Conrad Black: Off the Rails

Conrad BlackI generally read Conrad Black‘s columns for their entertainment value, but I also read them for the language. Black is the best tosser of pithy epithets since Spiro Agnew*. And like the former US VP, he’s a pompous git who puffs up his intellectual feathers like a pigeon in heat – that puffery of sound and fury that signifies nothing more than an ego he has to bring along in its own carriage. He is very amusing that way.

Now to be clear, I have little respect for Black’s uber-right ideologies. We are at polar opposites of the political spectrum: as a self-appointed spokesperson for the entitled one percent he annoys my modest socialist and humanist values.

And because  I also value loyalty to my native Canada, I detest that he gave up his Canadian citizenship in such a cavalier fashion. (I suggest strongly that he be tossed out of the country for that and because he’s also a criminal: he was convicted of fraud in the USA and served jail time for it. Criminality is another similarity he shares with Spiro Agnew, although the circumstances differ.)

But being a criminal doesn’t mean he can’t write. Damn, but he often turns a mean phrase and, even if I disagree with his haughty self-absorbed and pretentious politics, I like to read him because he wordsmiths brilliantly. Most of the time. Sometimes, of course, he’s just that pompous, self-righteous git we all loathe.

This past week, Black outdid himself in his NatPost column and took that pomposity and git-ness to a new level.

The piece was titled “The shabby, shallow world of the militant atheist,” and in it Black railed like a frothing Irenaeus against the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Perhaps Black – who professes to having having his his prison sentence made endurable through his faith – is planning his new book; a 21st century version of Against the Heresies.

Black writes…

Nor can the atheists ever grapple plausibly with the limits of anything, or with the infinite. They rail against “creation” — but something was created somehow at some point to get us all started. They claim evolution debunks Christianity  (though all educated Christians, including Darwin, acknowledge evolution) — but evolution began somewhere. When taxed with the extent of the universe and what is beyond it, most atheists now immerse themselves in diaphanous piffle about a multiverse — but the possible existence of other universes has nothing to do with whether God exists.

I love that phrase, “diaphanous piffle…” although it exposes his ignorance. I was disappointed, because if nothing else, I always thought Black was well-educated. Clearly his education in cosmological concepts and quantum mechanics is less than that of the average scifi reader. Why must there be anything beyond this universe? Why can’t this be everything?

And as for evolution: of course it started somewhere but there is no reason to believe it is the result of divine intervention. We’ve created organic molecules in the lab; we’ve found them on comets and other moons. Life just got its start through nothing more exotic than chemical reaction. And who claims evolution debunks Christianity? The creation myths are in Genesis, not the New Testament. Such claptrap.

Richard Dawkins tweeted in response to Black’s column:

Spot the factual errors, illogicalities and failures to understand.

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Weaponized Aryan Jesus?

Not the real guyThe term “weaponized Jesus” comes from an article I read on politicsusa.com, from November 2013, titled “The Religious Right With Their Weaponized Jesus Are Not Christians.”  It’s worth a read, if you enjoy the political-religious debate.

I eventually traced the phrase back to a 2010 story in Mother Jones. It’s a good description of the way some fundamentalist Americans are taking their religion. But that’s not at issue right now. It’s the guy on the left of the movie still that I want to write about.

Someone on my Facebook stream recently posted the picture above and talked about how she loved the show. It shows a still short from a movie called “Son of God.” I hadn’t heard of the movie before this FB post, so I had to read more about it because I’m pretty sure that the hippie guy in the still doesn’t look anything like what a Middle-Eastern, radical Jewish preacher called Jesus* would have really looked like.

This guy looks a little too much like Russell Brand, or a younger Brad Pitt, and not quite enough like the Roman-era, Palestinian Jew he would have been. And where was his hat?

If you watch the trailer, you’ll see I’m right.  That might be one reason the movie got a one-star rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but there are many more. The movie, it turns out is a spin-off from the History Channel’s apparently successful Bible series (didn’t see it), but the film was apparently crafted from content edited out of the TV series. As it says on the IMDB site:

…there was a reason all of that footage was cut. If it wasn’t good enough for television, how can this possibly be good enough for the cinema? Well, it’s not. This movie is a bore. With an unnecessary 138 minute run-time, the film drags through dialogue delivered at a pace slow enough for the slothful to keep up. Even then the script isn’t interesting. The selections of the gospel that get quoted are mercilessly butchered. And that’s another thing, if not the most important criticism of a movie of this caliber — the filmmakers had no respect for the source material.

But this isn’t a movie review, per se, since I haven’t seen the film (nor have I seen Mel Gibson’s overly-violent Passion of the Christ, although from the stills I’ve seen, actor Jim Caviezel, playing the Jesus role looks like he, too, is miscast…). It’s about history, ideology and cultural prejudices.

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Human Smoke

Human Smoke“The truth of history,” Napoleon wrote in his memoirs while exiled on St. Helena, “is a fable agreed upon.” Agreed upon mostly by the victors, one should add. The losers seldom agree with it.

In 1865, Mark Twain added in his work, Following the Equator: “The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” Two centuries after Napoleon, Dana Arnold wrote in Reading Architectural History:

Historical reality is then a ‘referential illusion’, in which we try to grasp the reality… In this way history becomes a Myth or an ideology as it purports to be reality. Indeed, storytelling is often seen as one of the most important functions of writing histories and fundamental to the nature of the discipline.

When I was growing up, like so many millions of other post-war children, I was taught the history – the accepted, official history that was indelibly stamped on every page of our textbooks, and woven into our national identity – of World War II. The absolutely defined, cut-and-dried good=us vs. evil=them. Our bravery, their cowardice. Our sacrifices, their terror. Our victory, their loss. History was like a game of cowboys-and-Indians: two sides, one struggle, one outcome.

As a child of two veterans – whose own fathers had been veterans in the previous war-to-end-all-wars – and nephew of other veterans, I was inoculated with the “right” history that coloured our own family sense of honour, pride, loyalty and duty. Our bloodline fought the good fight and we were damned proud of it.

It was only decades later, when I started playing wargames and writing for a military history magazine that I started to read wider and deeper into the history of the century before I was born. And in doing so, learned that there were many more facets to the story than I had ever been led to believe. It proved both fascinating and unsettling. There’s more we’re not taught  than what we are taught. Continue reading “Human Smoke”

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Hate Crimes Against Non-believers Growing

Saved by scienceWe all know about the hate crimes religious believers commit against one another, against people of a different faith. It’s headlines news, almost daily. Protestants against Catholics. Sunnis against Shiites. Muslims against Christians. Hindus against Muslims. Buddhists against Muslims. Christians against pagans. Christians against Jews. Muslims against Jews. Cults against anyone and everyone against cults.

Pick a faith and it’s been involved in attacks, intolerance, intimidation, and killing sometime in its history. Even the normally pacifist Buddhists have been.

Religions have been fighting with one another since prehistory: their believers have been killing, burning, rampaging and raping one another since humanoids invented religion back in the Stone Age. And religion in turn invented the hate crime category. Not that all religion is about hate; many good deeds are also done in the name of religion. But it certainly spawns more intolerance and violence than anything else I can think of.

Today’s headlines are filled with the destruction religions inflict on each other and on themselves. Suicide bombers kill themselves and everyone around them for religious fantasy of an afterlife in paradise. Or maybe from sheer hatred of another sect or faith. Most of today’s terrorism is religious, not political (although often religious terrorism is linked to political reasons by conservative, ultra-nationalist and pro-theocratic ideologies).

Saved by ScienceThis week, The Independent has a story about a dark aspect of religious hate crime seldom mentioned: the organized – and increasingly violent – attacks on non-believers. Not against believers of other sects or faiths: these are hate crimes against those who simply don’t believe in any deity. Some of them are atheists. Some are simply non-believers without any particular view or opinion. All of them are increasingly targets of the virulent hatred of non-believers.

Which is ironic, since generally atheists are the least violent people; the least likely to pursue their goals through terrorism; the least of all threats to the state.

Atheists and humanists are being targeted as distinct minorities in “hate campaigns” across the globe, according to The Freedom of Thought report, published by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). It reports that religious and political leaders are ratcheting up rhetoric against those who believe there is no God or gods; against those who deny or even question the leader’s preferred deity.*

Saved by ScienceAtheists have long been a target of religious believers, of course. Secularists, skeptics, free thinkers, humanists and atheists have always been at the top of the target list for religious and political repression. Thought crime – not accepting the ruling class’s or leader’s orthodoxy – has been punished – usually brutally and often fatally – since ancient times. Some periods, however, were more famous for the suppression of thought and ideas.

The Inquisition delighted in torturing people for centuries and invented some remarkably frightening and cruel devices for inflicting pain and damage on the human body in its efforts to cleanse the world of non-believers and heretics, or sometimes simply those who weren’t orthodox enough. The Spanish Inquisition started in 1478 and killed its last person in 1826. It was abolished in 1834, having put roughly 150,000 on trial and executing between 3,000 and 5,000 during its 350-year history of terror.**

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Poor King Henry VII

Henry VIIAs Rodney Dangerfield might have said had he been cast in a role as Henry VII, “I don’t get no respect.”

Henry VII is one of those English kings who never seem to get any attention, outside the rarefied realms of academia. Only of late, it seems, have a few writers and TV producers turned their heads towards him – no doubt because a lot of the other, more exciting monarchs have been thoroughly covered on screen and in print.

Although he was the first of the short Tudor dynasty, his reign is overshadowed by those of his son, Henry VIII, and granddaughter, Elizabeth I. His continental contemporaries – Louis XI of France and Ferdinand II of Aragon – also outshone him.

Take Shakespeare, for example. The Bard wrote plays about Henry IV, V, VI and VIII. Just skipped VII as if the old geezer hadn’t been worth the price of a goose quill and paper. Plus he wrote about Kings John, Richard II and II and possibly Edward III. H7 is ignored.

Well, okay not completely. Just as far as top billing goes. He’s called the Earl of Richmond in Henry VI, part 3, a youngster who shows up towards the end – Act IV, Sc IV, a bit player without even a speaking part. Not very auspicious for the man who would be king not many years later.

Later, in Richard III, set in the finals years of the War of the Roses,  a somewhat older (28) Henry defeats the king (Richard III) at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Again, Henry doesn’t show up until the end: Act V, Sc II – and his character is dull and stiff, compared to the vibrant and dynamic – albeit evil – Richard. He takes the crown to become King Henry VII, although the coronation itself is not shown (Derby removed it from the dead Richard). Yorkists win, Lancastrians lose. Sic friat crustulum.

(Apparently the 2016 sequel to the BBC’s superb Hollow Crown series will include Shakespeare’s Henry VI and Richard III plays, so you can watch them on DVD…)

Henry VII had long been dead by the time Shakespeare wrote Henry VIII, and so he gets short shrift there, too. Queen Katharine mentions him in passing in Act II :

The king, your father, was reputed for
A prince most prudent, of an excellent
And unmatch’d wit and judgment…

Henry VIII also mentions him in passing in Act III. Neither call him by his name or title, just “father.”

Otherwise, H7 was just bypassed by the Bard and other playwrights.

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Timothy Leary Was Right. Maybe.

This is your brain on drugs
This is your brain on drugs. Or rather, the right-hand image is your brain on psilocybin. The other side is your brain on a non-psychedelic drug. Researchers recently discovered some amazing facts about how our brains work on some chemicals. And some psychedelic drugs prove to have pretty amazing effects. But don’t try this at home… stick to building toy rockets and drones for your science experiments…

Apparently Timothy Leary was right: psychedelic drugs change the way users think. For a long time, possibly forever. In his pioneering work, The Psychedelic Experience (1964), Leary wrote

A psychedelic experience is a journey to new realms of consciousness. The scope and content of the experience is limitless, but its characteristic features are the transcendence of verbal concepts, of space-time dimensions, and of the ego or identity. Such experiences of enlarged consciousness can occur in a variety of ways: sensory deprivation, yoga exercises, disciplined meditation, religious or aesthetic ecstasies, or spontaneously. Most recently they have become available to anyone through the ingestion of psychedelic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, DMT, etc. Of course, the drug does not produce the transcendent experience. It merely acts as a chemical key — it opens the mind, frees the nervous system of its ordinary patterns and structures.

He also said in a 1966 CBS documentary about his work,

We always have urged people: Don’t take LSD unless you are very well prepared, unless you are specifically prepared to go out of your mind. Don’t take it unless you have someone that’s very experienced with you to guide you through it. And don’t take it unless you are ready to have your perspective on yourself and your life radically changed, because you’re gonna be a different person, and you should be ready to face this possibility.

A story in Wired Magazine about this new research described the image above:

A representation of that is seen in the image above. Each circle depicts relationships between networks—the dots and colors correspond not to brain regions, but to especially connection-rich networks—with normal-state brains at left, and psilocybin-influenced brains at right…
In mathematical terms, said Petri (study co-author Giovanni Petri, a mathematician at Italy’s Institute for Scientific Interchange), normal brains have a well-ordered correlation state. There’s not much cross-linking between networks. That changes after the psilocybin dose. Suddenly the networks are cross-linking like crazy, but not in random ways. New types of order emerge…
Petri notes that the network depiction above is still a simplified abstraction, with the analysis mapped onto a circular, two-dimensional scaffold. A truer way of visualizing it, he said, would be in three dimensions, with connections between networks forming a sponge-like topography.

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The Cold War

The Cold WarI was reminded by an article on Slate that the (to me) iconic film of the Cold War, Fail Safe, was released fifty years ago this week. And as the article records, more people remember the satirical film, Dr. Strangelove than the more chilling drama, Fail Safe. Perhaps they have forgotten it, as they have the Cold War itself.

Forgotten too are the tensions and the fears that pervaded that era; the threats of nuclear war. the suspicions and paranoia about Communism, the McCarthy hearings, the accusations and the innuendo. It seems as distance today as the era of Frederick the Great or Napoleon. For some people, anyway.

For a younger generation, the Cold War must seem as far from their world as my grandfather’s days in WWI seemed to me: a time of antiquated technology, of difference music, of style and fashion that seems so archaic. Watching the 1964 version of Fail Safe today must seem so dated, so antiquated. No tablets! No smart phones! No Facebook!

I came of age through the most tense, most confrontational years of the Cold War.

My first political memories are of the contentious “Kitchen debate” between Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and US Vice President, Richard Nixon. Nixon visited Moscow in July, 1959 and almost immediately got into a scrap with Khrushchev. There’s a photo of Nixon poking K in the chest, with K frowning. The two got into a heated argument at an exhibition of American kitchen appliances that was broadcast worldwide. It almost seemed the two would start WWIII right there.

Yet despite the apparent animosity generated during that visit, Khrushchev made his own tour of the US a few months later, in September. I recall the black-and-white images on TV of him and his wife, and President Eisenhower, riding around in the limo.

That visit is delightfully retold in Peter Carlson’s K Blows Top. As Carlson relates it, the event was a combination of surrealism, politics and Marx Brothers:

Illustrating the adventures of K in America were photos of the pudgy traveler, who mugged shamelessly for the cameras like a mischievous eight year old. Khrushchev may have been a dictator responsible for thousands of deaths, but he was also an incurable ham who couldn’t bear to disappoint a photographer. Consequently, the pictures in the clip folders were wonderfully wacky: Khrushchev grabs a live turkey! Khrushchev pats a fat guy’s belly! Khrushchev gawks at chorus girls! Khrushchev pretends to shoplift a napkin holder by stuffing it into his suit jacket while laughing uproariously!

Khrushchev’s trip was, as Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis dubbed it, “a surreal extravaganza.” Within an hour of reading the first clipping, I was hooked. For months, I spent my Thursdays and Fridays following the adventures of K as he traveled from Washington to New York to Hollywood to San Francisco to Iowa to Pittsburgh to Camp David, creating hilarious havoc all the way.

Fifty-five years ago, this past September 25, that tour. I still have a memory of it, a trifle hazy but still intact.*

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The Forgotten Gulag

The Ameerican Individualist reviewIn the introduction to Anne Applebaum’s Pulitzer-prize-winning book, Gulag: A History, she ponders why the “crimes of Stalin do not inspire the same visceral reaction to the crimes of Hitler.” Yet Stalin’s actions and policies killed millions more than the Nazis. Maybe it’s because the USSR wrapped itself in as much secrecy as it could muster for so long. Maybe it’s because the Soviet camps were so far removed from sight and never received the pictorial and media coverage the Nazi camps received.*

Maybe it’s because during the Cold War, the West was disinclined to care about the welfare of Soviet citizens. Or maybe Applebaum is projecting her own right-wing American bias on history. She grumbles about Western tourists buying Soviet regalia when Communism fell, and Western youths wearing hammer-and-sickle T-shirts without any sense of the horror that symbol meant for millions.

Blogger Bhavya Ketan represents this clouded view when he wrote a review of Applebaum’s book:

What was the Gulag? I never heard of it. Though the famous Indian anti-communist writer Sita Ram Goel, in his biography ‘How I became a Hindu’, defined the erstwhile Soviet Union as a slave empire, I couldn’t fully understand what he exactly meant. There are many people who still don’t know about the slavery that was practiced in Russia between 1920s and 1980s. And what is more shocking? This gross ignorance, about the human rights in the world’s largest country, exists not only in the developing nations but also in the developed states.

Even today, with so many new books on the Soviet union on the market, with Soviet-era archives open to historians and authors, there’s still a mist that occludes our understanding of the time. We only get occasional glimpses of life behind the Iron Curtain and most of that is focused on the major players – Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and other leaders.

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The Beginning of the End

Sixty years ago, the end began. It would take almost a full year for the Allies to batter the Third Reich into submission, but in the summer of 1944, the end was inevitable. All could see it. The combined might of the Allied armies was simply overpowering for whatever Germany had left to throw at it. But it was neither easy nor simple.

So why didn’t Germany sue for peace, cut its losses and surrender, rather than face the prospect of ruin and devastation? Why did Germany continue its reckless, inhumane pursuit of terror and repression – even accelerating the Final Solution in that final year – rather than accepting defeat? What compelled them to fight on?

Was it terror? Inertia? Ideology? Social peer pressure? Simple numbness? Why did Germany keep fighting a lost cause?

That’s the question Ian Kershaw tackles in his new book, The End (Penguin, 2011). The book arrived in a package today and I have read just the preface. The end of the war is a topic I’ve studied before.

I’ve read a lot of books about World War II, about the armies, about the battles, about the leaders and the politics in every nation. Few have attempted to explain why Germany remained defiant even as it was pounded into ruin; or explain the psychology of the ruled and their rulers. Most have made the story into a narrative of battles and politics that runs forward on the rails of chronology.

The book review in The Guardian notes:

The end of the Third Reich presents an enduring historical enigma. How can we explain the extraordinary cohesion of German society right up to the bitter end – the lack of rebellion or mutiny, the relatively low levels of desertion from the ranks of the army, and the tenacious hold of the National Socialist state over the lives of ordinary people until, very suddenly, it was all over? The most obvious explanation – that people really did believe in Him (a phrase from the reich brilliantly analysed at the time by Victor Klemperer) – raises a second puzzle: why, if German society remained basically Nazified, was there so little resistance to foreign occupation after “liberation”? These two riddles continue to preoccupy historians, and now Ian Kershaw, the doyen of English scholars of the Third Reich, seeks the answers.

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The First Dark Age

End of the Bronze AgeThe causes of the first “Dark Age” have long been the topic of debate among historians and archeologists. Many ideas and theories have been put forward; none have found universal agreement. It’s commonly referred to in scholarly circles as “The Catastrophe.

Earthquakes, drought, migrations (or the more popular single-people migration theory), volcanoes, barbarian raiders, climate change and systemic collapse have all been blamed for the sudden collapse of civilizations in the eastern Mediterranean over a short period of time.

While any one of these may account for particular cities, or even a small geographical region, it is difficult to apply those theories collectively to the collapse over such a wide area. There is simply no evidence to connect the incidents of collapse.

Nor do they explain why the empire of Egypt and Assyria, both on the periphery of the larger area affected, seem to have escaped relatively intact from the collapse – although Egypt’s might and influence came out of the period severely diminished.

Whatever the cause, over a period spanning roughly 50 years of the late 13th and early 12th centuries BCE, many civilizations in the Aegean basin and southeast Asia underwent a violent collapse. Dozens of cities and settlements were destroyed or abandoned. Archeologists have uncovered evidence of fire and destruction in many of the remains of the great ancient centres. There are signs of “instant cities” – settlements that sprang up suddenly in previously unsettled areas, suggesting they developed from a mass of escapees bonding together for safety after fleeing a disaster.

It would be centuries before most of this area rose again to similar prominence. It was a Dark Age for the eastern Mediterranean.

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Happiness & Fulfillment

There are ten methods for meditating on the world, begins one scroll in the 1,300-year-old collection of Tang-dynasty sutras from Xian, China, that can lead us to happiness and fulfillment.

I realize that sounds like the opening of a New Age piffle book, but the sutras were actually discovered in a cave near a Buddhist monastery, in the far western region of China, in 1900. The scrolls were looted and sold to collectors and academia, and until 1998 were pretty much lost. Now the public can read a few selections from them in the book, The Lost Sutras of Jesus, by Ray Riegert and Thomas Moore.

The majority of the scrolls were Buddhist texts from the seventh century CE. Only eight of them were Christian – the efforts of early Christian (Persian) monks who arrived in Xian along the Silk Road, bringing their faith into contact with both Buddhism and Taoism. Those sutras, their legacy, are an intriguing blend of Christian and Buddhist views.

It’s also reminiscent of the Epicurean views I’ve been reading about in classical works.

The story of the scroll is a fascinating history and I would dearly love to read much more of these works, but there are few printed sources I have been able to find.

The cross-pollination of ideas between Buddhism and Christianity has not been very well explored, and I would like to learn more. I have read there were Buddhists in Alexandria in the first century CE, whose ideas and writings may have influenced the Gnostics. Did their faith also influence early “orthodox” Christians?

And how much did Christian beliefs influence Buddhism in this era? I simply don’t know, but there is a glimmer of light in these scrolls that suggests both faiths were malleable enough at that time to absorb something from the other. Too bad there was a “hardening of the faith arteries” that prevented more sharing.

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The Soviet Machiavelli

I’ve written a new piece for my Municipal Machiavelli blog about the late (1982) Mikhail Suslov, the “Soviet Machiavelli.” You can read it here:

www.ianchadwick.com/machiavelli/the-soviet-machiavelli/

Suslov was the power behind the Soviet throne; in fact behind several thrones.

From joining the Party in 1921, he rose to the top echelon. He was appointed National Party Secretary by Stalin in 1946, joined the the politburo in 1952, and finally became a full member in ’55. He survived three-and-a-half decades of intrigue at the highest level, outlasting all of his compatriots in one of the most challenging – and often lethal – political environments.

He was involved in – and aided – the rise and fall of many of its members, including Khrushchev, Brezhnev and eventually Gorbachev and played a major role in drafting Soviet international policy.

Yet despite six decades as a rising Party apparatchik, he is almost unknown in the West. It’s a fascinating story and a glimpse into one of the most secretive lives in a secretive culture. Anyone with a taste for politics should look further into this relatively unknown history.

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My Grandfathers’ War

WWIOne hundred years ago World War I began, a war that started as a clash in a tiny, almost unknown Balkan state and blossomed into a violent, gruesome war that spread across Europe, the Middle East and reached into Africa and Asia. Within a few years, tens of millions would be dead, the political face of the world changed and almost all of the great royal houses of Europe would be deposed and broken. An entire culture, a society of class and place, was overthrown.

The timeline of the origins of WWI is complex and, from this century of temporal distance, confusing and obscure. As Keven Drews wrote in the National Post,

It’s been 100 years since Europe’s major powers, and their colonies and dominions, went to war, but the passage of time has done little to settle the debate about who or what was responsible for the First World War.

Prof. Michael Neiberg of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., said some blame those who held political power at the time, and their divergent systems of government, while others insist it’s difficult to assign blame at the feet of any one culprit.

“If anybody goes looking for simple causes, they’re going to either be disappointed or they’re going to reduce the history so much that it won’t make sense anymore — 1914 was an unbelievably complicated world,” said Neiberg.

It began on June 28 with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and his wife, in Sarajevo. That event – for political reasons few of us today know about or understand – was followed by a month of drum beating, armies mobilizing and nationalism being tightened to a high pitch throughout Europe. Alliances solidified between the powers. Tens of thousands of men enlisted in a nationalistic fervor.

War seemed glorious, exciting, patriotic.

A steamroller of events followed that shooting. On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. On August 1, Germany declared war on Russia and on August 2, Germany invaded Luxembourg. On August 3, it declared war on France. A day later, the UK declared war on Germany, while the USA would stubbornly declare its neutrality (not declaring war on Germany until April, 1917 and on Austria-Hungary in December, 1917).

My grandfathers would both enlist in that hot blush of youthful patriotic passion; my mother’s father serving in Canada’s fledgling navy and my father’s father in the King’s Royal Rifles. Unlike so many of their friends and companions, they would survive, although not necessarily unscathed – the emotional impact must have been enormous.

The whole world changed in those few short years. A new world emerged, one we recognize as our early modern culture, but one that shed the skins of so many social structures that were left in the mud of the trenches.

Some say that was good; that what emerged was a better, stronger and more vibrant world. Colonialism and class were on the wane. Individualism, feminism, workers’ rights and a more open society were on the rise. So some good emerged from the rubble. But along the way, we gained terrorism, fascism, military dictatorships, communism, and a mannerless, self-centred culture.

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Neolithic site dig uncovers sophisticated structures

Orkney dig site
A Neolithic site in the Orkney Islands shows our ancestors had sophisticated building skills more than 5,000 years ago. According to a story in The Scotsman,

A groundbreaking excavation of a 5,000-year-old temple complex in Orkney has uncovered evidence to suggest that prehistoric people were a great deal more sophisticated than previously thought.
The archaeological dig at the Ness of Brodgar, which is still in its early stages, has already thrown up discoveries that archaeologists say will force us to re-evaluate our understanding of how our ancestors lived.
The picture that has emerged so far points to a complex and capable society that displayed impeccable workmanship and created an integrated landscape.

Well, it’s very premature to identify it as a “temple complex.” As for any structure being a “temple” or the whole site being a “temple complex” – that’s just a guess.

The article’s headline is hyperbolic: “Orkney dig dispels caveman image of ancestors.” This is followed by the equally fatuous opening:

THE image of our Neolithic ancestors as simple souls carving out a primitive existence has been dispelled.

I suppose that misrepresentation may have been dispelled from the writer’s rather confused mind, but few others are likely to be that daft.

Orkney dig

The media are ever wont to sensationalize things in this manner. I can’t imagine anyone with at least an elementary school education believes people living 5,000 years ago were “cavemen.” This time is contemporary with the development of early (“proto”) writing in many cultures, and actually later than some finds from 7th millennium BCE China (the Jiahu symbols from Henan, 6600 BCE). It was the time when the first towns were formed.

We’ve known about Neolithic building from the many megaliths and gravesites uncovered, as well as the communities already unearthed. The most famous of which is, of course, Stonehenge, built roughly in the same period as the Orkney site. You can see an imagined reconstruction on the National Geographic site. It’s impressive, but hardly spectacular in the way Stonehenge, Macchu Picu, Angkor Wat or the Pyramids are.

Cavemen, as they are inappropriately called, refers to people living in the Paleolithic period, which Wikipedia reminds us extended,

…from the earliest known use of stone tools, probably by hominins such as australopithecines, 2.6 million years ago, to the end of the Pleistocene around 10,000 BP.

The Neolithic is when human communities first start developing beyond the tribal stage; when architecture and agriculture, music, language and religion all developed. While archeologists and anthropologists bicker over the exact time span, in general it ran from about 10,000 BCE to about 4,500 BCE, although some place it as recent as 2,000 BCE for some groups.
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Lawrence in Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia

I recall with some vividness seeing David Lean’s masterpiece film, Lawrence of Arabia, when it was first shown in Canadian theatres. I was 12 and utterly astounded by the movie. Not simply the great, sprawling, adventurous tale that meandered through 220 minutes (plus the intermission), but by the incredible scenery. It was a world totally alien from my cultivated, manicured suburbia: wild, dangerous, exotic. And stunningly beautiful.

So much of an impression did it make on my young mind that today I can still remember sitting in the Golden Mile theatre with my parents as the curtain rose and the lights dimmed.

I went back to see the film again, I think at the Saturday matinée showing. My memory suggests I did this a few more times that summer (Saturday matinées were a ritual for many of my early teen years). Despite its length, I have watched it numerous times since that first viewing (I can still hear the theme song in my memory, when I think of the movie).

(I owned it on VHS when that technology was current, then DVD and this week got the Blu-Ray version to watch again. With almost four hours of viewing, it’s a two-nighter show for me, plus a third to watch all the extras on the making of the film.)

During my first viewing, the minute the desert scenes came onscreen, I was hooked, wide-eyed. The silver screen filled with an immensity of utterly stunning, utterly alien landscape in dazzling colour. My young brain raced. Where was this? What was it really like? Is the sky really that blue and does the horizon really seem to go on forever? What happened there? Why wasn’t this in my history class? Who was this man?

Of course, I really wasn’t aware at that age about how films were made; that locations and sets weren’t necessarily the real place (except, of course, for those B-flick scifi and horror films I delighted in at that age; even then I knew that there were no Martians or werewolves or vampires but I loved them anyway and still do).

Nor was I aware of the actual history being portrayed (and the later criticisms about its authenticity and accuracy). It captivated me, easily, and opened the doors of my mind to a world and a history I had no inkling about. I developed an interest in the Middle East at an early age – it’s geology, history, ecologies, cultures, religions… although it would take another decade before I really started to look deeper into the political-religious-military conflicts of the region. Not that I ever truly understood all of them (does anyone?).

Everything from the earliest days of that region fascinated me. I can’t say now exactly when I first learned about the early civilizations of the Tigris-Euphrates area, but from that movie on, I was hooked on reading about Sumeria, Babylon, the Assyrians, Egyptians and Hittites. I read every book in the local library about the archaeological expeditions to that region.

(It still fascinates me: my blog and my Twitter page both have an Assyrian image in the background – a photo I took at the British Museum where I stared agog at the pieces in their galleries. And I recently re-read Gilgamesh in a new translation.)
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