Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Sensible politics

Politicians are our employees, and no matter how likable they are, and no matter how much of ourselves we see in them, we have to be able to critique them openly and harshly, like the self-interested, careerist, complete strangers that they are. Our country’s very existence is predicated on the notion that we, the regular people, are in charge. We cannot look to political figures as people who are owed loyalty. Every decision someone who holds office makes is a decision they should be held accountable for justifying. “Because I said so” is a fair thing for a parent to argue, it is not something an elected official should ever suggest. 

Image: Didn't get the memo

Monday, October 30, 2017

Face-mask bans of the future!

Earlier this month, Austria brought in a law that bans face-covering and now the head of the Austrian police union, Hermann Greylinger, wants it scrapped.
"It is unenforceable," says Greylinger.
Austria's law, like the one in Quebec, broadens the prohibitions on face-covering to avoid the appearance of discrimination, so police are being called to investigate anyone wearing a costume. Last week in a Lego store, they tried to arrest a Lego Ninja.

View image on TwitterView image on TwitterView image on Twitter

Polizei stürmt Lego-Store in Wien. Grund: Verstoß gegen das Vermummungsverbot.

 The unanswered question:  Why is a bunny wearing glasses the official mascot of the Austrian parliament?
"The  [Austrian prohibition on face coverings] was not written as a burka ban for constitutional reasons and now this crap is happening," [Hermann Greylinger, [head of the Austrian police union] says.
 [He's complaining about police being required to enforce the ban.
Aamna Mohdin is a reporter with the digital news outlet Quartz. She covers European issues related to diversity, immigration, economics and justice. She's been watching the confusion in Austria since the ban was implemented.

"I think at the heart of the problem is, you can't make a law that specifically targets Muslims and get away with it," she tells me on Day 6.
"That's discriminatory. So the governments in Europe and in Quebec, they have to create laws that will somehow hold up in court.When you do that, you're kind of confronted with the awkward fact that people wear face-coverings for all sorts of reasons."

Those reasons include promoting a new line of Lego.
"The Austrian police ended up raiding the Lego store in Vienna after receiving a complaint that a Ninja Lego was violating the face-covering ban. And it kind of led to this really extremely heated argument," Mohdin says.

"No fines were issued to the woman because she was willing to take off the head covering. And the police agreed that the face-covering that she was wearing fits the exemption that was within her professional occupation."

Police were also called to respond to a human sized bunny that is official mascot of the Austrian parliament, a man dressed as a shark, and a university student who covered her face because she was cold.

Police suspect they're being called by people who want to draw attention to the absurdity of the law.
Lesko, Austrian Parliament MascotLesko, the mascot of Austria's parliament in 2014. (Parlamentsdirektion / Bildagentur Zolles KG / Martin Steiger)
               Policy based on misperception
Mohdin estimates there are 150 women in Austria who wear a veil. In Quebec, the number may be even lower. She says when polled, people tend to overstate the percentage of Muslims living in their country.

Mohdin believes the popularity of laws banning face-covering is tied to a misperception of the overall numbers of Muslims in those jurisdictions.

"In France, they overestimate their Muslim population by like 17 times or so, and I think that's because we kind of feed into this narrative that there's this Islamic invasion, especially in Europe — this fear that people who don't fit our culture, norms and values are coming over here, and they're overtaking everything that we hold dear."

Friday, October 27, 2017

Who does this remind you of?

The French Duke of Bourbon spent much of the 1360s and 70s taking castles back from the English soldiers who had occupied them after defeating the French at Poitiers (1365).  The duke (known to his fans as "the Good Duke") established a reputation for both his warrior skills and his honorable behavior toward friend and foe.

In one incident the Good Duke was trying to undermine and capture the castle of Vertreuil (not so far from Poitiers) by challenging the most noble English member of the garrison to fight one-on-one in a mine (a tunnel dug as part of an attack on a strong point).  It turned out that there was no high-ranking Englishman present.  The commander was absent and his second-in-command, a man named Montferrand, did not even rank as a squire.  Montferrand took up the challenge, and found himself facing an impressive man-at-arms, who declined to give his name.  But soon the secret was out: the French, watching the fight in the mine, (which must have been rather short and shallow) cheered on their duke with cries of "Bourbon, Bourbon."  

Montferrand found himself in a quandry.  He was fighting someone who very much outranked him, and who might be inclined to execute him as a brigand once Vertreuil was taken.  ("English" soldiers in the Hundred Years War were often foreigners -- Bretons, Scots, Gascons with little standing in local society. They were hated by the French.)  Montferrand made a daring move by appealing to honor.  Montferrand said he would surrender Vertreuil to the Good Duke, if the duke would knight him.  The duke agreed and everyone was satisfied.  I'll tell the rest of the story another time.
But now that we are here, look at this passage, with the Good Duke
and Montferrand trading compliments:

Reynaud de Montferrand knelt before the duke and said to him, "My very redoubtable lord, I thank you most humbly for the benefits and honors which have come to me from you, to be a knight by the hand of so high and valiant a prince as you are; so it is an honor to me and all my lineage forever." The duke answered, "Sir Reynaud, chivalry is very strong in you for you are a valiant man of good lineage."
What does that bolded phrase remind you of?  And what does that say about the process of translation?

Image:  The castle of Vertrieul, after it was rebuilt in the 15th century.  Older castles in that part of France were rebuilt because they were destroyed in campaigns like the one described here.

Monday, October 23, 2017

An interesting post:Why I'm down on conservatism

See the last line.

By Robert Hansen.at Medium.com:

Conservatism in a nutshell:

“Reality is awful. Let’s do our best to build ourselves a way out of it. And once we find good tools, let’s agree we’re going to beat the living daylights out of anyone who tries to take them away.”

Consider, say, Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine. I never came down with polio. Nobody in my generation did. But my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Boettcher, did, and she spent the rest of her life in a heavy leg brace for it. I can’t even begin to imagine how much awful polio was.

Once upon a time, polio was reality. But then some things happened to deliver us from reality: namely, free inquiry gave us the scientific method, economic growth made it possible for Jonas Salk to go to medical school instead of forcing him to toil in the fields, and literally thousands of brilliant minds came together, some of them self-organizing and some of them organized by the government, and … wow: polio is no longer part of reality.

Free inquiry and free markets killed polio. Jonas Salk’s research team was the weapon.

That’s conservatism: discovering what things have historically worked really, really well to transform our reality, and then protecting the hell out of these things against any Johnny-Come-Lately who has a bright idea to fix things that will just require us to throw away this one thing that’s historically been a really good idea but right now doesn’t seem to be working well.

Across the board, life for the poor today is vastly better than it was a century ago. Some people like to say “a century ago, nobody had a iPhone!”, but seriously, that’s missing the point. A century ago you could have died of polio. Or smallpox. Or tuberculosis (although that’s beginning to come back). A century ago the poor didn’t even have books, but now we’ve got Project Gutenberg and Wikipedia delivering a tremendous amount of the great literature and the knowledge of the world for anyone who walks into a public library.

(Man, public libraries! These are a great honking good idea! Let’s conserve the daylights out of them!)

What has historically worked really well for America?

Free inquiry. Free speech. Free association. Free religion. Free markets. The Rule of Law. Equality under the law. Radically populist checks on government power. Oh, and public libraries!

These are great honking good ideas. These have track records of success literally centuries long. They are the best tools we have at creating a better tomorrow. Anyone who argues, “well, it’s outmoded and outdated and hasn’t worked well for twenty years, so let’s get rid of it” deserves to be tarred, feathered, and run out of town two steps ahead of a pitchfork-wielding mob.

Why do I hate liberals? Because everywhere I look nowadays I see liberals trying to throw out these time-tested reliable tools.

Why do I hate conservatives even more? Because everywhere I look nowadays I see them abrogating their most sacred charge: conserving the important things.

I can forgive liberals for their excesses. Really. It’s the nature of all progress that to get a single good idea you have to plow through a hundred terrible ones, and most of the terrible ones look good up until they create a total disaster. If liberals want to put forward terrible ideas, I’ll grit my teeth and smile bravely. Yes, please, tell me more about your idea to eliminate income inequality by shifting to a mud-based economy. Fascinating. I’ll give it a fair hearing, because you never know, it might actually work.

But while we’re giving liberals permission to blow our society up in the name of progress, conservatives need to be standing watch around the precious things and saying, “No. You don’t get to mess with this. Go away. Remember, these tools are the absolute best ones we have. Not only would we happily give our lives to protect them… we would happily give your lives if you threaten them.”

As much as liberals infuriate me, they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing: generating a ton of really bad ideas and chasing after them furiously. Sooner or later one or two of them will pan out. It’ll be good for all of us when they do.

But conservatives…

Man, show up. Stand your damned post. Protect the things that need protecting. Free inquiry. Free speech. Free association. Free religion. Free markets. The Rule of Law. Equality under the law. Radically populist checks on government power. Public libraries.

But right now the conservatives aren’t conserving anything.

Friday, October 13, 2017

It's done! Sort of

I have been boring various friends and family for months (only months?) by saying the translation of the Chronicle of the Good Duke Louis of Bourbon is almost done.  Well, it is still not done done but my collaborator, Phil Paine and I, will probably need to do only one more pass over the translation each, write an introduction and a glossary and then -- ta da! We are very close to writing a proposal to send to a publisher.
And I can spend my writing time on something else.
Image: guess.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Thoughts upon leaving church

As I walked home from last Sunday's service at my neighborhood Anglican church,  I was mulling over three points.

1.  The newsletter asked us to pray for the bishop people and clergy of "The Territory of the People. " This reminded me of a scene in the movie Becket where the pope after an interview with Becket marvels over the humility of the exiled archbishop, while an infuriated Italian cardinal condemns Becket for his pride.  I know nothing about "the People" but it seems to me that there a variety of ways to interpret that name

2.  Why does anyone alive today care about King David?

3,  Paul's Letter to the Philippians:  What is really going on here?  (I often feel that way about Paul.)  I am very much aware that all of Paul's letters were written before the gospels.

Image:  A standard view of Paul.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

A new Charny book


Just the otherday I heard from an Australian independent scholar named Ian Wilson, who with the help of Hugh Duncan is producing  a two-volume book on Charny, one volume of biography and one consisting of translations of the Livre Charny and Charny's Questions.

I thought you'd like that!

I haven't had time to read the unfinished work, but what seems to be the most important aspect is that Wilson argues that The Book of Chivalry was not written by Geoffroi Charny, but by his son, who had the same name.

More later!

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Trump: white president

White people knew, back in the 19th century: if you wanted a high-quality black clown at your entertainment, it better be a white guy in blackface.  Everybody knew that whites could do even blackness better than black people.

At the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates explains the American blindness to American racism.

This transfiguration is not novel. It is a return to form. The tightly intertwined stories of the white working class and black Americans go back to the prehistory of the United States—and the use of one as a cudgel to silence the claims of the other goes back nearly as far. Like the black working class, the white working class originated in bondage—the former in the lifelong bondage of slavery, the latter in the temporary bondage of indenture. In the early 17th century, these two classes were remarkably, though not totally, free of racist enmity. But by the 18th century, the country’s master class had begun etching race into law while phasing out indentured servitude in favor of a more enduring labor solution. From these and other changes of law and economy, a bargain emerged: The descendants of indenture would enjoy the full benefits of whiteness, the most definitional benefit being that they would never sink to the level of the slave. But if the bargain protected white workers from slavery, it did not protect them from near-slave wages or backbreaking labor to attain them, and always there lurked a fear of having their benefits revoked. This early white working class “expressed soaring desires to be rid of the age-old inequalities of Europe and of any hint of slavery,” according to David R. Roediger, a professor of American studies at the University of Kansas. “They also expressed the rather more pedestrian goal of simply not being mistaken for slaves, or ‘negers’ or ‘negurs.’ ”

  Roediger relates the experience, around 1807, of a British investor who made the mistake of asking a white maid in New England whether her “master” was home. The maid admonished the investor, not merely for implying that she had a “master” and thus was a “sarvant” but for his basic ignorance of American hierarchy. “None but negers are sarvants,” the maid is reported to have said. In law and economics and then in custom, a racist distinction not limited to the household emerged between the “help” (or the “freemen,” or the white workers) and the “servants” (the “negers,” the slaves). The former were virtuous and just, worthy of citizenship, progeny of Jefferson and, later, Jackson. The latter were servile and parasitic, dim-witted and lazy, the children of African savagery. But the dignity accorded to white labor was situational, dependent on the scorn heaped upon black labor—much as the honor accorded a “virtuous lady” was dependent on the derision directed at a “loose woman.” And like chivalrous gentlemen who claim to honor the lady while raping the “whore,” planters and their apologists could claim to honor white labor while driving the enslaved.
And so George Fitzhugh, a prominent 19th-century Southern pro-slavery intellectual, could in a single stroke deplore the exploitation of free whites’ labor while defending the exploitation of enslaved blacks’ labor. Fitzhugh attacked white capitalists as “cannibals,” feeding off the labor of their fellow whites. The white workers were “ ‘slaves without masters;’ the little fish, who were food for all the larger.” Fitzhugh inveighed against a “professional man” who’d “amassed a fortune” by exploiting his fellow whites. But whereas Fitzhugh imagined white workers as devoured by capital, he imagined black workers as elevated by enslavement...

 Speaking in 1848, Senator John C. Calhoun saw slavery as the explicit foundation for a democratic union among whites, working and not:

With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

St. Catherine's monastery delivers again

At the base of Mount Sinai in Egypt there is a very ancient monastery, St. Catherine's, which may have been patronized by Constantine's mother Helena and was apparently built by the emperor Justinian.  The monastery is best known for its collection of manuscripts, which include some of the most important sources for the text of the Bible.

The most famous manuscripts from St. C's were discovered and studied in the 19th century, while other mss (=manuscripts) were found in caves in the 20th.  Now scholars are using advanced technology to read the original texts of reused mss. The Independent explains:
Monks originally wrote their texts down on parchments which were later scrubbed off and used to write the Bible by future generations who spoke more modern languages. But a new technique developed by researchers allows them to see the original text hidden from the naked eye in a development hailed as “new golden age of discovery”.
Researchers took photographs of the material using different parts of the light spectrum and put the electronic images through a computer algorithm.
The method allows them to see the first writing laid down on the parchments, which at the time were highly valuable, before they were re-used in later years.
The scholars seem to be most excited by finding writings in obscure  or dead languages, like the one spoken in Caucasian Albania (not the same as the Albania next to Greece).  But I find this mindblowing:

“I don’t know of any library in the world that parallels it,” said Mr Phelps [from the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library in California]. “The monastery is an institution from the Roman Empire that continues operating according to its original mission.”

Image: By Berthold Werner - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12215773

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Bad good men at arms and a Good Duke

The phrase "good men-at-arms" was a military cliche in the Hundred Years War.  It identified the notional standard for well-equipped, capable cavalrymen.  Most of us would look at a man-at-arms and think, "knight."

As time went on, the adjective "good" merged with the rest of the phrase so that the "goodness" of the good man-at-arms was simply a matter of definition.  Some years back I noticed this while reading the chronicler Froissart, who had one of his characters scornfully tell their opponents, "You are not good good men-at-arms." I'll bet that stung!

So were there any bad good men-at-arms?

Well, if there were, they are probably in the book I just sent off to the publisher, Murder, Rape and Treason, volume 5 of the Deeds of Arms Series.  Like other books in this series,it combines a short history of one kind of "deed" with translated accounts of medieval examples; in this case, descriptions of some of the flashiest judicial combats,  in which one warrior accused another of a treacherous, secret crime and the other said the first lied.  Under some circumstances, this led to the two men fighting to death.

One of them had to be a bad liar, right?

Murder etc. being done, I get to move on to the Chronicle of the Good Duke, whom I have discussed before.  The question now is, if Louis of Bourbon was good, were his contemporaries bad?  He lived in the generation before the Maid (=Jeanne Darc) so maybe so, even though no one gets the label "bad."

Here's the Good Duke, coming to a book-seller near you, if  not immediately:

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Mason-Dixon line

From the BBC: A crown stone along the line. The Beeb thinks this admittedly difficult surveying project was more important than Franklin's electical work. Hmm.

University of Guelph - an unknown gem

Yesterday I visited the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario. This is a medium-sized university in a medium-sized city which I believe is little known outside of Ontario, and even in the province it is mainly known for its agricultural program and its veterinary expertise. This obscurity is quite unfair. I know second hand of some excellent undergraduate programs that they have developed in recent years, and first-hand of the friendly atmosphere.
But what really impressed me was the beauty of the campus. Guelph was a tiny place not so long ago, and so most of the facilities are quite new. The designers of the modern campus did a fabulous job of laying it out, and designing buildings that are both very similar (most all of them are close to being the same height) but far from being identical. The campus also is big enough yet compact enough to make the place very easy to get around on foot.
One feature worth noting is the arboretum, or what Joni Mitchell would call a "tree museum," but one you don't even need to pay a dollar and a half "to seeum." Image below:

Fairy tale princess

In connection with the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana's death, Hilary Martel at the Guardian makes a very thought-provoking observation:
When people described Diana as a “fairytale princess”, were they thinking of the cleaned-up versions? Fairytales are not about gauzy frocks and ego gratification. They are about child murder, cannibalism, starvation, deformity, desperate human creatures cast into the form of beasts, or chained by spells, or immured alive in thorns. The caged child is milk-fed, finger felt for plumpness by the witch, and if there is a happy-ever-after, it is usually written on someone’s skin.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Written in Blood

Yesterday my copy of Game of Thrones versus History: Written in Blood arrived.  This is noteworthy because I wrote chapter 3, "Chivalry in Westeros."  Despite my involvement in this project (which included me being paid real money), I have always been skeptical of these attempts to teach history to the general public -- or at least the general fandom -- by drawing comparisons between the fictional treatment (there are, as you may imagine, more than one about Middle Earth) and  what we pros call "the real stuff." (No, we don't do that, we are too stuffy.)

But in this case, it works.  The "real stuff" is explained and interpreted with respect, as is the fictional environment.   The writing is good and accessible!  The scholars who wrote the various articles are really very good indeed.

I have to wonder what they are like in the classroom,  Actually the editor, Brian Pavlac, in telling how he got involved in the project gives us reason to believe that he at least knows how to enchant undergraduate students.

Must reconsider my earlier attitude.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Celebrating Robert E. Lee

Josh Marshall over at Talking Points Memo asks where those Confederate monuments came from, and why.
What is little discussed today is that the North and the South made a tacit bargain in the years after the Civil War to valorize Southern generals as a way to salve the sting of Southern defeat and provide a cultural and political basis for uniting the country with more than military force. That meant the abandonment of free blacks in the South after the mid-1870s. It is important to see this not only as the abandonment of the ex-slaves of the South. It is difficult to pull away the subsequent history to realize that it was entirely possible in the aftermath of the Civil War that the US would be condemned to perpetual warfare, insurrection and foreign intervention. But if the opposite, the United States that went on to become a global superpower, is what was gained it was gained at a terrible price and a price paid more or less solely by black citizens.
However one judges that past, knowing its full history leaves no reason or rationale for continue the valorization of Lee. He was a traitor and a traitor in a terrible cause. That is his only mark on American history. Whether he was a personal gentle man, nice to his pets or a decent field general hardly matters.
Even this though leaves the full squalidness of Lee’s legacy not quite told. There is the Lee of the Civil War and then the mythic Lee of later decades. Today the battle over Lee’s legacy is mainly played out over the various statues of Lee which still stand across the South. The notional focus on this weekend’s tragic events in Charlottesville was a protest over plans to remove a Lee statue. But those statues don’t date to the Civil War, the years just after the Civil War. In most cases they date to decades later.
The historical chronology is important to understand. Reconstruction is generally dated from 1865 to 1877 when the federal government withdrew federal troops and allowed the restoration of so-called ‘home rule’ in the South. But black political power and biracial political coalitions didn’t disappear overnight. Though the sheet anchor protecting black citizenship was withdrawn, it took the better part of a generation for what we now recognize as the Jim Crow system to be firmly entrenched throughout the South. To note but one example, the judicial cornerstone of Jim Crow, ‘separate but equal’, only became the law of the land with Plessy v Ferguson in 1896.
That statuary which is only beginning to come down in our day dates largely from this era and constituted a celebration and affirmation of this victory. Not the victory of the Civil War, which was of course a defeat but the sectional victory to define the post-war settlement.
... All of these statues date not from the Civil War Era but from the decades of the establishment of Jim Crow, to celebrate the South’s ability to establish an apartheid system on the ruins of the Antebellum slave South. A statue of Lee in uniform, mounted on a horse in a southern town square has only ever had one meaning: white supremacy. These statues didn’t come to be associated with racism and Jim Crow only after the Civil War had receded into memory. They were created, from the start, to mark and celebrate the foundations of Jim Crow, uncontested white rule. More mythically, but to the same end, they were built to glorify a vision of the South in which her black citizens had no place

Monday, August 14, 2017

A welcome tribute at Pennsic War 46

If you are not interested in the Society for Creative Anachronism, skip this.

I used to be relatively famous in the SCA for being one of the very few people  who had attended all of the yearly Pennsic wars, and for having fought in all the major battles.  Well, my health has prevented me from doing this for the past two years.  This year, somebody did something about it.  My daughter Eanor's husband, who goes  by the medieval name Haroun, decided to host a deed of arms in my honor early in this Pennsic war.  (If you don't know what a deed of arms is, I've got several relevant books on them for sale.)

I had already decided not to be miserable and envious of my friends having a good time, and I had succeded, pretty much, but this deed of arms and the efforts of Eanor and Haroun sure made it easier. One feature of deeds of arms in the SCA is that there is usually a book in which participants record their thoughts about the event, the hosts, etc. For this deed there was a blue-bound book
The fighters who turned out, filled with respectful, eloquent, even philosophical messages.
I was truly touched.
I was also impressed by how well-spoken and thoughtful these people were, remembering that their distinguishing characteristic is that they like to hit their friends with wooden swords while wearing funny clothes.
One person who I would have liked to have seen was Bill Colbert (William de Montegilt), who is one of the most senior members of the SCA, noted also for his long service in unglamorous jobs. I respect William because he joined very early on in the East Kingdom. He was -- like many back then -- an unlikely warrior, one who you might think would not be able to take the punishment. But he's still with us, more than 40 years on.
Pictures to follow.