February 28, 2010

Italy vs Google - 2 (Is it still Berlusconi's fault?)

Seattle Times editorial page editor Ryan Blethen on “the already puzzling case” of Google versus Italy (see my previous post for details):

The cynic in me wonders if Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi left fingerprints on the case. He owns nearly all of the country’s private media and as prime minister influences Italy’s public media. Berlusconi’s critics worry that he is pushing for greater control of the media by clamping down on the Internet.

In other words Mr Blethen suspects that Berlusconi put pressure on the Milan Public Prosecutor’s Office and judges in order to have the three Google execs convicted.

Well, the Good Samaritan in me wonders if Ryan Blethen needs to be taken care of, to be nurtured with good thoughts and fine feelings, and above all with accurate information, to acquire a better knowledge and understanding of what he is talking about. In fact, he seems to know very little about Italy (life, Institutions, politics, recent history, etc.). He seems to ignore that Milan prosecutors are as much in love with Silvio, and have as good an opinion of him, as the devil loves the holy water and the hanged the rope…

But then again, perhaps Mr Blethen is better informed than it seems at first glance. Perhaps the truth is that he is just doing his job, which may sometimes require some “flexibility” in dealing with facts, opinions and personal beliefs. Of course I am not saying that he is trying to “rig the game” (not at all!), because I am sure he is “an honourable man,” as well as Rachel Donadio of the New York Times and Tasha Kheiriddin of National Post are “honourable women”—if I may quote my favorite playwright.

After all, we must bear in mind that journalists and newspapers have the right to pursue and advocate their political preferences (provided they don’t claim to be “objective,” ça va sans dire…). And Mr Blethen is no exception: being a left-winger—he is “a strong supporter of all of the finest liberal causes, including gay marriage, a larger and more powerful government and ending global warming and climate change immediately,” as one of his critics wrote in a comment here—he has the right to fight the right-wing Prime minister of Italy.

In any case, nothing to do with the truth. Freely paraphrasing another of my favorite playwrights, “Right you are if you say you are.”

February 27, 2010

America, A Big Historical Perspective

~ “LETTERS FROM AMERICA” - by The Metaphysical Peregrine ~

We’re often caught up in our own little corner of time, our own historical corner, cultural corner and geographic corner. Sometimes it’s good to step back and see the larger picture.

Often here in America, we beat ourselves up; think we’re at the end of our influence, that our destiny was a flash in the historical pan. Wars and rumors of wars, a projected deficit that’s more than our total value, ever increasing fuel and energy costs, monumental corruption in politics and business, culture wars, serial killers run amok…just multitudes of grief.

There’s a view that America is just a kid on the world stage. Since the 1400 or 1500’s, Europe has been center stage. Biggest economies, biggest and most powerful militaries, and a geographical location that allowed it to become center stage globally.

That remained the case until the end of the Twentieth century. The 500 year run of world dominance ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and 9/11. The seminal moment of change of global power happened that day of 9/11, and America responded with devastating force into the Middle East and disrupted that area for a long time to come. Meanwhile, Europe continues fragmenting and weakening, culturally, militarily, and economically, fighting amongst themselves while Islamists slowly take over.

At the same time, America is beating itself up over the things mentioned above. Some observations. We have about 4% of the world’s population, yet produce about 26% of all goods and services. Our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is about $15-$16 Trillion; World combined GDP is about $54 Trillion. American GDP is larger than Japan, Germany, China and the UK combined.

Diminished manufacturing base to be sure, but America still produces about $26 Trillion, the most of any country in the world.

Oil we obsess about. We import a lot, but we produce over 8 million barrels a day. Russia produces about 10 million a day, and Saudi Arabia about 11 million. We’re producing nearly as much as Saudi Arabia and we have huge untapped reserves. Russia’s natural gas production is about 22 trillion cubic feet per year; America is second with about 19 trillion cubic feet per year. That amount of production is more than the next five producers combined.

America has a small population. The average population density on the planet 49 people per square kilometer; Japan is at about 340, Germany about 230 and America about 32 people per square kilometer. Plenty of room to grow, with the land and economy to do it.

The US military is the largest and most powerful. The US Navy controls all the oceans, all the sea lanes.

All these things happened due to beliefs and values that are different from Europe’s over the past five hundred years. America sits between East and West, and because of all the elements mentioned, its influence is vast, extending and influencing in both directions.

No matter what the internal political, economic, and whatever struggles go on in America, the big picture influence will grow throughout the 21st Century. All the little stuff we focus on right now may seem like a big deal, but big picture…not so much.

February 26, 2010

Italy vs Google

Bad news, as you probably already know, from the front line of Italy’s contemporary fight for freedom: three Google executives, charged with defamation and invasion of privacy, were convicted by the court of Milan for failing to prevent publication on the search engine of a video that showed a boy with Down’s syndrome being bullied by four students at a Turin school. The video was posted in 2006 on Google Video, a now-defunct service that Google ran before it bought YouTube.

The news is very shocking. First of all in itself, and secondarily because this is the first criminal action taken in Italy or elsewhere against Google managers for the publication of content on the web.

The significance of judge Oscar Magi’s ruling, according to assistant public prosecutor Alfredo Robledo, who was acting for the prosecution with public prosecutor Francesco Cajani, is that “The right to conduct business cannot prevail over the dignity of the person.” “At last, a clear word has been spoken. At the heart of this trial was protection of the individual through protection of privacy. Everything else is beside the point. I am confident that this ruling will go out from the court of Milan and finally provoke discussion on an issue that is fundamental,” Robledo added.

So they seem to want to basically “educate” someone about something. “Strike one to educate one hundred,” as the old Leninist motto goes? Nah, even though many Italian judges and prosecutors, especially in Milan, are left-leaning and with a communist background, this is not the case—educating is one of the tasks of Justice, after all. But one might be tempted to argue that perhaps the ones who need to be educated are the prosecutors and the judges. Why? Let’s call Google’s spokesman to speak:

“It is an attack on the fundamental principles of freedom on which Internet is built”, said Google’s spokesman, Marco Pancini. He added that it would be appealing “against a decision that we view as surprising, to say the least, since our colleagues had nothing to do with the video in question. They did not film it, they did not upload it and they did not see it”. According to Mr Pancini, the three executives have been held “penally responsible for illegal activities committed by third parties”. He said that during the proceedings, the three executives “had shown courage and dignity, since the very fact that they were put on trial is excessive”. Throughout the trial, Google has maintained that responsibility lies with whoever uploads a video to the web. For Mr Pancini, “if this principle is abandoned, there is no possibility of offering services on internet.”

In fact, the concept is very simple and straightforward: if we don’t accept the principle that responsibility lies with those who upload a video “there is no possibility of offering services on internet.” Therefore, the ruling by the judge, Oscar Magi, means that YouTube—along with the many websites and hosting platforms which offer user-generated content—cannot continue to do what it has always done. It’s totally, absolutely absurd. Imagine if every Facebook user, as well as every blog owner, could be hauled before a judge for comments, videos and pics left on their pages/blogs by other users! We had better give up blogging, facebooking and twittering as soon as possible…—Ok, comments here are moderated and need my approval before posting, but I can afford it because of the size of my blog, but what about if I were to face 500 to 1,000 comments per posts?

Needless to say, the video was disgusting. But, the criminals here were the ones who committed the assault and filmed and posted it, and they have been brought to justice already, not Google. Google, in turn, had taken the clip down within hours of being notified of it by Italian police, and that’s why it has nothing to be blamed for, unless you think that a failure of clairvoyance and an inability to time-travel have to be included in the category of crimes.

Yet, Luca Sofri, the author of one of Italy’s most popular blogs (no comments allowed …), says that Google and other Web-sharing platforms have a responsibility for what’s posted on their sites: “As Spider-Man says, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ Allowing freedom of opinion does not mean you can be a platform for people to defame others or violate their privacy.” Well, it must be said that Luca is almost as lefty as the judges and prosecutors of Milan. But he partially redeems himself by adding that he suspects that the sentence may also be seen as an example of how out of touch Italian political leaders and magistrates are with the massive changes in the way information circulates online: “They are judging the Internet with the same instruments of the past. The Web creates situations that are completely new and don’t have paragons with the world before. If these incidents are happening all over the world and Italy is the only country to condemn Google for it, maybe there’s something we haven’t understood.”

This Iranian regime is worse than the Shah’s

Don’t miss this interview with the 73-year-old Iranian cleric and politician Mehdi Karroubi (Chairman of the parliament from 1989 to 1992 and 2000 to 2004, and a presidential candidate in the 2005 and 2009 presidential elections).

A disciple of Khomeini—since the age of 24 he fought at his side against the Shah—and one of Iran’s opposition Green Movement leaders, he now says that

[t]he Shah’s regime was corrupt at its core, but he didn’t behave like this with the people. What do the armed forces have to do with the election’s results? Why did they treat the people like this on the 22nd of Bahman (in the Persian calendar it corresponds to February 11 ed.)? During the reign of the Shah there were rules; they did not take the people arrested to the mosque to beat them to death even before they appeared in front of the judiciary. These people make arrests without a warrant, beat them and keep them in detention. Not to mention the rest (Karroubi has denounced the rape of the protesters after their arrest, ed.)

Go read the rest, it's worth your time.

February 23, 2010

Beyond chauvinism

Let’s talk once again about soccer, ahead of tomorrow’s Champions League match at San Siro between Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan and Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea. First of all I have got to confess that I don’t like Mourinho at all. In my very personal experience, he is a most singular man, because, though I am not a huge soccer fan, he sometimes has the power to make me almost a hooligan … against him. And please consider that I have been a supporter of Inter Milan for several years (since the days when I was a young kid). I intensely dislike his endless stoking of controversy, his constant thirst for attention, his arrogance, his obstinacy and his obnoxiousness.

But there is also the other side of the coin to consider: he is one the best antidotes to chauvinism we have ever experienced here in the old Europe. Read this to understand how it works:

Poor old Jose Mourinho. As if he did not have enough on his plate defending himself from the blistering tirades and draconian penalties of the Italian FA, now Carlo Ancelotti has taken the opportunity to stick the boot in. “Apart from the Inter fans, all of Italy will want Chelsea to win,” the Stamford Bridge manager claimed ahead of his side’s visit to San Siro tomorrow night.
Ancelotti’s statement will not have caused any great consternation in Italy, where it is accepted that, in football’s global village, weekend tribal loyalties cannot be laid aside because of the presence of Johnny Foreigner.This is a concept, though, that still seems to baffle all those in Blighty. At half-time during Arsenal’s match with Porto last week, Alan Green expressed his wish that “the majority of goals in the second half go to Arsenal”. Why? Green is not English. He is not an Arsenal fan. He was simply saying what he is told his audience wants. Such is the general failure to understand a very simple idea: your audience, Five Live, Sky, and everyone else, either genuinely does not care who wins, or wants the English team to lose.

European football is not the same as international football. Chelsea represent Chelsea, not the rest of the country. If you do not like them at the weekend, you probably do not like them during the week. So, Jose, dry your eyes. Italy may be against you, but England is with you. But only because you’re not as unpopular as Chelsea. Just.

Well, in the light of the above remarks, I’d dare to say that, should Ancelotti prevail tomorrow night, not only would I probably resign myself, but I would also virtually shake his hand. It’s a wonderful world, isn’t it?

February 22, 2010

Nothing Less Than the Infinite

Hold tight, folks, what this post is all about is nothing less than “the Infinite.” Which is also the title of a famous poem by Giacomo Leopardi, one of the greatest Italian poets ever. A poet which, for mysterious reasons, is not as well known in the English speaking world as it ought to be, in my humble opinion, but this is a secondary issue—what matters most is a fundamental philosophical/religious problem. But let’s go step by step.

In much of Leopardi’s poetry, the principal poetic mood is melancholic, and themes of solitude, suffering, despair, and disappointed love largely predominate. He often stresses his belief that joy is nothing but the momentary subsidence of pain and that only in death can man find lasting happiness, and his prose writings are eloquent articulations of his materialist, atheistic, skeptical, and decidedly “modern” thought—affinities between his pessimistic worldview and that of Arthur Schopenhauer, for instance, have been noted, while Friedrich Nietzsche found Leopardi’s historical insights congenial to his own.

Yet, from time to time, quite different (though not contradictory) aspects of his personality emerge: an immense admiration of nature’s beauty, a deep belief in the power of imagination, and a characteristically Romantic longing for the infinite (see, for instance, Matthew Arnold’s 1882 comparison of Leopardi with the English Romantic poets Lord Byron and William Wordsworth).

This could somehow explain why something unexpected happened to an Italian priest, a very famous one: Fr Luigi Giussani, the founder and spiritual guide of the Communion and Liberation movement. In fact, he happened to read Leopardi’s hymn Alla sua donna [To his Woman] as … a sort of introduction to the prologue to the Gospel of St John, and what is more Leopardi became his favourite poet and a life-long “friend.” This is how Paul Zalonski tries to uncover the mystery:

Giussani quotes the great 19th century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi--who is speaking here in the persona of a shepherd watching his flock by night, conversing with the moon:

And when I gaze upon you,
Who mutely stand above the desert plains
Which heaven with its far circle but confines,
Or often, when I see you
Following step by step my flock and me,
Or watch the stars that shine there in the sky,
Musing, I say within me:
"Wherefore those many lights,
That boundless atmosphere,
And infinite calm sky? And what the meaning
Of this vast solitude? And what am I

There are a couple of points about this striking poetic excerpt that are worth mentioning as illustrative of central themes in Giussani. The first point is this: note that the shepherd's questions are so poignantly expressed "from the heart" (Musing, I say within me). They are "personal" questions we might say; that is, they are questions that seem deeply important to the shepherd's own life, that emerge from the shepherd's solitude as he watches the flocks by night and gazes at the moon. And yet, the questions themselves are really "philosophical" questions: "metaphysical" questions which ask about the relationship of the universe to its mysterious Source, and "anthropological" questions about the nature of the world, of man, of the self. Let us note these things only to emphasize that Giussani's evaluation of the dynamic of the human heart is not exclusively concerned with the pursuit of external objects and the way in which these objects lead "beyond" themselves the acting person who engages them. Giussani stresses that the need for truth is inscribed on the human heart; the need to see the meaning of things is fundamental to man. Hence the "objectivity" required for addressing philosophical and scientific questions does not imply that these questions are detached from the "heart" of the person who deals with them. When the scientist scans that infinite, calm sky and that vast solitude with his telescope, he must record what he sees, not what he wishes he would have seen. In this sense, he must be "objective," and his questions and methodology must be detached from his own particular interests. But what puts him behind that telescope in the first place is his own personal need for truth and this need grows and articulates itself more and more as questions emerge in the light of his discoveries. All of this could be applied by analogy to the researches carried out by a true philosopher.

The second point is this: Leopardi's poem conveys with imaginative force the inexhaustibility of human desire and the questions through which it is expressed, or at least tends to be expressed insofar as man is willing to live in a way that is true to himself (several chapters of Giussani's book are devoted to the various ways in which man is capable of distracting himself or ignoring the dynamic of the religious sense, or anesthetizing himself against its felt urgency). Even more importantly, he indicates that the unlimited character of man's most fundamental questions points toward an Infinite Mystery, a mystery that man continually stands in front of with fascination and existential hunger but also with questions, because he is ultimately unable by his own power to unveil its secrets.

The experience of life teaches man, if he is willing to pay attention to it, that what he is truly seeking, in every circumstance is the unfathomable mystery which alone corresponds to the depths of his soul. Offer to man anything less than the Infinite and you will frustrate him, whether he admits it or not. Yet at the same time man is not able to grasp the Infinite by his own power. Man's power is limited, and anything it attains it finitizes, reducing it to the measure of itself. The desire of man as a person, however, is unlimited, which means that man does not have the power to completely satisfy himself; anything that he makes is going to be less than the Infinite.

Here we begin to see clearly why Giussani holds that the ultimate questions regarding the meaning, the value, and the purpose of life have a religious character; and how it is that these questions are asked by everyone within the ordinary, non-theoretical reasoning process which he terms "the religious sense." The human heart is, in fact, a great, burning question, a plea, an insatiable hunger, a fascination and a desire for the unfathomable mystery that underlies reality and that gives life its meaning and value. This mystery is something Other than any of the limited things that we can perceive or produce; indeed it is their fundamental Source. Therefore, the all-encompassing and limitless search that constitutes the human heart and shapes our approach to everything is a religious search. It is indeed, as we shall see in a moment, a search for "God."

We seek an infinite fulfillment, an infinite coherence, an infinite interpenetration of unity between persons, an infinite wisdom and comprehension, an infinite love, an infinite perfection. But we do not have the capacity to achieve any of these things by our own power. Yet, in spite of this incapacity, in spite of the fact that the mystery of life--the mystery of happiness--seems always one step beyond us, our natural inclination is not one of despair, but rather one of dogged persistence and constant hope. Giussani insists that this hope and expectation is what most profoundly shapes the self; when I say the word "I," I express this center of hope and expectation of infinite perfection and happiness that is coextensive with myself, that "is" myself, my heart. And when I say the word "you," truly and with love, then I am acknowledging that same undying hope that shapes your self.

And now the moment has come to read the poem I mentioned at the start of this post:

The Infinite

I was always fond of this secluded hill
And this hedge which hides from my view
So large a portion of the farthest horizon.
But sitting and musing here, I picture to myself
Interminable spaces beyond the hedge,
Silences beyond the human grasp,
And stillness so profound
That my heart is almost frightened.
But the moment I hear the wind
Rustle through these leaves,
I compare that sound with infinite silence,
And I call to mind the eternal,
The dead seasons and the present
Alive with all its turmoil.
In such immensity my thought is drowned,
And it’s pleasant to be shipwrecked in this sea.

February 21, 2010

To be free or not to be free, that is the question (for Tibetans)

To be free or not to be free, that is the question for Tibetans. Well, no, actually: perhaps the real question, for them, is “How to enjoy the freedom of being not free?” At least, that’s what I think one has to look at the whole Tibetan thing after reading this. Or, better still, just don’t free Tibet (great post!). To free or not to free, that’s the real question! Sometimes you have to laugh not to cry...

February 20, 2010

The fall of the Dutch government--but what have they lost?

So the Dutch government collapsed—after more than 15 hours of talks that lasted until early this morning, and acrimonious exchanges throughout the week—over disagreements on whether or not to extend troop deployment in Afghanistan. The (former) ruling coalition was made up of Christian Democrats (center-right), Labour and the small Christian Union party.

To make it short, Jan Peter Balkenende, the Christian Democrat prime minister, had wanted to extend the deployment of Dutch troops beyond an August deadline, but the Labour Party was opposed.

It’s obviously a worrying sign for Nato: at this point, the inevitable withdrawal of Dutch troops from the country, expected to begin in August and be completed by December, will be a major blow to the efforts of the alliance to reassure Afghans that the West will stay and protect them. But, to see the glass half full, since general elections can be held as early as May under Dutch law, it must be also said that the big winner could be Geert Wilders:

Domestically, the shock general election is a gift to smaller parties who stand to make gains against both the Christian Democrats and Labour. The anti-immigration Party for Freedom of Geert Wilders, who was briefly barred from entering the UK last year, has consistently done well in polls, with the most recent surveys forecasting it could win 24 of the 150 parliamentary seats and become the second biggest parliamentary party after the Christian Democrats. Currently it has just nine seats.

After all, as a Dutch blogger puts it,

What have we lost? Geert Wilders calls this cabinet the worst ever (NL). Remember, this was the cabinet that conspicuously grovelled at the feet of the Islamic world in the run-up to the release of Fitna. The socialists, already in for a savage beating (if the polls are to be believed) have made a coalition with christian democrats impossible for years to come. And Jan-Peter Balkenende, already termed the weakest PM since WW2 back in 2008, will probably not return. All in all not a great loss.

February 14, 2010

February 13, 2010

Cars, Appliances and Cell Phones

~ “LETTERS FROM AMERICA” - by The Metaphysical Peregrine ~

What happens when the government buys car companies? For one, they are in competition, and in this case our government has borrowed taxpayer money (on credit since we don't have the money) to buy GM (aka 'government motors') and Chrysler, and they're losing money. The fix? Something only the power of government can do, destroy its very successful competitor with the heavy hand of its power.

Toyota is doing a recall. There are defects, the government claims, with the gas pedal of many Toyota models. The defects are unproven, and can't be replicated, yet the government has ordered Toyota to recall, involving about 56% of all Toyota and Lexus models, costing the company about $2.5 billion a month. Toyota is claiming the recall is voluntary, but Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says Obama ordered it? Toyota has shut down its U.S. plants and stopped selling eight of its models, making this the largest recall in history. Watch for sharks (aka lawyers) to start their feeding frenzy soon.

Toyota is non-union, GM and Chrysler union. Unions were and are the biggest contributors to Obama. Toyota beats the pants off GM and Chrysler in sales. The alleged "defect" is known as SUA – sudden unintended acceleration. GM and Chrysler have had complaints about SUA and there were no recalls of their cars. The gas pedal in question is supplied by The American Company (CTS of Elkhart, Ind.), and they also supply Honda, Ford, GM and Chrysler. So only the pedals supplied to Toyota have a problem and the ones supplied to GM and Chrysler work okay? Just askin'.

Breaking news. The Obama administration released yesterday (Friday) that there's going to be a 'cash for clunkers' style program for appliances. Take your old appliance in and get an "Energy Star" product and get a government rebate. This will cost another $300 million that we don't have. Some connections. NBC and MSNBC are huge campaigners, contributors, and supporters of the Obama administration. They even had 'green' broadcasts with lowered lighting and pro-global warming propaganda recently. NBC is owned by GE, which is one of the most popular appliance manufacturers. They are also major investors and manufacturers of windmills and solar panels, getting huge huge huge government subsidies doing so. Think their appliance sales may be spiking here shortly? Just askin'.

Finally, the people that objected to the 'Patriot Act', and listening to overseas conversations with terrorists, will by executive order, have their cell phone monitored, yet are strangely silent. The Obama administration wants to track each and every citizen's cell phone, arguing that warrantless tracking is permitted because Americans enjoy no "reasonable expectation of privacy". "U.S. Department of Justice lawyers say that "a customer's Fourth Amendment rights are not violated when the phone company reveals to the government its own records" that show where a mobile device placed and received calls." Quotes from CNET, full article here. Can you imagine the outcry of the Dems and Jurassic Press if the Bush administration had said that by executive order that citizens have no expectation of privacy and they can be tracked by the government? Just askin'.

February 11, 2010

Philosophy of Freedom

Perhaps unexpectedly, some ten days ago, during his visit in Israel, Silvio Berlusconi said he hopes to bring the Jewish State into the European Union. “I have been hoping that for a long time now,” he also said. Yet, it’s an undeniable fact that under Berlusconi’s leadership, Italy has become one of Israel’s strongest allies in Europe. And this after decades of a pro-Arab tilt by previous Italian governments. “I can think of very few nations who have made such a contribution to Western culture as our two nations. In Rome and Jerusalem, the foundations for Western culture were laid,” he added.

However, it’s also undeniable that Italy remains Iran’s largest trading partner within the European Union. But, at the same time, Iran is the greatest threat that Israel faces today. Quite a philosophical dilemma—philosophy of money, of course…

Yet, Netanyahu seemed not to be too worried about that, he embraced his guest warmly, calling his arrival a “historic visit.” “Not every day do we get the privilege to host one of Israel’s greatest friends, a brave leader who is a great fighter for freedom and an enthusiastic supporter of peace,” he said. As a matter of fact, he turned out to be right, because Berlusconi (and Frattini) promised that Italy would act responsibly if new sanctions were imposed on Iran, despite the vast interests of Italian companies there, since halting Iranian nuclear ambitions takes precedence over commercial considerations.

Philosophical dilemmas are often false dilemmas, if it is true what a great expert in this kind of things had to say to one of his best friends, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy!” Some of these things (if not all!) might seem to be  nonsense to the above mentioned philosophers, but “their” philosophy (or religion) isn’t the only school of thought, after all. There is also a philosophy of freedom: I think that Berlusconi, in spite of all his “human imperfections,” belongs to the latter school of thought. And I like to think that’s why so many people like him. And that’s also why the enemies of freedom—including those who a few hours ago tried to assault the Italian embassy in Tehran shouting “Death to Italy,” and “Death to Berlusconi”—hate him so much.

Would you have ever believed it? Italy gained the privilege of having its embassies assaulted! When will we have our flags burned?

February 9, 2010

The real history of the Crusades (repetita juvant)

The Crusades are one the central and most important aspects of medieval history. But, as I have already pointed out here (and here), they are also one of the most mischaracterized aspects of the entire history of Western civilization. Often misunderstood by historians and, consequently, by media and public opinion, Crusades and Crusaders—even before September 11, when they became a topical subject—have been frequently misused for political and propaganda purposes. To make an example, in a 1998 manifesto, cosigned by the leaders of Islamist groups in Egypt, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, Osama bin Laden declared war against the “Jews and the Crusaders.” Of course, basically the Americans are the Crusaders here.

As a result of these misunderstandings, as historian Thomas Madden says, the Crusades are generally portrayed as a series of “holy wars led by power-mad popes and fought by religious fanatics,” and “the epitome of self-righteousness and intolerance, a black stain on the history of the Catholic Church in particular and Western civilization in general,” while the Crusaders were portrayed as “a breed of proto-imperialists,” who introduced “Western aggression to the peaceful Middle East.” Unfortunately, this is historically false. Let’s see what Madden has to say (“The Real History of the Crusades”):

Christians in the eleventh century were not paranoid fanatics. Muslims really were gunning for them. While Muslims can be peaceful, Islam was born in war and grew the same way. From the time of Mohammed, the means of Muslim expansion was always the sword. Muslim thought divides the world into two spheres, the Abode of Islam and the Abode of War. Christianity—and for that matter any other non-Muslim religion—has no abode. Christians and Jews can be tolerated within a Muslim state under Muslim rule. But, in traditional Islam, Christian and Jewish states must be destroyed and their lands conquered. When Mohammed was waging war against Mecca in the seventh century, Christianity was the dominant religion of power and wealth. As the faith of the Roman Empire, it spanned the entire Mediterranean, including the Middle East, where it was born. The Christian world, therefore, was a prime target for the earliest caliphs, and it would remain so for Muslim leaders for the next thousand years.

With enormous energy, the warriors of Islam struck out against the Christians shortly after Mohammed’s death. They were extremely successful. Palestine, Syria, and Egypt—once the most heavily Christian areas in the world—quickly succumbed. By the eighth century, Muslim armies had conquered all of Christian North Africa and Spain. In the eleventh century, the Seljuk Turks conquered Asia Minor (modern Turkey), which had been Christian since the time of St. Paul. The old Roman Empire, known to modern historians as the Byzantine Empire, was reduced to little more than Greece. In desperation, the emperor in Constantinople sent word to the Christians of Western Europe asking them to aid their brothers and sisters in the East.

That is what gave birth to the Crusades. They were not the brainchild of an ambitious pope or rapacious knights but a response to more than four centuries of conquests in which Muslims had already captured two-thirds of the old Christian world. At some point, Christianity as a faith and a culture had to defend itself or be subsumed by Islam. The Crusades were that defense.

Pope Urban II called upon the knights of Christendom to push back the conquests of Islam at the Council of Clermont in 1095. The response was tremendous. Many thousands of warriors took the vow of the cross and prepared for war. Why did they do it? The answer to that question has been badly misunderstood. In the wake of the Enlightenment, it was usually asserted that Crusaders were merely lacklands and ne’er-do-wells who took advantage of an opportunity to rob and pillage in a faraway land. The Crusaders’ expressed sentiments of piety, self-sacrifice, and love for God were obviously not to be taken seriously. They were only a front for darker designs.

During the past two decades, computer-assisted charter studies have demolished that contrivance. Scholars have discovered that crusading knights were generally wealthy men with plenty of their own land in Europe. Nevertheless, they willingly gave up everything to undertake the holy mission. Crusading was not cheap. Even wealthy lords could easily impoverish themselves and their families by joining a Crusade. They did so not because they expected material wealth (which many of them had already) but because they hoped to store up treasure where rust and moth could not corrupt. They were keenly aware of their sinfulness and eager to undertake the hardships of the Crusade as a penitential act of charity and love. Europe is littered with thousands of medieval charters attesting to these sentiments, charters in which these men still speak to us today if we will listen. Of course, they were not opposed to capturing booty if it could be had. But the truth is that the Crusades were notoriously bad for plunder. A few people got rich, but the vast majority returned with nothing.

For more information on the topic, see also The Crusades: When Christendom Pushed Back.

These truths cannot be emphasized enough. As Goethe once said, “Truth must be repeated again and again because error is constantly being preached round about us.”

Thomas F. Madden is associate professor and chair of the Department of History at Saint Louis University. He is the author of numerous works, including The New Concise History of the Crusades.

February 6, 2010

La Montanara (The Song of The Mountains)

Coro Sasslong (Val Gardena, Bz, Italy)

With this I complete my trilogy of non-political posts of middle winter—it’s a good thing to every now and then get political toxins out of your life…

This time I am pleased to pay tribute to a traditional choir song from the Alpine valleys of Northern Italy: La Montanara (The Song of the Mountains), which celebrates the mountains and the “sweet little dwelling-place / Of Soreghina, the daughter of the Sun,” a character in an ancient Dolomite legend. The song—very famous and often considered as the hymn of the Alps—is almost certainly far older than its official date of birth, about 80 years ago, when alpinist Luca Ortelli had heard it sung for the first time in a tavern and eventually by a young shepherd in a high valley of Piedmont. Ortelli transcribed the melody and lyrics and a musician from Trento, Luigi Pigarelli, added vocal harmonies to make it a choral piece.

La Montanara, which has been translated into 148 languages, was first recorded by the SAT Choir, founded in 1926 by the brothers Enrico, Mario, Silvio and Aldo Pedrotti, all members of the Trento Mountaineering Association (SAT) and all enthusiastic about performing, preserving, and promoting the alpine folk songs they grew up singing.

Here is an excellent rendering of the song by the Coro Sasslong, based in St Cristina, Val Gardena (Bz).

Many thanks to my good Facebook friend Holger Schimmelpfennig for letting me know about such a wonderful video clip.


La Montanara
Lassù per le montagne
tra boschi e valli d’or
fra l’aspre rupi echeggia
un cantico d’amor.
“La montanara, ohé!”
si sente cantare,
“cantiam la montanara,
e chi non la sa?”
Lassù sui monti dai rivi d’argento
una capanna cosparsa di fior
era la piccola, dolce dimora
di Soreghina, la figlia del sol

English version

The Song of the Mountains
Up there in the mountains
Among woods and valleys of gold
Among the rugged cliffs there echoes
A canticle of love.

La Montanara, ohe'!
You can hear sing,
We sing the Montanara
And who does not know it?

Up there in the mountains among banks of silver
A hut covered with flowers
It was the sweet little dwelling-place
Of Soreghina, the daughter of the Sun.

February 4, 2010

The Roman Centurion’s Song

Once a Brit, always a Brit? This may be true—at least for a certain kind of people, I guess, and even if one was previously from elsewhere. I mean, some time ago a Brit friend of mine was amazed at my being a lover of Britain. He couldn’t understand why on earth I liked Britain so much, after having grown up in Rome, studied in Venice and San Francisco, California, and traveled a lot around Europe and the USA. I tried to explain to him that, apart from some good and darling memories, I loved certain shades of green in the hills around Edinburgh, the stones of Cambridge and the windswept cliffs of Cornwall, the colors of London, from the wet pavements of Piccadilly to the grass of Hyde Park, and the beautiful countryside of Wales.

But my British friend continued looking at me rather incredulously. Quite an awkward position, but he is a huge fan of everything Italian…

However, all of the above considerations were intended to introduce a poem by Rudyard Kipling I came across today. And if this piece of poetry has little to do with myself, it nonetheless has much to do with Britain.

The Roman Centurion’s Song

(Roman Occupation of Britain, A.D. 300)

LEGATE, I had the news last night - my cohort ordered home
By ships to Portus Itius and thence by road to Rome.
I've marched the companies aboard, the arms are stowed below:
Now let another take my sword. Command me not to go!

I've served in Britain forty years, from Vectis to the Wall,
I have none other home than this, nor any life at all.
Last night I did not understand, but, now the hour draws near
That calls me to my native land, I feel that land is here.

Here where men say my name was made, here where my work was done;
Here where my dearest dead are laid - my wife - my wife and son;
Here where time, custom, grief and toil, age, memory, service, love,
Have rooted me in British soil. Ah, how can I remove?

For me this land, that sea, these airs, those folk and fields suffice.
What purple Southern pomp can match our changeful Northern skies,
Black with December snows unshed or pearled with August haze -
The clanging arch of steel-grey March, or June's long-lighted days?

You'll follow widening Rhodanus till vine an olive lean
Aslant before the sunny breeze that sweeps Nemausus clean
To Arelate's triple gate; but let me linger on,
Here where our stiff-necked British oaks confront Euroclydon!

You'll take the old Aurelian Road through shore-descending pines
Where, blue as any peacock's neck, the Tyrrhene Ocean shines.
You'll go where laurel crowns are won, but -will you e'er forget
The scent of hawthorn in the sun, or bracken in the wet?

Let me work here for Britain's sake - at any task you will -
A marsh to drain, a road to make or native troops to drill.
Some Western camp (I know the Pict) or granite Border keep,
Mid seas of heather derelict, where our old messmates sleep.

Legate, I come to you in tears - My cohort ordered home!
I've served in Britain forty years. What should I do in Rome?
Here is my heart, my soul, my mind - the only life I know.
I cannot leave it all behind. Command me not to go!

February 2, 2010

Paolo Maldini's new adventure

This blog is almost certainly a bit too “serious,” I know, at least insofar as politics is (still) a serious matter and not (yet) an entertainment show, as someone might suspect… That’s why this time I want to talk about …fashion—which may not be the most important issue in the world, but nonetheless, apart from its intrinsically ephemeral nature, it’s an important sector of the economy and a huge business. But there is an additional reason why I want to go into this field: the story I am about to tell is one of fashion and soccer. In fact it talks about one of the most popular and talented soccer player ever: Milan legend Paolo Maldini, who won seven Italian Serie A championships, five UEFA Champions League Cups, five UEFA Super Cups, two Intercontinental Cups and one FIFA Club World Cup!

Prior to his retirement, Maldini unexpectedly said that he would never be moving into a coaching career. And he kept his word. In fact, when in June 2009 he was offered a position that would have reunited him with his former manager, Carlo Ancelotti, by joining Chelsea as a coach, he turned down the offer (it was the second time he turned down a British tempting offer, the first was when Manchester United boss, Sir Alex Ferguson, tried to sign him …). He preferred to become a fashion entrepreneur. And like it or not, that’s what he is now. A courageous decision, and that’s why I like it.

However, Paolo Maldini’s entrepreneurial adventure isn’t a solitary one: he is in association with rocker Liam Gallagher. The two have known each other for years after meeting on an OASIS tour, and have grand plans to become a leading fashion house in Europe. One cannot but wish both of them all the very best, but don’t ask me not to remember with nostalgia the good old days when the greatest defender of our time...