Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Secular Theodicy: A Review of Day of Empire (Part III)

(Part I)
(Part II)

Something should be said about Amy Chua’s scholarship, or lack of which. The book offers a veritable shooting gallery of poor historical scholarship. I do not think that it is coincidence that, of the four blurbs written on the back cover of the book, only one is written by an actual historian, Naill Ferguson and even he does not actually praise the book. For a trained historian to publically take a positive view of this book it would require serious brain damage or serious bribery. I would like to offer some examples that deal with issues close to my heart.

When reading her account of the Roman Empire and its downfall, it immediately struck me how Edward Gibbon like it sounded. I quickly turned to the endnotes and lo and behold, her sources were, by and large, taken from Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I have spoken in the past about Whigs being dependent upon Gibbon. In Chua’s case this is quite literal. This is the equivalent of a creationist quoting eighteenth century naturalists as scientific evidence. The field of history has advanced since the time of Gibbon; to pretend otherwise is a slap in the face to two centuries worth of historians.

Chua’s dependence on Gibbon explains a number of things that might otherwise have proved perplexing. For example, Chua seems obsessed with establishing when Rome’s “golden age” occurred. According to Chua: “… most historians agree that the High Empire, from AD 70-192, represented the apogee of Roman civilization.” (Pg. 31) If Chua actually bothered to read any history written in the later part of the twentieth century she might have realized that historians today are not seriously concerned with defining when a given civilization reached its zenith and when it began to fall. For that matter, historians today do not try to define the essence of a civilization. That was the nineteenth century; we have moved past that. It was Gibbon who wrote about the four “good emperors,” creating a romanticized image of the second century, which Chua has swallowed hook, line and sinker. Chua also drags out the old canard that Christianity, with its “intolerant” beliefs, brought about the downfall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon did not invent this idea; he simply represents one of the premiere examples of it.

Chua’s Gibbon like history carries into the Middle Ages. According to Chua: “Christian Europe was fragmented and fanatic, consumed with the Crusades, sectarian rivalry, anti-Semitism, and the persecution of infidels.” (Pg. 109) This is Chua’s version of thirteenth century Europe. Besides for ignoring the rise of Scholasticism (This was the age of Thomas Aquinas.), she also fails to consider the rise of the French, Castilian and Aragonese states. These states gained power through such acts of “intolerance” as the Albigensian Crusade and the Reconquista. This goes against what Chua is trying to argue so she simply ignores the problem. Chua’s negative portrayal of Christian Europe is contrasted oddly enough with the Mongols. This is quite strange since Genghis Khan killed far more people than any “fanatical” Christian cleric. Genghis Khan manages to get into Chua’s good graces, despite slaughtering tens of thousands of people, because he was willing to put up with people regardless of their religion. In addition to followers of the native Mongol beliefs, his army included Confucians, Muslims and Christians. Of course Genghis Khan also took an equal opportunity approach when it came to killing people as well. Calling Genghis Khan tolerate misses the point. He was someone who did not care what god someone worshipped as long as that person served him; those who did not he killed.

Chua’s footnotes on Spain repeatedly refer to David Nirenberg’s Communities of Violence and the work of Henry Kamen, both excellent present day scholars. Unfortunately she appears not to have actually read these books. If she had she might have been alerted to certain nuances that her beloved Whig narrative ignores. The whole premise behind Communities of Violence is that the paradigm of intolerance leading to violence, so basic to Chua’s book, does not work; the acts of violence against Jews and Muslims are extensions of a popular common culture, one in which Jews and Muslims were part of. Kamen has often been labeled as an apologist for the Inquisition. This may be just a bit unfair to Kamen, but Kamen does serve as a counterweight to the traditional “black legend” of the Inquisition and the portrayal of Spain as a country that sunk under the weight of barbarism and superstition. Chua seems to be blissfully unaware of this. One can only conclude gross levels of ignorance or dishonesty on her part.

Chua comments:

Why sixteenth-century Spain declined has been a favorite topic of historians. Technological backwardness, entrenched feudal traditions, crushing foreign debt, the lack of a significant industrial and entrepreneurial sector, demographic decline, a weak state apparatus, and chronic budgetary crises are some of the contributing factors most often cited. (Pg. 156)

This statement is an utter lie. It might be true to say this about seventeenth or eighteenth century Spain, but to say this about sixteenth century Spain is ludicrous. What sixteenth century Spain is she talking about? Is she referring to the Spain of Charles V, which encompassed Spain, its empire in the New World and the Holy Roman Empire? Maybe she is referring to the Spain of Philip II, which spearheaded the Catholic assault against Protestantism. The seeds may have already been there for its eventual downfall, but sixteenth century Spain has a good a claim to hyperpower status as just about any of Chua’s other contenders. She cannot bring herself to call Spain a tolerant society so she has to deny that they were a hyperpower. Since the facts of history do not fit she simply goes for made up facts, recycling the made up history of centuries past.

Chua’s dishonesty in regards to Spain becomes truly unforgiveable when it is placed side by side with how she treats the Dutch Republic during the seventeenth century. She holds up the Dutch Republic as a contrast to Spain to show how the more tolerant Dutch Republic became a hyperpower. The Dutch Republic did not conquer for itself any empires it was not, militarily, that successful. All it was a small country that proved to be a remarkable economic success. I would give the modern example of the State of Israel. Israel is a remarkable success, particularly economically. That being said, no matter what the Arabs might say, Israel is not a hyperpower or even a superpower; Israel does not dominate the world. Reading this, one can only conclude that Chua has absolutely no regard for historical facts and is simply making stuff up as she goes along.

I have placed Day of Empire on my shelf next to Rabbi Yosef Eisen’s Miraculous Journey. I think these two authors deserve each other as they are a match in terms of their sloppy thinking and lack of scholarly standards. They are both intellectual frauds, who in pursuit of their own personal theologies actively distort historical facts. Unfortunately, for some strange reason, Chua seems to have been allowed to gain a position of public trust as a professor at Yale. The fact that the Yale law school would employ such a person forces one to question the legitimacy of the school and the value of any degree that it might confer. I would say no differently if a university employed a creationist or a holocaust denier even if they were not working as scientists or historians.


James Pate said...

I was reading today in Philip Schaff's History of the Christian Church that Gibbon wasn't too sympathetic to the Christian martyrs. I wonder if that overlaps with what you say about Gibbon and the whig narrative. Did Gibbon have a problem with Christianity?

Izgad said...

One can read the entire Decline and Fall as one long polemic against Christianity. Gibbon was a good example of an Enlightenment liberal Protestantism. (In his youth he did convert to Catholicism before being forced by his family to give it up.) He makes the occasional pious statement, but spends most of the time lambasting Christianity. One is left wondering if he was just bashing “superstitious” Catholicism or was he a closet deist. The line between liberal Protestantism and the deism that we usually associate with the Enlightenment is quite blurry. The Anglican Church is a particularly messy situation because of Latitudinarianism. When does one stop being a good Protestant? When you deny transubstantiation? How about if you deny the Trinity, like Newton and Locke? What if you think that Jesus was just a great moral philosopher, who preached the religion of nature, do unto others as you would have them do unto you?

James Pate said...

Well, I'm not inclined to dump Newton. He's a good asset for people of faith in discussions on science and religion. "Hey, you can believe in God and be a scientist! Newton..."

Miss S. said...

(In regards to your final paragraph)

Yale is the bastion of liberal academia; which allows for the fudging of a rigid intellectual regime in exchange for "out of the box" deductive reasoning. There is no reason to denigrate them for employing Chua since she is not countering their mission* outright. I am not saying that it is "right"; but it has become the norm in many circles.

We a slowly moving towards less and less respect for true scholarship to allow for more adulation for information that has been sufficiently seasoned with political correctness.

* - 'scholarship' part could be debated

Izgad said...

Miss S.
I would not hold back from attacking a creationist institution for hiring a creationist clown simply because it was a creationist institution. The fact that the institution would hire such a person simply confirms its lack of worth.

Miss S. said...

Boo; I can't multitask tonight. The second paragraph should start out as "We are slowly...".

Well Harvard employed that nut Richard Herrnstein working in the field where he made his lousy scholarship. But I (myself) would still tip my hat at most people who manage to earn degrees from Harvard.