Book Review: Against Our Better Judgement

I picked up this book because I wanted to learn more about the history of the geopolitical clusterfuck that is the Israel/Palestine issue, but never did I expect to find a history so deep, so bloody, and so one-sided in the treatment it receives by the world as that of Israel. In my case, Weir did exactly what she set out to accomplish: she hit me over the head with a series of truth bombs and left me dumbfounded in stupid shock. Against Our Better Judgment is the abridged history of the Zionist movement, but don’t mistake its brevity for banality. In an exhaustively well-researched book whose footnotes section is twice as long as the actual text, Alison Weir will tell you things about Zionism that you won’t want to believe. It’s outstanding to me that so much knowledge could be so unknown. How, as a historian, have I never come across the history of Zionism before? This major movement, stretching back to the nineteenth century, which permeated American politics and managed to create a nation which now receives more funding from the U.S. than any other country on earth, is somehow never spoken of in classrooms (and certainly not in the media).

I don’t want to give too much away, because I think everyone ought to read this for him or herself. All I can say is: read it; it will challenge your view of the world. It’ll take about an hour to get through (unless of course you have to take a break between chapters to have an emotional reaction like I did). I highly suggest this for everyone, especially the citizens of America and Israel.

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Book Review of “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” by Jack Weatherford

Author: Jack Weatherford

Publishing Date: 16 March 2004

The point of this book is to tell the story of Genghis Khan, fully and truly. Jack Weatherford covers the Khan’s life, his rise to power, his consolidation of the Mongolian tribes, his expansion of the Mongolian empire, the impact of his legacy (that being the rise of the modern world as we know it), and his often unfair remembrance in the centuries following his death. Weatherford travelled through the Khan’s homeland for over five years, travelling, researching, and translating The Secret History of the Mongols, a text which, like Genghis Khan’s place of birth, had been hidden from the world first by fierce Mongolian tradition and then by Soviet Russia.

Knowledge about Genghis Khan remained scarce in the centuries following his death; rumors, hearsay, and prejudiced opinion dominated the identity of a man who once united the largest empire in human history. Weatherford covers the rise of Genghis’ Mongolian empire, but his work is primarily an investigation into the man himself. What Weatherford found contrasted starkly with common knowledge: Genghis Khan was not the red-eyed, bloodthirsty overlord that popular culture painted him as. He was an outcast nomad with limited ambitions, driven throughout his life by the need to defend his family and an inherent inability to take orders from anyone. As a man, he was illiterate and uneducated. As a leader, he commanded fierce loyalty from his followers. As a general, he innovated military travel, developed a new hierarchical system of command, and established effective means of communication which put him one step ahead of his foes. Fiercely loyal and capable of holding a grudge over many years, Genghis Khan was a wonderful friend and a terrible enemy. Perhaps his most advantageous trait was his ability to delegate; he had a remarkable proclivity for recognizing and utilizing the talent around him, adopting new technologies, methods, and strategies and making them his own.

The Mongol empire under Genghis and his successors allowed complete religious freedom and unprecedented autonomy. Subordinates had only to recognize Mongolian rule and pay tax to the Khan. The alternative to this unprecedented mercy was swift and complete destruction, and though some vassals suffered this fate, most seemed content to live in peace under Mongol rule. By 1287, Mongolians had sent envoys as far as England and had established trade across Europe. Through an accurate portrayal of the Mongol empire’s rise and fall, Weatherford shows how Europeans did not always harbor animosity for the Mongolians. In fact, in the thirteenth century Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in praise of them, considering the Mongolian empire with admiration. By 1345, however, opinion shifted as the Black Plague gripped Europe. Frightened masses blamed foreign traders, and the Mongol’s extensive trade system broke down, followed by the empire itself. The Mongolian empire and its dynamic leader faded into legend, and by the eighteen hundreds Genghis Khan’s name synonymized death and brutality, an opinion which pervades in modern times. Nevertheless, the rise and fall of the Mongol empire remains one of the most remarkable chapters in world history. Mongolians today revere the great Khan, constructing monuments which rival the state of liberty in size and imposition. Whatever one’s opinion of the controversial figure and the empire he built, the scope and magnitude of his legacy cannot be put aside.

The Mongol empire began as a collection of incongruent tribes led by an ostentatious vagabond, and grew into a massive state which connected Europe and Asia, connected the east and west, and in so doing set the stage for the modern world.

Documentary Review : “The Cave of the Yellow Dog”

Director: Byambasuren Davaa

Release date: 12 May 2005

The Cave of the Yellow Dog is a difficult movie to classify. Rife with thematic content, it conveys the challenges of a nomadic Mongolian family in an increasingly sedentary world while somehow maintaining the day-in-a-life atmosphere of an educational documentary.

The plot revolves around Nansal, the fearless eldest daughter of the real life Batchuluun family, who is just as comfortable riding a fully grown horse as she is playing pretend with her brother and sister. While tending to the family sheep heard, Nansal discovers a small dog whom she quickly rescues and adopts, much to the chagrin of her father, whose inherent distrust of wolves leaves him disinclined towards his daughter’s new friend. The story-line is one of heartwarming friendship, compassion, and mercy in a harsh and sometimes unforgiving world.

The main plot, however, is only part of what the film offers. While Nansal dominates the screen, her adventures are broken by lengthy shots of her family’s everyday life. The audience sees her father skinning a sheep, her mother preparing milk, and her siblings getting ready for bed. These accurate portrayals of nomadic life on the Steppes blur the line between fiction and documentary, making it difficult to ascertain a the film’s true meaning, its singular “point.” Thematic content is a good place to start:

Urbanization plays an important role throughout the movie. Nansal’s father laments the increasing number of wolves in the area, a direct result of neighboring families abandoning their dogs to move to the city, leaving their hounds to go feral. In the final shot of the film, the Batchuluun family’s wagon train rolls off into the Steppes, but the pastoral image is broken by a car which careens down the road beseeching Mongolians via loudspeaker to vote in the upcoming election.

The implications of a dying rural existence and what that might mean for the Batchuluun family is left ambiguous, and certainly the film is not political in practice; in fact it devotes more time to religion. The Buddhist family discusses reincarnation on a few occasions. Nansal seems the most curious about past lives, seeking information from her parents and a somewhat mysterious elderly woman she encounters during a storm. If viewed as a theme, reincarnation reinforces Nansal and her dog’s friendship through the notion that two souls, even of different species, can find each other connected through disparate memories of other lifetimes. It also adds an air of continuity to the film, a reassurance to the cyclical nature of being, perhaps assuaging the apprehensions of urbanization’s political and social changes.

The themes of urbanization and reincarnation weave into the film’s fabric seamlessly, showing themselves not through purposeful metaphor or stylism, but through everyday life. While urbanization threatens Nansal and her dog’s nascent friendship, their curiously strong bond holds it fast. The themes are not weighed down by overdrawn symbolism and heavy-handed stylism. Rather, the film allows the major motifs to manifest themselves through the earnest and real lives of the Batchuluun family.

The Cave of the Yellow Dog is not quite a documentary and not quite a drama. The glimpse it gives into a real Mongolian nomadic family with the addition of a fictional plot and the spattering of snapshots from everyday life present a film that is as educational as it is heartwarming, as provocative as it is pure. Its candid nature makes it difficult to pin down, but perhaps this honesty is the point. It is as real as any film can be, and such unprecedented things often defy classification.