Sunday, November 29, 2009

Someone in China doesn't want you to read Phil Paine

Specifically, the post A Gift of Earth and Water (November 16, 2009). Why? Have a look.

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Don't underestimate those little guys

Phil Paine has added to his ongoing reading list. I found this review particularly interesting:

Antoine de la Sale,[Petit] Jehan de Saintré [c. 1455]

This fourteenth century French prose work is an odd item. It's a "roman" — prose fiction. But it's nothing like the fantastic fantasies that dominated the era. No quests, no dragons, no trips to the moon. Instead, it's a realistic narrative focusing on tournaments and deeds of arms. In the first few chapters, the central character arrives at court as a page, at the age of thirteen. A Great Lady immediately begins a campaign of seduction, twisting and tormenting the lad until he surrenders his innocence. This is coyly, but still pretty blatantly recounted by the author. But the romance is meant to be edifying as well as titillating... she is given to quoting Greek philosophers while making love, and recommends a long list of books for him to read between carving the King's roasts, learning to fight, and providing her with stud service. Few teenagers have to face this kind of stress, today.

By sixteen, he becomes a star of the jousting circuit, albeit embarrassingly short and skinny for the role. This is continuously rubbed in, as contender after contender is fooled into under-estimating him. There's not a lot of plot, and not much character development. There's endless detailed description of clothing, meals, gifts exchanged between nobles, and, most of all, the pageantry of the tournament. Jousts are described blow-by-blow:

A la ije course le seigneur de Loisselench [a visiting Polish knight] actainct Saintré a la buffe tellement que a bien peu ne l'endormist, et Saintré l'ataint au front de son heaume et perça son buef d'argent tellement que au passer que les cahevaulz firent le sien tourna ce devant darriere, et a ceste course Saintré un peu se reposa.
A la iije course le seigneur de Loisselench, tout ainsin que Saintré l'avoit actaint, il actaint Saintré et lui emporta sur la pointe de sa lance son chappellet de byevre tout ainsin garny comme it estoit, et Saintré l'actaint ou hault de son grant gardebras qu'il lui faulsa avec son double et rompist les tresses, et le gardebras a terre vola, et alors recommença le cry et le bruit des gens et des trompectes tellement que a peine les pouoit on faire cesser.

Eventually, "little Jehan" goes off to war, joining the Crusade in Prussia, where he fights vast armies of "saracens" — the geography and anthropology are somewhat vague.

The riff on Jehan's small size reminded me of this French account by the Monk of St. Denis of the famous joust at St. Inglevert:

While a truce endured and there was hope of peace between the French and the English, Englishmen of the highest nobility were able to cross France freely for the sake of curiosity. There were always debates between the two groups concerning prowess and success in arms, and they argued about which of the two should be given more honor. The English were accustomed to keep silent about domestic calamities and to extoll their victories unendingly; which extremely displeased the French, who attributed that habit to presumption.

As a result those prominent knights and spirited youths, Reginald de Roye, Jean called le Maingre, alias Boucicaut, and the lord of Saimpy, aflame with zeal and vigor, resolved to settle the matter through an unprecedented deed of arms, which is worthy of being recorded. So that they might restore the worthy renown of the French chivalry and gain everlasting glory for the kingdom, they bound themselves by oath that they should measure their strength against any foreign men at arms; and they begged the king with the strongest entreaties and obtained permission with great difficulty, since in the judgment of all prudent men, they were attempting a task beyond their strength, since Saimpy was puny and thin, Boucicaut of the same stature but with better built limbs, and Reginald, likewise of medium size and superior to the others only in nimbleness. Thus the prudent advised the comrades that they should come to their senses and give up the project. They refused to do so, responding over and over that "Nature doesn't deny constant spirits to the small of stature." After gaining the king's support they had the deed of arms proclaimed to all lords and ladies in neighboring countries and especially in England by heralds accompanied by trumpeters. Without doubt this gave offense to the ears of many critics and incited envious statements: "Now, without doubt, the French are showing their pridefulness."

Of course, the three Frenchmen cleaned up.

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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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Friday, May 15, 2009

Phil Paine finds his own memorial to genius and heroism in Toronto

He describes a rare moment:

When I first began to read seriously in history, as a boy, my instincts led me to avoid looking for heroes. Trying to find people in the past to admire and respect can be a trap. One is bound to be disappointed. The sad truth is that scoundrels and monsters routinely find their way into history books, but good people do not. The very fact that one is a decent human being virtually guarantees that one will be forgotten. Historical figures propped up as models or champions of this and that usually turn out to be outright frauds, or at the very least to have genuine accomplishments marred by major flaws. But there was one historical figure that I could not help admiring, and that was Frederick Douglass, whose Autobiography inspired me from childhood. And I did not know until recently that I could walk on the very floor where Douglass walked and spoke, right near my own home.

At the corner of King and Jarvis stands St. Lawrence Hall. This fine structure was built in 1850 to provide a venue for public meetings, concerts, balls, and other cultural events of the little city that was then maturing out of its crude frontier beginnings. Over the next century, the hall would be used to echo the voice of Jenny Lind, display the curios of P.T. Barnum, and be used as a practice dance hall by Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn. The structure is well preserved, and an excellent example of the Renaissance Revival style of the mid-nineteenth century. Unlike most such structures, it has maintained its intended function throughout its existence.

The timing of its construction was propitious, for there was an important issue for public discussion: the recently enacted Fugitive Slave Law in the United States. This law allowed agents from the southern slave states to conduct a reign of terror in northern states, kidnapping runaway slaves, and many free blacks, and dragging them back to the slave pens of the south. It effectively unleashed the tentacles of the monstrously evil institution of slavery throughout the United States, canceling out existing abolitionist reforms. This hideous injustice would soon lead the United States into a bloody civil war. The activities of the Underground Railway, the organized resistance movement which smuggled escaped slaves to freedom in Canada, were now much more dangerous. Upper Canada had enacted legislation for the abolition of slavery in 1793. On the issue of slavery, Canadians were consistently and adamantly on the side of the angels. The underground railway terminated in Toronto. Escaped American slaves formed free agricultural communities scattered around rural Ontario, and much of the resistance was organized here.

So it's not surprising that Frederick Douglas came to Toronto, and spoke at the newly-built St. Lawrence Hall to a cheering crowd of 1,200 on April 3, 1851[1]. Yesterday, I entered the building, and walked through the empty hall, which has not much changed in general appearance.

Since I acknowledge so few heroes from the annals of history, I rarely get that special thrill that historians can enjoy... the pleasure of planting one's feet on a spot trod by a paladin. I once stood rapt with pleasure in front of Mozart's house, listening to one of his arias being sung. But Mozart's is an example of a tragic life, transcended by genius, and can hardly serve as an example to follow. I have no transcendent genius of my own, so his example is useless to me, personally.

But the work of Frederick Douglass has long been, for me, a kind of guidebook in the quest for freedom and human dignity. The man was a genius, no doubt about it, but it was a real-world genius.

Read the whole thing.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Recent writings on democracy by Phil Paine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Definitely one for my must-read list.

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

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Another good bookshelf to explore

A number of times in the last two years or so I have linked to Phil Paine's blog over at his multipurpose website. Not so often often I have mentioned his latest reading section. The last few entries in that section gives me the excuse to remedy that lack.

Two books particularly caught my attention. The first is #16396 -- yeah, Phil reads a lot -- (Michael H. Shuman) The Small-Mart Revolution ― How Local Businesses are Beating the Global Competition. Here are the comments that caught my attention:

I would like to see everyone involved with urban reform and with democratic renewal activism to read this book. There is a powerful undercurrent of change going on in both the United States and Canada, definitely something moving up from the grass roots and ignored by both the media and the elite political drones. It's something far more creative and significant than a mere flaky fashion for "anti-globalism" demonstrations, with which the reader might at first confuse it. It's the fact that people — ordinary people — are starting to question the orthodoxies they have been taught about how things "have to be", and realizing that their self-interest, as well as their future, depends on re-envigorating local economic and political power...

At the heart of his study are the premises that every consumer choice that prefers local sourcing over distant sourcing increases the "multiplier effect" of transactions in an economy, and that import substitution is the engine economic growth. He exposes the disastrous consequences of bribing and luring distant corporate powers into a locality rather than creating conditions for organic local economic creativity...

He also grasps that those same governments will quickly "agree" with rational critics and make a big, but entirely phony, show of following the rational path, while changing nothing. This shows that he has some real-life experience of trying to reform things. But he is at his best when he describes situations where dedicated people have actually made advances in democracy and prosperity, despite all the obstacles. The good news is that those advances are more numerous and vigorous than one would guess. The media have no interest in telling you about them. To describe these successful initiatives, Shuman coins the acronym LOIS ("local ownership and import substitution").

A much briefer comment on another book struck close to home:

16397. (Robert McCloskey) Homer Price.

This was one of the "children's classics" that I had glanced at as a child, but never actually read. A pity. McCloskey was a gentle humorist with a charming style and great human empathy, who chose to write for children rather than, say, subscribers to the New Yorker. He was also a talented artist, in a style reminiscent of Ernie Pyle. The world he writes about now seems so far away that a contemporary child might have some problems interpret it. It would seem exotic, rather than comfortingly familiar. But if you are an adult with any feeling for American social history, the child-viewpoint stories about pet skunks, donut machines, and giant balls of string will be fascinating.

I read that book as a kid and more or less recognized the environment, even though it was about pre-World War II times and I was born after the war. after all, Homer Price lived near me!

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Friday, July 04, 2008

Phil Paine on Sibelius

For some reason the software that Phil Paine uses at archives old posts without attaching a permalink. Thus sometimes my links to his posts become broken. I don't doubt that some readers have had frustrating experiences as a result.

Today for some reason I was poking around at and came across this post on the Finnish composer Sibelius. As Phil says, Sibelius has always been a great favorite of his; one of my earliest memories of our friendship is of walking to a park in Toronto's Annex to find a statue of the man.

I'm just going to copy this finely written piece here, in hopes that it will lure a few more readers over to enjoy Phil's site.

Sibelius: En Saga Throughout my life, Sibelius has remained unchallenged as my favourite composer. As much as I might love Mozart, or Dvorak, or Vaughan Williams, and take delight in even their minor compositions, none has the place in my heart, and subconscious, that Sibelius has. The first work of the granite Finn that I ever heard was En Saga, Op.9. It has usually been considered no more than a rousing showpiece, but I think it offers some depths to explore. Sibelius' approach to composing was dispassionate and scientific. Though much of his work is intensely emotional, it seldom gives the impression of being a spontaneous outpouring of his own immediate feelings. But En Saga, a work of his youth, apparently fits this category: "I could almost say that the whole of my youth is contained within it. It is an expression of a state of mind. En saga is the expression of a state of mind. I had undergone a number of painful experiences at the time and in no other work have I revealed myself so completely. It is for this reason that I find all literary explanations quite alien." [1]. Despite attempts by reviewers to relate it to either the Finnish Kalevala, or to the Scandinavian Edda, Sibelius seems to have meant the title in the sense of a personal saga. The work exists in three forms. The standard version is the one that Sibelius revised in 1902. By this time, his mastery of orchestration was without peer, and the revisions he made are justifiable improvements. But I possess, on a cd conducted by Osmo Vänskä, a performance of the original 1892 version. The improvements of 1902 smoothed away some of the ungainly vigour of the younger man's work, whic has its own merits. Sibelius' daughter Aino certainly thought so: "I like and have always liked the first version. Papa removed some violent passages from it. Now En Saga is more civilised, more polished." Thus, the work experienced a journey from the forest to the town, gaining and losing something along the way. A pastoral middle section was excised entirely, and it contains some rather advanced features, for the time, such as seventh inversions of ninths, proceeding in parallel motion. En Saga is supposed to have originally been conceived of as a chamber work, a septet, but the score of this was lost. In 2003, Dr. Gregory Barrett (Indiana University) published a reconstruction of the En Saga Septet, but I haven't heard it, or found a recording. It is rather hard to imagine, since the piece we are familiar with is like a miniature symphony, a fine example of how Sibelius could treat a large orchestra like it was a single instrument, that he was playing with his own hands. En Saga was not only my first exposure to the Music of Sibelius, but a piece that awakened me to the adventure of music. I was never the same after I heard it. Growing up among Canadian lakes and forests that are virtually identical to those of Finland, exposed to native speech and rhythms very similar to those behind En Saga, the work could reach me in a way that none had before. To this day, those rhythms echo in my mind at the oddest moments, and will always come to mind when I walk alone among shield rocks, birch and spruce.

Phil Paine.

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Friday, June 27, 2008

The not-so-good-old days

Medievalists are are constantly being put in the position of responding to the modern connotations of the word "medieval." For many modern people the Middle Ages acts as a dumping ground for every nightmare that can be attributed to humanity. The great witchhunt of European history took place after the Middle Ages; the purges and holocausts of the 20th century put most medieval slaughters, ruthless and cruel as they may have been, in the shade. We often find ourselves pointing out such things to people who carelessly use "medieval" to mean "bad." (Indeed, my dictation software heard that last usage of medieval as "and evil" so we are seemingly in the position of fighting the machines, too.)

But we must face the fact that most of history, including the Middle Ages, were not exactly the good old days. Some scholarly blogging posts of the last week or so underline this.

Jonathan Jarrett, I believe, started the ball rolling with a post on Sex slaves in the early Middle Ages: what’s the evidence? over at his blog A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe. his point was that he didn't know what the evidence for sex slavery might be and he hoped someone would enlighten him. Soon after, he found himself shocked by reflecting on well-known evidence about the prominent monastery of Cluny in eastern France. As he put it, "slaves are all through the material from Cluny [in the tenth century]." that reflection, and chance meeting with another medievalist blogger, Magistra et Mater, went into this post on trading "ancillae [slave women]."

At the same time Magistra et Mater has been writing about some subjects that might excite prurient interest, but deserve serious thought, too. For instance, how exactly were disobedient monks flogged in the time of the Carolingian kings? And somewhat less grim, were families about the same time somewhat reluctant to write off their daughters as ruined if they indulged in a little premarital sexual activity? Maybe for good practical reasons the Carolingian Franks were a little less likely to condemn such girls than some other cultures. These are all isolated points perhaps, but important for visualizing how things actually worked for individual people, like a monk about to be flogged, or the teenager worried about how dad is going to react to her little adventure.

Finally, the subject of slavery (mostly later than medieval) is discussed by Phil Paine in this post, inspired by a book on 18th century Moroccan slavery (item 16305). Conclusion: there is no "nice slavery," ancient, medieval, early modern, or current

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Phil Paine on Canada's self-delusions

He's tired of kicking Americans:

Wake up, Canadians. We have no “image”. The world does not think we are cool. The world does not know, or care, if we exist. Only the Dutch know we exist, and admire us for something we did half a century ago, an amazing case of prolonged gratitude in a world where the cultural memory span is notoriously short. But outside of the Dutch, nobody notices our global presence or status.

More here, under April 27, 2008.

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Were there commercial brands 5000 years ago?

Phil Paine has argued for a long time that many of the economic activities that we think of as characteristically modern -- especially commercial trade networks -- go back much farther in history and are typical of many cultures. Here is an interesting piece of news from the archaeological front. David Wengrow, an archaeologist at University College London, is now arguing that the well-known Mesopotamian bottle stoppers, which bear stamped-clay symbols, were in some cases used as brand logos. Here's the article from the New Scientist.

Image: One of the bottle stoppers in question, or perhaps a seal that produced bottle stoppers.

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Democracy vs. Crime: Phil Paine's Sixth Meditation on Democracy, part one

This is the best of Phil Paine's meditations yet.

Here's the key passage, I think:

Democracy is a mode of human social interaction that can be practiced by any human group, of any size, with any type of technology, and at any time or place.

Democracy is a product of human intelligence and creative imagination, in the same way that technology, art, and music are. These fields of human creativity are the direct consequences of human faculties, not passively determined by environment. In other words, human sculpture in wood comes about because of a built-in need of humans, as conscious, thinking, and self-aware beings, to manipulate physical objects for representational and symbolic purposes. It is not merely a side-effect of the availability of wood. If wood is not available, then the impulse to carve will find another object, such as bone, stone, clay, or even the human body itself. Similarly, democracy is a product of the profoundest creativity in human nature, the ability to grasp that other human beings are not merely external objects, but conscious beings, similar and equal to oneself. Consequently, democracy cannot be explained as the result of temporary conditions, such as population density, climate, resource limits, birthrates, or modes of production, though these variables may influence its application.

The purpose of democracy is to promote and protect the well-being of humans, while its opponent principle, crime (warfare, caste systems, hereditary privilege, tyranny, aristocracy, dictatorship, theocracy, and totalitarian ideology) is pathological. Thus the relationship of democracy to the “political” concepts subsumed in crime is similar to that of the healthy organism to infectious disease. The relationship is one of constant strategy and counter-strategy, innovation and adaptation, with the predators on humanity exploiting every novel condition as an “opening” to establish their infection. Thus, political crime, embodied in caste, aristocracy, or kingship, is “normal” and “natural” to human societies, in the same sense that infectious disease is endemic to it. That “normalcy” does not mean that crime is either desirable, or that we should passively tolerate it. Democratic thought and action constitute the practical strategy for surviving the pathology of tyranny, just as understanding biology and practicing cleanliness are the practical strategy for surviving the ever-variant assaults from disease.

Those of you interested in American politics may want to compare Phil's analysis to this front-page post at Daily Kos.

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Thursday, April 03, 2008

Human rights, religious freedom, and tolerance in Canada

Phil Paine has written at an essay on a human rights case in Toronto entitled Distinguishing between real and fake human rights issues. followed the link and page down Wednesday, April 2, 2008.

Although Phil does not have a comment section on his website, he encourages replies from his readers. Drop him a line.

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Monday, March 31, 2008

Mississauga and New Orleans

Phil Paine has a new essay at his site: The Poisoning of a People (page down to the entry for Saturday, March 29, 2008).

The Mississauga disaster he refers to was handled so well that people in downtown Toronto, like me, were hardly affected, when indeed it could have disrupted the entire metropolitan area.

Image: The Mississauga train derailment.

Update: After reading Phil's piece, read this.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Phil Paine: What a game show says about Canadian politics

Over at Phil Paine (who else?) talks about what he concluded about Canadian politics after watching a recent TV game show called Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister.

Among the things he claims Canadians don't care about in the voting booth is sex:

Unlike in the U.K. or the United States, I can’t think of any “sex scandals” in Canadian Politics. We simply don’t care about the sex lives of our politicians, if they have any. It’s just something we never think about.

I'm sure that someone can dig up a sex scandal, but after about four years of reading pretty much daily on American politics, I'd have to agree that the difference is like night and day.

Thank Heaven!

More good stuff here.

A template used by deputy returning officers to help visually-impaired voters.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Dacia, Decebalus, and Sarmizegetusa

Today in Ancient Civilizations class I will be discussing the era of the Officially Good Emperors and will touch on the emperor Trajan's conquest of the kingdom of Dacia (roughly modern Romania over the Danube). About a year ago a good friend of mine was trekking through Dacia and visited the ruins of its pre-Roman capital, Sarmizegetusa. His account and reflections on Dacia are here. The various episodes are in blog-order: You have to start with the entry for May 12 or 13 and work up the page.

Image: The ruins of Sarmizegetusa today.

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

The rectification of names, 2

Back in January, I talked about the Confucian notion of rectification of names and how the words "irony" and "ambiguity" routinely confuse sensible discussion.

Today I'm linking to Phil Paine's discussion of the phrase "cultural evolution," (page down to the entry for March 15, Barking Up the Wrong Tree) in which he brings to the fore our confusion about "culture" itself.

Highly recommended. Once you've read that, have a look at the previous entry on that same blog page.

Image: A 15th century depiction of Joachim of Fiore.

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Old world and new world agricultural origins

Phil Paine has for years been a critic of most archaeological reconstructions of early human history, both older ones that emphasized large scale migrations to explain technological (agricultural) change and newer ones that explained agricultural innovation by very slow adoption practically farm-by-farm.

In this blog post, "I Called the New World to Redress the Balance of the Old"... A Final Word on the European Neolithic (under Friday, March 7, 2008), Phil suggests that since evidence about the "New World Neolithic" is much more available than that about the European Neolithic, perhaps that evidence can be used to rethink how ancient innovation and ancient economies worked in the Old World. In the process he tells an interesting story of the Three Affiliated Tribes, and zings the notions of "simple" and "complex" societies and the idea that prehistoric trade was only ceremonial gift-giving.

You really need to read the whole thing, but here's a big excerpt to spark your appetite:

When I look at this kind of large-scale trade network [on the Great Plains], what strikes me most dramatically is that sedentary agricultural people, prairie nomads, fishermen, and isolated bands of hunters all participated in the trade network on an equal basis, and trade was of economic importance to all of them. People could not, in fact, be automatically pegged to a specific category, and there is no evidence that particular modes of production constituted a fixed evolutionary sequence, or distinct “levels”. People who lived as mobile hunters in also operated large-scale copper mines that supplied customers as far away as Mexico. Other “nomadic” people set up large permanent fish weirs in order to sell the products to distant farming villages, though they could easily have lived comfortably off of hunting in their area. This did not in any way alter their self-identification with linguistic and cultural relations who did not do this. All these intricate variations lead me to conclude that the trade-networks long predate agriculture, and that agricultural villages expanded into areas, like the Upper Missouri, already well-known through trade and travel. The sites of villages were selected, I believe, because they were already known to be productive centers of fishing, harvesting wild prairie turnips, berry picking, and good places to drive herds of buffalo over bluffs. North America’s network of rivers was an effective system of highways that could carry goods and people swiftly over long distances, and this network was as familiar to everyone as English people are now familiar with the M4 and M6. Significant gaps between agricultural regions along the Missouri, as well as clear traditions of migration (the three Tribes each arrived from different directions) demonstrate that a slow-moving “wave-front” of agriculture was not how agriculture spread, at least in this part of the world. All the evidence points to agriculture being a practice that took advantage of an already extensive trade and transport network to establish itself at strategic nodes, which were already significant for fishing, specialized hunting, as pre-agricultural trading places, or for the availability of specialty products. The Three Tribes were as much concerned with the availability of suitable construction timber as they were with the fertility of the soil, when they placed or moved their villages, and it is not accidental that a major move created a new village called Like-a-Fishhook. The scale, complexity, and economic importance of long-distance trade networks has long been familiar stuff among New World archaeologists, but somehow, this has had only reluctant, and devalued influence on the theoretical framework of European prehistory. There, old habits that regard commerce as ignoble, travel as unnatural, pre-ordained stages as the essence of history, and hierarchy as the preferred ordering principle of society still shape attitudes toward the past. Such ideas, of course, influence New World archaeologists and historians as well, but apparently not quite so rigidly. So, what do these examples from , where we have some secure knowledge of social systems and economies, have to say to us when we contemplate Neolithic Europe, where we have none?
They can tell us nothing for certain, but they can give us a good idea of what was possible, and even what was most likely.

What seems most likely to me is that agriculture spread through Europe by plugging itself into an already-existing network of trade and travel.

Image: Life on the Upper Missouri some time ago (George Catlin, 1832).

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Monday, March 03, 2008

The Second Meditation on Dictatorship

Phil Paine continues his series of meditations on dictatorship and democracy here.

I think anyone with a serious interest in history should think about this statement:

I argue that there are no necessary or predestined “stages” in the organization of human society. Morally good and beneficial democratic social arrangements can be made at any time and in any place, by any group of people, large or small. Language, ethnicity, location, and degree of wealth are not structurally relevant to democratic practice, and democratic practice does not originate with, or “belong to” any particular cultural group. Similarly, dictatorship can occur in any human group. Immoral, diseased societies can be made at any time, in any place, by any group of people, large or small. Both possibilities always co-exist.

And of course there's much more, including a call for action.

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Phil Paine's Meditations

Peawanuck and the rest of the wide world

By some people's standards I live in a remote location, but face it, I've got a paved road in front of my property and high-speed internet service over my phone line (and it works real good). But I get the feeling of remoteness sometimes: the occasional wolf-howl in the distance, the fact that I can see hills in the distance that are in a roadless part of Quebec, my inclusion, on CBC Radio, in a broadcast area that includes the James Bay coast. Sometimes I hear about conditions Peawanuck near Hudson's Bay.

Phil Paine knows Peawanuck better than I do
and uses it as an example to make a point, much more effectively than I did sometime ago on this blog: we think pre-modern people were immobile when in fact many of them saw the opportunities and even the pleasures of long-distance trade and travel, and were perfectly capable and willing to make long journeys. My examples were kings and generals and warriors. His are "ordinary working people," people who live in the same province as Phil and I. His example is the stronger one, because these people do, and have, covered vast distances to do ordinary things, like buy tobacco. Says Phil:

The people of Peawanuck, the Weenusk, form part of the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation and are governed by the Mushkegowuk Tribal Council. Most people there live by hunting, fishing, and trapping, or by guiding the occasional adventurous tourist to see the polar bears and other wildlife, or to fish in the Winisk river system. It’s a fine little place. It has some social problems, and young people must leave to find work, but culturally, it is strong, and traditional language and customs thrive.

The reason I bring up Peawanuck is that, until the 1950’s, there wasn’t much about life in the village that would have been out of place in Mesolithic Europe. Certainly, in the 19th century, life in Peawanuck would have been almost indistinguishable from a settlement in the far north of Europe in 6000 BC. When I look over the maps and site reconstructions in archaeological reports from, say, the Ertebølle culture of ancient Scandinavia, everything about them looks familiar. Everything is comprehensible. I have no trouble visualizing the lifestyle. That’s why, when I read discussions among archaeologists about prehistoric Europe, sometimes they ring true to me, and sometimes they don’t.

What rings the most false to me are the assumptions that prehistorians make about mobility, travel, and trade. There is no question that there was extensive trade across prehistoric Europe. The distribution of artifacts shows this. But it is still customary for archaeologists to assume that people didn’t travel any significant distance, and that trade was "not really" trade. ... [T]his image of a pre-modern, or a prehistoric person existing in a tiny cocoon of ignorance, unable to move or think outside of a few acres, simply doesn’t accord with what I know about a hunting and gathering lifestyle that still exists, and existed in relatively pristine form, only a short time ago.

We know exactly how much Peawanuck's people traveled, traditionally, and how far. Normal connections of trade, family visits, friendship, and political contacts on a personal level extended from the Winisk river (the “homeland”) as far east as western Quebec, as far west as Norway House in Manitoba, all along the Hudson’s Bay coast as far as the Chippewyan territories in the northwest and the Innuit settlements in the northeast, and as far south as the height-of land in Algoma, and the shores of Lake Superior. This is still the rough area within which people are likely to have some relatives, or other personal connections. This area is larger than France.
There's more detail at Phil's blog under February 20.

Image: A map of Northern Ontario. I live very near the bottom right corner, near but not in the North (as Ontarians reckon it).

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

People like us

Phil Paine, in reviewing an otherwise excellent book, notes:

There is only one embarrassing passage, where he talks about the "emergence" in the fourth millenium BC, of "literally self-conscious people, people like us, self-contained and self-aware". The notion that human beings in some period or culture were not self-conscious or self-aware, and suddenly became so because of some sudden transformation, is, as far as I can tell, nonsense. Yet it constantly pops up in historical, anthropological writing, based on the flimsiest reasoning. One might as well claim that people became "self-aware" in 1950, because then they began to make individual purchases with credit cards.

I further note that this sudden transformation always seems to have taken place in the period which the scholar is studying; kind of like "the rise of the middle class" did in a different era of scholarship.

Update: Oops, just read a current article which talked a lot about the "bourgeois public sphere." Sigh.

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Saturday, February 09, 2008

Well, I was wrong -- the children of Lidice

After the last post I read Phil Paine's First Meditation on Dictatorship. Those of you who were tracking Phil's European journey may have wondered why his reports (see tag at the end of the post) abruptly ended. Read the Meditation and find out.

You should know, if you don't already, that Lidice is a Czech village that the Nazis destroyed down to the last house-pet and corpse in the graveyard. And, of course, the last child.

Some excerpts:

Nearly half the world still lives under the boots of dictators. ...You have to keep reminding yourself of the most important and essential fact about these criminals: every one of them has a Lidice. Every one of them. They are all murderers of children. Some of them are responsible for dozens of Lidices, or hundreds of Lidices, or thousands of Lidices. But there is always a Lidice for any dictator.

Dictators only rule because we allow them to. They cannot rule unless they are given legitimacy by the world’s financial and political institutions, and all the world’s political and financial institutions conspire to do exactly that. They are given the power by us to buy the weapons with which they murder, torture, and make war. They are given the power by us to spend the riches that they extort from their victims, and they are allowed by us to bank their stolen goods in banks, and they are allowed by us to flounce around the globe, bragging of their crimes, without fear of ever being arrested, tried, or punished.

Read the rest here.

Image: Monument at Lidice, via Phil Paine.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Afghanistan and Iraq: the cost of war

Phil Paine writes on Canada in Afghanistan, asking how much is it costing, and for what?

And on the American front, suicide...

Image: A two-time attempter (see the Washington Post article).

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Phil Paine on Canada's economic future

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Suckers for the old con-games

That's what we are, according to a new essay at I am told that we can expect a series of Meditations on Dictatorship, to go along with the Meditations on Democracy.

It might be worth looking at this material while you are at it.

Image: From the site of "Australia's Honest Con Man."

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Phil Paine on microfinance, and more

Phil Paine has posted on his blog two new pieces worth reading. One is on microlending, where lenders strategically lend small amounts of money to entrepreneurs in poor parts of the world, and on a development that makes it easy to take part in microfinance.

The second is a critique on the usual distinction made between "simple" egalitarian societies and "complex" entities like empires.

Both are highly recommended.

Image: A microfinance self-help group. Read about it here.

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Monday, November 05, 2007

Phil Paine's Fifth Meditation On Democracy

Most of my ideas of history and politics have evolved in the context of a long-established dialogue with Phil Paine. He is the most original thinker I know and the value of his insights has been proven to me again and again over the past three and a half decades. His recent series of Meditations on Democracy is perhaps his best writing to date, and today's Fifth Meditation the best of the best. It follows in its entirety. If you haven't read the first four, you can also find them at Phil's web site.

Monday, November 5, 2007 - Fifth Meditation On Democracy

It’s my contention that both hierarchical and egalitarian behaviour are equally “natural” to human beings. These two methods of interacting with others in a group have co-existed in all human societies, from the earliest stages of our evolution as a species. It is also my contention that, while there is a limited place for hierarchical thinking and behaviour in a good society, it is egalitarian thinking that has created civilization and morality. Any society that is dominated by hierarchy is essentially backward, self-destructive, and immoral.

There are no necessary “stages” in history, and no predestined sequence of political structures, though a particular polity may “evolve” in the sense that it may become more just or better at recognizing and protecting the rights of its people. It may just as easily “devolve” and become less just and more savage. It is the continuing concentration of effort towards justice by a people that makes justice happen, not some nebulous, abstract economic or historical process. Morally correct decisions have to be made, and real action must be taken, by real individual human beings. Just laws have to be made, agreed upon, and obeyed. An advanced ― that is to say a just and moral ― political structure can be created by any group of human beings, at any time, in any place, at any level of technology or degree of prosperity. The “technology” of justice is intellectual, not physical. It has to be discovered, invoked, and implimented, but it is not dependent on any particular kind of physical environment.

This last statement needs some exemplary illustration. The world’s history has seen a great variety of “polities”, that is to say, groups of human beings organized into political units. Some have been relatively advanced, measured by the standard of respect for human rights and dignity, others have been backward and barbaric. But historical periods, wealth, and technological gadgetry do not determine which is advanced and which is backward. Ancient Yaudhiya and Athens were more politically advanced than the large Mauriyan and Alexandrian empires that succeeded them. Germany in 1940 was equipped with some of the world’s most advanced technology, and had inherited a treasure of art, science, literature and accumulated knowledge ― yet, politically and morally, it ranked below the most primitive societies of headhunting barbarians. The same is true of all Communist states, which exist on a level of political savagery, despite whatever atomic weapons, skyscrapers, or space craft they produce. The smallest, humblest democracy is immensely more sophisticated than any state ruled by a dictator. Little, democratic Iceland is more advanced in civilization than the Roman Empire ever was, or the France of Napoleon, or of Louis XIV, or any of the empires of the world, no matter how many pyramids and victory arches they erected. The mere fact that an empire is an empire, or a kingdom is a kingdom, makes it inferior. A single village in Vermont in 1850, with its democratic town meetings, was a thousand times more politically advanced than the present government in Washington, ruled by a self-declared “Decider”, and managed by a crew of barbarian henchmen, and attended by a castrated legislature of uncontested incumbents who can be bought, like low grade ground beef, by the pound. Those who want America to be an Empire are not seeking to empower it, they are seeking to degrade it and destroy it. Those in Canada who want us to act as servants and cheerleaders for such an empire likewise seek to degrade and destroy Canada. That is why I oppose them.

Wealth is not civilization. Size is not civilization. Technology is not civilization. Those are not what determines whether a society is civilized. However, I am not making a case for any kind of Rousseau-an nostalgia. The techniques most useful to civilization have a long history, going back to our earliest beginnings as a species, but they have only sporadically been identified, practiced, and improved. We have much to learn from ancient, tribal, and pre-industrial societies that is useful and important. But on the whole, societies in the past have been more violent, less just, and more dangerous than some of the best polities that emerged in the last two centuries. It’s our duty to take advantage of the cumulative experience of the human race, from all times and places, wherever we have lessons to learn and experiences to learn from. Every successful innovation, no matter who made it, should be incorporated into our common treasure of wisdom, and every mistake should be acknowledged, studied, and remembered as a caution. The greatest weakness that pre-literate societies had was that they had difficulty remembering what they had done well, and constantly repeated the errors of the past. We don’t have that excuse. If we don’t learn from the horrors of the Holocaust, the Gulag, and the Laogai, what excuse could we offer?

For example, we have the glaring example of Germany and Japan. In the late 19th Century, both those countries experienced spectacular economic growth. This material success was not accompanied by any significant development of democracy. They remained under the rule of decrepit aristocracies and military men, while their economies expanded, and foreign investors flocked to invest in them. The eventual consequence of this lopsided development was to plunge the world into two gigantic wars, enable the demented slaughter of millions of innocents, and encourage the growth of obscene “philosophies”, like Marxism and Nazism, dedicated to the enslavement of human beings. Today, we can see exactly the same pattern forming in China. The Chinese people have worked hard, under extremely difficult circumstances, and have created a miraculous new prosperity. This is the product of the dynamism, creativity, and courage of the people, not of their rulers. But the rulers are still there, in power, a rotting, putrescent gang of aged mass-murderers and psychopathic criminals. There has been no progress in developing democracy, the absolutely essential ingredient of civilized life. The eventual consequence of this failure will be as horrible as that which befell the world the last time this error was made. At this stage, a dramatic change would be necessary to avert impending disaster.

Here in Canada, and more dramatically in the United States, with whom we Canadians have an intimate cultural bond, I have seen my society become progressively more conservative, more psychologically primitive, more militaristic, more cowardly, and more oriented towards hierarchy and mindless obedience. Over my lifetime, I’ve seen the fundamental ideas of liberty, of egalitarian ethics, of respect for rights, and of the dignity and sanctity of the individual human being evaporate like milk splashed on a hot stove, leaving only an ugly stain and an ugly smell. I’ve seen independence, creativity and spontaneity, once the essence of our social customs, replaced by mindless conformity, callous brutality, and the cringing cowardice that characterize a backward, stratified society. I’ve seen the relentless poison of Conservatism destroy everything decent that we had accomplished, replacing science and reason with the mumbo-jumbo of witch doctors, rolling back sexual attitudes from those of free human beings to the moronic taboos and terrors of primitive savages, and simultaneously wrecking our once-creative economy. I’ve seen the vulgar, ruthless, malicious, stupid and inane systematically triumph over those who are honourable and principled in almost every aspect of our lives. In the United States, fundamental democratic institutions have been under systematic attack by Conservative ideology, with no effective resistance or opposition. In Canada, democratic institutions are in better shape than in the United States, but more by random good luck than by any conscious effort, or courageous defense.

The greatest menace to our society is the habit of submission to aristocracy. Aristocracy and civilization are incompatible. A civilized people has no “pecking order”. Civilized people do not worship celebrities, cringe before imaginary “betters”, or submit to “leaders” on the basis of alpha dominance. Civilized people do not have leaders. They lead themselves. Civilized people make group decisions by the reasoned processes of law, consultation, debate, and democracy, not by handing over power to some gang of charismatic apes. Civilized people make love, not war. Civilized people make and trade things, they don’t steal. Civilized people meet each other as equals, and judge each other as individuals, never as members of races, or ethnic groups, or castes, or classes, or any other termite-like collectivities. Civilized people respect the rights of others and demand that others respect theirs. Civilized people never sacrifice liberty or human rights for mere economic gain, or for the sophistries of realpolitik, or in a neurotic quest for the phantom of “security”. Civilized people never bow down before others, and never allow others to bow down before them. There is no rank in civilization. There is no authority in civilization, except the authority of nature and reason, the authority of two-plus-two-equals-four.

Dramatic changes in attitudes will be necessary for us to turn away from the suicidal path we have chosen. Not many trends indicate that we are making any of those critical changes. And yet, I continue to hope, continue to write, continue to explain and implore. There are no “laws of history”, there is no certain doom, and there is no predestination. What one generation destroys, the next can rebuild. We can have civilization, if we want it. Things can turn around. There are good, decent people everywhere. They only have to find the conceptual tools to see through the lies, schemes, and misdirection of the aristocracy, which are nothing more than larger versions of the swindles of petty criminals. Then, they have only to find each other, and act together. It is our self-doubt and confusion that gives the tyrants power, not any strength they possess.

It is not fit, not right, and not tolerable, that we the people should be ruled by apes.

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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Aristocracy, communism, and Burma

Now that the pro-democracy movement in Burma has been crushed, again, and the country has once again disappeared from the news, here's a link to what Phil Paine said about the situation about two weeks ago: no hope for democratic reform in Burma or many other places while the forces of world aristocracy dominate the scene. Here's a sample, read the rest at Phil's site.

So what can a supporter of democracy learn from this disheartening spectacle of tyranny, treachery, and hypocrisy?

First of all, it should put to rest the nonsensical idea that transnational corporations are in any way opponents of, or hostile to communist dictatorships. They never have been, and never will be. The global aristocracy sees and understands that a communist dictatorship is a corporation. A communist party is an organization whose purpose is to capture a population and enslave it, so that its production can be sold on the global market, for the benefit of a controlling aristocratic elite. The people ruled by a communist regime are its cows and pigs, and global business is perfectly happy to see them slaughtered and turned into salable products. The Party leadership is the corporation's board of directors and major shareholders. The global aristocracy recognizes them as an oligarchy just like themselves. It will happily do business with them, provided they play by the rules, fulfill their contracts, and don’t randomly expropriate global investments. No communist dictatorship has ever lacked eager investment and co-operation from major corporations.

This is what communism, as an ideology, is all about. It's what Marx intended, and what it has been in practice, in every case, without exception. Once in power, the regime may chose to use terror and slave labour to extract resources, in a crude way, such as Mao, Lenin, and Stalin did. They murdered millions to create the maximum state of fear and submission, then set the survivors to digging in mines or harvesting soy beans or sugar cane, and sold the product on the global market. But a communist regime may also set up a more feudal arrangement, easing the reins, giving their captive population enough elbow room to produce more efficiently by personal enterprise, but always retaining the power to extract a lucrative percentage, and always maintaining the ultimate power to crush dissidence and control all transactions. It is this hold on central power that is the heart of the communist ideology, not some particular arrangement of management policy. If the regime choses the looser option, it is not any less communist, and it is not in any significant way changing its ideology. Much nonsense has been written about China “abandoning communism”. This is not even remotely the case. Anyone who is naively waiting for “democratic reforms” to blossom in the regime will wait for eternity. As long as the cash flows in abundance, from global corporate and state transactions, the communist aristocracy will never voluntarily relinquish their power. Why should they? What would make them? In fact, the Party in Beijing has made it perfectly plain that any movement toward democracy among the people of China will be swiftly and brutally crushed. This will not change.


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Monday, September 24, 2007

Phil Paine's Fourth Meditation on Democracy

Phil Paine writes about human evolution, bullying, modern communications, and democracy.

For the first two meditations, see here, and for the third, here.

Image: The Pink Protest organizers in Cambridge, Nova Scotia.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Second meditation on democracy

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

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

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

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Friday, July 27, 2007

What happened to Phil Paine in Europe?

Some time back I promised to keep my readers informed about the adventures of independent scholar Phil Paine as he traveled across Europe. Some of his blog entries were linked to from here (use the label "Phil Paine in Europe" at the bottom of the entry here) until they abruptly stopped. Not, fortunately, because something happened to Phil. Or maybe something did. He explains:

My last week in Czech Republic involved experiences so emotionally intense for me that it has taken two months for me to mull them over. I visited two strikingly different mining towns. One was a ancient city where miners where powerful enough to build their own magnificent cathedral, where the carvings and frescoes represented miners and metalworkers at their tasks, along with the traditional holy subjects. The other was a uranium mine run as a concentration camp by the Communists. Another moving event was a visit to the site of Lidice, the town in which the Nazis exterminated the entire population, including the dogs and cats, removed all the buildings and even dug the bodies from the graveyards, all for the purpose of celebrating their brutality and omnipotence. All this was taking place in a disturbing contemporary background ― one of my hosts’ friends had just been nearly killed by Neo-Nazi thugs, who infest the country, and enjoy the tacit support and encouragement of the corrupt police.

I will discuss all these events in detail, as they become relevant. But, they have impelled me to put down this series of meditations.
The meditations are on the subject of democracy, something that he and I have long been interested and have published about. The first of them are here, listed under July 25, 2007.

More as it becomes available, including the interrupted tale of the European trip.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Modern conceits, man from Mars, baby in the well

I have just finished reading Ramsay MacMullen's Voting about God in Early Church Councils and I haven't entirely made up my mind about it. I will say that I'm grateful to the book vendor at Kalamazoo who had it on display!

MacMullen's books are not your usual academic tome. Voting like others of his works is based on vast scholarship, but the presentation of his ideas has been boiled down to a mere 118 pages (notes not included). This is thanks to a concise, allusive prose that occasionally takes some work to figure out. But there is no bafflegab or shilly-shallying here. Did MacMullen ever study the Roman historian Tacitus? This is an opinionated work and MacMullen has no time -- being nearly 80 -- to appease unsympathetic critics.

MacMullen appears a classicist through and through but there are some touches that really mae the book seem alive and dust-free.

First let's look at the opening lines:
Before getting very far into a subject so familiar as the formation of Christian creeds, it may help to think of it for a moment in a detached way. If the distance between it and ourselves can be brought out--if we can try to see the scene and its actors afresh and in all their strangeness -- we may bring a more curious eye to our observation, we may really look, taking nothing for granted.

Suppose for a moment that a visitor from Mars asked about the setting for this essay--and no one more detached can be imagined--might he not need to be told the most obvious things?
Well, no classicist or church historian that I'm aware of has begun an essay like that! The funny thing, though, I've been using the conceit of a visiting or observing Martian for decades for similar purposes, imitating the one person I know who's been doing it longer, my friend and sometime collaborator Phil Paine. He uses it a little differently, to force himself and his listener to take the Yakuts and the Patagonians and the Mordovians to be roughly as worthy of attention as the Swiss, the Swedes and the Californians if you are generalizing about humanity as a whole. Recently I've breezed past blog entries where the visiting Martian has made a brief appearance lending perspective, and I have to wonder, is this becoming more common? If so, if people take the exercise in perspective seriously, good!

Another passage of MacMullen's leaves me with mixed feelings. Talking about the widespread interest in doctrinal disputes during the later Roman empire, he says (p.35-36):
Our sense of how absolutely wonderful we ourselves are in our modern world may lead us to discount the capacity of the capacity of the ancient: for example, the capacity to disseminate ideas so as to engage popular interest...Their understanding of such major realities...beyond their own back-door, or realities that counted -- was not like the modern sort confined to meretricious photo ops, celebrities, or babies stuck in wells. Hence my supposing more consequential communication in this period of the empire than generally in our own world today.
Oh, Tacitus redivivus, you burst the balloon of our self-regard!

But when I get beyond my admiration for this passage, I wonder about it. I understand MacMullen's disgust for what passes for "media coverage;" in an era where the US constitution is being gutted and the treasury plundered (with inevitable consequences for the non-American world), the coverage all too often goes to (in a current phrase) Missing White Women. But is the comparison valid? Maybe Dr. MacMullen should look past cable news to the places where people who are interested in consequential matters meet and discuss more easily than ever before.

Also, I find this passage a bit odd in that I think Dr. MacMullen's personal opinion of church controversies is not really all that high. But more on the content of the book later.

Finally, the remark about the baby in the well made me wonder, what about that baby in the well? My younger readers may never have heard of that baby (Midland, Texas, 1987) but she was real and she was rescued, and if this website is accurate, she's a healthy adult today.

Image: Marvin the Martian, one of those hostile, all-too-engaged-in-Earthly-affairs Martians.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Phil Paine in Transylvania and other adventures

Phil Paine, who has been hitchiking around Eastern Europe, seeing historical sites and the current scene, is catching up on his travel blog.

Image: a view of Sarmizegetusa.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Councils in Venezuela (history of democracy thread)

Today's Washington post has a very interesting article on Hugo Chavez's Venezuela. It's about the founding of community councils to partially replace elected mayors and municipal councils. It's not exactly clear how these councils are constituted, but the article states that for "big decisions" the elected councillors have to go back to community assemblies for a final decision.

I don't know quite to think about it. I haven't bought into the official American propaganda about how evil and threatening Chavez is, since it's entirely self-interested, but neither do I trust Chavez. The danger sign for me is that his preferred political methodologies seem to be ranting at the population for hours on end about every subject imaginable, and throwing government money around like there's no tomorrow. He reminds me all too much of Castro the Omniscent, not to mention every 20th century dictator you've heard of and all of those you haven't.

Also, the use of "community councils" can be a mere mask for dictatorship. Khaddafi abolished all the government institutions of Libya in favor of assemblies supposedly inspired by Berber customs, but guess who still controls everything, notably the energy revenues that constitute practically the entire economy the country?

Going back a couple of centuries, there are also the "section assemblies" of Paris during the Revolution that gave democracy such a bad name in Europe during the 19th century. "Section assemblies" were grassroots neighborhood groups that elected an electoral college which elected members of the National Assembly. After they chose the electoral college -- by voice vote -- the people were supposed to go home and let their betters run the government and guide the revolution. Well, a lot of them came back the next day, and the next, and the day after that and in the name of the people continually critiqued the elected government.

Sounds all very democratic, yes? Unfortunately, the sections in Paris became dominated by people convinced that they knew what the people wanted, and that everyone who opposed the people were evil "aristocrats." Continual voice votes in each section allowed the local aristocratic stooges (not necessarily nobles or even rich) to be identified and expelled. The sections, full of zealots, set up a communication network, armed themselves, and eventually seized control of the capital. This was a further step to dictatorship and government by Terror.
(The awful flavor of the word "terrorists" comes in part from the open use of terror -- revolutionary justice dispensed by kangaroo courts leading to execution -- by the resulting regime.)

So these community councils could go nowhere or worse. On the other hand, according to the WP article, there's a lot of enthusiasm on the popular level for this experiment, even among opponents of Chavez. Some people think that the old institutions of local government, which go back to colonial times, are worthless and the new councils may provide a way for them to solve some of their own problems. I direct you for some relevant thoughts about the vital role of local government in real democracies in Phil Paine's blog (under Sept. 25).

Good luck, Venezuela!

Image: Chavez surrounded by "the people"(?).

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Phil Paine in Europe -- Prague

Phil Paine's account of his trip to Europe has been interrupted by the inaccessibility of Internet connections in places like Transylvania. But now he's in Prague and beginning to catch up.

Image: Lots of people crammed into a picturesque old street, sans tacky signs.

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Phil Paine in Europe

Not going to Europe but wish you were? Independent scholar Phil Paine is enjoying his first trip there in some years, and writing a colorful and intelligent commentary while he does so. (I love the Internet.)

If you want to tag along with him, go here and start with the April 28 post; then go here and start at the bottom.

Image: London's Guildhall.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Help send an independent scholar to Transylvania

Phil Paine, my sometime collaborator, is going to Transylvania. He's still raising funds for the trip. If you have work he could do from a Toronto base, have a look at this post and his description of contract research work he's done in the past.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Democracy and ideology

Phil Paine talks about democracy as Childhood's End. (See April 9 entry.)

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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Current problems in the history of democracy

I have a long-standing interest in the history of democracy as a world phenomenon. What I've written on this subject has been done in collaboration with Phil Paine.

Recently Phil has been writing in his blog about the coup in Thailand. Thailand, he points out, is a pretty important country with a lot of potential and a lot of problems. After reading various news sources and corresponding with people from Thailand, he has concluded:

The fact that Prime Minister Thaksin just happened to be the richest man in the country makes it plain that his regime was "democratic" in name only. That is not what happens in genuine democracies. It is clearly no real loss to the world democratic movement that he has been ousted, even though the precedent of military action is extremely damaging. But Thailand is still left in the position of having no real democratic infrastructure.
What is a democratic infrastructure? It is local democratic institutions well-integrated with higher levels of government:

In a functioning democracy, a head of state gets into their role by working their way through layers of public service, until they have proven themself responsible to larger and larger electorates. The most successful national democracies were built on foundations of democratic process on the local level.

Thai democracy, says Phil, was a "shell" or "mock" democracy, because no such process produced the regime of Prime Minister Thaksin.

Phil then makes this further point:

The existence of such shell democracies or mock democracies is more of a hindrance to evolving functioning democracies than outright dictatorship. With a crude dictatorship, the problem and the alternative are clear. With shell democracies, ordinary people are left with the impression that this kind of "big man" autocracy is what the word "democracy" is supposed to mean, and so the idea of democracy itself falls into disrepute.

Speaking of things that throw democracy into disrepute, what can one say about the current situation in the United States, a country that likes to think of itself as the foremost champion of democracy? Congress, under a great deal of pressure from the White House, seems set to pass a bill not only legitimating torture, but abrogating the principle of habeas corpus. Habeas corpus is a procedure which says no one can be imprisoned unless a court determines that there is legitimate reason to do so. Although the current bill is being presented as a defense against foreign terrorists, Americans too could be arrested and held indefinitely under its provisions.

I will restrict myself to saying that although English warlords of the 13th century, when writing Magna Carta, keenly appreciated how important the principle and procedure was to their continued freedom, Americans of 2006 seem to be largely oblivious to what is happening, and their elected representatives are going to pass the bill.

This is a major event in the world history of democracy.

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