Israel

Israel is one of the world’s great hotspots; perhaps the greatest, now that the Troubles in Northern Ireland have abated somewhat and the Civil War in Sri Lanka has come to an end. It’s true that violence in Israel has tapered off too, but it seems that everyone has an opinion on Israel and its relationship to the Palestinian Arabs whom they conquered at their founding, and then in the Six-Day War in 1967. These opinions roughly follow a left-right axis, with those on the left favoring Palestinians, and those on the right Israel. I think that this pattern was set during the Cold War: once Israel allied with the United States, and the Arab world the Soviet Union, well, that’s all that most people needed to know about who the good guys and who the bad guys were. That the United States picked Israel, even after such things as the Suez Crisis, the attack on the USS Liberty, or the shenanigans of Jonathan Pollard, is usually seen as a testament to the outsized influence of American Jews, who tend to be visceral partisans of Israel for obvious reasons, combined with the influence of American Evangelicals, who support Israel on account of their dispensationalist theology.

But I think that politics on a left-right scale doesn’t completely explain things. Allow me to share with you my own theory: you can divide the world into two types of people. The first group believes that no one has suffered like the Jews have suffered, so they’re pretty much allowed to do whatever they want from now on – they’re certainly entitled to their own ethnostate. The second group believes that no one has suffered like the Jews have suffered, so you’d think they’d be careful not to cause other people to suffer too (cf. “You shall not oppress the stranger that is within your gates, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”). In other words, we have a conflict between tribalists and universalists. Universalists simply don’t like hypocrisy, and they think that Israelis are hypocrites, having suffered oppression, and then proceeding to dish it out to other people. They believe that even if the Holocaust was “unique,” it still doesn’t justify the Apartheid state the Israelis have constructed. 

Alas, Zionism, of necessity, is tribal. The direct connection between the Shoah and Eretz Yisrael is taught in Israeli schools, and is on full display at Yad Veshem, the Israeli national Holocaust memorial. The museum there takes the form of a maze that gets tighter and tighter as you proceed through it, emphasizing how there was no escape from Nazi persecution. But as you come to the end you step out onto a terrace that affords a beautiful vista of the valley of Giv’at Beroshim – the idea being that the land of Israel is the answer to the problem of Jewish suffering.* I actually overheard an Israeli tour guide discounting this idea. He said that nowhere else in the world is the Holocaust taught this way, and furthermore the idea does not go over well with the Arabs. He said that President Obama, when he gave a speech in Cairo in 2009, specifically referenced it, and the guide imagined a telephone conversation a half hour afterwards between Obama and Netanyahu, who may have exclaimed: “Are you nuts?! Never say that to Arabs! To them, the Holocaust was a project carried out by European Christians – and it’s now Middle Eastern Muslims who are paying the price for it!” No, said the guide, that the State of Israel was founded after the Holocaust is simply a chronological coincidence. The Jewish settlers in Palestine could have declared their independence in the 1930s, but then the war intervened and prevented it from happening. The Holocaust is why Israel deserves to be strong, and to take its security seriously, but its existence is another matter entirely. The Jews have a right to their own state in the Levant because… that’s where their ancestors lived in the first millennium BC! (And how well does that idea go over with the Arabs? I stood there wondering. Are they just meekly supposed to accept the notion that they’ve been squatting for 1500 years?)

But I found that other people believe this too. If Israel is not compensation for the Holocaust, then it is simply the latest instantiation of the ancient Hebrew monarchy. In Jerusalem I spoke with a guy, a real settler type, who was carrying around a large Israeli flag, “just for fun.” He actually referred to the West Bank as “Judaea/Samaria” and said that archaeologists recently uncovered some more artifacts there from the First Temple period. “How can you ‘occupy’ your own country?!” he asked.

But I’m afraid that the Palestinians weren’t much better in their uses of history. Two of them matter-of-factly told me that the Jews lost the rights to their land after the Romans destroyed their temple in AD 70, and expelled them in the 130s. Clearly God was judging them.

How can you argue with people who think like this?

My personal feeling is that Israel is no less legitimate than any other country created in the twentieth century – but this legitimacy has little to do with the Holocaust, and even less with any history recorded in the Bible. Instead, Israel is a settler nation, like Canada, the United States, or Australia. Enough people moved there, bought up enough land,** constructed the apparatus of a state, wheedled the Balfour Declaration*** out of the British, and then recognition of their independence from the UN. What more do you need? Its treatment of the Palestinians is distasteful, of course, but it would really have helped if the Arabs had not declared war on the state in 1948, and in 1967, and in 1973, and in 1987, and in 2000, and continue to carry out attacks even now. I confess that I find it hard to sympathize with people who so readily resort to violence, and that there is great deal of merit in Golda Meir’s claim that “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.” In any event, I was surprised at how much pro-Palestinian sentiment the Israelis tolerate. The settler pictured above claims that the police will confiscate his flag as “too provocative” when he shows up at certain rallies. And I was amazed at some of the t-shirts on sale in the Old City expressing things that would never be allowed, say, about Armenians or Kurds in Turkey.

Self-government may be preferable to good government, but having been to both places now I think I would rather live on the West Bank than in Egypt. As tribal as Zionism may be, functionally it does produce some positive externalities for everyone.

* Fr. Richard LeSueur of St. George’s College, Jerusalem first pointed this out to me.

** Alan Dershowitz, in The Case for Israel, makes a big deal about land ownership. According to him, it is self-justifying. (By this notion, I guess the Chinese who have turned Vancouver into “Hongcouver” have the right to declare their independence – in fact, they already constitute a nation! It suggests that every sovereign state ought to take immigration, and real estate, very seriously.)

*** Courtesy Tom MacMaster, an interesting dissenting view on the Balfour Declaration by the Jewish Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India:

Zionism has always seemed to me to be a mischievous political creed, untenable by any patriotic citizen of the United Kingdom. If a Jewish Englishman sets his eyes on the Mount of Olives and longs for the day when he will shake British soil from his shoes and go back to agricultural pursuits in Palestine, he has always seemed to me to have acknowledged aims inconsistent with British citizenship and to have admitted that he is unfit for a share in public life in Great Britain, or to be treated as an Englishman. I have always understood that those who indulged in this creed were largely animated by the restrictions upon and refusal of liberty to Jews in Russia. But at the very time when these Jews have been acknowledged as Jewish Russians and given all liberties, it seems to be inconceivable that Zionism should be officially recognised by the British Government, and that Mr. Balfour should be authorized to say that Palestine was to be reconstituted as the “national home of the Jewish people”. I do not know what this involves, but I assume that it means that Mahommedans and Christians are to make way for the Jews and that the Jews should be put in all positions of preference and should be peculiarly associated with Palestine in the same way that England is with the English or France with the French, that Turks and other Mahommedans in Palestine will be regarded as foreigners, just in the same way as Jews will hereafter be treated as foreigners in every country but Palestine. Perhaps also citizenship must be granted only as a result of a religious test.

I assert that there is not a Jewish nation. The members of my family, for instance, who have been in this country for generations, have no sort or kind of community of view or of desire with any Jewish family in any other country beyond the fact that they profess to a greater or less degree the same religion. It is no more true to say that a Jewish Englishman and a Jewish Moor are of the same nation than it is to say that a Christian Englishman and a Christian Frenchman are of the same nation: of the same race, perhaps, traced back through the centuries – through centuries of the history of a peculiarly adaptable race. The Prime Minister and M. Briand are, I suppose, related through the ages, one as a Welshman and the other as a Breton, but they certainly do not belong to the same nation.

When the Jews are told that Palestine is their national home, every country will immediately desire to get rid of its Jewish citizens, and you will find a population in Palestine driving out its present inhabitants, taking all the best in the country, drawn from all quarters of the globe, speaking every language on the face of the earth, and incapable of communicating with one another except by means of an interpreter. I have always understood that this was the consequence of the building of the Tower of Babel, if ever it was built, and I certainly do not dissent from the view, commonly held, as I have always understood, by the Jews before Zionism was invented, that to bring the Jews back to form a nation in the country from which they were dispersed would require Divine leadership. I have never heard it suggested, even by their most fervent admirers, that either Mr. Balfour or Lord Rothschild would prove to be the Messiah.

I claim that the lives that British Jews have led, that the aims that they have had before them, that the part that they have played in our public life and our public institutions, have entitled them to be regarded, not as British Jews, but as Jewish Britons. I would willingly disfranchise every Zionist. I would be almost tempted to proscribe the Zionist organisation as illegal and against the national interest. But I would ask of a British Government sufficient tolerance to refuse a conclusion which makes aliens and foreigners by implication, if not at once by law, of all their Jewish fellow-citizens.

I deny that Palestine is to-day associated with the Jews or properly to be regarded as a fit place for them to live in. The Ten Commandments were delivered to the Jews on Sinai. It is quite true that Palestine plays a large part in Jewish history, but so it does in modern Mahommendan history, and, after the time of the Jews, surely it plays a larger part than any other country in Christian history. The Temple may have been in Palestine, but so was the Sermon on the Mount and the Crucifixion. I would not deny to Jews in Palestine equal rights to colonisation with those who profess other religions, but a religious test of citizenship seems to me to be the only admitted by those who take a bigoted and narrow view of one particular epoch of the history of Palestine, and claim for the Jews a position to which they are not entitled.

Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty

From the Washington Examiner:

Stephen Miller is right: Lazarus’ immigration poem is not US law.

There’s been some argument over who came out ahead in the picturesque set-to between White House staffer Stephen Miller and CNN reporter Jim Acosta over the White House support of the immigration bill sponsored by Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue. On one point at least it seems to me that Miller had the best of it when he charged that Acosta was being “ahistorical.”

Acosta kept reading and reciting the Emma Lazarus poem written before the Statue of Liberty was erected in 1886 but not inscribed at its base until 1903: “Give us your tired, your poor,” etc. His plain implication was that the United States had an open immigration policy back in the years before World War I.

That implication is flatly false. The early republic did not have a federal immigration policy, but as immigration started rising well after the end of the 1792-1815 world war between Britain and France, the state governments did inspect immigrants alighting from sailing and then steam ships, with a view to excluding those with communicable diseases or unable to support themselves economically and thus likely to become “a public charge.” For more information on this, see Vincent Cannato’s 2010 book American Passage: The History of Ellis Island.

In the 1880s the federal government took over the task of screening immigrants, building the Ellis Island inspection station which opened in 1892 within easy sight of the Statue of Liberty. Ellis Island processed millions between 1892 and 1914, when the outbreak of World War I pretty much cut off overseas immigration, and again from 1919 to 1924, when a sharply restrictive immigration act was passed, barring virtually all immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.

The Ellis Island regime was not, however, the kind of open immigration system Jim Acosta and an increasing number of liberals and Democrats seem to favor. For one thing, the most tired and poor seldom made it to the United States, because they lacked the money or the heartiness to afford or weather even steerage passage on a trans-Atlantic steamship. More importantly, the government excluded those deemed (at their Ellis Island inspection or elsewhere) suffering from communicable diseases, those deemed to be insane or “loathsome” and those “likely to become a public charge.” (Here’s a sample of exclusions for such reasons.)

More at the link. See also:

Jim Acosta, Racist Apologist for White Privilege

White House adviser Stephen Miller made short work of CNN’s Jim Acosta at yesterday’s White House press briefing on immigration. Acosta enjoined, “It sounds like you’re trying to engineer the racial and ethnic flow of people into this country through this policy,” by giving preference to English speakers. In fact, the vast majority of the world’s 1.2 billion English speakers are African or Asian.

Acosta claimed that preferential treatment for English-speaking applicants would benefit people from Great Britain and Australia. Scathingly, Miller replied:

“I am shocked at your statement, that you think only people from Great Britain and Australia would know English. It reveals your cosmopolitan bias to a shocking degree. This is an amazing moment. That you think only people from Great Britain or Australia would speak English is so insulting to millions of hard-working immigrants who do speak English from all over the world. Jim, have you honestly never met an immigrant from another country who speaks English, outside of Great Britain and Australia? Is that your personal experience?”

There are about 1.2 billion English speakers in the world, including 125 million Indians, 90 million Filipinos, 79 million Nigerians, 30 million Bengalis, 28 million Egyptians and 15 million Pakistanis, according to Wikipedia. More than half of all English-speakers are non-European. Barely a tenth of English speakers outside the United States live in Britain, Canada, Australia or New Zealand. Acosta’s gaffe was epically ignorant and racist in the extreme.

Acosta repeatedly interrupted Miller, chanting “Give me your tired, your poor…,” a line from Emma Lazarus’ 1883 sonnet The New Colossus which is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty. If anything, Miller handled the CNN journalist too gently. He might have said: “America had no restrictions to immigration in 1883, and millions of white European immigrants poured into the American heartland. To accommodate them we drove out the Native Americans. By 1890 there were only 250,000 Native Americans left in the United States, compared to 2 million or more before European settlers arrived. In other words, we gave privileges to white people and killed or displaced people of color. You can argue the merits of this policy, but we don’t want to return to a situation in which immigration occurs at the expense of people who were here first.”

Historical Debate

I quite liked Andrew Holt’s response to Matt Gabriele’s editorial in the Washington Post: “Islamphobes want to recreate the Crusades. But they don’t understand them at all.” Choice excerpt (emphasis added):

Professor Gabriele may well disagree with these historians [Riley-Smith, Madden, Frankopan, and Crawford, whom Holt quotes], and likely could make a compelling case in some instances. The crusades are complex, after all, and some issues can be approached in different ways. But one of the things I found most objectionable in his piece was the way he claimed to speak for “scholars of the crusades” when I think many of them, including some of the most influential and prominent, do not share his views. To the contrary, I think Gabriele’s seeming rejection of any defensive impetus to the birth of the crusading movement is, by far, the minority position. Although other issues are important to the birth of the crusading movement and sources must always be read critically, the primary emphasis of sources from the era, whether ecclesiastical or lay, highlight the defense of fellow Christians and Christian interests in the Holy Land as the main justification for the calling of the crusade.

I can understand Professor Gabriele not wanting to give ammunition to those on the political right with whom he disagrees, particularly when they make crass calls for medieval solutions to modern problems, but misrepresenting what scholars of the crusades think is not the way to do it, and will backfire in the end. Those he criticizes, after all, can read the same books and articles I provide above.

Read the whole thing.

The Uses of History

From AHA Today. I appreciate this demonstration of the value of the study of history to everyday life (even if I don’t quite agree with the politics…)

***

Thinking Like a Historian in Scrubs: How I Use My BA in History
By David Glenn

Twenty seven years ago, I was a newly declared sophomore history major. I’d fallen hard for labor history. I wanted to study the American workplace as a site of both solidarity and alienation, a place where people can sometimes break free of the chains of class, caste, and gender, while at the same time falling prey to other kinds of oppression. I wanted to write books like Christine Stansell’s City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789–1860 (1986) or Walter Licht’s Working for the Railroad: The Organization of Work in the Nineteenth Century (1983).

It turned out that I don’t have the discipline to sift through archives without getting distracted. (I thankfully realized that early, and never applied to grad school.) Instead, I found an internship at a political magazine, freelanced for several years, and then was offered a job as a reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Eventually I got sick of sitting in a cubicle and decided to find an exit.

Today I’m a nurse. I work 12-hour shifts on an oncology unit. I spend my time double-checking chemotherapy orders, taking vital signs, managing Foley catheters, comforting family members, paging pharmacists and physical therapists, changing central-line dressings, and listening to patients’ stories. I love this work. I wish I’d started it 20 years earlier. Sometimes I think that if I could live my life again, at age 18 I’d go straight into nursing school (at Hunter College; this is a very specific daydream). But then I catch myself—I wouldn’t be the nurse I am if I hadn’t spent four formative years as an ambitious-but-undistinguished history student.

Every day at work I draw on skills and habits of mind that I absorbed in my undergraduate history program. I start each shift at 0700 by synthesizing data: Spoken handoff reports from the night shift, lab numbers from the morning blood draw, physicians’ progress notes. That task isn’t so far removed from what I was asked to do in 1989: weave together credible interpretations of 19th-century newspapers, diaries, and census data.

The history major also taught me how errors and fables can take on the mantle of fact through sheer repetition. Just as a sloppy or sensationalized newspaper account of a military battle can feed decades of popular myth, a single inaccurate note in a medical record can propagate itself hundreds of times over. This is especially true in the emerging era of highly integrated electronic medical record systems. If someone at one hospital erroneously charts that you have diabetes or schizophrenia, your primary care physician a thousand miles away might still be fed that “fact” six years later. When I write nursing notes, I try to create reliable artifacts.

If nothing else, my college years taught me to be a decent reader of history. Two books in particular have helped sharpen my understanding of the things I see at work. Patricia D’Antonio’s American Nursing: A History of Knowledge, Authority, and the Meaning of Work (2010) and Barbara Melosh’s “The Physician’s Hand”: Work Culture and Conflict in American Nursing (1983) are both subtle accounts of how gender ideologies, racism, and hospitals’ bureaucratic imperatives have shaped workers’ and patients’ experiences. I’m still thinking about the questions about work, autonomy, professionalism, and resistance that Christine Stansell and Walter Licht opened up for me in 1989. I just didn’t realize that I’d be doing it in scrubs.

Brexit

Even though the United Kingdom has always been a reluctant member of the European Union, I was surprised as anyone about the results of their June 23 referendum on continued EU membership, largely for the reason Megan McArdle articulated: “The status quo is a powerful totem. People don’t like jumping off into the unknown… I assumed that we were seeing the usual pattern: People flirt with the new, dangerous outsider, then come home and marry the familiar boy next door.” The successful “Leave” vote has opened up a can of worms: how will the exit be accomplished? Will there be another Scottish referendum? Will Northern Ireland finally be united with the Republic – or will the Troubles reignite? Will Spain get Gibraltar back? Etc. (I don’t think this is exactly a “constitutional crisis,” as some would have it, but it will require some creative improvisation or simply “muddling through.”)

I will say that I appreciate Tim Stanley‘s view of things. Here is a historian who understands the proper use of history.

There is no historical case for leaving the EU. There is no historical case for staying in. That’s because this isn’t an existential matter. It’s a practical decision. Do you think your country is better off in or out? I think the latter. So I’m voting for Brexit.

The vast majority of historians probably want to stay. This doesn’t surprise me. Most of my colleagues are social democrats of the Roy Jenkins variety – which is dandy. What is frustrating is the idea, encouraged by the media, that historians have some special, purely objective insight on the modern world thanks to their familiarity with the past. We don’t. Knowing the ins-and-outs of 17th century Westphalia does not make you an expert on EU agricultural policy. Most academics – good academics – are specialists to the point of loners. Go to a historical conference and you’ll find a room full of people who don’t know what each other is talking about.

I’m not saying that history isn’t fun, illuminating, thought provoking. It’s all of those things. But when it becomes mixed with politics, it becomes mythology. Nothing wrong with that, by the way. So long as you know that what you’re reading is prejudiced.

More at the link.

Gunning for Guns

At the Cartersville Public Library on Saturday I noticed this book on the recent acquisition shelf:

IMG_2425_2

I was curious, because the title reminded me of Arming America by Michael Bellesiles (2000), which advanced a similar thesis: that American “gun culture” was the creation of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company in the years after the Civil War, that Americans were by no means enamored of guns before that. Once the wartime government contracts dried up, the company had to find new buyers, and in a genius marketing campaign rivaling DeBeers’s “A Diamond Is Forever,” convinced vast swaths of the American public that owning a gun was a patriotic duty.

This makes intuitive sense. Much work has been done on nationalism from the same perspective: many historians claim that it was an “invented tradition,” projected onto the past, that prior to the late nineteenth century people didn’t care much for their putative nations, or were even aware of them. (Although I don’t quite agree with this.) One also thinks about the transformation of the American university at the time, with the rise of fraternities, intercollegiate athletics, and other aspects of “school spirit.”

Where Haag differs from Bellesiles, from what I can gather after reading her introduction, is that she admits that guns were ubiquitous in the early republic, it’s just that they were tools, like shovels or rakes. They were not cult objects. (I thought of this when perusing the magazine rack at our local supermarket later that day: on sale were plenty of magazines devoted to guns of all kinds, but none devoted to garden tools.)

guns

Gun culture.

Bellesiles, by contrast, claimed that Americans did not own many guns at all prior to the Civil War, and that those they did have didn’t work very well, making Winchester’s marketing seem even more heroic (or fraudulent, if you want to put it that way).

Of course, Bellesiles’s scholarship was quite fraudulent itself, so much so that he got fired from Emory for it. This was a big deal back in 2002. I was keen to see what Haag had to say about Arming America, but neither the book, nor its author, appear in Haag’s bibliography. And there was no acknowledgement of the controversy in the introduction! The “Search Inside This Book” feature on Amazon reveals a single mention in the midst of a long endnote on page 407, which claimed that Bellesiles’s

count of gun ownership, which he concluded was quite low (19 percent), based on colonial probate records, was subsequently challenged and rejected for questionable sources and technique. Setting aside his gun inventory, this book agrees with one of Bellesiles’s conclusions, namely, that the alliance between the government and the gun industrialist in the antebellum years was crucial to the development of a commercial market.

That’s it? That’s all she has to say? Surely a significant portion of the introduction should have been given over to the problems with Arming America, and why The Gunning of America will be better. As it stands, it comes across as “nothing to see here, move along.” Or “If we ignore it, it will go away.” Or, as Dr. Wheeler puts it: “Down the memory hole!  Makes me almost believe in conspiracy theories!”

(All this, of course, is a separate issue from firearms policy today. Bellesiles and Haag are attempting to do the same thing with gun ownership that Hobsbawm and Ranger did with nationalism: if it’s constructed, then it can be dismantled. But even if America’s “gun culture” came about only in the 1860s, it still happened 150 years ago! Is this not enough time for it to have become an intrinsic part of the American psyche? On the other hand, even if Haag and Bellesiles are wrong, and Americans have loved their guns from before the passage of the Second Amendment, surely we reserve the right to change things anyway, since gun technology has itself changed quite a bit since 1787, and there are certain well-known problems with widespread gun ownership?)

Caroline Affair

Reading Robert Bothwell’s Your Country, My Country, I was interested to learn about the Republic of Canada and the SS Caroline, historical details that had previously escaped me. In 1837, Upper Canada (that is, present-day Ontario) was rocked by a rebellion, led by William Lyon Mackenzie and directed against the so-called Family Compact that ran the place. Upper Canada had been set up in conservative reaction to the United States, and so had an established church and a government that was not actually responsible to its people. One did not need to be American to object to this situation, thus Mackenzie’s rebellion; it was unsuccessful, but an inquiry by Lord Durham recommended certain changes to the political situation to forestall future incidents, among them the union of Upper and Lower Canada into a single entity.

(When I first learned about this in grade eight, at my public junior high school, it was pretty clear that Mackenzie was supposed to be the good guy. What a surprise the next year when, playing sports for my private high school against Upper Canada College, I discovered a monument to its cadet corps, which had valiantly helped to defeat the rebels in the Battle of Montgomery’s Tavern. This was one of the many signs that I was now living in a different world.)

Mackenzie, defeated in Toronto, retreated with his men to Navy Island in the Niagara River where they proclaimed an independent “Republic of Canada” and where they were supplied from the American side by sympathizers who sent money, food, and arms to them on the steamboat Caroline. On December 29, 1837, however, Col. Allan MacNab (who was later the premier of the united province of Canada) led a party of militia across the international boundary, seized the Caroline, chased off its crew, set it on fire, and sent it over Niagara Falls! From Wikipedia, here is a depiction of the event by George Tattersall:

Destruction_of_the_Caroline

This was an international incident. President Martin Van Buren protested strongly to London, and in retaliation the next year a group captured and burned the British steamer Sir Robert Peel while in U.S. waters. But the Caroline incident has had a lasting influence: it has been invoked many times since in the justification of “anticipatory self-defense” a.k.a. the preemptive strike, like the one that the United States launched against Iraq in 2003.

Links

From some googling: the French Ministry of Culture has produced an animated tour of the caves at Lascaux, which date back to 17,000 BC. (For an English version, click “Accessibilité” and then “English” on the left hand side. You might want to turn the sound [“son”] off too.)

From Kelley DeVries: a slideshow of the ten oldest man-made structures still standing on earth. The pyramids don’t even appear!

Number one is Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, which has apparently been under excavation since 1994 but is only just getting widespread publicity now. It’s monumental, but c. 11 500 years old, i.e. very old indeed, predating sedentism, agriculture, the wheel, animal husbandry, etc. The archaeologist’s thesis is that religion impelled civilization, and not the other way around, that paleolithic people came together to build a major cult center to negotiate with the supernatural, and that the need to tend this site gave rise to intentional crop cultivation, etc. It will be most interesting to see if this idea pans out (less than 5% of the site has been excavated and the dig could go on for another fifty years). I was first apprised of this structure by an interesting article in Smithsonian Magazine, which also had an amusing comment thread: some people are concerned how this discovery vindicates biblical history, while another one wants to know how archaeologists like Gimbutas and Eisler would fit it into the “sacred Earth mother” narrative. But the most of all the Armenians would like you to know that this site is not Turkish, it is Armenian, and proves the antiquity of the Armenian people.

Isis and the Middle Ages

A fellow Georgia medievalist and Dartmouth grad, Allen Fromherz of Georgia State, wrote an article for the American Interest last month on “Isis vs. History.” The whole thing is worth a read, but keep in mind that it will be your “one free article” at AI for the month.

ISIS vs. History

What the rise and fall of a 12th-century Islamic empire does (and doesn’t) tell us about the rise (and fall?) of ISIS.

For many good reasons, professional historians mightily resist comparisons between recent events and the distant past. Our training teaches us to respect the principles of the 19th-century founder of source-based history, Leopold von Ranke, who professionalized the discipline to focus as much as possible on the past as it was. History, he believed, should be written for its own sake, not treated as a ghost of itself in service of the present, nor strip-mined for jewels of supposed relevance to current objectives or concerns.

We do not always succeed in this, but at our best we try to avoid the facile and misleading uses of history that non-historians all too readily deploy in the service of some other goal than good scholarship. Case in point: Not long ago, Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina claimed that her bachelor’s degree in medieval history would help her “defeat ISIS”: “Every single one of the techniques that ISIS is using, the crucifixion, the beheadings, the burning alive, those were commonly used techniques in the Middle Ages.”

Fiorina’s comments set off a rare storm of comment in the relevant halls of the academy. Not one medievalist, or any historian for that matter, supports her contention that the medieval past is particularly well described or defined by its level of violence. Most these days would argue that the concept of the “medieval past” is little more than an artificial punctuation to separate the period between the fall of Rome from the 15th century age of discovery and the subsequent rise of modern nation-states.

A similar negative reaction attended a March 2015 Atlantic article by Graeme Wood, entitled “What ISIS Really Wants.” The article similarly mooted a form of ISIS “medievalism.” That was enough to set the small and eclectic but wonderful world of medievalist social media atwitter in righteous indignation.

The main problem with these comparisons, as Stephen John Stedman recently noted, is the lack of any careful or precisely drawn context for making them. The result is the all too easy use of wildly inaccurate stereotypes about particular past periods. In this case, the stereotype is that “everything in the Medieval past, especially medieval Islam, was brutal and violent.” But far from being an age of brutality, the “medieval period” of Islamic history was defined by its relative tolerance. One of the greatest of cities in 10th-century Europe was Muslim Córdoba. Astonished Christian visitors such as the itinerant German nun Hrostsvita of Gandersheim recognized Córdoba as an “Ornament of the World.” Its shine came from the fact that Córdoba had street lamps that glowed at night, reflecting the running water of fountains and the light of knowledge and science from a library that rivaled ancient Alexandria. Although lower in status under Islamic law, minorities were not only protected in Islamic cities like Córdoba but often ascended to positions of great influence, such as the Jewish leader, scholar, poet, and physician Hasdai ibn Shaprut, who served as de facto minister of foreign affairs for the blue-eyed Caliph of Córdoba, ‘Abd al Rahman III (the Umayyad Caliphs often intermarried with Gothic, Christian royal families in the north of Spain).

More at the link.

 

The Lessons of History

One of the popular justifications for studying history is that it helps us to “avoid the mistakes of the past.” By graduate school, however, people don’t tend to say this, on the principle that history “never really repeats itself.” Every time something happens, it happens once under a unique set of conditions, which will never again configure in exactly the same way. We cannot repeat historical events in a laboratory; as a student of mine once said, there is no control factor in history. This is especially true in military affairs: British generals were always famously “preparing for the last war.”

But surely we can learn something predictive from studying the past? I mean, it’s true, you can’t ultimately prove anything through inductive reasoning, which is what all historical inquiry is. “Just because the sun has come up every day for as long as you can remember, does not mean that it will come up tomorrow.” But it’s a pretty safe bet that it will – and that gravity, electro-magnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces will keep functioning in the same way at least for the next week.

But humans are a lot more fickle, yes? You’d think that treating people with respect would engender good will. Unfortunately, while some people respond well to being treated with respect, others interpret it as a sign of weakness and an invitation to try to take advantage – as Machiavelli knew only too well. How can you really predict how someone will react to your policies? What if this time it really is different? I think that if you’re in a position to apply any lessons of history, the best thing you can have are simply good instincts: you have to have a good idea about when to push people, and when to back off – and you’ll never get it right 100% of the time, or for 100% of the people.

This is all by means of bringing up one of the most allegedly important lessons of all: that of Munich. No, not the 1972 Olympics, but the 1938 Conference, by which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier conspired to shaft Edvard Beneš of Czechoslovakia by making him hand over the Sudetenland to Hitler’s Germany. The Sudentenland was ethnically German – but it was given to Czechoslovakia in 1919 on account of it being industrialized and mountainous, granting the new state an advantage in economics and defensible geography (similar ideas were used to justify the Polish corridor between Germany and East Prussia). These violations of the nationalist principle were only two of the many grievances Germany had against the Treaty of Versailles. Unfortunately, as it turned out, addressing these grievances was not all that Hitler had in mind: as he stated in Mein Kampf, he had a vision of a vast continental German empire, won through racial struggle against the inferior Slavs – a vision that he actually tried to implement. It turns out those Slavs weren’t nearly as inferior as Hitler believed, although it took tens of millions of deaths to prove the point.

So we all have fantasies about going back and stopping Hitler before he could do serious damage. If only we had stood up to him as he remilitarized the Rhineland. If only we had prevented the Anschluss with Austria. If only we hadn’t sold out Czechoslovakia. Hitler claimed that this was his last territorial demand – but six months later he occupied the rest of that unfortunate country (in violation of the nationalist principle) and six months after that he invaded Poland. Only then did France and England go to war – against a rearmed and motivated opponent. If only we had stood up to the bully earlier, however justified he claimed to be. If only….

So a very important lesson was learned from Munich: no more appeasement! If you don’t give them an inch, they’ll never be in a position later to take a mile. The choice is always framed as being between a war now, or a much worse war later. Poor Chamberlain – gone down in history as a dupe, his name a byword for “sucker.” It is good to remember, though, that in September of 1938 he was the man of the hour – he avoided a war, which no one wanted. You could even say that he bought Britain enough time to rearm itself, giving the country a better chance when war inevitably did come. But this argument is still not a common one, and a great many politicians since have staked their legacy on not repeating Chamberlain’s mistake.

It is precisely this impetus that got the United States involved in southeast Asia. President Kennedy in particular felt he had something to prove, since his father had been ambassador to the Court of St. James and a supporter of appeasement. So although it had no real legitimacy, we sent all sorts of aid to South Vietnam, trying to prop it up, lest the Communists take it… and thereafter Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and who knows what else.

Turns out we got a lot more than we bargained for too. We fielded a draft army, in a country halfway around the world utterly foreign in language and culture, with an inhospitable climate and an enemy that fought dirty, but that had the political capital of having kicked out the French, where we could not tell friend from foe and had no clear objective apart from propping up a corrupt, western-created state… is it any wonder that we lost, no matter how many resources we threw at it? “Could we have won in Viet Nam?” I asked a veteran once. “If we had backed the other side,” was his reply. Thus the other great Lesson of History: we must avoid the quagmire – the doubling-down on bad policy, the throwing of good money after bad, the failure to heed the injunction that “When you’re in a hole, stop digging!” I remember how people feared that the Kuwait conflict of 1991, and then the Kosovo conflict of 1999, would drag us down into a quagmire, “just like in Viet Nam.”

If you recall the run-up to Bush’s Iraq adventure some thirteen years ago now, you may remember the appearance of both of these tropes. “Have we learned nothing from history?” asked one side. “We have to stop Saddam before he goes any further!” “Have we learned nothing from history?” replied the other. “It will turn into a quagmire, like Viet Nam!”

Clearly both sides could not be right – although quagmire just may have been an appropriate metaphor at some points during the last thirteen years. But I guess that’s only because we deposed and killed Saddam, before he could do any more damage, leaving the quagmire the only fulfilled prediction? So maybe both sides were right after all – or maybe they were both wrong. Saddam was not Hitler – he had no visions of conquest, but just wanted to stay in power – but Iraq was not Viet Nam either – Islamism (whether Shiite or Sunni) is not Communism and does not have a worldwide sponsor as motivated as the USSR; Iran does not have an irredentist claim to Iraq, etc.

So as ever, we must be willing to take a step back and ask serious questions about historical comparisons. They’re not completely valueless, but important differences often exist between the two things you’re comparing and you’ve got to take those into account for any comparison to be meaningful.