Map of the world

11 02 2015

My medieval-modernity project may have fallen apart, but I’m still hoovering up books about old Europe.

And the words do work for me—I’ve said in the past that I’m a text- rather than visually-oriented person—but sometimes, mmm, sometimes you need a map to make sense.

To cite one example: I just finished John Julius Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium (great fun: I want to track down the 3-vol. series), and I kept flipping between the copy and the maps at the front of the book to figure out where, exactly, were the boundaries of the empire or the position of yet another battle. It helped, some, but the maps were few and small and I couldn’t always determine where the characters or I were.

So I happened to ask my colleague and friend Jtte. if she had any suggestions for atlases (Jtte. does historical research and has constructed a number of terrific maps for her work), and she immediately said “William Shepherd, Historical Atlas“.

Shepherd constructed his atlas in the early 20th century, so I wouldn’t be surprised if archaeological work in the intervening years might yield different maps, but oh, are these maps beautiful.

Jtte. pointed me to the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at UT-Austin, which includes a section on historical maps, and a link to a 1911 and 1923-26 edition of Shepherd’s work.

Here’s one from the 1920s edition, of Asia Minor:


Reference Map of Asia Minor under the Greeks and Romans

Or this one, of Europe under Rome (I’m finally reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire):


Reference Map of the European Provinces of the Roman Empire

Click to make ‘em see-able & zoom-able.

These are gorgeous, and a bit of a mess, but isn’t that exactly what an historical atlas should be?

Happily, the Strand had an 8th edition (1956, with maps added to Shepherd’s final 1929 edition), so I won’t have to go online to see, say, The Growth of Russia in Europe, 1300-1796 or The Ottoman Empire, 1481-1683 or or the Growth of Frankish Power 481-814 or or or. . . .

(Of course, the zoom feature is pretty handy: lifting my glasses and sticking my nose an inch or two from the page isn’t always enough.)

Oh, I am going toss away so many hours leafing through and peering at these maps, and to no discernible productive end whatsoever.

Ain’t knowledge grand?

Better stop sobbing now

11 02 2015

I have no sympathy for Christians who whine that President was unfair to Christianity at the National Prayer Breakfast.

Not just because I am not a Christian, nor because I disagree more generally with these folks’ politics.

No, the reason for my “get over it” response is their unwillingness to grapple with the violence woven into the history of the belief they hold dear. It’s as if they can only hold to Christianity if Christianity without [recent] flaws.

Oh, wait, that’s pretty much exactly what they mean, even if they didn’t mean to mean it.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a couple of posts on the response to Obama’s remarks, as does Jamelle Bouie, and they do a fine job of tag-teaming the No-True-Christian phalanx: here is this example and this example and this example and, oh look, another example of how Christianity was used to justify violence and oppression.

Reference to the historical record is crucial (even if the tres or quinque solas types want to claim history’s got nothin’ on them) if want wants to make or rebut historical claims—that’s kinda the whole point of historical claim-making.

But I want to focus here on the bad faith of those who seek to wash Christianity of its sins: they cannot abide criticism of their faith, not because God will punish them if they don’t savage the critics—I’d think such a position bonkers at best and murderous (see: killers acting to uphold the honor of the Prophet Mohammaed) at worst, but it has its own kind of insane integrity—but because it is “offensive” to and displays “contempt” for Christians.

And, yes, I get why these folks don’t like having the unsavory bits of Christianity against the unsavory bits of Islam—We’re good and they’re bad so how dare you!—but honest to pete, is their faith so thin that it is bruised by mere mention of imperfection?

I’m a pinko, and there has been all sorts of nasty shit—war, oppression, mass murder—done in the name of pinkoism. I can say Oh, but I’m not a Bolshevik/Leninist/Stalinist/Maoist, that’s got nothing to do with me, and nothing to do with Real Socialism, but that would properly be understood as a bullshit response.

I am an adherent to a tradition which has all too often failed miserably, murderously, to uphold its promises of liberation and the creation of a truly human society, and it would not be in any way unreasonable for you say, Uhhh, so why do you hold to ideas which have been used to justify those miserable, murderous failures?

And whether or not your motives were bad in asking this, I’d still respond, with both acknowledgement of the flaws in various incarnations of the socialist politics and a defense of the socialism itself—because I am fucking serious about my belief in socialism. As long as I think it possible to avoid or overcome the problems of previous socialist regimes, I will continue to think socialism is a program worth pursuing.

In other words, even though socialism has been flawed six ways to Sunday, I still think there’s something there worth hanging on to. I take socialism as it is, and as it has been, and what I think it could be. It ain’t perfect, but it’s all right.

Now, I understand that it’s easier to hold to imperfection in political than in religious programs, and my general sense that, well, to quote Leonard Cohen, there is a crack in everything, means that I can still see that’s how the light gets in. I don’t require perfection because I don’t think it’s necessary (which is also handy, given that I don’t think it’s possible).

Still, even you do believe that Christ were perfect, and that Christianity is the only path to salvation, it’s not clear why you can’t accept the bountiful historical evidence that that belief in something perfect has nonetheless been used to justify war, oppression, and mass murder. It’s a hard acceptance, sure, but if you want to argue on behalf of the Christian movement within history, then you have to engage that history, not wave it away or scourge those who dare to refer to it.

Again, radical sola types may not bother with history one way or another—all that matters is God, and we can’t really expect much of humans, etc.—but those who are incensed at the mere suggestion that Christian history might fairly be compared to Islam’s history clearly do believe that this history—the actions of Christians in the world—matters.

So to those who think history matters but are unwilling to look closely at it, I can only ask, Why not?

Because if you cannot accept the imperfections of Christianity in this world and still have faith in it, then I question whether you can have any faith at all.

Just let the red rain splash you

9 12 2014

The executive summary of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence torture report.

16 absolutely outrageous abuses detailed in the CIA torture report, as outlined by Dylan Matthews.

I was naïve, years ago, in my outrage at the torture committed by the CIA. Yes, the US had enabled torturers (see: School of the Americas) and supported regimes which tortured (see: US domestic surveillance and foreign policy), but somehow, the notion that torture was committed by US government agents seemed over the line in a way that merely enabling and supporting had not.

I don’t know, maybe US-applied torture was over the line in a way US-enabled/supported torture was not, and busting righteously through it busted something fundamental in our foreign policy.

But given, say, the Sand Creek and Marias massacres amongst the general policy of “land clearing” and Indian removal—policies directed by US politicians and agents—wasn’t it a bit precious to decry this late unpleasantness?

Naïveté, I wrote above. No: ignorance. I’d studied (and protested) 20th-century US foreign policy and ignored its 19th century version, the one directly largely against the indigenous people whose former lands now make up the mid- and western United States.

Ta-Nehisi Coates recently wrote that paeans to nonviolence are risible in their ignorance: Taken together, property damage and looting have been the most effective tools of social progress for white people in America. Yes.

A country born in theft and violence—unexceptional in the birth of nation-states—and I somehow managed not to know what, precisely, that birth meant.

I’m rambling, avoiding saying directly what I mean to say: there will be no accountability for torture. Some argue for pardoning those involved as a way to arrive at truth, that by letting go the threat of criminal charges we (the people) can finally learn what crimes were committed, and officially, presidentially, recognize that crimes were committed.

It is doubtful we will get even that.

Still, we have the torture report, and (some) crimes documented which were only previously suspected. Good, knowledge is good.

But then what? Knowledge of torture committed is not sufficient inoculation against torture being committed.

Coming clean will not make us clean.

If you decide to make the sky fall

9 10 2014

I am not a Christian, Muslim, or Jew.

I am not Hindu, or Buddhist, or Jain, Taoist, Bahá’í, Wiccan, Yazidi, Shinto, Zoroastrian, Sikh, or any sort of pagan or animist.

I am not spiritual, and believe in neither demons nor angels nor supernatural vibes of any sort.

I am agnostic, which means I lack knowledge, along with faith and belief. I do not know if none, one, some, or all of the above traditions holds any or the entirety of truth. I do not know if some other tradition holds any portion of truth.

And I’m all right with that. I call myself a “doubter”, and that doubt works for me.

I’m also all right with others who have do have faith in some tradition or another, and, contra Hitchens, do not believe that “religion poisons everything”.

Or should I say, that religion uniquely poisons everything. I think religion is a powerful human invention and thus, like any powerful human invention, may poison its adherents or the course of events, but not that it necessarily or always does so.

It is also possible that religion (l.a.p.h.i.), may serve as an antidote to other invented poisons.

All of which is a rather long prologue to a rather convoluted post on the rather convoluted topic of the role of Islam in the world today, viz., is it uniquely bad in its effects on co-religionists and non-co’s alike?

There is today far more violence among Muslims and between Muslims and non-Muslims than there is in other world religions*. This doesn’t discount other intra- and inter-religious violence or aggression, nor other less-deadly forms of intolerance, but given conflicts across parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, it’s pretty clear that there are. . . issues in Islam.

Are these issues unique to Islam? A little trip through history points to “no”, and had pundits existed in the 16th century, they may have raised similar questions about the aggressiveness and intolerance of Christianity.

Are these issues endemic to Islam? Whatever the violent history of Christianity, it’s mostly not violent today*, which leads some to note that aggression is therefore not an essential part of Christianity. Can Islam work its violence out of its system as Christianity has, or is supremacism and aggression so interwoven in its scripture and traditions that it cannot transform itself as Christianity has?

Trick questions!

Christianity is a sprawling complex of tradition and change and interpretation which has sometimes been violent, sometime intolerant, sometimes triumphalist, and other times, not. That Christianity is currently not at the center of strife in the world* does not mean that its aggressiveness has been bred out of its system. It’s sidelined, but extirpated? Eh.

Islam is also a sprawling complex of tradition and change and interpretation, and thus like Christianity, can find within that complex support for both aggression and tolerance. It is thus difficult to determine whether any one strand within is always and forever at the center of what it needs to be Muslim.

So, why trick questions? Because what counts as essential has been and is contested in history, and what must be interpreted in this way today may be interpreted in that way tomorrow. That is the condition of all human inventions.

None of this is to shield Islam or any other tradition (or human invention) from criticism, and that there may exist no absolute and eternal standards of how to treat one another doesn’t mean one can’t construct and apply our own provisional and worldly standards.

Which is a rather convoluted way to say: of course Islam may be criticized, as should be those who find in Islam justification for horrid acts.

That Muslims are not unique in their religious—or ideological—justifications is also no barrier to criticism: your mom probably pointed out to you long ago that “everyone else is doing it!” is no excuse for your own bad behavior.

One last turn around: If you’re going to go after an entire religious belief system and its effects on adherents and non-adherents alike, then fer-cryin’-out-loud, look at the entire belief system, not just at what you don’t like.

Is there poison in Islam? Yes. But that doesn’t mean Islam is all and only poison.

Or maybe it is. It’s possibly that after thorough study one might conclude nothing good has ever or will ever come from Islam—or any religion.

But I kinda doubt it.


*Crucial caveat: people living in countries having bombs recently dropped on them by Christians might contest this notion of Christianity as not-aggressive.

h/t for link to Sullivan, and this entire damned post was set off by the Maher-Harris-Affleck kerfuffle

You can’t figure out the bag I’m in

21 05 2014

[Updated below]

Race is a social construct.

1. This does not mean race is not real. This is always the problem with any mention of social construction—you’re saying it’s not real!—but there is no reason to conclude that that which is constructed is not real.

The United States is a social construction, and it is real. Language is a social construction, and it is real. Political parties, political movements, constitutions: all socially constructed, all real.

(Are all social constructions fictions? And what is the relationship of fiction to reality? More complicated question, more complicated answer, but the short version to both is: Depends on how you define fiction. But that’s another post.)

2. This does mean it has a history, one which varies across time and space. In 19th century Europe one could speak of German and Slavic and English (etc.) races, and further distinguish Jews as a race.

That broadly ethnic version of race was transported across the Atlantic, but was overcome—due in no small part to the necessities of settlement and slave society—by an understanding of white, black, and ‘the savage’ races.

Black was always clear: those of African origin; savage would be understood as Indian; and white was reserved for northern and western European Christians. These lines could be blurred and stretched—whites would eventually include southern Europeans, the Irish, and Jews, and today some Hispanics are crossing into white—as well as added to, as with ‘asiatic’, ‘oriental’, or Asian peoples, as well as the aforementioned Hispanic.

Current US census categories include “White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander”. The Census sites notes “The racial categories included in the census questionnaire generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country and not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically.”

Further, and in late recognition of interracial reproduction, “[p]eople may choose to report more than one race to indicate their racial mixture,” . . .

The Census is hardly the last word on the issue, but that categories have changed and, with the allowance of multi-racial reporting, become more fluid indicates that race is largely what we say it is.

3. To state that something is a social construct is not to deny any material contribution to that construct.

Are differences in skin color influenced by genetics? Yes. Hair color and texture? Yes. Bone structures? Yes.

4. Does this mean race is biological?

Long breath in and out.

Both the long and short answers are “yes and no”. Phenotypic differences are influenced by biology and in some cases determined by genetics, but the sorting of these biologically- and genetically-influenced/determined phenotypic differences into races tends to elide the complexity of the mechanisms involved in those influences/determinations.

Thus, if one wants to speak of genetic differences among humans, one is much better off referring to “populations” (or, perhaps, “ethnicities”): the term is anchored in geography, and allows for understanding of such terms as gene  or allele frequencies and genetic drift. Some genes are more likely to appear in some populations and not others (for both evolutionary and non-evolutionary, i.e., “drift” reasons); in some cases those variations will be visible in appearance.

In other words, there are many genetic populations and there are differences between those populations; in some cases those differences which are visible are assigned a racial character.

As Agustin Fuentes has pointed out, the assignment of certain characteristics, and those with x number of those characteristics to a race, ignores the fact that “race” encompasses many genetic populations. To state that “there are racial differences between Africans and Asians” is false not because there are no genetic differences between Africans and Asians but because the use of the term “race” erases the genetic differences among Africans and Asians: again, there are many genetic populations within each “race”.

So, again, the determination of race is at least as much about what we say it is than with genetics.

4 5. This is not even to get into breeding across populations, and the determination of the race of cross-population offspring.

5 6. This is also not even to get into complex (multiple genetic and other contributions) traits such as personality, intelligence, temperament, and behavior.

It is possible, perhaps even likely, that there are variations in the allele frequencies contributing to these complex traits across populations. The identification and characterization of these alleles (and their possible interactions among the alleles and with other factors) is only beginning, however, which means any conclusions about these variations are grossly premature.

6 7. I will not be reading Nicholas Wade’s book.

Perhaps a nice book on population genetics, instead.


*Update: Criminy, can I not even count? Should I blame my Irish or my German genes for the lack? Or maybe it was a stray Danish or French allele.

Anyway, the real reason for the update: Anne Fausto-Sterling reviewed a number of books on race, genetics, and epigenetics which both overlaps with and extends my argument—and with fewer typos!

Blown backwards into the future

14 05 2014

Benjamin conjured history as an angel.

Let’s sit with that for a bit, as it’s a lovely sad conjuring.

There is no repair, not for the angel, not for us. Sad, perhaps, but not unbearably so.

There is also no going back, as that angel learned. If the past is an ocean, then history is diving in and bringing the bits and debris and life to the surface, to the present, to see what we’ve got. We can bring what’s down below to the surface and we can make sense of it, but it is our sense, a present sense. And the things themselves, especially the lives themselves, are changed for having been dragged from the deep.

Diving, digging, spelunking: all this bringing to the surface the bits and debris in attempt to recreate life. History as simulacrum.

And the epochs and eras and moments? Those are the bits highlighted or strung together: the Renaissance or Scientific Revolution or Modernity or the Enlightenment. It gives us a way to see.

Usually, when I speak of seeing, I speak metaphorically. But I wanted literally to see where these different moments were in relation to one another, so I ran parallel timelines of European history—scientific, cultural, religious, political, trade—down sheets of paper taped in my hallway, then plotted out those moments.


This is an incomplete draft—I clearly need to allow more room on the final version—but it’s not hard to see how this moment was understand as Italian Renaissance at its ripest.

Or here, as what we now call the Scientific Revolution gets underway:


These give me that bird’s eye view of the middle centuries of the last millennium; they also make me wonder what isn’t there, isn’t recorded in any of the texts I’m using.

What moments are still underground? And what stories will we tell if we ever unearth them?


And I know things now

7 05 2014

Modernity is dead is in a coma.

Okay, not modernity—modernity is still kickin’—but my medieval/modern project to suss out the beginnings of modernity, yeah, that’s on life support. I’ll probably never pull the plug, but the chances of recovery at this point are slim.

The main problem was that I never had a thesis. As a former post-modernist I was interested in the pre-mod: learning about the last great (Euro) transition might help me to make sense of what may or may not be another transitional moment.

And I learned a lot! I knew pitifully little about European history—couldn’t have told you the difference between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, that’s how bad I was—and now I know something more. I’d now be comfortable positioning the Renaissance as the final flowering of the medieval era, arguing that the 16th and 17th centuries were the double-hinge between the medieval and the modern, that the Enlightenment was about the new moderns getting chesty, that Nietzsche crowbarred open the crack first noticed by the sophists, and that the medieval era in Europe did not truly end until the end of World War I.

None of these is a particularly novel observation. I make no pretense of expertise nor even much beyond a rudimentary working knowledge: there are still large gaps in my knowledge and large books to be read. And I will continue reading for a very long time.

But I don’t have a point to that reading beyond the knowledge itself. It’s possible that something at some point will present itself as a specific route to be followed, but right now, the past is an ocean, not a river.

That’s all right. I’m a fan of useless knowledge and wandering thoughts.


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