June 01, 2006

Cossacks Laughing At The Man,

I was reading about this painting today, done by the Russian Repin over ten years ending about 1891; it was done in an era of popular Russian nostaglia for the mythology of the Cossacks, here writing a letter of insults in reply to a Sultan who insisted on Surrender.

Few major paintings in history represent a lot of men laughing loud, not slyly smirking. The red faced fellow to the right of the scribe is actually laughing so hard tears are streaming across his face.

Repin worked years to get the costumes and items shown. There is a political and social subtext for this nostaglia; this late stage of Czarist Russia had rapidly built the machinery of a police state, and had a profoundly horrible bureaucracy. The Cossacks consciously represented a non-hierarchical idea of manhood: those depicted in the paniting had no aristocracy, sporting a sort of piratocracy, with its appealing sense of liberation ( and horrifing sense of war-making cruelty). Interesting that there is revival of Cossack culture in contemporary Russia.

But what struck me was a reference to the Cossacks real fear of writing: they not only didn't read, they avoided it deliberately, considering writing, used for accounting, proclamations, dissemination of ideology, taxes, and laws a fundamental instrument of oppression.

The code of Hammurabi, the ancient Mesopotamian federal register on this law rock, suggests they were right.

That intro to the code - does it sound at all familiar?

...Then Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak; so that I should rule over the black-headed people like Shamash, and enlighten the land, to further the well-being of mankind. Hammurabi, the prince, called of Bel am I, making riches and increase, enriching Nippur and Dur-ilu beyond compare, sublime patron of E-kur; who reestablished Eridu and purified the worship of E-apsu; who conquered the four quarters of the world, made great the name of Babylon....


1. If any one ensnare another, putting a ban upon him, but he can not prove it, then he that ensnared him shall be put to death.

2. If any one bring an accusation against a man, and the accused go to the river and leap into the river, if he sink in the river his accuser shall take possession of his house. But if the river prove that the accused is not guilty, and he escape unhurt, then he who had brought the accusation shall be put to death, while he who leaped into the river shall take possession of the house that had belonged to his accuser.

5. If a judge try a case, reach a decision, and present his judgment in writing; if later error shall appear in his decision, and it be through his own fault, then he shall pay twelve times the fine set by him in the case, and he shall be publicly removed from the judge's bench, and never again shall he sit there to render judgement.

53. If any one be too lazy to keep his dam in proper condition, and does not so keep it; if then the dam break and all the fields be flooded, then shall he in whose dam the break occurred be sold for money, and the money shall replace the corn which he has caused to be ruined.


108. If a tavern-keeper (feminine) does not accept corn according to gross weight in payment of drink, but takes money, and the price of the drink is less than that of the corn, she shall be convicted and thrown into the water.

109. If conspirators meet in the house of a tavern-keeper, and these conspirators are not captured and delivered to the court, the tavern-keeper shall be put to death.

110. If a "sister of a god" open a tavern, or enter a tavern to drink, then shall this woman be burned to death, and her bottle will be shared by the others sitting at the bar.

OK, I made that last part up.

It's fascinating reading, and for all the harsh punishments, it established the idea of innocent until proven guilty, and a clear interest in codifying the notion of balance in jursiprudence. But today, thinking of the NSA's ability to build up a thorough picture of the historical behavior of nearly everyone, the Credit bureaus infused into every aspect of decision making, the Yahoos willing to sell you out to dictatorships, databases themselves are starting to call major decisions in our lives, and the simple fact of increasingly complete recording of events and never-ending scrutiny transmutes intrinsic freedom into a narrowing set of permitted choices. Because of the concentration of economic and political power, and the ubiquity of data collection, we're making the cultural changes a free people makes as it becomes heavily controlled.

I may be with the Cossacks on this one.


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