Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

July 14, 2017

The past was not PG

Filed under: Bible,Culture,Game of Thrones,Mythology — Razib Khan @ 9:34 am

The Week has published a screed against the low moral quality of Game of Thrones, Game of Thrones is bad — and bad for you. Obviously there is something to this insofar as one can see a coarsening of entertainment, or at least a decline in the stylized aspects of the depiction of reality.

But one of my initial reactions is that much of the narrative that we value from the past was not particularly PG. If you read The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible you see that the “Good Book”, in fact the only book many read front to back by many after the Reformation in Protestant Europe, has some quite unsavory tales. The story of Judah and Tamar in particular is hard to digest from a modern Western perspective because many of the elements are understated and workaday. Greek mythology is no better obviously. From Zeus raping Leda, Achilles throwing a fit because his sex-slave was taken away, to the tradition of Agamemnon sacrificing Iphigenia.

In some cases the shocking aspect of ancient stories is because moderns have different values. Slavery and concubinage were taken for granted during the period that the Hebrew Bible and Classical mythology crystallized into the forms which came down to us. In other cases I presume that it was unlikely that small children were going to ever read the original stories themselves, so sexual elements that might confuse were probably omitted in some oral tellings.

This is not to say that Game of Thrones is a modern masterpiece. But some of the disquieting, and frankly perverse, aspects of the narrative are only shocking if your standard is the relatively antiseptic literary fiction which one finds between the Regency and the cultural revolution of the 1960s. That is the aberration in human history, while gritty genre fiction much closer to primal human storytelling.

July 9, 2017

Our civilization’s Ottoman years

Filed under: Culture,International Affairs,international relations — Razib Khan @ 9:29 pm

Some right-wing intellectuals are wont to say that multicultural and multiracial empires do not last. This is not true. Historically there are plenty which lasted for quite a long time. Rome, Byzantium, and the Ottomans, to name just a few of the longest. But, though they were diverse polities modern liberal democratic sensibilities would have been offended by them. That is because these empires were ordered and centered around a hegemonic culture, with other cultures accepted and tolerated on the condition of submission and subordination.

The Ottoman example is the most stark because it was formally explicit under the millet system by the end of its history, though it naturally evolved out of Islamic conceptions of the roles of dhimmis under Muslim hegemony. For 500 years the Ottomans ruled a multicultural empire. Yes, it decayed and collapsed, but 500 years is a good run.

I bring up the Ottoman example because I was having a discussion with a friend of mine, an academic, and he brought up the idea that the seeming immiseration of the middle to lower classes in developed societies will lead to redistributive economic policies. Both of us agree that immiseration seems on the horizon, and that no contemporary political movement has a good response. But I pointed out that traditionally redistributive socialism seems most successful in relatively homogeneous societies, and the United States is not that. American society is diverse. Descriptively multicultural. There would be another likely solution.

Eleven years ago Amartya Sen wrote a piece for The New Republic which could never get published in the journal today, The Uses and Abuses of Multiculturalism. In it he looked dimly upon the emergence of plural monoculturalism. Today plural monoculturalism is the dominant ideal of the identity politics Left, with cultural appropriation in vogue, and separatism reminiscent of the 1970s starting to come back into fashion. Against plural monoculturalism he contrasted genuine multiculturalism. I think a better word for it is cosmopolitanism.

The Ottoman ruling elite was Sunni Muslim, but it was cosmopolitan. The Sultan himself often had a Christian mother, while during the apex of the empire the shock troops were janissary forces drawn from the dhimmi peoples of the Balkans. This was a common feature of the Islamic, and before them Byzantine and Roman empires. The ruling elites exhibited a common ethos, but their origins were variegated.

Many of the Byzantine emperors were not from ethnic Greek Chalcedonian Christian backgrounds (before the loss of the Anatolian territories many were of Armenian, and therefore non-Chalcedonian, origin). But the culture they assimilated to, and promoted, as the core identity of the empire was Greek-speaking and Chalcedonian, with a self-conscious connection to ancient Rome. I can give similar examples from South Asia or China. Diverse peoples can be bound together in a sociopolitical order, but it is invariably one of domination, subordination, and specialization.

But subordinate peoples had their own hierarchies, and these hierarchies interacted with the Ottoman Sultan in an almost feudal fashion. Toleration for the folkways of these subordinate populations was a given, so long as they paid their tax and were sufficiently submissive. The leaders of the subordinate populations had their own power, albeit under the penumbra of the ruling class, which espoused the hegemonic ethos.

How does any of this apply to today? Perhaps this time it’s different, but it seems implausible to me that our multicultural future is going to involve equality between the different peoples. Rather, there will be accommodation and understandings. Much of the population will be subject to immiseration of subsistence but not flourishing. They may have some universal basic income, but they will be lack the dignity of work. Identity, religious and otherwise, will become necessary opiums of the people. The people will have their tribunes, who represent their interests, and give them the illusion or semi-reality of a modicum agency.

The tribunes, who will represent classical ethno-cultural blocs recognizable to us today, will deal with a supra-national global patriciate. Like the Ottoman elite it will not necessarily be ethnically homogeneous. There will be aspects of meritocracy to it, but it will be narrow, delimited, and see itself self-consciously above and beyond local identities and concerns. The patriciate itself may be divided. But their common dynamic will be that they will be supra-national, mobile, and economically liberated as opposed to dependent.

Of course democracy will continue. Augustus claimed he revived the Roman Republic. The tiny city-state of Constantinople in the 15th century claimed it was the Roman Empire. And so on. Outward forms and niceties may be maintained, but death of the nation-state at the hands of identity politics and late stage capitalism will usher in the era of oligarchic multinationalism.

I could be wrong. I hope I am.

June 25, 2017

Over the long term civilization matters

Filed under: Culture — Razib Khan @ 9:09 pm

In Peter Turchin’s work modeling human historical dynamics he introduces the idea of a “meta-ethnic” identity. Quite often this is synonymous with a world religion. These identities emerged in the last few years as human polities scaled so large as to expand beyond tribal-national boundaries.

These sorts of dynamics are clear when we think about the Crusades, the defense against the Ottomans in the 17th century, or the Iberian “division” of the world between Castile and Portugal. Common ties of civilization and identity allow for ingroup cohesion, as well as heightening hostilities against outgroups.

Of course there many exceptions. When reading The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean I recall being struck by how southern Italian city-states like Amalfi opportunistically allied with Muslim pirates against other Christian powers. Similarly, during the Battle of Vienna Protestant Hungarians marched with the Ottomans against the broader Christian alliance which came to the aid of the Habsburgs.

These are two instances which show short term self-interest or necessity driving choices of group coalitions. Amalfi, like later Italian city-states, found it in their interest to do business with Muslims, even if it was to the detriment of their co-religionists. This did not mean they were no longer Christians. But in many instances they put that identity aside for their own gains. In the case of the Protestant Hungarians there’s was an alliance of necessity.

As recounted in Divided by the Faith the decades leading up to the Battle of Vienna the Hungarians experienced a concerted campaign of conversion and persecution of the part of the Habsburg monarchy in concert withe Roman Catholic Church. The Habsburg’s Austrian lands were brought back fully into Catholicism, as was most of Imperial Hungary. It is no coincidence that Hungarian Reformed Protestantism was strong in the east, which had been under Ottoman influence. The arrival of an expansive Austrian monarchy was an existential threat for them.

The flip side are cases where groups with the same civilizational identity engage in wars over resources or boundaries. The conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea would certainly fit into this mold, and to some extent the Great War in the Congo which has flared for two decades now.

This sort of dynamic has been used to argue that Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order is not a useful framework. But on the contrary what Turchin and colleagues have shown is that over the long run civilizational fissures tend to result in the most vicious and dehumanizing wars.

June 24, 2017

We need more housing for the upper upper middle class

Filed under: Culture,Housing — Razib Khan @ 9:46 pm
$1.5 million dollar house in Palo Alto

When people talk about real estate affordability and gentrification often the focus is on housing for the poor. Myself, I don’t think this is the issue. People with means wouldn’t move into poor neighborhoods if there was housing they could afford elsewhere.

Most of the “multi-million dollar” houses in Palo Alto are not mansions. Many are not really worth that much because of the house; it’s just the land. These are modest homes which really are appropriate for middle class buyers. In fact they were often built with middle class buyers in mind.

But in places like Palo Alto they are now for two types of people: long-term residents (who also likely don’t pay much property tax), and those with very high incomes and/or wealth due to selling companies.

From an article published last year:

The average price of the Palo Alto homes that went on the market today is just over $3 million. With a 20 percent down payment and the state’s average 30-year fixed mortgage rate of 3.77 percent, the average monthly payment on those homes would be a little over $14,000, two-thirds of the monthly income for a quarter-million dollar household.

It’s hard to imagine that two married Google engineers in their twenties could afford a house in Palo Alto. It’s beyond their means. But these homes are not luxurious in and of themselves. They’re all that the upper upper middle class have access to nearby.

In Silicon Valley they love to reimagine stuff. But only some people like the demi-god Elon Musk are focusing on concrete things, like cars and rockets. They need to re-imagine housing. There’s no reason the people coding the future should live in post-war ranch homes.

June 21, 2017

American cities need to grow up to solve the housing crisis

Filed under: Culture,Housing Crisis — Razib Khan @ 7:51 pm

Martin Jacques observes in When China Rules the World that East Asian cities don’t have the organically evolved feel of European urban areas. He chalks this up to the rapid economic development of the “Asian Tigers” and Japan over the past few decades. Buildings were built, buildings were torn down. The rate of change didn’t allow for the accumulation of historical authenticity. There’s also another reason: many East Asian societies have built buildings out of perishable materials like wood and so not prized historicity of structures.

The oldest free standing timber building in China dates to 782. The Songyue Pagoda dates to 523, but it’s made of brick. In contrast great public buildings made of marble still exist in the Western world that date back to antiquity. The Pantheon became a church and so is preserved in nearly its full glory. Public buildings and historical architecture are great. But the valorization of the principle can come at a price.

Willamette Week has an article up on the attempt to “maintain historic character,” and how it prevents the emergence of affordable housing. Portland’s Laurelhurst Neighborhood Fights to Keep the Housing Crisis Out:

At the end of last month, residents of Laurelhurst turned out in record numbers to vote in their neighborhood association election for one reason: to get protection from developers.

The winning candidates pledged to bypass City Hall and ask the National Park Service to declare much of the 425-acre eastside neighborhood a historic site.

By being labeled “historic” the residents can block development, and preserve the state of their neighborhood the way they like it. They are very explicit about what they want to do:

By seeking to make the neighborhood a historic district, Laurelhurst residents are taking aim at what they see as the neighborhood’s greatest enemy: a real estate developer with a backhoe, bent on tearing down 100-year-old houses to replace them with apartments, a duplex or a huge new house.

“The whole street—it will look like Beaverton by the time they’re done,” says John Deodato, a longtime Laurelhurst homeowner who says he gets 20 letters a month from developers seeking to buy his home. “The city won’t do anything about it unless we do.”

Beaverton is a suburb of Portland. Though the analogy is imperfect, if Portland is West LA, Beaverton is Irvine. The connotation of this insult is clear to any Oregonian. It’s a sneer at those without refined sophistication and breeding.

Laurelhurst has a 14 to 1 Democrat to Repubican ratio, and median home value is $750,000. The median household income for the greater Portland area is $65,000. The median home value in Beaverton is about $360,000. I looked at Zillow and found an $800,000 home in Laurelhurst. You can see that it has appreciated nicely over the last 10 years.

The recent neighborhood association seats were contested. The outcomes were clear:

More than 800 people voted in the election—a record for the neighborhood, and more than 10 times the number of voters in the previous election. The vote went overwhelmingly for the historic district candidates. Pratt, the pro-historic district candidate for president, won just under 80 percent of the vote.

It is no surprise that the people who live in Laurelhurst are voting to protect their interests. Their implicit gated community, with its high property values. They may be progressive in their avowed values, but when their self-interest is at state, they make sure to take care of their self-interest and conserve what they have the way they like it.

There are of opponents to this trend of gentrified Portland neighborhoods. They profile an alliance between a developer and the head of 1000 Friends of Oregon, a nonprofit which favors density over sprawl. Below is some of their rationale, along with what someone in Laurelhurst has to say about these men:

“The reasons we are involved with this bill has nothing to do with whether the home builders are involved with it,” says McCurdy. “The bill increases housing opportunities—diverse housing opportunities and affordable housing opportunities—all of those inside our towns and cities, which is part of the land-use deal that we as Oregonians have had in place for 40 years.”

McCurdy believes what’s happening in Laurelhurst is a “misuse of historic district designation to prevent change.”

Critics of the bill call 1000 Friends’ and the home builders’ support an unholy alliance.

“Gov. McCall would be spinning in his grave to see his beloved 1000 Friends of Oregon organization working side-by-side with the Home Builders Association, buying into the alt-right, fake-news theory of demolition as the cure for affordability,” wrote Tracy Prince, vice president of the Goose Hollow Foothills League, in a May 17 letter to legislators.

In the early 2000s anything and anyone that self-styled progressives did not like was “neocon.” Today it is “alt-right.” Somehow this woman believes that allowing for development which would allow for an increase in the local housing supply and destroy some of the quaint town-like character of East Portland streets is “alt-right.” If she lived in the 1950s I wonder if she would accuse her enemies of being “Communists.”

The article has a definite slant against the Laurelhurst neighborhood association. The author of the piece lives in Northeast Portland, so she’s able to see through the pleading for the “special character” of Laurelhurst (in fact, records indicate that she is a recent transplant to the city from New York City, so her sympathies are likely not with the old-timers). At one point the author interviews a man who is living out of his pickup truck in Laurelhurst. He’s making $12 an hour, and couldn’t afford a place elsewhere in Portland, let alone Laurelhurst. She notes that “A Craigslist ad posted last week shows a restored attic in this neighborhood renting for $1,000 a month” in the neighborhood.

The piece concludes:

Pratt, the neighborhood association president, knows plenty about homelessness. A couple years ago, he served on the board of social services agency JOIN, which coordinates shelter beds.

Pratt acknowledges Portland needs to build more housing. But not too much of it in Laurelhurst.

“Everybody says the solution to homelessness is housing,” he says. “I don’t think the solution is that every neighborhood looks the same, and every neighborhood has everything, and your neighborhood [has] no uniqueness anymore.”

People have interests. But they don’t want to admit those interests in public. The Laurelhurst neighborhood association’s attempt to gain historic designation is regulatory arbitrage. They want to preserve their neighborhood and property values, and not let in the riff-raff have any space. Earlier in the piece there is a quote from the association president: “Pratt warns that if Laurelhurst isn’t allowed to decide what gets developed within its boundaries, the neighborhood will indeed become cheaper eventually—because it will become hideous.

Beauty is important. It has value. But if we need to sacrifice beauty for affordability, at some point the latter does have to overrule the former.

The political Left on the national level is at least waking up to the problem. Recently Mother Jones wrote Berkeley Says It’s Standing Up to Trump, But It’s Actually Busy Arguing About Zucchini. The title comes from this passage:

At Tuesday night’s city council meeting, which touched on a number of housing issues, this dissonance was on display in a resident’s complaint about a proposed new building that would cast shadows on her zucchini plants. The project was returned to the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board. The zukes live another day.

“Delaying or denying housing approvals suggests to Berkeley neighbors that their stalling tactics will work, and invites more of them in the future,” web developer Kevin Burke wrote in a letter to the council after the meeting, expressing his disappointment with the decision. “I would also much rather have a zucchini garden crisis than a housing crisis.”

The gut-punch is that an anti-development mayor has been elected in Berkeley. How “radical.” In San Francisco and San Mateo counties $105,000 a year for a household of four is low income. The average household income in San Francisco happens to be $105,000 per year.

Yesterday and today on Twitter there was a discussion about post-doc salaries. To a great extent this is a stage in academic life when the salary range is compressed because there are broad national guidelines and expectations. The median post-doc makes $46,000. The 10th percentile is $37,000, and the 90th percentile is $65,000.

So let’s compare some universities and their locales. In US News Stanford has the #2 genetics graduate program and Washington University in St. Louis the #5 program.

According to a cost of living calculator a “salary of $50,000 in St. Louis, Missouri should increase to $304,167 in Palo Alto, California.” This is because housing is 24 times more expensive in Palo Alto. So a hypothetical post-doc at Stanford that is paid $100,000 is equivalent to $16,000 in St. Louis. You might object that Palo Alto to St. Louis is apples to oranges, but the housing expense in the greater Bay Area means that you can’t just escape Palo Alto for relief. A Zillow check of Washington University vs. Stanford shows that houses within walking distance of the latter university are about 15 times more expensive than the former. The average assistant professor at Washington University has a salary in the low $100,000 range. At Stanford it is in the mid-$100,000 range. Basically a Stanford assistant professor makes about 1.5 times more in salary than a Washington University assistant professor, even though cost of living is going to be 6 times greater in Palo Alto.

At this point I could go into tangents about university housing for post-docs and faculty in the Bay Area (one of my friends is doing a post-doc at UCSF and had to have a subsidized apartment for obvious reasons). And obviously opportunities for consulting are more available in the Bay Area. But the point is not about academics and their careers. Rather, I’m using an illustration of the circumstances in which “winners” in American society, people with lot of higher education, can find themselves in financial stress.

There are genuine benefits of starting a career in the Bay Area. For an academic you have access to world-class institutions, with the Stanford, UCSF and Berkeley triangle, and UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz just beyond the horizon, and other institutions like San Francisco State to fill out the landscape. For a techie you know where the “action” is. If you are a single person, a $125,000 salary at Google won’t allow to you live luxuriously, but you can survive. Hopefully you’ll be able to make connections that help you later on, when you inevitably have to ask for a transfer because you want a house and a family.

This is the cycle of life now. But not for everyone. I lived in California for almost ten years, and there are those to the Golden State born whose families bought homes decades ago. The property tax regulations California are Byzantine, but there are plenty of cases where individuals are “grandfathered in” and pay very little tax on a very valuable property. And, these benefits can pass on to children. In other words you may have millennials paying tax rates on million dollar homes that date back to assessments in the 1970s, when their parents owned the house.

We can debate the merits of this system. One can make a case for giving those with deep lineage in an area privileges over newcomers. I lived in a house in Berkeley where the property owner told me once that he paid on the order of 15 times less tax than his neighbor, because the house had been in the family for 60 years. It was purchased by his grandparents, and owned by his mother, and it had passed on to him. His profession was as a part-time photographer and musician. Because his tax bills were so modest he could rent out rooms in the house and and survive in Berkeley even though his non-property income was irregular and not particularly high (when I lived in his house he would complain that he didn’t want to purchase health insurance due to the cost).

For those of us without those privileges if we want to live in the urban areas where our specialized skills return the greatest income and also where we can network and grow our career the best, we need to make sacrifices. For many people that means putting off getting married, putting off having children. Anyone who makes less than $100,000 a year will probably have to hustle in Silicon Valley. There are flophouses from San Francisco down to San Jose where young people of more modest means live together in a communal fashion in dormitories.

How did we get here? I think I’ve outlined a major part of how we got here. Many places people want to live are extremely expensive because supply of housing is constrained.

Houston has a great food scene, but quaint and charming is not something anyone would say about it. But it is very affordable. And, the fourth largest city in this country. It lacks zoning. In contrast San Francisco is beautiful. There is something special about it, from the feces on the sidewalks in the Tenderloin to the beauty of the Golden Gate bridge. Something would be lost if one allowed it to develop vertically. But do we want the city to become a playground for the wealthy and those born into old families of the city? Because that’s what’s happening with the choices we’re making in this country.

Our vision for the future used to be optimistic. We would live better. We would be space age humans. Much of it has come to pass. Our “phones” are amazing things. Electric driverless cars will transform our cities within the next generation. But the way we do housing in this country has not moved much beyond the middle of the 20th century. We need changes in culture, changes in technology, to make things better for future generations, rather than constraining them with the paltry opportunities of the present.

June 6, 2017

St. Augustine knew of the Buddha!

Filed under: Culture,History,St. Augustine — Razib Khan @ 12:04 am

St. Augustine is a very influential figure in Western Christianity. Partly this is surely due to the fact that the Latin Church favored a doctor who was of their own cultural persuasion, schooled in their mores and folkways, as opposed to the ‘logic-choppers’ of the Greek world. In the intellectual Protestant tradition his influence on Martin Luther and John Calvin is well known.

But it was only recently that I realized St. Augustine may have been moderately familiar with the Dharmic tradition. If you recall, he was a Manichaean for some years in his youth. This religion of Persian provenance is relatively well known has having an expansive geographic reach. The last self-conscious Manichaeans probably lived in China in the years around 1500 AD. But in Late Antiquity Manichaeanism apparently had a presence in the Western Roman Empire.

In any case, though notionally a dualistic religion, Manichaeanism acknowledged a strong influence from the Dharmic tradition, in particular Buddhism. Buddha is explicitly mentioned in Manichaean texts, and noted as a one of the prophets. This is not surprising, as the religion emerged in a diverse and pluralistic Late Antique Persian Empire which ruled over many Buddhist and Hindu peoples on its northern and eastern fringes.

I am not claiming that Buddhism had any direct impact on St. Augustine. But simply putting this into the record to remind ourselves that the extent of what we know about the ancients is pretty limited.

May 17, 2017

The servitude I saw

Filed under: Bangladesh,Culture,slavery — Razib Khan @ 10:43 pm

Many people are talking about the late Alex Tizon’s article in The Atlantic, My Family’s Slave. Much of the piece was as disturbing for me as it was for most Americans. But some of it was shockingly familiar. I’ll get to that.

First, Tizon died unexpectedly before the article was published. We won’t be able to ask him about how we can judge the veracity of his own role and culpability. Though the narrative is laced with guilt and admissions of fault on his part, ultimately he does come off as somewhat the soft-hearted hero in comparison to his parents.

Since he is the source of all of this it has hard to not assume that he cast himself in a more flattering light than reality might warrant. The obituary he helped inform in 2011 was entirely deceptive, and apparently the slavery did not feature in his memoir, Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self.

On the one hand writing such an article exposed himself to critique. On the other hand this piece would surely have been an incredible capstone to his career; his has wife admitted as much. Ultimately truth would really only have been served if “Lola,” the slave in question, had been allowed to speak for herself. I’m sure she would have had very different perceptions from Tizon.

But overall I suspect his guilt was genuine.

This is not how it always works out. About ten years ago there was an infamous Long Island case where a wealthy Indian American family had had two Indonesian slaves. There were incidents recounted in the media and testimony which made it clear that their American born children were entirely complicit and cooperative with their parents in the enslavement of these women.

As many of you know it is not uncommon in many societies across the world to have household help. It was even the case in the United States up until relatively recently for young women to go through a stint of menial labor in a more affluent family’s home. My own wife’s grandmother did this when she was a young woman in the 1920s.

I was born in Bangladesh. I moved to the United States right before my schooling began. So though my formative years are operationally all in the United States, I retain memories of Bangladesh. Additionally, I have visited twice since I left (due to the recent spate of killings of secularists I do not plan on visiting again until the nation joins the civilized world). When I was a young child I had a beloved nanny. Additionally, before we left for the United States there were two families who were resident with us in our large apartment. They helped my mother keep the house.

These were not simply capitalist transactions. My nanny was from the same village as my paternal grandfather. Many the people who served in my family’s household in Dhaka were from the same district we had come from, and had had prior associations with my family in the 19th century (for reasons I’m not aware of, they were all from my mother’s side of the family). Obviously my nanny couldn’t come to the United States. She was relatively elderly*, so she retired to my maternal grandfather’s home village, and the last time I saw her in 1989  she was living in one of the houses he owned, which had an indoor flush toilet (a luxury at the time).

The first time we visited Bangladesh my mother made sure to visit the families who had once lived with us and worked for us before we left for the United States. In some ways it was like reacquainting with distant relatives. But obviously there was the distance of class. These were people whose families had been subsistence peasants only a generation earlier. My own family on both sides were not subsistence peasants. They either collected rents from the peasants in question, or operated businesses which generated revenue (e.g., jute farms or milk production operations), or were professionals (e.g., my maternal grandfather was a doctor, my paternal grandfather was an ulem, though he supplemented his income with rents).

Some of the things that I heard my family say about the families who had once had a servile relationship with them were the very definition of patronizing. That being said, both sides of my family are relatively religious, and took some pride in the humane character of their relationship with the people who they employed. Additionally, these were not impersonal relationships. My mother never behaved as the “boss.” Rather, I recall she maintained at least the artifice of a genuine friendship with the women close to her age who worked in our household. The ties between our families went back generations. I would not be surprised if in some sense they were relatives of course in some fashion.

All this is to frame a searing incident (or series of incidents) that I recall from 1989. My uncle, my mother’s brother, had married into a family which hailed from the city of Chittagong. This brother was arguably my mother’s favorite, so we went to visit him in Chittogang. Most of the time though he was away on a merchant marine vessel on which he was an engineer, so we were left to spend time with my uncle’s in-laws. Overall they were lovely people.

But there was an exception to their behavior They had a household domestic. She must have been about fifteen or so. She was very quiet, and I was never formally introduced to her, though a few times I tried to talk to her, to the irritation of others. Like an automaton she operated silently in the background, cleaning and cooking. One day I was in the kitchen talking about something with my cousin-in-law, and my uncle’s mother-in-law began yelling at the young woman. My cousin-in-law broke off our conversation, turned to the domestic, and began yelling at her too. Next thing I knew all the women in the house had come into the kitchen and were screaming at the domestic.

I was very disturbed and left the scene of the incident. Something similar happened at least two other times the week we were there. When I asked one of my cousin-in-law’s about this young woman and why they yelled at her she shrugged, rolled her eyes, and said she was stupid, useless, and didn’t know her place. I asked my mother about this treatment, and she didn’t seem to want to speak of it, though she did say something to the effect that not all families treat their domestics the way she was raised to treat them. My mother did not approve, but her disapproval did not rise to the level of causing her to begin a controversy with her brother’s in-laws.

This behavior seems very similar to what Tizon recounts about his parents using their slave as a emotional and verbal punching bag. And it was not a total aberration, the second time I went to Bangladesh we stayed with one of my mother’s brothers who had become rather wealthy. He married a woman who was 20 years younger than him. She was in fact one year younger than me (this is my mother’s youngest brother). This woman was nice enough, but she seemed a bit dull and I was to understand she wasn’t particularly educated (i.e., she hadn’t gone to university of any sort).

My uncle’s household had a domestic. She was a young woman, probably in her early teens. One day I saw my aunt-in-law scream at her in exactly the same way that I had seen years earlier with my other uncle’s in-laws. When my aunt was irritable about something, she would invariably begin to verbally abuse the domestic, who was probably about 13.

Many things have changed in Bangladesh in the period my parents have lived in the United States. This includes the language; both of my parents speech exhibits archaisms which contemporary Bangladeshis find amusing. But something substantive has been economic development. My parents in the 1970s were at best upper middle class. But they had numerous servants. My uncle in contrast was, and is, genuinely wealthy, even by American standards. He is literally part of the capitalist class.

Yet it was difficult for him to find a competent domestic. He had to drive 50 miles into the country into obscure villages to find a family who had a young woman who was willing to work in his household. The families who had traditionally worked for my own family were now in a different economic situation. Some number had lived long enough in the city that their children had gained enough education that there were now opportunities besides menial labor or domestic work for them. Others were now sending their young daughters to textile factories, and not the homes of the middle or upper classes.

Why? I can’t speak from inside knowledge, above I made it clear that in our own telling my family is that they are benevolent patrons. But even if we are benevolent patrons, I assume that the families which customarily had to treat us with deference would have preferred to live in a world where our legal equality in the modern world matched social equality.

Going to work in a dark and hot factory for low ages is horrible I assume (I wouldn’t know except for a short stint at a Christmas break job when I was 20). But it may be better than the alternative of being subjected to abuse by one’s “betters” for a pittance.

To end on a positive note, sometimes my parents sometimes complain about how much Bangladesh has changed. Much of the rural area has been swallowed by the conurbation that is Dhaka. But many things have gotten better. Both my parents come from large families. But though my maternal grandmother was married to a doctor of some means, several of her children died as infants. This was not a tragedy, but just a part of life. The mortality of children under five has decreased 7-fold in what is now Bangladesh since my parents were young!

* People who live a difficult life tend to age quickly. I want to say that my nanny was in her late 50s when I last saw her, but I would not be surprised if she was younger. She was illiterate, and when I was a child in elementary school I recall my parents discussing the best way to send her some money when they found out that she was subsisting on plain rice and salt.

May 8, 2017

The lesson of Erasmus: the center that could not hold

Filed under: Culture,Erasmus,History,Religion — Razib Khan @ 11:35 pm

The return of the civilian

“On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them”
-Niccolò Machiavelli

The sentiments expressed above are typical of Renaissance men, prone to archaisms and love of ancient learning. As all stylized facts are, the dichotomy between a dark Middle Ages and a flourishing Renaissance are clearly overwrought, and an artifact in some ways of the reality that the victors write history. A passionate intellectual such as Abelard is clearly a familiar figure despite the reality that he flourished in the early part of the High Middle Ages. And the period described in Aristotle’s Children was not lacking in brilliance on the whole.

But generalizations also have a basis. Henry the VIII reputedly wrote Defence of the Seven Sacraments as a rebuke to the assaults from the nascent Protestant tradition. For his services the Pope gave the king the title Defender of the Faith. It is no surprise that Thomas More “aided” in the composition, but the point is that a Renaissance monarch was expected to be a cultured individual for whom writing a theological treatise was not ludicrous.

Though one should not take the analogy too far, in some ways the polities of the medieval period in Western Europe exhibited a social structure not unlike that of the Bronze Age. Literacy was one of the hallmarks of Romanitas, and later of Christian civilization. But literacy was not broad-based in Western Europe, but rather concentrated in a particular caste, that of the priests. In the Bronze Age literacy was also defined by its caste association, that of the scribes. In contrast, kings fought. Their rule was by divine right, whether as living gods on earth, or as vice-reagents of the national deity. Similarly, monarchs during the medieval period ruled as representatives of the God on high.

During the Iron Age the antipodes of Eurasia were dominated by polities and civilizations which were predicated on military rule, but at whose peak civilian norms reigned supreme. Even as militaristic a figure as Julius Caesar was a cultural patron who also wrote The Gallic Wars. Similarly the Chinese emperors were manifestly civilian figures, who often also had personal skills in the arts which they cultivated. It wasn’t until the reign of the emperor Justin in the year 518 that Rome first had an illiterate ruler (and this is implausible enough that some historians attribute this claim as one intended to be scurrilous toward Justin and his successor and nephew, Justinian).

The fall of the Western Roman Empire ended this civilian ascendancy, which in any case was being eroded by the necessary rise of military emperors to defend the borders against barbarian incursions. Once the German tribes, Roman allies or not, took the reins of power there were deep fundamental transformations of the order of society. Though great rulers such as Charlemagne were patrons of learning and Roman civilization, he himself remained very much a barbarian warlord.

The ruling elite of medieval Europe were manifestly a military elite. The feudal system demanded that they provide service in the armies of their lords, and that service entailed outfitting themselves and a retinue. Martial skills were a necessity. The legacy of this physical aspect to being part of the ruling elite persists down to the present day. Both of the two young princes in the House of Windsor have had military careers, while hunting remained a major part of every nobleman’s life down to the early modern period (apparently Louis XVI’s diaries are filled with days which simply state “went hunting”).

The gun and the printing press

Events such as the Battle of Crecy, the rise of the Swiss infantry, and the ubiquity of the gun, heralded the end of the military elite as a necessity. Gentility of birth became a matter of mores and manners, and the reemergence of an almost classical model of education and cultivation took hold.

Along with the the rise of the gun, there was the printing press. The existence of ancient graffiti in Egypt and Rome tells us that we should be cautious about assuming that literacy was rare in antiquity, but we should also admit that it was not quite common (when men of the lower classes were allowed in the legions in the late republic there were accommodations made for the fact that many would be illiterate).

The printing press was a technology that made production of printed works much easier. And so Europe was indudated with pamphlets and books. This was not always due to the literate content, as illustrations were quite influential. But it is hard to deny that this spread of information technology probably triggered a blooming of the “republic of letters” not out of chance, but necessity. The intellectuals of the medieval period were by and large clerics, but now they were joined by newly emerged urban professionals and the leisured nobility.

The Age of the Princes and their Liberal Critic

As medieval Western Christendom entered into the final stages of putrefaction something new was ripening within it. I do not believe it is coincidental that the Iberian powers were pushing forward and exploring the world beyond Europe in the decades before Martin Luther, and during the same period new learning was overturning the long reigning scholasticism.

At the center of much of the cultural religious ferment was Desiderius Erasmus. Born in 1466, he was the illegitimate son of a priest, and became a priest himself. After a fashion he was man of the later medieval period, born of a cleric who violated his vows of chastity, in the decades after the papacy was riven between different claimants, and conciliarism attempted to throw the Western Church back to a more antiquated style of governance. This was the age of the Borgia and Medici popes.

Erasmus’ accomplishments are legion in the field of humanities. Today he would be a stellar public intellectual, as well as a productive research scholar. He was the prince of the republic of letters of his day.

Like many Catholic reformers Erasmus aimed to sweep the superstition from his faith, and mocked and criticized the corruptions that he saw in the Church. With his pen he attempted to reform Christian civilization in his own image, sincere of faith and theologically orthodox, shorn of the idolatrous excesses of the medieval Catholicism, with its cult of saints and Marian devotions, as well as contemptuous of the hypocrisy of the clerical class as a whole (though still reverential of its role in performing the sacraments).

Erasmus was instrumental in the rebirth of the liberal arts in Europe in his day. But it seems clear that Erasmus was also fundamentally a liberal person in his attitude toward deviation from what he himself thought was true and right. And, events at the end of his life also suggest that he was much more accepting of the imperfections of the institutions which he critiqued throughout his whole life than others would be.

The Age of the Zealot

The last 19 years of Erasmus’ life overlapped with the Reformation. At the peak of his fame and influence men such as Luther reached out to him, but Erasmus did not return their enthusiasm in kind. The Reformation unleashed atavistic passions, and much of the world Erasmus had known, that he had critiqued and chided, collapsed before him.

Where Erasmus inveighed against the corruption of the Catholic Church, zealous new converts to the Protestant cause destroyed church property and relics, and expelled priests from their territory. When the Jews did not convert to Luther’s form of Christianity, he attacked them. When the peasants rose up against their lords, analogizing their rebellion to that of Luther and his colleagues, he justified their slaughter. When Erasmus temporized Luther attacked him.

Though there were long periods of peace in the decades after Erasmus’ death, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre became emblematic of an age. The period of the Reformation is also one of the age of Wars of Religion. The whole map of Europe transformed due to religious disputes, and between 25 to 50 percent of the population of the German nation died during the Thirty Years War due to causes rooted in the war itself.

In Northern Europe they burned witches. In Southern Europe the inquisition was in full effect. In France Protestants and Catholics lived separate lives, until the French monarchy gave the Protestants a choice of conversion or emigration.

Ideas With Consequences

In Erasmus’ life and work we see the shadow of the future. Some figures just subsequent to him, such as Montaigne, echoed his liberality of spirit. But they were marginalized for centuries by the intolerance of Luther, the controlling character of Calvin, and the machinations of the Jesuits. The power of monarchs grew, as they dispossessed the Catholic Church, or claimed that the Catholic Church gave them divine right to rule.

Charity toward those with whom one disagreed with, a plea of Erasmus in his later  years, disappeared. And what reason had the Catholics to be generous to the Protestants after the iconoclastic attacks on their sacred sites and objects? Protestants when they were expelled or forcibly converted by Catholics? Reformed when they were driven out of Lutheran and Catholic lands? Baptists when they were oppressed everywhere?

The decline of the centrality of fighting as the primary task of nobles, and the rise of humanist and cultured values among the aristocracy, was coincident with wars which tore the fabric of Europe apart for generations, over and over.

The Exhausted Return

Of course as I write today in 2017 the figure of Erasmus strikes many moderns, whatever our religious inclinations, as an admirable one. His emphasis on heart, and the fact that his heart was in the right place, are appealing. His liberality of spirit, his low tolerance for hypocrisy and corruption, but acceptance of genuine disagreement due to human fallibility, are characteristics many of us would wish we could cultivate more.

But it’s nearly 500 years since he died, and it took about two centuries after he died for the long road to enlightenment to put us where we are now. Erasmus shows us that a moderate position, taking the middle path, speaking in the language of intellectuals, has difficulties with the zealots who spew the argot of the street. John Calvin had a humanist education, as did many of the Reformers were humanists, but that did not prevent him from burning a heretic and giving voice to his inner totalitarian (though I do understand that Geneva was not totalitarian in a way we would understand it today). Humanism became a tool, part of one’s education, as opposed to the broad liberal minded spirit with Erasmus exemplified.

When learning is instrumentalized, when it is reduced purely to a tool in the service of society, that enslavement saps something out of its spirit. The idea of truth, the valorization of it above other things, likely does have broader cultural consequences. Without truth, I believe that our species reverts to zero-sum and negative-sum “games.” That was our past. I believe it could be our future.

 

May 6, 2017

Why A Song of Ice and Fire is more definitive than A Game of Thrones

Filed under: Culture,Game of Thrones — Razib Khan @ 9:39 am

Wired has a piece out George R. R. Martin Doesn’t Need to Finish Writing the Game of Thrones Books. The title is needlessly provocative, as there are many good points in the article (though I understand clickbait considerations). Over the years I’ve come to expect and accept that the “great fork” is here to stay, and the books and the the television shows are in some deep and fundamental ways going to be distinct narratives (though Martin and the producers of the television show assert that their conclusion will be congruent, which I actually think may not be optimal).

But the author dismisses an important point rather flippantly:

For the last few years being able to say “Sure, yes, but the books are better” has provided a nice little dopamine rush. But beyond that thrill, what Game of Thrones fans really want is more Game of Thrones. And right now, their best bet for getting that is on premium cable.

Earlier there are comparisons made to the books which inspired Jaws, The Godfather, The Shining, and Blade Runner. These are all cases where films overshadowed the literary works which preceded them.

But none of these works are on par with the world-building and richness of George R. R. Martin’s series (especially the first three books, A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords). Additionally, in the case of the Jaws and The Godfather I think most people agree that the films are far superior artistic productions to the books. And in relation to Blade Runner, most people know that Philip K Dick’s story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was only tenuously connected to the movie adaptation.

I understand that writers are sometimes given tasks or make a really good pitch on the most general terms. But if the points wouldn’t pass muster wit your high school English teacher, should they pass muster with a national magazine? In the clickbait era, probably. But I’m still here to point out that Mrs. Barry would not have approved….

May 5, 2017

BaneCat is back!

Filed under: BaneCat,Blog,Culture — Razib Khan @ 9:39 pm

May 4, 2017

The great Han Empire in Africa

Filed under: Africa,Chinese,Chinese in Africa,Culture,History — Razib Khan @ 10:23 pm

Howard French’s China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa is a bit cliche. Rather than a scholarly book it’s more an observational travelogue, and it suffers somewhat from the fact that it is focused on Chinese who live in Africa, but are never of it. Chinese are Chinese, and those who migrate to Africa have more commonalities than most. So French’s attempts to spin out distinct experiences was a bit stretched. Basically, the same thing is happening over and over across the African continent.

When I say this that it is cliche, I’m alluding to the fact that for many Chinese presence in Africa is rather well known. But the reality is not everyone knows about it. So I was happy to see The New York Times put this issue front and center, Is China the World’s New Colonial Power?

There are twists which are important to remember. First, China’s working age population has been declining since 2012. This is going to put a crimp in any “imperial” ambitions. Second, this Chinese “empire” is not going to be an explicitly political one, but rather one of influence, control, and tough soft power.

That being said, we should’t underestimate the will and need of the Chinese to have their “time in the sun.” Fifteen years ago Ross Terrill wrote The New Chinese Empire. In it be observed that for much of Chinese history there has long been a division between a moralistic/ideological camp and a more nationalist realpolitik element. He traces this division back to antiquity, with Confucianism and Legalism as the prototypes (I’m not sure I believe this). But Terrill observed that Deng Xiaoping and the leaders who he cultivated and promoted to succeed him were generally much more nakedly nationalistic than Mao ever was.

Just something to keep in mind as we look to the future….

May 3, 2017

Millennials with college degrees don’t favor censorship

Filed under: Censorship,Culture,GSS — Razib Khan @ 4:00 pm

There’s a specter haunting the academy. The specter of “red guards” destroying lives and tearing down Western civilization and all its accomplishments in the interests of antinomian leveling impulses through denunciations and purges. (here is the latest instance; the whole thing leaves me yawning, because too few people have the courage or gall to stand up for what they know is right, so this will happen again and again and again)

I am plain in my view that this is a problem. Some of my friends in the academy agree, but in the end they make different choices about priorities. Others don’t think this is a problem at all (and honestly, they clearly think that free speech is more about speech that they think is acceptable). Ultimately I don’t think that this will end well; I’m most certainly going to be on the other side of people whom I consider friends if and when the end of our current liberal democratic order collapses of its own contradictions.

But this isn’t about that. Rather, it’s about an aspect of it: are Millennials, those born after 1980, who go to college more opposed to freedom of speech than previous generations? Is this what’s driving the flair up of campus events? The answer, as clear in the GSS is that Millennials who have gone to college are not more censorious.

The GSS has a variable, SPKRAC. It asks:

…. consider a person who believes that Blacks are genetically inferior. a. If such a person wanted to make a speech in your community claiming that Blacks are inferior, should he be allowed to speak, or not?

Should this person be allowed to speak? As you can see above there is hardly any difference between people of different generations if they have a college education on this question.* The big difference is between generations among those who have a high school education or less. I think this is simply due to the reality that if you have only a high school education as a Millennial you’re much more likely to be not very intelligent in relation to older generations. The slight decline for college educated Millennials might be due to this effect as well, and more marginal kids are now going to, and finishing, college.

If you do a logistic regression in the GSS you see what I have reported earlier: both education and intelligence have independent and notable impacts predicting support of free speech to a liberal extent. Being a woman usually correlates with lower tolerance of deviant or abhorrent speech. Socioeconomic status, income, and age, don’t really matter too much when other variables are accounted for.

What about politics? The results might surprise you.

As you can see on the whole liberals are the most supportive of free speech for racists. It does look that there has been some regression since the real “greatest generation.” And as I expected moderates are the least tolerant.

Moderates are usually less intelligent (this is easily confirmed with the GSS) and informed, and they’re conformists. Today racism is in bad odor, so their instinct to ban or restrict it is strong, as opposed to the abstract principle of free speech. This impulse probably explains the declines broadly among Millennials.

But the results at the top indicate that university education may actually inoculate a bit against this! (remember, it’s not just intelligence, as university education had an independent effect on opinions in the regression)

There’s something going on. It’s a problem. Perhaps a big problem. I do think it ultimately threatens the credibility of the academy in a way we haven’t seen in generations. But it’s not because the majority of students agree with driving speakers they don’t like off the campus or banning speech they find hurtful. A minority of students are loud, mobilized, and active. Sometimes minorities can shape history….

* I limited the sample to non-Hispanic whites. I used the variables SPKRAC, COHORT and DEGREE. I recombined some. E.g., COHORT(r:1800-1945″pre-Boomer”;1946-1964″Boomer”;1965-1980″GenX”;1981-*”Millennial”). Adding groups besides non-Hispanic whites didn’t change the qualitative result, though support for free speech declines among minorities.

May 2, 2017

How Barbecue Should Be Done

Filed under: BBQ,Culture — Razib Khan @ 11:53 pm

Hold the sauce!

Also check out Texas Monthly‘s The 50 Best BBQ Joints . . . in the World!. And Daniel Vaughn’s work is a must read. He’s the “Barbecue Editor” of Texas Monthly, and author of The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue (check out this radio interview on the topic).

May 1, 2017

On understanding the algebra of history

Filed under: Culture,History,Peter Turchin — Razib Khan @ 9:16 pm

Over the years I’ve convinced many people to read Scott Atran’s In God’s We Trust. Why? Because it gives you a basic framework for understanding and interpreting religious phenomena.

The cognitive anthropological toolkit does not give you the total resources of decomposing religious phenomena. But, it is probably a necessary toolkit to begin at the process of carving it up tractably. And since people talk about religion constantly I think it is important that learn to talk about it more rationally and empirically.

I believe my friend Peter Turchin is doing something similar with cliodynamics, which attempts to model history formally and quantitatively. Unlike classical cliometric analysis, which was mostly descriptive, Peter attempts to construct models which make predictions which can be tested.

Of course to test these models you need well organized data. To do this he has been instrumental in pushing forward the Seshat: Global History Databank (which I have supported with a donation).

Cliodynamics is a few decades behind cognitive anthropology as a field. I’m still following it closely because it hasn’t hit the point of diminishing returns for me yet.

I’m putting this post up mostly because on Twitter someone mentioned offhand that more people should know of Peter’s work.

Well, here I am boosting him up a bit! Of his books, I’ve read three related to history, War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires, Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall, and Secular Cycles. For those who are curious about Peter’s ecological scholarship, Complex Population Dynamics may be of interest.

Also, here are my 10 questions for Peter Turchin.

And of course, you should checkout his website.

Samurai Jack is back!

Filed under: Culture,Samurai Jack — Razib Khan @ 8:43 pm


After all these years, Samurai Jack is back. You can find the first three episodes at the Adult Swim website. A little Googling will get you the rest of them. There are three episodes left to finish out the series.

It’s pretty incredible that this short, which I watched in the first half of the 2000s, comes back in 2017. In the interim the original actor who voiced Aku died, but the replacement seems rather good to me (I wouldn’t have noticed the difference).

What makes this series so special? I think it’s the seamless melange of motifs, whether from medieval Japan to a steampunk retrofuture, to science fictional time travel, combined with a stylized animation which gives one the appropriate impression of disorientation that the protagonist must be feeling when confronted with a nightmarish future.

Female Genital Mutilation IS a Muslim Issue. And, it’s a Medical Issue. And, it’s an African Issue. And, it’s a Human Rights Issue.


Slate has put up an extremely misleading article up, Female Genital Mutilation Isn’t a Muslim Issue. It’s a Medical Issue.

Articles such as the one above are why people end up eventually not believing the media at all. First, a few minutes of Googling will show that female genital mutilation (FGM) or female circumcision is not simply an issue related to African culture, and does have some relationship to Islam. From the article:

…The ancient, barbaric practice originated in pre-Islamic Africa and has endured irrespective of the prevalent religion of the area. Today, it is primarily a cultural problem in central Africa, with Muslim-majority countries such as Egypt and Somalia on the list alongside Christian-majority ones such as Ethiopia and Eritrea. Though much lower in comparison to many African nations, the practice is also seen in Iraq and Yemen.

I do have to wonder if this is one case where liberal progressive concern for not seeming to be racist against Africans by imputing upon them barbaric cultural practices is trumped by their concern not to disparage Islam by its promotion of barbaric religious practices. As Oliver Scott Curry has shown, a simple scatter plot illuminates the correlation between Islam and FGM, even though the practice is found among plenty of non-Muslim Africans.

Additionally, the chart has a lacunae. Do you know the country with the largest number of women in the world who are the victims of FGM? Indonesia! (obviously, not an African country, just the world’s largest Muslim country, famed for its moderate practice of Islam) Why Indonesia?

In about fifteen seconds of Googling you’ll get to an article on Wikipedia which states that of the Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence the Shafi considers female circumcision obligatory. The Hanbali school considers the practice strongly encouraged, while the Hanafi and Maliki schools consider it preferred.

If you look at a map of where the Sunni schools are dominant you see that much of East Africa and all of Southeast Asia are Shafi. Take a look at the correlation between the Shafi school and FGM on the map above (it may not be totally accurate, so take it with a grain of salt; the map suggests FGM doesn’t happen in Malaysia, but this VICE article says there are surveys that 93 percent of Muslim women have been subject to some form of circumcision).

The writer of the Slate piece is an American Muslim doctor, not a religious scholar. His family is from Pakistan. Therefore, unless they were Dawoodi Bohra he would have no real knowledge of FGM. Though it is preferred in the historical Hanafi tradition dominant among South Asian Muslims, it rare to nonexistent among them today (and may always have been so, as the Hanafi tradition originally was popular among culturally very different Persians and Turks). I know this from personal experience, as I come from a family with many members who are professional ulema, and this was never a practice that they mentioned or alluded to (in contrast to male circumcision).

When I first began to hear about female circumcision (now usually referred to as FGM) in the media I accepted the line that it was a cultural practice, usually with African associations. I accepted that line because I didn’t know any better, and trusted the media to not lie, and my own Islamic background didn’t suggest that this was a necessary practice of the religion. But some discussions with people and using something called the internet quickly made it clear that I did not understand what it was to be Muslim in Indonesia, much of Africa, or among Iraqi Kurds.

A certain type of anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim thinker infers from the Quran all that is Islam. This is simply not a valid way to go about understanding the history of Muslims and their modern cultures. And yet you have the Muslim writer in Slate asserting “Further, there is no religious sanction for the procedure found in the Quran.” (actually, there is no sanction for the almost universal practice of male circumcision among Muslims in the Quran either)

This reference misunderstands how Islam and most Muslims have related to their religion historically. The Quran is not equivalent to the Christian Bible. Rather, it is more like the Hebrew Bible to Rabbinical Jews. It is a starting point, but not the ending point. Religious practice is more often dependent upon Hadith, Sunnah, and later commentaries by learned jurists, as well as interpretations by living jurists.

From the viewpoint of many Muslim Americans this is a ridiculous way to look at the religion. As an atheist I would assert descriptively that their view of Islam has mapped itself upon a phenomenology of religion which derives directly from American confessional Protestantism, but that’s a digression. For the vast majority of the world’s Muslim, observant or not, devout or not, the religion as transmitted and interpreted by the ulema through these extensive post-Quranic materials and subsequent commentaries is what serves as the intellectual superstructure for belief and practice. The wisdom of the ummah and ulema.

Does this mean that FGM is “uniquely Islamic”? Obviously it is not. As an atheist I don’t think there’s any real essence to a religion in any case. A religion is what people say a religion is. For whatever reason Shafi ulema have asserted that their interpretation of the Islamic religion is such that FGM is obligatory. The fact that over 90% of Muslim women in the 90% Muslim nation of Indonesia have been subject to FGM, and that it is a Shafi nation, is not a coincidence. Nor is it a cultural holdover form the pre-Islamic period. That Iraq Kurdish Muslims, who are Sunni and Shafi, and are the locus of FGM in that nation, is not a coincidence.

Despite the often historically positive comments in relation to FGM in other Sunni traditions, the prevalence of the practice is low to nonexistent in nations dominated by the other traditions. That does show that there is no determinative relationship, and traditions can be reinterpreted.

Additionally, among many Christian groups, and among non-Shafi Muslims, FGM is prevalent in Africa. Looking at the history of the Shafi school much of its jurisprudence was elaborated under the Mamluk Sultans of Cairo. FGM has a long history in Egypt, so without further researcher I have the suspicion that the strong emphasis on the practice within this school is a function of its history in this region of East Africa.

Overall, I think it is wrong to assert that FGM is necessarily or uniquely about Islam. But, it clearly may be sufficiently about Islam, and denying that many hundreds of millions of the worlds Muslims accept as authoritative religious rulings which enjoin the practice upon them as meritorious is simply promoting falsehood.

The claims made in the Slate piece come from a Kevin Drum piece which show that clearly Islam is not uniquely associated with FGM in Africa. That’s fine as far as it goes, but I think this post has shown that there is some association between Islam and FGM. I don’t expect a Muslim American doctor to actually know about the historical details of why different schools of Islam law have different opinions…because Islamic law is pretty unimportant and trivial in America to most Muslims, who follow a few major orthopraxic norms (e.g., don’t drink, don’t eat pork, etc.). I do wish though that the editors at Slate had looked a bit more closely at this piece in a critical-rational manner.

But I don’t expect the media at this point to be critically rational about theses sorts of things. The conclusion was one which the editors were probably happy with, so they didn’t look too closely.  That’s fine. But some of their readers will spend more than five minutes on the factual questions.

Addendum: Unlike in Judaism, circumcision in Islam is not necessarily obligatory (among the Hanafi and Maliki is simply high preferred). As I note above it is not mentioned in the Quran. There probably wasn’t a need because all the peoples of Arabia were circumcised when the Quran was compiled.

Addendum II: Unlike the editors of Slate, and probably the Muslim American author above (who I assume spends more time fruitfully catching up on oncology journals rather than treatises on Islamic law), I knew off the top of my head the distribution of schools of Islamic law geographically, as well as the soft spot the Shafi had for FGM. So Indonesia did not surprise me at all.

But what do I know? I’m just a humble geneticist, not someone who went to j-school to learn how to report!

April 28, 2017

Less intelligent people want to exclude racists from the public square

Filed under: Culture,GSS,Racism — Razib Khan @ 10:03 pm
Logit Coefficients  
  B SE(B) Probability
SEX 0.739 0.217 0.001
DEGREE -0.302 0.092 0.001
WORDSUM -0.338 0.068 0
POLVIEWS -0.078 0.078 0.317
INCOME -0.026 0.06 0.671
AGE 0.007 0.007 0.283
ATTEND 0.09 0.046 0.05
GOD -0.018 0.077 0.819
Constant 3.341 0.937 0

It’s been a while since I’ve done much GSS blogging. Part of it is that I’ve got only so much attention I can devote to things, and most of my focus has been on the area of science that I’m interested in, and one or two non-scientific topics. The second variable is that I started blogging about GSS data a long time ago (~2008), and there’s only so much interesting stuff you can talk about.

But over the past few years there have been some controversies related to speech in public spaces, and what is and isn’t acceptable. There has also been some chatter that young people today in particular are intolerant of freedom of speech. I’ve wanted to address this, so here I go.

The toleration of racists is in today’s America is like testing a boundary condition. If you are willing to tolerate racist speech if you are not a racist, then you are pretty likely to be a free speech absolutist. I am not interested in rehashing arguments, I support free speech in an absolutist sense personally. Rather, let’s look at some data.

The General Social Survey has a question up from 2014 for the variable RACEMEET that asks:

Should people prejudiced against any racial or ethnic group be allowed to hold public meetings?

The question was asked in 2010 and 2014, and 2,651 individuals answered this. The answer was converted to ordinal, so I decided to probe relationships between variables and the score of toleration through regression. Some independent variables, such as political viewpoint (POLVIEWS), were recoded in an ordinal fashion (so that “extremely liberal” = 1, “liberal” = 2, and so forth, to “extremely conservative” = 7). Others, such as age, do not require any recoding. RACEMEET itself was converted to an ordinal.

The above results suggest that political ideology does not predict your response to this question much once you account for other variables. In fact, I did a query on ideological views first, and the results indicated to me what was really going on.

  EXT. LIB. LIB. SLIGHTLY LIB. MODERATE SLGHTLY CONSERV. CONSERV. EXT. CONSERV.
1: Should definitely be allowed 39 24 17 15 22 17 20
2: Should probably be allowed 12 24 24 21 22 22 15
3: Should probably not be allowed 26 20 19 22 19 24 22
4: Should definitely not be allowed 23 32 40 43 37 38 43

As you can see moderates are relatively skeptical of allowing racists to have a public meeting. All of my analysis of the GSS indicates that moderates are not as smart as more liberal or conservative people.

Let’s go through the variables which were significant predictors above. First, sex.

Male Female
1: Should definitely be allowed 21 13
2: Should probably be allowed 22 21
3: Should probably not be allowed 20 23
4: Should definitely not be allowed 36 43

These results were expected. On the whole women tend to be more skeptical of absolutist free speech positions which allow offensive material to be promoted (women are more skeptical of allowing Communists to speak too in comparison to men, so it’s not because of the ideology of the speaker or viewpoint).

Then church attendance frequency:

Never attends church More than once a week
1: Should definitely be allowed 20 23 19 14 21 15 13 14 13
2: Should probably be allowed 21 21 27 24 13 16 26 22 20
3: Should probably not be allowed 21 17 20 18 28 24 18 24 23
4: Should definitely not be allowed 37 39 34 44 37 45 43 40 44

A modest difference.

Next, highest educational attainment:

No HS HS Some college College Graduate
1: Should definitely be allowed 7 14 11 26 32
2: Should probably be allowed 14 20 23 29 27
3: Should probably not be allowed 20 23 21 19 20
4: Should definitely not be allowed 59 43 45 26 21

The big gap here is between those with college and those without college educations.

Finally, we look at WORDSUM, which is a proxy for intelligence. It’s a ten word vocabulary test. Below in the columns are the number of answers a respondent got correct:

<5 5 6 7 8 9 10
1: Should definitely be allowed 8 10 12 16 24 30 36
2: Should probably be allowed 13 22 18 24 26 34 33
3: Should probably not be allowed 27 20 23 22 21 18 18
4: Should definitely not be allowed 52 48 47 38 29 18 12

I combined those who scored below 5 out of 10 (0-4) into one class. You can see that as score on this vocabulary test goes up, the view that racists should be allowed to meet in public goes up. It’s almost monotonic. The smartest people are more tolerant than the next smartest people who are more tolerant than the next smartest people, with the dumb being the least tolerant.

I made the below chart to illustrate this:

Often when it comes to views associated with “smart” people when you put it into some regression eduction accounts for all of the difference. In other words, the less intelligent educated have the same views as the intelligent educated, and the more intelligent but less educated have the same views as the less intelligent less educated. There are more older people who are intelligent but not educated, so it could be generational too (though in this case age does not seem to matter). A plausible hypothesis is that in many cases it is social milieu. Even if you are not bright, being in college inculcates certain values.

And college is a predictor. But these data show that even if you account for college education the brighter you are, the more likely you favor allowing tolerance for views that most people find intolerable.

April 26, 2017

The anti-“End of History and the Last Man”

Filed under: Adam K Webb,Culture,History — Razib Khan @ 6:42 pm

Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man has often been misconstrued. But, it did argue for the long term trend of the ascendancy of democracy and market values. Though Fukuyama did not necessarily predict the universal dominance of Western liberalism, that is one of the corollaries many associate with The End of History and the Last Man.

About 10 years ago I read a book which in many ways stood at total odds with Fukuyama’s thesis, Beyond the Global Culture War by Adam K Webb. I was very skeptical of Webb’s thesis, but intrigued by it. So much so that I did a 10 questions with him.

With hindsight I now believe that many of Webb’s contentions are much more relevant today in 2017 than they were when he wrote Beyond the Global Culture War. Though Webb was not prescient in the details, I think he did get at the fundamental limits of the Western liberal paradigm which were beginning to be exposed in the wake of 9/11.

(note, he has a newer book, Deep Cosmopolis: Rethinking World Politics and Globalization, which I have not read)

April 25, 2017

Austin vs. Portland

Filed under: Austin,Culture,Portland — Razib Khan @ 6:12 pm


The above video is from a Portlander who is quite anti-Austin, though in a tongue-in-cheek fashion.

The issue of cross-city comparisons was on my mind for two reasons. First, Joel Kotkin wrote an article last fall in Forbes, America’s Next Great Metropolis Is Taking Shape In Texas, that friends are sharing on Facebook. Second, I’m someone who has lived in both cities (around downtown Austin and the Hawthorne neighborhood in Southeast Portland). I still travel between Texas and Oregon, and it’s pretty interesting how people react when they find out that I live in Texas or that I’m from Oregon in the other locale. Kind of a wary curiosity about my opinions (in Austin one is careful to mention one’s California days lest the wrath of the native be triggered).

In Oregon it rains gently at an angle; raincoat, not umbrella.

First thing, though the video above is kind of silly and not too serious, I do want to address one thing. Texas is not more arid than Oregon. I’m actually originally from eastern Oregon, so I have to remind people that 2/3 of the state is quite dry, whether it be semi-arid or arid. Inspection of the above map shows that a much larger portion of Oregon is extremely arid than Texas. Also, Portland gets 41 inches per year. Austin? 37. The difference is that Portland’s is frontal precipitation that is dispersed over much of the year in drizzles and overcast skies, while Austin is subject to more convective bursts. Where there are 145 sunny days in Portland per year (remember there is summer drought), there are 230 such days in Austin.

Austin combines a vertical downtown with huge expanses of quasi-suburban sprawl.

Austin still has a lower cost of living, mostly because of housing. Due to its rapid population growth, Austin’s transportation infrastructure and supply of health professionals is far inferior to Portland. But, the population growth is obviously due to an economic dynamism which Portland can’t match; unless you work at Intel it seems most educated young people in Portland are retired and working as a barista on the side (this is an exaggeration, but you get the point).

Can you name Portland’s iconic food?

I’d say Austin’s food is definitely better and cheaper. For beer, I will give the nod to Portland, which has a more well developed scene for microbrews. The same with coffee. It’s hard to compare outdoor amenities. The Pacific Northwest has real trees. The rest of the country has bushes. Austin is near the Texas hill country, but Oregon has hills, mountains, and gorges. It has Crater Lake. But because of the warm weather you can go swimming and enjoy the outdoors the whole year without much

Vistas

preparation in Austin. The Colorado river in Austin is less geologically impressive than the Willamette, but there’s a lot more recreational activity because it’s warm and dry so much of the year.

A major difference between Portland and Austin is the university scene (or lack thereof). Portland State University has about half the student body of UT Austin, but its prominence within the city (and nationally) is far less than that simple quantitative measure. UT is located right north of downtown, so it’s an integral part of the Austin scene. In contrast, though PSU is located just south of downtown Portland, it is a much lower key presence. UT Austin is the flagship campus of the state university system of Texas. In contrast, PSU did not initially offer doctoral programs, and is a Research 2, a opposed to a Research 1, institution. Its roots were as a commuter school, and it still has many non-traditional students. In contrast UT Austin students are some of the most academically talented kids from all over Texas, which does not have large elite private universities, like California (Stanford and USC are both much larger than Rice).

Oregon has good beer

Finally, the arts & entertainment scene. This is really about taste obviously. Portland has a more artisanal arts scene, if that makes sense. More off the wall, homegrown, and organically and haphazardly presented. I didn’t really take advantage of it much when I lived in Portland, but honestly I’m not big into the arts scene here in Austin. But I’ve gone to shows now and then. It’s hard not to in Austin, which is crawling with musicians, and where live music is blasting up and down 6th street. But as Austin has gotten more popular and well known, it has also gotten more commercial and commoditized. National acts like Taylor Swift an Adele swing through town, and SxSW and ALC are huge draws. It’s easy to take it for granted, and honestly now it’s just part of the background furniture of my life.

Ritz beats the Baghdad

Note: I don’t have much to say about the fact that Austin is the capital of Texas. For me the main consequence of this fact is that perhaps this is one of the major reasons that the flagship university of the state system was located here (though usually it doesn’t work out like that). The Capitol is downtown, and there’s some political stuff going on there. But it’s pretty sealed off from the rest of the town. In contrast, Sacramento, probably is more affected by being the capital of California, since the city is less distinctive. And Albany is totally overshadowed by being the capital (I am naming three cities where I have actually lived at some point).

April 16, 2017

Treasure your exceptions, progress is real but not universal

Filed under: Apostasy,Atheist,Culture — Razib Khan @ 12:41 am

The beginning of How the Scots Invented the Modern World describes the execution of a man for the crime of atheism around 1700 in Scotland. More precisely, this individual was rather loud about their heresy, and that is always the problem. Silent dissent is usually tolerated. This is the last time someone was executed for this particular crime in the British Isles.

In the United Kingdom the book was more accurately titled The Scottish Enlightenment. A relatively moderate and low fuss affair, the Scottish Enlightenment gave us Adam Smith and David Hume, to name two. The point of the book is that in it one can see many of the seeds of the liberal Enlightenment more broadly in Scotland, while in the beginning of the 18th century was arguably more backward and medieval than its southern neighbor.

But the “modern world” means many different things. Mobile phone technology is ubiquitous, to the point that even the poor in developing nations have it. But a broader consumer affluence is out of reach for many. And the rights and liberties of a liberal democratic order are more an ideal than concrete existence for much of the world’s population (and you have cases such as Saudi Arabia where illiberal norms and politics merge with consumer affluence).

As you may know a young man was killed by his fellow students in Pakistan for the crime of blasphemy a few days ago. Whether he was an atheist or a free thinker, or a skeptic more generally, can be hard to ascertain. But the critical aspect is that he was killed in broad daylight by a mob. He was lynched. This being 2017, you can watch a video of the killing, and hear his screams as he is murdered in front of a crowd.

One aspect people have been noticing is that this was a killing enabled by majority and consensus opinion. Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan is a public university, not a cloistered madrassa or a branch of the Red Mosque network. You can’t blame ISIS or some crazy jihadi network. These were university students.

Pakistan has a population of 182 million. The United States around 300 million. I understand that Americans believe we are the future. That the rest of the world is the exception. But how long will that be? Perhaps the arrow of history is more a circle?

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