The Barbarians at the Gates

"Get off my lawn, dammit!"

“Get off my lawn, dammit!”

Last Tuesday, in a California courtroom, a judge sentenced 23-year-old Casey Nocket to two years’ probation and 200 hours of community service after Nocket pleaded guilty to seven counts of damaging government property. Over the span of about a month in 2014, Ms Nocket had used indelible markers to paint large cartoonish figures on prominent rock surfaces in various national parks in California, Colorado, Utah, and Oregon; she had then posted photos of her doodles to Instagram.

News accounts of Ms Nocket’s exploits invariably use terms like “vandalism” and “vandalized”. This was a characterization to which the defendant objected during the court proceedings, and I would have to agree with her: real Vandals don’t deserve such a comparison. Continue reading

Journal: Wednesday, August 19

Khaled al-Asaad

Khaled al-Asaad

Frustrated ISIS militants holding the city of Palmyra yesterday beheaded 82-year-old archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad.

When Islamic State fighters first began to move in on the city — a UNESCO World Heritage site which dates back to Roman times — Asaad, the director of antiquities for Palmyra, moved everything portable into hiding. Once the city had fallen into ISIS hands, the militants began looting the site, hoping to sell priceless artifacts to wealthy collectors in the US, Europe and Asia to help fund their activities in the region. They captured al-Asaad and tortured him for a month, before finally beheading him yesterday and leaving his mutilated body hanging from a post.

Khaled al-Asaad never revealed the hiding place of the treasures that he was holding in trust for future generations.

As an artist fascinated by history, places like Palmyra resonate for me on many levels; I can’t help but see its survival into my lifetime as a bridge reaching across two thousand years, connecting me with the Romans who built the city and created many of its treasures. People like me depend on people like al-Asaad to protect that bridge.

I’m not one of those people who believes that all victims are automatically heroes, but I think Khaled al-Asaad deserves to be called a hero.

Truth and lies.

My copy is somewhat more up to date than this one.

My copy is somewhat more up to date than this one.

I was poking around among the bookshelves a day or so ago, looking for something to entertain me as the first cool weather of the season settles in, when I spotted my rather tattered Penguin Classics copy of the Histories of Herodotus.

This is one of those books that I like to read once every decade or so. It’s long (over 620 pages in this edition), and the print gets smaller every time I pick it up, but there’s something cozy and comforting about it, like that sweater that you would never dream of wearing where people could see you, but that’s perfect for puttering around the house. There’s enough snob value in just having the book in your hand that you don’t have to slave over the really heavy parts; when the political stuff gets dull you can always skip to the stories about headless cannibals roaming the Libyan desert or the bedroom antics of the King of Lydia, his wife, and the palace guard.

Herotodus lived and worked during the decades on either side of about 450 BC, born in what is now Bodrum, Turkey, then a Greek town called Halicarnassus. We know that he traveled a lot and talked to a lot of people – although how much he traveled and how many people he actually talked to is a subject for some debate.

The Roman orator Cicero, some three and a half centuries later, called Herotodus the “Father of History”.

More recent commentators have called Herodotus the “Father of Lies”.

. . .

Every now and then somebody reading one of my blog posts takes exception to a bit of data – a statistic, a description, or some discreet character assassination – that I may have included without having identified my source.

If what I was doing was serious research, or scholarly investigation, or even journalism, this would be a valid and important concern, but these essays are just my personal ruminations on subjects that interest me: I strive for accuracy, and I am prepared to defend any factual data that I use, but I don’t think footnotes are really necessary.

And let’s face it: some of my posts are long enough as it is.

A few of the folks who worked with me during my years in television newsrooms will no doubt remember my obsession with factual accuracy. I’m a product of an era when the comments of “unnamed sources” did not make it into front page news, and phrases like “some experts have suggested” or “individuals close to the case have indicated” were systematically – and sometimes brutally – rooted out of the aspiring journalist’s repertoire by the time he or she graduated high school.

When I’m assembling information for a blog post, I usually begin with a topic with which I am already pretty conversant, and then fill in the blanks from there. I look for primary sources where I can find them – if I am going to quote from the book of Genesis, for example, I go get the Bible down and look up the chapter and verse: I don’t pull something from the collected wit and wisdom of Jimmy Swaggert and hope for the best – and if primary sources are not available, I make sure that whoever I’m relying upon has the right credentials.

I’m not trying to expand the scope of human knowledge: I’m looking for context and connections. I’m just an interested amateur talking about things that I think are worth talking about.

History, like political commentary, is one of those fields that attracts a lot of amateurs.

The chemist or the molecular biologist is not likely to feel any sort of innate personal affinity with a hydrogen nucleus or a molecule of adenosine triphosphate. The subject matter demands rigor and discipline; nobody just assumes that he’ll be able to pick it up by reading a couple of articles in Discover magazine. The history buff, on the other hand, is dealing with people just like himself, flesh-and-blood men and women who got up in the morning and ate breakfast and argued with their children and fed their pets and worried about the rent just like everybody else. It’s easy to feel that you know more than you really do. There’s something very subjective about history: once you get past the names and dates, there always seems to be a lot of room for interpretation.

. . .

Over the centuries Herodotus has drifted in and out of fashion. As more scientific methods of approaching historical research led to new insights in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, scholars began to downgrade the old personal-narrative style of historical writing; Herodotus, Procopius, Tacitus and others were increasingly viewed as, at best, commentators, and at worst, fabulists and liars, using history as a vehicle for political, social, religious or cultural illustration without any real commitment to objective facts. This did not necessarily diminish their popularity as authors, but their contributions to modern understanding of the times in which they had lived were viewed as less meaningful from a historical perspective.

History, like the sciences, had become focused on attempting to document an objective reality.

In practice, of course, there is no such thing, at least not in terms of our ability to observe and communicate what we are able to learn. Everyone filters reality through a prism of personal experience, cultural expectations, and social limitations. [see also House of Mirrors, a previous essay in this blog] In today’s information-saturated world, separating fact from fable has become so difficult that we often don’t even bother any more. We’re like ants standing in the path of an avalanche of sand.

Herodotus wrote of a race of ants the size of bobcats living in the deserts of what is now Afghanistan who dug  through the sand for gold with which to line their tunnels.

News outlets routinely present a view of reality that owes more to the expectations of sponsors and stockholders than to any commitment to documenting real events. In Colorado and Texas educational authorities are working at this very moment to rewrite history books in order to remove anything that offends their present-day political outlook. Everyone has an axe to grind, or a skeleton to hide.

Father of History/Father of Lies: who do we trust?

What really matters in the end is not what the writer is doing, but whether the reader has the critical capacity that will allow him or her to categorize and qualify what is being said, separating useful data from the distracting overlay of the writer’s intentions. We’re not just hollow vessels waiting to be filled with information: each of us has the ability to apply logic and reason to the information, developing a context, a matrix against which we can judge each new fact as it appears.

Father of Lies/Father of History: does it really matter?

It’s not up to the historian – or the politician, or the preacher, or the pundit – to decide what is fact and what is fiction. All they can do is explain their particular point of view, to build up that mountain of sand grain by grain.

It’s up to us to find the particles of gold in it.

 

Bam. Pow. Kablooie.

How to spot the bad guys? Great vocabulary. Terrible fashion sense.

How to spot the bad guys? Great vocabulary. Terrible fashion sense.

Anguish. Antagonist. Annihilate. Adept.

What do all these words have in common?

Venerable. Veritable. Volcanic. Variable.

I’ll give you a hint: I had learned to use all of them in a sentence by the time I reached the third grade.

Sinister. Selfless. Stygian. Saga.

Where does a kid who can barely reach doorknobs pick up a vocabulary like this?

Rickshaw. Radioactive. Restitution. Relativity.

Why, comic books, of course.

Like many boys my age, every time I could scrape up twelve cents (or even better, a quarter for the Giant Size Annuals) I ran downtown to the drugstore and bought the latest copy of “Journey into Mystery”, or “Strange Tales”, or the “Fantastic Four”, or “Superboy and the Legion of Super Heroes”.

Since those nickels and dimes were not always easy to come by, I could rarely indulge in the luxury of following one hero, one title, from month to month. The resulting story lines were fragmented to the point of meaninglessness, but I didn’t care: the images jumped off the page – vivid and exotic in those days before color television – and the writing was extravagant and overwrought, filled with words and ideas that Dick and Jane and their silly little dog had never even imagined. Every sentence ended in an exclamation mark, every thought, every utterance was gravid with significance.

When the evil Mano annihilated his own home world in the ultimate act of rebellion, the word was wedded to an image that made it impossible to misunderstand. When Doctor Strange’s ghostly spirit form left his body to go roaming, passing through walls and even mountains as if they didn’t exist, it didn’t take a genius to figure out what the writer meant by describing that transparent figure as ethereal. When the Mighty Thor pissed off his dad by falling in love with a mortal, there could hardly have been a better showcase for the meaning of wrath.

I saw in this morning’s news that a north Texas school had banned – and then un-banned – seven books, by authors that included two Nobel Prize laureates, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a prominent Native American diarist, among others. The books were banned because some parents were concerned about depictions of sexuality, of abuse, of racial injustice, and of philosophical self-examination that overstepped the conceptual boundaries they had set for their teen-aged children; un-banned, because the school authorities realized how meaningless that effort was. How many kids reach their teens without having been exposed – at least indirectly – to the weakness and wickedness that the human race is prey to? Red Riding Hood could have covered her eyes when the wolf approached her, but that certainly wouldn’t have prevented him making a meal of her; Rapunzel in her doorless stone tower was just about as safe from the influence of the outside world as she could be – right up until she let down her hair for the very first man who thought to ask her to do so.

This was not immortal literature. This was a handful of guys in smoke-filled rooms hunched over drafting tables, cobbling together outrageous tales of heroism and derring-do riddled with misspellings, continuity errors, and mind-bogglingly bad science.

What mattered was not the quality of the art form, but the fact that the heroism and the science — such as they were — were couched in a way that made them accessible and acceptable to the minds of children being inexorably conditioned to filter knowledge, discarding the unprofitable, the unpalatable, and the improbable on their way toward adulthood.

Foreboding. Felicitous. Fictitious. Feral.

And even more importantly, it was an unedited glimpse into the world of conflict and existential threat that we kids were about to inherit.

In the comics, nobody was sending us out of the room before the subject of nuclear armageddon was discussed; nobody told us that we were too young to worry about what pollution was capable of doing to our bodies; the conversations about racial tension didn’t suddenly slam to a halt every time we strolled in to ask for a cookie. Superman was saving the world, again and again, every month – which could only be happening if the world were at risk of being destroyed. In Dick and Jane’s universe there was no war, no violence, no murder, so there was no need for a Batman, an Iron Man, or an Invisible Woman to deal with those problems. We didn’t have to understand the social and economic pressures wrenching at the fabric of our society to know that Dick and Jane – and probably the dog, too – would not have lasted long in the world our parents were passing along to us.

Obviously there was a downside to this kind of back-door education. Problems, no matter how intractible, were always solved within a few pages, and usually by the convenient deux-ex-machina of super-powers, or super-science, or the application by the hero of an even greater level of violence than the bad guys could bring to bear. Those were examples that did not translate well into the “real” world of guerilla warfare, of the Kennedy assassination, of overpopulation, of the breakdown of traditional social structures. They did, on the other hand, demonstrate that ordinary people could be one radioactive spider-bite, one dose of cosmic rays, one science experiment gone awry, from becoming people who could save the world. They gave us an alternative to despair, and a list of new words to clothe the terrors that the best of parental intentions could not keep from us.

Ethereal. Elongated. Ectoplasm. Entomologist.

When I was a child, adults frequently objected to my reading material, comic books included. So much fantasy, so much violence, so much unreality – could this possibly be helpful or useful for the child?

The irony, of course, is that all this unreality, this fantasy, is sometimes the only tool a child has with which to make a meaningful connection with the “real” world. Without it, we would be forced to try to cope with the ills that beset our civilization armed with nothing but a spotted dog and a red ball. “A bunch of fairy tales,” goes the argument — oblivous to the fact that fairy tales of any given age are frequently a window into the terrible world that awaits a child, and in posing awful questions, sometimes suggest hopeful answers.

 

Unintelligible at any speed

Satan's little helpers? The Kingsmen, 1965.

Satan’s little helpers? The Kingsmen, 1965.

In my younger days, my father often expressed concern that I was becoming prey to a languid intellectualism that he feared would leave me ill-equipped for life in the Real World in the unlikely event that I should ever shamble into it. In retrospect, he was probably correct: fortunately, he had a plan to address the problem.

Jobs. Lots of jobs.

No job was too small, too filthy, or too ill-suited to my temperament (which was, admittedly, opposed to work in almost any form) as long as it paid. From the moment I was old enough to get a work permit, Dad was unsparing in his efforts to get the most out of the twenty-dollar fee. Loading hay, working on a garbage truck, cleaning offices, flipping burgers: I was a busy boy. Continue reading

House of Mirrors

A Siege of Constantinople, Ogier le Danois, 1499, from the Bridgeman Art Library. Yes, Constantinople looked exactly like that.

A Siege of Constantinople, Ogier le Danois, 1499, from the Bridgeman Art Library. Yes, Constantinople looked exactly like that.

When I was in the fourth grade, we studied Alabama history from a textbook that would probably raise a few eyebrows, were it to reappear today.

Written in the middle of the twentieth century, the book presented the topics of race, politics and economics from a viewpoint that would have seemed perfectly familiar eighty years earlier: slavery was bad for the victims, yes, but they were better off than if they’d been left in Africa without underwear or Jesus; the Civil War was a conflict between the Northern industrial worldview and its Southern agricultural counterpart, with the former attempting to impose itself forcibly on the latter; the economic inferiority of the modern South had nothing to do with lack of education or the rampant inequality of wealth, but was rather due to the pernicious interference in Southern affairs by the Northern-dominated federal authorities.

Don’t get me wrong — not every insinuation was necessary without merit: Reconstruction was brutal, war is always political and cultural, and the terrible institution of slavery was originally brought to this country by the very men and women we revere as its founders, in both North and South. The view through the prism of resentment and isolation, however, was undeniably distorted, and the march of time everywhere else in the world had only made the peculiarities more noticeable.

Fast forward to today: I’m reading a history of Byzantium by Sir Charles William Chadwick Oman (published in 1892) that I downloaded to my Nook from Project Gutenberg. Compared to the 1,400 or so pages on the subject by John Julius Norwich that I already own, this book, at about 250 pages, is hardly more than a Cliffs Notes summary, but it’s a pretty interesting read if you’re into this sort of thing.

Apart from the varying scale of the two works, however, another significant difference jumps out very quickly. The three-volume Norwich history was written during the last two decades of the 20th century, while Oman published his contribution at the end of the 19th: whereas the Viscount Norwich makes some effort to provide an overview of the events of the thousand-year history of the Byzantine Empire without offering a moral or cultural interpretation, Sir Charles makes no bones about where his sympathies lie, every step of the way.

“[My] Researches are here set down to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of our own and of other peoples …”

Herodotus of Halicarnassus

 

“I write these things as they seem true to me; for the stories told by the Greeks are various and in my opinion absurd.”

Hecataeus of Miletus

The nineteenth century English-speaking world was one where geography, religion and morality were inextricably linked. In any conflict between Christians and non-Christians, the Christians wore the white hats. If the fighting was North versus South, the North was industrious and godly, while the South was decadent and demented by the heat. Asia began at Belgrade, and the further east one travelled, the more heathen and inscrutable the people became, and the more likely they were to be Bad Guys.  (The world being round, the furthest extreme of any West-to-East axis of evil was — naturally — Ireland.)

•   When the heretic barbarian Goths overcame the mainstream Christian Romans in Italy and the Balkans, it was only through some terrible lapse on the part of the defenders. The idea that the Goths may have simply been braver, or smarter, or more motivated on the battlefield just isn’t worth entertaining.

•  When the sinister fire-worshipping Persians trampled the God-fearing Byzantines in Antioch and Jerusalem, it was because of the weather, or plague, or treachery, but when the Westerners won, we know it was because they were superior people, from a superior culture.

•  Attila and his swarthy, slant-eyed hordes didn’t overrun Europe virtually unopposed because they were incredibly energetic and utterly fearless, united firmly behind a bold leader, it was because the Empire was tired and just needed to catch its breath. The superiority of the Europeans was a given, regardless of how badly they lost every contest.

All this this racial and religious prejudice seem very obvious to me now, more than a century later, but I have to wonder: does Norwich’s take on the same events seem so much more balanced and impartial because it really is, or does it look that way because he is of a time and place more akin to my own, so that whatever prejudices he brings to the work are my prejudices also, and therefore invisible to me?

I remember an issue of National Geographic from somewhere in the late sixties which featured an article on Iran — our faithful ally Iran, ruled by a fatherly and benevolent Shah, West-leaning, enlightened, a model for the Muslim world. It was all pretty uplifting, and made Tehran sound like a suburb of Philadelphia. In retrospect, we know that the Shah was a dictatorial and unpopular ruler, and that a great many Iranians clearly did not want to live in a suburb of Philadelphia. Films we saw in school about South Africa sang the praises of this Westernized nation, the economic powerhouse of Africa, while somehow failing to convey the fact that the driving energy of the machine was a vast army of non-European slave-laborers, isolated and repressed by a white minority. The picture of Iran and South Africa that we were seeing was wildly distorted, but at the same time deeply plausible: our own underlying prejudices made it easy for us to accept the distortions. We never looked for answers to questions it never occurred to us to ask.

In every era, people have looked at the old histories and marvelled at their ancestors’ skewed view of events. We laugh at the inconsistencies, we are horrified by the misconceptions — yes, we see farther because we stand on the shoulders of giants, but these are fairy-tale giants, hairy and uncouth. From our superior sophistication and insight we see their world as it really was, not the funhouse reflection that they themselves looked out upon.

You can see where this is going.

A hundred years from now, or fifty, or five hundred, how foolish will we look when our descendants read through our textbooks, or our newspapers — or this blog? No matter how dispassionate I believe myself to be, no matter how I strive for a clear-eyed and impartial view of my world, in the end I’m only looking in a mirror. The world I see is the world I am capable of seeing, nothing more. My personal limitations restrict just what I can see, and how far, and how deeply: my own reflection is always going to block part of the view.

That said, what’s to be done? Descartes reduced the universe to “I think, therefore I am”, but that’s hardly a basis on which to vote, choose which brand of milk to buy, or build a personal ethos. We have to make do with the vision we have, however impaired, and do our best to see and think as clearly as our minds and hearts will permit. Maybe the only rule should be “I think, therefore I can try my very best to be honest with myself.” We will fail, because the funhouse mirror will always be an imperfect vehicle for viewing the universe, but the very effort makes us better.

And whenever we slip up and forget, History (with a capital “H”) is there to remind us that the more absolutely right we think we are, the more appalled our great-grandchildren are going to be by just how amazingly wrong we were.

[Many thanks to Wikipedia for the quotes from Herodotus and Hecataeus.]