June 8, 2013 § 8 Comments
I’m teaching a summer course, a quick, 6-week course wherein I’m supposed to cover World History from approximately the Enlightenment in Western Europe in the mid-18th century until the late 20th century. It’s impossible to do this topic justice in a 15-week semester, let alone a quick summer course. For that reason, and because I’ve been teaching variations of this course for far too long, I decided to try something new with this class. In essence, my students are my guinea pigs this semester. I am teaching the Terror of History/The History of Terror.
A few years ago, I read a fantastic book by UCLA History Professor Teofilo Ruiz, The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization. Ruiz expanded on something that had been travelling around the back of my own brain since I first read Boccaccio’s The Decameron some twenty years ago. In his Introduction, Boccaccio lays out the response of people in Florence to the Plague: What they did. According to Boccaccio, there are three basic human responses to terror and misery: 1) Religion; 2) Debauchery; or 3) Flight. To that, Ruiz adds that there’s a 4th category: those who remain in place, who attempt to carry on in the midst of chaos. Since I read Ruiz, I’ve been thinking about this more explicitly, and I have re-read The Decameron (as an aside, I find it rather insulting that my MacBook insists that Decameron is a spelling error). Sometimes it’s hard not to become a miserable cynic when teaching history. We humans have come up with so many ways to terrorise, torture, and kill each other. If you don’t believe me, look at how Romans dealt with traitors: crucifixion. Or the Holocaust or any genocide you want.
Religion, it occurred to me when I was a teenager, was simply a means of ordering the world in order to allow ourselves not to lose our minds, to try to find wider significance and meaning for the bad things that happen. When I was a bit older, I dabbled in Buddhism, which was much more explicit about this. This isn’t to demean religion, it is a powerful force for some, and it allows an ordering of the universe. But, as the Buddha noted, life is suffering. What we control is our response to that.
So, Ruiz pointed out the terror of history, of the endless crashing of shit on our heads. Pretty much everything in our world is predicated on it. We live a comfortable life in North America because my shoes were made in Vietnam in a sweat shop. My car emits pollution into the air. Historically, systems of power are predicated on fear, terror, and awe. That’s how order is kept. Uplifting, isn’t it?
So, this semester, I’ve made that explicit in my class. I cannot even hope to do justice to World History, so I am trying to cherry-pick my way through all the mire. I am focussing on the chaos and terror at moments like the American War of Independence or the French Revolution. Or the terror of slave owners in the American South or in Brazil. Or the use of terror by the world’s first terrorist, Maximillien Robespierre, who explicitly declared that he wanted to terrorise his enemies. Lenin and Trotsky rolled in a very similar manner. So, too, did the Qing Dynasty in China. Or the British imperial system in Africa or India. Or the Belgians in the Congo. But this wasn’t an export of Europe. Slavery has existed since approximately forever, and was an integral part of Ancient Warfare, but it was also central to African warfare in the 18th century. The list goes on and on.
How do we survive in this endless cycle of bad news? We do what Boccaccio said we do. We find religion. We despoil ourselves in debauchery. We find joy in religion or debauchery. Or we find it in flight. Flight doesn’t have to be literal, like the 10 young men and women in The Decameron, flight can be symbolic. It can be a search for beauty, awareness, or knowledge. In many ways, the three categories can overlap, like in the mystic cults of the Roman Republic. But we are remarkably resilient creatures, and we find our joys and happiness in the midst of the shit of life.
Ruiz notes that people almost always attempt to step outside the colossal weight of history by following these paths to religion, debauchery, or flight. Events like Carnival, whether in Medieval Europe or Rio de Janeiro (or Québec City in winter, for that matter), is exactly that, an escape, temporary as it might be, from history. We escape systems of power and oppression for brief moments.
The hard part in teaching the Terror of History is finding the escapes and not making them sound like they are hokey or unimportant or trivial, which is what they sound like in the face of this colossal wave of bad news. But we all do this, we all find means of escaping the news. Right now, the news in my local newspaper concerns the government spying on its own citizens, a war in Syria, and people trying to recover from a bomb going off during a marathon. If I took each at face value, I’m sure I’d be lying prostate on the floor, sucking my thumb. So, clearly, I have coping mechanisms. And humans have always had them. But it remains difficult to talk about these in class without making them sound hokey.
This week, we’re reading Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s, SlaughterHouse 5, which takes place in part at the end of the Second World War and was Vonnegut’s attempt to make sense of having been in Dresden in 1945, when the city was firebombed by the Allies. The terror of that, the horror, the devastation. All throughout the novel, the narrator declares “So it goes” when dealing with death and other calamities. We have a philosophy, then, here, one of stoicism. Stoicism and Buddhism are fairly closely related. This is an attempt to deal with the Terror of History.
At any rate, this is making for an interesting summer course, and it seems as though my students are, if not exactly enjoying it, are learning something. Along with SlaughterHouse 5, we’re also going to watch Triumph of the Will this week.
January 5, 2013 § 3 Comments
Twice in the past few weeks, I have been caught up in discussions about the role of the monarchy in Canada with Americans. These discussions rather astounded me, I have to say. In all my years, I have never really thought all that much about the role of the Queen and her representatives in Canada. Sure, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state in Canada (as well as everywhere else in the Commonwealth), but her actual role in Canadian politics is close to nil. Governors-General have been little more than figureheads, responding to the whims of Prime Ministers since the 19th century, not the Queen.
For my American interlocutors, however, the Queen was a big deal for Canada. They’ve all spent a fair amount of time north of the 49th parallel, and they’re all insightful people. The argument goes something like this: Canada has been prohibited from achieving a full sense of independence of its own because of the on-going association with the former colonial parent through the person of the Queen. Because Canada is not completely sovereign, it cannot be a fully independent nation. It will always be beholden to the United Kingdom. To a person, they all argued that Canadians (at least Anglo Canadians) are very British, in all manners, from our dry sense of humour to our stiff upper lips, and even down to our accents. I was dumbfounded.
I argued that the Queen means very little to Canadians. Aside from the hardcore monarchists, she’s just this grandmotherly woman who pops up on TV now and then. I pointed out that Americans are actually more obsessed with the royal family than Canadians, as evidenced by the marriage of Prince Receding Hairline to whatshername last summer. Sure, the Queen is on our money, but how is that different from Washington and Lincoln being on American money? And certainly Washington has reached the status of a monarchal icon in the USA by now. I argued that, despite the fact that the Queen is the head of state, the Prime Minister is the one who wields power, and quite a lot of it. The Prime Minister decides when elections are to be held, what the policies of government are, etc. In short, sovereignty lies in the Canadian people as expressed through our elected representatives and the Prime Minister; the Queen has nothing to do with this.
But then one of them brought up Prime Minister Harper’s underhanded attempt in 2010 to avoid an election by asking Governor General Michaëlle Jean to prorogue Parliament. He argued that we had an unelected representative of the Queen deciding the fate of the Canadian government. Good point, I conceded, but, the Governor General in 2010 acted in accordance with established constitutional law in Canada and the entire Commonwealth; she acceded to the wishes of the Prime Minister. This wasn’t good enough, the fact remained that the Governor General is unelected. Full stop. And this is proof of Canada’s lack of full sovereignty.
Now I certainly do not buy into the argument that Canada was born on 1 July 1867. As far as I’m concerned the date that we chose to celebrate the birth of our nation is entirely arbitrary and artificial. I have also argued on this blog that Canadian independence has been achieved piecemeal. From the granting of responsible government in 1848 to the patriation of our Constitution in 1982, Canada has inched towards independence. I’d go so far as to argue that in many ways, 1982 is the true date of Canadian independence, as finally our Constitution was an Act of our own Parliament. I certainly do not buy the argument that Canada is doomed because the nation wasn’t born in violence and a war of independence like our American neighbours.
There is also the argument that Canadian unity can never be, due to the fact that upwards of 40% of the population of the second largest province (at any given time) wish to separate from the nation. And, for this reason, Canada is an artificial nation. I think this is a simplistic, and even stupid, argument. It assumes that all nations were born of the nationalist movements that swept across the world from the early 19th to the late 20th centuries. The continued existence of massive multi-ethnic nations such as Russia and China bely this. So, too, does the on-going persistence of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, despite the continued threat of the Scots nationalist movement. Instead, I argue, Canada is successful precisely because it is not a national nation, it is post-national and can house more than a single nation. Indeed, this is what makes Canada not just bi-cultural, but multi-cultural, as we learned in the 1960s, whatever government policies of the day might be.
So I’ve been left stewing over the role of the monarchy in Canada, thanks to my American interlocutors. I’ve also been stewing over different conceptions of democracy. Britain is the modern birthplace of democracy. It is where the people slowly gained control over their nation from the monarchy. At one point, the House of Commons was filled with men hand-picked by the king and his minions, true. But by the 19th century, this was no longer the case. In the UK, the Queen is little more than a figurehead, just like in Canada. But, of course, Elizabeth is English, she’s not Canadian. Thus, she is a foreign queen, according to my American friends. But it’s not that simple. That is an American argument. American democracy works very differently than British or Canadian democracy. And notions of what democracy mean differ as well.
To wit, a few weeks months ago in the Boston Globe, the resident conservative columnist, Jeff Jacoby, was making the argument that the best way to determine whether or not gays and lesbians should be granted rights was through referenda. Only by giving voice to the majority could we determine whether or not a minority should be granted civil rights. That, concluded Jacoby, is how democracy works. To my Canadian mindset, this idea was shocking and appalling. Pierre Trudeau once opined something along the lines that the best determinant of a free and open society is how that society protects its minorities. In short, the rights of minorities should never be left up to majorities. That is what democracy is.
And maybe that’s what this argument boils down to: Canadians and Americans have very different ideas of what democracy is. And for that reason, whilst my American conversants were appalled that Canada would have an unelected, foreign queen, I, a Canadian, could care less. The Queen has no real impact on Canadian life and politics. Her “representative” in Canada, the Governor General, is appointed by and serves at the pleasure of the Prime Minister. And the Governor General has, since 1848, deferred to the wishes of the Canadian Prime Minister. Canada is no less a sovereign nation for this.
And Canada’s inferiority complex has nothing to do with this relationship to the UK, it has everything to do with being the junior partner in North America with the United States and Mexico. Canada is the smallest of the three countries in terms of population, and ranks only slightly higher than Mexico in terms of the size of its economy. The only way in which the colonial relationship with the UK actually does matter is in the sense that Canada has never had the chance to fully stand on its own. It WAS a British colony. And today, it is by and large an American colony. I mean this in terms of the economy, Americans own more of Canada’s economy than Canadians themselves do. And we currently have a governing party, the Conservative Party of Canada, that acts like a branch plant of the American Republican Party.
December 12, 2012 § 3 Comments
I often amuse myself with the attempts of Canadian historians to try to explain how, in the years leading up to the First World War, Anglo Canadians could alternately view themselves as Canadians, English, British, and as citizens of the greatest empire the world had ever seen (that would be the British, if you’re wondering). They tend to see this as a contradiction, a confusion, and get themselves twisted into knots in explaining this phenomenon. It just seems so contradictory to them. Here, for example, is Ian McKay, one of Canada’s greatest historians, with Jamie Stairs in their excellent new book, Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety:
Many Anglo Canadians like [Bill Stairs, a Canadian hero of Empire] believed that a good British subject could and should simultaneously be loyal to Nova Scotia [Stairs’ home], Canada, and the Empire, and in doing so experience no contradiction.
To our 21st century Canadian identity, it is anathema that one could see oneself as more than just Canadian. And I just don’t get this. I really don’t. In the late 19th/early 20th centuries, Canada was a colony. It was not an independent nation, no matter what the politicians of the era, the Jack Granatsteins and Stephen Harper’s of today tell you. Canadian independence is a slippery concept, there is no exact moment that Canada gained its independence. For example, it could be 1848, when the Canadas gained responsible government. Or it could be 1867, when three colonies came together to form a united whole (Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick). It could also be 1931, when the Statute of Westminster gave Canada (and all the other white Dominions: South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand) control over their foreign affairs. But, there was still no such thing as “Canadian” citizenship. That came on the 1st of January 1947. The following year, the Supreme Court of Canada became the highest court of appeal in the land. Prior to that, it was the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London (not Ontario, the UK one) that held that position. In 1982, our constitution was patriated from Mother Britain and made an act of our own Parliament. If you want to go all republican on the matter, I’d note that the head of state today is Queen Elizabeth II of England. So, politically, declaring the date of Canadian independence is difficult.
But the long and short of it is that 100 years ago, Canada was not an independent nation. It was also part of this massive Empire. The British Empire controlled something like 20% of the world’s land and 25% of the world’s population at the dawn of the 20th century. Think about that for a second. I mean it, just imagine the globe, imagine 20% of that land coloured the pink of the British Empire. Or just look at this map (and imagine the red as pink).
Empire was a very powerful concept in that Canada (and if Stephen Harper has his way, we’ll be thinking this way again soon). It was not incongruous for the average Canadian of Scots, English, or even Irish, stock to see him or herself as both Canadian and British at the same time. For being Canadian made one British, such was the nature of citizenship laws, and such was the fact that the monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was (and remains) the head of state in Canada.
Thus, the simple fact of the matter is that Canadians 100 years ago were both/and, not either/or. They were both Canadian and British, not Canadian or British. That was the way they rolled, so to speak. The same was true for other subjects of the British Empire throughout the Dominions. It might be time for Canadian historians to recognise this simple fact, and to stop twisting them like Mike Palmateer trying to bail out his woeful hockey team in trying to explain this. Joy Parr long ago instructed we Canadian historians that identities are not sequential, they are multiple and simultaneous. And the average Anglo Canadian’s identification with Canada, Britain, and Empire is just that: the simultaneous identities of an ambivalent population. No more, no less.
December 10, 2012 § Leave a comment
I have touched on Doug Saunders’ Arrival City previously on this blog here and here. This review was also in the works with Current Intelligence before I left back in 2011. So, I am sticking it here for my own purposes.
Doug Saunders. Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World. London: William Heinemann, 2010. ISBN: 9780307396891. 356pp.
Doug Saunders’ Arrival City was published to almost universal acclaim last fall. The Guardian nearly fell over itself hailing it as “the perfect antidote to the doom-laden determinism of the last popular book on urbanisation, Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums” and declaring it “the best popular book on cities since Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities half a century ago.” Saunders’ own newspaper, The Globe & Mail hails his calming certitude on the wonderful nature of progress that the city provides us. And the Wall Street Journal praises Arrival Cities for its optimistic view of globalisation.
Certainly, Arrival Cities is an important book, its well-written and is clearly and cogently argued. It is also somewhat of a disappointment, at least in the first half of the book. Saunders is the European Bureau Chief for The Globe & Mail and his reportage and columns generally provide a balanced view of the world; his is one of the few columns in that newspaper I actively seek out. Thus, I expected more from Arrival Cities. I did not get it. While Saunders does give us a counter-narrative to Davis’ doom and gloom, it occasionally reads Pollyana-ish. And at times, Saunders’ journalistic eye overwhelms his argument. Indeed, Dwight Garner in The New York Times notes this problem: his lengthy quotes from the people he talked to in arrival cities around the world sound formulaic and too easy.
Certainly, Planet of Slums was an overly statistical analysis, and statistics are on the aggregate level, they do not always us to view the micro- and quotidian levels. But Arrival City is plagued by the opposite problem: in focusing on a success story or two from each of the arrival cities he visits around the world (and Saunders has certainly been travelling the world), he over-personalises his arguments, which gives the impression that he’s choosing to extrapolate the success stories he saw, not the marginalised. Certainly, all of the people in arrival cities are marginalised in the larger sense of the word, but within the poor, there are class/caste divisions.
More fundamental, though, is Saunders’ reliance on Hernando de Soto’s arguments that all people need in the slums and favellas of the world is security of tenure, if they owned their own homes, all would be good. As Davis notes, the problem with titling in the slums is that it perpetuates the problem of class, in that the wealthier squatters win and the poorer lose, or continue to lose. And de Soto has also been criticised for over-estimating the amount of wealth land titling would create. The other problem of de Soto’s claims is the very notion of property: generally speaking, slums and favellas work due to the co-operation between residents. The creation of private property is at diametrical odds to this economic system. Saunders parrots de Soto throughout large part of Arrival City, arguing that private ownership of homes and security of tenure would encourage slum-dwellers to, essentially, take pride in their homes and communities and would give them a base of capital to invest in the economy. This is not to suggest that de Soto and Saunders are all wrong and their critics all right, but it is to suggest that life does not work quite as neatly and systematically as de Soto and Saunders would hope.
The first five chapters of the book are also plagued by an alarming ahistoricism as Saunders takes us on a tour of arrival cities across the globe from London to Dhaka, Nairobi, Los Angeles, and Shenzhen. In Chapter 5, he looks a the historical growth of cities in the west, focussing specifically on Paris, London, Toronto, and Chicago. Oddly enough, even in a historical chapter, one is left alarmed at Saunders’ ahistoricism. In discussing the differences between urbanisation rates in the United Kingdom and France in the mid-19th century, Saunders somehow manages to overlook the major impetus behind urbanisation in that century: the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution is the determinative factor behind the wildly different rates of urbanisation in France and Britain in the 19th century, plain and simple.
Also, a cardinal crime to an entire generation of historians, Saunders attempts to take on E.P. Thompson and The Making of the English Working Class. The problem is that he seems not to have read the book. He says that Thompson sees his working class heroes as “passive victims.” This is just plain wrong, the key argument that emerges from The Making is that the working classes were not just passive victims, that they employed agency in agitating for their rights through corresponding societies, proto-unions, and through the church.
In addition, one is left rather flummoxed by Saunders’ apparent naïveté in looking at housing projects in Paris. He criticises the project builders for not soliciting input from those who were to be the future residents of the projects. Seriously. Nonetheless, he does make the point that the lack of accountability on the part of both the authorities and residents in the projects, to say nothing of their discombobulating impact on community.
Following this, however, Arrival City improves exponentially, in the final five chapters. In this sense, it is as if the book is split in two. In the second half of the book, Saunders seems to adopt a more complicated approach to the arrival cities of the world. This includes pointing out the ridiculousness of immigration policies in Canada and the United States. Canada and the United States take in the largest number of immigrants in the world, at least on a per capita basis for Canada, a relatively tiny (population-wise) country.
But it is Saunders’ chapter on the geçekondus that surround Istanbul that really shines. Here, we get a detailed, excellent study of the politics of the geçekondus from the 1970s to today and the struggle of the resident of the slums to attain regularisation and integration into Istanbul. Istanbul, of course, is one of the fastest growing cities in the world. In 1950, Istanbul’s population was 983,000; today, over 13,000,000 call the city home. The slums on the Asian side of the Bosporus grew up in the 70s as impoverished rural Turks migrated to the great city. They established their slum housing outside the boundaries of the city and then agitated for the right to have such luxuries as running water and sewers. The organisers of the 70s and 80s were almost all radical lefties and, during the military dictatorship and its aftermath in Turkey, many spent time in jail and saw their homes routinely torn down. By the turn of the millennium, their geçekondus had been integrated into Istanbul (a large part of what saw the city’s population triple in the past thirty years). Today, these old geçekondus are now part of the inner ring of Istanbul suburbs, fully integrated into the city, and the children of these old radicals are Istanbullus. However, the geçekondus aren’t simply a case of de Soto’s economic theories being put into practice, the regularisation of the geçekondus and their residents, the geçekondullus, required state assistance.
In the second half of the book, Saunders also goes beyond the role of banks and business in the regularisation of the arrival cities. He also notes that the state needs to take an activist role, whether of its own accord or spurred on by the arrival city residents. In order to do this, however, the state needs to have the resources to do so. This is simply not possible in many impoverished and/or corrupt developing world nations, like Bangladesh. Instead, it requires the intervention of richer nations like Turkey, which could afford for Istanbul to absorb and regularise its geçekondus. But more than this, the integration and regularisation of these arrival cities is necessary for local schools, jobs, health care facilities, water and sewer services, and transportation. And then, finally, Saunders strikes a balance between the de Soto right and the Davis left:
What comes from this work, and form the experiences of families like the Magalhãeses in Brazil and the Parabs in India, is a conclusion that is unlikely to please the ideologues on the socialist left or the free-market right: to achieve social mobility and a way into the middle class for the rural-migrant poor, you need to have both a free market in widely held private property and a strong assertive government willing to spend heavily on this transition. When both are present, change will happen [p. 288].
What we are left with then, is half a great book. The first half of Arrival City is done in by its overly simplistic and journalistic approach, its lack of historicity and its over-reliance on de Soto. In the second half, though, Saunders finds his feet, and finds his own original argument that more than splits the difference between de Soto and Davis. I remain unconvinced that the urbanisation of humanity on such a level as we are seeing today is a good thing, but it is also a truism throughout history, at least in the West, that periods of urbanisation have spurred on trade, the economy, and general human progress. And during periods of de-urbanisation, such as in the Dark Ages following the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, Europeans were only slightly more evolved than cavemen, at least in relation to the rest of the Mediterranean world and the Middle East, as David Levewing Lewis points out in God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 579-1215. Either way, there is no simple answer to the question of the massive urbanisation of the globe today, despite what the Mike Davises and Doug Saunderses of the world would have us believe.
June 16, 2012 § 6 Comments
I’ve never been crazy about Niall Ferguson. I don’t think he’s ever had an original thought, and he’s about the worst kind of academic bully, demeaning himself to attack his critics in a petty, small-minded manner. Hell, we’re talking about a guy who in, his latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, who attacks Gandhi! Yes, Gandhi! Gandhi, in a 1931 interview in London, noted the use of disease in the European conquest of the rest of the world (indeed, Jared Diamond confirms the disease theory in his 1999 book, Guns, Germs & Steel: The Fate of Human Societies). Ferguson heaps scorn on Gandhi and goes on to argue that Western medicine did a world of good in the conquered parts of the world. Ferguson isn’t entirely wrong, especially in the case of malaria in Africa. But he’s too smart by half here, by mocking Gandhi, he discounts the fact that disease was a corollary of Western conquest. Want some figures? Try these on for size:
Caribbean Islands, 1492-1542: nearly 6,000,000 dead
Peru, 1570-1620: 750,000 dead.
Mexico, 1519-1600: 24,000,000 dead.
Ferguson’s attack on Gandhi is symptomatic of Ferguson’s general crusade against those who have the temerity to suggest that Western imperialism was not an entirely good thing. See, for example, his Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power.
At least in Civilization, when he’s done attacking the likes of Gandhi and others who experienced the negative effects of Western imperialism, he does go on to note the horrors of the German Empire in Africa, which does show some maturity in Ferguson in the decade since Empire.
Then there’s his attack on Marx & Engels. Ferguson wrote his manuscript in 2010, twenty years after the end of the Cold War. And yet, Ferguson, showing how petty-minded he can be, spends almost as much time attacking Marx and Engels personally than actually discussing their arguments. Why bother? Seriously. Ad hominen attacks in the works of an historian as eminent as Ferguson are just kind of sad and pathetic, especially when tacked onto commentary of Marxism/Communism.
Ferguson is also adept at the fine art of quoting out of context. For example, he attributes the following quotation to Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author:
Will the West, which takes its great invention, democracy, more seriously than the Word of God, come out against this coup that has brought an end to democracy in Kars?…Or are we to conclude that democracy, freedom and human rights don’t matter, that all the West wants is for the rest of the world to imitate it like monkeys? Can the West endure any democracy achieved by enemies who in no way resemble them?
Sure, Pamuk wrote these words. However, these words are those of the narrator of his fine novel, Snow. They are not the words of Pamuk himself. But Ferguson kind of forgets to tell us that in his book. These words are the epigraph to Chapter 5, “Consumption” (Consumption is one of the “killer apps” we in the West invented, but have now been “downloaded” by the East, seriously, that’s Ferguson’s language). And Pamuk’s words here are meant to be mocking. But when you know the context of the quotation, well, then they mean something quite differently, don’t they?
And so once again, Ferguson, who actually makes a pretty good, if unoriginal argument in Civilization, shoots himself in his rhetorical foot and one is left wondering just how seriously he can actually be taken.
May 20, 2012 § Leave a comment
[Ed.’s note: I wrote this about a year ago, it’s already been published. But it’s been front and centre in my mind of late as I read more history, more Don De Lillo, and as world events continue to unfold. It’s often been said that history repeats itself. It’s a trite comment, but there is some truth to it. Anyway, I like this piece. So I’m republishing it. Enjoy.]
Historians take the long view when examining global affairs. I was recently reading microfilm of newspapers from the early 1920s, doing some last research for my book. The countries that dominated the headlines then were the same ones that dominate them today. The Third Anglo-Afghan War had just concluded with the Treaty of Rawalpindi, ostensibly settling boundary issues between India and Afghanistan. The Levant was under British and French mandate following the First World War. The Republic of Turkey was in its infancy under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and the British had just revoked Egypt‘s independence.
I had the same sense of déjà-vu in reading Don DeLillo’s 1982 novel, The Names. It’s set against the geopolitical backdrop of the Iranian Revolution, the rescue of the American hostages in Tehran, the Lebanese Civil War, the 1980 Turkish coup d’état, chronic Greco-Turkish tensions over Cyprus, and the instability of Greek democracy. The Names centres around a group of expats involved in various shadowy activities involving international banking, risk analysis, security, and archaeology. Its hero, James Axton, is a risk analyst for a mysterious American group found to have ties to the CIA. David Keller, another American, is based in Athens. He works for a bank that has heavy ties to the Turkish government, and becomes the target of an assassination attempt in Greece. Charles Maitland, a Brit, is a security specialist. The men spend their time flying around the Middle East attending to business in dodgy locales: Tehran, Ankara, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Damascus, and Beirut in particular.
Control is a central theme of the novel, whether it’s states trying to manage their politics or DeLillo’s characters handling their personal affairs. Axton loses control in his marriage as his wife, Kathryn, slips further and further away from him (she moves from a Greek island to Victoria, British Columbia – about as remote and obscure a locale from Greece as possible). He loses control over his own reality, holding on desperately to his job, revelling in mundane office paperwork as he becomes increasingly obsessed by a mysterious, murderous cult. He eventually travels to the Pelopennese and as far as Jerusalem, Damascus, and India in an attempt to learn more about it. Along the way, something interesting happens: language, the means by which people order and make sense of their mental worlds, takes on a new importance for Axton; religion, as exemplified by the mystery cult, is what orders the meaning that he finds through language. The connections they establish and the control they represent suggest a world made in the cult’s own image, which Axton sees painted on a rock on the outskirts of an abandoned village in the Pelopennese: Ta Onómata, The Names.
As the novel closes, Axton is back in Athens. After the CIA revelations, he resigns from his job. Rootless, his wife and son on the other side of the world. He regains control of his life, while the world around him continues to spin out of control; he witnesses the assassination attempt on Keller. Geopolitics and the personal chaos caused by the characters’ involvement in it are useful allegories these days. In the continuing drama of the Arab Spring, states and their residents, the masses and their leaders, are locked in a competition over who gets to dictate the terms of order. The newspapers of the 1920s were clear about who was meant to maintain control over the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Today, questions of empire, language, religion and politics, domesticated and boiling over, are much more complex. For that we should probably be grateful.
April 24, 2011 § Leave a comment
Oh, dear God. British security officials are apparently afraid that the “Real” IRA is going to try to attack the Royal Wedding this week, in part due to its proximity to Easter, a high point on the Irish commemorative calendar. The first real salvo of the wars in Ireland was fired over Easter 1916, as the Irish Republican Brotherhood seized the General Post Office in central Dublin and proclaimed the Irish Republic. Indeed, today marks the 95th anniversary of The Rising, which was put down in brutal fashion by the British in less than a week. Nevertheless, 1916 has long held a special place in Irish memory. And 5 May marks the 30th anniversary of the death of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands inside the Maze Prison.
The Real IRA (RIRA) grew out of the Provisional IRA (Provos), which carried out much of the activities of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, in 1997. The leadership of the RIRA, which included Bobby Sands’ sister, was frustrated with the Provos’ co-operation with the peace process in Northern Ireland. It was the RIRA which carried out the Omagh bombing of 15 August 1998, the single most deadly attack of the Troubles, killing 29 and injuring over 200 others. Since then, the RIRA has been somewhat ambivalent. Due to the outcry over Omagh, the RIRA was forced to declare a ceasefire in September 1998. This lasted two years.
The RIRA was unwilling to cause further deaths in Northern Ireland, no doubt worried about the bad PR that would result from such incidents, and instead focused its attention on England. The most significant of these events was the shooting of a rocket grenade at MI6 headquarters in September 2000. After a brief fallow period, the RIRA has continued to carry out attacks in both Northern Ireland and England since, as recently as last autumn.
It’s in this context that news that British intelligence officials are telling reporters that they have information that the RIRA is seeking to expand its base of operations from Northern Ireland to England seem odd. Indeed, Ben O’Loughlin at the Duck of Minerva wonders, amongst other things, that if British intel had information that an attack by the RIRA (or anyone for that mater) on the Royal Wedding, would it be made public in the first place?