What’s in a (bridge) name?

Apparently there were major, nationwide protests today in Turkey against the government of PM Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party. The protests began in Istanbul as a reaction to government plans to develop considerable portions of that city’s already scarce green space by bulldozing Gezi Park and running a third major bridge over the Bosphorus Strait that separates Istanbul’s Asian and European components. But the protests spread nationally, particularly in major cities like Izmir and Ankara, as protesters complained about a government that seems increasingly fundamentalist and decreasingly responsive to moderate and secular voices (severely curtailing the availability of alcohol, for example, and cracking down on public displays of affection). #occupygezi was trending on Twitter. The police crackdown seems to have been fairly brutal; Amnesty International and the European parliament’s “rapporteur on Turkey” (how does one get a job as an observer on behalf of a legislative body that has no authority?) complained of excessive use of force, and one woman seems to have been critically injured.

Sultan Selim I (d. 1520)

Sultan Selim I (d. 1520)

According to Al-Jazeera, one complaint is that this planned third bridge over the Bosphorus, in addition to being an environmental concern, is going to be named after the early-16th century Ottoman Sultan Selim I, known as Yavuz Sultan Selim or “Sultan Selim the Tough,” though this usually gets translated in the West as “Sultan Selim the Grim,” a much less impressive-sounding epithet. Selim was an undeniably successful ruler from a military perspective, an almost unstoppable force. He ended the first real threat the Ottomans had faced in over a century when he defeated the Shi’ite Safavids at the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514; the Safavids, under their charismatic founder, king, and religious leader Shah Isma’il I, controlled the Caucasus, Iraq, and Iran and had started to engineer some Shi’ite rebellions in the eastern parts of Ottoman territory. Selim actually dethroned his father, Bayezid II, in 1512 because of the latter’s inability or unwillingness to do anything about the Safavids. That done, Selim invaded Safavid territory, and although the Safavids had a zealously committed force of Turkic cavalry behind them, what they didn’t have were very many firearms, or people who could use them proficiently, and the Ottomans, who had firearms and able gunmen to spare, decisively defeated them. The Safavids from then on would be the recipient of violence in the Ottoman-Safavid relationship, rather than the deliverer of violence, except for a brief period in the early 17th century. Next Selim turned his attention to the weak, decaying Mamluk Empire of Egypt and Syria, which was on its last legs practically speaking but had both lucrative access to Indian Ocean trade routes and control over Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites in Islam (not to mention Jerusalem, Islam’s third holiest site). By 1517 there was no Mamluk Empire anymore, and Selim claimed the title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” and, interestingly, “Caliph.” The Ottomans, who had always wrestled how to demonstrate their legitimacy (beyond the obvious “we keep winning battles”) in their official court documents, histories, etc., got a semblance of real legitimacy in 1453 when Mehmed conquered Constantinople and laid claim to the heritage of Rome, but Selim’s capture of Mecca and Medina was at least as important in Ottoman political formulations.

So why would naming a bridge after this guy contribute to these protests? Well, Selim was a great military commander, but he wasn’t a very nice guy, and if you’re a Turk today who may be Shi’ite, perhaps descended from the same Shi’ites who, whether they actually rebelled or not, were viewed with supreme suspicion by successive Ottoman emperors, who were brutalized and often forcibly relocated further west to get them further away from the Safavid sphere of influence, you probably don’t appreciate having a major new construction project named after the guy who really started all of that stuff. If you’re a secular Turk who doesn’t want to see your government take on more religious trappings, the naming of this bridge after a divisive figure along religious sectarian lines probably seems like a warning that the government is taking on an increasingly religious (Sunni) bent.

we’ve got other things to do

Hands are being wrung in consternation because MSNBC finished in fourth place in the cable news ratings wars in May, repeating their April performance, behind not only the sitcom-masking-as-news-operation that is CNN, but also behind CNN’s mentally unhinged cousin, Headline News (Fox is obviously first always because Amercia).

Another month of big crime and disaster news saw the network struggle to keep up with rivals CNN, HLN and Fox News. MSNBC was presumably expecting some dropoff from its 2012 numbers, since that was an election year, but it still landed in fourth place behind the other channels, a victim of HLN’s Jodi Arias-fueled surge and of President Obama’s scandal-ridden, defensive month. Overall, MSNBC saw its lowest total day viewer numbers since 2007, and its lowest prime time numbers since 2009.

Alex Pareene contends that this is not a problem with MSNBC’s liberal (prime-time) programming, but more a weakness in MSNBC’s overall focus on political talk:

“Morning Joe” is the lowest rated of the big three cable news morning shows in both total viewers and the younger demographic. Fox News’ Red Eye — a show Fox airs at 3 in the morning — had more total and 25-54-year-old viewers in April 2013 than “Morning Joe” did. “Morning Joe” in April 2013 was down, from its April 2012 numbers, in total and in young viewers by a greater percentage than the rest of the network as a whole.

I’m not harping on “Morning Joe” because I think the show is representative of everything wrong with contemporary political elite thinking, though it is, but because it illustrates MSNBC’s larger problem: It’s a political talk show. Every other TV morning show is mostly fluff and weather. “Morning Joe,” instead of entertainment news updates, has a former member of Congress wave a newspaper at Mark Halperin for a while. MSNBC’s target audience may just be much less interested in listening to people talk about politics in spring 2013 than they were during an election year.

Digby notices the same drop-off online and suspects disillusionment:

I don’t think that’s it. People aren’t taking the scandals all that seriously (so far.) And I’m with pareene that if the Republicans really get crazy, the audience will come back. Short of that (or something else catastrophic) my impression is that liberals are either bored or disillusioned right now for any number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that a liberal majority has been effectively obstructed and the president seems to be ineffectual. (I realize that political scientists tell us that the presidency isn’t very powerful, but most people don’t believe that since we’ve extolled the office as the most powerful on earth for decades.)

I don’t see this as a great mystery, because I remember all the way back in the distant past, the 2010 midterm elections, where the Democratic base (youngsters and minorities) couldn’t even be motivated to show up to vote in an election (although considering how much voting is made to suck in this country, both intentionally and just because we’re lazy and stupid, maybe I shouldn’t blame them too much). Of course, the 2010 results turned into yet another excuse for liberals, progressives, lefties, whatever you want to call them, to turn on each other for being insufficiently loyal/unconscionably devoted to the proudly liberal/disappointingly center-right Obama administration, thereby driving voters away from the polls somehow because we all know that Democratic voters rely on progressive activists on Twitter and blogs to build up their pre-election enthusiasm. But, hell, the White House soup of the day can cause various pockets of the Democratic coalition to turn on various other pockets, activists with their couple thousand Twitter followers accusing other activists with their couple thousand Twitter followers of destroying all hope for a liberal resurgence in America because something something what they Tweeted that one time about President Obama/dirty hippies. Does anybody really believe that kind of stuff affects voter turnout? 2010 was a double-whammy, because in addition to the fact that the party controlling the White House usually does poorly in its first midterm election (W, post-9/11 and in a time of war, is the only president since FDR to reverse this pattern), the bottom line is that the Democratic base just doesn’t turn out for midterm elections.

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Islamic History, Part 8: The Caliphate of Abu Bakr (632-634)

Islamic History Series

Muhammad’s death in 632 seems to have caught his followers by surprise, because the sources describe a period of effective chaos right after he died and I think this is one area in which the sources can be mostly trusted. Yes, the sources are late and unreliable, but if they were doctored up or even completely fabricated at some later time, why would their writers have invented an inter-movement war if none had actually taken place? The impulse for someone inventing, or massaging, the story of the early community would be to write more order and control into that tale, not less. You would want to show how Muhammad’s successor was widely accepted and peacefully installed by the community, not how the whole Arabian project almost fell apart. But, according to these sources, “almost fall apart” is what happened.

By the time of Muhammad’s death he had won the allegiance of, or at least peaceful relations with, many tribes and settlements throughout the Arabian peninsula. This had mostly been accomplished through peaceful means after a few military campaigns in the immediate aftermath of the conquest of Mecca. Basically Muhammad required these tribes and settlements to accept Medina’s sovereignty and to pay taxes to him as well as to serve in his armies, in return for which they were promised protection from Muhammad’s forces as well as a share of the booty taken in any military action–in other words, there seems to have been no requirement that tribes or settlements convert to Islam or even to monotheism before they could make treaties with Muhammad. However, it seems most of those who had made agreements with Muhammad saw themselves as having made agreements with Muhammad the individual, not Muhammad the head of a new political entity (let alone a religious movement) that would continue on after his death. Indeed, it wasn’t even clear to Muhammad’s closest followers that the community should remain together!

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if the economy is doing so well, why does the economy suck so bad?

Evan Soltas has a very important question to ask all of us out there in the internets, namely: “If austerity is so bad, why is the economy doing so well?” Now this is a very serious question, because all this time long-hairs and the like have been warning that cutting back government spending and raising taxes in order to bring down annual budget deficits (austerity) is a very big mistake in a period of economic downturn or fragile, sluggish recovery. Yet US America, such as, just went through a round of fairly significant tax increases and spending cuts, but the economy is just doing GRRRRRREAT! So what the hell, economy? What gives with you, man?

Oh, wait, I’m sorry, you say you’ve been so busy, between reading today’s classified “help wanted” ads and boiling yesterday’s classifieds into a semi-edible paste for lunch, that you hadn’t seen the news that the economy is super-awesome again? Well, give these people the good news, Evan! I’m just gonna bold a little part of your good news, if you don’t mind.

Here are some numbers that make you go “wow.” The S&P 500 has risen more than 25 percent over the last year. It’s risen more than 100 percent since President Obama was inaugurated.

Median wages, as you might have noticed, have not seen the same stunning recovery.

But wages might pick up soon. After all, most everything else is. Housing prices are rising faster than at any time since 2007. Autos are doing great. Consumer confidence just hit a five-year high. These aren’t just the kinds of numbers that foretell recovery. They’re the kinds of numbers that lead to recovery. A rising stock market doesn’t necessarily mean more jobs anytime soon. Rising housing prices and car sales almost certainly do.

See? You can put those classified ads down, man, because your S&P portfolio is probably through the roof, and you can always sell your stocks to pay the bills, just like “Mitt” and “Ann” Romney did!

But hey, there are other reasons to be happy, because other economic indicators that indicate good economic news for rich people are also up, too! Housing prices are up, and somebody is buying cars somewhere, and consumer confidence is at a five-year high, which, given the last five years, is really saying, ah, something! These things mean that more jobs are “almost certainly,” a heck of a phrase right there, on their way! Meanwhile the fact that we’ve still got seven-point-fucking-five-percent U3 unemployment and thirteen-point-holy-shit-nine-percent U6 unemployment, and the employment rate is fifty-goddamn-eight-point-six-percent (back in better times it was around 63%), shouldn’t bother anybody, because if you’re out of work or underemployed or dropped out of the labor force, and the stock thing doesn’t pan out, you can, probably, pay your bills with the promise of someday “almost certainly” having a job, possibly!

And median wages “might” pick up soon, because why not? Lots of numbers are picking up, so I’m sure there’s some math reason why other numbers are maybe going to start rising too! Sure, median income in the US today is basically where it was in 1990, and income inequality has been increasing since the 1980s, but that might all change soon. Or, the Ancient Aliens might finally decide to kill us all in the next year or so. Either way, looking good, right?

"I like where you're headed with this."

“I like where you’re headed with this.”

So it’s a bit of a mixed bag, no? Good times for the folks at the top, more heaping helpings of GFY for the rest of us. But, in fairness, it’s slightly less bad this year than it’s been since the crash, and slightly less bad than might have been expected given the sequestration cuts and the expiration of the high-end Bush tax cuts. But as Soltas himself says, the fact that it’s not as bad as some people thought it would be doesn’t mean that things wouldn’t be considerably better without the austerity (or that they won’t get worse in the second half of the year!), and better in ways that might actually benefit somebody other than the S&P class.


modern weekly standard: a punditry book for idiots

When I was in high school, one year while I was at some camp or another I was introduced to my roommate’s copy of P.J. O’Rourke’s Modern Manners: An Etiquette Book for Rude People. I’m sure if I read it again today, much (seriously, much) older, familiar with P.J. O’Rourke’s oeuvre and with a better sense of the privileged white conservative subtext of the whole thing, I’d find it less funny, but at the time I thought it was hysterical. I read a couple more of his books before I lost interest and similarly thought they were funny, but not as funny as Modern Manners. I never read his stuff anymore, but I’m sure he’s still funny, you know? I mean you don’t lose your ability to be funny, even when you lurch out onto the right wing fringe.


"Actually, cha-cha..."

“Actually, cha-cha…”

Well, I’m sure somebody still finds him funny. But anyway, here’s this thing what P.J wrote about how President Obama is so stupid, I mean come on, this is sure to be a laugh riot!

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Islamic History, Part 7: Alternative theories of the early Islamic community

Islamic History Series

When you combine a major world-changing historical event with a near-total dearth of reliable primary sources, you inevitably get a lot of revisionist attempts to reconstruct the “real” history. For the origins of Islam and the nature of its earliest community, we have arguably the most world-changing event of the past 1500 years and really no sources that aren’t compromised in some way, so alternate theories–some only slight variations on the traditional story, others quite different–abound.

What we know, really know, about the first century of the Islamic calendar (the year 1 AH corresponds with Muhammad’s move to Medina in 622 CE) is that armies marched out of Arabia in the mid-630s and utterly defeated the forces of the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires (destroying the latter empire altogether), and that at some point around the end of the seventh century a text called the Qur’an is in circulation, and that text would become the focal point of a new monotheistic faith in the Abrahamic tradition. If I’m being totally frank, we’re not even sure how much work those Arabian armies had to do to defeat the empires; a couple of major battles can be attested, but a lot of the Arab conquest may have been welcomed, or at least not very strenuously resisted, by the people they were conquering. There are, for example, accounts of great resistance to the Arabs on the part of the Persians, but these are later nationalistic accounts and unreliable as history; meanwhile, it’s entirely possible that the Byzantine Empire’s Jewish and schismatic Christian populations were happy to be free of Constantinople, or at least saw no difference between Constantinople and Medina in terms of how badly either one might treat them.

Apart from those very basic and obvious facts, little else about the story of Islam’s beginnings can be known to a certainty. Many, many questions remain, chief among them how the Arabian environment, so decentralized, so much on the fringes of the world to that point, basically overnight gave rise to a unified polity with an army so impressive that it thoroughly defeated two massive empires. I’ve written about the mainstream, traditional story and gone over the problems with the sources behind that story, and now as a last look at this problem I’d like to take a look at two alternative theories of Islamic origins. These are not the only two, but they are both important contributions to the field in their own ways and are illustrative of the range of possible revisionist takes on this event.

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