The short version. If you have never read it, read it, especially if you are interested in California in the 70s, the SCA, or just enjoy really good writing. If you have read it, pick it up again.
Monday, August 31, 2015
Thursday, August 20, 2015
Imagine waking your children in the morning. Imagine feeding and dressing them. Imagine pulling a little girl’s hair into a ponytail, arguing with a little boy about which pair of shoes he wants to wear.
Now imagine, as you are doing that, you know later today you will strap their vulnerable bodies into enveloping life jackets and take them with you in a rubber dinghy - through waters that have claimed many who have done the same.
Think of the story you’d have to tell to reassure them. Think of trying to make it fun. Consider the emotional strength needed to smile at them and conceal your fear.
There is no "migrant crisis" in the Mediterranean.
What would it feel like if that experience – your frantic flight from war – was then diminished by a media that crudely labelled you and your family "migrants"?
And imagine having little voice to counter a description so commonly used by governments and journalists.
The umbrella term migrant is no longer fit for purpose when it comes to describing the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean. It has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative.
The argument that most of those risking everything to land on Europe’s shores are doing it for money is not supported by the facts.
According to the UN, the overwhelming majority of these people are escaping war. Most of them - some 63 percent since the beginning of the year - are fleeing Syria, a country in which an estimated 220,000 to more than 300,000 people have been killed during its appalling and escalating war.
Many others come from Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Eritrea and Somalia – all places from which people are commonly given asylum.
There is no "migrant" crisis in the Mediterranean. There is a very large number of refugees fleeing unimaginable misery and danger and a smaller number of people trying to escape the sort of poverty that drives some to desperation.
So far this year, nearly 340,000 people in these circumstances have crossed Europe's borders. A large number, for sure, but still only 0.045 percent of Europe's total population of 740 million.
Contrast that with Turkey, which hosts 1.8 million refugees from Syria alone. Lebanon, in which there are more than one million Syrians. Even Iraq, struggling with a war of its own, is home to more than 200,000 people who have fled its neighbour.
There are no easy answers and taking in refugees is a difficult challenge for any country but, to find solutions, an honest conversation is necessary.
Friday, August 14, 2015
I think the biggest lesson of the Iraq War is that if the alternative is war, it is almost always better to kick cans down the road rather than “resolve” them now. Not always. But almost always. Because wars destroy a lot of stuff and kill lots of people and create mammoth collateral damage - human, diplomatic, economic, everything - the consequences of which takes years and decades to grapple with. Especially when you are the stronger power, we need to make real what is usually spoken simply as a bromide that war really is the option of last resort. If we’re the weaker power or if we could beat Iran on the battlefield today but couldn’t ten years from now, maybe we can’t kick the can down the road. But that’s obviously preposterous. Iran is at best a regional military power. We have the biggest and strongest military in the world. All options remain open to us, basically forever.
But partitions are rare in in the post-war era. And the few that have occurred don’t offer encouraging examples. The United States was all enthusiastic to break South Sudan off from Sudan proper, in order to weaken one of Africa’s larger states and given that the Christian and animist population there had long chafed under northern Muslim Arabophone rule. But no sooner was South Sudan independent than it was largely abandoned by the US and it fell into a vicious and brutal civil war between the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups. Moreover, its post-independence dispute with Khartoum led the latter to block its oil exports. So the takeaway is that a partition can often actually lead to more conflict.
Tuesday, August 11, 2015
The story is set in the year 1490, in a fictional Austrian village (Essendorf [= “Ass Town”]). The narrator is a sixteen-year-old village boy named August Feldner, an apprentice in a print-shop. Twain, who was himself a printer’s apprentice in Hannibal, Missouri when he was the same age as August, fills the narrative with the arcana of the printing trade. The print shop’s master is a sympathetic character, but there are several villains: the master’s shrewish and scheming wife, a fraudulent magician-alchemist, and a persecuting priest. The apprentices, among whom August counts for little, are a mixed bag of characters, but all are obsessed with the perquisites and pecking order of the trade. Twain takes every occasion to demonstrate the superstitious and credulous mentality of the time, using his well-honed satirical style. But he also evokes the innocence of childhood and the humble pleasures or village life. Twain began writing this version while he was staying in a small Swiss village, which he likened to Hannibal in his diary. Into this fictional community there suddenly arrives a mysterious stranger, a boy apparently of August’s age, bedraggled, seeking food and shelter, for which he offers to work. When asked his name, he gives it as “Number 44, New Series 864,962.” Twain dwells on the boy’s bewitching beauty. Befriending August, and taking him into his confidence, he reveals himself as an “angel”, in fact a relative of Satan himself (Satan, of course, being the rebel angel), and existing outside of space and time. He communicates telephathically with August, teaches him how to make himself invisible, brings him articles from the future, and whisks him to mountain tops and China in an instant. They travel to the past. He also shows August humanity’s horrors, including the burning alive of a “witch”, the tragic lives of the poor, and the grim results of alternate time-lines of history. He seems utterly oblivious to August’s notions of propriety, piety, and ethics. When No.44’s diligence earns him a position as apprentice, the other apprentices go on strike in resentment, sabotaging an urgent printing job. No.44 conjures up an army of dopplegangers who do the work, and there is a comic battle in which each character fights his own duplicate. Finally, No.44 is burnt as a witch, only to reappear to August and explain to him that:“Nothing exists; all is a dream. God — man — the world, — the sun, the moon, the wilderness of stars: a dream, all a dream, they have no existence. Nothing exists save empty space — and you!”… “And you are not you — you have no body, no blood, no bones, you are but a thought. I myself have no existence, I am but a dream — your dream, creature of your imagination. In a moment you will have realized this, then you will banish me from your visions and I shall dissolve into the nothingness out of which you made me….”It’s no wonder that Twain considered the book unpublishable. And it’s not surprising that it was written in the shadow of tragedy. Of the three daughters that Twain doted on, one died of meningitis in 1896, at the age of twenty-four, another drowned in a bathtub in 1909. Earlier, his only son had died of diptheria when but a toddler. Olivia, his wife of thirty-four years, to whom he was utterly devoted, died after a protracted illness while they were in Italy. Twain had plenty of reason to be bitter. This strange novel embodies, in one way or another, all of his life-long obsessions, from his fascination with childhood, and with the Middle Ages, to his paring of dual characters, one “normal” and the other a kind of pagan spirit — Tom and Huck mutated into August and #44. His hatred of injustice and religious hypocrisy are in there in spades. But most of all, the novel dwells on the puzzle of suffering and the multi-faceted nature of consciousness. All Twain’s doubts and torments are resolved in a bizarre kind of metaphysical solipsism. In the same year that the recovered text reached general publication, a small film production company made a reasonably faithful cinematic version of the story. This is one of the oddest “family films” (for it was marketed as such) ever made. No.44’s final speech, blasphemous by any Christian standards, is in the film, which would nowadays make it non grata in the U.S., even though it probably voices the disenchantment of many modern Americans. It was filmed in Austria. Production values were low-end, but adequate. August was played by Chris Makepeace, a Canadian child actor who had briefly been successful in the comedy Meatballs. No.44 was played by Lance Kerwin, a hard-working juvenile television actor.
Saturday, July 18, 2015
As Seward remarked, the events of the mid-1850s threw into sharp relief how two different democracies, shaped by slavery, had arisen within the same nation. Although some southern franchises and systems representation were, in fact, more equal than others, slaveholders, normally wealthy slaveholders, held a commanding power in the courts and legislatures throughout the South. By contrast, power was more dispersed and most of the North, where ordinary farmers and even wage earners not only voted but also held state offices. Southern politics could brook no criticism of slavery for fear of destabilizing the system; northerners were free to write and say whatever they wanted to about any political subject. In Kansas, upholders of southern- style popular sovereignty had flagrantly rigged elections, violently seized control of polling places, and turned democracy into a mockery – and had gained federal sanction from a doughface Democrat bullied into compliance by Slave Power congressmen and cabinet members. When an elected northern Republican had the temerity to call the bullies to account, one of them cut him down and beat him mercilessly on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
Monday, July 13, 2015
Friday, July 10, 2015
-- or at least into Italian.
This is the Italian translation of my 10-year-old monograph on late medieval formal combats, Deeds of Arms. Gesta d'Armi is the work of Benedetta Ermacora and Marco Signorini; it is published in Kindle format through the Italian branch of Amazon and is very reasonably priced.
I never thought I would write something that would attract this degree of international interest, and I am very pleased and complimented.
Order the Italian edition here, and the English-language hardback here.
Sunday, July 05, 2015
Has Europe lost its hold on our collective imagination? Fintan O'Toole When I was a teenager in Dublin in the early 1970s, the phrase “We’re into Europe!” gained a peculiar currency. It was half-jokey but not really sardonic. You used it for good things that promised even better things – when a girl you fancied smiled at you or your team scored the first goal. We were into Europe [the EEC]. ... But what did “Europe” mean in this sense? It was not a physical place. Ireland had, after all, always been part of Europe. And the EEC was not, in any case, Europe – it was a small fraction of the continent. But it wasn’t a mere set of trading and institutional arrangements either. It was a story, an imaginative fiction of the kind that Yuval Noah Harari evokes in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. He makes the point that the capacity to believe in fictional constructs is a defining element of what makes us human, because without it we cannot co-operate with people we do not know: “At the heart of our mass co-operation networks, you will always find fictional stories that exist only in people’s collective imagination... There are no gods, no nations, no money and no human rights, except in our collective imagination.” One of these enabling fictions is “Europe”. It is a story that most of the central and western nations of the continent agreed to tell themselves and each other in order to deal with the legacies of the second world war and the cold war. And like all stories, it sustained itself, if not exactly with belief, then at least with a willing suspension of disbelief. The question now is whether it still exists at all, whether “Europe” has lost its hold on our collective imagination. All the evidence suggests that it has. In a remarkable outburst reported last week by the Observer, the Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, denounced the failure of his fellow EU leaders to agree on more than a voluntary plan to deal with the thousands of refugees and migrants landing on his country’s shores: “If this is your idea of Europe, keep it for yourself… you do not deserve to call yourself Europe. Either we have solidarity or we waste our time!” In recent weeks, too, the appeals by leaders of Syriza in Greece to “our shared European values” have come to seem not just desperate but naive. It is as if the Greeks were appealing to medieval codes of chivalry or expecting Premier League footballers to respect 19th-century Corinthian values. “Europe” and “European values” seem, even as rhetorical gestures, entirely hollow. They are evoked now only to underline their absence. One by one, the elements of the Europe story have fallen away. Democracy? ... The free movement of people? ... Thresholds of decency? Formulaic expressions of sympathy aside, there is little sense that the European Union as a whole finds it intolerable that hundreds of thousands of Greeks are living without electricity or that millions have no access to public health care. The “ever closer union” envisaged by the EU’s founders has been replaced in effect by a deeply incoherent mixture of one-size-fits-all thinking and double standards. On the one hand, there is the absolute insistence that there can be no challenge to the technocratic formula for solving the eurozone crisis: austerity plus massive bank bailouts plus privatisation and the dismantling of social and labour protections. On the other, there is a sharp moral and political divide between the creditor states and the debtor states, with a supposedly virtuous, prudent and righteous core beset by a feckless, reckless periphery. Or, if viewed from that periphery, between victimised citizens and a European political elite bent on punishing them for sins they did not commit on their own. There is no “collective imagination” of the crisis – in one Europe, it is respectable, hard-working people being exploited by chaotic layabouts from the hot south; in the other, it is hard-pressed and equally hard-working people being sucked dry to feed foreign banks. The stories Europeans are telling themselves about what’s going on around them are not just different but mutually exclusive and mutually antagonistic. ... the generation of leaders with memories of the Second World War – the likes of Helmut Kohl and Helmut Schmidt, François Mitterand and Jacques Delors – passed on. With them has gone the urgency of imagining a European story, not as an abstract fable, but as a necessary alternative to the other European stories of Hitler and Stalin. ... In the technocratic mindset that has filled the vacuum where “Europe” used to be, the old story is just a sentimental romance. But there’s always a story – the old fable of democracy, solidarity and decency hasn’t been replaced by simple dull reality. What has taken its place is a narrative that poses as hard-headed realism but that is actually much more fantastical than the one that was constructed by the postwar generation. It has a wildly improbable plot in which years of austerity magically produce economic growth; mountains of public debt are paid off by shrinking economies; unaccountable experts know more about other countries than their own elected governments; and everyone lives happily ever after. The good are rewarded. The bad are punished but they repent in the end and return to the fold. There’s certainly a lot of imagination in this story. But its ability to sustain a collective enterprise among 28 stubbornly individual nations is negligible. It is not entirely true, of course, that no one at all believes the old story of Europe. The last true believers are on rickety boats in the Mediterranean, trying to make their way to an imagined continent of compassion, solidarity and security. If they ever get to shore, they will find at best a grudging welcome. But those who purport to share their belief in what Europe means badly need some of their desperate optimism.
Monday, June 29, 2015
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
Saturday, June 27, 2015
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
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.