Wednesday, February 24, 2010

How evil is history?

There has been an interesting debate in the comments box under the post I made defending Mohsen al Attar, the anti-imperialist member of the University of Auckland Law School, from the attacks of Chris Trotter. In his latest contribution to the debate my post prompted, Chris Trotter claims that it is not so much Mohsen's alleged ignorance of historical facts as his approach to history which makes him a dangerously inadequate scholar and teacher:

The dispute...boils down to the question of agency.

It is Attar's attribution of conscious malice to the representatives of European civilisation: the reduction of historical data to the mere epiphenomena of some elaborate racial-cum-economic conspiracy spanning five centuries; that makes his course so unacceptable.

It's a world view which substitutes the dangerous simplicity of a totalitarian morality play for the boundless complexity of human society and culture.

Such an outlook has no place in a modern university.

Chris' comment includes some interesting points, but I think the thrust of his argument is worryingly authoritarian.

Like Chris, I am unenthusiastic about efforts to interpret history in essentially psychological terms - in arguing that so and so did such and such because he was such and such a type of person, or belonged to such and such a culture. It seems to me that one of the strengths of the Marxist or historical materialist approach to history is that it enables us to avoid such interpretations.

If we take the historical materialist approach, we don't have to consider, say, the Pakeha takeover of Aotearoa in the nineteenth century as some sort of expression of the inherent evil of white people: we can see it as, in part at least, a consequence of historical forces like capitalism and imperialism that transcend individual humans and individual cultures. My Irish ancestors did not float to New Zealand and settle on confiscated land because they were racists who wanted to help push Maori to the margins of Te Ika a Maui - they came here because they were tired of struggling to survive by growing flax on a few acres of swampy land rented from wealthy Anglo-Irish families. They were part of an imperialist adventure in the south seas, but they had themselves experienced at least some of the realities of imperialism at home, and this experience is what prompted them to come south.

We can also use the historical materialist approach to avoid 'scapegoating' individuals and cultures who are on the receiving end of colonisation and oppression. For example, we don't have to see, as some right-wingers do, the gap between Maori and Pakeha technology in the nineteenth century as the product of 'backwardness' or 'a lack of curiousity' amongst pre-contact Maori - we can refer, instead, to the extreme isolation in which Maori had lived for centuries, and the limited range of resources they had access to in Aotearoa, to explain the fact that they lacked the weapons and tools Pakeha brought to Aotearoa. The technological edge Pakeha enjoyed over the people they colonised was the result of historical and environmental circumstances beyond the control of Maori.

Even if an historical materialist concedes that a people have behaved with great brutality - as Marx does, when he discusses the way the Christians of Europe treated the societies they colonised - this behaviour has to be explained, not by reference to some mystical inherent quality possessed by a culture or faith, but by the action of wider historical forces.

We only need to look at the many cases in history where an oppressed people has turned into an oppressor people - to consider the brutal way the Highland Scots behaved toward Native Americans in the colonies they founded after being driven off their own land, or the way that Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama behaved after they invaded and conquered the Chathams in 1835, or the way Israelis are behaving today in the Occupied Territories - to see the problems of talking about inherently evil or inherently noble cultures.

But this is only my opinion. Historical materialism is far from the dominant trend in the humanities and social sciences at the moment. Whilst I think it offers, by and large, a better methodology than its rivals, I don't think those who employ it have a monopoly on good research. In fact, there has been, and continues to be, some dreadful scholarship produced by partisans of historical materialism.

Equally, there has been some excellent work produced by scholars who use methodologies that play down broad historical patterns and the effects of environmental and economic forces on history. I'm far from convinced that Mohsen al Attar is employing an approach to history which emphasises psychological and ethical factors to explain events, but let's assume, for the sake of argument, that he is. What right does Chris Trotter have to demand he, and others like him, be kept out of universities?

Would Chris really be happy to see, say, Daniel Goldhagen, kicked out of his post at Harvard University? Goldhagen is a scholar of fascism and anti-semitism who is convinced that Nazism and the Holocaust were primarily the products of a deep-seated anti-semitism amongst ordinary German people. Goldhagen's angry book Hitler's Willing Executioners was immensely controversial when it was published in 1996 because it argues that most Germans not only knew about but were enthusiastic supporters of the Holocaust.

With his priorising of psychological factors over material forces and big historical patterns, Goldhagen challenges traditional leftist approaches to the explanation of the Holocaust. Goldhagen would have little truck with Frankfurt School Marxist Max Horkheimer's statement that 'he who will not discuss capitalism should not discuss the Holocaust'.

I see no reason, though, why Goldhagen's outlook should 'have no place in a modern university'. Even if I am uncomfortable with the method behind his scholarship, I can recognise the quality of his scholarship and the power of his arguments. Even if his outlook is ultimately shown to be unreasonably circumscribed, he has enriched the study of fascism and raised questions that demand answers.

There is a disturbing authoritarianism implicit in many of the attacks that have been made on Moshen al Attar in recent days. As a reader of this blog has pointed out, Trevor Loudon, the former vice-Pesident of the Act Party and New Zealand's last Cold Warrior, was the first to call for Mohsen's removal from his post at the University of Auckland. Few people take Loudon's opinion about any subject seriously, but when a figure with more intellectual substance and more progressive politics echoes his call for Mohsen's dismissal then alarm bells ought to ring.


Blogger stephen said...

FFS. Here is the course outline.

How can Trotter infer all this from what is necessarily a few sentences, which in turn frame the real subject of the course -- the impact of the development of the body of international law? How would Trotter frame the last five centuries in a way both accurate and immune to criticism?

Farrar has constructed a classic Kiwiblog beat-up and Trotter has fallen for it, becoming a left-wing concern troll in the process.

2:49 pm  
Blogger maps said...

'How can Trotter infer all this from what is necessarily a few sentences, which in turn frame the real subject of the course'

Exactly. I asked Chris this question in my first post on the subject and didn't really get a response. There have been attempts - some of them successful - by right-wing groups to get academics booted from US campuses which have used a methodology similar to the one that Chris is falling for - zero in on minute pieces of writing, pick up real or imagined faults in them, and then claim that a scholar is incompetent, or dangerously prejudiced, or both.

We get the followers of David Horowitz - truly a creepy guy, a sort of Maoist-turned-neocon who has combined the worst of both positions - combing the footnotes of scholars, finding the odd inevitable blunder, and screaming blue murder.

As I said the other day, this sort of procedure is made credible, in the eyes of some members of the public and some in the media, by an ignorance about the nature of scholarship - an ignorance that is reflected in the naive idea that scholarship ought to be concerned only with some mythical naked body of theory-free 'facts', and not with opinions.

3:03 pm  
Blogger GZ said...

Trotter is hostile to ideas.

7:03 pm  
Blogger Dave Brown said...

Here is a lively challenge a propo.

9:50 pm  
Blogger Chris Trotter said...

You've crossed a line here, Scott, and quite frankly I'm rather disappointed. I really thought you had more going for you than what's on display in this posting.

At no time have I called for Attar's dismissal - nor would I ever do so.

To be critical of a man's ideas, and to forcefully express that criticism, is not to say that he has no place in the academy.

It is the ideas he espouses, not the man himself, which are being challenged.

To suggest otherwise is downright dishonest and profoundly unprofessional.

I expected a lot more of someone who writes so well about so much.

9:52 pm  
Blogger Marty Mars said...

why not answer or discuss the points raised mr trotter instead of the drama

10:20 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Here is the start of it all

LAW495 Colonialism to Globalisation

In the late 15th century, imperialist Europe emerged intent on exploring and possessing the New World. Fast forward through five hundred years of colonialism, capitalism, slavery, industrialisation, genocide, and international law and greet the 21st century in all its paradoxical glory. We now live in a world characterised by political binaries: developed & underdeveloped; civilised & primitive; wealthy & poor; lawful & unlawful. Did international law play a part in introducing the new world to the old one and, more insidiously, in dispossessing the new one for the benefit of the old one?

"I love how capitalism is inserted in there along with slavery and genocide." (Comment by someone)

'Well it is course centered on showing a certain aspect of history, so while slavery and genocide happened (partly) because of Colonialisition and Capitalism the description here doesn't mean the teacher is necessarily going to omit that there was colonialism and slavery by Arabs (or others), or that not only capitalism was a causal factor.' Me.

Following a brief review of historical inequity, we will turn our attention to the colonial origins of international law and its role in facilitating the subordination of native inhabitants in favour of European settlers. Our examination will then take us through a series of case studies – human rights, intellectual property rights, military interventions, labour (de)regulation, and the world trading system – all of which will be considered primarily from the hushed perspectives of the Third World.

'I may be wrong here but I suspect if you hand in an essay about how free trade based on an international legal framework is responsible for lifting tens of millions out of poverty, then you’re not going to get an A.'

I would say he is wrong, and that he could submit such an argument as long as it was well argued with good examples.

It seems to me the person doing this course wants Europeans to examine their consciences.
And to learn new aspects of history.
This doesn't mean that in the East or in colonial countries there were not "good things" that happened or that they (for example the Arabs) didn't engage in colonialism (they also were involved in slavery, but in this they worked closely with Europeans) - in fact if they did they also spread a lot of culture and ideas that the West Spain is one example and the spread of mathematics and philosophy also.

The tone of the response above is a bit bigoted.

The idea would be to take the course and see what it was like - or sit in on lectures. It looks interesting.

1:21 am  
Anonymous mike said...

What a ridiculous brouhaha. It's just a university course.

But I did wonder about that outline, right from the first sentence. Can anybody explain how 15thC imperialist Europe could have "intent"?

As if Europe were some kind of Hobbesian super-Godzilla wading across the Atlantic...

8:57 am  
Blogger maps said...

I don't see how Chris can claim that Mohsen is incompetent and that he employs a methodology 'that should have no place in a modern university', and then complain when he is interpreted as arguing that Mohsen should not be employed as an academic at the University of Auckland. We're not talking about a huge interpretive leap, are we?

Certainly, the rednecks and Islamophobes who have been bombarding Mohsen with abuse at sites like kiwiblog seem to interpret Chris' article as an argument against Mohsen's employment. This kiwiblog thread should be ringing those alarm bells:

10:30 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I know from courses I was in, in the 90s that (some) students always were "paranoid" that the lecturer would mark them down if they said the "wrong" things...but I feel, that, in most cases, it is the opposite.

I don't know this lecturer, but he will surely give students opportunity to discuss all the relevant points. If not, students can complain.

Someone said: "How can Europe have intent?" well that is just (normal) pre-course rhetoric. The course will undoubtedly be challenging (or it might be deadly dull(!), or it MIGHT be evil propaganda about the evil West (and we do have SOME things to answer for), BUT I would say that it is probably a good course and there will be opportunities for discussion and disagreement and so on.

Good to see such a course for potential lawyers.

Comrade Trotter should enroll then he can argue the toss with the lecturer day after day!

Sad that people base the race of the lecturer on whether a course is good or not.

12:13 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Christ they are a bunch of right wing racists on that "kiwi blog".

12:29 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

DOMINION POST OPINION: Mohsen al Attar responds to criticism by Chris Trotter of his Auckland University law course.

Last week, Chris Trotter dedicated his column to assailing an advanced international law course - Colonialism to Globalisation: International Law and the Making of the Third World - I teach at the University of Auckland law faculty.

Trotter was springboarding off a recent blogpost on the same topic.

The nature of his critique is rather straightforward: he does not like the course descriptor I last made use of two years ago.

He takes particular issue with my inclusion of the term "capitalism" alongside other noted historical markers such as colonialism, slavery, industrialisation, and the birth of international law.

Putting aside the ad hominem attacks, Trotter's critique can loosely be divided into concerns over my views of historical and contemporary First-to-Third-World relations as well as my pedagogical practices, though it might be more accurate to say his assumptions about my views and practices seeing that he did not contact me about either, or for a current descriptor.

With regards to his first concern, I have little doubt that we view history through different lenses. As a scholar, my day-to- day routine involves the reading of texts on the topics that I write and teach about. The result is that my lens tends to reflect the work of many more senior Third World scholars than myself.

In fact, I have drawn inspiration for the course itself from offerings at highly reputed universities including Law and International Inequality at the London School of Oriental and African Studies and the International Law of South-North Relations at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto.

Some of their research highlights the hostility European adventurers expressed towards the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas. For instance, after remarking on the strong physiques and excessive generosity of the Arawak people, Christopher Columbus concludes a journal entry by asserting that "with fifty men we could subjugate them all".

Then there is Francisco de Vitoria, widely recognised within legal academia as the father of international law, who condoned acts of genocide by Spaniards against indigenous peoples merely for their resistance to either colonisation or conversion (he doubled as jurist and Roman Catholic theologian). In his words, resistance to Catholic diktat was itself a violation of the law of nations...

11:44 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Of course, there is no need to travel as far back as the 15th and 16th centuries for candid assessments of European imperial behaviour. In the book Clash of Civilisations, conservative paragon Samuel Huntington states: "The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion but rather by its superiority in applying organised violence."

In apropos terms for Trotter, he goes on to remind us that, "Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do."

What Huntington appears to be saying is that the self-congratulatory narratives that echo through many Western lecture theatres are not shared by the victims of these narratives. To dismiss the perspectives of others and ignore the academic literature that gives voice to them simply because they do not cohere with our own is wholly antithetical to the purpose of tertiary institutions.

With regards to the matter of pedagogy, Trotter's allegations are baffling. He admits he has never attended one of my lectures nor spoken with one of my students. To make such bold and confident claims without such evidence is truly remarkable.

All in all, however, the experience has been an edifying one, most notably for the lessons it has taught me about electronic democracy.

Trotter drew inspiration for his column from an earlier blogpost. No longer is the written word the privilege of the owners of a printing press; the internet has democratised information by providing the masses with a means of disseminating their voices beyond their own homes, voices that are picked up by the columnists of national newspapers. This is empowering for all who participate.

Yet, democracy is not solely about privileges but also responsibilities - accurate representations and the checking of facts for instance - matters that appear to receive short shrift by certain journalists.

I conclude with a word of thanks. As the debate about my course (and my person) has gone viral, so too has enrolment. At this stage, I am pleased to report we have doubled our numbers from last year - and, at this rate, may even reach maximum enrolment by week's end - meaning that far more students will be exposed to a Third World perspective on the relationship between colonialism and international law.

Mohsen al Attar is Auckland University's first lecturer in Islamic law.

11:44 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When Karl Marx was 18 years-old, some biographies intend he shortly joined a Satanic Church — and while he left it and later became a scholar, he adopted the materialistic- anti- spirit teachings of Satanism — which biographers intend is why he used such caustic and hatred rhetoric in his writings against spiritualism and religion.

ref. the Satanist Church run by Joana Southcott!
“His early writings mentioned the name “Oulanem,” which was a ritualistic name for Satan.”


At the end of his life , he admitted that Communism, his version was indeed in need of a faith to run it — it made no rational sense. Therefore, supposedly we can frame communism as a materialistic religion based upon money-elitist science — such is the Al Gore ‘ give me the monies the world will end in ten years and all the ice will melt on the plane” — crapola.

It is no secret that the atheist-socialists control the White House and academia at Tire I institutions. This is why Karl Marx is their god. Marx once called for the destruction of all churches, religious statues and literature — to make his materialistic dispotia a reality. Michelle just has fallen for the mind-twist bait. Her husband is the personification of atheism — pro-anti-Christian.

4:13 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Scott,

Just out of interest, what's are your main criticisms of Zinn's book? I was thinking of reading it and would be keen to know why you think it's so dreadful.



1:03 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whoops, I should read what I write before clicking the publish button. Excuse the error!

1:04 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Hi Malcolm,

that's a very reasonable question! I got annoyed by all the rhetoric from the left suggesting Zinn was the greatest historian of all time after his death, and made a pile of notes for an article about the man. Alas, I haven't the time yet, but I'll try in a couple of days! What appeals to you about Zinn's work?

3:17 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, as I mentioned I haven't read any of his work. I'm not going to pre-judge it.


12:33 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home