Growing up soaking up PBS
like a happy little sponge, and fostering an ever-present interest in ancient archaeology, I have a particular soft spot for books and documentaries by Michael Wood.
In Search Of The Trojan War was one of my favorite miniseries growing up, and I've always been disappointed that I somehow managed to miss seeing Legacy: The Origins of Civilization. Many of those shows have companion books, and Michael Wood has written books not associated with his television productions. I have a hardbound copy of this version
of Legacy, and there's a paperback version
that's still in print. They're both available used online.
I can't seem to find DVD or VHS versions for the home viewing market, but Legacy is available on VHS for public viewing
, though that of course makes it expensive, $500. And I see that DVD for public viewing
will be available in June 2003... for $300. *sigh*
Another of Wood's recent series is already available on home VHS and in book form: In The Footsteps of Alexander the Great
. Unfortunately PBS doesn't seem to be ahead of the curve on offering their shows on DVD. Perhaps I'll get the book and wait for the DVDs to come out...
Why am I blathering about all of this today, you ask, especially at such length? Well, I awoke in the wee hours of the morning and couldn't get ancient Babylon out of my mind. Yes, this is normal; it happens from time to time, though it's sometimes ancient Sumer, Akkadian city-state warfare or mythology, Neo-Babylonian culture, the Hittites... but I've been trying not to think too much about any of this because of recent events in Iraq.
Seriously, that sand is so bloodsoaked that it's difficult to be optimistic about our species sometimes. We've been battling over the same piece of roasted desert for over five thousand years... that's at least a hundred and fifty generations. And that's just since we settled in city-communities from the marshlands of southern Iraq... and much of what is now desert did not used to be so. Civilization, literally meaning the settling of humankind into cities, has always damaged the surrounding environment, and has always included warfare. Until we maintain family-unit dwellings in cities which are net-zero impact on the environment, and until we learn to get along with our neighbors both near and far, those patterns are not going to change.
I also read an article yesterday on Slate
that got me thinking... seven ways to reduce ethnic and religious tension in Iraq
I highly recommend reading Legacy, especially the chapter about Sumer and the chapter about the barbarians of the West. Wood denigrates the idea of sovereign nation-states, which differs from my own opinion, but otherwise the trends he draws attention to in the book are quite profound.
As a side note: I don't trust world-scale government. I feel that government, even representative government, as removed from its constituency as my own California state and US national governments are, is significantly out of touch with reality and this can lead to both dangerous governmental behavior and lack of accountability.
But back to Legacy... I took Western Civ in high school. I took world history in middle school. And I learned some mythology in elementary school. I grew up steeped in Midwest American Protestantism and Catholicism. And still I have the deep-in-the-gut impression that civilization and rationality flowered most brilliantly in my cultural heritage in Classical Greece, or perhaps in the Enlightenment...
*buzzzt* Wrong. Those were important steps along the way, but did not exist in a vacuum. They were firmly tied to their own cultural heritage, and most of that came from outside Europe.
I think I'm going to end up typing a brief history of Western Civilization here in the next few days, just to try to keep everything straight in my mind... because there's a traceable path from Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq through the ancient cultures and ethno-religious traditions of the Middle East and through the Greek and Roman cultures of the Classical period straight through to modern times.
And unless I regularly feed my thirst for ancient history, I tend to forget that those influences exist. For some reason, the idea doesn't stick.
It's far easier, far cleaner, to assume that the flower of Western (yes, you can read that as American if you like, most Americans do) culture has strong stems in Rome, and broad, clean leaves in Classical Greece, with its toga-clad philosophers and playwrights and gleaming architectures... and that our culture's roots are so obscure that either no one knows about them or they are so old that all reliable records have been destroyed or lost to time. We're willing to own up to our Roman, Greek, and even Egyptian interests and influences... check out the
Washington Monument, or the
Lincoln Memorial, or the
Our roots aren't that hidden. Our influences go deeper than we want to acknowledge, and we are simply another step along the path humanity is walking. And our school systems need to be teaching that.
Another idea that wouldn't leave me alone this morning is tied in with the nation-state sovereignty issue. The global economy, if free trade is allowed, will self-select for specialization... countries will use their resources (both material and human) to produce and export goods and services if they can do those specific things priced competitively, or they will be forced to import those goods or services. National governments may try to place trade barriers on items going in or coming out, to try to tune what their countries produce and import, and that is both a good and a bad thing (that's probably fodder for a whole separate essay!). The exchange of ideas, however, really does need to be free. Without the free trade of ideas, I personally think we'll all be in big, big trouble.
That said, there's an interesting line in Douglas Adams
' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy about the babel fish... communication without civility or tolerance will also probably lead humanity to disaster.
I've always enjoyed the BBC's production
of the book, and have it on DVD.The Babel Fish is small, yellow and leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own carrier but from those around it.
The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel Fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. The speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has been fed into your mind by your Babel Fish. Meanwhile, the poor Babel Fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.
And no, my brain's gears aren't really slowing down much today. That's helped me get work done this morning, and hopefully the trend will continue this afternoon, as I have a bunch of documentation to type up. If it's still churning away tonight I may do that brief history entry tonight... and cling to optimism rather than pessimism about our species and our world.Don't panic!