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I keep thinking about the great steppes of Central Asia and the magnificent scary hordes which would pour out of the grasslands into Western civilization.  Because I am more familiar with Greco-Roman history and the history of Late Antiquity, I tend to conceptualize these nomads as Scyths, Huns, Avars, the magnificently named Khanate of the Golden Horde, Bulgars, or, above all the Mongols (to name a few).  Yet all the way on the other side of Asia the great steppe ran up against the civilization of China.  On the Eastern edge of the steppe the great Empires of China had a whole different set of nomadic hordes to contend with: Donghu, Yuezhi, Sogdians, Hepthalites,  and, uh, above all the Mongols (to name a few).

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If you read a macro history of China, these guys continuously crash in from the western wastelands and mess everything up on a clockwork basis like giant ants at a picnic that spans the millenia. Isn’t history something?

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One of the greatest Nomadic confederations of the East was the confederation of the Xiongnu which stretched through Siberia, Inner and Outer Mongolia, Gansu and Xinjiang during the era of the warring states and then the Han dynasty (from around the 3rd century BC to the late 1st Century AD).  These tribes had complex relationships with the civilization of China, sometimes bitterly warring with the Empire and other times allied to the Han and intermarrying with everyone from the emperor’s family on downwards.  That’s an artist’s recreation of them right above this paragraph.  They certainly look very splendid and prepossessing in the illustration, but the truth is we know very little about them.  Scholars are still debating whether they were Huns, Iranians, Turkik, Proto-Mongols, Yeniseians, or what.  My guess is that they were a lot of things depending on the time and place.  Historians (and politicians!) get too bogged down by chasing ethnic identities.  But the fact remains that we don’t really know their language or culture…even though they had a long tangled 500 year history with a culture that loves to write everything down and keep it around forever.

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All of which is a long macro-introduction to a beautiful historical artifact from 2200 years ago. Here is the golden crown of a Xiongnu chanyu (tribe/clan leader) which was smithed sometime during the late Warring States Period (475-221 BC).  It features a golden hawk on top of an ornate golden skullcap.  The central elements are encompassed by a braided golden coil with different grassland beasts interspersed.  I would love to tell you all about it…but, like so many other artworks, it must speak for itself. It does seem to betray more than a whiff of the transcendent shamanistic culture which is still such a part of the Siberia, Mongolia, and the Taiga (if you go back far enough, this animal-themed animism informs much of the early civilization of China itself).  It is certainly extremely splendid.  I could look at it for a long time.

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Gosh, we have looked at a lot of crowns, haven’t we?  You would think that, after all of these posts, we would have started to run out of royal headwear, but we haven’t even remotely begun to get to the back of history’s vast royal treasury.  Nothing seems to interest humans quite so much as status, and nothing says status like a gold hat which proclaims “I am better than than those around me”.  Today’s crown however is not meant for a human head: it is a votive crown which is devoted to the idea that there are  aspects of status which fundamentally transcend even our sad status-driven lives.  This idea is maybe at the heart of religion–which is an even more naked manifestation of the human need for hierarchical status and tribal belonging than politics and kingship (although they are all knit together in a disturbing way).

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Enough philosophizing…above is the crown of of Saint Oswald made of gold, silver, pearls, shell, and gemstones.  It seems to date from the late 12th century AD but may be of earlier construction.  Elements of the crown, such as the Roman cameo and the intaglios are definitely ancient pieces which have been repurposed into the saint’s crown (the whole piece may have been donated by a king or prince as a devotional act, but the history is unclear).  The crown is kept at Hildesheim Cathedral in Germany on top of a reliquary statue of Saint Oswald made of gilded wood with disturbing niello eyes.

Oswald is a good illustration of the fungible nature of political and religious power.  He was a 7th century Saxon king who converted to Christianity and annealed the thrones of Bernicia and Deira together into the powerful Kingdom of Northumbria which was a high point in England’s dark age history (this business of putting kingdoms together out of disparate preexisting elements is reflected somewhat in the bricolage nature of  this saint’s crown from 500 years later).  Oswald was a warlord who died in battle, yet he was also a uniter, a spiritual leader, and a saintly king (at least in Bede’s estimation).  He became the focus of a particular cult later in the Middle Ages and there are at least 4 skulls attributed to him in continental Europe alone.

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Shaanxi is one of the ancient cradles of Chinese civilization: indeed at various points of  Chinese history it has been the center of China.  The former Chinese capitals Fenghao and Chang’an were both in Shaanxi.  Can you imagine how exciting it would be to be an archaeologist in a place with such a long rich cultural heritage? Well, in our era of instant news, you don’t have to imagine!  Archaeologists of the Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology just finished excavating a cluster of 12 ancient tombs discovered beneath a village in the province.  The tombs date back to the Sixteen Kingdoms period of Chinese history (304-439 AD), a chaotic time of collapse when small kingdoms fought each other in endless internecine wars.  Some of these kingdom were led by (gasp!) non-Han peoples of proto-Mongolian and Turkic ethnicity and cultural artifacts from the era often betray a curious mix of Chinese and steppe characteristics.

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To quote archaeologynewsnetwork, “The tombs are laid out in two rows, and each tomb consists of a tomb passage, a door and a path leading to the coffin chamber, according to Liu Daiyun, a researcher with the academy.”  The whole complex is thought to belong to a single family, but the exact relationships between the ancient bodies therein interred will not be known until DNA analysis is complete.

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The photos in this blog show earthenware pieces which were found within the tombs.  The little sculptures bring to life a world of farm and family from 1500 years ago (such sculptures were meant to bring the most important aspects of life to eternity with the departed…and in a way they have worked.  Keep that little earthenware pig in your mind! He will be important  the very near future.

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Today we feature a masterpiece of Visigoth art.  This is a silver medallion from the Iberian Peninsula during the 5th-7th century A.D. which shows Bellerophon killing the Chimera with a lance.  The work is an anomaly:  it was made in early Medieval Christendom and has the style and workmanship of that time, yet its subject is entirely Greco-Roman in nature.   In ancient Greek myth, Bellerophon was a mythical Corinthian demigod who was the son of Poseidon.  With Athena’s help, he tamed Pegasus, a winged steed born of violence and ancient gods & monsters.  Bellerophon used this power of flight (and his own martial prowess) to kill the three headed chimera–part lion, part goat, and part snake–one of the most convoluted and confusing monsters of ancient mythology (and one of the children of Echidna, the great mother of monsters). Yet Bellerophon’s heroic deeds went to his head and he tried to fly up to the top of Mount Olympus and take a place among the Gods.  Because of his hubris, the gods cast him down.  They took Pegasus back, and the maimed Bellerophon was left as a crippled beggar.   Clearly the story appealed to somebody during the chaotic centuries after the Empire blew apart as different hordes fought their way back and forth across Spain, Gaul, and the Mediterranean. Pegasus has lost his wings in this version, but the long centuries of chaos and political and cultural upheaval have given it pathos. Look at the expression of fortitude and resignation on the warrior’s face!

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Hey remember last week when NASA’s robot spacecraft visited a remote double snowball in the farthest reaches of the solar system?  Well that was amazing, but there was an attendant nomenclature problem.  Internet space enthusiasts and NASA worked together to choose a proposed name for the flying space snowman, and they came up with “Ultima Thule”, which was the Roman name for the inaccessible frozen lands of the farthest north (inaccessible to Romans anyway).  This name, however, doesn’t become official until sanctioned by the International Astronomical Union, which faces a conundrum, since apparently Nazis stupidly believed (or stupidly claimed to believe) that the Aryan race came from a mythical wonderland called Thule.

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This is clearly one of those stories that illustrate the dizzying heights of grandeur and terrifying depths of folly which accompany the human condition.  It is also an opportunity for a Ferrebeekeeper post about color since Thulian is also the English name for pink. “Thulian pink” is a striking pale pink with lavender highlights which will be instantly familiar to anyone who has gone down the girl’s toy aisle at a big box store.  Apparently the first recorded usage of this color name was in 1912, which was before the terrible events of the twenties and thirties swept a white nationalist autocracy to power in Germany.  Thulian pink doesn’t seem to have any white nationalist undertones that I can fathom (although I guess ruddy complexioned Caucasian people like me could theoretically turn the color of a Barbie Dream house if we received esoteric radiation burns or drank something toxic). Words are funny…(also I wonder if we sometimes invest them with too much power as we try to protect people from the ignorance and meanness of other people).  Anyway Thulian pink is also named after the fantastic lands to the far north, which makes me wonder what the association was for the people who first coined the name?  Is this the pink of the northern lands under the midnight sun at high summer or is it just regarded as an otherworldly color or ARE there unknown horrible racist associations? What is going on?

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Anyway, apparently this hue was rechristened as “First Lady” in 1948 as the interior decorators of the 50s started using it for everything.  I have always called in “Pepto-Bismol” pink.  Whatever it is called, I have always like the color, although it gets a trifle overused in the gendered marketing scheme of today’s toy world.

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Happy Epiphany!  When I was growing up, my family always celebrated the twelve days of Christmas which started on Christmas proper (December 25th) and lasted until until January 6th (“Epiphany”, “Little Christmas”, or “the Feast of Three Kings”) which is also, my father’s birthday.  Happy birthday, Dad!  The liturgical explanation of Epiphany was that Jesus was born on December 25th (just like Mithras, secret Persian god of the late Roman military! quite a coincidence) and then adored for 12 days until the Magi showed up with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Thereafter the holiday was finished: Jesus had to run hide out in Egypt and my family had to take down the decorations and deal with the grim realities of winter, unleavened by colorful Yuletide fantasy.  Come to think of it, Epiphany also involved some business about the bapism of Jesus, the appearance of the holy spirit, and the revelation of Jesus’ divine nature, but all of this was mixed up in the disastrous sectarianism of different forms of Christianity, so you will have to run ask your favorite bishop about the full niceties.

At any rate, the three kings were always great favorites of mine.  I recall playing Melchior in the Christmas pageant dressed in shimmery polyester 1970s curtain fabric and holding the Chinese jewelry box which my mother used to keep on her dresser.  “We Three Kings of Orient Are” was always my favorite Christmas song (since it hints at the broader themes of Christ’s life in a way that lesser, newer Christmas songs do not).  Also, the inclusion of the three kings allowed for camels, royal finery, and orientalism in Christmas decorations which was a real aesthetic plus.

To celebrate the holiday I have included two Medieval representations of the three kings:  the one at the top is an enameled reliquary made in Limoges, France in the late 12th century.  The journey of the three kings is portrayed on the top (sadly lacking the camel) and the adoration of the Christ child is shown on the side.  The gothic gilded box probably contained some ghastly mortal fragment of a medieval saint (or a lump of quotidian matter which was labeled as such), but it is exquisitely beautiful and would be perfect in a Christmas pageant, if it weren’t enshined in the Musée de Cluny in Paris.

The image below is from an illuminated book of hours (the so-called “Hours of the Queen of Sweden” according to my source) and shows a delightfully integrated group of kings kneeling before a legitemately beautiful medieval Mary.  Look at the tiny Jerusalem in the background.  Around the sacred image are beautiful still-life images of flowers, seed pods, insects, and birds.  Both of these imags are real artistic masterpieces of the Middle Ages and I hope they help you celebrate Little Christmas, because we have a lot of winter to slog through now (at least here up north…if you are in Aukland, Argentina, or Madagascar or something send us some pictures of your summer revels so we can get through January)…

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There is one last annual task to be done (which I dread—which is why I put it off until the very last day of the year)—which is writing the 2018 obituaries.  Usually I use the last week of the year to write about people whose work was important to me or who were overlooked by big media outlets (which have a facile fascination with interchangeable movie stars and pop musicians). However, this year I lost somebody important to me, so the unmet artists, scientists, politicians, and celebrities who died in 2018 will have to find someone else to write tiny blurbs about their lives. I will only write one obituary, for my grandmother, Mary Rose Ferrebee (March 24th, 1927 – October 30, 2018).

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As a nation, we tend to regard the crazy fearless people of the frontier and the wild west as lost into the distant mythologized past…but for me, I got to live up-close and personal with such people: my grandparents!  Grandma Mary was indeed larger than life in such a fashion, but in an especially down-to-earth way which makes it hard to quantify the breadth of her legacy. Let me explain by giving you the portion of her biography I know about.

Mary Rose Ferrebee was born  (Mary Rose Jarvis) in Granny’s Creek, West Virginia in the late 1920s.  She had an adventuresome youth spent flouting conventional mores and stereotypes—a trend which culminated during the Second World War when she entered into a career in aviation manufacturing. She described this phase as when she was “Rosy the Riveter, painting the fluorescent yellow tips on [Grumman] Hellcats.” Coincidentally, it doesn’t sound like that glowing yellow Hellcat paint was especially wholesome, since health problems led her away from aviation and back to more traditional careers in short-order cooking, bartending, and cleaning.  It was also during this era when she met Grandpa Dencil, back from the war early, who courted her with a banana (a rare and precious commodity during the war). Grandma apparently said “I don’t want a banana I want the real thing!”  This high standard of honesty cemented their relationship, but it also sometimes led to tensions in an era when most people did not always express what was on their mind so openly.

The family traveled to the West Coast in the fifties (my grandfather decided to take up the, um, aerospace trade, painting missiles and ICBMs at Vandenberg), and then back to West Virginia where Grandma ran a bar/restraint/hotel (an inn, I guess).  All sorts of folks from all walks of life came through there (Senator Byrd even played his fiddle at the Henry Clay Hotel, back in the day), but usually it was local people having a drink, playing pool, and gossiping.

I remember many exciting things from the hotel, like listening to “Whiskey River” on the jukebox, playing pinball and video arcade games (the first of my childhood), and listening to the tales about the secret lives and strange fates of everyone in the county.  As the keeper of a public house in a small town, Grandma knew everything about everyone.  She also, you know, ran a bar in West Virginia and she sometimes had to deal with particularly unruly patrons breaking pool cues over each other’s heads (for which eventuality she kept a chrome .357 Magnum snubnose somewhere back behind the bar, in order to invite unwanted customers to go home).

Operating the town’s beer hall privileged Grandma with a profound grasp of people’s desires and weaknesses and while other people maybe would have used such knowledge to aggrandize and enrich themselves, or at least to twist the knife with cruel taunts, Grandma more-or-less accepted peoples’ appetites, eccentricities, and flaws as a part of the broader tapestry of life (which is not to say she didn’t spend a certain amount of time feuding with people who had disrespected her).  She was particularly blunt about sexual and bathroom matters and although this made me blush and blush as a child (and a teenager, and an adult…and now), it strikes me as a wise choice for living a more healthy and honest life.  I wonder how many people live miserable lives or die long before they should because society has convinced them that ever talking about such earthy concerns is somehow indecorous.

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Grandma always had time and resources for the people in her life…or for anyone who needed help.  Growing up I often recall my parents being able to make important purchases thanks to Grandma’s largesse, and she likewise bestowed homes, cars, tuition, and mortgage payments to other children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.  Whenever I came to visit, she would give me cigar boxes of half-dollar pieces or rolls of two dollar bills from the bar safe.  There were many such presents and much praise, Not only was she enormously generous, she was also fearless and she always stood up for those who could not stand up for themselves .

After she retired some disreputable folk down the river had a big ill-mannered fighting dog which ran around the river bottom snarling at people and forcing them to abruptly rush inside.  Since this included Grandma’s little grandchildren and great grandchildren (who would be seriously injured or killed by a dog attack), she asked the neighbors to keep the dog fenced up or at least tied-up, but they laughed at the request of a seventy-something woman and went back to drinking and doing whatever else they were doing.  One day these neighbors were in their backyard drinking, carousing, and ineffectually shooting at cans.  Grandma went over and asked if she could shoot some cans too.  They laughed and acquiesced, perhaps thinking to teach an old lady some pointers or to have a laugh at her attempts, whereupon she pulled out the trusty .357 and blew enormous magnum sized holes in the cans which they had not been hitting.  “Tie up that dog!” she said as she left, and this time her wishes were followed.

She was large (not to say fat) and strong and she also had that .357, which taken in combination with her maverick personality to make her sound like an intimidating person, however I think anyone who knew her would characterize her foremost as kind and generous to excess (and also as fun and funny).  My mother would despair since she (Mom) would give my grandmother the gifts the latter wanted—fancy dishes, kitchen gadgets, or new towels or what have you—only for Grandma to give them away in turn.  Grandma, however, seemed to think that owning a bunch of junk was not really the principal fun of life—another laudatory perspective which we could all learn from. With characteristic generosity, she decided that, upon her passing, she would donate her mortal remains to science (the medical teaching hospital at WVU).  As she said “I sent so many people to college, that I decided I would like to go there myself.” Not only is this helping the family save some money (a final cigar box of cash), but it is helping a new generation of healers learn.  However, it robbed Grandma Mary of a fitting eulogy, which is why I am writing this.

Frankly though, Grandma never yearned for the fame and universal acclaim which other people pursue so doggedly. I don’t think Grandma thought of greatness as being all that great (perhaps she recognized that “great” people have money troubles, erotic misadventures, and go to the bathroom like all other people). Or to explain it better, I think she saw that every life was great to the person living it and the glowing esteem of the world was a sort of political trick, mostly unrelated to the actual important business of life like making sure people are fed, children are cared for, and the sick or infirm have somebody to look after them.

When I was a child, I thought it was normal to always live in a glorious golden halo of love where people tell you how great you are and give you things.  It is NOT the norm (thanks so much for the update, New York), but it always seemed like it, thanks to my family. Grandma Mary was an especially big part of that. I suspect everyone who knew her would say the same.

Grandma gave me so many things—big home cooked meals, toys, whatever book I wanted, tvs, video games, musical instruments, boxes of money, jewelry, a truck…you name it, and I took and took with both hands. But now that she is gone, it strikes me that what I would really like to have is her generosity, her warmth, her courage, and above all her loving heart (I think she would smile, too, to hear me still asking for more).  She was such a big part of the world that I never really thought about how it would be with her gone.  It is like the mountain or the forest or some other ancient & impervious force of nature vanished.  However, her love is still here with all of her family and friends (who are numerous).  Her tireless care, affection, and kindness are woven into the very fabric of existence, not like the ephemeral works of models, rappers, or tv charlatans, but in a truly integral way that sustains people for life and holds up the world.

Readers, I hope you don’t think I am ending on a down note for the new year.  Grandma lived life to the fullest, and it is up to us to do the same in this new year and in all the others to come. Her gifts of generosity and compassion could indeed be ours too, if we just muster the strength of character to give with such an open heart.

Good bye Grandma, I love you.

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The day has escaped me today, but there is still time for a short and visually potent post which I have been saving up.  This is a model of the Royal Crown of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which ruled the Ryukyu Islands and unified Okinawa (and, sporadically, some other islands in the East China Sea).  Located between China and Japan, the little kingdom began as a tributary state to China (which is why the crown has the characteristic shape of a Ming royal headdress. During its 400 year history, Ryukyu was generally a tributary of China, Japan, or both, until it was annexed by the Empire of Japan in 1879.  After the annexation the former King of Ryuku moved to Tokyo and became a Japanese noble.  He brought one crown with him (this is an exact  model of the original which is at the Naha City Museum of History and is only shown on special occasions).  Confusingly, a second historical crown was kept on Okinawa until the island  fell to United States forces near the end of World War II and the royal treasures were hidden in a drainage ditch.  An American intelligence officer “found” some of these treasures and carried them off to Boston, however they were returned during the 1950s as the friendship between Japan and the United States solidified.  The Okinawa crown however was never discovered…so if you find a thing like this in a Boston yard sale you should buy it up (although you may also be sucked into strange diplomatic games with the United States and Japan).  In addition to a large gold hairpin, the Naha crown has 288 ornaments made of gold, silver, crystal, and coral.

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I realized that by devoting yesterday’s post to philosophical musings about the folly and sadness of the First World War, I failed to thank America’s veterans.  Although I am now a few days off-topic, it is never to late to offer tribute to the brave men and women who have served with such distinction in our armed forces.  Fortuitously, I noticed an obscure bronze plaque which is on the wall by the subway exit I take everyday out of the twisted warren of tunnels beneath Grand Central.  It looks like it is a hundred years old (indeed some of the print is hard to read) but its poignant thanks to the subway workers who left New York’s tunnels to go serve in overseas trenches remains undiminished.  It is also a fitting tribute to America’s citizen-soldiers who step between the world of the warrior and the world of the builder.  Check it out next time you are in Grand Central (if you can find it…or anything… and thanks again to everyone who has served in our armed forces or worked for the military.

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World War I effectively ended on 11 November, 1918 at 5:00 AM when Germany signed an armistice with the Allied powers.  We need a post to appropriately contextualize the end to one of history’s most disastrous chapters, but it is unclear where to start with such a huge and fraught historical subject as the Great War.

Let’s star on the ground, where a generation fought and died.

I am not going to write about the stupid global politics leading up to (and out of) the war.  Suffice to say the vainglorious aristocrats who ran Europe and the world ended up caught in a trap of their own making with no way out other than to bleed their countries dry while hoping for the best. You can read about the events leading up to the war on your own if you wish, but it is turgid stuff and, historians still disagree about the larger lessons (if any).

However a few great works of literature brought home the absolute horror of life in the trenches, and that is what we need to address. The war created a fundamental and inescapable trap for those who served.  It was a trap honed to razor sharpness by the circumstances–but it is familiar to anyone who must deal with bureaucracies or just with other people… and therein lies the horror.

So imagine being conscripted to be an infantryman to fight in France or Belgium.  After scant training your nation hands you a high-powered rifle, and then plops you into a muddy ditch filled with corpses, explosives, and corned beef  until one day you’re told to go “over the top” and charge into an impregnable fortified machine gun nest and certain death or contusion. Really think about the dread of such an order and imagine what you would do.

I am pretty sure you would rush into your death…not because you are a towering model of bravery (though maybe you are), but because what other choice would you have?  To refuse and be summarily shot by an officer? To shiftlessly loll around the back until your fellow soldiers noticed and decided you were worthless and arranged an accident? To go stark raving mad on the spot? Those things seem worse than being blasted to pieces by shrapnel and rifle bullets.  Likewise they seemed worse to millions of soldiers who knew pretty quickly what the true nature of the war was, but who had no way out other than to carry on in impossible circumstances.

World War I represents the full horror of human society.  Acting together, the rest of humankind can make you DO ANYTHING.  There is no resisting them.

Modern humans are like ants: we wither and die without our extended networks.  These networks are our glory–they provide us resources and information we could never obtain on our own–but, if they somehow go wrong, they are a prison sterner than any Alcatrez or Devil’s Island.  Imagine the worst moments of 8th grade.  Now imagine it with Howitzers the size of fortresses and poison gas and the worst boss you have ever had (except with power of instant execution over you).

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We would like to pretend otherwise but human society is often harmful and vicious. World War I perfectly demonstrates that problem. Everyone said “Huzzah! our brave boys will win the day with true bravery…but true bravery is no match for industrial machines and implacable logistics (and pig-headed politicians).  World War I was a perfect inflection point of the stupidities and horrors of preindustrial feudal society with the stupidities and horrors of modernity and machine-like hierarchies.

And then, after all of that, we didn’t learn our lesson.  It was only the first round of the two part drama of the World Wars.

Well…so far anyway

It isn’t as though nationalism and monstrous greed have vanished among  politicians and business leaders. Enormous machines and hierarchies become more enormous and hierarchical.  Politicans (and the rest of us) however have not grown noticeably.  Even if there were visionaries and geniuses who could prevent any more such disasters, the rest of us people would never let them.

So thank goodness the Great War has been gone for a hundred years, but we all need to remember it and to remember to work tirelessly at dealing better with each other…if we even can.

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