Review: Lawrence in Arabia

Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia is, quite obviously, about the famous T. E. Lawrence “of” Arabia. The book ranges significantly wider than Lawrence’s personal account, however, shifting between the perspectives of Ottoman officials, German spies, American spies, Zionist spies, and of course British spies.

I read this book concurrently with The Berlin-Baghdad Express, so my apologies if some of my memories overlap and I ascribe to one book content actually found in the other. The two books complement each other very well; The Berlin-Baghdad Express basically focuses on the German/Ottoman side of the war, with special attention given to the characters of Max von Oppenheim and his protégé Curt Prufer; while Lawrence in Arabia focuses more on the Allied side of the war, following primarily Lawrence (of course), Jewish spy Aaron Aaronsohn, American oil-spy William Yale, and occasionally Ottoman officials like Enver Pasha.

If you only have time to read one book, I’d recommend Lawrence in Arabia, because it also covers the lives of Prufer and Oppenheim, but you’d be missing out on the true depths of the German-Ottoman strategy.

World War One is not light reading. Most of the war can be best described as “insane human carnage over absolutely nothing.” The Arabian end of the war is slightly less bad simply because the Arabs did not have the numbers to send hundreds of thousands of soldiers to their deaths. Lawrence quickly realized that the usual British fighting strategy of “kill your own men as quickly as possible” wouldn’t work in Arabia, and came up with a daring alternative strategy of striking the enemy’s vital points while risking minimal deaths to his own troops. Unfortunately, of course, troops still did die.

Lawrence found himself caught in a bind, however. As the British liaison to the rebel Arab army, his job was to convince Prince Faisal and the troops to put their lives on the lines in exchange for British support and promises of post-war independence. As a British intelligence officer, he knew these promises were lies: he was privy to the Sykes-Picot agreement long before many others in the region. Lawrence wanted neither to betray his own government, least of all in the midst of war, nor to ask men to fight and die for promises he knew were lies.

Lawrence ultimately solved this conflict by simply telling Prince Faisal about the Sykes-Picot agreement. While he was certainly not authorized to do this, he rationalized his action on the grounds that it was, ultimately, in Britain’s interest that it not lie to its allies. Informed allies today might not take as many deadly risks on behalf of the British, but also wouldn’t feel themselves betrayed at the end of the war and demand retribution for their sacrifices. Still, the result of telling Faisal about Sykes-Picot wasn’t “forthright honesty between the British and Arabs” but “no guarantees at all of what the British will decide at the end of the war and ordinary men still asked to fight and die for forces that might very well turn on them.”

Beyond end-of-war agreements, Lawrence’s duty to Britain often called upon him to use the Arabs he was advising or leading to advance Britain’s ends, not their own. For example, it might be in the Arabs’ interest to take some town, while it’s in the British interest that the Arabs attack a nearby railroad depot and the British take the town. In his capacity as a British officer, it was of course Lawrence’s duty to carry out his nation’s military plans, but this meant actively sabotaging the efforts of the Arab men fighting under and for him. A man cannot serve two masters, and this inherent conflict of motives could never truly be resolved so long as Lawrence insisted on seeing his men as human beings and not pawns to be moved at will across the battlefields.

The British command, for its part, might be excused somewhat by the justification that this was war; with thousands of British men being sacrificed by the day upon the fields of Europe, the deaths of a few handfuls of foreigners for the cause hardly even bore noticing. Of course, the sensible response to discovering that your men are marching into an insatiable meat grinder is to stop marching men into the meat grinder, not to throw some Arabs in after them, but don’t look to WWI for wise decisions.

Lawrence was basically able to ignore/rationalize his way around his direct orders on the Arab front and go do more or less what he wanted simply because the front was so small and insignificant in the grand scheme of the war. Maybe Lawrence and 25 men would blow up a bridge, maybe they wouldn’t. Meanwhile, nearly a half million men threw themselves at the shores of Gallipoli in a disastrous experiment to see whether humans could withstand machine gun bullets attempt to take Constantinople. 50 thousand Allied men perished on those beaches (along with 56 thousand Ottoman defenders.) So the Arabs are inexplicably in a spot where they weren’t expected last week: who even cares?

While Lawrence was not completely forthright with his men, when push came to shove, Lawrence tended to side with his men over his commanders, advising the Arabs to take actions that would hopefully benefit themselves in the eventual peace accords. Under normal circumstances, this might have been termed “treason” and Lawrence hanged, but everyone loves a winner and Lawrence’s strategy of “not marching directly into a meat grinder” was so comparatively successful that he could not help but be forgiven.

In the end, it didn’t really matter. Britain’s strategy of “tell everyone what they want to hear until we get out of this mess” eventually boiled down to “splitting the conquered territory with France.” With the war finished on the Western Front, the remaining British and French forces so outweighed the small Arab force that they more or less dictated the terms of the settlements with the Ottomans. The Arab troops were helpful for distracting and worrying Turkish troops during the war, but once the fighting was over, their utility was spent.

The adventures of Aaron Aaronsohn and William Yale were also quite interesting.

Aaronsohn’s family was one of many that moved to Palestine in the early years of the Zionist movement, but they came from–more or less–within the borders of the Ottoman Empire itself. The Ottoman Empire used to rule a significant chunk of south-eastern Europe, including Greece, the Balkans, and several nearby areas, and as the Empire lost its territories in Europe, former citizens were faced with the question of whether to stay put and become subjects of their new nation, or pack their bags and stay part of the Empire. Since Aaronsohn’s family was Jewish, they were never accepted into their newly formed nation, and so the family kept their Ottoman citizenship, packed their bags, and moved.

At the time, many other Jewish families were also moving to Palestine from other parts of the world. Some came from Germany; others came from Russia. Russia is generally regarded as the worst of the worst for Jews in those days, and Jews were eager to get out.

Aaronsohn grew up in a company town literally run by the Rothschilds in something resembling an NRX dream. He was very bright, so the community paid for him to go to college in America, where he studied agronomy (these were he days when simply growing enough food to feed everyone was still a pressing concern). It was clear to Aaronsohn, based on historical accounts from the time of the Roman Empire, that Palestine ought to be able to grow more food than it currently was. Aside from importing modern farming techniques, he figured out that there were untapped water reserves–People simply needed to drill more wells.

When WWI began, all of the belligerent nations were faced with the problem of what to do with their resident alien populations. Those from allied nations posed no difficulties, but immigrants from countries they were now at war with posed potential security threats. In particular, since the Ottoman Empire had entered the war on the side of Germany and against Britain, France, and Russia, the Empire’s German Jews were allowed to stay put, but its Russian Jews were expelled and sent back to Russia–despite the fact that if there was one country in the world that Jews hated, it was Russia, and if there was one group of Jews that the critically-short-on-manpower Ottoman army might convince to take up arms against Russia, it was Jews who had fled Russia and been given sanctuary in the OE. But never mind that; they were simply expelled, creating a mass exodus from Ottoman-controlled-Palestine to the nearest Russia-allied country, British-controlled-Egypt.

Since Aaronsohn’s family consisted of actual Ottoman subjects, they did not have to move, but they witnessed the expulsions of many in their communities and the subsequent Ottoman army requisitions of virtually everything not nailed down–food, horses, fence posts, plows, clothes, baby clothes, women’s underwear–“for the cause.”

And then the locusts came. Locust swarms of Biblical proportions descended upon the land, devouring everything the army hadn’t. Children and animals were actually going blind because the locusts would land on their eyes while they were asleep and drink the moisture from their eyeballs. The war had barely even begun and the population was already facing starvation.

The Ottomans hired Aaronsohn to head the locust eradication program, giving him sweeping powers to do whatever was necessary to get rid of the bugs. Unfortunately, local authorities were often less than eager to listen to a Jewish guy, preferring the eradication strategy of “doing absolutely nothing.”

And then the Armenian Genocide started. (This is obviously what the Ottoman army needed to be spending its energy on at this point in the war, right?) Most able-bodied Armenian males were simply shot, but the women, children, and elderly were force-marched into the desert to die of thirst/starvation. Train stations were clogged with throngs of desperate, starving people. Train tracks were clogged with the corpses of formerly desperate people who’d been run over by the trains. Many of the skilled workers on the railroads were themselves Armenian, and with the official expulsions were also transformed into starving, desperate corpses, because what army needs a functioning railroad during a war?

It was basically the zombie apocalypse.

To his credit, Enver Pasha, who apparently wasn’t informed of the “kill all the Armenians” policy, actually tried to save the starving people streaming into his city by requisitioning food and other resources for them, but there wasn’t anything to be had because there was already a famine going on.

Meanwhile, Aaronsohn and some of his close family were travelling up and down the locust-affected-area, watching all of the destruction and thinking, “Oh my god; the Ottomans are murderously incompetent; we have to get the British to invade and start running things or we’re all going to die.”

And so Aaronsohn became a spy (or at least tried to become a spy), but that’s a story that I’ll let you read the book to learn the end of.

William Yale hailed from the family that had gifted the famous university with its name, but his particular branch of the family had fallen on hard times and Yale went to work as a common laborer for Standard Oil in Oklahoma. But Yale was ambitious and hard-working, and the company soon decided to send him to the Middle East to scout for oil.

And so, William Yale was stranded in the Ottoman Empire when the war broke out. At the time, the US was neutral, not a combatant, so he just hunkered down and tried to look out for Standard Oil’s interests until drilling could resume. His status protected him from most of the war’s worst privations, but he still saw the destruction around him. Eventually he made it back to the US and joined the war effort in his capacity as a “Mid-East expert,” or yet another spy, though he never abandoned his true loyalty to Standard Oil.

The US plays a rather small role in the book, since it had almost no part in the Ottoman theatre–in fact, the US never even declare war on the Ottomans. The US only comes in as player at the end of the story, with the Americans attempting to influence the creation of a new world order at the Treaty of Versailles, which by all accounts involved a bunch of naïve ideas born of no real experience with the regions under dispute. (But that shouldn’t surprise you if you’ve been paying any attention to the past hundred years of US foreign policy.)

So, do I recommend it? Yes. It’s a good book, especially if you’re interested in the late Ottoman Empire, Lawrence of Arabia, or WWI. I’ve now begun reading Lawrence’s personal memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and while I am enjoying it, I find that I am quite glad I read Lawrence in Arabia first. Even though Seven Pillars is 650 pages long, the material is dense and many events are covered so quickly that I wouldn’t know what Lawrence is talking about if I hadn’t already read about it in more depth in Lawrence in Arabia. (I’m sure this was less of an issue back when the book was published and the general public was more familiar with the course of various WWI battles.)

Review: The Berlin-Baghdad Express

Note: This book is not actually about the Berlin-Baghdad Express railway. It has a few good chapters on the subject, but the bulk of the book is actually on Ottoman-German political relations and the Ottoman sphere in World War One. That said, it is a good book about WWI, if that’s what you’re looking for.

McMeekin’s The Berlin-Baghdad Express probably should have been named “Oppenheim’s Jihad.” The book traces the peculiar German notion that they could, perhaps in exchange for some bribes, inspire the Muslim world to come together in an anti-French, British, and Russian jihad in support of German efforts in WWI. They managed to get the Ottoman Turks, who wanted to take back Egypt and the Suez Canal from the English and to oppose Russian advances on their northern border, to go along with their jihad idea, but the rest of the Muslim world was far from convinced. The Bedouins, who depended largely on British traffic for their food and income, took German bribe money and disappeared. The Sherif of Mecca, perhaps the most important person in the world to get behind an Ottoman-declared jihad, decided the new Ottoman government was dominated by secular modernizers and declared war on them instead. The Sudanese and Libyans were less than enthusiastic about trekking across a continent or two to help the Germans. A Muslim uprising within British Egypt never materialized. The Germans never quite overcame the Sunni-Shia split, and while the Afghanis ostensibly signed on, there was never any practical way to get men and materials to and from Afghanistan.

Interestingly, the largest Muslim country in the world at the eve of WWI was not the Ottoman Empire, but the British Empire–which ruled over millions of Muslim subjects in India. The ultimate realization of the Germans’ scheme was for Muslims in India and Egypt to revolt against British rule, causing havoc in the colonies and cutting off the Suez, thus distracting the British from the Western Front where they and the French had bogged down into a grinding death-match stalemate with the Germans. German propaganda pamphlets undoubtedly made it to India, but the jihadi stampede never materialized.

Compared to the colossal cost of the European theaters in WWI, these African and Asian adventures were small potatoes–a week’s worth of guns, men, and bribes might bring whole armies over to the German side. In essence, they were small bets with small odds but the potential to pay off grandly, if any of them worked. Unfortunately for the Germans, they all failed. Jihad might be the duty of all Muslims, but traipsing across a continent to wage jihad in a foreign country on behalf of the Germans did not sound particularly appealing to the vast majority of Muslims (especially when you could just wage jihad at home against local infidels). The Ottoman Empire’s declaration of a holy war against the infidels did, however, make the Empire’s 25% non-Muslims rather insecure (and in some cases, very dead).

The war was an absolute disaster for the Ottomans, who simply had no ability to wage it. They were broke, without the manpower transportation networks, or equipment necessary to undertake a world war. The Ottoman Empire might look impressive on a map, but much of that territory was desert, wasteland, or desert wasteland. Much of it was sparsely populated by nomads who dabbled in tribal warfare and banditry; the hinterlands had not at all been pacified and brought under central control. The British-supported Muslim rulers in Egypt didn’t want to trade their positions of relative power for subordination to the Ottomans, and no one wanted to pay higher taxes.

Unlike central Europe, the Ottoman Empire had very few completed train lines, especially across its vast deserts, and even roads were scarce in some areas–not to mention water. Down in Mecca, the economy was based on the pilgrimage, and as mentioned above, the world’s biggest Muslim country was British India. British ships brought the pilgrims, grain and other foods to a region that could do very little farming for itself. War with the British meant, for the Arabians, economic ruin and starvation.

The German attempt to build railroads across the Ottoman Empire so that troops and equipment wouldn’t have to be transported by wagons and camels across the desert kept running into setbacks, from paranoid sultans who were afraid of too much work being completed at once to funding issues to mountains to the sudden loss of all of their Armenian employees (a non-trivial part of the work crews in a country where almost the ethnic Turkish population had been drafted). The Armenian Genocide was, of course, both a humanitarian and strategic disaster. While some Armenians did side with Russia during the war, the majority of Armenians were in fact loyal subjects and the state could hardly afford to lose both subjects and the money it cost to kill them. (Their corpses also literally clogged up rivers, wells, and rail lines. It’s hard to overstate just how horrifying a million dead people are.)

The Ottoman Empire’s military forays were just as disastrous. They tried to attack Russia in the middle of winter, which worked out exactly like you’d think. They schlepped men and equipment across the Sinai desert to attack the Suez, only to discover that the British had machine guns. Their army hemorrhaged men through death and desertion so quickly that they were soon enlisting men in their 50s. About the only thing that worked out in their favor was the British inability to do anything even remotely intelligent, thus sparing the Ottomans attacks on their weakest points. Instead they threw their men into the (literal) bloodbath that was Gallipoli, just about the worst possible place they could have chosen to attack on the entire Ottoman coastline.

If you’re trying to make sense of the absolute mess that was WWI, this book is a good place to start. It shows how each decision, looked at in isolation, basically made sense–and yet when you zoom out to look at the big picture, what you get is nonsense. The British decisions to attack the Dardanelles (the straight connecting the Mediterranean and the Black Sea) directly made sense. The British could use their impressive Navy in the attack, opening the Dardanelles would let their allies the Russians move more easily into the Mediterranean, and their forces could be brought to bear directly on Constantinople, the Ottoman capitol. If it had worked, it would have been a stupendous victory. Unfortunately, the British should have paid more attention to the fact that Constantinople has been conquered only a handful of times in 2000 years–it’s a difficult city to take. When the naval attack failed because the Turks figured out how to mine the waters around the Dardanelles, the British decided they needed to land a ground force to support their naval force. Gallipoli, they decided, was a good spot to provide ground support to their naval force, so that’s where they landed their forces. Unfortunately, Gallipoli was extremely easy to defend, the Turks quickly moved in machine guns, and the British were slaughtered. And slaughtered. And slaughtered.

If you’ve seen Futurama, the British are basically Zapp Branigan:

Gallipoli was such a stupid place to attack that at first the defenders didn’t really believe the British were attacking it. They assumed the attack was just a diversion, and that the real attack would come somewhere weaker and more difficult to defend. The Germans essentially couldn’t believe that the British would actually be this stupid, but the “real” attack never came: against all logic, they were actually trying to attack Gallipoli.

In the end, Gallipoli was a terrible loss, an absolute humanitarian catastrophe that produced nothing of worth for anyone. But like the entirety of WWI, each step that led up to the decision to land at that point made sense in isolation. Likewise, the German dream of pan-Islamic jihad on behalf of the Ottoman Sultan (a weak puppet of the Young Turks’ CUP gov’t that had deposed the former sultan) looked good on paper–and was an absolute disaster in reality.

Nettles

The sun is up and the nettles are out.

I’ve always been fascinated by wild foods. Picking a wild berry or parsnip gives you a little taste of what our distant ancestors lives were like, the ways they looked at the world and the flavors they enjoyed.

Nettles are famous because they’re one of the very first wild plants available in spring and are available almost everywhere. (There’s not a whole lot available in winter unless you really like pine trees, which I don’t.) They’re also famous because they don’t look spiky, but if you accidentally brush up against one while walking in shorts, you will be very, very sorry.

I’ve never eaten nettles before, but when I found them in the woods while hiking with the family, decided they’d be worth trying. Why not? (Once I pointed out the nettles, my kids of course started poking them.)

The best way to harvest nettles is with salad tongs, because you don’t want to touch them. (You always bring salad tongs on your hikes, right?) Pick the tender top leaves and put them in a bag. If you’re not sure whether it’s nettles or not, just poke the plant a few times. You’ll figure it out. Once you get them home, figure out how you’re going to handle them for rinsing and chopping.

You can eat nettles raw, if you just carefully crush all of the spines before sticking it in your mouth. Take a tender top leaf carefully by the bottom. Press the sides together. Curse as you verify that, yes, this is definitely stinging nettle why are you holding it. Mash. Once you’re satisfied that you’ve probably crushed all of the ouchy bits, eat it.

It tastes a little like mint, oddly enough. (They’re not closely related, as far as I know, but they plants do have some superficial similarities.)

After washing and chopping, I opted to sauté mine in butter with onions and asparagus–asparagus isn’t actually up yet in my area, but it is an early spring crop and so felt like an appropriate complement.

Cooked in this way, I couldn’t really taste the nettles; whatever flavor they may have had was overwhelmed by the onions. Other greens I’ve had, such as kale and collards, can be quite strong (in my opinion, unpleasantly so), so I don’t mind the mildness. People claim nettles have all sorts of health benefits, but I have my doubts. Perhaps our ancestors, at the end of a long winter eating only what they could store, were in genuine need of fresh greens by the time nettles arrived, just as sailors at sea were in genuine need of oranges and lemons–but it is unusual for someone who shops at a modern grocery store to be deficient in anything but sunlight.

I conclude that if you’re looking for greens and you’re okay with picking something that will try to bite you back, nettles aren’t a bad choice. Next time, I’ll try making tea.

Bad Content vs. Good

So I was reading this interesting article on “The Journalistic Tattletale Industry,” by Glenn Greenwald, recommended by a friend, and came across this quote:

The article itself is about how these people have become censorious hall monitors who go crying to the principal if they think you even breathed a bad word, and Oliver here is one of these whiny hall monitors, demanding that “Big Tech” change its algorithms to stop bad-faith actors.

That said, Oliver here has stumbled onto something interesting: all systems are vulnerable to gaming by unscrupulous actors.

Let’s look at ecosystems, for example. Here you are, a nice, innocent rabbit, eating grass, feeding your bunnies, when bam! a hawk swoops down and just takes advantage of all your hard work and f’ing EATS YOU. If I were a rabbit, I’d be royally pissed for those few seconds before the hawk tears my head off.

Or, from a different perspective, here you are, a good, hard-working hawk, bringing food home to your chicks, when some sneaky bastard parasite infects you and starts eating your food. Here you did all the hard work to catch that food, and now that tapeworm is just lying there, doing nothing and absorbing your nutrients.

Ask anyone who’s ever lived in a “planned society”: actually getting societies to work and be good, pleasant places to live in is difficult. Just look at the issues people had in the Soviet Union, the city of Brasilia, or any cult. Even if everyone starts off with good intentions, (which they often don’t,) things have a habit of going wrong in unexpected ways.

Every society involves planning to some extent–even in very simple societies, some large-scale decisions that affect the whole group have to be made, like “we are going to the watering hole today,” or “we’re going to hunt for game over in that valley instead of this one.” The Soviet Union stands as an example of an extensively planned society, but many ordinary societies struggle with mundane issues like police bribery or the red tape.

One of the big problems with discussing cheaters, parasites, and social defectors is that you have to think about the problem on two levels. On the ground level, ordinary people have to morally disdain cheaters and defectors and parasites and refuse to work with them. They need to view them with disgust and react accordingly, because this makes it much harder for cheaters to operate.

On the planning level, you have to abandon the notion of parasites as free-willed agents who can just be convinced to behave if you just exhort them and ask why the system creates conditions where cheaters and parasites thrive in the first place.

For example, if you make regulations and red-tape so onerous that honest businessmen simply can’t operate in the market, then you get an extensive black market. Here the ultimate solution isn’t “encourage black-market merchants to be better people,” nor “exhort ordinary people to avoid black markets,” (though these are still good things to do,) nor “execute the black-market merchants,” but “take some of the regulatory burden off honest businessmen so they can turn a profit.”

So if you’re concluding that bad content thrives on these platforms (a take I agree with, though I define “bad content” differently than Oliver does,) then you need to ask why this bad content is so popular. No one designed the algorithms with “spread bad content” in mind, after all.

Personally, I’m inclined to think that “bad content” is mostly a side effect of these being systems where you talk/listen to a bunch of strangers. You don’t know them and they don’t know you. The ordinary consequences of lying to or hurting someone in your community are largely non-existent on the internet, or vastly distorted. And the best solution I’ve come up with so far (ironically, since this is a blog,) is for most people to avoid spending a lot of time interacting with strangers on the internet. If you’re addicted to Twitter, just send rude comments to the right people and they’ll do you the service of kicking you off the platform for you. Limit your Facebook to actual, real-life friends and family, if you must. Use the internet to organize real-life events like meetups or hikes or parties for your dog, especially once this stupid pandemic is over, but keep it grounded in the real. Love your families, value your friends, and have some children, for goodness’ sakes.

Modernity selects for those who resist it, after all.

Avoiding hyperstimuli

Hyperstimuli are like regular stimuli, but turned up to 11. Fruit contains naturally occurring fruit sugars, which your body craves because sugar is an important energy source and fruit is full of valuable nutrients. Fruit is a natural stimulus. Candy is made from a vegetable, sugarcane, that has had all of the annoying fibrous vegetable part stripped away and been refined down to a pure, sugary, chemical substance. Running is normal; riding a rollercoaster is not. Chatting with your friends is a normal social interaction; getting a thousand likes on Facebook is not.

Most of us have happiness “setpoints” that we tend to return to after weathering the slings and arrows of fate and fortune. Some of us tend to be happy people, facing misfortune with confidence that things will turn out; some of us tend to be dour, facing happiness as a trial to be endured until misery returns. Of course there are exceptions and things that really do radically alter your life (“I’m not starving anymore! Yay!”) but for most of us, most of the time, will trend back to our normal moods.

This implies that the hyperstimuli in your life are not really making you any happier. Long-term, you are no happier eating hamburgers and pizza than you would be eating rice and beans, because you adjust to the presence of the hyperstimulus and downgrade to treating it like a normal stimulus. Pizza once a year is a feast. Pizza once a month is fun. Pizza every day is monotonous.

But once your brain is used to processing hyperstimuli like normal stimuli, regular stimuli look pale and boring by comparison. If you can have ice cream and cookies and hamburgers and pizza for dinner, why would you have rice and beans? Oh, sure, you know rice and beans are “better” for you. You have some sense that you’d weigh a lot less on rice and beans, and that you’d spend a lot less on food. You might even avoid a heart attack. Abstractly, these are all nice things, but rice and beans are boring. You don’t want rice and beans. You want pizza.

Of course, maybe if you’d never started eating hyperstimulating food every day in the first place, you’d think a good plate of rice with a side of nicely spiced beans was pretty nice.

Everyone’s a Conspiracy Theorist, now

We live in interesting times. The internet was supposed to usher in an era of increased knowledge, understanding, and maybe even human harmony. Instead it has turned us all into conspiracy theorists.

Don’t get hoity-toity and claim that it’s only those Bad Guys over on the other side of the aisle who believe in conspiracies. The Left believes that the country is run by a secret cabal of heterosexual white men whose tentacles reach into every aspect of life, from prenatal care to television to incarceration. As conspiracies go, this one is well-established and believed to some degree by nearly everyone on the Left; millions of dollars have been funneled into university research departments for the purpose of “uncovering” more evidence of this secret cabal’s universal reach.

The Right’s beliefs are far more heterogenous–unlike the left, they struggle to pick a single enemy to blame and focus all of their attacks on–but right now they are united in their belief that Democrats cheated and stole the election. This right-wing conspiracy is nearly identical to the left-wing conspiracy of 4 years ago that Russia stole the election. If any leftists are reading this, I hope you realize now just how dumb your Putin conspiracies sounded and I hope you sincerely regret the billions of taxpayer dollars you guys spent investigating that nonsense. There are people struggling to pay rent and buy food, you know.

Ahem.

To be clear, just because something is a conspiracy doesn’t make it wrong. People have conspired in the past; people will conspire in the future. Sometimes there genuinely is something going on. Most of the time, though, people aren’t conspiring in the way we typically use the word. People look out for themselves. They make backroom deals; they protect their turf. They grift and graft and try to cover up incompetence. Things aren’t done in “secret” so much as “most people don’t have time to keep track of all of the boring details.”

Unfortunately, if you yourself do not know much about a field, it is rather difficult to distinguish between someone who actually knows a lot about that field and someone who merely sounds like they know about that field. If you have any expertise in any field, you have probably noticed both people who think they know a lot about your field when they actually don’t and also people who believe these fakers. Many normal people simply can’t distinguish between actual expertise and things that sound like expertise.

The situation only gets worse when the popular view of a field is already incorrect. Take, for an historical example, heliocentrism versus geocentrism. If you were an ordinary person in Gallileo’s age, you’d know in your bones that geocentrism was obviously correct. Things don’t move unless you push them, and what’s going around pushing the Earth? You’ve moved–you walked and run, ridden horses and ridden in carts–and you know what movement feels like. It feels like an earthquake, which clearly doesn’t happen every day. Any idiot can look up at the sky and notice that the clouds, sun, moon, planets, and stars all clearly go around the Earth. This is all common sense. The idea that some ivory-tower mathematicians have invented a “new math” (lolwut) and used it to determine that the Earth is secretly moving but you can’t feel it because *handwaves* “You only feel acceleration and deceleration, not steady movement, I have never ridden on a horse,” is clearly just nerds making stuff up.

From the inside, any particular worldview provides detailed and accurate explanations of the universe around it, and from the outside, looks silly. Why did it rain? Well, because we did a rain dance / because the Crocodile God was angry / because energy from the sun sucked water from the ocean into the air as invisible water, and then a low pressure zone in Canada made the air flow over to your neighborhood and as the air moved uphill, it lost the ability to hold up the water and it formed into clouds and rained. Why didn’t it rain again today? You did the rain dance wrong / your sacrifice to the Crocodile God made him happy / Canada warmed up.

My mother has recently become very enthusiastic about Qanon. I don’t consider this a problem–she’s bored because of Covid and it gives her something to do–but it is fascinating to watch which ideas she finds credible and which ones she doesn’t. Of course, most conspiracies contain, at their hearts, some grain of truth. Does the Vatican have a pedophile problem? Well, yes. Is the Roman Catholic Church something like a huge international network of powerful pedophiles working together to protect each other from prosecution? Well, that’s not exactly the first definition I’d give of it, but I can see how someone who was abused by a priest as a child might see it that way. Did the Pope hack the US election in order to get Trump out of office before he shuts down the Vatican’s Satanic international child trafficking ring? I have serious doubts.

Good luck disabusing a Qanon fan of their favorite conspiracy theories: Q is internally consistent enough to provide explanations for all observed phenomena, and before you start, you’ll have to do a bunch of research on your own to figure out which of their claims are actually true and which aren’t supported by the evidence. Then you’ll have to come up with a good explanation for “why all of these seemingly trustworthy people are lying” and a bunch of alternative explanations for all of the pro-Q evidence, at which point you are trying to convince your friend that there exists a secret conspiracy of people on the internet who completely fabricated this entire Qanon thing for years and tricked her into believing it for no discernable reason other than “the lols” or maybe ad revenue, at which point you sound like the crazy conspiracy theorist.

And the exact same is true on the Left. Just try to convince them that there is not actually a great big conspiracy of white men trying to oppress them and you’ll get an endless stream of “what about this” and “you’re wrong about this minor point” and “here’s a psych study that was conducted by totally unbiased researchers that proves babies are racist.”

Bizarre effect of the internet: everyone now believes in conspiracies.

New Year, New President

My husband made a good point yesterday, that an historian a hundred years from now could reasonably argue that Trump was never truly president because he was never allowed by the rest of the system to assume full power. For these four years America has been essentially sans-president.

The system has chosen Biden; never mind whether it reflects the will of the voters–if we cared about true democracy, we wouldn’t have an electoral college, either. The rule isn’t “no cheating,” the rule is “only do as much cheating as you can get away with.”

Of course it is better if the cheating is done behind closed doors, so it doesn’t undermine the legitimacy of the system, but the system was already having serious legitimacy issues due to the rest of the government having a serious allergic reaction to Trump.

The Specter of Morality

I think one of the problems with the teaching of history/our understanding of morality is that we look back on he past and think, “Oh it’s so OBVIOUS that X was evil, only evil people could have supported X. If I lived back then, I’d have been a good person who opposed X.”

For example, most people today think the Nazis were evil. Not just run of the mill evil, like shoplifters or people who kick animals, but cartoonishly, over-the-top, literal-Satan evil. Similarly, they also think that slavery was deeply, horrifically evil. Most people think that, had they lived in Nazi Germany or in antebellum America, they’d have opposed these evils–if not vociferously, then at least privately. Sure, other people–bad people–might have supported these evils, but we of course would have had the moral clarity and fortitude to believe the very obviously right things.

The thing history class tries to tell you, but really doesn’t get across, is that if X is widespread, then a majority of people probably think X is good. If you lived back then, you’d either think X was okay, or secretly question whether maybe you’re ta terrible person for not agreeing with X.

You think you’d be triumphant, the only good person on your block who sees through the lies. Instead you’d feel like you were going slightly crazy, wondering why you’re really the only person who can’t see the Emperor’s Clothes. And when you gently broach the subject with your friends, like as not, they make it clear that you are definitely a terrible person for even entertaining such thoughts.

And you don’t necessarily know whether your friends actually think you’re a terrible person, or if they’re just preemptively declaring, just in case anyone else is listening, that they are definitely not a terrible person like you and shouldn’t be lumped in with you, please don’t hurt me.

The difficulty lies in our social natures. If society declares that X is good and Y is bad, then unless you’re highly isolated or have some form of mental disability, then chances are good that you are sensitive to society’s judgements. Society’s morals underlie many things you (typically) don’t even realize are part of your belief system, like which historical figures make it into the textbooks. (Have you ever read a hagiography devoted to the guy who invented the seatbelt, thanking him for saving millions of people’s lives?) No one has the time to go read first-hand accounts of every historical event and reconstruct all of their ideas from scratch.

Anyway, Happy New Year, everyone. Sorry the blog has been quiet, lately.

I’m back

Hey guys, sorry for going awol on you. I’ve been in the hospital. No, it wasn’t Covid and it’s not a baby. I did manage to write a little while I was cooped up without internet, so I’ll have something out soon. Good luck and stay healthy, everyone.