True Slaves Are Self-Made

This past week, I happened to hear a bit of discussion on Michael Savage’s radio show that pertained to nineteenth-century painter Giulio Rosati’s work. The specific subject was a series of paintings sharing the title, “Choosing the Favorite”. Each work graphically portrays a white European slave girl being made to stand stark naked before some sheikh or caïd who is eyeing her critically to decide if she’s worth the oily dealer’s asking price. Savage remarked that the painting (and he spoke as if there were only one) induced him to look more deeply into Arab enslavement of European coastal populations depredated by piratical raids. An entire Irish village was once emptied of its inhabitants when these corsairs swooped in unexpectedly. The total number of white Europeans thus lost to the Arab slave trade–the men to find an early death toiling in galleys, the women and children to satisfy the voracious sexual appetite of wealthy grandees–exceeded one million from the early Renaissance to the first years of the nineteenth century. Jefferson’s war on the so-called Barbary Pirates finally ended these atrocities.

Surprisingly (to me), Savage professed ignorance of most of these historical facts. He is far from alone, apparently. Indeed, the prevailing opinion of the slave trade among contemporary Americans seems to be that white Southerners raided deep into Africa and bundled their captives off to plantations in the Carolinas and Mississippi. In fact, virtually all of the mercantile sea traffic that reached the South hailed from home ports far to the north or across the Atlantic; and as for the actual slave raids, these were conducted by Arab traders and their minions on the African mainland. That is to say, at the heart of some of the filthiest chapters of human history from the end of the Middle Ages to the beginning of the twentieth century stood imperious lechers like the sheikhs represented by Rosati: the sort of people whom Western civilization is now forbidden to revile and is, indeed, often to praise as superior figures unsoiled by our Western values.

In the canvas that I have reproduced above, especially, the sheikh looks down his nose at the shivering girl as if a maitre d’ were begging him to taste of a dish whose smell was a bit suspect. This is our beacon of true civilization!

I’m very much in step with Savage, as far as feeling indignant that Islam would so long tolerate such depravity; and I’m further indignant that the slave trade’s roots would be so neatly extracted from our history books. I’ll always remember my pity and disgust when, as a young man, I learned that Cassius Clay had transformed himself into Mohammed Ali in protest against the European Christian tradition responsible for enslaving his ancestors. Clay seemed a pretty cool guy: a lot of us were drawn to him. But come on, man! If you want to register outrage about the imposition of slavery upon your forefathers, why would you embrace Islam? Don’t you know that it was Christianity which eventually abolished slavery throughout the Western hemisphere? Didn’t you know that, in the days of our youth, slavery was ongoing in places like Ethiopia?

Now I find, having probed about the Internet in search of Rosati’s paintings, that certain people consider it “white supremicist” even to acknowledge the history of European enslavement by the Barbary Pirates. The reasoning seems to be that no slavery was anywhere near as prolific and brutal as the Southern enslavement of Africans, and that to remark the existence of any other slavery at any other time or place is thus a deliberate bid to understate the crime committed by Americans in the early nineteenth century.

I irresistibly remember a passage in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Citadelle when I read such folderol. The work’s fictitious speaker (a noble caïd, actually) is commenting upon a group of beggars as they compete to see who can get his open sores and tumors to run with the foulest puss and draw the most attention from prospective almsgivers. (Saint-Ex knew a thing or two about African slavery: he once bought a slave’s freedom from his Arab masters and flew him north to an area of temporary safety.)

Is this really where we’ve come? I haven’t yet noticed any veterans with artificial limbs commanding, “Open that door for me! Get out of that chair and let me sit! And buy me some food, while you’re at it! Can’t you see I have an artificial leg?” What man possessed of a single ounce of pride could imagine saying such things? Where, then, is the manly pride of those eternally reciting their eternal grievances?

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The Unending Christian Dispute Over Islam

Over the past few days, I’ve had several sustained exchanges with friends and acquaintances about Islam. The most ardent and influential of these correspondents insisted that my effort to distinguish between Islam and Islamism is a waste of time. He made the following points:

1) Islam itself is the problem. Its objective is not to disseminate a religious vision, but to enforce a body of law upon the rest of the world.

2) Its scriptures are replete not with descriptions of historical violence, but with “how to” varieties of “instructional violence”.

3) Its exhortation to follow Mohammed’s example (even before Koranic teaching, so my friend argues), drives such behaviors as the merciless execution of enemies and the marrying of child-brides.

4) ISIS, Al Qaeda, et al. are merely following Islam to the letter; civil, peaceful, amiable Muslims (of which my friend concedes there are many) are in fact far less true to their faith than the terrorist is.

5) Islam continues to spread unrest of the most sanguinary sort around the world, and has done so without respite throughout its history: e.g., Boko Haram’s predations in Nigeria, which doesn’t “take their oil or support Israel or any of that crap.”

I can’t maintain that I have ever found reading the Koran particularly uplifting—or, I should say, that the uplifting parts seem to me sufficient motive to brush away the disturbing parts. And I will quickly add that parts of the Old Testament have always deeply troubled me, from Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son to the programs of genocide in the books of Samuel. But I rarely hear those sections of the Bible recommended in Christian culture as paradigms for how we should conduct ourselves in daily life or how our nation should construct a foreign policy. Another friend made the oft-repeated point to me that this resistance to ignoring certain bellicose sections of the Koran—or this acquiescence to the decisions of leaders not to ignore them—is a major stumbling block to those of us who would reach across the barriers of traditional practice.

I mentioned Zuhdi Jasser to my most vocal contact. He revealed that he had actually worked with Jasser and found him completely sincere… but that the good doctor’s humane secularism was doomed to failure in the broader Islamic world.

Honesty compels me to say that I can’t disagree with most of the points made in these exchanges. I suppose one of my reservations would qualify as pragmatic. It’s this: I don’t know where moderate Muslims like Jasser and Qanta Ahmed are to turn if we say, “You’re lovely people… but your diabolical faith must either devour you or transform you. Your one chance is to cross entirely over to our side.” Isn’t that an ideal strategy for pushing all of the moderates over to the other side?

I have one more objection, which is not at all pragmatic but has a much stronger grip upon me. As a Christian, I am fully persuaded that God is not morally inscrutable to us, but rather that He speaks very comprehensibly of basic right and wrong to every ear that listens. Nevertheless, I cannot tell a Muslim, “Your god is too distant, too arbitrary and morally unmoored from humanity”—not when it is we who practice wholesale abortion and insist that mainstream culture admit one deviant sexual practice after another. I am ashamed of Christendom, on the whole. Perhaps so many Muslims are convinced that Christianity is not the answer because they see how self-styled Christian populations behave on TV, at the movies, through the medium of pop music, and even in legislative decisions.

Marrying a child-bride is pretty awful. Slipping off on weekend junkets from Frisco or Seattle to Thailand so you can wallow through fields of child-prostitutes… well, I think I’m okay with beheading in those instances.

Cutting Cards to Determine the Start of World War III: A Good Idea?

As determined as I am not to use this space to talk politics, I’ve been asked repeatedly over the past 48 hours about the missile strike on the Syrian airbase… and, frankly, with a son who’s just turned twenty-two and memories of our nation’s Vietnam days still prominent, I’m thinking a lot about asinine military moves and their consequences.

Actually, nothing I want to say is really political. I leave that to others. Trump-apologists are spinning away at their media looms, while Trump-haters are studying with equal ingenuity how to represent the strike as a disaster. (The ingenuity is required because most of them, as a matter of record, have long wanted Assad removed.) For myself, I’m content to make a few observations.

I’ve never been a fan of “putting Putin in his place”. This line of reasoning seems childish to me almost beyond belief. We’re not talking about Wrestlemania here. Putin is no choirboy, but we should be courting him away from an alliance with the Chinese. His cardinal sin of “invading” Ukraine followed upon a violent and illegal coup staged by pro-European West Ukranians–and he was actually invited into East Ukraine by a regional majority whose petitioning for basic concessions from the new government (e.g., being able to teach their children in their own language) was arrogantly ignored. Virtually all of the people who are now screeching, Putin est delendus, were warning after the Crimean plebiscite (and it was a legal plebiscite, by the way) that Putin would forthwith move in on Poland, Finland, and so on. Didn’t happen. Why is anyone still listening to them?

I’d be happy to put Bashar al-Assad on my “drop dead” list… somewhere well below Kim Jong Un. The Hannity brigade is trying to represent the elimination of the former as somehow leading to that of the latter. Wish I could understand how that works… hope it does. I guess the Chinese are supposed to be so unnerved at the sight of this drunken U.S. cowboy wandering the streets with sticks of dynamite that they hustle their own drunken punk, Kim the Kid, back into the stable with his Derringer. That, too, doesn’t strike me as a very adult way to address problems which could erupt into World War III.

With whom will Assad be replaced? With another Morsi, democratically elected by the local equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood? Are we really eager to firm up an alliance with the House of Saud and Erdogan–doesn’t this suggest that our definition of “intolerably repressive dictatorship” is rather too well lubricated?

Trump claims that seeing video of poisoned children altered his resolve to hold aloof. Does anyone remember Madeline Albright’s making almost identical remarks about seeing photos of mass graves in Bosnia before our involvement there? Turned out that those photos were faked. Are we so sure that we have all the facts in the present case?

And if the murder of children is the “red line”, then haven’t Bush and (especially) Obama killed enough children in drone strikes–at least a thousand by some estimates–to qualify as an atrocity? Or is being shredded by shrapnel below “red line” threshold because death by sarin gas is so much more agonizing?

My inclination is to call crap on all this. I do hope it ends well, since the first dominoes have already toppled… but I really, really don’t like the sense of being manipulated and fed loads of garbage. There’s enough of that coming from leftwing media without the further contributions of neo-con Machiavellians. B.S. is as toxic to aging civilizations as sarin is to children.

Tocqueville, the Pilgrims… and ISIS: Enough to Make You Squirm

When I recently began rereading Alexis de Tocqueville’s De la Démocratie en Amérique, my objective was less to garner information (as it had been previously) than simply to enjoy the scenery.  I wasn’t disappointed.  The first chapter, at least, is so fluidly, lyrically written that it deserves a place in literature textbooks, whatever one may think of Tocqueville’s formidable chronicling abilities. You could read these pages aloud in French and understand why the Académie Française used to get so worked up about defending the mother tongue. (That’s probably a thing of the distant past.)

What has me more than a little distracted from style in the second chapter, however, is the restless ghost of ISIS that keeps flitting between and behind the lines.  Yes, ISIS.  The author is describing the devout (we would say fanatical) penal codes promulgated by the Pilgrims in founding their utopian society.  Here are a few examples.

A certain Margaret Bedford was condemned to the lash for “reprehensible acts”, then forced to marry her co-offender, Nicolas Jemmings. These acts may have consisted of no more than exchanging an indiscreet kiss or laughing at an unseemly joke. They almost surely did not include actual adultery, which—as of about 1650—was punishable by execution, along with blasphemy and witchcraft. Laziness and drunkenness were also severely (though not capitally) targeted by the Puritan penal code.

Note 44 remarks that Anabaptists were banished from Massachusetts in 1644. As for Quakers, any ship’s captain who delivered one such to the colony was severely fined. Furthermore, “Quakers who manage to enter will be whipped and submitted to hard labor in prison. Those who persist in their opinions will first be subjected to a fine, then condemned to prison and subsequently banished from the province.”

Note 45: “In the penal law of Massachusetts, a Catholic priest who sets foot in the colony after having been expelled from it is punished with death.”

Tocqueville is naturally dismayed by the despotic tendencies of New England’s communal governments.  “Such erratic acts assuredly bring shame upon the human spirit,” he laments.  “They testify to the weakness of our nature, which, being incapable of clinging firmly to truth and justice, is most often reduced to choosing between two excesses.”

Yet Tocqueville seems oddly swept up in Yankee enthusiasm when he comes to the subject of public education.  He not only remarks, but stresses, that the first duty of such education in the eyes of Massachusetts lawmakers is to serve God.  Retrograde citizens who refuse to submit their children to the regimen of the officially sanctioned schoolhouse may see those children permanently taken from them.  (Still no protest registered by the author: the comments fall within the framework of how far ahead of Europe’s medieval customs is New England.)

By the time Tocqueville is transcribing a speech of Governor Winthrop’s, he appears ready to leap from his chair and applaud along with the assembled legislators.  Yet the Governor’s words, to my ear, draw a faintly disturbing distinction between liberty that will accept no authority and liberty practiced within the dictates of the commune.  Couldn’t James Jones have said the same thing? Was it not Tocqueville himself who wrote a mere few pages earlier that we pitiful humans can only lurch from one extreme to the other?

I’m not trying to build a case based upon that “moral equivalency” so deplored by right-wing bloggers and talking heads. Puritans are not ISIS warriors. At their worst, they executed the “desperate sinner” with a certain solemnity… or at least burning witches were not uploaded to YouTube as they writhed and as their tormentors did victory laps around the stake. Most of these laws were also soon repealed, or else so seldom invoked in all their horror that they became fossilized relics in the civil code.

Nevertheless, the obvious needs to be said. The butcher-boys of ISIS are as bad as they come—were I commander-in-chief, I would order my troops not to take any prisoners unless they were plainly under the age of consent; but the crusading “saints” who founded much of our early nation had moments when they looked darned near as insane as a bunch of decapitating thugs waving a holy book. People have an ugly side. All of us have it. The first stage to surrendering self-control to that side is forgetting its poisonous presence. Do not expect purity of anything human… and while you’re at it, don’t let yourself off the hook.

How Should a Christian Handle Islam These Days?

The student who encouraged me to begin this blog as a means of promoting my literary ambitions is a devout Muslim.

Qanta Ahmad, author of a book I’ve just finished (In the Land of Invisible Women), is a fully credentialed M.D. who frequently and publicly criticizes the Saudi oppression of women… and she is also a devout Muslim.

Zudhi Jasser, another M.D. and author, likewise often chastises radical Islam as a FOX News contributor… and is likewise a practicing Muslim.

Abortion is not tolerated in the Muslim world; neither is homosexuality.  Though the Christian approach to such behaviors is (or should be) more nuanced than outright condemnation accompanied by severe corporal punishment, most denominations today will not so much as imply that pulling the plug on the unborn is in any way wrong, or that same-sex ménages –and even marriages–are more a reaction to past abuse than a healthy expression of developing identity.

And yet, the Koran is full of passages that advise (not to mention enjoin) persecuting (not to mention slaying) the infidel… and yet, the Old Testament is full of passages where God is said to slaughter the enemies of the Jews–man, woman, and child–or to command their slaughter.

Yet in 2016, Jews and Christians do not read these passages literally and obey them to the letter, for the most part.  A woman in my neck of the woods attempted to kill her three young sons a few years back (and succeeded in killing two) because, so she said, she was following the counsel of Deuteronomy 19.  She was treated as criminally insane–and rightly so.  Why, then, does terrorism remain a predominantly Muslim problem?

Most Muslims will never harm anyone–yet far too many seem unwilling to judge terrorist acts harshly in opinion polls.  How many American Christians, though, are disturbed by the Obama Administration’s escalating use of drone strikes in an orgy of killing that has left perhaps a thousand non-combatant children dead?

I would like to write much more about Qanta Ahmad’s book, and especially her understanding of Islam, at a later time.  She seems to be inspired with a keen sense of right and wrong, and to impose this sense as a filter upon her reading of the Koran.  One might say that she is deluding herself… but do not humane, upright Christians filter parts of the Old Testament in the same way?  Must they not?  Is not our common conviction as Christians that God has entrusted to the fastnesses of our soul the spirit of truth, such that holy writ only teaches us explicitly what the wind had already whispered to us?  And does that spirit of truth, then, not sometimes enlighten us in the interpretation of passages somewhat tarnished by cultural distortion?  And if this is so, then should not a Muslim, as a human being, have sufficient hearing to detect the same whisper in interpreting different passages?

I think there are more evil men cloaking their designs in Islamic piety right now than in the parallel pieties of a pseudo-Christianity.  We in the Christian world enjoy the odd luxury of being reviled by most members of our ruling class–a luxury which we should embrace more vigorously.  It is good to be reviled by the vile.  Islam has not achieved the same clarity, and appears to have a long way to go.  I have a feeling that we can help out more by calling any bad act by its name than we can by categorizing it first as the work of a Christian or a Muslim.