I was recently discussing religion with a friend whose basic position is that religion is predatory and harmful. This is about the same position I took back in college: religions say a lot of untrue things and take people’s money in return.
But if religion is basically harmful, then its nigh-global occurrence (it is as culturally ubiquitous as cuisine) is difficult to explain: atheists ought to have done better economically, raised more children, and replaced theists ages ago. In the stone age. Furthermore, most people who go to church do so voluntarily, in their cars, at a time when they could be sleeping, and seem quite happy happy about it.
One of the early principles developed in the study of biology and human anatomy is that if a feature exists, it is there because it serves (or served) a purpose. Egyptian mummy-makers discarded the brain because they did not think it served a purpose, a move we now see as silly. Even if you haven’t figured out yet what that squishy blob does, clearly nature wouldn’t put so much effort into building it if it weren’t important. Even vestigial parts that no longer do anything offer us a window into the past because they used to be important.
Religion helps organize the rhythms and flows of human lives: it often defines people’s group identities, (“We in our tribe worship Athena. They in their tribe worship Apollo.”) it prescribes moral behavior, (“Thou shall not kill”) and it helps assuage existential angst, especially related to death.
Christianity in particular is set up to facilitate the cycle of sin, guilt, and forgiveness, with the promise of an afterlife in Heaven if you undergo the ritual and try to sin less and the threat of Hell if you do not. (I don’t know other religions as well as Christianity because I wasn’t raised in them, so my focus is Christianity.)
In obviously predatory religious groups (aka cults), leaders actively convince people that they are sinners in order to make them feel bad and coerce them into giving more time/money/sex to the cult. People who are already prone to feeling guilty about themselves are thus probably good marks for a cult; likewise, if you want people to consistently feel like they are sinners, it is probably best to target some instinct (like sexual attraction) that they don’t actually have much control over.
Convincing people that they are bad people who deserve punishment and that you are their only source of salvation is quite effective, at least for some people.
But people commit sins and feel remorseful even in the absence of cults. Non-predatory religions help people work through their guilt and absolve them of their sins, which is especially useful if you’re naturally neurotic and you can no longer find the person you sinned against in order to apologize properly. (Dear 12 grade teacher: I am sorry I cut class. I still feel very bad about it.)
One of the mysteries of the past few decades is why churches–especially Mainline Protestant denominations–have hemorrhaged members so badly. There are a few obvious reasons: technology has increased the visibility of atheists, making the potentially agnostic feel less alone in their lack of conviction; technology has made Bible-contradicting information more widely available; and of course Mainline Protestants don’t have enough babies to fill the pews.
But these trends alone seem insufficient to explain the speed of Mainline collapse. I suggest, therefore, that our idea of sin has changed.
Sexual sin was a very effective thing for people to feel bad about before the invention of birth control/condoms/antibiotics/etc., because people naturally desired a lot of sex that had very bad potential side effects, like disease or children they couldn’t afford to feed. With the advent of these technologies, most of the bad effects of sexual sin could be prevented or avoided, and so sexual sin became much less concerning.
Sexual sin is still a concern for Evangelicals and other low-class denominations, but the higher classes have abandoned this view. There are sensible reasons for this split, but they’re really background to our current moment, so we’ll explore them later. Our focus right now is on the new sin:
Neither slavery nor racism are particularly Biblical sins (slavery was legal in Biblical times and the word “racism” didn’t exist), but nobody really cares: they’re sins now.
When I say that the left is operating like a religion (or a cult), I am not using this metaphorically, nor to shut down conversation. I mean it literally: the modern left operates just like a religion, albeit a polytheistic one with many saints/demigods.
Mainline Protestant churches have been hemorrhaging, I suspect, because their followers have mass-converted to the Modern Religion.
The Modern Religion serves two purposes: it absolves its followers of the guilt of their sin and defines them against their out-group: the evil people who are still guilty of sin, aka conservatives. Since religion and group membership are roughly co-terminous, this defines conservatives who are still concerned with sexual sin as basically pagans and conservatives who object to the notion of racial sin as apostates. Apostates, of course, are worse than mere pagans.
Original Sin in this framework was not committed by Adam and Even in the mythical Garden of Eden, but in 1619 by the Founders of America. Perhaps anti-racism did not have to turn into a distinctly anti-American creed, but it is now:
Reminder that the police kill about as many unarmed black men each year as lightning kills whites.
Today I’m using a speech-to-text app for this post because I want to see if my conversation style is different from my normal writing style. I normally have many interesting conversations here at home which I then try to write down as the posts you read, so let’s see if I get nice flow going here or if the text to speech program is good enough to actually capture what I’m saying.
Today’s topic is religion and politics. I’ve been thinking about this over the weekend–just read last Friday post about religion and politics if you need to catch up–and I think this is an important, overlooked aspect of our electoral system.
Now, EvolutionistX is officially apolitical: we try not to do it much on the day-to-day workings of politics or politicians unless those workings happened to illuminate some broader idea or concept like fear or anger, energy use or demographic change, etc.
Politics are a good way of looking at human structures, but it’s very easy to get bogged down in the details of “this program has a 2% interest rate of 1% interest rate with a delayed API” and similar such things, so you have to be careful not to let yourself get sucked in.
One of the founding concepts of this blog is that there are some very basic, foundational patterns to life that show up over and over again. They show up in nature, they show up in society, they show up in the cosmos. They are part of the basic structure of the universe because they have to do with the way energy works the way atoms and electrons work and ultimately how math works. Like they say, math is the language God used to write the universe. So, take something like the Fibonacci numbers. The Fibonacci numbers show up over and over in nature. They show up in sunflower seeds, they show up in pine cones, in the reproductive patterns of rabbits and bees, in the spirals of galaxies and in our DNA. Why?
Basically, the Fibonacci sequence (and spiral) show up so often because it’s a very easy way to build numbers, and the ratios between them are very efficient:
Some of the pictures you see claiming to be Fibonacci spirals or Golden Ratios really aren’t, because people like to claim they’re everywhere, but they’re still very common, because they’re a very simple mathematical process that can be used to build complex objects.
When we’re looking at larger scale things, like organisms or societies, the same basic rules apply. Energy is energy, no matter how big you are. Space is space. So when I look at things like politics, I’m looking more for the universal, I’m looking for the mathematical, not the day-to-day. I want see the underlying structure of the thing and what motivates that structure: Is it energy? Is it math? Is it is a geography?
(I didn’t mention geography before, but sometimes there is a river and you’re not going to cross it and that just becomes your border, and sometimes the river is easy to cross so your people live in that River Valley and the whole valley becomes the cradle of your culture.)
When I look at the electoral politics, I don’t care as much about the day-to-day workings this policy or that person. I regard that as kind of gossipy. It has its good parts and is sometimes important, but long term, most of the day-to-day political news turns out to be totally irrelevant.
I think if you really want to understand American politics you need to step back, stop thinking about the policies, and realize that what we’re looking at here in America are two or three main ethno-religious groups.
What do I mean by ethno-religious groups? The ethno-religious group is a group of people that sees itself as a coherent ethnic group that all believes the same religion. Really, religions are ethnic groups because people tend to marry people who have the same belief structures as they do.
Let’s discuss ethno-religions a bit, because some people get really tripped up by the concept (and some people already understand it because they belong to an explicitly structured one. The rest of us, like fish, are often unaware of the water we swim in.) The American perspective traditionally has been freedom of religion: that religion is a matter of conscience. Free people are allowed to freely chose what they believe in, and people use their mental faculties–intelligence, logic, reason, etc–to pick the beliefs they think are most correct. Taken philosophically, this gets into the Free Will versus Determinism debate. People like claim that they use their free will to pick their religion, but do we really believe the entire population of Pakistan chooses every single generation to be 99% Muslim? Certainly Islam is the law of the land, yet if you asked them, I doubt the majority would say that they feel compelled to be Muslim. They would say that they actually believe their religion and that they believe any rational, thoughtful person who considered all of the alternatives would simply come to the conclusion that Islam is correct. And if you asked a Christian in Inquisition-era Spain the same question, they would also tell you that any rational person, using their faculties, would come to the obvious conclusion that Christianity is the correct religion.
And yet, of course, all of these people are really just following the religion they were taught by their parents when they were children. (This was the realization that turned me into an atheist.)
Religion is a funny thing like that, but once you believe a religion, you tend to marry other people from your own religion and you tend not to marry people who have radically different beliefs. Now, you might say “oh I like the Episcopalian Church but I’d be okay with Methodist or Lutheran,” but effectively there’s no difference between a Episcopalians, Methodists, and Lutherans in modern America they. They are the same religion with very minor aesthetic differences. By contrast, if you believe God is a very harsh fellow–he doesn’t like gay people, smites people who disobey him with plagues, and wants women to wear burkas–and I believe God is a hippie guy who loves everyone and wants to hug all of the trees, our relationship might not work out so well.
People tend to marry into their own religion because they marry people with the same belief systems as themselves and because religions functionally define the boundaries of our communities and proper behavior.
If anything, the American experiment in which you can pick any religion you want and it’s assumed that people pick religions rationally is very unusual, historically speaking. Going back, every community used to have their own, tutelary deity. Athens was guarded by Athena. Poseidon, Apollo, and Aphrodite guarded Troy. And of course there are many ancient stories of people trying to score a military victory over their opponents by first stealing the statue of their tutelary deity.
This is why not making sacrifices to the local deity was considered a capital offense in the ancient world. If people turned against the deity would turn against them. Without the deity’s protection, the city (or country) would fall in battle and be destroyed. This is why Socrates was executed by Athens: they thought that Socrates was leading the citizens, the young people, into atheism, and if they became atheists then they wouldn’t make sacrifices to the city’s deities, and then the deities would abandon them and they would get conquered.
Now the Israelites went out to fight against the Philistines. The Israelites camped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines at Aphek.2 The Philistines deployed their forces to meet Israel, and as the battle spread, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand of them on the battlefield.3 When the soldiers returned to camp, the elders of Israel asked, “Why did the Lord bring defeat on us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the Lord’s covenant from Shiloh, so that he may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies.”
4 So the people sent men to Shiloh, and they brought back the ark of the covenant of the Lord Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim. And Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.
5 When the ark of the Lord’s covenant came into the camp, all Israel raised such a great shout that the ground shook.6 Hearing the uproar, the Philistines asked, “What’s all this shouting in the Hebrew camp?”
When they learned that the ark of the Lord had come into the camp,7 the Philistines were afraid. “A god hasa]”>[a] come into the camp,” they said. “Oh no! Nothing like this has happened before.8 We’re doomed! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? They are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the wilderness.9 Be strong, Philistines! Be men, or you will be subject to the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Be men, and fight!”
10 So the Philistines fought, and the Israelites were defeated and every man fled to his tent. The slaughter was very great; Israel lost thirty thousand foot soldiers.11 The ark of God was captured, and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died.
The arrival at Troy of the Palladium, fashioned by Athena in remorse for the death of Pallas, as part of the city’s founding myth, was variously referred to by Greeks, from the seventh century BC onwards. The Palladium was linked to the Samothrace mysteries through the pre-Olympian figure of Elektra, mother of Dardanus, progenitor of the Trojan royal line, and of Iasion, founder of the Samothrace mysteries. Whether Elektra had come to Athena’s shrine of the Palladium as a pregnant suppliant and a god cast it into the territory of Ilium, because it had been profaned by the hands of a woman who was not a virgin, or whether Elektra carried it herself or whether it was given directly to Dardanus vary in sources and scholia. In Ilion, King Ilus was blinded for touching the image to preserve it from a burning temple.
During the Trojan War, the importance of the Palladium to Troy was said to have been revealed to the Greeks by Helenus, the prophetic son of Priam. … The Greeks learned from Helenus, that Troy would not fall while the Palladium, image or statue of Athena, remained within Troy’s walls. The difficult task of stealing this sacred statue again fell upon the shoulders of Odysseus and Diomedes. Since Troy could not be captured while it safeguarded this image, the Greeks Diomedes and Odysseus made their way to the citadel in Troy by a secret passage and carried it off. In this way the Greeks were then able to enter Troy and lay it waste using the deceit of the Trojan Horse. …
According to the Narratives of the Augustan period mythographer Conon as summarised by Photius, while the two heroes were on their way to the ships, Odysseus plotted to kill Diomedes and claim the Palladium (or perhaps the credit for gaining it) for himself. He raised his sword to stab Diomedes in the back. Diomedes was alerted to the danger by glimpsing the gleam of the sword in the moonlight. He disarmed Odysseus, tied his hands, and drove him along in front, beating his back with the flat of his sword… Because Odysseus was essential for the destruction of Troy, Diomedes refrained from punishing him. …
According to various versions of this legend the Trojan Palladium found its way to Athens, or Argos, or Sparta (all in Greece), or Rome in Italy. To this last city it was either brought by Aeneas the exiled Trojan (Diomedes, in this version, having only succeeded in stealing an imitation of the statue) or surrendered by Diomedes himself.
And in the tragedy Iphigenia in Tauris, Orestes arrives at the island of Tauris with the intention of stealing the local deity in order to make the gods like him again:
O Phoebus, by thy oracles again
Why hast thou led me to these toils? E’er since,
In vengeance for my father’s blood, I slew
My mother, ceaseless by the Furies driven,
Vagrant, an outcast, many a bending course
My feet have trod: to thee I came, of the
Inquired this whirling frenzy by what means,
And by what means my labours I might end.
Thy voice commanded me to speed my course
To this wild coast of Tauris, where a shrine
Thy sister hath, Diana; thence to take
The statue of the goddess, which from heaven
(So say the natives) to this temple fell:
This image, or by fraud or fortune won,
The dangerous toil achieved, to place the prize
In the Athenian land: no more was said;
But that, performing this, I should obtain
Rest from my toils.
Of course, being an ethno-religious group doesn’t mean a group doesn’t have policies. The ancient Athenians had plenty of policies and political debates, many of which have been preserved and can still be read. Ancient Israel had judges and laws and political disputes. So does modern Israel; so do modern Palestinians, but the conflicts between them aren’t over “policies”, they’re over each group’s right to keep living in the area, drinking the water and tilling the land. After all, these are the things people need to survive.
Anyway, Old Stock Americans who believe in the Old Stock American religion are generally whites who arrived before the 1965 Immigration Act and live outside the Northeast/major cities. They are your original colonists, settlers, pioneers, prairie migrants–the Oregon Trail type people. They all started out from different European countries: England and France, Norway and Sweden, but over here they mixed together and quickly lost those original identities they just began calling themselves “whites” in contrast with the other major groups in the US.
American Christianity is not just Christianity that happened to be practiced by Americans. The founding belief of the Puritans and Pilgrims is manifest destiny: that America, the land itself, is a gift from God to the pioneers because they were righteous people.
And the early pioneers had good reason for this belief. When they arrived, yes, there were already people here, but those people seemed to just be fading away before them. People understood that diseases like Smallpox were killing the Indians, but they didn’t understand why Smallpox was so much more deadly for the Indians. All they knew was that it was.
The Pilgrims were essentially religious refugees who crossed the ocean to escape persecution, and when they got here, they found fertile, empty land. They saw in this the hand of Providence. So American Christianity in its basic form is a lot like early Judaism, which was founded on the story of Moses leading the people out of slavery in Egypt, across the Red Sea and into the promised land. And American Christians knew that. For example, the town of Salem, Massachusetts (of witch trial fame) was named after Jerusalem.
“Salem” itself means peace, but it’s also the name of the tutelary deity of Jerusalem, Salim, which you might notice is not YHWH. “Jeru” means foundation or founding stone, so the city’s name translates to “foundation of Salim” or “city of Salim” but over the years, people have opted to interpret salim as “peace,” so that it is the “City of Peace.”
But anyway, these American pioneers saw themselves as founding the new Jerusalem, the new Zion, the new Shining City on the Hill that would be a light and a beacon to all nations. And I think the ultimate expression of this American religion is Mormonism, which replays the whole narrative again, with people escaping persecution, trekking across the wilderness all the way to Utah and then building Salt Lake City. And unlike the rest of us, the Mormons have their own prophets, their own book (a new new testament) and came up with theological explanations for the existence of Native Americans. It’s really interesting how they managed to do that, just as we came to the era of mass literacy.
Now for the rest of us, as we were discussing last week in response to World’s Greatest Dad’s interview in Parallax Optics, the era of mass literacy makes iconogenesis–the creation of new deities or cult figures–difficult. If you go back to the 1800 and look at the pictures people used to paint of George Washington, he is near deified: there are beautiful paintings of Washington ascending into heaven surrounded by angels. If you read a modern biography of George Washington, certainly he was an impressive man who lead an impressive life, but you probably wouldn’t conclude that he was on the level of Elijah the prophet. But in the popular imagination–or at least when people needed to paint him for national buildings–he approached the level being taken into heaven in burning chariots.
People had this attitude back in the 1800s that the Founding Father’s were something like the Patriarchs of Israel, that the pilgrims and later Brigham Young and his followers were something like the Israelites crossing the Red Sea and wandering in the wilderness.
By the way, we’ve all heard the story of Squanto and the first Thanksgiving, but I think people leave out a little bit that makes him such a miracle from the Pilgrims’ perspective: he spoke English.
Why on Earth would any Native Americans in the area speak English? Sure, Squanto helped the settlers plant corn, but the really important thing he was able to show them how to plant corn because he was able to communicate with them. Squanto knew English because he had been picked up by a previous group of colonists (probably some folks in Virginia,) learned English from them, and then dropped off around Massachusetts. From the Pilgrims’ perspective, this was an absolute miracle that there happened to be a guy who spoke English right where they needed him, who saved their lives after that horrible first winter killed so many of them.
American Christianity started with the Pilgrims, but oddly, their modern descendants don’t follow this religion anymore. Their religious descendants, as I’ve said, are mostly the Mormons, Southern Baptists, and similar groups. It’s very curious how that happened. (And of course I don’t mean that Mormons and Southern Baptists are exactly the same, just that they share this Old Stock American belief in manifest destiny, of going out into the wilderness and conquering the place.)
Any time people move into a place, they need some belief structure to organize their claim to the place. So Judaism makes a good model religion for a belief system based on invading the wilderness, conquering it, and saying “yes, this is the place that I own because God said so.” This is an expansion of your people rather than an expansion of ideas, so all you have to do for the religion to flourish is for your people to flourish.
On the other hand, what happens to a religion that is already established, so that after years of living in an area 400 years and the area is basically filled up? You no longer have a wilderness to expand into, and sometimes you even start talking to the people your ancestors used to fight and discover that they’re pretty decent.
As a model religion, early Christianity took Judaism, and added the concept of original sin to convince an existing population of people to convert to it. Judaism has the story of the serpent and the fruit in the Garden of Eden, but this sin was not hereditary. Christianity introduced the idea that you needed forgiveness for this sin, so its spread at least partly by convincing you that you had this sin and they could cure you of it.
We see this same pattern in modern Progressives, who have introduced the idea of an incurable original sin into the American founding mythos. If American Christianity is manifest destiny, persecuted religious group crossing the Wilderness, crossing the ocean led to their New Zion, the founding myth of Progressivism is slavery and racism. We see this in things like the 1619 Project, and if we had functional iconogenesis, the founding fathers of Progressivism, their new deities would be Saints MLK and Abraham Lincoln.
And we are very close to that, in fact. Why else would the President place a wreath at the feet of MLK’s statue? Statues don’t care about wreaths, but deities–and the people who believe in them–do.
(I hope this speech to text experiment is working. It is definitely very different from my perspective. When I write with my fingers, I can pause, sometimes I have to think hard about what I want to say and how to organize it. Right now I’m trying to figure out what I want to say on the fly, and I admit I feel untethered, unmoored. I’m not used to working like this and I hope it works.)
Anyway, when you get a new religion sweeping through the populace, it’s pretty normal for the new religion to go on a crusade of smashing up the idols of the old religion, a la Abraham and the Taliban smashing up the Bahmian Buddhas. These old deities are often deemed “devils” and “demons” in the new religion. In the US, this process involves tearing down monuments to Confederate Heroes and generally insulting the memory of the old religion’s heroes, like Thomas Jefferson and Christopher Columbus. It’s a typical process of smashing the old religion’s symbols.
But I want to get back to you the election, because people won’t shut up about it. It was more fun back when we had a dozen or so people on the primary stage. Then everyone could find at least some perspectives they liked. But now we’re just down to the last few candidates: Warren, Biden, and Sanders. People have been trying to analyze why Biden is the front runner from a policy perspective, and I think this is basically the wrong approach. Of course you have policy differences between them, and they have to be personable enough that people want to vote for them–a truly boring candidate would have trouble motivating voters to head to the polls on election day.
But I think Biden’s popularity comes not from his support for particular policies, but because he represents the Democratic establishment. He was VP under Obama, so people who liked Obama and want more of the same aren’t really rejecting Warren or Warren’s policies so much as embracing their party’s core leader. If Warren had been Obama’s VP, then I think she’d be the front runner right now.
Sanders does have different ideas from the others, and as such he is the party’s “outsider” candidate. Even if people like his ideas, he is still, from a tribal perspective, slightly outside. If we look at the most tribal voters in the US–that is, the voters who vote along the strongest ethnic lines, it’s black voters. Blacks vote overwhelmingly Democratic–something like 90, 95% of them voted for Obama. In elections where there weren’t any black guys running, blacks still vote around 85-90% in favor of the Democratic candidate. Whites are more split, voting about 55/45 or 60/40; Hispanics are in between, at around 60-75% voting for the same party. I’m pulling these numbers from memory, so don’t drag me if they’re slightly off.
Point is, the more tribal your voting pattern is, the less you are voting for “policies” and the more you are just voting for the guy who represents your side, not some outsider trying to swoop in and change things. And that’s how politics works in a multi-ethnic systems. Ethnic groups vote pretty much on party lines and just hope that their guy will enact policies that benefit them.
Just like the substantive claims of our religions, (eg, “Jesus rose from the dead,) we like to think that we actually believe the policies we claim to believe, but people can be convinced to change their opinions if someone they respect tells them otherwise. For example, the year before Trump came onto the electoral scene, my mother was in favor of helping “unaccompanied minors” coming over the border from Mexico. After hearing a few of Trump’s speeches, she decided we should build a wall. People who were telling me that Coronavirus wasn’t a big deal a couple of weeks ago have been changing their minds after seeing some of the information coming out of Italy, and people who thought it was a big deal decided it probably wasn’t after hearing Rush Limbaugh say it’s no more than the common cold.
Much of what people believe comes from the other people around them, so political beliefs get bound together in these weird packages. Like, someone starts out uncomfortable with homosexuality, and from there they go on to decide that the second amendment is really important and yay bump stocks, even though these two issues really have nothing in common except that they are both thought to be important by the same tribe of people. Likewise, someone who is gay will likely come out against racism and Islamophobia, even though there’s not only no connection between the two, but Muslims are actually not terribly friendly to gay people. That’s tribalism for you.
And that’s the end of my text. I hope this experiment worked; I’m feeling a bit feverish, so let’s hope it’s not coronavirus and take a break. You all stay safe, stay indoors, don’t hoard the toilet paper, and don’t cough on each other.
Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America is a difficult book to review. Dire poverty is a tough subject to face head-on without reflexive squirming. It is very tempting to impose one’s own interpretations on the author and his subjects. We want to make it, somehow, better. If we blame people for their situations, then our discomfort fades. If we shift the focus from poor people to rich people, the author, or ourselves, the discomfort fades. etc.
1. What the book is
Dignity is an unflinching series of portraits of some of America’s poorest and unluckiest people. The author visits poor neighborhoods across the country, photographing and interviewing residents about their lives. He talks to prostitutes, criminals, drug dealers, junkies, preachers, single mothers, abuse victims, the disabled, the homeless, and the destitute.
It is not, for the most part, a commentary. It does not propose solutions. The author’s intention is to simply talk to people and hear their stories. If you are looking for a book full of solutions, look elsewhere. If you want to know more about what the problems are, this is your book.
Note: I “read” this book in audiobook form, so I will not be quoting and all references are made from memory. I also, obviously, could not see the pictures that come with the paper version.
The author is fairly liberal, and this comes through in his writing. This is a bone of contention for some people, with folks who’ve only read the summaries lambasting the author for being “pro Trump,” and the most prominent Amazon reviews lambasting the author for being “anti-Trump,” (much to the author’s consternation). Personally, I don’t care about the author’s political views, but if they bother you too much, you won’t enjoy the book. If you are interested in my views on race and democracy, I recommend you read my Open Letter to Liberals and Centrists.
I would have liked to read some stories in the book from American Indians–the situation out on the reservations is quite concerning. I also would have appreciated some statistical information on overall trends–are things getting better or worse over time?
2. Why I read it:
I like anthropology because I want to learn about the lives of real people. Literature is pleasant to read because it well-written, but its characters are generally fictions drawn from the author’s experiences or the kinds of people the author wants to write about. I am interested in the sorts of people who don’t normally show up in books.
Too many novels fall into the trap of trying to paint the poor as sympathetic because they are secretly like the author–usually plucky orphans with a love of literature. Certainly some orphans love literature, but I wager most do not. These type of characters show that these authors lack real insight into their subjects and their bias that the character is worth saving because she is improbably like the author.
In real life, the poor are not simply high-class people waiting to be discovered, maybe given a few books and a makeover. They are simply people, with their own unique problems.
Was the book effective?
I think the author wants us to identify with and feel sympathy for his subjects’s struggles. Some people I did feel sympathy for, like the woman who was born in a prison hospital to an incarcerated mom, or the man who suffered permanent brain damage when a friend accidentally smashed his head open. They were given really shitty hands in life through no fault of their own. Others I didn’t feel sorry for; they had made obviously bad decisions that led to bad places. (Even if I did feel bad for them, I am unable to stop other people from making bad decisions.)
This is true, of course, of any system–some people suffer because due to bad luck, others from bad choices. Many are in the gray zone of low-IQ, which isn’t a choice but leads to things we call bad choices.
One of the difficulties I have with the book is that because there are so many interviews, most are, by necessity, fairly superficial. This gives us insight into many different neighborhoods and problems, but it doesn’t give us much depth for any particular problem. Since few of us like to be entirely honest about our own flaws, judging the source of a problem based on a few pages of interview is difficult.
When we talk about problems, we have to be clear what the problems are, where they come from, and if they are solvable at all. (Some problems aren’t.)
Things I think we can’t change: intelligence, drug addiction, manufacturing jobs heading to China (sorry), automation.
Things we can change: mental illness, regular illness, schools, paperwork, prisons, number of criminals on the street.
Just kidding, paperwork is here to stay until the apocalypse.
A lot of problems in this book are blamed, more or less, on white people. A typical example is someone claiming that they elected a black mayor and “the next day” all of the whites left town, hauling all of the jobs with them. Another interviewee was more honest, noting that the whites left after a riot.
The 1967 Detroit Rebellion, also known as the 1967 Detroit Riot or 12th Street riot was the bloodiest incident in the “Long, hot summer of 1967“. Composed mainly of confrontations between black residents and the Detroit Police Department, it began in the early morning hours of Sunday July 23, 1967, in Detroit, Michigan.
The precipitating event was a police raid of an unlicensed, after-hours bar then known as a blind pig, on the city’s Near West Side. It exploded into one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in American history, lasting five days and surpassing the violence and property destruction of Detroit’s 1943 race riot 24 years earlier.
The black community in Detroit received much more attention from federal and state governments after 1967, and … money did flow into black-owned enterprises after the riot. However, the most significant black politician to take power in the shift from a white majority city to a black majority city, Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, wrote in 1994:
The heaviest casualty, however, was the city. Detroit’s losses went a hell of a lot deeper than the immediate toll of lives and buildings. The rebellion put Detroit on the fast track to economic desolation, mugging the city and making off with incalculable value in jobs, earnings taxes, corporate taxes, retail dollars, sales taxes, mortgages, interest, property taxes, development dollars, investment dollars, tourism dollars, and plain damn money. The money was carried out in the pockets of the businesses and the white people who fled as fast as they could. The white exodus from Detroit had been prodigiously steady prior to the riot, totaling twenty-two thousand in 1966, but afterwards it was frantic. In 1967, with less than half the year remaining after the summer explosion—the outward population migration reached sixty-seven thousand. In 1968 the figure hit eighty-thousand, followed by forty-six thousand in 1969.
Riots can coerce governments into handing out more benefits or pumping more money into schools, but they also drive away anyone who can get out.
I’ve looked at the data six ways to Sunday, and it looks like “white flight” was driven primarily by black crime, which was a big deal in the seventies and eighties:
Homicide rates are still disproportionately high among blacks even if we control for income:
In the first decade, 66-75, African Americans in the 75th-90th percent of incomes had higher homicide rates than whites in the bottom 10%. In 76-95, blacks in the top 10% of incomes had higher homicide rates than whites in the bottom 10%.
The author talks a bit about his own experiences with racism. He grew up in a small town in the South where he was bullied by the other white kids for having parents who supported the NAACP and desegregation. Like many “successful” people, the author did well in school, went to college, and eventually settled in a much whiter neighborhood than the racist one he left behind.
Arnade reflects on this fact–on how most of the kids he grew up with eventually mellowed, probably finding more in common with each other than with people like him who moved up and out. He’s the one who white-flighted, and I’d wager that crime, jobs, and “good schools” have driven most white movement over the past 50 years, not black mayors.
Arnade rejects simple solutions to the problems of poverty. Affirmative action, for example, pits poor minorities against poor whites, while still affirming the upper-class belief that what matters is how smart, rich, and successful you are. Arnade challenges his reader to envision a world in which we don’t value people based on how smart or successful they are.
As I said, it is nearly impossible to change someone’s intelligence for the better. (If someone has some technique that has stood the test of randomized long-term trials that control for genetics, please let me know so I can use them on my kids.) Most would-be reformers run up against this fact like a brick wall, but once you accept that you cannot fundamentally make people smarter (or more conscientious, harder working, etc), you can focus on the things that you actually can change.
The difficulty, of course, is that intelligence is really important. Not because I value it (though I do) but because “intelligence” is a rough shorthand for “being able to run your own life.” Even if we could somehow not have any “values” and love each other equally, the dumber people would still make more mistakes and end up, on average, with shittier lives than the smart people (unless we have also instituted some sort of highly coercive state to prevent people from making their own decisions).
At least Arnade does not claim that everyone is equally intelligent, that if we just made more kids do more math, they’d all become physicists. He knows and has the grace to recognize that not everyone is lucky enough to be smart. Some of us are dumb.
Perhaps his hope is not that we will vote for this candidate or that program, support this law or that institution, but that we’ll be kinder and more understanding of the troubles other people are going through.
I propose that we reduce paperwork.
Lizard people (metaphorical, not literal) love paperwork. Paperwork is how they show that they are better than you. Paperwork shows how deserving they are. Paperwork is an arbitrary hurdle used to distinguish the “deserving” poor from the undeserving, and how we discourage people from applying for welfare, food stamps, SSDI, etc. Paperwork is how big corporations drive smaller competitors out of business or prevent them from existing in the first place. Paperwork keeps poor, low-education entrepreneurs from starting businesses and keeps them trapped in low-end jobs.
Paperwork is the goddamn devil.
Unfortunately, many of the programs put in place to “help” the poor just increase the regulatory burden in their lives and make everything worse. For example, a friend of mine was homeless in San Francisco for many years. He had a fairly regular income, but also schizophrenia. San Francisco has many tenants’ rights laws, which are supposed to protect tenants from eviction, but in practice make renters unwilling to take on the lowest classes of renters–that is, folks they have reason to think they may have to evict. Dealing with all of that paperwork, lawyer fees, etc., is just too expensive for the landlords to make leasing to a high-risk tenant worthwhile, so especially poor people, even if they have the money to pay for a month’s rent, simply are not allowed to live in one place for that long, not even in the crappiest of homeless hotels.
In this case it’s not the tenants who have to fill out the paperwork, but the procedural burden placed on the landlords is still having a negative effect on their lives.
This is not me coming from a radical libertarian perspective, but the opinion I’ve formed via conversation with my friend about what it was like being on the streets and the various barriers he faced.
Many people who have spent years working with the homeless repeat that you cannot fundamentally change people. Aside from treating their mental illnesses and helping them get off drugs, the basic personality traits that lead to long-term homeless will in all likelihood persist. However, that does not mean that we need to increase the regulatory burden on landlords. There are always some people on the edge between homelessness and not, and we don’t need to make it artificially more difficult for them.
One conclusion I draw from Arnade’s account is that the war on drugs (and prostitution) is not going so well. As one woman he interviews says, you can’t do prostitution if you don’t have some drugs first to numb you to the experience.
Many of us use drugs–alcohol, Xanax, adderal, heroin, etc–to smooth over the stresses of our jobs or the parts of life we hate. We drink or pop medication to forget, to be popular, to make it all more bearable, and so, argues Arnade, do the poor.
“Mothers little helpers” were prescribed to my late mother to sedate her trauma. She went onto to die by over dosing. Can’t help but think the medication made her worse.
I think in these discussions of why people do drugs (trauma? rejection? loneliness?) we should consider another possibility: drugs make people feel better and are really addicting. Of course not everyone gets addicted to drugs, and many people who use drugs manage to do so without destroying their lives, but it is clear that for many people, the appeal of drugs is nigh over-powering. Many drug addicts, even the ones with family who love them and try to save them, eventually lose everything and end up dead in a ditch.
If people live in an area where drugs are common, then there is a good chance that at some point in their lives they will try them, and of the people who do, a good chance that they’ll become addicted, simply because drugs are addicting.
The War on Drugs doesn’t seem to be working.
Decriminalization is one potential approach. Several US states have tried decriminalizing marijuana, so we now have some preliminary results to discuss. According to Wikipedia:
In Colorado, effects since 2014 include increased state revenues, violent crime decreased, and an increase in homeless population. One Colorado hospital has received a 15% increase in babies born with THC in their blood.
Since legalization, public health and law enforcement officials in Colorado have grappled with a number of issues, serving as a model for policy problems that come with legalization. Marijuana-related hospital visits have nearly doubled between 2011, prior to legalization, and 2014. Top public health administrators in Colorado have cited the increased potency of today’s infused products, often referred to as “edibles”, as a cause for concern.
Summary: less crime, more people using pot. It’s a trade-off.
Slate Star Codex did some analysis/summarizing of the effects of marijuana legalization and found that it increased traffic accidents, which resulted in a lot more innocent people getting killed.
As far as I know, we don’t have good studies on the effects of marijuana on fetal development that control for genetics (or environment,) but the relevant mouse studies aren’t hopeful–looks like prenatal exposure to THC causes permanent brain damage.
So legalizing drugs looks like a bad idea, though decriminalization + increased funding for drug treatment programs might be good.
Another possibility is trying to give non-drug users more options to get away from high-use communities, and to give drug users community-based options that will help them escape their addictions, too.
Many of the desperately poor are suffering from untreated mental illnesses. Thankfully, mental illness is actually one of the things we can treat. We have very good medications that can radically decrease the negative effects from diseases like schizophrenia and bipolar. I think there’s a lot of room for improvement here, because it’s a fairly simple mechanical fix that we can actually do, if we just identify the people who need medications and convince them to take them. (People who have just discovered that all of their “friends” were really delusions do need support, however.)
Less mental illness could also result in fewer people trying to self-medicate with drugs.
As Arnade discusses, the official places set up to help the poor, like rehab clinics and welfare offices, are generally unpleasant and uninviting. Take Cabrini Green: it looks like it was designed by someone who was suffering and wanted everyone else to suffer, too.
People do not feel welcome in such spaces, nor do they want to stay and hang out. The poor opt to hang out in other, more comfortable places, like McDonald’s, church, or drug dens. There is probably room for improvement in making the spaces where people try to improve themselves more pleasant.
School is the government institution most of us have the most contact with. In my experience, most school teachers are well-intentioned and want schools to be pleasant places for children. Certainly they want kids to learn.
In my experience, though, most kids don’t like school. It’s work, it’s coercive, and for about 50% of the kids the pace is consistently too fast or too slow. Our mainstream model is based on German schools and is focused primarily on raising student test scores. Many kids simply want to run and play and aren’t suited to this particular style of learning.
As a kid I attended public school and hated it; as a homeschooling parent I use a different teaching model for my own children.
One thing kids from very deprived backgrounds generally lack is a stable adult presence in their lives. In traditional schools, students change teachers ever year (or every 50 minutes in the higher grades.) In Waldorf schools, students stay with the same teacher for their first 8 years, providing stability and the chance for a deep relationship.
There is one Waldorf school in California, Birney, that is also a public school, drawing from the general neighborhood, much of which is low-income minorities. A study of the effectiveness of this school vs conventional schools showed positive results:
African American and Lation students at Birney have a suspension rate that is ten times lower than similar students in the district.
Over five years duration for African American, Latino and other socio-economically disadvantaged students the effect of attending Birney was correlated with an increase of 8 percentile ranks (i.e. from 50th percentile to 58th percentile) in ELA. Attending Birney had a smaller but positive effect size for these students in math.
Birney’s good test scores might be a side effect of which parents chose to send their kids to a Waldorf school, but the overall happiness of the students shines in study’s many interviewees:
I remember how excited I was every single day. I was so excited to go to school. That was a feeling that was shared throughout the class. “What are we going to do today, where are we going, what are we going to learn?” and that’s the biggest thing about Waldorf. It infuses that excitement, that love for learning.
I’m not convinced that Waldorf schools are perfect; they are just one example of a different way to run schools that still works.
I’ve never seen a consistent enough definition of “systematic oppression” that I could figure out what it really means and how to test it, but I bet if you were a smart kid in foster care trying to apply to college, you’d be facing it.
Our current college application system is needlessly complicated (see: paperwork). Just do like we do when kids go to highschool and assign each kid as they near the end of highschool to the nearest branch of the State U, community college, or trade school, with some adjusting for SAT scores, and let them apply elsewhere if they want to. This way, everyone can at least get some basic job skills.
This is not a recommendation for how we should pay for college.
Arnade spends a lot of time at McDonald’s and inside churches. The role of religion in the lives of the poor is notable, though as an atheist, Arnade admits observing it all from a certain distance. Why are the poor so much more devout than the wealthy?
We study the causal impact of religiosity through a randomized evaluation of an evangelical Protestant Christian values and theology education program. We analyze outcomes for 6,276 ultrapoor Filipino households six months and 30 months after the program ended. At six months, we find increases in religiosity and income, no statistically significant changes in total labor supply, consumption, food security, or life satisfaction, and a decrease in perceived relative economic status. Exploratory analysis suggests that the income treatment effect may operate through increasing grit. These effects fade away at 30 months. We conclude that this church-based program may represent a method of increasing non-cognitive skills and reducing poverty in the short run among adults in developing countries, but more work is required to understand whether the effects can persist and if not, why not.
This seems reasonably likely to hold true for folks in the US as well. A commitment to Jesus results in a simultaneous commitment to being honest, hard working, avoiding drugs, etc, and provides an environment full of other people with similar commitments. This works for a while, resulting in more money, which is evident to both the individual and his family and friends.
After a while, the effect wears off. People go back to their old ways. But life is long, and there are many opportunities for people to get clean, get sober, and return to the church–for at least a while.
This was a really interesting article–book excerpt–about an upper-class Wallstreet guy who, through his daily walks, begins talking to and photographing the people he basically hadn’t noticed before.
Over the next half hour, she told me her life story. She told me how her mother’s pimp had put her on the streets at twelve. How she had had her first child at thirteen. How she was addicted to heroin. I ended by asking her the question I asked everyone I photographed: How do you want to be described? She replied without a pause, “As who I am. A prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God.”
I spent the next three years following Takeesha and the street family she was a member of—roughly fifty men and women who lived under bridges, in abandoned buildings, in sheds, in pits, in broken-down trucks, on rooftops, or, if they scored enough money, in per-hour motels. What she showed me prompted me to travel to other neighborhoods in cities across America, from Buffalo to New Haven to Cleveland to Selma to El Paso to Amarillo. In each of these places, people have a sense of being left behind and forgotten—or, worse, mocked and stigmatized by the rest of the world as it moves on and up with the GDP.
In many cases, these neighborhoods have literally been left behind by people like me. …
We had compassion for those who got left behind, but thought that our job was to provide them an opportunity (no matter how small) to get where we were. It didn’t occur to us that what we valued wasn’t what everyone else wanted. They were the people who couldn’t or didn’t want to leave their town or their family to get an education at an elite college, the people who cared more about their faith than about science. If we were the front row, they were the back row.
Had I asked people in my hometown why they were still there, I would have received the answer I heard in neighborhoods from Cairo to Amarillo to rural Ohio. They would have looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Because it is my home.”
This article–and the larger book, undoubtedly–touches on a lot of themes I’ve been pondering myself. Unfortunately, the article doesn’t have answers. I’d like answers.
Dignity, as I’ve said before, is one of those principles I am drawn to. I am not sure what can be done for people. Maybe nothing. But I can still treat others with respect, and maybe if we respected each other a little more, we could get our heads out of our collective rear ends and make something better of this country.
All told, I bought two cartons of Lantus (5 pens each carton) for $52 each, which is about a year supply for me. I also bought six single Kwikpens of Humalog for $13 dollars each, which is about a six month supply.
My total pharmacy bill that day was $182, and I left Mexico with a year’s supply of one insulin and a 6 month’s supply of another. That same amount of insulin – the exact same, in identical cartridges and boxes with the same graphics and colors and the same words written on them (in Spanish for the Mexican insulin) – would cost me over $3,000 with my American health coverage. Even after adding in a tank and a half of gas, I saved thousands of dollars by buying my life-saving medications in Mexico, instead of the US.
We sequenced the genomes of 15 skeletons from a 5,000-y-old mass grave in Poland associated with the Globular Amphora culture. All individuals had been brutally killed by blows to the head, but buried with great care. Genome-wide analyses demonstrate that this was a large extended family and that the people who buried them knew them well: mothers are buried with their children, and siblings next to each other. From a population genetic viewpoint, the individuals are clearly distinct from neighboring Corded Ware groups because of their lack of steppe-related ancestry. Although the reason for the massacre is unknown, it is possible that it was connected with the expansion of Corded Ware groups, which may have resulted in violent conflict.
An ethnic group is a set of people with a common ancestry, culture, and language. The Han Chinese, at a 1.3 billion strong, are an ethnic group; the Samaritans, of whom there are fewer than a thousand, are also an ethnic group. Ishi was, before his death, an ethnic group of one: the last surviving member of the Yahi people of California.
We sit within nested sets of genetic relatives:
(You are most likely part Homo neanderthalensis, because different species within the Homo genus have interbred multiple times.)
Interestingly, Wikipedia lists African American as an ethnicity on its list of ethnic groups page (as they should, because it is).
Four or five hundred relatives, from parents and children to fifth cousins, are enough to begin to describe an ethnic group. It certainly looks, based on the map, like I hail from an ethnic group–yet neither Wikipedia nor 23 and Me recognize this group.
Larger ethnic groups may be subdivided into smaller sub-groups known variously as tribes or clans, which over time may become separate ethnic groups themselves due to endogamy or physical isolation from the parent group. Conversely, formerly separate ethnicities can merge to form a pan-ethnicity, and may eventually merge into one single ethnicity. Whether through division or amalgamation, the formation of a separate ethnic identity is referred to as ethnogenesis.
Of course, no one wants to submit their DNA to 23 and Me and get the result “You’re a white person from America.” (Nor “You’re a black person from America.”) We know that. People take these tests to look at their deeper history.
But focusing only on the past makes it easy to lose sight of the present. You aren’t your ancestors. The world didn’t halt in 1492. I’m no more “British” or “European” than I am “Yamnaya” or “Anatolian farmer.”
History moves on. New ethnic groups form. The past tells us something about where we’ve been–but not where we’re headed.
Why do these declining denominations—or at least their ideas—remain so influential? I’ve only met one or two Unitarians in my life—although those COEXIST bumper stickers are everywhere—and I’ve never wittingly met a Quaker.
Well, I’ve met lots of Unitarians, and if we include the children of Unitarians I have now lived most of my life with Unitarians.
First, though, who exactly are the “Mainline Protestants”?
Wikipedia is helpful: They’re denominations that are Protestant but not fundamentalist, evangelical, or charismatic. In other words, they’re not too conservative and they don’t move or shout too much during services. (In the Mainline view, excessive movement or noise is animalistic and a sign of mental disability or weakness.)
Formal Unitarian Universalists are a little questionable theologically since they don’t have much theology and reject the Trinity and many of their members are outright atheists, but from a cultural standpoint they are clearly Mainline Protestants who have simply completed the journey.
There are a welter of small Protestant denominations with not terribly helpful names like the “United Church of Christ;” I do not know how similar these are to UUs.
Steves is right that you don’t meet many Quakers these days; you also don’t meet many Puritans, due to churches changing their names over the years, eg, many “Congregational” churches are now “United” churches. I suspect most of the “Quakers” have been absorbed into Methodist churches, while Puritans have been absorbed into these blandly named “United” and “Unitarian” denominations.
As you can see on the map, if you don’t count the recent Irish and Italian immigrants, core New England (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Hampshire) now prefers to attend American Baptist (not Southern) churches, while Quaker stronghold Pennsylvania is largely Methodist. (This map of course only shows membership in organized denominations; if folks in an area prefer churches that aren’t part of larger denominational structures, they won’t show up.)
Wikipedia has some solid data explaining why Mainline Protestants and their atheist children are culturally dominant, even if they don’t loudly proclaim their religious affiliation:
Some mainline Protestant denominations have the highest proportion of graduate and post-graduate degrees of any other denomination in the United States. Some also include the highest proportion of those with some college education, such as the Episcopal Church (76%), the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (64%), and the United Church of Christ(46%), as well as the most of the American upper class. compared with the nationwide average of 50%. Episcopalians and Presbyterians also tend to be considerably wealthier and better educated than most other religious groups, and they were disproportionately represented in the upper reaches of US business and law until the 1950s.
Probably the only people in the US who are better educated than Episcopalians are Hindus, Unitarian Universalists, and Jews–and Hindus are selected for their degrees. (Hindus: 77% college degrees; UU: 67%, Jews: 59%, Anglicans: 59%, Episcopalians: 56%–but for all practical purposes, Episcopalians and Anglicans are probably the same thing.)
Wikipedia also notes that Mainlines have:
played a leading role in the Social Gospel movement and were active in social causes such as the civil rights movement and women’s movement. As a group, the mainline churches have maintained religious doctrine that stresses social justice and personal salvation. Members of mainline denominations have played leadership roles in politics, business, science, the arts, and education. They were involved in the founding of leading institutes of higher education. Marsden argues that in the 1950s, “Mainline Protestant leaders were part of the liberal-moderate cultural mainstream, and their leading spokespersons were respected participants in the national conversation.”
If you want to be a respectable person in America, you join the Episcopal Church and make sandwiches for the homeless on Saturday afternoons. If you’re really smart, you join the Unitarians and make rainbow flags for the homeless on Saturday afternoons and try to get your kids to marry a nice Hindu doctor.
This dynamic is a different in the South, where the Southern Baptists dominate and the culture is more conservative, but influential cultural ideas don’t typically come out of the South. For starters, New York and Hollywood aren’t located in Atlanta.
The primary recreational field outside schooling… kin folk… and outside voluntary associations… is the church. White owned churches…. are highly organized, formally constituted, and then formally reconstituted at a myriad of age-graded levels; each department, class, and committee electing its own slate of ranked officers and keeping them busy. …
In Apalachee County* church rank reiterates the general rank of its membership. Urban churches consider themselves higher in rank than rural churches. The rural churches consider themselves no better than, but “just as good as” the urban churches.
We may correlate church social rank with the amount of individual freedom to extemporize during a communal service, with which rank varies inversely. In Apalachee County the small Episcopal church, for example, ranks very high; nearly every word and movement conform to a schedule, and communicants know exactly what to expect from the preacher… and from each other. Activity proceeds at an unemotional, orderly rehearsed pace, led by a single individual specifically clothed and trained for this specific ask. Changes in the form of worship or in interpretation of the holy writings are not local prerogatives. The service emphasizes reaffirmation and continuation.
Holiness churches, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Churches of God bear low social rankings; Baptist churches occupy the mid-range, the numerous sects [of different Baptist churches] comprising he overwhelming majority of he Apalachee County church-going public.
Note that “Baptist” here is Southern.
Churches of low rank value spontaneity and regard individual experiences “with the Lord” with rapture; individuals prize self-expression; several people, all informally clothed, initiate to the audience a different times in the ceremony; people move in specific relation to the circumstances of a particular … preacher, who often serves part time, is inventive in speech and gesture, although he relies on repetition of key phrases and movements, emphasizing a personal commitment, an emotional religious experience.
For example, the Church of God with Signs Following is a Pentecostal Holiness church famous for its tradition of handling poisonous snakes, speaking in tongues, and drinking poison (usually strychnine) during services. I don’t know if this specific denomination ever made it into Apalachee County, Florida, but I don’t think they’re going to become popular in NYC anytime soon, either.
(But before anyone gets jumpy, I’ve got Pentecostals in my own family, and they’re perfectly nice people who know better than to go handling rattlesnakes.)
If you ask me, Pentacostalism appeals to people who have emotions and want to express them, while Episcopalians and Presbytarians, as they say, are the “frozen chosen.”
Baptists span the high-and low-valued church types… The ceremonial format of Baptist churches varies between secs, locally ranked by the same criteria as other denominations, Southern being not only the most numerous but also the highest ranked. As with the Methodists, the downtown First Baptist Church… is the largest, most formal, most active, most organized, most visible, and most wealthy of is denomination in the county. Indeed [it] is the largest church of any denomination in the county.
Of course, Sapp doesn’t look at the question of actual religious fervor, what it means to actually believe something. That is a much more difficult matter, especially for an outsider.
Different Denominational Ministries:
The Methodists pick you up out of the gutter.
The Baptists get you saved.
The Presbyterians educate you.
The Episcopalians introduce you to high society.
Then the Methodists have to pick you up out of the gutter again.
Why are Unitarian Universalists such lousy hymn singers? They are reading ahead to see if they agree with the next line.
An Episcopalian is either a Roman Catholic who flunked Latin or a Presbyterian whose stocks paid off.
Have a great weekend, wherever and whether you chose to worship.
Make no mistake: Nichols is annoyingly arrogant. He draws a rather stark line between “experts” (who know things) and everyone else (who should humbly limit themselves to voting between options defined for them by the experts.) He implores people to better educate themselves in order to be better voters, but has little patience for autodidacts and bloggers like myself who are actually trying.
But arrogance alone doesn’t make someone wrong.
Nichols’s first thesis is simple: most people are too stupid or ignorant to second-guess experts or even contribute meaningfully to modern policy discussions. How can people who can’t find Ukraine on a map or think we should bomb the fictional city of Agrabah contribute in any meaningful way to a discussion of international policy?
It was one thing, in 1776, to think the average American could vote meaningfully on the issues of the day–a right they took by force, by shooting anyone who told them they couldn’t. Life was less complicated in 1776, and the average person could master most of the skills they needed to survive (indeed, pioneers on the edge of the frontier had to be mostly self-sufficient in order to survive.) Life was hard–most people engaged in long hours of heavy labor plowing fields, chopping wood, harvesting crops, and hauling necessities–but could be mastered by people who hadn’t graduated from elementary school.
But the modern industrial (or post-industrial) world is much more complicated than the one our ancestors grew up in. Today we have cars (maybe even self-driving cars), electrical grids and sewer systems, atomic bombs and fast food. The speed of communication and transportation have made it possible to chat with people on the other side of the earth and show up on their doorstep a day later. The amount if specialized, technical knowledge necessary to keep modern society running would astonish the average caveman–even with 15+ years of schooling, the average person can no longer build a house, nor even produce basic necessities like clothes or food. Most of us can’t even make a pencil.
Even experts who are actually knowledgeable about their particular area may be completely ignorant of fields outside of their expertise. Nichols speaks Russian, which makes him an expert in certain Russian-related matters, but he probably knows nothing about optimal high-speed rail networks. And herein lies the problem:
The American attachment to intellectual self-reliance described by Tocqueville survived for nearly a century before falling under a series of assaults from both within and without. Technology, universal secondary education, the proliferation of specialized expertise, and the emergence of the United States a a global power in the mid-twentieth century all undermined the idea… that the average American was adequately equipped either for the challenges of daily life or for running the affairs of a large country.
… the political scientist Richard Hofstadter wrote that “the complexity of modern life has steadily whittled away the functions the ordinary citizen can intelligently and competently perform for himself.”
… Somin wrote in 2015 that the “size and complexity of government” have mad it “more difficult for voters with limited knowledge to monitor and evaluate the government’s many activities. The result is a polity in which the people often cannot exercise their sovereignty responsibly and effectively.”
In other words, society is now too complex and people too stupid for democracy.
Nichols’s second thesis is that people used to trust experts, which let democracy function, but to day they are less trusting. He offers no evidence other than his general conviction that this change has happened.
He does, however, detail the way he thinks that 1. People have been given inflated egos about their own intelligence, and 2. How our information-delivery system has degenerated into misinformational goo, resulting in the trust-problems he believes we are having These are interesting arguments and worth examining.
A bit of summary:
Indeed, maybe the death of expertise is a sign of progress. Educated professionals, after all, no longer have a stranglehold on knowledge. The secrets of life are no longer hidden in giant marble mausoleums… in the past, there was less tress between experts and laypeople, but only because citizen were simply unable to challenge experts in any substantive way. …
Participation in political, intellectual, and scientific life until the early twentieth century was far more circumscribed, with debates about science, philosophy, and public policy all conducted by a small circle of educated males with pen and ink. Those were not exactly the Good Old Days, and they weren’t that long ago. The time when most people didn’t finish highschool, when very few went to college, and only a tiny fraction of the population entered professions is still within living memory of many Americans.
Aside from Nichols’s insistence that he believes modern American notions about gender and racial equality, I get the impression that he wouldn’t mind the Good Old Days of genteel pen-and-ink discussions between intellectuals. However, I question his claim that participation in political life was far more circumscribed–after all, people voted, and politicians liked getting people to vote for them. People anywhere, even illiterate peasants on the frontier or up in the mountains like to gather and debate about God, politics, and the meaning of life. The question is less “Did they discuss it?” and more “Did their discussions have any effect on politics?” Certainly we can point to abolition, women’s suffrage, prohibition, and the Revolution itself as heavily grass-roots movements.
But continuing with Nichols’s argument:
Social changes only in the past half century finally broke down old barriers of race, class, and sex not only between Americans and general but also between uneducated citizens and elite expert in particular. A wide circle of debate meant more knowledge but more social friction. Universal education, the greater empowerment of women and minorities, the growth of a middle class, and increased social mobility all threw a minority of expert and the majority of citizens into direct contact, after nearly two centuries in which they rarely had to interact with each other.
And yet the result has not been a greater respect for knowledge, but the growth of an irrational conviction among Americans that everyone is as smart as everyone else.
Nichols is distracting himself with the reflexive racial argument; the important change he is highlighting isn’t social but technical.
I’d like to quote a short exchange from Our Southern Highlanders, an anthropologic-style text written about Appalachia about a century ago:
The mountain clergy, as a general rule, are hostile to “book larnin’,” for “there ain’t no Holy Ghost in it.” One of them who had spent three months at a theological school told President Frost, “Yes, the seminary is a good place ter go and git rested up, but ’tain’t worth while fer me ter go thar no more ’s long as I’ve got good wind.”
It used to amuse me to explain how I knew that the earth was a sphere; but one day, when I was busy, a tiresome old preacher put the everlasting question to me: “Do you believe the earth is round?” An impish perversity seized me and I answered, “No—all blamed humbug!” “Amen!” cried my delighted catechist, “I knowed in reason you had more sense.”
But back to Nichols, who really likes the concept of expertise:
One reason claims of expertise grate on people in a democracy is that specialization is necessarily exclusive. WHen we study a certain area of knowledge or spend oulives in a particular occupation, we not only forego expertise in othe jobs or subjects, but also trust that other pople in the community know what they’re doing in thei area as surely as we do in our own. As much as we might want to go up to the cockpit afte the engine flames out to give the pilots osme helpful tips, we assume–in part, ebcause wehave to–that tye’re better able to cope with the problem than we are. Othewise, our highly evovled society breaks down int island sof incoherence, where we spend our time in poorly infomed second-guessing instead of trusting each other.
This would be a good point to look at data on overall trust levels, friendship, civic engagement, etc (It’s down. It’s all down.) and maybe some explanations for these changes.
Nichols talks briefly about the accreditation and verification process for producing “experts,” which he rather likes. There is an interesting discussion in the economics literature on things like the economics of trust and information (how do websites signal that they are trustworthy enough that you will give them your credit card number and expect to receive items you ordered a few days later?) which could apply here, too.
Nichols then explores a variety of cognitive biases, such a superstitions, phobias, and conspiracy theories:
Conspiracy theories are also a way for people to give meaning to events that frighten them. Without a coherent explanation for why terrible thing happen to innocent people, they would have to accept such occurence as nothing more than the random cruelty either of an uncaring universe or an incomprehensible deity. …
The only way out of this dilemma is to imagine a world in which our troubles are the fault of powerful people who had it within their power to avert such misery. …
Just as individual facing grief and confusion look for reasons where none may exist, so, too, will entire societies gravitate toward outlandish theories when collectively subjected to a terrible national experience. Conspiracy theories and flawed reasoning behind them …become especially seductive “in any society that has suffered an epic, collectively felt trauma. In the aftermath, millions of people find themselves casting about for an answer to the ancient question of why bad things happen to good people.” …
Today, conspiracy theories are reaction mostly to the economic and social dislocations of globalization…This is not a trivial obstacle when it comes to the problems of expert engagement with the public: nearly 30 percent of Americans, for example, think “a secretive elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world” …
Obviously stupid. A not-secret elite with a globalist agenda already rules the world.
and 15 percent think media or government add secret mind controlling technology to TV broadcasts. (Another 15 percent aren’t sure about the TV issue.)
It’s called “advertising” and it wants you to buy a Ford.
Anyway, the problem with conspiracy theories is they are unfalsifiable; no amount of evidence will ever convince a conspiracy theorist that he is wrong, for all evidence is just further proof of how nefariously “they” are constructing the conspiracy.
Then Nichols gets into some interesting matter on the difference between stereotypes and generalizations, which segues nicely into a tangent I’d like to discuss, but it probably deserves its own post. To summarize:
Sometimes experts know things that contradict other people’s political (or religious) beliefs… If an “expert” finding or field accords with established liberal values, EG, the implicit association test found that “everyone is a little bit racist,” which liberals already believed, then there is an easy mesh between what the academics believe and the rest of their social class.
If their findings contradict conservative/low-class values, EG, when professors assert that evolution is true and “those low-class Bible-thumpers in Oklahoma are wrong,” sure, they might have a lot of people who disagree with them, but those people aren’t part of their own social class/the upper class, and so not a problem. If anything, high class folks love such finding, because it gives them a chance to talk about how much better they are than those low-class people (though such class conflict is obviously poisonous in a democracy where those low-class people can still vote to Fuck You and Your Global Warming, Too.)
But if the findings contradict high-class/liberal politics, then the experts have a real problem. EG, if that same evolution professor turns around and says, “By the way, race is definitely biologically real, and there are statistical differences in average IQ between the races,” now he’s contradicting the political values of his own class/the upper class, and that becomes a social issue and he is likely to get Watsoned.
Jordan Peterson isn’t unpopular or “silenced” so much as he is disliked by upper class folks and liked by “losers” and low class folks, despite the fact that he is basically an intellectual guy and isn’t peddling a low-class product. Likewise, Fox News is just as much part of The Media as NPR, (if anything, it’s much more of the Media) but NPR is higher class than Fox, and Fox doesn’t like feeling like its opinions are being judged along this class axis.
For better or for worse (mostly worse) class politics and political/religious beliefs strongly affect our opinions of “experts,” especially those who say things we disagree with.
But back to Nichols: Dunning-Kruger effect, fake cultural literacy, and too many people at college. Nichols is a professor and has seen college students up close and personal, and has a low opinion of most of them. The massive expansion of upper education has not resulted in a better-educated, smarter populace, he argues, but a populace armed with expensive certificates that show the sat around a college for 4 years without learning much of anything. Unfortunately, beyond a certain level, there isn’t a lot that more school can do to increase people’s basic aptitudes.
Colleges get money by attracting students, which incentivises them to hand out degrees like candy–in other words, students are being lied to about their abilities and college degrees are fast becoming the participation trophies for the not very bright.
Nichols has little sympathy for modern students:
Today, by contrast, students explode over imagined slights that are not even remotely int eh same category as fighting for civil rights or being sent to war. Students now build majestic Everests from the smallest molehills, and they descend into hysteria over pranks and hoaxes. In the midst of it all, the students are learning that emotions and volume can always defeat reason and substance, thus building about themselves fortresses that no future teacher, expert, or intellectual will ever be able to breach.
At Yale in 2015, for example, a house master’s wife had the temerity to tell minority students to ignore Halloween costumes they thought offensive. This provoked a campus wide temper tantrum that included professors being shouted down by screaming student. “In your position as master,” one student howled in a professor’s face, “it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students… Do you understand that?!”
Quietly, the professor said, “No, I don’t agree with that,” and the student unloaded on him:
“Then why the [expletive] did you accept the position?! Who the [expletive] hired you?! You should step down! If that is what you think about being a master you should step down! It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here. You are not doing that!” [emphasis added]
Yale, instead of disciplining students in violation of their own norms of academic discourse, apologized to the tantrum throwers. The house master eventually resigned from his residential post…
To faculty everywhere, the lesson was obvious: the campus of a top university is not a place for intellectual exploration. It is a luxury home, rented for four to six years, nine months at a time, by children of the elite who may shout at faculty as if they’re berating clumsy maids in a colonial mansion.
The incident Nichols cites (and similar ones elsewhere,) are not just matters of college students being dumb or entitled, but explicitly racial conflicts. The demand for “safe spaces” is easy to ridicule on the grounds that students are emotional babies, but this misses the point: students are carving out territory for themselves on explicitly racial lines, often by violence.
Nichols, though, either does not notice the racial aspect of modern campus conflicts or does not want to admit publicly to doing so.
Nichols moves on to blame TV, especially CNN, talk radio, and the internet for dumbing down the quality of discourse by overwhelming us with a deluge of more information than we can possibly process.
Referring back to Auerswald and The Code Economy, if automation creates a bifurcation in industries, replacing a moderately-priced, moderately available product with a stream of cheap, low-quality product on the one hand and a trickle of expensive, high-quality products on the other, good-quality journalism has been replaced with a flood of low-quality crap. The high-quality end is still working itself out.
Accessing the Internet can actually make people dumber than if they had never engaged a subject at all. The very act of searching for information makes people think they’ve learned something,when in fact they’re more likely to be immersed in yet more data they do not understand. …
When a group of experimental psychologists at Yale investigated how people use the internet, they found that “people who search for information on the Web emerge from the process with an inflated sense of how much they know–even regarding topic that are unrelated to the ones they Googled.” …
How can exposure to so much information fail to produce at least some kind of increased baseline of knowledge, if only by electronic osmosis? How can people read so much yet retain so little? The answer is simple: few people are actually reading what they find.
As a University College of London (UCL) study found, people don’t actually read the articles they encounter during a search on the Internet. Instead, they glance at the top line or the first few sentences and then move on. Internet users, the researchers noted, “Are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed, there are signs that new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging as users ‘power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.”
The internet’s demands for instant updates, for whatever headlines generate the most clicks (and thus advertising revenue), has upset the balance of speed vs. expertise in the newsroom. No longer have reporters any incentive to spend long hours carefully writing a well-researched story when such stories pay less than clickbait headlines about racist pet costumes and celebrity tweets.
I realize it seems churlish to complain about the feast of news and information brought to us by the Information Age, but I’m going to complain anyway. Changes in journalism, like the increased access to the Internet and to college education, have unexpectedly corrosive effects on the relationship between laypeople and experts. Instead of making people better informed, much of what passes for news in the twenty-first century often leaves laypeople–and sometimes experts–even more confused and ornery.
Experts face a vexing challenge: there’s more news available, and yet people seem less informed, a trend that goes back at least a quarter century. Paradoxically, it is a problem that is worsening rather than dissipating. …
As long ago as 1990, for example, a study conducted by the Pew Trust warned that disengagement from important public questions was actually worse among people under thirty, the group that should have been most receptive to then-emerging sources of information like cable television and electronic media. This was a distinct change in American civic culture, as the Pew study noted:
“Over most of the past five decades younger members of the public have been at least as well informed as older people. In 1990, that is no longer the case. … “
Those respondents are now themselves middle-aged, and their children are faring no better.
If you were 30 in 1990, you were born in 1960, to parents who were between the ages of 20 and 40 years old, that is, born between 1920 and 1940.
Fertility for the 1920-1940 cohort was strongly dysgenic. So was the 1940-50 cohort. The 1900-1919 cohort at least had the Flynn Effect on their side, but later cohorts just look like an advertisement for idiocracy.
Nichols ends with a plea that voters respect experts (and that experts, in turn, be humble and polite to voters.) After all, modern society is too complicated for any of us to be experts on everything. If we don’t pay attention to expert advice, he warns, modern society is bound to end in ignorant goo.
The logical inconsistency is that Nichols believes in democracy at all–he thinks democracy can be saved if ignorant people vote within a range of options as defined by experts like himself, eg, “What vaccine options are best?” rather than “Should we have vaccines at all?”
The problem, then, is that whoever controls the experts (or controls which expert opinions people hear) controls the limits of policy debates. This leads to people arguing over experts, which leads right back where we are today. As long as there are politics, “expertise” will be politicized, eg:
Look at any court case in which both sides bring in their own “expert” witnesses. Both experts testify to the effect that their side is correct. Then the jury is left to vote on which side had more believable experts. This is like best case scenario voting, and the fact that the voters are dumb and don’t understand what the experts are saying and are obviously being mislead in many cases is still a huge problem.
If politics is the problem, then perhaps getting rid of politics is the solution. Just have a bunch of Singapores run by Lee Kwan Yews, let folks like Nichols advise them, and let the common people “vote with their feet” by moving to the best states.
The problem with this solution is that “exit” doesn’t exist in the modern world in any meaningful way, and there are significant reasons why ordinary people oppose open borders.
Conclusion: 3/5 stars. It’s not a terrible book, and Nichols has plenty of good points, but “Americans are dumb” isn’t exactly fresh territory and much has already been written on the subject.
Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we are continuing with Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders, published in 1913, starting with homicide rates.
In my opinion, Homicide Rate data collected before 1930 or so is highly questionable, for reasons that will soon become clear:
“Mountaineers place a low valuation on human life. I need not go outside my own habitat for illustrations. In our judicial district, which comprises the westernmost seven counties of North Carolina, the present yearly toll of homicides varies, according to counties, from about one in 1,000 to one in 2,500 of the population. And ours is not a feud district, nor are there any negroes to speak of. Compare these figures with the rate of homicide in the United States at large, about one to 8,300 population; of Italy, one to 66,000; Great Britain, one to 111,000; Germany, one to 200,000.”
EvX: And yet there are very few convictions, as noted previously.
““The laws are insufficient for the Governor to apply a remedy.” One naturally asks, “How so?” The answer is that the Governor cannot send troops into a county except upon request of the civil authorities, and they must go as a posse to civil officers. In most feuds these officers are partisans (in fact, it is a favorite ruse for one clan to win or usurp the county offices before making war). Hence the State troops would only serve as a reinforcement to one of the contending factions. To show how this works out, we will sketch briefly the course of another feud.—
“In Rowan County, Kentucky, in 1884, there was an election quarrel between two members of the Martin and Toliver families. The Logans sided with the Martins and the Youngs with the Tolivers. The Logan-Martin faction elected their candidate for sheriff by a margin of twelve votes. Then there was an affray in which one Logan was killed and three were wounded.
“As usual, in feuds, no immediate redress was attempted, but the injured clan plotted its vengeance with deadly deliberation. After five months, Dick Martin killed Floyd Toliver. His own people worked the trick of arresting him themselves and sent him to Winchester for safe-keeping. The Tolivers succeeded in having him brought back on a forged order and killed him when he was bound and helpless.
“The leader of the Young-Toliver faction was a notorious bravo named Craig Toliver. To strengthen his power he became candidate for town marshal of Morehead, and he won the office by intimidation at the polls. Then, for two years, a bushwhacking war went on. Three times the Governor sent troops into Rowan County, but each time they found nothing but creeks and thickets to fight. Then he prevailed upon the clans to sign a truce and expatriate their chiefs for one year in distant States. Craig Toliver obeyed the order by going to Missouri, but returned several months before the expiration of his term, resumed office, and renewed his atrocities. In the warfare that ensued all the county officers were involved, from the judge down. …
“The posse here mentioned was organized by Daniel Boone Logan, a cousin of the two young men who had been murdered, a college graduate, and a lawyer of good standing. With the assent of the Governor, he gathered fifty to seventy-five picked men and armed them with the best modern rifles and revolvers. Some of the men were of his own clan; others he hired. His plan was to end the war by exterminating the Tolivers.
“The posse, led by Logan and the sheriff, suddenly surrounded the town of Morehead. Everybody gave in except Craig Toliver, Jay Toliver, Bud Toliver, and Hiram Cook, who barricaded themselves in the railroad station, where all of them were shot dead by the posse.
“Boone Logan was indicted for murder. At the trial he admitted the killings; but he showed that the feud had cost the lives of not less than twenty-three men, that not one person had been legally punished for these murders, and that he had acted for the good of the public in ending this infamous struggle. The court accepted this view of the case, the community sustained it, and the “war” was closed.”
EvX: older homicide stats are not trustworthy.
“It should be understood that national and state politics cut little or no figure in these “wars.” Local politics in most of the mountain counties is merely a factional fight, in which family matters and business interests are involved, and the contest becomes bitterly personal on that account. This explains most of the collusion or partisanship of county officers and their remissness in enforcing the law in murder cases. Family ties or political alliances override even the oath of office.”
On the Origins of “poor whites” and Appalachians:
“The unfortunate class known as poor whites in the South is descended mainly from the convicts and indentured servants with which England supplied labor to the southern plantations before slavery days. The Cavaliers who founded and dominated southern society came from the conservative, the feudal element of England. Their character and training were essentially aristocratic and military. They were not town-dwellers, but masters of plantations. Their chief crop and article of export was tobacco. The culture of tobacco required an abundance of cheap and servile labor.
“On the plantations there was little demand for skilled labor, small room anywhere for a middle class of manufacturers and merchants, no inducement for independent farmers who would till with their own hands. Outside of the planters and a small professional class there was little employment offered save what was menial and degrading. Consequently the South was shunned, from the beginning, by British[Pg 357] yeomanry and by the thrifty Teutons such as flocked into the northern provinces. The demand for menials on the plantations was met, then, by importing bond-servants from Great Britain. These were obtained in three ways.—
1. Convicted criminals were deported to serve out their terms on the plantations. Some of these had been charged only with political offenses, and had the making of good citizens; but the greater number were rogues of the shiftless and petty delinquent order, such as were too lazy to work but not desperate enough to have incurred capital sentences.
2. Boys and girls, chiefly from the slums of British seaports, were kidnapped and sold into temporary slavery on the plantations.
3. Impoverished people who wished to emigrate, but could not pay for their passage, voluntarily sold their services for a term of years in return for transportation. …
“Then came a vast social change. At a time when the laboring classes of Europe had achieved emancipation from serfdom, and feudalism was overthrown, African slavery in our own Southland laid the foundation for a new feudalism. Southern society reverted to a type that the rest of the civilized world had outgrown.
“The effect upon white labor was deplorable. The former bond-servants were now freedmen, it is true, but freedmen shorn of such opportunities as they were fitted to use. Sprung from a more or less degraded stock, still branded by caste, untrained to any career demanding skill and intelligence, devitalized by evil habits of life, densely ignorant of the world around them, these, the naturally shiftless, were now turned out into the backwoods to shift for themselves. It was inevitable that most of them should degenerate even below the level of their former estate, for they were no longer forced into steady industry.
“The white freedmen generally became squatters on such land as was unfit for tobacco, cotton, and other crops profitable to slave-owners. As the plantations expanded, these freedmen were pushed further and further back upon more and more sterile soil. They became “pine-landers” or “piney-woods-people,” “sand-hillers,” “knob-people,” “corn-crackers” or “crackers,” gaining a bare subsistence from corn planted and “tended” chiefly by the women and children, from hogs running wild in the forest, and from desultory hunting and fishing. As a class, such whites lapsed into sloth and apathy. Even the institution of slavery they regarded with cynical tolerance, doubtless realizing that if it were not for the blacks they would be slaves themselves.”
EvX: Note: the image of the lazy, apathetic Southern white was mostly caused by chronic anemia due to epidemic levels of hookworm infection. Hookworms came with the African slaves, who were at least somewhat adapted and thus resistant to their effects, and quickly infected the local whites (the poorest of whom had no shoes and worked barefoot in the fields, spreading, yes, human waste for fertilizer on the crops) who had much less evolved resistance to the worms…
“Now these poor whites had nothing to do with settling the mountains. …
“The first frontiersmen of the Appalachians were those Swiss and Palatine Germans who began flocking into Pennsylvania about 1682. They settled westward of the Quakers in the fertile limestone belts at the foot of the Blue Ridge and the Alleghanies. Here they formed the Quakers’ buffer against the Indians, and, for some time, theirs were the westernmost settlements of British subjects in America. These Germans were of the Reformed or Lutheran faith. They were strongly democratic in a social sense, and detested slavery. They were model farmers and many of them were skilled workmen at trades.
“Shortly after the tide of German immigration set into Pennsylvania, another and quite different class of foreigners began to arrive in this province, attracted hither by the same lodestones that drew the Germans, namely, democratic institutions and religious liberty. These newcomers were the Scotch-Irish, or Ulstermen of Ireland. …
“Being by tradition and habit a border people the Scotch-Irish pushed to the extreme western fringe of settlement amid the Alleghanies. They were not over-solicitous about the quality of soil. When Arthur Lee, of Virginia, was telling Doctor Samuel Johnson, in London, of a colony of Scotch who had settled upon a particularly sterile tract in western Virginia, and had expressed his wonder that they should do so, Johnson replied, “Why, sir, all barrenness is comparative: the Scotch will never know that it is barren.”
“West of the Susquehanna, however, the land was so rocky and poor that even the Scotch shied at it, and so, when eastern Pennsylvania became crowded, the overflow of settlers passed not westward but southwestward, along the Cumberland Valley, into western Maryland, and then into the Shenandoah and those other long, narrow, parallel valleys of western Virginia that we noted in our first chapter. This western region still lay unoccupied and scarcely known by the Virginians themselves. Its fertile lands were discovered by Pennsylvania Dutchmen. The first house in western Virginia was erected by one of them, Joist Hite, and he established a colony of his people near the future site of Winchester. A majority of those who settled in the eastern part of the Shenandoah Valley were Pennsylvania Dutch, while the Scotch-Irish, following in their train, pushed a little to the west of them and occupied more exposed positions. There were representatives of other races along the border: English, Irish, French Huguenots, and so on; but everywhere the Scotch-Irish and Germans predominated.”
EvX: If you aren’t already familiar with the Appalachian chain, a god look at a topographic map reveals that the easiest area for introgression is around Pennsylvania, then southward through parallel mountain valleys, rather than westward over the tops of the mountains.
Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today were are continuing with Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders, published in 1913.
“Spartan diet does not put on flesh. Still, it should be noted that long legs, baggy clothing, and scantiness or lack of underwear make people seem thinner than they really are. Our highlanders are conspicuously a tall race. Out of seventy-six men that I have listed just as they occurred to me, but four are below average American height and only two are fat. About two-thirds of them are brawny or sinewy fellows of great endurance. The others generally are slab-sided, stoop-shouldered, but withey. The townsfolk and the valley farmers, being better nourished and more observant of the prime laws of wholesome living, are noticeably superior in appearance but not in stamina.”
EvX: I cannot help but think we have lost something of healthy stamina.
“There is a wealthy man known to everyone around Waynesville, who, being asked where he resided, as a witness in court, answered: “Three, four miles up and down Jonathan Creek.” The judge was about to fine him for contempt, when it developed that the witness spoke literal truth. He lives neither in house nor camp, but perambulates his large estate and when night comes lies down wherever he may happen to be. In winter he has been known to go where some of his pigs bedded in the woods, usurp the middle for himself, and borrow comfort from their bodily heat.”
EvX: I do not now about you, but I feel a kind of kinship with this man. Often I feel a restlessness, a sense that I am trapped by the walls of my house. It is not a dissatisfaction with the people in my house–toward them I feel no restlessness at all–but the house itself.
I am at peace again when I find myself in the woods, the trees towering over me; I am at peace in the snow, drifting through a blizzard. I am at peace in a fog, the world shut out by a faded haze. In the distance I see the mountains, and though I am walking to the playground or the shops they tug at me, and I am always tempted to turn my feet and just keep going until I arrive.
I do not want a large or fancy house; I just want to live in the woods among the plants and people I love.
But back to the man in the woods in the court:
“This man is worth over a hundred thousand dollars. He visited the world’s fairs at Chicago and St. Louis, wearing the old long coat that serves him also as blanket, and carrying his rations in a sack. Far from being demented, he is notoriously so shrewd on the stand and so learned in the law that he is formidable to every attorney who cross-questions him.”
“The first settlers of Appalachia mainly were Presbyterians, as became Scotch-Irishmen, but they fell away from that faith, partly because the wilderness was too poor to support a regular ministry, and partly because it was too democratic for Calvinism with its supreme authority of the clergy. This much of seventeenth century Calvinism the mountaineer retains: a passion for hair-splitting argument over points of doctrine, and the cocksure intolerance of John Knox; but the ancestral creed itself has been forgotten.
“The circuit-rider, whether Methodist or Baptist, found here a field ripe for his harvest. Being himself self-supporting and unassuming, he won easily the confidence of the people. He preached a highly emotional religion that worked his audience into the ecstasy that all primitive people love. And he introduced a mighty agent of evangelization among outdoor folk when he started the camp-meeting.
“The season for camp-meetings is from mid-August to October. The festival may last a week in one place. It is a jubilee-week to the work-worn and home-chained women, their only diversion from a year of unspeakably monotonous toil. And for the young folks, it is their theater, their circus, their county fair. (I say this with no disrespect: “big-meetin’ time” is a gala week, if there be any such thing at all in the mountains—its attractiveness is full as much secular as spiritual to the great body of the people.)”
EvX: Vacation Bible Camp is still a thing, of course.
“It is a camp by day only, or up to closing time. No mountaineer owns a tent. Preachers and exhorters are housed nearby, and visitors from all the country scatter about with their friends, or sleep in the open, cooking their meals by the wayside.
“In these backwoods revival meetings we can witness to-day the weird phenomena of ungovernable shouting, ecstasy, bodily contortions, trance, catalepsy, and other results of hypnotic suggestion and the contagious one-mindedness of an overwrought crowd. This is called “taking a big through,” and is regarded as the madness of supernatural joy. It is a mild form of that extraordinary frenzy which swept the Kentucky settlements in 1800, when thousands of men and women at the camp-meetings fell victims to “the jerks,” “barking exercises,” erotic vagaries, physical wreckage, or insanity, to which the frenzy led.
“Many mountaineers are easily carried away by new doctrines extravagantly presented. Religious mania is taken for inspiration by the superstitious who are looking for “signs and wonders.” At one time Mormon prophets lured women from the backwoods of western Carolina and eastern Tennessee. Later there was a similar exodus of people to the Castellites, a sect of whom it was commonly remarked that “everybody who joins the Castellites goes crazy.” In our day the same may be said of the Holy Rollers and Holiness People.”
EvX: Wikipedia appears to have nothing on the Castellites, but Wiktionary says they were a religious group in North Carolina in the late 19th century.
“An editor who had made one or two short trips into the mountains once wrote me that he thought the average mountaineer’s vocabulary did not exceed three hundred words. This may be a natural inference if one spends but a few weeks among these people and sees them only under the prosaic conditions of workaday life. But gain their intimacy and you shall find that even the illiterates among them have a range of expression that is truly remarkable. I have myself taken down from the lips of Carolina mountaineers some eight hundred dialectical or obsolete words, to say nothing of the much greater number of standard English terms that they command. …
“Our highlander often speaks in Elizabethan or Chaucerian or even pre-Chaucerian terms. His pronoun hit antedates English itself, being the Anglo-Saxon neuter of he. Ey God, a favorite expletive, is the original of egad, and goes back of Chaucer. Ax for ask and kag for keg were the primitive and legitimate forms, which we trace as far as the time of Layamon. When the mountain boy challenges his mate: “I dar ye—I ain’t afeared!” his verb and participle are of the same ancient and sterling rank. Afore, atwixt, awar, heap o’ folks, peart, up and done it, usen for used, all these everyday expressions of the backwoods were contemporary with the Canterbury Tales.
“A man said to me of three of our acquaintances: “There’s been a fray on the river—I don’t know how the fraction begun, but Os feathered into Dan and Phil, feedin’ them lead.” He meant fray in its original sense of deadly combat, as was fitting where two men were killed. Fraction for rupture is an archaic word, rare in literature, though we find it in Troilus and Cressida. “Feathered into them!” Where else can we hear to-day a phrase that passed out of standard English when “villainous saltpetre” supplanted the long-bow? It means to bury an arrow up to the feather, as when the old chronicler Harrison says, “An other arrow should haue beene fethered in his bowels.”
Social Organization (or lack thereof):
“Bear in mind that in the mountains every person is accorded the consideration that his own qualities entitle him to, and no whit more. It has always been so. Our Highlanders have neither memory nor tradition of ever having been herded together, lorded over, persecuted or denied the privileges of free-men. So, even within their clans, there is no servility nor any headship by right of birth. Leaders arise, when needed, only by virtue of acknowledged ability and efficiency. In this respect there is no analogy whatever to the clan system of ancient Scotland, to which the loose social structure of our own highlanders has been compared.
“We might expect such fiery individualism to cool gradually as population grew denser; but, oddly enough, crowding only intensifies it in the shy backwoodsman. Neighborliness has not grown in the mountains—it is on the wane. There are to-day fewer log-rollings and house-raisings, fewer husking bees and quilting parties than in former times; and no new social gatherings have taken their place. Our mountain farmer, seeing all arable land taken up, and the free range ever narrowing, has grown jealous and distrustful, resenting the encroachment of too many sharers in what once he felt was his own unfenced domain. And so it has come about that the very quality that is his strength and charm as a man—his staunch individualism—is proving his weakness and reproach as a neighbor and citizen. The virtue of a time out-worn has become the vice of an age new-born.
“The mountaineers are non-social. As they stand to-day, each man “fighting for his own hand, with his back against the wall,” they recognize no social compact. Each one is suspicious of the other. Except as kinsmen or partisans they cannot pull together. Speak to them of community of interests, try to show them the advantages of co-operation, and you might as well be proffering advice to the North Star. They will not work together zealously even to improve their neighborhood roads, each mistrusting that the other may gain some trifling advantage over himself or turn fewer shovelfuls of earth. Labor chiefs fail to organize unions or granges among them because they simply will not stick together.”