In his fine talk “Was There a Founding?” (reprinted on this site), John Willson warns of “obtuse secularism” making it hard for American students “to connect liberty and religion in a way that will help effect a recovery of our past.” While he calls for “unshakable books” to inform and inspire, an objective (rather than a method) might be defined as ]re-integrating history, culture and traditional, time-tested values into modern thought and modern living. Uncertain if this can be done in America, I watched as an ancient and integrated society disintegrated at the cost of more than one million lives, and how it may come together again.
Professor Sayyid Bahauddin Majrooh was an Afghan intellectual on a grand and even a theatrical scale. Balding and approaching his 60s, his remaining hair competed for attention with his unruly eyebrows but his sparkling eyes always won. He had been Dean of the Humanities Faculty at Kabul University before the 1978 communist coup and the 1979 Soviet invasion. Earlier he had been a diplomat and then appointed by the king as a provincial governor; he had earned a doctorate in France and published a large body of journalism, essays and poetry chiefly in Dari, Pushtu and French. The poems ranged from unique translations of “landai” – short verses, often wickedly satirical and ribald, traditionally composed by illiterate Pushtoon peasant women – to “Ego Monster,” an epic poem in French of grand intellectual proportions and still admired by many in France and Afghanistan. Majrooh was bright, witty, sometimes provocative and often profound, while across Peshawar where he chose to work in exile alongside of his four million refugee countrymen, he was ever in demand at the best soirees Afghan or international.
In the late 1980s, Majrooh ran his tiny, hand-to-mouth, Afghan Information Centre which published news, opinion surveys of the refugees and editorials ever at odds with the orthodoxies of the American and Pakistani governments who backed the radical, Islamist Afghan resistance parties that intentionally eclipsed the more popular moderate factions. After meeting him at a party, as impressed as everyone else, I volunteered as much time as I could spare to help him to proofread his publications in English (which I gathered was his fifth language): it was a small price to pay for his company.
Majrooh always was, or had become, a monarchist like the predominantly Pushtoon Afghans with whom he shared exile in Pakistan. Despising communism and the emerging, radical, Islamist movement so foreign to Afghan traditions, they longed for a return of King Mohammad Zahir Shah who had been deposed in 1973 by his modernist, nationalist and (then) Soviet-aligned son-in-law and cousin, President Mohammad Daoud Khan, who was himself toppled by the communists in 1978. While Afghanistan’s many minorities disagreed, then and still, the deposed Pushtoon royal family represented to the Pushtoon majority almost two centuries of agrarian stability and tradition. Majrooh wanted the king to use his charisma to head a new and democratic venture. To the Islamists he was anathema, supporting values which they longed to extirpate, and most US government officials believed that Afghanistan’s only viable, anti-Soviet future lay in encouraging a radical, Sunni, Afghan version of Imam Khomeini’s Shia-led Iranian revolution of 1979. How they were suckered into that is another story.
One day in 1987, I asked Majrooh how Afghan elites could have, even partially, fallen prey to something as utterly foreign and anti-traditional as communism. After all, communism was atheist while Afghans were devoutly religious, and where almost everyone seemed to be related by blood or marriage or both, communism meant nationalising village land that probably belonged to one’s cousin, and shaving the beard off the mullah who was probably one’s grandfather. A few days later Majrooh handed me his answer in the text of a speech that he would deliver at a conference in Venice: he was relentlessly self-critical and it would be the last public talk that he ever gave. I paraphrase because it was nearly 25 years ago.
For good or ill, he explained, Afghanistan was always the most integrated of countries in terms of its traditions, scholarship, governance, culture and faith. Unlike the West, in which every mode of thought or endeavour worked in isolation, Afghanistan lacked those divisions, separations and barriers. Church and State were neither separate nor fully integrated but rather they developed a fluid modus vivendi. Culture was fuelled by creativity while softened by faith and tradition. Religion was modified by tradition and practical realities: Islamic (Sharia) Law, ostensibly supreme, was made to live alongside a-Islamic or even un-Islamic lending practices that included interest payments. Tradition itself was modified by circumstance. Even science (such as it was in Afghanistan) was affected by cultural, religious or traditional attitudes that all lived side-by-side in the Afghans’ cosy, cluttered and collective mental attic. This may have precluded great, global, Afghan-led advancements in one discipline or another, he thought, but it helped people to live together for millennia: no family lasts long if it attempts to root out every inconsistency among its members. Most Afghans would agree with Emerson that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
“Whenever the world has one of its Great Ideas,” he continued sarcastically, “we Afghans tend to get it three generations late. Communism was only one example.” He and his fellow students, at Kabul University in the 1950s, had been transfixed by Henri Bergson’s Romanticism: “You know,” he laughed, shaking his head, “where the only real intellectual, the only thinker with integrity, stands alone on the mountain-top with the wind in his hair, intentionally divorced from any influence that may even unknowingly affect the supposed purity of his thoughts.” He grew sombre, adding “We young Afghan intellectuals did it to ourselves. We intentionally threw away our faith and our history and our traditions in our desire to be modern. From being integrated we chose dis-integration. We amputated our own roots. We made ourselves easy prey for any ideology, whether that was communism or this new, radical, foreign and spurious interpretation of Islam reacting against communism.” Indeed, Afghanistan’s communism and radical Islamicism both grew out of Kabul University simultaneously, and the same young intellectuals who opposed one another on campus were soon slaughtering one another on battlefields.
When Majrooh returned from Venice, I promised to help find him a safer neighbourhood after some short work in Nepal. I unpacked my bags in Kathmandu when a friend rang to report that The Professor (as we all called him) had answered his door only to be shot to rags, machine-gunned by the radical Islamists so avidly supported by the American government.
Today Afghan tribes are stronger, historical keepers of tradition that survived its would-be twin assassins, communist and Islamist ideologies. Minority groups lacking tribal structures, once suppressed by the Pushtoon monarchy, are now organising and profiting from Afghan democracy. Both have leaders who are sufficiently well-travelled to copy good ideas from abroad so long as they somehow respect faith and tradition. Twice bitten by ideology, they are determined not to suffer again, reintegrating their culture while accommodating change, steering between the Scylla and Charybdis of radical Islamist insurgents and corrupt opportunists with the outcome yet uncertain.
Meanwhile, the ideological roots of American disintegration and self-destruction may be nearly as old as the Republic itself. Oxford teacher Duncan Williams, in his award-winning 1972 book “Trousered Apes: Sick Literature in a Sick Society,” identified a late 18th Century cultural time-bomb, a virus of sorts carried by Romanticism. By denying the old values that Art must “delight and instruct;” by stripping Art of its moral role; by insisting that any credible Art must be ever more innovative and personal; Romanticism insisted that Art follow an allegedly progressive, linear path such as Science does. Art, gadarening off in its ideologically-propelled direction, said Williams, leads to a predictable reductio where the drive for ever more innovation sees charlatans eventually wrapping cliffs in cellophane; while the insistence upon ever deeper artistic introspection ultimately produces poetry of no meaning to anyone but the poet. This process is Historicism of Art, assuming inevitable “progress,” aping science while pretending to do what Art cannot. In a similar vein, economist FA Hayek’s 1974 Nobel lecture excoriated the soft-sciences for pretending to be hard-sciences, guaranteeing numerical “progress” by intentionally excluding those uncomfortable human motivating factors that cannot be measured. John Randolph’s King Numbers indeed!
The American Cult of Progress generates much material wealth. But this incremental process of false inevitability, pseudoscience and buncombe; this false dialectic of historicist colonisation has trapped Art, corrupted soft sciences and built a full (if paradoxical) “tradition of revolution” where at even an instinctive level ‘new’ is always good and ‘old’ is bad, ‘young’ is best and innovation holds all of the trump cards. Americans are the high-priests of this modernist orthodoxy. Is it thus surprising that so few Americans, young or old, take interest in their history or anyone else’s? Is it remarkable that virtually none of my young, formally-educated, Western colleagues have seen a film made before they were born or can string together two coherent sentences on any art but the contemporary, ‘pop’ variety? T. S. Eliot mourned the passing of shared cultural references, particularly from the Classics which were for almost two millennia the West’s lingua franca. Our decadent taste for novelty, a lazy aversion to any discipline that is supposedly not immediately “relevant” (read, “lucrative”), the false god of inevitable progress beyond the sciences, and our self-serving appetites have cost us the Classics plus everything older than our own living memories. We have no common tongue amongst ourselves or our ancestors. Our young are eyeless in Gaza and legless in the local pub.
Add to this the peril of multiculturalism – not the commonly-perceived variety promoting tax-paid Klingon-medium schools at the expense of the English language, or where democratically-driven political and financial incentives cause some minority group to agitate for the “right” to forcibly-arranged marriages or one day, no doubt, cannibalism as “an alternative lifestyle.” The more widespread and insidious multi-culturalism has little to do with the immigrants whom we so like to fear and distain. Economic efficiency has packed us off to far-distant places, jerked us out of our communities and worked us too hard to form new ones. Choice strips us of any common cultural references and creates myriad salad-bar-help-yourself cultures, “lifestyles” and religions changed as easily and swiftly as one’s brand of toilet paper. Freed of the old geographical, economic, academic, cultural and community-based forces that curtailed our choices but gave us cohesion, any Western country now lacks a common culture beyond various tastes in consumerism: to paraphrase President Nixon, we are all multi-culturalists now.
Afghanistan’s social glue – extended families, economic privation causing inter-dependency, devout faith and lingering traditions – may pull them back from the brink of dis-integration and permit their society to re-integrate, maybe better than before. Professor Majrooh would be guardedly optimistic. But what of America? Has she the economic necessity to drive her people, screaming and kicking, back into communities? She might, given the belt-tightening that looms ahead. Do Americans have the necessary shared values and common cultural “language” needed to regroup, reform and renew themselves beyond the dumbed-down, patriotic pabulum on which they feed so greedily and unthinkingly? That remains hard to say.
Afghans have ancient, socio-economic strengths for reintegration which American society lacks, but Afghans lack America’s literacy. As a first, big step, John Willson has it right again. John Adams and John Randolph and Russell Kirk – and for that matter, Jesus Christ and Saint Thomas – never left you: they are merely slumbering, taking a nap on quiet shelves, ready to wake up to engage, inform and inspire anyone who spares them but a moment to listen. Instilling curiosity is the noblest challenge, and while inspiring books maybe the last gambit for America’s survival, they may be the most powerful remedy available.
Books on the people and topics discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.