“It was a tendency [during the nineteenth century], especially after 1860, to conceive of governance not merely as control of strategic centers but as ongoing activity on the part of regional authorities. […] This territorialization was bound up with the projection of imagined shapes of the nation onto mappable space [e.g., showing the British Empire in red on a world map], with the formation of nation-states, and also with the reform of empires and the consolidation of colonial rule, which was understood for the first time as control over countries rather than simply over trading bases. In line with this revaluation of viable territories, there was a dramatic reduction in the world total of independent political entities–in Europe from five hundred in 1500 to twenty-five in 1900. […] In 1780 no one thought it strange that Neuchâtel in Switzerland should be subject to the king of Prussia, but by the eve of its accession to the Swiss Confederation in 1857 this had become a historical curiosity.”

–Jürgen Osterhammel (trans. by Patrick Camiller), The Transformation of the World : A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University, 2014), pgs. 107-08, 112.

“In Britain not a single political refugee from the Continent was prevented from entering the country, or subsequently deported, throughout the nineteenth century. No one thought that Karl Marx in London or Heinrich Heine in Paris should be subject to a gag order. No extradition treaties existed with other countries. Requests for legal action to be taken against regime opponents living in London were invariably rejected and sometimes not even answered. Nor was criticism of British imperialism legally barred in any way. Politically active exiles generally were regarded neither as saboteurs of British foreign policy nor as a danger to internal security.”

–Jürgen Osterhammel (trans. by Patrick Camiller), The Transformation of the World : A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University, 2014), pg. 139.

The united kingdom

As the referendum on Scottish independence approaches, it’s worth noting that for all of the nationalism north and south of the River Tweed, Scotland and England really have become a united kingdom that would be painful to disentangle:

  • Millions of English have at least some Scottish ancestry.
  • Most of the Protestants in Northern Ireland have Scottish roots.
  • The queen is the daughter of a Scottish mother.
  • The current prime minister is the son of a Scottish father.
  • The prior two prime ministers were Scots.

What is a newspaper?

“The special characteristics of the newspaper [as it developed in the 19th century] were: (1) publication at regular intervals; (2) production by an editorial team; (3) division into separate departments and fields; (4) reporting that went outside the regional and social horizon of its readers; (5) a rise in topicality, which in Germany meant that the proportion of news less than a day old rose from 11 percent in 1856 to 95 percent in 1906; (6) increasingly industrial production, based on the latest technology, which required considerable capital investment for a mass circulation press; and (7) a fluctuating market that depended on daily decisions by customers at the newsstand, except in the case of subscribers.”

–Jürgen Osterhammel (trans. by Patrick Camiller), The Transformation of the World : A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University, 2014), pg. 30.

Big Data of the 19th century

“In the 1830s and 1840s, several European countries were gripped by a passion for statistics. It made things visible that had previously been hidden or taken for granted. The poor appeared as a social entity only when they were counted, and the resulting emergence of ‘poverty’ as an abstract concept helped to arouse a moral commitment. Statistical societies and journals were founded, and government offices were called into being to gather, evaluate, and store social data. Politics rested more than ever before on exact information. […]

“The nineteenth century can be seen as the century of counting and measuring. The idea of an all-embracing taxonomy now grew into a belief that the power of number–of statistical processing or even ‘social mathematics,’ as the Marquis de Condorcet, a bright star of the late Enlightenment, put it–could open up truth itself to human reason. It was in the nineteenth century that societies measured themselves for the first time and archived the results.

“There is much to suggest that they sometimes went too far. In some countries, more statistical knowledge was produced than could be scientifically and administratively handled. Statistics became what it still is today: a form of political rhetoric. The categories that statisticians had to develop were reified in the hands of government bureaucracies. Categories that statistics made technically necessary–classes, strata, castes, ethnic groups–acquired the power to mold reality for administrative departments and, indeed, in society’s perception of itself. Statistics had two faces: a tool for sociological description and explanation, and a powerful mechanism for stereotyping and labeling people. In both respects, it became a central element of the social imaginary. Nowhere was the second face more apparent than in the colonial world. Where social relations were much more difficult to understand than in close and familiar surroundings, many European observers and administrators succumbed to the false allure of objectivity and exactitude […]”

–Jürgen Osterhammel (trans. by Patrick Camiller), The Transformation of the World : A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University, 2014), pgs. 28-29.

Irony, Socratic and otherwise

“Contrary to present-day prophets of self-discovery […] there is no authentic core you discover when you probe yourself. Rather, knowing oneself requires a commitment to travel outside of oneself and join with others. Self-knowledge is a destination not an origin. At the beginning, before examination, we are strangers to ourselves.

“But in another respect authenticity is an important part of the Socratic method. ‘Say what you believe’ is the only condition for entering into a debate. A person whose statements express his beliefs endows his words with the significance of his own life. One does not simply assert a hypothesis, but arguments proceed on the basis of the participants’ beliefs. That means that investigations of these hypotheses become an existential self-examination. Any move in the debate will have an effect on one’s set of beliefs and hence on the way one understands oneself.

“In this sense Socrates foreshadows the way modern thinkers emphasize embodied knowledge. Words can be used to imagine or describe, to mount [hypotheses] or to theorize, but Socrates wants speech to have the effect of a performative promise. It essentially amounts to the claim: here I am, here is what I believe in, here is myself. Anything less will be mere gesturing in the air.


“Irony today might at bottom say that ‘I don’t really mean what I’m saying.’ As a cultural norm it might even amount to the claim that it is impossible to mean what you say. How different this is from Socratic irony, which urges us to mean exactly what we say and admit that closing the gap between what we are and what we express is impossible.”

–Roy Brand, LoveKnowledge : The Life of Philosophy from Socrates to Derrida (New York : Columbia University, 2013), pgs. 13-14. (Italics above are in the original.)

La mission civilisatrice

“The image of the Other that Europeans had when they set out to conquer the planet is of a naked savage, a cannibal and pagan, whose humiliation and oppression is the sacred right and duty of the European–who is white and Christian. The cause of the exceptional brutality and cruelty that typified whites was not only the lust for gold and slaves that consumed their minds and blinded the ruling elites of Europe, but also the incredibly low standard of culture and morals among those sent out as the vanguard for contact with Others. In those days ships’ crews consisted largely of villains, criminals and bandits, the inveterate, avowed rabble; at best they were tramps, homeless people and failures, the reason being that it was hard to persuade a normal person to choose to go on a voyage of adventure that often ended in death.

“The fact that for centuries Europe has been sending out its worst, most repulsive representatives to meet Others, and to meet them for the first time into the bargain, is bound to cast a sad shadow over our relations with Others, to shape our common views about them, and to fix stereotypes, prejudices and phobias in our minds that sometimes appear in one form or another to this day. I am sure of this even to this day, when I hear apparently serious people say, for instance, that the only solution for Africa is to colonise it again.”

–Ryszard Kapuściński, The Other (New York : Verso, 2008), pg. 22.

The sickness of xenophobia

“[Herodotus] understood that to know ourselves we have to know Others, who act as the mirror in which we see ourselves reflected; he knew that to understand ourselves better we have to understand Others, to compare ourselves with them, to measure ourselves against them. As a citizen of the world, he did not believe that we should isolate ourselves from Others, or slam the gates in their faces. Xenophobia, Herodotus implied, is a sickness of people who are scared, suffering an inferiority complex, terrified by the prospect of seeing themselves in the mirror of the culture of Others. And his entire book is a solid construction of mirrors in which we keep getting a better and clearer view of, above all, Greece and the Greeks.”

–Ryszard Kapuściński, The Other (New York : Verso, 2008), pg. 19.

This quote brings to mind Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, in which Marco Polo’s descriptions of a string of exotic Asian cities turn out to be the layers of a vision of his native city in Italy.

That old-time religion

“The beloved village priest, that staple figure of Romantic fiction, was a very rare breed [in 18th-century rural France]. In most people’s minds, the man in black was supposed to be useful, like a doctor, a snake-catcher or a witch. He should be willing to write inaccurate letters of recommendation, to read the newspaper, and to explain government decrees. He should also be able to pull strings in the spirit world, influence the weather and cure people and animals of rabies. […] Naturally, this put the priest in a tricky position. If he refused to ring the bells to prevent a hailstorm, he was useless. If he rang the bells and it hailed anyway, he was inept.”

“Jesus Christ was a relatively minor figure [in 19th-century eastern Brittany, relative to the Virgin Mary and the Devil]. In the not-so-distant past, he had walked the land dispensing practical advice. He was known to have been a beggar, which explained his resourcefulness and cunning. In pseudo-Gospel stories–told as though they were local events–Jesus would try to beat some sense into his muddle-headed sidekick, Saint Peter: ‘You fool! You never blab about an animal’s faults at the fair before selling it and getting your hands on the money!'”

–Graham Robb, The Discovery of France : A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War (New York : W. W. Norton, 2007), pgs. 127, 131.

“The Pseudo-Dionysius’s works were a triumph of the Neoplatonist imagination. In an age of science like our own, they seem wildly fanciful. The lists of seraphim, cherubim, thrones, powers, and the other grades of angelic beings seem like an elaborate fantasy game. However, in an age of faith like the early Middle Ages, with monastic imaginations starved for new stimuli, they were a stunning revelation.

–Arthur Herman, The Cave and the Light : Plato versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization (New York : Random House, 2013), pgs. 213-214.

“[The ability to transfer debts to another person is] what determines money’s value–and why money, even though it is nothing but credit, cannot just be created at will by anyone. For sellers to accept buyers’ IOUs in payment, they must be convinced of two things. They must have reason to believe that the debtor whose obligation they are about to accept will, if it comes to it, be able to satisfy their claim: they must believe, in other words, that the money’s issuer is creditworthy. This much would be enough to sustain the existence of bilateral credit. The test for money is more stringent. For credit to become money, sellers must also trust that third parties will be willing to accept the debtor’s IOU in payment as well. They must believe that it is, and will remain indefinitely, transferable–that the market for this money is liquid. Depending on how powerful are the reasons to believe these two things, it will be easier or harder for an issuer’s IOUs to circulate as money.”

— Felix Martin, Money : The Unauthorized Biography (New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), pg. 28.


By inscribing dollar bills with “This Note is Legal Tender for All Debts, Public and Private,” the United States government, because of its ability to both honor and enforce that inscription, can persuade people around the world to use those bills in their daily commerce in a way that a random guy with a laser printer could never match.

The right to conquer

“Precisely because chivalric ideals had little relevance for modern pike-and-artillery warfare, they became all the more cherished by those who dreamed of far-off lands. Places in that vast unknown territory called the ‘Indies’ that were either uninhabited or occupied by pagans rightfully belonged to the Church. It was the obligation of Christian monarchs and knights to bring them into due submission and to turn the natives’ labors to the rightful profit of their godly conquerors.”

— Daniel K. Richter, Before the Revolution : America’s Ancient Pasts (Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2011), pg. 70.

Is this rationale for dispossessing others much different from the rationale used by venture capitalists who buy companies, break them up in the name of “efficiency,” and suck out profit regardless of how well the broken pieces (and the broken people whose lives were invested in those companies) go on to do?

How did Joseph Vincent Paterno gain so much power over Pennsylvania State University that the top officials of that university would agree to cover up (and thus enable) child molestation in order to protect Paterno’s chance to set the college football record for most coaching wins?

An essay written by a 2001 Penn State alumnus and published by CNN provides insight. To paraphrase the essay in a sentence: JoePa made us better than other people, and we are still better than other people. (Please do read the essay: It’s a study in baseless, pompous arrogance.)

Paterno got tens (hundreds?) of thousands of people to believe that he was making them better than other people, fostering an illusion that they were virtuous merely by association with his virtue, and he could count on their decisive support in every battle he had within the university.

First he gave them pride. And now he’s given them a fall.

A Loss of Innocence

On September 18, 1986, a student at Benicia High School in Benicia, California was shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend after an on-campus quarrel. I was a high school sports reporter for the Benicia Herald in 1986-87, and wrote the following column for the newspaper, which it published on September 21. At the request of a high school classmate who remembered it after the Aurora shootings, I am posting it online.

A loss of innocence

I hear about it all the time. A rumor spreads, a boyfriend gets jealous, starts an argument with his girlfriend, and kills her. But it always happens somewhere else. In San Francisco, Oakland, Fremont, Richmond, any big city…but never here. How could it happen here? This is a small town. Most people move here to get away from that sort of violence, to go somewhere where the streets are clean, the citizens are friendly and the schools are safe. Benicia’s always been that kind of town. It still is. But you wouldn’t have known it Thursday.

It’s been said that the worst time in a person’s life is the day he loses his innocence. The day he realizes that the world by its very nature is a place where sadness and death are a daily fact of life that touches all of us, regardless of who or where we are. Some claim that no one has any innocence [any more], that all the violence and death we see on television has numbed us to any sense of loss about death. I wish those people who believe that could have been at Benicia High School Thursday afternoon.

I never knew Heather Dunn. I’d heard an occasional comment about her flaws, but what else do people ever talk about? All I knew was that she was a reasonably good-looking sophomore who had a couple of friends that I knew. Nothing that would set her apart in my mind from any number of people at Benicia High. Until Thursday.

I only knew Leonard Rubio slightly. He was a good football player last year, but not someone who was particularly violent or hot-tempered off the field. If you’d asked my opinion of him, I would have described him as a young man who had been a credit to his high school and had a good future ahead of him. Until Thursday.

A happy couple, or at least as happy as a high school couple could be. The three-year age difference didn’t bode well for a good future between the two, but it was just a high school romance, and who ever thinks about the future anyway? Until Thursday.

When the news came, it was a shock. Most people in the school knew either Dunn or Rubio, and most couldn’t understand how it could have happened. We didn’t even need to know who Heather Dunn was to be shocked. Some people walked around stunned. Others gossiped about the why and how of the murder. Students who wouldn’t have cringed or screamed at the worst bloodbath in a horror flick cried. But everyone had one question on their minds. Why here?

The students of Benicia High School lost a lot on Thursday. Some lost a friend, others a classmate, still others their faith in the safety and isolation of Benicia. But for many of us, it was the day we lost our innocence.

“[Latin America] must pass from nationalism to interdependence, but interdependence is senseless without a basis in independence. Only independent nations can become interdependent partners. If not, they become protectorates, neo-colonies, subject states.”

— Carlos Fuentes, Foreword, Ariel by José Enrique Rodó (Austin, TX : University of Texas Press, 1988), pg. 18.