Thursday, February 19, 2009

Georgia Fights Back with Disco

The Eurovision Song Contest, just like the World Cup, is an easy outlet for national rivalries. But this year's event promises bonafide political statements.

Georgia had planned to boycott the event, to be held in May in Moscow, but changed its mind and will offer Stephane and 3G's "We Don't Wanna Put In," a danceable attack on the Russian premier.

If only Vladimir himself would dress up in a spangly uniform and try to express Russia's re-emergence through synthesized pop.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

God's Crucible

Are Islam's fundamentalists taking a good thing too far, or has Islam always been destructive and anti-democratic? Militant secularists and xenophobes believe the latter is true. Last year David Levering Lewis issued a loud disagreement with his book God's Crucible.

Muslims have also been Europeans for almost as long as they have been anything. Al-Andalus was the name of the westernmost province of the Islamic empire, which included most of Spain. They've been present in eastern Europe as well (Quick: what's continental Europe's largest city? Hint: It's a Muslim one.)

The Dark Ages were in fact only dark if you were down with Jesus. While Christendom slumped, Islamic culture created the greatest libraries ever, advanced astronomy, algebra and medicine, and invented chess. We owe what knowledge we have of ancient Greece to Arab scholars.

So it's clear that Islam is capable of sustaining a great empire, even a tolerant, pluralistic, peace-loving society. Lewis takes this thread a step farther and bemoans the Arab defeat at the Battle of Poitiers in 732. In God's Crucible he openly roots against the prevailing Christian army, on the premise that a bigger Muslim expansion would have benefited Europe.

Critics have called this thesis a bit of a reach. John Derbyshire points out that Lewis' argument rests on "counterfactual speculations," that is, arguments that do not rely on evidence. It could well be that a uniformly Muslim Europe would have advanced technology and prevented the Crusades, but it didn't work out that way. Historical "what ifs" can go no further than that: there's nothing to back up the theorizing.

Joan Acocella says that writing from the West on Islam tends toward the polemical, due to both the ideology of post-colonialism and the recent prominence of the Islamic terrorist. This is the major problem with Lewis' book. He gleefully plows a cultural minefield by calling Islam advanced and Christendom backward.

To wish that the Hawaiians conquered the world rather than the British is exciting, but the argument can't overcome its burden of political resentment. To sincerely appreciate what al-Andalus was, rather than could have been, there is plenty of material.

So what's Lewis up to? He is not a scholar of Islam. His previous subject was W.E.B. Du Bois, which gives a clue to what Lewis is seeking in his lament for Muslim Europe: racial harmony. Al-Andalus' most notable characteristic was la convivencia, the somewhat peaceful, intermittently tolerant cohabitation of three religions. There's plenty of evidence though of animosity towards Christians, Jews and Vikings during this putative Muslim utopia.

Lewis' unwavering endorsement of Muslim Europe arrives when immigrant communities permeate the Continent. There are urgent questions as to the inclusion of these people, often decried as premodern zealots, into the world's most advanced society. The issue has many faces: the legacy of the Rushdie affair, the possibility of Turkish admission into the European Union, and the French ban on the veil. It's clear one way or another a new convivencia must emerge, but there's no use wishing for a time machine.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Forgiveness and Irony

This essay in City Journal by Roger Scruton ambitiously attempts to right the course of civilization. But first we need to accept that the good guys have deviated in some fatal way.

The jihadist with a Western passport is a troubling development in the United States, the U.K., and continental Europe. Here we were, undertaking to impart the triumphs of our inclusive style all over the world, and beneficiaries of that style are talking about destroying it. It's not limited to religious fundamentalism. The malaise is more pervasive. Children are shooting up their schools all the time now. "Ideas of liberty, equality, or historical right have no influence on their thinking," writes Scruton. So it's no use picking a bone with them, since they haven't yet articulated an itinerary beyond mayhem.

The "evildoers" are not Scruton's target. He diagnoses a "culture of repudiation," widespread in our polis and abetted by multiculturalism. According to Scruton, the West has lost its mission civilisatrice and is foundering in a relativistic swamp. This generation has shucked the obligations of "citizenship," and we're well on our way to a moribund society, dangerously open to violent extremists.

I don't think anyone has to choose between multiculturalism and forgiveness. Scruton's disavowal of multiculturalism contains a repudiation of tolerance, which is the greatest weapon the West has. As I argued in my Huntington critique, a society need not march in lockstep to be powerful--quite the contrary.

This is why Scruton signals a crisis. He thinks we've fallen out of touch with our roles as citizens. But this is a natural development in a democracy: we can't be great citizens if everyone agrees that we're great citizens. Revolt and patricide are also important ingredients. Not to mention hesitation and empathy. All this makes us better defended against terror, not worse.

The Judeo-Christian"forgiveness" that Scruton calls for is really just multiculturalism in action, or what I prefer to call toleration. He fails to see the key irony of this policy: that it is a weapon in an asymmetrical cultural war. We tolerate creationists because to censor them would only strengthen them. We have faith in the free exchange of ideas.

Scruton's call to better citizenship is laudable, but he opposes multiculturalism for the wrong reasons. (Here are some better reasons).

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Holocaust What?

Hollywood loves to remember the Holocaust. That was the adventure when Americans discovered unfathomable evil, and then eradicated it. Never mind that confrontations with death camps too often lead to the same old homilies about courage under fire, or the power of the imagination, or the role of America as the world's last, best hope.

Portraying unfathomable evil on film is tricky...because it can't be fathomed. Instead, the Nazi aesthetic is conjured in a trice to serve as shorthand for the ultimate foe. Claude Lanzmann in his nine-hour documentary Shoah never showed any archival footage of concentration camps--the only reality was the testimony of survivors and perpetrators.

Would that Spielberg, Benigni and now Stephen Daldry had learned from this restraint. A backlash is mounting to the Oscar nominations of The Reader, which forgives Kate Winslet's war crimes by sympathizing with how hard it is to learn to read in prison.

The Reader is far from the most hackneyed Holocaust retread of the award season. That would be Valkyrie, which features Tom Cruise as a treacherous Nazi would-be assassin with an eyepatch. Let's not forget about "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," "Defiance," and "Adam Resurrected." In these films, the Nazis are outdone by the innocence of childhood, an ass-kicking Jewish resistance, and the psychic powers of Jeff Goldblum, repsectively.

Will a film ever tackle the subject of the unpunished Nazi doctor, and the postwar world that allowed him to go on with his life? It could be a sort of anti-Munich, emphasizing the shape-shifting nature of evil. Heroism and perseverance, moviedom's prized virtues, would not come off well in that story.

American memory of the Thousand Year Reich is crisp and unambiguous, which clashes sharply with the European experience of surrender, collaboration and annihilation. Jews are Hollywood's favorite victims, but what about the French, Norwegians, Dutch? The Spaniards, whose fascist dictator was never deposed? Or the country that lost 26 million people to the war, and of course never saw a dime of the Marshall Plan.

For my money, the one Holocaust film to stick in a time capsule is Errol Morris' Mr. Death, about an execution specialist from New England traveling to a concentration camp to deny the Nazis' crimes. Fred Leuchter Jr. is an eccentric on a picaresque journey that, midway through the film, turns into a ridiculous nightmare that destroys him.

But Leuchter's failure to understand the severity of the Holocaust is our own. We prove our inadequacy of confronting genocide with each new tearjerker that arrives at the multiplex.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Environmental Roundup

Emissions be damned! The British are burning their trash. New findings are complicating the conventional wisdom that particles released into the air lead to health problems. The Danes, world leaders in green technology, burn roughly 40 percent of their garbage. An unscientific survey of my own lungs indicate that they are holding up pretty well, in spite of my roots in the Ozark borderlands where trash fires are as common as turkey poachers...

Keep your eyes peeled for NASA's rubber ducks, which will emerge like unfrozen phoenixes from Greenland's glacial ice floes. Be sure to email Dr. Alberto Behar when you find your duck...

The Americans and the Dutch share a conservation-minded land ethic, but they arrived at their policies in opposite ways. Scarcity forced the Dutch to take their land back from the sea, whereas plenty induced the Americans to settle and consume land as quickly as possible. Engineering innovations created the Netherlands. Many now hope that they will save America...

The new EU president is a global warming skeptic. Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic has fought the liberal consensus, led by Germany's Angela Merkel, to reduce carbon emissions, insisting that science has not proven the urgency of this policy. He is also an avowed enemy of the EU in general. Of course the recent economic catastrophe has played into the hands of those who bristle at unification...

Less debate is heard about the ownership of Earth's most precious resource. Water is to a greater and greater extent under the control of the wealthy, but a new "virtual water footprint" statistic should raise awareness about this inequality. The metric shows how even rainy northern Europe imports fruit, cotton, beans and wood from the developing (and increasingly dry) world. With guys like these extolling the virtues of bottled water, a return to local-water drinking is long overdue.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Brecher-Hanson Beef

Liberals compare the second Iraq war to Vietnam. Conservatives compare it to World War II. It takes the outside-the-box thinking of Victor Davis Hanson to find commonalities between today's Iraq War and the Peloponnesian War, which is just 2400 years old.

The redoubtable War Nerd took Hanson to task for this outlandish analogy and brought about a rivalry between the two war hawks. Gary Brecher is a fictional war columnist from Fresno who writes for the Russian webzine eXile. Even a rabid enthusiast for armed conflict like Brecher thinks Bush's war is a disgrace. Not Hanson, though. The Fresno State classics professor is still an adherent of the Bush Doctrine.

You don't need to draw historical parallels to offer meaningful analysis. The facts speak for themselves. Even calling the ongoing bloodshed in the Middle East a "quagmire" feels quaint and insufficiently outraged.