Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Silk Road by Valerie Hansen

This book is a factual representation of the archeological data from eight excavated settlements along The Silk Road. It is not a romantic meditation with fanciful images of long caravans traversing windswept deserts and mountain passes. In fact, the book has much more to say about the communities on the route than it does about the caravans themselves. Those seeking a panoramic Hollywood scene will be terribly disappointed. But the evidence itself is the best of empirical research and exciting enough for those who like their information straightforward and unembellished. There are some digressions from this approach, but they will be discussed later.

Hansen shatters many myths in the course of her examination. Chief among them is the myth that The Silk Road was one long road. Instead, it was a web of local trade routes and paths. Additionally, most of the trade was local. There were no caravans that started in China and made it to Constantinople. Indeed, the goods traded mostly served the communities along the route and were not the luxury spices and silks we imagine. A large caravan would have numbered a dozen donkeys and camels, and most traders had far fewer. Even the name “Silk Road” is not a grand ancient title; it was coined by Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877.

The archeological evidence in this region is abundant, especially around the oasis towns of the Taklamakan Desert, since its climate is arid and alkaline. Organic matter is well-preserved in such an environment. This is fortunate because the written records of the period were inscribed on wood, leather and paper, which disintegrate in wet climes with acidic soil. The discussion of archeological data is taken directly from the site reports. It is dry and painstaking, but this is where the true information about the past lies. Hansen’s contribution is that she unites this data to create an overview of the political, linguistic and cultural relationships, along a segment of the route between Xi’an, China and Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Her conclusion is an especially good restatement of the chapter information. In a short space, organizes the main points and provides a synopsis.

There is an unfortunate, discordant element to this book that interferes with the communication of information about the past. Hansen insists on scattering stories throughout the text which have little to do with the main thrust of her writing. These stories include legends about travelers which she admits are inaccurate, trials and hazards faced by archeologists and tourist writing about modern environs along the route. I am not certain of her intentions. Was she attempting to draw-in a popular readership? If so, they’re only going to run screaming from the book when she presents the stark archeological facts that make-up the body. But these non-sequiturs are obstacles that her information-seeking audience can easily skim to get on with the study.

Hansen concisely describes the importance of The Silk Road: While this route comprised modest paths and common, local trade, it “changed history, largely because the people who managed to traverse part or all of the Silk Road planted their cultures like seeds of exotic species carried to distant lands” (Hansen, p. 235). These travelers were at the origin of a tradition that is continued today by people like Valerie Hansen. While her modes of transport and communication may be more convenient than those of past explorers, she too conveys information about distant lands and cultures in history. We should value her contribution.


Hansen, Valerie. The Silk Road. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Vienna Coffeehouse Wits by Harold B. Segal

There have been a number of books written about Vienna, focusing on the period between 1890 and 1938. Most notable in English are Fin-de-siecle Vienna by Schorske and Wittgenstein’s Vienna by Janik & Toulmin. Turn-of-the-century Vienna was a period of intellectual explosion and artistic creativity that occurs only sporadically in the history of Western Culture. Like Renaissance Florence, Enlightenment Paris and Post-World War II New York, Fin-de-siecle Vienna fascinates with its genius and contribution. A unique composition of “Jung Wien” writers (whom we shall meet), Secessionist painters (Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka, et al), composers (Mahler, Berg, Schonberg, et al) and thinkers (Freud, Popper, Wittgenstein, et al), produced magnificent innovation for a brief period from the disintegration of the Hapsburg Empire through the short life of its republic.

Harold Segal takes this period and concentrates his attention on the coffee house. Even more than the University, the coffee house was the social center of Viennese cultural life. The Universities, unlike their 21st Century Western counterparts, were bastions of conservative thought and accepted art. In addition, Universities limited, by quota, the number of Jews they accepted as faculty and students. Jews comprised a disproportionately large number of the contributors to this Vienna renaissance. Also, the established institutions harbored prejudices favoring Germans; and many of the bright lights hailed from Slavic locales in the Empire. Like the English coffee houses of the 1600’s, the Viennese coffee houses were a great social equalizer where, for the price of a cup of coffee, you had access to the most interesting conversation and company regardless of class or culture. Most of the important writers of the time frequented these establishments. Coffee houses were places of social gathering that contained a wide variety of newspapers and journals. If one wished to remain current on the various trends, gossip and artistic ferment, this was the clearinghouse of information. In his introduction, Segal paints a picture showing the spark and richness of communication that occurred amidst the aroma of coffee, which alone is reason enough to pick-up the book.

Not content to focus narrowly on the coffee house as a topic, Segal further limits his study to prose writers of the Jung Wien (Young Vienna) Movement, and two of their detractors, who met in and wrote about this environment. Young Vienna writers frequently employed the short composition forms called feuilleton and kleinkunst (literally “small art”). Those who employed these forms are included. This editorial choice makes Segal’s format quite simple: After setting the stage with his introduction, the author presents the writers. Each essayist gets a chapter that contains first, a biographical sketch, then second, a set of their small works which fits nicely into the book. (The exception is Karl Kraus who wrote criticism.) While feuilleton and kleinkunst are convenient for structuring purposes, this choice does leave out a number of famous Jung Wien writers. For example, Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Beer-Hofmann, who contributed more to the literary culture of Vienna than some of those included, are ignored. But it is not Harold Segal’s goal to compose an exhaustive, encyclopedic study of Viennese writers or society. He is offering a slice-of-life detail, exhibiting coffee house regulars who wrote about this habitat and other topics. For more comprehensive books on the wealth of Viennese Fin-de-siecle culture and history, see the aforementioned Fin-de-siecle Vienna and Wittgenstein’s Vienna. There is much innovative brilliance in the decaying capitol that cannot be encompassed by Segal’s chosen arena.

About the examples of writing themselves: they are brilliant tiny gems of well-constructed and thoughtful meditations on trifles. The compositions are enjoyable to read and completely unimportant. I can do without some of the diatribes on what is good art. Also the longer pieces, primarily an attack by Karl Kraus on the Young Vienna circle and Anton Kuh’s response in a public speech, are equally ignorable.  Readers more attuned to such debates will find the arguments hysterical. Personally, I enjoy art because it is not a matter of life or death. Art does not require virulent opinions resulting in arrogant judgments and lifelong feuds. For me, art is a break from the mundane and stressful aspects of life. If there is extreme emotion, it is within the frame of the painting. Any strong meaning or content is expressed in the beauty or emotion conveyed by the work itself, and doesn’t need a tirade to explain or attack it. “What is art?” “What is good art?” These are questions whose answers are entirely subjective. So there can be no general answer we will agree upon. Art is simply communication through a medium. Enjoy what you see or find something else to regard.

The themes of these short pieces are for the most part materialistic, sentimental and superficial. Peter Altenberg writes lovingly about window displays in fine shops. Hermann Bahr attaches great significance to painting trees red. Anton Kuh illustrates his personality through his choice to wear a monocle.  Not all of the writers in this book covered trivial subjects. Polgar and Kraus are notable exceptions. But most did. Certainly, it was their right to compose on any subject they chose. But there is something disturbing, about such a choice during this historical moment for Austria. While the Jews, Slavs and intellectuals of this circle were writing kleinkunst, other more political groups within Austrian and German Society were fomenting changes that would sweep those among the  aforementioned who didn’t get away, into concentration camps, work camps and ditches of bullet-riddled bodies. The nationalism, militarism and prejudices of the time, could not have been invisible to these people. Even prior to the overwhelmingly popular Anschluss, there were ethnic hatreds and threats against republican freedoms. Additionally, some of their colleagues and fellow coffee house regulars were writing on political events. But the great majority of kleinkunst writers remained apolitical. There is no requirement that artists create political art. Indeed there are no rules at all; rules have only proven to stifle art. But if one is describing the world around him/her, these strong trends are details on which one might wish to express an opinion.

The Vienna Coffeehouse Wits provides a glimpse into a society of writers, during a creative cultural burst, that has long since been extinguished. It supplies the english-speaking reader with a sample of writings from eight gifted essayists one would not otherwise encounter. The fine introduction, short biographies and playful kleinkunst prose, add color and depth to a coffee house society that was such an important part of Vienna’s rich and innovative Fin-de siecle.


Segal, Harold B. The Vienna Coffeehouse Wits. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1993.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience by Ronald J. Sider

Okay I admit I had a little too much fun with this one. Anyone who’s been on the receiving end of a born-again, morally superior diatribe about other people’s personal choices, or a sales pitch for Jesus that expounds on the joys of magical thinking, is in for an indulgent schadenfreude. It’s especially satisfying to see these fake smiles on legs getting capped by one of their own. Ronald J Sider is the ubermensch of evangelical superiority; the high priest of purity, telling some of the most sanctimonious creatures evolved from the earlier primates, that they aren’t good enough. And, the prelude to it all is a litany of their failure to live up to their hype.

The Introduction and first chapter are an airing of dirty laundry about how Evangelicals are no better, and sometimes worse, than the rest of us. “Divorce is more common among ‘born again’ Christians than in the general American population” (Sider, p. 13). In addition, “90 percent of all divorced born-again folk divorced after they accepted Christ” (Sider, p. 18). Christians, who are admonished to give 10% of their wealth to charity, are giving 2.66% (Sider, p. 20).

Then we get to a section entitled “Sexual Disobedience.” When someone is na├»ve enough to couple the words “sexual” and “disobedience” with a straight face, you know it’s going to provide great comedy. I wonder what Christian Sexual Obedience Training looks like? Here, Sider quotes from a Columbia/Yale study of True Love Waits, a youth organization within the Southern Baptist Convention, to reduce adolescent sexual activity. It is as effective as you’d expect:  88% of teens who took the pledge lost their virginity (Sider, p. 23). I hope True Love wore a condom. But if you’re taking such a pledge, it's likely you're less prepared than the average teen. Also, you probably don’t have parents who will frankly discuss sexual safeguards; they’re expecting you to remain celibate.

In the face of all these changes imposed by the secular world upon the Christian time capsule, it should be comforting for born-agains to know that some Christian traditions have remained the same. Depressingly, those traditions are hatred and violence. Racism: “Baptists and evangelicals were among the most likely groups to object to black neighbors” (Sider, p. 25). Domestic Violence: “women are more likely to experience physical abuse in traditional marriages (where the husband is dominant) than in egalitarian marriages” and “a higher percentage of evangelicals than the general public live in traditional marriages” (Sider, pp. 26-7). Then there are the hatreds of which Sider approves. Homophobia: “We rightly seek an amendment to the US Constitution to define marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman” (Sider, p. 76). Yes, we wouldn’t want those gays weakening the institution of marriage like the born-agains who divorce in greater numbers than the general population. The Right to Choose: “We rightly seek to make abortion-on-demand illegal” (Sider, p. 76). Subjugation is alive and well among conservative Christians.

So what is Sider’s solution? Here the book loses any originality and all comic value. First, he spends the next three chapters beating the crap out of his co-religionists.

“Weeping and repentance are the only faithful responses to the sweeping, scandalous disobedience in the evangelical world today. We have defied the Lord we claim to worship. We have disgraced his holy name by our unholy lives…Unless we repent, our Lord intends to spit us out” (Sider, pp. 122-3).

This is the book version of watching the latest televangelist, caught in bed with the village bimbo, crying his way to forgiveness. To summarize the chapters for anyone who doesn‘t feel like yawning through them: “Biblical Vision” discusses what Jesus expected of his followers. “Cheap Grace vs. the Whole Gospel” proclaims that you cannot half-heartedly commit. “Conforming to Culture or Being Church” is pretty simple: Culture bad; Church good. Throw in a little superstition (“Satan is a real, living entity” [Sider, p. 127]), add a final chapter on Christian groups and individuals who are living in “unconditional submission to Jesus” and you’re done.

Sider is so foolishly out of touch with the modern world, and so ignorant of history, that he doesn’t see how his strategy will fail. He offers the same old, unimaginative approach to the flock that has been used for centuries, and it’s how conservative Christians got where they are today. The secular world is just too enticing and liberating, and it has changed even conservative Christianity. With no fresh, imaginative approaches, Sider guarantees that the values and beliefs of his brethren will continue on a trajectory away from his goals. Christianity will undoubtedly continue for a long time. But as the world changes, so will it.

Sider, Ronald J. The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005.

For an atheist perspective on St Augustine's The Confessions, see;

For a classic history on science vs religion, see:

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt

Eichmann in Jerusalem was first published in 1963. At first, it angered Holocaust opponents in the US because of its proposition that Eichmann, Germany and the Nazis, behaved in ways that were commonplace and consistent within a moral and social framework. Yes, they were murderers, but they were not abnormal. Her analysis, while still controversial, has gained a much wider acceptance worldwide.

Throughout her analysis of the Holocaust, Arendt remains thoughtfully murky. People seeking black and white answers will find themselves unhappy with the grey of the real world which Dr Arendt described.  As stated above, Nazis are generally seen as normal human beings. Eichmann in particular is characterized as a man of “rather modest mental gifts” (Arendt, p. 170), with a poor memory, who was a joiner and a follower. His chief skills were in the area of logistics. This served him well in his job, which was primarily the transport of “undesirables” within the Reich. In short, he wasn‘t a genius mastermind of the Final Solution; he was a bureaucrat, a shipping clerk, who did what he was told. Concerning his moral and psychological picture, “half a dozen psychiatrists had certified him as ‘normal,’” possessing no “insane hatred of Jews.” Indeed, psychiatrists went further to claim that Eichmann’s “whole psychological outlook, his attitude toward his wife and children…was ‘not only normal but most desirable’” (Arendt, pp. 22-3). In spite of his alleged normalcy, and the mundane nature of his job, Arendt is never confused around Eichmann’s guilt. “He shipped people to their death in full awareness of what he was doing” (Arendt, p. 193). The chilling conclusion is that any individual of moderate intellectual ability, with a capacity to organize efficiently and follow orders, could have done Eichmann’s job.

This perspective of the bureaucratization of murder is carried forth throughout the book. Eichmann is shown discussing with Rudolf Hoss (Commandant of Auschwitz) “the killing capacity of the camp” and “how many shipments per week it could absorb” (Arendt, p. 81). It’s a mundane discussion between two functionaries examining the shipment and disassembly of material units. The only difference between their world and the world of government or business elsewhere is that the units breathe and bleed. During the Wannasee Conference of 1942, where the term “Final Solution” was first written, Arendt portrays a meeting of undersecretaries (those working directly beneath ministers in the Civil Service). These problem solvers are enthusiastically untangling the details of a plan for human destruction, in the same way they might coordinate a national roads project. It should be noted that Eichmann was the lowest ranking participant at this conference, further demonstrating his obscurity (Arendt, pp.99-100).

If Arendt had stopped right there, she would undoubtedly have secured enough post-war infamy to insure an Allied mob at her door. Fortunately, for those who prefer a whole story, the author found a way to expand the audience of critics politely requesting she go off and die in a ditch. Arendt pursues a subject which causes her fellow Jews to reach for the pitchforks and torches. She intrepidly ventures into a dark area of the Holocaust where even today we only hesitatingly shine a light: that of Jewish collaboration. Unflinchingly, Arendt documents Jewish community involvement in its own genocide: Jewish elders and leaders who obeyed Nazi orders and delivered quotas of Jews to the cattle carts, Jewish Police forces in the ghettos that rounded-up the victims, “Jewish commandos” who did “the actual work of killing in the extermination centers” (Arendt, p. 109). The author strenuously emphasizes that this is a muddled moral picture which involves people acting under coercion. Some collaborators desired to mitigate the brutality of tasks that would be worsened if taken over by Nazis. Others were threatened with their own deaths or those of loved ones. Nonetheless, she states that “without Jewish help in administrative and police work” tasks as immense as the final rounding-up of Jews in Berlin “would have been either complete chaos or an impossibly severe drain on German manpower” (Arendt, p. 104). She follows with the example of “Adam Czernaikow, chairman of the Warsaw Jewish Council” an unbeliever who chose to commit suicide rather than serve-up his fellow human beings (Arendt, p. 105).

As if the subject of collaboration alone were not enough to insure the declaration of a Jewish Fatwa, Arendt goes a step further: she questions the validity of the Israeli Court proceedings against Eichmann. Was Eichmann innocent until proven guilty in the eyes of Israel? Of course not. Israel would not have gone through the trouble of kidnapping him from Argentina if he were presumed innocent. In addition, “Eichmann’s illegal arrest could be justified…only by the fact that the outcome of the trial could be safely anticipated” (Arendt, p. 192). Other irregularities include the inability of the defense to call eyewitnesses or cross-examine witnesses who wrote affidavits for the prosecution. Most of these were former Nazis who were afraid to enter Israel where the Attorney General announced that they would be arrested and tried (Arendt, p. 200). This is not to say that Eichmann was innocent. Even Eichmann does not say that. It is a question of whether impartial justice was done.

Throughout her study of Eichmann and Evil, Hannah Arendt refrains from portraying Nazis as different from the rest of the human family. Quite the opposite. She expends a great deal of effort in depicting both Eichmann and Early 20th Century German Society as all too human. Words like “monster,” “insane” or “abnormal,” serve only to distance ourselves from Eichmann and Germans of the 1940s. It’s our way of saying that we or the rest of humanity could never do such abominable things. But if other humans were incapable of doing such things, genocide would not ever have happened previously or since. We honestly cannot know how we, our neighbors or our society, would act in similar circumstances during a similar historical moment. Arendt effectively shows that almost anyone with Eichmann’s organizational gifts could have been inserted into his position.

The tendency to separate ourselves from the acts of cruelty committed by others is a denial that permits us to dismiss people or societies, and helps us avoid understanding such acts. I agree with Dr Arendt and would go a step further: the concept of Evil is also a device we use to separate ourselves from the appalling actions and motivations of others. Calling a person or an act Evil is employing a particularly Judeo-Christian stance that adds a religious layer to the attempt to distance. It divides the world into Good and Evil, and places us on the side of Good. This makes it even more difficult to analyze and understand the actions of those on the other side of this artificial barrier. Yes, artificial: Good and Evil are human-created concepts, not physical realities. If we must characterize the acts of savagery committed by Nazis against Jews, White 1870s US citizens against Native Americans, or 1990s Hutu against Tutsi, it may be best to use words like “harmful” or “destructive;” adjectives that could describe any humans to some degree.

Eichmann in Jerusalem reveals to us the face of humanity in all its complexity and all its ability for harm or compassion. It’s a view of our humanity which most of us would rather not see.

Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: The Viking Press, Inc., 1963.

For more on Genocide, see: