Thursday, August 30, 2007

Washington Post readers discuss the Virginia Tech report

Back in the spring a disturbed student at Virginia Tech shot and killed a number of fellow students and profs. This incident led to a large investigation of what happened, and what could have been done to prevent it. A report is just out and is front page news in the USA and even on Al-Jazeera.

Rather than link to the report, I instead will refer you to the Washington Post on-line discussion of the report, the tragedy, and such issues as the limits of privacy laws and who is responsible for young adult students when they get into trouble.

I find myself inclined to agree with several conflicting opinions expressed there.

The new black

The site ThinkGeek is advertising costume chain mail shirts, made of butted aluminum mail (thus my calling it "costume" chain mail), for wearing around the office.

According to the site, "chain mail is the new black." Thank heavens something is the new black. I was awfully tired of the old black.

There are innumerable sites selling mail or offering to teach you how to make it yourself. Remember the real stuff was made by riveting each link closed with a tiny rivet. This takes real skill, not to mention patience. If you only want butted links, you can do it while watching bad TV programs. Then, it still takes patience.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Democracy Imposed: U.S. occupation policy and the German public, 1945-1949, by Richard L. Merritt

I picked up this book at the NU library on a whim, thinking it was a more general treatment of democracy imposed on Germany than it actually is. The real subject of the book, efforts by the US authorities to gauge German opinion through a pioneering large-scale exercise in polling, has its interest. I liked this passage:

In early 1945 German villages and cities experienced what literally thousands of others across Europe had gone through in the previous three decades. Distant thunder began to roll, with jagged flashes reddening the skies. As the rumbling came ever closer, people knew that their community, too, would suffer the foreign army's onslaught...

Some Germans crawling from their refuges, however, encountered something unique in the history of warfare: batteries of foreign soldiers asking them -- in German -- to respond to questionnaires.
The book also treats American public opinion and divergent policy initiatives concerning Germany.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Who owns lost treasure ships?

The Washington Post reports on the conflict between a US salvage company and Spain, over what may be a Spanish silver ship sunk by the British during the Napoleonic Wars.

Religion and massacre

Over at Modern Medieval, Matthew Gabriele is still talking about the Virginia Tech massacre. Understandably, since Matthew teaches at VT and new facts have just come out about the shooter's background and emotional condition. This is worth having a look at.

Update: Matthew also links to the New York times obituary of Norman Cohn, author of the famous and still-worth-reading book, The Pursuit of the Millenium.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Fire: The bombing of Germany 1940-1945, by Jorg Friedrich

This recent book, translated from German, was a disappointment, being neither well written nor well organized. I had to give up about p. 70. I'll have to find another book on strategic bombing in World War II.

The first chapter did rather give the impression that one was reading part of a series called, perhaps, "Savage Planet."

Saturday, August 25, 2007

A moment in 21st century medieval re-creation: the SCA's 36th Pennsic War

This is for Richard Scott Nokes over at Unlocked Wordhoard.

Desert Queen by Janet Wallach

I very much enjoyed this book, but can recommend it only with reservations.

Desert Queen is the story of Gertrude Bell, a British traveler, linguist and archaeologist who during the First World War became an effective intelligent agent and analyst, and was one of the architects of the new state of Iraq. She was daring and smart and determined, and so far as possible lived her life on her own unconventional terms. Not only is she an important figure -- about as important as her colleague T.E. Lawrence -- but the imperial project she was part of is of obvious relevance today.

Desert Queen effectively tells this story in some detail. Then why the reservations?

First, if you care about prose style and the unambiguous construction of sentences, you may wince many times as you go through it. This is as much the fault of Anchor Books, the publisher, as of the author. All authors need editors, and good editors are worth more than what they are probably paid. Also, the author was not responsible for the omission of two pages (at least) of notes at the back of the book.

Second, and more seriously, this is a book that seems to have been written almost entirely from Bell's point of view. The book is chock-a-block with quotations from Bell's voluminous correspondence, fortunately preserved, and so it is simple to see what she thought about various subjects -- and as I said, they are important subjects. However, there is no effort to reconstruct how others saw her, her opinions, and her actions. This is particularly important when her political efforts after 1914 are examined. Were her ideas sound? Were her evaluations of various actors accurate or well-based? We aren't given a chance to find out.

Gertrude Bell, as I learned from Wallach's book, was determined to be a "Person" in her own words, an important player in some great work. She also, according to people who knew her, was usually trying to impress some male figure, her beloved father, colleagues, superiors, the occasional figure of desire. To what extent did these factors influence her judgment as a policy analyst and political fixer? Gertrude's correspondence tells us that many men in the imperial service resented and criticized her. Did they have a point?

Similarly before the war Gertrude traveled extensively in the Middle East, meeting, talking to, and observing people unknown to other Europeans. How accurate were her observations? How do they hold up in the light of other sources?

You won't find these things out in Desert Queen. It doesn't qualify as a critical or first-rate biography. Is there one?

Gertrude was an enthusiastic photographer in her traveling phase. Some are already on the web here on a domain named "Gerty" after her. Despite the generosity of the Gertrude Bell Project at the University of Newcastle in posting those photos free, I think there might be a market, both scholarly and popular, for an annotated book of her pictures.

What dictatorship produces: the Death Star of Minsk

In Belarus, the one undoubted personal dictatorship in Europe, the dictator has built "the Death Star of Minsk," a new national library financed in part by funds extorted from schoolchildren.

What I wonder is what those schoolchildren will think when they look at this building in later years: a certain amount of pride? resentment? Some of each, I guess.

That presumes of course that the library won't have fallen down because of shortcuts taken by crooked contractors, or been abandoned because the books are rotting from improper ventilation.

Students in the upcoming HIST 2055, if any are reading this yet, might want to think about this issue. Much of the evidence we have for ancient and even not so ancient history is based on the survival of impressive monuments, and cultures and regimes have often been given positive ratings by academics and ordinary people on the basis that if you can produce something really neat, you must be basically OK.

Here we have Lukashenko's monument (pretty lights!), and Lukashenko's record is easily available. Is he basically OK? Do immigrants, legal and illegal, stream into Belarus?

Thanks for the image and the information to the always surprising English Russia. More stills and a video are available there.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Discovering the Global Past, Vol. 2, 3rd edition

On the off chance that some of the students in the upcoming Modern World History course, HIST 1505, may already be reading this, and for other teachers of world history who might be interested, I thought I'd say a few words about the document reader we will be using in that class: Merry Wiesner et al. (= and others), Discovering the Global Past, Vol. II: Since 1400, 3rd edition.

Mark Crane, HIST 1505's seminar leader, located this volume a couple of years ago and we are in his debt for finding it. It is a reader in which original documents are organized not only by theme ("Constitutional Responses to European Expansion") but in a clearly comparative way ("Constitutional Responses" compares the Gold Coast (Ghana) to Hawaii). As I am not only lecturing in HIST 1505, but leading one of the seminars, I looked much more closely at this book
than I had before, and it made fascinating reading when taken all together.

Here's what I liked:

  • Fabulous selection of themes and individual sources.
  • Very good editorial discussion of themes and documents (if not quite as fabulous as the selection).
  • Taught me a number of things I did not know.
  • Made me look forward to discussing them with students.
Will students like this book and learn from it? Who knows? Students, years, and classes are all different. But at least I won't be working with second-rate material.

The Chronography of 354

I have mentioned here before Roger Pearse's public-spirited project to publish in translation as many late ancient and early Christian primary sources as he legally can. Roger is an Internet hero.

His most recent publication might be of interest to some readers: it's the kind of thing that you might never hear of unless you were a specialist in late ancient historiography (that's how I came across it first): The Chronography of 354.

This work, which is unique is an almanac including various calendars and chronological lists commissioned by or presented to a man (presumably a man who lived in Rome) named Valentinus. The original, which no longer exists, was a real luxury product, including fancy calligraphy and lavish illustrations. (The illustration that you see above and the others preserved in various manuscripts are copies made in the Renaissance, a thousand years after the originals were made.)

What I found most interesting about the almanac when I first looked at it, is that it gave me a look at what aristocrats in mid-fourth-century Rome thought was important. Some of the material is Christian -- lists of bishops of Rome, lists of local martyrs -- but a lot of the visual material seems completely strange (pagan?) to my later eyes. A non-graphic example of surprising material can be seen in the Philocalian Calendar, part 6 of the Chronography, which gives all the official holidays, Senate meetings, good and bad luck days, observed in the city. Likewise part 16, the Chronicle of the City of Rome gives a summary of what local leaders might be expected to know of the history of the city and to a very limited extent, the empire. Have a look and see how much of this "Roman History" you've heard of!

An exercise

I check several news sources every day I'm close to a computer, and several blogs that consistently direct me to interesting material.

It seems to me, however, that I've fallen into a pattern that overemphasizes what's happening in Washington, which is always the same thing: various people trying to deny the catastrophe that is American policy in Iraq, and efforts of various groups to avoid their share of the blame.

So I've decided to alter my reading habits, and begin each day by looking at some non-US news source first. I'm going to begin by scanning Al Jazeera's front page for a week, then go on to something else.

Why Al Jazeera? Not for its coverage of Iraq. Rather, because on today's front page, numerous countries not mentioned on the Washington Post front page or its world news page -- Bangladesh, Sierra Leone, Burma, the Philippines -- all have a prominent place.

If anyone has a suggestion for my next week's selection, I'd be glad to hear it.

Monday, August 20, 2007

An optimistic American

At the Group News Blog.

No matter how true it is that things are terrible, you do need some optimists to get things moving in the other direction.

This is how Americans used to talk -- and may again.

Anyone feel like writing some good science fiction?


Meditations on democracy and its cultural roots

Phil Paine's Third Meditation on Democracy is on his website blog (under August 18). If you missed the first and second, they are available here.

In the third meditation, Phil talks about the relationship between culture and democracy, specifically the idea that Christianity or the European Enlightenment were necessary precursors for the ideas behind modern democracy. Phil has always rejected this, and in the third meditation says:

The connection between articles of religious faith, especially in the form of abstract theological precepts, and what people do in practical situations, has never been obvious. Pacifism, for instance, is a pretty straightforward tenet of Christianity, recognized by most Christians as central to the teaching of Christ. Yet how much pacifist behaviour has Christianity generated? Only a handful of microscopic sects have practiced it, and they have generally suffered persecution in the “Christian” world. How many Buddhists actually make any effort to follow the Fourfold Path? Even if a particular religion can be shown to have some abstract principle that supports democratic theory, it does not follow that the people of that faith are bound to act democratically. Democracy is something that people do. It’s a practical approach to solving concrete problems.


That's a part of what Phil has to say here, but hardly all. Phil has some interesting things to say about the evolution of European culture and the cosmopolitan roots of what some of us most value in it. Read the meditation.

Just as Phil was publishing the third meditation, another interesting essay on the Enlightenment and the history of religion appeared in the New York Times, Mark Lilla published in the New York Times Magazine a long article, the Politics of God, on the relationship between Enlightenment thought and religion in modern times. His major point, in my view, is that the relationship hasn't been a simple one. His discussion of "liberal" theology in pre-World War I Germany told me things I did not know, but should have, given my scholarly interests:

By the turn of the 20th century, the liberal house was tottering, and after the First World War it collapsed. It was not just the barbarity of trench warfare, the senseless slaughter, the sight of burned-out towns and maimed soldiers that made a theology extolling “modern civilization” contemptible. It was that so many liberal theologians had hastened the insane rush to war, confident that God’s hand was guiding history. In August 1914, Adolf von Harnack, the most respected liberal Protestant scholar of the age, helped Kaiser Wilhelm II draft an address to the nation laying out German military aims. Others signed an infamous pro-war petition defending the sacredness of German militarism. Astonishingly, even Hermann Cohen joined the chorus, writing an open letter to American Jews asking for support, on the grounds that “next to his fatherland, every Western Jew must recognize, revere and love Germany as the motherland of his modern religiosity.” Young Protestant and Jewish thinkers were outraged when they saw what their revered teachers had done, and they began to look elsewhere.
I highly recommend this article, but it will go into subscriber-only status by the end of the week. Don't wait if you think you might be interested.

Image: Meditations Mist by Robert Masla.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

I heard future archaeologists weep


As I picked up little pieces of trash at our medieval-re-creation-event campsite prior to leaving, I thought I heard future archaeologists weep over the destruction of evidence for a peculiar late modern sub-culture. But it was probably just a delusion caused by too much time in the sun. Chances are that such archaeologists will not be the poorly-supported scholars of today, but treasure hunters. Not Indiana Jones-style golddiggers, but specialists in directing miners to the most valuable lodes of modern junk for recycling purposes.

This thought owes something to Gene Wolfe's multi-volume novel the Book of the New Sun, from the 1980s. When I read it my reaction was "Finally, an SF author who is paying attention to what is going on now!" (The main character is, or starts out as, a torturer. So I guess he's still relevant.) I was more than a bit disappointed by the ending (all the world's problems solved by the Return of the King) and never read the sequel, The Urth of the New Sun, but I got a lot of good reading in before that let-down.

Most hilarious and despair-inducing deflation of a "public intellectual" since...

...I don't know when.

The "public intellectual" is Michael Ignatieff, who ran for the leadership of Canada's Liberal Party last year. He probably still wants to be PM.

He recently wrote a New York Times Magazine piece (no longer available free at the NYT site) arguing that people like him who supported the Iraq War were at least wrong for the right reasons, unlike those who opposed it for the wrong reasons.

All sorts of reflections grow from this piece (#1 -- I can hardly wait until this despicable specimen is Imperial Proconsul in Canada (actually, I can wait forever); #2 -- Is the New York Times Magazine so desperate for material that they will publish such dishonest self-promotion? It used to be good).

But it's all been said better by a blogger at Huffington Post named David Rees. I honestly got a rolling belly laugh out of it.

It wasn't exactly a happy laugh, though. In one of his more literally truthful passages, Rees says:

Michael Ignatieff is drawing lessons for the future. Michael Ignatieff has a future in public policy. Sure, it's CANADIAN public policy, so it doesn't really count, but still-- it's like the guy can't be stopped. You know why? Because he's at that level where you literally can't make a big enough mistake to be fired, shunned, or indicted. I'd like to visit that level someday.
And there are worse than Ignatieff out there, enjoying the same immunity while sucking down French wine you and I will never even sniff. And don't depend on the big-name media to identify and condemn them.

You have been warned.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Combat of the Thirty against Thirty re-enactment

At the recent SCA Pennsic War, there was a re-enactment of the 1351 challenge between 30 French/Breton men at arms and 30 English. An entire chapter of my book Deeds of Arms is devoted to this episode, and a 19th century translation of a contemporary Breton account , Froissart's somewhat later account, and a 15th-century Scots version are available at one of my web sites.

This site by Eirik Andersen has a very impressive collection of portraits of the re-enactors,
shots of their armor, and action shots. Since there are 160+ photos, I suggest you use the slideshow function and go back to individual pictures you might be interested in.

Thanks to Will McLean for inspiring this post. I'll add to his comment by saying that none of the re-enacting "Bretons" who in real life won the combat seem to have identified themselves as such.

Image: an interpretation of a mid-fourteenth century English squire, "Richard Larmer."

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The difference between barbarism and civilization


For years now I have been taking part in a large medieval re-creation event in August. The event itself features mock medieval combat, archery, singing, dancing and partying, some of it not particularly medieval in inspiration. Most people who take part camp for a week or two at the site, and I have often found that situation inspires interesting thoughts. Living essentially outdoors for two weeks, with little communication with the outside world (though it is available if you need or like) is a fascinating and perspective-restoring exercise. Me, I'm basically illiterate for the whole period.

Since I and my friends camp together every year, we've acquired portable versions of what we consider necessities: a back-up water filter, a hot water heater scavenged from an old RV, a camp shower, and a kitchen sink with hot and cold taps. These are set up and taken down every summer.

Note that my necessities all come down to safe, easily available water? The year we got the shower setup my campmates were delirious with joy. I sure appreciated it, too, but the kitchen sink and taps meant more to me. The first time I turned on a kitchen tap and got good water I knew, instantly, that this was the difference between barbarism and civilization. Nice to have a shower. Far more important to be able to clean one's hands any time, and to be sure that kitchen utensils and dishes were always clean.

That moment of insight was a decade or so ago, and its rightness has become clearer to me as time has passed. Clean water available to everyone in a community is civilization; it means the community has certain technical capabilities, and is devoting its resources to the common good in a basic way. Furthermore, the predators and parasites who in so many places and times have prevented that allocation of resources are not in control.

We human beings of planet Earth have the capability to be civilized now. There can be no doubt that we are smart enough and rich enough. But we have yet to attain civilization.

Image:
a locked water tap in Kenya, from an Oxfam UK site.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The sounds of modern times -- transport

To write a blog on "early history" I have to think a lot about "modern times," as one defines the other.

I've spent time in three different places over the last month, and I noticed as I fell asleep that the night soundscape was dominated by the sound of modern transportation.

It's pretty quiet at my country home on the edge of Northern Ontario, and there are animal sounds like dogs barking and occasionally wolves howling. The most regular sounds are those of the CP/CN railway that ties the country together and which created its modern economy. Of course cars go by, too, but their occasional noise is not as impressive or as characteristic as the train horns.

I spent a couple of weeks in a medium-sized southern Ontario city and falling asleep there I heard lots of cars, but, much more exciting, the sound of ocean-going freighters passing. The engines of those ships are very quiet from a distance but the horns are musical and loud.

I spent two more weeks at a campground in a rural part of the United States, with about 10,000 others (details later). During the days, human sounds -- music, talking -- dominated but as people slowly went to sleep the huge river-like noise of a nearby interstate and its constant truck traffic emerged to fill the night. You wondered why you had heard it more loudly earlier. Loud as it was, it was just part of the background of modern life, unremarkable until everything else was subtracted.

Image: The ship American Fortitude, which I saw earlier this year.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Second meditation on democracy

I'm back from my vacation. I had a lot of fun and ignored the outside world very successfully. I had a few thoughts that are relevant to the blog, but I'll post them later.

In the meantime let be give you a link to Phil Paine's second meditation on democracy, springing from his recent trip to Europe and years of research and thought. Go here and read under August 7. Here's a sample:

The achievement of civil societies in this sense has been a very slow and painful struggle, and at the moment, only a minority of human beings are lucky enough to live in them. The majority still live under outright tyranny, or in societies in which civil and democratic institutions are a sham, or too corrupted to be effective. But the minority of functioning civil societies demonstrate to human beings everywhere that improved conditions are possible. The relative success of such societies by material measures has at least exposed one of the loudest lies of totalitarian ideologies: the claim that tyranny is more “efficient” than democracy. This notion was once so widely believed that a majority of intellectuals, even in democratic countries, subscribed to it. Now even the most isolated peasant knows that it’s a crock.