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"America has two great dominant strands of political thought - conservatism, which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barriers that should never have been erected." -- Bill Clinton, Dedication of the Clinton Presidential Library, November 2004

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Sunday, July 16, 2006


He who knows nothing speaks

posted by Razib Khan at Sunday, July 16, 2006 permalink View blog reactions
This blog's title is "Nation Building." And yet here we stand today as a nation is crumbling, Lebanon is now as it was. I am not very interested in the details of day-to-day politics, but I am not totally averse to world affairs, so I ventured into the blogosphere late in the night. I witnessed a friend of Michael Totten's being savaged because he bemoaned his situation as a refugee from the bombing! At Dean Esmay's blog I read about commenters who talk of bombing Iran back into the Stone Age. As someone who is not particularly conversant in the details of current events and the background of the dynamics I am reluctant to speak. B
ut, what I can offer is critique of both specifics and process.

First, we have to know the history here. We have to know what Lebanon is. The Christians of Lebanon are predominantly "Maronites," likely a denomination which somehow arose of an obscure Christological controversy in the 6th century. Their relations with European powers is deep and of long standing, from their role as both Byzantine proxies, and occassionally shock troops (Levantine Christians emigrated to the Byzantine Empire continuously for hundreds of years after the rise of Islam). The Sunnis and Shia emerge from the same demographic substratum, but their allegiances differed. Sunnis were for hundreds of years the established faith, as the Ottoman Sultans professed their creed. Shia were dissidents of all sorts, with a close connection with the distant Safavid state in Iran. The relationship to the Safavids, and Iranian nationhood, is crucial. I have argued before that Iran as we know it, a Shia state united by the glue of Persian culture, but not Persian ethnicity (the Safavids were Turkic, as have the ruling dynasties of Iran been over the last 500 years until the Pahlavis). When Shah Ismail, the charismatic founder of the Safavid dynasty in Iran, realized that he was not going to be the last imam, that a new religious order not issue from him by fiat, he decided to recruit Twelver Shia scholars from Lebanon to forcibly propogate that religion across the length of the Iranian state. So the ties between the Shia Arabs of Lebanon and Iranian state were forged 500 years ago. Iran transformed itself from a multi-ethnic multi-religious geographic expanse to a multi-ethnic mono-religious state (half of Iranians are Persian, but 9 out of 10 are Shia). Lebanon is the inverse, a mono-ethnic multi-religious nation, though some Christians dissent from the contention that they are Arabs, per se (there is little genetic difference between Muslims and non-Muslims, the vast majority of Lebanon's population is likely derived from the Aramaic speaking substrate which was extant when the Umayyads conquered the Levant from the Byzantines).

The third leg in this backdrop is Syria. The Assad family which rules Syria are Alawites, a rather shadowy crypto-religion whose exact details are unknown because of its esoteric initiate oriented basis. Nevertheless, if one thing is clear, the Alawites are not Sunnis. Their cohabitation with a sizable number of Christians in Latakia province likely resulted in accusations that they were crypto-Christians, though it seems plausible that their outward deviation from Sunni practice (they view the pillars of Islam in a symbolic light) as well as their obscurity of belief has rendered them suspect in any case. But over the past generation Syria has developed a friendly relationship with Iran, and we all know of its affinity or not for Lebanon. In 1974 Lebanese leader of the Twelver Shias, Imam Musa al-Sadr, issued a legal decision saying that the Alawites are Shia Muslims. This was significant, since this gave them an imprimatur of legitimacy vis-a-vis the Sunni majority of Syria. One could posit that the arc from Syria to Iran is now dominated by Shia domianted powers, Iran and Iraq demographically, Syria because of its ruling elite. In Lebanon the plural majority is Shia, that is, they are the largest proportion of the population.

But there are issues beyond history which need to be acknowledged. There is much talk about "mad mullahs" and their intentions. The problem with much of the discourse is that it relies solely on introspection, as if they did not have a science of cognition to weight and assess potentialities and probabilities, sifting between what people intend and what they say. A friend of mine once had a "proof" that theists did not believe in an afterlife: if you put a gun to the head of someone who avowed they believed in afterlife they would feel fear. If they believed in an afterlife they would not feel fear, ergo, the reverse inference implies they do not believe in an afterlife. This sort of naive psychology assumes that humans are both integrated and purely reflective, that is, our minds operate as a whole with perfectly necessary and contingent chains of reasoning derived from our axioms (norms), and, that this system of thought is perfectly transparent and accessible to us. The reality is very different, we are already familiar with ideas like the "subconscious," but it seems likely that the human mind operates as a coalition of subprocesses. Just like applications running in the background of your operating system, these subprocesses shape the nature of our conscious mind and bound rationality. What people say, and what they mean, and what they believe, and what they believe about what they believe, can be wholly separate issues. This is only addressing the purely cognitive first order issue of nuance and complexity, considering the difficulties of cross-cultural communication we should be very cautious about deriving models of intent from quotations that we see in the Associated Press.

Much of the political and policy discourse seems to be far too narrow in its methodology and short-sighted in its scope. If you are to speak of nation-states as individual actors, you must know the historical parameters which constrain the choices that nations make. If you are interested in the nature and character of a head of state, you must understand the basics of human cognitive psychology to parse the real from the quasi-real. A "thick" description based on a swarm of facts extracted from a narrow slice in time and specific to a small spatial expanse are the necessary preconditions, but they are not sufficient to make an informed decision, we need to bring to the fore other insights and continue to add parameters as we refine our models.

This isn't just abstract and esoteric philosophizing, lives depend on the decisions that people make based on the tools they have on hand. Sometimes only the ignorant can see the truth of the situation.


AFAIK, the defining characteristic of the Maronite church is that they're the Levantine Christians who chose to acknowledge the papacy during the Crusades.


"AFAIK, the defining characteristic of the Maronite church is that they're the Levantine Christians who chose to acknowledge the papacy during the Crusades."

yes. but, they were already somewhat different from convential melkite confessions, such as what we term "eastern orthodox," in their origin during the monolethite controversy. this controversy was a bizarre attempt to resolve the monophysite-chalcedonian conflict during the reign of justinian. it failed, in large part because both camps found it even more bizarre.

the point in this historical tidbit is twofold:

1) a deep and detailed knowledge of the local temporal terrain is often quite helpfull, and even trivial facts such as these might come in handy in fleshing out a model or perspective

2) the origins of the maronites is rather unique, and their separation from the eastern orthodox (melkites) or the jacobites (monophysites) is not simply a matter of the crusades and european intervention. it likely lay deeper in history.

(see warren treadgold a history of byzantine state & empire for the monothelite controversy, though the catholic encyclopedia will prolly do)


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About Nation-Building

Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.