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I am not, to my knowledge, a time-traveler.

One thing that's been interesting this election cycle is the widening of fissures in American conservatism which were undetectable from the left prior to this year.

Since the 1990s, American conservatism has been run in a fundamentally top-down way. Talking points were produced by politicians, disseminated to a relatively small number of top-tier outlets, spread through a larger number of disciplined pundits, and believed by half the country. At the top, politicians were motivated by self-interest; outlets like Fox News were motivated by money and proximity to power; voters were motivated by believing the things which they had been told by this closed, airless media ecosystem.

The pundits in the middle, from the relatively highbrow chamber-music conservatives at National Review to the hawkish neocons at the Weekly Standard to individual blogs and talk radio shows, seemed to be an army which walked in lockstep, diverging to support their individual candidates but eventually reuniting to press the single message dictated at the top. Insofar as their varieties of conservatism differed -- theocon, reformicon, econocon -- they seemed to represent an origin story rather than something which was still an active part of their ideological underpinnings. And this was because conservative media, unlike mainstream media, doesn't actually engage with itself much: if you look at the points of conflict, even between individual pundits on Twitter, they were producing a sort of punditry, but they were not consuming it exclusively. They were consuming the mainstream media, then imposing a sort of conservative lens on it.

When Trump became inevitable, the conservative middlemen suddenly had to contend with each other. No one outside the conservative ghetto could understand why Trump had suddenly risen to national prominence. The answer was inside the conservative media, not outside of it.

It's a tarnished silver lining, but suddenly the ideological underpinnings of conservatism (or, rather, the different varieties of conservatism) have become much more clear, and their arguments much less vapid. Maybe I can finally start reading conservatives outside The American Conservative again. 

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Home.

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Somehow, this post didn't make it into a collection when I posted it. I think it still stands up, so I'm putting it in this one.
Here, a post by the excellent +Xavier Marquez, concerning Aztecs: an Interpretation:

[Sacrificial] rituals should not, I think, be understood as promoting an “ideology” of submission – in the sense of stories told by ruling classes to preserve their privileges. No “private” privileges could compare to the intensity of these manufactured collective experiences, for one thing; and, as Clendinnen notes, the rituals at Tenochtitlan did not help to compel acceptance of Aztec supremacy among subject peoples either. Though it is true that in their thoroughgoing embrace of submission to and dependence on the god, Mexica rituals did dramatize the microcosmic hierarchy as an instance of the macrocosmic one, that hierarchy is not presented as just, or fair, or otherwise as "justified" in any sense we could recognize; the power of such practices was in their sacralization of social life through extraordinary emotion, not in their "justificatory" content. At the end of the day, their deep “message” could hardly serve to legitimize anything in the sense of persuading the subjects of the ruling elite’s “right to rule.”

This is an ingenious description of the inward-facing purpose of sacrificial ritual in the Aztec state: to demonstrate the power or of the forces to which the Mexica people were enslaved, and to both demand and allow public participation in those forces. But if the outward-facing purpose of that ritual did not demonstrate the Mexica right to rule, what purpose did it serve with respect to the outside world?

The answer, I think, hinges on the source of Aztec sacrificial victims.

Throughout much of the ancient Western world, among chiefdoms, and among states bordered by chiefdoms, the concept of total war is basically unfamiliar. No individual warring party can afford to lose a significant portion of its population to its neighbors, there are few types of rare goods, and the institutions of the state are not so firm that they can be seized without evaporating. Warfare, insofar as it exists, tends to be highly formal, ritualized, and rulebound. For further examples, consider the practice of counting coup in North America, or Maori war dancing.

Beginning at 1450 at the latest (and probably before), Aztec warfare was similar. Structured warfare between the Triple Alliance and its subject states and chiefdoms served as both a replacement for taxation and a source of slaves and sacrifice: the Aztecs would have a right to take tribute from the loser, and both sides would fulfill their need for sacrifice.

This did not, in a Weberian sense, serve as a source of legitimacy for the Aztec state. The treaties which governed xochiyaoyatl were generally the result of a decades-long cycle of conquest and revolt, and steady attrition from the vassal states meant that the Mexica could field a young and healthy army of elites, whereas partners could field only those remaining after the previous cycles of xochiyaoyatl. In addition, Aztec demands were erratic and escalating.

It is possible to view xochiyaoyatl as a purely political phenomenon, designed to subjugate and suppress rebellion. But it was intricately bound into the system of ritual and sacrifice which existed at the center of the Aztec state: captives from the Aztecs' eternal war against their subjects were the primary focus of national attention, and the driving force behind the expansion of the state.

To the outside world, Aztec sacrificial ritual (and the warfare which fed it) consisted of rituals of subjugation: symbolic acts which both entail oppression and demonstrate that the fates of the oppressed were entirely subject to the whims of a capricious outside power.

Among the Aztecs, it occurs in stark contrast. But they were not uniquely barbarous. There are clear analogies elsewhere. In Sparta, the krypteia: a coming-of-age ritual  wherein young warriors were given permission to kill any serfs they came across. In Assyria, the practice of constructing public artwork declaring and demonstrating kings' brutality.

In the American South and elsewhere, lynching for offenses which would not rise to the level of a crime in any other society on Earth.

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I just want to amplify what +Tshaka Armstrong said about how awesome Robert Smalls was. Just to give you some details which fall between the big bullet points here:

* Born into slavery.

* Started out with seriously unpleasant menial jobs. Taught himself to read. More importantly, taught himself navigational trigonometry. This is not simple to do yourself. This is especially not simple to do when you grew up speaking Gullah creole, and your first exposure to standard-dialect English was when you were ten.

* In general, was seriously awful at being a slave. Ran away. Resold tobacco and candy to make money his master didn't have access to. Bailed out of slave lockup over and over again because, despite the fact he never took to the whip, he was too competent to punish.

* Stole a Confederate ship. Sailed off with it. Gave it to the Union.

* Pushed for Congress to pay him the bounty, and was paid about $37,000 for it. Which is to say, "more money than a slave would likely see in five lifetimes."

* Joined the US Navy. Which is notable, because the US Navy was not admitting black sailors at this point.

* Convinced the US Army to admit black soldiers. You know. Like you do.

* Oh, did I mention that all of this happened before he turned 23? Because it all did.

* Assigned to pilot an experimental ironclad steamship in an attack on Charleston harbor. This fails. The ship sinks. Smalls is nonetheless commended for bravery.

* Reassigned to the Planter, the ship he stole less than two years ago, with some of the black crew which originally stole it. The captain of the Planter, caught in crossfire between Confederate and Union ships, attempts to surrender to the Confederates.

* Decided he's going to have none of that, because black soldiers and sailors are killed on capture. Sails the ship back to the Union lines against his captain's orders, saving the lives of his black crew.

* Commended for bravery again. And promoted. Which makes him the first black naval captain in US history. He's actually captain of the Planter, the ship he stole less than two years ago.

* The war ends.

* Used the money he got from stealing Confederate ships to buy the house he lived in when he was a slave. Moves in. Runs for Congress.

* Won.

* Kept running for Congress. Kept winning. Became the longest-serving black Congressman until the late 20th century.

* Reconstruction ended. Gerrymandering, poll violence, and the like keep him from running again.

* Stayed active in politics. Attempted to return the black vote to South Carolina. Fails, but consider that this is precisely the sort of thing which would get you lynched between the years of 1876 and 1920.

* Appointed to be customs inspector. Which, again: this is a math-heavy job, and Smalls had no formal education.

Name an important thing which a human being could have done between the Civil War and World War I, and Smalls did it. He didn't just rise up from poverty: he rose up from the most abject position an American could be consigned to, and just ... kept rising. Even after the tragedy that ended Reconstruction, he somehow managed to keep his head above water.

He died the owner of the house in which he had been a slave, serving the country which had both rewarded and betrayed him. 
#BAMF for #BlackHistoryMonth  Now THIS is a cat I'd love to see a biopic about!

From Wikipedia: As a politician, Smalls authored state legislation providing for South Carolina to have the first free and compulsory public school system in the United States, and founded the Republican Party of South Carolina.
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Never say that we've never learned anything from history. For instance, 101 years ago, we learned that Britain, France, Russia, Germany and the Turks should never intervene to stop a civil war in a former Ottoman colonial possession, because the most likely outcome is an interminable world war.

Oh wait. 

"Things are not getting worse; things have always been this bad. Nothing is more consoling than the long perspective of history. It will perk you up no end to go back and read the works of progressives past. You will learn therein that things back then were also terrible, and what’s more, they were always getting worse. This is most inspiriting."

-- Molly Ivins

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Was Santa Claus Black: A Weird Answer to a Weird Question

I saw this go by in my stream the other day. It seemed completely implausible, and particularly implausible because it was political. A lot of these questions are completely off-base -- clearly wrong from the moment the question was raised. 

Interestingly, though, this question wasn't clearly wrong. It's at least a little plausible, and the way in which it's plausible says a lot about the complexity of the Mediterranean in late antiquity. So: to the evidence!

Q: Wait. Santa Claus is real?

A: Sort of? Santa Klaus is an English corruption of the Dutch word "Sinterklaas," meaning "St. Klaus." Klaus is a Germanic shortening of the Greek name "Nicolaus."

The actual St. Nicolaus was the bishop of Myra, in southwestern Anatolia, in the early 4th Century  We know a couple of things about him: he was born to wealthy parents with Greek names; he was staunchly Orthodox; he was one of the earliest saints of the Orthodox church. 

Q: That doesn't sound particularly promising, in terms of "was the dude black."

A: You're right. It isn't. Africans were pretty common in the Western Roman Empire -- merchants, citizens, travelers, slaves, emperors*, et cetera -- but don't seem to have been very common in the Greek parts of the empire. Most sea trade was controlled by Greeks. Most of the connections to Africa were via Egypt. Most of the immigrants were Syrian. Most of the slaves were Bolgars and Slavs.

Q: So why would anybody suspect that he was?

A: Well, for starters, he's depicted as being pretty dark in Byzantine art. That gives us a start, but that doesn't get us very far.

Q: Why?

A: Because St. Nicolaus is a very early saint, and Byzantine saints tended to get darker over time.

The pigments the Byzantines used to depict human skin-tones were a mixture of iron oxide and manganese oxide. When first ground, those pigments come out fairly light. As the pigments dehydrate, they darken. Soot from oil lamps and candles adds an extra layer on top. And so when artists went to made copies of the icons, they could never quite determine whether they'd gotten the pigment color right.

Which means progressive darkening of saints' skin tone everywhere sienna and umber were used as the pigment. 

Q: Okay, so the depictions -- pretty much a dead end, right? We're done here?

A: Not yet. What do you know about Myra?

Q: Never heard of it. 

A: That's because it doesn't exist anymore. At some point between St. Nicolaus and this post, a plague caused its total abandonment. But before it was abandoned, it was the major connection between the heartlands of the Roman Empire and Egypt. The port was huge, and the grain ships from Egypt were unloaded there for transport to the rest of the Empire. 

Q: So, that gives us a plausible connection to Africa. But the people who lived there were still Greek, right?

A: Sure. Originally Lycian, but also Greek, Syrian, and Egyptian -- anyone who might reasonably show up on a ship. Including Somalis, particularly from the major trading hub of Sarapion. 

Q: That still seems weak. It's a cosmopolitan area. But why would you suspect a family with Greek names of plausibly having African members? 

A: The Greeks didn't care much about race. They cared a lot about whether you spoke Greek, but if you behaved like a Greek, liked Greek things, and participated in Greek culture, they didn't care much whether your great-grandparents had been Greeks.

Part of being Greek was taking a Greek name -- not that you had much of a choice. If you didn't have a Greek name, something which sounded like your birth name would be forced on you. But it's not like people didn't notice race. We have records of a lot of Africans living in the Hellenic world, and they tended to attract nicknames like "Aethiops" or "Melanos." (Literally, "burned-face" or "the black.") 

There's a fair amount written about Nicolaus. But no one pointed out that he was Somali. In the cultural milieu of the time, that's a thing which people would've pointed out. So while we're getting closer to plausibility, we're still stuck with a pretty implausible hypothesis.

Q: Okay, so, we're stuck on the historical record about Nicolaus itself. Do we get anything else out of Myra?

A: Well, the Greeks seem to think that Myra was named after the myrrh tree. This would be really surprising, considering that the myrrh tree isn't native to anywhere nearby.

The name is actually Luwian, a language which was a distant Anatolian cousin of Armenian and Farsi.  Unfortunately, the language died out and was replaced by Greek, so we have no idea what it means.

Q: Where's the myrrh tree native to?

A: Somalia, Yemen, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. And the Greeks were dead certain that Myra was named after the tree. 

So, let's take a look at the geography. If you wanted to ship myrrh to the eastern Roman Empire, where would you ship it to? Up the Nile, and it's a straight shot north to Myra. And there's plenty of other things which you could ship using the same route: gold, ivory, grain, cinnamon.

Q: Wait -- isn't cinnamon native to Asia somewhere? 

A: Yup. Generally, cinnamon was shipped from India to what the Romans called Arabia Felix, and what we call Yemen, and then trekked across the Arabian peninsula to Nabataea. From there, it would be brought through Syria to the rest of the Roman Empire. 

Except that the Romans had historically had huge problems with Arabia Felix. They were periodically embargoed by the city-states of South Arabia. This only gave them one good place to get involved in the cinnamon trade: Sarapion, a Somali city just outside of modern-day Mogadishu. Throughout the century preceding St. Nicolaus' birth, Somali traders had alternated between having formal and informal monopolies on cinnamon trade with Rome. 

Which finally puts us in the realm of "hypotheses which are probably wrong, but not literally crazy." 

Q: Except... wait. How do Somalis get to the Mediterranean? Look at where Somalia is: it's nowhere near the Mediterranean! And there wasn't a Suez Canal! 

A: First, it's not a priori impossible for Somali sailors to be sailing out of Egyptian ports. We know that Sarapion was on good terms with the Roman empire, that immigration was not well-controlled -- but that's all really weak evidence, and certainly not a good way for a lot of Africans to show up in modern-day Turkey. 

Second, you're right: there wasn't a Suez Canal. But Ptolemy II built a canal from the Nile to the Gulf of Suez, separated by locks. There were plenty of small Somali ships sailing up the African coast to the Gulf of Suez, then cutting across from the Gulf of Suez into the Nile. From there, Myra is a really good target port. 

Q:Yeah, still not great evidence. We need actual African heritage in Myra, if we want to say anything generally about the people living there.

A: Okay, how about genetics?

We're pretty sure that the gene for sickle-cell trait, which defends against malaria, originates in Africa.* It's not generally endemic to European populations unless those populations have both (a) endemic malaria, and (b) longstanding contacts with Africa. It's most common in two places: Sicily and Lycia. 

In other words, Sicily and the province where St. Nick was from. Unfortunately, if our hypothesis is that longstanding contacts in the cinnamon trade made it plausible for upper-class Myrans to have recent African ancestors, this doesn't really help with that specifically: sickle-cell trait is endemic to most of Africa, but not Somalia. In other words, the genetic evidence seems to point toward Myra being a port with longstanding African trade contacts, but we're still not closer to any specific hypothesis-confirmation.

Q: If only we had St. Nicolaus' skeleton!

A: Oh. Wait. We do. 

Q: Why didn't you say that up front! 

A: Because I didn't go looking for it until pretty late. Usually, you'd just break a saint up for scrap and sell every individual knucklebone as a relic. St. Nick avoided that fate, because -- uh -- there's a monastery draining rosewater out of his tomb* and selling it to pilgrims. And it turns out his skeleton is still in there. 

Q: So, is he black?

A: You can't tell that from a skeleton. But there are cranial discrete traits that correlate pretty strongly with skin color: wide skull bases, wide nasal bridges, blunt nasal sills, and you probably would have coded as black to a modern American. 

And yeah. With some caveats, not even his skeleton rules it out. He had a badly broken nose and pretty severe osteoporosis, but it does look like he plausibly had some African ancestry. His personal background and the region he's from make it not an insane hypothesis, and nothing in his skeleton is inconsistent with it. 

Take, for instance, the reconstruction of his face, built off of his actual skull. 

Q: Which gives us -- what?

A: Not confirmation. But certainly a much, much better hypothesis than the hypothesis that any randomly-selected 4th century Anatolian was black. 

(1) Yes, the Roman Empire had African emperors: Septimus Severus, who was Libyan and Syrian, and his two sons. Whether they would have been considered "black" if Americans were looking at them is not a question I want to even vaguely get into answering.

(2) There's a second cluster of sickle-cell trait in eastern India. It's probably an independent mutation, though. The European sickle-cell trait seems to have come from Africa.

(3) There is probably not rosewater draining out of St. Nicolaus' tomb. It's either water, or not from the tomb. But a monk's got to make a living.
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Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, "Timbuktu" didn't have the resonance it does today. Europeans knew about it, but not as a synecdoche for "the most remote part of the world." They knew about it as a synedoche for "the richest place on Earth." El Dorado, but in Africa.

But it's not just the money. Between 1200 and 1500, Malians took a part of the world which was plagued by raiders from across the Sahara and turned it into one of the greatest cultural centers the world has ever known.

After the destruction of the Library of Alexandria and the House of Wisdom, the Mali Empire had the largest library of classical and Arabic works in the world. The best estimates of the Library of Alexandria at its height are somewhere in the low hundreds of thousands of manuscripts. The number of Malian manuscripts still extant from the period where Mali was the richest country in the world are in the same range.

It's not until Byzantine works started showing up in Italy, the invention of the printing press, and the decline of the Mali Empire that European centers of learning started to catch up.

And that's just the translated works. I've made out Mali to be a country of good copyists -- but that's only because we don't know much at all about the works written by Malian authors. Because Moorish Spain was already in decline by the time Mali was at its height (and the Timurids and Turks destroyed a lot of Arabic works which may have made their way east), Europe didn't end up with a lot of contact with original literature.

But this isn't just a missed opportunity. Unlike the works lost with the Library of Alexandria and the House of Wisdom, they're still around, but no one is interested in them. Because everyone assumes that there was never anything great or fascinating in Africa. Because racism. 

(Originally reminded of this by +Darryl Barnes and +Cedric McCay.)

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The boilerplate Marxism here is not particularly useful. The Syrian civil war is very much about its historical particulars -- and those particulars don't have much to do with Western colonialism.

The first important thing is to note that Syria has always been colonized -- it's always been the most important hinterland of some other empire, but virtually never a country of its own. The chain of custody goes like this: French, Ottoman, Sultanate of Rum, (very briefly) Mongol, Ayyubid, Fatimid, Abbasid, Umayyid, Roman, Parthian, a series of other Persians, then Alexander, more Persians, Assyrian, Babylonian, Akkadian, occasional Egyptians, and finally hunter-gatherers. The middle part full of Caliphates might seem like it's non-colonial, except that for virtually all of that period, the majority of Syrians didn't consider themselves Arabs. They considered themselves Levantines or Mesopotamians or Syrians.

Second, this long history of colonialism has historically meant that one major ethnoreligious group in Syria was elevated over the others. But the hinterlands of Syria were almost always left to their own devices -- all that changed was who was in charge of Damascus. Under the French, Maronite Christians. Under the Turks, Sunni Arabs. Under the Ayyubids, Sunni Kurds. Under the Fatimids, Shi'a Arabs. And so on and so on.

Virtually every time power changed hands, there was a genocide. Druze against Maronites. Sunni against Shi'a. Arab against Kurd. Ghulat Shi'a against mainstream Shi'a. And so on and so on. Historically, this has been because Syrian cities are incredibly rich, while Syrian hinterlands (mostly the mountains) are incredibly poor. Huge parts of Syria have been basically uninhabited since the Byzantines.

The author here assumes that there was some precolonial status quo to go back to. But there wasn't. Even the Arab left, lauded here as being an important alternative, wasn't really a "left" as the West would understand it: the Nasserist national socialist parties (of which the Ba'ath paty was one) in Iraq and Syria were minority-sectarian coalitions against another ethnoreligious majority. In Iraq, the Ba'athists were Sunnis and Christians; in Syria, they were Druze, Kurds, and Ghulat Shi'a of various types.

Had Syria been in Sunni hands, there would have been a genocide. Which would not have been the first time: Shishakli's attempt to wipe out other ethnoreligious groups (particularly the Druze) was the reason he was overthrown and that, eventually, the Assads came to power.

The combination of the instability we created in Iraq, the oppression of Sunni Arabs next door in Iraq, the brutality and incompetence of the minority-led Assad regime, the apparently succesful popular revolts in other Arab countries (especially Egypt, which produces almost all of the media consumed in Syria), and worsening conditions in the poor, outlying areas of Syria made revolt seem like an attractive option. So there was a revolt. And the parts of the Iraqi Sunni resistance which were the most intractable formed the core of the armed part of that revolt.

Thus, ISIS. And here we are.
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