Martin’s quirky movies #3 White Dog

May 25, 2014

Many films have dealt with racism. To Kill a Mockingbird, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, Do the Right Thing American History X, and most recently, 12 Years a Slave are obvious examples. A less well known one is Samuel Fuller’s White Dog. Loosely based on Romain Gary’s 1970 novel of the same title, the film came out in 1982. It depicts the struggle of a dog trainer trying to retrain a stray dog found by a young actress. What makes the story compelling is that the canine in question is a “white dog“, one specially trained to viciously attack any black person. Gary’s novel was based on a real experience in his life. At the time he was married to the actress Jean Seberg. One day Seberg brought home a large white dog she had found on the street. It appeared to be very friendly and playful, but when the animal saw her black gardener, it attacked him viciously, injuring him. Afterward, the couple kept it in their backyard. However, one day it got out and once again it singled out a black man for attack. After this happened a third time, they concluded that someone had trained the dog to attack and injure only black people. This incident prompted Gary to write a magazine piece about it for Life in 1970, which became the abovementioned novel.

Like many Hollywood films White Dog was a long time getting off the ground. The legendary Hollywood producer Robert Evans bought the story for Paramount in the mid-1970s. After he left the studio, it went through a number of scripts, with Roman Polanski, Arthur Penn, and Tony Scott all being touted as possible directors. In 1981 the threat of possible strikes by both the writers and directors guilds led to the project being revived. It was seen as a movie that might be quickly made. Sam Fuller, a B-list director known for low-budget genre movies with controversial themes was eventually the one who got the nod. But what Paramount wanted was very different from the film that Fuller would end up making. Such Hollywood figures as Michael Eisner, Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson wanted Fuller to downplay the racial elements and make a “Jaws with paws“. In one memo, the company noted: “Given the organic elements of this story, it is imperative that we never overtly address through attitude or statement the issue of racism per se“.

The film was shot in 44 days with a modest budget. There were no megastars although Burt Ives and Paul Winfield were both respected actors. The screenplay was written by Fuller and Curtis Hanson. The soundtrack was the work of Ennio Morricone. The dog acting in these films is sensational.

The film is set in Los Angeles where an aspiring young actress, Julie Sawyer, hits a stray white German Sheppard while driving though the hills during the night. She brings the dog to her home in the Hollywood hills. Julie takes a picture of the dog, and along with her boyfriend Roland Grale, distributes fliers to see if the dog’s owner will come and claim it.

If you hadn’t noticed the names of the actress and her boyfriend are a homage to Jean Seberg and Romain Gary. On August 30th 1979 Seberg had died at the age of 40 of a barbiturate overdose in Paris, her death being ruled a probable suicide. Gary died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on December 2nd 1980 in Paris, France. Seberg and Gary were no longer together and the writer left a note which said specifically that his death had no relation to Seberg’s suicide.

Anyway, back to the plot. When a burglar/rapist breaks in her house, the dog protects Julie and she decides to keep the animal with her. But soon she realises that the animal is a white dog, trained by a racist to attack black people. However she has become attached to the dog and is horrified at the possibility that her new pet might be euthanized for the safety of the public. She goes to Noah’s Ark, an animal training facility. There she begs the operator Carruthers (Burl Ives) to deprogram the dog of its racist training. He tries to make her see that it’s not possible, but his top trainer, Keys (Paul Winfield) believes he can break the dog seeing it as a personal challenge. Keys himself is African-American, making every training session a life and death struggle.

The dog resists the training at first, and even escapes the facility, killing a black man in a church. This tragedy makes Keys even more determined, and he is finally able to get the dog to stop attacking blacks. The ending is not a simplistic one. I won’t spoil it, but if you want to, you can see it here:

The film was finally completed in 1981, but Paramount was reluctant to release it due to its controversial subject matter. The accusations of racism are in my opinion unfounded. Despite no one from the organization having actually seen the completed film, the NAACP threatened a nationwide boycott. The preview screenings held in Seattle, Washington and Denver at the beginning of 1982 were not overwhelming successes. Critics were more enthusiastic but Paramount sensing it did not have enough earnings potential to make up for the threatened boycotts and the ensuing bad publicity, decided to shelve the project. A disillusioned Fuller moved to France, and never directed another American film. The filmmaker was very bitter about the whole thing and would recall in his memoirs:

“Shelve the film without letting anyone see it? I was dumbfounded. It’s difficult to express the hurt of having a finished film locked away in a vault, never to be screened for an audience. It’s like someone putting your newborn baby in a goddamned maximum-security prison forever.”

How should we judge this film? It is not a masterpiece, but it is one of those films that does something a little bit different. Fuller was 70 years-old when he made White Dog, and was not at the peak of his powers. Yet he was still able to make such an interesting and provocative film; it was much more than Jaws with paws.

The central question of the film is whether racism can be treated or is an incurable condition. Don’t expect any simple answer or a happy ending from Fuller. There is something chilling about man’s best friend being used for such vile purposes. Obviously dogs cannot be racist. They do not have the complex thing and other higher cognitive functions required for this vile ideology. I’m not too sure either how they perceive colour either. I have been unable to find out too much about the phenomenon of white dogs. How prevalent is it? Ultimately racism is a human phenomenon. One of the shocking scenes in the film is when we meet the dog’s owner a seemingly lovable grandfather who shows up with his two little granddaughters and a box of candy for the lady who sheltered his pet. They could have come straight out of a Louis Theroux documentary. This the human face of hatred. If you haven’t seen this piece, I do recommend that you check it out.

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Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor

May 25, 2014

The film tells the story of Johnny Barrett, a journalist who gets himself committed to a mental hospital in order to resolve a murder case. One of the witnesses is Trent, a patient who was one of the first black students to integrate a segregated Southern university. He now sees himself as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, stirring up the patients with rabble-rousing KKK speeches.


The Digested 21st Century

May 18, 2014

John Crace has been writing 700-word parodies of novels and works of non-fiction in the G2 section of the Guardian since 2000. He has recently published a selection of them – The Digested 21st Century. Here is a flavour of the book:

A Journey by Tony Blair (2010)

I wanted this book to be different from the traditional political memoir. Most, I have found, are rather easy to put down. So what you will read here is not a conventional account of whom I met. There are events and politicians who are absent, not because they don’t matter, but because they are part of a different story to the self-serving one I want to tell!

No, seriously guys, this is going to be well different. How many other world leaders use so many exclamation marks! And it is as a world leader that I’m writing for you about my journey. And what a journey! When I started in politics I was just an ordinary kind of guy. And you know what? I’m still an ordinary kind of guy – albeit one who has become a multi-millionaire and completely destabilised the Middle East!

Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe (2013)

Smack. Thadaboom. SMACK. Thahadaboom. The Safe Boat thadathunks its foam-filled fuckery across Miami–MEEE-AH-MEE – bay. ‘Dere’s a fuckin’ Wetfoot at da top a dat fuckin’ mast a dat boat,’ yelled Sergeant Kite. Officer Nestor Camacho rolled up his sleeves. His biceps were ripped. Taut. :::: What the fuck was he doing thinking like this inside this crazy, mashed-up punctuation? :::: Tappetytaptappetytaptaptap. KER-CHING! Tom couldn’t believe his luck. $10,000 per page to write on steroids. :::: Like taking candy from babies. That’s America, baby ::::

‘¡Madre de Dios!’ yelled Nestor’s father. ‘You’re no national hero. You traidor. You betray your blood. The guy was 17 feet from freedom, and you send him back to Fidel?’ Nestor reeled backwards out of the room :::: At least I have my Malena. Mia preciosa Magdalena con los grandes bazookas ::::

Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton (2012)

The most boring question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true. Manifestly, none are. Yet this should not stop us cherry-picking the bits we like and repackaging them as self-help aphorisms for a liberal middle-class who consider themselves too clever for Paulo Coelho. I was brought up a committed atheist, but even I had a crisis of faithlessness that originated in listening to Bach’s cantatas, was developed by exposure to Zen architecture and became overwhelming on reading my own prose.

Empire:  How Britain Made the Modern World by Niall Ferguson (2003)

It has long been fashionable to decry the British empire as a relic of imperial repression, and while it is not my intention to excuse its worst excesses, it is important for a good-looking historian to take a contrary position. So I contend it was also a considerable force for good.

Every iconoclast needs a neologism; mine is Anglobalisation. Other empire builders were little more than pirates, exploiting resources for their own end while seeking to impose their culture and religion on the local inhabitants. Britain, of course, was not entirely exempt in this respect but her interests lay far more in establishing a world free-trade market.

All things considered, both Britain and myself can look ourselves in the mirror and be pretty damned pleased with what we see.

Broken Music by Sting (2003)

This is not intended to be a straightforward autobiography. Rather it will be like my music: a series of atavistic, yet profound and moving sounds that combine to create something utterly predictable and dull.

Celebrate by Pippa Middleton (2012)

It’s a bit startling to achieve global recognition before the age of 30, on account of your sister, your brother-in-law and your bottom. But I am by nature an optimist, so I tend to concentrate on the advantages. Like cashing in while I can. No disrespect, sis, but royal marriages don’t have the best track record! So imagine my surprise when Penguin offered me £400,000 and a full editorial team to cobble up a few lame party ideas that would help to promote my family’s business, Party Pieces. I hope it takes you as long to read it as it took me to write it!

An Appetite for Wonder by Richard Dawkins (2013)

I married my first wife Marian in 1967, though that’s the last time I propose to mention her. Far more interesting are the two computer languages I invented to determine hierarchical embedment. Who would have guessed that P=2(P+P-P*P)-1?! In the early 1970s, I started work on The Selfish Gene. I had no idea when I was writing the first chapter just how remarkable the book would be, as it had seemed self-evident for more than a decade to me that panglossian theories were erroneous and that natural selection took place at the genetic level. What I hadn’t then realised was my remarkable ability to be right about absolutely everything: the consequences of that realisation will follow in a later volume. Though you may be hoping a process of natural literary selection prevents that.

Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2012)

Wind extinguishes a candle and energises fire. How deep is that? The answer, counter-intuitively, is not quite as deep as me. For I, Nassim Nicholas Taleb alone have discovered the secret of the universe. It is the antifragile.

‘What in God’s name is that?’ Wittgenstein asked me over lunch in a three-starred Michelin restaurant in Paris. Let me explain. You know how some things are quite fragile, and we’re really scared of them breaking? Well, my brilliant new idea is that sometimes it’s good that things get broken, because that’s when important changes like evolution can happen. And because I’m the only person who has ever thought this, I’m going to call it Antifragile.

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (2003)

Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere shuddered. The first page of a Dan Brown potboiler was no place for any character. ‘Count yourself lucky,’ growled Silas the monk, as he chastised himself with his chalice. ‘I’ve got to hang around for another 400 pages of this grabage.’

The phone rand in Robert Langdon’s hotel room. After his previous adventure with the Pope, nothing should have surprised him. But he was surprised. ‘I am surprised to be summoned to the Louvre in the dead of night,’ he said to himself.

Round the Bend by Jeremy Clarkson (2012)

As a major celebrity I get photographed countless times a day – all too often with a woman who isn’t my wife. All speed cameras should be burned, preferably using traffic wardens, council officials and gays as lighter fuel. Which brings me to the Porsche Cayenne, the car with the most pointless rear seat ever made. So small it can’t even fit the 8-inch Hammond, a man who gives dwarves a bad name. Talking of which, how come the over coiffed homosexualist had his crash on the one day in the century when the entire NHS wasn’t on strike?

What is the point of a bicyclist? Answer: to die. The only reason any beardy vegetarian or lesbian gets on a bike is because they secretly want to commit suicide. Which is fine by me. I want them all to die, too. The world would be a much better place without them. But what I don’t want them doing is holding me up and tempting me into doing their dirty work for them. If you haven’t got the balls to phone Dignitas, then don’t make me late for dinner at the Ivy by forcing me to crush you under my front wheels. So run along and get a gun and top yourselves in private, losers.

Notes From My Kitchen Table by Gwyneth Paltrow (2011)

I literally could not have written this book without the literal assistance of Julia Turshen who literally did all the cooking and writing while I literally did yoga classes and literally had my hair done for the photo-shoot.

‘Why,’ you may ask, ‘would the world’s greatest actress wish to share her kitchen secrets?’ It is because I have the secret of eternal life. When my beloved father, who taught me so much about cooking, was diagnosed with cancer in 1998, I became convinced I could cure him with a macrobiotic diet. Sadly he died, but only because he had eaten too much steak and chips when he was young. But with these recipes my children and possibly your children, if they have double-barrelled surnames, can live for ever, and if you think I’m going to mention my idiot husband Chris and his rubbish band then you’ve got another think coming – he’s never supported my ambition to be hailed as the new lifestyle goddess of those with too much time on their hands.

Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James (2011)

Here’s the contract for our relationship,’ he says, slipping an oyster down my throat. ‘I will be the Dominant and you will be the Submissive. You will do everything I say and allow me to cane you, tie you up, sodomise you, clamp your genitals and fist you. In return I will buy you a car and a laptop.’

‘But Sir,’ I exclaim. ‘I’m still a virgin, so I will have to draw the line at fisting.’

‘You drive a hard bargain, Miss Steele.’

My inner goddess melts as he forces his tongue inside me. I have never been this wet before, etc. He bends me over his knee and slaps me hard. It feels wrong, but somehow very right. His enormous penis, etc. Juddering orgasms, etc.

‘Sleep with me, Sir,’ I beg, as I try to draw his handsome body closer to mine.

‘I can’t. I had a deeply disturbed childhood and S&M relationships are the only ones I can sustain.’

‘Tell me about your commitment problems.’

‘They are too disturbing. You will find I am 50 Shades of Grey. Yet I find myself strangely drawn to your virginal, 20-year-old body in a way that I have never previously experienced.’

My subconscious tells me I should run away from this control freak right now, but my inner goddess is telling me to stay. That I can help this poor troubled man. Christian changes into a sexy pair of faded denim jeans and leads me to his Red Room of Pain. I willingly allow myself to be chained to a crucifix while he thrashes my clitoris with a leather hunting crop. The pain is intense, but the pleasure more so. My inner goddess is panting for him not to stop until … juddering climaxes, etc.


QI: A selection #14

May 18, 2014

Here is another selection of trivia that I have picked from the QI column in the Telegraph:

Dolphins’ genitals are internal, in both sexes. The females have a built-in system of contraception: their organs contain two chambers – one for fun, the other for reproduction (the name “dolphin” comes from the Greek delphos meaning “womb”). Sex (including same-sex sex) is an important part of dolphin life, used for socialising and recreation, and they don’t form lasting pair-bonds. It’s not always cuddly. For all the foreplay and nuzzling, females are frequently coerced into sex by groups of males. Schools of dolphins batter porpoises to death for no obvious reason, and occasionally practise infanticide. In a comprehensive study of wild dolphins that seek out human company, three-quarters showed aggression, which sometimes lead to serious injury, and half indulged in “misdirected sexual behaviour” with buoys and boats, as well as humans. Given that an average male bottlenose weighs 40 stone and has a foot-long, solid-muscle organ that ends in a prehensile hook agile enough to catch an eel, you wouldn’t want to give off the wrong signals.

In the early 19th century, two Irishmen based in Edinburgh, William Burke and William Hare, killed 16 victims and sold their bodies to an anatomist named Dr Knox. Eventually, Hare turned Burke in, and the latter was executed. Dr Knox escaped but ended his days performing with a troop of Ojibwa Indians in a travelling circus.

“Painting the Forth bridge” entered popular lexicon to mean a never-ending job, but the development of new paint and the end of a 10-year painting and maintenance project in 2011 means it won’t need to be painted again for another 20 years.

The most plausible etymology for the Pope’s Latin title “Pontifex Maximus” is “chief bridge-builder” (whence also “pontificate”). This was the title given to the second highest-ranking priest in ancient Rome. As with the papacy, this was a political office as well as a spiritual one: Julius Caesar was elected Pontifex Maximus in 63 BC.

People who are lactose intolerant don’t produce lactase – but it is lactose tolerance, rather than intolerance, which is a genetic mutation. All Neanderthals were lactose intolerant; but 7,500 years ago a mutation among the European human population, who were already keeping cattle for meat, enabled them to digest cow’s milk more easily. As a result, there is great variation around the world – only 1 in 50 of those of Swedish descent are lactose intolerant compared to nearly everyone of Chinese descent.

Elephants aren’t afraid of mice, but, as Roman legionaries discovered, the squealing of pigs upsets them. They are also wary of bees. In 2010, a researcher named Lucy King worked out that East African elephants make an “alarm” noise when in an area filled with bees. To protect crops from marauding bands of elephants she attached beehives to fences on 34 Kenyan farms. As the elephants shook the fences, the bees emerged and the elephants fled.

Guerrilla knitting is not to be confused with extreme knitting. Extreme knitters knit while doing other things like running or riding a tandem. The world record for knitting a scarf while running a marathon is held by 55-year-old Susie Hewer; she also has the crotchet marathon record, and the one for knitting on the back of a tandem. She does it to raise money for Alzheimer’s research.

For many centuries, there were just four key components of scent. Musk is a red jelly found in deer-guts: it produces hormonal changes in any woman who smells it. Ambergris is a glutinous fluid found in the stomachs of sperm whales that protects them from the sharp beaks of the squid they swallow. It has a sweet, woody smell. Castoreum, a yellow secretion from the anal glands of mature beavers, has a whiff of leather. Civet is a honey-like goo exuded from the genitals of a nocturnal, fox-like, carnivorous relative of the mongoose. Nowadays, these are reproduced in the laboratory but there remains an enduring connection between bottoms and perfume. The organic chemical indole is widely used in the perfume industry. It smells floral in low doses, but at high concentrations it is what gives our faeces their characteristic smell

Plenty of Old Norse words permeated Anglo-Saxon, and so survived into the English that we speak today. Without the Vikings we wouldn’t have words such as anger, birth, cake, dirt, freckles, hell, ugly, weak, husband, wife, skill, skull or slaughter. The Tyn, the parliament of the Isle of Man, is named after the þing (pronounced “thing”), which was the public assembly of Norse culture. And the medical term for a hangover is “veisalgia”, an untidy tacking on to the Greek word for pain of the Old Norse kveis: “unease after debauchery”.

The American opossum (Didelphis virginianus), will try hissing, growling, baring its teeth and biting; but if all else fails it feigns death, known as letisimulation. It collapses to the ground, foams at the mouth and then remains motionless, with its teeth bared. It even produces a rank smell. It doesn’t choose to do this: it’s an involuntary response to stress. A letisimulant possum can stay comatose for hours, regaining consciousness only when the predator has gone.

Jelly gives the same reading on an electroencephalography (EEG) machine, used to measure brain activity, as a human brain. Jellies show the same rhythms that human brains display when the person is awake but has their eyes closed. Going by the EEG results, a jelly would qualify as alive enough to not have its life support machine turned off. The jelly appears to absorb electro-magnetic signals from the machinery in the room which gives it these “alive” readings.

Soon after come the crocuses, which are members of the iris family, Iridaceae. This makes it a member of the newly reclassified order Asparagales, which also includes snowdrops, daffodils, hyacinths, asparagus, onions, garlic and agave cactus, and all 26,000 species of orchid. As plant groupings go, it is second in economic importance to the cereals. One species, Crocus sativa, is the source of all the saffron in the world – it can take between 85,000 and 140,000 crocuses to make a single kilo of saffron. It is the world’s most expensive spice (the name is originally Persian: zaferân). The town of Saffron Walden in Essex was the centre of the English saffron trade from the 16th century onwards. Until than it had been called Chipping Walden. The industry supposedly owes its origin to a pilgrim from the Middle East who smuggled back a single stolen bulb, sometime in the 14th century.


Genghis and the original Khan Academy

May 11, 2014

It’s one of history’s great counterfactuals. The year is 1241 and the Mongols are camped outside Vienna as part of their plan to invade Western Europe. They have twelve years to complete this mission and are already ahead of schedule.

In a mere quarter of a century the Mongol hordes subjugated more lands and people than the Romans had managed in four centuries. The majority of people alive today live reside in countries conquered by the Mongols – three billion people in 30 countries. All this was achieved with a population of one million and an army just 100,000 strong.  Genghis Khan conquered more than twice as much as any other man in history. In his book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World Jack Weatherford paints a graphic picture of the sheer size of this empire:

The hooves of the Mongol warriors’ horses splashed in the waters of every river and lake from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. At its zenith, the empire covered between 11 and 12 million contiguous square miles, an area about the size of the African continent and considerably larger than North America, including the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central America, and the islands of the Caribbean combined. It stretched from the snowy tundra of Siberia to the hot plains of India, from the rice paddies of Vietnam to the wheat fields of Hungary, and from Korea to the Balkans.

So things were not looking good for Western Europe in 1241. But then Ogedei Khan, the Emperor of the Mongol Empire, and the third son of Genghis Khan, passes away, exposing the greatest flaw in the Mongol fighting machine. There had to be a meeting to choose a new leader. This took all of five years and in the meantime the Mongols European tour had to be put on hold. Not until five years had passed would Guyuk become the new Khan. After this prolonged instability, Batu Khan,a Mongol ruler and grandson of Genghis, felt he was not capable of launching an invasion and the Mongol Empire would never again so directly threaten the region that would soon come to dominate the world. History may well have turned out very differently had Ogedai not died. Can you imagine if the Americans had suspended their participation in WWII after the death of FDR?

Be that as it may, we cannot take away the enormous achievements of the Mongols. The architect was Genghis Khan. He was born Temujin, but the rest of the details about his early are somewhat sketchy. He was born somewhere in Mongolia, sometime around 1162. When Temujin was nine, a rival tribe, the Tatars, murdered his father, and he and his family became outcasts on the Mongolian steppe. Temujin had to fight for supremacy within his family; he killed his older half-brother, ostensibly for not sharing the food he had caught in a hunt. At the age of sixteen Temujin got married, but a rival tribe kidnapped his wife. Although he got her back quickly, she was pregnant, so the paternity of that son, his eldest, would always remain in doubt.

Most of Temujin’s career was not spent conquering the world, but consolidating the tribes of the Mongolian steppe into a single fighting nation. He incorporated conquered tribes into his army by scattering them across his organization. After many hard years of bloodletting the Mongol army became a fusion of diverse clans. They had finally abandoned their petty feuds and grudges ; they now owed their undivided allegiance to one leader. In 1206 a gathering of the unified tribes of Mongolia proclaimed Temujin to be Genghis Khan, ruler of the world. He would soon live up to his name.

Until I started reading about it I was not really aware of the genius of what Genghis and his successors achieved with an army that would fit into a large football stadium. What were the keys to their success? The Mongol weapons were the best in the world. The composite bow had its origins in the ancient world, but the Mongols had mastered its use, firing arrows as they rode. They were brilliant horsemen and this gave them the ability to suddenly appear in front of city walls, making Mongol armies appear much larger than they actually were. The word ordu, which originally referred to a Mongol military unit, came into English as horde. It usually has a negative connotation, implying an unruly or dangerous mob. They were also able to appropriate the best inventions from their conquests and were particularly skilful with siege engines. They were undoubtedly tough soldiers. They invaded Russia in winter, succeeding where both Napoleon and Hitler would subsequently fail. They had a unique mastery of military tactics, experts in subterfuge and psychological warfare.

One feature I love about the Mongols is their threatening letters. Nobody does intimidation quite like them. Before conquering a place, they would send a letter inviting the rulers to surrender. Indeed, I am rather surprised nobody has written a book with a title like Business Correspondence the Genghis Khan Way. Here is one sent to Qutuz the Mamluk:

You should think of what happened to other countries and submit to us. You have heard how we have conquered a vast empire and have purified the earth of the disorders that tainted it. We have conquered vast areas, massacring all the people. You cannot escape from the terror of our armies. Where can you flee? What road will you use to escape us? Our horses are swift, our arrows sharp, our swords like thunderbolts, our hearts as hard as the mountains, our soldiers as numerous as the sand. Fortresses will not detain us, nor arms stop us. Your prayers to God will not avail against us. We are not moved by tears nor touched by lamentations. Only those who beg our protection will be safe. Hasten your reply before the fire of war is kindled. Resist and you will suffer the most terrible catastrophes. We will shatter your mosques and reveal the weakness of your God and then we will kill your children and your old men together. At present you are the only enemy against whom we have to march.”

Genghis has been a figure who has provoked very strong reactions. I grew up with the image of Genghis Khan the bloodthirsty barbarian. The tribe of Genghis Khan acquired a variety of names—Tartar, Tatar, Mughal, Moghul, and Mongol—but they all shared negative connotations. When nineteenth-century scientists of a social Darwinist bent were explaining to distraught mothers how they could give birth to a retarded child they used the term mongoloid. One of the child’s ancestors must have been raped by a Mongol warrior. These unfortunate children were not white, but members of the Mongoloid race. And those ruthless capitalists became known as moguls, the Persian name for Mongols.

What’s more the Mongols were the perfect scapegoats for other nations’ failures. Jack Weatherford puts it like this:

When Russia could not keep up with the technology of the West or the military power of imperial Japan, it was because of the terrible Tatar Yoke put on her by Genghis Khan. When Persia fell behind its neighbours, it was because the Mongols had destroyed its irrigation system. When China lagged behind Japan and Europe, the cause was the cruel exploitation and repression by its Mongol and Manchu overlords. When India could not resist British colonization, it was because of the rapacious greed of Moghul rule. In the twentieth century, Arab politicians even assured their followers that Muslims would have invented the atomic bomb before the Americans if only the Mongols had not burned the Arabs’ magnificent libraries and levelled their cities.”

However, there is now a revisionist take on Genghis, of which Weatherford is the chief defence counsel:

The Mongols made no technological breakthroughs, founded no new religions, wrote few books or dramas, and gave the world no new crops or methods of agriculture. Their own craftsmen could not weave cloth, cast metal, make pottery, or even bake bread. They manufactured neither porcelain nor pottery, painted no pictures, and built no buildings. Yet, as their army conquered culture after culture, they collected and passed all of these skills from one civilization to the next.

Well, what did the Mongols ever do for us? Weatherford provides a list of everything we have the Mongols to thank for. In the political and legal sphere he points out how Genghis abolished the feudal system of aristocratic privilege and birth, replacing it with a new and unique system based on individual merit, loyalty, and achievement. In a world where many rulers considered themselves above the law, Genghis Khan insisted on laws holding rulers accountable. He insisted that the rule of law be maintained and he abolished torture. Religious freedom was the norm within the empire. He refused to hold hostages and was a pioneer in granting diplomatic immunity for all ambassadors and envoys, even those from enemy nations. In the economic domain he created what was history’s largest free-trade zone, lowering taxes for everyone. He introduced a regular census and created the first international postal system. He widely distributed the goods acquired in combat allowing them to make their way back into commercial circulation.

There is a cult of Genghis Khan in Mongolia and surprisingly China too is getting in on the act. In the former you can find his name adorning banknotes, stamps, vodka bottles chocolate bars, beer bottles, hotels and, much to the chagrin of a colleague of mine who thinks that they shouldn’t be named after people who lived and died before the invention of air travel, Ulaanbaatar’s international airport. In his biography of Genghis Khan, John Man describes the Mausoleum of Genghis Khan, which is in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia:

Here, Genghis’s spirit is honoured in a combination of Buddhist and shamanistic rituals, as ancestor, dynastic founder and divinity. A 4-metre marble statue of Genghis, seated with hands on knees, is a focal point for numerous observances; worshippers burn incense-sticks and mutter prayers to ‘relics’; murals portray Genghis as the genius who built a bridge between east and west, across which flow scholars, merchants and artists, lost in wonder, love and praise.

I welcome some of this revisionism. To write them off as barbarians is wrong. He lived in brutal times. We should really avoid the idea of Mongol exceptionalism. Having said all that I don’t think we should start talking about some kind of touch-feely Genghis. What he was was ruthless and what set the Mongols apart was their effectiveness. It is true that the Mongols operated a virtual propaganda machine that consistently inflated the number of people killed in battle to intimidate future opponents, making it difficult to know about the precise numbers. Nevertheless, he was responsible for tens of millions of deaths. Yet there are attempts to whitewash all this. Some defences sound suspiciously like holocaust denial. Going back to the counterfactual I posed at the beginning, I would have to say that, although I can now appreciate the genius of Genghis Khan and the machine he created, I am probably glad that the Mongols  didn’t get round to conquering Western Europe. Perhaps I would now be here with a Genghis Khan beer in my hand. Now there’s a thought.


Genghis Khan by Dschinghis Khan

May 11, 2014

Tonight has seen the Eurovision song contest. I hate this contest, but while I was researching this piece I came across this song from the 1979 edition, which unjustly came in only fourth.

Hu, ha, hu, ha… hu, ha, hu, ha…

Hu, ha, hu, ha… hu, ha, hu, ha…

Hu, ha, hu, ha, hu, ha, hu, ha…

They rode the fastest horses

Left the wind behind

Thousand men

Ha, hu, ha…

And one man led the way

The others followed by:

Genghis Khan

Ha, hu, ha…

They gallopped over mountains and desert-sands

They carried desolation throughout the land

And nothing there could stop them in this world

Hu, ha…

Gen… Gen… Genghis Khan

Hey, rider; ho, rider; go, rider

Let us follow

Gen… Gen… Genghis Khan

Hey, brother; ho, brother; hey, brother

Hear us holler

Who cares where we’re going

Ho, ho, ho, ho…

There’s no way of knowing

Ha, ha, ha, ha…

And we’ll let the Devil take our souls

Gen… Gen… Genghis Khan

Hey, rider; ho, rider; go, rider

Let us follow

Gen… Gen… Genghis Khan

Go, brother; dream, brother; dance, brother

Hear us holler

You can hear his laughter

Ho, ho, ho, ho…

Now and ever-after

Ha, ha, ha, ha…

When he lifts his glass up in the air

He was the greatest lover

And the strongest man

Of his day

Ha, hu, ha…

And we have heard that

All the women fell for him

So they say

Ha, hu, ha…

And he bred seven children in one whole night

He had his girls around him at his very sight

And nothing that could stop him in this world

Hu, ha…

Gen… Gen… Genghis Khan

Hey, rider; ho, rider; go, rider

Let us follow

Gen… Gen… Genghis Khan

Hey, brother; ho, brother; hey, brother

Hear us holler

Who cares where we’re going

Ho, ho, ho, ho…

There’s no way of knowing

Ha, ha, ha, ha…

And we’ll let the Devil take our souls

Gen… Gen… Genghis Khan

Hey, rider; ho, rider; go, rider

Let us follow

Gen… Gen… Genghis Khan

Go, brother; dream, brother; dance, brother

Hear us holler

You can hear his laughter

Ho, ho, ho, ho…

Now and ever-after

Ha, ha, ha, ha…

When he lifts his glass up in the air

Ha… hu, ha, hu…

And as an extra treat we have the spoof group Bad News and their Warriors Of Genghis Khan: