Friday, January 30, 2009

Remember that "obscure country (per capita)?"

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Fallen from the sky

A while back Darrell Markewitz at Hammered Out Bits said he knew of no swords made out of meteorites. Specifically, he said:

"I should note that the whole 'streaks in the sky to rocks on the ground' connection was actually NOT made until the middle 1800's. The whole concept of a 'sky stone' would have been completely unknown (and unthinkable) to the Medieval mind. This is a fiction created by modern fantasy writers."

Well, as Darrell himself tells us, apparently someone in Mughal India in 1621 did make the connection, and used a meteor to create this knife for the Emperor Jahangir. Quite a specimen. More details and links here.

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How it works

I try to resist commenting on every twist and turn of politics, but if this is recent stuff I still think it falls within my educational mandate to reproduce this post from Ezra Klein's blog:


By Dylan Matthews

It's instructive for people my age who are thinking of careers in foreign policy to know that you can back death squads in Central America, deny mass atrocities, brazenly defy Congressional dictates, get convicted of withholding information from Congress, back a covert coup d'état, actively undermine the peace process in Israel, and be in charge of implementing the Bush administration's "freedom agenda" and end up with a senior fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations and an offer to be CFR's president should Richard Haass leave. I believe the term for this is "perverse incentive".

Atrios' eyecatching post linking to Klein/Matthews:


It's like clown school for mass murderers.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Audience atomization overcome

You may or may not find this essay by Jay Rosen as recapitulating the obvious. The conclusion:

Now we can see why blogging and the Net matter so greatly in political journalism. In the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate with relative ease because the people on the receiving end were atomized— meaning they were connected “up” to Big Media but not across to each other. But today one of the biggest factors changing our world is the falling cost for like-minded people to locate each other, share information, trade impressions and realize their number. Among the first things they may do is establish that the “sphere of legitimate debate” as defined by journalists doesn’t match up with their own definition.

In the past there was nowhere for this kind of sentiment to go. Now it collects, solidifies and expresses itself online. Bloggers tap into it to gain a following and serve demand. Journalists call this the “echo chamber,” which is their way of downgrading it as a reliable source. But what’s really happening is that the authority of the press to assume consensus, define deviance and set the terms for legitimate debate is weaker when people can connect horizontally around and about the news.

Which is how I got to my three word formula for understanding the Internet’s effects in politics and media: “audience atomization overcome.”

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Blood and Oil: Memoirs of a Persian Prince, by Manucher Farmanfarmaian and Roxane Farmanfarmaian

Manucher Farmanfarmaian is a brother of Sattareh Farman Farmaian, author of Daughter of Persia, an autobiography that my students in the History of Islamic civilization are reading is the basis for a paper. Blood and Oil is also an autobiography, and it is at least as well-written as Sattareh's book. Manucher, as a boy, had quite a different experience of their mutual father, and of course quite a different career. Can he ever tell a story! (Roxane, his co-author, is his daughter.)

This book is recommended to anyone who read enjoyed Daughter of Persia, or is interested in Iran, or in global oil politics and the formation of OPEC. Unfortunately, the Nipissing University library does not have a copy. I got mine through interlibrary loan.

Manucher has an eye for telling detail. Here he remarks about the extraordinary generosity of friends in England who, though hardly rich, helped him with a loan when his father's death cut off his fund transfers from Iran temporarily:

Their generosity was all the more poignant because in England at the time racism was rampant. At university foreign students were shunned. We were not allowed to hold student office, and the college deans, at a meeting held at the beginning of each year, went so far as to warn girls away from us, insinuating that we were from base cultures.... it was not just the university but British society in general that held such views, from the foreman of the garage where I worked one summer to the rich lady with the Daimler who had her butler repeat everything I said because it was below her dignity to converse with me directly. All the more extraordinary, then, were the Philipses' confidence and goodwill.

And on his return trip via India during wartime:

Though in England Persians were looked upon as darkies from an inferior race and religion, here [in Bombay] we were regarded as esteemed guests -- of England of course, not India. We were invited to stay in the toniest hotels, and the doors of every chic restaurant were open as long as we wore dinner jackets or tails (which we invariably did)-- though an Indian would be thrashed were he to venture even a glance inside.

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The Modern Middle East: A History, by James L. Gelvin

This is the textbook I am using for the second half of my course on the History of Islamic Civilization. Today I read a long passage in preparation for tomorrow's lecture, when a student will comment on it. As always, my reaction to this direct, clearly-written and sensible book is:

"Boy, this is good."

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Reminder: Todd Webb speaks tomorrow at 2:30

The History Department Seminar Series returns with our soon-to-be annual visit from our friends down Hwy 17 at Laurentian U. Todd Webb, Department of History, will present a talk titled “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition: Methodism, Anti-Catholicism and Empire in Lower and Upper Canada."

Todd's talk will focus on a little discussed aspect of Canadian religious history: the role of anti-Catholicism in the process of cultural formation among the Methodists of colonial Canada. It will do so by examining the Methodist role in three episodes: the rebellions of 1837-38 in Lower and Upper Canada, the formation of a transatlantic anti-Catholic consensus during the 1840s and 1850s, and the Prince of Wales’s tour of British North America in 1860.

Friday, Jan 23, 2:30 pm, Rm A224.

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Department of History Keynote Speakers, 2009: Elizabeth and Thomas Cohen

Every year the Department of History invites exciting scholars to visit and address the university. This year (specifically Friday January 30) Elizabeth and Thomas Cohen of York University will speak on Renaissance Italy -- details below. Please come!

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You know things are bad...

...when Britain's


runs a column(by one Philip Stephens) that says :

For the moment, though, I cannot think of a more popular policy than shooting the bankers and nationalising the banks. It might even win Mr Brown [the British PM]an election. Come to think of it, it could also be the way to get us out of this mess.


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Lecture notes for HIST 3805 -- Islamic Civilization

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Yes, the Obama inauguration was special, but I will let everyone else on the web talk about that. If you want a break, see English Russia for this stunning array of beautiful, grim, gritty pictures by Aleksey Petrosian called Life in Russia. Your jaw will drop.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

This doesn't happen every four years...

...believe me.

An e-mail from our Registrar's Office:

The UTS department will provide a live streaming of the US Presidential Inauguration on Tuesday, Jan. 20th between 10:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. on the large screen in the Nipissing Theatre. The university community is invited to watch and discuss this historic event with their colleagues and peers.

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George W. Bush and America

While so many people are being optimistic about Obama as president (and I hope they are right), I will make one comment of my own on his predecessor.

Back on January 1oth Brad DeLong asked:

"Why is this family[the Bushes] ruling us, again?"

And I replied:

Providing that civilization survives, this will be a classic topic for historians of the United States and historians of the development of democracy, for centuries to come.

I don't think too many of the answers will be as comforting as "the election was stolen." You hope in vain if you think they will let the United States off that easily.

That is all.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Illustrations of knighting ceremonies, 15th century

Found through, with thanks. Labelled with the name of the historical or legendary figure being knighted, and the date of the manuscript.

Jean II of France dubbing knights, 14th-15th c.:

Lancelot, c. 1400:

Galahad, c. 1400:

Robert the Devil, 1400-25:

Lancelot, 1405:

John II dubs knights, 1410-12:

Tristan , c. 1440-60:

Unidentified, mid-15th century:

William II of Holland, mid-15th century:
Galahad, 15th century:
Galahad, 1463:

Lancelot, 1470:

Lionel, c. 1470:

Galahad, c. 1470:

Garfin and Roboan,
fourth quarter of the 15th century:
Roboan knighted by the emperor, fourth quarter of the 15th century:

Philip the Fair, c. 1480:
Galahad, c. 1480:

Henry IV makes Richard Beauchamp a knight of the Bath, after 1483:

Henry IV makes Richard Beauchamp a knight of the Garter, after 1483:

Unidentified knights being dubbed by Charles VII, 1484 (2 ill.)

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Pilgrimage, modern and medieval

Jeff Sypeck, a Washington-based medievalist, reflects at Quid plura? a propos the Obama inauguration, on a pilgrimage of the Crusading era, which I link to for the benefit especially of students who last term took Crusade and Jihad.

An excerpt:

The medieval Romans may not have draped patriotic bunting across the facades of their buildings, but 710 years ago, they braced for unprecedented crowds. In late 1299, apparently with no official prompting, pilgrims began streaming into Rome, driven by the widespread belief that the year ahead offered special blessings to those who visited the graves of St. Peter and St. Paul.

Here’s Paul Hetherington on what became the Church’s first Jubilee Year:

The word spread like wildfire through Europe, and even by New Year’s Eve of 1299 a great crowd had assembled at St. Peter’s to greet the opening of the Jubilee Year at midnight. From then on, the crowds flocked to Rome from all over the known world. No one had ever experienced anything like it before. The crowds were so massive that the papal police had to institute a keep-right system for all the crowds crossing the bridge on foot that led over the Tiber to St. Peter’s . . .

The spontaneity and scale of the Jubilee took everyone by surprise. Even the pope, Boniface VIII, seems to have been nonplussed by it, and only issued the decree authorizing it late in February 1300. The various estimates made by contemporaries of the numbers that visited Rome vary so wildly that none can be regarded as trustworthy, but it was probably somewhere between one and two million...

[From a pilgrim's account:]

The Pope received an untold amount of money from them, as day and night two priests stood at the altar of St. Paul’s holding rakes in their hands, raking in infinite money…

Jeff will be on Connecticut Ave. adding that medieval touch:
I’ll be pacing the sidewalk with ful devout corage and wielding my new favorite medieval-themed religious implement, the money rake. Commit yourself to change—or simply fling cash. I promise it will go someplace deserving. Weary pilgrim, have faith in me: I wol yow nat deceyve.
Image: Basilica of St. Paul's outside the Walls, Rome.

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Illustrations of knighting ceremonies, 14th century

Found through, with thanks. Labelled with the name of the historical or legendary figure being knighted, and the date of the manuscript.

St. Martin, 1312-7:

Galahad 1330-40:

Galahad, 1380-5:

Jean II of France dubbing knights, 14th-15th c.:

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Under sail the Big Picture. Need I say more?

Image: Wild Oats IX off Tasman Island.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Democracy Denied 1905-1915: Intellectuals and the Fate of Democracy, by Charles Kurtzman

I am fortunate enough to be reading this new book and reviewing it for the Journal of World History. I can't say too much about it yet, but have a look at the blurb on the dust flap and see if you don't anticipate something good:

In the decade before World War I, a wave of democratic revolutions swept the globe, affecting more than a quarter of the world's population. Revolution transformed Russia, Iran, the Ottoman Empire, Portugal, Mexico and China. In each case, a pro-democracy movement unseated a long-standing autocracy with startling speed. The nacent democratic regimes held elections, convened parliament, allowed freedom of the press and freedom of association. But the new governments failed in many instances to uphold the rights and freedoms that they proclaimed. Coups d'etat soon undermined the democratic experiments.

... this thoroughly interdisciplinary treatment of the early 20th century upheavals promises to reshape debates about the social origins of democracy, the causes of democratic collapse, the political roles intellectuals, and the international flow of ideas.

Bring on that international flow of ideas!

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Today's first post on the history of democracy

It seems to me that the American Republic and the American Empire are still battling it out. As John at Dymaxion World said:

It's a fitting postscript to the Bush years that the best news I've heard all week is that Obama's Attorney-General 1) Says that waterboarding is torture, 2) even when America does it, and 3) the President can't break the law.

How sad is that, that I'm basically bouncing in my chair clapping like a kid on his birthday because for the first time in 8 years, the chief law enforcement officer of the United States of America believes that the government shouldn't break the law???
But as he also says, we'll have to see how far that conviction goes.

Or see driftglass:

Two nights in a row I have seen blood-soaked madmen on my teevee taking victory laps through the imaginary, eight-year history of a fictional America.

Over here in the Real World -- the one they hollowed out, set on fire, looted and left for dead -- things look very different.
Summed up in the illustrated musical version here.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Gaza as a domestic Iranian issue

From Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Iran Report:
One man who telephoned RFE/RL's Radio Farda from Isfahan said that authorities "are really killing us" with their efforts to drive home the Gaza crisis and express solidarity with Hamas. "All the programs on Iran's television channels, from channel one to channel seven, it's all about the people of Gaza and support for Hamas," the man said. "Why is it like this in Iran? Why are we caring so much about Gaza? Why we don't care about ourselves?"

A Tehran-based journalist, who spoke anonymously due to what he described as the "sensitivity" of the issue, told RFE/RL that people in Iran are far from indifferent to the deaths of civilians in conflicts. Many people think the international response in the Gaza crisis has been insufficient, he noted.

But, he said, some also believe the government is exploiting the crisis to divert domestic attention from Iran's worsening economic situation, including spiraling inflation and growing unemployment.

Another recent caller to Radio Farda claimed "the mullahs" use Palestine and other Middle East flashpoints for their own political ends.

"They've created a stick out of Palestine to give a response to all of the people's questions and demands -- whoever says something will be [silenced]," the caller said. "Otherwise we're a country like other countries, we should mind our own business and solve our own problems. Has there ever been a president who has asked, 'How's our country doing regarding issues like health, electricity, unemployment, poverty?'.... All they speak about is Palestine and Lebanon."

See also the comments to the story.

Image: Anti-Israel demo in Tehran.

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This is your planet

As so often, The Big Picture has some spectacular space photography -- this time of planet Earth. I never knew how much of our land surface looks like Mars.

Image: Irrigated landscape south of Khartoum.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Cheery music from the late 60s

This is one of the more memorable songs I listened to in those halcyon days. At least, I remember it clearly. Now, we all just sit back and laugh. Or not.

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Most obscure country in the world per capita

I hope no Indonesians reading this Slate article are offended by the tone of the question "Why don't Indonesians know how to swim?" but in North America Indonesia is amazingly unknown, even in regards to the most basic facts, given its size and population.

I simply note that before the end of the 19th century recreational swimming was a rare activity everywhere, and many sailors around the world did not learn on purpose so that they would go down faster if overboard, rather than struggle futilely.

Image: Indonesian ferry.

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Todd Webb of Laurentian University speaks at Nipissing

From Dr. James Murton:
The History Department Seminar Series returns with our soon-to-be annual visit from our friends down Hwy 17 at Laurentian U. Todd Webb, Department of History, will present a talk titled “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition: Methodism, Anti-Catholicism and Empire in Lower and Upper Canada."

Todd's talk will focus on a little discussed aspect of Canadian religious history: the role of anti-Catholicism in the process of cultural formation among the Methodists of colonial Canada. It will do so by examining the Methodist role in three episodes: the rebellions of 1837-38 in Lower and Upper Canada, the formation of a transatlantic anti-Catholic consensus during the 1840s and 1850s, and the Prince of Wales’s tour of British North America in 1860.

Friday, Jan 23, 2:30 pm, Rm A224.

Refreshments will be served.

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Stonehenge: No one who wasn't there can imagine what that music was like

But we can reconstruct and dream, can't we?

The Mail reports an acoustic-archaeological experiment:

Part-time DJ Dr Till, an expert in acoustics and music technology at Huddersfield University, believes the standing stones of Stonehenge had the ideal acoustics to amplify a 'repetitive trance rhythm' not dissimilar to some kinds of modern trance music.

Stonehenge would have had strange acoustic effects thousands of years ago

The original Stonehenge probably had a 'very pleasant, almost concert-like acoustic' that our ancestors slowly perfected over many generations. Because Stonehenge itself is partially collapsed, Dr Till, used a computer model to conduct experiments in sound.

The most exciting discoveries came when he and colleague Dr Bruno Fazenda visited a full-size concrete replica of Stonehenge, which was built as a war memorial by American road builder Sam Hill at Maryhill in Washington state.

He said: 'We were able to get some interesting results when we visited the replica by using computer-based acoustic analysis software, a 3D soundfield microphone, a dodecahedronic (12-faced) speaker, and a huge bass speaker.

'We have also been able to reproduce the sound of someone speaking or clapping in Stonehenge 5,000 years ago.

'The most interesting thing is we managed to get the whole space (at Maryhill) to resonate, almost like a wine glass will ring if you run a finger round it.

'While that was happening a simple drum beat sounded incredibly dramatic. The space had real character; it felt that we had gone somewhere special.'

Read the rest.

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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Wedgwood loses its competitive edge, goes under after 250 years

As Judith Flanders says in an interesting history of a sinking company:

The company is in trouble because it has long forgotten the lessons of one of its founders: Josiah Wedgwood, among the greatest and most innovative retailers the world has ever seen. If the modern operators of Wedgwood, which was merged with Waterford Glass in 1986, had shown a tenth of Josiah’s intuitive grasp, his flair, his zest for selling, it would not now be dying.

Today when most people think of Wedgwood, they think of bridal registries and those dusty-looking blue-and-white jasperware plates that no one knows what to do with. But things were once very different.

Josiah was an unlikely hero. He was the 13th child of an impoverished potter; a childhood case of smallpox left Josiah with a bad leg that was later amputated, making it impossible for him to turn a potter’s wheel. But if he could not physically throw a pot, he could — and did — find new ways to get goods to market. He threw himself into various schemes to improve roads and canals. And, more fundamentally, he developed new ways of selling. Most, if not all, of the common techniques in 20th-century sales — direct mail, money-back guarantees, traveling salesmen, self-service, free delivery, buy one get one free, illustrated catalogues — came from Josiah Wedgwood.
According to one listing, Wedgwood is one of the richest 200 people to ever live in Britain, and one of the very few of those to acquire his wealth by hard work and ingenuity.

Image: 1787 emancipation medallion produced by Wedgwood.

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HIST 3805 -- assignment sheet for second essay

Those of you who feel the need for more guidance on the second essay -- here it is.


Everybody's losing in Gaza

Excerpts from an opinion piece at TPMCafe, by M.J. Rosenberg:

It is obvious who is losing the Gaza war. But who is winning?

First the losers. Hamas is losing. It made the mistake of believing its own propaganda about Israelis having lost the determination to fight for their state....

But the biggest loser of all is not Hamas (I wish it was), but the people of Gaza. The conservative Israeli daily Ma'ariv quotes "Israeli sources" who say that "of the approximately 550 fatalities in the operation," only 200 "are linked to the warfare by affiliation or by the manner in which they were killed." This means, Ma'ariv reports, that "that the harm to Hamas members . . . is apparently much smaller than the number of unarmed people who were killed."...

The Israelis have also lost. The people of southern Israel have been living in terror for years. Anyone who knows small children understands how little it takes to startle and terrify them. Imagine how they react to the endless crashing of incoming Kassams, which reduce adults to quivering and tears.

Israel has also lost politically. ...

Even among those who think there was no alternative to war, few are remotely happy about it. They may believe that the war is justifiable, but they hate the idea that Gaza's kids are the victims. On the other hand, they argue, the war could destroy Hamas. Wouldn't that be a good thing? Maybe.

Bringing Hamas to power is one of the most horrific legacies of the Bush administration. In retrospect, the decision to oust Arafat (who had demonstrated the ability to thwart terrorism, and had reduced it to almost zero between 1997 and 2000) was a blunder. The administration's subsequent stingy support for Mahmoud Abbas was incomprehensible and its decision to force the Palestinian elections that brought Hamas to power--and which Israel and Abbas opposed--was about as benighted a foreign policy move as any in history.

Nonetheless, Hamas' possible successors as rulers of Gaza would likely be worse. Forget about the idea of Abu Mazen riding in triumph back into Gaza following the Israeli troops. One, he wouldn't do it. Two, if he did, he would be viewed as an Israeli stooge.

No, Hamas' likely successors would be Al Qaeda--and its allies--which already have cells in Gaza. Hamas and Al Qaeda hate each other for many reasons, most of which are of interest only to students of Islam. The one that matters to us is that Hamas is willing to compromise with its enemies.

Al Qaeda and its ilk are at permanent war with the West, a war which cannot end until either AQ or the infidels are destroyed. Al Qaeda is not fighting for political goals but to create a pan-national Islamic State that would supplant not only Israel but all the Arab states.

Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim brotherhood, limits its ambitions to achieving a state in Palestine. It believes in compromise, if only as a stop gap. That is why it could sign a ceasefire agreement with Israel and, according to even Israeli sources, observe it until it decided that Israel was not living up to its end of the deal. It has even raised the idea of a 15 or 20 year ceasefire with the Jewish state.

All this is anathema to groups like Al Qaeda, for whom the destruction of the World Trade Center was a triumph--although it advanced no political goals. AQ has none, just as the terrorists in Mumbai killed for killing's sake.

And these are the people who could make Gaza--a few miles from Tel Aviv--its ultimate base of operations.

Writing in the London Jewish Chronicle, reporter Jonathan Freedland predicts, "Gaza could become a vacuum, rapidly descending into Somalia, a lawless badland of warlords and clans. . . . And from the rubble of Gaza, the attacks on Israel will surely resume."

He then quotes Mideast expert Rashid Khalidi, "There would be no Hamas leadership--with undeniable discipline over its forces and the pragmatism to see the benefits of a ceasefire--to rein in these new, angry fighters. The great irony is that Israel may well decapitate Hamas--only to regret the passing of a Palestinian administration with sufficient stature to bring order."

That is another reason for a ceasefire now. The first is to stop the killing. The second is to ensure that a year or two from now we are not all wishing that Hamas was still in charge.

After all, who would think that we would miss Arafat?

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Friday, January 09, 2009

Illustrations of knighting ceremonies, 13th century

Found through, with thanks. Labelled with the name of the historical or legendary figure being knighted, and the date of the manuscript.

Roland, 1240-50:
Offa, 1250-4 (by Matthew Paris):

Galahad, 1275-80:

Godfrey of Bouillon, 1275-1300:

Pride, 1275-1300:

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The Gaza War in a wider context

In our last Islamic Civilization class we talked about French colonialism in Algeria. Today Juan Cole refers to that history in connection with events in Gaza. This is a long quote, but I urge you to go to Informed Comment and read the whole thing (especially the remarks of an American veteran of the Iraq war that precede this section):

The difference between Israeli military action in Gaza and most US operations in Iraq is not a matter of national character or some other essentialist attribute. It is the difference between imperial occupation for specific purposes and settler colonialism. The Israelis are both an army and a settler movement. The US never considered flooding Iraq with colonists from Alabama and Mississippi.

When threatened by an indigenous population trying to expel it, settler colonialism is vicious. It is after all facing an existential threat. The US can withdraw from Iraq with no dire consequences to the US. In 1954-1962, the French killed at least half a million, and maybe as much as 800,000 Algerians, out of a population of 11 million. That is between nearly 5 percent and nearly 10 percent! The French military had been enlisted to fight for the interests of the colonists, who were in danger of losing everything. (In the end they did lose almost everything, being forced to return to Europe, or choosing to do so rather than face the prospect of living under independent Algerian rule).

The brutality with which the British put down the Mau-Mau revolt in Kenya in the 1950s is another example of massive human rights violations on behalf of a settler population.

This latest sanguinary episode is a further manifestation of Israel's insecure brand of settler colonialism, in which the lives of the indigenous population are viewed as worthless before the interests of the colonists. The Israelis have not killed on the French scale, but I would argue that they kill, and disregard civilian life, for much the same reasons as the French did in Algeria.

Settler colonialism is unstable in the contemporary world because of the facilities subject populations have for mobilization and resistance. Conflict between colonizer and colonized has only ended in one of three ways: 1) The expulsion of the colonists, as in Algeria; 2) the integration of the colonists into a nation that includes the indigenous population, as happened in South Africa; or 3) the expulsion of the indigenous population, as with the Trail of Tears in the nineteenth-century United States.

Bob Simon told Charlie Rose that the 'two-state solution' in Israel-Palestine is dead, which is likely correct. He suggested that the most likely outcome is Apartheid. However, I would argue that Apartheid is a phase and its itself an unstable situation, and that only one of the above three outcomes is actually permanent. Given that the Arabs are becoming more technologically sophisticated and wealthier over time, and given their demographic advantage, I do not expect a transferist or trail of tears policy to be implemented or succeed. In the long term, over several decades, I think either there will be a gradual outflow of Israeli emigrants that leaves Jews a plurality in Israel. Or there will eventually be a single state. The other possibilities, of either a century-long Apartheid or another expulsion of Palestinians a la 1948 seem to me less likely. The Gaza operation is intended to extend the life of an incipient Apartheid. But that is sort of like giving a heart transplant to a man diagnosed with terminal cancer.

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The difference between Accumulated Knowledge and Science

Darrell Markewitz at Hammered Out Bits reflects on the legendry of blacksmithing.

Image: Jack Kearney's studio at the Contemporary Art Workshop.


Thursday, January 08, 2009

Meanwhile, back in Gaza

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Hats off to Lvov, Ukraine

The people in Manchuria behind the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival have my great respect. Now joining them in my personal pantheon are whoever in Lvov were behind this unusual urban amenity (see English Russia for the explanation).

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Monday, January 05, 2009

Ice and snow

The Big Picture has a winter feature
including many photos of the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival in Manchuria, a favorite event of mine (not that I've been there).

Image: Crabapples in Antrim, New Hampshire, December 12.

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Sunday, January 04, 2009

Reply to a student in HIST 3805

The second essay for HIST 3805 will be based on the book by Sattareh Farman Farmaian, Daughter of Persia.

Back in December, one student wrote and asked what exactly the assignment was. Here is what I replied. We can discuss this further in class.
When I put together an assignment description for the second paper, it will be pretty general. What I am hoping for is that students will read the book and find something interesting about this woman worth discussing at essay length.

If you recall the they say/I say formula (and tell me if you don't), I strongly suggest you use it. Find something that the author or another writer on 20th century Iran says that you can either agree or disagree with. Subjects that occurred to me after I read the book include: how a woman of the traditional aristocracy found new opportunities; why she went to the United States and how that affected her outlook on Iran; why she ended up on the losing side of the revolution of 1979. There are probably lots more possibilities.

If you need more help, I suggest you read the book and identify two or three of the most interesting things you find in it and try to formulate an argument, or more than one, on the they say/I say format.


Saturday, January 03, 2009

Beowulf and Grendel (2005)

For the first 10 or 15 minutes, I thought this movie was a dead loss. I had ordered it from almost as a matter of self-defense. Since the movie was an Icelandic-Canadian co-production and I am a Canadian medievalist with lots of re-creationist friends I felt sure that eventually one of them would pin me down and expect me to have an opinion about this movie and how it compared to the big-budget Hollywood production of a couple years back. A short way into the movie, I was cursing myself for feeling that need, which had trapped me into watching a complete dud. The introduction was completely incomprehensible, in part because the mixture of odd accents among the actors. I did not notice any Icelandic accents, but there were plenty of what seemed to be thick Irish and Scottish ones. Even though I know the story of Beowulf quite well I was getting completely lost.

But as we went on I got more used to it and eventually it won me over. This movie had some of the most believable early medieval armor and costuming, and the landscape may not look very much like Denmark but it evoked a premodern era very strongly. The acting is good and the story is a success on its own terms. This movie actually is less faithful to the poem than the big-budget one, but in some ways that was an advantage. It is not like the big-budget version really caught medieval personalities and ways of thinking; this one may not have either, but to my modern sensibility at least there was a sense of reality about the entire picture. One instance is that Grendel is not a CGI monster of uncertain origins, but a big troll-like human being, who comes from a tribe of troll-like human beings. He's strong and ugly and dangerous but not superhuman. The Beowulf poet might not approve of this treatment, but he is in good company. The people who made the movie don't approve of the poet's presentation either, and they felt free to introduce subplots and different perspectives. I am not sure how strongly to recommend this movie, but if you are interested in reasonable film treatments of the early Middle Ages, you will probably find something worthwhile in this.

Image: A drunk, demoralized King Hrothgar and his stalwart queen.

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Alexander (2004)

I saw this movie last night on the Canadian History Channel, and for the life of me I cannot fathom the denunciation that rained down on it when it was new. Sure it skips around A's career, leaves things out, has a family soap opera at the center of it, and shows the title character as a forward-thinking, enlightened ruler, but surely we've all seen that before?

On the plus side, it had fewer battle scenes than we might have been subjected to, decent acting (especially from the Macedonian nobles), and really good landscapes and sets.

And there are perfect moments, as when Alexander and his men enter Babylon (especially the non-salacious harem scene), or when, at the battle of Gaugamela, a crazy-eyed, blood-soaked Alexander screams in frustration at a retreating Darius. Now that was an Alexander I can believe in!

Image: the royal family of Macedon.

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Fifty ancient history blogs

One of the first e-mails I received this year was a notification that I was included on one listing of Top 50 Ancient History Blogs. Checking the list out I was surprised to see how few I'd run across, and how different they were from each other. So I say, have a look.

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Friday, January 02, 2009

Karen Larsdatter's site

I know I mentioned this site long ago, but I lost track of it, and I am sure that many of my readers have never heard of it.

Actually Karen Larsdatter, one of those public benefactors like Roger Pearse, has two projects worthy of note. The first, Material Culture Linkspages for the Middle Ages and Renaissance, I will let her describe herself:
Links to material culture (stuff!) from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, including representations in period artwork. Some of these focus on garments, or surveys of occupational dress, or even animals. For a complete list of the linkspages and articles on this site, see the sitemap.

A good example is her recent linkspage on depictions of knighting ceremonies from datable manuscripts.

And if you want to keep up with her new linkspages and other interesting news, she's got a blog.

Image: The knighting of Roland as depicted in the mid-13th century.

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Sounds great -- some Canadian early history

Coasts of Canada by Lesley ChoyceA fascinating book review of The Coasts of Canada: A History by Lesley Choyce, over at

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Thursday, January 01, 2009

Bombs over Israel and Gaza...

...and the people they hit. The Big Picture shows us the weapons, the explosions, the blood and the terror.

To leaven this with some good news, see Juan Cole's New Year's article, Top Ten Good News Stories in the Muslim World, 2008 (That Nobody Noticed).

Image: a firefighter tries to douse a medical warehouse (!).

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