Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Tyson-Wilde Comparison

James Toback's new Mike Tyson documentary features the unhinged prizefighter reading an excerpt from Oscar Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

Aligning Mike Tyson, a convicted rapist with a fondness for firearms, with Oscar Wilde, an aesthete sent to prison for his homosexuality, deserves the Academy Award for Audacity.

(If you get to Paris, then head to Cimetiere Pere Lachaise and skip Jim Morrison's final resting place. Check out Oscar Wilde's tomb, known as L'Homme-Oiseau. Also worth a look is Victor Noir's, murdered in 1848 and renowned for his power to make women fertile from the afterlife.)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Battle for "Eurasia"

Robert D. Kaplan has a new bibliography for American imperialism. Lately he has been reading Victorian geographical determinists, and he finds much to support the premise of the War on Terror.

Kaplan believes that the new globalized world has eroded the power of the nation-state and brought to the fore the all-powerful forces of geography. You wouldn't think he put much stock in information technology or stateless economic forces. Apparently, as in an endlessly repeating game of Risk, the battles for world domination keep happening in the same spots.

The great French historian Fernand Braudel, who along with Claude Levi-Strauss helped found Brazil's first university, is cited for his emphasis on the influence of the physical environment on history. Poor soils in southern Europe lead to Greek and Roman conquests. (Kaplan neglects to mention that Braudel's masterpiece was written from memory in a German POW camp, perhaps because Germany/France doesn't fit into his list of Eurasian "shatter zones").

In the same vein, Jose Vasconcelos has pointed out that the internal combustion engine never would have been hit upon by the Ancient Egyptians due to their warm climate--it took the shivering German obsession with fuel-gathering.

Halford Mackinder is the thinker that Kaplan is most attracted to. To Mackinder the game of Risk is won or lost in the Central Asian steppe (Here the metaphor breaks down. Experienced players know that Australia is the key to the game). Resources dwindle and factionalism grows and there's your Eurasian tinderbox. Kaplan slyly shifts his overarching metaphor from Vietnam to the Cold War, realigning his view of the future with what Bush 43 sometimes called "the global struggle against violent extremism."

The conclusion of Kaplan's paper, that geography still matters, is unimpressive. It's refreshing to survey a period when historians had a vision with grand sweep. Redressing injustices or adhering to politically correct guidelines meant nothing to Mackinder or Braudel. But let's keep this former Israeli soldier away from America's foreign policy.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Light Meat, Dark Meat

The Economist's favorite hobbyhorse is the inclusion of Turkey into the European Union. It seems like every time I pick up that magazine, its anonymous British editorial voice advocates the EU's expansion, specifically to the southeast. If commerce is the grand panacea, then might Euro-prosperity tame even the most fervent Muslim cleric?

Turkey was graced with a visit from the U.S. president on his first overseas trip. Obamaphilia spread across Europe and Asia Minor while the prez kept a light diplomatic touch. Turkish TV news beseeched him in blackface, for some very strange reason.

Obama said that Turkish inclusion into the E.U. is something for the E.U. to decide. While this restraint is understandable in the wake of the my-way-or-the-highway Bush administration, and the currently dissolving global economy demanded most of his attention, Obama seemed to shrink from a campaign promise to declare Turkey's slaughter of Armenians a genocide.

This week Obama finally got down to brass tacks. While stopping short of the g-word, he put to use his erudite, cosmopolitan image and employed the Armenian-language characterization of the events, "meds yeghern," which means "great calamity." Obama will clearly err on the side of rhetorical caution as Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan try to straighten out their fraught relations.

But the not-quite-secular government of Turkey may have blown their opportunity to cash in on that sweet Euro-action. There is a whiff of the totalitarian in the Turkish government's snubbing of the Danish premier, to say nothing of widespread poverty and a checkered human rights record.

The idea of Turkey as the great example for the rest of the Caucasus and Middle East, a functioning secular democracy in a Muslim culture, still exists. Europe has certainly also noted its potential as an oil conduit. But for now borders remain borders.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Man Who Believed He Was King of France

Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri's book recounts the misadventures of a 14th century Sienese man who combined the "sacrality of royal power and the commercial culture of the merchant class." Born into the humble role of small-time trader, Giannino di Guccio is informed that he was switched at birth with Jean le Posthume, the King of France who was believed dead at infancy.

It was Cola di Rienzo, the political maneuverer, that cooked up this conceit. The fake history exalted a 38-year-old merchant into an immediate royal, which is of course slightly more than a mortal human being. Guccio embraced his new title but, as can be imagined, events were not kind to this pretender to a throne that was already in dispute amidst the sieges and magma-dousings of the Hundred Years' War. This made him a sort of Ross Perot circa '92: a trouble-causing idealist whose quest was over before it started.

The background of this book is a Europe in crisis mode. The Muslims have Jerusalem, the Pope's in Avignon, and the Black Death has ravaged the continent. Guccio's plan to seize the kingdom of France was not just egocentric--he felt the calling to right a sinking ship. This was at least in part an altruistic attempt to save Europe, which was then called "Christendom."

Medieval politics were not as media-sodden as the contemporary equivalent, and so the consensus reality was mutable. In those days, you could head out to the town square and proclaim things and if you weren't swiftly killed then you had some authority. As a medievalist the author is clearly drawn to this fungible quality of reality, which should also attract anyone that employs a contradictory and self-sabotaging regimen of problem-solving.

On the other hand, casting around for assertions of authenticity from the halls of power (Guccio's main strategy) carried great personal risk. A trumped-up letter from a Hungarian royal is as much a liability as an asset, and the great irony of Guccio's endeavor is that he sought what he believed was truth and justice through deception and forgery. Upon returning to his hometown, Sienese magistrates took him at his word, revoked his citizenship and clapped him in irons.

Many scholars assumed Guccio's story to be legendary -- stories by Alexandre Dumas and Mark Twain feature regular Joes seeking rightful royal status. Falconeri demonstrates that Guccio was real. Part of the proof for this assertion is the paradox of just how typical Guccio's story is--no supernatural interludes and no fawning maidens to the person of the King. It's a straight story about a businessman who sought immortality, sought to turn money into magic. The shitstorm of 2008-9 could use a few of this type of outside-the-box operators.