Archive for August, 2011

Blame Ben Nelson!

August 3, 2011

In any sort of catastrophe it’s important to decide who to blame. A good scapegoat almost never helps to avoid future catastrophes, but who cares? Blame is fun!

So who do we blame for the Sugar-coated Satan Sandwich? Which on its own merits isn’t as bad as it could have been, really… at least civilization didn’t collapse, as was a real possibility; and the creation of the terrifyingly-named Super Congress has the great virtue of postponing the really awful decisions for a few months. No, the real problems with it are the precedents it set, and the fact that our governing class’s (including the punditocracy) has decided to respond to a genuine economic crisis by focusing on the single least relevant factor and as a result implementing the stupidest possible policies. Who can we blame for that?

The obvious answer for liberalish coastal elites like me is the Tea Party. But that’s too easy. Sure, the Tea Partiers are stupid and crazy, and it’s absolutely terrifying how much power they wield. But that is their nature, and you can’t expect them to go against their nature. They’ve said all along that they don’t like government, so by golly they’re going to try to get rid of it any way they can. They’re the mad bomber from Source Code (name whited out in case you don’t want to know what I’m very mildly spoiling) (paraphrasing, because I forget the real quote): “We can build a new and better society out of the rubble. We just need to make the rubble first.” No wonder they’re cross that they got everything they asked for: they didn’t hold the government and economy hostage to have their demands met; they made their demands so they could shoot the hostage. This is crazy, but, well, they’re crazy, and have a pretty credible insanity defense. “Forgive them, father, for they know not what they do.”

The sane Republicans, insofar as that’s not an oxymoron now, are considerably more culpable. They at least knew what they were doing, and I can only hope they’re full of self-loathing now. This goes double, of course, for Boehner and Cantor, who remind me of Count Baltar from the old Battlestar Galactica (Baltar from the NEW Battlestar Galactica is much more interesting), allying with the sworn enemies of their very existence. But I can almost understand them; like so many politicians through history, they’re acting out of fear, terrified for their jobs. Well, Cantor is trying to get a better job, but close. Again, you can’t expect someone to against their nature.

How about the Republicans’ corporate masters? We’re getting closer here. At the risk of having Godwin’s Law justifiably invoked, they are treading perilously close to the Weimar-era German business interests who backed the Nazis, thinking they would be easily-controlled tools. I do hope the Chamber of Commerce is reconsidering its priorities. But business leaders in our society, even the allegedly brilliant ones, are always short-sighted, greedy, and stupid, so again you sort of have to expect this.

Pundits? Journalists? Bloggers? Well, yes, they’re mostly pretty bad. But there’s only so much pundits can do to influence the national debate, as much as they would like to think otherwise.

It’s fashionable among my progressive brethren and sisteren to blame Obama for all this. Now I won’t pretend that I’m not disappointed in Obama, but honestly, what could he have done? Obama really wants to make deals and compromise and bring people together, not productive strategies in dealing with modern Republicans, but I honestly don’t know what anyone could have done, no matter how tough. You can’t play chicken with someone who WANTS a head-on collision. Yeah, I know, he should have seen this coming, but IIRC that was just after the LAST hostage crisis; even if Obama could have imagined the teabaggers were that crazy it would have been difficult to continue. It’s kind of like the way we didn’t attack the Russkies in August 1945.

So who do I blame? How did we get to this point anyway? The proximate cause is of course the great Shellacking of 2010, an inevitable result of a lousy economy and a high unemployment rate (and a fickle Democratic base). But one lousy election—one where only one house of Congress changed parties—really shouldn’t have sent the nation’s political discourse so quickly off the sanity cliff. I can easily imagine a parallel universe in which the Democrats lost the House not to the Tea Partiers but to more or less sane Republicans. My theory is that the underlying problem is in what should have been Obama’s greatest triumph, health care reform. You’d think that people would be pleased with some guarantee of health insurance, but no, they HATE it. And it was that hatred (say I) more than anything else that allowed the teahadists to sweep into office, so cowing Democrats that in their confusion and terror they willingly stipulated to the Republican view of the world.

Obviously much of the anti-Obamacare bile is due to Republican lies, not just the flashy ones like Death Panels, but the underlying lie that our health care system is The Best In The World (something I think you can only believe if you’ve never actually meant someone from another country). But lies can only get you so far. As I see it the real problem was with the Democrats themselves, specifically with the Senate Democrats, for doing such a miserable job of getting the the thing passed, and inviting the world in for an open house at the Sausage Factory. The most egregious example (that I know of; perhaps were even worse things that weren’t so obvious) was the legendarily odious Cornhusker Kickback—even though it didn’t make it into the final bill, it was so appalling that it rather justifiably convinced the world that the whole process was corrupt and its result inevitably evil. So, on behalf of the Tea Party, thank you Ben Nelson!

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Historical Writing

August 2, 2011

One more note on the previous post:

It’s not fair of me to expect the same level of juicy detail from ancient history as there is (or can be) in classical or modern history; there is simply more information about the more recent periods. As far as I know the Egyptians had no analogs of the wonderfully chatty and gossipy (and unreliable) classical historians, and although they were great record-keepers there just isn’t the same sort of detail we have about more recent times. But I’ll compare anyway. Here’s the sort of thing I love, from Strange Victory , by Ernest May (which I recommend!):

Canaris was a strange character. There were many such, of course, at the center of the Third Reich, but Canaris stands out among them…. Five feet four, with prematurely white hair, he detested tall men and, above all, tall men with small ears. The loves of his life were Seppel and Sabine, two dachshunds from whom he was almost inseparable. When traveling, he would require from his staff frequent reports on their apparent emotions and their bowel movements…

…[A]other possibility is anger over encroachments in his domain by Reinhard Heydrich, the head of Himmler’s security service. Outwardly, his relationship with Heydrich was cordial; the Canarises and the Heydrichs were neighbors and dined together. But Heydrich was thought repulsive by men who had no such reaction to Himmler or Bormann. Also, he was very tall and had small ears.

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt

August 2, 2011

For years I’ve loved ancient history without really knowing much about it. I’ve never been able to keep the Babylonians and Assyrians completely straight, let alone the Akkadians, and what any of them have to do with the Sumerians (my knowledge of whom comes primarily from having seen The Mole People at an impressionable age). I’ve never been quite sure of who the Hittites and Amorites and Mittanians and Chaldeans were. Those Sumerian city states have great names like Uruk and Ur and Lagash and Eridu but (apart from Abraham’s alleged origin in Ur of the Chaldees; doubtless he left to escape the mole people) I have no idea which is which or why we should care. The comings and goings of the MInoans and Mycenaeans and Achaeans and Dorians and other proto-Greeks are a mystery to me, providing only a little background for the Iliad and Odyssey and some half-remembered Mary Renault novels.

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And then there’s Egypt. Egypt is far more familiar to us American rubes than Babylonians and Assyrians and Mittanians. It’s hard not to be exposed to all sorts of things about Egypt, romantic things like pyramids and mummies and sarcophagi for cats and animal-headed gods and King Tut. Yul Brynner and Anne Baxter (“Mo-o-o-ossses…”) are deeply ingrained as my Platonic forms of Pharaoh and Pharaohess (Pharaoness? Pharessa?). But the ancient Egyptian civilization lasted for 3,000 years. That is a long time, half as long again as it’s been since it it became part of Rome until now, and apart from “Cleopatra was at the end” all that history is compressed in our collective unconscious into an undifferentiated mass of pyramids and mummies and sarcophagi for cats and animal-headed gods and King Tut and Yul Brynner and Anne Baxter.

So when I read about Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, a popular history of the entire civilization, I hied me to the library and found a copy. It serves its purpose well: I’m much clearer—well, somewhat less vague—on what the difference between the Old and Middle and New Kingdoms, and where Memphis was (and why), and who the Hyksos and the Sea People were, and even to a certain extent which king was which and which did what. I know now where the word “Pharaoh” comes from (“Per-aa,” or “Great House,” applied metonymically to its inhabitant) and why (awkwardness about what to call Hatshepsut—there was no such thing as a “Queen”). The book is easy to read, and it zips right along. If you’re looking for a summary of all of ancient Egyptian history, bearing in mind that a “summary of all of ancient Egyptian history” will necessarily be a few hundred pages, this is it.

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One of the highlights (I thought) comes at the very beginning of the Egyptian kingdom. Among the artifacts of that era, now a highlight of the Egyptian Museum of Cairo (and of Adrian Veidt’s—Ozymandias’s!—office in Watchmen) is the Narmer Palette. That’s “palette” as in a thing for mixing paints, in particular cosmetics; the ur-Eqyptians apparently used them as ceremonial objects in those days, a development of sacred face painting among in nomadic cultures or some such. The Narmer palette (apparently) commemorates the very unification of the Two Kingdoms of Egypt under Narmer, Egypt’s possibly mythical first king and founder of its First Dynasty. The obverse is full of Mespotamian motifs: the king as a bull destroying a walled town, those “serpopards” whose intertwined necks frame the pigment-mixing depression. The reverse is more distinctly Egyptian, with the now-human king wearing the crown of Upper Egypt. Although to my untrained and untrustworthy eye there is still some of Mesopotamia there—the king’s calf muscles look distinctly Assyrian to me, and I wonder how much those cows at the top (proto-Hathors, apparently) owe to Mesopotamian predecessors—the Narmer palette represents the very beginning not only of the Egyptian kingdom but of Egyptian, which (again to my untrained eye) remained remarkably consistent for millennia thereafter.

But this isn’t a perfect book. Reading it is a great first step in understanding Egyptian history, but all those kings still blur together. To some extent, I suppose that’s unavoidable—there were a lot of them, after all, and really I don’t know that there is always much to distinguish them. But Wilkinson’s (I hate to say it) somewhat cliched writing doesn’t really help. There are too many “brilliant demonstrations of the unite-and-rule concept” and “brilliant flashes of inspiration” and “brilliant but simple expedients.” I’m sure there is precious little that can really be said about any individual, king or otherwise, especially given Egyptian kings’ perennial habit of erasing all record of their predecessors, but I would desperately like more indivuating details, and anecdotes.

And I’d also like to know more about the Egyptian religion (or should that be religions?). Gods and priests and temples obviously permeate Egyptian history and life, but really all I can say I got from the book is that there were a confusingly large number of gods, whose cults were more or less important in various cities. How did those cults develop, and split and merge, and relate to each other in general? How did perceptions of the gods and details of their cults change over time? What did all those priests do all day, anyway?

So, definite thumbs up, but I am left wanting more. Which is certainly better than left wanting less—