Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Of Bleeding Hearts Worn on Sleeves

If, as Edward Said wrote, the old history books were covertly ideological, the current ones tend to be overtly ideological, as each new generation of scholars rides in to rescue supposedly worthy peoples who were wronged by earlier scholarship and, in their time, by axe-wielding conquerors. But all these peoples, or all the ones in Lewis’s book, were conquerors. If the Christians took Spain from the Muslims, the Muslims had taken it from the Visigoths, who had appropriated it from the Romans, who had seized it from the Carthaginians, who had thrown out the Phoenicians. Lewis does not pretend that the Muslims were not conquerors; he simply justifies their conquest on the ground of their belief in convivencia, a pressing matter today. I can foresee a time when another matter important to us, the threat of ecological catastrophe, will prompt a historian to write a book in praise of the early Europeans whom Lewis finds so inferior to the Muslims. The Franks lived in uncleared forests, while the Muslims built fine cities, with palaces and aqueducts? All the better for the earth. The Franks were fond of incest? Endogamy keeps societies small, prevents the growth of rapacious nation-states. The same goes for the Franks’ largely barter economy. Trade such as the Muslims practiced—far-flung and transacted with money—leads to consolidation. That’s how we got global corporations.

Each new problem in our history engenders a revision of past history. Many of today’s historians acknowledge this, and argue that their books, if politicized, are simply more honest about that than the politicized books of the past. This pessimism about the possibility of finding a stable truth may be realistic, but it seems to sanction, even encourage, special pleading—of which “God’s Crucible,” for all its virtues, is an example.

From Joan Acocella's review of D.L. Lewis' new book “God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215.”