Friday, May 31, 2013

Book Review: H. Albertus Boli, The Crimes of Galahad

Christopher Bailey: Self-Portrait

One of the two fellows above is Christopher Bailey . . . and the other, I think, is H. Albertus Boli, author of the remarkable 'autobiography' of Galahad Newman Bousted, The Crimes of Galahad.

I began reading this novel at the encouragement of an old Baylor NoZe friend, Ken Askew, albeit with no little trepidation, for the back cover warns:

Galahad Newman Bousted
is the wickedest man on earth
as he hatches an outrageous scheme to defraud his own father!
as he plots to ravish an innocent maiden!
as he plans a murder so foul, he sickens even himself!

Not the sort of book that I ordinarily would read, but it came well recommended, and turned out to be quite amusing. Galahad does undergo a sort of degradation, as one might expect from the title and back cover, but not quite as one might expect. He in fact never entirely succeeds in following through on his wicked schemes -- though not for want of intention or effort.

He had been raised as a good boy, but upon graduating from high school faced a life of penury as a clerk in his father's stationery shop. The horror of such a future -- for he felt that he deserved far better -- drove him to adopt a wicked life of selfishness, inspired by a review of some obscure Frenchman's book advocating a life of evil based on seeking one's self-interest.

But each time Galahad sets out to follow his own self-interest in ways that would result in genuine wickedness, unforeseen events intervene that transform his selfish plans into results beneficial for all concerned.

For example, Galahad spends weeks and weeks carefully preparing the aforesaid ravishing of an innocent maiden, only to see a large man with a club leap from hiding first and make a go for the innocent girl -- a thwarting of Galahad's plans that so enrages him that he leaps forth from his own hidden spot and successfully beats the other man senseless . . . emerging from the event not a criminal but a hero.

This sort of turnabout repeats with every evil intention that Galahad attempts to bring to fruition -- almost as though the author of all this creation graciously arranged events in Galahad's life to work for the good rather than for evil!

There's a theology in there somewhere . . . so let's see what Galahad says he's learned from life:
Let every enlightened young man take his example from me . . . . Let him gain a reputation for scrupulous honesty in every branch of affairs; let him be remarked for his humble piety and conspicuous in charity; let him devote himself with assiduous care to the happiness of those around him, that they may be found useful in promoting his own happiness. (page 403)
We could do with more such wickedness in the world! Perhaps it's not wickedness at all, after all, for the title page quotes Matthew 7:16:
Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.
By those sacred words, Galahad is to be known by his fruits as a good man . . . unless we need to dig deeper to get at the root of evil. Perhaps you, dear reader, can do that digging? If so, you must first dig into this novel and mine its riches.

Book highly recommended!

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Thursday, May 30, 2013

New from the North: Cerebration Invigorator, Moxibustion Appliance, and (Eternal) Toothpaste!

Flag of North Korea

We so rarely hear good things about North Korea, but thanks to the United States Forces Korea J2's Korea Open Source Digest (Volume VI, Issue 103, Saturday, 25 – Tuesday, 28 May 2013), I can today report on three recent advances in North Korean science that will surely work for the betterment of humankind. First, there's this article on a miracle drug:
Reun Capsule, New Cerebration Invigorator
Korean Central News Agency

Pyongyang - Among the exhibits at the 16th Pyongyang Spring International Trade Fair (May 13-16) was Reun capsule, a new kind of cerebration invigorator, presented by the Jongsong Trading Company. The capsule is made of physiological activators, such as lecithin extracted from bean, ginkgo leaf extract and various kinds of vitamins. It is efficacious for easing mental stress and helpful to curing amnesia, insomnia, aphasia, dizziness and hand and foot aching. It is also good for fatty liver and liver cirrhosis. With no side effect, the capsule was granted with the DPRK patent right in September 2012.
Definitely wonderful, a medicinal breakthrough! And the fact that the granting of the patent right has had no side effect is certainly something to cerebrate! Second -- to my great astonishment -- is yet another miracle of advancement in health:
New Moxibustion Appliance Developed
Korean Central News Agency

Pyongyang - The Academy of Koryo Medicine of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea has developed a new kind of moxibustion appliance. The appliance is made with mixed powders of wormwood, rare earth mineral and Kumgang medicinal stone, which emit heat, electronic radiation and far infrared rays, when burnt. The compound rays help improve circulation of blood, activate metabolism and enhance immunity in human body. This portable appliance can adjust its operational temperature and time to suit the diseases. It is efficacious for bronchial asthma, hypertension, hypotension, cardiac neurosis, stomach and duodenal ulcer, etc. Sliced ginger and garlic are usually put on the spots of acupuncture to get a better effectiveness of the appliance. Paek Kum Sang, a researcher of the Academy, told KCNA that the new appliance gives desirable effect to the regions of acupuncture more quickly than the existing ones.
Quite another breakthrough with this magical medicine! Readers suffering from neurotic hearts can be gladdened at the news. Also useful, though not explicitly specified, is the strengthening of the female bust, or so the term "moxibustion" apparently implies. Too bad the appliance can be used just once, since it seems to work only "when burnt." Third comes still again an advance in health science:
New Kind of Toothpaste, One of Attractions At Int'l Trade Fair
Korean Central News Agency

Pyongyang - The Korean Sangwon Trading Company presented a new kind of toothpaste at the 16th Pyongyang Spring International Trade Fair held some days ago. In this regard, KCNA met Kim Yon Hui, an official of the company. She said: The chestnut-color toothpaste is made of various species of medical plants indigenous to Korea, including liquorice and dandelion. Effective for five years, it is efficacious for killing dental bacteria. It washes away toothscum and removes tartar in 15 to 20 days from the beginning of use. It is believed to be good especially for children. The toothpaste was granted with the DPRK patent right.
Effective for five years! Terrific toothpaste! Don't talk to me about breakthroughs! Brush once, and you're good for half a decade! Such toothpaste can be passed down in one's family for generations to come. Though I am left a bit leery by the remark that it's only "believed to be good" . . .

But enough blogging for the day -- there's already too much good news!

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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Root Cause of Islamist Violence?

Ali A. Rizvi
Huffington Post

My friend Kevin Kim has linked to a very interesting article, "An Atheist Muslim's Perspective on the 'Root Causes' of Islamist Jihadism and the Politics of Islamophobia" (Huffington Post, May 3, 2013), by Ali A. Rizvi, who argues that Islamist jihad against the USA began somewhat earlier than 9/11:
The ambassador [from Tripoli, in current-day Libya,] answered us that [their right] was founded on the Laws of the Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have answered their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.
As Rizvi points out these were "the words of Thomas Jefferson, then the U.S. ambassador to France, reporting to Secretary of State John Jay a conversation he'd had with Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja, Tripoli's envoy to London, in 1786," eventually leading up to the Treaty of Tripoli on June 10, 1797. Rizvi further observes:
That is before al Qaeda and the Taliban, before the creation of Israel or the Arab-Israeli conflict, before Khomeini, before Saudi Arabia, before drones, before most Americans even knew what jihad or Islam was, and, most importantly, well before the United States had engaged in a single military incursion overseas or even had an established foreign policy.
What, then, was the conflict? This:
At the time, thousands of American and European trade ships entering the Mediterranean had been targeted by pirates from the Muslim Barbary states (modern-day North Africa). More than a million Westerners had been kidnapped, imprisoned and enslaved. Tripoli was the nexus for these operations. Jefferson's attempts to negotiate resulted in deadlock, and he was told simply that the kidnapping and enslavement of the infidels would continue, tersely articulated by Adja in the exchange paraphrased above.
And the cause? Taking a roundabout route, Rizvi notes:
In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings and the foiled al Qaeda-backed plot in Toronto, the "anything but jihad" brigade is out in full force again. If the perpetrators of such attacks say they were influenced by politics, nationalism, money, video games or hip-hop, we take their answers at face value. But when they repeatedly and consistently cite their religious beliefs as their central motivation, we back off, stroke our chins and suspect that there has to be something deeper at play, a "root cause."
Rizvi then goes on to argue that the root cause is of course Islamic ideology, for Islamism "isn't a distortion of that ideology. It is an informed, steadfast adherence to its fundamentals." He reminds us tha those Islamists who are the "jihadi terrorists link themselves with Islam," so more peaceful Muslims "the world over . . . [need] to start dealing honestly with the parts of their religion that undeniably promote armed jihad." Read his entire article for the full statement of his argument.

Is he right? Is the problem Islam itself?

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Ricardo Duchesne's Review of Niall Ferguson's Civilization: The Six Ways the West Beat the Rest?

Prof. Ricardo Duchesne's Review

Ricardo Duchesne has an intriguing review of Niall Ferguson's book on the success of the West, i.e., Civilization: The West and the Rest, except that there appears to be some confusion as to this book's title. Duchesne's review calls it Civilization: The Six Ways the West Beat the Rest. I've not found that title at Amazon, but I did find this: Civilization: The Six Killer Apps of Western Power. These three titles seem to indicate the same book. Perhaps it has three differently titled editions? There are at least two editions, the US (West and Rest) and the UK (Six Killer Apps).

However that is to be resolved, Duchesne's review is titled "Dr Ricardo Duchesne, review of Civilization: The Six Ways the West Beat the Rest, (review no. 1225)," Reviews in History, and after some positive remarks, Duchesne finds the book wanting:
Ferguson reduces the uniqueness of the West to the question: 'how it came to dominate the Rest?' According to him, the West rose above the Rest through the development of six 'killer apps': i) a more fragmented political setting that worked to encourage competition and innovation both between and within states; ii) a predilection for open inquiry and a scientific attitude towards nature; iii) property rights and the representation of property-owners in elected assemblies; iv) modern medicine, v) an industrial revolution based on both a supply of sustained innovations and a demand for mass consumer goods; and vi) a work ethic that included more productive labor with higher savings and capital accumulation. Ferguson does not claim originality here, but credit is due for his command of the subject and his ability to engage a wide audience of lay readers and students alike with ease, intelligence, good judgment, and a keen command of comparative history.

Regrettably, Ferguson's idea of the West is devoid of any pre-modern past. Less historically literate readers will wrongly think that the West came into existence sometime in the 1600s with the arrival of these apps. He writes early on that the West is merely 'a set of norms, behaviors, and institutions with borders that are blurred in the extreme' (p. 15). This idea is consistent with his neoconservative universalism. Westerners are no more than individuals who have managed to download successfully the killer apps -- regardless of location, religion, ethnicity, and historical background. The world, after all, has been converging with the West, or so he argues, with only a few bothersome radical Muslims standing in the way.
Duchesne, by contrast, argues that the West has a longer tradition, one stretching back even earlier than the ancient Greeks, all the way back to the Indo-Europeans, as we have seen before. And it has a cultural identity, Duchesne argues, an identity that other groups will not necessarily feel akin to even if they do emigrate to the West and adopt some of what Ferguson calls "killer apps," as Duchesne points out:
[Ferguson] is clearly worried by the lack of assimilation of Muslims in Europe, and the key role being played at universities and elsewhere by Islamic centres. He tabulates that if the current Muslim population of the UK continues to grow at the current rate, its share of the total population would pass 50 per cent in 2050 (p. 290). So, it looks like the West needs to show resolve on Muslim immigration and assimilation . . . by teaching kids Western liberal arts? I doubt a population built on mass migration from non-Western lands would be enthusiastic about Elizabethan England, Homer, Chaucer, Aquinas, or even Shakespeare.
Duchesne has a point. Will immigrants from other civilizations, especially Islamic Civilization, identify with a deeper tradition of the West? Given the recent beheading of British soldier by two radical Islamists on a busy London street, the throat-stabbing of a French soldier by an apparent Islamist in Paris, and the week-long nightly riots by Muslim youth burning cars and destroying property in Stockholm, a positive answer would seem to be in grave doubt.

Some of us will live long enough to learn the answer . . .

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Monday, May 27, 2013

Terrance Lindall's Vampirella . . . and Vampire Hella

Terrance Lindall

According to Ebay, the piece of Americana is fine quality:
VAMPIRELLA #86 (1980) CGC NM/MT 9.8 Terrance Lindall Cover HIGHEST GRADED!
I don't know what some of that means, but I like this cover. In fact, Lindall's Vampirella rather reminds me of another vamp:

That's Hella, from my eerie tale, The Bottomless Bottle of Beer (purchasable here), as drawn and colored by none other than Terrance Lindall. Noting the similarity between Vampirella and Vampire Hella, I called this to Terrance's attention:
She reminds me of Hella!
To which Terrance replied:
I foresaw her!
Perfectly eerie through and through . . . hence calling for a reposting of an old poem of mine:
Fine frost that laces window panes,
the icy-blooded vampire’s veins;
seductive, sensual spoor of death,
its frozen, freezing undead breath;
one cold, controlled, alluring art,
its solitary lover’s heart.
Are you scared yet? If not, get thee to You Tube for this: "Moon Over Bourbon Street."

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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Shaking Hands With UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon . . .

Some readers may recall from previous posts the illustrious name "Deva Hupaylo." Here's the person:

Okay, it's only a photo of the person, but it's the best I can do at the moment. Deva is a long-time friend from my Ozark youth who has turned into a world traveler like me. Currently, she lives in The Hague, where she works as the Head of the Industry Verification Branch at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons:

for the
Chemical Weapons

As one might expect, such a post brings her into that higher sphere of the powers that be, "the archons of this age," with whom she rubs shoulders and shakes hands. Speaking of which, Deva recently had the opportunity to shake hands with this man:

Ban Ki-moon

Lots of Koreans have shaken the hand of Ban Ki-moon, of course, so some of my local readers might be shrugging a 'so-what' shrug, but this sort of handshake is less common for us folks from the Ozarks. Anyway, the happy event took place at the OPCW during the Third Review Conference and can be glimpsed in this video link at just past 3:00 minutes, specifically at 3:05, when Deva steps forward as the first in line and extends her hand to an approaching Ban Ki-moon, with whom she has the following exchange of words:
"Hello! I'm Deva Hupaylo, Head of the Industry Verification Branch here at the OPCW."

"Ban Ki-moon. Pleased to meet you."
Or so she claims to me in an email yesterday reporting the "she-said-he-said." But I can lip-read, so I know that they actually discussed the finer points of modern Japanese architecture and the political situation in Kiribati, and that he also asked if she would advise him on the best tropical surfing beaches so that he could perfect his goofy foot aerial. I'm not entirely certain what a "goofy foot aerial" is, but if you watch his lips carefully, you can see that he says precisely that.

There might be some skepticism among my readers that Deva and Ban Ki-moon managed to discuss all these things in the five seconds of their interaction, but people at that level of power learn to speak very concisely.

You'll just have to believe me . . .

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Saturday, May 25, 2013

Such Mad Notions . . .

Eyeing Definitions

Some readers may recall that I quoted Professor Lee Jae-Min in a post on legal definitions some time back, specifically, these words:
Suppose legislation, enacted in 1990, contains the term "cellphone." Does it mean a cellphone that we knew as of 1990, a brick-sized portable phone, and its future extensions? Or should the term also cover the new electronic products, sporting "all-in-one" digital capabilities, that we carry in our pockets and bags in 2013? This question relates to what is called "evolutionary interpretation" or "dynamic interpretation" of texts, and poses a new challenge.
At the time, I also made a remark about religious texts:
Imagine how this applies to religious texts in our rapidly changing world. One can't generally even amend them. One is left with reinterpretation.
But even 'science' and 'scientific' texts have to deal with changing reality in, for example, the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, though we're probably talking more about shifting social reality, if we read between the lines:
The fact that the world's most powerful psychiatrists (their decisions determine what counts as a mental disorder, and thus what insurers cover and which children receive special services in school) are already building in ways to change the manual is commendable, even its critics say.

But it is also emblematic of the DSM-5's failures, they argue, which include turning normal human behavior and feelings into mental illnesses, and expanding the criteria for disorders until an astonishing one in four U.S. adults has a diagnosable mental illness every year -- and even more do over a lifetime.
Perhaps I should say "bureaucratic" reality, for this redefining of normal extremes as mental illnesses rather than leaving them understood as within the normal range of human feelings serves a bureaucratic purpose, as implied in the above quote from an article by Sharon Begley, "Psychiatrists unveil their long-awaited diagnostic 'bible'" (Reuters, May 17, 2013). As more and more people are redefined as 'ill,' more and more qualify for health coverage. The consequence is costly, probably unnecessary health care as we redefine ourselves as 'victims.' But there's something of a countervailing force to this pathological overlabeling, at least in the sense of lifting the label of victimhood by redefining what has been considered abnormal as normal, as in Blake Charlton's article, "Defining My Dyslexia" (New York Times, May 22, 2013)
[A] group of advocates could alter the definition of dyslexia and what it means to be dyslexic. That's a bigger idea than it might seem. Ask yourself, "What role should those affected by a diagnosis have in defining that diagnosis?" Recently I posed this question to several doctors and therapists. With minor qualifications, each answered "none." I wasn't surprised. Traditionally, a diagnosis is something devised by distant experts and imposed on the patient. But I believe we must change our understanding of what role we should play in defining our own diagnoses.

Before I went to medical school, I thought a diagnosis was synonymous with a fact; criteria were met, or not. Sometimes this is so. Diabetes, for example, can be determined with a few laboratory tests. But other diagnoses, particularly those involving the mind, are more nebulous. Symptoms are contradictory, test results equivocal. Moreover, the definition of almost any diagnosis changes as science and society evolve.

Diagnostics might have more in common with law than science. Legislatures of disease exist in expert panels, practice guidelines and consensus papers. Some laws are unimpeachable, while others may be inaccurate or prejudiced. The same is true in medicine; consider the antiquated diagnosis of hysteria in women. Those affected by unjust diagnoses -- like those affected by unjust laws -- should protest and help redefine them.

The past 50 years provide several examples of such redefinitions. In 1978, Susan Sontag's "Illness as Metaphor" demonstrated how the contemporary understanding and description of cancer unfairly blamed patients. In the next decade, activists began their struggle to enlighten the medical profession and society about H.I.V. More recently, the neurodiversity movement has changed how we understand autism.

I believe that scientific evidence and social observation will continue to show that defining dyslexia based solely on its weaknesses is inaccurate and unjust, and places too grim a burden on young people receiving the diagnosis. A more precise definition of dyslexia would clearly identify the disabilities that go along with it, while recognizing the associated abilities as well. If the dyslexic community could popularize such a definition, then newly diagnosed dyslexics would realize that they, like everyone else, will face their futures with a range of strengths and weaknesses.
Fascinating, this interplay of science, society, bureaucracy, and the transition of time . . . but it isn't a neutral interplay, as we see in the possibly politicized drive to redefine the normal as pathological, countered by the also possibly politicized drive to redefine the pathological as normal. What will be the outcome of redefining everyone as victimless victims? Pathology as power? I think of all sorts of bad puns. The pathology to success! Choose your pathology through life! Find your own pathology!

That way lies madness . . .

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Friday, May 24, 2013

Q. Edward Wang on Duchesne's Uniqueness of Western Civilization

Institute of History
Humboldt University of Berlin

A little over one year ago, Q. Edward Wang, of Rowan University, wrote a "Rezension zu: Duchesne, Ricardo: The Uniqueness of Western Civilization. Leiden 2011" -- which means Professor Wang reviewed Duchesne's book -- for H-Soz-u-Kult (April 27, 2012), and he asked, "[W]hat was the uniqueness of Western/European civilization?":
Duchesne devotes five chapters to discussing it in the . . . book. These chapters, as one now can well expect, cover such topics as the "creativity" among the Europeans, the advances of "reason and freedom" in Europe, the "restlessness" of the Western spirit, the entrenched tradition of "egalitarianism" and the strong notion of "self" in European culture. In discussing these subjects, he relies on and rehearses the points made by major European thinkers in the past, ranging from Malthus and Hegel to Max Weber and, more recently, Jürgen Habermas and Francis Fukuyama. He then draws on his own conclusion, often in a sweeping manner and a highly subjective language. In extolling Europeans' "creativity," for instance, Duchesne hypothesizes that "The West, I believe, has always embodied a reflective sense of self-doubt about what it knows and what remains to be known, a kind of restlessness that has been both destructive and productive of new literary style, musical trends, visual motifs, and novel ideas. By contrast, the intellectual and artistic order of China has remained relatively stable throughout its history" (p. 194). In other words, though he agrees that China and India had achieved economic successes in their past, the Chinese and Indians remained no match for the Europeans in terms of cultural and intellectual creativity. To his credit, he does cite some of the works by scholars of Asia in making comparison. With regard to artistic creativity in China, for instance, Duchesne quotes Jacques Gernet, a renowned French China scholar, that Chinese cultural life between 1650 and 1800 was not characterized by "conformism" but by "an openness of mind and intellectual curiosity." He then quickly dismisses Gernet's observation and states that the Chinese cultural accomplishment in the period was eclipsed by what the Europeans did, for the latter's achievement showed, citing Thomas Kuhn, "fundamental novelties" (pp. 194-195). Needless to say, this kind of remarks piqued one's interest, wanting to see more elaboration from him. But Duchesne simply stops here. Perhaps to him, this has been a foregone conclusion, rather a point of departure for further research.
I think that Wang intended to say "rather than a point of departure for further research." He clearly thinks that Duchesne fails to follow through on the main point, never providing a demonstration that Europeans were more fundamentally creative than Chinese.

Wang does not comment on the Indo-European hypothesis, but the review is a short one, and he is understandably more interested in Duchesne's remarks on China.

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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Martin Hewson's Review of Ricardo Duchesne's Uniqueness of Western Civilization

Martin Hewson
University of Regina

In my continuing search for reviews on Ricardo Duchesne's Uniqueness of Western Civilization, I have now come across one of the most informative, Martin Hewson's "Multicultural vs. Post-Multicultural World History: A Review Essay" (Cliodynamics (2012), Vol 3, Iss 2), which very clearly summarizes Duchesne's Indo-European thesis:
Chapter seven inquires into the origins of the West. Duchesne argues that Western culture should be traced back beyond the usual starting point of classical antiquity deep into prehistory to the Indo-Europeans. The Indo-Europeans, a Bronze Age people living about 5000 years ago, must have been unique in some way. Their tongue, the vernacular of a small pastoral tribe probably from the Pontic steppe, spawned offspring spoken from Ireland to Bengal. What lay behind this amazing linguistic expansion? The proximate cause was a combination of conquests and migrations. But why were they so successful for so long in conquest and migration? Duchesne attributes it to horse riding, cattle rearing, a healthy diet of meat and dairy, and a more aggressive, individualistic, aristocratic temperament.

In particular, it was the aristocratic culture of the Indo-Europeans that was the original dynamic of the West, argues Duchesne. By 'aristocratic' he means (1) a state in which the ruler is not an autocrat but first among equals in the elite; (2) a culture that is vigorous, free, and joyful; (3) a culture that is individualistic; and (4) an expansive, martial society made up of fraternal war bands. All these were features of the Indo-Europeans, and all subsequently were transmitted to European culture. The Indo-Europeans who expanded eastwards into Anatolia or India lost these characteristics. They were absorbed into an older social order.

It is noteworthy that Duchesne thinks individualism is not a modern invention. The modernist view has it that individualism arose from the breakup of premodern communal society. But, for Duchesne, individualism is a primordial characteristic of the West. One question mark hanging over this Indo-European thesis is that it is not clear how unusual the Indo-Europeans were. Were they one of the many nomadic arid-zone peoples who, like Turks, or Arabs, or Mongols, managed to conquer adjacent sedentary peoples? Or were they different? In his history of central Eurasia, Beckwith (2009), like Duchesne, maintains that the key institution of the steppe was the war band or comitatus bound together by oaths of loyalty and fraternity. But unlike Duchesne, Beckwith holds that there was a common central Eurasian culture, encompassing all the steppe peoples. In effect, Duchesne has given a unique twist to the established and convincing idea that the encounter between steppe and sown, nomad and sedentary, strongly shaped Eurasian history.

One significant piece of evidence for early aristocratic individualism in the West is that Duchesne finds a significant contrast between the heroic narratives of Greece and Northern Europe (the Iliad, Beowulf) and the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh. Personal heroism is the main theme of the former but not the latter. "Unlike the Iliad, which consists of battle scenes constructed largely out of individual encounters designed to enhance the specific deeds of singular heroes, there are no individuals with identifiable biographies in Gilgamesh" (413). Gilgamesh himself is an autocrat.

The final chapter (the eighth) attributes the accomplishments of Greece, Rome, and medieval Christendom to what might be called the spirit of agon, that is the restless, competitive, aristocratic ethos. Inspired by Nietzsche, Duchesne seeks to rehabilitate the idea of an aristocratic culture from the condescension of modernity. Beginning with interpretations of Hegel, Fukuyama, and Nietzsche, Duchesne proceeds to tackle the issue of how the violent culture of the Indo-Europeans was transformed into first the Greek then later stages of Western culture. In Greece, the aristocratic ethos was behind the free-for-all competition of philosophers and artists with their driving desire for fame and originality. Likewise the agonistic spirit was ingrained in the Olympic games, the wars, and the competitive politics of the city-states. The aristocratic ethos in Rome found expression in republicanism with its emblem of liberty (libertas). European feudalism was an aristocratic form of rule. The principle of sovereignty by consent, a hallmark of feudalism, was an aristocratic principle. Aristocratic privileges were the original inspiration for the idea of bourgeois rights and liberties. The main message is that "the creativity of the West was rooted in a culture of free aristocrats" (484). (pages 314-315)
One might infer that only this thesis interests me in Duchesne's book, but that's not the case. Rather, because this Indo-European hypothesis is the most controversial of his ideas, I'm focusing on it for my better understanding.

Read Hewson's entire review -- it's greatly informative.

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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Eric Jones: Review of Ricardo Duchesne's Uniqueness of Western Civilization

Indo-European Expansion

In the Australian-based journal Policy Magazine (Vol. 27, No. 4, Summer 2011-12) is a review by economic historian Eric Jones of "The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, By Ricardo Duchesne." Let us again focus upon the Indo-European thesis:
Historians and philosophers tend to trace Europe's political singularity from Christianity to ancient Greece. As Duchesne fruitfully observes, they tend to park the matter there, as if Greece were sui generis. He probes into this, displaying prodigious learning in historical anthropology (informed throughout by Hegelianism). To collapse many, many pages of debate, his argument is that Europe’s essence lay in aristocratic competitiveness, contrasting with a 'serene and deferential East' -- an aspect, however, that Duchesne explores sparingly. Europe's individualism, aggressiveness and so on reached the continent, he insists, as the baggage of invading, prestige hungry Indo-European steppe nomads. These qualities, let alone their transmission to society as a whole, are rather imprecise and I was on the brink of dismissing them as too speculative when I found myself rather extensively cited. There must be something in the topic after all! But these hoary, contentious themes are really several orders of magnitude more speculative than the tracts of early modern history where Duchesne fences with the most fashionable of the revisionists.

It is a problem to exhume the history of thought and social structure in ancient Greece, but at least reams of scholarship exist on the subject. For centuries, higher learning in Europe dwelt on little else, except the slightly less faded history of Rome. Duchesne shows himself a master of the subject, especially in its anthropological guise. He shows himself, too, as a master of the archaeologically based sagas of the Indo-Europeans. He faces down anyone who would frighten us off the subject because of the Nazi's Aryan perversions, after which everything Indo-European was amputated and sanitised into mere linguistic studies. The task of taking the Indo-European legacy forward and connecting it with the priceless individualism and liberty of modern European peoples is of an even taller order. This section of the book -- or books -- is relatively diffuse. (pages 62c-63a)
Jones is good-humored about this thesis, but skeptical due to its speculative character and perhaps even wary of the the topic because of its earlier misappropriation by the National Socialists of Germany in their genocidal actions during the 1930s and early 1940s. In my own Google searches I have noticed a few racialist sites popping up among the many websites with reviews by the book's admirers, but so far as I can judge from reviews, Duchesne is making a cultural argument, not a racial one. And an argument explaining the West's success over East Asia in modernizing first has to be based on cultural reasons and not, for instance, on such things as intelligence quotient scores since East Asians outscore Caucasians.

Such are issues to be aware of in reading the book's argument . . .

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Professor Andrei Znamenski Reviews Ricardo Duchesne's Uniqueness of Western Civilization

Professor Andrei Znamenski, historian at the University of Memphis, is yet another scholar who has reviewed Ricardo Duchesne's book, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization: "The 'European Miracle': Warrior Aristocrats, Spirit of Liberty, and Competition as a Discovery Process" (The Independent Review: A Journal of Political Economy, v. 16, n. 4, Spring 2012, pp. 599-610). Here follows Znamenski's summary of Duchesne's argument on the ethos of the ancient Indo-Europeans and its contribution to European uniqueness:
Duchesne takes the discussion of the European Miracle to a new historical and philosophical level by viewing such issues as Europe's modern economic advancement and its political decentralization as fractions of a bigger question: What are the general sources of the rise of European creativity? Digging deep into ancient history, he comes up with a provocative argument: the cultural roots of what later evolved into the European Miracle should be traced back to the social ethos of the Indo-European warrior aristocracy, which he considers an "unusual class with a strong libertarian spirit" (p. 406). He does not dismiss the geographical, social, and economic factors, but at the same time he stresses that the spark that ignited the whole process was this particular cultural group and its ethical code.

The bands of Indo-Europeans who laid a foundation for modern German, Slavic, Roman, and Greek languages had originally resided north of the Black Sea at the Ukrainian steppes, whence they moved to central and western Europe, the Near East, and India. They migrated in several waves separated by long time periods between 4,000 BCE and 1,000 BCE. One of the last migrations was that of the notorious Germanic "barbarians" who dislodged the crumbling western Roman Empire. Duchesne informs us that a peculiar democratic ethos of the Indo-European warrior aristocrats became a sort of "big bang" that initiated the whole chain of historical events that together molded "Western spirit" with its individualism and autonomous institutions: "The primordial roots of Western uniqueness must be traced back to the aristocratic warlike culture of the Indo-European speakers who spread throughout Europe during the 4th and 3rd millennium" (p. 344).

Daredevil free spirits always ready to fight and prove themselves, intolerant of any imposition on their personal status, and well nourished by their meat diet, these "Indo-European speakers" were physically strong warriors, who, on top of everything, became extremely mobile by being the first in history to domesticate horses . . . . [T]hese Indo-European nomads and their descendants were not exactly nice people. From Scandinavian sagas, we learn that they were essentially a bunch of self-centered brutes obsessed with a megalomaniacal quest for prestige and status, constantly seeking to prove themselves in the eyes of their peers either by fighting each other or by throwing feasts.

Duchesne's point here is that out of this unattractive, individualized "military democracy" a strong sense of personal autonomy gradually grew, which these noble aristocrats later sought to codify and safeguard in such documents as the famous Magna Carta. Later, new groups of "aristocrats" (towns, universities, members of guilds, farmers, and, eventually in modern times, workers' unions) began to claim their personal autonomy, extracting from lords and governments their own "charters of liberty". To secure their liberties, all of these people eventually connected themselves with each other by a web of contractual relations. Thus, in the course of time what had originally emerged as the selfish ethos of Indo-European warrior aristocrats opened doors to the full expression of individual potential, which was channeled into various economic, scientific, creative, and political pursuits. Duchesne describes this process by using the Kantian expression "unsocial sociability." Of course, many writers and philosophers had already noted a long time ago the beneficial presence of this "unsocial sociability" in the Western tradition. The most well-known examples are Leviathan (1651) by Thomas Hobbs and Adam Smith's famous economic dictum in 1776 about the invisible hand of the free market, when people working for themselves indirectly benefit the entire society.

This European libertarian ethos contrasted drastically with what existed in many contemporary non-Western societies, where individual initiative was suffocated and people were ruled, to borrow Ludwig von Mises's expression, by "virtue of command and subordination or hegemony" (1949, 196). At the same time, we know that the Indo-European bands migrated not only to western Europe, but also to the Near East and India. Why, though, did their allegedly libertarian ethos never materialize in these areas? Duchesne explains that in India and the Near East the Indo-Europeans represented a minority that was assimilated into local indigenous cultures that were heavily imbued with group-oriented ethics and in this way lost their individualized tradition of military democracy.
There is much overlap with previous reviews, but the usefulness of this summary lies partly in its accounting for why the Indo-Europeans had little influence on the development of individualism in India and the Near East.

I'll have to look into the expression "unsocial sociability," yet another paradoxical concept in this unfamiliar intellectual terrain . . .

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Monday, May 20, 2013

Ricardo Duchesne Reply to Professor Mark Elvin's Review

Ricardo Duchesne was not especially happy with Professor Mark Elvin's review of his book, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, and he writes a "Reply To Mark Elvin" (Canadian Journal of Sociology, Vol 36, No 4 (2011), 378-387), though he opens by saying that he "was quite pleased to learn that a respected scholar of Chinese history, Mark Elvin, had written a review essay of . . . The Uniqueness of Western Civilization (2011)." Within a few lines, however, he adds, "Having read and cited some of Elvin's work, I would say that his intellectual frame is socialistic, materialistic, secular, and multiculturalist," but he then graciously adds, "All of us have cultural biases, so let me concede that I prefer the West to any other civilization." I don't think that there was any doubt about that, so I wasn't surprised to discover that this was a take-no-prisoners counter-review. I won't quote the entire review, of course, just Duchesne's reply to Elvin's critical remarks about his Indo-European thesis:
Elvin calls "original" my thesis on the aristocratic Indo-European roots of Western creativity but "suspects many readers will find it outrageous." This thesis is detailed in Chapter 7 and most of Chapter 8, covering about 150 pages and backed by hundreds of sources. Elvin cites . . . a line from the Preface, and then dismisses the argument with a few lines of his own. I am confident that well-educated readers will find the thesis rather persuasive, or this is the sense I am getting from what I know, thus far, about five upcoming review essays. Elvin wonders about India's Indo-European background. If he had read the respective chapters he might have noted that I tackled this question in two sections, "The Distinctive Indo-Europeanization of the West," and "Impact of Indo-Europeans of the Civilizations of the East." Elvin wonders as well about other warlike peoples from the steppes such as the Mongols and Turks. I mentioned non-Indo-European groups from the steppes but indicated this would be a matter of future research. Recently, I read Christopher Beckwith's book, Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present, which came out in 2009 as I was writing my book. It brings up some pertinent issues, including an emphasis on the crucial institution called comitatus, a war band of aristocratic warriors driven by heroic ideals. Beckwith sees these war bands throughout the steppes, rather than exclusively among Indo-European speakers. Yet, all in all, what he says solidifies my thesis. He agrees that the comitatus "goes all the way back to the Proto-Indo-European times"; and shows that the Ural-Altaic steppe peoples evolved, as I suggested, in a direction much more influenced by the Asian peripheral civilizations. This has been further corroborated by my readings of Carter Findley's The Turks (2005), and David Morgan's The Mongols (1984). It should not be forgotten, moreover, that it was the Proto-Indo-Europeans who originated and developed the steppe toolkit, horse riding, wheel vehicles, chariots, and the "secondary-products revolution." My book avoids a teleological reading of the aristocratic culture of Indo-Europeans by showing that their contributions were only "the beginning" of multiple cultural developments in varying geographical and cultural settings. (pages 384-385)
Duchesne writes with a tone of annoyance, probably because he believes that Elvin hasn't read all of Uniqueness, or not very carefully. I won't weigh in on this issue, for I've not read Duchesne either . . . not yet, anyway.

But I will. All of this is just prep work . . .

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Sunday, May 19, 2013

Professor Mark Elvin's Critical Review of Ricardo Duchesne's Uniqueness of the West

Mark Elvin

Continuing my posting of block quotes from reviews of Ricardo Duchesne's Uniqueness of the West, I today quote from a review by Mark Elvin, Professor Emeritus of Chinese History at the Australian National University, "Confused Alarms: Duchesne on the Uniqueness of the West," Canadian Journal of Sociology, 36 (4), 2011:
Uniqueness is, to use old-fashioned examiner's terminology, an alpha-delta book -- with some very good and some unnervingly bad components. It is also all but impossible to review fairly, at least in a brief compass. I will therefore proceed mostly by responding to the five main points that he helpfully lays out in his preface. These are as follows: (1) a great deal of often shoddy recent historiography and social science have devalued the intrinsic quality of Western civilization; (2) recent "revisionist" historical writing has seriously underestimated Western achievements between approximately 1500 and the present day; (3) for at least during the two-and-a-half millennia since classical antiquity, and probably far longer, the culture of the "West" has always been "in a state of variance from the world"; (4) a virtually unique "liberal-democratic culture" was crucial to the rise of the modern West; (5) the West's restless creativity ultimately derives from the war-like "aristocratic egalitarianism" of the early Indo-Europeans. Space being limited, I will express myself in response to these ideas as bluntly as he summarizes them. Needless to say, both our full positions are more nuanced. (pages 363-364)
By "alpha-delta," I presume Elvin is grading Duchesne with an A for some parts and and a D for other parts and is thus more critical than previously cited reviews. The five points above are simply sketchy summaries, so readers interested in Elvin's deeper analysis will need to go to the review itself, but he here is a sample of his remarks on "aristocratic egalitarianism" of the early Indo-Europeans:
The fifth thesis is original and Nietzschean in flavour; and I suspect many readers will find it outrageous. But it can provoke one into thinking hard, which is no bad thing. It is that the West's "creativity and libertarian spirit" originated in "the aristocratic warlike culture of Indo-European speakers," who were "governed by a spirit of aristocratic egalitarianism." The "primordial basis for Western uniqueness," Duchesne tells us, "lay in the ethos of individualism and strife" (p. x). The highest ideal in life was "the attainment of honorable prestige through the performance of heroic deeds." One's first reaction to this is to ask why, if this was so, were the invigorating effects not equally in evidence in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent, where speakers of one of the oldest great Indo-European tongues, namely Sanskrit, arrived and settled? Arjuna's troubled heart and sense of duty as he faces battle in the Bhagavad-Gîtâ are hardly those of Beowulf! (371-372)
Elvin is therefore a critic worth Duchesne's attention, for not only is he skeptical of the most original of Duchesne's five theses, as well as of the other four -- and thus of the West's uniqueness in some respects -- he is also a critical thinker who is both highly intelligent and well educated in the fields where Duchesne has trod.

Again, interested readers should go to Elvin's review.

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Saturday, May 18, 2013

An Encounter: ROK Squads Fresh from Exercises Near Uijeongbu?

Quirky Frog Fountain
Amphibious Exercise?
Not ROK Soldiers!
Visit Seoul

I can hardly yet still scarcely grasp that, due to my heavy workload, well over a year had passed since my previous bike ride (a serious one, I mean), but truth is that only on Thursday two days ago did I actually find time for a long longed-for long ride along the long nearby Jungnang Stream (Jungnangcheon: 중랑천), a tributary of Seoul's Han River. I've written before about bike trips along this urban-to-rural-to-urban stream. Although I start out from our apartment, I first enter the bike path along the stream just over the levee from the quirky frog fountain seen above. From that point, everything's uphill as I ride upstream several kilometers to the the familiar pathside beer place, which I finally revisited the day before yesterday, too.

But some kilometers along the way, just after reaching the bridge that I always take in crossing the stream, I encountered a squad of Korean soldiers walking single-file behind an officer and a flagman -- maybe ten to fifteen men -- soon followed by another squad with a different flag, then another, and another, and another, and on and on, the soldiers bearing arms, a few even bazookas! I must have passed more than 200, maybe more than 300. Could have been 500. If I'd been more alert, I'd have counted the flags and calculated from that number. They were all heading south as I biked north in the direction of Uijeongbu.

Something was going on, an exercise of some sort, but I only found out yesterday in my copy of Korean Peninsula Through the Lens (KPTL, Volume V, Issue 97, Friday, 17 May 2013):
A South Korean soldier cleans his gun after a CBR (chemical, biological and radiological) warfare training at Yeoncheon, Gyeonggi Province, north of Seoul on May 16, 2013. Held between Korean and U.S. military, the exercise is meant to affirm and improve their joint management system.
That explanation came with a photo, but I could neither copy nor link to it, so here's the link to a different site showing scenes of the same exercise (which I also couldn't copy). Here's yet another site, which allowed copying.

This is from Tempo (May 16, 2013), in an article titled "Anticipation of Chemical Weapons":
U.S. soldiers scan two South Korean soldiers during their decontamination training against possible chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats at Steel Zenith Field Training Exercise in Yeoncheon (16/5). REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won
Yeoncheon is north of Seoul (as noted in KPTL), further north than Uijeongbu, but the latter also has a lot of U.S. and Korean military bases to account for what I saw, though I didn't notice any gas masks, and my impression was that the soldiers were finished with an exercise of some sort.

That encounter reminded me that this divided peninsula remains not entirely at peace . . .

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Friday, May 17, 2013

Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman on Duchesne's Uniqueness of Western Civilization

Retired historian Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman has a very brief piece in Comparative Civilizations Review (Number 67, Fall 2012, pp. 130-132) that summarizes Ricardo Duchesne's book, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, and she offers Duchesne's five objectives in writing this book:
First, to trace the ideological sources behind the multicultural effort to "provincialize" the history of Western civilization (anthropological relativism, critical theory, dependency theory, evolutionary materialism, post-modernism, feminism, and identity politics).

Second: to assess the empirical adequacy of a highly influential set of revisionist works published in the last two decades dedicated to the pursuit of dismantling the "Eurocentric" consensus on the "rise of the West." Duchesne demonstrates that the entire revisionist school was founded on precarious and doubtful claims in an attempt to rewrite history.

Third, the traditional Eurocentric historiography on the rise of the West still holds much significance despite the unrelenting attacks on it. There are numerous additional sources from historians of Europe who have written about Western achievement from the ancient Greeks to the present. The West has always existed in a state of variance from the rest of the world's cultures, as can be shown in the "Greek miracle," the Roman invention of the legal persona, the Papal revolution, the Portuguese voyages of discovery, the Gutenberg press, the cartographic revolution, the Protestant reformation, and the "industrial enlightenment." Not one of the other major civilizations had such experience in their histories.

Fourth, Duchesne insists that the development of a liberal democratic culture was an indispensable component of the rise of the West. Western culture is more than just scientific or industrial; the ideals of freedom and the reasoned pursuit of truth were cultivated and realized only in the development of the West.

Fifth and finally, Duchesne argues that the roots of the West's "restless" creativity and libertarian spirit should be traced back to the aristocratic warlike culture of Indo-European speakers. The primordial basis for Western uniqueness lay in the ethos of individualism and strife. This is an extremely original position, and one that I had never considered before. What Duchesne writes about this particularly prickly nature of the Indo-European culture I recognize from my own work on the ancient Persian psyche, before they got carried away with the autocracy of the Semitic world which surrounded and outnumbered them.
All of this sounds interesting and worth looking into, for I've long wondered -- aside from the issue of the West's possible uniqueness -- about what, if anything, characterizes the West as "Western" throughout its lengthy history.

Individualism and strife, she says he says . . .

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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Marshall Poe on Ricardo Duchesne's Uniqueness of Western Civilization

Prof. Marshall T. Poe
University of Iowa

In checking out more reviews of Ricardo Duchesne's Uniqueness of Western Civilization, I found historian Marshall Poe's brief summary, with access to an audio interview over an hour in length, so of course, I didn't have time to listen to the entire exchange of views, but I did learn that Duchesne was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Canada as a teenager, attending college in Montreal though never losing his Spanish accent. Here's Poe's summary of Duchesne's views, along with some prefatory remarks:
One of the standard assumptions of modern Western social science (history included) is that material conditions drive historical development. All of the "Great Transitions" in world history -- the origins of agriculture, the birth of cities, the rise of high culture, the industrial revolution -- can, so most Western social scientists claim, be associated with some condition that compelled otherwise conservative humans to act in new ways. This premise is of course most closely linked to Marx, but it is found throughout post-Marxist big picture scholarship (including my own humble contribution to that literature).

Ricardo Duchesne argues in his new The Uniqueness of Western Civilization (Brill, 2011) that we have it all wrong. History, he claims, is driven by creative people and their ideas, not by the conditions they find themselves in. If you see a bit of Hegel and Nietzsche here, you are not wrong: Duchesne embraces them both (and throws in a considerable amount of Weber to boot). But he goes much further. He tries to demonstrate, using the best literature available on a wide variety of topics, that the Hegelian-Nietzschean view of historical development is correct. This is not a book of theory alone; it's an attempt to empirically demonstrate a theory. Even more radically, Duchesne uses the Hegelian-Nietzschean view to argue that since the invasion of the Indo-Europeans, a pastoral people who were imbued with unique aristocratic-warrior ethos, the West has been more creative than other world historical civilizations, and that this creativity explains in large measure the "Great Divergence" that we have seen in modern time.
I'm coming to have a clearer sense of Duchesne's argument, and assuming he's right, we should be reading Beowulf more deeply than we've been doing if we want to really understand the root of Western success, which he argues grows from the "aristocratic egalitarianism of Indo-Europeans," which sounds like a rather paradoxical concept, since "aristocratic" ordinarily refers to a type of elitism, but "egalitarianism" to an ethos of equality.

I'll have to look into this some more . . .

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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

North Korea's Crab-O-Nated Cocoa!

Korean Peninsula Through the Lens
Volume V, Issue 93
Monday, 13 May 2013
(Photos by Eric Lafforgue)

I've heard this North Korean soft drink is crap . . . but the label doesn't say that.

I actually wanted to try some of this North Korean crabonated 'cocoa' for my birthday yesterday to see for myself that the word wasn't a misspelling of craponated, but I didn't receive any as a birthday gift, so I'm taking today off from blogging as a protest!

Don't even bother to check my blog today.

Nothing to see here.

Move along . . .

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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Professor Ricardo Duchesne: On Pedagogy

Microsoft PowerPoint Icon

I noticed this pedagogical statement on Professor Ricardo Duchesne's faculty page, and found it worth reflecting upon, so I quote it here:
Dr. Duchesne believes that the reading of great books, from cover-to-cover, is essential to a university education. The term 'lecture' was originally applied to the exercise of reading -- and correcting -- the language of handwritten texts. The task of the student was to follow the reading, and make the necessary corrections in the manuscripts. Since the texts were difficult, the teacher would concentrate on explaining and interpreting the manuscripts, line by line, word by word. 'Resources' such as handouts, power-points, and WebCT lectures promote the erroneous notion that knowledge comes ready-to-wear. Knowledge is actually produced through continual reading, note-taking, dialogue, and rewriting. Duchesne upholds the traditional spirit of broad learning for the BA degree with a multidisciplinary core curriculum taught by generalists with a strong grounding in the Western intellectual tradition.
I wonder how many of those Medieval 'lectures' involved real dialogue. I reckon much of what went on was strongly hierarchical, with the lecturer doing most of the talking and the students listening in silence.

But I see value in Duchesne's own approach, and have even followed that method from time to time. One of the highlights of my graduate studies was reading Hans Blumenberg's Legitimacy of the Modern Age in a reading group with Lionel Jensen, Tom Long, and a couple of other brilliant individuals -- each of them towering over me intellectually -- and we read the text closely, aloud to each other, slowly, discussing each point, with each participant bringing his particular expertise to bear. I learned more from that year-long reading group than from any other single learning experience ever.

Duchesne's own book, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, should probably be approached similarly . . .

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Monday, May 13, 2013

Ricardo Duchesne on "The Faustian impulse and European exploration"

Ricardo Duchesne
University of New Brunswick: Saint John Campus

In an article, "The Faustian impulse and European exploration" (Fortnightly Review, June 5, 2012), Ricardo Duchesne summarizes the theme of his book, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, and I find these two paragraphs especially useful in coming to understand his thesis:
In my book, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, I trace the West's Faustian creativity and libertarian spirit back to the aristocratic warlike culture of Indo-European speakers who began to migrate into Europe roughly after 3500 BC, combining with and subordinating the 'ranked' Neolithic cultures of this region. Indo-European speakers originated in the Pontic-Caspian steppes. They initiated the most mobile way of life in prehistoric times, starting with the riding of horses and the invention of wheeled vehicles in the fourth millennium BC, together with the efficient exploitation of the "secondary products" of domestic animals (dairy goods, textiles, large-scale herding), and the invention of chariots in the second millennium. The novelty of Indo-European culture was that it was led by an aristocratic elite that was egalitarian within the group rather than by a single despotic ruler. Indo-Europeans prized heroic warriors striving for individual fame and recognition, often with a "berserker" style of warfare. In the more advanced and populated civilizations of the Near East, Iran, and India, local populations absorbed this conquering group. In Neolithic Europe, the Indo-Europeans imposed themselves as the dominant group, and displaced the native languages but not the natives.

I maintain that the history of European explorations stands as an excellent subject matter for the elucidation of this Faustian restlessness. An overwhelming number of the explorers in history have been European. The Concise Encyclopedia of Explorers lists a total of 274 explorers, of which only 15 are non-European, with none [of these non-Europeans] listed after the mid-fifteenth century. In the urge to explore new regions of the earth and map the nameless, we can detect, in a crystallized way, the "prime-symbol" of Western restlessness. We can also detect the Western mind's desire -- if I may borrow the language of Hegel -- to expand its cognitive horizon, to "subdue the outer world to its ends with an energy which has ensured for it the mastery of the world."
This approach could too easily devolve into a triumphalist account of Western achievements even if Duchesne is correct about the Western quest for adventure as inspired by a restless desire for self-glorification that derives from the aristocratic spirit of Indo-European elites stemming from Central Asia.

I wonder how he 'gets at' that spirit of some 6,000 years ago . . .

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Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Uniqueness of Western Civilization: Aristocratic Ethos of Individual Strife?

Stephen H. Balch
Google Images

Conservative scholar Stephen H. Balch, of the National Association of Scholars, wrote a serious review last year, Nowhere But the West (January 12, 2012), of what sounds like a very intriguing book, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, by Ricardo Duchesne. Balch summarizes Duchesne's argument:
The West's uniqueness, and the West's endangerment, have called forth an important new work from an important new voice -- Ricardo Duchesne, professor of sociology at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, Canada. The Uniqueness of Western Civilization is the fifty-year old author's first book. But even had it been his twentieth, it would be remarkable for its command of disparate literatures, its elucidation of complex controversies, the dispositive nature of its critiques, and its provision of a genuinely fresh interpretation of the West's achievement. Above all else it constitutes an urgently needed contribution to "a discourse" gone awry -- an evolving scholarly consensus that belittles the West except insofar as it can be denounced and demonized.

Duchesne is a scholar with a mission: the restoration of a proper appreciation for the West's spectacular exceptionality. And fittingly, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization is every inch the embodiment of the striving spirit the author finds so characteristic of the endeavors of Western man -- a hankering after high achievement and a wish to make one's mark through the overthrow of accepted opinion. But Duchesne is no polemicist. For all its argumentative power, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization is old-school scholarship at its best: consequential, closely reasoned, richly evidenced, and professionally courteous.

In this case the received opinion to be overthrown is none other than that of contemporary Western (and American) academe. Of about forty years' ascendency, it encompasses a project whose scholarly roots stretch back to the early twentieth century and, within the broader culture, to Rousseau. Its dispositional pillars, carrying varying weight, are primitivism, relativism, and adversarialism, the last mainly compounded of Marxist alloys. Duchesne devotes his first chapter to its construction, describing the extensive edifice of "revisionist" interpretation has gradually been raised and the diverse worlds of learning it has come to overshadow.

Duchesne painstakingly charts three distinct currents that have contributed most to the West's intellectual downsizing, originating respectively in anthropologist Franz Boas's rejection of cultural hierarchy, "Critical Theorists" Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer's reimagining of science and technology as agents of barbarism, and "World System Theory" oracle Immanuel Wallerstein's attribution of the West's rise not to any inherent genius but conquest and expropriation.
Assuming that Duchesne is right, whence stems the West's genius? Balch again summarizes:
For Duchesne, Western exceptionalism is not just found in Industrial Britain or Periclean Athens, it is ingrained in the West's very tissue, present at every level of its existence and throughout the entirety of its history. The West constantly churns, fights with itself, splits, fractures, builds, and demolishes -- revolution may not be its everyday state, but change is always the order of the day. Where else have architectural styles, musical modes, literary forms, the visual and dramatic arts, weaponry and tactics, fashion in dress, philosophic schools, religious beliefs, business practices, and political systems shown such continuing fluidity? Other civilizations, after an initial spate of creativity, have settled into relatively enduring molds, with subsequent change generally a variation on well-established themes. By contrast, Duchesne argues, the West has ever been restless, its inhabitants "pursuing personal renown through heroic deeds," their heroism measured by the degree they can exceed, remake, or overthrow that which went before them.
But why are Westerners like that? Again, Balch explains:
For Duchesne, the West is the world's aristocratic civilization par excellence, not because it is unusually stratified, but because so many of its inhabitants have absorbed the psychology of aggressive one-upmanship and competitive honor-seeking characteristic of nobility. Westerners have in their social marrow an impulse toward nonconformity, a desire to make name and fame, a belief that they have been born into life in order to outdo both the living and the dead.
Interestingly, this implies that Western Civilization is founded upon a feature of barbarism, the strife among individuals characteristic of Indo-European nomads:
He anchors the West's tradition of aristocratic equality in the life of the Bronze Age steppe, particularly that part of it north of the Black Sea, from which at some time between the fourth and second millennium BCE, Indo-European horsemen dispersed into Europe . . . . In Duchesne's view, these Indo-European invaders -- unlike later steppe warriors such as the Scythians, Huns, Turks, and Mongols -- penetrated territories still uncivilized, and hence had a more lasting cultural impact on them. Moreover, when millennia afterwards the civilization they created radiated out of the Mediterranean and into northern Europe, its assertive spirit was refreshed, so to speak, through new encounters with still barbarous Germans, Norse, Magyars, and Slavs and, after that, in the unceasing struggles among European principalities.
A lot would have to happen in 'civilizing' this impulse toward strife, and Duchesne apparently deals with that. This is a book I'll have to read for myself. A large portion appears to be available at Google Books, but I prefer to read books offline . . .


Saturday, May 11, 2013

Professor Suh Ji-moon on Namdaemun (Sungryemun)

My friend Professor Suh Ji-moon (English Literature, Korea University) and I recently advised the Korean government's Cultural Heritage Administration -- part of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism -- on the English translation of the plaque that offers historical information on the restored Namdaemun (Great South Gate, aka Sungryemun, set ablaze by an arsonist in 2008), and she sent me some photographs with an email:
I'd put aside yesterday afternoon to go and see the restored Sungryemun and the plaque, and I did go, in spite of the rain -- which was not heavy, but enough to interfere with photo taking. There are two identical plaques on two sides of the gate plaza (if the small space can be called that) . . . . Before the fire, it never occurred to me to go near the gate to observe it at close range. I overheard, at the gate, people saying that before the fire, viewers were allowed to go up the stairs to see the gatehouse but that the house is closed to public now, becuase that's how the arsonist had access to the house and set fire . . . .

I guess the English part of the plaque couldn't be much better, given its basis on the Korean . . . . Anyway, thanks again for your kind help.
Such were her words about their work . . . and ours. Also, here are her photos:

Above are the gate and restored walls, and below are some of the decorations:

Below is the historical marker, or plaque:

If you click on the image, you'll be able to read the plaque's words, which Professor Moon translated and I edited -- except that the people who actually constructed the plaque changed our punctuation slightly and twice left out the essential space required before a parenthesis.

They may even have reworded a slight bit. I'm not sure . . .

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Friday, May 10, 2013

An Islamist Surprise for Ian Buruma?

Tamerlan Tsarnaev

Simon Shuster, writing for Time, has a surprise for Ian Buruma, who thinks that the Tsarnaev brothers' are an American phenomenon -- like a mentally deranged man with a gun -- and doubts that digging into their Caucasus connections will uncover anything of value: "Dagestani Relative of Tamerlan Tsarnaev Is a Prominent Islamist" (May 8, 2013):
Last year, when Tamerlan Tsarnaev spent six months in the Russian region of Dagestan, he had a guide with an unusually deep knowledge of the local Islamist community: a distant cousin named Magomed Kartashov. Six years older than Tsarnaev, Kartashov is a former police officer and freestyle wrestler -- and one of the region’s most prominent Islamists.

In 2011 Kartashov founded and became the leader of an organization called the Union of the Just, whose members campaign for sharia law and pan-Islamic unity in Dagestan, often speaking out against U.S. policies across the Muslim world. The group publicly renounces violence. But some of its members have close links to militants; others have served time in prison for weapons possession and abetting terrorism -- charges they say were based on fabricated evidence. For Tsarnaev, these men formed a community of pious young Muslims with whom he could discuss his ideas of jihad. Tsarnaev's mother, Zubeidat, confirmed that her son is Kartashov's third cousin. The two met for the first time in Dagestan, she said, and "became very close."
Buruma isn't entirely wrong, for some of the radicalization began in America, but Shuster provides evidence that Tamerlan Tsarnaev's focus shifted during a visit to the Caucasus:
[A] picture . . . emerges . . . of a young man who already carried a deep interest in Islamic radicalism when he came to Russia from his home in Massachusetts. But that curiosity evolved during his visit. The members of Kartashov's circle say they tried to disabuse Tsarnaev of his sympathies for local militants. By the end of his time in Dagestan, Tsarnaev's interests seem to have shifted from the local insurgency to a more global notion of Islamic struggle -- closer to the one espoused by Kartashov's organization.
Tsarnaev's focus thus shifted away from the North Caucasus and onto the global jihad, zeroing in on America as the main 'oppressor' of Muslims and thereby making it the object of attack. Read Shuster's entire article . . .

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Thursday, May 09, 2013

Nature Denatured . . .

Veryln Klinkenborg

One of my favorite NYT writers, Veryln Klinkenborg, is residing in southern California this semester, and he recently wrote an article on industrial farming in the San Joaquin Valley, "Lost in the Geometry of California's Farms" (May 4, 2013), an unsettling literary piece depicting a complex agricultural monstrosity that leaves nature entirely artificial, utterly alien, boundlessly inhumane:
There is something stunning in the way the soil has been engineered into precision. Every human imperfection linked with the word "farming" has been erased. The rows are machined. The earth is molded. The angles are more rigid, and more accurate . . . . This is no longer soil. It is infrastructure . . . . The vast regiments of nut and fruit trees, casting sparse shade on bare earth, seem to defy the word "orchard" . . . . A kind of landscape that once seemed barely imaginable now seems inevitable and necessary: that's the logic and the illusion . . . . I can't help marveling and despairing at the transformation, the way agriculture, here and elsewhere, has created a landscape that is fundamentally inhuman, devoid of people.
How different from Klinkenborg's own farm in upstate New York, a farm with a variety of animals, both domesticated and wild, that change with the changing seasons, undergoing the rhythms of life and death.

What Klinkenborg describes here is neither alive nor dead, but undead, a terrain "[t]ransformed but not entirely unrecognizable," a zombie landscape . . .

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Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Understanding Chechen Radicalism?

In a column, "America's Enemy Within" (Project Syndicate, May 2, 2013), Ian Buruma has a worthwhile point about American overreaction in shutting down the city of Boston as a response to the fear of terrorism, which can only inspire more potential terrorists who hope to terrorize and disrupt, but he also writes:
Barring any unexpected new revelations, there is not much to be learned from the Tsarnaev brothers, better known as "the Boston bombers." We can dig into their family histories in strife-torn Dagestan, or examine, once again, the lethal appeal of Islamist radicalism. But I doubt that this would be enlightening.
To see just how wrong wrong can be if Buruma thinks that Hans Magnus Enzensberger's concept of "the radical loser" is all that one needs to explain the Tsarnaev brothers' actions and that the North Caucasus complex of identity and religion offers no clues to understanding these brothers, he needs to read an FPRI article on this very subject by Michael A. Reynolds, "The Northern Caucasus, the Tsarnaevs, and Us" (E-Notes, May 2013), for example, this from the conclusion:
The Tsarnaevs' North Caucasian roots, of course, did not cause them to attack the population of the United States. But their choice to embrace a radical and militant interpretation of Islam and to carry out bombings and attack the police becomes more comprehensible when placed into the historical and cultural context that helped form them. The peculiar historical legacy and the current state of the North Caucasus render it especially vulnerable to jihadism. It is not a coincidence that, alone in the post-Soviet space, this region has been a site of chronic jihadist insurgencies. The highlanders' distinctive culture of defiance and the formative struggle they waged in the name of Islam against the Russian empire coupled with the suppression of traditional religious authorities in the Soviet era, the devolution of the region's economic and political institutions, and a system of governance that stifles constructive initiative provide . . . conditions favorable to militant Islam. Current conditions give young men in the North Caucasus, of whom there are many, limited prospects. These conditions will persist for another generation, perhaps longer. Today, rebellion in the name of Islam offers these men a simulacrum of highlander tradition, a reassuring reaffirmation of roots at a time when so much of that tradition has evaporated, while also holding out the possibility of glory. The North Caucasus will, therefore, likely remain an incubator of jihadism for some time to come.
And, implies Reynolds, that North Caucasus radical Islamism will also continue to inspire young, alienated men of the Chechen diaspora, and the Chechens are a formidable, rebellious people, as we see from these words Reynolds cites from Solzhenitsyn on the Chechens in exile from the Caucasus and their refusal to submit to the Soviet authorities:
There was one nation that would not give in, would not acquire the mental habits of submission -- and not just individual rebels among them, but the whole nation to a man. These were the Chechens . . . . The Chechens never sought to please, to ingratiate themselves with the bosses; their attitude was always haughty and even openly hostile . . . . They respected only rebels.

And here is an extraordinary thing -- everyone was afraid of them. No one could stop them from living as they did. The regime that had ruled the land for thirty years could not force them to respect its laws.
This traditional characteristic of the Chechens is worthy of respect . . . and also of fear. It's precisely the sort of rebellious warlike tradition that alienated young men like the elder Tsarnaev brother would imagine themselves to embody, and lead them to gravitate toward the radical Islamism that appeals to warrior traditions among otherwise nominal Muslims.

Or so I understand Reynolds to argue. Read the entire piece and decide for yourself . . .

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