Sunday, June 25, 2017

Progress on the Chronicle of the Good Duke

Followers of my work know that I have been translating the 15th-century chivalric bibliography The Chronicle of the Good Duke Louis of Bourbon for a good while now. (Gulp! since 2010!) I just finished my third run-through of the Chronicle this very morning. The next full run-through should be the concluding one!

Image: The French court of Charles VI in the time of Duke Louis!

Rape in Game of Thrones and ISIS -- realistic medievalism?

Jeff Sypec examines in his blog the idea that rape in Game of Thrones is a positive element in George R.R. Martin's fictional version of the Middle Ages -- more realistic because more brutal. At the same time some ISIS supporters claim Islamic authenticity for their mistreatment of non-ISIS women and girls. Is there any truth to this?

Jeff, who is quite an intelligent guy, looks at this question from a number of different angles. For instance:
Even though [Amy S.]Kaufman [author of "Muscular Medievalism" in the 2016 issue of The Year’s Work in Medievalism, isn’t blaming Game of Thrones viewers for ISIS, her article won’t sit easily with many fantasy fans. I appreciate that she isn’t just sniping on Twitter; she’s drawing a sober, thought-provoking analogy. I like her strident contrarianism, and I think she’s right to wonder what the pop-culture ubiquity of Game of Thrones actually means. Even if you’re certain the answer is “not much,” why not ponder it further anyway? As I write this, my TV is advertising “Game of Thrones Night” at Nationals Park in D.C., complete with t-shirts and a chance to “visit an authentic Iron Throne.” If someone mugs for a selfie with a TV-show prop on a fun night at the ballpark, what is it they’re trying to be a part of? Why do they need to believe so badly that fictional violence gets us closer to the “real” Middle Ages?

“The medieval era is the dumping ground of the contemporary imagination,” Kaufman writes, “rife with torture, refuse in the streets, rape, slavery, superstition, casual slaughter, and every other human vice we supposedly stopped indulging in once we became ‘enlightened.'” It’s worth asking what we miss seeing in the Middle Ages if we’re invested in only this view. Despite what George R. R. Martin believes, his dark, despairing fantasy isn’t any more “authentic” than the Disney-princess version, nor is it less harmful. Observations like Kaufman’s always bring me back around to a blunt conclusion by medievalist and Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey: “There are . . . many medievalisms in the world, and some of them are as safe as William Morris wallpaper: but not all of them.”
It might be worth reminding both Jeff and Amy that the idea of the Middle Ages was invented specifically to serve as a background for recent progress. A very large number (if not all) the depictions of the Middle Ages will always be negative in many respects.

I am pleased by the excellence of Jeff's blog post. He's a survivor of what us (habitual classifiers) will probably call the Golden Age of Blogging. (There is no Golden Age of Twitter, sorry.) Nice to have such a meaty discussion.

Image: Jeff's from Maryland, and the state flag is a welcome reminder of an earlier age of medievalism.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Fashion "Virtual Experience" by Google

This article at Smithsonian.com describes a Google project which gives access to a large number of sites relevant to "3000 years of fashion history." It's called "We wear culture."

Any chance I know anyone who might be interested?

Monday, June 12, 2017

Interested in mass graves? Put Lützen on your list

Lützen was one of the most important battles of the Thirty Years War -- the Swedish King and Protestant champion Gustavus Adolphus was killed there. In 2006 the bodies of 47 other soldiers were found there. Smithsonian Magazine has a write-up, as does Yahoo.

Thanks to Explorator.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Surreality in a CBC newscast

Early this morning I was listening to the news on CBC Radio One. The news mentioned two things that a few years ago I would have found to be beyond belief. Not that they were actually new or unheard of: just that I could remember a time when neither of them would have seemed at all likely.

The two items: the musical "Hamilton" (yes, I know, rather old news, and only mentioned in passing today)

And

a Canadian-led military mission to Latvia.

"Strange days have found us..."

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Mrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York City's Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case That Captivated a Nation by Brad Ricca

Every once in a while, publishers send me a book that you my readers might be interested in seeing discussed in my blog. I try to oblige and because what they send is pretty interesting. Around Christmas time, St. Martin's Press sent me Mrs. Sherlock Holmes, a true life story of crime and poverty and the struggle for social reform, in fact all sorts of things. I misplaced the book and so I'm only getting around to reviewing it now – apologies.
Brad Ricca studies and teaches literature, and has a particular interest in superhero comic books. My guess is that Batman is one of his favourites, because gritty is the word you do want to use when discussing Mrs. Sherlock Holmes some, whose real name was Mrs. Grace Humiston. A female lawyer in early 20th century New York, she would have had lots to say to the Caped Crusader. She could've pointed out who the villains were and what might be done about them.
Humiston as a pioneering female lawyer in New York had personal experience of women's contributions being dismissed or undervalued from her own career. Not for her in a normal position in the normal law firm. She made herself available instead to the hopeless cases, men and women both who were so poor and socially isolated that they just got crunched up in the wheels of the legal profession and the courts. Humiston used her own resources and wits, and the help of a few collaborators, to do a better job for these people than establish authority ever would. This led her to be eventually labelled "Mrs. Sherlock Holmes" by a newspaper, but it also attracted criticism. Humiston had no patience with people who shirk their duty and her criticism of the New York Police Department alienated many ofthe cops.
The most famous case was the disappearance of Ruth Kruger, an 18-year-old girl. The police wanted to close the case unsolved, as just another "wayward girl" meeting her inevitable fate. But Humiston was pretty sure this was not the case. In fact Ruth was "just another" case of a different sort, Humiston was sure, a case of sexual predators kidnapping and enslaving girls who had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Where the police saw crowds of wayward girls, Humiston saw a network that in an organized fashion swept girls into an underworld that most people wanted to forget about. Humiston went from trying to address individual cases of injustice to aligning herself with the widespread reform movement of the time. One of the causes dear to that reform movement was of course the abolition of "white slavery." Humiston's efforts to find Ruth and rescue other girls in trouble led her to become an internationally known figure, both praised and criticized for her tireless pursuit of Ruth's case and others.
Ruth was eventually found – not in some brothel, but in a hole in the ground underneath the neighbourhood bicycle shop. Ruth had not been taken in by the white slavery network – which certainly did exist – but by a man who knew her personally.
One of the best parts of this book is the way the Ricca's prose reflects the newspaper and the official records of the time. This book will be really appreciated by people who want to immerse themselves in the era of World War I and the dangerous and disorderly cities of the time.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Run another 4th dimension dream

Once upon a time, time travel science fiction was very much a minority taste. One reason for this is that time travel was only justifiable by arm-waving future science. Maybe also by the fact that the Newtonian universe formed the intellectual background for just about everyone, and so the simplest paradoxes ("I'm my own grandpa") had a lot of force.

In the last few years I have been reading more and more recent science fiction and it seems to me that the reading public is much more comfortable with the complex structure of the universe reflected in quantum theory, and is more ready to enjoy the potential for time travel. I mean, the potential for manipulating time revealed by quantum physics. We may not know how to do it, but we know that the universe familiar to physicists has room for all sorts of things that we generally don't see in our little corner of it. Perhaps time travel. Certainly room for quite weird variations on "I'm my own grandpa."

I have read two time-travel novels by prominent sf writers. Robert Charles Wilson's Last Year has a complex theory of time at the core of it. Time travel is being exploited for commercial purposes. A billionaire capitalist has created a link between the 21st century (their home time) and the 1870s. He builds a City of Futurity in an otherwise empty piece of prairie. The 21st century inhabitants can use the city as a jumping-off point to visit the past; the people of President Grant's time are given limited access to 21st century artifacts and knowledge. In theory, both sides benefit. In theory.

Wilson's main interest seems to be the ethical dimension of a world where time travel is a practical matter. He has written a number of alternate reality books, based on real scientific possibility. The books that result from his sincere interest in what we may find to be true are quite disquieting.

Joe Haldeman's The Accidental Time Machine is a simpler story in which a 21st century physics grad student creates a time machine that turns out to be impossible to duplicate and which can only operated by him. As the main character follows an inflexible track through time, his challenge is to find a tolerable and culturally safe place to settle down. This book, too, is informed by an intelligent amateur knowledge of science. It, too, is disquieting.

Maybe the most disquieting thing about this stuff is that further scientific discoveries are likely to be stranger than even the best sf writers can come up with!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Time and a word

And the word is "Yes."

I've talked about the divine nature of music here. How about evidence of time travel?

In 1971 the British band Yes put out "The Yes Album" one of the best they ever did (and they've got more than a double handful of truly excellent albums). In the song Yours is No Disgrace was the mysterious phrase "Send an instant comment to me..." What they meant by it, I don't know, but just by living a half-century, more or less, the phrase has become not at all remarkable.

One of my favorite late-Yes songs (1997) is "Open Your Eyes," which has the all-too-relevant lines:

We cast the world, we set the stage

For what could be the darkest age

By itself, evidence of nothing. But it does go one to describe:

Short exchanges

From perfect strangers

We'll never know

Evidence of nothing except maybe an uncanny resonance in the imaginations of the band members.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Fourteenth-century chivalry, as seen by various military men

People often think that in the later Middle Ages there was such a thing as "chivalric combat." What constituted "chivalric combat is not entirely clear to scholars today; indeed, it may have been unclear to knights and other men at arms in the Middle Ages.

Today I am posting a passage from the Chronicle of the Good Duke (written in 1429, describing here an incident of the 1390s) where some apparent disagreement about one point of "chivalry" is discussed. It is an account of the African crusade led by the Good Duke, in which he, or the author of the chronicle criticizes a famous French knight, Boucicaut the Younger. Boucicaut was known at this time for his strong desire to fight deeds of arms against anyone (of sufficient status) he could. Boucicaut travelled all over Europe while fulfilling this quest, and eventually attained such fame that he was made a marshal of France.

But I've always been rather dubious about Boucicaut's reputation. For one thing, he was the French commander in two of the worst French defeats of the Middle Ages, Nicopolis and Agincourt. Further, there is a lot of somewhat skeptical commentary about Boucicaut in the medieval sources. Have a look at this discussion of how Boucicaut, apparently taking his turn commanding the guards of the Crusaders' siege camp, got distracted from that routine assignment by the endemic skirmishing that took place throughout the siege and tried to arrange a challenge with the opposing Muslim forces.
Boucicaut was a chivalrous man who, through some interpreter, made a request in the skirmish where he was whether there was any Saracen who wished to combat him on foot or horse. They replied no. Then Sir Boucicaut said if they wished to perform arms 10 against 10 or 20 against 20 he and his company would be ready. So the Saracens responded no, not if the kings their lords did not want them to. When Boucicaut saw their refusal he said to them that he would fight them in a secure field, 20 Christians versus 40 of their Saracens.

As long as this conference lasted it was ordained that they should not make war on each other. With difficulties were these negotiators, Christian and Saracens, brought together, which astounded the duke of Bourbon, the Lord of Couci, the count d’Eu, the Souldich of Estrau, and the other barons, for the whole army ran to this assembly so that the Lord of Couci, the count d’Eu and others who saw the army taking leave of its senses said to the duke of Bourbon, “My Lord, the people run like beasts over there with Boucicault and they are not able to keep guard and it seems to us that if you do not order some to retreat, things will turn out badly for us.”

Then replied the duke of Bourbon: “I can’t then send a better message than one from me. I’ll go there myself.” So he asked for a mule he always had and it appeared good to the lords that he was not able to send a better message to make them retreat. So the duke mounted his mule left his tent and went off with the people of his household.

It was not long before more than 300 gentlemen were following him. The Saracens who saw that the duke of Bourbon whom they recognized by his coat of arms, came to join Sir Boucicaut with many men at arms, began strongly to retreat towards their tents, and Boucicaut and those with him to chase them. Boucicaut who saw the duke of Bourbon coming, gave himself over to pride and chased the Saracens more boldly and the duke of Bourbon with his company went after to bring about a retreat. When Boucicaut was at the tents, the Moorish kings and their Saracens put themselves in formation for battle outside their lodgings, and Boucicaut put himself in battle formation with his men, awaiting the duke of Bourbon and those who came with him. The duke of Bourbon caught up with those whom he wished to make retreat, and he very violently spoke to Boucicaut, concerning his great follies.

But the duke of Bourbon seeing that there was with him a good 2000 combatants following him, and seeing also the Saracens who had abandoned their camps and put themselves in battle order all outside, said, “My friends, since we see the lodgings of the Saracens abandoned, let us go by God and charge among their lodges and if the Saracens are worth anything they will come and defend them .” The duke forbade anyone should be so bold as to ignore his order nor think about pillage, but should fight forcefully and at the first sound of the trumpet which he would have sounded, everyone should pull back to his standard.

Then the duke of Bourbon first and the lords and the captains each in his place, with their men at arms and arbalestiers of Genoa charged among the tents of the Saracens, attacked all the lodgings and cut the ropes of the tents and set fire to the lodgings of straw and the duke of Bourbon remained for an hour in the middle of the Saracen lodgings with his standard of the belt of hope. During this the count d’Eu arrived with a good seven score combatants who came from the other side, by the shore, which made those who were already there very happy and joyous.

Because he was late, the count d'Eu said to the duke of Bourbon, “My Lord you see the finest thing one can see, and I thank God that I am found in your company, but for God’s sake, let’s go back, for it is evening and if the Saracens attack the lodgings there’s only the Lord of Couci with a few men, and a bunch of those are ill: so he will be completely lost.” So the duke of Bourbon said to the count d’Eu, “We will go there immediately, please God.”

Now imagine you are sitting at a campfire in a French siege camp in the 1390s. Someone says "Boucicaut is the greatest living knight." What might you say?

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A memorable time in the life of Jean de Chateaumorand

I love the Chronicle of the Good Duke.

The Chronicle is a biography of Duke Louis of Bourbon, who was a close relative of the French kings during the Hundred Years War. In 1429, when bad dukes had prostrated France before the English invaders, it became useful to remember what Good Dukes were like, and this text was commissioned. The writer was no genius, but he had access to an old French soldier, Jean de Chateaumorand, who fifty years earlier (!) had fought as part of Duke Louis' military household, and who remembered well what it was like in the Golden Age of Chivalry, which I have no doubt he thought the wars he fought next to the Good Duke were. I have been translating the Chronicle for a good long time, and I am almost done. As I review my translation, I keep running across passages that remind me of why I like this book. The Chateaumorand sections are particularly evocative. Here are a couple of passages that show the ups and downs of late 14th century warfare. We begin with a short notice of the death of Jean de Chateaumorand, bastard. The brother of the other Chateaumorand? Perhaps. But this tragedy did not overwhelm the memory of Jean the squire, who as banner-bearer for the Good Duke, played an important leadership role in the taking of the strategic castle of La Roche Senadoire, which was held by Englishmen who ravaged the countryside.
Chapter XXXII Then the duke went before Amburs, a very fine place, where there were a good 80 combatants, and on arrival he fought a big skirmish, for those inside came out, and there was a fine skirmish with lances and swords between the two sides; and there Sir Girart de Grantvau, a good man of his body, was wounded and Jean the bastard of Châteaumorand was killed. But in this skirmish there were /(95)taken eight men at arms from those of the fort who had more authority, and four killed; and the duke of Bourbon on the morrow had those eight led before him to have their heads cut off, if they did not surrender the place, and they were quite able to do it, for they had it under guard and preferred to live than to die in such a manner. So they surrendered Amburs to the duke of Bourbon, both their bodies and the place.

Inside of one hour the duke of Bourbon and his men made to leave and go to Tracros; and those men who he sent before encountered the English of Tracros, great adventurers who had come to defeatethem and were overthrown by the duke's men, who came in haste before the place, and it was late when they arrived there. That night the duke of Bourbon, who had come there, set the guard from the men of his household and said to Jean de Châteaumorand: 'Take my pennon, and go all around the place so that no one sallies out." He carried out his order, and that night had many a talk between the dukes people and those of the fort that they should surrender, or when they were taken they would be hanged by the neck because they were men of evil renown.

So they talked until Gourdinot warden of the Place surrendered to Jean de Châteaumorand, squire, who carried the pennon of the duke of Bourbon; and at this hour, which was not the day, it was announced to the duke, so it please him, the treaty which the men of his household had made; and he answered that it pleased him well, because he still had great deeds to do. The one who spoke about this to the duke was Châteaumorand, who asked him to be willing to give the movable goods in the fortress to the people of his household, which the duke did freely and that/(96) Gourdinot, who had surrendered to him, should remain his prisoner and this he granted to him. On the morrow Gourdinot and his men of Tracros, who were not but 16 men at arms, were all prisoners. Inside were 200 marks of silver, of which 100 were in chalices from churches which they had thoroughly robbed. So the duke said that he wished to have the chalices, and he would generously recompense the companions. The duke of Bourbon moved by pity sent the chalices to the city of Clermont and had it announced to all the churches which had lost their chalices, that someone should come to Clermont, and they would be given back, and it was done.

... Chapter XXXIII There the duke of Bourbon seeing his knights and the squires of his household and country, and all the men at arms, who were ready to undertake any risk, destroy the palisade and garrison and proceed in force triumphantly, was overjoyed. During this melee, the pennon of the duke of Bourbon continually carried by Jean de Châteaumorand passed through the breach in the palisade, with those who followed him. Then the English who saw this, did not know what to do, outside of retreating into the fort/(102) and while they retreated the pennon rushed forward with the valiant men; and in this retreat of the English, who ran away, there were killed and taken a good fourscore of the better men at arms from inside, for the captains, of whom in one of the two places Nolimbarbe retreated on the right-hand and the other on the left-hand which was stronger, led to retreat the captain Sir Robert Chennel, Jacques Bardenay, the son Sir Jehan Jouel, Thomelin Maulevrier, Sir Richard Credo, son of the mayor of London. While they retreated from certain lodgings which were high up, to go to their fort, the pennon of the duke of Bourbon and the people of his household charged them so close that as they entered the tower, the pennon of the duke of Bourbon rushed among them very well accompanied, so that those Englishman were not able to close the door of the tower, and so they surrendered to the one who carried the pennon of the duke of Bourbon. The prisoners who surrendered to him were Sir Robert Chennel, captain, and so that very strong place was delivered.

In this way the pennon of the duke of Bourbon with his companions namely Sir le Barrois, Bonnebault, Sir Gaulchier de Passac, the lord of Cordebeuf, the Borgne de Veaulce, Sir Odin de Rollat, Sir Phelippe Choppart, the lord of Billy, Jehan lord of Chaugy, Phelippe Berault, Michaille, the bastard of Glarains and five or six others of the household of the duke of Bourbon, with his pennon, headed over to one of the other /(103) towers where they found already before it a great party of people of Auvergne who were climbing up there, and the Lord of Montmorin who was a valiant knight, and who had a fine company, and Geraud, Lord of Laqueuilhe, accompanied by good people and who was a valiant man, the Lord de Lafayette and others who were advanced by the advice of the lords who had held very close to the English when they had arrived there so that the English could not flee.

But when the English saw the pennon of the duke of Bourbon approach them, the captain Nolimbarbe surrendered with all of his companions to the duke of Bourbon. So was La Roche Senadoire taken without a word of a lie.

Leaving there, the duke of Bourbon sent to Clermont six English captains to hold them as prisoners in the tower of Monnoye, about which the people of Clermont were very happy and joyful and the Duke and his people and those of Auvergne rode to Saint Angel, a place which had done much evil. They remained there a day, thinking to treat with them, but those in the castle did not want to listen. Then it was noticed that the abbey was covered by wooden shingles, thereupon they fired several incendiaries, so that it spread throughout its buildings, and all the English horses were burned up and some of their valets. The men at arms retreated into a tower that was there, where they had nothing to eat. It was impossible to take it by force, for it was very well built; in which attempt a young knight, whom the Duke of Bourbon loved well, was killed: Messire Jean de Digoine, who hailed from Clermont. In the end, those of the Tower surrendered to the Duke of Bourbon on the condition of keeping their lives. So the Duke vouchesafed them, sending Châteaumorand with his pennon to the tower, and each of the English came out with their weapons in hand.
Note how Jean -- who later on became quite an important man -- identifies himself with the Duke and the Duke's pennon. He still is enormously proud of his association with the Good Duke.

Image: This is NOT Jean de Chateaumorand with the Good Duke's pennon.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Military humor of the 14th century: Robert Knowles

The Chronicle of the Good Duke:

The duke of Bourbon the Constable of France, Sir Bertrand and the marshal Sir Louis de Sancerre remained before Brest for 40 days. In that time it rained continually so hard that no one had ever seen so much rain fall, and in the country of the Breton Brittany there was no provision for horses, from which the lords had a great loss, and the same M Robert Knowles had nothing to eat in Brest except his horses, and spoke to a Constable of France about how he held himself discontent that he was not able to raise the siege which the duke of Bourbon, himself, and the marshal held before Brest where they had besieged him, but he counted it for little, because he knew that the horses and the army were much weakened by the rain and this he was consoled that the lords also had very little to eat; just like him and that he was not at all afraid of their assault. He sent a further message to the Constable: "You have made me eat my horses here this castle of Brest, as I made you eat yours at the siege of Rennes; and so go the changes of fortune and war."

Politics and religion: a past post on Iran and everyplace else

Here's a post from 2009 which I think has something to say -- more than a bit to say -- about democracy's cultural dimension (see my last paragraph):

Rafsanjani's Friday sermon in Tehran: the flexibility of religion and ideology

Juan Cole published this morning a meaty analysis of Friday's sermon in Tehran by former Iranian president Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani in my view is a smart opportunist, not a radical, but the kind of guy who always survives the revolution and makes billions in the process (he is in fact now a billionaire). His position as successful profiteer and governmental insider puts him in a difficult position. Whatever may be the totality of his motivations may be, he certainly does not want the Islamic Republic to blow up. Thus he argues for an interpretation of the revolution of 1979 that will allow for compromise and unity between the angry reformists and the intransigent hardliners. Juan Cole explains the religious theories involved (the complete post is here):
The reform movement and its allies among pragmatic conservatives have developed a narrative about Khomeinist Iran. They allege that it is ultimately democratic, and that the will of the people is paramount. It is popular sovereignty that authorizes political change and greater political and cultural openness. Precisely because democracy and popular sovereignty are the key values for this movement, the alleged stealing of the June 12 presidential elections by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for his candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is intolerable. A crime has been committed, in their eyes. A social contract has been violated. The will of the people has been thwarted.

The hard liners hold a competing and incompatible view of the meaning of Khomeini's 1979 revolution. They discount the element of elections, democracy and popular sovereignty. They view these procedures and institutions as little more than window-dressing. True power and authority lies with the Supreme Leader... in this view ... a kind of philosopher-king, who can overrule the people at will. The hard liners do not believe that the election was stolen. But they probably cannot get very excited about the election in the first place. Khamenei and his power and his appointments and his ability to intervene to disqualify candidates, close newspapers, and overrule parliament are what is important. From a hard line point of view, the election is what Khamenei says it is and therefore cannot be stolen.

Rafsanjani desired in his sermon to lay a Khomeinist foundation for the more democratic view. He began by underlining his own role in the revolution and the establishment of the Republic, and his position as a witness to the values of Khomeini. He said Khomeini discouraged the anti-Shah activists of the 1960s and 1970s from terrorism. Instead, he urged a direct appeal to the people in their villages and mosques, and responsiveness to their desires. He represents Khomeini as saying, if the people are with us, we have everything.

Rafsanjani is saying that the 1978-79 revolution was not Leninist. It was not the work of a small vanguard of activists. It was broad and popular and therefore inevitably, he implies, had something of a democratic character.

The authoritarian view of governance in Shiite Islam is anchored by Misbah-Yazdi and his ilk in the theory of the Imamate. Shites believe that the Prophet Muhammad was both temporal ruler and divinely inspired prophet. After him, his relatives also exercised both functions. His son-in-law and first cousin, Ali, is held by Shiites to be the first Imam, the divinely-appointed vicar of the Prophet. But Rafsanjani quotes a Shiite text showing that the Prophet Muhammad said that even Ali could only rule the people with their consent, and without it he should not try. Rafsanjani is reimagining the Imamate not as infallible divine figures succeeding an infallible prophet, but rather as an institution depending on an interaction between God's appointee and the people he is intended to shepherd.

Another piece of evidence for the popular character of the Islamic Republic, Rafsanjani says, is Khomeini's own haste to establish lay, elected institutions and to implement a republican constitution. He maintains that Khomeini actually strengthened some of the popular institutions when he made suggestions for revision of the draft constitution. Even having a constitution is a bow to popular sovereignty, he implies, and he contrasts the haste with which revolutionary Iran established a rule of law and popular input into government with the slowness of these processes in countries such as Algeria.

... But Rafsanjani's point is that even the Supreme Leader, whom some see as a theocratic dictator, derives his position from the operation of popular sovereignty.
Note that Rafsanjani's theory of the Islamic Revolution, like that of many reformers, is democratic without being seculer. It is a theory that grows out of Islam and the Iranian Shi'ite tradition, or at least is being reconciled with that tradition. Ditto for the hardline position. Despite the sweeping innovations brought in by Khomenei, specifically clerical rule and the idea that there can be a Supreme religious Leader in the here-and-now, important foundation stones for the hardline view are identified by its followers with the oldest manifestations of Islam and the Shi'ite traditions of the leadership of the family of Ali (and of the Prophet).
If have not picked a side in this quarrel and adopted a religious, Islamic justification for your position, it is hard to say that either of these positions is "more authentic." Both positions have evolved over the last 30 years, and especially the past couple of months. It might be very hard for a learned Iranian Shi'ite of 200 years ago to recognize either as Shi'ism. Note what Juan Cole says about Rafsanjani's presentation, which he backed up with his authority as an eyewitness to the Revolution, the foundation of the Islamic Republic and the role of Khomeini in both:
So is what Rafsanjani is saying about Khomeini and Khomeinism true? Probably only partially. Khomeini is notorious for having rejected popular sovereignty as a principle. But he did put an elected president and parliament into the constitution, and he surely knew what would follow.
One might say that Rafsanjani, the Iranian Thermidorian, is making it up as he goes along. On the other hand, who knows what Khomeini might say today?

The whole situation reminds me of an insight I had nearly two decades ago, when I was reading a short history of world Buddhism. As I went through the book I realized that somewhere, sometime, just about any religious position you could imagine had been defined by somebody as "true Buddhism." I think this dawned on me when I found out that one influential Buddhist had said that true Buddhism meant that no one should be a monk and everyone should get married.

Thinking about this situation, I eventually came to the conclusion that the inherent variety of human experience and dispositions means that any religious tradition that has any degree of success in recruiting and maintaining itself over time has to contain contradictory elements, and be open to new interpretations. Otherwise it will become completely irrelevant and die out.

This further means that the kind of wild and careless generalizations that are often made about religion and culture and their consequences for today, -- e.g. what political structures will result from Confucian or Roman Catholic or Mormon traditions -- should be treated with the utmost suspicion. (Phil Paine has written about this recently.) A very particular instance is Iran today. A week's diligent reading will tell you quite a bit about what Iranian Shi'ites have valued in the past. Faced, however, with a live Iranian Shi'ite, you or I or Juan Cole will not know what she or he thinks, unless we ask. And even then, what that means for his or her future actions will remain to be seen. As Charles Kurzman might say, when life is no longer going along its routine groove, who knows what will happen next, what you will do next? You make it up as you go along, using existing materials in whatever way seems possible or necessary.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Trump and democracy

Josh Marshall at talkingpointsmemo:


But the real message from the President, one that’s clearly been a topic of conversation between him and his aides, only came in the flurry of interviews he did in which he had a chance to expand on his remarks. His dour mood reaches well beyond the filibuster.

Listen to these comments from his interview with Fox News …

I understand what has to be done, I get things done I’ve always been a closer. We don’t have a lot of closers in politics and I understand why. It’s a very rough system, it’s an archaic system. You look at the rules of the senate, even the rules of the house, bit the rule of the senate and some of the things you have to go through, it’s really a bad thing for the country in my opinion.
There are archaic rules and maybe at some point, we’re going to have to take those rules on because for the good of the nation things are going to have to be different. You can’t go through a process like this. It’s not fair, it forces you to make bad decisions. I mean, if you’re forced into doing things that you would normally not do except for these archaic rules.
Trump knows what needs to be done. And he gets things done. That’s who he is. But having been revealed as someone who almost literally can’t get anything done, he’s turned against the “rough … archaic system.” The system will need to change “for the good of the nation” because “it’s not fair, it forces you to make bad decisions.”

We’ve had this system for a while. But three months in, Trump’s decided it’s time for a change.

This wasn’t off the cuff. Trump said much the same thing, actually used the same catchwords with CBS’s John Dickerson.

Why wasn’t anything getting done, Dickerson asks?

Just a system. It’s just a very, very bureaucratic system. I think the rules in Congress and in particular the rules in the Senate are unbelievably archaic and slow moving. And in many cases, unfair. In many cases, you’re forced to make deals that are not the deal you’d make. You’d make a much different kind of a deal.
You’re forced into situations that you hate to be forced into. I also learned, and this is very sad, because we have a country that we have to take care of. The Democrats have been totally obstructionist. Chuck Schumer has turned out to be a bad leader. He’s a bad leader for the country. And the Democrats are extremely obstructionist.

It’s pretty clear the President is thinking a lot about this and talking about it a lot with his advisors. I mean no disrespect but “archaic” does not strike me as one of the President’s go-to words.

The President’s fondness for foreign dictators is no secret. It won’t surprise you that I think that fondness and envy is tightly connected to the attitudes I’ve noted above. But many of us console ourselves with the notion that Trump is just demonstrably too inept and incompetent to be a strongman or push towards some kind of Americanized authoritarian rule.

This is a misunderstanding.

Incompetence and authoritarianism aren’t incompatible or even in tension. Historically they tend to go together. Incompetence and failure borne of ineptitude tend to show up both as a cause and outcome of democratic breakdown and collapse. Small-d democratic government is hard, by design. It’s meant to be. It should be. But it’s not just hard. It relies on a particular package of skills: persuasion, inspiration, patience, canny use of patronage, threats, carrots and sticks, both consensus building and fight.
Look at a Lincoln, an FDR, a Reagan – whatever you think of the different men’s politics, successful presidents are almost quite good at using this toolkit.
Just running down the list, virtually none of these are Trumpian traits. So in addition to the other obstacles he faces, it’s hardly surprising that he’s been such a flop as a chief executive. As any political scientist will tell you, the formal powers of the Presidency, outside of war-fighting, are quite limited.
The lack of patience, focus and skills appeared immediately with Trump as he gravitated toward the easy and mostly meaningless sugar high of executive orders over the hard work of legislating. It’s no mystery why he’s failed so miserably. It’s no mystery why he’s now so focused on how … basically democracy, the machinery of democratic government is the problem, how it’s not “fair”.
Not fair to who exactly? Trump, of course.
Even Trump’s rants against the secondary enemy of the ‘obstructionist Democrats’, who don’t control anything, tells a similar story. It’s true that the legislative filibuster is a significant tool for the Democrats right now. It is their only tool. But the real story is that they haven’t gotten really any chance to use it. Trump has failed before that even came into play. The on-going Trumpcare debacle is the best illustration of this. Trump keeps ranting at the Democrats about the failure of Obamacare repeal. But the Democrats have literally not done anything legislatively. I’m sure they would force Republicans to get 60 votes to repeal Obamacare. And they should.
But that hasn’t happened.
What’s held Trump back are the invisible hands of public opinion. He can’t get his bill or Ryan’s bill or whomever is claiming it at this point out of the House because Republicans are afraid of the electoral consequences of voting for it. They are afraid they will lose their seats if they vote for it.
That’s democracy in its most immediate form. It has nothing to do with the Democrats – unless we’re talking about the Democrats’ relative success at public persuasion about the awfulness of the President’s bill.
We’re talking about this failure in the House right now but the same pattern is ready to play out in the Senate. I think any reporter covering Capitol Hill would back me up when I say that there’s virtually no way Trump could get 50 votes for this bill, let alone 60 in the Senate.

He probably wouldn’t even get close to 50.

In other words, Democrats are ready and eager to obstruct using their one tool. But they’re not getting the chance because Trump is failing within his own party. Trump is ranting at the Democrats but what he’s talking about is public opinion. Democrats are responsible for making people not like him and not like his bill.

Democracy, of course, isn’t simply responding to the whims of public opinion. Sometimes it’s the height of democratic self-government for legislators to make decisions they know are unpopular for the public good. Needless to say, I think think Trumpcare is a moral as well as policy disaster. But for those who disagree, again, that’s part of democratic leadership: persuading legislators to take tough votes. And again, it’s one at which Trump has completely failed.

I am an optimist on American institutions. Adam Smith wrote that there’s “a lot of ruin in a nation”, by which he meant that countries and by analogy governments and institutions are more resilient than you’d think. I think America is stronger than Trump. I don’t think he’s going to be able to tamper with the 1st Amendment because it’s hard and he’s clown. But he is President. A President has vast powers, in many ways far more for destruction than construction. So the fact that he wants to matters a lot. The fact that three months in he’s already decided that the basic mechanisms of American government are ‘archaic’ and ‘unfair’ matters a huge amount too.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Busy, busy, busy

I contibuted very little to this blog in April, not because I was lazy, but because I got lots of work done on some of my projects.  (Others of course are stalled.)

My collaborator Phil Paine and I spent most of the weekend working on the Chronicle of the Good Duke and we made significant progress.  I hope we can have a draft suitable for submission by the end of the year.  A draft of the "Deeds of Arms" volume on judicial combat already sits on the desk at Freelance Academy Press.

Something that is really done:  I have a chapter in the book "Game of Thrones vs. History:  Written in blood" which volume is now out.  I haven't seen it yet, but am waiting for my contributor's copy to show up.  I want to sit down with a paper copy and enjoy reading the whole book!

I had an interesting book-related experience this weekend, and a cheerful one.  I went to an SCA event near Ottawa and while I was there I had three people come up to me and say how much they enjoyed my book.  I think each of them had read more than one, though which books was a little unclear:
"I enjoyed your book!"
"Which one?"
"The one on chivalry!"
Vague, yes, but pleasant nevertheless.  And get this:  one of my enthusiastic fans bought lunch for me and my lady!


Friday, April 07, 2017

Favorite obscure countries: Laos

I have always loved maps and history.  Growing up in the USA in the early 60s, the Southeast Asian war gave me the opportunity to learn geography that the vast majority of Americans knew nothing about.  Laos was one of the obscure countries that was promoted to the first section of the newspaper (I doubt that it ever made page 1)

Sometime in 1961 or 1962, a map roughly like this appeared in my local paper, showing not only the exotic international boundaries of Laos but also indicating who controlled what on the ground (or so it claimed).

Despite the considerable strategic importance attributed to Laos at that time, not much news of Laos everappeared in the papers. I have to admit I never systematically explored Laotian history.  But today when I was leaving our local public library, I spotted a book by Joshua Kurlantzick.  A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA.  

Interesting that Kurlantzick has also written a book on "the world-wide decline of representative government."



Image: The mysterious "Plain of Jars." Named and designed by Jack Vance?



Sunday, April 02, 2017

Richard Watson Gordon parades an amazing ignorance

Gordon is talking up an art exhibit on the subject of 19th century prostitution in Paris:
 It was a subject that interested them. Why? The obvious answer is that they were men, but another reason was that prostitution was linked to the idea of modernity. People had moved to the city, which was in itself a new concept, where the moral strictures of the village had disappeared. 
Gordon is a professor of fine arts.