paleo Ideofact

Friday, November 01, 2002
Well, Tacitus did live nearly two millennia before me, so I suppose I can't be too angry with him for beating me to the punch on Lincoln's miltary service (in fairness, I had a feeling someone would get to it a lot quicker than I did, and I'm glad it was him), and I guess I can't complain too much that he got to this this post from Alexandra of Out of Lascaux on antiquities in Iraq before me. I tend to agree with Tacitus here in general -- given the choice between preserving archaeological sites (something I feel fairly strongly about) and saving living people, I come down in favor of the latter, and I don't think the potential destruction of the former is a strong enough reason not to save lives. I don't mean to state this solely in connection with Iraq, per se, but rather, all things being equal, if military action is justified, the presence or absence of archaeological sites shouldn't matter one way or the other.

I was reminded of a lecture I attended as an undergraduate (I think it was actually the reception afterwards where these remarks were made). Because my memory of all this is a bit hazy, I won't name the archaeologist in question -- so take this for what it's worth (which isn't much). The man was a fairly well respected expert on Mesopotamian prehistory and early history, and had dug in Iraq for a decade or two. After the lecture, someone asked him what impediments to his work the Iran-Iraq war raised. He smiled ruefully, and said something to the effect that while the sites he was interested in were far from the front, Saddam's government had issued a decree making it illegal to suggest that Iraq had any connection with Mesopotamian civilization. I vaguely recall that the reasons for the decree had something to do with propaganda, but the thing that stuck most in my mind was his expression as he said this -- one of utter disgust that in our modern era, a tyrant had passed a decree wiping out the distant past.

Thursday, October 31, 2002
Winds of Change hiatus
I'm gratified to see that Joe Katzman didn't think my plan for reforming Major League Baseball was completely ridiculous. But I'm saddened to see him write,
Bluntly, this blog is going to be shutting down for a while. I could say that other things need my attention right now, and they do. But the truth is, I'm burned out. It doesn't feel like fun any more. In time, that feeling will return - and so will I.
I feel vaguely like I've lost another friend. Adil Farooq last posted August 6, after a long hiatus. Josh Trevino has shut down i330. And now Joe is taking a sabbatical. Of course, I wish him well, but a very selfish part of me wonders where I'm going to get the weekend Sufi fix, not to mention all the exacting military analysis, and lately, the great posts on a game I loved as a kid, and saw how I used to love it through Joe's posts. (An odd aside: My first organized baseball team -- we were all 8 years old, I think -- was called the Angels. In a 12-game season, we lost 11, largely through my efforts, although I did get some help from my teammates.)

So I hope it won't be too long before Joe wins comeback blog of the year, but in the meantime thanks for all the stimulating posts. Winds of Change has consistently been one of the classiest blogs around.

Chechnya again
Aziz also sends along a link to a blog I hadn't seen before, run by Bin Gregory (I hope I have the name right), who offers his thoughts on Chechnya, and some interesting links with more information as well.

By the way, he seems to have a pretty good sense of humor.

Wednesday, October 30, 2002
High praise
Boy, that Aziz Poonawalla can really fluff up a hit counter. I'm a little overwhelmed by the praise he offers my humble efforts here at Ideofact, and also by the patience he's shown by going through my archives to index all the Qutb posts (really -- I meant to get around to it myself sooner or later...). For the record, I'm planning on getting back to Qutb's work next week (the past three weeks have been brutal work-wise, and writing about Qutb is draining -- he's a good polemicist, and picking apart his arguments isn't always easy, and, contrary to what Aziz says, I haven't always done that good a job of it).

In any case, a hearty thank you to Aziz, whose been a fairly constant source of encouragement to me (and never seems to mind when I leave contrarian comments on his site).

Tacitus knows history
I've quite enjoyed Tacitus' blog, and I'm happy to see he corrected a sloppy assertion of Michael Kelly's: that Abraham Lincoln never served in the military. He did, in 1832:
An Indian chief, Black Hawk, led his warriors back into the state to recover land that had been taken from his tribe some thirty years before. Lincoln immediately enlisted in a militia troop. He was made captain of his company for thirty days, and he kept chasing Indians for three months, never coming into actual conflict with any of them, and not even seeing a live one, except once, when an old drunken warrior stumbled into camp and had to be saved by Lincoln from molestation.
The quote is from Philip Van Doren Stern's brief autobiographical sketch of Lincoln, reproduced in The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln. The volume also contains an excerpt of a speech Lincoln gave, in which he poked fun at his brief military career (and that of Gen. Lewis Cass, who, in 1848, was running for President as a Democrat):
Speaking of General Cass's career reminds me of my own. I was not at Stillman's defeat, but I was about as near it as Cass was to Hull's surrender; and, like him, I saw the place very soon afterward. It is quite certain I did not break my sword, for I had none to break; but I bent a musket pretty badly on one occasion. If Cass broke his sword, the idea is he broke it in desperation; I bent the musket by accident. If General Cass went in advance of me picking huckleberries, I guess I surpassed him in charges upon the wild onions. If he saw any live, fighting Indians, it was more than I did; but I had a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes...
Yes, he was no Washington, or Jackson, or Grant, or Teddy Roosevelt, but, as Tacitus points out, he did serve...

Tuesday, October 29, 2002
I've been reluctant to write anything about the Moscow terrorism incident, but the Wall Street Journal editorial rings true to me:
For all of that, however, the Chechen crisis is not exactly the same as the al Qaeda fatwa on America. While bin Laden attacked the U.S. first, Russia's military has ravaged Chechnya and radicalized some of its population. Some 4,000 Russian soldiers have also been killed since Mr. Putin relaunched the Chechen war in 1999, promising to make up for the humiliating withdrawal three years earlier and to make quick work of the Chechen resistance. There is not a military expert we know of who believes that war is winnable.

This is not to justify Chechen terrorism, which merely traduces the cause it purports to stand for. It is also by no means clear whether Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov is capable of uniting Chechnya's various warrior groups behind a course of nonviolence. Criminalization, lawlessness, violence, warlording and all the afflictions of a statelet that has been deprived the basic means for its survival will haunt any postwar attempt at order.

But Russia bears some responsibility for this state of affairs. The theater massacre will now make it even harder for President Putin to pursue a non-military solution in Chechnya. But further escalation of the war--and especially any expansion into independent Georgia--would bring more devastation to the Chechen people and weaken Russia's already fragile democracy.
For what it's worth, a while back I came across a possible al Qaeda-Chechen link. I wrote at the time
I'm generally sympathetic to the Chechens, but one of the unfortunate consequences of their struggle, and that of the Bosnians and the Kosovar Albanians, is that the aggression against them opened the door wide to the Islamists and the Arab extremists.
I have no sympathy for terror, and I would probably have a very different view of the Bosnian Muslims if, during the war, they had sent their sons and daughters to ride on Belgrade buses with C4 belts around their waists, and cheered the martyrs for blowing up old ladies and children. But they didn't, and for the most part, the Chechens didn't use those types of tactics either. I suspect that either al Qaeda or Wahhabi activists will be at the heart of the Moscow terrorist plot, and -- this should go without saying -- I don't think any good will come of it.

Monday, October 28, 2002
Museum quality 3
Alexandra of Out of Lascaux sent me an email noting that she's clarified her views on collectors vs. archaeologists. She writes that she doesn't know what the solution is to the tension between the destruction of archaeological sites and the market in antiquities, and likens looting sites to the drug trade, which I think is very apt. I also think that, regardless of national or international law, tomb raiders and grave robbers won't be deterred. They've been with us since the time of Pharoahs, and will likely be with us long after my remains have turned to dust. I have no idea how you stop that.

Alexandra also has an interesting post on the difficulty of categorizing blogs. I think Ideofact has been called a war blog, a culture blog, a medievalist blog, a libertarian blog, a conservative blog, a leftist blog, a communist blog, a Christian blog, a Muslim apologist blog, a pro-Israeli blog, and a dozen or so nasty names that I won't bother to repeat (although in fairness, those pejoratives are generally directed at me personally). To this day, I have no idea how I came to the attention of Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs, but the only label I've appreciated is his inclusion of Ideofact among his anti-idiotarians.

I generally try to keep an open mind, and write only about things that interest me, and link only blogs I enjoy, of which I can honestly report that Out of Lascaux is one.

A modest Major League proposal
Or, perhaps a radical one, depending on one's viewpoint. First, congratulations to the California Angels (sorry, that was the name of the team when I was growing up, and "Anaheim Angels" still gets caught in my throat) and their fans. I think it's also fair to congratulate the San Francisco Giants and their fans -- I'd willingly trade my Philadelphia Phillies' lackluster season (tinged with that silver lining of "wait til next year") for a World Series appearance, even in a losing effort. Be that as it may, baseball's television ratings declined, most of the first round of the playoffs ran on ABC's Family Channel, and I, once a rabid baseball fan, find I have trouble generating much enthusiasm for the game anymore. I began to lose interest when baseball realigned into three divisions, and the team I regarded as the main rival for my Phillies, the Pittsburgh Pirates, ended up in a separate division. I don't care for interleague play, and the Wild Card still bothers me (it doesn't bother me in the NFL, largely because the playoff system stacks the deck against Wild Cards). So, let me assume for one brief moment the commissioner's powers (the real Commissioner of Baseball, with the "best interests of the game" powers, and not the faux Bud Selig-type of commissioner) and suggest what I think are some changes that would improve the game.
Interleague Play: Eliminate it.
The Montreal Expos: As I understand the arguments, the problem for the Expos is that they can't compete with large market teams like the New York Yankees for talent. The obvious solution is to move the New York. For more than 50 years, New York supported three baseball teams, and I think it's hard to argue that New York is less of a dominant urban presence today than it was back then. As an added advantage, extra competition in the city would further divide the market advantage enjoyed by the Yankees and the Mets. To breathe life into the Expos, it would be necessary to give them a New York patina, so, in the best interests of baseball, I'd award the name Dodgers to the new franchise which, naturally, would play its home games in Brooklyn.
Expansion: To satisfy the demands of my realignment (two items down), it will be necessary to add two additional teams to the American League. Welcome back, Washington Senators. The second franchise should be in the West; I personally favor Mexico City, although I'm willing to listen to other offers. The franchise fees should placate the owners, and the 50 extra Major League jobs should excite the players' union, who in turn would be willing to...
Scrap the Designated Hitter: The DH makes watching American League games unbearable. I've seen AL managers routinely change pitchers three times in an inning, because they never have to worry about a pitcher's spot in the batting order coming up. I'm a purist -- I want every player to have to hit, especially pitchers who might prefer to plunk a batter. It's ridiculous that the two leagues have such a fundamentally different rule. Generally I prefer heterodoxy, but not in this case -- down with the DH.
Realignment: So, we have two leagues with 16 teams. My inclination would be to have two eight-team divisions in each league, with an unbalanced schedule: 16 games against division rivals, and 6 against the other division (for a 160 game season). Rain outs might be a problem when playing teams in the other division (which would make the trip to your city just once), but it would force a return to the thrilling days of the double header. But then I began tinkering with the idea of four divisions of four teams in each league, divided up like this:
NL Northeast: Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates.
NL Southcentral:Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds, Florida Marlins, Houston Astros.
NL Midwest:Chicago Cubs, Colorado Rockies, Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals.
NL West:Arizona Diamondbacks, Los Angeles Blues (remember, we gave the "Dodgers" name to the Expos), San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants.
AL Northeast: Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Washington Senators.
AL Southcentral:Chicago White Sox, Kansas City Royals, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Texas Rangers.
AL Northern: Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Minnesota Twins, Toronto Blue Jays.
AL West: California Angels, Mexico City Aztecs, Oakland A's, Seattle Mariners.
The schedule would be unbalanced, of course; teams would play the 12 non-divisional opponents 6 times a year for 72 games, the remaining 90 games would be against divisional rivals. Think of all those Yankees-Red Sox games! Or L.A.-San Francisco matchups. Or Cub-Cardinal slugfests. Since the four-team divisions would send winners to a first round of playoffs, I could see increasing the number of games between, say, that AL Northern and AL West, and the AL Northeast and AL Southcentral, at the expense of divisional contests. There would be 6 games against the eight teams in the far divisions (48), 12 games against the four teams in the closer division (48), and 22 games against the three divisional oppenents (66) for a total of 162 games.
The advantages of franchise movement, expansion, realignment, and an unbalanced schedule would be manifold: You'd have real rivalries again, instead of the phony ones (Philadelphia and Baltimore?) cooked up by the architects of interleague play. You'd have that contempt that only familiarity breeds. I'd probably also raise the mound to 1967 levels to give pitchers an advantage (adding 20 arms to Major League Baseball rosters will only diminish a thin talent pool, and since the trend in stadium building is toward smaller ballparks with shorter fences, it's only fair).

Of course, I'd be willing to compromise on a few points. If push came to shove, I'd probably leave the Dodger name in Los Angeles. Commissioners should compromise once in a while, in the best interests of the game. Then Shoeless Joe Jackson would not have been banned, and Pete Rose could be in the Hall of Fame. But that's a subject for another post.

Sunday, October 27, 2002
Reader Steve Kostoff was kind enough to write, about my recent ruminations over Eco and Borges, and Eco and war, this trenchant commentary: seems to me that the most common malady among intellectuals is to allow their sentiment to blind their critical faculties. They become possessed by an attachment to a particular sentiment - usually one that flatters them and makes them feel righteous - and henceforth that sentiment becomes immune to any critical analysis on their part; only the beliefs, ideas and sentiments of others are targets for their criticism. These intellectuals regard themselves as so rational and so analytical, that they could never fall prey to irrationality and thus never take steps to guard themselves from it. And so they fall, defenseless, into folly.
I rather liked the way he put this.

While I'm on the topic of antiquities, I thought it worth noting that the Washington Post article I noted before, about the looted ossuary that may or may not have carved upon it the earliest extant reference to Jesus, contained this arresting sentence:
Aside from the Bible, very little is known about the life of Jesus.
Which is a bit like saying, aside from Herodotus, little is known of Thermopylae.

Museum quality 2
Xavier Basora of the fine Buscaraons site emailed this link to the UNIDROIT international protocols, aimed at protecting antiquities, a subject I first passingly addressed here (just last night, in fact). He adds:
It's not a treaty so the UNIDROIT Convention has no force of law unless the private parties agree to incorporate the Convention by reference or explicitly in their contracts. Tribunals can also inspire themselves from its principles in any dispute arising from cultural objects.
I glanced at the site; to be honest it started bringing back bad memories from my undergraduate days when I studied archaeology, and spent a fair amount of time acquainting myself with these issues (albeit with the understanding of an 18 to 22 year old who never thought he'd write about the subject).

One thing of interest that I didn't mention in the last post: collectors who suspect they own pieces that were illegally looted have an incentive to mask their provenience -- (that's the $10 word in archaelogical circles for context). In other words, if you have, say, some Mayan pottery that you suspect was looted from a site in Guatemala, you have an incentive to pretend that it was part of a much earlier find in Mexico, one which was long ago documented. How such incentives to deception are supposed to advance our understanding of the past is beyond me.

The University of Chicago gives several examples of the the damage that collecting can do to the past. Here's a fairly typical one:
Several recent studies utilizing quantitative methods have compared the appearance of particularly distinctive categories of archaeological objects on the market with the evidence of looted sites that are known to be the only sources for these categories. For example, Dr. David Gill and Dr. Christopher Chippindale conducted an extensive study of Cycladic figurines of the 3rd millennium B.C., which have been highly prized by collectors for their eerie resemblance to Brancusi sculptures, and determined that 90% of the known figurines do not have a documented provenience, which means that we do not know anything about their archaeological contexts. An entire field of connoissership has been distorted beyond recognition because it is not possible to determine which of the figures are genuine and which are fake. At the same time, an estimated 85% of Cycladic burial sites have been destroyed by looting.
The whole piece is of interest, if only because it demonstrates the extent to which collecting can imperil the past.

The great Aziz Poonawalla has an amazing deconstruction -- well, destruction may be a better word -- of the theological conceits of Osama bin Laden. I highly recommend it, so much so that I'll give you the link again.