West Coast Hillbillies

    Also posted on Notes on Liberty

A long time ago, after moving from San Francisco, I bought a beautiful Labrador puppy from a woman named Brigid Blodgett, in the hills above Santa Cruz California. (I think she won’t mind the free advertising in the unlikely case that she reads Notes on Liberty or my blog.) Her house was an older conventional California so-called “ranch house,” with low roofs and a sprawling house plan. The pup she had in mind for me was playing with his ten siblings in a concrete backyard when I arrived. There was one new litter, lying with Mom on some rags in the living room, and another in the kitchen, that I could see and smell. The lady, the breeder, told me there was yet another litter in the garage.

To get my new dog, I had not gone to just anybody since most dogs last longer than most cars. I had gathered recommendations in Santa Cruz (pop. 60,000) and its suburbs. Brigid Blodgett’s name kept coming up. Other things being more or less equal, (“et cetibus….” as they say in Latin) I believe in the predictive power of redundancy. I purchased the pup, “Max” (for the German sociologist Max Weber. My previous dog was “Lenin,” another story, obviously). He was a wonderful animal, big, sturdy, healthy, smart, and with a physique that turned heads. I never saw Ms Blodgett a gain. She asked me once by phone to enter Max in a show but I thought it would inflate his ego and I declined. Her name came up a couple of times when perfect strangers stopped me to ask if Max was one of “Brigid’s dogs.”

The meeting with Ms Blodgett marked the first time I became aware of a minority living close by and in our midst, an invisible minority for most of us in Central California. They live mostly in the chain of hills that separates Silicon Valley from the coastal strip where Santa Cruz and Monterey are located. They are white, they speak English, they speak it without an accent; they dress normally; they attend rock concerts. They all have English names, like Ms Blodgett, or sometimes, Scottish names. They are all Protestants, mainly of the non-practicing denomination. Their children go to public school, K-12 and they are usually well behaved. If you pay a lot of attention though (retrospective attention, in my case) you might notice that the kids don’t sweat their grades all that much.

The giveaway is vacation plans. When normal white Anglos from Santa Cruz and Monterey, and from Silicon Valley, go to Italy, or to England, or even to Hawaii; those other people “fly back” to Oklahoma to see their relatives. They are the great-grandchildren of the Joads in John Steinbeck’s superbly crafted Communist propaganda The Grapes of Wrath. They are the transplanted hillbillies. They even call themselves hillbillies sometimes. Others who are annoyed at one of them for any variety of reasons call them “Oakies” under their breath, just like in Steinbeck. Incidentally, many claim American Indian ancestry. It turns out that – unlike say, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s trying to gain advantage in academia via affirmative action – those claims might be legitimate. Those people often do come from Oklahoma which, for a period in the 19th century, was officially called “Indian Territory.” During that period, Indians had easier access to land than whites which, in the great American land hunger, was a good reason to tie the knot.

The Central California hillbillies make their living in a variety of unskilled and semi-skilled occupations. In the old days, a job changing oil in a car repair shop would allow some to pick up some mechanical knowledge and, from there to work their way up to well-paid positions as car mechanics. It seems to me that road is closing fast because of young second generation Mexicans with a more a conventional work ethic. I don’t know as much about the women although it’s obvious (in a manner I may not be able to describe) that many work as restaurant waitresses and as receptionists in doctors’ offices. Many of the men and some of the women have served in the military. They don’t seem to mind working as law enforcement officers but they meet with an obstacle on that path that is closely associated with their defining feature (described below). For a few, a police career leads to political office.

The hillbillies’ defining characteristic is very hard to notice because it’s not something but the lack of something. It took me a long time to see this clearly: They never complete a four-year college degree. There was one guy I was able to observe reasonably closely for twenty years because of our children. He worked in law enforcement. He was good at it because, at first, he seemed to progress rapidly. His intelligence was obviously above average. The strange thing about that cop is that he was always taking some course or other at the community college, studying one damned thing after another. He dawned on me after several years (I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer, I admit) that the man must have accumulated many more units than a college degree at a regular university would require. I realized that he was deliberately avoiding the college degree that would have helped him significantly in his career. We were not personally close enough for me to make inquiries. His own children also did not go to college. Once I was thinking clearly about that particular man I began seeing a pattern, men like him all around me, people who could have easily achieved the modest scholarly standards honored by my own students for example.

Here you have it, an ethnic marker. Resisting with great energy something that everyone else is doing or trying to do, or claiming to want to do, is enough to keep you apart. It’s like the Jews’ avoidance of pork: It does not stop you from functioning but it puts a damper on assimilation. Or it did for the centuries when Europeans ate nearly only pig meat or no meat at all: Can’t have Sam for diner, we’re having pig knuckles tonight.

To have a conventional ethnic group, you only need to add to a systematic obstacle to assimilation the fairly faithful practice of endogamy, the practice of marrying within the group. The two facts are not completely independent of each other in this case. Those who have gone to college, are going to college, or see themselves as college bound, don’t readily marry those who do and are none of the above. I think hillbillies only marry, and divorce, and marry, and divorce one another, with one puzzling exception. Hillbillies with straightforward English names fairly often link up with people who have Portuguese last names and who are Catholic. The latter are descendants of a small but continuing immigration from the Azores. My first guess about the puzzle is this: If I looked into it, I would find that this of breed of Luso-Americans don’t go to college either. Just guessing, really.

I suppose, it’s high time that I, an immigrant, describe my credentials to discourse at all about the white people who have stayed on the boundaries of American society for three hundred years straight. For thirty years, my own life intersected with theirs in two places. First, I fish in the ocean and I have a boat in the harbor to serve this purpose. Although I was a college professor for thirty years, I clean fish with my own hands. This is enough to open some doors. Boat owners, don’t just go to harbor, go out to fish, return to harbor, and then go home. They fuss about their boat, they hang out; when you hang out in the harbor, people talk a little about themselves. They will open a window on their lives. Hillbillies don’t swim, don’t go to the beach, but they fish, including in the ocean.

Here is the second hillbilly intersection with my life. Over time, I purchased two houses in Santa Cruz County, both on the needy side (the houses, I mean). If you live away from California, or overseas, you should know that most Californians live in individual houses and that those houses are mostly made of wood. Now, there is nothing wrong with wood as a building material, it’s cheap, it’s forgiving, and it’s easy to fix. Yet many things go a little wrong over time with wooden houses, and even when nothing goes wrong, they must be painted every five years or so.

My second house was/is a lovely Victorian. It was built in 1906. Now, as I said, it’s lovely but there is no miracle. Almost everything goes wrong in a hundred years in a house built of wood in a maritime climate, in an area subject to earthquakes. Some of it goes wrong while you own the place and you have to fix it. Ten years ago, my water evacuation plumbing begun acting disastrously. After a little expensive digging, it was determined that the used water main leading from my house into the town sewer was made of baked clay and that it was broken. It dated back to the 1880s, according to municipal maps.

Some of the things that don’t go wrong with older houses you don’t want to live with anyway, the original heating system for example. So, you will need carpenters, electricians, plumbers, appliance installers, etc. plus painters and more. Moreover, tree branches will fall on your house in big storms and they will have to be removed. And then, things you don’t want anymore somehow accumulate and must be taken to the dump periodically. (I know, no need to tell me, I am a married man; I could do all of this myself, and I do some actually.) I have described a myriad of jobs that can be done by any healthy, reasonably intelligent person. The hillbillies often have multiple skills gleaned from doing repairs on their and on their own parents’ house. Some gained more in the military. I have hired people to do that kind of work multiple times.

Over the past thirty years though, I have seen Mexican immigrants compete more and more successfully with hillbillies, in informal carpentry, in house painting, in plumbing, in electrical and appliance repairs, even in floor installation. The locals hold fast in two areas of work: trash hauling and tree trimming. I suspect there is a good reason for this. Both supply very irregular work, you might says work that you have to look for. I think both activities are like second jobs to a person with a regular 9 to 5, or 10 to 3. Fortunately, my friends now have a main economic activity, one that puts food on the table in large amounts. I need to make a detour to persuade you of what that new occupation might be.

In the nineties, after a bad storm, I called around to find someone to finally set straight a tree problem that had been plaguing my property. The big local companies that advertised on radio were all busy. Their bids were so high anyway that accepting them would have forced me to teach at least one quarter of summer school. Somehow, I whined to my car mechanic who offered to send me somebody he knew. Sure enough, the next morning around 11 – and the time may matter – these two guys in their forties showed up in an old truck. We discussed what had to be done, trimming off some big branches, and hauling them away. They offered to do the job for a price I could live with.

One of them put on the clamps; the other guy was going to be his ground crew, sharpening the power-saw and handing it in a safe way, bringing down the cut limbs with a rope, and so forth. While I was talking to this second guy, a big beautiful pit-bull emerged from some blankets in the cab. I don’t like the breed much because they are like a loaded gun but that dog was a beaut.

I complimented the man and asked him if I could go in the house to get the dog a treat, a piece of sausage. He had this astounding response: Don’t bother, he said, he won’t take anything from you. I have trained him to be a vegetarian. A vegetarian pit-bull! Isn’t it going a little far by way of political correctness, I first thought to myself? At the time, I was pretty much surrounded by prissy middle-class vegetarians in progressive, virtue-aggressive Santa Cruz. On second thought however I realized there was not political correctness involved, not with those guys. You think about it: Why would anyone own a formidable looking, potentially dangerous guard dog that is also a vegetarian? What’s the only likely reason? So, in any case, the hillbillies always rented and bought property in the hills because, at any level of forever soaring California real estate prices, it was less expensive than either Silicon Valley or areas near the ocean.

Society having evolved as it has, now, they are finding themselves in a good situation to resume the scratchy agricultural lives of their near ancestors. Even the couple of miles from the sea insure a warmer climate than you find on the coast; many have a little bit more land that needed for a house. The population density is low. You don’t have to meet your neighbors, or strangers, unless you want to. There are few eyes in the hills. It’s easy to turn a large vegetable garden into a small plantation of anything. You just need a good dog to keep the deer away. If the animal is vegetarian, so much the better; he will also be pretty much incorruptible and he will keep away most trespassers including midnight harvesters.

Things look good again, mighty good, for the hillbilly hidden minority.

© Jacques Delacroix 2018

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Blaming the Victim

A White House secretary whose name no one knew a week ago resigns. He is accused of wife beating. It’s Pres. Trump’s fault, of course. The accusers are two ex-wives. That’s a first, I guess, I mean this joint effort. One of the two immediately loses her credibility with me because she accuses the man, Porter, of “emotional” abuse. Sorry, that ‘s what you say when you have nothing else, when you have nothing, in fact.

What did he do? Tell that ex-wife that this pair of jeans made her look fat? Besides, all the women I know except one routinely practice emotional abuse, often, multi-directional emotional abuse. (No, the exception is not my wife!) They are emotionally abusive toward one another first, toward their children, often. Of course, they emotionally abuse the men in their lives, to get them to comply, or for the fun of it.

What does an accusation of abuse directed by a woman at a man, specifically, imply? I think it’s that women are un-adults who need protection, that they are not capable of agency. That’s both troubling and confusing for those of us who have been paying attention to the feminist message of female equality. OK, it’s not confusing to me. I always thought women were equal (Read my book of memoirs of growing up: I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography – Excerpts on this blog – It’s available on Amazon.) And, I discounted feminist propaganda from the beginning. I have a fine ear for ungrounded ideology because I grew up around French leftists.

I am not sure why physical abuse of a spouse is a public matter the way this kind of story has routinely become. Brutality against a spouse is either a conjugal matter and it’s none of my business, or it’s a legal matter. In that case, it should be dealt with in the context of strict judicial rules that are the product of centuries of experience. It should be dealt with far from the tumult of popular prejudice and fads. Note that whether a conjugal issue becomes a legal issue is almost entirely in the hands of  the injured party. That’s different from zero protection for women. This is no a sharia country. (I know, I know, sharia gives women some protection, not much. Tell us, please.)

It turns out, the secretary who resigned was (is) currently in a relationship with the second most glamorous woman in the White House.(The first is the First Lady, of course.) That woman is also quite beautiful according to my well-exercised eye. She must not be a dummy to have been appointed Director of Communication, a sensitive, important post. Porter, the man who resigned, has been married at least twice. Washington DC being the incestuous swamp that it is, there must have been rumors about his personality.

Didn’t stop the glamorous lady. Have we seen this movie before? The alleged wife-beater has enough charisma with women that one with many choices chooses him over all others. Intellectually honest women will ask themselves in the secret of their hearts why and how this could happen. I don’t expect a public report because the New Puritanism does not permit the exploration of many interesting matters, including the sexuality of women. Younger people who read me – almost all of you – take my word for it or do your own research: There was more freedom of thought and more freedom of speech in 1978 a than there is is 2018.

What happened?

Under the current avalanche of accusations against men, some too exotic for me to really believe, there lies the blanket assumption that one should never, never blame the victim. Incidentally, the accusations I have trouble dealing with concern the legion of men who supposedly exposed themselves. I thought that was a far-outlayer specialty, not an ordinary practice. I am as much of the pervert as the next guy, I hope a little more, or I used to be, but it never crossed my mind to do this. (Except for a laugh, at a well-attended party,  in a fully lit room ,of course, perhaps, on the occasion of a context with an all-female jury.) Never blame the victim. Why never?

My neighbor is one of Mrs Clinton’s “deplorables.” He spends the weekends in his undershirt, drinking beer from a can and playing with his several guns. One Sunday morning, he is cleaning his high-power rifle. While holding the stock with his bare foot, he opens the breach and looks down into the barrel to make sure there is not bullet inside. The stock slips, his big toe catches the trigger and he blows his head up. (Yes, there was a round in the barre; it was loaded for bear) Who to blame, deuh?

One night after dark, I am driving home peacefully, below the speed limit. I am not especially tired and I am wearing my glasses. I am travelling the steep downward slope close to my house where there is no street lighting. A skateboarder running down the same slope at high speed weaves in front of me. When I see him, I brake as hard as I can but I am too late. I partly run over him and my truck fractures his skull and his spine. He was wearing all black; there was no light on him; he was in the middle of the street. He is 23. I am heartbroken. Who is to blame?

I am going to be accused of major crimes for shouting through the current concert of feminist piousness so, let me be clear: I do NOT believe that women who wear short skirts deserve to be raped. And, by the way, I am against domestic violence and especially against wife beating specifically. That’s because men are much stronger than women, not a little bit, something like twice stronger. So, for a man, beating a woman is cowardly. And, by the way, it’s also one of the reason why I support the Second Amendment. Women who are armed rarely get beaten more than once.

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Je me presente.

Je suis ne a Paris. Je vis aux EU depuis cinquante ans; je suis americain depuis quarante. La France m’est comme une ancienne maitresse qu’on a du mal a re_aimer, moins parcequ’elle a les hanches lourdes que parcequ’elle est devenue reveche avec les annees.


Je blogue en Francais de temps en temps et surtout quand on m’encourage.

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The US Immigration Lottery

 (Also posted on Notes on Liberty.)

As I write, Democrats and Republicans are gearing up for a battle to transform an American immigration system that has changed little in fifty years. President Trump seems eager to alter both the number of immigrants and the nature of qualifications for immigration. His Democratic opponents call him “racist.” (Dem. extremist call anyone they don’t like racist, perhaps because they have exhausted all normal political insults.) The so-called “lottery” door to immigration is attracting special scorn from the president and from other high-ranking Republicans. Many in the general public, not well versed in matters of immigration, listen to the president’s attacks with perplexity or disbelief: a “lottery?” This short essay aims to throw light on the topic with a small number of figures.

In 2016 there were 1,200, 000 admissions to permanent residency in the US. That’s the granting of the famous “green card” which gives one full rights to work, to go in and out of the country, but no political rights, no right to vote and no right to be elected- until now. Permanent residency is not citizenship. This must be obtained later, separately after five or three years (the latter, for spouses of US citizens) in almost all cases. Nearly all legal residents who wish to eventually become American citizens.

Admission” is a legal-bureaucratic term. Many of those so admitted have already been in the US, some for years, while their case was being processed. The number physically arriving in the US on that year is much larger because it includes tourists, students, and others who are supposed to be visitors staying only for a stated length of time.

Immigrants are admitted on the basis of one of five broad categories : occupational/business qualification, family relationship to someone already legally in the US. (The latter actually includes two legal- bureaucratic categories. The distinction between the two need no concern us here.) This family-based category accounts for the bulk of legal immigration, 67% of the total in 2016. Refugees (and “asylees”) account for another large number that is variable from year to year. There is also a category “Others” which gathers a small number of odds and ends admissions otherwise not fitting into another category.

The most interesting basis for admission is the quaintly called “Diversity.” It’s an actual lottery. It’s a lottery without admission fee where one can play as often as one cares to. It contributed 50,000 admissions in 2016, or 4% of the total admitted. The number is so small that it hardly would seem to be worth the attention of policy makers, except perhaps when a lottery winner engages in spectacular criminal acts as happened in New York in the fall of 2017.

Once, in the late 80s. Senator Ted Kennedy discovered that immigration to the US included practically no Irish people. He got angry and, on the spot, devised a remedy, that became -through his influence in Congress – the diversity lottery. I can’t guarantee this story is true but it’s plausible and its spirit explains well the existence of this strange anomaly.

The main reason some parts of the globe send few immigrants to the US is that most opportunities to do so are sucked up by the prevalence of immigration based on family status in other areas. It’s the result of a quasi random starting point combined with chain immigration. Suppose a single young Mexican male manages to move to the US legally (worry not how). Within a couple of years he goes back to Mexico to get married. He brings his wife to the US. It turns out he already had a son in Mexico, from another woman. He brings the son over too. The couple has several children, all US born. Soon, they would like to have built-in babysitters. They bring in both of the wife’s parents and the husband surviving mother. So, in this unremarkable story, we go in the space of less than ten years, from one immigrant from Mexico, to six. After a few more years, any of the foreign born adults may bring one or two more immigrants, including brothers and sisters. The US-born children can also bring in their Mexican uncles, aunts and cousins, though it would take a long time. There is a natural snowball effect built into the system.

To the extent that Congress wishes to cap the total number of immigrants brought in (excluding refuges), national contingents that happened to be numerous early may monopolize a very large number of available immigration opportunities. This leaves the door almost closed to other nationalities that were not present in large numbers early.

The purpose of the lottery is to improve the US immigration chances to people living in areas of the world that have been under-served for a little while. Accordingly, lottery slots are allocated among regions observed to be contributing a small number of immigrants by other means. The drawing occurs individual under-served region by under-served region. Each region corresponds more or less to a continent (distinguishing between South America and North America).

The lottery products are interesting. First, the lottery results in a frequency distribution of admissions by country of origin that would be difficult to predict I general. Second, it would be hard to forecast which countries would end up still undeserved.

In 2016, lottery admissions included people from 152 countries. Only six countries passed the (arbitrary) bar of “diversity” lottery of 2,000 immigrants into the US. They were, by order of the magnitude of their immigrant contingent:

Egypt, Nepal, Iran, Congo (formerly Zaire), Uzbekistan, and Ethiopia. The Ukraine, with 1915, almost made the cut.

In 2016 also, four Uruguayans qualified under the lottery (that 4, four units.)

Together the core western European countries of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Norway, sent a grand total of 1390 to the US under this qualification. That’s between 2 and 3% of the total diversity lottery winners. Although European countries do send immigrants to the US under other programs, Europe is classified as one of the under-served regions. It also turns out to be under-served by the lottery. In 2016, about one per thousand of the immigrants admitted to the US came from the conventionally defined core western European areas under an admission program intended to correct for under-representation. The Republic of Ireland produced 51 winners. Sen. Kennedy hardly got his way.

Anybody who calls the current American immigration system racist is out of his mind, probably dishonest as well as ignorant, more likely, dishonestly ignorant. Inevitably, any forthcoming reform of American immigration laws is going to give results that will seem racist in comparison. Brace yourselves with facts!

All data from Homeland Security: Immigration Statistics and Data


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Global Warming for the Rational: Tutorial 1

Right before New Year 2018, I commented on my Facebook Page on the lack of comments regarding the extreme cold raging in Canada and in the north of the US. We are talking about actual record-breaking low temperatures. I meant then that I would like one or more of the real “climate scientists” Warmists are forever referring to to come on and interpret, like this: These low temperatures don’t mean anything about the certainty of global warming because…. I am still waiting; I will be waiting. And if you know of an authorized comment that has escaped my attention, please, link below. (Tu tambíen, Cesar).

One of my FB friends who lives in S. America, Cesar, reproached me (in Spanish) on my FB and called me “ignorant” for calling “ignorant” those who believe in global warming. Aside from the fact that I had not called them ignorant in that posting, this is a good opportunity to explain what I would mean if I had called them ignorant. They don’t know or understand the simple principles of scientific demonstration below, not even in its starting point.

Note to Cesar: I apologize, that I am not going to do this in Spanish. My readers are mostly proudly monolingual English speakers. I am speaking to you, all the same. I know you can read this.

To make others believe that something changes something else, you need to begin with three things: a baseline with a specific date attached, a metric, and an actual final measurement. If you don’t have all three, there is nothing to explain and you are just spouting superstitious belief.

The baseline is a measurement at the moment when you period of observation begins. To affirm that something changes something else, you have to be able to observe an actual change in the second thing. I mean like this: It’s bigger than it was; it’s smaller than it was; it’s redder than it was, etc. (Note the past tense.) So, you have to know what the thing that supposedly changed was like before it changed. You have to say in advance when your observation begins. You may not switch baseline dates around to suit the findings you wish for. If you do it anyway, you should state it and explain why. Myself, I am open minded about baseline date choices, except when I think a baseline has been chosen to exclude information (“data”) that is both relevant and available. (See the “Hockey Stick” scandal. It’s about climate change cheating.)

Second, you need a metric, a unit of measurement. If I state that I lost weight over the holiday, you should ask: How do you know? If I am a serious, not a foufou-head, I will reply: So many pounds (or ounces, or kilograms, etc….) The pound is a metric, miles per hour is another metric, degrees Fahrenheit and degrees Celsius are both metrics, inches of sea level height (and therefore rise) could be a metric. The metric you choose has to make sense. If I answer the query above regarding my weight loss like this: “Ten points,” it’s wrong because it does not make sense, no matter how smart you are.

Third, you need an actual measurement of change expressed in terms of the metric you have chosen. This is a subtle point because how it’s dealt with often makes the difference between being soundly correct and being apparently correct and ridiculous, both. Suppose I devise a slimming diet based on Belgian chocolates and Cognac. At the beginning of January, I announce that I lost weight on that exquisite diet. I tell you that I lost a full 3/1000 of an ounce, (or one gram, or something equally tiny) in one month. What’s more, I show you that ten of my friends had similar results. Should you believe then that chocolate and Cognac cause weight loss?

The answer is probably not. Yet, if I could continue to obtain the same change for five years in a row, for 365 days x5, for example you might correctly start being interested. The accumulation of tiny changes can add up to big change. This accumulation has to be shown. It can’t be just assumed that it will take place. There are several reasons why minuscule change is not change. You can think of those reason by yourselves by making up other ridiculous examples.

Once you have all three ingredients, you are in a position to assert that something happened. It’ a good start toward demonstrating that something specific made that something happened. It’s a necessary step. You cannot show that X changes Y if you have no evidence of change in Y. It’s not a sufficient step, not even close to one. That’s it.

If you don’t have all three ingredients, don’t bother to continue because there is nothing to explain. In that case your something of choice caused nothing and it’s unimportant until you show otherwise. You get as many tries as you wish. In the meantime, the something that caused something else remains unimportant except from a religious standpoint if you wish, of course.

Many bad observations are still bad observations. If nothing changes on one hundred somethings, you still have nothing to explain.

CO2 emissions from human activity may cause temperatures to rise globally. Let’ s see. Let’s see someone do it properly, beginning with the easy stuff described above.

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The Islamic Enlightenment: A Critical Review of De Bellaigue

A personalized critical review of:

De Bellaigue, Christopher. (2017) The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason 1798 to Modern Times. Liveright Publishing Corporation (Norton & Company) New York, London.

In 1798, in view of the Pyramids, a French expeditionary force defeated the strange caste of slave-soldiers, the Mamlukes, who had been ruling Egypt for several centuries. The Mamlukes charged the French infantry squares on horseback, ending their charge with the throwing of javelins. The Mamlukes were thus eliminated from history. The French lost 29 soldiers. In the conventional narrative, the battle woke up the whole Muslim world from its long and haughty slumber. The defeat, the pro-active reforms of Napoleon short-lived occupancy, and the direct influence of French scholars he had brought with him lit the wick of the candle of reform or, possibly, of enlightenment throughout the Islamic world.

De Bellaigue picks up this conventional narrative and follows it to the beginning of the 20th century with a dazzling richness of details. This is an imperfect yet welcome thick book on a subject seldom well covered.

This book has, first, the merit of existing. Many people of culture, well-read people with an interest in Islam – Islam the sociological phenomenon, rather than the religion – know little of the travails of its attempted modernization. Moreover, under current conditions of political correctness the very subject smells a little of sulfur: What if we looked at Muslim societies more closely and we found in them some sort of intrinsic inferiority? I mean by this, an inferiority that could not easily be blamed on the interference of Western, Christian or formerly Christian, capitalist societies. Of course, such a finding could only be subjective but still, many would not like it, and not only Muslims.

Second, and mostly unintentionally, possibly inadvertently, the book casts a light, an indirect light to be sure, on Islamist (fundamentalist) terrorism. It’s simple: Enlightened individuals of any religious background are not likely to be also fanatics willing to massacre perfect strangers. Incidentally, I examine this issue myself in a fairly parochial vein, in an essay in the libertarian blog Liberty Unbound: “Religious Bic-à-Brac and Tolerance of Violent Jihad” (January 2015). With his broader perspective, with his depth of knowledge, De Bellaigue could have done a much better job of this than I could ever do. Unfortunately he ignored the subject almost entirely. It wasn’t his topic, some will say. It was not his period of history. Maybe.

This is a book rich in details, as I said, colorful, intelligent, and inherently interesting. It reminds me of a superior travel book, one by Paul Theroux, for instance. It includes a small number of well-chosen, quality color illustrations. Overall, it makes for pleasant reading. I finished it within a few days; I was never tempted to put it down. I recommend it in spite of several reservations described below.

The Islamic Enlightenment…begins a little strangely with an otherwise useful introduction where the author also accuses pretty much everyone, including his readers and his potential readers, of being Islamophobic bigots. (See the end of this essay for a potential explanation.) Then, he gets down to the real topic of his book.

De Bellaigue (“DB”) gives us in rich particulars the attempts to modernize in three well chosen Muslim countries, and to a lesser extent, elsewhere in the Muslim world. The three countries are – in order of appearance – Egypt, Turkey (Ottoman then, the Republic), and Persia. Those countries are important in every respect, on account notably of their demographic weight and of their influence in their region.

I use the word “modernize” as in “Modernization” rather then the “Enlightenment” of the book’s title because, when all is said and done, DB only does a good job of describing attempted institutional transformation, both successful and not so much, and the men who promoted it. Chief among the institutions so transformed are the armed forces and, in a superficial way, political institutions. Both happen to be structures that are fairly responsive to top-down planning and implementation. Per force, he has less to say about enlightenment proper, a term I take to refer to what goes on in the minds of people, and inside the minds of many people simultaneously. I mean what the French Annales school of history calls “mentalités.”*

The conventional narrative about the European Enlightenment begins with the elaboration of different self-concepts, of a view of individuals as central to themselves rather than as filial creatures of God. This transformation of the self-concept in turn nourishes the emergence of examining reason as an alternative to revealed truth and/or tradition. In Europe, this evolution begins timidly in the Renaissance. I say, “timidly” because Renaissance figures seem to remain deeply religious. Moreover, the gains of reason did not stop large numbers of Europeans from gutting one another for more than one a hundred years of religious wars. (I realize this is a complex topic and that the perpetrators of the Wars of Religion of the 16th and 17th century were not merely motivated by hatred of beliefs different from their own.)

Increased reliance on examining reason and its imputed multiple beneficial real-world consequences exploded in the 18th century. The consequences included progress in representative government, improved judicial integrity, the emergence of individual rights, cultural universalism associated with tolerance of otherness, the institutionalization of science as more than an individual hobby, and the seeds of true capitalism. (I follow Max Weber here: socially legitimate enterprise and gain-seeking for its own sake.) DB’s book is perhaps inadvertently, it’s hard to tell, rich with recounting of failure to change collective mentalités to any depth.

The recurring theme of the book is adequately expressed by a single long paragraph:

The classic image of the Muslim modernizer is of an irascible man in mess boots, a man who is impatient with with his compatriots’ old-fashioned mode of dress and their backsliding, malingering attitude to hard work, an impulsive friend of modern values who, while being perhaps a little rough in his methods answers with admirable clarity to the summons of progress. That image took well over a century to develop and was embodied by figures as diverse as Reza Shah of Iran, King Amanullah of Afghanistan, and the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.” (p. 17).

DB tells the same basic story over and over about Egypt, Turkey, Iran and, in a small way, about other Muslim countries: More or less enlightened despots – often under the influence of enthusiastically westernized scholars – attempt to shake their societies out of their century-old torpor. Repeatedly, they fail to achieve any deep lasting change although they manage somewhat to modify their state apparatus to make it more responsive. Long story short: They mostly flunk although they succeed in getting slightly better bargains from Western countries than would otherwise be the case, I would argue. (I think DB wouldn’t say so, though.)

Everywhere, according to DB, modernization was attempted in response to, as protection against, the encroachments of Western powers, of which the creation of the Suez Canal is the most dramatic example. The traumatizing outright French conquest of Algeria, nominally an Ottoman vassal between 1830 and 1870 is another instance, of course. DB’s thesis of reactive modernization (or “enlightenment”) in Muslim lands is not completely persuasive. According to his own narrative, modernizers were intermittently at work in both Turkey and Persia before the former realized it was a weak and vulnerable polity, and before Persia came of economic interest in the West. During the 19th century, transportation became cheaper and safer, the telegraph was installed in many places. (It’s a cheap collective equipment). Printing also became easier and cheaper. The latter progress helped with the creation of newspapers and it improved the efficacy of secular education. These forms of material modernization might have eventually led to a transformation of mentalités in large segment of the urban population, with or without Western pressures. The eagerness, well recounted in the book, of Turks and of Egyptians to learn a foreign language – French – speaks to the possibility of spontaneous movements of modernization. Regrettably, DB does not clearly examine this road not taken.

The first wave of modernizers emerging from the traditional elite, more or less assisted or inspired by home-bred intellectuals, was eventually replaced in all three countries of focus by another breed of modernizers we would call fascist leaders in any Western country. Issued from the military, they enjoyed a fair degree of popular support by promoting nationalism, drove a hard bargain with other countries, developed further the state apparatus of their countries, completed the construction of a modern army, and expanded education significantly. (Curiously, DB seems to miss the signal achievements of those late modernizers: the mass schooling of girls.) Gamal Abd El Nasser is the prototype of this second kind of modernizer.

The improvement of the state apparatus in Islamic countries led to a momentous change in their forms of social control. Under traditional despotism, government rule in those countries was relatively benign, not by design but because of government’s lack of effectiveness. You could easily get beheaded if you displeased the ruler but the chance was remote.** Almost all could live in peace and even in prosperity far from the ruler’s eye. When modern states came to be in the region, many more activities suddenly fell within the province of government at the same time as government’s reach grew exponentially. The savage Savak of the last Shah of Iran, for example, was hardly a freak. It was soon replaced by the equally effective, more intrusive and even more savage secret services of the Islamic Republic. So, in the end, what DB’ is pleased to call “Enlightenment” resulted in the reduction of private freedoms in most Muslim societies. And, incidentally, and while we are at it, the most deeply colonized such societies were, the less the above statement seems to hold. (I am thinking Tunisia and, especially, of Senegal, vs Iran and Afghanistan.)

The rollback of modernization was decisive and facilitated, paradoxically, by the success of that second wave of modernizers. By replacing civil society with the state to a large extent, they made easier reaction against the modest progress toward Enlightenment in the Western sense. Large government prisons can easily be re-dedicated and filled by new opponents, after all. By the end of the twentieth century, anything resembling an enlightenment had been decisively rolled back in all three countries of reference. The Iranian Islamic Revolution brought clerics a measure of power they would not have dreamed of possessing under traditional despots. Then, self-declared Islamists assassinated the fairly mild military dictator of Egypt. Latter Egyptian Islamists actually won elections and they governed for a short time but their power was abruptly terminated by a coup then, replaced by more fascism, to-date, an amiable sort of fascism. The lesson was not lost on those Egyptians who favor representative government or judicial fairness: not the time or place for either. The reaction continues in Turkey where the relatively liberals ideas of Ataturk are being dis-implemented one by one while the modern repressive apparatus of the state keeps expanding.

Algeria is somewhat exemplary in this respect. There, after allowing free elections, the ruling military stopped the (Islamist) reaction in its tracks in the 90s by simply canceling the results of an election. This technically anti-democratic coup against anti-Democrats preserved some measure of modernization -including a thick network of secular schools – in that Muslim country of 40 million. But this happened at the cost of discrediting democracy and of legitimizing military rule in the eyes of many. The net balance of this victory against religious obscurantism is anyone’s guess.

It’s also true however that some degree of representative government took root during the 20th century in several Muslim countries including Indonesia. Curiously the latter country was rigorously colonized in the 19th century and situated far from the reach of early Muslim modernizers; another story, obviously. At any rate, and whatever change in mentalités was achieved in the 19th and 20th centuries is being pushed back quickly across a broad front. Any older observer will tell you that many more women currently wear the hijab in big Muslim cities than was the case fifty years ago. As I write, lawyers in Pakistan – “The Land of the Pure” – insist that death is the proper penalty for … apostasy.

The absence of almost any reference to Japan in this book is surprising. Japan was undergoing the same travails at about the same time as Turkey and Iran (that is, later than Egypt). Japan was spectacularly successful in most aspects of its modernization whereas the Muslim countries mostly failed. To a large though incomplete extend, the success of Japan engaged the mentalités of ordinary Japanese. That is, Japanese society became enlightened to some extent – in Western sense – as well as superbly modernized in its institution and its economy. It would have been worth the author’s while to wonder aloud about the sources of this contrast in outcomes. In his place, I would have speculated about the role of mass education. It seems that literacy was widespread in Japan before its forced “opening” by the US; it was abysmally low in all Muslim countries DB considers.

The failure of Islamic societies to produce a full Enlightenment is puzzling given that they had a head start of sorts. In the High Middle-Ages, eye witnesses, including the Tunis-born world traveler Ibn Khaldun, describe large swaths of the Islamic World that enjoyed a sort of urbane prosperity. It included a vigorous intellectual life, both scientific and poetic, and a high degree of tolerance (although dhimmi, Christians and Jews, suffered several kinds of statutory discrimination). Commentators often blame the destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258, and also (or then) the fall of the last Muslim Kingdom in Spain, Granada, in 1492, for the end of that Muslim Golden Age. I am not satisfied with this rudimentary explanation, of course, because there were plenty of large, well-off cities in the Islamic world where the Golden Age could have been perpetuated and bettered, or duplicated.

Now, some comments about the form of The Islamic Enlightenment….

Overall, DB writes in an engaging manner although his love of long sentences made me a bit breathless. When all is said though, and repeating myself, I read this 350-page book in a short time. It never bored me. Nevertheless, the author sometimes uses English a little strangely. Thus, he misuses the word “crescendo,” which he did not have to use at all. There are more such trivial mistakes, rather worse ones, in fact. You can tell reading the book, that DB is a man of broad culture, even beyond what would expect from someone with a BA from Cambridge and an MA in Oriental Studies Yet, no one knows everything. His economic baggage might well be on the light side. Be it as it may, I think anyone who write a book of history should be bound by basic reason. DB does not demonstrate a high standard in connection with that requirement.

Early, in the book, DB misuses the technical term “comparative advantage” the way smart but inattentive undergrads will do routinely. It’s mildly disturbing because he did not have to use those words at all. I suspect he chose them in an attempt to impart a fragment of scholarly authority to his (good) journalistic text. At one point, DB states that cheap imports from England had reduced Egyptian (manufacturing) productivity. More on this below, but first, a digression.

The general theme illustrate here is familiar in left-wing narratives of anything pertaining to the missing economic development of underdeveloped areas of the world: It’s not their fault, Western capitalism stopped them from developing, even forced them back. (It’s called: Teoria de la dependencia, in Spanish.) The idea is plausible but it lacks rigorous support. It’s not backed by empirical research that could and should have been performed years ago. I know that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence but still, if it had been one of my favorite ideas, I would have managed to do the supporting empirical research. Yet, this narrative has its own prestigious intellectual pedigree including a beautiful, thoroughly annotated book by Immanuel Wallerstein, published in 1974 (The Modern World System: Capitalist Agriculture….) It’s a book worth reading although it’s mostly wrong in its conclusions, I think. Its main thesis – that economic exchanges with more developed, capitalist countries – actually caused underdevelopment in poorer countries -was forcefully invalidated in the 80s and 70s by American quantitative researchers, including myself. (Ask.) The same idea was picked up powerfully by Ghandi, incidentally. End of digression.

Back to my main thread (that concerns economic literacy). I have turned DB’s statement in my mind every which way, and I can’t figure any mechanism by which their simple availability, even direct competition from foreign products would negatively affect indigenous productivity. The best I can do is these two basic ideas. First, the direct competition of imports motivates indigenous producers to improve their own products or to make them cheaper. Second the competition of imports results in the elimination of the weakest indigenous producers. With both processes, indigenous productivity is improved, not decreased as DB would have it. He confuses productivity and production, I think. This is not a small mistake, for a journalist, in particular, who is supposed to care about words. Beyond ignorance of economics, this mistake demonstrates either poor logic or a lack of attention. In subtle ways, it undermines my willingness to follow DB in areas with which I am myself unfamiliar. I also wonder why his editor did not catch it. Same destructive effect on my level of trust.

Something is missing from the book. After the failure to enlighten the Muslim countries he examines, DB should have gone one step further and ask the obvious. He should have engaged in the serious examination of the possibility that the deep beliefs of Islam, explicitly embodied in its Scriptures, are an obstacles to the reign of reason above and beyond the usually conservative influence of religious authorities (the ulemas). Also missing is the possibility that a habitually rudimentary understanding of Islam among Muslims (See Delacroix, cited above) fails to provide a foundation for the exercise of the individual judgment that is, I think, at the heart of the Enlightenment. I am tempted to add that DB would have profited by reading V.S. Naipaul’s devastating, pitiless, and somber but fairly prophetic 1981 book, Among the Believers: an Islamic Journey. Naipaul, after all, is not one of those esoteric Delacroix finds, as you might rightly fear; he is a Nobel Prize winner. If nothing else, DB could have countered the dire tales about real Islam at ground level Naipaul tells. I hesitate because there are two valid schools of thought on how to analyze history. One requires that the historian ignores as much as is humanly possible what he knows of today when writing about yesterday. The second recommends that the understanding of today should be forcefully applied to an understanding of yesterday. There are merits to both. DB leans to the first school.

The book is carefully and copiously referenced. From its bibliography, I deduce that DB has a command of French (in addition to English, of course). He may be able to read Farsi; it’s not obvious although he references Farsi-language sources (in Roman alphabet transliterations). He may speak that language to some extent because he was a correspondent in in Tehran for I don’t know how long. He is married to an Iranian woman (which has some unspoken consequences; see below). I noticed no sources in Turkish nor in Arabic. This is problematic, of course. This book is thus largely based on the observations of Western visitors and on translations from English and French.

For this reason alone, I wish DB had had a co-author. I mean someone with a Muslim name and literate either in Arabic or in Turkish. In my own broad experience, those who rely on translations and on foreign travelers’ observations gain only a limited understanding even of French society. If this is correct with respect to Englishmen writing of the geographically nearby and historically familiar France, I can only imagine how constrictive reliance on such sources must be for Westerners dealing with exotic and naturally closed Islamic societies. (They are naturally closed in the sense that one half of their adult population is normally silent.) Yet, The Islamic Enlightenment …. may not have ended much different if DB had had such a co-author and that’s the problem: I will never know. I realize also, of course, that a co-author with roots in the Muslim words might have made DB even more timid. Muslims, or people reputed to be Muslims, who criticize Islam today have reasons to be worried for their safety. (I hope that’s the reason why there are currently so few.) I am not about to forget the fate of the novelist Salman Rushdie forced to live in hiding for twenty years by Islamist (ist) gross intolerance. *** In accordance with this sense of danger, I worry about the possibility that his wife has relatives back in Iran whom DB may see as so many potential hostages. This concern may have made DB more timid that he would otherwise have been, even altered his perception of reality. It may also explain the aggressive tone of his Introduction.

A personal comment about a fact that is relevant to the inquiry although only tangentially so: I have known Muslims all of my long life, in France where I was raised, in the US where I emigrated, and in other countries, including several Muslim countries where I spent time. This multi-faceted experience has left me with a strong preference for the company of Muslims. I found all Muslims I have known for more than an hour personable.**** I do not credit religion here. There is something in Muslim culture, beyond national and linguistic differences within the Islamic world, that is very attractive. I am sure, I am not the only one who has fallen under the charm; I have seen others do. I can only intuit the relevance of this observation to the issue of enlightenment. Perhaps, two different object cannot occupy the same (mental) space. Perhaps, enlightenment, as we created the concept in the West, entails a kind of refrigeration of the collective heart.

I need to go one step further, a difficult step because I think of myself as a great-grandchild of Diderot. Western rationalists like me put a lot of stock in the European Enlightenment, among other reasons because it fathered the American Revolution. We forget easily that it also engendered the French Revolution,***** terrorism as a method of government, followed by the (modernizing and thus lasting) despotism of Napoleon), followed by the pan-European butchery of the Napoleonic Wars and, after that, probably, communism as well as fascism.

In conclusion: a learned great deal about the history of Muslim societies in this book but not much about the absence of an Islamic Enlightenment.

Post Scriptum This book is about Muslim national societies (some Muslim societies). It should not be necessary to affirm the following: None of its conclusions, explicit or implicit, has anything to say about individual Muslims, possibly about millions of individual Muslims, whose condition of personal enlightenment vastly exceeds that of the populace in any Western country. The same applies to this critique.

* I recommend highly in connection with this book the Annales historian’s Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. And, readers who are retired or existing in an undemanding graduate environment should begin reading his formidable, three-volume Capitalism and Material Life, 1400-1800. although it’s only tangentially about the Islamic world. PS Sorry there is pressure on me to brag but I read the series page by page twice, once in French and another time in English. It’s so good, I am tempted to read it again.

** On this topic, perhaps see the essay on my blog:


*** Salman Rushdie was condemned to death through a fatwaa religious injunction by the lamented Ayatollah Khomeini for having given the names of the Prophet’s wives to the denizens of a brothel in his lovable novel, The Satanic Verses.

**** I am well trained in conventional sociology with a degree from a reputable university. (Go ahead, make my day and peruse my C.V. !) I know all about bad sampling and confirmation bias. Nevertheless I think it’s valid to rely on anecdotal evidence under two conditions. First, the evidence has to be strongly repetitive, not two of one kind, three of another and then, one of the first kind again. Second, those relying on anecdotal evidence have to be very willing to be questioned and even rebuked, especially by anyone having rigorous data at his disposal.

***** For a detailed contrarian view on the French Revolution, read Thomas Carlyle’s 1837, The French Revolution: a History.

The following essay on my blog examines one possible obstacle to enlightenment, in the Arab World, specifically:


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The Knife is Coming

Top brass at advertising giant Interpublic Group of Cos. told its 20,000 US employees last week they had until year’s end to complete sexual-harassment training. The cession quizzes employees on what to do when a co-worker discusses weekend sexual exploits at work or when a colleague comes on to a colleague’s girlfriend after hours…

Women are crucial to our business,” says Mr Roth [CEO]. “We need our environment to be safe for all.”*

(All boldings mine.)

Let me put the two statements together for you in a familiar television-like form.

John, Mary and Peter work together in the same office. One day, they go out together for drinks after work. Jane, John’s girlfriend – who works elsewhere – joins them. Peter flirts with Jane (JANE); he even slip her his cell-phone number. Mary (MARY) feels unsafe.

It’s bat shit crazy. Is there no limit to the absurdities we will listen too peacefully?

If a man can create an unsafe work environment for a female colleague by hitting on another woman employed somewhere else and who welcomes the advances, is there any limit to what constitutes sexual harassment?

How about Mark looks at Jeanne – whom he does not know – at the bus stop, and Mark’s coworker, Jennifer catches his look and feels unsafe?

Will anyone shout: “Absurd”?

Myself, I don’t see just absurdity, here. Since the Weinstein explosion less than two months ago (but still no lawsuit to tell us what really happened, if anything), I have begun to discern an attempted mass castration. If there is nothing men can do to stop from being sexual harassers who make women feel unsafe – even indirectly as in the example, above – it’s the fact of being a man itself that is offensive and that needs to be repressed. The knife is coming, ladies and gentlemen!

The most disturbing and the most worrisome aspect of all this mass movement is the lack of backbone demonstrated by many male decision-makers, such as Mr Roth, in this story, who hardly needs the operation, by the way.

Not far behind, is the passivity- so far – of rational women who stand to lose a great deal of peace of mind and other benefits, to the extent that the mass surgical intervention succeeds.

Note that I am not hinting at conspiracy. With the powerful domination of a few newspapers and of fewer TV channels, with the effectiveness of the social media, conventional conspiracies have become obsolete. Throw wet garbage and see if it sticks. If it does not, you and your actions will have been forgotten tomorrow anyway. Some harm done; no price to pay!

What needs to be done? Fight back. Denounce every crazy statement. Affirm rationality. Be ready for a little temporary social exclusion. You will soon find that most people are on your side. They just couldn’t believe what they saw and heard until you gave them a shout-out .

*From the Wall Street Journal, Nov. 11 2017, P. 1

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