1/28/07

Individualism and the Dog

Bangladeshi poet and fiction writer Iftekhar Sayeed has a provocative essay on Online Journal:

After the war in Afghanistan, the citizens of the United States, out of the goodness of their hearts, donated 50 precious cents for every Afghan man, woman and child; each animal in the zoo received $10,000. Marjan, the wounded lion, became a celebrity, and died in regal style after his 16 minutes of fame [...]

On OpEdNews.com, he discusses how the habits and peculiarities of a language determine that society's political landscape:

Meaning is a social entity, and since an ‎entire society--and its history and culture--can never be exported, no amount of regime ‎change can export the meaning of a word [...]

"No language change, no regime change," ‎Iftekhar Sayeed concludes.

14 comments:

Connecticut Cranky said...

I found Iftekhar Sayeed's "Individualism and the dog" rant provocative. But that isn't saying much when the rant is also silly and bigoted.

There's always a kernel of truth in a rant: Television reports about the animals in the Afghan zoo provoked compassion of people in the West out of proportion to the aid that was sent to the Afghans as a whole. Here's another kernel: People spend more on their pets than on the poor far away (or even on the poor close by). It's a scandal, and it's a Western scandal. But it's far more a human scandal than a one of any particular culture or civilization.

It used to be that the only rich nations were Western nations, but nowadays we have rich East Asian nations and rich Arab nations. Not one rich nation, Western or not, spends enough on the poor. Greed and lack of charity come in all colors. How interesting that Sayeed goes to so much trouble to scoff at the money showered on pets, dogs in particular -- that animal that so many Muslim cultures despise. He picks the one area where he can most easily avoid comparison between Muslim lack of charity and Western lack of charity.

Of course pets are not the only subjects that wealthier people shower money on: They shower money on their own children, rich husbands shower money on their wives, but also on their homes and their cars. They buy expensive watches, clothes and furniture. They are really showering money on themselves. It's a shame when anyone greedily comforts himself when the money could be spent on those who truly need it. But this is true for wealthy and middle-class Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Bhuddists, not to mention atheists. Yet only the West gets Sayeed's scorn. Nothing can explain this other than bigotry.

And of course keeping pets is not just a Western phenomenon. As he should know (and he seems to allude to it), humans have been making pets of dogs since before civilization begain. Australian aborigines, the Japanese and plenty of other non-Western nations love their pet dogs. Yet only the West gets Sayeed's scorn.

Perhaps if less Muslim charity were showered on jihadists killing men, women and children at random, or if less of it from rich Wahabbist and Salafist societies were going toward hate-spewing Imams and madrassahs, more money could be spent on needy Afghanis, Iraqis, Palestinians and even the poor in Bangladesh. There's a more interesting subject for Sayeed than money spent on dogs.

Sayeed's rant about Western slavery was even more bigoted. Slavery is not a particularly Western phenomenon. It was scourging sub-Saharan Africa well before any whites arrived there. Two phenomena about slavery in the West stand out as different from its practice elsewhere: First was the transporting of slaves across an ocean, something not done before, probably because the West developed cheap and effective ocean travel before other civilizations. Second, the West abolished its own legal slavery before it had been effectively done anywhere else. Abolition was a specifically Christian phenomenon that started with the agitation of Quakers and Methodists in Britain. That movement took place even as Muslims on the Barbary Coast continued to make slaves of Westerners. Slavery continues today in some Northern African Muslim societies. Perhaps Sayeed could spare some of his compassion for those slaves.

While his heart is expanding with compassion and mercy, perhaps he might extend it to some of the Muslim innocents who die at the hands of Muslim terrorists and suicide bombers who kill civilian men, women and children even as they pray to a God they rightly praise as "the compassionate, the merciful." When the killers of the most Muslims in the world -- in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Darfur or Pakistan -- are themselves Muslim, true compassion and mercy dictates that primary attention be focused on the dynamics of Muslim civilization.

Connecticut Cranky said...

Incidentally, nothing I said in my last post should be construed as an attack on Muslims as a whole, only on the acts and attitudes of certain Muslims. Nor do I have an opinion about Iftekhar Sayeed (I'm not familiar with him) -- I just despise this screed of his.

Linh Dinh said...

Hello Connecticut Cranky,

Iftekhar Sayeed's main beef is with American imperialism. He's appalled at the American public's indifference to, if not outright support for, wholesale slaughter of another race, versus its sentimental response to one blind lion. In making too many sweeping generalizations, spanning all of human history, however, Sayeed gets in deep trouble, I agree. He seemed to use "American," "English" and "Western" interchangeably.

I remember reading this account by a Vietnam vet: On patrol in some village, he saw a Vietnamese woman bathing herself behind her house. Startled by the sight of a stranger, she tried to cover herself. The American soldier was shocked by this display of modesty. Only then did he realize she was human.

Reading Iftekhar Sayeed's "Individualism and the Dog," I immediately thought of this anecdote.

Linh

Connecticut Cranky said...

Yes, Linh, but my point is that his main beef is wrong.

Your point about the American soldier is poignant but of course isn't particular to any one nation's imperialism, just to imperialism in general, and if the roles were reversed -- a Vietnamese soldier somehow patroling in America and happening upon an American woman suddenly exposed -- it would be just as natural.

I wish I could remember who it was (Thomas Sowell?) who said that in primitive cultures there are repeated incidents, around the world, of equivalents of the word or "foreigner" meaning "nonhuman."

Last night I went out to see "Last King of Scotland" about the dictator who slew 300,000 in Uganda. The film indicates that the Brits helped Idi Amin to power, but it also shows they didn't want or like that kind of slaughter, and you can't blame every bloody dictator on some Western assistance in bringing him to power. That's happening all around the world.

And getting back to Vietnam, which you know more about than me, inhumanity of course isn't limited to foreigners confronting foreigners. The American Civil War is full of stories of soldiers raping women (just see "Gone With the Wind" or "Cold Mountain" for that implicit story). I'm not at all convinced that Vietcong or North Vietnamese soldiers were necessarily more humane than foreigners, although civilians anywhere around the world would prefer to be at the mercy of their fellow nationals. That's a natural prejudice, but not necessarily true. After all, people feel safer in their cars than on airline flights, even though they're more likely to die on a 1,000-mile car trip than on an airline flight the same distance.

In a world with a diversity of inhumanities, we need to prioritize them rightly, or face the bloody consequences. There's less blood in imperialism today than jihad or the nastier dictatorships. Prioritize wrong, more blood. It's a serious moral question.

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Connecticut Cranky,

I agree with you completely that racism is a universal problem. I know, from experience, that Vietnamese can be appallingly racist also. What's different about Vietnamese racism, or the racism of weaker populations, in general, is that it's not accompanied by a sense of absolute superiority. Insane, racist Vietnamese do think they're better than some people, sure, based on what evidence, I don't know, but most Vietnamese I know are afflicted by an inferiority complex. I guess what I'm trying to get at is racism, as manifest in an empire, is a global problem. On top of feeling superior to everybody else, in everything, an empire, by definition, imposes its hefty pathology on many foreign peoples, those who would rather be left alone... to abuse each other in peace. With more than 700 military bases in roughly 130 countries, the good US of A is the most far-reaching, monstrous empire in history.

Linh

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Connecticut Cranky,

You wrote, "although civilians anywhere around the world would prefer to be at the mercy of their fellow nationals."

That's not necessarily true... Many Vietnamese fought alongside Americans, including members of my own family. Allegiance is a complex issue, and not always based on race or ethnicity, although that tends to be the case.

On a side note: Watching the news yesterday on Univision, I saw coverage of a small anti-anti-war demonstration. Among the gung-ho "support our troops" crowd, I saw two weirdos holding a large South Vietnamese flag. I can only assume they were Vietnamese. A pitiful sight.

Linh

Iftekhar Sayeed said...

On slavery, all I have to say is that slavery is a uniquely western phenomenon. It would ‎take too long for me to develop the arguments. I would invite you to read my article ‎called “Freedom and FREEDOM” at this link: ‎

http://people.brunel.ac.uk/~acsrrrm/entertext/5_3/ET53SayeedEd.doc


Secondly, the piece is not a “rant”: it belongs to a genre called “satire”, of which the ‎prototypical piece is Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”. A satire deliberately distorts, ‎exaggerates, overstates, and is not meant to be taken literally. Anyone who believes in ‎Lilliputs or Yahoos would fail to understand Jonathan Swift completely. ‎

Thirdly, the west has a “civilising” mission, explicitly stated by the poet and imperialist ‎Rudyard Kipling. He calls it “the white man’s burden”. We see the same tendency to ‎civilise in the American and European attempts to spread democracy around the world: I ‎have not noticed any tendency by other civilisations to try to export their beliefs – even in ‎benign forms – to the West. For instance, no mullahs I know of has tried to preach to ‎American women that they should not wear bikinis. Ever since I was a child, I was taught ‎that other people have different ways and mores, and that it is our duty to respect them. I ‎have not perceived that the Chinese have ever attempted to spread Confucianism to the ‎world. ‎

Fourthly, western civilisation is the only one that conquered the world using technology ‎borrowed form the Chinese. Why didn’t the Chinese do the same thing? After all, Cheng ‎Ho started to conquer South Asian countries just before the so-called Voyages of ‎Discovery took place. The Chinese invented the compass, gunpowder, and the printing ‎press (and much, much more – vide “Science and Civilisation in China”, Volume 1, by ‎Joseph Needham). But the imperial edict asked Cheng Ho to desist and return to the ‎mainland: if the entire might of China had been applied to the conquest of the world, then ‎China would not have been “crucified” by the west later on, to use the felicitous ‎expression of a French historian. It was not in Chinese culture – or any other culture – to ‎conquer the world. That is a peculiarly Western disease. Even today, America wants to ‎control China, though the word used is containment”. ‎

Fifthly, America claims to be a capitalist country; now, capitalism is based on exchange. ‎One nation exchanges its products with another nation, or for money. Why, then, does ‎America wish to control the supply of oil? That contradicts its basic tenet of economic ‎freedom. China needs oil: but China isn’t trying to control the supply of oil. It is content ‎merely to buy oil, as a good capitalist country should. ‎

This contradiction between freedom and domination runs throughout the history of ‎western civilisation, as my article above will show. The British were no exceptions: they ‎conquered Egypt in order better to control India; then they controlled the Middle East in ‎order to ensure a supply of oil. That is weird behaviour by the then foremost proponent of ‎capitalist freedom, and laissez faire. ‎

For a fine example of domination masquerading as freedom, please read The Freedom ‎Industry: http://www.axisoflogic.com/artman/publish/article_23393.shtml.‎

Sixthly, it is absurd to ignore the tendency throughout western civilisation to despise ‎weakness. Christianity appeared as a noble effort to humanise the west, but failed, ‎because western civilisation had a sordid pre-Christian past. Slavery under the Greeks ‎and the Roman Republic gave rise to a culture of domination and intolerance for the ‎weak. The Renaissance consciously revived the practice of slavery to mimic the ‎‎“ancients”. The Renaissance was not a rebirth, but a death. ‎

The intolerance of human weakness found its adequate expression in the kind of art ‎produced by the west down to Nazi Germany. Please see my article: ‎http://www.unlikelystories.org/sayeed0206.shtml THE INFALLIBLE, THE ‎IRRATIONAL AND THE SINISTER. ‎


The extent to which Christianity became perverted can bee seen in the fact that it was the ‎Roman Catholic Church and later the Protestant Churches that conducted and encouraged ‎the slave trade (vide Robin Blackburn’s “The Making of New World Slavery”). You say ‎that the slave trade was abolished by Christians: does that mitigate the fact that the slave ‎trade was inaugurated and justified by them? And the abolition of the slave trade had the ‎terrible consequence of driving the trade underground: now slaves were packed even ‎more densely below decks, and whenever a British man-o’-war appeared on the horizon, ‎they were dumped into the sea. A horrified Wilberforce himself suggested that the slave ‎trade be re-legalised. It took the American Civil War to put an end to the slave trade: ‎when demand died, supply died. Therefore, the “abolition” of slavery has far wider ‎causes than people believe. ‎

And the pathetic fate of the emancipated slaves hardly receives mention: they were re-‎enslaved as criminals in jails. Thus, the black criminal was born, and persists to this day. ‎Yet Brazil imported more slaves than America; but Brazil does not have a race problem. ‎The answer lies in my essay mentioned at the beginning. ‎

Then the missionaries did their bit to spread misery around the world. The classic account ‎is the masterpiece by the anthropologist Vittorio Lanternari: The Religions of the ‎Oppressed. You will find references to that in my article “Missionaries and ‎Neomissionaries”: http://www.freezerbox.com/archive/article.php?id=405. ‎

Today, Christian fundamentalists make a mockery of Christ’s teaching: diligite inimicos ‎vestros. Again, we find in western civilisation a total contradiction: a precept of love and ‎a practice of violence. And the Israel Lobby exploits the memory of Jewish suffering ‎with scant regard to decency or decorum: please see Norman Finkelstein’s excellent ‎book, The Holocaust Industry. ‎

I have immense respect for Christianity (the New Testament used to be one of my ‎favourite books as a child) but the history of western Christendom is a history of horror ‎‎(precisely the word used in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, set in the Congo. I cannot ‎recommend that book too highly as an analysis of imperialism, perverted Christian values ‎and the urge to civilise and kill at the same time). ‎

Finally, I would ask you to read Niall Ferguson’s excellent book “War of the Worlds”: he ‎shows that the epicentre of violence in the 20th century was – wait for it! – western ‎Europe, home of the “Enlightenment”. ‎


Iftekhar Sayeed ‎

http://www.geocities.com/if6065/farvardin

Linh Dinh said...

For links to Iftekhar Sayeed's essays, poems and stories, please go here:

http://www.geocities.com/if6065/farvardin

Connecticut Cranky said...

Oh Linh, you're just trying to bait me with "the good US of A is the most far-reaching, monstrous empire in history." I don't think I really need to go into great detail about the historical comparisons. The Soviet Union and China have quite obviously been more monstrous in just the 20th century (not to mention the Nazi, Japanese and Italian empires). If you want to say the U.S. is running an "empire" then it's much easier to make the case that it's been the most humane empire in history -- it would be hard to find, anywhere, at any time, a more humane power that's far reaching. I think you should be more seriousness in a discussion like this one because these kinds of discussions, have real-world consequences (even though individually we're only putting in our two cents' worth, it does add up). I can tell you're not serious when you mention "those who would rather be left alone... to abuse each other in peace." Of course that's just my point, but your humor still de-emphasizes my point: it's more than "abuse" and therefore isn't "peace." It's lakes and lakes of blood, it's gulags, organized rapes, policies of severing limbs and making children orphans. This is the context in which American power operates, and to the extent that it uses its force or even bullies others, it's bullying the bullies who want to commit their crimes in "peace." Yes, when this much power is concentrated in one government, mistakes are made, sins are committed and human nature displays its faults, but, overall, is humanity more helped than hurt by U.S. power? That's the question. The answer can only be found by considering the context and the likely alternatives.

You mention American feelings of "superiority" and American racism and the "inferiority" felt by others. Americans have actually become far less racist over the past fifty years, and it's important to note that this lessening of racism has come when more Americans have been in contact with people of other races at home. It's easy to deplore racism when you don't deal with other races: The Europeans used to love to deplore American racism in the 50s and 60s -- and then they started facing their own immigrants and their own racism quickly came out. The same happened with Northerners deploring Southern racism but not knowing how to handle it when confronted with other races themselves. Not only is racism widespread in the world, but my guess is it's worse elsewhere around the world. It isn't American racism that really bothers other people, I think. And I think others exaggerate how superior Americans feel. I just don't see too many examples of Americans announcing their superiority. I think feelings of inferiority are very real, however, and Americans need to be aware of that and be discreet in order not to appear to be swaggering even when we really aren't. I think when other government's complain about American hegemony it's usually because they want to commit their own crimes in that "peace" you mentioned. Swaggering, of course, isn't a crime against humanity. But notice how many of those criminals are anti-American.

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Conneticut Cranky,

I think we've identified the crux of our disagreement. You attribute a benign motive for US interventions worldwide. I, Iftekhar Sayeed and countless others, including many Americans, do not.

You wrote, "It's easy to deplore racism when you don't deal with other races." I made this same point in a Vietnamese essay, published recently. I translate myself:

There are many American slurs to insult each race on earth specifically, not because they're more racist than us, but because they've had more opportunities to encounter strangers. Proximity can easily lead to conflicts, love and sex can result in murder."

The original:

"Mỹ có rất nhiều từ để chửi riêng tất cả các sắc dân trên thế gian, không phải vì họ kỳ thị hơn ta, nhưng vì họ có nhiều cơ hội tiếp xúc với người lạ. Chung đụng thì dễ xích mích, chung chạ không khéo có ngày giết nhau."

Linh

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Connecticut Cranky,

The most famous use of the phrase "monstrous empire" came not from the mouth or pen of Lenin, Mao, Castro, Chavez or Noam Chomsky, but John Knox, the Scottish Protestant reformer. In "The First Blast of the Trumpet" (1558), he used it four times:

1-"and the monstrous empire of a cruel woman (the secret counsel of God excepted) we know to be the only occasion of all those miseries."
2-"And what makes this, I pray you, for the establishing of this monstrous empire of women?"
3-"I am not ignorant that the subtle wits of carnal men (which can never be brought under the obedience of God's simple precepts), to maintain this monstrous empire, have yet two vain shifts."
4-If God raises up any noble heart to vindicate the liberty of his country, and to suppress the monstrous empire of women, let all such as shall presume to defend them in the same most certainly know, that in so doing they lift up their hand against God, and that one day they shall find his power to fight against their foolishness.

Linh

Connecticut Cranky said...

Iftekhar Sayeed, in response to your points in order:
1. Thirty seconds of Googling ("book review Sahara slavery") came up with this excerpt of just one book on the subject:

http://www.historycooperative.org/cgi-bin/justtop.cgi?act=justtop&url=http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/106.3/br_197.html

Martin A. Klein. Slavery and Colonial Rule in French West Africa. (African Studies, number 94.) New York: Cambridge University Press. 1998.

"According to Klein, slavery was well established in Africa by the time of the arrival of the Portuguese in the fifteenth century ..."

I will take a look at the Web site that you refer to, but I think it's fair to say that slavery was well established outside the West. Ask Cervantes.

2. I'm familiar with satire. It involves making statements you don't actually believe in and that are so absurd that the reader may be persuaded to agree with your real views. Perhaps I'm a very stupid reader. Please enlighten me as to what views I ascribed to you that are at odds with what you really believe.

3. You've seen no attempts by people in other civilizations to try to "civilize" the West? Well, the Islamic world from Syria and Jordan westwards is the result of one such successful attempt, but perhaps you mean something more recent than Andalusia, Lepanto or 16th century Vienna. Bhuddist missionaries have made some inroads in America, and regular New York Times readers can probably recall some full-page advertisements from some sects, but perhaps you mean something more substantial. An Indian yogi, similarly, has had a lot of success in proselytizing for transcendental meditation. Confident cultures welcome the exchange of ideas.

If you were taught that no one should proselytize then you were taught a tenet contrary to both Christian and Muslim religion. In its benign form, proselytizing is an exchange of ideas in which even the proselytizer must be confronted with other ideas. Cultural influence from one society, culture, nation or civilization to another has been one of the prime engines for the spread of progress in all fields. If one culture or civilization is doing something better than another, then it benefits a culture to accept that influence. American culture traditionally did a poor job with cuisine, for instance, but we've learned from others. Since 1776 we've learned martial arts from East Asia, music from Africa, painting, fashion and winemaking from Europe, and even how to organize crime syndicates from Italy. We do an excellent job with self-government, and we've taught others -- very, very often at their request. There are many examples in history of societies that accepted cultural influences and then become stronger (in good ways) as a result.

You also say that you were taught that it is your duty to respect cultural differences. But this is true only to a point. The British imperialists stopped the Indian tradition of executing widows when their husbands died. I seem to recall reading that when told this was an important cultural tradition, a British official said his culture also had an important cultural tradition of protecting widows. I think promoting democracy is a bit closer to protecting widows than to the benign cultural differences that one should respect. I think most opposition to spreading democracy has to do with differences over how this can be practically, successfully accomplished, not over intent. Perhaps that's your real objection; if so, perhaps I might agree with you.

You mention Chinese lack of cultural exports. As technology geeks might say: That's a bug, not a feature. China developed all sorts of wonderful cultural artifacts, scientific devices and discoveries -- and not only didn't make an effort to export them but sometimes lost all knowledge of them. (Robert Temple's "The Genius of China" is a good, affordable condensation of Needham's work.) Your characterization of China as non-Imperialist would be disputed by many Tibetans, not to mention those in far western China or Inner Mongolia.

The effect of your stance against cultural influence and proselytizing is to support the local tyrants, whose arguments sound a bit like yours, by the way.

4. You say, essentially, that the West is the only civilization that conquered the world. "It was not in Chinese culture – or any other culture – to ‎conquer the world. That is a peculiarly Western disease. Even today, America wants to ‎control China, though the word used is containment”

What rot. Technology has been making the world smaller since about 1600, so empires were enabled to be larger -- that's why empires extended farther in the 19th an 20th centuries. Fellow disease sufferers who would have conquered the world if they thought they could: The Mongols (who came closest in the past), the Soviets, the Persians, the Caliphs, the Ottomans, the Aztecs, and probably the Chinese and Moghuls -- all were stopped only when faced with outside opposition or mounting costs of maintaining their empires. This is what emperors do.

5. If America wanted to control the flow of oil, it would have done so by now. If it controlled the flow of oil, the price wouldn't have been so high in 2006 when the Republican party lost control of Congress. What America wants is free trade and it pays a price for that as well as gets benefits from it. As for "controlling" the Middle East, well that's hardly happened. We do want to fight terrorists who want to control planes and fly them into buildings, and we do want to prevent terrorists from controlling weapons of mass destruction. That provides a rather sufficient motivation for us to be fighting in the Middle East, I would say. it is a realistic motivation, as opposed to your fantasies.

6. This appears to be a new point and a tangent. There is plenty of evidence in Western Civilization for protecting the weak instead of despising the weak. It is ludicrous to use the Nazis as an instance because, historically speaking, they were only around for an instant and were quashed by the West. If you want to see examples of Westerners not despising the weak, indeed protecting the weak, rent a Hollywood movie, read about chivalry, read about democracy, read Christian writing. Examples abound, and they abound for a reason.

You mention Christian missionaries and only recall their spreading misery while ignoring the good they have done and ignoring Muslim jihad, which induced more misery than Christian missionary work. In fact, your description of Christian missionary activity is as distorted as the rest of your descriptions are. If the work these missionaries did was so bad, they would not have been so successful in spreading Christianity, often in places where government and society actively discouraged it. The underground Christian churches in China are thriving, as they thrived in Japan in the 17th and 18th and 19th centuries when they were illegal.

But perhaps your statements are still satire. After all, when you post your comments on the World Wide Web in English, you are, in effect, proselytizing for your point of view, and you certainly are not attending to that duty you were taught as a youth to do no more than respect the ways and mores of other cultures. And your statement that Christian fundamentalists are making a mockery of Christianity even as you are making a mockery of Christianity would be quite a clever bit of satire.

Iftekhar Sayeed said...

Connecticut cranky,

I agree with you completely - couldn't agree more. I am wrong, you are right.

Connecticut Cranky said...

Iftekhar Sayeed, excellent! Now ... would you happen to have Harold Pinter's e-mail address? He's next on my list.