We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Islam expelled from Spain

The Reconquest of Spain
D. W. Lomax
Longman, first published 1978

It is surprising to read (p. 179), “There seems to be no serious book in any language devoted to the history of the whole Reconquest,” (at least when the book was published in 1978) despite the fact that it would seem to be the underlying theme of the history of the Middle Ages in the Peninsula, with the nice firm dates of 711-1492. The author commends O’Callaghan’s A History of Medieval Spain.

Like everywhere else, from Persia to the Atlantic, Islam rolled unstoppably over the whole of Spain, except its tiny northern edge, probably leaving that out in favour of richer pickings in southern France. Even here, in Asturias, only active resistance to the Arabs ensured the survival of the tiny state and an early civil war amongst the Moslems led to the withdrawal of disaffected Berbers from northern territory which was then occupied by Christians.

The author claims, with some evidence, that quite early the ideal of Reconquest was the ambition of the Christian kings and people. However, the initial Ummayad emirate, subsequently caliphate, flourished until the end of, and particularly during, the tenth century, though the last caliphs were puppets. It is probably this period of the Muslim occupation that has been idealised as a time of toleration by Muslims of Christians and Jews, though these were definitely second-class citizens and persecution of them not unknown.

The break-up of the caliphate enabled the Christians to advance again, with some assistance from France; also the crusading ideal, though mainly focussed on Jerusalem, was some help, sometimes by crusaders en passant. The capitulation of Toledo, even though it remained something of an outpost, signalled this. However, about 1085, some of the Muslims, in desperation invited in from North Africa the Almoravids, a puritanical sect (often hated by the more liberal decadent Spanish Muslims) who, in the great battle of Sagrajas (1086) halted the reconquest. The Cid (1043-99) is of this period. Much of the time he as often served Muslim kings as Christian, but after capturing Valencia, “was the only Christian leader to defeat the Almoravids in battle in the eleventh century”. (p. 74)

By this time the Christian states were Portugal, Leon-Castille (gradually united), Aragon and Navarre, sometimes allied, but more often not and generally with no scruples about fighting each other with Muslim allies. However, Aragon was pushing down the Ebro valley, taking Saragossa in 1118, though the Almoravids fought back successfully to prevent it reaching Valencia, which had been evacuated after the death of the Cid.

Like the Caliphate before them, the Almoravids disintegrated and were largely replaced, from 1157, by another sect from Africa, the Almohads, who soundly defeated the Castilians at Alarcos in 1195. This defeat seems to have first cowed then roused the Christians (particularly the Pope); finally Christians from all the Spanish kingdoms, and some from France, united in a campaign which won the decisive victory of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212). In the forty years after the battle the Almohad empire broke into pieces which were annexed by” Castile and Aragon. Vital cities – such as Cordova (1236) and Seville (1248) – passed permanently into Christian hands so that “by 1252 the whole of the Peninsula was nominally under Christian suzerainty” (p. 129), though this, of course, did not mean the end of Muslim kingdoms.

The pace of reconquest slowed down, initially as a result of another transfusion from Africa, the Marinids, who, however, could only defend the Muslim rump. In 1340, at Tarifa, their sultan was decisively defeated and no successor state in Africa invaded Spain again. Muslim Spain survived as Granada for another 150 years, the Christians occupying much of the time fighting and rebelling against each other. One is forced to add: when they should have been completing the Conquest. The process, when it happened, certainly united Spain. In the end, “Fernando and Isabel could cure one crisis in 1481 simply by setting the war-machine to work once more to conquer Granada.” (p. 178)

The author, at his Conclusion makes the persuasive claim that “Only Spain [and also, I suppose to a lesser extent Portugal, which he does not mention] was able to conquer, administer, Christianize and europeanize the populous areas of the New World precisely because during the previous seven centuries her society had been constructed for the purpose of conquering, administering, Christianizing and europeanizing the inhabitants of al-Andalus.” (p. 178) As so often in books published from the 1970s on, the maps leave much to be desired; certainly places are mentioned in the text which are not to be found on them.

Two days after I had finished this book I listened to a discussion on “Cordovan Spain” under Melvyn Bragg’s chairmanship on Radio 4. The three other participants were Tim Winter, a Muslim convert, of the Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge University, Mary Nickman, a Jewess (carefully correcting herself from AD to Common Era) and an executive director of the Maimonides Foundation, and Martin Palmer, whose voice was not to me sufficiently distinguishable from the first, an Anglican lay preacher and theologian, and author of A Sacred History of Britain. Although the consensus was largely positive about the Ummayad regime, and their tone “multicultural” in the modern sense, the first two did seem to agree that the three religions, while coexisting, did not indulge in dialogue, let alone interpenetrate. This confirms an episode mentioned in the book, that even when promised immunity in a bilateral debate, a Christian was executed “when he expressed his real opinion of Mohammed”. (p. 23) Nor was the Koran translated into Latin “until the twelfth or thirteenth century”, someone said in the discussion. Needless to say, the rosy view of Muslim Spain did not take into account that the Muslim conquest fatally disrupted Mediterranean civilization, the burden of Pirenne’s Mohammed and Charlemagne. To pick up the shards and pass a few of them on does not strike me as a very large recompense.

The Fall of the Old Liberal Order

The Age of Reagan: I 1964 –1980
Steven F. Hayward
Prima Lifestyles, 2001

This is a very long book (718 pages + another 100 pages of notes etc.) and it is somewhat daunting to realise that in due course a second volume will come to complete the story. It might be as well to say that this is emphatically not a biography, not even a political biography; the title and the sub-title The Fall of the Old Liberal Order make this clear. It is more a history of the times, from the anti-Goldwater landslide of 1964 to the Reagan landslide of 1980. The cumulative impression of the book itself is its richness and how its detail ministers to its analysis.

And it is a sorry, not to say a frightening tale, telling as it does of the collapse of American self-confidence and the rise of the counter-culture of self-hatred amongst its elite. The narrative is admittedly partisan, but at the very least a case that needs to be put. As for the Presidents of the period, Hayward’s judgements are that Johnson was irresolute, reacting to events minimally, Nixon misguided, obsessive and unfortunate, Ford a mere stopgap and Carter simply disastrous. All of them seemed to have underestimated Soviet malevolence and overestimated Soviet stability; for the latter the intelligence services seem to have been especially at fault.

For anyone who has been misled into thinking that Reagan was an intellectual nullity, here is ample evidence that he was an independent and original thinker, often insisting on keeping to his own line or script in face of criticism from his advisers and speechwriters. Many of his statements, which at the time seemed naive, questionable, wrongheaded or too extreme now seem merely farsighted. He was also optimistic about America and had no time for any rationale for its decline, such as Kissinger, student of the rise and fall of European states, believed in, or at least feared. Nor was he put off by the “complexity” arguments of those who despised him for his simple attitude to problems and their solutions. Some of his difficulties with his own advisers and supporters lay in persuading them that this attitude could be made plausible to the public as electorate.

As much as the first two thirds of the book, however, has little mention of Reagan, for it is a history of how the US got into the messes that Reagan, it is fair to say, rescued it from. By far the biggest mess, which he was too late to do anything about, was, of course, the Vietnam War and it is quite plain that the left-leaning media and intellectuals, combined with political ineffectiveness and downright ignorance, contributed overwhelmingly to its being lost. To illustrate US political masochism: the two “war pictures” that had the greatest negative impact on home support – execution of the Vietcong prisoner and the napalmed little girl – won Pulitzer Prizes for the photographers.

It is not exactly necessary to be reminded, but it is necessary to bear in mind that it was under two Democrat Presidents, Kennedy and Johnson, that the US entered and enmeshed itself in the Vietnam “quagmire” (though this is not a term I recall being used by the author). The muddled, incremental escalation of the conflict by Johnson is described in Ch 4. It was also a Democrat Congress, not the President, the hapless Ford, that abandoned the South Vietnamese, even refusing to supply them arms.

Even more so was Cambodia betrayed, and the dignified reproaches of their leaders, as they refused the offer of evacuation by the American ambassador, to face certain death, make sad reading (p. 408). It is a terrible comment on what the consensus was that Reagan’s characterisation of the US effort in Vietnam as a “noble cause” was regarded as eccentric and chauvinist, just as later was “evil empire” (but for the latter’s vindication see The Week, 15/2/02, p. 13).

All through the account is woven the political manoeverings of various, almost forgotten presidential hopefuls and their minions. The ups and downs of Reagan’s two bids for the Republican nomination and the campaign that won him the Presidency, are given in great detail. On the other hand, his two terms as Governor of California are more lightly sketched in (or are perhaps less memorable). A fine book, which should be better known.

Global capitalism is good

In Defence of Global Capitalism
Johan Norberg
Cato Institute, 2003

Another welcome book in the Simon, Lomborg line, this time from Sweden, an auspicious sign. The Preface was reprinted in Liberty, where I first read it and where it makes a good summary of the argument of the book. In 1988 when the author was 16, his party – the Anarchists – got the largest percentage of votes, 25%, in the school mock-election, running an agin-the-government campaign. His position has changed somewhat – capitalism has difficulty working without a legal system and transparency in transactions – but is basically the same.

He starts by insisting that over the past three or four decades things have got better, particularly in the poorer “developing” countries. Income per capita has increased and mortality been reduced. This he ascribes to opening of the countries concerned to “the market”, both internal and external. He is, moreover, strongly against national barriers, not merely to trade, but also to migration, though here he doesn’t take into account our xenophobia. The case against tariffs is succinctly put by the quotation: “Either a branch of enterprise is profitable, in which case it deserves no tariff protection; or else it is unprofitable, in which case it deserves no tariff protection (p. 152).”

Although not explicitly against the EU as such, his analysis of its CAP agricultural subsidies and protectionism (pp. 148-) is damning, and it is even more shaming that so-called pro-Third World anti-globalisation protesters do not target them.

There is a separate chapter on “The African Morass” (p. 98-) where per capita GDP has actually decreased since the ’60s, though I think the statement that “The African countries have inherited a hierarchic, repressive political structure from the colonial powers” needs to be modified: what they did inherit, according to Bauer, was a late move to a command economy and a socialist intellectual outlook. The situation has been exacerbated by international aid, and debt cancellation would only be an encouragement of the behaviour that brought the bankruptcy about

The author refutes the prevalent belief that world inequality is growing, either between (p. 53) or within countries. He also points out that social mobility means that “the poor” are not the same people from one year to the next (p. 76). This, incidentally, is the factor most frequently, in fact always, omitted from discussions on poverty, whether absolute or relative; in fact, only 4% of the US population remain in the “poor” bracket (20%) for as long as two years, though some will remain longer.

The case for environmental optimism

The Skeptical Environmentalist
Bjorn Lomborg
Cambridge University Press, 2001

This is not exactly a book of surprises for me, since I have read Julian Simon, Donald Bailey, et al., but apparently it has caused a stir and much hostility, which I can only assume is because all the other sources haven’t attained the same (desired) publicity. It is a big book – 352 pages plus 160 pages of notes etc., divided into six sections:

  1. The Litany – the media consensus that things are getting worse. Lomborg sets out to counter this in his section “Things Are Getting Better” and examines “Why Do We Hear So Much Bad News?”

  2. Human Welfare – population, life expectancy, food stocks, general prosperity, leading to the conclusion: unprecedented human prosperity.

  3. Can Human prosperity Continue? The “Are we living on borrowed time?” worry, is answered reassuringly in the sections following on food, forests, energy and raw materials, water.

  4. Pollution – air pollution (decreasing in the developed countries, correlated with increased prosperity), acid rain (a false scare), indoor air pollution (greater everywhere than outdoors, resulting in allergies and asthma), water pollution (exaggerated and decreasing), waste disposal (not a problem as far as enough space is concerned).

  5. Tomorrow’s Problems – exaggerated fears over chemicals and pesticides causing cancer etc., also over biodiversity loss and species extinction, the last from figures grabbed from the air, and a long section of global warming (pp. 258-324). This may be the section that has caused most trouble. Lomborg does not deny that “anthropogenic” additional carbon dioxide may have caused, be causing or will cause global warming but he does make clear the variation possible and the excessively alarmist nature of some of the forecasts. He also points out that money spent on reducing the earth’s temperature could be better spent and that the dislocation of the world economy would reduce the expanding prosperity that makes possible the necessary efficiency needed to bring about the desired results.

  6. The Real State of the World is a generally hopeful one, basically summarising the message of the rest of the book and including a section on GM foods. There is also a discussion of the costs of protection measures; thus the Environmental Protection Agency (in the US) spends $21.4 billion to save 592,000 life-years (though how this figure was attained isn’t clear to me). A Harvard study estimates that 1,230,000 life-years could be saved for the same money. This is a good source-book, with something interesting on every page. I find it pretty convincing.

Gender wars among the warriors

The Kinder, Gentler Military: Can America’s Gender-Neutral Fighting Force Still Win Wars?
Stephanie Gutmann
Scribner, 2000

First published in 2000, nothing could better illustrate the subordination of the military to the civil power than this account, by a woman journalist, of the submission of the male-oriented former to the feminist-dominated latter. Since it is modern political dogma that men and women are equal, the recruitment of women into the fighting forces becomes obligatory. This book is a description of how this is done, and what happens afterwards. As yet, the result has barely been tested in battle conditions, so the problems are being confronted in peacetime.

There is ample evidence that if physical equality was the criterion, few women would qualify – after training intensively, a batch of women, in it for the experiment (not recruits), reached the standard of the weakest males (p. 251). At the same time as trying to pretend that females could be the equivalent of males in tough fighting with enemies out to kill them, they were presumed so vulnerable that they needed protection from all forms of harassment by their comrades, which meant that the sexes couldn’t really interact – and when harassment changed into acceptable behaviour, that was just as bad – the pregnancy rate soared.

There is a long account and analysis of the notorious “Tailhook” party in 1991, post-Gulf (pp. 156-188) “when we had finally gotten over Vietnam” which led to numerous dismissals of top airforce brass and a greatly lowered morale of the rest, resulting in a haemorrhaging of disgusted qualified pilots, at a cost of $lm each for training. This was ostensibly about harassment, though most of the women present could either take care of themselves, expected what they got or went there to get it. Even during a rowdy “gauntlet”, when someone shouted “I’ve lost my pager”, everything stopped until it was found. The woman who led the complaints benefited to the tune of $5+m – and left the service. After Tailhook, everything was about gender, … [it was] the worst event for the Navy since Pearl Harbor.”

Of course, the whole burden of the book is that the US armed forces are not being treated by Congress and the media as a fighting force whose efficiency is paramount, but as a section of society which can be moulded into something with quite a different agenda from fighting and killing, though what that is is difficult to define – that men and women are basically equal and if it doesn’t always work out that way, it’s the men’s fault.

The book ends with a series of recommendations, granted that the forces should remain open to women:

  1. Eliminate recruiting quotas for women;
  2. Have separate-sex “boot camp” training;
  3. Have high and equal standards there;
  4. Restore “openness” and be frank about the problems, not just put them down to “sexism”;
  5. Exonerate the personnel victimised after Tailhook (“Witchook”);
  6. Separate the social service personnel from the fighting forces;
  7. Copy the practice of Marines, who seem to have fought through the “gender” nonsense largely unscathed.

An Unconventional Economist who underestimated himself

A Life Against the Grain: The Autobiography of an Unconventional Economist
Julian L. Simon
Transaction, 2002, hardback

This is a posthumously published work:

Julian Simon died suddenly and, according to the doctor’s report, instantly of his first and only heart attack on February 8th, 1998. He had just returned from a trip to Spain where he had been awarded an honorary degree from the University of Navarre. He was in very good spirits and showed no signs of fatigue or illness.

So runs the initial “Comment” by his widow, Rita J. Simon. I had wondered how he died, having learnt, with regret, the fact from the mention in a Laissez-Faire Books Catalogue, and even feared that, given his history of depression, he might have committed suicide, a fear justified by his admission in this book that he had contemplated doing so while in depression, being prevented by thoughts of his family responsibilities.

The Autobiography of an Unconventional Economist, as the work is subtitled, had been finished, apparently over a year before, in a much longer form (900 pages – though whether they are equivalent to the page size of this 359 page book is not indicated) and has been edited by his widow, with acknowledged support. There may have been a misprint or two I have forgotten, but the only obvious textual fault is not filling in internal references to other chapters, which are left as 00, awaiting specification in the final revision. There is an unfulfilled promise of a bibliography of JLS’s publications in the text, but not even a normal list of previous titles at the beginning. His death date is not given on the reverse of the title page, with the usual guff there. All this said (at perhaps unnecessary length) I must say that the book is a very interesting one, less so perhaps for its ideas – these are in his other books – than for information on the personality of its author, though even here there is a possibly involuntary veil of reticence. I hasten to add that I don’t just mean about sex, a rather welcome exclusion, but rather why he feels dissatisfied with himself. He obviously had a happy marriage and his three children grew up satisfactorily (Ch 17); he had no money troubles and always did the job he liked or, if it wasn’t suitable, changed it.

Although his reassuring ideas about world resources and the environment had not gained widespread acceptance by the time he died, he does not seem to bear ill will to anyone. He may have thought that he didn’t manage his life effectively – but this would conflict with his propensity to work at whatever took his interest. This gives an episodic feel to about the first two thirds or so of the book; when is the action really going to start? → Continue reading: An Unconventional Economist who underestimated himself