Privilege and Deportation

A headline caught my attention today: Germany Deports Native-Born Terrorism Suspects. The article explains there were two men born in Germany, but of African descent, who were alleged radicalized and suspected of plotting a terrorist attack. (A raid on their apartment turned up, among other things replica flint-lock pistols.) German authorities decided to deport the two men and a judge rejected their appeal.

I have a few very incomplete thoughts about the specifics of this case, including an American bias native born citizenship, and therefore do not want to talk about the particulars. Instead, I will work through why the headline caught my attention. The kernel of this thought is this: deportation in the modern world is a privilege derived from European imperialism.

Sovereignty, defined in part by the right to govern domestic affairs, is one of the principles of the Westphalian nation-state system. By extension, sovereignty necessarily includes the right to protect and regulate the country’s borders and control the bodies of people who pose a threat to its security. It is possible to construe these terms broadly and I don’t entirely disagree with the sentiments. At the same time, though, the process of deportation amounts to labeling the people being deported undesirable, dangerous, or both and pushing that responsibility for those people onto another country. In this case, the matter is further complicated because the men do not have clear personal relationships to the countries where they are being deported and their indefinite ban on a return to Germany indicates an indifference to where they go, just so long as they are no longer in Germany.

The thousand-foot view reveals much the same relationship with other deportations. There is a general tendency to send the people back to their country of origin, but the point is actually just to put them somewhere other than the country doing the deporting. One assumes that here is a modicum of international cooperation, but, nonetheless, this is where I was struck by the unique privilege European countries (and the United States) get in dictating the movement of peoples, a legacy of an imperial age and histories of immigration controls. The fact that other countries occasionally get to follow the same processes is merely incidental.

The World of Ice and Fire – George R.R. Martin, et al

Note: this is the first of two or three book write ups that are part of a backlog that developed because of a) dissertation revisions, b) a leaving town for a conference, and c) grading. I finished this book more than two weeks ago and hope to be able to write more frequently going forward.

One of the things I have always loved about fantasy and science fiction novels is the world building. It was for this reason that I dismiss the (perfectly valid) criticism that a series like the Wheel of Time became too unwieldy and has too many point of view characters to maintain a riveting story. These extra characters that might unbalance the plot a little bit also allow you to explore the world in more depth even while often playing out a take on a familiar apocalyptic story arc.

Full disclosure: I also own and like the flawed The World of the Wheel of Time, which tried many of the same things as The World of Ice and Fire, but, ultimately fell a little bit short. One might also offer the same critique in comparing the world building of the two series.

The World of Ice and Fire is an illustrated, encyclopedic history of the world in which the The Song of Ice and Fire is set, running from the dawn of time up nearly to the most recent books (it is dedicated to King Tommen). It is at once lush and full of detail and maddeningly and clearly incomplete. On the one hand, it explicitly avoids recounting stories told in narrative form elsewhere on the grounds that those histories have already been told; on the other, it is written in the form of a history, meaning that it often alludes to controversies and theories, judging them for which is most accurate, and avoiding mention of subjects that might be touchy for the patron of the work, with no mention of rival kings or Tommen’s parentage. Moreover, it is suggested that this work was in the making for a number of years since the dedication to King Tommen is over one or more names that has been blotted out. Then there is the issue of information unknown even to the Maesters of the Citadel, whether because the necessary documents are lost, the history is unrecorded, or information about a distant land, has just never made its way to Westeros.

Having started in middle school, I have been reading A Song of Ice and Fire at this point for more than half my life. As a fan, I really, really liked this book. The World of Ice and Fire strikes a fantastic balance between offering new information about the world and its deep history, while not devolving into a pure reference book. A few minor quibbles on issues of consistency (for which I can make a case for intentionality) aside, the artwork is also gorgeous, giving new vibrancy. One might have wanted more information about, say, the relationship between Houses Stark and Bolton, but the author of this history makes it clear that that is not the history he is telling. Instead, it is a history of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and their place in the wider world. The detailed history of the North (or the Vale or the Reach or Dorne) is simply not relevant to that project.

I also found The World of Ice and Fire a fascinating read as a historian. The purported historian often offers digressions on topics that might be of interest (e.g. the origins of the Hightower at Oldtown), and engages in debates about over the veracity of myths and mentions the previous research that the work is based on. These fictional histories lend credibility to this work and offer anther layer of depth to the world building. Now: this is a particular vision of history. There is some small focus on the general characteristics of “peoples” (in a crude ethnic sort of sense), but movers of events are the great men and women of the past. This is, after all, a history of the Seven Kingdoms written for the king(s).

In sum, I really like The World of Ice and Fire and highly recommend it for anyone who likes the series.*

*I can’t speak for anyone whose interest in in the TV show.


Next up, I have a backlog of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Albert Cossery’s Laziness in the Fertile Valley. I am currently reading Henry de Montherlant’s Chaos and Night.

Wicked River: the Mississippi when it last ran wild, Lee Sandlin

I was in Minneapolis for a funeral last weekend and, as a result, was visiting with extended family. One of my cousins lives a matter of blocks from one of my favorite bookstores, Magers and Quinn, so we usually end up talking books. Not for the first time, she passed a number of books off to me. The first of these I picked up is Wicked River, a history of the Mississippi river before the Civil War.

Sandlin takes the reader along with the navigators up and down the river, into the swirling currents, and among the personalities that fought, swindled, and cavorted in the region. His inspiration, in a way, seems to be the stories of Mark Twain even though he notes early on that those stories were already conjuring up a bygone world. In this sense, it is more appropriate to start with what changed. In Sandlin’s account (and I do not think there is reason to doubt it), the infrastructure of the Mississippi River changed in the years after the Civil War when the first railroad bridge crossed the river allowing trains to almost completely replace steamboats. At the same time, US military engineers undertook a massive project to smooth out the rough edges of the river and demographic changes tamed the rough population.

Wicked River is an easy, indulgent read that eagerly regales its audience with the tall tales and local legends from the Mississippi River valley. Most of the stories, Sandlin concludes, are fictions that emerged out of a kernel of truth. Wicked River is well pretty well researched and draws from both contemporary accounts and geographic surveys, but Sandlin employs the same casual, comfy tone whether describing the winter snowmelt or legends about piratical gangs, which becomes only slightly more regimented at the end when those characters lived on only in memory.

I can’t vouch for the value of Wicked River as a historical study, not because I think Sandlin is wrong in his narrative but because I don’t know the historiography on the topic and there is only a loose thesis. But this judgement should not detract from a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging read about a bygone time.


Next up, I am reading Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House.

Vanished Kingdoms – Norman Davies

My final non-fiction read of 2016 was another large book that has been on my list for quite some time. Norman Davies Vanished Kingdoms is a weighty tome that purports to investigate the rise and fall of states. In my opinion, Davies falls short of this stated objective, but the book as a whole is nevertheless worth reading.

Each chapter of Vanished Kingdoms is dedicated to a different European “kingdom” that a) came into being after the fall of the Roman Empire b) has somehow shaped the modern European landscape and c) no longer exists. The studies are arranged in rough chronological order, starting with the Visigothic kingdom of Tolosa and concluding with the Soviet Union (albeit focussed on Estonia). Each chapter is divided into three parts. First, there is a synopsis of the modern region, second is a synopsis of the titular state of the chapter, and finally there is an analysis of how that state collapsed. Some chapters are more comprehensive than others; for instance, the chapter on Byzantium is littered with comments about how this short chapter is inadequate to give anything other than a passing impression. The unevenness was usually not a major problem, except in the case of Byzantium, which seemed like a chapter that a reviewer asked to be added to the book rather than one that really fit with the rest of the text.

Davies returns to themes of language, culture, and religion over and over again, and with good reason. His approach highlights that the largely stable borders of European nation-states were deeply fragmented as little as a century and a half ago and liable to change because of elite marriages. Vanished Kingdoms does an excellent job of explaining many of the independence movements in, for instance Catalonia, without trying to be a Grand Narrative of Europe. I also particularly liked Davies’ approach to European nationalism, which is not to push national identity per se into the past, but to ascribe weight to historical developments in terms of the the development of modern nationalism—and starting this narrative in the shadow of Rome was defensible for seeking these roots.

I liked Vanished Kingdoms quite a bit, particularly enjoying the chapters on Alt Clud (northern England), Litvia, Borussia, and Aragon, but, as noted above, think that framing the book as a study of how states die is misleading. The final chapter is a historiographical epilogue that engages with the literature on how states fail, infused with observations and conclusions from the fifteen studies in the book. This chapter was fine, but I found the frame limiting, particularly in that this is a Eurocentric book. Instead, I thought the stronger parts of the book engaged with the wrinkles of European Nationalism, something that is tangentially related to how states collapse, but actually examining how states survive—not in terms of political strategy, but in terms of the formations that currently exist.

The Better Angels of Our Nature – Steven Pinker

We are surrounded by signs of the depravity of our ancestors’ way of life, but we are barely aware of them.

Whatever causes violence, it is not a perennial urge like hunger, sex, or the need to sleep

The Better Angels of Our Nature has been on my reading list basically since it came out, but I finally decided to read it in a moment of despair after the recent presidential election. My plan was actually to read it over Thanksgiving break, but I wound up doing it in spurts over about three weeks. Better Angels is an impressive book, but I came out with much of my skepticism about the premise confirmed, now with ways to articulate these thoughts.

The core argument in Better Angels is simple: we are living in the most peaceful era of human history. All the trend lines concerning xxx-cide (and Pinker includes many) slope downward, despite jagged spikes for the World Wars. We might feel like the world is more dangerous because of saturated coverage of death, but the trends are clear. According to Pinker, this is something that he is (and we should be) optimistic about.

Pinker begins Better Angels by offering an avalanche of evidence for the violence of the world of yesteryear, including rape, torture, and killing. His argument, which is not wrong per se, is that once upon a time the world was much more violent than it is today. This violence includes, according to Pinker, both violence in terms of percentages of people who die from it and the societal acceptance of and revelry in this violence. Pinker then charts what he calls the “Pacification Process,” crediting (principally) civilization, the humanitarian and rights revolutions, and a Hobbesian Leviathan for curbing the worse angels of human nature. Ironically, these revolutions saw a decrease in violence at the same time as the technological capacity to kill people more efficiently has increased. Pinker also delves into the human mind, showing with science how both violence and non-violence are natural parts of the human condition and that both of those instincts can be conditioned. From the title of the book, it is clear which side Pinker believes is winning.

I don’t disagree with the broad premise of Better Angels, even though I think the use of percentages of the population for the trends overlooks that there are so many more people alive and thus that a larger raw number of people comes across as a smaller percentage. But I have three more substantive critiques of Better Angels:

  • First, the past is a more violent place than the modern world. Full stop. However, throughout Better Angels Pinker tends to pick evidence that supports his theory and sometimes skirts studies that do not. I had a gut feeling about this in the waves of scientific studies, but I saw it clearly in his description of the past. Yes, the past was more violent, but it seemed to me that he overstated the case, particularly when it came to the battlefield, where has been suggested that death was significantly less common than is frequently assumed. Moreover, some of the same features that he credits with reducing violence in the modern world also existed in the premodern world.
  • Second, I couldn’t help but wonder about the human capacity to harm one another in ways that don’t result in death and therefore don’t necessarily show up on the charts. For instance, working poor people to death and starving third world children in slave labor factories are not things that will appear on a list of homicide, but are equally awful. Perhaps there are other charts that show optimistic trends on these fronts as well, but I wonder if the depravity has just been moved rather than curbed. Similarly, can the reduction in percentages of death in combat be attributed not to a reduction in conflict, but in advances in medical technology so battlefield wounds are not fatal?
  • Third, Better Angels was written right at the start of the Arab Spring, and Pinker is optimistic about the future of these secular uprisings in support of democracy. How does this same picture look in Syria five years later?

Pinker’s hypothesis is cultural and social rather than relying on rational actors, except in one single way. Pinker argues that the technological advances that allow for the easy killing on a wide scale were so horrible that they deterred people from actually using these weapons, particularly nuclear weapons. This aversion then led to a long peace. But the human capacity for violence is muted, not eliminated, and the aversion to violence and using nuclear weapons requires leaders to be nauseated by the consequences of using the weapons. What happens when there is a rise of militant nationalism? What happens when there is a resurgence in pseudo-scientific beliefs about a hierarchy of races? What happens when people don’t remember the spikes of violence on a mass-scale during the holocaust? What happens when leaders don’t grasp the consequences of nuclear weapons or simply don’t care? What if this long-term trend turns out to be the anomaly?

I am less optimistic than Pinker. I have some hope because I accept his core argument as valid, but there are also warning signs baked into the this trend. Some of these, such as increasingly destructive weapons leading to an aversion to their use, Pinker accepts as causal, but I am not so sure.


Since finishing Better Angels I have since finished Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man and Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. I haven’t decided what I am going to read next.

Thermopylae in literature, War and Peace

Maybe it was that I read Stephen Pressfield’s Gates of Fire on the recommendation of my eighth grade social studies teacher, well before I settled on Greek history as a primary field of study and certainly before I had any inkling that graduate school in history was a thing, but Thermopylae has fascinated me for more than half of my life. I have a soft spot for heroism and for desperate last-stands, so the command μολὼν λαβέ (come and take them!) in the right context* gives me chills. As a scholar, the battle perplexes me; I simultaneously don’t believe Herodotus’ version of Leonidas’ sacrifice being at the root of the decision to sacrifice these soldiers and find it the most plausible. Nothing else has convinced me, except that there may be too many levels of myth surrounding the events to ever actually unravel what happened. I don’t mean to get too deeply into Thermopylae, particularly while I am still working on my dissertation in which the battle never comes up, but suffice to say that it is an event that still intrigues me.

*i.e. not when it is a call to arms against gun control.

This background for my interest in Thermopylae is relevant because reference to the battle appeared in a recent non-academic read, War and Peace. What follows is also the first of an occasional series I am going to do talking about instances of classical reception.

The officer with the twin moustaches, Zdrzhinsky by name, grandiloquently described the dam at Saltanov as being a ‘Russian Thermopylae’, and declared the heroic deed of Greneral Raevsky on that dam to be worthy on antiquity…

Rostov looked at him without speaking. ‘To begin with, there must have been such a crush and confusion on the dam they were attacking that if Raevsky had really rushed forward with his sons it could have had no effect except perhaps on the ten or twelve men nearest to him,’ thought Rostov. ‘The rest could not have seen how or with whom Raevsky advanced on to the dam. And then even those who did see could have have been particularly inspired, for what did Raevsky’s tender paternal feelings matter to them when they had their own skins to the think about? And, moreover, the fate of the Fatherland did not depend on whether the Saltanov dam was taken, as we are told was the case at Thermopylae. So what was the use of such a sacrifice?’

There is a lot to unravel about this passage, including how Tolstoy talks about war, which is something I want to explore when I get around to reviewing the novel in the near future. But for now I just want to make two observations.

First it struck me that while the overly-enthusiastic Zdrzhinsky is capable of citing Thermopylae and knows that the battle was important in the final defeat of an invader, he is does not know all of the details. “Thermopylae” is just a symbol for him, pregnant with meaning but devoid of context.

Second, and related, Rostov provides some of that context and I think offers an some insight into Tolstoy’s vision of the interplay between providence and history. His vision of Thermopylae still lacks the Greek cultural context, but gives some broader historical context, namely that the sacrifice was a divine mandate to save Greece, while the battle at Saltanov was an individual moment of foolish heroism of the sort that happens all the time in war but still miss greater purpose. Ironically, I believe that some of the legend and importance of Thermopylae developed out of hindsight, i.e. that since the Greeks won they were able to point at the battle as an important moment. Like Xerxes, Napoleon is defeated, but gone is that glorious moment.

Martial Prowess

I’ve been interested in collective reputations for martial prowess for a long time. I even once wrote a misguided blog post on the topic that misrepresented Sparta and Spartans in a way that is uniquely suited to an overly-exuberant, young, American man. My opinions on that particular topic have come a long way since then, but the general interest in the concept remains. This sort of thinking has been long ingrained through years of table top gaming and reading hierarchically-minded science fiction and fantasy that frequently has an underpinning of principles that mirror scientific racism, but that is perhaps a topic for another post. What I find interesting from a historical perspective is not why the groups were militarily successful (or even if they were), but how, when and why these reputations for being a “martial race” develop.

My current fun read is an English translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which is set during the Napoleonic Wars. I have completed book one, which concludes with the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. At the battle, Napoleon’s army convincingly destroyed the joint armies of Austria and Russia.

Thus far I have appreciated the timelessness of Tolstoy’s battle descriptions. I will write up longer thoughts when I finish the novel, but a passing comment in the first book stood out. At a party where a number of Russian officers discuss the Napoleon’s progress, one of them flippantly dismisses the French victories on the grounds that they were only fighting against Germans. On the one hand, this is part of the characterization of a young man full of bluster, but, on the other, it speaks to a broader stereotype of Germans as militarily inept that, even in the years that Tolstoy wrote War and Peace, Otto von Bismark (among others) swept away.

Although this instance in War and Peace is meant to downplay French successes, but the story goes on to demonstrate that not only are the Germans unable to stop Napoleon, but he also defeats the Russian army. The juxtaposition is stark on all these points. The French reputation against the German, and the way in which both of the reputations flipped—-so much so that a Google search for “French Military Victories” used to autocorrect to “did you mean French Military Defeats” and a website that tried to show that every French military victory was attributable to people who were not actually French. But therein lies the rub: these are reputations and reputations change based on a host of factors that are only loosely connected to reality.

The Struggle for Sea Power, Sam Willis

I have said in the past that if I was not studying ancient Greece there is a short list of other subjects that I would study. One of those is 18th and 19th century naval history. I have a print of a watercolor rendition of the USS Constitution on my wall and used to eat up stories about Horatio Nelson, of whom I own a two-volume biography, Stephen Decatur at Tripoli, and many, many more. I did eventually move away from simple fascination with adventure stories and became more interested in the social and economic aspects of naval powers and a personal favorite in my library is the history of the British Navy by N.A.M. Rodgers, volume two, The Command of the Ocean. Two weeks ago I saw that the library received a copy of a brand new history of the American Revolution, The Struggle for Sea Power by Sam Willis.

Willis’ central claim, that the conflict known as the American Revolution was fundamentally determined by and ultimately about maritime power, is aptly shown. Here is a presented a catholic definition of naval power to include the rivers, lakes, and bays of America in addition to the seas from the Caribbean to India and Willis notes that the success of most major land campaigns were determined by the abilities of sailors accompanying the fleet. Similarly, from his perspective, nearly all British campaigns during the war were a projection of naval power from a handful of port cities along the American east coast. But the war in America was just one part of a larger conflict that drew in The Netherlands, Morocco, Spain, France, Russia, and the Indian Sultan Hyder Ali. For Americans, sea power was a means to receive supplies and impede the British ability to persecute the war, but Willis shows that there was a broader concern among the other powers, namely whether it would be possible to wrest control of the seas from Britain for their own use.

Covering such a broad sweep, Willis frequently boils success and failure of operations to clashes of personality. The inability of commanders, whether between political parties, between nations, or between land and sea, to work in concert frequently determines the course of the action, perhaps even to too great an extent. Other than the individual merits of the commanders, Willis is keenly aware of the perils of sailing, including the deterioration of ship, the need for local guides, and dangerous storms, all of which appear. Willis draws together a wide range of specialized studies, on the navies of the different colonies, on the European navies, and more, and is thus able to weave in issues of naval funding, nutrition, and technology. The last is particularly notable in that the ironic twist to this story is that the American Revolution was a defeat for the British, but the innovation and mobilization meant that they emerged from the conflict in an even stronger position on the seas.

Even being predisposed to liking this topic, I enjoyed The Struggle for Sea Power, though its language was at times overly casual for my taste. To give one example, there were several examples of people being “shot in the balls.” I also wanted to know more about some of the more picayune aspects of technological development and the like, but I can’t hold those against Willis since the point of the book is how those played out during the American Revolution, which is adequately discussed.

Next up, I am still reading (and enjoying) Palace Walk, but recent events have caused my reading to slow. I am also irrationally excited for the arrival of my newest book order, which includes an Indonesian novel Man Tiger and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Tun-Huang – Yasushi Inoue

What can set in motion a chain of events that will, in hundreds of years, lead to a remarkable archeological find? More concretely, what can set in motion events that will cause a man to bury hundreds of pages of buddhist scripture in isolated caves?

This is the question that Yasushi Inoue answers with his work of historical imagination, Tun-Huang, so named for the caves where the monk Chao Hsing-te will end up burying the scrolls. The story opens hundreds of miles away. Hsing-te comes from a bureaucratic family and studied for years to take the civil service exam except, after cruising through the first two rounds of testing, he falls asleep in the waiting area and sleeps through the final round of testing. Faced with the prospect of waiting years for the next round of testing and being devastated, Hsing-te wanders through the market and chances into a merchant selling a Hsi-Hsia woman, one body part at a time. Moved by the spectacle, Hsing-te her freedom, and then sets out to see her homeland. Along the way he becomes a warrior, falls in love with a princess, becomes associated with a dangerous and violent merchant and a Hsing-te officer of Chinese origin with a near-suicidal mania for throwing himself into battle. All of these events are formative, but, ultimately, the most important development is that Hsing-te converts to Buddhism and dedicates his living to saving the documents before the flames of war consume them.

Tun-Huang is a book on which I am torn. The text forms the backbone of an epic story, and Inoue mimics the form of historical narrative from a detached vantage point. It is an epic in two hundred pages. Hsing-te’s transition is a worthy subject, and the Chinese soldier Wang Li, the merchant Kuang, and the Uigher princess are viable, if somewhat shallow, supporting characters. The book moves, and I agree with one review I read that compares the story to the form and style to that of the movie Western, but I still found myself dissatisfied. My problem was the sense of predestination in that, while not in form, the story is built to start with the end and then builds back the events that led up to it. As a result, individual scenes were moving–the sacrifice of the princess, the greedy merchant pawing through the ground for riches–but in part because I found the characters hard to connect with, I suspect because of the style, the overall the story lacked sufficient drama for my taste.

Next up I am currently reading Klaus Mann’s Mephisto about actors and theater in Nazi Germany and The Struggle for Sea Power, a global naval history of the American Revolution.

“To Curiosity”

A review of: Who Is the Historian?, N.A. Raab

Three things made me pick up Raab’s slim volume on the work of historians: 1) its brevity 2) a longstanding love of inspirational stories from historians 3) desire to be familiar with the genre should I ever be fortunate enough to teach a historiography course. Unlike From Herodotus to H-Net, this book is not really a book of historiography, but an essay on the doing of history in the twenty-first century, covering spaces, sources, disciplinarity, technology, and skill-sets.

Raab’s wants to give personality and humanity to historians qua historians rather than historians as professors. He offers a vision of them as an eclectic globe-trotting bunch who work in a host of different jobs in addition to teaching college courses. The overarching themes of the work are how the field has changed, expanded and become enriched in recent decades, and how historical thinking is fundamentally embedded in all walks of society.

With few exceptions, Raab avoids overwhelming the reader with specific disciplinary periods, themes, and names, which, while useful, sometimes means that the book errs on the side of general observations rather than specific developments or advice. For instance, there is specific discussion of certain open-access sites and how that has changed how historians do their job, but doesn’t suggest specific technological expertise that could be beneficial. Certainly historians do not work in a vacuum and some of the observations, such as the wide variety of viable source material, is well taken. Similarly the book is well-written, and Raab is an advocate of the written style as critical for the field, but offers no suggestions for how to get there or how to frame questions in order to best use the material.

Raab works a middle-path that didn’t work for me. On the one hand, while much of the book is reflective, to give personality to the stuffy old-fashioned vision of the tweed-clad professor, neither are most of the reflections personal. Similarly, while he includes a broad range of people in the historical fields, Raab still tends to default back to the historian as professor. On the other hand, neither does he provide skill, methodological, professional, or practical suggestions to those who might be interested in being a historian. Raab is clearly enthusiastic about history, but his audience for the book is not wholly clear. Students may appreciate the insights and some might be inspired, but the testimonials are not particularly uplifting and the defense of the humanities follows traditional paths. Who Is the Historian? has its virtues and in some ways shows a more nuanced understanding of historians in the world than did From Herodotus to H-Net, but it was still in some ways lacking. It might be the right book for an opening gambit in an undergraduate historiography class for some, I am still looking for that right one for my tastes.