Thursday, December 31, 2009

Israel's 10 worst errors of the decade

Can you name them? A columnist at Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, will give you a hand.

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NGC 7293


The Helix Nebula and its clouds of glowing dust. Thanks to Astronomy Picture of the Day.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

More than a little familiar?

Has it ever occurred to anyone else that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei looks like Obi-Wan Kenobi with a longer beard and a black turban?

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A medieval murder mystery begging to be written


It has been my experience that many medieval murder mysteries are set in the 14th century, often with the plague in the background. This makes them hardly medieval by my standards, but let that go. What you actually may be interested in is a free plot, which I found lurking on my hard disk. I think it's from a source collection on war in the later Middle Ages, but it is unlabeled. The story as we have it here is not a murder mystery, it's just a murder committed at the orders of important men in one of the great churches of England in a time of political turmoil, the year 1377 when Edward III died and his young grandson, Richard II, succeeded to the throne but not to actual power.

Robert Hawley and John Shakell, two esquires, had captured the count of Denia, a Spanish grandee, at the battle of Nájera [1367]. The count was allowed to go home on leaving his eldest son Alphonso as a hostage. In 1377 the money was said to be ready, and the English government therefore tried to get possession of the hostage. Hawley and Shakell refused to give him up, whereupon they were imprisoned in the Tower of London. Some months later they escaped and took sanctuary at Westminster. The Constable of the Tower followed them in force. Shakell was recaptured; but Hawley resisted and was killed in the choir of the Abbey, during the celebration of High Mass. Shakell remained in the Tower until 1379, when he came to terms with the government, and agreed to give up his hostage in return for his own release.

There are actually lots of documents on this case, because it went on and on.

Maybe it should be a movie -- can't you see the two hardbitten squires fighting for the "Treasure of the Count of Denia?"

Image: The Choir of Westminster Abbey in 1848. In the 14th century it would have had no pews.

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Monday, December 28, 2009

Professor Ali Ansari explains the religious backgroun of the Iranian situation


From the Times Online:

Ancient power struggle has relevance for today’s Iran
Professor Ali Ansari: Analysis


Ashura, the tenth day of the month of Moharram in the Muslim calendar, is a day replete with symbolism for much of the world’s Shia community. In Iran, in the run-up to the Islamic Revolution in 1979, it acquired enormous political significance as the message of Ashura was redefined for the modern age and the struggle against the Shah. Now it has been reinvigorated and turned against today’s Islamic leadership.

The story of Ashura revolves around the succession to the Prophet Muhammad. According to Shia belief the succession should have devolved to the Prophet’s son-in-law and cousin, Ali, the first of the Shia Imams. Ali finally assumed the leadership and became the fourth Caliph but after his death the succession should have followed through his family. Unfortunately for them, the leadership was seized by a rival family, the Umayyads. In 680AD one of Ali’s sons, Hussein, with a small band of followers, challenged the Umayyads, who were led by the Caliph Yazid. Hussein was defeated and killed. Ever since Hussein has been hailed as the Lord of Martyrs, the champion of the oppressed. His sacrifice is lamented every year on Ashura.

The Government has tried to portray Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the new Ali, and there is a suspicion that he is seeking to make the title of Supreme Leader hereditary. This has outraged orthodox clergy and many devout Iranian Muslims.


Thus, instead of being the new Ali, Khamanei has been portrayed as the Yazid of the age. With news of fatalities as the clashes continue, it is an association he will find increasingly difficult to shake.


I am fascinated by the "suspicion" noted in the second-last paragraph above. It sounds like something out of a Left Behind novel.

Image: Pious Shia still weep over the martyrdom at the battle of Karbala. Ashura is the most emotional day on the Shia calendar.

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Big deal in Iran

From Juan Cole's Informed Comment:

The BBC is reporting that clashes are continuing into Monday morning between protesters and the regime security forces in Tehran and perhaps other cities, marking the first decisive failure of the basij paramilitary to control the streets by early morning of the day of a big demonstration. The number of protesters allegedly killed by security men rose to 9, with dozens wounded and 300 persons allegedly arrested.

...

The chanting on Sunday turned against Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself, not just against President Ahmadinejad. He was castigated as the Dictator and as worse than the old shah, and the very ideological basis of the regime, the doctrine of clerical rule, was chanted against in the streets. The legitimacy of the regime, profoundly shaken by the events since early June's presidential election, is now being shredded further.

Another remarkable dimension of Sunday's events was the sheer number of cities where significant rallies and clashes occurred. Some of those allegedly killed are said to have fallen in Tabriz, a northwestern metropolis near Turkey. Even conservative cities such as Isfahan and Mashhad joined in. Shiraz, Ardabil, the list goes on. The attempt of some analysts to paint the disturbances as a shi-shi North Tehran thing has clearly foundered.

The most ominous sign of all for the regime is the reports of security men refusing orders to fire into the crowd.

But for the movement to go further and become truly revolutionary, it would have to have a leader who wanted to overthrow the old regime and who could attract the loyalty of both the people and elements of the armed forces. So far this key revolutionary element, of dual sovereignty, has been lacking, insofar as opposition leaders Mir Hosain Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have tried to stay inside the Khomeinist framework while arguing that it is Khamenei who violated it by making it too authoritarian. Saying you want slightly less autocracy within a clerical theocracy is not a recipe for revolution.

Najmeh Bozorgmehr reports from Tehran for the FT that on Sunday in the capital, crowds-- bigger than even some of those that assembled in June-- maintained their discipline and proved unassailable by the basij motorcycle and other crowd control techniques. She quotes people in the crowd urging demonstrators to stick together for this purpose. She must be suggesting that the crowds were several hundred thousand strong in the capital.

...

But values come into it, too. Farnaz Fassihi of the WSJ points out that the first month of the Muslim lunar calendar, Muharram, has been considered a month for truces and non-violence. The very name of the month means 'sanctified.' Even the brutal troops of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah or king overthrown in 1979, had not fired on crowds during Muharram. Opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi openly said that even the shah's regime had not behaved on Muharram as clerical Leader Ali Khamenei's had. Hint: in revolutionary Iran, that is a slam.

The regime therefore violated crowd norms, helping account for the vehemence of the pushback.
...

The killing of Ali Mousavi, the 34-year-old nephew of former presidential candidate Mir Husain Mousavi, was also a violation of Shiite values. The Mousavis are putative descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, a sort of caste in Muslim societies called 'sayyid' or 'sharif.'

In fact, in the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911, one of the complaints of the crowd was that the Qajar monarchy had had sayyids beaten. So if beating a scion of the House of the Prophet can help spark a revolution, what about shooting one? And, oppositional film maker Mohsen Makhmalbaf maintains that Mousavi was killed by a death squad that came for him in a van rather than just falling victim to random police fire.

Killing a sayyid is a blot on any Iranian government. Doing so on Ashura, the day of morning for the martyred grandson of the Prophet, Imam Husayn, borders on insanity.

Cole also provides a link to Robin Wright's article at the Times Online: Is this Iran's Berlin Wall moment?

Of course questions like this are hard to answer. However, it is clear that for millions of Iranians, the current regime has lost any claim to representing Islam (in other words, justice).

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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Jeff Burke as Black Santa: a phenom

It's been a mixed bag of a holiday for my family, but this holiday blog post helped push my mood towards the good side.

Jeff Burke is a friend of mine whom I not only like but have always respected as an original. His steadiest musical gig is as a busker in the Toronto subway system. He's now popped up in a TTC Busker Profile at BlogTO. I must congratulate interviewer Jennifer Tse for letting Jeff be himself. Here's my favorite part of an excellent article:

Any final thoughts you would like to share?

While I'm playing, people who used to play the bassoon will run into me, telling me they stopped because they had other things to do with their lives. Other people will give me this wistful look and tell me they miss making music. Someone once said to me they weren't good enough, and that they weren't going to be a professional so they thought they shouldn't waste their time.

It's always sad to hear about people letting music go because they think they aren't going to be good enough. To me, doing creative things with music doesn't have to be about being the virtuoso or the expert. It's something you have fun with that opens up your heart and your spirit, and you can share it with people one way or another.

I want people to give their spirit a chance to breathe, and do some of those things. While they may not make you money, they can make you happy, and you have to find some way in your life to squeeze those things in. It enriches your life.

This applies to more than music.

Take it away, Jeff!

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Friday, December 25, 2009

Gloria in excelsis!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Carnivalesque #57


A fine collection of recent posts from Ancient and Medieval blogs, collected at Zenobia: Empress of the East. Read!

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

The end of American exceptionalism

Mark LeVine says:
The awarding of the Peace Prize to Obama reads like a desperate attempt to resuscitate the discredited idea of a "Great Man" of history ushering in a new era. It is an understandable fantasy, given the magnitude of the problems the world confronts.

But it distracts from the reality that it will be movements from below, however imperfect and irrational they can be, that will create, in Obama's words, "the world that ought to be," not leaders from above, however audacious their rhetoric.

In that regard, perhaps the most historically significant aspect of Obama's speech is its irrelevance on the ground.

Around the world people who once looked to the US for inspiration or support are taking matters into their own hands. No one is waiting for the US to save or even support them anymore.

More here.

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Jean Flori's site

I became aware this week that the distinguished French historian of chivalry, Jean Flori, has a website. I am sure that I am not the only person around here who might be interested in this news. Here's the link!

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

An old monastery serves as a window into Iraq's past


Some American soldiers learn a bit about the complexities of Iraq's religious history.
As historic sites in Iraq go, St. Elijah’s has little of the significance of the ruins of the great Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations, all endangered by decay and looting. The ruins of Nimrud, Hatra and Nineveh are only a few miles away. So is the tomb of the Old Testament prophet Jonah, and that of another, Nahum, whose short chapter in the Bible warns Nineveh of its destruction.

“Nineveh is like a walk through the Bible,” said W. Patrick Murphy, the leader of the American provincial reconstruction team here, which is coordinating the restoration, referring to the modern name for the province that includes Mosul.

In the years of American occupation, St. Elijah’s became a curiosity, a diversion for soldiers and contractors who might otherwise never leave the base and encounter Iraq’s deeply layered history. Amid the hardship of modern military operations, it once again became a place of prayer.

“We stand in a long line of people who bequeathed the faith to us,” said Maj. Jeffrey Whorton, a Roman Catholic chaplain, presiding over Mass in the monastery the other day, attended by three camouflaged soldiers, their rifles leaning in a corner.

Little definitive is known about the history of St. Elijah’s, or Dair Mar Elia. The site has never been studied or excavated, according to the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, which oversees all of Iraq’s historic sites. Before the war, Iraq’s Republican Guard occupied the base and, according to the Americans, used the cistern as a latrine.

The board, which has previously been critical of American activities at ruins, including Babylon, is now reviewing the proposal to restore St. Elijah’s.


Accompanied by an excellent slide show of St. Elijah's Monastery.

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Outbreak of the rule of law in Pakistan?

So argues Juan Cole:

The US punditocracy has never understood that the central political narrative of Pakistan in the past 2 and a half years has been the restoration of the rule of law (in the form of the Supreme Court chief justice and then the rest of the SC) and the ending of the Musharraf military dictatorship in favor of a return of the major political parties.

That twin project was riddled with a contradiction, though, since the political parties capable of supplanting the military were themselves often corrupt, while Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was determined to clean house. So what has happened is that the contradictions have just come to the fore.

How flat-footed the US commentariat is in this regard was obvious in the reaction of CNN's Wolf Blitzer to Malik's detention. He asked Pakistani ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani if it was the sign of a military coup. Haqqani was taken aback, and the Urdu press headlined the interchange.

No, Wolf, it is the opposite. It is an outbreak of the civil rule of law. It was a military dictator who had amnestied Malik. It is the Supreme Court calling him to account. The US media think the Pakistan Story is 'violent fundamentalism, military rule, and nuclear threat.' The reality-- that most of the Pakistani public wants a civil rule of law, is almost impossible for Westerners to grasp.

The hysteria in Washington about Pakistani political instability (read: civilian politicians elected to office and an independent judiciary instead of a military dictatorship) will be heightened by this development. And it does potentially weaken president Asaf Ali Zardari, against whom there are outstanding cases. But most judicial authorities hold that Zardari cannot be tried while in office, and there is no obvious way to unseat him, since his party is the largest in parliament.

The rule of law is more important for the structural integrity of Pakistani society and politics than the back door deals of the Musharrafs, Bushes, Rices and Cheneys. Pakistan has a parliamentary system. It will go to new elections in a couple of years. If the government falls before then, it will just have early elections and someone will form a government based on their electoral performance. It might be Nawaz Sharif and the Muslim League. So what? Sharif once agreed with Clinton to send in a Pakistani SWAT team against Bin Laden, and it was Musharraf who nixed that plan. And whereas Zardari has never shown an ability to run anything, Sharif is a steel magnate-- though his last term as PM was marked by an overly authoritarian style and a cozying up to Muslim fundamentalists substantially to his right.

And who knows, maybe some of the new non-corrupt PPP voices such as Aitzaz Ahsan will emerge if Zardari falters.


Then there is this development, also drawn to my attention by Juan Cole (originating in the International edition of the News, a Pakistani newspaper:
ISLAMABAD: Ulema and Mashaikh, belonging to different schools of thought, unanimously declared suicide attacks in the country un-Islamic and forbidden in Islam.

A large number of Ulema and Mashaikh, who attended the Ulema Mashaikh Conference arranged by the Ministry of Religious Affairs at the National Library here, denounced on Thursday the killing of innocent people in the name of religion. They spoke against suicide attacks in particular.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik and Minister for Religious Affairs Allama Hamid Saeed Kazmi and Ulema Mashaikh from across the country participated in the conference. The interior minister also briefed the Ulema and Mashaikh about the security situation and the measures taken by the government for curbing the menace of terrorism.

The Ulema said it is clearly stated in the Holy Quran that killing of innocent people is un-Islamic and it could not be justified in any way. They said the Shariah introduced by Hazrat Muhammad (SAW) is complete and adequate for us and we do not need anything more.

Speaking on the occasion, Minister for Religious Affairs Allama Hamid Saeed Kazmi said the conference was arranged with an aim to devise a strategy against terrorism.He said those who launched attacks upon mosques and educational institutions could never be called Muslims. He said Islam does not allow anyone to kill innocent people or attack mosques.

Those laying down their lives in the fight against terrorism are martyrs as they are fighting to save the motherland, he said.

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Friday, December 18, 2009

Roy Prol's gift to the rest of us.



Thanks, Roy!

And thanks to Melinda for the referral.

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John Keane, The Life and Death of Democracy


Well, I finally finished the big new history of democracy I picked up a while ago. Here's my review, exclusive to this site.

Uneven but provocative

A review of John Keane, The Life and Death of Democracy

John Keane ends his massive history of democracy with a chapter called New Democratic Rules, in which he discusses his project and why he approached it in the rather odd way that he did.

... I quickly became convinced that my subject demanded a fundamental rethink of what would be required in trying to write a new history of democracy.... I was sure of only one thing: all the existing rules of writing about democracy and its history had to be broken. Crusty silences deeded to be shattered; customary ways of thinking had to be amended, or ditched. New rules were definitely required.

Perhaps the most important innovation that Keane made in writing this book is his simple but necessary rejection of the old consensus that democracy is the product of Athens or the Atlantic world of the 18th century (or somehow both), and that most of the rest of the world has had little to do with producing its ideas and institutions. Keane refuses to tell the same old linear story in the same old critical way. He has a wide view of what democracy is, has been and will be, maybe; as a result he has many stories to tell about places and people who generally do not fit into the usual narrative of democratic origins, successes and failures. This is a book that has much more to say about Martin Van Buren than Thomas Jefferson or Robespierre, lots to say about Nehru and not much about Gandhi. Keane follows a thematic method that sometimes defies chronology, or at least the usual assumptions about priorities. For instance, he has a long chapter on Spanish America through the 19th century that precedes and quite overshadows his discussion of the French Revolution and its consequences. This took me aback, but I could see his point when I had finished the two sections.

To write such a daring and ambitious synthesis, Keane needed to master a great many histories and cultures; it is the great problem with this book that sometimes he seems to have failed to understand or remember accurately some of his chosen material. Erasmus, for instance is generally not considered a Protestant dissenter, and to refer to him simply as a man whom Luther disliked and who regarded women as fools hardly seems either fair or relevant. To say that Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke when he was speaking tour to sell his military strategy to the American people is a rather astonishing error. It makes one wonder how many other errors might lurk in material less familiar to me. (That 100 pages of endnotes were from final text, presumably at the publisher's insistence, may explain some of the unevenness.)

Keane was determined not to write a stuffy and colorless book, and he took a number of stylistic chances. Some of the risks paid off, others did not. The least successful strategy involved Keane's discussion of the most recent events and the problems that they pose for democracy. He puts the discussion into the mouth of a historian fifty years in the future -- or at least says he does, because this historian is nameless, faceless, and lives in a future society we are not allowed to see. This historian's judgments, which are sensible enough, might as well have been expressed by Keane in his proper persona, because the conceit of another narrator adds nothing to our understanding of the recent history of democracy. If Keane had plunged wholeheartedly into a fictional future whose scholars look back on us, much as Margaret Atwood did at the end of The Handmaid's Tale, something much more interesting might have been produced.

I have said quite a bit about a number of flaws I found in the book. Yet there is certainly a lot of good stuff in this book, and here are some of the things I liked about it

Keane believes that the origins of democratic practices come from nearly every place in the world ( East Asia perhaps excepted, since he has little good to say about Chinese culture). He argues this point fairly effectively, discussing for instance what he believes are the Syrian-Mesopotamian origins of government by assembly. Likewise he identifies the Muslim belief in the value of what we would now call "civil society" as an important contribution to global culture. Australia and South Australia in are credited with a number of changes in democratic practice and attitudes that affected people in every hemisphere. Various frontier regions, including Pitcairn Island, are shown to have been on the cutting edge in making enfranchisement of women a necessity for any democratic community. A whole list of more or less obscure people, from John Wilkes of London to Juan Vucetich of Argentina, to Angelina Grimké of South Carolina have their moment in the sun. Again, not all of Keane's interpretations convinced me, but I learned some interesting history from this book, and I find it difficult to imagine a person who knows it all already.

Keane's most important overall analytical idea is that democracy has gone through three stages, or better that there are three types of democracy which have been invented and reinvented various times in various environments. One is assembly democracy, the democracy of Athens many other small communities throughout history. The second is representative democracy, which grew out of undemocratic roots to become the dominant ideal of the 19th century democrats and remain influential in the last century. Keen with a sharp eye critiques representative democracy and its relationship to nationalism and totalitarianism, not an original analysis but very well discussed. One of the most valuable ideas in the entire book is that the so-called "third wave of democracy" that followed the near extinction of representative democracy before and during the Second World War cannot be understood as a mere restoration of the representative idea. Keane argues that the successful democratic countries of today should be understood as "monitory" democracies, in which the flaws of the representational system are at least partially corrected by the existence of local, national, and international organizations that investigate, publicize, and propose solutions for the abuse of the political process. Two examples given are Amnesty International and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. That many of these monitory organizations around the world have been nurtured on the ideal of human rights, is for Keane typical of the ethos of monitory democracy, in which the questions of how the unitary people should be mathematically represented in legislative institutions, or how the populist Leader can be identified and empowered are no longer the sole or even the central issues of democracy. Keane does not think of monitory democracy as being new or some kind of magic bullet. As a perhaps unexpressed ideal it has been around since at least the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it has not solved all of the world's problems. There is no magic bullet, no final solution, and democracy is not inevitable. It is not simple either, a point established by the complexities of his own presentation.

Keane is to be congratulated on the accomplishment of his daring project. Sometimes obscure, sometimes inaccurate, sometimes wrongheaded, The Life and Death of Democracy is still a treasure chest of ideas, incidents and personalities. I identified earlier in this review some significant flaws, which I think might confuse or frustrate readers. Perhaps I should say that this book needs and deserves adventurous readers. Maybe it is not primarily for scholars anyway. I say with no condescension whatsoever that this book should be on the shelves of high school and university libraries or anywhere else younger readers can find it and become entranced by the size, variety and importance of the subject. It's certainly far more worthy than the big history I read in high school: Toynbee's A Study of History.

Question: is there any chance that all those missing footnotes could be put online?

Hurried update: The book has a website.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

NGC 4921

From the Hubble Advent Calendar, 2009. Of course, you should click on this to see the much bigger version, or go to the Big Picture site. This is for December 17.

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Richard W. Kaeuper, Holy Warriors: the Religious Ideology of Chivalry

Here is what I wrote about Richard Kaeuper's Holy Warriors for the online Medieval Review, a valuable electronic source for up-to-date reviews. It's free and sends the reviews right to your mailbox, and because it is electronic it allows and encourages reviewers to say more than they could in a print review. Here's where you can find subscription information, and here's where you go to search for past reviews.

Richard Kaeuper's most recent book is the product of remarkable learning. It takes a classic, well-studied topic of undoubted importance and, based on the author's wide and deep reading of both primary and secondary sources, not only sheds new and valuable light on its ostensible subject--the relationship between chivalry and religion in the Middle Ages--but also illuminates many other aspects of medieval history. Readers may well come away from this book with a whole new understanding of subjects that they thought they knew well. This reviewer, fresh from teaching a course on the Crusades, might well do things differently next time, thanks to Kaeuper's discussion of chivalry as struggle or labor.


Two decades ago, in his War, Justice, and Public Order: England and France in the Later Middle Ages (1988), Kaeuper found himself doubting that the values of chivalry as understood in the High Middle Ages were an unambiguous force for promoting civility and order: "The code of chivalry encouraged as much violence as it curbed" (7). Further research, notably extensive reading in chivalric epics and romance, led him to find unconvincing an older understanding of the relationship between Christianity and chivalry, that chivalry was a process of a more pacific clerical establishment slowly imposing its values on the warrior aristocracy. In Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe (1999) he traced a convincing picture of the autonomous value system of knights who though they might aspire to courtliness and piety saw the core of their social identity in their prowess, and their right and duty to use force when they judged it appropriate.

The current book is a logical extension of Chivalry and Violence in that it focuses again on the self-image of knights, specifically how knights justified their way of life religiously. It is Kaeuper's primary contention that knights (or more generally well-armed, professional soldiers) had independent religious ideas that they adopted and adapted to suit their own needs, ideas that were related to those put forward by the clergy, but not a pale reflection of clerical theories and demands. This thesis deserves some detailed exploration before we look at an important secondary theme of the book, which is Kaeuper's demonstration that some of the most important theories of salvation were shaped by the existence and self-assertion of a Christian knighthood, the members of which could be either valuable allies or dangerous enemies of clerical interests and high-minded ecclesiastical efforts to reform the world.

First, let us look at what Kaeuper says about knightly self-image and how it related to the way penance and salvation were understood in medieval culture in general. Texts written by and for knights that tackled serious issues--practically by definition religious issues--upheld warrior values such as prowess (courage, skill, the prime warrior virtue) despite the frequent disapproval of clerics, but also identified other aspects of the knightly profession with universally admitted aspects of the economy of salvation. We might, following Kaeuper and the Book of Job, consider the equation of the struggle for salvation with militia (1-2); militia in medieval usage could mean not just military service or knighthood, but hard struggle, even suffering. The struggle or labor of human life was part of the punishment derived from the sins of Adam and Eve; but submitting oneself to hard work and other kinds of suffering were also constantly praised and encouraged by sermonizers and ascetic writers, because done right, as Christ did, it was the road to salvation. Knights believed that their own way of life was labor and led to pains experienced by no other mortals (though one wonders what their mothers thought of that argument), comparable, some said, to the work and suffering of Christ. Thus knights, when thinking about their participation in the process of salvation, could point to a perfectly orthodox claim to Christian respectability (if not one that was uncontested): imitatio Christi. Indeed, there was a lively debate; when rating their own spiritually valuable ascetic achievements, knights argued that monks could not bear the burdens of military life, and vice versa. Kaeuper provides a number of stories from his wide reading which illustrate the terms of that debate, with all its gruesome and humorous aspects, as in fact he does when discussing other arguments that arose from clerical-chivalric tensions. It is one of the great virtues of this book is that Kaeuper constantly keeps the reader aware that clerics often found themselves facing arguments justifying knighthood that were difficult to answer.

Kaeuper devotes a long chapter to discussing how the effort of the twelfth-century clerical reformers to create a working theology to guide the laity intersected with the developing ideology of chivalry--this being the century when chevalerie ceased to mean "horsemen" or "skill with horses" only, and became a moral status or aspiration. Reform in the twelfth century involved among other things an organized effort to define various legitimate professions of the human community, how each contributed at its best to the Christian life, and the dangers inherent in each profession. Among the lay ordines knighthood took a leading place, because the warrior aristocracy was the chief rival of the clergy in power, wealth and respectability. It may be that as much effort was put into defining and critiquing the military ordo as was devoted to all other laypeople together. For reformers there was much about warfare to criticize, but it was impossible to simply denounce or ignore the problem of the Christian warrior. Ecclesiastical authority had already conceded, in the form of crusade theology (still evolving, still rife with contradiction), that appropriate military service could gain salvation. Clerics used violence, and had to justify and theorize it. In this case, too, their expertise in learning failed to impose their formulation--that only violence authorized by the clergy and directed towards enemies of the faith was legitimate--on an unquestioning audience. Chivalric writers and clerical writers sympathetic to them appropriated what they liked about the theory of ordines and the theory of crusade, adapting what was useful to their own purposes and discarding the rest. Witness the way that treatises on chivalry, right from the very beginning, appropriated the language of ordo and ordines to give the "order of chivalry" an undoubted predominance in the Christian community, save only for the formal respect due to priests for their unique sacramental role. Witness the way proper warfare of any kind was seen by knights as equal in worth to expeditions to the Holy Land or against other unbelievers, equally pleasing to God.

Kaeuper continues to be interested in the end of the self-justifying, consciously Christian knightly identity and devotes his final chapter to "writing the death certificate for chivalric ideology." Here he provides the reader with a fuller and more convincing analysis of the death of medieval knighthood than he did in Chivalry and Violence, although it is not entirely satisfying. Kaeuper offers up several factors that contributed to the "death of chivalry." He suggests that since after the Reformation the penitential economy of the Middle Ages no longer made sense in much of the Christian West, its logic no longer could be appropriated to depict the well-armed professional warrior as a member of an autonomous Christian ordo. At the same time various developments made it easier to see knights as servants of the State (the Prince?) than as members of an international brotherhood, while the state became the source of all honor (a view seen, for instance, in the sixteenth-century biography of the Chevalier Bayard). It would have been interesting and useful if Kaeuper had said more about the tension between the ideas of knights as members of a "national" state (or subjects of a Sovereign) and knights as members of a class that transcended boundaries and allegiances. Admittedly he said quite a bit on this subject, but one feels that there is more to be said. It would have been interesting to see Kaeuper engage with the recent work of Crouch and Keen on the evolution of European ideas of nobility.

This book is well and entertainingly written, and is well-presented and designed. The University of Pennsylvania Press is to be congratulated for being willing to include the large bibliography and the extensive (and rich) scholarly apparatus that add much of value to Kaeuper's presentation. One can no longer take these things for granted, even from academic publishers. Also remarkable is the inclusion of a striking thirteenth-century illustration of an armored knight about to fight a phalanx of vices. It is reproduced on both the cover and the frontispiece, providing the reader with one incomplete but color reproduction plus one complete in black and white. This allowed the author to present a striking image to his reader, in a way that makes vivid some of the symbolism relevant to his argument. These things cost money and are sometimes skimped on; in this case the money was well spent.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Do androids dream of electric sheep?

That was the answer to a quiz question on CBC Radio One's comedy show The Debaters this morning. It is the title of the Philip K. Dick novel that was the inspiration for Bladerunner.

I read the Dick book in a fresh hardback copy right out of the public library in 1967. I wonder what my teenaged self would have thought about today's little incident.

Time travel, even if it is one way, is interesting and puzzling. Reference: The Door into Summer, set in the remote year 1970.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"Security contracting"


The official US military establishment, large and expensive as it is, has a substantial shadow, organizations like the former Blackwater. If you don't think these guys have political influence, which exists beyond the rather shaky limitations of constitutional government -- think again.

Here's a primer from At War in the New York Times
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Note where I have bolded some material:
The news that Blackwater Worldwide (or its new name, Xe Services) collaborated with the Central Intelligence Agency was one news event that did not surprise me. I think the spate of recent news is just the tip of the iceberg.

It has been argued that our servicemen overseas do not receive enough attention in the news media about all that they do. But if that is the case, then it is doubly true for contractors, as their actions have been even more underrepresented in the news then the military’s.

When President Obama announced a troop surge in Afghanistan, many people focused strictly on the number of troops and the time line he presented. What was missing was a discussion of how many contractors would be needed to support the increase. Currently the ratio of United States servicemen to contractors is roughly one to one. Thus, the actual number of additional personnel members who will be added to the American footprint in Afghanistan could be closer to 60,000 — 30,000 additional military personnel members plus 30,000 contractors.

Security contracting is a business that will probably be a fixture in security operations for years to come. It is partly an outgrowth of a capitalist drive to reduce everything, even war, into purely fiscal terms. Contractors, be it those with weapons or those with cooking tools, are at first glance cheaper than deploying and sustaining an equivalent number of an all-volunteer military service members.

Contracts are close-ended, and hence there are no enduring requirements like providing these contractors with aid in expediting United States citizenship. Nor do they require open-ended benefits such as a G.I Bill, veteran benefits, disability payments or a retirement pension.

But their involvement has shown that war is not simply a sacrifice for those who fight it. It can also be a lucrative economic enterprise. Their deaths are also easier to accept because they are not even reported. No obligatory half-staff flags. This, in turn, reduces the overall cost of the human effort needed to sustain America’s war overseas as contractor casualties and deaths do not add to the tally of combat casualties that news organizations report.

The author also suggests that many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have in this recession better prospects as contractors than as anything else. Makes you wonder where this process of militarizing the US population will end. Or which country will be the first to be taken over by unhappy or ambitious "contractors."

Image: Landsknechts, German mercenaries of the 16th century.

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Dr. Michael Cramer's book, "Medieval Fantasy as Performance"

Readers of this blog who have a serious interest in popular historical re-enactment and re-creation, the history of roleplaying, or the SCA might be interested in this note from Michael Cramer. I've seen an earlier version of this work and it is worth your consideration.
This is the first announcement that my new book, Medieval Fantasy as Performance: The Society for Creative Anachronism and the Current Middle Ages, has gone to press and will be available beginning in January from Scarecrow Press.

The SCA is an international organization of medievalists--some academic, some romantic, and some fantastic--who act out their fantasies by adopting medieval persona and interacting with one another at tournaments, wars, feasts, and other festivals, as well as numerous workshops and seminars. Much more than a Live Action Role Playing Game, the SCA is a community of like minded individuals, a group of nearly 100,000 Don Quixotes playing a communal game of make believe. Through the prism of performance studies this book seeks to examine why and how the SCA performs its medieval fantasy, and comes to the conclusion that what the SCA has created, and for more or less the same reasons, is an accidental reconstruction of the medieval King Game.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

The Onion throws down the gauntlet to real historians

On some level you have to love this:
Following 1,000 years of cultural decline and societal collapse known as the Dark Ages, the 15th century brought forth the Renaissance, an unprecedented resurgence in learning and the arts, which four or five guys pretty much just strapped onto their backs and carried the whole way.

"Our research indicates that da Vinci, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, and Galileo basically hoisted the entire intellectual transformation of mankind onto their shoulders while everyone else just sat around being superstitious nimrods," said Sue Viero of the Correr Museum of Art in Venice, Italy. "Here's da Vinci busting his ass to paint such masterpieces as The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa, while some loser like Albrecht Dürer is doing these dinky little woodcuts that are basically worthless."

...

While some claim the three- century-long movement would not have been possible without the contributions of lesser-known sculptors and thinkers, most scholars said they would challenge anyone to name an image by Jan van Eyck or Francesco Guicciardini that's more iconic than, say, Donatello's Mary Magdalene.

"It's a no-brainer, really," cultural anthropologist Diane Messinick said. "Mediocre talents like the playwright George Peele or renowned court painter Federico Brandani were pretty much the equivalent of the guy at work who brews a fresh pot of coffee while you're busy making sure there's still a company to come back to after everyone gets back from goddamn Christmas break."

Added Messinick, "Hacks."

We need these researchers to look into who had the biggest ego in the Renaissance. They are clearly well qualified to do the project.

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Rare but possible...

...a good time in Iraq, boating on the Tigris. From At War in the New York Times.

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Syme's Roman Revolution


David Meadows provided this link to a new review of a 70-year-old classic: Ronald Syme's The Roman Revolution. I read this as background material early in my teaching career, because people I respected had vaguely referred to it as a classic. And it was indeed a great book, one that felt fresh decades after publication.

Here's a bit of Steve Donoghue's appropriately well-written review:
Watching how Syme handles all his sources –watching the intricate, hitherto unseen connections and uprootings that he effects by sifting through everything so carefully (he’ll find a passing comment in an epic poem that sheds light on legionary cooking techniques, or a well-known paragraph from Cicero that can be read in a startling new way) – is at once humbling and exciting, and it’s no wonder The Roman Revolution has cast such a long shadow. The subject matter – the carefully-implemented plan by which Octavian took sole, personal control of the Roman Empire (and the equally careful plan to prevent the Romans from realizing the full import of what he was doing) – has been taken up many times by many historians in the ensuing seventy years. Syme’s masterpiece is in all their bibliographies, and most of those later histories of Augustus or the end of the Roman Republic would have been unthinkable had not Syme so impeccably paved the way.

The sobering fact is how little any of those later books manage to offer even a small amplification of Syme. Even now, The Roman Revolution is the first, best modern history of Rome’s preventable and misunderstood transition from Republic to Empire. Surely a Penguin Classic of it is finally in order?

Image: Gaius Octavius, disguised as a conservative senator.

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities, 1550-1820


British History Online has webbed a searchable version of this reference work, for serious research or serious fun.

Image: Market Hill in St. Edmundsbury, 1700.

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No normalcy in Iran, either

Not even the generation-long "revolutionary" normalcy of the Islamic Republic.

From the Guardian, a sample of person-in-the-street commentary:

Meshkat Nourahmadi, 45, nurse

"I have seen patients with bullets in their chests, bullets in their legs, bullets in their heads. Everybody is talking about the violence, whether you are at work, in a taxi or at a family gathering. Something has changed in this country. I don't think this is just about fraud in the election. It's about the blood that has been spilled and people who have been raped or tortured or harassed by this government."

Hoori Ghasemi, 35, lawyer

"In Tehran, even if you have not been beaten by the riot police personally, at least you have a friend or relative who has."

Mohammadreza Kakavand, 62, retired accountant

"I was out in the streets 30 years ago protesting against the Shah because that regime was brutal and savage and today I'm out again, this time older, again seeking justice and standing against dictatorship. I might not see a free Iran in my lifetime, but I'm proud of the battle of today's youth against injustice and dictatorship. It would be an honour to be killed in a fight for freedom."

Bahram Ebrahimian, 30, businessman

"If you are going out today in protest, it means that you are ready to be arrested, it means that you are ready to be tortured or even sentenced to years of prison, but thousands of students are still protesting and I as a normal citizen want to join them despite all the fears."

Reyhaneh Aboutorabi, 23, Tehran University student

"Many students are no longer thinking about their exams, their education or their future, they are still thinking about their stolen vote. These demonstrations are going to continue until we can get back our votes and have our classmates freed from Evin prison."

Siamak Pournejati, 31, Tehran shopkeeper

"I'm ready to risk everything to get back my vote. You can smell the blood of innocent and peaceful protesters in the streets of Tehran, the blood of Neda Agha Soltan [killed during election protests], the blood of Sohrab Aarabi [who disappeared and was killed]. This city is no longer like it was last year. It's different and we will change it finally."

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Anyone read this book?

I am quite curious about Antony Adolf's Peace: A World History. Have any of you read this?

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NGC 6302

Friday, December 11, 2009

"Crazy stuff" in history


Apocalyptic belief, belief in a revelation of the end of time, usually a revelation that the end of time is just around the corner, probably qualifies for most people as "crazy stuff." Something suitable for more Terminator sequels, a graphic novel, or a heavy metal album. There is always a need for another heavy metal album about the end of the world.

But crazy or not, apocalyptic beliefs are pretty commonplace in real life, and have a stronger influence on politics and culture than most people who don't believe in the apocalypse would guess. Three countries whose politics is strongly affected by the apocalyptic beliefs of some influential people and a proportion of the general population are the United States, Israel, and Iran.

More than once in recent months I have read about the apocalyptic beliefs of the president of Iran. Shiism has always had an apocalyptic logic: roughly, they think that the leadership of the Muslim community was hijacked soon after the death of Prophet, that the true leaders have been in physical or spiritual exile ever since, and eventually that leadership will return to clean up the mess. But most Shiites don't wait with bated breath for the return of the Mahdi, just as most Christians don't think very much about the Book of Revelations (also known as the Apocalypse of St. John) when planning out their weekly activities. And a lot of Jews have given up on the return of the Messiah.

However, as support of the Islamic Revolution has been falling apart in Iran, the true believers in the revolution are turning more strongly to the belief that the end is near.

Here is what Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has to say about the subject:

It's both crazy and dangerous.

Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad believes and acts on the expectation that the reappearance of the Hidden Imam is imminent, and that U.S. efforts in the Middle East are primarily focused on preventing his return. Shi'ite Muslims believe that their 12th imam, the Mahdi, born in 869, did not die but was hidden by God and will eventually reappear as the savior of humankind, ending tyranny and bringing justice to the world. One-tenth of the world's Muslims and 85 percent of Iranians are Shi'a.

In a recent speech in the central city of Isfahan, Ahmadinejad said: "With those [U.S. troops] who came to occupy Iraq, the appearance was that they came just to exploit the oil. In reality, though, they know that something will happen in this region -- a divine hand will come soon to root out the tyranny in the world."

"And they know," he added, "that Iran is paving the way for his coming and will serve him."

Belief in the apocalypse and messianism are nothing new in human history. There are both Jewish and Christian messianic traditions, according to which a king of Israel or messiah will appear to herald global peace. And Shi'ite Muslims, unlike the majority of their Sunni co-faithful, have always believed in the Mahdi.

But Ahmadinejad and his main supporter among the ultra-conservative Iranian clergy, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, a member of the Assembly of Experts, do not want to just peacefully hope and wait for the Mahdi. RFE/RL Radio Farda's analyst Majid Mohammadi says Ahmadinejad has introduced a completely new system in the Iranian politics: "a militarist and messianic Islamism."
There's more here.

The third and fourth paragraphs of the excerpt above reminds me very strongly of this version of Pope Urban's speech at Clermont. Surely not what was actually said, but this is what made sense to one informed and learned observer. This is what he thought the Pope should have said when he launched the First Crusade.
Interesting times, interesting times. Don't you just... love it? Well, maybe not.

Image: An impression of the return of the Mahdi to fight the Antichrist.

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Obama's Nobel Speech and Just War theory

Matthew Gabriele at Virginia Tech, who knows a thing or two about Crusading ideology, has a great analysis of Obama's Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

It's a fascinating speech in many ways. Agree or disagree on its merits, it's a learned speech -- one that understands its subject and that subject's history. All in all, it's a speech that some might say is positively medieval. I don't throw that term around lightly.


President Obama: just another post-WWII president, late antique Roman bishop, or the new Pope Urban II? If those were the choices, which would you opt for?

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The past and future of Iraq

From the New York Times blog At War. Among other things, this deeply personal account shows why it will be a very long time before Iraq will be a "normal country:"

‘I Have No Living Friends in Iraq Now’

by RIYADH MOHAMMED

In most parts of the world, the end of the year is a time to reminisce about the best of the past and look to the future with a hopeful eye. Iraq is not like the rest of the world. For me, it is a time to update my death list. The latest entry is my ex-girlfriend.

When I received messages on my cellphone from friends saying, “Please accept my condolences,” I asked one of them, “What happened?” Another message came that explained that my ex-girlfriend was killed in the Dec. 8 bombings in Baghdad.

Since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, I had kept a list of every relative or friend killed in violence. As of late 2006, I counted 124 deaths. Suddenly I stopped. No. 125 was my father.

My father had told me a few weeks prior to his tragic death that his phone book was filled with telephone numbers of killed and missing people. He was soon to join the list.

When I look at my personal phone book now, I read: “X: killed in Al Mustansiriya University bombings in 2007. Y: missing in western Baghdad in 2005. Z: killed in the Justice Ministry 2009. It keeps going on like that for the most of the book. The ones who left Iraq were the only ones who survived. I lost my last friend when he went to the United States as a refugee in June 2009. I have no living friends in Iraq now.

If I had continued to keep my death list up to date, it would have included dozens of friends, neighbors, relatives, classmates and work colleagues. The total would run in the hundreds. If I added the relatives of the relatives, the total would be thousands or tens of thousands. Almost all of them were civilians: employees, students, artists, professors, journalists, sportsmen, lawyers, workers or children.

As a man who studied cinema and produced several television documentaries, I often turn to movies help to distract me from the awful reality. Sometimes they help me to describe my status. In the movie “Meet Joe Black,” the angel of death falls in love with his victim’s daughter. Many Iraqis that I met after dozens or hundreds of bombs kept asking, is there any way to stop death’s master plan, whose top priority seems to be claiming Iraqis’ lives?

When I saw the American movie “Final Destination,” I told myself that was exactly what was happening to us. As of late 2006, I had survived deadly bombs about 40 times. Most of them were in Tahrir Square – the most famous public square in Baghdad. I used to pass by it twice a day on my way to work. The square was hit with dozens of bombs in 2005 and 2006. I survived only because I was a few minutes late or early. So often it seems like the cursed plane in Final Destination carries the entire Iraqi people.

The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue on April 9, 2003, felt to me – and to millions of Iraqis – like the symbolic birth of a nation. But instead, another scene was watched by millions of Iraqis in the following years, and Iraqi officials eventually banned photographers from capturing it. It was the scene inside the Iraqi cities’ morgues. In late 2006, it was my turn to visit one of them. Searching for my father, I counted at least 200 new bodies in one Baghdad morgue. There were at least another 200 bodies that had been there a while. It was just like the morgue scene in the movie “Missing.” But the scene that couldn’t be hidden was al-Najaf cemetery. It kept expanding until it became the largest in the world. For millions of Iraqis, it was the death of a nation.

Many felt that I was acting odd when I didn’t cry at my father’s funeral. But I truly lost the ability to feel pain and sorrow. I have read once that many Europeans felt the same emotional drought after witnessing the catastrophes of World War II.

On the other hand, I had the same dream every night for four continuous months: My father didn’t die. I still have the dream, but only once a week now. It is something that could be described as a series of scenes that represent all the happy memories with a lost loved one. But it ends only with a tragedy that will last forever.

For me, now, there are new scenes: the first time we met, the first word exchanged, the first smile, the first flattery, the first phone call, the first date, the first time we revealed that we loved each other and the first hug. But I awake only to remember the last horrific scene: the badly wounded girl being crushed under the feet of the terrified government employees trying to escape death.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Charles Babbage's Difference Engine


I am fascinated by early 19th-century technological breakthroughs, so I was really pleased to be referred to this NPR piece on the Babbage Difference Engine, which includes audio, text, photo slideshow, and video.

Here's an excerpt:
Charles Babbage, the man whom many consider to be the father of modern computing, never got to complete any of his life's work. The Victorian gentleman was a brilliant mathematician, but he wasn't very good at politics and fundraising, so he never got the financial backing to finish any of his elaborate machine designs. For decades, even his fans weren't certain whether his computing machines would have worked.

But Doron Swade, a former curator at the Science Museum in London, has proven that Babbage wasn't just an eccentric dreamer. Using nothing but materials that would have been available to Babbage in the 1840s, Swade and a group of engineers successfully built Babbage's Difference Engine — and a version is now on display at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

The Difference Engine fills half a gallery and stands taller than most men. It's 5 tons of cast iron, steel and bronze woven together from 8,000 distinct parts. Though it looks like it could be a sculpture, the machine is essentially a giant calculator. Tim Robinson, a docent at the museum, says it's "the first automatic calculating machine."

This engine — made from 162-year-old designs — doesn't have a power pack; it has a hand crank. Robinson works up a sweat as he turns it. "As long as you keep turning that crank, it will produce entirely new results," he says.

Most importantly, the machine produces accurate results. In Babbage's time, England reigned over a vast global empire. To navigate the seas, captains used books filled with calculations — but these equations were all done by fallible human minds.

"If the tables had an error," Robinson says, "a ship could either get lost or run aground, so lives and property were thought to be at stake."

The story goes that Babbage was inspired to create the Difference Engine one day when he came across multiple errors in a book of astronomical calculations. "I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam!" he exclaimed.

Of course, this episode inspired one of the first steampunk novels.

P.s. It was designed to have a printer! And has one now!

Image: Wikipedia picture of the American exemplar.

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Juan Cole explains the limitations of the US media

Discussing coverage of yesterday's coordinated bombings in Baghdad, he makes this worthwhile point:

Aljazeera notes that some US media outlets did not bother to cover these attacks in Iraq, and wonders if the story will return. I think the answer depends on the journalistic integrity of the outlet. For many, the answer will be no. Many US media are nationalist media, and cover stories having to do with US national projects. Americans have already decided that Iraq was a mistake, and they know the US military is leaving, and so what happens there is not "news" as much of the corporate media defines it (i.e. a story that generates profits because of wide public interest in it).
This may strike some readers as too charitable, but I think it captures one dimension of the problem of the US media. If you really want to know what is going on in the world, you've got to sample other sources.

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The dangers of academic history


Sometimes it is amazingly inaccurate. Sometimes it is amazingly corrupt in its values.

I am currently reading about government in ancient India, in particular the views of Kautilya (a kind of Machiavelli figure from the third century BCE). The book I am reading, which I will not name, is the product of an Indian scholar who lectured on this material for decades before writing it down. He sees Kautilya's Arthasastra, a book on how a monarch can create an ideal state, as an actual description of something that really existed, an ancient welfare state. Not only does this scholar think that Kautilya's prescriptions were actually carried out, he has nothing but good to say about Kautilya's ideas.

On taking prescription as reality, here is what he says about preparations for putting out fires:

The master of the house had to keep ready tubs full of water, ladder, leather bags, winnowers, hooks; but besides individual house-owners government saw that at places near crossroads thousands of pitchers filled with water were kept always ready to fight any outbreak of fire. Thus something like modern fire brigades were available at short calls.

Imagine that!

Then there is this policy, which the author finds quite understandable, though in need of some defence.

According to Kautilya, "traders, artisans, musicians, beggars, buffoons, and other idlers who are thieves in effect if not in name shall be restrained from oppression of the country people." It was with this view of protecting the simple village folk that Kautilya provided that no ascetic other than a vanaprastha, no company of other than of local birth, and no guilt of any kind other than local cooperative guild will find entrance in the village; nor shall there be in the village buildings intended for plays or sports, nor in view of procuring money, free labor, commodities, grains and liquids in plenty, shall actors, dancers, singers, drummers, buffoons, and bards make any particular disturbance to the work of the villagers, for helpless villagers are dependent upon their fields. Indirectly these provisions highlight the state's deepest concern for production the villagers even at the cost of depriving mirth, frolics and entertainments available in the cities.

This was written in 1976, the "year zero" of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. I once read a collection of official documents of the revolution, and it sticks in my mind that the official economic plan promised that after years of slave labor the surviving population of Cambodia would eventually, after the revolution was a success, be provided with extra dessert several times a year.

I have nothing against the welfare state that really is a welfare state, but it angers and terrifies me that smart people cannot or will not see the difference between dealing with preventable or predictable problems, and this kind of serfdom.

Image: Kautilya

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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Just seen on the Detroit River, moving downstream

The Federal Hunter.

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Scary Santa Claus and the Master of Souls


The New York Times covers a celebration of something-or-other in Baghdad.

Image: Read all about it.

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Monday, December 07, 2009

Comet McNaught over Australia, 2007

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Scholars, beware!

Academics young and old are laughing with various degrees of heartiness at this Simpsons clip:

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Friday, December 04, 2009

Re-creation and the Olympic torch -- from The Big Picture


Top: Priestesses at Olympia light the torch.
Then: Vikings keep it burning at L'Anse aux Meadows.

Too cool.

More here.
Or click on the pics.

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Squires or esquires?


Here is an experiment in polling your potential audience, expert and amateur.

I am currently writing a book on 14th century military affairs. I talk a lot about "squires" or "esquires." I am not sure which word to use.

The early 14th century was a period when "squire/esquire" went from meaning "a military servant, usually lightly armed" to meaning "a lesser gentleman warrior" of the kind who had substantial equipment and might have been a knight bachelor in an earlier era. At least this seems to have happened in the Anglo-French world. Although there seem to have been a few squires/esquires hanging around in the mid-14th century who were not considered gentlemen, my sources show that they mostly were gentleman, quite distinct from other military servants like sergeants or valets, even when the latter had some armor and were considered effective fighters.

I am very interested in hearing from you about which word seems more suitable to you, and why. I would appreciate it if you answered in my comment section here, rather than on Facebook.

I would appreciate expert opinion, but if you consider yourself an ordinary reader don't hold back.

Image:
goofy gamer squires.

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Thursday, December 03, 2009

Re-creating a lost art on Facebook

A long time ago, not quite so far back as Plato's time, but before Google, there was a particular kind of conversation that intelligent people would enter into. They would be sitting around drinking coffee or beer, at a party or at work, and stumble onto some interesting subject. Someone would ask a question and no one would know the answer. Since the people involved were intelligent and well-informed, they would attempt usually in a good-natured way, to figure it out.

I have been half jokingly saying for months now that this kind of conversation is obsolete. The answer to all of these interesting and obscure questions seems to be "look it up!" ( Meaning on the Internet, probably using Google.) At least for people temporarily isolated from the net, an art was dead or maybe just dying.

I discovered over the last week that I was too pessimistic. Subject of some significance came up in a post to Facebook: have the Afghans beaten every army of invasion which ever tried to take the country? Including Alexander the Great?

This precis of Afghan history has become a great cliché for obvious reasons, and I am not sure I believe it. I drew the line at Alexander. The person who raised the issue this time is an intelligent military historian so I engaged in the conversation. And so did several other people. It was really neat. And the issue remains unresolved. As so often in the old days.

What this proves to me is that there is always room for intelligent conversation that goes beyond the mechanics of "looking it up." I you really want to discuss the fortunes of empires in what is now Afghanistan, you are going to need a good library and a convincing argument. Wikipedia is not good enough.

Image:
an ancient Greek symposium.

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"...the Premier took the Prime Minister to the woodshed."


Not a good sign (as told by the Globe and Mail):
In an unprecedented diplomatic breach, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao publicly upbraided Prime Minister Stephen Harper today for failing to visit China sooner.

“This is your first visit to China and this is the first meeting between the Chinese premier and a Canadian prime minister in almost five years,” Mr. Wen told Mr. Harper through an interpreter.

Mr. Harper listened, stone-faced, in front of Canadian, Chinese and international media.

“Five years is too long a time for China-Canada relations and that’s why there are comments in the media that your visit is one that should have taken place earlier.”

Such a public scolding is unheard of in a meeting between heads of government.

“I agree with you Premier that five years is a long time,” Mr. Harper said in response. “It’s also been almost five years since we had yourself or President Hu in our country.”

He went on to invite the Premier or President Hu Jintao to visit Canada “in the not too distant future.”

Mixed feelings here: I consider Harper to be a sycophant to imperial power, and here he is being an incompetent sycophant. OTOH, this display by a displeased imperial power is chilling.

Image: You'd better learn this face.

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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

NGC 2818

Click on the pic, from this year's Hubble Space Telescope Advent Calendar.

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Foreign forces in Afghanistan


Here's a map from the BBC that would be far more useful if it didn't divide foreign troops into only two groups -- US and NATO -- which means for instance that we can't see where Canadians are or were (they've been reassigned). Even so, it is good to have.

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