Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A History of Modern Iran, by Ervand Abrahamian

This short and recent book (2008) doesn't tell you everything you might want to know about 20th century Iran, for instance it says little about the Iran-Iraq war, but it very usefully focuses on a consistent theme, the building of a modern state in a country where governmental power was extremely limited in 1900. Except for occasional long lists of personal names that will not mean a lot to most potential readers, the book is quite well-written. The author has a talent for the appropriate quotation, and it seems that Iranians over the years have had a talent for producing those quotations. For instance, an opponent of Mossadeq in the early 1950s expressed his opposition thus (page 116-17):
Statecraft has degenerated into street politics. It appears that this country has nothing better to do than hold street meetings. We now have meetings here, there, and everywhere -- meetings for this, that, and every occasion; meetings for university students, high school students, seven-year-olds, and even six-year-olds. I am sick and tired of these street meetings...

Is our prime minister a statesman or a mob leader? What type of prime minister says "I will speak to the people" every time he is faced with a political problem? I always considered this man to be unsuitable for high office. But I never imagined, even in my worst nightmares that an old man of seventy would turn into a rabble rouser. A man who surrounds the Majles with mobs is nothing less than a public menace.
Abrahamian also likes economic and social statistics, but he uses them well. The growth and development they document is impressive.

One theme I followed with interest was the role of elections and the Parliament or Majles in Iranian politics since 1906. Some of this sounds pretty familiar, for instance this discussion of how Reza Shah controlled all the elections in the 20s and 30s (page 73):
Reza Shah retained the electoral law but closely monitored access into parliament. He personally determined the outcome of each election and thus the composition of each Majles ... the control mechanism was simple. The shah -- together with his chief of police -- inspected the list of prospective candidates, walking them is either "suitable" or "bad,"... the suitable names were passed on to the interior minister, who, in turn, passed them on to the provincial governor-generals and the local electoral boards. The sole function of these boards was to hand out voting papers and supervise the ballot boxes. Needless to say, these words were all appointed by the central government. Unsuitable candidates who insisted on running found themselves either in jail or banished from their localities. Consequently, the successful candidates were invariably "suitable,"...
Cambridge University Press has an "e-widget" that gives you a preview of the book.

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Monday, June 29, 2009

Medieval notes from my blog reader

Two blogs I regularly read contribute material worth passing on.

Another Damned Medievalist at Blogenspiel shows how you can just skip grad school entirely (not exactly what she said) yet still do an acceptable job of reading medieval charters. Go look and learn!

Did you know that today is the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo? And some famous 20th century killings associated with it? If you don't know what I'm talking about, see what Jeff Sypeck has to say at Quid Plura?

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

El Cid (1961)

If a poll could be held of actual medieval people, they would chose it as the best movie ever.

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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Foteviken open air Viking Museum

Randy and Ann Asplund have been visiting southern Sweden, including this open air museum in Foteviken. They took some great pictures!

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The spectator's dilemma

Over at Accumulating Peripherals, this thoughtful piece: human sympathy and a lack of posturing.

...But the most difficult cases Parfit considers concern various kinds of Prisoner’s Dilemmas, especially ones with a complex range of outcomes and large numbers of participants....

For example, let’s say that if you participate in a protest march of 1 million people and the Army mutinies and prevents bloodshed, then there will be a “velvet revolution”-type peaceful transition to a democratic system. But if you participate in a protest march of 1 million people and the Army doesn’t mutiny, then 1,000 people will be massacred and the regime will become more repressive; and there is no reason to believe that this outcome will lead to a democratic transition any sooner than might have happened otherwise. And meanwhile, one of those 1,000 people massacred could be you, or secret police might identify you at the rally and kick your sister out of university, or whatever. Should you join the march?

I have known several appealing young democratic activists in autocratic countries inspired by visions of creating “velvet revolution”-style transitions to democracy. In conversations with them, one inevitably feels compelled by empathy to offer one’s opinions about what they should do. And I generally wind up making it implicitly clear, just out of empathy, that I don’t think they should be engaging in pro-democracy activism. The issue depends, for me, on the question of how large the democracy movements in their countries already are. Where such movements are quite substantial, then participation makes intuitive sense. But in countries with tiny, irrelevant dissident movements, where autocratic governments are in firm control and there seems very little likelihood of change on any scale shorter than the generational, I think it’s not worth the risk. I can’t sit across from someone I find appealing and intelligent and wish for them anything other than that they keep their heads down, get a well-paying job, read widely and have informal unrecorded discussion groups with close friends, and wait for the moment twenty years down the road when some kind of shift may become possible. I can’t wish for them that they make an example of themselves and wind up jailed, their reputations and careers ruined, with exile the only promising option — an option that generally renders all their attempted activism irrelevant.

But sometimes, the brave ones go ahead and do it anyway. And in those cases I don’t think Parfit’s moral math or my wimpy skepticism even matter, because I don’t think such people are chiefly motivated by consequentialist thinking. I think that the Iranians who go out to protest are chiefly motivated by considerations like honor and hope [emphasis SM].

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Friday, June 26, 2009

The Big Picture hits it out of the park


This image:
Mount Fuji from space.

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A late-antiquity moment in the news

This reminds me of the 4th-century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus.

Not a very cheerful thought, really.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

An authoritative religious critique of the situation in Iran

Ayatollah Montazeri is one of the highest-ranking religious scholars in Iran, though he holds no political office. The following statement was posted on the Iranian-American blog, niacINsight. It takes only a little imagination to see how such an analysis might harm the religious legitimacy of the current Iranian government:

Montazeri said “I have been involved in the struggles against the previous (Shah) regime and the establishment of the Islamic Republic as much as I can. I feel ashamed in front of the people and clearly announce that beloved Islam…is different from the behavior of the current rulers. These actions and policies being done under the banner of religion will certainly cause large segments of people to become cynical regarding the principles of Islam and theocracy and will ruin the hard and valuable work of the Islamic ulema.”

Montazeri harshly criticized the militarization of the society saying “In a country and a regime which is proud of being Islamic and Shiite, and only 30 years after the victory of the revolution when people still remember the last scenes of the past regime, how could they turn Tehran and other large cities into a big garrison while the world is watching? They have put our brothers in the armed forces against the people. By using plainclothes agents, who are reminders of baton-carrying agents of Shah, cowardly shed the blood of the youth and men and women of this land.”

Montazeri then posed questions to authorities asking “was this the strategy of Prophet Mohammad and Imam Ali? They never cursed and accused their enemies and didn’t silence them by the sword…Now, a group of people thinking that they can commit any crime because they see themselves as being close to the government; attack student dorms, beat them and throw them down the building, commit chain murders and terrorize intellectuals of this nation and be immune from punishment; this is not compatible with any religion and custom.”

Montazeri advised the people to “pursue their reasonable demands while maintaining their calm.” He also advised the authorities, asking them to stop using harsh and irrational measures which destroys people’s trust and exacerbates the separation between them and regime. “[The authorities] should not create divisions among the people, apologize for their past mistakes, and understand that worldly positions are not permanent.”

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Two book reviews from Phil Paine

The most widely read person I know is Phil Paine. (Some of my colleagues consider me widely read, but next to Phil I am a piker.) Over on his website, Phil has a monthly list of books, articles, and online resources that he has read, with occasional reviews of things he finds particularly noteworthy -- which is not necessarily to say, "good." Today he posted (June, 2009 section) two reviews, one critical and one very appreciative.

(Samuel P. Huntington) The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order

This is a stupid book. Unfortunately, it's also been a very influential one.

Huntington starts out by playing the old "civilizations" game, popular from the late 19th century onward. Nobody any longer takes you seriously if you talk about nationalities in a silly, anthropomorphic way ("The Dutch are cheese-eating, practical people, but they are doomed to failure as nation because they smoke too much marijuana and their feet must hurt from wearing wooden shoes"). But if you shift the discussion to "civilizations", big segments of the globe defined by arbitrary criteria, you can get away with it. You can define these "civilizations" any way you want, but usually they end up being nothing more than a map of the world's major religions. This is not surprising, since these mega-religions are usually accompanied by enough visual cues that you can quickly guess which one you are in by the shapes of buildings, clothing, or other material evidence. There is, of course, some common-sense truth to the observation that places where Islam is predominant have similarities, and places where Christianity is practiced are connected to each other, etc. It is an easy, but intellectually dubious further step to assume that the human race is divided into mega-tribal subdivisions, almost like species, and that these can be neatly drawn on a map. Anthropomorphizing these divisions is merely the old fallacy of "innate national character" writ larger. It appeals to the impulse to see the world in cartoons. This is exactly what Huntington does, way, way too much to make his work credible....

Huntington's knowledge of cultures is pretty shallow, because his main interest is really in the "clash" part of the book's title. The book is really about dividing the world into football teams so that you can imagine strategies of play between them... who should align with whom, and who is the "natural" enemy of whom. That's why the book appeals to so many armchair political pundits. You only need to remember a handful of "civilizations" and their accompanying cliché phrases to "get" everything. No need to bother remembering the names of hundreds of countries, or even consider the motives of individual human beings. Easy peasy.

What Huntington is really about becomes evident toward the end of the book, when he engages in a tirade against the evils of "multiculturalism", a phenomenon which he grotesquely misrepresents. The human race is, in his view, divided into distinct species, and, surprise surprise, nothing but trouble can result if they mingle. He kind of sneaks up on it with hundreds of pages of stuff about regions and religions, but what it's really about is how dirty foreigners should be kept out of America because then it will "no longer be America". Why? Because they don't have "Western values", And what are these "Western values"? Well, among them he repeatedly lists "pluralism and tolerance". So Americans and Europeans should, it seems, exclude people of different ethnicity in order to protect "pluralism"!! He even casually states, as if it were a forgone conclusion, that if the U.S. went to war with China, then Mexican-Americans would automatically refuse to participate, because it would "not be their war". This was so silly that I actually bust out laughing when I read it, startling fellow riders in the subway. The subway car was a typical Canadian one --- utterly and sublimely multicultural --- so the silliness of it was particularly delicious. It's plain that underneath Huntington's wacky logic and feigned scholarship, there is nothing more than another sclerotic old man having an apoplectic fit because he went to the corner store and saw signs in the window in funny-looking alphabets....
(Edward L. Ochsenschlager) Iraq's Marsh Arabs in the Garden of Eden

This is a brilliant book. Ochsenschlager was engaged in an important archaeological project in Iraq, starting in 1968. The site was the Sumerian city of Lagash. Puzzled by some unglamorous, but intriguing artifacts, he started looking for analogies among the local people to interpret them. The local people included Bedouin tribes, the agricultural Beni Hasan, and the famous Mi'dan [Marsh Arabs] who lived in the reed-filled swamps at the conjunction of the Tigris and Euphrates. All these people (in 1968, at any rate) lived material lives thought to very closely resemble that of the ancient inhabitants of the land when it was Edinu, the Biblical Eden (hence the book's title). Thus, the author was drawn into the peculiar discipline of "ethnoarchaeology", in which most archaeologist still feel uncomfortable. Archaeologists are comfortable with places and objects. They aren't anthropologists. When they try to be, even in the laudable quest to understand ancient artifacts, they can easily screw up. Ochlenschlager is unusually sensitive to the pitfalls. ...

Ochlenschlager examined the making, use, and transformations of every article he could find --- weapons, storage containers, cookware, boats, musical instruments, children's toys. This could only be done in a serious way over many years, with extreme sensitivity in dealing with people, earning their trust and overcoming the perils of misdirection and misinterpretation. None of this is easy, and he shows exactly how it can be done right, or badly. Almost anyone who reads historical or archaeological interpretations of material evidence should read this book.

Some of the most delightful parts concern children's toys, and they reveal one of the marvelous subtleties of human behaviour to which most historians are oblivious:

In 1968 children in the villages over the age of 3 or 4 always made their own toys out of mud. Abandoned mud toys could be found everywhere in village courtyards, alongside the canals and marshes, and even in the fields. Unfortunately, domestic toy making disappeared rapidly. Manufactured plastic toys, available in nearby market towns, gradually replaced them. By 1970 a wide variety of cheap plastic toys was available to those of every economic level. Most children were attracted to these plastic toys because of their bright colors and their relative durability. At first children would continue to make toys that were not available in the market out of mud, but that came to an abrupt end in 1972. So popular had the new plastic toys become that most villagers could find no reason to continue using mud toys short of lack of money. Indeed cheapness came to be thought the sole criteria for continuing to make toys out of mud, and this impacted that part of the father's honor which depends on his ability to provide adequately for his family. To make a mud toy under these conditions was to bring dishonor on the family.

Without some knowledge of the role of honor and its requirement that men provide strong financial support to their families in these villages, what reasons would archaeologists give for the sudden and complete disappearance of mud toys? Bold colors and increased durability seem the most reasonable, and in part logical, answers, as the villagers found these attributes attractive at first. But logic alone does not begin to explain why old forms disappeared completely and with such speed; the compelling power of color and durability must not be overestimated. The children themselves were a real problem. When they had only the few animal forms sold in the suk to play with, they sometimes had to be forcibly stopped from making additional toys of mud. They missed the freedom of making any toys they could imagine and playing any game they wished. The kind and number of toys available now limited their games. Attractive colors and durability may have given impetus for the change, but it was the challenge to family honor that made parents forbid their children to make mud toys.

It takes a remarkable person to make such an observation. This book is full of such things.They'll inspire an acute reader to understand not only the culture of the marshes, and the artifacts of the ancient civilization of Lagash, but also many puzzling aspects of human life in general.

Plenty more stuff where that came from!

Image: A Marsh Arab settlement.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Women and the English Peasants' Revolt of 1381

Jonathan Jarrett directs me to the blog Bavardess, which I have missed up till now. Its author has an interesting post on the role of women in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, saying, among other things:
While most historical accounts up until the 1980s (at least) discuss the revolt as an almost wholly male enterprise, source documents including trial records and pardons show women were very much active participants, and even instigators and organisers of rebellion.
At left, for example, is an extract from a commission of Oyer and Terminer (‘hear and determine’) held in Essex directly after the revolt to seek out those responsible. Amongst the people accused of riding armed through the countryside and inciting the commons to rise against the king is one “Nichola Cartere who was lately taken as wife by William Dekne of South Benfleet”*. In another case, records from the court of King’s Bench describe Johanna Ferrour as the “chief perpetrator and leader” of a rebel group from Kent who burnt the Savoy and executed Sudbury and Hales**[an extraordinarily important episode--SM].
A good insight -- and there is more good stuff about the gendered language of revolt in the original post. When it comes to women's participation, I am reminded of how much the Peasants' Revolt reminds me of the earliest stages of the French Revolution of 1789. John Ball's list of demands makes me think that he would've loved The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. And of course 1789 was famous for the inspiring/scandalous political participation of women, which was not unprecedented even if they went much farther in 1789.

Then there is Tehran, 1979 and 2009, both times when women's initiative was/has been a key factor...

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

It's not a show for the spectators

US coverage of world events is very Washington-centric. Like domestic political issues, international ones are usually seen as an opportunity to show that one is on the right side, or that one's domestic opponents are on the wrong side, or if you're a journalist, to write a real horse-racing style piece-- who is ahead, who fell on his or her face. This all too easily slops over on us next door.

Joe Klein, a political columnist at Time, wrote a column today which in part says what I feel about this tendency. As others have put it, "it's not about us," what Iranians are doing comes from their own needs and perceptions, although it is important to us and the rest of the world and we will be affected. We should remember that simple phrase while we wait to see what emerges from Iran.

Joe Klein:

Again, the crucial fact about the protesters is this: they may hate the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad regime--who wouldn't?--but that doesn't make them particular fans of the United States. I have yet to meet an Iranian who does not believe that the United States gave poison gas to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, gas which injured thousands upon thousands of Iranian men, who still live, incapacitated, in the shadows of that society. (Indeed, the attention Ahmadinejad has paid to the Iran-Iraq war veterans and their families is a major source of his extensive support among the Iranian working class.)

The protesters admire our freedom, but they are appalled--and insulted--by our neocolonialist condescension over the past 50 years. The reformers, and even some conservatives, consider Ahmadinejad the George W. Bush of Iran--a crude, unsophisticated demagogue, who puts a strong Potemkin face to the world without very much knowledge of what the rest of the world is about. This was an anology that came up in interview after interview, with reformers and conservatives alike.

Certainly, Bush the Younger, McCain and the rest of that crowd have absolutely no idea who the Iranian people are. The are not Hungarians in 1956. They do not believe they live in an Evil Empire. They still support their revolution. They shout "Allahu Akbar" in the streets, which was the rallying cry of 1979. They are proud of their nuclear program, even if many have doubts about the efficacy of weaponizing the enriched uraniam that is being produced. They want greater freedom, to be sure. And they believe that the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad forces--and the militarized regime they have empowered, the millions of basiji and revolutionary guards--is a profound perversion of that revolution. They are right. They deserve our prayers and support. But they don't need grandstanding from an American President, and they certainly don't need histrionics from blustery old John McCain.

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Will McLean provides some medieval content...

...in the form of some interesting links to resources on medieval childhood and education.

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Traveling across Kazakhstan

Another one of those wonderful postings from English Russia that gives you some idea how many vast, largely unknown landscapes there are on this Earth.

Image: not particularly vast, but I could not resist the heron.

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Following events in Iran

I am following events in Iran, in so far as that is possible, but I don't think I have any special insight, except this: it is the end of the Islamic Republic of Iran as it has existed for the last 20 years or so. It's likely that in 2029, middle-aged Iranians will all know where they were today, no matter how things turn out.

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Carnivalesque is here!

Gillian Polack at Food History has posted the June edition of the ancient/medieval/early modern Carnivalesque. Go have a look!

For me, the best discovery is the existence of Food History itself, which somehow had never lodged itself firmly in my brain.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

NGC 6240: Merging Galaxies

From Astronomy Picture of the Day. Click on the pic for a good view.

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The Rights of Man...and Woman

Andrew Sullivan links to an interesting column in the Times Online by Danny Finkelstein. Why Finkelstein associates his values with Neoconservatism I don't know; I associate it with indiscriminate aerial bombardment. Nevertheless, I agree with much of what he says here:

For years we have been told, we neocons, that other cultures don't want our liberty, our American freedom. Yankee go home! But it isn't true. Because millions of Iranians do want it. Yes, they want their sovereignty, and demand respect for their nation and its great history. No, they don't want foreign interference and manipulation. But they still insist upon their rights and their freedom. They know that liberty isn't American or British. It is Iranian, it is human.

This idea that the critics of neocons advanced so vociferously, that liberal democracy can't be “transplanted” on alien soil - what does it mean to the people of Iran who have thronged the streets to express their will?

Does it mean that we think the morality police is just part of Iranian culture? Just their way of doing things? For the thousands of protesters it is not. It turns out that they don't think it's right for young girls to be arrested, snatched from the streets for wearing the wrong coat. And they don't think there is a cultural defence to beating these girls until their parents arrive with a “decent” garment.

They don't think that public hangings are Iranian, either. Nor arbitrary detentions of doctors who dared to organise conferences on Aids, nor keeping human rights activists in solitary confinement, nor sentencing trade union leaders to five years in jail for trying to organise fellow workers. They don't think there is anything culturally valuable in sentencing political activists to death after secret trials lasting less than five minutes, or returning lawyers to jail again and again for opposing the death penalty or “publishing insulting material with unacceptable interpretation of Islamic rules”.

It is not part of their precious heritage that someone be charged with a capital offence for circulating a petition on women's rights. Nor that nine-year-old girls should be eligible for the death penalty, and children hanged for their crimes. There is no special Iranian will, even given their religious conservatism, that students should be flogged in public for being flirtatious, and homosexuals hanged in the streets.

The protests for Mr Mousavi do not just expose the lie of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's landslide victory. They expose the lie that there is something Western in wanting democracy and human rights. [The best line!--SM]

And what of the other leg of the neocon argument? What of the idea that peace comes through the spread of liberalism and democracy? Can anyone really doubt that should the reformists succeed, even a little bit, the world would be a safer place? A democratic Iran would stop financing world terrorist movements, it would stop obsessing about external enemies and foreign conspiracies, it would stop threatening its neighbours. It would still oppose Israeli policy, it would still want to acquire nuclear material, but the threat of violence would recede.

The mistake the neocons made is that we were not conservative enough, not patient enough. Such impatience with dictatorships is understandable, indeed laudable. But the frustrating truth is that there are limits to what can be achieved by outsiders. Instead we have to wait as national movements, one by one, stand up for their rights. And sometimes, tragically, we even have to stand aside as those movements are crushed by their oppressors.

Comments welcome.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Some variety

Readers have learned to expect a certain amount of variety here, but a certain early/medieval/world history emphasis overall. So I am turning away from Iran for the moment and including two items more relevant to the name "Early History."

From the UK, a commercial site that has contacted me before sends along a link to a nicely illustrated piece on The Seven Most Impressive Libraries in History. They had the good taste to include the libraries of Timbuktu.

Also, Paul Wren notified me just now that a blog carnival on anthropology and related disciplines named Four Stone Hearth has just issued its most recent version. I have just skimmed it, but I see it has Neanderthal finds plucked from the sea (first time ever), Paleoindian finds at the bottom of Lake Huron, and a "Viking" boat and weapons in Sweden's Lake Vänern. Pretty soggy stuff, but I'm sure you can find something drier if you really look.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Iran coverage, June 16

From Laura Secor at the New Yorker (excerpt):

What are Khamenei’s options? With protesters yelling “Down with the dictator” in the streets of nearly every city in Iran, his position could not be more precarious. He has staked his very legitimacy, and perhaps that of the edifice he sits atop, on forcing Iranians to accept Ahmadinejad’s supposed landslide victory. He can continue to try to force that down their throats with a show of raw power, or he can bend, which would show the opposition that he and the system are not really so powerful after all, that they are vulnerable to pressure from below. If he takes the latter road, it would be a radical departure from his style of governance up until now. This is the regime that violently quelled protest movements in 1999 and in 2002, crushed the hopes of reformers under Mohammad Khatami from 1997 through 2005, and apparently could not tolerate even the possibility of a Mousavi Presidency. But if he chooses the path of violence, he will transform his country into a crude and seething autocracy.

This is uncharted territory for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Until now, the regime has survived through a combination of repression and flexibility. The dispersal of power throughout a complex system, among rival political factions, and with the limited but active participation of the voting public, has allowed a basically unpopular regime to control a large population with only limited and targeted violence. There have always been loopholes and pressure points that allow the opposition and the regime to be dance partners, even if one or both of them is secretly brandishing a knife behind the other’s back. That has been less true under Ahmadinejad than in the past. But the culture of the organized opposition under the Islamic Republic has tended to remain cautious and moderate. Many of the protesters of recent days are not calling for an end to the Islamic Republic. They are calling for their votes to be counted. More nights like last night, however, when some seven protesters were allegedly shot, could swiftly change that.

So is there any way Khamenei can dial the situation back even to the unhappy modus vivendi of June 11th?...
Iason Athanasiadis and Saeed Kamali Dehghan at the Guardian, article entitled At opposite ends of Tehran's great avenue, the two Irans gathered:

"What you're seeing is the result of 30 years of pressure and strangling," said Hossein Rahmati, a 68-year-old carpet seller wearing an old-fashioned 1980s suit to attend the march. "Iran is like a dam about to burst."

Standing in the cool of a Tehran ­afternoon, his rimmed glasses held on by a cord, Rahmati was surrounded by crowds, some dressed in the green of Mir Hossein Mousavi's street revolution, ­others in black with scarves over their faces and mobile phones in hand to capture the occasion.

Across the capital, a few miles to the south, it was a different rallying cry. Batol Mojahedi, 55, a housewife, stood with one hand holding her black hijab, the other a poster of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "My son was martyred in the Iran-Iraq war. I don't want to lose our Islam. We did not participate in 1979, in the revolution, to have this kind of freedom that Mousavi supporters claim they want.

"We don't want the freedom they want. Ahmadinejad is a courageous president. There was not any rigging in Friday's election. What's happening now is just [being influenced] by foreigners."

Tehran was a city literally divided yesterday as rival rallies for incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his defeated centrist challenger Mousavi took over either end of Vali Asr Avenue, the city's north-south spine. In a study in opposites, some districts appeared deserted while traffic was gridlocked elsewhere. The words from both camps were equally stark, each seeing the other as the cause of the greatest tension the Islamic republic has witnessed in 30 years.

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Meanwhile, next door

An Iraqi correspondent sadly contemplates an

Aborted attempt at protest

With what Iraq endured over the last four decades, sometime I feel we deserve what happens to us because we are a weak people we cannot even show our protests with our facial expressions.

Today on my way to work, an event occurred that happens every day in Iraq. The road was suddenly blocked, and no one knew why. As usual, the solders deployed in the roads aimed their weapons towards the crowd.

Today was different for me because I tried to take an unusual action. I tried to read the expressions on the faces waiting in cars around me. I mean, the anger or protest on the faces of those who were forced to wait inside their cars for 15 minutes without any known reasons. In general, the delays are caused by an Iraqi politician of 'the new Iraq' leaving his stronghold.

But the faces were glad as if they were happy with what was happening. Some of them were chatting with each other, and some were listening to music on radio stations--listening to love songs while the gangs of soldiers were aiming their weapons at their cheerful faces.

At this moment I tried to do something to wake them up. I wanted to honk the horn to show a sign of protest to those who were carrying their weapons towards us. But I hesitated. I couldn’t make this trivial sign of protest. I felt afraid of such action because I was waiting a volunteer hero who would lead my anger, my revolution.

But he didn’t show up.

Here in Iraq we always wait for this hero, but it is useless to wait because, according to a verse from the Koran, God doesn't change the condition of people if they don’t change themselves first.

And we are so weak to change ourselves and defeat our fears or make any sign of protest--even honking the horn of the car to show anger.

I think our wait will be long for the hero who will take our hands and walk us to the safe land


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Monday, June 15, 2009

The Big Picture on the streets of Tehran

See Iran's Disputed Election.

I've picked out three images:

Plainclothes revolutionary militia members or Basij -- all volunteers -- breaking into Tehran University to attack pro-opposition students.

An opposition rally supporting(!) presidential candidate Mousavi (he's centre in glasses and gray shirt).

A pro-Ahmadinejad rally.

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In Italy

...my first book (1991; reprinted 2006) is quite expensive!

The Fifth-Century Chroniclers: Prosper, Hydatius, and the Gallic Chronicler of 452
di Steven Muhlberger - Francis Cairns Publications - November 2006
Prezzo: € 113.07
Disponibilità: Normalmente disponibile in 25/30 giorni lavorativi

Questo libro potrebbe essere di difficile reperibilità presso i nostri fornitori

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Another aspect of the turmoil in Iran

Shireen Hunter, a well-published expert on Iranian and modern Islamic politics, reminded me in an interview on CBC One's "The Current" that some of the prominent opposition leaders in Iran are former hardliners. It's not just the post-revolutionary generation against those who remember the revolution, nor the big city against the small towns and villages.

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

The election in Iran -- two sets of comments

Juan Cole: Class v. culture wars in Iranian elections.

Gary Sick: Iran's political coup.

Now there are beatings in the street.

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Friday, June 12, 2009

More on today's presidential election in Iran

Juan Cole directed me to this Al Jazeera/YouTube video on Iranian-Americans (and Iranian students in the USA) voting in the Iranian election:

What really struck me was the statement by the youngest man that the election was about "democracy and being a citizen of the world" as if they were the same thing. This strongly reminded me of the atmosphere that produced the democratic revolutions of the just pre-World War I period as described by Charles Kurzman in Democracy Denied 1905-1915. Iran, of course, had one of the revolutions in that transnational movement.

Update: photos of voters and leaders from the Big Picture. Clearly, sales of paint and posterboard have gone through the roof.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Words, words, words

Driftglass uses pics to illustrate their power.

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Tomorrow's election in Iran

And what are people talking about? A clue: it isn't jihad. Read TIME on the "marriage crisis."

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Walter Goffart on Rome and the Barbarians: an interview at Kalamazoo, May, 2009

Walter Goffart, now of Yale but formerly of the University of Toronto, is one of the most influential historians of the late Roman Empire and early medieval Europe. Much of his work has been shaped by skepticism that the barbarians were capable or even interested in destroying the Empire by military force. At this year's International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Peter Konieczny of Medievalists.net interviewed Goffart about his ideas about the Early Middle Ages.

There are three other Kalamazoo interviews, with the military historians Kelly DeVries, John France, and Donald Kagay, and Thomas Bisson, also linked to the Medievalists.net main page.

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The world's biggest military spenders by population

This chart is from The Economist, and it is interesting to see who is on list and who is not. I was surprised to see such high spending from northern Europe.


Will McLean on the Great Enterprise

Some years back -- it was probably while I was teaching Ancient Civilizations -- it occurred to me that we owe most of what we know about the physical universe to patient efforts over the centuries by observers who watched the sky and made careful marks on solid objects, so that others would not have to start from scratch. (Actually, later lovers of the sky did start from scratch, the scratches made by their predecessors.)

Yesterday, Will McLean, thinking about the collective enterprise of passing knowledge down through writing over vast stretches of time -- at least in human terms -- said much the same thing, only more specifically and eloquently, so here it is.
IThe Great Enterprise

Reading of the chain of observations from Hipparchus and Ptolemy through al-Battani and Arzachel to Copernicus, I'm struck by the temporal scale of the shared undertaking. Hipparchus was working between about 147 and 127 BC. Ptolemy died around 168 AD. Al-Battani died in 929, Arzachel/Al-Zarqālī in 1087. Copernicus died in 1543.

During these long centuries the great orrery of the solar system spun against the stars according to its own laws. The equinoxes precessed at about a degree every 72 years. With the instruments available to Copernicus and his predecessors, getting a reasonably accurate value for that rate required going back to the work of observers working centuries before, a great Dead Astronomers Society sharing observations across hundreds of years.

Dead men talking: the awesome power of the written word. We take it too much for granted, so take a moment to appreciate the wonder of it.


Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Electoral excitement in Iran

Juan Cole has a long post today summarizing and linking to media reports on the pre-election excitement in Iran.

It is interesting that in many countries where effective elections do not exist, elections, public opinion polls on politics, and so forth are a real if subordinate part of the political system.

Of course in Iran there have been pro-democratic movements since 1905, a fact I imagine enters into the world view of very few non-Iranians.

Image: Yesterday's pro-Mousavi demonstration, from the Wall Street Journal.

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NU's History faculty at Friday's convocation

Monday, June 08, 2009

Machaut: a 14th century poet/composer remembered on Mercury

A towering talent, Guillaume Machaut dominated French poetry and music in his time. (Bigger than the Beatles?) This is a new, more detailed view of the crater on Mercury named after him, taken by the MESSENGER probe, part of a new picture collection on the Big Picture.

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Men-at-arms and flags: the trial of Joan of Arc

One purpose of the trial of Joan of Arc in 1431 was to convict her of sorcery or heresy. I am not sure what the following questions were meant to prove but it seems likely that the court was trying to find some superstitious practices associated with banners that they could use against her. Joan sharply rebutted all of these questions, so it is hard to say that any such practices took place in her case. However, the ecclesiastical court must have got their ideas from someplace.

All the question that follow were put to Joan by court officers or judges.

Asked if, when her King set her to work and she had her standard made, the other men-at-arms did not have pennons made in the manner and following the example of her opinion, she replied: "It is well known that lords use their own arms." Item, she also said that some of her companions-at-arms did have pennons at their pleasure but others did not.

Asked of what material they had them made, whether this was of linen or of woolen cloth, she answered that it was of white satin, and on some there were fleurs-de-lys. And Joan only had two or three lances in her company, but her companions-in-arms sometimes had pennons made resembling hers and they did this only to distinguish their men from others.

Asked if the pennons were very often renewed, she replied: "I do not know. When the lances were broken, new ones were made."

Asked if she had sometimes said that the pennons made to resemble hers were more fortunate, she answered that sometimes she certainly did say to her men: "Drive boldly into the English," and she herself would go there.

Asked if she had told them to bear the pennons boldly and that they would have good fortune, she replied that she had indeed told them what happened and what would happen again.

Asked if she put, or had holy water put on the pennons when they were first taken up, she answered: "I do not know anything about that. And if was done, it was not by my command."

Asked if she did not see them sprinkled with holy water, she replied: "That is not part of your trial [i.e. this is irrelevant to the case -- SM] . If I had seen it done, I am not now advised [by her voices -- SM] to answer."

Asked if her companions-in-arms did not have the names "Jhesus Maria" written on their pennons, she answered: "By my faith, I do not know anything of this."

Asked if she went around an altar or a church with pieces of cloth to be made into pennons, or had others go around in a kind of procession, she replied no and that she had never seen it.

Asked what it was she wore at the back of her helmet when she was before the town of Jargeau, and if it was something round, she answered: "By my faith, there was nothing."

Taylor, ed. Joan of Arc: La Pucelle, pages 168-9.

Image: Joan's Standard (top) Pennon (left bottom) and Banner (right bottom) from the St. Joan Center.

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Sunday, June 07, 2009

Footnote people

There is a Statuary Hall in the US Capitol, and Thomas Starr King's statue has been removed to make room for another Californian. The New York Times reflects on the moment:

Stop a moment, please, to say goodbye to Thomas Starr King. After more than 75 years of quiet and unwavering government service, he has lost his job of representing California in Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol. He has ceded his spot to Ronald Reagan, whose statue was unveiled on Wednesday.

Each state gets to honor two citizens in Statuary Hall. For California, first and second prize now belong to the Gipper and Junípero Serra, the Spanish friar who founded all those missions. Third prize is you’re fired, which for King means a one-way ticket to Sacramento.

He wasn’t a powerful politician or businessman. He was sickly and funny-looking. ...

He was a Unitarian preacher, and an amazing one at that; spellbinding, said people who heard him. He spoke up for slaves, for the poor, for union members and the Chinese. Most memorably, he spoke up for the Union, roaming the state on exhausting lecture tours, campaigning for Abraham Lincoln and a Republican State Legislature, imploring California not to join the Confederacy. He succeeded, but he did not live to see the Union victory. He died of diphtheria in 1864, age 39.

“He saved California to the Union,” this paper wrote, quoting Gen. Winfield Scott.

Statuary Hall is an exclusive club, but its members are not all well remembered. ...it would be hard to fill a schoolbus with New Yorkers who know Robert Livingston, one of the lesser founding fathers, and George Clinton, not the guy with Parliament Funkadelic, but the other one who was Thomas Jefferson’s vice president.

And that’s as it should be. Boldface names get all the attention. The Capitol needs a place for footnote-face names. Isn’t that what bronze and marble are for, to affix dimming reputations and outlast frail memories?

Here, then, a final toast to the worthy but obscure. To the frail patriot Thomas Starr King. And to Gov. George Washington Glick, bumped by Kansas in 2003 for Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Of course, in the long view even Eisenhower will be forgotten, unlikely as that might seem this week.

Image: today's footnote person.

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Polling on Israeli attitudes about war and peace

Bernard Avishai analyzes a recent poll at TPMCafe. Veterans of my Islamic Civilization course may yet be struck by the contradictions and difficulties revealed here.

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Saturday, June 06, 2009

One-armed spiral galaxy NGC 4725

Friday, June 05, 2009

Remembering the 20th anniversary of the Tien An Men crackdown in Hong Kong

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Joan of Arc and military prudence

Another anonymous clerical writer uses arguments from her military performance, and of those following her, to support the miraculous nature of her victory (1429).

The following circumstances may be added in favor of our cause.

Firstly that the Council of the King and the men at arms could have been led to believe in the voice of this Pucelle in such a manner, and to obey her in such a way that, under her command and with one heart, they exposed themselves to the dangers of war, ignoring all fear of dishonor. What could have happened if, fighting under a young woman, they had been vanquished by such audacious enemies and they had been derided by all who heard of this?

Let us consider at the end the fact that this Pucelle and her military followers do not dismiss the path of human prudence; they act according to what is in them, so that it appears that they did not tempt God more than is necessary. From this it follows that this Pucelle is not obstinate in her adhesion to her leadership and also that she does not go beyond the instructions and inspirations that she attributes to God.

Taylor, ed. Joan of Arc: La Pucelle, pages 80-1.

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Holy books?

Phil Paine critiques the practice of using books as talismans:

There should be no Holy Books. Our species would make a significant step forward if it forsook the habit of declaring books to be sacred scriptures. The belief that certain books aren't just the writings of human beings, but direct revelations from a divinity, or that they are "sacred" has caused no end of mischief. But I plead my case precisely because I love and respect books. There is some profound wisdom to be found, if one cares to look, in certain books. But there seems, in my view, to be no greater insult to a wise person than to turn their work into a silly magical talisman, to be mindlessly chanted and ranted, rather than read and judged with reason.

A noteworthy feature of holy scriptures is that people seldom read them. They may run glazed eyes over them. They may fix on whatever passages appear to confirm their base passions, their petty hatreds, or their tribal customs. They call on their authority as a trump card, usually under the direction of some self-declared religious authority. But they hardly ever actually read them.

More here.

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Geoffroi de Charny to the courtesy phone!

So we can get him to comment on this slam by an anonymous clerical lawyer against Joan of Arc for claiming divine revelations. Aimed at Joan, there is plenty of sting left for other men-at-arms.

... if the mission of this young girl is prophetic, she should be a person with excellent saintliness and [have] a divine soul inside her; and it would seem indecent that such a person should transform themselves into a secular man-at-arms.

The writer is mainly talking about Joan dressing as a man, but I think old Geoffroy would take offense anyway; unless, of course, he too got distracted by the clothing. Readers of his Book of Chivalry will have to admit that this would be possible.

Taylor, ed. Joan of Arc: La Pucelle, page 117.

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Beowulf: Prince of the Geats, Nazis, and Odinists

Richard Scott Nokes' article on an unexpected set of reactions to the casting of a black actor as Beowulf in Beowulf: Prince of the Geats is now available on line.
It is a journalist's cliche that only weird English profs (and not all of them) care about Beowulf; and they masochistically inflict it on their defenseless students. The flood of Beowulf material in recent years, in movies and elsewhere, blows that throw-away out of the water.

Thanks to Modern Medieval for the heads-up.

Image: Jayshan Jackson as Beowulf.

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Diversity on the US Supreme Court

An interesting New Yorker piece points out that what constitutes "diversity" in US Supreme Court appointments has a long and winding history. It also makes a few other good points:

As with earlier breakthrough nominations, Obama’s selection of Sotomayor has stirred some old-fashioned ugliness, and in that alone it serves as a reminder of the value of a diverse bench and society. Some anonymous portrayals of the Judge offered the kind of patronizing critiques (“not that smart”) that often greet outsiders at white-male preserves. Women who have integrated such bastions will be familiar, too, with the descriptions of her temperament (“domineering”), which are of a variety that tend to reveal more about the insecurity of male holdovers than about the comportment of female pioneers. The pernicious implication of such views is that white males, who constitute a hundred and six of the hundred and ten individuals who have served on the Court [emphasis SM], made it on merit, and that Sotomayor is somehow less deserving.

At the Court, as in American life, the rules of diversity have changed. Regional differences faded long ago. The fact that two Arizonans, O’Connor and William H. Rehnquist, served together for almost a quarter century mattered little to anyone. Religious tensions have also cooled. By the time Bill Clinton named Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer to the Court, the fact that both are Jewish (and replaced non-Jewish predecessors) was little more than a curiosity. If Sotomayor is confirmed, there will be six Catholics on the Court, which is also of minor significance. George W. Bush appointed John G. Roberts, Jr., and Samuel A. Alito, Jr., because they are conservative, not because they are Catholic. (The Catholic Brennan was the Court’s greatest liberal.)

Thanks to Talking Points Memo for the link.

Image: The US Supreme Court in October.

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Monday, June 01, 2009

Jean d'Aulon's testimony: a story of Joan of Arc

Three years ago, Craig Taylor of the University of York published a book of translated sources on the life of Joan of Arc (Joan of Arc: La Pucelle). I am now reading that book for a variety of reasons -- I may try to teach from it the year after next.

Here is a story of Joan at the siege of Orleans of 1429, as told by one of her companions at her second trial (the "nullification trial" of 1456, which overturned the verdict of the first one in 1431). This is not exactly verbatim testimony, since it was summarized and turned into Latin by a court clerk, but I think those of you who are interested in accounts of medieval warfare will like this.

Aulon was the standard bearer of Joan [La Pucelle, or "the Maid"] and the fighting took place in front of a bulwark or "boulevard."

... the lords and the captains who were with her, seeing that they could not well gain it this day, considering how late it was and also that they were all very tired and worn out, agreed among them to sound the retreat for the army. This was done, and, at the sound of the trumpet call, each one retreated for the day. During this retreat, [Aulon] who had been carrying the standard of the Pucelle and still holding it upright in front of the boulevard was fatigued and worn-out, and gave the standard to one named Le Basque, who was with the Lord of Villars. And because [Aulon] knew Le Basque to be a brave man, and he feared that harm would come from the retreat, and that the fortress and the Boulevard would remain in the hands of the enemy, he had the idea that if the standard were pushed ahead, due to the great affection in which it was held by the soldiers, they could by this means win the boulevard. And then [Aulon] asked Le Basque if he would follow him when he entered and went to the foot of the boulevard; he said and swore he would this. And then [Aulon] entered the ditch and went up to the base of the side of the Boulevard, covering himself with a shield for fear of the stones, of discontent on the other side, believing that he would following step-by-step Boulevard, covering himself with a shield for fear the stones, and left his companion on the other side, believing that he would follow him step-by-step. but when the Pucelle saw her standard in the hand of Le Basque, because she believed that she had lost it, as [Aulon] who had been carrying it had gone into the trench, she came and took the standard by the end in such a way that he had to let it go, crying, "Ha! My standard! My standard!" And she shook the standard in such a way that the one who is testifying imagined that others might think that she was making a sign to the others by doing this. And then he who was speaking cried: "Ha, Basque! Is this what you promised me?" And then Le Basque tugged at the standard that he dragged it from the hand of the Pucellw, and after this, he went to [Aulon] and brought the standard. Because of these things, all those in the army of the Pucelle gathered together and rallied again, assailed this boulevard in such great fierceness that, a short time afterwards, the boulevard and the fortress were taken by them, and abandoned by the enemy, and the French entered the city of Orleans by the bridge

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