Month: February 2021

Essentialism, Identities, and History

“Idiot! All you have to do is stop wearing that silly robe and get rid of that daft hat and no one will even know you’re a wizard! … Just get rid of them. It’s easy enough, isn’t it? Just drop them somewhere and then you could be a, a, well, whatever. Something that isn’t a wizard.” …

Rincewind nodded gloomily. “I don’t think you understand. A wizard isn’t what you do, it’s what you are. If I wasn’t a wizard, I wouldn’t be anything.” He took off his hat and twiddled nervously with the loose star on its point, causing a few more cheap sequins to part company.

Terry Pratchet, Sourcery (Corgi Books: London, 1988) pp. 147-148 the first visit to the tower of sourcery

A Haida filmmaker is pushing for new legislation in Canada to penalize people who pretend to be Indigenous in order to access grants, awards and jobs intended for Indigenous people. Tamara Bell said she wants those who misrepresent their identity to face fines and even prison time.

Angela Sterritt, “Indigenous filmmaker wants fines, jail time for ‘pretendians’ who misrepresent their identity” CBC News, 2021-Jan-19 (link)

If you follow the news or corporate social media, you will see how often the gap between identities as internal self-belief and identities as external attributes leads to conflict. Most people are reluctant to explain what is at issue or how the word “identity” is used in different ways, and they are even more reluctant to talk about why we started talking about the first kind of identity. I am not an intellectual historian, but as a military historian I will tell the bloody story as well as I can. This is a tale of genocide and oppression and the cycles between different ways of thinking about complicated areas of life.

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And the Morning Road Leads to Stalingrad

Three softcover history books on a hardwood floor

The Second World War created the world that I grew up in, and the central event of that war was the Nazi-Soviet struggle. 80% of the Germans and Austrians killed or captured in the war were killed or captured by the Soviets (Glantz, The Soviet-German War1941-1945: Myths and Realities: A Survey Essay [2001]). My standby reference on the war, R.A.C. Parker’s brilliantly concise The Second World War: A Short History (Oxford University Press, 1989), was written too early to take advantage of the opening of the Soviet archives and the deconstruction of the German generals’ memoirs. Two recent English books represent two major approaches to writing about this unspeakably terrible conflict.

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The Battle for the Future of the Study of the Ancient World is Bigger than Classics

A few years ago I drafted a post about two different approaches to the study of the ancient world. I put it aside but then my mother, Stefano Costa, and Dimitri Nakassis started to talk about a recent New York Times piece on Dan-el Padilla Peralta and his argument that “Far from being extrinsic to the study of Greco-Roman antiquity, the production of whiteness turns on closer examination to reside in the very marrows of classics.” I think it is time to pull those ideas out and give my perspective as an ancient historian and orientalist who is not American or British.

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Identities Are Hard to Get At

Some stranded seaweed on a Salish Sea beach at about 1/3 of full tide

A few weeks ago, I talked about how an identity is something to which someone says “I am that.” After a series of unfortunate events between 1914 and 1948, educated people stopped talking about race, gender, and ethnicity as essences and started to talk about them as identities or social categories. This change was meant to reduce the amount of murder, enslavement, and forced migration in our world. But when we try to understand the ancient world, identities in the proper sense are not very helpful.

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