Tag Archives: history

Trends Don’t Indicate Superior Content

The foreword to J. H. Elliott’s famous book on Spanish history, Imperial Spain, has an absolutely fabulous observation:

“I am naturally delighted that, in spite of this, Imperial Spain is still considered worthy of being reprinted. If written today it would obviously be a very different, although not necessarily a better, book.”

This comes right after Elliott speaks extensively on the current trends in historiography. He pointed out that these largely originated with the rather Marxist Annales school which tended to focus on what was frequently dubbed as mentalités. 

The idea was that we could know more about history by talking about the social, cultural, and mental histories of people rather than political and historic events that may have only had a short term impact. From the Wikipedia, you can also see a fabulous summary on the “precepts” of the Annales school of thought:

“[Annales historians] relegated the sensational to the sidelines and was reluctant to give a simple accounting of events, but strived on the contrary to pose and solve problems and, neglecting surface disturbances, to observe the long and medium-term evolution of economy, society and civilisation.” (Wikipedia)

No doubt, this school of thought has had a very lasting influence on how the West likes to engage history to this day. Indeed, we have now created entire departments focused on telling the histories and trends of specific identities — gender studies, LGBTQ studies, women’s studies, Asian studies, etc. — and every historian is always striving to deconstruct the roles of a place. Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear some historian muse about “late 19th century Turkish mental asylums as intersectional places” or how early 20th century North Africa experienced a process of racialization under French colonization.

You could also view the trend in doing entire historical overviews of a single product as not dissimilar. Histories about tobacco or salt as similar means of telling grandiose social histories through the lens of some history of trade.

Elliott’s position of different eras writing different books (and none of them being necessarily better) is very astute.

No matter what decision we make, there are shortcomings to it. Just as such, the perspectives that we choose to take on history merely reveal our own biases and shortcomings in different ways while perhaps doing a much better job than previous generations at telling an overlooked part of the story.

These aspects play to certain strengths and weaknesses…

Is it really better? Some people would have you believe so but perhaps the more holistic the attitude, the better.

We all have our own biases and our own favorites, but can we really say that the people who have focused on economic history have made a poor choice? Of course not. All knowledge and all fields of study, that slowly fills in the details of things that were not properly categorized & sorted and thereby left out of our perceptions of history, do a service in telling the story of history.

Ultimately, what is dangerous about current trends is that they are, by nature, highly politicized. Elliott himself even implying that the Annales school was too Marxissant. After all, those who tell history as if it is the evolution of man are literally describing the world through dialectical materialism.

While those who work on these topics help us cover more and show some interesting diversions for us… we must never believe that their method is categorically superior.

Give Me That Old Time Business

I recently took some time to listen to an extensive podcast on medieval guilds which featured the economic historian Gary Richards and it was utterly illuminating concerning the functions & roles of guilds in medieval Europe. The full podcast, of course, can be listened to via player.fm.

Of course, there are countless sociological and historical reasons as to why our ancestors functioned the way that they did… You know, in a more civilized and socially conscious fashion than anyone does today. It is also clear that the idea of getting anyone to behave with the manner & neighborliness of a medieval person is a long shot, but let us pine for the old days together for a moment.

First off, throw the image that you have of guilds out of your head; it isn’t solely an organization of pre-modern businessmen trying to fix prices and pull one over on the consumer. The word guild has  a far broader reach. Any organization at all could be called a guild.

In medieval England, nearly every village had at least one registered ‘guild.’ These can be referred to as ‘societies’ as well, and some of these village guilds were nothing more than a prayer society. During the podcast Richardson stated that he believed nearly every adult in England probably was involved in some guild or another. But, of course, many of these were more so village social organizations, and not necessarily within the scope of our interest as we talk about former business practices.

The guilds that did exist that were associations of, say, pewter makers, blacksmiths, tanners, etc. formed very naturally and lived very interconnected lives. Remember that villages would be organized in a logical fashion — tanners and butchers deal with a lot of carcasses and do all manner of processes to make leather; you’d want them congregated in one area near the outside of town. Blacksmiths were involved in extremely loud work that likewise had a lot of fire and produced a lot of smoke and waste — again, you’d want them in one neighborhood.Thus, these guilds were also on some level neighborhood associations. They encompassed the entire section of town where all of the people of a single occupation lived.

It is also important to note that in the highly religious medieval times the craftsmen were devoted to their patron saints. Believing in purgatory as well as Heaven, the guildsmen would gather and pray not just for one another and their families, but also deceased guildsmen who may be stuck in purgatory. A very strong religious zeal existed within them — and in medieval England the primary threat that came with cheating your guild and being estranged from it was one of no longer receiving the prayers and blessings of the group you are with.

But guilds certainly weren’t just prayer warriors… Guilds offered mutual insurance to one another. If a guild member were to have died early, it is fully known that basic sustenance would be provided for his family and even dowries would commonly be furnished by his fellow guildsmen. There was a distinct sense of great social responsibility within the guild…

Guilds would compete to see who provided the best services to their communities and gave the most mutual assurance. They wished to be prestigious and have a measurable positive impact on the community. it was well documented that on the day of their patron Saints, they would have lively festivals and parades. This would include paying for lavish public performances of plays often depicting the life and good deeds of their Saints. The guildsmen would wear special liveries or badges indicating their membership in the guild — for it was a sign of distinct pride to have such an association with organizations that provided for the community.

Of course, guilds were dedicated to their economic work as well. Their trades were closely held secrets, but what was also important was providing quality products. It was common to put a symbol, emblem or ‘signature’ of sorts upon their products because the markings would have reputations attached to them. Thus, one of the other functions of a guild was to look into the work of their registered craftsmen and insure that nobody was doing things to make their products worst (like putting too much lead into their pewter, for instance).

Of course, this was a very different epoch in human history but as a fan of history I always hope to learn something from it. In this case what is clearly worthy of our attention was how, while the time was not as technologically advanced nor had the comforts of modern times, it does appear that they did their best to take care of one another, and a great point of pride was their ability to Give.

All of these elements stand out in stark contrast to the nature of how our business is done, and it is certainly harder to think of us as being the perpetual superior to these medieval peoples.

Islamic Extremists Among Those Condemning Boko Haram

We are all aware with the Boko Haram abduction of over 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria by this point. The story is perfect for anti-Islamic sensationalism but perhaps one interesting angle for us all to take in here is the fact that we are seeing Islamic militants condemning this action!

Rarely, if ever, is evil monolithic; our mind tends to support the idea that it is in spite of the fact that this is a gross misrepresentation of reality. In fact, there are countless Islamic fundamentalists that live greatly peacefully and never bother anyone — they pursue even policies of Shariah law at home and still they are not boogeymen in the closet waiting to jump out and gun down innocent secular Europeans & Americans en masse.

And even those who are out there with guns are feeling a bit upset over Boko Haram’s gross indulgences here:

ABUJA, Nigeria — As word spread like wildfire on Twitter and Facebook that Nigerian militants were preparing to auction off more than 200 kidnapped schoolgirls in the name of Islam, a very different Internet network started quietly buzzing too.

“Such news is spread to taint the image of the Mujahedeen,” wrote one dubious poster on a web forum used by Islamic militants whose administrator uses a picture of Osama bin Laden. “I have brothers from Africa who are in this group,” attested another, insisting that they were like “the Quran walking the earth.”

Boko Haram, the cultlike Nigerian group that carried out the kidnappings, was rejected long ago by mainstream Muslim scholars and Islamist parties around the world for its seemingly senseless cruelty and capricious violence against civilians. But this week its stunning abduction appeared too much even for fellow militants normally eager to condone terrorist acts against the West and its allies.

“There is news that they attacked a girls’ school!” another astonished poster wrote on the same jihadi forum, suggesting delicately that Boko Haram may perhaps be killing too many noncombatants instead of armed enemies. He prayed that God would “hold them steady to the path” of Islam.

The dismay of fellow jihadists at the innocent targets of Boko Haram’s violence is a reflection of the increasingly far-flung and ideologically disparate networks of Islamist militancy, which now include the remnants of Bin Laden’s puritanical camps, Algerian cigarette smugglers and a brutal Somalian offshoot.

“The violence most of the African rebel groups practice makes Al Qaeda look like a bunch of schoolgirls,” said Bronwyn Bruton, an Africa scholar at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “And Al Qaeda at this point is a brand — and pretty much only a brand — so you have to ask yourself how they are going to deal with the people who are doing things so hideous even the leaders of Al Qaeda are unwilling to condone them.”

Naturally, not even the hardened Jihadis can get their head around the sort of people who would cruelly target schoolgirls and abduct them; naturally, such a position is utterly absurd and unpalatable to absolutely everybody. But this is a side of things that you normally do not see advertised in the media because it does not serve the purpose of either the conservative elites of Europe & North America, nor does it serve the purposes of the liberals who would sooner throw religion out the window than ever lend a sympathetic ear to the downtrodden of the third world country.

Their ears are reserved only for secular, leftist Che Guevaras; populistic religious movements need not apply, regardless of how well intended. There is an elite, little bourgeois group clustered around their ivory towers that are far more interested in the leftists of Latin America than they will ever be in the all too gritty ethnic & religious conflicts of the Middle East.

it is a veritable miracle that the Left still is in bed with the Palestinians — this is due mostly to the Arab nationalism that Yasser Arafat paraded under in the 1970s and 1980s, and still, for whatever reason, it hasn’t worn off in spite of the decidedly religious bend the more recent incarnations of the intifada have taken.

Boko Haram is in many ways an awkward ally for any of them. Its violence is broader and more casual than Al Qaeda or other jihadist groups. Indeed, its reputation for the mass murder of innocent civilians is strikingly inconsistent with a current push by Al Qaeda’s leaders to avoid such deaths for fear of alienating potential supporters. That was the subject of the dispute that led to Al Qaeda’s recent break with its former affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

This emphasizes that the dissension in the ranks is utterly astounding; goodbye, monolithic evil!

It also makes it seem quite silly that we thought capturing Bin Laden would solve everyone’s problems; as if he alone was the elusive key to defeating international terrorism. I seem to remember comedians joking about this very topic during the initial push in Afghanistan before we even went into Iraq, yet still this idea of get Osama alone was played out.

… And ironically, it was under Obama that it happened. More ironically, some of the leftists who normally mocked the idea of there ever being an achievable victory in the war on terrorism were praising this as a vital step.

What’s more, Boko Haram’s recruits and targets have always been purely local, not international. And the group is centered on a messianic leader who claims to speak with God and demands that its adherents surrender all their possessions to the group, resembling a cult, like Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, more than it does an orthodox Islamist movement.

Cultish movements are traditionally not welcome in the least in Islam, particularly Sunni. One of the big issues in the Sunni – Shi’a divide is the Shi’a belief that the spirit of Hussein can descend into leaders and power them forward towards victory, which is considered a very indecent belief in Sunni. No doubt, this cult-like presence is winning him no points with al-Qaeda.

But Boko Haram and Al Qaeda’s affiliates have both overlooked those differences to cultivate an alliance of convenience, papering over disagreements in tactics and values while emphasizing shared principles. They have reaped the propaganda value of association with each other’s deadly exploits, and in limited instances perhaps even trained or collaborated together.

Their partnership demonstrates a centripetal force pulling together even disparate insurgencies against common foes. And, scholars say, Boko Haram now also represents a growing challenge to Al Qaeda as it seeks to cultivate more such affiliates among loosely Muslim or Islamist insurgencies across Africa, almost all of them far more brutally violent than even the acolytes of Bin Laden can accept.

What follows below is overall a good historic picture of Boko Haram. This is something that many news sources are horribly failing to provide. It does not seem to be without bias but it is worth a read for those interested:

First formed in the early 2000s, Boko Haram grew out of an ultraconservative Islamic movement of well-educated students. The group grew overtly political only later, under the leadership of its charismatic founder, Mohamed Yusuf.

Its nickname in the African language of Hausa, Boko Haram, is usually roughly translated to mean that “deceptive” or “Western” education is “forbidden.” But scholars say that the phrase had a kind of double meaning that was at once religious and social in the context of northern Nigeria.

Truly they fit the mold of any isolationistic, cultural preservationist movement. I think a lot of Christian conservatives of the West forget that there are certain parallels with them that run alongside these less fancy ones over in Africa, Asia & the M. E.. Of course, they are at very different points of development but if you have the intestinal fortitude & the intellectual capacity, it would behoove you to try to imagine things from their point of view.

Just as conservative grandparents thought of the sixties culture as a perfidious infection of the moral body of the nation, so, too, does Boko Haram in its very name (and in its inception) view the Western influence on their portion of Nigeria. That is not to say that we must necessarily connect their recalcitrant conservatism with terrorism, but rather, we should understand that they are a movement that from the start is a populistic, conservative and even reactionary movement.

It’s just harder to recognize, sometimes, when they are of a vastly different culture.

Western education was available only to a very small elite who typically traveled to British universities and then returned to rule from the capital over the impoverished North, and ending the tyranny of that elite was the main objective of Mr. Yusuf’s movement.

Mr. Yusuf and Boko Haram tapped into growing anger among northern Nigerians at their poverty and lack of opportunity as well as the humiliating abuses of the government’s security forces, said Paul Lubeck, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who studies the group. At first, even as Boko Haram turned to violent opposition to the government, the group avoided civilian casualties.

“They generated a lot of support because they didn’t kill many innocent people,” Professor Lubeck said.

That changed in July, 2009, after about 70 Boko Haram fighters armed with guns and hand grenades attacked a mosque and police station in the town of Bauchi. About 55 people were killed in the battle, according to an American diplomatic cable about the episodes that was later released by WikiLeaks.

The next day, Nigerian security forces retaliated with a brutal crackdown that killed more than 700 people, including many innocent bystanders. Security officers paraded Mr. Yusuf before television cameras and then summarily executed him in front of a crowd outside a police station — an episode that the group’s adherents often recall with horror as the decisive moment in their turn to wider violence.

Three weeks later, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — originally an Algerian Islamist insurgency that found advantages in publicly linking itself to Al Qaeda’s infamy — issued a public statement reaching out to Boko Haram in a public expression of brotherly sympathy.

Boko Haram’s remaining members scattered to other African countries, where many scholars argue they would have received a welcome from Al Qaeda affiliates. The Algerian government has said that some of Boko Haram’s fugitive members received training in Algerian camps from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Boko Haram itself eventually circulated video footage that purported to show some of its members training in Somalia with fighters from the Al Qaeda affiliate there, the Shabab.

Professor Lubeck said other fragments of evidence have surfaced as well, such as cellphones belonging to Boko Haram fighters that were seized in a raid by the government of Niger.

But whether with help from Al Qaeda or other sponsors, Boko Haram soon returned to Nigeria far more sophisticated and better equipped. In late 2010, under the new leadership of Abubaker Shekau, formerly the group’s second in command, Boko Haram begun staging more lethal attacks.

Instead of throwing hand grenades or gas-bombs, Boko Haram’s fighters began to conduct a campaign of assassinations by gunfire from motorcycles. (The government ultimately banned motorcycles form the areas where they were active.) They also drove pickup trucks mounted with artillery. The vehicles, Nigerian officials say, were traded out of Libya after the fall of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

And Boko Haram became increasingly indiscriminate. Mr. Shekau, the leader who claimed to be in communication with God, said that the sole purpose of its violence was to demonstrate the incapacity of the Nigerian state. “Shekau initiated this brutal killing of innocent people,” Mr. Lubeck said.

The New York Times

I will have more posts on Boko Haram and try to focus on these Nigerian issues more in the future.

I am getting more interested in the topic and merely hope that I have the stamina and the time to continue following the situation there. Originally, I had a lot of big plans for 2014 and the blog this year but I feel I have dropped the ball in the first half… For which I apologize.

But, pay close attention to Nigeria and all of these little countries that we seem so quick to dismiss. They have a far deeper impact than many suspect. And, by looking towards them, we can sometimes learn great things about ourselves.