Imbros and Tenedos

The Aegean Sea, with the islands of Imbros (to the north) and Tenedos both circled. Google Maps.

A Wikipedia discovery: since 1970 the Aegean islands Imbros and Tenedos have officially been designated Gökçeada and Bozcaada. As that change might indicate, these islands, which lie just outside the entrance to the Hellespont, are in the hands of the Republic of Turkey; all of the other Aegean islands are Greek, as they were in ancient times. Imbros and Tenedos were acquired by the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which recognized the Republic of Turkey and set the stage for population transfer between Greece and Turkey. These islands, though, were to be spared this fate; the predominantly Greek population was to be granted a semi-autonomous status within Turkey.

But this did not come to pass. The most recent population statistics for Imbros: 8662, of whom 318 were Greek, and for Tenedos: 2,472, of whom 22 were Greek. These numbers were achieved over the course of the twentieth century in the customary way: by outlawing the teaching of Greek and by closing Greek schools, by appropriating Greek property, and by otherwise making life difficult for Greeks so that they emigrate (for good – they’re not allowed to return), and by settling Turks in their place.

I quite liked my time in Turkey. The country seems orderly and its people civilized. But this sort of behavior, which is by no means the only example of Turkish nationalism at work, is repellant – and even worse than what the Israelis get up to on the West Bank, which is supposedly the epitome of oppression, according to certain friends of mine. Why is the plight of the Greeks, Kurds, and Armenians of Turkey not an international cause célèbre on the Palestinian level?

This is the End

From the BBC (hat tip: Ron Good), a spine-tingling article on civilizational collapse:

While there is no single accepted theory for why collapses happen, historians, anthropologists and others have proposed various explanations, including:

CLIMATIC CHANGE: When climatic stability changes, the results can be disastrous, resulting in crop failure, starvation and desertification. The collapse of the Anasazi, the Tiwanaku civilisation, the Akkadians, the Mayan, the Roman Empire, and many others have all coincided with abrupt climatic changes, usually droughts.

ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION: Collapse can occur when societies overshoot the carrying capacity of their environment. This ecological collapse theory, which has been the subject of bestselling books, points to excessive deforestation, water pollution, soil degradation and the loss of biodiversity as precipitating causes.

INEQUALITY AND OLIGARCHY: Wealth and political inequality can be central drivers of social disintegration, as can oligarchy and centralisation of power among leaders. This not only causes social distress, but handicaps a society’s ability to respond to ecological, social and economic problems.

The field of cliodynamics models how factors such as equality and demography correlate with political violence. Statistical analysis of previous societies suggests that this happens in cycles. As population increases, the supply of labour outstrips demand, workers become cheap and society becomes top-heavy. This inequality undermines collective solidarity and political turbulence follows.

COMPLEXITY: Collapse expert and historian Joseph Tainter has proposed that societies eventually collapse under the weight of their own accumulated complexity and bureaucracy. Societies are problem-solving collectives that grow in complexity in order to overcome new issues. However, the returns from complexity eventually reach a point of diminishing returns. After this point, collapse will eventually ensue.

Another measure of increasing complexity is called Energy Return on Investment (EROI). This refers to the ratio between the amount of energy produced by a resource relative to the energy needed to obtain it. Like complexity, EROI appears to have a point of diminishing returns. In his book The Upside of Down, the political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon observed that environmental degradation throughout the Roman Empire led to falling EROI from their staple energy source: crops of wheat and alfalfa. The empire fell alongside their EROI. Tainter also blames it as a chief culprit of collapse, including for the Mayan.

EXTERNAL SHOCKS: In other words, the “four horsemen”: war, natural disasters, famine and plagues. The Aztec Empire, for example, was brought to an end by Spanish invaders. Most early agrarian states were fleeting due to deadly epidemics. The concentration of humans and cattle in walled settlements with poor hygiene made disease outbreaks unavoidable and catastrophic. Sometimes disasters combined, as was the case with the Spanish introducing salmonella to the Americas.

RANDOMNESS/BAD LUCK: Statistical analysis on empiressuggests that collapse is random and independent of age. Evolutionary biologist and data scientist Indre Zliobaite and her colleagues have observed a similar pattern in the evolutionary record of species. A common explanation of this apparent randomness is the “Red Queen Effect”: if species are constantly fighting for survival in a changing environment with numerous competitors, extinction is a consistent possibility.

More at the link.

1989

First Things looks back on the year that Communism died, thirty years ago now:

It was like a graduation party. So says the historian Philipp Ther, who joined the protests in Prague’s Wenceslas Square during those momentous days of November 1989. “We had passed the test,” Ther writes. “The old authorities had no more to say; the world was our oyster. It seemed as if anything was possible.” In their memories of communism’s collapse, the revolutionaries of 1989 often describe the joy and relief, the instant brotherhood, the feeling of riding the wave of history.

Naturally, it didn’t last. In Berlin, where Ther travelled soon after, elation was followed by resentment, with West Germans muttering about the Easterners cramming the roads and emptying the supermarket shelves. Across Europe, meanwhile, the messiness of post-communist politics “engendered disenchantment and cynicism.”

Disillusionment is the usual sequel to political victory, but 1989 especially seems like a revolution with a hole in it. The evil of communism is beyond words—the mass graves it filled, the lies it spread through the world—and we ought to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of its defeat. It is more difficult to say what actually did the defeating.

Read the whole thing.

Coptic Martyrs

From the Facebook page of Our Lady of the Mountains of Jasper, Georgia, an interesting icon:

An article on The Stream indicates that this icon was made in 2015 by Serbian artist Nikola Sarić. It references the kidnapping and beheading of 21 Christians in Libya by agents of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which had taken place earlier in 2015. Twenty of the men were Egyptian Copts, and one was Ghanaian, whose darker face is shown on the top right; they were in Libya as construction workers in the city of Sirte when ISIL nabbed them.

The executions took place on the Mediterranean beach on February 15, 2015, with ISIL agents dressed in black and their victims in orange jumpsuits, referencing the outfits worn by al-Qaeda prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

Painting, Tomb of Rameses VI. Pinterest.

I like how there is something Egyptian about this icon, both from the way the figures stand and how they are arranged, and yet it is not so stylized that that horrific event isn’t instantly recognizable. I also like how icon-making is a living tradition and for actual martyrs for the faith, not just revered but non-religious figures like Harvey Milk, Steve Biko, or Mother Jones.

The Late Roman Republic

The century from 130 to 30 BC marks the transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire – that is, a polity ruled by an actual emperor, not just a large collection of territories, which it was already. In fact, Rome’s expansion to rule the entire Mediterranean basin outshot its ability to change its constitution peacefully. Eventually the constitution did get changed, but only after a century of intermittent civil war, and mostly as an expedient: Augustus held ultimate power, because that was better than chaos. Of course, Augustus’s rhetoric was that he “restored the republic,” but that was one of those statements that everyone had to publicly agree to, while simultaneously acting as though the reverse was true. If the President were to hold his office for life, and simultaneously act as Speaker of the House of Representatives and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, also for life, no one would think that the United States was still a republic in any meaningful sense, because there would no longer be any separation of powers.

At one point most educated people knew about the decline of the Roman Republic. It is an epic tale anyway, but it also provided instructive examples for subsequent generations. The biggest one, I think, is the notion that republics are inherently unstable, that in order to function properly they are too dependent on the personal integrity of their public servants, and it is only a matter of time before they break down into faction and civil war as human nature reasserts itself. It took a long time before people were willing to take a risk on republicanism again, at which time republican Rome served as an example of certain things to avoid: it is generally a bad idea that politicians should simultaneously act as military officers, for the obvious reason that they will be too tempted to use their armies to further their political ambitions. In the United States, you can seek a political career after a military one, but you have to resign your commission first.

But that was not the case in the first century BC. The days of Cincinnatus were long gone. The Senate called Cincinnatus (519-430 BC) out of retirement and granted him dictatorial powers to deal with a crisis. Cincinnatus did so with dispatch, and immediately resigned, even though he could have stayed on for the remainder of his six-month term. His name thereafter became a byword for civic virtue – a shining example of someone who served because it was his duty, and not because he was hoping to profit from the office. George Washington, because he resigned his command of the Continental Army, and because he resigned the presidency after two terms, is naturally known as the American Cincinnatus. A club for revolutionary war officers and their descendants took the name the Society of the Cincinnati in honor of Cincinnatus; the city in Ohio takes its name from this group.

Amazon.com.

But how can you compel politicians to act like this? Well, you can’t. All you can do is praise the people you would like to serve as models, and even then the narcissists and sociopaths who are attracted to power won’t care a toss about any “virtue.” It is very difficult anyway, over the long run, to enforce the custom of self-sacrifice for the greater good. Eventually it gets really old, both for individuals and for societies.

Thus, by 130 BC, the people who did very well out of the wars against Carthage and Macedonia were quite enjoying their power and wealth, thank you very much, and were not interested in giving it up. Some of them bought up land in Italy and worked it with huge gangs of slaves. There is no way that the independent yeoman farmer could compete with this, rather as America’s small-town mom-and-pop stores cannot possibly compete with Walmart and other big-box retailers. What could a plebeian do but sell out to the latifundia (as these plantations were called), move to the big city, and try to find some form of work there? Rome’s population ballooned during this time, mostly on account of poor people taking up residence in the slums of the city – a phenomenon noticeable in the Third World today.

The Gracchi brothers, Tiberius (d. 133) and Gaius (d. 121), deplored this situation and sought to arrest it. They both served as tribune – an office created in the early fifth century to act as a “voice of the people” against the patricians who dominated the Senate and all the other offices of state. Tribunes were licensed to “speak truth to power” and thus possessed sacrosanctity, a kind of diplomatic immunity: anyone harming a tribune could be instantly killed. This is why so many newspapers call themselves “tribune” – they are hoping that their readers will think of them as a fearless voice of the people against powerful interests.

The brothers Gracchi both promoted land reform. Generally, they wanted to limit the size of the latifundia, and redistribute the surplus to veterans, so that these people who had served Rome would at least have something to live on in their retirement. But the senators did not really appreciate this return of old Rome, the Rome of the independent plebeian farmer, and so contrived to have them both killed. Killed! Despite their sacrosanctity. This sad episode marks the beginning of a cycle political violence that was to plague Rome for a long time to come. It also reminds me of the story of Jacobo Árbenz, president of Guatemala 1951-54. Árbenz also proposed land reform – the government would buy up some of the extensive holdings of the United Fruit Company and redistribute it to landless Guatemalan peasants, compensating the company for the value of the land as it had been reported for tax purposes. Of course, the land was worth much more than that, and the United Fruit Company lobbied the US State Department to oppose the policy, on the principle that this was Communism! (“If it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck.”) The CIA then fomented a military coup, which installed Carlos Castillo Armas as president, who obligingly ended the proposed land reforms. Árbenz was not killed in the coup, but he died drunk and in exile in 1971, and Central America was made safe for American capitalism. This episode is not well known in America, but it is very well known south of the Rio Grande, along with all the other instances of American meddling in Latin America over the course of the twentieth century, for fundamentally selfish reasons.

One of the problems of the Roman latifundia is the same problem faced by all slave economies: the slaves represent a security risk. Naturally, they resent their condition, and if they outnumber their owners, they will take any chance they get to rebel. One of the most famous slave rebellions in history was that of Spartacus (d. 71 BC), a gladiator who organized his fellow gladiators at their school in Capua, who rose up and killed the owners, escaped from the school, and spent the next two years ravaging southern Italy, freeing latifundia slaves and killing anyone who opposed them, and amassing an ever-greater army. Eventually this force was defeated by Pompey and Crassus, two Roman generals who had been tasked with doing so. The body of Spartacus was never found, but some six thousand slaves were crucified along the Appian Way as a warning to survivors never to try such a thing again. Nevertheless, Spartacus became a hugely inspirational figure for slaves throughout history: Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution, was sometimes called the Black Spartacus, as was Nat Turner, leader of a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831.

Amazon.com.

Communists were also inspired by Spartacus, on the principle that industrial workers were basically slaves. Thus we have Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht’s Spartacus League, a post-Great War Marxist revolutionary movement in Germany, the Soviet athletic club Spartak, and the Spartakiad, a communist answer the Olympic Games.

Wikipedia.

Of course, we also got a great sword-and-sandal movie out of it, and a more recent television series. The scene at the end of the movie, when all the slaves in turn proclaimed “I’m Spartacus!” in order to protect the real Spartacus, has been inspirational to subsequent films and to US Senators.

Pompey and Crassus subsequently dominated Rome as members of the First Triumvirate. The third member was of course Julius Caesar, a man of overwhelming ambition who was in the process of subduing Gaul and making sure that everyone knew about it. He would send reports of his exploits back to Rome to be read in the Forum; collected, these reports comprise Caesar’s Gallic Wars, a classic text for Latin instruction. Pompey and Crassus doubtlessly felt that an alliance with Caesar would be to their benefit. But Crassus was killed fighting Mithridates of Pontus, and Pompey, in Rome, grew suspicious of Caesar’s popularity and so recalled him from Gaul. Caesar did return, but at the head of his army. He had command of Legio XIII in Gaul, but not in Italy, so when he crossed the Rubicon River, which formed the boundary between the two provinces, he was in essence declaring war on the Roman state. Thus has “crossing the Rubicon” come to indicate an irrevocable decision, for which the only results can be death or glory. “Alea iacta est,” Caesar is alleged to have said as he entered Italy: “the die is cast” (“die” as singular of “dice,” and “cast” as in “rolled” – it’s not a reference to casting bronze or iron in a mould, as some people believe).

The HBO television series Rome at one point has Caesar’s lieutenant Marc Antony telling his boss that “some would call it hubris.” “It’s only hubris if I fail,” replies Caesar – and it’s true, ultimately Caesar won, against Pompey, against the forces of Ptolemy XIII in Egypt, and against Mithridates of Pontus, a victory that was so easy that Caesar coined the memorable Laconic phrase “Veni, vidi, vici” to commemorate it. (“I came, I saw, I conquered” gets referenced every now and then, including in the movie Ghostbusters and by Hillary Clinton.) Caesar, it seems, was a master of rolling the dice.

Back in Rome, Caesar aggrandized himself. He contrived to get the Senate to name him dictator for life, and he put his portrait on coins and named a month after himself (previously, only gods got such treatment). His relationship with the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra did not help on this front. Naturally, there was a great deal of alarm over this extremely un-Roman behavior, which led to a senatorial conspiracy to oust him. Since they couldn’t vote him out of office, murder was the only option. And so on March 15, 44 BC, in the Theater of Pompey, Caesar received 23 stab wounds from at least as many Senators, who hoped to prevent the republic from reverting to a monarchy. One of the conspirators, Marcus Junius Brutus, felt he had a reputation to live up to, since his ancestor Lucius Junius Brutus had taken a leading role in the overthrow of the original Roman monarchy in 509 BC. “Sic semper tyrannis!” Brutus is alleged to have cried as he stabbed Caesar, a line recycled for the motto of the Commonwealth of Virginia, with George III in the role of the “tyrant.”

Amazon.com.

“Brutus” has thus become a byword for “assassin,” for either noble or base motives. Perhaps the most famous example in American history, after Lee Harvey Oswald, is John Wilkes Booth, the murderer of President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865. Booth is alleged to have shouted “Sic semper tyrannis!” as he shot Lincoln in the back of his head as he watched the play Our American Cousin from his box. Booth himself had acted in Julius Caesar the previous year, although not in the role of Brutus.

Wikipedia.

The most well-known representation of this historical episode in English is William Shakespeare’s 1599 play Julius Caesar, a work that is responsible for the popularization of the expression “the Ides of March.” The “ides” of a given month occurred halfway through it, i.e. the fifteenth on average. “Beware the Ides of March!” warns a soothsayer in Julius Caesar, advice that Caesar should have heeded, since eventually everyone’s luck runs out. The coin pictured above was issued by Brutus in the autumn of 44 BC, with a cap of liberty between two daggers, and the legend EID[IBUS] MAR[TIIS], “on the Ides of March,” a rather bold statement on his part.

But as it turns out, Brutus and Cassius did not have quite the support that they had hoped for. Caesar may have been a dictator, but he was a dictator with whom a lot of people agreed. An American might be conditioned to respond positively to the word “republic,” but in Roman terms “republic” meant “aristocratic control.” Caesar, for his part, was allied with the Populares, a party favoring the cause of the plebeians, as the Gracchi brothers originally were. So Caesar was a dictator who supposedly acted on behalf of the little guy. To illustrate this, Shakespeare has Marc Antony publicly reading Caesar’s will, which promises a certain amount of money to every Roman citizen, and which bequeathes his private parks for public use. Public opinion then turns decisively against the assassins. Historically, Marc Antony, Caesar’s great-nephew Octavian, and the general Lepidus formed the Second Triumvirate, which defeated the forces of Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC.

American Greatness.

One cannot help but think that current American politics are a distant echo of the conflict between the Senate and Caesar. When President Trump declared this week that the situation at our southern border constitutes a national emergency, more than one of my Facebook friends specifically compared him to Caesar acting the dictator. This comparison is superficially true – Trump is certainly an ambitious egomaniac with Petronian tastes who has set himself up as an opponent of career politicians and other agents of the “deep state,” and who thus enjoys a great deal of support in flyover country on the supposition that he’s standing up for the ordinary people who live there. His emergency declaration, however, is well within recent constitutional history – indeed, according to the article from which the image above is taken, “Trump Is Bad at Being a Tyrant.” He deserves to be watched, of course, but in general his offensiveness seems far more aesthetic than legal.

In the 30s BC, the Second Triumvirate suffered the same fate as the First: one member (Lepidus) was sidelined, and the remaining two fell out with each other. At the naval battle of Actium in 31 BC, Octavian’s general Marcus Agrippa defeated the forces of Marc Antony and of Cleopatra, with whom Marc Antony had taken up. Octavian chased them to Egypt, where they both committed suicide, Marc Antony by falling on his sword, and Cleopatra by venom from an asp.

Wikipedia.

Cleopatra has not served as much of an “example” for subsequent generations but she is one of the most fascinating figures of this period of history, and has been portrayed many times on canvas, stage, and screen, including in another play by Shakespeare.

Octavian, the last man standing, was still fairly young, and continued to rule for over forty years, finally dying in AD 14. Known to history as Augustus (meaning “revered,” a title bestowed on him by the Senate), he succeeded where Julius Caesar had failed. By holding several republican offices at once, and in perpetuity, by making sure that the Senate was packed with his supporters, and by having his Praetorian guard take out any potential troublemakers, he consolidated power for himself, and established a new arrangement for ruling the vast territories that Rome had acquired, an arrangement that was passed on to his groomed successor Tiberius. The shift from republic to empire is deplored in the extended Star Wars narrative, in which the Galactic Republic ruled by the Jedi is good, but the Empire that displaces it is very bad indeed. However, Augustus was not entirely self-serving in pulling a similar move, and enjoyed a certain amount of support in carrying it out, because at least he brought peace. He also had an eye for public relations: like his mentor Julius Caesar, he cultivated a certain image (in his case, as a “family values” candidate). He was also lucky in that his reign coincided with Latin coming into its own as a literary language. Thus Virgil’s Aeneid, composed between 29 and 19 BC, which not only glorifies Rome as such, but also specifically praises Augustus. When you set your story in the past, you can have your characters make very accurate predictions about the future, and when Aeneas visits the underworld in Book 6, the Cumaean Sybil tells him:

Now fix your sight, and stand intent, to see
Your Roman race, and Julian progeny.
The mighty Caesar waits his vital hour,
Impatient for the world, and grasps his promis’d pow’r.
But next behold the youth of form divine,
Caesar himself, exalted in his line;
Augustus, promis’d oft, and long foretold,
Sent to the realm that Saturn rul’d of old…

Shakespeare uses this technique in Macbeth, written to celebrate the accession of James I to the throne of England in 1603. Set in the eleventh century, the play nonetheless shows Banquo’s descendants with “two-fold balls and treble scepters” – a reference to the fact that James was king of Scotland and England (and by extension Ireland).

I hope this post serves as a demonstration of the double importance of history. The original events are important in themselves, and they also serve as a prism though which subsequent generations understand the events of their own times. So in studying the late Roman republic, not only will you learn about the republic itself, you’ll learn about the English Renaissance, the American Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, twentieth-century Communism, and even the present day.

Language and the Invention of Writing

From Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo (hat tip: Ken Wheeler):

In late December I recommended one of my favorite recent books off my reading list – recent in this case meaning when I read them, not necessarily when they were published. That was Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Oster. (You can see my review and recommendation here.) I’ve been casting about since and in the last week I’ve finally found a book on a related topic that has captured my interest: The Writing Revolution: Cuneiform to the Internet by Amalia E. Gnanadesikan. But what really prompted me to write this post was this poster I saw on Jason Kottke’s site.

(You can purchase the poster here from a place called usefulcharts.com.)

As you can see, the poster traces the evolution of our modern Latin alphabet back to what is known as Proto-Sinaitic. All of this is prologue to my current fascination with the history of writing.

Language is not an invention. As best we can tell it is an evolved feature of the human brain. There have been almost countless languages humans have spoken. But they all follow certain rules that grow out of the wiring of the human brain and human cognition. Critically, it is something that is hardwired into us. Writing is an altogether different and artificial thing.

Since we live in a highly literate culture, it can be a bit hard not to think of writing as just a different version of language – there’s the sound version and the written version. But again, there’s nothing natural about it or inevitable. Indeed, the invention of various scripts that can encode virtually all the potential meaning of human speech and as well as it sounds is one of the most fascinating stories of human history.

More at the link. Marshall is right. A recent question on an exam asked students to identify and state the importance of language. The correct answer is that language allowed Homo sapiens a massive competitive advantage over other hominins (indeed, over every other living creature, and over the elements as well). Language is more than, e.g., a particular shriek that indicates the presence of a snake. Language is a particularly complex system of communication that allows its possessors the ability to imagine counterfactuals, e.g. what would happen if we tried this? As far as we can tell, no other creature can do this, certainly not to the extent that Homo sapiens can. Animal behavior might be sophisticated, but it is generally instinctual, evolved over millions of years.* It would never occur to a bird, for instance, to put a roof over its nest.

Most of the answers on the exam, however, spoke of language being invented in Sumeria c. 3000 BC, and impressed into clay tablets, which allowed good record keeping and as a bonus gives historians today some idea of what ancient Sumerian society looked like. But as I wrote in the margins more than once: “Language ≠ script!”

If I correctly recall the material from an undergraduate anthropology class, the linguist Noam Chomsky is largely responsible for the notion that language is a part of us in the same way that our livers are. There is a language module in our brains (a “Universal Grammar,” in Chomskian coinage) that gets turned on at a certain age based on whatever an individual happens to hear.** This theory makes a great deal of intuitive sense, even if we haven’t yet located any language center. Encoding language phonemes as writing, however, is not at all natural – it is an achievement of civilization and must be taught to people at great effort over many years. And it’s not just learning what letters represent what sounds, or combine to make what words: keep in mind that as much as 70% of face-to-face communication involves intonation, facial expression, or body language, little of which gets represented in writing (one of the reasons why, historically, people were suspicious of it). This is why a transcription of a conversation or an impromptu speech often reads so awkwardly, and why polished literacy usually involves the mastery of certain prose conventions that help to overcome the inherently limiting qualities of script.***

In the Middle Ages, as Michael Clanchy states in his well-known book From Memory to Written Record (1993), literacy was a technical skill, like IT might be today – you need people to do it, but there’s no reason why a manager should have to set up his own computer network; he has better things to do. And if literacy was technical, then medieval people tended to distrust documents in a way that we don’t anymore. A document was often just as a disembodied text that anyone could have written. It was much better to hear something from someone trustworthy, who heard it from someone trustworthy, who heard it from the source. The line of human transmission guaranteed the authenticity of the information. Along the same lines, there is a famous story about how John de Warrenne, earl of Surrey, when asked by King Edward I to justify by what warrant he held his estates, drew a rusty sword and declared that:

My ancestors came with William the Bastard, and conquered their lands with the sword, and I will defend them with the sword against anyone wishing to seize them.

In other words, no document needed here! Clanchy himself warns against being biased in favor of literacy, if for no other reason than non-literate people tend to have much better memories than any of us do (or even just linguistic skills – I met a man in Egypt who could not read any language, but who had acquired the ability to speak fluent English by talking with tourists). Literacy can also be a tool of centralized coercion, when you teach people how to read, and then make sure they read only things you approve of.

Finally, and to return to the theme of Marshall’s post, the Roman alphabet actually doesn’t fit English all that well. One wishes that we could have an alphabet in which every phoneme gets its own unique character, or at least a standard combination of characters – and that our eccentric English orthography could finally be rationalized. But I suppose on another level that it’s good that we share an alphabet with so many other languages, and that in each case the letters represent more or less the same sounds – it makes learning French, German, Estonian, Welsh, or Turkish that much easier (that is, if you’re like me and have become addicted to script).

* I am aware of stories about how corvids can bend a wire and then use it to extract an object from a bottle, or how octopi can figure out how to open screw top lids on jars, or even how pods of killer whales can invent adaptive behaviors and then communicate them to their young, demonstrating a form of animal culture. But as I read once, in response to the claim that man is not the only tool-making animal: “Using a blade of grass to extract ants from an anthill is not a tool. The internal combustion engine is a tool.”

** Tom Wolfe’s Kingdom of Speech (2016), his last published book, deals with the possibility that Universal Grammar might not be entirely universal. The missionary-turned-linguist Daniel Everett claims to have discovered, in the Pirahã people of the Amazon rainforest, a language that does not include recursion (e.g. the Pirahã are incapable of formulating a sentence like “he said that she would come”), thereby undermining a key feature of human language as understood by Noam Chomsky. Being Tom Wolfe, he focuses very heavily on the status to be won by defending one’s own theory or exploding someone else’s, but one question that he doesn’t seem to consider is: is it possible that recursion fell out of use among the Piranã people due to their isolation plus genetic drift or even revealed maladaptability, in the same way that penguins lost the ability to fly or certain cave dwelling creatures lost the ability to see? That is, Universal Grammar might indeed exist, it’s just that some people don’t need it and so have lost it – it’s not that UG never existed in the first place. Snakes are considered tetrapods even though they don’t have any limbs – their ancestors did once upon a time, but in the meantime the animals evolved a different means of locomotion. (Or they were cursed to crawl about on their bellies, if you adhere to Genesis 3.14.)

*** This is parallel to how filmmakers use all sorts of tricks – like panning, cutting, or zooming – to overcome the fact that their medium imposes a frame on and flattens one’s experience of reality.

Cannabis in Canada (and the Confederacy)

Wikipedia

Earlier on this blog I suggested that a slight change in the lyrics to “O Canada” might end up being Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s most lasting legacy. I had forgotten about the legalization of cannabis use, which is likely to be of much greater importance. As of October of last year, the recreational consumption of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, has been legalized – not just decriminalized, but legalized. Thus an entire above-board industry has sprung up, which includes trade journals like TheGrowthOp.com (get it?). This journal, run by Postmedia, recently published a story of local historical significance, which I excerpt:

Did the South lose the Civil War because they were too high?

Union general Ulysses S. Grant famously fought the civil war in an alcoholic haze.

The North is believed to have won battles for the singular reason that, unlike the blockaded South, they could get their troops absolutely blasted on coffee.

The war also left an estimated 400,000 injured soldiers addicted to morphine. One of them, John Pemberton, would later try to kick smack by inventing a cocaine-laced tonic named Coca-Cola.

But amid the drifting musket smoke of the War Between the States, there is evidence that at least a few of the blue and the gray may have been high on cannabis.

The evidence is a series of 1860s American newspaper advertisements for “Hasheesh Candy.” “A pleasurable and harmless stimulant,” read one 1862 ad in Vanity Fair.

One particularly long-winded advertisement in the Good Samaritan and Daily Physician touted hasheesh candy as a cure-all beloved by both sides of the bloody conflict.

The company claimed they had received a letter from Ulysses Grant praising hasheesh candy as “of great value for the wounded and feeble.”

Grant’s Confederate rival, Robert E. Lee, even praised hash as a strategic advantage. “I wish it was in my power to place a Dollar Box of the HASHEESH CANDY in the pocket of every Confederate Soldier, because I am convinced that it speedily relieves Debility, Fatigue and Suffering,” he allegedly wrote.

There were no advertising standards councils in the 1860s, so these quotes should be accepted with a hefty dose of skepticism. For one thing, they appear in no official biographies of either Lee or Grant.

And, with a civil war to fight, it seems unlikely that either general had time to be sending fan mail to an obscure candy drug company.

But hasheesh candy was just one of a handful of patent medicines from the era boasting about the benefits of “extract of cannabis indica.” A product called James’ Extract of Cannabis Indica claimed to purify “all the fluids of the human system.”

Meanwhile, it’s entirely likely that some raw cannabis was getting into military ranks, particularly in the Confederacy. The South was the only side of the warring states that shared a border with Mexico, where “marihuana” was already being rolled into cigarettes.

A century later, cannabis would emerge as a much more influential factor in the Vietnam War. According to a 1971 U.S. Department of Defense report, more than half of the Vietnam-era U.S. military had used marijuana.

A major difference in the 1860s is that nobody would have seen cannabis as a bad thing. The United States of 1860s at the time had some incredibly suffocating social strictures by the standards of today. But when it came to drugs and privately owned weapons almost everything was fair game.

There’s a bit more at the link, although the headline is as stupidly sensational as the “Native Genocide caused the Little Ice Age!” story noted below. I doubt that some drugstore elixir had much effect on the outcome of the Civil War one way or the other. Still, it’s interesting to note just how far back the use of these drugs goes.

My Canadian contacts inform me that not much has changed in the country, which I suppose is understandable. A lot of people smoked pot when it wasn’t legal; now that it is they are simply continuing their habits. But since smoking anything in public is pretty much banned, non-users do not have to endure the smell of pot smoke as they walk down the street. And I should think that the vast majority of people who did not smoke pot before did so for other reasons than the drug’s lack of legality, and there has been no great stampede of people anxious to try it out. 

I feel compelled to state that I am much more chary of marijuana than its fans are. No, it doesn’t make you violent like booze can, but it seems to me that smoking pot messes with your brain in a way that alcohol doesn’t. There’s the whole connection to schizophrenia thing, and the fact that the daily smokers I’ve known generally appear humorless and not very bright – like they’ve lost the spark of life. Don’t do it – or if you simply must, “please smoke responsibly.”

Appalachian English

From Appalachian Magazine (hat tip: Funk Heritage Center):

Appalachian English: Why We Say “Warsh Rag” & “Low Tar”

The world that I knew as a kid was far different than that of most other children; however, at the time, I had no idea.  I thought that every child had grandfathers who were coalminers, a father who bucket fed orphaned calves, a grandmother who spoke about Jesus as though she knew him personally and a mother who wasn’t above forcing her disobedient son to snap a green branch from the willow tree out in the front yard.

I grew up Appalachia and Appalachia was all I knew.

It was not until I reached the golden age of 18 and moved away to college in a distant city that I slowly began to realize just how unique and wonderful my life’s experiences had been compared to so many others.

My first day of living in a freshman dormitory, I evoked the laughter of the entire floor when I used the word “warsh rag” to describe the newly purchased wash cloths my mother had included in my bag of necessities.

In the world that I came to age in, that’s what they were called and that was the only thing they were called.

In the days, weeks and years that followed, I would one by one learn that the way we spoke as a child was far different than how most others talked.

To my astonishment, I discovered that a “mountain holler” was actually spelled an pronounced as “hollow”, I also faced criticism for pronouncing wire as “war”, fire as “far”, and tired as “tarred”.

Through the years, my classmates, teachers and employers have all attempted to either correct my pronunciations or berate me for speaking this way; however, I have since learned to be proud of my Appalachian-English and that there are many linguistic experts who have come to our defense in recent years.

Read the whole thing.

Speaking of the Funk, I’m looking forward to a presentation there this week:

“Archaeology of the Cherokee Heartland”

Join us this Thursday, Feb. 7, at 2 p.m. when we host Dr. Benjamin Steere of Western Carolina University. Dr. Steere, author of “The Archaeology of Houses and Households in the Native Southeast,” will introduce participants to the world of the prehistoric Cherokee who lived in the Southern Appalachians. Reserve your seat by calling (770) 720-5967. The cost is $10 (or $5 for members).

Little Ice Age

A story that’s been making the rounds:

Genocide of Native Americans by European settlers was cause of Little Ice Age

The upheavals following the first contact with Europeans in 1492 is thought to have cut the population of 60 million living across the Americas down to five or six million within just 100 years

The “Little Ice Age” of the 16th and 17th centuries was triggered by the genocide of indigenous people in the Americas by European settlers, new research suggests.

Scientists have long wondered what caused the drop in temperatures so severe that it caused the River Thames to freeze over.

New analysis by University College London (UCL) argues that so many people were slaughtered or died of disease that the amount of agricultural land dramatically reduced, which in turn sucked carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.

Known as the “Great Dying,” the upheavals following the first contact with Europeans in 1492 is thought to have cut the population of 60 million living across the Americas down to five or six million within just 100 years. Published in Quaternary Science Reviews, the study found that much of the land previously cultivated by indigenous civilizations would have fallen into disuse, becoming swallowed up by forest and grassland.

It estimates that an area of 56 million hectares, roughly the size of modern-day France, would have been “rewilded” in this way.

The scale of the change is believed to have drawn an amount of CO2 from the atmosphere equivalent to two years of fossil fuel emissions at the present rate.

Professor Mark Maslin, from UCL’s School of Geography, said: “There is a marked cooling around that time which is called the Little Ice Age, and what’s interesting is that we can see natural processes giving a bit of cooling, but to actually get the full cooling – double the natural processes – you have to have this genocide–generated drop in CO2.”

The research team examined historical population data, using it to model the reduction of land devoted to agriculture.

Ed Hawkins, professor of climate science at Reading University, said: “Scientists understand that the so-called Little Ice Age was caused by several factors – a drop in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, a series of large volcanic eruptions, changes in land use and a temporary decline in solar activity. The drop in CO2 is itself partly due the settlement of the Americas and the resulting collapse of the indigenous population.

“It demonstrates that human activities affected the climate well before the industrial revolution began.”

An interesting theory! But I have some questions. How many Native Americans actually practiced agriculture? And why do cultivated crops put more CO2 into the atmosphere than wild flora? This quite apart from the immense difficulty of determining past population numbers in the absence of a proper census. It would have been good for the article to cite actual data (from ice cores, etc.) about just how much atmospheric carbon dioxide declined in the Early Modern Period.

But as is so often the case with newspaper articles, you have to read all the way to the end to get the real story (which is why I have taken the liberty of reproducing the entire piece). Prof. Hawkins says something completely commonsensical – that the LIA was caused by a variety of factors, only one of which was the decline of atmospheric CO2. Thus the headline, that “genocide” “caused” the Little Ice Age, seems completely overstated, in the usual journalistic fashion.

Change over Time

Comparing Homer’s Iliad to Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, even just the opening lines of each work, is always revealing. Here they are:

Iliad: “Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans.”

History of the Peloponnesian War: “Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, beginning at the moment that it broke out, and believing that it would be a great war and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it.”

In just a few words we see certain differences, emblematic of shift from the Archaic Age to the Classical Age:

  Iliad History Peloponnesian War
Verb Sing Write
Author “goddess”
(i.e. the muse Calliope)
Thucydides himself
Actor Achilles Peloponnesians and Athenians
Subject Anger War
Promises Excitement Accuracy

Homer asks for divine help in performing a story for a live audience, while Thucydides writes in private and on his own authority (and, as revealed later, is really sweating over it, trying to determine what exactly happened). The gods make no appearance in the History of the Peloponnesian War – the human actors might perform rituals to them, but Apollo does not shoot his arrows at them, nor does Athena come down and prevent one person from killing another. It is a purely human story, but a wide-ranging one – it is an account of a war itself; the war does not function as a backdrop to a more personal conflict as it does in the Iliad (or in the movie Pearl Harbor, whose subject, according to one critic, was “a Japanese sneak attack on an American love triangle”).

Behold the rationality of the Classical Age! And the answer to one of the questions on the exam.

And for something slightly related, courtesy Tim Furnish: