Blogs > Liberty and Power > Gasp!

Apr 12, 2004 5:07 pm


The Vietnam analogy makes it onto the webpage of the American Spectator:

Close your eyes and you're back in Saigon in 1966 listening to Robert McNamara rhapsodize about the future of Vietnam. All that's missing is the body counts.

The piece makes some rather loopy assertions and slaloms in and out of running-off-the-rails stream-of-consciousness, but it's still more interesting and insightful than any war coverage you're likely to read on NRO these days. I can't wait to see the letters this generates.

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Daniel B. Larison - 4/14/2004

Thank you for the correction. I accept that large numbers of unmarried men in a society can contribute to the pressures for radical and violent action, but what I found so stunning about the original article was the idea that it was the allowing of polygamy, rather than anything else, that created the religious violence and instability. One does not, for instance, hear a great deal about Mormon 'jihadists' in the nineteenth century, and there were only Mormon wars when the U.S. Army was committed to controlling the territory, though there were also certainly some violence associated with frontier life and fights with the Utes. But I suspect that man's capacity for untold violence and revolution is not governed by his ability to marry, though if a number of other factors push him in that direction his lack of a settled life and marriage obligations might be enough to let him turn violent.
I am not certain about this, but it seems to me that the great revolutions and uprisings in Islamic history all stemmed from claims of dynastic or religious right, and they catapulted to power with the aid of certain tribes in the area who joined (as far as we know) for reasons entirely different from those suggested by the original writer (e.g., 'Abassids, Fatimids, Safavids, etc.). Perhaps the Wahhabi case was different, but I doubt it.
It doesn't much help his theory much that Muhammad--the archetypal religious zealot returned to the city--was already married at the time of his revelations and throughout his long and violent career. Something else was motivating him, and it wasn't repressed sexual anxiety, and the idea that this is what primarily motivates any large culture was my main objection.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/13/2004

The Chinese did indeed practice polygamy, and at least some level of female infanticide, resulting, by the 19th century, in some dramatic rates of non-marriage (Spence's textbook cites one district with a 20% non-marriage rate for males). While it isn't a simple "this causes this" equation, there's little doubt that the influx of unmarried and unmarriagable males into China's cities was a source of unrest, playing a direct role in China's first great organized crime organizations (which started as mutual aid societies for otherwise unprotected males in a society where family/clan organizations were quite strong) and at least an indirect role in one of the OTHER great 19th century rebellions, the Nian.

This urban male population became the hotbed of nationalism and communism which erupted in the 20th century.....

Daniel B. Larison - 4/12/2004

The original article's arguments that democracy is untenable and withdrawal should occur soon are both good as far as they go, but if it is only to prepare for our future confrontations with Pakistan (!) and Syria, then I would rather that such jingoists stop getting our hopes up that they have recovered their sanity.

As for the idea that polygamy generates the social problems of the Islamic world because of the sexual frustration of the unmarried men, the author would have to demonstrate the extent to which polygamy actually imposes such imbalances in the population today in those countries beset by such violent movements. Saying that Islam allows polygamy, and also saying that there are violent Muslims does not carry the day. It doesn't much help his argument that he doesn't even get the number of Muhammad's wives correct (the number was considerably higher than four). Chinese aristocrats also practiced polygamy, and yet this did not lead to chronic political upheaval during the imperial period. The worst upheaval in their history, T'ai-ping, was fundamentally religious in inspiration, though it dovetailed with other grievances as well.

It is perhaps typical of the 'cosmo right' to not appreciate that there are motives beyond the material and the satisfaction of those desires, but if the author is correct then there is very little to be done about the state of Islam. If it were simply a matter of convincing people to abjure violence, that's one thing, but to invade the heart of their marriage customs, however maladaptive, is to invite perpetual vendetta and justifiable contempt. But perhaps there is something to this theory: quick, how many neoconservatives and advocates of the Iraq war are married? If this theory were correct, then we would stand a good chance of calming down the lunatic desire to refashion the world by getting these folks to settle down.

One other item: how is it that avowed secularists who spout socio-sexual theories about frustrated libido as the root of cultural problems believe their calls for Christian evangelism are credible? Are we supposed to take them seriously? Why on earth would anyone else? Ann Coulter is not exactly Theresa of Avila, after all--I doubt a woman given to so much spite could ever confess a religion of forgiveness and the requirement not to judge others, but I wouldn't want to rule it out. But for this writer to call for the conversion of the Islamic world (what he really means is conquest with some nice religious drapery thrown over it) is like Freud calling for the restoration of the Temple, or Klimt advocating ultramontantism. Spare us the two-faced rhetoric about Christendom's superior religious truths, especially when the one arguing the point doesn't seem to be informed much by those truths.