Getting Back in the Groove

Trip Start Feb 08, 2008
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Trip End Sep 11, 2009


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Flag of Turkey  , Bursa,
Friday, September 5, 2008

The transition from a roughly 24/10 large group, work, eat, movable party, to my (thoughtful?) solitude has taken a couple of days. Well, more than a couple. Yesterday I was pretty apathetic, just reading and sleeping much of the day. But, on the other hand, that's pretty much what I do every day, I suppose, perhaps with less sleep, though.

I did finish reading my third Ottoman Empire history, however (The Ottoman Empire by Colin Imber). This book was a college textbook from a course I audited about a year and a half ago. In contrast to Caroline Finkel's Osman's Dream, which seemed to be a step-by-step accounting of every battle fought during the 623 years, Imber's was to focus on "the internal structure and politics" of the empire. It was much more engaging to be sure.

Given that my sister is expected to visit me in October, and I will meet her in Istanbul, it seemed appropriate that I should next turn my interests to the period preceding the Ottoman Empire, the Byzantine Empire. There is much in Istanbul to do with the Byzantine period that I myself have yet to see. Furthermore, during my initial travels in Turkey in the spring of 1971, when I read Will Durant's History of Western Civilization, Volume IV The Age of Faith, and Herbert J. Muller's The Loom of History, I have thought that the Byzantine period has been too little appreciated.

We always think of that period as "byzantine." I guess that means convoluted, intricate, and messy, all of which it was. But it was also a key period, I came to believe, in understanding the cultural legacy of the West. And, I have my own theory why it has seemed to me to be passed over lightly. This is the period of time when the Christian Church came into its formal acceptance, and early structural formulation as a state religion, and maybe there are those who do not want to discuss the raw politics that that amounted to.

As I am a little short on Byzantine reading material presently, I returned to my Muller's The Loom of History, for a quick overview. And, recently I picked up a couple of small books of a series called "Essential Histories: A muli-volume history of war seen from political, strategic, tactical, cultural and individual perspectives." My curiosity had been frustrated--or aroused--in reading Osman's Dream, which enumerates countless engagements, to a mind-numbing degree (but I ploughed through). But one has to wonder, "What was it like on the ground?" These Essential Histories address that curiosity in pretty fair degree. At least the one I have so far just concluded reading, Byzantium at War: AD 600-1453 by John Haldon, did.

But, in contextualizing the warring situation, the authors also have to set the cultural and political scene, and to do so succinctly. It was interesting to me, therefore, to see what I presume some associative similarities between the Byzantine and Ottoman. Imber had concluded his remarks on the longevity of the Ottoman Empire, particularly in the latter stages, when the so-called "decline" began. He says, "The reason for this capacity to weather crises probably lies in two institutions. First, the scribal service continued to work, ensuring that the daily functions of government such as taxation and the equipping of armies could continue . . . . Second, the courts and the legal system continued to function and to keep the confidence of the sultan's subjects in regulating their affairs. It was, it seems, the continuity in these mundane functions of government that ensured the Empire's survival."

Well, next I quickly turned to the book on Byzantium at war. First I was surprised that in reading of the political and social structure of Byzantine society how much it seemed to be described in the same words as those for the Ottoman society. Not the above quoted words, but in the larger descriptions of the social and civil structuring. So, I'm wondering, how much of the latter arising Ottoman society is directly due to the neighboring archetype of the Byzantine?

Then I soon read, on the first page of the book on Byzantine warfare: "Byzantium survived so long partly because internally it was well-organized, with an efficient fiscal and military system; and partly because these advantages, rooted in its late Roman past, lasted well into the 11th century."

My point here is the attribution of these two unrelated authors that the longevity of these two empires was largely due to the continued cohesion and functioning of the states' bureaucracies. Then, right in the midst of moving between these two books I read these paragraphs from Paul Krugman  in the "New York Times" (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/01/opinion/01krugman.html):

"FEMA's degradation, from one of the government's most admired agencies to a laughingstock, wasn't an isolated event; it was the result of the G.O.P.'s underlying philosophy. Simply put, when the government is run by a political party committed to the belief that government is always the problem, never the solution, that belief tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Key priorities are neglected; key functions are privatized; and key people, the competent public servants who make government work, either leave or are driven out."

"What we really need is a government that works, because it's run by people who understand that sometimes government is the solution, after all. And that seems to be something undreamed of in either Mr. Bush's or Mr. McCain's philosophy."

So, basically, these guys who yap so much about "national security" (Republicans) are quite able and apt to take measures that allow the fundamentals of societal cohesion and security to rot at the core. What kind of "conservativism" is that?!  FEMA is but one of many institutions in the social fabric of America. Oh, stop me here!
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