Archive for the ‘history’ Category

A Joke


The arch-imperialist, guarded by khaki soldiers in kepi, supervises the doling out of justice in the market square, his boots spike despite the dust and cool despite the Sudanic sun.  He is a professional, no spite has he, but he knows reality, and so he stands broad legs spread chest out before the prisoners tied between wooden stakes hammered into the ground.  The imperialist winks to the sun, or perhaps to the guard in second hand uniform, neck unstarched and skin black as night beneath the fez, eyes hooded, dark or unseen, an onyx .  In his hands he holds a hippopotamus hide whip.  Later, after the punishment, when confronted by a journalist, and less than impressed by the man’s sweat and the choppy wrinkles of his jacket, tells him angrily, in a long unbroken grunt, his head swelling red like a blister pinched by officers collar:

“The hippopotamus hide whip is all these brutes understand!  Perhaps when they are more civilized, they will not need such discipline meted out; at it is now, those deep furrows in their flesh keep the peace and the smooth running of our government.  Without the knout, we would surely lose face to the forces of barbarism, who must be met by the only thing they understand: blood.”


At home there is a furor in Parliament, and a member of the Loyal Opposition gets to his feet: it is cold in the hall, and he wears about him a fur-lined coat.  Outside snow falls on the metropolis in pensive silence.  He reads the newspaper, is shocked into red-faced anger by the brutality described; he is the most celebrated of the Party’s speakers, one of their youngest, perhaps fit someday to be a Minister in the Cabinet.  He is socially liberal, claims to support suffrage and unions and argues that the free enterprise and industry of their nation, the formula of greatness, should be protected  He launches with stubborn immobility into his prepared speech:

“Such brutality is unwarranted and inefficient.  It merely alienates our new subjects and ensures their restlessness.  I suggest replacing the hide with police batons (manufactured here in our great country) and all officiers of the government should be equipped with soothing balm for their wounds.  In such a fashion, we can molify the natives insolent resistance to law by demonstrating that the hand that punishes can also assuage and protect them.  A softer touch can ensure that our burden to civilize can go on unhindered and ensure our place in the sun the next one hundred years!”

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When Robert Clive returned to Bengal in 1765, after several year’s absence, he was shocked and discouraged by what he observed in the East India Company’s new possession: an “unwarrantable Acquisition of Riches had introduced Luxury in every shape and in its most pernicious Excess,” so that “every inferior seemed to have grasped at Wealth.” Under this corruption “all Distinction ceased, every Rank became…an Equality” and greed “destroyed all Proportion between Wants and Honest Means.” Clive was distraught by how quickly the rot had set in, how much “Corruption could not keep pace with Rapacity” in the conduct of officials and the Company’s lower servants, “Writers, Ensigns and the Free Merchants.” Clive ultimately did not place the blame on them entirely. They had been corrupted, yes, but by the government and people they sought to rule, and by the results that their conquests had brought. Clive explained to the Committee appointed to inquire into the conditions in Bengal that “in a Country where Money is plenty, where fear is the principle of Government, where your Arms are ever Victorious…no wonder that Corruption should find its way to a spot so well prepared for it.” Worried as he was by corruption, as it deprived the Company of its returns, and despite being one of the keenest supporters of retaining Indian forms of government, or claiming to be (probably to maximize profits through native agents and keep costs down) Clive could not help but draw upon a tradition of distrusting Indians and scorning a creeping and enervating ‘Oriental despotism’.

The territories given over to the Company after the ‘revolution’ of 1757 and affirmed in their control by the grant of diwanny by the Mughal Emperor in 1765 were complex socially, politically and religiously, more so than any prior experience would have prepared the Company for. The Company’s servants sought to explain the chaos they faced in Bengal by attributing it to despotism, to a regime that was rapacious and tyrannical, with the attendant assumption that those who lived in a despotism will be as rapacious and tyrannical as their government. Many Company servants assumed, though Warren Hastings himself would later claim before Parliament to have not believed it, that Bengal was populated by “a people who were supposed to be governed by no other principle of justice then the arbitrary wills or uninstructed judgements of their temporary rulers.” Despotism thus defined, as an unrestricted use of terror and armed strength to rule, was understood by Company servants to engender all manner of vices: corruption, indolence, treason, a government fought over by wicked and scheming ministers, a submissive and weak people, the atmosphere inimical to an honest man.

The Honourable Sir Robert Clive

The Honourable Sir Robert Clive

Amidst the wreckage, many Company servants, including major figures like Warren Hastings, Robert Orne and Harry Verelst, discerned what they thought was an ‘Indian Constitution’, and believed that a lack of vigour, wisdom and strong government had worn away the ideal Moghul state into the violent, treacherous, greedy, decrepit ‘Country Government’ they were forced to treat with. This situation was described by Colonel Clive: “Every state (and such now is your Government in India) must be near the period when the Rage of Luxury and Corruption has seized upon its Leaders and People.” Many Company servants, as their influence grew in the Company’s domains and their responsibilities increased, viewed the Bengali leadership as increasingly irredeemable, never to be trusted. This attitude was enforced by the increasing need to interact with many of the zamindars, leading to “a growing contempt of everything Indian as irrational, superstitious, barbaric and typical of an inferior civilization.”

Old assumptions die hard. Until very recently, historians of India before the British often shared some of these assumptions about eighteenth century India, even if they were hostile to the East India Company or sympathetic to the Mughal Empire. The eighteenth century was viewed as a period of enervation, failure, collapse, venality, civil war, stagnation, and aside from the rise of literary Urdu and Bengali, not really worth studying or treating upon except in light of Mughal collapse and the growth of British dominance. That attitude has old precedents; the first conquerors of India were its first historians, and the idea of eighteenth century decay has taken a long time to die. C. A. Bayly’s Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire (1988) was one of the first major exceptions to this scholarly ‘consensus’, not that it was really ‘hegemonic’ or that glimmers of what Bayly proposed were not to be found before the publication of this book. The book is a work of synthesis first and foremost, putting forward a clear narrative and analytical history of India in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. It therefore depends upon a great deal of earlier, much more specialized research on more specific topics and areas of India, on ideologies, economies and class. I won’t get into the sources here for Bayly’s book, as it’s worth reading on its own merits and is easily available. It does as synthesis is supposed to do: present diverse and unconnected research as a comprehensive whole, making sense of it for those aren’t specialists in the field.

Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire challenges the basic assumption that India was a decaying society, an anarchic society, or a backward society, in the eighteenth century. The idea of Mughal decline is not so much questioned (the empire was, after all, slowly disintegrating by the 1730’s and finally collapsed precipitously after Nader Shah’s 1738 invasion) but is complicated by arguing that Indian political structures underwent a (violent) devolution to more stable, compact and cohesive structures at the time. Likewise, Bayly points out that Indian society went through no profound social crisis, that there was a resurgence of Hindu political states, and that the economy remained dynamic in the eighteenth century, indeed, that indigenous trade and methods of trade, from banking to military entrepreneurship, increased in scale, scope and their penetration of Indian society.


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Mongol General: “What is best in life?”

Conan: “Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.”

This quote has been attributed to Genghis Khan and plenty of other steppe nomads, and that is what we recall of them in popular historical imagination. Driven by bloodthirst and a desire for power and glory, as chronicled by historians like Harold Lamb, whose grasp of facts was much more tenuous then his grasp of what made good literature, the Mongols and others like them were generally admired for their warrior skill and empire‑building, as well as derided for their savagery and brutality, from Attila, the Scourge of God, to the pyramid of skulls building Tamerlane who inspired such an excellent play by Christopher Marlowe and whose forces conquered the Middle East, from Moscow to Delhi, and killed plenty along the way. Chinese tradition is likewise replete of fear and contempt for the nomad, from the Xiongnu who regularly pillaged the northern border, to the Mongols of Kublai Khan and the Manchus conquerers who ruled until the 20th century, blamed by nationalist revolutionary propaganda for China’s material and cultural retardation. And it would be foolish to deny how determined the Huns were, for instance, to conquer and assert their will, to gain favourable trade terms and make slaves and vassals of those without the strength to resist. Clearly, Tamerlane did sack cities, massacre children, and heap the heads of his enemies high, but what has changed amongst historians and even now amongst the general public is that Tamerlane, for instance, was not just a destroyer and bane upon existence, that the opponents and chroniclers of his reign, like the Chinese nationalists of a century past, would willfully alter history to suit an ideological and political aim, and that Tamerlane, while with sword in hand, would still build mosques, cultivate intellectuals and holy men, lavish wealth upon poets and encourage artisans and architects throughout their reign.

The Mongols, for instance, despite their reputation for destroying cities, also helped to foster widespread intellectual, commercial and cultural trends, as Thomas T. Allsen’s Culture and Conquest in Mongol Eurasia demonstrated, amongst many other sources. They were capable administrators and diplomats, occasionally even outdoing their sedentary subjects as in the case of the Manchus in China. Cynically, and perhaps rightly, we must consider this diligence to conquered subjects as the same sense of duty a pastoralist might take toward his flock: to be protected and husbanded carefully from other predators in order to benefit from the resources in food and trade they supply. Or is that how all macroparatism works, as William H. McNeil would argue? Some steppe nomads nonetheless proved more then willing to make themselves more like their sedentary subjects, whether, again, in the style of the Manchus, or peoples before them in China like the Shatuo Turks, Touba and Khitan, and rule in the name of a stable administration, peace and tranquillity; the Mughals and the Ottomans represent a relatively efficient example of a nomadic conquerer becoming as sedentary as their subjects and becoming much more then ravishers of women and stealers of cattle.

What is also gone is the idea of tribal or oriental despotism, of the great Khans and unchallenged Tamerlanes whose rule, once official, was of a single charismatic warrior and leader whose will to conquer was shared generically and the driving will of an entire nomadic people. Beatrice Forbes-Mann’s brilliant if dry book The Rise and Rule of Tamerlane sets the tone for the new and much more nuanced scholarly examination of steppe warriors: gone is the image of the ruthless tyrant, to be replaced by a powerful individual, charismatic true, who nonetheless relied upon and was challenged and supported by a vast array of tribal, clan and urban groups whose influence both pushed and restrained Tamerlane (he was still ruthless too, but this was not a function of his unique genius or psychopathy but of struggle for control within a broad and fractured group, in which loyalty could be bought or earned through military escapades, to reward loyal followers and their own followers, or through trade and taxes, much more boring but much more capable of sustaining a state apparatus if the shift to a more thoroughly sedentary life could be made. This understanding of tribal politics and sedentarization and Weberian bureaucratization underlies some of the same understandings in John E. Woods The Aqquyunlu: Clan, Confederation, Empire, in that his revised edition expands slightly upon a history of a nomadic steppe warrior group for whom tribal confederations and alliances, or their failure, were the most important factor behind success or failure on a geo-social and political scale.

Who were the Aqquyunlu? They were Turkmen, which may surprise some who think Turks live only in Turkey or in those ‘Stans’ south of Russia and north of Afghanistan and Iran. Azerbaijan’s historical and present day population is at least partially Turkmen, and once, much of what we now call the Middle East was ruled by tribal bands, kingdoms and warlord armies made up of Turkmen pastoralists, shepherds and warriors. The rulers of the Ottoman Empire and Mughal Empire, as well as Iran up to the twentieth centuries, were sedentary descendants of these same Turkmen groups, whose ancestors had once established an empire in Central Asia and by the eleventh century had converted to Islam, conquered Jerusalem and eastern Anatolia, and triggered the Crusades.

Who were the Aqquyunlu? They were a clan, first and foremost, known as the Buyandur as well, who claimed descent from the near mythical Oghuz Khan, first of the Turks, as one of the ancestral 24 tribes. They were a confederation, led and dominated by the Buyandur clan, supported by the clans of the right and left flank, Purnak and Mawsillu. The manpower and resources of the Aqquyunlu was drawn from allied, conquered, and confederate Turkmen tribes like Afshars, Bayat, Pazukia, Haydarlu and Doger, from other nomad groups assimilated into the confederation as it expanded, and from other allied elite groups like the Safavid religious brotherhoods and Kurdish and Arab tribes. The Aqquyunlu were also an Empire, but this came late in the history of their political organisation, and did not last long. For most of their history, after emerging as a discrete political (as opposed to social) entity during the disruptions of the Mongol conquest of Iran, the Aqquyunlu existed on the fringes of the Islamic and settled world, vying with other Turkmen tribal groups over summer, yaylaqs and winter pasture, kishlaqs. As Woods points out repeatedly, the quest for pastures and caravan routes was a defining feature of much of Aqquyunlu history, necessary to maintain the cohesion and loyalty of the confederacy, alongside the granting of appanages of land and men to the ruling clan’s children, and the granting of political-military and fiscal responsibilities to clan chiefs.

The appanage system, by which the royal clan exerted territorial control over its conquests, however, was also the greatest weakness of the Aqquyunlu state: unlike in European feudalism, where primogeniture was established, encouraging the first born son and heir to inherit all the land of his father, the realm was shared out equally amongst the sons of the confederations head: these dispensations ensured loyalty to the head of the clan by rewarding his children at the expense of the other clans, who remained subordinate politically and economically, even if they monopolised the military and state offices. The problem arose when the dispenser died: all his children, due to their appanages, had equal right to the throne or the tent that served just as well for nomadic shepherds. Even designating a successor did not work, because Turkmen nomadic political authority rested upon ability as much as legitimacy. A weak son would most likely lose out and be replaced by a more ruthless and capable son, but as all sons had an equal share, they all usually attempted to gain control of the state. Worse still, their cousins and uncles also had claims to leadership, as did the other paramount clans through marriage alliances. A very confusing situation; the civil wars that resulted from these ‘disputes,’ to put it blandly, occupy almost all of Woods narrative of Aqquyunlu rise and fall. Unsurprisingly, he blames this unstable political tradition for the obscurity of the Aqquyunlu today.

The thrust of Woods’s book is easy enough to follow, a narrative of the “evolution of the Aqquyunlu confederation from a band of nomdic “cossack” freebooters into a relatively centralised, terrotorial system based on a regularised but essentially predatory relationship with agriculture and commerce”: an evolution brief, dynamic, and extremely bloody, a bright but fiery comet.


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Some biographical subjects, Hitler, Mao, Stalin, are beyond the pale in terms of sympathy, the task one of excoriation and condemnation. This is a point made by an early nineteenth century historian of Persia, Sir John Malcolm, in describing Jonas Hanway, another historian of Nader whose favoured tone was a haughty combination of contempt, superiority and horror: “In describing eastern depots, there has often appeared to me a stronger desire to satisfy the public of the author’s attachment to freedom and his abhorrence, and despotic power under every shape, than to give a clear and just view of those characters whose history was the immediate object of his labours.” Nadir has been a fairly obscure area of study, despite his prominence in the eighteenth century, including the translation into French, under the auspices of the King of Denmark of the primary chronicle of his reign, by Mirza Mehdi Khan Astarabadi. The French, Russian, English, Dutch, as well as Nadir’s neighbours in India and the Ottoman Empire, were intensely interested in the energetic general and king; understandably so, as he had a tendency to invade their lands or demand money and supplies from their merchants.

Nader Shah is the guy in red, in the centre, in case you couldn't guess

Even so, the latest biography in English, aside from the one under review, was published in 1938 by Laurence Lockhart, one of the most famous Orientalists of his time, and the former driving force behind Cambridge’s History of Iran. His biography wasn’t bad, actually, nor was his other book The Fall of the Safavi Dynasty and the Afghan Occupation of Persia; I’ve had the opportunity to read both, voluminous, with impressive numbers of sources. But as Iranian history scholar Rudi Matthee points out in a recent article, the sources have improved since these books, with new Dutch, Russian, Armenian and Persian sources recovered from the letters of travellers and archives of trading companies and diplomats. The methodology of Lockhart’s work has also been supplanted: his histories were replete with details and anecdotes, a stock in trade of many an Orientalist biography, but short on analysis and altogether too focused on the morality and personality (or lack thereof) of his subjects; from Lockhart, a reader new to Iranian history might get the impression that a lack of initiative, sexual proclivity and love of drink, in one man, caused the destruction of an entire empire.

Micheal Axworthy’s The Sword of Persia is a corrective, of sorts. His biography makes use of the newest sources made available by scholars like Willem Floor and Mansur Sefatgol, and much more ‘modern’ interpretation of the rise and fall of Nadir Shah’s empire. His work is still a biography, so it does descend into attempts to dissect the guilt, obsessions and angers, loves and desires of its subject; luckily, they rarely dwell on them, except for Nadir’s (not his first name, either, but an assumed name in Persian, meaning ‘rarity’ or ‘dear’) admiration of Timur and conscious attempts to emulate that bloody conqueror, including dragging off the top of Timur’s tomb as a prize of war, Nader’s tendency to react badly to an event and then regret what he had done in response, his love of family and yet his lack of sympathy for any betrayal, even from his children, and a contempt for elites of wealth and lineage and for the pageant of the court. Axworthy avoids excessively dwelling on Nader’s reputed insanity or madness at the end of his reign, his almost paranoid sense of being betrayed constantly, and avoid, generally, dwelling too much on what in his life may have led to the towers of skulls at the end of his reign. Luckily, there isn’t much in the way of moral disapproval, nor the fawning infatuation of many a biographer with his subject. His portrait of Nader, as a vigorous, talented, demanding, stern, dangerous and sometimes ruthless man, is not particularly original, and his book is, with some important exceptions, a rather standard history of the man, and one that occasionally manages to repeat some of Lockhart’s assertions about the singular importance of the Shah’s personal qualities and failings in the rise and fall of empires.

Why read Axworthy’s book, besides its more accessible style, aimed at people with little knowledge of Iran’s history as much as at academics, if it doesn’t say much new? I mentioned that Sword of Persia is a corrective, and as biography it certainly isn’t, but as analysis and as an argument for Nader’s importance to Iranian modernity, its central arguments are nearly as compelling as the narrative itself. The details of his career are easily available online, so I won’t summarize them here, but it was the career of a self-made man, of rare talent, who rose from obscure poverty to be one of the most powerful warlords of the eighteenth century. Sounds like a fantastic novel, and indeed, that was often how Nader’s career was treated until recently, by Lockhart and others as noteworthy because of the heights to which he rose and the depths of his fall. It was a fascination divorced from context, in which Nader was another Alexander, another Timur a bright flash across the tapestry of lethargic Oriental despots; he was a despot for sure, but imbued with the tragic force of a Lear or Marlowe’s Tamburlaine (and Axworthy unfortunately repeats some of these conceits). It was Shakespearean, but Nader Shah was unique, an aberration, a story interesting in the same way that, say, Augustus the Strong or Attila the Hun was and is, but not really crucial enough to really study deeply or apply to an understanding of history deeper than historical drama and lively personality. Axworthy’s Nader Shah lives up to his (very) posthumous honour as the ‘Napoleon of Iran’, not just for the similarities in their career, (again, well suited to our peculiar meta-narratives) but as a man who left a lasting impact on the world, not so much by what he left behind, but by the depth of his shadow across the history of Iran.


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An interesting editorial from my hometown paper, circa 1927, just after a major socialist/communist riot/march in protest against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti:

“There seems to be some surprise expressed over the fact that Miss Aurora D’Angelo, who led a mob of demonstrators in a riot over the Sacco-Vanzetti case, in Chicago, passed the mentality tests of psychiatrists with flying colours.

There is no reason for supposing that the intellect of those who lead movements opposed to the theories that govern society of today is defective.  If they are regarded as being warped in their judgements, that is chiefly due to the fact that their ideas differ profoundly from those of the majority.  It does not imply that they have less mental ability than the average.

It is possible that these people have allowed their emotions to assume control of their minds rather than their reason, and that they are therefore prevented, in certain cases, in which their emotional nature is mainly involved, to pronounce as well-balanced a decision as they might otherwise do, but it must be remembered that mankind is largely made up of emotional creatures, and these are not to be classed as subnormal.

In the famous case of Eddie Sidis, who was trained from babyhood by his father, the well-known psychologist, and possessed and twelve or more actual learning than the average man has at thirty, all this brilliant achievement in the way of early education did not prevent him from being arrested while making a revolutionary speech to a mob of red agitators.  Had young Sidis possessed a subnormal intelligence, his father’s experimental education must have failed.

Eddie Sidis and Aurora D’Angelo were both 18 years old when arrested as disorderly rioters.  Youth is the time when emotion has the ruling place in most human mentalities.  It is not often that the wild enthusiasm of youth are carried, unimpaired, into the maturity of middle and old age.  But the world would be a dull place  if the young people did not have their occasional outbursts.

It would be very satisfying to those who feel that the only path to safety is that of extreme conservatism, if they could pronounce all agitators to be defective in mind and have them placed under lock and key.  But a glance over even recent history goes to show that the revolutionary thinker of today is likely to be the conservative of tomorrow or the next day, and that the progress of humanity is largely due to those who have differed from their fellows and who have been persecuted for their ideas.

The youthful anarchist will probably become the middle-aged constitutionlist and, at any rate, no case can be made out against such persons on the ground of defective mental powers.”

In less words, “at 20, you think with your heart, at fourty with your head”.  An interesting defense of radicalism that defends against calling radicalism an ‘infantile disorder’ and then calls it that.  For some context to the Sacco-Vanzetti trial and execution, some more news from the same time:

Guns and Bombs Scatter Red Mob

Chicago Rioters Are Injured in Scramble with Police when they Charged

August 10, 1927

Demonstration against exucution led by pretty sixteen year old, Aurora D’Angelo…mob of four thousand singing Internationale, shouting ‘Mob the Police’, marched toward district jail today, dispersed only after clashing with police…used tear bombs and pistols…sixty-seven men, four women, arrested…several rioters trampled in scramble to escape.  “Ain’t this a free country?  I’m only a girl, a kid.  I know what this means, I’m going to jail.”

Armoured Cars Readed To Stop Disturbances

August 8, 1927

New York police take great precautions against violence as excitement grows as execution day draws near for Sacco and Vanzetti, denied a stay from death…greatest police guard in history of the city, including during the war, patrolled New York from Hudson to the railway yard in Queens…comissioner Warren disclosed elaborate plans against further disorder…two Italians loitering arrested on charge of disorderly conduct.  Police break up several attempts to stage meetings under permit of Socialist party…Communists predict 500,000 will down tools protestings the executon of the two anarchists.”

All those “young people [with] their occasional outbursts” causing all that trouble!  The horrors!

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I must admit: Roman history actually doesn’t interest me very much. As a Canadian, I have little experience with the tangible remnants of Roman rule: no ruins down the road, no aqueducts, no Roman highways as the basis of modern roads, no Roman law as the basis of existing law, no direct Latin origins to my language, no amateur archaeological societies digging up Roman villas in the countryside. Canada was never a part of the Roman empire: the empires I know are British, American…and Canadian (“from sea to shining sea”). My public school and ‘aristocracy of labour’ upbringing did not emphasis the Greek and Roman classics, whether Herodotus or Marcus Aurelius, and frankly the amount of attention and enthusisam reserved for ancient Rome bores me, to a certain extent (though the underlying social and economic history is quite interesting, as is the intellectual history).

This review, nonetheless, from Mr. Richard Carrier, for a splendidly voluminous and exhaustively well-researched book on catapults, is absolutely astonishing:

“In her study of this machine there are two things Rihll accomplishes of particular note (apart from producing a fully up-to-date synthesis of the whole of catapult history that reflects all the new developments in the field that few careful observers may already have known about from otherwise scattered reading). First, she establishes beyond doubt that catapult technology advanced considerably and importantly during the early Roman Empire (something that had often been denied), including the best case yet that they developed the metal-framed inswinger catapult, greatly magnifying power output (and leaving many modern reconstructions obsolete). Secondly, she also establishes beyond doubt the widespread use of small hand-held torsion catapults. In other words, the ancient equivalent of rifles (examples with three-foot stocks, for example, being commonplace), and even handguns (with models as small as nine or ten inches in total length).

“The latter is perhaps the most astonishing. Expert observers will already have heard of growing evidence of Roman advances, but might have missed entirely the evidence of small catapults–yet as Rihll reveals, the evidence is surprisingly vast, if you know where to look for it, and what to look for. These weapons were apparently abundantly supplied in the Roman legions, and were so powerful that a typical stone-throwing smallarm could penetrate a human body with a lead bullet at a hundred yards–scaring the hell out of otherwise fearless Gauls, for example, who got totally freaked out when Roman bullets at such unbelievable range went right on into their bodies and didn’t come back out again. In the modern age of firearms we take such an effect for granted, but you can imagine how terrifying it would be in a world that had never heard of such a thing.”

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Almost every lecturer or professor who has instructed in the last few years has this to say about Wikipedia: “Don’t Use it As A Source.” A golden rule, that, and one most of us who have been educated in a university setting or intelligent enough on our own, and there are plenty of us, realize Wikipedia can only ever be a shorthand for more dedicated research. Like any short hand, it can be very useful for quickly conveying the broadest outlines or even some true gems, but frequently falls victim to the strangest of mistranslations and alterations. Not of course, that official history can’t be and isn’t frequently manipulated, altered, cajoled, snipped and trimmed into shape for whatever ideological project its author (s) see fit to support or unwittingly belong to and support.

As an aside, there is far too much harping on about Wikipedia’s quality standards and not enough harping on the standards of popular academics, like Niall Ferguson or Anthony Padgen, who continue to get published and subsidized by prestigious universities, supposedly the bastions of the most original research performed with integrity, who nonetheless continue to write history full of the kind of glib simplifications, reductionisms and generalizations that generally historians are supposed to avoid. Don’t tell me I’m being biased here: I dislike a good deal of the most rigid or dogmatic Marxist interpretations of history, but generally Hobsbawm or Davis, even at their “worst”, use footnotes and subtlety and research to get across a point, rather then relying on their opinion, a la Ferguson or Padgen, that the ‘West’ is innately superior, rational, technological, democratic, what have you.

To return to the topic at hand, a few months ago I was researching Chinese history, or at least searching for print sources to further my understanding of the periods of dynastic breakdown in Chinese history (my pet subject as a junior historian is historical regime change). Through this Wikipedia research I discovered a useful piece of work, Richard L. Davis’ superb translation of the 11th century historian Ouyang Xiu’s New History of the Five Dynasties, known as The Historical Records of the Five Dynasties in English. Ouyang Xiu was Song China’s premier historian in the middle of the 11th century (ironic, yes, but here is the wikipedia article on him).

Composed in a pseudo-classical style aimed at being more accessible and yet more eloquent, The New History of the Five Dynasties was meant to replace an earlier history written by Xue Jucheng, a scholar-official tasked by the Song rulers with a compilation of the history of the myriad dynasties (five in north China in the three quarters of a century after the fall of the T’ang) preceding their own. Xue Jucheng’s work was eventually superseded by Ouyang Xiu’s, and now only fragments of the first History of the Five Dynasties remain.

Davis’ lengthy introduction to the Historical Records of the Five Dynasties relates that one of the chief reasons for the fall from favour of Xue Jucheng’s work was length and style: that is, Ouyang Xiu shortened the first work considerably with heavy editing (though not always judicious) and used his own unique literary style to improve its readability, to its Chinese scholar-official audience at least, which means for us highly formal language: Confucian scholars are hardly a prime demographic anymore. Ouyang Xiu’s work, as a brief read of any of its biographical entries or basic annals reveals, and confirmed by Davis’ introduction, is highly didactic and concerned with demonstrating the moral character and moral values of correct Confucian officials and rulers, as well as demonstrating how very immoral and bloodthirsty the warlords and Turks who ruled the north of China a century before his life had been. Ouyang Xiu is sarcastic, bitter, harsh; he opens every entry with a lamentation of woe, and even uses a particularly patriarchal Confucian tactic, shaming the memory of various rulers, warlords and officials by comparing their unvirtuous behauviour to that of their virtuous wives, women of course being much less capable of displaying true virtue in the Confucian mode then men.

Ouyang Xiu and Xue Jucheng are both concerned, however, with legitimating the rule of the Song by establishing the precedent of earlier dynasties to carry the Mandate of Heaven, to demonstrate the unbroken ‘legitimate’ lineage of the earlier Five Dynasties by their possession of the ancient Chinese heartland and correct Confucian practice, at the expense of the southern Chinese kingdoms. This also involved accommodating the Sha-t’uo Turks who dominated three of the five dynasties, by arguing that they were legitimate in so far as they as adopted Confucian norms, dressed like Chinese, hired Chinese, ate Chinese food, followed all the norms of Chinese high culture (which the Sha-T’uo did very well, thus avoiding the clash between ‘progressives’ and ‘traditionalists’ that had undermined early dynasties and would undermine more to come). Now, there is much more I could write about these historical works, and much more about the actual history behind the chronicles, reams of pages indeed, as Davis’ introduction is almost a hundred pages long.

More on the Five Dynasties and their history in a bit. Let us return to Wikipedia.


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Two news reports I recently stumbled upon while reading through the Fort William Times Journal.  Both of these articles fell in June 1913.

The first is about anti-socialist police in Breslau, then a part of German Silesia, now Wroclaw in Poland, and in 1913 the German Empire’s sixth or seventh largest city, a major industrial centre, especially for linen and cotton manufacturing, and capital of a region dominated by coal mining.  The police, as part of a government campaign against trade unionists, would actually attack and accost funerals for workers identified as members of the Socialist Party or at least members of a local trade union.   The red ribbons and flag were a dead give away.   As many funerals would become large processions, often rancorous, proud and politically charged, especially if the deceased was a member of the labour or socialist movement considered to have died unjustly, the police may have felt it posed a threat to ‘public order’; but clearly, the lengths they went to represent, according both to the article and a little sense, an attack upon organized labour far beyond ‘keeping the peace’.

The police, according to this Fort William Times Journal report, would charge and break up large funeral processions; smaller ones they would accost, either way with clubs a swinging.  Then, having disrupted the march, the police would tear off the ribbons from the casket, and even reach inside to pull the red ribbon pinned to a lapel.  In some cases, according again to this cable from Breslau, they would actually attack the physical burial and reach into the grave to remove any red tokens.  Seems a little over the top, doesn’t it?  It certainly might be a biased report, especially given the tensions between Germany and Britain at the time (the Fort William Times Journal would often carry headlines about German officialdom and its belligerency).  Certainly the Fort William Times Journal was not a pro-labour paper, given its attitude towards strikes and organising.  So, there must be some truth to this.  There is something almost ‘tribal’ or ‘ancient’ in it as well, assaulting and demeaning an opponents death ceremonies, but clearly we are dealing with something much more interesting and pertinent to today: a state using its armed guards to assault both mentally and materially any opposition to its sway, and to the rights of capital.

I found a more amusing story a week later in the paper.  It concerns a German official, unnamed but apparently well connected to the Chancellery, and speaking in the name of some branch of the German Government, calling President Wilson of the United States an “Agitator for Socialists.”  “Lecturing  Socialist, it has dubbed him” the article goes on to say.  “A bigger disturbor of peace than the Balkans War” according to the Germans.  For anyone who knows anything about Woodrow Wilson, this is ridiculous, and the Fort Williams Times Journal says as much, at least in its tone of bemused amazement.  For anyone who knows anything about Woodrow Wilson, his personal beliefs, his racism, attitude towards Progressivism and socialism, and the labour movement in general, and towards business and monopoly, then calling him a socialist would be like calling him an idolater: crude and insulting, the opposite of what he really was, and what forces in the United States he represented.  Hell, Teddy Roosevelt was more socialist than Woodrow Wilson, or was at least someone like Jack London could quote him approvingly.

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The back of this book tells me I will be intrigued and infuriated. I dare say they are right.

John Gray is very well-read, expansively so, though this leads to a great deal of glibness that can be very distracting and arrogant. How is one supposed to react to a book that dismisses Platonic thought, Confucius, Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein, Marx, a good chunk of liberal humanism, Christian and Islamic religion, and much progressive thought, whether Marxist, Postivist or even secular humanist, in a little less then two hundred pages? I suppose the bog-standard reaction would be awe at this breadth of knowledge and assuredness in position; my more cynical response is to start checking his sources and consider counter-attacks.  Is this really an example of intellectual prowess, or vacuous disrespect for better and more original thinkers?

Straw Dogs is an easy read, but it is not an easy book, both because Gray sets out to discomfiting and because his ideas are packed tightly and come quickly.  Syntactically, this book was clearly written to be read by those normally uninterested in philosophy (a danger, because his arguments often lie on rebutting or attacking much more complicated philosophers in but a few words). His chapters are short, but intensive, his arguments are multifarious and numerous; they all tie themselves together, of course, into a basic thesis that in itself has been repeated before or since in other of his books, such as Black Mass. I’ll try and summarize the main points of his book, but there is no guarantee that what I write will represent an accurate summation of everything he argued; the book is full of tiny paragraphs and page long asides that often diverge wildly from the main thrust and yet reveal something deeply relevant, usually, again, in a witty or glib way depending on your tastes. The book reads sometimes like an exercise in creating one-liners about the mechanical doom of mankind at our own irrational, animal hands.

I should remark that this book was important, personally, so far as it did make me think, sent the wheels spinning, faster then many other works I might read; perhaps because I read it twice, the impact was that much more pronounced over a short period. Perhaps the books easy tone when attempting to demolish all Western civilization’s myths made its mark; perhaps the feeling that, having read much of his source material, I was impressed by both its use and abuse. Here, a summary,

  1. Mankind should recognize that we are not separate from animals in any way, we are animals, destructive animals, driven by instinct, reproductive urges and the need to survive
  2. Our consciousness is not a unique, ordered, thoughtful, Descartian phenomena: it is a mess of conflicting actions and impulses, many of them submerged, subliminal, or so dominant as to ellipse any attempt at analysis: his conclusion is that we can never have total control over our minds and bodies, a basic component of some liberal and marxist thought, we can never be remade, remoulded or reborn, because our conscious self is the tip of a very mysterious iceberg (same goes for transhumanists, who Gray dismisses as utopians, his favourite attack slur)
  3. Individuals are not the most important factor of humanity, or at least, our individualism is as much an illusion as our conscious control, because both rest on a false pretense that we are conscious, intelligent, different from animals and separate from one another
  4. Western philosophy, ethics, morals and religion seek to erase that point completely, and to emphasize our individuality and our ‘rationality’ and ‘will’ versus instinctual, mechanical animals, despite the fact that we are not different from them
  5. Additionally, morality is a construct that excuses our fears and helps our vanity; morality does not exist because, at heart, we are animals, clever yes, organised yes, but our morality does not just come in from the cold, it is a veil we put over ourselves willingly to hide the truth
  6. Our technology has always been beyond our control, it has always provided benefits behind our vision and disasters from our nightmares; technology, also, is independent of morality, that is, technological progress is not synonymous with moral progress
  7. Human beings are homo rapiens, we plunder destroy and desecrate with little impunity, and this has always been and will be: we cannot be redeemed, because there is nothing to redeem, we are just well organized locusts, and Gray quotes Lovelock approvingly
  8. Christianity created the idea of purpose or meaning in life, deeper then just survival, and of ‘saving’ humanity, both ideas being wrong and foolish, because we are animals after all: we seek to escape from death through this creation of purpose and meaning, because the West is the civilization most afraid of death and the end, because of our conception of linear time and failure to include ourselves as part of nature
  9. We are fixated on what ought to be, rather then what is, and so try and redeem, save or adjust the world: this is the ideological project of science, this is the project of Marxism, this is the project of liberal capitalism, and it is stupid. because, again, there is nothing to save
  10. There is no such thing as progress, that is, of things getting better: science and technology may improve, but the human animal will not; purpose does not exist independent of human construction, history and civilizations have no grand plan, no superior march towards glorious progress, nor can that purpose be a moral redemption of mankind
  11. Various criticisms of free market liberals, leftists, and Western civilization, as compared especially to Hindu or Chinese philosophy

As you may be able to tell, Straw Dogs is not a feel good piece of writing, it is no affirmation or support for our way of life in any way. Instead, Gray seeks to eviscerate the foundations of liberal democratic capitalism, of its socialist alternative, of the religious impulse of monotheism to save the world: he links every project to make the world better to massive death, destruction and human misery, and saves special bile for Fascism and Stalinism (though all Communism is smeared as well) because they were the most extreme form of utopian project that sough to save or remake man in a new image, without realizing what science, and Darwin apparently, told us: man is an animal, a collection of genes trying to reproduce and survive, an animal in which our main motor functions and impulses are beyond conscious control, except in a minority of disciplined humans, and that any project, any, that aims to ameliorate the human condition falls against the basic caveat that there is nothing to be saved. He boils everything down, as well, into religious impulses: the Enlightenment was a Christian impulse, for instance, sharing the same faith in human redemption and moral progress, so to is Communism, nothing but a delusion. This concept, Gray asserts, and rightly I think, remains with us today.

There is, true, very much about this book that a reader could agree with. The last fourth of the book is an extended criticism of the modern world order, of free market fundamentalism in which the market is given the role of Messiah, only to devastate vast swathes of the world and accelerate a trend that many beside Gray find worrying: the rich play games while wars are fought out by the poor, food and energy become scarcer; he criticizes the war on terror, and the idea that terrorists are medievalists, instead arguing that they are thoroughly modern; that technology and overpopulation has very well made it possible that indiscriminate mass slaughter will become de jure across the world.

Gray is also quit right to criticize the idea that we are always moving forward, always getting better, except for in a technological sense; his discussion of Nazism, for instance, though we don’t like it much, is that it was as modern as anything else in our world, and not a moral regression into barbarism, but an expression of the netherworld of the Enlightenment, heir to its grandest philosophical , social and scientific advancements. His criticism against Exopians, and other transhumanists, despite his quoting approvingly from Kurtzweil and other futurists on occasion, is incisive: “These cybernauts seek to make the thin trickle of consciousness – our shallowest fleeting sensation – permanent. But we are not embrained phantoms encased in flesh. Being embodied is our nature as earth born creatures.” To him, they end up ’embodying’ the same problem: the same attempt to separate our essence from our existence, or rather, to assume that one can possibly precede or follow from the other.

His critiques all descend from a scientific outlook: his attack on absolutist reason, of the messianic hopes of progress, science and religion, of the pretensions to purpose and meaning for sapient animals, of our pretensions to control and steer the Earth, and to be above nature, our fear of death when it should pose no threat, our resentment of our muddy, unconscious mind.  In a way, John Gray is a popularizer of a scientific outlook, one he claims repeatedly as Darwinist, that goes far beyond the scientists he quotes: the humanism of E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins is rejected by Gray as well, and his outlook is probably closest to James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia Theory of the Earth, that the Earth acts like a living system and that humanity, in its vast numbers and rapacious qualities, is a disease. It is not that Gray is anti-human, or even against our culture and society; he quotes Fernando Pessoa, Robinson Jeffers and Rex Warner with obvious joy, and yet remains fixed on the damaging myth propagated, he believes, by Western civilization that we are separate and superior to nature, and are imbued with a special role to play, to save, redeem and remake ourselves, which Gray steadfastly opposes.

And before anyone accuses him of nihilism, which has happened often enough and loudly, Gray dismisses nihilism, again, glibly, and denigrates atheism just a little as well, arguing it is in fact the last refuge of Christian values (but he does so slyly, in single short paragraphs, and then moves on: some straw dogs are clearly not as fit to burn as others) So, don’t call Gray a nihilist: he isn’t meaningless, because mankind had no meaning other then our existence..or so he claims. And again, Gray apparently still believes in some kind of guide to right action, in the Daoist Chinese sense, of dispassion, thought and contemplation.

Note: this is as close as Gray ever gets to taking a ‘positive’ stance, as opposed to one that just harps on others.

I am troubled by his book, but not by its implications about humanity, that it is an animal and nothing more, not progressing, not evolving, not all powerful, destructive, near-sighted, irrational, afraid and superstitious. His conclusions are not so radical as that; I’ve heard them for years and once believed them, once held that nothing would be better for the Earth then our own extinction. Reinhold Neibuhr and Nietzche, for instance, are older thinkers I’m familiar with, amongst many others, with similar ideas. Frankly, the debate on this is large enough that searching for Giorgio Agamben’s book The Open: Man and Animal, on Amazon.ca brought up many other books by authors like Cary Wolfe and Donna J. Harraway on this subject. So, Gray’s basic thesis is no revelation. I’ve heard them as well from university students and acquaintances, who are sometimes even more extreme then Gray: man is an animal, afraid of everything, and thus prone to every possible form of delusion to escape; nothing is worth doing, therefore, and soon this philosophy of life becomes an excuse for disengagement from serious human activity and a descent into pleasant hedonism (a gross generalization, I realize, but sometimes trotted out underneath all the postmodern hijinks).

But as I checked sources, or arrived in sections where I knew as much as the author, if not more, I found problems, like his insistence that China gave up ocean-going boats (the government did, but not individual merchants or trading groups or even Fukien or Cantonese coastal peoples), or his over-enthusiastic interest in Taiost philosophy, that succeeds in obscuring the hierarchical, ordered, obsessed with immortality mindset typical of the religion as a whole. He cites dubious populists like Jared Diamond and Noel Perrin, whose conclusions have been seriously criticized or even outright rejected in Perrin’s case. I could object to some of his assertions that Christianity has always valued free will throughout its history, or that it believes in a moral progression view of history, which is reproduced and expanded upon in secular European thought (I always assumed, from my own readings or lectures from my profs, that Christianity does value a linear concept of history, as moral drama, but it is lapsadarian and non-temporal, that is, aside from Christ’s death, nothing seperates Alexander the Great from Alfred the Great ten centuries later). These points, however, are nitpicking, they don’t actually criticize the main points of his argument.

Is it even possible for me to criticize Gray? Well, I’ll try and cite examples of the kind of logical thinking using dubious sources and conclusions. At the beginning of Straw Dogs, John Gray calls human beings homo rapiens, as I mentioned before, the raping hominid: I’m sure he was trying to be funny there. His accusation is that humanity has always been a monstrous, brutal killing machine, wiping out all the mammoths ten thousand years ago in an orgy of over exploitation typical of humanity as a whole throughout history. Except there is no scientific consensus on what killed the mammoth, and the most recent and exhaustive study, “Climate Change, Humans, and the Extinction of the Woolly Mammoth” by Nogues-Bravo et al. in the PLos journal, contends that human hunting wiped out the mammoths only after sudden climate change had weakened their numbers significantly. He uses the mammoth example to claim, therefore, that industrialization, advanced societies, pollution and over population are not important factors in mankind’s destruction of the environment, despite later repeating the opposite and opining that humanity could find a way to live with nature, only if most of us had died, our numbers reduced and contraceptive technology widely implemented. For the bit about mammoths, he uses Diamond as a source: again, fairly dubious using a tertiary source, that is a book two tiers separate from the actual research!

Gray seems to share Diamond’s enthusiasm, in “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race“, (or Paul Shepard’s Tender Carnivore) for hunter gatherers, pointing out that hunter gatherers were more knowledgeable about their surroundings, lived poor lives in materials but rich in spirits and though vulnerable worked less, lived longer and were healthier then most farmers until the modern age.  Except that without the switch to intensive agriculture, they never would have written these books; but that is a petty counter.  Gray contrasts the favorable mental outlook of Hunter gatherers as compared to our own civilization, and then berates Mark and Engels for not understanding that these societies embraced the only ‘true communism’, primitive, that they had messianically placed in the future. Except that Marx and Engels did recognize this fact, and spent the last years of their life studying it; this helped to originate the idea that as human groups adopt societies, and as those societies continue to grow and expand in complexity, as agricultural surpluses extracted through terror, force and protection, as new modes of production develop, new forms of social organization and domination also develop. This Marxist understanding of anthropology and sociology is fundamental to the thought and conclusions of someone like Diamond, it is at the heart of why he thinks farming was a bad idea, because as a new mode of production it allowed greater exploitation, and yet I’m not sure Gray has absorbed this. Or doesn’t dwell on it much.  A rather Utopian project, imagining hunter gatherers thus?

Besides which, modernity, which Gray dwells on as a falseness and blames for considerable amounts of death, is a condition of industrialization and scientific growth, which puts to shame the idea that we have always been enormously destructive; quite the opposite, fearful creatures we might be, but only advanced technological, economic and social resources have enabled killing and exploitation of resources on a large scale.

Another criticism I could make regards his definition of Nazism and Communism as utopian.  Gray defines genocide, the organized death camps and railways, as modern, and that is true, just as racist categories that facilitated Holocaust are modern…but is it simply scale that makes “genocide” modern?  Or was it the sense that the destruction they meted out was utopian, a much more debatable opinion?  Gray argues that ideological redemption was behind genocide, and certainly, Hitler and his colleagues believed in a “redemptive” anti-Semitism, but how far down did this filter to his executioners?  Does a focus on ideology and ideological logic explain why Pol Pot followed a path that no other Communist party did? I found it hard to belief that  Pol Pot’s policies flowed logically from an ultra-radicalism, yet it is clear that both the Khmer Rouge were a small and faction ridden group, and one that acted within a specific cultural and temporal framework: the Communist party had to be purged frequently to maintain discipline, and the Khmer were petty bourgeois city dwellers, with little understanding of the conditions of the peasantry they moved with. More importantly, emptying the cities and abolishing money does not strike me as clever plans to destroy the ancien regime while following Democratic Kamuchea’s own path to industrial modernity; they seem apocalyptic in a far different way.

And that is at least one reason why Gray makes me uneasy. Many of his arguments sound very convincing, but closer analysis reveals cracks and inconsistencies, or at least the kind of errors a history-trained or other discipline trained thinker might find; it doesn’t mean that Gray can’t or doesn’t make very compelling points, but that the material he uses to bolster these points is not rock solid or always convincing. He cites Malthus approvingly, a man who argued that Irish famine victims deserved to die,  to demonstrate that we now live in a time of overpopulation and that the crash in our numbers is coming as surely as the sun rises: true, but he leaves little doubt that we shouldn’t resist this, even if we could. He cites Freud approvingly too, without heeding generations of anti-Freudian criticism; he praises the Surrealists but downplays their own commitment to revolutionary politics, to changing mankind by accepting the subconscious. Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, all recieve some praise; is there NOTHING in the Western canon but Schopenhauer and Santayana worth standing up for? Against, reductionism: no, because we are animals after all.

This makes it Easy to discourage opposition.  It is a daunting task.  But Gray peddles in the same easy generalizations and sweeping reductions of humanity so favourable amongst thinkers I regularly read and end up disliking.  Besides which, how am I, who believes in socialism, in organization, in fighting for a better mankind, or at least the best conditions to allow our screwed animal brains to not be tormented by the exploitation of the market and state, supposed to take Gray’s criticism of well…everything?

But Gray does not really offer any alternatives to his criticism: the suggestion, from a few mentions, seems to be that the man of contemplation, not action, is best, that the hunter gatherer is superior to settled man, that enjoying one’s life is better then constantly striving for what is beyond one’s reach. It’s a nice sounding philosophy, but a privileged, elitist one as well, because how many of us can or ever will be able to be a man of contemplation rather then action? Can one be such a thing and still have to work three jobs? Shouldn’t I have some ambition? Does it even matter that we are animals, especially with all the research into social behavior in apes that indicates social cooperation and mutual sacrifice are adaptive strategies as surely as warfare and rape? He quotes the famous book Homo Ludens at one point; cue the refrain…did my relatives die for a game, Mr. Gray? Did so many of ancestors die for a better world, only for you to say ‘it’s all a game, you fucked monkeys!’ Did they die because we are stupid, afraid animals, as you write in your plush penthouse and disclaim, ironically, that you are not nihilist and yet don’t offer any sort of alternative to your criticism? Am I even being fair?

Ultimately, I will have to accept the existentialist resolve toward purpose in life. History and human civilization may not have a external purpose, or a mission, or a cause; but if we are beings that are conscious, in any way, and yet animals, then should we not make our own purposes, day by day, instead of letting you tell us they don’t exist or let the Christians tell us only God gives us heart?

I for one have a vested interest in this civilization, and I intend to enjoy it and fight to make it better while it lasts.

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I’ve been doing research for the local museum lately, reading through months of newspapers on microfiche from 1913.

One of the more interesting and recurring items to appear in the pages of the Fort William Daily Times-Journal, is a phenomenon punningly called ‘airshipitis’ by its editors. Airshiptis, according to the editors, is a hysterical or manic mass outburst of sightings and fears of airships or zeppelins, or lights and sounds attributed to airships. This wasn’t exactly surprising to me, not at all: I’ve been interested in mysterious sightings and ‘unexplained’ flying ships and UFOs since I was 13, and I was aware of the ‘mystery airship’ phenomena from the works of Charles Fort and his successors in the Fortean Times.

I was surprised, however, that these reports made front page news, of the city’s largest paper, thrice: once, in January 1913, in reference to mystery sightings of airships and lights along the Austro-Russian border that caused panics in Lvov; sightings of airships in April 1914 in Yorkshire of what were claimed to be German zeppelins haunting the countryside, as reported by terrified farmers and local gentry; and sightings of strange lights over Fort William itself (specifically, Mount McKay on the outskirts of town). Several other minor reports reached the Daily Times-Journal; apparently, 1913 was the last year that a major ‘mystery’ or ‘phantom’ airship craze occurred, as noted in this article, The Phantom Airships of 1913 by Lucius Farish and Jerome Clark. There had been an earlier 1909 wave of sightings, as described in this substantially more scholarly article by David Clarke. What we have is largely the same: a regional pandemic of sightings, of sophisticated machines described in the technical terminology of the day as ‘airships’ or ‘zeppelins’. The British scare and the Austro-Russian scare both equated military threats with these sightings; in both cases military and diplomatic tensions were high, as Germany’s bellicose pronouncements against Britain made front page news in Canada, and Austria and Russia partly mobilized over the unfolding Balkans War.

According to the wikipedia article on mystery airships, hardly a reliable source I know, especially when dealing with an unreliable event like a mystery airship, newspapers like The Washington Times and the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, actually suggested these airships were visitors or explorers, or couched in the terms of the time, scouts, from Mars: the Post-Dispatch held that “these may be visitors from Mars, fearful, at the last, of invading the planet they have been seeking.” Note that this was during the height of the craze over Martian life and Martian canals in the United States in part started by Percival Lowell’s claim that he had found canals on the red planet. This was not a majority view however, as the Fort William Daily Times-Journal articles I read all explained the sightings away as some kind of hysteria, as I mentioned above.

And so we return to ‘airshipitis’. Though the Fort William Daily Times-Journal was hardly a paper of the highest repute (it’s front page also contains reports about Finns stabbing each over over rum couched in sensationalist tones and headline gems like ‘Starved by Starvation’), the editors were nonetheless cautious enough to attribute these sightings to a manic outburst, rather then genuine military or otherwordly activity. Their description of ‘airshipitis’ is unintentionally prognostic, as similar explanations of mass hysteria and mass anxiety over some social force or pressure are one of the most commonly put forward explanation for UFO sightings or other paranormal events (for instance, there are urban legends in Peru, apparently, of bloodsucking spirits and creatures that have since become foreigners, usually Americans, kidnapping the poor to drain their blood. The collective fears and traumas behind these scares aren’t hard to locate in this case). Mass hysteria often seem pejorative or insulting, and certainly the Fort William Daily Times-Journal’s editors were being dismissive in their explanations, wryly winking at their sober readers that only the old and the infirm could have seen such sights: those who saw these airships must have been delusional. But as research into trance or visions reveals, the experience may very well be internal but that doesn’t invalidate the intense emotions experienced.

In this case, ‘airshipitis’, this craze of mystery airship sightings in early 1913, was linked very clearly to invasion scares; ‘airshipitis’ was a collective social reaction to the pressures of a highly militarized society, tense with the possibility of war breaking out at any moment, and at the same time confronted by new and startling technologies, of mechanical flight and the possibility, pregnant from newspapers and fiction, of new kinds of war, of bombing from the sky, in short, of old certainties undermined. That news writers of 1913 could identify, in a hazy, condescending way, the kind of tremendous social pressure at work in villages in Yorkshire or Galicia claiming to see strange lights hovering over their villages, grim with portent, is almost more impressive then the mystery airship itself.

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This is a cliche to start a review with: Tom Segev is the kind of historian more people need to read more often. Segev is the kind of historian that gives historians a good name amongst those who hate heavy footnotes and arcane theoretical frameworks. He writes narrative history, and allows the individuals of his story to speak for themselves; he writes linguistically accessible history, clear, concise, certain and free of the kind of academic jargon (a near-mythical syntax sometimes) that reduces say, Ivan the Great, to a bureaucratic progress report; he writes history that is, most importantly, honest and as even-handed as it can possibly be, adhering to the so-called historian’s art. There, the cliches are out of the way: those are the words that make up a cover blurb, but the subject of his book is why his clear voice, honesty, impartiality are important: Segev is writing about Palestine, and very little we will read, hear or say about Palestine is clear, honest, impartial.

There are flaws to Segev’s work, let me be clear. The book is a straightforward narrative history, light on economic or social analysis, and his narrative is almost exclusively made up of diaries and statements by the rich, powerful and influential within the Zionist movement and the British administration of Palestine; the narrative is livened, though, with the memoirs of a British soldier, an English school teacher, three young Jewish nationalists, and the occasional glimpses of a Jewish insurance agent and an Arab Christian educator and leader of the Arab nationalist movement. For a history that claims to be about Jews and Arabs under thirty years of British ‘trusteeship’, Arab voices are limited almost exclusively to Khahil Al-Sakakini, the aforementioned Arab Christian educator and nationalist; other nationalist leaders like the mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam and George Antonius are peripheral to the narrative thrust of the book despite their importance to the Arab ‘side’ of the story. The majority of Arabs, therefore, are faceless, nameless and voiceless, which in part reflects the truth that, unlike the vast majority of Jewish immigrants to Palestine between 1918 and 1948, the Arab population was predominantly rural, peasant and illiterate. I don’t think Segev speaks or reads Arabic, an obvious problem in a book about Jews AND Arabs, and so he lacks the kind of detail and insight of the Arabic people and their political movements that a book like Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine, 1906-1948 by Zachary Lockman possesses, for instance.

If anything, One Palestine, Complete demonstrates, again and again, the excellent public relations of the Zionist movement both within and without Israel, and that this was the decisive reason for the eventual triumph of the Zionist goal of an independent Jewish state. His narrative is heavily framed by the political manueverings at the very heights of power by Chaim Weizmann, whose political erudition, skill, intelligence, charisma and friends in high places, including Lloyd George, Churchill, Ramsay Macdonald, Balfour and more, enabled him to influence the retention of Palestine after World War 1, and the declaration of support (the Balfour Declaration) for a Jewish ‘national home’ and the direction of British policy in Palestine; ironically, Weizmann would on more then one occasion manipulate the delusion of a global Jewish conspiracy, to convince British statesmen, deeply convinced of this reality, that Zionism was an ally of British imperialism. And indeed it was.

This is the central thesis of Segev’s book: the Jewish Zionist movement triumphed over the Arabs in Palestine because British policy from the very top and the very start supported immigration, land purchases, infrastructure development and foreign Jewish investment that profited Jews far more then it did Arabs. This is part of what has made his book so controversial; I don’t find it hard to believe, because Segev, an Israeli, demolishes slowly and quietly many of the central myths, still trotted out, of the Zionist success in Palestine Ersatz Israel. Still, it’s strange that Britain’s pro-Zionist stance would be questioned: the Zionists themselves, Weizmann especially, were very pro-British, and they were helped by Zionists, both Christian and Jewish, within the colonial administration and home government. Undoubtably there were British anti-semites within the colonial administration: General Sir Evelyn Barker, commander after World War 2, was not at all fond of Jews, to say the least. But Segev goes out of his way to demonstrate that it was an isolated phenomenon, and that the anti-semitism that emerged against Jews in Palestine, especially after World War 2 when one assumes guilt over the Holocaust would do the opposite, was caused by the young soldiers fighting a counter-insurgency against Jewish terrorists, or freedom fighters, in Etzel and the Haganah. Generally, the British whose voices we hear are dull functionaries and colonial bureaucrats: they leave little impression save in their dreary professionalism, commitment to mythical ideals of fair play and equal treatment and impartiality. At most, as Segev regularly quotes, they were pro- British, and anti everything else. Men like police officer Raymond Cafferata and administrators like Edward Keith-Roach and Roland Storrs, are stodgy, dedicated professionals, trying to do the job assigned, keeping order, building infrastructure, though perhaps made misty-eyed by the Christian miasma of the Holy Land. Men like this, colonists, often sympathised with the Arab fellah, who they viewed as simple, loyal and easy to control, but others were moved to train, support, intermingle and protect the Jewish community, both for personal and because of their orders. Segev is quite clear on this: individual men often had conflicting opinions, but the administration as a whole was geared towards supporting the Zionist movement. It was seen as a duty, a mission, a word to keep.


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