paleo Ideofact

Thursday, May 08, 2003
Blog and book notes
On May 8, at 8:05 p.m. (yes, blogger's archives are still fried), the great Cinderella Bloggerfeller (who, like myself I'm afraid, has lost some of his enthusiasm for nightly posting) translated an interview with Reynald Secher, author of The Franco-French Genocide. In an earlier post (May 7, 5:39 p.m.) Mr. B. wrote,
The problem goes back to the French Revolution itself, which, within a few years of its outbreak in 1789, had led to the first totalitarian regime of the modern era in the form of the Jacobin Terror (the original use of the term “terrorism” referred to the methods of this very dictatorship). The Revolution was meant to promote “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”, yet by 1793 it was promoting tyranny, inequality (domination of a small elite) and fratricide in the form of a bloody civil war.
He has a whole series of posts on Intellectuals and Totalitarianism that is well worth reading; this observation is particularly trenchant, and something that has long bothered me:
As Revel writes, this behaviour both justifying the use of Terror and denying it happened [on the part of intellectuals] is “bizarre and contradictory”.
Secher's book, on the massacres at Vendee, chronicles an ugly chapter in the history of the Terror. The work will be published in June in an English translation; there is more information about it here.

Monday, May 05, 2003
Today, via email, I came across this site. The email explained,
Supporters of North Korea launch web library
Selections from dictator's works online

Pjongyang (pte, May 5, 2003 17:40) - In addition to the first webshop selling North Korean products, surfers can now visit the first North Korean online library with some texts translated into English.

The site was developed by the Korean Friendship Association (KFA), which is supported by the North Korean government and registered in Spain and China. The KFA has several hundred members around the world. Its aim is to positively influence the world image of the People's Republic of Korea. Its members create exhibitions, write letters, organise trips, meet to watch videos of North Korean public events or work on the website.

The new e-library has works by the "great leader" Kim Il Sung and his son, "beloved leader" Kim Jong Il. The site also offers a 218-page description of Kim Jong Suk, who is hailed as the "mother of Korea" and an "anti-Japanese heroine". In general, the works presented on the page offer a glimpse into the ideological fundaments of the People's Republic of Korea in the 20th century, in which the military takes a central role.

It's all that and more. It's also appropriate that the site offers a glimpse into the 20th century, and not the 21st; it's difficult to remember that the socialist realism, the incomprehensible ideological jargon, the naked propaganda is not post-Cold War Soviet kitsch, but rather an ongoing totalitarian nightmare.

For a glimpse into the "fundaments," look no further than the online store, which promises,
A vast collection of genuine DPRK merchandise with online shopping facilities
And what's in this vast collection?
Thank-you for visiting Chollima Products pages. We are currently revising our stock list at present. We hope to have a full, new range of products available very shortly.
The barren shelves of the workers' paradise updated for the Internet age. If it weren't for the fact that 23 million North Koreans have to live with this regime day in and day out, it would be comical.

There's also a forum where useful idiots can be tutored in the wonders of Juche, and have practical questions answered as well. From a Lisa in the UK:
What requirements are there for a person to immigrate to DPRK? I have heard that it is very discerning about who comes into the country so I would like to know if there are any specific basic general requirements that need to be satisfied.
Best of luck, Lisa! To find out whether you might meet North Korea's exacting standards for immigrants, why not first see if the Juche Idea Study Group fo England would accept you as a member:
Membership is on approval of the chairman and the secretary of the group. It is open to those who (1) support the Juche Idea wholeheartedly, (2) want to apply the Juche Idea in England, (3) love the DPRK, the WPK, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
There's also a newsletter, KFA Today; in the January 2003 issue, we learn, under a section called media myths (it's on the end of the last page) that ... well, let's let the text speak for itself. The myth:
'Millions have starved in North Korea'
and the response...

This has never been proved. It comes from a slight of hand with DPRK population statistics. The South Koreans claimed falsely that the DPRK population reached 25 million in 1995 and then was found to be 23 million in 1998. In fact, DPRK population was 21 million in 1993 and its annual rate of increase estimated by the UN was 3 per cent per year, so 23 million in 1998 is more or less withing population growth forecasts. I saw no signs of 'mass starvation' during my April 2002 visit.
Well, there you have it, the definitive rebuttal. Perhaps Lisa, if she's so blessed as to visit the workers' paradise, can provide confirmation.

Barbarians, steppes, and civilization
John J. Emerson, whose writings I've linked before (sorry -- blogger's archives still seem to be fried) has two new pieces on the Mongols, both of which I think raise questions well worth pondering. In the first, The Nomads in Eurasian History, he begins by writing
For about two thousand the Scythians, Hsiung-nu, Huns, Turks,  Mongols, and  other barbarians of the northern steppe were a continuous hostile presence for the sedentary civilizations of the South. The barbarians could be invaders,  raiders, mercenaries, clients, or the founders of new dynasties in the sedentary world, but their relationship to the civilized world was predominantly military and was made possible by their mastery of cavalry warfare. Since for the civilized states of that period the most important single state function was military, and since the steppe barbarians were usually the most important military threat, the peoples of the steppe have had a formative influence on the civilized world –  an influence which has seldom been recognized.
Although I read the piece, I won't hint at what those influences were, although I will note that 1) it's a proposition which will be probably be controversial and 2) both the Roman Empire and the early Caliphate had the same kinds of effects. I'll also add that one thing not mentioned is the idea of religious toleration -- for the Mongols, provided one didn't challenge the political power of the great Khan, it was a matter of indifference as to which deity one worshipped or how.

The second piece, Who Were the Mongols?, is also of interest:
In the light of this, the famous sloppiness of Chinese, Persians, and  Europeans in their use of ethnonyms seems much less problematic. European writers of the later period used "Scythian", "Turk", "Hun", "Tatar", and "Mongol"almost interchangeably based on the literary effect desired.  The Chinese used "Hu", and sometimes "Ti" as generic terms, and often identified other peoples as "Hsiung-nu" even though they were clearly a different people. The Chinese called the Mongols (and some of the Turks) of Chinggis' time "Tatars", which was the name of just one of the Mongol tribes.  The word "Hun", which was used both near China and in Europe, may have been a generic Persian or Turkish word. All this makes sense if you understand that these words were functionally and politically, rather than linguistically or racially defined. The Scythians/Huns/Turks were "whichever cavalry people north of the Black Sea it is that keeps raiding us" -- and similiarly for China and Persia.   In fact, I believe that for a historian this functional definition is the best one; modern ethnographic definitions add relatively little of value and can cause more trouble than they're worth.
John was kind enough to write, in his email alerting me to the two new pieces, "These are things I'd been meaning to get started on for 6 months before then.  For whatever reason, a couple of posts on your site provided the butterfly effect that got me going." If that's the only credit I can claim for Ideofact, the effort will have been worth it.

Sunday, May 04, 2003
Because of the four year old's obsession with ancient Egypt, I'm boning up on the subject. I'm reading The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Egypt. I'm quite fond of the other volumes in the series, and I should add that overall, Bill Manley's effort in the Egyptian volume hasn't disappointed. In the foreword, he writes,
...this is also a very presonal interpretation of the history of Egypt reflicting in particular my own unease about the traditional "imperialist" view of Egypt's relations with Palestine. Some readers may find my emphasis on commerce and political pragmatism overstated, but it should at least serve to highlight some interesting topics and unresolved controversies.
I have no problem with authors who have a point of view, especially when it is so clearly admitted in the foreword; from what I've read, I can say that Manley is fairly straightforward in presenting prevailing views and where he departs from the concensus. It does make for interesting reading.

What bothered me, though -- still bothers me -- was a contrast Manley expressed in the first chapter, between the life-giving Nile and the sterile desert, between the rising and setting sun, between life and death.
To express this awareness, two styles of architecture, art and writing were devised: one lively, creative and temporary; the other formal, traditional and enduring. For example, the largest of royal palaces were built mainly of mud-brick -- eventually to crumble -- whereas even the smallest religious shrine was built of stone. As a result our received images of Egypt are funerary and religious and -- since the ability to write was an indication of power -- a typical Egyptian as transmitted into modern perception is likely to have been an elite male corpse!
The first thing that caught my eye was the exclamation point. Was it all that surprising to find that elite male corpses would predominate? (For what it's worth, I think we know a fair amount about elite female corpses as well, but that's beside the point.) Should we be shocked to learn that there were no great novels of the socialist realist school from the time of the Pharoahs?

But I was more troubled by Manley's assertion -- repeated fairly frequently throughout the text -- that "the ability to write was an indication of power." From what little I know of Egyptology, I am aware that scribes were generally better off than farmers. That said, many of them were merely taking dictation, rather than making history. Thomas Jefferson's pen, or for that matter, Tom Paine's pen, had far more power than any Egyptian scribe's.

Looking over my last post (immediately below) -- well, I don't quite know where to begin to sort it all out. Sati' al-Husri deserves a lengthy treatment all on his own. He's the intellectual author of Arab nationalism, but also an intellectual author of post-Great War Arab totalitarianism. It would probably be worthwhile to tease out the interplay between the secular Arab nationalists, who stressed race and blood as the unifying principle for a greater pan-Arab polity, and the Islamists, who preferred religion. Of course, the distance between their grand schemes and reality on the ground was great. The pan-Arabists had to deal with pockets of minorities -- Kurds, Turkomen, Assyrians, Armenians, and Jews (who were Semitic but not Arab). For the Islamists, there were Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and other religious communities, not to mention the split between Shi'a and Sunni. In the case of the former, the response was to simply ignore distinctions; in the case of the latter, it was useful to sharpen differences to cultivate hatreds.

I'm still interested in Milosz's invoking of Ketman, but that's a subject for another post.