Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

April 4, 2018

The continuity of a people

Filed under: Civilisation,Culture — Razib Khan @ 12:09 am

From a comment below [edited]:

The Chinese and Egyptians are an interesting case in this because they had one of the earliest written scripts (or rather tradition across generations to impart and carry information) and it was spread over long surviving/thriving timelines.

But then Egyptians lost the linguistic capability and lost their history even though they had archaeological structures all around them.

Language IS Culture. Literally.

There is only so much oral tradition can do. Even if it survives the population scale that carrier it becomes smaller and smaller and the cultural pressures from the majority overwhelm or dilutes the narrative 1000 years later. This happened in India. People forgot/evolved their ancestry even if there were a gross minority of class who remembered their class’s origin myths in a certain way.

From a purely reductive and spare understanding of human flourishing, this is irrelevant trivia.

The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas was no great loss. They were stone. Carved by man. That might be a Benthamite view. It would be a Salafi view.

But most people don’t think this way.

One of the themes of Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt is that the temple institutions persisted over thousands of years. Even as dynasties turned over, the temples maintained a link to the past. Though many of their cultural characteristics were disappearing by the time of Ptolemies the Egyptians of this period still exhibited continuity with their ancestors. The hieroglyphic system actually was used down to 400 AD. The last inscription is dated to 394 at the temple of Philae. Philae continued in operation down to the 6th century, before it was closed by Justinian.

Other documents indicate knowledge of the hieroglyphic system into the 5th century AD. But the destruction of the old temples, the old customary religion, was the death of the old history and identity.

The Chinese continuity is striking because it is true that down the last years of Imperial China in the early 20th century the literati could access the entire corpus of Chinese though back 2,000 years. Dynasties fell, but unlike the West, there was no rupture with antiquity.

The case of India is interesting because I would argue Hindu Indians have maintained continuity with the civilization of India as it had matured in the centuries around the invasion of Alexander the Great. The Brahmins have maintained Vedic texts and the Sanskrit language. Those from the Abrahamic traditions sometimes contemptuously refer to Hinduism as “pagan,” but there is some truth in this, insofar as the religion grew and accrued itself organically from the native cultural traditions.

Today China is promoting “Confucius Institutes” as part of its “soft power.” Chinese who lived in the late 1960s would find this very strange, as they had abolished Confucius and were overturned the culture, the civilization, of China. But such tumult is not sustainable. I wonder if we are going through the same thing in the West. If so, perhaps we too will be promoting Plato institutes a generation from now?

January 9, 2012

You know barbarians when you see them

Filed under: Barbarian,Civilisation — Razib Khan @ 8:21 pm

When I use the word “barbarian,” I use it to denote phenomena which are just difficult to comprehend from my own Weltanschauung. For example, Egypt’s Women Find Power Still Hinges on Men:

At first Samira Ibrahim was afraid to tell her father that Egyptian soldiers had detained her in Tahrir Square in Cairo, stripped off her clothes, and watched as she was forcibly subjected to a “virginity test.”

Six other women were subjected to “virginity tests” by the soldiers that night in March when Ms. Ibrahim was assaulted. The humiliation was so great, Ms. Ibrahim said, that she initially hoped to die. “I kept telling myself, ‘People get heart attacks, why don’t I get a heart attack and just die like them?’ ”

Her mother’s advice was to keep silent, if she ever hoped to marry, or even lead a dignified life in their village in rural Upper Egypt, Ms. Ibrahim said in an interview.

When she did speak out, Egyptian new media shunned her, she said, and only the international news media would cover her story. She received telephone calls at all hours threatening rape or death. But with the support of her father — an Islamist activist who was detained and tortured two decades ago — she persevered, and next week will go back to military court in an attempt to hold the perpetrators accountable as well….

I can intellectually try and characterize what’s going on here. But the first reaction to hearing that a woman who speaks out about being sexually abused is threatened by strangers with rape because of their anger with her is “what the fuck!?!?!”

December 24, 2011

Either blasphemy laws or multiculturalism are moronic (probably both)

Filed under: Barbarism,Civilisation,Culture,Savagery — Razib Khan @ 10:02 am

As a matter of fact I think both blasphemy laws and multiculturalism are moronic. But together they make a dynamic moron duo which leads to nothing but social stagnation. One can’t easily characterize the “hurt feelings” of primitive morons, and when you have around 1 billion of them it’s impossible (the vast majority of Indians are in thrall to higher superstitions). India pessimists are having a good week. First they block the expansion of Walmart (favoring hundreds of thousands of petty traders over hundreds of millions of potential consumers), and now this idiotic plan to censor the internet due to the feelings of the nation’s most barbaric aspect (which by the way has been exported to England).

July 22, 2011

Why Far Right parties are doing well in Scandinavia

Filed under: Civilisation,Parasites,Welfare — Razib Khan @ 12:38 pm

These are the type of “immigrants” which are much more common and visible in Scandinavia than in the USA (note that these don’t represent the majority, many are intra-Norden migrants and so aren’t salient, or are culturally easy to assimilate like anti-Islamist Iranians and Leftist Chileans).

June 16, 2011

Why are Muslims so eloquently barbaric?

Filed under: Civilisation,Islam — Razib Khan @ 12:44 am

I want to follow up Eurasian Sensation’s post on female false-consciousness. If you look in the World Values Survey you’ll see that plenty of non-Muslim societies are very reactionary and barbaric, even savage. The anti-gay hysteria in Uganda is representative of the non-Muslim face of barbarism. China, Japan, and Korea, are very secular societies, where organized religion is a minority force. But when it comes to gender relations they have a very different model and expectations from the West. So it’s not Islam, and it’s not religion.

But nevertheless Muslims do seem to be very explicit and eloquent in their barbaric arguments. Why? I think there are two primary reasons:

1) First, more generally gods are powerful, and allow people to be more confident in the ontological solidity of their assertions. Conservatism of habit, custom, and tradition, are inchoate and frankly somewhat difficult to defend on rational grounds. I know this very well, because I am personally disposed to just this sort of conservatism. In contrast, Muslims have an entire theory predicated on their primitive deity. Even if you don’t believe in the supernatural you have a hard time denying the internal consistency between their barbarism and their superstition. But the same goes for Ugandan Christians, so why do Muslims seem more prominent in arguments against “universal human rights,” which are admittedly most well developed in the West?

2) Islam differs from other religions insofar as the cultural elites of Islam, Arabs, and in particular Gulf Arabs who feed the modern “Islamic international” money, are a particular regressive and barbaric bunch. By barbaric, I’m not saying they’re savages. Gulf Arabs have a well elucidated and coherent world view. It’s just totally alien to the trajectory of much of the West. Muslims like those in Turkey are pulled between these two extremes, all the while attempting to forge their own vision of how to flourish.

In contrast, barbaric African Christians rely on money from liberal civilized Western Christians, who work at counter-purposes to their regression. The Anglicans of Africa hold to very conservative and “traditionalist” views, but they come for the begging bowl to the gay-friendly, and sometimes gay, clerics of the wealthy West. This is in sharp contrast to the world of Islam, where Muslims from poor marginal nations are arguably more latitidinarian in inclination than the Islamic heartland.

At the end of the day this structural-demographic problem is why I think the project of “Western Islam” which tears itself away from the cultural presuppositions of the “Islamic world” has major issues. The reality is that the vast majority of the world’s 1 billion+ Muslims have a very alien Weltanschauung from that of the West. I don’t believe there’s anything logically contradictory in being a liberal pro-gay Muslim, to given one example, but such Muslims must confront the reality that the vast majority of their co-religionists would find such viewpoints not only noxious but totally incompatible with the fundamentals of the faith. As an atheist I think such objections are “not even wrong,” I don’t think religion has any fundamentals aside from what man imposes upon it. But if you actually bow down before made up idols and call them living gods in a sincere manner you can’t dismiss the vast majority of your co-religionists so flippantly. So if you’re a pro-gay Muslim trying to preach to your fellow believers of the justice of your position, I think it’s somewhat like convincing a bunch of people with Down Syndrome of the reality of simultaneity. They don’t have basic raw materials at this point to even understand where you’re coming from, it seems so incomprehensible and obscene. If this seems unbelievable, consider that in 1950 a pro-gay argument would probably fall on deaf ears in the West too.

Addendum: Multiculturalism as it is presently constructed tends to given religious viewpoints special consideration, because it rightly acknowledges that perspectives informed by faith are genuinely sincere and heartfelt. Unfortunately I think this allows for the persistence of illiberal and culturally out of sync values among Muslims in places like Europe.

April 13, 2011

Can a colored person be Western?

Filed under: Civilisation,Culture,Western — Razib Khan @ 7:05 pm

This is a disagreement I’ve had with some Europeans and colored people, and all white nationalists, on this issue. I identify as Western, which they think is simply not possible on racial grounds (Europeans are generally nice and patronizing about it, the colored people and white nationalists are nasty and sociopathic). I am prompted to moot this because of commenter “Dave’s” contention that Brazil is peripherally Western. This seems ridiculous on the face of it. The religion of the vast majority of Brazilians is Roman Catholic or Protestant Christianity. And the language of Brazil is clearly Western. Also, Brazil was a colony, but fundamentally it is settler society, unlike Portuguese Angola or Mozambique, where the foreign power ruled over native masses. Unlike Mexico or the Andean nations there isn’t a large indigenous identity counter-narrative. The Afro-Brazilian identity has only minimal organic connection to West Africa, and therefore doesn’t serve as a high culture challenge to the Luso-Brazilian identity.

Therefore I have to think that the peripheral identification of Brazil has to do with its racial character. About 75% of the ancestry of Brazilians overall is European. I know some workers in the Brazilian genomics community, and one could probably peg the colored ancestry of the typical “white Brazilian” in the 10% range, while 25% for “brown” and 50% for “black” Brazilians. There’s also a widespread Amerindian substrate across all racial classes in Brazil.

April 3, 2011

The fiction and fact of nationality

Filed under: Civilisation,Culture,Hinduism,India,Islam,Pakistan,Two Nation Theory — Razib Khan @ 10:19 pm

In the comments below I quipped that the “Two-Nation Theory” is obviously “made up.” By this I was pointing more to the importance of construction of identity and founding myths more than anything else. For example, in the United States of America I grew up with a founding myth of a righteous revolution against the British monarchy, predicated on taxation without representation. By “I grew up with,” I mean that in elementary school the myth was both explicit and implicit in the instructional materials. As I matured, and began exploring history with more texture and depth, I  came to conclusion that this is a myth in the most literal sense. There were many shades of gray. The revolutionaries, who never formed more than one out of three Americans even during the height of the rebellion, were operating more out of particularities of self-interest (though there was clearly a strain of idealism, as evidenced by Thomas Paine). It seems likely that much of their rationale was either false or fictional.

Nevertheless, I am proud of America and Americans. History is what it is, and whatever the justice of the founding myth (or lack thereof), on the balance the American republic has been a success. Even the child of rape can attain greatness.


Similarly, I think the idea of a Muslim Indian nation is clearly fictional in terms of a legacy from the past. Similarly, a Hindu nation is also a fiction which does not accurately represent the past. A maximalist argument would suggest that there was near total disjunction between the Turco-Iranian Muslim elites of India’s Islamic period and the large communities of artisans and peasants who shifted their nominal religious identity from India’s indigenous traditions to that of the rulers. Similarly, many would argue that a coherent Hindu identity is an recent artifact of the collision with confessional universal faiths such as Islam and Christianity. That the penumbra of religio-philosophies which we would term “Hindu” had almost no contact with the lived experiences of the vast majority of India’s peasantry. A cold materialist reading might argue that the old ashraf Muslim elite duped the Muslim masses into a communal identity which was congenial to their classic game of extracting rents. Similarly, the high culture Hindus synthesized a common Hindu identity from old and new ideas which bound South Asians together, also to further their own material interests by allowing for the formation of a macro-state which allowed for grand economies of scale and power projection.

I think there’s some reality to this cynical reading, but I think the idea that a Hindu and Muslim identity arose circa 1850 is too cute and ideological. It too is a fiction, often promoted by those with post-colonial leanings to whom white Europeans are the only Creators, of all that is good and bad in the world. A more neutral telling might argue that the nation as a concept was birthed by the French Revolution, and confessional identities gained coherency with only the Radical Reformation. I do not accept this.

We need to turn our backs to black and white certitudes. A certitude which my flip language below implied, but which I do not hold to. Clearly the Muslims of India, initially intrusive aliens, had an identity which made them distinct from the native religious practices. But unlike the magi of the Iranian world the Indian religious traditions did not whither in the face of these powerful superior Others; rather, Indian religion entered into a phase of involution, co-option, adaptation, and eventually reflexive counter-action. But this was only a phase in a long history. Islam did not create Hinduism. Many elements of Indian religion clearly have deep roots which go back to the initial conflicts between Brahmanism and Sramanism. One should be cautious of imputing to Hinduism a purely reflexive and responsive dynamic. Some have suggested that the Bhakti devotional stream in Indian religion was shaped by the interaction with Islam. To me this seems tenuous not only on chronological grounds, but the analogs to Bhakti are also clearly evident early in some strains of Buddhism during its late Indian phase (e.g., see the origins of Pure Land). This does not entail that the religious traditions of different faiths did not influence each other. But, it removes from any given faith a particular genius from which others had to borrow.

March 26, 2011

Why India

Filed under: Civilisation,India — Razib Khan @ 11:33 am

On Indian peculiarities. Why has India been able to maintain a modestly robust democracy despite its great scale and poverty? (the modesty is introduced in particular by Indira Gandhi’s 1970s interlude) Secondly, why did Indian religious traditions manage to persist in the fact of centuries of Islamic hegemony? To the point where upper class Hindus adopted many of the forms of ‘Islamicate’ civilization.

February 28, 2011

Pre-modern elites were thieves

Filed under: Civilisation,Conquest — Razib Khan @ 2:04 am

Though there were periodic intrusions of South Asia from the west, there seems to have been little flow of people and political power projection from South Asia out to Iran and Turan.* Why? Traditionally I have favored geographically contingent parameters. Populations from warmer climes tend not be well prepared for the winters in northern climes, while those from frigid climes can usually adapt by shedding clothing. The difficulties of the Arabs in pushing their power very far north of the Caucasus was an instance of this, as the records seem to indicate some difficultly in adapting to the reality of the north Eurasian winter (Islam’s penetration of the north came via the conversion of the Turks). In contrast, Turkic peoples have moved south for the past 1,000 years with relative ease.

But I realized another factor which I think is more important in hindsight: pre-modern elites were generally in the business of extracting rents from subjects. The more subjects, the more rents. So, the ruler of India is clearly far wealthier than the ruler of Mongolia, even if the average Mongol has a higher per capita level of wealth and health. On the margin there simply wasn’t much profit in conquering wastelands for autocrats of densely populated regions. This is clear in the historical record, by the time of Claudius it was presumed that his conquest of Britain was more a matter of personal vanity, glory and prestige, than necessity. Though particularly egomaniacal potentates, such as Han Wuti, may have felt that there was a need to send massive armies to conquer lands which were barely inhabited by savages, in general these societies felt it more rational to simply pay off the barbarians outside the gates (the Chinese case is well attested, but the East Roman Empire did this for centuries leading up to, and after, the fall of the West Roman Empire).

It is clear from the early Muslim annals that India was viewed as a land of riches. But, I think we misunderstand the perspective if we view India as the Netherlands or Japan of its era in relation to the Mashriq or Iran. Before the Industrial Revolution the average standard of living in all societies was only marginally above subsistence. Differences of per capita wealth were on the order of 10-20%, or less. Not the multiples, or even orders of magnitude, which we’re familiar with today. So how was India so rich? It was rich in people, so from the perspective of predatory elites it was a place where you could become very rich indeed.

The best analogy for wealth then is how some African pastoralists view their cattle. More cattle = more wealth. More subjects = more wealth. Not because individual subjects were wealthy, but because stealing a small amount from more people sums up into a large pile of rents extracted. Of course such economic-structural arguments have their limits. The Mughals periodically attempted to conquer Samarkand. Why? Because they were Timurids, and Samarkand was the traditional seat of their lineage. In other words, there are emotional reasons to conquer worthless territory which does not redound to one’s bottom line. That certainly explains much of 19th century European colonialism, which was on the balance a transfer of payments from the citizenry to the well-connected aristocrats and plutocrats, who could take advantage of opportunities offered in the colonies.

* I make a distinction here between demographically salient events, such as mass migrations, and culturally influential ones. In the latter case obviously Buddhism, and to a lesser extent Hinduism in Afghanistan, flowed to the northwest.

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