worse, boring (like I said, always watch out for the convert), and the psychotic vengeance-poem of Revelations (Apocalypse in Greek) sends chills up my spine — and not chills of repentance, just disgust — whenever I’m exposed to it.

* Spanish Catholicism has been (Yes – “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition…”) for great periods of our common history, terrifying, especially for the Jews and Muslims the Arabs left behind in Spain and for the subjected-to-genocide inhabitants of the New World.  I admit to having played around with Santiago imagery in the past, but the connotations became too hard to stomach (see this interesting article: “The Transference of ‘Reconquista’ Iconography to the New World: From Santiago Matamoros to Santiago Mataindios“).  The Spanish Catholicism of the Reconquista and the Counter-Reformation is easily the most abominable form Christianity has ever taken — along with the Puritans, of course, and Luther and his Taliban, of course, and American Evangelists, of course, etc. etc. — but, still, you have to ask: the legitimacy of force and conquest in the spreading of the faith; massacre or forced conversion as legitimate proselytizing methods, enslavement of the defeated enemy — where did Spanish Catholicism get those ideas from?  They’re not in the Gospels.  And forced conversion is not present in Judaism either, which — remember — is not interested in converting you.  Maybe — just maybe — after 800 years you start to resemble your enemy.  Even the Spanish concept of limpieza de sangreblood purity — that you have no Muslim or Jewish ancestors, probably unfeasible to impossible in Iberia — seems to mirror the chauvinism of early peninsular Arabs, and the apart-ness status they lived under in early Islam.  Any ideas?

Santiago statue

Santiago Matamoros

* And the insufferable Mehdi Hassan below.  I loved him as host of Al Jazeera’s The Café.  Then he appointed himself the ummah’s defender against the likes of Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens and became as annoying as hell.  He seems to think that speaking a mile a minute in an Oxbridge accent with just enough working-class twang to suggest a Bradford boy done good will win him arguments…snide, cliché-ridden, “super-cherry-picking,” an accusation he likes to throw at others.  Exhausting, but you have to admire his energy I guess.  I don’t know if you’re the best “ambassador” of Islam, though, when you yourself have started to develop strange physical ticks in an attempt to monitor your own rage.

Comments, questions, answers, corrections, tirades, please send to:

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Michael Eric Dayson: “Facing this unadorned hate tears open wounds from atrocities that we have confronted throughout our history.”

14 Aug

In a truly disturbing op-ed piece in the TimesCharlottesville and the Bigotocracy“, Dayson makes the same point I made in Ireland — Gimme a break; I can’t believe this is even up for discussion“.

dyson-master768White nationalists and neo-Nazis demonstrated in Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday. Credit: Edu Bayer for The New York Times

“This bigotocracy overlooks fundamental facts about slavery in this country: that blacks were stolen from their African homeland to toil for no wages in American dirt. When black folk and others point that out, white bigots are aggrieved. They are especially offended when it is argued that slavery changed clothes during Reconstruction and got dressed up as freedom, only to keep menacing black folk as it did during Jim Crow. The bigotocracy is angry that slavery is seen as this nation’s original sin. And yet they remain depressingly and purposefully ignorant of what slavery was, how it happened, what it did to us, how it shaped race and the air and space between white and black folk, and the life and arc of white and black cultures.

“They [white supremacists] cling to a faded Southern aristocracy whose benefits — of alleged white superiority, and moral and intellectual supremacy — trickled down to ordinary whites. If they couldn’t drink from the cup of economic advantage that white elites tasted, at least they could sip what was left of a hateful ideology: at least they weren’t black. [my emphasis] The renowned scholar W.E.B. Du Bois called this alleged sense of superiority the psychic wages of whiteness. President Lyndon Baines Johnson once argued, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.””

From my post:

But everybody has to be better than somebody, or else you’re nobody.  So, just like Catalans have to think they’re really Mare-Nostrum-Provençal Iberians (3 ***) and not part of reactionary Black Legend Spain; or Neo-Greeks have to think that they’re better than their Balkan neighbors (especially Albanian “Turks”) because they think they’re the descendants of those Greeks; or the largely lower-middle class, Low Church or Presbyterian or Methodist Brits who fled their socioeconomic status back home and went out to India in the nineteenth century in order to be somebody, had to destroy the modus vivendi that had existed there between Company white-folk and Indians, creating an apartheid and religiously intolerant social system that laid the groundwork for the unbelievable blood-letting of the Indian Rebellion of 1857; or, perhaps history’s greatest example, poor whites in the American South (many, ironically, of Northern Irish Protestant origin) that had to terrorize Black freedmen back into their “place” because the one thing they had over them in the old South’s socioeconomic order, that they weren’t slaves, had been snatched away (and one swift look at the contemporary American political scene shows clear as day indications that they’re, essentially, STILL angry at that demotion in status); or French Algerians couldn’t stomach the idea of living in an independent Algeria where they would be on equal footing with Arab or Berber Algerians.  So Protestant Ulstermen couldn’t tolerate being part of an independent state with these Catholic savages.”

But since we’re talking about the dangerous, delusional myths people need to believe, I might as well take this moment and take one tiny issue with one point in Dyson’s piece:

“This bigotocracy overlooks fundamental facts about slavery in this country: that blacks were stolen from their African homeland to toil for no wages in American dirt.”

People might not like me saying this, or at least think it’s the wrong time.  Oh well…  Of course African slaves were made “to toil for no wages in American dirt.”  But they were not “stolen” from their African homeland; they were bought from other Africans.

Am I blaming the victim?  No.  But if that’s what it seems like, like a lot of people think I’m anti-semitically blaming the victim if I say that the idea that there’s only one God and everybody else’s is false, and on top of it that one God loves you more than anybody else, is bound to get you kinna disliked by those around you sooner or later, then that’s cool.  (Another favorite idea of mine: if Christianity makes Jews so uncomfortable, they shouldn’t have invented it.)

I wrote my M.A. thesis in Latin American Studies on Cuba, particularly on abolition, and the complex interaction between the Cuban wars of independence from Spain, a vicious struggle that lasted three decades from 1868 to 1898 when the United States stepped in and annexed all of Spain’s remaining colonies, and the abolitionist struggle to end both the slave trade and slavery itself (the Spanish slave trade ended in 1868, and slavery itself wasn’t abolished, and then only gradually, until 1886).  In brief, and with clear echoes in the American South, a creole class in Cuba was ambivalent about independence because they were afraid of being over-run by the Black Cuban majority, while a bourgeois pro-independence class didn’t think Cuba could be a democratic republic while so many Cubans were enslaved.  In the end they did what most ex-slave societies did: free the salves and import indentured workers from the English-speaking Caribbean and immigrants from Galicia, marginalizing native Black Cubans, so that all groups together could be kept in a state of seasonal semi-employment which kept wages depressed and created enmity between the ethnic groups that should have felt some socioeconomic solidarity.  Let’s not forget that the “Danza de los millones” — “the Dance of the Millions” — when sugar generated unprecedented wealth for Cuban planters, surpassing anything the nineteenth-century slave economy could produce, and made Cuba one of the richest countries in Latin America, when the beautiful Havana we now see was largely constructed — happened in the 1910s and 20s, decades after abolition.

My thesis involved a heavy dose from my advisor of reading in West African history.  So any one who knows something about that history knows that almost none to absolutely none of the Africans brought to the Western Hemisphere during the slave trade — by some estimates 12 million human beings — were hunted down by slave-hunters Kunta-Kinte-style; it would have been logistically impossible to carry so many people across the Atlantic by that method.  African slaves were bought in huge numbers, in en masse cargo-loads by European slave traders, from West African kingdoms who had enslaved them in the course of warfare between those kingdoms.  There’s a legitimate argument to be made that the European slave trade made warfare between those kingdoms so profitable that conflict between West African states became endemic.  Doesn’t absolve anybody though, not Africans, not Yankee do-gooders, who didn’t need slaves anymore because they had already gotten rich off the trade (as that great song from the musical “1776” points out: “Hail Boston! Hail Charleston! Who stinketh the most?” — see below) and could afford to get moral on the rest of us, not Protestants or Catholics or any Christians, or Muslims for that matter.

Here’s some other un-fun truths:

* Black slavery in the Muslim world never and nowhere reached the scale that it did in the Christian Western Hemisphere, but that may simply and largely be because the agro-industrial infrastructure was not present, not because Islam was more enlightened on the idea of slavery generally.  East Africa supplied the Muslim eastern Mediterranean and Arabian peninsula with plentiful slaves for centuries.  I don’t remember when the Ottomans abolished slavery, but I think it wasn’t even during the Tanzimat, but at some point in the 1908 constitutional revolution, i.e. early twentieth century.  I’m always amused at “religion of peace” Islam apologists who try and make us understand how many passages there are in Muslim scripture that deal with the fair and “humane” way to conduct war, and massacre/execution or enslavement, and I wanna think: “gee, if there are so many passages that deal with the right or wrong way to conduct war, and massacre/execution or enslavement then those things must be mighty important to this religion of peace.”

NO monotheism is innocent; let’s get that through our heads once and for all.

* I hate to burst the bubble of Muhammad Ali or Malcolm X’s souls, or that of the wacked Nation of Islam, but Islam was not the religion of your African ancestors.  (They may not have been called Cassius Clay, but it’s for sure that they weren’t called Muhammad Ali either.)  Islam took a while to penetrate as far south as the coastal regions of West Africa.  And actually, your ancestors almost certainly were the still polytheist inhabitants of the coast who might have been sold to European slave-traders by the newly Muslim kingdoms of the Sahel (currently Boko Haram country), the belt between the Sahara and the coastal jungle/savanna.  If Afro-Americans anywhere in the Western Hemisphere are at all interested in the religion of their ancestors, they should look to Cuban Santería or Brazilian Candomblé or Haitian Voudon to re-establish a historical connection; when I was researching Santería in the 90s in Brooklyn, there was a real culture war between those Black Americans who were attracted to the Cuban religion of Yoruba origins — an amazingly relaxed, open-minded group, since polytheism is an open system, where you got to experience great music and dance, once you got past the practice’s defensive boundaries — and those Black Americans who were recent converts to Islam: puritanical pains-in-the-ass, like most converts, who had learned enough Arabic to call everybody else Kafirs, and who irritated the Senegalese and Malian immigrants in New York to no end.

And Black Southern Baptist or Pentecostalist  Christianity may have originally been the “slaveowner’s religion,” but its “getting the spirit” is a purely African phenomenon that has its emotional-devotional roots in the same parts of West Africa as Santería/Candomblé/Vodoun.  Read the second to last chapter of James Baldwin‘s Go Tell it on the Mountain, which takes place in 1930s (I think) Harlem and then the last chapter of Maya Deren‘s Divine Horsemen on Haitian Vodoun.  They mirror each other totally and both pieces still blow me away whenever I read them with the closest possible artistic representation of deity possession, the most impressive discursive capturing of a completely non-discursive, intangible experience, that I know of.

Divine Horsemen

* Another bubble to burst is the “Kwaanza-ism” bubble. No African-American before President Obama had any connection to East Africa, Kenya, or Swahili.  Another geographical term — Africa — turned into a completely artificial cultural construct, as if anything that happens on the African continent is somehow connected to African-Americans.  The BBC is currently running a series on “The History of Africa” — so modest those folks over there — that, as had become common-place but I thought we had moved on from (turns out we haven’t), lumps together Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco into one “African” history instead of placing them in the history of the Greco-Roman-Christian-Arab-Muslim zone.  (Does anyone remember the height of this absurd argument: the Newsweek magazine cover with the picture of an Egyptian relief and the screaming caption: “Was Cleopatra Black?”  To Newsweek‘s credit, however, the article didn’t take its own title seriously and after going into an analysis of the African-American kulturkampf that gave rise to this question, ended simply with: “And Cleopatra?  She was Greek.”)

And does anybody still celebrate Kwaanza?

I always chuckle when people call Constantinople the city on two continents, as if the quarter-mile crossing of the Bosporus into “Asia” is some kind of massive, marked civilizational change, like the people in Kadiköy are Chinese or something because it’s in “Asia.”

Newsweek Cleopatra

This was a real train-of-thought, free-association post — many think that everything I write is — so thanks for sticking with me.  Below are some videos selections based on my continued free association process:


“Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

“Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

“Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.”

“Strange Fruit” was written by Abel Meeropol, a real shayner Yid (beautiful Jew) if there ever was one.  Read the NPR story on him that I’ve linked to.  He also adopted the Rosenbergs‘ children, Robert and Michael, after that closetted scumbag Roy Cohn (a real self-hating Jew and queen if there ever was one) had their parents electrocuted.

6-abel-meeropol-robert-michael-with-train-set-1954-_wide-3cb2d45bee8bab3d344570df91679295419dbb20-s800-c85Abel Meeropol watches as his sons, Robert and Michael, play with a train set. Courtesy of Robert and Michael Meeropol

And Maya Deren’s beautiful documentary footage of Haitian Vodoun:

See also Talking Heads’ David Byrne’s beautiful documentary, Ilé Aiyé on Bahian Candomblé.  It’s the best introductory “text” I know.  In reference to the dancing, drumming and singing, and animal sacrifice, food, alcohol and tobacco offerings that are meant to bring the god (or orisha in Yoruba) down into possession of his or her devotee, the narration includes the precious line: “They threw a party for the gods — and the gods came.”

And — on a lighter note — the great Celia Cruz below singing “Guantanamera” (you have to watch her move…wasn’t it great when women were allowed to have bodies like that? and if you have any idea what those silly kids who appear at the end are doing, please share) a song based on a poem of José Martí‘s, Cuba’s national poet and a man revered by Cubans of every color and political stripe anywhere.  In the end, Black Cubans played a significant part in the Cuban struggle, personified most in the person of Antonio MaceoAs Celia sings: “Freedom was a trophy won for us by the mambí [largely Black guerilla fighters], with the words of Martí, and the machete of Maceo.”  Yikes.  The Cuban Wars of Independence were truly brutal, often really fought with machetes, the symbol of Afro-Cubans’ cane-cutting bondage become an instrument of rebellion, but Spain’s imperial ego simply did not want to let go of “la siempre fiel” — “the always loyal” — and extremely profitable island.  1898, the year Spain had to give in, was a year that became a byword for disaster for Spaniards, and Cuba was the most lamented loss; there’s still a common expression in Spain: “Más se perdió en Cuba” — “There was more lost in Cuba” — when you want to say that “oh well, things aren’t so bad, not, at least, compared to the loss of Cuba.”  Ironically, Cuban independence was followed by a massive wave of migration to the island from Spain, largely from Galicia and Asturias, so in a weird way Cuba is the most connected to Spain of Latin American countries; a great, very unresearched musicological subject is the reciprocal exchange of musical influences from Cuba to southern Spain, especially for the gypsies of Seville and Cádiz, both port cities that were gateways to the Americas or “the Indies”, the flamenco genre “rumba” being just one indicator.

Celia was an initiated Santería priestess of the Yoruba male fertility deity Changó (you have to move a little in your seat every time you hear or say his name or you see lightning); her performances often contained dance moves associated with Changó (you have to move a little in your seat every time you hear or say his name); whether she was “mounted” by him at the time — which is the expression used to indicate deity possession, de allí Maya Deren’s reference to “horsemen” — is something only she can have known, though mostly devotees have no memory of their trance after they come out of it.  Most salsa singers since have been initiates — have to stay competitive and you only can if the gods are helping you — and the improv vocabulary and dance gestures of salsa performances are heavily derived from Yoruba Santería.   There’s one video of her singing “Quimbara” (below) where I think it’s really happening — the bending down and touching of the floor especially.

Here:

Finally, a NikoBakos memory.  Mambí was a chain of 24-hour Cuban restaurants, Mambí #1, Mambí #2 — I think there were five of them all over once heavily Cuban Washington Heights and Inwood — that used to provide me and friends with some early morning, post-salsa sustenance.  The food, like the neighborhoods, had become pretty Dominican by then, but they still made a mean Cuban sandwich.  All the Cuban restaurants I knew as a kid in New York are now gone, in Manhattan and Brooklyn replaced by Dominican plantain places, and in Queens, by one more mediocre Colombian bakery.  Schiller’s on Rivington Street still makes a good Cuban sandwich, but it’s $18.

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Merry Christmas to all

21 Dec

yalda-01

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