Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Mansions in a Cluster

Finally, when all capital, all production, all exchange have been brought together in the hands of the nation, private property will disappear of its own accord, money will become superfluous, and production will so expand and man so change that society will be able to slough off whatever of its old economic habits may remain.
     [Friedrich Engels, Principles of Communism, Section 18, link]

The definition of “communism” as a social system based on collective ownership predates Engels’ writings by a few years, but in Engels’ hands that thought is expressed in a much more fulsome manner.

Today’s “The New York Times Magazine” features a brief article with pictures titled “Let A Hundred McMansions Bloom.” The big spread shows more than 60 huge mansions clustered tightly together in a relative small wooded area near Shanghai. The mansion all look alike; to be sure, some have red and some have grey roofs. The biggest cost around $1.5 million and have 6,300 square feet. Roughly half are as yet unsold, others are used as second homes. This link might work to show the picture.

This reminded me that at right regular intervals one must make a conscious effort to redefine the meaning of words when applied to specific situations. It’s certainly erroneous to speak of China as a “communist” country merely because it is ruled by an elite that calls itself the Communist Party.

Some years ago now, when we were looking for a new house in the general area where we live now, we encountered a very similar development. The mansions, to be sure, ranged in price from $500,000 to about $1.2 million. They were tightly packed, cheek to jowl. These were virtually all occupied so that we saw lots of people. They were predominantly of East Indian backgrounds. Curious.

The longer I live, the more the world morphs—perhaps to make departure much less painful, I suppose.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

What’s New at the Local Store

The organization called Moms Demand Action has been running an ad attacking Kroger for permitting shoppers to carry a gun while also demanding that shoppers at least wear a T-shirt before entering the store. The ad features the picture of a shirtless man and a woman holding something like an Uzi. The text beneath says: “Attention Shoppers: Kroger won’t let you insides its stores without a shirt. So why would they allow this loaded gun?” To be sure, despite decades of shopping at Kroger, I’ve yet to see anyone carrying a gun. But this ad campaign makes me imagine the future. In the future it may become mandatory to carry a gun—and to wear a T-shirt too…

At CVS yesterday I noted the roll-out of that chain’s new policy. CVS no longer sells tobacco products. However. However, the shelves behind the front counter—where cigarettes, cigars, and pipe tobacco were sold until just recently—positively brim with nicotine products. Now the source of nicotine is by and large tobacco. Therefore CVS’ claims to be tobacco free are not strictly speaking true. Another however. It is that those nicotine products, while actually delivering the goods, are very expensive.

The End of Time, however, will not dawn until Russia embraces Prohibition—and bans tobacco. Meanwhile, let’s chew some nicotine gum.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Two Laws

My theme today is difficult to formulate because it deals with “laws” that are genuine enough but are not laws we can test using the kinds of experiments that yield reliable Law of Nature. Today I’m interested in two such laws, one in the economic and one in the international sphere. When the laws are violated, chaos tends to be the inevitable result.

An Economic Law

The economic law I have in mind is that just societies require a balance between freedom and its constraint. Freedom is to let people do. Constraint must come from government. If the organized power is abused, all but a relatively small portion of the population will become impoverished. If free markets are abused, all but a relatively small portion of the population will become impoverished as well because Monopoly will become a genuine fact of life. Rightly defined, monopoly is simply excessive power in the hands of a few. For this reason widespread economic inequality is a form of monopoly.

We are now violating that law because government is becoming an instrument of economic power—rather than its regulator. As a consequence of that, we’re witnessing the formations of classes that combat with one another. The sense of social unity, not surprisingly, is fraying quite visibly—even at the neighborhood level. Cracks are appearing all over the place. Calling them ethnic or racial is an altogether secondary phenomenon. The family is beginning to fail as an institution. Deadlocks are appearing everywhere—and when resolved are resolved only temporarily.

Income inequality is measured by the Gini coefficient. It stood at 0.397 in 1967 and at 0.477 in 2012 as measured at the household level—a 20 percent increase. A Gini of zero represents total equality; therefore the higher the ratio the greater the inequality. The U.S. is one of the more unequal economies in the world. The decline of families is illustrated by the drastic decline in the proportion that married-couple families with children represent among total households. That number was 40.3 percent in 1970 and 19.6 percent in 2012. By contrast, households with children headed by single adults were 10.6 percent of households in 1970, 17.8 percent in 2012. Two thirds of these households are headed by women.

A sign of fraying unity is the militarization of police—almost as if new borders are springing up inside the United States.

An International Law

The law I have in mind here is that sovereignty ought to be restricted to definable geographical territories. This means that nations should defend their territories, not their interests. Interests are almost impossible to define precisely enough to implement a policy of defending them coherently. Such is clearly the case today when I view the American reaction of the Islamic State’s expansions from Syria into Iraq. It does not threaten U.S. territory in any real sense. The only real solution would be to incorporate Syria and Iraq into the U.S. domain by outright conquest. And doing so would violate other long standing international laws.

The shift in the use of our national military—from defense of our borders to the pursuit of such intangibles as “national interest” matches our equipping local police with armored vehicles and the like domestically.

I wonder where these deviations from sensible obedience to visible laws will lead. I can extend the trends I see into the future by imagination—absent any genuinely effective and forceful reform—such as those, for instance, that Teddy Roosevelt undertook to curb the power of the trusts. The scenario that urges recognition is the separation of the United States into independent regions. Will that eventually take place? I think yes—unless we manage to “reinvent” the concept of governance somehow before the shatter takes an effective hold.

As for the international problem of trying to be the United States of the Globe, that effort, I fear, will have to wait until we’ve managed put our house in order again. And once that happens, we’ll probably be happy just to defend our borders.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Sticking to Fundamentals

In a recent conversation, someone said: “Now as for the international news, who can possibly make any sense of that?”

This morning I noted, once more, anguish in the media over weak GDP numbers in Europe, with Germany, France, and Italy all showing negative growth. Angela Merkel is blamed and quoted as saying something like: “How long can you keep on going if you spend more than you take in?” That stance of hers is labeled as “austerity”; austerity, in turn, is turning into a four-letter word. But what Merkel is saying makes pretty good sense to me.

My own typical response to such questions is always to look at fundamentals. The comfort to be gained from that is minimal. One can see the picture clearly, but as for “What can be done?” the answer is almost always “Virtually nothing.” And in large part that is because nobody actually wants to look at fundamentals (except perhaps Angela Merkel) or is willing to do anything about it. The phenomena in question are also produced by such huge collectives that “doing something” is largely impossible; even very large collectives, like the United States, lack the means—often because of internal conflicts.

My reaction to the Growth Tremors in Europe are presented briefly on LaMarotte (link). As for the international news—by which the speaker was addressing the ISIS phenomenon in Syria and Iraq and the tug-of-war in the Ukraine—a look at fundamentals once more produces clear but unsatisfying answers. Unsatisfying? Yes. They displease those operating under a delusion that something like Progress is the benevolent penumbra under which civilization is unfolding and that the United States is its leading superintendent.

I’ve yet to see my view of the ISIS problem echoed anywhere. It is that this attempt to establish a caliphate is just another no doubt passing event in a much broader cultural transformation of the Muslim world which would be going on even if Europe had never risen to world power and America had never been discovered. Thus it is an internal cultural battle, akin to a Reformation. A decadent Muslim world is in upheaval. The reason why we are so powerfully drawn to interfere with it is the coincidence that a major portion  of the (slowly disappearing) oil resources of the world are more or less controlled by Muslim countries. Therefore, under the guise of bringing Democracy to the heathen, we are trying to control developments in a region that is impelled by much deeper cultural forces to undergo a major change.

As for the Ukraine, it is simply a fact that Russia will never tolerate what is a fundamentally hostile culture—Western Capitalism—to take a firm footing on its very border—and a border largely populated on both sides by ethnic Russians. Russia’s reaction is quite fundamental. And Russia is large and strong enough—and Capitalism way too distracted—to produce a solution by appeals to abstract principles.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Admiring the New Gutters

An as yet unmentioned bonus of our move to the West was the acquisition of a Gazebo in our now rather extensive back yard. I show it here complete with its iron goose which, striving so very hard to fly even further to the west-north-west, has bent the pole to which it is, alas, attached—like those folks in Plato’s cave (here). With time now beginning to free up here and there, and yesterday having been a rather glorious late August day, Brigitte and I were sitting about in the new Gazebo when Michelle, who had been busy painting our upstairs bathroom, came out to see what we were all about.

Brigitte sat in what was a rather meditative pose, looking up and toward the house. Michelle asked: “What are you looking at?” “I’m admiring the new gutters,” Brigitte said—and there was, you might say, just the hint of a catch in her throat. We all laughed—fully grasping the feeling.

Admiring the Gutters from the Gazebo. The full story herewith. Some things you do not experience until you’ve lived in a house for a while. In our case it was the fact that when it rained water accumulated on the long, long drive from one end of the house to the garage—and stayed there forming what we’d come to call Lake Wolverine II, a very irritating if tiny cousin of the much more majestic Lake Wolverine nearby. One simply couldn’t go to the garage without wearing the equivalent of rubber boots—and our little lake would hang around hours after the sun had already come out again. Why this phenomenon? This house, like many others hereabouts, didn’t have gutters. Therefore, in the process of adaptation, and making our new house really ours, we’ve had new gutters installed earlier this week. Needless to say, it hasn’t rained a drop since; we’ve been joking that it might never—what with the North Central Region’s most severe historic drought having just begun the moment our gutter folks departed. Well, it looks now like it might rain after all, come Saturday or Sunday. And the longed-for test of the new gutters is approaching. We hope that they will have put an end to Lake Wolverine II. If not, more expenses are ahead to straighten out the concrete’s unfortunate slope. And maybe not. Hope never dies.

Friday, August 22, 2014

From MAR to POI

A month and two weeks have passed since we made our move West to what might be called the Lake District adjoining Metro Detroit. It took that long since, yesterday, I braved an awesome traffic circle (a new one, and they’re very popular on new roads around here) to find our new library, formally the Commerce Township Community Library or, in modernese, CTCL. CTCL is associated to something that calls itself the The Library Network (TLN), made up of 65 regional libraries that, together, share a common catalog. The catalog is much more complicated and, initially, more difficult to use. The advantage is that one can order books from a rather large number of libraries and, patience playing its role, have it delivered at the nearest one to us.  That practice, Brigitte reminds me, is called an ILL, an inter-librart loan. I noted, this morning, that the larger libraries in our region, of which the Grosse Pointe System is one, do not participate in TLN. Nor does the most serious near one, the Southfield Public Library, an awesome library known to me because our offices once were near there. Alas.

A while back we spent a couple of weeks here at Monique’s “house sitting” for a spell. At that time, about a year or so ago, I noticed that the CTCL had had its DVD collection interfiled with books. Such an arrangement produces major problems, of course. Most films, do not have “authors” in the strict sense of the word. I did manage to find some of the Agatha Christy DVDs under C for Christy (or was it under A for Agatha? I forget.) In any case, I told Brigitte at the time that should we ever move West, I’d certainly volunteer to organize the Commerce films using separate shelves. Little did I suspect the problems I might encounter doing so.

Well, it turns out, they’ve actually done that job in the meanwhile. Some free space (and the library is pleasantly roomy) has now been equipped with shelves; all of the movies are now together. The classification system is by the title of the movie—which makes good sense. Commerce evidently uses the Concourse system, in use for a couple of decades by now and offered by BookSystems. Evidently the Grosse Pointe Library also uses the same classification approach; it too, like this one has made me wonder and shake my head. If you look for Agatha Christy movies, for example, and go to the letter C, you won’t see anything appropriate. By title, please, always by title. Looking for a Dorothy Sayers DVD? If you look under S  for Sayers you won’t find that worthy lady—but you might find Strong Poison—and Gaudy Night under G. Sometimes, however, given the interpretation applied by the librarian using the Concourse system, you actually might discover all of Sayers’ or Ruth Rendell’s DVDs together—because the largest name, on the cover of the DVD, will be the author’s name, not the title of the particular story. So it was in Grosse Pointe on some, but by no means all, such series.

Here at Commerce, Agatha Christy DVDs, clustered powerfully around Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, may be found under MAR for the lady and POI for the gentleman. But, at this stage, my research is far from over. Where, for instance are Tommy & Tuppence? Are they under TOM or TUP?

Monday, August 18, 2014


A possible consequence of moving—even if it is only roughly 50 miles away from where we were—is that the television channels available to us also change. To be sure, such a change has to do with the cable of satellite carrier, which is another major complication. In any case, moving here to the western edge of Metro Detroit, we discovered that we suddenly have access to two Public Broadcasting System channels. One of these is the familiar WTVS, the Detroit Public TV. The other one turned out to be a channel known as WCMU. For the first time ever we have two public stations to view—and the changes in programming were interesting. It took a while before we found the time and energy to research what exactly WCMU is. The CMU stands for Central Michigan University. CMU owns the channel and transmits programs in five northern Michigan locations: Alpena, Cadillac, Manistee, Flint, and Mt. Pleasant; the last is the location of CMU itself. Mt. Pleasant has a population of 26,000 and CMU an enrollment, at its campus, of 20,000 students. I assume that students do not count as part of the population; another nearly 7,000 students are enrolled at other locations operated by CMU in distant places.

The programming of our urban DPTV (Channel 56) differs significantly from that of CMU’s (Channel 28). CMU’s is divided roughly evenly between subject matter designed to appeal to a more rural population (a touch more religious, heavier on northern Michigan places and events, and much more likely to feature country music and especially blue grass). DPTV is much more urban in its coverage. 56 is now (again) doing heavy fundraising; the frequency of these campaigns appears to be every other month. Meanwhile WCMU, during this same time, has no rude interruptions of programming—one reason why we’ve gotten to know it.

As a byproduct of our search of WCMU’s identity, a subject arose one tends not to think much about. We managed rapidly to discover the meaning of the letters CMU—but not of the meaning of that W. I knew—in some forgotten corner of my memory—that the W is something arbitrary, thus having no inherent relation to the letter itself. It turns out that that W is ultimately traceable to Geneva, Switzerland. Here is why:

The International Telecommunications Union (founded in 1865) is headquartered there. The ITU manages call signs, as these things are called, for all the countries of the world. The United States has been assigned the letters AAA through ALZ, KAA-KZZ, NAA-NZZ, and WAA-WZZ. Entirely at its own option, the United States, while possessing, does not use the leading letters A or N. It uses K for all stations west of the Mississippi and W for all stations east of the Mississippi. Arbitrary is the right word! You’d have thought that it would have gone the other way at least, with W meaning “west of Old Man River.” No, sir. W here stands for east.

I expect it will take us about three years to forget this again. Until then this post will be here as an equally forgotten reminder…

But WCMU is worth watching—if you’ve kind of soured on urban sophistication.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

“Supermoon” Corrected

More accurately, my own calculations corrected. Last year (here) I gave some data on the recurrence of supermoons, better known, certainly in past times, as Perigree Moons. Peri means near; a Perigree Moon is therefore a full moon at a time when the moon is closest to the earth in its ever-so-slightly-elliptic path. I said at the time that Supermoons recur at 14 months intervals—and added “thus roughly every 378 days.” Now that number is clearly wrong.

The last Supermoon came on June 23, 2013. Today is the date of another. The distance in time between those two dates is 413 days. What I did wrong was to multiply 14 by 27, which equals 378. I was using the number of days the moon orbits the earth, but rounded. The actual time for that is 27.3 days. StarDate reports, however, as follows (link):

The Moon takes 27.3 days to orbit Earth, but the lunar phase cycle (from new Moon to new Moon) is 29.5 days. The Moon spends the extra 2.2 days “catching up” because Earth travels about 45 million miles around the Sun during the time the Moon completes one orbit around Earth.

That “catching up” phrase is perhaps a way of avoiding the task of explaining that the 27.3 day measurement is a measurement relative to the stars (called sidereal time) whereas the 29.5 day measurement is a measurement relative to the sun (called synodic time). Synodic time is slightly greater than sidereal time due to small changes in the earth’s and moon’s rotation over what might be called absolute time.

In any case if we multiply 14 months by 29.5 days, then we get a 413 day interval between Supermoons.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Wood and the Crick

When uprooting of a household after a quarter of a century, things are set in motion. Life because very physical. Everything’s always displaced. Where is my knife? That knife lived in a cup on my desk for decades, used only every now and then. It is a great knife, mind you, a gift from my sister Susie—she who still remembered that a pocket knife’s a great gift for a male. Now that knife has been used on countless boxes and lost twice or three times every day. And where’s the tape? It was here just moments ago.

In midst of such turbulence, one depends on luck—and prays to St. Anthony of Padua, patron saint of finding things. Quite often, during this busy time, luck was with us, sometimes even quite amazing luck—and we would be knocking on wood. That happened again yesterday, and then we got to wondering about the origin of that phrase: “Touch wood” or “Knock on wood”—accompanied by the action.

Wikipedia calls such an action apotropaic, thus a warding-off gesture. Things get very complicated here. We knock on wood when good things happen. So what are we warding off? Well, the opposite of the good. We don’t want to claim the good as our possession, as our right. Arrogance is punished; the good may be taken away again. Therefore we knock on wood. But why are we knocking on wood? Wikipedia has the answer to that as well. It tells me that the phrase may point back to a time when people believed in benevolent tree spirits, nymphs. The Greek word for those creatures is dryads. And that word itself comes from “oak.”

The ordinary human heart is humble. It’s quite naturally so. We don’t really believe that we deserve good luck, that we merit it in any way. We acknowledge that such things are gifts from a higher source. An old friend of mine, Joe Dennis, used to say quite frequently: “Good willing and the crick don’t rise.” Apotropaic sounds too academic in such contexts. The root of touching wood was no doubt giving thanks to the wood nymphs—rather than to our egos—and hoping that the Dryads agree. The Arabs say Isha’Allah, meaning “God willing,” just like my old friend. Back then I didn’t know that phrase. Things change over time. We were fighting communism then, in Vietnam of all places. And the crick was actually rising then. I also discovered, by the way, that the Arabs also knock on wood, just like we do: “duqq al-khashab.”

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Westward Transit

With a feeling quite akin to anxiety—but nudged to do so by Brigitte—I can now report that our move, last referred to on June 4 (here) has now been completed except for the “closing ceremonies” on the sale of our old home, which still lie about a week ahead. Brigitte’s views are that now, what with a “new normal” gradually taking hold, some of the old normal, thus blog entries, should also be part of life again. Therefore…

We moved clean across the metro area from its eastern edge marked by Lake Saint Clair and, across her waters, Canada to the western region of Oakland County, not far from Ann Arbor, a region of countless little and big lakes. Ours is Wolverine Lake—but ours is surrounded by others: Loon Lake to the west of us, Mud Lake and Walled Lake to the south, Hawk Lake to the east, and Bass, Commerce, and Reed Lake to the north of us. Not surprisingly, perhaps, around here the street terrain has a European character. There is no real grid in any sense of the word. Main arteries that generally move in one of the map directions don’t do it in straight lines but resemble, rather, the paths of donkeys going from one to the next visible cactus. The environment is almost rural here—and my sidewalk edger, acquired not very long ago, is, still in a shiny state, probably entering its early retirement. No sidewalks here—but there are bicycle trails—and view of water, sky, and swans galore—yes, even from my current office, looking out the window; but I do have to roll back in my chair a little bit on this very blond and mutedly shiny hardwood floor…

We bought this house on May 30—and sold our old residence exactly the day before we planned to put it on the market. We view that event as miraculous—and bow our heads even thinking about it.

The move itself was a challenging experience, at our age, and therefore occasion for observing that one is called upon to learn even when approaching the last days when, as Tolkien’s tales have it, one is moving West. The challenge would have been impossible for us but for the massive assistance that reached us: All of our children came to help—as did my brother Baldy and Peggy his wife, and in the last week and counting, two of our grandchildren, Malcolm and Henry. What we left behind, most notably, from our family perspective, are the following words still written in chalk on the brick of the old house:

In large letters:
In smaller letters adjoining that AND:


Generations come and generations pass. The one constant is change. It is very nice when one big change has come and gone and one settles down to await the next one down the line…

Friday, June 20, 2014

Sneakers, Sandals, Slippers, Shoes?

It appears to me that the Department of Defense will soon be engaged in a redefinition exercise, this time relating to footwear. In George Orwell’s novel, 1984 (ah, those were the days), one perfectly respectable occupation for scribblers was rewriting history so that it was always in line with political orthodoxy. Similarly, these days, it would seem equally respectable to redefine things in order to adjust reality to the pronouncements of our highest leadership.

The other day President Obama pronounced that he will not put American boots on the ground in Iraq. Okay. Got that. Today, however, we are told that some 300 American “advisers” will be arriving in Iraq. They will be divided into teams of 12 each and stationed with Iraqi army units at various levels, suggesting that some at least will be very close to sites of actual armed combat.

And this calls for definitional changes. The simplest would be to rename “boots on the ground” “shoes on the ground.” No boots—the President said so. But combat shoes might be permissible. The other way might be to make a distinction between “advisers” and “soldiers”; under this definition, “adviser boots” are okay, but “soldier boots” are not. Another way to match fact to policy might be to issue sneakers, sandals, or (fortified) slippers to the 300 advisers so that “no boots on the ground” would become irrelevant.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Brasil v. Brazil

It took us some time before the contrasting spelling of Brazil—always rendered with a Z on the Canadian Broadcasting Company, whose coverage we’re lucky enough to watch but with an S when we see actual local names of Brazil spelled out.

A quite complete and persuasive discussion of this difference, with very nice illustrations, also comes from Canada, this time Uma Nota, which happens to be a music blog about Brazilian music. Here is the link.

It turns out that the original name comes from the Portuguese pau brasil, brazilwood, a reddish-hued tree (Caesalpinia echinata). But that word, brasil, could be and was also spelled brazil, all depending on the mood of the speller, not only in foreign lands but also by writers (or typesetters) in Portuguese—even on currency. The official change, Uma Nota informs me, came in 1945 when a Portuguese and Brazilian commission set the formal rules for the Portuguese spelling of words. We, meanwhile, clung to Brazil.

We are among a minority—with Hungarians (Brazilia) and Bosnians (Brazil). The Germans say Brasilien, the French Brésil, the Spanish Brasil, the Italians Brasile. So where does that Z get its original roots? Well, the original name of Brazil, based on the earliest Portuguese records, was Terra da Santa Cruz, thus Land of the Holy Cross. That Z from the cross keeps hanging in there at least in some languages.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Letters in the News

Strikes me as interesting, if nothing else, that just days after a general called SISI was sworn in as President of Egypt a group called ISIS has overrun northern Iraq and now threatens Baghdad.

Such is my weariness of endless civil wars—or such is the poor quality of normal reporting in the media—that I had never heard of ISIS until Mosul had fallen to them. Now I learn that this group controls, more or less, significant sections of Syria and that its acronym derives from the translation of a name in Arabic, literally Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but “the Levant” is translated as “Syria,” hence ISIS. These complications caused some interesting sputtering on the PBS News Hour by one of the anchors, telling me that they had not been all that familiar with this would-be emirate themselves.

The aggressive advance of ISIS is developing into a new uproar in this country, with some people sounding like they’re about to blame President Obama for loosing the glories won in battle by President Bush.

I would suggest calming down. We have something neither the Egyptians nor the Arabs have. We call it the MISSISSIPPI. If only we could relax, the Old Man would just keep rolling along.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Two-Faced Monger

Tinker, Tailor
Manager, Dealer
Merchant, Trader
Monger, Manger.
Eight I hold here in my mitt
But one of them just doesn’t fit.

In one of our MyWord games the other day Brigitte gave me FISHMONGER. The word came from one of her many, many word-lists, but later she discovered that Michael Gilleland had posted the picture of a lovely vase showing a fishmonger on Laudator (link) earlier that day. Nice coincidence—and then discussion. That word is still in circulation, obviously, but when was the last time we’ve heard anyone say, heading out to Kroger or to Ace Hardware, that he or she was going to visit the fishmonger or ironmonger. In such contexts a monger is a seller, dealer, merchant, or trader.

I concluded that a different use of the word—in the political sphere—as in warmonger or scaremonger, would be much more common. Brigitte was not so sure. Well, these days, Google Ngrams (a facility that tracks the usage of words in print back to 1800) can resolve disputes. Turned out that Brigitte’s hunch was better. In 2000, both fishmonger and ironmonger were much more used in print than warmonger. But the meaning in the latter case is more akin to “promoter,” “activist,” or agent provocateur.

Monger comes from the Latin mango, meaning salesman and, especially, slave-dealer. I got curious about other words with a similar spelling, like manager and merchant. Manager has its roots in the Latin for hand, manus. Our own usage comes from the Italian maneggiare, meaning to handle, particularly a horse.  Merchant derives from the Latin mercatus, thus the market, trade, and such. Last and definitely least, I got to wondering if “manger” has some linkage to “monger.” The two words are spelled almost the same way. Furthermore, we link manger so closely to Christian origins, we tend to overlook its actual function: presenting fodder to our beasts. And yes. That is the origin. It comes from the Old French for mangier, “to eat,” to which the suffix -oire was added (mangeoire). The suffix signifies some kind of implement or device: eating-thing, eating-device—the word, in my revised nursery rhyme, which doesn’t fit.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Birth and Expansion of Islam

In the now accepted version, the Western Roman Empire ceased in 476 when a 16-year old emperor, Romulus Augustus, ruling the West, more or less, from Ravenna in Italy, was pushed from the throne by a Germanic conqueror. 476 also, therefore, by convention, marks the beginning of the Middle Ages. Not quite a century (95 years) later, Mohammed was born in distant Mecca in 570. The fastest travel in those days was by horse. The distance between Ravenna and Mecca is just shy of 3,500 miles. In those days, when someone could travel about 30 miles a day, the trip by land (through Italy, the Balkans, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq) would have required 4 months. Today, by car, assuming 400 miles per day, it would take about nine days.

I show the map here, linking Ravenna and Mecca, by way of making more viscerally tangible the geographical aspects of a nascent Islam and the Christianity attempting to establish itself on the lands once covered by the Roman might. When Mohammed had turned 40, he experienced a religious revelation (610). Islam came into being and then began to spread with extraordinary energy. Its rise, viewed from the various centers of an already fragmenting Christendom, would have been experienced as a threat—like a great Green Hand reaching up, out of the south, and trying clasp Christendom in its grasp. It almost happened, but not quite. Virtually all of the Byzantine Empire, however, eventually fell ultimately to the Ottomans; they reached the gates of Vienna in Austria and controlled all of Syria, the Levant, and North Africa. And an earlier conqueror, the Umayyad Caliphate, took Iberia and held it to the Pyrenees—venturing north of there as well foiled in this attempt by Charles Martel in the Battle of Tours close to the center of France in 732. This Muslim expansion was a genuine and lasting aspect of the Middle Ages, in part, if only in part, triggering the Age of the Crusades, of which the first began in 1096—and, indeed bringing the Middle Ages to an official end when the Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453 and then began to continue expanding north.

I’ve attempted to render an image of that Green Hand in the map of Europe that follows. The coloration is entirely mine and shows, overlaid, the conquests of Mohammed, the Rashidun and succeeding caliphates who followed him, and finally the Ottoman conquests which brought Islam to Vienna’s gates.

The next two maps are the sources I used to produce the composite. The first shows the territories conquered by Mohammed (darkest, 622-633), by the Rashidun (meaning “the righteous”) Caliphs (reddish, 632-661) and by the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750).  Note that Turkey has not yet been fully overrun.

The second map shows the Ottoman Empire  at its greatest extent—with dates given in the legend. Note that during Ottoman times Spain had already been recovered and Moroccan lands held by the Umayyads had also been lost; but Turkey and the Balkans, in the East, had fallen to the Muslim conqueror.

The timeline of the incomplete embrace of Europe by Islam shows the successive conquests by Mohammed and then the caliphates which followed it. All of these held roughly the same territories of Arabia, the Levant, West Asia, Egypt, and North Africa—be they Sunni or Shia, as the Fatimid Caliphate was. The Umayyads, the second, extended its power to include Spain and Portugal; the last, the Ottoman, managed to capture Turkey and also made itself, de facto, the successor of the Byzantine, reaching far to the north.

If we date things from Mohammed’s revelation, thus from 610, the very rapid expansion of this faith is illustrated. Less than a quarter century later, Muslims had seized Syria and the Levant, a core part of the Byzantine realm. Just a tad over a century later Iberia fell into Muslim hands. But what with the Byzantine already separated from the West by the Great Schism, it took nearly 500 years from the date of the revelation to the first call it culture-wide response to develop in the West. That was the First Crusade. It was—like most of the crusades—a bloody awful thing. After the holy warriors managed to take Jerusalem, they slaughtered all Jews and Muslims captured. The Jews had been among Jerusalem’s most energetic and determined defenders—and their time had come.

I am only showing the dates for the First, Fourth, and supposed last “major” crusade, sometimes called the Seventh, Eighth, or Ninth. Different campaigns of that so-called last one were given extra numbers. But it was not by any means the last. Tedious counting produces the following counts. Nine major crusades. Wedged in between these were four others. Following the Ninth came nine others of which the last, called in 1487, was actually aimed some Christian heretics, the Waldensians located in an Alpine region between France and Italy. The crusades, with their religious aura, rapidly became a cover for any kind of war in the Middle Ages—whatever its real motives were. The institutional arrangements of that period gave princes leave to levy new taxes in support of crusades—and the institution, if one can call it that, fell into the devil’s hands right from the outset. I date the Fourth Crusade because it featured the capture of Christian Constantinople by Christian arms—and by this conquest it sealed in 1204 by arms what had begun in 1096 as the Great Schism by an exchange of excommunications.  

As already noted, the major impact of the new Muslim faith—the expansion of which was, initially, northward—fell on the Byzantine Empire and Spain. Both were, viewed from the North or from the center of Western Europe somewhat distant. The Byzantine had already begun to unravel thanks to pagan invasions and internal feudal fragmentation. In the West the enclosing thumb of the Muslim advance never effectively reached beyond Spain. The Byzantine Empire’s core, which was Turkey, resisted the first wave of attacks. Turkey fell, in the end, of internal conflict and warfare with the West had already essentially dismembered the Byzantine for the Ottomans harvest. The West resisted more successfully—although, as usually, the Muslim armies eventually covered its eastern edge, my own place of birth.

Meanwhile, in the West, people were living in “interesting times.”  The unity between state and religion, experienced under Charlemagne, was breaking apart locally as unity had also been sacrificed to the Great Schism. The Papacy entered its Babylonian Captivity in Avignon. The population suffered from a combination of the Little Ice Age and distractions like the Black Death (which, per Barbara Tuchman, in her magnificent history, The Distant Mirror, “killed an estimated one third of the population living between India and Iceland” (p. xiii). Europe also endured the threats of Genghis Khan. The Muslim pressure was just one of many. And with the fourteenth century already, the early light of the Renaissance was beginning to paint the edge of the horizon.

The two aspects of the rise of Islam that most fascinate me is the energy it released down there in the deserts of Arabia with a quite different, simpler, but very genuine religious ethos. It transformed regions that had long simply endured in a kind of same-old-same-old decadence. The other aspect is that the Christian-Muslim clash—which still endures today, albeit “crusade” now has a new name—is a wondrous illustration of how different cultures form, almost synchronistically in this case, and inevitably must sort themselves out. The process is still underway. Looking back at its beginnings in the Middle Ages, we are looking at a distant, but not very distant mirror. The words changes but the actions beneath them remain unmistakably the same. To be sure, when looking back, we see our faces in some macabre distortion. That was still us—even though the glass is colored darkly.
Map of Muslim Caliphates’ territories is from Wikipedia (link) and the map of the Ottoman landholdings, also from Wikipedia (link).

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