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World Map 1689Stuart got a job recently. Well, a part-time job — as adjunct faculty teaching a history course. I’m not sure how he got it; he doesn’t have a degree in history. But he said he talked the department head into it by describing his take on world civilizations. He did his Stuart dance for his dinner.

“Well, I said I wanted to teach world history a different way,” he said to me over lunch the other day. “I wanted to look at it through the lens of geography. It explains so much.”

Mostly, he said, he just wanted to try organizing the Big Picture a different way, because looking at something differently opens a subject up for fresh insights. At least, that’s my stuffy way of saying what he was up to.
aegean sea map

“From even prehistoric times,” Stuart explained, “human cultures have organized themselves in two ways — either around a body of water or in the middle of a chunk of land. These two societies tend to approach the rest of the world differently.

“You can see this in the signal conflict of the classical world — the Persian Wars. We may think of Greece as a nation, like France or Argentina, but back then, Greek civilization was a constellation of cities and islands around the Aegean Sea. It was built facing the water, so to speak, and like the ancient Lake People of Switzerland, they looked across the pond and saw trading partners. They built ships and launched out across the water to find their likeness on the far shore.

“Rome was built around the Mare Nostrum, the Mediterranean. In the Middle Ages, the Hanseatic League was all about trade.

Persia satellite view“But Persia was a continental power, built on land, surrounded primarily by land, where other people may have been trading partners, but they were primarily a threat. All through the Middle East, you have one conquering nation after another invading their neighbors. Their gods told them to. Persia, like the standard model continental power, wanted to expand, to push its borders out farther, absorb the neighbors to nullify the threat.

“These are two fundamentally different ways of approaching the outer world, and those two ways govern so much of what happens in history.”

“And this is what you told the department head?” I asked. “And he bought it?”

“She did,” he said — which explained a bit more about Stuart’s persuasiveness. If you know anything about Stuart, you know he approached the world, not so much by riparian or continental cultures, but through the interaction of men and women.

“And so, now you’re teaching world history to students at a two-year school.”

“It’s great, although class is rather early for me: It starts at 10 every Tuesday and Thursday morning. But I can get up for it; it’s been really fun so far.”

“It’s always fun until the grading starts,” I said.

“I haven’t got there yet,” he said. “But I’ve assigned the first paper.”

I remembered my time teaching, and the surprising papers that were turned in. I used to read the really bad ones at dinner parties for fun; we all had a good laugh. Bad grammar, misunderstood concepts, lazy ideas. Once, in an art history class, I had 16 students and 16 different spellings of “Coliseum,” and not one of them correct — despite the fact there were two acceptable spellings: “Coliseum” and “Colosseum.” I knew Stuart was in for a disappointing surprise when those papers were turned in. Indus river map

“Think of all the early civilizations,” Stuart went on. “Egypt on the Nile, the Indus River civilization, the Chinese living along the Huang Ho and Yangtze. Later, you have Vikings around the Baltic Sea and North Atlantic. China is interesting, because it starts as a riparian civilization, but as it grew, it turned continental. It gives a distinct flavor to Chinese history.”

“And the continental?” I asked.

“Think of the Mongolian Hordes,” he said. “Or early American tribes conquering each other. Persia, the Ottomans, Moguls.

“If you look at pre-colonial Africa, you see some cultures are riparian, like Ghana, and some are continental, like the Berbers. The distinctions have been blurred over by the pie-slicing of the continent by its colonial powers into supposed nation-states mimicking those of Europe. Quite unnatural. But they were there: riparian and continental ways of looking at the world.

thirteen colonies“I thought, this explains a lot about us,” he said. “About America. When we were founded, we were an outpost on the other side of the pond. We looked across the Atlantic and saw our compadres there. Europe and the New World were built around the ocean, whether it was England and the 13 colonies, France and Quebec, or Spain and Latin America. It may be a distortion to consider the interrelation between the Old and New Worlds as trade, considering we didn’t really give the native peoples a choice in the matter, but from the point of view of the colonizers, who really didn’t take the original inhabitants seriously, they saw themselves as Europeans trading with their parent nations.

“And for the 13 colonies, when they were still colonies, they were Englishmen trading with England, later making alliance with France. We began, like China, as a riparian society. There were even laws passed to prevent settlers from moving west of the Appalachian Mountains, to keep it a riparian culture.

“But we expanded anyway and became, over time, a continental power. Expansion was seen as not only good, but necessary, even ordained by God. This change explains the current political landscape.”

“How so,” I said, innocently, while waiting for the punchline.red and blue

“Think about it. Where are the blue states and where are the red? By and large, the blue states are on the edge of the continent, both on the Atlantic and and on the Pacific, or around the Great Lakes. The red ones are in the center, where they remain continental in outlook, fearful of foreigners and the core of isolationism.”

“I thought the difference was between the agrarian states and the urban states,” I said.

xi jinping 2“Certainly. My outlook isn’t the only factor in this. But it is there, not often mentioned, and is in part also the reason the coastal states built their economies on trade and the interior states on farming and ranching. I’m not making the case that this theory explains everything, or that it is the only thing that made us what we are, but I am saying that it helps explain it, and that you can see the same forces acting out elsewhere in the world. Maoism was continental in China, but the coastal cities of China were built on trade. The new China of Xi Jinping has grown as it has seen its place in the larger world — and as a riparian economy, not a continental one. The burgeoning economy is largely a coastal event. The Chinese poor are largely in the interior.

“And so, blue states look outward to the world, the red states are xenophobic.eurasia

“Look at Russia,” Stuart said. “They are a quintessential continental power, hunkering down in the middle of Eurasia. Invaded by Tatars, Verangians, and Teutonic Knights, they came to fear the outside and built a national identity on creating a fortress mentality, and conquered neighboring lands to make redouts to protect the national core from attack. Peter the GreatPeter the Great attempted to turn Russia into a riparian culture by building his capital on the Baltic, hoping to become part of the European world of trade. But since then, the country has retreated to Moscow and glowered out at the rest of the world. It’s how the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics accrued, and after a brief period of glasnost, why PutinVladimir Putin has resumed the essential Russian inwardness, and his need to expand the borders again to build up those protective buffer nations around the national heartland. Lookout, Ukraine.”

I wondered if Stuart taught any of this chronologically, or was the whole course built around this theory. Were there any parts of history unrelated to his bifurcation of world outlooks.

“Oh, I fit all that other stuff in, too,” he said. “But mainly I wanted to explore this idea for myself. Teaching is the best way to learn.”

I couldn’t argue that.

“And your department head thinks this is OK? To use your class for you to explore your ideas?”

“Oh, didn’t I tell you? I moved in with her last week. We’re good.”

ITR-PCL-00051429
If one takes the long view of history, recent events often turn out to be part of larger patterns, or “themes” of history. Nowadays, for instance, we can see World War II as the completion of World War I. And we can see World War I as the natural continuation — a flare up — of the same thing that caused the Thirty Years War of the 17th Century. These things can smolder for centuries, like a peat fire, and flare up when local events add oxygen.

It is important to understand the long view on history if you want to find a lasting solution to current problems. You don’t treat heart disease by prescribing an aspirin for chest pain.

I don’t want to make unrealistic claims for this. The local symptoms do need to be addressed and the current situation needs to be handled in a way that deals with the contemporary realities of the case.

But we will only make things worse if we act in a knee-jerk fashion with no understanding of the complexity of events.

The underlying mistrust between the European or Western world and the Islamic world can be traced back at least as far as the 11th Century, when Pope Urban II called for a crusade to wrest the Holy Land from the infidel.

It was the European version of a jihad or holy war. In calling for the war to “liberate” Jerusalem, the Pope declared, “It is the will of God.”

Over the next several centuries, European armies contended with “pagan” armies over the region, winning some and losing some. The horrors of that time, and the crimes of the crusaders are well recorded and nowadays would certainly be understood as war crimes, even terrorism.Ninth Crusade

When they first conquered Jerusalem in 1099, the crusaders slaughtered some 40,000 Muslims and Jews who lived in the city.

Yet, the Moslem defenders don’t get off the hook, either. They committed their own series of atrocities. It was a time that didn’t reflect well on the humanity of either side.

Each side was certain of its rectitude and each side knew that divinity was backing them against the unbelievers.

The contested borders of Christianity and Islam continued long after.

Indeed, the problems in the Balkans recapitulated the battles in Kosovo during the 14th and 15th centuries between the Muslim Turks and the Christian Serbs. acropolis mosque

The World Trade Center isn’t even the first well-known building to be destroyed by the enmity. In 1687, the Venetians were fighting the Ottoman Turks when they managed to blow up the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens. Before then the old temple had survived relatively intact for more than 2,000 years.

It is important to recognize that it isn’t merely a battle for territory, like many intra-European disagreements.

The two sides have fundamentally different world views.

Which means that in another sense, the roots of the current attack go back well before the Crusades and begin in the Persian Wars of the Aegean in the Fifth Century B.C.

It was during those conflicts between ancient Greece and Persia that the defining difference between East and West was first, and principally defined.

Up until then, wars were largely fought between sides claiming to be bigger and better than their foes. The biggest monkey kept the banana.

But the Greeks defined themselves against the Persians as an idea. The Greeks — and their historical progeny in Europe — have tended to think of themselves as free, as democratic and as rational and have seen their counterparts in the East as despotic, uncivilized slave societies.

We’re not claiming that this is literally true. There is barbarity and nobility to go around.

But the West has largely thought of itself in these terms, even when in fact it didn’t measure up. Persia is now Iran.

We still see this battle with terrorism as one of “freedom and democracy” against the blind superstition of unreasoning fanatics.

And when Vice President Joe Biden was still a senator, and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, put it even more directly.

“This is not a struggle over ideology. This is not a struggle over religion. This is a struggle between civilization and barbarity.”

These are the very terms the Greeks used in describing their war with Darius and Xerxes.

I am not suggesting that the Islamic world is barbaric, but that we have set up the terms of the argument in this old language, learned from the Fifth Century B.C.

But there is this kernel of truth to the matter: The West has come largely to believe that the purpose of government is the well-ordered organization of society — a belief they hold even in its breach. Meanwhile, the East has seen government as settling the issue of “who’s in charge.”

For the West, the theoretical end of political desirability is “benevolent anarchy” — such as that called for by Libertarians and “shrunken-government” Republicans, while for the East, the same theoretical end is the “benevolent theocracy,” centralized rule that preserves societal order.

The two systems are at such fundamental loggerheads that we mistake the meaning of such words as “democracy” when uttered from across the cultural divide. They mean something different by the word.

It is this difference, cooked long and slow by history, that must be taken into account when we seek to solve global problems.

It is what worries me when I hear even university presidents declare the obsolescence of the humanities, and when I hear the appalling lack of historical knowledge held by American students — to say nothing of a political leadership that has no more historical memory than last week’s car bombing. Those who refuse to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

And it is what worries me when I hear increasingly bludgeoned rhetoric from our lower-grade politicians — “the windiest militant trash” — looking for quick and easy revenge.

They are missing the point. I am reminded of the lines by W.H. Auden:

I and the public know/ What all schoolchildren learn,/ Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return.”