Thursday, August 31, 2006

The effects of propaganda

Following is a quotation from an Al-Jazeera interview with Sheldon Rampton, co-author with John Stauber of the book The Best War Ever: Lies, Damned Lies, and the Mess in Iraq. I don't have any authority to say that they are right about the lead-up to the war in Iraq (you have your own opinion) , but the research Rampton refers to on who propaganda effects and how strikes me (if it is well-founded) as something very important for the study of history in all eras:

Our niche has always been that we study propaganda. We've spent years dissecting the public relations industry in the United States, and one of the themes that we see quite frequently is that propaganda is often more successful at molding the views of the propagandists themselves than it is at shaping the views of their "target audiences." This has certainly been the case with respect to the war in Iraq. The degree of credulity given to the Bush administration’s rhetoric can be mapped in a series of concentric circles emanating from Washington, DC. The Washington opinion-makers in their think tanks, lobby shops and bureaucracies are the people who have come to believe in their own propaganda with the greatest passion and the least ability to absorb nuance and criticism. The rest of the United States constitutes the next circle of credulity. Outside Washington, many Americans were initially persuaded to believe the case for war, but that belief has steadily eroded. And simply setting foot outside the borders of the United States into either Canada or Mexico will take you into territory where the public has consistently and strongly opposed the war since its inception...

The reason they were so determined to tell people the war would be quick and cheap was that they realized the public would have misgivings about getting into an expensive, unending quagmire. The resulting paradox is that the current mess in Iraq is a consequence of the brilliant marketing campaign waged by the Bush administration originally to sell the war to the American people -- a campaign so successful that the war planners came to believe it themselves. It gives us no pleasure to point out that we predicted this could happen, but we did.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The loose use of history

The cartoon above dates from the imposition of US power over the Philippines after the Spanish-American war. Philippine rebels had been fighting Spain before the war and they didn't take kindly to a new colonial master, so a long and very bloody guerilla conflict resulted.

This war has hardly made a dent on most people's realization of American history, even though it was quite controversial in the United States at the time. By virtue of the occupation of the islands, the USA was clearly entering the new era of European colonialism that took place in the late 19th century. Not everyone thought this was a good idea (see cartoon above and try clicking for a larger view).

I bring this up because the Philippine War is being brought up as a historical example that the US adventure in Iraq, despite current problems, might end up a success in the long term.

I am deeply skeptical of this argument, for reasons brought up by Jon Wiener in the LA Times and for others. My skepticism goes beyond this to more general considerations. Despite my firm belief in the value of comparative history (one reason I gladly teach intro World History), most arguments of this sort are cheap and sloppy. I have this nightmare vision of people putting expensive, dangerous policies in train after being exposed to shallow arguments of this sort, and public support being won by those same arguments. (In particular, it always seems to be Munich, 1938, in some corner of the world, when logic would suggest that it's hardly ever Munich in 1938 anywhere, and it's not clear -- to me at least -- what could have been done differently in 1938, anyway.)

There is a prominent medieval historian named Bernard Bachrach who decries the idea that professional historians have any special competence in commenting on current events, and says that they should not trade on their positions in doing so. I've often thought he went a bit too far, but today I really see his point.

The use of historical examples is subject to a lot of abuse. Anything a professional historian says about the present in the light of the past should be treated with all the same care you would exercise in regard to say, a classmate lying down the law in a casual discussion. You've got to check both logic and facts if you are going to have a well-founded opinion.

It is especially necessary when listening to or reading "pundits" who may not have read one whole book on the subject of, say, the Philippine War.

All this applies to what I say, here or elsewhere. I try to be careful, but you don't know how careful I am. When it comes to important matters, especially war and peace, you can't rely on me or anyone else. As a citizen and as someone whose well-being is affected by foreign policy decisions, you have to be careful.

Update. Matthew Yglesias at on the lessons of the 1930s.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Re-creating the Middle Ages in the 14th century

It's long seemed to me that the Middle Ages actually ended sometime in the 14th century, and thereafter there were many attempts to recreate the "good old days" of the real Middle Ages.

Even if you don't buy that theory, it's certainly true that there were huge celebrations of the medieval chivalric tradition, including re-creations of scenes from chivalric literature, themselves depictions of the good old days of Arthur and his boys and girls.

One relic of this phenomenon is the painted Round Table that hangs in the Great Hall at Winchester (above; clicking may give you a larger version).

More impressive if less visible are the ruins recently dug up at Windsor Castle by the British TV show Time Team. Thanks to the member of MEDIEV-L who found this news item in the Telegraph and passed it on.

Back in 1344, Edward III of England, an ambitious monarch who liked to see himself as a worthy successor of Arthur, started building a large round building to house the kind of celebrations then called "Round Tables." Scholars have known about this for years from Edward's financial accounts, but the building itself is long gone. Edward soon after decided to spend his money not on playing Arthur at home but by invading France, and the place was dismantled, probably before it was really done.

Reading about an old building in royal records is one thing, but much more exciting is finding the thing itself. Ever notice how archaeology is often given page one treatment? Well, I must admit that this discovery by Time Team is pretty cool: it shows that the celebration site was 200 feet in diameter -- room for 300 knights to feast, talk, or take part in the re-created chivalric rituals of the Arthurian era.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Somebody else's syllabus -- Econ 101b

Here is a syllabus for an intro economics course at a major university (University of California at Berkeley) taught by a quite prominent expert (Brad deLong). Note that all this material is crammed into a single semester. Note the expectations for student preparation: comfort with calculus to the point that the lecturer will feel free to use it in class, and require students to use it in problem sets and exams.

Note in particular that there is an easier Macroeconomics course, Econ 100a, and that this is the go-faster, do-more version for the daring and the ambitious. Prof. DeLong knows it will be tough, and will be grading so as not to punish the daring and the ambitious.

If they take the challenge and perform.

At Nipissing University we don't have this kind of high-level track for a few really good students. But nothing stops you from being daring and ambitious here, except your own expectations of yourself.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Knattleikr (Viking Ball) and other pre-modern games

For Labour Day weekend I wanted to re-create the Viking Ball Game (Knattleikr). This might have proved impossible without the help of a pamphlet from Folump Enterprises that very neatly summarizes the scattered evidence from the sagas. Now the question of whether a recreation is possible is replaced by whether it is desireable, given the modern expectation that since we might live a really long time, we should take care of ourselves.

Modern sports have a lot of structure, a feature that seems to date from the 19th century (my guess). Earlier sports often did not. For instance, a popular pre-modern European sport was the gigantic football game between two parishes or villages, in which a ball, large or small, was moved over an unmarked countryside until one side moved it to a rather undefined goal, such as their parish church or the parish church of their opponents. (There is a Wikipedia entry on the game of La Soule formerly played in Cornwall, Brittany, and maybe other parts of France; this article will give you an idea.)

Knattleikr (or Knattleikur) seems to have been a similar sort of thing. It involved a marked-off playing field (sometimes ice surfaces), a ball, sticks, and teams chosen to be even in numbers and strength, and not a lot of other rules at all. For instance, there is no mention in the sagas (which concentrate on personal rivalries between players) of goals, points, winning, or losing. The game may well have just continued until everyone was tired of it. It certainly could continue for days.

Often today a game like this is played with protective equipment. Back then, there was none. Various sagas talk about really rough tackling, slamming the ball into your opponent until he bled, and worst of all, getting so angry that getting a weapon and killing your rival seemed the only thing to do. As today, this would lead to legal action, but the old Scandinavians were pretty tolerant of manslaughter in the heat of anger. Whether you got punished depended more on how strongly your family backed you up against the family of the other guy ("feud").

Actually, "back then" is not so long ago. A hundred years ago in Canada, when hockey was played, was there protective equipment? No. Was there highsticking? Yes. What about manslaughter on the ice with weapons brought on the field? Maybe a reader can fill us in.

And in some places, "back then" is "now." The picture at the head of the post is of the Kirkwall Ba' game still played in Kirkwall, chief town of Scotland's Orkney Islands. The best short description is in the Wikipedia entry, but don't miss the longer illustrated account (pdf) from the forthcoming Orkney Guide Book. Ba', played between the Uppies and the Doonies, may or may not have Scandinavian roots (Orkney being a Viking principality a thousand years ago), but in the last two centuries it's evolved into a big part of Kirkwall's and Orkney's culture, with a lore all its own. For instance the terms Uppies and Doonies may come from the higher side of town or from the harbor, but another story on the Web says that Uppies are people who flew in from far away, while Doonies are people who've come to Kirkwall by boat. That latter story has to be pretty new, and one wonders if the far away people came to work on oil rigs...

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Harry Farr and hundreds of others pardoned: an empty gesture?

Some months ago I commented on the case of Harry Farr, one of many British soldiers shot for cowardice or desertion because they cracked under the unbearable conditions of trench warfare during World War I. His now 93-year-old daughter was appealing to the government for a pardon.

Now Defence Secretary Des Brown has announced (says the BBC) that he is going to seek a "parliamentary group pardon" for 306 men, including Farr, who were shot under similar situations. May this initiative fly up the order paper for a proper vote and Royal Assent. Farr's daughter, Gertrude Harris, is happy with the outcome, and I certainly hope that she lives long enough to see the actual pardon.

These World War I cases have attracted a lot of attention, leading not only to individual petitions but to such things as the erection of the "Shot at Dawn" monument pictured above, erected in Staffordshire, England, to commemorate soldiers shot by their own side.

Given this, I found the comments on this case by Niall Ferguson more than a little odd. Writing in the LA Times, Ferguson, a young star in the historical profession (you'll be hearing from him for decades to come), compares the case of Farr and Gunter Grass, the Nobel-laureate writer who has just admitted that in the final years of the Second War that he was a member of the notorious military wing of the Nazi SS -- albeit as a young draftee, and one never accused of war crimes. This is a big deal because Grass has been credited in the past for working hard to get Germans to come to terms with the Nazi past.

Ferguson himself works hard to excuse Grass' behavior -- which I have no opinion about, being quite ignorant about him, despite my claims to be an educated person -- stating that both Farr and Grass were "simply two tiny cogs in the monstrous mincing machines of total war." Perhaps true. But then he also says "Retrospectively pardoning World War I deserters, then, is as empty a gesture as retrospectively condemning World War II conscripts."

Well, tell Gertrude Harris that, Niall, if you've got the guts.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

What's going on in Iraq?

Here is another topic with political implications, but it's important enough as a problem of historical analysis that I bring it up anyway.

I remember the cheerleaders for the Vietnam War clearly enough that today's "optimists" -- if indeed there are any left -- get no credit with me. Yet one does wonder, if the casualty rate is so high in Iraq and the disorder so severe as is reported by credible sources, why the place hasn't completely collapsed? How can people live?

In today's TomDispatch, Michael Schwartz, a sociologist expert in global studies presents a picture that makes sense to me. He calls it "Seven Facts You Might Not Know About the Iraq War." Students in my History of Islamic Civilization course might consider comparing the realities that unfold between now and April to the analysis that Schwartz puts forward.

The ambitious might consider comparing Iraq's situation with Lebanon's since civil war broke out there in the 1970s.

More gems from

My friend and sometime collaborator Phil Paine is an original mind. Some of his thoughts can be found on, a combination of blog and commercial site (he is a writer and researcher).

This month, while I've been away, he's added some interesting stuff to his blog section. Earlier today he wrote a piece on the Egyptian Islamicist thinker Sayyid Qutb, the inspiration for the modern wave of Islamic radicalism. Phil points out that most people know little about him, even though experts agree on his importance, and argues that there is really nothing specifically "Islamic" about Qutb's ideas -- they are just one more variant on 20th century totalitarianism.

Back on August 7, Phil wrote a post on Things We Can Do to Ensure Canada’s Future. Of the various ideas put forth there, these really spoke to me:

Do everything possible to make it cheap and easy for anyone under 25 to travel in Canada. Our present facilities for backpackers and student travellers are woefully inadequate. Every young Korean, Estonian, or Peruvian who backpacks across Canada at the age of 18, and has a good experience, is a future fountainhead of investment, trade, publicity and goodwill for this country. This is bread cast upon the waters that will come back five-fold after many days. Equip a large number of high schools across the country to function as youth travel hostels in the summer holidays. The techniques for operating travel hostels are well established. It should be made possible for any high school, university, or community college student to stay overnight at a minimal charge in any such hostel, anywhere in the country. Additional travel hostels should be established in native reserves, national parks, and in remote wilderness areas. Hopefully, the next generation will actually know our country, and outgrow the petty regional squabbling that embarasses us before the rest of the world.

Make language instruction a major aim of Canadian education. It should be expected and normal for any Canadian to emerge from high school with some fluency in at least four languages: English, French, a foreign language, and a native Canadian language (such as Cree or Inuktitut). Proficiency in five or six languages should be relatively common. The maximum variety of foreign languages should be sought after, so that we can develop pools of proficiency in any language that is useful in international trade, diplomacy, or culture. We should attempt to make the next generation of Canadians renowned in the world for cosmopolitan sophistication. Languages were the core of Classical Education, which focused on the discipline of the mind and the preparation for individual growth. Much has been lost by substituting an educational system that combines equal parts of job training and baby-sitting, and views students as worker-termites or commodities.

There's plenty more where that came from.