Monday, June 29, 2015

Biblical marriage

Quite possibly if you are interested in this issue, you've seen something like this. But Juan Cole's summary of what the Bible says about marriage is to the point:

But wackiest of all is the idea that the Bible sees marriage as between one man and one woman. I don’t personally get how you could, like, actually read the Bible and come to that conclusion (see below). Even if you wanted to argue that the New Testament abrogates all the laws in the Hebrew Bible, there isn’t anything in the NT that clearly forbids polygamy, either, and it was sometimes practiced in the early church, including by priests. Josephus makes it clear that polygamy was still practiced among the Jews of Jesus’ time. Any attempt to shoe-horn stray statements in the New Testament about a man and a woman being married into a commandment of monogamy is anachronistic. Likely it was the Roman Empire that established Christian monogamy as a norm over the centuries. The Church was not even allowed to marry people until well after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, since it was an imperial prerogative.

Ancient scripture can be a source of higher values and spiritual strength, but any time you in a literal-minded way impose specific legal behavior because of it, you’re committing anachronism. Since this is the case, fundamentalists are always highly selective, trying to impose parts of the scripture on us but conveniently ignoring the parts even they can’t stomach as modern persons.

1. In Exodus 21:10 it is clearly written of the husband: “If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife.” This is the same rule as the Qur’an in Islam, that another wife can only be taken if the two are treated equally.

2. Let’s take Solomon, who maintained 300 concubines or sex slaves. 1 Kings 11:3: “He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray.” Led him astray! That’s all the Bible minded about this situation? Abducting 300 people and keeping them immured for sex? And the objection is only that they had a lot of diverse religions and interested Solomon in them? (By the way, this is proof that he wasn’t Jewish but just a legendary Canaanite polytheist). I think a settled gay marriage is rather healthier than imprisoning 300 people in your house to have sex with at your whim.

3. Not only does the Bible authorize slavery and human trafficking, but it urges slaves to “submit themselves” to their masters. It should be remembered that masters had sexual rights over their property assuming the slave-woman was not betrothed to another, and so this advice is intended for concubines as well as other slaves. And, the Bible even suggests that slaves quietly accept sadism and cruelty from their masters: 1 Peter 2:18:
And there is more...

Image: Abraham's family. Don't get me started.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

What would Thomas Jefferson have said?

Today I took the time to watch Pres. Obama's eulogy all the way through. It certainly will go down as one of the great American speeches.

On the other hand, it felt odd to have the Emperor lecturing us on theology of Grace. If he had been talking about the evils of icons, just at the time when a caliphate is being established, we might have to wonder if we were on our way back to the 7th century.

Image: Paine, not Jefferson -- Mr. Age of Reason

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Violence prevention through public health methods

For a long time I've thought that public health perspectives and strategies were valuable in dealing with social problems -- or should be. Here's an excerpt in Salon from a book by Alexa Clay and Kyra Maya Phillips, which discusses Gary Slutkin's informed implementation of that idea.

He returned to the United States and soon found himself asking, “What next?” He started hearing about kids shooting each other. “I was reading these horrific stories of ten- and twelve-year-old kids killing each other in the streets, and I asked people what was being done about it.” It was a simple question, one that might be posed by any concerned citizen. But it was a question that Slutkin would spend the next fifteen years attempting to answer.

Slutkin was stunned and disappointed by the so-called solutions that existed for treating violence. “We knew that punishment wasn’t a main driver of behavior,” he told us.“This was a problem that was stuck.” Discouraged, Slutkin began to study patterns of violent outbreaks and made a startling observation: Violence spreads much like infectious disease. “What I saw in the maps of violence I studied was characteristic clustering— just like the maps that I had seen in other epidemics, such as cholera.” That was Slutkin’s “aha moment.” “I thought, what if we started treating violence as a contagion?”

One of the biggest and most insidious plagues on our society is violence. Yet too often the discourse focuses on labeling the violent individuals as deviants or “evil.” What if, Slutkin wondered, we removed the labels and the judgment and began to treat violence objectively—like a disease that is transmitted and spread, much like the common cold? He joked, “You can’t even see bad under the microscope. There is no place in science for the concept of bad or the concept of enemy.”

His leap from A to B was slow. It took him about five years to reframe the problem of violence in his own mind. He lost himself in debate and discussions about the drivers of violence. He read all the latest reports and white papers. He became obsessed with the topic and with the ways he thought he could bring a “cure” to the world. This kind of obsessive knowledge of the system you’re trying to fix is essential for any hacker. You need to understand the rules in order to know how to break them or pioneer something different. Having one foot in the system you’re trying to change, and one foot outside to maintain perspective, allows you to maintain an insider/outsider mind-set and approach.

Slutkin’s background in health and his immersion in the field of violence prevention allowed him a unique vantage point to see through the bias of the system. For example, a lot of existing practice focused on punishment as a solution to violence, but based on his work in the health field, Slutkin knew punishment was never used as a tool for behavior change. A lot of those who advocated punishment reminded Slutkin of a historic period in epidemic history when people didn’t have an understanding of diseases and thought things like plague, leprosy, and smallpox were caused by bad people or “bad humors.” Slutkin told us how these misunderstandings often led people to blame, exclude, and punish the victim of disease, which caused additional suffering.

Seeing violence outside a moralistic lens required a radically different approach. But compounding systemic problems of poverty, racism, drugs, and other chronic issues impacting violent communities wasn’t efficient or actionable. Even choosing to work with political systems to regulate gun control could take decades and hadn’t seen much success to date, at least in the United States. So rather than wait for a magical silver-bullet solution, Slutkin realized he could help stop the spread of violence, in much the same way that he had stopped the spread of disease in Somalia.

From there, Slutkin’s organization, Cure Violence, was framed around a simple hypothesis: The most critical thing is to disrupt the transmission of violence.

Slutkin then developed a community role for “violence interrupters”: outreach workers called in to delicate situations where violence could occur, much like the community outreach workers he employed in the refugee camps. So if people in a particular neighborhood hear about a potential retaliatory shooting or a conflict brewing between gangs, they can call in violence interrupters, who go into the neighborhood and attempt to prevent the violence from being transmitted.

For example, a mom in Chicago discovered that her teenage son was loading weapons with his friends in their house. She was frantic and didn’t know what to do because it was her son and his friends, and she wasn’t going to call the police on her kid. But she needed someone to do something. So she called Cure Violence, and they sent over a few interrupters to talk to the teenagers. Over the course of a few hours, they were able to calm the group of kids. The interrupters know how to buy time and allow people to cool down; most important, they listen. A lot of their method is about the art of persuasion.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Eric Foner on the special status of South Carolina

Salon was smart enough to interview Eric Foner, the leading historian of Reconstruction in the post-US-Civil-War era. A sample.
One-hundred-and-fifty years later, we still have a problem in this country coming to terms with the existence of slavery. There’s no museum of the history of slavery in the entire United States. There’s a Holocaust museum; there’s plenty of other museums [about tragedies and atrocities], but there’s no memorial to the victims of slavery in the U.S. We have memorials to the victims of the Irish famine; why don’t we have a memorial to the victims of slavery somewhere? What I want people to learn from history is the depth and importance of slavery, and then 100 years of segregation, in shaping the way American society is today.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Monday, June 15, 2015

Random historical observations

The weekend before last I had two interesting historical experiences.

I attended as I often do a local Windsor event called Art in the Park. Not a lot of art as such, but plenty of crafts, and located in one of the city's most prominent parks – the grounds of the mansion built by Windsor's most famous distiller and smuggler of whiskey into the prohibition era United States.

Wandering around the park – it was a beautiful day – I had a sudden realization. Events of this sort, and they aren't iuncommon, are like a trip to the 1970s. People who produce goods for this kind of crafts show are still making the kind of things that people thought were new and different back 40+ years ago.

And sure enough, the moment that I came to that realization, I spotted someone wearing a "Dark Side of the Moon" T-shirt. A well-worn T-shirt at that.

Another day I went to the best bookstore in Windsor and spotted a rather alarming book called Rise to Greatness. It's a history of Canada. The alarm was not due to the claim to greatness, although that claim is rather dubious (decency, yes, at least most of the time, but greatness?). What was alarming was the person making the claim. I felt an urge to go right out on the main deck and check the lifeboats for leaks. A quick examination of the book confirmed that there was probably nothing to interest me. It had all the hallmarks of a old-fashioned political and constitutional history typical of the first half of the 20th century or even earlier.

The most telling aspect? It was advertised as a history from the Vikings to the present; in other words it's entirely about immigrants of various eras and how they contributed to "the rise to greatness." Not a single section labelled as a treatment of the First Nations. Given the tremendous impact on ordinary Canadian life by First Nations – much more so in most areas than in the United States – this exclusion was scary.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Grateful for her fine fair discount, Tess cooperates

Did Britain produce a more evocative rock album in the early 70s than Selling England by the Pound?

Today CBC radio talked to a man who wrote a book about being a shepherd in England at the moment, how his way of life is in some ways the opposite of modernity, with even the flocks he looks after being the product of hundreds of years of human and sheep cultural development. He mentioned how people who were interested in continuing that way of life as kids were seen as losers. And I Know What I Like sprang into my brain. "Have to thank Old Miss Mort for schooling a failure!"

So now of course I'm listening to the whole album on YouTube.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Gotta have Medieval Robots (UPenn Press)!

E. R. Truitt, Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art

The first comprehensive work of scholarship on European automata of the Middle Ages, Medieval Robots systematically and chronologically works through themes such as the transition from the magical to the mechanical and the liminal status of robots between art and nature, familiar and foreign. Well researched and well written, the book does an excellent job of showing the wider cultural significance of automata within medieval history and the history of science."—Pamela O. Long, author of Openness, Secrecy, Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture of Knowledge from Antiquity to the Renaissance

Medieval robots took such forms as talking statues, mechanical animals, or silent metal guardians; some served to entertain or instruct while others performed surveillance or discipline. Medieval Robots explores the forgotten history of real and imagined machines that captivated Europe from the ninth through the fourteenth centuries.

Full Description, Table of Contents, and More

296 pages | 6 x 9 | 36 color illus.

Hardcover | ISBN 978-0-8122-4697-1 | $55.00s | £36.00

Ebook | ISBN 978-0-8122-9140-7 | $55.00s | £36.00

A volume in the Middle Ages Series

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Guy Halsall: think with history, act in the present.

Guy Halsall sings, "You better free your mind instead!"

The point is this: HfB [Historians for Britain] and its opponents share exactly the same, entirely conventional approach to the ‘relevance’ of history to current political debate; in other words, to ‘why history matters’. That relevance, as is clear from any close reading of almost all of the contributions to the exchange, consists entirely in the deployment of historical ‘fact’. I find this, to be blunt, more than a tad wearisome. [The involvement of historians in the referendum on Scottish separatism took exactly the same tedious form.] What seems largely to be at stake is who can assemble the biggest pile of facts. This is not going to make much of a difference, let alone decisively carry the day, either way. By way of demonstration, and if you can bear it, just read ‘below the line’ on the on-line version of the ‘Fog in the Channel…’ piece. To quote the (in my estimation) criminally underrated Andrew Roachford, ‘I don’t want to argue over who is wrong and who is right’.

Let me row back from the extreme position that might be inherent in that statement. First, it is very important to deploy historical fact to counter misleading public presentations of what ‘history shows us’. This was another reason I signed up to the ‘Fog in the Channel…’ letter. There were some seriously dubious elements in Abulafia’s piece ... However, as I have said too many times to count, history (as opposed to chronicling or antiquarianism) is the process of thinking, interpretation, explanation and critique, carried out on the basis of those facts, it does not stop at the latter's simple accumulation (most historical 'facts' are, to me, not especially interesting in and of themselves: this happened; that did not happen – factual accuracy is a duty not a virtue).

More seriously, both sides essentially see the course of history (as established by these facts) as providing a set of tramlines governing the proper path we should take in future. This removes any kind of emancipatory potential from the study of history. Put another way, and to restate the counter-factual posited earlier, suppose you agreed with Abulafia (and after all he’s not wrong about everything) that Britain’s history was, fundamentally, profoundly different from that of mainland Europe and had run a quite separate course (there is a case that could be put to support that contention that would have to be taken seriously, even if it is not the one put forward by HfB). But suppose that, unlike him, you thought that this had been a terrible thing and thought that Britain needed to incorporate itself more fully in Europe. Or suppose that you thought that the authors of ‘Fog in the Channel…’ were fundamentally right that Britain’s history was entirely entwined with that of the mainland but that you thought that this was wholly regrettable. In still other words, suppose that – like me – you thought that the course of the past had no force and provided no secure or reliable guide at all to what ought to be done in future.

So, what would one be able to contribute to a debate on these (or other) issues if one held a (superficially) seemingly nihilistic view, like mine, of history as random, chaotic, ironic, and unpredictable, and of the past as having no ability in and of itself to compel anyone to do anything? What, so to speak, would be the point of history? Why would it matter?

In his excellent blog-post – in my view, the best intervention in this discussion by some way (impressive not least for its concision) – Martial Staub draws attention to the discontinuities of history that subvert any attempt at a unified narrative or quest for origins. This seems to me to point us at a much more valuable and sophisticated means by which the study of history (rather than ‘History’ itself, that somehow mystic object, or objective force) can make a political contribution. Every dot that is later joined up to make a historical narrative represents a point of decision, of potential or, if you prefer, of freedom, where something quite different could have happened. To understand any of these decisions, as again I have said many times before, it is necessary to look at what people were trying to do, at what the options open to them were, or those they thought were open to them, what they knew – in short at all the things that didn’t happen, which frequently include the intended outcomes. You cannot simply explain them as steps on a pre-ordained path towards a later result, or as the natural outcomes of the preceding events. Any present moment of political decision represents the same thing: a point of choice, of decision, which requires serious thought. It should not be closed down by the idea that some 'burden of history' or other compels us to go one way rather than another. Those decision points that I just called the dots joined up to make a story were, at their time, points of freedom when any number of things were possible. The unpicking of narrative constructions makes this very clear and that – in my view – is the point that emerges from historical study.

This lesson, for want of a better word (I mistrust ‘lessons from history’), points at a string of possible subversions. Staub points out the subversion of the ‘national’ story but at the same time it subverts any similar ‘European’ master narrative. Britain can be said to have had a history different from that of other European countries – true enough - but to no greater extent than any other region of Europe has a history different from the others. It may be true that at some points British history seemed to run on a course that bucked European trends, but exactly the same can be said of, for example, Italian or Spanish history at various points. What is Europe anyway? Is it any more natural a unit of analysis than any other? In the Roman period, the idea of thinking of the north of Africa as somehow a different area from the northern shore of the Mediterranean would be very odd. Indeed the Mediterranean basin can be seen as a unified area of historical analysis (who, after all, knows that better than David Abulafia?), rather than as different continents divided by a sea – perhaps one with different histories from northern Europe or the North Sea cultural zone (which obviously includes Britain). All of these points also contribute to a historical critique and dismantling of the idea of the nation (any nation) itself, not simply the national story (see also here). All historical narratives are constructs so (unless one is based upon the misuse or fabrication of evidence, or not staying true to the basic 'facts' of what did or did not happen) one cannot be claimed to be more accurate than another. No one can win an argument on that basis. The best that can happen (and it is important) is the demonstration that there is more than one story to be told.

Above all, what I find to be one of the most important contributions that historical study can make, in terms of social/political engagement, is the subversion of all reifications, of all attempts to render contingent categorisations as natural. And of course it similarly subverts claims to represent contingent oppositions as eternal or natural.

All these subversions arise from what I have repeatedly argued on this blog are historical study’s most important benefits: the critique of what one is presented with, as evidence, and the simultaneous requirement to see similarity – shared human experience – in difference and diversity, or to listen to and understand that evidence).

So I would contend that the view of history sketched above is very much not a disabling, nihilistic one but quite the opposite. The careful, sympathetic yet critical investigation of the traces of the past, the deconstruction of narrative, nation and so on, can and should free us from the burdens that people want to impose on us in the name of history. The appreciation of the once possible but now impossible potentials at the decision-points of the past can and should allow us to think twice about what people tell us are now impossibilities and open our minds to the potentials and possibilities of the present.

If you want a catchphrase, try this: think with history, act in the present.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Somehow we slipped into the mainstream

Phil Paine writes:

One thing that has struck me repeatedly in recent years is that almost everything that I grew up with and experienced as an intimate world of "outsider" stuff is now the stuff of mainstream experience. ... Here's an example I ran across this week:

In Clive Gamble's Settling the Earth: The Archaeology of Deep Human History, there is a discussion about intentionality in theories of mind. Gamble discusses how the neurobiologist J.N. Cole distinguishes four levels of intentionality. Gamble illustrates the levels with these examples:

level 1: Dave, the re-enactor, believes he is a Crusader.

level 2: Dave believes that Ben, a fellow re-enactor, thinks he is a crusader.

level 3: Dave desires that Ben believe that Dave thinks he is a Crusader.

level 4: Dave knows that the re-enactment group is aware that Ben believes that Dave thinks he is a Crusader.

Apparently, medieval re-enactors are now so broadly familiar a feature of life that a scientist assumes that they are what you would call upon to illustrate a point in theory of mind, expecting the reader to visualize it instantly.

I remember, many years ago, when I first realized that you could tell whether a historian was of the generation that read science fiction or not, not just from specific references, but from their attitudes toward history.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Corruption and investigative journalism in Costa Rica

Another detailed analysis from Foreign Policy:
In the fall of 2003 the story made its way to journalists at La Nación, the leading national newspaper in the Central American republic of Costa Rica. The reporters at the paper’s investigative unit pricked up their ears as soon as the disgruntled real estate agent spoke the name of her exasperating client: Eliseo Vargas, the man in charge of the country’s vaunted national health care agency. “We didn’t really know what she had,” recalls reporter Ernesto Rivera. “She was just angry she didn’t get her commission. She knew who the guy was but she didn’t know why he was acting that way.”

Rivera and his colleagues smelled a story. Yet as the journalists started digging into the tale of Vargas’s peculiar living arrangements, it never occurred to them that they were about to unravel a scandal that would upend their nation’s sedate political establishment. In the early 2000s, Costa Rica enjoyed a long-established reputation as the most prosperous and well-managed country in its region. But by the time the La Nación reporters were done, they had uncovered a wide-ranging web of corruption that extended through the political and business elite.

Along the way they derailed the careers of three ex-presidents, sending two of them to jail; prompted far-reaching legal reform; and jolted a major blow to a cozy political system that had, until then, been dominated by two main parties. Alejandro Urbina, the paper’s editor-in-chief at the time, puts it this way: “The current president wouldn’t be the president if we hadn’t published these stories.”

The three journalists who made up La Nación’s investigative unit — Giannina Segnini, Mauricio Hererra, and Rivera — deployed the full arsenal of traditional reporting techniques as they pursued the story. But the sheer magnitude of the financial and political information they unearthed prompted them to rely increasingly on computerized tools to rummage through databases that revealed unexpected connections. While tips from well-informed sources like the disgruntled real estate agent are vital, says Segnini, human sources also have limitations: “You can’t visit 160,000 people,” she notes. “But you can easily interrogate 160,000 records.”

Glad to see a positive story on CR.

The end of the Egyptian revolution -- so far

An excerpt from a recent book,Thanassis Cambanis’s Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story:
A few days after the end of Ramadan, on August 14, the police and army closed in again on Rabaa Square. For days, el-Sisi’s government had talked of the need to clear the Brotherhood protests once and for all. The sun had not yet risen when officers drove directly into the sit-in with armored bulldozers and began firing into the crowd with tear gas, birdshot, rubber bullets, and live ammunition. The death toll was staggering and indiscriminate: children, teenage boys and girls, and the elderly fell alongside the adult men trying to protect the sit-in with their futile wooden clubs. The military had shown before that it knew how to clear a protest without killing; this time it put the police in the forefront and pursued tactics that maximized the death toll. It wanted more than to merely end the Rabaa sit-in, the final vestige of the Brotherhood’s elec­toral success; it wanted vengeance and to break the Brotherhood.

Moaz’s father pleaded with him to come home. At every major protest or massacre, Moaz had worked in the clinic treating wounded protest­ers. His political ventures didn’t always work out, but his expertise in the combat-like conditions of protest hospitals was indisputable. He had no intention of staying away from Rabaa while hundreds of people were being gunned down.

“You weren’t killed on January 25,” his father said. “You will be killed today.”

“We are trying to solve problems,” Moaz said. “You should support me.”

Rabaa was awash in blood. Tanks blocked all the main thoroughfares, but people could escape through small alleys. At the same time, the army swept through the other, smaller Muslim Brotherhood sit-in at Nahda Square on the other side of the Nile. Pro-Sisi plainclothes thugs, work­ing with the police, erected checkpoints all over the city to harass anyone who looked like a Brotherhood supporter. Scattered gunshots echoed all over Cairo, even far from Rabaa and Nahda Squares.

In the wake of these massacres, Moaz felt his last hope slip away. He railed aloud against its perpetrators. “What do you think the families of the people you killed will do? Don’t you think they will kill your families? You are writing your own future. No matter how many times you hit the people, it won’t solve the problem.”

People screamed and ran away from the gas and bullets. Some took refuge in the nearby apartment buildings, hiding in garages. Moaz loaded the wounded into his car and ferried them to hospitals. One man bled to death in Moaz’s backseat. Around Rabaa Square, it seemed like ev­erything was on fire, including the field hospital. Soldiers weren’t let­ting anyone pass, even medical volunteers like Moaz. Almost twenty-four hours after they began, soldiers and police were still shooting stragglers in Rabaa. Exhausted, Moaz was crying as he drove. He could smell blood on the street. He tried to return once more to the center of Rabaa, where he knew a wounded man was trapped in a building that had once served as the sit-in’s clinic. So far, he had successfully passed through checkpoints with his pharmacist ID. A soldier pointed his rifle at Moaz and forced him from his car.

“What are you doing in a military area?”

“I am a pharmacist,” Moaz told his interrogator. “My job is to help people.”

“Go to the Iman Mosque,” the officer said. “That’s where all bodies are. We will let you pass this time, but if you appear again, there’s no say­ing what might happen to you.”

“But there’s a man in a building in Rabaa, and he has phoned me for help,” Moaz pleaded.

“No one here is alive,” the officer snapped. “Everyone is dead. If any­one is still alive, he will be dead within an hour.”

Moaz gave up and joined the effort in the Iman Mosque to identify the hundreds of corpses. The military soon attacked even there, arrest­ing the family members who had come to claim their dead. The military was sending a clear message: it would do anything, even disrespect the most basic Islamic funeral rites, to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood. The government stopped counting the dead after the number exceeded seven hundred. The Brothers estimated that more than a thousand people were killed that day, including many children of senior Brotherhood leaders, apparently singled out by snipers. Many leaders were caught, but a few escaped the country or found hiding places. From there they delivered menacing threats. Now, they vowed, Egypt would burn.

The massacre at Rabaa would be the pivotal litmus test that separated the masses praising el-Sisi from the small community of Egyptians who decried any abuse of human beings. Some activists, such as Ahmed Maher from the April 6 Movement, had been relatively quiet about the mili­tary’s return to power in July but reacted swiftly to condemn the crime of Rabaa. Mohamed ElBaradei belatedly developed a conscience. In the wake of the violence at Rabaa, he resigned from the post of vice president that he had held for just a month. For his act of decency, ElBaradei was investigated for the criminal offense of “breaching the national trust.” In­stead of staying to challenge the increasingly fascist political atmosphere, ElBaradei chose exile. He had taken a lead role as a political enabler of el-Sisi’s rise, but he was not alone. The Social Democratic Party, the cho­sen home for many of the secular revolutionaries, wholeheartedly cast its lot with the military. Dr. Mohamed Aboul-Ghar, the leader of the Social Democrats, busily defended the massacre on television as a neces­sary evil. Ziad Bahaa el-Din, considered one of the smartest members of the party, had accepted a position as deputy prime minister in the transi­tional government and used his position to reassure foreign governments and Egyptian liberals that there was no reason to fear the military men in charge. These were the most liberal members of the mainstream political elite; their embrace of the coup and massacres paved the way for public opinion to follow.

Like many secular or liberal Egyptians, Basem was willing to blame the Brotherhood for the massacre in which so many of its members per­ished, especially when in the aftermath the Brotherhood appeared to en­dorse a jihadist insurgency in retribution. “Everyone now knows that the Brotherhood is a terrorist organization,” Basem said. “There can be no more talk about reconciliation.”

Monday, May 25, 2015

Would the world be different without Islam?

Graham E. Fuller in Foreign Policy:
Peoples who resist foreign oppressors seek banners to propagate and glorify the cause of their struggle. The international class struggle for justice provides a good rallying point. Nationalism is even better. But religion provides the best one of all, appealing to the highest powers in prosecuting its cause. And religion everywhere can still serve to bolster ethnicity and nationalism even as it transcends it — especially when the enemy is of a different religion. In such cases, religion ceases to be primarily the source of clash and confrontation, but rather its vehicle. The banner of the moment may go away, but the grievances remain.

We live in an era when terrorism is often the chosen instrument of the weak. It already stymies the unprecedented might of U.S. armies in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. And thus bin Laden in many non-Muslim societies has been called the "next Che Guevara." It’s nothing less than the appeal of successful resistance against dominant American power, the weak striking back — an appeal that transcends Islam or Middle Eastern culture.


But the question remains, if Islam didn’t exist, would the world be more peaceful? In the face of these tensions between East and West, Islam unquestionably adds yet one more emotive element, one more layer of complications to finding solutions. Islam is not the cause of such problems. It may seem sophisticated to seek out passages in the Koran that seem to explain "why they hate us." But that blindly misses the nature of the phenomenon. How comfortable to identify Islam as the source of "the problem"; it’s certainly much easier than exploring the impact of the massive global footprint of the world’s sole superpower.

A world without Islam would still see most of the enduring bloody rivalries whose wars and tribulations dominate the geopolitical landscape. If it were not religion, all of these groups would have found some other banner under which to express nationalism and a quest for independence. Sure, history would not have followed the exact same path as it has. But, at rock bottom, conflict between East and West remains all about the grand historical and geopolitical issues of human history: ethnicity, nationalism, ambition, greed, resources, local leaders, turf, financial gain, power, interventions, and hatred of outsiders, invaders, and imperialists. Faced with timeless issues like these, how could the power of religion not be invoked?

Remember too, that virtually every one of the principle horrors of the 20th century came almost exclusively from strictly secular regimes: Leopold II of Belgium in the Congo, Hitler, Mussolini, Lenin and Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. It was Europeans who visited their "world wars" twice upon the rest of the world — two devastating global conflicts with no remote parallels in Islamic history.

Some today might wish for a "world without Islam" in which these problems presumably had never come to be. But, in truth, the conflicts, rivalries, and crises of such a world might not look so vastly different than the ones we know today.

A review of my book Charny's Men-at-Arms: Questions Concerning the Joust, Tournaments, and War. Wheaton, IL: Freelance Academy Press, 2014. Pp. viii, 111. $24.95. ISBN: 978-1-9374390-5-7

From The Medieval Review

Muhlberger, Steven. Charny's Men-at-Arms: Questions Concerning the Joust, Tournaments, and War. Wheaton, IL: Freelance Academy Press, 2014. Pp. viii, 111. $24.95. ISBN: 978-1-9374390-5-7.

Reviewed by Peter W. Sposato

Indiana University Kokomo

Charny's Men-at-Arms: Questions Concerning the Joust, Tournaments and War is the latest in a series of important contributions made by Steven Muhlberger to the historical study of medieval chivalry. Muhlberger's previous publications have focused generally on "deeds of arms" (faits d'armes), whether in the guise of "chivalric sports," such as tournaments and jousts, or the bloody business of war. [1] In Charny's Men-at-Arms, Muhlberger continues his investigation of these major chivalric themes by focusing on a series of questions composed in the early 1350s by Geoffroi de Charny, a famous fourteenth century French knight. Charny's intended audience for his Questions were the members of the French royal chivalric Order of the Star: all strenuous, professional practitioners of chivalry. [2] Charny was himself a strenuous knight, who through his personal prowess and honorable conduct both on and off the battlefield climbed, during the course of a long and distinguished career, to the upper echelons of the chivalric hierarchy in France. As Muhlberger powerfully argues, however, Charny should be seen not only as a practitioner, but also as a "theorist of the life of chivalry," a "professor and follower of chivalry...[who] set out first and foremost to praise, to define, and to teach chivalry" (9, 14). Indeed, in addition to composing The Questions Concerning the Joust, Tournaments, and War, he also wrote the Livre de chevalerie (Book of Chivalry) and the Livre Charny (Charny's Book). [3] Thus, unlike many contemporary writers on chivalry, he not only talked the talk, he decidedly walked the walk: participating in tournaments; commanding soldiers in battle; and fighting with distinction in numerous engagements during the Hundred Years War, including at the battle of Poitiers (1356) where he was killed defending the Oriflamme (the sacred battle banner of France).

Charny's Questions are therefore crucially important to our understanding of chivalric mentality and the practical application of chivalric ideas in Late Medieval France in particular, and Europe in general. Muhlberger successfully makes the case for the importance of Charny's Questions in the very first line of his introduction, writing "The Questions Concerning the Joust, Tournaments, and War is a lost classic work of European chivalry. It is the only record we have of a dramatic occasion when crucial questions on the nature of war and the proper conduct of the warrior's life--one definition of chivalry--were posed to an audience of experts, professional men-at-arms of rank and influence" (1). Indeed, Charny's Questions deal with major issues that arose in the three main contexts in which strenuous men-at-arms (i.e. men of rank and status who lived the "life of arms") operated: jousts, tournaments, and war. (14) The Questions, one hundred and thirty four in number and divided into three categories (jousts, tournaments, and war), range from the practical ("Charny asks: Knights joust with steel lances in an emprise. One knocks the other to the ground with a stroke of his lance. Will the one who has knocked the other to the ground and out of the saddle win the horse? How will it be judged by the law of arms?" [88]) to the abstract ("Charny asks: When should a battle be called a battle and why that rather than something else?" [90]). By offering such a broad array of questions, Charny highlights both the formal and the informal rules that governed chivalric conduct, while also providing historians with a sense of the motivations, ideals, and behaviors that underpinned the chivalric lifestyle.

Equally important is the reformative nature of Charny's Questions, which Muhlberger highlights and deftly places into the larger historical context, namely the efforts of King Jean II of France to restore order in his kingdom and to turn the tide of the Hundred Years War. Muhlberger argues the ultimate purpose of Charny's Questions, given the strong reform currents found therein and the timing of their composition, was to buttress such royal initiatives and, importantly, future royal legislation "on matters of arms" (22). No doubt Charny envisioned the Questions as a means to reform and reinvigorate his fellow men-at-arms who had thus far failed to fulfill the sacred function associated with their divine ordo: to protect the French people through their prowess and bravery. Given the clear importance of this work, it is striking that Muhlberger provides in Charny's Men-at-Arms the first and only complete translation of the Questions into English. [4]

Muhlberger has done both scholars and students a great service by adeptly translating the Questions, but Charny's Men-at-Arms is much more than a simple translation: it is also an informed and insightful historical study of the Questions, of the values and attitudes that underpinned them, of the larger historical context in which they were composed, and of their intended audience. Indeed, Muhlberger's study penetrates far beneath the surface of these questions to shed considerable light on the author, the cultural milieu that shaped him, and the social circles in which he operated. Muhlberger's analysis is concise and intelligent, providing insight into Charny's Questions as they relate to a multitude of significant topics, including the nature of chivalry, the laws of war, royal ordinances on war (like King Jean II's Reglement pour le gens de guerre [issued April 30, 1351]), and theoretical treatises on war (like those of Giovanni Legnano and Honore Bouvet). Similarly insightful is Muhlberger's analysis of Charny's Questions relating to "chivalric sport" (Chapter 3: "Charny's Jousters and Tourneyers"), the practical and legal concerns about chivalric conduct in war (Chapter 5: "What Men-at-Arms Worried About"), and honor (Chapter 6: "Honor and the Lore of Chivalry"). Considering the complexity of these topics and the quagmire of scholarship associated with them, Muhlberger deserves praise for adding a great deal to the discussion. Finally, readers, especially students, will also appreciate Muhlberger's efforts to make sense of Charny's tricky terminology (Chapter 4).

There can be little doubt that Charny was a prominent practitioner and theorist of chivalry in his own time and that his writings are crucial to our modern understanding of the dominant ideology that shaped the mentality and lifestyle of the medieval warrior elite. Therefore, it is all the more remarkable that Charny's Questions, which "can be read as a reflection of the priorities and opinions of one of the most experienced and renowned warriors of his time," has been largely neglected by other scholars (23). Fortunately, such an important work on medieval chivalry has been very well served by Muhlberger's translation and study. Indeed, Charny's Men-at-Arms makes an important contribution to the historical study of medieval chivalry, chivalric sports, and warfare. Muhlberger's analysis is succinct and approachable, making it accessible to students, while still providing enough scholarly rigor and insight to earn the approbation of seasoned historians. Charny's Men-at-Arms will undoubtedly facilitate considerable discussion and future research.

------ Notes: 1. Prominent among Muhlberger's other publications on chivalry are: Jousts and Tournaments: Charny and the Rules for Chivalric Sport in Fourteenth-Century France (Union City, CA: Chivalry Bookshelf, 2002); Deeds of Arms: Formal Combats in the Late Fourteenth Century (Union City, CA: Chivalry Bookshelf, 2005); Royal Jousts at the End of the Fourteenth Century (Wheaton, IL: Freelance Academy Press, 2012); The Combat of the Thirty (Wheaton, IL: Freelance Academy Press, 2013); The Twelve of England (Wheaton, IL: Freelance Academy Press, 2013).

2. Other important studies of Charny include: Craig Taylor, Chivalry and the Ideals of Knighthood in France during the Hundred Years War (Cambridge University Press, 2013); Richard Kaeuper, Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe (Oxford University Press, 1999); idem, Holy Warriors: The Religious Ideology of Chivalry (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009); idem and Elspeth Kennedy, The Book of Chivalry of Geoffroi de Charny: Text, Context, and Translation (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996).

3. In addition to the facing page translation listed above (op. cit., n. 2), see also the slimmed down version: Kaeuper and Kennedy, A Knight's Own Book of Chivalry: Geoffroi de Charny (University of Pennsylvania, 2005).

4. The questions concerning tournaments and jousts were translated and studied in Muhlberger's Jousts and Tournaments: Charny and the Rules for Chivalric Sport in Fourteenth-Century France (op. cit., n. 1).

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.