August 21, 2022

Miscellaneous thoughts on history, objectivity, activism, and useable pasts

 I thought I'd offer a few thoughts about history and the historical profession from the vantage point of my own (limited) experience. Maybe it will be beneficial in clarifying what is at stake in the current US debates about "presentism" in history.

Coming from a grassroots activist before I entered a History Ph.D. program, I have been steeped in leftist and activist versions of history as "useable past". The relevant political question was always, "what is to be done?"

Gradually as I went through graduate school, I became interested in holding that question in abeyance, so as to ask another question: "what happened/what is happening?" Doing so meant 'unlearning' or complicating some common activist shibboleths.

I came to appreciate the notion of objectivity as incredibly relevant, urgent and necessary to this work. I came to the gradual conviction that characterizations of objectivity as an outdated idea in service to the status quo, err mightily and consequentially. In fact, I concluded the opposite: that embrace of objectivity's irrelevance leads to the gradual hollowing out of an ability to say much of anything of substance. I came to this conviction through a period of soul-searching and encounter with post-modernism, which at the time I was in graduate school, was being treated by many graduate students in diverse disciplines as a kind of academic activism, the path to liberation from the tyranny of reason.

In short, I have become more and more convinced of the value of objectivity, problematic as it may be, for appreciating the strangeness of the past. We are still in the infancy of a comprehensive understanding the evolution and development of ourselves as a human species and civilization; enormous realms of human activity in the past, stretching over hundreds of thousands of years, continue to remain opaque to us in the present. History's relevance goes well beyond present political concerns.

Now what I've observed of the discipline is that a significant number of my senior colleagues came through opposite routes, privileging methodological mastery and academic professionalism all along. For them, I gather, politicizing history and questioning objectivity can feel like a fresh and necessary break from what may have become a stale 'academic' pursuit. The idea that the study of history can and ought to reflect presentist concerns, is liberating for them. While I respect the efforts of colleagues to combat the hide-bound conservatism of the academy, and remain fully committed to the idea of reading history to inform one's activism, I am starting to embrace the reality that my unique past experiences have led me to very different conclusions about the relationship between the academy and activism.

For one, from what I can see, a good deal of those I've observed pushing this direction, are taking their cues from a professional class of media-anointed activists and personalities, rather than the 'grassroots' as such. In my opinion, well-meaning efforts to push the historical discipline to embrace as axiomatic a form of "usable past" activism, has and will continue to contribute to undermining the broader societal relevance of historical thought, rather than contributing to its revival. There are more than a few people I've met over the years under the impression that by criticizing more conservative interpreters in the discipline they are combatting actual Nazis. This lack of perspective is a direct consequence of the lack of contact they have with the grassroots they claim to be producing a usable past for.

Useable pasts are necessary (and unavoidable in politics), but in my opinion historians ought to beware of making their production central to the discipline. In doing so, they undermine the very thing that makes the discipline unique. For me, at this juncture, a historical study conducted with methodological rigor and a commitment to objectivity, is something thousands of times more valuable, enduring, and interesting to read, than a study written to resonate with contemporary orthodoxies, often by those who fatuously claim to have transcended or outgrown the notion of objectivity.

And this brings me to my last notion. A certain dynamic ideological tension is necessary and good for the discipline and for the academy at large. I prefer to inhabit a university where the ideological landscape actually reflects the full and splendid ideological anarchy of the grassroots, not an ideologically purified sanctum. I have no truck for scholars who are serial abusers and do actual material harm. But the problem with mid-career historians embracing activism to go with the times, is that most of that energy is (naturally) turned inward, on others in the discipline who express IDEAS or OPINIONS deemed problematic or even harmful. These sort of efforts alienate me, as I find them highly myopic and often cloyingly self-righteous. In short, while I remain on the left, I find the push towards liberal ideological conformity within the discipline (reflected in the belief that bad ideas are equivalent to harm) incredibly dull and reflective of the alienation of historians from the grassroots. Some of my most interesting presentations have been to an audience of people who sharpened my thinking through vigorous disagreement. This sort of low-level 'conflict' sharpens faculties, increases acuity, and improves my thinking. In my experience, academic aversion to this sort of conflict is also reflective of kind of an alienation from the necessary life experience of encountering frank unvarnished disagreement. I'm grateful for my time as a grassroots activist because of what it taught me about the importance of this kind of contained conflict for a healthy civic life. It is my conviction that such disagreement is normal and necessary to human flourishing, and that it helps, not hurts, the 'left' and the project of studying the past from a 'left' perspective. Demands that historians apologize for the expression of ideas, and the apology for "offensive" ideas, are both symptoms of a more general malaise of bourgeois alienation from the grassroots.

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May 13, 2022

secular forms of Christian perfectionism within academia

I can vividly remember in the cult I was raised in, moments where we were made to listen to Christian apologetics--'proving' the inerrancy of the gospel, 'proving' how evolution wasn't real, or how Christian courtship was the only way to have a happy marriage. The function of these sessions, no matter how much it was asserted that this was so, was not to genuinely explore evidence to arrive at an unbiased conclusion, nor to encourage a genuine diversity of thought, but to find the pathway through to the predetermined 'correct' idea. In this way, otherwise outlandish and illogical ideas were able to appear to well-intentioned and perfectly intelligent rational people as having a strong patina of plausibility. When the factor of subtle communal pressure was added to this, it meant that anyone who wanted to remain in community would not challenge the orthodoxy. This meant that what was really at stake epistemologically and methodologically was obscured by gnosticism, in which God's will on earth was presumed instantiated by the group's leaders. To ask uncomfortable questions about groupthink was the same as questioning God's will.

There are massive differences between a small cult and the secular academy, but some of the more extreme progressive academic discourse resembles nothing so much as the gnostic theology of a cult. Like a cult, the goal is not independent thought but to find the way to the 'correct' idea, stated in the 'correct' language, that broadcasts that you belong to the 'right' people. There is not an independent method to arrive at truth, because truth is (like it was in the cult) purely a function of where you stand in relation to who is in power.

Now there is nothing wrong with forming a group around certain ideas; every group's foundations are to some extent a matter of social conformity rather than independent moral reasoning. But this tendency in academia concerns me because of the gap between what these groups imagine the stakes of their ideas are, and the actual state of the university within US society today. They remind me of warriors who have lost the map of the terrain of battle, and have become deluded that their real and ultimate enemies are within their academic disciplines. As neo-liberalism and austerity carve our vocation as humanities scholars into bits, and as the right ramps up the culture wars against the university, some of them imagine that it would be a good thing for certain departments or disciplines to be destroyed in the name of progress towards a 'revolution' deemed to be held back only by a cabal of 'status quo' scholars who lack sufficient faith in this alleged progress.

The end result of this secular form of Christian perfectionism seems nearly the same on the left as the conservative Christian cult I grew up in: a proportionally tiny group who imagine that the walls of the academy are the world itself, and that they are at the center of the site of a tremendous battle purifying the evils on the way to remaking the world. Like the cult I grew up in, this type of thinking appeals to the alienated and disaffected among the intellectuals because it is full of hubris that is made to appear morally justified. But this tendency is limiting. Such groups are inherently weak, easily divided by ideological infighting over small issues and thus easily picked off and overwhelmed by ideological opponents who really understand power. Not understanding power except in theoretical terms, this academic 'super-left' (to borrow Ali Mazrui's phrase) remain on the margins of it, and this place itself comes to seem like a form of exceptional virtue, as well as a form of evidence that there is a conspiracy against the truth they possess.

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April 4, 2022

The cave at Hira and the importance of place to mystical experience

I've long been fascinated by the earliest "revelation" received by Muhammad, which he interpreted as being from the angel Gabriel. I believe Muhammad's experience in the cave with the Angel Gabriel was real. While I accept that Muhammad is the only valid source for what happened to himself, I am also convinced that the orthodox interpretation of the experience is only one of a range of possible interpretations one could have given to it. For instance, if Buddha Gautama was in that cave, I do not think he would have spoken of the Angel Gabriel, for the Angel Gabriel would have been culturally alien to his worldview.

When I step back from Muhammad's interpretation and think about the sacred space of Hira, the impression I'm left with is the fundamental importance of that cave as a 'gate' to another reality, where there is always the potential for humans to have an experience of, an experience that lies beyond the sensory world of common sense experience. All revelation and mystical experience in human history, if it is not the specious invention of a complete charlatan (a possibility!), is made possible by the intersection between these spaces and the personalities of certain sensitive individuals.

In studying the life of Muhammad, I've come to understand that it is only natural for one who has such an experience to interpret it through the lens of their own linguistic and cultural frame of reference. And I also hold out that it is always possible for the one experiencing this to misinterpret its meaning, since even the greatest of humanity are potentially unreliable guides to an experience that by design overwhelms one's senses and sense of normalcy. These interpretations in language are almost always a partial understanding of phenomena that remain fundamentally mysterious. But I am convinced there are other places on this earth very similar to Hira cave. This is actually one reason I can think of why the recovery of indigenous epistemologies is very important work, not only politically, but spiritually.

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March 16, 2022

Lamya al-Mugheiry and the global worlds of the Swahili


One of the fascinating minutiae of the global Swahili-speaking Omani diaspora is the late great Lamya al-Mugheiry. Born in Mombasa, Kenya and raised in Oman, Cairo and the UK, according to Wikipedia, she ran away from home at age 16 to pursue a musical career in New York city. A brilliant vocalist with a five octave range able to hit the 'whistle register', she sang vocals on Duran Duran's "Come Undone" during their Unplugged tour, worked with Soul II Soul, and released a highly underrated solo album, "Lamya". She passed away suddenly of a heart attack in Oman in her mid-forties [thanks to Sa'ad for the correction]. Someone ought to write her posthumous musical biography. Because otherwise I'm gonna do it, once this first book is done.

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November 4, 2021

Between CRT & me

 If I may, I'd like to share some brief reflections on the endurance of racism in US society, and the absolute need to teach critical histories of that racism, from the perspective of a white male American, born in the midwest, who now teaches history in an Africana Studies department. Perhaps these limited reflections will offer some insight into parents who wish to understand the meaning of the calls to "ban" the teaching of critical race theory.

I was raised in an evangelical Christian cult. Through the good graces of some earthly mentors, I was delivered from the stultifying anti-intellectual foolishness of that group, through an opportunity to work for Habitat for Humanity in Farrell-Sherard, MS, two small towns near the levee in Coahoma County, MS. What I learned about American racism there, forever changed the course of my life. The images I saw and experiences I had in Mississippi brought me to the ineluctable conclusion that racism was an inextricable part of US history and an enduring pattern in US society, and that I had to find a way to address the conditions that helped spawn it, to play my small part in a human drama of struggle against the immoral forces of racial domination and supremacy that pre-dated me by centuries.

I thought these grandiose thoughts with all the moral passion of the eighteen-years-young man I was. I made up my mind to apprentice myself to and learn from, as many elders from the black freedom movement as I could find. At the time, New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church gave me a new reference orientation on Christianity. I learned about grassroots organizing from my supervisor Dorothy Jenkin's many lessons, while meeting many elders from the Mississippi wing of the movement (such as my Delta Service Corps supervisor, Euvester Simpson). Among and through these elders, I met committed whites of an earlier generation who thought as I did.
But in spite of these noble "accomplices" like Bob Zellner, Heather Booth and others, it was hard to ignore one significant and depressing dynamic that dwarfed their important work: most of the earlier generations of US whites were laughably, criminally ignorant of black history and black 'forms of life' in a way unlike the knowledge blacks had of whites. A great many American whites, I observed as a young man, seemed to have difficulty openly and honestly communicating with blacks without layers of guilt, condescension, or contempt. They often mistook pity for blacks as compassion. Some were only capable of treating black people as individuals if blacks conformed to their rigid expectations.
These observations, born from my sociological scrutiny of the awkward habits of interracial socializing in the US, fired a passion in me, to try to develop forms of speaking and communicating across these gaps, and to help more of my US 'tribe' become conscious of how the ideologies of anti-black racism, in addition to their other human costs, have socially damaged some white Americans to a shocking degree.
This brings me to critical race theory. When I see US politicians today ranting and raving against CRT, I cannot help but think about where they grew up, who they grew up with. Many were socialized into all white communities and never developed the necessary tools to deal with the cultural pluralism of their own society. Many powerful leaders in US history have chosen to remain behind this 'veil', a studied posture of innocence about racism which often conceals a basic attitude of domination. Many of their much less powerful white constituents have become proud of this ignorance, wielding it as form of identity politics and taking refuge in anxious patriotism to shield themselves from dealing with the corrosive effects of US racism on their own psyche. When I think of the relevance of CRT, I think of efforts over the past two centuries to change this dynamic in the US. As I sit here over 20 years later, I think of Derrick Bell's words, "If I could get that message [what racism has done to US whites] across, you could carry me away."
We can debate the effectiveness of anti-racism initiatives, observe that it has been co-opted by liberals, and criticize those who use it as an entrepreneurial venture. Racial reductionism and 'racecraft' (belief in race as a hidden ontology) are indeed as rife as ever on both sides of the US divide. But critical race theory didn't 'cause' that divide, nor does critical race theory artificially keep open a wound that otherwise would have healed, as many of its critics imply. Rather the critics, along with a great many white Americans, would simply prefer to believe the wound doesn't exist anymore, or that it can be closed with well-intentioned gestures of friendship. A more thorough recipe for spiritual rot would be hard to find than this particular brand of "know-nothing-ism."

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January 25, 2021

Webinar Presentation: Slavery and Anti-Black Racism in the Modern Indian Ocean

A short and very basic introduction to how slavery and racism interrelate in the making of the modern world, particularly the societies of the Indian Ocean. This webinar was originally given to a virtual audience of students at Christ University in Bangalore.


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November 19, 2020

Arab-Islamic Slavery: A Problematic Term for A Complex Reality

Here's a link to a short essay I wrote for Research Africa on the conceptual and historical problems with the term 'Arab-Islamic slavery'.

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June 25, 2020

Teleologies of abolitionism in modern popular understandings of the history of Islam and Christianity

There are a lot of misleading teleologies in the modern appropriation of abolitionism by contemporary Muslim and Christian faith communities. In the eagerness to uncover an 'abolitionist' impulse in their religious past, one frequently observes scholarly and popular efforts to 'prove' that some Muslims or Christians abolished slavery before it became a global norm. There have also been many efforts to portray the founders of these religions themselves as abolitionists. This is complicated by the long history of warfare on the frontiers of Christian and Muslim states, which produced many slaves.

 While I appreciate efforts to uncover these 'lost' histories, I also think it is helpful to define what 'abolitionism' is and what it is not, in the interest of greater clarity about the past. Most Christian and Muslim faith communities have historically had strong prohibitions on enslaving co-religionists. This attitude had long coexisted with a tolerance of enslavement as punishment for being captured in a battle or a war. Prohibiting the capture and sale of co-religionists is not functionally equivalent to an abolitionist viewpoint, although it may have helped in certain ways and at certain times, to stimulate abolitionism's more universalist vision. The prohibition against selling or enslaving co-religionists did not extend to those outside of the 'civilization' created by these universalist faiths, or to the idea of slavery, ownership by another, as being inherently immoral.

 If prohibiting capture and sale of co-religionists was functionally equivalent to abolition, In fact the impulse to extend the name 'abolitionist' to anyone who tried to curtail or regulate the slave traffic of co-religionists, leads to logical and historical absurdities. Are we to regard Bathilde, wife of Clovis II, as an early abolitionist because she outlawed the traffic in Christian slaves in the Merovingian state? Is the Ethiopian emperor Gälawdéwos an abolitionist, for propagating an edict against the illegal slave trade in Christians in 1548? Were the slaveowning founders of the United States 'abolitionists' for banning the slave trade from Africa? I have similar doubts about labeling West African Muslim leaders from the 17th and 18th centuries who similarly tried to curtail the TRADE in CO-RELIGIONISTS, as abolitionists. I would distinguish between people who wanted to end the slave trade or who were outraged by its excesses, from the militant position of abolitionism. Perhaps this makes me a bit out of step with recent scholarly trends, which have tended to take a 'lumping' approach to the phenomenon of abolition, rather than the 'splitting' approach I favor.

 I have argued in the Journal of Global Slavery that abolitionism is a modern discourse with origins in the brutal regime of trans-Atlantic slavery and can only with great difficulty and inconsistency be mapped onto the further past of most faith communities. There is a nonviolent wing exemplified by Quakers, the Great Awakening, and the anti-slavery efforts of people like Olaudah Equiano and Otto Cugboana, as well as an armed resistance wing exemplified by Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Sam Sharpe, the Haitian revolutionaries and the Bahian Muslim rebels. Abolitionism was not the natural working out of the 'inner logic' of the Abrahamic faiths, but a modern response to the contradictions in those discourses which had allowed slavery and the slave trade to continue to flourish. I think it is valuable to make these distinctions so we can gain a more sophisticated historical sense that, just as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights emerged as a response to, and was influenced by the Holocaust, the modern human rights revolution of abolitionism was a response to the brutalities of forced migration of Africans across the modern Atlantic, and was first and foremost a diasporic phenomenon of the Americas. My JGS article.

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June 11, 2020

Muslims, gender protection under the law, and Bostock v. Georgia

From the RFI brief in Bostock v. Georgia: "The purpose of the brief is to set forth orthodox Sunni Islam's position that sex is biologically determined upon conception, and that to interpret "sex" to mean gender identity would have applications that impinge on Muslims' religious rights." Some things that have been bugging me about this whole debate are 1) the meaning of 'biologically determined' to an 'orthodox Sunni Muslim' who does not believe in biological evolution, 2) the legal meaning of 'sin' under US civil rights law, and 3) the idea of a specific protection for 'religion', when there is no objective determination of what a religion is and religions frequently deems other religions as inherently sinful or misguided. Biology is a human science that today holds that all life on earth came into being through natural selection, aka without a creator. So when orthodox Sunni Muslims reference 'biological science' as an authority to interpret the meaning of sex and gender in the laws, it would seem that in order to avoid the charge of cherry picking, they would have to also believe in the authority of biological science to interpret the origins of human beings through evolution. If they don't, then this claim that gender protections impinge on a Muslim's right to believe in biology is nothing more than a private religious matter that religious claimants are seeking to impose on the public square with thinly veiled 'public reason' sentiments. By the logic of 'sin' presented in the brief, the fact that Muslims have to accomodate Catholics atheists, polytheists and other 'loathsome' beliefs in American life is given surprisingly short shrift. Surely the authors know of robust historical and contemporary debate among Muslims about whether or not it is even PERMISSIBLE to live outside of the sovereignty of a Muslim ruler. According to a number of orthodox Sunni Muslim authorities from the past and present, it is sinful to live in a non-Muslim state and Muslims have an obligation to emigrate. THAT contradiction in Muslim American life was once much greater than the sex/gender issue, and acknowledging that would seem to undermine their case that the 'sex/gender' issue is some kind of Muslim 'rubicon'. Finally, notice, that the Muslim Bar Association filed a separate amicus brief in this case, opposing the RFI brief. This represents to me the thorniest part of the case: how are secular courts supposed to offer accommodation for a 'religious' point of view, when it means adjudicating internal disagreements over non-creedal issues like this? It is an impossible task. In fact, 'religious' protection as a category is on even shakier conceptual grounds than sex/gender protection. There are two basic biological sexes (and a handful of intersex and gender identity expressions). With religions, no 'religious' group can totally agree with any other religious group as to what a 'religion' is and is not. In fact, many religions have beliefs that logically entail that another group's religious beliefs are 'sinful'; thus a protection of one religion's rights can entail 'sin' for another group. I'm not a lawyer. My main point is that I think this issue is blown waaay out of proportion by the average person's ignorance about intersex issues and the relationship between sex and gender. In that confusion, reactionary organizations like the RFI can position themselves as 'standing up' for Muslim rights by opposing protections for others. Recall how this case started: "Gerald Bostock, a gay man, began working for Clayton County, Georgia, as a child welfare services coordinator in 2003. During his ten-year career with Clayton County, Bostock received positive performance evaluations and numerous accolades. In 2013, Bostock began participating in a gay recreational softball league. Shortly thereafter, Bostock received criticism for his participation in the league and for his sexual orientation and identity generally. During a meeting in which Bostock’s supervisor was present, at least one individual openly made disparaging remarks about Bostock’s sexual orientation and his participation in the gay softball league. Around the same time, Clayton County informed Bostock that it would be conducting an internal audit of the program funds he managed. Shortly afterwards, Clayton County terminated Bostock allegedly for “conduct unbecoming of its employees.” (https://www.oyez.org/cases/2019/17-1618) My own opinion, from reading about the case, is that in addition to the inconsistencies I listed above regarding justifications for specific religious exemptions from the 14th Amendment, Muslims in America who are filing briefs like this are actually arguing for the right of Bostock's employer to fire him, simply for being gay in public. In doing so, they are demonstrating a callous shortsightedness (probably also motivated by fear of losing control over their institutions), which will come back to haunt them.

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June 3, 2020

Islam, Christianity and LGBT in the United States: What do we owe to each other?

This is a response to Mobeen Vaid's reflection from Feb. 19, 2020. The author of this piece is an excellent, incisive writer. I enjoy reading him, in spite of my substantive disagreements, because he makes me think. This piece is not the best example of his abilities. In fact, I think the piece shows that the author has some blind spots, some unexamined bigotry on the LGBT issue, as do many of your Muslim faves on this issue. To see why, and to see what I believe to be the shortcomings of his approach, it may help to imagine the post below being written by a Christian about Muslims. To understand the validity of this comparison, we need to erase the Eurocentric distinction of distinct "religious" and "non-religious" communities in modern society. This doesn't mean denying that certain groups think of themselves as religious groups, rather it means seeing that IT MATTERS how, and with what language, groups relate to each other in a plural society. Under US law, religious groups don't have a privileged right to an authentic identity that exceeds that of any other group. In the US, there isn't a meaningful legal distinction between the protection for religious identity, and the protection for sexual identity, although today a number of conservative Christian legal theorists are highly invested in making the distinction. However, both are legally protected by the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. A thought experiment I often perform when thinking through the subtleties of this issue, is to imagine if a Christian wrote about Islam, the way Vaid writes about LGBT. I can see a Christian 'apologizing' for centering their point of view unequivocally with the following, betraying their profound anxiety about losing followers: "There are increasingly Christians who are attracted to the abominable heresy that is Islam, who are still trying to live a life of fidelity to Jesus Christ, in spite of the increasing public tolerance for Islam's perversion of the gospel." or, an edited version of a sentiment expressed in Vaid's article, from a Christocentric perspective : "Today, Christian activists and politicians are free to support masjids being built in majority Christian neighborhoods, the legalization of polygamy, the practice of the sharia, restrictions on Christian religious freedom, and basically any other pro-Muslim program without receiving even mild push back or concern from anyone other than a few nominal corners online." We can recognize the 'right' of someone to express these opinions, about Muslims as well as gays and lesbians, even if we find them distasteful. But if it is important to critique the above sentiment as partial and based on low-information and a degree of hysteria, then it is equally important to challenge the sentiments expressed in the linked piece by Vaid. With study, we should be able to recognize that the Christian perspective I articulated above is Islamophobic, even if it is a valid generalization from the perspective of an authentically, orthodox Christianity. Similarly, LGBT-phobic Muslims are expressing a clearly recognizable form of bigotry, even if it is a valid generalization deeply rooted in Muslim religious orthodoxy. There are a number of shortcomings and contradictions in modern social progressivism, which Vaid is an eloquent critic. But these contradictions pale in comparison to the contradictions that would arise if orthodox Muslim and Christian views of human sexuality were implemented on a universal basis in US society today, or even ONLY within their respective communities. With its shortcomings, 'liberal progressivism' still provides a valuable safety valve for victims to escape from some of the more damaging views of sex and gender relations emanating from within religious communities.

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