The world in a blade of grass

Grass Ronda.jpg

A one-minute two-stroke history of humanity:

Modern humans emerged in Africa about 100,000 years ago, skilled hunter-gatherers like their hominid predecessors. In the expansion phase, we spread over six continents, while our culture differentiated into around 10,000 language communities. About 10,000 years ago, roughly when humans were reaching Patagonia, women gatherers in the Fertile Crescent domesticated grasses into cereal crops, and male hunters tamed sheep and goats. This revolution triggered population growth, specialisation and social stratification, organised religion, science, writing, and states. The interaction of states by trade, cultural exchange, migration, warfare, genocide, empire and law drives the contraction phase of human history, with steadily decreasing cultural diversity. We are now in the final phase, nearing a global unity – of peace or self-destruction.

(117 words)

The domestication of grass is the central event of secular history.

Continue reading “The world in a blade of grass”

Rupert Stavro Murdoch

Rupert Murdoch hosts a fundraiser for Senator Hillary Clinton. Of course it’s significant. Murdoch may be a ruthless bastard, and deserved his kitsch immortality as the mogul Elliott Carver, villain of the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, but he’s as cool and focused as Warren Buffett. To defend his media empire from regulators dreaming of such unhelpful concepts as balance and competition, he needs to be right on major political shifts. That’s why he ditched the Tories for Tony Blair in 1997. This is a classic hedge. Bill O’Reilly’s days may be short. “Number 17, you have failed miserably!” (strokes Persian cat, presses concealed button)

Why is the Supreme Pontiff?

Why is the Pope still called the Supreme Pontiff of pagan Rome?

Michael O’Hare’s post below on Chinese bishops points out that the Vatican’s conflict with the PRC over the appointment of bishops closely parallels its mediaeval run-ins with Henri II Plantagenêt and the Emperor Heinrich IV. I follow Norman Davies’ convention of naming rulers in their usual language, which in Henri’s case wasn’t English. It wasn’t in any case diplomatese for either of them; a letter of Heinrich’s to Pope Gregory VII ends: I, Henry, king by the grace of God, with all of my Bishops, say to you, come down, come down, and be damned throughout the ages.

Toynbee is unfashionable but he was surely right to argue that the importance of these controversies was that nobody won: kings and popes checked each other in a fruitful Madisonian tension that nurtured modern political concepts. The Papacy only secured its current exclusive control over the appointment of bishops with the disappearance of the Catholic monarchs in the last century, an absurd centralisation which has allowed John-Paul II’s policy of appointing far too many second-rate yes-men.

Which brings me to the question: why does the Pope retain the bizarre title of Supreme Pontiff , the chief priest of the pagan civic cults of Ancient Rome?

Continue reading “Why is the Supreme Pontiff?”

John Milton comments on Darfur Awareness Week

With apologies to the poetic muse of John Milton, but not his political one — Milton would l think have understood, and forgiven the plagiarism.

Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered sons, whose bones

Lie scattered on the Sahel grasses sere;

Nor yet thy violated daughters’ fear

Before they fell to hate as hard as stones,

Forget: and in thy book record their groans

Who were thy sheep, with gun and bomb and spear

Slain by the bloody Sudanese. The drear

Survivor camps feed men, rot souls. Their moans

The plain redoubled to the dunes, and they

To heaven. Their martyred blood and ashes stain

The paper shrouds that cynics weave and lay

To mute the crime with spiritless refrain;

Turn reptile tears to burning coals; in pain

The debt to justice make the murd’rers pay.

Copyright John Milton, 1655(the good bits)/James Wimberley 2006

If you agree with this, spread it around.

Republican virtues

It’s the 80th birthday of the Duchess of Normandy, aka Queen Elizabeth II. I’ll spare you the treacly tributes – clear subtext: carry on till you drop to spare us Charles III. The real world has intruded through the unlikely personage of her tasteless, laddish grandson Prince Harry, who has just graduated from Sandhurst (the British West Point). Note this clever headline. Dixit Harry:

There’s no way I’m going to put myself through Sandhurst and then sit on my arse back home while my boys are out fighting for their country.

Harry is plainly not bright or self-controlled enough to fake this, and will know the names of Matty Hull, Karl Shearer, and Alexander Tweedie – soldiers of his regiment killed in Iraq. So give him credit for a touch of the right stuff.

Couldn’t happen in a real, manly republic.

Realism II: Palmerston meets St Anselm

Mearheimer & Walt rely on an impossible theory of the national interest

What is the mindset that could lead Mearsheimer and Walt to such a strange view of the political struggle? Jacob Levy spots the clue, tucked away in footnote 1 to the less-read academic version of the paper:

Indeed, the mere existence of the Lobby suggests that unconditional support for Israel is not in the American national interest. If it was, one would not need an organized special interest group to bring it about.

Read this twice. The national interest to the authors is an objective fact, floating Platonically above the mire of politics. It only needs elucidation by impartial experts in international relations for the ordinary voter or congressman to grasp it. This strange view is I think the professional ideology of diplomats, who quote with approval Lord Palmerston:

Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.

Pam did not, I’m sure, reach this view by burning the midnight oil over Rousseau and Hegel. I think he simply learnt it from observing Canning, Talleyrand and Metternich, who inherited it from their predecessors under the ancien régime, going back to Richelieu, Oxenstierna, de Witt and beyond. For all of these statesmen, the guardian of the national interest was the king, not the people.

My thesis: the theory of the objective national interest is wrong in general, and specifically incompatible with democracy.

Continue reading “Realism II: Palmerston meets St Anselm”

Realism meets real life, continued

Mearsheimer & Walt don’t understand American politics

The row over the the notorious paper on the Israel lobby by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt rumbles on in the letters page of the London Review of Books – including a surprisingly temperate piece by Alan Dershowitz, making some amends for this earlier rant. Mearsheimer & Walt will reply in the next issue (4 May).

There’s a good post by Jacob Levy that makes the point that Mearsheimer and Walt have a na�ve idea of American society amd the struggle between interest groups. How can two very bright guys like the authors succeed in brutally competitive top-rank universities, located in in hard-bitten cities like Chicago and Boston, without apparently learning how politics actually works?

Continue reading “Realism meets real life, continued”

That old-time sophistry

Henry Kissinger (still keeping the faith of cynicism) tries to defend the Bush doctrine of preventive war with the “what if Hitler had been stopped” trope:

Had Churchill’s early warning been heeded, the Nazi plague could have been destroyed at relatively little cost. A decade later, tens of millions of dead paid the price for the quest for certainty.

If France and Britain had wanted to fight Hitler before they actually did, they would not have needed any dubious theory of pre-emption or prevention. They only needed to stick by their treaty commitments: just for starters, Article 10 of the Covenant of the League of Nations and the 1924 and 1935 Czechoslovak treaties with France. Hitler’s ostentatious scrapping of the armaments restrictions in the Versailles Treaty, the Anschluss, and the reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936 could have been casus belli [mistake in Latin grammar fixed] by themselves. He wasn’t some possible future threat to international security but a serial violator of it, practically from the word go.

Semana Santa and white Lego

Holy Week in Andalucia, with thoughts about religious imagery in general

This is Holy Week in Andalucia, Semana Santa. We went out on Wednesday to see the procession in Vélez Málaga, our local market town. It’s quite an experience. First you have the banner-holders, penitentes in embroidered velvet robes and the famous pointy-headed masks, then women in mantillas, and brass bands. Last the serried bearers, in a swaying dead march, slowly advance the huge floats, stopping frequently for a rest or to work the canopy under phone wires. Each guild usually has two floats, the first a semi-realistic scene from the Passion story; ours was Jesus praying in Gethsemane, under a handsome small olive tree sacrificed for the occasion. The second is a stylised Virgin Mary in a gorgeous robe, surrounded by flowers and candles, under a fragile brocade baldequin. It’s well organised — each bearer has his name neatly printed on a sticker on the hollow metal beams that carry the float, the robes are cleaned, the silver polished, the candles expensive beeswax.

This raises a lot of questions I’m not competent to answer. Why do you get this here and not elsewhere even in Spain? Why are the clergy absent? But I can make a guess at the numbers. Our procession had say 80 bearers per float, two brass bands of 40 or so, plus penitentes, mantillas, censers, banner-holders and so on: the total must have run to 300 participants, plus an invisible army of stagehands, polishers, and seamstresses. In this town of about. 55,000 there are 17 guilds, that go out on different nights. So at least a tenth of the entire population is actively involved. Popular Christianity must have been like this in Europe in the Middle Ages, except you now see women in the procession and the guild committees. I wonder: is it also what popular Islam was like in this town at the same period?

I also ask myself about the art (continued below the fold)

Continue reading “Semana Santa and white Lego”