Edges of the Week: Down with Patriarchy; The Racism of Game of Thrones; Long Live the Doobie Brothers!

I admit it, I’m a naughty blogger. Don’t feed the beast frequently enough, don’t interact with other bloggers enough, too Minnesotan to engage in flagrant self-promotion (guilt-free, anyway), and prone to posting when I fancy, about whatever happens to be on my mind at the time.

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That said, I do try to keep my posts on the edges and intersections of four topics that often overlap for me: Faith (particularly, but not limited to, the Christian variety), Tech (especially helpful tools for writers and scholars, with the occasional foray into gaming), Medievalism (one of my academic specialties), and Gender (primarily in terms of discussions surrounding sex, gender, and sexuality within Christianity–but still with a strong view toward bringing down the evil that is patriarchy).

So, as a form of penance for my bloggering transgressions, and also as a way to spread some very good reading around, I’m gonna try, weekly, to direct some attention to some of the best recent work out there that explores some of the same “edges” that interest me.  I’m also adding a “just for fun” category, simply to share the fun and the positive. Ready?

Faith and Gender:

The best of the week is definitely this amazing piece by Beth Allison Barr, a Patheos blogger, whose historically-informed takedown of Christian Patriarchy is a wonder indeed to behold.

A close second would be Vance Morgan’s trenchant critique of the tribalism of the oft-repeated canard that Christians in America are “persecuted.”

Tech:

Two goodies here:

First, we have this encouraging piece on how Finland treats it as a necessary public service to educate its citizens about how to spot fake news, especially of the Russian troll-farm variety.

I’ve been scratching my tech-nerd itch recently by working on a new project: building a true handheld PC using a combination of off-the-shelf and possible 3D printed components. I’m not sure mine will ultimately look as good as the hgTerm Handheld or the Noodle Pi, which are very professional versions that require one to be something of an engineer (and have better than average soldering skills). My aim is to achieve something a little more, well, achievable by mere mortals. We shall see. I’ve been experimenting with a little Raspberry Pi Zero W board all week, and the screen and keyboard components arrive tomorrow…

Medievalism:

The most important and topical read of the week is definitely medievalist Cord Whittaker’s lucid piece on the racist implications of the way the Game of Thrones television series represents its peasants.

Just for Fun:

This performance of the Doobie Brother’s “Listen to the Music” combines tracks recorded all over the world, some from original band members and others from musicians of a wide variety of world cultures. It’ll put a smile on your face no matter who you are. If you’re a Doobies fan, it might bring a wee tear to the eye as well.

The Academy’s Fatal Addiction

Academia. Is. Dying.

And we’re all watching helplessly, as though its malady is like a case of Alzheimer’s, and what-is-self-harmthere’s nothing we can do but watch it deteriorate, wait until it forgets us, and welcome death as nothing other than a release from pain and grief.

It is dying because it is at war with itself, within itself. But it’s really not like Alzheimer’s at all. It’s more like addiction. The continual, compulsive engagement in an action that feels like a release from pain in the short term but always only results in self-harm and greater deterioration.

Look at the stages:

Initial Use:

Faced with lower enrollments, we realize that cutting faculty and cutting pay are the two quickest ways to slash millions from a budget.

Abuse:

Faculty cuts are overused as a strategy, to the degree that the institutional mission is harmed.

Tolerance:

The institution begins to find ways to “cope” with the cuts. We all take on more responsibility to fill the gaps and keep programs viable. we find ways to justify our departments and jobs for the time being, to manage with fewer resources, etc. Thus the institution develops a certain tolerance to the substance.

Dependence:

Because the substance is reducing the institution’s overall ability to function, enrollments decrease further, we have less to offer, and financial crises begin to pop up quite regularly, every 2-3 years. Because we’ve developed a tolerance for dealing with cuts through the mechanisms listed above, we see more cuts as the only viable solution. We form “working groups” and engage in processes under euphemistic titles like “prioritization,” telling ourselves that maybe this round can be our last. Perhaps, just perhaps, we can downsize to a point of homeostasis. And we forget that homeostasis is impossible when one is continually cutting pieces off of the organism.

Addiction:

The institution finds it can no longer live at all without the substance. Following the usual pattern of addiction, the institution then begins:

  • Using more of the substance than originally planned
  • Finding itself unable to stop using the substance
  • Experiencing relationship problems because of the substance abuse
  • Reducing its engagement in activities that give it purpose and meaning
  • Continuing to use the substance despite negative health effects
  • Experiencing fear that stopping the abuse will lead to withdrawal and death.

Relapse:

The pain and trauma of both addiction and fear of withdrawal take their toll; the institution cannot help returning to the one substance it knows provides even momentary relief.

The good news?

While Alzheimer’s is not treatable, addiction is.

 

Making All Things New: Responding Thoughtfully to Notre Dame, Part Two

It’s fitting, I think, to be writing this particular essay on the morning of Easter Sunday, which, for Christians worldwide, is never about a return to the way things were, but about resurrection, the creation of something new, not reversion but rebirth. Easter is not about making anything great again. It’s about making all things new. I write this,

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The Dakota Access pipeline, cutting a toxic swath across land that is every bit as sacred to several Lakota and Dakota tribes as Notre Dame de Paris is to many Christians worldwide.

however, under the shadow of the bombings of several churches and hotels in Sri Lanka today, a loss of holy places–and more importantly, a loss of lifeorders of magnitude more horrific than the loss of Notre Dame. I hope this reflection will be useful to conversations about responding to that even more significant tragedy.

In the previous post I identified three often-overlooked qualities that make Notre Dame the extraordinary place that it is.

  1. It’s a living organism, not a static monument.
  2. It’s connected across the globe and across a thousand years of time.
  3. It’s holy ground.

Living. Global. Holy.

I want to argue that awareness of these three qualities is vital for creating thoughtful and positive responses to its partial destruction, and for avoiding some serious mistakes that can make those responses–even well-intentioned ones–go south in a hurry.

That facts that Notre Dame is both living and global help us to avoid (and be critically aware of) the hijacking of the Notre Dame tragedy into the service of militant nationalism and white supremacism. As many medievalists have noted over the past few years, the idea of “reclaiming” a wholly imaginary version of the European Middle Ages as an era of white racial purity and uncontested patriarchy has become a cause celebre of white nationalist groups in both Europe and the United States. Other medievalists have already thought through this phenomenon more fully than I could here, but, to offer a single example, the (spurious) appropriation of the medievalism of the far right was on blatant display at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA. Awareness of the “Living, Global, and Holy” triad makes it easy to spot attempts by such groups channel otherwise legitimate public sorrow and concern over Notre Dame into the service of their agendas. A number of alt-right figures have already chimed in to this effect, but applying these concepts will send up immediate red flags about any appeals to Notre Dame as a “monument” to “Western Civilization,” or any attempt to fix Notre Dame in a single place, time, and culture. Any such attempt, at the very least, diminishes rather than preserves the real importance of places like Notre Dame, and, even if not explicitly intended to promote white supremacism or white nationalism, still works in the service of those agendas by making them very easy for such groups to co-opt.

The idea that Notre Dame is holy ground might be an even more important concept to bear in mind, regardless of whether one is a Roman Catholic or a Christian in the broader sense. It’s important because it activates the awareness that grief over Notre Dame isn’t merely grief over Notre Dame but over the loss of what, for many, is not only culturally and historically important, but sacred. For those many, there is a spiritual loss that goes well beyond the loss of a cultural artifact. For some that loss stems from connection to the place as a site of Christian worship; for others it stems from a felt connection to the place rooted in other kinds of relationships, whether it’s a love for Paris, deep connection to its art and architecture, or even just fond memories of the experience of a visit. For those for whom it is a real, living place of worship, there can be a profound sense of loss of the site of deeply personal and meaningful spiritual experiences.

Why does awareness of this spiritual quality matter? Because it activates the awareness that the grief anyone might feel over the specific destruction wrought upon Notre Dame itself creates another kind of global connection: to all those who know the grief of threat to or destruction of a place they regard as holy, no matter what brand of faith or spirituality they may practice. I’m sure that many make that connection naturally. For those who don’t, pointing out that connection is an amazing opportunity to jump-start that kind of empathy even where it doesn’t already exist. It’s a very simple, natural step from affirming an individual’s grief over Notre Dame to pointing out that that very emotion places one in connection to anyone who’s grieved over such a loss. To the parisoners of three African American churches that burned recently in Louisiana. To the Hunkpapa Lakota, Sihasapa Lakota, and Yanktonai Dakota who grieve over the ongoing destruction of sacred ground at Standing Rock. To the historical grief of those who lost not only sacred sites but enormous chunks of entire spiritual traditions to crass European colonialism, and the descendants who still struggle with the effects of those legacies. To the persons of Jewish faith who still bear the scars of genocide and thousands of gutted synagogues. To the Chinese Muslims who have witnessed the bulldozing of their mosques. To the hundreds in Sri Lanka who lost their lives when their churches were bombed, as well as those of many faiths (or none at all) whose hotels were attacked as well. To experience grief over the destruction to Notre Dame is, or at least should be, to recognize that we are all responsible for respecting and defending all holy places, of all faiths, and to realize that attention to Notre Dame should naturally direct more attention to the holy places that haven’t made the headlines.

It’s of course true that the Notre Dame fire has received a great deal more publicity than all these other examples, and legitimate to point out that this is an effect of the kind of white privilege that, in a knee-jerk and systemic fashion, favors the products of “white” European culture over others. It is essential to recognize and work to change this reality. But there’s a difference, I think, between real critiques of the brand of white privilege in play in this instance and merely shaming individuals for the crime of experiencing an emotion (grief, sorrow, etc.). In recognizing and affirming the attachment many human beings have to their own holy places, we have the perfect opportunity to combat white privilege by activating the organically empathic connection between those grieving over Notre Dame and those grieving over the places that the media has neglected.

My suggestion, for anyone feeling sorrow over Notre Dame, is to go ahead and contribute to its reconstruction, taking care, of course, not to direct such contributions toward any organization that purports to restore the cathedral to some imaginary, pristine “medieval” condition. But make it, at the least, a two- or three-way contribution, offering equal amounts to those protecting holy places elsewhere. My personal plan is to contribute to the main fund for Notre Dame, to the fund established for supporting the churches in Louisiana, and to the organization continuing the work at Standing Rock. There should be no shame in experiencing grief over Notre Dame. But such grief must always come with empathy, and it’s the particular responsibility of those profess faiths and identities that have been privileged in the past to help make sure that, in the future, no one’s holy places go unprotected.

To donate toward the repair of churches burned in Louisiana, see the GoFundMe page dedicated to that purpose.

To contribute toward the continuing defense of lands at Standing Rock, donate to their official organization here.

To support reconstruction efforts at Notre Dame, contribute to the Friends of Notre Dame de Paris.

 

Living, Global, Holy: Responding Thoughtfully to Notre Dame (Part One)

Lemme hit you with a story:

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The spire of St. Michael’s church in Linlithgow, Scotland.

A few years ago I was in Scotland for research. On a free Sunday, I took myself on an expedition to explore Linlithgow Palace, about a half-hour’s train ride north of Edinburgh. The palace is a ruin, though a majestic and fascinating one. Right next to the ruined palace, however, is the little parish church of St. Michael’s. While St. Michaels is, in part, as old as the palace, it’s still a functioning parish church. A place of regular worship for regular people. When I stepped in, the sexton came out to greet me, and immediately started explaining, almost defensively, why the church has its very modern spire. Apparently he’d had earfuls from tourist after tourist about how the spire was “incongruous” with the look of the rest of the church. How it wasn’t “medieval” enough. When I said something like, “Really? It doesn’t seem inconsistent to me–the whole church is made of components that are centuries apart,” the guy flashed the biggest smile and just about hugged me. More importantly, he proceeded to give me an amazing “VIP” tour of every nook and cranny of the place, from the blocks, once once parts of the stations of the cross, that had been incorporated into the high walls of the reformation-era apse, to what was probably 14th century graffiti on a stone doorframe, to the incredible carvings on the renaissance-era pulpit, to ways the building had been retrofitted for modern power and plumbing. We must have talked for a couple of hours about how the church was a living organism, one that carried within its very structure layers upon layers of history, of community, like the rings in a tree trunk, and that the modern spire was nothing less than a perfectly consistent continuation of that very process.

That experience was an important reminder to me that a church that’s been in continuous use for centuries, like St. Michaels or Notre Dame, while first constructed during the Middle Ages, isn’t only or merely a “medieval” building. Churches aren’t static monuments, especially for those faithful who have experienced and continue to experience them as places of daily worship and community. Such churches are living parts of their communities, and they change with the needs and desires of those communities, day to day, decade to decade, century to century. The physical changes wrought by generations of parishoners (and other influences) become embedded in the structure of both the building and the community. They’re not separate. St. Michaels is as much an Early Modern building as a medieval one, as much a Reformation building as a Catholic one; it’s a 19th and 20th century building, and even still, a modern, living part of a community of faith.

Such a reality, I think, has been lost in many responses to the fire that recently damaged Notre Dame. While it’s certainly a monument, and while parts of it date back to the Middle Ages, it’s not only or merely a medieval monument. It has always been, and continues to be, first and foremost, a holy place for a worldwide community of living, breathing people of faith, and the place is part of the life and breath of that community. One doesn’t need to share that same faith–or profess any faith at all–in order to respect the meaning of such a place to those for whom it has always been a place of worship and spiritual significance, in which the very bones of the place, the architecture, its structural mechanics, everything, were designed not only to support the physics of a large structure, but to communicate theological meaning and create a spiritual experience. To many of the artisans and workers who have built and rebuilt the cathedral over nearly 900 years, that work of construction wasn’t merely a job, but also an act of vocation and an expression of devotion. The people through the ages who have built Notre Dame did their work knowing they would never see a “finished” product, because as long as a building remains an active place of worship, it is never “finished.” Never fixed or frozen in time, but always changing, always moving, breathing.

Nor is Notre Dame merely a monument to a single time or a single culture. Buildings like Notre Dame and St. Michaels register within their very structures many different historical periods and cultures. The culture of the Paris of the 12th Century was not the same thing as the culture of Paris in the 16th, or the 19th, or the 21st. As Cord Whitaker has noted, some of the architectural innovations that saved the building from collapsing during the recent fire were the result of contact with, and adoption of engineering innovations from, the Arabic world. There are clear Islamic influences in parts of the cathedral’s design that contribute to its iconic appearance. While there’s not space to enumerate all such connections here (that would take volumes), when one really begins to look at the various components and layers of Notre Dame over time, that process reveals connections all across the (known, at the time) world. As such, Notre Dame isn’t so much a symbol of European or French or “medieval” culture as it is a testament to an amazingly complex, vibrant, and ongoing network of global connections and relationships.

As the living organism that it has always been, Notre Dame has survived damage and tragedy many times before, and will again. It was extensively altered in the 17th century. French revolutionaries ransacked it in 1789, even tearing town the original, 13th century spire. They tried to relabel the cathedral a “Temple of Reason,”

A ceremony of the new Republican Religion of Reason in Notre Dame, Paris, 1793. The effort to destroy the institutions of the Old Regime and create new, rationale, and just replacements was carried into the world of religion and the Church. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy (July 1790) reorganized the Church, introducing such reforms as the election of priests and, more broadly, the subordination of the Church to the Revolutionary Government. During the Convention the attack on the Church went further into de-Christianization. Churches were renamed temples of reason—or de-sanctified—and a new religion of reason was introduced by the Convention.  This “civil religion” was based on the belief in a Supreme Being and secular ethics. This print depicts a ceremony in this new civil religion taking place in the famous cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.  The policy of radical religious change was not popular and sometimes fiercely resisted in small towns and villages.

Notre Dame as a “Temple of Reason” in 1793.

after which it even served, for a time, as a wine warehouse before Napoleon decided it’d make a great backdrop for his coronation as a self-declared emperor. Much of the present-day (pre-fire) appearance of the cathedral dates to massive renovation efforts in the 1840’s, sparked by the popularity of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The wooden spire that was so heartbreakingly engulfed in flames a few days ago was not a medieval, but a 19th century structure.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, fire or no fire, the structure has undergone massive damage from weather, simple aging (when 856 years old you become, look so good you will not, mmm?), and also pollution and vibration from Paris traffic.

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While heartbreaking, the spire engulfed in flames here dates to the 19th century.

In many ways, then, the recent fire is simply a new stage in the history of this living building. It’ll get rebuilt, and the evidence of the fire and the later reconstruction will become yet another layer, another ring, in the physical record of its ongoing life. Any call to restore the cathedral, then, to some kind of “original” condition should be questioned–not the least reason being that “original” doesn’t mean only one thing in the case of Notre Dame. Was the cathedral as it appeared (unfinished) in the 12th century “original?” Yes! Was the cathedral as it appeared during the French Revolution “original?” Yes! Was the cathedral “original” in its post-1840’s manifestation? Yes! The way it appeared two weeks ago was the original Notre Dame. It’s damaged condition in the present is the original Notre Dame. Its appearance in the future will be the original Notre Dame.  As long as it remains part of a living community, its original form will always take place in the present moment.

Living. Global. Holy: awareness of these three qualities, I suggest, are absolutely vital to responding in productive ways to the Notre Dame fire. In the next post, I’ll explain why.

The Thousand Oaks Shooting, Hitler’s Super-Battleship, and Why We Like Big Guns

[Note: Surfingedges has lain fallow for quite a while now, as life has not been kind to the kind of free time that allows for blogging, especially in the essayistic style I’ve been going for most of the time. The problem with that is that, with a blog, you’ve gotta keep “feeding the beast” to maintain an audience, which I’ve never been good at doing. As a way of resurrecting the blog, though, I’m going to give a whirl to a different sort of style–call it “miniblogging” if you like: shorter, more experimental thoughts intended as conversation-starters. So feel free to discuss (in a civil manner, children; I’m not shy about blocking trolls), and let’s see what happens!]fuhrer-bb

So I’m browsing Facebook over my morning coffee ritual, and two posts catch my attention. One is a reference to this article, about a never-built mega-battleship planned by the Third Reich (I’m a military history buff, among my various nerdy pursuits). The other is an article from a super-right wing blog, where someone claiming to have been present at the recent shooting in California argues that the crowd should have been armed (the link is through donotlink, so clicking won’t bring traffic to the site).

What’s the relationship? They’re both about the real reason we like guns.

The mega-battleship would have been almost useless as a weapon platform. It’s primary weaponry was to be eight (eight!) “Gustav” class guns–guns so massive that the land-based versions were mounted and moved around on special railroad cars.

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A railroad-mounted “Gustav”–note the special tracks and wheel arrangements to take the massive weight.

So imagine eight of those mounted on a ship. The ship itself would have been beyond massive. In the drawing above, look at the ship in the upper left-hand corner. That’s the Bismark, Germany’s most feared (and very real) battleship, and a more standard size for the time (though not the largest). The difference in scale is real. The thing is, it would have been so enormous that no power-plant available at the time could have moved it around at anything but a crawl, it would have maneuvered like a brontosaurus in a tar pit, and the rate of fire of those huge guns would have been, at best, a round every five minutes or so (probably much longer), assuming firing one of those enormous guns once wouldn’t have simply flipped the whole ship straight over from the recoil of a single blast. One commenter noted, “Can you imagine loading those guns? They would have fired a salvo and then gone to bed. Adjust fire? Ya sure see you tomorrow.”

Of course, such a huge vessel would also be a thoughtfully easy target for a squadron of British Lancaster bombers.

So why even imagine such an ineffective weapon? (It was never built, of course–not the least because the amount of steel required would have shut down the production of every other steel-requiring object in the Reich.) It begins to make sense when you think less about its viability as a weapon and more about the kinds of emotional responses it would create. It’s designed to function as a symbol as much as, if not more than, an effective seagoing gun platform. It would have been a lumbering elephant in the water, but imagine how it would have looked appearing on the horizon, coming into a port, dwarfing the largest battleships, and the mere sound and spectacle of the fire from one of those massive guns. That battleship isn’t a combat weapon. It’s an emotional one, and no less powerful for that reason. It is designed, like most Nazi propaganda, to give Aryans a sense of racial and military power, and to advertise the implacability of that power to everyone else. The ultimate expression of “mine’s bigger than yours.” Nazi loyalists could revel in the feeling of power-full-ness a sighting of the ship would bring, not to mention the thought of all others quailing at that same sight, in awe and fear of that very same sense of power.

Which brings me to the next article.

It’s a short piece, which you can read via the link above. In short, the writer, who claims to have been in the crowd at the shooting, describes his feelings of powerlessness during the incident and argues that he’d’ve felt safer if he’d had a gun himself.

I can understand the writer’s feeling of powerlessness. I might feel the same under those circumstances. The problem, though, which I see in a lot of pro-gun rhetoric, is that he’s not separating the symbolic function of guns from what guns, in fact, do, and what one can actually do with them. What a gun can do is fling a small bit of metal at deadly velocity. The purpose of a gun is to damage flesh (fatally). There’s not much real utility to a flesh-damaging tool when your object is to defend a crowd of innocent people from a single person firing from afar into the crowd, especially a handgun with limited range and accuracy. So in that case (and I think most others) the reason to carry a gun isn’t really so you can DO anything very effective in terms of defense; it’s more about counteracting the feeling of powerlessness on an emotional level. Of course, that’s the exact same reason the shooter is shooting into the crowd: he feels powerless, and firing a gun into a crowd gives him the emotional payoff of an immense “hit”–not of power in a real sense, but a feeling of power-full-ness, much like the feeling the battleship is designed to create. The psychological payoff, for that shooter, is so strong that it’s worth the certainly of being killed or imprisoned.

The problem with saying “the good people need guns too,” then, is that it uses the same pathological thinking as the shooters themselves. Carrying the a firearm is less about providing real protection as it is about making ourselves feel less powerless.

In Praise of NetHack: Still The Most Imaginative Computer Game

This is the time of year in which I find myself continually reminding my students–not to mention myself–not to neglect self-care, even when there’s only time for small breaks. In that spirit, here’s a “review” of sorts of one of my favorite coffee-break timeouts.6a00d8341bf74053ef01b8d180d728970c-600wi

One of the themes of the “Tech” thread of this blog is that its definition of “tech” is time-agnostic and novelty-agnostic. In other words, it’s that the fact that a technology is new doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s better, and that the fact that a technology is old doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile–and that, in fact, sometimes older technologies can actually work better for certain purposes. In that way, a paper codex (i.e. a “dead tree” book), as the levelling in ebook sales has shown, is still a better technology for reading, in many ways, than digital texts, although those, of course, have their place as well.

So this is a game review, but not of the usual sort. Not a new game, but an old one: Nethack.

For those not familiar with NetHack, it’s a computer game, originally written, in the deep backward and abysm of time (in 1987), for Unix systems. It has the distinction of being the oldest computer game still in continuous development. Think about just that aspect: expert game designers and programmers have been working on this thing, refining and improving it, for that many years. In many ways it’s the ancestor of a lot of more modern games: if you’ve ever played something like Diablo or Torchlight, you’ve engaged with one of NetHack’s direct descendants. More indirectly, it’s the ancestor of the first-person shooter: the original FPS games, like DOOM, were conceived as something like NetHack from a first-person perspective. Nethack also pioneered the idea of an environment wherein all the various elements could be manipulated and combined in many and surprising ways. This deep complexity gave rise to the fan acronym “TDTTOE,” or “The Dev Team Thinks of Everything.” This gives the game an almost infinite playability as the player slowly discovers possibilities upon possibilities, making it, too, a spiritual ancestor of games with fully manipulatble environments like Minecraft.

On its surface, NetHack is a “dungeon crawler” or “roguelike” game. You start out at the top level of an underground “dungeon” with a mission to retrieve a mysterious artifact that lies at its deepest level. To get there, you must pass through many, many levels made up of rooms and tunnels, where you encounter friends and foes, traps and obstacles, puzzles and mysteries. You also have an animal companion who travels with you, can can assist you in many ways (though you have to work to discover many of them).

For me, there are several great things about NetHack:

For one, it puts all its emphasis into depth and imagination. Played in its purest form, NetHack’s “graphics” consist only of ascii characters in a terminal window–no fancy images whatsoever. Like words in a good poem or a Shakespeare play, those ascii characters are simply prods for your own imagination, in which you flesh out the appearance of the dungeon and its denizens. It might seem strange at first to those accustomed to flashy xbox titles, but what one begins to discover as one gets used to playing the game is that there are no better graphics than the ones generated between your ears. NetHack is an adventure that takes place in the playground of your own imagination. And there’s no better place to play.

For another, once you get used to how the gameplay works, the game is incredibly clever. What might, at first, look like a very minimal interface with a very simple goal (get through all the dungeon levels without getting killed), the more one plays the more one discovers that all the energy that modern game developers put into graphics has instead been put into the imaginative and creative aspects of the game-play itself. The entire game is rife with possibility.

A third, less-touted aspect of the game (and my personal favorite) is that it’s very literary. Text shows up everywhere in the game, especially when one “looks” at any creature or item within. It’s also a game that’s very–to use the term my literary colleagues would apply–“intertextual.” That is, it quotes literary texts everywhere. For example, when one encounters a lizard as a “monster” in the game and “looks” at it, instead of some artist’s representation of a fantastical lizard, one gets this:

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

It doesn’t take a lot of literary knowledge to recognize the quotation as one of the incantations of the Three “Weyard Sisters” in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Instead of simply accepting whatever graphical image of a lizard a game designer or artist might throw at him or her, then, the player gets a host of imaginative prompts. As the player imagines his or her way through the images in Shakespeare’s verse (detailing the scariest parts of the scariest creatures), and also, perhaps, realizing the connotations of this scene in Macbeth (the witches cooking up Macbeth’s evil fate), one develops not just a visual image of the lizard but an emotional one as well. The text gives you not only what the creature looks like but how it feels, invoking an entire atmosphere of dread, creepy stings, flicking forked tongues, boiling and bubbling.It’s not that the developers neglected the visual; it’s that they realized from the getgo that the original mechanism for “special effects” is literary language. Poetry. Words that convey not only visual but all other sensory and emotional impressions (find a graphics card that can do that!). That’s the lizard you’re fighting.

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The player (@) looks at a statue in a room of the dungeon (o), yielding an image from C.S. Lewis.

Similarly, when a character finds a wand lying on the dungeon floor, he/she might be confronted with this:

‘Saruman!’ he cried, and his voice grew in power and authority.’Behold, I am not Gandalf the Grey, whom you betrayed. I am Gandalf the White, who has returned from death. You have no colour now, and I cast you from the order and from the Council.’He raised his hand, and spoke slowly in a clear cold voice ‘Saruman, your staff is broken.’ There was a crack, and the staff split asunder in Saruman’s hand, and the head of it fell down at Gandalf’s feet. ‘Go!’ said Gandalf. With a cry Saruman fell back and crawled away.

Now that (with apologies to both Harry Potter and Paul Hogan) is a wand.

So there’s my advertisement for the game. The best graphics you’ve ever seen, because the graphics are literary and emotive as well as simply visual. The more you play, the more you discover.

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In the same room, the player is attacked by  lichen, evoked with a passage from an atmospheric 19th century English romance.

The other nice thing about NetHack is that various developers have ported it to run on everything: your iPhone, your Android phone, your tablet, your PC running Windows, MacOS, Linux, whatever. It’s a tiny program that takes up negligible memory, and runs on even the oldest hardware, but in all other ways its a “bigger” game than anything else you could fit on your phone (it’s the only one I have on mine), because its scope is the scope of your own imagination.

Interested? There’s even more in praise of the game here, and a great Salon article here.

P.S. If you’d like to try NetHack, it is free and open-source software, that comes in many different “flavors.” The most basic version, which I prefer, consists only of ascii characters, but there are other versions that use various sets of more-or-less sophisticated graphics, known as “tiles” to make the game a little easier to navigate and give it more visual appeal.

To download and play Nethack on a PC or Mac, everything you need is available [here]http://www.nethack.org/). This is the main Nethack site, which includes versions for Windows, Linux, and MacOS.

To play Nethack on your tablet or phone, free versions are readily available through the Google Play Store for Android devices, and the Apple App Store for iOS devices.

You can find a handy beginner’s guide to playing Nethack, including basic controls and gameplay, here.

Go forth! The Amulet of Yendor Awaits!

Screenshot_2018-05-12_13-56-28

For those who aren’t used to the ascii interface, various graphical enhancements are available, like this one using simple graphical tiles. Here the player and his dog (Slinky), having tangled with a newt and a jackal,  encounter a potion, a locked treasure chest, and the stairway to a deeper level.

 

The Alt-Right is Hijacking the Middle Ages: Medievalists Aren’t Going to Let Them.

I was as disturbed as anyone tracking the reports of the “Unite the Right” demonstrations in Charlottesville, VA over the weekend. Disturbed by the shouted slogans, the violence, the anger, the typically disturbing imagery of swastikas, confederate flags, and automatic weapons displayed alongside American flags. All that was sickening enough.

But then I noticed something else about the images; something equally–if not more–horrifying. It began as an uncanny sensation; the way it feels to stand in a creepy, abandoned house and still recognize, on some level, the traces of very familiar daily life that remain.

It took a little while for the reality to hit me: I was seeing images and concepts pulled from the area of study to which I’ve dedicated my professional life: the history and culture of the Middle Ages in Europe. The uncanny sensation came from the fact that, for me, encountering symbolism from the Middle Ages is what I do for a living every day, so I was literally reading those symbols in my knee-jerk fashtion as though they were appearing in the contexts in which they normally appear for me, familiar symbols with familiar meanings and connotations, encountered in the course of historical and literary study. The images had become so “normal” to me that the unusual context didn’t register at first, leaving me with a strange “something is off here” sensation that I could not, initially, put my finger on.

Then it hit me: I was reading those medieval images in my usual way, such that they were barely on my radar at first. It had to dawn on me that these were neo-Nazi thugs using these images and symbols in the service of their abhorrent ideology. The awareness of what they were doing grew on me through the course of the weekend, as I continued to study the images, and listened to what many of my fellow medievalist scholars were saying: This is what I study. None of these images and concepts have anything to do with the realities of medieval European history and culture. They are hijacking the Middle Ages.

Then came the next thought:

No.

Oh. No. You. Don’t.

I don’t know how effective I’d be as a counter-protester on the streets of Charlottesville. I’m not a politician. Honestly, I’m pretty much an introvert. But this? This is something I can deal with. If this is a hijacking, it’s one for which I–along with my fellow medievalists–am well equipped to help mount a rescue.

Before I show you a few examples of what I’ve been noticing, as a medievalist, in the Charlottesville images, let me make one point of supreme importance:

The basic idea behind the neo-Nazi appropriation of the European Middle Ages appears to be the appeal to the idea of a “pure white race.” That is, the (entirely false) notion that Europeans in the Middle Ages were white people, that the Middle Ages in Europe represent a kind of “purer” time in which other perceived racial groups had yet to corrupt that purity.

Here’s the key point: There was no such thing as “White People” in the Middle Ages.

The concepts of “whiteness” and “blackness, ” in the ways in which we understand those terms in our present time, place, and culture, simply were not present in the Middle Ages. (This is not to say that the cultural processes by which later forms of racism developed were not underway in the Middle Ages, or that people in the Middle Ages didn’t have other, perfectly effective ways of creating difference and killing one another for it; but it is to say that those terms did not have the associations they do now.)  To talk about “white” culture in Medieval Europe is no less anachronistic than it would be to talk about “fourteenth-century Flemish smartphones,” or “the space stations of Carolingian France.” This alone renders the alt-right idea of a purely “white” medieval Europe absurd from the get-go. Were that not enough, we know from many varieties of evidence (literary, documentary, archaeological) that one traveling through Europe in the Middle Ages would have experienced a wide variety of skin tones, and a wide variety of ancestries from all over the known (at the time) world, including the Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa.

So, white supremacist misappropriations of images and ideas of medieval Europe are precisely that: misappropriations. They have nothing whatever to do with the historical and cultural realities.

Take a look at the following images from the Charlottesville demonstrations. I’ll try to unpack some of the salient features of each:

14SCENE-fader-slide-BKO1-largeHorizontal375

Edu Bayer, New York Times

This particular image has been reproduced and discussed quite a bit. Note the shield, the form of which is reminiscent of Germanic (Norse, Saxon) design. You might have seen Vikings carrying shields like these. The symbol on the shield is called a “Black Eagle.” Traditionally, it’s the symbol of the Holy Roman Empire. Presumably, these white supremacists are thinking of the symbol as something connected with the idea of a “white” pan-European power. However, as several commentators, including Joseph Livingstone at the New Republic have pointed out, and as just about any scholar of the Middle Ages will tell you, this appropriation is more than a little ironic: the symbol was originally that of St. Maurice, an early Christian, and also a soldier in the 3rd Roman Legion, who was martyred for refusing the Emperor’s command to harass a community of Christians. The kicker is that Maurice was Egyptian, and looked like this:

StMaurice

Notice the left-hand shield in this image:

12dyson-master768

Edu Bayer, New York Times

The shape is based on that of the Roman Scutum, the design favored by the Empire’s legions. These groups, apparently, also have a thing about the Roman Empire, seeing it, too, as somehow nostalgic of a purer whiteness. Again, this is odd, since the Empire covered a very great deal of territory, and even most natives of Rome would hardly have been fair-complected. While Caucasian-looking skin was not unheard of in Rome, it was at lease sufficiently unusual that a shipment of fair-skinned slaves from Northern England caught the attention of the 6th century Pope Gregory I. The medieval historian Bede relates that Gregory, upon hearing that the slaves were called Angles (Angli in Latin), remarked that they were “Non Angli, sed Angeli.” Not Angles, but Angels. Clearly fair faces were not the norm in most of the Empire.

The symbol on the shield is even more interesting. It’s a character from a runic alphabet known as the Elder Futharc, a writing system used in Scandinavia in the 2nd-8th centuries or so, and which became the basis for a number of later runic scripts. It’s called an odal or othala rune. Phonetically, it sounds like the English letter “O.” Symbolically, it means something like “heritage” or “inheritance.” A version of the symbol was adopted by a unit of the Nazi SS in World War II, and has been appropriated by the present-day American National Socialist movement, mainly as a sort of less-recognizable (to outsiders) replacement for the swastika, in a sort of euphemistic re-branding. Of course, no ancient Norse person would have had any awareness of him/herself as “white,” and the ideas of heritage and inheritance had much more to do with the idea of the transmission of privileges and property within a family than anything having to do with “heritage” in its (thoroughly modern) nationalistic sense.

This last image is one that’s particularly upsetting to me as a specialist in Scottish history and culture:

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Reuters

The sigil on the two (again, Roman-influenced) left-hand shields is known as the “Black Saltire,” and is the sigil of the Southern Nationalist movement, including, most notably, the League of the South, a group that advocates a second Southern “secession” and the establishment of a new state dominated by what they call an “Anglo-Celtic elite.”

The saltire image is telling. The saltire is also known as the Cross of St. Andrew (one of the original Disciples of Jesus, and the brother of St. Peter). Andrew is, among other things, the patron saint of Scotland, and a white-on-blue saltire is still the national Flag of Scotland. Already there’s some irony here, as both Peter and Andrew, as natives of Bethsaida, in Galilee–and professional fishermen who spent most of their time on the open water–would have had swarthy Middle Eastern (and sun-darkened) complexions.

The shield on the right may be significant as well. While some media outlets have noted that other organizations that use the image of a lion, such as the Detroit Lions, have already denounced the use of the image, both present-day Scots, and anyone with a passion for Scottish history, should be even more horrified. The symbol of the “Rampant Lion” is another important Scottish symbol, none other than the Royal Banner of the Royal Arms of Scotland. In Britain, the use of the image of the Rampant Lion is so

Royal_Banner_of_Scotland.svg

The Royal Banner of the Royal Arms of Scotland (Wikimedia image).

important that its use is highly regulated, by the Court of the Lord Lyon, the body governing the use of heraldry in Scotland, where such a use of the image would be considered illegal (in addition to being simply offensive). It’s been the traditional symbol of Scots royalty since the early 13th century, and, as such representative of a host of ideas, none of which is that of “whiteness.” Its misuse in this context is nothing less than nauseating.

 

It gets worse.

The Scots, as I’ve discovered, are of special importance to American white supremacists. The basic idea stems from a group known as the “Christian Identity” movement, which itself is a derivative of the idea of “British Israelism.” To make a long, tortured story short, the CI movement believes that medieval Celts are, in fact, one of the lost tribes of Israel. According to these groups, present-day Jews and Israelis are essentially impostors, and “Scots-Irish” descendants, in America, of medieval Celts, are really God’s Chosen People, the heirs of the promises made by God to Abraham, and the descendants of those they see as the last “pure white” race.

Of course, this has nothing whatever to do with what we know from the documentary and archaeological records of where the Scots came from. And we most certainly know that even medieval Scots were a very ethnically mixed group, with influences ranging from Celtic and Norse, to Norman, to African (thanks to occupying Roman legions). In fact, for much of the Middle Ages, not even those living in Scotland could agree on who was really a “Scot,” and, especially in the late Middle Ages, the definition often hinged on political allegiances more than anything. The fourteenth-century poet John Barbour, in his poem The Bruce (about the life of King Robert I, 1274-1329), seems to think of Scottishness as exclusively a matter of allegiance to King Robert: Barbour even describes native-born Scots loyal to the English Edward I as “Englis,” and only when they, and even their English-born counterparts, swear allegiance to Robert does Barbour label them”Scottis men,” no matter where they came from.

As both a scholar of medieval Scottish history, literature, and culture–and as an American of Scottish ancestry–I ashamed to see these images and ideas abused in this way, appropriated to stand for things they never, ever meant.

For me (and for just about any medievalist), the Middle Ages don’t appear monolithic in any way, least of all monolithically “white” (as we, in the here and now, understand the term). Medieval Europe was a highly diverse time and place, much more connected to other parts of the world than, I think, most people are aware. One of the reasons for my own interest in the British Isles is that the population thereof in the Middle Ages was one of the most diverse I’ve ever encountered, a complex and vibrant mingling of languages, ethnicities, cultures, conflicts, and ideas. It is out of that diversity, because of that diversity, that the works of literature I love and study emerged.

I’m not sure precisely what combating the evil appropriation of the Middle Ages of the so-called “alt-right” is going to wind up looking like. There have already been some promising statements, such as this one, from groups of scholars of the Middle Ages. But certainly, one strand of our response has to be to find ways to make sure these appropriations fall on the least-fertile ground possible, on the ears of a public sufficiently well-educated about the realities of the Middle Ages to spot the deception. That’s a challenge I’m ready take up.

 

Plain Text Writing Lesson Seven: Markdown Resources and Editors

The first six lessons in my series on plain-text writing should be enough to get anyone–even the least techy–started with a complete plain-text writing workflow, using Gedit, markdown syntax, and Pandoc.

typora

Editing Markdown in Typora, an elegant editor for Linux, Windows, and MacOS

But I’m not done with the series look for more to come on editors, operating systems (and why you should seriously consider Linux), more advanced editing and markup with the amazing text editor emacs and orgmode, keeping a plain-text note system, and even ways to ditch the computer altogether but still take advantage of digital technologies in your writing. Also look for posts on other, more fun things you can do, like creating a whole-house music server with an old laptop, creating a writing computer you can take into direct sunlight using an old netbook and e-ink Kindle, the joys of the command line and terminal, and lots of other geeky fun tailored to the non-computer-geek user and writer. My goal is to make this incredibly useful technology accessible to everyone, especially those who don’t always feel comfortable with the kind of documentation that’s usually found online.

In the meantime, here are a few sets of additional resources: a breakdown of my own series so far, some important general resources for Markdown, and some recommendations for exploring the wide range of editors out there to find the one that’s perfect for how you work.

My Articles:

Here’s a complete index to my complete series so far on plain-text writing:

  • Lesson One: Writing in Plain Text: A Tutorial for the Non-Techy Writer: A general introduction to plain-text and explanation of its potential benefits for writers, especially over and above the traditional word processor.
  • Lesson Two: The Editor: How to download, install, and use a good all-around text editor called “Gedit”
  • Lesson Three: Markdown Elegance: An introduction to using Markdown syntax, geared toward the total beginner.
  • Lesson Four: Pandoc Magic: An introduction to Pandoc, a tool that allows you to convert your plain-text, markdown-enhanced documents to any other file format you want (Word, LibreOffice, PDF, html, etc.)
  • Lesson Five: Detangling Your Footnotes: How to create footnotes within a Markdown document, and why doing so makes them easier to manage than with a traditional word processor.
  • Lesson Six: Citation Wizardry: For the harder-core academics, this lesson covers how to do more complex citation and documentation management, pairing your markdown text with a citation manager such as Zotero, RefWorks, or Endnote. Most importantly, the lesson explains why and how managing citations this way can get rid of a lot of common citation headaches.

Markdown Resources:

  • The definitive resource on Markdown syntax, from its creator. A little more techy than my explanation, but important as the font from which springeth all things Markdown.
  • A very handy Markdown cheatsheet on github. Especially useful for beginners, for reference until you get used to the syntax you use most often (which won’t take long at all), and too keep handy for those times when you need to look up something that you don’t use as often. Put it in a text file you can pull up in your editor, or have a printout on your desk for reference. You’ll find that you don’t really need it after only a few writing sessions.
  • A nice little interactive markdown tutorial: Another very beginner-friendly tutorial that lets you try things out right in the browser as you go. If you’re still nervous about learning Markdown, start here.

Some Good Text Editors

Taste in text editors varies between writers and coders like taste in flavors of ice cream. There are a lot of choices out there, making it worth your while to explore and find one you really like. Some are more general purpose, some more specifically targeted. The general rule of thumb is that the editors that are the most graphical and simplest to use are often one-trick ponies–good for one thing but not much else. Editors that are more versatile and customizable tend to have a steeper learning curve, but the reward for the learning curve is a lot more ability to customize your editor to your particular needs and style of working. I suggest starting with an easy-to-use, simple editor first, but then experimenting with some of the more advanced editors to see what they can offer. I learned both vim and emacs very slowly, just experimenting with each a few minutes at a time, looking around at online documentation, and not worrying about doing anything with them right away. As a result, I’ve discovered ways to enhance my writing process that I’d never imagined.

Here’s a set of links to the editors I’ve found the most useful:

Gedit: I think Gedit offers about the best balance of features, simplicity, and ease of use. Definitely my recommended editor for beginners, and adequate for more advanced markdown users as well. – Also on the “easy but less versatile” spectrum, but also very useful for beginners, are specialized markdown editors that provide features like a dual-pane view that gives you an immediate preview of your markdown.

Typora is one of my favorites, offering live preview, and the ability to convert your markdown to various other document types right onboard. Especially good for those who want to use Markdown but who find the command-line interface of raw Pandoc intimidating.

For Windows users, Markdown Pad is one of more mature go-to-options. It also features a dual-pane view, where you write your markdown on the left side and see a live

markdownpad2

Using the live preview feature in MarkdownPad for Windows.

preview of the result on the right. There are both free and paid versions. The free one is very nice as an editor, and the paid version offers automatic conversion features, among other enhancements.

For those who desire a very distraction-free experience, WriteMonkey is a lean and elegant cross-platform writing app, with versions for Windows, Mac, and Linux alike. WM is designed to give you clean, minimal, full-screen interface, and supports Markdown. While it doesn’t give you a live preview like the previous two, it does feature syntax highlighting, which helps you keep track of your formatting.

Another great condender in this category is FocusWriter, a ‘zenware’ editor that really concentrates on a clean composition experience.

If you need or want to be able to work from anywhere within your browser (working on a borrowed computer, a public computer, or a Chromebook, for instance), I can’t recommend StackEdit highly enough. It gives you a real-time preview, seamless integration with cloud storage services like Dropbox, and–most useful for bloggers–the ability to publish directly from the app to your WordPress account. Stackedit is a chome app that runs in your browser, so you can work from any internet-connected device.

Other editors offer a more technical approach and are oriented toward writers of both code and prose.

My favorite of these is SublimeText. It’s probably the most elegant code and text editor out there, looks fantastic, and is extensible in ways few can imagine. It can provide tons of functionality, there’s a little bit of a learning curve, but it’s not that hard. One

download

Elegant editing in Sublime Text (here in Ubuntu Linux)

drawback is that ST is not technically free software. You can download a fully-functional evaluation copy to use for as long as you like (it’ll remind you occasionally about buying a license), but if you decide it’s the right editor for you and use it a lot, do the honest thing and pony up the (expensive but well-worth-it) $70 license.

For windows users, another contender in this category is the venerable Notepad ++, which has been a mainstay of coders and writers alike for many years.

A newer player in this category of editors is Atom, and is probably the best-looking editor in this list. It has similar functionality and complexity to Sublime Text, but is free and open-source, which makes it a preferable options for many. Like Sublime Text, it’s primarily geared toward coders, but has extensions that make it quite nice for writing if you’re willing to deal with a bit of a learning curve.

The Hardcore Options: Vim and Emacs

One thing I’ve learned about software since learning to program my first-ever computer (a Commodore 64!) in junior high: it’s always a trade-off. The easier an app is to use, the less versatile and powerful it will be. The higher the learning curve, the more powerful the app, and the more customizable to your own experience. The question to ask yourself is this: Do I want to work the way someone else thinks I should work, or do I want to work the way I want to work? If the answer is the latter, you owe it to yourself to look into one of the editors that takes a little while longer to learn, but gives you undreamed-of control, flexibility, customizability (is that a word?), and speed. There are really two major editors that fall into this category. While I started out with several of the editors listed above, I have to admit that these two have become my favorites, and my go-to editors for almost everything. They take a little more time and effort to learn–but once you learn them, wow–gangbusters! Each will get a post of its own here, but for the being short descriptions will have to suffice:

Vim is actually one of the oldest pieces of software still in continuous development, initially developed as an editor for the Commodore Amiga in the late 1980’s. It’s come a long way since then, but it’s a powerhouse that many coders and writers alike still swear by. It’s an app that runs without a GUI (that is, a “graphical user interface,”although there are GUI versions available), which means that it runs, regardless of platform, in a

VIM

Minimalist and lighting fast, but still powerful: Vim running on my desktop.

terminal window. One advantage of this is that it makes Vim the most blazingly fast editor on this list. Up and running in a keystroke. Its interface is keyboard-oriented, which means you never reach for the mouse, keeping your mind and hands on your writing. It doesn’t look like much, but the advantage is that it gets the heck out of your way and lets you compose and navigate easily through even long, complex documents. There’s a great beginner’s tutorial here if you’re interested in getting started. Look for a post from me on customizing it for writing.

Emacs is the other biggie in this category. Like vim, there’s a steeper learning curve associated with emacs, but I can tell you this: when I finally committed myself to learning emacs and discovering what it could really do, my reaction was “where have you been all my life?” I’m a little angry with computer scientists and programmers, truth be told, because they’ve been keeping all the best writing tools for themselves without letting

spacemacs

This blog post in Spacemacs, a variant of Emacs.

we writers know about them! Emacs definitely has a learning curve, but, in conjunction with a plugin called orgmode, it is hands down the most powerful tool for both note-taking and composition I’ve ever found. In fact, I wrote this post in a variant of Emacs called Spacemacs. I’m going to dedicate a whole series to Emacs later on, but, for now, there’s a good introduction for beginners here.

That’s it for now–have fun playing with the various editors and discovering more. And, as always, happy writing!

Plain-Text Writing Lesson Six: Citation Wizardry

Note: if you’re new to this series or to plain-text writing in general, please refer to Lesson One of this series to get started.

libraryAs I mentioned in the previous lesson, one of the biggest pains for me in academic writing is dealing with what happens to footnotes and citations in Word documents over the course of my writing process. Every piece I write goes through many stages of life: it starts as random jottings, becomes a general “idea draft,” then becomes a conference paper or a blog post, then an article or chapter, then a presentation, etc. Each of these versions goes through several revisions and I don’t know how much editing and refining. This means that citations get dropped, added and moved around; whole sections of one version get cut and pasted into another, sections get moved around, etc. And, of course, as I adapt a certain course of research to various publications and audiences, the style and formatting of the citations changes: one venue wants Chicago style footnotes, one wants endnotes, one wants MLA, ad nauseam.

One of the main issues that drew me to a plain-text workflow was what kept happening to my footnotes in word processors (Word and LibreOffice, for the most part), as my writing went through all these convolutions: it seemed that every time I moved things around or changed formatting, something would get messed up. When I converted from footnotes to endnotes or back again, the process never seemed to work as advertised, and I’d spend hours cleaning up formatting and manually fixing citations, even when using a citation manager like EndNote or Zotero (and sometimes because of the ways in which auto-inserted citations can get screwy when edited manually). If I needed to change style from MLA or Chicago or back, I’d wind up needing to go through an entire document and redo all the notes from scratch. All of this is not to mention the “cascade” effect, which I suspect you’ve experienced, of changing something in one note only to somehow throw off the formatting of the rest of them, or having note formatting fail to behave as expected, or even having notes change position or show up in the wrong place. There’s nothing more frustrating than pushing a deadline for an article only to find one’s self wrangling unruly citations.

There’s a better way.

Enter Pandoc once again, with some special extensions.

As with other elements of markdown writing, the idea here is that you insert citations as plain text right in line with the rest of your plain-text document. This means, for one thing, that citations always stay where they’re supposed to, even when you’re moving blocks of text around. The actual formatting of citations into different documentation and note styles (in-text citations, footnotes, endnotes, MLA, Chicago, APA, etc.) is something that only happens after your document is finished and ready to be prepared for publication. Just as you can transform any markdown document, via pandoc, into any digital format (Word, PDF, html, etc.), you can convert the plain-text, inline citations in any markdown document into any desired documentation style, without changing the original text. If you output to Word format at one point and then, say, make major edits and move sections around in your original plain-text document, you simply convert the plain-text document again and everything stays where it should and looks like it should with very little, if any, fuss.

Making this work might seem a little bit complicated at first, but I’ll try to detangle the process for you here. It’s really quite quick and efficient once you get the concept.

One thing I’ll assume in this post is that you’re already familiar with or using a citation manager such as Endnote, Zotero, or Refworks (I prefer Zotero). If you’re not, you’re really missing out on a handy tool, so I’d certainly recommend doing a little research and installing a citation manager that works for you. Zotero is clean, effective, versatile, as well as free and open-source, which is why it’s my manager of choice. In what follows, I’ll demonstrate the process with instructions for Zotero where needed, but everything I do with Zotero should be easily adaptable to the citation manager of your choice.

Step One: Enhance the Magic Wand:

To make citations work with pandoc, you need one additional tool, an extension to pandoc called pandoc-citeproc.

In any Debian-based version of linux, you can install this simply be opening a terminal and typing:

sudo apt-get install pandoc-citeproc

If you already installed pandoc in Windows, you should already have the pandoc-citeproc package, since it’s included in the Windows MSI installer, which you can find here.

Step Two: Gather the Elements:

In order to fully process citations in markdown, you need three elements:

  1. A bibliography file in bibtex format that will live in the same directory as your main markdown document. This is the file from which pandoc will draw the actual bibliographic data.
  2. Your markdown document itself, with correctly formatted citation placeholders (concerning which more below).
  3. A .csl file containing the formatting information for whatever documentation style you need or prefer.

Let’s set up these elements one by one:

A Bibliography File in Bibtex Format

This is quite easy to do. Assuming you’ve been keeping your bibliographic data in your citation manager, all citation managers have the ability to export a collection of citations into Bibtex format. In the case of Zotero, the procedure is:

  1. Open your Zotero app
  2. Right-click on the collection you want to export and select “Export Collection”
  3. In the ensuing dialog box, select “Bibtex” as your format, and click OK
  4. Specify a location for your bibliography file–this should be the same folder in which your draft document resides.
  5. Name the file whatever you like, and make sure it has a “.bib” extension.

This file will simply live alongside your text file in the same folder, so the citation information it needs is always handy. If, in the source of revising, you wind up adding sources to the original collection in your citation manager, simply delete the old .bib file and re-export the updated collection.

Format Your Citations As You Write and Revise

Dropping in-line citations into your document as you go could not be easier. Start by opening up your exported Bibtex file. As with the other components of this process, it’s also essentially a plain-text file, with no hidden formatting. You’ll see that each of your bibliography items is recorded as a record with several fields, like this:

 @book{gransden_historical_1974,
    location = {Ithaca, N.Y.},
    title = {Historical writing in England},
    isbn = {0-8014-0770-2 978-0-8014-0770-3 0-8014-1264-1 978-0-8014-1264-6},
    number = {Book, Whole},
    publisher = {Cornell University Press},
    author = {Gransden, Antonia},
    date = {1974},
    keywords = {chronicle, laercost}
}

You see that the record starts with an indication of the type of source (book, article, etc.). The next piece of information in each record is the most important for our purposes, the one that reads grandsen_historical_1974. This is called the citekey for this record–the unique ID that allows pandoc to differentiate it from every other record in the file. Dropping a citation into your document is very straightforward:

  1. Open a square bracket: [
  2. Type an @ symbol followed by the desired citekey
  3. Add any needed text or page numbers before and after the citekey.
  4. Close the bracket.

So, a normal citation would look like this:

Here is a brilliant sentence that requires a citation.[@grandsen_historical_1974]

That’s it. That citekey will follow that sentence wherever it goes.

If you want to add other information, such as discursive text, page numbers, etc., just add that text where you need it. Separate the page numbers from the citekey with a comma:

Here is a brilliant sentence that requires a citation.[If you need some discursive text, just add it inside the brackets before the citekey. See @grandsen_historical_1974, pp. 147-52]

If you need to include more than one citation, separate the citekeys with semicolons:

Here is a brilliant sentence that requires a citation.[Some discursive text. See @grandsen_historical_1974, pp. 7-9; also @anzaldua_borderlands:_2007, pp. 153-8]

Easy, yes? Once again, these citation placeholders will follow your text no matter what you do with it, just like any other kind of markdown formatting.

Grab The .csl File For Your Documentation Style

This might seem a little tricky at first, but it isn’t. The .csl file is simply a file that contains all the instructions for how final citations should be formatted according to a particular style (Chicago, APA, etc.). You can get a pre-made .csl file for most documentation styles from the Zotero Style Repository here. Simply find the style you want, click the link, and download the file into the same directory as your main text file and your bibtex file.

And Now, the Magic: Creating Fully-Cited Documents With One Swish:

Okay, now that we’ve got all the materials together, it’s time to tell Pandoc to do its thing. Let’s start with a sample markdown document with some citation placeholders included:

MD_Citations

 

Now we just need to tell Pandoc to put all the pieces together. At this point we should have three files in our document directory: Our text file, the .csl file for our chosen documentation style (I normally need the Chicago Full-Note and Bibliography style, so I’ve downloaded that one for this example), and the bibtex file containing our references, like so:

MyDocument.md
MyBibtexFile.bib
chicago-fullnote-bibliography.csl

Here comes Pandoc. Fire up a terminal and type:

pandoc MyDocument.md -s -S --bibliography MyBibtexFile.bib --filter pandoc-citeproc --csl chicago-fullnote-bibliography.csl -o MyFormattedDocument.odt

Let’s break down what each part of the command is doing:

  • pandoc simply invokes the pandoc app.
  • MyDocument.md tells pandoc which markdown document to process
  • -s -S These two tags tell pandoc to create a standalone document file, and to use smart quotes, respectively
  • --bibliography MyBibtexFile.bib Points pandoc to your bibliography file.
  • --filter pandoc-citeproc tells pandoc to use the pansdoc-citeproc tool to process your citation placeholders
  • --csl chicago-fullnote-bibliography.csl tells pandoc to format your citations according to the information in the chicago fullnote bibliography csl file, and points it to that file.
  • -o MyFormattedDocument.odt tells pandoc to output to an .odt (LibreOffice, OpenOffice) file named “MyFormattedDocument.odt” If you want a different file type, just change the extension (.docx for Word, .pdf for Portable Document Format, etc.)

And here’s the reveal, your fully formatted document:

Screenshot_Chicago

But let’s say (alas!) one publisher turns down that manuscript. You want to submit it elsewhere, but the new journal to which you’re submitting requires MLA rather than Chicago style. No problem–and no need to do anything with my original text document. I simply download the MLA 8th edition .csl file from the Zotero Style Repository, and change the pandoc command to use that stye:

pandoc MyDocument.md -s -S --bibliography MyBibtexFile.bib --filter pandoc-citeproc --csl modern-language-association-8th-edition.csl -o MyFormattedDocument_MLA.odt

And my output looks like:

Screenshot_MLA

There it is! While this tutorial takes a little longer to explain the process than some of the others, I hope it’s apparent how easy and muss-free this can be if you set it up as your workflow from the beginning. As always, I’m glad to field questions about the process. Happy writing!

Prologue: White Supremacism, Scottish Identity, and the Declaration of Arbroath

I Am An Immigrant

There are few places in the world where I feel more rooted and at home than in my

Samuelson's_Confectionery

Samuelson’s Confectionary on Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis. Note the bilingual signage. 

“native” Minnesota. Even here, though, in my birthplace, I use the term “native” with great caution, almost irony: one can really only call oneself a “native” of this place if one is Dakota or Ojibwa. For the rest of us, the question is not whether we are immigrants, but only how many generations we need trace backward to the movement that made us immigrants.

Minneapolis is a city of immigrants, and always has been. In my own case, it was my great-grandparents’ generation who were the invandrara, from Sweden. Some started rural farms. Others ultimately settled in an area around Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis–referred to in those days as “Snoose Boulevard”–a district of recent immigrants, where Swedish was commonly spoken on the streets, where there were Swedish-language newspapers and theaters (as a colleague pointed out to me, the sign on the lower-left of the above image actually says something like “All Swedish language newspapers sold here”). My father remembers his early downtown-Minneapolis church where his grandparents’ generation still worshipped in Swedish-language services. Swedes in Minnesota in that era did not assimilate quickly, and made a point of maintaining dual loyalties–as naturalized Americans on the one hand, but as people still proud of their language and culture of origin on the other. This drew the usual prejudices that large groups of immigrants draw in any place and era. Echoes of the image of the “dumb Swede”, smelling of pickled herring, persist in present-day representations like Fargo and the lighthearted self-deprecations (read: Sven and Ole jokes) of we third-generation Minnesotans.

It might be surprising to some that Swedish-Americans, like many other European immigrants, and despite many generations of melanin-depriving Northern European climes, were not always initially accepted as “white people” in the germanic/Anglo-Saxon sense of the term: “whiteness,” of course, has never been a category based on biology, but a cultural construct made of many components. Being “white” meant being accepted as a certain kind of “us,” and Swedish immigrants were still initially regarded as a “them,” unqualified for (full) participation in the privilege of whiteness, regardless of skin tone. (This is not to suggest, of course, that Swedish immigrants were in any sense equally as oppressed as those of African origin who were violently captured and taken to the U.S. as slaves. My point here is about the ways in which “whiteness” is a cultural idea that is much more complex, such that pale skin per se did not automatically confer full access to that category.) First-generation Swedish immigrants were a community, in many ways, of “others” holding on to dual identities. By the 1930’s, less of that Swedish-language culture remained in the area, as Minnesotans of Swedish descent slowly became the cultural insiders rather than the outsiders, thus gaining the cultural status of “whites.” But they also held on to components of their Swedishness that had become unique to immigrant culture: I grew up with “Swedish” words and dishes that are incomprehensible to present-day Swedes. And the cycles of immigrations continue: The area around Cedar Avenue where they lived out those dual identities is still a place of immigrants who negotiate similar opportunities, problems, and stereotypes, the sounds of Swedish and German supplanted by those of Somali, Hmong, and Spanish (among others).

So I am an immigrant from a city of immigrants. My Swedish great-grandparents were the products yet another, earlier, emigration: from Scotland. They were, in some ways, refugees, fleeing famine in Scotland by signing up for service in mercenary regiments that fought for Gustavus Adolphus during the Thirty Years War, and who, paid with land in Sweden by a cash-poor Gustavus, settled there. Members of the Scottish Family of Bruce, in turn, were also transplant: not a “clan” of indigenous Celts but a family of Anglo-Normans given land in Scotland by William the Conqueror after 1066. Those Normans, as the name indicates, were themselves immigrants: Norse Vikings who had settled on the continent. And back the line goes, in an endless cycle of removes, emigrations, and ever-changing ethnicities.

In the argument that follows, I’m going to speak from a particular position of identity and ethnicity: as a white, male, protestant of (in part) Scottish descent, who is both intensely interested in and proud of that Scottish component of my own heritage. I offer the foregoing personal history, as an immigrant at several removes, to try to lay bare, at the outset, the ethnic, cultural, and historical complexity–not to mention the artificiality–of what might at first seem a simple kind of identification. I am not a “white person” because of some kind of traceable genetic reality. The very concept of “whiteness” to which that previous statement refers would have been available to my great-grandparents’ generation. It might possibly (in an earlier, less-defined form) have been available to the seventeenth-century generation that emigrated from Scotland to Sweden (though certainly religious difference mattered more to them than matters of ethnicity or skin color). But that concept was certainly not available to the generation that emigrated from Normandy to Scotland, and all those generations that came before it. That “whiteness,” just like its companion terms such as “blackness” or “brownness”, is a product of culture and history, not of biology. This does not mean that such concepts are not real in the sense that they don’t have real effects on real people–they most certainly do. But it does mean that they are concepts that have been imagined into existence and not hardwired into human biology. When I claim identities like “Swedish-American” or “Scottish-American,” I want to recognise those things as important contributors to who I am, but I also want to recognise the degree to which they are artificial, and the ways in which such identifications can gloss over much more complex and significant realities. I also want to acknowledge the history that has created the present-day sense of those two ethnicities as “white” ones rather than something else, and the history of cultural and actual violence against those who didn’t fall into that category.

All of which is preamble to this: In the few posts that follow, I’m going to address what I think is an egregious–even evil–appropriation of something I value highly: that Scottish component of my own identity and ancestry. I’m going to focus on a particular component of that history, a fourteenth-century Scottish baronial letter to Pope John XXII known as the “Declaration of Arbroath.” I’ve worked on this document extensively as a student of medieval Scottish literature and culture, and became aware some time ago that there were white supremacist groups in the United States that printed and sold their own translations thereof, but I hadn’t looked into the matter deeply. Over the past few weeks, I have been doing just that, attempting to trace the history, sources, and reasons behind such a strange (mis)appropriation. The more I’ve delved into the matter, the more chilling the findings have become, uncovering traceable links from white-supremacist extremists to much more mainstream rhetoric, both about the Declaration and about Scottish and Celtic identities in general. This is why, for one thing, I’ve decided to publish the results of this work as a series of blog posts rather than as an academic paper: this information needs to be more widely accessible than a piece in a journal of which only scholarly specialists are aware.

Before I do, however, I want to make one additional prefacing point: I have been active, over the past decade or so, with several American organizations that bring together people of many different ethnicities and walks of life around a shared interest in Scottish history and culture. One, Family of Bruce International, is an organization that connects persons of that surname (or with interest therein) around the world. The other, The Minnesota Coalition of Scottish Clans, focuses on similarly bringing together “every Minnesotan who is Scottish by birth, by heritage, or by inclination.” Before I launch into a series about the appropriation of Scottish and Celtic identities by white supremacists, I want to acknowledge that I have not experienced any trace of the phenomena I’m about to discuss within them. These are organizations dedicated to the positive celebration of a culture and history and are not exclusive to those with some kind of imaginary “white” pedigree. They include diverse faces, skin tones, and origins. The people I have met, and with whom I’ve worked, played, and even shared my research, are a diverse crowd, and I’ve never experienced prejudiced attitudes. On the contrary, what I’ve witnessed has been an openness to anyone, from any background, who is interested in the history and culture of Scotland.

I mention this because I want, at the outset, to make a distinction between the downright evil appropriation of the ideas of “Celticness” or “Scottishness” for the purpose of naturalizing a false idea of a “pure white” biology and the positive celebration of interest in a fascinating set of cultures, histories, and individuals. A fondness for kilts and bagpipes does not a white supremacist make. At the same time, as I will argue, the fact that such American organisations can sometimes focus overmuch on stereopically “Scottish” phenomena (the kilts and bagpipes, haggis, etc.)–to the exclusion of a broader view of both historical and contemporary Scottish culture–may be part of what has left the ideas of “Scottishness” and “Celticness” strangely open to spurious white supremacist appropriations of those categories. In other words, I do fear that we of the Scottish American community may in some ways have (for the most part inadvertently) made American cultural ground more fertile for the extreme-right-wing hijacking of Scottishness.

In fact, one of my reasons for publishing this work in a more public space is to warn my colleagues in those organizations that such appropriations are taking place, and are–quite disturbingly–more prevalent than I had ever imagined. FOBI and MSCSC have long promoted historical and cultural accuracy and made specific efforts to counter destructive mythologies about the cultures and histories they hold dear. They are also effective vehicles for disseminating more accurate and balanced ideas to a broader public. I know that they will remain at the forefront of those efforts, and suspect there are ways we can do even more.