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Archive for March, 2010

Sunday Book Review: God’s War

[ 14 ] March 28, 2010 |

Back in early 2008, partially in preparation for my visit to Israel, I read Christopher Tyerman’s God’s War: A New History of the Crusades. I had not previously been familiar with anything more than the broad outlines of the Crusades, including the seizure of Jerusalem, the arrival of Saladin, and so forth. At 922 pages, God’s War is an exhaustively detailed exploration of the social and political meaning of the Crusades, with sufficient strategic action to appease those interested in the military history. Tyerman places the Crusades firmly in the context of early second millenia Christianity, either rejecting or heavily modifying materialist explanations for the extended military campaigns. Tyerman also details the enduring effects of the Crusades, most of which have little to do with the repeated efforts to seize and hold Jerusalem.

I have long been interested in the theological justification of the Crusades. This statement needs to be prefaced in three ways. First, I’m interested in by not at all puzzled by the development of Catholic just war theory as a way of managing conflict among Christian monarchs and between Christian monarchs and the outside the world. The reasons for the development of this body of theory are pragmatic, even as the theory itself was influenced by Christian doctrine. I’m also not particularly puzzled by the 19th and 20th century union of nationalism and Christian theory (God marches with the Germans, the Americans, etc.). Finally, I appreciate that group affiliation dynamics will tend to override any specific doctrine; even pacifists will learn to kill when they feel their group is under threat. Nevertheless, I’m fascinated (although not surprised) by how Christians theologians developed doctrines that would justify the killing of a foreign and distant enemy in the name of Christ. Christianity differs from Islam and Judaism in that there is no clear duty to defend the community of the faithful. Indeed, Christ seems fairly clear about the not wanting to be “avenged”; he didn’t call out from the cross “I hope someday we can take back Jerusalem!” Tyerman opens with a discussion of militancy in the Christianity of the ninth and tenth centuries, and argues that the mediated nature of the medieval relationship with Scripture (few Christians could read Christian holy texts), and the pragmatic body of Just War theory interacted with the Germanic warrior ethos to produce a new understanding of the role of the warrior in Christian society. This understanding came to be centered around the idea that the responsibility of the warrior (and most rulers were warriors) was not simply to defend his subjects, but also to defend the entirety of Christendom. In the eleventh century this concept was fully delineated by the Vatican, and the papacy began calling for “holy wars” to liberate the formerly Christian lands of the Eastern Mediterranean. As always, material interest interacted with ideational narrative, but Tyerman argues that it is impossible to understand the Crusades in strictly material terms; many Crusaders made enormous financial sacrifices with little hope of material reward, acting in the understanding that they were defending the faith and “avenging” Christ. Similarly, while Christian and Islamic states were engaged in an endless series of wars from the seventh century on, the Crusades cannot be understood as retribution or retaliation for any single instance of Islamic aggression. Jerusalem hadn’t been on the table for four centuries, and the Crusaders were committed to “redeeming” the Holy City.

When the goal of the Crusades is thus defined as “We need to get back at the people who killed Christ,” you know that things aren’t going to work out well for the Jews. The story of Christian depredations against Jews in the Holy Land is familiar; Jews had been allowed to return to Jerusalem following the Islamic conquest in the 650s, and were slaughtered wholesale (along with everyone else) once the Crusaders conquered the city in 1099. Jews were then banned from Jerusalem until Saladin retook the city a century later. Less well known are the pogroms which were associated with mobilization for the Crusades. In the process of whipping the faithful into a fury sufficient to get them to give up their lives, sons, and money, more than a few Jews got killed. In some cases, local princes protected (or tried to protect) the Jewish communities from Christian mobs. In other cases, princes were happy simply to seize all Jewish property in order to fund their own Crusading activities. I do wish that more people would understand that enthusiastic, violent Christianity tends to be bad for the Jews.

I also find it interesting that Christianity, as a whole, pretty much abandoned the idea of retaking Jerusalem just as it became clear that the Christian states had the capacity to reconquer the Holy Land anytime they wanted. Jerusalem isn’t quite irrelevant to the international politics of the early modern period, but it’s pretty close; even the Russians were more focused on Constantinople than on the Holy City. I don’t doubt that Allenby and the men of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force felt a chilling sense of awe when they entered Jerusalem on December 11, 1917, but the moment paled somewhat in comparison to the events on the Western Front. Moreover, Britain made clear in fairly short order that Jerusalem would not be governed as a Christian city. The moment for Christian revaunchism had passed, apparently. I suppose you could argue (as some Christian Zionists certainly would) that the Jewish reoccupation of Jerusalem is the fulfillment of the vision of the Crusades, but I think it’s fair to say that a Jewish dominated Jerusalem wasn’t exactly what the men of the First Crusade had in mind.

Tyerman makes the crucial point that the serial invasions of the Middle East were not the only, the most important, or the most lasting part of the Crusades. Using the same justifications that they used to retake Jerusalem, Christians in Iberia and Germany waged war against Muslims and pagans on their frontiers. In Iberia this had the long term effect of driving the Muslims (and the Jews) off of the peninsula, as well as setting the stage for the conquest of the New World. In Eastern Europe and the Baltic, the result was the more or less permanent expansion of the frontiers of Christendom. Imagine the surprise of the typical pagan in his Baltic village when Crusaders came to town, sacking and burning, and explained that they were there to “avenge Christ.” In Central and Western Europe, the Crusades had long term cultural effects that remained after the military aspect had become irrelevant. Even in the very late medieval period monarchs were “taking the cross,” which is to say taking responsibility for reconquering Jerusalem.

The concentration on social and intellectual history shouldn’t obscure the fact that Tyerman also treats military and political history at considerable length. He explains the fraught conditions that afflicted the First Crusade, and the unlikely path that it took to conquering Jerusalem. He further explains the basic military situation of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, as well as its political dysfunction and dependence on the largess of Western monarchs. The collapse of the Kingdom is explained in terms of political changes within Islam, brought about to some extent by the Mongol invasions. If you read this book and pay attention, you’ll know which Crusade involved Richard the Lion Hearted, which Crusade got lost and conquered Byzantium, and which Crusade failed when the Emperor fell off his horse. You’ll also have a sense of how the Crusaders benefited from control of the sea in the Eastern Mediterranean, and how the growth of the Ottoman Empire foreclosed the possibility of additional Crusades.

On a personal note, as noted I read this book shortly before leaving the Israel in 2008, and I found it enormously helpful in terms of interpreting the Christian impact on the Holy Land. However, there was another, not terribly welcome, effect; I felt a certain tribal kinship with the Crusaders. It is difficult to wander around Israel/Palestine without having a strong sense of tribal identification; such identification pretty much oozes from the terrain, and is a critical part of the manner in which people define themselves. In part because of this book, I had the strong sense that the Crusaders might have been bastards, but that they were MY bastards; I had something essential in common with them that I did not share with the other residents. Recognizing the absurdity of this feeling didn’t make it go away. I even got a bit defensive about the series of jokes Israelis would tell when acting as tour guides around Crusader sites. “Feel free to mock the Crusaders when Israel turns 193″ I wanted to (but did not) say. The reasons for this were unclear; I’m not Christian, and while it’s certainly possible that I have an ancestor among the (relatively few) English Crusaders, I’m much more compelled by Anglo-Saxon identity than by some affiliation with Christendom.

In any case, this is a very long book, but it is exceptionally rewarding. Appreciating the impact of the Crusades on the West is worthwhile in an of itself, and having some understanding the Crusades in the context of a political climate that rewards constant invocation of historical half-truths is almost necessary. Worth your valuable time and cubits.

Debating David Simon’s Brilliance

[ 11 ] March 28, 2010 |

I largely agree.  After buying and watching all five seasons of The Wire last year, I struggled with an internal debate: was it better than Homicide Life on the Street?  While The Wire is justifiably lauded on this island as either the best or very close to the best television ever produced, HLOTS never really made an impact out here, at least one sufficiently lasting enough allowing for discussion and debate amongst my friends and colleagues.

I watched HLOTS unerringly during its seven year run, and while the last two or three seasons could be ignored, have considered it since the best television drama.  The Wire challenged this notion, and it still does.

Discovering Reciprocity

[ 5 ] March 28, 2010 |

More please:

President Obama, making a muscular show of his executive authority just one day after Congress left for spring recess, said Saturday that he would bypass the Senate and install 15 appointees, including a union lawyer whose nomination to the National Labor Relations Board was blocked last month with the help of two Democrats.

Coming on the heels of Mr. Obama’s big victory on health care legislation, Saturday’s move suggests a newly emboldened president who is unafraid to provoke a confrontation with the minority party.

This is simply an area where presidents will — and should — become more aggressive. If the Senate is going to allow its idiotic rules to prevent the president from appointing people to the executive branch — including mostly qualified people with majority support — the use of recess appointments will become more and more common, and rightly so.

Speaking of which, this excerpt from Hatch’s letter boasting of minority opposition to Craig Becker — God forbid a duly elected administration be permitted to appoint people of similar beliefs to important administrative posts so that the bodies can actually function! — is instructive:

In the letter to the President, the Republican Senators wrote, “We urge you not to bypass the bipartisan Senate vote by giving Mr. Becker a recess appointment to the NLRB. Taking this action would install a rejected nominee for an appointed term to the NLRB, setting an unfortunate precedent for all future nominations and future administrations.”

On February 9, the Senate, on bipartisan basis, rejected Becker’s nomination by a vote of 52 to 43. Becker never sufficiently answered questions posed to him by Republican members of the Health Education Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, which both Hatch and McCain are members.

Let’s leave aside the strictly nominal definition of “bipartisan” (i.e. “Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln”). Those familiar with the rules governing pretty much every legislature in the world but the World’s Worst Deliberative Body might be forgiven for inferring from Hatch’s phrasing that there was a majority against Becker’s nomination. But, of course, the majority was in favor of Becker; what Hatch wont come out and tell you is that he successfully filibustered a candidate with majority support to keep the NLRB from functioning properly. Good for Obama for knowing to do with Hatch’s letter.

How Might We Measure Race Without Reifying It?

[ 56 ] March 28, 2010 |

It always intrigues me to be told that by thinking differently from the herd (a hallmark of progressivism) I must actually be a faux progressive. Recently, for challenging my government’s use of racial classifications on the census form, I have been called a selfish, irresponsible, childish bigot by readers who are (presumably) generally in favor of disagreeing with one’s government.

These comments fascinated and amused me, not because many disagreed with my point (I expected that of course), but because the disagreement was so uniform. I had expected a cacophony of different perspectives and some serious debate about a pretty important issue in our political culture. But with a few notable exceptions, most of the substantive critiques (to date) have instead fallen into one of the following categories:

1) “nice idea, but utopian and therefore dangerous”
2) “if we don’t measure race we can never get past racism”
3) “Charli only thinks this because she’s white and obviously not a genuine liberal.”

Let me briefly elaborate my actual views by explaining by responding to these three critiques, then conclude with some modest proposals for acknowledging race on the census forms without reproducing or imposing racial categories on the public. Read more…

Committee Report States the Obvious

[ 3 ] March 27, 2010 |

Some damage is hard to fix.

The UK government needs to be “less deferential” towards the US and more willing to say no to Washington, a group of MPs have said. The Commons Foreign Affairs committee also said it was wrong to speak of “the special relationship” with the US, as it was fostering other alliances.

However, the MPs did agree that the link between the countries was “profound and valuable”…

The committee said that the relationship was more associated now with the perceived support Britain gave to President George W Bush over the Iraq war. “The perception that the British government was a subservient ‘poodle’ to the US administration leading up to the period of the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath is widespread both among the British public and overseas,” it said.

“This perception, whatever its relation to reality, is deeply damaging to the reputation and interests of the UK.”

Don’t be surprised if you hear wingnuts babbling that Obama is destroying our most treasured alliances; the strategic goal is to make sure that Obama is blamed for every palpable failure of the Bush administration. As we all know, Obama played a key role in shuffling Iraq’s WMD off to Syria before the war…

Donald Douglas somehow managed to top himself. [Updated below the fold.]

[ 22 ] March 27, 2010 |

But honestly, because he’s proven it’s possible to be gainfully employed in academia and functionally illiterate, I can’t even manage a few moments of schadenfreude.  Remember that post I wrote yesterday?  The one in which I clearly indicated that I’d condensed a thread’s worth of insults into a nonsensical stream of ad hominem?

Donald Douglas not only thinks Jeff Goldstein wrote it, he considers it to be a “deliciously devastating slam.”  I’ll take the compliment on its face—the art of collage is an art—but the fact that someone employed by an institution of higher learning found that paragraph compelling is, I think we can all agree, probably the most embarrassing thing someone employed by an institution of higher learning could ever do. The only reasonable response to such a brazen display of idiocy is to take a screen-shot of it and put it on the internet forever:

Read more…

Tourney Challenge Update

[ 2 ] March 27, 2010 |

I had assumed that everyone had been eliminated from the LGM Tourney Challenge, but apparently this was not the case. The two current leaders are M. Strausz’s Fort Worth Barnstormers, and K. Adams Know-Nothings. Strausz has Syracuse winning, which means he’s probably done for all practical purposes. Given that he has selected the correct champion, K. Adams is the overwhelming favorite. In the unlikely event that Kentucky’s championship is pre-emptively vacated by the NCAA, M. Sandiford (West Virginia), c. loar (Kansas State) and C. Betley (Duke) look strong. As far as I can tell, no one picked Baylor, Butler, Tennessee or Michigan State to win, which makes the outcome hard to predict in those eventualities.

I am currently holding down 128th place, which is difficult for me to understand given that I still have 2 of my Final Four alive…

UPDATE: Well, then. So much for that.

Thinking About Immunity in Unproductive Ways

[ 13 ] March 27, 2010 |

Underlining this bit of nonsense about the Germans using submarine-towed V-2 launchers to attack the United States during World War II is the implicit assumption that the US is fundamentally unlike other countries, and that piercing US immunity to attack is somehow catastrophic to the American way of life. While in some sense admirable on aspirational grounds, this assumption comes with its own dangerous set of policy implications. To be clear, this is what would have happened if the Germans had managed to tow a dozen V-2 rocket canisters within range of New York City:

1. The submarine towing the canisters would very likely have been sighted on its way to its launching area, and destroyed by Allied aircraft and surface vessels. Towed missile canisters do not, by and large, enhance the stealth characteristics of a submarine.

2. Some percentage of the untested canisters would have failed upon deployment.

3. Optimistically, we’ll say that ten V-2s of the notional twelve would have launched successfully. V-2s had gyroscopic guidance systems, which means that the launcher needs to know where he is in relation to the target in order to pre-set coordinates and flight path. As adjusting the submerged V-2s would likely have been impossible, this means that the submarine would have to surface at a point pre-determined with precision. This is unlikely. Alternatively, it’s possible that the Germans could have installed some kind of guide beam equipment on the submarine, which would enhance accuracy but force the submarine to surface under extremely dangerous conditions.

4. The V-2 had a CEP (circular error probability) of 4.5 km, meaning that half of the missiles would strike within 4.5 km of the target. In the exceedingly unlikely event that the missile-towing U-boat survived to launch from its predetermined point within 200ish miles of Manhattan, half of the launched missiles would fall within 4.5km of, say, the Empire State Building.

5. The V-2 carried a 2000# warhead, which could have done significant damage to any target that it hit. In practice, V-2s launched by the Germans in World War II ended up killing roughly 2.3 people per missile. If the Germans got lucky, however, they might kill a lot more; the two most deadly strikes during WWII killed 550 and 160 people, respectively.

In the end, the Germans could have killed some Americans at huge risk and at huge expense. A standard Type VII boat using its 88mm deck gun could probably have done as well if the Germans had ever thought it useful to risk a submarine in order to kill a few Americans unlucky enough to have the wrong beachfront property. Now, it sucks when Americans get killed, but the actual operation would have had NO EFFECT WHATSOEVER on the US war effort.

This last point is really key; suffering from actual bombardment (London was hit by some 1350 V-2s) tends to lend some perspective as to the actual effect of weapons of war. This is NOT to say that the United States would have benefited from suffering from German attacks; rather, it’s to suggest that US political culture has been afflicted with an unhealthy addiction to immunity which causes wild overreactions to real and perceived threats. An actual German effort to carry out this proposed operation would have been exceedingly expensive and almost certainly suicidal; even Hitler noted that V-2s were like artillery shells, only much more expensive. Similarly, implausible scenarios about North Korean ballistic missile attacks and Scuds launched from barges in the Atlantic almost never make sense in the details; they’re only compelling in the context of the threat they pose to the American sense of immunity, rather than the threat that they pose to the American population, economy, military establishment, etc.

There is No Problem that a Kraken Can’t Solve

[ 5 ] March 27, 2010 |


“Just imagine how incredibly dangerous that would be, for me, for the populace of wherever that is…”

Update on the Cheonan

[ 7 ] March 27, 2010 |

South Korea has reportedly ruled out a North Korean attack as the cause of the sinking of the Cheonan.

Initial speculation that North Korea might have sunk the ship had spooked Wall Street on Friday. Share prices dipped partly on geopolitical concerns, and the won dropped against the dollar.

“Given the investigations by government ministries so far, it is the government’s judgment that the incident was not caused by North Korea, although the reason for the accident has not been determined yet,” a senior government official was quoted as saying by Yonhap news agency.

A Reuters reporter on Baengnyeongdo island near where the ship sank said about 10 navy and coastguard vessels, along with divers, were searching the area and the wreckage.

MBC television quoted defense ministry sources as saying they were investigating whether it was the result of an explosion on board the vessel.

Presidential Blue House spokeswoman Kim Eun-hye earlier said there had been no unusual movements by North Korea, which has a million-strong military, much of it near the heavily armed border that has divided the Korean peninsula for more than half a century.

The defense ministry said 58 of the 104 crew on board had been rescued and Yonhap quoted navy officials as saying several had died. It was later quoted as saying 46 were still missing.

Mine, rock, and accidental internal explosion seem to be the leading candidates, as it appears that torpedo has been ruled out. A old stray mine is a possibility; a newer North Korean mine would be much more of a problem, but then you’d expect that the North Koreans would have been poised in some way to react to the entirely predictable sinking of a South Korean ship if they’d laid a minefield in the disputed area. Accidental internal explosion aren’t exactly common, but they do happen.

I’m With Edward Olmos.

[ 47 ] March 27, 2010 |

Saturday Misc Blogging

[ 1 ] March 27, 2010 |

1. Poetic justice.  Shorter: states that had tight-fisted approaches to health care in general and medicaid in particular are worried about the burden imposed by the health care reform law. Longer: “But even with more federal help, the challenge for states like Alabama, Arkansas and Texas that now offer only limited Medicaid coverage will be substantial.”  Opinion: Cry me a fucking river.  Texas, for example, restricts Medicaid to working parents who earn 20% of the federal poverty level.  With the new law allowing medicaid access to families of four at 133% of the poverty level, or slightly over a comfortable $29,000 per year, who in hell was Texas covering in the first place?  I’m not going to draw the obvious connections between this generally enlightened trio.  The state I spend the majority of my US time in, Oregon, has relatively solid coverage, so they’re not going to get hurt too bad.

2. Obligatory British election.  The Tory lead is holding relatively steady at about 4 points.  As I’m not in the office, I don’t have my vote share -> seats matrix handy, but this smells strongly of a Labour plurality in seats.  If the difference in seats between the Tories and Labour is close enough, Nick Clegg will be there, ready and willing to officiate.  I’d like to see a formal Lib-Dem / Labour coalition in the event of a hung parliament, but I’m not counting on it.  I suspect we’ll have a minority government, from either party, that will hobble on for a year at most.

Don’t get too excited by this new MORI poll of the marginals.  While the Reuters headline needlessly downplays the Conservative’s chances as a result of this poll (the swing to the Tories in these seats according to this poll still outperforms their swing nationally) the poll covered constituencies won by 10% to 18% in 2005.  This represents a liberal interpretation of “marginal”.

The annual budget doesn’t seem to have caused much of a stir, save for how it’s going to hammer Universities with cuts of up to 14% in the UK (but we knew this already) leading to a large number of compulsory redundancies amongst academic staff.  Fortunately, our top leaders, the Vice Chancellors, see their pay increase 10% to 20% in the last year alone, with many earning more than the Prime Minister (who I am to understand has a less demanding job).  Full disclosure: the VC of my institution earns more than Gordon Brown, but we’re enterprising, so we can get away with it.

None of us should worry, really.  This being the Labour government, we have been offered 20,000 additional university places for students for the next academic year in the same budget that slashed university funding by £900 million through 2013.  I don’t know how they do it.  It’s magic.

The other aspect of the budget that has pissed people off is the 10 pence tax rise on (hard) cider of all things.  Cider’s sort of popular down here in the Southwest, and Devon, Somerset, and Dorset (real) ciders can be some of the best in the world.  It’s a good thing my partner scheduled her visit to Plymouth for last week, where she consumed a fair amount of the local cider, saving ten pence a pop.

3. I have been unplanned in my absence from blogging duties for the past couple of weeks.  Work has dominated, with the end of term, admin duties, several manuscript reviews to write (when it rains it pours), and the two papers I’m presenting in San Francisco at the WPSA (this upcoming Thursday no less) and Chicago towards the end of April at the MPSA dominating my time.  Also, add in weekends playing single dad to my daughter, and the visit of the aforementioned occasional cider drinking love of my life for a week from Oregon, I’ve had precious little time for much else.  I’m off to the US for a month on Tuesday, so I’ll have more time.  Hint: if you’re an editor of a political science journal just itching to send off a manuscript for my perusal, and are not one of the three who have sent me manuscripts in the last month, now is the time to do it.

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