Why do people claim that whites “have no culture”?

A lot of culture–aside from that time your parents dragged you to the ballet–is what we would, in honest moments, classify as “stupid things people used to do/believe.”

Now, yes, I know, it’s a bit outre for an anthropologist to declare that large swathes of culture are “stupid,” but I could easily assemble a list of hundreds of stupid things, eg:

The Aztecs practiced human sacrifice because they believed that if they didn’t, the world would come to an end.

In Britain, people used to believe that you could literally eat the sins of a recently deceased person, speeding their entry into Heaven. There were professional sin eaters, the last of whom, Richard Munslow, died in 1906.

Americans started eating breakfast cereal as part of an anti-masturbation campaign, and in Africa, many girls have their clitorises cut off and vaginas sewn nearly shut in a much more vigorous anti-masturbation campaign.

The Etoro of Papua New Guinea believed that young boys between the ages of 7 and 17 must “ingest” the semen of older men daily in order to mature into men.

In Mozambique, there are people who kill bald men to get the gold they supposedly have inside their heads; in the DRC, there’s a belief that eating Pygmy people will give you magic powers.

People in Salem, Massachusetts, believed that teenage girls were a good source of information on which older women in the community were witches and needed to be hanged.

Flutes assume all sorts of strange roles in various Papuan and a few Brazilian cultures–only men are allowed to see, play, or listen to the flutes, and any women who violate the flute taboo are gang raped or executed. Additionally, “…the Keraki perform flute music when a boy has been sodomized and they fear he is pregnant. This summons spirits who will protect him from such humiliation.”

Spirit possession–the belief that a god or deity can take control of and speak/dance/act through a worshiper–is found in many traditions, including West African and Haitian Voodoo. If you read Things Fall Apart, then you remember the egwugwu, villagers dressed in masks who were believed to become the spirits of gods and ancestors. Things “fall apart” after a Christian convert “kills” one of the gods by unmasking him, leading other villagers to retaliate against the local Christian mission by burning it down.

In India, people traditionally murdered their moms by pushing them into their father’s funeral pyres (and those were the guys who didn’t go around randomly strangling people because a goddess told them to).

People in ancient [pretty much everywhere] believed that the gods and the deceased could receive offerings (burnt or otherwise,) of meat, chairs, clothes, games, slaves, etc. The sheer quantity of grave goods buried with the deceased sometimes overwhelmed the local economy, like in ancient Egypt.

Then there’s sympathetic magic, by which things with similar properties (say, yellow sap and yellow fever, or walnuts that look like brains and actual brains) are believed to have an effect on each other.

Madagascar has a problem with bubonic plague because of a local custom of digging up dead bodies and dancing around with them.

People all over the world–including our own culture–turn down perfectly good food because it violates some food taboo they hold.

All of these customs are either stupid or terrible ideas. Of course the dead do not really come back, Zeus does not receive your burnt offering, you can’t cure yellow fever by painting someone yellow and washing off the paint or by lying in a room full of snakes, and the evil eye isn’t real, despite the fact that progressives are convinced it is. A rabbit’s foot won’t make you lucky and neither will a 4-leaf clover, and your horoscope is meaningless twaddle.

Obviously NOT ALL culture is stupid. Most of the stuff people do is sensible, because if it weren’t, they’d die out. Good ideas have a habit of spreading, though, making them less unique to any particular culture.

Many of the bad ideas people formerly held have been discarded over the years as science and literacy have given people the ability to figure out whether a claim is true or not. Superstitions about using pendulums to tell if a baby is going to be a boy or a girl have been replaced with ultrasounds, which are far more reliable. Bleeding sick patients has been replaced with antibiotics and vaccinations; sacrifices to the gods to ensure good weather have been replaced with irrigation systems.

In effect, science and technology have replaced much of the stuff that used to count as “culture.” This is why I say “science is my culture.” This works for me, because I’m a nerd, but most people aren’t all that emotionally enthralled by science. They feel a void where all of the fun parts of culture have been replaced.

Yes, the fun parts.

I like that I’m no longer dependent on the whims of the rain gods to water my crops and prevent starvation, but this also means I don’t get together with all of my family and friends for the annual rain dance. It means no more sewing costumes and practicing steps; no more cooking a big meal for everyone to enjoy. Culture involves all of the stuff we invest with symbolic meaning about the course of our lives, from birth to coming of age to marriage, birth of our own children, to old age and death. It carries meaning for families, love, and friendship. And it gives us a framework for enjoyable activities, from a day of rest from our labors to the annual “give children candy” festival.

So when people say, “Whites have no culture,” they mean four things:

  1. A fish does not notice the water it swims in–whites have a culture, but don’t notice it because they are so accustomed to it
  2. Most of the stupid/wrong things whites used to do that we call “culture” have been replaced by science/technology
  3. That science/technology has spread to other cultures because it is useful, rendering white culture no longer unique
  4. Technology/science/literacy have rendered many of the fun or emotionally satisfying parts of ritual and culture obsolete.

Too often people denigrate the scientific way of doing things on the grounds that it isn’t “cultural.” This comes up when people say things like “Indigenous ways of knowing are equally valid as Western ways of knowing.” This is a fancy way of saying that “beliefs that are ineffective at predicting the weather, growing crops, curing diseases, etc, are just as correct as beliefs that are effective at doing these things,” or [not 1]=[1].

We shouldn’t denigrate doing things in ways that actually work; science must be respected as valid. We should, however, find new ways to give people an excuse to do the fun things that used to be tied up in cultural rituals.

 

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A Libertarian Writes about Human Sacrifice

 

800px-Castes_and_tribes_of_southern_India._Assisted_by_K._Rangachari_28190929_281478342954529
Meriah Sacrifice post, Khond people, India

I’ve written before about Peter Leeson’s work–he tends to write papers with exciting names like An-Aarrgh-chy: The Law and Economics of Pirate Organization.

Today I encountered Lesson’s less amusingly named but no less interesting paper on Human Sacrifice [PDF], whose abstract is one of the most libertarian things I have ever read:

This paper develops a theory of rational human sacrifice: the purchase and ritual slaughter of innocent persons to appease divinities. I argue that human sacrifice is a technology for protecting property rights. It improves property protection by destroying part of sacrificing communities’ wealth, which depresses the expected payoff of plundering them. … Human sacrifice is spectacular, publicly communicating a sacrificer’s destruction far and wide. Further, immolating a live person is nearly impossible to fake… To incentivize community members to contribute wealth for destruction, human sacrifice is presented as a religious obligation. To test my theory I investigate human sacrifice as practiced by the most significant and well-known society of ritual immolators in the modern era: the Konds of Orissa, India.

Of course, it is not exactly a rigorous test, but it is still an interesting case.

Leeson’s argument is not as crazy as it sounds at first glance. Suppose you have two very similar villages living near each other; neither has any particular advantage over the other. Each produces food each year, but food production varies due to natural vicissitudes. Some years village A produces more food; some years village B produces more food. Let’s suppose A has more food. Village B might decide to go steal some of A’s food. But war is expensive: B will only want to go to war if they can reasonably hope to steal more than the cost of war.

This sets up a situation where A has two potential war-avoiding strategies. A can pay off B, giving them enough of their surplus food to make them not want to go to war, or A can burn their surplus food, making war pointless.

The first option is a good idea if you have some hope of someday trading for surpluses with Village B in the future; the second option is a good idea if Village B is full of treacherous backstabbers and you’d rather burn your crops than let them have a crumb.

Burning crops is all well and good, but what if your enemies don’t believe that you’ve really burned them? What if the sacrifice is essentially fake, like Prometheus deceiving Zeus by wrapping bull bones in glistening fat? Your enemies might attack you anyway, despite your sacrifice.

Then you need a harder to fake signal, like spending your wealth on expensive trade goods which are then publicly destroyed–and the price and death of slaves, Leeson argues, is particularly difficult to fake.

There follows some math and a description of human sacrifice among the Konds (also spelled Khonds and Kondhs) of India, which I shall quote a bit:

Kond communities sacrificed humans. Their victims were called meriahs. Konds
purchased these persons from meriah sellers called Doms (or Pans) … In principle meriahs could be persons of any age, sex, race, or caste. In practice they were nearly always non-Konds. …

Every community held at least one of these festivals every year. Typically a
single meriah was sacrificed at each festival. But this was a lower bound. Kond country visitors occasionally reported sacrifices of upwards of 20 meriahs at a time
(Selections from the Government of India, 1854, p. 22). The general impression of
British officers who visited Kond country was that “the number of Meriahs annually
immolated” was large — very large — indeed, “far larger than could readily be
credited” (Selections from the Government of India, 1854, p. 28; see also, C.R.,
1846a, p. 61). …
Immolation festivals were large, raucous, three-day parties at which attendees
engaged “in the indulgence of every form of wild riot, and generally of gross excess” (Macpherson, 1865, p. 118). The villages that composed each community took turns
sponsoring the festival—purchasing the meriah and hosting the party. …
These festivals’ main event was the immolation itself, which took place on
the party’s third day. On this day the sponsoring Kond village’s head brought the
meriah, intoxicated with alcohol or opium, to a spot previously appointed for the
sacrifice. …
In some cases the victim’s arms and legs were broken to prevent his motion. After
this and some final prayers, the priest gave the word, and “the crowd throws itself
upon the sacrifice and strips the flesh from the bones, leaving untouched the head
and intestines” (Macpherson, 1865, p. 128). While cutting the victim to pieces in
this fashion was common, Konds sometimes used other modes of immolation — all
of them spectacular and spectacularly brutal — ranging from drowning the victim
in a pit of pig’s blood to beating him to death with brass bangles, always followed
by cutting him into small pieces…
The meriah thus slaughtered, the festival reached its crescendo. The chief gave
a pig or buffalo to the priest and the meriah’s seller, concluding the event. Each
of the participating villages’ representatives took a strip of the corpse’s flesh and
departed for their settlements where they shared it with their village members who
buried the flesh in their fields.

The British, of course, put a stop to the ritual–a classic act of white people destroying POC culture.

You can read the paper yourself and decide if you think the Kond case supports Leeson’s thesis.

The Wikipedia page on the Khonds is not particularly insightful, because the Wikipedians have decided not to allow any British Raj-era sources be used for information. This is, of course, base censorship. The page overall is not up to Wikipedia’s usual standards:

The Kondh are adept land dwellers exhibiting greater adaptability to the forest and hill environment. However, due to development interventions in education, medical facilities, irrigation, plantation and so on, they are forced into the modern way of life in many ways. Their traditional life style, customary traits of economy, political organization, norms, values and world view have been drastically changed in recent times. …

The Kondh family is often nuclear, although extended joint families are also found. Female family members are on equal social footing with the male members in Kondh society, and they can inherit, own, hold and dispose off property without reference to their parents, husband or sons. … Children are never considered illegitimate in Kondh society and inherit the clan name of their biological or adoptive fathers with all the rights accruing to natural born children. The Kondhs have a dormitory for adolescent girls and boys which forms a part of their enculturation and education process. The girls and boys sleep at night in their respective dormitory and learn social taboos, myths, legends, stories, riddles, proverbs amidst singing and dancing the whole night, thus learning the way of the tribe.

Apparently Khonds don’t need to sleep, unlike us mere mortals. It’s just the myth of the noble savage, the peaceful egalitarian who sings and dances all night in harmony with nature.

No explanation is given for the photo of the “meriah sacrifice post.”

Traditionally the Kondh religious beliefs were syncretic combining totemism, animism, Ancestor worship, shamanism and nature worship. … In the Kondh society, a breach of accepted religious conduct by any member of their society invited the wrath of spirits in the form of lack of rain fall, soaking of streams, destruction of forest produce, and other natural calamities. Hence, the customary laws, norms, taboos, and values were greatly adhered to and enforced with high to heavy punishments, depending upon the seriousness of the crimes committed.

This is what pretty much every religion believes.

The practise of traditional religion has almost become extinct today. Many Kondhs converted to Protestant Christianity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century due to the efforts of the missionaries of the Serampore Mission. … Significantly, as with any culture, the ethical practices of the Kondh reinforce the social and economic practices that define the people. Thus, the sacredness of the earth perpetuates tribal socio-economics, wherein harmony with nature and respect for ancestors is deeply embedded whereas non tribal cultures that neglect the sacredness of the land find no problem in committing deforestation, strip-mining etc., and this has led to a situation of conflict in many instances.[5]

Yes, everyone knows that people who practice slash-and-burn agriculture just love nature.

Say what you will for Leeson’s theory, at least he doesn’t LIE to us.

The Hamatsa Society

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Wow. This is an great photograph. Photo by Edward S. Curtis, 1914

The Wikipedia page about Hamatsa is very interesting. 

The Kwakwaka’wakw are an indigenous group from the Pacific North West Coast (ie, British Columbia.) During the long, dark, wet winters, tribe members traditionally entertained themselves via ceremonies put on by different “secret societies.” These were documented back in the 1880s by Franz Boas, the famous anthropologist. (Modern Kwakwaka’wakw society is probably pretty different, given that life has changed a lot in the intervening 140 or so years.)

According to Wikipedia’s version of Boas’s account, there were four main societies: The war society (Winalagalis), the magical society (Matem), the society of the afterlife (Bakwas) and the “cannibal” society (Hamatsa). 

Hamatsa was the most prestigious. Whether or not they practiced literal cannibalism or something that just sounds like cannibalism remains a matter of debate, because their rituals were pretty secret. 

In defense of the “it’s just a symbolic ritual” argument, the transubstantiation of the Eucharist into the body and blood of Christ, followed by the congregation eating it, sounds a lot like cannibalism and has surely confused some folks over the centuries, but no serious Christian literally believes they are committing cannibalism. 

In defense of the “it’s totally real cannibalism” argument, real cannibalism is a thing that sometimes happens and that some anthropologists have been quick to cover up or downplay because they don’t want to say anything bad about other peoples. 

Here is Wikipedia’s account of the Hamatsa initiation rite: 

In practice the Hamatsa initiate, almost always a young man at approximately age 25, is abducted by members of the Hamatsa society and kept in the forest in a secret location where he is instructed in the mysteries of the society. Then at a winter dance festival to which many clans and neighboring tribes are invited the spirit of the man-eating giant [Baxbaxwalanuksiwe]  is evoked and the initiate is brought in wearing spruce bows and gnashing his teeth and even biting members of the audience. Many dances ensue, as the tale of Baxbaxwalanuksiwe is recounted, and all of the giant man-eating birds dance around the fire.

Finally the society members succeed in taming the new “cannibal” initiate. In the process of the ceremonies what seems to be human flesh is eaten by the initiates. Boas describes the hamatsa initiate as eating actual human flesh without chewing. After the ceremony, the initiate is forced to drink large amounts of sea water to induce vomiting, thereby voiding the body of potentially harmful toxins. All persons who were bitten during the proceedings are given expensive presents, and many gifts are given to all of the witnesses who are required to recall through their gifts the honors bestowed on the new initiate and recognize his station within the spiritual community of the clan and tribe.

Based on this account, if I may be so bold as to suggest anything after reading just a few paragraphs on Wikipedia, the ceremony sounds not pro-cannibalism, but anti-cannibalism. Cannibalism is the wild state from which the initiate is removed; he eats human flesh (or symbolic flesh) but is then made to vomit it up; he bites people, but then he apologizes. He goes from feral man-eater to civilized member of the society. 

The picture at the top of the post was taken by Edward S. Curtis, an amazingly talented photographer who documented Native Americans and life generally in the American West in the late 18 and early 1900s. 

Curtis made a film staring the Kwakwaka’wakw, titled “In the Land of the Head Hunters” aka “In the Land of the War Canoes.” It tells the classic story of jealousy over a woman leading to abduction and war. 

//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:In_the_Land_of_the_Head_Hunters_(1914).webm?embedplayer=yes

The movie is a little slow, but picks up around halfway through.

According to Wikipedia

In the Land of the Head Hunters has often been discussed as a flawed documentary film. The film combines many accurate representations of aspects of Kwakwaka’wakw culture, art, and technology from the era in which it was made with a melodramatic plot based on practices that either dated from long before the first contact of the Kwakwaka’wakw with people of European descent or were entirely fictional. …

Some aspects of the film do have documentary accuracy: the artwork, the ceremonial dances, the clothing, the architecture of the buildings, and the construction of the dugout, or a war canoe reflected Kwakwaka’wakw culture. Other aspects of the film were based on the Kwakwaka’wakw’s orally transmitted traditions or on aspects of other neighboring cultures. The film also accurately portrays Kwakwaka’wakw rituals that were, at the time, prohibited by Canada’s potlatch prohibition, enacted in 1884 and not rescinded until 1951.[4]

The potlatch was (is) a related ritual involving feasting and gift-giving; a great deal has been written about potlatches–the Wikipedia page probably isn’t a bad place to start if you are unfamiliar with them.

The Canadian government saw them as wasteful because they apparently also involved the destruction of large amounts of property, and so outlawed them. This was an unproductive and stupid law, as Boas pointed out: 

The second reason for the discontent among the Indians is a law that was passed, some time ago, forbidding the celebrations of festivals. The so-called potlatch of all these tribes hinders the single families from accumulating wealth. It is the great desire of every chief and even of every man to collect a large amount of property, and then to give a great potlatch, a feast in which all is distributed among his friends, and, if possible, among the neighboring tribes. These feasts are so closely connected with the religious ideas of the natives, and regulate their mode of life to such an extent, that the Christian tribes near Victoria have not given them up. Every present received at a potlatch has to be returned at another potlatch, and a man who would not give his feast in due time would be considered as not paying his debts. Therefore the law is not a good one, and can not be enforced without causing general discontent. Besides, the Government is unable to enforce it. The settlements are so numerous, and the Indian agencies so large, that there is nobody to prevent the Indians doing whatsoever they like.[24]

On the other hand, the destruction of property at potlatches sometimes included the destruction of slaves, at least among the Tlingit. I don’t know if this happened in every society that held potlatches, but killing slaves is a practice the government certainly had an interest in stopping. 

In Tlingit Slavery and Russian Empire: Indigenous “peculiar institution” as resistance to colonialism, 1741-1867, Adam Bobeck quotes Annie Constance Christensen, Letters from the Governor’s Wife: A View of Russian Alaska 1859-1862:

You ask if those [Tlingit] women were put to death? Forget now which of the many slaves you mean. But of course not. Thank God not one has been sacrificed since Hampus is Governor; he has purchased them free on the C[ompany] account, & one slave woman we purchased by a general subscription for 700 R[oubles] B[anco] or 200 R[oubles] S[ilver] — A few months ago the Indians hada great festival. You must know that the conclusion of building new houses, or Barabors as they call them, is a great fete with them, to which they invite all their neighbors at a great distance… Before parting they give away everything they possess, not only all their provisions, but blankets, in one word everything, so that they are quite, quite poor now. At the end of such a fete it is their custom to sacrifice slaves, but before these strangers arrived, Hampus called 7 or 8 of our Teone or chiefs, & forbade them to kill anyone. He promised to give them now & then some present, & to invite them each year to dinner, besides which positively told them, that the moment they attempted to kill one of their slaves, he would fire upon them & their village. The consequence of this was, that they liberated 19 slaves & gave them as a present to the Company. I went with Hampus to see some of them, & expected to see their faces radiant with joy over their liberty. But you could not have guessed they had been doomed to die. To me it was something wonderful as I gazed at them; one was a pretty little girl of 9 – 11 years old…

A little more googling suggests that the Kwakwaka’wakw did it, too, eg: 

The Kwakiutl [Kwakwaka’wakw] Winter Ceremonial changed when blankets replaced animal skins and human sacrifice. This resulted in the emergence of a secular potlatch sometime after 1862…

From Human Trophy Hunting on the Northwest Coast, an article by Joan Lovisek, in The Taking and Displaying of Human Body Parts as Trophies by Amerindians. It appears that with the arrival of interesting trade goods from whites, the locals had less reason to sacrifice slaves, and so switched (plus they were officially forbidden to do so.) Coppers–large pieces of copper obtained via trade and beaten into a rectangular shape–were sacrificed instead. Luckily for the coppers, they could be repaired and re-sacrificed, and became a kind of currency. 

Of course, destroying goods was never as important as giving them away. 

Guest Post: Ethnography of the SWPL, pt. 2

Note: today we have a guest post, courtesy of Monsieur le Baron. I hope you enjoy it.

Welcome back. I’m happy to be here with another guest post.

Last time, we discussed the strange creature known as the Bobo. But not all SWPLs are rich. Many are, in fact, quite poor. What of these… SWProles? Today, we’ll be covering the Theory of the Aspirational Class, walking through some musings, and making some conclusions.

First, to explain terms. I don’t necessarily agree with all of the author’s analysis. They have a tendency to lump both Bobo and SWProle together into one homogeneous SWPL group, which they call “elite” or the Aspirational Class. I don’t think this is necessarily a valid leap – while it does capture some essential cultural similarities, the defining aspect of the SWProle WITH RELATION TO their more affluent brethren is their total lack of power or money – their lack of eliteness. Nor is “Aspirational Class” really totally valid for the whole class. I am the most aspirational of my cohort, but this is not held up as a virtue – I’m a dirty “striver” (although I must fall upon a phrase oft shared with my Russian friends: “A shark swims or it suffocates.”). And even this striving is not nearly at the scale of the SWProles. I want for very little, mostly some more money so I can sustain a lifestyle of truly excessive and vulgar spending, and obviously power and a spot in the upper class. I dream of one day exclusively shopping at Whole Foods while beginning every morning with avocado toast.

From the Theory of the Aspirational Class:

Today’s aspirational class lacks such self-consciousness, and many members lack bobos’ financial means. The aspirational class is motivated by self-confident values and is actively choosing its way of life through an extensive process of information gathering and forming opinions and values, some of which involve money but many of which rest on cultural capital instead.”

Yes, money! A lot of goddamn money. A friend of mine trawls Dave Ramsay and other finance story places, and one couple, who made only about $150,000 a year, managed to get half a million dollars in debt financing their dissolute Whole Foods eating crunchy lifestyle. Unbelievable. An asparagus water here, a sushi roll there, and now you’re talking about real money. We live in a society obsessed with luxury and flash.

Which brings me to my second disagreement. The good doctor divides spending into conspicuous, inconspicuous, and other. But what she calls “inconspicuous” spending is not meant to be inconspicuous at all, but is merely a new form of status signaling. Instead, they could be called “Traditional” and “Modern”, or, even more aptly, “Tasteless” and “Stuff White People Like”.

But I still find it admirable for an academic to gather so much data. Most analyses are equally flawed and rely wholly on anecdote. This one has data. Lots of data. And the gathering of data is an inherently worthy goal. Without further ado, let’s begin.

To my chagrin, I often encounter the belief that rich people love to buy what one might call “expensive bullshit”. I call this a sort of “reality TV” or “Wolf of Wall Street” syndrome. It’s like Instagram reality, but for money. Many people spread this bullshit while few have an interest in debunking it. It allows buyers of dumb branded clothing to think they’re impressing others with a genuine status symbol. Makers of said dumb branded clothing obviously benefit. And the real upper castes benefit by obfuscating true class markers. But still, people should be able to figure this out. And especially those who keep abreast of these things.

Here’s a chart.

Screenshot_20181208-161200_Amazon Kindle

The short answer to the question of traditional (aka garish) status signaling and elites is “no”. The long answer is “nooooooooo”.

Screenshot_20181208-161247_Amazon Kindle

The more educated you are, the more you buy SWPL things. Also, the more you have to status signal in general. This is significant and we’ll return to it later.

Screenshot_20181208-161307_Amazon Kindle

The bigger the metro, the showier people get. People are least showy in that old stronghold of status, the Northeast. This means something too.

Screenshot_20181208-161217_Amazon Kindle

The older people get, the less they signal.

We’re getting there.

Let’s draw a graph.

In one corner, you have your classic prole. They have no culture and they have no elite competence or power. You know them! You love them! They’re classic proles. On the other end, we have people with lots of sociocultural status and power. They’re Bobos. They’re the reigning heavyweights of USG and the FEDGOV empire. They’ve got the aristocratic traditions, the power, the money, the institutions, the everything that matters.

But wait, this leaves two empty sectors. Ah, exactly. This is the explanation for Schrodinger’s SWPL, the fine fellow on stuffwhitepeoplelike which flips between self-confident, affluent elite, and nervous, anxious faker who only pretends to like classical music and can only speak English by the entry. Viewed solely through culture, as stuffwhitepeoplelike does and as Theory of the Aspirational Class does, one cannot properly distinguish the two. That’s because the difference between a mere aspirant and a true blue aristocrat is actual power.

So what is the SWProle doing then? The act of performing elite class culture is an act of self-affirmation, of belonging. By performing elite culture, they are making a symbolic claim to being elite. Of course, this claim is frequently challenged by a hostile society – I call this challenge of reality. In reality, they are not elite in any real sense of the word, and, indeed, can barely afford coffee without spiraling into debt. Only through constant and continuous signaling can they distinguish themselves from the proles they basically are. And how does one signal? Luxuries. Lots and lots of luxuries. Why do millennials spend so much of their income on luxury goods? Because so many millennials are educated, education is participation in a literal surviving organ of the Ancien Regime, and therefore it invites the young graduate to buy lots of luxuries to assert their new elite status (and, as seen in a previous chart, many take this invitation).

What happens when something threatens to pop this comfortable delusion bubble?

The rage of the almost elite

Who rages the most against the proles?

“Orwell goes on to point out that it is the anxious lower-upper-middle-class who have the most venom towards those below them–precisely because to preserve their status, they have to keep themselves sharply apart from the workers and tradesmen.  And I think that that does apply here as well, at least to some extent. One of the interesting things about going back to my business school reunion earlier in the month was simply the absence of the sort of cutting remarks about flyover country that I have grown used to hearing in any large gathering of people.   I didn’t notice it until after the events were over, because it was a slow accumulation of all the jokes and rants I hadn’t heard about NASCAR, McMansions, megachurches, reality television, and all the other cultural signifiers that make up a small but steady undercurrent of my current social milieu, the way Polish jokes did when I was in sixth grade.”

Familiarity breeds contempt. This is why I have so much of it against my fellow aristocrats.

The lot of the SWProle is a cold and miserable one.

And, I think, a fundamental error in approach.

Let’s discuss the right way to become elite, then. Let’s discuss our final sector.

I divide the upper middle class into a few different kinds. You have the noblesse de robe, the noblesse d’epee, the haute bourgeois, socialites, and the clergy. Let’s narrow our focus to a peacetime society midway through its development. This means our primary drivers of elite formation will be the haute bourgeois and the noblesse de robe.

Some neoreactionaries identify the aristocracy with top tier businessmen, and while I don’t think that’s totally true, I think there are grains of truth to it. They sense, rightly, there is something reactionary about the corporate structure. Similarly, I usually identify the aristocracy nigh totally with the noblesse de robe, which is a distortion on my part. To state things more accurately, I would say that different institutions inherited different segments of the aristocratic idea after the shattering of the Ancien Regime. The customs and practices of the royal court were carried away and eventually planted in fertile soil, and this little seed grew up into the idea of Big Business. And the universities and academies of the Ancien Regime which trained so many generations of bluebloods dissociated from the idea of aristocracy, at least explicitly, and so became today’s Ivory Towers.

What SWProles are essentially trying to do is to get into the elite via socialization. But this is flawed. First of all, it’s flawed because their act is too perfect. I discuss this in my post about sartorial correctness , but it’s basically like the differences between an educated foreigner and a native speaker. The latter makes certain classes of mistakes that make the language more fluid and natural. Second of all, it’s flawed because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the character of upper caste socialization. Proles like to imagine upper caste socialization as extremely smooth and elegant. And it is, in a sense. But it’s only elegant because the upper castes define what “elegant” is. It’s not true grace in the normie sense, it’s self-assuredness. An aristocrat is a creature that thinks hugging their kids is weird, but keeping a ferret in your breasts to eat lamb shanks is perfectly normal. They’re weird. Wealthier people have a higher incidence of autistic children.

It’s not normie social interaction but smoother. What are aristocrats actually doing? Who are the residents of our missing quadrant?

They’re doing nerdtalk and powertalk.

Boom.

The chart is complete.

SWProles are almost certainly doomed to failure because they’re trying to socialize normally with people who are doing nerdtalk and powertalk. They just don’t get it. Even if they memorize all the quirks, their failure is the failure to grok the category of conversation.

By contrast, the main difference between nerds/boors and true Bobos is self-assuredness or the lack thereof.

What is powertalk? Powertalk is a concept taken from Ribbonfarm’s Gervais Principle, and it’s basically the naked discussion of gains and losses. Go read it if you haven’t, though I disagree with his characterization of the inner life of psychopaths. In powertalk, you’re always talking real shit. Successful businessmen do this really well. But, unfortunately, the normal world frowns on them. People from normal backgrounds who try to do well in business and FIRE are pulled down by their peers. People resent the wealthy. People resent early retirees. They’re surrounded by crabs in a bucket. The only choice is to hide. But when you hide, you become less self-assured. And the subject varies somewhat. Money remains a concern, but powertalk past a certain level of social status must also focus on the original burrito: Power. So they must learn a new subject matter.

Similarly, what do nerds do? Nerds talk and argue about the minutia of nerd cultural works like sci-fi and comics, and they discuss the fine technical details of various technologies. What do aristocrats do? They talk about and argue the minutia of art and music, and they discuss the fine details of various Important Ideas and Historical Events and Other Humanities. Don’t these look similar? In fact, they’re the same thing. Art criticism is just nerds geeking out about comic trivia except over something socially acceptable, and it’s socially acceptable because aristocrats decided it was. Again, the difference is not in category, but merely in subject matter. And the mildly autistic often wish socialization was more explicit and rule-based.

Good news! Aristocrats already had a highly rule-based way of socialization. They called it good manners and it involved signaling what the purpose of your conversation would be by folding a specific corner of a greeting card and many other arcane, bizarre rules. In Ancien Regime France, it was impolite to be the last to thank someone. Unfortunately, this rule has to be broken by someone. Needless to say, there were a lot of dangerously polite people, including one fellow who jumped out of a window to pounce upon someone and properly bid them farewell and thanks. It’s not that they’re not following a weird set of social rules, unlike normies who do things by instinct, it’s that nerds have the wrong rules.

ETA:

“Eccentricity was central to the aristocracy’s mystique. It was inventive, often disconcerting and entirely natural to a self-confident caste which knew that it was different. Aristocrats were free to indulge their whims.”

“…anyone who lived by his wits could call himself a gentleman and have their presumption endorsed by a herald… The aristocracy have always been an open elite.” 

This quadrant of the chart is the quadrant of eliteogenesis. Every so often, a mutant is born in Appalachia or some other backwater province. These mutants don’t fit in. Their environments abuse them and they lose their self-assuredness, being marked as abnormal. But through a creaming mechanism of the day, ambition, and their own thirst to find like-minded people, they are drawn inexorably towards the capital. And if they are able to find a mate and produce offspring, they will make people just as weird as them.

The difference is that their children will be self-assured, totally convinced that their weird little world is normal.

A noble house is born.

So if eliteogenesis is a knowable process, surely we can measure it? Yes, yes, we can. And someone did.

Enter our final idea: Secular Cycles.

Turchin has many interesting ideas, but we’re going to focus on the idea of elite overproduction.

You have two forces, creation and extinction.

If we take the measured peacetime extinction rate of noble houses and do some math, we arrive at EXACTLY the same imputed mobility rates as given by Professor Clark’s equations in The Son Also Rises. And these mathematical rates match up with historical data about the lifespans of noble families across the world. About half of the modern corporate workers in Japan are samurai descendants. 42% of European high nobility descendants have PhDs. The median lifespan of a Chinese gentry family is about 250 years. In short, everything maths out extremely nicely and cleanly. Convenient, eh?

The other half of elite numbers is production. We have the mechanism of parvenus, by which nerds and boors become founders of new noble houses. But what happens if there’s not enough room? Society can only absorb so many people in the professions. A potential elite instead goes into a pool of prospective elites. A nerd is not hired by a major tech firm, but instead sits at home and makes a nuisance of himself writing exploits.

In the early stages of the secular cycle, there is an abundance of room and resources to grow. The peasants (primary producers) flood in to exploit these resources, resulting in widespread commoner prosperity. The elites begin a secular cycle impoverished and therefore do real work. Many advances are made across all sorts of indices. However, all the excess value created by the peasants results in spectacular potential surpluses for the elites, which begin to increase in number. This causes a shift into the stagflation phase. How do elites sustain themselves? In the long run, elite professions push the societal production frontier. Engineers produce new technologies that result in long-run efficiency gains, doctors increase societal lifespan resulting in more working years, priests produce new cultural memes which structure life, scientists deepen our understanding of the universe, and bankers allocate capital more efficiently to push growth. In short run, elites must feed themselves by transferring value into their own mouths. So the commoners produce all this value, but an increasing amount of elites consumes it all, resulting in stagnant incomes for the common man. The stagflation phases of this secular cycle and the last one both saw massive flowerings of Western science and technology, as the vast number of elites accomplish all sorts of brain work. The decades since 1970 have seen all sorts of transformations in our way of life. The Information Age really is a revolution.

But all their value transference takes a toll on the average worker. Inequality begins to rapidly increase, as elite incomes surge far past commoner incomes. These decades since 1970 have also seen massive gains in the income of the 1%. This greatly increases the incentive to become elite, so more and more people aspire to it. However, more people aspiring to be elite combined with a saturation of the societally allowable professionals drives all sorts of further dynamics. Since there’s so much competition, elites become more nervous and anxious. That causes them to trust their fellow elites (now competition instead of collaborators) less, reducing societal cohesion. Leftism, the extension of a society’s principles towards their inevitable (but disastrously idealistic) conclusions, reaches a fever pitch, as elites try to shore up their social position. And their need to shore up their financial position means they demand even higher and higher incomes and hoard even more cash, further driving up inequality. Their fear, hatred, and resentment of elite aspirants drives a new class war on the middle class. Their anxieties lead them to pass all sorts of bizarre and increasingly paranoid policy. The frustrated aspirants and rejected parvenus form new counterelites ready to launch revolutions. The weight of all these excess elite aspirants and the negative dynamics associated with them eventually prove to be too much, and society begins to decline. The oversupply of potential elite labor crushes the income of service elites, which has the additional nasty side effect of making rentierism the only game in town. That means elites now have to get their value transference through pure rent-seeking and exploitation of state mechanisms, which means that political jockeying overtakes brainwork. Social cohesion collapses. Society descends into civil war as counterelites battle elites for state spoils. Revolution shakes the core of the state. Elites are culled left and right. But those elites, as corrupt as they are in the late stage, still fill a valuable role. Society sees a rapid increase in complexity in the integrative half of the secular cycle, but as we all know from our Incerto, complexity implies fragility. And this fragility becomes a dire foe in the disintegrative part of the secular cycle. If you kill half the doctors in a hospital arbitrarily, does it run half as well or less than half as well? Globalization is abruptly deglobalized and complex systems of trade and knowledge collapse. Infrastructure is lost. Land is abandoned. Factories go silent. Occasionally there is peace, but until the elite oversupply is resolved, the state remains unstable and cannot permanently reform.

Finally, the elite numbers have been pruned. Adversity brings out the hidden strength in the remaining elites. Without extra elites to pick up the slack, and with all the wealth of the nation destroyed, the elites return to doing useful work. All the fallow land and abandoned infrastructure provides plenty of room for peasant expansion. A new secular cycle begins.

Below is the Secular Cycle chart. Our current situation matches the Stagflation phase pretty well, and we may be headed into the Crisis phase soon (or now).

Sunrise, sunset.

I would like to thank EvolutionistX for this opportunity.

Please support academics by buying their books. For more of my thoughts and ravings, visit my blog.

Guest Post: Ethnography of the SWPL

Note: Today we have a guest post, contributed by Monsieur le Baron. Please be polite and welcoming. 

Dearest fr-

Wait. Wrong blog.

Time for Anthropology! I’m your guest host, some asshole. But you can call me Lord Asshole.

Today, we’re going to talk about SWPLs. A decent amount of America only sees the rich from the outside, either on fakey fake reality TV, fakey fake fake Instagram, or real but incomplete glances at the coastal elite bumming around the coasts (the common sense sayings of proles are usually rooted in truth). This segment of society is understudied by academics because academics generally come from the SWPL class and fish don’t know what water is.

See: https://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/

Now, time has passed and many of those things have become less fashionable because proles do them now. More importantly, these posts don’t necessarily reach at the underlying principles governing SWPL behavior. I have some books here, which I will quote liberally to disguise my own lack of insight, as well as anecdotes to share, because I firmly believe the plural of anecdote is data.

Well, let’s begin.

First, proles frequently believe that the upper classes are afflicted by all sorts of weird problems, from degeneracy, to drowning in student loans for stupid degrees, to being unemployed. Short version: That’s projection. Long version: Read Murray. Or, if you’re libera-ahahahahahahaha!

Yeah, okay. If you’re liberal, read Putnam, which is like Murray, but every five minutes he stops to reassure the reader that the proles are not inherently bad because there’s nurture ‘n stuff.

Go read one of those books if you haven’t, then come back to me. Or, more probably, go read the Wikipedia synopsis and call it good enough. Ready? Good.

Governing this analysis and little walkthrough will be three main concepts. The first is something I paraphrase as “The Baron’s Race”, which is basically the distinction-making taste process of Bourdieu and the cultural lifecycle. The second is the idea of the Otium, or the intellectual leisure of the aristocracy. The third is a surprise.

Enter the Bobo.

From Bobos in Paradise by David Brooks:

[…]if you are in an elite based on brainpower, like today’s elite, you need to come up with the subtle signifiers that will display your own spiritual and intellectual identity – your qualification for being in the elite in the first place. You need invitations on handmade paper but with a traditional typeface. Selecting music, you need Patsy Cline songs mixed in with the Mendelssohn. You need a 1950s gown, but done up so retro it has invisible quotation marks around it. You need a wedding cake designed to look like a baroque church.

You need some of the crap I see on Facebook advertisements. You need a modular desk – what the fuck’s a modular desk? Great question! It’s a desk you can reconfigure to your needs as you desire… aka blocks of wood. You need a beer jacket, which is a jacket full of beer, which is sort of like a beer hat but infinitely more pretentious and infinitely less practical and also marketed as a natural weight jacket for the autistic, because what the world needs is drunk autistic SWPLs. You need an activated charcoal toothbrush, and, uhhh, what the fuck is activated charcoal? You need a machine that turns tap water into bleach because… really, why would anyone want this? But some SWProles have them and they’re drinking it, with predictable results. And, of course, you need a Harvard MBA.

You need to exchange meaningful objects with each other, like a snowboard engraved with your favorite Schiller quotation or the childhood rubber ducky that you used to cradle during the first dark days of your Supreme Court clerkship. It’s difficult to come up with your own nuptial wrinkle, which will be distinctive without being daring. But self-actualization is what educated existence is all about. For members of the educated class, life is one long graduate school. When they die, God meets them at the gates of heaven, totes up how many fields of self-expression they have mastered, then hands them a divine diploma and lets them in.

Brooks then spends several pages sucking off the UMC and bashing the WASPs. Retch. The key point is that the upper stratas (UMC, UC) define themselves by their taste. Because there are no longer formal markers of class, one must turn to signals to gatekeep class. Note the conflation of intellect and taste. That’s important. Remember that.

Today’s establishment is structured differently. It is not a small conspiracy of well-bred men with interlocking family and school ties who have enormous influence on the levels of power.

It is a large conspiracy of well-bred men with interlocking family and school ties who have enormous influence on the levels of power.

The members of this class are divided against themselves, and one is struck by how much of their time is spent earnestly wrestling with the conflict between their reality and their ideals.

Well put, David. Let’s see some of these earnest wrestlings now.

From Uneasy Street by Rachel Sherman:

Nadine said, ‘I don’t shop, you know? I wear the same stuff pretty much every day. I wear the same pair of shoes every day.’ Several women mentioned buying clothing at inexpensive stores such as Target, Kohl’s, and Costco or at discount outlets.

Most of my clothing is from Walmart or Costco, but if you’re very rich, high end tailors will give you a custom fit specifically designed to look like you got it at Walmart while being the apex of luxury. That’s class.

Other respondents gleefully recounted bargains they had picked up. Wendy, a corporate lawyer, had snagged a used $1,000 stroller for $100, which she ‘felt good’ about; Beatrice, a nonprofit executive, had gotten a $20,000 dining table for $6,000.

My Elizabethan table was *only* $6,000. We’re trying to stay frugal, you know. #saving #broke

David, an interior designer whose clients were of the same class as my respondents, told me, ‘Always, for every job, I always throw in Ikea and Crate and Barrel pieces. They love that. It makes them feel better.’

Life is eternal grad school, which is why you must always have grad school IKEA furniture.

Nicole said, ‘We don’t take fancy vacations. We’re pretty frugal about, kind of, everything. You know? We don’t buy stuff.’ Paul described his wife as ‘the woman who will price check, and this is not an exaggeration, Target versus Costco. It’s what she does. And so while she comes from money and likes nice things, she’s very prudent[…]’

And what sort of nice things?

high-end stoves, ovens, and refrigerators[…] necessary for resale value, even when they had no plans to sell the property.

Of course.

[Miranda] explained that they had put [the elevator] in partly so older family could visit them (a “basic” need) and so they could locate the guest room where they wanted it instead of on a lower floor. She also mentioned that the elevator was ‘not that expensive’ because they were renovating anyways. Sensing that she might feel embarrassed about it, I asked, ‘Are people like, ‘Oh my God, you have an elevator’?’ She responded, ‘Yeah, it seems a little-yeah. That’s why I have that little line, ‘You know what? If you’re doing that much work, an elevator isn’t that expensive.’

I walk up and down my house the same as everyone else, two feet at a time, via my private elevator.

’If I buy something, if I buy, like, clothes in the store, I take the tag off. I mean, we’re not talking about – I take the tag off of my Levi’s jeans. I mean, it’s not like it’s a mink coat or something. I take the label off our six-dollar bread…. I think again, for me, it’s a choices thing-the choices that I have are obscene. Six-dollar bread is obscene.’

Whenever I see a SWProle with their avocado toast and their VOSS water, I foam at the mouth a little. It is disgusting how luxuriously live when I had to save the latter for a very, very special occasion. I am, I admit, jealous, even if it is an irrational jealousy, since I know these things are paid for by debt.

My boss wears clothing with holes in it to help pay for the sentimental childhood vacation home his wife loves and for his childrens’ tuition, my mother won’t stop wailing at me that she’s broke, and the parents of one of my friends curse this blasted economy that won’t allow for a secure retirement, even though they have a middle seven figure net worth. I am often shocked by the money attitudes of the proles, who I am now geographically adjacent to.

It’s very different.

And this isn’t just idle posturing. Many of the surveyed families had domestic strife and some behavior that might be called abuse over beauty expenditures on things like haircuts and dye. It was viewed as unnecessary extravagance that might break the bank and then they’d be broke and woe upon them! So the wives learn how to Brazilian wax themselves. Besides, the wives agreed too. Beauty expenditure is vanity and hard to fit into that tight budget, while doing it yourself was artisan and necessitated learning a new skill, both good things. People admire their Calvinism.

For reference, one family earned $2 million a year, before accounting for their passive income.

David, the interior designer, confirmed that this practice was common. During renovations, he said, ‘Things come in with big price tags on them. They all have to be removed, or Sharpied over, so the housekeepers and [staff] don’t see them.’

If you ever want to deflate your view of the elite, imagine a Master of the Universe furiously Sharpieing a price tag off his IKEA furniture to ease his guilty conscience.

From Bobos in Paradise:

Specifically, the members of the educated-class elite feel free to invest huge amounts of capital in things that are categorized as needs, but it is not acceptable to spend on mere wants. For example, it’s virtuous to spend $25,000 on your bathroom, but it’s vulgar to spend $15,000 on a sound system and a wide-screen TV. It’s decadent to spend $10,000 on an outdoor Jacuzzi, but if you’re not spending twice that on an oversized slate shower stall, it’s a sign that you probably haven’t learned to appreciate the simple rhythms of life.

Similarly, it is acceptable to spend hundreds of dollars on top-of-the-line hiking boots, but it would be vulgar to buy top-of-the-line patent leather shoes to go with formal wear. It is acceptable to spend $4,400 on a Merlin XLM road bike because people must exercise, but it would be a sign of superficial nature to buy a big, showy powerboat. Only a shallow person would spend hundreds of dollars on caviar, but a deep person would gladly shell out that much for top-of-the-line mulch.

You can spend as much as you want on anything that can be classified as a tool, such as a $65,000 Range Rover with plenty of storage space, but it would be vulgar to spend money on things that cannot be seen as tools, such as a $60,000 vintage Corvette. (I once thought of writing a screenplay called Rebel Without a Camry, about the social traumas a history professor suffered when he bought a Porsche.)”

This is SWPL frugality, the art of saving money by not buying things that you wouldn’t have bought anyways, and then status signaling about it. Would David Brooks have ever bought a powerboat? Probably not. The expenditures that provoked worry were ones that were hard or impossible to justify as practical luxury. The UMC+ cannot signal using things, because resources are abundant, unlike the situation of the prole. Instead, they must signal by taste. Buying things which are pure luxury is signaling by expending resources, not by showing taste, which is inescapably prole and vulgar.

In short…

Bobos don’t want gaudy possessions that make extravagant statements. That would make it look like they are trying to impress. They want rare gadgets that have not yet been discovered by the masses but are cleverly designed to make life more convenient or unusual […] it’s charming to start a conversation about the host’s African-inspired salad serving forks.

 

Rule 5. The elites are expected to practice one-downmanship. Cultured people are repelled by the idea of keeping up with the Joneses. Nothing is more disreputable than competing with your neighbors by trying to more effectively mimic the style of the social class just above you.

How fortunate for our Bobos that they have no one above them to disreputably imitate.

They do drugs too. Brooks says this is done in the most boring way possible. For instance, I have been offered cocaine.

As a study drug.

Nootropics r gud 4 u.

Speaking of which, one of my tenants, all of his high school friends have overdosed. I don’t know anyone who has. Funny, that.

Instead, as members of the educated class, you reject status symbols in order to raise your status with your equally cultivated peers. Everything about you must be slightly more casual than your neighbor. Your funishings must be slightly more peasanty. Your lives should have a greater patina of simplicity.

Which means what matters is to examine taste.

But now it is the formidable French places that have had to adjust. The restaurant La Fourchette has changed its name to the less pretentious Fourchette 110.

Less pretentious?

The Great Harvest Bread Company has opened up a franchise in town, one of those gourmet bread stores where they sell apricot almond or spinach feta loaf for $4.75 a pop. This particular store is owned by Ed and Lori Kerpius. Ed got his MBA in 1987 and moved to Chicago, where he was a currency trader. Then, as if driven by the inelectuable winds of the Zeitgeist, he gave up on the Decade of Greed stuff so he could spend more time with his family and community. So he and his wife opened this shop.

They greet you warmly as you walk in the door and hand you a sample slice (I chose Savannah dill) about the size of a coffee table book. A short lecture commences on the naturalness of the ingredients and the authenticity of the baking process, which, in fact, is being carried out right there in front of you.

Rich people love their obscene bread. It’s not only obscenely expensive, but obscenely delicious. And smart! That’s important.

To the west of town, there is a Zany Brainy, one of those toy stores that pretends to be an educational institution. It sells lifelike figurines of endangered animals, and it’s driven the old Wayne Toytown, which carried toys that didn’t improve developmental skills, out of business.

Everything is education. Everything is of the intellect.

The ABC Carpet & Home store on 19th Street and Broadway in New York endorses Keats’s dictum ‘I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination.’ I don’t know what that means, but it sounds elevated. …

The enlightened Williams-Sonoma catalogue doesn’t try to flog us morally neutral sausages. The sausage links it advertises derive, the catalogue informs us, from the secrets of curing that Native Americans taught the first European settlers in Virginia (the mention of Native Americans gives the product six moral points right off the bat). The ‘sausages are made from pure pork and natural spices, using family recipes passed down through the generations.’ …

We prize old things whose virtues have been rendered timeless by their obsolescence: turn-of-the-century carpentry tools, whaling equipment, butter churns, typesetting trays, gas lamps, and hand-operated coffee grinders. Lightship baskets made from rattan with oak bottoms now sell for between $1,000 and $118,000. We can appreciate the innate wisdom of the unlettered seaman and the objects he created.

If only they could appreciate the deplorable seaman himself.

To calculate a person’s status, you take his net worth and multiply it by his antimaterialistic attitudes.

What’s the unifying theme of upper caste luxury? Taste. And not just taste, but taste intertwined with intellect. Why?

What is good taste? Good taste is the art of puzzling out depth. That which is prolish is that which is shallow, something which is good on its face and which has no nuances beyond that. For something to be fitting for the Otium (to be covered more in part 2), it must occupy the MIND. The more complex something is, the longer the mind is occupied. Having good taste is thus a g-signal. Example?

From Privilege by Shamus Khan

“Grace, who used to drop by my office to talk about violin (she and I both played), stopped by to ask about something quite different. ‘Mr. Khan, um, have you ever heard of DMX?’

‘You mean, ‘It’s dark and hell is hot’ DMX?’

‘Um…’ Grace had no idea what I was talking about, when referring to an old album.

‘The rapper?’

‘Yeah!’

‘Sure. But not in a while. I don’t really listen to rap.’ After I said this, Grace looked at me, slightly disappointed. Though I was a young faculty member, I felt, at that moment, old.

‘I just got Grand Champ!’

Grand Champ?’ I wondered out loud.

‘His new album!’

‘I guess I’m out of it.’

Taking an opportunity to bring me more up-to-date, Grace told me, ‘You should check it out.’ I was surprised by our conversation. For Grace, a girl from suburban Boston, this seemed an unlikely-and sudden-transformation.

It did not stick. Within a couple of months Grace and I were back to talking about violin repertoire and technique. Yet Grace had tried hard-core rap, with great enthusiasm. Months later I asked her why she had bought that album.

‘I don’t know. I mean, I guess, you know, I went to the first dance here and I didn’t really know any of the songs. In middle school I totally did. And it was fun. So I guess I felt left out. And Amber-in my dorm-she listened to DMX all the time. And so I guess I just wanted to learn it. I don’t really listen to it that much anymore. It’s weird. I mean, I still kinda like it. I don’t know.’

Months after this conversation I chapered a dance and there was Grace, singing along to DMX, jumping up and down, her hands bouncing from her shoulders to knees-mimicking the movements of the latest hip-hop video.

[…]

All three learned from older students how to transform themselves into a more appropriate ‘Paulie’.

[…]

Though Michael, Ken, and Grace each were elites before they entered St. Paul’s, they still had to learn from the ground up-their homegrown ease did not suffice.”

DMX? Ah yes, DMX. My favorite is X Gon’ Give It To Ya, a postmodern deconstruction of the anxieties of the late capitalist gig-economy and the psychic tolls it exacts on its deliverymen, who are forced to shuttle anonymized packages-merely it-for many years at a time, in lieu of a stable career, a man alienated from his own labor, who, regardless, refuses to give up.

So today a ‘Days of Rage’ T-shirt can be worn by health-conscious aerobicizers.

But wait, doesn’t stuffwhitepeoplelike.com say these shirts are for badwhites? Very perceptive!

As seen at St. Paul’s, the taste of the elites is culturally promiscuous. And this has long been documented by Bourdieu, who noted, in his distinction, that the highest strata individuals liked every presented picture. How does this play into taste as g?

The ability to make a competent argument for ANYTHING as meaningful is an exercise in verbal IQ. It’s g-weighted. The highest example of this is enjoying modern art, which is inherently meaningless without the smart person to give it a strong argument as meaningful. The more transparently meaningless something is, the more honorable it is to make a solid argument that it is meaningful. A person who does this successfully, like Brooks’ arguments about how great Montana is, gains much favor among his peers. A fashion then spreads, as Bobos use it to augment their status. But as it spreads, more and more MC aspirants notice it. For early adopters, using the cultural signal may work to secure status, but the MC won’t understand why it works, and as more and more MC flock in to imitate this success, the fad is abandoned as uncool. It is no longer signaling g, but an attempt to signal status, misunderstanding it was a g signal that brought status. It becomes middlebrow, something adopted by the MC to signal their own sophistication, which is a misunderstanding of the original fashion.

Behold the Baron’s Race, the life cycle of cultural trends.

The speed at which the Baron’s Race occurs depends on the inherent g-weighting of the underlying activity. Wearing clothing takes no g at all, so it is easily adopted once noticed, so fashion must fashion extremely quickly, so quickly that it may be a meaningless signal for most articles of clothing (except big brand names, which are always prole). Whereas multilingualism and classical music have remained fashionable for CENTURIES because of how difficult they are to properly appreciate. That’s why the stuffwhitepeoplelike actions are only trying to learn a second language and trying to like classical music. The original SWPL described is a hybrid creature – sometimes he is self-confidently affluent, and sometimes he is a middle-class pretender anxious about his own good taste.

And what is one’s reward for mastering these complex signals?

For the most striking thing about Latte Towns is that, though they are havens for everything that now goes by the name ‘alternative’-alternative music, alternative media, alternative lifestyles-they are also fantastic business centers. […] Ben & Jerry’s, the most famous company in town, is not even among the 20 largest employers. People with Burlington mores now apparently feel comfortable working at IBM[…], General Dynamics, GE, Bank of Vermont, and Blodgett Holdings. And business is chic in Burlington. There are four local business publications that heavily cover the town, and sometimes you can read two or three sentences in a row in each of them before some executive says something about the need for businesses to practice socially responsible investing. […] Today’s Latte Town mogul remembers that business is not about making money; it’s about doing something you love. Life should be an extended hobby. …

This is Bobo capitalism in a nutshell. College, learning, growth, travel, climbing, self-discovery. […] Don’t care call it a sweatshop. It’s a sandbox! This isn’t business. This is play!

How do these firms hire? Per Pedigree (by Lauren Rivera), “interviewers were hoping to find ‘buddies’”, people they could spend late nights with. This sounds really interesting, with booze and delivery sushi, but I have been with SWPLs for long nights and we talked about the French Revolution for several hours. So it’s really only interesting if you’re the kind of person who finds that interesting.

And uhh… play. Right. Well, it’s not play, but as my coworker said, “If they never invented computers, we’d have to do real work.”

Now, you may object that this is only the highest class SWPLs. But the highest class SWPLs set the agenda. To see what the SWProle will do, take Bobo-SWPL behavior that’s out of date a few years and add unironic poverty.

Oh, bah. Fine. Next time, we shall cover The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class, by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, and the subjects of nerds, SWProles, and the Otium.

Please buy these books if you’re interested. Wizard Academic needs fancy bread badly!

 

Anthropology Friday: Florida of Yesteryear

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Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we’ll be finishing Richard Sapp’s Suwannee River Town, Suwanne River Country: political moieties in a Southern County community, published in 1976.

I found this book a very interesting read in part because of its connections to my own personal past (as discussed two weeks ago,) and in part because of its insight into an era in American history that has passed away: post-WWII, pre-internet. Post-Civil Rights Act, pre-large-scale immigration. Post-industrialization, but before many of the farms were left behind.

I don’t normally review (positively) anthropologic works this recent, but I think Sapp did an admirable job documenting and understanding the cultural and political dynamics at play in the community. So let’s dive in.

On Horseback Riding:

“Interestingly enough, horseback riding for pleasure has long been disdained by countrymen. This attitude relates to differential traditional uses of the horse: to the small farmer the horse was a necessity as a draft animal and beast of burden; to the “gentleman farmer,” the wealthy town professional, the horse was a relatively inexpensive luxury and a means of transportation for supervisory visits to the small homes and fields of tenants. The gentleman farmer bred or purchased animals for qualities other than ability to pull a wagon or a plow: from horseback, one looks down to one’s servants.”

Population Nodes and Distribution:

“Churches, rural schools, and crossroads general stores have served as centers of widely dispersed rural neighborhood,s tying the scattered populace into networks of communication. Over the years a demographic shift in population has emptied half a hundred of these hamlet centers for each that exists today. … The railroads, as much as any factor, account for the distribution of population… Lizbeth, the present county sea, was formed forty years after the county was firs settled, as a station stop on a railway spur from Georgia.

“In Apalachee County [Note: today Suwannee County] farming neighborhoods appeared prior to Lizbeth… and decades before numerous and ephemeral market centers that sprang up every few miles along railroad rights-of-way. In those years before and briefly after the War Between the States inhabitants marketed preponderantly at the river. After 1880 or so, rural people marketed chiefly at crossroads stores and at tiny commercial nuclei strung like beads along country railway chains built to sell real estate and to haul timber. …

“In Appalachee County the dirt farmers arrived first. Townspeople, as small merchants and peddlers, part-time preachers … appeared on the heels of the farmers, setting up in dozens of rural neighborhoods, at intersections too small to be cross roads, at numerous railroad stops.”

Country Family, Town Family:

“The social nature of he work environment suggests that the family system of the townspeople differed from that of the country people. In the country men worked in the open where, till the advent of mechanized farming, income level depended in part upon amount of work done and the ability to be up and out before dawn till after sunset. Wives brought dinner pails into the fields so that work would be interrupted as little as possible. The more sons a family had, he greater the amount of work they could do. Work began before ten years of age and continued… until a man escaped or died. The extended family which ended to cohabit in the same rural neighborhood… participated in work sharing, especially in times of family crisis.

“The family system of the townspeople operated within a far more enclosed setting: the locus of work, a store or a mill. A man and wife or a man and business partner easily handled the business of the store, where income depended on direct commodity exchange for money (or credit) rather than on the duration of work-related activity inside or the number of workers there. Children were not a direct economic asset… The town merchant might marry his children into rural families to increase his clientele… but four reasons doomed even this as a conscious effort.

[1. Love as an ideal, 2. Town and country folk frequent different churches and so don’t meet, etc.]

“The town nabob group per se has not maintained a historical continuity in this community. Prominent families of the pre-1920s have generally failed perpetuate themselves biologically… The failure to abide and beget relates, perhaps, to differing export economies of the times…

“The rotation of elites prompted by changes in community revenue-producing activities has bequeathed two characteristics to the Apalachee own nabob class: small size and a tenuous hold on high status.”

EvX: There are a lot of social clubs in this town. I am reminded here of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, which posits that there once existed an America in which people belonged to civic organizations. This must have been before the era of cable TV and Facebook.

I know a lot of the decline in club membership is attributed to rising diversity, but entertainment options have a lot to do with it, too. A world in which people have cars but only 3 or 4 TV channels–what do you do with yourself? You could read a book, or you could go hang out at the Rotary Club.

According to Sapp:

“Of the three principal white, mature men’s clubs, it is said:

The Rotary club owns the town;
The Kiwanis club runs the town; and
The Lions club enjoys the town.

For a full discussion of how the clubs work and interact with town governance, you may want to read the paper.

There follows a chapter on African American life in Suwannee, with special attention to the men of the turpentine camps. According to Wikipedia:

Turpentine (also called spirit of turpentineoil of turpentinewood turpentine and colloquially turps[3]) is a fluid obtained by the distillation of resin from live trees, mainly pines. It is mainly used as a solvent and as a source of materials for organic synthesis. …

To tap into the sap producing layers of the tree, turpentiners used a combination of hacks to remove the pine bark. Once debarked, pine trees secrete oleoresin onto the surface of the wound as a protective measure to seal the opening, resist exposure to micro-organisms and insects, and prevent vital sap loss. Turpentiners wounded trees in V-shaped streaks down the length of the trunks to channel the oleoresin into containers. It was then collected and processed into spirits of turpentine. Oleoresin yield may be increased by as much as 40% by applying paraquat herbicides to the exposed wood.[7] …

Crude oleoresin collected from wounded trees may be evaporated by steam distillation in a copper still. Molten rosin remains in the still bottoms after turpentine has been evaporated and recovered from a condenser.[7] Turpentine may alternatively be condensed from destructive distillation of pine wood.[4]

Oleoresin may also be extracted from shredded pine stumps, roots, and slash using the light end of the heavy naphtha fraction (boiling between 90 and 115 °C or 195 and 240 °F) from a crude oil refinery. Multi-stage counter-current extraction is commonly used so fresh naphtha first contacts wood leached in previous stages and naphtha laden with turpentine from previous stages contacts fresh wood before vacuum distillation to recover naphtha from the turpentine…[9]

When producing chemical wood pulp from pines or other coniferous trees, sulfate turpentine may be condensed from the gas generated in Kraft process pulp digesters.

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Tapping a turpentine tree, Georgia, 1906-1920

According to Sapp, turpentining was the hardest work in Appalachee county; when the turpentine industry rand out, wood pulping became the hardest work. Unsurprisingly, this unpleasant work was carried out by African Americans, many of them “leased” from the Florida state prison system. In 1870, Florida prisoners were 20:1 black to white’ by the 1890s, that proportion had dropped to 2:1 as things like “evidence” became required for conviction.

Still, one gets the impression that life in the turpentine camps at the turn of the century was little more than slavery.

Quoting Zora Neale Hurston:

“… teppentime folks are born, not made, and certainly not overnight. They are born in teppentime, live all their lives init, and die and go to their graves smelling of teppentime.”

“Regional white people made fortunes in [turpentine], founded on a supply of unskilled, legally unprotected and dependent black labor. …

“Kennedy wrote

Negroes have provided the labor for the [turpentine] industry since the beginning of slavery in America. Generation after generation they have followed its southward migration, and the majority of those engaged in it today are descended from a long line of turpentine workers. More than any other occupational group these Negroes are denied the rights for which the Civil War was supposedly fought. …

“White men with access to a black labor pool contracted to tap the trees on land owned by other whites. The contractor… then moved a settlement of black people into the area of the leased trees, housing them in portable huts in a “camp.” …

“Contractors sublet stands of pines to black men, encouraging them to maintain families in the camp on the theory that the men would thus be bound to their service and prevented from “running” when accumulated debt [to the camp commissary] negated any profit from a year’s activity.

“It was not at all unheard of for the owner to supply a woman for a man without, “marrying” the pair by the simple expedient of assigning hem to a cabin and opening an account for them in the camp commissary.”

EvX: The text doesn’t say how these women were obtained, nor what they thought of this arrangement.

Anyway, turpentining eventually faded as and industry (and today machines do a lot of the heavy work of hauling and chopping logs to be made into pulp,) and boll weevils killed the cotton crop in the 1920s, which probably had a big effect on black employment in the South and helped motivate the Great Migration, though the Wikipedia page on it doesn’t mention the weevils.

There follows a rather detailed description of the most important cafes/coffee shops in the county seat and which county officials sit where while drinking their coffee. Apparently a lot of governance happens through informal coffeeshop discussions between different local “factions.”

Banks loom large in the discussion, due to their influence and necessity in agricultural life:

“Occasionally a crop fails and bank notes cannot be met. In this situation a deferred note means continued solvency and perseverance in a preferred life-style. …

“At this point in the credit system the principle of “personalism” regulates the nature of the relation of power between lender and borrower. The alternative to default involves a loyalty complex “up” in exchange for continued credit loyalty “down.” To maintain the system in the long run, the flow of local resources up must somewhat exceed the flow down. … but too great a flow up would ruin the exchange and precipitate the collapse of the townsman-countryman pattern of relations. Loyalty “up” means that secondary goods and services (e.g. … supporting the creditor’s community projects and policies) temporarily take the place of the primary credit repayment and help assure continued future credit.

“Why should the credit lender not foreclose in these cases? As bank owner, the credit lender facilitates a continual flow of exchanges through his institution. Were the flow inhibited, the bank owner and his immediate family would not personally be threatened with ruin, but the thousands of transactions which the bank handles and which define the bank itself would teeter on the brink of collapse, pushed there by the uncertainty and insecurity of hundreds of other persons akin to the foreclosed in situation as well as kinship. Foreclosure (area bank owners boast of their efforts in assisting local borrowers on the verge of financial disaster) is an act of transactional finality. In the long run the institution benefits not from amassing wealth by foreclosures, but from extending overdue notes and translating the credit dependency to secondary areas.”

EvX: Finally, we have some comparisons to other small-town communities:

“Based on the evidence from this community study, we have not seen social disorganization or a “surrender to mass society” such as Vidich and Bensman (1958) witnessed in a New York township. … They found that the “controlling conditions” of local society were “centralization, bureaucratization, and dominance by large-scale organizations”… While these conditioning elements are present in Apalachee County, the do not dominate the local social organization. Indeed, the county-community has tended to absorb new relational sets, incorporating them into extant patterns in the system. …

“Perhaps the town-country dynamic of the county-community, the internal dynamic expressed between county seat and rural neighborhoods, has proven more resistant or resilient as a social form to the advent of a “mass society” represented here by the townsman system of social relations. The country community has proven more resilient than the nucleated New England village community, wherein the essence of centralization was planted long ago. Perhaps “surrender to mass society” depends upon the social form of human community, if indeed there is any such thing.”

EvX: What is this “surrender to mass society”? Perhaps that will make productive reading for another day.

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Suwannee River, Florida, 1908

He ends on a positive note:

“Important political decisions about local affairs will continue to be made outside the community, but the future of life in the human community is not necessarily bleak. The local life of neighborhood and community will survive “centralization, bureaucratization, and dominance by large-scale organizations.” Whether the county-community survives the twentieth century in its present form is not important. People adapt. the human community will absorb these changes as it has absorbed others of a dehumanizing nature, for it is the locus of the life of man.”

I wonder what Sapp–if he is still alive–thinks of the changes wrought in American society over the past 50 years, and particularly in Apalachee–now Suwannee–county.

Anthropology Friday: Mainline Paradox II

In response to my post on the Mainline Paradox, Nick B. Steves requested an explanation of a different paradox:

Why do these declining denominations—or at least their ideas—remain so influential? I’ve only met one or two Unitarians in my life—although those COEXIST bumper stickers are everywhere—and I’ve never wittingly met a Quaker.

Well, I’ve met lots of Unitarians, and if we include the children of Unitarians I have now lived most of my life with Unitarians.

First, though, who exactly are the “Mainline Protestants”?

Wikipedia is helpful: They’re denominations that are Protestant but not fundamentalist, evangelical, or charismatic. In other words, they’re not too conservative and they don’t move or shout too much during services. (In the Mainline view, excessive movement or noise is animalistic and a sign of mental disability or weakness.)

In general, the Mainlines include Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, not-Southern but “American” Baptist Churches, and a variety of smaller deonominations like the Quakers and traditionally African American churches. 

Formal Unitarian Universalists are a little questionable theologically since they don’t have much theology and reject the Trinity and many of their members are outright atheists, but from a cultural standpoint they are clearly Mainline Protestants who have simply completed the journey.

There are a welter of small Protestant denominations with not terribly helpful names like the “United Church of Christ;” I do not know how similar these are to UUs.

Map pagesSteves is right that you don’t meet many Quakers these days; you also don’t meet many Puritans, due to churches changing their names over the years, eg, many “Congregational” churches are now “United” churches. I suspect most of the “Quakers” have been absorbed into Methodist churches, while Puritans have been absorbed into these blandly named “United” and “Unitarian” denominations.

As you can see on the map, if you don’t count the recent Irish and Italian immigrants, core New England (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Hampshire) now prefers to attend American Baptist (not Southern) churches, while Quaker stronghold Pennsylvania is largely Methodist. (This map of course only shows membership in organized denominations; if folks in an area prefer churches that aren’t part of larger denominational structures, they won’t show up.)

Wikipedia has some solid data explaining why Mainline Protestants and their atheist children are culturally dominant, even if they don’t loudly proclaim their religious affiliation:

Some mainline Protestant denominations have the highest proportion of graduate and post-graduate degrees of any other denomination in the United States.[18] Some also include the highest proportion of those with some college education, such as the Episcopal Church (76%),[18] the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (64%),[18] and the United Church of Christ(46%),[19] as well as the most of the American upper class.[18] compared with the nationwide average of 50%.[18] Episcopalians and Presbyterians also tend to be considerably wealthier[20] and better educated than most other religious groups,[21] and they were disproportionately represented in the upper reaches of US business and law until the 1950s.[22]

Probably the only people in the US who are better educated than Episcopalians are Hindus, Unitarian Universalists, and Jews–and Hindus are selected for their degrees. (Hindus: 77% college degrees; UU: 67%, Jews: 59%, Anglicans: 59%, Episcopalians: 56%–but for all practical purposes, Episcopalians and Anglicans are probably the same thing.)

Wikipedia also notes that Mainlines have:

played a leading role in the Social Gospel movement and were active in social causes such as the civil rights movement and women’s movement.[14] As a group, the mainline churches have maintained religious doctrine that stresses social justice and personal salvation.[15] Members of mainline denominations have played leadership roles in politics, business, science, the arts, and education. They were involved in the founding of leading institutes of higher education.[16] Marsden argues that in the 1950s, “Mainline Protestant leaders were part of the liberal-moderate cultural mainstream, and their leading spokespersons were respected participants in the national conversation.”[17]

If you want to be a respectable person in America, you join the Episcopal Church and make sandwiches for the homeless on Saturday afternoons. If you’re really smart, you join the Unitarians and make rainbow flags for the homeless on Saturday afternoons and try to get your kids to marry a nice Hindu doctor.

This dynamic is a different in the South, where the Southern Baptists dominate and the culture is more conservative, but influential cultural ideas don’t typically come out of the South. For starters, New York and Hollywood aren’t located in Atlanta.

While reading Richard Wayne Sapp’s Suwannee River Town, Suwannee River Country: Political moieties in a Southern country community, I came across an interesting and relevant discussion of the local religious denominations:

The primary recreational field outside schooling… kin folk… and outside voluntary associations… is the church. White owned churches…. are highly organized, formally constituted, and then formally reconstituted at a myriad of age-graded levels; each department, class, and committee electing its own slate of ranked officers and keeping them busy. …

In Apalachee County* church rank reiterates the general rank of its membership. Urban churches consider themselves higher in rank than rural churches. The rural churches consider themselves no better than, but “just as good as” the urban churches.

Note: the county name has changed and is now I believe Suwannee county.

We may correlate church social rank with the amount of individual freedom to extemporize during a communal service, with which rank varies inversely. In Apalachee County the small Episcopal church, for example, ranks very high; nearly every word and movement conform to a schedule, and communicants know exactly what to expect from the preacher… and from each other. Activity proceeds at an unemotional, orderly rehearsed pace, led by a single individual specifically clothed and trained for this specific ask. Changes in the form of worship or in interpretation of the holy writings are not local prerogatives. The service emphasizes reaffirmation and continuation.

….

Holiness churches, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Churches of God bear low social rankings; Baptist churches occupy the mid-range, the numerous sects [of different Baptist churches] comprising he overwhelming majority of he Apalachee County church-going public.

Note that “Baptist” here is Southern.

Churches of low rank value spontaneity and regard individual experiences “with the Lord” with rapture; individuals prize self-expression; several people, all informally clothed, initiate to the audience a different times in the ceremony; people move in specific relation to the circumstances of a particular … preacher, who often serves part time, is inventive in speech and gesture, although he relies on repetition of key phrases and movements, emphasizing a personal commitment, an emotional religious experience.

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Snake handlers, Holiness Church

For example, the Church of God with Signs Following is a Pentecostal Holiness church famous for its tradition of handling poisonous snakes, speaking in tongues, and drinking poison (usually strychnine) during services. I don’t know if this specific denomination ever made it into Apalachee County, Florida, but I don’t think they’re going to become popular in NYC anytime soon, either.

(But before anyone gets jumpy, I’ve got Pentecostals in my own family, and they’re perfectly nice people who know better than to go handling rattlesnakes.)

If you ask me, Pentacostalism appeals to people who have emotions and want to express them, while Episcopalians and Presbytarians, as they say, are the “frozen chosen.”

Baptists span the high-and low-valued church types… The ceremonial format of Baptist churches varies between secs, locally ranked by the same criteria as other denominations, Southern being not only the most numerous but also the highest ranked. As with the Methodists, the downtown First Baptist Church… is the largest, most formal, most active, most organized, most visible, and most wealthy of is denomination in the county. Indeed [it] is the largest church of any denomination in the county.

Of course, Sapp doesn’t look at the question of actual religious fervor, what it means to actually believe something. That is a much more difficult matter, especially for an outsider.

So let’s turn to humor:

Different Denominational Ministries:
The Methodists pick you up out of the gutter.
The Baptists get you saved.
The Presbyterians educate you.
The Episcopalians introduce you to high society.
Then the Methodists have to pick you up out of the gutter again.

Why are Unitarian Universalists such lousy hymn singers?  They are reading ahead to see if they agree with the next line.

An Episcopalian is either a Roman Catholic who flunked Latin or a Presbyterian whose stocks paid off.

Have a great weekend, wherever and whether you chose to worship.

 

 

 

Anthropology Friday: Crackers pt 2

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From JayMan’s post on the American Nations

I am frequently frustrated by our culture’s lack of good ethnonyms. Take “Hispanic.” It just means “someone who speaks Spanish or whose ancestors spoke Spanish.” It includes everyone from Lebanese-Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim to Japanese-Peruvian Alberto Fujimori, from Sephardi Jews to native Bolivians, from white Argentinians to black Cubans, but doesn’t include Brazilians because speaking Portuguese instead of Spanish is a really critical ethnic difference.*

*In conversation, most people use “Hispanic” to mean “Mexican or Central American who’s at least partially Native American,” but the legal definition is what colleges and government agencies are using when determining who gets affirmative action. People think “Oh, those programs are to help poor, brown people,” when in reality the beneficiaries are mostly well-off and light-skinned–people who were well-off back in their home countries.

This is the danger of using euphemisms instead of saying what you actually mean.

Our ethnonyms for other groups are equally terrible. All non-whites are often lumped together under a single “POC” label, as though Nigerian Igbo and Han Chinese were totally equivalent and fungible peoples. Whites are similarly lumped, as if a poor white from the backwoods of Georgia and a wealthy Boston Puritan had anything in common. There are technical names for these groups, used in historical or academic contexts, but if you tell the average person you hail from a mix of “Cavalier-Yeoman and Cracker ancestors,” they’re just going to be confused.

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map of the American Nations

With the exception of Cajuns and recent immigrants who retain an old-world ethnic identity (eg, Irish, Jewish,) we simply lack common vernacular ethnonyms for the different white groups that settled the US–even though they are actually different.

The map at left comes from Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the 11 Rival Regional Cultures of North America. 

As Woodard himself has noted, DNA studies have confirmed his map to an amazing degree.

American ethnic groups are not just Old World ethnic groups that happen to live in America. They’re real ethnicities that have developed over here during the past 500 years, but we have failed to adopt common names for them.

Woodard’s map implies a level of ethnic separation that is probably not entirely accurate, as these groups settled the American frontier in waves, creating layers of ethnicity that are thicker or thinner in different places. Today, we call these social classes, which is not entirely inaccurate.

Take the South. The area is dominated by two main ethnic blocks, Appalachians (in the mountains) and Cavalier-Plantation owners in the flatter areas. But the Cavalier area was never majority wealthy, elite plantation owners; it has always had a large contingent of middling-class whites, poor whites, and of course poor blacks. In areas of the “Deep South” where soils were poor or otherwise unsuited to cultivated, elite planters never penetrated, leaving the heartier backwoods whites–the Crackers–to their own devices.

If their ancestors spoke French, we recognize them as different, but if not, they’re just “poor”–or worse, “trash.”

Southern identity is a curious thing. Though I was born in the South (and my ancestors have lived there for over 400 years,) I have no meaningful “Southern identity” to speak of–nor do, I think, most southerners. It’s just a place; the core historical event of going to war to protect the interests of rich elites in perpetuating slavery doesn’t seem to resonate with most people I’ve met.

My interest in the region and its peoples stems not from Southern Pride, but the conventional curiosity adoptees tend to feel about their birth families: Where did I come from? What were they like? Were they good people? and Can I find a place where I feel comfortable and fit in? (No.)

My immediate biological family hails from parts of the South that never had any plantations (I had ancestors in Georgia in the 1800s, and ancestors in Virginia in the 1700s, but they’ve been dead for a while; my father lives within walking distance of his great-grandparent’s homestead.)

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Dust Storm, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1935 “This was a bad idea.”–Grandma

As previously discussed, I don’t exactly feel at home in cities;  perhaps this is because calling my ancestors “farmers” is a rather generous description for folks who thought it was a good idea to move to Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl.

(By the way, the only reason the prairies are consistently farmed today is due to irrigation, drawing water up from the Ogallala and other aquifers, and we are drawing water from those aquifers much faster than it is being replenished. If we keep using water at this rate–or faster, due to population growth–WE WILL RUN OUT. The prairies will go dry and dust storms will rage again.)

To be fair, some of my kin were successful farmers when it actually rained, but some were never so sedentary. Pastoralists, ranchers, hoe-farmers–they were the sorts of people who settled frontiers and moved on when places got too crowded, who drank hard and didn’t always raise their children. They match pretty closely Richard Sapp’s description of the Florida Crackers.

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From a genetic standpoint, the Crackers are either descended from borderlanders and Scotch-Irish (the pink region on the map at the top of the post,) or from folks who got along well with borderlanders and decided to move alongside them. I find it amazing that a relatively small place like Britain could produce such temperamentally different peoples as Puritans and Crackers–the former hard working, domesticated, stiff, and proper; the latter loud, liberty-loving, and more violent.

Peter Frost (evo and proud) has a theory that “core” Europe managed to decrease its homicide rates by executing criminals, thus removing them from the gene pool; the borderlands of Scotland and Ireland were perhaps beyond the reach of the hangman’s noose, or hopping the border allowed criminals to escape the police.

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from HBD Chick’s big summary post on the Hajnal Line

HBD Chick’s work focuses primarily on the effects of manorialism and outbreeding within the Hajnal line. Of the Crackers, she writes:

“The third American Revolution reached its climax in the years from 1779 to 1781. This was a rising of British borderers in the southern backcountry against American loyalists and British regulars who invaded the region. The result was a savage struggle which resembled many earlier conflicts in North Britain, with much family feuding and terrible atrocities committed on both sides. Prisoners were slaughtered, homes were burned, women were raped and even small children were put to the sword.” …

i’ve got a couple of posts related to those rambunctious folks from the backcountry whose ancestors came from the borderlands between england and scotland. libertarian crackers takes a quick look at why this group tends to love being independent and is distrustful of big gubmint — to make a long story short, the border folks married closely for much longer than the southern english — and they didn’t experience much manorialism, either (the lowland scots did, but not so much the border groups). did i mention that they’re a bit hot-headed? (not that there’s anything wrong with that! (~_^) ) see also: hatfields and mccoys. not surprising that this group’s war of independence involved “much family feuding.”

Less manorialism, less government control, less executing criminals, more cousin-marriage, more clannishness.

And the differences here aren’t merely cultural. As Nisbett and Cohen found (PDF; h/t HBD Chick):

During the experiment, a confederate bumped some subjects and muttered ‘asshole’ at them. Cortisol (a stress hormone) and testosterone (rises in preparation for violence) were measured before and after the insult. Insulted Southerners showed big jumps in both cortisol and testosterone compared to uninsulted Southerners and insulted Northerners. The difference in psychological and physiological responses to insults was manifest in behavior. Nisbett and Cohen recruited a 6’3” 250 lb (190 cm, 115 kg) American style football player whose task was to walk down the middle of a narrow hall as subjects came the other direction. The experimenters measured how close subjects came to the football player before stepping aside. Northerners stepped aside at around 6 feet regardless of whether they had been insulted. Un-insulted Southerners stepped aside at an average distance of 9 feet, whereas insulted Southerners approached to an average of about 3 feet. Polite but prepared to be violent, un-insulted Southerners take more care, presumably because they attribute a sense of honor to the football player and are normally respectful of others’ honor. When their honor is challenged, they are prepared and willing to challenge someone at considerable risk to their own safety.”

It’s genetic.

(The bit about honor is… not right. I witnessed a lot of football games as a child, and no one ever referred to the players as “honorable.” Southerners just don’t like to get close to each other, which is very sensible if people in your area get aggressive and angry easily. The South also has a lower population density than the North, so people are used to more space.)

As my grandmother says, “You don’t get to pick your ancestors.” I don’t know what I would think of my relatives had I actually grown up with them. They have their sins, like everyone else. But from a distance, as an adult, they’re fine people and they always have entertaining stories.

“Oh, yes, yet another time I almost died…”

As for racial attitudes, if you’re curious, they vary between “probably marched for Civil Rights back in the 50s” and “has never spoken a word, good or bad, generalizing about any ethnic group.” (I have met vocally anti-black people in the South; just not in my family.) I think my relatives are more interested in various strains of Charismatic Christianity than race.

It seems rather unfortunate that Southern identity is so heavily linked to the historical interests of the Plantation Elites. After all, it did the poor whites no good to die in a war fought to protect the interests of the rich. I think the desire to take pride in your ancestors and group is normal, healthy, and instinctive, but Southerners are in an unfortunate place where that identity is heavily infused with a racial ideology most Southerners don’t even agree with.

> Be white
> Be from the south
> Not into Confederacy
> Want an identity of some sort

> Now what?

In my case, I identify with nerds. This past is not an active source of ethnic identity, nor is the Cracker lifestyle even practical in the modern day. But my ancestors have still contributed (mostly genetically) to who I am.

Well, this was going to just be an introduction to today’s anthropology selection, but it turned out rather longer than expected, so let’s just save the real anthropology for next week.

Anthropology Friday: The Crackers of Apalachee, Florida

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A cracker cowboy, by Frederick Remington, 1895

About two years ago I reviewed Lois Lenski’s Strawberry Girl, a middle grade novel about the conflict between newly arrived, dedicated farmers and long-established families of hoe-farmers/ranchers/hunters in the backwoods of Florida. It was a pleasant book based on solid research among the older residents, but left me with many questions (as surely any children’s book would)–most notably, was the author’s description of the newly arrived farmers as “Crackers” accurate, or should the term be more properly restricted to the older, wilder inhabitants?

I had not known, prior to Lenski’s book, that “Cracker” even was an ethnonym; today it is used primarily as a slur, the original Crackers and their lifestyle having all but disappeared. Who were the Crackers? Where did they come from? Do they hail from the same stock as settled Appalachia (the mountains, not to be confused with Apalachee, the county in Florida we’ll be discussing in this post,) or different stock? Or is there perhaps a common stock that runs throughout America, appearing as more or less of the population in proportion to the favorability of the land for their lifestyles?

Today I happened upon Richard Wayne Sapp’s ethnography of Apalachee County, Florida: Suwannee River Town, Suwannee River Country: political moieties in a southern county community, published in 1976, which directly addresses a great many of my questions. So far it has been a fascinating book, and I am glad I found it.

I must note, though, that there currently is no “Apalachee County” in Florida. (There are an Apalachee Parkway and an Apalachee Park, though.) However, comparing the maps and geographic details in the book with a current map of Florida reveals that Apalachee Count is now Suwannee County. Wikipedia should note the change.

So without further ado, here are a few interesting quotes :

Apalachee County, a north Florida county community, nestles in a bend of the Suwanee River. The urban county seat is the center of government and associational life. Scattered over the country-side are farming neighborhoods whose interactional centers are rural churches. Count seat and rural neighborhoods are coupled by mutual exchanges of goods and services: neither are, of themselves, cultural wholes. The poor quality of its soils and the relative recency of settlement (post-Civil-War) give the community its distinctiveness; it never had a planting elite.

Apalachee society is structured along moiety lines: town and country.

EvX: “Moiety” means half; Wikipedia defines it in anthropology as:

a [kinship] descent group that coexists with only one other descent group within a society. In such cases, the community usually has unilineal descent, either patri- or matri-lineal so that any individual belongs to one of the two moiety groups by birth, and all marriages take place between members of opposite moieties. It is an exogamous clan system with only two clans.

Here I think Sapp is using moiety more in the sense of “two interacting groups that form a society” without implying that all town people take country spouses and vice versa. But continuing:

These halves rest on an earlier “cracker” horizon of isolated single-family homesteads. True crackers subsisted by living off the land and practicing hoe agriculture; they were fiercely independent and socially isolated. Apalachee moieties are also related to regional traditions: townsmen as town naboobs in the Cavalier tradition and countrymen as yeoman farmers in the Calvinist tradition. Townsmen promote associational interaction, valuing familism (nuclear), hierarchy in organisations, “progress,” and paternalistic interaction with countrymen. Countrymen value familism (extended), localism, and personalism, interacting on individually egalitarian rather than ordered associational terms. …

The division of governmental offices falls along moiety lines. Townsmen control municipal government, countrymen control the powerful county bodies. Except for jobs, the governmental institution is not a major source of political prizes. The country moiety is the dominant political force.”

555px-Alcohol_control_in_the_United_States.svg
Wet counties = blue; dry = red; yellow = mixed laws. (Currently.)

EvX: There follows a fascinating description of the battle over a referendum on whether the county should stay “dry” (no legal sale of alcohol) or go “wet” (alcohol sales allowed.) The Wets, led by business interests, had hoped that an influx of new residents who held more pro-alcohol views than established residents would tip the electoral balance in their favor. I find this an interesting admission of one of democracy’s weak points–the ability of newcomers to move into an area and vote to change the laws in ways the folks who already live there don’t like.

The Drys, led by local Baptist pastors, inflamed local sentiments against the wets, who were supposedly trying to overturn the law just to make make a hotel chain more interested in buying a tract of land owned by the leader of the Wets. The Wets argued the sale would attract more businesses to the area, boosting the economy; the Drys argued that the profits would go entirely to the wets and the community itself would reap the degradation and degeneration caused by alcohol.

The Drys won, and the leader of the Wets hasn’t set foot in a church in Apalachee county since then.

(Suwannee/Apalachee county finally allowed the sale of alcohol in 2011.)

1000px-United_States_Counties_Per_Capita_Income
Per capita GDP by county (wikipedia)

Does a county’s wet or dry status impact the willingness of businesses to move into the area, leading to depressed economies for Drys? I wanted to find out, so I pulled up maps of current dry counties and per capita GDP by county. It’s not a perfect comparison since it doesn’t control for cost of living, but it’ll do.

In general, I don’t think the theory holds. Suwanee, dry until 2011, is doing better than neighboring counties that went wet earlier (some of those neighboring counties are very swampy.) Central Mississippi is wet, but doing badly; a string of dry counties runs down the east side of the state, and unless my eyes deceive me, they’re doing better than the wet counties. Kentucky’s drys are economically depressed, but so are West Virginia’s wets. Pennsylvania and Texas’s “mixed” counties are doing fine, while Texas’s wets are doing badly. Virginia has some pretty poor wet counties; Alaska’s dry county is doing great.

However, this is only a comparison of currently dry and wet counties; if I had data that showed for what percent of the 20th century each county allowed the sale of alcohol, that might provide a different picture.

Still, I’m willing to go out on a limb, here: differences in local GDP have more to do with demographics than the sale of one particular beverage.

But back to Sapp:

A system of human community derivative of Europe and still basic to the southern United States is the county-community. … The symbolic heart of this traditional community, the county courthouse, has been the central point of political and economic assembly for county residents. Its people lived dispersed in neighborhoods clustered about small Protestant churches, points of assembly in socialization and socializing as well as bastions of moral and spiritual rectitude.

He quotes Havard, 1972, on the traits of the Calvinist-Yeoman Farmer–radical individualism, personalism, personal independence, populism, regionalist traditions, etc–vs the Cavalier-Planter/Town Nabob–social conformity, caste, paternalistic dependency, conservatism, nationalist patriotism.

He wrote that this split fathered two mainstream traditions in the South: yeoman farmer and plantation farmer. The yeoman farmers, he said, opposed governmental centralization and exhibited an aversion to urbanism, industrialization, and the entrepreneurial classes; they were libertarian, egalitarian, and populist. The plantation whigs, identified withdowntown mercantile interests, supported themselves as planters … bankers, and merchants, sat as the “county seat clique,” developed the theme of racial segregation in the post-bellum era, and promoted a cult of “manners” and paternalism. …

However, the Cavalier plantation elite never really settled in Apalachee/Suwannee county, due to its soil being much too poor for serious agriculture.

As a result, not many slaves were ever brought into the county, nor have their descendants migrated to the area. Since the population is mostly white, racial issues appear only rarely in the book, and it is safe to say that the culture never developed in quite the same ways as it did in the plantation-dominated Deep South.

Rather, Apalachee was settled by the Cavalier-Yeomen farmers and the Crackers:

Although the origin of the term cracker is disputed, Stetson Kennedy claims that cracker first applied to an assortment of “bad characters” who gathered in northern Florida before it became a territory of the United States. Deep-South Southerners later applied the epithet to the “poor white folk of Florida, Georgia, and Alababama.” (Kennedy, 1942, p. 59). He further relates:

“Crackers are mainly descended from the Irish, Scotch, and English stock which, from 1740 on, was slowly populating the huge Southern wilderness behind the thin strip of coastal civilization. These folk settled the Cumberland Valley, the Shenandoah, and spread through every Southern state east of the Mississippi. That branch of the family which settled in the Deep South was predominantly of Irish ancestry…

“The early crackers were the Okies of their day (as they have been ever since). Cheated of land, not by wind and erosion, but by the plantation and slavery system of the Old South, they were nonessentials in an economic, political and social order dominated by the squirearchy of wealthy planters, and in most respects were worse off than the Negro slaves. “

This contradicts the history told in our prior ethnography of Appalachia, which claims pointedly that the denizens of the Cumberland are not descended from the “poor whites” of the Deep South, but from Pennsylvanians. I offer, however, a synthesis: both the whites who settled on the Pennsylvania frontier and followed Daniel Boone into the Cumberland and found it pleasant enough to remain in the mountains and the whites who adopted an only semi-agricultural lifestyle in the backwoods and swamps of Florida hailed from the same original British stock and simply took different routes to get where they were going.

Powell, (1969) a white turpentine camp overseer of the late nineteenth century, called the crackers of Apalachee County “wild woodsmen” (p. 30) and mentioned a man who “had lived the usual life of a shiftless Cracker, hunting and fishing, and hard work did not agree with him.” …

[Powel writes:]

“When I speak of villages throughout this county, I use the word for lack of a better term, for in nine cases out of ten, they were the smallest imaginable focus of the scattering settlement, and usually one general store embraced the sum total of business enterprise. There the natives came at intervals to trade for coffee, tobacco, and the few other necessities that the woods and waters did not provide them with. Alligators’ hides and teeth, bird plumes and various kinds of pelts were the medium of barter. They were a curious people, and there are plenty of them there yet, born and bred to the forest and as ignorant of the affairs of every-day life outside of their domain, as are the bears and deer upon which they mainly subsist. A man who would venture to tell them that the earth moved instead of the sun, or that there was a device by which a message could be flashed for leagues across a wire, wold run the risk of being lynched, as too dangerous a liar to be at large. “

There is a section on the importance of guns and hunting to the locals, even the children, which will be familiar to anyone with any experience of the rural South. I know from family tales that my grandfather began to hunt when he was 8 years old; he used to sell the pelts of skunks he’d killed to furriers, who de-stinked them, dyed them black, and marketed them as “American sable” over in Europe.

Truth in Advertising laws decimated the “American sable” trade.

The true crackers, Powell’s “wild woodsmen,” were never numerous, and they rarely participated in the social life of the wider Apalachee county-community. Crackers were born, lived, and died in the woods. They buried their own in family plots far from the nearest church. … Cracker families settled the Apalachee area without recourse to legal formalities. Thus, when the yeomen farmers … eventually purchase legal titles to land, true crackers were forced out and deeper into Florida.

This is a common problem (especially for anyone whose ancestors arrived in an area before it was officially part of the US.) Where land is abundant, population density is low, and there aren’t any authorities who can enforce land ownership, anyway, people will be happy to farm where they want, hunt where they want, and defend their claims themselves. This tends to lead to a low-intensity lifestyle:

Craker subsistence strategy depended on scratch, perhaps slash-and-burn, summer agriculture and year-round food collecting activities: hunting, fishing, and foraging. Because their farming operations were so small, limited to the part-time efforts of an individual family, they had no need of financial credit.

Indeed, their fiercely independent, egalitarian ethos prohibited them from interacting significantly in the rural neighborhoods of the community. …

Few true crackers remain in Apalachee County … A few families still live on the borders of the county. There they exploit the food resources of the rivers and swamps and perhaps scratch-farm a few acres. …

Florida_Cracker_cow_and_calf
Florida Cracker cow and calf source

This is not (just) laziness; areas with poor soils or little water simply can’t be intensively farmed, and if the forage is bad, herd animals will be better off if they can wander widely in search of food than if they are confined in one particular place.

Incidentally, there is a landrace of cattle known as the Florida Cracker, descended from the hearty Spanish cattle brought to Florida in the 1600s. Unfortunately, the breed has been on the decline and is now listed as “critical” due to laws passed in 1949 against free-ranging livestock and the introduction of larger breeds more suited to confinement.

Not only does the law fence off the cracker’s land, destroy his livelihood, and drive him out, it also kills the cracker cow by fencing off its land.

The author notes that “cracker” is a slur and that it has been expanded in the past half-century to cover all poor whites, with an interesting footnote:

One speculates that the driving force behind withholding respectability from the true crackers and the extension of the consequently disparaging term to include countrymen of the small farmer class originated with the townspeople. This idea parallels the hypothesis that townsmen perpetuated and revitalized the issue of racial politics int he twentieth century.

On change:

The technological changes of the twentieth century have enabled social institutions to penetrate the isolation of the crackers and enforce town mores. Cracker homicides are no longer unreported and uninvestigated or allowed to result in clannish feuding… No longer may the children escape the public school regimen. No longer may they escape taxation…

[yet] the cracker and his world view persist. While only a handful of true crackers endure in the county… modern-day imitators erect trailers in remote corners, moving to north-central Florida …. to escape the “rat race.”

I think that’s enough for today; I hope you’ve enjoyed the book and urge you to take a look at the whole thing. We’ll discuss the more recent Cavalier-Yeomen farmers next week.

Modern “Anthropology”

Over the past couple years of Anthropology Friday, I have tried to highlight works that cast a light on the varied and myriad human experiences. Not all of them are great works of literature, but they show what anthropology can be. We’ve read about the Eskimo in Kabloona, Jane Goodall’s research with the Gombe chimps in In the Shadow of Man, records of prisons and criminal gangs, Appalachia and Siberian reindeer herders. We’ve read first-hand accounts like Isaac Bacirongo’s Still a Pygmy and the Slave Narrative Collection.

Anthropology, done right, makes the alien familiar and expands our understanding of the many varieties of human experience.

Done wrong, well… Here’s the abstract from Professor Dwayne Dixon’s Endless Question: Youth Becomings and the Anti-Crisis of Kids in Global Japan:

This layered, latitudinal (trilateral), anthropological project traces how three groups of Japanese young people redefine youth through bodily practices, identities, and economic de/attachments. Young Japanese—skateboarders, creative workers, and returnee schoolchildren—embody various relations to the city, visual media, globalized identities, temporary jobs, and education. The dissertation itself is non-linear; it formally enacts the multidirectional, diverse youthful experiences amidst intense global connections, transitioning identities, and uncertain social and economic futures. Multi-media and electronic text create lines of connection between sites and events in the young people’s experiences and larger histories of gender and labor, city life, and global dreams. Against crisis narratives, Japanese youth are creating improvisational, social connections amidst intense change.

Can we translate this into functional English?

Sentence 1: “This layered, latitudinal (trilateral), anthropological project traces how three groups of Japanese young people redefine youth through bodily practices, identities, and economic de/attachments.”

Translation: This anthropology project follows three groups of Japanese youths, documenting their body piercings, identities, and which brands they eagerly consume or shun.

The word “identity” in this sentence is difficult to translate because it is vague and undefined–sexual identities? gender identities? Japanese identities? Millenial identities?–and more importantly, because most people do not bother to think about their “identities” at all.

Sentence 2: “ Young Japanese—skateboarders, creative workers, and returnee schoolchildren—embody various relations to the city, visual media, globalized identities, temporary jobs, and education.

Translation: Young Japanese skateboarders, artists, and continuing-education students live in the city, watch and make videos, have “globalized identities,” work temporary jobs, and go to school.

“Embody” was a difficult word to translate because it means nothing that makes sense in this context. To embody is to “be an expression of or give a tangible or visible form to” something, eg “Romeo embodies love;” or to “include or contain something as a constituent part,” eg, “Freedom of expression is embodied in the Bill of Rights.” We could use “contain” or “symbolize” as synonyms, but neither “Young Japanese… contain various relations to the city…’ nor “Young Japanese… symbolize various relations to the city…” make sense.

“Identities” makes a second apperance and again contributes very little.

Sentence 3: “The dissertation itself is non-linear; it formally enacts the multidirectional, diverse youthful experiences amidst intense global connections, transitioning identities, and uncertain social and economic futures.

Translation: This dissertation is non-linear because the subjects’ lives are too complex to express chronologically.

(I don’t think “formally” means what he thinks it means.)

Sentence 4: “Multi-media and electronic text create lines of connection between sites and events in the young people’s experiences and larger histories of gender and labor, city life, and global dreams.

Translation: Young people use cell phones to text each other about skateboarding events and post videos of themselves skateboarding on the internet.

Sentence 5: “Against crisis narratives, Japanese youth are creating improvisational, social connections amidst intense change.

Translation: You might have heard that Japanese youth are in crisis, but actually they’re making new friends in the middle of this protracted economic malaise.

Dixon’s original is not only unclear and vague, but parts of it aren’t even grammatical. Strip away the buzzwords, and you’re left with “Japanese youth use cellphones and make friends”–not exactly shocking observations.

Let’s compare with missionary Sidney L. Gulick’s account of Japan, written in 1903, on the Japanese character and effects of modernization:

Many writers have dwelt with delight on the cheerful disposition that seems so common in Japan. …. And, on the whole, these pictures are true to life. The many flower festivals are made occasions for family picnics when all care seems thrown to the wind. There is a simplicity and a freshness and a freedom from worry that is delightful to see. But it is also remarked that a change in this regard is beginning to be observed. The coming in of Western machinery, methods of government, of trade and of education, is introducing customs and cares, ambitions and activities, that militate against the older ways. …

The judgment that all Japanese are cheerful rests on shallow grounds. Because, forsooth, millions on holidays bear that appearance, and because on ordinary occasions the average man and woman seem cheerful and happy, the conclusion is reached that all are so. No effort is made to learn of those whose lives are spent in sadness and isolation. I am convinced that the Japan of old, for all its apparent cheer, had likewise its side of deep tragedy. …

Enough of Japan. Here’s an abstract from Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Modeling Population Health: Reflections on the Performativity of Epidemiological Techniques in the Age of Genomics, by Susanne Bauer:

Risk reasoning has become the common-sense mode of knowledge production in the health sciences. Risk assessment techniques of modern epidemiology also co-shape the ways genomic data are translated into population health. Risk computations (e.g., in preventive medicine, clinical decision-support software, or web-based self-tests), loop results from epidemiological studies back into everyday life. Drawing from observations at various European research sites, I analyze how epidemiological techniques mediate and enact the linkages between genomics and public health. This article examines the epidemiological apparatus as a generative machine that is socially performative. The study design and its reshuffling of data and categories in risk modeling recombine old and new categories from census to genomics and realign genes/environment and nature/culture in novel and hybrid ways. In Euro-American assemblage of risk reasoning and related profiling techniques, the individual and the population are no longer separate but intimately entangled.

Note the preponderance of obfuscatory bullshit phrases: “mode of knowledge production,” “data are translated into public health,” “techniques mediate and enact the linkages between,” “the epidemiological apparatus as a generative machine that is socially performative,” etc.

I will attempt to translate this quickly into English:

People care about health risks. People are interested in whether genetic data can uncover health risks. Medical care and health information on the internet bring health-risk assessment into people’s everyday lives. I observe how European doctors use information about genetic risk factors to help treat their patients. This article examines how doctors interact with their patients. I did a study that mixed up and re-combined categories like “census” and “genomics,” “culture” and “environment” in new ways.* In the West, doctors are now using population-level risk assessments to make decisions about individual patients.

*I am not satisfied with the translation of this sentence, but it didn’t make any sense in the original.

Here is an abstract from the journal of Anthropological Theory, The civility of strangers? Caste, ethnicity, and living together in postwar Jaffna, Sri Lanka:

The question asked by this article is as follows: How do different kinds of people live together in a hierarchical world that has been challenged and transformed through the leveling effects of deep ethnicization and war? … When ethnic mobilization—the possibility of egalitarian mutuality and solidarity as well as the pain, trauma and sacrifice of war, and ethnic cleansing—emerges within deeply hierarchical worlds that continually produce modes of distinction, what kinds of struggles arise within inter-ethnic and intra-caste relations? Given that public life is historically built on unequal participation, and that living together has been a historical struggle, we need to ask how we understand the particular embedded civilities that have made living together such a problem over time. Rather than see civility as an abstract code of prescriptions in relation to the maintenance of non-violent order, I suggest that it is possible to see different modalities of civility produced with regard to specific others/strangers. These modalities can conflict with each other, given that civility can be either hierarchically produced or governed by an egalitarian drive toward public forms of dignity and equality. I propose that civility has a social location, discourses, and understandings in hierarchical worlds that are necessarily different depending on who is speaking.

This could have been an interesting article on life in post-war Sri Lanka, but then it descended into a bunch of post-modernist gobbeldy goop. I find this style of writing utterly self-centered–there is nothing in this abstract about how actual Sri Lankans relate to each other, and much of this abstract could be cut and pasted onto a study of almost any culture without losing anything. Public life in America, Mali, China, and Japan involve unequal participation. Civilities are part of every culture. And, yes, what is considered polite changes depending on who is in the conversation, congratulations, you’ve figured out that people talk to their best friends differently than they talk to their bosses.

The problem with anthropology is that somewhere along the way, someone got the idea that they needed to produce Great and Profound Truths rather than just describe people.

[And here is the point where the rest of this post got accidentally deleted because WordPress updated something in their internal software, causing it to no longer communicate with my 11 year old computer.]

Let’s compare this to the Amazon blurb for Philippe Bourgois’s
ethnography of Puerto Rican crack dealers in NYC:

In this compelling study of the crack business in East Harlem,
Philippe Bourgois argues that a cultural struggle for respect has led
some residents of ‘El Barrio’ away from the legal job market, and into
a downward spiral of crime and poverty. During his many years living
in the neighborhood, Bourgois eventually gained the confianza of
enough Barrio residents to present their hopes, plans, and
disappointments in their own words. The result is an engaging and
often disturbing look at the problems of the inner-city, America’s
greatest domestic failing.

Whether you agree with Bourgois or not, at least you can tell what his
thesis is: cultural struggle for respect leads some people away from
legal jobs and into crime and poverty. (In other words, people don’t
want to do legal jobs that are low-status or lead to others treating
them with disrespect.) By contrast, I’m not sure what the author of the article on post-war Sri Lanka is trying to argue.

Obviously these examples do not represent all modern
anthropology–there are plenty of good and interesting writers out
there (like Bourgois.) But the field is absolutely riddled
with narcissistic crap. Where people should use words that vibrantly
describe their subjects, they instead use vague, nebulous words that
sound erudite but give us no real information. “Study of the crack
business in East Harlem,” sounds interesting, “This layered,
latitudinal (trilateral), anthropological project traces how three
groups of Japanese young people redefine youth,” sounds like you once
dropped your ethnography notes and didn’t bother to put them back in
order again, and “this article offers a phenomenological investigation
of the indeterminate structures of ethical experience,” sounds like
you don’t know the first thing about how ordinary humans think.

Many (if not most) modern anthropologists are deeply motivated by
political concerns that have nothing to do with describing varieties
of human cultures (an anthropologist’s job) and everything to do with
the deep culture of academia (the institution that pays them and
publishes their work.) So of course modern anthropology must be
written to support the anthropologist’s own cultural norms, even if
those norms are at complete variance with their ostensible goal.

Few stories reveal this clash better than Napoleon Chagnon’s. In 1964,
Chagnon began his now-famous study of the Yanomamo, producing what is
in my opinion one of the greatest works of anthropology that I have
not yet read. But I’ll let Amazon tell the story, from the blurb on
Chagnon’s recent book, Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous
Tribes–the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists:

 When Napoleon Chagnon arrived in Venezuela’s Amazon region in 1964
to study the Yanomamö Indians, he expected to find Rousseau’s “noble
savage.” Instead he found a shockingly violent society. He spent years
living among the Yanomamö, observing their often tyrannical headmen,
learning to survive under primitive and dangerous conditions. When he
published his observations, a firestorm of controversy swept through
anthropology departments. Chagnon was vilified by other
anthropologists, condemned by his professional association (which
subsequently rescinded its reprimand), and ultimately forced to give
up his fieldwork. Throughout his ordeal, he never wavered in his defense of science. In 2012 he was elected to the National Academy of
Sciences.

So if you want some modern anthropology, go read Chagnon and let me
know what you think of it.