Saturday, June 30, 2018

Christopher de Hamel, "Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts"

Codex Amiatianus

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (2017) is by far the most exciting 500-page book ever written about medieval manuscripts.

Wheel of Fortune from the only manuscript of the Carmina Burana

True, this is a low bar, but after reading the whole thing I remain astonished at how much fun I had. De Hamel comes across as both utterly charming and profoundly learned. In his latest job he has been a manuscripts expert with Sotheby's, and you can see why he has been a success at it; if I were the  owner of a rare manuscript I would absolutely love to have de Hamel visit my mansion and give me his opinions of it.

Spinola Hours

In Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts de Hamel takes a close look at a dozen famous medieval books, from the sixth-century Gospels of Saint Augustine to the sixteenth-century Spinola Hours. He has chosen manuscripts about which stories can be told and puzzles solved, not just the ones with the prettiest pictures.

Book of Hours of Jeanne de Navarre

De Hamel has visited the library where each of these is held and inspected the manuscript in person. So we start with the journey to the library, some of which are as remarkable as the books they contain – the old reading room of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence was designed by Michelangelo. We learn how each manuscript is presented to those privileged enough to see it, and then what it looks like and even how it smells. The Codex Amatianus, he notes, weighs about as much as a female Great Dane. De Hamel goes quickly through the technical details: how is it bound, how many leaves are missing, whether the order of the pages has been changed.

Morgan Beatus

He inquires into how each book came to be made, and for whom. The Gospel of St. Augustine, for example, may well be one of the books that Pope Gregory the Great sent along with Augustine's mission to England in 597; the evidence comes from the manuscript and the peculiar mixed version of the Latin Bible it contains, and it is fascinating. The Hengwrt Canterbury Tales may be the copy of Chaucer's very own scribe, on which the scribe was working as Chaucer delivered him tales, right up to the poet's death. I loved these little detective stories, told by de Hamel with verve but also with honest scholarship.

Visconti Semideus

De Hamel spends some time on what books as objects can tell us about the broader intellectual and social world. The style of making books in England changed drastically after the Norman conquest, and the centralizing bureaucratic program of the Norman monarch and church can be seen in the hundreds of manuscripts that survive from an attempt to equip every cathedral and major monastery with a core list of important books. Many of the fanciest medieval manuscripts are Books of Hours, but this is not an ancient form; it seems to have been invented for the women of the French royal family in the 13th century. Those queens and princesses then took them along when they were married to kings and princes across Europe, which is why there are famous examples in Denmark and England. And thus we can follow, marriage by marriage and book by book, the spreading influence of the French royal style.

Leiden Aratea, Orion

Consider the Leyden Aratea, a book of astronomy and astrology made at the court of Charlemagne, so far as we can tell a nearly perfect copy of a 4th-century manuscript. Everything was copied, from the by-then-archaic script to the faces in the paintings; does this perhaps tell us something important about the Carolingian Renaissance and the attitude of tis leaders toward the Roman past?

If you are interested in these things, read Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts. You will have a meeting with a remarkable book and a remarkable man.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Criminal Justice Reform

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, winner of a widely noted Democratic primary in New York and likely future Congresswoman, wrote this for a Catholic magazine:
Discussions of reforming our criminal justice system demand us to ask philosophical and moral questions. What should be the ultimate goal of sentencing and incarceration? Is it punishment? Rehabilitation? Forgiveness? For Catholics, these questions tie directly to the heart of our faith.

Solutions are already beginning to take shape, which include unraveling the War on Drugs, reconsidering mandatory minimum sentencing and embracing a growing private prison abolition movement that urges us to reconsider the levels at which the United States pursues mass incarceration. No matter where these proposals take us, we should pursue such conversations with an openness to change and an aim to rehabilitate our brothers and sisters wherever possible and wherever necessary. By nature, a society that forgives and rehabilitates its people is a society that forgives and transforms itself. That takes a radical kind of love, a secret of which is given in the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Verbatim: What is a Photocopier?

Amazing dramatization some testimony from a court case in Ohio.

Friday, June 29, 2018

The Podcast Revolution

From Jordan Peterson's remarks at the Aspen Ideas Festival:
For the first time in human history the spoken word has the same reach as the written word, and there are no barriers to entry. That’s a Gutenberg revolution. That’s a big deal. This is a game changer. The podcast world is also a Gutenberg moment but it’s even more extensive. The problem with books is that you can’t do anything else while you’re reading. But if you’re listening to a podcast you can be driving a tractor or a long haul truck or doing the dishes. So podcasts free up two hours a day for people to engage in educational activity they otherwise wouldn’t be able to engage in. That’s one-eighth of people’s lives. You’re handing people a lot of time back to engage in high-level intellectual education.
If I had the energy and ambition to do something new right now I would be making podcasts about history.

Sometimes You Have to Take Risks

If you don’t play with fire, you get burned.

– Songwriter and former East German dissident Wolf Biermann

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Peter Paul Rubens, Portrait of Maria Serra Pallavicino, 1606

Just try to imagine how much this dress would have cost, and how much labor must have gone into making this in a pre-industrial world. Sadly I can't find a really big copy of this image, because Rubens was a great painter of fabric and the details are probably exquisite.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

More Neolithic Violence: the Mass Grave at Halberstadt

Near Halberstadt in Germany's Saxon-Anhalt, an area rich in Neolithic sites, archaeologists have excavated a pit containing nine skeletons. The bodies had been dumped unceremoniously into the pit, as the color-coding of individuals in the picture above shows. Seven of the skeletons were definitely male, one probably male and one probably female. All were adults or older youths, none over 45. The burial took place around 5000 BCE, at the end of the early Neolithic period.

All nine victims died of repeated massive blows to the back of the head. Most also had other wounds, such as broken limbs and ribs. This looks like a massacre of war captives.

The same site has so far produced 38 normal burials, likely of the residents. Elemental analysis of the bones showed that the victims in the massacre pit were probably not local: they had different levels of strontium and different isotope rations of carbon and nitrogen than the more normal burials. Some news stories have played up this angle with headlines like Skeletons Of Executed Immigrants Found In Neolithic Mass Grave in Germany. But the data don't show that the victims were members of a different culture, just that they grew up in a different valley. Indeed there is little evidence of major cultural difference within the German Neolithic; to archaeologists all these people belonged to the Linearbandkeramik or LBK culture.

The Halberstadt massacre adds to the growing body of evidence that the end of the Early Neolithic in central Europe was a time of great violence: the headless bodies in the Virgins' Cave, the mass cannibal feasts at Herxheim, other massacre pits at Asparn, Talheim and Kilianstädten. Archaeologists have known for decades that the end of the early Neolithic around 4900 BCE saw a major collapse of the population, although the reasons have never been clear. Perhaps climate played a role, or perhaps the way the first farmers colonized this region was somehow unsustainable and led to the depletion of key resources. Whatever caused the collapse, all the shattered skulls and gnawed bones make a strong case that it was accompanied by extreme violence.

I want to emphasize again that if these were wars, they were fought between people of the same race and culture. At that time there were people in Germany with a very different culture, descendants of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers who still dominated in the far north, but so far as we know they had no part in the violence of that time. It was LBK against LBK, and often it was fought to the death.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Leadership in Total War

When World War II broke out the Philippines were in the midst of a phased transition from US colony to independent nation. Though still a colony, the Philippines already had a president and an elected legislature.

As the US/Filipino defense of the islands collapsed in the face of Japanese invasion, that president, Manuel Quezon, convinced General MacArthur that he should declare the Philippines independent and neutral and try to make some arrangement with the Japanese. They sent joint cable to Washington asking the president's permission. Roosevelt was in conference with Army chief of staff General George Marshall and Secretary of War Henry Stimson when it arrived:
When the cable was received in the White House, however, President Roosevelt did not give it a moment's consideration. "We can't do this at all," he told Marshall and Stimson. There could be no separate peace with the Japanese. The president was adamant that Bataan must be defended to the last man, and the Philippines must suffer under occupation until they could be liberated by force. Before that day, Marshall had privately doubted whether the amiable New Dealer in a wheelchair was up to the task of waging a world war, but now he grasped that Roosevelt was capable of utter ruthlessness. "I immediately discarded everything I had held in my mind to his discredit," he said. "I decided he was a great man."
– Ian Toll, Pacific Crucible (2012), pp. 242-243 
Of course the British had the same experience: to lead the nation against the Nazis required someone with that capacity for "utter ruthlessness," someone with a long record of advocating violent solutions to colonial problems: Winston Churchill. It was not an era when gentleness accomplished much.

Juno at Jupiter

The Juno spacecraft's amazing cameras continue to send back mind-blowing images of Jupiter. Lots more at the expedition's image gallery page.

Jack Sullivan on the New Left-Wing America

Jake Sullivan, who was regularly attacked as a "neoliberal" when he was one of Hillary's top campaign advisers, has a new essay arguing that now is the time for aggressive economic leftism in America. He posits a "long wave" model of American politics, with a social democratic wave from the 1930s to the 1970s, and then a conservative or neoliberal wave from Reagan to Obama. But now, he says, "the American electorate as a whole is moving to embrace a more energized form of government" and conditions are ripe for big political changes.
This essay proceeds from the premise that we have reached another turning point. Just as the Great Depression discredited the ideas of the pre-New Deal conservatives who fought for total laissez-faire outcomes in both the political branches and the courts, so the Great Recession once again laid bare the failure of our government to protect its citizens from unchecked market excess. There has been a delayed reaction this time around, but people have begun to see more clearly not only the flaws of our public and private institutions that contributed to the financial crisis, but also the decades of rising inequality and income stagnation that came before—and the uneven recovery that followed. Our politics are in the process of adjusting to this new reality. The tide is running in the other direction, and, with history serving as our guide, it could easily be a decades-long tide.
Congress has yet to embrace any of this new leftism, but
By contrast, the public seems to have taken those lessons to heart. A January NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll found that 58 percent of registered voters believe the government should do more for the American people, compared with 38 percent who said the government does too much. That is a record high since the question was first asked in 1995. (Back then, the results were inverted: 62 percent said the government was doing too much; only 32 percent said it should do more.) An NBC analysis accompanying the poll noted that the overall results reflected “a widespread desire for a government that’s more involved in addressing the nation’s problems.” Part of this is about Republicans feeling more comfortable with an active federal government because a Republican is in the White House. But it also appears to reflect a real change in underlying attitudes about government and government programs, which is further evidenced by polling on health care and other issues. . . .

What has changed, though—thanks to widening inequality, massive underinvestment in public services, and the lingering effects of the Great Recession—is that the siren song of supply-side economics is losing out to arguments rooted in economic fairness, even among elements of the Republican base. That’s why the failed Republican health-care bill was historically unpopular among independent and even Republican voters (registering support from only 42 percent of Republicans and 18 percent of independents in a June Quinnipiac poll last year)—because it sought to slash Medicaid at a time when more people than ever are dependent on it. It’s why Republican leaders haven’t been able to sell the public on the Trump tax cuts (which clocked in at 27 percent approval in an April NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll)—because people reject its disproportionate benefits for the wealthy. And it’s why we’ve seen such incredible teacher activism in traditional Republican bastions like West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky—because despite persistent differences on some education reform issues, people across the political spectrum are fed up with starving our public school system.
I think this is right. Millions of Americans have started to feel, as I do, that our 30-year experiment in renewed laissez-faire economics has either not gone very well or has accomplished all it was every going to do. We have had impressive economic growth and all sorts of cool new stuff, and global competition has led to big improvements in certain products like cars. But most of the new wealth has gone to the top 10%, and an unconscionable share to the top 0.001%. We have returned to the era of billionaires and struggling workers – Gilded Age mansions that were turned into museums or schools during the decades when the rich could not afford them are now being turned back into private homes for a class of billionaires whose wealth and power are staggering.

Our health care system is a mess, with the worse aspects of private and public systems; I can't help but think that "medicare for all" would work better than the kluge we have.

But I am doubtful that much will come of this within the next decade. The Democratic Party is rudderless and disorganized. The energy of its activists is focused on race, sexual harassment, and immigration. Most of the good ideas about how to decrease inequality require raising taxes, and I am not sure how much support that really has. Plus, other than a complete health care overhaul nothing on the table would make much difference for most people in the short term. Most importantly, we have come to vote our identities almost exclusively. Party allegiance has probably never been very rational, but now it seems to me almost entirely irrational. People vote for those who seem most like themselves. I just don't know how many voters there are who could be persuaded to change their parties and support a pro-trans, pro-immigrant, anti-alpha male candidate in the hopes of reducing inequality a little.

So I expect that over the next five years at least we will have more of the same: closely divided government, lots of noise about scandals and lots of anger about social issues, but nothing major coming out of Congress. I look forward fondly to being proved wrong, but my sense of America right now is mostly division, anger, and disgust, not momentum for change.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Bats in the Temple

Great story at National Geographic about carnivorous bats – false vampire bats, because they have scary fangs but don't drink blood – including one group that roosts in a Mayan temple. Amazing.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Professorial Universes

Whatever universe a professor believes in must at any rate be a universe that lends itself to lengthy discourse. A universe definable in two sentences is something for which the professorial intellect has no use.

–William James, "Pragmatism"

Junzi imperialis

Extinct species of gibbon recently discovered in the 2,300-year-old tomb of Qin Shi Huang's grandmother. Scientifically interesting because we don't know of many species of mammal that went extinct between the end of the Ice Age and the modern era, but this one clearly did.

Plus, what an awesome photograph.

Incidentally Lady Xia's tomb contained more than just the gibbon. There were twelve pits filled with animal remains, including a leopard, a lynx, a black bear, a crane, and numerous domesticated specimens. Noble Chinese of the period were sometimes buried with exotic animals, but Lady Xia was still extreme in the number and variety of her grave companions, so  maybe she was as weird as her grandson.

Urban Jungle

Spent my morning here, in the rain.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Limb Pit

The most exciting archaeology I've done in the past three or four years has finally made it through all the layers of National Park Service review and analysis and so on and been released to the public: a burial pit and limb pit on the Bull Run/Manassas battlefield. The pit contained two nearly complete skeletons, both probably Union soldiers, and seven amputated legs.

This tickled me:
Scientists have uncovered a pit of human bones at a Civil War battlefield in Virginia. The remains are the amputated limbs of wounded Union soldiers.
Yes! I'm a real scientist now! NPR says so! Because it wasn't anyone mentioned in these news stories who actually found this pit and figured out what was going on, it was my crew. Along with a couple of people from the Park Service who also remain unmentioned in these stories.

If you read between the lines of the news, you can see that the Park Service is still being extremely cautious about this story. They had to say something, because they have handed the skeletons over to the Army for burial at Arlington, but they have said as little as possible. So I guess I shouldn't say very much, and all my wonderful photographs of the dig are still embargoed. So for now, only images that I pulled from news sites. One day maybe I'll be able to post the good stuff.

This is one of the best finds, a bullet embedded into the leg bone of the man it killed. The press haven't passed on my favorite bit of this story, which came when the bullet was first inspected. The Park Service historian standing nearby said, "that's an Enfield bullet, and that means Second Manassas since the Confederacy didn't issue Enfields until April '62." Ok, sure. If you say so.

I occurred to me later that as historian at a park where two different battles were fought over the same ground 11 months apart, he has probably made a particular study of the ways to distinguish them, but at the time I was floored by this casual display of arcane knowledge.

One of the best things about this project was that we worked closely with Doug Owsley and Karin Bruwelheide (above) of the Smithsonian, two of the world's leading forensic anthropologists. They were a fountain of knowledge and it was a real joy to spend a week with them.

I've always liked this picture of me taking notes on the excavation as it progressed, by the Smithsonian photographer. Since there aren't any bones and you can't tell exactly where this was taken, it should be safe for me to publish here.

Surrogacy, Feminism, and Capitalism

To get back to one of my regular themes, Ross Douthat has a column today pointing out that when it comes to surrogate motherhood, American feminists have mostly abandoned the anti-capitalist position they started from and embraced the marketplace:
You can tell a number of stories about why this happened. Defending the legal logic of abortion rights — my body, my choice — pushed feminism in a libertarian direction. The benefits of in vitro fertilization made a lively trade in eggs and embryos seem desirable or at least inevitable. . . .

But perhaps the simplest way to describe what happened with the surrogacy debate is that American feminists gradually went along with the logic of capitalism rather than resisting it. This is a particularly useful description because it’s happened so consistently across the last few decades: Whenever there’s a dispute within feminism about a particular social change or technological possibility, you should bet on the side that takes a more consumerist view of human flourishing, a more market-oriented view of what it means to defend the rights and happiness of women.
The old radicalism of the left has all but disappeared in America. This is partly for the perfectly sensible reason that with state socialism exposed as boring, bureaucratic, and potentially tyrannous, nobody has come up with an alternative to mixed-market capitalism as a way of organizing society. But the idea that certain things ought to be protected from the marketplace because commercialism would taint them is all but dead. Environmentalists have mostly embraced having billionaires buy sensitive environmental areas to protect them, something that would have horrified earlier generations of activists. Feminists have given up thinking that feminism ought to offer an alternative view of what matters in life, and instead fight to make corporations pay women as much as men. The real energy on the left comes from yet more radical ideas about freedom – the freedom to cast aside the billion-year-old straightjacket of sex and remake our bodies to suit our inner selves, and now perhaps the freedom to disregard borders and live wherever our children will best thrive.

I am ambivalent about surrogate motherhood as about so much else. Having children – pregnancy, birth, holding babies, raising toddlers – was by far the most powerful and beautiful experience of my life. The very idea that it should be curtailed so that people can better get ahead with their careers irks me, and the prospect of the police showing up to take a newborn infant from its mother because she signed a contract with the genetic parents disgusts me. (Yes, that has happened.) But I know that not everyone is as lucky in health, romance, economics and so on as I have been, and as always I am loathe to tell other people what they cannot do.

Since in America only a few religious cranks would be willing to jail people for practices like surrogate motherhood, it will continue. Within the broader society the values of the marketplace will dominate more and more. Freedom is the only battlecry that resonates. Any hope there is for the sacred must be created and nourished by us, alone, in our families, in small groups. Freedom also leaves us free to disregard its possibilities and throw ourselves into soul-spaces where nature, necessity, obligation and love override all else.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Darwin Martin House, Buffalo, New York

The Martin House is a masterpiece of Wright's Prairie Style, which he developed while he worked in Chicago from the 1890s to 1914. The original design was completed in 1903 and the house was built in 1904 to 1905.

Darwin Martin was an executive for Larkin Soap, and he learned about Wright through his Chicago-dwelling brother William. As soon as he set eyes on the house Wright designed for his brother in Oak Park he decided that he must have his own Wright house.

Darwin Martin lived in Buffalo. What he wanted from Wright was not just a house, but a whole complex of buildings, including a separate house for his sister and brother-in-law; according to some writers he grew up lonely and what he most wanted in adulthood was to have his friends and family close. Hence the huge house with lots of room for guests.

Notice that you can't really see the front door, a common trick of Wright's.

The thing about Wright as an architect is that when he designed a building, he designed everything.

Doors, windows, light fixtures, lamp posts, chimneys, fireplaces, sometimes even the furniture. Even when you don't love the result, you have to admire the lengths to which Wright went to create the look and feel he was after. (These are stills from this video.)

The Martin family was ruined by the stock market crash and in 1937 they had to abandon the house. It fell on hard times and saw service as a home for a college of priests, a collection of apartments, and so on. Parts were completely destroyed. Then in the 1990s a nonprofit foundation called the Martin House Restoration Corporation bought the property and began restoring it to its 1907 appearance. After years of construction the house is now open to visitors, some of whom rave about the tour.

During the house's years in the wilderness many of the Wright windows were pried out and sold, finding their way into museums and private collections across the country. One is in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. One of the foundation's jobs has been to persuade the owners of these wandering windows to return them to where they belong. Some have, but MOMA, of course, has refused; as my son said, "They're like a dragon, they have so much stuff they won't part with a single thing."

Photos of the restored interior.

Because the house is so wide, the better to blend into the landscape in Wright's scheme, photos won't display well here, so if you want to see the facade you'll have to click on these.

As I have said here before, I like the early stages of modernism: the experimentation with new forms, new materials, new ways of seeing. I just hate that for whatever reason it had to go on until we ended up with Bauhaus and Brutalism. In these houses of Wright's we see a great artist reaching outward from tradition but holding fast to certain old ideas, including domestic comfort and loving craftsmanship of details.

The Rich and the Poor

Gustave Flaubert, extract from a letter to George Sand, October 7, 1871 (five months after the suppression of the Paris Commune):
I do not believe more than you in class distinctions – the castes are archaeology. But I think the poor hate the rich, and the rich are afraid of the poor. So it will be forever. To preach loving one another is useless.

Poor John Kelly

Politico reports that being Trump's Chief of Staff is not turning out how he hoped:
Kelly’s status in the White House has changed in recent months, and he and the president are now seen as barely tolerating one another. According to four people close to Kelly, the former Marine general has largely yielded his role as the enforcer in the West Wing as his relationship with Trump has soured. While Kelly himself once believed he stood between Trump and chaos, he has told at least one person close to him that he may as well let the president do what he wants, even if it leads to impeachment — at least this chapter of American history would come to a close.

In recent months, his Secret Service detail has often been spotted standing outside the gym in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in the middle of the day — and White House officials who pass it on the way to meetings view his late morning workouts as an indication of him having thrown in the towel on trying to have any control inside the West Wing.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Deep Things

There is, it must be confessed, a curious fascination in hearing deep things talked about, even though neither we nor the disputants understand them.

– William James, "Pragmatism"

Family Separation in America

One of the worst American policies today is the decision of President Donald Trump’s administration to separate many immigrant parents from their children after they illegally cross the U.S. border. Obviously, a case can be made for enforcing the border, but deliberate cruelty is never a good idea. Those children — innocent victims all of them — will likely be traumatized for life. I am uncomfortably reminded of the U.S.’s long history of separating parents and children from the days of slavery and during Native American removal and extermination.

If you agree with me on this, I’d like to push you one step further. It's horrible to forcibly separate lawbreaking parents from their children, but we do that to American citizens, too. According to  one study, more than 1.1 million men and 120,000 women in U.S. jails and prisons have children under the age of 17. These separations can be traumatic, and they help perpetuate generational cycles of low achievement and criminal behavior.

From 1991 to 2007, the number of children with a mother in prison more than doubled, rising 131 percent. About two-thirds of the women in state prisons are there for nonviolent offenses. Sixty percent of those women have children under the age of 18, and in one survey one-quarter of the prisoners’ children were under the age of 4. Forty-one percent of the women in state prison had more than one child…One estimate suggests that 11 percent of the children of imprisoned mothers end up in foster care. . . .

Let’s take one-tenth of those women and move them from prison to house arrest, combined with electronic monitoring. That would allow for proximity to their children. If the U.S. isn’t plagued by a subsequent wave of violent crime — and I don’t think it will be — let us try the same for yet another tenth. Let’s keep on doing this until it’s obviously not working.

Politics and Sham Philosophy

Every philosophy that believes the problem of existence to be shelved, or even solved, by a political event, is a sham philosophy. There have been innumerable states founded since the beginning of the world; that is an old story. How should a political innovation manage once and for all to make a contented race of the dwellers on this earth? If anyone believes in his heart that this is possible, he should report himself to our authorities: he really deserves to be Professor of Philosophy.

–Nietzsche, "Schopenhauer as Educator," 1874

Persian Sword, c 900 BCE

A Man of the Aristocracy Contemplates Democracy

When I survey this countless multitude of beings, shaped in each other’s likeness, amidst whom nothing rises and nothing falls, the sight of such universal uniformity saddens and chills me, and I am tempted to regret that state of society which has ceased to be. When the world was full of men of great importance and extreme insignificance, of great wealth and extreme poverty, of great learning and extreme ignorance, I turned aside from the latter to fix my observation on the former alone, who gratified my sympathies. But I admit that this gratification arose from my own weakness: it is because I am unable to see at once all that is around me, that I am allowed thus to select and separate the objects of my predilection from among so many others. Such is not the case with that almighty and eternal Being whose gaze necessarily includes the whole of created things, and who surveys distinctly, though at once, mankind and man. We may naturally believe that it is not the singular prosperity of the few, but the greater well-being of all, which is most pleasing in the sight of the Creator and Preserver of men. What appears to me to be man’s decline, is to His eye advancement; what afflicts me is acceptable to Him. A state of equality is perhaps less elevated, but it is more just; and its justice constitutes its greatness and its beauty. I would strive then to raise myself to this point of the divine contemplation, and thence to view and to judge the concerns of me.

–Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1840

Monday, June 18, 2018

What if Organized Crime Runs the World?

It's a question I ask myself every once in a while: how influential is organized crime? Can it bring about the fall of governments in places like Italy or Mexico? I read once that parts of the World Trade Organization charter had been modified to benefit organized crime; is that plausible? And so on. So I read with interest this interview with Alex Perry, author of a recent book about the ’Ndrangheta (Calabrian Mafia):
There’s obviously a lot of chaos in Italy right now with the government. And there’s been a lot of chaos in Italy politically for a very, very long time. For much of the postwar era, I mean. To what degree do you attribute the Italian state’s inability to really get a handle on organized crime to that general political chaos?

There are two dynamics there. The mob thrives on chaos. It likes chaos. It likes to be the alternative authority that you go to because you can’t get anything done through the legitimate state. For that very reason, I think there’s no doubt that it promotes that chaos. It likes civic distrust. It likes cynicism. It can profit from that. I think the great tragedy of Italy is that, to a large extent, it’s kind of succeeded. It plays on the divide between north and south Italy. It plays on the idea that Italy has never really coalesced as a single unit but is terribly regional and terribly factional. And at the heart of that is a hole at the heart of Italy, where there should be a center and established certainty and facts. There’s a vacuum.

There’s a famous bomb attack, for instance, in Rome in 1971. To this day, nobody knows who did that, and there are both fascists and communists serving time for the same bomb attack. That’s the real tragedy of Italy. Nobody knows what’s true. And in that environment of distrust, the mob thrives, because you can’t really point at them and say with certainty, “That guy’s a criminal.” Because he’s pretending to be something else and everybody’s pretending to be something else, and therefore nobody’s to be trusted. In that kind of atmosphere, where it’s difficult to distinguish right and wrong, wrong can thrive. And wrong can paint itself as the righteous champions of southern resistance to northern domination.

The whole thing about the mafia is it’s a massive lie. There is no honor to the “men of honor.” There’s no righteousness. They don’t care about the rights of southerners. They don’t care about the economy. They are parasites. They are predators, but they’ve managed to create this myth around themselves of, as I say, “men of honor.” It’s that uncertainty in Italy that allows them to persist.

Mubarak Abdulrazzaq, Golden Pavilion

Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto. Via National Geographic.

Book Mark

Via Vertigo1871

More on Immigration and the World Cup

Besides all the children of immigrants who play for European teams, there area also about fifty players in the World Cup who were born in Europe but play for the teams where their parents were born. Thirty-four players for other countries were born in France: 13 play for Morocco, 12 for Senegal, 7 for Tunisia and 2 for Portugal. The Africans at least probably grew up in the same rough Paris suburbs that produced so many French national players. Meanwhile two people born in England play for Nigeria and two born in Belgium play for Morocco. Of Morocco's 23 players, 17 were born in Europe.

One long-term result of recent immigration may be a strengthening of these old colonial ties, as people who have moved back and forth keep up business relationships and friendships.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Santa María la Real de Aranda de Duero, Spain

A lovely church in the flamboyant Gothic style, which comes out in Spanish as gotico flamigero. I learned about it from this old photograph posted at one of my favorite internet sites, Archi/Maps.

Construction began in 1439 and the stunning facade was finished in 1514 to 1516.

It replaced an earlier, Romanesque church, of which little remains but this tower. (This and most of the rest of the photos come from wikipedia, by Zarateman.)

Exterior details.


Figures on the choir stalls.

Staircase to the choir, finished in 1523.