1 May 2017

Past and Present - 05/2017 (last updated May 14)

I felt like I haven't read enough papers as of late, so I'll start the May edition of Past and Present by posting a whole slew of papers. Hopefully, at least one or two of these will be of interest to people.


Battle for Nationalism in Turkish and Iranian Press: One of my guilty pleasures is spectating battles for identity. On a second thought, to be more accurate, it's discovering the battles for identity that I like. It's an element of history that ivory-tower academics often shy away from, and even when they do, it's stripped of all its popcorn-worthy drama. So it's quite entertaining when you stumble onto identity-issues like a Swahili fiercely clinging onto his Shirazi/Arabic ancestry, a Macedonian wearing a t-shirt that reads "Don't you FYROM me!", or an Iranian and an Arab arguing over who was more responsible for the Islamic golden age. A heavy-hitter in this category, of course, is the battle of pride between Turks and Iranians and this paper is about exactly that as the political climate of the early 20th century Middle-East switched from Pan-Islamism to Pan-Turkism and Nationalism. Most amusing is the debate over Zoroaster's ethnicity, in which nationalist sentiments had ramped up to a point where both Sunni Turks and Shia Iranians were arguing over the ethnicity of a heathen prophet! Whatever happened to good ol' persecution of those fire-worshipping deviants? An Iranian poet's response is just too good not to post here:

Has the affair of plunder reached such heights in these days,
That you plunder our ancient prophet?
Zoroaster is not a heart that you could steal,
In no way is he comparable to a heart; why do you do this with prophets?
Zoroaster was not a thing to be taken, how do you benefit from such greed?
Be content with only stealing hearts.
Today you desire to take away prophets,
Tomorrow, who knows, you may want to take away God!

Even more hilarious is how when the Ottoman intellectual Riza Tevfik disputed the claim that Zoroaster was a Turk, a soldier mailed him a letter concluding that Tevfik had Greek-blood. Fucking ice-cold burn, nigga.

Re-examining the origins of the Ottoman-Safavid War of 1578-90: Never trust kebab. Those fuckers broke a century-long alliance with me when I had a 85 trust rating with them in EU4! On a more serious note, it's fascinating just how long the Kurdish question has influenced Turkish-Iranian relations.
Plot to Capture Kaiser Wilhelm II: Wow. Just wow. Not only did I never hear about this, this crazy attempt by the American senator/colonel Luke Lea to capture the Kaiser and bring him to a trial at the end of WW1 is just so... American. The contempt for the stuffy, rules-based order of European nobility, the sense of vigilante justice combined with sheer bravado, that can-do-attitude in spite of a poorly thought-out plan, and the last-minute improvisation and "souvenir"-pilfering... This story just screams MURRICA! I don't intend this as a slight. This is the aspect of American culture that garners as much respect as it does hate.

Simulating the Roman Centurion's Effect: This is a cool study that uses Agent-based modelling to see how a Roman centurion's position, experience, and the number of ranks will affect the overall ability to break an enemy's line. As with any type of modelling, the results are only as valid as the initial assumptions expressed in specific formulae, but hey, it seems more than reasonable and it beats empty theorizing. The interesting point to take away isn't that an officer placed on the front-lines or increasing ranks will increase chances of victory (which seems obvious even without fancy modelling) but that enemy formation cohesion decreases not linearly but as an S-curve with respect to more experienced Centurions. Combined with the fact that most casualties in battle occur after the line has broken and troops are fleeing, even if an officer's experience linearly increases his formation's combat ability, it can nevertheless have a nonlinear effect on the battle as a whole.

Persian as lingua franca in Yuan Empire? Not so fucking fast!: Wew, boy. This is a pretty thorough put-down to all the Persiaboos who try to downplay Turkic and Chinese influence in the Mongol Yuan Empire. I have casually encountered this claim that there were many influential Persians in the Yuan realm and that Persians were even ranked above native Han Chinese, but I never gave it much thought before. Apparently, there's a whole bunch of scholars who have given it a lot of thought, and after reading this paper, I have to agree that the evidence does look tenuous. There were undoubtedly some influential Persians, but Uighurs and other Turks were likely far more influential. As the author concludes in this essay, I'd like to see a lot more studies on the Mongol Empire using Chinese sources instead of quoting Juvaini and Rashid al-Din over and over again.
Kingdom of Kongo's Coat of Arms
Dutch-Kongo Alliance during the 30 Years' War: I'm conditioned to think of the 7 years' war as the first real "global war," so it comes as a surprise learning that the 30 years' war also involved conflicts in South America and Central Africa. Perhaps it's more accurate to consider it as a part of the 80 years' War, but even then, the Portuguese-Dutch conflict gets overshadowed by the Spanish-Dutch conflict. In any case, this paper brings to light the critically under-examined role that the Dutch-Kongo Alliance played in the Groot Desseyn, an ambitious Dutch plan to seize Portuguese holdings in Brazil and Angola. Had it not been for the rather shaky elective monarchy of the Kongo Kingdom, Portugal might have been kicked out of Angola 300 years earlier! Just think how history might have changed without the financial burdens the Angolan War of Independence placed on Salazar's Estado Novo regime. Then again, Portugal still had Mozambique to deal with, so maybe it might not have made that much of a difference... Either way, a cool read on an obscure topic.

Oh also, the shit about Portuguese hiring Imbangala cannibals as mercenaries to fight against their fellow Catholic Kongo brothers is insane. As Eu4 puts it, same religion only gives you a +5 relations modifier...

Revisionist View of Roman Money: I recently read (and very much liked) David Graeber's Debt: The First 5000 Years which shatters the myth of a barter economy and argues in great detail just how extensive elaborate credit systems have existed from the earliest of times. Although Graeber argues that coins really only evolved with the birth of a fiscal-military complex, this paper by W. V. Harris argues that even the Roman Empire was heavily reliant on elaborate credit systems. This certainly gives a better context for the occasional mentions of creditors in Roman history, as well as the banking crisis which occured in 33 A.D. during Augustus' reign. It's a shame the paper only dwells briefly at the end on an idea I found most fascinating, which is that the infamous Roman currency inflation accompanying the crisis of the 3rd century (especially in 270s A.D.) might have had less to do with an increase in money supply or debasement as is often thought, but with how a widespread credit system exponentially multiplied the effect of debasement.

Historical Legend-making in Tang Taizong's siege of Ansi: From the way legends mysteriously spring up from a vague historical basis to how it evolves over the centuries, legends are a fun aspect to mine in cultural studies. Often, it tells a lot about a culture which chose to preserve a specific legend for centuries, if not millennia. This paper deals with how the legend of Tang Taizong being blinded by Yang Manchun, the defender of Ansi-fortress, during the failed 1st campaign of the Koguryo-Tang war came about. Considering Korean culture has had an internal conflict between a desire to be a respected member of the Chinese Confucian world-order and a desire to retain its uniqueness, it makes sense how this legend came about and how long it continued to be talked and debated over.
Wincest or Fake Incest in Roman-Egyptian marriage?:  This topic vaguely reminds me of how /a/nons sometimes argue that Japan is too pussified to depict real incest and cops out by the NOT BLOOD-RELATED reveal. But umm, back to the paper itself... This is a concise, no-nonsense study that gives a middle-finger to a previous study that claimed the brother-sister marriage in Roman Egypt were actually between a daughter and an adopted son, which is perfectly ordinary in the Mediterranean world (also very common in Japan). This is done by testing 3 simple hypothesis:

1) most adoptees would be a male who marries his new "sister
2) most adoptees would be the only son of their adoptive parents
3) most adoptees would not have same name as adoptive paternal grandfather

One would think these hypotheses should have been tested by the previous study's author but... Oh well, we all make mistakes. Still embarrassing though.

Economic restructuring in Northern Song China: Song China attracts so much attention from economic historians, and it's not hard to see why when you look at the indexes of economic growth featured in this paper. More importantly though, for people familiar with Song economy, is that this particular study rejects the idea that the Champa rice's role in greatly expanding the food supply had any significance role in the economic growth. Instead, a state-led economic model is argued for, by showing how government policies favouring economic sectors with higher liquidity and productivity led to the remarkable economic growth. From what little I know about Song China, I've tended to favour the state-led model of Song economic growth since the Song were uniquely under greater fiscal-military pressures than any other major Chinese dynasties. It's hard for me to think that mere improvements in agriculture was what really triggered its revolutionary growth, as that had happened both before and since then.

News Articles:

Soft-Coup of Russia-gate: I feel like I haven't commented anything about the never-ending Russophobia so I'll link this article. While some Americans might say something like, "God, that was, like, a  hundred years ago or something! Get over it!" at issues like the hatred between China-Japan, Greece-Turkey, or Cambodia-Vietnam, I think these are very understandable conflicts. What I do have a hard time understanding is the vehemently anti-Russia stance from Americans. For fuck's sake, America, you won the Cold War and you have the most powerful military and economy! You put your own sphere of influence over Eastern Europe which used to be their playground! You helped wreck their standard of living by advising them to adopt economic "shock therapy!" You even fucking put Gorbachev on a PIZZA HUT commercial, as if you needed a cherry on top of everything else!

So why is it that this bullshit Russophobia still scares so many Americans? Are those short, slant-eyed chinks not a good enough villain for ya, compared to the good ol' Russian bear? I swear if neither America nor Russia exists in 2000 years and there are books written about this period, there's gonna be a lot of confused history students wondering the same thing as me.

Rehabilitating Rice's Reputation: Einstein had that famous quote about stupidity. It goes, "Two things are infinite. The universe and human stupidity. And I'm not so sure about the universe." I think this is something that anyone studying history should really learn to grapple with. It's popular to think of history being made either by environmental/social/economic forces beyond human control or by great men with their charisma and intellect. Not so popular, on the other hand, is analyzing just how much sheer stupidity has influenced the course of events. And when I say "grappling with stupidity," I'm talking about understanding what drives human groups to make collective decisions that are astoundingly stupid. Something like our ongoing trashing of the environment falls into this category, but another example more relevant to the linked article is failure to implement a system that can correct mistakes. What good are experts and professionals if the bad ones are never weeded out?

In professional sports, fans, coaches, scouts, and commentators pore through every available statistic of a player in all the years he or she has played. But in politics? Who cares if someone is 0 for 27 in all his past predictions or decisions? Let's call him up for an interview on CNN again so the public can hear his oh-so-valuaaable insights! It's so sad to think that we treat professional sports far more seriously than we treat politics.

Comey's Firing testing "Guardrails of Democracy: Certainly worth reflecting over. Comey's firing will likely be only as significant as to the kinds of lessons current politicians draw from it. Will they simply see it as convenient ammo for never-ending partisan-fights or genuinely accept it as something more significant?

Moon Jae-In: Is he "our guy" or not?: In my opinion, one of the biggest problems in American foreign policy-making is the inordinate attention America heaps upon itself. Foreign countries are sometimes understood not as distinct entities with their own desires and motivations, but simply as satellites revolving around the America-centred universe. As such, countries are reduced to the sum of their current relationship with America and whether or not they share similar stances on issues that America is interested in. In the context of South Korean politics, there's been a lot of casual descriptions of Moon Jae-In, the new president, as "anti-American" but the reality is much more nuanced. The above article and this one are worth reading to understand where Moon agrees and disagrees with America. Still, my opinion on North Korea is the same as ever. Neither a sunshine policy nor a hawkish one will produce any solutions.

Cambodia opening arms even wider for China: The note about the Khmer translation of Xi Jiping's "The Governance of China" should remind any student of East Asian history of the enormous influence that Chinese texts on statecraft and philosophy have had on neighbours. A fascinating example is how Zhenguan Zhengyao (Essentials of Government in the Zhenguan period) compiled during the early 8th century to record Tang Taizhong's exemplary conduct had a profound influence on Tokugawa Ieyasu's creation of a new legal code 900 years later! While that's not to imply that Xi Jiping's book will be anywhere near that important, it's still interesting to think about how little some things have changed.

Trouble with Macron: This is a month-old article I meant to link back in April, but it's still relevant so here it is. Last year in America, conservative analysts like Ben Shapiro predicted that Trump becoming the president would only clear the way to an even stronger comeback by the Democrats should Trump live up to the expectations of his naysayers and spill his spaghetti. I think the roughly the same logic can be applied for France, too, as this article points out, meaning that it's still too early for people to breathe sighs of relief and congratulate France for making the "smart choice," Macron might be the youngest French leader since Napoleon but I doubt he can bring that same youthful vigour to the French economy, especially when all of us in the developed world are all living in an era characterized by periodic global recessions, growing economic polarization, and high unemployment. The lower voter turnout compared to the 2012 French presidential elections seem to reflect this growing apathetic view that neither candidate has the answer. Maybe I'm wrong though. Maybe this far-right threat will recede within a decade. I certainly wouldn't put my money on it, however.


  1. Never expected ancient Egyptians to be into wincest... Fascinating stuff.

  2. Russo-phobia is groomed and nurtured in the USA because it is a good tool to influence people without having resort to reason, and a well tested and effective one it seems.
    I've had an eye on the CNN International site the day Trump met with Lavrov and didn't know if to laugh or be utterly baffled by the amount of crude propaganda I saw then. The whole non-story about the Russian photographer and how CNN helped hype this story should be revealing about the nature of that 'news' outlet. In a first article they hawk the rumor of the alleged 'security breach' by allowing a photographer of the 'state-run' TASS agency into the Oval Office (he could plant 'devices') and blow the non-agreed release of his photographs completely out of proportion. The gem is their allegation that the White House was 'furious' about this release and they quote 'an official' saying: That's the problem with the Russians, they lie. LOL And the bad Russians also used this photos in an unfavorable way in some news articles and Lavrov even joked about Comeys firing (he never takes 'journalists' that serious, that makes them resent him).
    Then in a follow-up article they try to further their speculations by interviewing a former KGB spy, doh. Another article (all articles accessible from the start page btw) then uses the fact that Putin had this show-hockey match before which some stupid journo asked him about the Comey matter as occasion to regurgitate some critic on his 'strong-man' image and person in general.
    They don't leave one possibility out to bring up their point, don't they? Propaganda everywhere you look and lots of people (not even all stupid ones) eager to consume it because they hate Trump.