Monday, January 26, 2009

Population and Economy

A nation's population can be either static, growing, or shrinking. Most of the earth's nations have growing populations. A territory with a static or shrinking population may experience short-term growth, but cannot experience long-term growth. It will suffer an inevitable decline.

But not every nation with a growing population will experience a growing economy. A population can grow slowly, moderately, or rapidly. The most favorable economic conditions are found in a moderately growing population.

A rapidly-growing population may outrun the economy's ability to provide basic services. A slowly growing population will not have enough workers to support its children and retirees: this is the source of the America's current problems - not enough workers. A moderately growing population also provides new jobs at precise rate for young adults entering the workforce, unemployment is thereby reduced.

So go get married and have babies!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Invasion of Spain

Tarek ibn Ziyad was the Muslim general who led the Islamic conquest of Spain in 711 A.D. The Muslims forged an empire in Spain that was not defeated until 1492.

When Ziyad's forces landed at Gibraltar (Gibr Tariq, "rock of Tarek") on the Spanish coast, he famously burned the fleet to the waterline as a warning to his men that they must conquer or die in the cause of jihad. He also offered other incentives, among them mass looting of property and the rape and sexual enslavement of women. Islamic historian Al Maggari gives part of Ziyad's speech as follows: "You have heard that in this country there are a large number of ravishingly beautiful Greek maidens, their graceful forms are draped in sumptuous gowns on which gleam pearls, coral, and purest gold, and they live in the palaces of royal kings."

Why did Ziyad refer to the Spanish women as Greek? The main Christian targets for the Muslim armies up to that point were the Greek Byzantines, hence the reference to "Greek maidens." Turks often still use the word "Rûm" (meaning Roman) to refer to Christians or Europeans in general, as the Byzantines were the Eastern Romans. The common Arab word "Ferengi" for Europeans means "Franks," and came much later when they encountered the Western Christian Crusaders. This same word was borrowed by science fiction writers for one of the "Star Trek" spinoffs.

He conquered and enslaved peaceful people and instituted an imperial occupation that lasted for seven centuries, and his view of "violence against women" was anything but progressive. Remember, the attack on Spain in 711 A.D. was unprovoked. Not content with military victory, the Islamic army plundered both the material wealth and the human lives of the territory.

In Islam, the women and children of infidels defeated in jihad became the property of Muslims, and this sick fate befell countless millions of people over the course of the centuries during which Muslims attacked Europe.

Islamic historians have preserved the speech which Ziyad gave after his troops landed on the Spanish shore, and he burned their ships:

Oh my warriors, to where would you flee? Behind you is the sea, before you, the enemy. You have heard that in this country there are a large number of ravishingly beautiful Greek maidens, their graceful forms are draped in sumptuous gowns on which gleam pearls, coral, and purest gold, and they live in the palaces of royal kings: the spoils will belong to yourselves.

Despite the fact that the attack on Spain was unprovoked, and the Spanish taken by surprise, they did have some defensive operations. The Gothic king Rodrigo (also called Roderick) kept a defense for about a year after the invasion.

Roderick, immediately upon securing his throne, gathered a force to oppose the Arabs and Berbers (Mauri) who were raiding in the south of the Iberian peninsula and had destroyed many towns under Tariq ibn Ziyad and other Muslim generals. While later Arabic sources make the conquest of Hispania a singular event undertaken at the orders of the governor Musa ibn Nosseyr of Ifriqiya, it seems that the Arabs began disorganised raids and only undertook to conquer the peninsula with the fortuitous death of Roderick and the collapse of the Visigothic nobility. The Saracens invaded "all Hispania" from Septem (Ceuta).

Roderic made several expeditions against the invaders before he was killed in battle in 712. The location of the battle is debatable. It probably occurred near the mouth of the Guadalete river, hence its name, the Battle of Guadalete.

The Arabs took Toledo in 711-712 and executed many nobles still in the city on the pretense that they had assisted in the flight of Oppa, a son of Egica.

When Roderick was killed in action, the defense quickly collapsed, and the Muslims captured the entire country, carrying out the plans. Village after village suffered the same fate: the men were killed, the women raped and made into concubines, the children taken as slaves; after taking whatever grain and livestock they wanted for their army's provisions, the Islamic military burned the fields, slaughtered the remaining animals, and left the elderly to starve. Spain was quickly reduced to a wasteland.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

What Puzzled Pliny

Pliny the Younger was a governor, who monitored a territory for his boss, the emperor Trajan. Pliny is famous for his letters, which give us an insider's view of the political workings of the Roman Empire.

One set of letters between Pliny and Trajan concerns the Christians. Pliny confesses that this new religious group is growing in number, and that he doesn't really understand what they believe; he reports that they aren't committing crimes or creating civil disturbances. Yet Pliny and Trajan develop a plan to imprison, torture, and execute Christians, seemingly because they refuse to acknowledge the emperor as divine. Under Pliny's leadership, thousands of Christians were executed.

But Pliny continued to ponder this new religion. What bothered him most, as we see in his letters to Trajan, is that a free Roman man would willingly join an organization which turned the social order upside down. Pliny reports that the leaders of the local Christian group were two female slaves - two women who were at the bottom of the hierarchy for three reasons: they were women, they were slaves, and they were not Roman citizens. Yet these two women were leading a group which included male free Roman citizens. Pliny couldn't understand why these men would acknowledge these women as leaders. It was this feature of the early Christian church which puzzled him; even as he executed them in large numbers, he kept trying to understand them. We don't know if he ever did.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

An Outsider Looks at Westen Civilization

[We can learn to look at our European society in a fresh way when we read the observations of someone who comes from a different culture. Dinesh D'Souza was born in Bombay, India, and has spent much of his life studying the western tradition. His observations:]

When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” he called the proposition “self-evident.” But he did not mean that it is immediately evident. It requires a certain kind of learning. And indeed most cultures throughout history, and even today, reject the proposition. At first glance, there is admittedly something absurd about the claim of human equality, when all around us we see dramatic evidence of inequality. People are unequal in height, in weight, in strength, in stamina, in intelligence, in perseverance, in truthfulness, and in about every other quality. But of course Jefferson knew this. He was asserting human equality of a special kind. Human beings, he was saying, are moral equals, each of whom possesses certain equal rights. They differ in many respects, but each of their lives has a moral worth no greater and no less than that of any other. According to this doctrine, the rights of a Philadelphia street sweeper are the same as those of Jefferson himself.

This idea of the preciousness and equal worth of every human being is largely rooted in Christianity. Christians believe that God places infinite value on every human life. Christian salvation does not attach itself to a person’s family or tribe or city. It is an individual matter. And not only are Christians judged at the end of their lives as individuals, but throughout their lives they relate to God on that basis. This aspect of Christianity had momentous consequences. Christianity is largely responsible for many of the principles and institutions that even secular people cherish—chief among them equality and liberty.

Though the American founders were interested in the examples of Greece and Rome, they also saw limitations in those examples. Alexander Hamilton wrote that it would be “as ridiculous to seek for [political] models in the simple ages of Greece and Rome as it would be to go in quest of them among the Hottentots and Laplanders.” In The Federalist Papers, we read at one point that the classical idea of liberty decreed “to the same citizens the hemlock on one day and statues on the next….” And elsewhere: “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” While the ancients had direct democracy that was susceptible to the unjust passions of the mob and supported by large-scale slavery, we today have representative democracy, with full citizenship and the franchise extended in principle to all. Let us try to understand how this great change came about.

In ancient Greece and Rome, individual human life had no particular value in and of itself. The Spartans left weak children to die on the hillside. Infanticide was common, as it is common even today in many parts of the world. Fathers who wanted sons had few qualms about drowning their newborn daughters. Human beings were routinely bludgeoned to death or mauled by wild animals in the Roman gladiatorial arena. Many of the great classical thinkers saw nothing wrong with these practices. Christianity, on the other hand, contributed to their demise by fostering moral outrage at the mistreatment of innocent human life.

Likewise, women had a very low status in ancient Greece and Rome, as they do today in many cultures, notably in the Muslim world. Such views are common in patriarchal cultures. And they were prevalent as well in the Jewish society in which Jesus lived. But Jesus broke the traditional taboos of his time when he scandalously permitted women of low social status to travel with him and be part of his circle of friends and confidantes.

Christianity did not immediately and directly contest patriarchy, but it helped to elevate the status of women in society. The Christian prohibition of adultery, a sin it viewed as equally serious for men and women, and rules concerning divorce that (unlike in Judaism and Islam) treated men and women equally, helped to improve the social status of women. Indeed so dignified was the position of the woman in Christian marriage that women predominated in the early Christian church, and the pagan Romans scorned Christianity as a religion for women.

Then there is slavery, a favorite topic for the new atheist writers. “Consult the Bible,” Sam Harris writes in Letter to a Christian Nation, “and you will discover that the creator of the universe clearly expects us to keep slaves.” Steven Weinberg notes that “Christianity…lived comfortably with slavery for many centuries.” Nor are they the first to fault Christianity for its alleged approval of slavery. But we must remember that slavery pre-dated Christianity by centuries and even millennia. It was widely practiced in the ancient world, from China and India to Greece and Rome. Most cultures regarded it as an indispensable institution, like the family. Sociologist Orlando Patterson has noted that for centuries, slavery needed no defenders because it had no critics.

But Christianity, from its very beginning, discouraged the enslavement of fellow Christians. We read in one of Paul’s letters that Paul himself interceded with a master named Philemon on behalf of his runaway slave, and encouraged Philemon to think of his slave as a brother instead. Confronted with the question of how a slave can also be a brother, Christians began to regard slavery as indefensible. As a result, slavery withered throughout medieval Christendom and was eventually replaced by serfdom. While slaves were “human tools,” serfs had rights of marriage, contract, and property ownership that were legally enforceable. And of course serfdom itself would eventually collapse under the weight of the argument for human dignity

Moreover, politically active Christians were at the forefront of the modern anti-slavery movement. In England, William Wilberforce spearheaded a campaign that began with almost no support and was driven entirely by his Christian convictions—a story powerfully told in the recent film Amazing Grace. Eventually Wilberforce triumphed, and in 1833 slavery was outlawed in Britain. Pressed by religious groups at home, England then took the lead in repressing the slave trade abroad.

The debate over slavery in America, too, had a distinctively religious flavor. Free blacks who agitated for emancipation invoked the narrative of liberation in the Book of Exodus: “Go down Moses, way down to Egypt land and tell old Pharaoh, let my people go.” But of course throughout history people have opposed slavery for themselves while being happy to enslave others. Indeed there were many black slave owners in the American South. What is remarkable in this historical period in the Western world is the rise of opposition to slavery in principle. Among the first to embrace abolitionism were the Quakers, and other Christians soon followed in applying politically the biblical notion that human beings are equal in the eyes of God. Understanding equality in this ingrained way, they adopted the view that no man has the right to rule another man without his consent. This latter idea (contained most famously in the Declaration of Independence) is the moral root both of abolitionism and of democracy.

For those who think of American history only or mostly in secular terms, it may come as news that some of its greatest events were preceded by massive Christian revivals. What historians call the First Great Awakening swept the country in the mid-eighteenth century, and helped lay the moral foundation of the American Revolution. Historian Paul Johnson describes the War for Independence as “inconceivable…without this religious background.” By this he means that the revival provided essential support for the ideas that fueled the Revolution. Jefferson, let us recall, proclaimed that human equality is a gift from God: we are endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights. Indeed there is no other possible source for them. And Jefferson later wrote that he was not expressing new ideas or principles when he wrote the Declaration, but was rather giving expression to something that had become settled in the American mind.

Likewise John Adams wrote: “What do we mean by the American Revolution? The war? That was no part of the Revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The Revolution was in the minds of the people…a change in their religious sentiments.” Those religious sentiments were forged in the spiritual inclinations of Americans.

That same spirituality continued into the early nineteenth century, leaving in its wake the temperance movement, the movement for women’s suffrage, and most importantly the abolitionist movement. It was the religious fervor that animated the abolitionist cause and contributed so much to the chain of events that brought about America’s “new birth of freedom."

And finally, fast forwarding to the twentieth century, the Reverend Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech referred famously to a promissory note and demanded that it be cashed. This was an appeal to the idea of equality in the Declaration of 1776. Remarkably, King was resting his case on a proclamation issued 200 years earlier by a Southern slave owner. Yet in doing so, he was appealing to a principle that he and Jefferson shared. Both men, the twentieth-century pastor and the eighteenth-century planter, reflected the influence of Christianity in American politics.

Christianity has also lent force to the modern concept of individual freedom. There are hints of this concept both in the classical world and in the world of the ancient Hebrews. One finds, in such figures as Socrates and the Hebrew prophets, notable individuals who have the courage to stand up and question even the highest expressions of power. But while these cultures produced great individuals, as other cultures often do today, none of them cultivated an appreciation for individuality. And it is significant that Socrates and the Hebrew prophets came to bad ends. They were anomalies in their societies, and those societies—lacking respect for individual freedom—got rid of them.

As Benjamin Constant pointed out, freedom in the ancient world was the right to participate in the making of laws. Greek democracy was direct democracy in which every citizen could show up in the agora, debate issues of taxes and war, and vote on what action the polis should take. The Greeks exercised their freedom solely through active involvement in the political life of the city. There was no other kind of freedom and certainly no freedom of thought or of religion of the kind that we hold dear. The modern idea of freedom, by contrast, is rooted in a respect for the individual. It means the right to express our opinion, the right to choose a career, the right to buy and sell property, the right to travel where we want, the right to our own personal space, and the right to live our own life. In return, we are responsible only to respect the rights of others. This is the freedom we are ready to fight for, and we become indignant when it is challenged or taken away.

Christianity has played a vital role in the development of this new concept of freedom through its doctrine that all human beings are moral agents, created in God’s image, with the ability to be the architects of their own lives. The Enlightenment certainly contributed to this understanding of human freedom, though it drew from ideas about the worth of the individual that had been promulgated above all by the teachings of Christianity.

Let me conclude with a warning first issued by one of Western civilization’s greatest atheists, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The ideas that define Western civilization, Nietzsche said, are based on Christianity. Because some of these ideas seem to have taken on a life of their own, we might have the illusion that we can abandon Christianity while retaining them. This illusion, Nietzsche warns us, is just that. Remove Christianity and the ideas fall too.

Consider the example of Europe, where secularization has been occurring for well over a century. For a while it seemed that secularization would have no effect on European morality or social institutions. Yet increasingly today there is evidence of the decline of the nuclear family. Overall birthrates have plummeted, while rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births are up.

Nietzsche also warned that, with the decline of Christianity, new and opposing ideas would arise. We see these today in demands for the radical redefinition of the family, the revival of eugenic theories, and even arguments for infanticide.

In sum, the eradication of Christianity—and of organized religion in general—would also mean the gradual extinction of the principles of human dignity. Consider human equality. Why do we hold to it? The Christian idea of equality in God’s eyes is undeniably largely responsible. The attempt to ground respect for equality on a purely secular basis ignores the vital contribution by Christianity to its spread. It is folly to believe that it could survive without the continuing aid of religious belief.

If we cherish what is distinctive about Western civilization, then—whatever our religious convictions—we should respect rather than denigrate its Christian roots.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

CSI: Chaucer

A number of historians have come to the conclusion that Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales, was murdered.

The motive: Geoffrey had been a friend and policy advisor to King Richard II. When Henry IV took the throne by force (Richard II was imprisoned and died shortly thereafter), the new king would have naturally been somewhat suspicious of Chaucer. Could Henry IV really trust Chaucer, when Chaucer's friend had died as a direct result of the power grab by Henry IV?

There is circumstantial evidence: Chaucer spent his last days in Westminster Abbey, where the church could offer him immunity from prosecution (this is the historical concept of "sanctuary"). When Chaucer did mysteriously die, he was not given the impressive funeral one would expect for someone with literary, political, and social connections.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Jewish Lutheran and the Atheistic Nazi

The German poet Heinrich Heine (1797 - 1856) is known for his insightful analysis of societal trends. His own life was marked by the same style of careful thinking, as he wrestled with his unusual identity as someone who was both Jewish and Christian - an unusual religious category that scholars now call "Messianic Judaism". As a baptized Lutheran, he embraced the ideas of Jesus as presented in the New Testament, but saw them as arising from the Tanakh, and not contradicting it.

Heine was also known for his uncanny ability to see how societal trends would develop in the future. He once wrote that "where they burn books, they will ultimately also burn people," recognizing a tendency which would emerge almost eighty years after his death (the first mass book-burnings by the Nazis took place in 1933; Heine's books were among those burned).

He also understood what would unleash the Nazis and their hatred: "Christianity - and that is its greatest merit - has somewhat mitigated that brutal German love of war, but it could not destroy it. Should that subduing talisman, the cross, be shattered, the frenzied madness of the ancient warriors, that insane Berserk rage of which Nordic bards have spoken and sung so often, will once more burst into flame. This talisman is fragile, and the day will come when it will collapse miserably. Then the ancient stony gods will rise from the forgotten debris and rub the dust of a thousand years from their eyes, and finally Thor with his giant hammer will jump up and smash the Gothic cathedrals. Do not smile at my advice - the advice of a dreamer who warns you against Kantians, Fichteans, and philosophers of nature. Do not smile at the visionary who anticipates the same revolution in the realm of the visible as has taken place in the spiritual. Thought precedes action as lightning precedes thunder. German thunder is of true Germanic character; it is not very nimble, but rumbles along ponderously. Yet, it will come and when you hear a crashing such as never before has been heard in the world's history, then you know that the German thunderbolt has fallen at last. At that uproar the eagles of the air will drop dead, and lions in the remotest deserts of Africa will hide in their royal dens. A play will be performed in Germany which will make the French Revolution look like an innocent idyll."

This long quote from Heine is worth reading carefully: he indicates exactly how the Nazis took over German society. Their first step was to dismantle Christianity and its pacifistic tendencies. Only then could they begin their plans of mass murder. The Nazis also, as Heine predicted, resuscitated forms of ancient Germanic paganism; the Norse mythologies were much more suited to the Nazi desire for war. And while the French Revolution was the worst case of cold-blooded atheistic mass murder that Europe had ever seen, Heine indicates that Germany will see something even worse. In 1933, when the book-burnings began, the Nazis had already infiltrated German churches, and were influencing preachers to talk about nationalist politics instead of the New Testament; by 1938, the few Christians left in Germany were meeting in secret, and the buildings that used to be churches were being used for giving nationalist speeches on Sunday mornings. So it was in that same year that the Holocaust began with Kristallnacht. As Christians organized underground networks to smuggle Jews out of Germany to safety, the Nazis, who sometimes called themselves Christians, met in the churches to ponder the warrior-virtues of Thor and Wotan.

Heinrich Heine's insights were, sadly, correct.