Monday, May 18, 2015

Griping about the word medieval

This past week I was in Kalamazoo Michigan for the International Congress for Medieval Studies. It was the 50th such Congress at Western Michigan University, and a certain number of sessions were devoted to looking back over the past half-century or so.

Sure enough, some of those sessions (which I should point out were very good and interesting) included a lot of griping and grouching about the misuse and ambiguity of the word medieval. You would think that a bunch of scholars who by their very nature of their discipline are experts in the evolution of the meaning of words would by now have gotten over the fact that though it doesn’t make a lot of sense to call “the Middle Ages” by that term, and that coming up with a really good, chronological definition of those ages is impossible, we are stuck with the words medieval and Middle Ages anyway. But no, there is a lingering feeling that it should be possible to nail down these terms – Middle Ages, medieval – once and for all. Or ditch them. If all the experts agreed, everybody else would have to fall into line – right?

You know that’s not going to happen.

Scholars of the Middle Ages, like experts in any other field, feel they should be in control of the terminology that defines their work and gives them legitimacy. But the truth is that any important subject is contested between a whole bunch of different individuals and groups who have an interest in that field. A single word – medieval – is shattered into a variety of definitions, many of which are out of date – at least in the eyes of people working on the cutting edge of, say, “medieval studies.” Old assumptions and terms and generalizations which current practitioners have rejected hang on in popular and nonspecialist discussions.

This can be intensely irritating for people who know that certain phrases and analyses lost their cogency back in 1927 and want to talk about what their friends are doing in the field now. Nevertheless people whose business is words should really accept the fact that words like “medieval” have a number of popular meanings, and when one of them shows up in current discussion (when, for instance, a Game of Thrones shows up and is widely labelled as medieval, even though the world of Game of Thrones is not our earth at all), the fact can be dealt with a good-humored way. It certainly would reflect credit on any field where a good-humored approach was the norm.

David Parry made the most sensible remark of the entire week when he pointed out that an imprecise word like medieval has a lot of cultural value for people who make their living interpreting that era. Indeed there is a financial payoff being associated with it. As he said, “the word makes students registering for courses press the button on the screen that says ‘enroll.’ The phrase ‘early modern’ doesn’t have that effect. ”

Yes, the ancient Egyptians were odd

From Discovery News:
Animals Mummified by the Millions in Ancient Egypt

About a third of the X-rayed and CT scanned artifacts do in fact contain complete and remarkably well preserved animals. Another third contain partial remains. The rest is simply empty.

Highlighted in a BBC documentary, the “mummy scandal” was exposed as scan of beautifully crafted animal mummies showed linens padded out with various items.

“Basically, organic material such as mud, sticks and reeds, that would have been lying around the embalmers workshops, and also things like eggshells and feathers, which were associated with the animals, but aren’t the animals themselves,” Lidija McKnight, an Egyptologist from the University of Manchester, told the BBC.

Experts believe as many as 70 million animals were‭ ‬ritually slaughtered by the Egyptians to foster a huge mummification industry that even drove some species extinct.‭ ‬

How Different Cultures Made Their Mummies

There were four kinds of animal mummies: pets that died of natural causes before their mummification and were buried with their owners; sacred beasts, worshiped and pampered in life, and buried in elaborate tombs at their death; animals serving as food for their owners in the afterlife; and religious offerings, which were the majority.

Having miserable, short lives, these poor animals were simply bred to become votive mummies — offered to the gods in a gesture similar to the way people light candles in churches today.

The practice began as early as‭ ‬3,000 B.C. and reached its zenith from about‭ ‬650‭ ‬B.C. to‭ ‬200‭ ‬A.D., when millions of animals like dogs and cats were raised by temple priests and mummified.‭

According to the researchers, there was an element of demand outstripping supply which may have accounted for some mummies not containing a complete animal.

Ancient Dogs Found Buried in Pots in Egypt

“There simply wouldn’t have been enough to go round,” McKnight told Discovery News.

“More importantly, the ancient Egyptians believed that a small fragment of bone or material associated with the animals or a sacred space contained sufficient importance to be offered as a gift to the gods,” she added.

McKnight believes the procedure shouldn’t be seen as a forgery or scam as the pilgrims likely knew they were not burying a fully mummified animal.

“It simply wouldn’t have mattered what they contained as long as they were a suitable offering to the gods. Often the most beautifully wrapped mummies don’t contain the animal remains themselves,” she said.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Juan Cole on religious divisions in the Middle East: Sunni vs. Shiite?

From Informed Comment

JUAN COLE: I agree that from 30,000 feet, it looks as though Iran has put together a bloc of countries with significant Shiite populations and is using the Shiite form of Islam as a kind of soft-power wedge to establish a kind of bloc. But if you go down on the ground, then that way of looking at it becomes difficult to maintain. Syria, for example, where Iran is supporting the government of Bashar al-Assad, is a Baathist state, which is irreligious. They actually persecuted religion. It is true that the upper echelons of the Baath Party in Syria are staffed by members of the Alawite minority, who are technically—at least scholars would consider them a form of Shiite Islam. But Alawite Islam is barely Islam. They don’t have mosques. They don’t pray five times a day. They have Neoplatonic and Gnostic philosophies coming from the pre-Islamic Greek world. There is a kind of mythology there that is very important in their thinking.

I went to Antakya one time, which is an Alawite city, and I asked someone—I was eager to meet an Alawite—I asked someone local, “Are you an Alawite?” He said, “No. Praise be to God, I’m a Muslim.”

The idea that Iran is supporting Syria because orthodox Twelver Shiite Islam feels any kind of kinship with the Alawites is crazy. The ayatollahs would issue fatwas of excommunication and heresy and so forth against Alawites.

Then the Alawites are only one part of a coalition of Syrians that involves Christians, Druze, and very substantial numbers of Sunnis. The regime still has about two-thirds of the country, which it cannot have unless a large number of Sunnis in Damascus continue to support it, because the business class has benefited from that regime and so forth.

So, yes, Iran is supporting the Alawites of Syria, but you have to have an extremely narrow lens to make this look as though it’s about Shias.

DAVID SPEEDIE: The other, perhaps even more contemporary context in which this being played out in the minds of some Western commentators, of course, is in Yemen, which is a very, very perilous situation, it seems to many of us. Obviously, al-Qaeda in Yemen claimed responsibility for many terror attacks, including Charlie Hebdo at one point. It is regarded as one of the most virulent and violent of the extremist movements. They, of course, are extremist Sunni. Then this dichotomy, Shia-Sunni, comes into play with, “Oh, Iran is supporting”—now, I read somewhere that they should not technically to be called Houthi, but Ansarullah, the Shia insurgent forces in Yemen.

What’s going on there? What should our response be, for example, to the Saudi-led military action? Is this offering comfort and succor to the extremist elements in Yemen? Or is that again too simplistic? JUAN COLE: In my own view, Yemen is, of course, a complete mess. It is an ecological mess above all. It is running out of water. The capital may go dry within five years. We can expect vast displacement of people just on, surely, ecological grounds. For it to be bombed is the last thing that it needed. This is a humanitarian catastrophe.

The United States has joined in this effort and is giving logistical support, it says, to the Saudis and others who are engaged in this bombing campaign. The bombing campaign is being conducted against a grassroots tribal movement and seems very unsuited to produce a military victory of any sort. I think it can succeed in knocking out electricity and making it difficult to distribute petroleum and, again, making people’s lives miserable. I’m not sure it can succeed in changing the politics simply by bombing from a distance.

I really think the United States is poorly advised to get involved in this thing. I don’t think that the lines are at all clear. The Houthi movement is named for the family that led it. Of course, it is not what it calls itself. (The Quakers don’t call themselves that either. It’s the Society of Friends. People don’t get to choose.) But they have become known as the Houthis. They are a movement of the Zaidi Shiite community in Northern Yemen. The Zaidis are known as a form of Shi’ism, again, very unlike what is in Iran and Iraq what is in Iran and Iraq, what Americans are more used to, as being quite close to the Sunnis. They don’t, for instance, curse the Sunni caliphs. They don’t have that kind of animosity towards Sunnism. And they don’t have ayatollahs. They shade over at some level into Sunnism. They are not that different. People in Yemen, anyway, make alliances by clan and tribe, and not so much by which sect the clan or tribe belongs to. There are substantial Sunni tribes that are allied with the Houthis. Seeing this as Shiite or Iran—maybe it looks like that from a very great distance, but down on the ground, it is a real exaggeration. DAVID SPEEDIE: Again, it is superficial to see this as strictly a religious divide. Many of the tribal entities are probably not that religious at all. JUAN COLE: Many of the tribal entities are not religious at all, and then the ones that are can be united. For instance, most Sunnis in Yemen, in North Yemen at least, are Shafi’i Sunnis, who differ dramatically with the Sunni Wahabi branch of Islam and might well make common cause with Zaidis against the Wahabis.

Friday, May 08, 2015

The charges against Omar Khadr

CBC News quotes Khadr's lawyer:
But Glazier, the former military officer, adds, "the law of war does not criminalize throwing a hand grenade or shooting at soldiers; that is, in fact, what militaries around the world are called upon to do."
I've long wondered about that.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

"Winning" the war in Ukraine

Foreign Policy:
The Russian-occupied Donbass enclave in eastern Ukraine is on the verge of economic and social collapse. That grave fact casts the Russo-Ukrainian war in a different light. Normally, wars are fought over prize territory: winners gain it, losers lose it. In this case, the implosion of the Donbass means that whoever controls the enclave is, in fact, the loser. As the man who owns the enclave and is likely to do so for the foreseeable future, Vladimir Putin is thus the loser. And both Russia and Ukraine know it.

According to United Nations data, of the 5 million people who formerly populated the enclave, nearly 2 million have left since March 2014. Since many of these refugees are educated, middle-class professionals who are unlikely ever to return to a war zone, the enclave has suffered an irreparable loss of its intellectual and human capital.

Of the 3 million who are left, about 2 million are children and pensioners — leaving 1 million working-age adults to support them, service the crumbling economy, and do the fighting. According to the National Bank of Ukraine, GDP in the Donbass has collapsed, with industrial production falling by over a third in 2014, and construction by over a half. Many bridges and rail tracks remain destroyed. Only one third of residents receive a steady wage. Large swathes of the territory suffer from gas, water, and electricity shortages. And Kiev stopped paying pensions to enclave residents in late 2014. Unsurprisingly, the decline of the Donbass has continued apace in 2015.

Although refugee streams appear to have abated — those most able to flee have already left — economic decline and flight will continue as long as the war does. In time, the enclave’s population will consist of senior citizens barely surviving off their private plots, children forced to fend for themselves on the street, overworked women, and desperate men who opt either for alcoholism or for the material compensations of fighting — and dying — within the separatist ranks. (In the photo, a resident of the Donbass village of Nikishino talks to neighbors outside her destroyed home.)

The longer the fighting continues, the less will the Donbass be able to sustain itself and its war-fighting capacity and the less will the separatists be able to create a functioning political entity.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Today's conservatives


Not all conservatives identify fully as libertarians, but except for the theocons they all sort of do. Freedum, liberty, small state, keep your law enforcement away from the public land I'm illegally squatting on, etc. The 2nd amendment is all about the right not just to combat acts of "tyranny" but of revolution itself.

But, somehow, as long as that tyranny is directed at the "right" people... Haven't yet seen any freedum lovers suggest that what the people in Baltimore need to do is buy more guns.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The new Avengers movie: How your studies in Late Antiquity helped you understand Joss Whedon's plight

This is wonderful, wonderful. Thanks, Salon and Mr. O'Hehir:
It might be accurate to say instead that superhero cinema has reached a decadent plateau, a long-term steady state of self-nourishing bigness and reverberant meaninglessness. Whedon moves on from the Marvel empire not as its Augustus or its Spartacus, but more like one of the later, non-terrible Christian emperors who won some battles, made some reforms and convinced everybody that the glory of Rome would endure forever. Was it worth doing? That depends on what you think of Rome.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Antoine de la Sale, Jean de Saintré. My review of a new translation

From The Medieval Review

De la Sale, Antoine. Jean de Saintré: A Late Medieval Education in Love and Chivalry. Trans. Roberta L. Krueger and Jane H. M. Taylor. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. Pp. 264. $59.95. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4586-8.

Reviewed by Steven Muhlberger

Nipissing University

Translations are sometimes seen as a lesser form of scholarly endeavor. This is to my mind quite unfair. Medievalists should be among the first to acknowledge that we all bump up against our linguistic limitations and have to turn to translations for help. Translations allow us medievalists to decide, after mastering four or five languages, whether material in a sixth is going to be relevant to our research question. Of course without translations we would have no way of introducing our students to the evidence on which we build our historical reconstructions. The best translations are running commentaries on some historical subject, which provide far more than a literal representation of the original text. The best translators are expert guides to whole past cultures. Finally, translators are literary artists who (in perhaps their most contentious role) create a modern analog of a premodern aesthetic experience.

Jean de Saintré (1456) has long attracted the attention of scholars and ordinary readers. It survives in ten manuscripts and numerous printed editions starting in 1517. Indeed there have been two previous English translations, the most recent being from 1965. Non-specialist readers have been attracted by Jean de Saintré as a portrayal of the chivalric, courtly culture of the fifteenth century--what has been called an early historical novel. Scholars have found and continue to find the book as capturing an important moment in French literary history. Roberta L. Krueger and Jane H. M. Taylor have given this text a new and approachable form.

Jean de Saintré draws much of its value from the fact that it portrays chivalric and courtly culture from the inside. Its author, Antoine de la Sale, is himself a fascinating subject for scholarly investigation. The son of a Gascon mercenary, La Sale spent most of his long life as a courtier in the retinues of the houses of Anjou and Luxemburg, working most of that time as a preceptor or tutor for various young princes. His duties provided him with motivation to write. His three major works, of which Jean de Saintré is one, have a strong pedagogical component, combining moral instruction with discussion of chivalric customs and courtly manners and lighthearted storytelling.

La Sale combined these various elements into Jean de Saintré, which has been called the first historical novel. The eponymous hero was a real warrior of the fourteenth century but little of his actual career found itself into La Sale's book. Jean de Saintré the character is a young nobleman who over the course of the book advances from being a bashful and uncultivated youngster to being a perfect knight, expert in chivalric competition, courtly intercourse, and war. He owes his transformation to the patronage of an older woman, a rich widow whom the author calls the lady of Belles Cousines. This lady spots young Jean in court one day and decides to take him in hand. After teasing him unmercifully about his ignorance of love and his lack of a lover, she begins to train him up to be a knightly figure who attains such courtly grace that by his mid-teens he is wildly popular with all and sundry. Even kings feel privileged to associate with him.

His relationship with the lady of Belles Cousines is more complicated. To judge by her rather cool public interaction with Jean, her fellow courtiers might easily conclude that she of all the ladies is the least impressed with him. While others are full of praise for the wonderboy she has hardly a good word to say to or about him. But she meets him in secret to share pleasure and delight; and perhaps more importantly, she lavishly dresses and equips him and funds his training in chivalric combat. Parts of the book reads like a catalogue of luxuries that most nonfictional noblemen of La Sale's time could hardly hope to obtain. For the modern reader, these passages give an idea of the attractions of the royal court--clothing, weapons, horses as well as good company and good food. Not that this can be taken as reportage. Jean lives a dream-like existence and enjoys the best of everything and the approval of all the best people.

Young Jean, with the encouragement of his lady, matures into an impressive warrior. Much of the book is devoted to describing Jean's tremendous success in the lists and on the battlefield. This is the ultimate test of Jean's worth as a man and of the quality of the secret and intense love affair he enjoys. The lady of Belles Cousines is his silent partner, imperiously telling him when and whom he will fight, praying and weeping for him when he goes out to do her will.

Eventually, however, the partnership breaks down when after many years Jean arranges a deed of arms without consulting the lady. She takes tremendous offense at this and without a word of explanation withdraws to the country where she begins an affair with a rich abbot. The book ends with Jean following her to her rural retreat, where he finds out how the land lies. Unsurprisingly, the two lovers of the lady come to blows and Jean defeats the abbot, though not without difficulty. His revenge on the lady is more subtle; he traps her into betraying herself before the entire court as an unworthy lover.

Roberta L. Krueger and Jane H. M. Taylor have created in Jean de Saintré a work that has many valuable characteristics. First, the translation makes available a rich source for those interested in the culture of chivalry in the later Middle Ages. For me, the depiction of the role of the lady in the education and success of an aspiring knight was particularly interesting, a theme that gave me new material to think about, and one that might well be very useful in a number of different teaching situations.

Second, the translators' apparatus is effectively mustered. The introduction briefly and clearly covers the essential information; it should be understandable and accessible to all potential readers. There is a valuable glossary, and a good discussion of some of the choices the translators made, e.g. their very sensible decision not to translate heraldic terminology.

Third, the style of the translators is neither obviously modern nor obnoxiously archaic. They have not, in other words, produced a new set of barriers that readers must jump over.

Fourth, unlike some earlier translations, the entire text is translated, including two long catalogues, one of the heraldry borne by important families of France, another of families that supposedly accompanied Saintré to Prussia on crusade. These catalogues and other long passages devoted to description of the court, luxurious gifts exchanged between important courtiers, and blow-by-blow coverage of Saintré's deeds of arms, could be and sometimes have been abridged in earlier versions of the book; the result being, however, that what La Sale and his fifteenth-century readers thought was edifying and enjoyable is obscured.

It is too bad that the publishers have decided to charge the same price for the e-book as they do for the hardback. For years I have taught a seminar on the history of chivalry and this book is an obvious candidate for the reading list. At its current price, however, I would probably pass it by the next time I teach it.


A good piece from Michela Wrong in Foreign Policy:

When Migrants Flee Progress

Each migrant trying to cross the Mediterranean in a rickety boat has his or her own reason for risking the journey. But for people who study Africa, one overall lesson quietly emerges from this mass movement: Man cannot live by MDGs alone.

I’m talking about the Millennium Development Goals, the eight targets the United Nations drew up as benchmarks of successful development back in 2000. The U.N. set precise goals for poverty alleviation, education, and health care that poor countries, supported by Western donors, could tick off a list -- the supposed building blocks of a better life. Ironically, the deadline set for achieving the MDGs was 2015, the very year in which Europe has been confronted by a mass exodus of refugees voting with their feet.

Some migrants are fleeing violence in Syria and Somalia; some are West Africans who worked in Libya and now find it too dangerous to stay. But a significant share comes from African countries neither wracked by civil unrest nor embroiled in war. Counterintuitively, many of these nations perform extremely well on the MDG front.

Take the Red Sea nation of Eritrea, which accounts for the greatest number of migrants to Europe after Syria, an extraordinary figure given its population of just around 6 million. According to the U.N. refugee agency, 34,561 Eritreans crossed the Mediterranean in 2014.

Bizarre as it may seem, I often encourage Western friends to take holidays in Eritrea, this country so many are now fleeing and which I myself can’t access, for want of a journalist visa. It’s safe, clean, and cheap, and it boasts some of Africa’s best roads and most dramatic scenery, and the continent’s most beautiful capital city. Back in 2013, President Isaias Afewerki’s government patted itself on the back for achieving three health MDGs ahead of schedule: reducing infant mortality, improving maternal health, and combating HIV, malaria, and other diseases. It expects to check three more off the list by the end of this year.

... The point is: All that just isn’t enough. Eritrea, run by a former communist rebel movement that seized power in 1991, may well offer its citizens excellent medical care. Claims that it knows how to protect its people from East Africa’s frequent droughts and resulting famines may even be true. But the government has failed dramatically to deliver on a range of less quantifiable needs that hold the key to human fulfillment.

There’s no independent media or political opposition in the country. Religious freedom is narrowly curtailed. A multiparty constitution has never been implemented*, no presidential elections staged. Both men and women must do military service, which is often open-ended. If you’re lucky enough to get demobilized, there’s no private-sector economy to soak up your labor and provide you with skills. Asmara is an elegant cage -- a suffocating place to live.

Africa is struggling to digest a massive youth bulge, and youngsters are instinctively aspirational. They want the chance of a better existence in their own lifetimes, not promises of some distant utopia. While governments such as the one in Eritrea may score impressively when it comes to keeping youth fed, vaccinated, and literate (the MDG emphasis is on primary education, of course, not the tertiary education likely to produce rebellious students), they routinely frustrate deeper needs.

Indeed, the paradox is not unique to Eritrea. Since the end of the Cold War, a new generation of African leaders has emerged that wins the consistent and enthusiastic backing of the U.S. Agency for International Development and Britain’s Department for International Development for delivering on the MDGs, even while these leaders show open contempt for civil society, human rights groups, and the free press. “Democracy is a luxury we can’t afford,” is the implicit message to Western partners.

... “Africa Rising,” the recent buzz phrase adopted by investors excited by the economic potential of the continent’s growing middle class and the spread of modern technology, has distracted attention from a series of reactionary trends. In east, west, and central Africa we are seeing elections rigged not once, but repeatedly; the establishment of de facto royal dynasties; and draconian legislation aimed at closing down the non-governmental sector, muffling the press, and stamping out homosexuality. Annual reports by human rights organizations make for grim reading.

Back when the U.S. President George H.W. Bush promised “a new world order” premised on liberal values, such developments would have alarmed Western partners. Now they generate shrugged shoulders from diplomats and development officials who regard them as part of the realpolitik of the modern era.

The MDGs were designed, in part, to give Western donors and African governments apolitical, uncontroversial common ground upon which all could agree. Clean water, primary education, decent health care -- who wouldn’t want those, after all? But the message coming from the migrants crossing the Mediterranean is: “Oh, sure, we want those. But we want far, far more.” And who can blame them?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Medieval versus enlightened

Thanks to the anonymous medievalist who wrote this to Dan Savage:
I've been reading your column for years (19 years?), and I love it. "Savage Love" has been a major part of my coming to terms with my sexuality after a very religious upbringing. And I hate to complain about something that probably seems pretty minor, but hopefully my reasons will be compelling. You recently advised GTBHF about , and you referred to his very conservative upbringing and the "medieval version of his faith." I'm a medievalist, and this is one of the things about our current discourse on religion that drives me nuts. Contemporary radical Christianity, Judaism and Islam are all terrible, but none of them are medieval, especially in terms of sexuality.
I'm not saying that the Middle Ages was a great period of freedom (sexual or otherwise), but the sexual culture of 12th century France, Iraq, Jerusalem, or Minsk did not involve the degree of self-loathing brought about by modern approaches to sexuality. Modern sexual purity has become a marker of faith, which it wasn't in the Middle Ages. (For instance, the Bishop of Winchester ran the brothels in South London—for real, it was a primary and publicly acknowledged source of his revenue; and one particularly powerful Bishop of Winchester was both the product of adultery and the father of a bastard—which didn't stop him from being a Cardinal and Papal Legate.) And faith, especially in modern radical religion, is a marker of social identity in a way it rarely was in the Middle Ages.
The thing that really screwed up a lot of us religious kids was that engaging with our sexuality destroyed our religious identity: we stopped being Christians or Muslims when we started having sex, or sometimes, just started desiring to have sex. (Jewish identity is somewhat different, though my Haredi friends would perhaps find a similar situation.)
The Middle-Eastern boyfriend wasn't taught a medieval version of his faith, and radical religion in the West isn't a retreat into the past—it is a very modern way of conceiving identity. Even something like ISIS is really just interested in the medieval borders of their caliphate; their ideology developed out of 18th and 19th century anti-colonial sentiment, and much ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Judaism and Evangelical Christianity developed at the same time. Even the radical Roman Catholicism of someone like Rick Santorum is surprisingly modern.
...The common response in the West to religious radicalism is to urge enlightenment, and to believe that enlightenment is a progressive narrative that is ever more inclusive. But these religions are responses to enlightenment, in fact often to The Enlightenment. As such, they become more comprehensible. The Enlightenment narrative comes with a bunch of other stuff, including concepts of mass culture and population. (Michel Foucault does a great job of talking about these developments, and modern sexuality, including homosexual and heterosexual identity, as well—and I'm stealing and watering down his thought here.) Its narrative depends upon centralized control: it gave us the modern army, the modern prison, the mental asylum, genocide, and totalitarianism as well as modern science and democracy.
Again, I'm not saying that I'd prefer to live in the 12th century (I wouldn't), but that's because I can imagine myself as part of that center. Educated, well-off Westerners generally assume that they are part of the center, that they can affect the government and contribute to the progress of enlightenment. This means that their identity is invested in the social form of modernity.
However, for those on the margins, for the excluded, the feeling is much different. Some governments have taken advantage of that: the Nazis made national identity part of a progress narrative in order to involve lots of struggling, middle-class Germans in their cause (despite Germany having become a nation only recently); the Soviet Union did a similar thing with the oppressed Russian peasants (despite Marx saying that a mostly agricultural society wasn't ready for Communism). Radical religion is doing something similar: it offers a social identity to those excluded (or who feel excluded) from the dominant system of Western enlightenment capitalism. It is a modern response to a modern problem, and by making it seem like some medieval holdover, we cover up the way in which our social power produces the conditions for this kind of identity, and make violence appear as the only response for these recalcitrant "holdouts."

Thursday, April 16, 2015

"The gleaming cities of Earth...

...Where peace reigns, and hatred has no home."

These are the last lines of the episode "Muse" from the series "Star Trek: Voyager." The episode is characteristic of the series as a whole.

Voyager is not the most popular series in the Star Trek franchise. Like some of the other series – maybe all of them – it started out rather weak, and with characters that were not particularly well developed. But I have seen the series twice now and I think that once the series got rid of the character Kes and brought Seven of Nine into the story, about halfway through, it got a lot better. Sure, there are some fairly dumb and typically dumb stories, but there is some very good science fiction as well.

The episode "Muse" is an example of how serious television, if the creators take it seriously themselves,  can give writers and directors and actors space do all sorts of interesting stuff. The existence of Netflix shows us how some series work very well as they build on previous strengths.
 The characters of Voyager are very good examples of this. They aren't brilliantly done, but they are increasingly good as things progress. The character of the doctor by Robert Picardo and Seven of Nine by Jeri Ryan come to mind. In both cases, incomplete human beings turn into something else as they mature, and as is repeatedly emphasized by the development of the series as a whole, they have to be accepted by the flesh and blood human beings as equals. I think Ryan, whom many people think got the job sheerly on the basis of astonishing physical beauty, had a very tough assignment here and did it very well.

In the case of "Muse" we see an alien culture that seems to have developed to an era similar to archaic Greece. A local poet rescues one of the members of the Starfleet expedition and uses her story to create a drama far away better than anything that has existed in his culture before. It's not really a very believable story when it comes down to it  but it does make you think about how astonishing the effect of early Greek drama must've been. Classicists know this, but how often has this been explored on TV or in any other popular genre of fiction?

The quote I used for a title for this post indicates a final characteristic worth noting. It is spoken by the poet of the alien culture who has visualized Earth as the home of peace and perfection. According to the series, he's absolutely right. The 24th century according to the writers of the series is a time when the most optimistic dreams we have for our future have come true. Sometimes that optimism seems a bit overdone, but I would say that the whole dramatic interest of the series is that it argues that even when peace and concord have come to Earth, there will still be plenty of problems in applying all our best ideas to real-life situations.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

The Children of ISIS

This article in Rolling Stone is a real thought-provoker.  The children of unremarkable Muslim immigrants to the United States end up embracing the extremist message.

Mariyam's attorney, Marlo Cadeddu, believes that if the Khan kids are guilty of anything, it's a form of magical thinking. "They were naive, and they were sheltered, and they bought into a fantasy of a Muslim utopia," she says. "It's hard to be an observant Muslim teenager growing up in post-9/11 America, and ISIS plays on those insecurities in a very calculated way."
Chicago's Muslim community is one of the oldest and largest in the United States, with a significant portion hailing from the South Asian diaspora. Hamzah's parents, Shafi and Zarine, naturalized American citizens, were born in Hyderabad, the fourth-largest city in India, and are followers of the Deobandi school of Islam, a fundamentalist Sunni strain that stresses strict adherence to Islamic law and has been influential in jihadist networks in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Khans, however, follow a pacifist movement that preaches that Muslims' true battle is a spiritual one.
An unassuming young man, Shafi was 20 when he arrived in Chicago with his parents, in 1986. In 1994, he returned to India for an arranged marriage with Zarine, then a 21-year-old student at Hyderabad's main university. Back in Chicago, the couple settled on Devon Avenue, an area famous for being a landing point for immigrants from across the Indian subcontinent. In 1995, their first child, Hamzah, was born, followed by Mariyam in 1996, Tarek in 1998 and another sister in 2000. To support his brood, Shafi, who was still putting himself through college, worked as a customer-service representative at a bank. Zarine, who'd given up her scientific ambitions to marry and have children, worked part-time teaching primary school. By 2005, they joined the migration pattern of many other Indian and Pakistani Muslims and settled in the suburbs west of the city, first in Des Plaines, near O'Hare, and then, after their fifth and final child was born in 2011, in Bolingbrook.

Uninspiring though it might be, the Khans found much to appreciate in the suburbs. In America, you got what you paid for: a house, a car, clean streets, medical care. They appreciated the kindness of Americans and, as Zarine often noted, their "respect for hard work and human life." And yet, neither she nor her husband was ever fully comfortable here. The violence of popular culture in particular bothered Zarine. When Hamzah was about eight, the television broke; the Khans decided not to replace it. Though they had a computer with Internet access, Shafi and Zarine monitored their children's online habits, allowing them to watch cartoons and read the news, but never to surf the Internet alone. "We wanted to preserve their innocence," Zarine later noted to the Washington Post.

Chicago's western suburbs have a drab, workaday quality filled with featureless strip malls and equally nondescript homes. Once lily-white, the area's demographics have followed national trends, and South Asians now comprise almost six percent of the population. In the past decade, at least 15 new mosques and Islamic cultural centers have sprung up throughout the area, quickly assimilating into the landscape: mosque, 7-Eleven, McDonald's, church, Walmart, halal butcher, Taco Bell, synagogue, Planet Fitness.

On September 11th, 2001, Zarine and Shafi had been living together in Chicago for seven years. Hamzah was six, Mariyam four; the younger two siblings were toddlers. The Khans, who were horrified by the attacks, tried not to watch the news. Sometimes, Zarine would hear about women's scarves getting pulled off in public, though it never happened to her. She did, however, get random stares while shopping. Given what happened on 9/11, that was "understandable," she rationalized. But in Chicago, as in most cities across the country, there were more overt examples of discrimination.

Everyone had heard the stories of people who had been hassled or detained at the airport, or whose immigration papers were mysteriously held up. Many Muslim families knew of at least one child who'd been teased and called "Osama" or "terrorist" on the playground. It was assumed, in an era of FBI stings (including several in Chicago), that if a stranger entered a mosque during Friday prayers and started spouting extremist rhetoric, he was likely an informant.

Instead of sending their kids to public schools, the Khans enrolled their children in an Islamic primary school, and later in the College Preparatory School of America (CPSA), a private Islamic day school that bills itself as providing "academic excellence in an Islamic environment." Mohammad Chaudhry, a friend of the Khans and a former board member of their mosque, also sends his kids to CPSA, which he feels has helped instill in them the proper Islamic values. But it's also a safety issue, he admits. "To be honest with you, I don't want my kids being told they're terrorists."
One of Hamzah's teachers at CPSA, who spoke to Rolling Stone anonymously (the school has refused to comment on the Khans and has instructed its faculty to do the same), doubts Hamzah had the skills needed for a scientific career. "He wasn't cut out for engineering," he says. "He always came across as really naive, just kind of simple." Sexual innuendos went over his head. Though he had a circle of friends, he lacked the go-along-to-get-along sensibility that others took in stride. According to the teacher, cheating has occasionally been a problem at CPSA, where tremendous pressure is put on kids to excel in the sciences, but Hamzah never took part. "That's part of that innocence," he says. "The rest of the kids are like, 'Look, you can't always be this goody-two-shoes.' "

Hamzah saw in Islam a world of infinite wisdom whose rules and ancient history intrigued him. Steeped in the stories of Muhammad, his companions, and the sultans and caliphs who came after them, Hamzah viewed those days as a "simpler" era when Islam flourished across a vast empire, or Caliphate, and the Muslim ummah, or global community, was united. By college, though he still enjoyed making funny videos with friends and listening to rappers like Waka Flocka Flame, he'd begun to see those pursuits as shallow, lacking the honor and romance of being a true champion of the ummah. In 2014, he created a Tumblr page he called "Torchbearers of Tawheed," dedicated to "posts about important events and people from Islam dating from the period of Muhammad [peace be upon him]," though he sometimes posted his own poetry, too. On Twitter, he dubbed himself @lionofthe-d3s3rt – a take on his name, which means "lion," and a reference to historical freedom fighters in the Middle East. He trimmed his beard in the manner of an Arabian prince, and then, because it looked so good, he posted a picture on his Google+ page, standing in front of a suburban home, his black hair wrapped in a Saudi-style headdress, chin raised, eyes fixed on some distant point. Mecca? Chicago? Burger King? Who knew?

Mariyam, while equally invested in her dreams, was more focused. A voracious reader, she made her way through most of the young-adult novels on The New York Times Best Sellers list, and spent hours making plans. She was going to be an astronaut. Then she decided she'd rather be a paleontologist, or a surgeon. Like her brother, she also became a hafiz, which in her case took three years, as she was meticulous about the Quran, memorizing each phrase and passage backward and forward until she could recite it without error. "I like things to be perfect, and I like to be the best at them," she says. This was obvious by simply looking at her, if she'd have allowed it.

Though wearing the niqab isn't generally required in Islam, Mariyam, like her mother, chose to cover all but her forehead and her eyes. In public, Mariyam, a tiny five feet two, appeared as a mute appendage to Zarine, to whom she is fiercely attached. But at home, where she covered only her hair, she was a different, more dynamic girl: intellectually curious, chatty, sometimes angst-ridden and moody. She was concerned about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She worried about the suffering of Muslims — especially the children — wherever they were. She also worried about the usual teenage things: her hair, her skin, her weight. Embarrassingly, she now admits, she was obsessed for a while — OK, for about three years — with Linkin Park, whose lyrics she memorized and wrote everywhere. There were also the boys-suck ballads of Taylor Swift, more of a secret passion. Boys themselves were strictly off-limits in the hyperconservative interpretation of Islam imparted by her parents. She could still laugh, joke, ride bikes and climb trees with her brothers, but once she hit puberty, strange boys were to be avoided unless she needed to ask someone for directions.

This, for the most part, was OK, because more than anything, Mariyam was painfully shy. Her niqab was her shield, and behind the veil she could observe, which she did, keenly, but didn't have to engage. This shyness, combined with her innate perfectionism, created a deep well of anxiety that struck her immediately after she finished memorizing the Quran. She'd missed the entirety of middle school, though she'd tried to keep up through home-schooling. As a result, all the torment of those awkward early-teenage years, the best-friendships, rivalries and petty jealousies — all of that had passed her by. So she told her mother she didn't want to go back to school. Zarine begged her to change her mind. "I used to tell her every single day, 'You're going to regret this when you're in college,' " Zarine recalls. " 'You're going to say, "I missed high school life." ' " Mariyam insisted she'd be better off being home-schooled and enrolled in a correspondence program. And so, ninth grade passed and then 10th.
 Apart from her studies, her outlets were baking, drawing and watching YouTube videos. She developed a passion for elaborate Arabic eye makeup, which she'd experiment with in her room, trying the Indian-princess look one day, a sultry Arabian look the next, always making sure to take it off before anyone could see. Though she never admitted it, the loneliness was excruciating. After a while, even a trip with her mother to Walmart was exciting.
And then, at 16, Mariyam began to change. She stopped listening to music, stopped watching anime and reading novels. She no longer missed her friends or worried about whether she should return to high school — she knew there was no point. The only thing that mattered to her was religion. While her brothers and sister were off at school and working on projects for the next science fair, she would rush through her lessons in order to curl up in a corner and read the hadiths, the second-hand accounts of the teachings and proverbs of Muhammad, as well as books by many other Islamic scholars.
By 2013, Mariyam had become immersed in the crisis in Syria, or Shaam, as she now called it, which is also what the Islamic State called the territory — encompassing large swaths of Syria and Iraq — that it would later dub the caliphate. Taking the cause as her own, she joined in a hashtag campaign for a Muslim prisoner and retweeted photos of victims of violence in the Middle East. She was influenced by Islamic forums that promoted a stridently anti-Western view — all non-Muslims were "kuffars," all Shias "apostates," and all mainstream imams, Islamic scholars and virtually any Muslims who "watered down their religion" were "coconuts": brown on the outside, but white at the heart.
Though ISIS promoted a hitherto unknown pageant of cinematic brutality to the world, believers like Hamzah and Mariyam were hearing a different message. By declaring the "caliphate," ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was fulfilling a dream cherished by generations of Muslims and Islamic leaders, including Osama bin Laden, who saw it as a long-term goal, albeit one that might take generations to realize. In his first video appearance as self-annointed caliph, Baghdadi issued a direct call to not just fighters, but also doctors, judges, engineers and experts in Islamic law to help build the new "Islamic State," where all Muslims were now obligated to go. This is a vastly different message from what previous iterations of jihadis have promoted, noted Loretta Napoleani, author of a new book on ISIS, The Islamist Phoenix. "In the old days, Al Qaeda was sending a negative message, which was 'Come be suicide bombers and live in paradise with 72 virgins,' " Napoleani said at a recent talk in New York. "This time, the message is 'Come and help us build a new state, your state . . . a Sunni political utopia . . . that will protect every single Muslim. . . .'  This is a very, very seductive message, and it's also a positive message."

All of the Khan kids were active on social media, but for Mariyam, it was more than just an outlet — it was her voice. Mariyam's life was full of rules, but online she could be anyone she wanted to be: a good Muslim girl, an advocate for the oppressed, even, in a way, an honorary boy who, veiled in the anonymity of the Internet, was free to engage with a bubbling new subculture of people, mostly young men, who she'd never have been able to look at, let alone speak to, in real life.
She found them on Twitter...

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Return of the mercenary

This Atlantic article explains why they are back in force:

McFate: The private military industry allows you to fight wars without having your own blood on the gambling table. And drones just do that as well. If you think about this as an arms-control issue, both [drones and private military companies] should be part of the same category, because they allow national governments to get involved in fighting without actually having citizens do it. And that creates moral hazard for policymakers, because it lowers the barriers of entry into conflict.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Scholarly editions and databases online

In the good old days of the early Internet, the appearance of a new site or resource often attracted a lot of attention. Now there are so many good resources that it’s quite easy for them to slip by without people who might really be interested finding out about them.

Here are three resources related to medieval military history and chivalry, one of my own particular interests. I am not surprised if you’ve missed them.

What looks like a brand-new one just caught my attention. It is a site devoted to the Spanish epic, the Song of the Cid (Cantar de mio Cid) Its purpose is to make the text more accessible in its original language.  Thus its primary users will be students of medieval Castilian who want to compare the readings of the chief manuscript with a “normalized” text, to a spoken version, to an English translation. There is a lot of useful information packed into the site, and it is really pretty to look at, too. One gripe: it is not so easy to find the English translation. There is a button that takes you straight to it, but that button is not labelled. I rather think that was people who come to the site will be using the English version, even if they are not the core audience for whom the site was built.

A similar site has been around for a while. It is the Online Froissart, which like the Cid site presents textual material in a variety of ways, with once again serious scholars being the core audience. The value of the site is underlined by the fact that the the best print edition Froissart’s over a century old and still unfinished. Looking at book prices for much less specialized and complicated scholarly works, one wonders whether the print edition will be finished and if anyone will be able to afford it on that happy day. The editors of the site have broken down one set of barriers to this key later medieval work.

And how about Armour in Art?  It describes itself thus:  “ is a searchable database of medieval art featuring armour. Items in the database range in date from 1100 to 1450 and are located throughout Europe. Content is varied - frescos, altars, stained glass, reliefs, etc - anything that is not an effigy/brass or manuscript is included.”

Why those latter two exclusions? Because, Mr. Bones, there related sites to cover that of the material. See the links just above.

Even yet, the Internet offers us some good serious content along with the kitty cats and the child stars who have aged so badly.

Breaking a family tradition

Like a lot of Americans and Canadians I have a very mixed ethnic background, but perhaps the one I was most aware of growing up was Irish Catholic. (Despite the German name I had little sense of being German, although it did influence me to take German language courses in high school).  The family tradition around St. Patrick’s Day was pretty simple. We didn’t do anything at all. Of course there was a lot less fuss then about the holiday – something that is true of many other holidays, like Halloween.

So today I am breaking with that family tradition and wearing green. Why ? I don’t know.

It does remind me of my high school history teacher who talked quite a bit about his Irish grandmother and then wore orange on St. Patrick’s Day…

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A twelfth-century description of a judicial duel on horseback

A new site dedicated to the "Song of My Cid" -- the famous Spanish epic -- includes this interesting account of the judicial duel between three of the Carrion clan whose "enfantes" mistreated the Cid's daughters and three of the Cid's chief vassals. Note that the bad guys are unwilling to face the famously sharp swords wielded by the good guys, and bail out by running out of the boundaries. I can't help thinking that structurally this combat may have been like a tournament. Get up and go out to the field, infantes of Carrión, it is time for you to fight like men, the Campeador's men will not fail in anything. If you come off he field well, you will have great honor, if you are defeated, don't blame us, for everyone knows that you went looking for it.- Now the infantes of Carrión are repenting, for what they did they are filled with regret, they wouldn't have done it for all there is in Carrión. All three of the Campeador's men are armed, King don Alfonso went over to see them, the Campeador's men said, -We kiss your hands as king and lord, that you be field judge for them and for us, help us fairly, allow no wrongs. Here the infantes of Carrión have their band, we know not what they will plan or what they won't, in your hand our lord placed us, protect our rights, for the love of the Creator.- At that moment the king said, -With all my heart and soul.- They bring them their horses, good ones and swift, they blessed the saddles and mount confidently, the shields that are well reinforced at their necks, in their hands they take the shafts of the sharp lances, these three lances have their own pennons, and around them many fine men. They now went out to the field where the markers were. All three of the Campeador's men are in agreement that each one of them should strike his adversary hard. Behold at the other end the infantes of Carrión, very well accompanied, for there are many relatives. The king gave them judges to tell them what's right and what isn't, that they not dispute with them about who is or isn't right. When they were in the field King don Alfonso spoke, -Hear what I say to you, infantes of Carrión, this combat you might have had in Toledo, but you refused. These three knights of my Cid the Campeador I brought them safely to the lands of Carrión, be in the right, don't commit any wrongs, for whoever wishes to commit a wrong, I will severely prohibit it, in all my kingdom he will not be welcome.- Now it begins to grieve the infantes of Carrión. The judges and the king point out the markers, all those around them left the field, they showed clearly to all six of them how they are laid out, that there whoever went outside the marker would be defeated. All the people cleared out around there, that they not approach the markers by any more than six lance lengths. They drew lots for field position, now they divided the sun equally, the judges got out from between them, they are face to face, then the Cid's men came at the infantes of Carrión and the infantes of Carrión at the Campeador's men, each one of them concentrates on his target. They clasp their shields before their hearts, they lower their lances along with the pennons, they lower their faces over the saddlebows, they struck their horses with their spurs, the ground shook where they were riding. Each one of them has his mind on his target, all three on three have now come together, those that are nearby think that at that moment they will fall dead. Pedro Bermúdez, he who challenged first, met with Fernán González face to face, they strike each other's shield fearlessly. Fernán González pierced the shield of Pedro Bermúdez, he hit only air, he did not strike flesh, in two places his lance shaft broke cleanly apart. Pedro Bermúdez remained steady, he did lose his balance from it, he received one blow, but he dealt another, he broke the boss of the shield, he split it in two, he went through it entirely, it didn't protect him at all, he stuck his lance into his chest, it didn't protect him at all. Fernando wore three layers of mail, this helped him, two of them broke on him and the third held up, the padded tunic with the shirt and with the mail out from his mouth the blood came, his saddle-girths broke, not one of them was of any use to him, over the croup of the horse he was thrown to the ground. In this way the people thought he is fatally wounded. The other dropped the lance and the sword he took in hand, when Fernán González saw it, he recognized Tizón, rather than wait for the blow he said, -I am defeated.- The judges granted it, Pedro Bermúdez let him be. Martín Antolínez and Diego González struck each other with their lances, the blows were such that both lances broke. Martín Antolínez took his sword in hand, it lights up all the field, it is so clean and bright, he gave him a blow, he hit him a glancing blow, it broke away the top of the helmet, it cut away all the helmet straps, it tore off the mailed hood, and reached the coif, the coif and the hood all were ripped away, it cut the hairs on his head, and it reached well into the flesh, one part fell to the ground and the other remained. When precious Colada has struck this blow, Diego González saw that he would not escape with his soul, he turned his horse to face his opponent. At that moment Martín Antolínez hit him with his sword, he struck him broadside, with the cutting edge he did not hit him. Diego González has sword in hand, but he does not use it,at that moment the infante began to shout, -Help me, God, glorious Lord, and protect me from this sword!- He reined in his horse and, dodging the sword, rode it outside the marker, Martín Antolínez remained on the field. Then said the king, -Come join my company, by all you have done, you have won this battle.- The judges grant it, that he says the truth. Both men have won, I'll tell you of Muño Gustioz, how he fared against Asur González. They strike each other on their shields with such great blows, Asur González, rugged and valiant, struck the shield of don Muño Gustioz, through the shield he broke his armor, the lance hit only air, for it did not strike flesh. This blow struck, Muño Gustioz struck another one, through the shield he broke his armor, he broke through the shield's boss, it could not protect him, he broke through his armor, he hit him on one side, not near the heart, he thrust his lance and the pennon right through his flesh, pushing it through the other side an arm's length, he gave it a twist, he tipped him from the saddle, when he pulled back on the lance he threw him to the ground, the shaft came out red as did the lance-tip and the pennon. Everyone thinks that he is mortally wounded. He repositioned his lance and halted over him, said Gonzalo Ansúrez, -Don't strike him, for God's sake! He is defeated since this is finished.- Said the judges, -This we hear.- The good king don Alfonso ordered the field cleared, the arms that remained there he took them. The Campeador's men left fully honored, they won this combat, thanks to the Creator. Great is the grief through the lands of Carrión. The king sent my Cid's men at night, so that they not be attacked or have fear. Like prudent men they ride day and night, behold them in Valencia with my Cid the Campeador, they left the infantes of Carrión in disgrace, they have fulfilled their duty that their lord demanded of them, my Cid the Campeador was pleased by this. Great is the shame of the infantes of Carrión, whoever scorns a good lady and then abandons her may such befall him or even worse.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

How Islamic is the Islamic State?

Fascinating article in the Atlantic by Graeme Wood. Its concluding passage:
Within the narrow bounds of its theology, the Islamic State hums with energy, even creativity. Outside those bounds, it could hardly be more arid and silent: a vision of life as obedience, order, and destiny. Musa Cerantonio and Anjem Choudary could mentally shift from contemplating mass death and eternal torture to discussing the virtues of Vietnamese coffee or treacly pastry, with apparent delight in each, yet to me it seemed that to embrace their views would be to see all the flavors of this world grow insipid compared with the vivid grotesqueries of the hereafter.
I could enjoy their company, as a guilty intellectual exercise, up to a point. In reviewing Mein Kampf in March 1940, George Orwell confessed that he had “never been able to dislike Hitler”; something about the man projected an underdog quality, even when his goals were cowardly or loathsome. “If he were killing a mouse he would know how to make it seem like a dragon.” The Islamic State’s partisans have much the same allure. They believe that they are personally involved in struggles beyond their own lives, and that merely to be swept up in the drama, on the side of righteousness, is a privilege and a pleasure—especially when it is also a burden.
Fascism, Orwell continued, is psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life … Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them, “I offer you struggle, danger, and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet … We ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.
Nor, in the case of the Islamic State, its religious or intellectual appeal. That the Islamic State holds the imminent fulfillment of prophecy as a matter of dogma at least tells us the mettle of our opponent. It is ready to cheer its own near-obliteration, and to remain confident, even when surrounded, that it will receive divine succor if it stays true to the Prophetic model. Ideological tools may convince some potential converts that the group’s message is false, and military tools can limit its horrors. But for an organization as impervious to persuasion as the Islamic State, few measures short of these will matter, and the war may be a long one, even if it doesn’t last until the end of time.

The psychology of the Islamic State as described here reminds me of the apocalyptic motivations of the promoters of and participants in the First Crusade.