Thursday, November 08, 2018

From the University of Pennsylvania Press: Slavery in a "Free State"

 The University of Pennsylvania Press is advertising this fascinating book:

The Alchemy of Slavery
Human Bondage and Emancipation in the Illinois Country, 1730-1865

M. Scott Heerman

248 pages | 6 x 9 | 12 illus.
Cloth Sep 2018 | ISBN 9780812250466 | $45.00s | Outside the Americas £35.00
Ebook editions are available from selected online vendors
A volume in the series America in the Nineteenth Century
View table of contents and excerpt

"M. Scott Heerman provocatively muddies the waters, demonstrating how slavery survived in 'free' Illinois all the way through the Civil War. His reinterpretation does much to link the history of Middle America to the global history of slavery."—Christina Snyder, Penn State University

"M. Scott Heerman offers much-needed and close scrutiny of the Illinois Country, a region that, because it straddled empires, labor systems, freedom, and slavery, opens up new understandings along a number of fronts, not least of which is the relationship between slavery's many iterations and the kind of freedoms those slaveries engendered. This book joins a growing body of scholarship that considers slavery and its legacies to be a national (versus a southern) problem, and which illuminates slavery as a historical process as opposed to a static and singular institution."—Susan Eva O'Donovan, University of Memphis

"Ambitious and meticulously researched, The Alchemy of Slavery illuminates the complex development of slavery and freedom in Illinois over more than a century. Heerman demonstrates the significance of local practices without neglecting broader developments in the French and British empires and in Washington, D.C. This book is wonderfully attentive to questions of geography and scale and makes a significant contribution to our understanding of colonial and early national North America." —Kate Masur, Northwestern University

In this sweeping saga that spans empires, peoples, and nations, M. Scott Heerman chronicles the long history of slavery in the heart of the continent and traces its many iterations through law and social practice. Arguing that slavery had no fixed institutional form, Heerman traces practices of slavery through indigenous, French, and finally U.S. systems of captivity, inheritable slavery, lifelong indentureship, and the kidnapping of free people. By connecting the history of indigenous bondage to that of slavery and emancipation in the Atlantic world, Heerman shows how French, Spanish, and Native North American practices shaped the history of slavery in the United States.

The Alchemy of Slavery foregrounds the diverse and adaptable slaving practices that masters deployed to build a slave economy in the Upper Mississippi River Valley, attempting to outmaneuver their antislavery opponents. In time, a formidable cast of lawyers and antislavery activists set their sights on ending slavery in Illinois. Abraham Lincoln, Lyman Trumbull, Richard Yates, and many other future leaders of the Republican party partnered with African Americans to wage an extended campaign against slavery in the region. Across a century and a half, slavery's nearly perpetual reinvention takes center stage: masters turning Indian captives into slaves, slaves into servants, former slaves into kidnapping victims; and enslaved people turning themselves into free men and women.

M. Scott Heerman teaches history at the University of Miami.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Dutch Gratitude Day

I went out this morning to see what our neighbors had done in the way of Halloween decorations.

It didn't seem to me that they had done a lot, though there were a number of skeletons.  More noteworthy were the Japanese maples that seem to be at their  peak color.

I think today could be called "Japanese Red Maple Tree Day."

Actually there was just last week another celebration.  PM Justin Trudeau went to the Netherlands and to greet him the Dutch put on another of the numerous Dutch Gratitude Days (my name, not theirs) that have been put on since the Second World War.

The reason for it goes back to 1945 when, after years of Nazi occupation, the Netherlands were liberated by Canadian forces, just in time to keep the Dutch from starving to death.  The Dutch have never forgotten this merciful intervention.

Who does that kind of thing?  As far as I know, only the Dutch.

I believe that this story sheds more honor on the Dutch than on Canada, though certainly it is one of the best episodes in Canadian history.  Bravo to all who were actually there, and their worthy descendents.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018


Stephen Marche will chill your blood.  An excerpt describing the steps to civil war:

To sum up: the US Congress is too paralyzed by anger to carry out even the most basic tasks of government. America’s legal system grows less legitimate by the day. Trust in government is in free fall. The president discredits the fbi, the Department of Justice, and the judicial system on a regular basis. Border guards place children in detention centres at the border. Antigovernment groups, some of which are armed militias, stand ready and prepared for a government collapse. All of this has already happened.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Narrative history no good?

The Verge publishes an interview in which the philosopher-neuroscientist-historian Alex Rosenberg argues that the narratives out of which we build our underdtanding of other peopple's motives are entirely inadequate to the job. An excerpt:
The real imperative of my book is to try to get people to see that neuroscience has, in the last 20 years, begun to teach us about the nature of the brain and its relation to the mind and, of course, how this undermines theory of mind [the ability to guess other people’s thoughts and motivations]. There have been startling developments that have won Nobel Prizes and begun to answer the most profound questions people have been asking about human thought as far back as Aristotle and Descartes: how the brain could be the mind, exactly what it is about the machinery of neural circuitry that constitutes thought and cognition. If you pay attention to research and developments in these areas, you discover the way the brain actually realizes the cognitive properties that govern human experience is nothing like what consciousness tells us it is.

[Interviewer Angela Chen]

Before we get into the neuroscience part, how exactly does history get things wrong? And why do you find narrative so unconvincing?

           [Neuroscientist-historian Alex Rosenberg]
I myself am the victim of narrative. I love narrative. It’s the only thing I read, and it’s fantastically seductive. When I say “narrative,” I don’t mean a chronology of events; I mean stories with plots, connected by motivations, by people’s beliefs and desires, their plans, intentions, values. There’s a story. The problem is, these historical narratives seduce you into thinking you really understand what’s going on and why things happened, but most of it is guessing people’s motives and their inner thoughts. It allays your curiosity, and you’re satisfied psychologically by the narrative, and it connects the dots so you feel you’re in the shoes of the person whose narrative is being recorded. It has seduced you into a false account, and now you think you understand.

Rosenberg's ideas are treated at length in his book, How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories, just out from MIT Press.
Image Herodotus, Father of History, Father of Lies. This is not what he really looked like, but what do you expect?

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Sword and Scimitar, by Raymond Ibrahim

This book is very much more about the Scimitar (militant Islam through the ages) than it is about European, Christian Swords.  Ibrahim belongs to the school of thought that emphasizes the Muslim tradition of jihad and its centrality to Islam.  Briefly, such  people don't believe that there  is any chance that modern Islam will engage with non-Muslim cultures on a basis of tolerance and equality, simply because war against the infidel  has always been a key aspect of Islam, and always will be.  Abandon jihad and its justification for conquest and enslavement and you are abandoning the teachings of Muhammed.

The bulk of Sword and Scimitar is a demonstration of how Muslim leaders have followed this tradition.  Ibrahim has built his book on standard (and in most cases quite recent ) scholarly treatments and many more ancient and mediaeval sources.  I'd say that the most valuable aspect of this book is in fact the primary sources that are so large a part of his argument.  What those sources demonstrate is, sure enough, that war against the infidel is (said to be) inevitable.

At  least that is what Ibrahim argues, directly and by implication.   I have problems with these kinds of argument.   I simply don't accept that Islam, Christianity or Buddhism is equal to what the holy books, the prophets, and the famous rulers in that tradition  say that it is. You have also have to look at what people actually do. We don't know what  Islam will be like a hundred years from now.  It's pretty safe to say that Muslim scholars will be arguing about what jihad means, but beyond that…

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Books on parade!

Over the past twenty years I have written several books on "formal deeds of arms," namely jousting, tournaments, judicial duels and the relationship between chivalry and pragmatic warfare.  These books have been available from a number of large and small publishers (online) but few people have had a chance to see the books (very pretty) or hold them in their hands before making a decision to buy.

So this weekend I will be taking my personal copies to the Ealdormere Coronation in Shakespeare, Ontario.  I don't have copies for sale, but at least you will be able to judge their quality.  There will also be display copies of some SCA-relevant books.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Struggling Dayton Ohio

 Upcoming on ProPublica:

How Struggling Dayton, Ohio, Reveals the Chasm Among American Cities

I was taken aback by this portrait of Dayton in crisis -- mainly because I grew up in the Dayton area in the 50s and 60s.  Back then Dayton was used by New York ad agencies to stand in for typical, prosperous Middle America.  Then, long after Kettering and the Wright brothers, Dayton was still doing more than OK.

An excerpt:

The irony for Dayton is that it knows the value of innovation clusters as well as anywhere. In the early decades of the last century, the city was home not only to the Wright brothers, but to lesser known inventors like Charles Kettering, who is credited with the electrical starting motor, among many automotive advances. The difference in the industrial age was that the manufacturing that flowed from those advances could be done just about anywhere with manpower, raw materials and transportation access. Today, manufacturing is typically done overseas, while the wealth accumulates in the hub cities where the intellectual property originated.
Image:  A Chinese company paying much lower wages than the GM plant it is replacing opens in Moraine, Ohio, right outside Dayton.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Medieval cooks: Take a gander at this

An ad that will be of interest to some of my friends:

"The Original Mediterranean Cuisine, 2nd Edition" - New Title from Equinox Publishing

Lauren Milka via 

ISD is pleased to announce a new title from
Equinox Publishing: 

The Original Mediterranean Cuisine:
Medieval Recipes for Today (Second Edition)
by Barbara Santich

Paperback, 140 pages, 40 col illus.
Publication Date: October 2018
Price: $39.95

The Original Mediterranean Cuisine is both culinary history and cookbook, with 70 recipes from fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Catalan and Italian manuscripts, adapted for today's kitchens. Starting with the natural and cultural affinities of Mediterranean Europe, such that a medieval merchant from Italy could be understood in Marseille and Barcelona, it demonstrates the culinary similarities that differentiated this region from northern Europe.

The first edition was published by Wakefield Press in Australia in 1995 and licensed in 1996 to Chicago Review Press in the USA. This edition has been extensively revised and enlarged by a third and is lavishly illustrated with images from medieval texts. It includes new sections on the medieval table and table manners, and discusses the significance of the medieval banquet through a selection of menus.

For more information on this volume, including the full Table of Contents, click through the cover image above or here.

To preoder this volume for the special offer price of $32, use promotional code 1141-18 through September 30th. Stock is expected later this fall. Orders are welcome by phone, fax, or email to

Friday, August 31, 2018

Space Chantey by R.A.Lafferty

When I moved from the North Bay area to Windsor, Ontario I got rid of a lot of books, especially old science fiction. But I kept some that I might well reread some day. Among them was R.A. Lafferty's Space Chantey ("the Odyssey of Space Captain Roadstrum.") One reason I kept it, no doubt is that it had a very attractive cover by Vaughn Bode, a fan and professional artist who was a rising star in the late 60s, when I was becoming serious about keeping current with science fiction. I liked Bode as did many of my fannish friends.
But my appreciation of Lafferty was much more serious, so that even decades later there was something in my mind saying, "No, don't let a Lafferty book go." So I didn't, and last week I picked Space Chantey up, and had the pleasure of reading his whimsical Irish-American prose and remembering that time in the history of science fiction when just about any thing could happen.

Friday, August 17, 2018

At last, marijuana reform interested in more than just the money

From the L.A. Times:
San Francisco will wipe out thousands of marijuana convictions dating to 1975


JAN 31, 2018 | 6:45 PM


San Francisco will retroactively apply California’s new marijuana legalization laws to prior convictions, expunging or reducing misdemeanor and felony convictions dating back to 1975, the district attorney’s office announced Wednesday.

San Francisco will retroactively apply California's new marijuana legalization laws to prior convictions, expunging or reducing misdemeanors and felonies dating to 1975, the district attorney's office announced Wednesday.

Nearly 5,000 felony marijuana convictions will be reviewed, recalled and resentenced, and more than 3,000 misdemeanors that were sentenced prior to Proposition 64's passage will be dismissed and sealed, Dist. Atty. George Gascón said. The move will clear people's records of crimes that can be barriers to employment and housing.

San Francisco's move could be the beginning of a larger movement to address old pot convictions, though it's still far from clear how many other counties will follow the famously liberal city's lead.

Proposition 64 legalizes, among other things, the possession and purchase of up to an ounce of marijuana and allows individuals to grow up to six plants for personal use. The measure also allows people convicted of marijuana possession crimes eliminated by Proposition 64 to petition the courts to have those convictions expunged from their records as long as the person does not pose a risk to public safety.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

White supremacy and medieval re-creation

An alarming situation for those of us who have been doing re-creations for fun for the last long time. Forwarded by Matt Gabriele from the Daily Beast. Note: is there any reference to a real Renaissance fair?
A lawsuit against a hoard of far-right groups, including the TWP, accuses them of using their shields like weapons. In order to escape litigation, a number of the groups in the lawsuit have agreed not to return to Charlottesville with weapons, including shields. Meanwhile, other medievalist communities have also struggled with alt-right incursion—and in the case of the Historical European Medieval Arts (HEMA) community, those unwelcome factions have more deadly weapons. Mondschein, the history professor and HEMA instructor, said the community is overwhelmingly a tolerant one.

But over the past several years, he has catalogued a far-right fascination with the field, which includes fencing and dueling with very real, very sharp swords. “Is anyones else besides me into [HEMA]?” a person with a swastika avatar asked in Iron March, a now-defunct Nazi forum. Mondschein included the post in a presentation at last year’s International Congress on Medieval Studies, where he gave a talk on white supremacist trends in his sport. He also conducted a survey (which, he stresses, is not peer-reviewed) of more than 300 HEMA participants, in which 10 to 15 percent of respondents indicated that they held far-right views. “Using hard plastic shields as battering rams, the group charged into a crowd of unarmed counter-protesters, shoving them on the pavement and stabbing them with flagpoles.

” tRadix Journal, a white supremacist site published by Richard Spencer, has run multiple pieces promoting HEMA, selling it as a more authentic medieval experience than games like Dagorhir.“This ain’t LARPing,” one Radix article reads. Larry McQuilliams, a Texas man who attempted to destroy Austin’s Mexican Consulate with bullets and bottles of propane in 2014, was described by neighbors as being into “martial arts swords” and Renaissance Faires. McQuilliams, who was killed in a firefight with police after firing more than 100 shots in downtown Austin, was reportedly affiliated with the Phineas Priesthood, a Christian identity hate group that advocates violence against people of color. And just months ago, the HEMA community erupted in controversy after some of its best-known Swedish fighters were revealed to have liked or shared historical Nazi propaganda, or other racist imagery. In a long statement, the most prominent of the fencers, Axel Pettersson, denounced his old “Nazi jokes” as the product of a dark period in his life, for which he apologized. Pettersson said he was not a white supremacist and had friends of many races, but went on to describe views similar to that of the identitarian movement, warning that immigrants are “replacing” white Swedes, who “have the right to our own country.

“A lot of people are drawn to HEMA and other medievalist subcultures like the Society for Creative Anachronism because it fits into their overall Identitarian worldview, their ideas of European culture,” Mondschein said of the incident. “Particularly, these people in Sweden who attempted to hide their participation in some white supremacist websites, but if you read their various blogs and writings, you see it that it fits into an overall worldview that romanticizes an imagined homogeneous past.” In this “imagined past,” as medievalists describe it, historical accuracy often takes a backseat to fantasy. Neo-Nazis and European nationalists have laid claim to Beowulf, an Old English epic poem about a Norse warrior, which they interpret as a vision of an all-white warrior society. When a charity group produced a low-budget Beowulf adaptation starring a black actor in 2007, they received death threats from self-proclaimed “aryans”. On the recommended reading page of one of its websites, the murderous neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen lists the medievalist fantasy series Lord of the Rings alongside Hitler’s writing and texts that advocate terrorism. “You often had white southerners after the Civil War imagining themselves as characters in Ivanhoe and holding medieval-style tournaments as public recreation.”

Also on the Atomwaffen-approved reading list are three books by Varg Vikernes, a Norwegian musician who, in between prison and probation stints for murder, church-burning, and inciting racial hatred, has promoted his own brand of pagan white supremacy. Vikernes’ profile picture on his Amazon page shows him wearing a chainmail shirt. He describes himself as being interested in “tabletop role-playing games, HEMA, archaeology, pre-history, pre-Christian European religion and survivalism.”
Historically questionable fiction about medieval Europe has been fueling white supremacist fantasies for the past 150 years, Whitaker, the Wellesley College professor said. “In the 19th Century, it was largely through medievalizing novels like Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, which was probably the biggest and most well-known example,” he said. “That novel played a big role in racial politics in the mid-19th Century, before, during, and after the Civil War.” The result, particularly after the Civil War, was its own brand of LARPing. “You often had white southerners after the Civil War imagining themselves as characters in Ivanhoe and holding medieval-style tournaments as public recreation,” Whitaker said. “This was a way of recuperating their experience in the American Civil War as the medieval experience of Norman versus Franc.

That is one instance of a way in which this narrative of an all-white Middle Ages has been important to white supremacy for a long time.” Much in the way that would-be Confederates leaned on the “imagined past” of medieval England, modern racists have poured millions into an imagined Confederacy. Most of the Confederate flags and statues that dot the U.S.’s southern states did not appear during or immediately after the Civil War, but a century later, during the Civil Rights Movement. Though the statues’ advocates defend them as a symbol of pride and heritage, the construction of new Confederate sites has spiked during racialized conflicts, the Atlantic previously reported.
That LARPing lineage came full circle at Unite the Right, which was initially described as a rally in defense of a Confederate statue in Charlottesville. Now, with members of their communities marching among fascists at Charlottesville or sharing Nazi pictures, some anti-racist medievalists are fighting back. “It is safe to say that there are white supremacists and Nazis who are ACTIVELY using Dag as a personal and organizational training ground to give them an edge in premeditated race riots,” one Dagorhir participant wrote on Facebook after Walsh was revealed to have marched at Unite the Right. Dagorhir Battle Games, the sport’s organizing body, soon banned Walsh from future competitions.

But in HEMA, weeding out white supremacy can be more complicated. “The difficulty is that this idea of aboriginal European martial arts works very well as a dog whistle,” Mondschein said. “It’s very hard to detoxify that. We have people who are interested in this, and we have overt political statements.” Debates over the sport’s next steps have led to a “real split. I got challenged to a duel with sharp weapons” over his stance, Mondschein said.

That LARPing lineage came full circle at Unite the Right, which was initially desc Even medievalist academics are torn on how to address their field’s unwanted fanbase on the far-right. The rift turned bitter ahead of this year’s International Conference on Medieval Studies. Kim, the Brandeis professor, had previously called on her colleagues to condemn white supremacy. Some, including a University of Chicago medievalist who contributes to Breitbart, refused, resulting in a flame war against Kim and colleagues, Inside Higher Ed reported.

Whitaker said the recent tensions in his field haven’t surprised him. “The field propagated this idea, relevant since the 19th Century, of a homogeneously white Middle Ages and attracted people into the field—obviously not everyone, but some people—who thought ‘okay, I can deal with literature or history and not deal with these knotty modern problems of race,’” he said Kim told The Daily Beast she’s still calling on colleagues to address their field’s white supremacy problem head-on. “I think academics must counter academic white supremacy by calling it what it is and resisting it,” she said. “In other words, this is not a both-sides debate, this is about genocidal fascism that wants to harm the most vulnerable bodies in our society—Jews, Muslims, women, BIPOC, LGBTQIA, immigrants, refugees, etc.” As for the white supremacists LARPing alongside non-Nazis, their medieval enthusiast peers want them to drop the foam swords and step into reality. “In many ways, it’s a reaction to the current state of the world. This is their answer to it, by going back to the imagined past, which is of course futile, because you can’t turn back the clock,” Mondschein said. “You’ve got to learn to live in the world we’re in.”

Monday, August 13, 2018

Are Americans dumb? Umair Haque says no

Not that his answer will make you feel any better:
Some things in life, my friends, are unpredictable. The weather. True love. The stock market. But some things are entirely, utterly, and almost boringly predictable, too. And strangely, those aren’t small things. Sometimes, they’re big things. One of the most predictable things of all is fascism, the classical sequence of a proto-fascist collapse.
Don’t believe me? Let’s think about. It goes something like this: economic stagnation, a falling middle class, a rising demagogue, who scapegoats and demonizes minorities, blaming the troubles of the many on the few and the different. Soon enough, something like this follows: paramilitaries are formed, parallel judiciaries, law enforcement, and citizenship are created, camps rise, apartheid laws begin, minorities are expropriated of savings, homes, and assets (which are redistributed to the pure of blood, because, remember, the economy is stagnant), forced exile, ghettoization, enslavement, and finally, extermination. The lying press! Enemies of the people! Vermin! Animals! We know how this goes, don’t we?
Where would you saw we are in that sequence of ruin? Judge for yourself. But the fact that you can judge also says: you’re familiar with this sequence, intuitively. Maybe not intimate with it in a textbook fashion. But you know its broad outlines. That makes it predictable. We — you and I — have seen it happen in society after society. Not just Nazi Germany, but Russia, Cambodia, and Rwanda, too, to name just a few. That’s why we all have an intuitive, almost unconscious knowledge of how fascist collapses proceed.
And yet, every single day, day after day, like a broken record, my timeline is full of Americans crying out in surprise. How — for Pete’s sake — can anyone be surprised by any of this, at this point? If every adult human being on Planet Earth, more or less, is familiar, in rough terms, with the points in the sequence above by now — then why are Americans still professing surprise, every single day? Are they acting? Are they really this dumb? They’ve never read a book about the Holocaust? Seen a single movie about it? Ever?
Let met give you an example to make the point.
“Why didn’t the wash that poor kid for 80 days?!” I saw a noted columnist asking, about a neglected, abused kid who was returned from a camp, infested with lice.
Hmm, let’s think about it. There are exactly three possible reasons. There was a sudden national shortage of water, soap, pipes, and bathtubs. Or maybe everybody was timewarped back to the middle ages, where no one bathed at all, including the guards. Or (wait for it) the guards are exactly what people who put little kids in camps need to be, to do it in the first place: fascists. People who don’t think that kid who’s already a filthy subhuman needs to bathe.
Which one is the most plausible? I’m being facetious — and yet, you still don’t know it, I’d bet. There’s only one reason no one would wash a kid in the 21st century. The guards were showering every day, weren’t they? If you were taking care of a kid, and the showers at school or daycare were broken, for months, wouldn’t you just finally take him home, and give the poor kid a bath? The only reason none of the above would or could happen is that if child’s guardians believe he is inherently dirty, that no water and soap can clean him anyways, so what’s the point, that he’s impure. It is as clear a line of evidence of fascism as human history has ever seen. And yet we have a noted columnist who can’t make draw simple logical conclusions. But it’s not just the columnist. It’s every single American I know. Meet. Read. See. Hear from. Every single one appears to be living in a parallel reality where they are perpetually surprised by what they already know. How can that be? It’s baffling, bizarre, and a little gruesome, isn’t it? It leaves us with two possible outcomes. Either Americans are really this dumb, that they don’t what all this genuinely is when they see it — or they’re playing dumb. Let’s take them one by one. Are Americans really this dumb? To be that dumb, you’d have to have never, ever, like I said above, seen a single movie, read a single book, or taken a single class about any kind of atrocity or genocide in history, from the Holocaust to the Armenian genocide to North Korean camps. Does that sound plausible to you? I’m pretty sure most Americans have seen Schindler’s List. I’m fairly certain they know who Hitler was and what happened in Auschwitz. So forgive me, but I don’t think Americans are actually too dumb to understand what’s going on before their very eyes.
I think they’re playing dumb. Which is a much more interesting question, isn’t it? Why would an entire nation play dumb — when the fascists arrive? What would motivate them to commit something so cowardly, so foolish, so unbelievable that it’s actually the stuff of black comedy? After all, that’s what playing dumb really is, isn’t it? A form of cowardice, if we’re a little less polite, and a little more honest.
So why would a whole nation play dumb? I think the answer — the only answer — goes something like this. Americans are willing to give the moral benefit of the doubt to people they think are “real” Americans, and deny the benefit of the very same doubt to those they don’t think are “real” Americans. The camp guards, the agencies, the managers, the contractors — all these people, whatever they are, are at least “real” Americans.
Ah, but you see something genuinely interesting happens now. Americans have made a very foolish mistake. The same one the Germans did, too, with their own Nazis.
They are giving people who acting in bad faith the benefit of the doubt. Hasn’t it been well established by now that “they” — and we all know they are by now — are operating with something like modern history’s most profound bad faith? They’re always read to shatter a norm, break a rule, treat society with deceit, never tell the truth. Aren’t the tactics they use — twisting reality, calling up down, denying what’s in front of everyone’s eyes — all example of bad faith? Isn’t a head of state who’s a renowned liar the ultimate example of bad faith?
Now that I point out the mistake to you, I’m sure you see how foolish it is. Playing dumb with people who are acting in bad faith is like grinning happily and playing Russian roulette with someone who asks you to go first — after loading all six chambers of the revolver. Playing dumb with people acting in bad faith is a recipe to be dominated, disempowered, and shattered. Just ask anyone who’s ever had an abusive relationship — which is what fascism really is. Now. We haven’t yet answered the deeper question. Why are Americans playing dumb — at precisely the time they must wise up? Why are they expressing shock, day after day — when fascism is more predictable than the weather? When we all know exactly what happens when the fascists arrive — demonization, scapegoating, camps, apartheid laws, ghettoes, expropriation, and worse, in roughly that order?
I think the answer’s simple. Culturally, Americans play dumb about everything, don’t they? They strike a pose of coyness. It seems to be what passes for cleverness, now — pretending that the answers are out there in space somewhere. Asking questions we all know the answers to. I’ll give you a few examples — imaginary conversations between pundits. “Why, James, is life expectancy falling?” “I don’t know, Steve!” And yet we all know the answer is: the healthcare system is profoundly broken. “George, I think it’s terrible millennials can’t afford to move out and have families! Why is that?” “Well, Bob, I don’t know!” But we all know the answer is: capitalism has failed massively as a system of social organization.
And Americans do that these days because collapsing societies are something like voids. They collapse because old ideologies fail — but societies only collapse because people clung to those ideologies in the first place. And so, clinging to badly failed ideologies, people can’t seem to see what’s right in front of their own eyes. The only way out is to play dumb. That can’t really be what it seems to be, can it? No, no — it can’t be! Those aren’t fascists! Those are good and fine people. They just don’t bathe kids for months.
Let me give bad faith every last shred of the benefit of the doubt. In other words, the intersection of folly, privilege, arrogance, and tribalism. That’s how you end up with pundits asking: “why did nobody wash a kid for 80 days?!” Gee, Bob. I don’t know. Maybe the entire nation ran out of water. Maybe it timewarped back to the dark ages, where no one bathed. Or maybe, just maybe, the Nazis think those filthy, dirty kids are subhumans, whom even water is wasted upon. Which is exactly what they keep saying to you — if only your deaf ears and your broken mind was capable of listening.

Canada's surprising significance in the current world crisis

Sreeram Chaulia, an Indian academic, writes on the CBC site:  

The unusual fit of rage with which Saudi Arabia reacted to Canada's routine criticism of the kingdom's human rights situation is a reflection of not just the nature of the current regime in Riyadh, but also of the transitory world order in which we are now living.
The diplomatic row, wherein the petulant Saudis have recalled their ambassador from Ottawa and threatened to pull out thousands of their students and patients from Canadian universities and hospitals, is emblematic of a liberal international system that is wobbling, though it still has proponents.
By now, it is evident that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is a hardliner who does not brook any dissent against the kingdom's monarchical absolutism. His loosening of social restrictions on Saudi women and imposition of restraints on the conservative Wahhabi clerical establishment impressed many, but political persecution of activists has simultaneously increased since the 32-year-old Salman became the de facto king in 2017. The liberalisation Salman is overseeing through measures like introducing cinema to an entertainment-starved Saudi society is a controlled experiment, with no room for political opening-up.
The assumption behind his diplomatic tussle against Canada seems to be that the liberal world order has already caved in, and authoritarian governments now have untrammelled freedom to crush dissent at home and browbeat opponents abroad. The Saudi reckoning appears to be that with Trump heading the anti-liberal camp and several right-wing populist European countries joining it, the time is ripe to vigorously counter and corner liberal holdouts like Canada. 
 Going by the detached American — and even British — attitude to the Saudi diplomatic offensive against Canada, Riyadh might reason that Trudeau is indeed marginalized in the emerging new international system. The fact that Canada's historic allies have not lined up solidly behind Trudeau as he locks horns with Salman does indicate Canada's relative isolation. It also speaks volumes about the liberal versus conservative/populist polarization sharply dividing Western democracies, which had hitherto formed a fairly coherent ideological bloc.  
By escalating the row with Canada, Salman has attracted adverse international publicity to Saudi Arabia's jailing and ill-treatment of young human rights activists like Samar and Raif Badawi. Ironically, the unwanted foreign attention from which Salman seeks to shield Saudi Arabia is likely to intensify as a result of his Canadian misadventure, not lessen.
It is far from a foregone conclusion that liberalism has completely lost its international ideological hold. No one can be sure of the final result of what is shaping up to be a zigzag tug-of-war between liberalism and populism. 
It is quite possible to exaggerate Canada's role in the world.  But in this case I think, "What would Canada, North America, the world be like if Stephen Harper had won the last election?" It   sends chills up and down the spine!

Image:  scary!


Friday, August 10, 2018

Neil Muhlberger: my brother the North Star

This past week my wife and I visited my brother Neil in Denver to celebrate his retirement.  Neil has been working for a US government institution for over 40 years.  In that time he has accumulated a tremendous amount of respect and good will from the people he has worked with.  I can't go into detail about what he did -- in fact he did so many things it might be impossible to sum up his accomplishments.

For  instance, he seems to have taken the lead in creating a digital recordkeeping system to replace the analog ones that they used when he showed up.  (And no, he had no formal training in the problems modernizing a very diverse collection of data.) This was just one vital transformation that Neil took part in during his 40+ year career.

Family members and close friends who showed up at the dinner and ceremony got to hear what his bosses and colleagues thought of these accomplishments.  To  put it briefly, Neil was their north star, their Polaris.

I have a high opinion of both my brothers (my other brother Kent just recently wound up a long career as an airline pilot) but it is really something to hear a close relative equated with Polaris.

But you know, I can believe it.

Matt Gabriele scores!

I don't know how he managed it, but Matt Gabriele, a medieval historian at Virginia  Tech,is now writing a column for the business publication Forbes.  From my initial perusal, it looks like he interested in emphasizing the diversity of medieval culture.  See, for instance, his post on the Black Death  and the disappearance of the Norse colony in Greenland:

...The disappearance of the settlements might be further proof of just how transformative the Black Death really was for Europe. In a book published after his death in 1991, Prof. David Herlihy suggested in broad outlines the tremendous long-term cultural and intellectual changes brought about by the Black Death. Much of his conclusions have been challenged in recent years but Herlihy's genius was putting his finger on just how the massive scale of death changed the way people thought about themselves and their relationship to the world. Established authorities were questioned since they had no good answers to ending the plague. Social class was upended as economic and cultural communities struggled to replenish their ranks. If the settlement in Greenland left the island uninhabited for a century or more, this would support Herlihy's thesis about long-term change.
In other words, the findings of this research both challenges and confirms what medievalists have thought about their period for some time. In other words, as I've mentioned elsewhere, the research being done on the Middle Ages is exciting precisely because it oftentimes both confirms how much we already know about the period, while paradoxically reminding us of how much about the past there still is to discover.
I'll be curious as to how long this column continues.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Sword of Justice by Christian Cameron.,204,203,200_.jpg

Earlier this month I was able to get hold of the next volume of my favourite historical series – which is called the Chivalry series or the Thomas Gold series. The story takes place in the historical. That's not exactly neglected by historical writers, namely the Hundred Years War. But Cameron is much better at handling this material than just about anybody I can think of. The main character is the Squire/Knight Thomas Goldwho rises to the social ranks by fighting for various warlords, mostly English. He is a first-person narrator, which means that Cameron has taken on the challenging task of creating a character with a believable 14th century presentation who also speaks convincingly and comprehensibly to us. For instance Thomas Gold  has got to have a reasonably accurate attitude towards religion in the era of the papal schism, and talk about it in such a way that he doesn't lose our sympathy  or our ability to keep track of what's going on.

How many people reading this know anything about the papal schism in the 14th century? Yet Cameron is able both to explain the conflict in the church at this time and convince us that real people in that time took their seemingly exotic beliefs and religious practices seriously.

Other strong points. Cameron, who has a military background and intense personal interest in historical combat is very  good at depicting not just hand-to-hand fighting, but also training regimens and the organization of armies. He makes all of these subjects extremely interesting if you are at all inclined to military fiction.

Further, is not just the main character who is well described and believable, it is all of the characters who appear in the series. Cameron has room in the series for a lot of detail. He uses it well to create a world inhabited by a rich variety of characters: men and women, rich and poor, Christian and non-Christian and on and on.

As a professional historian I find the most impressive thing about this series is that Cameron does not restrict himself to the easiest and the best known parts of the first half of the Hundred Years War. It's not all English roughnecks wandering over the devastated French countryside – though there is plenty of that in parts of the series. This book, however is largely about the wars in the Mediterranean basin. This is unfamiliar material for most of us, but we are surely better informed and deeply interested by the time we are done with this book. We come away from it as well with an appreciation of what crusading was like in this later era.