Thursday, June 29, 2006

madness sets in

Dante and Virgil crossing the river Styx (NOT the band Styx).

For the past couple of days I have not been able to keep two songs out of my head. "Don't Stop Believin'" and "Separate Ways" by Journey.



It's horrible... despite all the good music that has been created since the beginning of history, suddenly I'm at a strip mall in the 1980's again. Why?

Perhaps... just perhaps... It's not due to chance. Perhaps the CIA is sending rays into my head from the top of the Empire State Building. They know I'm dangerous, they know if I finish my dissertation on the use of religious language in the construction of royal identity in eleventh- and early twelfth-century Leon and Castile that my work will be the beginning of the end for their grip on power. They fear me, so they have decided to drive me mad.

Yes, mad.

The rays are potent. I'm working on some charters, or making a sandwich, or feeding the cat, and suddenly Steve Perry's voice is in my head, telling me not to stop believing. Then the lame synth riff from "Separate Ways," then "Don't stop believin'" again. I tell you, I can't take it.

It's time to take a break, have an iced coffee, and listen to some Bob Dylan.

With tin foil wrapped around my head.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

intolerance and the lazy blogger

Medieval bigotry. Image of Jewish moneylenders from a French manuscript. Note the characteristic hats, hooked noses, and the closed door that represents the clandestine nature of the transaction.

What I have below is actually the skeleton of a blog entry I started five days ago and never finished. I ran out of steam, saved it as a draft, and, as often happens, completely lost the blog muse. "Strike when it's hot" seems to be the better course as far as blogging goes.

I haven't really returned to the blog because I've been lazy, uninspired, and depressed by the dark muggy northeast weather. I haven't really been lazy -- I've been working like crazy to get ready for my research trip -- but I've been blog-lazy. The only recreation I've really had has been cooking and watching soccer (Alas! Spain has once again disappointed us, losing to France 3-1). I still think I will present the following examples of how insane this world is getting, but stripped down to the minimum of commentary. They do, after all, speak for themselves.

Exhibit One: I was watching Ghana beat the Czech Republic in World Cup soccer and I was surprised when one of the players, John Paintsil, celebrated the win by exhibiting a small Israeli flag. Apparently Paintsil plays professional soccer for Tel Aviv, and he took out the flag in order to greet the fans who had traveled from Israel to see the game. This would have remained nothing but a curiosity were it not for the reaction to the small piece of cloth in Paintsil's hands. Ghanaian embassies in Arab countries received death threats. The government of Libya summoned the Ghanaian ambassador for consultation, and the Ghanaian foreign minister had to meet with Arab ambassadors to calm the "situation."

Exhibit Two: The Presbyterian Church (USA) recently voted to revise a policy that called for divestment from companies that sold military technology used by Israel in the occupied territories. One example is Caterpillar, which sells the bulldozers Israel uses to destroy Palestinian homes. As divestment goes, this case was mild. It never came to be a full policy, and was restricted to specific companies. It was not an attack on the Israeli economy on the whole, just on specific policies that have been widely seen as violations of human rights.

One may or may not agree on the policy. However, the rhetoric used to discuss divestment by its critics was extreme. Former CIA director R. James Woolsey, a Presbyterian layman, spoke at the conference and claimed the divestment policy put the church "clearly on the side of theocratic, totalitarian, anti-Semitic, genocidal beliefs." This was said, even though some American and Jewish groups support divestment. Calling someone genocidal is a great way to spur intelligent debate on an important issue.

Exhibit Three: A Greek professor was denied admittance to the United States when trying to get to a SUNY academic conference. He was detained at JFK, questioned about his political beliefs, and then sent back to Greece, told that there were "technical difficulties" with his visa.

Like I said, I believe all this speaks for itself.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

the mainstream media

An illumination representing the "three orders" of medieval society -- the clergy, the knights, and the peasants. It has nothing to do with this post. Sorry.

I have been thinking about a post on Paula's blog from about a week ago on the plight of Christians in Kosovo. Paula rightly lamented that the media was not covering the situation, and she placed the blame on mainstream media biases.

The question of media bias is an important one and it is a hot issue here in blogdom. I just did a search on blogger for "mainstream media" and was informed there were more than 180,000 hits. What is curious is that people on the left see msm as hopelessly biased towards a right-wing agenda, and those on the right see the all-powerful "liberal media." There are media-watching sites from both the left and the right of our acrimoniously divided country. So who is right?

My personal opinion is that when there is an ideological bias, it tends to be towards a center-right side. Of course from my own left-wing perspective, the country has gone so far to the right in the past twenty-five years, "center-right" is actually quite conservative, especially on economic issues (taxes, welfare, public spending, government regulation). There are many reasons for this. One has been described by Noam Chomsky and makes a fair amount of sense: media outlets are large corporations that profit from the economic status quo as much as any oil or pharmaceutical company. Writers answer to editors who answer to publishers who answer to stockholders and advertisers. It's a money thing. Another is that journalists themselves do not, despite what many conservatives think, tend to be that liberal. Journalism is still dominated by educated white guys. One study showed that the majority of journalists are like the majority of educated white guys: a bit liberal on social issues, but moderate or conservative on others, especially economic ones.

I think there is another, perhaps more important reason, that the media tends to frustrate those of us who know something about a given issue and see how badly it is reported, and that is that journalism is on the whole simplistic. I suggested in my comment to Paula's post that I believe the reason the plight of Kosovar Christians is not reported is just because it doesn't fit into a simple narrative that assigns white hats and black hats to broadly defined groups. Complexity does not work in a twenty-second news spot. If my impression is correct and the media bias tends towards the right, I think it is because the Republican party and its apologists have been able to create a very simple black and white narrative that works well with how news is presented. You are with us or against us. America brings democracy to other countries. Government is bad. Taxes are bad. The private sector is always superior to the public sector. And so on.

I still would not put all the blame on the media. Media companies answer the market. No one is forced to turn on Fox, they do so because they want a simple story that makes them feel good about themselves. The problem is that we are a culture that has become infantile in many ways -- no attention span, eager for instant gratification. We are a nation of two-year-olds. Isn't it absurd that political parties spend hundreds of millions of dollars to air twenty-second spots of their candidates standing in front of a flag, and that something that banal can decide an election? Until we as a culture decide to stop being willfully stupid, there's no reason for the media to reward us with real news.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

soccer and urraca

The web site I found this on claims that it is a medieval Chinese drawing showing the origins of soccer. Works for me.

I have not blogged for awhile, since I have actually been working, or trying to work. Discovering that I can watch all World Cup matches on Univision has hindered me a bit, but I have been strong and only let myself become momentarily distracted.

I love the Univision announcers. One of them referred to English team captain David Beckham as "El capitan Spiceman" (let me know if you don't get the reference). I'm very excited to see Spain play as well as they should. I was never crazy about soccer, but the World Cup is something special. Watch a couple matches and it's hard not to be drawn into the excitement of the whole thing. It's amazing that a game that has scores like 0-0, 0-2, 1-2 can be exciting, but soccer is about things almost happening. Much like life, in a way.

Anyway, I must get back to work. I have finished going through the charters of Alfonso VI and now must start on those of Queen Urraca (reigned 1109-1126). Urraca had a difficult and not always successful reign, but she is interesting as she ruled as queen in her own right -- not at consort or regent, but as sole ruler. One can also sing about her to the tune of the 80's hit "Hey Mickey":

Urraca you're so fine,
you're so fine you blow my mind,
Urraca! Urraca!

And with that, I will return to my charters.

Friday, June 09, 2006

history and truth

St Bede the Venerable, one of the great historians of the early Middle Ages.

Via Ted at The Late Adopter, an article on "revisionist history" by Joseph Zimmerman. Zimmerman commented on something scary I hadn't heard about. Apparently Florida governor Jeb Bush
approved a law barring revisionist history in Florida public schools. "The history of the United States shall be taught as genuine history and shall not follow the revisionist or postmodernist viewpoints of relative truth," declares Florida's Education Omnibus Bill, signed by Gov. Jeb Bush. "American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed."
It's hard to know where even to start with this, but Zimmerman does a good job of explaining the background of this bizarre piece of legislation. Once again, the conservative bugaboo raises its head: everything was fine until the 1960's, then:
American historians supposedly started embracing newfangled theories of moral relativism and French postmodernism, abandoning their traditional quest for facts, truth and certainty.
As Zimmerman points out, this story is itself revisionist history. Historians had realized that there is no history without interpretation long before. This is not "relativism" as conservatives try to portray it (no serious historian believes that one interpretation is as valid as another), but that catchword allows the conservatives to paint a simple dichotomy: liberals have no moral center, manipulate history, and teach our children lies about our noble founding fathers; whereas conservatives know there is one truth and one set of facts that need no interpretation. There are facts, a bible, and a constitution, and none of these things need interpretation -- they are clear and have always been understood they way we (conservatives) understand them now.
(As a side note, let me make it clear that I am referring not to the conservative intellectual tradition, but to the demagogues on the political right.)

One thing that seems to define the conservative mythos is the yearning for a golden age and an easily identifiable moment of corruption. For the people behind the Florida law, and for most of their fellow demogagues, that corruption clearly happened in the 60s (many Catholic traditionalists see it in Vatican II). Before then, it was all God and picket fences. If someone brings up the 50s that witnessed segregation, McCarthyism, terrible anxiety about nuclear weapons, and the Cold War, we are "revisionists."

Historical interpretation allows us to understand the complexities behind historical forces. Anyone who reads history this way will find it hard to swallow simplistic politics based delusions of "good guys" and "bad guys" dressed up as moral clarity. Where do policies like that lead us? Where have they led us in the past six years?

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Judas and the penalty clause


Jeff has written a good post on Nostra Aetate and anti-semitism which I strongly recommend. In it he quotes a speech by Cardinal O'Malley of Boston who, when speaking of Judas, says
The scriptures describe the suicide of Judas, who sold Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. It says that he hanged himself, and his body burst open.
Actually, there are two versions. Matthew 27 tells the story this way:
Then Judas, his betrayer, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, deeply regretted what he had done. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, "I have sinned in betraying innocent blood." They said, "What is that to us? Look to it yourself." Flinging the money into the temple, he departed and went off and hanged himself. The chief priests gathered up the money, but said, "It is not lawful to deposit this in the temple treasury, for it is the price of blood." After consultation, they used it to buy the potter's field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why that field even today is called the Field of Blood.
There is another version, in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles:
During those days Peter stood up in the midst of the brothers (there was a group of about one hundred and twenty persons in the one place). He said, "My brothers, the scripture had to be fulfilled which the holy Spirit spoke beforehand through the mouth of David, concerning Judas, who was the guide for those who arrested Jesus. He was numbered among us and was allotted a share in this ministry. He bought a parcel of land with the wages of his iniquity, and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle, and all his insides spilled out. This became known to everyone who lived in Jerusalem, so that the parcel of land was called in their language 'Akeldama,' that is, Field of Blood. For it is written in the Book of Psalms: 'Let his encampment become desolate, and may no one dwell in it.' And: 'May another take his office.' Therefore, it is necessary that one of the men who accompanied us the whole time the Lord Jesus came and went among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day on which he was taken up from us, become with us a witness to his resurrection."
These probably represent two different versions of the story that came down to the Gospel writers and the sense of the it -- Judas' death, the field of blood -- remains the same. The discrepancy only need worry those who feel the Bible has to be thoroughly and literally consistent always. When googling "Judas hanging" for the sake of finding an illustration, I came across a couple of different sites that tried to explain away the inconsistency. One claimed that Judas fell from the rope he was hanging from, shaken by the earthquake that accompanied Jesus' death. This really does require reading a great deal into the text. Another problem is that in the Gospel version, the priests buy the field and in the Acts version, Judas buys the field. A different site, using rather tortured reasoning, explains that the priests bought the field in Judas' name. I personally am perfectly happy thinking that two different traditions give the same essential meaning, though the facts conflict.

The only reason I bring it up is that Judas plays a role in just about every charter I am working on. Charters usually have what is called by scholars a sanctio or penalty clause -- a clause that describes the punishment for anyone who attempts to mess with the legal act the charter is describing. Sometimes these penalty clauses name a sum to be paid to the king. More often, the punishment is spiritual and is in effect a kind of curse. In the charters I have been reading, the rascal is invited to share the sufferings of Dathan and Abiram (see Numbers, 16) and Judas, who is described as not only hanging himself, but also exploding and burning in hell. Here is a rough translation of a penalty clause in a charter of Alfonso VI of Leon-Castile:
If anyone, however, (which I hardly believe), moves to violate my charter, whether it be someone near to us or a stranger, either of the royal power or of the whole people, let whoever does that be excommunicated and separated from the free Christian faithful; and let him with Dathan and Abiram, who were swallowed up alive by the earth because they went against the commandments of God and his servant Moses, and with Judas, the betrayer of the Lord, who hung himself from a noose and thus poured out his life with his guts, be submerged in the deepest part of hell to suffer eternal pains.
On top of that, he had to pay a few coins to the king. You don't mess with Alfonso VI.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

poetry reading -- june 11

Dante Aligieri, also a poet. Probably a better poet than I, but I bet I'm taller than he was.

Terra Incognita Magazine is having a poetry reading in Greenwich Village next Sunday, and I will be one of their featured readers. If anyone is in New York this weekend, come on by. I will paste their announcement below:

Once again, in the wonderful, cozy and wine-sipping ambience of the Cornelia Street Cafe, we are having a reading promoting the current issue of Terra Incognita (#6) as well as the forthcoming issue, due out later this fall. The reading begins at 6pm. Entrance is $6.00 which does buy the happy ticket buyer a free drink at the bar as well as a wonderful hour of rich, innovative, ear-bending poetry. Please come and usher in the late spring /early summer with us on Sunday evening. The readers are talented and varied and their bios follow:

Terra Incognita at Cornelia Street Cafe
June 11th

Sima Rabinowitz
Liam Moore
EJ Antonio
Ron Drummond

Sima Rabinowitz is the author of The Jewish Fake Book, published in 2004 by Elixir Press, and Murmuration, a chapbook published this year by New Michigan Press. Her poetry column, "The View from First Avenue," appears in every issue of Dragonfire, the Webby-nominated magazine of culture, art, and politics from Drexel University. This year Sima received her first Pushcart nomination for poems that appeared in the journals Salamander and Hotel Amerika. She is pleased to have her work in Terra Incognita and looks forward to the new issue.

Liam Moore, a poet and fiction writer, was born in Salt Lake City in 1966. He has had work published in both print and online journals. Liam spent much of his adult life in Spain and Italy, and was probably up to no good. At the present, he is writing a history PhD dissertation on the use of religious language in eleventh- and twelfth-century Spanish royal charters at Columbia University. Some of his work can be found at Poetry publications include:, Terra Incognita, Whiskey Island and

Ron Drummond's Why I Kick at Night was the winner of the 2004 Portlandia Press Competition. His poetry is represented in Penguin's textbook Literature as Meaning, the anthologies Poetry Nation, Poetry After 9.11, This New Breed and Saints of Hysteria, and in journals such as Northwest Review, Borderlands, Columbia Review, Global City Review, Phoebe, and Poetry New York. His translations, in collaboration with Guillermo Castro, of poems by Olga Orozco have appeared in U.S. Latino Review, Terra Incognita and Guernica. He has received writing fellowships from Ragdale Foundation, VCCA and Blue Mountain Center, and was one of the founding editors of Barrow Street.

E.J. Antonio resides in Mount Vernon, NY and is a founding committee member of and a volunteer poet for the Poetry Caravan, which brings readings and workshops into nursing homes, shelters and rehabilitation facilities. She attended the 2002 Writers Conference at Sarah Lawrence College as a Cave Canem NY Regional Fellow and was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. E.J. has appeared as a featured reader in the New York City / Westchester area at such venues as the Bronx Council of the Arts First Wednesday Series, Cornelia Street Cafe, The Hudson Valley Writers Association and the Harvard Club. Her work has been featured online at places such as,, and, and has been published in Taj Mahal Review, the WarpLand Literary Journal, Let the Poets Speak an Anthology and en(compass) an Anthology. Her work is also forthcoming in A Gathering of the Tribes, Terra Incognita, and African Voices.

The Cornelia Street CafĂ© 
29 Cornelia Street, NYC 10014 