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Moral Purity and Persecution in History by…
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Moral Purity and Persecution in History

by Barrington Moore Jr.

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In this book, Moore's stated purpose is to delineate some historical connections between ideas of moral purity and persecution or ostracization. After a few moments of reflection, however, it strikes me as difficult to think of many instances in which persecution that didn't have their roots in some notion of purity, moral or otherwise. It especially won't come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the wide swath of anthropological literature on the subject, like Mary Douglas' "Purity and Danger." I thought this book might have something new or interesting to say about it, but I was wrong.

This book has at least two problems that should be considered egregious shortcomings in a book of such sweeping history. Firstly, the paucity of examples from which he chooses to draw is problematic. He considers only, in chronological order: the literature of the Old Testament, the religion wars of sixteenth-century France, the French Revolution, and "Asiatic civilizations." Secondly, one walks away from the book with the idea that the topologies of persecution - how they shame, in what circumstances they occur, their sociological functions, et cetera - are never explored. There is nothing for the almost two millennia between the Old Testament and the France of the 1500s. And then there's the fact that "Asiatic civilizations" is so anachronistic as to be risible. But then again, so is the picture in the back of the book, showing him with a gigantic corncob pipe hanging out of his mouth.

The thesis of the book is that, in the first three historical instances, persecution and concepts of moral purity were closely tied together, while in "Asiatic civilizations" (he considers Confucian and Buddhist religious thought here mostly), the connection is much more tenuous, and perhaps even nonexistent. We are simply told, in instance after instance, that people were persecuted or driven out of different movements or societies (the radicals in the Revolution, Jewish society of the Old Testament, et cetera) because they broke some sort of ethical-moral stricture. This almost reduces the entire book to a set of linear, historical treatments whereas I thought that it would bring in something more integrative and interdisciplinary. ( )
  kant1066 | Oct 14, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0691049203, Hardcover)

The intellectual scope and courage to contend with the largest puzzles of human existence and organization distinguish great social thinkers. Barrington Moore's Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy was a foundational work of historical sociology that influenced a generation of social scientists and, decades later, continues to be widely read and taught. Here, Moore takes up the same tools of historical comparison to investigate why groups of people kill and torture each other. His answer is arrestingly simple: people persecute those whom they perceive as polluting due to their "impure" religious, political, or economic ideas.

Moore's search begins with the Old Testament's restrictions on sexual behavior, idolatry, diet, and handling unclean objects. He argues that religious authorities seeking to distinguish the ancient Hebrews from competing groups invented, along with monotheism, the association of impure things with moral failure and the violation of God's will. This allowed people to view those holding competing ideas as contaminated and, more important, contaminating. Moore moves next to the French Wars of Religion, in which Protestants and Catholics massacred each other over the control of purity, and the French Revolution, which perfected terror and secularized purity. He then combs the major Asian religions and finds--to his surprise--that violent efforts to eradicate the "impure" were largely absent before substantial Western influence.

Moore's provocative conclusion is that monotheism--with its monopoly on virtue and failure to provide supernatural scapegoats--is responsible for some of the most virulent forms of intolerance and is a major cause of human nastiness and suffering. Moore does not say that the monotheist tradition was the primary source of Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism, violent Hindu fundamentalism, or ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, but he does identify it as an indispensable cause because it justified, encouraged, and spread vindictive persecution throughout the world.

Once again, Moore has drawn on his comprehensive understanding of history and talent for speaking directly to readers to address one of the most crucial questions about human past and future. This book is for anyone who has ever heard the word genocide and asked why.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:01 -0400)

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