Thursday, March 31, 2011

Gandhi outed?

In his March 26 Wall Street Journal review of Joseph Lelyveld's “Great Soul,” a biography of Mohandas Gandhi, the conservative historian Andrew Roberts terms Gandhi "a ceaseless self-promoter," a "sexual weirdo, a political incompetent, and a fanatical faddist," accusing the Indian leader of repeatedly botching his nation's independence movement. Evidently, Mr. Roberts is not an admirer of the Mahatma.

In this formidable indictment, the section that has attracted the greatest interest is (not surprisingly) the sexual part. Here is Mr. Roberts:

“[A]s Mr. Lelyveld makes abundantly clear, Gandhi's organ probably only rarely became aroused with his naked young ladies, because the love of his life was a German-Jewish architect and bodybuilder, Hermann Kallenbach, for whom Gandhi left his wife in 1908. ‘Your portrait (the only one) stands on my mantelpiece in my bedroom,’ he wrote to Kallenbach. ‘The mantelpiece is opposite to the bed.’ For some reason, cotton wool and Vaseline were ‘a constant reminder’ of Kallenbach, which Mr. Lelyveld believes might relate to the enemas Gandhi gave himself, although there could be other, less generous, explanations.

“Gandhi wrote to Kallenbach about ‘how completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance.’ Gandhi nicknamed himself ‘Upper House’ and Kallenbach ‘Lower House,’ and he made Lower House promise not to ‘look lustfully upon any woman.’ The two then pledged ‘more love, and yet more love . . . such love as they hope the world has not yet seen.’

“They were parted when Gandhi returned to India in 1914, since the German national could not get permission to travel to India during wartime—though Gandhi never gave up the dream of having him back, writing him in 1933 that ‘you are always before my mind's eye.’ Later, on his ashram, where even married ‘inmates’ had to swear celibacy, Gandhi said: ‘I cannot imagine a thing as ugly as the intercourse of men and women.’ You could even be thrown off the ashram for 'excessive tickling.’"

For his part, Mr. Lelyveld, the biographer, has denied these inferences. Moreover, Sudhir Kakar, a psychoanalyst who has written about Gandhi's sexuality and reviewed some of his correspondence with Kallenbach, said he does not believe the two men were lovers. "It is quite a wrong interpretation," he said. "The Hindu idea is that sexuality has this elemental energy which gets dissipated," Kakar said. "If it can be sublimated and contained it can give you spiritual power. Gandhi felt his political power really came from his celibacy, from his spiritual power." He said that Gandhi often filled his letters, including those to female associates, with strong love language, but that this did not lead to physical intimacy.

Nonetheless, politicians in the state of Maharashtra, home to India's financial capital Mumbai {Bombay), have called for a ban on the book. Moreover, according to the Associated Press, Gujarat's state assembly voted unanimously to immediately ban "Great Soul."

Yet Ranjit Hoskote, general secretary of PEN India, which upholds the fight for free expression, condemned the ban and said local media had misconstrued both Lelyveld's intentions and the nature of Gandhi's relationship with Kallenbach. "You can't cite a worse example of third-hand reportage and comment," he said. "How can you ban a book you haven't read?"

India only decriminalized homosexual conduct in 2009. These reactions in that country are in large measure the product of the prudery introduced, along with the sodomy laws, into the Indian subcontinent by the British.

Yet there have also been expressions of dismay in this and other Western nations. Not having read the book, or being familiar with Gandhi scholarship, I cannot say whether these inferences of a homosexual relationship on the part of the Indian leader are warranted.

It does seem unfortunate, though, that the relationship--if it occurred--should seem dishonorable. The censorious reactions show that we have not come as far as we sometimes think we have in getting rid of the remnants of irrational homophobia.

I much prefer the following story, which I read many years ago in a book called “Inside Turkey” by John Gunther. The journalist was interviewing a Turkish university student, who was a fervent admirer of Kemal Ataturk. He asked if it was true that the Turkish leader had had homosexual relations. “Of course it is true!” exploded the student. “Mustafa Kemal excels in every form of sexual activity.”

It seems that we haven’t come that far yet.


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"O my friends, there is no friend"

Some twenty years ago Jacques Derrida gave a seminar in the Salle Dusanne of the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. He began with the apostrophe "O my friends, there is no friend" that Montaigne attributes to Aristotle. In his essay “On Friendship” (I, 28), Montaigne is reflecting on the mutability principle whereby friends can become enemies and vice versa. In ordinary life we must reconcile ourselves to the possibility that there are no friendships that we can rely on as absolutely permanent. (“You must employ that saying which Aristotle often repeated: ‘O my friends, there is no friend.'”) That is the context of Montaigne’s adoption of the saying.

Each of Derrida’s lectures began with a recitation of this gnomic trouvaille. (An English-language version of the lectures has been published as “The Politics of Friendship.”)

This “performative contradiction,” which Derrida and his followers have found so revealing, was not in fact uttered by Aristotle, who was too intelligent to spout such nonsense.

The mistaken ascription to Aristotle goes back to Diogenes Laertius’ “Lives of the Eminent Philosophers,” a compilation from the third century CE. In this text (V, 21-22), the saying goes as follows: “He who has friends can have no true friend.” This b.s. was ostensibly reported by one Favorinus. It is found, Diogenes tells us, in the seventh book of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. That citation is doubly misleading, for the remark seems to be a garbled rendering of a remark in the ninth book of the Nicomachean Ethics: “Those who have a great many friends and greet anyone familiarly are felt to be friends of nobody.” For his part, Aristotle is simply reporting this notion as conventional wisdom; he does not necessarily endorse it.

Empirically, the generalization could be true of some people: Ronald Reagan was said to know many people, but to have no true friends. Yet Bill Clinton appears to have lots of friends.

At all events, from Aristotle to Favorinus to Diogenes Laertius to Montaigne to Derrida, we witness a display of the phenomenon of “Chinese whispers,” alluding to the old parlor game in which a message is passed privately from one person to another, becoming distorted in the process.

To come back to Derrida, this supposedly profound quotation reveals a crucial flaw that is all-too-typical of that wayward magus. Working hastily and carelessly, he will commonly seize upon a garbled quotation, making it the centerpiece of his remarks. This touches on a broader problem of experimental writing in the manner of Gertrude Stein or James Joyce: is it creativity or carelessness?

At all events, the result may be startling. Yet in this case it is not philosophy, but Derri-dada. It may be, however, that the principle alluded to does apply to Derrida, a thinker so slippery and arbitrary that he could never be a true friend to anyone--certainly not to his readers.


Monday, March 28, 2011

French connnections

In local elections yesterday (March 28) in France, the Socialists were the big winners. After them, however, came the candidates of the Front National, a group widely regarded as far-right, perhaps even neo-fascist. Since 2008, the FN has been headed by Marine Le Pen, daughter of the founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. Under her leadership the group has moderated some of its extreme positions.

It continues to benefit, however, from French (and European) uneasiness about the assimilability of Muslims. This aspect clearly is affecting politics in localities like Henin-Beaumont, a depressed coal-mining town in the north of France with a large Muslim population (story in the New York Times, March 27). In this account a young woman named Marion Rohart explains why she switched her vote to the FN: she had seen Muslims spitting on several of her homosexual friends.

As I have noted in these pages before, Muslim aggression towards gays is commonly played down by the European left, which has become Islamophile. To be very candid, these leftist observers are in denial. They have no difficulty in blaming homophobia in Uganda on Christianity (which is largely correct), but they refuse to acknowledge that gay bashing by Muslims in Europe is supported by the Quran and mainstream Islamic tradition.

This latest Socialist victory notwithstanding, the left continues to decline in Western Europe. One reason for this decline is ostrich multiculturalism, which simply counsels ignoring the problems that have arisen. Multiculturalists revel, or so they say, in the fact that Europe has become more diverse. It has also become more right-wing. It seems that these two facts are causally related.

In other words, the strangers, welcomed by the left, are also responsible for the downfall of that political brand.


Friday, March 25, 2011

To improve the math scores of our kids, this step is essential!

Congresswoman Martha Roby (R-Ala.) is sponsoring HR 205, The Geometric Simplification Act, declaring the Euclidean mathematical constant of pi to be precisely 3. The bill comes in response to data and rankings from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, rating the United States' 15 year-olds 25th in the world in mathematics.

OECD is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2011, and the Paris-based NGO released its international educational rankings, placing the US in a three-way tie for math, equaling Portugal and Ireland, just beneath No. 24 Luxembourg.

"That long-held empirical value of pi, I am not saying it should be necessarily viewed as wrong, but 3 is a lot better," said Roby, the 34-year old legislator representing Alabama's second congressional district, ushered into office in the historic 2010 Republican mid-term bonanza.

Pi has long been defined as the ratio of a circle's area to the square of its radius, a mathematical constant represented by the Greek letter "π," with a value of approximately 3.14159. HR 205 does not change the root definition, per se. The bill simply, and legally, declares pi to be exactly 3.

Roby, raised in Montgomery, Ala., is on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education.

"It's no panacea, but this legislation will point us in the right direction. Looking at hard data, we know our children are struggling with a heck of a lot of the math, including the geometry incorporating pi," Roby said. "I guarantee you American scores will go up once pi is 3. It will be so much easier."

[A big hat tip to Ian Squires, the brilliant creator of this spoof.]

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Monday, March 07, 2011


I am happy to state that my adjunct site of now displays the seven chapters of my history of gay scholarship. Or one can just go to the profile (sidebar), affording access to all my sites.

In order to avoid any of the current wrangles concerning terminology, I have adopted the overall title of "Homostudies." While this expression is unfamiliar to English speakers, it has been employed for several decades in the Netherlands, a flourishing center of gay and lesbian scholarship.


Why are Islamic economies underperforming?

This posting concerns a topic of great current interest. That topic is the economic and cultural backwardness of Muslim-majority countries, especially Arab ones. It is said that the value of manufactured goods that Egypt exports is no greater than that of tiny Costa Rica. Few, if any major scientific advances can be credited to Arab experts, at least those living in their own countries. In terms of these issues, conditions in Tunisia and Egypt are likely to get worse before they get better.

The disparity between Islam and the West is sometimes termed the Great Divergence. As early as the thirteenth century Muslim countries began to fall behind the West in a number of key respects. This decline is not due to the predatory incursions of imperialism and colonialism as some on the left allege, but it reflects something that happened in the Islamic civilizational sphere itself.

Accepting this point, historians are divided as to what caused the Great Divergence. Some say that the poor performance of Muslim countries is due to the very nature of Islam, which is hostile to both commerce and learning, the latter being traditionally been subordinated to religion. Others say that the problems are more local, involving particular features of Islamic practice which could be corrected without attenuating or discarding the religion itself.

Put briefly, is it a macroproblem or a cluster of microproblems? The latter position is maintained by Timur Kuran in his impressive book The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East (Princeton University Press, 2011).

In a column in the New York Times (March 5), Nicholas Kristof summarizes Professor Kuran’s findings as follows:

“Professor Kuran persuasively argues that what held the Middle East back wasn’t Islam as such, or colonialism, but rather various secondary Islamic legal practices that are no longer relevant today.

“It’s a sophisticated argument that a column can’t do justice to, but for example, one impediment was inheritance law. Western systems most commonly passed all property intact to the eldest son, thus preserving large estates. In contrast, Islamic law stipulated a much fairer division of assets (including some to daughters), but this meant that large estates fragmented. One upshot was that private capital accumulation faltered and couldn’t support major investments to usher in an industrial revolution.

“Professor Kuran also focuses on the Islamic partnership, which tended to be the vehicle for businesses. Islamic partnerships dissolved whenever any member died, and so they tended to include only a few partners — making it difficult to compete with European industrial and financial corporations backed by hundreds of shareholders.
The emergence of banks in Europe led long-term British interest rates to drop by two-thirds leading up to the Industrial Revolution. No such drop occurred in the Arab world until the colonial period.”

Other points could be made from Kuran’s book, which I found very profitable reading. But the New York Times columnist covers the gist.

Still, to my mind, there is a curious omission from Timur Kuran’s analysis of finance and commerce in historical Islam, and that is the Hawala system. At this point, I will repeat some features of the account I gave at

Hawala (or hundi) is an informal value-transfer system based on the performance history and established trust linking a huge network of money brokers, based mainly in the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and South Asia.

The hawala concept has its origins in classical Islamic law (Sharia); it is mentioned as early as the eighth century in texts of Islamic jurisprudence. It is said to have later influenced the development of the principle of agency in the common law and the civil law tradition (cf. aval in French law and avallo in Italian law, both terms deriving from hawala).

Roman law had not permitted the transfer of debt, but the practice became common in medieval Europe, influenced by the trade Italian merchants conducted with the Muslim world. Again, Roman law forbade one person to act as the agent of another, for no individual could conclude a binding contract on behalf of another. By contrast, Islamic law and the later common law freely permitted agency in the field of contracts and of obligations in general.

Hawala is believed to have arisen in the financing of long-distance trade around the emerging capital trade centers in the early medieval period. In South Asia, it appears to have developed into a fully-fledged money-market instrument, which was only gradually replaced by the procedures of the formal banking system of Western origin in the first half of the twentieth century. Today, hawala plays a major role in the remittances of migrant workers to their country of origin.

In the most basic version of the hawala system, a network of hawala brokers, or hawaladars, arrange for the transfer of money. A customer approaches a hawala broker in one city, producing a sum of money to be transferred to a recipient in another, usually foreign, city. The hawala broker calls another hawala broker in the recipient's city, gives disposition instructions of the funds (usually minus a small commission), and promises to settle the debt at a later date.

A special feature of the system is that no promissory instruments are exchanged between the hawala brokers; the transaction relies entirely on the honor system. As the system does not depend on the legal enforceability of claims, it can operate even in the absence of a legal and juridical environment. Informal records are kept of individual transactions, and a running tally of the amount owed by one broker to another is maintained. Settlements of debts between hawala brokers can assume a variety of forms; it need not take the form of direct cash transactions.

In addition to commissions, hawala brokers often earn their profits through bypassing official exchange rates. Generally, the funds enter the system in the source country's currency and leave the system in the recipient country's currency. As settlements often take place without any direct foreign exchange transactions, they can be made at other than official exchange rates.

Customers find hawala attractive because it provides a fast and convenient means for transfer of funds, usually with a far lower commission than that charged by banks. Its advantages are most pronounced when the receiving country manipulates exchange rates (as has been the case for many typical receiving countries in the Middle East), or when the banking system in the receiving country is fairly primitive. Moreover, in some parts of the world it is the only option for legitimate funds transfers, and has even been used by aid organizations in areas where it is the best-functioning institution. In recent years the latter practice has caused concern because it is thought to have facilitated money transfers for terrorist groups. In principle,hawals may also be used for money laundering of drug profits, though the evidence for this is scanty.

The money transfers are informal and not effectively regulated by governments, which is a major advantage to customers with tax, currency control, immigration, or other concerns. In some countries, hawalas are actually regulated by local governments and hawaladars must be licensed to perform their money brokering services.

Let us return to the Middle Ages, in the centuries in which the Mediterranean was a Muslim lake. In those days, before the Great Divergence, the hawala system spread far and wide. That the first bankers in Italy were familiar with it is shown by the loan- word avallo, which is simply an Italian version of hawala. Yet the European bankers went far beyond their model, to introduce the wide-ranging innovations that we are all familiar with. The Islamic world kept to the more primitive institution of the hawala.

Today, of course, Western banking (sometimes disguised under the rubric of Islamic banking, which is simply Western banking with a few rhetorical changes) flourishes in Islamic countries. So does hawala. That this dual system, with one foot in the past and one in the present, is the norm is one indicator of the way in which Islamic economies are lagging.


Sunday, March 06, 2011

Queers for Palestine controversy

For the seventh year, according to report, Israeli Apartheid Week is being observed in the month of March in several countries (see Yet one proposed event, scheduled for March 5 at the LGBT Center on West Thirteenth Street in New York City, has been canceled, owing to the opposition of several important donors.

This was to have been the concluding event of a national tour of representatives of Al-Qaws, Queers for Palestine, more fully: the the Palestinian Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Trans and Queer (LGBTQ) community project of the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance (JOH). This group describes itself as the first-ever official Palestinian LGBTQ organization.

There are a number of valid reasons for questioning the policies of the state of Israel. And indeed I have done so. However, the status of gay men and lesbians in the Jewish state is not one of them. There LGBT people have the same rights as in most other advanced Western countries. To be sure, some Israeli rabbis fulminate against us, but so do Christian ministers in this country.

The Queers for Palestine has a generally leftist, anti-imperialist orientation. This affinity seems to call for a certain self-censorship. I have not seen the spokespeople for the group discuss the scapegoating of gay men in the Palestinian territories, where some have been tortured and even killed. Some of these men have felt compelled to flee to Israel itself where their status is uncertain. Ir is significant that Al-Qaws does not operate from Ramallah or Gaza City, but is headquartered in Jerusalem, where it is under the protection of the Israeli government.

The reluctance to discuss these facts of actual Arab discrimination and persecution hangs together with the ridiculous fairy tale being propagated by academics such as Professor Joseph Massad of Columbia University to the effect that homophobia in the Middle East is an import from the West. Before the Western incursions gay men and lesbians are supposed to have lived happy and undisturbed lives in Islamic countries. As I have shown elsewhere, the Qur’an and Sharia Law say otherwise.

Moreover, the use of the inflammatory term Apartheid is not a way of creating dialogue. Personally, I wish that there were more concern in this country for the plight of the Palestinians. Yet name calling is not the right way to achieve this aim.

Finally, there is the matter of the policies of the Center itself. Rightly or wrongly, it has not historically been open to all comers. Some years ago the administrators stepped in to stop an appearance of the poet Allen Ginsberg who was to speak in favor of NAMBLA. To be sure, this decision may have been improper. Let us suppose, though, that the Exodus group (which claims to cure gay people) or a delegation of gay Scientologists were to request to have events scheduled at the GLBTQ Center. Surely, the administrators would be within their rights to deny such a request. It is evident, then, that the Center is not open to all comers. The mistake, if any, was to first approve the request and then to deny it. But there is no universal right to appear at this community center, or indeed at any other.

AN IRREVERENT POSTSCRIPT. Today (March 6) we are told is the day that, in order to show tolerance, one should declare: "I am a Muslim for today." In my view this would be unwise since, unless one is prepared to stick to it, tomorrow one would have to be an apostate. Under sharia law apostasy is punishable by death. Really.

One needs to remember that Islam is definitely not a "religion of peace." On second thought maybe the declaration is a good idea: it would give cover for venting one's frustrations in a dramatic, possibly violent way. "I am a Muslim, so die Judaeo-Christian dogs! Unless, that is, you offer me some jizya tribute."

Now I have given myself away: only a timid academic would resort to an expression like "Judaeo-Christian."