Anthropology Friday: The Way of the Wiseguy by Donnie Brasco, pt. 3/3

An FBI surveillance photograph of Joseph Pistone, Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero and Tony Rossi.

Welcome to the final installment of The Way of the Wiseguy, by Joseph D. Pistone aka Donnie Brasco. Brasco infiltrated the mob between 1976 and 81, providing the FBI with a great deal of evidence that lead to, according to Wikipedia, “over 200 indictments and over 100 convictions of Mafia members.”

Between Donnie Brasco and Dobyns’s No Angel (about his infiltration of the Hells Angels), you may be wondering how any organization can protect itself against infiltration. I suspect that any organization that takes in new members is vulnerable. Even if you have to know a guy who’s already in the organization to get in, people who are already in the organization can turn state’s evidence and start working with the government. (Therefore I recommend not organizing to commit crimes.)

However, several factors probably make an organization significantly harder to infiltrate:

1. Conduct business in a language other than English (or the local language, wherever the organization is)

2. Only accept members from an isolated group that feels little connection to the broader culture

3. Difficult to fake entrance requirements (such as killing someone.)

The Mafia is not America’s only organized criminal organization. We have all sorts of criminal gangs from virtually every ethnic group. Most criminal organizations draw heavily from people who are isolated from the mainstream culture–folks who either don’t see their way to success in mainstream culture or don’t care if they prey on it.

I enjoyed this book; unfortunately it is still under copyright and the author is still alive, so I’m not quoting as much as I’d like to. I encourage you to pick up the book and read it yourself.

But let’s let Pistone talk. On the Wiseguy Way–and getting what you want out of life:

Say you’re out for a night on the town… And the maitre d’ says, “sorry, you have no reservation.” …Here’s what ninety-nine percent of the population would do–they would turn right around and leave.

Now here’s what wiseguys would do. …

Wiseguys never ever make restaurant reservations. They just show up at some five star joint and give the maitre d’ some made up name. When no reservation is found, that’s when wiseguy do their wiseguy thing. …

“What do you mean, no reservation?” Lefty demanded, his voice rising… “Check again.” … pretty soon all of us were angry and yelling and making a fuss… “No table? How can there be no fucking table? Check the fucking book again.”

Within minutes, we had the best table in the house. …

… they satisfied our demand, however irrational it was, imply to get us to stop making a fuss. Most people don’t like fusses…

The fact is, most people don’t have the stomach for confrontation that wiseguys have. Wiseguys are absolutely unafraid to confront people, even if they know they are dead wrong about something. For wiseguys, a wrong can be turned into a right simply by arguing your point loudly and forcibly. The value of getting in someone’s face and knocking them off-balance cannot be overstated. Wiseguys know this–wiseguys understand the currency of fear. …

you pretty much get what you ask for in this life, and most people are too timid to ask for what they want.

Personally, confrontations make me almost physically nauseous. I have trouble telling a waiter my order is incorrect, much less making a fuss over anything.

The Wiseguy Strut:

You can spot a wiseguy a block away from the way he walks. … They walk around like they own the streets, which, in effect, they do. … in their neighborhoods, on their streets, wiseguys basically announce themselves as wiseguys. It is a badge of honor to be connected in their neighborhoods, and, as a result, they are respected and even admired by their neighbors…

Of course, if you don’t respect them, you might get killed, but matters seem to go beyond that:

Ordinary people in wiseguy neighborhoods get something in exchange for showing mobsters this respect. Neighborhoods that are dominated by wiseguys are also considered to be under the protection of these wiseguys. There are far fewer robberies, rapes, or muggings in wiseguy neighborhoods than in even the safest precincts of the city. … You would have to be one stupid burglar to come into a mobbed-up neighborhood and knock up the corner bar. … There isn’t a police force in the world that deters crime as well as the presence of wiseuys. ….

Pistone may at times exaggerate, but I think he is basically correct that roughing up a business that has paid protection money to the mob is a mistake.

In our next book we’ll be reviewing, Frank Lucas’s Original Gangster, there’s a story about a man named Icepick Red. The police were after Red because he kept putting icepicks into people, killing them. Frank, then a teenager In Harlem, saw Red around the neighborhood fairly regularly and even interacted with him, but the police somehow couldn’t find him. Finally Red killed a guy who worked for “Bumpy” Johnson, a Harlem crime boss. Bumpy’s men immediately got Red, brought him in, and Bumpy had fire ants eat him alive.

Bumpy’s methods might not be Constitutional, but he did what the police, for some reason, had failed to do.

I suspect the same holds for Italian mobsters.

Wiseguys do not come into neighborhoods and make those neighborhoods worse. … Wiseguys take great pride in knowing that their street are safe and clean and filled with happy citizens walking their dogs, pushing their kids, living their live–and respecting the wiseguys.

This mutually beneficial relationship between laypeople and the mobsters that live among them is the reason it is so hard for law enforcement agencies to root out wiseguys. … If there is any police activity in a certain neighborhood, any extended surveillance by feds in parked cars or vans, the citizen of that neighborhood are going to know about it, and they are going to make sure the wiseguy know about it, too.

Sure, if your choice is between Bumpy Johnson and Icepick Red, you pick Bumpy.

So here’s a question: did mob-controlled neighborhoods actually have lower crime rates (mob-related deaths perhaps excluded) than non-mob controlled ones, and what were the effects of Pistone’s infiltration (76-81) and the Mafia Commission Trial (85-86) on local crime? Certainly the crime rate rose steadily from the 1950s onward, bounced around a bunch post 1970, and finally peaked in 1990. Did cracking down on the Mafia help crime rates go down 4 years later? Or does Stop and Frisk deserve the credit? (Or does some other factor deserve the credit?)

Unemployed men outside a soup kitchen opened by Al Capone in Chicago during the Depression, February 1931

Back to Pistone:

One of the most famous bosses of all time, for instance, was Al Capone, the notorious gangster who ruled Chicago in the ’20s and early ’30s. Capone consolidated his authority by whacking seven members of the Irish-American O’Banion gang in the fabled St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. His incredible power over the gangs and illegal trades of Chicago was broken only when the feds nabbed him… He truly thought of himself as a shrewd entrepreneur who ran a sweeping and profitable empire…

In the end, mob bosses are just that–bosses. They oversee a variety of business endeavors, supervise a big team of employees, and settle disputes with other enterprises. … If this sounds pretty boring, that’s because it is.

Pistone’s description of a typical day in the Mafia sounded so boring I wondered why they don’t just give up and get regular jobs.

(I would like to have read about some of the Irish gangs like the O’Banion, but this project has already gone on long enough.)

In search of Respect:

I walked into the back of Jilly’s social club and encountered a roomful of wiseguys with grim mugs. … they we there to gill me on my identity: was I really who I said I was, Donnie Brasco? …

The wiseguys grilling me realized they wouldn’t need to put a bullet in my head. After about six hours, the meeting was over, and I walked back into the main room of the social club with three of the lower-level wiseguys who had grilled me. …

What I did, the minute we left the back and walked into the main room, was pick out the one guy out of the three who wasn’t a made man.

Then I fucking coldclocked him. …”You call me a snitch, you piece of shit?”…

You see, the worst thing you can say about a wiseguy is that he is a snitch. Once they pulled me in the back and interrogated me on the assumption I was a snitch, they left me no choice but th react the way I did. If I hadn’t been upset that I had been called a snitch… that might even have aroused more suspicion. By reacting the way I did, I gained a lot of credibility in the eyes of the members of the Colombo crime family. And the reason this is so can be explained in a single word:

Respect.

The foundation of the entire Mafia is respect. … Wiseguys talk all the time about respect, about giving it and getting it in proper measures.

Pistone notes that he Mafia is less powerful today because the feds, from the 60s through the 80s, gained weapons to use against it, from bugs planted in home to the 1970 RICO act. In 1985, the feds arrested the bosses of all five NY crime families. Additionally, the mob’s basic culture began to change:

The new generation of mobsters just isn’t as devoted to the old Sicilian way of doing things. “Now you had wiseguys with no sense of the history of the Mafia or of its customs and traditions. The organized part of organized crime became just a shadow what it was…”

“the old-timers were involved in importing and distributing drugs. There was simply too much money at stake for them t keep their hands clean. But they did take a dismal view of drugs and people who used drugs … they mad sure to keep narcotics out of their neighborhoods, and certainly they did not use drugs themselves. There was a certain orderliness to the mob drug trade. Today, that caution is out the fucking window. The new wiseguys are far more interested in the money they can make off drugs than they are in keeping it out of their neighborhood or even their own bodies. Lots of wiseguys become addicts and get careless and sloppy. … These are guys who basically have no respect for the old ways of doing things, for the traditions and custom that had kept the Mafia in business for a century. Instead, they believe in instant gratification, making as much money as they can, plying their drug in previously nice neighborhoods and basically acting like common crooks. …

You have more wiseguys turning stool pigeon in the last ten or twenty year than in all the previous decades of the Mafia’s history. … Old wiseguys would get pinched, bite the bullet, button their lips, and do their time. Today, the fist thing a wiseguy does is sing.

You know, it almost sounds like the guy who devoted years of his life to taking down the Mafia is complaining that this new generation of mobsters isn’t keeping up the Mafia’s code to criminal success…

What we’re talking about here is a new breed of wiseguy who is neither as smart nor as forward-thinking as his predecessors. …

The Mafia has more or less lost its stranglehold on the unions. … a lot of it is because new wiseguys do not have the smarts and wherewithal to cultivate the union people like the old wiseguys did.

Wikipedia has an interesting passage within the etymology section on Mafia:

The word mafia derives from the Sicilian adjective mafiusu, which, roughly translated, means ‘swagger’, but can also be translated as ‘boldness’ or ‘bravado’. … In reference to a woman, however, the feminine-form adjective mafiusa means ‘beautiful’ or ‘attractive’.

Large groups of Italian migrant workers, primarily from the south of the country, first arrived in the US due to a US labor shortage. A result of the US Civil War, the end of slave labor, and the hundreds of thousands killed in the war. …

As migrant laborers from Sicily arrived for work they created their own labor system called the ‘padrone’ system based on the ‘boss’ systems which already existed during this period. … A ‘padrone’ or boss was the middle man between the English speaking businessmen and the laborers from Sicily who were unable to speak the language. He was in charge of the labor group including where they would work, the length of their employment, how much they were paid, and living quarters.

Labor laws were non existent during this period and the padrone system like the boss systems were not immune to corruption. … As the 19th century turned into the 20th century the migrant laborers from Sicily and the padrone system became synonymous with distrust. Strong leaders or padroni who were mafiosi became known as the American counterpart ‘mafia boss’, labor contracts became known as mafia contracts…

Modern society is complex, involving large groups of people trying to make their way in huge communities. You can’t possibly learn all of the skills necessary to build modern human cities. Almost everything necessary for human life–like food–requires networking together far more people than you could ever meet and get to know. Which means opportunities for middle men, fixers, bosses, networkers, headhunters, and all the other guys who “know a guy” stepping in to link the parts together to get things done–which, of course, can have its downsides.

 

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Cathedral Round-Up: The Forgotten History of Progressive Eugenics


David Starr Jordan, founding president of Stanford U

The first president of Stanford University, David Starr Jordan, was an ardent eugenecist. In 1910, he gave a speech at Harvard University titled The Blood of the Nations. The Crimson glowingly reported:

President David Starr Jordan, of Leland Stanford, Jr., University, will lecture on “The Blood of the Nations” in the Living Room of the Union next Tuesday evening at 8 o’clock. The lecture will be open only to members of the Union.

After receiving the degree of Master of Science at Cornell in 1872, President Jordan has held chairs in various collegiate institutions. In 1885 he became president of Indiana University, which position he held until assuming his present office in 1891.

President Jordan is one of the leading biologists and scientists of the country and his interest in everything that is progressive and humanitarian stamps him as one of the leaders in modern thought. He is prominently connected with the International Peace Movement. He was the founder and is the first president of Leland Stanford, Jr., University. His great success is shown by the fact that today that university is the leading educational institution of the West.

If you need any more proof of Jordan’s good progressive standing, the book version of his speech–The Blood of the Nation: A Study of the Decay of Races Through the Survival of the Unfit–was published in 1902 in Boston by the American Unitarian Association. It is a short book and you may find it useful to read it before continuing, but I will quote briefly for those who don’t:

In this paper I shall set forth two propositions: … The blood of a nation determines its historyThe History of a nation determines its blood. …

“Send forth the best ye breed.” This is Kipling’s cynical advice to a nation which happily can never follow it. But could it be accepted literally and completely, the nation would in time breed only second-rate men. …

This word “progress” is, however, used with a double meaning, including the advancement of civilization as well as race improvement.

Or as Wikipedia put it:

Jordan promoted the concept of improving human genetics, through removal from the breeding pool of those deemed unworthy to reproduce,[17] in his series of publications titled The Blood of the Nation. He then chaired the first Committee on Eugenics of the American Breeder’s Association, from which the California program of forced deportation and sterilization emerged.[18] Jordan then went on to help found the Human Betterment Foundation as a trustee. The Human Betterment Foundation published “Sterilization for Human Betterment,” a text which formed a cornerstone of the Nazi eugenics program. The latter grew to involve not just forced sterilization but also killing, often via gas; this in turn inspired the Nazi genocide programs.

Jordan made a eugenics-based argument against warfare, contending that war was detrimental to the human species because it removed the strongest men from the gene pool. Jordan was president of the World Peace Foundation from 1910 to 1914 and president of the World Peace Conference in 1915, and opposed U.S. involvement in World War I.[4]

Jordan also served as an expert witness in the Scopes “Monkey” Trial. Today, people tend to think of the trial as spawned by “creationists” who opposed the teaching of scientific concepts on religious grounds–which indeed they did–but they also opposed it because they opposed eugenics. William Jennings Bryan, of the “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold” populist frame, was lead counsel for the prosecution and an anti-eugenics activist, with special concern for the Nietzschian, might-makes-right version becoming popular in Germany post WWI.

But this was still before the discovery of Nazi gas chambers, and eugenics was therefore still the darling of progressive minds. As the Foundation for Economic Education puts it:

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, ordinary Americans may generally have been in the grips of ethnic prejudice of one sort or another. The Progressives of that time were not, however, ordinary men, and they knew it. Like their successors today, they dominated America’s universities. With some justification, they thought of themselves as an intellectual elite; and, with rare exceptions, they enthusiastically embraced eugenics and racial theory. …

Wilson, our first professorial president, was a case in point. He was the very model of a modern Progressive, and he was recognized as such. He prided himself on having pioneered the new science of rational administration, and he shared the conviction, dominant among his brethren, that African-Americans were racially inferior to whites.

With the dictates of Social Darwinism and the eugenics movement in mind, in 1907, he campaigned in Indiana for the compulsory sterilization of criminals and the mentally retarded; and in 1911, while governor of New Jersey, he proudly signed into law just such a bill.

Woodrow Wilson also quite famously believed in the “self-determination of nations”–that is, the right of individual ethnic groups to democratically rule over their own countries–and was instrumental in founding the League of Nations. The ideas that different groups of people have their own biological characteristics which lead to the development of their own particular cultures and societies, that they have their own particular interests, and that they are the ones best positioned to pursue their own interests, are not incompatible and find expression in Wilson’s policies.

To return to David Starr Jordan, he feared that war and other violence had stolen the finest of Europe’s men, rendering them unable to contribute to the current generation:

Other influences which destroyed the best were social repression, religious intolerance, and the intolerance of irreligion and unscience. It was the atheist mob of Paris which destroyed Lavoisier, with the sneer that the new republic of reason had no use for savants. The old conservatism burned the heretic at the stake, banished the Huguenot, destroyed the lover of freedom, silenced the agitator. Its intolerance gave Cuvier and Agasiz to Switzerland, sent the Le Contes to America, the Jouberts to Holland, and furnished the backbone of the fierce democracy of the Transvaal.

While not all agitators are sane, and not all heretics right-minded, yet no nation can spare from its numbers those men who think for themselves and those who act for themselves. It cannot afford to drive away or destroy those who are filled with religious zeal, nor those whose religious zeal takes a form not approved by tradition nor by consent of the masses. All movements toward social and religious reform are signs of individual initiative and individual force. The country which stamps out individuality will soon live in the mass alone.

Leland Stanford, Sr. shaking hands (on the left) following the driving of the golden spike and completion of the first trans-continental railroad

You may be wondering what sort of man was Leland Stanford, Sr., to appoint a eugenicist to lead the university named for his deceased son. The elder Stanford was a colorful character–railroad tycoon, robber baron, philanthropist, driver of the “golden spike” that completed the trans-continental railroad. In today’s dollars, his net worth in the late 1800s was well over a billion; about a billion of this was donated to the university, for, as Leland told his wife, “The children of California shall be our children.”[2]

Stanford was founded as a tuition-free, coeducational institution with no (formal) restrictions on race; the founding class included 12 international students, largely from Canada and Japan. In keeping with his vision of a university that served all of California’s children, not just the wealthy, Stanford’s first class included 147 “special” or probationary students (25% of the total.) The program was aimed at older, working students who had not had the opportunity to attend quality highschools and had not met the college’s minimum entrance requirements, but whom Mr. Stanford believed still deserved a chance to attend college.

From Jordan’s The Blood of the Nation:

Not long ago I visited the town of Novara, in northern Italy. There, in a wheat-field, the farmers have ploughed up skulls of men till they have piled up a pyramid ten or twelve feet high. … These were the skulls of young men of Savoy, Sardinia, and Austria–men of eighteen to thirty-five years of age, without physical blemish so far as may be… who met at Novara to kill each other over a matter in which they had very little concern. … here in thousands they died.

Further on, Frenchmen, Austrians, and Italians fell together at Magenta, in the same cause. You know the color that we call Magenta, the hue of the blood that flowed out under the olive-trees. Go over Italy as you will, there is scarcely a spot not crimsoned by the blood of France, scarcely a railway station without its pile of French skulls. You can trace them across to Egypt, t the foot of the Pyramids You will find them in Germany… You will find them in Russia, at Moscow; in Belgium, at Waterloo. “A boy can stop a bullet as well as a man,” said Napoleon; and with the rest are the skulls of and bones of boys, “ere evening to be trodden like the grass.” …

Read the dreary record of the glory of France, the slaughter at Waterloo, the wretched failure of Moscow, the miserable deeds of Sedan, the waste of Algiers, the poison of Madagascar, the crimes of Indo-China, the hideous results of barrack vice and its entail of disease and sterility… The man who is left, the man whom glory cannot use, becomes the father of the future men of France. …

The final effect of each strife for empire has been the degradation or extinction of the nation which led in the struggle.

Whatever faults or sins Jordan had, I think he and William Jennings Bryan–who supported Woodrow Wilson’s presidential bid–would have agreed that the World Wars were horrific events.

Lewis Madison Terman

But let us turn to Stanford’s other famous eugenicist: Lewis Terman. Born in 1877, he joined the university as a professor of educational psychology in 1910 and remained until his death, in 1956.

In 1916, Lewis published the Stanford Revision of the Binet-Simon Scale, which became the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales, one of the world’s most respected IQ tests. Alfred Binet had originally begun work on the test to aid the French government–which had recently passed law mandating universal education–in placing “slow” children in special education programs rather than locking them away in asylums.

Neither Lewis nor Binet developed IQ tests because they wanted to prove that certain people were dumb–rather, they wanted an objective way to assess which students needed special help–or advanced programs–that wasn’t prone to the potential class prejudices or racial biases of teachers who would otherwise be judging the students. IQ tests were also developed in order to identify students who were intelligent but has not received the same educational opportunities as other students.

According to StateUniversity.com:

Terman viewed the widespread adoption of tests in the schools as a reflection of how testing could be of use to American society. It was to be the major means of achieving his vision of a meritocracy; a social order based on ranked levels of native ability.

This is consistent with Leland Stanford’s original vision of a free Stanford at which even students from poorer educational backgrounds could attend.

The SAT has a similar history:

By the mid-1920s, the increasing use of IQ tests, such as the Army Alpha test administered to recruits in World War I, led the College Board to commission the development of the SAT. The commission, headed by Carl Brigham, argued that the test predicted success in higher education by identifying candidates primarily on the basis of intellectual promise rather than on specific accomplishment in high school subjects.[45] In 1934, James Conant and Henry Chauncey used the SAT as a means to identify recipients for scholarships to Harvard University. Specifically, Conant wanted to find students, other than those from the traditional northeastern private schools, that could do well at Harvard. The success of the scholarship program and the advent of World War II led to the end of the College Board essay exams and to the SAT being used as the only admissions test for College Board member colleges.[44]

The point of the SAT is to give colleges an objective measure of applicants’ intellectual abilities without any racial, class, or gender biases tainting the results.

Of course, Lewis Terman was a eugenicist who believed intelligence was hereditary. In 1921, he launched the Genetic Studies of Genius (now known as the Terman Study of the Gifted.) His goal (at which he succeeded) was to disprove the belief that gifted children were weak, sickly, and socially inept. According to Wikipedia:

Genetic Studies of Genius revealed that gifted and genius children were in at least as good as average health and had normal personalities. Few of them demonstrated the previously-held negative stereotypes of gifted children. … they were not weak and sickly social misfits, but in fact were generally taller, in better health, better developed physically, and better adapted socially than other children. … The gifted children thrived both socially and academically. In relationships, they were less likely to divorce.[6] … Though many of the children reached exceptional heights in adulthood, not all did. Terman explored the causes of obvious talent not being realized, exploring personal obstacles, education, and lack of opportunity as causes.[9]

Then came the Nazis. While they definitely did not like mentally disabled or low-IQ people, they also hated smart people:

The Nazi movement was overtly anti-rationalist, favoring appeals to emotion and cultural myths.[90] It preferred such “non-intellectual” virtues as loyalty, patriotism, duty, purity, and blood, and allegedly produced a pervasive contempt for intellectuals.[91] Both overt statements and propaganda in books favored sincere feeling over thought, because such feelings, stemming from nature, would be simple and direct.[92] In Mein Kampf, Hitler complained of biased over-education, brainwashing, and a lack of instinct and will[93] and in many other passages made his anti-intellectual bent clear.[94] Intellectuals were frequently the butts of Hitler’s jokes.[95]

One popular Munich speaker, declaring biological research boring, called instead on racial emotions; their “healthy ethnic instincts” would reveal the quality of the Aryan type.[99]

… Pure reason was attacked as a colorless thing, cut off from blood.[102] Education Minister Rust ordered teachers training colleges to relocate from “too intellectual” university centers to the countryside, where they could be more readily indoctrinated and would also benefit from contact with the pure German peasantry.[103]

An SS paper declared that IQ varied inversely with male infertility, and medical papers declared that the spread of educational pursuits had brought down the birth rate.[104]

This frequently related to the blood and soil doctrines and an organic view of the German people.[105] “Blood and soil” plays, for instance, depicted a woman rejecting her bookish fiance in order to marry an estate owner.[106]

It also related to antisemitism, as Jews were often accused of being intellectual and having a destructive “critical spirit.”[107] The book burnings were hailed by Goebbels as ending “the age of extreme Jewish intellectualism.”[107]

Wikipedia claims that the Nazis got their ideas from the Californians. But whatever Jordan and Terman’s faults–and their faults were many–I don’t think Nazi eugenics were their goals.

The past is a complicated place. The point is neither that Terman and Jordan were evil nor that they were good. But looking at how radically “progressive” morality has changed, let’s be careful about over-confidence in the latest moral fads of our own day–and perhaps we should also be careful about condemning the past:

Two Palo Alto middle schools named after leading advocates of eugenics will be renamed… Trustees voted 5-0 to rename Jordan Middle School… and Terman middle school, because it is named in part after Lewis Terman…

It is also named after Terman’s son, Frederick Terman, who is credited alongside William Shockley as the “Father of Silicon Valley,” which enjoys the world’s third highest per capita gdp.

Of course, Shockley was also a eugenecist.

…the district must incorporate a unit about California and Palo Alto’s role in the eugenics movement into the history curriculum of secondary schools by next year.

The cost of renaming the schools is estimated at $60,000. The article doesn’t say how much the new curriculum will cost.

“There’s been a lot of very moving testimony, and I found the testimony from those who felt personally excluded or discriminated against particularly powerful,” Collins said. “I think that is a very difficult and real burden to bear, and so I agree with that.” …

“To ask a student to walk into a building that is named after someone who fundamentally did not think they had the right to be there is not OK, and I don’t want to ask them to do that anymore,” DiBrienza said.

Jordan and Terman middle schools both perform substantially above the California average, (unsurprising, given the average IQs of Palo Alto’s residents,) so any student who can do well here would, by Jordan and Terman’s standards, “fundamentally have a right to be there.”

The past–and its morals–cannot be judged simply by our present standards. Should statues of Julius Caesar be torn down because he conquered Gaul, and act which no doubt killed many of the Gauls? Rename all you want, but it is still because of men like Jordan, Lewis and Frederick Terman, and Shockley that Stanford and Silicon Valley exist.

exist.

Just a Note on Ethnonyms

Nunavutball

Every now and then I complain about ethnonyms. Here is an excerpt from a recent paper (Paleo-Eskimo Genetic Legacy Across North America) that demonstrates the difficulty:

Current evidence suggests that present-day Native Americans descend from at least four distinct streams of ancient migration from Asia1-3. The largest ancestral contribution was from populations that separated from the ancestors of present-day East Asian groups ~23,000 calendar years before present (calBP), occupied Beringia for several thousand years, and then moved into North and South America approximately 16,000 calBP2. To be consistent with the previous genetic literature we call this lineage “First Americans”, while acknowledging that indigenous scholars have suggested the term “First Peoples” as an alternative…

How do people not understand that “First Peoples” IS NOT SPECIFIC ENOUGH for genetic, ethnographic, or historical literature? Like, maybe there are multiple groups of people on the planet that phrase could refer to, making it completely useless for identifying anyone?

Besides, what if it turns out there were people there before them? Do we go back to all of the old books and papers, cross out “First Peoples” and replace it with “Second Peoples”?

The archaeological record in the Arctic provides clear evidence for the spread of Paleo-Eskimo culture, which spread across the Bering strait about 5,000 calBP, and expanded across coastal Alaska, Arctic Canada and Greenland a few hundred years later. Direct ancient DNA data has proven that the Paleo-Eskimo cultural spread was strongly correlated with the spread of a new people that continuously occupied the American Arctic for more than four millennia until ~700 calBP… Paleo-Eskimo archeological cultures are grouped under the Arctic Small Tool tradition (ASTt), and include the Denbigh, Choris, Norton, and Ipiutak cultures in Alaska and the Saqqaq, Independence, Pre-Dorset, and Dorset cultures in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland. … In this paper, we use the genetic label “Paleo-Eskimo” to refer to the ancestry associated with ancient DNA from the ASTt and “Neo-Eskimo” to refer to ancient DNA from the later Northern Maritime tradition. While we recognize that some indigenous groups would prefer that the term “Eskimo” not be used, we are not aware of an alternative term that all relevant groups prefer instead. The terms “Paleo-Inuit” and “Thule Inuit” have been proposed as possible replacements for “Paleo-Eskimo” and “Neo-Eskimo”, respectively19, but the use of “Inuit” in this context might seem to imply that individuals from these ancient cultures are more closely related to present-day Inuit than to present-day Yupik, whereas genetic data show that Yupik and Inuit derive largely from the same ancestral populations (see below). Moreover, the term “Thule” does not cover the whole spectrum of Northern Mar associated with the latest phase of this tradition. We therefore use the “Eskimo” terminology here while acknowledging its imperfections.

Yupik are Eskimo. Inuit are Eskimo. Inuit want to be called Inuit. Yupik probably want to be called Yupik but are happy with Eskimo and think those Inuit are trying to impose this “Inuit” name on them that they don’t use for themselves. There is no way around this that doesn’t involve too many words, which is why I just call them all Eskimo.

The term “Eskimo” is not even pejorative; according to Wikipedia, it means “a person who laces a snowshoe.” Snowshoes are very clever and useful inventions and there is no shame in being able to lace one properly. I mean, I’m an “American”, what’s that, a corruption of an Italian guy’s signature that got mistaken for a map label?

There is a claim that it means “eaters of raw meat.” This sounds like backwards or creative etymology to me, less sound than the snowshoe label. But even if it is true, so what? Eskimo do eat raw meat. So do the French and the Japanese. The traditional Eskimo diet is one of the best, most nutritious in the world and there is no reason to feel ashamed of it.

Maybe we should change “America” to “Burger Eaters.” We’d be the “Golden Arches Land.”

A rose by any other name would smell just as deep fried in oil.

(Also, since the Neo-Eskimo only show up in the archaeological records of North America around 2,000 years ago, a couple thousand years after the Paleo-Eskimo, they aren’t “First People.” More like Second or Third People. Numbering peoples is absurd.)

It is otherwise a good paper and I encourage you to read it; I just feel sorry for the authors for having to spend so many lines defending the concept of conveying information clearly.

Pirate Friday: The Legend of Jean Lafitte

Jean Lafitte

No knows exactly where Jean Lafitte was born–The Pirate’s Own Book claims St. Malo, a (formerly) notorious pirate’s haunt in Brittany, France. Wikipedia proposes the Basque region of France or the French colony of St. Domingue (now Haiti,) among others:

Lafitte claimed to have been born in Bordeaux, France, in 1780 from Sephardic Jewish parents whose Conversos grandmother and mother fled Spain for France in 1765, after his maternal grandfather was put to death by the Inquisition for “Judaizing”. He and his brother Pierre alternately claimed to have been born in Bayonne, while other documents of the time place his birthplace as St. Malo or Brest. … Other contemporary accounts claim that Lafitte was born in Orduna, Spain or in Westchester, New York.[2]

With few hard facts, Wikipedia skips Lafitte’s early life almost completely. TPOB, thankfully, provides a stirring (if possibly untrue) account:

…after a cruise during which [Lafitte] robbed the vessels of other nations, besides those of England, and thus committing piracy, he stopped at the Seychelles, and took in a load of slaves for the Mauritius; but being chased by an English frigate as far north as the equator, he found himself in a very awkward condition; not having provisions enough on board his ship to carry him back to the French Colony.

He therefore conceived the bold project of proceeding to the Bay of Bengal, in order to get provisions from on board some English ships. In his ship of two hundred tons, with only two guns and twenty-six men, he attacked and took an English armed schooner with a numerous crew. After putting nineteen of his own crew on board the schooner, he took the command of her and proceeded to cruise upon the coast of Bengal.

He there fell in with the Pagoda, a vessel belonging to the English East India Company, armed with twenty-six twelve pounders and manned with one hundred and fifty men. Expecting that the enemy would take him for a pilot of the Ganges, he manoeuvred accordingly. The Pagoda manifested no suspicions, whereupon he suddenly darted with his brave followers upon her decks, overturned all who opposed them, and speedily took the ship.

After a very successful cruise he arrived safe at the Mauritius, and took the command of La Confiance of twenty-six guns and two hundred and fifty men, and sailed for the coast of British India.

Off the Sand Heads in October, 1807, Lafitte fell in with the Queen East Indiaman, with a crew of near four hundred men, and carrying forty guns; he conceived the bold project of getting possession of her. Never was there beheld a more unequal conflict; even the height of the vessel compared to the feeble privateer augmented the chances against Lafitte; but the difficulty and danger far from discouraging this intrepid sailor, acted as an additional spur to his brilliant valor. After electrifying his crew with a few words of hope and ardor, he manoeuvred and ran on board of the enemy. In this position he received a broadside when close too; but he expected this, and made his men lay flat upon the deck. After the first fire they all rose, and from the yards and tops, threw bombs and grenades into the forecastle of the Indiaman. This sudden and unforeseen attack caused a great havoc. In an instant, death and terror made them abandon a part of the vessel near the mizen-mast.

Lafitte, who observed every thing, seized the decisive moment, beat to arms, and forty of his crew prepared to board, with pistols in their hands and daggers held between their teeth. As soon as they got on deck, they rushed upon the affrighted crowd, who retreated to the steerage, and endeavored to defend themselves there. Lafitte thereupon ordered a second division to board, which he headed himself; the captain of the Indiaman was killed, and all were swept away in a moment. Lafitte caused a gun to be loaded with grape, which he pointed towards the place where the crowd was assembled, threatening to exterminate them. The English deeming resistance fruitless, surrendered, and Lafitte hastened to put a stop to the slaughter. This exploit, hitherto unparalleled, resounded through India, and the name of Lafitte became the terror of English commerce in these latitudes.

Wikipedia speculates far humbler origins: he grew up aboard ships owned by his father, a trader. They were living in or near St. Domingue when the Haitian revolution broke out, and fled to Louisiana.

At this point TPOB and Wikipedia are in agreement: Lafitte moved to Barataria, Louisiana, around the time of the Louisiana purchase. Here he found a much safer way to earn a living than charging ships: smuggling.

In 1807, the US government passed an embargo against trade with Britain and France:

The embargo was imposed in response to violations of the United States neutrality, in which American merchantmen and their cargo were seized as contraband of war by the belligerent European navies. The British Royal Navy, in particular, resorted to impressment, forcing thousands of American seamen into service on their warships. Britain and France, engaged in the Napoleonic Wars, rationalized the plunder of U.S. shipping as incidental to war and necessary for their survival. Americans saw the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair as a particularly egregious example of a British violation of American neutrality.

A pirate is an outlaw who plunders ships on the high seas, but a privateer, like Sir Francis Drake, is a man who has been given permission by his sovereign to rape and despoil the ships of other nations.

The embargo was particularly problematic for Louisiana, which was accustomed to trading with the other French colonies of the Caribbean, so Lafitte and his brother, Piere, established a smuggling port in Barataria. By 1810, business was booming, and since almost everyone in Louisiana benefited from the trade Lafitte and his men enabled, the local government turned a mostly blind eye to his activities.

Barataria Preserve, Louisiana

In 1812, Lafitte returned to piracy with the purchase of a schooner, and soon after captured a Spanish hermaphrodite brig, which Wikipedia assures me is a kind of boat.

Sale of the brig’s cargo–including 77 slaves–netted $18,000 in profits plus a new ship, which Lafitte re-christianed the Dorada. With the Dorada, Lafitte captured a third ship laden with over $9,000 in goods, but decided the ship itself was not particularly useful for piracy, and so turned it back over it to its captain. His habit of not massacring everyone onboard the ships he captured and sometimes returning them to their rightful owners earned Lafitte some measure of local good will.

Lafitte soon captured two more ships, La Diligent and the Petit Milan, which they outfitted with guns from their original schooner. Biographer William Davis writes that this was likely one of the largest and most versatile privately owned corsair fleets operating on the coast.

The Lafittes made good use of their ships in the smuggling business. According to Wikipedia:

For several months, the Lafittes would send the ships directly to New Orleans with a legal cargo and would take on outgoing provisions in the city. The crew would create a manifest that listed not the provisions that had been purchased, but smuggled items stored at Barataria. Uninterested in exports from New Orleans, customs agents rarely checked the accuracy of the manifests. The ship would sail to the mouth of Bayou Lafourche, load the contraband goods, and sail “legally” back to New Orleans, with goods listed on a certified manifest.[22]

With the outbreak of war in 1812, the US government issued Letters of Marque–official documents authorizing private citizens to become privateers–to several of Lafitte’s men.

Article 1, Section 8, line 11 of the US Constitution states that Congress shall have the power to “To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.” (Letters of Marque are interesting in and of themselves, but would require too long a diversion to discuss fully right now.)

Lafitte’s men soon had Letters of Marque from several different countries–including ones Lafitte made up. Goods from captured British ships they turned in to the authorities in New Orleans, but goods from other ships they captured went through Barataria, depriving the government of tax revenue.

Since the stationary bandits weren’t strong enough to stop the mobile ones, the government resorted to suing Lafitte for tax evasion. There followed several skirmishes between Lafitte and the revenuers:

On November 10, 1812, the United States District Attorney John R. Grymes charged Lafitte with “violation of the revenue law”.[27] Three days later, 40 soldiers were sent to ambush the Baratarians; they captured Lafitte, his brother Pierre, and 25 unarmed smugglers on November 16, and confiscated several thousand dollars of contraband. Officials released the smugglers after they posted bond, and they disappeared, refusing to return for a trial.[27]

In October, a revenue officer prepared an ambush of a band of Lafitte’s smugglers. The smugglers wounded one of the officers and safely escaped with the contraband.[31] The following month, the governor offered a $500 reward for Lafitte’s capture. Within two days of his offer, handbills were posted all over New Orleans offering a similar award for the arrest of the governor. …

Given the success of his auctions at the Temple, in January 1814 Lafitte set up a similar auction at a site just outside New Orleans. Officials tried to break up this auction by force, and in the ensuing gunfight, one of the revenue officers was killed and two others were wounded.[33]

The government’s ability to apprehend Lafitte was hampered by the fact that Louisianans appreciated the lower prices they could get buying smuggled goods directly from Barataria rather than official import channels. They did, however, catch, convict, and imprison his brother, Pierre.

In 1814, a British warship arrived in Barataria, bearing an intriguing offer:

The British raised a white flag and launched a small dinghy with several officers. Lafitte and several of his men rowed to meet them halfway.[37]

Captain Nicholas Lockyer, the commander of the Sophie, had been ordered to contact the “Commandant at Barataria”. He was accompanied by a Royal Marine infantry Captain, John McWilliam,[38][39] who had been given a package to deliver to Lafitte. The Baratarians invited the British officers to row to their island. When they had disembarked and were surrounded by his men, Lafitte identified himself to them. Many of the smugglers wanted to lynch the British men, but Lafitte intervened and placed guards outside his home to ensure their protection.[37] McWilliam brought two letters in his packet for Lafitte: one, under the seal of King George III, offered Lafitte and his forces British citizenship and land grants in the British colonies in the Americas if they promised to assist in the naval fight against the United States and to return any recent property that had been taken from Spanish ships. (The British were allied with Spain against the French and the US.) If they refused the offer, the British Navy would destroy Barataria. The second item was a personal note to Lafitte from McWilliam’s superior, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Nicolls, urging him to accept the offer.[40]

TPOB claims that Lafitte turned down the offer due to patriotic sentiments, while Wikipedia gives a more self-interested motivation: he thought the Americans would win and did not wish to be on the side of the losers. Moreover, an American victory left him only the revenuers to contend with, while a British victory could bring his operations into conflict with the British navy–and he considered the revenuers easier opponents.

Lafitte therefore offered his services to the Americans in exchange for a pardon. His brother–perhaps coincidentally–mysteriously “escaped” from prison soon after.

Within days, however, the US navy attacked Barataria, capturing 8 ships, 20 canon, $500,000 worth of goods, and 80 men–but not Lafitte. Louisiana’s Governor Claiborne wrote to the Attorney General and General Andrew Jackson to request a pardon for Lafitte and his men, arguing that for generations, smugglers were “esteemed honest … [and] sympathy for these offenders is certainly more or less felt by many of the Louisianans,” and that Patterson’s capture of Lafitte’s ships, “had destroyed a potential first line of defense for Louisiana.”

Jackson responded testily, “I ask you, Louisianans, can we place any confidence in the honor of men who have courted an alliance with pirates and robbers?” But when Jackson arrived in New Orleans, he found the city woefully unprepared to defend against the invading British. It had only two ships, plus the eight captured from Lafitte–and not enough sailors to man them all. General Jackson had no choice: he pardoned the pirates. TPOB quotes Lafitte’s official pardon from President Madison:

It has therefore been seen, with great satisfaction, that the General Assembly of the State of Louisiana earnestly recommend those offenders to the benefit of a full pardon; And in compliance with that recommendation, as well as in consideration of all the other extraordinary circumstances in the case, I, James Madison, President of the United States of America, do issue this proclamation, hereby granting, publishing and declaring, a free and full pardon of all offences committed in violation of any act or acts of the Congress of the said United States, touching the revenue, trade and navigation thereof, or touching the intercourse and commerce of the United States with foreign nations, at any time before the eighth day of January, in the present year one thousand eight hundred and fifteen, by any person or persons whatsoever, being inhabitants of New Orleans and the adjacent country, or being inhabitants of the said island of Barrataria, and the places adjacent; Provided, that every person, claiming the benefit of this full pardon, in order to entitle himself thereto, shall produce a certificate in writing from the governor of the State of Louisiana, stating that such person has aided in the defence of New Orleans and the adjacent country, during the invasion thereof as aforesaid.

TPOB also provides a stirring description of the Battle of New Orleans:

The morning of the eighth of January, was ushered in with the discharge of rockets, the sound of cannon, and the cheers of the British soldiers advancing to the attack. … A storm of rockets preceded them, and an incessant fire opened from the battery, which commanded the advanced column. The musketry and rifles from the Kentuckians and Tennesseans, joined the fire of the artillery, and in a few moments was heard along the line a ceaseless, rolling fire, whose tremendous noise resembled the continued reverberation of thunder. One of these guns, a twenty-four pounder, placed upon the breastwork in the third embrasure from the river, drew, from the fatal skill and activity with which it was managed, even in the heat of battle, the admiration of both Americans and British; and became one of the points most dreaded by the advancing foe.

Here was stationed Lafitte and his lieutenant Dominique and a large band of his men, who during the continuance of the battle, fought with unparalleled bravery. The British already had been twice driven back in the utmost confusion, with the loss of their commander-in-chief, and two general officers.

Two other batteries were manned by the Barratarians, who served their pieces with the steadiness and precision of veteran gunners. In the first attack of the enemy, a column pushed forward between the levee and river; and so precipitate was their charge that the outposts were forced to retire, closely pressed by the enemy. Before the batteries could meet the charge, clearing the ditch, they gained the redoubt through the embrasures, leaping over the parapet, and overwhelming by their superior force the small party stationed there.

Lafitte, who was commanding in conjunction with his officers, at one of the guns, no sooner saw the bold movement of the enemy, than calling a few of his best men by his side, he sprung forward to the point of danger, and clearing the breastwork of the entrenchments, leaped, cutlass in hand, into the midst of the enemy, followed by a score of his men, who in many a hard fought battle upon his own deck, had been well tried.

Astonished at the intrepidity which could lead men to leave their entrenchments and meet them hand to hand, and pressed by the suddenness of the charge, which was made with the recklessness, skill and rapidity of practised boarders bounding upon the deck of an enemy’s vessel, they began to give way, while one after another, two British officers fell before the cutlass of the pirate, as they were bravely encouraging their men. All the energies of the British were now concentrated to scale the breastwork, which one daring officer had already mounted. While Lafitte and his followers, seconding a gallant band of volunteer riflemen, formed a phalanx which they in vain assayed to penetrate.

The British finding it impossible to take the city and the havoc in their ranks being dreadful, made a precipitate retreat, leaving the field covered with their dead and wounded.

General Jackson, in his correspondence with the secretary of war did not fail to notice the conduct of the “Corsairs of Barrataria,” who were, as we have already seen, employed in the artillery service.

With the war’s conclusion, Lafitte seems to have felt like he had garnered too much attention from official government officials and left Louisiana for Galveston, Texas, then part of the Spanish Empire. Spain at the time was embroiled in the Mexican Revolution, and Lafitte offered Spain his services as a spy, particularly against Louis-Michel Aury, a French privateer on the Mexican side. He ousted Aury and took over the island, establishing a second smuggling base. (Today, Galveston is close to the port of Houston, the fourth largest city in the country.)

Lafitte’s “pirate colony” grew quickly, to 100-200 people and a few women; during this time he married and had his only known legal child, who died around the age of 12. (Wikipedia also mentions a child with a mistress, though not what became of it.)

In 1818, the US government passed a new law restricting the import of slaves, but this law had a poorly-thought-out loophole: pirates could capture slave ships, turn the cargo over to customs officials, and the receive 50% of the profits from sale of the cargo. Smugglers, pirates, and the operators of slave ships soon worked out a way around the law: smugglers bought the slaves from the ships, brought them to Louisiana, and turned them in to the government, receiving half their sale value. A second smuggler then bought the slaves at auction and could legally re-sell them throughout the South.

In other words, banning importation without banning sales just encouraged people to work around the importation law. Interestingly, slavery and piracy became so closely connected that in 1820, the Act to Protect the Commerce of the United States and Punish the Crime of Piracy was amended to also include the slave trade as a form of piracy.

Unfortunately for Lafitte, the tide was turning against him. A hurricane hit Galveston in 1818, destroying most of the colony’s houses. After the American Navy drove him from Galveston, he relocated to Cuba, but eventually angered the Cubans, too. They outlawed all forms of privateering, and Lafitte moved to Columbia. Here the government commissioned him as an official privateer, authorized to capture Spanish ships.

With increased official naval presences in the Gulf and Caribbean, Lafitte’s business became more dangerous and less profitable. His ships were captured and men arrested and executed. TPOB provides a description of the end of Barataria, after Lafitte’s departure:

About this time one Mitchell, who had formerly belonged to Lafitte’s gang, collected upwards of one hundred and fifty desperadoes and fortified himself on an island near Barrataria, with several pieces of cannon; and swore that he and all his comrades would perish within their trenches before they would surrender to any man. …

The United States cutter, Alabama, on her way to the station off the mouth of the Mississippi, captured a piratical schooner belonging to Lafitte … An expedition was now sent to dislodge Mitchell and his comrades from the island he had taken possession of; after coming to anchor, a summons was sent for him to surrender, which was answered by a brisk cannonade from his breastwork. The vessels were warped close in shore; and the boats manned and sent on shore whilst the vessels opened upon the pirates; the boat’s crews landed under a galling fire of grape shot and formed in the most undaunted manner; and although a severe loss was sustained they entered the breastwork at the point of the bayonet; after a desperate fight the pirates gave way, many were taken prisoners but Mitchell and the greatest part escaped to the cypress swamps where it was impossible to arrest them.

A large quantity of dry goods and specie together with other booty was taken. Twenty of the pirates were taken and brought to New Orleans, and tried before Judge Hall, of the Circuit Court of the United States, sixteen were brought in guilty; and after the Judge had finished pronouncing sentence of death upon the hardened wretches, several of them cried out in open court, Murder–by God.

Accounts of these transactions having reached Lafitte, he plainly perceived there was a determination to sweep all his cruisers from the sea; and a war of extermination appeared to be waged against him.

No one is sure exactly when or how Lafitte died. Wikipedia claims he was cruising for Spanish silver off the coast of Honduras when a Spanish ship counterattacked. Injured in the ensuing battle, Laftitte died on February 5th, 1823.

TPOB credits his death to the British:

In a fit of desperation [Lafitte] procured a large and fast sailing brigantine mounting sixteen guns and having selected a crew of one hundred and sixty men he started without any commission as a regular pirate determined to rob all nations and neither to give or receive quarter.

A British sloop of war which was cruising in the Gulf of Mexico, having heard that Lafitte himself was at sea, kept a sharp look out from the mast head; when one morning as an officer was sweeping the horizon with his glass he discovered a long dark looking vessel, low in the water, but having very tall masts, with sails white as the driven snow. As the sloop of war had the weather gage of the pirate and could outsail her before the wind, she set her studding sails and crowded every inch of canvass in chase; as soon as Lafitte ascertained the character of his opponent, he ordered the awnings to be furled and set his big square-sail and shot rapidly through the water; but as the breeze freshened the sloop of war came up rapidly with the pirate, who, finding no chance of escaping, determined to sell his life as dearly as possible; the guns were cast loose and the shot handed up; and a fire opened upon the ship which killed a number of men and carried away her foretopmast, but she reserved her fire until within cable’s distance of the pirate; when she fired a general discharge from her broadside, and a volley of small arms; the broadside was too much elevated to hit the low hull of the brigantine, but was not without effect; the foretopmast fell, the jaws of the main gaff were severed and a large proportion of the rigging came rattling down on deck; ten of the pirates were killed, but Lafitte remained unhurt.

The sloop of war entered her men over the starboard bow and a terrific contest with pistols and cutlasses ensued; Lafitte received two wounds at this time which disabled him, a grape shot broke the bone of his right leg and he received a cut in the abdomen, but his crew fought like tigers and the deck was ankle deep with blood and gore; the captain of the boarders received such a tremendous blow on the head from the butt end of a musket, as stretched him senseless on the deck near Lafitte, who raised his dagger to stab him to the heart. But the tide of his existence was ebbing like a torrent, his brain was giddy, his aim faltered and the point descended in the Captain’s right thigh; dragging away the blade with the last convulsive energy of a death struggle, he lacerated the wound. Again the reeking steel was upheld, and Lafitte placed his left hand near the Captain’s heart, to make his aim more sure; again the dizziness of dissolution spread over his sight, down came the dagger into the captain’s left thigh and Lafitte was a corpse.

The upper deck was cleared, and the boarders rushed below on the main deck to complete their conquest. Here the slaughter was dreadful, till the pirates called out for quarter, and the carnage ceased; all the pirates that surrendered were taken to Jamaica and tried before the Admiralty court where sixteen were condemned to die, six were subsequently pardoned and ten executed.

It was many years before news of Lafitte’s death at sea was widely accepted. Like Elvis, a great many rumors sprang up averring that he was still alive, including a persistent claim that he had rescued Napoleon from exile and the two were living in secrecy in Louisiana. Eventually it became clear, though, from the lack of real news of Lafitte, that however he had died, he was surely and truly dead.

Why is our Society so Obsessed with Salads?

It’s been a rough day. So I’m going to complain about something totally mundane: salads.

I was recently privy to a conversation between two older women on why it is so hard to stay thin in the South: lack of good salads. Apparently when you go to a southern restaurant, they serve a big piece of meat (often deep-fried steak) a lump of mashed potatoes and gravy, and a finger-bowl with 5 pieces of iceberg lettuce, an orange tomato, and a slathering of dressing.

Sounds good to me.

Now, if you like salads, that’s fine. You’re still welcome here. Personally, I just don’t see the point. The darn things don’t have any calories!

From an evolutionary perspective, obviously food provides two things: calories and nutrients. There may be some foods that are mostly calorie but little nutrient (eg, honey) and some foods that are nutrient but no calorie (salt isn’t exactly a food, but it otherwise fits the bill.)

Food doesn’t seem like it should be that complicated–surely we’ve evolved to eat effectively by now. So any difficulties we have (besides just getting the food) are likely us over-thinking the matter. There’s no problem getting people to eat high-calorie foods, because they taste good. It’s also not hard to get people to eat salt–it also tastes good.

But people seem to have this ambivalent relationship with salads. What’s so important about eating a bunch of leaves with no calories and a vaguely unpleasant flavor? Can’t a just eat a nice potato? Or some corn? Or asparagus?

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate vegetables. Just everything that goes in a salad. Heck, I’ll even eat most salad fixins if they’re cooked. I won’t turn down fried green tomatoes, you know.

While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a bowl of lettuce if that’s your think, I think our society has gone down a fundamentally wrong collective path when it comes to nutrition wisdom. The idea here is that your hunger drive is this insatiable beast that will force you to consume as much food as possible, making you overweight and giving you a heart attack, and so the only way to save yourself is to trick the beast by filling your stomach with fluffy, zero-calorie plants until there isn’t anymore room.

This seems to me like the direct opposite of what you should be doing. See, I assume your body isn’t an idiot, and can figure out whether you’ve just eaten something full of calories, and so should go sleep for a bit, or if you just ate some leaves and should keep looking for food.

I recently tried increasing the amount of butter I eat each day, and the result was I felt extremely full an didn’t want to eat dinner. Butter is a great way to almost arbitrarily increase the amount of calories per volume of food.

If you’re wondering about my weight, well, let’s just say that despite the butter, never going on a diet, and abhorring salads, I’m still not overweight–but this is largely genetic. (I should note though that I don’t eat many sweets at all.)

Obviously I am not a nutritionist, a dietician, nor a doctor. I’m not a good source for health advice. But it seems to me that increasing or decreasing the number of sweats you eat per day probably has a bigger impact on your overall weight than adding or subtracting a salad.

But maybe I’m missing something.

Open Thread: Life!

The Dance of Time, Claude Michel Clodion, (1738-1814)

Hey, it’s still Wednesday in the Pacific Ocean.

As you might have guessed, the past few days have been incredibly busy for me, so I don’t have anything prepped, but it’s still Wed and so this is still Open Thread Day.

How are you guys? What’s up in your lives? I hope you are all having a fabulous week!

I’m very tired, so I’m going to go get some rest.

The Echo Chamber, the Forge, and the Fire

Based on a few of comments from readers, I’ve been thinking about the importance of three different rhetorical zones: the echo chamber, the forge, and the fire.

Echo chambers get a lot of criticism, as well they should. But they are not all bad. Sometimes you’re tired after a long day, and you just want to be around people you know and like, people who already share your beliefs and interests. Friends are largely an echo chamber; hobbiest societies (eg, bowling, gardening, gaming,) are devoted to enjoying an activity together, not arguing; church is definitely an echo chamber (hence the phrase, “preaching to the choir.”)

And this is fine and even good. No one needs to get into a debate while gardening nor do they envision being called to give a spirited defense of their faith in debate with an atheist when they set out for church on Sunday morning. There is a time and a place for everything.

The Forge is where you go to discuss and debate ideas with people who are generally sympathetic to them/you. These are people who will call you on your bullshit and hold you to high standards, challenge flaws in your thinking or point out problems with your methodologies or ideas, but do so to be helpful. Writers’ critique groups, debate societies, sports practice, the general practice of science, and feedback from your boss/coworkers are all generally supposed to fall into this category.

Where the echo chamber is supposed to be fun and comforting, the purpose of the forge is to make you (or your ideas, or products, or whathaveyou) stronger.

The Fire is where the products of the forge go to battle against each other. The fire is the blind taste test, the open market, capitalism, the place where no one cares about you, only whether your ideas/talents/products are good enough to out-compete everyone else’s.

The fire is where Coke outsells Pepsi, where Obama defeated Romney, where the Allies defeated the Axis, where Harry Potter outsold whatever else was published that year.

Most of us are not cut out for the fire. Perhaps we could be big fish in the context of a a small pond, but in a big pond, we’re small fish. Very few of us are going to be truly successful–not only are you vanishingly unlikely to write the next Harry Potter, you’re vanishingly unlikely to get get published by a real publisher at all. Not only are you highly unlikely to win the Super bowl, you’re probably not even going to be a professional athlete.

Luckily, society doesn’t need everyone to be big fish. Society needs most people to be supportive, to work in the Echo Chambers and Forges. After all, behind ever successful person who makes it in the Fire, there are hundreds if not thousands of people toiling away to help them refine their ideas/products/skills before they set out. Professional athletes spend thousands of hours honing their skills in practice with their own team members, family, friends, neighborhood leagues, highschool teams, etc. Popular products spend thousands of hours in brainstorming, testing, development, etc.

Big fish or little fish, we all have our roles to play.

And a special thanks to everyone who has helped make this blog, well, if not great, then a lot of fun