Monday, August 31, 2009

Imperial decadence -- the Fisher King bleeds

I have been trying to keep most of my political commentary off this blog (by putting it on the even more ephemeral Facebook) but sometimes, like Sir Percival, you have to say something about an event that seems to indicate what direction things are going. Why is the Fisher King bleeding? Better find out!

The event today is about Today -- the US TV news show. It has just hired the eminently qualified Jenna Hager, daughter of George W. Bush, as a reporter.

Two comments from other bloggers pretty much nail the significance.

From Glenn Greenwald at Salon

They should convene a panel for the next Meet the Press with Jenna Bush Hager, Luke Russert, Liz Cheney, Megan McCain and Jonah Goldberg, and they should have Chris Wallace moderate it. They can all bash affirmative action and talk about how vitally important it is that the U.S. remain a Great Meritocracy because it's really unfair for anything other than merit to determine position and employment. They can interview Lisa Murkowski, Evan Bayh, Jeb Bush, Bob Casey, Mark Pryor, Jay Rockefeller, Dan Lipinksi, and Harold Ford, Jr. about personal responsibility and the virtues of self-sufficiency. Bill Kristol, Tucker Carlson and John Podhoretz can provide moving commentary on how America is so special because all that matters is merit, not who you know or where you come from. There's a virtually endless list of politically well-placed guests equally qualified to talk on such matters.

About this latest hiring by NBC, Atrios observed: "if only the Villager values of nepotism and torture could be combined somehow." The American Prospect's Adam Serwer quicky noted that they already have been: "Liz Cheney." Liz Cheney is really the perfect face of Washington's political culture, a perfect manifestation of all the rotting diseases that define it and a pure expression of what our country has become and the reasons for its virtual ruin. She should really be on every political TV show all day every day. It's almost as though things can't really be expressed thoroughly without including her. Jenna Bush as a new NBC "reporter" on The Today Show -- at a time when every media outlet is firing and laying off real reporters -- is a very nice addition though.

UPDATE: Just to underscore a very important, related point: all of the above-listed people are examples of America's Great Meritocracy, having achieved what they have solely on the basis of their talent, skill and hard work -- The American Way. By contrast, Sonia Sotomayor -- who grew up in a Puerto Rican family in Bronx housing projects; whose father had a third-grade education, did not speak English and died when she was 9; whose mother worked as a telephone operator and a nurse; and who then became valedictorian of her high school, summa cum laude at Princeton, a graduate of Yale Law School, and ultimately a Supreme Court Justice -- is someone who had a whole litany of unfair advantages handed to her and is the poster child for un-American, merit-less advancement.

I just want to make sure that's clear.

Note: if you don't follow political geneology, you may want to look up Greenwald's panelists on the Web.

And from Patrick Nielsen Hayden:

Our children and grandchildren will remember these strutting second- and third-generation media peacocks they way we look back at the White Russian officer corps—as examples of astonishing decadence. They will wonder how these people, out of all those who could be discussing the day’s events, were the ones chosen to be on television, day after day, as the world careened toward ruin.
Just to be clear, I don't think that either of them is overstating the case. This really is the news of the day, the item you have to know and think about.

Thanks to Brad DeLong for these links.

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Afghans speak about the Afghan election

In an amazing good piece from the New York Times' blog At War, Afghans (men, no women) express their various opinions about the recent election and the country's situation in general. And various those opinions are. If your country has troops in Afghanistan, you owe it to yourself and them to read this relatively short account.

One thing that really caught my eye were the differing evaluations that two interviewees expressed on elections themselves. Have a look at this:

Sardar Mohammad
Aged 31, from Helmand Province.

Did you vote? “No. There is no security. In fact the election is not being held there. There are Taliban, they don’t let the polling boxes reach there.”

Was it a free and fair election? “No, no, no. It is to benefit America’s private interests. They have captured the whole country. America came to capture Afghanistan to oppress Afghans.”

Would you have voted if you had the chance? “No, never. Islam doesn’t accept the infidel’s democracy, Islam has its own law, God’s book.”
And then at this:

Abdul Khalil
Teacher. Aged 60.

Was it a free and fair election? “It was not a good election. There was fraud in this election, and it was not a fair or good election because there was low turnout. A lot of people did not go to vote. Firstly, because of the Taliban, and secondly, because of our traditions many Afghan women could not go out to vote. Our tradition is that our women never go to vote, men go but not women.

“This is not a good tradition, in my opinion, but for us Afghans this tradition has been laid down for us by our fathers and grandfathers, so we have just continued living like this.

“In the last election there was fraud, and this time also. I heard it on the media, and everyone knows it is true. It is clear that there was fraud. The last time when [Yunous] Qanooni was a candidate, there was fraud. He couldn’t win the election, and this time as well.”

As he spoke his, pro-Karzai, fellow Pashtuns heckled him for being a dissenter, shouting “he’s crazy.”

Sardar Mohammed from war-torn, Taliban-influenced Helmand province appears to have bought into a fairly common Islamist meme; but Abdul Khalil (from Jalalabad? Kabul?) see things differently. He believes that there has been a tradition of elections in the country where men voted and women didn't (a bad tradition, he thinks). What elections does he mean? I can think of only three national elections in Afghanistan, two since the invasion and one in the 1960s. Does he also count some kind of local elections? Have there been a number of separate provincial elections? Anyone who knows more about this than I do, please chime in.

Image: Abdul Khalil.

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Saturday, August 29, 2009

A big Viking hoard may rewrite the history books

This post from the Independent (UK) has two very interesting points. First, the discovery is being called the "largest and most important" Viking hoard found in Britain since 1840, which is a long time. Second, responsible metal detectorists found and properly handled the discovery. Hooray!

As for rewriting the history books:
Some of the coins shed new light on the period – parts of Britain such as Staffordshire and Yorkshire were already believed lost by the Vikings and under Anglo-Saxon dominion, yet there are coins which show the Vikings were still creating their own currency in these regions. One such coin, with the word "Rorivacastr" on it, is believed to have originated from Roceter, in 10th-century Staffordshire, on the border of Viking and Anglo Saxon control.

Gareth Williams, curator of early medieval coins and Viking expert at the British Museum, said this particular coin revealed that the region may still have been under Viking control, despite Anglo Saxon spin that it was under their rule. He added that it was a truly remarkable find, with a vast array of coins from as far afield as Scandinavia, continental Europe, Tashkent and Afghanistan.

"There's been nothing like it for over 150 years. The size and range of material gives us an insight into the political history, the cultural diversity of the Viking world and the range of cultural and economic contact at that time," he said. Priceless lessons in history would further be revealed in four years time after careful study, he added.

Image: a small part of the hoard.

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"A sad cemetery of depressing clutter"

A modern Russian characterizes Soviet-era "interior design" AKA "dying for the unavailable K-Mart."

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A depressing but detailed British evaluation of the situation in Afghanistan...

...from Prospect Magazine.

It's like the Vietnam war -- either one of them -- never happened.

An excerpt:
Britain’s new Afghan war began shortly after 9/11, with the deployment of special force units to support the US campaign against al Qaeda. But it was a Nato plan to extend the writ of the Kabul government across the country that brought Britain to Helmand, Afghanistan’s largest province, in April 2006. Bloody as it was to be, the mission was defined initially in benign terms. John Reid, then defence secretary, emphasised reconstruction and a “development zone” in the centre of the province, with the 3,300 troops deployed to provide basic security. A commander from those early days told me that the British came equipped for defence, not attack. But from the start, the mission crept forward with dangerous confusion to include fighting terrorism, defeating an insurgency, rebuilding an economy, supporting the government and suppressing illegal drugs.

In spring 2006, a revolt was already underway across Helmand by those seemingly loyal to the former Taliban government. Though the rebellion was poorly understood, the imperative to defeat it pushed all other objectives to one side. Under Afghan political pressure, Britain’s limited combat strength was deployed to establish so-called “platoon houses”—defensive positions in towns across northern Helmand and around the Kajaki dam. It seemed, at the time, that unless the government was defended the rebellion could sweep across the entire south of the country. But this came at a cost. Under siege that first summer, the British defended their ramparts with heavy weapons and air power. The fighting reduced parts of Sangin to rubble, destroyed Musa Qala’s mosque, and drove the population out of other towns. Almost no meaningful reconstruction was carried out. The base at Musa Qala was eventually abandoned in a truce with the Taliban, but during the winter of 2006-07 the British clung on elsewhere. General David Richards, then Nato commander in Kabul (and now incoming head of the army), later told me that hanging on to these outposts had little strategic impact beyond helping to save face with the Afghans.

Then there is this piece of black humor:
Beyond our strategic interest in stability there also remains a moral case for the fight. Achieving a modicum of stability in Afghanistan would give meaning to all that loss of life. We cannot in good conscience abandon the place to anarchy. And Britain can still do good if it learns deeper lessons from its campaign.


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Friday, August 28, 2009

Ramadan crescent moon, Amman, Jordan

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A turning point in terrestrial history, a la George Ade

And then there was the day that those apes, who had never bothered anyone much except other scavengers, came over the hill with their burning torches and their packs of dogs.

The other animals and the brighter plants looked at each other and those who could lit out for the territories as fast as possible.

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Medieval attitudes and their depiction in -- or absence from -- historical novels

Over at Magistra et Mater:

My post on historical novels (and the responses to it) have got me thinking a bit more about the difference between modern and medieval mentalities, or rather, the differences that historical novelists need to contemplate and possibly find ways to express. This is my first attempt to say what I think the most important differences to note are (please join in with your own suggestions in the comments). I also want to suggest some possible mental exercises/thought experiments to help both historians and novelists contemplate these differences

1) An acceptance of hierarchy, injustice and inequality.
This is often a difficult ‘modern’ concept to unthink: how could people accept the subordination and oppression of peasants, slaves, women, etc? I find memories of childhood (the more traditional the better) useful here (and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that children’s historical novels often stand up better than adult ones). You have to do what you are told, however unfair it might seem, because you are a child and ‘they’ are adults and that’s just how it is. And most children don’t spend most of their time raging against this, both because they don’t know that things could be different, and because there is no conceivable way to change the system. Instead, they spend any spare mental energy working out how to get along in this unfair system, or how to cheat it without getting caught, or dreaming about a better world, or waiting for something to change, or just enjoying whatever good bits there are. Transfer that to the medieval subordinated adult, and that seems to me a basic template for how you might react to a society that is biased against you. Most of the time, most of the oppressed don’t rebel: that’s a basic historical fact.

Lots more good stuff here!

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The *new* menace of Wikipedia!

Over at Wormtalk and Slugspeak, Michael Drout, who has recently been a TV talking head, drops this alarming observation:

What I could glean of the script [for Clash of the Gods] from the questions made it seem pretty decent (which has been borne out so far). The writers/producers had done good work tracking down reasonable information. However, it was a little surprising how much the agenda (as opposed to the actual content) seemed to be set by Wikipedia. For example, I got asked a question about the Canterbury Charm, which I hadn't studied very much. I was impressed at how wide-ranging the inquiry was until I happened upon the Wikipedia page for Thor and found the Canterbury Charm referenced. I'm not a Wiki-hater, but the influence of Wikipedia on the script does give yet another reason why professors in relevant fields should perhaps look at the relevant Wiki entries and correct them if need be (though I, sadly, haven't gotten around to doing this yet).


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M42, the Great Nebula in Orion

Plus M43 and NGC 1977.

Thanks to Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Click for a larger image.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

War and American society

Wonder of wonders, a substantial piece on a meta-question of public policy in the New York Times (not of course written by a staff writer). Army captain Timothy Hsia writes on the place of war in American society, and civil-military relations, and his readers respond with not a single stupid, canned rant. I bet the majority of those commenters are at presently in the military or veterans (an easy bet if you read what they have to say).

To tempt you to read the whole article and comments, let me quote one of the better sections:

At West Point one of the most spirited debates I witnessed as a cadet revolved around a discussion concerning civil-military relations. The class was divided into three camps, one group which argued that the military was a microcosm of American society, a small circle within a larger circle. Another group claimed that the military shared some beliefs with society, but also had values which were incompatible, and hence the relationship was better represented by two circles which overlapped in some areas. A third group of cadets disputed both groups, and contended that the American military and society were really two distinct circles sharing only one point in common, a commitment to the Constitution.

The discussion and questions raised in that class have increasing relevance as the duration of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have lasted longer than the combined time which the United States was engaged in fighting during World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.

The questions raised should not be confused with shouldering burdens, as the recession’s impact has been felt far and widespread amongst many Americans who are struggling to put food on the table and find jobs.

Moreover, the new G.I. Bill, the first lady’s outspoken commitment to military families, and the overall support by Americans for the troops has been incredible. But can Americans honestly say this country is at war, when less than one percent of the country wages war? Perhaps the blanket support for troops is merely a coping mechanism for Americans in order to wash away any psychological discomfort for not feeling more involved in the nation’s supposed wars.

If this is the case, then the country could be entering an era of persistent conflict, not because of the threats the U.S. faces, but rather because society has become inoculated to the concept of the ever-present war. Has the idea of war become less of an aversion as long as it means not me or my family?

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Thoughts of Wednesday won't go away

This is all people in Baghdad can think of. Has there been any discussion on your news outlets?

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Rowing to democracy... the title of a New York Times book review of John R. Hale's Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy. I've speculated on this myself in this blog, so I'm interested.

An excerpt from the review:
Mr. Hale’s thesis in “Lords of the Sea” is that the construction of the mighty Athenian navy, composed largely of lightweight warships known as triremes, in which 170 oarsmen rowed in three tiers, led directly to Athens’s Golden Age and its advanced form of democracy. For more than a century and a half, from 480 to 322 B.C., Athens’s city-state of some 200,000 people had the strongest navy on earth. “Without the Athenian navy there would be no Parthenon, no tragedies of Sophocles or Euripides, no ‘Republic’ of Plato or ‘Politics’ of Aristotle,” Mr. Hale writes. “Before the Persian Wars, Athens produced no great traditions of philosophy, architecture, drama, political science or historical writing. All these things came in a rush after the Athenians voted to build a fleet and transform themselves into a naval power in the early fifth century B.C.” The hard work of building and maintaining a fleet pulled the society together. The protection the navy afforded Athens allowed it to prosper, to fend off the enemies that would have overrun it and changed its tolerant and inquisitive character. Among those who commanded fleets or squadrons of triremes were the playwright Sophocles and the historian Thucydides.

“Lords of the Sea” is, largely, a book about war. It describes a running series of water and land battles between Athens and its shifting enemies, including Persian and Spartan armies and navies.

Mr. Hale points out that the use of triremes ushered in “a new age of warfare.” For the first time “battles were being fought where the majority of combatants never fought hand to hand with the enemy — indeed, never even saw the enemy.” Triremes won battles by ramming opposing ships, and cunning was even more important as brute force.

The naval success that built Athens also, in the end, helped destroy it.

Another pirate story?

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Michael Quinion is a freelance etymologist, whose entertaining and learned e-mail newsletter on word origins and word usage I've read for years. I hope he won't mind this extensive quotation from this week's issue:

Q. A Web site says: "Freelancers can trace their job title back to
Sir Walter Scott, who introduced the term in his 1819 novel,
Ivanhoe. His 'free-lance' characters were medieval mercenaries who
pledged their loyalty (and weapons) to lords and kings, for a fee."
As a freelance translator my curiosity is aroused. Is this
etymological story correct? Perhaps it could provide an entry point
for one of your excellent articles. [Steve Dyson, Lisbon]

A. We are so used to being told that "freelance" did derive from
medieval mercenaries in just this way that the story brings one up
short disbelievingly. But it's correct. The word is not recorded
before Sir Walter Scott introduced it in that book.

This is its first appearance:

I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances, and
he refused them - I will lead them to Hull, seize on
shipping, and embark for Flanders; thanks to the bustling
times, a man of action will always find employment.
[Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott, 1819. "Free", of
course, means "unbound", not "without cost".]

It's one mark of the huge influence that Scott had in his lifetime.
He has quite gone out of fashion these days but in his time he was
a famous and widely read writer (Henry James later remarked that
Scott had made the nineteenth-century English novel possible). He
also invented the historical novel, of which Ivanhoe is a classic

He's credited with either popularising or inventing many words and
phrases, to the extent that he is marked as the first user of more
than 700 in the Oxford English Dictionary and he lies third behind
the Bible and Shakespeare in innovation in that work. He's recorded
as the first user of, to take a few terms at random, Calvinistic,
blood is thicker than water, clansmen, cold shoulder, deferential,
flat (meaning an apartment), Glaswegian, jeroboam, lady-love, lock,
stock and barrel, Norseman, otter hunt, roisterer, Scotswoman (in
place of the older Scotchwoman), sick-nurse, sporran, weather-stain
and wolf-hound. He also introduced his readers to many obscure old
terms, especially from the Scots language and from chivalry.

There was a slightly earlier term, "free companion", which appeared
in 1804 in a translation of the fourteenth-century chronicles of
the French historian Jean Froissart about the Hundred Years War.
Scott uses this, too, in the same book:

A knight who rode near him, the leader of a band of
free companions, or Condottieri, that is, of mercenaries
belonging to no particular nation, but attached for the
time to any prince by whom they were paid.
[Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott, 1819.]
Start looking into chivalry, at least if you are an Anglophone, and you can hardly avoid the man.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Defenders of the Faith: Charles V, Suleyman the Magnificent, and the Battle for Europe, 1520-1536, by James Reston, Jr.

James Reston, Jr. has written a number of histories of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but till now I have never read any of his books. So when The Penguin Press asked me if I'd like to review Defenders of the Faith for this blog, I said "yes."

Reston states in his Foreword that this book is "a work of historical literature, accurate in every respect but winnowing [names, dates and places] to the essentials..." Translation: this book (which contains lots of detail in any case, is an old-fashioned narrative history. It's a story, not a discussion of how scholars have interpreted the material and why. There is definitely a market for this sort of thing, always has been and always will be. And Reston has picked an interesting period, when the Ottoman Turkish Sultan and the German-Spanish Hapsburg Emperor fought for the domination of Europe, just as the Reformation split the Christian churches of Europe. Reston can honestly present this as a time when the future was up for grabs. No need to hoke up the historical drama, it's really there.

If you read this book, you should be prepared to believe that such periods are best understood by following the exploits of rulers and generals and the occasional religious leader. Defenders of the Faith strikes me as a little too focused on them, to the neglect of their historical background. For instance, Reston thinks Martin Luther is an interesting and important figure, but he spends very little time discussing why he developed the ideas he did, why he took a stand, and why his fellow Germans followed him in such numbers. Why the Reformation, why Germany, why the particular shape it took? Are the answers to these questions so obvious? A few well-chosen paragraphs could have told the readership, not all of them well-informed on the structure or theology of the Catholic and Lutheran churches, some key facts that would help put this "sometimes violently angry" monk/professor into a more vivid context. It seems to me that Reston's talents lie in the direction of describing dramatic set-piece battles, confrontations at court, or the Diet of Worms where Luther defied Emperor Charles V.

I could complain some more about things that I found frustrating or things Reston handled well (relating the chronology of all the complex military and diplomatic maneuvering), but this should give you an idea of whether you'd like the book.

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Blogging, especially medieval blogging, is a dangerous occupation

Witness I Have Consumed and Excreted Your Blogger.

As another medievalist blogger, at least part of the time, I have to call this an impressive performance.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Dixie down

I feel compelled to post most of the material following from Brad DeLong's blog, because "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is the only depiction of the Civil War, historical or fictional, that has ever made me feel any sympathy for those who fought for the Confederacy:

Thus Robbie Robertson [member of "The Band" who wrote the song in 1969] incites the ire of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who believes that we have very different memories of the Winter of '65, and don't need to invent Robertson's particular one:

Ta-Nehisi Coates: What you see above is the train of Rebels fleeing the city, as the Union troops enter from the other side. I was thinking about the Richmond yesterday, and The Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."... I'm told that it's a great song, and I don't so much doubt this, as I doubt my own magnanimity. I'm reminded of one of my father's favorite quotes, "The African's right to be wrong is sacred." Or Aaron McGruder's line, "I reserve the right to be a nigger." I can no more marvel at The Band then a Sioux can marvel at the cinematography of "The Died With Their Boots On." I wouldn't fault the man who could, but it's not me My empathy is a resource to be rationed like all others. My right to be wrong is sacred. My right to be a nigger is reserved. I started to play the song yesterday, and stopped myself. Again, I was angry. Again, another story about the blues of Pharaoh, and the people are invisible. The people are always invisible....

The expectation that someone else will tell your story for you, will write your ballads for you, will reconcile your history for you, is foolish and vain.... I'm no Robbie Robertson, but I do carry the words of my old, magical people:

I have just returned from the city of Richmond; my regiment was among the first that entered that city. I marched at the head of the column, and soon I found myself called upon by the officers and men of my regiment to make a speech, with which, of course, I readily complied. A vast multitude assembled on Broad Street, and I was aroused amid the shouts of ten thousand voices, and proclaimed for the first time in that city freedom to all mankind. After which the doors of all the slave pens were thrown open, and thousands came out shouting and praising God, and Father, or Master Abe, as they termed him. In this mighty consternation I became so overcome with tears that I could not stand up under the pressure of such fullness of joy in my own heart. I rested to gain strength, so I lost many important topics worthy of note.

Among the densely crowded concourse there were parents looking for children who had been sold south of this state in tribes, and husbands came for the same purpose; here and there one was singled out in the ranks, and an effort was made to approach the gallant and marching soldiers, who were too obedient to orders to break ranks.We continued our march as far as Camp Lee, at the extreme end of Broad Street, running westwards. In camp the multitude followed, and everybody could participate in shaking the friendly but hard hands of the poor slaves.

Among the many broken-hearted mothers looking for their children who had been sold to Georgia and elsewhere, was an aged woman, passing through the vast crowd of colored, inquiring for one by the name of Garland H. White, who had been sold from her when a small boy, and was bought by a lawyer named Robert Toombs, who lived in Georgia. Since the war has been going on she has seen Mr. Toombs in Richmond with troops from his state, and upon her asking him where his body-servant Garland was, he replied: "He ran off from me at Washington, and went to 'Canada. I have since learned that he is living somewhere in the State of Ohio." Some of the boys knowing that I lived in Ohio, soon found me and said, "Chaplain, here is a lady that wishes to see you." I quickly turned, following the soldier until coming to a group of colored ladies. I was questioned as follows:

"What is your name, sir?" "My name is Garland H. White." "What was your mother's name?" "Nancy." "Where was you born?" "In Hanover County, in this State." "Where was you sold from?" "From this city." "What was the name of the man who bought you?" "Robert Toombs." "Where did he live?" "In the State of Georgia." "Where did you leave him?" "At Washington." "Where did you go then?" "To Canada." "Where do you live now?" "In Ohio." "This is your mother, Garland, whom you are now talking to, who has spent twenty years of grief about her son."

I cannot express the joy I felt at this happy meeting of my mother and other friends. But suffice it to say that God is on the side of the righteous, and will in due time reward them. I have witnessed several such scenes among the other colored regiments.

Late in the afternoon, we were honored with his Excellency, the President of the United States, Lieutenant-General Grant, and other gentlemen of distinction. We made a grand parade through most of the principal streets of the city, beginning at Jeff Davis's mansion, and it appeared to me that all the colored people in the world had collected in that city for that purpose. I never saw so many colored people in all my life, women and children of all sizes running after Father, or Master Abraham, as they called him. To see the colored people, one would think they had all gone crazy. The excitement at this period was unabated, the tumbling of walls, the bursting of shells, could be heard in all directions, dead bodies being found, rebel prisoners being brought in, starving women and children begging for greenbacks and hard tack, constituted theorder of the day. The Fifth [Massachusetts] Cavalry; colored, were sfill dashing through the streets to protect and preserve the peace, and see that no one suffered violence, they having fought so often over the walls of Richmond, driving the enemy at every point.

Among the first to enter Richmond was the 28th U.S.C.T. better known as the First Indiana Colored Volunteers. . Some people do not seem to believe that the colored troops were the first that entered Richmond. Why, you need not feel at all timid in giving the truthfulness of my assertion to the four winds of the heavens, and let the angels re-echo it back to the earth, that the colored soldiers of the Army of the James were the first to enter the city of Richmond. I was with them, and am still with them, and am willing to stay with them until freedom is proclaimed throughout the world. Yes, we will follow this race of men in search of liberty through the whole Island of Cuba. All the boys are well, and send their love to all the kind ones at home."

Chaplain Garland H. White,
28th USCI, Richmond, Virginia,
April 12, 1865; CR, April 22, 1865

White's letter can be found in the book A Grand Army Of Black Men (p. 175.) For the serious civil war nerd, this book, a massive collection of letters written by black soldiers during the War, is indispensable.

Then again, maybe Robbie Robertson is saying something else. Virgil Cain may say so, but we all know that the real killer of Cain's brother Abel wasn't no Yankee stranger from afar, was he?

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Birther conspiracies of yore

I can't bring myself to get into the details of the nutty and alarming American "birther" delusion, but if you already know about it, this may amuse you... Thanks to Brad DeLong.

Image: a bed warming pan.

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Historic Ordnance seminar, 2009

Explosives and incendiary devices from medieval recipes, as tested at the Medieval Centre in Denmark. Could be called "Boys with their Toys, Medieval Scholar Edition," if I was one to talk, that is.

Thanks to Kelly DeVries for posting this.

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"Modern" to "Islamic" in just a few years

From the New York Times "At War" blog:

She said: “Abeer you know me, we used to wear such clothes in college.” I told her: “Things are very different now.” Then I showed her a picture on my mobile phone of me wearing an abaya. She was shocked and said: “I heard about it, but I can’t believe it, I never imagined things would go this way.”

We have got a gap inside the Iraqi community. A gap between people of the same generation, I mean between those who fled the violence and traveled out of Iraq after 2003, and these who stayed in the country.

The people who left Iraq cannot imagine what happened, they only have the barest idea, and they have not seen and lived the Islamist style of life.

At that restaurant meeting where I met a group of my friends we chatted and talked about many things, including the provincial elections next month. All of them, even the religious ones, agreed that they would not vote for an Islamist, of any kind. “Even if he was blessed by Ayatollah Sistani and got Sistani’s signature beside his name,” one of them said.

But my friend who had lived outside had an extremely different opinion. She said: “Why not, if they are good?”

More here.

Image: Back before the invasion.

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Scholarly authority

Jonathan Jarrett has a good post on how scholars of the Middle Ages (and other subjects, too) base themselves -- or don't -- on the authority of earlier scholars. Some excerpts:

One of the things I find oddest, and least enjoyable, about working on Spain is the peculiar persistence in parts of its historiography of regula magistri argumentation. Do you know what I mean by that? It’s proceeding with your argument, not from the sources, but by amassing a list of reputable authors who have also held the view you wish to put forward. As a result it’s kind of the flip side of the ad hominem argument, in which rather than impugning the character of your opponent and thereby his trustworthiness on matters of fact and/or opinion, you inflate the reputation of your supporters to show that you are rightly-guided.

Sometimes this is necessary because you have no other legs to stand on. Thus, I remember from years back a heated argument on soc.history.medieval about whether ‘the medievals’ (does anyone else twitch uncomfortably at this usage?) kept animals in their houses with them or whether the livestock was segregated. Nobody involved in the thread knew any evidence worth speaking of, so it degenerated into a series of claims and counter-claims about whether a passing and unreferenced note of the practice in a book by Barbara Hanawalt could be taken on trust based on her reputation as a historian. It wasn’t pretty to watch, but then, very little on s.h.m was.


So this is an old practice; indeed, proceeding from authority at all points and disguising novelty in it is positively medieval. But it’s miles and miles away from what I was taught, and what I’ve taught, which is to always go back to the primary sources, to the exclusion of much else. It’s not enough to tell me that Wallace-Hadrill said this, I tell the unlucky student, I need to know that you know the basis on which he said it and, not less importantly, whether you agree. Now, in another recent post, someone entirely different, Martin Rundqvist at Aardvarchaeology, draws a very similar distinction and reckons the method I’m talking about scientific. He says, among other things, this:

… in most cases the old authors, like Galen on medicine, did not actually have anything truly useful to say about how the world works. Before the scientific revolution of the 17th century, though, people had no good way to test that. They believed in the best authorities.

The radical proposition at the heart of empirical science is that there are no good authorities. It doesn’t matter what anyone said about the world a hundred or a thousand or five thousand years ago, except in the rare case when someone observed a nova in the 11th century. Observation rules.

Of course it’s not quite the same in history, because a text, even a primary one, is still an authority and not a genuine witness. Material evidence counterbalances that to an extent, which is great when one can bring them together, and of course this is the business of which Martin identifies as part. But, not being raised in the venerable Spanish tradition, I find myself positively encouraged to cut free of my teachers and say things by myself, and the regula magistri argument looks, well, yes, pre-Popperian. (I don’t think ‘pre-scientific’ really works as a term, at least not to anyone who knows the etymology, but I’ve done that rant elsewhere.)


I still get faintly dismayed when I come across a ‘prestigious specialist’ writing as if it were still the sixteenth century. In this respect, some of the disciples could pay a bit more attention to their masters.

Love that (valid for a change!) use of the phrase "positively medieval."

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Pirates of New York City

Pirates today are generally associated with Captain Morgan, Jack Sparrow, or for the more serious, the Horn of Africa.

The fascinating blog Ephemeral New York tells us of a time when it could be associated with the rivers of New York City. This should be early history-- maybe the 1600s -- but it's long after my usual dividing line, the invention and use of railways:

That’s one type of criminal New Yorkers don’t worry about these days: river pirates. But from the city’s beginning through the 19th century, ships loaded with valuables were constantly coming in and out of New York Harbor—easy prey for river pirates.

Police were unable, or unwilling, to stop the piracy, reports an 1876 New York Times article.

A detective added: “River thieves are the men who have not the brains to be burglars, but who do not hesitate to murder in order to steal a coil of rope.”

Most notorious of the river pirates in the 1860s and 1870s was the Patsy Conroy gang. Conroy helmed a band of lowlifes who trolled the dockyards of the East River.

Another murderous group known for hijacking and robbing ships was the Hook Gang, named for Corlears’ Hook on the East River waterfront.

Finally law enforcement got serious about ridding the rivers of pirates. The NYPD formed the “Steamboat Squad” in the 1870s, which drove out most of the gangs by the 20th century.

Plenty more good stuff where that came from

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Friday, August 14, 2009

The realities of space travel today

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Proud of our Masters students in History

In common and especially journalistic speech, an awful lot of things are called "historic," and so I am reluctant to use that description just because this is a "first" for Nipissing University and the Department of History. But this is important to university, department, and me. School year 2008-9 was the first year for our Masters of Arts program in history, and we pulled in a really capable and energetic bunch of students. Now they are finishing up their Major Research Papers (like a thesis but somewhat less formal) and starting next week they will be defending their work before a panel of senior academics. I am sure that they are all nerves at this point, but I am equally sure that they will do very well.

If you are close to NU and are interested in our program, feel free to come see them defend. This might be the best way to judge it: "By their fruits you shall know them."


Monday August 17th 2009
9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., Room F303
Yvonne Hunter
MRP Title: Cold Columns: Anne O’Hare McCormick and the Origins of the Cold War in the New York Times (1920-1954)

Tuesday August 18th 2009
1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., Room F303
Jennifer Evans
MRP Title: “She Never Did Cook the Canadian Way”: Immigrant Women’s Changing Relationship with Food and Cooking in Postwar North Bay, Ontario

Wednesday August 19th 2009
1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., Room F214
Jessica Parks
MRP Title: France’s Fourth Republic and the Definitive Decisions of 1954

Monday August 24th 2009
9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., Room F214
Kristen Rossetti
MRP Title: Poetry as Historical Evidence: The Medium, the Message and the Methodology

Wednesday August 26th 2009
9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., Room F214
Dave Bernardi
MRP Title: Deciphering Orwell: How to Use Fiction as Historical Evidence

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Robot in Helmand Province, Afghanistan

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Greenland today

Another photo collection on one of the wilder parts of the world -- less population than the Nipissing District.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009


I spent two weeks at the SCA's Pennsic War 38 near Pittsburgh. Due to scheduling conflicts I did not participate in the Passage of the Beautiful Pilgrim (see below), nor see the first Pennsic re-enactment of the Combat of Thirty against Thirty to actually include 60 participants.

Fortunately, Will McLean has provided links to photos and videos of each. Here is a video shot by Brad Hrboska and produced by Andrew Lowry:

The laughter on the soundtrack is probably a re-creation of the Breton peasants laughing at the sight of 100-Years-War men at arms killing each other instead of harassing or killing them.

As a witness of and participant in many SCA combats, I was impressed by how the modified rules produced a more prolonged re-creation, rather than the very quick ones that standard SCA rules usually do.

My participation this time was restricted to the mass battles:

Eccentric medieval historian relaxes between battles:

Don't cross this guy!

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