Monday, February 08, 2016

Reading some classics

Currently my reading time is my own. I am taking advantage of that to reread, or read for the first time, some books that I consider classics. Some of it is old science-fiction that I kept when most of my book collection was dispersed on my recent move. For instance, I reread the Man Who Sold the Moon by Robert Heinlein simply because some of the most interesting space exploration at the moment is being financed by the private sector, and that's what Heinlein thought might happen. That book is not really very good, actually. Heinlein's tendency to lecture his readers on how things actually work is on full display. What he thought might happen, based on his experiences up to the 1940s, is not particularly realistic. The sheer scale of private enterprise now as opposed to a private enterprise in the 1940s is staggering.

I am living in a house full of other classics. I have recently picked up Thomas Babington Macauley's Critical Essays. Macauley is a famous, or formerly famous, politician, essayist, and educational theorist of the early 19th century. He wrote the Lays of Ancient Rome, including the famous story of Horatio on the bridge. He also convinced that the British government to make English the language of advanced education in India. He was a Whig among Whigs, a believer in the superiority of modern British institutions and attitudes toward liberty.

Macauley wrote a bunch of essays in the form of a very long book reviews. His book on critical essays includes many re-considerations of the careers of famous politicians of the previous century or even earlier: Thomas Cranmer, Horace Walpole, William Pitt, his son the earl of Chatham are all discussed at length. It's a little bit hard to follow if you don't know British history of the early modern period pretty well. On the other hand, McAuley's early Victorian prose is a delight? Staggering? Amazing?

Here is what he has to say about Cranmer, the Archbishop of Henry VIII so deeply involved in the English Reformation. He doesn't like Cranmer, and thinks that rating him as a martyr is ridiculous:

He voted for cutting off [Thomas] Cromwell's head without a trial, when the tide of royal favour turned. He conformed backwards and forwards as the King changed his mind. He assisted, while Henry lived, in condemning to the flames those who denied the doctrine of transubstantiation. He found out, as soon as Henry was dead, that the doctrine was false. He was, however, not at a loss for people to burn. The authority of his station and of his grey hairs was employed to overcome the disgust with which an intelligent and virtuous child [Edward VI] regarded persecution. Intolerance is always bad. But the sanguinary intolerance of a man who thus wavered in his creed excites a loathing, to which it is difficult to give vent without calling foul names. Equally false to political and to religious obligations, the primate was first the tool of Somerset, and then the tool of Northumberland. When the Protector wished to put his own brother to death, without even the semblance of a trial, he found a ready instrument in Cranmer. In spite of the canon law, which forbade a churchman to take any part in matters of blood, the archbishop signed the warrant for the atrocious sentence. When Somerset had been in his turn destroyed, his destroyer received the support of Cranmer in a wicked attempt to change the course of the succession.

The apology made for him by his admirers only renders his conduct more contemptible. He complied, it is said, against his better judgment, because he could not resist the entreaties of Edward. A holy prelate of sixty, one would think, might be better employed by the bedside of a dying child, than in committing crimes at the request of the young disciple. If Cranmer had shown half as much firmness when Edward requested him to commit treason as he had before shown when Edward requested him not to commit murder, he might have saved the country from one of the greatest misfortunes that it ever underwent.

z

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Elections and the electorate in Russia and the United States

I was very impressed by this interview in the journal Foreign Policy. The interviewee was the young journalist Evgeny Feldman, who struck me as intelligent, systematic, and sensible. As a result I found his description of the elections in both the United States and Russia to be useful.

It's worth thinking about how elections work in various countries in this kind of detail. Some electoral systems are completely corrupt, but they are not necessarily corrupt in the same way. Some electoral systems are fairly successful in keeping governments honest, but I don't think anybody in a country with free election thinks the system works amazingly well. (If you know any Americans, name five who think the system is just hunky-dory.) Maybe they are ignorant of how bad things are elsewhere, but I don't think that's the most important thing. I think there's lots of room for improvement, and honest well-run elections are part of it. But assuring high quality elections isn't simple, and might not mean the same thing everywhere. And honest elections may well be only a part of the puzzle.

Let me quote Evgeny Feldman, just to give you an idea of what he sounds like:

FP: Based on how your readers react to your journalism, can you tell what they have the most trouble understanding about our system?

Feldman: I quite often encounter the opinion that it’s all а show. But in large measure this comes from the position, which at least in Iowa is quite popular, that Washington is lying to everyone, that the liberal media is lying, and so on. All the top candidates in this election are saying this, in one way or another. So [my readers] kind of have a garbled, misunderstood version of this.

But I don’t think it’s so much a mistrust of the people who are in the [American] establishment — I think it’s more mistrust of the system of elections, as such. Because in Russia, there’s a syndrome of “learned helplessness.” For decade after decade, our society has seen that its opinions don’t affect anything. Since 1996, for sure. People don’t believe that one can really choose.

[Here in Iowa City], I spent a lot of time with this elderly couple. We’ve done a lot of talking. They went to see a Cruz rally in a neighboring town, and they came back having made a decision to vote for him. And their explanation really shocked me. They said: “We want to vote for him because he’s proposing term limits [in Congress].”

The fact that this was the deciding factor — Cruz’s position on how the political system should be set up in principle — is really a huge difference [from Russia]. It’s very cool — a completely different level of political thinking than what we have.

With us, it’s heavily weighed in the other direction — no one discusses tax rates, or whether we should have legal abortion. They talk about whether Russia should look towards the West or towards Asia, and about the overall makeup of the system, but not about term limits. It’s more about whether we should have competitive elections at all.

FP: So, in Russia, political discussions are on a much more general level?

Feldman: Not even general, more like illusory. The issues are discussed among major parties that are all controlled from the center. Those that are independent are barely allowed to participate in elections.

FP: Are there any similarities between Americans and Russians that have surprised you?

Feldman: I think that, both here and there, there’s a part of the public that’s inclined to various conspiracy theories. But here it’s a little more grounded, for example, people say the only reason Hillary isn’t in jail is because she’s part of the establishment. I haven’t heard anything about the Masons, whereas we have that [in Russia].

At the beginning, I had a strong impression of similarity between the campaigns here and what [opposition leader Alexei] Navalny did in Moscow [when he ran for mayor]. I knew that he was orienting his campaign on techniques that were developed in the United States, but still, the similarity seriously surprised me, at least at the beginning.

There are differences, too. As far as I understand, here the rallies are done mainly for the benefit of the media. They all take place in a closed building God knows where. No one who’s just walking by can get in, because there won’t be enough tickets anyway, at least if it’s a top candidate. The rallies are done to show the media an image: that we have many supporters. Isn’t that right?

FP: I think so.

Feldman: In Russia, of course, it’s quite different. In Russia, opposition candidates absolutely cannot get into any building.In Russia, opposition candidates absolutely cannot get into any building. Not in winter and not in summer. Because either it’s a government building, or it’s private, but then there’s a “burst pipe” or some kind of inspection, if they try to schedule a rally. Also, Navalny can’t get on TV, so he does rallies outside. At least this way he can have some access to the voters.

FP: Has your opinion about American democracy changed while you’ve been here? Feldman: I’ve always thought that the general elections are the most important stage. But now I understand that these primaries are even more important, because they allow more nuanced policy views to be spotlighted for the voters. So I’m really glad that I got to be here for this.

FP: So for you, this is a very serious exercise of democracy. It doesn’t seem like some kind of absurd circus?

Feldman: Of course there’s a certain element of “show.” But I can see that the absolute majority of people here take it very seriously. And I understand — this is probably mostly about Trump and his attempts to make the campaign about himself — that there’s an element of a talk show, and that’s probably bad.

But I follow the Democrats a little more, because their values are more understandable to me. For example, I live in a country that made abortions legal in 1920. So for me, the “pro-life” position is a completely incomprehensible thing. I understand, intellectually, where it comes from, but emotionally I can’t understand how anyone can support this. From this point of view, for me the Democrats are easier to understand.

FP: Of our candidates, who do you think would be most popular in Russia?

Feldman: On the surface, Trump is, of course, terribly similar to Putin.Trump is, of course, terribly similar to Putin.

Because in Russia, the elections are more like a choice between different aesthetics. That is, you have no chance to have an effect on actual policy. You can vote for the Communists if you’re nostalgic, for the screaming [Vladimir] Zhirinovsky if you want to bang your fist on the table, for [the ruling party] United Russia if you want to show your loyalty, and for A Just Russia if you’re loyal, but not very.

So in Russia, elections look different. It’s a ritual, a cult. You vote and it doesn’t change anything. Here it’s not like that — but in that way, on the surface, Trump is, of course, very similar to Putin. He’s the closest to this kind of Russian politics.

FP: In that, by voting for him, you’re more showing who you are than voting

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Free books on the Internet – two rather oddball services

For some months now I have been subscribed to a couple of mailing lists that puzzle me even as I take advantage of them. One of them is Forgotten Books, which every day offers an old book that might well be of interest to readers today. Other books besides the daily selection are available at a price, or with advertising interpolated into the text. The selection of books is so odd though that I wonder about the selection sometimes. Is a book by Friedrich Hegel really a forgotten book? How about a book 100 years or so old on theories of melancholy? On the other hand a hundred-year-old book on techniques for building furniture might well be still valid for the people who want to know some of the basics of that skill.

Then there's BookBub. Every day the service sends you to three or four links to fiction, which links allow you to order the books as e-books for between five dollars and nothing. You might suspect that these are no hope books but sometimes you have a book by Isabella Allende, for instance. Using the service you can get a lot of books for absolutely nothing.

What are the limitations of this service? There are certainly days when you can despair of the taste of the Anglophone reading public based on what is offered to you here. How many detective series does one world need? How many fantasies about people growing up with magical powers, which they used to tame dragons or save the kingdom? How many imitations of the Hunger Games? The service is obviously meant to suck you in to buy the next book in the detective series or maybe the previous ones, or other books by the same author who wrote that Dragon fantasy you liked so much.

Still, as advertising for books goes, it does offer you something. Whether does much for the authors so advertised I have to wonder.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

More Rumi

Someone who does not know the Tigris River exists

Brings the Caliph who lives near the river

A jar of fresh water. The Caliph accepts, thanks him,

And gives in return a jar filled with gold coins.

Since this man has come through the desert,

He should return by water. Taken out by another door,

The man steps into a waiting boat and sees

The wide freshwater of the Tigris. He bows his head,

What wonderful kindness that he took my gift.

Every object and being in the universe is a jar

Overfilled with wisdom and beauty, a drop of the Tigris

That cannot be contained by any skin. Every jarful

Spills and makes the earth more shining,

as though covered in satin. Rumi, translated Barks

Friday, January 08, 2016

A snippet of Rumi

Imagine a man selling his donkey to be with Jesus.

Now imagine selling Jesus to get a ride on a donkey. This does happen.

Jesus can transform drunk into gold.

If the drunk is already golden, he can be changed to pure diamond.

If already that, he can become the circling planets, Jupiter, Venus, the moon.

Never think that you are worthless.

God has paid an enormous amount for you, and the gifts keep arriving.

There is something in us that has nothing to do with night and day,

grapes that never saw a vineyard.

We are all returning

says the Qur'an. Enjoy Shams, or if you cannot do that, at least

consider what else people tell you.

Rumi (13th century), Translated by Coleman Barks






















Thursday, January 07, 2016

The Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades, by Paul M. Cobb

Cobb, Paul M. The Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. 335. $31.95. ISBN: 978-0-19-935811-3.

Reviewed by Steven Muhlberger

Nipissing University (retired)

steve.muhlberger@gmail.com

I approached reviewing this book not as a specialist in the Crusades (I am not) but as someone who has taught the Crusades numerous times in the last thirty years in medieval and world history surveys, in a survey of Islamic civilization, and in an undergraduate course on Crusade and Jihad. I have had some experience of hunting for appropriate books that would help me explain the this period from the Muslim point of view, but not much luck in finding ones that are suitable in content and availability (and, yes, price).

The next time I teach that material, however, I will know where to go for a good discussion of what the Crusades looked like from the point of view of "the crusaded," to use Paul Cobb's phrase. I do not think there is any book on the market today as good as this one for showing the effects of the Crusades on the Muslim-ruled Middle East. It is a good solid narrative history that looks outwards from Syria and cities of the Dar-al-Islam ("the Abode of Islam") rather than at Jerusalem from France and Rome.

Paul Cobb comes to this material very well prepared to discuss events from the Islamic point of view. He has written on Abbasid Syria and post-Umayyad Spain, and both translated and written a monograph on Usama ibn Munqidh, whose Book of Contemplation has long been valued for its autobiographical reflections on Crusade-era Syria. Cobb is very familiar with the work of Muslim scholars and litterateurs and the cultural environment in which they worked.

And it is our good fortune that he has the ability to convey his understanding to non-specialists. Cobb has a gift for explaining. I was very impressed early on in the book with his explanation of the difference between Sunni and Shiite traditions in the Middle Ages, and similarly how well he explained the decentralized structure of political life in the era of the Seljuks, the Fatimids, the Ayyubids and the Ottomans. His discussion of the use of the word jihad in the period in question is, as it must be, careful and clear. The ability to introduce such basic matters to the reader is the most important test that a writer addressing a general audience faces. Cobb passes this test with flying colors.

The book is organized chronologically around military and political events with occasional diversions into historiographic questions or descriptions of cultural change. Cobb sticks very closely to his announced focus on Islamic history. Events and personalities that did not directly affect the Muslim world are deemphasized. The Fourth Crusade gets one paragraph. The role of the papacy, neglected by most Muslim writers, is hardly noted in the Race for Paradise. Frederick II, an active crusader and King of Sicily and as such the ruler over the Muslim minority on that island, gets much more coverage than his rival Innocent III, even though the pope in question was perhaps the most important architect of the Christian theory of holy war and its implementation. For this reader, familiar with the usual general accounts of the Crusades, it was a salutary exercise to follow along in Cobb's wake.

Cobb's performance as a narrative historian is not perfect. The same details that help him build a full and convincing picture of Islamic history sometimes feel like items in an unending catalogue of campaigns' battles, and political intrigues. But he is a far better and livelier writer than many scholars. Cobb's language is up-to-date and relaxed. He does not hesitate to break the unwritten rule that forbids scholars to use slang unless it is nearly a century old. On the other hand he does not overdo it by committing himself to phraseology that might prove to be entirely ephemeral.

Cobb's narrative history from the Islamic point of view is a very valuable resource. Yet he goes beyond this to discuss historiographical questions that are very much alive in the scholarly community, and also of interest to general readers who might pick up the book. He rejects the idea that Muslim observers had no appreciation for crusading as a unified phenomenon. He does believe that Christian religious motivations were hardly appreciated by most Muslims who discussed the aggression of the Franks. However, he argues that the dominant Muslim line of reasoning for the origins of the crusade was the fact that Franks were by nature an aggressive people. A number of Middle Eastern observers saw the wars of the Franks as an intensification of that inherent aggression. The attacks on Sicily and Muslim Spain after 1060 were for them an important prelude to the Jerusalem campaign of the 1090s. All of this Frankish aggression on a variety of fronts was of a piece. The unifying factor for these writers was the failure of the Muslim community with its many internal divisions to deal with this Frankish threat. It should be pointed out that just as Cobb's Muslim sources give the Sicilian and Spanish wars an important place in their analysis, so does Cobb emphasize those wars. The way he integrates the "western front" with the conflicts in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean is one of the best parts of his treatment.

Similarly, readers will find a very good discussion of the term jihad. Cobb believes that modern scholars sometimes overemphasize the contrast between greater or spiritual jihad and lesser or military jihad. Cobb argues that it is certainly the case that most discussions of jihad in the Crusading era referenced military activity against the infidel. But he also rejects the idea that jihad simply meant militarism. Jihad sprang from the duty of Muslims to "command the good and forbid the wrong." Whether that duty required a military response on the part of the faithful in any given case was a complicated question; the complications are very nicely handled in the book.

There is no full bibliography, but the "bibliographic sketch" and the endnotes provide quite adequate guidance for non-specialist readers.

To return to the Race for Paradise as a teaching resource. Will it be useful for students? This will depend on the exact goals of the course and how prominently the internal dynamics of the Muslim Middle East will be in it. Cobb's clear language and the book's very reasonable price make student use a real possibility. But Cobb's book certainly belongs on the bookshelf of anyone who teaches the Crusade, and on the shelves of every university library where the Crusades are taken seriously as part of the history curriculum.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Reading list for next year?

Much more substantial than my own collection of good posts for the past year is Phil Paine's annotated list of books that inspired him this year. There is no point in duplicating his post; instead I will just include one fairly long excerpt and hope that you will look for the rest at his website. 

Lafontaine & Baldwin

… what does this have to do with rebel­lions in Canada? Well, the failed rebel­lions had a trans­form­ing impact on two young men who were both ardent demo­c­ra­tic reform­ers, Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine in Lower Canada, and Robert Bald­win in Upper Canada. Both men had come to the con­clu­sion that the rebel­lions led by fire­brands like Louis-Joseph Pap­ineau and William Lyon Macken­zie, which they had ini­tially sup­ported, had been more destruc­tive than pro­duc­tive of reform, and that a more ratio­nal strat­egy was required. Lafontaine still had faith in the demands made by the Patri­otes in the rebel­lion: demo­c­ra­tic gov­ern­ment by uni­ver­sal male suf­frage, with prop­erty qual­i­fi­ca­tions abol­ished; equal­ity of Eng­lish and French as legal and gov­ern­ing lan­guages; trial by jury in all crim­i­nal and most civil cases; abo­li­tion of the death penalty for all crimes except first degree mur­der; equal rights for all abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples “the same as any other cit­i­zen”; guar­an­tees of free­dom of speech and the press; free­dom of reli­gion and total sep­a­ra­tion of Church and State; abo­li­tion of seigneural tenure and rem­nant “feu­dal” prac­tices; a free mar­ket in land; pub­lic edu­ca­tion. It should be noted that these demands, made in 1837, went much fur­ther in the direc­tion of mod­ern democ­racy than any­thing con­tem­plated else­where. But the rebel­lions had only brought about a tri­umphant Con­ser­v­a­tive reac­tion, with mas­sive abuses of civil rights.
In 1841, the two colonies were con­sol­i­dated, after this was urged by the inves­ti­gat­ing emis­sary from Britain, Lord Durham. There would be an elected assem­bly for the new “United Canada”, but the inten­tion was to dilute the power of the French-speaking major­ity in Lower Canada, with a long-term goal of “assim­i­lat­ing” French Cana­di­ans into obliv­ion. While there were some con­sti­tional gains, the assem­bly hav­ing more power on money bills than before, there were obvi­ous losses. Lower Canada had actu­ally rejoiced in a degree of women’s suf­frage: women who met the prop­erty qual­i­fi­ca­tions had the vote, and these qual­i­fi­ca­tions were low enough that they applied to a sub­stan­tial num­ber of women. There was, in fact, noth­ing like it in any other place in the world. In one con­tem­po­rary doc­u­ment I ran across, it is casu­ally men­tioned to a vis­i­tor that “in our coun­try, women are the polit­i­cal equals of men.” This female suf­frage would be abol­ished by the new United Canada. In Upper Canada, the auto­cratic power of the Fam­ily Com­pact was strength­ened, and reform stymied. Lafontaine and Bald­win, both ardent democ­rats, looked upon the ash-heap left by the rebel­lions and tried to think out a strat­egy to bring the reform move­ment back to life.
 At this point, Lafontaine gave a speech in his home rid­ing of Ter­re­bonne, where he was run­ning for the new par­lia­ment. He told the crowd that the best strat­egy was not to boy­cott the new regime, as many advo­cated, but to embrace it, use all the polit­i­cal power they could muster, and win reforms step by step. Foil the plans to assim­i­late French Canada by becom­ing the colony’s most adept par­lia­men­tar­i­ans. Win through grit and deter­mi­na­tion what the rebels had failed to win with arms. Lafontaine would eas­ily have been elected to his rid­ing, but Con­ser­v­a­tive hooli­gans, beat­ing and intim­i­dat­ing vot­ers, kept him out of office.

News of these events reached Robert Bald­win in Upper Canada. The young man, whose equally young wife had just died of ill­ness, had with­drawn into a twi­light of grief. His father, also a life-long reformer, told him he must find a new strat­egy for reform, and pur­sue it, or wal­low use­lessly in self-pity. He sug­gested that Lafontaine’s speech held the key. The elder Bald­win resigned from his seat in the Assem­bly, forc­ing a bi-election in the rid­ing of New­mar­ket. Robert Bald­win wrote to Lafontaine, invit­ing him to come to Upper Canada and run as a Reform can­di­date in New­mar­ket. This was the first step in what turned out to be a life-long col­lab­o­ra­tion and inti­mate friend­ship. Bald­win was even­tu­ally to learn French, and send his daugh­ters to be edu­cated in Lower Cana­dian schools. Lafontaine, unwill­ingly child­less, lived with the Bald­wins in New­mar­ket and came to think of them as fam­ily. …
 Bald­win and Lafontaine are far more impor­tant char­ac­ters than Cana­dian his­tory books would indi­cate. In their writ­ings and cor­re­spon­dence, you see the emer­gence of a set of ideas that were unprece­dented. Cana­dian his­to­ri­ans are mostly inter­ested in the fact that their activism even­tu­ally led to the cre­ation of the Cana­dian Con­fed­er­a­tion in 1867, but do not notice the pro­found orig­i­nal­ity of their polit­i­cal think­ing. At the time, most polit­i­cal reform and rad­i­cal­ism was built on the premises of roman­tic nation­al­ism. It was taken for granted that the nation was the nat­ural unit of pol­i­tics, and even where polit­i­cal move­ments envi­sioned demo­c­ra­tic gov­er­nance, this was seen as sec­ondary to the mys­ti­cism of the nation as a col­lec­tive agency. The “nation” embod­ied bio­log­i­cal descent, and required “unity” — con­for­mity of lan­guage, faith, and cus­tom. No Euro­pean intel­lec­tual of the period, that I can find, val­ued diver­sity or felt that it was a good thing to com­bine dif­fer­ent lan­guages, faiths, or eth­nic­i­ties into the same polity. It was seen as a defect that might have to be tol­er­ated, but not as some­thing of pos­i­tive value. Pro­mot­ers of empires con­sid­ered diver­sity the weak­ness of their realms. Pro­mot­ers of national inde­pen­dence envi­sioned their “lib­er­ated” states as cul­tur­ally uni­form units. Lafontaine and Bald­win had come to the oppo­site con­clu­sion, putting them into a dif­fer­ent cat­e­gory from other reform­ers of the era. They explic­itly advo­cated a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, multi-religious state, held together by a com­mit­ment to share a polit­i­cal com­mu­nity with­out con­for­mity. In their view, democ­racy and the rule of law formed an abstact frame­work of val­ues that could allow free­dom to pros­per with­out need­ing any of the tra­di­tional defin­ing fea­tures of nation­hood. As they saw it, and stated explic­itly, this diver­sity con­sti­tuted a strength, not a weak­ness, just as they had found in their per­sonal friend­ship. But this was not some­thing that any sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of intel­lec­tu­als were advo­cat­ing. … 
Europe would go on to more extreme and dis­as­trous man­i­fes­ta­tions of Uni­for­mi­tar­i­an­ism. The colo­nial empires of Britain, France, Spain, Por­tu­gal and Ger­many left no doubt that there was to be noth­ing equal about the eth­nic­i­ties, lan­guages and cus­toms within them. The United States strug­gled with a schiz­o­phrenic her­itage, the implied val­ues of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion in con­stant con­flict with the urge to cre­ate a uni­for­mi­tar­ian state, immi­grants under con­stant pres­sure to “melt” into con­for­mity. But in Canada, the ideas of Bald­win and Lafontaine became the main­stream shap­ing the country’s des­tiny. Con­fed­er­a­tion in 1867 was clearly founded on them. … When inter­viewed while wel­com­ing Syr­ian refugees to Canada, a few weeks ago, Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau pretty much stated them as if they were obvi­ous. But they are by no means obvi­ous to most of the world, or there would be no refugees to wel­come. So read­ing Lafontaine and Bald­win, see­ing these ideas being born, was emo­tion­ally, as well as intel­lec­tu­ally satisfying.
Image: Lafontaine and Baldwin
  

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Kim Stanley Robinson – a giant among men (with some others)!

I am reading fiction for the fun of it. I don't have a lot of professional reading and for the first time in my life I am in very easy walking distance of a branch of a decent public library system. I don't have to plan a trip to the library, I just have to remember when the branch is open.

One of the things that I am reading is science fiction that's strong on presenting future (and past) history. I have in the past read Neil Stephenson, whose work sometimes falls into that category; now I am getting into Kim Stanley Robinson. KSM wrote what I think is the best American utopian SF ever created, the Mars trilogy. I read it a ways back and I enjoyed it tremendously. In the last month or so I have read two large KSM books that rethinks the developments of world history in the early modern and modern eras by creating alternative histories.

One of them is Galileo's Dream which follows Galileo Galilei both through his own life in the 17th century and his quantum-theory-implemented trips to the Galilean moons of Jupiter in the year 3000. There is a tremendous amount of philosophical thinking embedded in this book, as we follow Galileo's life and researches in great detail and the efforts of human colonists in the Jupiter system to encourage and protect and even sacrifice him to make sure that Galileo's thought develops and is disseminated in such a way that humanity benefits from the Scientific Revolution and is not destroyed by it. There is a great deal of discussion of physics, ancient and modern, and more about the politics of the 17th century Vatican than you want to know.

Another KSM book that I am finishing up is the Years of Rice and Salt, which almost reads like a first draft of Galileo's Dream. It is an alternate history based on what might have happened if the Black Death had killed off the people of Western, Eastern and Northern Europe while only diminishing the population of the rest of Eurasia. It is a world where Christianity has been eliminated as a cultural influence, and the major cultures are Chinese, Muslim and Iroquois. Plus Buddhism.

Rice and Salt has a lot of explication but it does not lack human interest. We are given to understand that many of the characters we meet in different eras are reincarnations who meet occasionally in the bardo, the Buddhist hell to talk about how tough it is to make a difference in the earthly life. The characters are interesting in their earthly existence and every once in a while KSM throws in a vivid description of a place or a situation. For instance, here is KSM discussing the lack of trees in the Chinese capital after the tremendous sufferings and dislocations of the Long War (sort of like World Wars I and II, but much longer):

Every tree in the city had been cut down during the Twelve Hard Years, and even now the city was bare of almost all vegetation; the new trees had been planted with spiked fences protecting them, and watchmen to guard them at night, which did not always work; the poor old guards would wake in the mornings to find the fence there but the tree gone, cut at the ground for firewood or pulled out by the roots for sale somewhere else, and for these lost saplings they would weep inconsolably, or even commit suicide.

Do you have to be a historian to like these books? No, KSM sells a lot of books and the readers can't possibly be all historians.

I should mention a third author who has a touch of this alternative history but who actually explores even bigger ideas. Robert Charles Wilson is somebody who I met on my first month in Toronto, back in the early 70s. He is one smart guy and it shows in his fiction. RCW has written a variety of books, but some of the best ones combine a lot of contemplation of the history of the whole universe (sort of like Olaf Stapledon) with individual human characters. If you know Stapledon, you know that's an unusual combination.

Justin Trudeau – a giant among men?

I have not made up my mind about Justin Trudeau. I expect that he will disappoint (not so much me as the large number of his current fans). And hey, he is Liberal. And finally, I was never that fond of his father (not that I expected J. Trudeau to be a reincarnation of his father).

But OMG! Have you seen that video of Trudeau greeting the first Syrian refugees to land in Toronto two or three days ago? Telling them that they will leave the buildings as Canadians?

Trudeau greets the refugees

Canada is coming out of ten years of the rule of the man without a heart – a characterization that the man so characterized pretty much owned up to himself. If there was a way of making a policy less generous and more divisive, he found it. If a policy used up some of the reputational capital that previous governments and private individuals had earned, or sucked up to the great powers while ignoring Canada's need and desire to maintain an independent international identity, our just past prime minister enthusiastically adopted it. And the extent of the rot he encouraged and promoted in Canada's institutions – the civil service and Parliament in particular -- will only be revealed over years and years of investigation and the testimony by people no longer afraid to speak up.

This is a man who was perfectly happy to say that he was unmoved by a picture of a dead baby on a beach. It's not that the past PM lacked a certain degree of support. Any country has its fearful and ungenerous elements. But when those elements are made the foundation of the ruling party's efforts to create a permanent ruling coalition, god help the country so afflicted.

But that dead baby reminded Canadians that they are by and large more generous than that. Justin Trudeau was given the opportunity to embody the generous side of Canadians, and he took it. Enthusiastically and without compromise. While people all over the world were freaking out about the supposed dangers of admitting refugees, Trudeau (however sincerely, however calculatedly) made a major commitment to work with private organizations (who were already gearing up) to do something to help the Syrians. And has stuck to that commitment, despite the supposed political dangers.

To look at the situation from the crass political angle, the ungenerous approach taken by the past government may go down as one of the most amazing own goals in Canada's history. A year ago, six months ago, the past government could gain a certain amount of traction by presenting Trudeau as "not ready for prime time." Then they handed him an issue that he could exploit, not just during the election campaign but after. Has there ever been a newly elected PM whose stature was so great so soon after his initial victory? Who has identified himself with what many Canadians like to think is the best aspect on this country? Who in fact has made it clear that if the government wants to do something, and has the backing of a good part of the citizenry, it can DO SOMETHING WORTHWHILE?

This could all blow over and the Liberals may end up looking like a group of sad sacks – hey, they've done it before. But maybe not. This could be an important turning point.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Man Who Sold the Moon by Robert A. Heinlein

I first read this book about half a century ago when I was a teenager. I came back to it because I have a relative working for Space X, and the book is about a private enterprise effort to get to the moon. I was fascinated to see or remind myself that Heinlein was as interested in politics and business and human organizations in general as he was in the scientific aspects and engineering aspects of spaceflight. I gave this three stars on Goodreads but be warned this is a book that will seem really quite old to most readers. Already back in the 60s, when the stories were about 15 years old, it seemed quite old to me. Now it's a relic of an older era for sure.

Image: The edition I have. Not a typical science fiction cover illustration of the time. I'd guess that Signet was going for a more mainstream readership. I wonder if it worked?

Another appealing book -- Honor, Vengeance, and Social Trouble: Pardon Letters in the Burgundian Low Countries, by Arnade and Prevenier,

From The Medieval Review

Arnade, Peter, and Walter Prevenier, eds. Honor, Vengeance, and Social Trouble: Pardon Letters in the Burgundian Low Countries. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015. Pp. ix, 244. $26.95. ISBN: 978-080-1453-465.

Reviewed by Justine Firnhaber-Baker

University of St Andrews

jmfb@st-andrews.ac.uk

Medieval pardon tales and their tellers have been informing and amusing students of late medieval history for a long time now. This most recent study from two eminent scholars draws on Burgundian ducal letters of pardon to paint a lively and lovely picture of fifteenth-century life in the Low Countries. Weaving together a series of anecdotes drawn from the letters, the authors explore such historiographically resonant themes as honour and vengeance; feuding and peace-making; gender, kinship, and family; and the historicity of emotions. Each chapter is followed by translations of several of the letters discussed in the text.

To a greater extent than Natalie Zemon Davis, whose Fiction in the Archives galvanized the study of pardon letters, Arnade and Prevenier are focused on the social reality they believe recoverable from these texts rather than their narrative logic. [1] Whenever possible, they have gone beyond the text of the letter to find other archival sources that shed new light on the pardon's tale and its teller, embedding them more fully in the social and political world they occupied. The authors are nevertheless mindful both of the literary constraints that crafting a narrative imposed on supplicants and the likely mendacity of some of their stories, which had to seem pardonable no matter how dubious the facts. As they point out, the tales in the pardons often echo the sorts of stories found in the contemporary story collection the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles. Arnade and Prevenier also pay careful attention to the judicial procedures and political context in which a pardon was enmeshed. One did not simply procure a pardon and skip merrily away; the story had to be verified before ratification and opposing parties could object and sometimes did so successfully. There were also political considerations, which, as the authors repeatedly demonstrate, could tip the balance of ducal favour even in the face of aggravated culpability. The authors' commitment to the careful source criticism of these complex texts is a model for any historian.

This is both a deeply learned book and a richly entertaining one. Footnotes, though kept to a minimum, point toward the extensive historiographical traditions in which the authors are fully conversant and to which they themselves have contributed a great deal. So, although the authors are mostly telling stories in this book, the reader can rest easy that the evidence is not merely anecdotal. And in fact, Arnade and Prevenier have great stories to tell, ranging from the very funny to the profoundly sad. We are introduced to the full social panoply of late medieval Burgundy, from the rich and connected widow of one of the duchy's top courtiers to a poor serving boy of a travelling Italian merchant. Readers will come away from this book feeling like they have been to fifteenth-century Burgundy, to its dirty taverns and raucous public squares, its draughty castles and its cosy inns.

In the four chapters that follow their excellent introduction to late medieval Burgundy and its sources, Arnade and Prevenier use the pardons' stories to "expose the norms of society and lay bare its sinews, its social layers, and its gender expectations" (4). In chapter one, on "Disputes, Vendettas, and Political Clients," they show how violent conflicts and their resolution were embedded in the family, professional, and political matrices that structured medieval Burgundian life. The authors define only very loosely those notoriously protean terms "vendetta" and "feud." This seems fair enough, given medieval sources' own avoidance of strict definitions when it comes to such violence. [2] The authors argue that pardons functioned to resolve these violent disputes when the normal avenues of arbitration and settlement had failed. The importance of this civil function was thus greater than in the French pardons, which usually only remitted the criminal penalties and any civil penalties owed to the state and in many cases depended on the parties having already arrived at a peace settlement. The state's interest in pardons was great though, for pardons not only reified the duke's sovereign prerogative, they were also useful tools for shoring up political alliances and bestowing patronage on loyal clients.

Chapter two continues the focus on dispute, vengeance, and violence, turning especially to adultery and other sexually-connected crimes, like infanticide. In this chapter, Arnade and Prevenier are particularly interested in male honour and how its injury provoked violence. It is perhaps heretical to say this, given how fundamental the concept of honour is to late medieval historiography of the past thirty years, but I did not find the homicidal protection of masculine honour to be as central to the letters published in the book as did Arnade and Prevenier. They assert that the letters "confirm honour's heaviest footprint in disputes centered on male sexual worth and status, as a term invoked to justify revenge or self-defense after an episode of male humiliation" (89), but the word honour appears in only one of the thirteen letters (as translated) that follow the text of the first two chapters. (There are also another four instances, by my count, in other documents discussed in the text of the second chapter). Now, limiting one's interpretation to the semantic incidences alone is certainly not a defensible strategy, but neither is assuming that honour was the crux of the issue in every case in which violence was preceded by (male) embarrassment or outrage. What does seem clear is that situations causing anger and/or shame could turn easily violent. It is arguable that we might get the same impression of modern life if we primarily read police blotters and divorce court proceedings. Moreover, the emphasis on honour/shame as an exclusively masculine concern seems to me misleading. The distressing story recounted in letter 12 of the noblewoman Antonie van Claerhout, who killed the newborn baby had she had birthed in secret and dumped the body in waste water (watching to be sure it sank) certainly suggests that reputation could be a matter of life or death for women, too.

In fact, one of the most valuable aspects of this book is its attention to women. Women are a major focus of chapter three, on marital conflict, which beautifully illustrates and explains the legal, social, and emotional issues in late medieval marriage, and chapter four, which is entirely devoted to the tale of the first known European actress Maria van der Hoeven and its many tellers. Women received a vanishingly small number of pardons, but in addition to discussing those few remissions with a female recipient, Arnade and Prevenier show how women were simultaneously absent from the letters as protagonists and witnesses but also central to them as the objects of dispute. As is frequently the case in recent historiography, a lot of this discussion is framed around the idea of masculinity and how it was constructed and performed in the workplace, the family, the tavern, etc. The flipside to this, of course, is that the masculine ideal and its social demonstration were predicated on a deep and virulent strain of misogyny, a topic almost absent from the discussion (with only one occurrence in the book's index, compared to 26 for 'masculinity'). This is a widespread feature of scholarship these days, but it is not one that should go unchallenged, especially in a work that gives us such engaging portraits of so many real women and their lives. For if the book confirms some of Dyan Elliott's recently expressed worries about the study of "gender" in medieval history, it also fulfils her hope that we continue to recover knowledge of historical women. [3]

Obviously, Arnade and Prevenier's is a qualitative approach, not a quantitative one. Sometimes, I wished for some of the stark statistics that make Claude Gauvard's study of the French pardons under King Charles VI so useful, and fewer assurances--no matter how true--that a feature of one letter was present in "countless" others. [4] But this book is doing something different and at least as valuable by weaving together the little stories in the pardons to tell a bigger story about how real people in Burgundy experienced the waning of the Middle Ages. Wearing its magisterial learning lightly, Honor, Vengeance, and Social Trouble is both a thoroughly informative and a delightfully amusing book.

-------- Notes:

1. Natalie Zemon Davis, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987).

2. Jeppe Büchert Netterstrøm, "Introduction: The Study of Feud in Medieval and Early Modern Europe," in idem and Bjørn Poulsen, eds., Feud in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2007), 9-67.

3. Dyan Elliott, "The Three Ages of Joan Scott," American Historical Review 113 (2008): 1390-1403.

4. Claude Gauvard, "De grace especial": Crime, État et société en France à la fin du Moyen Âge, 2 vols. (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 1991).. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015. Pp. ix, 244. $26.95. ISBN: 978-080-1453-465.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A Feast for the Eyes: Art, Performance and the Late Medieval Banquet, by Christina Normore

From the Medieval Review (online book review source): Normore, Christina. A Feast for the Eyes: Art, Performance and the Late Medieval Banquet. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. Pp. viii, 261. $55.00. ISBN: 978-0-226-24220-0.
Reviewed by Claire Sponsler
University of Iowa
claire-sponsler@uiowa.edu
In February of 1454 in the city of Lille, Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, sponsored a banquet whose purpose was to promote a crusade against the Turks who in the previous year had captured Constantinople. Although the propaganda effort failed (the crusade was never undertaken), the banquet itself made quite an impression, as well it might, given that it featured among other entertainments an actor dressed in white satin to represent the Church of Constantinople, entering the hall on an elephant led by a giant Saracen; twenty-four musicians who played their instruments inside a gargantuan pie; and marvelous automata that included a tiger battling a serpent in a desert landscape and a boy riding a golden-horned stag, the two singing a duet as they circled the tables set up for the banqueters. The Feast of the Pheasant, as this astonishing event came to be called, made it into the historical record in unusually detailed form, most notably in the Memoirs of Olivier de la Marche and the Chroniques of Mathieu d'Escouchy, and while it is not the only banquet discussed by Christina Normore, it serves as a running example of the complexities of feasting in late medieval culture--her topic in this multilayered and ambitious book.
It might initially seem odd that an art historian would choose banquets as an object of study, but that, as Normore stresses, is exactly the point, both for art history and for the cultural history of medieval Europe. By focusing her eye on feasts, Normore demonstrates what the history of art stands to gain by broadening its scope beyond the traditional high arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture in order to take in a form that is usually relegated to the so-called, and lesser, decorative arts. What the cultural history of medieval Europe reaps, even more importantly, is a less anachronistic (because less constrained by modern categories of aesthetic activity and notions of individual talent) and hence more accurate view of the insistently mixed-media and collaborative arts of late medieval and early modern Europe, such as feasting, that drew together politics, ethics, religion, and other spheres of social life under the guise of entertainment.
Because Normore is an art historian, it is no surprise that she approaches her subject matter chiefly through the visual and provides detailed close readings of the objects and representations found in lavish feasts, while also turning to other pictorial sources such as manuscript illuminations to underscore her claims. The generous use of illustrations in the book lets the reader track Normore's analysis and offers a tantalizing glimpse of late medieval banqueting in action.
But this book moves well beyond the analysis of discrete visual objects. Normore signals her ambitions by setting feasting within the larger context of festivity more generally, a move that allows her to examine the wide array of activities that took place at banquets, activities that combined the culinary, visual, and performing arts into one complex whole. More specifically, her aim is to demonstrate that feasting "helped form a culture deeply invested in discernment" (3), and thus aided in the creation of a court culture grounded in the exercise of aesthetic judgments.
After an introductory chapter aptly titled "Setting the Table," which does the work of laying out the general argument and considering the interpretive issues surrounding a study of feasting, Normore begins in the first chapter, "Between the Dishes," by asking what, exactly, an entremet was, charting the term's ambiguity when used by fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Francophone authors, for whom the word's semantic range included performances, material objects, and foodstuffs. Normore argues that entremets "complicate the separation between media" and, because their production required the collaboration of many different craftspeople, they complicate the separation between "makers" as well (42). Here as elsewhere, Normore is keenly alert to the difficulties of terminology and definition, to the limits of an approach based on a modern taxonomy of artistic forms, and to the need to read with rather than through the material evidence that survives to tell us about these important cultural occasions.
Echoing her claim that the feast was more than just visual display, she pays attention to the sounds and smells of banqueting, as well as to the impact on those who participated. The next four chapters take up various aspects of the way feasts shaped late medieval elite society, by looking at the relationship between banquets and those who participated in or observed them (chapter two, "Spectator-Spectacle"), the success with which feasts intervened in the political sphere (chapter three, "Efficacy and Hypocrisy"), and the meaning of lavish banquets within the ethically-charged notion of magnificence (chapter four, "Dining Well"). The last of those chapters rejects the tendency of modern scholars to equate magnificence with overabundance and instead considers how feasts could function as places "where virtue could be practiced and learned" or as locations where dining could make visible "key concepts of systematic ethics" within a courtly milieu (104). Chapter five, "Stranger at the Table," turns from politics and ethics to an inquiry into feasting's aesthetic ends, particularly in its use of strange and wondrous displays that provided courtly society with "marvels to think with," as Normore cleverly puts it (138).
Readers hoping for an up-close look at one feast will be grateful for the final chapter, "Wedding Reception." Focusing on a specific example, the first night of banqueting that celebrated the marriage of Charles the Bold and Margaret of York in 1468, this chapter aims to strike a balance between anthropologically-oriented studies of feasting as a general social practice and historically-grounded analyses of individual banquets. Normore argues that while it is only within the broad context of late medieval marriage and gift exchange that the complex symbolic and sensory nature of the 1468 banquet can be understood, nonetheless "the specific iconographic and sensual program" (165) of this particular event had distinctive meaning for the marriage at hand: the feasting may have gestured toward all marriages, but it spoke directly to Charles and Margaret's. The conclusion to this chapter serves as a kind of last word for the book as a whole: "the creators of the feast, from the planners to the final participants, worked not only with a particular iconographic program but also within a shared understanding of the proper behavior, values, and aesthetic modes of wedding banquets in particular and feasting in general" (191). In a sentence that drives the book's point home, Normore insists that only when the individual and the general are brought together "can we truly begin to appreciate how and why banqueting captured the imaginations and influenced the actions of late medieval men and women" (193).
By pointing to the complex cultural and artistic interactions of the banquets devised for the Burgundian court, A Feast for the Eyes makes a welcome and sophisticated addition to an emerging body of work on the persistent mixing of media that characterized the public culture of late medieval Europe. Returning representational forms and recreational activities that have now been slotted into separate disciplinary niches--art, music, literature, theater, politics, religion, food--to their thoroughly entwined states in late medieval culture, Normore joins a new wave of cutting-edge work in medieval studies. As resolutely as its subject, A Feast for the Eyes escapes scholarly categories and invites the appreciation of a wide range of readers.









Friday, November 20, 2015

Who reads this stuff?

Back in the mid-1980s, I spun an article off my dissertation, The Fifth-century Chroniclers. The article was entitled "Prosper's Epitoma Chronicon: Was There An Edition of 443?" and was a brief discussion about...whether the 5th-century chronicler Prosper wrote an edition in A.D. 443! (As you may have guessed!) It could be taken as a fine example of scholarly nit-pickery, but it was worth doing because close scrutiny of ancient and medieval sources is and has been one of the methods we reconstruct the distant past. I thought it might help some readers somewhere while assuring potential employers that I was still at work.
But how many such readers could there be?
Well, this week I got a note from the Academia.edu site telling me that a Russian scholar was interested in having a look at the old article. I brushed it off and sent it off to the site. She saw it and thanked me.
Two days later the site has recorded 27!!!views. Good grief!
If any of you readers is really interested in the historiography of the Later Roman Empire and the origins of the medieval Latin chronicle tradition, the book version of The Fifth-century Chroniclers is still in print.
But if you are just vaguely curious about the answer to the question in the article's title: I said, probably not.
Image below: Somebody else's book on Prosper.






Thursday, November 12, 2015

BS on the gender-equity cabinet in the new Canadian government.

I have heard a lot of people complaining about the artificiality of the 50-50 split in the membership of the new Canadian Cabinet – it’s half men half women. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau promised this during the campaign and he delivered on his promise immediately. His action became controversial and a whole bunch of people seem to still be talking about if it were some great crime against democracy and good government. Trudeau is guilty of the crime of arbitrarily appointing people who might not be the best candidates for the job. Even people I generally respect, like a columnist in the Globe and Mail, have said similar things. Both men and women are upset.

I have to say I think the whole fuss is ridiculous. Exactly when was this golden age when the best people in the country or even in parliament or even in the ruling party got their positions purely on the basis of objective criteria, of fitness for the job? For a long time there were no women at all in parliament and thus none in the cabinet either. Since women got the right to vote and the right to sit in parliament, they have been a distinct minority in parliament. Was this based on objective criteria?

Let’s look at how the sausage is made when picking a cabinet. Objective criteria? Anybody knows anything about Canadian politics knows and that if there is one and only one member of the victorious party elected from Saskatchewan or New Brunswick, that person will be in the cabinet. The winning party needs a representative in that province, it needs to convince people in that province that the federal government takes them seriously. If the government neglects to include people from that area, they can kiss goodbye the possibility of winning seats there next time around. Would anybody seriously put forward the idea that the single MP from Saskatchewan miraculously is one of the 20 or 30 most capable people in parliament or even in the ruling party as a whole? That this person deserves their seat at the cabinet table because they fulfil certain objective criteria?

No, cabinets are chosen by looking at what candidates you have and deciding, yes, some of them are more talented than others, but also by deciding some of them will appeal to one constituency or another. Cabinets are chosen to put together a political coalition, but also to advertise the party to the public and give people an indication of what and who the ruling party thinks is important.

The Liberals are saying to the Canadian public that they think women have been undervalued in the past, and they will not be undervalued now. How sincere the Liberals are and how they will actually act is another matter entirely. The promise Justin Trudeau made and the actions that he took in choosing his parliament were advertising. If you are not impressed, well, that’s perfectly all right, but let’s not pretend this is some horrendous deviation from good government.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Close to the Edge



I was in Colorado recently and more than once, for obvious reasons, this song by Yes popped into my head.

Thank you, Yes for joy and pleasure over the decades. PS. From a comment on YouTube: "I was a little girl when this album came out but my siblings were 9 and 11 years older than me and this music cranked on their stereos, along with all the other earth-shattering music of the time. It was like being in the company of angels hearing these artists..."

Saturday, October 31, 2015

What we've lost

Will McLean, who I knew primarily as a medieval re-enactor, recently died, all too young.

To give you some idea of his humane intelligence, and what we have lost in his death,  I offer this post from his blog, A Commonplace Book:

sUNDAY, JANUARY 06, 2013


"Nobody ever suggested that Picasso should spend fewer hours painting per picture in order to boost his wealth or improve the economy."



In the middle of a very wise post about the long term value of accumulated intellectual capital that is often difficult or impossible to measure in monetary terms when it is first produced, Kevin Kelly uses the above example of Picasso as an argument.

It's a very poor choice, because Picasso was enormously successful at monetizing his intellectual output, and acutely aware that he could produce more faster by selling prints and book illustrations than by making individual drawings.

It's a poor example, but his fundamental argument is correct and important. There's a tremendous amount of intellectual output that's completely invisible to conventional measures of GDP. I learned about Kelly's article through Steve Muhlberger's blog. Steve doesn't carry advertising, so his blog is a free gift to the world. In conventional terms, its direct contribution to the economy is zero, but so much the worse for conventional measures of economic activity.

There's a whole enormous but difficult to quantify gift economy where we spend time making things for friends and strangers: blog posts and cat photos and Improv Everywhere performances, mostly unmediated by the exchange of money. We're like a planet of Kirstendalers, living well by spending time as each others' servants.

And one of the great strengths of this gift economy is that transaction costs can be very low. As the citizen of a rich society I can afford to spend my leisure as I wish. I can give it away if I want to.

Now a lot of this simply gives pleasure to friends and strangers, not that there's anything wrong with that. Those that do this do well.

Some fields, like my primary interest of history, don't do a lot to put bread on the table of the poor. Still, those that know their own past better are richer for it. Those that do that do better.

But, some ideas are so powerful that they can clearly make a society richer as long as the society survives, and successors that inherit it until they perish, and so on until the end of time. Those that do this do best of all.

One of the great ideas of the 20th century was nonviolent civil disobedience. It made the world better, and once invented could not be uninvented. But the inventors who brought it forward drew no worldly profit from it, but the reverse.

But think of the unlocked potential at the end of the struggle! How many U.S. citizens would prefer the laws and norms of 1954 to those of today? Few, I hope.

There are a lot of ideas like that, although few as powerful. Sometime the first draft is flawed (See: French Revolution 1.0) The second great strength of the 21st century gift economy is that each of us can throw our thoughts into the marketplace of ideas, and others can refute them or improve  on them, and we can respond to do better. Rinse, lather, repeat.

A spooky Halloween sky from Astronomy Picture of the Day

Unfortunately, the APOD post doesn't give a location for this remarkable house.