Monday, June 29, 2009

A Letter on Ethnogenesis to Patrick W. Geary

Dear Professor Geary,

I am an amateur historian whose interests include the myths peoples invent in order to justify various courses of action, and I have just read your splendid book, The Myth of Nations, which addressed (and often exploded) several questions and answers I had had about the era around the so-called Fall of Western Rome - such as why the Arian heresy lingered so long, and only among certain ("Germanic") populations, and then vanished so entirely, and how the Germanic tribes maintained a separate existence among the groups they ruled when they cannot have been very numerous. Your suggestion that this was done on purpose to keep an elite under the king's particular command from being subsumed in the great mass makes new sense of the confusion, as does your theory of the actual origin of the manpower involved.

(Aside: I noticed recently some spokesman for the Italian government comparing foreign immigrants to the invasions of the Goths, the Huns and the Normans - specifically NOT mentioning the Lombards among the foreign invaders of the peninsula. On the other hand, in a recent article in the NYTimes on the Elgin Marbles controversy, a Greek minister cheerfully admitted, "We were all speaking Albanian and calling ourselves Romans until Winckelmann and Goethe and Ingres and Byron told us we were the heirs of Socrates and Plato and ought to be Greeks." Let's hope he keeps his job - indeed, his life.)

Ethnogenesis is not a word I had been aware of, but it is such an obvious and intriguing concept, the invention of a nationality and the myths to support it, the common ancestry and the divinely favored dynasty, etc. One can see it at work from the very beginnings of Rome, in the legend of a city formed by free men, refugees, bandits seeking out an altar that liberated them and allowed them to join the new state, and on a recent visit to Turkey, I began to study Ataturk's far-ranging experiment to "invent" a Turkish citizenry - was he a Clovis or a Theodoric? It seems the former.

The one footstep in your overall analysis that puzzled me was in understanding how the proto-Slavic nations could have become so very widespread (Novgorod to Macedon) while still speaking so comparatively similar a range of tongues (compared to, say, the dispersal of Germanic or Romance languages, which are far more distinct from each other) without some coherent invasion from a coherent entity. The separation of the Slavs by the Avar entity is perfectly clear, but this part puzzles me. That is one question I wished to ask you.

Another question, which you may not have given much thought to (it being a mere thousand years out of your period, and a thousand miles from Europe), but which intrigues me (as a Jew), is how the process of ethnogenesis that you outline might account for the "state history" and racial legends recorded in the books of Genesis, Exodus, Judges, Samuel and Kings - a tale that, in its first chapters, has no contemporary written and very little archaeological backing, and in its later (post-Davidic) chronicle shows clear signs of creative tampering and ethnic myth-making of just the sort you record for the Franks, the Goths, and so on.

A minor but semi-professional point, if the book is reprinted (I hope it will become very well known, and taught, and taken into consideration by students of the period), is that whoever copy edited/proofread the hardcover edition I have read (2002, Princeton) was careless to the point of annoyance about the spelling of unfamiliar names, Slovene becoming Slovine, for example, and Breton indistinguishable from Briton. I'd be delighted to send you my list of errata!

With great admiration and pleasure,

John Yohalem

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Stonewall and the Revolts of 1968

What no one ever comments upon, in re: Stonewall (and there is endless commentary upon Stonewall, as in the Times editorial page this weekend, and Rich Wandel's splendid talk at the Chelsea Center last Thursday about what he did in the burgeoning Gay Rights movement after Stonewall) is the timing, vis-a-vis 1968.

1968, you may remember (it hardly got mentioned last year), was the year of rebellion everywhere. The big ones were the revolt against LBJ's handling of Vietnam culminating in the Chicago riots during the Democratic National Convention in August; Prague Spring, culminating in the Warsaw Pact Invasion, also in August; the Paris explosion against DeGaulle; and the Mexico City university riots - the bloodiest, most violent, least remembered of the lot (the Mexican government still denies the whole thing). There were little pops everywhere else, but those were the big ones, the ones that rattled the world. By December, there were notable demonstrations in the least likely bastion of the culture: audiences at the Metropolitan Opera booed Franco Corelli and Gianna d'Angelo off the stage (she never returned to it, at the Met or anywhere), and Rudolf Bing had to put an insert in the program requesting that audience response not be so extreme.

The question is: what did these upheavals have in common? Prague was an uprising against Brezhnev's communism; Chicago against the Democratic machine; Mexico against the quasi-left-wing PRI; Paris against the quasi-right-wing Gaullist Party. What programme did the young (mostly) rioters share?

The answer appears to be an irritation by the powerless against the men in suits (or uniforms) who ran the world and ignored their desires, needs, wishes - the power structure put in place at the end of World War II who refused to change their ways of doing business while the whole world changed around them, who continued to congratulate themselves with remaining impervious to any concerns they had not already resolved upon. The refusal of the power structures to listen. The old refusing to depart. (In an era in which Franco, Salazar, Tito, Chiang, Mao and Stroessner continued to rule, this was quite a notion.)

Briefly the power structure won, nailed the coffin down upon the monster it had begot, but the world cannot be frozen, change cannot be halted for long. And the young were soon entering the power structure and reforming it from within - even in Prague and Mexico. Revolutions are too uncertain, and most people prefer a quiet life - however exhilarating riots are for the young, those whose property might be damaged always side with the forces of reaction. The revolts appeared to fail in almost every case. The violence of Altamont seemed to put paid to the peace and love of Woodstock.


By June, 1969, there was quiet on all these fronts. That is when the embattled faggots stood up in Sheridan Square for what, I argue, was the last revolt of 1968 - and the most successful. A pervasive injustice, the attitude of the rulers of the world towards a generally repressed minority, was challenged successfully. Nothing ever went quite back to normal - first in New York, then in San Francisco, then in Chicago, London, Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Vienna. Today: Shanghai, Jerusalem, Riga, Moscow, Rome are the front lines. No one goes back into the closet. The politicians who denounce gay are either shown to be hypocrites (an easy call) or heartily despised by the youth who know far too much. You can't be gay anymore and think you're the only one. The magazines of the 1970s, the epidemic of the 1980s, the Internet now won't let that happen any more.

Stonewall, the last (and least bloody) was the most effective and successful of the revolts of youth of 1968, the fairy godparent after the fact of all the others.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Conspiracy Theories from A to Z!

A friend has suggested I create a list of Conspiracy Theories from A to Z. I am trying to keep to the Usual Suspects. Any suggestions to add to the cauldron to those below?

A is for Aliens (space, time, species); also Assassins; also AIDS, conspiracy to spread it among blacks and gays, and not find a cure

B is for Bush dynastic links with Saudi Arabia and Bin Laden

C is for CIA (or Communist subversion)

D is for Darwin (pro- (undermining respect for the Bible) or con- (undermining Science, Education, Separation of Church and State)); also Princess Diana, assassination of

E is for Extraterrestrials, Roswell, Flying Saucers

F is for Freemasons (or perhaps Fluoride in the water to undermine our sexual vigor)

G is for Gun control

H is for Homosexuals (seducing children because they can’t reproduce) (and undermining marriage)

I is for Illuminati

J is for Jews (or should this be under Z for Zionists?) (or I for Israel?) (or P for Protocols?)

K is for Kennedy Assassinations (includes destruction of JFK Jr’s plane, and murder of Marilyn Monroe, and Chappaquiddick; see also Mafia)

L is for Liberal Agenda

M is for Mafia (or perhaps Modern Art)

N is for International narcotics trade (or for 9/11) (or Nazis) (or the Great Negro Conspiracy to turn our youth into sexually-obsessed drooling idiots by means of various insidious musics, thereby mongrelizing the race) (or for Neo-Cons)

O is for Obama (the Arab, the Muslim, really white with a suntan, Socialist Agenda, can't have written those books because politicians don't write that well)

P is for Pagans (see also, Materialists, Nazis) (or the Pope, but see R) (or Political Correctness) (or Petro-dollars)

Q is for al-Qaeda

R is for Roman Catholics (secret banks, control of Italian government, suppression of Jesus's sex life and true gender, etc.) (or for Rock n Roll, according to Otto Habsburg a Communist propaganda initiative)

S is for Satanists (or Stock Market manipulations) (or Sports Events, secret Mafia control of) (but see N for Narcotics) (or Socialist Agenda)

T is for Terminators/Time Travelers sent by machines to subvert us. (Also Templars)

U is for USA – not-so-secret plot to undermine all distinctive high or national or ethnic culture in the name of capitalist conformity

V is for Vampires (or Voodoo)

W is for Woman’s Liberation, undermining Male Potency and Natural Domination (or Witches, if there is any difference)

X is for … well, I can’t really tell you that – some of you know, of course

Y is for the subversion of irresponsible Youth against reasonable Old Age

Z is for Zigeuner (the Gypsy conspiracy against Civilization) (or Zombies?)

Monday, June 8, 2009

Brooklyn and Queens on a hot weekend

I have seen BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music evolve over thirty years from salvageable hulk of ruin amid scenes of ruin (with unusual performances), to punk palace of the arts (with its own snazzy crowd of devotees and lots of Euro-art), to major grande dame of the city arts scene, jewel set in glittering renewed downtown Brooklyn. At the moment it is holding a Muslim Cultural Festival, with Asia House and other institutions around town – music, theater, dance, film, “storytelling” from a dozen countries – and I am getting to as much of it as I can.

There was a “souk” in BAM’s car park this past weekend, the usual arts and crafts (overpriced), the usual unhealthy junk food – and some exceptions. At the Turkish booth, a bunch of ladies in headscarves brought home-made stuffed vine leaves (best I’ve ever eaten) and home-made baklava (ditto, especially when it had been sitting in the hot sun a while), and some Lebanese guys had spinach pies shaped like hamantaschen. Someone was selling witty T-shirts for far too much money, such as, on a covered wagon, heading a whole train of such, “Why settle? … Israel!” which could be taken to support either (any) side of the question, eh?; “Surf Saudi Arabia! Sportsman’s Mecca,” “Petro sexual,” “Come out to … Iran!,” “Party Like Iraq Star,” “Gaza Strip Club XXX,” and “Afghanistan!” above images of a wind surfer on the ocean. There was very good Middle Eastern music but the CDs on offer were mostly recent, jazz-inspired, beatboxed shit - if it uses microphones or electric instruments, I'm not very interested.

Across the street, by the way, is Mark Morris’s building, an old hulk completely gutted and refitted and modernized for his dance troupe, with rehearsal halls to rent to others. Typical of the modesty of the man: The new cornerstone, prominently visible, was laid in 2000, so it reads: “A.D. MM.”

According to an article I happen to be proofreading, 46 percent of Queens is foreign-born (a record for U.S. counties), and the borough is huge, in addition, with well over a million people. All sorts of cool folk live there now.

All this as prelude to Sunday when, fed up with being cooped up by ill health in gorgeous weather, I took the bike (via E train) to Roosevelt Avenue for Queens Pride. I’d somehow never made it before, and by the time I arrived, the parade was over (if it had ever been) and a street fair on rainbow themes filled a dozen blocks where the Indian, Pakistani and Afghan colonies meet various Latino enclaves as the E train crosses the 7. (There are also a Thai temple and a Jain center not far down the street.)

Several stages had lip sync drag mamas or folk acts or rappers to which almost no one in the crowd paid attention, there was lots of unhealthy food, there was a guy giving out cards of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, lots of condom distribution, petitions to sign (I signed one to save the libraries of Queens from budget cuts), free hepatitis shots and STD screenings, someone selling straw cowboy hats (I bought one, and it saved me from sunstroke), a bin of used CDs (Ann Hampton Callaway scatting standards in tribute to Ella, a bargain for $2), and I got pair of binoculars for $10 which won’t hurt me when I lose them, as the $140 ones did, there were assorted well-built young men but it was very neighborhood, much of the crowd was straight and enjoying the festa part. I’ve always preferred that Gay Pride be a festa for all, not just Our Crowd.

After an hour or so, I’d had enough of it, so I began biking aimlessly southerly, pausing for beer at an Irish bar (barman from Galway, “city of the tribes” – “I have friends who spend the summer there,” I told him; “Have they got a summer there?” he was skeptical) with a waterfall and barbecue in back, drifting down Greenpoint Avenue through ethnic neighborhood upon ethnic neighborhood, all unknown to me, over the Newtown Creek into Brooklyn. The plaza around the east end of the Williamsburg Bridge, once full of elegant bank buildings, then a ruin for decades, is now reviving nicely – some of the banks are now churches; others are, once again, banks – and through the Valley of the Shadow of the Hasidim to Fort Greene and on and on, miles and miles, most of it amazingly less shabby than it was in the 80s. I attempted a bridge to Manhattan, but my thighs were having none of it.

At last I was at BAM again – easy to spot from a distance because it is beside the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower, a Romanesque domed minaret spire, the oldest skyscraper in Brooklyn and one of my favorites in the city. (The ground floor, currently in restauro during condo conversion, has a sublime Cosmatic pavement which I trust will be preserved.) The Turks were out of vine leaves, so I got spinach pie instead to wash down more baklava. Then I took the bike by subway back to the Village. Another week of exercise and I’ll be able to handle a bridge or two.

Old movie houses (often full of fine deco detailing) and old banks (usually of turn-of-the-century grandeur: many domes, imitating either the Pantheon or the U.S. Capitol/St. Paul’s; many colonnades of one or another classical order) and old churches tend to switch functions: churches become theaters, banks and movie theaters become churches; banks become carpet warehouses. I favor retaining the old buildings just to vary the streetscape, prevent it becoming lethally dull, so I am delighted when they are preserved, whatever the organization.