The Enlightenment and the Birth of Racism

I have a new essay up at Liberal Currents in which I respond to the charge that the Enlightenment saw the birth of modern racial theorizing. Thanks go to Adam Gurri for getting me to write it and for him and others at Liberal Currents for giving plenty of comments along the way.

The piece was inspired by Jamel Bouie who on Twitter and in a longer piece claimed that

“Race as we understand it—a biological taxonomy that turns physical difference into relations of domination—is a product of the Enlightenment.

In the piece, I take issue with this claim and provide evidence both of racial theorizing predating the Enlightenment and that modern scientific racism did not fully emerge until the 19th century, when it drew less on Enlightenment ideas than on Counter-Enlightenment thought.

In their eagerness to damn the Enlightenment, modern progressives neglect the contribution to racial theorizing of numerous Counter-Enlightenment thinkers from Joseph de Maistre to Thomas Carlyle.

Of course, other pieces have responded to Bouie. Including Ben Domenech at the Federalist and Katie Kelaidis at Quillette (both excellent). Hopefully, my essay adds to this conversation.

Ottomanism, Nationalism, Republicanism II

In the last post, I gave some historical background on how the Ottoman state, whether in reformist or repressive mode (or some combination of the two), was on a road, at least from the early nineteenth century, that was very likely to end in a nation-state for the Turks of Anatolia and the Balkan region of Thrace, which forms a hinterland in its eastern part for the part of Istanbul on the Balkan side of the Bosphorus. Despite the centuries of the Ottoman dynasty (the founder Othman was born in 1299 and this is usually taken as the starting point of the Ottoman state, though obviously there was no such thing when Othman was born), it was also an increasing possibility that the nation-state would be a republic on the French model.

The obvious alternative being a style of monarchism mixing populism and (rather constructed) tradition, born out of a national movement and accommodating the idea of a popular will represented by the monarch, mixed in varying degrees with constitutional and representative institutions. The clearest example of this style is maybe Serbia, to which can be added Montenegro, Bulgaria, Romania and Greece. The older monarchies of imperial Germany and Russia incorporated elements of populist-national monarchy. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, as the Habsburg empire based in Vienna for many centuries became known in 1867, was the Empire most lacking in a core and not surprisingly suffered the most complete disintegration after World War One (that great killer of Empires).

France was the exception in Europe as a republic, particularly as a unitary republic, and was only continuously a republic from 1870. In 1870, Switzerland was the only other republic, but known as the Swiss Confederation, with strong powers for the constituent cantons. The example of French republicanism was still supremely important because of the transformative nature of the 1789 French Revolution, and the ways its development became central events in European history. Part of that came out of the preceding status of France as the premier European nation and the biggest cultural force of the continent. Educated Ottomans were readers of French, and Ottoman political exiles were often in Paris.

High level education often meant studying in Paris. This had such a big influence on the fine arts, including architecture, that apparently 19th century architecture in Istanbul was more based on French Orientalism than earlier Ottoman architecture. The religious conservatives and neo-Ottomanists in power today, who claim to represent authenticity and escape from western models, in reality promote imitation of these 19th century imports.

Ottoman intellectuals and writers read French and were familiar with the idea of France as intellectual and political leader. There were other influences, including important relations with Imperial Germany, but French influence had a particular status for those aiming for change.

Namık Kemal, the ‘Young Ottoman’ reformer who has some continuing appeal to the moderate political right in Turkey, as demonstrated in the foundation of a Namık Kemal University in Thrace 4 years after the AKP came to power, appearing more moderate conservvative than it does now, translated Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws into Ottoman Turkish (modern Turkish is based on major changes from Ottoman).

The more radical reformers who came to power in 1908 were known as Young Turks, that is Jeunes Turcs, often now written in half-Turkish, half-French style as Jön Türkler. The more radical reformers wanted less role for Islam in public life and at the most radical end even regarded Islam as responsible for backwardness. French laicism was therefore a natural pole of attraction, as were the ways nationalism and republicanism came together in the French revolutionary legacy as an expression of the sovereignty of the people.

The Ottomans studying in France were strong influenced by the sociology of Emile Durkheim, who is usually counted as one of the three founders of the discipline of sociology, along with Karl Marx and Max Weber. Durkheim’s social thought was very influenced by an understanding of Montesquieu and Jean-Jacques Rousseau as precursors of sociology. This partly reflects the social analysis they engaged in, but also their idea of how a society is constituted legally and politically, particularly Rousseau’s theory of the social contract. Durkheim’s social thought is permeated by concerns with what kind of social solidarity there can be in modern societies in ways which build on the long history of republican thinking about a community of citizens. This was very important in the late Ottoman and early republican period.

The German

Max Weber was also a major influence. His ideas about disenchantment (a version of secularisation) and the role of the nation-state were of definite interest to Turkish thinkers inclined towards republicanism, nationalism, and secularism. One of the consequences of this is that criticisms of the Turkish republican tradition, as it passed through Kemal Atatürk (‘Kemalism’), are tied up with criticisms of Weber. Some of this Turkish absorption of Durkheim and Weber can be found in English in the work of Ziya Gökalp (1876-1924) and Niyazi Berkes (1908-1988).

It is also worth finding Atatürk’s Great Speech of 1927 (a book length text read out over several days), which is a political intervention not a discussion of social theory, but does show how ideas connected with social theory enter political discourse in Turkey. It is very widely distributed in Turkey, I’ve even seen it on sale in Turkish supermarkets; and it has been translated into English. Berkes is the social scientist and has a rather more academic way of writing than Gökalp (a famously ambiguous thinker) or Atatürk. His The Development of Secularism in Turkey (published in English 1964, while he was working at McGill University in Montreal) must be the single most influential work of social science by a Turk or about Turkey.

Unfortunately a discussion  of republicanism in relation to Durkheim, Weber, or any other major thinkers declined after the 1920s and Berkes is really the last great flowering of this tradition in Turkey. This is part of the story of how Turkish republicanism as a mode of thinking declined into defensive gestures and the repetition of dogmas, so is also the history of how extremely superficial gestures towards liberalism by leaders of the Turkish right had undue influence over the more liberal parts of Turkish thinking.

The weakness of thought about republicanism and the superficial absorption of liberalism was the main thread on the intellectual side leading to the disaster of Erdoğan-AKP rule. The rise of AKP was welcomed by many (I suspect most, but I don’t know any ways in which this has been quantified) Turkish liberals until the suppression of the Gezi movement in 2013 and even in some cases until the wave of repression following the coup attempt of 2016.

To be continued

Is Fundamentalism a problem?

Today when a terrorist attack happens, the press too often avoids naming the perpetrators and instead seeks to be uncompromised by phrases like “car hits people.” But not long ago, the press usually blamed fundamentalists for terrorist attacks.

The name fundamentalist originated, interestingly enough, in Protestant circles in the US. Only much later was it used to describe other religions, and then mostly to Muslims. Among Protestants, the name fundamentalist was used to designate people against theological liberalism. I explain. With the Enlightenment, an understanding grew in theological circles that modern man could not believe in supernatural aspects of the Bible anymore. The answer was theological liberalism, a theology that tried to maintain the “historical Jesus,” but striping him from anything science couldn’t explain. Fundamentalism was an answer to this. Fundamentalists believed that some things are, well… fundamental! You can’t have Jesus without the virgin birth, the many miracles, the resurrection, and the ascension. That would be not Jesus at all! In other words, it is a matter of Principia: either science comes first and faith must submit, or faith comes before science.

The great observation made by fundamentalist theologian Cornelius Van Til is that fundamentalist Protestants are not the only fundamentalists! Everybody has fundamentals. Everybody has basic principles that are themselves not negotiable. If you start asking people “why” eventually they will answer “because it is so.”

If everybody has starting points that are themselves not open to further explanation, that means that our problem (and the problem with terrorism) is not fundamentalism per se. Everybody has fundamentals. The question is what kind of fundamentals do you have. Fundamentals that tell you about the holiness of human life, or fundamentals that tell you that somehow assassinating people is ok or even commendable?

On the rift between economics and everything else

The line is often heard: economists are “scientific imperialists” (i.e. they seek to invade other fields of social science) jerks. All they try to do is “fit everything inside the model”. I have this derisive sneer at economists very often. I have also heard economists say “who cares, they’re a bunch of historians” (this is the one I hear most often given my particular field of research, but I have heard variations involving sociologists and anthropologists).

To be fair, I never noticed the size rift. For years now, I have been waltzing between economics and history (and tried my hand at journalism for some time) which meant that I was waltzing between economic theory and a lot of other fields. The department I was a part of at the London School of Economics was a rich set of quantitative and qualitative folks who mixed history of ideas, economics, economic history and social history. To top it all, I managed to find myself generally in the company of attorneys and legal scholars (don’t ask why, it still eludes me). It was hard to feel a big rift in that environment. I knew there was a rift. I just never realized how big it was until a year ago (more or less).

There is, however, something that annoys me: the contempt appears to be self-reinforcing.  Elsewhere on this blog (here and here) (and in a forthcoming book chapter in a textbook on how to do economic history), I have explained that economists have often ventured into certain topics with a lack of care for details. True, there must be some abstraction of details (not all details are useful), but there is an optimal quantity of details. And our knowledge grows, the quantity of details necessary to answering each question (because the scientific margin is increasingly specialized) should grow. And so should the number (and depth) of nuances we make to answer a question.  There is a tendency among economists to treat a question outside the usual realm of economics and ignore the existing literature (thus either rushing through an open door or stepping in a minefield without knowing it).  The universe is collapsed into the model and, even when it yields valuable insights, other (non-econs) contributors are ignored.  That’s when the non-econs counter that economists are arrogant and that they try to force everything into a mold rather than change the mold when it does not apply. However, the reply has often been to ignore the economists or criticize strawmen versions of their argument. Perceived as contemptuous, the economists feel that they can safely ignore all others.

The problem is that this is a reinforcing loop: a) the economists are arrogant; b) non-economists respond by dismissing the economists and ridiculing their assumptions; c) the economists get more arrogant. The cycle persists. I struggle to see how to break this cycle, but I see value in breaking it. Elsewhere, I have made such a case when I reviewed a book (towards which I was hostile) on Canadian economic history. Here is what I said for the sake of showcasing the value of breaking the vicious circle of ignoring both sides:

These scholars (those who have been ignored by non-economists) could have easily derived the same takeaways as Sweeny. Individuals can and do engage in rent-seeking, which economists define as the process through which unearned gains are obtained by manipulating the political and social environment. This could be observed in attempts to shape narratives in the public discourse. According primacy to the biases of sources is a recognition that there can be rent-seeking in the form of actors seeking to generate a narrative to reinforce a particular institutional arrangement and allow it to survive. This explanation is well in line with neoclassical economics.

This point is crucial. It shows a failing on both sides of the debate. Economists and historians favorable to “rational choice” have failed to engage scholars like Sweeny. Often, they have been openly contemptuous. The literature has evolved in separate circles where researchers only speak to their fellow circle members. This has resulted in an inability to identify the mutual gains of exchange. The insights and meticulous treatments of sources by scholars like Sweeny are informative for those economists who consider rational choice as if the choosers were humans, with all their flaws and limitations, rather than mechanistic utility-maximizing machines with perfect foresight (which is a strawman often employed to deride the use of economics in historical debates) . In reverse, the rich insights provided by rational choice theorists could guide historians in elucidating complex social interactions with a parsimony of assumptions. Without interaction, both groups loose and resolutions remain elusive.

See, as a guy who likes economics, I think that trade is pretty great. More importantly, I think that trade between heterogeneous groups (or different individuals) is even greater because it allows for specialization that increases the value (and quantity) of outputs.  I see the benefits of trade here, so why is this “circle of contempt” perpetuating so relentlessly?

Can’t we just all pick the 100$ bill on the sidewalk?

Is it always wrong to be angry?

Recently it was brought to my attention a text by a Brazilian journalist “chocked with the anger the Brazilian middle-class has for Lula,” evidenced in the celebrations over Lula’s imprisonment. Honestly, I couldn’t finish reading it because I have better things to do, but in the first lines, she questions how people can be so angry and at the same time rejoicing while Brazil goes through such a turbulent moment. In her understanding, Lula represented the aspirations of millions of Brazilians, and these aspirations are now failing.

Ironically, I believe I know where her frustration comes from. Marxism is nothing but a Christian heresy.  Marx belongs to the group of 19th-century intellectuals who declared that God is dead. However, Marx was not able to get rid of all the Christian ethos. He simply transformed the working class into the suffering Messiah, the socialist intellectuals (like himself) into prophets and the future communist society into Paradise. Classical liberalism has its roots in Christianism, and Marxism is one step further away from it.

One of the most basic Christian teachings (expressed by Jesus himself) is “love your enemies.” Maybe this doesn’t sound controversial today, but it certainly was in 1st century Palestine. My understanding is that, as a deformed form of Christianity, Marxism is questioning how people in Brazil are failing to love Lula, their enemy.

However, Jesus didn’t simply say “love your enemy.” He went on to explain what he meant by love. Love in a Christian sense is less a feeling (although it is also a feeling) and more an attitude. It is mostly to follow the 10 commandments in our relationship with God and with other people.

The love Marxists preach lacks definition and as so lacks meaning. Therefore it is open to abuse. The love Christians preach is deep and complex, and not always easy to understand or to put into practice. But it is certainly not shallow. It is possible, Biblically speaking, to love your enemy and at the same time rejoice with justice.

Some may argue that this is not necessarily due to Christianity. Some philosophical school that predates Christianism (such as stoicism) preached something similar. I’m not going to argue about that. I’m not doing the most scholarly argument here, so you can’t take it or leave it.

Some may argue that the journalist I’m referring to is not a Marxist. To those, I quote John Maynard Keynes (who was not always a very good economist, but sometimes was very accurate in his observations about life):

Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.

As a Christian, I don’t hate Lula and I don’t rejoice in his suffering. But I’m certainly rejoicing with justice. It may be hard to understand or to accept, but while I love my enemy I don’t necessarily approve his actions. And I certainly don’t consider my enemy my friend. It’s complex. As C.S. Lewis put it “people who have never been to Narnia find these things hard to understand.”

West Coast Hillbillies

A long time ago, after moving from San Francisco, I bought a beautiful Labrador puppy from a woman named Brigid Blodgett, in the hills above Santa Cruz California. (I think she won’t mind the free advertising in the unlikely case that she reads Notes On Liberty or my blog.) Her house was an older conventional California so-called “ranch house,” with low roofs and a sprawling house plan. The pup she had in mind for me was playing with his ten siblings in a concrete backyard when I arrived. There was one new litter, lying with Mom on some rags in the living room, and another in the kitchen, that I could see and smell. The lady, the breeder, told me there was yet another litter in the garage.

To get my new dog, I had not gone to just anybody since most dogs last longer than most cars. I had gathered recommendations in Santa Cruz (pop. 60,000) and its suburbs. Brigid Blodgett’s name kept coming up. Other things being more or less equal, (“et cetibus…” as they say in Latin) I believe in the predictive power of redundancy. I purchased the pup, “Max” (for the German sociologist Max Weber. My previous dog was “Lenin,” another story, obviously). He was a wonderful animal, big, sturdy, healthy, smart, and with a physique that turned heads. I never saw Ms Blodgett again. She asked me once by phone to enter Max in a show but I thought it would inflate his ego and I declined. Her name came up a couple of times when perfect strangers stopped me to ask if Max was one of “Brigid’s dogs.” Continue reading