Wednesday, December 09, 2009

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

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, November 05, 2009

This is your planet -- Pushkar Fair, Rajasthan, India


Pictures of the great annual camel and livestock fair from The Big Picture.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Problems and disasters -- and a piece on India's democratic achievement

Sometime in the last few years I came to the conclusion that one's life may usefully be divided into two parts, one where you're beset with a few or many problems which just seemed to soak up all of your time. This is most of your life. Then something really bad happens and that's it.

If this is a useful insight, it means you better enjoy the times when you have lots of problems.

Right now is one of those times for me. Not including family commitments that right now are taking up a certain amount of time and energy -- e.g., a trip to the Big Smoke (Toronto) and back in one day--I have got a lot on my plate. Just this week on the scholarly front, I wrote and had an abstract accepted for a major conference (the creative energy for one day used up, admittedly to good purpose), and then got an acceptance of a chapter I proposed for a book on the history of democracy, just as I was finally writing about, rather than reading and rereading material about, 14th century men at arms for my book on Charny's questions. That acceptance qualifies as a problem because the chapter, on ancient India's democracies, must be done by September 30th.

These are problems, you say? Stop whining, Muhlberger, you say; better yet, stop showing off! You have (you might rightly say) three good projects on the burner. And you are on sabbatical.

All too true. I am just concerned that something might get burned, or undercooked, on that stove. From where I sit, there don't seem to be too many working days before September 30th.

Problems, problems. But at the moment, no disasters.

I have to admit that I'm very pleased to be included in this book, which is entitled The Secret History of Democracy. Anyone who has read this blog for a while knows that I am interested in current democratic movements. It may be less obvious that I have tried, generally working with Phil Paine, to see democracy as not something restricted to just a few countries in the modern era. I have a World History of Democracy website, which you are welcome to visit; to get a taste of my particular perspective on world history and democratic history, see the short excerpt of a paper I gave in Delhi in April 2005 that I've put it at the end of this post. There is plenty of room to disagree with me or ask for clarification. That is what the comment section is for.

Imagine the world in 1900.

Informed observers examine the prospects of four important regions over the upcoming century: Germany, China, Russia, and India. Which would be picked as the most likely to succeed? And which has, in retrospect? Restrict the criterion of success to “lowest casualty count,” to my mind a more sensible criterion than per capita GDP. Who comes out ahead?

I think it is inarguable that, even keeping in mind the tragedies of Partition, the consequent wars on the subcontinent, and many other incidents of violence and disorder, that the casualty count has been much lower in India than in the other three. This alone is a significant fact of 20th century world history. But of equal importance is the explanation for that fact. Indian aspirations for democracy, and Indian implementation of democratic institutions deserve the credit. Again, do the thought experiment. Take away the aspiration, take away the implementation, what would the subcontinent look like today?

Labels: , , , ,

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Crossing the Chenab valley to vote in Jammu, India



More views of the Indian general election at the Big Picture.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Fallen from the sky


A while back Darrell Markewitz at Hammered Out Bits said he knew of no swords made out of meteorites. Specifically, he said:

"I should note that the whole 'streaks in the sky to rocks on the ground' connection was actually NOT made until the middle 1800's. The whole concept of a 'sky stone' would have been completely unknown (and unthinkable) to the Medieval mind. This is a fiction created by modern fantasy writers."

Well, as Darrell himself tells us, apparently someone in Mughal India in 1621 did make the connection, and used a meteor to create this knife for the Emperor Jahangir. Quite a specimen. More details and links here.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Blood and Oil: Memoirs of a Persian Prince, by Manucher Farmanfarmaian and Roxane Farmanfarmaian

Manucher Farmanfarmaian is a brother of Sattareh Farman Farmaian, author of Daughter of Persia, an autobiography that my students in the History of Islamic civilization are reading is the basis for a paper. Blood and Oil is also an autobiography, and it is at least as well-written as Sattareh's book. Manucher, as a boy, had quite a different experience of their mutual father, and of course quite a different career. Can he ever tell a story! (Roxane, his co-author, is his daughter.)

This book is recommended to anyone who read enjoyed Daughter of Persia, or is interested in Iran, or in global oil politics and the formation of OPEC. Unfortunately, the Nipissing University library does not have a copy. I got mine through interlibrary loan.

Manucher has an eye for telling detail. Here he remarks about the extraordinary generosity of friends in England who, though hardly rich, helped him with a loan when his father's death cut off his fund transfers from Iran temporarily:

Their generosity was all the more poignant because in England at the time racism was rampant. At university foreign students were shunned. We were not allowed to hold student office, and the college deans, at a meeting held at the beginning of each year, went so far as to warn girls away from us, insinuating that we were from base cultures.... it was not just the university but British society in general that held such views, from the foreman of the garage where I worked one summer to the rich lady with the Daimler who had her butler repeat everything I said because it was below her dignity to converse with me directly. All the more extraordinary, then, were the Philipses' confidence and goodwill.


And on his return trip via India during wartime:

Though in England Persians were looked upon as darkies from an inferior race and religion, here [in Bombay] we were regarded as esteemed guests -- of England of course, not India. We were invited to stay in the toniest hotels, and the doors of every chic restaurant were open as long as we wore dinner jackets or tails (which we invariably did)-- though an Indian would be thrashed were he to venture even a glance inside.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Sufism in South Asia

Monday, December 01, 2008

More on the Mumbai attacks

Juan Cole at Informed Comment has a very interesting article called Indian Muslims Refuse to Bury Militants (following a BBC story). I quote extensively:

The Muslim community in Mumbai says it doesn't want the gunmen who attacked Mumbai to be buried in the Muslim cemetery, on the grounds that they are not Muslims.

A spokesman for the Muslim council said, ""These terrorists are a black spot on our religion, we will very sternly protest the burial of these terrorists in our cemetery . . ."

Certainly the perpetrators are criminals from the point of view of Islamic law. The Qur'an forbids murder (qatl) and the classical jurisprudence on jihad forbids the killing of innocent noncombatants, sneak attacks, or the undertaking of military action without the authorization of duly constituted Muslim authorities.

Although removing an avowed Muslim from status as a Muslim, which is called 'takfir' or faith-denial, is frowned on by the mainstream Sunni tradition, it may be legitimate in this case, given the egregious departure from Sunni law, practice and belief in which the perpetrators engaged. It is an ironic twist, since the radical vigilantes are the ones who have been declaring normal people non-Muslims for the past few decades.
More here.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Extremism


Juan Cole at Informed Comment is hoping that India does not make the mistakes that the USA did after 9/11. His piece includes this worthwhile passage:

There is a danger in India as we speak of mob action against Muslims, which will ineluctably drag the country into communal violence. The terrorists that attacked Mumbai were not Muslims in any meaningful sense of the word. They were cultists. Some of them brought stocks of alcohol for the siege they knew they would provoke. They were not pious. They killed and wounded Muslims along with other kinds of Indians.

Muslims in general must not be punished for the actions of a handful of unbalanced fanatics. Down that road lies the end of civilization. It should be remembered that Hindu extremists have killed 100 Christians in eastern India in recent weeks. But that would be no excuse for a Christian crusade against Hindus or Hinduism.

We could call the extremist cult the "Rivers of Blood" party. They would rather create rivers of blood than let people, say, rent videos at the corner store. Whatever specific thing is "bad," rivers of blood, or military spending, or labor camps are always "good."

Labels: , , , , ,

Friday, November 28, 2008

An analysis of the Indian situation


Students in the Islamic Civilization course may be interested in this analysis by Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail.

Image: From the Big Picture.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The state of Canada

In the summer of 2006, when Lebanon was being bombed by Israel, those who could get out, did. Among them were a large number of Canadian citizens of Lebanese background. I sat beside some on the plane across the Atlantic -- as I was returning from Latvia at the time. This experience increased my anger with the Prime Minister's lack of concern about this illegal and inhumane bombing campaign and its effect on people he is responsible for and to.

Imagine my astonishment, then, when I was exposed on my return to loud complaints about these refugees when some of them -- I heard -- complained about the lack of response of their government to their urgent plight. It was strongly implied by some people that these were not real Canadians just holders of "passports of convenience." Others expressed the sentiment of "what do you expect, going to live in such a dangerous place?"

As an immigrant myself married to another immigrant, my perspective is quite a bit different, as you can imagine. That incident opens a whole raft load of issues; but at the moment I'd like to raise just one. What kind of country, I ask, is it that does not have a significant number of its citizens living and working elsewhere?

I don't really have to answer that question, because Canada is not an isolated country of that sort. Today, in the lead up to Canada Day on the first, the Globe and Mail is running a series of articles on the state of Canada and its place in the world. It is quite an amazing article and I recommend that you read it all. I will be back Monday for more. Today's installment, by Michael Valpy, has a lot to say about this issue of what makes a real Canadian. Not everyone will agree with this perspective, but it corresponds to many aspects of my own experience.

Here's what caught my eye in the article, with particular passages of importance bolded:
... Canada ... has arrived at multiculturalism Mark II and a generation of new adults who have moved decisively beyond nationalism to embrace a kind of transcendent planetary supranationalism. We are becoming the land of global citizens, by all accounts galloping out ahead of other advanced democracies.

It appears to be occurring within a broad consensus.

University of Montreal political philosopher Daniel Marc Weinstock, who studies globalizing cultures, says there is little evidence to suggest it is causing Canada problems. A recent Environics poll found nearly 70 per cent of respondents thought it was a positive thing for Canada's image that three million Canadians live outside the country.

Canadians comprise 10 per cent of the population of Hong Kong. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, more live as immigrant transnationals: maintaining a cultural and even physical presence in both Canada and the countries that they, or their families, may have left years earlier.

A huge majority of young Canadians - as well as a majority of all adult-age cohorts - say they want to live, study or work abroad, according to the same Environics poll done earlier this year.

Forty per cent of Canadians say they donate money to international charities. Twenty per cent say they send remittances to overseas relatives. An increasing portion of Canada's international trade comprises Canadian Diaspora entrepreneurs doing commerce with their original homelands.

I know that some Canadians, including friends of mine, will be ticked off by the notion of 10% of Hong Kong being "Canadian." "Passports of convenience" indeed! But the story is more complicated than one might imagine:

Queen's University geographer Audrey Kobayashi has studied what are now in some cases three generations of families who have moved back and forth between Hong Kong and Canada, for education, for business, for periods of residence.

They speak with Canadian accents - Prof. Kobayashi talks of being in Hong Kong business offices and hearing nothing but Canadian accents. They have deep emotional feelings for the land, a pride in Canada's public institutions, an engagement in Canadian affairs. Rooted in Canada, but from time to time living elsewhere.

I won't excerpt any more, but I will refer you to two other stories concerning former Chilean refugee Luz Bascunan and second-generation Indo-Canadian Radha Rajagopalan. Ms. Bascunan's story really speaks to me. I didn't come to Canada as a refugee, but I did come for a very specific purpose, to attend the best graduate program in medieval history in North America, and I thought I'd be leaving when that purpose was accomplished. When I was done, however, I found that I'd acquired a family, a family, I'll point out, which was divided between Canada and Latvia. I was living this version of the Canadian dream -- or at least the Canadian reality. (I think Canada's better at realities than dreams.)

I will end this piece by saying something about my own experience Nipissing University. The consensus of world outreach referred to in the article is evident here. The vast majority of our students come from Ontario, many of them from small places in the country or the suburbs. When they come to Nipissing University, the place seems quite diverse to them. I lived in Toronto for 13 years, and I have different standards of what counts as diverse, but I'm happy for these students, especially since they are happy about the diversity! And a great many of them want more: they are taking the opportunity to travel to other countries for study and then making a great success of it. University is supposed to be a gateway to the greater world and I'm glad we are fulfilling our function.

Labels: , , , , ,

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Two books on the history of democracy

Thanks to a heads-up from Phil Paine, I've recently looked at two books relevant to the history of democracy.

The first is G.P. Singh's Republics, Kingdoms, Towns and Cities in Ancient India (New Delhi, 2003) is a somewhat antiquarian discussion of what's known about the various smaller political entities of India since Vedic times. It concentrates on surveying the evidence, which in the case of nearly every republic or kingdom covered, is very fragmentary. This is not for the casual reader, or where even the serious scholar starts to investigate the ancient republics and democracies of the sub-continent. I suggest my own on-line article and bibliography, which references a variety of printed works.

Shorter and aimed at a student audience, I'd guess, is Alan T. Wood's Asian Democracy in World History (also 2003, part of a Routledge series of short introductory books on "[Something or Other] in World History"). There were things I liked about this book. For instance, it cites my work and Phil Paine's, in print and online. It also surveys recent democratic developments in that part of Asia east of Iran and Afghanistan (Siberia excluded) in a reasonably sensible manner, using reasonably sensible criteria. Better yet, it places the striving for freedom seen in such developments in a universal context. It's not just "western civilization" that can provide roots for democracy. But then, Wood occasionally falls into trite, cliched and even false generalizations. For instance, in discussing the role of the "market economy" in the development and maintenance of democracy, he cites the supposed commitment of socialist economies to "equality." No, he's not talking about Norway,* but Cuba:

In Cuba, for example, everyone may be equal, but they are equally poor.

Really, Prof. Wood, even Fidel and his brother?

So I can't give this book an unqualified endorsement (for what that's worth), but it's short and to the point and better than many other analyses of the Asian situation.

*Norway may or may not be "socialist" by your favorite measurement, but they've tried real hard not to be corrupted by their oil wealth -- no easy matter.

Labels: , ,

Monday, September 17, 2007

Lessons in imposed democracy

Today's Washington Post has an interesting article by Shankar Vedantam entitled Lessons in Enforced Democracy (a title less accurate than the one I've chosen for this post). Vedantam has got hold of an unpublished study by Andrew Enterline and J. Michael Greig on the fate of democratic regimes imposed by foreign countries. (Unfortunately he doesn't say where this study will be published and whether it will be an article or a book. But I will keep an eye out.)

The study suggests that this usually works out badly because the countries on which democracy has been imposed lack the appropriate civic institutions. The traditional generation seems to be a turning point. Weak democracies with elections but no institutional infrastructure fail in large numbers in the first 30 years. Strong new democracies that reach 30 seem to have become very well established by that point.

I am tempted to say DUH! but really I'm pleased that this serious matter has appeared in a major American newspaper. It's an improvement over what often appears in the WP, not to speak of lesser forums like the discredited NYT. However, I wonder how much systematic thinking is behind the study. Here, for instance, is the study's recipe for success as reported by Vedantam:

...large occupation forces early on to stamp out nascent insurgencies; a clear message that occupation forces were willing to spend years to make democracy work; an ethnically homogenous population, where politics was less likely to splinter along sectarian lines; and finally, the good fortune to have neighbors that also were democratically minded, or at least neighbors who could be kept from interfering.


Is this just an ad hoc argument for a long-term US commitment to Iraq?

One thing that makes me wonder is this paragraph from the article:

Enterline and Greig said there is one large exception to their finding: India, with its myriad internal divisions, but which still has become a strong democracy. Civic culture and a strong desire for representative government undoubtedly play a role in whether stable democracies emerge, Greig said -- meaning that Iraq might yet defy the odds.


Indian democracy is a remarkable achievement, but perhaps success there indicates that civic institutions are far more important than ethnic homogeneity. After all, neither the USA nor Canada has ever had any such thing. There's always been some new wave of immigration to mix things up. Political science has known for years that having a tradition of British justice and an independent judiciary gave freed British colonies a better head start on stability than colonies of other countries. In the partition, the Republic of India got the vast bulk of the institutional inheritance of the Raj, while Pakistan just got the army. Even so, the Pakistani judicial system has shown itself recently the biggest organized force for reform.

The Vedantam article cites the problems that the Philippines have had maintaining democracy after independence from American rule; it might be interesting to compare American-imposed institutions in the Philippines to British ones in India, at a detailed level of analysis.

While we are wishing, what about a good study of Spain -- model backward Fascist state to model European democracy in less than a generation? All while suffering from domestic terrorism! Long-established democratic countries -- you know who you are -- should bow their heads in shame in the face of this example.

Update: Thanks to Will McLean, I now have a link to the Enterline and Grieg paper. Alas, the briefest of looks makes me question the analytical judgment of the authors. To term the 19th century democratization of Canada and New Zealand cases "imposed democracy" similar to the cases of Germany and Japan and now Iraq shows a profound ignorance of the internal dynamics of Canada and New Zealand in that era.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Strutting their stuff


Some people think that Iraq's problems can be solved by partition. Having studied and taught the post-World War II partitions, I have my severe doubts.

Perhaps the most dangerous partition of that time still in effect, Israel/Palestine apart, is the partition of British India into India and Pakistan (and Bangladesh). These two important countries face each other with nuclear weapons and a large store of resentment. However, as this article from the LA Times shows, partition can have its humorous and even artistic results.

The article quotes an Indian as saying if it were a cricket competition, things wouldn't be quite so lighthearted. But when I was in Delhi in April 2005, I found many Indians generously impressed by the way Pakistan won an important series. It was apparently brilliant, but I had to take other people's word for that.

Labels: , , ,