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May 19, 2013

Common origins

DNA studies are turning out some interesting findings and solving some of the mysteries of history and sometimes creating some interesting paradoxes. For example, African-Americans who trace their genetic ancestry through the male line are often finding that their ancestors came from the British Isles. Deeper in history, recent DNA investigations show that the “native” populations of Europe were all but obliterated by migrations into the continent in the Neolithic age from around 4000-6000 years ago.

The invaders brought with them new skills and farming cultures that likely simply overwhelmed the local hunters and gatherers. This would be similar to what happened in North America with European contact. Only a very small percentage of the North American population is genetically related to the population that lived on the continent in 1492, although in the ancient case the process took 2000 years and not only a couple hundred. 

 This replacement, however, is evidently not as common as we might think. When I learned anthropology, we were still influenced by the experience of European colonization. Even if "modern" scholars of the 1960s rejected the theories of the 19th Century, they - we - were still living in their patterns. We knew that populations could be replaced because we had seen it done and we postulated that back into the past.

Our literature seemed to support this paradigm. There were heroic stories of ancient foundations and ancient people often claimed heritage from pioneers. Aeneas brought his Trojans to Italy and they formed the core of the Roman people, according to legend. Clearly languages spread geographically. Latin spread over most of Western Europe and it makes some intuitive sense to think that people came with it. The same goes for Arabic in later times. But the spread of English in modern times shows the flaw in that argument. Of the many modern speakers of English, only a minority have predominant or even significant ancestry in the English population of 1492, for example. The English migrated, that is true; their language migrated farther.

An interesting counter example is Finland. Finnish is a language of northern Asia and the "original" Finns were Asians. Over the centuries, a steady immigration from Scandinavia changed the genetic nature of the Finnish population while keeping the language intact

DNA is providing a more nuanced picture of migrations and assimilation. I read an article today that shows that the Minoans, the mysterious ancient people of Crete, whose language we still cannot read, were similar genetically to modern Europeans and modern Cretans. This tends to disprove 19th Century postulations, some of which I learned in school, that they were largest the product of some migration, maybe from Egypt or Africa. This supports a general observation that the core population of a place remains remarkably stable, despite significant changes in language, religion, customs and government. I recall an earlier study that indicated that most of the modern population of Lebanon was descended from the ancient Phoenicians. They are Arab in language and culture, but related more closely to the ancient people of Canaan than to the invaders who swept in form the Arab peninsula. In other words, the same families were at one time or another Phoenicians, Hebrews, Greeks, Syrians, Romans or Arabs.

It is tempting to take current situations and project them backward. One of things I really hate about some modern books or TV programs is when they take a contemporary map and project it back on past times. A modern map of Europe, for example, makes little sense when superimposed on the Europe of 1000 years ago. A few of the countries had similar names back then, most did not, but none of them were exactly where they are today nor was the culture the same.

The countries that became France, Germany, Spain or Italy just did not exist 1000 years ago, despite what current nationalists might assert, i.e. they were so different that it makes no sense to call them by those names. Most of eastern France had more in common with what became western Germany. They could easily have become the modern nation. Italy was divided up among people who could not understand each other's languages. Spain was mostly occupied by Muslims. Anybody who guessed at the future disposition of these places would certainly have been wrong. Modern nationalities simply do not project very far into the past. The people occupying the territory are fairly mutable.

Of course, migrations do happen and Vikings, Mongols and other disruptive forces spread their DNA far and wide, (something like 8% of the population of the former Mongol Empire is related to Genghis Khan, probably the result of thousands of short-term non-consensual relationships and the Mongol habit of killing all the men around) Nevertheless, established populations evidently abide for long times. They were really a nasty bunch, but part of our common history too.

I study ancient history and even more ancient anthropology because I enjoy it and most of what I know has little practical value. But I think that this information is useful. It shows the adaptability of humans and how we are very similar to each other despite our purported ethnic heritage. When someone says that his ancestry is German or French or anything else, it really is not a meaningful concept in the longer run of things. We all can become something else and we are constantly in the process of becoming.

My general view of history is that after events pass from living memory, history belongs equally to all of the current generation of mankind. I don't have to be a Greek to appreciate Greek history and there is no reason to believe that a contemporary Greek will understand the ancient history of "his" country any better than I can. We all are descended from the good people and the bad people of the past and none of us has any particular reason to be proud or ashamed of anything that happened long before we were born. But ALL of us should learn from the experience of the past and know it. As a Western man, I am an inheritor of Greek & Roman culture. I kind of see them as "my" people, but why? My ancestors were not primarily Greek or Roman. My ancestors were mostly those barbarians that the classical world disparaged and tried to keep out of the civilized empire. My relatives would be found farting in the Roman Forum just before breaking up the local shops and setting fires. If I was transported back to ancient Rome, they would see me as a barbaric Gaul or German. I would not be welcome. Yet it is not the ancient people of Gaul or Germany that inform most of my thought today.

My genetic ancestors have not very much to teach me from ancient times. They really were barbarians. They didn't write; they constantly warred and they tended to do silly things like rub butter on their hair. The main thing they did that I do too is that, according to the Roman historian Tacitus, they drank beer. This is interesting in two ways. First it is interesting to find out what my ancient ancestors did, but more importantly, I have to learn about it from a Roman. It goes to show who ruled and who just slopped butter on their hair.

May 11, 2012

Authors

HW Brands at Smithsonian 

Being back in Washington has the advantage of being able to do intellectual things, such as attending lectures, at low of no cost.  Alex & I went to two of them this week. We saw Jonah Goldberg launching his new book called the “the Tyranny of Clichés” at AEI and H.W. Brands talking about his new book, “The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr” at Smithsonian.  Both were lively speakers. 

Goldberg says that people use clichés as ways to shut off debate and delegitimize arguments they cannot win.  He gave the example of somebody saying “violence never solved anything.” This often ends a debate.  If you question the statement, it sort of implies that you support or at least accept violence. In fact, violence has solved many problems, especially violent problems.  And non-violence works only against people who are already not very violent.  Gandhi, for example, could be non-violent only because was facing an opponent - the British - that believed in the rule of law and was susceptible to persuasion. There may have been Gandhi type people in Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union but they disappeared into concentration camps of Gulags with their voices forever silenced. Usually, potential Gandhis were silence before they even said much of anything at all.  Nazis and communists were skilled at identifying and liquidating potential threats even before they were manifest. 

Hirshhorn  museum with projection 

I enjoyed the Goldberg speech, but it was more along political lines. The H.W. Brands was more intellectually interesting.  He is a historian talking about history and seems to have reached some of the same sorts of conclusions I have about historiography. In fact, when I relate what I recall he said, I am a little worried that it more what I think than a real description. 

Brands talked about the differences between writing novels and writing history.  Novels are more compelling to some people because you can have dialogue and you can know what people are thinking.  Historians almost never can do this. The problem is sources. People tend not to write down all their thoughts and even if they did, the letters or papers tend not to be preserved.

This is the big problem for biographers. Brands said that you can write about extraordinary people because people know that they should keep letters or make notes about what they say. You can sometimes write about ordinary people in extraordinary times because they know to write things down. That is why we can write history of common people during the Civil War because so many people wrote their thoughts.  I thought Brands took a courageous stand when he explained why he couldn’t write biographies of women.  Women, he said, tended not to have available sources.   

You could write a biography of Abigail Adams from her letters to John Adams, but that would mostly be a biography of John too.  In fact, that is what David McCullough did with his biography of John Adams.   This brings another interesting permutation.  The John & Abigail relationship is so rich for historians because they were so often apart when important things were happening.  If they are together, they presumably still talk about these things but they leave no record. 

Another disadvantage of history versus a novel has to do with conclusions.  A novel can produce a story with clear heroes, villains, beginning and endings. History is never so tidy. Beginnings and endings flow into each other and they rarely are clear. History never ends. 

I agreed with Brands’ distinction of mysteries from secrets. A secret is something you don’t know but in theory could find out.   For example, the plan of attack on Pearl Harbor was a secret, but it could have been known by the U.S.  A mystery is cannot be known. A mystery has to do with intentions and aspirations. Many times the person himself doesn’t really know what he wants to do before conditions become clearer. This is the case with the famous treason of Aaron Burr.  

Burr went west and was accused of planning to foment a war or maybe an independent movement in the West.  Brands says that there is no way to know what Burr really planned.  The circumstances never came together to allow him to make his move.   Brands also thinks that Burr probably did not have a firm plan in mind.  He didn’t know what he was planning to do. 

IMO, this is an important thing to remember in history.  We all like the good stories, but there are many mysteries in history.  They are not known to us now and can never be known. We like to think that all would be well if we could just have been sources, but this is not true. They are not unknown; they are unknowable.  

I kept on thinking of the dilemma of history writing. Is there history w/o historians? Obviously, things happen whether or not anybody is there to write them down.  But history is more than just a recording of one thing after another.  That is why we acknowledge Herodotus as the “father of history.” People recorded events long before Herodotus.  Herodotus’ contribution was to try to look at history through a kind of a system, to make explanations, not just record one damn thing after another. This means, however, that historians write their narrative and that their narrative is history. Brands gave the example of constellations. We recognize the big dipper, Aquarius, Scorpio etc. when we look at the night sky. But the stars that make up these constellations are in no way connected. They are thousands of light years apart. But once somebody points out the big dipper, you can never again look at the random jumble of stars w/o seeing the big dipper. We would hope that a historical narrative is more than a mere artificial imposition on a random and meaningless distribution, but clearly the intelligence of the writer imposes order. The interpretation is necessary to make it understandable, but it is not a metaphysical truth. Historical interpretations can change and they do.

In the end we didn’t talk very much about Aaron Burr.  Brands joked that we could get that story out of his book.  He did explain that he tried to write the book to be interesting like a novel.  He was able to do this because there was a good body of letters between Burr and his daughter Theodosia. For details, we need to buy the book.

My top picture shows Brands. He looks very severe in this picture and all the pictures I have seen on his books, but he is very engaging and friendly. The picture don't do him justice. Below is the Hirshhorn Museum. They had some kind of projection on the building. It was well done. It must be hard to project on a curved surface like that.  

January 01, 2012

How Violence has Declined & Why we Didn't Notice

Stephen Pinker is my favorite living philosopher of society.  Some would correct me and say that he is a scientists and not a philosopher, but the two can overlap extensively.  With all due respect to the ancient philosophers that I read and loved, many of the questions that perturbed them are now just “simple” matters of science.  For example, philosophers argued back and forth for years as to whether humans were “blank slates” influenced only by their environments or whether they were determined by physical or genetic factors. Recent advances in science have made this argument mute.  

People are born pre-programed.  A variety of talents, abilities, habits are inherited to some extent.  On the other hand, within these constraints human behavior and preferences are highly mutable.  (Science proved what any perceptive parent of more than one child already knew.)  I take this to mean that you can have a lot of freedom to change things if you recognize and work with nature, its gifts and constraints.  

That is what I liked about Steven Pinker’s book the Blank Slate when I read it about ten years ago.  At first you might feel a little discouraged.   Pinker points out that human propensity to violence, intolerance & sloth were bred into us during evolution.  Humans of the stone age who didn’t react quickly and violently to threats didn’t usually live long enough to become our ancestors.   The good news is that institutions of civilization and social constraints can (and have) made us behave in ways that are – well - more civilized and socially acceptable. 
 

I just started reading Pinker’s recent book, the Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.  I suppose that good intellectual rigor would dictate that I actually finish the book before commenting on the ideas, but I have read several reviews and I just finished reading an interview with the author in Veja that got me thinking about this.  There is a good recent interview here.  The best quick background is Pinker’s TED talk.  (BTW – TED lecture are really interesting in general.)

Pinker studied statistics on violent deaths. Of course there are no statistics on Stone Age people in the actual Stone Age, but it is possible to study more modern Stone Age people. It turns out that murder rates among primitive people about which we have records are astronomical. It is a myth that people were good and later corrupted by civilization. Civilization civilizes and it is better than the alternative "natural man." 

Historical records are spotty at first, but it is clear that life was much more dangerous and violent in any ancient or medieval period we study. Death was a penalty for all sorts of minor crimes. And was often inflicted in the most cruel way possible. Torture was common. Entertainments were cruel and bloody. But things improved, at least in the west.  

Despite the great wars and murder on an industrial scale, the 20th Century has been the least violent in history.  Of course, more total numbers of people have been killed, but that is because there are more total people.  The proportions are way down. 

Most people can vouch for this, if they think about it for even a short time. It is only in recent times that most of the population could expect to live a long life w/o ever being the victim of the deadly violence that was common to all humankind in the past. 

Pinker has to take a lot of crap for pointing out the truth.  One reason is simply because most people like to think they live in the most challenging times.  Beyond that, we have much better reporting.  If a couple people are killed in nasty ways anywhere in the country and increasingly the world, we get graphic and memorable details on the news.   

A counterintuitive reason might be that things are actually improving so quickly that it makes the remaining problems seem that much worse.  We repent much more sorrowfully the fewer acts of terrible violence because they seem more personal.   “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of a million is a statistic,” is as quote attributed to Stalin, who understood how to kill individuals and millions. It is nasty, but perhaps accurate. We get inured to lots of violence and more afraid of a little. 

Pinker also has to face what we might call the miserly industry.  Politicians selling programs and NGOs seeking donations need to paint the in the direst colors.   Pinker is a brave man to take this on.

Of course, why violence has declines is important. What goes down in human behavior could go back up.  Pinker does not think the explanation is that humans have improved or human nature has changed. He is too much a scientist to think these things.  He does not try to make a comprehensive explanation, but he mentions some possibilities.  The first is the rise of stable states.  He doesn't use the word strong, but prefers competent in the sense of keeping order and satisfying the basic needs of its people. Competent states must be strong, but not all strong states are competent. Nazis & communists had strong states.

Another explanation is free trade.  In one of the interviews, Pinker quoted that "we can't bomb the Japanese because they make my minivan."  Free trade goes with communications. The more we see people are being like us, the less likely we can treat them as sub-human.

We may be less violent because there is less incentive. Hunter-gatherers are always ready for violence. They sometimes commit violence because they fear violence from others and sometimes just to rip off their neighbors, which is one reason everybody fears violence from others.   War used to be profitable, at least for the winners.  Not so much anymore.  Finally, there is a prosaic reason of habit. Many of us have lost the habit of using violent solutions.

I don't think violence or war will ever go away, but we have seen less of it.  I have never been a victim of serious violence. I felt it personally when Alex was a hate crime victim. This is the kind of senseless thing you cannot purge. His attackers didn't know him or try to rob him. They merely acted out of the dark demons of human nature. I saw war in Iraq and like many observers, I was stuck by the banality of violence.  I saw violence drop not because of persuasion but mostly because the Marines and our Iraqi allies established predictable order.

Violence and disorder always lurks under our veneer of civilization. The threat never is gone. We have to work  all the time to channel the primitive passions and animal desires.  I say "channel" not suppress. These impulses are sources of our energy and creativity.  The uncivilized human is not evil or sinful, as was widely thought in some religious circles, but neither is there any such thing as a noble savage.  Both these notions have caused great misery, as have the ideas that human behavior is determined by genetics or that humans are blank slates on to which society can stamp any design.

Life provides us with a never ending series of constrained choices. It is certainly not true that anything is possible, but making good choices can expand our contentment as well as our ability to make more good choices. Some human problems are intractable and some "problems" are not really problems in the sense that they cannot be solved. If we ask the wrong questions, we will come up with the wrong answers. We will never achieve a society where everybody is equal because people are not equal.  We will never achieve a society w/o violence because people have  propensity to selfishness which sometimes leads to violence. 

But if we recognize constraints, we can achieve better results. "Going back" to a more primitive society is not an option. It would add to misery. Life was nasty, brutish and short in earlier periods.  Going "forward" to a utopia is also not possible.  Life is actually pretty good for most people in our Western market democracies and it is getting better for those in the developing world. Maybe we will just have to manage with what we have.

April 05, 2011

Habits of Self-Control and Self-Determination

The most successful 20% of the population behave differently from those at the bottom. They are more likely to be married, less likely to have children out of wedlock, more likely to work long hours, more likely to attend church regularly and less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol.  In 1960, there was little difference between the top and the bottom on the indicators measuring those things above. Today the differences are stark. 

Pantheon 

There is a kind of reverse hypocrisy at work today. In the past, hypocrisy meant pretending to be virtuous while doing less virtuous in your actual behavior. Today, the most successful Americans, as a statistical group, tend to act virtuously (again by the measures above) but hesitate to be identified as doing so. I am sure that they would consider that the virtue of being non-judgmental, but it could also be seen as a failure to lead.

I heard about this and other things at a very interesting lecture at AEI by Charles Murray.  He is writing a book that tracks the relative decline of American habits. He looked at American indicators from 1960-2008. He stopping in 2008 so as to avoid data that would include the current recession and also studied only the white population to avoid making the discussion about race and also study a population that has remained more stable, i.e. fewer new immigrants. According to his data, the population of 1960 was much more alike in its habits than ours is today. For example, the rate of marriage at the top was 86% while at the bottom it was 83% - hardly a difference. Today the rate of marriage at the top has dropped little to around 83%, but at the bottom it has gone below 50%. Out-of-wedlock births are still rare at the top, but approaching 50% at the bottom.  The hours worked at the top have remained stable, actually increased a little, at the top but dropped at the bottom. Church attendance has dropped in all groups, but still remains high at the top and has dropped like a stone at the bottom.  Murray explains that church attendance correlates with other forms of “social capital” such as volunteering for PTAs, giving blood etc. 

The inflection point was 1964.  Until that time, social indicators were actually improving for all groups, but they have declined since them for people at the bottom. Murray didn’t propose any solutions. Maybe he will in his upcoming book. He pointed out a couple of obvious things that could be overlooked, however. The first is that many problems affect mostly people at the bottom. People at the top live in parts of the city or suburbs that used to be relatively crime free and still are.

Their kids go to schools that used to be good and still are. Most of the people they knew were married and still are. Most of the kids grew up in stable households and still do.The changes since the 1960s really didn’t hurt them.

There is a kind of reverse hypocrisy at work today. In the past, hypocrisy meant pretending to be virtuous while doing less virtuous in your actual behavior. Today, the most successful Americans, as a statistical group, tend to act virtuously (again by the measures above) but hesitate to be identified as doing so. I am sure that they would consider that the virtue of being non-judgmental, but it could also be seen as a failure to lead. I heard about this and other things at a very interesting lecture at AEI by Charles Murray. He is writing a book that tracks the relative decline of American habits. He looked at American indicators from 1960-2008. He stopping in 2008 so as to avoid data that would include the current recession and also studied only the white population to avoid making the discussion about race and also study a population that has remained more stable, i.e. fewer new immigrants.

According to his data, the population of 1960 was much more alike in its habits than ours is today. For example, the rate of marriage at the top was 86% while at the bottom it was 83% - hardly a difference. Today the rate of marriage at the top has dropped little to around 83%, but at the bottom it has gone below 50%. Out-of-wedlock births are still rare at the top, but approaching 50% at the bottom. The hours worked at the top have remained stable, actually increased a little, at the top but dropped at the bottom. Church attendance has dropped in all groups, but still remains high at the top and has dropped like a stone at the bottom.  Murray explains that church attendance correlates with other forms of “social capital” such as volunteering for PTAs, giving blood etc. The inflection point was 1964. Until that time, social indicators were actually improving for all groups, but they have declined since them for people at the bottom.  

Murray didn’t propose any solutions. Maybe he will in his upcoming book. He pointed out a couple of things that could be easily overlooked, however. The first is that much of problems of society affect mostly people at the bottom. People at the top live in parts of the city or suburbs that used to be relatively crime free and still are.  Their kids go to schools that used to be good and still are. Most of the people they knew were married and still are. Most of the kids grew up in stable households and still do. The changes since the 1960s really didn’t hurt them.

Another thing he pointed out was the increasing sorting. People increasingly have choices. Colleges have gotten good at choosing smart people. They meet each other and marry each other, producing families with advantages of good habits, sound incomes and whatever advantages of talent nature has provided. The opposite applies to people on the other end.

Murray illustrated the changes with the people in the room. Older people – like me – are much more likely to have grown up in “non-elite” households. We still remember living in working class or farm communities. Many of us were among the first in our families to graduate from college. The young people in the room – our kids - grew up in families with college educated parents. They have no personal memories of anything but the educated, well-off lives. Our sorting methods work too well today. Ironically, relying on merit and making opportunity widely available will end up sorting people by talent and habits, locking in advantages.

Finally, Murray made the comparison to the Roman Empire, but not the usual one of decline. He pointed out that the Roman Empire continued to grow in power and glory after it lost the old republican virtues. He is right.

The apogee of Roman power came during the time of Trajan and Hadrian, more than 150 years after the fall of the Republic and even longer since the decline of traditional Roman “virtues” or what we might call Roman “exceptionalism.” America may well remain a powerful country w/o our traditional virtues. But we may well lose our exceptional abilities for self-government and self-determination, things Murray calls the American project, which has been with us since the founding of our Republic. Murray thinks this is worth saving, but he admits that Imperial Rome in the Second Century was a more orderly, prosperous and peaceful place than it had been under the Republic. Empires can be good at running things, but they do this by dispensing with freedom.   

January 26, 2011

Right Choices

We have been watching Downton Abbey on Masterpiece Theater. I usually don’t watch those soap-opera type programs about rich folks, but this one I like.  I think it handles the class system in an interesting way, a way that is not so common today.

Our usual handling of the social arrangements of any earlier time is to project our own values back onto them and criticize.  Most modern treatments pick villains and heroes.  The villains are the people in charge and they are villains because they are actively oppressing the plucky poor or the non-conformists, who are the heroes, of course.  It is an analysis along one dimension and allows both the viewers and the writers to lazily slouch into the familiar and well-worn rut.  

I am not old enough to recall events of 1912, but from what I read in history and literature of the period, I am fairly certain that it was not that simple. Downton Abbey gives us a more complete tapestry.  People live in the class system. Some like it more than others, but they live in a web of privileges and responsibilities. The servants feel pride in what they do and don’t want to lose their work.  People behave with grace and good manners.

Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, is the boss of the estate, but he is as much a servant of the estate as its master.  This is what I like about the character. He takes very seriously the responsibility of maintaining the estate, sees himself as a steward of the place, not its owner.  He would understand the saying that he didn’t inherit the place from his ancestors as much as hold it in trust for future generations. The estate is “entailed” which means that it cannot be divided and must be passed along intact to a male heir. This creates a problem, since the Earl has only daughters. His heir is a cousin, Matthew Crawley. He is brought to the estate, but is unenthusiastic about inheriting and taking on the responsibilities.  By the third episode, which is that last one I saw, he is starting to appreciate his responsibilities. Meanwhile there are a lot of other things going on among the personalities.  Of course, there is the old dowager who defends class privilege. She is an old battleax but not completely unlikable.  There is a rivalry developing with the Cousin Matthew’s mother. The rich girls are sometimes nasty. There are a couple of malcontents among the staff, but they are not portrayed in a heroic light. The coolest guy is the Irish chauffeur, who claims he is a socialist but not a revolutionary, but so far he has a small part.  Anyway, I look forward to the next episodes.

Re another story of class and responsibility, last week I went to see “the King’s Speech.” It is easy to find reviews about it, so I don’t need to summarize it. I recommend you read about it and go to see it. It is about King George VI, who had a stutter. A king has to make speeches and so he went to an eccentric speech therapist to help him overcome his problem. He had to make the most important speech of his life to rally the British Empire during World War II. What I liked about this movie was how it emphasized work, duty and earned success.  

Earned success. Some people would scoff at that. He was king and inherited his position. This is true. But I think it has to do with playing the proper role, as I mentioned above re Robert Crawley. He played the hand that he was dealt. The key is how well - or poorly - he played it.

I am no believer in the class system and I firmly believe that individuals should earn what they get. People today have many more choices about the roles they will play in society, but I do recognize the need and honor to play well whatever roles you end up getting.

One of the people in my life who I most respected was our Bogdan, our driver in Krakow. He didn't have a lot of education & he did a job that many would consider low-level. But Bogdan had natural dignity & integrity. He took great pride in doing what he did. After we got to know each other, he used to give me advice about people and places. In his 25+years driving around southern Poland talking to my predecessors, meeting people and often sitting near meetings, he had learned a lot of things that were practically useful. I remember one university dean telling me that he had been visited by five U.S. consuls over the course of his career, but always that same driver. Most importantly, Bogdan told me the truth. He told me when my Polish was good, and when it wasn't, told me when I needed to improve my mood or my attitude.

So is it better to have more or fewer choices? Like everything else in life, it depends; it is not all of one thing or the other. Maybe in the past we had too few choices and too little emphasis individual options. But today, IMO, we talk way too much about rights and not enough about duty. You cannot sustain one w/o the other. I liked the old Stoic idea that contentment depends on identifying and doing the right thing. This may not be the fun thing or the most expedient one, but in the long run it will bring the greatest happiness. My favorite metaphor is forestry. I can make a lot of choices, but all of them are constrained by environmental conditions and subject to random chance. There is no single correct choice, but some choices are much better than others & some choices are just plain wrong. Success depends on making good choices and following through with them, but even the best choices do not guarantee perfect results. That's life.

Maybe happiness means finding the place you best belong, liking what you do there -being good at it -and knowing that all your choices are both free and constrained. 

The picture up top is Chrissy. It is not related to the story, but she looks good.

January 22, 2011

New Classics

Who would have thought it? A new edition of Polybius in Loeb Classics. The first edition came out in 1922.  According to the preface of the new edition, the translator, a WR Paton, died in 1921 before really finishing the work, but the editors figured it was good enough, so they went to print. It was good enough until 1964, when the editors decided to contract another guy to polish it up. Unfortunately, work did not proceed really quickly.  In the 1970s the demand for classics was not what it used to be and the project was put on hold. For reasons not explained, in 1993, the fortunes of Loeb improved and work resumed. It was finished in 2009, so now we have the pleasure of a revised edition of Polybius.

Loeb Classics feature the classical language original, in the case Greek, on the left page with the English translation on the other page. That matters not so much to me anymore. I cannot read any of the Greek.  I bought the book more for nostalgia than for actual reading. Polybius was the first Greek author that I studied in depth, when I had the seminar in Polybius at the University of Wisconsin.  

I couldn’t afford my own copy (Loeb Classics were expensive) so I used the library, where it was on permanent reserve at the Greek & Latin reading room. Yes, we had such a place. It was down in the basement at Memorial Library. You would never go down there or find the place by accident. There was the musty smell of old paper. I remember there was a giant Greek-English dictionary on a pedestal table in the middle of the room. We always called it a lexicon instead of dictionary. I am not sure if there is a difference. I spent many hours down there, I was often there alone and the place was quiet. Quiet as a tomb seemed to fit. The wall of the nearby bathroom had erudite graffiti.

A couple years ago I tried to go down there again to see if the Greek & Latin reading room was still there, but they wouldn’t let me in. The guard – yes they had a guard – told me that outsiders couldn’t just go into the library, since I had no current connection to the university. Evidently weirdos were hanging around and I couldn’t convince them that the desire to see the Greek & Roman reading room wasn’t something that a weirdo would do. I understand the need for security, but I liked the idea that libraries could be open.

Polybius was a good author for a not-so-talented classics scholar. His Greek is relatively easy to read, since he wrote in simple declarative sentences. Reading Polybius was a kind of a double payoff. He wrote in Greek but he wrote about the rise of Rome. As I said, I won’t be reading the Greek at all, nor do I intend to read even too much of the English.  Buying the book fulfills and old desire.

I read the introduction and the Polybius’ own comments on the importance of history. It reminded me of the old days (both my own and the much older ones Polybius wrote about.)  He says “…the surest and indeed the only method of learning how to bear bravely the vicissitudes of fortune is the recall the calamities of others.”  It sounds a little like a schadenfreude advice, but I think that is an artifact of the phrasing and maybe the translation.   Maybe a better paraphrase could be “when we look back at the experience of other times and places, our problems don’t seem so tough.”

December 29, 2010

Gossip about Dead Celebrities

Roman city of Jarash in Jordan

I took the car in for routine maintenance at Fairfax Honda. They always treat me well; however it takes time to get it done. But I didn’t really mind.  I wandered over to Barnes & Noble across the street, bought a book – “Hadrian” by Anthony Everett – and for the price of a cup of coffee, and I suppose the book, got to sit and read in the Seattle Best coffee shop associated with the bookstore.

Roman ruins in Jordan 

Anthony Everett specializes in biographies of famous Romans. I read his earlier books about Cicero and Augustus, so I figured this one would be good too. So far, so good. I haven’t really gotten that much about Hadrian yet. The author is talking about the Roman world, which is as interesting. He admits that it is hard to write a real biography of ancient people.  The sources are just not that good and they tend to be sensationalized.

Hadrians arch in Athens 

For example, the big biographer of the first “Twelve Caesars” is a guy called Suetonius. He wrote distant in time from his subjects, so he includes lots of gossip and legend. The stories you hear about Caligula and Nero probably come from him.  In some ways ancient biography is like trying to get information from tabloids.  I read parts of the “Secret History” by Procopius when I was in school.  He writes about the Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora, who had been a circus performer and maybe a prostitute before she met Justinian.  Some of the parts are sort of like classical “Penthouse Diaries,” which is probably why these histories survived for more than a thousand years. I recall the line from one of those teenage films, that history is just the story of dead celebrities. That is not wrong.

Hardian's Arch in Jordan 

Everett point out that some new, or at least overlooked sources of information about the life of Hadrian are those architectural monuments you see in the pictures. When Hadrian visited or caused them to be build, there was always an inscription marking the event. Modern scholars can follow in Hadrian's footsteps by following the monument trail. Of course, archeology has its limits and is subject to significant interpretation. It can also tell you little of the person's inner thoughts, which is what many people really want in a biography.

Hadrian has recently become much more interesting to some segments of modern society because he was gay, or at least bisexual. To many modern readers, establishing justice and sound administration in the world’s greatest empire takes a back seat to sexual preferences of a man now dead for 1800 years. I think this is the “history as dead celebrities” school. But anything that gets people exploring the classics is probably a good thing.  Hadrian is one of my favorite emperors for equally venal reasons.

My mother bought me a Roman coin when I was ten or twelve years old. Alex has it now.  It was a silver denarius from the time of Hadrian and featured his profile on the coin. Roman coins are less valuable than you might assume, BTW.  (I think my mother paid around $10, which even in those distant days was not a great deal of money.) The Empires coin stampers made a lot of them w/o distinctions that excite collectors, such as dates and consistent mint marks. I suppose they are also easy to fake, although you can tell some fakes because they are smooth, like our coins today.  Romans stamped their coins, i.e. the pounded them with hammers, so the real ones, and good copies, show the evidence of that. I was happy to have it, nevertheless.  It put me in touch, I thought, with the brightest part of the golden age of the Roman Empire. I also have a “relationship” with Hadrian because of all his statues.  He was a vain individual and, anyway, it was imperial policy to make a cult of the emperor. So you find his statues all over the place.  I saw dozens in the “Roman” places I visited, such as Italy, Greece, Jordan & Egypt. Hadrian traveled all the time and evidently left a statue of himself wherever he went.

Although he was from a Roman family from Spain with some Carthaginian/Phoenician/African ancestry (the empire was becoming cosmopolitan) Greece was the place Hadrian came to admire most and he made Athens into a kind of spiritual capital of the Empire.  You can still see the evidence of his largess in Athens today.  Lots of what you think is classical around Greece is really from Roman times, or at least rebuilt by the Romans.

Everett talks a little about the ambivalent attitude Romans had toward Greeks, whose cleverness and sophistication they both admired and despised. This was no short term thing, BTW.  It persisted for many centuries and ultimately was one of the dividing lines between the Eastern & Western Empires.

“Greece” in those days did not include only the little country we think of today. Most Greeks and certainly most people who aspired to Greek culture, lived in places like Sicily, North Africa, Asia Minor (now Turkey) and Syria.  Alexandria, in Egypt, was a completely Greek city. Cleopatra was a Greek in ancestry, language & culture, descended from Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great’s generals.  Greeks of at least people who had become Greek in culture and outlook, ran the place from around 300 BC until around AD 700 when Muslim armies conquered them. Even after that, Greeks persisted until recently as merchants and craftsmen in Egypt and the Levant. Greek was the language of the whole Eastern Mediterranean, which is why the original language of the New Testament is Greek.   

The world would not see anything like this kind of cosmopolitan culture again until the 20th Century, when English came to play the “world language” that Greek played. 

Hadrian recognized the power of “Hellenism” and used it to strengthen the Empire.  He was not the first or the only person to try to melt the Latin & the Greek cultures, but he was among the most effective.  It is probably one of the reasons we call it Greco-Roman sometimes today.

I am a little ahead of myself. I have not finished the book yet. In fact, I have to put it off for a while.   During this week I am doing “self-study” for my Brazilian-Portuguese. I have to keep up with Brazilian news and finish two books.  One is relatively easy. It is “the Accidental President of Brazil” a memoir by Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who with his "Plano Real" was the individual most responsible for reforming Brazil into the very promising country we have today. It is a very easy and interesting book to read, and it is in English. I am learning a lot about modern Brazil from learning about Cardoso's life experiences. My other book, Brasil, País do Presente – O Poder Econômico do Gigante Verde” is much harder because it is in Portuguese.  It is not difficult Portuguese and since it Is mostly about economics many of the words are familiar variations of English terms. Beyond that,  the book is conveniently broken up into manageable sections, but it presents a challenge. I have to write up decent notes on both books by the end of this week, so Hadrian will have to wait.

The pictures up top show Roman ruins in Jordan at the edge of the empire. The picture with Chrissy is one of Hadrian's arches in that city, now called Jarash in Jordan, and the other one is Hadrian's arch in Athens.  You can see that he stuck with a kind of formula, but it worked for him. I was going to put in the pictures I took around Fairfax Honda, but I suppose I can post them separately. They don't seem to fit the story.

November 07, 2010

Historical Paradigms

Statue of JesusCathedral of St Thomas Moore in Arlington, VA overlookking US 50 

Writers lose control of their work as soon as somebody else reads it, since each reader will bring a different perspective and a different train of thought. If what was written is interesting, it will take on a life of its own. Readers may disparage the authors for claims they never made or praise them for insight they never had, but there is no use in authors trying to “correct” interpreters. Of course they can try to explain and get others to hop onto their own preferred train of thought, but the indignation some creative types feel when they find their work misinterpreted is inappropriate.

These are some of the insights I took away from a lecture by Patrick Allitt who talked about writing history during a Bradley lecture at AEI. Of course, as Allitt conceded, there are no truly new ideas and this concern with losing control of one’s ideas goes back at least as far as Plato. Plato purported to be concerned that his writings might be misused w/o him being there to explain and illustrate with examples. Of course, among ancient philosophers Plato was one of the most diligent about making sure that his works were copied and distributed widely, which is one reason we know Plato so well while many other ancient writers are known only in fragments or lost entirely. This illustrates the dilemma. Writers want to use the written word to communicate.They know, or should know, that their work may be misinterpreted, but they really still want to get it into the hands of those potentially unworthy consumers.

US Chamber of Commerce building in Washington 

BTW – What you will be reading below will provide an example of the slippage Allitt (and Plato) talked about. I take Allitt’s comments as my starting point, but I will riff off that, so unless I mention him specifically, he may not be to blame for some of the ideas.

Allitt’s was talking about historical writing and writing about conservatism specifically and he acknowledged another problem for writers of history. Where do you start? You can always go “back to the beginning” but when you arrive there you find that the beginning has its own roots in the past and this goes back endlessly.

Thomas St in Arlington, VA.  I just think this is a really pleasant neighborhood. 

Allitt thinks that a good place to start talking about conservatism in the U.S. is with the Federalist. America doesn’t really have conservatism in the sense that they might in places with ancient roots. Nobody can seriously advocate a RETURN to royalty, feudalism or the old empire, because we never had any of those things. The United States of America is a creation of human endeavor with some specific starting dates. There were no “Americans” (in the sense of people of the U.S.) before 1776 or 1787 (if you prefer the Constitution), and you could even argue for a more recent date.

American conservatism, according to Allitt, is more of an attitude than a specific set of beliefs. It is a outlook that looks for support in historical precedents and in experience, rather than sweeping theories that purport to completely explain current reality, or at least history, and are able to prescribe yet untried comprehensive solutions. To be conservative is to not believe in comprehensive changes and to understand that there is no finish line or a utopia attainable on earth. Human nature and the challenges faced by people are similar enough that we can understand and learn from the experience of people in ancient times, even though their lives were very different.

Rochambeau in Lafayette Park in Washington 

Unlike Marxists, conservatives don’t have a good explanation for everything that happens. Marx thought up all sorts of stages and rules of history. He provided a good narrative and even non-Marxists get caught up in his stages. Marx explained how we move from feudalism to capitalism and he projected how we would move out of capitalism into communism. Marx even developed a good way to smack down non-believers. They were victims of “false consciousness.” This explained content workers or peasants. They just were too dumb and misguided to understand their own plight, according to Marxists.

Although Marx was wrong in all the important details of his theory, it is attractive to have a story line. It is particularly attractive to intellectuals, because it is complex and knowable only to those who really study it. Beyond that, Marxism provides a specific role for intellectuals as the vanguard of the proletariat. What more could the mediocre PhD student with poor job prospects ask for?

Conservatism, in contrast, doesn’t have a theory with neat stages, each leading forward to the ultimate utopia where everybody is fulfilled and nobody even thinks about carrying out aggressions against their neighbors. Conservatives understand that people want different things and even the same person changes his preferences with monotonous regularity. History has no overarching goal or directions, according to conservatives. This means that conservatives cannot project progressive history onto current events the way progressives can. This puts conservatives at a steep rhetorical disadvantage. People like to have a detailed story about where things are going to go, even if they understand that the story is wrong and the goals practically unattainable with the methods proposed or by the people designated.

Conservatives become an easy target for the label of “do nothing.” In the field of government, conservatives often do believe in doing nothing, or at least doing less by government. There is a paradox of conservatives in government, since they are using a tool (government) that they think should be used less or not at all in many situations. It is tempting to leave it to those who want to use it, but that is impossible.

You may want to ignore politics, but politics won’t ignore you. Since there is no op-out option, conservatives have the responsibility to op-in and take the heat for being against changes that will ostensibly mitigate misery and help solve the people’s problems. It is not that conservatives are unaware of these problems or that they don’t want them addressed, it is just that they understand that government, although indispensable within its own sphere, is not the proper tool to deliver many changes that the people want. Conservatives in the American tradition are in favor of many changes, but are less confident that government is the proper tool.

Perhaps the central paradox of conservatism in the United States, and to some extent in other free market places, is the conservatives defend the free market, which it the most revolutionary system in human history. The free market means constant change, but it is change that bubbles up from below, from diverse and unexpected sources. There is no direction that can be predicted in advance. Historians often create what looks like a progress narrative by weaving ex-post-facto weaving together disparate threads, but it wasn’t like that at the time. The test of any theory is its ability to predict future events, not merely explaining the past in what seems to be a coherent way. By that measure, all the fancy theories of historical inevitability have been wrong. The free market is a process, but not a plan. That is how it works and why it delivers such radical change w/o making the promise.

Cultures can go along for decades or centuries with few significant changes, but when market forces get to work, suddenly change comes fast and furious. It is one of the things “conservatives” in from non-market cultures most dislike. **

So the liberal-conservative divide (defining both terms in the modern American sense, since liberal & conservative mean very different things in different places and times) is not about change or no change. It is a difference of whether the primary agent of change should be centralized and government or distributed and non-governmental. It is also not an argument about government or no government. It is about the size and the roles government should play.

A few odd & ends from the Q&A – One of the questions concerned leadership. Allitt pointed out that conservatives tend to believe more in leadership as the agency of change or progress. Liberals tend to believe more in wider historical forces. This is no surprise, given the more general philosophical differences.

He also pointed out the good historians try to be fair and impartial, but that they really cannot, since they choose the subjects to study based on their interests, preferences and what they think are important subjects, focusing attention on some areas by necessity means neglecting others. People also write about what they like or are passionate about. It becomes very hard not to take sides.

Allitt said that if you feel very good after reading a history, it is probably poorly done, since the historians has created, perhaps, inadvertently, a good guy-bad guy narrative. No matter how they look in retrospect, nobody thinks of himself as the villain of the story and they don’t go into conflicts expecting to lose. Historians sometimes don’t consider the motivations and aspirations of the losers, or at least the other side. History is often the story of people doing very bad things, but perhaps it would be enlightening to understand why they thought they were good or at least expedient. On the other hand the “heroes” are also always flawed. We can recognize this w/o becoming cynical about the good people have done or absolutely despairing about the evil. There are lessons to be drawn from both.

Speaking of lessons, Allitt said that we should not take more from lessons that they have to teach. For example, after World War II, historians and leaders took the broad lesson that they had countries had acted too quickly and w/o sufficient compromise. That was what contributed to the terrible war. So in the 1930s, the Democracies were more accommodating – appeasing the dictators. We now look at that as a big mistake, but at the time it seemed like a good idea – “peace for our time.” The experience of World War II gave us the need to act and prevent countries from falling to dictators. This had its own downsides. In fact, each situation is different. What works in one time or place may be just the wrong thing to do in another. Of course, it is easy to see that in retrospect and much harder when you are making decisions in a climate of uncertainty.

Anyway, if you are interested in this subject, I suggest you watch for yourself. As I said, I started with Allitt’s talk, but extrapolated. If you want what he actually said, you have to listen to him.

BTW - Fox News is featuring a series on conservatism that starts tonight (Sunday)

The pictures in this piece are unrelated to the text. I just like to put in what scenes I have noticed recently.The top shows Jesus in front of the Cathedral of St Thomas Moore in Arlington. A similar but much bigger and more famous Jesus looks out over Rio de Janiero; this one looks out over US 50, maybe as far as Glebe Road. Below that is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Building in Washington.  It is across from the White House on Lafayette Park. Next is Thomas St in Arlington VA. I just like that neighborhood, mostly because of the big trees. I walk that way to FSI.  Finally is Rochambeau, the French general who helped us win independence.  He is in Lafayette Park. 

BTW, for reasons I cannot explain, Rochambeau is also another name for the game rock-paper-scissors as well as for a stupid game some of us "played" as kids, which involves getting kicked in the groin. Actually, you didn't play voluntarily and I never understood the rules. It usually resulted in a fight or a quest for revenge. I do not think there is a relation to the general.

November 05, 2010

Justice for Poland

Below and at this link is a petition from the Kosciuszko Foundation. I understand that those unfamiliar with the controversy may think it is no big deal, but it makes a big difference to the Poles. You can see why when you read the petition.

IMO, the lack of knowledge on this issue is appalling. I had to explain to many journalists and political staffers that the Poles were invaded by the Nazis, that they never gave in to the Nazis, that many more Poles participated in the resistance & many more died than the more famous French resistance, that Poles served in allied armies, participating as pilots in the Battle of Britain and as soldiers all over Europe, that the Warsaw uprising of 1944 held back the Nazis for two months and at the same time stalled the Soviet advance, since after encouraging the uprising Stalin's troops paused and waited for the Nazis to destroy the Polish resistance in Warsaw, all the while not helping and in fact hindering relief efforts by others. Had it not been for this wait, the Red Army may have advanced significantly farther west, with fearful consequences for the future of freedom after the war. This is a largely forgotten history, with bravery and sacrifice unrecognized and unrewarded. Shamefully, at the end of the war Poland was subsumed by Stalin's evil empire. 

The communist government executed many of the brave resistance fighters, cynically labeling them "fascists". The communists were also a reason why Polish bravery in the war is so unknown outside Poland. The communists systematically denigrated the efforts of Polish resistance and the Home Army (Armia Krajowa) and surviving veterans were not given any justice until Poland regained its freedom, when they were already old men and women. You can see some of them marching in the picture at above & left.

I had the extraordinary privilege of meeting heroes like Jan Nowak Jezioranski and Jan Karski. These brave men risked their lives repeatedly moving in and out of Nazi occupied territory and even into concentration camps themselves, finding evidence and trying to warn the allies about the Holocaust and the fate of civilians populations in Poland. They and the millions of Poles (civilians as well as soldiers) who fought the Nazis and died at the hands of the Nazis deserve better than to be identified with their enemies and murderers.  The constant, ignorant use of the term "Polish camps" disrespects their memories.  Please read and sign the petition below.

Petition on German Concentration Camps
WHEREAS the media uses the historically erroneous terms "Polish concentration camp" and "Polish death camp" to describe Auschwitz and other Nazi extermination camps built by the Germans during World War II, which confuses impressionable and undereducated readers, leading them to believe that the Holocaust was executed by Poland, rather than Nazi Germany,
WHEREAS these phrases are Holocaust revisionism that desecrate the memories of six million Jews from 27 countries who were murdered by Nazi Germany,
WHEREAS Poland was the first country invaded by Germany, and the only country whose citizens suffered the death penalty for rescuing Jews, yet never surrendered during six years of German occupation, even though one-sixth of its population was killed in the war, approximately half of which was Christian,
WHEREAS educated journalists must know these facts and not cross the libel threshold of malice by using phrases such as "Polish concentration camps."
BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED that the undersigned request that The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and the Associated Press, include entries in their stylebooks requiring news stories to be historically accurate, using the official name of all "German concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Poland," as UNESCO did in 2007 when it named the camp in Auschwitz, "The Auschwitz-Birkenau German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940-1945)."
 
12133 Signatures
Alex Storozynski, President, Kosciuszko Foundation
Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka, Consul General of Poland in New York
President Lech Walesa, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
Piotr Cywinski, Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum Site
Robert Kupiecki, Ambassador of Poland to The United States
Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Chief Rabbi of Poland
Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Former U.S. National Security Advisor
Rabbi Moshe Birnbaum, Flushing, NY
Rev. Msgr. Peter Walter Zendzian, Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church
Lt. General Edward Rowny, U.S. Army (Retired)
Joseph E. Gore, Chairman of the Board, Kosciuszko Foundation
Prof. Norman Davies, Historian, Oxford, England
Ryszard Horowitz, Photographer, Auschwitz survivor
Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, Oscar-winning composer
Add your name to the list using the form at right.

Link to petition to sign.

Lisa Lewenhaupt, Individual
Gothenburgh, Sweden

Katarzyna Ramotowska, Individual
Goniądz, Poland
Juliusz Klosinski, Individual
Warsaw, Poland
Margaret Niznikiewicz, Individual
Easton, MA
Leszek Szymanski, Individual
New York, NY
Barbara Nowak, Individual
Highland Mills, NY
Janusz Nowak, Individual
Highland Mills, NY
Joanna Pietruszewski, Individual
Princeton, NJ
Karol Ostrowski, Individual
Elbląg
Robert Hryniewicz, President, Polish-American Students & Young Professionals (PASYP) Association
Cleveland, OH
Joanna Pietruszewski, Aegis Restauro, LLC
Princeton, NJ
Jewls Rogowska Teneva, Law Offices of Jewls Rogowska
Philadlephia, PA
katherine storch, Individual
plymouth, mi
Reginald S. Stapczynski, Individual
Andover, Mass.
Chester Szarejko, Individual
Little Neck, NY USA
ann bostelmann, Individual
connecticut, USA
Tekla Simon, Individual
Elkins Park, PA
Walter J. Bayer II, Individual
Long Bay, Anguilla,
Hubert Waniewski-Raglan, Individual
Washington DC
Agnieszka Simon, Individual
Elkins Park, PA
Kathleen Nowicki Schwartz, Individual
Birmingham MI
Breann L. Szmurlo, Individual
USA
Marion Szarejko, Individual
Little Neck, NY USA
Karol Sulimirski, Individual
Murphy NC 28906
Jagoda Minkowicz, President of Polish American Travel Agents
Brooklyn, NY 11222
Barbara Wierzbianski, Individual
New York, N Y
Pete Bartoszak, Individual
Washington DC
Yvonne Kowalczewski, Individual
Boston, MA USA
Malgorzata Pasanowic, Individual
New York, NY
Janina Poskrobko-Strzeciwilk, Individual
Staten Island, NY
Joanna Lis, Individual
New York, NY
Chris Snyder, Individual
New York City
Edward Palumbo Ph.D., Individual
New York, NY
Mariusz Smolij, Individual
Sugar Land, TX
Pete Bartoszak, Individual
Washington DC
Pauline Modzelewski, Individual
Maspeth, NY
Anna Barycka, baryckanada.com
Ottawa, Canada
Pawel Kotowski, Embassy of Poland
Washington, DC
Waclaw Kolodziejek, Individual
Forest Hills, NY
Edward Shevlin III, President, Lehman College Irish American Society
Bronx, NY
Sophie Kolodziejek, Individual
Woodside, NY
Marion Schmieder Szarejko, Individual
Little Neck NY
Barbara Wierzbianski, Individual
New York, N Y
Marcin Żmudzki, Individual
Falls Church, Virginia
Matthew Stefanski, Individual
Bayonne, NJ
Paula Broniak, Individual
Washington DC
Adam Niklewicz, Individual
North Haven, CT
Pawel Podolec, Individual
Washington DC
Gala Siarheichyk, Ph.D., Individual
Boulder, CO
John Morrison, Individual
Washington DC
Sylwia Nasiadko, Individual
Brooklyn, NY
george s bobinski, Individual
vestal, new york
Dorothy Porc, Individual
Burbank, CA
Jacek Olszewski, Individual
New York
Stanislaw Porc, Individual
Pottsville, PA
Marta Rudzki, Architect
New York, NY 11375
Bozena Massey, Individual
New York
Dominik Stecula, Individual
Montreal, QC, Canada
Christopher Moscinski, Individual
Piscataway, NJ
Jagoda Minkowicz, President of Polish American Travel Agents
Brooklyn, NY 11222
Urszula Kalawaj, Individual
Cleveland
Marianne Dombroski Bailey, Individual
New Caney, TX
William J Siok, Individual
Westminster, CO
Susan L. Udinsky, Individual
Ambler, PA 19002
Jakub Glodek, Individual
Walnut Creek, CA
Dorothy Kowalczewski Nydam, Individual
San Diego, California
Elzbieta Szyszkowska Smith, Individual
Vero Beach Florida 32960
Lucas Mazur, Individual
Worcester, MA
Monika Wojcik, Individual
Indiana, USA
Casimir Rogacki, Individual
Unadilla,NY 13849
Barbara Lemecha, Individual
Dearborn Heights, Michigan
BRUNO F SZYMANSKI, Individual
STUART, FLORIDA
Eleanor Lange, Individual
Manhasset, NY
Wojciech Kicinski, Individual
Washington DC
Phillip Revolinski, Individual
Lakeland Florida USA
ula lozowska, Individual
new york, usa
Beata hrynkiewicz, Individual
Wethersfield, Connecticut
Matthew Szczepanowski, Owner Conservation Studio for Art
1818 Callowhill Street, Philadelphia, PA 19130
Piotr Brakoniecki, Chairman Lay Advisory Council at Holy Name Of Jesus Church
Stamford,Ct
joseph malley, Retired Police Chief
Harrison, New Jersey
Wanda Splisgardt, Individual
Saint Louis, MO USA
ALAN E. PISARSKI, Individual
FALLS CHURCH VA
Richard M. Ubowski, Individual
Harleysville, PA
Karen J Ubowski, Individual
Harleysville, PA
Michael C. Ubowski, Individual
Harleysville, PA
Wanda Splisgardt, WJS Business Consulting International
Saint Louis, MO USA
Agnieszka Tachkov, Individual
White Plains NY 10606
jaroslawa braun, Individual
Sverige
Jenufa Gleich, Individual
Italy
Jennifer R. Ubowski, Individual
Haleysville, PA
Msgr. Thomas E. Crane, Individual
Tonawanda NY USA
Richard J Ubowski, Individual
Harleysville, PA
Caroline Ubowski, Individual
W. Roxbury, MA
Robert Stefanski, Individual
Cleveland, OH
Tito Rahman, PEACE Foundation
NY, USA
Krol, george, Individual
Mew York City
Marian Ubowski, Individual
W. Roxbury, MA
Joanna Bochenek, Individual
Chicago, Illinois
TITO RAHMAN, Individual
NY-USA
Agnieszka Tracz, Polonia.net
New York, USA
Frances X. Gates, Individual
Brooklyn Heights, NY
Aleksandra Sobkowicz, Individual
Middle Village, NY
Frank C. Sharp, Individual
New York, NY
Gregory Sroka, Individual
Los Angeles CA
Dr. Seth A. Waldman, Physician
New York, USA
Dr. Richard M. Dubiel, Individual
Stevens Point, WI
Dr. Joseph R. Setter, Individual
Bloomington, IL USA
wieslawa Znaniecka, Individual
4 Martin Ave White Plains,NY 10606
Krystyna BORKOWSKA, Individual
New York
Eric Bednarski, Individual
Warsaw, Poland
Lauren Baker, Individual
Lafayette, LA USA
Mariusz Gawlik, Portal NY.PL
Larchmont, NY
patrick hagan, Individual
Staten Island, NY
Natalie Siemaszko, Individual
Montclair, NJ
Elzbieta Gawlik, Individual
Larchmont, NY
Douglas L. Olexy, Individual
West Reading, PA
Marygrace Hajec, Individual
Marygrace Hajec, Individual
Bethesda, MD
Artur Orkisz, President, Americ

 

an Polish Forum
Washington, D.C.
Barbara, Individual
San Francisco, CA
 

July 13, 2010

Trust is the Key

 Main statue at Roosevelt Memorial

I read Amity Shlaes’ book “the Forgotten Man” a couple of years when it first came out, just before the big economic downturn.  Her timing was excellent in the light of subsequent events and the insights for the Great Depression have been helping me understand the events of the great recession.
 
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme, as Mark Twain quipped, and some of the arguments of the 1930s seem very contemporary indeed.   One of the themes most pervasive in Shlaes’ book was the importance of confidence, consistency and trust. These things are the true basis of a prosperous economy, but they are impossible to measure accurately and so are often overlooked or downplayed.

Why are you willing to exchange your real labor or goods for a piece of paper with the picture of a dead president?  It is backed by nothing but trust.  I lived in Brazil during a time of hyperinflation. People didn’t trust that their money would hold its value or their government not to be capricious (and they were right) so to protect themselves they had had to devise all sorts of tricks and techniques that were often wasteful and destructive to the system as a whole. And once trust breaks down in something as important as money itself, it spreads to other areas, creating a general state of uncertainly and feelings of helplessness.
 
One of the most important functions of government is to create as much certainty and predictability in society so that people can plan for the future and feel secure in their transactions with each other.   When fails in its duty to maintain stability or, worse, when government itself comes to be viewed as unpredictable, arbitrary or capricious, the bonds of society begin to erode.
 
Some actually welcome this.  Disorder reduces the aggregate level of wealth but often has the effect or redistributing income, or at least distributing pain since people who cannot properly plan cannot do better than those who just wouldn’t. Making opportunity generally less available tends to equalize outcomes by negating the cumulative value of hard work, talent and foresight.
 
What the FDR administration did to harm economic recovery was to create uncertainty, according to Shlaes. She gives many examples.  The one I like best is the Schechter chicken case.  Part of the New Deal legislation, regulated poultry prices, making it illegal to offer discounts or allow customers to choose their own chickens. The Schechter brothers, a couple of kosher butchers, were accused of doing these things and of “destructive price cutting.” They were found guilty, given a fine of $7424 (big money in those days) and tossed in jail for a couple months. When the full weight of Federal power can come down on kosher butchers for selling a chicken and they can get jail time for doing business as they always have, you have significant uncertainty.
 
The relevant New Deal Federal laws were declared unconstitutional when the case reached the Supreme Court.  Justice Louis Brandeis took aside one of Roosevelt’s aides and told him, “This is the end of this business of centralization, and I want you to go back and tell the president that we're not going to let this government centralize everything."
 
Most of the New Deal programs & ideas did not survive the test of time or the courts. The reason we don’t understand that is we look back at it now with a kind of “survivor bias,” i.e. we judge it by those that did survive – a relatively small and more successful subset.  But what really saved the New Deal’s reputation was the onset of World War II. To his eternal credit, Roosevelt saw the trouble on the horizon and he understood that he would have to harness the power of the United States – all of its power – to fight the threat of totalitarianism. So the always pragmatic president chucked or let fall away many of the more radical New Deal programs and much of the anti-enterprise rhetoric into the dust bin of history, much to the chagrin of his more radical associates, such as Harry Hopkins and his wife Eleanor.  We kept the songs, murals, myths and lots of mixed feelings.

My father grew up during the Depression and always took a kind of pride in the fact that he could trump any contemporary hard times stories.  No matter what happened, he could say, “You are lucky.  When I was growing up things were a lot worse.”  And he was always right.  You just couldn't argue with the old man when he played the "Great Depression card."

July 05, 2010

War - The father of us all

Smithsonian castle around 6 pm on June 30, 2010 

In early human societies, and among the less technologically advanced until now, war is/was endemic.  Simple societies are warrior societies that live in a constant state of lethal conflict. These are small fights, murder raids & minor skirmishes, but they are never ending. The “noble savage” was kept in top form by the exigencies of war. 

We cherish a myth about people before civilization - that they lived in harmony with each other and with nature. The fact is that it was more like road warrior, with death, capture and rape a constant reality. The only protection was the ability to defend yourself or hide in vast spaces. It was constant war and disease that kept the population below the carrying capacity of the land. It didn’t take long for our brainy ancestors to control or kill most of our erstwhile predators, but man preys on man. This is not an optimistic view of our species, but it comports well with the facts. Fortunately, people respond to challenges and especially to challenges perceived as threats. What is more challenging or threatening than war?  In many ways our civilized institutions are responses to the endemic conflicts of our ancestors. War is the father of us all.
 
Alex and I went to see Victor Davis Hanson speak at the Smithsonian last week.  He was one of the most engaging speakers I have ever seen.  He was also very un-PC, as you can infer from the ideas up top that I took from the talk. He is one of the few historians that still characterizes himself as a military historian. Hanson points out that military history is extraordinarily popular. If you go to any bookstore, you see that a very part of the history section consists of accounts of wars and biographies of war leaders. Series like “the Civil War,” “Band of Brothers” or “the Pacific” win big audiences.  But being popular with people in general and being accepted in academic history circles are different and often mutually exclusive things. I wrote about that before here, here, here and here. 

Today people prefer to study peace, assuming that war is some kind of aberration and that peace is the natural human state. History does not back this up.  As I mentioned above, our ancestors lived in a constant state of unrelenting war.   Most of us personally live much more peaceful lives, but we live in a world that is still always at war somewhere. The ancient Greeks, Hanson says, recognized the ubiquity of war and didn’t give it much of a second thought. We can avoid some wars if we recognize what the Greeks knew and address the causes of war.

So what are the causes of war? Hanson disagrees that they are primarily economic, although economics is a necessary part of most wars, it is not sufficient.  Modern states do not have to conquer others to enjoy their resources.  Albert Speer warned Hitler about invading the Soviet Union.  He pointed out that as an ally Stalin was already supplying the Nazis with all the Soviet raw materials that they could expect to get by conquest and that he was doing it at a significantly lower price than the Germans would have to pay if they did it themselves. Speer was right and the Germans were never able to get as many resources from the Soviet Union after the invasion as they easily got before.  Hitler invaded the Soviet Union for ideological or “honor” reasons.  Economically, everybody knew it was a loser.

The same goes for our “war for oil” in Iraq.  It makes absolutely no sense to view the conflict in these economic terms.  Saddam Hussein was willing – even eager – to sell all the oil he could and he did it at a discount.  After the war, we do not get more oil from Iraq and we did not take over any oil fields.  If it was a war for oil, we forgot to pick up the prize. Some people might wish it was indeed a war for oil, because it is was we would have the oil.  But we don’t.

War is caused by a combination of many factors, such as fear, greed, honor and ambition.  But these things are kept in check by deterrence of the power of others.  Hanson says wars break out when there is a decline in the perception of deterrence.  Put simply, people don’t go to war unless they think they have a reasonable chance of winning.  It doesn’t mean that their perception is accurate or that they define winning in the same sense that we do, but war is not a random act and it is almost never the result of the oppressed just rising up, so we cannot solve the conflict by attacking the “root causes” if we find them in oppression and injustice.

Conflicts also require fuel. Consider the case of the Palestinians and the Israelis. This conflict has been going on since the 1940s (and before).  The ostensible cause is that Palestinians were dispossessed of their land and they remain aggrieved.  We take it for granted, but it is not the whole truth. In the late 1940s lots of people lost their ancestral lands. Around 15 million Germans were kicked out of places their ancestors had lived for centuries.  The same happened to Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians … the list goes on and on.  Among the peoples dispossessed in the 1940s, the Palestinians were a fairly small group and not poorly treated in relation to the other examples. In fact, much more recently ancient Jewish & Christian communities were driven out of homes in Arab countries, where their ancestors had lived a thousand years before the coming of the Arabs or Islam. Why is it that after all these years only the Palestinian problem remains an open wound?  Why doesn’t the Silesian liberation organization highjack airplanes? Where is the Galician liberation army?  The simple answer is that they had nobody to bankroll their misery and encourage them to continue the fight. They were also allowed to resettle. Other Arab countries could have solved the Palestinian problem years ago by simply doing what Poland, Germany, Hungary, Ukraine, Finland and many others did with refugees associated with their countries.  Why they didn’t can be explained by their perceptions of deterrence and their long-term perception of the chances of achieving their goals through conflict.

Anyway, both Alex and I enjoyed the talk.  It gave us something to think about. One of the things l like best about Washington is the many opportunities we have to go to these sorts of things.

BTW - The picture up top is the Smithsonian castle looking NE on June 30 at around 6pm. It is what Alex and I saw as we headed for the lecture.  

June 14, 2010

Life Nasty, Brutish & Short

skull with a hole in the head“I need it like a hole in the head”.  I always thought it was probably a direct translation from a foreign language because of the peculiar grammar.  But I don’t really know where it came from and I figured it was just a saying. 

Alex and I went through a forensic archeology exhibit at Smithsonian. Take a look at the skull alongside and try to guess what killed this guy. I don’t suppose you would need a degree in forensic anthropology. Most of the other exhibits were less obvious. They can read various types of sickness on the bones. Evidently significant numbers of people died of toothaches in the old days, or more precisely from infections related to abscesses. What a way to go? There was a lot of misery back then from things that we just no longer think about. I stroll through this exhibit will cure even the worst case of nostalgia for the good old days.

Life in the old days was nasty, brutal & short for most people. Even the rich people lived rotten lives if you look at the things they had to put up with and suffer from. The old palace looks good, until you recall the state of plumbing, air conditioning and medicine that the fat cat had to live with. None of us would willingly trade places with Louis XIV if we had to really live his life.

Speaking of living nasty, brutal & short lives, take a look at the map below and try to find North Korea. It is truly a benighted place - literally. When you go to museums and think about how rotten life used to be in the dark old days, it is useful to recall that in some places it never got any better and I have no doubt that living in a fever ridden colony a couple of centuries was better than living in a place like North Korea today. It must be like living in a giant, endless concentration camp, where technology is used to create misery and control rather than improve lives.

Nightime map showing East Asia with North Korea totally benighted 

BTW - the map is just supposed to show the world's bright lights, but when you look at it you cannot help noting that North Korea doesn't have many. 

Finally, we have something that makes life better, IMO, something even the richest king couldn't have before the 1880s - Coca-Cola. Below are Kola nuts, used to make Cola flavored soft drinks. I recalled an old commercial for 7up talking about the un-cola nuts and with the wonders of YouTube we can see it again.

Kola nuts 

Human Origins

Ice man model in SmithsonianAlex and I visited the “human origins” exhibit at Smithsonian.  I have trouble keeping up with the changes.  As I recently wrote, I had to change my opinion of the Neanderthal man now that I found out he is a closer cousin and probable ancestor.   You would think that all these prehistoric things would be more or less consistent, but they are not.  Scientific perceptions change.

Anyway, the exhibit is very good.   Most of the artifacts are copies, but I wouldn’t be able to tell the real ones anyway.  The picture on the side is the "ice man" discovered frozen in the Alps. He may have been the victim of a murder more than 5000 years ago. Anyway, the exhibit is mostly set up to educate kids, but old people like me can enjoy it too.

The thing that made the biggest impression on me were the wax museum recreations of pre-humans.  If the Neanderthal man walked down the street today, you might notice that he was unusually husky and unattractive, but if we was properly groomed you might not give him too much of a second look. Of course one reason not to stare would be to avoid eye contact with a dangerous looking weirdo.  But my point is that I think you would consider him human.  We do share genes with this guy, as we have recently discovered.  Not so the others like the Homo-erectus.  It was interesting looking into their eyes, or at least the eyes that current science has provided them.

Neanderthal man recreation in SmithsonianAnother surprising part of the exhibit was a skull from Lapa Vermelha, Minas Gerais in Brazil.  (I will put that on my list of places to visit.)  This fossil has been carbon dated to 11,500 years ago. The interesting thing is that the ancestors of today’s Native Americans were not supposed to be there yet.  There is a lot of political argument over very old human fossils in the Americas.

Native American tribes often have creation myths that say they have always been in or near their current locations. Science and anthropology indicate that their ancestors wandered over from Asia via a land mass at what are now the Bearing Straits. The discovery of ancient skulls that do not resemble the current Native American populations upsets some people. They can go to considerable lengths to prevent the evidence from being uncovered that contracts the myths or threatens their positions as “the first Americans”, as with the Kennewick man, who looked more like Jon Luke Picard than Sitting Bull and was evidently most closely related to the Ainu people from Japan.

History is never really simple and when it gets tied in with current political sensitivities it is really hard to get things right.   It is really hard to believe that things that happened more than 10,000 years ago still make a big difference to today’s politics, but they do.

It is a little silly.  When you go far enough back, none of the current ethnic distinctions make any sense and all human history is the common heritage of mankind.  The more we learn from archeology and genetics, the clearer that becomes.

March 03, 2010

Rise & Fall of Great Powers

I cannot really recall if Paul Kennedy came in person or if I “met” him on an electronic program, but I do recall having him for a program on his book the Rise & Fall of the Great Powers.  That was back in 1989 and the general idea then was that the U.S. was about to be overtaken by Japan as the great power.   It seems pretty absurd in retrospect. Japan doesn’t have the resources or the demographic strength to challenge the U.S. in the long-term.  Of course now we talk about China and India, maybe even Brazil.

The decline & fall of the United States was a very popular topic back in the 1980s.  Actually, it is always a popular topic.   Different commentators emphasize different things at different times.   Back in the 1970s when I first became aware of the genre, the favorite danger was ecological collapse.  We have come back to that one somewhat today.   Running out of energy is also a perennial favorite.   But the one that encompasses them all is political-economic failure.   That is the one that Kennedy talks about.

I hadn’t thought much about him in the last decade but I was reminded when I saw him on the PBS Newshour. He explained that the timing of his U.S.decline, replaced by Japan hypothesis was a bit off. Japan was the one that went into decline. The Soviet Union unexpectedly collapsed relieving the U.S. of the superpower competition.  American productivity (and so wealth) jumped as communications technologies began to be applied to business. He didn’t add, but I will, that American business went through revolutionary change and reorganization. The economy he was thinking of in the 1970s was not the same one he was living with when he wrote the book in the late 1980s.

It is easy to miss the dynamism of the American economy and academics who look at the “big trends” are often the ones who miss it the most. One reason is that they are trying to impose patterns, often anthropomorphic patterns, on complex systems.   

It is hard not to view societies or civilizations in human terms of birth, growth, maturity, decline and ultimate death. The depressing German historian Oswald Spengler made an explicit science of this with specific stages of growth and decline.  Each civilization had a life span of 1000 years. He thought that civilizations have as much chance of changing or extending this lifespan as you or I do with our physical bodies. Spengler codified what lots of other people thought but he really hit a rich intellectual vein. Lots of people who never heard of Spengler implicitly follow his ideas. Spengler is compelling and very interesting, as well as being completely wrong.

Countries and civilizations do not have life spans analogous to people. The only reason we think they do is because of the extreme power of the pattern that we see in our own lives. It is true that countries and civilizations have some beginning and ending but they can copy from others and they have almost endless capacity for change and renewal. They also morph and combine.

The U.S. has been declining RELATIVE to the rest of the world since the end of World War II.  This should be a cause for celebration, not fear. After World War II, most of the world was either in ruins as a result of war or just poorly developed. They had to catch up and the general growth of wealth has helped us too, as others have begun to pull their own weight and contribute to the general welfare. In some ways, prosperity is natural if you just stop doing stupid things. The biggest success story of recent decades is China. As they shifted from their benighted communist system, their economy developed. While they are now a rival in a way we never thought possible, they are also a source of wealth for us as well as themselves. Imagine if they had continued along the Maoist lines.  Is it better to face a rapidly developing China that is a good, if over clever trading partner; or would we prefer a communist state near Malthusian collapse and destabilizing the entire world?

We feel a little nostalgia for the good old days, but they weren’t really that good.  We are better off NOT being the sole superpower, or being the only game in town. If we imagine the world 50 years hence, we will be wrong in detail, but you can see some trends.

The U.S. will still be the most important country in the world in 2060, but we will have several peers including China, India, the EU and maybe Brazil.  You can imagine some regional groupings, but there is nothing currently in the cards.  China has enjoyed a fantastic growth rate, but it will hit some ecological and demographic speed bumps soon.   The same goes for India.  Russia is the power of the past.  In 2060, it will have a smaller population than it does today unless it changes fundamentally, in which case it might no longer be Russia.  The EU will also have a smaller population, but since it starts with so much economic and social capital it will still be important. 

The country I am most interested in (besides the U.S.) is Brazil. The old joke was that Brazil was the country of the future and always would be, but reforms, good decisions and some luck have brought the future to us now.  The U.S. and Brazil share an important characteristic – they are American in the New World sense.  Both our countries were built by immigrants and have been very open to outside influences, techniques and technologies.   Both Brazil and the U.S. are large, resource rich countries with the demographic weight to be powerful into the future.

But I hope and believe that by 2060 the national power will be less acute in the sense of rivalry and it will matter less which country has the biggest economy or the most powerful military. Paul Kennedy talked about the “Concert of Europe” where the great powers more or less cooperated or at least coexisted.  Of course, there were lots of problems with that specific formulation.  Historians can and have written whole books talking about them and of course, we can do better now with our improved technologies and the benefit of the experience that our ancestors didn’t have. 

Having one single country as the “leader” is not the only way there is.  From the fall of the Roman Empire until the end of World War II, there wasn’t really a predominant power in the Western World.   We can have diverse and dispersed power centers within a globalized network.

February 21, 2010

Rain Dancing

70+ year old Ford engine still pumping water from the Euphrates for irrigation in Iraq

Sometimes there is nothing you can do, but everybody expects you to do something. That is the time for the rain dance. Put on a good show, create a lot of sound & fury to keep people occupied so that they will keep you around long enough for things to improve, so you get credit. Politicians are master rain dancers, butt all of us have done a few. Sometimes you just have to be seen to be doing something.

I have been reading a book about real rain dances, called Floods, Famines and Emperors:  El Nino and the Fate of Civilizations.  The author talks about the various times when climate change caused civilizations to thrive and crash.   One chapter talks about the Pueblo of the Southwest.  (I think that is where the term “rain dance” comes from, BTW.)  Their population expanded during relatively wet times and then their populations starved and dispersed during when the same Medieval warm period that brought prosperity to Western Europe brought droughts to Southwestern North America that lasted decades or centuries.  Changes always bring winners and losers.

The author Brian Fagan says that a lot of early civilizations were based in part on the implication that priests and rulers could control the weather. Their activities to do this ranged from the merely wasteful to the downright gruesome.  A lot of complicated rituals and ceremonies were designed to do things like make the Nile flow or bring on the season rains.  The ancient Maya seem to have based their belief system on the need to capture, humiliate, torture and kill people from neighboring areas in order to sacrifice them and appease bloodthirsty gods who otherwise would bring drought and destruction.  They left some nice pyramids, but living through in those times must have been like being a minor character in a endless horror movie.   Unfortunately, these kinds of superstitions were the rule and not the exception in pre-scientific societies.

At our safe distance, we sometimes think of these superstitions in the benign fairy-tale sense of an enchanted forest full of fairies, elves etc. But think of how horrible it would be if you really believed it. The pre-scientific world must have been a frightening place. Everything you did could offend some spirit or nymph, so you needed to turn to shaman, witch or priest to protect you from capricious nature, which they (and you) attributed to benign or malevolent intelligence that had to be mollified.  

Some ritual had to be performed, but nobody was ever was sure if they worked.  Of course, they didn’t work but sometimes they might look like they did. If I do ceremonies to make it rain, and it eventually rains, I take credit.  A smart shaman probably had an intuitive sense of probability, so he did his rituals at times when things were moving in the right direction. You can see how the shaman might have added some value by his experience, on balance, however not. 

I suppose superstition is a step toward science. Alchemy led to some real discoveries about chemistry and physics. Astrology gave us some of the tools later needed by astronomers. 

Superstitions are an attempt to put some planning and order into an unpredictable world.   The problem is mostly based on mistaking correlation for causality, poor record keeping and the evidently natural human propensity to see patterns that don’t exist. Superstitions are a kind of distortion of reason, but they can be ostensibly reasonable.    

Of course, we still do rain dances too. The world is still an unpredictable place.

Anyway, I recommend Floods, Famines and Emperors. A lot of his ideas seemed very familiar, but I didn’t put it together until I started writing this that I had read one of his earlier books called The Long Summer.  It is still sitting on my bookshelf. These books help put the climate change debate in its historical perspective. We have been here before and maybe some perspective on how earlier climate changes affected earlier people may help us in the future.

January 22, 2010

Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire

http://johnsonmatel.com/2009/May/Istanbul/Byz_church.jpgIt seems an esoteric subject, but it still makes a useful study today.   I went to see a talk by Edward Luttwak on the “Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire.”  Luttwak is an interesting guy who has done lots of things.  He not only writes books about the Byzantines, but he also write regular commentary about current events and even is part owner in a cattle ranch in Brazil.  BTW – for reference I also attended a lecture on Byzantine history at Smithsonian and wrote a post re 

Luttwak started with the sources, of which there are many but they are complicated.  If you study of the pre-Byzantine Roman Byzantines, you have a lot of history and archeology to study.   Byzantium is harder in some respects and easier in others.  While there is a wealth of numismatic evidence, archeology is not as helpful.  So much was concentrated in Constantinople (Istanbul) and that has not been well studied.  One reason is that the Turks didn’t much care about the Christian-Greek-Roman civilization they displaced and more modern archeologists were more interested in the ancient Greeks, but probably the most important reason is that the city has been continuously occupied.  It is just hard to dig in such a crowded place.  But what you don’t have in archeology, you make up for in manuals and diplomatic reports.

The uses of intelligence and guile 

The Byzantines were very sophisticated in their study of diplomacy and what we would today call intelligence or anthropology.  They did research observations, made reports and wrote field manuals a lot like we do today. They needed them. For much of their history, the Byzantines were beset by enemies all around.  They didn’t like to use their army too often because it was relatively small, and expensively trained and equipped. It was better to use leverage, so they studied everybody around them, found their strengths, weaknesses and vanities. The reports still exist.  Often the Byzantine sources are the best historical documents for neighboring people. The early history of the Turks, Croats, Serbs, Bulgarians, Hungarians and others comes mostly from Byzantine observations.

Divide and conquer

The Byzantine method was to get enemies to fight each other.  Flatter, cajole, threaten or bribe as appropriate.   Their longest enduing and most dangerous rivals were Muslims, but then as now the Muslim world was not united. The Byzantines noted that no connection between supposed religious fervor and willingness to take bribes. When their spies told them that there was talk of jihad, they would send around gift baskets to local Muslim rulers, which often served to dampen enthusiasm for the holy war, at least temporarily. Their politically incorrect assessment was that these guys were either at their throats or at their feet. True or not, that assessment worked for them.

Byzantine diplomats studied everybody and reported back and they interviewed anybody who came to Constantinople.  Often the emperor would meet important foreigners himself. The system worked reasonably well, evidenced by the fact that the empire endured for centuries in a very rough neighborhood.

The Byzantines believed in being benevolent when they could, but they recognized that this came only through strength, never weakness. Always be combat ready but avoid combat if possible. If you can bribe or trick your way out of a mess, why not?

It reminds me of the saying l learned, "Any problem you can buy your way out of is not a problem; it is an expense."  Maybe the original thought came from our Byzantine ancestors.

Soft power

Success of this kind of strategy required an openness not usually associated with the Byzantines. Luttwak pointed out that they allows a mosque in Constantinople (for foreigners and visitors).  They also freely translated their texts into other languages.  Unlike the Muslims who insisted that the Koran remain in Arabic, the Byzantines were liberal with their sacred texts.  The Byzantine monks Cyril and Methodius created a written language for the Slavs and many Slavic languages are still written in the script named for Cyril.

Rise comes before the fall

Luttwak thinks that the weakening of the empire came as a result of too much temporary strength (pride goeth before a fall). Life was good in 1025. That was the year when the Emperor Basil II left the empire in possession of lands from what is now Iraq into Southern Italy.  Borders were secure and the Empire prospered.  There followed a golden generation, when the Byzantines got flabby.   They permitted large landholders to take over tracts formerly occupied by people who supplied the border troops and didn’t pay enough attention to security.  When the threat did come, they were not united enough or clever enough. After  the Turks wiped out much of the professional core of the Byzantine army and captured the Emperor at Manzikert in 1071, Anatolia opened to the Turkish conquest and colonization.  The Empire never really regained its footing.  

The real death blow came in 1204, when the 4th Crusade sacked Constantinople. The Byzantines regained the city, but after that the “empire” was more of a local Greek state than an empire.   By the time the Turks finally conquered the city in 1453, there was not much left but the city itself.  

The held on long enough to keep learning alive

The Byzantines were in every way heirs to the Roman and classical civilization. It was they who kept the works of the classical authors and they would almost certainly have been lost if the Empire had fallen to the first Muslim attacks.   As it was, the final fall of the Empire and the scholars who fled the declining Empire helped spark the Renaissance in Italy and Western Europe. We sometimes forget that the light of classical civilization was not really extinguished in the East until 1453. By that time, the West was ready to take back its heritage.

January 15, 2010

Who Writes History? Who Reads it?

Statue of Posidon/ZeusI-Tunes have been a great thing for those who like university lectures.   You can download full courses that would have been almost impossible to find before, or at least very expensive. The one I am listening to now is Donald Kagan’s history of ancient Greece from Yale University  I have admired Kagan’s books and I find that his lectures are equally well presented and prepared. 

Greek history is something I knew very well, but it is surprising how much you forget and how much you can still learn from a basic survey course taught by a good professor.   It is also interesting how my perspectives have changed over the years since I studied the Greeks in graduate school.  

Experience is the big difference.  I studied history back then w/o experiencing much of it myself.   Human events look a lot different after you have been involved more of them.   Things seem a lot neater back then.   As far as I understood, leaders made decision and people followed them.  I now understand that leaders often make unclear or confused decisions, or they don’t make them at all.  Even when they are clear and definitive, the details get mixed up by the time they move to the lower layers.   And even if the communications are clear, their followers often don’t follow.   

Many times the writing of the history itself is what makes sense of the events.  Historians provide frameworks that sometimes don’t really fit, but still may be persistent.   Thucydides, the great historian of the Peloponnesian War, influenced the writing of history and ideas about democracy for 2500 years.  He evidently tried to be fair, but in his act of choosing made the narrative what it became.  The father of history, Herodotus, told many of the stories we still remember.   We probably would not have heard of the 300 Spartans and they certainly would not be making movies about them today, if not for the compelling story told by Herodotus and many of the quotations he used.   When the Persians threatened that their arrows would blot out the sun, the Spartans responded that they would fight in the shade.   That sticks.  

Thucydides was a participant in some of the events he wrote about.  He had been a man of politics.  He had led an expedition in battle.  Herodotus was also a man of the world.  Not so much modern historians.   I wonder how much a scholar can understand the events they write about if their only experience is vicarious.   Sometimes shit just happens.  There is no good explanation.   A scholar tends not to like this.

Kagan addressed the problem of agriculture in Greece.  He mentioned that it was a difficult area, long debated by historians. I know that, since I wrote my master’s thesis on the reforms of Solon.   (It was a very bad thesis and I hope it has been lost, BTW).   Kagan mentioned Victor Davis Hanson on several occasions.   Hanson is a classical scholar, but his insights come from the fact that he is also a farmer.  Few historians have that kind of background and it was this unique background that gave Hanson his insights.  Some things make perfect sense to someone with experience.  For example, why do you grow a variety of crops on a small farm?  Because you want to take advantage of all the diversity of soils and seasons.   Sometimes the “optimal” crop just won’t grow.  Beyond that, if you have just one crop, you will have too much to do at some short times during the year and than almost nothing to do the rest of the time.   It is obvious once somebody says it.   Most Greeks were small farmers.  The rhythms of the season influenced their history.   It is good to understand them. 

For example, it is easy for a marauding army to burn a wheat crop, but only at certain seasons.   Greek farmer-soldiers usually had to be close to home at this time to protect and harvest their own crops.  Spartans were an exception to this, since they lived off Helot-run estates and didn’t do any farming themselves. (or any work at all besides war)  It is nearly impossible to kill an olive tree.    An invading army can chop at them, but they sprout back.  Ancient historians sometimes refer to these things and/or to weather conditions, but a lot of it goes clear over the heads of any historian or student who has not experienced such thing.

I wonder how much else we all miss.

December 03, 2009

The Eastern Empire

Alex and I went to a lecture at the Smithsonian about the Byzantine Empire by Lars Brownworth.  It was a good lecture and the guy had very good humor timing but he also made some excellent points.  

Lecture at Smithsonian 

One of the key points is how the Byzantines have been disrespected for centuries.   Even the name “Byzantine” is pejorative.  The Byzantines referred to themselves as Romans, which made sense since they were indeed the heirs to the Roman Empire in an unbroken line of history.  Some of it is the responsibly of one man – Edward Gibbon, whose monumental book “the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” has set the concept of Rome for more than 200 years.   But in many ways he was merely reflecting a general Western prejudice against the East.

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

It seems to make sense that we could call the end of the Roman Empire when the city of Rome fell, but this is not the case.  By the time the actual city of Rome fell to Barbarians in 476 it had no longer really been the capital of the Empire for some times.  The Western Empire was ruled from the more defensible Ravenna.   The more important Eastern part of the Empire was ruled from Constantinople.  By that time also the Roman Empire had occupied the Mediterranean world for more than 600 years.  It had become a single cultural entity a lot like the U.S. in North America.  California or Nebraska is not less American than Virginia or Massachusetts because. 

Take that back in terms of our own history and we are back to 1409, almost a century before the European discovery of America.   Henry V had not yet become king of England and – BTW – the Eastern Roman Empire was still in existence.   That was a long time ago, so you can imagine that a citizen of the Roman Empire had no real concept of anything before Rome, or maybe had about the same feeling as we would about Henry IV (for most people i.e. none). 

Fresco in Byzantine church 

Anyway it was one cultural region and the Mediterranean united the region, not divided it.   North Africa was as much part of this Roman world as Italy.   We forget about that today because we think in terms of East and West and we think of the Muslims in the Middle East as natural and native. BTW, many mosques are pattered after Byzantine churches (especially Hagia Sophia, that you see in the picture) and the Muslim world owes a lot to the Eastern Roman Empire in general, as we do. 

If you read other parts of my blog, you know I am a fan of the great empire of Rome.   The Byzantines preserved and transmitted the ancient heritage to us.  Byzantine texts and scholars helped spark the renaissance.  We should pay more attention to their history.

I think it is great that Smithsonian sponsors these lectures and that hundreds of people come to listen to them.  

November 20, 2009

Visiting Mr. Jefferson

Monticello  

Thomas Jefferson was a remarkable guy.  The thought deeply about almost everything and made the world a better place.  On his tombstone he wanted to be remembered for founding the University of Virginia and authoring the statutes of religious freedom of Virginia the Declaration of Independence.  Any one of those accomplishments would make him a great man.   He didn’t even mention being president of the United States.

Alex Matel and Thomas JeffersonWe first visited here in 1985.  Chrissy was pregnant with Mariza and I remember thinking that it would be nice if our expected child could become part of this legacy by going to Thomas Jefferson’s university.  She did.   So besides his contributions to our freedom and prosperity, I have a very personal reason to thank Jefferson.

Monticello is owned and run by a private foundation that makes its money from ticket sales and donations.  The foundation supports historians, archeologists and researchers in addition to maintaining the house and grounds.  

Alex and I talked about the pros and cons of a private foundation.  It seems like a place like Monticello should be government owned, but why?  A private foundation is more flexible and can often do a better job.  Many of our best American universities are private and they are the best in the world. A foundation works out just fine for Mr. Jefferson's home.  

Jefferson always considered himself a farmer.  He grew tobacco and wheat as cash crops and produced vegetables, apples and other fruit for consumption on the farm.  Like other plantations, Monticello was self-sufficient when possible.  They made their own bricks from local clays. Carpenters from the estate made furniture from the wood of the local forests.  Jefferson owned 5000 acres, which gave him a diverse landscape to draw from.  Below is Jefferson's vegetable garden.  It is set up to take advantage of warming winter sun.

Thomas Jefferson's garden 

Jefferson was an active manager of his estate. Washington's Mt Vernon actually turned a profit, not so Jefferson's Monticello.  The difference was top management.  Washington didn't have Jefferson's intellect, but he had practical abilities.  Jefferson was an idea man.   And his house - and our country - is full of his ideas, but he was not a good businessman. He died deep in debt and his heirs had to sell Monticello.

Jefferson's marketOf course, Jefferson didn't do much of the real work. The paradox of Jefferson the hero of freedom is Jefferson the slave owner.  Slavery had existed since the beginning of history, but by Jefferson's time the Western world was beginning to see the moral contradictions of the practice.  Jefferson shared the revulsion of slavery in theory, but couldn't bring himself to take the practical and personal steps against it.  I guess he was just a true intellectual in that respect and unfortunately remained a man of his times. 

In any case, Jefferson's contributions far outweigh the negatives of his personal life. All human being are flawed.  They make their contributions based on what they do best, not what they do poorly.  

We Americans were truly blessed during our founders generation.  Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton & Madison all were greats.  But the remarkable thing is how their skills and even their personalities complemented each other, even when they fought and hated each other. Their differences created harmony and their joint efforts filled in for some serious individual flaws.

The American revolution is one of the few in world history that actually worked (i.e. didn't end in a bloodbath followed by despotism). We can thank good luck & favorable geography.  But the biggest factor was the moral authority, courage and intellect of our first leaders.  We are still living off their legacy. 

Visitors' Center at Monticello 

Above is the visitor's center that opened last year. In the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, it takes advantage of natural forces and uses appropriate technology.  This is a green building, earth sheltered, energy efficient and heated & cooled to a large extent by geotheromal energy.  The wood and natural stone construction is simple, but elegant.  I like it.

November 17, 2009

Trench Warfare & Ending a Great Hatred

Alex and I visited the battlefields associated with the Petersburg Campaign and Robert E. Lee’s final retreat.   Petersburg gave the world a taste of what trench warfare would be like.  You go from Federal earthworks to Confederate earthworks.   As in the World War I, the armies were racing around the flanks.  It soon became a grim slog, a war of attrition.  The South could not win this kind of war. They just didn't have enough men or materiel. 

Alex at earthworks in Petersburg 

Above is Alex in front of some of the earthworks.  Below is a reconstruction. 

Fortification reconstruction at Petersburg 

Lee was trying to escape to the west, where he could hook up with General Joe Johnston, while Union forces tried to bottle them up.   Lincoln’s fear was that the war would go on and maybe turn into a guerrilla war.  The Petersburg campaign has that endless war feeling anyway.  They were regularly taking thousands of casualties each DAY.  The soldiers were becoming more accustomed to war and much more cynical. They came to understand that the war in Virginia was ending and nobody wanted to be the last man killed.  There is a good novel about this period called "Last Full Measure" that captures some of the feeling.

Soliders' house at Petersburg 

Above is a soldiers' house.  It looks like a playhouse, but it held four men.   Below is what is left of the crater. Union miners from Pennsylvania made a tunnel under the Rebel positions and blew up Confederate fortifications.  Unfortunately, the attack didn't go well.  Union troops poured into the crater and many were trapped there. It looks bigger in real life.  You also need to remember that there has been almost 150 years of erosion and filling in.

Crater at Petersburg VA 

America’s Civil War was remarkable in its ending.   In France, terror followed revolution.  The Russians and Chinese murdered millions of people in similar situations.  In fact, protracted Civil Wars almost NEVER end without significant retribution and bloodletting.   I think that I can safely say that the ending of the American Civil War was unique in human history.   The victors were generous and the vanquished honorable.  Because it happened as it did, we think of it as inevitable, but the decisions made in April 1865 were not foreordained.

Sailor Creek battlefield 

Grant allowed Lee’s soldiers to keep their side arms and their horses.  Robert E. Lee instructed his men to go home and become good citizens.  Most did.   

Fighting at Petersburg 

I know that some scholars talk about the “myth” of reconciliation and point to the problems that persisted. Some people still hold a grudge for Sherman's march through Georgia and the Carolinas. You have to ask the “compared to what?” question.  In most countries, more people die violently AFTER the wars.  Not in America.  Rebel leaders are usually executed.  The lucky ones are only imprisoned or exiled.  Not here. Can you imagine Cuba exiled welcomes back by the regime?  Russian exiles lured back were usually murdered.  

The Civil War was the worst war in American history.  The destruction was horrendous.  Yet after it ended … it ended.  April 1865 was probably the most remarkable month in world history.  This just doesn’t happen very often – or at all.   I think we should take time to think about this.  If others had learned from the Federal-Confederate example, we might have avoided most of the carnage of the 20th Century.   

Five Forks battlefield 

Above is a battlefield at Five Forks.  When the fight turned into a battle of attrition, most of the engagements were small, but this was a key turning point. Phil Sheridan defeated troops under the unlucky George Pickett, who was off having a fish dinner and didn't return until it was too late. The collapse of the Confederate position at Five Forks led directly to Lee's decision to abandon Richmond & Petersburg.  It was the beginning of the end for the Army of Northern Virginia and for the Southern Confederacy, and so Five Forks is sometimes called the Confederate Waterloo.  There is nothing much to see here today.  The trees and fields have grown back.  It is hard to believe that war was ever close to this peaceful, bucolic place.

September 29, 2009

Indian Mounds

Indian mounds at Hopewell site in Chillicothe, Ohio 

I first saw Indian mounds when I was in 4th grade.  We went up to Lizard Mound State Park on field trip.  It scared me for days.  They had one mound opened and inside was a skeleton mounded up.  In my childish way, I figured that skeleton would follow me since I desecrated the mound by looking at it.   A lot of movies have a plot sort of like that.   I think that is the basic premise of “Poltergeists”

Indian mounds at Hopewell site in Chillicothe, Ohio 

Now the mounds are no longer scary, just interesting, which is why I went to visit the Hopewell Mounds near Chillicothe, Ohio.   There was a whole mound building culture about 1500 years ago.   The mounds in Ohio were loosely affiliated with those in Wisconsin in that they had a trading network. 

I won’t go into too much detail about the mounds.  You can Google them.   The mound building stopped around 1500 years ago.  Nobody is sure why.   The leading theories have to do with climate change (it got cooler around that time) and maybe just the usual exhaustion and overpopulation.

Indian mounds at Hopewell site in Chillicothe, Ohio 

The mounds are now grass covered, but according to the notes the used to be covered with gravel, making them more like little pyramids.   Not all the mounds are burial mounds.  The whole complex has a earthen berm around it.

Expressway, drive through convenience store in Chillichote, Ohio 

Besides the mounds, there is not much in the town of Chillicothe.  It has the usual chain restaurants.    The town’s big industry is a paper mill.   One of the novelties was this expressway.   It is like a drive through Seven-Eleven.    There was a woman inside who brings the stuff right to your car as you drive through.  It looks like it was originally a car wash.

September 26, 2009

Progress

Milwaukee Museum old fashioned displays 

As I mentioned in the previous post, I went to the museum with my sister.  I have changed a lot, but stayed the same in key aspects.  The change I don’t like it the disappearance of the “Trip Through Time.”  You used to start with earth geology and go right through to the modern age.   I recall you could look in on cavemen drawing on the cave walls, see Roman house and a medieval counting house.  When you got through all history until about 1600, when you wandered over to  America and ultimately to the streets of old Milwaukee.  Yes, the impression you got at the Milwaukee Museum was that all human history culminated in Milwaukee of around 1900. 

Old tavern in Streets of Old Milwaukee 

The “Streets of Old Milwaukee” exhibits are still the same.  It is kind of a “Twilight Zone” moment to see the old lady on the rocking chair, an eternal look of bemused befuddlement on her face.   She sat there when I visited with my school class in sixth grade and there is a good chance she will abide on that porch long after I am gone.

The Museum is 125 years old this year and they featured the kind of exhibit you would have seen at that time.   I kind of like the old fashioned display.  The Victorians self-confidently stood astride the world and brought back pieces of their discoveries for others to see.  Their world-view – at least those who stocked useums - included a strong idea of progress and evolution.  They saw things in linear fashion.  Privative man advanced to become modern man.   Backward peoples and cultures were just earlier stages of the European civilization, which stood at the apex of history. 

The whole idea of progress was shaken by the carnage in the trenches of World War I and then virtually destroyed by the various horrors of the 20th Century. The wars and dictatorships corrupted human virtues like courage, duty and honor.  It was a tragedy, but we should not throw out the whole system.   The idea of linear progress has many flaws, but the judgment-free multicultural relativism that has generally replaced it is not a workable outlook in the long run.   A hierarchy of progress does not exist, but the sundry random, planned and pernicious aspects of societies worldwide are not all created equal. 

Some adaptations are better than others and that means that some cultures are better than others for particular situations.   Multiculturalism is dishonest conceptually.  Cultures are constantly changing and adapting.   Presumably, we should all borrow the most appropriate aspects of any culture we encounter and abandon those of our own that are no longer working out.    In a context of cultural contact, you won’t maintain multiple cultures, salad bowl style.  Rather the cultures will mix and merge creating something richer and fuller of options than any of the ingredients.  But the original cultures will atrophy.  They will not and should not be maintained, except in the museum sense, much like the unchanging and un-living old lady endlessly rocking on the porch in the streets of old Milwaukee.

June 18, 2009

History Doesn’t Repeat, but it May Rhyme

I love my American heritage of freedom and I believe, maybe naively, that liberty is the natural state of humankind, even if most humans still do not enjoy it and we face real world constraints on our actions worldwide. 

Iranian protests 

In the 1980s, the communist empires were cracking.  President Reagan needed to negotiate with the regimes withholding freedom from the people of Eastern Europe, but he also never forgot whose side we were on.    We negotiated with the rulers, but stood with the people.  Many people in the U.S. questioned this stand.   They said it was empty rhetoric at best, or maybe even dangerous.  

What we say matters.  The people of Eastern Europe did not consider it empty rhetoric and it turned out that we achieved greater arms reductions and security than anybody imagined before, so it was neither empty nor dangerous.   President Reagan quoted a Russian proverb, “trust but verify.”   There could be a corollary, negotiate but don’t forget your values and remember that the ruling regime is not the people. 

Iranian Protests 

Today the Iranian people are boldly standing up to the regime that has oppressed them for thirty years.   Some are dying at its hands, and yet they persist.   The rulers of Iraq are more ruthless than the Polish communists were in the 1980s, but the principle is the same.   Our place is with the people of Iran.  They are not asking that we intervene or meddle.  They just want us to state unequivocally where our own values and ideals stand.   If we didn’t do the right thing in 1953, maybe we can do the right thing now.

It was twenty years ago THIS MONTH that Poles elected a non-communist government.   Most pundits thought it was a silly dream that would just be crushed, as communist authorities had crushed these sorts of things before.   But it endured.   The crack in the communist wall that started in Poland spread throughout the whole benighted region.    Five months later the Berlin Wall, that horrible symbol of hate and oppression that had stood for almost thirty years, was torn down by the people.   Two years after that, the Soviet Union just dissolved and communism, which had ruled so ruthlessly for generations died with a whimper so small that we weren’t even sure it was dead.  

I know a lot less about Iran that I do about Poland and I don’t want to overdo the historical parallels.    But I do believe that if history does not repeat, it often rhymes.    The Iranians are heirs to the ancient Persian traditions of learning and tolerance.   In many ways the Mullahs are an alien anomaly that doesn’t fit the illustrious Iranian culture any more than communism fit Poland.   Stalin said that imposing communism on Poland as like trying to put a saddle on a cow.  He didn’t mean it as a compliment and he did indeed impose it anyway, but culture does matter and old habits have a way of reasserting themselves, especially habits of the heart.  Persian states, ancient, medieval and modern were often models of tolerance, learning and good government of their times.  It was Cyrus the Persian who ended the Babylonian captivity of the Jews.   Let’s hope the Persian habits of tolerance and openness are indeed habits of the heart.   And let’s make sure we know – and they know and the world knows - that we stand for their freedom and ours.  

Iranian Google logo 

BTW – since this is so many a Internet-reported affair, you can support the people of Iran by asking Google to make their daily logo reflect the Iranian struggle. 

http://whereistheirvote.x10hosting.com

Also please check out these pictures.

 

May 27, 2009

Roman Restoration

When one of my computers crashed a couple years ago, I thought I lost a whole set of pictures from trips to Istanbul and Rome, as well as a good many Warsaw photos.    Well … I did back them up on a disk, which I came across today.   I have been having a good time looking through the slide show. 

Alex at Arch of Titus in Rome in Feb 2002

When I thought I lost the pictures, I tried to write up the lost memory.   The text is below, but now I have included some of the formerly lost pictures.

Roman Forum

We lost the computer memory that included my pictures of the trip Alex and I took to Rome in February 2002.  I enjoyed looking at them from time to time.  I had a really good time with Alex that time.  He was interested in learning and enthusiastic about Rome. 

Maybe a picture is worth a thousand words and I can write that much about it.

Alex in Rome on Feb 2002

The flight down was not bad except that we sat next to a woman who seemed to have a cold.  We did not get sick, but it was unpleasant to sit next to her.  Coming down into the airport, the thing you notice is umbrella pines.  I was hoping to see a little of Rome, but the airport is far away.

It was hard to find our way around from the Rome airport.  We finally got our bearing and took the train to Rome.  I remember the train was very comfortable.  We went past a lot of rural slums.  Lots of gypsies lived along the tracks.   They had little trailer villages surrounded by garbage.   I was surprised how warm and kind of desert like it was.  It was a little like S. California or maybe even some of the less arid parts of Arizona.

German barbarian on Arch of Constantine

Our hotel was out of town.  We took the train and then a taxi.  It was a Holiday Inn Express and it had a free shuttle to the subway.  Next door was a big supermarket, which was good to have for coke and snacks. 

On the first night, we walked to this commercial area where there were shops and restaurants.  It was very lively and the weather was warm, very different from February in Poland. Restaurants were not open in the early evening.  Italians don’t eat until late.  As I recall, we had to eat at a Chinese place, since that was all that was open.

Coloseum in Rome in Feb 2002

We got up early the next day and caught the subway into town.  It was dreary and gray. The subway was depressing and crowded.  It seems like the start of a bad day.  It wasn’t.  As we came out of the subway station, the sun came out with that fresh look after a rain and we saw the Coliseum, behind was the Forum. It was a magic moment.  Alex was excited.  I had pictures of him at the Coliseum and in various places in the Forum.   He is skinny and wearing my red coat. It is too big for him.

That day we also went to the Circus Maximus and the Palatine and Capitoline Hill.  The Palatine is where the emperors had their homes.  Now it is park like around ruins.  We walked a lot that day. 

Sun in the Roman Pantheon 

The next day we went along the Adrian wall and downtown.  The most interesting was the Pantheon.  I had a picture of the sunlight coming in though the hole in the top of the roof.  We also saw Hadrian’s column.  There was a nice picture of Alex in front of it.   The Tiber is a small river, but it is nice nearby.  Lots of sycamore trees.

St Peters from the Tiber River

We walked all along and came to the Vatican.  It is very clean and neat.  There are lots of things to see.  The Vatican museum has many of those famous works of art that you always see in books.  We also saw the Sistine Chapel.  There were big crowds.  We went to St. Peters.  I had various pictures.  It is an impressive place.   It rained hard that day.  My Goretex did okay.  Poor Alex was soaked worse, but he didn’t complain. 

Via Appia near Rome in Feb 2002

The next day we went to outskirts of town.  Very nice gardens.  We also went to the Via Appia.  It is very pretty with interesting ruins all along.  This was the major highway to and from Rome and the the road where Jesus met St Peter as he was fleeing Rome during Nero's pogrom.  Peter asks Jesus Quo Vadis (where are you going).  Jesus said he was going to Rome to be with his people. Peter went back to Rome where he was martyred by being crucified upside down. 

A large part of the Roman road is a park available only to foot traffic.  Unfortunately, it is truly scary getting there on foot. The road is narrow and cars zoom along.  It scared the crap out of us.  Never again should we do something like that.  But once you get out of town, it is quiet and quaint.  One thing I like about Euro cities is that they end.  In the U.S. you would have endless suburbs.

Detail on Marcus Column in Rome

We caught a bus back to town.  That was our last day in Rome.  I really don’t recall much about catching the train back to the airport.  I remember passing the Gypsy village again.

I am sad to lose the pictures of Alex in Rome.  It was one of the happy times of my life and I hope of his.  

Alex at Holiday Inn Express in Rome

Oh yeah.  We shared a room.  That boy can snore.  I had to stuff rags into my ears to be able to sleep.

March 28, 2009

Power & Glory

Most people are uncomfortable with the exercise of authority and they usually resent those who do.   Lord Acton’s observation about the corrupting nature of power still applies.  ("Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

Nevertheless, establishing order requires authority and w/o basic order, nothing much gets done.  Power need not be overly coercive and the most effective leaders are those who welcome the participation of other.    I have written on this subject on many occasions.  But sometimes you come to a bottom line where a decision must be made.   In those times, a leader who refuses to make the hard decisions is shirking his duty. 

Statues near Von Steuben monument in Layfayette Park near Whitehouse in Washington DC on March 26, 2009, a rainy day.
  Leaders who refuse to lead are the leading cause of unhappiness in the workplace, IMO.   Worst of all are the guys who won’t lead, but like to boss.  Next worse are the ones who hide among the rules.  Rules apply to most situations and all routine decisions.  You need leadership for those times when they don’t. Leadership requires the exercise of judgment, which will always seem arbitrary to those who disagree.   

I learned an interesting lesson from an exercise in my leadership seminar last year.  Reference this link for details.  I don’t think it was the one intended.   I was chosen as a group leader by a more or less random and unfair procedure.   In the exercise, points were distributed based on rank but were also earned by individual and group effort.  I determined that our group could score lots more points if we cooperated and with my two leadership colleagues, we created a system that distributed the points fairly.  The facilitators were surprised and (I think) a little chagrined that we were scoring so many points w/o dissention.   We soon got dissention, when another group used the rules to seize power, despite the fact that it cost us all points.   The lesson I took was that the essential task of power is to maintain it.   Nasty and Machiavellian as it might seem, the simple fact is that you cannot accomplish your goals (even if your goal is to pass along power to someone else) if you are deposed.  Weak leadership does nobody any good.

I am reading a book Alex gave me for Christmas called Rubicon.  It is about the fall of the Roman Republic.   The author is very talented, but he evidently doesn’t like the Romans.  His description characterizes them almost as an infestation that infected and ultimately destroyed the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean.   Their virtues of perseverance, bravery and patriotism are seen as merely enablers of their cruelty.   A couple months ago I finished a book called Empires of Trust, which left almost the opposite impression.  I have been reading Roman history for a long time.  They are both right.   The Romans established the greatest Empire in history and brought order, a degree of justice & prosperity to the lands of Europe, Africa and Asia that surrounded the Mediterranean and now are thirty-six separate nations.  They were brave, resolute, consequent and practical.  They were also cruel, mendacious, superstitious and capricious.  In other words, they displayed all the usual attributes of power.

Washington DC on March 11, 2009

I admire the Romans, with all their faults.   Our world is very much based on theirs.  Our American constitution embodies many of the lessons of Rome, only better.  I believe in progress and that sometimes we can learn from history.   We learned from the Romans and we can be better than they were because we stand on their shoulders.  The fatal flaw of the Roman organization was their messy succession procedure.  Augustus established the principate (became emperor) through stealth and maintained it with the fiction that he was merely the first among equals.   He is recognized as a political genius and a great man for his achievement and it was probably the only way to pull it off.   But it avoided some of the responsibly of power and made each transition an unpredictable adventure which often involved murder and the exercise of military muscle.

The Romans were hated and justifiably feared because of their power.  They deprived the people of the Mediterranean of political freedom, what we would today call national self-determination.   If you annoyed the Romans, you paid a high price.   But the Roman Empire provided a great deal of liberty, tolerance and personal autonomy.  (Of course all ancient societies were horrible and oppressive by modern standards.   Remember that progress thing.  But compared with the available alternatives, you were probably better off living in the Roman Empire than anyplace else in the world at the time.)

US Capitol Dome on March 22, 2009

Above - Romans perfected the dome and pioneered the use of concrete in buildings.

Most of my ancestors were among the barbarians who destroyed the Empire and I imagine my grandfather many generations removed scratching himself in the Forum trying w/o success to figure out how all that water got to the fountains.  The Empire fell in 476 in the West (although it hung on until 1453 in Constantinople) but the idea of Rome persisted and the whole world is heir to their achievement.  You can see it in architecture from Shanghai to Seattle.  Washington looks a lot like a Roman city.  The Romans were not very original, but they were experts at assimilating and developing ideas from a diversity of sources.  They developed what became our concepts of rule of law, citizenship, the concept of a republic and separation of powers, so we Americans are especially indebted to them.   Our Founding Fathers knew what we sometimes forget.   

February 21, 2009

Evolving Science

I was watching the History Channel today about Neanderthals.  Back when I was in school, we learned that they were a separate species from modern humans and that it was likely that anatomically modern humans were hostile to them and maybe wiped them out either through competition, conflict or a combination of both.   The Neanderthals were portrayed as brutes, who lacked the skills and organizational abilities that made modern humans so successful.   Now the Neanderthals have been upgraded.   According to scientists on the show, these guys not only were among our ancestors, but may have contributed the gene that makes it possible for us to learn language – the quintessential human trait. 

Evolution

Science is not neutral.  It is embedded in current culture and sensibility.   Even if scientists answer all the questions in an unbiased way, the questions themselves are heavily influenced by the surrounding society.   The original theories of the Neanderthal were postulated in the 19th Century, in an age when conflict and competition was accepted as a part of nature.   Today being cooperative and inclusive is in style, so it should come as no surprise that we now see our long lost cousins in kinder and gentler terms.   I don’t know what the Neanderthals were like.    Nobody does.   We I do know is that our speculations often depend more on us than on what they were really like.

BTW – a fascinating book on the subject is Before the Dawn, which traces human prehistory by studying changes in our DNA.   The interesting thing is that evolution didn’t end; it is just not operating to the same sorts of characteristics.    Evolution doesn’t always go in the direction of improvement.  Fitness in the Darwinian sense just means that you contribute more genes to the next generation.  To accomplish this in the natural environment, you usually needed to be stronger, faster, smarter or very lucky, but the pressures have abated.   By Darwinian standards, the fittest person in history may be that woman who just had eight kids, on top of the seven she already had. 

Another change in interpretation has to do with dinosaurs.  I learned that giants were clumsy, lumbering reptiles.  Now we hear that some we agile and maybe were warm blooded with feathers.  Who knew?  Most of today's real cool dinosaurs, such as raptors, were largely unknown when I was a kid.

Seagulls in Anacostia on February 2009 

Above are little dinosaurs? 

BTW - Chimps are very agressive, as we were reminded by the recent chip attack.  In the wild about 1/3 of male chips die from violence. Primitive man was/is violent too.  That is our heritage that we struggle to overcome with our civilization.  There is no such thing as a noble savage (and Rosseau sucked anyway.)

January 20, 2009

Oral History & Flawed Understanding

The good news is that cable television has resulted in a proliferation of good programs about science, history and politics.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, lots of moving pictures must be worth millions of words, but the pictures may be out of context and if you count up the total number of actual words in an hour on History Channel, you could probably fill only a couple of pages. (Re pictures - I watched "the Real Abraham Lincoln."  It featured a reenactment of the young Abe.  But the guy has a beard.  Lincoln didn't grow the beard until 1860.) TV spends a lot of time repeating scenes of collapsing buildings, burning fires or horsemen galloping, w/o explaining the significance.    The shallowness of the medium is the bad news.

Cobras at ancient Egyptian temple taken January 2008

This extends beyond the series of gripping but unenlightening images.    I also notice a general decline in rigor.  Maybe it is a general phenomenon, but you notice it clearly on TV.   Instead of trying to evaluate evidence and sources, the programs sort of throw it all out there with equal credibility.   This would be okay with a written source or among scholars, but the television images don’t provide enough background or references for the viewers to evaluate veracity, even assuming most audience members had the background or inclination to do so.

It is bad enough when we have dueling “experts” but it gets worse when many programs seem to put oral histories on par with real ones.   All histories are subject to interpretation and just because something is written down does not mean that it is true.   But oral history must be even more carefully evaluated because it is literally subject to change w/o notice.  

Early Egyptian pyramid that collapsed into a mound

The strength of written sources is that they freeze impressions and the facts at the point of writing.   Facts don’t improve with age.   An earlier recollection is more factual than a later one and a primary account is better than a secondary one.  An investigator can compare a written record against subsequent ones to detect enhancements or omissions.    It makes it harder to change the story.   It is also possible to nail down the assertion, so that you can check them against other evidence.   

Oral histories do not suffer these constraints.  When confronted with disconfirming evidence, an oral history can just change.   The danger to the integrity of the story comes not only from deception, but also from innocent rationalization.   People tend to want to fit their stories into current realities.   They smooth the edges to make them conform to the present needs.    

Peloponesian landscape with olives and grapes take from hill near Mycenae ruins March 2008

This story changing is most often a social process.   Stories change in the telling and retelling and in a short time they come to reflect the aspirations, interests, prejudices & desires of the group more than reality.  Oral history has great value because it tells you a lot about the people telling the story; it tells you less about the actual historical events on which is it ostensibly based.   It has to be handled carefully. 

Of coures all history starts off as oral.  It is the raw material.  Beer starts off as barely and hops, but it requires some processing before you drink it.  The same goes for oral history.  If you take oral history from those who actually experienced an event, you can check facts.   It is helpful to compare stories of individuals who have not communicated with each other much since the events in question.   It gets harder when you get into the second or third generation of the story.     At that point it has probably become myth.  It may be based on the truth but it is not truth.

Path on Acropolis hill in Athens taken March 2008

Myth is usually more interesting and plausible than actual historical events.  Heroes are stronger and braver.  Villains are scarier.   Causes are more just.  Events make more sense and often presage big developments of the future.   They make better narratives precisely because they have been edited and enhanced by the people who have told and retold the stories. 

The compelling nature of oral history and the resulting myths makes them especially dangerous on history television.   They are almost always more interesting and more easily recreated in dramatic reenactments.   It gets worse in our PC world.  Many historical programs these days portray the confrontation between literate and pre-literate societies.    The literate societies have historical records that can be critically evaluated and parsed.   You get the warts and all portraits.   Given the critical nature of this inquiry, we often end up with a mostly warts portrait.  On the other side, we have the myths property altered in light of subsequent events.    

Below are Alex and Chrissy at "America's Stonehenge" in New Hampshire.  We visited it when we lived nearby in Londonderry.  It is worth seeing but not worth going to see.   The History Channel featured it as a "mystery".   It is a mystery - a mystery why some clown would pile those rocks, but otherwise it is clearly not ancient.   But a TV show with lots of cool angles and supositions can make it seem so.

America's Stonehenge near Londonderry, NH taken in 2003

Modern historians are understandably frustrated.  They want to write about pre-literate societies and they want to write about conditions of the common people in all past worlds.   Unfortunately, pre-literate people don’t write at all and the common people didn’t write much until recently.    I don’t know a precise number, but I doubt that more than 5% of all the ancient Roman texts still exist, so we start out with a small sample.   None of the authors are representative of their societies, in that most people couldn’t write, so you already have an elite enterprise.   There are no significant female historians from the Roman period and the Romans were unenthusiastic about letting their subject people write critical accounts of their rule.   Beyond all that, most the writers were not interested in the doings of the common people, male or female, Roman or not.  When the sturdy yeomen are featured, it is usually just a didactic example.  Victor Davis Hanson wrote a good book on people working the land, who always made up the vast majority of the population, called “The Other Greeks," but there just are not many good sources.  

You can learn a lot about physical conditions from archeology, but you still don’t have the narrative.   The stones and bones don’t tell you much about the people’s motivations, imagination or aspiration.   That is unsatisfying.   Imagine if a future archeologist could reconstruct your television set but had no record of any of the programs.  So historians extrapolate and move the historical narrative into the realm of conjecture, as with other forms of oral history telling us as much about the extrapolator than about the subject itself.   

All the specialty cable channels (history, discovery, military, science etc) are spreading information wider than ever before.  That is good … I guess.

Particular parts of the programming that I think is very good are some of the “current” history features.   I have seen several good programs on Iraq.   They tell the story and interview the people involved.    My belief is that the U.S. public currently has a very biased view of the events in Iraq and the news media is unlikely to clear it up, since they have largely moved on.   Fortunately, a lot of lessons learned type programs are being made now.     These are essentially primary sources and when historians get around to addressing events in Iraq more dispassionately, I believe these will be the key sources.

January 19, 2009

Hail to the Chief

Below is George Washington on Boston Commons. Washington set the tone for the presidency.  He was the indespensible man, so often talked about but actually so rare in history.  

Statue of George Washington on Boston Commons  taken on August 2003

Most Federal employees working in DC don’t have to come in tomorrow, inauguration day.   It would be literally impossible for most of us to get to work anyway.   I don’t know how many people will come in for the inauguration, but it will certainly be enough to clog the Metro.   I thought about going down to try to get a glimpse of the activity, but decided against it.   I would just become part of the crowd problem.  Besides, I figure I will get a better view watching TV.

Below is the stone wall in Fredericksburg.  The battle that took place there in 1862 was bloody, with the Confederates shooting from behind the stone wall.  Nevertheless, two years later, during a terrible civil war, we held our elections on schedule.  Lincoln won a second term.  Lincoln was another indispensible man.  He was remarkable not only for winning the civil war, but for his profound generosity at the end.  Read his Second Inaugural Address.

Stone wall at Fredericksburg

People who know me are aware of my leanings and I don’t talk about politics on this site, but I can voice support for my president.   All Americans wish President Obama success.   I am glad that he seems to be so popular worldwide.  Although I think that anti-Americanism goes beyond our political leaders or our policies, it doesn’t hurt to have a leader who is personally popular. 

I listened to an interview on NPR this afternoon with a guy whose parents were Black Panthers.    He said that he distrusted Martin Luther King when he was a young man because he thought that such peaceful and respectful tactics couldn’t work.    But as he got older, he saw the error of his ways.   Still, he said, he was surprised when Obama won in almost completely white Iowa and he was astounded when he won the presidency of the United States.    If you think back to 1968, it is truly astonishing. 

Below is the old fashioned train in Durango, Colorado.  The genius of our Constitution allowed our republic to expand from sea to sea w/o compromising our democracy.  The railroad and telegraph helped tie the continent together.

Old fashioned steam engine in Durango, Colorado taken in July 2003

It makes me wonder how much better the world could be if some of the violent militants around the world had chosen a more peaceful strategy of change. Some of these generations long armed struggles make no objective sense if you are looking for real results.  Of course, I think the difference may be that King was trying to help his followers become part of the American dream. Non-violent tactics require a fundamental respect for and belief in the humanity of your opponents.  Many international militants have more bloody revolutionary aims and are less loving of their opponents.  They are not really looking for mutual solutions.

Each new president is a new beginning.   That is another astonishing thing.  We have become so accustomed to it that we forget how astonishing it is – 220 years of successful transitions, even during the civil war.   Few governments in world history have that kind of record of success.  The U.S. is considered a young country, but we have the second oldest government in the world and the oldest living constitution.   I expect the best is yet to come.

January 11, 2009

A Study of History

Herodotus

John & Alex Matel at Pyramids in Giza January 2008

Washington Post featured a report from a guy who toured the world of Herodotus.    This is the link. 

Herodotus was the world’s first historian.    Of course people wrote about historical events before his time, but they didn’t think in the historical sense of trying to connect disparate events into a meaningful whole.   For the ancient pre-Greek civilizations, history was just a series of bragging press releases, with pharaohs, kings and warlords exaggerating and sometimes completely fabrication triumphs.  There was no understanding of greater causality.  They also looked for supernatural explanations to all human affairs and/or are accounts of the work of God on earth.   That is, BTW, is what differentiates Herodotus’ work from the Book of Samuel, which some scholars have called the first history, or from something like the Iliad, which has a narrative and talks re historical events.    

Acropolis in Athens in March 2008

Herodotus was often not accurate. That is not why he was the “first historian” He accepted all sorts of hear-say and outright myths. His was also a very intensely personal work and he makes little or no attempt to screen for his own bias.  This is one reason it is so much fun to read his work. But he did seek to understand the context of his events in his inquiry, which is the more precise translation of his word history. 

Herodotus is great literature, but my favorite ancient historian is Thucydides.   His Melian Dialogues and the book about the Syracuse campaign should be required reading for anyone trying to understand world affairs.   It is interesting how you can see progress in the writing of history.   I like Thucydides better, but Polybius is a better historian, because he had the advantage of the experience.   (Polybius put the rise of Rome in the greater context.)  Today, standing on the shoulders of these giants and others who came after, the average graduate student is a better historian than any of them.    We have the gift of being able to take the best of the past.    We should never squander that gift. 

Mariza & John Matel in Athens March 2008

Improvements in how historians could assess events are examples of technologies of the mind or technologies of thought.  

We easily recognize technologies of the physical world.  Using technology, a weakling driving a bulldozer can do more than the strongest man working by hand.  We all remember the story of John Henry and the steam drill.   But we overlook the more important technologies of thought & mind.   The most obvious are in hard sciences and subjects like math.   The greatest mathematicians of any time before around 1600 could not pass an introductory statistics and quantitative methods class.   The tools we use today just were not yet invented.  But this goes for others things as well.  

It is also true for cultures.   Culture is a form of technology in the broad sense.   It gives people the package of techniques and skills they need to adapt to the world and its challenges.  Some packages work better than others.    I am talking about “small c” culture too.  Firms have cultures.   That is why some companies can consistently outperform others.  

Below is Jarash in what is now Jordan.  The Romans knew how to bring in water.  The skills were lost and it went from thriving city to impressive ruins in a couple of generations.

Jarah in Jordan May 2008

Culture is the mystery ingredient that frustrates the predictions of the data-obsessed analysts.   It is usually the explanation why the same sorts of investments in plants and equipment prosper in one place and flounders in another. And an unwillingness to address the problem culture lies at the bottom of most failures to institute meaningful change.   You can supply all the physical technologies you want; they are worthless and even harmful without the technologies of the mind to integrate them into the cultures.   I talked in an earlier post re the various sorts of barbarians unable to figure out the Roman technologies that made it possible for cities to prosper in arid or hostile environments.     This is a lesson of history we should learn.   The great thing about taking lessons from ancient history is that much of the politics and passion has dissipated so we can be a little more objective. 

Mariza and Espen on the Greek island of Hydra in March 2008

Anyway, Herodotus is truly entertaining.   I would love to do study tour like the one described in the report.   I used to read Herodotus to the kids as bedtime stories.   There are lots of good lesson that go with the good fun.

January 09, 2009

Globalization & Zubrowka

Zubrowka Vodka from PolandYou used to have to travel to get special things.   It used to be fun to shop at the duty free shops.  Globalization has changed all that.    Now in America you can get almost anything from almost anywhere.  There are loses that go with this gain of globalization and diversity.   It takes a lot of the fun out of discovery when you discover the same stuff wherever you go.   

There are still some things that you can't get easily even in America.  These are mostly things that don’t travel well.   Bread is a good example.   Bread must be baked locally and I have never been able to find European quality bread in the U.S.    I don’t really understand why that should be the case, but it is.  Cheese and sausages are also like that. Sausage made in Milwaukee is better than the Euro variety, except for salami.  French soft cheese is better than the same varieties in the U.S.  We also make great hard cheeses and these travel well.  Not so the soft varieties, IMO.  A Frenchman once told me that it was because of American health regulations and practices.   We require a level of sanitation that is beyond actual health requirements and some of the good flavors come from types of "impuritites".  The same goes for Polish ham.  Ham tastes better when the pigs get a variety of food, i.e. slop.    

It used to be that beer didn’t travel well, but modern packaging has changed that.   Good tap beer is still a local pleasure, however.    I think that comes more from the psychological aspects than reality.  Although I doubt I could pass a blind taste test, the same beer tastes better in pleasant surroundings served in the right kind of glass. 

They have a unique kind of vodka in Poland called Zubrowka.   It is what you see in the picture.   It is named after the bison that lives in the forests of Eastern Poland and it has a piece of grass and some herbs that give it its special flavor.   Some people like to mix it with apple juice; I just like to drink it straight and cold.  

Zubrowka is hard to come by in the U.S. I guess globalization doesn’t work for everything.  A Polish friend brought me this bottle. 

The Polish bison has an interesting story.   They were wiped out in the wild early in the 20th Century, but restored with stock from zoos in Sweden & Germany and reintroduced into Bialowieza, the biggest area of old growth deciduous forest in Europe.  Bialowieza used to be completely in Poland, but the Soviets moved the border in 1939, when they and the Nazis cooperated to dismember the second  Rzeczpospolita.    In an odd twist of history, Hermann Goering was instrumental in protecting the bison in Eastern Poland in the Bialowieza forest during WWII. He and his fellow Nazis were more interested in animal than human rights. 

I visited Bialowieza back in 2002, but didn’t see any wild bison, although they had some injured ones convalescing in a compound.   I did see some semi-wild bison near Bielsko.  They were more recently introduced there.  The European bison is smaller than the American bison and doesn’t have the characteristic hump. (We saw a herd of American bison in the Custer National Forest in 1992.  They are really magnificent animals.)  

I remember the trip to Bialowieza and the really massive oak trees.  The biggest ones are named after Polish kings.   They are not the biggest oak trees in Poland, however.   The biggest one  is near Poznan.  I didn’t see that one.   The second biggest is near Kielce.  They call it "Bartek" (the Poles name big trees) and it was supposed to be around 1200 years old, but I heard that it is "only" a little more than 600.   The story is that Jan III Sobieski  rested under the tree on his way back from the battle of Vienna where the Poles saved Europe from the Turks in 1683.  I saw that tree in 1995.  Near Raclawica, where Kusciuszko defeated the Russians in 1794 there is a big linden, under which Kusciuszko rested after the battle.  A living link with the past makes history a lot more immediate. Our driver, Bogdan, knew I liked trees and he took me to these sorts of places on the way to programs in other cities.  He was a great guy, who knew the countryside.  Those were the days before I kept a blog or took digital photos.  It is a pity not to have a record. 

Memory fades.

January 04, 2009

Gaza - Poorly Run Since the Romans Left

There is trouble in Gaza again.   Like so many other places around the Middle East, the longest time of sustained peace and prosperity came courtesy of the Romans.   Under the Roman Empire, Gaza enjoyed six centuries of peace and prosperity.  

Goats graze where merchants and scholars met during Roman times 

Above - This is in Amman.  In Roman times it was called Philadelphia.  This is the marketplace  where merchants met and scholars discussed.

At that time, the inhabitants spoke Greek and the city was a center of culture, known for its sophistication and love of the ancient customs.  Probably for that reason, Gaza remained pagan longer than many other cities. It didn’t become Christian until the middle of the fourth Century. 

Anyway, the point is that Gaza is not naturally a terrible place.  If Hamas would wise up, it could be a nice place to live, as it was when it was under better management for six centuries during the Roman times.   Too bad the Romans are no longer in the business.   Please see this link for our visit to the Roman city of Jarash.

It reminds me of Monty Python, when the miltants ask “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

From "Monty Python's Life of Brian"

Monty Python Life of Brian militants

Reg: They've bled us white, the bastards. They've taken everything we had, not just from us, from our fathers and from our fathers' fathers.
Stan: And from our fathers' fathers' fathers.
Reg: Yes.
Stan: And from our fathers' fathers' fathers' fathers.
Reg: All right, Stan. Don't labour the point. And what have they ever given us in return?
Xerxes: The aqueduct.
Reg: Oh yeah, yeah they gave us that. Yeah. That's true.
Masked Activist: And the sanitation!
Stan: Oh yes... sanitation, Reg, you remember what the city used to be like.
Reg: All right, I'll grant you that the aqueduct and the sanitation are two things that the Romans have done...
Matthias: And the roads...
Reg: (sharply) Well yes obviously the roads... the roads go without saying. But apart from the aqueduct, the sanitation and the roads...
Another Masked Activist: Irrigation...
Other Masked Voices: Medicine... Education... Health...
Reg: Yes... all right, fair enough...
Activist Near Front: And the wine...
Omnes: Oh yes! True!
Francis: Yeah. That's something we'd really miss if the Romans left, Reg. Masked Activist at Back:
Public baths!
Stan: And it's safe to walk in the streets at night now.
Francis: Yes, they certainly know how to keep order... (general nodding)... let's face it, they're the only ones who could in a place like this.
(more general murmurs of agreement)
Reg: All right... all right... but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order... what have the Romans done for us?
Xerxes: Brought peace!
Reg: (very angry, he's not having a good meeting at all) What!? Oh... (scornfully) Peace, yes... shut up!

Roman ruins in Amman Jordan

BTW – The ancient Middle East was nothing like the modern one.   First off, there were almost no Arabs.  Around the coast, most people were Greek, at least in language and outlook.   In Egypt the upper classes spoke Greek and had a Hellenistic culture, while the common people lived a lot like they had under the pharaohs.  Inland in much of what is now Israel, Jordan and Iraq, people spoke Aramaic.   This was the language had been a common language of the Persian Empire.    There were many nationalities in the region, but Arabs were not prominent among them at this time.   Arabs arrived in the 7th Century, when they conquered those places from the Roman (Byzantine) rulers.

Cherub and Byzantine Emperor Heraclius submitting Sassanid king Khosrau II; plaque from a cross. Champlevé enamel over gilt copper, 1160-1170, Meuse Valley.

The Arab conquest is one of the great historical anomalies.   They came just at the right time.   The Byzantine Empire had just finished a long and mutually exhausting war with the Persians. Either of these great Empires could have dispatched the Arab raiders at almost any other time, but in these particular decades they were weakened.  The Byzantines also had a schism problem.   The Christians of Egypt and Syria had a doctrinal dispute with the Christians in Constantinople.   In other words, the armies of the prophet came upon a weakened and divided empire.    Such is the role of chance in history.   

No matter how it happened, it is truly astonishing to anybody who studied ancient history to contemplate the complete transformation and in many cases destruction of the ancient cultures of the region.  A thousand years of Greek culture was submerged in a couple of decades.   It was a much more complete change than happened in the West, where the lands of the Western Roman Empire still speak languages descended from Latin and still have cultures that can be traced to their ancient heritage.  Northern Africa, which is now Libya, Algeria and Tunisia, were very Roman, but that heritage is gone.

I think some of it has to do with the natural environment.   Barbarian invasions in places like France or Italy destroyed much of the infrastructure of civilization, but the environment was more forgiving.   Ancient cities could grow back as times improved.   Roman and Greek cities in the arid places like the Middle East or North Africa were more dependent on the engineering infrastructure.    The Arabs invaders in the south and the Germans in the north were all interested in taking the riches of the Roman Empire, but didn’t really understand the complexities of making it work.    

When the Roman engineers died off or left their work, and no new ones were trained, the great aqueducts broke down.  This didn’t happen all at once, but in the course of some years, the knowledge was lost.  In the areas of the German conquests, natural rainfall allowed a fall back.  Not so in the more arid regions.  That is why you see those Roman cities in the middle of the deserts. The Romans knew how to make these places productive.    

January 02, 2009

History up Close

Below is the personal story from one of the blog readers about his great grandfather who came from the city of Anah.    It is an interesting and tragic family history.  With his permission I am posting it here.  I will let professional historians sort out the connections and timelines.  I just think it is worth reading and have placed it as it is.

Issak from Anah and Sudan c 1930I am going to tell you the story about my great grandfather Isaak El Eini. As I mentioned El Eini means in Arabic from Anah. The picture I am attaching is not a good picture taken in the 1930s in Khartoum, Sudan. He is the elderly man in the back alone. He was thin, tall, dark. The lady in the front was his niece whose parents had moved from Anah to Khartoum around 1900. 
 
He was born in the 1860s. He came from a Jewish family. Anah had been a part of the ancient Babylonian Empire. The Jews had been brought over from Judea by King Nebuchadnezzar in 586BC.
 
Jews, Christians and Moslems lived in the town in harmony with no problems. Each in their own neighborhoods. The family were in the Caravan business. They took care of the camels, merchandise etc. Anah was an important station on the Damascus to Baghdad caravan route (it took 33 days). The caravans comprising of as many as 1,200 camels carrying textiles from Britain, sugar, tobacco, drugs etc would stop in Anah for 3 days as it was here where they would cross the Euphrates river. From Baghdad there were caravans to Basra where merchandise would continue to India and Asia by ship.
 
After 1888 when the Suez Canal was opened for all shipping it was quicker to transport goods by ship. This devastated the family business. So Isaak left Anah and moved to Egypt, which was prospering from the construction of the Canal. In those days there was no Iraq. It was known as Mesopotamia and like Egypt was part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.
 
He moved to Aswan in southern Egypt and began trading with the tribes in the Sudan. In the late 1890s the British decided to take over the Sudan which was ruled by the Mahdi. Lord Kitchener headed the Anglo Egyptian Army. Isaak followed the army as a civilian trading with the Sudanese all the time. When they arrived in Omdurman (Khartoum) they put a siege on the city. However the siege was not working and the Mahdi was holding out.
 
Girls from the SudanLord Kitchener chose Isaak to act as a spy, enter Omdurman  and to pretend he was a trader who had crossed the Red Sea from Arabia. He brought many gifts to the Mahdi. In return the Mahdi gave Isaak a young boy and girl as a gift to be raised as slaves. Isaak had no choice but to accept the gift.
 
While in Omdurman Isaak found out that the Mahdi was holding off the siege because some Egyptian Officers were giving / selling arms to him. He left the city and gave all the information to Lord Kitchener.
 
Kitchener won the battle and became a hero in Britain. As a reward he gave Isaak a lot of fertile land in Omdurman. Soon later he told all his brothers and sisters to leave Anah and come live in Omdurman / Khartoum. They lived there till 1967 and became Sudanese citizens. But in 1967 when Israel and the Arabs went to war, Sudan expelled all the Jews. The family then moved to Britain and Switzerland.
 
Now Isaak stopped working. He lived off the land holdings and every few years he would sell some acres to live on. He was a terrible husband. and playboy. His wife lived in Cairo all the time with his only daughter Massouda, my grandmother. He would travel to Cairo about once a year to see them. It was basically like being divorced.
 
In his 70s he had spent all his money. In the early 1940s  my father living in Cairo, heard a knock on the door and it was Isaak. He was sick and died soon afterwards.
 
As to the two children who were given as gifts by the Mahdi: one was a boy and the other a girl. Isaak's wife and my grandmother raised them and sent them to school. At 16 the girl got pregnant. Because they wore long wide dresses my grandmother did not realise that she was pregnant. She tried to give birth to the baby and kill it. My grandmother rushed her to the hospital. The needle was infected and she died in the hospital; so did the baby.
 
The boy later got a job at a bank. His son became a very important official at the same bank.
 
Hope I did not bore you with such a long story.
 
Best wishes,
Semsem

December 29, 2008

Roosevelt & Jefferson

I have a minor stomach bug and didn’t feel well enough to run on this beautiful day, so I went for a walk instead during lunchtime.   I went down to the Roosevelt Memorial.  It is a pretty big and impressive thing, as you can see in the picture, and there is a lot of flowing water.  

Main statue at Roosevelt Memorial

This size and complexity of the memorial goes against Roosevelt ’s wishes.    He told Felix Frankfurter that he wanted a memorial no bigger than his desk and there is a memorial about the size of a desk near the National Archives.  But the Roosevelt legacy outgrew the man.  

Waterfalls at Roosevelt Memorial

All monuments are really as much about the time when they are constructed as about the people or events depicted.   You can see the 1990s (when the Memorial was built) in the Memorial itself.   For example, although Roosevelt was crippled with polio, he didn't allow himself to be pictured in a wheelchair.   I think there is only one such photo.   Many people at the time were not aware of the extent of his infirmity.   By the 1990s, such attitudes were unpopular. The compromise, in my picture, shows him seated with his cape covering the wheelchair.   This evidently offended some people, so there is also a statue of Roosevelt in his wheelchair. 

Breadline statues at Roosevelt Memorial

I think we have an interesting question.   Roosevelt expressed clearly in his words and actions that he would not have approved of the monument or of his depiction in the wheelchair.  The question is, at what point does a man’s legacy become more important than he is and how much license should we have to fit a man of the past into contemporary morals and sensibilities? 

Jefferson Memorial over the water

In pictures from the times, Roosevelt is always shown with a cigarette.  It was a big part of his personality.  We won’t see that.  This part of his image is gone.  There was a controversy about a stamp featuring the artist Jackson Pollock, who evidently smoked all the time.   The postal service made the stamp from a photo of Pollock.   They airbrushed out the characteristic cigarette.   

Jefferson Memorial and Tidal Basin

Modern technology makes this kind of ex-post-facto censorship much easier.  I think it is better to leave such things in and explain that times were different.  We cannot apply today’s standards to the people of the past. 

Thomas Jefferson

This applies to Thomas Jefferson more than most.   I also went to his memorial.   Jefferson was knocked off his high pedestal by his slave owning.   It is true that slavery was a terrible blight, but it had been around as long as human society.  The pyramids were built with slave labor.  Jefferson had the misfortune to be on the societal cusp that separated the 5000 years of human history when slavery was accepted from the last couple centuries when it was anathema to civilized people.  It wasn’t until around the time of Jefferson that large numbers of people began to see slavery as an evil to be extirpated and that outrage was limited generally to the Western world at that time.  There are still parts of Africa and Asia where forms of slavery are practiced. 

pillars at Jefferson Memorial

It is hard not to judge Jefferson by today’s standards and harder still to understand how someone who could think so elegantly about freedom could have such a blind spot about the freedom of people he saw every day.  But we really cannot judge him too harshly for not making a clean break with a tradition that stretched back to the dawn of history. 

BTW – I met a former slave when I was in Poland .  He and his family were captured by the Soviets in 1939 and sent to labor camps where only those who worked got food rations.   The Soviets, enlightened as they were, would not officially allow children to work, so this guy’s underage brothers and sisters were not allowed to work and got no food.  It was the perfectly logical workings of a diabolical bureaucracy.   The family tried to share, but they all died except for the man I met.  He survived the Russian death camps and returned to Poland where he became a wood worker and was making decorations for churches in Zakopane.   

He was a surprisingly cheerful man, with a still abiding faith in the goodness of God despite his ordeal, and not bitter at all against the Russians.   “It was a different time and place,” he advised me.   This is the only actual slave I ever met.  In America , after nearly 150 years, there is no living memory of slavery.  My friend’s conditions were much worse than those in Virginia during Jefferson ’s time.   Perhaps we should take his advice.

Jefferson Memorial looking west

Jefferson was a great man, although a flawed human being - like all of us.  The genius of America is that we can take humans as they are, w/o demanding perfection, and through all these imperfect people create a more perfect country.

November 30, 2008

It is NOT Always About Politics

I like to watch the Sunday morning news programs.  My morning routine includes “This Week,” “Chris Matthews,”  “Fox News Sunday” & “Meet the Press.”   I have to switch around among them, since they overlap.   That is interesting because you often see the same “opinion makers”  being interviewed on a couple of them.    It might be easier just to get the talking points.  These shows are ABOUT politics, so I shouldn’t complain, but I think they are too much about politics.

Below is Augustus Caesar, Rome's first Emperor.

Augustus Caesar from Greek Archeological Museum

They see everything through a political lens.   I understand that Washington is a political town and politics pervades everything, however I don’t think everything is reducible to politics alone, at least politics in the sense of the competitive game.   On “Chris Matthews” eight out of the twelve pundits thought “the right” would give President Obama the benefit of a long honeymoon.   I agree with the majority.   But I disagree with Matthews and the panel when they characterized this as simple politics.   They will have to give it because they cannot be seen to oppose him.   Matthews et al are smart people and I recall the two old sayings:  “it takes a smart person to be cynical, but a wise man to get beyond that” and “A man’s view of the world is a confession of his own character.”    

Not everybody is motivated by politics – not even politicians – and especially not ordinary people.   I have particular and strongly held political views, but between elections I want my President to succeed no matter what party and I want our Congress to work under the best possible conditions.   In between elections, I don’t want to think about politics very much.  Most people are like that except during tough political campaigns or when making a calls to talk radio or C-Span.    Being politically aware all the time is just too exhausting.

Our system makes good or at least okay decisions most of the time.  More important is our capacity to experiment and reinvent while maintaining the fundamental integrity of our structure.  The fact that we enjoy the oldest living Constitution in the world and are second oldest continuous government in the world (after the Brits) is ample evidence of our stability.   It is noteworthy that the British heritage has influenced so many stable democracies (Besides the U.S. and UK, Australian, New Zealand, Canada, among others, and arguably even India).  To a significant extent, the countries with this heritage allow their citizens more freedom FROM politics than most others.   In America, it is possible to be prosperous, secure and successful w/o strong political connections.   If you think about that for more than a minute and put it into historical context, that is truly amazing.   Freedom FROM arbitrary government action and the capriciousness of petty officials is rare in history.   We complain about our lack of freedom and opportunity, but we have (to paraphrase) the worst possible system … except for everything else.

I worry that we may ask too much from government and I get nervous each election season.   History shows that people voluntary give up freedom in return for the promise of stability and prosperity but they end up usually getting none of the above.   It is useful to read the stories of Republics, ancient and modern, as our Founding Fathers did.  This could happen to us too, but the good sense of the American people and the soundness of our institutions win out in the end.   Most of us are not really interested in letting politics intrude too much into our daily lives and private affairs – especially nto “theirs” but even our own.   We get a little hysterical from time to time, but to the disappointment of radicals on all sides, moderation and good sense prevail. 

November 20, 2008

Traditions, Quantico and NGOs on the Battlefield

Military bases and battlefields are often located on beautiful natural locations.  It makes sense when you think about it.  They were looking for high ground that commanded some natural features.   Such places have nice views.   Below is the view of the Potomac from the Marine base at Quantico where I went to participate on a panel on civil military affairs at the Expeditionary Warfare School. 

Potomac River view from Quantico

We had an interesting discussion about NGOs in battle spaces.   The students were generally unsympathetic to the neutrality of NGOs and their arguments were cogent.   What happens when an NGO learns about an imminent attack?  On the other hand, it is important that we have NGOs maintain the ability to work with both sides, at least nominally.   This is especially important for an organization like the Red Cross, which has real responsibility to minister to the victims of armed conflict on all sides.   There will always be a dynamic tension.    It takes physical courage to be on a battlefield and it takes moral courage to maintain neutrality in these tough conditions.   The expedient thing to do in the short run is often not the right thing for the long run.  I defended the NGOs, although I admitted that the actions of many also annoy me much of the time.   We cannot always defend only those things we like.  

Beyond that, NGOs are a key part of civil society.   They usually help us with stability operations, whether or not they want to work toward “our” goals.  They provide services that make life better for the local people.   The bad guys tend to hate them for that.   Their goal is to make life horrible for the average person in order to break down support for legitimate authority, create chaos and drum up recruits for their nefarious purposes.   Of course, that does not include the politically motivated NGOs, and there are a few of them.

General Roy Geiger at Quantico

The military does tradition well.  The building where we met was called Geiger Hall.  Many buildings are named after famous people, or people who gave piles of money to whatever institution is naming the place.  This is different.  General Geiger earned the honor AND the building owners explained why.   The constant exposure to the reminders of his successful and heroic life gives instruction and inspiration.  These are things we need more in our lives.  Below is the story of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a truly remarkable man.  If you don't know the story, I suggest you google him.

joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

I had to rush back from Quantico to do a presentation on strategic communications for the JSAT at NDU.   Our part of the task force is studying that and I will write more insights re public diplomacy when I have more of them.   I will have to go to Doha to work on this in early December.   Back to the Middle Eastern desert.   Actually that area is pleasant in the winter, it is only for a couple weeks and I won’t be in the war zone, so I don’t mind.   

Fishing on the Potomac

I walked along the Potomac on the way from the Metro to NDU, where I met this guy.   He told me that he was fishing for catfish and rockfish and catching some catfish.   As a senior citizen, he says he doesn’t need a license to fish in the Potomac.   He has been fishing there for more than a half century, back when this part of Washington was a poor semi-rural town.

Squirrel in washington 

Above - with all the oak trees, we have alot of squirrels, agile and graceful creatures.  Three of them were burying acorns, but by the time I got my camera out, only one remained.   This one reared up.

November 11, 2008

Veterans' Day at Arlington

Veterans' day flagVeterans’ day is one of the few Federal holidays held on the actual date, even when it is not on a Monday, because it commemorates the specific occasion on  the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month when the armistice went into effect in World War I.   I went to Arlington Cemetery to think about what the day signifies.   

I used to pass through Arlington Cemetery on my bike when it was still possible to cut through Ft Meyer on the way to Washington.  After 9/11 this was closed off and they also banned bikes and runners in the cemetery.  I understand that but I don’t really agree.   It is not a sign of disrespect to pass through the place. 

I made a special effort to pass through Arlington.  It was a little out of the way, but worth it.  When you see something regularly, it becomes more a part of your consciousness.   That is the way I also feel about museums, art and monuments in general.  These things should be part of your life, not place you go only on special occasions.

Washington from Arlington Cemetery, Robert E. Lee house

Arlington National Cemetery overlooks the Potomac and Washington.   Before the Civil War, it was Robert E. Lee’s estate.   Lee decided to resign his commission and offer his services to the State of Virginia.    The next day, he went to Richmond and never returned to Arlington.   The Union used it to bury the dead from local battles, which is how it started to be a cemetery.  Before the ceremony, I went up to see Robert E. Lee’s house, stopping off at the Kennedy memorial with the eternal flame.    Bobby Kennedy is there too.   Below is the eternal flame on Kennedy's grave.

Eternal flame on John F Kennedy grave

Below - the Kennedy monument is flat, so you cannot see it over the visitors.  The simplicity is impressive.

Kennedy grave 

At 11am Dick Cheney laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown.    I couldn’t get close enough to see the ceremony.   In fact, I could not get a place generally in the amphitheater.   I don’t know when you had to show up, but it was earlier than I got there.    I really didn’t care if I could see Dick Cheney, but Bo Derek was the master of ceremonies.   I would have liked to get a better look at her.    All I could see were columns and the crowd as I hung around the periphery of the ceremonies.

Robert E. Lee house in Arlington 

Above is the enterance to Arlington.  On top of the hill is Robert E. Lee's house.  In the foreground is the women's monument.  

The view out the window at Robert E. Lee's house in Arlington

Above is the view out of Robert E. Lee's window looking at a beautiful old cedar.

Julius Szamwald monument

Above – some of the older parts of the cemetery have more elaborate monuments.   This one caught my eye.   It memorializes a Julius Szamwald.  He  was a Hungarian freedom fighter who came to the U.S., where he helped organize the 8th New York  infantry regiment and became a general during the Civil War.  He finished his career in the Foreign Service.   He did great a service to America, which put him in the company of the heroes around him.  All of them have their own stories.  

Veteran color guard 

Above is the veteran color guards.

Tomb of Unknown at Arlington 

Above is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Washington from Arlington

Above - Washington with the telephoto.  You can see the Lincoln Memorial over Memorial Bridge.  Of course, you recognize Washington Monument.  

November 08, 2008

Polybius et al & the Rise of the Roman Empire

Since I am talking about old stuff, I thought I would put up a picture of my bike.  I had to take it to the shop and get new back sprockets.  The guy at the shop commented that he rarely saw one of them actually worn out, but mine was.   I got that bike in 1997.   I rode it a lot.    Best bike I have ever owned.

My bike

My walks to the Metro and to FSI plus the Metro rides take more than two hours a day and I have had a lot of opportunity to listen to my I-pod.   I have a really good program from the Teaching Company about Roman history.   (The History of Ancient Rome, by Garrett Fagan of Penn State)There are 48 half-hour lectures and I have gotten as far as the assassination of Julius Caesar.   

Studying Roman history is a good way to learn about leadership, good & bad, and the fall of the Roman Republic provides examples of what happens when the traditions and institutions of order break down.   The Founding Fathers were well versed in Roman history and our own Constitution is very much influenced by the Romans.  We tried to address the fatal flaws that played out in the ancient city.  Besides that brief unpleasantness in the 1860s, it seems to have worked out okay. 

Look at a dollar bill to see the persistence of Rome.  On the great seal, we have the Roman style eagle holding a scroll that says "e pluribus unam" - from many, one.  The other mottos are "novus ordo seclorum" - new order of the ages and "annuit coeptis" - he (God) favors, taken from the Virgil's Aeneid.  All in Latin.   The Roman Empire fell in the west in AD 476.   In 1776 it was a profound influence on what for Romans was an undiscoved country.

So much of what I learned more than thirty years ago comes back when I listen to the lectures.  I thought I forgot, but now I realize how much I learned, kept & internalized.  I just didn’t remember where it came from.   I had a seminar in Polybius my first year in grad-school.   My major professor, Ken Sacks, specialized in that historian.  Polybius wrote in Greek about the rise of the Roman Republic.   We read the sources in Greek (at least tried) but the big lessons were in historiography and the nature of evidence.    History is constructed by historians and they have a responsibility to follow the sources and not exceed or extrapolate from them.

Polybius discussed the rise of Rome and the Punic Wars.  He figured those were events worth investigating.  The Romans and the Carthaginians stumbled into the conflict over a bunch of Italian criminals who had taken over a not very important city in Sicily.  One lesson I take from history is that events are a lot more illogical than we make them sound later on.   A good historian makes a story that hangs together with conditional causalities, most of which would be unknown or unclear at the time AND some of them might actually be only the artifact of the historian’s story telling skills.

One of the biggest pitfalls of the study of history is the overemphasis on agency.  Sometimes shit just happens.  But we look for some person, persons or particular events to credit or blame for what happens - the agent - and historians always find one.  If that person had not already figured out how to make his own contribution look brilliant, his biographers provide him with an ex-post-facto plan more brilliant than than any that could have been concieved in advanced.  I believe that history is shaped by human choices and that great individuals have a great influence on events, but it is sloppier and less direct than we have to make it appear when we write up the reports.  It makes us too confident that our leaders can solve our problems and creates a systematic bias in our politics.

Scholars and military historians look at the Punic Wars as case studies in conflict and the perils of power.   The most studied of the three wars is the second (the one with Hannibal).   The Romans should have lost that war, but they just refused to give up.    The refusal to be beaten, coupled with the unusually large manpower reserves they could command explains their dominance of the Mediterranean.   They were not brilliant strategist, brilliant inventors or subtle thinkers.  They just has a talent for doing practical things and they just kept on coming back when most others would have given up.

Pyrrhus of Epirus learned it the hard way.   He beat the Romans twice and beat them big.   He waited for them to ask for terms but they just raised more armies.   Pyrrhus had to give up and go home saying "One more victory against the Romans and we shall be utterly ruined," hence the term Pyrrhic Victory. 

The body of the history of the Republic is patchy and contradictory.   Less than 5% of what historians think was available is extant.   The author describes the process of finding history like looking at the Palace of Versailles through the keyholes.   You see some things very clearly, but there are big places you don’t see at all.   Historians know very little about ordinary folks because the ancients, at least those who could write, really didn’t care much about them.  They wrote about the important people, i.e. generals, senators, kings and emperors, so even if we had all the sources available in the ancient world we still wouldn’t know much re the common people.    

Nevertheless, a lot of historians are trying to write the history of the common man.  We can draw clues from archeology, but while archeology can tell us a lot about physical structures, and lately with a sort of CSI archeology even a lot about the physical condition of the people themselves,  it doesn’t tell us much about their attitudes or ideas.   You may also draw the wrong conclusions.   Imagine if a future archeologist knew there was a war with the U.S. on one side and Japan and Germany on the other, but doesn’t know the exact dates or who won.   He digs up a Los Angeles from around now and finds that cars and products made in Japan and Germany predominate.  Does he conclude that they won the war and colonized the U.S.?

In my history seminars so long ago, I learned to assess and judge sources.  We did that by the context, the language, the historian’s skill and comparisons with other events.    You have to try to assess not only whether the historian THINKS he is telling the truth but whether or not he has the capacity to know the truth.   Some things you just cannot know.   No matter how troubling this may be, it is the fact.  We don’t get to fill in the blank spaces with what we want to be the truth.  Polybius, BTW, was a very good historian and his access to leading Roman politicians put him in the position to know lots of things.   Still, like everyone else, he has his strengths and weaknesses.  A lot of what applies to ancient history also applies to evidence in general and especially all that is proliferating on the Internet.   Sure, there is a lot more information on the Internet, but like the ancient sources, you have to assess whether it is true or if it can be true.  People just lying are only the start of the challenge.  Some honest people are not in postions to know and others cannot figure it out even when they have all the facts in front of them. Not everybody who thinks he is telling the truth IS really telling the truth and many people aren't even trying very hard.  You have to be careful.  Those lessons of studying history apply today too.

The study of history does indeed have practical value.

September 14, 2008

Anbar Reconstructs

The picture below is not related to the article.  The Marines let me play basketball with them.  It was the majors and above v the captains and below.  I was on the old guy team and we won.  Evidently experience and guile beats youth and energy.  Maybe we were just lucky.  I was just happy not to get hurt.

Basketball on Al Asad
 
A lot has changed in Western Anbar since I arrived here almost a year ago and as my assignment comes to an end, I can appreciate them.  

The first big difference is the physical appearance.  Last year much of this province looked like what it had recently been – a war zone.  Shops and homes were boarded up, in ruins or flattened.  People looked shocked and sullen.   Anbar is still not up to what most of us would consider acceptable standards, but improvements are phenomenal and the change palpable. 

Along the whole Western Euphrates River Valley (WERV) and into the desert oasis cities of Nukhayb and Rutbah markets are open; streets are busy; the shops are full of goods; things are happening.   We used to use a “banana index” where we looked at produce in the shops as a proxy for goods being available.  Bananas available that were not green or brown indicated a decent distribution network. Today that index is overtaken by events, since shops are full.  We now are thinking of going over to a “gold standard” since we now see gold and jewels in shop windows and assume that the owners must feel safe enough from both insurgents and ordinary crooks to be so confident.

Security is increasingly taken for granted by many people and now they are moving on to other concerns, such as economy, traffic and building their lives.

We have much more freedom of movement.   I didn't do my first market walk until January of this year.  Now we walk in the Iraqi markets on almost every trip, talking to people and finding out about their hopes and problems.

A year ago there were serious fuel shortages.  While problems remain (many resulting from government controls on prices and supplies), the refinery at K3 in Husaybah is up and running.  This seemed like an impossible dream when I first saw the place a few months ago.   K3 produces naphtha, kerosene, benzene and heavy fuel oil.  It is still not up to 100% production, but it is way up from ... nothing last year.  

The crude oil, BTW, arrives from Bayji by rail.  This railroad was not working and was not secure just a few months ago.  I remember flying over the rail/highway route in a Huey, with the narration being that it could work, but there were lots of challenges. Getting the rail system up and running is another great accomplishment of the past year.   CF are vacating a big rail yard in Al Qaim within weeks.  (This is a little sad for me, as.  Camp Al Qaim was the nicest of the FOBs in our AO.  It had a great chow hall.)  This will essentially clear the lines all across Anbar.

The rail network in Anbar is essentially intact, although there was heavy looting of stations.   This is not necessarily a bad thing.  Much of the equipment was old and the opportunity to replace it with much improved and new computerized gear will pay dividends in the immediate future.  There is nothing to stop heavy materials such as phosphate and cement from travelling by rail, and within a few years Iraq will certainly take its place as a transportation keystone of the Middle East. 

We have also seen a reassertion of the pattern of centralized order in Iraq.  When I arrived last year, I had more confidence in the ability of local authorities to get things done, and my perception of the society here was patterned more on my own previous experience than the experience of the Iraqis. 

It is a common historical pattern.  It happened on a bigger scale when the Roman Empire declined.  As government order breaks down, localism comes to dominate.  Last year, in the immediate wake of war, the people of Anbar had been localized.  They were more dependent on nearby authorities and institutions such as family/tribe & religion that were simpler and closer.   This looks like it was an ephemeral condition.  As order returns, so does centralization.  

We are seeing a reassertion of the top-down pattern, where the center controls the resources. Local authorities look to provincial authorities for resources and direction; provincial authorities look to Baghdad.  Mayors are administrators w/o an independent power base.  Everybody grumbles and does this somewhat grudgingly, but the system seems to be coming to life and working reasonably well, especially when pumped up by the steroid of vast oil wealth.   

This is not a completely positive development, IMO.  I personally don't like such concentrations of governmental power, but we have to recognize that Iraq will not be a bottom-up society, like the U.S.   It is not what most Iraqis are accustomed to, not what they expect and it is not what they want.   An ePRT like mine working at the sub-provincial level increasingly runs up against the power of higher-up Iraqi authorities.   These are the guys who make the decisions and these are the guys we need to influence.  I wonder if our time is not almost done, at least in our current incarnation. We did a good job and maybe this is it.

I am ambivalent about this.  After all, it is a bureaucratic imperative to perpetuate itself.  But a greater imperative is to know when your work is done and not hang around like a fart in a phone booth.  When the western hero is finished, he rides off into the sunset; he doesn't rent a bungalow in town and make himself a nuisance. 

In order to influence the Iraqi society and institutions, our organizations will need to mirror theirs, at least in an operational sense.   We need to act at the nodes of power, principally at the provincial and national level, so our ePRT will need to be integrated with the PRT in Ramadi, maybe absorbed, and through them to our colleagues in Baghdad.  This is coming.  I work directly for the Office of Provincial Affairs (OPA) in the Embassy.   My successor will work for the Team Leader of the Anbar PRT in Ramadi. 

I just don't know and I don't think I will figure it out in my last week here.  I will recommend changes in form and give my opinions.  It won’t be my decision, but I cannot envision this team still being here next year in anything like its current form. 

As it says in the Book of the Tao, "Withdraw, your work once done, into obscurity; this is the way of Heaven."

June 26, 2008

Mad Dogs & Englishmen

The picture below is a fort built by the British in sometime around 1927.  The British ran Iraq as a League of Nations Mandate until 1932, when Iraq became an independent monarchy under King Faisal, of Lawrence of Arabia fame. Even after independence, the British maintained bases here.   I don't know if this was among them.  In fact, most people don't think much re this fort, but it is still in use as a police HQ.  The British built to last.

British fort in Rutbah Iraq

When the fort was built there was nothing around it but desert.  Rutbah's claim to significance is that it is a "wet spot"  that gets around 4.5 inches of rain a year, and it had a well. The Fort guarded the road that connected Amman with Baghdad and the oil pipeline.   If you didn't have to stop for borders or checkpoints, you could drive from Amman to Baghdad in around 16 hours.  Rutbah and the fort are around the half way point.  It goes to show how much has changed.  Back in 1927 the fort was in the middle of nowhere.  It is still in the middle of nowhere today, but around 50,000 people live in and around Rutbah.  

I can only imagine how isolated it must have been in the 1920s.  I can picture those Brits with their khaki and pith helmets.  My friend Tim R bought me a pith helmet as a joke.  Of course I cannot wear it here, but I wish I could.  They are really good for keeping you cool.   Air moves easily inside and if you soak them in water the evaporation over a couple hours really helps lower the temperature inside.  They are very good for hot and dry places, which is probably why they were so popular.  But they have the unmistakable connotation of old-fashioned empires.  Both pith helmets and old fashioned empires are out of style these days.

mural at police station in Rutbah

When I was trying to confirm that date of the fort, I ran across this interesting article about Rutbah a few years ago.   It sounds familiar.  Above is a new mural on the police station wall.  Our ePRT helped pay for it.  I read in this article that this once had a Saddam mural.  We painted over it.  All these murals kind of look alike.  I don't like them, but I suppose the blank wall bothers people.

June 15, 2008

The Study of History

Bay View tavern and Schlitz globe 

I didn't have a picture to go with this post, so I fished this out of the files.  It is from Milwaukee near the lake.  On top of the old building is the Schlitz globe.  This is an interesting historical study.  Schlitz was once the world's biggest brewer, but it declined and disappeared in the course of around ten years.  I used to think it was because my father, a big beer drinker, switched from Schlitz to Pabst and ultimately to Bud (which is not really beer, since it is made from rice) but I suppose there were other reasons too. 

Its former headquarters are now yuppie condos. I think they call them "Brewer Hill."  Milwaukee no longer gets that sweet smell of fermentation I recall riding my bike past the place in the early mornings on my way to a job at Mellowes Lockwasher factory on the north side.  

Schlitz became famous and "made Milwaukee famous" in 1871, when Joseph Schlitz sent wagon loads of beer as a relief measure to the victims of the great Chicago fire, better than the usual donations, IMO.  The other historical curiosity involved in this is that most people have heard of the Chicago fire.  Fewer know anything about the great Peshtigo fire, which happened about the same time.   The Peshtigo fire was the largest fire in North America.  It destroyed thousands of acres and didn't stop until it hit Lake Michigan.  These guys didn't get any beer. 

I have not been to Peshtigo in more than thirty years, but I still remember that you could see the mark on the ecology even a century later, with the relatively even aged old growth.

The Study of History

When I talked about big Arnold in college I meant Toynbee, not Schwarzenegger.  Arnold Toynbee started off as a classical historian and developed a comprehensive theory of history.   I think he was the last serious historians to try such a thing.  Nobody dares do that today.  Any comprehensive theory will be wrong in some specifics.  Legions of grad students and professors will find and amplify those errors until they are like a festering bucket of puss on an otherwise glittering career.   Today they will be joined by an even larger group of internet searchers who like nothing better than to enhance their nerdy little status by pulling down somebody big.

Professional historians today study esoteric fields where nobody has bothered to go before (often for good reason), preferably ones dominated by obscure sources or oral histories (which are usually protean and riddled with error but impossible to debunk).   Today's great historians, such as David McCullough, Joseph Ellis, Victor Davis Hansen or the late Stephen Ambrose, are often derided by the cognoscenti as popularizers.    It is too bad.  People, ordinary people, are hungry for the sweep of narrative history.  That is why "The History Channel" is so popular, why "Band of Brothers" sells so well on DVD or why even semi-historical series such as "Rome" are watched by millions.

I am not arguing against being correct and careful.  I am the first, as many know, to complain about mistakes in historical detail. The trick is to know that something is not perfect and know that it is still useful and good at the same time, and not just throw the babies out with the bathwaters.  "Rome", for example, is wrong on many (most) details, but it is still worth watching for some insight into an ancient world.  It makes you think and that is worth the effort.

Victor Davis Hanson commented on "the 300", which was literally a comic book version of that great confrontation at Thermopylae.  Sure, he said, it was wrong in details, but the idea of it was right (I paraphrase).  But it was better to get history into popular culture than to leave it completely out.  Serious people will check the facts and it might be the start of a life-long interest.

I fear this malaise has spread through the general culture.  We check, recheck and second guess every statement and decision, so that nobody can any longer be bold. Even if you are not wrong, the constant investigation will take its toll.  The Lilliputians will pull down any Gulliver; the hammer of public opinion will pound down anybody who dares stick up for any reason beyond mere vacuous celebrity, which ironically seems exempt probably because it doesn't smack of true effort and is therefore non-threatening to the indolent.

Any comprehensive theory of history must be wrong because such a complicated system is unknowable by mortal man in all its details.  That does not mean the effort of finding one is frivolous.  W/o some kind of mental model, history is just a meaningless jumble of one darn thing after another.    We all understand the world through mental models that are simplification of reality, maps of territory.  You need the map, but you know it does not include all the details.  Everybody has and uses mental models.  Most of them are unconscious.   Just because you do not study history or think through a model does not mean you don't have one.  It is just that you picked it up inadvertently and you have not thought about it. For example, most Americans have a mental model of Roman history based on Edward Gibbon's "Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire."  Most people have never heard the book and almost nobody has actually read it, but this is the model they have unconsciously accepted for Rome and to some extent erroneously extrapolated to the modern United States.   Gibbon was not right in many respects and it is better to make a conscious choice. In the metaphysical sense, no model is complete or right, but some are useful and some are more useful than others.  We should not stop striving for the useful truth even as we understand that the ultimate truth is beyond our beyond our capacity to understand.  It is best to use a kind of scientific method, constantly testing and refining our ideas and adapting them to changing circumstances.  One more thing re the Lilliputians who refuse to allow greatness, no individual is consistently great or great in all aspect of his life.  Close scrutiny will reveal the flaws and the small minded take significant pleasure in pulling down those who boldly try to stand tall.  Internet makes this easier. 

I was thinking re one of the greatest men in history, George Washington.   Today he would be out of luck fast.  The incident at Jomonville Glen (when he failed to stop his Indian ally Half King from bashing the brains out the French commander) would have ended the career and probably the freedom of anybody today.   Washington was not a great man his entire life, in everything or to everyone.  He was great during several key times, sometimes key MOMENTS, such as putting on his reading glasses and stopping the Newburgh conspiracy from subverting our Republic.   Those couple of seconds were enough. 

I don't have my own theory of history.  I have cribbed from Toynbee and accreted lots of modern management and decision theory.   I don't know if I would be bold enough to assert my own comprehensive theory; I am reasonably certain that I am not smart enough to develop one, so I am stuck with my hybrids.

I do worry that we, as a society are often mired in minutia and not seeing the big picture and we have to criticize everything about our most prominent members.  It is hazardous. 

June 01, 2008

Medieval Castles, Crusaders & Returning to Iraq

View from Ajloun castle jordan 

We drove from Jerash a dozen kilometers and eight centuries to the castle at Ajloun.   It was built in 1184 by the Muslims to secure local iron mines and as a counter to the Crusader castle at Belvoir, across the plains.  They say you can see Belvoir from Ajloun, but the day was a little too hazy in that direction for that, or maybe we didn’t look in the right spot.  If you notice the picture up top is very clear sky. That is looking NE.  I don't know why there was so much haze to the west.

Ajloun castle jordan

Ajloun never fulfilled its original purpose.  Saladin defeated the Crusaders at the battle of the Horns of Hattin in 1189, which was the beginning of their expulsion from the region.  Castles are interesting to look at and sometimes beautiful, but it is well to remember that they were part of a military technology.  Before the advent of accurate cannon, it was very difficult to capture a well defended castle.  It was a real force multiplier and also a potent psychological symbol of the power and control. 

View from window Ajloun castle Iraq

This castle looks like others I have seen.  It is a little less sophisticated than those I saw in Poland or Germany since it is an earlier version than most of those.  The most sophisticated castle I have ever seen in the Teutonic Knight’s castle at Malbork in Northern Poland.  That one is made of bricks, however, not stone.

below are some pines on the landscape. I think they are Turkish or Alleppo pines, but I am not very good at identifying such species.  Some of them almost look like my loblolly pines.

Pine trees in Ajloun Jordan

Ajloun is situated on a hilltop with wonderful views of the surrounding area.  The area here is semi-arid, but it supports olive, apricot and pistachio groves as well as significant pine forests.  As you can see from the pictures, it is a pleasant countryside.

As I write this, the pleasant countryside is a pleasant memory.   I am on my way back to Al Asad.   Right now I am stuck in Baghdad, in the Internet café waiting.  I have learned that I cannot get a flight to AA until Tuesday and then I have to go a circuitous route, on rotary wing, so I figure there will certainly be a dust storm somewhere to strand me in some shit hole along the way.   I have decided to go down to Kuwait instead.   I have a good chance of getting there tonight and then I have a better chance of catching a fixed wing flight to Al Asad.   The longer way sometimes leads faster home.  Wish me luck. It is going to be a long trip no matter what.

I am looking forward to getting back to work at Al Asad.  The work is usually interesting, even if conditions are sometimes challenging. There is still a lot for me to do in my last months.  I read the news about improvements in Iraq.  Casualties are way down for both Iraqis and Americans.  I think we are going to succeed here in Iraq put we have to finish our job and I have to finish mine.  Less than four months to do.  Hard to believe.  Time flies when you are having fun.