The Long View 2004-10-28: The Last Scandal; Good Usage; Little People

Homo floresiensis from ATOR (Arc-Team Open Research)

Homo floresiensis from ATOR (Arc-Team Open Research)

It is a little unclear where the small hominins on Flores Island came from, but the speculation is fascinating.


The Last Scandal; Good Usage; Little People

 

There are four things to keep in mind about the Al Qaqaa Explosives Scandal:

(1) The site was interfered with before the first US units arrived in the area, so there is no way to tell when the explosives were moved;

(2) As a defense of the Administration, point (1) is irrelevant; the Coalition should have determined the status of all IAEA sites from the beginning, even if it could not secure them;

(3) The story seems to be making the electorate's gorge rise; Bush's poll numbers have actually firmed up since Kerry started to talk about it;

(4) Next time, could we please invade a country with prettier place names?

* * *

Speaking of language, Geoffrey K. Pullum at Language Log has some remarks about the evolution of the generic "they" in English:

But the fact is that singular they is becoming completely standard, at least among younger Americans, whenever the antecedent is of a sort that could in some contexts refer to either sex. I heard a radio piece about pregnant high-schoolers in which a girl said something like I think if someone in my class was pregnant I would be sympathetic to them. In such cases it's not the inability to assign sex to the referent that drives the selection of singular they, it's the mere fact of the antecedent being quantified or headed by a noun like person that can in other contexts be used of either sex.

If it was good enough for Chaucer, it should be good enough for us.

* * *

And here is a further point of usage: what do you call a Westerner who makes common cause with Islamofascists to discredit his domestic political opponents? Consider using the term "Catilinarian," after L. Sergius Catilina, the scuzzy politician of the late Roman Republic. After losing several elections for the consulship to Cicero in the 60s BC, he tried to ally his urban supporters with a Gaulish tribe to overthrow the state. Cicero, of course, was an insufferable windbag, and since we know about Catiline (sometimes spelled "Cataline" in English) mostly through what Cicero had to say about him, he may not have been quite the demon we remember. Still, he was certainly a bad enough fellow that we may use his name for invective.

* * *

Someone else with a cavalier attitude toward Classical allusions is that Other Spengler, the one who writes for the Asia Times. Speaking in praise of the principle of preemptive military action, he recently produced this exercise in alternative history:

If Kaiser Wilhelm II had had the nerve to declare war on France during the 1905 Morocco Crisis, Count Alfred von Schlieffen's invasion plan would have crushed the French within weeks. Russia's Romanov dynasty, humiliated by its defeat in the Russo-Japanese War and beset by popular revolt, likely would have fallen under more benign circumstances than prevailed in 1917. England had not decided upon an alliance with the Franco-Russian coalition in 1905. The naval arms race between Germany and England, a major source of tension, was yet to emerge. War in 1905 would have left Wilhelmine Germany the sole hegemon in Europe, with no prospective challenger for some time to come.

I don't think you can run an international system on that basis, but it may be the only way to run a postnational one.

* * *

One of the many interesting points about the discovery of homo floresiensis is how often the term "hobbit" occurs in the press reports:

Not only did anthropologists find the skeletal remains of a hobbit-sized, 30-year-old adult female, in this fairy-tale-like discovery they also uncovered in the same limestone cave the remains of a Komodo dragon, stone tools and dwarf elephants..Subsequent finds of other similarly sized, 3-foot-tall humans with brains the size of grapefruits in a cave on the Indonesian island of Flores suggest these 18,000-year-old specimens weren't a quirk of an ancient hominin, but part of an entire species of miniature people whose existence overlapped with that of modern Homo sapiens.

I have often wondered what would have happened to the hobbits, if The Lord of the Rings were the real past. Nothing good, I fear. It is sad to think of Samwise's remote descendants being harried into increasingly marginal savagery. On the other hand, the florensiens used to hunt komodo dragons. As with hobbits, it may have been wise for any big people in the neighborhood to stay on their good side.

It is not clear when the florensiens became extinct. They may have been destroyed in a volcanic eruption about 12k years ago. They may have blended into modern populations, though that is questionable: the florensiens were descended directly from homo erectus; they were not eccentric homo sapiens. Inevitably, we are told that they may have survived into historic times, since modern people on Flores have stories about the little people who used to live in the caves.

The same argument has been made for the faery folk of northwestern Europe: maybe there was a race of small aborigines whose memory was preserved in folklore. Perhaps, but the fact is that people in Europe still see the damn things. Such apparitions could have other explanations.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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