Last night I found myself running from event to event, to hear two of my college classmates talk on very different topics. I've hardly seen either of these guys in all those years, but I could quickly see that, like a lot of the guys (and gals) I went to college with, they're still pretty smart.

Renato Rosaldo, with whom I worked on a couple of theater projects in college (he directed Odets' "Waiting For Lefty" and I directed Brecht's "The Measures Taken" in a double-bill), has grown up to be an anthropologist, now teaching at NYU. I went to hear him and other friends on a panel organized by PRLDEF on two atrocious new books, Samuel Huntington's Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity, and Nicolás Vaca's The Presumed Alliance: The Unspoken Conflict Between Latinos and Blacks and What It Means for America. I haven't read the latter, mainly because the assumption in the title is so ridiculous -- as though tensions between African Americans and Hispanic Americans had come as a big surprise. For my comments on Huntington's latest screed, see my blog note It's not the Mexicans, it's the world economy, stupid! from February 26 (you'll have to scroll down the page a bit). Renato's take on Huntington's academically-couched racism was angry and witty -- but you had to be there. Maybe he's writing something about it.

Rick Wolff and I were sort of ideological comrades in college, though he always seemed to have fewer doubts about his radicalism. Always a forceful and quick speaker, and a I think a generous man, he became an economist and is now a professor at the U. of Massachusetts. At the Brecht Forum, where a panel on "The Changing Structure of Capitalism" that had started at 7:30 was still going on when I got there at 9, I heard his remarks on the housing "bubble," the great over extension of credit stimulated by lenders of mortgages, most of them variable rate. All it will take for the bubble to burst -- that is, for people to stop borrowing to buy houses, which is currently one of busiest engines of our economy -- will be a small rise in interest rates. And, according to Rick (he credited a student of his for digging this information out) the capital that makes all that lending possible is coming mainly -- almost 50% of it -- from China and Japan, which are buying Fannie Mae bonds and thus becoming (if they aren't already) our homeowners' biggest ultimate creditors. So I suppose that if either the Japanese or the Chinese decide they'd rather put their money in euros than dollars, or for any other reason diminsh their investments, poof! There goes the bubble, and lots of people's hopes for home ownership.

"Zeitgenossen" is a word I picked up from Henrich Böll, who I think invented it. He meant "epochal comrades," people who had lived through the same world events. Renato, Rick and I graduated the same year Kennedy was shot. It was a change of epoch.


Mihri Khatun sings her verse again
I'm very pleased to have had a role in the first publication of the enchanting 50-year old monograph on "Mihri Khatun, a Turkish Poetess of the 15th Century," by Nicholas Martinovitch. It will occupy the greater part of the inaugural issue of the Journal of Turkish Literature. I was the guy who found the manuscript (written in pencil) among Martinovitch's papers in the New York Public Library, and I've written a brief introductory note for this edition. Alas, I can't read Mihri in her own language -- she must have been really something. You will enjoy finding out about her.
Taking the long view
Let us step back from the disasters of the bumbling and overextended empire of Pax Americana, and look at the later stages of the bumbling and overextended empire of Pax Romana -- after it split into an enormous eastern and Mediterranean empire based in Constantinople and a punier and more quarrelsome one nominally based in Rome.

Why? Because ancient dead in ideological wars are less distressing than the freshly killed whose faces we see every night on TV. Just as sad -- lives cut short, the work of centuries destroyed by the razing of a city, cruelty so great that only Mel Gibson and people of a similar turn of mind could relish it. But because those disasters are ancient, remote, we can view them more rationally, free of the terror that Tom Ridge wants us to get used to and that makes it impossible for our leaders to envision an alternative.

This weekend, Helen Evans and her collaborators in assembling the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition Byzantium: Faith and Power 1261-1557, presented a symposium on those last centuries of the eastern empire, which called itself "Romania" (accent on the "i" -- ro-ma-NEE-yah) because its people thought of themselves as the true ("orthodox") heirs of the Romans. At one time, this empire controlled most of North Africa, all of what we call the Middle East up to Persia, and most of Southeast Europe and the islands in between. The regime became famously inflexible (which is part of what we mean by "byzantine" today) and, despite its vast resources of wealth and manpower, was hard put to defend itself against new forces battering its empire -- Arabs, Mongols, and finally Turks. "Latin" Christians in Europe (especially Venetians and Genoese, but also Catalans and even Germans) took advantage of Constantinople's problems to grab trading concessions (either by force or in exchange for loans to the beleaguered empire). Even "Orthodox" Christians, nominally recognizing the emperor in Constantinople as head of their church, declared their independence and set up their own mini-empires, the most threatening being the Serbians under Stefan Dushan (see note on toppling of his statue in Kosovo).

In 1204, the "Latins" invaded Constantinople, sacked it (the famous bronze horses at St. Mark's in Venice were part of the loot), destroyed much of it, expelled the Greek-speaking Orthodox, and continued to occupy it until the booty and their own troops were exhausted. In 1261, the Orthodox under Michael VIII Palaiologos returned victorious to the ruined city, and sought to rebuild it and restore the much diminished empire. Michael's descendants were able to hold on until 1453, when Mehmet, sultan of the Ottomans, finally broke through the ancient walls and turned the famous city that Constantine had devoted to Christ into the capital of the world's greatest Muslim empire.

This past weekend's symposium included an analysis by David Jacoby of the vigorous trade patterns that grew and grew even as the state grew weaker and weaker. In the 13th and 14th centuries, Constantinople was the meeting point of two great circuits, one extending from China through Central Asia (the northern land route) and the Persian Gulf and Arabia (southern sea route), and a more disorganized one drawing goods from as far as northern Europe down to the great trading centers of the Mediterranean, especially Venice. And in Constantinople, Jacoby remarked, fashions reflected all these influences. The Christian aristocracy favored Turkish caftans and Mongol headdresses, with Venetian boots, or sometimes the other way around. Angeliki Laiou described how the "statelets" -- Serbia, Bulgaria & many smaller ones -- and the reduced power of Constantinople permitted ever greater political fragmentation, which seemed to facilitate the ever growing commercial integration; the trading houses were the real powers. And Vassilios Kidonopoulis wrote (but couldn't get a visa to come to the US to present it) and Sarah Brooks ably presented a paper on how the city itself (its buildings, its neighborhoods, its population) suffered and coped in these final decades.

The lessons for today's rulers are not obvious enough for them to grasp, but this much is clear: governing the world is a much more complex and unpredictable process than as ever seen from Washington.