All posts by Gildas Hamel

Piracy and empire

What Augustine of Hippo says in Civitas Dei of banditry and empires reads well still today when the US empire doesn’t even admit to the name out of quaint and useful moral hypocrisy:

Remota itaque iustitia quid sunt regna nisi magna latrocinia? Quia et latrocinia quid sunt nisi parva regna? Manus et ipsa hominum est, imperio principis regitur, pacto societatis astringitur, placiti lege praeda dividitur. Hoc malum si in tantum perditorum hominum accessibus crescit ut et loca teneat, sedes constituat, civitates occupet, populos subiuget, evidentius regni nomen adsumit, quod ei iam in manifesto confert non dempta cupiditas, sed addita inpunitas. Eleganter enim et veraciter Alexandro illi Magno quidam comprehensus pirata respondit. Nam cum idem rex hominem interrogaret, quid ei videretur, ut mare haberet infestum, ille libera contumacia: Quod tibi, inquit, ut orbem terrarum; sed quia id ego exiguo navigio facio, latro vocor; quia tu magna classe, imperator.

Take away justice, then, and what are governments but great confederacies of robbers? After all, what are confederacies of robbers unless they are small-scale governments? The gang itself consists of men, it is directed by the authority of the chief, it is bound together by a pact of mutual support, and the loot is divided in accordance with an agreed law. If, as a result of the recruitment of desperadoes, this evil grows to such an extent that it takes control of a territory, establishes bases, occupies cities and subjugates peoples, then it assumes the name of a government, the more openly because this is now plainly applicable: not because the robbers have renounced their rapacity, but because they are no longer at risk of punishment. The reply that a captured pirate made to Alexander the Great was apposite and legitimate. For when the ruler asked the man how he could justify making the sea a dangerous place, he answered, with defiant outspokenness, ‘In exactly the way that you justify doing the same to the whole world. But because I do it with a single paltry ship, I am called a robber; while you do it with a large navy, and are called an emperor.’

Civitas Dei, 4.4 (translation by Gillian Spraggs)

At the end of 4.6, after discussing the length of the Assyrian empire, Augustine continues: “to make war on one’s neighbors, to go from there further afield, to reduce to submission peoples who have not attacked, out of pure greed for domination, how should one call this if not banditry on a monumental scale?” Latin: Inferre autem bella finitimis et in cetera inde procedere ac populos sibi non molestos sola regni cupiditate conterere et subdere, quid aliud quam grande latrocinium nominandum est?

Bush approves torture

Evening came and I can look at the paper. The first page of the NYTImes shows president no-name (I am practicing early damnatio memoriae) walking away from the lectern behind which one can see the vice-president, attorney general, and many other officials, after he signed a bill on the interrogation and trial of terrorism suspects. The military commissions struck down by the Supreme Court in Hamdan vs Rumsfeld (6/29/06) to the annoyance of our fearless leaders can be re-established, and they don’t have to abide by Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. Not surprising that McCain was not at the “ceremony” and was out campaining. The pre-November political game counts on the naïveté, indifference, complacency, and complicity of voters who may accept the idea it “will save American lives” (dixit the prince) and it is “a way to deliver justice to the terrorists we have captured.” Replace “justice” with “vengeance.”
NYT writes that “More than 500 habeas suits are pending in federal court, and Justice Department officials said Tuesday that they would move swiftly to dismiss them under the new law.” (p. A14) There will be countersuits since the stripping of habeas corpus is widely seen as unconstitutional. So perhaps the use of torture will not accelerate…
But in all of this, what strikes me is that it looks as if “globalism,” the euphemism for capitalism, requires a considerable dose of violence, legitimate violence naturally, and the only question now is: how much, how far? It is not surprising to learn almost at the same time that large corporations working in China (and elsewhere) are fighting attempts to secure human rights and better working conditions.

Mortality in Iraq

An excess mortality of 654 965 people in Iraq since March 2003 was the new estimate reported by the Lancet yesterday. 601 027 of those deaths are attributed to violence, mostly gunfire, in this Johns Hopkins study of 1849 households randomly chosen in 16 of the 18 governorates of Iraq.About 30% of those deaths would be attributable to US military actions. For a positive evaluation of this study, see Juan Cole’s Informed Comment page. For understandably negative views, see the UK Foreign Office, or our own president.On 12 December 2005, President Bush said about 30,000 Iraqis had been killed since the war began. On what basis did he give this number? Perhaps the Iraq Body Count at the time. But the Iraq Body Count keeps an unscientific tally that is simply based on news reports. Its numbers today for civilians killed by military intervention in Iraq are 43 850 (min)—48 693 (max).

Mérimée on Breton language

Mérimée on the Breton language:

Vous saurez d’abord que c’est vers la Bretagne, la douce et la bretonnante, que se sont dirigées mes courses cette année(…) Quant aux naturels du pays hélas! c’est la province sans soleil. Croiriez vous que j’ai fait quatre cent lieues en Bretagne sans déboutonner ma braguette. Impossible de toucher sans pincette les personnes du sexe de Brest, Morlaix, Saint Brieux (sic), Rennes, Vannes, Quimper. Ce n’est qu’à Nantes que la Providence m’a envoyé soulagement(…) Au lieu de votre joli patois dont on comprend toujours quelque chose, c’est une langue que le diable a inventée que l’on parle là-bas et qui n’a pas moins de quatre dialectes très différents. Lavarèt d’in pélèc’h azô ünenbennak ago zéfé gâllec? Voilà tout ce que j’ai pu apprendre à dire m’écorchant le gosier: Dites moi où il y a quelqu’un qui parle français. Jamais, à moins qu’on ne lui fasse une opération chirurgicale, un Provençal ne prononcera pélèc’h. Mangez une olive crue, et en crachant, vous ferez un bruit approchant ce c’h. Par dessus le marché, ces sauvages ne m’ont-ils pas persécuté dans leurs journaux, m’accusant d’avoir enlevé d’autorité à leur province un manuscrit d’un certain barde du Vè siècle, Guiclan ou Guinclan, manuscrit que j’ai cherché partout inutilement et dont j’ai appris l’existence à la plupart de leurs doctes!(Prosper Mérimée, lettre à Requien, 1836)

N’eo ket ur souezh neuze gwelout penaos eo be skrivet ar goulenn en deus desket lavarout, hag hi a zlefe bezañ skrivet: “unan bennak a gaozfe galleg”, e-lec’h kaout “ago zefe…” (pe: hag an defe galleg).

UCSC’s academic plan

I recently read the draft of the academic plan that will guide the decision-making at UCSC for quite a few years. It is called UCSC Strategic Academic Plan and emanates from UCSC central administration. It deals with hard numbers: how many students will be admitted in the near future on this campus (about 20K), the proportion of graduate students (15%), the number of FTEs (hard positions) to be assigned to divisions and departments. This kind of big thinking needs to be based on some rational basis and it is. [more]

But before I continue with this topic, I need to pull it out and explain it in some detail. The plan is divided into five parts: a set of basic principles, an outline of development at UCSC, a re-arrangement into six categories of the teaching and research presently done across campus, an application of this scheme to the present divisional and departmental arrangement, and finally the management implications of such a change.

It is based on five principles:
1) that UCSC is a single unit (translation: it has become atomized and needs to be re-centralized).
2) the campus needs to invest differentially (read: we don't continue business as usual).
3) evolution rather than iteration (same as 2 above).
4) "Fourth, we should target development of departments and programs to areas where we will have the greatest impact."
5) realism.

My understanding of 1-3 and 5: ok, this campus at the beginning of its life was centralized (founders were in charge of everything after all), and became a galaxy of programs that often duplicate each other.
But principle 4 raises questions: how does one determine "greatest impact"?

Here are the six new interdisciplinary areas that the authors of this plan see represented at UCSC:
1) Advanced Technology and Society
2) Communication and Visual Media
3) Environment and Planetary Health
4) Human Health Studies
5) Identity and Heritage Studies
6) Transnationalism and Globalization

Where are the humanities in all of this? Or rather: where is humanity? Now this is a question that, it seems to me, has been dropped from the collection of programs called the division of humanities. I'd like to get back to that as soon as I have slept a bit, done my corrections, and written other things that are "en souffrance."|CATEGORIES|2|TB_PING||IP-ADDRESS||DATE|1160255327

Simple php blog

This is a test of this new blog-machine I just installed in very little time. It is called simplePhpBlog, is found at, and is easy to install on any server (no database needed). Highly recommended. I had been looking for quite a while for a blogging program that would allow me to have class discussions (Latin, Biblical Narratives, Parables, etc.), without having to go commercial or, or having to wait for UCSC to install databases (SQL) on the server I used.


The president of the United States and the interests he represents got what they wanted from Congress. It is becoming legal to collect intelligence by torturing individuals suspected of terrorism, use such evidence in trials, and deny suspects basic rights such as access to the evidence against them. “Torture” is illegal, but Bush and friends have wide latitude in determining what constitutes “torture”. Do the brackets help?See text of common article 3 from the Geneva Convention whose interpretation is disputed.

Reason and faith

On the importance of reason in religion, and the dangers, including violence, of radical views on divine transcendence, see the full text of Pope Benedict XVI’s address on faith, reason and the university, at the university of Regensburg in Germany, 9/12/2006.

Pierre Vidal-Naquet

Pierre Vidal-Naquet, the great historian of antiquity and exemplary, politically engaged thinker passed away Sat, July 29, 2006, in Nice. Born in Paris in 1930 in a Jewish secular family, son of a pro-Dreyfus lawyer, he barely escaped deportation when he was 14. On May 15, 1944, both his parents were arrested and sent to Auschwitz. They didn’t return. Before he left, his father had asked his son to read Chateaubriand and especially this sentence:

When in abject silence one hears only the clanging of the slave’s chainand the voice of the informer, when everything shakes before the tyrant,and it is as dangerous to incur his favor as merit his disgrace, the historian appears, entrusted with the peoples’ vengeance.

Jesus, a fiction

The 2004 film by M. Gibson opened on a day chosen with care: Ash Wednesday. In another world, purple windy Ash Wednesdays introduced a long period of mild austerities such as not eating meat and renouncing certain pleasures. To go and see films was such a pleasure.

This film is not about pleasure according to first cuts. The director was quoted as saying to a brassy talkshow host that he wanted the film to show extreme violence because, as he argued, people might then realize how great a sacrifice Jesus had made on their behalf. This leads to my first concern: the gospels present the abuse and torture of Jesus in short detail and do not go the route taken by Gibson, of imaginatively and singularly focussing on the violence proper. In fact, they often resort to using memory-polished, known texts from the Hebrew Bible when describing what happened.

Second concern: the director has decided to use only the passion story (or rather stories: a conflation of John’s version and the synoptics’) in which the hero is arrested, beaten and tortured to death. This story alone, however, without at least some notion of the life that Jesus led before his arrestation, makes little sense. The meaning that may be forcefully applied to it, of a divine mechanics of pre-ordained sacrifice, becomes a free-floating ideological element that can be used to justify the worst historical adventures. I mean especially that the iconic sufferings of Jesus make it more difficult, not less difficult, to recognize the un-representable (and under-represented) sufferings of other people whose lacks and pains, across time and space, may be partly occasioned by our own blind self-preservation, exactly like Jesus’—with one difference possibly, that of forgiveness—.

Another concern is that the super-narrator’s camera goes where the gospels tell us none of the friends and followers of Jesus did go. The gospels tell us that his disciples abandoned him early on. The Gospel passion story is told by these disciples, and on what basis exactly? Hearsay? combined with imagery from Psalms and prophetic texts such as Isaiah’s? The camera wielded by Gibson’s team does away with these niceties and claims to tell the truth.

Claims of truth-telling lead to a further concern. If veri-similitude is the objective sought, as in the “vera icona” (veronica) and Turin shroud creations of mediaeval times, the film had better be exact throughout and in all its aspects. There are Aramaic and Latin mumblings, cries, barkings, eructations. But what kind of Aramaic? Pronounced with a modern Israeli Hebrew accent? As for Latin, who could speak it in early first-century Roman Palestine, apart from Pilatus and a few of his officers? And isn’t it passing strange that the Latin of this film bent on very-similitude would sound like that of XIXth c. Vatican priests? In first-century Roman Palestine, the major languages were Aramaic and Greek, and most of the local soldiers, since no legion was stationed at that time in Judaea proper, were probably speaking those two main languages. Many more questions are raised by the choice of clothing (colors? sleeves? existence of “tallith”?), the food, the tribunal’s location, the type of cross used, the techniques (ropes vs nailing, nailing through the palms or the wrists?), the soundtrack…. One may wonder about the miserable ideological reasons for the choices made.

Final criticism: this film makes anti-semitic thoughts and expressions more palatable in public. I hear that the more problematic scene was removed, that where the high priest says: “let his blood be on us and on our children.” But the fact remains that the unexplained, uncommented impact of a fictionalized rendition of an abbreviated part of Jesus’ life is not different from the impact made by the unexplained, uncommented telling of John’s passion in the liturgy of Good Friday, which so often in the past helped foster passions and led to antisemitic outbursts.

Among the problematic characters is Claudia, who according to legend (reframed in C. Emmerich’s highly wrought “journal”) sought to exercise a sweet, civilizing influence on her severe, yet dignified husband, Pontius Pilate. This is the sort of rewriting of history one would expect from elite Romans as their empire became Christianized in the fourth century C.E., when the official politics of this advantageous christianization couldn’t easily suffer the notion of a cruel empire crucifying and terrorizing restless natives just for sheer tribute. I mean, tributary economy and its intrinsic violence did go on after Christianization, as well as all other sorts of wealth extraction, but it needed new justifications. Relics, such as Bethlehem, Nazareth, the “Holy Sepulchre” and the Cross, became part of this new developing form of political representation. The gospel story itself, at least in Mark, encouraged early Christians to think that the Romans of the gospel story had been fair or even gentle representatives of the Roman empire.

As for the use of violence, there is much to be said. One question will suffice for the moment: How is this film different from the other quite violent films in which the actor-director made the money that he could invest into this one?