Human Fingerprints in the Amazon

I’ve mentioned the “illusion of the ‘natural’” before. Instead of “noble savages” living in harmony with nature, continual evidence finds quite the opposite:

For more than a quarter-century, scientists and the general public have updated their view of the Americas before European contact. The plains and the Eastern forests were not a wilderness, but a patchwork of gardens, they’ve found. The continents were not vast uninhabited expanses but a bustling network of towns and cities. Indigenous people, we’ve learned, altered the ecology of the Americas as surely as the European invaders did.

Now, an expansive new study, published Thursday in Science and bearing the names of more than 40 co-authors, suggests that the human fingerprint can even be seen across one of the most biodiverse yet unexplored regions in the world, the Amazon rainforest.

For more than 8,000 years, people lived in the Amazon and farmed it to make it more productive. They favored certain trees over others, effectively creating crops that we now call the cocoa bean and the brazil nut, and they eventually domesticated them. And while many of the communities who managed these plants died in the Amerindian genocide 500 years ago, the effects of their work can still be observed in today’s Amazon rainforest.

…“This is the largest and more comprehensive study” to reveal that influence so far, he added. “It is is very sound, since it not only includes archaeologists (which have been stressing the larger role played by humans in shaping Amazonian forests), but also botanists and soil scientists, among other ‘hard scientists.’”

The paper brings together more than 80 years of research into both the ecology of the Amazon and the indigenous people who lived there. It collates data from two sources: the Amazon Tree Diversity Network, a long-running index of the animal and plant species who inhabit the rainforest; and a database of the archeological sites excavated around the Amazon.

…Some geographers, anthropologists, and indigenous people have all rejected the idea that the Americas were an untouched wilderness—“the pristine myth,” as they call this tale—since the early 1990s. (Fifteen years ago, it was the topic of 1491, Charles C. Mann’s article in The Atlantic, later a best-selling book.) But this paper further belies that myth in one of the most biodiverse places in the continent, suggesting that humans did not just farm in the Amazon but helped determine some of its major ecological communities.

Check out the whole article.

Happy New Year…Sort Of

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Today I’ve been thinking about a First Things piece by Orthodox philosopher David B. Hart written several years ago on the festivities of New Year’s. He notes

that my family never observed the day when I was growing up, and always made a point of going to bed well before midnight on New Year’s Eve.

In part, I think, this was simply because everyone in my family tends to be of a somewhat reclusive temperament, and so is generally averse to loud noises, close crowds, or forced jollity. In larger part, though, I think we always saw New Year’s Day—when treated as a kind of feast day of its own—as a profane intrusion on the twelve days of Christmas, which was by far our favorite time of year. From Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night, we were fairly good at keeping the festal flames alight and really had no need of any other excuse for our good spirits.

There is, of course, a feast of the Church traditionally celebrated on January 1st: to wit, the Feast of the Circumcision, considered important not merely as a commemoration of an episode from the biography of Christ, but as a remembrance of the first blood shed by Christ for the sake of the world’s redemption. But that obviously has nothing whatever to do with the arrival of the new year. In fact, throughout the Middle Ages, there was little firm agreement regarding what day really marked the inauguration of a new year, even though the Roman mensal calendar was in continual use.

The “real” 12 days of Christmas (not the song), according to Christianity Today, are as follows:

The traditional Christian celebration of Christmas is exactly the opposite [of the modern version]. The season of Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, and for nearly a month Christians await the coming of Christ in a spirit of expectation, singing hymns of longing. Then, on December 25, Christmas Day itself ushers in 12 days of celebration, ending only on January 6 with the feast of the Epiphany.

Exhortations to follow this calendar rather than the secular one have become routine at this time of year. But often the focus falls on giving Advent its due, with the 12 days of Christmas relegated to the words of a cryptic traditional carol. Most people are simply too tired after Christmas Day to do much celebrating.

…The three traditional feasts (dating back to the late fifth century) that follow Christmas reflect different ways in which the mystery of the Incarnation works itself out in the body of Christ. December 26 is the feast of St. Stephen—a traditional day for giving leftovers to the poor (as described in the carol “Good King Wenceslas”). As one of the first deacons, Stephen was the forerunner of all those who show forth the love of Christ by their generosity to the needy. But more than this, he was the first martyr of the New Covenant, witnessing to Christ by the ultimate gift of his own life. St. John the Evangelist, commemorated on December 27, is traditionally the only one of the twelve disciples who did not die a martyr. Rather, John witnessed to the Incarnation through his words, turning Greek philosophy on its head with his affirmation, “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14, KJV).

On December 28, we celebrate the feast of the Holy Innocents, the children murdered by Herod. These were not martyrs like Stephen, who died heroically in a vision of the glorified Christ. They were not inspired like John to speak the Word of life and understand the mysteries of God. They died unjustly before they had a chance to know or to will—but they died for Christ nonetheless. In them we see the long agony of those who suffer and die through human injustice, never knowing that they have been redeemed. If Christ did not come for them too, then surely Christ came in vain. In celebrating the Holy Innocents, we remember the victims of abortion, of war, of abuse.

…In the Middle Ages, these three feasts were each dedicated to a different part of the clergy. Stephen, fittingly, was the patron of deacons. The feast of John the Evangelist was dedicated to the priests, and the feast of the Holy Innocents was dedicated to young men training for the clergy and serving the altar. The subdeacons (one of the “minor orders” that developed in the early church) objected that they had no feast of their own. So it became their custom to celebrate the “Feast of Fools” around January 1, often in conjunction with the feast of Christ’s circumcision on that day (which was also one of the earliest feasts of the Virgin Mary, and is today celebrated as such by Roman Catholics).

Hart explains that as an adult his own family somewhat celebrates New Year’s Eve/Day. “But, on the whole,” he writes, “it is still a minor observance for us, and nothing to compare to the celebrations we like to hold on Twelfth Night, the eve of Epiphany, when the last of the Christmas presents are opened, games are played, and the decorations come down from the tree. (I know many Americans think of Christmas as a single day and like to clear away the trappings of the season well before the fifth of January, but that is sheer barbarism, if you ask me, morally only a few steps removed from human sacrifice, cannibalism, or golf.) The long and the short of it, then, is that I have really nothing much to say about New Year’s Day.” He concludes, “Whatever the case, I hope any of you who plan to spend [New Year’s Eve] chasing after strange gods will find something of interest in it. At my house, however, we will still be celebrating Christmas.”

All in all, I find this appealing. Mormonism doesn’t have much of a Christmas tradition outside the American version, but this doesn’t mean we can’t draw on the traditions of our Christian neighbors. Perhaps celebrating “the first blood shed by Christ for the sake of the world’s redemption” on January 1st isn’t such a bad idea.

The Circumcision by Luca Signorelli

Illiberal Reformers: An Interview with Thomas Leonard

This is part of the DR Book Collection.

A few years ago, I took an interest in the history of the Progressive Era. This interest was peaked by conservative author Jonah Goldberg’s polemic Liberal Fascism and moved to more academic research during my undergrad. I studied the history the labor unions and the words and ideas of major progressive icons. One scholar whose work I came into contact with and continued to follow over the years was Princeton economist Thomas Leonard. I’ve known for the last few years that Leonard was working on a book that explored the relationship between progressive reformers’ economic agendas and their enthusiastic support of eugenics. Finally, his Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era was published this year through Princeton University Press.

The book meticulously demonstrates that the progressive impulse toward inflating the administrative state was driven largely by self-promotion (i.e, the professionalization of economists), racist ideologies (i.e., the fear of race suicide), and an unwavering faith in science. Not only should the “undesirables” of the gene pool be sterilized, but they should be crowded out of the labor force as well. Those considered “unfit” for the labor market included blacks, immigrants, and women. In order to artificially raise the cost of employing the “unfit,” progressives sought to implement minimum wage (often argued to be a “tariff” on immigrant labor), maximum hours, and working standard legislation.

There is far more in Leonard’s book, which not only provides keen insights into progressive economics, but provides an excellent historical overview of race and eugenics in the Progressive Era. Check out his interview on the podcast Free Thoughts below.

Historians vs. Economists: The History of Slavery

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Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 2013’s ’12 Years a Slave’

A new article over at The Chronicle of Higher Education provides an excellent review of a controversy that has been brewing over the last couple years that should be of interest to those who care about history and economics. The controversy surrounds the new history of slavery and capitalism, marked by books like Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams, Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, and especially Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told. The main claim among these historians is that slavery was essential to American capitalism and the emergence of the Industrial Revolution. Economists and other social scientists are not convinced. “Most economic historians,” the article states,

have argued that “cotton textiles were not essential to the Industrial Revolution,” and that cotton production did not necessarily depend on slavery, according to [Dartmouth economist] Douglas A. Irwin…Summarizing economists’ thinking…Irwin points out that cotton was grown elsewhere in the world without slaves. Cotton production continued to rise in the United States even after slavery was abolished. “In this view, the economic rise of the West was not dependent on slavery,” Irwin says, “but came about as a result of an economic process described by Adam Smith in his book The Wealth of Nations — a process that depended on free enterprise, exchange, and the division of labor.”

Economists see the problem with the new histories on slavery as

stem[ming] in part from how the discipline of history has developed. In the ’60s and ’70s, historians and economists battled over economic history. But as historians turned toward culture, and economists became more quantitative, economic history increasingly became just a subfield of economics. For a variety of reasons, including the 2008 crisis, historians are turning their attention back to financial matters. But they “did not build up their tools in order to understand the material world,” says Rhode. “And they carry along certain ideological positions which they hold fervently and are not willing to test.” Historians, he says, “can’t be making stuff up.”

Historians, however, see economic history as too reductive:

“The problem is the economists left history for statistical model building,” says Eric Foner, a historian of 19th-century America at Columbia University. “History for them is just a source of numbers, a source of data to throw into their equations.” Foner considers counterfactuals absurd. A historian’s job is not to speculate about alternative universes, he says. It’s to figure out what happened and why. And, in the history that actually took place, cotton was extremely important in the Industrial Revolution.

Some economists who attack the new slavery studies are “champion nitpickers,” adds Foner…”They’re barking up the wrong tree. They’re so obsessed with detail that they don’t really confront the broader dynamics of the interpretations. Yes, I’m sure there are good, legitimate criticisms of the handling of economic data. But in some ways I think it’s almost irrelevant to the fundamental thrust of these works.”

The article is an excellent introduction to an important controversy in historical scholarship. Check it out.

Soul on Fire: Appreciating Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel departed this world at the age of eighty seven. He has had a tremendous influence on my life, though I never met or corresponded with him. His books were always in the house when I was growing up, and I remember my mother retelling for me the plot of Dawn, but I cannot remember how old I was. Perhaps I was nine. The details have faded but the memory remains and comes to mind quite often. Honestly, it was sobering and a bit frightening to realize that no one is exempt from life’s horrors, that even I might be forced at some point to choose between two ugly outcomes. I still hope that I never will, but it was Elie Wiesel who forced me to acknowledge the possibility that it could happen.

I have not rushed to post on Wiesel’s death because I have been picking up his works again and pondering his life. He deserves as much. I confess that it has been at least a year since I last read something of his. Wiesel himself resisted tidy conclusions. Still, something that I have noticed while following  media coverage is just how much is misunderstood about Wiesel. He had his flaws and failings, of course, and valid criticisms can (or is it should) be leveled at him. There were even survivors with more compelling views on the universality of the Holocaust than his own, and Wiesel sometimes clashed with them, but he was a powerful voice for good nonetheless. Then there was the disgraceful spectacle of people like Max Blumenthal, who possess the moral stature of a Chihuahua, publishing tweet after tweet vilifying Wiesel not long after his death was announced.

Something that I can see even in many valid criticisms is that Wiesel is being judged by our own image of a Holocaust survivor and champion of human rights should be rather than by what Wiesel actually was. To understand Wiesel we must set aside such grand images as citizen of the world and its conscience, and start with the Elie Wiesel who was deported to the kingdom of night, as he would put it. A shy but ardent Hasidic youth who viewed everything through a spiritual lens. His parents had to force him to set some time aside for secular studies, such was his religious fervor. Then came the Holocaust, an outburst of the forces of evil so intense that it destroyed his ability to believe as he once did. Wiesel always wanted to recover that simple faith, but could not. This is the thread running throughout his works, the source of the enigmatic laughter and silences that fill his stories.

Night is a powerful novel. Really needs no introduction. Dawn is not as well known, but as noted above, perhaps more compelling and troubling because it deals with the internal struggle of a Holocaust survivor faced with making an awful choice. If Night is about surviving in a kingdom where God does not act, Dawn looks at the choices one must make when acting in history instead of God. Night will make you weep, and Dawn will chill you, but if you want to get at the man behind Wiesel’s public persona then read Souls on FireSouls is a collection of sayings, stories, and character sketches of several 18th-19th century Hasidic masters, leaders of a Jewish revivalist movement in Eastern Europe. Wiesel has written quite a bit on this or that Hasidic master. It is a prominent topic in his writings, and though I have never bothered to quantify this, I would not be surprised if he has written more frequently and directly about Hasidism than he has about the Holocaust, but everything that he wrote eventually touched upon his experience in the camps.

The Hasidic master, or Rebbe, acts as bridge between his followers, the Hasidim, and God. The Rebbe was central to how they approached the world, so telling stories about these masters practically became a sacred duty. These were stories about hidden saints and holy beggars, miracles and prophecies, uplifting the poor and downtrodden, intense longing for the Messiah as if he were due any minute, putting God on trial for neglecting his children, and a host of other colorful episodes, but most of all about the soul and how to mend it. Sometimes cryptic and paradoxical, they all share a love of truth. These stories were used to draw man closer to God rather than simply entertain. Wiesel did that, too. “I don’t believe the aim of literature is to entertain, to distract, to amuse.”

Hasidism, then, was the world of Wiesel’s innocence, where God was close, always ready to intervene on behalf of those who loved him, a world filled with warm memories of conversations with his grandfather the devout Hasid. It was he who taught Wiesel his first stories and embodied their virtues. Hasidism was about faith. Not mental affirmation, but an attitude of trust and devotion.

In the chapter entitled Disciples IV, Elie Wiesel relates a Hasidic legend of how Satan protested the birth of a particular Rebbe so holy that he would draw enough followers closer to God so as to destroy Satan’s kingdom effortlessly. The heavenly court recognized the unfairness of that scenario, and decided to send a rival – a counterfeit Rebbe – whom no one would suspect of serving God’s rival.

How is one to know? How does one recognize purity in a man? And how can one be sure? I remember putting this question to my grandfather. He chuckled and his eyes twinkled when he answered: “But one is never sure; nor should one be. Actually, it all depends on the Hasid; it is he who, in the final analysis, must justify the Rebbe.”

It is hard not to see this as really being about God, about Wiesel’s relationship with him. This answer to a childhood question, I think, lies behind the anger in Night, and behind the moral calculus in Dawn. Like the old chestnut, show me your friends and I will show you who you are. With Wiesel, though, there is never a simple affirmation of man’s moral superiority to God. That is a subtle nuance which even as fine a film as God on Trial (inspired by a Wiesel experience and story) misses. Man is responsible for affirming his devotion to truth through his actions and choices, perhaps even to transform his master through them. His failure to do so can have acute repercussions because God and man are inseparably linked.

“You’ll grow up, you’ll see,” my grandfather had said. “You’ll see that is more difficult, more rare to find a Hasid than a Rebbe. To induce others to believe is easier than to believe…”

Another story is shared of a Rebbe scolding God for keeping an old man like him waiting all his life for the messiah, then Wiesel’s own memory of his grandfather blessing him to see the messiah end evil, and how that caused him to tremble in Auschwitz for his grandfather. A story about a holy dance invites Wiesel to wonder how his grandfather died. For him, it is all connected. He expressed what he experienced in the camps in terms of these Hasidic tales and sayings.

One of Hasidism’s finest tales relates that the founder of Hasidism went to a certain spot in the woods to perform a ritual and utter a prayer to avert a disaster. His successor could not remember the ritual, but knew the spot and the prayer. The next Rebbe knows only the spot, and, finally, only the story remains. This must suffice, or can it? Wiesel suggests that we might be past that stage.

The proof is that the threat has not been averted. Perhaps we are no longer able to tell the story. Could all of us be guilty? Even the survivors? Especially the survivors?

That last question alone opens up a world of anguish that the trite and easy phrase survivor’s guilt can never fathom. It also lends urgency to the task of storytelling. There are no easy answers to any of these questions which occupied Wiesel his entire life.

Two sayings of Hasidic masters are given in the chapter with no commentary. “To pronounce useless words is to commit murder,” and, “Nothing and nobody down here frightens me… But the moaning of a beggar makes me shudder.” Both of these encapsulate Wiesel’s approach as author and witness. Waste no word on things that do not teach truth and fear nothing as much as another’s suffering.

There is much more that could be discussed. Instead, read Souls on Fire, especially the moving postscript describing why he wrote it. Your time will be greatly rewarded.

To end like I began, on a personal note: I was surprised to feel no sorrow at Wiesel’s passing. In fact, I almost felt happy. I typically get very emotional thinking about the Holocaust at any length. Why not now? In Jewish thought death is often considered a passage from the world of illusion to the world of truth. Wiesel loved truth but was haunted by it. He was truly a soul on fire, so perhaps now he will be able to see things as they really are, and meet with God to reconcile differences and finally have his questions answered. A chance, I feel, to regain his childhood faith.

Alternatives to Torture

Intelligence agencies are not filled with moral philosophers by any means. Cheating and deception kind of go with the territory. The recent report on the CIA’s use of terror has raised two questions. First, is torture moral. Second, is torture effective. The first question is very easy to answer. Torture is not moral. The second question, to my mind, has more far-reaching implications. Basically, if torture is not effective, then one has cruelly abused another human being for nothing. It can be defended neither on moral grounds, nor on those derived from expediency. If a deed is ugly but must be done, that is one thing. If it is ugly and pointless, then it is completely reprehensible. Ultimately, the goal of an interrogation is to gain correct and useful information. This might seem counterintuitive when dealing with terrorists, but treating the person under interrogation softly and kindly will actually lead to better results than anything extracted by torture. There is an interesting article on two of the most successful interrogators of the Second World War. Hans Joachim Scharff and Sherwood Ford Moran came from different backgrounds, were on different sides, and faced different conditions for interrogation. Neither ever resorted to torture or other forms of coercion. Scharff created an easy-going atmosphere for captured aviators when they were expecting to be brutally tortured. Scharff cared for his prisoners’ well-being, and upheld an illusion of knowing everything, so none of his prisoners thought that they had given away important information even when they had. Moran, too, genuinely cared for the well-being of his Japanese prisoners. If they were hungry, they got fed well. If they were wounded, they got good medical treatment. Because of this, they saw Moran as someone who cared, rather than a personal enemy Moran needed to be direct with his questions because he was on the front lines, but having lived in Japan as a missionary, he knew Japan and the Japanese intimately. When he couldn’t make a prisoner relax enough to talk, he would use the Japanese concept of honor to make the prisoner feel ashamed for his behavior. Both Scharff and Moran were able to piece together the big picture out of seemingly small, inconsequential details. Modern interrogators will face different circumstances, but employing a similar approach they can get good results without the need for torture. Treat your prisoners as human beings, understand their culture and language, and get them talking. Simple enough, really.

Learning from history what works—and what does not—can make a world of difference in terms of future interrogation practices.

Medieval Knights: Surprisingly Agile

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Gizmodo points out this excellent YouTube video showcasing the surprisingly agility of knights in full plate armor.

Running, climbing ladders, getting up unassisted, jumping jacks, rolling on the floor: the armor is definitely restrictive versus wearing none at all, but the range of mobility is really surprising given what I’d expect. Also, as a bonus, there are some reconstructions of sword fighting techniques at the end of the video based on ancient manuscripts. Very cool video.

Muslims in WWII and the Holocaust

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The Washington Post has recently published an article by Michael Wolfe entitled “Meet the Muslims who sacrificed themselves to save Jews and fight Nazis in World War II.”

I’m glad that the article tries to present a forgotten side of Jewish-Muslim relations and the positive role of Muslims in Western society, but after reading it I have some concerns.

First, Wolfe somewhat blurs the distinction between rescuing Jews and being involved in the Allied war effort.

Noor Inayat Khan was certainly remarkable, and deserves her own article. Her fiancé had been Jewish, and the Nazi treatment of Jews was one of the factors leading to her involvement in the war effort. She found Nazism “fundamentally repulsive and opposed to all the principles of religious harmony that she had been brought up with by her father.” Her father, Hazrat Inayat Khan, was fond of an old Sufi proverb, “Be the follower of love, and forget all distinctions.” This is a beautiful example of how religious spirituality (in this case, Muslim), however, Noor Inayat Khan was not directly involved in the rescue of Jews, and her motivation was universalist.

It is unlikely that the majority of Senegalese Tirailleurs- conscripts- were motivated by a desire to assist Jews, let alone sacrifice themselves for that cause. There was growing resentment of France for the distinctive uniforms they wore (“slave’s clothing”), and for the insensitive treatment by their officers, so when they helped liberate French towns and discovered that not everyone was fighting in the resistance, they were understandably outraged. This is not to denigrate the Senegalese in any way. They fought bravely, loyally, and often suffered more than other troops. All it means is that they were human, and did not necessarily respond enthusiastically to sacrificing themselves for what they considered a stranger’s cause.

Second, Wolfe presents an entirely rosy view of Muslim efforts to rescue Jews.

The Iranian diplomat Abdol-Hossein Sardari comes across as genuinely good, a dedicated servant of his country. However, the claim that he issued Iranian passports to 500 French Jews is unsubstantiated, appearing only in a statement made by his nephew many years after Sardari’s death. Sardari himself never mentioned it. The actual story involves the Jugutis- a community of crypto-Jews whose ancestors had been forcibly converted to Islam in Meshed in 1839. They lived outwardly as Muslims whilst secretly adhering to Judaism. Several of them resided in France, alongside Jews from Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Iran. One of their leaders, Dr. Atchildi, came up with a plan to save his community by claiming that Jugutis were religiously Jewish, but ethnically Aryan. Sardari helped him achieve legal recognition exempting Jugutis from anti-Jewish laws, and then requested that he place Iranian Jews on the list of Jugutis as well. Sardari’s chief concern was to help his compatriots, which is not a bad thing at all.

The other diplomatic examples in the article pale in comparison. Corry Guttstadt extensively researched Turkey’s role in the Holocaust, and her findings exploded the myth of Turkish rescue. Some consuls, it is true, did save Jews, but the documented cases do not reach thousands of people saved, and the motivations were rarely very noble (though on this score many diplomats of other nations also fare rather poorly). Rescue was often the result only of sexual and monetary exchanges. Lives were saved, which is a good thing, but it hardly does credit to those diplomats who primarily benefited themselves. The Neçdet Kent story of the train seems very moving and inspiring, but is pure fabrication. Kent is the only source of the story, no survivor testimony corroborates it, and it is contradicted by material evidence.

Wolfe’s other Turkish example is even uglier. Not only did Behiç Erkin not issue Turkish passports to thousands of Jews with only distant connections to Turkey, he actually stopped the one individual on his staff- a French national- who did. Beginning in 1942, the Nazis had Jewish nationals of neutral countries deported. The passage to Turkey was neither funded nor organized by Turkey. Individuals either had to pay from their own pocket, or receive funding from a Jewish relief organization. Turkey, in fact, was not only slow to save its Jewish citizens, it even rescinded the citizenship of many Turkish Jews, leaving them stranded and vulnerable.

Ahmed Somia apparently was a dedicated resistance fighter, and the hospital did rescue many parachutists and members of the resistance, although everything that I have read accords Abdelhaffid Haffa- the hospital’s guardian- with a far bigger role than Somia. Haffa led the resistance activity, working secretly with a Jewish doctor. Si Kaddour Benghabrit, a religious leader of Paris’ Algerians and rector of the Grand Mosque, played a far more ambiguous role. Benghabrit saved some Jews, washed his hands of others (even as late as 1944), and generally pursued a range of actions from collaboration to resistance. In Benghabrit’s defense, we tend to approach WWII and the Holocaust with considerable hindsight. Things were usually not as clear to participants. Benghabrit pursued what he considered the best course for preserving his community. This did not always involve rescuing Jews.

By all means, Muslim assistance to Jews in the Holocaust should be highlighted, but romanticized myth-making does not build better bridges, and might make reconciliation and cooperation even harder.

“Generally, the myths historians interrogate are those that reinforce, rather than contradict, univocal narratives of conflict. In such cases, while the more complex truth may be painful, it can offer recognition to both sides, providing a more blended version of a disputed history and paving the way for possible reconciliation. By contrast, in the case of the Grand Mosque, the more mythical story does not seem to reinforce entrenched hatreds but rather to offer promise for reconciliation. Yet in so doing, it obscures a more complicated historical reality, and… reinforces a wider series of problematic perceptions that mar Jewish-Muslim understanding.”

In other words, we cannot have a meaningful discussion about Jewish-Muslim relations, or Muslims and the Holocaust, or the modern role of Muslims in Western society if we stick to myths. Even if the myth is positive, it obscures the real history and the real problems.

Of course, I also think that history matters, whether or not it leads to meaningful dialogue.

Still, I would like to end with a very positive example from Wolfe’s list. Albanian Muslims (and Catholics, too) were dedicated in saving Jews to an extent rarely found elsewhere. They were moved not only by besa– their code of honour- but also in many cases were influenced by the teachings of the Bektashi Sufi order.

The Oatmeal Takes On Columbus Day (and Wins)

2013-10-10 Bartolome de las Casas

When I was in high school, some well-meaning liberal fellow students went around tearing down flyers for Columbus Day as a protest. (Why were there flyers in the first place? I can’t remember.) I viewed this effort with disdain. One of the more prominent of the students had tried to seriously argue that heroin (the drug) was sexist because it was hijacking the word heroine (a female hero). It was awkward to watch our English teacher explain that the words aren’t even spelled the same.

That pretty much set my overall approach to complaints about atrocities from the colonial era. It’s not that I disagree that they exist. Far from it. My annoyance is that the complaints come from a place of lazy complacence. In the first place, none of the people I’ve heard maligning Columbus and other explorers for exploiting the Americas has seriously suggested giving the land back or in any way inconveniencing themselves to make amends whatsoever. In the second place, the complainers demonstrate such a total lack of moral sophistication that I cannot believe their concern is in any sense earnest. For example, they can’t seem to tell the difference between unintended tragedy (most of the fatalities from the introduction of new diseases) and intentional evil (like the Trail of Tears). The numbers are bigger for disease deaths, so that gets a lot of play, when in reality that’s a pretty poor example of human evil. In other words: attacking Columbus (or other colonialists and explorers) comes across as nothing but cheap self-righteousness of people best described as “harmlessly impotent” rather than “ethical”. So, when I saw The Oatmeal was tackling Columbus Day, my suspicions were high.

I was wrong.

The comic starts out predictably enough (the same frustrating conflation of genuine atrocity and inevitable epidemiology), but towards the end takes an incredibly surprising turn that completely won me over. As Matthew Inman writes, “History is full of terrible people and terrible things, so instead of casting a shadow where there is already darkness, I’d much prefer to cast a light.”

And then he does. And it’s incredible. Read the whole thing to find out more about that light.