Saturday, January 02, 2010

Favorite posts, 2009


Will McLean, who has more good ideas than most people I know, has just inspired me to select my favorites among my own posts of 2009. Just click here.

Image: a British gold quarter-sovereign from 2009.

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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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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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Monday, November 30, 2009

Bright Sun and Crescent Earth

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Taqwacore: The birth of punk Islam (2009)

Last night I saw this movie at the Windsor International Film Festival. Taqwacore is supposed to be a combination of "taqwa" ( God consciousness) and "hard core punk." I think the word is an invention of Michael Muhammed Knight, a young Muslim from New York State whose immediate family is Roman Catholic. At some point in his life he thought, "What if a bunch of musicians got a house together and lived the true Muslim/punk life?" He wrote a novel called Taqwacore about the possibilities, and soon enough he was the center of a network of American Islamic punks who wanted to do it for real. Taqwacore the movie tells the story of what happened next, in the USA and Pakistan.

One of the most memorable scenes in the movie shows the band, of course called Taqwacore, playing for a convention of middle-aged, mainstream American Muslims in Chicago, who are so offended by the hard-core presentation, and the use of a female lead singer, that they call the police to eject the band. At the same time, all the 15-year-old daughters, dressed in hijab, are giggling and smiling and grooving to this rebellious music.

And then there is the confidence that these Americans have that they can take the true spirit of Islam to Pakistan, again with mixed results.

I found the whole thing as American as... Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac. It's one more version of On the Road.

The trailer is here. Do have a look.

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Sunday, November 01, 2009

Word frequency in Charny's Questions on War

Courtesy of Wordle (http://www.wordle.net/) I made a word cloud showing what words Charny used in his war questions. Click on the image to see the Wordle at proper size.

I am not surprised that "Charny" and "arms" are big; but I am rather taken aback by the size of "prisoner" and the near invisibility of "knight."

Wordle: Charny's Questions on War

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A very important point in my understanding of religion and its history

Over there at MEDIEV-L, we were discussing Islam, and someone mentioned Karen Armstrong, the prominent writer on religious issues. This clause was a side remark in a long argument:

...the question is not who armstrong thinks is a "real representative" of a religion that is not hers ...
And that impelled me to say this:
And for me that opens up another question: even if the religion is yours, do you get to say who is the real representative of that religion? You may think you are an X, and that all Xs believe such and such, and Y is the best representative that belief or practice, but somebody else somewhere in time and space has an equally strong contrary belief about what Xs say and do and believe, with plenty of evidence to back themselves up. If we are talking as historians and scholars, both persons' claims are ahistorical. What would be objectively verifiable is that there are certain tendencies and disagreements within religion X, and that any definition of religion X includes and excludes people who may or may not think of themselves as X.
Reader, if you care about what I have learned in decades of historical studies, this is one of the most important things.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Just doing our job, ma'am

If they fix things in your neighborhood, consider yourself lucky.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Geoffroi de Charny, VIP

Those of us who have read and enjoyed Geoffroi de Charny's 1350s treatise The Book of Chivalry quite naturally think that he was a pretty important guy. But while writing the introduction for my book Men at Arms it really hit home to me how an extraordinary a figure he was.

In evaluating the past it is sometimes hard to avoid overrating people who wrote or were written about in surviving, high quality works. Plato's had lots of followers; but what would you think if you were in a position to meet him in 4th century BC Athens? Just another "I am not a sophist" rich boy crank? (Am I giving away too much here?)

So in thinking about Charny I have sometimes leaned towards thinking that he was a sometimes-tiresome pedant whom the other knights and courtiers used to tease by asking him hard questions about chivalry, and then not listening to his sometimes overlong answers. That could be Charny.

However, looking closely at the not-very-extensive evidence for his life, I have come to the conclusion that not too many people ever ignored G. de C.

First, everyone agrees that Charny started out as an "obscure" knight and not a rich one. His early campaigns, starting around the age of 30 (in other words, not a raw kid), saw him leading a small retinue made up only of squires. He himself was a bachelier who did not quite dare to call himself a chevalier and the title does not seem to have been offered him for some years. He may have had a certain amount of good will among the more important people due to old family connections, but as William Marshal had found out earlier, this does not reliably pay the bills.

Nonetheless, consider these facts. Starting about 1347-8, Charny was given high command on the northern front (the region of Calais), a role he played off and on until fall of 1352. At one point he was called Captain General of the wars of Picardy and the frontiers of Normandy, a pretty exalted title and a pretty exalted role. Correct me if I am wrong, but this is the kind of position you might put a prince in. If you, as king, had a good reliable prince.

Another fact: When in the course of his duties Charny was captured and carted off to England, the King of France (eventually) bought him back for 12,000 ecus, one heck of a lot of money when the French crown was strapped for cash and always on the lookout for ways to save money. My conclusion: King Jean II felt he desperately needed Charny back.

Finally, the clincher. In the mid-1350s, the King's cousin Charles the Bad of Navarre, a man who thought he had as good a claim to the French throne as Jean, was making a lot of trouble, relying on his royal descent, his strong position in strategic Normandy, and his natural talent for intrigue. He was hard to handle -- that family conflict thing, acted out by two guys with crowns on their heads. When this touchy situation had to be resolved, who did Jean send to talk to Bad Charles? Who got to hear all the dirty secrets of the dynasty retailed? Well, a whole delegation, but among them was the formerly obscure Geoffroi de Charny.

You see what I mean.

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Monday, August 31, 2009

Imperial decadence -- the Fisher King bleeds

I have been trying to keep most of my political commentary off this blog (by putting it on the even more ephemeral Facebook) but sometimes, like Sir Percival, you have to say something about an event that seems to indicate what direction things are going. Why is the Fisher King bleeding? Better find out!

The event today is about Today -- the US TV news show. It has just hired the eminently qualified Jenna Hager, daughter of George W. Bush, as a reporter.

Two comments from other bloggers pretty much nail the significance.

From Glenn Greenwald at Salon
:

They should convene a panel for the next Meet the Press with Jenna Bush Hager, Luke Russert, Liz Cheney, Megan McCain and Jonah Goldberg, and they should have Chris Wallace moderate it. They can all bash affirmative action and talk about how vitally important it is that the U.S. remain a Great Meritocracy because it's really unfair for anything other than merit to determine position and employment. They can interview Lisa Murkowski, Evan Bayh, Jeb Bush, Bob Casey, Mark Pryor, Jay Rockefeller, Dan Lipinksi, and Harold Ford, Jr. about personal responsibility and the virtues of self-sufficiency. Bill Kristol, Tucker Carlson and John Podhoretz can provide moving commentary on how America is so special because all that matters is merit, not who you know or where you come from. There's a virtually endless list of politically well-placed guests equally qualified to talk on such matters.

About this latest hiring by NBC, Atrios observed: "if only the Villager values of nepotism and torture could be combined somehow." The American Prospect's Adam Serwer quicky noted that they already have been: "Liz Cheney." Liz Cheney is really the perfect face of Washington's political culture, a perfect manifestation of all the rotting diseases that define it and a pure expression of what our country has become and the reasons for its virtual ruin. She should really be on every political TV show all day every day. It's almost as though things can't really be expressed thoroughly without including her. Jenna Bush as a new NBC "reporter" on The Today Show -- at a time when every media outlet is firing and laying off real reporters -- is a very nice addition though.

UPDATE: Just to underscore a very important, related point: all of the above-listed people are examples of America's Great Meritocracy, having achieved what they have solely on the basis of their talent, skill and hard work -- The American Way. By contrast, Sonia Sotomayor -- who grew up in a Puerto Rican family in Bronx housing projects; whose father had a third-grade education, did not speak English and died when she was 9; whose mother worked as a telephone operator and a nurse; and who then became valedictorian of her high school, summa cum laude at Princeton, a graduate of Yale Law School, and ultimately a Supreme Court Justice -- is someone who had a whole litany of unfair advantages handed to her and is the poster child for un-American, merit-less advancement.

I just want to make sure that's clear.


Note: if you don't follow political geneology, you may want to look up Greenwald's panelists on the Web.

And from Patrick Nielsen Hayden:


Our children and grandchildren will remember these strutting second- and third-generation media peacocks they way we look back at the White Russian officer corps—as examples of astonishing decadence. They will wonder how these people, out of all those who could be discussing the day’s events, were the ones chosen to be on television, day after day, as the world careened toward ruin.
Just to be clear, I don't think that either of them is overstating the case. This really is the news of the day, the item you have to know and think about.

Thanks to Brad DeLong for these links.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

A turning point in terrestrial history, a la George Ade

And then there was the day that those apes, who had never bothered anyone much except other scavengers, came over the hill with their burning torches and their packs of dogs.

The other animals and the brighter plants looked at each other and those who could lit out for the territories as fast as possible.

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Rafsanjani's Friday sermon in Tehran: the flexibility of religion and ideology

Juan Cole published this morning a meaty analysis of Friday's sermon in Tehran by former Iranian president Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani in my view is a smart opportunist, not a radical, but the kind of guy who always survives the revolution and makes billions in the process (he is in fact now a billionaire). His position as successful profiteer and governmental insider puts him in a difficult position. Whatever may be the totality of his motivations may be, he certainly does not want the Islamic Republic to blow up. Thus he argues for an interpretation of the revolution of 1979 that will allow for compromise and unity between the angry reformists and the intransigent hardliners. Juan Cole explains the religious theories involved (the complete post is here):

The reform movement and its allies among pragmatic conservatives have developed a narrative about Khomeinist Iran. They allege that it is ultimately democratic, and that the will of the people is paramount. It is popular sovereignty that authorizes political change and greater political and cultural openness. Precisely because democracy and popular sovereignty are the key values for this movement, the alleged stealing of the June 12 presidential elections by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for his candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is intolerable. A crime has been committed, in their eyes. A social contract has been violated. The will of the people has been thwarted.

The hard liners hold a competing and incompatible view of the meaning of Khomeini's 1979 revolution. They discount the element of elections, democracy and popular sovereignty. They view these procedures and institutions as little more than window-dressing. True power and authority lies with the Supreme Leader... in this view ... a kind of philosopher-king, who can overrule the people at will. The hard liners do not believe that the election was stolen. But they probably cannot get very excited about the election in the first place. Khamenei and his power and his appointments and his ability to intervene to disqualify candidates, close newspapers, and overrule parliament are what is important. From a hard line point of view, the election is what Khamenei says it is and therefore cannot be stolen.

Rafsanjani desired in his sermon to lay a Khomeinist foundation for the more democratic view. He began by underlining his own role in the revolution and the establishment of the Republic, and his position as a witness to the values of Khomeini. He said Khomeini discouraged the anti-Shah activists of the 1960s and 1970s from terrorism. Instead, he urged a direct appeal to the people in their villages and mosques, and responsiveness to their desires. He represents Khomeini as saying, if the people are with us, we have everything.

Rafsanjani is saying that the 1978-79 revolution was not Leninist. It was not the work of a small vanguard of activists. It was broad and popular and therefore inevitably, he implies, had something of a democratic character.

The authoritarian view of governance in Shiite Islam is anchored by Misbah-Yazdi and his ilk in the theory of the Imamate. Shites believe that the Prophet Muhammad was both temporal ruler and divinely inspired prophet. After him, his relatives also exercised both functions. His son-in-law and first cousin, Ali, is held by Shiites to be the first Imam, the divinely-appointed vicar of the Prophet. But Rafsanjani quotes a Shiite text showing that the Prophet Muhammad said that even Ali could only rule the people with their consent, and without it he should not try. Rafsanjani is reimagining the Imamate not as infallible divine figures succeeding an infallible prophet, but rather as an institution depending on an interaction between God's appointee and the people he is intended to shepherd.

Another piece of evidence for the popular character of the Islamic Republic, Rafsanjani says, is Khomeini's own haste to establish lay, elected institutions and to implement a republican constitution. He maintains that Khomeini actually strengthened some of the popular institutions when he made suggestions for revision of the draft constitution. Even having a constitution is a bow to popular sovereignty, he implies, and he contrasts the haste with which revolutionary Iran established a rule of law and popular input into government with the slowness of these processes in countries such as Algeria.

... But Rafsanjani's point is that even the Supreme Leader, whom some see as a theocratic dictator, derives his position from the operation of popular sovereignty.
Note that Rafsanjani's theory of the Islamic Revolution, like that of many reformers, is democratic without being seculer. It is a theory that grows out of Islam and the Iranian Shi'ite tradition, or at least is being reconciled with that tradition. Ditto for the hardline position. Despite the sweeping innovations brought in by Khomenei, specifically clerical rule and the idea that there can be a Supreme religious Leader in the here-and-now, important foundation stones for the hardline view are identified by its followers with the oldest manifestations of Islam and the Shi'ite traditions of the leadership of the family of Ali (and of the Prophet).

If have not picked a side in this quarrel and adopted a religious, Islamic justification for your position, it is hard to say that either of these positions is "more authentic." Both positions have evolved over the last 30 years, and especially the past couple of months. It might be very hard for a learned Iranian Shi'ite of 200 years ago to recognize either as Shi'ism. Note what Juan Cole says about Rafsanjani's presentation, which he backed up with his authority as an eyewitness to the Revolution, the foundation of the Islamic Republic and the role of Khomeini in both:

So is what Rafsanjani is saying about Khomeini and Khomeinism true? Probably only partially. Khomeini is notorious for having rejected popular sovereignty as a principle. But he did put an elected president and parliament into the constitution, and he surely knew what would follow.
One might say that Rafsanjani, the Iranian Thermidorian, is making it up as he goes along. On the other hand, who knows what Khomeini might say today?

The whole situation reminds me of an insight I had nearly two decades ago, when I was reading a short history of world Buddhism. As I went through the book I realized that somewhere, sometime, just about any religious position you could imagine had been defined by somebody as "true Buddhism." I think this dawned on me when I found out that one influential Buddhist had said that true Buddhism meant that no one should be a monk and everyone should get married.

Thinking about this situation, I eventually came to the conclusion that the inherent variety of human experience and dispositions means that any religious tradition that has any degree of success in recruiting and maintaining itself over time has to contain contradictory elements, and be open to new interpretations. Otherwise it will become completely irrelevant and die out.

This further means that the kind of wild and careless generalizations that are often made about religion and culture and their consequences for today, -- e.g. what political structures will result from Confucian or Roman Catholic or Mormon traditions -- should be treated with the utmost suspicion. (Phil Paine has written about this recently.) A very particular instance is Iran today. A week's diligent reading will tell you quite a bit about what Iranian Shi'ites have valued in the past. Faced, however, with a live Iranian Shi'ite, you or I or Juan Cole will not know what she or he thinks, unless we ask. And even then, what that means for his or her future actions will remain to be seen. As Charles Kurzman might say, when life is no longer going along its routine groove, who knows what will happen next, what you will do next? You make it up as you go along, using existing materials in whatever way seems possible or necessary.

Image: Rafsanjani, photo from Wikipedia.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Our savage era

Over at Daily Kos, there is a diary showing excerpts from the Google Earth atlas of North Korea. (The original site is here, but I found it a little impenetrable.) Below are two images that chilled me.



"The image above depicts an area covered with mounds. It's speculated these mounds are actually mass graves for some of the more than 2 million people that starved to death in the famine of the 1990s. "

Then there is this:


"The structures in the picture are just a small portion of a North Korean prison camp called 'Camp 16.' The entire camp measures 18 miles by 16 miles (four times the size of the District of Columbia). No ground level pictures of the prison camp have ever made it out of the country."

Now you know why the pictures and films of liberated concentration camps at the end of World War II are so important.

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Sunday, April 05, 2009

How long do these fads last?


In my last lecture for the Islamic civilization course, I tried to balance negative and positive aspects of the current situation (current being since September 2000). One thing I felt compelled to point out to my young students, who might be under the impression that suicide bombing was a long-standing phenomenon in the Islamic world or the Middle East, was that this is not the case. The very first suicide bombing in Afghanistan was on September 10, 2001. Now it is a standard part of the operations of the Afghan/Pakistani Taliban to praise suicide bombing as an Islamic act and to indoctrinate children in preparation for using them later; but before 2001, that was never done.

I thought about this for quite a bit after the lecture was over. I thought back to the end of the 19th century, when the bomb-throwing anarchist was a common figure. One day, even though they were still violent dissenters and explosive materials, the symbolism of throwing bombs to express dissent lost its charm, and people who in another time would have been bomb-throwing anarchists started doing something else. One can hope that a few of them found something constructive to do. But in any case, there were no longer recognizable bomb-throwing anarchists except in cartoons.

I wonder why? How do these violent fads get started, and why do they end? Is anyone investigating the life and death of such trends? It strikes me as a crucial topic in both mass psychology and history as a whole.

One phenomenon worth investigating and comparing to so-called Islamic terrorism would be terrorism in Ireland, which seems to be winding down. Of course, even in Belfast and Londonderry in Northern Ireland, most people of whatever religious identity took no part in terrorism, but there were enough looking for freedom or revenge or religious liberty or whatever who believed their cause justified killing. Now just about everyone is sick of it, and they have leaned on the rest in an effort to discourage the hardest of hardliners continuing the cycle. It took, however, decades to reach this point, and as we've recently seen there is no guarantee that the old grievances can't be brought back to life in the short or long term. If it is over, why now? If it is not over, how come? If everyone lives peacefully for half a century and then the old hatreds are revived and bombs start going off, why will it have happened?

Think of this as a problem in public health.

If you're interested in the recent history of suicide bombing, I found a well researched article on in the Washington Post from from 2005. Here are a few excerpts:
Unheard of only a few decades ago, suicide bombings have rapidly evolved into perhaps the most common method of terrorism in the world, moving west from the civil war in Sri Lanka in the 1980s to the Palestinian intifada of recent years to Iraq today. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, suicide attacks in the United States, suicide bombers have struck from Indonesia to India, from Russia to Morocco.

Now governments throughout the West -- including the United States -- are bracing to cope with similar challenges in the wake of the deadly July 7 subway bombings in London, which marked the first time that suicide bombers had successfully mounted an attack in Western Europe.

The pace of such attacks is quickening. According to data compiled by the Rand Corp., about three-quarters of all suicide bombings have occurred since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The numbers in Iraq alone are breathtaking: About 400 suicide bombings have shaken Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003, and suicide now plays a role in two out of every three insurgent bombings. In May, an estimated 90 suicide bombings were carried out in the war-torn country -- nearly as many as the Israeli government has documented in the conflict with Palestinians since 1993.

Yesterday, a suicide bomber detonated explosives strapped to his body inside a Shiite mosque south of Baghdad, triggering a huge fuel-tanker explosion that killed at least 54 people, according to police.

The bombings in London, which killed 55 people, illustrate the profound difficulty of preventing such attacks, experts say. Intelligence officials believe the bombers, in a common pattern, were foot soldiers recruited for the occasion, young men of Pakistani and Jamaican backgrounds reared in Britain who had recently converted to radical Islam. The four bombings required no exit strategy and were pulled off with devices that apparently were made in a bathtub and were small enough to fit in backpacks.

"With the exception of weapons of mass destruction, there is no other type of attack that is more effective than suicide terrorism," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert who heads the Washington office of Rand, a California think tank. "The perception is that it's impossible to guard against."

The motives behind suicide bombings are often mixed. Terrorism experts and intelligence officials disagree on the extent to which political strategy and religious fervor have led to the rising frequency of such attacks. But in addition to the death toll, a key objective of such bombings is clearly to sow terror by violating deeply held cultural and religious taboos against suicide, experts say.

...

History of Suicide Attacks

The use of suicide attacks is not new. Japanese kamikaze pilots in World War II tried to cause maximum damage by crashing their fighter planes into U.S. ships. Walter Laqueur, an expert in the history of terrorism, also says that, for centuries, any attack on military or political leaders was a form of suicide because the act usually occurred at close quarters and brought swift and certain death for the killer.

One watershed came in 1983, when a Hezbollah operative drove his truck into the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 U.S. service members in an attack that remains the deadliest terrorist strike on Americans overseas. Hezbollah would later carry out several dozen more suicide attacks.

Most experts agree that the modern style of suicide bombings first gained its greatest prominence outside the Middle East, in the island nation of Sri Lanka.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, popularly known as the Tamil Tigers, is an avowedly secular rebel movement of the country's Tamil ethnic minority. It carried out scores of suicide bombings from the late 1980s until a cease-fire in 2002. The conflict between the Tigers and the government, which is dominated by members of the Sinhalese majority, began in 1983 and claimed an estimated 65,000 lives.

Though dominated by Hindus, the Tigers are predominantly ethnic and nationalist in outlook, with religion not playing a significant role in their actions. The Tigers' early and aggressive use of suicide attacks, analysts say, reflected a pragmatic calculation of the need to level the military playing field against a larger and better-equipped foe.

The group created an elite force to carry out such attacks, the Black Tigers, whose members underwent rigorous training and were reportedly treated to dinner with rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran before being sent on their missions.

The rebels carried out their first suicide bombing in 1987, when a captain blew himself up along with 40 government troops at an army camp in the northern part of the country...
As you might guess from my remarks above I am not so sure that continued suicide bombing is really simply a pragmatic choice of the weaker side. As the article says somewhere else, in reference to the West Bank,
The boys all know the way to Ahmed Abu Khalil's house, tucked along an alley in a neighborhood of the West Bank town of Atil known as Two Martyrs. Abu Khalil, 18, became its third after he blew himself up Tuesday near a shopping mall in the Israeli city of Netanya.

It is safe to say Abu Khalil knew how he would be remembered here for his twilight attack outside the HaSharon Mall, which killed five Israelis, including two 16-year-old girls who were lifelong best friends. Scores more were injured in Israel's third suicide bombing this year.

The neighborhood is named for two local members of Islamic Jihad, the radical Palestinian group, who died fighting in the West Bank city of Jenin in 2003. The stylized posters of young men, posing with assault rifles and draped with ammunition belts, wallpaper the city. Graffiti urges uprising.

"This has given us a lot of pride, what he has done in Netanya," said Ibrahim Shoukri, 14, who used to follow Abu Khalil to prayer at the mosque. "We hope all of us will be like him."

The cult of glorification -- a mix of nationalist, personal and religious fervor -- that surrounds suicide bombers has long been one of the most difficult challenges facing Israeli security officials. Religious justification taught in the more radical West Bank mosques and intense familial pride -- at least in the days immediately after the attacks -- often outweigh the Israeli deterrent measures designed to make would-be suicide bombers think twice.
Just at a guess, as long as the neighborhood is named after the two martyrs, and their story is known there and the underlying conflict still exists, that neighborhood has a chance of producing more of the same, as in the case of Abu Khalil. And as long as there is a big deal sectarian marching season in Northern Ireland, there is a chance that those who take part or do not take part in those marches may remember the old causes and act on those memories.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Another excellent seminar

Unlike this phone picture of him, Richard Wenghofer's presentation in the history seminar series was not at all fuzzy: it was an excellent conclusion to an excellent year's worth of papers.

"The Racialization of Civic Identity in Classical Athens" argued that we can trace the invention of the notion of racial distinctiveness and a feeling of racial superiority, even to other Greeks, among the Athenians as they democratized their polity over the course of a century or so. In the old days when noble families have a lot of clout, and intermarried freely with nobles in other cities, it was commonly accepted that Athenians were descended from a variety of Greek and non-Greek peoples. When the poorer citizens gained legal and political rights, they sought to restrict citizenship to those of purely Athenian descent, and eventually succeeded in doing so. This restrictive definition of citizenship, argued Richard, affected Athenian views of their origins. It came to be accepted Athenians were autochthonous, sprung from the Attic earth. Not only were Athenians distinct from their neighbors, but they were superior as well, and superior in a racial sense because their superiority was inherited from their ancestors. So we have a record of known political choices and definitions adopted for practical reasons leading to an ideological view of all past history, one that is not particularly attractive. Athenians came to regard themselves as the only true Greeks who had taught their neighbors what Greek traits they possessed, and whom they deserved to rule.

After that, go back to Pericles' funeral oration and see if it doesn't seem a lot less attractive! And as I said here after I read Thucydides the last time, that was the only part of the whole book that made the Greeks seem admirable!

I can't wait to see the article version of Richard's argument.

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

More from Kyrgyzstan

Monday, March 02, 2009

This is what it was like



A hot moment in Kyrgyzstan's Kok-boru Presidential Cup.

I don't know what the rules of Kok-boru are, but if you like me have read the History of William Marshal, or even read about it, you just know that this is what the 12th-century tournaments recorded in that source were like.

From the Big Picture. And speaking of big pictures, click on the one above.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Stunning

Yes, the Obama inauguration was special, but I will let everyone else on the web talk about that. If you want a break, see English Russia for this stunning array of beautiful, grim, gritty pictures by Aleksey Petrosian called Life in Russia. Your jaw will drop.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

George W. Bush and America

While so many people are being optimistic about Obama as president (and I hope they are right), I will make one comment of my own on his predecessor.

Back on January 1oth Brad DeLong asked:

"Why is this family[the Bushes] ruling us, again?"

And I replied:

Providing that civilization survives, this will be a classic topic for historians of the United States and historians of the development of democracy, for centuries to come.

I don't think too many of the answers will be as comforting as "the election was stolen." You hope in vain if you think they will let the United States off that easily.

That is all.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Cheery music from the late 60s


This is one of the more memorable songs I listened to in those halcyon days. At least, I remember it clearly. Now, we all just sit back and laugh. Or not.

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