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A pathology parading as a polity

By Lorenzo

What does it say about a country that it is forced to have its “home” cricket tests in another country? For the purposes of test cricket, Pakistan holds its “home” tests in the United Arab Emirates because Pakistan itself is deemed too dangerous.

A problem with violence

What does it say about a country that a bodyguard can assassinate the Provincial Governor he was responsible for guarding and be treated by many as a national hero? On 4 January 2011, Punjab governor Salmaam Taseer was assassinated by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri for publicly disagreeing with Pakistan’s blasphemy law. (Punjab is the major province of Pakistan, with about 56% of Pakistan’s population.)  While thousands of ordinary Pakistanis attended the slain Punjabi governor’s funeral, the murderer was also publicly hailed as a hero, with Pakistan’s most prominent religious Party praising his actions.

Protest against blasphemy laws.

Protest against blasphemy laws.

The Pakistani Minister for Minorities, the only Christian in Cabinet, Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated on 2 March 2011 for his opposition to the same law. Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or the “Pakistani Taliban”, claimed responsibility for his murder.

Pakistan is a major arena for sectarian violence, with Muslim minorities also being targeted. In fact, is rated by Minority Rights Group International as being as threatening for minorities as Iraq and Afghanistan, with the threat rising faster in Pakistan than either.

Both the above assassinations were for championing the case of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian women sentenced to death for blasphemy. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws fall particularly heavily on Pakistan’s tiny (3%) Christian minority. A minority which is the target of mass suicide bombings and other attacks.


Blasphemy law is a classic example of how expanding the moral ambit of concern for acts narrows the moral ambit of concern for persons. In this case, the capital offence being to say, in response to taunts against her religion:

I believe in my religion and in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for the sins of mankind. What did your Prophet Mohammed ever do to save mankind?

The claim that she, as a Christian, touching the water had made it haram, unclean, make it clear how much this particular case a matter of religious outcasting and provides an indication that, as some have suggested, much anti-Christian animus is a reworking of old caste prejudices.

Mosque, military and islands of capital

In Muslim countries not ruled by traditional monarchies, politics is often a clash between mosque and military; the only two significant organised power networks. With support for “secular” politics often meaning that one is a member of a minority group, as with the Alawites in Syria and Sunni Arabs in Iraq; in both those cases using Baathism as their political vehicle–a political ideology founded by an atheist, a Christian and a modernising Sunni Muslim. Or one is a supporter of the military against the mosque. Or both.

Pakistan has some of the mosque versus military dynamics, with a series of military dictators (1958-1971, 1977-1988, 1999-2002) and a range of religious parties and militant groups. Its politics are complicated by significant landlord and commercial classes, providing some relief from any mosque-versus-military dichotomy. Pakistan still falls within Nobel Laureate economist Sir Arthur Lewis‘s classic 1954 analysis Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labour (pdf), with “islands of capital” surrounded by a “sea” of subsistence farming, but those islands are large enough to be the basis of significant political forces. (Not true in, for example, Egypt.)

India has larger islands of capital, both in critical mass and per head, hence its per capita GDP being about 25% higher than Pakistan’s. India also has a significantly higher literacy rate (74% to 55%): the female literacy rate in India (66%) being only slightly lower than the male literacy rate in Pakistan (69%).  Bangladesh, which has only two-thirds of the per capita GDP of Pakistan, also has a higher literacy rate (60%) than Pakistan, with its female literacy rate (53%) being only slightly lower than Pakistan’s overall literacy rate (55%).

States but not nations

The other complication in the development of a “normal” mosque-versus-military dichotomy is that Pakistan has no national identity apart from an Islamic one. Unlike Bangladesh (“the nation of Bengal“), which is overwhelmingly (98%) ethnic Bengali (it is essentially the country of Muslim Bengalis), Pakistan (“the land of the pure“) is a patchwork quilt of ethnicities and languages; Punjabis (44%), Pashtun (15%), Sindhi (14%), Saraiki speakers (11%), Urdu speakers (8%)–Urdu is essentially the Muslim version of Hindi–Balochi (4%) plus another 5% of various smaller minorities.

The Pashtun make up around 42% of the population of Afghanistan while being the second-largest ethnic group in Pakistan–in fact almost as many Pashtun live in Pakistan as the entire population of Afghanistan. Which makes the notion of separate Afghan and Pakistan identities a bit moot–Afghanistan is really the bit that didn’t end up in British India, the Russian Empire (cum Soviet Union) or Iran. Just as Pakistan is the (western) bit of Muslim-not-India.

The lack of a common identity for each country, beyond being overwhelmingly Muslim, is one of the destabilising features of both countries–they are states without being nations. With the modern world’s massive broadening of the expected scope of state action, that is a serious problem. The notion that Afghanistan cannot be conquered or ruled successfully is nonsense: it was both plenty of times, just under very different expectations of what was permitted and useful to do for either.


If the notion of separate Afghan and Pakistan identities is a bit moot, and if Pakistan is defined as “Muslim-not-India”, then the obvious way for Pakistan to get more strategic depth against India (against which it has fought four wars, all of which it started and all of which it lost) is to dominate (possibly even absorb) Afghanistan.  Now, trying to define yourself against a country, India, which is much larger demographically (1,210m to 182m) and significantly richer (the Indian economy is about 9 times the size of the Pakistani economy) may seem a deeply silly thing to do. But if the only unifying state identity is “Muslim-not-India”, if your second largest ethnic group is the largest ethnic group of the neighbouring Muslim country, and if you are the Pakistani military and believe that ultimately God is on your side, then it may seem the only game in town. Especially given the tradition of over a millennia of successful Muslim aggression against Buddhists and Hindus, from the C8th to the C18th. (Until the rise of the Maratha and Sikh empires, themselves then overthrown by the British, the founders of the modern Pakistani army.)

Muslim conqueror building a "minaret of beheaded skulls".

Muslim conqueror building a “minaret of beheaded skulls”.

Welcome to the Taliban strategy. The Taliban were not a result of the (ultimately) successful insurgency against Soviet rule in Afghanistan (1979-1989). They arose in 1994 and operated as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan from 1996-2001, being recognised by only three countries–Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The countries which had provided the bulk of the logistical support and funding for the anti-Soviet insurgency. (The Saudis had matched US funding dollar for dollar with about the same amount again being raised by private donations, mainly in the Saudi kingdom and the UAE.) About 10% of Afghanistan had remained under the control of the Northern Alliance, groups who had been crucial in the anti-Soviet insurgency but were not sufficiently pliable for Pakistani purposes.

Osama bin Laden, scion of perhaps the second wealthiest family in Saudi Arabia, had originally made his name helping to organise funding and volunteers for the mujahideen. The Taliban were very much Wahhabi flavoured in their conception of Islam, yet another iteration of the endless round of Islamic reformist movements seeking to get back to the original, “pure” Islam; locked in the Islam-has-(literally)-all-the-key-answers side of Islam’s epistemic event horizon.

The Stillborn God

But Islam is not the answer to the problems of modern governance. No religion is; first because, even within a single religion, getting agreement on what the religion actually requires in various situations is impossible except through the operation of violence. The lesson Europe mostly took from the Wars of Religion of c.1524-c.1648. Hence Latin Christendom becoming Western civilisation–adding in Graeco-Roman classicism and science as civilisation-defining characteristics. The great task of the Enlightenment.

Ali beheading war captive Nadr ibn al-Harith in the presence of Prophet after the battle of Badr.

Ali beheading war captive and satirical poet Nadr ibn al-Harith in the presence of Prophet after the battle of Badr.

Second, because modern governance deals with a host of, literally, entirely new questions, or old questions recast in very different contexts. Third, because the most successful development path is through the evolution of the social bargaining state; which requires a certain minimal civility and mutual acceptance that strong reliance on religious identities gets in the way of. If the infidel “pollutes” what they touch–as with Asia Bibi and sipping water–there is not much grounds for social bargaining.

Which is precisely where the Taliban strategy ran into deep problems. Osama bin Laden was appalled at the al-Saud calling in infidel troops (US, British, French) to defend itself against Saddam Hussein’s aggression. The House of Saud claims the title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques“, while the core of Arabia is supposed to be the land of only one religion. The use of infidel forces “polluted” holy Arabia and meant, according to bin Laden et al, that the al-Saud had forfeited their status as defenders of the heartland of Islam. A classic case of religious identity precluding social bargaining, albeit of the international variety.

So, al-Qaeda struck at the “near enemy” (al-Saud) by striking at the “far enemy” and the Two Towers fell. The US response to the jihadi taking out two buildings was to take out two countries. Starting with bin Laden’s haven of Afghanistan.


Which put Pakistan, and particularly the Pakistani military, in a very difficult spot. If the US blamed Pakistan, it had an obvious ally for military action. One that had its own nasty experiences of Pakistani-based Islamic militancy; including an attack on the Indian Parliament a mere two months later, which came close to provoking an Indo-Pakistani war all on its own.

So, Pakistan essentially played a double game. President Musharaff publicly signed on to the “war on terror”. Meanwhile, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) continued to maintain links with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Including, it turned out, providing a haven for bin Laden himself, part of a much wider pattern of support for violent Muslim militants. But what would one expect from the intelligence services of a military which defines itself as the coercive arm of “Muslim-not-India”?

Those who complain that the Obama Administration simply snatched and killed bin Laden rather than “going through proper channels” (i.e. requesting extradition) have no understanding of Pakistan. It is not a rule of law country. Any official response, or even unofficial request or notification, would have immediately resulted in bin Laden being tipped off and vanishing again. The Obama Administration would have been publicly crucified for its naivety and stupidity–almost certainly becoming a one-term Presidency.

Fake ally, real enemy

In the end, the insoluble issue of the Afghanistan intervention has not been Afghanistan itself; it has been being saddled with an “ally” that is actually, functionally, an enemy–as this magazine article by New York Times journalist Carlotta Gall explains. She covered Afghanistan and Pakistan for the NYT from 2001 to 2013 and has now written a book on the conflict. That bin Laden had been, and remained, an ally of the ISI is a basic thesis of the book, with bin Laden regularly travelling around and being waved through checkpoints.

But what do you do about a nuclear-armed polity of 182m which is more of a pathology than a functioning state? Both the Bush and Obama Administrations had reasons to go along with Pakistan’s double game; for public admission of the problem would create huge pressure for a public response.

So, what do you do? Kill bin Laden, declare victory and go home. But that is not a solution, it is at least as much an evasion as a response. If the Taliban end up reconquering Afghanistan because the Pakistani state is still helping them, and the Afghani state is not strong enough to stop them, it will be seen in the jihadi circles as a great victory. A victory that will not satisfy, but will encourage.

Carlotta Gall’s bleak conclusion is:

When I remember the beleaguered state of Afghanistan in 2001, I marvel at the changes the American intervention has fostered: the rebuilding, the modernity, the bright graduates in every office. Yet after 13 years, more than a trillion dollars spent, 120,000 foreign troops deployed at the height of the war and tens of thousands of lives lost, Afghanistan’s predicament has not changed: It remains a weak state, prey to the ambitions of its neighbors and extremist Islamists. This is perhaps an unpopular opinion, but to pull out now is, undeniably, to leave with the job only half-done.

Meanwhile, the real enemy remains at large.

The previous Western involvement in Afghanistan bore dreadful fruit because the West lost interest after the Soviets went home. If the Taliban strategy ends up succeeding despite over a decade of US-led military effort, what might they then be emboldened to try?

Built-in Imperialism: an era of farcical return

By Lorenzo

Alexis de Tocqueville and Friedrich Nietzsche both scored well in prognostication. De Tocqueville famously wrote in the 1830s:

There are now two great nations in the world which, starting from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans. … The American fights against natural obstacles; the Russian is at grips with men. The former combats the wilderness and barbarism; the latter, civilization with all its arms. America’s conquests are made with the plowshare, Russia’s with the sword. To attain their aims, the former relies on personal interest and gives free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of individuals. The latter in a sense concentrates the whole power of society in one man. One has freedom as the principal means of action; the other has servitude. Their point of departure is different and their paths diverse; nevertheless, each seems called by some secret desire of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.

Which may seem a little rough on the Amerindians, but the reality is that they were massively outbred and they could be, and were, suppressed by, at most, battalion-sized actions. It was just another version of the story of the last 10,000 years–hunter-gatherers being overwhelmed by farmers and pastoralists. Merely better recorded, with the innovation of retrospective guilt.

Here is Nietzsche in Untimely Meditations (II 9) in the 1870s:

If the doctrines of the sovereign Becoming, of the fluidity of all … species, of the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal … are hurled into the people for another generation … then nobody should be surprised when … brotherhoods with the aim of the robbery and exploitation of the non-brothers … will appear on the arena of the future.

Fascism, Nazism and Leninism would qualify. Especially given what each took from Darwinism.

Marx, on the other hand, was a famously dreadful prognosticator. His immiseration thesis spectacularly failed, the problem being that the more capital per worker, the scarcer workers are relative to capital, so the higher wages are. Since capital is inherently wedded to exploitation in Marx’s conception, the implication is that the more prosperous workers are, the more “exploited” they are: at which point we have to agree with Inigo Montoya–that word, it does not mean what you think it means. That Marx talked about capital “accumulating” leads to such errors, since capital is created (or not) by human action, not mechanical processes. By separating the origin of capital from creative human action (and the embedded complexity of social relations), he impoverished his own analysis, along with that of anyone who took this “capital accumulates” notion from him.

But Marx did have that great line, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, that:

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

Second time as farce

Which brings us to Vladimir Putin. Boris Johnson brilliantly captured Putin as low-rent Stalin, which I cannot hope to match and will not try. Though it does make Marx’s quote all the more apt. Putin’s immediate strategy is bulls-eyed by Michael J Totten:

Keeping his former Ukrainian vassal out of NATO will be easy now even if a militant anti-Russian firebrand comes to power in Kiev. The Crimean referendum—whether it was free and fair or rigged is no matter—creates a disputed territory conflict that will never be resolved in Ukraine’s favor. It will freeze and fester indefinitely. There isn’t a chance that NATO would accept a member that has a disputed territory conflict with Russia. No chance at all. Ukraine is as isolated as it could possibly be from the West without getting re-absorbed into Russia entirely.

It also perfectly in keeping with the principle of Russian foreign policy enunciated by George Kennan and quoted by Totten:

The jealous and intolerant eye of the Kremlin can distinguish, in the end, only vassals and enemies, and the neighbors of Russia, if they do not wish to be one, must reconcile themselves to being the other.

Though triumphantly “getting back” the Crimea, which was originally incorporated into the Russian empire in 1783, has the farcical element Boris Johnson so beautifully picked up on.

That the Crimean Khanate had been a major slave-trading power, shipping maybe 2 million Slav slaves into Islam from 1500-1700–the last great slave raid being in 1769 with the capture of 20,000 slaves–points to the long Russian experience of open frontier as threat. The lesson of Russian history that the weak are victims is one it keeps inflicting on its neighbours; rather like an abused child becoming an abusive adult.

Nationalism as imperialism

Which leads to the second principle of Russian history–nationalism and imperialism are deeply interwoven. As they are in English and American history, but redeemed and limited by other principles. The English diaspora does not create a problem of irredentism (tending, as they do, to reside in states they founded), and there is no American diaspora: they are the place diasporas go to and lose any territoriality except a shared American one. Hence the joke that if all the Germanic generals and admirals had been fighting on the same side in Hitler’s war, (or, for that matter, the Kaiser’s) the Germans would have won.  (Pershing, Eisenhower, Nimitz, Spaatz, Eichelberger …)

The Conquest of Siberia by Vasily Sunikov: the original is enormous.

The Conquest of Siberia by Vasily Sunikov: the original is enormous.

The surging Russian imperial-nation-state pushed forward Russian settlers in all directions. With the Soviet collapse, Russian minorities were left in neighbouring successor-states, potential objects for intervention in the name of a nationalism which is also an imperialism. This was precisely the situation regarding Germans that Hitler exploited in the lead up to his war, an analogy Hillary Clinton recently pointed out. For, without the protection of the Russian state, such minorities are weak and therefore victims; and if they are victims, that is both an insult to the Russian state and a sign of its weakness, and so impending victimhood. For if Russia is not strong, it has nothing.

A fearful grandiosity

Which is the third principle of Russian history. A search for, and clinging to, some grand mission and destiny that elevates it beyond being a backward reflection of higher achieving societies. Hence Moscow as Third Rome, or bastion of Orthodoxy, or Revolutionary state, or, in Putin’s conception, champion of traditional values. (Thus is queer-bashing as substitute for Jew-bashing; a principle that the Catholic Church also follows–Islam is more traditional, and does both.) The national ego is puffed up in order to hide the desperate fear that Russia profoundly lacks what others have. A sort of malignant national narcissism.

Which makes Putin the narcissist-in-chief, seeking to embody the principle that strength=power=authority and strutting the world stage as the strongman embodying Russia’s glorious destiny. Which apparently involves regaining Crimea, originally conquered 230 years ago, and dealing with a Ukraine, whose autonomy Catherine the Great abolished in 1764. This is glorious destiny as re-run farce.

Made all the more farcical by collapsing fertility (1.34) and bride-exporting. The economic vigour of China contrasts sadly with Russia’s hydrocarbon fragility. De Tocqueville’s moment of polarisation between Russia and the US has passed. China is the waking giant, Russia a shrunken one likely to shrink further (at least demographically).

Religion as imperialism

Russia is not the only inbuilt imperialism that is engaging in a farcical re-run. Imperialism is also built into the origins and history of Islam. Islam started as an imperial religion, just as Sharia started as an imperial legal system. Sharia is not a legal system just for believers, it is the law of God, the sovereign of the universe. For a sincere believer, it is not only superior to every other legal system, it should dominate them.

Up until the Battle of Vienna (1683: though the 1529 siege of Vienna was probably the Ottoman high point) and the death of Aurangzeb (1707), the last great Mughal emperor, Islam aggressed against every culture and civilisation it came up against, with the Reconquista being the only permanent retreat until that time. (And is one of al-Qaeda’s grievances against the West: no, really.)

Battle of Vienna by Pauwel Casteels.

Battle of Vienna by Pauwel Casteels.

Such aggression including the aforementioned slave trade based on raiding the infidel; a process entirely in accord with Sharia. One of the issues for Charles I and spending money on the Royal Navy, was to stop the Barbary pirates slave raiding into the British Isles. Even the Atlantic slave trade “piggybacked” on long-running Islamic slave trade with West Africa: the Saharan passage was every bit as horrid as the Atlantic passage, with the skeletons of slaves who had died walking across the Sahara marking the routes of the slave caravans. (That slave women were incorporated as concubines and enslaved males were frequently castrated greatly reduced any tendency to create former-slave minorities in Islam.)

Retreat and re-run

After the Battle of Vienna and the death of Aurangzeb began the long retreat of Islam as ruling religion, as European states either liberated themselves from Muslim rule or conquered Muslim territories or established various levels of domination over them. (In the case of Russia, the process was a combination of all three.) With the postwar retreat from territorial empires (extending eventually even to the Soviet Empire), Muslim states gained or regained their independence.

Sharia certified

Sharia certified

Hence the jihadi push to return to “business as proper”–that is, imperialism against the infidel. But flying the planes of the infidel into buildings built by the infidel, or blowing up the odd bus or train, may be spectacular, but is not remotely in the same league as past great waves of Islamic conquest. This is imperialism as farce; which only has any scope for danger beyond spectacular, but localised, massacre by the threat potentials of modern technology.

Muslim migration into the West does invoke the spread of Muslim via trade routes into the Malay world, but there Sharia was an advantage, since it provided superior commercial law to what was available locally. Moreover, converting to Islam created an identity to resist the Christian European colonisers.

Without creating wildly implausible demographic scenarios, Muslim migration in the West is not likely to have any similar transformative effect. Rather, the effect is more likely to be the other way; with the migrants absorbing Western habits and mores. There is a problem in Europe particularly with second generation males, but it is still a minority effect within a minority.

Solvents exist

The inbuilt imperialisms of Russia and of Islam have been, and will continue to, create problems and alarums. But their re-run imperialisms-as-farce can be dealt with much more easily than the original versions, provided a certain level of clear-headed good sense prevails.

So, no pretence that we are not dealing with inbuilt imperialisms. But also no pretence that every Russian or Muslim has signed on for the re-runs. Or that the modern world lacks solvents for such patterns.

The joy of a peaceful society

By Lorenzo

On Wednesday evening, I was in the Melbourne CBD, coming from a regular (second Wednesday of the month) dinner-and-talk meeting. The talk had been on the Turks Head Club, a weekly dinner group that originally met at the Turks Head Tavern in Gertrude St, Soho, organised by friends of, and centred around, Dr Samuel Johnson.

The dining club was founded 250 years ago and during Johnson’s life included such folk as Joshua Reynolds, painter; Edmund Burke, writer & MP; Oliver Goldsmith, writer, poet and playwright; David Garrick, actor; Adam Smith, philosopher and political economist; Edward Gibbon, historian & MP; Charles James Fox, MP;  and, of course, James Boswell, Johnson’s biographer.

Click here to see who is who.

Click here to see who is whom.

The group included Tories and Whigs, devout Christians and Enlightenment sceptics. Thus, folk who were on opposite sides of great issues of the day. It bridged the worlds of letters and practical politics. It was the creation of a free, vibrant and prosperous society. It epitomised why Britain was the land of the sceptical Enlightenment; open, enquiring and pragmatic.

France had its salons, but private dining clubs were effectively illegal, since they could not be spied on by the government. Ruled by a patchwork absolutism, there was no open, practical politics of election, public deliberation and bargaining. The world of letters was largely cut off from politics, and developed a fervid grandiosity as a result. Hence France being the home of the radical Enlightenment; dogmatic, self-important, utopian, grandiose. Which have remained enduring features of French intellectual life.

One might argue that the French Revolution was not like the Glorious Revolution because there was no replacement monarch(s) whose legitimacy could be bound in a new Revolutionary Settlement. But then the question becomes why was the French Revolution not like the American Revolution? The American Revolution generated more emigres than did the French Revolution, both absolutely and proportionately, yet failed to dwindle into the politics of the guillotine and tyranny. Nor did it replace one autocracy with a more efficient (and more grandiose) one.

But the American revolutionaries had already experienced practical politics and its habits of social bargaining via electoral and deliberative assembly politics in colonial legislatures. They sought the protected liberties to act, not the “correct” virtue to impose. “No taxation without representation” was a brilliant slogan because it precisely expressed the notion that folk should be included in the political bargaining process. And yes, the revolting colonies wanted to keep their slaves, which British legal processes seem to threaten, and loot Amerindian land, which the Crown stood in the way of.

But they were also correct in that having an Imperial Parliament they had no representation in making crucial decisions for them was a violation of the principles of the Revolutionary Settlement and of local colonial practice. It was those deeper, and practical, principles that made the American Revolution come to mean much more than a land grab. And the contradiction between life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness versus people-as-property was eventually, if bloodily, resolved. Besides, the vibrant, free and prosperous society which created such a thing as the dining club at the Turks Head Club–in its way, an expression of Burke’s “little platoons“–had achieved that out of its own history of blood and strife.

The answer to Hannah Arendt‘s question of why people have sought to replicate the French Revolution, which failed, and not the American Revolution, which succeeded, is that revolutions since have generally not taken place in polities where such habits of practical social bargaining are entrenched. Plus the self-important grandiosity of the rule of virtue has more visceral appeal, particularly to frustrated intellectuals.

Fortunately, such politics have rarely been more than parlour games in the Anglosphere. As I stepped out into the streets of the CBD, there suddenly began this serious of very loud bangs and crashes. Fairly clearly explosions. But no one looked startled or fearful. It was, of course, just fireworks on the Yarra. But that is the joy of a peaceful society. You hear sudden bangs and crashes and you assume some innocuous, peaceful purpose–such as fireworks, or demolition prior to construction. And you are correct.


Fireworks on the Yarra River

The toast of the dining club founded 250 years ago was esto perpetua, may it be eternal. Uttered by Fra Paolo Sarpi, Venetian scholar, scientist and patriot, it referred to his hopes that the Serene Republic of Venice would always be independent. Well, the Venetian Republic lasted a thousand years, making it easily the longest lived republic in history, before falling victim to Napoleon. Who looted the city.

Eternity is not given to human things. But hope is also a human thing. So, to the peaceable society, let us toast: esto perpetua!

Constrained by God: an epistemic event horizon

By Lorenzo

Reading about inadvertent patterns created by Islam brings to mind how adaptability is an advantage in a civilisation. While it is true that religious belief can be something of a moveable feast, it is nevertheless true that religious doctrine–particularly text-based religious doctrine within monotheism–can be a powerful and continuing constraint.

This is particularly obvious in Islam. In the C12th ibn Jubayr (1145-1217) wrote the following about the Franj (Franks, i.e. Christian crusaders):

Upon leaving Tibin (near Tyre), we passed through an unbroken skein of farms and villages whose lands were efficiently cultivated. The inhabitants were all Muslims, but they live in comfort with the Franj—may God preserve us from temptation! Their dwellings belong to them and all their property is unmolested. All the regions controlled by the Franj in Syria are subject to this same system: the landed domains, villages, and farms have remained in the hands of the Muslims. Now, doubt invests the heart of a great number of these men when they compare their lots to that of their brothers living in Muslim territory. Indeed, the latter suffer from the injustice of their coreligionists, whereas the Franj act with equity.

His response was not “let us learn from these people” but “and that’s why they must be smashed”. A response we see repeated within contemporary Islam. Dramatically in the case of Israel, but also about the West generally.

The notion that submission to the revelations of God puts one in a different class of person from those who do not blocks information in a systematic way. It creates a crippled epistemology (pdf). It undermines the adaptability of one’s civilisation.

It creates a serious and longstanding problem within Islam. Within 50 years of the development of Gutenberg’s press, the printing press had spread across Latin Christendom. It took over three centuries for it to spread from the Christian north of the Mediterranean to the Muslim south. Even when the printing press did spread to the Muslim world, it was blocked from printing in Turkish or Arabic due to the objection of Muslim clerics. The publication of scientific works in post-Reformation Catholic countries was hampered by local clerical authority over the license to print, but the effect was nowhere near as restrictive. In part, because printing could just shift to Protestant Europe.


After the early Islamic surge, Islam became remarkably uncurious about other civilisations–hence the Muslim world translating fewer foreign books in a millennia than a single Christian country (Spain) does in a year. Even now, the entire Arab world translates about a fifth of the foreign books each year as does Greece.

An epistemic black hole

A certain conception of God became dominant within mainstream Islam, thanks particularly to al-Ghazali (1058-1111). He, more than anyone else, is responsible for the closing of the Muslim mind. His is perhaps the most powerful example of ideas having consequences, for he entrenched two views which had already been latent in Islam but now became dominant.

(1) That revelation constitutes the good–that morality is whatever God says it is and has no existence beyond His Will.

(2) That there is no independent structure to the universe beyond what God wills; that whatever regularities we see are merely the habits of God which He can change at any time.

These two propositions constitute a sort of philosophical black hole; a religious event horizon beyond which reasoning cannot take you as long as you accept those two premises. Theology trumps both morality and metaphysics and does so on the grounds that anything less is a blasphemous restriction of God’s omnipotence and transcendence. There is no independent grounds on which to reason about morality or the nature and structure of the world. In particular, causality has no existence beyond the will and habits of God.

After Maimonides (1135-1204) and Aquinas (1225-1274), Judaism and Latin Christendom were in quite different situations. In both cases, the acceptance of Aristotelian philosophy provided the good with an independent existence. The good was not the good because God willed it, God willed it because He was Good.

Similarly, the world had patterns and structures, and things in the world had their natures, in themselves. God had created all, but he had created patterns and structures. He was the ground of causality, the unmoved mover; causality was not His wilful plaything. Metaphysically speaking, God was a constitutional monarch, ruling over an ordered universe.

Statues of two great Aristotelians in Cordoba: Averroes (ibn Rushd) and Maimonides. Both influential in Latin Christendom, neither in Islam.

Statues of two great Aristotelians in Cordoba: Averroes (ibn Rushd) (1126-1198) and Maimonides (1135-1204). Both influential in Latin Christendom, minimally so in Islam.

If the good had independent existence, if the world had structures and patterns in itself, then both could be reasoned about without reference to God. Theology may have been the medieval queen of the sciences, but other disciplines had their own reference points and legitimacy. Medieval scholasticism provided a bridge to the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment.

Mainstream Islam has no such bridge. Instead, it is stuck in constant re-reruns of the Reformation, in the search, via scriptures which ultimately have trumping authority, for how to get submission to God correct. That C7th Arabia really is the manifestation of the ultimately correct social order.

Remembering that the Qu’ran is the direct word of God, eternal and uncreated. It is not like Jewish or Christian scriptures, which operate through human intermediaries. The Jewish and Christian understanding of scripture opens up analysis of the structure of scripture in worldly terms in a way that Islam has never done or been seriously open to. The difference between scripture as human-intermediated manifestations in an ordered universe versus scripture as world-trumping direct manifestation of divinity in a world which has no independent existence or legitimacy beyond the habits and Will of God.

In Christendom, law is a human institution. In Judaism, accepting its role as permanent minority, God’s law is for the community of the Chosen, who accept the strictures of the laws of the societies they live in. In Islam, law is yet another manifestation of the authority of God, of His complete sovereignty.

All of which means it is a path to great misunderstanding to see Islam and Christendom as two parts of the one civilisation. They may both be civilisations of the One God, but very different principles and understandings underpin Western and Islamic civilisations.

Westerners are children of the Enlightenment (and the reactions to it) and of God as constitutional monarch. Political adults who can make and unmake law themselves.

Mainstream Islam is based on profoundly different presumptions. Adherents live in a world where law, morality and metaphysics (particularly causality) have no authority or existence beyond the revelation, will and habits of God. Which makes the moral universe of Islam very different from that of the West, with the difference tending to widen over the past century or so, not narrow.

Medieval differences

Ibn Jubayr’s contrast between Muslim peasants under the Franj and under their fellow Muslims was the result of Sharia. In Christendom, law was a human thing. So primogeniture could evolve, allowing mounted armoured warriors to be landholders, as primogeniture kept landholding unified (so large enough to supported a mounted armoured warrior) with the oldest son inheriting the lot (someone likely to be old enough to defend the landholdings) and providing a simple inheritance rule. Thus, the warrior elite had an interest in the productivity of the land and in productive, long-term relations with peasants. So crusader knights sought productive relations with their Muslim peasants.

In Islam, Sharia had strict inheritance laws, requiring sharing out amongst children. Warriors could not be given land grants in the sense of land ownership, since such grants would rapidly fall below the size able to support a mounted armoured warrior. So the iqta, tuyul, timar or jagir tax-fief evolved instead. Descriptions of them as “land grants” are highly misleading. If they were land grants, they would be subject to Sharia inheritance laws; the entire point of the evolution of these tax-holdings was to avoid that. Instead, the holder collected taxes from the grant. They were thus a public function, not private property within the meaning of Sharia, and so not subject to its inheritance strictures.

The new landowners move into Jerusalem

The new landowners move into Jerusalem

Since they were only tax-collectors and, particularly early on, the tax-collection grants were entirely revocable, the connection to the local peasants and the productivity of the land was much weaker than with Western knights. Hence the pattern ibn Jubayr noticed, of the land-holding knights treating their (Muslim) peasants better than did the tax-holding Muslim warriors.

More broadly, the Christian warrior elite had far more interest in the economic and commercial development of their society than did the Muslim warrior elite. Moreover, the Christian warrior elite represented a more difficult political management problem than did the Muslim warrior elite, requiring the development of more sophisticated social bargaining mechanisms. Conversely, the Christian warrior elite had a broader interest in social order, from being embedded in the legal system (in Islam, a matter of muftis and qadis) to upholding the principle of primogeniture, than did the Muslim warrior elite. The Christian warrior elite had long run social stakes to bargain about. The fratricidal civil wars that marked (almost every single) ruler succession in Islam were much less common in Christendom.

muslim rage

Which left ibn Jubayr with a dilemma. The patterns of the Franj could only be copied by accepting law not theologically endorsed. Something of a cosmic insult, that. Smashing what did not fit was much more satisfactory. Contemporary Muslim, particularly Arab, attitudes to Israel typically display the same patterns. So, if somewhat more mutedly, do attitudes to the West.

So, Christendom did not only operate on very different motivating principles, it also had profoundly different institutional evolution. Islam and the West are not two halves of the same civilisation. And Islam is still struggling to get out of its epistemic event horizon; hence its enduring problems with modernity.


The world has changed

By Lorenzo

A strain of thought I have noticed over the years with reference to international relations is “the world has changed” line: that circumstances have become so different that past fears or concerns are no longer germane to present realities. So much so, that such fears and concerns themselves have become the “real” problem.

Two cases where I have particularly come across it are the founding/continuation of Israel and concerns of neighbouring states about Russia. On this line of thought, the founding of the Jewish state was an unfortunate mistake and its continuation as a specifically Jewish state is an error. Similarly, the wish of Russian neighbours to draw closer to the West, either via joining NATO or the EU, is mistaken in that it just raises Russian fears and so perpetuates patterns that would die if said neighbours were more reasonable. Just as Arab responses are held to be “inflamed” by the existence of Israel.


The first thing to note is that it treats Arabs and Russians like children; squalling adolescents who have to be mollified and who are not really responsible if sufficiently “provoked”. So, any continuation of past behaviour does not tell us anything about them or their societies, it’s the fault of their neighbours for failing to “manage” them properly.

Strangely, this sort of logic does not get applied to, say, the United States.

Another effect of this reasoning, is that there is nothing that happens that will be permitted to justify the concerns of Jews or of Russia’s neighbours. If Arabs or Russians misbehave, it is not because said concerns were justified, it is due to provocation, to failure to “manage” them.

Which is remarkable scapegoating, really. But it also has the effect of shielding the believer in “but the world has changed” line from any danger of being, well, wrong.

One sees, for example, the notion that Palestinian targeting of Jewish civilians is classic “asymmetric” warfare. The problem with that argument is that attacks on Jewish civilians predate the creation of Israel. What was “asymmetric” about any conflict then? Surely an alternative way of looking at the question is why persist with a strategy that has never worked for you, that has only driven your cause backwards? But that is a question you ask of adults (or potential adults), not permanent adolescents.


NATO enlargement

The original principle of Zionism was that Jews were not safe in Europe. Well, that turned out to be spectacularly true. Israel was founded a mere 3 years after the end of the Holocaust. Were Jews really meant to “come to their senses” in that time, to see that “the world had changed”?

Which was not the view of Jews in the Arab world, who fled to Israel and the West in large numbers. An experience which is either written out of history, or blamed on Zionism (the Arabs would not have misbehaved if it were not for …). Even though the mistreatment of Jews predated the creation of Israel. Nor is it merely a matter of specifically anti-Jewish massacres such as the Farhud in Iraq in 1941; the Hamidian massacres and Assyrian and Armenian genocides were hardly reassuring for any minority.

Since then, the experience of Lebanon, still less of Sudan, has also hardly been reassuring for the notion of mixed states in the Arab world. Nor has the experience of, say, the Copts in Egypt.

Now, we are seeing a Christian exodus from the Middle East. Predictably, also blamed on the existence of Israel. But that is what “the world has changed” line allows one to do: draw a line where not only does past history not count but neither does present behaviour; at least not for the folk for whom convenient scapegoats have been lined up.

It may also lead believers in “the world has changed” to mock concerns which turn out to be somewhat prescient. Sarah Palin in 2008 was mocked for suggesting a Russian invasion of the Ukraine was a possibility; while Romney seems to have read Russian policy rather better than President Obama. A Crimean crisis later, perhaps a little less scoffing would have been in order.

So, perhaps the world has not changed in the ways suggested. Perhaps Russian behaviour in past centuries does gives us an insight into the contemporary behaviour of the Russian state. Perhaps the never-goes-away Arab self-image as God’s master race does continue to operate. Perhaps the inevitably fraught interaction between that latent (and not so latent) view, and the frustrations and temptations of modernity, were always going to be problematic for vulnerable minorities, unless they have something like the IDF to defend them. (A role that Arab Christians seem to be appreciating.) The Arab world has 5% of the world’s population but generates 53% of its refugees, according to a recent UN report on Arab integration.

Two Bedouin Arab IDF soldiers

Two Bedouin Arab IDF soldiers

In which case, it is reasonable for otherwise vulnerable people and states to seek ways of becoming less vulnerable and better protected. After all, both the Sunni Arabs in Iraq and the Alawites in Syria concluded that the only safe strategy to being a minority was to seize the state themselves. Whatever the long-run outcomes, it was not a foolish belief; as subsequent events have demonstrated.

In both Syria and Iraq, minority-protection-through-state-domination was pursued through “secular” Ba’ath ideology. But in the Arab Middle East, “secular” can be just a way to obscure minority rule; or rule by military rather than mosque; or both. It is also why Arab nationalism has been a cause often taken up by Arab Christians, to elevate a common identity with Arab Muslims. Usually, however, by agreeing in the alienness of Jews. Not a path that has worked all that well; the Christians just became the next target in line.

Regarding the case of Israel, which is at least a Jewish majority state, and a democratic one at that, given that Palestinian politics only offers the corruption of Fatah or the fanaticism of Hamas, why would any Jew want to share a state with such? (Indeed, quite a few Israeli Arabs aren’t keen either.) Just as all the Russian state offers is authoritarian corruption. (And sprucing national identity is a tried and true misdirection from other issues.) But expecting better behaviour is also an expectation for moral adults.

A recent UN report on Arab integration can’t help but talk about Israel/Palestine with the normal “it’s all Israel/Zionism’s fault” grievance rhetoric. That most Arab countries do not permit Palestinians to become citizens–an obvious barrier to Arab integration one would have thought–does not seem worth a mention. (It has long been far easier for a Palestinian to become a citizen of the US or Australia than most Arab countries.) But keeping Palestinians as permanent refugees, as permanent sticks to beat Israel with, is the point. Hence third and fourth-generation “refugees”.

Israel is also a very successful Middle Eastern state: perhaps worth learning a thing or two from? For example, how Israel was built, how Jewish refugees are integrated into Israeli society, why Israel is freer and more prosperous. But that would be an adult thing to do. Permanent adolescents don’t ever get beyond pointing and whining; even when doing so would far better suit their cause.

But, then, being God’s master race may get in the way of learning from lesser beings. Back in the C12th, ibn Jubayr noted that the Franj (i.e. crusader knights) treated their Muslim peasants better than the Muslim warriors did theirs. Rather than suggesting that his fellow Muslims learn from that, his response was “and that’s why they have to be smashed”. It is a real burden, being God’s master race.

Believing the world has changed can be a very comforting belief. Especially when your analysis is organised so you can never be wrong. But putting entire peoples in the role of permanent adolescents, forever shielded from the role of being moral adults, is not a place worth going to.

NOTE: Since Israel/Palestine always threatens to become a Thread of Doom, civility and relevance will be particularly stringently policed in comments.

Historical analogies

By Lorenzo

The crisis in the Crimea has folk reaching for their historical analogies. Taking the most directly resonant one, the original Crimean War (1853-1856) was about blocking Russian ambitions towards the decaying Ottoman Empire, which then controlled most of the Middle East. The Russo-Turkish interaction had huge strategic implications. Russia-Ukraine, not so much.

The Appeasement analogy

Then we come to the most dramatic and fraught analogy, which is the policy of Appeasement towards Hitler, taking “allowing” Russia to grab Crimea as analogous to handing over the Sudetenland to Hitler. Regarding that analogy, the crucial happening between the Munich Agreement of September 1938 and the Anglo-French declaration of war in September 1939 was Nazi Germany’s occupation and incorporation of “Bohemia and Moravia” in March 1939, which made it clear that Hitler’s ambitions extended way beyond reunification of ethnically German-occupied lands. Hence the Anglo-French guarantee to Poland.

Final French assault captures Sevastapol.

Final French assault captures Sevastapol.

If Hitler’s ambitions had been so limited to reuniting Germans, the Munich diktat (Czechoslovakia was not invited to participate in decisions about its future) would now seem a successful piece of realpolitik. The question about Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement was whether it was clear before Nazi Germany’s occupation of the Czech lands in March 1939 how unlimited Hitler’s ambitions were. Churchill picked it, Chamberlain didn’t.

So, Chamberlain threw away an ally (Czechoslovakia) without defusing the underlying causes of dispute, because he couldn’t unless he was prepared to hand over as much of Eastern Europe to Germany as Hitler wanted to try and grab. And Chamberlain did so without successfully signalling that Hitler could trigger war with the Anglo-French by actions in Eastern Europe. Which weakens the “he bought time for further re-armanent” argument.

So, the question is; how extensive are Putin’s ambitions? Are clear signals being sent about what limits exist? (Lack of such clear signals were likely a factor in the outbreak of the Korean War, for example.) As for reassessing Appeasement in the light of the current Crimean crisis, the most one can say is that the uncertainty Chamberlain was dealing with becomes clearer. To which the response is–Churchill picked the nature of Hitler when Chamberlain did not.

Russian enclaves

Let us take the view that Putin’s ambitions do not extend beyond Russian nationalism. As Simon Schuster points out in Time, even that narrow view of Putin’s ambitions make the Crimean crisis one with fairly horrifying implications for Russia’s neighbours, most of which have some Russian minority: 

What likely worries Russia’s neighbors most is the statement the Kremlin made on March 2, after Putin spoke on the phone with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “Vladimir Putin noted that in case of any escalation of violence against the Russian-speaking population of the eastern regions of Ukraine and Crimea, Russia would not be able to stay away and would resort to whatever measures are necessary in compliance with international law.” This sets a horrifying precedent for all of Russia’s neighbours. Every single state in the former Soviet Union, from Central Asia to the Baltics, has a large Russian-speaking population, and this statement means that Russia reserves the right to invade when it feels that population is threatened. 

Perhaps the rational thing to do for their long-term strategic safety is what Germany’s neighbours did in 1944-50 with their German minorities–expel all their Russians. Except, of course, by 1945 Germany was devastated and occupied and in no position to object.

A quote on Russian history which is getting cited is George Kennan‘s famous line that:

Russia can have at its borders only enemies or vassals.

But that is not an analogy as such, it is a derived principle of Russian history, which Putin seems to be living up to. Again, as it was invoked about the Russian-Georgian unpleasantness.

So, this is where historical analogies are useful. They do not provide answers, but they can help formulate the right questions. The error is in supposing that historical analogies come with answers attached: then you are not analysing the actual situation, you are letting past experiences (or, at least, particular takes on past experiences) trump present realities.

The fight for the right to outcast

By Lorenzo

Modern societies are not made of sturdy yeoman farmers, able to provide most things for ourselves. We live in highly interdependent societies, dependant on the civility of strangers for all manner of basic amenities and elementary comforts. Nor do we all live in large, cosmopolitan cities, where another provider is just down the road. Nor is animus randomly distributed. On the contrary, there are quite systematic patterns to animus. Systematic patterns whose burdens fall very unevenly.

Which is why anti-discrimination law has grown up. Partly to signal that previous patterns of systematic animus are not acceptable any more, partly to give the targets of such systematic animus redress, partly to acknowledge their full membership of society. A range of reasons, all tied together by the reality of living in highly interdependent societies, dependant on the civility of strangers for all manner of basic amenities and elementary comforts.

In doing so anti-discrimination law clashes against an ethic, nowadays typically labelled libertarian, that was based in, and originally extolled, a society of sturdy yeoman farmers, able to provide most things for themselves; a source that is very far from how modern societies work.

Laws such as the recent proposed Kansas (pdf), TennesseeIdahoMississippi and Arizona (and similar) laws are not just generalised defences of religious liberty, they are also something much more specific. The proposed Kansas and Tennessee laws explicitly, and the proposed Arizona, Mississippi and two (pdf) Idaho (pdf) laws more subtly, attempt to enshrine in law that animus against gay folk is still just fine (as even supporters of the Arizona bill agree). To the extent that the second Idaho bill overwhelms freedom of association by effectively frustrating any organisations from making queer inclusiveness policy.

These laws, either in their explicit language or underlying effect, seek to use public policy to protect denying a specific group the elementary civility of strangers–and the amenities and comforts therefrom. To judge them not by the content of their character but by their membership of a category, for the category is deemed to signal their moral character.

This is a view that is collapsing across Western society generally and the US in particular–which no doubt explains why the mainstream Republican Party wants the Arizona bill to go away while major sporting bodies state their support for tolerance and inclusion. It helps provide an answer to the question:

How did we go from “Rasmussen Reports study found that ’85% Think Christian Photographer Has Right to Turn Down Same-Sex Wedding Job,’” to this huge outcry that Arizona is bigoted.

The right to outcast as a public policy looks very different from commercial freedom for individual businesses.

It is also why the rhetoric of segregation–including the term “gay Jim Crow laws“–is cropping up. Just as Jim Crow was about enshrining in law systematic animus against a category of people, these laws do not seek to protect the private realm of religious belief, as did the US Federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (provisions of the law are here [pdf].) Though that Act still ran into Fourteenth Amendment problems. Instead, these laws seek a religious entitlement to deny goods and services (including some very basic ones) to others: a rather different proposition. Religious liberty being defined as the right to outcast.

Which is where the libertarian defence of the more subtle right-to-outcast bills runs into difficulties.

Four business cases commonly cited were specifically about gay customers. For another way to look at anti-discrimination laws is that they are anti-outcasting laws. Is outcasting OK? is not the same question as whether such outcasting is effective. Still less is should particular forms of outcasting be legally protected? the same question. If the principle that one is trying to defend is that outcasting-by-category is not OK, then being told that such outcasting is not effective is not going to be a persuasive response.

When family is not a refuge

Particularly because the outcasting in question is part of religious outcasting that extends way beyond baking cakes or taking pictures for same-sex weddings. Such outcasting is about the horror and terror of being outcast by friends and family–by one’s own parents–in the name of God. It is about throw-away kids, cast out of hearth and home in the name of God. It is about despairing loneliness and rejection that leads to suicide. It is about a religious doctrine that, since sexuality is not chosen and manifests in adolescence (and elements even earlier) cannot be other than a form of child abuse. It is about being made to feel horrible about oneself. The fear (and for many the experience) of being told by one’s own parents that one is against God and nature. It is about being cast on the wrong side of a conception of “the natural” that is imposed on a much more complex human and biological reality in the name of truth, regardless of the human cost.

For queer folk, the experience of outcasting has an emotional resonance far deeper, and far more horrifying, than refusing to take photos or bake cakes for a wedding. For when people invoke God as the reason to do that, they are invoking a world of hurt and pain. Including denial that they are entitled to have a life of love and commitment, homosexuals being “called to celibacy” (a usage which is an abuse of the notion of a vocation or calling).

Which puts the anti-discrimination suits cited in defence of “religious liberty” in a clearer context. Yes, I wish they had not been brought if alternative providers were available, and yes there is an element of revenge in the entire debate, but it also about fighting for full status as members of society, a fight behind which lurks deeply personal and intimate emotional abysses of despair and rejection.

And if family is not a refuge, the yeoman-farmer ethic has even less resonance.

Targeting the vulnerable

For that is what make gays, and queer folk generally, such excellent targets for the gatekeepers of righteousness, such excellent targets for outcasting. Their vulnerability–growing up as isolated individuals in overwhelmingly straight families and social milieus–and that they are always with us. The war against human sexual and gender diversity is an endless war, so an endless prop for gatekeepers of righteousness.

Hence many religious folk taking the outcasting of gays as a benchmark of success or failure just as, in previous generations, outcasting Jews was a benchmark of success or failure.

As the post-Kansas backlash in particular, and wider trends more generally indicate, however, the usefully endless war against human sexual and gender diversity may not be so endless after all.

This is what the “religious freedom” legislative push looks like to an outsider. It starts with the Mississippi effort, which passes easily with no fuss. Too little fuss. So the effort shifts to the much more explicitly targeted Kansas and Idaho bills. But that generates far too much of a fuss, so the strategy shifts back to the Mississippi approach. Particularly when even a supporter can note provisions of the Arizona bill:

as fairly sure to generate unintended consequences and unexpected results.

But the backlash is so strong it overwhelms even the Arizona bill, threatening to overwhelm religious exemptions entirely.

Libertarian and conservative supporters of the not-gays-specifically-in-legislation legislation can indeed point to wider and ongoing issues about religious freedom. And it is true that there is a battle of the demagogues going on, in both directions.

Demagoguery made all the easier as there is no trust across the culture wars. Libertarians who try to bridge the gap by casting the issue as being commercial freedom dramatically fail to do so, either through bizarre naivety (such as suggesting that religious exemptions should be brought in along with same-sex marriage: the point is the outcasting, not some mutually acceptable modus vivendi) or because they really don’t get the much wider emotional significance for the targets of outcasting.

Part of what is going on is an ongoing display of lack of communication due to people coming from completely different social experiences and networks. (Including whether one is coming to the issue via reacting to the Kansas bill.) We are not societies of sturdy, independent yeoman farmers and family and community cannot be presumed to be refuges. For many folk, the state can be a protector from social predators and that is what they deeply wish it to be. At the very least, they do not want it to be a weapon for, or protector of, outcasting.

That word, it does not mean what you think it means

By Lorenzo

In US states such as Kansas, Idaho and Arizona a new legislative push is on to create a religious entitlement to treat (a specific group of) fellow American citizens like crap. What’s more, it is being paraded as a defence of religious liberty.

The process kicked off in Kansas, where the lower House passed House Bill No 2453 (pdf), whose short title is AN ACT concerning religious freedoms with respect to marriage. The bill would establish the legal right of any individual or religious organisation to refuse to provide any service to a same-sex couple, even if legally married in another US state provided, it is done on the basis of “sincerely held religious beliefs”. It would also ban any anti-discrimination suits by or on behalf of same-sex couples. The Bill passed the Kansas House of Representatives on 12 February 2014 72 votes to 49. (The Kansas Senate leadership appears, however, to have killed the bill; at least in its present form.)

Looking at this legislative push, this is religious “freedom” as entitlement: specifically, the right to outcast (i.e. my freedom means the right to punish you by denying you ordinary amenities of social life). If left wing folk attempt to engage in any form of outcasting, it is “political correctness” and wrong and evil. If religious folk do it in the name of God, however, it is righteous and should be legally protected. Religious “freedom” as entitlement.  Conservatives who buy into this are not against moral bullying, they just want the right to be the moral bullies.

Of course, it is even more hypocritical than that. If Muslim countries seek to engage in various forms of outcasting of Christians, that is also wrong and evil. So, it is not even outcasting in the name of God which is OK, it is such outcasting as {insert specific believers here}  want that is righteous and proper.

At which point, basic classical liberal principles about the indivisibility of freedom come into play.

Consider the basic provision of the Kansas bill:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no individual or religious entity shall be required by any governmental entity to do any of the following, if it would be contrary to the sincerely held religious beliefs of the individual or religious entity regarding sex or gender:

(a) Provide any services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges; provide counseling, adoption, foster care and other social services; or provide employment or employment benefits, related to, or related to the celebration of, any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement;

How easy it is to shift the focus:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no individual or religious entity shall be required by any governmental entity to do any of the following, if it would be contrary to the sincerely held beliefs of the individual or religious entity regarding compassion towards others:

(a) Provide any services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges; provide counseling, adoption, foster care and other social services; or provide employment or employment benefits, related to, or related to any form of political or religious activism that opposes equal protection of the law;

That is the political correctness version. Let us try another version:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no individual or religious entity shall be required by any governmental entity to do any of the following, if it would be contrary to the sincerely held religious beliefs of the individual or religious entity regarding submission to the will of God:

(a) Provide any services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges; provide counseling, adoption, foster care and other social services; or provide employment or employment benefits, related to, or related to the celebration of, any religious belief not involving submission to the will of God according to the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet;

The outcasting game, it is one anyone can play. This without changing the profound privileging involved in giving religious belief and religious entities special status. Let us just consider the profound privileging involved in permitting government employees (“any individuals”) to refuse government services to residents and citizens based on their religious belief. And to deny any possibility of legal remedy to do so — since the bill also bans anti-discrimination suits by or on behalf of same-sex couples. This is stripping one set of people of legal standing while creating a massive legal entitlement for others based on a huge sense of religious entitlement.

What makes it all even more blatantly an exercise in entitlement are comments by the Kansas Bill’s sponsor, one Representative Charles Macheers, who calls his Bill The Religious Liberties Protection Act:

Discrimination is horrible. It’s hurtful … It has no place in civilized society, and that’s precisely why we’re moving this bill. There have been times throughout history where people have been persecuted for their religious beliefs because they were unpopular. This bill provides a shield of protection for that.

But, apparently, refusing services to a same-sex couple is not discrimination. Presumably because queer folk are not real people within the conception of Charles Macheers, and so their aspirations and experiences therefore do not count. By banning anti-discrimination suits, the bill blocks courts from declaring such actions discrimination: a truly Orwellian touch.

Which is exactly how such moral exclusion is based on, and creates, an impoverished epistemology: it excludes a whole raft of experiences and facts from counting.

Been here, done that

Since moral exclusion has recurring dynamics, those knowledgeable in the patterns of Jew-hatred should be completely unsurprised to see that queer-hatred generates the same patterns. Just as Jews were castigated as this powerful threat to the Christian/national majority, so queers are a threat to the heterosexual majority. Folk such as Rush Limbaugh say so explicitly and this bill implicitly constructs a Christian majority has having to have its religious freedoms (which turn out to be religious entitlements) defended from a queer minority.


The smaller the minority, the more they have to be constructed as a profound threat in order to justify targeting them. Otherwise, it is blatantly a large majority bullying a small and vulnerable minority and the more utterly arbitrary the God who requires such appears to be. Where Jews were the maleficent minority with huge corrupting powers, now it is the queers. (Who will, for example, corrupt marriage, families and the social order if same-sex couples are permitted into the institution of marriage.)

With the sense of entitlement comes a sense of status: a sense of entitlement and status available to anyone who buys into it. Simply by being not a member of the outcast category, you become effortlessly virtuous, effortlessly entitled, effortlessly of higher status. You may be overweight, not pretty, poorly paid with few prospects, but you are still entitled and virtuous; superior to those God-denying and defying queers (or Jews, or whoever). You are entitled to your contempt and rage at the successful queer couple down the street or the pretty boy who is no doubt getting lots of sex.

The wonder is not that Jew-hatred and queer-hatred have been such easy sells: the wonder is, so may folk fail to buy into it.

Legal entitlement to target the vulnerable

The notion that specific outcasting of homosexual folk is something that the law is entitled to not merely allow people to do, but actually embody itself, has support in the US all the way up to the US Supreme Court and Mr Justice Scalia, as he has stated in public and in his written decisions. Scalia J talks in terms of disapproval of “homosexual conduct” because that is chosen, something people can refrain from doing. Attention is diverted away from the outcasts as people and to them as transgressors.

The fight is very much over defining who is, and who is not, “properly” human. As philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah puts it:

In much of Europe and North America, in places where a generation ago homosexuals were social outcasts and homosexual acts were illegal, lesbian and gay couples are increasingly being recognized by their families, by society and by the law. This is true despite the continued opposition of major religious groups and a significant and persisting undercurrent of social disapproval. Both sides make arguments, some good, most bad. But if you ask the social scientists what has produced this change, they will rightly not start with a story about reasons. They will give you a historical account that concludes with a sort of perspectival shift. The increasing presence of “openly gay” people in social life and in the media has changed our habits. And over the last 30 years or so, instead of thinking about the private activity of gay sex, many Americans and Europeans started thinking about the public category of gay people.

People are increasingly resisting the epistemological impoverishment of not seeing people as people, with experiences that matter and aspirations that are legitimate.

Denying protection

The distinctive thing about about bigotry is that it does not extend moral protections, it narrows, restricts and denies them. In particular, where it extends the ambit and intensity of moral concern about things and acts it does so in a way that narrows the moral coverage of actual people. It is why outcasting and moral exclusion are so much tied to priests and clerics and to those who aspire to secular equivalent status. Because the role of gatekeeper of righteous, of having the status and authority to say what status people do or do not have in the moral community–who is, or is not, within the moral community–is such a powerful one.


Creating taboos not only creates a sense of community, and a way of signalling belonging to said community, it also reinforces the special knowledge and insight of said gatekeepers by making things one would not otherwise consider morally significant or morally important, desperately so. Bigotry is always based on a theory, often a theory of the human or a theory of social order, and it is theory that excludes–giving authority to the alleged moral knowledge and understanding of the excluders and the status of righteousness to those who buy into the exclusion. So bigotry is also always a moral claim; a claim about who does, or does not, belong the moral community and with what standing.

And what greater sense of entitlement is there than to be able to say who is, or is not, properly human, to decide the standing of as full citizens or not? To declare that not everyone with a human face is human, or that some act defies God or forfeits one’s humanity or standing as a member of human society. There is a great sense of social power in having the law justify, exemplify and enforce one’s notion of who is outside the community. Doing so on a religious basis is very much about religious entitlement, not religious liberty. But their notion of liberty is to be so entitled.

And entitled in a way which restricts and blights the lives of others.

Scalia J

Scalia J

It may seem too strong a claim, that the standing as human of homosexuals is being denied or traduced. But it is not. For if homosexual desire and love are included as simply variations of the human, then the argument for equal protection of the law follows. It is precisely that such is defined as being outside the “properly” human that there is any argument for entitlement to animus, any entitlement to exclude. As Kwame Anthony Appiah points out, the key is seeing queers as just people. (Or not.)

Which is why those who wish to defend the entitlement to exclude and outcast, such as Scalia J, tend to want to focus on conduct, since that is the alleged wrongness but also is a way in to deny standing as “just folks”. With great attention being paid to “burdens” placed on the religious, none at all to those placed on queer citizens.

Sanctity games

In moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt‘s terms, such outcasting on the basis of sexual acts is an appeal to the sanctity/degradation moral foundation, which he defines as:

This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

But the notion that homosexual acts degrade the body only works if homosexual desire is defined out of the range of the properly human. After all, however powerful a tendency within monotheism–with its very strong propensity to sex-and-gender taboos–it is very far indeed from a universal feature of human societies to define homosexual acts as disgusting, degrading or morally contaminating.

It turns out to be classic examples of letting conclusions (“homosexual acts are immoral”) set the ambit of premises (“homosexual desire is outside the properly human/the natural”). Rationalisations of bigotry are rife which this rhetorical technique since they are based on letting a theory of the human, or of the social, or both, set the ambit of evidence, set the ambit of what aspirations and experiences count. Bigotry is not only always a moral claim; it is also always based on an impoverished epistemology which denies inconvenient human experience and aspirations.

In the case of the Jews, seeing them enemies of Christ and Deicides led naturally to seeing them as “the people of the Devil” which then fed into secularised demonisations. In the case of queers, natural law notions were adapted to Judaic taboos (notably by Philo of Alexandria) to generate the notion that homosexual acts, and thus homosexuals, were “unnatural”–i.e. outside the properly human. (Indeed, outside nature and in rebellion against God’s order.) The secularised conception was incorporated into the religious denunciation.

The same but different

In looking at this push for legal protection (indeed, establishment) of a religious entitlement to outcast, it is perhaps natural in the American context to see an analogy to segregation. But it is not as if queer folk can have a whole separate infrastructure of services: their vulnerability arises in very large part from that they grow up as isolated individuals in overwhelmingly “straight” families and social milieus. Though that also makes them better targets than Jews. It is possible to have a Judenfrei society, one can kill or drive out all the local Jews. (The Muslim Middle East is largely Judenfrei and appears to be doing its best to be also Christianfrei: monotheism tends to be very serious in its outcasting and Islam tends to be the most serious of all.) It is not possible to have a queerfrei society, as even if somehow they are all identified and driven out or killed, more will just starting being born.

Dred Scott: someone of African descent and declared by a majority of the US Supreme Court not able to be a citizen

Dred Scott: someone of African descent and so declared by a majority of the US Supreme Court not able to be a citizen.

Nor is it possible for public policy to stop people being homosexual: all it can do is make their lives miserable. To pander to the effortless virtue and sense of entitlement that such outcasting feeds off.

Scalia J thinks American citizens (which turns out to be only some American citizens) should have the right to use the law to show their disapproval of “homosexual conduct”. Besides noting the sense of entitlement built into some citizens counting much more than others, there is a simple test for when the “moral animus” Scalia J believes (some) American citizens are entitled to display in action and law is not permitted. When it denies equal protection of the law, when it denies the commonality of citizenship. The very element that Scalia J finds so repugnant about the Korematsu and Dred Scott decisions of the US Supreme Court. Calling it “moral” animus does not solve the problem, because bigotry is always a moral claim, it is always a claim about the limits of the moral community. Who is, and is not, covered by it and what degree.

Valorised fetishes

I have previously pointed out that conservatives keep getting wrong-footed by history as society moves along the Emancipation Sequence. This comes from the conservative tendency to create fetishes of order and to valorise the past. The notion that Catholics/Jews/women/blacks/queers have to be denied equality before the law (including the right to fully participate in the political order) in order to protect social order is a classic series of fetishes of order. (So, btw, was the gold standard and is narrow inflation targeting.) As each fetish has fallen, it turns out that social order managed just fine, that giving legal effect to moral exclusion was not a necessary support of social order at all, just of a particular set of privileging.

As for the tendency to valorise the past, that comes from denying or glossing over that exploitation, power-imbalances, oppression are also part of the heritage of all societies, including our own. (We are, after all, talking of very traditional forms of entitlement.) A denial that is a lot easier if the experiences of the exploited, excluded and oppressed are suppressed, not recognised or an epistemological void. Due to being outside nature, against God or not part of the “properly” human or similar claims. From, in other words, having an impoverished epistemology.


The upside of monotheism is that envisions a moral order that encompasses everyone. The downside of monotheism is that it envisions a moral order that encompasses everyone, so that the burden of exclusion is that much more profound. One is literally thrown outside the ambit of the moral community, with one’s very humanity being belittled or denied.

The One Truth of the One God can provide a powerful sense of entitlement. To the extent of believing in an entitlement to outcast and passing that off as religious liberty and protection from discrimination. The belief that one sees so much more of morality than non-believers ends up blinding one to what one does not see–a common and shared humanity.

Or, as a certain US Supreme Court Justice wrote in other contexts:

The mere possession of religious convictions which contradict the relevant concerns of a political society does not relieve the citizen from the discharge of political responsibilities.


When followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity.

Robert Waldman’s really clever, very bad, idea

By Lorenzo

Over at interfluidity, Robert Waldman posted a really clever bad idea. Tax property rights on things where exclusivity has high costs on others (he nominates real estate and patents) at whatever price the owner sets — with the proviso that the state (or possibly all comers) then have the right to acquire the property at the stated value.

Patents raise a host of awkward issues, so I will leave them alone. I will also note in passing that Ancient Athens had a somewhat similar provision as Waldman suggests and that SF author Robert Heinlein offered a similar suggestion in one of his later novels. I will also leave aside the issues with eminent domain. I will confine myself to the implications for the interaction between public policy and real estate.

The incentive to restrict supply

His proposal is, using the terminology of a recent Quadrant article, a suggestion for reducing consumer surplus (the difference between what a consumer paid for good and what they would be willing to pay for the good) and increasing rents. It is so because of the incentives it creates for public policy.

Land is an asset. Some uses of land have more value than others. Other things being equal, the more one restricts the supply of an asset, the higher the price for it. So, if one taxes land at its market price, then governments have a revenue-generating incentive to drive up the price of, for example, land-for-housing by restricting how much land is approved for use as housing. Retarding the ability of supply to respond to demand will drive up the price of land.

Since government has far more power to restrict use of a class of assets than any individual, increasing the revenue to government from restricting its use increases the cost of exclusivity and rewards government for increasing said cost.

This is not the effect I suspect that Robert Waldman had in mind.

Protecting incumbents

There is a general tendency for intrusive regulation to protect economic incumbents (existing home owners, job holders, etc) and the well-connected. Particularly if official approval is required. Cities with lots of positional goods (beachfront views, nice hills, etc) to defend encourage the well-connected to use regulation (particularly approval systems) to defend their positional goods.

Land of very different value next to each other.

Land of very different value next to each other.

But it is worse than that, Jim. Increasing the value of an asset rewards economic incumbents. Who vote. Which is why regulatory restriction of land use tends to be strongest in jurisdictions with lots of migrants — entrants to the housing market who do not vote. Aggravating the positional goods effects, since those also tend to be cities attractive to migrants. (Texas is a bit of an exception to this effect, both because it cities tend to lack such positional goods and because its foreign migrants are largely Hispanics, and there are lots of Hispanic voters in Texas for them to “network into” — there are reasons why a former Texan Governor was the first bilingual US President for many years.)

Furthermore, restrictive regulation of land use (particularly through official approvals) promotes donations to political parties and candidates by developers — since they need access to officials to operate. Creating further incentives to restrict supply of land-approved-for-housing.

Not helping

Not helping small operators

Use of approval systems also discourage small builders: bigger developers can manage the costs of dealing with the regulatory system better. In particular, they can manage the risk of delays in approval much better. Having encouraged bigger developers, such approval systems then encourage the now sizeable players to game the system, which they area better able to do. Moreover, the stamp of “official approval” not only reduces transparency in general, it can discourage more precise attention to appropriate requirements, helping larger developers to game the system. The effects of which are then blamed on “wicked developers” thereby encouraging support for the regulatory structures which create large developers gaming the system in the first place. A form of the Baptists and bootleggers problem.

Complex regulations and zoning restrictions are excellent barriers to entry. See above comments about protecting economic incumbents and the well-connected.

Poorer serviced

Driving up the price of real estate by restricting supply also undermines infrastructure provision. For it raises the cost of the land, reduces the tax benefit to governments to provide infrastructure and increases resident resistance. (They want to keep the anticipated capital gains: being near infrastructure raises the value of housing, being right next to it, not so much.) Why build expensive and politically contentious infrastructure when making (housing) incumbents happy, increasing political donations and raising revenue can be done simply by restricting land use?

There is a reason Texas is much better provided with freeways and motorways than Zoned Zone US, or Australian cities. Texans get more road infrastructure for any given level of taxes because cheaper land makes infrastructure cheaper to provide, reduces opposition to same and increases the revenue return.

Official incentives

Having something like the German right to build constitutional requirement would help, as requiring official approval is a nicely un-transparent way of generating the above “benefits”. (Obscuring who benefits is often part of the appeal of government provision and regulation.) But as even that permits restrictive laws, it would be far from a complete solution. (German local government revenue is partly per head, reducing further the incentive to restrict land supply.)

Taxing private benefits from exclusion is not going to generate a net social gain if it magnifies the political benefits from governments imposing more such exclusions. Incentive effects apply to governments too. (Public  choice theory in a nutshell.)

Not that this mere theory. Texas has a higher population than Australia, higher population growth rates and crams more of its population into its five biggest metropolitan areas, yet its urban housing is half to a third of Australian house prices (measured by [pdf] the ratio of median houses to median household income). Because Australian State governments see expensive land as a revenue- and political donation- generating, and existing home-owner protection, mechanism. (The old joke that if the Soviet Union took over the Sahara, within 5 years there would be a shortage of sand, is all too resonant when it comes to metropolitan land use in Australia.)

Doing as Robert Waldman’s suggests, giving governments an incentive to profit from driving up the prices of assets via restricting supply, is not a good plan. They do that too much already.

Marriage, procreation and the triumph of rhetoric and rationalisation over evidence

By Lorenzo

Arguments against same sex marriage (such as here and here) typically get marriage and procreation the wrong way round.  It is not that marriage is supported because it produces children — the only common defining feature of marriage across cultures is that it connects kin groups, it creates in-laws. It is that a public commitment which binds two people together and connects their kin groups makes marriage a good institution for raising children. The characteristics of marriage make it good for child-raising, it is not that child-raising determines the characteristics of marriage. Which is why we don’t ban infertile males or post-menopausal females from marrying. The characteristics of marriage give it value even without any prospect of children.

Nor is the reason for regulating marriage procreation: that will happen regardless of what the state does. Having the state regulate marriage reduces transaction costs – that is why, for example, the landholding warlords of medieval Europe pressured the Latin Church to get into the business of marriage regulation; so there were common rules about what counted as a marriage and who was a legitimate heir. It is just so much more convenient if there is a standard, commonly recognised, marriage contract. For use of property, for standing for access, for inheritance, for ability to speak for another … Canon law taking over regulation of marriage did not stop procreation outside marriage, it just regulated the standing of such children.

The “marriage is for, and matters for, procreation” arguments are classic examples of letting conclusions set the ambit of premises. Rationalisations of bigotry are rife which this rhetorical technique since they are based on letting a theory of the human, or of the social, or both, set the ambit of evidence, set the ambit of what aspirations and experiences count. (And yes, denying folk equal protection of the law is bigotry.) Bigotry is always a moral claim, it is always a claim about who has what standing in the moral community, including who is outside of it and to what degree; it is also always based on an impoverished epistemology which denies inconvenient human experience and aspirations status or standing.

So, one looks at the human experience of marriage and infers from that. One does not start with a theory of marriage and declare which experience counts.