The Nation, 10 November 2008

As you would expect from its cover date, this issue was devoted primarily to the 2008 presidential election.  As that event recedes into the past, I find it hard to imagine myself going back to re-read any articles about it.  Perhaps I may wake up some morning and find it impossible to believe that it ever really happened, and may want to look up this issue as proof that it did. 

What I want to note now is a review essay by Moustafa Bayoumi.  Bayoumi treats three books, Mirror of the Arab World: Lebanon in Conflict, by Sandra Mackey; Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East, by Ussama Makdisi; and Origins: A Memoir by Amin Maalouf.  Bayoumi aligns Mackey’s book with “a budding movement on anthropology’s right wing.”  Thinkers associated with this movement look at Arab societies and see one institution as paramount, the tribe.  Bayoumi cites Philip Carl Salzman, who argues (in Bayoumi’s paraphrase) “that Arabs, universally and throughout history, organize their societies along a series of ‘nested’ relationships- family, lineage, clan, tribe, confederacy, sect, and religion- with each group larger than the preceding one.  Indeed, Islam, on this account, postdates tribalism; with its ability to magnify the difference between believer and nonbeliever, it’s simply the largest tribe of all.”  The tribalist school has had great influence in recent US policy in the Middle East; a 2003 Brookings Institution report on Iraqi tribalism (“The Iraqi Tribes and the Post-Saddam System,” Brookings Iraq Memo #18, 8 July 2003) has apparently served as one of the blueprints for US occupation policy in Iraq.   Inasmuch as, according to Bayoumi, “tribalist theory presumes that tribes always impede the growth of the state,” the influence of the tribalist school over Iraq’s occupiers may explain why so little appears to have been done in the last five and a half years to develop a viable state in Iraq.

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The American Conservative, 6 October 2008

For me, the highlight of this issue was a piece by Claes G. Ryn, editor of Irving Babbitt in Our Time, The Representative Writings of Irving Babbitt, and the author of Will, Imagination and Reason: Irving Babbitt and the Problem of Reality.  Unfortunately Professor Ryn does not mention Babbitt’s name in this article, but he does give a strongly Babbittian analysis of the so-called “conservatism” that has entranced so many of America’s policy makers.  After rehearsing Babbitt’s argument that our Constitution can work only in a society where people are committed to simplicity, value tradition, and are accustomed to respecting limits, Ryn discusses the theories of Leo Strauss, whom he considers to be a sort of anti-Babbitt.  “According to Strauss,” Ryn writes, “no real philosopher gives credence to ‘the conventional’ or ‘the ancestral,’ to use his terms.  Respecting them represents the greatest of all intellectual sins, ‘historicism.’  Inherited ways are, he insisted, mere accidents of history.  Respect is owed to the ‘simply right,’ which is ahistorical and rational.”  It is this ahistorical, anti-traditional, intellectualistic creed that has inspired neoconservative thinkers who have argued in favor of the wars and other power grabs of the current administration in Washington.

The Nation, 20 Oct 2008

This issue features three items I think I might someday want to look up. 

China scholar Orville Schell writes that the Confucian and Legalist traditions of classical Chinese thought may offer guidance to coming generations of Chinese leaders.  About 16 years ago I read a translation of selected works by Han Fei, the leading light of the Legalist tradition; all my knowledge of that tradition comes from that one book.  So I was astounded by Schell’s characterization of the Legalist thought as “an amoral conception of statecraft.”  That certainly wasn’t the impression Burton Watson wanted me to have.   It’s lucky for me I never had a chance at that time to show off my one scrap of knowledge about Chinese political thought by casually describing myself as an adherent of the school of Han Fei Tzu.  Anyway, Schell’s idea that classical Chinese thought might help China find its way forward in the century to come reminds me of Wu Mi and Liang Shiqiu, Chinese students of Irving Babbitt whose work is discussed here.  Having studied under Babbitt at Harvard, they returned to China in the 1930s and there defended Babbitt’s view that a healthy society must be informed by a dialogue between the dead and the living, between the wisdom of the past as preserved in revered texts and the critical spirit of the present as cultivated by literary education.  In the upheavals of those years, not too many people seemed interested in such an urbane and polite doctrine.  Maybe Schell is onto something, though, and Wu Mi, Liang Shiqiu, and other Chinese Babbitt-ites (like the famous Lin Yutang) will be respected figures in China’s future national memory. 

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