From the West’s demonization of ancient Persia to how yellow fever intesified racial inequality in 19th-century New Orleans, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
From around 550 BCE to the age of Alexander the Great in the 330s BCE, each successive generation of Greeks had its own particular way of reconfirming, as needed, Hellenic identity against the ever-changing yet ever-present Persian threat. The Greek obsession with the Persians focused on minimizing their credibility as a superpower. Denigration of the Persians—by vilification or lampooning—was intended to cauterize the wounds of anguish and fear provoked by the threats and realities of being neighbors of an empire whose territorial ambitions were very real and which showed no sign of ever abating. In order to increase Greek morale, a series of what might be termed “cathartic” images were created on stage, in sculpture, and in the other arts. These disparaged, degraded, and belittled the Persians and confirmed Greek (especially Athenian) pre-eminence.
One such object is a red-figured wine-jug dated to the mid-460s BCE. Known as the “Eurymedon Vase,” it shows a humiliated Persian soldier bending forward from the waist. His backside is offered up to a grubby Athenian squaddie who stands with his erect penis in his hand, rushing forward in order to penetrate the Persian’s rear. The painted rape scene (for that’s what it is) was created as a “commemorative issue” at the time the Athenians celebrated a victory over Persian forces at the battle of the River Eurymedon in Asia Minor in 467 BCE. It was used at some kind of drinking party, probably a soldiers’ get-together. As the jug was passed around a group of hoplites—the Greek equivalent of GIs—so the wine flowed and the dirty jokes began to fly. So too was the Persian on the vase manhandled from soldier to soldier. [continue reading]
There are books that, without you even knowing it, have shaped who you are as a thinker. I was reminded of as much on re-reading Humphrey McQueen’s A New Britannia: An argument concerning the social origins of Australian radicalism and nationalism.1 First published in 1970, my well-thumbed third edition from 1986 had been picked up at a second-hand store to replace an earlier fourth edition published in 2004 and now yellowing on some long-lost acquaintance’s bookshelf.
McQueen’s evocative, peripatetic style encouraged me to seek out diverse, disconnected archives, while his attention to sources we would now associate with ‘cultural history’, particularly a close reading of the words of radicals, saw my research focus on the ephemeral utterances, the poorly typed leaflet or handwritten speech notes as evidence of how meanings and ideas change over time. Most importantly, he taught me that good history was daring. [continue reading]
There are different ways to understand colonialism. One way is to look at it as an overarching structure that governed the world in the past and, as many rightfully argue, still governs the world today. Conceived this way, colonialism is an assemblage of culturally specific (European) legal doctrines, political philosophies, moral principles, and government policies that determine colonial encounters and power relations to the advantage of the colonizer and to the disadvantage of the colonized. This is Colonialism with a capital “C”—colonialism in the macro.
Then one can conceive of colonialism in a less ambitious way, as a phenomenon emerging in a very messy nitty-gritty of concrete interactions between specific actors. Conceived this way, colonialism appears as an assemblage of locally and historically tangible conflicts over power which are more or less framed by larger colonialist discourses. In this view, colonialism does not appear less malign, but maybe less methodical, more haphazard. This is colonialism with a lower-case “c”, more aptly made plural—colonialisms in the micro. [continue reading]
National Security Archive
After weeks of uncertainty over ongoing multilateral nuclear negotiations with Iran, it is still an open question whether they will actually produce a signed agreement and if so whether the deal can survive the formidable domestic political obstacles that are expected, especially in the United States and the Islamic Republic. The persistent difficulty all sides have faced in revising the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) of 2015 has resurrected a lively public policy and historical debate over the nature of the problem and why the two principal protagonists, Washington and Tehran, still seem unable to bridge the rift that has divided them for more than four decades.
A new volume tackles this question from a novel perspective – arguing that along with the realities of differing interests and concrete grievances against each other, a major contributing factor to this tenacious enmity is how each nation views itself. Briefly put, the book suggests that this often-deadly confrontation – including the current gridlock over the nuclear talks – derives from the very different national narratives that continue to shape their politics, actions, and vision of their respective destinies in the world. [continue reading]
More than two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, the social, economic and political implications of public health crises are more apparent than ever—as is the fact that people of color and poorer communities often bear the brunt of these contagions’ consequences.
A new analysis of yellow fever in antebellum New Orleans highlights striking parallels with the ongoing pandemic, illustrating how the mosquito-borne virus interacted with the Louisiana capital’s unique climate, cotton-driven economy and violently exploitative labor regime to spark wave after wave of epidemics. Against a backdrop of intensifying slavery, yellow fever transformed New Orleans into a city of the dead, claiming as many as 150,000 lives between 1803 and the outbreak of the Civil War. The disease also created a horrific form of what Kathryn Olivarius, a historian at Stanford University, describes as “immunocapitalism”: a “socially acknowledged lifelong immunity to a highly lethal virus, providing access to previously inaccessible realms of … power.” [continue reading]