Thursday, March 29, 2007

Do non-European Cultures have a "Medieval" Period?

I have a daily Google alert for the word "medieval". Today it included a link to a Princeton University Symposium on Medieval Japanese art. That got me thinking: is it really correct to associate the word medieval--which describes the time between classical European history and the Renaissance (roughly)--to a concurrent time period in a non-European culture or society's history? I suppose it's more correct than alluding to the same period in Japanese history as the "Middle Ages", but then again, the term "medieval" is essentially a synonym for "middle ages." So how has it come to pass that we refer to a Japanese Medieval period which may or not have truly been "in the middle" of anything? Is it a relic of Eurocentricity?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Will AHA Resolve to Condemn Iranian Violation of Geneva Convention

Part of the AHA's recently passed Iraq War resolution condemned the US Government for:
  • suspending in certain cases the centuries-old writ of habeas corpus and substituting indefinite administrative detention without specified criminal charges or access to a court of law;

  • using interrogation techniques at Guantanamo, Abu-Ghraib, Bagram, and other locations incompatible with respect for the dignity of all persons required by a civilized society;
So, the AHA saw fit to condemn the Bush Administration for not treating terrorists as either American citizens or--at the least--regular, uniformed soldiers of a foreign nation. Well, what to do now that Iran has stated it will try uniformed military personnel from Great Britain for espionage (h/t1 and h/t2)? As Captain Ed explains:

The Iranians cannot try the men for espionage if they captured the sailors in uniform. Article 46 of the Geneva Convention states this clearly:

2. A member of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict who, on behalf of that Party and in territory controlled by an adverse Party, gathers or attempts to gather information shall not be considered as engaging in espionage if, while so acting, he is in the uniform of his armed forces.

The indictment of British sailors in uniform as spies will violate the GC. Can we expect the same level of outrage over this explicit violation as the supposed violations of the US government?

And, as Wretchard at the Belmont Club reminds us, the Nazi's knew all about this:

By gum, even the Nazis knew that, which is why they landed spies and saboteurs on American beaches in uniform.

Burger, Dasch, Heinck and Quirin traveled from occupied France by submarine to Long Island, New York, landing in the hours of darkness, on or about June 13, 1942. The remaining four boarded another German submarine, which carried them down the Atlantic coast to Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. On or about June 17, 1942, they came ashore during the hours of darkness. All eight wore full or partial German uniforms, to ensure treatment as prisoners of war should they be captured on landing.

I eagerly await the AHA's forthcoming resolution on this matter.

What? Oh, that Iraq War one was a "once-in-a-generation" deal? Oh.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Copperheads: Then and Now

Mac Owens writes (originally, here):
I had the good fortune to read a fine new book about political dissent in the North during the Civil War. The book, Copperheads: The Rise an Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North, by journalist-turned-academic-historian Jennifer Weber, shines the spotlight on the “Peace Democrats,” who did everything they could to obstruct the Union war effort during the Rebellion. In so doing, she corrects a number of claims that have become part of the conventional wisdom. The historical record aside, what struck me the most were the similarities between the rhetoric and actions of the Copperheads a century and a half ago and Democratic opponents of the Iraq war today.

In contradistinction to the claims of many earlier historians, Weber argues persuasively that the Northern anti-war movement was far from a peripheral phenomenon. Disaffection with the war in the North was widespread, and the influence of the Peace Democrats on the Democratic party was substantial. During the election of 1864, the Copperheads wrote the platform of the Democratic party, and one of their own, Rep. George H. Pendleton of Ohio, was the party’s candidate for vice president. Until Farragut’s victory at Mobile Bay, Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, and Sheridan’s success in driving the Confederates from the Shenandoah Valley in the late summer and fall of 1864, hostility toward the war was so profound in the North that Lincoln believed he would lose the election.

Weber demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that the actions of the Copperheads materially damaged the ability of the Lincoln administration to prosecute the war. Weber persuasively refutes the view of earlier historians such as the late Frank Klement, who argued that what Lincoln called the Copperhead “fire in the rear” was mostly “a fairy tale,” a “figment of Republican imagination,” made up of “lies, conjecture and political malignancy.” The fact is that Peace Democrats actively interfered with recruiting and encouraged desertion. Indeed, they generated so much opposition to conscription that the Army was forced to divert resources from the battlefield to the hotbeds of Copperhead activity in order to maintain order. Many Copperheads actively supported the Confederate cause, materially as well as rhetorically.

In the long run, the Democratic party was badly hurt by the Copperheads. Their actions radically politicized Union soldiers, turning into stalwart Republicans many who had strongly supported the Democratic party’s opposition to emancipation as a goal of the war. As the Democrats were reminded for many years after the war, the Copperheads had made a powerful enemy of the Union veterans.

Incidentally, other than the review Owens, this is the only other "professional" review I could find. The book came out in October of 2006.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Will the AHA Concern Itself with Clinton Stonewalling?

The AHA is (correctly) in a tizzy over Executive Order 13233, signed by President Bush, "which overturned an executive order issued by President Reagan and gave current and former presidents and vice presidents broad authority to withhold presidential records or delay their release indefinitely." As such, they are urging their members to push for the passage of the “Presidential Records Act Amendments of 2007.” And that's exactly what they should be doing as an organization that is looking out for the practice of history--including historical research--in the United States.

However, the legislation will only make Presidential records available 12 years after the conclusion of that President's term, even if--by some twist--President Bush doesn't veto it. So, for instance, this legislation won't provide for the release of President Clinton's--or Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's--records during their White House tenure.

And while the AHA is embarked on this apparently quixotic quest, I'm left waiting for the hue and cry (or at least a feel-good resolution) from the AHA explaining that--on behalf of its FULL membership--they are calling for the end of the Clinton stonewalling:
...[T]o the dozens of reporters, historians, anti-Clinton types and eccentrics who have filed requests for documents from the library's archive, the [William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library] is Little Rock's Fort Knox.

The museum's 138-million-page presidential archive could play an important role in determining how Hillary Rodham Clinton's controversial White House past will affect her attempt to reclaim 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

"I haven't received any documents or even a note indicating that they're searching the records," said Jeff Gerth, a former New York Times reporter who requested a wide range of the first lady's files for an unauthorized Clinton biography he's working on.

With the 2008 election looming, researchers are eager to unearth undisclosed details from eight years marked by controversy, scandal and high-wire politics.

The Clintons' longtime personal lawyer, Bruce Lindsey, who helped defend the couple in the 1990s, has veto power over the release of the most sensitive documents. Attempts to contact Lindsey weren't successful.

Among the documents requested: almost all of Hillary Clinton's files as first lady, eight years' worth of her daily White House schedules, office diaries, day planners and telephone logs, according to a list of Freedom of Information Act requests obtained by Newsday.

Requests also have been filed for the internal correspondence of Clinton's ill-fated early-1990s health care reform task force (despite a court ruling saying its deliberations could remain private) and detailed files on Filegate, Travelgate, Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky, the pardons scandal and even back-and-forth about Clinton's 2000 Senate bid.

Sixteen months after the library started accepting applications, no major request for sensitive documents pertaining to Clinton's first-lady years have been released.
I guess the AHA is only enamored with taking a public stand and expressing the supposed will of its membership--well, the voting majority, anyway-when the ideological jones of that majority is being stroked.

To boil it down: the AHA is all for passing a conflated resolution that only tangentially has to do with the practice of history--ie; their (or should I now say "our"? Thanks for speaking for me...) Iraq War Resolution--even when said resolution will have no impact in the real world. Yet, even if having a real world impact doesn't matter--even if it is really about taking a stand and feeling good about it--then why not pass an equally toothless resolution that actually aligns with the mission of the AHA?

[The AHA's] object shall be the promotion of historical studies through the encouragement of research, teaching, and publication; the collection and preservation of historical documents and artifacts; the dissemination of historical records and information; the broadening of historical knowledge among the general public; and the pursuit of kindred activities in the interest of history.
So why not pass a resolution that calls for the Clinton's and their charges to open up the library to the public, including historians? Seems like that comports with the above, doesn't it?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

AHA Chooses to Speak for All and Opposes Iraq War

Gee, I wish I could say I was surprised to hear (via Ralph Luker) that the American Historical Association has approved a wide-ranging resolution that--among other things--opposes the Iraq War. I voted against it. I supported, in principle, the acute points that took President Bush's administration to task for "excluding well-recognized foreign scholars; condemning as "revisionism" the search for truth about pre-war intelligence" and "re-classifying previously unclassified government documents." In my opinion, these were well within the purview of a scholarly organization. The rest was rank partisanship masking as scholarly concern. In this, I agree with former AHA President James Sheehan (who is critical of the Iraq War)
He said that there are two problems with the resolution. First, he said, “it seems to me that people join the AHA with certain expectations, and the fact that the association will take political positions is not one of them. In a way, you are violating the conditions of membership, and I suspect a few people will leave.”

Second, he said it was important for the association to take political stands on issues “narrowly concerned with the interests of scholars in general and historians in particular.” So he said it was important for the AHA to speak out as it does against visa denials to foreign scholars or restrictions on access to presidential records. “But by taking more general stands, we weaken our moral authority and we become identified with partisan positions,” he said. “There is only a certain amount of moral capital that we have.”
Then again, I don't think the average person gives a crap about what the AHA has to say about Iraq. And I guess I don't either.

My only decision is whether or not such an organization deserves my dues.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Rhyming History

Miraculous new communications technologies have suddenly appeared, transforming everyday life. Everything is moving discombobulatingly fast. Globalization accelerates. Wall Street booms. Outside San Francisco, astounding fortunes are made overnight, out of nothing, by plucky nobodies. The new media are scurrilous and partisan. Marketing spin and advertising extend their influence as never before. A fresh urban-youth subculture has emerged, rude and vibrant, entertainment-fixated and violence-glorifying. Christian conservatives are furiously battling cultural decadence, and one popular sect insists that the end days are nigh. Ferocious anti-immigration sentiment is on the rise. Both major American political parties seem pathetically unable to deal with the looming, urgent issue of the day. Insurgents practicing asymmetrical warfare have, practically overnight, threatened to bring down the political order of Western civilization. And the President has tapped into patriotic rage to invade a poor desert country, having dubiously claimed that the enemy nation represents a clear and present military danger to America.
Good summary of what is going on now...or is it 1848? Kurt Andersen writes in Time on how "history really does rhyme, if not repeat itself" and more. That's a pretty good way to put it.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Providence Named to"Dozen Distinctive Destinations"

Providence, Rhode Island has been named to the National Trust for Historic Preservation "Dozen Distinctive Destinations" (via 7to7, the Providence Journal's news blog):

The capital of one of the nation's 13 original colonies, Providence, R.I., has a colorful four-century history proudly and prominently displayed for 21st century visitors. Once a major New World seaport, Providence became an industrial center during the 19th century, but later fell on hard times. Thanks to a sustained preservation and rebuilding effort, the waterfront city has undergone a renaissance with its Venetian-style waterways and landmark structures impeccably preserved....

"Blending the sophistication of a big city with the charm of a small one, Providence offers so many exciting attractions for the eager visitor," said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "From historic colleges and beautifully preserved architecture to a vibrant restaurant scene, there is something for every age and interest to experience."

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Dark Ages

History Channel ran "The Dark Ages" this past Sunday night. I recorded it and finally got around to watching it over the last couple nights. It was a decent overview, lots of the "stars" of the Dark Ages were discussed (Clovis, Justinian, Charlemagne, Vikings) and, overall, the special may pique the interest of some viewers who will be inspired to delve deeper into any of the number of subjects covered. Particularly strong was the theme of Catholicism as the one constant in the lives of rich and poor, noble and common.

As Jonathan Storm at the Philly Inquirer writes:
The only unifying factor of the time was Christianity, and marauding Muslims almost wiped it out. The Dark Ages ended when Crusaders, dispatched to fight in the Middle East, in part to keep them from savaging peasants in the West, returned with books and knowledge from Turkey, Persia, Egypt and Palestine....

The Roman Catholic Church was the only institution that thrived consistently in Europe during the years between 410, when a disaffected sergeant from the Roman army led the Visigoths ("dirty, sweaty, smelly thugs") in the sack of Rome, and 1099, when the Crusaders got to Jerusalem....

The show focuses on the importance of monks in preserving knowledge, with a segment on the Venerable Bede, who lived in County Durham in what is now northern England, and died in 735 with a library of 500 books, making him "the most educated man in Europe."

Undefended monasteries like Bede's were seen as great treasure troves for the Vikings, who, in an epoch of Visigoths, Franks, Saxons, Moors and other barbarians, get special treatment as the biggest boors of The Dark Ages.

Interestingly, given the obvious playing-up of the stabilizing effect of religion, an atheist group has pointed out that the History Channel has inappropriately played up the "Godless" Dark Ages in its ad campaign.

Actually, the Dark Ages does have a somewhat disconnected narrative. As the New York Times reviewer complains:

It is hard to take seriously the premise at the heart of “The Dark Ages,” given how besotted the producers seem with all the era’s gruesomeness. They want us to believe that the miseries beginning in the fifth century and on through to the Crusades were more than the barbaric spectacle they make it seem. The tribal mergers formed to protect citizens from endless bands of marauders, they claim, actually laid the groundwork for the development of the nation-states of modern Europe, centuries later. That may be so, but it is hard to argue with deteriorating limbs, and “The Dark Ages” doesn’t succeed in trying.

But this may be "indicative of the age-old dilemma" of such docu-tainment. As the Variety review observes:

Nevertheless, it's a once-over-very-lightly view of history, with academics doing their best to capture the gloom, violence and desperation of the times, even if some of the scholars question the validity of the term "dark ages" itself.

In a larger sense, "The Dark Ages" is indicative of the age-old dilemma a niche programmer such as the History Channel faces: How to reel in younger viewers without pandering to the point where its core audience -- the one that doesn't recoil at the word "history" as if it were homework -- is alienated.

Until someone solves that conundrum, get those stiff-looking extras mounted on horses, and cue the orchestra.

The fundamental problem is that the History Channel decided to cover 700 years of history in 2 hours. TV is a good but under-utilized medium for presenting sweeping historical narrative and History Channel missed a chance with the "Dark Ages. " It would have made a good mini-series. Imagine, night one "The Fall of Rome," followed by "Barbarian Kings and Byzantium", then "Charlemagne", then "The Vikings," and conclude with "Darkness Lifting." They could keep the theme of the stabilizing force of Christianity throughout. With all of the past specials covering some of these topics, I'm sure it could have been done in an entertaining and cost-effective manner.

In fact, the History Channel is already kinda, sorta fleshing "Dark Ages" out by also running the "Barbarians II" series, which covers the Franks, Lombards, Vandals and Saxons. [I've got the original "Barbarians" (Vikings, Goths, Huns, Mongols) on DVD and found it to be a good series so I've scheduled "BII" to be TiVo'd]. While I realize that both "The Dark Ages" and the "Barbarians II" series are part of History Channel's "Barbarian Week", it's too bad that they didn't decide to go with--at the least--a "Dark Ages Week" instead. As the special shows, the Dark Ages were about a lot more than just Barbarians. Though they are pretty cool!

Hanson on "300"

Historian Victor Davis Hanson has seen 300 and makes some interesting observations. Hanson thinks it is effective art that calls upon history in its own way: an eerie way, the film captures the spirit of Greek fictive arts themselves. Snyder and Johnstad and Miller are Hellenic in this sense: red-figure vase painting especially idealized Greek hoplites through "heroic nudity". Such iconographic stylization meant sometimes that armor was not included in order to emphasize the male physique.

So too the 300 fight in the film bare-chested. In that sense, their oversized torsos resemble not only comic heroes, but something of the way that Greeks themselves saw their own warriors in pictures. And even the loose adaptation of events reminds me of Greek tragedy, in which an Electra, Iphigeneia or Helen in the hands of a Euripides is portrayed sometimes almost surrealistically, or at least far differently from the main narrative of the Trojan War, followed by the more standard Aeschylus, Sophocles and others.
In fact, by being less "historical", the film may actually more accurately convey the sense and mores of the time:
Snyder, Johnstad, and Miller have created a strange convention of digital backlot and computer animation, reminiscent of the comic book mix of Sin City. That too is sort of like the conventions of Attic tragedy in which myths were presented only through elaborate protocols that came at the expense of realism (three male actors on the stage, masks, dialogue in iambs, with elaborate choral meters, violence off stage, 1000-1600 lines long, etc.).

There is irony here. Oliver Stone's mega-production Alexander spent tens of millions in an effort to recapture the actual career of Alexander the Great, with top actors like Collin Farrel, Anthony Hopkins, and Angelina Joilie. But because this was a realist endeavor, we immediately were bothered by the Transylvanian accent of Olympias, Stone's predictable brushing aside of facts, along with the distortions, and the inordinate attention given to Alexander's supposed proclivities. But the "300" dispenses with realism at the very beginning, and thus shoulders no such burdens. If characters sometimes sound black-and-white as cut-out superheroes, it is not because they are badly-scripted Greeks, as was true in Stone's film, but because they reflect the parameters of the convention of graphic novels, comic books, and surrealistic cinematography. Also I liked the idea that Snyder et al. were more outsiders than Stone, and pulled something off far better with far less resources and connections. The acting proved excellent—again, ironic when the players are not marquee stars.

Cherokee Nation Turns Back on Descendants of Freedmen

via James Taranto is news that the Cherokee Nation has voted "to revoke the citizenship of the descendants of people the Cherokee once owned as slaves."

In Saturday's special election, more than 76 percent of voters decided to amend the Cherokee Nation's constitution to remove the estimated 2,800 freedmen descendants from the tribal rolls, according to results posted Sunday on the tribe's Web site.

Marilyn Vann, president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes, said the election results undoubtedly will be challenged.

"We will pursue the legal remedies that are available to us to stop people from not only losing their voting rights, but to receiving medical care and other services to which they are entitled under law," Vann said Sunday.

"This is a fight for justice to stop these crimes against humanity."

Cherokee Nation spokesman Mike Miller said Sunday that election results will not be finalized until after a protest period that extends through March 12. Services currently being received by freedmen descendants will not immediately be suspended, he said.

"There isn't going to be some sort of sudden stop of a service that's ongoing," Miller said. "There will be some sort of transition period so that people understand what's going on."

In a statement late Saturday, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith said he was pleased with the turnout and election result.

"Their voice is clear as to who should be citizens of the Cherokee Nation," Smith said. "No one else has the right to make that determination. It was a right of self-government, affirmed in 23 treaties with Great Britain and the United States and paid dearly with 4,000 lives on the Trail of Tears."

The petition drive for the ballot measure followed a March 2006 ruling by the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court that said an 1866 treaty assured freedmen descendants of tribal citizenship.

A similar situation occurred in 2000 when the Seminole Nation voted to cast freedmen descendants out of its tribe, said attorney Jon Velie of Norman, an expert on Indian law who has represented freedmen descendants in previous cases.

"The United States, when posed the same situation with the Seminoles, would not recognize the election and they ultimately cut off most federal programs to the Seminoles," Velie said. "They also determined the Seminoles, without this relationship with the government, were not authorized to conduct gaming."

Ultimately, the Seminole freedmen were allowed back into the tribe, Velie said.

Velie said Saturday's vote already has hurt the tribe's public perception.

"It's throwback, old-school racist rhetoric," Velie said.

"And it's really heartbreaking, because the Cherokees are good people and have a very diverse citizenship," he said.

Miller, the tribal spokesman, defended the Cherokees against charges of racism, saying that Saturday's vote showed the tribe was open to allowing its citizens vote on whether non-Indians be allowed membership.

"I think it's actually the opposite. To say that the Cherokee Nation is intolerant or racist ignores the fact that we have an open dialogue and have the discussion, he said.

Sure. And what would be the reaction if the majority of Americans had voted that the descendants of former slaves were no longer considered U.S. citizens and, thus, ineligible to receive benefits? Sorry, being wrongly persecuted in the past is not carte blanche for bad behavior in the present.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Previewers of Movie "300" See What They Want

From the NY Times:
Three weeks ago a handful of reporters at an international press junket here for the Warner Brothers movie “300,” about the battle of Thermopylae some 2,500 years ago, cornered the director Zack Snyder with an unanticipated question.

“Is George Bush Leonidas or Xerxes?” one of them asked.

The questioner, by Mr. Snyder’s recollection, insisted that Mr. Bush was Xerxes, the Persian emperor who led his force against Greek’s city states in 480 B.C., unleashing an army on a small country guarded by fanatical guerilla fighters so he could finish a job his father had left undone. More likely, another reporter chimed in, Mr. Bush was Leonidas, the Spartan king who would defend freedom at any cost.

Mr. Snyder, who said he intended neither analogy when he set out to adapt the graphic novel created by Frank Miller with Lynn Varley in 1998, suddenly knew he had the contemporary version of a water-cooler movie on his hands. And it has turned out to be one that could be construed as a thinly veiled polemic against the Bush administration, or be seen by others as slyly supporting it.

...when viewers find a potentially divisive message in big studio movies that were meant more to entertain than enlighten...[there is a] danger...that an accidental political overtone will alienate part of the potential audience for a film that needs broad appeal to succeed.

The story also explains that attempts to analogize President Bush and the Iraq War to the characters and events at Thermopylae are nothing new and predate the movie. It also explains that some plot changes may have also amplified the apparent political under- (or over-) tones.

This is actually quite a good example of how people carry their preconceptions with them everywhere they go and that these preconceptions seriously affect how they view the world. With their antenna up thanks to the Iraq War, many political junkies will look for potential analogies (pro or con) in any war movie---whether they are intended to be there or not. I had a professor explain to me that one way to look at ideology is that people "believe what they want to believe." It may be slightly simplistic--and perhaps a little cynical--but it does get close to the core of a problem that those who adhere to a particular ideology have: they often have blinders on. They are so intent on interpreting events through their ideological lenses, that they too often miss the true essence of what they are looking at. They forget that, believe it or not, there are some people who don't grind their political axes all the time and that, sometimes, it's good to simply enjoy entertainment for what it is.