An intriguing article in the French monthly Le Monde diplomatique by Mona Chollet asks us to imagine a world where every individual is guaranteed a minimum income, no questions asked. Poverty would no longer be criminalized, social life would become richer, and people would be free to do as they please—work, stay out of work, or alternate between the two. People have long wondered about the manufactured social disparities and indignities produced by industrial capitalism and an economy of abundance, but it was James Tobin, along with Paul Samuelson, John Kenneth Galbraith and 1,200 economists who called for such a program in 1968, which was then introduced into George McGovern’s presidential platform in 1972. The idea makes economic sense and could help stimulate the economies of poor nations. As for richer ones, a version of this program is already being implemented in the form of state subsidies—scholarships, paid vacations, pensions, unemployment benefits, and a variety of social programs. In Germany and France, for instance, less than 50 percent of the population’s income derives directly from work. As newer technologies continue to make work unnecessary, and sometimes obsolete, the idea of a guaranteed income may be the only rational way to proceed in an industrial system that needs fewer and fewer humans to produce more things for human consumption.
One might call the headline on the front page of Libération a revolution, a blatant concession by the French to the growing might of English. Last March 20th, France’s minister of higher education and research, Geneviève Fioraso, told her compatriots that five specialists discussing the great novelist Marcel Proust around a seminar table is not going to make France relevant and competitive. Lest she be misunderstood, she hastened to add that she loves Proust but that the best way to strengthen France’s heritage and language is (paradoxically) through English. Although France has existing laws making French the official language of the state, more science and business courses are being offered in English. That’s what French students want and that’s also what international students from Asia are seeking. Sweden’s top university (Lund) offers its programs in Swedish and English. Some in Spain are gradually doing the same to lure paying Saudi or Chinese students. English, Libération reminds us in its May 22, 2013 edition, should not be seen as a threat. The newspaper founded by Jean-Paul Sartre agrees with the minister—la Francophonie would be strengthened by sending French students abroad and attracting international students to France.
Here’s wishing la France bonne chance!
I live in Maine, the northernmost state on the eastern seaboard of the United States. Beautiful, rugged, and remote, the landscape is not without its charms. It’s fishing and timber industries have kept the locals occupied for centuries, and some have had a hand in shaping world history, including that of the modern Middle East, in unexpected ways. The one that has fascinated me the most is Cyrus Hamlin, the man in the picture above.
Cyrus is a descendant of Huguenots who eventually found their way to Maine when the state was still part of Massachusetts. His grandfather was awarded a farming plot in Waterford in compensation for his service during the Revolutionary War. His father, also Cyrus, died soon after he was born in 1811, but the boy grew up in a solid Maine household and got a good education. One of his teachers was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s aunt, herself a Transcendentalist scholar. Because he was not suited for farming, Cyrus left at the age of 16 to work in a jewelry shop in Portland. While making silver spoons, he discovered religion and was invited to join the ministry. His church raised money and sent him to Bridgton Academy to get an education in the classics before he enrolled at Bowdoin College. It was during this time that he put together a steam engine when he found out that Maine had none. After graduation, he entered the Bangor Theological Seminary and made what he thought was “the first prohibitory law address” in Maine on behalf of the Penobscot Temperance Society.
In both schools, Cyrus demonstrated ample leadership skills and an impeccable moral compass. After being ordained as a minister at the Payson Church in Portland in 1838, he was sent to Turkey to do missionary work. He wasted no time in founding a seminary for Armenians. He translated textbooks of philosophy and arithmetic and tried to instill Maine habits of self-reliance in his poor Turkish students. He attached an industrial annex to the seminary believing that “a certain degree of industrial education is desirable in all schools of learning.” He fought men who abused their children and women publicly and threatened to have them arrested if they didn’t desist. He helped the unemployed set up businesses, like making and selling mousetraps. He established the first modern bakery in Constantinople when he found out that an old law permitted foreigners to own their mills and bakeries. Florence Nightingale, the patron saint of nursing, liked the bread he sold at British military hospitals during the Crimean War.
Cyrus’s activities, including the way he educated his students, brought him in conflict with his employer, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), so he resigned in 1860. By that time, he had been in contact with Christopher R. Robert of New York regarding founding a college in Constantinople, one that is open to all ethnic groups in the region. He returned to Boston to raise $100,000 for the college, but was denied access to the Congregational churches of the city. Professors at Harvard College, however, were supportive. He raised $13,000 before the Civil War broke out.
Cyrus had no choice but to return to Constantinople to start building with the money Robert and he raised and wait for the war to end. He bought land with a good supply of rock and overcame much resistance from Catholics (the Russians, too, tried to keep Protestants out). His advisory committee objected to the name of “American College” because it was “too much tainted with democracy.” In fact, the committee objected to all names until, in desperation, Cyrus proposed the nondescript name of Robert College. The advisory committee approved instantly. Mr. Robert protested, but it was too late. The college was eventually placed under the protection of the United States and was allowed to fly a US flag.
During a tour to raise money for an endowment, Cyrus had a falling out with Mr. Robert and was forced to stay in the United States. He went back to Bangor to teach at the seminary, then to Portland to live with his nephew, and, while there, was made an offer at the Portland train station to be president of the deeply troubled Middlebury College in Vermont. He accepted and spent five years turning that institution around and setting it on a healthier footing before he retired to live in Lexington, Massachusetts. When an old friend organized a reception for him at the Massachusetts House, he received many expressions of appreciation and gratitude. A man from Portland wrote: “Lexington seems both naturally and historically selected as the happy retreat of a veteran, who has most signally illustrated, at home and abroad, in peace and in war, the prompt initiative, versatile genius, and philanthropic spirit of your time-honored town—and of our common civilization.” Another admirer from North Woburn recalled thinking of Hamlin “as a man of all trades: inventor, genius, courtier, manager, agitator, peacemaker; and I hardly know what not besides! And yet always and everywhere the disciple of Him who ‘went about doing good’; and, amid all forms of error, superstition, and corruption, the fearless preacher of righteousness.”
The college Hamlin founded graduated leaders who shaped their nation’s history and created the foundations of the modern Middle East. Today, when I was invited by one Cyrus’s descendants, Sally Leahy, a librarian at the McArthur Library in Biddeford, to give a talk about America and the Middle East, I made sure to mention her ancestor’s life, which is well recorded in the autobiography she kindly loaned me, My Life and Times. The photo above is also courtesy of hers.
Following the recent publication of an opinion by Morocco’s High Council of Religious Scholars (conseil supérieur des oulémas) on the punishment meted to apostates, the minister of religious affairs walked up to the podium of the country’s parliament to explain that such opinion was issued years ago, that it is not by any means a fatwa, and the Council does not support the death penalty for apostates since such a law is not mentioned in the Koran.
This is a momentous moment in the history of religious freedom in Morocco; it is part of an exciting debate about the tensions generated by a rising culture of free expression.
I can’t remember anything about Deal of the Century, the prerelease film we watched at Lincoln Center in Fall 1983, but for someone whose memory of The Exorcist was still eerily strong many years after I had seen it in Tangier, meeting the director William Friedkin was a thrill. He had been famous for his Oscar-winning films like The French Connection and his presence among us that evening—a small group of film aficionados—was an occasion to discuss filmmaking with a master.
Friedkin has been making films for 50 years now and a retrospective of his films is about to start showing in Brooklyn today. On this occasion, he gave an interview to the New York Times and discussed the fate of his ill-fated film Sorcerer, a remake of the 1953 French film, The Wages of Fear. The movie came out in 1977, a week after Star Wars had been released. So nobody paid attention to Sorcerer and the the film was a commercial flop. Looking back, Friedkin now thinks that Star Wars was a turning point in the movie industry. It reduced the film experience to mere entertainment, leading to “films about the Avengers and the Transformers, video games and comic books.” Even a giant of a film director like Friedkin turned out not to be “bulletproof,” after all.
It was a pleasure to host and spend some time with Jonathan Israel, an acclaimed historian and one of the world’s leading figures in the study of the Enlightenment. During his lecture last night at the Center for Global Humanities, he described quite eloquently the three phases of the French Revolution, convincingly showing that the revolution was, in fact, destroyed by populist demagogues who brandished their guillotines against democratic republican intellectuals and writers.
Today, on a splendid spring day, we went exploring a few of the many lighthouses that punctuate the ragged coastline of Maine. But the highlight was our visit to the Portland Head Light lighthouse, whose construction was started in 1787 on the orders of George Washington and was completed and first lit in 1791. A plaque from the American Society of Civil Engineers affixed to the structure says that “it was the first lighthouse completed and put into service by the Federal government under the Lighthouse Act of 1789.” The lighthouse is now managed by the citizens of Cape Elizabeth.
It’s a good thing that Jonathan got to visit this part of the country, especially now that he is writing a book on the American Revolution in a more global context.
Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud is the richest Arab and the 26th richest businessman in the world, according to Forbes magazine’s 2013 edition of the world’s wealthiest people. In this interview, he talks about the failure of the Arab Spring, why Morocco should be a model to Arab nations, and why the Saudi regime has been spared the fires of revolt. The prince also doesn’t hide his dislike for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Iran.
I wrote before about Ahmed Assid and his tireless and almost quixotic struggle to challenge his Moroccan compatriots to accept diversity in all its forms and champion a true culture of human rights. Because of his position, he gets vilified by extremist religious leaders, especially the Salafi types, and dismissed by so-called “moderates” as too much of an Amazigh (Berber) militant. He almost seems to have no real allies anywhere. Which is a real shame.
According to news articles, while discussing education reform and lauding the example of Norway, a nation with a state religion but whose pedagogical values are firmly anchored in a culture of human rights, not on the dictates of theology, Assid made a reference to Prophet Mohammed’s purported letters to his contemporary emperors and kings inviting them to embrace Islam and save themselves and their nations from sin and perdition. In the common Muslim imagination, the content of such letters, including the one addressed to Heraclius, the Byzantine emperor, is reduced to two words: aslim taslam, which means: Convert to Islam and save yourself. Out of context, it sounds like a threat, more like “Convert to Islam or else.” For Assid, this kind of thinking contradicts today’s human rights culture and, therefore, is a bad idea to have in Moroccan school textbooks.
Such views were enough to provoke a Salafist imam to call Assid a criminal and the enemy of Allah, leading a Moroccan human rights organization to condemn the imam’s attitude and put the government on notice for Assid’s safety. Another Islamist leader dismissed Assid as a fame seeker. But Assid is not one to walk away quietly. His perseverance in the face of intolerance, fanaticism, and violence reminds us that by remaining on the sidelines, we are allowing the forces of darkness to fill up the spaces of public debate.
This brouhaha happened almost at the same time that Morocco’s official religious council issued an opinion validating the murder of apostates. Once again, public opinion, including Islamist movements, countered this fatwa and affirmed their attachment to a culture of human rights and freedom.
What’s even more ironic is that such scandals are, in the end, about nothing. There is no indication in the Koran that God orders the killing of apostates or that Mohammed ever corresponded with kings and emperors. Like the dubious hadith (saying attributed to the prophet) ordering the murder of apostates, the letters are almost certainly artifacts developed in later decades and centuries.
PS: By Wednesday, April 24th, some 226 organizations had come to Assid’s defense and warned against any attack on him in any shape or form, while Assid continued to stand by his statement of aslim taslam, saying that in today’s culture it has terroristic connotations. He also vowed never to retreat from his defense of human rights.
On Friday, April 26, one imam, Yahya Ben Mohamed Mdaghri, gave an entire sermon vilifying and condemning Assid and apologizing to the prophet. On Sunday, April 18, Fox News carried an AP story reporting on the issue. Meanwhile, a person who participated in the forum where Assid made his remark is denying that Assid spoke disrespectfully of the prophet. Meanwhile, the Assid case reached the parliament, leading a member of a socialist organization to warn against the dangers of religious extremism.
On Monday, April 29, thew news site Hespress published a video by Assid explaining his position regarding his statement,and followed it, the following day, with Assid’s critique of mosque platforms that give exclusive access to imams only. On May 1st, Morocco’s labor day, a group of people demonstrated in Assid’s favor, claiming that they are all Assids.
Hakim Abderrezak of the University of Minnesota has organized a two-day symposium to explore the question of immigration in Europe. As one might expect, the two main actors involved are the European Union and Africa, especially the countries of the Maghreb. Edwige Tamalet Talbayev juxtaposed modern-day migration patterns to the knowledge- or blessings-seeking rihlas (Muslim journeys to sacred places) of old, while Liliana Suárez-Navaz talked movingly about the heart-wrenching experiences of Tanjawi teenage boys trying to sneak into Spain and Europe. Hers was no academic talk—Lilian works with associations to help these boys and tries to make sense of their moral code and worldviews.
Lilian Suárez-Navaz shows Europe with new security-shaped borders.
The keynote speaker of the symposium, Dominic Thomas (in photo below), analyzed the meaning of Fortress Europe, as Matt Carr titled his book last year. Fluent and agile, Dominic reminded us that the old continent—dotted with detention camps, as the map he projected grimly illustrates—is now equipped with a new vocabulary of exclusion and punishment, instead of a culture of integration and inclusion.
Immigration is a thorny issue, to say the least. As I plan on asking at the symposium, when have people chosen to sit still and not seek their fortunes in other lands? The whole issue makes you wonder whether we should just declare our planet a universal commonwealth and be done with concepts like national borders and sovereignty.
I have known Jacque Carter since I started working at the University of New England in 1991. He was a faculty member in the life sciences, an ichthyologist by training, and I was in the humanities department, a misplaced literary critic with a strong interest in politics and Marxist ideas. Our university was still young, then, so Jacque (an indefatigable disciple of Abraham Lincoln) stepped up to positions of leadership and steered his department and college with skill, courage, and patience to better places and became provost of our expanding institution before he left last year to assume the presidency of Doane College in Nebraska.
Throughout these years, we talked and argued over matters momentous and mundane without stepping far out of our respective comfort zones. In time, we realized that we shared a strong appreciation for American history and the Enlightenment that gave the republic its character.
Now, on the eve of a lecture on the Enlightenment by the great scholar Jonathan Israel at our Center for Global Humanities, which Jacque helped found, I get an uncharacteristically pessimistic email about the survival of the Enlightenment in our age. Here it is:
April 13th, 2013
Greetings from the Great Plains. I trust all is well for you and family in New England. In the course of pursuing some of my more eclectic intellectual interests, I came across some interesting connections between the exquisite literary prose in the King James version of the Bible and the various scholars and clergy assembled by King James I to write it—talented and gifted men from Oxford, Cambridge and West Minster Abbey, and the likes of Shakespeare and Sir Francis Bacon. A rich brew of Western Enlightenment.
Looking a bit more closely at the life of Sir Francis Bacon I was struck by the degree his thinking was influenced by Democritus, Empedocles, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Machiavelli, Montaigne, and others, to name just a few. Bacon himself influenced the likes of Thomas Hobbes, Issac Newton, John Locke, William Petty, and our favorite, of course, Thomas Jefferson. And let’s throw Lincoln in there as well since he was heavily influenced by Jefferson and Shakespeare, among others.
When you read more closely about their lives, many, if not all, found themselves gathering in cafés, clubs, parlors, and other venues for small social gatherings and discussion. In this modern era I struggle to find in our society where this kind of intellectual potpourri exists. It’s not happening at Starbucks. Rather we gather in mass and in small groups for food and entertainment, whether it be music, movies or sports. The Romans had their Coliseum events, to be sure, but somehow Cicero and the philosopher kings from Marcus Aurelius to Nerva to Hadrian emerged.
Looking back at the Enlightenment, I see now more than ever the pivotal role colleges and universities played. It is not by chance or hobby interest that Jefferson started a great university in the United States. When I look at the state of affairs in the modern academe, from obscure to prestigious colleges, the conversation among faculty, staff and students seems more often than not to be about everything but great ideas.
It is getting harder for us as a society and academic community to fan the embers back into flames of a once brightly burning moment in time. I still see what began in earnest in the 1500s and continues through these times as a great dawn in the arc of human civilization. But one wonders at times if we are not living in the dimming of the dawn? And if so what lies ahead? I think the Enlightenment was a gift handed down to us by intellectual giants. It is ours to build and expand upon and to bring the best it has produced, like the scientific method, to people everywhere in the wider world community. Perhaps technology will assist in sustaining it. But at the same time, if we are not careful, this gift Jefferson and others gave us is surely ours to lose.
Ramblings from Nebraska,