As a specific genre, the historical novel is only about two centuries old. Historical fiction in the wider sense, though, is at least as old as the written word. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Homeric poems, the narrative books of the Old Testament, Beowulf — the earliest literature of every people is historical fiction. The past is interesting. It’s glamorous and exciting. Perspective allows us to forget that the past, like the present, was mostly long patches of boredom or anxiety, mixed in with occasional moments of catastrophe or bliss. Above all, it’s about us.
Have you ever stared at old family pictures, and had the feeling that you were looking into a mirror? I have a photograph of a great uncle, who was an old man before I was born. I never knew him well. But in that picture, taken when he was about fifteen, he has my ears and eyes, and he’s hugging himself and looking just as complacent as I often do. I have a picture of one of my grandmothers, taken about the year 1916 — she’s photographed against a background of flags and Dreadnoughts. She looks astonishingly like my daughter. It’s only natural that I want to know about them. I want to know what they were thinking and doing, and I want to know about their general circumstances.
For most people, even now, family history comes to a dead end about three generations back. But we are also members of nations, and what we can’t know about our immediate ancestors we want to know about our ancestors in general. You can take the here and now just as it is. But the moment you start asking why things are as they are, you have to investigate the past.
Why do men wear collars and ties and jackets with buttons that often don’t and can’t do up? It’s because our own formal clothing stands in a direct line from the English and French court dress of the late 17th century. Why do we talk of “toeing the line?” It’s because in 19th century state schools, children would have to stand on a chalked line to read to the class. Why does the British fiscal year for individuals start on the 6th April? It’s because, until 1752, we used the Julian Calendar, which was eleven days behind the more accurate Gregorian Calendar; and the first day of the year was the 25th March. Lord Chesterfield’s Act standardised us with Scotland and much of Europe, and moved the first day of the year back to January — but the fiscal year, adjusted for the new calendar, was left unchanged.
Why was Ireland, until recently, so devoutly Catholic? Because the Catholic Church was the one great institution of Irish life that could be neither abolished nor co-opted by their British rulers. Why is the Church losing its hold? Because it is no longer needed for its old purpose. The child sex scandals are only a secondary cause. History tells us who we are. We may feel trapped by it. We may glory in it. We can’t ignore it.
Richard Blake, “Interview with Richard Blake, 7th March 2014”, 2014-03-07.
October 20, 2016
October 17, 2016
At Samizdata, a look at a new book covering the Islamic communities of Britain:
In the book Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam, the author – a BBC radio producer (boo, hiss) – attempts to provide an overview of the various strands of Islam in the UK. Her aim is not to tell us what to think but simply to provide the facts – what are they called? how many of them are there? where so they come from? what do they believe? etc. It is up to us, the readers, to draw conclusions.
Along the way there are a number of surprises. One of them is how different Islam is from Christianity. You would expect them to be rather similar given that they are both book-based, mono-theistic religions that revere both Abraham and Christ. Not a bit of it.
For example, in Christianity there is usually a close relationship between denomination and building. In Islam (at least in the UK) it is far more vague. A sect might be said to be “in control” of a mosque, the implication being that that control is temporary and could be lost. Many influential Muslim organisations such as Tablighi Jamaat and Jamaat-e-Islami have no mosques at all or very few.
Another is that the largest two sects in the UK are the Deobandis and Barelwis. No, I’d never heard of them either. For the record they are both Sunni (one definitely Sufi the other arguably so) and both originated in British India. It is worth pointing out that for the most part Bowen focuses on Sunni Islam but that is hardly surprising given that Sunnis vastly outnumber Shi’ites both globally and in the UK.
Another is that interest in Islam seems to be a second-generation thing. The first generation brought their Islam with them but seem to have regarded it as something they did rather than thought about. The second generation are much more inclined to read the Koran, take it seriously and ask questions. Even so, the most influential Islamic thinkers still tend to be based abroad.
I said earlier that it is left up to the reader to draw his own conclusions. So what does this reader conclude? Well, my biggest takeaway was that despite there being many strands of Islam and many weird and wonderful doctrinal disputes within Islam, there is no “good” Islam. The best you get is “less awful” Islam.
October 9, 2016
Question: You write that, “There was no rational explanation or single event that triggered this sudden desire to possess Jerusalem. Various Muslim factions had held it for over four hundred years.” So how and why did what later became known as the First Crusade get started?
Answer: From a Western perspective, there was a growing interest in the Holy Land. Pilgrimage to Jerusalem had increased throughout the 11th century. There was more of a focused interest on the historical life of Christ, and as a result on historical Jerusalem, than there had been earlier in the Middle Ages.
From the Eastern perspective, starting in the mid-11th century there was an incursion of, as we like to say in the historical game, “barbarians from the East,” in this case the Seljuk Turks. Their advent — their takeover of Baghdad, their embrace of Sunni Islam — destabilized the region in a way that hadn’t happened in about 150 years.
Mixed into this was the emperor of Byzantium, Alexius Comnenus, who clearly felt endangered on all fronts, [including] from the Turks. He decided that the best way to deal with that was to write to the West and to request mercenaries to help him. He framed his request in semi-religious terms, but what he was really after were hardened professional mercenaries.
Meanwhile, in the West, pilgrims were coming back with horror stories of what they’d encountered in Jerusalem. There was a sense that the city of Christ was in danger and was being polluted by these barbarians whom they barely understood. When the request for mercenaries came from the emperor, which was subsequently given a stamp of approval by the pope, it transformed into a massive military movement fought in the name of holy war.
Virginia Postrel talking to Jay Rubenstein, “Why the Crusades Still Matter”, Bloomberg View, 2015-02-10.
October 7, 2016
Poe’s Law is the belief that some religious fundamentalists are so stupid that it’s impossible to distinguish them from a parody.
This is all nice and well in the abstract, but when applied to a particular case, where a particular atheist has fallen for a parody site, it tends to be an unfortunate stand-in for “Some atheists are so ignorant that it’s impossible for them to distinguish religious people from a parody of religious people.” Listen:
A: “The Pope just said that everyone who isn’t creationist should be put in jail! What an outrage!”
B: “Uh, you do know that’s on The Onion, right?”
A: “Oh, well, haha, Poe’s Law, just goes to show how dumb those religious people are.”
Problem is, Poe’s Law isn’t limited to religion any more. Now it’s politics, culture, science, and anywhere else where one side thinks their opponents are so stupid it’s literally impossible to parody them (ie everywhere on both sides). You spread the dumbest and most obviously fake rumors to smear your opponents. And then when you’re caught, instead of admitting you were fooled, you claim Poe’s Law and smear your opponents even more.
On the other hand, once you’re willing to admit this dynamic exists, it can make for some pretty interesting guessing games and unintentional Intellectual Turing Tests – see the Poe’s Law In Action subreddit for some examples.
Scott Alexander, “These Are A Few (More) Of My (Least) Favourite Things”, Slate Star Codex, 2015-01-21.
September 26, 2016
September 13, 2016
David Warren posted this as his September 11 retrospective:
As I suggested above, we are still too close to this event to grasp its full significance; but after fifteen years we in the West are in a much worse position than we were on the 10th of September, 2001. We showed, as the Islamists predicted, that we did not have the stamina to prevail, even against weak adversaries; that America and allies could only fight “Vietnams.” Our will is shaken, and to Salafist delight, we have by now expressed contrition for fourteen centuries of Christian defence against Islamic aggression. We bow respectfully, as our culture is insulted, and as versions of Shariah are imposed. In disregard of our own security, we have thrown our borders open to massive Muslim immigration. We follow, at every junction, the course of sentimentality, and adapt to the certainty of defeat. After each hit we call for grief counsellors.
It is instructive that, in the present circumstances, with Christians reduced to desperation through much of the Near East, we import Muslim refugees almost exclusively. The Christians flee to the protection of the Kurds; not to refugee camps in which they would risk massacre. Western governments take only from those camps; or in Europe, the flotillas launched from Turkey and Libya. The Islamists gloat at this demographic achievement; the Daesh now recruit from the disaffected young in the new Muslim ghettoes of Europe, radicalized in Saudi-built-and-financed mosques. Few directly engage in suicidal acts of terrorism; but those who do are lionized as heroes. Lesser, safer acts, such as rape of European women, and desecration of churches and synagogues, have become commonplace. We are, and we know that we are, as incapable of assimilating these migrants as the Romans were of assimilating the Vandals and Huns through their increasingly porous frontiers.
Crucially, in the mindless fantasy of “multiculturalism,” we refuse to recognize the contradictions between Islamic and Christian teaching, and look the other way, muttering fatuities about “the religion of peace” after each psychopathic explosion. This is just what Osama predicted: the harder the blows, the more docile we would become, and the more complacent in the face of the ancient Islamic demand for submission.
The genius of Osama bin-Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, was to know that the de-Christianizing West would respond in this way. Their propaganda spelt out, from the beginning, the argument for their methods. They called us chestless wonders; they said we would fold under any sustained pressure; that we had lost the confidence of our Christian identity. We are an aging society now, vitiated by abortions, needing immigrants to pay our pensions; a people addicted to drugs, from opiates to iPhones; lapsed in creature comforts, and spineless in the face of adversity.
September 11, 2016
Published on 8 Sep 2016
Professor Sean Gabb, lecturer, political activist and the author of nine historical novels about early years of the Byzantium Empire.
Q: One of the striking aspects of your accounts is how fractious and fragmented the Crusaders were. They come from different places, they’re following different people, and they have somewhat different motives. The divisions reminded me of the various jihadi groups vying to be top dog today. Do we remember the Crusades as more unified than they actually were? Do these divisions tell us anything about the situation today among the other would-be holy warriors?
A: Particularly with the First Crusade, we do tend to remember it as a more unified movement than it was. We assume that when the pope preached his voice rang out with greater authority than it did, and that it would have been better remembered and better understood than in fact I think it was. We don’t have any record of what the pope said at Clermont except for one sentence [about penance]. All the other stuff is people making it up later.
A goodly number of Crusaders from the north had actually fought wars against the popes. They’re not necessarily on the papal side. A lot of people, particularly from the north were inspired by Peter the Hermit, not by the pope — a very different message. When the Crusaders marched through Byzantium, there was extreme mistrust between a lot of the armies, particularly the ones that got there first, and the Greeks whom they were allegedly on Crusade in part to defend. There was this sense that [the Byzantines] aren’t real Christians, that there’s just something wrong about them. There was no leader of the Crusade once it started marching. There was a council of leaders.
That probably parallels a lot of what’s going on with ISIS and al-Qaeda and the way these groups tend to metastasize. It also points out how powerful and uniting the notion of religious warfare can be — that you can have these different groups suddenly coalescing around this idea and against all odds succeeding. The most mind-boggling aspect of the First Crusade is that it succeeded. There’s no reason that this should have worked, that these armies should have survived and gotten to Jerusalem. They somehow did. They held together. This ethos of holy war, which is a fairly terrifying one, can be powerful and effective at holding groups together.
Virginia Postrel talking to Jay Rubenstein, “Why the Crusades Still Matter”, Bloomberg View, 2015-02-10.
September 2, 2016
Daniel Greenfield explains the role of the hijab, the burka, and other “traditional” Islamic clothing for women:
Does it matter what Muslim women wear to the beach? Arguably the government should not be getting involved in swimwear. But the clothing of Muslim women is not a personal fashion choice.
Muslim women don’t wear hijabs, burkas or any other similar garb as a fashion statement or even an expression of religious piety. Their own religion tells us exactly why they wear them.
“O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks (veils) all over their bodies that they may thus be distinguished and not molested.” (Koran 33:59)
It’s not about modesty. It’s not about religion. It’s about putting a “Do Not Rape” sign on Muslim women. And putting a “Free to Molest” sign on non-Muslim women.
This isn’t some paranoid misreading of Islamic scripture. Islamic commentaries use synonyms for “molested” such as “harmed”, “assaulted” and “attacked” because women who aren’t wearing their burkas aren’t “decent” women and can expect to be assaulted by Muslim men. These clothes designate Muslim women as “believing” women or “women of the believers”. That is to say Muslims.
One Koranic commentary is quite explicit. “It is more likely that this way they may be recognized (as pious, free women), and may not be hurt (considered by mistake as roving slave girls.)” The Yazidi girls captured and raped by ISIS are an example of “roving slave girls” who can be assaulted by Muslim men.
Muslim women who don’t want to be mistaken for non-Muslim slave girls had better cover up. And non-Muslim women had better cover up too or they’ll be treated the way ISIS treated Yazidi women and the way that Mohammed and his gang of rapists and bandits treated any woman they came across.
That’s what the burka is. That’s what the hijab is. And that’s what the burkini is.
And this is not just some relic of the past or a horror practiced by Islamic “extremists”. It’s ubiquitous. A French survey found that 77 percent of girls wore the hijab because of threats of Islamist violence. It’s numbers like these that have led to the French ban of the burka and now of the burkini.
When clothing becomes a license to encourage harassment, then it’s no longer a private choice.
On the other hand, Daniel Pipes says the burkini poses no threat and should not be banned:
France has been seized by a silly hysteria over the burkini, prompting me to wonder when Europeans will get serious about their Islamist challenge.
For starters, what is a burkini? The word (sometimes spelled burqini) combines the names of two opposite articles of female clothing: the burqa (an Islamic tent-like, full-body covering) and the bikini. Also known as a halal swimsuit, it modestly covers all but the face, hands and feet, consisting of a top and a bottom. It resembles a wetsuit with a head covering.
Aheda Zanetti of Ahiida Pty Ltd in Australia claims to have coined the portmanteau in 2003, calling it “smaller than a burka” while “two piece like a bikini.” The curious and sensational cross of two radically dissimilar articles of clothing along with the need it fit for active, pious Muslim women, the burkini (as Ahiida notes) was “the subject of an immediate rush of interest and demand.” Additionally, some women (like British cooking celebrity Nigella Lawson) wear it to avoid a tan, while pious Jews have adopted a variant garment.
[…] the burkini poses no danger to public security. Unlike the burqa or niqab, it leaves the face uncovered; relatively tight-fitting, it leaves no place to hide weapons. Men cannot wear it as a disguise. Further, while there are legitimate arguments about the hygiene of large garments in pools (prompting some hotels in Morocco to ban the garment), this is obviously not an issue on the coastal beaches of France.
Accordingly, beach burkinis should be allowed without restriction. Cultural arguments, such as the one made by Valls, are specious and discriminatory. If a woman wishes to dress modestly on the beach, that is her business, and not the state’s. It’s also her prerogative to choose unflattering swimwear that waterlogs when she swims.
I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind — that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.
I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious.
I believe that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty and the democratic form is as bad as any of the other forms.
I believe that the evidence for immortality is no better than the evidence of witches, and deserves no more respect.
I believe in the complete freedom of thought and speech — alike for the humblest man and the mightiest, and in the utmost freedom of conduct that is consistent with living in organized society.
I believe in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what it is made of, and how it is run.
I believe in the reality of progress.
I — But the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant.
H.L. Mencken, “What I Believe”, The Forum 84, 1930-09.
September 1, 2016
… he’d have a brief but glorious career of getting the magazine a lot of media attention:
It is well that I am not the editor of Sports Illustrated; for were I so, I might commission a special burqini swimwear issue, just to provoke … everybody. All my lithe supermodels would be wearing burqini and veilkini variants, some with Marianne liberty caps and so forth. In the shoots, I would have them all posed on beaches surrounded by French policemen in their various uniforms, striking extravagant dance poses. There’d be a dwarf traffic cop in the traditional Paris “aubergine” raincoat, who’d turn up in set after set, blowing on a whistle. Perhaps one model in a wetsuit, with oxygen tanks, made to resemble a suicide vest; and other subtle topical allusions. In the background there’d be men and women in Edwardian beach attire, of extreme modesty, expressing shock. An old bathing machine would be lying on its side, with a sea turtle crawling out, mounted by an avatar of Vishnu, to extend the multicultural range.
Of course, I wouldn’t last long at “SI” — the only question, whether I’d be fired or assassinated first. But in the interim I might have the pleasure of being denounced by world leaders, and getting the company account banned by Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, &c. With luck, an outrageously goading defence, and the help of Drudge and Breitbart, I might be able to stretch my fifteen minutes of infamy to twenty or twenty-five.
I recently heard someone describe themselves as “post-Zionist”, then go on to give what sounded like pretty standard criticism of Zionism. I don’t want to get too heavily into this particular example, because I understand post-Zionism is complex and every time I write something about Israel I get Israeli commenters saying I’ve gotten it wrong and other Israeli commenters saying no they’ve gotten it wrong and still other Israeli commenters saying we’ve all got it wrong. What was that saying about “two Jews, three opinions” again?
But what bothers me about post-Zionism is that it seems to carry this kind of smug “Oh, you guys are still Zionist? Don’t you know Zionism is, like, totally five years ago? Nowadays all the cool people have moved on to more exciting things,” which I don’t think really adds to the argument. Zionism versus anti-Zionism suggests a picture of two sides with two different opinions – which seems to match the reality pretty well. Zionism versus post-Zionism suggests one side just hasn’t gotten the message yet.
I feel the same way about post-rationalism. Yes, maybe you’ve seen through rationalism in some profound way and transcended it. Or maybe you just don’t get it. This is exactly the point under debate, and naming yourselves “post-rationalists” seems like an attempt to short-circuit it, not to mention leaving everyone else confused. And maybe you could give yourself a name that actually reflected your beliefs (“Kind Of New-Age-y People Who Are Better At Math Than Usual For That Demographic And Will Angrily Deny Being New-Age-y If Asked Directly”?) and we wouldn’t have to have a new “but what is post-rationalism?!?!” conversation every month.
Post-modernism can stay, though. At this point it’s less of a name than a warning label.
Scott Alexander, “These Are A Few (More) Of My (Least) Favourite Things”, Slate Star Codex, 2015-01-21.
August 28, 2016
The most curious social convention of the great age in which we live is the one to the effect that religious opinions should be respected. Its evil effects must be plain enough to everyone. All it accomplishes is (a) to throw a veil of sanctity about ideas that violate every intellectual decency, and (b) to make every theologian a sort of chartered libertine. No doubt it is mainly to blame for the appalling slowness with which really sound notions make their way in the world. The minute a new one is launched, in whatever field, some imbecile of a theologian is certain to fall upon it, seeking to put it down. The most effective way to defend it, of course, would be to fall upon the theologian, for the only really workable defense, in polemics as in war, is a vigorous offensive. But the convention that I have mentioned frowns upon that device as indecent, and so theologians continue their assault upon sense without much resistance, and the enlightenment is unpleasantly delayed.
There is, in fact, nothing about religious opinions that entitles them to any more respect than other opinions get. On the contrary, they tend to be noticeably silly. If you doubt it, then ask any pious fellow of your acquaintance to put what he believes into the form of an affidavit, and see how it reads … “I, John Doe, being duly sworn, do say that I believe that, at death, I shall turn into a vertebrate without substance, having neither weight, extent nor mass, but with all the intellectual powers and bodily sensations of an ordinary mammal; … and that, for the high crime and misdemeanor of having kissed my sister-in-law behind the door, with evil intent, I shall be boiled in molten sulphur for one billion calendar years.” Or, “I, Mary Roe, having the fear of Hell before me, do solemnly affirm and declare that I believe it was right, just, lawful and decent for the Lord God Jehovah, seeing certain little children of Beth-el laugh at Elisha’s bald head, to send a she-bear from the wood, and to instruct, incite, induce and command it to tear forty-two of them to pieces.” Or, “I, the Right Rev._____ _________, Bishop of _________,D.D., LL.D., do honestly, faithfully and on my honor as a man and a priest, declare that I believe that Jonah swallowed the whale,” or vice versa, as the case may be. No, there is nothing notably dignified about religious ideas. They run, rather, to a peculiarly puerile and tedious kind of nonsense. At their best, they are borrowed from metaphysicians, which is to say, from men who devote their lives to proving that twice two is not always or necessarily four. At their worst, they smell of spiritualism and fortune telling. Nor is there any visible virtue in the men who merchant them professionally. Few theologians know anything that is worth knowing, even about theology, and not many of them are honest. One may forgive a Communist or a Single Taxer on the ground that there is something the matter with his ductless glands, and that a Winter in the south of France would relieve him. But the average theologian is a hearty, red-faced, well-fed fellow with no discernible excuse in pathology. He disseminates his blather, not innocently, like a philosopher, but maliciously, like a politician. In a well-organized world he would be on the stone-pile. But in the world as it exists we are asked to listen to him, not only politely, but even reverently, and with our mouths open.
H.L. Mencken, The American Mercury, 1930-03; first printed, in part, in the Baltimore Evening Sun, 1929-12-09.
August 26, 2016
France, like the rest of the liberal West, gets this exactly and lethally wrong. First we forbid individuals their natural right to set the rules within their own property, to exclude and admit who they choose, to demand the burkini or to ban it. Then we set the law on people for the crime of wearing too much cloth on the public beach. A photograph is reproduced worldwide showing three armed male policemen standing over a Muslim woman and making her remove the clothes she considers necessary for modesty. Whatever your opinion of Islam and its clothing taboos, does anyone in the world believe that this makes the next jihadist attack less likely? To call it “security theatre” would be a compliment. The popular entertainment it calls to mind is that of the mob stripping and parading une femme tondue.
Natalie Solent, “Security strip”, Samizdata, 2016-08-24.
August 19, 2016
Published on 30 Jul 2016
Bishops. Manuscripts. Pilgrimage. Wealth. In 793 CE, the island monastery of Lindisfarne thrived in a state of harmony. Then, everything changed when the Viking raiders attacked. Once they discovered Europe’s weakness, not even mighty kings like Charlemagne could stop them. They transformed their power at sea into an avenue for conquest and expansion: the Viking Age had begun.
Troubling omens were recorded in Lindisfarne prior to the Viking invasion on June 8, 793 CE. It was the seat of the bishop for much of Northeastern Britain. Monks in the scriptorium produced some of the most celebrated illustrated manuscripts, and abroad they helped convert the pagans of Britain. Lindisfarne had been the final resting place of St. Cuthbert, so pilgrims often came and enriched the priory and the town. It never occurred to anyone that when strange ships appeared on the horizon, that they might be hostile. The men who disembarked were fierce, unknown, and merciless. They cut down monks in the churches and looted the church… then left. Bishop Higbald survived, and sent the news across Europe. From there, the frequency of raids only increased and raged across all of Europe. The burgeoning flame of Lindisfarne was almost snuffed out. It was the first time in history that the reach of Christianity shrank, rather than expanded. But what about the other side of the story? These “barbarians,” who would become known as Vikings, were striking back at a culture that looked down on them, insulted their faith, and tried to swindle them at trade. They had realized how poorly defended these both the British Isles and mainland Europe were, and how rich they were in fertile land. They put their vast knowledge of shipcraft to work and turned trading routes into raiding routes, finding new lands for them to settle. The Viking Age had begun.