Author Archives: John Robson

It happened today – May 29, 2016

On May 29, 1453, Constantinople fell to the Turks and turned into Istanbul. It was in some sense a formality; the Byzantine Empire wasn’t what it once had been, and hadn’t been for centuries. But it was also a landmark event in what might have been, had been, and would be.

The Byzantine Empire, né the Eastern Roman Empire, had been on the skids since at least 1071 when it lost Anatolia to the Turks. A legitimate world power that even reconquered Italy and parts of Spain under Justinian the Great in the 6th century, it was a remnant by the 12th. And while the Crusades were meant to buy it some time, the shocking decision of the Fourth Crusaders in 1204 to um sack Christian Constantinople instead of those tough guy infidels over that way, looting churches and raping nuns left it even more fatally weakened. (That the Orthodox population of Constantinople had massacred tens of thousands of their Roman Catholic fellows and enslaved or driven out most of the rest helped provoke it. But still.)

That there was still a Constantinople to fall in 1453 is thus a tribute to the tenacity of its later rulers apart from the bit where they fought two significant civil wars in the 14th century, since nothing else important was happening or something. But by 1450 the Byzantine “Empire” was smaller than the Karamanid Emirate and about as mighty as the Knights of St. John. And three years later fall it did.

In one sense it was a dramatic victory for Islam, which had been rampaging since the mid-7th century and now seemed poised to squeeze Christendom from both ends. But while the Sultans advanced in small incremental steps through the Balkans, only finally being driven back from Vienna in 1683, the various Muslim powers in Spain were conquered one by one culminating in the fall of Granada in 1492, yes, the same year Columbus sailed the ocean blue. So the fall of Constantinople, sometimes pegged as the end of the Middle Ages, is also the year in which the West turned West, and became an Atlantic more than a Mediterranean civilization.

So which would prevail? The Islamic triumph leaving Europe’s back door open, or the European surge onto the world stage. Plot spoiler. You know the answer. But here’s something you may not know. Even in its death agonies, Byzantium might have held out at least for a while had the underestimated Sultan Mehmed II not managed to employ a disgruntled master founder, a shadowy probably Hungarian figure named Orban, to make him a giant cannon and a number of other guns with which to batter down the walls.

Thus in a very real sense, including in its final days, Byzantium’s fall was due to internal Western weakness not Muslim strength. The technological gap between the West was already significant and growing fast. Indeed it is worth noting that while Constantinople was going under, Gutenberg was at work on his famous Bible produced with movable type, which appeared in 1455. By 1500 books were everywhere in Europe, some six million of them, around 40,000 separate editions, stimulating controversy, provoking thought and spreading ideas. But in 1485 Sultan Bayezid II banned printing in the Ottoman Empire, a decree that more or less held into the 18th century. And as Bernard Lewis points out in The Middle East: 2000 Years of History from the Rise of Christianity to the Present Day, already “By the end of the eighteenth century, when a Turk or Arab drank a cup of coffee, both the coffee and the sugar had been grown in the European colonies and imported by Europeans. Only the hot water was of local provenance. During the 19th century, even that became doubtful, as European companies developed the new utilities in Middle Eastern cities.”

Thus it was that the conquest of Constantinople, however portentous for its inhabitants and later those of the Balkans, was a fleeting triumph of the old over the new. It was not the fall of Byzantium leading to a universal caliphate, but the fall of Granada and the rise of Atlantic exploration from Europe, that heralded the world that would succeed the Middle Ages.

P.S. If you’re wondering why Constantinople became Istanbul, even if the song says it’s nobody’s business but the Turks, it turns out that the Turks called it “Kostantiniyye” or “İstanbul” more or less interchangeably. And before the PC types insist on the culturally sensitive “Istanbul,” it’s not an Arabic or Turkish word but a contraction of the Greek phrase “εἰς τὴν Πόλιν” or “iss tim Polin” meaning “to the city”. But the fact that old New York was once New Amsterdam had a much bigger impact on history.

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Wish I’d said that – May 29, 2016

“It is impossible to live without a metaphysic. The choice that is given us is not between some kind of metaphysic and no metaphysic; it is always between a good metaphysic and a bad metaphysic, a metaphysic that corresponds reasonably closely with observed and inferred reality and one that doesn’t.”

Aldous Huxley in “Beliefs” (1937) quoted by John Derbyshire in National Review December 13, 2004

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Can satire keep up?

In today’s National Post Rex Murphy quotes Malcolm Muggeridge, like Chesterton a prophetic voice about the modern age, that

“We live in an age in which it is no longer possible to be funny. There is nothing you can imagine, no matter how ludicrous, that will not promptly be enacted before your very eyes, probably by someone well known.”

Murphy goes on to describe artist Tracey Emin marrying a rock in France last summer, and a group of philosophy students in California marrying the ocean a few days ago. Not as satire but as what passes for sober reality. Murphy concludes the piece “As Wordsworth said of Milton, of Muggeridge we can also pray: Malcolm thou shoulds’t be living at this hour. Or, may be not.”
What, indeed, would Muggeridge make of Emin, a Royal Academician of the Royal Academy of Arts who Wikipedia calls “a paragon for women artists in today’s art world” who “does not overtly appear as a feminist artist” because she says “she is a feminist, but not a feminist artist” and “discusses sexism from the viewpoint of the being a female victim” and was a Turner Prize nominee for the predictably filthy, in both senses, “My Bed”? Or the notion, discussed by Murphy, of obtaining consent from the ocean for sex?

Well, I’m no Muggeridge. But I’m not letting satire go down without a fight. Because I’ve heard of getting your rocks off, but this is ridiculous. And if you get the ocean pregnant, does it need a sea section?

See. We can still laugh. Through our tears. Salty tears. Like the ocean. Say, I think I’ll marry my face. If it says yes.

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Can you spot the difference?

Two headlines side-by-side in my “NBC News Top Stories” feed yesterday:

Muslim Mob Attacks Christians, Parades Naked Elderly Woman

Transgender Pageant Unites Christians, Muslims, Jews

One is in Israel. One is not. So where is the BDS movement on trendy campuses with respect to Egypt which, the first story gets around to mentioning casually at about paragraph 13, “Christian men cannot marry Muslim women in Egypt unless they convert to Islam first, but Muslim men can marry Christian women.”

Suppose Israel had a law where Christians couldn’t marry Jews without converting, or Muslims couldn’t? There’s be an outcry. But when it’s in a Muslim-majority Arab nation, the reaction is yeah yeah now back to how Israel oppresses whoever.

Now to be fair the activists do see a difference. They just see it backwards.

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It happened today – May 28, 2016

A big shout-out to Bluebottle, Mad Dan Eccles, Henry, Min, Grytpype, Dennis Blodnok and the whole crew on the anniversary of the May 28, 1951 launch of the BBC radio comedy The Goon Show featuring Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe. And the impeccable upper-crust accent of announcer Wallace Greenslade, trying to keep his poise amid the lunacy.

If you’re familiar with the Goon Show, nothing more need be said. But it will be anyway, including the fact that the legendary “Fifth Beatle,” producer George Michaels, was involved in recording Goon Show records before meeting the Fab Four who were, as boys, all devotees of the show. In fact, he introduced Sellers and the Beatles which is why, among many other things, you can laugh so hard you cry watching Sellers do the lyrics to “A Hard Day’s Night” in overwrought 1950s BBC Shakespeare style.

If you’re not familiar with the Goon Show, you really need to listen to it. For nine brilliant years it ruled the airwaves, making household names of the stars, and also of Greenslade (who only got the job because a more senior announcer, Andrew Timothy, felt it would impair his dignity) and musician Ray Ellington, who turned out to have considerable comic genius. And musician Max Geldray who, well, didn’t.

My own parents listened to it while studying in Britain in the 1950s. And when it was brought to Toronto radio in 1972, they started playing it for us, and I was astounded and hooked instantly.

It had the same effect in its original run on the future Monty Python troupe. But IMHO the Goon Show holds up much better than Monty Python despite being decades older.

It’s a technologically different world, of course, where there were no computers and no smart phones and TV was a novelty. But Milligan’s genius as the main writer, and that of all three and the bit players as radio actors, is genuinely immortal, from Sellers’ lecherous and cowardly Major Bloodnok to Milligan’s idiot Eccles to Secombe’s hapless protagonist Ned Seagoon. Sellers could even turn the arch-villain Grytpype’s dry “Please… don’t do that” into a catchphrase, while only Milligan could have created such a name as “Hercules Grytpype-Thynne” and made it work.

The good men do is oft interred with their bones. But in the case of these three, all now passed on to that great studio in the sky, the frequently astonished laughter has never stopped.

If you haven’t listened to the madcap brilliance that invariably followed Greenslade’s staid straight-man “This is the BBC”, you absolutely owe it to yourself. If you have, listen again.

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Dred Free

My latest from The Rebel:

On May 26, 1857, Dred Scott got his freedom. Yes, the plaintiff in the all time worst piece of judicial activism, Dred Scott v Sandford, was actually freed shortly after the Supreme Court essentially ruled that there were no free states in the U.S., precipitating the Civil War. And it happened because where law failed, some human hearts succeeded, with some former owners funding his court challenge and another, after he lost, making sure he was freed. It’s a humbling reminder that we can always do the right thing in our own time even if the world is wrong or indifferent.

You can find the audio-only version here:

Robson Rebel, May 26 - Download This Episode

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Trumping the headbanging

Amid all the sound and fury in the American presidential election, with the latter being on the whole more justified than the former, a remarkable voice of sanity emerges in the form of an open letter (yes, a much overused format, but justified this time). It’s from two women, both mothers, about the central issue in the apparent unraveling of America: the unraveling of the family.

They ask Donald Trump what he might do about it, especially given his own example. And it’s an entirely appropriate question for the man who would be Republican nominee and apparently will be. But it could also be asked of almost anyone aspiring to office, as a reproach in some cases including Hillary Clinton’s and merely an urgent policy question in others.

Nothing matters more than intact families in making America “great” again. Nothing matters more in making it whole, in making it free, in preserving limited government, decentralization and vigorous citizens able to tackle problems both public and private instead of passively waiting for incompetent overbearing government to barge in and make things worse. And nothing matters more in people’s private lives.

So what has anyone to say about it? The problem is by no means unique to the United States. Whether you are American, Canadian, Australian or any other nationality, I strongly urge you to read the letter, to ponder it, to see what answer you might give as well as what answer any candidates do American or otherwise.

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