Imagine a World Where People Knew Stuff

This is the internet: Ignorant people shouting dumb things at each other, while we cheer them on.

yybI’ve seen so many celebrations of this “perfect response” to a hateful meme, and none of those celebrations pause to wonder if a response can be “perfect” when it asserts that “it is the Wright brothers who have taken the credit” for heavier-than-air flight from a Muslim who lived over a millennium before them.

Let me pause to say that the original meme is moronic: Only if your idea of a Muslim is limited to nineteen hijackers can you imagine that the focus of changing fourteen hundred years of history will be the World Trade Center. This is a stupid meme, and it deserves to get ridiculed. However, we should not ridicule it with a word salad of “things loosely related to Islam in my mind,” which is what the responder did. His list is easy to fact check: Chess predates Islam; irrigation predates Islam; music, for Pete’s sake! predates Islam; our numbering system was invented by Hindus, and predates Islam; paper manufacture was invented in China, and predates Islam. I’d always learned that coffee drinking originated in Christian Ethiopia, but when I looked it up that statement appears unverifiable. Maybe coffee was first drunk by Muslims.

Honestly, it doesn’t take a vast knowledge of history to figure out that humanity might have developed the concept of bathing independently of Islam. Somehow the Romans managed; the Chinese managed; medieval Icelanders managed.

Let’s pause a moment to reiterate that many, many non-Muslim cultures have music. I really want to stress this obscure fact that must not have been well-known or we wouldn’t be calling this list “perfect.”

I’m not trying to downplay the importance of Muslims in the history of chemistry, mathematics, etc. There are some items on this list that are fair, and there are some that could be twisted into fairness: Our numbering system originated in India, but it was modified by Muslims and it is inevitably filtered through the Muslims lands that it reached the West. You can get a No-Prize by thinking up justifications for other tidbits on this list.

But you’re not going to be able to explain away something as silly as: “It was Muslims who discovered that the Earth was round 500 years before Galileo did.” Galileo was born some forty years after Magellan’s ships circumnavigated the globe, and therefore could not have “discovered” anything of the sort; five hundred years before Galileo, those educated in the classics had known that the earth was round for over a millennium. Everyone knows that. In other words, everyone knows this post is incorrect, but we shared it anyway.

(We’re putting aside the fact that there’s no reason to believe al-Khwarizmi couldn’t have invented algebra if he’d been a Zoroastrian.)

Okay, so now let’s look at a marginally less silly “perfect response.”


Here we have another word salad, this time of “bad things I associate with Christianity.” Some of the examples demonstrate a simple misunderstanding of what makes a concept in some sense “like ISIS.” Even if the Salem Witch Trials or the Spanish Inquisition are similar to ISIS, this is hardly apposite. ISIS isn’t bad because it beheads people; Ned Stark beheads someone on like page twelve of A Game of Thrones, and he’s the good guy! ISIS is bad because it beheads people in the twenty-first century. Even if the Crusades are similar to ISIS (something I’d dispute), they happened centuries ago.

Similarly, the KKK has about 6000 members, Aryan Nations far less. What makes ISIS scary is that it is a quasi-state controlling territory like an actual sovereign entity; Aryan Nations can’t control a cell block.

The problem reflects back on the original questions, which maximizes snark (“asking for a friend”) at the expense of content. ISIS, it seems to assert, is unique, but it fails to question why it is unique (beyond being Muslim, it implies). And because the question is stupid, the response is stupid; It’s word association football. The phrase “Genocide of Native Americans under the name of Christ as Manifest Destiny” is a collection of three concepts that are more or less related, lumped together, labeled “bad” and therefore a “Christian version of ISIS” by alchemy. It’s possible the Lord’s Resistance, one of the responses above, is an actual Christian analog to ISIS, but it’s hard to tell if it’s a good example because soon afterward we’re told that George W. Bush is also a Christian analog to ISIS. He’s a Christian and he did bad things! =ISIS!

The initial question is not sincere, of course. It may be a sincere statement of dislike for Islam, but it’s not a sincere question. The person writing it is not going to be disappointed because he didn’t get a thoughtful response like: “Although there are currently no other theocratic quasi-states of the same size of ISIS, you might look for similar unofficial bodies at x and y…” A real answer is a waste. But also a waste is a bunch of mostly irrelevant contextless examples from a thousand years of history stitched together Frankenstein-style and passing themselves off as a thesis.

Mr. “asking for a friend” isn’t asking a question; he’s signaling his demographic. And the responder isn’t answering a question; he’s signaling his demographic, just as as we signal ours by sharing his incoherent response. Just as we signaled our demographic when we shared “Muslims invented music.” I wish I’d said that! Drop the mike.

We don’t expect historical facts; we don’t expect an actual list of Islamic achievements or of non-Muslim ISIS clones; we just want to spend a moment pretending that our side is right and the other side is wrong. Since the “other side” is in this case being hateful jerks communicating through memes and soundbites, proving them wrong should be easy; but even easy was too hard, and our side just made up some stuff and called it a day. And then we dutifully hailed it as a perfect response, again and again.

If you want to know why Donald Trump can’t figure out what caused the Civil War*, it’s because you prioritized demographic loyalty over a moment’s thought. This is partially true because Trump, although a man of few skills, has the skill of reading the zeitgeist, and if he figures out no one cares about historical facts, just demographic pandering—well, prioritizing pandering over facts is hardly a controversial reading of Trump’s career.

But it’s also partially true because the whole reason we, as a country were ever hesitant to pinpoint the cause of the Civil War was because textbooks prioritized demographic pandering over historical facts. Schools in the South made it clear, as a marketing demographic, that they would not purchase or use textbooks that included “long-legged Yankee lies” about slavery; and so, for a century, the words “states rights” bubbled up to confuse matters.

You may think that an insincere question deserves an insincere answer; except that there’s a chance someone might actually read one of these memes and then go around thinking that Muslims invented beautiful gardens. Making your demographic dumber in order to get revenge on another demographic doesn’t get you victory. It just gets you Trump.

Look: I don’t want to sound naive; I realize that “historical fact” is a complicated and loaded phrase. There is a lot of wiggle room here. It’s just that not even I can summon enough nihilism into my soul to pretend that without Islam the world would have no music.

*There’s no need to follow that link, you already know all about it; I’m only linking so that when I come back across this post in six months I’ll know which “latest gaffe” I’m referring to.

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