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

December 5, 2017

Asabiyyah in Steve King’s Iowa

Filed under: Culture — Razib Khan @ 1:57 am

If I reflect on my nearer extended family one curious aspect is that we seem to have a habit of moving a fair amount. My immediately family immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh. But we’ve relocated a few times since we moved to this country, going from one coast to another. But this pattern is older and deeper. My maternal grandfather was a physician who moved rather frequently during my mother’s youth, while both my parents settled in Dhaka, the capital, though they were from the region to the south and east of that city. I have relatives in England, while a second cousin married and had a family in Venezuela, before eventually settling down in Sweden. Other relatives near and more distant have had sojourns in the Middle East, Japan, Brunei, Malaysia, and Australia.

Of course, this isn’t entirely surprising, as around ~4 percent of the population of Bangladesh lives abroad. But even in this country, we keep moving. My mother laments sometimes that her children seem to settle in distant parts of the country from her, but she has to remind herself that she was across several oceans when her parents died.

So I take great anthropological interest in articles such as this in The New Yorker, Where the Small-Town American Dream Lives On. In the piece, the author sketches out the peculiarities of a small town in western Iowa, Orange City, where people live around those whom they grew up with. Almost as if they develop the intimacies we associate with hunter-gatherer life.

Settled by Dutch immigrants more than 100 years ago, Orange City, Iowa, retains its peculiar ethnic character to this day. It is overwhelmingly white and dominated by Reformed Protestantism. But this isn’t the story of just one town. This piece is really outlining a microcosm of the sort of thing that happens on a larger scale in southwest Michigan, in towns like Holland. This area is also Dutch American in character, and somehow manages to retain economic vitality in an American landscape defined by the dynamism of a few large metropolitan conglomerations.

If you read Peter Turchin’s work you will note that what Dutch America has is asabiyyah. Social solidarity.

Part of this is likely the broad homogeneity of these regions. The sort of social capital eroded by the forces of diversity that Robert Putnam observed in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. But that can’t be the only part of the story. Much of Appalachia exhibits the same ethno-racial homogeneity of Dutch America, but it’s social statistics are not nearly as positive.

To understand what’s going on one needs to read books such as Albion’s Seed, American Nations or The Cousins’ Wars. These works outline that there are deep and lasting cultural differences among groups of white American Protestants who do not seem “ethnic” in any way moderns understand it. After the Civil War and up to the 1950s white Americans cultivated an ideology of cohesion which smoothed over differences which led to the fractures that broke out in the decades which culminated in the Age of Sectionalism. Central to this self-conception was the normative identity of white Protestants, whom both Jews and Catholics emulated explicitly and implicitly, respectively.

And yet differences persisted underneath the surface. From the piece:

The sociologists Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas spent several months in a small Iowa town and found that children who appeared likely to succeed were from an early age groomed for departure by their parents and teachers. Other kids, marked as stayers, were often ignored in school. Everyone realized that encouraging the ambitious kids to leave was killing the town, but the ambition of the children was valued more than the life of the community. The kids most likely to make it big weren’t just permitted to leave—they were pushed.

In Orange City, that kind of pushing was uncommon. People didn’t seem to care about careers as much as they did in other places….

The ACS reports that the largest ancestry components among Iowans were German (35.9%), Irish (13.7%), English (8.5%), American (6.2%), and Norwegian (5.2%). Genetically there is almost no difference between these Northern European groups (they all diverged over the last 4,500 years). But culturally there are differences. “American,” and to a lesser extent Irish and English, ancestry may correlate with migration from the South and the Border States. In contrast, English ancestry was at least in part derived from Yankee settlers from New England. These were very different cultures. Europeans from Scandinavia and Germany tended to align culturally more with the Yankees (with the major exception of alcohol, which set apart the newcomers from the old stock, who had an ambivalent relationship with drink).

In Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution the authors report that in Illinois farmers of British descent behaved differently than those of German descent even after 150 years. Germans tended to pass farms down through the family, forgoing profits in cases where they could sell. In contrast farming families of British ancestry tended to behave more like the rational actors predicted by the theory of the firm. They did not make as many sacrifices to keep farms in the family.

These differences among white Protestants are still clear in the General Social Survey. Limiting to self-identified white non-Hispanic Protestants surveyed after the year 2000, below you can see the highest degree attainments by ethnic identification:

Highest degree attainment of white Protestant Americans, year 2000 and after
  Less than HS HS Associates Bachelors Graduate
Britain 8 47 9 23 14
Nordic 7 46 9 25 13
Dutch 11 61 5 20 4
Irish 11 57 8 16 8
German 9 55 8 19 9
Scottish 4 54 9 23 10
American 23 63 6 4 5

The white Protestants who identify as “American” tend to be concentrated in the border states and in the South. They are not as educated as other white Americans. They are a plural majority in much of Appalachia and are also likely dominant among white populations in areas of the South where the black proportion is higher. These “Americans” are of broadly British and Irish origin, but their residence in this country has been long enough that they no longer identify with Europe in any way.

If you read some history or plumb the depths of social science the uniqueness of Orange City, Iowa, is entirely unsurprising. The “secret” of Orange City is the same secret that the German towns of Wisconsin and the Dutch towns of southwest Michigan exhibit, and that is a cultural folkway passed down through the generations which allows for cohesion and collective action in a world of increasing anomie. The culture of the back-country white settlers in Appalachia, in contrast, was defined from its inception by a certain form of libertarian anomie.

Curiously The New Yorker piece highlights a similarity in social structure between Appalachia and modern urban life: “In Philadelphia, she’d had her close friends, and everyone else was more or less a stranger; in Orange City, there was a large middle category as well. ” Though I am not denigrating communal collective action in Appalachia, it is also true that that region has been characterized by a form of familialism. Though Appalachian whites were enthusiastic Christians, their religion was often individualistic. Their elites hewed to an ordered Presbyterianism, but the masses were pietistic Methodists or Baptists. It was an atomized society.

Modern cosmopolitan urban life is also characterized by the chasm between the stranger and the close friend or kin. To make life tolerable one must rely on the impartiality and efficiency of institutions, which can reduce the transaction costs between strangers, and force trust externally.

What will happen if and when institutions collapse? I do not believe much of America has the social capital of Orange City, Iowa. We have become rational actors, utility optimizers. To some extent, bureaucratic corporate life demands us to behave in this manner. Individual attainment and achievement are lionized, while sacrifice in the public good is the lot of the exceptional saint.

But we will have to rediscover trust in something beyond the bureaucracy and the family, or the swell of barbarism will probably consume us.

November 30, 2017

The great rollback

Filed under: Culture — Razib Khan @ 11:33 pm

Derek Thompson in The Atlantic has a piece up, How to Survive the Media Apocalypse, which gets at something I’ve come to believe:

Advertising has been critical to the affordable distribution of news for a century and a half in the U.S. Today’s media companies don’t have to reach all the way back to the early 1800s for a business plan, to when newspapers were an elite product, selling at the prohibitive price of six pennies per bundle. But they are going back in time, in a way, and excavating a dusty business model that relies more on readers, and less on advertisers, than the typical online publisher….

There are two groups of people who as readers truly value the truth in anything but the workaday (e.g., weather, traffic reports, etc.): nerds and those with money on the line.

The idea that news is about giving people the Truth is a conceit that was never attainable, but the American media had aspirations. Really most people want to be entertained, amused and vindicated. Conservatives complaining about the perceived Leftward drift of The New York Times who cancel their subscriptions are accelerating an inevitable process (as the readership gets more and more liberal). The fat profits generated by both advertising, in particular classifieds, and subscriptions, allowed the 20th-century media to not be beholden to one master. This is a new world, though a generation that grew up in the old world has not internalized the now.

Outfits which are geared toward the wealthy or business, such as Bloomberg, will retain a more straightforward positivist orientation. Facts will basically be a luxury consumption good, as well an input necessary for greater productivity on the margins for efficient allocation of capital. Those journals with mass audiences will fragment and develop sharper viewpoints and pay less attention to facts if they impede sensationalism and audience preferences. Basically, we’re going to become Britain!

Thompson’s reference back to the early 1800s made me think of Carl Friedrich Gauss. Like Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Gauss did not have absolute leisure to pursue intellectual activities. At some point, he was employed as a surveyor in Hanover. To the modern mind, this was a terrible waste of incredible talent. It is for this sort of reason that institutions of higher education with some independence arose to give scholars leisure and freedom to pursue their interests.

But will it always be so? The science fiction genre of steampunk obtains its novelty from injecting advanced technology into a Victorian world on its own terms. Perhaps in a few decades, many of our social and cultural arrangements will seem very quaint and antiquated to those of us who came into maturity in the fin de siècle of the 20th century, with all culture was mass culture.

November 21, 2017

Against the rectification of names of the enemy

Filed under: Culture,Culture Wars,Semiotics — Razib Khan @ 2:32 am

Since the beginning of this weblog, a particular tick that is common to humans emerges over and over. A tick that is seductive, inevitable, and which I periodically react negatively to (and surely do engage in). That tick is the one where peculiar or exotic terms, or common terms in specific senses, are deployed to demarcate ingroup vs. outgroup.

This is clearly illustrated by example. Libertarians will often call non-libertarians statists. In some ways, this is a defensible term descriptively. But statists never call themselves statists, and often are confused what that even means. Really the term “statist” is just a way you can tell other libertarians that this person is not of the tribe. It’s not about communicating with the statist in question. It’s about labeling them…a witch!

Another example is ally. This is a banal and general word, but on the cultural Left it’s become transformed into a very specific thing. If you are a white male, you are by constitution an oppressor with privilege, so you must by necessity aim toward being an ally. Ally here means those with privilege joining the struggle against oppression and the liberation of marginalized people.

Almost all of the above terms are pretty standard English words, but bundled together into that paragraph you know the perspective and Weltanschauung it’s expressing.

In the United States those who oppose the right to an abortion because they think the fetus is a person define themselves as pro-life.  Those who support the right to an abortion define themselves as pro-choice. Pro-choice people sometimes call pro-life people anti-choice, while pro-life people call pro-choice people pro-abortion. The terms themselves are not important as descriptions. Rather, they’re about tribal mobilization.

On occasion, I’ve seen the term TERF, for trans-exclusionary feminist. The people who are called TERFs never call themselves TERFs. Often people who are denounced as TERFs don’t see to be TERFs at all.

When someone brings up the term “civic nationalism,” I’m usually pretty sure that that person is probably a white nationalist, because that’s a term that they seem to use a lot (to describe non-racial nationalists). People who are civic nationalists don’t describe themselves as such in normal conversations.

Because my views are generally more conservative than liberal people on the Right often believe that I am aware of all the tribal divisions and lexical nuances deployed by conservatives today. Or, more honestly people who spend a lot of time reading and discussing politics online with the tribe. I have finite time, I don’t really really track of all the new fashionable terms. Political philosophy and history interest me, but the contemporary ephemera, not so much. One of the most irritating aspects of “Neoreaction” was that they had all those terms which made no sense to outsiders without a glossary.

This sort of behavior makes sense ingroup. But when you start spouting off in public forums with new-fangled vocabulary accessible to the initiates you exclude them. Which is fine, but you also make it clear you just want to hear yourself talk.

Though sometimes scientists are guilty of this sort thing, by and large the utilization of words in a peculiar context has a precise meaning which is clear and distinct. For example, the term heritable. Transformed into heritability, it is the proportion of variance in the phenotype explained by variance in the genotype. Now could say “the proportion of variance in the phenotype explained by variance in the genotype” every time, but it’s usually easier just to say “heritability.”

I’ve made it pretty clear I take a dim view of the prospects for this liberal democracy of ours over the next generation or so. A day shall come when you stand with the Frost Giants or you stand with the Aesir. There’s really no avoiding a choice. I would recommend on that day pick you pick the strongest side, not who you think is the right side. Power is truth, truth is not power.

But this day is not that day. Until then there is still time to listen and cultivate one’s mind. Let’s dispense with bleeding private language into public. It’s just unseemly.

October 28, 2017

The summer of ’99

Filed under: Culture — Razib Khan @ 12:27 am


Every generation has its nostalgia. Some of them have their year. For the boomers it’s the summer of ’67. For Bryan Adams it was the summer of ’69. For people born between 1965 and 1980, I will bet the summer of 1999 is that special summer. It was near the end of the long boom of the 1990s, and the United States of America was the hyperpower. We hadn’t gotten mired in wars, and terrorism seemed like a nuisance.

October 27, 2017

Without a sense of what is right everything is wrong

Filed under: Culture,Halloween — Razib Khan @ 10:50 pm

When I was a kid Halloween was my favorite holiday. First, candy! Second, costumes! Third, you could be a little naughty!

Finally, my parents were not the most inquisitive people and didn’t realize the pagan and Christian influences on the holiday. They liked it because unlike Christmas, at least to their perceptions, it didn’t have a religious connotation which conflicted with Islam. They allowed me to participate with any guilt.

I try not to live through my kids, so holidays for me are not about recreating my own childhood. It’s for allowing them to have fun. Holidays are a big deal for kids.

With Halloween coming up we’ve been giving thought to our kid’s costumes. My daughter and elder son have some opinions. There was some mention that perhaps my daughter could be Tiana from The Princess and the Frog. My daughter is not really too into princesses. I’ve heard her spend more time talking about dwarf planets than princesses (especially her favorite, Haumea). But she likes Tiana, and we’ve watched the movie together.

Ultimately we went with something animal related (in keeping with some previous years when she was a lion and a duck).

Nevertheless, this email I received from her elementary school today is deeply annoying to me:

It’s Halloween, but we can’t scare the kids too much? (fake blood does seem like it would be a huge mess so I can understand that) No masks, of course, nixes many costumes, but I guess I can go along with that for security reasons?

But the part about “No costumes representing an ethnicity, race, religion or culture, other than your own” kind of rubbed me the wrong way. My wife was livid. Our children are mixed race, so what does that mean for them? In fact, half of my daughter’s elementary school class is mixed race. Also, my daughter already knows she is an atheist. Does that mean she couldn’t dress up as a nun like Mother Theresa if she admired her? The whole email seemed to presuppose that the world consists of discrete and separable races and cultures. You simply identify with one, and that delimits your possibilities.

My daughter attends an Asian language immersion school where one of the teachers is a recent immigrant who clearly does not understand American culture very well. She wouldn’t have even known to write about much of this. This mandate was clearly written by an administrator. The aim of the whole email was to head off any complaints from parents. But it’s written in such a heavy-handed and general manner that it’s bound to cause widespread irritation.

We’re a diverse country with many ethno-racial, religious, and ideological groups. There are no common standards at this point on what is and isn’t offensive. Perhaps some Christian parents would be offended if a little kid showed up at a school-sponsored Halloween party as the devil? I strongly suspect that the race and religion bans above really target mostly white kids who dress up as racial minorities…but it’s written in a general way so as not to offend those parents too (but in the process irritates others).

Whatever we’re doing, it’s not making many people happy, though it is insulating administrators from making personal judgments. My daughter is a smart kid (she has shocked even me in her ability to infer general principles from specific cases), and my wife and I have already had conversations about how to insulate her or make her aware of the low level of intellect which now dominates our public ideologies. My wife has studied the Chinese language and the history of the Cultural Revolution, and though obviously there is a difference of degree she regularly contends that there are analogies between what is now happening in the United States and what happened in China in the 1960s. I do unfortunately believe that my daughter will grow into maturity into a country which is in many ways second-rate and mediocre in the things which our family values. We are thinking hard about how to prepare her for a different future than the ones we expected when we were children in the 1980s.

October 15, 2017

Why farming was inevitable and miserable

Filed under: Agriculture,Culture — Razib Khan @ 10:48 pm

There are many theories for the origin of farming. A classic explanation is that farming was simply a reaction to Malthusian pressures. Another, implied in Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict, is that ideological factors may also have played a role in the emergence of sedentary lifestyles and so eventually farming.

I don’t have a strong opinion about the trigger for farming. What we know is that forms of farming seem to have emerged in very disparate locales after the last Ice Age. This is a curious contrast with the Eemian Interglacial 130 to 115 thousand years ago when to our knowledge farming did not emerge. Why didn’t farming become a common lifestyle then? One explanation is that behavioral modernity wasn’t a feature of our species, though at this point I think there’s a circularity in this to explain farming. It seems plausible that biological and cultural factors over time made humans much more adaptable,

Why didn’t farming become a common lifestyle then? One explanation is that behavioral modernity wasn’t a feature of our species, though at this point I think there’s a circularity in this to explain farming. It seems plausible that biological and cultural factors over time made humans much more adaptable, protean, and innovative. We can leave it at that, and assume that the time was ripe by the Holocene.

Also, we need to be careful about assuming that modern hunter-gatherers, who occupy marginal lands, are representative of ancient hunter-gatherers. Ancient hunter-gatherers occupied the best and worst territory in terms of productivity. If territory is extremely rich in resources, such as the salmon fisheries of the Pacific Northwest, then a hunting and gathering lifestyle can coexist with dense sedentary lifestyles. But the fact is that in most cases hunting and gathering can support fewer humans per unit of land than agriculture.

The future belongs to the fecund, and if farming could support larger families, then the future would belong to farmers. Though I don’t think it was just a matter of fertility; I suspect farmer’s brought their numbers to bear when it comes to conflicts with hunter-gatherers.

Of course, farming is rather miserable. Why would anyone submit to this? One issue that I suspect needs to be considered is that when farming is initially applied to virgin land returns on labor are enormous. The early United States is a case of an agricultural society where yeoman farmers, what elsewhere would be called peasants, were large and robust. They gave rise to huge families, and never experienced famine. By the time the frontier closed in the late 19th century the American economy was already transitioning to industry, and the Malthusian trap was being avoided through gains in productivity and declining birthrates.

The very first generations of farmers would have experienced land surplus and been able to make recourse to extensive as opposed to intensive techniques. Their descendants would have to experience the immiseration on the Malthusian margin and recall the Golden Age of plenty in the past.

And obviously once a society transitioned to farming, there was no going back to a lower productivity lifestyle. Not only would starvation ensue, as there wouldn’t be sufficient game or wild grain to support the population, but farmers likely had lost many of the skills to harvest from the wild.

Finally, there is the question of whether farming or hunting and gathering is preferable in a pre-modern world. I believe it is definitely the latter. The ethnography and history that I have seen suggest that hunters and gatherers are coerced into settling down as farmers. It is never their ideal preference. This is a contrast with pastoralism, which hunting and gathering populations do shift to without coercion. The American frontier had many records of settlers “going native.” Hunting was the traditional pastime of European elites. Not the farming which supported their lavish lifestyles.

Many of the institutional features of “traditional” civilized life, from the tight control of kinship groups of domineering male figures, to the transformation of religion into a tool for mass mobilization, emerged I believe as cultural adaptations and instruments to deal with the stress of constraining individuals to the farming lifestyle. Now that we’re not all peasants we’re seeing the dimishment of the power of these ancient institutions.

October 5, 2017

Life expectancy in South Asia

Filed under: Culture,Sociology — Razib Khan @ 8:31 pm

India is very heterogeneous. Nevertheless, the contrast between Assam and Bangladesh is very curious to me.

1 Kerala 74.9 74.0
2 Delhi 73.2
3 Jammu and Kashmir 72.6
4 Uttarakhand 71.7 60.0
5 Himachal Pradesh 71.6 67.0
5 Punjab 71.6 69.4
5 Maharashtra 71.6 67.2
8 Tamil Nadu 70.6 66.2
9 West Bengal 70.2 64.9
10 Karnataka 68.8 65.3
11 Gujarat 68.7 64.1
12 Haryana 68.6 66.2
13 Andhra Pradesh (includes Telangana) 68.5 64.4
14 Bihar 68.1 61.6
* India 67.9 63.5
15 Rajasthan 67.7 62.0
16 Jharkhand 66.6 58.0
17 Odisha 65.8 59.6
18 Chhattisgarh 64.8 58.0
19 Madhya Pradesh 64.2 58.0
20 Uttar Pradesh 64.1 60.0
21 Assam 63.9 58.9

October 3, 2017

The elves of our imagination and reality

Filed under: Culture,Mythology — Razib Khan @ 11:48 pm

In Did Adam and Eve Have Navels? the late Martin Gardner reviewed evidence for cannibalism and ultimately came to the conclusion that it was not a real phenomenon. He agreed with the interpretations of some anthropologists that cannibalism stories emerge in human groups as a way to demonize their enemies. For various genetic and archaeological reasons I think since Gardner wrote that chapter at least two decades ago, it has been shown that cannibalism did exist as a cultural practice.

In the year 2000 The Atlantic published a piece, Mistaken Identity? The Case of New Mexico’s “Hidden Jews”. The authors suggest, again in line with the theories of some anthropologists, that the crypto-Jewish identity purported to persist in some Hispano families in the American Southwest derived from a mix of internalized racism and Judaizing influence from Protestant missionaries. For a variety of reasons I think it is quite possible that actually, the Hispano populations did preserve some crypto-Jewish traditions through converso ancestors.

The point I’m making here is that contemporary “debunkings” of somewhat fascinating or titillating phenomena are not always correct. Heinrich Schliemann went to Turkey, and he did find the historical Troy.

Recently I came across a blog post, Neanderthals in Ancient Mythology*, which makes the case that our cousins are the source of the idea of beings such as trolls. For various reasons, I am skeptical of the theories and models in that particular post. But that prompted me to reflect: where do ideas of trolls and other such quasi-human beings come from?

Cognitive anthropologists would have an answer. There is an idea, evoked culture, which refers to universal phenomena which naturally develop at the interface of our minds and conventional stimuli. To give a concrete example of what I’m talking about, the idea of kings. One can think of the idea of kings as an innovation which has to spread from people to people. Or, one can see kings as a natural development of human cultural evolution and our ability to fit into hierarchies and defer to leaders, the latter of which is a function of our cognitive architecture.

One can think of the idea of kings as an innovation which has to spread from people to people. Or, one can see kings as a natural development of human cultural evolution and our ability to fit into hierarchies and defer to leaders, the latter of which is a function of our cognitive architecture.

As it happens we’re pretty sure that the idea of the king has emerged independently at least twice. After the translation of the Maya Codex we know that these people had kings, as we understand them. Not to mention the fact that the Aztecs and Inca both had kings of a quite autocratic variety.

A more obvious case of evoked culture is the idea of gods. The cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer refers to these as “minimally counterintuitive” concepts, which makes them memorable and memetically contagious. In general, gods are not prosaic and banal. They have supernatural powers, and violate our ontological intuitions about what persons can do. But they don’t smash all intuitions. I once read a science fantasy story where a devout Jewish man dies and goes to heaven, and there he his introduced to G-d. It turns out that Hashem is a very dumb giant chicken.  This is not a minimally counterintuitive concept; it’s just weird. And so not a good candidate for a god concept which would be culturally contagious.**

Ideas of trolls, witches, and ghosts, then bubble naturally out of our cognitive landscape of memes. Has anyone seen a ghost? To my knowledge no. But the belief in ghosts persists, because it appeals to some intuitions. It’s a very attractive idea. One can say the same of trolls.

But just because an idea is evoked does not mean it has no basis in fact. The John Frum cult happens to believe in a religion which is probably wrong on many facts. But “John Frum” and other aspects of the religion are based on factual interactions with the American government and servicemen at a specific place and time.

Similarly, myths about trolls, elves, and witches, may reflect a combination of the fertility of our native imagination, and distortions of contact with different peoples. When Europeans showed up in the highlands of Papua their ghostly pallor made the locals wonder if they were, in fact, dead souls. We know that in places like Central Europe farmers and hunter-gatherers lived in close proximity for thousands of years, but did not mix much sexually. Additionally, it is highly likely that the hunters and farmers were physically distinctive, probably in complexion in Western Europe. Their genetic distance was equivalent to that between modern Northern Europeans and Chinese.

This does’t mean we can necessarily mine folklore to understand ethnography of the past. Rather, it just suggests that folkore is not just from our imagination, but may show influences from events and contacts in the real world.

* I rarely link to blogs anymore!

** The Christian idea that God had to be incarnated as a human being to connect well to us actually nods to this idea of minimally counterintuition.

September 30, 2017

To be brown is to be a civilization

Filed under: ancient india,Culture,Desi,Identity — Razib Khan @ 1:01 pm


Though I often disagree with him, I do enjoy Zach’s perspective on things because they are different from mine, though we exhibit similarities (e.g., both of us generally align with the center-Right in Anglophone societies). Zach may be one of the first cosmopolitan desis in his pedigree; he, himself of part-Persian heritage, marrying a South Indian Sindhi, probably to raise a family in England. In contrast, I may be the last brown person in my pedigree for a while, fading into legend and myth (or infamy!).

But one of the things I think is important to emphasize is South Asia is a civilizational entity straight-jacketed for historical reasons into a few nation-states. Though India and China are often compared together, they are totally incomparable insofar as the Han majority of China exhibit a racial and linguistic unity which South Asians do not (even though southeast Chinese dialects are unintelligible with Mandarin, the written language is the same).

By and large, I am predisposed to agree that someone like Zach is more prototypically South Asian than I am. Despite his religious heterodoxy his cultural rootedness in the Northwest quadrant of the subcontinent does put him at the “center of the action,” so to speak. In contrast, my own family’s recent origins are on the far eastern fringe of recognizably desi territory…. That is, my family is from the eastern portion of eastern Bengal (my grandmother was almost killed by the crazy elephant of the maharani of Tripura!). It’s interesting that 3,000 years after the emergence of Iron Age South Asian cultures the fulcrum of South Asian identity is where it began all those millennia ago (there was a period between the Mauryas and the Guptas when Bihar was the center).

Talking about what is more prototypically desi is like talking about what is more prototypically “European.” Being French or German is more prototypically European than being Albanian or Russian. We could argue why, but in your heart you know it’s true. There are definitions of Europeans which exclude Albanians and Russians (even though I’d disagree with those personally), but no plausible ones which exclude French and Germans.

Finally, I do think it indicates the limits and flexibility around race and brown identity. As Zach has said repeatedly he is very light-skinned (and part Iranian to boot). Myself, I don’t think anyone would describe me as either light-skinned or dark-skinned; I’m pretty much the average South Asian in complexion. Brown. Not light brown. Or dark brown. Literally just brown. But that doesn’t really weight much in terms of who is “more desi” or not. I have never watched a Bollywood film all the way through. That matters more.

August 28, 2017

Popular songs in my household

Filed under: Culture,Music — Razib Khan @ 9:49 pm

August 22, 2017

Bringing back street kids

Filed under: Culture — Razib Khan @ 7:07 am

Just spent some time with a friend. He lives in a safe neighborhood, so I asked if there were any kids for his kids (they’re young) to play with. Apparently not really.

In this country today we have problems with racial and wealth inequality. There are huge debates about how we address these issues. And they don’t seem like they are going away any time soon.

But huge numbers of Americans adults grew up on the mean streets of the 1980s. We know there is a solution to childhood social isolation, because many of us grew up playing on streets, rather than being shepherded on ‘play dates.’ This is also an issue which most people agree on as a problem. We can solve this.

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….

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