Monday, March 12, 2018


Courtesy of Ross Perlin at the New Inquiry: "As the intellectual historian Svetlana Boym reminds us: “Curiously, intellectuals and poets from different national traditions began to claim that they had a special word for homesickness that was radically untranslatable: the Portuguese had their saudade, Russians toska, Czechs litost’, Romanians dor ... untranslatable words of national uniqueness [that] proved to be synonyms of the same historical emotion.” One word, coined by the psychologist Erik Erikson, that does not appear in the Dictionary: pseudo-speciation, the purposeful elaboration of difference where none really existed before.

Middle East City Scapes

Just some (mostly) middle east cityscapes from the British Library's amazing Flickr page. I don't know where most of these are, but they're amazing.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

History Teaches

Incredibly creepy book cover courtesy of Omer Durmaz.
In an effort to find out what history teaches us, or more specifically what history teaches us about what history teaches us, I did a quick search in the New York Times archive for the phrase “history teaches.”

Not surprisingly, history teaches that whatever comes after this phrase is almost certainly going to be a cliche:

“History teaches us that what was unnatural yesterday becomes natural today.”

“History teaches that wars between great nations are generally obstinate and protracted.”

“If there be one lesson which history teaches it is that no nation ever yet profited in the end by injustice.”

“And history teaches that a restless and revolutionary nation must work out its own redemption” (particularly a “spirited and warlike” nation like Mexico).

Among these, of course, are some eloquent and accurate cliches, as well as some more meaningless, dubious or misapplied ones. At various points history taught that the French would win a speedy victory in WWI, and that the Germans would inevitably triumph. In 1914, one pundit wrote of the problems that would follow a German defeat “history teaches that a proud nation rarely submits long to a blow at its prestige.” Which seems prophetic as far as these things go, except that instead of anticipating the rise of Hitler he was predicting an impending German invasion of South America.

Other things that history teaches I’m inclined to agree with. In 1923, for example, a correspondent in Cairo made the case for why America should support an imperfect Egyptian experiment in democracy over British imperial role: “history teaches every schoolboy — who reads it — that the benevolent despot is a creature hardly less a product of the imagination than the unicorn.” Indeed.

I’m also inclined to be jealous of the fact that 19th century authors were allowed to invoke the lessons of history with such authority that they didn’t even have to really talk about history. I dream of finding an editor today who would sign off on the following, written at the height of the Civil War: “All human history teaches, in numerous records, that a patched-up peace proves greatly more disastrous than a badly conducted war had been. It is unnecessary to give examples of such a general and notorious truth.”

The best lessons, however, are those that prize specificity and relevance over, well, accuracy. Amidst a heated debate over agricultural subsidies in 1859, one Baron Von Liebig wrote, “ History teaches that not one of all those countries which have produced corn for other lands have remained corn markets….”

Several years later, a Dr Storrs explained that “the entire history of our planet conclusively establishes the fact that where mountain chains run from East to West, the manners, habits and languages of the people, living on opposite sides of the mountain chain, widely differ.” But, due to “the laws of gravitation and of cohesion,” not to mention various “solar, lunar and stellar influences,” “when mountain chains run from North to South, the customs and languages of the people on opposite sides coalesce and mingle intimately….”

Perhaps the most profound lesson, though, comes from a 1922 letter by an outspoken critic of prohibition: “History teaches us that the non-alcoholic nations are the decadent ones — as shown by China and Turkey.” As if to prove that the lessons of any discipline are always most apparent when they reinforce our own instincts, he concluded “Physiology teaches us that good qualities of alcohol, real wines, spirits and beers help to promote a healthy metabolism.”

Monday, February 5, 2018

Saki's Cupboard of the Yesterdays

"The Cupboard of the Yesterdays," a short story written by H. H. Munro a few years before he was killed on the Western Front in 1916, offers a striking early 20th century British perspective on the Balkans and the Balkan Wars. I don't understand how anyone writes about orientalism, modernization theory, media coverage the middle east or the "end of history" without referencing it. In the hopes that might change I'm posting the story below, courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

“War is a cruelly destructive thing,” said the Wanderer, dropping his newspaper to the floor and staring reflectively into space.

“Ah, yes, indeed,” said the Merchant, responding readily to what seemed like a safe platitude; “when one thinks of the loss of life and limb, the desolated homesteads, the ruined—”

“I wasn’t thinking of anything of the sort,” said the Wanderer; “I was thinking of the tendency that modern war has to destroy and banish the very elements of picturesqueness and excitement that are its chief excuse and charm.  It is like a fire that flares up brilliantly for a while and then leaves everything blacker and bleaker than before.  After every important war in South-East Europe in recent times there has been a shrinking of the area of chronically disturbed territory, a stiffening of frontier lines, an intrusion of civilised monotony.  And imagine what may happen at the conclusion of this war if the Turk should really be driven out of Europe.”

“Well, it would be a gain to the cause of good government, I suppose,” said the Merchant.

“But have you counted the loss?” said the other.  “The Balkans have long been the last surviving shred of happy hunting-ground for the adventurous, a playground for passions that are fast becoming atrophied for want of exercise.  In old bygone days we had the wars in the Low Countries always at our doors, as it were; there was no need to go far afield into malaria-stricken wilds if one wanted a life of boot and saddle and licence to kill and be killed.  Those who wished to see life had a decent opportunity for seeing death at the same time.”

“It is scarcely right to talk of killing and bloodshed in that way,” said the Merchant reprovingly; “one must remember that all men are brothers.”

“One must also remember that a large percentage of them are younger brothers; instead of going into bankruptcy, which is the usual tendency of the younger brother nowadays, they gave their families a fair chance of going into mourning.  Every bullet finds a billet, according to a rather optimistic proverb, and you must admit that nowadays it is becoming increasingly difficult to find billets for a lot of young gentlemen who would have adorned, and probably thoroughly enjoyed, one of the old-time happy-go-lucky wars.  But that is not exactly the burden of my complaint.  The Balkan lands are especially interesting to us in these rapidly-moving days because they afford us the last remaining glimpse of a vanishing period of European history.  When I was a child one of the earliest events of the outside world that forced itself coherently under my notice was a war in the Balkans; I remember a sunburnt, soldierly man putting little pin-flags in a war-map, red flags for the Turkish forces and yellow flags for the Russians.  It seemed a magical region, with its mountain passes and frozen rivers and grim battlefields, its drifting snows, and prowling wolves; there was a great stretch of water that bore the sinister but engaging name of the Black Sea—nothing that I ever learned before or after in a geography lesson made the same impression on me as that strange-named inland sea, and I don’t think its magic has ever faded out of my imagination.  And there was a battle called Plevna that went on and on with varying fortunes for what seemed like a great part of a lifetime; I remember the day of wrath and mourning when the little red flag had to be taken away from Plevna—like other maturer judges, I was backing the wrong horse, at any rate the losing horse.  And now to-day we are putting little pin-flags again into maps of the Balkan region, and the passions are being turned loose once more in their playground.”

“The war will be localised,” said the Merchant vaguely; “at least every one hopes so.”

“It couldn’t wish for a better locality,” said the Wanderer; “there is a charm about those countries that you find nowhere else in Europe, the charm of uncertainty and landslide, and the little dramatic happenings that make all the difference between the ordinary and the desirable.”

“Life is held very cheap in those parts,” said the Merchant.

“To a certain extent, yes,” said the Wanderer.  “I remember a man at Sofia who used to teach me Bulgarian in a rather inefficient manner, interspersed with a lot of quite wearisome gossip.  I never knew what his personal history was, but that was only because I didn’t listen; he told it to me many times.  After I left Bulgaria he used to send me Sofia newspapers from time to time.  I felt that he would be rather tiresome if I ever went there again.  And then I heard afterwards that some men came in one day from Heaven knows where, just as things do happen in the Balkans, and murdered him in the open street, and went away as quietly as they had come.  You will not understand it, but to me there was something rather piquant in the idea of such a thing happening to such a man; after his dullness and his long-winded small-talk it seemed a sort of brilliant esprit d’esalier on his part to meet with an end of such ruthlessly planned and executed violence.”

The Merchant shook his head; the piquancy of the incident was not within striking distance of his comprehension.

“I should have been shocked at hearing such a thing about any one I had known,” he said.
“The present war,” continued his companion, without stopping to discuss two hopelessly divergent points of view, “may be the beginning of the end of much that has hitherto survived the resistless creeping-in of civilisation.  If the Balkan lands are to be finally parcelled out between the competing Christian Kingdoms and the haphazard rule of the Turk banished to beyond the Sea of Marmora, the old order, or disorder if you like, will have received its death-blow.  Something of its spirit will linger perhaps for a while in the old charmed regions where it bore sway; the Greek villagers will doubtless be restless and turbulent and unhappy where the Bulgars rule, and the Bulgars will certainly be restless and turbulent and unhappy under Greek administration, and the rival flocks of the Exarchate and Patriarchate will make themselves intensely disagreeable to one another wherever the opportunity offers; the habits of a lifetime, of several lifetimes, are not laid aside all at once.  And the Albanians, of course, we shall have with us still, a troubled Moslem pool left by the receding wave of Islam in Europe.  But the old atmosphere will have changed, the glamour will have gone; the dust of formality and bureaucratic neatness will slowly settle down over the time-honoured landmarks; the Sanjak of Novi Bazar, the Muersteg Agreement, the Komitadje bands, the Vilayet of Adrianople, all those familiar outlandish names and things and places, that we have known so long as part and parcel of the Balkan Question, will have passed away into the cupboard of yesterdays, as completely as the Hansa League and the wars of the Guises.

“They were the heritage that history handed down to us, spoiled and diminished no doubt, in comparison with yet earlier days that we never knew, but still something to thrill and enliven one little corner of our Continent, something to help us to conjure up in our imagination the days when the Turk was thundering at the gates of Vienna.  And what shall we have to hand down to our children?  Think of what their news from the Balkans will be in the course of another ten or fifteen years.  Socialist Congress at Uskub, election riot at Monastir, great dock strike at Salonika, visit of the Y.M.C.A. to Varna.  Varna—on the coast of that enchanted sea!  They will drive out to some suburb to tea, and write home about it as the Bexhill of the East.

“War is a wickedly destructive thing.”

“Still, you must admit—” began the Merchant.  But the Wanderer was not in the mood to admit anything.  He rose impatiently and walked to where the tape-machine was busy with the news from Adrianople.

Picture: After the attack. Plevna, 1877-1878

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Westphalia to Communicate

In responding to the rise of ISIL, many observers focused on the most obvious causes for alarm: sadistic violence, high-profile terror attacks and the destabilization of the Middle East. But some observers identified a more profound threat: that ISIL, like other Islamist movements, was seeking to overturn the Westphalian order.

A little over three and a half centuries ago, representatives of the Holy Roman Empire formally agreed to let German princes force their subjects to be Protestant – and in doing so made the principle of state sovereignty a bedrock of the international system. Now, by trying to create a global caliphate (with no local princes left to impose Protestantism, presumably), ISIL puts this vital principle at risk.
If this weren’t bad enough, ISIL’s anti-Westphalian crusade has an unexpected ally: the Chinese. “In stark contrast to the Westphalian system,” one international relations expert writes, “Confucian China regarded itself as the sole and central world order” leading modern China to become “a bitter adversary of the international state system for much of the 20th century.” As a result, commentators worry, Beijing might be crafting a “new hegemony” that replaces “the principles of the Westphalian treaties” with an antiquated, Chinese-led tribute system.

The good news, though, is that apparently China is also one of the last remaining defenders of the Westphalian order. Actually, China loves Westphalian sovereignty so much that the real problem might be Beijing’s efforts to “restore a neo-Westphalian order” in which everyone has too much sovereignty.

Confused? The point is that whatever exactly China is doing Westphalia-wise, it’s not good.

To make matters more confusing, everyone seems to agree that the European Union, built around the idea of countries pooling their sovereignty to become something else, is fundamentally at odds with the Westphalian order. But no one seems the least bit worried about it.

Amid all these conflicting uses of the term, it sometimes seems that pundits’ enthusiasm for describing the global order as Westphalian is little more than a pedantic tic — like saying “whom” instead of “who,” maybe, or pronouncing foreign places’ names with accents that aren’t your own. International relations theorists would point out that the idea remains valuable when used in a more precise and theoretical manner. But for anyone interested in discussing the international order, its challenges, or its future, there is meaning in Westphalia’s misuse as well.

When invoked casually, the Westphalian order misrepresents both the past and the present, distorting history to dodge hard questions about America’s role in the world today. At worst, the conventional version of Westphalian punditry posits the existence of some centuries-old order based on sovereignty and secularism, suggests that America is merely trying to uphold these time-tested principles, and then berates other countries who don’t immediately want in.

It’s an elegant narrative, but one that is hard to reconcile with the fact that Western states spent much of the past few hundred years systematically violating the sovereignty of non-Western polities. What’s more, for members of a supposedly secular state system, they were remarkably quick to fall back on religious justifications for doing so. By ignoring this history, the idea of the Westphalian order presents Western hegemony in in the guise of a neutral, rule-based order. The implication is that when other countries object, their issue must be with the rules, not the West’s consistent flaunting of them.

To read more, check out the full article here

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Conflicting Ambitions, Shared Cartography

Venizelos and Ataturk: conflicting territorial ambitions, similar taste in (cartographic depictions of) women...