History

History Will Be The Judge Of Me

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A new exhibit opened on Friday at the Houston Museum of Natural Science entitled Genghis Khan (you can probably guess what it's about). What is striking, though, is the Genghis-friendly tone taken by the curators. The exhibition website introduces us to a kinder, gentler Khanny:

"A brilliant adaptor [sic] and innovator, he united disparate cultures while establishing a meritocracy in government and encouraging religious and artistic freedom within his empire.

"Genghis Khan adapted the latest in technology and pioneering strategies in both conquest and rule of his still unrivaled dominion. Siege machinery, psychological warfare, printing presses, and even germ warfare figured in Genghis Khan's spectacular victories. 

"Khan's innovations did not end with the battle won. He established a meritocracy, freedom of arts and religion, and created a safe and secure web of international trade coordinated via sophisticated book-keeping and a network of toll roads. It is Genghis Khan who created national parks, popularized the printed book, paper money and much more."

Woh. That guy sure did a lot for freedom.

Morris Rossabi, a Mongol expert at Columbia University and one of the advisers to the exhibit, takes a few steps back in this article:

"Until about 20 years ago, the Mongols and Genghis Khan were treated as simply plunderers, murderers, rapists, pillagers…We didn't ignore the massacring and the plundering, but there's another side to it."

According to Eurasianet, a website associated with the Central Eurasia Project of the Open Society Institute, "Some sloppy scholarship—most notably the bestseller Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford—has led to some misconceptions, such as that Genghis Khan was a democrat and invented international law."

The exhibit will feature many items that are available at your local Target: pots, plates, bowls, and a "15-foot-long equestrian statue of Genghis Khan".

Coming up in 2010: Nero: Family Man and Philanthropist.

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  1. Didn’t he do the pyramid of heads thing? And the molten silver into the eyes and ears bit? In fact, didn’t he order the horrific and brutal murder of lots and lots of people? I thought that was supposed to be bad.

  2. “A brilliant adaptor [sic] and innovator, he united disparate cultures while establishing a meritocracy in government and encouraging religious and artistic freedom within his empire.

    Almost sounds like Il Duce [B.H.O.]to me. Maybe this exhibit intends to surreptitiously prepare us for what’s coming under Duce’s rule . . . By making tyrants and murderers look not so bad. Don’t you think?

  3. Didn’t he do the pyramid of heads thing?

    That was Tamerlane. Even so, Genghis was no Darius The Great.

  4. National parks? Really?

  5. More than a third of all living people are descended from Genghis Khan.

    More than a third of all not living people would have been descended from people Genghis Khan killed.

  6. It is Genghis Khan who created national parks, popularized the printed book, paper money and much more.”

    That was his son, Kublai. Genghis cared not about other people’s culture and civilization, which may explain his lack of interest in reshaping people’s cultures and beliefs – Hmmm… Hey, you know what? That makes him a BETTER person than your average Progressive . . .

  7. Genghis represented many contradictions. A terrible and ruthless conquerer, he of course brought a kind of law and order to a land that was largely at the mercy of marauding plunderers. He was a kind of plunderer-in-chief, if you will.

    Also, and please feel free to correct me, during the time when he had China by the short hairs, he actually opened up trade, liberalized the economy and tempered China’s notorious Xenophobia.

  8. This exhibit sounds like something an idiot 5th grader would write for a paper on Genghis Khan that he started fifteen minutes before it was due.

  9. More than a third of all living people are descended from Genghis Khan.

    That explains a lot.

  10. Kublai was great. He hung out and smoked live cat bongs with Marco Polo and Marco’s dad and uncle. That’s how pasta was invented.

  11. Woh. That guy sure did a lot for freedom.

    We offered the world order!

  12. “We didn’t ignore the massacring and the plundering, but there’s another side to it.””

    OOh OOh OOh! I got one I got one.

    When weighing the social and humanitarian faux paux of owning Africans against the overall economic gains in the U.S., slavery was good for the nation.

  13. Also, and please feel free to correct me, during the time when he had China by the short hairs, he actually opened up trade, liberalized the economy and tempered China’s notorious Xenophobia.

    That was Kublai. And yes, he opened up trade. He also tried to invade Japan twice and lost his fleet in a storm, twice.

  14. lost his fleet in a storm

    Sort of like the Spanish Armada.

  15. He also tried to invade Japan twice and lost his fleet in a storm, twice.

    Well… nobody’s perfect.

  16. lost his fleet in a storm

    Sort of like the Spanish Armada.

    Well, a storm of superior English seamanship, fireships and yes, some less than desirable weather.

  17. against the overall economic gains in the U.S., slavery was good for the nation.

    Actually it wasn’t (economically good). It’s why Frederick Douglass noted that Baltimore, a fairly well off Southern city, was far poorer than Bridgeport, a middlin New England city.* The south remained economically retarded until they stopped treating black people like shit. Correlation without causation? yeah, likely, on balance. (it was AC that made the difference). But a south with legal apartheid lasting into the late 20th century would not have likely not have had BMW putting plants in Spartansburg or the Pentagon or Nasa pouring as much money into there in the later part of the Cold War.

    (now, to contend that the near genocide of the North American abroginal population may have been a necessary condition for American exceptionalism is an enitirely different matter – how’s that for utilitarianism?).

    *to be fair, this may have been abolitionist propoganda.

  18. Kolohe

    *to be fair, this may have been abolitionist propoganda.

    Slavery wasn’t economically advantageous. It’s been studied quite a bit. And logically, on its face while it might make sense in an agrarian economy where no mechanization exists- ie, the ONLY way of producing goods is by manual labor, sure if you don’t have to pay anyone a salary (but yet provide them housing and food) then yes, it might squeak by to be more efficient. But once you add in mechanization and other issues, slavery loses every time.

    Henry Ford wanted his employees to be able to afford his products. Can’t really do that with slavery.

  19. Slaves didn’t need much cotton. It was largely an export to the north. Slaves grew their own food, built their own shacks. When Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, there was an explosion in slave numbers due to the ability to clean cotton of its seed at an enormous rate and the fact that picking it was still done by hand.
    Your argument suggests that folks just owned blacks cause they were assholes. If their is no economic advantage, why else would they?

  20. Siege machinery, psychological warfare, printing presses, and even germ warfare…

    Well, being on the receiving end of a catapulted, infected printing press would tend to unnerve one.

    Genghis Khan…created national parks…paper money…

    I was willing to reconsider, but clearly he’s just a useless statist bastard.

  21. KHAAAAAAAAAAN!!!!!!

  22. In the novel Shogun Genghis Khan was described by one of the Japanese characters (Toranaga?) as, IIRC, “a barbarian who was very good at war”.

    I have nothing to add to that.

  23. Off topic, but isn’t it always in blogs like these?

    Slavery wasn’t economically advantageous. It’s been studied quite a bit.

    Totally agree. Indeed it has been studied quite a bit, by good historians who know enough of economics to find that slavery in the US was kept entirely by government fiat and not due to economic reasons; and by bad historians who know shit about economics and come to the same ridiculous “conclusion” that slavery must have been a good deal if the Southern states fought to keep it.

    Well, there’s Amtrak; it must be a good deal if it still exist, right??? And the State has gone out of its way to keep it . . .

  24. Forget the efficacy of slavery, this exhibition is saying the equivalent of “despite the unpleasant aspects of slavery, the ante-bellum South produced glorious architecture in the plantation homes, and encouraged the arts by inspiring the resident former Africans to produce ballads like ‘Please, Massah, don’ be whuppin’ me and selling my chilluns!’ “

  25. Captain, are you familiar with Lucifer’s response to God in Paradise Lost?

  26. Your argument suggests that folks just owned blacks cause they were assholes. If their is no economic advantage, why else would they?

    Brotherben. I think it’s a bit more complicated than that. Sometimes the fish don’t feel the water. To be more specific, when someone considers free labor (ie labor which has no salary) vs. salaried labor, the knee-jerk reaction is that the former must surely be cheaper than the latter. Here’s an interesting discussion and review of the economics of slavery. An excerpt:

    Gunderson does not understand that there is a difference between slave labor being “efficient” for the slave owner and its effect on society as a whole. Of course slavery was profitable to slave owners. This government-supported system helped them confiscate the fruits of the slaves’ labor. But since slave labor is inherently less efficient than free labor, and since so many resources had to be devoted to enforcing the system – most of which were the result of government interventions such as the Fugitive Slave Act, mandatory slave patrol laws, and laws that prohibited manumission – the system imposed huge burdens (“dead weight loss,” in the language of economics) on the rest of society. Free laborers and non-slave owners in the South (at least 80 percent of the adult population) were the primary victims of these government-imposed costs, and would have been a natural political constituency for their eventual abolition. As Hummel concluded, “In real terms, the entire southern economy, including both whites and blacks, was less prosperous” overall because of slavery.

  27. One more thing, Brotherben. If the slave owner can produce $1 of profit with slave labor, after all costs have been taken into account, including the original sale price of the slave, but could produce $1.25 with free labor, then the slave owner is still profitable. Just not as profitable and must be convinced that he’ll make $1.25 with free labor.

    And re: your “assholes” comment, I think that there actually was a component of that. If your entire worldview is predicated on the fact that blacks were no “better” than farm animals, then it’s likely that there was an element of assholishness wrapped up in the equation. Sure you could release the slaves, but why? They’re livestock for chrissakes.

  28. Paul, good points. Thanks for the link.
    As for your last paragraph: how in the name of God did people see blacks as chattel? That’s were my head explodes.

  29. If their is no economic advantage, why else would they?

    In addition to what Paul said, the yeoman whites had both a ‘false consiousness’ of throwing their lot in with the slaveowner class, as well as the likely correct preception that free blacks would economically directly compete with them – a perception which largely helped to keep segregation going as long as it did.

    Chris H-
    There are plenty of museums in the south that are not quite that explicit, but are darn close to it. There is on ongoing tension with both the Monticello and Mt Vernon estates on how much to emphasize or elide over the slave issue. And of course, there’s Gone with the Wind.

  30. Your argument suggests that folks just owned blacks cause they were assholes.

    There’s nothing the Because They Were Assholes theory of history can’t explain.

    (“Status” theorists are the Because They Were Assholes faction of economists, and they’re the least wrong.)

  31. Much the same thing happened with the Roman Empire. The importation of slaves captured from imperial conquests to the large estates pushed the Roman peasantry off of the land and into large urban slums, where they had to be supported by the grain barge, which necessitated continued control of Egypt to keep the shipments going. Sort of like what the welfare state is shortly going to do to us now that we’ve completely given up on ever trying to balance the budget. Perpetual stimulus leading to collapse.

  32. Will he, so wise, let loose at once his ire,
    Belike through impotence or unaware,
    To give his enemies their wish, and end
    Them in his anger whom his anger saves
    To punish endless? “Wherefore cease we, then?”
    Say they who counsel war; “we are decreed,
    Reserved, and destined to eternal woe;
    Whatever doing, what can we suffer more,
    What can we suffer worse?” Is this, then, worst–
    Thus sitting, thus consulting, thus in arms?
    What when we fled amain, pursued and struck
    With Heaven’s afflicting thunder, and besought
    The Deep to shelter us? This Hell then seemed
    A refuge from those wounds. Or when we lay
    Chained on the burning lake? That sure was worse.
    What if the breath that kindled those grim fires,
    Awaked, should blow them into sevenfold rage,
    And plunge us in the flames; or from above
    Should intermitted vengeance arm again
    His red right hand to plague us? What if all
    Her stores were opened, and this firmament
    Of Hell should spout her cataracts of fire,
    Impendent horrors, threatening hideous fall
    One day upon our heads; while we perhaps,
    Designing or exhorting glorious war,
    Caught in a fiery tempest, shall be hurled,
    Each on his rock transfixed, the sport and prey
    Or racking whirlwinds, or for ever sunk
    Under yon boiling ocean, wrapt in chains,
    There to converse with everlasting groans,
    Unrespited, unpitied, unreprieved,
    Ages of hopeless end? This would be worse.

  33. In “Murderers In Mausoleums” Jeffrey Tayler wrote about people worshipping at a shrine to Ghengis Khan in Mongolia. They were a bit offended when he refused.

  34. Didn’t he do the pyramid of heads thing? And the molten silver into the eyes and ears bit? In fact, didn’t he order the horrific and brutal murder of lots and lots of people? I thought that was supposed to be bad.

    Hey, he created national parks. Omelets, eggs.

  35. I could see them making: Nero: Urban Redeveloper

    Seriously though, the Khan exhibit sounds cool and I might head into the city to see it. Speaking of the Museum of Natural History anthropology department, it is about time they added a permanent exhibit on Western European cultures. Having only non-Western cultures on display is a throw back to the days when anthropologists classified non-Western people as part of the “natural” world right next to the animals.

  36. Actually, we can probably thank Genghis Khan for the modern world since he and his heirs pretty much wiped out or set back all of the serious competitors to Western European civilization.

  37. Hitler did some bad things, yes, but those Autobahns kick ASS!

  38. Coming up in 2010: Nero: Family Man and Philanthropist.

    I think we can all agree that Caligula was much more of a family man than Nero could ever have been. And he was an animal lover to boot.

  39. Slavery is economically advantageous when there is a relative labor shortage. Cotton couldn’t be grown economically by small farmers in the South, and large landowners couldn’t afford to pay wages that would get workers to give up their own small farms to become tenants or laborers. So you force some people to labor for you to artificially depress the cost of labor and gain control over the allocation of labor.

    The North could have done the same with enslaved factory workers. But they had a larger population, less quality farm land, and an influx of immigrants providing willing labor.

    The same thing was achieved later with sharecroppers and Jim Crow, combined with convict labor rented to farmers by colluding governments.

  40. so a museum exhibit on the effect the autobahn had on german culture would be – dare we say it – verboten?

  41. so a museum exhibit on the effect the autobahn had on german culture would be – dare we say it – verboten?

    No, but as part of an overall exhibit talking about how cool it was that Hitler stabilized the currency and revived national pride — yeah, and he did some bad things too, but let’s look at the whole man — he was wonderful to animals and good with children, would make me think the curators were being open-minded to the point where their brains were falling out.

  42. eh the Houston museum sucks anyway.

    Except when Body Worlds is there.

    Now that’s an exhibit I can get behind.

  43. “No, but as part of an overall exhibit talking about how cool it was that Hitler stabilized the currency and revived national pride — yeah, and he did some bad things too, but let’s look at the whole man — he was wonderful to animals and good with children, would make me think the curators were being open-minded to the point where their brains were falling out.”

    is that what is going on here? is this exhibit really about how genghis khan was a swell chap?

    here’s the deal: if i walked up to any random person on any random street there’s very little chance they would know more than a handful of things about genghis khan. a museum exhibit that touches on other parts of his life and his culture’s historical legacy hardly seems out of sorts.

    to use another example, would an exhibit on the art of the mughal empire require a disclaimer?

    is there any historical exhibit that wouldn’t?

  44. I wonder if there is any estimate of the largest mass killings in proportion to total world population at that time. I’m sure the 20th century baddies killed more in raw numbers, but my guess is that old timers like Genghis killed quite a few more per capita.

    Also, Genghis gave us the yummy noodles and cute waitresses of the Mongolian grill restaurant chain, which totally justifies any prior crimes against humanity.

  45. lost his fleet in a storm

    Sort of like the Spanish Armada.

    “Well, a storm of superior English seamanship, fireships and yes, some less than desirable weather.”

    …ships sunk in battle: 5. Ships lost by the Sp. Armada on the long way back around Scotland: 150.

    methinks the superior seamanship bit is schoolboy propaganda….

  46. Captain Kirk,

    Thanks, I thought we’d neglected the required “Khaaaan” moment. You forgot the mandatory link, though.

  47. is that what is going on here? is this exhibit really about how genghis khan was a swell chap?

    Seeing as how I’m about 2,000 away from this museum and unlikely to visit in in person, I’m going by what I read here.

  48. he united disparate cultures

    That’s some good spin, there. Nothing like slaughter, rape, and subjugation to “unite” some of them “disparate cultures.” What a multi-culti dude he was.

  49. “Seeing as how I’m about 2,000 away from this museum and unlikely to visit in in person, I’m going by what I read here.”

    as am i. especially that “we didn’t ignore the plundering and massacres” bit. almost like they’re approaching history from a distance of many years with a somewhat dispassionate approach.

    i just don’t see the whole “he was a great guy” bit. the roman empire (temporarily) united a lot of cultures, too. is saying that out loud that somehow a rah rah for imperialism?

    if not, why not?

  50. The joke’s on you: there is already a whitewash of Nero, at least in print. It’s by Edward Champlin.

    Champlin’s book is doubly relevant to this topic, because it claims that Nero’s sole aim was to burnish his public image; that is, he was a small-d democrat.

  51. Interesting set of comments and observations.

    For those who are interested in the Genghis Khan exhibit and want to exactly what is in it, the museum website offers plenty of information. Here is the link: http://www.hmns.org/exhibits/special_exhibits/genghis_khan.asp

    With regards to a permanent display on Western European culture, there are also requests coming in to enlarge the Hall of the Americas, to include more of Texas’ prehistory.

    Since the museum owns more American Indian artifacts than Greek, Roman or Egyptian artifacts, the solution has been – up until now – to host temporary exhibits on those topics.

    Most recently: Imperial Rome (see: http://www.hmns.org/exhibits/past_exhibits/imperial_rome.asp) Other, non-American archaeology exhibits hosted by the museum include:
    Mesopotamia (http://www.hmns.org/exhibits/past_exhibits/royal_tombs.asp)
    Tibet (http://tibet.hmns.org/)
    Dead Sea Scrolls, Machu Picchu and Chocolate.

    Information on those exhibits and others that were once at the museums can be found at: http://www.hmns.org/exhibits/past_exhibits.asp

  52. Funny how the Central Asian guy who kicked a lot of European butt might get a raw deal in Western histories, isn’t it?

    That said, Genghis was a nomad. I find it hard to believe he’d be such a great friend of civilization when he carried all his stuff around on ponies with him.

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