Monday, February 03, 2020

"I wish wearing flat-irons on our heads would keep us from growing up."

The quotation I've used in the title of this post is taken from Louisa May Alcott's book Little Women. I basically read it because I realized that I was surrounded by women who absolutely loved it.  Also I am in a book club where we have read some interesting books on growing up.

I immediately saw why this is a classic.  Charming (but imperfect) characters, extraordinary writing, an intimate look at the past.  And for girls, a family that you might love to have.

One thing that really struck me was how close Alcott's language (from 1862) is to North American English today.   Ideas and assumptions vary (see the discussions of marriage!) but the vocabulary and sentence construction would be familiar to any reasonably educated person.

I offer up the example of the post title.  The flat-iron reference might puzzle a good many modern readers, but a good many might get it fairly easily from context.

Image: Louisa May Alcott

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Josh Marshall, historian

Josh Marshall, editor and founder of Talking Points Memo, has some cogent points to make about Alan Dershowitz's defense of Donald Trump in the ongoing trial:

Dershowitz is justifiably acclaimed as a criminal defense and a particularly appellate defense attorney, notwithstanding decades of escalating notoriety as a grandstanding attention whore. He is not a constitutional attorney. He is not an historian. And he is not any other kind of expert on impeachment. But now he’s spent a few weeks ‘reading all the books’ and he’s got it figured out.

This is the most classic sort of dilettante’s history. Understanding the past means more than just ransacking the library for proof texts and quotes. If we are trying to reconstruct the range of arguments the authors of the Constitution were making and how most Americans – who were indirectly responsible for ratifying the document – understood them you need a grounding in the history and debates of the time. Words do not speak for themselves. They have meaning in a particular historical context. We are not bound in our use of these words by their original historical context but we cannot make sense of them or any use of them for our own purposes if we are ignorant of that context.

To put it baldly, if it’s a topic and area of study you know nothing about and after a few weeks of cramming you decide that basically everyone who’s studied the question is wrong, there’s a very small chance you’ve rapidly come upon a great insight and a very great likelihood you’re an ignorant and self-regarding asshole. Needless to say, those are odds Dershowitz is happy to take. Dershowitz has now ‘read all the relevant historical material’ and has it covered.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Friday, January 17, 2020

Constructing Catalan Identity: Memory, Imagination, and the Medieval, by Michael A. Vargas

Vargas, Michael A. Constructing Catalan Identity: Memory, Imagination, and the Medieval. Cham (CH): Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. Pp. xiv, 197. €93.59. ISBN: 978-3-319-76743-7.

Reviewed in The Medieval Review

 Reviewed by Rutger Kramer
        Radboud University, Nijmegen

About midway through the first part of his latest monograph, Michael Vargas reminds the readers that “this book is not a standard political or cultural history” (51). Instead, his goal is “to reflect upon the relationship between the past and the present”, and thereby propose a way of looking at modern Catalan identity as a product not of the history of the region, but of the way present-day (mis)conceptions about Catalonian history have informed more recent developments in the North-Eastern corner of the Iberian Peninsula. The result of his efforts is a book that reads more like a long essay than a short historical study, but which is no less thought-provoking and stimulating for it. Indeed, Vargas’ Constructing Catalan Identity is not a standard history, but takes the reader on a fascinating journey through one historian’s thoughts on a highly complex set of circumstances: a carefully written book that should nonetheless be handled with care.

This is also a timely book. The region of Catalonia, and the Iberian Peninsula as a whole, has been in the limelight again recently, both in the current media cycle--especially the ongoing  developments following the referendum for independence in 2017--and within the field of medieval studies--where recent publications such as Cullen Chandler’s Carolingian Catalonia: Politics, Culture, and Identity in an Imperial Province, 778-987 (Cambridge, 2019) or Vicente Lledó-Guillem’s The Making of Catalan: Linguistic Identity in Medieval and Early Modern Times (Cham, 2018) show various ways in which the perceived Otherness of Catalonia can be a catalyst for ongoing research. Combined with the still-growing interest in medievalism and the increased awareness of the way the past is used and abused to fan the flames of political discourse, Vargas’ monograph appears poised to become part of a larger debate. In that sense, the fact that the author is quite open about his own agenda may be a boon to the book as a whole, as his convictions may serve as a better conversation-starter than his observations. And even those who disagree with this ultimate conclusions about Catalan identity (for instance, those who find themselves drawn towards the conclusions reached in Gabriel Tortella’s Catalonia in Spain: History and Myth (Cham, 2018), which approaches the issue from an altogether different angle) will be taken by Vargas’ lively and engaging style of writing, rendering the book accessible to academics and students as well as people who are simply interested in Catalonia’s past, present and future.

After the introduction (1-16), in which the author explains his personal reasons for writing the book the way he did, Constructing Catalan Identity is divided into two parts. The first of these, “Inventory” (17-90), is about what Vargas has dubbed the “component parts of Catalan collective memory” (15): a series of examples from medieval history that are still visible in Catalan landscapes, customs and mentalities. The second section, “Making Meaning” (91-181) is aimed at looking “how meaning is made as Catalans reconfigure the parts according to changing circumstances” (15). This section is finished by an epilogue (167-181) which, if only for reasons of editorial elegance, would probably have worked better as a separate counterweight to the introduction, but which does a solid job of tying the various strands together and explaining how the events of 2017 were not only part of long-term developments, but also caused by the way those involved would perceive the moyenne durée-history of Catalan-Castilian relations.

The “Inventory” of Catalan identity consists of “Events and Accidents” (21-28); “Princes and People” (29-50); “Patrons, Protectors and Creative Defenders” (51-68); and “Castle, Coast, and Cathedral” (69-90). The first of these aims to show the events taking place within Catalonia, and how these already marked the region out as different from the rest of Spain. It is in the memory of medieval history, Vargas argues, that we should look for the roots of what he calls “Catalanism”. From this point of departure, he moves on to descriptions of (popular images of) the legendary leaders of Catalonia, and how their actions are seen to have contributed to processes of state formation on the peninsula. Mixing fact with fiction, Vargas here explains the legacies of Wilfred the Hairy (r. 870-897), Ramon Berenguers I (1023-1076) and IV (1114-1162), and James I (1208-1276), as well as Pau Claris (1586-1641) by focusing on the stories told about them rather than their actual deeds. This approach is added to by the inclusion of stories about the wholly fictional Comte Arnau and Otger Cataló, who was allegedly responsible for naming the region: powerful people who played a role in shaping Catalonia, and whose stories have taken on epic properties in the modern mindset. The next chapter follows a similar tack, but looks at more spiritual component parts instead. It describes the impact of competing saints’ cults (to wit: Eulalia, Mary, and George) as well as the influence of “Catalans, who, having captured the powers of a particular muse, turned their creative efforts to the defense of Catalan interests” (51-52): poets, architects, and especially the many people involved in the creation of the Catalan anthem, Els Segadors. The inventory concludes with a series of reflections on space and architecture and how these anchor the Catalan popular imagination to the land. Moving from the Montserrat mountain range or the church of Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona, Vargas also uses this chapter to make the point that buildings can represent negative memories as well: to many inhabitants of Barcelona, the infamous Montjüic Castle stands as a lasting representation of Spanish overlordship and abuse of power.

The chapters in the first part are engaging and full of interesting information, seemingly catering as much to tourists as to people researching Catalonia for scholarly purposes. Throughout, Vargas has started from the present, and used every methodological tool available to explain his points. This sometimes leads to a somewhat haphazard reading experience, as informative passages are interspersed with methodological digressions (ranging from anthropology and psychology to philology and folk studies) and we are given many previews of the second part already. This, combined with the colloquial style and an over-abundance of signposting, might be off-putting to readers used to the conventions of the genre, but should not detract from the contents offered. More vexing in this part is the sometimes bewildering combination of information and generalisation: whereas written sources are approached with scrutiny, the explanations for the modern mindset are given in the broadest of terms, in which “Catalans” are given credit for many things without it being backed by, say, anthropological fieldwork. It is here already that the essayistic nature of the book becomes apparent, as a more stringent use of terms and methods might have helped the argument take shape a bit more clearly.

The second part of Constructing Catalan Identity consists of showing how these building blocks come together at various points in time to present people who identify (or not) as Catalan with options to give “meaning and purpose” to the “stories [they] tell about themselves” (94). It starts with some reflections on “Decadence and Renaissance” (95-114), two key concepts in Catalan historical self-awareness. “Decadence”, in this context, denotes a period of decline from the late Middle Ages to the modern era. This decline, interestingly, has been blamed both on Spanish interference and on Catalans who allowed this interference to take over, once more highlighting the difficult relation between Catalan past and Spanish present. The counterbalance to decadence is the Renaixenca, a cultural movement that started in the nineteenth century with a view towards returning Catalonia--and the Catalan language--to prominence by reinventing the mythologies of the medieval period. This was never a “historian’s” movement, but always a “social project” aimed at convincing modern Catalans that the reality of their identity could be historically justified. Vargas continues with a similar juxtaposition, this time between “Medievalizing and Modernizing” (115-135), a chapter that looks at various strategies of reinterpreting and reimagining the landscapes described in chapter 5. It is perhaps the highlight of the book, challenging the reader to think about their own perceptions of “old” and “new”, and what uses of space may tell us about not just our own preoccupations but also the powers at play behind the decisions to restore, modernize, tear down or rebuild. Each of these, Vargas argues, has a place in the construction of the Catalan landscape, and each of these impinges on the identities of inhabitants and visitors alike. The final chapter, simply titled “Fighting Words” (137-165) delves deeper into the questions raised by the persistence of one of Catalonia’s most prominent identity markers: the language. All that preceded, Vargas posits, the stories, the declines, the protests, the renaissances, have been expressed in either Catalan or Castilian, and each time that decision mattered.

This second part is easily more methodologically challenging, although the readers taken by Vargas’ style and convictions might not notice it like that. However, it is here in the sections where the book is engaged in “Making Meaning” that some shortcomings also come to light. One of these is that, as much as the introduction and the book as a whole show the author’s engagement with theoretical concepts and willingness to retain a nuanced stance, he just as often speaks about “Catalans” as a group that, though diverse, is an entity that can be described in collective terms with collective agency. The interplay between the leading figures and politicians on the one hand and the popular response to their initiatives on the other could thus be treated more carefully, as Vargas occasionally falls into the very trap he cautions more pro-Spanish historians to avoid. In that sense, three things are especially conspicuous in their absence. Firstly, a more thorough engagement with medieval Catalonia’s dealings with its neighbors to the North and South: the Muslims and the Franks are mentioned in the course of the narration of the myths, but to understand these roots it would have been interested to probe deeper into the way the underlying discourse and dynamics between the powerful and the storytellers would have changed over time. Secondly, although the Franco regime and its destructive stance towards the history of the region is often mentioned, it is never made quite clear what the impact of the government’s educational policies might have been: to what extent is the “renaissance” of Catalonia a response to a perceived lack of knowledge in the very recent past. Finally, Vargas’ self-professed sympathies for the Catalan cause, while never a hindrance to his scholarship, do stand in the way of his willingness to engage with the causes and consequences of nationalism and its impact on Catalonian identity. Again, this is mentioned and marked as problematic in general terms, but this reviewer could never shake the feeling that the author was willing to give Catalonian nationalism the benefit of the doubt, whereas other nationalisms were weighed and found wanting.

These issues are why the book should be handled with care. They are, however, by no means reasons to ignore Vargas’ arguments: his transparent stance vis à vis his own preconceptions is commendable in that respect, as he never gives the reader the impression of “objectivity”. In fact, this may well be one of the book’s greatest strengths. Vargas has written an unconventional book by the standards of medieval academia. But then again, these are unconventional times, and books like these, where an author uses their knowledge of a region and their expertise with the historian’s craft to make points that are of immediate political value, might be just what we need to realize the ongoing relevance of medieval studies--while making the general public aware of the complexities involved in trying to explain whatever is going on in the present.​

2:13 PM (34 minutes ago)

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Evil in an unfamiliar face

There is a chronic over-supply of evil, scheming individuals on this Earth.  Many of them can be located in traditional areas, to the point that certain empires, royal dynasties, and slave empires are well-known for generating evil cultures and evil leaders in cycles.

But now it seems we have a new competitor -- Australia.  

If you haven't noticed, that cute and civilized continent is on fire.  It's not just the driest parts of Australia that are burning.  When the state of New South Wales, a rather southerly region not as hot as many other Australian regions is one of the central fire zones, I have to wonder whether it might be too late to save Australian civilization.

 Even more shocking is the fact that the federal government is doing its level best to prevent any practical efforts to save the country.  Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister (image below), and both the Labour and Liberal parties, are using their power to support the high-carbon (coal and gas) economy and discredit the science that shows how catastrophic the current policies are.  The rich (who are very much invested in carbon) don't care. 

This is not just an Australian situation.  This man, Scott Morrison, is sacrificing you and your children for power and profit.  He is your enemy.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Monday, January 06, 2020

14th-century robots,.again

Every once in a long while I re-run one of the best posts from my blog.  And there are some really good ones.  This is surely of interest to those who missed it the first time.

In a book review by Aleks Pluskowski of Scott Lightsey's Manmade Marvels in Medieval Culture and Literature (New York: Palgrave, 2007), sent me free by the TMR service , I read the following:

Scott Lightsey's Manmade Marvels is a remarkable and unique work on a neglected aspect of late-medieval society. Lightsey reveals a world of artificers and technologists, of complex clockwork devices and colourful automata: a
world where supernatural, fantastic and exotic mirabilia were pulled from the imaginary realms of romance, and--literally--brought to life for the entertainment and exultation of war-fatigued courts.Since surviving examples of these machines are incredibly rare, Lightsey draws on literary and documentary sources, complemented bya range of artistic representations.

...His first case study of automata draws on the prologue to Piers Ploughman, which describes a mechanical angel that crowns Richard II during his public coronation in London. Here, Lightsey situates this marvel within a newly established culture of aristocratic visual display; a growing tendency towards luxurious ceremonial which would come to define the Ricardian court. Indeed, this clockwork coronation is seen as nothing less than formative for Richard's own attitude to the calculated display of
I looked at a modern version of PP and I must admit that I can't see how the reader is supposed to know that it is a mechanical angel. I'll follow it up.

However, I have no doubt that this robotic messenger was possible, because as an undergraduate I read Huizinga's classic early-20th-century book, The Waning of the Middle Ages, where he talks about a lot of clockwork figures used in princely ceremonies. Yet I must admit that despite my early exposure to this fact, I've never integrated "mechanical men" into my visualization of the Middle Ages. I suspect that few of my readers have thought about Richard II as King of the Robots (a kind of dressier Dr. Doom?).
For years I've teased friends who think that the 14th century is the bee's knees of medieval history by saying, half-seriously, that the 14th century isn't the Middle Ages at all. Now I can say, "Dude, what about all those robots?"


  1. The mechanical angel at the coronation is described in Thomas Walsingham's history. I think Lightsey is assuming that Langland's angel is a reference to that, and Langland would expect his audience to make the connection
  2. a kind of dressier Dr. Doom

    It's a few centuries too late, but may I recommend Neil Gaiman's 1602?

Thursday, January 02, 2020

In the future -- or the past

The blog Wait but Why has an interesting discussion of how far the past can seem to people of today, depending on how old they are.

Some excerpts:

So here are some New Years 2020 time facts:
When World War 2 started, the Civil War felt as far away to Americans as WW2 feels to us now.

Speaking of World War 2, the world wars were pretty close together. If World War 2 were starting today, World War 1 would feel about as far back to us as 9/11.

The Soviet Union break up is now as distant a memory as JFK’s assassination was when the Soviet Union broke up.

[It's] worth mentioning that my 94-year-old grandmother was born closer to the Andrew Jackson administration than to today. [Me:  that hardly seems possible but I did the arithmetic!]
 If you were born in the 1980s like me, a kid today who’s the age you were in 1990 is a full 30-year generation younger than you. They’ll remember Obama’s presidency the way you remember Reagan’s. 9/11 to them is the moon landing for you. The 90s seem as ancient to them as the 60s seem to you. To you, the 70s are just a little before your time—that’s how they think of the 2000s. They see the 70s how you see the 40s. And the hippy 60s seems as old to them as the Great Depression seems to you.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Sunday, November 10, 2019

What all girls ~ 12 years old in Windsor talk about ALL THE TIME

Today at the Anglican church I attend it was a mixed bag.  Usually the pastor is really good, makes me think of famous medieval preachers (who unfortunately usually got into serious trouble).  His main sermon was quite all right but not one of his best.

The church service had begun with a Remembrance Day (Veterans' Day for you Yanks) which was put on for the benefit of the Scouts, the Wolf Cubs, and the Girl Guides.  This benefit I did not appreciate at all.There were quite a few of these kids and our pastor mixed with them, drawing them out in a humorous way.

Then it happened. He asked a group of maybe 12-year-old girls "What  is it that girls your age talk about all the time?"  And the girls answered in unison CARS.

Tell me, was I set up? This is Windsor, after all. Was somebody else set up?

Anyway I much appreciated that moment.

November 9 -- A day late in commemorations

I was not in good enough shape yesterday to draw attention to two things that meant something to me.

First was the 40th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989).  This obviously meant a lot to people at the time.  Sadly, there is now an all-too-active right-wing movement in what used to be East Germany.  Here's one report on that phenomenon.  Angela Merkel grew up in the East and no doubt is discouraged that at the end of her political career she is still fighting the same fight.
Then I ran across a video of the group Genesis on YouTube, (link to be fixed)performing live in 1973, in Detroit, right across the river from me.  Is there a direct connection with the Cold War? Or, for that matter, Brexit?  But trouble was on its way.  Oh, trouble was here.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Alien anarchy -- a golden oldie

I promised to repost some of my favorite essays from this blog, and this is certainly worth rereading.  It's from Ursula K. Leguin,The Dispossessed.

Shevek, the anarchist from another planet, speaks to the dissatisfied people of the homeworld:

It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when it is forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers and what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And
the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.
I am here because you see in me the promise, the promise that we made 200 years ago in this city – the promise kept. We have kept it, on Anarres. We have nothing but our freedom. We have  nothing to give you but your own freedom. We have no law but the single principle of mutual aid between individuals. We have no government but the single principle of free association. We have no states, no nations, no presidents, no premiers, no chiefs, no generals, no bosses, no bankers, no landlords, no wages, no charity, no police, no soldiers, no wars. Nor do we have much else. We are sharers, not owners. We are not prosperous. None of us is rich. None of us is powerful. If it is Anarres you want, if it is the future you seek, then I tell you that you must come to it with empty hands. You must come to it alone, and naked, as the child comes into the world, into his future, without any past, without any property, wholly dependent on other people for his life. You cannot take what you have not given, and you must give yourself. You cannot buy the Revolution. You cannot make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Gillingham on surrender and mercy in medieval warfare

 I just came across an article by John Gillingham, one of the best medieval military historians, where he argues that the laws and practices of war were not the same over the whole Middle Ages.  Note what he says about surrender and ransom:

But it is important to bear in mind the  exact title of  [Maurice]Keen’s book – The Laws of War in the Late Middle Ages – and   note that when he used phrases such as ‘in the middle ages,’ he was not in fact  thinking of  the whole period, only of its last two centuries  [i.e. the14th and 15th; Phase 2].The neglect of Phase One [up to about 1300] by historians of medieval war has not unnaturally led  to them taking a cynical view of chivalry.. [since many people, during Phase One including women and children, were not allowed to surrender, but were killed or enslaved].

But had they measured the treatment of women, children and the poor by soldiers in the so-called ‘age of chivalry’[ Phase  2] against    some  ideal  standard, but against the standards that  had been  regarded as acceptable and  honourable in all previous ages, they might have taken a different view.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Portrait of Pocahontas

I was reading a Globe and Mail article on the inappropriatness of using (mainly indigenous)
imagery and costumes in a racist manner on Halloween.  Then I remembered this engraved portrait of Pocahontas in Jacobean English formal (court) clothing.  And I also remembered how astonished I was the first time I saw the portrait.

Quick quiz: So what was she calling herself at this point (1616)?


Friday, October 25, 2019

Guy Halsall on "Non-Migrating Barbarians: Late Antiquity in Northern Barbaricum"

Guy Halsall is one of the most interesting historians of Late Antiquity/the Early Middle Ages.  His main interests are "the Fall of the Roman Empire," Barbarian Migrations, and military history.  This year he's in Tubingen in Germany, where he will be able to refine his unorthodox ideas.  This week he delivered a provocative paper, of which this is an excerpt.

The first thing I want to say – I seem to have to keep saying this – is that the first part of my title should not be read as a statement or claim that there were no Barbarian Migrations: no migrating barbarians.  It is a simple statement of what the paper is about, which is to say, those barbarians who didn’t migrate or at least about those who, if they did migrate, came home again: surely – in anyone’s estimation – the overwhelming majority of ‘Barbarians’.  It is concerned with the territories north and west of the western Roman Empire between the later third and the earlier seventh century, which you might see as the heart of late antiquity, a ‘core late antiquity’, or even a short late antiquity. 

The question before us – and has been posed by me and others before – is whether there is a northern or north-western European late antiquity.  Does the ‘late antique paradigm’ apply to the regions beyond the Rhine-Danube limes, Hadrian’s Wall and the Irish Sea?  If it seems uncontroversial to speak of late antique Persia or late antique Arabia – areas beyond the Roman frontiers of course – why does it sound strange to speak of late antique Denmark or late antique Pictland – especially in an intellectual climate where we are encouraged to think of a ‘global late antiquity?  I don’t think that ‘global late antiquity’ (or for that matter the global middle ages) is an especially helpful term, but that is a separate issue from realising that the Mediterranean was not the centre of the world, that it was connected directly or indirectly to most other regions of the globe and their own centres, or that in some ways the various Eurasian imperial ‘centres’ – the Mediterranean, China and India – were all peripheral to each other and especially to the Eurasian steppe.

Of course, what makes late antiquity tricky as a descriptor in all these cases is that it is not merely a chronological term, but a paradigm or problematic.  To speak of the chronological period of the third-to-seventh centuries of the Christian Era across, say, the north-west of Europe – the far western Eurasian capes and islands as I sometimes like to call them, to try to decentre Europe – is possibly fine (I hope so as I want to write a book on that topic).  But that is subtly different from talking about ‘late antiquity’ in those regions. No one needs reminding of the origins of the concept of late antiquity, as a means of side-stepping the old idea that in the fifth century, with the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, the ancient world ended and the medieval world began (whatever that may have meant): a caesura in the whole of European and Mediterranean history.  Naturally, very famous scholars had been questioning the nature and reality of that caesura since the late nineteenth century, but the idea of a new periodisation stressing continuity seems to have been new, from the 1950s onwards, until – famously, classically – popularised in the general consciousness by Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity.

Equally, however, the notion has not gone uncritiqued.  The paradigm works best in geographical regions closest to the Mediterranean, especially the eastern Mediterranean, and thematically in areas like those in which Brown was most interested: religion and society; thought.  There might be something to the unity of the ‘short’ late antiquity I am discussing in the economic sphere as well, even if not in the way that Pirenne imagined – albeit before the notion of Late Antiquity had emerged.  However, the concentration of Late Antique scholarship on the East, and on themes like Christianity, the church, ideas, society and the holy, meant that the problem it had initially seemed to confront, that is to say the supposed ruptures of the fifth century, were in practice rather sidestepped.  To what extent had people ever generally supposed a huge rift in eastern Mediterranean society, religion, art and thought as a result of the fifth-century Barbarian Invasions or Migrations and the collapse of the Western Empire? (That’s not a merely rhetorical genuine question, by the way.) 

As I see it, the politics of the fifth-century west have remained something of a blind spot for the Late Antique paradigm.  How to explain the fact that the western Roman Empire existed in 400 but had at least ceased to be effective by 500 and was generally recognised by contemporaries to have disappeared by the middle quarters of the sixth century?  The solution appears to have accepted the paradigm of ‘barbarian invasion’ but to deny that this made much difference – in a way similar to Pirenne’s or Fustel’s interpretation (you might call this the ‘Weak Thesis’ of the Barbarian Migrations).  Or generally just to gloss over the problem.  That solution does not appear to be effective.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019


If you are not fat, it might be worth your while to read My life as a public health crisis. Talk about eloquent.

An excerpt:
The fact is that most low-income people don’t have a lot of control over their diets to begin with, and the resources available to them tend to offer little in the way of assistance with the barriers that stand between them and health. I got a first-hand look at this when I got my first job as a task rabbit at a food pantry. I naively imagined smiling faces, neat boxes of food, and good feelings all around. My illusions were shattered when I was asked to sift through boxes of moldy cake and cookies, castoffs from a local grocery chain. I asked where the produce was, and I was met with a sigh. This was what was donated, so this was what we could provide.

Once I finished that, I had to hand out the go-bags. Go-bags were shopping bags full of food for people living in “unstable circumstances” – i.e., homeless. They consisted of anything that could be eaten on the go. They usually had a piece of fruit, but they were also full of slimy restaurant leftovers and cast-off pastries from the donation boxes. Bad food that fills you up and makes you happy, and a healthy snack when available. My family’s food pyramid, packaged to go.

I handed the first go-bag to a man my own age, a guy in a ratty coat who wouldn’t look me in the eye. He may have been ashamed of his situation, but I was ashamed that I couldn’t give him something better than leftover pizza and a cookie I wouldn’t feed my dog.
What angered me then – and angers me still – is that we didn’t have anything to be ashamed of. We weren’t the ones who made fresh food a luxury and junk food an easily obtained comfort. We didn’t chase the grocery store out of his neighborhood, and we didn’t ask the grocery stores in the suburbs to fill the pantry with their uneaten pastries in lieu of real food. We weren’t responsible for the poverty that was eating the neighborhood like a cancer, leaving a generation of people exhausted and malnourished. We weren’t the ones who had broken the systems that punished us. All he’d done was fallen on hard times, and all I’d done was try to help him. Our shame wasn’t earned. It wasn’t fair.

That was when I decided to work my way up to a position where I could help people like him get something they would be proud to eat.

Food justice is complex work. We want to give people healthy food that is relevant to their tastes and needs, but we work in neighborhoods where it hasn’t been readily available in decades. What they want, what they need, and what they know how to prepare varies wildly. Programs based on stereotypes or one-size-fits-all approaches are doomed to fail.
Plenty more good stuff where that came from.