Saturday, August 27, 2016

On Presentism

n. uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.

 I saw this mosaic in the Haga Sophia. I had taken my copy of the ‘Alexiad’ with me so I could wave it about enthusiastically and mis-identify Anna Comnena’s nephew as her grandfather. I was feeling kind of drunk on history. This mosaic was made, I am informed by the interwebz, between 1118 and 1122. At that time, if you were someone old enough to have seen the Battle of Manzikert – the event we think of as the beginning of the end of the Eastern Empire - you would be pushing seventy.

When Constaninople fell to the Turks, this mosaic would have been older than James Watt’s first steam engine is to us. It would have been older than the Liberty Bell. It would have been older than the gardens planted by William of Orange to remind him of home when he reluctantly came across the Channel to be king of England. The making of that mural was separated about as far in time from Constantine XI as people living today are from the people who hung, drew, and quartered an octogenarian Catholic priest in Herefordshire with the full blessing of the government.

All of Whig history, from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 until now – the whole reign of the cult of progress – could fit into the time between when this mosaic was made and the fall of Constantinople.

I am not sure exactly where to go from here. 

I could just mention that all that span of time that suddenly awed me was occupied by a struggle to keep Islam out of Europe, a struggle that had begun an awfully long time before – since the first siege of Constaninople by the Arabs was in 674  – and would extend an awfully long time into the future. And I could say how incredible the presumption of our present day seem to me, that a conflict so deep and ancient, suddenly exacerbated and supercharged by the shrinking of the world by technology, is all the fault of Thomas Herzl or George W. Bush and would not have happened if we mayfly moderns had done something differently.  That it was, more broadly perhaps, all the fault of ‘Western Imperialism’ and that everyone would just get along if it wasn’t for perfidious us.

Or, I could try to enunciate the deeper and more inchoate lesson I felt this sense of awe had for me. For I am sure that there were big differences between the society John II Comnenos lived in and the society Constantine XI Paleologos lived in: they would have sounded funny to one another, no doubt, and dressed oddly in each other’s eyes. But those differences would be negligible, really, compared to things that united them. I doubt there was more change in the liturgy when they worshipped, 300 years apart, than I have seen in my lifetime. It is very easy for us to find fault with their philosophy and the way their society was organised: but these things endured.  While all our mad utopian experiments and fads and this Liberal Democracy that was supposed to be the end of history fit into this span of time that is not so very long. Maybe we are not as smart as we think we are. Maybe we should be a bit humbler before our ancestors. Maybe we should think twice before tearing down institutions that have endured for millennia. Maybe we should not dismiss out of hand the possibility that ‘sovereignty derives from the people’ is what almost all of both sides of Christo-Islamic civilisation considered it for thousands of years: a heresy that leads to ruin.
These guys. YES.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Further Adventures of a Geography Pedant

I was reading this perfectly dandy little article about one of the flashpoints of maritime contention between the Renegade Mainland Provinces and everybody else, when I came across this picture and caption.

The caption is correct: Uotsuri Jima or Diaoyu Dao is the biggest island in the disputed Senkaku Islands or Diaoyu Islands. However, the picture is not of Uotsuri Jima or Diaoyu Dao. It is of Minami Kojima or Nan Xiaodao, a very much smaller island in the Senkaku/Diaoyu archipelago. I discovered this in about thirty seconds using an obscure research tool called 'Google Earth'. 

Here is a picture of the real Uotsuri Jima or Diaoyu Dao. It is about ten times as big as the island in the first picture. It has its own endemic species of mole. It was inhabited between 1900 and 1940 when there was a fish processing plant there. Unlike the first island, it is not an uninhabitable lump. It looks like a pretty nice place to build a resort.

I know, I know, is not a site known for being particularly good at anything. But this error irritated me. Of course any geographical error irritates me, as a pedant. But this irritated me more than that map I saw in the Sydney Morning Herald once where they had inundated Sindh and moved Karachi into Punjab. Or that map in the Absolut vodka advert that showed my birthplace in Alta California instead of Sonora. 

I think I know why I am particularly irritated by this mistake. Because this is the sort of mistake it is natural to make if you have a particular narrative running in your mind. This is a narrative where these foreigners are arguing about tiny, useless scraps of rock; where the historical claims on both sides are all air and moonshine; where we should just keep our heads down and not get involved.  Maybe all of those things are true. I don't like the thought of anyone dying for the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. I don't like to think that our treaty obligations might under some terrible set of circumstances lead to Australians dying for the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. But, if it were to come to that, I think I would be fractionally happier if they were dying for the real Uotsuri Jima instead of the fake one. And the image of the fake Uotsuri Jima makes it fractionally more likely that, if it were to come to that, public opinion would be for us welching on our treaty obligations to our allies.