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I’ve begun reading the Muqaddima by Ibn Khaldun, and I’m trying to figure out what he means by ‘good’ vs. ‘evil.’ I don’t know if it’s a problem in the translation, or simply a rhetorical ambiguity (counter to his style, which is very forthright), but there seem to be contradictory definitions.

On the one hand, ‘good’ is the good of the Bedouins, elsewhere called ‘fortitude.’ Self-reliance, strength, loyalty, simplicity. The good of the Bedouins is contrasted to the pleasure-loving weakness of town life and also the mental weakness that comes from living under the Rule of Law and Education – being brainwashed from an early age to docility and domestication.

On the other hand, ‘good’ is what is unique to humanity – specifically, our civilization.

“In view of his natural disposition and his power of logical reasoning, man is more inclined toward good qualities than toward bad qualities, because the evil in him is the result of the animal powers in him, and inasmuch as he is a human being, he is more inclined toward goodness and good qualities. Now, royal and political authority come to man qua man, because it is something peculiar to man and is not found among animals. Thus, the good qualities in man are appropriate to political and royal authority since goodness is appropriate to political authority.”

Ibn Khaldun describes the Bedouins as savages, similar to wild animals. They destroy civilization with their raids – they have no interest in laws or rules beyond upholding the honor of their own tribes.

They are models of good and they are models of the antithesis of good.

The contradiction makes sense from a philosophical standpoint, but Ibn Khaldun is so adamant about the clarity and rigorous analysis of logical arguments… so that civilization would be… perhaps collectively good but individually corrupting… I wonder if that’s where he’s heading – fascinating, but it just doesn’t seem his style to imply it rather than to spell it out. My impression is that there’s something else that’s supposed to be self-evident, something that I’m missing.

Today I very calmly and forcefully threatened to go to the police if a certain man kept approaching me. In retrospect, I was lucky that he seemed to speak fluent English, because I would have been flustered and incoherent if I had tried to tell him off in Arabic.

I didn’t think I would mind it, but it is bothersome, being in certain parts of town as a solitary woman, modestly dressed and still constantly being subject to… well, it’s intended as flattery. Nothing so coarse as a catcall, just murmured compliments, and for the more confident, attempts at conversation. Repeated attempts at conversation. Following. But to realize that it’s a sense of entitlement these men have, and only the women who are accompanied by someone and/or who wear the niqab (face veil) seem to be spared. To want to wear a niqab in public just to be able to spend an afternoon without having to fend anyone off…

And then he was angry with me – defensive – saying that he should be able to talk to me because it was his country. I repeated my position and he apologized resentfully and left. A sense of violated pride, I understand it – I imagine I understand it – it still ruined the next hour for me. I couldn’t concentrate on my book any longer – I had been reading in a park – and decided to go home early.

I want to learn things while I’m here. I want to move beyond my comfortable path.

I’ll have to be smart about it. To respect other people and to be respected – which is a right, not a privilege.

Or is it? What is a right? What is virtue?

Ibn Khaldun equated town-dwellers with women and children, subject to the protection and the rule of a master. He said that justice meant assigning everyone to his proper station. He also that that habits became customs, and that people do not feel comfortable and may become unwell if forced to change their customs.

I am accustomed to being able to go alone in public unremarked and unmolested. The consequences of a young woman conversing with a strange man are generally suggestive the world over, but I’m not used to the regularity or the persistence of men trying to talk to me, strange men who expect me, a strange woman, to feed their egos. Casually.

I seem to remember, somewhere in the world of gender binaries, the idea that women deserved respect…


waterfront park

I finally composed myself enough to say, “It’s just so typical of this city: pour millions of dollars into creating a tacky conversation piece that appeals to the affluent while neglecting the actual function of a central public library, which is to provide a service for everyone.” This was substantially calmer than my initial reaction to any mention of the Seattle Central Library, which is to sneer and spit words like “tasteless” “pretentious” “nouveau riche,” to bewail the decline of public space and common good. The people who claim to love this aesthetically confrontational parking garage are the people who never use it but buy all their reading material from cafes and bookstores. No warm or comfortable place in this city but it must be paid for. The most beautiful spaces are in private neighborhoods.

This weekend I observed men, women, and children with clothing neat and new and clean and weather-appropriate, the understated affluence of Seattlites who must be prepared, at any moment, must be prepared for the possibility of an impromptu hike. I wore my own boutique-bought coat and three-inch heels, shivering in my knee-length skirt as cold, wet winds gusted through the corridor of extravagant storefronts. Chuckling at my own hypocrisy. To think about everything all the time, it’s a sort of madness.

I was on my way to a play written by a disillusioned proto-socialist. I was struck by the way fiction can do such concise work of conveying complex ideas. Amazing how much more sophisticated the picture is when presented in music and dialogue than when broken down and reassembled into… sociology, gender studies, philosophy, economics. (Woyzeck, the schizophrenic soldier, accusing and demanding: “What did he pay you?!” Deliciously black comedy: what did he pay you?)

Local food. Local clothing. Local entertainment.

I think that there is great opportunity in Seattle, currently being more or less wasted. There are artists who have some taste and little money and bourgeoisie who have a great deal of money and deplorable taste. I think that Seattle is ripe for cabaret – raucous songs and bitter satire.