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The Man from the Middle Ages

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Some people knew exactly what to think about the letter Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent to U.S. President George W. Bush.  Since they had already pegged Ahmadinejad as a Holocaust-denying, Israel-threatening, nuke-hungry lunatic, it was no stretch to see the letter as exactly the sort of thing a Holocaust-denying, Israel-threatening, nuke-hungry lunatic would write, even though it didn’t deny the Holocaust, threaten Israel, or announce an intention to build nuclear weapons.  The White House dismissed it at once.  USA Today told its readers that it was “part anti-U.S. diatribe and part religious screed,” and cited psychologists and experts who deduced — apparently on the basis of descriptions of the letter — that Ahmadinejad was “a naive leader whose beliefs stem from resentment and ignorance of the Western world.”  Even the editors of the progressive web site TruthOut seem to have been uneasy about giving Ahmadinejad a platform; when they reprinted the text they added a short explanation for what they must have thought was a controversial decision.

Others were confused.  The letter isn’t the sort of thing that heads of state send to one another.  It poses a series of questions about U.S. policy, both foreign and domestic, and challenges Bush to govern in accordance with the Christian beliefs he professes.  From a diplomatic point of view this was its greatest failing.  Whatever its merits and flaws when viewed in isolation, the letter simply came from a different universe from the one in which international relations are conducted.  Ahmadinejad would not have seemed more out of place if he had stood before the UN General Assembly and sung an aria from Madama Butterfly.

If anything, the letter reinforced the popular notion that much of the Islamic world is stuck in the Middle Ages, while the West has passed through the Renaissance and achieved the mature state of secular modernity.  USA Today explained that Ahmadinejad simply doesn’t understand the West; his background is too provincial and parochial and his sympathies are too conservative and religious.

Mahmoud AhmadinejadYet while it is the work of a deeply religious man whose belief in the constant involvement of a deity in worldly affairs is something few of us share, it is hard to look at the letter without some sympathy and maybe even some admiration.  Its tone is serious, openly emotional, candid, and direct, and it makes a clear effort to show deep respect, in the best Islamic tradition, for Jews as followers of the prophet Moses and Christians as followers of the prophet Jesus.  And many of its specific political and social critiques ring true. Few people have spoken of the Iraq War with such even-handed sympathy:

Because of the possibility of the existence of WMDs in one country, it is occupied, around one hundred thousand people killed, its water sources, agriculture and industry destroyed, close to 180,000 foreign troops put on the ground, the sanctity of the private homes of citizens broken, and the country pushed back perhaps fifty years.  At what price?  Hundreds of billions of dollars spent from the treasury of one country and certain other countries and tens of thousands of young men and women — as occupation troops — put in harm’s way, taken away from family and loved ones, their hands stained with the blood of others, subjected to so much psychological pressure that every day some commit suicide and those returning home suffer depression, become sickly and grapple with all sorts of ailments; while some are killed and their bodies handed to their families.  [I have slightly revised the translation circulating on the Web.]

And Western media critics may be startled to hear their own analyses echoed elsewhere in the text, though with a sense of empathy that is usually alien to their own traditions of discourse:

After 9.11, instead of healing and tending to the emotional wounds of the survivors and the American people — who had been immensely traumatized by the attacks — some Western media only intensified the climates of fear and insecurity — some constantly talked about the possibility of new terror attacks and kept the people in fear. Is that service to the American people?  Is it possible to calculate the damages incurred from fear and panic?

American citizens lived in constant fear of fresh attacks that could come at any moment and in any place.  They felt insecure in the streets, in their place of work and at home.  Who would be happy with this situation?  Why was the media, instead of conveying a feeling of security and providing peace of mind, giving rise to a feeling of insecurity?

Some believe that the hype paved the way — and was the justification — for an attack on Afghanistan.  Again I need to refer to the role of media.  In media charters, correct dissemination of information and honest reporting of a story are established tenets.  I express my deep regret about the disregard shown by certain Western media for these principles.  The main pretext for an attack on Iraq was the existence of WMDs.  This was repeated incessantly — for the public to, finally, believe — and the ground set for an attack on Iraq.

Is the letter, then, just an incoherent mishmash of mediaeval religiosity with cribs from modernist critics of the U.S., slapped together to appeal to Islamic youth and anti-Americans across the globe?

It may be just that.  Ahmadinejad has allied himself with the most conservative elements of the Iranian clergy, those who have repeatedly closed newspapers, suffocated the once-great Iranian cinema, and made life difficult for women and literally impossible for gays, executing young homosexual men on bogus charges of rape.  It’s not necessarily inaccurate to say that he is a man from the Middle Ages.  If we conclude that, though, we might be able to see as well that leaving the mediaeval world behind didn’t come without a price.

The heart of Ahmadinejad’s letter is this passionate series of rhetorical questions:

The people will scrutinize our presidencies.

Did we manage to bring peace, security and prosperity for the people or insecurity and unemployment?  Did we intend to establish justice, or just support special interest groups and by forcing many people to live in poverty and hardship make a few people rich and powerful — thus trading the approval of the people and the Almighty with theirs’?  Did we defend the rights of the underprivileged or ignore them?  Did we defend the rights of all people around the world or impose wars on them, interfere illegally in their affairs, establish hellish prisons and incarcerate some of them?  Did we bring the world peace and security or raise the specter of intimidation and threats?  Did we tell the truth to our nation and others around the world or present an inverted version of it?

Were we on the side of people or the occupiers and oppressors?  Did our administration set out to promote rational behavior, logic, ethics, peace, fulfilling obligations, justice, service to the people, prosperity, progress and respect for human dignity — or the force of guns, intimidation, insecurity, disregard for the people, delaying the progress and excellence of other nations and trampling on people’s rights?

These questions have an oddly familiar ring, as they should.  They pose a challenge about human communities that was first framed by Aristotle: that of making a world conducive to eudaimonia, or — to use the most common English translation — human flourishing.

We should really not be surprised that someone from a Shi’ite background echoes a Greek philosopher.  The prophet Mohammad lived on the fringes of the Eastern Roman Empire — the Greek-speaking half — and his message spread quickly through much of the Empire’s Asian and African heartland.  The Arabs conquered a world that had been Hellenized long before it had been Christianized, and in a short time, with Christian and Jewish help, they were developing the fusion of Greek philosophy with monotheism that we know in the West as mediaeval scholasticism.

The intellectual world of the modern West was forged in revolt against this scholasticism.  Baconian science and Cartesian philosophy defined themselves in part by mocking the authority of Aristotle, the pagan to whom St. Thomas Aquinas referred simply as “The Philosopher.”  But in the Islamic world, and especially in its Shi’ite minority, the tradition was not interrupted.  Roy Mottahedeh, an American scholar of Iranian ancestry, wrote his absorbing book The Mantle of the Prophet — a biography of a mullah interspersed with meditations on Persian history — after realizing that the Shi’ite academies offered the last surviving example of the classical liberal arts education

that had produced in the West men such as the saintly and brilliant theologian Thomas Aquinas and the intolerant and bloodthirsty grand inquisitor, Torquemada, and in the East thinkers such as Averroës among the Muslims and Maimonides among the Jews. (p. 8)

In Ahmadinejad’s words we in the West hear a distant recollection of our own past.

It is a past that most of us are happy to have escaped.  But it was also a past in which people could do certain things and even think certain thoughts that no longer seem possible.  In the mediaeval world — and in the Greek and Roman worlds, too — it made sense to make ethical demands of human communities.  Politicians and polities were judged on whether they helped people to live the good life, and what that good life consisted of was something that philosophers and leaders debated together.

We don’t really do that any more because we don’t think we have any right to.  The West has embraced what Isaiah Berlin, in his influential and deeply misleading “Two Concepts of Liberty,” called “negative liberty.”  He defined this as “the area within which the subject — a person or group of persons — is or should be left to do or be what he wants to do or be, without interference by other persons” (p. 7).  According to Berlin, trying to define the good life leads inevitably to tyranny or worse.  Instead, the good life is something for each person to work out on his or her own.  All we can ask of our social relations, be they economic, social, political, ethical, or religious, is that they leave individuals as unconstrained as possible to do whatever they like.

This sounds like self-evident truth to most of us, and the fact that the Islamic Republic is a pretty lousy place to live in only confirms our self-satisfaction.  Of course we’re acting in the interests of peace, freedom, prosperity, and those other good things, we assure ourselves; but we do it by leaving things alone.  We know better than to stick our noses in where they don’t belong.  We leave the production of goods and services to the market, interfering only to maximize information flow and keep competition fair.  Ethical issues are matters of individual conscience.  Politics is relatively simple: try to keep the playing field equal, unleash entrepreneurship, provide relief to those who are unable to work; maybe intervene when people are stigmatized as members of a group rather than treated as independent, free and equal citizens, and maybe guarantee a certain minimum standard of subsistence through cash disbursements or services provided regardless of need.  What more can you ask?

And that’s just the problem — we can’t ask for much more.  Within the modern world we have a lot of trouble trying to think of things like an ethical politics or economics. Economics is a science, albeit a very imperfect one.  It’s supposed to describe a specific type of human activity which is carried on in its own sphere.  It’s all about getting the maximum output from minimum inputs, about efficiencies of scale and balances of trade and productivity and solving questions of distribution amid scarcity.  What’s the point of bringing ethics into this, say the economists; can’t you see that these are primarily technical questions?

The modern world is fearful of such category errors because it’s a divided one.  We live in several different worlds at once.  What we have to eat, what we do on weekdays, and how much we have in the bank is worked out according to the rules of the economic world.  How we treat our friends and family is a matter for the ethical or religious world, though that spills over somewhat inconsistently into how we do the jobs that our economic world has made for us.  How we secure the power to keep those worlds operating according to their inner logic is the concern of politics.  And we get to keep the freedom of the private world, in which we ponder our deepest thoughts and in which we also spend our weeknights and weekends, only when we let all the other worlds operate according to their own inherent laws.

This is something new.  Before the modern world of capitalism and liberal democracy we understood the life of every community to be a single complex web of activities in which everything, economic, political, ethical, religious, and — yes — even personal decisions were made together.  In those days we talked about our interactions in terms which now seem delusional, because the only way we could imagine that complexity was to think that it was being managed by a god, the God-with-a-capital-letter, or, as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would say, Allah.  But in that world it made sense to think about work as a subject for ethical, social, political, religious, economic, and personal concerns all at once.  And in that world it made sense to ask the questions posed in Ahmadinejad’s letter.

When we became “modern” people, we didn’t bring those insights down to earth, as the nineteenth-century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach thought we would.  We lost them entirely.  We didn’t realize that the world that we once thought had come about through God’s will was actually the product of specific human choices, and that different choices end up making different worlds.  Instead, we saw our world as the inevitable result of “laws of the market” and “principles of society.”  And that meant that we stopped thinking that any being, human or divine, could do anything about those choices or change anything essential about the ways we live.  These had become purely technical questions.

We do not even see how power is exercised within those systems.  Few of us would let the state tell us where we should live, while millions of us will move from city to city to keep up with the job market.  Yet job markets are just as much a matter of human choice as government policies are.  It is the separation of life into different, incompatible worlds with their own rules that makes economic coercion look to us like something natural and unavoidable, instead of the human violence that it really is.

A few people saw through this.  Marx, who was strongly influenced in his early years by Feuerbach, was one of them.  But it is sad and instructive to see how the most radical aspects of his thought have had to be rediscovered over and over.  We tend to imagine the ideal world as something very much like the one we live in today, only with a middle-class standard of living for everyone, good health care, more spare time, and more good quality but affordable stuff on the store shelves.  It seems that the modern world has done away with all illusions except for one: the illusion that it is the only possibleworld.  Even though a tiny sample of the range of human possibility can be found among today’s hunting peoples and in our own histories, it remains hard to see that we live in just one out of the innumerable different ways in which people have made themselves and their communities, and that we remain capable of the same variety in ages to come.

So we stare at our computer screens and read a letter from the Middle Ages.  How quaint and how disturbing, we think, that there are still people who see everything as divine providence and who imagine that societies should do something other than get out of the way of individuals’ private interests.  And on the other end of the connection there is, perhaps, someone who thinks, how sad and how disturbing that there are people who cannot see that they are responsible for their institutions as much as for their private conduct.

I would ask them both one question.  One of you thinks of the world in purely human terms, but with the delusion that there is no common life, only the compulsion of eternal principles of economics and the like.  The other can think of it as a seamless and common enterprise, but with the delusion that it coheres only in the eternal plan of a divine architect and ruler.  Might we be able to build some day a world which encompasses both insights, a world which we know to be both ours and our own?


Michael Steinberg
Michael Steinberg reads from his book at Robin’s Book Store, Philadelphia (Photo by Loret Gnivecki Steinberg)

Michael Steinberg is the author of The Fiction of a Thinkable World: Body, Meaning, and the Culture of Capitalism published by Monthly Review Press and essays in professional journals in history, music, and law. He is a member of the literature collective Cat’s out of the Bag. He and his wife Loret, a photographer and professor of documentary photography, live in Rochester, New York, under the supervision of two domestic medium-hair cats.

Cat's out of the Bag


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