Jul 052020
 

This is inspired by a tweet claiming that something was an example of mediæval blood libel; I remembered it being earlier than that, looked it up, and found the relevant tweet had disappeared off the bottom of the page.

So this blog posting.

The earliest reference to the blood libel in the relevant Wikipedia article was an accusation that Jews sacrificed Greeks in the temple in Jerusalem in the BCE era.

Calling this “blood libel” is mildly controversial – there are those who prefer to stick to a very specific definition which specifies christians accusing Jews. Whilst I’m fine with a definition this specific for a specific instance (“The Blood Libel”), being too pedantic prevents discussions about instances (real or theoretical) of similar accusations by other groups against other groups (“a blood libel”).

In addition, if you prohibit the use of the phrase “a blood libel” in reference to any accusations which don’t meet a specific definition too closely, it makes discussing generic blood libel accusations somewhat tricky – be too quick to dismiss the fictional accusation that atheists use the blood of neo-pagan children to make “holy bread” as not being “The Blood Libel” and you risk implying that it’s not that bad.

Whilst the Jews are a popular target for the evil ones that like emphasising the “us versus them” (frequently as a means of bolstering their own power), they are not the only target – from a Eurocentric perspective those other targets include the Romani, blacks, Irish, Asians, and immigrants of any kind.

This general demonisation of “them” isn’t any kind of blood libel of course, but it is possible that non-Jewish blood libel accusations have been made against “them” ever since religion became a source of power for priests – well before history (the written record) began, and well before the Jewish people called themselves Jews.

The blood libel is specifically a false accusation that Jews sacrifice the children of christians (or Greeks in the earliest examples) to use their blood to make a “holy bread”. Ignoring the ethnic groups, the key elements of a blood libel are :-

  1. The accusation is false (or it wouldn’t be a libel).
  2. The accusation involves blood consumption – blood has been important symbolically since forever.
  3. The religious aspect – consuming the blood is a religious act. Well, religion has been the curse blighting humanity ever since it began.

There is nothing in there that is dependent on the identity of the perpetrator or the target group (because I’ve removed it), but doesn’t it cover the essentials of a blood libel?

Being cynical about human nature, I’m pretty sure that blood libels have been around ever since religion could be used to divide us and them. Which is a good deal further back than the last 2,000 years.

None of this is meant to undermine the seriousness of the blood libel against Jews.

No Fun At The Fair

Jun 142020
 

In the wake of the tearing down of many US statues of Confederate generals and in the UK, the removal of a statue to a slave trader in Bristol, there is an ongoing debate about the status of statues in the public space.

And some pretty daft things have been said about it.

One of the daftest is the notion that they represent our history and destroying them is destroying our history; no they don’t and no it isn’t. History is a lot bigger and more diverse than the handful of historical (in some cases) so-called heroes.

The best a statue (almost always of an old white dude) can achieve in that direction is to spark an interest in history. And replacing the Bristol statue of Edward Colston with a statue of Paul Stephenson would have very little effect on this “sparking effect”. From a purely ancient history perspective, I might prefer one to Robert Fitzharding, but given that there is no shortage of statues to old white dudes, someone else can take centre stage.

The Bare Family

In the US, it is rather peculiar to say the least that many US cities have statues to traitorous (not to mention racist) Confederate generals. Even ignoring the political question of why they are there, a fair few of them have little to no aesthetic value – if I were one of those dead Confederate generals, I’d be saying “Look, I may have been pretty ugly but at least I looked human!”.

But it gets on to an interesting point – we don’t so much worship the real people depicted in statues as our idealised version of them. In the case of Confederate generals (and ignoring the conscious and blatant racists), some view these as heroes of states’ rights which is more than a little invented – those making up the Confederacy were quite happy trampling on states’ rights when it came to achieving things they wanted (such as the return of run-away slaves).

In some cases the myth of the man (and woman in some rare cases) is enough to justify their statue despite what they were like in life – for instance Churchill was a racist and an imperialist but he also represents anti-fascism, Britain’s war leadership, and the initiation of the European state project.

There are those who would point to the Bengal famine of 1943 as a reason why he should not be venerated in statue form. He certainly deserves criticism for his handling of that famine and bears some responsibility for it, but he hardly caused the famine and there was plenty of other things going on at the time.

Back to the Confederate generals … I don’t think their myth is sufficient to justify the continued existence of their statues in the light of their very real crimes.

In the case of at least some statues, their origin story can be more interesting than expected – for instance there is a statue of Oliver Cromwell outside the British parliament that was put up in the late 19th century. At the time, it was felt that putting up such a statue was rather provocative given the situation with Ireland at the time.

So no public money went to funding the statue; a ‘benefactor’ paid for the statue, but it was put up in the public space anyway – kind of missing the point!

But is the violent removal of such statues justified?

Normally, no. But in some instances, yes.

In the case of the Bristol slave trader, people have been trying to have the statue removed through official channels for over twenty-years! If you do not have a sensible way of handling reasonable objections to questionable statues in a reasonable time frame you can’t get too upset when people resort to direct action.

There must be a sensible, timely, and semi-democratic mechanism by which statues in the public space can be removed – perhaps if 25% of the local electorate vote to remove it, it should go. Whilst this is not properly democratic, if a statue is offensive to a quarter of the local population it seems not unreasonable to remove it.

Oct 312019
 

Today it is Samhaim, I spotted an off-the-cuff remark on Twitter about women being executed for ‘witchcraft’ in the past, and I also knew that many men were executed for ‘witchcraft’ in the past, so I decided to see if I could get some half-reasonably accurate data on the genders of executed witches.

I got rather rough lists of names from both Wikipedia and here. Processing the two lists was not fun :-

  1. First I removed duplicates where possible.
  2. I flagged as M(ale) all the names that were obviously (to me) male. Or where there were other clues (“husband”).
  3. I flagged as F(email) all names that were obviously women, those where there was some doubt, and those where there was a hint (“daughter”).
  4. I flagged as F(emale) all surname-only names.

This quite possibly over-estimates the number of women executed for witchcraft, and is nowhere near accurate (a list of 477 names out of tens of thousands is a hopelessly small sample).

Out of that list of names, 384 were women (approximately 75%) and 113 were men (approximately 25%). This is nowhere near equal, but neither were male executions so rare that you can honestly say “women were executed for witchcraft”; it has to be “women and men were executed for witchcraft” (or some variation of that).

Having said that, it would be nice to see some proper historical statistical work done to see if a more accurate ratio could be determined.

The Red Door
Nov 112018
 

If you use the Unix or Linux command-line, you may very well wonder about the origins of some of the “special” characters. One of those is tilde (~) which is expanded by the shell into “home” :-

✓ mike@Michelin» echo $HOME                        
/home/mike
✓ mike@Michelin» echo ~
/home/mike
✓ mike@Michelin» echo ~root
/root

This doesn’t of course work in general; just in the shell.

But where did this usage originate?

As it turns out, it was the markings on the keyboard of the ADM3A terminal :-

If you used Unix in the late 1970s/1980s, you may very well have used the ADM3A terminal and it seems that those who added the tilde feature to the Unix shell were amongst the users.

Nov 112018
 

Horseshit.

Normally on Remembrance Sunday, we remember the dead of all wars, but this one is a bit special – it’s exactly 100 years since the armistice that brought the killing phase of World War 1 to an end.

Around this time of year, there are often those who make grand pronouncements about the sacrifices those who fought made for some sort of noble goal – our freedom, the freedom of others, to defeat a really nasty enemy.

None of that applies to those who died in WW1; some of them may have felt they were fighting for their freedom (and our freedom). But they really fought because of the 19th century equivalent of mutually assured destruction.

Austria-Hungary and Serbia fought because of the assassination of a single man. Russia fought to support Serbia; France fought to support Russia; Britain fought to support France. And Germany fought because Austria-Hungary fought. This gross over-simplification happened remarkably quickly – all of the declarations of war occurred within about 1½ weeks.

So no great debate on the aims and goals of what the war was for then.

So whilst those who fought (and in some cases died) in wars are not to blame, not all wars were fought for good reasons – certainly you’ll find it hard to find a good reason for WWI. 

Light’s Shadow
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