“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Medieval vs Enlightened: Sorry, Medievalists, Dan Savage Was Right

            A letter from an anonymous scholar of the medieval period to the sex columnist Dan Savage has been making the rounds of social media lately. Responding to a letter from a young woman asking how she should handle sex for the first time with her Muslim boyfriend, who happened to be a virgin, Savage wrote, “If he’s still struggling with the sex-negative, woman-phobic zap that his upbringing (and a medieval version of his faith) put on his head, he needs to work through that crap before he gets naked with you.” The anonymous writer bristles in bold lettering at Savage’s terminology: “I’m a medievalist, and this is one of the things about our current discourse on religion that drives me nuts. Contemporary radical Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all terrible, but none of them are medieval, especially in terms of sexuality.” Oddly, however, the letter, published under the title, “A Medievalist Schools Dan on Medieval Attitudes toward Sex,” isn’t really as much about correcting popular misconceptions about sex in the Middle Ages as it is about promoting a currently fashionable but highly dubious way of understanding radical religion in the various manifestations we see today.

            While the medievalist’s overall argument is based far more on ideology than actual evidence, the letter does make one important and valid point. As citizens of a technologically advanced secular democracy, it’s tempting for us to judge other cultures by the standards of our own. Just as each of us expects every young person we encounter to follow a path to maturity roughly identical to the one we’ve taken ourselves, people in advanced civilizations tend to think of less developed societies as occupying one or another of the stages that brought us to our own current level of progress. This not only inspires a condescending attitude toward other cultures; it also often leads to an overly simplified understanding of our own culture’s history. The letter to Savage explains:

I’m not saying that the Middle Ages was a great period of freedom (sexual or otherwise), but the sexual culture of 12th-century France, Iraq, Jerusalem, or Minsk did not involve the degree of self-loathing brought about by modern approaches to sexuality. Modern sexual purity has become a marker of faith, which it wasn’t in the Middle Ages. (For instance, the Bishop of Winchester ran the brothels in South London—for real, it was a primary and publicly acknowledged source of his revenue—and one particularly powerful Bishop of Winchester was both the product of adultery and the father of a bastard, which didn’t stop him from being a cardinal and papal legate.) And faith, especially in modern radical religion, is a marker of social identity in a way it rarely was in the Middle Ages.

If we imagine the past as bad dream of sexual repression from which our civilization has only recently awoken, historical tidbits about the prevalence and public acceptance of prostitution may come as a surprise. But do these revelations really undermine any characterization of the period as marked by religious suppression of sexual freedom?
Dan Savage

            Obviously, the letter writer’s understanding of the Middle Ages is more nuanced than most of ours, but the argument reduces to pointing out a couple of random details to distract us from the bigger picture. The passage quoted above begins with an acknowledgement that the Middle Ages was not a time of sexual freedom, and isn’t it primarily that lack of freedom that Savage was referring to when he used the term medieval? The point about self-loathing is purely speculative if taken to apply to the devout generally, and simply wrong with regard to ascetics who wore hairshirts, flagellated themselves, or practiced other forms of mortification of the flesh. In addition, we must wonder how much those prostitutes enjoyed the status conferred on them by the society that was supposedly so accepting of their profession; we must also wonder if this medievalist is aware of what medieval Islamic scholars like Imam Malik (711-795) and Imam Shafi (767-820) wrote about homosexuality. The letter writer is on shaky ground yet again with regard to the claim that sexual purity wasn’t a marker of faith (though it’s hard to know precisely what the phrase even means). There were all kinds of strange prohibitions in Christendom against sex on certain days of the week, certain times of the year, and in any position outside of missionary. Anyone watching the BBC’s adaptation of Wolf Hall knows how much virginity was prized in women—as King Henry VIII could only be wed to a woman who’d never had sex with another man. And there’s obviously an Islamic tradition of favoring virgins, or else why would so many of them be promised to martyrs? Finally, of course faith wasn’t a marker of social identity—nearly everyone in every community was of the same faith. If you decided to take up another set of beliefs, chances are you’d have been burned as a heretic or beheaded as an apostate.

            The letter writer is eager to make the point that the sexual mores espoused by modern religious radicals are not strictly identical to the ones people lived according to in the Middle Ages. Of course, the varieties of religion in any one time aren’t even identical to each other. Does anyone really believe otherwise? The important question is whether there’s enough similarity between modern religious beliefs on the one hand and medieval religious beliefs on the other for the use of the term to be apposite. And the answer is a definitive yes. So what is the medievalist’s goal in writing to correct Savage? The letter goes on,

The Middle Eastern boyfriend wasn’t taught a medieval version of his faith, and radical religion in the West isn’t a retreat into the past—it is a very modern way of conceiving identity. Even something like ISIS is really just interested in the medieval borders of their caliphate; their ideology developed out of 18th- and 19th-century anticolonial sentiment. The reason why this matters (beyond medievalists just being like, OMG no one gets us) is that the common response in the West to religious radicalism is to urge enlightenment, and to believe that enlightenment is a progressive narrative that is ever more inclusive. But these religions are responses to enlightenment, in fact often to The Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, is popularly thought to have been the end of the Middle or so-called Dark Ages. The story goes that the medieval period was a time of Catholic oppression, feudal inequality, stunted innovation, and rampant violence. Then some brilliant philosophers woke the West up to the power of reason, science, and democracy, thus marking the dawn of the modern world. Historians and academics of various stripes like to sneer at this story of straightforward scientific and moral progress. It’s too simplistic. It ignores countless atrocities perpetrated by those supposedly enlightened societies. And it undergirds an ugly contemptuousness toward less advanced cultures. But is the story of the Enlightenment completely wrong?

            The medievalist letter writer makes no bones about the source of his ideas, writing in a parenthetical, “Michel Foucault does a great job of talking about these developments, and modern sexuality, including homosexual and heterosexual identity, as well—and I’m stealing and watering down his thoughts here.” Foucault, though he eschewed the label, is a leading figure in poststructuralist and postmodern schools of thought. His abiding interest throughout his career was with the underlying dynamics of social power as they manifested themselves in the construction of knowledge. He was one of those French philosophers who don’t believe in things like objective truth, human nature, or historical progress of any kind.

Michel Foucault
Foucault and the scores of scholars inspired by his work take it as their mission to expose all the hidden justifications for oppression in our culture’s various media for disseminating information. Why they would bother taking on this mission in the first place, though, is a mystery, beginning as they do from the premise that any notion of moral progress can only be yet another manifestation of one group’s power over another. If you don’t believe in social justice, why pursue it? If you don’t believe in truth, why seek it out? And what are Foucault’s ideas about the relationship between knowledge and power but theories of human nature? Despite this fundamental incoherence, many postmodern academics today are eager to the point of zealousness when it comes to opportunities to chastise scientists, artists, and other academics for alleged undercurrents in their work of sexism, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, or some other oppressive ideology. Few sectors of academia remain untouched by this tradition, and its influence leads legions of intellectuals to unselfconsciously substitute sanctimony for real scholarship.

            So how do Foucault and the medievalist letter writer view the Enlightenment? The letter refers vaguely to “concepts of mass culture and population.” Already, it seems we’re getting far afield of how most historians and philosophers characterize the Enlightenment, not to mention how most Enlightenment figures themselves described their objectives. The letter continues,

Its narrative depends upon centralized control: It gave us the modern army, the modern prison, the mental asylum, genocide, and totalitarianism as well as modern science and democracy. Again, I’m not saying that I’d prefer to live in the 12th century (I wouldn’t), but that’s because I can imagine myself as part of that center. Educated, well-off Westerners generally assume that they are part of the center, that they can affect the government and contribute to the progress of enlightenment. This means that their identity is invested in the social form of modernity.

It’s true that the terms Enlightenment and Dark Ages were first used by Western scholars in the nineteenth century as an exercise in self-congratulation, and it’s also true that any moral progress that was made over the period occurred alongside untold atrocities. But neither of these complications to the oversimplified version of the narrative establishes in any way that the Enlightenment never really occurred—as the letter writer’s repeated assurances that it’s preferable to be alive today ought to make clear. What’s also clear is that this medievalist is deliberately conflating enlightenment with modernity, so that all the tragedies and outrages of the modern world can be laid at the feet of enlightenment thinking. How else could he describe the enlightenment as being simultaneously about both totalitarianism and democracy? But not everything that happened after the Enlightenment was necessarily caused by it, and nor should every social institution that arose from the late 19th to the early 20th century be seen as representative of enlightenment thinking.

            The medievalist letter writer claims that being “part of the center” is what makes living in the enlightened West preferable to living in the 12th century. But there’s simply no way whoever wrote the letter actually believes this. If you happen to be poor, female, a racial or religious minority, a homosexual, or a member of any other marginalized group, you’d be far more loath to return to the Middle Ages than those of us comfortably ensconced in this notional center, just as you’d be loath to relocate to any society not governed by Enlightenment principles today. The medievalist insists that groups like ISIS follow an ideology that dates to the 18th and 19th centuries and arose in response to colonialism, implying that Islamic extremism would be just another consequence of the inherently oppressive nature of the West and its supposedly enlightened ideas. “Radical religion,” from this Foucauldian perspective,

offers a social identity to those excluded (or who feel excluded) from the dominant system of Western enlightenment capitalism. It is a modern response to a modern problem, and by making it seem like some medieval holdover, we cover up the way in which our social power produces the conditions for this kind of identity, and make violence appear as the only response for these recalcitrant “holdouts.”

This is the position of scholars and journalists like Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald as well. It’s emblematic of the same postmodern ideology that forces on us the conclusion that if chimpanzees are violent to one another, it must be the result of contact with primatologists and other humans; if indigenous people in traditionalist cultures go to war with their neighbors, it must be owing to contact with missionaries and anthropologists; and if radical Islamists are killing their moderate co-religionists, kidnapping women, or throwing homosexuals from rooftops, well, it can only be the fault of Western colonialism. Never mind that these things are prescribed by holy texts dating from—you guessed it—the Middle Ages. The West, to postmodernists, is the source of all evil, because the West has all the power.

But the letter writer’s fear that thinking of radical religion as a historical holdover will inevitably lead us to conclude military action is the only solution is based on an obvious non sequitur. There’s simply no reason someone who sees religious radicalism as medieval must advocate further violence to stamp it out. And that brings up another vital question: what solution do the postmodernists propose for things like religious violence in the Middle East and Africa? They seem to think that if they can only convince enough people that Western culture is inherently sexist, racist, violent, and so on—basically a gargantuan engine of oppression—then every geopolitical problem will take care of itself somehow.

            If it’s absurd to believe that everything that comes from the West is good and pure and true just because it comes from the West, it’s just as absurd to believe that everything that comes from the West is evil and tainted and false for the same reason. Had the medievalist spent some time reading the webpage on the Enlightenment so helpfully hyperlinked to in the letter, whoever it is may have realized how off-the-mark Foucault’s formulation was. The letter writer gets it exactly wrong in the part about mass culture and population, since the movement is actually associated with individualism, including individual rights. But what best distinguishes enlightenment thinking from medieval thinking, in any region or era, is the conviction that knowledge, justice, and better lives for everyone in the society are achievable through the application of reason, science, and skepticism, while medieval cultures rely instead on faith, scriptural or hierarchical authority, and tradition. The two central symbols of the Enlightenment are Galileo declaring that the church was wrong to dismiss the idea of a heliocentric cosmos and the Founding Fathers appending the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution. You can argue that it’s only owing to a history of colonialism that Western democracies today enjoy the highest standard of living among all the nations of the globe. But even the medievalist letter writer attests to how much better it is to live in enlightened countries today than in the same countries in the Middle Ages.

            The postmodernism of Foucault and his kindred academics is not now, and has not ever been, compelling on intellectual grounds, which leaves open the question of why so many scholars have turned against the humanist and Enlightenment ideals that once gave them their raison d’être. I can’t help suspecting that the appeal of postmodernism stems from certain religious qualities of the worldview, qualities that ironically make it resemble certain aspects of medieval thought: the bowing to the authority of celebrity scholars (mostly white males), the cloistered obsession with esoteric texts, rituals of expiation and self-abasement, and competitive finger-wagging. There’s even a core belief in something very like original sin; only in this case it consists of being born into the ranks of a privileged group whose past members were guilty of some unspeakable crime. Postmodern identity politics seems to appeal most strongly to whites with an overpowering desire for acceptance by those less fortunate, as if they were looking for some kind of forgiveness or redemption only the oppressed have the power to grant. That’s why these academics are so quick to be persuaded they should never speak up unless it’s on behalf of some marginalized group, as if good intentions were proof against absurdity. As safe and accommodating and well-intentioned as this stance sounds, though, in practice it amounts to little more than moral and intellectual cowardice.

Life really has gotten much better since the Enlightenment, and it really does continue to get better for an increasing number of formerly oppressed groups of people today. All this progress has been made, and continues being made, precisely because there are facts and ideas—scientific theories, human rights, justice, and equality—that transcend the social conditions surrounding their origins. Accepting this reality doesn’t in any way mean seeing violence as the only option for combatting religious extremism, despite many academics’ insistence to the contrary. Nor does it mean abandoning the cause of political, cultural, and religious pluralism. But, if we continue disavowing the very ideals that have driven this progress, however fitfully and haltingly it has occurred, if we continue denying that it can even be said to have occurred at all, then what hope can we possibly have of pushing it even further along in the future?   

And: Napoleon Chagnon's Crucible and the Ongoing Epidemic of Moralizing Hysteria in Academia

On ISIS's explicit avowal of adherence to medieval texts: "What ISIS Really Wants" by Graeme Wood of the Atlantic