When Kucha Met Tang – It Happened Today, January 19 2017

Tarim Basin (Wikipedia)

Am I allowed to mention that on January 19 of 649 AD the forces of Kucha surrendered to general Ashina She’er, giving the Tang control of the northern Tarim Basin? Or would I just be wasting your time?

Lists of historic events tend to contain such things, partly perhaps to illustrate the vanity of much worldly ambition as readers go “I thought Tang was bad-tasting orange juice substitute that emerged from the Apollo moon program” and partly, I think, to be politically correct and avoid charges of “Eurocentrism”. But seriously, folks, would the world be different if this one hadn’t happened? Before you answer, close the book, step away from the keyboard and tell me where the northern or any other bit of the Tarim Basin is.

Exactly. So now let me dive deep into the pool of political correctness to fish out Hendrik van Loon’s sweeping 1921 The Story of Mankind, a panoramic history especially for children of the sort people tend not to write any more because it all makes sense and has heroes and villains. At one point in the book he says that when deciding what to include “There was but one rule. ‘Did the country or the person in question produce a new idea or perform an original act without which the history of the entire human race would have been different?’ It was not a question of personal taste. It was a matter of cool, almost mathematical judgement. No race ever played a more picturesque rôle in history than the Mongolians, and no race, from the point of view of achievement or intelligent progress, was of less value to the rest of mankind.”

In fact I would quibble a bit with his remark about the Mongols, whose impact on Russia I consider to have been disastrous for that country and, by extension, for the world because of the malevolent role an anti-Western Russia has played including in its time as the Soviet Union. (To be more exact, a half-Western Russia conflicted about its identity and rarely more vigorous than when rejecting the side of its heritage it desperately needs to embrace for its own sake and ours.) But I agree with van Loon about the larger point. A great many “historical” events are nothing of the sort, in that they contribute nothing good or even bad to the state of the world, merely perpetuating patterns harmful and repetitive wherever they occur.

OK, you could try to make a case that if China had been less or indeed more successful in its military campaigns against the various Turkic statelets in its northwest, including Kucha in Xinjiang (yes, I Googled it) its own history might possibly have been different. But it’s hard to see how, or how such a result might have occurred, let alone how the specific case of Kucha mattered either way. It was just a bunch of rhubarb on the borders of a large, somewhat amorphous civilization involving convoluted politics and chaotic military actions on behalf of dynasty that later collapsed.

It did happen on January 19. But if it hadn’t, pace van Loon, nobody would know the difference. Not even people who now live there.


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Wish I’d said that – January 19, 2017

“Civilisation is a precarious balance between barbaric vagueness and trivial order…”

W.H. Auden, summarizing A.N. Whitehead, according to Robert Conquest Reflections on a Ravaged Century


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Pour le Verdienst – It Happened Today, January 12, 2017

On January 12 of 1916, as the First World War was the process of tearing European civilization apart physically and morally, Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelmann became the first airmen to receive the most prestigious Imperial German military award, the Pour le Mérite, for eight victories each over Allied fliers. It might seem to acknowledge only the growing prominence of a new way for men to kill one another. But to me it embodies a certain poignancy about the world in the process of vanishing into the much and mire of the Western front.

As you doubtless noticed with at least some curiosity, in the middle of a ferocious German effort to conquer France, the award in question has a French name. In fact the Pour le Mérite was by then nearly two centuries hold, having been inaugurated by Frederick II of Prussia in 1740. (It was also, for much of its history, also a civilian award though after 1842 in a separate class.) And he chose a French name not only because France was then a more dominant nation culturally as well as militarily than it later became, but also because divisions of nationality were regarded as less important and indeed less divisive in those days.

Europe, for all its brutal wars, tyrannical governments and various stupidities, still saw itself as a unified civilization, specifically as “Christendom,” one bound together by common ideals and habits however short they often fell in practice, and one in which common languages served to unite them, Latin in the Middle Ages and French to a large degree since.

Both Boelcke and Immelmann deserved the award. The former was a brilliant pilot and tactician who trained the “Red Baron,” Manfred von Richthofen, who idealized his mentor long after surpassing him in kills. And the latter invented an aerial combat maneuver still known as the “Immelmann turn” and in fact the Pour le Mérite came to be known informally as the “Blue Max in his honor. I salute their prowess while wishing they had fought in a better cause.

Tragically the war in which they won this award left little room for such sentiments as the world grew crueler, harsher and less decent. The Great War took a terrible toll in lives, including Immelmann’s own just months later, on June 18, 1916 and then Boelcke’s on October 28; after being grounded for a month to spare the German public the loss of two such heroes in short order, he resumed his duties and died in a midair mid-combat collision with a fellow German plane. And it took at least as terrible a toll in ideals of the sort that once made it possible for the Kaiser to give a military award with a French name. The last such award was made on September 2, 1918.

Perhaps this verdict is too bleak. The civil version was revived in 1923 in a mixture of French and German, the Pour le mérite für Wissenschaften und Künste. And after the dreadful Nazi period, it was again re-established in 1952 and is still awarded, not just as a medal but as an order with actual members.


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Mooned by Uranus – It Happened Today, January 11, 2017

Merely saying the name of the 7th planet in our solar system risks provoking adolescent snickers. Especially when you add a moon or two of… Uranus. There. Now that we’ve disposed of that issue I’d like to raise a glass, carefully ground for optimum magnification, to William Herschel.

He it was who first discovered that planet, the third-largest and fourth-heaviest in the Sol system, in 1781. Or rather, discovered that it was in fact a planet and not a comet or a star. Despite which he wanted to name it the “Georgian star” or “Georgian planet” which is only funny in a sad way as it was an obsequious attempt to curry favour with King George III. I guess it worked, in that the German-born Herschel was appointed “The King’s Astronomer” by the German-descended king a year later. But the French were so unwilling to utter the name of the British king (I don’t see why; it’s not as though they were stuck with him) that they called it “Herschel” until the name Uranus was adopted after a long and on the whole civil debate of exactly the sort we don’t now have on the Internet. And by many people in whose language it wasn’t a double entendre, I might add.

As I might add that it was also Herschel who, on January 11 of 1787 discovered two moons of Uranus subsequently named Titan and Oberon by his son John. And it strikes me as worthy of commendation because it is so useless. To be sure, Herschel didn’t know it at the time. He was convinced the moon was inhabited, and that its settlements resembled the English countryside. (He was also certain Mars was inhabited, and the inside of the sun.)

If Uranus’ moons had been inhabited, perhaps we would have learned great scientific or cultural secrets from them. Like that the sun is extremely hot, say. Or that disinterested curiosity is a good thing. If they were even reachable, they might furnish thrill-seeking tourists with something special to do before you die like witness a methane waterfall. Right before you die, I mean.

Still, I feel that Hershel more or less stared into space because it was there, and found weird celestial bodies because they were. (While not composing one of his 24 symphonies along with many other musical works, in case you want to feel inadequate.) And he went right on finding cool things in space, like that the ice caps on Mars change with the seasons, that our solar system is moving through space and so forth. And to do something periodically without a covetous eye on the outcome is a good thing. As for his securing career advancement through it, well, it just shows a society exhibiting disinterested curiosity. And there are many worse qualities.


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Wish I’d said that – January 10, 2017

“I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain (what I consider the most enviable of all titles) the character of an honest man, as well as prove (what I desire to be considered in reality) that I am”

George Washington, in a letter to Alexander Hamilton August 28, 1788


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Across the River and Into the Italy – It Happened Today, January 10, 2017

On this date, January 10, back in 49 B.C., Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, cast the die, and waded into an unending series of metaphors as well as a civil war that he won unless you count the bit where he was assassinated.

Especially in an era where cultural literacy is being lost, if not actively buried, it’s important to remember what crossing the Rubicon meant technically. The Rubicon is a shallow river in northeastern Italy, the crossing of which is not necessarily memorable as a rule. But (assuming the name has not wandered in the last 2000 years, which is a matter of some dispute) crossing it was a very big deal back in Caesar’s day because it was the frontier between the conquered Roman province of Cisalpine Gaul, and Italy proper. And while appointed governor held military authority (“imperium”) in the provinces, only elected magistrates could do so within Italy itself given its proximity to Rome on which, just possibly, a man with soldiers under his command might suddenly march to seize power or some such.

For instance Julius Caesar. Caesar led his 13th legion (“Gemina”) into Italy for the specific purpose of seizing power. And when he did so, he uttered the once-famous phrase “alea iacta est” (“the die is cast”) meaning he had gambled everything and it was now too late to turn back because for an appointed governor to bring soldiers into Italy was open revolt and a capital offence.

Generally speaking if we use the metaphor today with any concept of its meaning, we refer simply to a decisively bold act. But there is a bit more to it, and it is less unequivocally praiseworthy. The reason crossing into Italy, over the Rubicon or any other otherwise insignificant marker, was a capital offence was that it was an attack on established authority and moreover in Caesar’s day, as Rome was still a Republic albeit very rickety by that point, an attack on civilian rule by those meant to be defending it instead.

The crucial political problem, then, now and always, has been to create a government able to protect liberty without being able to threaten it. It is by no means a simple problem or it would have been solved more often including in Rome. But Caesar’s contribution was to shove it aside in favour of the question of which strongman should rule, whose answer is far simpler but far less satisfactory.

The main difficulty through history is that most governments have been too weak to sustain themselves against invasion or upheaval even when plenty strong enough to oppress their citizens in the average course of events. You could not solve the former problem by further strengthening it without making the latter even worse. And you could not solve the latter without making the former worse.

The Romans did better than a lot of people, sustaining a Republic for nearly five hundred years. It had its flaws, both in its internal law and in its tendency to expand without regard for the niceties of law or justice, although it was on the whole a great deal better than its rivals in foreign as in domestic policy. But it caromed between anarchy and tyranny until the latter finally prevailed decisively, alternating the two problems rather than finding a solution that transcended them.

Not until medieval parliaments, backed by an alert and armed citizenry, did a more stable and attractive solution emerge, one we still enjoy today although its foundations are showing worrisome cracks and signs of crumbling. And so when we recall that in crossing the Rubicon Caesar cast the die once and for all, we should recall not merely his admirable boldness and directness but also his understandable but regrettable determination to bury popular government which, after the conspirators buried him, did succeed in the persons of Augustus, Tiberius and on down through the imperial centuries.

Like a few other great conquerors, such as Alexander and Napoleon, Julius Caesar has always seemed to me to combine military genius and political adroitness with a curious vagueness about what it was all for. And while it takes nerve to cross the Rubicon and courage is in principle a virtue, it was not in Caesar’s case directed to a praiseworthy end.


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Wish I’d said that – January 6, 2017

He once asked an artist the secret of his brilliant painting. “The reply was as concise as it was comprehensive – ‘Know what you have to do, and do it’… in every direction of human effort… I believe that failure is less frequently attributable to either insufficiency of means or impatience of labour, than to a confused understanding of a thing actually to be done…”

John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture


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