Friday, October 31, 2008

Something's happening here...

Let's just hope it is a positive something.

From a report on the "enthusiasm gap" between the two campaigns, based on systematic visits to Obama and McCain local offices around the USA:

These ground campaigns do not bear any relationship to one another. One side has something in the neighborhood of five million volunteers all assigned to very clear and specific pieces of the operation, and the other seems to have something like a thousand volunteers scattered throughout the country.
A comment:
I live in California and volunteered one weekend for Obama in Washoe County Nevada and was so impressed by the size and organization of the Obama campaign. There were at least 1,000 of us ready to work for Obama at 9AM on a Saturday morning, and the campaign said that what we were doing had been happening every weekend for weeks.
Another comment:
Frankly, I'm appalled at the blatant journalism that is evident in this story. It's almost as though you've gone around the country actually observing what is going on in terms of the ground game, and reported on it.

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

English Russia goes wild!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Why do historians study the subjects they study?

It's not just that they are faddy people, says Magistra and Mater, in a rather long (but interesting!) post:

Chris [Wickham] has contributed enormously to socio-economic history, and much of the talk was implicitly a call for this to be prioritised, in combination with archaeological expertise. Indeed Chris explicitly contrasted the fruitful relationship of history with archaeology in the 1960s and 1970s (with a historical tendency towards broad-sweep structural analysis, based on socio-economic history) with the historians’ later move away from archaeology with the linguistic turn. This meant that post-processural archaeologists in the late 1980s and 1990s found historical collaborators hard to come by.

It seemed clear to me in the talk that what Chris really wants is the 1970s back, but it’s not just structuralism that now seem as out of date as glam rock (and less likely to be revived). The big problem now is that socio-economic history provides few obvious reasons for studying the Middle Ages, let alone the early Middle Ages. Why should the economic history of the Middle Ages be of interest to anyone but specialists? My sense is that until recently there were two possible broader connections. If you were interested in grand Marxian analyses, then slave and feudal modes of production were an important part of the model to be studied. Meanwhile for an analysis of the roots of industrialisation or capitalism as a whole, late medieval England and its textile trade or late medieval Italy and its banking system were useful places to look.

The problem is that current global capitalism has advanced so far that many of the early steps look entirely irrelevant...

In contrast, other aspects of the early Middle Ages do seem to have more obvious contemporary resonance. Early medieval historians exploring theology, the construction of ethnicity, the development of the state, gender roles or the use of history as propaganda can all show connections between then and now in a way that has become difficult for early medieval socio-economic history. Archaeology can contribute to some aspects of these themes (it’s been very important for looking at ethnicity and culture, for example), but it’s not central to these issues in the same way as it is to socio-economic history.

That doesn’t mean that the study of medieval socio-economic history isn’t valuable or important in its own right, but I can’t see it returning to centre stage again. Chris ended by presenting an analysis of historical change in Palestine and Syria in the period 500-900. It was a good example of how much you can deduce from an area with a well-explored archaeological record without going to written sources. However, I’m not sure that many people apart from Chris are going to feel that the most important fact about seventh-century Islam is that it led to little change in the economy of the Levant. Arguing that archaeology should be an equal partner with history rather than its handmaiden may be a sound position, but it isn’t really going to be effective if what is offered is an attenuated vision of history where structural pattern has replaced story. [Emphasis Muhlberger.]

The bolded passage is the part that really caught my eye. Like M&M, I have tremendous respect for Chris Wickham and his work, but even without a lot of exposure to recent literary theory, my work of the last ten years has focused on why people tell the stories they do, in my case about war and chivalry.

Image: Could this come back???

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More sense, less nonsense on "socialism"

Down at the Greatest Show on Earth, the word "socialism" is being kicked around in a comical manner. Phil Paine rides to the rescue with Sense and Nonsense About "Socialism:"

The word “socialism” is used to mean virtually anything imaginable, but if it means anything at all intelligible, it is “control of productive enterprise by the state”. More exactly, it means that the people who control production and the people who control the state are the same people. Most states in human history have been predominantly socialist....Many countries preserve that pattern today, though sometimes it is masked by a thin veneer of pseudo-democracy. Sometimes the pattern is specifically called "socialism", and sometimes not, but there is no important difference between those which use the term and those which do not...

The state can control production through a variety of techniques. Productive enterprises can be administered through a state bureaucracy, they can be parceled out to a hereditary or military aristocracy, or to corporate bodies which are theoretically (but not actually) "separate" from the state. All these configurations can logically be called “socialism”. If large portions of productive enterprise are engaged in military production, whose only customer can be the state, then that too should rationally be called “socialism”. Any country that engages in protracted and extensive warfare is, ipso facto, socialist. If large portions of productive enterprise are tied to government through special privileges, subsidies, bailouts, or government contracts, that is socialism as well. Any country whose economy is dominated by giant corporations, which manipulate and determine state policy, is socialist.

The United States has long engaged in extensive socialist practices. The American Conservative movement has been the most aggressive promoter of socialism, by encouraging rampant military spending, and promoting the concentration of state-corporate power and privilege. The U.S. is far more “socialist” than, say, Canada, where there is considerably less of these activities. To repeat what should be obvious, you have socialism when the people who control production and the people who control the government are the same people. Nobody with an ounce of common sense would deny that this is the case in the United States, today, and anybody who bothers to think straight should see that this is the central ideological desideratum of the Conservative movement. America's socialism is the product of its domination by Conservative ideology.

Socialism has nothing to do with the provision of government services. Risk-reduction services, such as Canada’s health insurance systems, or pension plans, or welfare services, or educational services provided by government, are not control of production. They are not “socialism” or “socialist”. Progressive taxation is not "socialist". Measures to protect the public from fraud, or promote public safety, or to overcome injustice or to protect the rights of labourers are not "socialist". There is no connection whatsoever between these things and socialism.

In fact, the more socialist a state is, the more power it can exert over its people, and the less it has to answer to them. Consequently, it is less likely to provide these services, and less likely to create social justice. ...You find good quality public services in democratic regimes, where the people have been strong enough to limit corporate-state control of production. Canada has better health care than the United States partly because it is less socialist than the United States. The United States has inferior health care because it is more socialist than Canada.

The aim of truly progressive political and economic thought is to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of the few, and the concentration of property in the hands of the few. It should seek to prevent concentrated corporate power or aristocracy from gaining control of production. Progressive thought is then, by logical necessity, anti-socialist and anti-corporate. But progressive thought embraces the utility of government services whenever they enable and enhance the freedom and autonomy of the individual (as, say, our health insurance system does in Canada). It just as firmly rejects sham government "services" that are merely stratagems to give power over the people to a managerial elite. Thus, a Progressive who gladly supports health insurance reform should oppose state plans to herd "the lower class" into state-controlled housing. Progressive thought embraces a social "safety net" under all our feet, provided it is not rigged to control its recipients, and always rejects handouts and subsidies for the rich. Democracy's meaning is clear: the people should rule; they should not be ruled.

The revolutionary aim of democracy is to create a society where every individual has a significant share of property and exercises practical autonomy, where the opportunities and fruits of enterprise are open to everyone, and where no privileged clique exercises power over the majority. The democratic state is supposed to serve this aim, and never to promote the interests of an elite, whether it dresses up as mandarins, dukes, commissars, or CEOs. Whatever moves society in this direction is "progressive". Let's get our concepts and terminology in order.

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Sense on the "existential threat of Islamic extremist from IOZ, one of the few people I read to even mention US attacks on Syria and Pakistan:

One of our great, egomaniacal national myths is that the central motivation of Islamic radicals is Death to America. More accurately, their principle motivations are things like: Death to the corrupt, apostate, America-backed government in Islamabad. The September 11, 2001 attacks were an aberration. Insurgent and rebel groups from North Africa through the Middle East, subcontinent, and Pacific archipelagos engage American troops and assets where proximity dictates.

Paradoxically, while some fighters are rootless, semi-religious mercenaries, bopping across borders to get to where the action is, the goals of the various movements and insurgencies tend to be on the local-to-national scale. The Taliban aren't interested in Kansas. Rebels in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas don't care about moral degeneracy in Las Vegas. These people are not seeking to establish some vast caliphate and gobble up the world. The United States, in the principle symptom of our special brand of flailing imperialism, has gotten itself embroiled in a gaggle of civil wars. Most of the nations in question have been modern nation-states for somewhere between fifty and one hundred years. We might recall what happened in America when it was around that age.

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A useful basemap of the USA: the Electoral College

While the Greatest Show on Earth roars to its astonishing conclusion -- whatever it may be -- polls and predictions proliferate. Most graphic presentations, however, are bedeviled by basemaps that depict area rather than political clout. But the Princeton Election Consortium has avoided that trap -- voila!

Now you can go there every day and shout at the screen that they are wrong, wrong, wrong. But at least they will have a sensible basemap.

Thanks to Brad DeLong for alerting me.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

One of these in North Bay?

Three parents have reported seeing one near a school (!) in the south end of the city (CBC Radio News).

A briefing on recent Iranian history

Phil Paine sent me a link to this excellent article in Foreign Affairs: Akbar Ganji, The Latter-Day Sultan: Power and Politics in Iran. This passage from the beginning of the article shows its thrust:
[F]or many Iranian opposition leaders, as well as much of the Western media and political class, [President] Ahmadinejad is the main culprit of Iran's ills today: censorship, corruption, a failing economy, the prospect of a U.S attack.

But this analysis is incorrect, if only because it exaggerates Ahmadinejad's importance and leaves out of the picture the country's single most powerful figure: Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader. The Iranian constitution endows the supreme leader with tremendous authority over all major state institutions, and Khamenei, who has held the post since 1989, has found many other ways to further increase his influence. Formally or not, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government all operate under the absolute sovereignty of the supreme leader; Khamenei is the head of state, the commander in chief, and the top ideologue. He also reaches into economic, religious, and cultural affairs through various government councils and organs of repression, such as the Revolutionary Guards, whose commander he himself appoints.

Of all of Iran's leaders since the country became the Islamic Republic in 1979, only Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolution's leader; Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's president for much of the 1990s; and Khamenei have had defining influences. Despite all the attention he receives, Ahmadinejad does not even rank among Iran's top 100 leaders over the past 30 years. Khamenei supports Ahmadinejad immeasurably more than he did any of Ahmadinejad's predecessors, but Ahmadinejad is only as powerful as he is devoted to Khamenei and successful at advancing his aims. Khamenei's power is so great, in fact, that in 2004 the reformist Muhammad Khatami declared that the post of president, which he held at the time, had been reduced to a factotum. Blaming the country's main problems on Ahmadinejad not only overstates his influence; it inaccurately suggests that Iran's problems will go away when he does. More likely, especially regarding matters such as Iran's foreign policy, the situation will remain much the same as long as the structure of power that supports the supreme leader remains unchanged.
Ganji devotes the bulk of the article to discussing Khamenei's goals and powers and the institutions that he has created to sustain his regime, which Ganji describes as "sultanistic" using a term originating with Max Weber:
"Where domination is primarily traditional, even though it is exercised by virtue of the ruler's personal autonomy, it will be called patrimonial authority," Max Weber wrote in Economy and Society in 1922; "where it indeed operates primarily on the basis of discretion, it will be called sultanism." Sultanism is both traditional and arbitrary, according to Weber, and it expresses itself largely through recourse to military force and through an administrative system that is an extension of the ruler's household and court. Sultans sometimes hold elections in order to prove their legitimacy, but they never lose any power in them. According to Weber, sultans promote or demote officials at will, they rob state bodies of their independence of action and infiltrate them with their proxies, and they marshal state economic resources to fund an extensive apparatus of repression. Weber might have been describing Khamenei.
The chief use of this article is its informed and detailed analysis, but there some other points of interest, such as this remark:

Nor does Islam run Iran. The ruling religious fundamentalists lack a unified vision, and fundamentalist, traditionalist, and modernist versions of Islam compete for attention among Iranians. Since the 1979 revolution, religion has served the Iranian state, not the other way around. Khomeini held a resolutely sultanistic view of Islam. "The state . . . takes precedence over all the precepts of sharia," he wrote in 1988.
Or this one:
Detention conditions remain deplorable today -- over the past year alone, a young female doctor and a Kurdish student have died in custody -- but they have generally improved compared to the 1980s. This progress has had little to do with Ahmadinejad, however. If instances of political repression have decreased over the past three decades, it is largely because notions of democracy and human rights have taken root among the Iranian people and thus it has become much more difficult for the government to commit crimes.

Image: Iran's real ruler.

The mess in the Middle East: it's our war, too

We Canadians can congratulate ourselves that our soldiers are not dying in Iraq, but they are dying in Afghanistan, and the whole region is really one big political and military mess. Want to know how big? See what Juan Cole had to say the other day. Highly recommended for students in my Islamic Civilization class. We will be getting there by the end of the school year.

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Saturday, October 25, 2008



Thursday, October 23, 2008

Grim reflections on American politics

Now that Obama is far ahead in the polls, all we have to worry about is whether the Republicans steal the election or somebody shoots him, right? At the very least he will be better than McCain, right?

IOZ is a loud and aggressive skeptic, especially about the Democrats and "progressive politics," and he is not averse to throwing around profane language and imagery to the point that you just want to dismiss him. But today he outlines in complete seriousness concerns that I share about the prospect of an overwhelming Obama victory and a successful Obama presidency. the reluctant Obama supporters, the hedging anti-imperial types, McCain's bellicosity is the central issue, and they delude themselves into believing that the principle danger of a McCain administration is that he would "start more wars." That may or may not be true, and given the current political climate, any Republican administration, particularly his, would be hamstrung by the factional corridor politics of the American imperial court in Washington. The characteristic of McCain's jingoism to bear in mind, though, is that it actually represents the unintegrated, incoherent mindset and world-view of most ordinary Americans; an unstirred suspension of nationalist pride, cultural ignorance, fear of otherness, and flag-waving military pride. None of these is good, but they all occur simultaneously in minds prone to dissipation, inaction, indecision, and fear of consequence.

Obama, meanwhile, has all the marks of a man with an integrated and coherent view of the central issues to the maintenance of American hegemony, and he should be expected to pursue the project of American dominance with more focus and more success. I won't make bones about it. By the standard American-history-text measures, I expect an Obama presidency to be a successful one, surely at least a gradual reversion to mean. This will please his partisan supporters and most progressives (read: Restorationists), who will remain blithely oblivious to what precisely it represents: the more skillfully executed subjugation of other peoples to the needs of the American empire. To those who claim to oppose the American imperial project, that should be the focus of opposition.

Meanwhile, over at the Group News Blog, Sara Robinson casts her eye on the significance of Sarah Palin's upgrade of her wardrobe to "American aristocracy" standards. This is about as clear a critique of the current American situation as I have seen since Phil Paine said much the same thing, oh at any of a number of times in the past:

What's coming clear now is that the American rich don't even pretend to care about how any of this looks any more. They think they're so entitled to their riches that they're even beyond the reach of history, let alone a mob of disgruntled peasants. They've got gates and Cayman bankers and private security and Blackwater, if need be, to handle that kind of thing. It's just not an issue any more.

Thing of it is: whenever people get to thinking that way, that's just about the time that history boomerangs back on them, hard -- usually in the form of a mob of disgruntled peasants. Photos like this [of young Piper Palin apparently with her own Louis Vuitton Montorguiel PM handbag] are the sign of a reckoning at hand.

I am not sure that I agree with the last paragraph, in large part because I'm not sure that the "peasants" would win such a confrontation. And, as we've seen since at least the time of Reagan, the American public has a vast penchant of self-delusion.

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Medieval political advertising

Got Medieval has a knack for finding this stuff: Negative Campaigning, Medieval Style. Don't go there if you are easily offended.

If you are not, you might have a look at his reflections on standup comedy way back when.

And for some fun with mostly post-medieval political smears, see this post from Brad DeLong and the following comments.

Image: Yes, it is relevant. Sort of. Take a link to the left...


Timothy I Catholikos of Baghdad and Caliph Al-Mahdi

Interested in what Christian and Muslim religious leaders debated in the early Abbasid era?

Public benefactor Roger Pearse has just made that a whole lot easier. He writes:

In 781 AD the East Syriac Catholicos, Timothy I, was invited by the
Abbassid Caliph al-Mahdi to answer a series of questions about
Christianity over two days. The questions and his replies are extant in
Syriac. I've placed the English translation by Alphonse Mingana online

Introduction here:

Timothy I was an interesting man, heavily involved in the Nestorian
evangelism which ultimately reached China. He also was involved in
biblical textual criticism, and his letters record the discovery of some
old manuscripts of the Psalms in the region of the Dead Sea; a possible
precursor of the modern Dead Sea Scrolls discovery.

The text above is public domain: please copy freely. It now forms part
of my collection of public domain patristic texts available here:

For those who would like to support the work of the site, you can buy a
CDROM of the translations from here:

Thanks, Roger!

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Suffering under an early, heavy snowfall, it's consoling to realize that it's even colder in the orbit of Saturn.

Actually, it doesn't help at all.

Image: The rings and their shadows and some "seasonal coloration." The big satellite is Titan.
From Astronomy Picture of the Day.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Don't believe news stories about "medieval times"

...if they depend on (a) journalists identifying when "medieval times" were or (b) journalists doing simple math.

As Got Medieval demonstrates.


Stars over Ravenhill Farm, Labour Day Weekend 2008

Instead of an APoD from NASA, a picture made (thanks Eirik!) at my own house in the country.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

The Dead Sea Scrolls come to Toronto

Next year -- specifically from June 27, 2009 until Jan. 3, 2010 -- the Royal Ontario Museum will have a spectacular exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls. For details see this CBC article.

Image: The Book of Isaiah on display in Jerusalem.

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Archaeological riches of Ephesus (Turkey)

Jonathan Jarrett's blog A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe has a fascinating piece inspired by a seminar talk by Professor Charlotte Roueché on the challenges of archaeology at Ephesus (mainly, a common one: everyone wants to concentrate on their favorite period) and the particular insights that can be gained at this amazing locale:

[T]he extent of stone-carving in these cities, which is huge—Professor Roueché had a picture of a fair-sized wall at Aphrodisias covered in imperial edicts, including Diocletian’s price edict which you may have heard of and which we only have from stone—was apparently dwarfed by the number of more temporary painted inscriptions. Such an amazingly lettered culture is implied by this that it does seem quite alien to Westerners, who too often acquire an idea that writing is the preserve of the Latin Church. At Ephesus, the theatre seats are covered in carved graffiti; as Professor Roueché said you begin to think that everyone was carrying a chisel and hammer in their back pocket in case they passed a blank surface…

Lots more good stuff there!

Also, Jarrett has, for you philosophical scholars and would-be scholars, a meditation
on owning books.

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Derek Neal Speaks: The Damage Done:

From Dr. James Murton:

The next talk in the History Department Seminar Series features our own gender and medieval historian Derek Neal, speaking on "Sex and the Damage Done: A Rare Prosecution for Sodomy in Late Medieval England."

Next Friday, Oct 24, 3:00 pm, Rm A224 (note the later than normal time to accommodate the Arts & Science Council Meeting).

Refreshments will be served.

Hope to see you there!

Image: The White Hart Inn in Blythburgh, Suffolk, was built in the 13th century as an ecclesiastical court venue, where such cases would have been tried.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Saladin's hummus?

A couple of weeks ago, a correspondent on MEDIEV-L sent the rest of us a link to this article from the Guardian, which discusses the efforts of the state of Lebanon to prevent Israel from claiming hummus and tabouleh as its own, when by all rights they should be knowledge this traditional dishes of Lebanon. Does this mean that they only want Lebanese produced hummus to be labeled as such? Where would that leave Canadian hummus? (Which is likely produced from Lebanese recipes.)

The article also mentions a legend that Saladin, the famous Muslim leader of the 12th century, invented hummus. Now that's what I call ridiculous. Some man invented hummus? I assert with complete confidence that the dish was invented by two women working together, probably grandmother and granddaughter, some time well before the first wall was raised around Jericho. Where they were when they did it, I'm not saying.

Image: A Greek version of hummus with tahini, just to complicate things.

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Hardly worth mentioning

From the New York Times from Reuters:

U.S. and Iraqi officials said on Wednesday that they had reached a final agreement after months of talks on a pact that would require U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraq by 2011.

Iraq said it had secured the right to prosecute U.S. soldiers for serious crimes under certain circumstances, an issue both sides had long said was holding up the pact.

There seem to be conflicting stories on the NYT site: see also Iraq inches closer to security pact with U.S.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Eight Empty Years

A sample of this Toronto band's music.


What's $10 worth these days?

Sometimes you can give it to a country neighbor who has fixed a minor but disabling problem with your pickup truck. I suspect this bargain is available only to people recognizable as country neighbors themselves, or to those referred by very long-established country people. Helps to have a pickup truck, too.


Recent writings on democracy by Phil Paine

While I was more or less away from my computer for the holiday, Phil Paine, my sometimes collaborator on the history of democracy, wrote some interesting posts.

One, which was written just before the Canadian election, does not suffer from being "overtaken by events." It talks about how citizens in a democracy should think about elections, any elections anywhere, and it catches why even the prospect of a win by the saner presidential candidate in the United States leaves me uneasy. The hankering so many people have for "strong leadership" is all that much more evident when it comes to foreign policy especially warmaking. Every time I hear American politicians talk about the future of foreign policy I feel like they are trapped in a dream world, and that they will inevitably be led astray by fantasies they seem to share with most of the population. (Canada is hardly immune from this kind of thinking; a call to "support the troops" closes down sensible debate most of the time.) Phil's piece, his Seventh Meditation on Democracy, is here.

Phil is very good at locating specialized works that shed an interesting light on general human problems. Two such works are featured in his blog at

One, Hélène Claudot-Hawad's “Éperonner le monde” ― Nomadisme, cosmos et politique chez les Touaregs is a study of the Tuareg, the Saharan people, which serves to confirm in Phil's mind conclusions he drew from personal experience of this culture, a quarter century ago. You'll have to read Phil's whole review to see why I think it's worthy of notice ; but it's not long.

The second, Nancy M. Wingfield's Flag Wars and Stone Saints: How the Bohemian Lands Became Czech, shows how an ideological classification, embedded into a change in one bureaucratic document, can make a tremendous difference in the life of the community, and not a good one. Here I will quote from Phil's review somewhat extensively:

Ethnic nationalism is one of the most diseased and obnoxious ideas contrived by human beings, rivaled only by Marxism and religious fanaticism in its potential for creating human suffering. The stage was set for the horrors of the twentieth century by the passionate ethnic hatreds of the 19th century. It was in this era that collective loyalties among Europeans shifted from obsessions with God to obsessions with Race and Nation. And it was in this era that most of the "national identities", which now seem so fixed, were concocted.

This book deals with the process of manufacturing "national identity" in Bohemia, a process which involved the co-opting and polarizing of people who previously felt no special collective "oneness". For example, language seems to have been regarded as nothing more than a convenient medium of communication in most of Bohemia, until the Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy turned it into a critical qualification for political and social status. In 1880, the Hapsburgs' imperial census demanded that everyone in the empire identify themselves by language, of which they could only choose one.

Millions of people who were bilingual or multilingual, who might use Czech to gossip with a neighbour, German at work, Hungarian to talk to a brother-in-law, and Slovak in bed with their spouse, suddenly had to define themselves like a species of insect by one, and only one of these languages. A Jewish shopkeeper might speak Yiddish at home, Moravian with his Customers, and read German newspapers and books. Czech nationalists insisted that he be considered a German, and German nationalists insisted that he was not. His rabbi claimed him as neither. The only opinion that carried no weight was his own. Up until then, in most of rural Bohemia, a given person would have said, "I am from such-and-such a village", not "I am Czech" or "I am German". Most Bohemians lived in this multi-cultural and multi-lingual reality, and had done so for centuries, but the census demanded that everyone be labeled ethnically under a single language, assumed to be identical with some inherent biological species.

To intellectuals and political activists, the resulting statistics and manufactured ethnicities became the tools for power struggles. National Defense Leagues, and parliamentary power-blocks used them in the pursuit of advancement, usually with blatant economic motives. The Nationalist mentality demanded not only the advancement of one's "own" schools, celebrations, statues, and job opportunities, but the extermination of everyone else's. Infantile vandalism, violence, and riots over statues, beer brands, and songs characterized life in late 19th Century Bohemia. Mobs attacked theatres that dared to perform a play in the Other language. The founding of a Czech-language university in Brno met violent opposition. Mobs of Czechs destroyed stores with German signs in their windows. Germans demanded boycotts of beers brewed by Czechs. History was rewritten into absurd fantasies of heroes and villains exemplifying the "superior" culture of Us and the perfidy and barbarity of Them. The old religious issues were not forgotten — they were merely re-shaped and twisted to amplify ethnic ideologies. And, of course, the age-old hatred of Jews thrived in such an atmosphere, and was used as strategic leverage.

So it was that when the Republic of Czechoslovakia emerged from the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, after World War I, ethnic nationalism acted as a slow poison to weaken and corrupt a society that initially offered considerable hope.

Definitely one for my must-read list.

Image: a self-identified alpha male. (See Phil's Seventh Meditation.)

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What does this have to do with the 14th century and robots?

Will McLean explains.

Image: the crater Machaut on Mercury, from a NASA site.

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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Monkey knight and monkey squire

Got Medieval, a blog that has recently devoted a lot of time to marginalia (marginal illustrations in manuscripts), especially those of monkeys, features a whole monkey chivalric graphic-romance.

And good news! You can own coasters and other Cafe Press items decorated with these images!

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Monday, October 06, 2008


No fantasy, this Icelandic landscape of volcanic origin is part of an amazing exhibition of photos by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, Earth from Above, some of which -- 38 wonderful views -- can be seen at The Big Picture. DO NOT MISS IT!

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Sunday, October 05, 2008

The last lecture in this year's Islamic Civilization class -- April 2009

I'm referring to Andrew J. Bacevich's column in the Washington Post, He Told Us to Go Shopping. Now the Bill Is Due, and I'm exaggerating, because the focus is firmly on the United States. But some of this will undoubtedly be reflected in what I do say in April:

It's widely thought that the biggest gamble President Bush ever took was deciding to invade Iraq in 2003. It wasn't. His riskiest move was actually one made right after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when he chose not to mobilize the country or summon his fellow citizens to any wartime economic sacrifice. Bush tried to remake the world on the cheap, and as the bill grew larger, he still refused to ask Americans to pay up. During this past week, that gamble collapsed, leaving the rest of us to sort through the wreckage. ...

The "go to Disney World" approach to waging war has produced large, unanticipated consequences. When the American people, as instructed, turned their attention back to enjoying life, their hankering for prosperity without pain deprived the administration of the wherewithal needed over the long haul to achieve some truly ambitious ends.

Even today, the scope of those ambitions is not widely understood, in part due to the administration's own obfuscations. After September 2001, senior officials described U.S. objectives as merely defensive, designed to prevent further terrorist attacks. Or they wrapped America's purposes in the gauze of ideology, saying that our aim was to spread freedom and eliminate tyranny. But in reality, the Bush strategy conceived after 9/11 was expansionist, shaped above all by geopolitical considerations. The central purpose was to secure U.S. preeminence across the strategically critical and unstable greater Middle East. Securing preeminence didn't necessarily imply conquering and occupying this vast region, but it did require changing it -- comprehensively and irrevocably. This was not some fantasy nursed by neoconservatives at the Weekly Standard or the American Enterprise Institute. Rather, it was the central pillar of the misnamed enterprise that we persist in calling the "global war on terror."

At a Pentagon press conference on Sept. 18, 2001, then-defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld let the cat out of the bag: "We have a choice, either to change the way we live, which is unacceptable, or to change the way that they live, and we chose the latter." This was not some slip of the tongue. The United States was now out to change the way "they" -- i.e., hundreds of millions of Muslims living in the Middle East -- live. Senior officials did not shrink from -- perhaps even relished -- the magnitude of the challenges that lay ahead. The idea, wrote chief Pentagon strategist Douglas J. Feith in a May 2004 memo, was to "transform the Middle East and the broader world of Islam generally."

But if the administration's goals were grandiose, its means were modest. The administration's governing assumption was that the U.S. military, as constituted in late 2001, ought to suffice to transform the Middle East. Bush could afford to tell the American people to go on holiday and head back to the mall because the indomitable American soldier could be counted on to liberate (and thereby pacify) the Muslim world....

...the primary lesson of the Iraq war remains this one: To imagine that the United States can easily and cheaply invade, occupy and redeem any country in the Muslim world is sheer folly.

This WP column has some good thoughts, too: 9/11 Was Big. This Is Bigger.

Of course, anyone with an Internet connection, some time on their hands, and an ounce of mental flexibility could have found such analyses on the Web any time in the last five years or so, written by private citizens with no special qualifications; my colleagues who run our pension investments were doing their best to protect them some months ago.

What's worth noting is that a certain degree of reality has finally penetrated to Official Washington, of which the Washington Post is a branch.

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Saturday, October 04, 2008

The world turned inside out

I have enjoyed myself at Nipissing University from the start, which was 19 years ago, but today pretty much took the cake. My history colleague James Murton took his environmental history class on an expedition on the Mattawa River, and allowed some other university people, including me, to tag along.

The excuse for this expedition was to illustrate in a visceral way a classic theme in Canadian history, the connection between what we think of as wilderness and primeval activity in that wilderness, meaning the fur trade and the voyageur routes, and the whole world economy of the time. Every Canadian with the slightest interest in the history of his or her country has been exposed to this material in one way or another, but I will tell you it meant a great deal more to everyone who took part in today's canoe trip on the Mattawa.

Part of me says that every single course at Nipissing University that can justify a canoe trip as illustrating part of its subject matter should do so, and we could spend the entire month of September on the river. This is probably too extreme an idea, but how could it hurt? I certainly felt today that Jamie Murton had made the most of our location.

I live out in the country, and driving out to the river, and stopping at a couple of other sites (the La Vase portage and the local museum with a modern reproduction of the Montréal canoe), I found myself rather surprisingly feeling the world turning inside out. When you are living a life that involves driving between a modern home and a modern small city (with inadequate shopping but still) with a modern and quite new University, driving on modern roads and parking in modern parking lots, it is easy to get the feeling that all those trees and rocks and lakes are just in the way. If you don't like our area that feeling must be much stronger, but even I who do like it often regard the natural landscape as a barrier or empty space arranged in an inconvenient way. But even before we got to the museum or the canoes, knowing the area we were going to, I began to feel that the essential element of my world was not the road I was on, but the river I was about to tackle. I saw the landscape with whole new eyes and it was a thrill.

It reminded me of a previous time I was on the Mattawa, a summer day when I stood at the portage at Talon Dam, watching muscular young people wrestling with canoes as they carried them over a very difficult, rocky path. I realized that every summer's day since the Stone Age, this scene had been duplicated at this portage site. The wooded areas on either side of the river were of no particular interest, but this natural corridor was close to eternal. The same could be said of much of Canada. Vast areas are empty of people almost all the time, but there are corridors that are always in use. North Bay and indeed my village are on such a corridor, (North Bay on more than one), simply because if you want to get through there's not much in the way of alternatives. There are just too many rocks and trees and lakes.

From Flickr, some other people on Lake Talon in 2007. It was a lot grayer and colder today, but who cares.

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Thursday, October 02, 2008

Canadian leaders' debate

It was really good and I'm glad I watched. I've seen about 5 minutes of the US VP debate online and found it unbearable.

Boy, there are some creepy people in politics. If they were smart they'd never appear on TV where ordinary decent people might see them.

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Greg Stott speaks at NU -- Wed. October 8, 10:30 AM

From Dr. James Murton:

I'm please to announce the return of the History Department Seminar Series for 2008-09.

Our first speaker is Dr. Greg Stott of the History Department, who will be speaking on "The Travails of a Poet: Robert McBride’s Exposé of Corruption and Conspiracy in Lambton County, Canada West, 1854-1858."

Greg's paper focuses on a conservative poet's expose of the political and judicial corruption that, he felt, had formed a grand conspiracy to undermine him – and by inference – other hardworking British subjects in colonial Ontario.

Wednesday, Oct 8, 10:30 am, in Rm A224

Refreshments will be served. See you there!

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

October Fool's Day

Short and sweet from Will McLean's A Commonplace Book. Life in the future/the present/Will's parallel universe is far more entertaining than the usual lies that make up the news. Unlike the regular news, this is all true.

Image: Pope Gregory VII and his own aerial protector.

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An illustration of the nature of good -- the real thing.