culture


When was this written, and of what dance?

The music is sensuous, the embracing of partners– the female is only half dressed– is absolutely indecent; and the motions– they are such as may not be described, with any respect for propriety,  in a family newspaper.

(Answer: 1921; of the foxtrot.)

Advertisements

Very interesting article on the evolution of money from David Graeber, an anthropologist.  Apparently economists since Adam Smith have been telling a story that before money there was “barter”.  You’d have a cow and somebody else had arrowheads and, having failed to invent money, you’d work out a direct trade. 

Problem is, anthropologists have been looking for such a system for two hundred years and there just isn’t one.  Individual barters exist, of course, but no barter systems (with the exception of protocols that have emerged in societies where money was already invented but is temporarily unavailable, such as prison).

Instead there’s a plethora of exchange systems, all tied inextricably to the rest of society.  Often the basis is generalized reciprocity.  You want those arrowheads, you praise them, and the other guy gives them to you.  He loudly declaims any desire for recompense, but of course you both know that you owe him one.  At a later point you have a cow and he needs one and you give it to him.  It all works out because you are part of a tiny community, know each other, and any injustices will cause trouble.

Also see this post, where he describes some protocols for trade between different primitive communities, where a trade involves the whole communities, threats of war, and wife-swapping.  Homo oeconomus, the purely rational trade envisioned by Smith, need not apply.

Where did money come from?  In the Middle East, at least, Graeber suggests two major sources for the idea of a unit of value:

  • The accounting systems of large non-state enterprises– namely, temple complexes.  These were complex institutions which had land, farmers, workshops… they started reckoning things in silver and grain just to keep track of things.  Note that money existed as a means of valuation long before it existed as a unit of exchange.
  • Legal systems.  In particular, there was a desire to establish set valuations for things that were damaged: physical goods, lives, body parts, even one’s honor.  He notes that medieval Welsh law codes included precise valuations for all the things found in a home, from cooking utensils to floorboards, at a time when no markets existed where these things could be bought.  You wanted these valuations not to buy the things, but to get recompense if someone destroyed them.

Anyway, much food for thought for conworlders, especially if you have a stage of development before the invention of markets.

Several years ago in Reconstituting America, you said that Southern Secession might be a good idea. In 2011, when 46% of Mississipi Republicans support banning interracial marriage, do you still think it would be a wise choice?

—Campbell

This shows the danger of what I call bullet point politics… making policy based on the worst couple mistakes or outrages of the Other Side.  So a minority of a minority in one Southern state turns out to have some highly unreconstructed views.  Is this even a real worry?  Is anyone proposing delegalization?

More significant is the fact that blacks are voting with their feet— at least a million blacks have moved from the North to the South in the last 30 years.  The percent of blacks who live in the South is now 57%, its highest rate in half a century.  So quite a few blacks believe that it’s a New South indeed.

Apparently it’s become a trope of the right to believe that the Confederates had thousands of black soldiers.  Actual historians’ estimates: less than twelve.

Ta-Nehisi makes the depressing point that people just want to believe these myths that make their past seem better.  But there’s a more optimistic take: we really have moved forward in 150 years, to the point that the Southern position before the Civil War– that secession and war were better than having to pay wages to blacks– makes no sense to people any more.

Very telling chart from the New York Times, showing divorce rates, teenage birthrates, and subscriptions to porn sites, sorted into red and blue states:

Divorce, teen births, porn by red/blue states

Divorce, teen births, porn by red/blue states

Notice a pattern?  Red states cluster at the top, blue at the bottom.  To put it simply, conservative moralism doesn’t produce morality… quite the opposite.

Though I have my doubts about the last column… who subscribes to porn sites?  Listen, you red staters, I’ll tell you a secret… you don’t have to pay for it. 

Here’s a fascinating article by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Magazine, surely one of the only times I’ve ever linked to something about sports.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/15/magazine/15Battier-t.html?_r=2&ref=magazine&pagewanted=all

It focusses on Shane Battier of the Houston Rockets, a player his own front office admits is “a marginal NBA athlete”… who nonetheless has an uncanny ability to make his team win.  Both teams he’s played for started out losing and ended up in multiple playoff seasons.  Battier doesn’t score well by any conventional metric… but he’s an outlier on several unconventional metrics.  Something about his play makes his team play better and his opponents worse. 

It’s an offshoot of the statistical methods that began in baseball and are now being applied to other sports, but it’s also a spotlight on what makes teams gel, why it’s important to ask exactly what we’re measuring, and why we need more than superstars.

Ben McGrath has an interesting article in last week’s New Yorker on “The Dystopians“– people who look forward, with barely concealed glee, to complete social collapse.

They have a point– the late-20C American lifestyle is not economically sustainable– but it gets lost in priggishness.  McGrath spends some time with James Kunstler, who gets points for predicting the housing crisis, and loses them for having predicted that Y2K would be a big disaster.  Among Kunstler’s signs of the apocalypse: obesity, tattoos, ugly buildings, large cities, kids and their bongs, Wall Street investors, flat screen TVs, Wal-Marts.  Basically, anything they don’t like becomes a sign of the upcoming barbarity.  It becomes a pleasant revenge fantasy to picture people “studying to be hedge-fund managers” and ending up “supervisors of rutabaga pickers.”  (I guess even after the apocalypse, American managers will think they can manage things they don’t understand.)

Some of the doomsayers are busy making plans– one guy has relocated to a boat, so he can become a maritime trader after the collapse.  Kunstler has a shotgun.  Planning is admirable, but these preparations strike me as another type of fantasy, a hope that the post-apocalypse will basically resemble the 1840s.  Somehow we’ll bypass all the nukes and wars and plagues and looting and just settle into a more rural, more virtuous lifestyle.

Doomsaying is an ancient business, and given human nature, it’s sometimes accurate.  But it doesn’t perceive– it doesn’t want to perceive– human adaptability.  Kunstler describes the 20th century as a “horror show”, and of course it was.  But it was also a dizzying display of progress.  If a European of 1900 would be dismayed at two upcoming world wars and a clash of totalitarianisms, he would also be astonished at the European Union, unparalleled health and prosperity, the Internet, and the progress of China and India from basket cases to powerhouses.

Also, a hint to aspiring dystopians: if you don’t want to look risible in twenty years and validate the scoffers, don’t foresee an early collapse.  2012 is wishful thinking.

« Previous PageNext Page »