Thursday, April 29, 2010

Civis Americanus Sum

I’m not a citizen of the world, even if I like the idea in theory. Actually, I’m not sure I like the idea in theory either. True, I don’t like wars and jingoism and animosity between peoples—and nationalism above all has spawned these demons within us. I've greatly enjoyed the cross-cultural camaraderie I've felt, however brief, with people from other countries I've visited.  Must we await an attack of Martians before the brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind come together as one? Neil Peart, the percussive bard of Canada, put it eloquently:

Better the pride that resides in a citizen of the world
Than the pride that divides when a colorful rag is unfurled.

So what's my problem?  As much as I agree with the sentiment here, I’m also suspicious of attempts to create a universal consensus, a one-world government. I like the differences between cultures and nation states. I eschew universalism as much as exclusivism. I opt for an inclusivist approach. Let’s respect other cultures and work with other nations but still take particular pride in our own. Perhaps it’s easier for an American to take this approach, however.

The United States is the Roman Empire of today. Our military prowess, far-flung territories, and economic interests abroad speak in unequivocal terms of a tremendous influence throughout the world. The Pax Americana that started after the Japanese surrender and continues today is akin to the Pax Romana. Our generals in Iraq and Afghanistan act as our proconsuls and the 82nd Airborne hold back the less sophisticated hordes that would threaten our civilization.

I’ll throw a bone to liberals: Yes, we’ve used our power and influence for our own selfish interests. Sometimes we’ve done terrible things to other peoples throughout the world. By we I mean mostly our representative government and various private companies. But the American people, that is to say, you and me, are complicit. We and our Western European friends live high on the hog compared to the rest of the world, conservatives and liberals alike, and such luxurious living depends on the exploitation of other regions. Those of you on the right will say I’m being too harsh here. Unfortunately, imperialism is still a sum-zero game: your gain comes at my loss. The best cinematic depiction of what I’m talking about is the great opening battle scene between Roman legions and the Germanic hordes in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000). The commanding general expresses a brief lament about the destruction of a people; yet, we witness the march of civilization against the peoples of Sylvania.

Liberal Democrats and left-of-center pundits have castigated the so-called Imperial Presidency of George Bush and his evil minion Dick Cheney. I’m not here to defend the Bush administration, but I find this partisan viewpoints ridiculous and myopic, as if our stance in the world has changed with President Obama. Yes, generally speaking, Western Europeans like Democratic U.S. Presidents and Eastern Europeans and peoples of the central Asia Soviet states like Republican U.S. Presidents. But a good chunk of the world sees us, the United States, as one monolithic entity regardless of political party. Some groups despise us, terrorist organizations in particular. Others benefit from our largesse and even—dare I say—are glad that America wields its influence in even some of the dark corners of the world. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Now, here’s the part that liberals won’t like. I’m also a patriot, not a patriot of the “my country right or wrong” school, but a patriot nonetheless. I still believe in the American experiment and the concomitant wisdom behind the Constitution. I joined the military out of this belief. People abroad still depend on the United States, its aid and its democratic institutions. No, I’m not delusional. Both Democratic and Republican administrations, for good or ill, have conducted foreign policy under the time-honored (and amoral) principle: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. We have supported dictators who have oppressed their people. Our national self-interests almost always accompany any humanitarian relief we engage in.

I often ask my students whether the United States is the Policeman of the World. Even those who would condemn their own country for sticking its nose in other peoples’ business end up conceding that we play an important role as the world’s superpower. Niall Ferguson's Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, admirably the only book on the topic that doesn't have an obvious axe to grind, argued that the world has always had empires and always will. It’s not a question of whether we want to have empires, but what kind do we want? Would you prefer a Soviet, Nazi or Japanese Empire to a British or American Empire?

And so here we are overseeing conflicts abroad. In a perfect world of course there would be no wars. In a semi-perfect world, nation states and empires would always formally declare war and wage them for universally-accepted reasons. They would also be surgical cuts finished quickly. Finally, if in the best of all possible words these wars, this violence, ultimately works out for the ultimate good in the mind of God, well I can’t know about that. But this is a rather messy world in which we toil. Like the Romans, the Chinese, the Ottomans, and the Brits before us, we as the bearers of both civilization and oppression have no shortage of admirers and….enemies.

Let’s focus on Afghanistan a minute, since Iraq is presumably getting better. Are we the Policeman of the World? Must we go it alone? Let’s look at these questions from our allies’ point of view. Why should presidents, prime ministers and legislative bodies of other Western nations send their own citizens into harm’s way and take the political repercussions thereof when the Yankee Empire has the biggest guns on the block and the meanest dog in the fight? Such is the thinking anyway. Alas! American commanders just might discover what Roman generals learned on the frontiers of their far-flung empire centuries ago: if you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself.

And so I say to you, in the words of the fictional General Maximus Decimus Meridius who exhorted his adjutant just before battle, “Strength and Honor!” I’m an American citizen and proud of it.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Agnostic Agonistes

What I am about to discuss with you here is surely something you’ve pondered in your heart of heart from time to time—some of you more than others. Like thinkers time immemorial I too thought I posssessed the answer to life’s meaning in my younger days, only to find later that I had too readily accepted prescribed “truths.” That which I had constructed—a providential God at the helm of it all, a self-enclosed universe that centers on the human species, an ultimate good and evil that has consequences in a hereafter—would gradually collapse, leaving only the scaffolding behind and making me painfully aware that I had drawn my materials largely from culture and religion, that is to say, from without, not within. I say painful, for I became ever more cognizant that the sages, saints and sophists of old were nothing more than self-interested mammals like me trying to figure out the “endless enigma” (to quote Emerson, Lake & Palmer) and hoping for an ideal reality beyond mere earthly existence.

We come into this world without CliffsNotes, neither a road map nor a blueprint, asking the question as to why we’re here and either pulling out answers from our arse or, for those of you on the path less traversed, living consciously and vexingly without an ultimate purpose to guide you along. And to make matters worse, life is so tenuous. There’s no guarantee that you won’t be snuffed out at any time. A heart attack, car accident, or a murderous thug could be around the corner and you have no control over it. Whatever knowledge you’ve gained, whichever choices you’ve made, wherever your searching has led you, it’s all for naught in one fell swoop, unless of course you hold like Hamlet that a “divinity shapes our ends.”

People seek out God in different ways. Some try to work out a theological framework that makes sense for them, even as they align their “airtight” system with ancient texts that purport to be divine revelation. Others search high and low for evidence of supernatural occurrences. For my part, I’ve explored the topic of evil as my avenue of approach, to use a military term. But my objective isn’t to besiege a city or take the high ground. I was hoping to find God in the Holocaust or Rwanda or Cambodia, because if God is God, that is to say, an omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent being, than God would be present amidst the worst episodes of the human drama.

Initially, I had the perversely comforting thought that there was a pure evil out there in the world, a Satan, if you will, some force that is beyond our comprehension perhaps, but a real force nonetheless. We need ghosts and goblins as much as angels and prophets. Satan was a comforting idea, for where the devil lurks a holy and just Creator would ultimately be in control keeping the naughty archfiend in check. A funny thing happened on the way to heaven, though. Darwin and doubt dispersed my devils and demons. The only real thing to fear is not fear itself, and certainly not Beelzebub, but the prospect of natural disasters and egocentric humans in an amoral world. Sometimes these evils combine. To wit, the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico that will eventually destroy the pristine beaches and emerald shoreline of Alabama’s coast—the same coast my family enjoyed last month.

I’m not an atheist and probably never will be. I say probably only because I’ve learned in this business of contemplation never to say never. But if I’m settling into agnosticism, as I suspect I have for years, then I want to counter dogmatism on both sides: You can’t definitively say there is a God and, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens notwithstanding, you can’t affirm a belief in a non-existent God. Apart from the committed dogmatic atheist, all of us, I submit, live in this state of unknowing, despite our Sunday affirmations and mountaintop experiences.

That’s why Der Viator is a wayfarer. Sadly, I don’t know whither the path leads or whether it leads anywhere at all. If you’re spiritually inclined and yet feel adrift in a sea of uncertainty, I would recommend that you read, say, William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience or Leo Tolstoy’s Confession. Better yet, read Hamlet’s soliloquy “To be or not to be.” It won’t take you long to read it and unlike life it does have CliffsNotes. For those of you who have little time or proclivity for reading words on a page and are schooled more in popular culture than literature or history, I have a fun assignment for you. Listen to Missing Person’s “Destination Unknown” or Kansas’s “Carry on My Wayward Son.” Poets, musicians and your own heart tell you that life involves a road and a destination, though the former will be hard to identify and the latter will prove elusive.

When I was a junior in college I took a literature course on John Milton. The professor had us read two texts: Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes. Hopefully I’m not Satan, but “paradise lost” resonates with me deeply.  In Milton’s hands, Samson, blinded and imprisoned by the Philistines, sought God’s guidance desperately in the darkness of his circumstances. Similarly, I agonize over the meaningless and despair that envelope me. Like Milton’s Samson, I'm a blind man in a Greek tragedy trying to unloosen his chains.

Let us finish this pathetic soliloquy of my own with Albrecht Dürer’s 1514 engraving pictured at the top. Hands down, Dürer is my favorite artist of all time. Perhaps that’s not a revelation coming from someone who’s spent years studying the German Renaissance. I’ve visited his house in Nuremberg and have a dozen mongraphs about his life and work sitting on my bookshelf. I’ve always found the iconography of Melencolia I particularly intriguing. Art critics have debated the exact meaning of the winged Melancholia and the other objects in the scene. It’s likely, though, that Dürer wanted to convey the melancholy that results when human ingenuity and creativity, when our efforts to explore the mysteries of the universe, are stifled by our intellectual insufficiency and the constraints of time. Dürer is working with certain motifs of his era. The theory of the temperaments, based upon a pseudo-medical theory stemming back to Galen, is at work here, as is the purported astrological influence of Saturn.I don’t purport to know exactly what’s going on in the picture, but I’ve certainly consulted the many art historians who’ve weighed in on it, Erwin Panofsky above all. The disconsolate figure of Melancholia sits wide-eyed amidst objects of science lying about in disarray around her.  In the background looms an unexplored universe beyond the horizon. So many questions and so little time inevitably lead one to melancholy

Agnosticism is not a comfortable place for me. Who can blame anyone—theists and atheists alike—for trying to affirm anything about life’s meaning? It’s the source of my melancholy. I don’t suffer from a lack of serotonin, nor do I need cognitive behavioral therapy. Alas! Not knowing whether there’s a purpose to it all and realizing that time is running out is an ailment of the soul that no anti-depressant could ever alleviate.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

An April Day or the Unbearable Darkness of Being

A nice April day can affect my disposition in a positive way, turning my inherent melancholy and self-inflicted Calvinist outlook into an appreciation for people and life experiences. Would that I always had such respite from my lugubrious nature. Would that I didn’t use subjunctive auxiliary verbs like would.

Take today for instance. The weather was great. I went out for a six-mile run about 10am this morning at a large park down the road. The soccer fields looked like a bright green and yellow blanket, as the dandelions are at their peak. In probably less than a month they’ll turn white and ugly and become a nuisance to people with allergies. This observation made me think of the ephemeral nature of our existence. Inevitably I reflected yet again on the meaninglessness of life. Here today and gone tomorrow, right? Fortunately I managed to shake this thought off as I powered my rotting carcass up “Suicide Hill,” a steep and long grassy embankment that in the wintertime provides a sledder’s delight.

After the run, as I’m wont to do, I stopped in at Starbucks and flirted with the baristas. Just seeing if you’re paying attention! Der Viator flirting? Actually what I do is stare at these gals with glossy eyes, grabbing my crotch and speaking in a low guttural voice. I like to scare people, you see, sometimes intentionally, as in this instance, but usually it just happens unintentionally.  But it’s difficult to come across like a psychopath when you’re ordering an iced cinnamon dolce latte with skim and a pinch of vanilla.   Later on in my car I pondered the number of serial killers who have ordered this particular drink.  I estimated the number 32, but that's total speculation.  I supposed they'd go for more potent stuff, though, like an Americano with an extra shot, say.   I also wondered how many serial killers were currently sitting in a Starbucks throughout the United States while I was ordering my drink—a lot, I'm sure.  I don't begrudge them frequenting a coffee shop, for they need their caffeinated beverage like anyone else.  Besides, as long as they're sitting in Starbucks, I figured, they're not slashing the throat of a bound victim in a remote desert area or torturing prostitutes in a makeshift underground bunker.  Again, chalk it up to April for helping me see the positive side of things.

I still had a couple of hours before work so I went home and sat outside with the cats to finish The Red Badge of Courage. Again, my mind veered in the direction of death and dying. It’s the cats’ fault. The other morning around 4am I let Auggie, Ulrik and Ursula out the sliding glass door; I had had enough of their bitching and moaning.  They immediately proceeded to pounce on a hapless bunny who happened to be near the door as they exited.  The squeaking was deafening.  Finally my wife went out there to put a stop to it.  I did nothing about it, however, for I know it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, or cat-torture-bunny world, as the case may be.

This evening I've now turned introspective.  I don’t know what’s got into me lately. I mean, I used to be tough and mean. I’m still somewhat misanthropic and standoffish, but I’ve softened a bit, and such sentimentality disturbs me. First of all, I bought a Michael Bublé CD at Sam’s Club yesterday. I couldn’t leave the house today without spraying on my neck and arms Mango Mandarin body splash from Bath & Body Works.  An Air Supply song came on the car radio and I didn’t change the station. Indeed, I was on a station that would play such music. I uttered Thank you so much! a number of times this week, despite the presence of so indicating womanliness.  I think I even used the word cute.  I’ve become that which I hate: an effeminized dandy.  Anyway, thank you so much for listening.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Call a Spade a Spade?

April 24 is an important date for the Armenian Diaspora and anyone concerned about international justice. Your calendar book might have it as Genocide Remembrance Day. On this date U.S. presidents, ever so careful in parsing their words, have weighed in on a tragic event that occurred during World War I. Both Armenians and Turks (the latter perhaps begrudgingly) will at least agree on this innocuous description. The former group claims that the Ottoman Empire, under the guidance of a wicked triumvirate in the dim twilight of imperial grandeur, masterminded the rape and slaughter of about 1.5 million Armenians. Most Western historians agree. The Republic of Turkey to this day maintains that at best 300,000 Armenians died and largely as a result of wartime conditions, not genocide.

On this date in 1915 Ottoman authorities arrested over two-hundred Armenian elite in Istanbul. Armenians see this incident as the beginning of the genocide. Inauspicious events had already been transpiring, however. The government had been disarming Armenians serving in the Ottoman army since February. Armenians in the Anatolian city of Van were already growing alarmed about an order to hand over weapons and started to put up what would be a futile resistance.  German army medic Armin Wegener secretly took the photo above and against his government's orders documented the horrors he witnessed.

For a number of years Armenian-Americans have been pushing for an Armenian Genocide resolution in congress, the idea being that the U.S. government would officially recognize the slaughter almost a century ago as a bona fide genocide. Such recognition, so goes the defense, would befit a nation that is committed to human rights and has a “proud history” in opposing the Armenian genocide. Peter Balakian, in his book The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response (2004), has documented American aid to Armenians in both the massacres of the 1890s and the 1915 slaughter. (The photo depicts an orphanage of Armenians expressing gratitude for U.S. aid.)  If we look to the White House in more recent times, though, only President Reagan, back in April of 1981, referred to the “genocide of the Armenians.” President Obama, despite his promises as a candidate, did not deliver the goods in his commemorative message this year; he made no mention of the word genocide today. Why?

Simply put, there’s a lot at stake. Turkish-American relations have stood the test of time, as the national interests of both countries have yielded mutual benefits. We strongly supported Turkey’s entrance into NATO back in the postwar era—the first and to date only Islamic nation in the military alliance. For its part, the Republic of Turkey was a strategic partner throughout the Cold War. It continues to work with us in the current War on Terror, or whatever we’re calling this conflict nowadays. Above all, the airbases at Adana and Incirlik provide high strategic value for our military. Overall, the geopolitical importance of Turkey, a nation of 80 million bestriding the northern reach of the Middle East and situated at the gateway between Europe and Asia, needs little explanation. The United States has pressed ardently for Turkey’s admission in the European Union, despite a weary Germany and an obstructionist France. Notwithstanding this dual alliance, borne more of fast friends than any deep ties between the cultures, Turkey has threatened to server ties with America should we insist on calling a spade a spade. The Armenian genocide pricks the national consciousness of Ataturk’s Republic more than anything else. House Resolution 252, should it pass, would require the president to “characterize the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1,500,000 Armenian as genocide.” As far as the Turks are concerned, this resolution would amount to utter betrayal, for the tacit and not-so-tacit agreement with U.S. policymakers is the sine qua non of Turkish diplomacy.

To a certain extent I understand Turkey’s position on the matter. We too have skeletons in our closet. What we did to the Indians of North America is genocide pure and simple. Yet have we owned up to it? The answer is unequivocally no. Like the Turks, we don’t want to think of our nation, our ancestors, as mass murderers of an ethnic group. Moreover, the legal and financial morass that would ensue after such an admission would be unending. I get it. But as I call the so-called “Plains Indians War” ethnic cleansing at best and really just an episode in a long process of genocide, I likewise believe that the events of 1915 fit the definition of genocide. Some argue that Turkey needs the United States more than vice-versa, and so we shouldn’t be concerned about their threats to cut diplomatic ties. I don’t take this view. Turkey is serious about this issue, and I happen to agree with George Friedman, the founder of Stratfor, a highly credible private intelligence agency. In his book The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, he argues that Turkey will be a major player in world affairs in the coming decades. Don’t mess with the Turks.

As Der Viator Blog readers know, I’ve spent time in Istanbul and hope to visit other regions of the country in the future. I’m a Turcophile. I have devoured books on the Ottoman Empire and Attaturk. I love the food, the culture, the people, and the language (even if I’ve had little success in learning it!). You would find evidence of my love for Turkey on the walls of my house; the white crescent and star against a red background and the glass nazars (amulets to ward of the evil eye) adorn a few rooms. I’ve been known to wear a fez in the classroom. Orhan Pamuk is my favorite living novelist (albeit he fell afoul of the Turkish government in 2006 for expressing his view on the Armenian genocide). I think the European Union should have admitted Turkey years ago. Above all, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century, and my respect for his achievement (including his war record) and moral courage is matched only by Winston Churchill. I do not come at this topic as a foe to Turkey. No. But you have to call a spade a spade. Humanity demands it.

We should keep in mind that the Republic of Turkey grew out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Technically speaking, Ataturk’s government had nothing to do with the genocide. As historian Taner Akçam has shown, the first president of Turkey called the genocide a “shameful act.” I suppose someone will point out that Ataturk has blood on his hands with regard to the Anatolian Greeks, and I don’t want to diminish his dark side, as it were; but Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt are not without their blemishes too.

The world from a blog is a simple place, but here’s my two cents anyway. The Republic of Armenia, in consultation with the Armenian Diaspora in Britain, Canada and the United States should come to an agreement with Turkey: you officially state that 1915 was an act of genocide and we won’t bring up any legal battles for financial and land restitution. I’m a dreamer, I know. Understandably, I'm sure that not a few Armenians would see restitution as intrinsic to a mea culpa; one should back up words with action.  Besides, the financial and legal issues are secondary for Turks; no nation worth it’s weight in gold (and Turkey is a proud nation with many great achievements) would willingly tarnish its self-image as an honorable people with a venerable past. With the aforementioned Native American genocide in mind, we certainly aren’t leading by example. We have a log in our own eye.  In keeping with the spade metaphor, however, I'll say that the Turks could rightfully thrown dirt in our face over this issue.  Gradually we're coming to terms with our past, but it will be a long uphill journey.  Even President Reagan, otherwise known for his sunny optimism about America, recognized our predicament: “Our nation, too, has a legacy of evil with which it must deal."  But he hastened to add: "The glory of this land has been its capacity for transcending the moral evils of our past.”  Ataturk wanted a complete break from the Ottoman past.  It's time the great Republic of Turkey confront its ghosts and properly bury the dead.

2010 is a highly charged political year in our country. The Republicans expect to gain a number of seats in both chambers of congress. Speculation is that candidates will try and garner Armenian-American votes this November by paying lip service to opposing HR 252. (Presumably the Armenian-American lobby is more powerful and numerous than the Turkish-American lobby.) Who knows?

The first chapter in Norman Naimark’s Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe is the best succinct description and explanation of the genocide. For anyone who is interested in this topic but doesn’t want to read a history book, check out Atom Egoyan’s movie Ararat (2002) or read Elif Shafak’s novel The Bastard of Istanbul (2007). They handle the topic circumspectively.  But Teddy Roosevelt, speaking only a few years before his death, gets the last word. His was a voice crying in the wilderness.

The Armenian massacre was the greatest crime of the war, and failure to act against Turkey is to condone it; because the failure to deal radically with the Turkish horror means that all talk of guaranteeing the future peace of the world is mischievous nonsense… Let me emphatically point out that the sympathy is useless...and that the indignation is useless if it exhausts itself in words instead of taking shape in deeds.

Side note: According to my sources, the expression "call a spade a spade" stems from ancient Greece.   How it took on racial overtones for some I'll never know.  Erasmus of Rotterdam mistranslated the saying, however, back in the early 16th century.  The saying was originally "call a bowl a bowl."  Readers probably know that Erasmus also bequeathed to us Pandora's Box, though the original Greek was Pandora's Jar

Friday, April 23, 2010

Like Sheep to the Slaughter?

Roman Polanski should do time for raping a thirteen-year-old girl. The renowned Hollywood actors and directors who have defended him make me sick. That said, I admit he can make some good movies, The Pianist (2002) being one of them. I watched it again this past weekend. It’s a superb film, and Adrien Brody seemed tailor-made for the role of the protagonist, Władysław Szpilman, whose real account of his experience in Warsaw during the Holocaust forms the basis of the film. Polanski and his team painstakingly replicated the Warsaw ghetto from numerous photos and film reel taken by the Nazis and rank and file German soldiers. A central event in the movie is the Warsaw ghetto uprising, a brave but ultimately futile attempt to resist deportation to death factories.

Jews didn’t go down without a fight. Taking up arms with a few rifles and Molotov cocktails at the Warsaw ghetto and Sobibor concentration camps are the most dramatic examples of such resistance.  Overall, revolts occurred in forty ghettos and numerous concentration camps.  Jews and presumably some non-Jewish inmates as well braved the vicious dogs, search lights, machine guns, and barbed-wire fences.  We could also point to makeshift militias organized in the woods for self-defense, like that of the Bielski brothers depicted in the movie Defiance (2008). We have many stories of individual and group resistance in just about every step in the process of mass murder.

Sometimes I fear that prevalent assumptions about Jewish passivity, unexamined as they are, imply, unintentionally or otherwise, that they went like sheep to the slaughter, almost as if they deserved their fate. Perish the thought! We don’t understand how a totalitarian regime works, blessed as we are living in a democracy bordered by two oceans. It’s easy for 21st-century Americans sitting in Starbucks with their iPhone and laptop at hand to pontificate about the putative failure to resist evil on the part of target groups subjected to oppressive and invasive regimes elsewhere in time and space. Besides, anyone who’s studied the so-called Third Reich knows how sneakily the SS operated their killing machine. Lastly, those Jews who didn’t ostensibly resist were done in by their own humanity. They couldn’t possibly fathom what was in store for them. Who can blame them for that? No, victims of genocide the world over do go to their slaughter willingly and we simply can’t judge them for the decisions they make or don't make in these dire circumstances.  The label Holocaust, which is the Greek translation for burnt offering in the Septuagint, doesn't help shake this mistaken image of the Jews as some kind of sacrificial lamb.  We can learn from the past, however.  Defiance and hope are strange bedfellows indeed.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Hobbes, Descartes, Voltaire

Hobbes.  Living to the ripe old age of 91, Hobbes had witnessed a bloody century of warfare in his country and on the continent. To make sense of the tumultuous times in which he lived, and basing his insights upon an exhaustive study of antiquity, he hoped to offer a scientific approach to politics and history with the same systematic rigor and airtight logic as a scientific treatise. One can read Leviathan as a justification for an absolutist monarchy, but it’s more broadly a theory about governance based on the reality of human nature, at least his understanding of human nature. A key concept is the "social contract" by which subjects subscribe to the dictates of a ruler in return for security. Subsequent writers like John Locke would argue that the people can renegotiate the contract should a wicked abuse and violate the terms, but Hobbes, living through the English Civil War and conflict-ridden Interregnum, was hesitant to put such constraints on absolute power.

I agree with Hobbes' assessment of human nature, more or less, and that's a matter of opinion. My problem is the political conclusion he draws. If everyone left to their own devices are self-centered and wicked, why give absolute power to one person? Is not the king subject to these vices as well? I am reminded of Winston Churchill's words about democracy: "It's been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." Democracy has flaws, and theorists back in the early modern era feared its potential for anarchy and chaos; but I'd rather err on the democratic side rather than on the monarchical or authoritarian side. I understand what Hobbes is doing. He thinks a strong ruler is the only one who can maintain stability. But again, this monarch is just as flawed and sinful as the rest of us. Granted, as an American living in the 21st century I'm not exactly predisposed to kings and queens ruling over me.

Descartes. The intellectual climate of the seventeenth century included a renewed interest in skepticism. René Descartes was concerned that belief in God and the certitude of Western knowledge would falter under the skeptics’ razor. Resolving to take them on by fighting fire with fire, Descartes doubted everything and in the process found that he could arrive at some fundamental truths.

The French philosopher and mathematician attempted to rebuild an edifice of knowledge in wake of the skeptic's assault. He made assumptions and, frankly, some leaps of faith--all in his efforts to preserve the basis of Western knowledge and, more importantly, the existence of God on whom the assurance of our knowledge of the world rests. Somewhat ironically, earlier theorists considered him to be a radical thinker, but in fact he was quite conservative in terms of his efforts to safeguard tradition. To be sure, his work in mathematics was new and important. His "proof" of God's existence is only a twist on Anselm's ontological argument for God's existence. God would not deceive us, for God is inherently good, according to our understanding. Therefore, our knowledge of the world must be based on reality, for God would not deceive. This is faulty thinking. And Descartes never truly overcomes the "malicious demon" argument that he makes elsewhere. Imagine that an evil demon controls our perceptions. What we take for reality, is a dream or deception. Like Plato and others, he rightly emphasizes the problem with ascertaining knowledge through the scientific method--or empirical method. The senses can deceive us. But in the end how can we ever get around the senses? When one starts speaking of inherent truths in our intellect that one needs to draw out through proper training in philosophy, one comes close to mystical and religious thinking. Skepticism was the current fashion in some of the French universities at the time (17th century). The reason for this in part was the Renaissance. Scholars discovered and had access to ancient skeptical texts from antiquity that they had no knowledge of beforehand. Two schools emerged more or less: Academic skeptics (so named from Plato's Academy in Athens) and Pyrrhonist skepticism (named after an ancient Greek thinker). Academic skeptics say: "We can't know anything." But Pyrrhonist skeptics are more far-reaching and not so dogmatic. They say: "I don't know if I know anything. Maybe I do. I just don't know."

Like most thinkers and critics, Descartes was better at deconstructing than constructing a system. His method of doubt (dispensing with those beliefs of which he could not be certain) showed that things that we take to be true and unassailable are in fact not so. However, after employing doubt, Descartes wanted to reconstruct a new edifice based on basic truths that remained after his assault. He ended up using some of the assumptions that he had destroyed in his earlier method of doubt. He did not prove the existence of God. He made some leaps in his constructive phase.

Voltaire. 
I used to frown on Voltaire, for I saw him as a God-hating dandy who loves the limelight; but I've come to appreciate him, and Candide, perhaps his most popular work, is the main reason. Voltaire experienced hardship and injustice in his life, and he strove to fight against injustice, quite courageously at times.  J-J Rousseau, his younger contemporary and perhaps the second greatest author of the eighteenth century, experienced a degree of trials and tribulations too, but he was largely a winer. It's easy (and understandable) when someone complains about their suffering and wears his/her heart on the sleeve. But I admire those who take the road less travelled, those who hide their pain for the sake of others, or who at least do not dwell on their own victimhood. I think Voltaire was one of these types, for the most part. I've heard him described as the "laughing philosopher." He liked to enjoy life. But rather than see him as a shallow, sanguine person, I look upon him as someone who triumphed over adversity in a positive way; that's harder to do, less natural perhaps, than being Mr. or Mrs. glum. Voltaire's conclusion about the problem of evil, as stated at the end of Candide, is simply to "tend ones garden." There are certain things we'll never understand. Let's just focus on our own sphere of influence.

With Candide Voltaire is using an outlandish story to take on the problem of evil, and along the way he’s poking fun at social customs and political figures of his day. A few decades earlier the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz sought to solve this problem: How can we reconcile belief in an omniscient, omnipotent, and providential God with a world of pain and suffering? Leibniz argued that the world we live in, warts and all, is the “best of all possible worlds.” Pain and suffering, when seen in a larger perspective, is part of a divine plan and is ultimately for the good, though we might not always understand this bigger perspective from our limited vantage point. Voltaire thought that this view, or at least a popular application of this view, was callous and too apt to downplay the awful things that people suffer. His character, Dr. Pangloss, is a caricature of the Leibnizian view. An earthquake in Lisbon killing thousands of people as they worshiped in church on All Saints’ Day is also in the backdrop of Voltaire’s satire. It occurred a few years before Voltaire wrote Candide.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Axe or Guillotine: That is the Question

If you had to have your head whacked off, would you rather have an axe like Charles I of England or the guillotine like Louis XVI? Just wondering. Usually the guillotine is better than an axe. It took a few whacks with the axe to behead Mary Queen of Scots. But I suppose the guillotine tech could be sleeping on his job too and neglect to sharpen the blade once in a while. Joseph Guillotine's invention was a product of the Enlightenment era, as he intended his new device to be cleaner, quicker, and more humane as a method of killing. Moreover, commoners and nobles alike would be able to use it. Back in the day, commoners were hanged and nobles were axed. Tis nobler to suffer from the axe, evidently. 

Check out Robespierre to the right decapitating some poor sap who purportedly was a counter-revolutionary.  The artist has him trampling on the founding principles of the French Revolution.  Naughty Max was hoisted by his own petard in 1794.  Not being a noble himself, he was able to enjoy the fruits of the Enlightenment.  I suppose this subject is not a pleasant one, but it might pay off to think about it.  I mean, if you're given the choice you'd want to have your answer ready. 

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Son of Perdition


Today, April 20, is Hitler’s birthday. No, I’m not celebrating it. It’s one of those freaky dates permanently lodged in my primate brain, like those other April days in history I mentioned in an earlier blog. If he were alive today, he’d be 121 years old. Unfortunately, Hitler indeed lives on in the hearts and minds of certain people. Aryan gangbangers, for instance, tattoo their knuckles with 4-20-89, Hitler’s birth date. More generally, the evil dictator still casts his dark shadow over Western civilization. Historians have often pointed to Churchill, FDR, or Hitler as the “Man of the Century.” For my two cents, Hitler was the most significant. I'm not alone in saying this.  After all, why do so many prophecies supposedly predict Hitler as the coming Son of Perdition, from St. John to Nostradamus to the Mayans?  They're not predicting the arrival of FDR, are they?  Hitler reminds us all that we can’t equate technological or societal progress with our much longer moral development as a species. The former is in no way a gauge for the latter.  I’ve already written about Hitler in this blog, and I’ve explained my interest in him. Allow me one more musing.

Look closely at the image above, "The Wild Hunt." One of Hitler’s favorite artists, Franz von Stuck, painted it the year of his birth.  The Teutonic god on horseback looks uncannily similar to Hitler, as Robert Waite argues in his book The Psychopathic God, a study that is not without dubious and unsubstantiated views on Hitler. Perhaps the image made such an impression on Hitler that he resolved to alter his appearance later in life so as to look like a Wagnerian deity. That he had such a grandiose self-image despite his humble beginnings is clear to most students of history. Similarly, Hermann Göring boasted at Nuremberg after the war that they’d be making statues of him decades later. Despite conventional wisdom, most serial killers and genocidal rulers do not lack in self-esteem. Roy Baumeister, in his book Evil: Inside Human Cruelty and Violence, disabuses us of this notion.  Fortunately, the only ones hateful enough to try and build such monuments to the Nazi past sit in prisons with tattooed knuckles or are otherwise despised by mainstream society.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Brits in Afghanistan

The lessons of history reverberate across the ice-capped peaks of the Hindu Kush and through the windswept fields of the southern plains. Arguably, the set of circumstances that led to the wintry massacre of the “Army of the Indus” in the mid 19th century has similarly led Royal Marines to take and retake Taliban-controlled villages in Helmand Province. Fortunately Western troops today are better equipped than their colonial forbears, and Britain currently has about 9,500 troops in Afghanistan. But let’s look at some similarities between the present conflict and the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42).

The latter occurred at the beginning of the “Great Game,” the 19th-century contest between the British and Russian Empires to control territory and trade throughout Central Asia. In an effort to thwart Russian intervention in Afghanistan, the British propped up an exiled former king of Afghanistan, Shah Shuja, because they couldn’t work with the present ruler of Afghanistan and worried about a Russian occupation through client rulers in Persia (Iran). British Parliament agreed to fund the restoration of Shuja provided that no British troops were involved. In retrospect, the Brits erred in thinking that the Afghan populace would accept an unpopular puppet ruler. To add insult to injury, the Brits hoped that the Sikhs, enemies of the Afghans at the time, could help them install the king. Inevitably, Britain went beyond financial support and military training to commit troops to the campaign. Logistical problems and hostile tribes hindered them along the way, but, as it turned out, the Brits crossed the Indus, toppled the regime, and installed Shuja at Kabul with relative ease.

Unfortunately the early welcome from the population of Kabul quickly waned and the British were stuck. If they pulled out, the Shah’s power would wither and the country would fall apart at the seams. Because of unrest in India, as well as protests at home, the majority of the 20,000 troops returned across the Indus. Left behind was a token force in Kabul and Kandahar. Vulnerable and exposed in ill-conceived cantonments, British soldiers did not help their case by offending local sensibilities with alcohol and womanizing. The writing was on the wall when London cut funds and tribes no longer received their bribes. Rebellion ensued. In the winter of 1842 the retreating 4,500-strong British force suffered the worst defeat since the American Revolution. Only one wounded man reached the Jalalabad garrison.

The British intended to make Afghanistan a buffer zone between the Bear of the North and the Jewel of the British Empire, India. Similarly, OEF, a response to 911, has provided the United States with an opportunity to establish permanent airbases in Central Asia, an area up to that point untouched by U.S. military. At the backdoor of Russia and China, the aspiring rivals to U.S. global hegemony, airbases in Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan have key geostrategic value. Relatively speaking, the current war on terror in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world is child’s play compared to a potential conflagration between the great powers in 20 to 30 years. Russia is chomping at the bit to regain its place as a superpower in opposition to the United States. To be sure, the Kremlin has an interest in stabilizing Afghanistan to curtail drug trafficking and Islamist militancy, but the same geostrategic interest that motivated the Tsarist Empire during the “Great Game” is at work here too. Russia is resuming military aid to Afghanistan in order to maintain a presence in the region. Specifically, the former Soviet Union is keeping an eye on the U.S. and protecting its interests in oil and natural gas pipelines across the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Reflections on the Thirty Years War

Historians of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) inevitably pose or wrestle with the perennial question: Is it a war of religion or politics?  Traditionally, in history books and the like, the conflict provides a bookend to the “Confessional Age,” or “Age of Reformation,” a tumultuous era starting with Luther’s appearance at the Diet of Worms in 1521. The thirty-year conflict, in this context, is the last gasp of confessional-based diplomacy and fanatical violence in the name of God; yet, the combatant states were clearly engaging in Realpolitik. Catholic France formed an alliance with Protestant Sweden in its ongoing attempt to thwart the dynastic ambitions of the Catholic Habsburg dominions on its eastern and southern flanks.

While early modern historians see both piety and politics as an intertwined causa belli, military historians consider new precedents in the history of warfare. With perhaps only part of their tongues in cheek, some have suggested that the decades-long struggle was the first World War. It was not only the most devastating conflict in Europe to date; it unleashed a few global skirmishes in the colonial possessions abroad, largely between the imperial titans France and Britain. For my part, the Seven Years War of the subsequent century provides a better candidate for a pre-World War I world war. One cannot deny the brutality of the Thirty Years War—a brutality that presumably has roots in religious passion. But I am not entirely convinced that religious wars—if the Thirty Years War is such—are any more vindictive and atrocity-ridden then the dynastic and territorial wars of old. The Japanese troops’ sadistic murders of the inhabitants of Nanking, for instance, had no ideological dimension other than imperial conquest and racial hate.

On a side note, some historians are trying to introduce the term "The New Thirty Years War" to refer to WWI and WWI collectively as one long conflict from 1914 to 1945.  The new here of course hearkens back to the 17th-century struggle.  While students often dismiss the idea as ridiculous when I mention it in class, the term is not without some merit.  For the most part, both world wars had the same combatants lining up against each other.  Moreover, the unresolved issues that ended the first war led to the second one.  A mere twenty-one years divided the two conflicts.  Since were only about seventy years out from World War II and its devastation is still on our collective consciousness (enhanced in no small part by excellent documentaries and movies), we're apt to separate the first war from the second.  But I wonder if, say, two-hundred years from now people will bother to make such a distinction.  Who bothers to distinguish the three separate conflicts between the Spartans and Athenians of 5th century BCE when the Peloponnesian War will suffice?  The further in time the world wars of the twentieth century recede, the more likely we'll interpret them as one entity.

With one cheesy exception, Hollywood has virtually ignored the Thirty Years War, even if you'll find movies on Stuart England and the Three Musketeers that are set in the early 17th century.  The exception is "The Last Valley" (1970) which is based on a mediocre novel (which I once dug out of a dusty shelf at the university library).  It stars no less than Omar Sharif and one of my favorite actors of all time, Michael Caine.  The premise of the story is a good one.  A motley band of cutthroat mercenaries under the command of a war-weary and enigmatic commander winter at a remote alpine village in presumably Southern Germany.  A lone refugee, a former teacher who lost his family in the massacre at Magdeburg, witnesses the devastation of war and the ravages of plague before he too stumbles into this idyllic sanctuary.  The backdrop of the film is spectacular, but the production and acting (Sharif and Caine excluded) is, as I say, cheesy.  The director, James Clavell, has an obvious anti-religious bent characteristic of movies in this period.  The scenes depicting witchcraft are awful, based more on pop culture than historical reality.  The film is a product of the times.

All is not lost.  Both the "Captain" and "Vogel," the characters played by Caine and Sharif respectively, manage to utter a few introspective statements about war and the human condition.  Desperate for anything on this war, I squeezed out a decent 10-minute excerpt to show in my European history courses.  The scene conveys, to my mind, the complexity of labeling the war a religious conflict; some of the mercenaries almost come to blows over their religious differences, and yet they're fighting together for nothing more than good old-fashioned booty.  (I employ the word booty, which inevitably gets snickers in class, in the traditional sense, mind you!).  Hollywood could find some excellent material in this war for an epic movie, but then again I'm afraid of the end product.  Judging from today's fare of blockbusters, film moguls and directors would likely throw some vampires, zombies and blue creatures into the battlefield to spruce things up.  Destroying history is not my idea of poetic license, however.  For my two cents, if the cinematic powers that be allow another movie set in the Thirty Years War, Ridley Scott's the man for the job.

Unless you're an avid student of the 17th century, and the Thirty Years Wars in particular, stay away from the film.  I wouldn't want it to diminish your interest in this historical period.  But I'll give readers a heads-up: I'll be coming back to this topic every now and then.  Stay tuned for my discussion of the destruction of Magdeburg in 1631 next month.  You're waiting with bated breath, I can tell!  I realize that female readers as a rule are less interested in war and the military as topics.  I also know that readers today are interested in current issues and to the extent that they might consider a historical topic it will be American history.  Der Viator tries to accommodate everyone in this blog.  Keep in mind that my occasional preoccupation with war is less about military tactics and battle formations and more about the search for meaning in a post-Nietzschean world.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

"Get to Shoot an M16 and Eat that awesome Army Chow!" (1/4)

Evidently April is a military month for me.  I have another three-day drill coming up, having just finished one yesterday.  And I arrived back from the California mission only four days ago!  Heck, I decided to read The Red Badge of Courage to keep my mind in a military mode.  This morning was a good day.  I was out on the M9 range at Fort Elroy (pseudonym) from 8am until the early afternoon shooting a pistol and helping soldiers get through weapons qualification.  Shooting pop-up targets with a 9mm pistol outside on a perfect April day.  What more could one ask?  It was one of those days when I'm glad I joined the army.  But it's been quite a journey.

I suppose now is as good a time as any to tell you the tale of my decision to enter the military at a late stage in my life.  I enlisted five years ago, April 8 to be exact, two days shy of my 40th birthday.  The Army Reserve had just extended the age limit from 35 to 39 in March of 2005.  (It's now up to 42!)  I found out about this change in policy by happenstance on a news program about a week before my birthday, so I had little time to reflect.  At the time I must have been the oldest guy going through basic training.  What with my education and all, I could have joined as an officer, but I opted to go from the very bottum up, enlisting as a Specialist (the highest rank for a new soldier with a college education).

So there I was: a forty-year-old at basic training.  Once the cattle car opened up, drill sergeants subjected us to a barrage of insults and yelling.  These guys were on average 8 years my junior, but I took it.  It didn't take long for it to slip that I had a college education.  "Well, what do we have here?  A college boy!  You think you're too smart, huh?  Just cuz I have a GED?  Is that it?  Hey, sergeants, come over here.  We got here a smartass.  College boy!"

The nine weeks of basic training are a hardship, no doubt about it.  I would just roll my eyes whenever I heard a young soldier put on his macho voice and say how much he enjoyed it.  Yet, apart from the sleep deprivation and standing for what seemed an eternity in formations, I truly had a good time.  Fort Leonard Wood in June and July is not pleasant.  But I learned how to clean and shoot an M16, got in top physical shape, got in a fight, and learned a host of other skills that I would have learned otherwise.

To my credit, I didn't have any issues with the physical fitness requirements.  I had about seven weeks from before basic training and I used them well.  I took on a strict workout regimen involving weights, running, and swimming.  I did not want my age to be a factor.  My discipline paid off.  I've received high scores for the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) ever since.  Moreover, I have never been on sick call nor have I had a profile.  For the uninitiated, "sick call" is shorthand for skipping out on phystical fitness in the morning or duty in general to visit the physician.  "Profile" is parlance for having a written excuse that absolves from running or working out, depending on one's physical issue.

Needless to say, not a few drill sergeants looked at me warily.  What's this old guy doing here?  I remember kidding around with a couple of them.  I told them I was actually an investigative reporter for 20/20 doing a research on basic training.  They laughed in such a way that I knew they didn't know if I was serious or not.

I'm not a journalist, but I did view my experience through the lens of a historian and sociologist.  For instance, religion is a curious thing.  The military provides various venues for soldier's Like Henry Fleming, the protagonist in The Red Badge of Courage, I also took in my experience as if I was another person looking out.

So why did I join?  That's a good question.  Ever since October 2001 when we sent troops into Afghanistan, deep down I wanted to do my part in defending hearth and home.  So, not to sound sappy or jingoistic, but duty to country was my initial motivation.  Without little luck on the job market, moreover, I figured I've got nothing to lose.  I considered enlisting when I was 21 years old until a friend talked me out of it.

When young soldiers asked me why I joined the army at a late stage in life, I'd give them my quick answer: You get to shoot an M16 and eat that awesome army chow!  Why should I open up to any Tom, Dick or Harry my real reason for joining?  I wanted to serve this great country of ours, pure and simple.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Rise of Nationalism in the Middle East

I’ve already discussed the Ottoman Empire in a couple blogs this month. Permit me to address the rise of nationalist movements that occurred in the Middle East as the Empire was on its last legs. Of the many “isms” that dotted the political landscape of Europe in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the ideology of nationalism became a kind of secular religion. Subjugated peoples clamored for political autonomy and instigated irredentist movements. The most momentous geopolitical event in 19th-century Europe is the national unification of Germany in 1871, a monumental achievement built upon regional wars, cunning, and exceptional diplomacy. For decades Germans had called for a political unity to match the cultural unity they had already shared. They had the same language, history, and customs—albeit with wide regional diversity. As part of a larger entity called the Holy Roman Empire, the German lands encompassed a complex patchwork of kingdoms, duchies, archbishoprics, territorial principalities, and imperial cities. Once it attained national consolidation under the auspices of its strongest state, Prussia, the new German Empire became a military giant and industrial powerhouse.

The rise of Germany, Italy, and other nation states was not lost on Middle Eastern scholars and university students visiting Europe and lamenting the state of affairs in their homeland. Nationalism offered Westernizing Muslims an ideology by which they could challenge the imperial policies that had divided their people and unite their countrymen under more liberating allegiances. Nationalists in the Middle East would make modest gains before World War I, but their efforts in countries like Turkey, Egypt, and Iran would come to fruition later on. In an ironic twist of history European powers would be hoisted by their own petard, for Arabs, Persians, Turks and Jews—as well as the subjugated peoples in South and Southeast Asia—made their case for independence from the British and French Empires on the basis of European ideas.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Homeland

I live in one of the greatest states in the Union, a region known for its natural beauty and hardy people with a can-do attitude. I’m blessed to raise a family here.  Still, it doesn’t compare to California. Nothing does, and I’ve traversed a few patches of this globe—Istanbul, Kabul, Tokyo, Munich, Montreal, Zurich. Touching down at LAX or driving through Needles over the border is a homecoming experience, even after all this time away. I moved from the West Coast when I was a wide-eyed young man bent on graduate school.  I turned down an offer at UCLA because I wanted to experience something different.  But I have visited my parents and in-laws every now and then over the years. Each time I’m reminded of the Golden State’s charms. If you were to ask me my impression of California earlier this morning, though, I would have grumbled a bit. I found the standstill traffic on the Bay Bridge quite vexing. I made it to SFO for my flight, but not without experiencing one of the state's few demerits: freeway gridlock.

As I’m waiting for the plane to take off let me recount the last few days. Writing in my notebook will help me ignore the rotund Wisconsin woman who’s complaining to a flight attendant about the kid allegedly kicking her seat.  She explains with obvious crocodile tears that she has a slip disk. Boy, would I love to get out my air violin right now, but I'll behave; I'll be sitting next to her for the next two and half hours.  Lucky me.  Unfortunately, dear readers, I’ll have to violate the non-S-word policy of this blog just one time here, because, if you'll allow me a crass colloquialism, she’s a piece of shit. (But I love her in God’s way, as we used to say.) Then there’s Mr. Halitosis, an Asian businessman seated to my left across the aisle, evidently not far enough away. Woe is me, wretch that I am! And did I mention that the plane is about 48 minutes late because they thought there was a fuel leak? If I didn’t, here goes: the plane is 48 minutes late because of an imagined fuel leak.

California is big, but it’s the little things that quicken my soul or at least reel me in. It’s spotting Del Taco or Carl’s Jr. signs on my way down I-5 to L.A.  It's the furrowed mountains and hills in all directions. It's the complaining about 60-degree weather.  It’s knowing that even amid a torrential rainfall a sunny sky won’t be long in coming. It’s the ethnic diversity.  Blue sky. Adobe rooftops. Fancy, shiny cars. Ever ready supply of new condos, apartments, and housing tracts. Liberals grumbling about the right-wing local newspaper and governing council. Conservatives lamenting the liberal cesspool around them.  The obligatory and ubiquitous supply of idiots, morons, and imbeciles.  And it's the exciting and disconcerting prospect of experiencing the Mother of All Quakes (having already paid my dues with three big earthquakes in my lifetime).

As mentioned in a previous blog entry, I arrived in the Bay Area last week for military training as a reservist. I stayed at the Hilton Hotel in Concord and each day would make visitations with the soldiers of my unit located throughout an old naval shipyard now operated by the Army. I attended briefings in the morning and late afternoon, all the while giving the illusion that I’m interested in what’s going on. I’m sure I wasn't the only one.

While chewing the fat at the rail tower, my soldiers, largely midwestern guys (and a gal), made mention of the liberal culture they perceived around them. To be sure, a soldier near Berkeley needs to exercise caution; yet, as an exCaliforniate, I would just smile as they exaggerate the threat. While in uniform I did some shopping and got some downtime at a coffee shop in between military obligations on the base. Two guys came up to me thanking me for my service, albeit they were Vietnam vets. Last Friday I was sitting at an outside table at Starbucks enjoying the sun and an iced Venti Americano. A fifty-year-old woman with a serious tan walks by pushing a motor scooter. She tells me she’s anti-war, but she’s appreciative of soldiers because they're just doing their job, or something to this effect. To her credit, she was a leftist with bit of perspective, not a radical weirdo (which has a counterpart on the far right).

So much for the Bay Area! I love it, having lived a couple of years in Santa Cruz, not too far south; but I’m not Tony Bennett. I left my heart in the Los Angeles area, though I don’t fully realize my emotional connection until I've visited.

Early Monday morning I drove five hours and 330 miles south from Concord to Santa Clarita to visit my parents and siblings for a couple of days. We celebrated my birthday at a Mexican restaurant.  The next day I lounged around the neighborhood pool, basking in the sun and making serious headway on my novel. Observe the photo above. These strange-looking primates are my family. You'll note on the table before me a margarita, which, when drunk after a healthy dose of Jack Daniel's back at my sister's place a half hour prior, makes for a delightful afternoon.  After the waiter took this photo with my sister's cell phone, some of the restaurant staff sang Happy Birthday and gave me a serving of flan with a candle on it.  How cool is that?!  I'll answer for you: moderately cool at best.  In all due respect, Mexicans never figured out the dessert thing too well. (We should have taken over the whole frickin' country when we had the chance back in 1848!  Ever had sweet concha bread?  That's supposed to be a pastry?  Besides, concha is Spanish slang for vagina.  What the hell?  Order a concha and some Mexican buns in Argentina and you'll get a surprise!)

It ain’t over until the fat Wisconsin lady in the seat next to me snores. We're landing in Denver now and I'll have only ten minutes to find my connecting flight...

I pride myself on being a social chameleon, someone who can adapt to just about any context or situation.  While visiting L.A. area, though, I realize that I've brought a Southern Californian sensibility and demeanor with me wherever I go and in whatever social context I find myself.  What that entails exactly I couldn't say for sure.

The family met for dinner the second day of my visit at an Asian restaurant.  Inevitably, my parents have to give either the waitress or cashier a hard time, embarrassing the hell out of me in the process.  I try to deal with the embarrassment by joking about it with my sister, who's had her fill of their restaurant antics as well.  There's always something wrong with their order and they seem convinced that "these people" are out to get them.  My mom drives around in a Camry and lives in an upscale residential area, and yet she pulls a coke bottle from her purse.  I might add that she doesn't attempt to be discreet about it either.

After the meal I suggested that we have a coffee and dessert.  The Starbucks just a few stores down is out of the question, because my dad once yelled at the baristas for cleaning the restroom midday.  It must be nice to have such a high sense of entitlement!  We settled on Corner Bakery Cafe.  So we're sitting at a table sharing a chocolate Bundt cake, right?  A woman walks over and tells my mom that she's beautiful and has a wonderful smile.  Weird, but nice.  I'm not doubting my mom's attractive attributes, but I suspect the woman was complimenting me indirectly and didn't want to be obvious about it.  What with my v-neck t-shirt from Old Navy, I attract more women that I know what to do with, frankly.

Let me fast-forward a bit. I'm now looking at patterns in the landscape out the window of a commuter jet somewhere over the Midwest.  I just did a quick glance down the wing like William Shatner in the Twilight Zone, but all is good.  It won't be long before we touch down.  Wherever it is I call home, I'll probably always feel like a stranger in a strange land.  I'm not so sure geography defines me as much as genetics, but California has left a stamp on my consciousness and affections.  Ironically perhaps, the homeland will never again be home, but it’s a familiar place with a storehouse of good memories.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Ottoman Empire

Besides giving me some great furniture for my living room, the Ottoman Empire carried the torch of Islam into the modern era. The earlier Abbasid Empire, based in Iraq, turned to dust by 1258 under the hooves of fierce horses bearing crack Mongol warriors. For a time thereafter the heartland of the Middle East experienced a power vacuum. Crusading knights from Europe, bearing the cross and unsheathing the sword (crux means cross in Latin), had wreaked havoc in Palestine and Syria since 1096, the start of the First Crusade. The fulcrum of political power in the Islamic world began to shift to Turkic-speaking regions of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey for the most part) and central Asia. The Seljuk Turks first established a significant rival power to the Christian Byzantines, a Greek-speaking people centered by this time in and around the resplendent city of Constantinople. But it was the Ottomans who would go on to conquer the dwindling Byzantine Empire after having subdued other Turkic powers in the region.

Evidently Allah blessed the Ottomans in the first three centuries or so with a succession of gifted sultans—a high caliber of imperial leadership brought about in part by a system of fratricide that cruelly weeded out weaker elements in the ruling house. As a portent of imperial greatness, Osman, the founder of the dynasty, had purportedly dreamed of a tree whose branches and roots stretched far and wide. Were it not for the Ottoman Empire, Islam might have stayed put in the Middle East and parts of North Africa. The spread of the faith in the Abbasid era from the Arabs to diverse ethnic groups in the region had already given Islam the status of a universal religion like Buddhism and the other two Abrahamic faiths (and unlike Hinduism); but it did not yet have global reach. The use of political might, indeed of a powerful state, to aid the territorial expansion of a spiritual movement is a phenomenon common to other world religions as well. For instance, the acceptance of Christianity as a legal religion by the Emperor Constantine, and its status as the state religion of the Roman Empire decades later, ipso facto brought the Palestine-based religion into those areas conquered by Roman legions. Likewise, when the Mauryan ruler Ashoka the Great opted to conquer by righteousness rather than by brutality, having converted to Buddhism after witnessing a horrific battle, Buddhists found a great patron and sponsor of monasteries throughout India.

Highlights of Ottoman history include Mehmet II’s 1453 conquest of Constantinople, the last vestige of the moribund Byzantine Empire, and broad expansion into Europe and the Mediterranean in the 16th century under Suleiman the Magnificent, perhaps the greatest monarch of his era. Renamed Istanbul, the former Byzantine capital provided the Ottomans with a cosmopolitan megalopolis at the crossroads of two continents and set up as it were a base of operations to protect its European possessions on the Balkan peninsula and Hungary. To be sure, a strong presence on the Bosporus bequeathed a legacy of commitment and involvement in European Christendom and the Islamic Near East. Today the Republic of Turkey, the successor sate of the Ottoman Empire since the 1920s, is the only Islamic country in NATO and is poised to enter the European Union in the not-so-distant future. (Moreover, the Turks have been a strong ally of the United States since the 1930s.)

The agonizingly long decline and fall of the empire, starting in the late 16th century and culminating with defeat in World War I, is as much if not more significant to our study of the contemporary Middle East than its meteoric rise. A Russian tsar once referred to the Ottoman Empire as the “sick man of Europe.” Despite valiant efforts to revive the patient that included a reform program in the mid 19th century known as Tanzimat and an 11th-hour attempt to reinstate the constitution on the part of Young Turks, it was too late. The sultanate became more rigid under the autocratic Abdulhamid II, who unsuccessfully withstood the predatory imperialism of Tsarist Russia and found dubious consolation in the massacres of Bulgars and Armenians. The British and French benefited from the dissolution of the empire; these Western empires, beside themselves like hyenas feasting on a carcass, carved up the “sick man” and set up their mandate governments. The collapse of the empire in 1918 was merely the final act in a tragedy begun a century earlier when Egypt succeeded from the empire and, on the eve of World War I, Balkan subjects broke away from Istanbul. Frustration over the loss of these lands, coupled with Russian victories in the East, help account for the encore performance in systematically obliterating the Armenian population in what most historians and commentators apart from Ottomans and their modern successors see as genocide.

The Western occupation of Middle Eastern countries, the artificial creation of national borders, and the intervention in regional politics did not endear locals to their new overseers. For our purpose it’s important to appreciate the new order created in the Middle East that resulted when the various ethnic groups, provinces, principalities, and regions once under the Ottoman umbrella now clashed with Western powers intent on denying the very sovereignty and independence that they had promised them during the war. The internecine conflicts and the clash between East and West that ensued in the faulty treaties that settled the “War to End All Wars” has shaped the Middle East to this day.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Safavid Empire

Many Americans have at least heard of the Ottoman Empire, but only historians, history buffs and other weird people know about the Safavid Empire. Why is it important? A familiarity with the history of the Shiite state provides a broader framework with which to view recent crises in Iraq and Iran. As one of the so-called Gunpowder Empires of the early modern era, it also provides us a look at a time when the Islamic world still competed with Europe but was on the verge of a dramatic decline.

The starting point of the Safavid Empire is easier to define than the endpoint, when those pesky Afghan warlords invaded the area. In 1501 a teenager named Ismail from Azerbaijan conquered a chunk of Persia (aka Iran), became the shah (king), and established Twelver Shiism as the official state religion. This variant of the tradition holds that Ali’s 9th-century descendant was snatched by God, placed in a state of “occultation,” and will return someday to usher in a reign of justice and righteousness. Shiism had been alive and well in Iran prior to the Safavids; the marriage of Husayn, the third Imam, to the daughter of a Persian king centuries earlier cemented and symbolized this connection. The shahs of the new state, however, culled other parts of the Middle East for highly respected Twelver clerics and placed institutional and military weight behind the tradition. In what historians call the “Safavid Contract,” the Shia clerics agreed to support the Safavid rulers provided that the latter maintain their role as protector of the faith. While the ulama (religious leadership) now had a powerful state institution at their disposal to spread their message, the shahs for their part had an ideology with which to subdue conquered lands and consolidate their realm. Consequently, the Shiite ulama in Persia, though not always in agreement with the regime’s policies, maintained a quietist tradition of staying out of politics and awaiting the 12th Imam’s return. This tradition more or less held until the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini toppled the shah of Iran in 1979 and, in accordance with his principle vilayat I faqih (guardianship of the jurisprudent), initiated the Islamic Revolution that has produced a mullocracy hostile to the United States and Sunni neighbors ever since.

All empires reach a highpoint and produce an extraordinary ruler who exhibits the strength and majesty of imperial power. The Ottomans had Suleiman the Magnificent; the Europeans had Charlemagne. For the Safavids it was Shah Abbas I. With a ruthlessness and intellectual prowess that served him well as a statesman in those tumultuous days of yore, he created a strong central bureaucracy, rebuilt the infrastructure of the realm, created one of the most beautiful capitals in the world, and modernized his military. He and his European advisors had one thing in common: a desire to thwart Ottoman territorial ambitions. The new Safavid army, replete with firearms and western training, won success on the battlefield and allowed the beleaguered empire to recover from military setbacks dating from the battle of Chaldiran in 1514.

Iraq, situated between two powerful empires, constantly changed hands in the hegemonic power play between Sunni and Shiite armies. Eventually the Ottomans pushed the Persians out of Mesopotamia, but they had to deal with the large pockets of Shiites in the south. The Sublime Porte (or seat of Ottoman government in Istanbul) partitioned the country into three distinct ethno-religious provinces that reflected reality on the ground: Mosul in the north, Baghdad in the middle, and Basra in the south. The British Empire inherited this tripartite Iraq after World War I and tried to unify it under a puppet monarchy. Years later the Baathist regime brought to power a ruthless strongman, Saddam Hussein, whose brutal tactics, it would seem, were the only antidote to a war-torn and fractious country. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the U.S.-led coalition and the new Iraqi government have attempted to unify the land; but any settlement must take into account permanent fault lines among Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds that predated even the Ottoman Empire. Some policymakers in our country, like Senator Joseph Biden, have advocated the creation of three sovereign states. This position is understandable given the many years of disunity, but it would create more problems in the region than currently exist.