The Dawn of Everything

I just finished The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow. Sadly this was Graeber’s last book. There is a lot to this book, I wish I’d read it before finishing the MECK, and anyone interesting in history or conworlding should run out and get it. But there are caveats, oh yes. They can be too breezy, they don’t always prove their points, and sometimes prove the wrong points.

What says “hierarchy” more than the temple of a divinized king? (Šu-Sin, of Sumer, circa 2000 BCE.)

I liked Debt: The First 5000 Years when it stuck to Graeber’s specialty, anthropology: his account of modern times was, as the kids say, cringe. This book barely discusses anything past 1800, which is a huge improvement. His co-author is an archeologist, and this helps too.

They started out to write a history of inequality, and (spoiler alert) found out that there could be no such thing. Too many assumptions, you see. The whole idea depends on what “inequality” is, and there is no real definition; and neither anthropology nor archeology unearths a period when there was equality and then a sudden, inexorable eruption of inequality after it.

Rousseau vs Hobbes

They trace our received notions back to two opposing theorists, Rousseau and Hobbes. Jean-Jacques Rousseau didn’t really talk about the “noble savage”, but that’s a fair summary of his ideas. His 1754 Discourse on the Origins and the Foundations of Inequality Among Mankind supposed that prehistoric humans lived in idyllic conditions, which were egalitarian but only because there was no way not to be. Then agriculture and the state came in, and everything went to hell: we got not only inequality, but patriarchy, war, debt, property, and slavery.

In the other corner, we have Thomas Hobbes, whose 1651 Leviathan famously asserted that prehistoric life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” A state of continual war and poverty, in other words, only ended when people started living in cities (civitas > civilization; polis > politics and politeness).

The first thing to notice is that political theorists have barged in and chosen sides. Conservatives tend to like Hobbes: they like the past, but not the far far past… they tend to be happiest with the 19th century UK or USA, and think that Western civilization was a matter of progress and prosperity, until the hippies appeared. Plus, you know, they like inequality, so they blame Rousseau for even questioning the idea, and probably causing the American and French revolutions.

Now, if you keep up with these topics at all– or if you’ve simply read my books– you know that Hobbes was simply wrong. Anthropologists have found that hunter-gatherers are pretty happy in general: they are usually egalitarian, they work only about 10 hours a week, they have an impressive command of their local environment. And archeology confirms that when people take up agriculture, they live shorter lives, are unhealthier, pick up diseases and parasites, and of course suffer from patriarchy and all those other ills. When comparing time periods, people often bring up modern medicine; but modern medicine got going surprisingly late: well into the 20th century. Any time prior to 1900, you were better off as a hunter-gatherer than as a peasant.

This is so well established that the Davids don’t spend much time on Hobbes. (They don’t engage with conservatism at all, really.) Rousseau is another matter.

We can now get to the thesis of the book:

  • Things were way more complicated– and more interesting– than Rousseau thought. (To be fair, Rousseau was consciously idealizing.)
  • Historical utopianism is just as alienating and dismissive as dystopianism. If hunter-gatherers were happy because of their lifestyle, they have nothing to teach us, because we sure as hell aren’t going to adopt it.
  • Viewing prehistory as an idyll also means that nothing really happened in it. It’s like the doctrine of the Fall: it’s an explanatory myth, but also a distancing one: as we can’t recapture paradise, we can dismiss it.

Do they make a case for this? Well, they do later. First they focus on something rather more interesting.

The indigenous critique

Their Chapter 2 is the most brilliant part of the book. It addresses what they call the indigenous critique of European culture. This means, what native Americans thought of European settlers in the 1600s and 1700s, of how they lived and related to each other, and (once they visited) of how they lived in Europe. They weren’t impressed.

Here’s a French report from 1611, about the Mikmaq: “They consider themselves better than the French: “For [they say] you are always fighting and quarreling among yourselves; we live peaceably. You are envious and are all the time slandering each other; you are thieves and deceivers; you are covetous, and are neither generous nor kind; as for us, if we have a morsel of bread we share it with our neighbor.”

Another friar, from 1632, about the Wendat (Hurons): “For our excessive and insatiable greed in acquiring the goods of this life, we are justly and with reason reproved by their quiet life and tranquil disposition. …They reciprocate hospitality and give such assistance to one another that the necessities of all are provided for without there being an indigent beggar in all their towns and villages.”

The indigenous critique focused on several elements:

  • The greed and combattiveness of the settlers.
  • The fact that they did not take care of each other.
  • The fact that they constantly gave orders and expected them to be followed.
  • (Once they could see Europe for themselves:) The way they let kings lord it over them.

In the native societies of eastern North America, there were chiefs, but no one had to obey them. No one could force a native to do what they didn’t want to do. There was not even punishment of crimes. (Payments could be required, but there was no way to force even that.) If someone really didn’t like their situation, they could simply leave– and they could find a place even hundreds of miles away, across tribal and language barriers. This was in part due to the clan system, which extended almost all the way across the continent: you could find someone of your clan far away, and they would take you in.

Under such conditions no one could be a tyrant. But a good chief was a persuasive one, and both men and women were good talkers.

Also of note: it was extremely hard to assimilate natives to European norms, but quite a few Europeans went to live with the natives.

(If your recollection of Native North American history is rusty, by the way, we’re not talking about hunter-gatherers, though both activities were common and important. They grew a wide range of crops, and their towns could be large. Their political groupings could be respectably large: e.g. the Iroquois Confederacy included most of New York State, an area about the size of Ireland.)

Rousseau’s book was an entry in a contest sponored by a French academy, to answer the question “What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?” The Davids point out what an odd question this was to ask in 1754. Every country in Europe was steeped in hierarchy, and most people and philosophers took this as the natural condition of mankind, established by God. This was before the revolutions; it was not a commonplace then, as it would be today, that society ought to aim at liberté, égalité, fraternité. Why did an institution in the middle of Catholic France under Louis XV (le Bien-Aimé) ask such a question?

In part, we learn, because Europeans were fascinated by the indigenous critique. Reports by the early friars were eagerly read, and the Baron de Lahontan achieved great success with his Dialogues with a Savage (1703), which consisted of dialogs between himself and a Wendat chief, Kondiaronk. Soon all the scholars were inventing foreigners to teach Europeans to criticize their own societies. The academy in Dijon was if anything late to the party. Two decades later and the French were ready to throw out their king– agreeing with Kondiaronk who alleged that kingship turned the French into slaves.

It’s become common to acknowledge that the US Founders were well aware of the Iroquois Confederacy and imitated some of its features; but the indigenous critique and its reception in Europe were new to me.

How do we know that the Europeans were impressed with the natives? Well, because they said so in contemporary books. History tends to ignore the natives’ role, however, presenting the modern ideas of liberty and equality as a pure European invention. It turns out to be a lot more like modern art, which owes an immense debt to African and Japanese art.

Another data point: around 1700, Leibniz admired and advocated the Chinese system of government. Within a couple of centuries, European countries were governed by people given a liberal education concentrating on ancient classics, gated by competitive entrance exams… that is, roughly like the Chinese system. The Davids don’t claim that this was direct causation, but they point out that it doesn’t seem like complete coincidence either. This system was entirely unlike any previous European system of governance, and ideas obviously bounce around the punditosphere long before they’re adopted. And a lot of the ideas that transformed Europe came from the cultures that it encountered as it expanded.

(One cavil– there will be many more later: the Chinese system turned out not to be helpful with, well, running China after 1905. Tech schools were much more important for a developing nation. They were in the West too.)

What and when is equality?

Now so far, their actual discussion is fairly Rousseauvian. They mention that early European descriptions of Native Americans were nuanced, but their own is not: they hold up Wendat and Iroquois society as an ideal, and use it to define the three basic freedoms of pre-state societies:

  • everyone’s freedom from coercion
  • everyone’s freedom to move
  • communities’ freedom to think about and choose their own structures

Somehow, they say, we’ve lost especially that last one– we’ve “got stuck” in hierarchy.

If they’d stopped there, this would still be a provocative and fascinating study; but they are emphatic about not stopping there; they want to criticize pure Rousseauvianism. This takes them most of the book, and gets far more speculative, and isn’t always convincing.

Frankly, their major point is related to modern politics without addressing it directly: they want to make room for their basic freedoms in dense, advanced societies. Rousseau leaves them cold because he places paradise solely and ineluctably in the past: the freedom of primitive humanity cannot be recovered today. They would, it’s pretty obvious, like a modern but anarchist society, so they reject Rousseau’s closed door.

Now, this point might be better addressed directly: if you think a modern anarchist society is possible, describe how it works and/or how we’d get there; cover all the obvious objections; think about what mores and values would prevent a relapse. (They’re actually quite conscious about how good systems can go bad, so this is not a big ask.) Well, suffice it to say that this program would be an entirely different book, and way out of their fields. It’s why the second half of Debt is nowhere near as good as the first half.

What can they do remaining in the far past, and in their own fields? Mostly, point to examples where the traditional view doesn’t quite work. Thus, they emphasize:

  • Forager societies can be quite complex, and undertake megaprojects. The picture of foragers living in bands of 10 to 25 people, forced by circumstances to be egalitarian, is misleading at best, quite wrong at worst.
  • Forager societies can be dense, creating state-level entities, can accumulate wealth, can be despotic, can even include wars and slavery. (Examples of the latter include the NW Pacific Coast and Florida.)
  • Agricultural societies can function for millennia without any detectable hierarchy.
  • Cities can function for centuries without any detectable hierarchy.
  • Fairly advanced societies can throw out overlords and purposely establish an egalitarian settlement of thousands of people.
  • Kings are not inevitable; alongside kings and empires you can have republics. An unexpected one is Tlaxcala, in the time of the Aztecs.
  • A system where land reverts to the community when the owner dies is not uncommon. Nor do you have to go anywhere exotic to find them: there are examples in medieval England, Germany, and Russia.
  • “Egalitarian” societies may have systems of temporary despotism: seasons or situations where someone can tell you what to do.
  • Literal patriarchy– the despotic rule by men– is not inevitable either. Though there was no “matriarchal period”, there are cultures where women held substantial power, and at least one case (Minoan Crete) which arguably really was a matriarchy.

Again, if they’d stopped there they’d have a lot to say to historians, anthropologists and archeologists, and conworlders. Theories of a uniform progression– or regression– from bands to tribes to chiefdoms to kingdoms, theories that agriculture or cities per se ruin everything, theories that state formation is irreversible, are all dubious.

The main takeaway here is that the range of options is far greater than we might have imagined. If you know about the Kalahari Bushmen or the Yanomamo or the Pirahã, great– but they are not the only models of premodern people. If you’re a conworlder thinking about how agriculture or the state developed– slow down, there are multiple stages involved in each, and you needn’t be in a hurry to throw in power-mad pharaohs and emperors.

Some but not all of this you may have absorbed from James Scott, either directly or from my discussion of him.

The Davids don’t seem to have read Marvin Harris (he’s not in their bibliography), but they are out of sympathy with cultural materialism, because they don’t like the idea that material conditions determine the forms of human society. They think that people in all periods are perfectly capable of sitting down and debating how society should work, and that people who reject hierarchy and the state know exactly what they’re doing.

A lot of this is backed up mostly by their discussion of the Wendat and Iroquois. That’s great as far as it goes, but by their own account, these people were dealing with massive historical changes: not only the European settlers, but a rather coercive (proto-?)state based in Cahokia that had collapsed just a few centuries before. Their prickly individualism, and their interest in rich debate, may be reactions to a particular historical situation.

I’ll have a list of cavils later, but the lessons above are pretty solid, I think.

The villainous state

As the Davids recognize, the problem in all this for their political project is that despite all these nuances, the State seems to have won almost everywhere: not only in Europe but in India, China, Arabia, Africa, Central America, and the Andes.

(Scott’s nuance, which the Davids accept, is that a pretty wide range of people was an exception up till at least 1800: the nomads, some large populations of foragers or horticulturalists, and some resilient populations of state-avoidant people, e.g. in SE Asia. For most of history they could resist states, and the nomads could even conquer states. But this escape route is now closed.)

Rather than a simple takeover by despotism, they divide the state into three types of coercion:

  • sovereignty: a despot’s ability to use violence to enforce his will
  • administration: the ability to govern a large territory with rules
  • personal charisma: the ability to sway or rule people by force of personality and heroic deeds, often in competition with others; in later versions, politics

This is not uninteresting, as examples exist where only one or two of these strands is present. E.g. there are cultures where a chief can do as he likes, but only in his own village: that’s sovereignty alone. Administration alone exists in cultures where megaprojects are created without apparent coercion. Ancient Egypt can be described as sovereignty plus administration. But eventually all three threads engage and, as the Davids say, we’re stuck.

Of course, they would like to believe that we don’t have to be, even in a technological society. We’re just not used to thinking we have alternatives, and we’ll do better when we open Rousseau’s closed door. This is a hopeful but speculative point, and all I’ll say now is that given threats like climate change and oil depletion, to say nothing of fascist resurgence, we’re either going to solve these problems or have them solved for us by civilizational collapse.

Cavils and comments

This section will be quite miscellaneous; it’s drawn from the notes I took from reading– some positive, some negative. Page numbers refer to the hardcover edition.

Paradoxically, they’ve shown that modern ideas of freedom and equality owe much to indigenous peoples; yet when they look at modern society as a whole it’s horrible. Do they really disapprove that much of (say) Denmark or the Netherlands? Maybe so, but it’s worth pointing out that they’re willing to give a huge benefit of the doubt to particular past societies, from the ‘Ubaid to Tlaxcala to the Wendat: their whole point is that partial freedom is not a nightmare. But when they look at modern times, it’s just a constellation of horrors.

(155) The coastal settlement of the Americas is now accepted. People used to insist that the interior could only be reached by a narrow inland corridor… this is extremely strange as walking or boating along the coast is a no-brainer.

(158) The first idea of property may have been tied to the sacred: secret knowledge, particular patterns or objects with ritual meaning, hidden from others. This could occur even when everyday life was quite egalitarian.

(167) A very cursory treatment of language change and language families which could have been cribbed from a pop sci article. It even invokes William Jones, who was emphatically not the first person to recognize a language family.

The Davids’ disdain for other scholars– even as they rifle the journals for supporting data– gets tedious. One of their favorite words is “silly”.

(220) They use art to argue that Çatalhöyük may have been “matriarchal”. As they admit, there’s no evidence from skeletons of differential treatment; but there are female figurines that seem to depict aged females, and none of aged men. On the other hand, wall decorations feature depictions of all-male hunters.

They use this sort of argument in several places, without ever making an argument why art tells us anything about power relationships. If you look at 19th century European art, you would surely conclude that Europeans were fascinated by women, and that European women spent half their time nude. I’d also point out that depictions of older women are not uncommon.

It’s not that we can’t tell anything from art. It may well be significant that ancient Egyptian art, but not Mesopotamian art, emphasizes elite women. A king seemed to require a queen by his side. (The female king Hatshepsut had to depict her daughter next to her.) What exactly this tells us is less clear, and has to be carefully hedged: I do suspect it tells us something about royal ideology, but also that it tells us precisely zilch about peasant women.

(250) Here are the examples of co-operative land management in Europe and elsewhere. These are interesting examples of non-inheritance, but their examples all seem to be of practices beneath the notice of the elite, or in accordance with their overall lordship. I don’t think the Davids mean to say that medieval Europe was a hotbed of communism, free of violent greedy elites. Rather, an oppressive system can make use of cooperative or communal subsystems. There are advantages, after all, if the peasants run their own affairs and don’t have to be micromanaged.

(280) Foragers often travel in family groups… except when they don’t. It’s not uncommon for bands to include members who are only related in the sense that they belong to the overall ethnic group. For that matter it’s quite possible to join a band hundreds of miles away from your family of origin.

(289) The first cities were in… Ukraine? Talianki, Maidanetske, Nebelivka, dating to 3500 or earlier. (I’ve updated the Davids’ spelling.) They say that these “existed even before the earliest known cities in Mesopotamia”, but here they are misinformed: Uruk was settled by 5000, though its more imposing structures weren’t built till 3400 or so. But Talianki is pretty impressive: 335 hectares (Uruk was 450 ha), possibly with 15,000 residents. The sites show no evidence of social stratification (i.e. the villainous State). The Ukrainians grew crops, kept cattle, supplemented their diet with hunting.

(300) I’m not buying this rehabilitation of corvée labor— here, in Sumer. Curiously, in Debt Graeber described the miseries of Mesopotamians; here, for his purposes, urban work was done in a “festive spirit.” He cites an Akkadian myth where the minor gods did forced labor, while seemingly forgetting the part where the minor gods went on strike, whereupon the major gods created humanity to do menial labor instead. In the MECK I quoted multiple ancient sources which acknowledged the brutality of labor, the oppression of kings, and the none-too-happy position of people at the bottom of the social ladder. But for their overall purposes they want to delay the entry of the villain, so they paint the Mesopotamians as far happier than probably were.

A bit later on they describe the temples of Sumer, which managed enormous areas of land, included workshops, and could employ over a thousand people. This is supposed to indicate that all this organization didn’t require the state or kings. But it only requires a small reorientation of perspective to view these institutions as totalitarian. (Do they think getting out of temple work was easier than changing jobs in the modern US?) The temples were economic enterprises rather than “churches”, yes. The same can be said of medieval European monasteries. But they’re not anarchist communes either, and if they weren’t “the state” they were precursors to it.

(Why do temples have workshops at all? Probably for the same reason that the first Middle Eastern kings had workshops: because they had to create what they wanted. Markets came later; when they did, gods and kings could just go shopping.)

They also make much of the Sumerian and Akkadian assemblies. Now, it is good to bear these in mind, and not portray the Mesopotamian kings as unfettered absolute monarchs. But we also don’t know too much about how they operated, and we do know that they did not prevent wars, slavery, or the fall of families into crippling debt that Graeber eloquently deplored in Debt. In short they were not like Iroquois councils, where everyone debated and no one gave real orders.

(317) They discuss the Hindu varnas in the context of Harappan civilization. Now this is more than a stretch; it’s one or two thousand years too soon. Their description of “wealth, power or prosperity [being] of lesser value… than the purity of the priestly class” is a mindless repetition of brahmin propaganda (as in Manu). Manu and other writers– 2000 years after Harappa– wrote about the superiority of brahmins because they were ruled by non-brahmins and didn’t like it. And really, anyone who thinks that the exaltation of brahmins was a reflection of “spirituality” or something knows nothing about Indian history.

(324) They talk about cities on China— the Longshan culture, dated 3000 to 1900 BCE– before the first historically certain dynasty, the Shang, from -1600. By the Davids’ own account, there was plenty of evidence for social stratification and warfare. I didn’t talk about these cultures much in my China book, and now I wish I had. The problem is that there isn’t much that can be said. We often start with the literate cultures not because the previous ones are uninteresting, but because we can know and learn so much more from people who can talk to us. E.g. the Davids mention Shimao, from -2000, which at 400 ha was also comparable to Uruk, and possibly practiced human sacrifice. But… they devote a paragraph to it, and the Wikipedia article isn’t much longer. About all we learn from the site is that there’s a tranche of Chinese prehistory that was probably pretty lively, but which we just don’t know about in detail.

(342) Teotihuacan, which flourished from about 50 to 550, is notable because it may preserve signs of an egalitarian revolution. There is evidence for stratification until about 300, when a major temple was desecrated, and after that the city was filled with hundreds of comfortable stone dwellings of about the same size. It’s hard not to see this as a quite purposive egalitarianism. The overall population might have been 100,000.

Reading this section, I wondered what archeologists would make of Nālandā if they had no literary evidence. It was a Buddhist monastery in northern India, which housed between 3000 and 10,000 monks at its height in the first millennium. It was the major destination for the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang, who reported (and archeology confirms) that it consisted of multiple large buildings with small individual monks’ cubicles opening into a central courtyard.

If you just look at the physical remains, life at Nālandā was thoroughly egalitarian, especially compared to other settlements in India. But Xuanzang reports that it was extraordinarily hierarchical: not only were the monks strictly ranked, but the more accomplished ones had servants. Moreover, the entire establishment was supported by royal grants– that is, it was fed by taxing the local peasants. Nor was Indian society of the time in any way egalitarian.

My point is not to dismiss the Davids’ speculations about egalitarianism based on equal-sized living quarters, but to recall that other interpretations are possible, and may be lost to time.

(346) Next they discuss Tlaxcala, which was a republic in Aztec times. Spanish sources compare it to Genoa and Venice, and recount the lively debates in its council on whether they should ally with the Spanish against the Aztecs. (Spoiler alert: they did, and helped the Spanish conquer Tenochtitlan.)

This is cool to know, and it’s good to recall that the historical landscape is not just kingdoms. But what the Davids don’t discuss, because it doesn’t fit into their agenda of chiding scholars, is that republics are pretty common… and can be very far from being democratic. Besides Athens, there’s Novgorod, the medieval Italian city-states, the Swiss, some ancient Indian ones, and the Iroquois. Oh, and several hundred modern states.

Now a republic has one big moral advantage over a kingdom: it has no king. But it may not be much better: it may be a republic because it’s an oligarchy, and no one notable has enough power to dominate the city. The fact that the Spanish chronicles compare Tlaxcala to Genoa and Venice may not prove what the Davids want it to prove: these were notorious oligarchies.

(392) As an example of sovereignty without the other aspects of the state, they discuss the Natchez, who had an absolute monarch residing in what was called the Great Village. He had the power of life and death and was known for killing his people… but only within his village. He could give orders to neighboring villages, but they would often be ignored.

They suggest that the Great Village was fully populated only part of the year– which probably meant that it was some sort of ritual center. Anthropologists are probably too free with the words “ritual” and “religion”, but it is true that some very unusual behaviors can occur when some things or people become sacred. In this context (the origin of hierarchy) the important point is that one of those unusual behaviors may be hierarchical authority itself. In the book the Davids describe a society where there are sacred enforcers who have power for only three months out of the year. This turns out to be not uncommon, and suggests a progression: an “egalitarian” people might agree to give absolute power to someone temporarily for “ritual” reasons (that is, for reasons we don’t really understand, but which are probably very compelling to them). That isn’t kingship… but it may create the idea for it, to be revived and generalized under other conditions.

(409) I’m pleased that they believe, as I do, that Memphis was a ceremonial center rather than a “real city”.

(412) The Shang reliance on oracles stands in “striking contrast” to the other societies discussed? Um, hello, what about the hundreds of Akkadian omen texts? What about the oracles that dotted Greece and Anatolia, constantly consulted by the kings?

(413) “Mesopotamia, where regional hegemony rarely lasted for longer than a generation or two”. This is supposed to be a contrast with Egypt, where kingdoms could last centuries. But, there’s the Kassites who ruled for nearly 500 years, and Assyria, which dominated the region for a millennium.

(416) They give Egypt as an example of a state or proto-state which had mastered sovereignty and administration, but not politics– the competition for power based on personal charisma. Well, technically they’re just talking the Old Kingdom. But what we know of the Middle Kingdom looks like it has plenty of politics: powerful factions among royal women; Hatshepsut’s unusual reign, Akhenaten’s revolution; multiple coups after Tutankhamen. Was the Old Kingdom really different, or is it just that we have better records of the Middle Kingdom?

(434) Here’s the description of matriarchal Crete. The evidence is mostly from art, and I complained about that above. But they make rather a better case here. The authority figures in pictures are female. They’re depicted as larger than men, and men are shown bringing them tribute or bowing down. They’re shown conducting rituals or sitting on thrones or meeting together. There are depictions of men, too, often graceful naked athletes. It’s like a parodic inversion of every other Middle Eastern society.

None of this is a proof, but in this case the Davids’ point is good: if there is little evidence of other matriarchies, there is also little evidence of any male-run state whose art depicted only females as rulers and males only as subservient.

(499) They make a snarky comment that the inventor of bread would probably not be called “white” today. This is pretty silly. Bread seems to go back to ancient Canaan, and outside racist circles, Middle Easterners are generally considered white. (E.g. that’s what the US Census Bureau thinks. Maybe this was Wengrow’s contribution: the UK census seems to disagree. But the point is: who the fuck cares? No one who reads this book is likely to be a white supremacist.)

(506) “Even in Homeric-style warfare”, war was a matter of a few heroic champions grappling in front of a crowd, with only a handful of deaths. Um, dudes. Troy was destroyed. If you read Romance of the Three Kingdoms, you’d think 3C Chinese warfare was a matter of heroic grappling too. It wasn’t; it was like any state warfare, a matter of tens or hundreds of thousands of troops. Epics talk about heroes grappling because it’s great narrative.

And if they’re thinking of horticulturalist warfare– well, they should look up the Maring, discussed in detail by Harris. Yeah, in general casualties were low. But a war could easily turn into a rout with a much higher casualty rate.

tl;dr

If you’ve read this far, you’re ready to take on the Davids– their book is 526 pages of text, plus nearly a hundred pages of notes.

If this is your sort of thing, you’ll probably get a lot out of it– and disagree with a lot of it, not necessarily the parts I disagreed with.

Anthropology is perhaps the most fun part of the social sciences. It not only tells interesting stories, it tells what (to most of us) are new kinds of stories. Actual human history and ethnography is far weirder than you might imagine from school textbooks and fantasy novels. And putting just some of that weirdness into your own works will deepen them considerably.

Putin’s Ukraine problem

So, Ukraine. Kind of a big deal, huh?

I have no special expertise here, so I’m heavily relying on those who do:

Destroyed Russian tanks in Ukraine. (Reuters)

Another caution: the fog of war is heavy. We know the basics, but we don’t have solid numbers and precise maps. Putin of course does not want honest reporting, and in the kind of war Ukraine is fighting, it’s hardly going to say exactly where its forces are. All those omnisicient military retellings (“General Daring had two options available…”) will be written far in the future.

What did Putin want?

It seems pretty clear that Putin expected a walkover. He thought the Ukrainians would be overwhelmed or wouldn’t fight; he sent in riot police to secure Kyiv; three squads were sent to murder Zelenskyy. The model was probably the 2014 invasion of Crimea. It would be so fast that, confronted with a fait accompli and a quickly installed puppet regime, the West wouldn’t bother to apply major sanctions. All this failed.

There was a good deal of Russian bullshit in the air in February. Tucker Carlson is the most famous Putin apologist, but many others gravely opined that NATO expansion had somehow been too much for Putin. Sadly, the DSA has also decided to repeat this fascist excuse and blame the war on US “imperialism”.

This is easy enough to refute. You don’t mount a 200,000-man invasion in order to keep the status quo happening. Ukraine was not and is not a member of NATO. It’s been talked about as far back as 2008, and nothing has happened. If that was what Putin wanted, he’d have got it by simply doing nothing. The invasion was not precipitated by any Ukrainian or Western moves. The NATO stuff was a smokescreen, dropped to confuse some useful idiots.

In November of last year NATO commander Jens Stoltenberg was quite clear about why Ukraine wasn’t accepted: “30 allies have to agree, and we don’t have consensus agreement in NATO now on inviting Ukraine into becoming a full member.” That means someone is vetoing the idea for some reason. So membership isn’t just slowed down, it’s halted. Putin’s supposed fear was not about anything real.

You also don’t demonstrate that there’s nothing to fear from Russia by invading your neighbor, sending murder squads after its president, and levelling its cities. That in fact demonstrates that Russia is a very real threat and small countries are very vulnerable. Thanks to Putin, countries like Sweden and Finland, which sat out the entire Cold War, are considering joining NATO. Putin accomplished in one week what US presidents for the last 20 years were unable to do: get Germany to spend more than 2% of its GNP on defense, and export weapons.

Why did Putin want Ukraine? He thought it was low-lying fruit, and he’d be a hero in Russia for reversing a little bit of the Soviet collapse. And he’d already got away with slicing off Crimea, with minimal blowback. In two decades he’s issued a long string of provocations which were never successfully resisted; he thought he could pull off one more. A war is also his go-to move when he’s losing popularity.

A few pundits have mentioned that since Putin closed down Russian access to Twitter, trolls in their mentions have plummeted. This is just one bit of a culture war Putin has been waging for a decade: support extremists and sow confusion in the West, at little cost to himself. Russian money has been deeply involved in Tory Britain, and of course Russian TV openly gloated in 2017 that Trump was theirs. Trump didn’t care about Russia invading and stealing Crimea, and actually held up military aid to Zelenskyy in hopes of getting some dirt on Hunter Biden.

Fox is still showcasing the pro-Putin Carlson, but it looks like Putin has lost a lot of his right-wing support. In a Pew poll, 85% of Americans favor maintaining strong sanctions against Russia; 74% think the US is providing enough or not enough aid to Ukraine, as opposed to just 7% who think it’s too much.

A bit more on the Democratic Socialists, because they disappointed me so much. They’ve fallen into one of the oldest traps, the one most ideologues and conspiracy theorists fall into: the single-villain ideology. For them the only agent in the world is the US government; everything it does is bad, and no one else has any moral agency at all. Confronted with a murderous despot actively trying to reinstate the Russian empire, their brains just cannot compute. “Imperialism… that… isn’t… American? Inconceivable!” Instead they actually take the position that a defensive alliance against fascist Russia is bad, and that Ukrainian resistance should not be encouraged (i.e. by giving them arms so the Russian conquest fails). It’s not surprising at this point that fascist elements in the GOP support Putin, but it’s absolutely vile when so-called leftists are parroting fascist talking points.

Why did it go wrong?

  • Military failures, as described in the links above. Almost unbelievable logistic incompetence, leading to thousands of Russian troops dead. In three weeks Russia suffered 1/3 or 1/2 of the combat deaths it suffered in ten years in Afghanistan.
  • It turned out Ukraine doesn’t consider itself Russian and is willing to fight to prove it. In addition to uniting Europe against Russian aggression, Putin managed to de-Russify eastern Ukraine. Handing over the separatist bits of Donbass to criminal gangs, and bombing the rest to rubble, turns out not to make people want to join Russia.
  • It turned out Zelenskyy is brave as fuck and is a master of inspiring Ukrainians and the world.
  • Ukraine won the info war. Maybe easy to do when you just have to underline that a fascist dictator is invading you for no reason, but once the invasion started no one outside the horseshoe far right and far left believed in Putin’s pre-war bullshit. Ukraine has been exposing Russian criminality and showcasing Ukrainian resilience, while Putin has basically given up on making any case for himself to the outside world.
  • The West was unified, and applied devastating sanctions immediately.

All of this is important, but perhaps the biggest factor: Putin was living in a dream world. Comparisons with The Death of Stalin are in order… Putin has a created a massive machine for enriching himself and ruling Russia, but to do it he’s surrounded himself with terrified yes-men. So when he decided that Ukraine loved him as much as Russians have to pretend they love him, no one could tell him he was wrong, no one could tell him the army wasn’t up to it, no one could tell him he was going to tank the economy, no one could tell him that he’ll be lucky to last out the year.

Recent pictures of him are almost comic: why is no one allowed to be within 20 feet of him? What sort of fear does he have of these people, the very ones he handpicked to work for him?

As the military guys point out, occupying a country is hard work, destructive not only to the invaded but to the invaders. And to prepare his troops to do this, Putin… lied to them. They were told they were just on a training mission. Apparently Russian military structure is intensely top-down: lower-level units have no autonomy, which is part of why the invasion has stalled. Low-level troops are stuck, out of gas, eating expired food or raiding grocery stores, attacked by the locals they were told would welcome them. How the fuck does Putin think treating his own army that way will work out for him?

Why we’re not fighting Russia

To a lot of people– including Zelenskyy– the next step seems obvious: get involved directly. But Biden refuses to send US troops; according to Pew, 62% of Americans agree with him.

And they’re right. If it was a matter of conventional weapons– yeah, if Russia is having trouble with Ukraine they’d sure as hell have trouble with NATO. But Russia has nuclear weapons, and having Russians and Americans directly fighting would greatly increase the chance of nuclear war. And let’s not get stupid: we all lose a nuclear war.

For 40 years, the Cold War ran on the somewhat cynical principle that direct conflict was out, but indirect was OK. The Russians helped the Vietnamese; we helped the Afghans. Both sides let themselves get embroiled in things they should have stayed out of– but they also avoided direct conflicts that could easily have escalated.

Perhaps it’s not obvious: a no-fly zone is sending US (or NATO) troops to Ukraine, albeit sending them in planes. A no-fly zone means shooting down enemy planes, and facing enemy attempts to shoot back. We are not at war with Russia, but if we tried that we soon would be. Besides, Russia’s bombs are not mainly from planes, but from missiles fired from Russia.

What happens next?

Who knows, except that it’ll be enormous suffering for the Ukrainians. In frustration, the Russians are using the same tactic they used in Chechnya and Syria: attack civilians with indiscriminate bombing. Any pretense of “these people are really Russians” has been abandoned; they’re just destroying as much as they can.

At the same time, the West is sending more anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. I’m not a military dude, so I don’t know if that will work or not. At least it should devastate those Russian convoys, and hopefully shoot down more and more planes and missiles.

There’s been some talk of Russia’s “peace” conditions. One of them is handing over the Donbass; this is probably a non-starter. For one thing, to Westerners it probably implies recognizing the little slivers of rebel territory; to Putin it almost certainly means the entire Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, 8% of Ukraine’s territory. Only 1/3 of this territory is held by the rebels now, and Kamil Galeev does a great job here explaining how Putin destroyed the economy of the very area he occupied and handed it over to gangsters, and how this so disgusted the rest of Donbass, as well as all of Russophone Ukraine, that they want nothing to do with him.

Ukraine faces some tricky decisions here. It’s easy for outsiders to say it should keep resisting, and to point out that Putin has zero credibility in anything he proposes or agrees to. On the other hand, it’s questionable whether Russia can keep up the fight. It’s very possible that a very large fraction of that 190,000-man army will be cut to pieces, and it’s not like Putin saved his best troops for later.

At this point it’s hard to think of an exit Putin can take. He could just admit it didn’t work and back out, but dictators don’t think that way, even when their life is on the line. Saddam Hussein simply could not admit that he had no nukes– even though continuing that particular Big Lie ended up with him surrendering in a ditch. Besides, there is just no button labeled “Go back to December 2021.” Europe and Ukraine now know, and will take into account, that Putin is an invasion-happy fascist.

Ukraine itself is suggesting “neutrality” in an interesting new sense: no NATO membership, but “in case of war signatories provide weapons and air defense immediately without bureaucratic procedures or conditions”. That’s an almost cheeky way of saying “We’ll do this all again if we have to.” But Putin could play it up as “no NATO membership” I guess? He’d be wise to take the deal; too bad he’s not wise.

Polarization, 1945

I spent a few hours tonight reading or re-reading George Orwell’s essays, and this one on “nationalism” struck me as relevant today, largely because quite a few pundits seem to believe that political polarization, echo chambers, and outright lies are unprecedented novelties.

(Note, the essay talks about “nationalism” and “nationalists” only for lack of a better term, but he makes it clear that he’s also talking about religious or political zealotry. Today we’d probably say “ideologies” and “ideologues”.)

On echo chambers:

The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. For quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. And those who are loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps are often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia. Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles. Many English people have heard almost nothing about the extermination of German and Polish Jews during the present war.

On lying:

Much of the propagandist writing of our time amounts to plain forgery. Material facts are suppressed, dates altered, quotations removed from their context and doctored so as to change their meaning. Events which, it is felt, ought not to have happened are left unmentioned and ultimately denied.

Probably the truth is discoverable, but the facts will be so dishonestly set forth in almost any newspaper that the ordinary reader can be forgiven either for swallowing lies or failing to form an opinion. The general uncertainty as to what is really happening makes it easier to cling to lunatic beliefs. Since nothing is ever quite proved or disproved, the most unmistakable fact can be impudently denied. Moreover, although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge, the nationalist is often somewhat uninterested in what happens in the real world. What he wants is to feel that his own unit is getting the better of some other unit, and he can more easily do this by scoring off an adversary than by examining the facts to see whether they support him.

Orwell was writing in May 1945, just after WWII ended in Europe. And he was writing from England, not the US. Nonetheless, the essay is a good reminder that political polarization and siloing are not new, nor creations of the Internet; there was no golden age where political parties frolicked together like Elves and Men and read each other’s media.

Now, for Boomers of my age there was a time when politics seemed calm, bipartisanship was possible, and extremists seemed to be on their way out. We call it “1976.” But this was not some normal and enduring state even of American politics; it was a short interlude after the contentious ’60s and before the plutocratic revolution of the ’80s.

This is admittedly cold comfort, when conservatives seem more insane and dangerous than ever. At the same time, reading Orwell is a reminder that things are always pretty dire, a hope for a less dire world is always possible, and the evil people of the day are also liable to make the stupidest mistakes.

Cultural materialism

I just re-read Marvin Harris’s book of this name– subtitle, The Struggle for a Science of Culture. It’s a review of a dozen or so approaches to anthropology– of course he likes his own the best. It’s from 1980, so it’s undoubtedly outdated as a survey of the major schools.

First, should you read it? Oh no, it’s pretty dry, and intended for his colleagues. If you’ve never read Harris, read Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches instead. However, a distinction he makes early on is of interest to conworlders and others.

The distinction is between etic and emic levels of culture. Curiously, these terms were abstracted (by Kenneth Pike) from linguistics. Phonetics is the study of the sounds used for language, and phonemics is the study of the sounds as people speaking a particular language perceive them. We hear and produce the raw sounds, but we think we’re pronouncing the phonemes. See your copy of the LCK for more.

Applied to cultures, the etic level is the physical level: what people do, what constraints they face in resources and ecology, what their technology and social practices are. You could theoretically study all this as a Martian, just observing and measuring. The emic level is what people think. It includes their language, literature, ritual, ideology, their ideas about family and class, what they tell children and each other.

Now, most of the schools Harris discusses differ in how they approach these two levels, and which they consider primary. Oversimplifying broadly, we have

  • Materialists consider that the etic system predominates, and determines the emic level.
  • Idealists put the emic level first, and believe that it determines how cultures work (i.e. the etics).

Now, no one thinks that you can completely ignore either level. You study both, and everyone admits that the levels can influence each other. But your overall orientation influences what questions you ask, what methods you use, and what you consider to be an answer.

To avoid some complications, I’ll use an example from the contemporary US. On the etic level, since the 1960s, the Republican Party has pursued the “Southern Strategy”. Their basic policies are to facilitate the dominance of the rich elite: low taxes, low regulation, a free hand for business, as little redistribution as possible. (Yes, things like tax rates and income levels are etic. They’re objective things, relatively easy to measure; our Martian observer who doesn’t know the language could figure them out.) These things are not very popular, so to win elections the GOP goes for a larger coalition based on region (the South and non-coastal West), race (whites), and religion (mostly Evangelicals). They highlight issues designed to appeal to regional and racial solidarity while hiding their policies (which disadvantage the very populations they are trying to win over). To ensure that the coalition wins, they carefully pass laws to make it harder for the opposition to vote.

The emic level looks very different. Here we look at what the GOP actually says— that febrile stew of resentment of minorities, fear of foreigners, fear of America changing, fear of “socialism”, fear of crime, disgust over homosexuality and abortion, nostalgia for an imagined past, feelings of wounded religious sentiment, and authority worship, with an undercurrent of fantasies of violent suppression of enemies, that we know from figures from McCarthy to Goldwater to Limbaugh to Gingrich to Trump.

If you don’t like that summary, use your own, or a random set of 10-minute segments from Fox News. The point isn’t that the emic level is bad; it’s that it’s different. What you see from the outside is poles apart from what you hear and feel on the inside.

Now, the cultural materialist viewpoint is that the etic facts, most of the time, explain the emic facts. That particular mix of beliefs and preoccupations isn’t random or coincidental; it’s determined by the business elite’s need to win votes for an unpopular set of policies. The easiest way to do so is to hide the actual agenda, and make use of existing resentments.

Another way to see this is to notice how the diversions have changed over time. In the 1950s, the most effective strategy for the GOP was anti-Communism rather than racism. In the 1960s, it was the mainstream’s dismay over hippies, sexual change, and modern art. In the 1980s, the rallying points were Evangelicalism and racism.

The key point is that you’ll understand very little of American politics by looking at what the GOP believes. It may be interesting or frightening, but it’s often quite disposable (note how concern over the deficit completely disappears when the GOP is in power), and it’s a poor guide to what the GOP will do. (Hint: it may or may not pursue culture war issues. It will cut taxes.)

I’m not at all summarizing the book, whose examples mostly relate to non-American cultures. But to use any of those examples I’d have to explain those cultures in fair detail, and that’s not my point here. I should add though that if the analysis sounds rather left-wing to you (all this talk about elites and supremacy)– well, cultural materialism does trend strongly left; it owes a lot in fact to Marx.

What is my point? Well, that the etic/emic distinction, and arguments about which comes first, are useful well beyond anthropology. First, they are relevant to a lot of cultural debates today.

A lot of the anthropological schools Harris discusses prefer the emic level, and some of them feel that this is the only valid level: find out what the natives think, and explicate that with the maximum of empathy and detail. And I think this approach has a strong attraction to anyone interested in other cultures– after all, shouldn’t we study them on their terms rather than ours? Some of the discourse about colonization and privilege falls easily into this point of view, even criticizing “scientific” approaches as objectifying and disrespectful.

Now, if you’re not doing anthropology, your approach should be based on what you’re doing. If you want to be a Buddhist, you of course want to study Buddhism from the inside, and probably shut up the scientific skeptic within you. Reading literature or watching movies or just interacting with people, you can pursue and enjoy the emic level as much as you want. And if you’re not an anthropologist or historian, guesses about the etic level may be quite misguided.

The problems come when you get curious about why things are as they are. You want to know the emic level, it’s very important. But–

  • the emic level is likely to be wrong about why things are as they are.
  • the emic level is likely to be inherently conservative— to put it bluntly, it’s the realm of authoritarian old farts.

The emic level, after all, includes native justifications for slavery, for colonialism and war, for sexism, for foot binding, for the Indian caste system, for Aztec slaughter and cannibalism, for the divine right of kings, for holy wars, for dictatorships and inquisitions and pogroms. If you believe what the culture says and thinks about itself, you’ll accept a lot of immoral trash, almost all of it designed to prop up the local elite.

Not everything in the emic level is tainted, of course. Some of it is purely interesting and enjoyable. Some of it is problematic, but so is almost everything. Some of it you can learn from on its own terms.

I like Harris’s approach, because etic explanations are far more interesting and satisfying. Take sexism, for instance. Emic explanations run toward gender determinism, or else the original-sin-like position that male supremacy is universal yet unmotivated. Gender determinism is itself problematic, and the “universal” position is simply wrong. There are more egalitarian societies, though you may have to go all the way back to hunter-gatherers to find them.

More importantly, there are reasons why all the evils listed above exist, and why some cultures have some evils but not others. Here cultural materialism is critically different from the rather annoying theories that biologists come up with, like evolutionary biology. Cultural materialist explanations may be based on physical constraints, but not on supposed aspects of human nature, because anthropologists know way too much about the diversity of culture. If human nature determined how societies worked, they’d all be the same or virtually so. Instead they’re wildly different in many ways, so these differences have to be examined and explained.

Also, importantly, changing human nature is almost impossible, but changing etic facts is not. So cultural materialism is far more optimistic. If sexism is caused by certain etic constraints, then there’s a hope for eliminating it by changing those constraints. (Indeed, a lot of the progress made in advanced societies is precisely due to changing the etic level.)

Another reason people often prefer emic approaches is that etic ones can seem, well, a little Martian. Just as it’s a little disturbing to take an anatomy class and cut up former humans, it’s a little disturbing to see how cultures are made. Reading about a war, for instance, it’s most rousing if it’s a morality tale, especially if the good guys win. Yet almost all wars can be explained at the level of resources, tactics, and logistics.

For conworlding, you can also take an emic or an etic approach. For the former, I’d point to Lord of the Rings. It’s presented as a literal document from its conworld, written by participants. At all points it adopts the worldview of its protagonists– directly, the hobbits; indirectly, the elves. Tolkien has almost zero interest in ecological constraints, economies, or how power operates, beyond the emic categories of “good kings” vs. “corrupt kings”. At no point in the book does he criticize how Gandalf or the elves think or behave. (I’m aware this is not true of the Silmarillion.)

For a fairly pure etic approach, perhaps take Neuromancer. The focus at almost all times is what people are doing, on a low technical level. Almost all the characters are primarily motivated by practical needs… no one needs or consults an ideology. The organization of society by the elite is directly criticized, without much interest in what the elite has to say for itself emically.

If you’ve been following my conworlds, Almea and the Incatena, you can probably see that I’m equally interested in both levels. I try to indicate what causes various social structure to form– e.g. why Eretald is male dominant and the Bé is female dominant, or why there are far more restrictions on Verdurian kings than there were on Caďinorian emperors. But I also provide extensive presentations of people’s ideological systems.

There’s a scene in Against Peace and Freedom where Agent Morgan more or less explains the etic bias of the Incatena, as opposed to the ideological systems of the antagonists. Morgan says to one of them:

Give us a static society and socionomics will tell you how to turn it into a dynamic one– what to teach the kids in school, what comic books to write, what family behaviors have to change, what sectors to encourage. Of course, a static society won’t like those changes.. that’s why it stays static. No problem… back up a level, we can tell you what to do to generate a liking for them.

Socionomics is essentially far-future cultural materialism. Of course we don’t know today how to do these things, though many people think they do. But the Incatena has way more data.

Again, if all this whets your appetite, try Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches. It’s hard to invent premodern cultures without it. (Or read my books— there’s a lot of Harris in the PCK.)

The Innocents Abroad

One result of the pandemic: I’ve been re-reading what feels like everything on my bookshelves. And I have a lot of bookshelves.

When I was a teenager, I think it was, I loved The Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain. I just finished re-reading it. It’s an account of his trip to Europe and the Middle East in 1867 on the Quaker City with about sixty other Americans– most of them, by his count, old fogeys “between 40 and 70”. He was 32 at the time, a failed miner and riverboat pilot, but a rising newspaper humorist. His fare ($1250) was paid by a California paper.

quaker city

The Quaker City advances on Europe

His account is mostly an extended comedy routine, though he’s also attempting to convey to his readers what it was like to travel to these places, and that involves quite a bit of serious description and retelling of stories he’s read, or heard from his guides. It’s clear that he read a lot of contemporary travel guides, and that those told visitors what things to see, what they meant, and what their dimensions were, information he sometimes regurgitates half-chewed.

A lot of the comedy holds up. I like his gentle parodying of his favorite traveling companions. E.g. the Oracle tries to get as many learned words as possible into every sentence, while knowing the meaning of none of them. Then there’s what he calls the “pilgrims”: fellow passengers who are far more religious than he is, and yet have a positive mania for cracking off mementos from famous places. He has a chapter where the subhead “The Ascent of Vesuvius– continued” is repeated at least half a dozen times, as he keeps digressing far away from the volcano. He and his closest companions loved to tease guides, calling them all Ferguson, and tormenting them by asking of any historical figure or statue, “Is he dead?” He’s amusing and drily ironic about Catholic relics, counting how many places had the same bones or the same pieces of the Crown of Thorns.

Comedy these days is mostly fast: one-liners or back-and-forth repartee. Twain, like his English counterpart Jerome K. Jerome, is more a fan of the extended bit, a long anecdote full of buildup and color. He was highly in demand as a lecturer, and I picture him acting out the physical comedy and doing all the voices.

Though he grew up in Missouri and set his most famous novels there, here he presents himself as a Westerner, and indeed is a little too quick to compare all mountains to the Rockies and all lakes to Lake Tahoe. Cities are compared to New York (and he was also contributing dispatches to NY newspapers).

He’s obviously well read, and honestly appreciates a lot of what he sees. Though what he appreciates is a little random. He is completely unimpressed by the Last Supper (probably with reason– it was in bad shape) and in fact by most paintings. He is rapturous about the Pyramids and the Sphinx, mostly because they’re so ancient, and because their hardness resists the hammers of the pilgrims.

Sometimes the country bumpkin act gets a little old. A particularly annoying sort of traveler (often but not exclusively American or British) complains at finding things done differently than they are at home. A little too often Twain is that sort of traveler. That business about Tahoe, for instance. Probably he had read too many guidebooks that depicted everything in Europe as uniquely magnificent, but c’mon, Sam, a two-page encomium of Lake Tahoe back home is not necessary. Similarly, though it’s fascinating that the one town he finds “just like an American city” and wholly approves of is Odessa, it’s extremely provincial to only like things you liked before.

Twain has complicated feelings about poverty. On the one hand, he has a hearty distaste for oppression, and (e.g.) castigates the Catholic Church in Italy for living in luxury while the peasants are miserable. On the other, well, he hates seeing poor people– their rags, their diseases and deformities, their neediness. This particularly applies to all the Muslim cities he sees, but also to Naples, and for that matter to Native Americans. He’s not immune to pity (when the tourists are mobbed by people asking for baksheesh, he and the others give them money), but he can’t get past the feelings of repulsion at the people themselves, and he sometimes expresses the wish to get rid of them.

Such thoughts provoke an aggrieved response in some people, so if you’re thinking of that, just don’t go there. There was a lot to like about Twain, and there are things to dislike. He is not immune to be criticism, and frankly anyone who thinks he is hasn’t really understood him. He was an acerbic critic himself when he wanted to be, which was usually. He himself claims that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness”, and it’s hardly unfair to ask him to live up to his own ideals.

(One possible defense is worth a response: that he was joking. First, it’s usually quite clear when he’s joking and when he’s not, and a lot of the xenophobia is not jokes. And second, pretending to be a bigot is not actually a laff riot; all too often, it’s just bigotry hiding behind facetiousness.)

Readers should also be aware that Twain’s description of Palestine as a desolate and barren place has done some real harm, by allowing some moderns to discount the rights or the very existence of the people who lived there. This article is a corrective. It should be noted that Twain visited in the dry season, when the country presented its worst aspect; also that one of his major themes was the discrepancy between romantic or ancient accounts and present realities, and he was not above exaggerating this for effect. He says about the same thing of Greece, by the way– “Greece is a bleak, unsmiling desert, without agriculture, manufacturing, or commerce apparently”. I’m sure he didn’t mean to deceive, but this sort of analysis isn’t any more reliable than modern columnists’ assessment of national opinion based on talks with their cab drivers.

Something that might be surprising is Twain’s small but real piety. I’ve read other books by him that are far more skeptical. But at this point he seemed to be a faithful Protestant, though not a zealous one. He listened courteously to the “pilgrims” (who loved nothing on shipboard more than an evening of religious talks), he knows his scripture, and there is really nothing in the book that could offend a Christian. He criticizes hypocrisy and a few logical errors, and he’s not going to allow the pilgrims to put him off drinking and smoking, but he says nothing against the religion itself.

The best modern travel writing aims at not just describing the sights, but the people. This requires at least knowing the local language, and access to more than tour guides and waiters. Twain does not achieve this. He knows a little French, but by his own account none of the Americans could make their efforts understandable to a Frenchman. The structure of his tour means that he spends almost all of his time in Touristland, and though he freely talks about national character, this is mostly based on meeting people in the tourist industry.

If you can get past all that, the book is still pretty funny; it’s also quite interesting as a portrait of the times. The non-comedy bits– the places where he rhapsodizes over a building or some scenery he happened to like– are not greatly informative. But you get a good idea, I think, of how a smart but not college-educated American of the 1860s would react to the sights and the slights of the Old World. (His advice on Turkish baths: don’t bother.) Even the mechanics of tourism are worth looking at: obviously a lot of people traveled, because there was a network of guides and hotels and textbooks; but of course you couldn’t call ahead, you had no camera, and you weren’t on a strict schedule: if you could afford the trip at all, you were there for months. You also brought a huge trunk or two of gear– but in Twain’s case, this could be left on the ship, while you made your land excursions with a few suitcases.

Red states pull ahead

Today the red states (the states Trump won in 2016) pulled ahead.

Coronavirus cases in red states: 1.625 million
Coronavirus cases in blue states: 1.590 million

Since my last update, June 26: 188,000 new cases in blue states, 533,000 in red states. 

And that’s despite the hefty lead built up by New York (426,000 cases), and California’s valiant effort to stay in the running.  But the death cult is winning.

Cases per million people is a good stat to look at between nations. The US has 9900; the UK 4200; South Korea 261. Of course whenever South Korea is brought up, people immediately think of reasons we couldn’t possibly learn from them, so let’s look at Canada: 2800.

Here;’s a comparison of daily US vs. EU cases. It’s as of July 1; I couldn’t find a later chart. Today’s new case count is way off this chart at 64,000.  Europe beat the curve; we didn’t bother. Donald Trump’s ego was way more important.

coronavirus-EU-US-july-1-640x452

And the right-wing lie machine is still telling its viewers that there’s no problem.  Could they at least put a health warning on the screen?  “Warning: listening to Fox News can kill you and your family.”

Red state fever

I’m not going to do a full roundup, but I thought it was time to update the counts for red and blue states, as of June 27.

Blue states: 1.4 million cases, 84,700 deaths
Red states: 1.1 million cases, 41,500 deaths

At my last report, May 13, the death counts were 58,600 vs. 22,600. So the increase since then is blue 144%, red 184%.

The death cult is seeing results.

We’ve got competition now, though. Brazil has 1.3 million cases, 56,100 deaths. Somehow, pandemic + right wing idiot in charge = tens of thousands of dead people.

And just to rub it in, our 127,000 deaths were completely unnecessary. South Korea has had 282.  2% as much.  The GOP has managed to kill more people in 2020 than all American deaths in World War I and the Vietnam War. Combined.

The ’Rona: It turns out community is good

It’s been just 18 days since I last wrote about the coronavirus. Since then, numbers have gone boom.

18 days ago, the US had just under 1000 cases. Today it’s 120,000. Deaths are at 2000.

The Financial Times has had the best charts on the spread. Here’s today’s:

rona-3.28

Now, Lesson One is still it can be worse. Exponential growth will hit you in the ass like that. What if we have another 18 days at that rate?  Quick calculation: 14.4 million cases.

Lesson Two, however, is the cross-country comparison.  The US is way out on top in terms of cases and rate of growth. (USA NUMBER ONE!) The European nations (including the UK) are clustered together. The East Asian countries in cyan have already flattened the curve.

The FT helpfully captions these: “South Korea: huge test-and-trace programme”, “Japan: strong social norms around civil obedience and mask-wearing”, “Singapore: strict quarantine rules & contact tracing”.

Somehow these things work better than Republicans running around denying the virus, comparing it to the flu, gathering in groups, and suggesting that old people should die for the sake of the Dow Jones.

A case in point: Landon Spradlin, a musician/evangelist, posted two weeks ago about how the virus was “mass hysteria” designed to impugn Trump, and said the “Spirit of God” would protect against germs.

He died from the virus on Wednesday.

And this isn’t atypical. Republican governors in the South are countermanding cities’ stay-at-home orders; Sen. Rand Paul, who has the virus, was until his test results came back socializing with other senators and swimming in the Senate pool. (Which is still open, because surely the virus wouldn’t dare infect a Congressman? Five so far are infected.)

I’ve been writing for years about US rightism, and each crisis we go through shows what they don’t believe and what they do. The Reagan era (and every GOP presidency since) showed that they don’t actually care about the deficit, only about low taxes. The Bush era showed that they couldn’t competently run a government. Trump’s election showed the continuing dominance of overt white supremacy. And Covid-19 has shown them happily courting death for themselves and their own constituents.

At the end of my “last century” piece, I predicted “collectivism will come back in a big way… but not for another generation.” That was 20 years ago, and right on time, laissez-faire individualism is imploding and the kids are clamoring for socialism.

I’m not promising that the GOP will collapse.  Far from it: outraged, scared authoritarians are capable of even more sociopathy than usual. But there is nothing magic about Trump’s GOP. It’s been unpopular almost since the inauguration. And more broadly, right-wing states always go too far, indulging themselves till they engineer broad social revulsion. The Depression discredited plutocracy for nearly fifty years. Bush II presided over Katrina and two recessions, and got himself and his party solidly kicked out of power. When things go badly wrong, people don’t descend into Lord of the Flies; they suddenly value community, helping one another, making things work.  A party that has spent the last forty years mocking those things suddenly looks very bad.

(Possible counter-argument: the threat of nuclear war, or climate change, doesn’t seem to do this. Yes, because until they happen they’re abstract and far in the future. People aren’t good at abstract threats.  They respond, however, to direct hardship that affects themselves and their communities.)

Trump has been exceedingly lucky: despite his narcissism and incompetence, the economy has continued growing and he stopped short of going to war. He was never going to perform well in a real crisis, and now we have one and he won’t or can’t.

For a few days Trump seemed to take the virus seriously; and then he made a series of noises about “re-opening the economy” by Easter. Dutifully, the right-wing media amplified this into a new litany. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick suggested that old people should die off to protect the economy.  He phrased it as if it was a personal choice and somehow noble, but jesus, people, throwing your old people into the ICU ward to die is not noble, it’s genocidal. Suicidal, too, since those are his party’s key voters.

Less apocalyptically, people have worried about how the crisis ends… we can’t keep cooped up at home for months on end, can we?  Well, the direct answer is, yes we can— we just passed a $2 trillion bill to keep people and more importantly corporations going, and as Matt Yglesias likes to say, we can make the money machine go brr. But it can be useful to go over once again why we’re at home.

  • To slow the spread of the virus. If you’re at home, you’re not catching it or passing it on. (The really insidious thing about Covid-19 is that it can be spread for days by asymptomatic people.)
  • To keep the health care system from imploding. We don’t have enough ICU beds, enough ventilators, enough frigging face masks. Doctors and nurses are worn ragged in Lombardy and Seattle and New York. And when the ICU is filled up with Covid-19 patients, that can be fatal to anyone coming in with a regular old heart attack.
  • To buy us time. We need tests in huge quantities. We need a contagion tracing regime. We need to build up health care capacity. We need to look at possible cures.

I distrust any piece of punditry that ends “…and therefore we must suffer a few million deaths.”  Just don’t go there, even if you’re really concerned about the Dow Jones. And even more so, don’t go there just because you can’t see an alternative.

The alternative is staring us in the face, in that chart above: control the freaking virus, as South Korea has, using South Korea’s methods.

The Financial Times has stumbled on something that doesn’t just explain a few data points, but the crises and opportunities of the next decades: that little point about “strong social norms.” Ultra-individualism and predatory capitalism aren’t working out so well. Maybe we should try some of those strong social norms.

Those norms might prove useful in other areas, you know, like climate change. Slate has an article that points out that the virus is making people do away with a lot of bullshit: being unable to carry 12 oz. bottles of things on planes; jailing people for minor offenses; using the police for evictions; turning off the water for hardship; throttling the Internet to motivate tiered pay plans. If it turns out that bullshit isn’t necessary in a crisis… why was it ever necessary?

There’s a million things to say, but I’ll just add one more.  People work hard to avoid a repeat of a disaster they themselves experienced. So, world wars were avoided for a century after Napoleon; plutocracy was discredited for 50 years after Hoover; Naziism was universally condemned for 50 years after Hitler. As soon as the people who experienced a disaster are dead (or in nursing homes), however, people are ready to repeat the errors.

We had a global pandemic— a century ago. The influenza epidemic ended up killing 50 to 100 million people, far more than World War I did directly. A lot of the same measures were used, such as school closures and prohibitions on large gatherings. And a lot of the same mistakes were made: many cities lifted the prohibitions, only to see a huge spike in deaths.

So: the basic situation isn’t new, it’s just forgotten. And a lot of people are misreacting because they just don’t have a framework for this. Some people think we need to defy the virus, go out and mingle, because that’s what we were supposed to do after 9/11. The virus isn’t 9/11; it’s not a terrorist who wants to cause fear and disruption. It doesn’t care about your fear or defiance. What it wants is large gatherings of victims; don’t indulge it.

Anyway… stay safe, stay sane, take walks, good luck when you have to go out. If you’re wondering what to do with yourself, may I suggest creating a conlang?

 

The virus and how authoritarians fail

It turns out that a global pandemic is one situation where you really don’t want a narcissistic thug as president– a man whose first instinct is to lie, and whose second and third instinct is to lie again, differently.

The basic situation is that the Covid19 coronavirus is highly infectious even when people don’t show symptoms, and has a fairly high mortality rate, especially for people over 65. That means things can go south extremely quickly. Three weeks ago, Italy had 3 cases; now it has over 10,000, with 600 deaths, hospitals are overwhelmed (80% of hospital beds are virus victims) and the entire country is quarantined.

You can have a success story with coronavirus: Taiwan, which has extensive contacts with China and yet just 45 cases.  Or even South Korea, which has had 7500 cases, but is managing to reverse the tendency for new cases to skyrocket. Both countries were prepared for pandemics, took contract tracing and social distancing seriously, and were honest to the public.

By contrast, what has Donald Trump, darling of the GOP, done?

  • Two years ago, fired the person in charge of pandemic readiness, and his team, and never replaced them.
  • Cut the CDC’s global epidemic prevention budget by 80%.
  • Kept testing catastrophically low.  As of March 8, South Korea had tested 189,000 people; the US, 1700. Test kits are in short supply and test labs are backed up. When you hear that the US has had 971 cases (as of today), bear in mind that we just don’t know the total number of cases because we’re barely testing.
  • Lied about the severity of the disease.
  • Lied about it being contained.
  • Encouraged people with the virus to go to work, spreading it further.
  • Lied about the number of tests available.
  • Lied that the coronavirus is just like “the flu.” Coronavirus’s mortality rate is about 20 times that of the flu. (The flu’s rate is 0.1%; WHO has estimated coronavirus’s at 3.6%. But in China, it was 14.8% for people 80 or older.)
  • Misled people about how quickly a vaccine can be produced. (It could take a year or more.)
  • Been more concerned about “the markets” and his own popularity than in combating a public health crisis.

Add to all this the economic world the GOP’s plutocracy has created, in opposition to every other advanced nation: poor health care, limited or nonexistent sick days, a gig economy where people can’t afford to stay home. All of this suddenly matters very much when there’s a dangerous, contagious virus running around.

See here for a good interview with an outbreak preparedness expert on why the president needs to step up in a crisis like this, as Obama did, as Trump is unable or unwilling to.

None of this denial is necessary, or makes sense at all. A national emergency can actually prop up a president– just ask Dubya Bush after 9/11. Democrats would not be somehow enabled if the president had beefed up rather than gutted preparedness, made tests available, told the truth about how to contain the disease.

The rest of the GOP propaganda engine, of course, is falling in line behind the lies. Fox News is downplaying the virus; the online idiots are contributing conspiracy theories. The conspiracy theories are just stupid froth, but they’re a symptom of the underlying disinformation: it no longer matters where the virus came from, and they don’t even realize it. That ship has sailed. When Ted Cruz is in quarantine because he’s been exposed to a conservative American at a conservative conference in America– it’s just beside the point to indulge in anti-Chinese racism, or talk about closing the borders. The virus is now inside the house. Also, inside the House.

The irony is that the people most at risk from the GOP’s lies are the GOP supporters themselves.

  • Older people, who strongly skew GOP, are the most at risk of dying from coronavirus. If you want to keep your elder relatives alive, keep them from gathering in groups, and turn off their damn Fox News.
  • GOP loyalists get most of their news from Fox, Rush Limbaugh, or others spreading the lie that the virus is mild and nothing to be afraid of– and therefore they will be failing to wash hands, failing to avoid crowds, going to work when sick, and spreading the disease among themselves.

The large point about authoritarianism is simply that this sort of stupidity is not an accident. It’s what authoritarianism naturally produces. When a party rejects experts, rejects the ordinary functions of government, rejects everything the opposition says, it makes itself stupid. And eventually it causes this sort of incompetent meltdown.

Authoritarians see themselves as efficient and tough, and when luck is with them they can make other people think the same thing. But when you prize loyalty to the Leader over the truth, and persecute the messengers bearing any other message… well, eventually the truth wins.

That isn’t to say that authoritarians aren’t dangerous. They’re supremely dangerous. But their own system undermines itself, and leaves the system unprotected when a really severe crisis occurs. It’s up to fate whether that gets them kicked out of office in a few years like Dubya, or hung from a tree after causing millions of deaths, like Mussolini, or dying in a pool of their own urine after exiling all the competent doctors, like Stalin.

Edit: I don’t want to liveblog the pandemic, but the stupid keeps coming. Just today, Trump’s budget guy is still proposing a 15% cut to the CDC, and Trump lied that “the Wall” would prevent the spread of the virus.

I also should mention why we do all this “social distancing” (keeping people at home as much as possible). The goal isn’t necessarily to prevent all exposure, though it helps. It’s to spread out the cases, so the health care system can take care of them. When huge numbers are sick all at once, the system is overloaded and burns out.

The betrayal of our allies

Trump is regularly appalling, dangerous, and petty. There’s the whole impeachment thing going on, which is by turns corrupt and comic. It’s bad enough that Trump is trying to shake down Ukraine in hopes of providing some dirt on a political opponent; it’s sad  how foreign officials have learned to buy access by staying at his hotels; it’s baffling that a huge part of this mess is an asinine conspiracy theory: Trump seems to believe that CrowdStrike, an American security company used by the DNC, is Ukrainian.  (One of its founders was born in Russia… you’d think that’d be a point in his favor for the Putin-loving Trump.)

But, well, that’s merely completely corrupt, and so it’s no big surprise. What’s absolutely infuriating is Trump’s betrayal of the Syrian Kurds.

If anyone doesn’t know… these are our allies, the people who did most of the fighting against ISIS, losing 10,000 of their own fighters, and safeguarding nearly 100,000 ISIS combattants and family members. Trump abandoned them to a Turkish invasion, which the White House fucking celebrated:

Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria. The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial “Caliphate,” will no longer be in the immediate area.

Before anything else, this is sick.  Trump’s disgusting comments about the Kurds only twist the knife he pushed into their back. Who on this planet can ever trust Trump again?  Oh wait, there is a way to buy his respect: let him build a goddamn hotel in your country, as Turkey has.

Beyond that, it’s the action of an idiot. The action does nothing for the US, and plenty of things against us:

  • It plays into Russia’s hands, as they’re left to do as they like in Syria.
  • It plays into Assad’s hands, as the Kurds rushed to make a deal with him. With one less enemy, Assad can further reduce the remaining resistance to his rule.
  • It encourages Turkey to use the Syrian crisis to kill Kurds, and of course to enmesh itself more in Syrian affairs.
  • It adds to the number of Syrian refugees that have already stressed out Europe (and Turkey).
  • It has already freed a bunch of ISIS prisoners and may well free more, as the Kurds shift from guarding prisoners to trying to stay alive.
  • It’s shown the world that allying with the US is a quick path to betrayal and death.

Against all this Trump apparently saw one benefit: he could get a few hundred troops out of Syria. Only to immediately send a greater number, 1800 troops, to Saudi Arabia.

That’s what you get when you put a narcissistic toddler in charge of foreign policy.

Republicans try not to remember this, but perhaps this week will give them a reason to learn: they could end this, all on their own, in 24 hours.  And it doesn’t even require asking the Democrats for help or giving them any more power than they have. The Constitution has a way to get rid of an insane idiot as president: the 25th amendment.