Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Cathedral and the Carbomb

Empress Trudy

The cathedral in Rouen, Normandy is notable or unique for a few things. It was painted obsessively by Monet, it was partially burned many times, including being repeatedly struck by lightning. Several of the buildings and structures were intentionally torn down then rebuilt. It is intentionally asymmetrical. The main structures were built from 1145 right up to around 1507 and significant rebuilding and repair including wholesale replacement of some of the building, the façade being torn down and replaced in its entirety sometime in the mid 1400’s. Some of the structures reflect the banal political necessity of the day; the “Butter Tower” which was built by selling rich burgers the freedom to not fast during Lent (hence they could eat butter) for instance. But the work went onward nonetheless up through the end of the 19th century. 

When the designers and builders started in the mid 12th century they knew that none of them would ever see even a fraction of it completed. They would work their whole lives and their sons would work their whole lives, after them, following a blueprint that would take hundreds of years to complete. And every time it was burned, attacked, struck by lightning, fell over or blown up, they restarted the work to put it all back together with little thought that one had to be personally gratified or honored by its completion.  

Reims, Chartres, Bourges, Notre Dame de Paris, Amiens and 2 dozen others started at the height of the Gothic era and partially or initially completed roughly in the last 30 years of the 13th century all follow the same narrative. You have to consider the discipline that requires the honor to the plan. Labor as a devotional act. The belief that the goal is far away and abstract and that in and of itself is what takes it out of the human realm and elevates it to something greater or sublime. This is a quality that western civilization has lost or abandoned. I’m not sure when it was lost – perhaps at the end of the American Civil War, or during the unifications of Italy and Germany or during the peak of European colonialism, but it’s over. And with it the capability of recognizing it in others. The west views most things it seems as today’s response to yesterday’s dilemma. Not in a metaphorical sense but literally – today’s outrage is the sole response to some perceived insult 24 hrs ago. We now have perilously short attention spans. The very idea that someone would organize a project that would occupy several lifetime seems laughable and strange to us. Americans lost interest in the tower that replaced the WTC a few years after it slowly began. Programs to address coastal erosion are all DOA. Even the idea that there should be a national strategic initiative on the order of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway program to address dependence on foreign oil and that it might take a decade or two is never seriously considered by the voters or their representatives. Let SSI and Medicare go broke…next year.

It’s something different than short term thinking. More akin to not valuing anything one cannot touch and experience today. A belief that the not-immediate is inauthentic and therefore not only unimportant but suspect. Hofstadter touches on this in “The Paranoid Style of American Politics” when he brings up the idea that far right (at that time has talking about the most popular far-anything movement – the Goldwater right) and the far far left share a common attraction in the counter rational, the conspiracy minded, the secret plot engineered by vague enemies far away in place and time. And that as a result, the idea of absolute immediacy arose – the idea that all problems are in the now and can only be experienced as genuine in the now. And fixed in the now. Having a long range plan is silly and stupid, and frankly, paranoid. 

In the intervening 50 years since “Paranoid Style” we have a western polity that shares the very same views of far right (or the far left) in terms of that immediacy. We look at all social and political problems as something we must do TODAY but in response to something that just happened. Or in the case of nanny-left, something that just happened because of a long simmering victimhood justified by our own failure to address that immediacy 10 years ago, a hundred years ago, 500 years ago.

Radical Militant Violent Jihadi Islam laughs at this. Just as North Vietnam’s Võ Nguyên Giáp noted that they had been fighting the Chinese for 400 years and eventually the Americans would tire and go home no matter that the North Vietnamese losses were 10 or 20:1, this particularly toxic brand of Islam looks out a hundred years or more. We feel safe because there haven’t been any 911’s since 911. The Islamists don’t worry because they think in terms of ‘eventually’. There will eventually be another 911 but on their time scale not ours. It could be in 5 years or 20 or 63 and when it does it will be a doozy. And the we in the west will still pat ourselves on the back that it was 75 years before Omaha went up in a mushroom cloud. We ‘won’ for 75 years. But radical Islam will think, “75 years and just wait for the next one it will be even worse. “

Jihadi Islam is a cathedral. It’s framed by an ideology that assumes that NO ONE will outlive it. What is conceived today may eventually come to fruition for their children’s children children’s children. Wahhabism stems from the middle of the 18th century and hasn’t varied since. The basic schism between Sunni and Shia stems from Mohammed’s own grandson and the final break at the battle of Karbala 1,333 years ago and the actual debate is 60 years older than that. To Kosovars and the Serbians point to a Muslim war victory in the battle of Kosovo in 1389 as the defining moment that the battle for the supremacy of Islam in Balkans just began. The siege of Vienna, the battle of Lepanto were but temporary setbacks. The Iranians think even longer range as they are an eschatological cult which actively works toward the destruction of the entire world, no matter how long that takes.

It is a cathedral where each battle each general each victory or loss are only of slight importance. What is of paramount importance are two things – the final goal no matter how abstract or unattainable it seems today and second, the need to grind down all opposition slowly over an incalculable length of time as befits asymmetrical warfare.

We make a fatal strategic mistake to imagine that “Palestinian” intransigence is evident a lack of purpose. It IS the purpose. It may not be well thought out or have any specific goals or objectives in the foreseeable future – but it doesn’t have to. Once turned on it’s a magic machine that just runs forever without logic or sense or human intervention; forever, or until it wins everything.

We make a similar tactical error in addressing the tactics. While they work well in the immediate case and we’ve become almost absurdly good at defeating decentralized random violence and bloodthirsty anarchy where ‘current thinking’ didn’t think it was ever possible, we miss the time element. It’s not a problem of being overwhelmed by terrorists, bus bombings, stabbings, thousands of rockets. The problem is not thinking about confronting some new problem not even thought of now or 5 years from now. And the 5 years after that and the 55 years following. Foe example , in “Islam the Religion of the Future”, Sayyid Qutb makes this very point. Countries, acts, politics, everything, is subsumed by divine purpose. He calls our failure to understand this “jahiliyyah”. – ignorance of divine guidance. He looks at human history on a divine time scale. He sees human action as serving a single purpose – Allah. This is further amplified in “Milestones” (taken from his massive monolith “Under the Shade of the Koran”) when he talks about divine purpose as the organizing superstructure over all jihad.

While the ‘palestinians’ are for the most part irreligious or observant under duress as they are in Gaza, they understand their war not in terms of victory and loss but in terms of literally the forces of light and the forces of dark and however long that takes. What was once a purely religious argument has been coopted by the ‘palestinians’ as a war against ‘Zionism’ or ‘the Jews’ or who knows what. The point being is that the what doesn’t matter to them. The what only matters to their supporters in the west who take with them their Jew hate, Western hate, America hate,and other –hate and make it fit in the ‘palestinians’ narrative of infinite war, forever death.

There is no peace process there never was any peace process. There was never is not and will never be ‘peace’ as an objective goal. That is not what the ‘palestinians’ are after. They are prosecuting a war forever no matter what happens this year or in the next 100 and they will not stop until more than everything they’ve ever dreamed of occurs.

In Europe the Age of the Great Gothic Cathedrals ended for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the Black Death which destroyed their civilization and ushered in the beginning of the end of the High Middle Ages leading to the Renaissance. And with the Renaissance, a new way of looking at the world, a new way of looking at knowledge, thinking, ideas and power itself, being able to abandon or at least marginalize the dogma of petrine supremacy ex cathedra as it were. In the Middle Ages the cathedral served a belief system that needed it to exist and represent the absolute permanence of its own ideological foundations. The church is forever and unchanging (no not really but that’s the line) and the cathedral is its building on earth (and bishops are rich and powerful and don’t you forget it!).

I’m not a religious scholar and know little of the philosophical foundations of Islam. I proposed years ago to an academic Muslim that what the Islamic world needed was its own Protestant Reformation. An opportunity for Muslims to pick which brand of Islam they can best embrace and which we can best live with.  The response I got back was polite scoffing. I’m not entirely convinced by that though. In every facet of human history there is and has been a difference between fanaticism and piety. Most people aren’t very pious; they can’t afford to be. Likewise most people aren’t fanatics; they can’t afford that either and need rich and equally fanatical sponsors. And even fewer are pious and fanatical. I should think there has to be a way to marginalize them and push them out of the public sphere, relegating them to stupid angry cults. I don’t know how to do that but I’m fairly sure we have a long long time to figure it out.I hope we do eventually because 'eventually' is all we have to work with.


  1. The trouble we're dealing now isn't so much the Muslims' patience, but the fact that modern transportation and weaponry has moved their aims into the realm of the very possible.

    For comparison—although, of course, there's no comparison between the two except on the superficial level I'm talking of here—Jews have had the patience to wait 2000 years for the re-establishment of their nationalist dream (the return to the Land of Israel), but it was only in the 19th century, with the rise of communications systems enabling ideas to be distributed far and wide, transportation options making it possible to carry Jews to the Land of Israel from everywhere swiftly, and the newfound acceptability of nationalism, that the realization of Jewish nationalism really took off. (As an aside, that fact is the grounds for anti-Zionists calling Zionism a "relic of 19th-century European colonialism." But that is a result of an optical illusion: Zionism only started to be actualized in the 19th century, it didn't arise from scratch back then.)

    With the transportation bringing people from one side of the world to another in short time, and the ease of generating mayhem (a pressure cooker is all the Tsarnaevs needed), and most importantly, the appeasing, politically correct governments everywhere securing the Islamic invader-immigrants' residency in the host non-Muslim nation-states, the Islamic dream of pan-human shariah no longer requires patience—it looks attainable.

    Right now there's no incentive for Muslims to marginalize the imperialistic component of their religion. A child given candy every time it screams has no disincentive against screaming.

  2. It's become fashionable to assert the Huntington was wrong or a bigot when he says "Islam has bloody borders". But the thrust of this is that Islamic societies push ever outward until they are stopped by force. Whereas the 'height' of Andalusian Moorish Spain was their defeat at Tours in 711, they stayed in Spain for another 700 years. After all it was the beginning of the final victory of Ferdinand over the Muslims in Grenada that directly to the Spanish Inquisition. The Moors weren't thinking short term here. They hung on for longer than the Roman Empire existed.

    1. It's been fashionable for a long time to consider Huntington both wrong and racist. When his name came up among my peers he was castigated without critical study. He was never assigned.

      I do not know the truth of his thesis, but I know his reputation within the academe and it is almost entirely negative. It is unclear to me if his scholarship is disregarded on the merit or on the politics, but I suspect much of the latter.

      I wonder if anyone here can speak to Joan Peters' work, From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict over Palestine?

      Progressives consider Peters a heretic because she dares to question Arab claims on Jewish land from an historical and demographic perspective; that is, she supports the idea that the Zionist effort brought many, many thousands of local Arabs from throughout the region into Israel for economic reasons.

      She thereby undermines the notion of an ancient Arab people on Jewish land "from time immemorial."

      What we know as an historical fact is that the Jewish people have been living on that land for thousands of years before the children of Mohammed raided the place.

      That much we know.

      And that is about as basic as basic gets.

  3. Islam thinks in terms of centuries. We in the West think in terms of the present. Islam is content with deferred gratification. We demand instant gratification. Islam has faith. We believe in nothing. Islam loves death. We treasure life. Islam is concerned with eternity. We value the things of the world,

    They are differing ways of looking at the world. But we play with a losing hand because we believe differences can be resolved. Islam believes in imposing its vision upon the world and brooks no compromise or dissent. We have met an ideology that cannot be appeased or assimilated. Some differences cannot be resolved. Until we acknowledge this fact, we will not make headway against Islam in the future.

  4. Even Sam Harris has recently learned that it's not okay to say certain things along these lines nowadays.

    "In every facet of human history there is and has been a difference between fanaticism and piety. Most people aren’t very pious; they can’t afford to be. Likewise most people aren’t fanatics; they can’t afford that either and need rich and equally fanatical sponsors. And even fewer are pious and fanatical. I should think there has to be a way to marginalize them and push them out of the public sphere, relegating them to stupid angry cults.

    It surely won't be until certain amongst us stop being so suicidally hypersensitive, and until we all learn to stand up for our own values and the societies we've built.

  5. If academics disparage Huntington based on the credibility of his work then they have to toss Bernard Lewis in the trash as well. Their essential theses are not all that materially different. In his "What Went Wrong" Lewis attacks the problem from the inside out and sees the conflict as a result of the failure of Islamic societies to grab on to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Admittedly Lewis focuses on Turkey and not the Arabs but that's because the Ottomans were the largest empire with the largest influence over the region at the time.

    Cf, I read Peters maybe 12 or 13 years ago. I think the criticism leveled against her was that she wasn't a professional historian, which is laughable because there's virtually zero anti Jewish anti Israeli polemic that's based in reality or fact. Her main crime is writing a big fat book that was popular at the time. There were others but they never achieved the fame of Peters' book.

    1. They speak of Peters' book as if it has been debunked as shoddy scholarship.

      Perhaps it needs to be revisited.