Lagging

Mohammad Fadel, in Islamic Monthly (h/t Naheed Mustafa) chides critics of Islam who take contemporary Western ideals of egalitarianism and personal freedom as their measure, saying:

In this respect, Maher and Harris reflect the all too common historical amnesia common among liberals, who are too quick to forget the recentness of the egalitarian achievements of the liberal West — many of which only came into existence as part of the post-World War II settlement and have yet to become settled social realities, even among the relatively privileged — and too slow to acknowledge the radical changes that have taken place in most Muslim countries and even Islamic discourse regarding issues such as gender equality over the last one hundred years.

I’m struck by the similarity to something that I emphasize in my Japan and China classes, drawing on something I’m pretty sure Al Craig said to me in a seminar: in the 19th century, discourses on Asia and Africa as ‘lagging’ or ‘uncivilized’ depended a great deal on technological and attitudinal differences with “The West” (very broadly understood) that were actually very recent changes. When Japan reformed its educational and political systems in the late 19th century, it drew on ideas like constitutionalism and public education which were very recent developments. The legal systems studied by Ito Hirobumi in Europe were, for the most part, a few decades old in their present form. The public educational systems studied by Tanaka Fujimaro in the US and Europe were a few decades old, if that. (Only the French system really had any kind of historical depth; the others were newcomers or not yet fully formed national public systems)

William Gibson famously said “The future is here; it’s just not evenly distributed.” This is a problem only when people forget it and begin assigning value to people and social systems based on this distribution. One of the most interesting things about history, I’m starting to realize, is the uneven distribution and adoption of ideas, the creative way in which people ‘remix’ cultures and technologies to suit their own purposes.

(Yes, I should be working on my syllabi and LMS set-up. But if I’m going to get back to blogging, I have to strike while the iron’s hot!)

 

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