March in Podcasts: Slow Burn

This month, I have been mostly listening to two new podcasts for me.  The first of these is Slow Burn, a podcast from exploring aspects of the Watergate scandal.  There’s an open political agenda here – comparing the slow drip of sleazy stories from the Nixon White House to the abundance of stories coming from the Trump administration.  There’s nothing killer, no knockout against Trump (yet); but maybe this is what a scandal unfolding looks like.

600x600bbIn the days immediately after the Watergate break in, there were bizarre and disturbing stories in the news, with Martha Mitchell the wife of the Attorney General being tranquillised and imprisoned by hired goons; cheques from the break in being linked with republican donations.  Then came investigations, some stymied by Nixon.  Then the oval office tapes became known.  The information is interesting, and not necessarily in the main narrative of Watergate as it is told.  Sometimes it would be nicer to have the main narrative before spinning off on a tangent, but it should be a fresh take for even those familiar with the story.

Direct comparisons to the events surrounding Trump are made, and the many figures in the current Republican party are involved enough to not come across well.  It does steer clear of commenting too deeply however – largely limiting its analysis to presenting both governments as having a similar tendency towards chaos and sleaze.  We can’t say that Trump is going to end like Nixon, but if he was this is probably what it would look like from the sidelines.

Season two will be on the impeachment of Bill Clinton.  Not as interesting a topic for me, but Leon Neyfakh did delve into some of the unfounded conspiracy theories (mostly by Mae Brussell) on Nixon – so I have no doubt that he can do similar for Clinton.  The podcast is smooth and professionally produced, and I’m definitely happy to get more of it.



The Open Society and Its Enemies by Karl Popper (Volume 2)

Unlike Volume 1, with its focus on Plato, I’m a bit less familiar with the material here – largely Hegel and Marx – so it can be a bit hard to know how to take Popper when he goes off on one.  As ever, he’s a very convincing writer but often drifts into his own take on things.  Hegel, he doesn’t like at all – taking a view from Schopenhauer for much of it.  Popper dismisses him as a charlatan and a fraud deliberately prophesying whatever his employer Prussia wanted.  We get a bit on Aristotle too (he doesn’t much like him either).

The book improves as the author starts to tackle Marx – he doesn’t necessarily agree with him but he seems to respect the talent with which he deals with the material and the dire social situation that spurred him to do his writing.  He picks out some of the flaws in Marx’s work rather skilfully – the inability to factor in that democracy and compromise could dilute capitalism and improve life for the workers.

Where Marx like the others seemed to get caught in the predictions of his model, Popper finds a core of rationalism.  At other points though, Popper deals with issues that seem somewhat tangential or nitpicking – Marx as anti-psychologism in sociology, his views on materialism.  It’s clear that the criticisms often aren’t of Marxism as such as it became, but of the actual philosophy of Marx and this means that they occasionally feel like a contribution to an argument that no one else cares about.

Towards the end of the book Popper gets back to his familiar topic of historicism, rationalism and reason: constantly pushing for a middle ground and for the role of liberal democracy in improving a world without a plan or destiny.  It’s an enjoyable, if very uneven read.

Blood and Faith by Matthew Carr

610iwml7ual-_sx323_bo1204203200_Subtitled The Purging of Muslim Spain, journalist Matthew Carr tackles a grim subject with sympathy and subtlety.  Spain under Muslim rule is legendary for its toleration of Jews and Christians – La Convivencia.  Toleration may not be the whole story (particularly in later centuries under the Almohads and Almoravids), but after the fall of Granada in 1492 things would get a whole lot worse.  While after previous reconquests an uneasy continuation had occurred, this time the Most Catholic monarchs of Spain had something to prove.  How could Spain be a leading Christian country if so much of its population wasn’t?

First the Jews were expelled or converted, then province by province it was the turn of the moors.  Over a few decades, first Granada, then Castile, Navarre, and finally Aragon ordered the forced conversion of the population.  What then?  Can you trust a forced conversion?  The Spanish aristocracy did not, and the Moriscos (as they were known) were constantly under suspicion of being fake Christians.  Some argued for education, for integration (and Carr describes successful cases), and patience; some even argued for allowing religion tolerance; but ultimately the hard line approach won out, fuelled by revolt and a fear of collusion with Barbary pirates.

In the early 17th century the moriscos, rich or poor, fake or real Christian, were ordered out of the country.  Three hundred thousand of them, 4% of the Spanish population, were expelled.  Some found their way back eventually (having no real connection to Islamic North Africa).  Others did settle in Africa, but it was not an easy journey – with food and money quickly running out and bandits waiting at both ends to take what they could get.  The book is often quite dry, I find Spanish history to sometimes be written in a very top heavy way – with only great aristocrats, generals and priests making it – but the descriptions of Morisco life are vibrant enough to make the reaction against it seem as extreme as it was.

As Carr tells it, at one extreme it brings to mind more recent atrocities – the treatment of the Jews in the 30’s, the Armenians.  But in some ways it’s hard to see how our treatment of so called “stateless” people improved over the coming centuries.  In a chapter called “A Warning From History” Carr ends by describing how many people (even in the mainstream – Melanie Philips is picked up on) argue that Muslims cannot integrate into western society, will never belong to the countries they live in, and even describe such an “agreeable” deportation.  The book is from 2010, but it’s difficult to see how it has become less relevant in that time.

The Open Society and Its Enemies by Karl Popper (Volume 1)

This was definitely a book to have read after Donald Kagan’s work on the Peloponnesian War.  Popper attacks the ‘historicism’ and totalitarian elements within Plato’s work.  This involves a certain amount of biographical speculation about the Greek philosopher and his teacher Socrates.  We know that there was a struggle between the populist democrats and the exclusive aristocrats in Athens (as in many other Greek cities), and that Plato had an aristocratic background and many aristocratic connections.  For Popper, Plato over the course of his career changed from the democratic, compassionate views that he had learned from Socrates back to the aristocratic authoritarianism he was brought up in, and brought in some lessons from Sparta with it.

For Popper the philosopher king that Plato proposes in the Republic is a method to arrest change and promote stability at any cost, to establish and keep a hierarchical system that Plato sees himself at the top of.  In seeing history as a constant process of decline from an earlier, better, tribal society, he tries to reconstruct that society and reverse the course of history.  I’m still to read part two, but as Popper presents it this does seem to mirror the historical theories of Marxism and Nazism (history as a process of racial decline).

It’s not even handed – it’s not meant to be.  Popper wrote this during the war, when he was in little mood for compromise.  If you are willing to go with some of his assumptions about Plato’s motivations, this is a compelling book.  But despite any regrets he may have had on tone, the core idea of the book is interesting.  The same ideas and criticism have come up elsewhere in my recent reading but not quite with the same focus and force (Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism; Black Mass by John Gray targeting modern neo-liberals).  Karl Popper is a very good writer, you just have to beware of being swept along by his polemic and missing some of the holes in it.

The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan

918836To me, it always used to seem like the Peloponnesian War was forgotten between the Greek-Persian wars in the first half of the fifth century BC and the rise of Macedonia in the late fourth century.  I now realize that I was a little naive.  The Greek Persian wars and Alexander are perennially in other forms of media, but for so many historians (not to mention philosophers and classicists) this period is both well covered by historians like Thucydides and Xenophon, and crucial for the lives and politics of philosophers like Socrates and Plato.  It was also important in the mainstream culture of the time like the plays of Euripides and Sophocles.

It’s probably the sheer scale and complexity of the war that keeps it from greater status today.  There are fascinating characters – Alcibiades, Pericles, Nicias, Lysander – but few of them are involved throughout the entire war.  Like the Thirty Years War two millennia later, the Peloponnesian War is really multiple wars joined together between two large alliances or empires.  Complicating things too is Greek politics – each state had factions of both aristocrats/oligarchs and democrats, and it’s not as easy as we may think nowadays: the most prominent democratic state Athens behaved in a more domineering way to members of its alliance than the oligarchic Sparta, turning a once voluntary alliance into an Empire.  Local disputes too make things difficult, with rival cities sometimes joining one side or the other on issues closer to home.

With a potentially unfamiliar topic that covers many decades and many twists and turns, Kagan has a writing style that strikes a good balance on detail, but can be a little short of colour (he’s not as accessible as, for example, Tom Holland).  It might even be a little dry, if the events he was covering weren’t quite so explosive.  With the historical sources being largely Athenian, for the most part we do get the war from an Athenian perspective; but I would not say this makes it especially sympathetic towards the democracy.  Their aggression towards smaller starts, their infighting and their hubris is clear and no apologies are made for it.

The war comes in roughly four phases: in the first, the legendary statesman Pericles operates a defensive strategy; in the second the Athenians go on the offensive before being beaten back and signing a peace treaty.  In the third phase, Athens embarks on a farcical invasion of Sicily, leaving it embarrassed and depleted.  In the final phase, Persia joins with Sparta and after some to-ing and fro-ing defeats Athens.  Kagan is sceptical about Pericles’ strategy but admits that the offensive approach may have been worse.  He plays up the self serving and tragicomedic elements of the decision to invade Sicily, but he also finds ways for Athens to escape until the very end.  He looks critically at the sources and tries to delve read between the lines throughout.

The book isn’t short by any means; but it is an abridged version of his original four volume history written over a few decades.  I think that gets quite heavy on the sources, and would be just as focused on Athens and the same time scale, but I found myself wanting more on the aftermath for Athens as they ran through a series of short term regimes that lashed out against perceived political enemies (including the execution of Socrates).  I also found myself curious about the second rank of Greek cities – Thebes, Corinth, Argos.  It may be a measure of how important the period was (and how well Kagan writes on it) that such a detailed book can leave me hungry for so much more information.

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

the-prague-cemetery-u-ecoIn the Prague Cemetery, Eco creates a rambling book of tangents and bluffs, with the slimy Italian Captain Simonini, who makes a living throughout the nineteenth century hoaxing and forging his way through political movements and intelligence agencies in the nineteenth century – eventually culminating in the anti-semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  We learn all this from his diaries – confused and unreliable as they may be.

In research for the book Eco seems to have delved into all sorts of unsavoury sections of nineteenth century literature.  Some are obvious, some are more obscure, some are surprisingly mainstream (Alexandre Dumas, Disraeli).  He constantly seems to be saying “This actually happened.  Someone did this.  Someone wrote this.  People believed it.” and sometimes he lets his amazement overwhelm the story.  In this sense, he is at his best when he shows the borrowing, the twisting of old tropes for new audiences, the closed loops when a story is used to confirm itself.

He has covered conspiracies plenty of times before, but this does feel slightly different.  The stories feel grubbier.  The spectre of the Nazis, an eventually peak of anti-semitism, hangs over the book.  For me, it also called up Conrad’s Secret Agent with its murky world of spies, informers and anarchist bombs.  Fear of the Masons, Jesuits and satanists is there too.  All the lunatic fringes are present.  Although Eco does pull a surprise by largely steering away from The Dreyfus Affair.

At times the book can be funny, at times it can be interesting; but at other points it is difficult – it’s not just that it gets quite dry; but that it is an unpleasant read.  Some of these movements, some of these writings, feel lost in history and it’s easy to wish they would stay there.  Perhaps there’s a more general point than that, Eco’s russian agent Rachovsky (a real historical figure, most of them are in this book) sets out his case that his government don’t care for the truth of not of Simonini’s anti semitic rambling, they want to provide an enemy, a distraction.  People need someone to hate, and it is in the interests of the powerful to find groups to demonize.  Despite this gloom, I enjoyed it – it feels like one of Eco’s most purposeful books.

Citizens by Simon Schama

18370354716_2I think there are a few ways one can approach the French Revolution.  One is a biographical focus on the main characters – Schama does not do this, although he does cover Lafayette and Talleyrand in some detail.  Another is to deal with it thematically – Schama does not do this, although he deals with themes as and when they show up in the narrative.  Another still is do give a blow by blow account of the Revolution – this, for me, is what Schama does (the book is even subtitled ‘A Chronicle of the French Revolution‘).

It isn’t a light book.  Schama’s background leads him to show a particular focus on art.  The work of Jacques-Louis David is ever present.  And this pads out the book to an extreme length with detailed descriptions of the art and culture of the Ancien Regime and the Revolution.  The benefit of this is that one gets a feel for the atmosphere, the motives and the aesthetics of the participants.  The downside is that this isn’t necessarily an easy introduction to the topic – with action dispersed among lengthy commentaries on art. particularly in the early part of the book.  Some institutions just seem to pop up, while others are given solid explanations.

Another uneasy thing here for an introduction is Schama’s judgement on the Revolution.  He thinks it was a lot of violence, horror and disruption to very little benefit.  He might reluctantly admit that the focus on rights changed the direction of post-Revolutionary France, but it had little positive material benefit.  With all this focus on the personal loss and violence of the period 1789 to 1794, he doesn’t actually spent that long on the longer term effects of the revolution.  Never mind the revolutions of 1848, 1830 or Napoleon, he doesn’t even get to the Directory.

For all that, Schama does write very well and the sections on art and culture add something different, more visual, to the history of the revolution.  Maybe it doesn’t stand alone as an unbiased record, but there’s so much to the period that it would be hard to find a book of substance that does.  Perhaps, as Schama is currently on TV reworking an old Kenneth Clark BBC series, this could be thought of in similar terms as The French Revolution: A Personal View.

The Lust of Knowing by Robert Irwin

150px-for_lust_of_knowingI could have sworn that I wrote a post on Edward Said’s Orientalism last year.  Clearly I didn’t – possibly because it might court controversy, because so much has been written already on it, or because frankly I just wasn’t that familiar with Said’s source material.  I got the general thrust of the book – that Western academics, poets and politicians have misrepresented the Islamic world and used their image of it as justification for colonialism and foreign policy.

Robert Irwin is very familiar with the source material; at least for the Orientalist scholars of the title.  He begins starts this rebuttal of Said’s book by condemning his misrepresentation of these scholars.  He begins by slowly going through the history of the representation of Islam in the “West”.  In the medieval era I recognise some stories from Wonders Will Never Cease like the Vegetable Lamb or Tartary, or Ramon Llull being tempted by a woman who turns out to be disfigured by cancer and praises his piety.  Fundamentally, those medieval scholars are unfamiliar with the land, culture or religion; and as he will later point out, rather than truly seeing Muslims as “other”, they compare them to what they know: Arian heretics or Christian sects.

71ox2rjfehlAs contact was made, works were translated and writers started to travel we get the likes of Guillaume Postel – looked over by the Inquisition as more insane than heretical; with a Vatican official declaring that “though his ideas were definitely heretical ‘no one, fortunately, could possibly understand them except the author'”.  Orientalist scholars are seen as a small fringe to the mainstream, generally seen as eccentric at best.  Later, the likes of De Sacy or Hammer-Purgstall do still see Islam through the prism of their own experiences, for example seeing the Druzes as atheist revolutionaries in the Carbonari mold.  But the way Irwin presents this is relatively benign, it’s a search for a familiar reference and to understand unfamiliar cultures.  Although this had a big impact on the field of Orientalism, Irwin sees little on wider European culture.  For the most part, those who pushed for colonialism were dismissive of the scholars, and those who administered it had Greek and Roman culture as their reference rather than the work of the Orientalists.

That’s not to say that it was all sunshine and enlightenment: there are plenty of stories like “Professor Hamilton Gibb warned [James, 50s Durham lecturer]  Craig against spending time in the middle east as ‘it will corrupt your classical'”.  In Irwin’s view, the best work in the field, the work that sets its direction, was being produced by German scholars in the 19th century, or by Hungarian Jews like Goldhizer.  The British universities were moribund, and the French were mostly just following the trend.  Their views of history were also heavily informed by the cyclic rise and fall of Ibn Khaldun’s work.  Both of these are an issue for Said, who (even in corrections) saw the Germans and eastern Europeans are irrelevant.

In his chapter on the Post-war Hey Day Irwin describes carefully how Arab studies in Arab countries have lagged behind (Albert Hourani suggested that the good scholars just get jobs in the west), and so the English speaking writers continued to attempt to fill the gap. That’s not to say all Islamic scholarship has been slow – Turkey is very successful – though continuously ignored by both Said and Irwin.  He picks out politically disagreeable authors like Bernard Lewis and picks out their early work of merit: “anyone who wishes to determine Lewis’s merits as an Orientalist has to engage with (emergence of modern turkey) and other works of the sixties.”.  Or the many French orientalists who stood against French North African colonisation.  For him, Said has dismissed worthy scholars on political grounds, and ignored politically inconvenient sources.

As we get to the modern day, he tackles Said’s criticism of specialist scholars making generalist comments on parts of the Middle East outside their geographical or temporal expertise.  He justifies this by the small number of academic positions, and sheer lack of interest in the subject.  When undergraduate courses in Arabic are being closed down, and even senior positions go unfilled; it is easier for an academic to write a general piece, or claim political relevance, than it is to beg for funding for specialist topics (“Coins of the Almohads” vs “A history of the Arab Peoples”?).

Finally we reach his personal condemnation of Said.  It’s a polemic, a good polemic; he points out many of Said’s errors and Said’s poor attitude to criticism.  There is a bit of a personal attack at Said’s upbringing – wealthier and less Palestinian than later suggested – that seems unnecessary.  However, it is a pretty convincing demolition of Said’s use and understanding of the academic sources.  There’s a brief section on other “enemies”, but for the most part these are less convincing that Said and easier to dismiss (either you think the Quran is received wisdom from God, or it is not; arguments that Jews should not be studying Islam …).  Ziauddin Sardar is more interesting, but Irwin again narrows in on the detail.  Finally, he is actually quite complementary of Muhsin Mahdi – which is nice.

In the end though, it could be said that both Irwin and Said miss the point.  Irwin shows that the Orientalists themselves were often misrepresented – but he steers clear of the wider view that British and French cultural attitudes to Islam allowed their later (and current) behaviour in the Middle East and North Africa.  His book aims narrowly at clearing the academic scholars, then extrapolates this into a dismissal of Said and his followers.  Where an Orientalist is undeniably involved in Imperialist projects, Irwin sees it as an outlier; Irwin’s is a very individualist approach to the topic – everyone doing their own thing for their own reasons, wider cultural trends playing a minor role.  Said may have been ambiguous in his detail – but there’s a fundamental point about the difficulty of removing politics and cultural bias from pure academia that still stands despite Irwin’s rebuttal.

February in podcasts

This month, i have been mostly reading Umberto Eco’s Prague Cemetery (try doing that in the voice of Jesse from the Fast Show).  There are so many tangents and odd bits of history in there that I could spend as long on Wikipedia as I spent reading the book.  Podcasts help, I can read them while walking (without bumping into things). This month I caught up on Italian Unification and learned about Alexandre Dumas three times.  I also tried the remastered When Diplomacy Fails.

Zack Twamley of When Diplomacy Fails does like his big projects.  In fact he tweeted this the other day;

The Korean War: 48/48 written, 13/48 recorded.
1956: 28/33 written, 2/33 recorded.
Poland Is Not Yet Lost: 40/100? written, 0 recorded.

He does seem to manage the time better nowadays.  When I first listened to him, I found him sounding drained and tired towards the end of his Thirty Years War series.  Now, I’m working through the big project from last year – celebrating five years of the show by remastering his early episodes.  It’s actually rather good – he has removed bits that didn’t work (horrific Russian accents) and revised his opinion when he feels necessary.  Some introductions add a nice personal touch too.  The topics as ever are the selling point – a quick zip through the Spanish American War or the War of Polish Succession in a few half hour episodes quickly informs without being a commitment.

The Italian Unification podcast has also been running for almost five years; but less consistently – life commitments have meant that the pass has slowed to just five shows in the last two years, as it creeps towards the finish.  There is one more episode to go, and the topic was brilliantly relevant for the early parts of Prague Cemetery – Garibaldi, Cavour and the battle for a unified Italy.  Officially by “Talking History” (mostly Benjamin Ashwell – his brother Adam seems to have faded away from the project as it has overrun), it has polished up since I posted on its early episodes, I now like the production of the show.  It’s the content that really shines, there’s a pacy narrative, but still with plenty of detail (every time I have a question they seem to pre-emptively answer it).  I’m looking forward to it ending, but I’m also looking forward to any new projects that emerge (if they find the time).

Finally, I returned to Land of Desire for a series of episodes on three generations of Alexandre Dumas.  I still find the tone of the show a bit uneven.  The exasperation at Napoleon’s resentment of Dumas (grandpère?) worked but the show occasionally hinted at a more general criticism of racism in 19th century France, and I was disappointed to find that never emerged (especially as the treatment of anti-semitism in her Dreyfus podcast was rather good).  I’ve been spoilt by Mike Duncan’s Haitian Revolution, so that the colonial relations seemed slightly shallow in comparison.  The two more famous Dumas were interesting enough in their way, but never going to be quite as exciting a narrative.  I still don’t love this podcast, but some of the topics are good – I think I’ll be dipping in and out of this one for a while.

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

I recently read Wonders Will Never Cease by Robert Irwin and very much enjoyed it.  One of the most striking tales from it (possibly second only to the one about the housebreaker and the tortoise) is that of the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary.  I’m now reading Irwin’s history of Orientalist scholarship, The Lust of Knowing, and the story reoccurs.  Thus I feel compelled to share this strange idea with anyone who hasn’t heard it.

220px-vegetable_lamb_28lee2c_188729In medieval tales, the Vegetable Lamb or Scythian Lamb or Barometz is a plant-animal hybrid that lives in central Asia, or Russia, or perhaps the Black Sea area near Persia.  It consists of a lamb that is rooted to the earth by a umbilical cord like stem.  The lamb can flex this stem such that is can eat grass in the immediate circle around it, but is prevented from moving beyond that and must then either starve or drop off the plant as a ripened sheep (sources seem divided as to which one; or perhaps just generally confused).


The story really came to public attention in the fourteenth century with the tales of Sir John Mandeville (whoever he may have actually been) and the travelogues of various friars.  As late as 1683, a German doctor called Engelbert Kaempfer would search for the lamb in Persia, before reasonably deciding that it was a myth, possibly due to some local farming practices.

Wikipedia quotes some priceless poetry on the topic:

E’en round the Pole the flames of love aspire,
And icy bosoms feel the secret fire,
Cradled in snow, and fanned by Arctic air,
Shines, gentle borametz, thy golden hair
Rooted in earth, each cloven foot descends,
And round and round her flexile neck she bends,
Crops the grey coral moss, and hoary thyme,
Or laps with rosy tongue the melting rime;
Eyes with mute tenderness her distant dam,
And seems to bleat – a vegetable lamb

Erasmus Darwin, The Botanic Garden

For in his path he sees a monstrous birth,
The Borametz arises from the earth
Upon a stalk is fixed a living brute,
A rooted plant bears quadruped for fruit,
…It is an animal that sleeps by day
And wakes at night, though rooted in the ground,
To feed on grass within its reach around

Demetrius De La Croix, Connubia Florum, Latino Carmine Demonstrata

Back in reality, the legend seems to be perhaps rooted (!) in an old Jewish text, or perhaps a misunderstanding of cotton fibres or even due to a furry looking Asian fern – Cibotium barometz.  Answers may also be available for the Barnacle Goose (or Bernacle), but there’s only so much of this I can take in one sitting.