Orobpa, Qoqzaz… Is the “ISIS map” for real?

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No one has been able to give a source for this map. It just “appeared on the Internet” as a map of the “Islamic State” envisioned by the eponymous rebel army that has taken over cities in Syria and Iraq. Is this map for real?

So many people have reposted it (including some so-called news sites), yet none of them know where it originated. So let me share what I can about the unfamiliar names the map gives for regions of a supposed Islamic State.

Several of the names don’t make sense, while others are misspelled. The map boundaries also suggest that the mapmaker is unfamiliar with the geography of Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. These facts make it unlikely that the map represents anything authentic. More likely, it was made to generate fear, either by an armchair ISIS supporter (like this guy) or by an Islamophobe (like these people).

Here are the names of the regions on the map, in alphabetical order:

  • Anathol is probably meant to be the Arabic form of Anatolia, the region that roughly corresponds to modern Turkey. A more convincing name choice would be Rūm, the name the Seljuk Turks used when they established a sultanate there in the 11th century. Rūm is Arabic for “Rome,” referring to what we call the Byzantine Empire. (The “Byzantines” called themselves Romans, so the Arabs extended them the same courtesy. The name of the Muslim poet Rumi means “the Roman,” because he was born in Anatolia.) Whoever came up with this map probably has not read the Qur’an, which devotes a chapter to “Rūm.” The Qur’an never mentions “Anathol.”
  • Andalus is the Arabic name for the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal), much of which was under Muslim rule for centuries, from 711 to 1492. The Spanish region of Andalusia gets its name from the Arabic. But Muslims never ruled all of Iberia, as this map pretends.
  • Hijaz (Arabic: الحجاز‎ al-Ḥiǧāz, literally “the barrier”) really is the historic name for the western coast of Arabia, on the Red Sea. This is the homeland of Muhammad and the location of Mecca and Medina. This map, though, extends “Hijaz” all the way across the peninsula to the marshy east coast on the Persian Gulf. This is sort of like including California in the American Midwest. It suggests profound ignorance of the actual geography and history.
  • Iraq (Arabic: العراق‎ al-‘Irāq) is of course a familiar Arabic name, roughly corresponding to the Greek name Mesopotamia. Iraq is a very old name in Arabic, older than the Arab conquest in the 800s. The boundary between “Sham” and “Iraq” on this map is arbitrary and ahistorical.1
  • Khurasan (more commonly spelled Khorasan) is a very old, pre-Islamic name for the eastern reaches of the Persian Empire. On this map it is used to take in the majority-Muslim countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the five post-Soviet republics in central Asia, each of which have their own distinctive languages and cultures. Bizarrely, the map also shoves India, the world’s second largest country, into “Khurasan,” but it fails to include neighboring Bangladesh. India is less than 14 percent Muslim; Bangladesh, more than 86 percent Muslim. Whoever made the map apparently doesn’t know that.
  • Kordistan is a misspelling of Kurdistan. it is supposed to correspond to the territory within present-day Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran that is occupied mainly by ethnic Kurds. Considering how diligent the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds have been in fighting against ISIS, it seems unlikely that Kurds would be rewarded with their own contiguous state. That suggests that this map did not originate within ISIS.
  • Land of Alkinana: OK, I’m stumped. This area includes Egypt, which is Misr in Arabic (pronounced Masr in the Egyptian dialect). Alkinana seems to come from the name of an Arabian tribe (Banu Kinanah) that claims descent from the prophet Elijah. But I could not find any link between any version of the name “(al-)Kinana,” on the one hand, and Egypt or northeast Africa, on the other.
  • Land of Habasha: “Habasha” comes from an old Arabic name for the Ethiopian Highlands. It is a mountainous region containing some of the highest peaks on the continent of Africa, and (contrary to this map) it lies entirely within the boundaries of the country of Ethiopia. Considering the ruggedness of the terrain and the facts that Ethiopia is both a Christian nation and the oldest independent state in Africa, it is ludicrous to include this territory in an ISIS fantasy league. The map also fails to distinguish the overwhelmingly Muslim east coast of Africa from the mostly non-Muslim interior of north central Africa. Besides, it is simply ignorant to extend the “Land of Habasha” all the way across the waist of Africa to the Atlantic coast.2
  • Maghreb (Arabic: المغرب‎, al-maġrib) means “sunset, west” and is the name of the country we call Morocco. This map projects that name over all of West Africa, ignoring other historic Muslim names for those regions. “Maghreb” properly refers only to the (northern) Mediterranean coastal region of West Africa, where Arabs and Berbers form the majority. The western Atlantic coast is Mauritania, not Maghreb. The interior, of course, is mostly uninhabitable desert. Sahel is the Arabic-derived name for the arid but habitable zone south of the Sahara. And once again, it is absurd to include the densely populated, mostly non-Muslim southern coastline of West Africa in an “Islamic” domain.
  • Orobpa is an apparently meaningless name, applied here to the Balkan region of Europe. I could find no references to “Orobpa” that were not simply lists of the names on this map. As there is no “P” consonant in Arabic, this name can’t even be spelled in standard Arabic script.3
  • Qoqzaz is a misspelling of Qoqaz (Arabic: قوقاز), the Arabic name for the Caucasus. This region is divided between Russia and several smaller countries, and the Russian portion includes ethnically distinct Muslim minorities. The most significant of these are the Chechens. Americans may recognize Chechnya as the homeland of the Tsarnaev family whose two sons detonated bombs at the Boston Marathon in April 2013. Most of the Russian nationals who have gone to join ISIS or its allies are believed to be Chechen. So presumably an authentic “ISIS map” would spell “Qoqaz” correctly.4
  • Sham is the Arabic name that corresponds with “Levant” or “Orient” (in the older sense) in English. All three terms mean “the East” or “where the sun rises.” The boundary between Sham and Iraq on this map is arbitrary and ahistorical. We’re probably meant to notice that the State of Israel is absorbed into “Sham.”
  • Finally there’s Yaman (or Yemen) in southern Arabia. It’s anyone’s guess why Yemen gets its own domain while other Arab states — say, Oman — do not. Possibly it’s because Yemen often makes the headlines these days because of civil war, terrorist bombings, and U.S. drone strikes, so it’s considerably scarier than Oman.

Verdict

It’s hard to overstate how silly this “ISIS map” is. I believe it relies on Americans’ (and others’) unfamiliarity with world geography and Islamic history to push across some absurd ideas.

Let me make a comparison with the United States. Imagine a map that took in the entire South, from the Chesapeake Bay to the Texas shore of the Gulf of Mexico. The name of that vast territory is “the Land of Smokey Mountains.” That’s how this map’s “Land of Habasha” seems in its African context.

Now draw a crude boundary around the northeastern states. Heck, throw a bunch of Canada in there as well. This territory is called, oh, I don’t know, “Narnia.” Welcome to the “Land of Alkinana” in northeast Africa.

By now the mapmaker’s ignorance of basic facts (or indifference to them) should be obvious. I’ll also accuse him (I assume it’s a guy) of laziness. Besides misspelling several of the names on the map, he didn’t even draw a boundary line between “Qoqzaz” and “Khurasan.”

Apparently he ran out of ideas for names, too, because he forgot to name the remnant of Iran on the north shore of the Persian Gulf. That probably also explains why he crammed so many large countries under the heading “Khurasan.” He was out of ideas.

So who made it?

If ISIS didn’t produce this map, who did? I can’t tell, but certain features of the map suggest a partial answer.

Notice how different text labels on the map are in different sizes. There’s no particular reason why HIJAZ, for example, should be printed four times larger than IRAQ.

Notice, too, how four text labels (Andalus, Anathol, Yaman, The Land of Alkinana) are attached to their regions by rays with a dot at one end. Is there any reason why “Andalus” has to be stuck far out in the Atlantic? Or why “The Land of Alkinana” has to be printed over the Indian Ocean rather than fitted into its region of the map?

I’ve noticed these weird map practices before, and I don’t think they’re accidental. I believe they are meant to give the map a more chaotic, complicated, hence intimidating appearance.

Steven Emerson (a once-reputable journalist and researcher who has swapped his objectivity for lucrative fear-mongering against Muslims) has displayed similar maps when making his case that America is crawling with potential suicide bombers. I have an example that was shown to a Senate subcommittee back in 1998.

Style before substance: This map accompanied Steven Emerson's "scary Muslims" testimony before a Senate subcommittee (Feb 1998).
Style before substance: This map accompanied Steven Emerson’s “scary Muslims” testimony before a Senate subcommittee (Feb 1998).

And here’s a close-up:

senate-scare-map-detail

Notice the varying font sizes. The way the three alleged “Muslim Brotherhood” outposts in Cleveland, Columbus, and Indianapolis are labeled haphazardly. The two “Muslim Brotherhood” text labels seem to compete for prominence. A giant “HAMAS” label hovers over Colorado, sending a ray shooting east to Kansas City.

I have no reason to conclude that Emerson or his people made this so-called ISIS map. But there are definite signs of influence — not excepting the glaring ignorance of the region and its history.

Disclaimer

Don’t assume that criticizing the alleged “ISIS map” means I support ISIS (or whatever it’s called). The “Islamic State” is neither Islamic nor a state; it is a vicious criminal organization that I believe is doomed, first, to failure, and second, to being remembered with hatred and contempt, even by many of those in Iraq and Syria who initially supported it.

ISIS, or DAESH to use the Arabic acronym, has won victories and taken territory only because of the level of chaos in Syria and much of Iraq. There are two main causes: One is the Syrian president’s implacable war on his own people, causing the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. The other cause is the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, a cornucopia of crisis since 2003. History will remember “ISIS” as only a footnote to these two historic tragedies.

I wonder how long it will take for Americans to learn that very few problems have military solutions. It seems that we always reach first for the sledgehammer.

Notes

1 The modern Republic Of Iraq was founded in 1958 after gaining independence from Britain. Yes, Britain. 

2 FWIW, a more authentic “Islamic State” map probably would have drawn the boundary to take in lands where Muslims are in the majority, and it certainly would have used different names — perhaps the medieval names Zanj (Arabic: زنج) and Bilād as-Sūdān (Arabic: بلاد السودان, literally, “country of black people”). The latter is the origin of both Sudan and South Sudan, of course. 

3 I found one item that provides a terminus post quem for the alleged ISIS map: July 2, 2014. It comes from a German satirical yearbook on world affairs, Die Achse des Blöden (Axis of Idiots). Axel Gundlach, “Flächenwahn,” 2 July 2014, in Die Achse des Blöden: Jahrbuch 2014

4 Chechnya declared independence after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia responded by invading the country twice, in 1994 and 1999. The First and Second Chechen Wars cost about 100,000 civilian lives and provided a fertile breeding ground for Islamist radicalism. Chechnya is now trying to find its place as part of the Russian Federation while rebuilding. I am convinced that the Chechen wars were, at least in part, a cynical scheme to employ Russian soldiers returning from posts in the former Warsaw Pact states and unable to find work in the Russian domestic economy. The two wars got rid of at least 11,000 “surplus” Russians. Now that’s leadership! <sarcasm type=“bitter” /> 

How many Muslims are joining ISIS?

Caricature of ISIS (or DAESH, to Arabs) by Ibrahem Swaid, United Arab Emirates.
Caricature of ISIS (or DAESH, to Arabs) by Ibrahem Swaid, United Arab Emirates.

How many Muslims have gone to join the violent psychopaths of ISIS, or ISIL, or whatever we’re supposed to call it?

According to some, such as the ex-Muslim celebrity Ayaan Hirsi Ali, every Muslim is supposed to support ISIS. I mean, most Muslims are good people, but their religion is backward, tribal, and in need of “a reformation.” Ms. Ali then speaks in moving terms of the peace she has found as an unbeliever.

Then there are the experts, many of whom wear their partisanship on their sleeves. Those that lean to the left insist that the “Islamic State” is neither Islamic nor a state, just a violent cult taking advantage of the complete breakdown of public order in Syria and much of Iraq. Maybe so, but these scholars seem reluctant to get specific about how many Muslims might belong to this cult.1

Meanwhile, scholars who lean to the right tend to toss out estimates that maybe 10 percent or less of the world’s Muslims are committed jihadists. While these estimates are far lower than the ones often bandied about on Facebook, they are also imprecise. It makes a big difference whether militant Muslims make up 1/100 or 1/10 of the total population.2

My own position, based on my experience as an American convert, has been that Muslims sympathetic to al-Qaeda and their ilk constitute about 1 percent of all the world’s Muslims, while those willing to actually go fight, rather than just talk about it, constitute about 1 percent of 1 percent, or 0.01%.

Worldwide, that still amounts to about 130,000 people. Pretty formidable if they were all gathered in the same spot.

Admittedly this (0.01%) was a very rough estimate, which I’ve used mainly to counteract routine overestimates. Anyway, I didn’t know of a way to test it.

Until now.

Getting an estimate

The rise of ISIS and the success of its gruesome social media campaign have put pressure on Western governments to track the number of Westerners, like “Jihadi John,” who join ISIS and take part in its brutal deeds.

The estimates are not perfect. Some government agencies only count known ISIS recruits, while others count everyone who went to Iraq or Syria as a “foreign fighter.” To my knowledge, only a few, like the British and Swedish intelligence services, have estimated how many nationals may have left the country to become “foreign fighters” without the government finding out about it.

I went with the numbers used in an interactive map published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The numbers come from a range of official and media sources. I supplemented this map with figures from the Wikipedia article “Military of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.”

Wherever the sources clashed, I went with the highest estimate of “number of foreign fighters.” Then, to allow for unknown recruits and potential future recruits, I multiplied the high estimate by 3.33. This is the factor that British intelligence used to estimate the probable total number of Islamist fighters from their country.4

The number of Muslims living in Western countries is also disputed. So I went with the numbers in a 2011 report by the Pew Research Center.3 I also refrained from adjusting those numbers for population growth between 2010 and 2015. (The average rate of Muslim population growth is estimated at 1.5 percent per year, slightly higher than the global average.) Here, too, I chose to make the model overestimate the proportion of Muslims who go abroad as foreign fighters.

Finally, I made no attempt to estimate how many ISIS recruits were responding to a 2014 appeal for “professionals,” such as doctors and engineers, to come serve the so-called caliphate. I did not try to guess how many recruits returned home again in short order. For argument’s sake, I assume that everyone on this list is a cold-blooded killer who knew exactly what he was getting into.

So, how great is the threat?

Results

Foreign fighters with Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq amount to anywhere from 8/10 of 1 percent (0.8%) of New Zealand’s Muslim population, down to less than 1/10,000 of 1 percent of India’s. In general, the small Muslim minorities in Western countries turned up larger proportions than majority-Muslim countries.

I want to caution against reading too much into these numbers. Like FBI crime statistics, they should not be used to determine how serious the Muslim extremist threat is in one country as compared to another. They also contradict a finding (of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence) that Belgium has the highest number of foreign fighters per capita. I found higher estimates for Finland, Ireland, New Zealand, and Norway, though not in that order. These countries have some of the smallest Muslim minorities in the world, so all this really demonstrates is that a gang of a few hundred men makes a relatively large dent in a small community.

Note that these are deliberate overestimates that I arrived at by torturing the best data I could find. I am confident that the true level of radicalization is lower than these figures show and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

The median radicalization score for all countries was 0.03%, or 3 percent of 1 percent.5

For OECD countries, 0.10%.

For EU members, 0.09%.

For NATO members, 0.06%. (Canada, 0.05%; USA, 0.01%)

To put this in perspective: There are far more people in Western countries who believe that alien reptiles are running the world than there are people who have joined, or are prepared to join, ISIS or similar groups.

Notes

1 Juan Cole, Today’s Top 7 Myths about Daesh [ISIS], Feb. 17, 2015. This blog post includes an estimate of the proportion of British Muslims who volunteered for ISIS, but the figure is just tossed out as an aside, and the original post had a math error. 

2 For instance, Timothy R. Furnish, a professor at Georgia Perimeter College, suggested in 2005 that “jihadis” make up “perhaps somewhere between 1 and 10% of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims.” That’s pretty vague! It’s also unclear whether that estimate includes another category of even scarier Muslims, “mahdists,” that Prof. Furnish believes in and likes to write about at his Mahdi Watch blog. 

3 Pew Research Center, The Future of the Global Muslim Population: Projections for 2010-2030, January 2011. Using a single source allows for more reliable comparison of populations in different countries, as estimates for each country will have been arrived at by identical or nearly identical methods. 

4 The British prime minister’s office has said that 600 Britons went to Syria or Iraq to join ISIS; the British intelligence estimate is up to 2,000. 

5 I was pleasantly surprised to notice that, before I applied the arbitrary “British intelligence” factor of 3.33, the median was 0.01%, or 1 percent of 1 percent. Exactly as I had guessed. A nice coincidence. 

Mr. Netanyahu goes to Washington

Ahasuerus and Haman at the Feast of Esther (detail), oil painting by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1660.
Netanyahu drew on the story of Esther, the Jewish queen of Persia, in his speech to the U.S. Congress. Ahasuerus and Haman at the Feast of Esther (detail), oil painting by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1660.
The prime minister of Israel, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, addressed a joint session of Congress on Tuesday. This time, he was not there in connection with a diplomatic visit, but at the invitation of Speaker of the House John Boehner. The White House was not consulted. Some members of the Democratic Party declined to attend the speech in protest. And a number of their constituents struggled to understand why.

This is the leader of Israel, right? Our greatest Mideast ally, right? So what’s the problem?

So Netanyahu talked trash about Iran and the nuclear talks. So what? Iran is our avowed enemy, isn’t that right?

Here’s what I have to say:

Everyone agrees that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable. The disagreement is about how to ensure Iran doesn’t build nukes, now or in the future. Diplomacy with Iran is working. Netanyahu knows this, but he doesn’t want to accept it.

I’m convinced the prime minister’s speech had two purposes, both of which he specifically denied:

  1. To scuttle nuclear arms talks and worsen relations between the U.S. and Iran
  2. To raise his profile with Israeli voters less than two weeks before national elections

The speech was also a radical move by congressional Republicans. Congress never invites a foreign leader to speak in the Capitol without consulting the president. In fact, whenever a Republican is in the White House, congressional Republicans typically call for Congress to avoid meddling in foreign policy like “535 Secretaries of State.” Yet here we have an invitation to a foreign leader to address Congress in order to contradict a major U.S. diplomatic policy. (And now there are bills before Congress to tamper with the Constitution’s separation of powers by seizing some of the executive’s power to negotiate a treaty with Iran. So much for strict constructionism. We really are about to have 535 Secretaries of State.)

Netanyahu’s speech to Congress was a political stunt, and that’s why he kept insisting it wasn’t. Just read the post-game analysis in Israel. It’s all about the impact on N’s re-election chances on March 17.

Watch out for Persia

What about N’s advice on Iran policy? He uses a Bible story from the Book of Esther to assert that Iran (or “Persia”) is eternally dedicated to annihilating the Jews. But Esther doesn’t support that claim. N gave us a dumbed-down version of the book. (Read it for yourself if you don’t believe me. Or read the four-page summary at Wikipedia.)

Similarly, his account of modern Iranian history was simplistic and sensationalized, with phrases like “charging into the void” and “tentacles of terror.” It’s the kind of thing you find in pulp thrillers about terrorist plots.

So yes, the speech was an insult to the intelligence of his audience. The exception? Only those who see all Muslims as terrorists or fascists, and who agree with al-Qaeda and ISIS that there should be an all-out war between the West and the majority-Muslim countries.

The Bible tells me so

Since N quoted the Bible, let’s look a little deeper into the biblical record. The most prominent Iranian in the Bible is Cyrus, the Persian king who liberated the Jews from their Babylonian captivity, protected them as they built the Second Temple at Jerusalem, and returned the precious objects that Babylonians had looted from the temple many years before. (See Ezra 1 and Isaiah 45, where Cyrus of Persia is called the Lord’s “anointed one.”) Later, King Darius I of Persia used Cyrus’s decree to suppress opposition to the rebuilding of the Temple. (Ezra 6)

How is this evidence of a national will to annihilate the Jews? You might address that question to some of the Persian Jews who have lived in Iran for more than 3,000 years. At times they have been treated almost as badly as Jews living in Christian Europe, but they were never subjected to genocide. The current government protects their civil and religious rights, and synagogue attendance is up. We in the West, with our history of ghettos and death camps, are in no position to criticize.

The nuclear talks

N also misrepresented the nuclear talks. Let’s be plain: He lied.

As with Russian nuclear talks, you don’t have to trust your rival in order to know whether they are keeping their word. There is no nuclear weapons program in Iran, and the talks with Iran over its centrifuges and uranium enrichment are preventing the development of weapons capability. We know this. We are inspecting every day. Netanyahu knows it too, but he refuses to accept it. So he used his podium in the U.S. Capitol to lie about the talks and to scare us. I’m sure his claim that Iran controls “four Arab capitals” got some laughs in the Mideast, where both Arabs and Israelis know better.

Netanyahu was counting on Americans’ ignorance of the region, prejudice against Muslims, and willingness to be frightened. He wants us to return to our prior policy of tough talk and sanctions, which caused Iran to holler back and deny access to its nuclear facilities (just as we would do if a foreign power threatened and sanctioned us). He wants tension, not agreement. He wants an isolated Iran that elects extremist leaders. He wants the U.S. to let Israel, alone, determine our Mideast policy. He wouldn’t mind having Americans fight a war in Israel’s interest.

So why did our members of Congress applaud N so enthusiastically?

First, the many standing ovations were pretty clear evidence of the power of money in politics. I’m talking about the handful of billionaires who fund lobbyists, think tanks, dark-money funds, and astroturf operations that push right-wing Israeli views along with Islamophobe propaganda. Our broken campaign finance rules give way too much influence to rich egotists.

And please note, I am NOT promoting the crude stereotypes that associate Jews with money, or that pretend that Jews control global finance. That’s B.S. Not all these billionaires are Jews, but their ideology drowns out the opinion of most American Jews, a majority of whom support diplomacy with Iran.

The Muslims are coming!

Second, Republicans are playing a dangerous game of encouraging the belief that the presidency has been hijacked by a Muslim. After more than a decade of Islamophobe propaganda, a majority of Republicans, and perhaps a plurality of Americans, now believe that “deep down” the president is a Muslim. Never mind what Obama says about his Christian faith; never mind that he was once attacked for his choice of Christian preacher. Now he’s a Muslim, and Muslims are liars.

I believe this is why the House Speaker calculated he could get away with inviting a foreign leader in defiance of the president. He knows that most of his base believes the president is some kind of foreign agent. So insulting the president is standing up for America, amirite?

Furthermore, Islam is not a proper religion but an enemy ideology. The First Amendment does not apply. Make them convert, lock them up, kick them out, or kill them before they kill us: This kind of fringe bigotry is becoming dangerously mainstream. President Bush and Sen. McCain stood against this bigotry. But current Republican leaders are trying to ride the wave.

Muslims in the U.S. have now faced as many threats, bombings, and murder as American Jews did in the bad old days. Yet still the talk is all about “creeping sharia” and the Islamic threat to our freedoms. Our great-grandchildren will look back with shame and regret.

Iran is not an outpost of hell. It’s a country. America could seriously use some adults right about now. That’s why I’m asking the three men who represent me in Congress to support diplomacy with Iran.

Book review: Empire of the Summer Moon

Comanche warrior "Ako" and horse, 1892. (Wikimedia Commons)
Comanche warrior “Ako” and horse, 1892. (Wikimedia Commons)
EMPIRE OF THE SUMMER MOON : Quanah Parker and the rise and fall of the Comanches, the most powerful Indian tribe in American history, by S. C. Gwynne, New York: Scribner, ©2010. ISBN 978–1416591061

Book coverAs a student of American Indian history (in the Southeast), I have been asked more than once whether I’ve read this popular book. I’m no expert on the Comanches and only have a general acquaintance with the Great Plains nations. But I do have an in-depth understanding of how challenging it is to write the history of a people whose records were kept by their conquerors. Knowing how much better Indian histories have become in recent years, I came to Empire of the Summer Moon with high hopes. But my first scout through the pages, including a long camp in the bibliography, showed me a history as dead and barren as Ezekiel’s plain of dry bones. Reading the book is like having the ghosts of cavalrymen and settlers rise up to harangue us about the bloody deeds of “wild Indians,” while Indian ghosts remain quiet in their unmarked graves.

This old-fashioned western history pits civilized white people against savage redmen in a bloody contest for control of land. The contest is a racial one and the outcome is inevitable. Because race explains so much, the book dwells with fascination on the “white squaw” Cynthia Ann Parker and her “mixed-blood” son, Quanah. The Comanches as a whole are treated, not as a nation with a history and culture, but as a body of fierce, “primitive” horseback warriors with women and children stowed back at camp under tepees. Because they are so primitive, the Comanches have no history: the way they lived in the 1800s is assumed to be the way they had always lived, and the only way they ever could live.

A good counterpoint to this book would be Comanche author Paul Chaat Smith’s funny and insightful Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong. It’s too bad Sam Gwynne didn’t have a chance to read it before he embarked on Empire of the Summer Moon. Maybe it would have made a difference. Continue reading “Book review: Empire of the Summer Moon”

Book reviews from LibraryThing

Over the last few years most of my writing online has been on the LibraryThing website, a social niche for book people. LibraryThing’s main product is an easy way to catalog book collections with as much or as little detail as you like. On the social side, it provides book-related local information (on the web or in a free phone app), discussion forums worth taking part in, volunteer research projects such as Legacy Libraries (e.g., Thomas Jefferson’s and Valeria Novodvorskaya’s), and an outlet for frivolous pastimes (such as book haiku). The site also scouts early reviews of pending books. Reviews contributed by users can also be used (at each reviewer’s discretion) in the local catalogs of public libraries that use LibraryThings software in lieu of more expensive alternatives.

LT encourages users to repost their reviews elsewhere, so I’ve decided to do that. One advantage of doing this is that it allows for comments and conversation a little more readily than the LT site does.

Where does the name Waxahatchee come from?

Locator map, Waxahatchee Creek (Map data ©2014 by Google)
Locator map, Waxahatchee Creek (Map data ©2014 by Google)
Waxahatchee is a Brooklyn-based music project headed by Katie Crutchfield.

The music press tell us that Waxahatchee is the name of a creek in Alabama. In January 2011 Crutchfield “was living at her parents’ house on Waxahatchee Creek, nursing the bruises of a few bad relationships and wondering what to do with her adulthood.” A severe snowstorm, unusual for Alabama, confined her to the house, and she started writing music: “song after song about loneliness, ambivalence and relationships failing to last or fulfill.” 1

Now there are two albums, American Weekend and Cerulean Salt. She’s playing tonight at Bottletree Café here in Birmingham. So this seems like a perfect time for me to geek out about exactly where the name Waxahatchee comes from, and what it meant.

The name contains a mystery.

Indian names

If you’re one of those people who’s satisfied to hear that Waxahatchee is “an Indian word,” you can stop reading. Go sit under your nylon-stringed dream catcher. If you care to know which Indians, what language they spoke, and so on, then read on. Continue reading “Where does the name Waxahatchee come from?”

Answer: Hate the South

A man with a cane beats a prostrate man who holds a quill pen in his right hand and a scroll in his left. The caption reads, Southern chivalry. Arguments versus clubs.
Southerners. You see how they are. (Lithograph by John L. Magee, 1856.)
This Friday marks the first anniversary of one of the meanest pieces of writing I’ve seen from a liberal pen. It is Sara Robinson’s piece for Alternet (picked up by Salon) on “conservative Southern values” as an existential threat to our republic.

While there’s a glimmer of truth to Robinson’s portrait of what she calls “Plantation America,” there are enough distortions, exaggerations, and oversimplifications to make it downright harmful. Her version of U.S. history reminds me of how New Age charlatans often use science-y language to justify their chosen conclusions. Their method: Cherry-pick facts, ignore contrary evidence, and freely associate until you like what you see. 

What does Sara Robinson see?

  • First, history is made and culture is shaped by elites. (Wrong.)
  • Second, the Northern elite is composed of earnest Puritans and the Southern elite is a crowd of slave drivers from the Caribbean.
  • Third, everything good in our elites comes from the North; everything bad from the South. (Life is always that simple.)

What are we to do about it? Robinson has nothing constructive to propose, just a litany of reasons to hate and despise the South. “Southern values” must be stopped at any cost, or else. 

This is the kind of error made by many bright but heartless and soulless progressives, including the late Gore Vidal. What this country needs, they like to suggest, is another civil war. No more ambiguity. Everyone will be forced to take sides, our side will be in the right, and their side will be in the wrong. Violent struggle will arbitrate all our disagreements for us, and no one will dispute the final result. 

Of course this is nonsense. Worse, it’s seductive nonsense because it is skillfully expressed and offers a feeling of mastery over a complicated past and present. All you have to do is accept Sara Robinson’s thesis and suddenly the motives of your political enemies become so clear! Their behavior is predetermined by their perverse culture. You won’t ever have to respect them or acknowledge their shared humanity again.