Manners Maketh Man

Adrian Woodbridge in The Economist‘s 1843 magazine:

In his new book, In Pursuit of Civility, British historian Keith Thomas tells the story of the most benign developments of the past 500 years: the spread of civilised manners. In the 16th and 17th centuries many people behaved like barbarians. They delighted in public hangings and torture. They stank to high heaven. Samuel Pepys defecated in a chimney. Josiah Pullen, vice-principal of Magdalen Hall, Oxford, urinated while showing a lady around his college, “still holding the lady fast by the hand”. It took centuries of painstaking effort – sermons, etiquette manuals and stern lectures – to convert them into civilised human beings.

Reading Thomas’s book on a train recently I was gripped by a terrible realisation: everything our forebears worked so hard to achieve is now reversing. A process that took centuries has been undone in just a few decades.

There is no better place to observe the collapse of manners than on mass transport. The most basic move in the civilising process was to make a distinction between the public and the private: persuading people to defecate in lavatories rather than chimneys and eat at regular times in designated places, not whenever or wherever the mood took them. Yet today city streets reek of urine and trains smell of fast food. I recently had the misfortune to sit next to a quivering man-mountain on a train who proceeded to slurp a Coke, demolish a Big Mac, munch fries and spill ketchup onto his beard while giggling at a film on his super-sized iPad. His only concession to the fact that he wasn’t in his own sitting room was to wear headphones.

Read the whole thing. Article title is a reference to a famous book on the subject.

Medievalism

In the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings, Amy S. Kaufman of the Public Medievalist blog writes in the Washington Post:

Chivalry isn’t dead. But it should be. The medieval defense of Brett Kavanaugh

Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court has been fueled by deep rage among conservatives, who think his position in the American nobility guarantees his fitness for the job. Wayne Allyn Root, for instance, defended Kavanaugh as “a great man” by comparing their pedigrees: “Brett Kavanaugh graduated near the top of his class in his high school while starring in sports. I graduated number one in my high school while starring in sports. Then he went on to Yale. I went on to Columbia.” Kavanaugh himself dodged Sen. Mazie Hirono’s (D-Hawaii) questions about college drinking by responding, “I got into Yale Law School. That’s the number one law school in the country.”

Supporters not only pointed to Kavanaugh’s elite credentials to defend his nomination, they also have extolled his chivalry, from parading around the young girls he coaches to sharing support from women who knew him in his prep school days. Kavanaugh stressed his chastity and his care for women in an interview with Fox News: “Just ask the moms,” he said. Heather Mac Donald touted Kavanaugh’s “unblemished record of treating women with respect” to argue that even if the attack on accuser Christine Blasey Ford happened, it would be “feminist narcissism to put an uncharacteristic instance of adolescent, never-repeated sexual aggression ahead of a lifetime of achievement in the law.”

These medieval defenses of Kavanaugh’s nobility and chivalry seem out of place. After all, Americans pride themselves on their modern, meritocratic culture. Moreover, the notion of a chivalrous Kavanaugh seems tenuous: As accounts of hazing, sexual assault and drunken violence in his social circle keep emerging, we’re getting the picture of a man who exhibits anything but modesty, restraint and respect for women. And yet in that sense, very little has changed between the Middle Ages and today: Medieval chivalry also was a fiction that masked aristocratic violence.

Chivalry, which has always been more literary than real, has been called a “protection racket,” because it forces women to rely on men to protect them from other men. Even then, chivalry protects only certain women. The 12th-century poet Chrétien de Troyes, famous for his chivalric romances, explained that if a noblewoman or her lady in waiting traveled alone, a knight could “no more treat her with dishonor than cut his own throat.” But if he fought another knight for her and won, he could “do with her as he pleased.” Lower-class women didn’t warrant a mention in Troyes’s chivalric code.

Read the whole thing. (If you’ve run out of Washington Post articles for the month, just hit the “stop loading” button after the text has appeared but before the entire page is loaded – that should allow you to read it.)

Ms. Kaufman raises several points in this piece, many of which, I confess, I disagree with. It only makes sense that Kavanaugh would invoke his “chivalry” towards women, given that he was accused of attempted rape – he was trying to establish that his general attitude toward women was positive, not abusive – and I put chivalry in quotation marks because mentoring women law students and coaching girls’ sports is fundamentally different from the “protection racket” that medieval chivalry apparently was. Teaching women some (masculine) skill acknowledges their potential for independent action, something generally lacking from medieval romance. I suppose that Kaufman is suggesting that Christine Blasey Ford is playing the role of the lower-class woman who gets no mention in Chrétien’s code, although Ford went to a tonier prep school than Kavanaugh did, and for Kavanaugh to mess around with someone like that would have been playing with fire (one reason to be skeptical of the accusation leveled against him).

I wish that Kavanaugh had not invoked his Yale education to deflect stories about his high school social life, as in:

-Were you a party animal in high school?
-I was first in my class and got into Yale!

This does not answer the question, of course. It is perfectly possible to compartmentalize one’s hard work from one’s hard partying; I knew plenty of people like this. But I reject Kaufman’s designation of Kavanaugh’s educational career as a “pedigree” – or rather, I think that Kavanaugh’s hard work in high school to get into Yale is a perfect example of America’s “modern, meritocratic culture.” I reckon that there were plenty of people from Georgetown Prep who tried to get into Yale and didn’t, and plenty of Yalies who tried to get into YLS and didn’t, because their grades weren’t good enough.

But in defense of chivalry: that women must place themselves under the protection of men, whether their fathers, brothers, or husbands, who are then obliged to defend them, is not anything “medieval”; it is the human condition. Medieval chivalry, even if it was just a literary conceit, was an attempt at universalizing this protection. That women as such were entitled to knightly consideration, I would argue, was a step toward gender equality. (And Chretien de Troyes was not the only arbiter of chivalry – I am unaware of any other authors claiming that men could do whatever they wanted to the women they had “won”). Sure, maybe you had to be a classy lady before you could attract the service of a knight – but let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good – one must start somewhere

On the contrary, if there’s anything medieval about the Kavanaugh hearings it’s the notion that we must believe all women unconditionally, that we are not allowed to subject their claims to critical scrutiny, that an accusation and a conviction are essentially the same thing. There’s some “chivalry” for you! Leap to it, white knights, and defend the honor of your lady! And insofar as the Middle Ages are cast as an irrational, pre-Enlightenment time, the #MeToo movement can certainly be seen as a return to this.

This is why l liked Lindsay Graham’s riposte to some protestors. When pressed why they weren’t demanding that Kavanaugh take a polygraph, the senator responded “You’ve humiliated this guy enough and there seems to be no bottom for some of you.” When the protesters continued to talk, Graham asked rhetorically: “Why don’t we dunk him in the water and see if he floats?”

Trial by ordeal! Something also putatively medieval.

Some Recent Links

• Noble Ingram on Christian Science Monitor: “History lesson: Scholars take aim at racist views of Middle Ages”

Fiamenco File: “OMG, She Cheered for White Men!” (16 minute YouTube video)

• Peter Wood on Inside Higher Ed.: “Anatomy of a Smear: Scholars should speak out against those who have weaponized the language of “safety,” “security,” “acknowledgment” and “inclusion” to silence anyone who disagrees with them”

• Jay Nordlinger on National Review Online: “One Gutsy Medievalist” (link to Ricochet podcast)

News from Ireland

• Our guide in Belfast claimed that the different communities were beginning to appreciate each other’s customs. But what this can mean in practice is that the one community might adopt the other community’s customs, in reverse. If Unionists will go marching around in nationalist neighborhoods, then nationalists will go marching around in Unionist neighborhoods. If Unionists have huge bonfires on which they immolate nationalist symbols, well then nationalists will do the same with Unionist symbols. A twitter post from Leave.EU showed a recent nationalist bonfire in Derry that consumed several Union Jacks, Ulster banners, poppy wreaths, a British Army flag, various Protestant paramilitary flags, a Trump flag (!), and, to the consternation of the Times of Israel, an Israeli flag.

• I don’t know which community was the first to paint its kerbstones in the relevant colors (red, white, and blue for Unionists; green, white, and orange for nationalists), but apparently doing so counts as a hate crime now (or at least, you can report it as such, and the PSNI is obliged to investigate).

• Féile an Phobail, or the West Belfast Festival, was founded in the late 1980s in order to convince people that the Republicans who lived there had other interests besides terrorism. Alas, you can’t have something in West Belfast without someone ruining it; the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar opened the festival this year and was roundly criticized for doing so, after the appearance of IRA flags in the crowd. He had been warned that this was likely to happen, but went ahead and participated anyway.

Dare Stones

I have just discovered the existence of South’s version of the Kensington Runestone. From the Brenau Window:

In November 1937 as America clawed its way out of The Great Depression, a Californian man showed up at the history department of Emory University in Atlanta with a most peculiar object – a 21-pound chunk of rough veined quartz with some foreign looking words chiseled into its surface. The man said he found the rock in a North Carolina swamp, about 80 miles from Roanoke Island, while he was driving through on vacation. The strange stone caught the attention of one of the professors, Dr. Haywood Pearce Jr., who also served as vice president of Brenau, where his father was president. The inscription on the stone read “Ananias Dare & Virginia went hence unto heaven 1591,” and a message to notify John White of that news bore the initials of the author of the carved writing, EWD, presumably those of Eleanor Dare.

Although Emory’s historians weren’t interested, Pearce and his father certainly were. Perhaps they concluded that, if this chuck of rock indeed marked the graves of America’s “first white child” and her father, it might well be the thing to put their college on the map. They wound up paying the California man $1,000 for the treasure.

Anyone who has used tiller, plow or trowel in Appalachian dirt will swear the region grows rocks. But nothing plows better than cold cash. To make a long story short, over the next four years, similar rocks popped up all over the place, mostly found by four people. Pearce and his father over the years acquired close to 50 of the huge stones, all with similar inscriptions unearthed as far south as the banks of the Chattahoochee River near Atlanta. Although the Pearces’ fervent explorations and money never turned up graves or any other evidence to authenticate the stones, a team of Smithsonian Institution-commissioned historians – headed by the venerable Samuel Eliot Morison of Harvard – traveled to Gainesville and, in a preliminary report, assigned some validity to what had then come to be known as “The Dare Stones.”

David Morrison’s article notes that the Saturday Evening Post, in 1941, conclusively proved that most of these stones were forgeries, but what about the original one? From the Washington Post on July 5 (hat tip: Ron Good):

In the past few years, researchers have been taking another look. For one, the letters etched on the first stone look very different from the others. It doesn’t contain any suspiciously modern words as the others do. Plus, Dare was “moderately educated,” Schrader says, and her husband was a stonemason. It’s reasonable to think she may have learned the skill from him.

In 2016, Schrader had a sample of the stone analyzed by the University of North Carolina at Asheville, exposing the quartz’s bright white interior.

“The original inscription would have been a stark contrast to the weathered exterior,” science writer Andrew Lawler wrote for National Geographic. “A good choice for a Roanoke colonist but a poor one for a modern forger.”

Schrader said he would like to marshal the funds for an “exhaustive, geochemical investigation,” but first, this fall, a Brenau professor will assemble a team of outside experts to analyze the language more thoroughly.

“The type of English that’s on the stone was really only used for about a hundred years, so it’s a nice time marker to be able to study,” Schrader said.

It will be interesting to see how this pans out. (I make no comment on the use of “Virginia Dare” by white nationalists – if the rock is authentic, then it’s authentic, and if it’s fake, then it’s fake. What “uses” it is put to are beyond the investigator’s concern.)

The Abortion Referendum

Our first day in Ireland was May 24, which was the same day that the Republic held a referendum on whether or not to repeal the eighth amendment to the constitution, which dates from 1983 and which prohibits the practice of abortion except in very extreme circumstances. As you may be aware, the Irish voted overwhelmingly to repeal the eighth amendment, 66.4% to 33.6%. What I did not know is that the eighth amendment was also enacted after a referendum back in 1983, which the Irish people voted for by a similar margin: 66.9% to 33.1%. So the result was seen as symbolic of a sea change in attitudes over the course of 35 years, part of the secularization of society and of the declining power of the Church, something observed across the western world over the course of the twentieth century and which has only belatedly come to Ireland.

I think it’s great that Ireland decides these things by referendum. It’s much better than leaving it up to five of nine Supreme Court justices and whatever creative and tendentious interpretation of the law that they come up with on a given day.

As you can probably imagine, we saw a lot of advertising on the topic throughout the country. Unsurprisingly, the “No” side had most of the signs in rural County Kerry, while the “Yes” side had most of the signs in urban Dublin. But it was unreflective of the actual results: the only constituency that “No” actually won was County Donegal, and there only by a slim margin.

I took this photo from the coach as we were heading into Dublin. I wanted to get signs from both sides in the same frame. As chance would have it, this is about as strident as it got (“killing babies” vs. “my-body-my-choice”).

Otherwise, I was surprised at how subdued most of the propaganda was, as reflected by the above two signs. The “No” sign in the bottom photograph was sponsored by something calling itself “Love Both,” i.e. both mother and child, the two “O”s forming an “8” for the amendment in question. This, I suppose, was in response to the “Yes” side’s emphasis on “compassion.” (I regret to say that I did not get a photo of a sign communicating this message.)

But there was certainly some mockery of the other side: note the “Love Boat” sticker over the number of days at which the fetus’s heart starts beating. This is in reference to the “boat” that Irishwomen must take to Britain or the continent in order to procure abortions there, and which the “Yes” side cast as an undue hardship. (They can’t go to Northern Ireland – as I discovered, abortion is banned there as well. Apparently this is a rare thing that both communities can agree on.)

The Catholic Church, of course, was flat-out for the “No” side. I picked up some pamphlets in the churches I visited.

I thought this one laid it on a little thick…

But what I found most interesting is the appeal to Irish nationalism (not necessarily Catholicism, although of course there is going to be some overlap).

As far as I can tell the first three people at the top of this sign are the Irish revolutionary leaders Sean Mac Diarmada, Patrick Pearse, and Eamonn Ceannt. (I cannot discern who the fourth one is.)

Note how this drink coaster makes a connection between the rebellion of 1916 (see the declaration of the Irish Republic in the background) and the “rebellion” against the movement to liberalize abortion laws in 2018.

And, as is traditional with Irish nationalism, Britain is figured as the prime source of evil. I saw another sign citing the British abortion rate, and exclaiming “Don’t Bring This To Ireland!”

But neither religion nor nationalism worked this time. (“Cúram le Chéile, Vótáil Tá” = “Care Together, Vote Yes.”)

Chinese Diplomacy

Interesting article from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, courtesy Lachlan Mead:

Chinese students being taught ‘us and them’ brand of diplomacy

Future diplomats in the Chinese foreign service are taught that a particular set of ideas and ways of thinking are “correct”. Above all, they are being taught the importance of maintaining correct-ness.

While the future of Chinese diplomacy is without doubt exceptionally intelligent, talented, earnest, and hard-working, many budding diplomats have been immersed in a socialisation process that may not equip them to deal with the fast-paced global environment in which they will find themselves.

Recently, an article was published describing the global public relations challenge looming for China as its experienced and savvy diplomats age, with no clear replacements lined up to take their places. While the shortage in numbers of diplomats is important, what is also noteworthy is how new diplomats are being trained to think and operate in the international arena….

The first and most fundamental element in students’ socialisation process is the overriding sense of identifying themselves as part of the great imagined community of “we Chinese” above all else.

Students would often describe world affairs in terms of “women zhongguoren” (“we Chinese”, translating as “middle country people”) and “nimen waiguoren” (“you foreigners”, literally “outside country people”) — a vast and generally undifferentiated mass of everyone else….

Students also tended to articulate strong views around what China’s role in the world should look like in the future. They argued that the era of hegemony was at an end, and it was now the time for a multipolar international order. They saw China as one of these poles, of course, with others including the US, the EU, and Russia.

China was almost without exception understood to be a force for good, a peaceful and benevolent actor, and the leader and representative voice for the developing world.

This was based on the premise that China — according to them — had always been a peaceful world player, who, although powerful in the past, had never viciously conquered or invaded others. The example of the Ming dynasty maritime explorer Zheng He (1371-1433) regularly featured in the discussion.

More at the link.

Half-Staff

Another mass shooting, another round of flags flying at half-staff (or “half-mast”… I am inclined to say “half-pole” myself). Here is a view of the Waleska Post Office this morning:

At least this one was ordered by the President – one of my pet peeves is how people are all too willing to lower the flag – everyone’s flag – to half-staff because they have suffered some private loss. But the national flag should only come down during times of national mourning – let the state governor order the state flag down, the mayor order the city flag down, the college president order the college flag down, etc.

But I think that half-staffing of the national flag happens way too often anyway. It’s like the standing ovation: “Formerly reserved for those rare instances when mere applause seemed insufficient, the standing ovation morphed into just another hollow social obligation some time ago.” And anyway, the desire to participate in Media Events is juvenile and should be resisted.

Apparently this is a problem in my homeland as well. Colby Cosh wrote a blog post that has stayed with me over the years:

Yeah, I’d say flag protocol has gotten a little sloppy in this country.

As I understand it, tradition and correct procedure permit Canada’s flag to fly at half-mast only when the Sovereign or one of her representatives dies, and only for thirty days at a time. But aggressive idiots–the kind who say things like “How dare you tell me how to express my love for Canada?”–have ruined the ceremonious pleasure of the flag for everyone; when in private hands it now dips, routinely and almost universally, to honour cirrhotic disk jockeys or police dogs. In fact, try finding a Canadian flag not on a government building that ever flies at the top of the mast; it’s not as easy as it sounds.

I guess I thought the abuse of the flag had lost its power to annoy me–but have a look at this photo from the grounds of Woodhaven Middle School, which is performing a ritual act of patriotic obeisance on behalf of an outstanding employee.

Steven Bradley Smith, 31, was found hanging by paramedics who were called to his home at 19035 46 Ave. in Edmonton before midnight. … charges against Smith, laid by Spruce Grove RCMP last month, include sexual assault, sexual interference, inviting sexual touching and sexual exploitation involving… two girls. Smith was also charged with making child pornography and shooting digital video footage of one of the girls while she was nude, as well as having anal intercourse with her. Police alleged the incidents took place between Sept. 1, 2003, and Oct. 30, 2005, and said both girls were under 14 when the alleged assaults began.

Er…. A nation mourns?

Fake News

From the Atlantic:

Before ‘Fake News’ Came False Prophecy

From medieval Britain to the present, fantastic stories speaking to readers’ darkest fears have proven capable of altering reality.

The revelation that fake news deceived voters in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election generated real outrage in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s electoral victory. The top fake news stories garnered more clicks than the top real news stories on Facebook in the final three months of the campaign season. Fake news and other campaign fantasies led Oxford Dictionaries to select ‘post-truth’ as the word of the year for 2016.

But stories that gain popularity by presenting readers’ fantasies and nightmares as current events are hardly new. In medieval Britain, national and local political action was guided by prophecy. Prophecies were invoked by rebel leaders, appropriated by ruling elites, and, ultimately, censored by a government fearful of their disruptive potential. Prophecy’s effectiveness in shaping medieval politics offers a rejoinder to those who suggest that fake news and other political falsehoods can be ignored, or laughed off. Prophecy, like fake news, worked as persuasive writing because it told people what they wanted to believe or spoke to their darkest fears.

British politics provided ample opportunity to test the power of imagined worlds. When Owain Glyndŵr, Edmund Mortimer, and Henry Percy plotted against Henry IV at the turn of the 15th century, they used the popular “Prophecy of the Six Kings” to justify their actions. A later historical account has the three rebels committing to treason on the condition “that they are the people about whom the prophet speaks.” The fantasy that Glyndŵr, Mortimer, and Percy were prophesied saviors—a fantasy they themselves may have believed—had the very real effect of attracting popular support for their insurrection.

More at the link. Lesley Coote’s book Prophecy and Public Affairs in Later Medieval England (Boydell, 2000) will tell you more. Of course, in our current age, going after “fake news” has the very real potential to descend into “going after news that I don’t happen to agree with,” so such a movement would need to be exercised with care. And blaming “fake news” for Mrs. Clinton’s loss borders on blaming “false consciousness,” which is always psychologically satisfying to some people but isn’t very useful if you have to operate in free elections in a constitutional republic. People want to be convinced, not condescended to.