-Ism and Isn’t: The Introspective Conscience of the West

I’m not sure when I first heard the word multi-culturalism, but I am pretty sure that it has been around for almost half my life. So have the words pluralism, globalism, inclusivism, and Eurocentrism, along, of course, with lesser -isms that define the way we are supposed to look at the world. Some of these are of almost exclusively academic–which is to say almost no interest—postmodernism, for example; some with political-social and theological valence: racism, sexism, speciesism, denialism, creationism. I am losing track.

The main thing to remember is that -ism words can mean good things, bad things or just things depending on what noun (or adjective) they are attached to. Capitalism and communism are economic things, gradually giving way to an unpredictable monster called consumerism. Racism and sexism and Eurocentrism are bad things. Pluralism and inclusivism are good things. Multiculturalism and globalism are things. Postmodernism may be a good thing or a bad thing or just a thing, and if you take it seriously it doesn’t matter which it is.


I am pushing for a new term to describe gun-lovers, hoplotism (from the Greek for weapon), but then we would need a word to describe the people who oppose them—and we already have that: citizens.

About seven years ago a student of mine at Wells College, an ardent proponent of Native American land claims in Onondaga, New York (near Syracuse and Ithaca), wrote the following sentence. “I am a squatter on the land of the Onondaga people, a citizen of a multicultural, pluralistic society that has denied them their rights, their traditions and their sacred ground because of our shameful insistence on Eurocentrism.” It’s a poor sentence: what she really means is that the European settlers, mainly British and French, grabbed land from the Seneca, Mohawk and Iroquois people and that the colonists, reinvented as citizen landowners, mindful that the Onondaga people sided with the British during the Revolution, did not treat them well after Independence. It’s also true that the Indian nations grabbed land from each other, and false that the Europeans “introduced” war and squabbling to the indigenous peoples.

Anyway, what bothers me about this kind of thinking and writing is not just that it is C+ work but that its author probably thinks it is solid A-quality stuff because the sentiments it expresses are generally agreed to be accurate, or, what is more important, politically altruistic. It is part of what the postmodern klatch that dominates conversation in our universities calls “narrative” and we all know that all narratives are relatively true, relative, that is, to who is speaking. That being the case, can I put my red pen back in the drawer and have a drink?
But there is actually something more worrying about the loose-use of the -isms to build up or destroy (or preclude) argument.

I used to laugh when students challenged me on a point by saying, “Whoa—that is so Eurocentric,” because, after all, the whole direction of modern western intellectual culture has been to get us to recognize that particular sin, along with androcentrism and heterosexism.

I considered myself redeemed—twice born, washed in the flood of Foucault & Co. I felt this way until one day I asked a sluggish third year seminar class, “What do you mean by that? What does Eurocentrism mean?” Perhaps it was my edginess that caused the sudden silence to fall over the usually happy group. But I think it was something deeper, more deeply troubling. I don’t think they knew what they meant. They had been told that when they weren’t sure what to blame for some indeterminate injustice to blame Eurocentrism, just as the world over the last sixty years has learned the philippic Blame America—which, to be honest, it sometimes needs to do. I once suggested that insurance companies change the phrase ‘acts of God’ to ‘acts of America’ to describe lightening, flood, earthquake and storm. No one replied to my suggestion.

I am becoming worried that the code and shortcuts we use are enemies of critical thinking—a term much abused in its own right, especially in the academy—rather than tools to be used in the careful analysis of ideas. Where in our lexicon are words like Sinocentric, Afrocentric, iconoclasticentric (objecting to the Eurocentrism of the western canon), homocentric, and gynocentric? Nobody seriously suggests that these words be added to an already overstocked stew. Because even a moment’s reflection will tell us that a lot of the ‘discourse’ that people have been labeling ‘political correctness’ for at least a decade (trendy word warning!) privileges the critique over solutions to the problem and often doesn’t acknowledge the existence of a well-reasoned opposing viewpoint. -Isms have always been about the insiders; flail and squirm as you like, it is difficult to escape their incisive cultural power.

It well may be that a critique of the critique is unnecessary and that the mere mention of words like ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘Eurocentrism’ suggests the need to change attitudes, awareness, agendas, and political reality. What’s past isn’t prologue: it’s wrong. ‘Reality’ is a good choice of words because so many -isms evoke the notion that there are certain things we need to wake up to, that half of any population at any given time is asleep whilst the really attentive and politically engaged are wide awake. And however correct the asseveration of an -ism may be when applied to anything, it is not mathematical correctness. Surely (human beings being the imperfect creatures we are) there are degrees of racism, sexism, and Eurocentrism?

But that is not exactly my point. My point is that our students are learning that these words have a withering, non-negotiable, self-evidential truth-value. And that is the death of thinking. It is the opposite of critical thinking.

I want them to see more and sloganeer less: to think not just about what they are saying but what other people, untouched by the native (naïve?) liberalism of the Western university are saying. Their commitment to oversimplification is such that they actually believe that the country that introduced the –isms to world attention and discussion is alone and unique (and singularly guilty) in perpetuating the bad -isms that make the good -isms necessary.

The list I’ve just given is long, so let me just focus on my student’s use of the word “multiculturalism” and its next of kin, “pluralism” and her theory that she is an intruder who needs to apologize for the sins of her fathers and mothers, or change her name to Crying River.

I have spent the last three years in China. Despite its insecurity as a bumbling, aggressive giant trying to behave like a friendly bear, China is not a pluralistic country. Its population is 95% mono-ethnic, and so too (despite what you may have learned) is its language. Mandarin (standard Chinese or Pǔtōnghuà) is spoken by 93% of the people (the Han) and only about 6% of the population belong to one of the 57 recognized ethnic minorities who inhabit the country. This makes China, along with its neighbor Japan, one of the least pluralistic or “multicultural” nations on earth. Only the principates of the Middle East can claim to be more incestuously and genetically cohesive, and we know how they treat الأجانب –outsiders.

Where I am located, I seldom see another European face. I am gawked at, pointed at, jostled (deliberately) and occasionally laughed at by swarthy workers (yes there is still that class in China, and they are a very significant part of the population) and sometimes even groups inside the university gates (where I am also treated kindly and generously). The reaction of the ordinary folk is so obvious that it does not bother me at all. I have come to take it as a compliment. Somewhere in the recesses of my Teutonic brain I probably think racialist thoughts: words like wog, chink and gook flash across my mind. They are probably saying (to be overheard) yángguǐzi (洋鬼子), which has about the same emotional lode as “nigger”, but it is easy to ignore and to smile back at them, which they find incredibly stupid of me. Being an American I am naturally interested in the psychological roots of their reaction—what phobia through yonder visage breaks?—but I know that there are parts of the psyche of the Middle Kingdom that will be forever inscrutable to me. Last year I was astonished on a May Day outing to see the same sort of people ridiculing monkeys at the Beijing Zoo and throwing used cardboard cups at polar bears.

Why do I mention this? Because the West—Europe, its colonies and its modern offspring, like America–is so obsessed with doing penance for its checkered and beastly history that it has forgotten two very important points: First, it created modernity. That is no small feat. Most of what we call science, democracy, and cultural progress comes from the West. To put this negatively, it did not come from the East, or South Asia, nor from Africa and there are perfectly good historical reasons for why this is true. Some of these reasons are tied to isolation. Some are linked to religion. Few however have anything to do with colonialism: which is to say, colonialism did not cause isolation and backwardness to happen, it exploited it. It profited from it. It was not fair race. It was not even a race.

I am not impugning the contributions of these distaff geographical regions and societies to the history of humankind, century’s yore. It is the first response of multicultural zealots to say, What about –the printing press, paper, gunpowder, surgery, and a litany of other achievements. No one wants to forget these contributions, and we should always keep them in grateful view, whether or not they influenced western technology or not. But just for the record: China did not invent the printing press and the circumference of the earth and the theory of evolution are not in the Qur’an. Let’s get that straight.

What I am saying is that the West created modernity. One of the reasons we may be forgiven for being Eurocentric is that we have been the caretakers of modernity for a long time, and even created post-modernity to castigate ourselves for inventing it.

And the West did this by developing what Krister Stendahl, a former dean of the Harvard Divinity School, called “the introspective conscience of the west.”

Technology followed the opening of the mind to the world and the world to the mind, and this seems to have happened in the period we call the renaissance and the “age of discovery.” It was an intellectual, geographical, religious, and social revolution that did not happen anywhere else, finalized in the rejection of monarchial and biblical authority and the political revolutions, oft-admired but never successfully duplicated, in France and America. I am not sure that it could have happened anywhere else, because like all unique things it did not happen anywhere else and the conditions were not ripe for it having happened anywhere else. Even in Europe, outside England, its happening was almost sacrificed to the gods of pagan antiquity, especially Teutonic ones, and their hatreds. But her children saved her from her past.
I am going to be blunt and outrageous: most of the world does not have this introspective conscience. China does not have it. Japan does not have it. India does not have it. Africa does not have it. The Middle East and the Islamic world do not have it.

Hold fire, Ye soldiers of Multicultural Rectitude: I am not saying these cultures don’t have traditions of learning and wisdom and spiritual insight. I am saying that there is something they did not have. The West has it because its history is the history of how this conscience and its institutions developed, in a self-critical way from tribe, to kingdom, to nation-state, to democratic nations, and from the rule of divinely anointed hereditary kings and princely bishops to elected, secular authority.

Put flatly, it means that most of the world outside the West did not generate the critical interchanges that led finally to old Europe becoming modern Europe, a growing process that (as we all know) was not characterized by peace, love and understanding but by bloody battles and heated philosophical discussions and fierce political rivalries leading not to religious hegemony (like the Ottoman Empire) or a political crackdown (like Communist-style nationalism) but to freedom of conscience and action. Indeed Stendahl sees this as being foreshadowed in the missionary journeys of Paul the apostle who forged alliances between Athens, Rome and Jerusalem, the first ecumenical movement, a pre-global globalism, that was then gradually secularized through the progress of Christianity and it civilizing power to become the synthesis that we call the West.

Something like Stendahl’s thesis was reiterated by none other than Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, reminding Europe of its debts to Christianity, a reminder that was so nuanced (or seemed so wrong) that most people took hardly any notice at all.

But regardless of whether Stendhal and Benedict were right, I am sure that only Europe, itself evolved from tribal confederations, linguistic confusion, and two millennia of ideological and religious contests, made it happen. We can argue endlessly over debts, but not over proceeds.

Someone asked me recently why America achieved so much more in the short 250 years of its existence than Europe had achieved in the previous 2000 years and China in the previous ‘5000’ [sic]. The answer is simple: By the time America happened, all the preliminary work had been done. It was a new country—not a new civilization. It began with the printing press, books, ships, telescopes, even, thanks to itinerant refugees from Cambridge, a college–and the accumulated wisdom of Europe; it didn’t need to invent it.

It did lack one thing Europe had, which made it easier for progress to be made: It had no fealty to the past.

But it is also true that while other countries throw around the mantra of multiculturalism, America in terms of size, diversity complexity and ethnicity is the most pluralistic country on the planet. Media attention to its racists, yahoos and bigots sometimes tempts its critics to think that modern America is a lot like 1950’s South Africa; but no one who really knows the country thinks this. It’s just that the media is part of the process of contrition that the country uses to acknowledge the perdurance of its sins.

Compared even to multicultural Britain, the master of the post-colonial sweepstakes in terms of its rule of very un-European places, only about 10% of Britons identify as “non-white”. In America, the number who officially identify as white is now a scant 63%. And the number of Americans who speak Spanish as their first language has risen to 50,000,000 in a country of 313,000,000 people. If questions like immigration, colour, and (even) the fate of native Americans seem large and sloppily handled to the rest of the world, it is because the rest of the world is not as multicultural as America. I cannot tell you how many of my foreign chums who pride themselves on their anti-American credentials are flabbergasted by the ‘phenomenon’ of Barack Obama and look merely confused when I say he must be a pawn of the Republicans. America is, after all, an inside joke.

China is not multicultural. It is not interested in becoming multicultural. It is happy that the West beats its chest for the mistakes of ‘Eurocentrism’, just as the Middle East about ten years ago was rapturous over Edward Said’s theory, in Orientalism, of The Other, a catchy thesis that completely ignored the otherization and demonization of the West by Arab and Asian elites in general. –That is, until they need to go shopping.

The East does not want the West’s defeat: it wants its own success. China wants the victory of the Han people over a stumbling and fumbling confederacy of western powers. Its history tells us that such differences create weakness and that weaknesses can be exploited for gain–indeed, the whole modern history of China has been based on the dominance of unity and sameness. It does this through propaganda, censorship, a tightly controlled entertainment media and a constipated and illiberal university system; through promoting itself as the ‘soft power’ country, the country you can love and trust, and whose Destiny (China’s real god, a Hegelian-Marxist idol with stone feet set deep in its history) is to rule the world benevolently.

Because the Middle East and its minions are tied to a religious mandate, the West is a cultural problem. As events of the last fifteen years have shown, the Islamic world does want the cultural defeat of the West as a means of confirming their teleology—their view of history as being in the hands of God. It cannot do this (as China can) economically. It cannot do it philosophically or apologetically (the West is where all the Christians are, or what remains of them). So they are reduced to the patterns of violence we call terrorism. Moreover, the contemporary Islamic world, despite its piety and zealotries, has more in common with the West than with Asia and a long history of conflict, especially with China.

We may well live to see the defeat of the West happen, in economic terms. But if so, this will not represent the triumph of multiculturalism; it will be the triumph of a myopic, self-interested and determined mono-culture over the West. It will be the West emplacing in power, through its penance towards the sins of the past, a part of the world which feels little remorse about anything. And like the Germany of 1929 is determined to recover from its ‘century of [European] humiliation’.

The East does not necessarily want violence, and China, for example, eschews it and in view of its patchy history in fighting foreign powers probably fears it. Violence, as in war, is always unpredictable and the aftermath of modern wars is hard to assess—viz. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. Modern Europe seems to have lost its appetite for war. China (as China) has never won one. Nor really has the Islamic world since the fall of Constantinople in 1452. Only the United States seems to retain something of the Old World love of burning powder and the rockets’ red glare.

What the East wants is the end of the West as the center of gravity, economy and culture. And what they cannot understand, and regard as ignorant, is that sometimes the West wants it too, wants it for catharsis, cleansing, restoration. Freedom of expression means freedom of critique, and the West’s vaunted openness and almost pathological willingness to dissect itself in public—especially America—is usually mistaken for foolishness, weakness, and a public declaration of inferiority.

Our students need to know this, too. The West has learned from Paul the apostle to the gentiles—the West–no less that we are all sinners looking for redemption. There are a thousand variations on this theme, most of them since the Renaissance secular. In the old calculus, this redemption came from God, who stood before and above the nations with his scale. But in the post-Christian and secular world, there are only nations, and their scales are not weighted towards justice.

But this is not a broadside against monocultures. We have to be honest, that some nations and states are still homogeneous. Their ties are family ties often reinforced by the strong bonds of religion and language. For those who have not traveled, the West, especially America and Britain, is not in the old sense a land of opportunity (or hope and glory) but a concept that overshadows these traditional patriotic, ethnic and religious ties.

The mysterious East reacts to the otherness of America with a mixture of grudging admiration, petulance, suspicion–and safeguards in the form of critical media, internet and social media censorship, sometimes outright hostility—like the Filipinos exercising their right to throw eggs at Mr Obama (at a safe remove) a few days ago, a right which would be denied these protesters but for their having been hatched in a Pacific nursery of American democracy. Chinese cameras were quick to record and broadcast the incident, which would have been strictly and vigorously prevented in Beijing. I want my students to understand why, not just to side with or against the egg-throwers. Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini and Mao tse Dng were never pelted with eggs, at least not when they were in charge.

Our students must learn the sins of the past. After all, it is what we, the sons and daughters of Europe, did to slaves, and Jews, and aboriginal people and Serbs and Turks that helped to shape this introspective conscience in Europe and much of central Asia, especially Russia. I will not make the obvious point that our habit of confession and remorse goes back much further than that, to the crucifixion, or to Paul’s “The good I would do, I do not do; but the evil that I would not do—that is what I do.”

But we also need to teach them that We Are Not Rousseau. The cult of the untouched, noble, unaffected, anti-social savage was a myth of grand proportions and should have stayed confined to the 18th century. Even Shakespeare seems to have known better (over a hundred years earlier) when the west didn’t know much about the native peoples of the New World: Caliban is not noble; he is jealous and vicious. But he is a mixture of who he is by nature and what his master has made him. We all are.

Our students must discover, however, that their own introspection and remorse is not enough in the real world, in the world of ideas and action. Their responsibility is more complex. Vast numbers of people on earth do not value the ideals of pluralism, inclusivism, multiculturalism. Even refugees from North Africa who risk life and limb on rafts to get to the coast of Spain have no idea what they are getting into, and (as the European states are finding more and more) neither do the escapees and wannabes of Pakistan, the ‘burger’ who occupy the inner cities of ‘Mancusistan’ (Manchester, UK) and Waltham Forest (North London), where Muslim patrols try to enforce Sharia on the locals. They wanted out, but they are not sure about being in. Is it ‘Eurocentric’ to say that they seem to be missing some crucial existential point?

Vast numbers from these monocultures of language, ethnicity or religion regard western values as sexy and exciting, desirable and dangerous. They ‘want’ it but they are afraid they will go to hell if they take it. That in part is what 9-11 was all about—an attack on the secular icons of western society, as poignant in its way as the burning of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem by Roman pagans would have been in the year 70 AD. The ruling elite of China have no such compunction: they simply want it because they are convinced that Sina Magna crouches towards Beijing to be born.

Which is to say that to teach students slogans without teaching them how we came to value these words and what historical events shaped our particular consciousness of the world is a poor way to teach human values. If the West is at all special—let’s avoid the word ‘exceptional’—it is because it has succeeded more or less, and from time to time, in providing a general critique of its sins.

It has done this by developing a tradition of tolerance for good ideas. It’s done this by insisting that in the contest between personal freedom and the unquestioned domination of the state, it is best to err on the side of personal freedom—especially in matters of free speech, which is always preferable to revolution and war. It has done this in permitting religion to develop without interference while insisting that the work of government has to be kept separate from religious control, even in questions of morality. In multiple ways, the values of tolerance, freedom, and the ‘spirit’ of reason have permitted a unique kind of democracy to flourish in the West while permitting the western democracies to pursue their visions in different and sometimes conflicting ways.

Our students have to get beyond the critique of colonialism and Eurocentrism to a fuller understanding of the complete narrative—which has to be read before it can be critiqued or dismissed. And I am sorry to say that to be ignorant of the classics and the so-called western ‘canon’ is to avoid this responsibility—an unthinkable intellectual crime in China, Japan, or the Islamic world in terms of their own canons sand culture. They need to understand that their right of dissent, free inquiry and free expression, does not arise from the monocultural thinking of Said’s Other, the mystical monotonous East. It comes from the uniquely Western values that make it possible for them to say both passionately critical things and profoundly silly things without worrying about the consequences.

18 thoughts on “-Ism and Isn’t: The Introspective Conscience of the West

  1. Really good essay – with two caveats: It’s not a quick read. And you’re going to have to get past a swipe at gun lovers. ~gene~

    > >

  2. Always riveting, always edifying and thought-provoking.

    As an affirmation that mono-culture is ubiquitous outside the West, it calls attention to the legacies of Humanism to account for Euro-style heterodoxy and associated freedoms. But there is no comment on the cohesion that Confucianism brought to China across two millennia, and make no mistake – therein lay the first great humanist awakening of our species around the concepts of the responsibilities of the individual – to be educated, tolerant and restrained, and mindful of virtuous governance.

    The synthesis of Humanism and Confucianism with the freedoms cited will likely arise as world citizenry – responsible citizenship being a cornerstone of both streams. That confluence entails the UN coming to the fore as the nuclear nations are expunged from our current political fabric – they being the trump cards in the white man’s game – and sadly, still very much with us.

    Two big rivers don’t go to war, they continue on to a common ocean. So too must our very young and fragile species.

  3. “I am pushing for a new term to describe gun-lovers, hoplotism (from the Greek for weapon), but then we would need a word to describe the people who oppose them—and we already have that: citizens.”

    The gun-lovers are ahead of you here; they’ve already coined a term to describe the mindset of the opposition: “hoplophobia/hoplophobes”.

    I agree with gfranklinpercival, by the way, though I think I may need to read this once more (ideally post-caffeine) for it to sink in.

  4. Excellent. One of your best essays, Joe. I tried to pick at it as I read but could not draw much blood. 🙂

    The essay is helpful in my effort to take a stand in a book chapter I am writing on the British incursion in Uganda during the period 1862 to 1894, the years between first contact and the establishment of a protectorate.

    So far, my efforts have led me through a rigorous pursuit of what worldview transformations took place during the evolution of English/British culture between the time of their 1607 arrival at what later became Virginia and the 1862 arrival of Speke at the court of Buganda king Mutesa I.

    Indeed, much occurred during this period that transformed the English worldview from one similar to that of the indigenous peoples they encountered near Jamestown and beyond, to the worldview they unpacked two and a-half centuries later among the peoples in what later became Uganda.

    Historian Bernard Bailyn, in his book The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America–The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675, describes, in part, the initial English-Native American cultural encounter as follows:

    “They both lived in worlds that were at least in part experienced as magical. In England Christianity, even Protestantism, had not driven out ancient beliefs in the occult forces; in magic, white and black; in the power of soothsayers, conjurors, cunning men, wizards, diviners, and witches; in the ever-present threats of sorcery and devilish disturbances to the equilibrium of life; in the power of charms, curative rituals, and fortune-telling; and in ghosts, apparitions and walking spirits. For the English, magic and witchcraft were not abnormal and extraordinary but commonplace and realistic, and that would be especially true in North America, for that distant land was know to be ‘one of the dark places of the earth,’ one of the ‘wild partes’ ultimately ruled by Satan and his minions; there the native priests were known to be ‘no other but such as our witches are.'”

    The scientific equipment, weaponry, and books, and their associated beliefs and values, Speke and the Britons who followed him brought to Buganda tell of a much changed worldview.

    You well describe an important aspect of the British version of the early modern Western worldview:

    “[T]he West—Europe, its colonies and its modern offspring, like America–is so obsessed with doing penance for its checkered and beastly history that it has forgotten two very important points: First, it created modernity. That is no small feat. Most of what we call science, democracy, and cultural progress comes from the West. … One of the reasons we may be forgiven for being Eurocentric is that we have been the caretakers of modernity for a long time, and even created post-modernity to castigate ourselves for inventing it.

    “And the West did this by developing what Krister Stendahl, a former dean of the Harvard Divinity School, called ‘the introspective conscience of the west.'”

    Though its voice was muted amid the British clamor for resources, religious converts, and empiric power and prestige, this conscience you describe nevertheless was faintly detectable in pre- and post-protectorate, indirect rule Uganda. It is this dynamic – between self-serving exploitation and a sincere humanism regarding Africans – I’m referring to when I say I am making an effort at taking a stand when writing about the British incursion in Uganda.

    I’m sure I’ll read your essay a few more times as I complete my chapter and book. Thank you.

  5. It may be that locating yourself in China is not the best way forward when it comes to familiarising yourself with life here in London, England. Oddly enough, from the perspective of living here for over thirty years, I have never actually spotted any Pakistani Muslim patrols, nor do I know anyone who has, nor are there any recorded cases of such Pakistani Muslim patrols; the police, whether it is the Met or the City of London, take an exceedingly dim view of anyone seeking to replace themselves, and our Judges equally take an exceedingly dim view of anyone seeking to supplant their authority.

    Given the total absence of any real Pakistani Muslim patrols in London I assume that you are referring to the three individuals, Jordan Horner, Royal Barnes and Ricardo MacFarlane, none of whom are of Pakistani origin, as you can probably tell from their names, who ‘converted’ to Islam and, describing themselves as ‘the Muslim patrol’, subsequently attacked people in various parts of London for what they claimed to be breaches of Sharia law. All three got jail sentences, with five year ASBOs on top, which will put a dent into any patrolling activity for their foreseeable future as well as preventing them from handing out Sharia material outside mosques. Given that two of them had criminal convictions prior to their alleged conversions I have some doubts that this can be wholly attributed to the insidious effects of Islam; young men who like attacking people and slagging off women are regrettably commonplace.

    Barnes and his wife Rebekah Dawson, a convert who is not of Pakistani origin either and has another criminal conviction for intimidating a witness, a security guard at the Finsbury Park mosque, have subsequently also been convicted on terrorism charges for disseminating terrorist material, and incitement to murder, based on the videos they put up on Youtube; it really wasn’t very bright of them to put the videos online, but they’re not very bright people.

    On the other hand, if you wish to preach the benefits of evidence based reasoned discourse it helps if you make some effort to actually do the evidence based reasoning, which, in this case, would have resulted in you realising that one white and two West Indians converts cannot accurately be described as Pakistani Muslims or even wannabe Pakistanis. Also, the only ‘burgers’ recognised in London are the ones which are supposed to contain meat; I haven’t a clue what you’re aiming for.

    I live here, and I am very well aware that there are massive tensions between Londoners of Pakistani origins, non-Pakistani Muslims and converts who think that Pakistani Muslims aren’t Muslim enough; that’s one of the reasons mosques in general and the Finsbury Park mosque in particular need security guards. Abu Hamza, himself of Egyptian origins, was the Imam who turned the Finsbury Park mosque into a recruiting ground for violent action, assisted by Algerian refugees of equally extreme views, before he was arrested, imprisoned and extradited; Abdullah El-Faisel, of Jamaican origin, converted from Christianity and trained in Saudi Arabia, became the Imam of the Brixton Mosque in south London before he was ejected from the mosque because of his extremism. He was subsequently imprisoned and then deported for calling for the murder of everyone other than members of his own brand of Islam.

    I should point out that Egypt, Algeria, Jamaica and Saudi Arabia are not part of Pakistan; I appreciate that, given the immensity of China, the geography of the rest of the world may get somewhat blurred but it does actually make a difference. It really doesn’t help the people trying to live their lives peaceably as part of a larger community when even scholars don’t bother to check on such matters. Incidentally, I can find no trace of Muslim Patrols in Manchester, or anywhere else in Britain, beyond the confines of Youtube; I wouldn’t want to be overly critical in expecting you to check with things like newspapers or the BBC, but if you write an essay about the virtues of Enlightenment values it helps if you actually make some effort to demonstrate them.

    That is not to say that people living here are unable to voluntarily make agreements governed by Sharia law; they are free to do so provided that it does not supplant the law of England and Wales, in much the same way that the Jewish community has been free to do so over a rather longer period of time. Our Courts are happy to rule on matters governed by our law, even when both of the parties are outside England, where people enter into agreements to be bound by our law; it’s a source of considerable income to lawyers here…

    • That is an exceedingly long and useless reply to a piece that is overwhelmingly about the East as east and not ‘Pakistani Muslim patrols’ in particular, but for the sake of argument I grant you I should have said Sharia patrols, which does not make your hyper-parsing any more justified. Why don’t you mention Anjem Choudary, who is, I believe, the spiritual guide for the Islamists behind the patrols and not go to such lengths to point out that the louts doing the dirty work are converts. That may say something about the potential for the West to be tempted into lunacy by the forces of religious anger, dislocation and superstition but it hardly supports your larger contention that I am somehow disconnected from the problem. In any event a simple search of Muslim patrols (or Sharia patrols) would ‘evidence’ that it does seem to be an ongoing problem–it certainly was when I visited Conway Hall in 2008 and the head of the Ethical society there told me that Choudary had booked in to speak there. I fail to see how alluding to the confusion of the Muslim diaspora in France and Britain violates the Enlightenment (a word I did not use) values I espouse. Please enlighten me. The Enlightenment also gave rise to the cult of the Noble Savage.
      >>Incidentally, I can find no trace of Muslim Patrols in Manchester, or anywhere else in Britain, beyond the confines of Youtube<< Really? I stopped after finding about 28 articles on the topic ranging from the Guardian to the Telegraph to the Daily Mail. But as you 'live [t]here', as you say you may have keener insight into what all the fuss is about.

      • BTW: Please do not rush to tell me Choudary was born in the UK and is merely ‘of Pakistani’ descent–I know that; it rather proves my point about dislocation. I think i am being kind in giving him the cover of a social pathology.

      • Really? You found 28 topics in the Guardian et al referring to this in Manchester and you are unable to cite even one? Way to go, dude; who needs those pesky little things called facts when you can just claim that you read them somewhere in the media so it must be true, even if you can’t actually remember any of them.

        I didn’t cite Choudary because I had already cited Abu Hamza and Abdullah Al-Feisal, two of the main drivers of the massive violence of 7/7 in this city; even an essayist in search of a cliché might manage to recognise that it is more rational to identify the people responsible for massive violence than someone who is doing his best to stir it up and, on the whole, failing. You may not have noticed but Choudary has yet to score a suicide bombing; we people who have to deal with terrorism every day learn to triage our threats, and at the moment I am a great deal more worried about the IRA than I am about Choudary.

        Gerry Adams, President of Siin Fain, has been arrested in connection with a sectarian murder committed 40 years ago; the police have obtained legal permission for an extended period to carry on interviewing him, presumably in the hope that he’ll get so bored he’ll confess to just about anything, whilst as a result the IRA prepares to flex its muscles once more and tear up the Good Friday agreement. Of course we all hope that the people in the US who funded the IRA for so many decades, but who turned off the tap when 9/11 gave them an up close and personal view of terrorism, will carry on not funding, but a hope is all it is.

        The IRA is good at terrorising people, which is why I really don’t want to see them back; I do appreciate, of course, from a previous essay of yours that you didn’t actually know that a Christian on Christian war has been being waged for several centuries in Ireland, with multiple spin overs to Britain, hence your entirely fallacious claim that the last European War of Religion had ground to an end several centuries ago. (As I recall you used your false claim in an attempt to prove that Christians don’t fight Wars of Religion any more but those rotten Muslims do.)

        But that still doesn’t excuse your ignorance of straightforward facts; you are supposed to be a historian, and a historian of religion at that, and yet you are a remarkable example of the three wise monkeys when it comes to Christian terrorism in the UK.

        For my part I’m only too aware that Irish bombs kill people just like Muslim bombs kill people, and, call me selfish, I don’t want to be killed by any of them; I’ve been blown up once and I am absolutely convinced that I really, really don’t want to be blown up again. It isn’t fun.

        So, I cry a pox on all their houses, though naturally your sojourn in China ensures that you won’t be in the firing line so you can carry on contributing gems of wisdom secure in the knowledge that you won’t be in the firing line. Amazing what a difference that one makes…

      • I have lost track of your point. But not before you did: “Incidentally, I can find no trace of Muslim Patrols in Manchester, or anywhere else in Britain, beyond the confines of Youtube.”

        I have had nothing to say about Gerry Addams or the IRA, so that especial red herring doesn’t swim very far. No, I do not think the world is suffering from the menace of Christian terrorism and I don’t think the roots of IRA/Protestant terrorism are separable from the political conditions that permitted hatred to fester since the days of the Protestant Ascendancy. I have to laugh when you said soemthing about the safety of China. I spent the last eight months prior to being here in Sudan. I have lived and taught in Beirut and for a fair amount of time in Pakistan. I don’t expect you to know these things, but before you accuse me of being too theoretical, you need to have a few more facts at your disposal–perhaps? But OK, fair enough: you asked for just one, Dude: http://www.ibtimes.com/muslim-patrols-urban-britains-newest-street-gang-1066472

      • No, Joe; I didn’t carefully omit Choudhary because it was convenient for me. I spent my career, in between evacuating the office and searching for bombs after the usual Irish accent phone call, working on legal issues which, because of the very large sums of money involved, regularly would go up the chain to the then Appellate Comittee of the House of Lords, now known as the Supreme Court, and they were, and are, very good at spotting people who had conveniently omitted relevant information, which is why I got very good at determining what relevant information is. The claim that there are Pakistani Muslim Patrols is resolved by establishing whether, as a question of fact, there are Pakistani Muslim Patrols. It has been resolved by establishing the facts, and the facts are that the only Muslim Patrol known to exist consisted of one white and two West Indian converts who were tried, convicted and imprisoned.

        I appreciate that you may not like the degree of intellectual rigour Their Lordships require, and find the Daily Mail far more to your taste, not least because the Daily Mail has considerable difficulties with the concept of a fact, but it is only fair to you to explain that if you are going to use sources then on the whole it helps if you have some faint familiarity with those sources. If you quote the Daily Mail on matters Muslim then people will laugh at you, because the Daily Mail is incapable of mentioning the word Muslim without frothing at the mouth. It’s also incapable of mentioning Angelina Jolie without frothing at the mouth, though that’s not immediately relevant in this case, but there are plenty of other sources on Choudhary if you want to actually inform yourself about the slimeball.

        A final note; your CV shows a commendable willingness to travel the world, educating as you go. On the other hand it doesn’t show much experience of Europe, which possibly explains why you seem to have some exceedingly strange ideas about what Europe is like in the 21st century. Perhaps if you actually spent some time here it would enable you to sound a little less like the weird people who write interminable screeds about defending the gates of Vienna, apparently oblivious to the fact that the only people who read them are wannabe Muslims desperate to believe that they really could take Europe. It isn’t going to happen…

      • Honestly Stevie, if years in Germany and twelve in the UK as a senior lecturer at Oxford doesn’t count as Europe, I leave it to you to decide what does. You can reply to this if you want but withdrawal is the best course for me; as Mark says somewhere in this string, it has become unimportant to respond.

  6. Fascinating essay, Joe. And, Jim, I look forward to your book.

    And while I’m here: why, Joe, are you bothering to answer Stevie? Perhaps he knows England better, but the primary point you make relative to England is that England is still more homogenous than multicultural when compared with America. And nothing Stevie has said brings that into question. Indeed, although he admonishes you in a rather general way, having found what he mistakes for an Achilles’ heel, he offers no argument that might allow one to understand if he agrees or disagrees with your main thesis or not. (I don’t know if Stevie is male or female; the name can fit either; but I mean no disrespect here in choosing the masculine pronoun — I cannot, and would not, stoop so low, so my apologies if I have chosen wrong.)

    This is a problem I have found with my own students. Having discovered what they believe to be the feet of clay, they promptly throw the whole thing out. It’s all or nothing in our arguments today — if one point is wrong, the whole is somehow magically tainted.

    I like to remind my students that critical has three primary meanings: 1) to find what is wrong, 2) to analyze and reflect upon a thing from all sides, and 3) to determine significance (as in the critical factor or the critical step).

    Post-modernism and critical theory have done us a disservice by over-emphasizing the first definition, even though it is the farthest from the term’s founding etymology. To be critical today is part of the psychological penance you discuss in this article (and which Stevie would seem to think you have not done adequately, and so he tut-tuts). As you point out, that penance comes when we turn our critical faculty upon our (metaphorical) selves. (Few of us have the personal courage to look at ourselves as society and see our own (personal) complicity in the wrongs we find there).

    The second, which Stevie, like so many badly historicized post-modern (or post-modern influenced) thinkers, equates solely with a bumper sticker conception of the Enlightenment, requires more than just good logic, observation and citation; it requires an ability to challenge one’s own thought — the self-consciousness that is, as you point out, so Western and so forbiddingly modern. But one will wait, I suspect, a long time to hear borrowed-thought thinkers say, “and this is, indeed, where I myself so often fail.”

    But the last of the three is, to my mind, the heart of critical thinking, and it is delightfully, even absurdly anti-post-modern. To know what is significant, we must be able to judge and that means we must put one thing before another — we must determine what is most important, and, in doing so, we cannot help but adopt a hierarchy of sorts. Even if we say it is but a moving hierarchy, still it is hierarchical, and in post-modernism the hierarchical is as much a sin as is racism, colonialism, etc.

    Critical thinking today fails, I believe, because it begins with fault finding, moves on to a depressingly narrow logic, imagines societal criticism as a stand-in for self-critique, and cannot adequately understand the integrating power of significance. And all of that Stevie has given you on a silver platter.

    Despite your clear indications that he is talking about things that are insignificant, Stevie goes on quite certain of the importance of his thought, perhaps simply thinking it important because it is his own thought. And that, of course, does bring him, indirectly, to the theme of your essay. He speaks to your essay more by way if example, it is true, but he does speak to what is significant in the essay. And for that I think you owe him some gratitude.


    • Mark

      I’m female.

      It is, of course, possible that someone who makes egregious errors of fact about religiously inspired violence in the UK is a source of vast wisdom on all other matters, but it isn’t highly probable. And those of us who have to live with the consequences tend to be more critical of those shouting ‘fire’ when there is no fire…

  7. “What I am saying is that the West created modernity. One of the reasons we may be forgiven for being Eurocentric is that we have been the caretakers of modernity for a long time, and even created post-modernity to castigate ourselves for inventing it.”

    I chuckled, then mourned upon reflection.

    “I am going to be blunt and outrageous: most of the world does not have this introspective conscience. China does not have it. Japan does not have it. India does not have it. Africa does not have it. The Middle East and the Islamic world do not have it.”

    As an aside, this is the crux of the differences leading to the desire for Catalan independence. Spain simply does not possess, in the majority culture, an introspective conscience. They cling to authority for truth. The Catalans are truly modern, as is shown by the relative concentration of most basic research, innovation and new technology in the region.

    I cannot remember what landed me on your blog, but I find it much to my liking. Good to have another source of thoughtful writing; thanks for that. Bookmarked.

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