Thursday, January 25, 2007

Moral and Mental Development as a Historical Force?

Arnold Kling writes, in "Appreciating Our Moral and Mental Development":
In the study of history, the importance of mankind's mental and moral development has often been overlooked. My guess is that the rate of mental and moral development will accelerate sharply over the next few decades, and the phenomenon will be more widely noticed and its significance better appreciated.

Medieval Boat

Medieval Boat Found Buried in Israeli Lagoon:

Much of the still-submerged ship is uniquely intact, with the stump of a mast still visible. On board, the archaeologists found 30 clay pots originating in Egypt and containing the remains of fish. They also found ropes, a wooden spoon and well-preserved 1,300-year-old olives and carobs.

Yaacov Kahanov, the Haifa University scholar leading the excavation, said the find was important both because of the boat's rare state of preservation and because the craft dates from a period about which historians know little.

Kahanov said the find also showed there was a settlement, previously unknown, in the early Arab period on the beach near where the boat was found.

"The sailors brought the boat into the lagoon deliberately, to meet someone, to sell or buy, meaning there was some kind of port nearby," Kahanov said.

More important, the boat could help to paint a picture of economic life in the Holy Land under Arab rule. Hailing from the desert, the new rulers had no seagoing tradition, and scholars are divided on whether trading patterns that existed before they arrived were preserved afterwards.

According to Joseph Drori, an expert on the Islamic period at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, the boat could offer an indication that sea trade continued uninterrupted.

"If the age of the boat is right, then this is a very important find," Drori said.

When the boat went down in the lagoon, the Holy Land was an administrative backwater ruled from Damascus by the caliphs of the Umayyad dynasty, who had just built the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.

The Muslim population was still small, and most people were Christian and Jewish in religion and Hellenistic in culture. The sailors were unlikely to have been Arabs, Drori said.

"The Arabs came with no knowledge of the sea, and drafted craftsmen, sailors and shipbuilders from the local population," Drori said.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Historian's Responsibility II: Goldberg on Mattson

In "The Historian's Responsibility", I wrote about recent pieces by Harvey Mansfield and Kevin Mattson concerning the role that historian's play both in educating the public in history and current affairs. Now, Jonah Goldberg has responded to Mattson (partly because Mattson was critical of a specific bit of Goldberg's historical analysis and Goldberg wanted to set him straight) and, while he has praise for Mattson's purported aim, he also detects that it is for a very specific type of history to which Mattson is making his appeal.
But it seems that what Mattson wants are liberal historians who get to settle arguments by invoking not so much history but their own authority as "real" historians. You get the distinct impression that what he's really saying is that liberal historians need to get more involved because liberal historians — like him! — are right about everything. Time and again he talks about liberal historians as if by mere virtue of the fact that they were liberal or historians or both their view of history is the real History. Democracy’s readership may not have large objections here, but to the less agreeable reader this smacks of a huge stolen base.

For example, Hofstadter’s scholarship has come under sharp scrutiny in recent years and he doesn’t come out favorably. He was indisputably a brilliant essayist, but not an exacting historian as he himself admitted (he scorned the "archive rats" who did the dusty hard work we associate with the profession). His use of Frankfurt school pseudo-psychology drenched much of his work on conservatism , making it as punchy and interesting as it made it flawed and unfair. His dissertation, which became Social Darwinism in American Thought distorted facts (the Robber Barons were not students of Darwin or even Herbert Spenser , but of the Bible and Adam Smith) and is one of the chief culprits behind the slander that free-market economics and so-called “social Darwinism” are kindred doctrines.

Anyway, I would love to see more liberal historians like Mattson get into the mix, but A) he should practice what he preaches a bit more and B) let's not make liberal historians into a gnostic priesthood, mm, k?
With that I agree, and I think that this is an opportunity that responsible historian-bloggers who would tone down the hyperbole, dispense with the jargon and write for the reading public could take advantage of.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Cahill's Mysteries of the Middle Ages

I've been reading Mysteries of the Middle Ages by Thomas Cahill and can say that I essentially agree with this review by William Lobdell. Both the good:
In this, the fifth of his proposed seven-book series, "Hinges of History," which have explored the formative roles of the Irish, the Greeks, the Jews and the people of Jesus' day in Western Civilization, Cahill's command of rich historical detail makes medieval cities and their colorful characters come alive.

Throughout it all, you are keenly aware that the author wants you to fall in love with this pivotal period in Western civilization every bit as much as he did.

"I invite you on a pilgrimage, dear Reader," he writes. "Come along with me (and many others) to places we have never seen before and to people we could otherwise never have expected to know."

In his easy writing style, the author argues persuasively that mainstream Roman Catholic theology and thought catapulted Europe out of the Dark Ages and into an era that saw women's status elevated, modern science take root and artists shake off their Byzantine chains.

He does this by plucking a wonderful cast of historic figures from the 11th through the 14th centuries, which constituted the latter part of the Middle Ages that began in the 4th century. Dante, Giotto, St. Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas are some of the familiar names. Others are known only among historians and "Jeopardy" champions.
And the bad:
Cahill's only missteps come when he ties medieval events too closely to pop culture or today's politics.

In one passage, the author writes about a letter "as full of catty innuendo as the dialogue from an episode of 'Desperate Housewives.' "

In another, he alludes to President Bush in describing a medieval leader who lied to himself and to others, who tortured the helpless "on his way to church," who held men in prison indefinitely without a trial, refused to acknowledge mercenary motives of his closest advisors, abrogated international treaties, polluted the environment and declared his wars just, necessary and blessed by God.

"Such a man was Philip the Fair, unscrupulous, suspicious, envious, and rigid, who succeeded his father to the French throne in 1285, who regularly blackened the reputation of anyone who dared oppose him, and who fancied himself the 'most Christian' of Christian Kings," Cahill writes.

In what is otherwise a great symphony, such off-key notes ring loudly as either too of-the-moment or too politically preachy in a book based in the Middle Ages.
Cahill also gets on his soapbox about the death penalty and a few other items. I was less annoyed by the pop culture references than with the politicizing, though. Besides, even including the political stuff, I'm willing to allow that it is exactly this sort of contemporizing of history that makes Cahill popular amongst the general public.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Hazard of Snap Predictions

Yesterday, my local paper (The Providence Journal, or ProJo as it's known locally) published an opinion piece by Paul Greenberg:
Imagine the progress Franklin D. Roosevelt might have made as commander-in-chief of American forces during the Second World War if only he could have had the benefit of advice from James Baker, Lee Hamilton and the other members of the Iraq Study Group. Today’s column applies its lessons – indeed, whole sections of its text – to that earlier quagmire...
The piece is an interesting and clever bit of writing and is worthy of commentary on its own. But today the Journal uses it as a jumping off point to editorialize about the hazards of making predictions in today's fast-paced, information age:

It is difficult to be ruminative in a culture with so much communication that it’s difficult to remember anything more than about five minutes old. Thus the tradition of looking back and looking forward at this time of year seems an antiquated custom.

But actually, we would do well to look far back, at least by current standards. For instance, yesterday Paul Greenberg, a thoughtful and very well read guy (whether or not you agree with him), had a column on this page speculating on what the Iraq Study Group report would look like if its sort of analysis had been applied to a review, in early 1943, or 1942, in the middle of World War II. Things didn’t look good, of course, and a negotiated settlement with the Axis powers would have seemed reasonable. Of course, the full horror of the Holocaust was not yet known, nor were the Allied victories to come, although there had already been a few. More recently, in the 1970s, it seemed as if communism would continue to spread; the Fall of the Berlin Wall within a decade would have seemed close to unthinkable.

The editorial continues, making the point that we still don't know how the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan will turn out and that "the confident-sounding predictions from all sides of the issue don’t mean all that much."

Government officials and professional pundits are paid to sound confident. And when they are wrong and move to a new position they sound just as confident. But the vagaries of human society mean that it’s impossible to predict with any precision what will happen in war or in most other manmade dramas. Indeed, the predictions may be becoming more inaccurate because of the superficiality and speed with which they’re made amidst increasing cultural illiteracy and computer keyboard speed. Getting back to Paul Greenberg, they are made with a remarkable lack of knowledge of history, which in America seems to be spreading rapidly.

And then there is the short-attention span problem of today's modern society:

There is also the human tendency to think that just because something just happened, it’s important, and to ignore events’ connections to historical continuums. In other words, to lose all perspective – including that, as Keynes liked to say, “in the long run, we’re all dead.” People in the news business lose such perspective all the time...

So as we go through another eventful year (actually, they all are), let’s try a little humility when we predict what’s going to happen, or even say what’s happening now. And as for those in public life who make the big decisions, let’s remember that they don’t know everything but have to make decisions anyway.

The importance of most events this year will be exaggerated – mostly on the negative side but also on the optimistic side. Time will fairly swiftly cast a more nuanced light on these things. Happy New Year, and let’s slow down.