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Learning From ‘Bad’ Books & People

Truth is not always spoken by nice, moral people. Name some that are important to pay attention to

I’m still catching a lot of blowback for having linked to an American Thinker column the other day by a former Peace Corps worker who said her time in Africa in the 1970s made her not want people with those cultural values as immigrants here. I quoted her, then asked readers:

It is a harsh column. Is McQuillan’s description of Senegalese life true? How generalizable is it to other impoverished countries? What she’s saying is that Senegalese culture is incompatible with Western culture at best, and radically deficient at worst.

I have never been to a country like that. I would like to hear from readers who have, and get their reaction to McQuillan’s column. I realized that my first heated reaction to Trump’s words — which I still consider to be at best crude and undiplomatic — was based on the sense I had that he was dehumanizing the people who live in poor countries. I still believe there is some of that in what Trump said.

I have no trouble saying that not all cultures in the world are equally healthy, equally good. “Different” doesn’t equal “bad,” but some places really are bad because the culture there is bad. Take the people out and put them in a different culture, and you should be able to expect different results over time. But not always.

Again, I would very much like to hear from people who have spent real time in countries like this, and get their opinions, no matter what they are. Whichever side you come down on, spare us the high-pitched moralizing, please. Let’s have a real discussion.

This was an invitation to people who have had experiences in Third World countries to share their experiences. Did they validate McQuillan’s experience? Did they contradict hers? What lessons can we learn from them with respect to the questions we’re dealing with on immigration policy?

I still think these are important questions to be asking. I know what the people who have lots of theory in their heads think, both Left and Right. I want to know what people who have lived and do live with this stuff think, based on their own experience.

It is depressing that so many smart people cannot or will not recognize that we are capable of learning things even from people we regard as bad, or deeply flawed. That nut Sarah Jones held my reading of the racist French novel The Camp of the Saints against me, as a sign that I’m a racist. In truth, I said from the get-go that the novel is undeniably racist, and that made it hard to read. But there were, and are, also some important truths to be minded out of the narrative, especially when it comes to the way progressive ideology in the European establishment institutions (state, church, media, academia) disarms people in the face of a hostile and alien culture.

More recently, I’ve become interested in the novels of the contemporary French author Michel Houellebecq. He is a dystopian whose novels are at times hard to read because the material is semi-pornographic and somewhat misogynistic. But Houellebecq is writing about some very deep themes — one literary scholar I read said Houllebecq is the only major European novelist today wrestling with the results of the death of God — and if you avoided him because his fiction and his views are distasteful at times, and even immoral, you would miss out on some important information.

I want to put a question to the room. Can you think of a book, film, or work of art that is seriously flawed from a moral point of view, and/or whose author is similarly compromised, that is nevertheless important to read because of the insights and wisdom to be gained from it?

Aside from the two I’ve mentioned, I also want to mention the Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb. Back in 2003, I read this long piece in the NYT Magazine by Paul Berman, arguing that Qutb, who was hanged by Nasser in the 1960s, was indeed a fanatic, but that it is a big mistake to underestimate him. Berman wrote:

Qutb is not shallow. Qutb is deep. ”In the Shade of the Qur’an” is, in its fashion, a masterwork. Al Qaeda and its sister organizations are not merely popular, wealthy, global, well connected and institutionally sophisticated. These groups stand on a set of ideas too, and some of those ideas may be pathological, which is an old story in modern politics; yet even so, the ideas are powerful. We should have known that, of course. But we should have known many things.

Berman breaks down Qutb’s analysis of the crisis of the world, and of contemporary Islam. Excerpt:

The Muslim discoveries were exported instead into Christian Europe. And there, in Europe in the 16th century, Islam’s scientific method began to generate results, and modern science emerged. But Christianity, with its insistence on putting the physical world and the spiritual world in different corners, could not cope with scientific progress. And so Christianity’s inability to acknowledge or respect the physical quality of daily life spread into the realm of culture and shaped society’s attitude toward science.

As Qutb saw it, Europeans, under Christianity’s influence, began to picture God on one side and science on the other. Religion over here; intellectual inquiry over there. On one side, the natural human yearning for God and for a divinely ordered life; on the other side, the natural human desire for knowledge of the physical universe. The church against science; the scientists against the church. Everything that Islam knew to be one, the Christian Church divided into two. And, under these terrible pressures, the European mind split finally asunder. The break became total. Christianity, over here; atheism, over there. It was the fateful divorce between the sacred and the secular.

Europe’s scientific and technical achievements allowed the Europeans to dominate the world. And the Europeans inflicted their ”hideous schizophrenia” on peoples and cultures in every corner of the globe. That was the origin of modern misery — the anxiety in contemporary society, the sense of drift, the purposelessness, the craving for false pleasures. The crisis of modern life was felt by every thinking person in the Christian West. But then again, Europe’s leadership of mankind inflicted that crisis on every thinking person in the Muslim world as well. Here Qutb was on to something original. The Christians of the West underwent the crisis of modern life as a consequence, he thought, of their own theological tradition — a result of nearly 2,000 years of ecclesiastical error. But in Qutb’s account, the Muslims had to undergo that same experience because it had been imposed on them by Christians from abroad, which could only make the experience doubly painful — an alienation that was also a humiliation.

That was Qutb’s analysis. In writing about modern life, he put his finger on something that every thinking person can recognize, if only vaguely — the feeling that human nature and modern life are somehow at odds. But Qutb evoked this feeling in a specifically Muslim fashion. It is easy to imagine that, in expounding on these themes back in the 1950’s and 60’s, Qutb had already identified the kind of personal agony that Mohamed Atta and the suicide warriors of Sept. 11 must have experienced in our own time. It was the agony of inhabiting a modern world of liberal ideas and achievements while feeling that true life exists somewhere else. It was the agony of walking down a modern sidewalk while dreaming of a different universe altogether, located in the Koranic past — the agony of being pulled this way and that. The present, the past. The secular, the sacred. The freely chosen, the religiously mandated — a life of confusion unto madness brought on, Qutb ventured, by Christian error.

Read Berman’s piece in its entirety. 

It compelled me to do some reading in Qutb. That man was a total fanatic — but he was onto something. If we are going to fight his ideas, and those inspired by him, we need to know why those ideas inspire. Previously, I thought Islamic fundamentalism was mindless, robotic hatred. It’s not. I got this from reading a bad book by Sayyid Qutb.

So, open forum: tell us about a “bad” book, or even a “bad” author or artist — I’m speaking of bad in the moral sense, not the aesthetic sense — from whom you learned something important, and who you would recommend to others, with a caution.

UPDATE: Please explain what you believe there is to be learned from this book or that author. Talk about what you learned.



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