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July 31st, 2012

History and Belief Systems

Post-Modernism seems to be firmly in control of our belief systems; a sort of vague, ill-defined and un-considered relativism pervades every attempt to make a reasoned decision, and I’ve become frustrated (hasn’t everyone?) by watching the most powerful nation on earth (so far—I still mean the US) stumble through a political election driven entirely by psy-op propaganda and with no content whatsoever. From either side. A pox on both their houses.

Meanwhile, in other news, the Middle East is in turmoil—on the edge of catastrophic change—and the environment—I mean the whole world—is now deteriorating at a speed that is no longer noticeable only to polar bears. Yet most Americans cling to belief systems—and I don’t mean Christianity—that have little or nothing to do with the world around them. The quickest troll through Facebook will reveal a degree of willful ignorance that makes a study of Medieval Philosophy feel like a refreshing stroll in the intellectual park by comparison.

I’d really like to write a blog about history—about something fun I’m reading, all the Byzantine tactical manuals I’m plowing through, Runciman’s lovely last book on the Late Byzantine capital of Mistra in the Peloponnese; Byzantine costume, translating Kantakouzenos from Greek; about my friend Guy Windsor’s development of a new translation of Vadi’s treatise on the long sword, and how much martial arts has influenced the way I write. I’d like to, but I decided to use these lines to try and kick even one person to wake up and question their assumptions. Think critically. Question everything. Ask yourself how often you choose the easy answer—the one you want to believe—over the fairly obvious answer—because, to be frank, accepting the truth would mean you’d have to take action.

Me too.

Ah! My friend Trajan has shown me that the statistics quoted (from a CBC piece) below are probably deeply flawed and may invalidate that argument. To which I say—thanks! Always happy to be corrected!’

So read the following as an example of propagandistic journalism—into which trap I happily fell.

“In 1912, the average middle-class family’s energy costs were about 16% of their budget. That’s a ‘fact’ open to a really wide area of interpretation—what constitutes energy in a horse drawn economy in Iowa? But for the moment, leave it be.

In 2012, the same family’s energy costs are about 4% of family budget—that’s with things like distance commuting in your SUV. Just think about that—what cheap energy has given us, and where it is taking us.

OK, second factoid. In 1919, Education was roughly 17% of the total budget of the United States of America. Again, this is an easy figure with which to argue—so let’s just put it this way. Any way you look at it, national education and it’s subordinate systems at the state and local level took up about a fifth of the tax base in 1919.

Want to guess what we spend today? Anyone want to guess? I’ll bet it’s less than one percent of the tax base, but I’d love to have someone prove me wrong.”

I’ve spent the last few years living in Canada—supposedly a socialist country—and visiting Finland (most enthusiastically Socialist—and gun owning, but that’s another rant) and Greece (merely corrupt) and England) heavily more Socialist than the US). I’ve watched the words ‘socialist’ and ‘Marxist’ return to 1980’s levels of invective. Public schools are ‘socialist.’

Hello? Our fore-fathers, the ones who won WWII (Sorry, Ivan, this is an American rant) and beat the depression and built the world empire—they WENT to those public schools—the ones underwritten by 1/5th of the national tax base. The ‘Greatest Generation’ had superb schools. Just for fun, read some of the things that the French and the Germans said about American doughboys in France in 1917. And again in 1944.

Conservatives claim to want to protect the best of society form needless change. OK—I’m a conservative. I’d like to return the United States of America to spending 1/5 of the total national tax base on education. With that kind of funding, it, frankly, WILL NOT MATTER whether teachers are gay or straight or teach Darwin or the bible. Spend the money, attract the talent, and give average kids the best education we can buy them.

History says so. And history matters.

May 24th, 2012

Is Athens Burning?

No, it isn’t. And people should stop pretending it is. Greece is in trouble, and a great deal of Greece’s trouble is self-inflicted–but not all. And I am increasingly annoyed—hmm, approaching enraged—as European and North American ‘money’ people manipulate currency and spread panic—to enrich themselves—while blaming the Greeks.

Yes, Greece has corruption. Yes, Greece has rich people who do not pay their taxes. Yes, the Greek bureaucracy is bloated and needs to be chopped with an axe. Yes, yes, yes. But the true VICTIMS of this crisis are working Greeks, young Greeks, people so stripped of hope and pleasure in their delightful country that they shake their heads and say ‘If I was younger, I’d take my family to Canada.’ ‘Greece has no future.’ ‘We will never recover.’ ‘There is no solution.’

In the years after the Council of 1437, Greece despaired—and Europe promised help—again and again promised. Genoa and Burgundy both helped—Burgundy might even have been said to have tried hard to save Greece. The Fall of Constantinople in 1453 was a turning point in the history of the world, and the blame for it lies almost exclusively with the Holy Roman Empire, France, and Venice, who simply couldn’t be bothered to carry through on their pledges to save a state that they were almost entirely responsible for undermining. The consequences of that fall—are STILL with us in the Balkans and in Eastern Europe. They are very much alive, those consequences. If you doubt me, spend an hour reading ultra-Slav websites.

If Greece fails, Europe will pay. It will pay immediately, because the fall will affect the banks. It will pay in the middle range, as middle-class Europeans lose their savings to currency speculators. It will pay in the long run, as a destabilized Greece becomes a Balkan country—perhaps even a failed state.

All so a few arseholes can be rich.

It is in everyone’s interest—everyone but a few corrupt Greek politicians and some currency speculators—to do the right thing. HELP Greece. Support Greece. Refuse to believe the endless crap about rioters. There are more riots in Washington DC and London. Ask serious questions about HOW the Greeks managed to borrow so much money.

Remind yourself how much we—and I’m speaking most of all to Americans—owe to Greece in our fondest notions of what freedom, liberty,and democracy are. What’s that worth?

Remind yourself—now I’m speaking to Europe—that you will sink or swim together; and that every thinking European thought themselves dishonored in 1453 when Constantinople fell. Repay THAT debt. Help Greece now.


Take your vacation there, that’s how. Greece is fairly cheap; it’s the finest place on earth to visit. Go to Athens. See it. Go to the islands. There’s nothing there but sun and history and superb food. And when someone says ‘You’re going to Greece? Isn’t it dangerous?’ you can smile and say ‘No. Athens isn’t burning.’

April 19th, 2012

Relativism and History

Recently, I had an argument with a friend.

My friend comes from a different culture and a different military tradition, and he told me his point of view on a set of events from the not-so-distant past. In fact, from the military history past so very recent…

…that I had been there myself.

I have written before on this bully pulpit on the Holocaust and what I think of those who deny it, but I’m coming to realize that I, as an amateur historian, am very naive about the willingness of people around me to manipulate the facts of history to suit any cause, any race, any nationality—so long as the final story is palatable. Americans, for example, prefer to pretend the Abu Graib didn’t happen—or they say, in effect ‘there must have been reasons for it.’ Well, yes, there were reasons. There were reasons why U.S. Servicemen conducted torture interrogations. But they weren’t good reasons, or moral reasons, or even vaguely necessary reasons.

Is it so hard to say ‘I was wrong?’ Is it so hard to say ‘My people were wrong?’ How about ‘The empire my forefathers and mothers created did some bad things?’

Alexander, God of War, has been out for a while now, and I can tell you that it is not popular among those who view Alexander as a cult figure in Greek and Macedonian ‘civilization.’ Apparently, even with a man who has been dead for more than two thousand years, we aren’t yet ready to say—‘He was wrong.’ We have a million excuses. Because people were different back then. The rules were different. I recently heard a person say that ‘They didn’t have morality then.’ Goodness, didn’t they? Who was that Aristotle guy, then?

A million excuses, and none of them any more valid than the ones offered for Abu Graib. Or Srebrenica.

March 19th, 2012

Why Does History Matter?

This is/was my blog for Chapters Indigo (Canada’s largest book retailer) last week.

I just wrote a nine-hundred page novel about Alexander the great—embedded in a seven book series on the dawn of what we now call the ‘Hellenistic’ period in history. Alexander died about three and a quarter centuries before Jesus was born; almost a thousand years before Mohammed was born. He lived about one hundred years after Siddhartha Buddha. And when he conquered Babylon, and rode through the streets to the great Temple there, the priests showed him texts—and weather tables—dating back another three thousand years.

Alexander’s image was the most commonly repeated image of an actual human being in the modern world. When early Christian sought an image for Jesus, they made him look like Alexander. When Julius Caesar sought for the correct image to embody valor and conquest, he looked to Alexander.

Human history is a set of stories—our stories, really—some of which are forgotten and some of which are remembered all too well. And some of which are mythologized endlessly to fit various needs—national, familial, factional. Really, it is no different from your memory of your last tiff with your partner.

Alexander was probably a monster. His pursuit of glory left a trail of blood and destruction whose effects in some places, like Afghanistan, echo to this very day. His desire to achieve—the Greeks called it a <i>pothos</i> or a divine yearning—to achieve unending glory also left us with an archetype that still resonates from Captain America to Luke Skywalker—and Anakin.

While we look at Alexander and rank him with our own conquerors and military men—and monsters—there is a danger, I think, for an historical novelist to be too much of this world. I’m a military veteran—and a former intelligence officer. I’ve met some presidents and some prime ministers, and I have, I think, a fairly clear notion of how—how, exactly—the world of diplomacy and violence interact. Is my experience valid when dealing with a king with delusions of godhood leading an army across half the world to prove he was a better man than Achilles? Is my experience of the 20th and 21st century appropriate in the Hellenistic? Is it fair for any of us to say “They were just like us?”

Let me examine two examples—slavery, and sexuality. One of the few—very few—rock solid assertions of modern society almost anywhere in the world is that slavery is wrong. Yet in the ancient world—the very world that, through Plato and Aristotle and Jesus and Mohammed and Abraham and Siddhartha, gave us our modern morality, slavery was a commonplace. And it could happen to you as easily as a mugging in a modern city. One moment you were free—pirates landed on your coast (the terrorists of their day) and off you went to a life of incredible drudgery—or degradation.

Sexuality is even more complicated (and isn’t it always?). People in the past might be taken to be just like us—they were men and women, and they had the same bodies and drives. And yet—lack of effective contraceptives and a hefty risk of death in childbirth had an effect. Men loved men and women loved women—it’s in everyone’s literature—in ways that may or may not have played out as overtly sexual. We surround ourselves with the imagery of sexuality. Did they? Why, or why not?

See? This historical writing is hard.

Luckily for all of us, there are hundreds of sources available to inform us about the Hellenistic era—from the plays of Menander, which I plundered wholesale for my book, to the music of the period, like the Seikilos Epitaph (which my family can sing in Ancient Greek—just to give you an idea what it’s like to live with research…) to the food (we eat Ancient Greek at least once a week. I learned to cook from the process.) Riding bareback with a spear in hand? Done that. Wearing armour all day in the heat of Greece? Yes. Rowing a heavy ship? Yes. Fighting with a spear and aspis? Yes, but only with my friends. Starting a fire with flint and steel—no problem.

What does it feel like to oil your body after exercise instead of having a shower? What do people do for toilet paper in 350 BCE? What do marble floors feel like under your feet? Why, exactly, did the Greeks water wine?

Why do people fight wars?

It all fascinates me, and I hope it interests you, too. Because it’s not all ‘back in the day.’ It is the story of our world, and every mistake we’ve ever made. And Alexander played a big role in it.