Wednesday, August 30, 2017


I have been quiet here this month because current events have, for once, rendered me speechless. The late unpleasantness in Charlottesville, and Washington's response to it, made abundantly clear what I had previously tried to ignore: the president, vice president, and attorney general of the United States, and upwards of 30 million other Americans, are Nazi sympathizers. Probably another 30-plus million Americans are okay with this. We have yet to stage our own national Kristallnacht, but the men who want to smash the store windows, burn the churches and synagogues, and raise the gallows are out and marching. Our garden-variety white supremacists have done this before, of course, but never with such clear support from the national government.

There isn't much I can physically do about the American fascists' coming-out party. I'm too decrepit and socially anxious to counter-march. I can try to atone for my own complicity with white supremacy, which though minor is real enough.

Fifteen years ago I accepted a professional writing award (the only one I ever expect to receive) named, it turns out, for a Confederate apologist, segregationist, and racist historian of some former repute. I have long avoided confronting the ugliness of the connection, but now I have decided to stop running from it. I have not publicly repudiated or returned the award - the society which so honored me is not intrinsically racist - but I have taken the certificate down from the wall, removed references to the prize from my resume, and donated the award money (a sum equal to it) to the NAACP, the UNCF, and the Equal Justice Initiative. I have also begun reading Ibram Kendi's Stamped from the Beginning, a history of racist ideas not previously on my reading list. When I complete that particular journey through social ugliness I plan to post a link to my review on this blog.

I won't pretend to be "woke" to the ubiquity of violence, white supremacism, and para-militarism in the United States. I can at least start the process of educating myself, and make myself less a part of the problem than I otherwise would remain.

(Update, September 8: my review is up at Goodreads; link above.)

Monday, July 31, 2017

Then Iceland Struck Back

The Economist of 22 July 2017 reports an intriguing piece of historical detective work that ties together an early medieval famine, a buried volcano, ice cores, and tree-ring isotopes.

Shortly after the death of Charlemagne, western Europe experienced three years (821-24) of terrible weather: hard winters, frozen rivers, failed crops, and famine. The Frankish monk Paschasius Radbertus recorded these “years without summer” but could only attribute them to the wrath of God. Environmental scientists tend to associate “summerless” years not with divine displeasure but with volcanic eruptions, and a large one apparently occurred in this period. Ice core extractions from Greenland show elevated levels of sulfate particles, a marker for volcanism (which ejects sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere), during the third decade of the ninth century.

Identifying the specific volcano responsible for Radbertus’s famine would seem impossible, but in 2003 serendipity provided an important clue. Flooding in southern Iceland uncovered the remains of an old forest in southern Iceland, 20 miles from the Myrdalsjokul glacier. 2,200 feet beneath that glacier lies Katla, a volcano that periodically erupts through its ice cover, producing powerful floods. Such a flood likely killed the now-buried forest: the ancient trees, which had all been knocked down at the same time, pointed away from Katla, indicating that some force from that direction had felled them. 

According to Ulf Buntzen (Cambridge), the trees’ rings give a precise date for their demise: 47 years after 775 CE, when an unknown event (probably heightened solar activity) deposited high levels of Carbon-14 isotope in tree rings worldwide. The flood thus took place in 822, soon after the start of the frigid weather observed by our Frankish monk, and during the period of elevated sulfate levels found in the Greenland ice. This is as close to absolute proof of a volcanic eruption in Iceland as one can get in the absence of on-the-spot observers, who wouldn’t arrive on the island for another half-century.

Iceland has suffered a great deal from outside illnesses and calamities, but one should recall that it is contributed to one or two of its own (crop failures, disrupted air travel, bad music) over the centuries. The world is a small place, and small places can exert an outsized influence on it.

Monday, July 03, 2017

Pity Poor Iceland (1707 Edition)

When I teach my students about the impact of Old World diseases on Native Americans, I stress that the lethality of these illnesses resulted from Indians’ geographic isolation, not their genetic background or lack of medical knowledge. Without prior experience of maladies like measles and influenza, indigenous peoples became vulnerable to the “virgin-soil” effect, where no-one had acquired immunity to a disease and thus everyone in an infected community became sick. Any similarly isolated population, even a European one, could suffer a deadly virgin-soil epidemic. As Exhibit A, I present the case of Iceland. Hard winters (especially during the Little Ice Age) and rough northern seas cut Icelanders off from the European mainland, allowing them to develop their distinctive and venerable culture*, but also allowing generations to grow up without exposure to crowd diseases.

In 1707 this led to disaster. A ship from the mainland brought in smallpox, one of the most dangerous Eurafrican maladies. Smallpox is airborne and highly contagious in confined spaces, like the smoky interiors of Icelandic farmhouses. It kills around a quarter of those who become infected without modern medical treatment - more if they lack food, water, and warmth. Those who survive usually suffer permanently disfiguring scars on their faces, hands, and feet, the result of the weeping pustules that characterize the final stages of the disease. Relatively few Icelanders bore these scars in 1707. The island had experienced several smallpox epidemics in the past, but the last outbreak ended in 1670, so almost no-one under 40 had an immune system that could recognize the disease.

The disease spread slowly, but relentlessly, through the countryside. By 1709, when the last cases of sickness were recorded, variola (the virus that causes smallpox) had killed 12,000 people, nearly one-quarter of Iceland’s population. Most likely there were enough survivors of the earlier outbreak to take care of the sick, which kept the death rate slightly below its usual pre-modern level. Still, so great a loss, especially of children and young people, must have been a heavy blow to so small and rural a society. The only benefit was the immunity conferred to the survivors, which made the next few incidences of smallpox less lethal.

Visiting officials kept a good record of the 1707-09 epidemic, but this probably didn't produce major changes in Icelanders' behavior. Epidemics rarely do, somehow. In any case, warnings about the dangers of smallpox would not have helped the survivors' grandchildren when they faced the next great disaster in their island's history, a concatenation of natural disaster, famine, and disease that slaughtered cattle, poisoned the land, and left 10,000 people dead. 

Arguably, Iceland would have been better off if the eighteenth century had never happened.

Sources: Alfred Crosby, "Virgin Soil Epidemics as a Factor in the Aboriginal Depopulation in America," William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 33 (1976): 289-299; J.N. Hays, Epidemics and Pandemics (ABC-Clio, 2005), 131-133

Image above by Diego Delso (, License CC-BY-SA.

* Icelanders preserved to the present day their medieval language, their sagas, and their mythology, including the famous Norse myths that became lost or corrupted on the mainland.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

A Bright and Bounded World: Exploring a Rachel Ruysch Still Life

The painting to the left bears the distinctive style of one of Europe’s most accomplished still-life artists, Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750). The daughter of a Dutch naturalist, Ruysch studied with the professional artist Wilhelm van Aelst and became one of the few prominent female painters of the eighteenth century. She specialized in paintings of flowers, which her Dutch patrons valued for their beauty and as a symbol of gentility. Holland had by the sixteenth century developed a market in medicinal and aromatic blooms, and during the Netherlands’ age of maritime ascendancy, florists introduced rare and attractive foreign species (like the tulip) into the nation's market in decorative luxuries.

Flowers are ephemeral, but paintings can endure much longer. Ruysch completed at least 250 still-lifes during her sixty-year-long career, and her canvasses now grace museums and collections throughout Europe. The 1706 painting included here, from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, shows both the artist’s technical virtuosity and her talent for spontaneity - for making her arrangements appear natural. The white carnations draw the viewer’s eye to the painting’s center, whence it can wander to the peripheries; the variegated tulips remind us of her homeland’s passion for that strain of flower; the violet morning glories provide chromatic contrast to the red peonies; and the grapes and pale peaches near the bottom of the painting offer variety of type and texture. The flowers’ stems bend and intertwine, providing dynamism to the composition, while some decline as though starting to wilt.

At the bottom of the picture, atop the table on which the bouquet’s vase sits, an inquisitive snail and a yellow-winged moth approach the fruit and flowers. Another, larger moth with black-speckled wings perches on one of the lower stems. Insects and snails feed on plant, and their presence suggests that the bouquet will not long go unmolested. Death always creeps on the edges of life, and in this painting the snail and moths place a temporal boundary around the beauty of the flowers, which will be eaten if they do not decay first. Ruysch didn’t just include these little predators as symbols of vanitas, however. She developed an interest in entomology early in her career, and included insects in many of her paintings. Her buggy subjects she draws with as much grace and precision as the other parts of the bouquet, indicating that in the little worlds she renders on canvas, Ruysch intends to make mortality just as attractive as beauty.    

(My thanks to Dr. Susan Livingston for her essential advice on this post.)  

(Above painting via the Web Gallery of Art,

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Niall Ferguson is Still Looking for a Secret Fascist Boyfriend, and Donald Trump Might Just Be The One

Into the Times (of London) Herr Doctor-Professor Niall Campbell Elizabeth Ferguson has just slithered, bearing an essay on Salman Abedi, perpetrator of the May 22 Manchester bombing, and Donald J. Trump, failed casino developer and President, for the time being, of These United States. Abedi, by Ferg’s account, was a rather loutish young man radicalized by jihadist propaganda and a visit to Syria, where he learned to make bombs like the one he used to dispatch 22 people. A familiar story, surely, but one that must alarm all right-thinking people. Abedi, Our Niall tells us, was merely one explosive node in a network of religious evil, a web of conspiracy and terror extending from Manchester to Germany to Libya to, presumably, one of the deeper Demonweb Pits ™. Scary!

Moreover, Abedi and his cohorts didn’t merely poison themselves with a toxic political ideology. What drives the jihadis, says the Still-Sexy-Scotsman, what motivates the bombers of Boston and Manchester and Paris, is actually an “evil” religion, Islam. Oh, Mssr. Niall doesn’t say this in so many words, but one can easily deduce it from the rest of the essay. He praises DJT for denouncing “Islamic terrorism,” rather than joining the “liberal media” and the “politically correct” in calling it “Islamist terrorism.” The -ist suffix, you see, indicates that one refers to a political ideology; the -ic, a religious faith. By insisting on the latter suffix, Ferg implies that there is something specifically wrong with Islam and the Quran. Indeed, he asserts that Christians have done nothing comparable to the Islamic jihadis “since the seventeenth century.” I suspect Professor Niall has heard of Northern Ireland and the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, but his prejudices and his newfound affection for Donald Trump have obviously erased his memories of these recent and quite bloody sectarian conflicts within Christendom.

The same emotionalism causes our overwrought essayist to miss a rather important point about the Manchester bombing: Abedi’s Muslim neighbors knew he was becoming violent, and his family actually warned security officers to keep an eye on him. British officials apparently ignored the tip-off, and Ferg ignores its implications: the vast majority of Muslims, like the vast majority of humans everywhere, are peaceful and ordinary, and don’t care for the tiny minority of violent zealots their communities periodically throw up. Treat that majority with respect and consideration and you have not only a more productive and well-integrated immigrant population, you also have a powerful potential ally against terrorists.

Of course Our Boy Niall doesn’t care. What he wants is a strongman to expel the Bad People from Europe, and Hair Furor looks like the right kind of guy. Ferguson quotes approvingly from one of DJT’s speeches: “Drive them out of your places of worship. Drive them out of your communities. Drive them out of your Holy Land. And drive them out of this earth.” Something tells me the Trumpster doesn’t mean “Deport them to Mars.” Something tells me that neither he nor Ferguson would much mind if an extended urban hunter-killer campaign against jihadists also killed a large number of their family members and neighbors. (After all, the United States has killed thousands of innocent people during just the last few years of its War on Terror.) Something also tells me that His Scottishness would like to see such a campaign conducted in Europe. Actually, Niall explicitly says so: “This seems like advice that European leaders could also use.”

Having experienced a frisson of excitement from Trump’s fascist rhetoric, Ferg decides he must add some intellectual respectability to his new crush. He observes that everyone in the “liberal media,” everyone but Niall Himself, missed the point of Trump’s famous photo op in Riyadh, in which we saw him touching a mysterious glowing orb within a cavernous Strangelove-esque building. Well, actually, N.C.E. Ferguson informs us, the building in question was the new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, and the Orb its ceremonial “go button.” The message behind Trump’s Orb, which Trump’s Secret Kissinger is just the man to decipher, is that Saudi Arabia has decided - no doubt under DJT’s powerful intellectual influence - to stop exporting extremist ideology and start fighting it instead. The Donald will help persuade the Saudi government to redirect its energies away from proselytism, and toward partnership with Israel and the United States against Iran. Niall has been preaching a Crusade against Iran and its nuclear program for at least six years, and now its hour has come round at last!

And if you believe that, you’ll believe anything. I don’t presume to speak for the Saudi government, but I find it hard to believe that its Global Center will provide much more than lip service to the “anti-extremist” cause. Saudi Arabia has invested beaucoup bucks in the mosques, madrasas, and other institutions that help spread the Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam, not because its government wants to breed terrorists but because it considers Wahhabism a conservative faith and a prop for conservative (and pro-Saudi) Islamic states. An “anti-extremist” center, in the Saudis’ eyes, would simply advance the same policies their government thinks it’s been pursuing for decades.

Apparently, though, Niall’s infatuation with His Trumpishness has become strong enough that he will believe nearly anything. I say this because the Dimestore Kissinger believes not only that Trump has intellectual depths only he can fathom, but that DJT might be willing to listen to his own expert advice: “He needs,” writes Ferg, “to rethink his policy on Muslim immigration” if he wants to win Muslim hearts and minds. Anyone still in possession of his or her faculties could see the preposterousness of Niall’s notion. President 45 cannot “rethink” his policies toward Muslim refugees, Hispanic immigrants, and African-Americans because no real thought went into producing them. Instead these policies grow from hatreds that DJT acquired early in his life, that became foundational to his ego, and that played a huge role, I am ashamed to say, in getting him elected. Ferg’s assumption that a smart conservative (yes, I know that’s now an oxymoron) like himself could persuade our fascist president to change doesn’t just demonstrate infatuation; it displays the kind of blind king-worship that went out of fashion in most Western countries in the nineteenth century.

Ferguson, however, long ago ditched his professional training and devotion to reason in favor of sucking up to the powerful. In the 2000s he courted rich businessmen, in the 2010s he became BFFs with fellow sycophant Henry Kissinger, and now he apparently wants to squirm into the good graces of an out-and-out tyrant. This is not, alas, a unique fate for intellectuals. Or pseudo-intellectuals.

(Above photo of Donald Trump, King Salman, and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at the Global Centre for Combating Extremist Ideology courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Photo of Niall Campbell (Douglas) Elizabeth Ferguson by Nik Gowing, 2010. He's much more rugged now.)