Wisdom has built her house; she has set up its seven pillars. — Proverbs 9:1
T. E. Lawrence is the Lawrence, of Arabia, and Seven Pillars of Wisdom is his autobiographical account of his time spent serving in the British and Arab armies during World War One. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ve got the basic idea, but it’s always good to read the original.
This is a pretty hefty book; my copy clocked in at about 690 pages. (The trick is to read about 50 pages a day; then you will finish it before the library wants it back.) The first hundred pages or so will make more sense if you already know a bit about the British/Ottoman front in WWI, but if you don’t want to read an additional four or five hundred pages in preparation, just read my reviews of Lawrence in Arabia and The Berlin-Baghdad Express. In particular you’ll want to know something about the absolute disasters that were Gallipoli and the Siege of Kut–Lawrence played a small, bitter role in the latter.
Once you get into the meat of Lawrence’s adventures, however, the book stands perfectly well on its own.
T. E. Lawrence was originally a British archaeologist who traveled to the Middle East to study Crusader-era castles and fell in love with the region. When Britain and the Ottoman Empire went to war, Lawrence was one of the few Brits with any first-hand knowledge of the area, people, and language, so he was sent to the intelligence bureau in British-controlled Cairo to draw up maps for the troops.
The war was, of course, a terrible idea for everyone involved. The Ottoman Empire was on its last legs, but the British generals were too stupid to strike anywhere useful and kept insisting on throwing its men into yet more trenches. The war also put the Bedouin population around Mecca in a bind, for while they were ruled by the Ottoman Turks, they got most of their income (and thus their food) from the annual pilgrimage, and the world’s largest Muslim country–and thus their biggest source of pilgrims–was British India. The Bedouins simply couldn’t afford to go to war with Britain–they’d starve–but they could afford to take British food and guns and gold and rebel against the Turks: so they did.
But how could the British actually manage a rebellion down in Arabia, especially when the locals were deeply distrustful of the British and the Arab aristocracy didn’t want to let Christians anywhere near their holy cities? This is where Lawrence, who actually spoke Arabic and understood something of the culture, inserted himself. He convinced the Arab leaders to let him journey far enough inland to actually meet them, liaisoned between them and the British in order to get them the guns and supplies they needed, and so made himself useful enough that Prince Faisal decided to keep him around.
Lawrence was, from the beginning, suspended between two armies. His basic job was to get Faisal to do what the British wanted (Lawrence was, after all, a British subject in pay of the British army,) moving troops here and there and attacking the Turks as needed. This was obviously complicated by the fact that what was in Faisal’s interest wasn’t necessarily in Britain’s interests, and vice versa, and so to get the Arabs to do what they wanted, the British commanders weren’t above lying. For Lawrence, actually on the ground among the troops, actively deceiving people into giving their lives to benefit the British was a heavy burden, and he assuaged his conscience by trying to minimize casualties and giving Faisal the best advice he could to position the Arab troops favorably come the inevitable post-war settling of accounts.
Lawrence soon realized that the Arab troops he was accompanying were not even remotely suited to modern, European-style trench warfare–for that matter, neither were European troops, but the sheer size of European armies allowed them to keep throwing men into the giant war-grinder for years on end. The Arab armies were too small (and poor) to grind through men and materials in this way; if they tried to face the Turks in head-to-head combat, they would run out of men and collapse.
While laid up with dysentery (or some similar illness,) Lawrence had plenty of time to think through all of the books of military strategy he’d read and ponder the point of war. The point of the Arab rebellions wasn’t “the shedding of blood” nor even the conquering of enemy territory. It as simply to make the Turks go away, and this was best achieved not by killing the Turks, but by being a pain in the ass making it difficult for them to maneuver in Arabia. In open combat, the Arabs were at a distinct disadvantage–they had fewer men, fewer resources, fewer weapons, and no way to conscript troops or force the soldiers to even stay and fight if a battle turned against them–but when it came to sabotaging supply lines, the Arabs were at a distinct advantage, because Turkish rail lines went through hundreds of miles of trackless, uninhabited desert where a raiding party could materialize in an instant, do damage, and then disappear. By contrast, the Arab supply lines were basically wells, camels, and forage.
Thus, in Lawrence’s words, while the traditional army was a solid, immobile block tethered to supply lines, the Arab army should be like a gas, materializing where needed, doing damage, and then melting back into the landscape, indistinguishable from ordinary Bedouins with their tents and herds.
Thus was born Lawrence’s strategy of leading small parties of men and camels across the desert to blow up trains, bridges, and track, with the occasional unavoidable battle.
It’s a good book. Is it 690 pages worth of good? Not quite; I think Lawrence could have cut about a hundred pages’ worth of descriptions of sand and rocks, but that’s still 590 pages of exciting train demolitions and life-or-death struggles across the desert. The book also chronicles Lawrence’s mental degeneration under the strains of war, starvation, torture, and watching people die, sometimes by his own hand. If you’re the sort of person who likes long books about wars, like Lord of the Rings or War and Peace, Seven Pillars of Wisdom should be right up your alley.
Scott Anderson’s Lawrencein Arabia is, quite obviously, about the famous T. E. Lawrence “of” Arabia. The book ranges significantly wider than Lawrence’s personal account, however, shifting between the perspectives of Ottoman officials, German spies, American spies, Zionist spies, and of course British spies.
I read this book concurrently with The Berlin-Baghdad Express, so my apologies if some of my memories overlap and I ascribe to one book content actually found in the other. The two books complement each other very well; The Berlin-Baghdad Express basically focuses on the German/Ottoman side of the war, with special attention given to the characters of Max von Oppenheim and his protégé Curt Prufer; while Lawrence in Arabia focuses more on the Allied side of the war, following primarily Lawrence (of course), Jewish spy Aaron Aaronsohn, American oil-spy William Yale, and occasionally Ottoman officials like Enver Pasha.
If you only have time to read one book, I’d recommend Lawrence in Arabia, because it also covers the lives of Prufer and Oppenheim, but you’d be missing out on the true depths of the German-Ottoman strategy.
World War One is not light reading. Most of the war can be best described as “insane human carnage over absolutely nothing.” The Arabian end of the war is slightly less bad simply because the Arabs did not have the numbers to send hundreds of thousands of soldiers to their deaths. Lawrence quickly realized that the usual British fighting strategy of “kill your own men as quickly as possible” wouldn’t work in Arabia, and came up with a daring alternative strategy of striking the enemy’s vital points while risking minimal deaths to his own troops. Unfortunately, of course, troops still did die.
Lawrence found himself caught in a bind, however. As the British liaison to the rebel Arab army, his job was to convince Prince Faisal and the troops to put their lives on the lines in exchange for British support and promises of post-war independence. As a British intelligence officer, he knew these promises were lies: he was privy to the Sykes-Picot agreement long before many others in the region. Lawrence wanted neither to betray his own government, least of all in the midst of war, nor to ask men to fight and die for promises he knew were lies.
Lawrence ultimately solved this conflict by simply telling Prince Faisal about the Sykes-Picot agreement. While he was certainly not authorized to do this, he rationalized his action on the grounds that it was, ultimately, in Britain’s interest that it not lie to its allies. Informed allies today might not take as many deadly risks on behalf of the British, but also wouldn’t feel themselves betrayed at the end of the war and demand retribution for their sacrifices. Still, the result of telling Faisal about Sykes-Picot wasn’t “forthright honesty between the British and Arabs” but “no guarantees at all of what the British will decide at the end of the war and ordinary men still asked to fight and die for forces that might very well turn on them.”
Beyond end-of-war agreements, Lawrence’s duty to Britain often called upon him to use the Arabs he was advising or leading to advance Britain’s ends, not their own. For example, it might be in the Arabs’ interest to take some town, while it’s in the British interest that the Arabs attack a nearby railroad depot and the British take the town. In his capacity as a British officer, it was of course Lawrence’s duty to carry out his nation’s military plans, but this meant actively sabotaging the efforts of the Arab men fighting under and for him. A man cannot serve two masters, and this inherent conflict of motives could never truly be resolved so long as Lawrence insisted on seeing his men as human beings and not pawns to be moved at will across the battlefields.
The British command, for its part, might be excused somewhat by the justification that this was war; with thousands of British men being sacrificed by the day upon the fields of Europe, the deaths of a few handfuls of foreigners for the cause hardly even bore noticing. Of course, the sensible response to discovering that your men are marching into an insatiable meat grinder is to stop marching men into the meat grinder, not to throw some Arabs in after them, but don’t look to WWI for wise decisions.
Lawrence was basically able to ignore/rationalize his way around his direct orders on the Arab front and go do more or less what he wanted simply because the front was so small and insignificant in the grand scheme of the war. Maybe Lawrence and 25 men would blow up a bridge, maybe they wouldn’t. Meanwhile, nearly a half million men threw themselves at the shores of Gallipoli in a disastrous experiment to see whether humans could withstand machine gun bullets attempt to take Constantinople. 50 thousand Allied men perished on those beaches (along with 56 thousand Ottoman defenders.) So the Arabs are inexplicably in a spot where they weren’t expected last week: who even cares?
While Lawrence was not completely forthright with his men, when push came to shove, Lawrence tended to side with his men over his commanders, advising the Arabs to take actions that would hopefully benefit themselves in the eventual peace accords. Under normal circumstances, this might have been termed “treason” and Lawrence hanged, but everyone loves a winner and Lawrence’s strategy of “not marching directly into a meat grinder” was so comparatively successful that he could not help but be forgiven.
In the end, it didn’t really matter. Britain’s strategy of “tell everyone what they want to hear until we get out of this mess” eventually boiled down to “splitting the conquered territory with France.” With the war finished on the Western Front, the remaining British and French forces so outweighed the small Arab force that they more or less dictated the terms of the settlements with the Ottomans. The Arab troops were helpful for distracting and worrying Turkish troops during the war, but once the fighting was over, their utility was spent.
The adventures of Aaron Aaronsohn and William Yale were also quite interesting.
Aaronsohn’s family was one of many that moved to Palestine in the early years of the Zionist movement, but they came from–more or less–within the borders of the Ottoman Empire itself. The Ottoman Empire used to rule a significant chunk of south-eastern Europe, including Greece, the Balkans, and several nearby areas, and as the Empire lost its territories in Europe, former citizens were faced with the question of whether to stay put and become subjects of their new nation, or pack their bags and stay part of the Empire. Since Aaronsohn’s family was Jewish, they were never accepted into their newly formed nation, and so the family kept their Ottoman citizenship, packed their bags, and moved.
At the time, many other Jewish families were also moving to Palestine from other parts of the world. Some came from Germany; others came from Russia. Russia is generally regarded as the worst of the worst for Jews in those days, and Jews were eager to get out.
Aaronsohn grew up in a company town literally run by the Rothschilds in something resembling an NRX dream. He was very bright, so the community paid for him to go to college in America, where he studied agronomy (these were he days when simply growing enough food to feed everyone was still a pressing concern). It was clear to Aaronsohn, based on historical accounts from the time of the Roman Empire, that Palestine ought to be able to grow more food than it currently was. Aside from importing modern farming techniques, he figured out that there were untapped water reserves–People simply needed to drill more wells.
When WWI began, all of the belligerent nations were faced with the problem of what to do with their resident alien populations. Those from allied nations posed no difficulties, but immigrants from countries they were now at war with posed potential security threats. In particular, since the Ottoman Empire had entered the war on the side of Germany and against Britain, France, and Russia, the Empire’s German Jews were allowed to stay put, but its Russian Jews were expelled and sent back to Russia–despite the fact that if there was one country in the world that Jews hated, it was Russia, and if there was one group of Jews that the critically-short-on-manpower Ottoman army might convince to take up arms against Russia, it was Jews who had fled Russia and been given sanctuary in the OE. But never mind that; they were simply expelled, creating a mass exodus from Ottoman-controlled-Palestine to the nearest Russia-allied country, British-controlled-Egypt.
Since Aaronsohn’s family consisted of actual Ottoman subjects, they did not have to move, but they witnessed the expulsions of many in their communities and the subsequent Ottoman army requisitions of virtually everything not nailed down–food, horses, fence posts, plows, clothes, baby clothes, women’s underwear–“for the cause.”
And then the locusts came. Locust swarms of Biblical proportions descended upon the land, devouring everything the army hadn’t. Children and animals were actually going blind because the locusts would land on their eyes while they were asleep and drink the moisture from their eyeballs. The war had barely even begun and the population was already facing starvation.
The Ottomans hired Aaronsohn to head the locust eradication program, giving him sweeping powers to do whatever was necessary to get rid of the bugs. Unfortunately, local authorities were often less than eager to listen to a Jewish guy, preferring the eradication strategy of “doing absolutely nothing.”
And then the Armenian Genocide started. (This is obviously what the Ottoman army needed to be spending its energy on at this point in the war, right?) Most able-bodied Armenian males were simply shot, but the women, children, and elderly were force-marched into the desert to die of thirst/starvation. Train stations were clogged with throngs of desperate, starving people. Train tracks were clogged with the corpses of formerly desperate people who’d been run over by the trains. Many of the skilled workers on the railroads were themselves Armenian, and with the official expulsions were also transformed into starving, desperate corpses, because what army needs a functioning railroad during a war?
It was basically the zombie apocalypse.
To his credit, Enver Pasha, who apparently wasn’t informed of the “kill all the Armenians” policy, actually tried to save the starving people streaming into his city by requisitioning food and other resources for them, but there wasn’t anything to be had because there was already a famine going on.
Meanwhile, Aaronsohn and some of his close family were travelling up and down the locust-affected-area, watching all of the destruction and thinking, “Oh my god; the Ottomans are murderously incompetent; we have to get the British to invade and start running things or we’re all going to die.”
And so Aaronsohn became a spy (or at least tried to become a spy), but that’s a story that I’ll let you read the book to learn the end of.
William Yale hailed from the family that had gifted the famous university with its name, but his particular branch of the family had fallen on hard times and Yale went to work as a common laborer for Standard Oil in Oklahoma. But Yale was ambitious and hard-working, and the company soon decided to send him to the Middle East to scout for oil.
And so, William Yale was stranded in the Ottoman Empire when the war broke out. At the time, the US was neutral, not a combatant, so he just hunkered down and tried to look out for Standard Oil’s interests until drilling could resume. His status protected him from most of the war’s worst privations, but he still saw the destruction around him. Eventually he made it back to the US and joined the war effort in his capacity as a “Mid-East expert,” or yet another spy, though he never abandoned his true loyalty to Standard Oil.
The US plays a rather small role in the book, since it had almost no part in the Ottoman theatre–in fact, the US never even declare war on the Ottomans. The US only comes in as player at the end of the story, with the Americans attempting to influence the creation of a new world order at the Treaty of Versailles, which by all accounts involved a bunch of naïve ideas born of no real experience with the regions under dispute. (But that shouldn’t surprise you if you’ve been paying any attention to the past hundred years of US foreign policy.)
So, do I recommend it? Yes. It’s a good book, especially if you’re interested in the late Ottoman Empire, Lawrence of Arabia, or WWI. I’ve now begun reading Lawrence’s personal memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and while I am enjoying it, I find that I am quite glad I read Lawrence in Arabia first. Even though Seven Pillars is 650 pages long, the material is dense and many events are covered so quickly that I wouldn’t know what Lawrence is talking about if I hadn’t already read about it in more depth in Lawrence in Arabia. (I’m sure this was less of an issue back when the book was published and the general public was more familiar with the course of various WWI battles.)
Overall: This book is four years old and kind of boring. It makes some interesting points, however, which I will try to summarize for you.
The good: It’s a fairly comprehensive review of the major scandals of the Obama Administration/government during Obama’s term.
Cons: The book doesn’t provide a solid comparison of the Obama admin to other administrations, and a lot of the stuff it tries to make political hay over seems like ordinary bureaucratic crud.
Why even bother with reading a book about old scandals? Aside from the lack of choice in the matter (I suppose I could have done more crosswords,) it is good to occasionally look back at the things we were previously concerned about and evaluate whether our concerns were justified or not. Did that thing turn out to actually be a big deal, or did it fizzle away?
One thing you’ll immediately note is that pretty much all of this has faded away. Remember the scandal about Hillary Clinton’s private email server? Well, the server didn’t disappear; we just don’t hear anything about it anymore. It was a political tool for one side to wield against the other side during an election, and once it had served its purpose, it was dropped.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Hillary’s server stopped mattering. Whether it ever actually mattered from a practical, legal, or national security standpoint remains whether it’s a useful political bludgeon or not.
The author, Tom Fitton, is president of Judicial Watch, an organization that exists for the purpose of filing FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests. They seem to target primarily liberal administrations; it would have been good if the book gave more details about anything from the Bush administration for comparison.
The scandals outlined in the book cover Hillary Clinton’s email server, Benghazi, the ATF’s “Fast and Furious” program, voter fraud, Congress and the Senate claiming to be “small businesses” to take advantage of DC taxpayers, the IRS targeting of conservative political orgs, and immigration/border enforcement. There’s also the general theme of “they keep denying our FOIA requests” that runs through the whole book.
The author makes a big deal about the Obama administration denying more FOIA requests than any previous administration, but here we are lacking some critical details, like whether the Obama admin received more FOIAs. Fitton doesn’t explore whether this increase in denials is due to some specific Obama-era policy or appointee, or if it’s just the latest incident in the incremental development of more lawyerly bureaucracies that find reasons to deny whatever you’ve filed a request for. I am personally inclined toward the latter theory, because I see the same trend everywhere in society. A form stars out as a way to request something a procedure as a way to get it done, and then they transform into a way to deny, slow down, and prevent things from getting done.
Here’s a quote from the book about “defying the inspectors general”:
The cavalier and obstructive attitude of the administration and its Justice Department was also demonstrated by the fact that agencies within the executive branch like the FBI have started refusing to comply with requests from the government’s own Inspectors General [IGs] to provide requested records, information, and documents the IGs need to conclude their investigations… In 2014, a majority of the IGs signed an unprecedented letter to Congress, complaining about the administration’s actions… asked Congress to use “all available powers” to enforce access.
Of course, this is not necessarily Obama’s fault–many government employees are career guys who work for many administrations or enforcing policies set up by their predecessors. I get annoyed when people attribute to the “X administration” things that really had nothing to do with it. Are there riots going on under Trump? Yes. Are these “Trump’s riots?” No.
I’m sure I don’t need to relate the fine details of Benghazi, which you probably know more about than I do. I did find Hillary’s first statement on the matter (at 10:08 PM) interesting, though:
Some have sought to justify this behavior as a response to inflammatory material on the internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation.
Now, this is an incredible statement on many levels, not just the obviously incendiary content (borderline 1st amendment violation, too.) But I don’t think we should take this at face value–in fact, I suspect the statement’s entire goal is to be so asinine that it distracts conservatives away from asking “Wait, what caused this?” and toward arguing about whether or not it’s appropriate for a woman who attends “spirit cooking” events to claim that the US Government has an opinion about people denigrating other people’s religious views. It certainly takes willpower not to argue against the the statement’s surface-level claims, but let’s try.
The thing we’re not supposed to notice is that the stated rationale for the attack–that it was in response to some random Youtube video–doesn’t make sense. It is more sensible to assume that the attack was a response to something more substantial, like other US actions in the Middle East (eg, the killing of Al-Qaeda’s Aboyahiye in Pakistan and a reprise of 9-11, since the attack happened on 9-11-12.) These people are terrorists/militia guys, not YouTube fans.
Here’s what I suspect was actually going on: The Obama administration wanted to support the so-called “Islamic Spring” because it was supposed to bring democracy to the Middle East, but honestly, when’s the last time a revolution in the area did anything good? (If there was one and I just haven’t heard of it, let me know.) Iran had a revolution, and look how that turned out. No, stable governments in the Middle East are generally better for their people and the rest of the world than civil war and lawless zones that get taken over by groups like ISIS.
Regardless, Obama and Hillary had decided they didn’t like governments of Syria and Libya, so they were arming the “pro democracy” forces there, which just coincidentally happened to be terrorists connected to the same terrorists who attacked the embassy in Libya. What they don’t want us to ask is, “Wait a minute, why are we funding a civil war in Libya?”
I suspect there are people somewhere in the government who really believe that we can finally have peace in the Middle East if we can just swap out this leader for that leader, much like some people think that sooner or later, their lottery number has to come up.
It never works.
If we think of human societies like natural ecosystems, then we know an ecosystem is in balance when it produces or has enough resources to feed everything in it; it goes out of balance if some disaster like a volcanic eruption or death of all of the wolves messes things up. Humans have to eat; societies also trade for useful goods and appreciate peace, health, and security. Every society tries to achieve a balance of strong enough government forces to keep people safe from invaders or local malefactors, but without harming innocent citizens or costing too much in the process.
When the US goes an mucks around with other countries, we change the balance of their ecosystems and like birds at a feeder, our inputs become part of the system. When those countries are complicated systems that we don’t understand, our involvement can quickly become a total disaster. (You can’t half-ass colonialism.)
This is where, as far as I can tell, Trump has so far done a better job than Obama (or Bush): he hasn’t gotten involved in any of these quagmires. When there was a question of Syria violating the Genevia Convention by using poison gas, he dropped a few bombs, but mostly he’s left other countries alone.
I don’t completely blame Obama for his Mid-East interventions, because many of these policies were simply continuations of terrible Bush-era policies, and it is difficult for most people to to question things that are just handed to them as received wisdom. Which is a bit of an insult to Obama’s intelligence, I suppose.
Next we have the Hillary Clinton email scandal, which you probably know all about already. It’s remarkable how quickly the media and everyone else stopped caring about Hillary’s emails once Trump got into office. The scandal does raise the question of how much technology is contributing to our notions of both secrecy and access. There wouldn’t have been any missing minutes from the Nixon Tapes had Nixon not tape recorded things in the first place. There wouldn’t be any missing Hillary emails had email not yet been invented. Just 50 years ago, before email, text messaging, and ubiquitous electronic record keeping, Washington produced far fewer documents than it does today. 100 years ago, they couldn’t have tape recorded everything; 200 years ago, they didn’t have typewriters or telegrams. What would there have been to FOIA during the Monroe administration? What if someone had tried to request all documents related to the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark’s expedition? Perhaps a law might declare that citizens have a right to attend sessions of Congress, but at what point do letters between George Washington and his cabinet become government documents? My basic inclination is that all government documents should be public by default, with exceptions only for matters of national security and the like, but this is not necessarily reasonable.
On the other hand, perhaps this new electronic media makes it easier for people to lie, because they can coordinate their stories faster.
In sum, yes, Hillary had an illegal email server and it was probably vulnerable to hacking.
The book spends a while discussing documents related to Huma Abedin’s financial disclosures, required as part of changing her job title. This sounds less like “corruption” and more like “people trying to deal with a byzantine, sclerotic bureaucracy.”
A bigger issue is whether the Clintons (Bill and Hillary) have benefited financially from their time in politics in a manner that is unseemly or inappropriate (again, it would be good here to have some comparison with other presidents and their speaking fees.)
A joint examination by the Washington Examiner and Judicial Watch found that former President Clinton gave 215 speeches and earned $48 million while his wife presided over US foreign policy.
(A former president being married to a current high-ranking government official or politician is a new arena of political morality.)
There are a few interesting bits about Bill and Epstein. Quoting an interview with Virginia Roberts (one of Epstein’s victims) from the NY Post:
…Clinton also visited Epstein’s private Caribbean retreat… “I remember asking Jeffrey [Epstein], “What’s Bill Clinton doing here?”… [He] laughed it of and said, “Well, he owes me a favor.”
And from New York magazine:
… in 2002, Clinton recruited Epstein to make his plane available for a weeklong anti-poverty tour of Africa with [a bunch of people, some of them famous, including the now-imprisoned Ghislane Maxwell].
(I wonder if they realize there’s plenty of poverty they could be touring right here in the US. 48 million dollars could go a long way toward helping foster kids get a better start in life.)
The “Fast and Furious” scandal, like some of the others, actually started under Bush II. Obama decided to expand the program, though.
In Fast and Furious, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) agents directed people known as “straw purchasers”–low level illicit weapons purchasers who work for the Mexican drug cartels’ smugglers inside the United States–to buy guns at Phoenix, Arizona-area federally licensed firearms dealers. Those guns were then smuggled into Mexico by cartel operatives, after agents let the weapons get into the hands of these cartel operatives by not tracking them. The smuggled guns continue to turn up in disturbing places. Fast and Furious weaponry was in the arsenal of two terrorists who tried to storm a cartoon convention in Dallas, Texas, in 2015 and was owned by Mexican drug lord Jaquin “El Chapo” Guzman at the time of his final 2016 arrest.
In October 2009, the ATF Phoenix Field Division created a gun-trafficking division for the purpose of funneling weapons illegally to the Mexican drug cartels.
I wonder if this program had any connection to the mysterious Las Vegas shooting, which we still haven’t learned anything about.
The point of all of this was to hopefully later use the guns to track down the larger organization that was using them, not just the guys doing the purchasing, in order to build a larger conspiracy case. Unfortunately, the program did not come with a way to effectively track the guns.
The odd thing here (well, one of the odd things) is that despite this being a local ATF program that the president normally wouldn’t be involved in one way or another, “Fast and Furious” was the only scandal in which Obama used his “executive privilege” claim to withhold documents that had been requested by the House of Representatives. The book’s best specuation here is that Obama wanted to use the program to score an anti-second amendment propaganda victory:
At the end of March 2009, Clinton visited Mexico’s capital, Mexico City… While there, Clinton gave speeches bashing American gun stores and gun owners for the violence. …
The nation’s top diplomat’s trip was much heralded in the press and was an obvious attempt by the political figures at the top of the Obama administration to mislead people into agreeing with her claim that “90 percent” of the “guns that are used by the drug cartels against the police and the military” actually “come from America.” …
Clinton’s claim is actually false. A diplomatic cable uncovered by WikiLeaks shows that 90 percent of the weapons the cartels get come from Central America or from corrupt Mexican military officials. Oftentimes cartels will raid armories in Guatemala. Or crooked Mexican military officials will split up a shipment of new rifles among their troops and the cartels. For instance, if two hundred new fully automatic AK-47s come in, a dirty military leader might give a hundred to his troops and sell the other hundred to his buddies int he cartel. …
For organized crime purposes, the guns the cartels get from Central America or from corrupt military leaders are better than what cartels could get from America. … The ATF’s own figures show that only 17 percent of the guns found at Mexican crime scenes have been traced back to the United States.
The other, more mundane theory (also put forth by the book) is that the ATF guys were trying to build up the size of their case in order to get more funding. (I suppose we are all trying to get more funding, after all. If an organization is paid to stop crime, then it naturally develops a certain interest in there being plenty of crime around for it to stop.) The only problem, of course, is that crimes had to actually be committed with the guns before the ATF guys could get their funding, and most people prefer that the ATF not try to get people shot.
The next chapter was on the push for voter ID/to clean up voter registries. I wish the author had provided some examples of actual voter fraud, rather than just invite us to imagine it. For example, there was some brazen fraud during LBJ’s senate race. I think both sides here have settled on a political stance without checking whether it actually benefits them–perhaps Democrats would actually benefit more than Republicans from requiring voter IDs, for example.
More interesting is the matter of prosecutors, who certainly have agendas:
A prime example of intimidation at the polls reveals the Obama administration’s disappointing attitude toward election crimes occurred in the 2008 federal election when two members of the New Black Panther Party stood in a doorway of a polling place in Philadelphia …
The case against the defendants was strong… but the case was abruptly curtailed and all but shut down by the newly appointed officials of the Obama administration.
Eventually some of the older lawyers left because they felt sidelined by the new guys.
Chris Coates, the chief of the voting section… was another lawyer who didn’t go along with the administration’s radical agenda and wanted to enforce voting laws in a racially neutral, non-partisan manner. The Obama administration was particularly angry at him because he had approved the filing of the voter intimidation lawsuit… Popper says the Obama administration set up an entire structure to bypass Coates… there was in essence “a shadow Justice Department” with subordinates making recommendations regarding Coates and the cases Coates should have been consulted on.
Hawaii had some incidents in which it tried to set up elections that only Native Hawaiians could vote in.
Then there’s a funny controversy where Congress and the Senate claimed to be “small businesses” employing only 45 people in order to qualify for a health insurance exchange for small businesses set up by the Washington, DC city council. In reality, the House and Senate employ over 20,000 people. 12,359 Congressional employees signed up for an exchange intended for businesses employing 50 people or fewer, totaling 86% of people enrolled. To say that they committed fraud is a bit of an understatement.
Next we have the IRS scandal, which was fairly famous in its day. Simply doing away with 90% of the tax code would solve most of this problem, of course.
IRS officials, led by Lois Lerner… issued a “Be on the lookout” [BOLO] with the criteria to be used to flag applications… whether “tea party,” “patriots,” or “9/12” were used in the organization’s name; whether the issues outlined in the application included government spending, government debt, or taxes; whether the organization was educating the public about “how to make America a better place to live” or about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights; or if there was a statement b the organization criticizing how the country is being run This… went on for years.
I have also heard that the IRS targeted liberal organizations, but the book doesn’t talk about that.
… Lois Lerner sent confidential taxpayer information to the Federal Election Commission… in violation of Federal law… According to other emails obtained by Judicial Watch, she had communicated with the FBI and lawyers at the DOJ about whether it was possible for the DOJ to criminally prosecute conservative tax-exempt organizations for supposed “political activities.”
(Are they not supposed to do political activities?)
… Lerner illegally sent the FBI 21 computer disks containing 1.1 million pages of confidential information about tax-exempt organizations.
(There was also some colluding with senators about which orgs they wanted targeted and shut down.) Skipping over some details, the IRS then played the “Oops, we deleted the emails game,” even though they had backups and probably weren’t even deleted.
Judicial Watch finally obtained IRS documents that showed the IRS went to absurd lengths… to harass organizations applying for tax-exempt status, asking organizations like the Tea Party for copies of all information on its Facebook and Twitter accounts, or asking an Ohio group, American Patriots Against Government Excess, for all of the books read in their book club meeting–including a summary or book report for each of the books! …
Another IRS email thread… revealed that the inappropriately obtained donor lists were being used for a “secret research project” that because of redactions and blackouts, could not be identified. Other documents… confirmed that the IRS started using donor lists… to target donors for audits. The House Ways and Means committee announced… “nearly 1 in 10 donors were subject to audit.”
The IRS tried to get people on non-payment of a “gift tax” on donations which had been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court back around 1982. Like Hillary, Lois Lerner also conducted gov’t business on her private email account. As you might expect, the gov’t investigated itself, found it had done nothing wrong, and dropped the case without any convictions.
Nothing in the chapter points to Obama being personally involved in or knowing about the scandal ahead of time, but it was certainly done to help his side.
The next chapter is on immigration and border control. There is definitely a fundamental difference in how liberals and conservatives approach the issue, with libs taking a “the more the merrier” approach, and conservatives wanting to actually have some say over who moves to their country. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that immigrants tend to vote for the Democrats, not the Republicans, so more immigration is in the Dems’ interests.
None of the administration’s border security and extreme immigration policies should be a surprise. The administration is filled with radical political appointees like Cecilia Munoz, who joined the administration as the Director of Intergovernmental Affairs and then moved up to be the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. Munoz, who was only able to join the admin after she was granted an ethics waiver from Obama’s supposed lobbyist ban, was a senior official at the National Council of La Raza. La Raza openly advocates for illegal alien sanctuary policies…
The Department of Agriculture sent the Mexican Embassy a Spanish language flyer advising Mexicans in the US that they would not need to declare their immigration status in order to get food stamps.”
In May 2002, we sought information regarding Al-Qaeda as part of Judicial Watch’s terrorism Research and Analysis Project. It took the government 11 years to furnish the records we requested. … at the end of the [Bill] Clinton administration, the US disregarded an intelligence report about an Al-Qaeda plot to hijack a commercial airliner… because “nobody believed that Usama bin Laden’s organization or the Taliban could carry out such an operation…” The only reason the plot was not carried out was because the Chechen withdrew from the operation after the EU condemned Russian action in Chechniya.
Well, that’s about it for the interesting parts of the book. Judicial Watch may do valuable work (even if they’re partisan, well, there are plenty of partisans on the other side, too,) but the book itself is rather bland and, well, several years old. I hope you liked the review, though.
As I read, I couldn’t help but compare human society to an anthill (mostly because I happened to also be reading the anthill dialogue in Godel, Escher, Bach at the same time).
Ants, honeybees, termites, and a variety of other insects are eusocial. Eusocial insects live massive colonies with social organization of a sort familiar to us humans, from division of labor to cooperative raising of the colony’s young (This is why my avatar is a bee.)
Eusocial insects can do some amazing things, like build bridges and towers out of their own bodies:
The fascinating thing about ants, bees, and the like is that, while they have “queens”, they don’t really have a conscious monarch calling the shots. The behavior of each individual ant somehow adds up to the behavior of the entire colony, yet the entire colony behaves in a way that is difficult to reduce to the behavior of individual ants.
The division of labor creates specialized behavioral groups within an animal society which are sometimes called castes. Eusociality is distinguished from all other social systems because individuals of at least one caste usually lose the ability to perform at least one behavior characteristic of individuals in another caste.
And according to Godel, Escher, Bach:
Anteater: [Aunt Hillary] is certainly one of the best-educated ant colonies I have ever had he good fortune to know. The two of us have spent many a long evening in conversation on the widest range of topics.
Achilles: I thought anteaters were devourers of ants, not patrons of ant intellectualism!
Anteater: Well, of course the two are not mutuaully inconsistent. I am on the best of terms with ant colonies. Its just ANTS that I eat, not colonies–and that is good for both parties: me, and the colony.
One of my conclusions from listening to many demands (and promises) for politicians to “create jobs” is that most people no longer have any idea where jobs come from, nor how to make them happen. Jobs seem to come from the job fairy, given or taken as her capricious will determines.
And the modern economy is complicated enough that this is… about accurate. No one could have prevented the Great Depression. No individual created the great post-war economic boom. Recessions come and go despite our best efforts to prevent them; bubbles inflate and burst. These things just happen, and ordinary people find themselves dragged along for the ride.
One of the things that happened over the past 40 years was Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972 that paved the way for the wholesale transfer of the American manufacturing establishment to China. The older folks in Arnade’s account speak warmly of the manufacturing days, when you could walk off the highschool graduation stage and into a job at the local factory.
I have a children’s book written in the ’50s in which an American child tells a group of Canadian children about his country. He tells them all about the factories, which make all manner of fabulous things.
Today, such easy employment is so far from reality that I almost got angry reading these accounts. “What, it was easy for you? It’s not so damn easy for us young people, you know. We never got to walk out of highschool and straight into jobs.” But anger is not productive and it tells us nothing about how the world should be.
Whether we are better or worse with manufacturing jobs in China is debatable–I think we are worse off, but the migration of unpleasant jobs that damage the environment to areas with laxer worker and environmental protections might have been inevitable. But even if it was in our best interests as a whole, it certainly wasn’t in the interests of the workers who lost their jobs and the people who remain in communities that have completely lost their economic base. The deaths of a few ants may benefit the anthill, but it certainly doesn’t make those ants happy.
At least we have the decency to honor soldiers whose sacrifices benefit society; little concern is given for people whose jobs were sacrificed for efficiency, progress, profits, or avoiding environmental regulations.
It’s easy to ask, “Why don’t you make your own job? Found your own company? Start a business? Do something to pump life back into the community?” but this is easier said than done; not everyone can come up with successful entrepreneurial ideas.
I don’t like the idea of being a (semi)eusocial species. I want people to be able to adapt to a changing economic system. I don’t always get what I want, though. Economies come and go, wars start and end, society careens on like juggernaut, and most of us just hope for the best.
One of the interesting parts of the book is Arnade’s tour of the nation’s McDonalds’s.
In neighborhoods across the country, Arnade finds community (and people to interview) beneath the golden arches. Here people meet friends for breakfast, play dominoes, or just hang out and avoid the weather. In many areas, McDonald’s also has the only nice playground around, and kids are happy to have a place to play.
McDonald’s Corp would probably like Arnade’s depiction a lot better if it stopped at “neighborhood hotspot” and didn’t include all of the homeless and drug addicts who also find it a warm, dry, safe place to rest.
There are multiple reasons for this shift, including people having fewer kids and more kids opting to play video games at home rather than head to the playground, but one of the biggest is classism.
Back when we were kids, McDonald’s was simply seen as a tasty, affordable restaurant that catered to families with small children. I’m almost certain I attended birthday parties there.
McDonald’s still offers birthday parties, but today the idea seems… declasse. Not that the kids wouldn’t enjoy it– kids today have about the same opinion of McDonald’s as I did–but their parents would disapprove. On parenting forums you often hear moms proudly proclaim that the dreaded “fast food” has never passed her offspring’s lips.
I have changed my position on the “healthiness” of fast food since I wrote that piece; I am now concerned that the temperatures used to cook food quickly at fast food joints oxidizes oils, resulting in health problems. This doesn’t mean that organic cupcakes are good for you, just that oxidized oils are bad.
People talk a lot about “food deserts” and argue about whether the unhealthy food options in poor neighborhoods are a matter of preference or oppression.
It’s probably a bit of both. People like McDonald’s, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t eat other things if they could.
But there are reasons restaurants don’t like to locate in poor neighborhoods, mostly theft. In a relevant anecdote, Arnade describes how a sweltering summer day led locals to try to steal ice from the McDonald’s drink machine. Of course a bit of theft from the drink machine is routine, no matter the neighborhood, but the manager of this location did not appreciate having his store so blatantly robbed. The event is meant to be humorous in the book (which it probably was in real life,) but I couldn’t help but think, “This is why we can’t have nice things.” If people steal from the stores in their neighborhood, those stores shut down and new ones don’t open.
Of course, there are other ways people get poisoned besides probably willingly eating delicious junk food. Like pollution. Arnade doesn’t talk much about environmental toxins like lead or burning plastic, but I happened to watch a Netflix documentary about this last night, so I’ll talk about it anyway.
Apparently “plastic” is not really recyclable. Well, some kinds of plastic are, but many varieties effectively are not, and you can’t make new plastic products out of several varieties of plastic mixed together. So when you throw all of your recyclables into the big bin together, they are effectively useless to the recycling plant.
The recycling plant near your home has employees who sort through the recycling, separating cans from paper from plastics and attempting to send all of the useless trash like used napkins and pizza boxes to the landfill. Metal and glass are valuable and can be recycled, but–until recently–all of the plastic got bought up by Chinese recycling plants.
Until recently, China imported MASSIVE quantities of plastic trash. More humans were employed to sort through this trash (poor humans). The usable stuff–types 1, 2, and 5–got recycled. The unusable plastic got disposed of–by burning
This is your “recycling” on fire:
Eventually the Chinese government decided that burning plastic is noxious and disgusting and that Chinese lungs shouldn’t be a dumping ground for the world’s trash, so it banned the import of most waste plastic. Suddenly the “recycling” plants had a huge problem: no where to dump all of the plastic they were pretending to recycle.
Entrepreneurs in Malaysia (and other nations) stepped in to fill the gap, and locals were astonished when giant piles of burning garbage appeared overnight in their communities.
Soon the Malaysian government also decided that burning plastic is bad and started banning the stuff.
Goodness knows where our “recycling” will go now to get burned. Maybe, horror of horrors, we’ll have to bury it in a landfill instead of loading it on giant container ships and using fossil fuels to send it across the ocean. (I am generally against shipping things across oceans if we can avoid it.)
But pollution isn’t just a third world problem; the distribution of poor communities in the US was determined largely by the direction of the winds blowing pollution from factories and chemical plants.
“There’s a good reason burning household trash, including plastic, is prohibited in most of the U.S. — the toxic species,” says Noelle Eckley Selin, an assistant professor in MIT’s Engineering Systems Division, as well as the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. When plastic is burned, it releases dangerous chemicals such as hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, dioxins, furans and heavy metals, as well as particulates. These emissions are known to cause respiratory ailments and stress human immune systems, and they’re potentially carcinogenic.
It’s bad enough being poor, with all the difficulties that entails, without having to breathe burning plastic, smoke, or whatever’s in the local chemical plant. (Even in areas without such industries, the poor are more likely to live in houses that still have lead paint.)
The authors conclude by arguing that the legalization of prostitution brings a level of public scrutiny, official regulation, and bureaucratization to brothels that decreases the risk of these 3 types of systematic violence.
Of course, some people argue that bureaucratizing prostitution will only increase the paperwork and push out the independent contractors.
What about prisons? Arnade does not visit any prisons, but many of the people he interviews have. The need for some kind of prison reform is a safe bet, since prisons are full of people whom society doesn’t like and doesn’t want to spend money on.
"Warehousing" in slave dehumanizing conditions will continue to manifest violence. This is exactly like my state slave quarters where I'm housed at. I hear we will soon receive new toilets and sinks. At heart none of this is the issue or solution #BurnThePrisonspic.twitter.com/L9u3LV2GBY
— Jailhouse Lawyers Speak — #PrisonersHumanRights (@JailLawSpeak) January 4, 2020
I am definitely in favor of imprisoning violent people, but this seems like… not what prison should be like.
Edited to add: Regardless of how you think Epstein died, his case highlights a number of “mistakes” in the way his prison–a relatively nice one, I believe–was run, from transferring a probably still suicidal guy off suicide watch to the non-functioning security cameras to the guards straight up not watching the prisoners and lying about doing their rounds. People are killed or commit suicide in prison all the time; we just don’t normally hear about it because they aren’t as rich and famous (or infamous) as Epstein.
Homicide has been up over the past few years, which is not good for anyone and probably means we need more street-level policing. Yes, the police sometimes kill innocent people (or dogs), but non-police kill more innocent people, so police are a net gain.
Montrealers discovered last week what it is like to live in a city without police and firemen. The lesson was costly: six banks were robbed, more than 100 shops were looted, and there were twelve fires. Property damage came close to $3,000,000; at least 40 carloads of glass will be needed to replace shattered storefronts. Two men were shot dead. At that, Montreal was probably lucky to escape as lightly as it did.
Well, it’s getting late, so I’d better wrap this up. This book covers many difficult topics and is not easy to discuss, and parts of the book I’ve neglected to mention–the author also interviews many immigrants from Mexico and Somalia, as well as locals in the areas where they’ve moved, for example. I apologize for wandering so far afield.
I feel compelled to offer solutions, but these are difficult problems to fix. People live their own lives, sometimes suffering, sometimes triumphing. Our World in Data has some interesting charts about income distributions in different countries that I’d like to end with:
How very differently the benefits of economic growth can be shared is shown by a comparison of the USA and the UK over the last 40 years. In the US incomes for the bottom half of the population were stagnating for most of the last 4 decades (with a notable exception over the second half of the 1990s). In the UK the first period resembles the experience of the US – incomes at the bottom of the distribution were stagnating, incomes at the top were rising rapidly. But over the second period – from 1991 onwards – the trend in the UK has changed significantly: economic growth was shared equally across the distribution from the lowest to the highest decile.
The comparison also show that growth in the UK – particularly for the lowest income group – was much stronger than in the US. A comparison with other rich countries shows that the experience of the US – strongly rising inequality and stagnation for a large part of the population – is unique to the US. Other rich countries were much more successful in sharing the benefits of growth across the distribution.
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.
Strictly speaking, what traditional Islamic courts enforced was not Shari’a, God’s Law, but fiqh, jurisprudence, the imperfect human attempt to deduce from religious sources what human law ought to be. That fact helps explain how Sunni Islam was able to maintain four different but mutually orthodox schools of law. There could be only one correct answer to what God wanted humans to do but there could be more than one reasonable guess.
This sounds like a bit of technicality that I am skeptical of people observing in practice, so I went over to Pew.
According to the survey findings, most Muslims believe sharia is the revealed word of God rather than a body of law developed by men based on the word of God. Muslims also tend to believe sharia has only one, true understanding, but this opinion is far from universal; in some countries, substantial minorities of Muslims believe sharia should be open to multiple interpretations. …
Although many Muslims around the world say sharia should be the law of the land in their country, the survey reveals divergent opinions about the precise application of Islamic law.
Pew doesn’t distinguish between “sharia” and “fiqh”
In 17 of the 23 countries where the question was asked, at least half of Muslims say sharia is the revealed word of God. (For more information on sharia see text box.) In no country are Muslims significantly more likely to say sharia was developed by men than to say it is the revealed word of God. …
In 17 out of 21 countries, “there is only one interpretation of sharia” beat “there are multiple interpretations.”
Support for making sharia the official law of the land varies significantly across the six major regions included in the study. In countries across South Asia, Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East-North Africa region most favor making sharia their country’s official legal code. By contrast, only a minority of Muslims across Central Asia as well as Southern and Eastern Europe want sharia to be the official law of the land.
In South Asia, high percentages in all the countries surveyed support making sharia the official law, including nearly universal support among Muslims in Afghanistan (99%). More than eight-in-ten Muslims in Pakistan (84%) and Bangladesh (82%) also hold this view. The percentage of Muslims who say they favor making Islamic law the official law in their country is nearly as high across the Southeast Asian countries surveyed (86% in Malaysia, 77% in Thailand and 72% in Indonesia).
In sub-Saharan Africa, at least half of Muslims in most countries surveyed say they favor making sharia the official law of the land, including more than seven-in-ten in Niger (86%), Djibouti (82%), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (74%) and Nigeria (71%).
Support for sharia as the official law of the land also is widespread among Muslims in the Middle East-North Africa region – especially in Iraq (91%) and the Palestinian territories (89%). Only in Lebanon does opinion lean in the opposite direction: 29% of Lebanese Muslims favor making sharia the law of the land, while 66% oppose it.
So I have a little skepticism of the authors’ claim that Muslims normally distinguish between Sharia and Fiqh and that they’re totally okay with multiple, co-existing interpretations of the law.
More likely, the average Muslim believes multiple, vaguely contradictory things about Sharia that are basically piety signals, because most Muslims are just trying to live their lives and feed their families, not legal scholars.
“Should we run the country according to God’s laws?” the pollster asks, and the faithful reasonably respond that “Yes, of course we should run things according to God’s laws.”
“Does God’s law come from God or from man?” the pollster asks, and the faithful responds, “From God, obviously. It’s in the name.”
With those caveats, let’s get back to Legal Systems Very Different from Ours. The authors then explain the five-fold division of acts in Islamic law, which I have converted to a rough table:
Obligatory act: God rewards for performing, Punishes for not performing
Recommended act: God rewards for performing, No punishment for not performing
Permissible act: No reward for performing, No punishment for not performing
Offensive act: No punishment for performing, Reward for abstaining
Unlawful act: Punishment for performing, Reward for avoiding
… Islamic law is more nearly a system of morality than a system of law, since its rules primarily describe how one ought to act, only secondarily the legal consequences of action. …
How was fiqh deduced and applied? The scholar started with the sources of revealed knowledge–the Koran itself and the words and acts of Mohammad and his companions as reported in hadith, traditions. From that information a sufficiently learned religious scholar, a mujtahid, deduced legal rules. Over time, the scholars separated into four schools… The schools were generally similar but differed in the details of their approaches to interpretation and the rules they deduced; each regarded the others as orthodox.
Any Muslim readers want to weigh in on how accurate this is?
Anyway, Islamic law then developed over the years the same problems of any legal system: bloat, excessive writing, technological and cultural change, and multiple conflicting interpretations, all of which could make it difficult to determine what the “original” idea of the law had been.
It was necessary to decide for each hadith how certain one could be that it was neither invented by someone at some point down the purported chain [of legal descent] nor inaccurate due to an error in transmission.
The basic rule accepted by all schools was that if there were a sufficient number of independent chains supporting the same hadith, it could be accepted as genuine with certainty.
Muslims inventing the blockchain.
It followed that if at any one time all of the scholars were agreed upon a question, that question was permanently settled.
Law and the State:
After first few centuries and until the rise of the Ottomans, political authority in the Islamic world was fragmented. The local rulers were frequently foreigners to the populations they ruled… What they wanted from the legal scholars was support for their legitimacy. … they were willing for the most part to leave the legal system in the hands of the scholars. … Think of the resulting system as what Anglo-American common law would be if law professors ran the world, law defined not by the precedents set by judges but by the medieval equivalent of law review articles.
So… does it work? How well does it work? In the chapter on Icelandic law, the authors are willing to actually interrogate why Icelandic law broke down (in the Middle Ages) and what made it initially effective and then ineffective. There’s a little discussion in the chapter on Chinese law on how people managed to conduct business effectively despite (or because) of the lack of relevant formal legal rules. But in general the authors shy away from asking how effective the legal systems actually are, which seems like a critical piece of information. If a system works well and the people in it are pleased with the results, then it seems reasonable to see if it is a system with parts that can be felicitously copied, borrowed, or implemented; if a system works badly, (as many do) then it is wise to examine what makes it dysfunctional and try to avoid those components in our own system.
Of course, the functioning of many legal systems probably does come down, as Confucian scholars might say, to the ethics/wisdom inherent in the people in them.
From the perspective of modern American law, the final two stages of the process look like our system turned upside down. In ours,t he court of first impression applies the law to the facts and produces a verdict. If the case is appealed, the appeals court takes the facts as already decided and gives a second and authoritative opinion on the law In their system, the opinion on the law came first, provided by the mufti, followed by the qadi’s application of the law to the facts as he saw them. Under most circumstances there was no way to appeal the qadi’s verdict.
The authors note that they have described the “traditional account” of how Islamic law developed; some modern scholars claim this is all kind of retconned from existing Arabic law and modified over time as new provinces were conquered. I’m sure this is also to some extent true, as whatever laws people were already using on matters like marriage and murder probably persisted post-conversion.
Anyway, so there are multiple “schools” of Islamic legal thought:
While the schools differed in detail they regarded each other as mutually orthodox. In this respect as in others, the history of Islamic law both resembles and differs from that of Jewish Law. The schools of Hillel and Shammai tolerated each other for several generations, but eventually the majority school suppressed the minority. In the parallel Islamic case, the four schools of Sunni law have continued their mutual toleration up to the present day. …
The four schools of law are all Sunni; the Shia have their own schools and legal rules… While different schools were dominant in different areas, a medieval Muslim city could have had separate courts for the four Sunni schols, the Shia, and the other tolerated religions. It was a polylegal system; disputes within each community would go to that community’s courts. Non-Muslims had to use Muslim courts for criminal cases but had choice of law for civil matters. … What happened in a dispute between parties adhering to different legal systems is not entirely clear…
I wonder how this worked in practice.
While law was in theory independent of the of the state, in practice, in most historical Islamic societies, state-created rules played a significant role. … One reason for the development of parallel state curts may have been the desire of the ruler to maintain control A second was that fiqh had serious limits as a legal system. …
The authors then look at the “breakdown” of the Islamic legal system.
The breakdown of the traditional legal system may, as Hallaq argues, be due to the rise of the nation state, but the connection between that and western imperialism is accident not essence. The causes that led to the rise of the nation state in the west, the replacement of feudalism by absolute monarchy, operated in the Islamic world as well… The annexation of thewaqfsby the Ottoman authorities parallels the earlier confiscation of the lands of the monasteries by Henry VIII. The result in both cases was to eliminate institutions that competed with the sate for power and resources.
This is the kind of theory I like.
Then there is a section with more details on the actual content of the legal code, eg:
The part of fiqh that applies to homicide or bodily injury is called jinyat and appears to be based on the pre-Islamic rules of Arab blood feud.
Blood feuds are interesting and I think there is a chapter later on that looks at feud systems in more detail. But I wonder how these systems translate over geography–that is, across the Islamic world, from Morocco to Indonesia. Did the spread of Islam result in these areas adopting laws that were originally Arabian, or did each region effectively retain its own existing legal system? And how is it all working out today?
The transformations of Islamic legal institutions in the modern era have had profound implications for the madhhab system. Legal practice in most of the Muslim world has come to be controlled by government policy and state law, so that the influence of the madhhabs beyond personal ritual practice depends on the status accorded to them within the national legal system. State law codification commonly utilized the methods of takhayyur (selection of rulings without restriction to a particular madhhab) and talfiq (combining parts of different rulings on the same question). Legal professionals trained in modern law schools have largely replaced traditional ulema as interpreters of the resulting laws. Global Islamic movements have at times drawn on different madhhabs and at other times placed greater focus on the scriptural sources rather than classical jurisprudence. The Hanbali school, with its particularly strict adherence to the Quran and hadith, has inspired conservative currents of direct scriptural interpretation by the Salafi and Wahhabi movements.Other currents, such as networks of Indonesian ulema and Islamic scholars residing in Muslim-minority countries, have advanced liberal interpretations of Islamic law without focusing on traditions of a particular madhhab.
This is a review for Alita: Battle Angel, now out in theaters. If you want the review without spoilers, scroll down quickly to the previous post.
It is difficult for any movie to be truly deep. Is Memento deep, or does it just use a backwards-narrative gimmick? Often meaning is something we bring to movies–we interpret them based on our own experiences.
What is the point of cyborgs? They are the ultimate fusion of man and machine. Our technology doesn’t just serve us; it has become us. What are we, then? Are cyborgs human, or more than human? And what of the un-enhanced meatsacks left behind?
Throughout the movie, we see humans with various levels of robotic enhancement, from otherwise normal people with an artificial limb to monstrous brawlers that are almost unrecognizable as human. Alita is a complete cyborg whose only “human” remain left is her biological brain (perhaps she has a skull, too.) The rest of her, from heart to toes, is machine, and can be disassembled and replaced as necessary.
The graphic novels go further than Alita–in one case, a whole community breaks down after it discovers that the adults have had their brains replaced with computer chips. Can a “human” have a metal body but a meat brain? Can a “human” have a meat body but a computer brain? Alita says yes, that humanity is more than just the raw material we are built of.
(It also goes much less–is Ido’s jet-powered hammer that he uses in battle any different from a jet-powered hammer built into your arm? Does it matter whether you can put the technology down and pack it into a suitcase at the end of the day, or if it is built into your core?)
Yet cyborgs in Alita’s world, despite their obvious advantage over mere humans in terms of speed, reflexes, strength, and ability to switch your arms out for power saws, are mostly true to their origin as disabled people whose bodies were replaced with artificial limbs. Alita’s first body, given to her at the beginning of the movie after she is found without one, was originally built for a little girl in a wheelchair. She reflects to a friend that she is now fast because the little girl’s father built her a fast pair of legs so she could finally run.
The upper class–to the extent that we see them–has no obvious enhancements. Indeed, the most upper class family we meet in the movie, which originally lived in the floating city of Tiphares (Zalem in the movie) was expelled from the city and sent down to the scrap yard with the rest of the trash because of their disabled daughter–the one whose robotic body Alita inherits.
Hugo is an ordinary meat boy with what we may interpret as a serious prejudice against cyborgs–though he comes across as a nice lad, he moonlights as a thief who who kidnaps cyborgs and chops off their body parts for sale on the black market. Hugo justifies himself by claiming he “never killed anyone,” which is probably true, but the process certainly hurts the cyborgs (who cry out in pain as their limbs are sawed off,) and leaves them lying disabled in the street.
Hugo isn’t doing it because he hates cyborgs, though. They’re just his ticket to money–the money he needs to get to Tiphares/Zalem. For even though it is said that no one in the Scrap Yard (Iron City in the movie) is ever allowed into Tiphares, people still dream of Heaven. Hugo believes a notorious fixer named Vector can get him into Tiphares if he just pays him enough money.
Some reviewers have identified Vector as the Devil himself, based on his line, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” which the Devil speaks in Milton’s Paradise Lost–though Milton is himself reprising Achilles in the Odyssey, who claims, “By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man / some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive / than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”
Yet the Scrap Yard is not Hell. Hell is another layer down; it is the sewers below the Scrap Yard, where Alita’s first real battle occurs. The Scrap Yard is Purgatory; the Scrap Yard is Earth, suspended between both Heaven and Hell, from which people can chose to arise (to Tiphares) or descend (to the sewers.) But whether Tiphares is really Heaven or just a dream they’ve been sold remains to be seen–for everyone in the Scrap Yard is fallen and none may enter Heaven.
Alita, you probably noticed, descended into Hell to fight an evil monster–in the manga, because he kidnapped a baby; in the movie because he was trying to kill her. In the ensuing battle, she is crushed and torn to pieces, sacrificing her final limb to drill out the monster’s eye. Her unconscious corpse is rescued by her friends, dragged back to the surface, and then rebuilt with a new body.
“I do not stand by in the presence of evil”–Alita
“But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed!52 It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed.53 For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.” 1 Corinthians, 15
Alita has died and been resurrected. Whether she will ascend into Heaven remains a matter for the sequel. (She does. Obviously.)
Through his relationship with Alita (they smooch), Hugo realizes that cyborgs are people, too, and maybe he shouldn’t chop them up for money. “You are more human than anyone I know,” he tells her.
Alita, in a scene straight from The Last Temptation of Christ, offers Hugo her heart–literally–to sell to raise the remaining money he needs to make it to Tiphares.
Hugo, thankfully, declines the offer, attempting to make it to Tiphares on his own two feet (newly resurrected after Alita saves his life by literally hooking him up to her own life support system)–but no mere mortal can ascend to Tiphares; even giants may not assault the gates of Heaven.
The people of the Scrap Yard are fallen–literally–from Tiphares, their belongings and buildings either relics from the time before the fall or from trash dumped from above. There is hope in the Scrap Yard, yet the Scrap Yard generates very little of its own, explaining its entirely degraded state.
This is a point where the movie fails–the set builders made the set too nice. The Scrap Yard is a decaying, post-apocalyptic waste filled with strung-out junkies and hyper-violent-TV addicts. In one scene in the manga, Doc Ido, injured, collapses in the middle of a crowd while trying to drag the remains of Alita’s crushed body back home so he can fix her. Bleeding, he cries out for help–but the crowd, entranced by the story playing out on the screens around them, ignores them both.
In the movie, the Scrap Yard has things like oranges and chocolate–suggesting long-distance trade and large-scale production–things they really shouldn’t be able to do. In the manga, the lack of police makes sense, as this is a society with no ability to cooperate for the common good. Since the powers that be would like to at least prevent their own deaths at the hands of murderers, the Scrap Yard instead puts bounties on the heads of criminals, and licensed “Hunter Warriors” decapitate them for money.
(A hunter license is not difficult to obtain. They hand them out to teenage girls.)
Here the movie enters its discussion of Free Will.
Alita awakes with no memory of her life before she became a decapitated head sitting in a landfill. She has the body of a young teen and, thankfully, adults willing to look out for her as she learns about life in Iron City from the ground up–first, that oranges have to be peeled; second, that cars can run you over.
The movie adds the backstory about Doc Ido’s deceased, disabled daughter for whom he built the original body that he gives to Alita. This is a good move, as it makes explicit a relationship that takes much longer to develop in the manga (movies just don’t have the same time to develop plots as a manga series spanning decades.) Since Alita has no memory, she doesn’t remember her own name (Yoko). Doc therefore names her “Alita,” after the daughter whose body she now wears.
As an adopted child myself, I feel a certain kinship with narratives about adoption. Doc wants his daughter back. Alita wants to discover her true identity. Like any child, she is growing up, discovering love, and wants different things for her life than her father does.
Despite her amnesia, Alita has certain instincts. When faced with danger, she responds–without knowing how or why–with a sudden explosion of violence, decapitating a cyborg that has been murdering young women in her neighborhood. Alita can fight; she is extremely skilled in an advanced martial art developed for cyborgs. In short, she is a Martian battle droid that has temporarily mistaken itself for a teenage girl.
She begs Ido to hook her up to a stronger body (the one intended for his daughter was not built with combat in mind,) but he refuses, declaring that she has a chance to start over, to become something totally new. She has free will. She can become anything–so why become a battle robot all over again?
But Alita cannot just remain Doc’s little girl. Like all children, she grows–and like most adopted children, she wants to know who she is and where she comes from. She is good at fighting. This is her only connection to her past, and as she asserts, she has a right to that. Doc Ido has no right to dictate her future.
What is Alita? As far as she knows, she is trash, broken refuse literally thrown out through the Tipharean rubbish chute. The worry that you were adopted because you were unwanted by your biological parents–thrown away–plagues many adopted children. But as Alita discovers, this isn’t true. She’s not trash–she’s an alien warrior who once attacked Earth and ended up unconscious in the scrap yard after losing most of her body in the battle. Like the Nephilim, she is a heavenly battle angel who literally fell to Earth.
By day, Ido is a doctor, healing people and fixing cyborgs. By night, he is a Hunter Warrior, killing people. For Ido, killing is expression of rage after his daughter’s death, a way of channeling a psychotic impulse into something that benefits society by aiming it at people even worse than himself. But for Alita, violence serves a greater purpose–she uses her talent to eliminate evil and serve justice. Alita’s will is to protect the people she loves.
After Alita runs away, gets in a fight, descends into Hell, and is nearly completely destroyed, Doc relents and attaches her to a more powerful, warrior body. He recognizes that time doesn’t freeze and he cannot keep Alita forever as his daughter (a theme revisited later in the manga when Nova tries to trap Alita in an alternative-universe simulation where she never becomes a Hunter Warrior.
In an impassioned speech, Nova declares, “I spit upon the second law of thermodynamics!” He wants to freeze time; prevent decay. But even Nova, as we have seen, cannot contain Alita’s will. She knows it is a simulation. She plays along for a bit, enjoying the story, then breaks out.
Alita’s new body uses “nanotechnology,” which is to say, magic, to keep her going. Indeed, the technology in the movie is no more explained than magic in Harry Potter, other than some technobabble about how Alita’s heart contains a miniature nuclear reactor that could power the whole city, which is how she was able to stay alive for 300 years in a trash heap.
With her more powerful body, Alita is finally able to realize herself.
Alita’s maturation from infant (a living head completely unable to move,) to young adult is less explicit in the movie than in the manga, but it is still there–with the reconfiguration of her new body based on Alita’s internal self-image, Doc discovers that “She is a bit older than you thought she was.” In a dream sequence in the original, the metaphors are made explicit–limbless Alita in one scene becomes an infant strapped to Doc’s back as he roots through the dump for parts. Then she receives a pair of arms, and finally legs, turning into a toddler and a girl. Finally, with her berserker body, she achieves adulthood.
But with all of this religious imagery, is Tiphares really heaven? Of course not–if it were, why would Nova–who is the true villain trying to kill her–live there? There was a war in the Heavens–but the Heavens are far beyond Tiphares. Alita will escape Purgatory and ascend to Tiphares–and unlike the others, she will not do it by being chopped into body parts for Nova’s experiments.
For the mind is its own place, and can make a Heaven of Hell, and a Hell of Heaven.
Tiphares is only the beginning, just as the Scrap Yard is not the Hell we take it for.
The main character of the first 4 chapters of Harry Potter isn’t Harry: it’s the Dursleys:
Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.
The Dursleys are awful and abusive in an over-the-top, Roald Dahl way that somehow manages not to cause Harry any serious emotional problems, which even I, a hard-core hereditarian, would find improbable if Harry were a real boy. But Harry isn’t the point: watching the Dursleys get their comeuppance is the point.
JRR Tolkien and JK Rowling both focused on the same group of people–common English peasants–but Tolkien’s depiction of the Hobbits are much more sympathetic than Rowling’s Muggles, even if they don’t like adventures:
This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighborhood of The Hill for time out of mind and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him.
We could wax philosophical (or political) about why Tolkien sees common folk as essentially good, despite their provinciality, and why Rowling sees them as essentially bad, for precisely the same reasons, but in the end both writers are correct, for there is good and bad in all groups.
Why are the Dursleys effective villains? Why is their buffoonish abuse believable, and why do so many people identify with young Harry? Is he not the Dursley’s kin, if not their son, their nephew? Shouldn’t they look out for him?
One of the great ironies of life is that the people who are closest to us are also the most likely to abuse us. Despite fears of “stranger danger” (or perhaps because of it) children are most likely to be harmed by parents, step-parents, guardians, or other close relatives/friends of the family, not strangers lurking in alleys or internet chatrooms.
…there were an estimated 57 000 deaths attributed to homicide among children under 15 years of age in 2000. Global estimates of child homicide suggest that infants and very young children are at greatest risk, with rates for the 0–4-year-old age group more than double those of 5–14-year-olds…
The risk of fatal abuse for children varies according to the income level of a country and region of the world. For children under 5 years of age living in high-income countries, the rate of homicide is 2.2 per 100 000 for boys and 1.8 per 100 000 for girls. In low- to middle-income countries the rates are 2–3 times higher – 6.1 per 100 000 for boys and 5.1 per 100 000 for girls. The highest homicide rates for children under 5 years of age are found in the WHO African Region – 17.9 per 100 000 for boys and 12.7 per 100 000 for girls.
(Aside: in every single region, baby boys were more likely to be murdered than baby girls–how’s that “male privilege” for you?)
Estimates of physical abuse of children derived from population-based surveys vary considerably. A 1995 survey in the United States asked parents how they disciplined their children (12). An estimated rate of physical abuse of 49 per 1000 children was obtained from this survey when the following behaviours were included: hitting the child with an object, other than on the buttocks; kicking the child; beating the child; and threatening the child with a knife or gun. …
.In a cross-sectional survey of children in Egypt, 37% reported being beaten or tied up by their parents and 26% reported physical injuries such as fractures, loss of consciousness or permanent disability as a result of being beaten or tied up (17).
. In a recent study in the Republic of Korea, parents were questioned about their behaviour towards their children. Two-thirds of the parents reported whipping their children and 45% confirmed that they had hit, kicked or beaten them (26).
. A survey of households in Romania found that 4.6% of children reported suffering severe and frequent physical abuse, including being hit with an object, being burned or being deprived of food. Nearly half of Romanian parents admitted to beating their children ‘‘regularly’’ and 16% to beating their children with objects (34).
. In Ethiopia, 21% of urban schoolchildren and 64% of rural schoolchildren reported bruises or swellings on their bodies resulting from parental punishment (14).
Ugh. The Dursleys are looking almost decent right now.
In most ways, the Dursleys do not fit the pattern characteristic of most abuse cases–severe abuse and neglect are concentrated among drug-addicted single mothers with more children than they can feed and an unstable rotation of unrelated men in and out of the household. The Dursley’s case is far more mild, but we may still ask: why would anyone mistreat their kin? Wouldn’t natural selection–selfish genes and all that–select against such behavior?
There are a number of facile explanations for the Dursley’s behavior. The first, suggest obliquely by Rowling, is that Mrs. Dursley was jealous of her sister, Lily, Harry’s mother, for being more talented (and prettier) than she was. This is the old “they’re only bullying you because they’re jealous” canard, and it’s usually wrong. We may discard this explanation immediately, as it is simply too big a leap from “I was jealous of my sister” to “therefore I abused her orphaned child for 11 years.” Most of us endured some form of childhood hardship–including sibling rivalry–without turning into abusive assholes who lock little kids in cupboards.
The superior explanation is that there is something about Harry that they just can’t stand. He’s not like them. This is expressed in Harry’s appearance–the Dursleys are described as tall, fat, pink skinned, and blue eyed with straight, blond hair, while Harry is described as short, skinny, pale skinned, and green-eyed with wavy, dark hair.
More importantly, Harry can do magic. The Dursley’s can’t.
It’s never explained in the books why some people can do magic and not others, but the trait looks strongly like a genetic one–not much more complicated than blue eyes. Magic users normally give birth to magical children, and non-magic users (the term “muggle” is an ethnic slur and should be treated as such,) normally have non-magical children. Occasionally magical children are born to regular families, just as occasionally two brown-eyed parents have a blue-eyed child because both parents carried a recessive blue eyed gene that they both happened to pass on to their offspring, and occasionally magical parents have regular children, just as smart people sometimes have dumb offspring. On the whole, however, magical ability is stable enough across generations that there are whole magical families that have been around for hundreds of years and non-magical families that have done the same.
Any other factor–environmental, magical–could have been figured out by now and used to turn kids like Neville into competent wizards, so we conclude that such a factor does not exist.
Magic is a tricky thing to map, metaphorically, onto everyday existence, because nothing like it really exists in our world. We can vaguely imagine that Elsa hiding her ice powers is kind of like a gay person hiding the fact that they are gay, but being gay doesn’t let you build palaces or create sentient snowmen. Likewise, the Dursely’s anger at Harry being “one of them” and adamantly claiming that magic and wizardry don’t exist, despite the fact that they know very well that Mrs. Dursley’s sister could turn teacups into frogs, does resemble the habit of certain very conservative people to pretend that homosexuality doesn’t exist, or that if their children never hear that homosexuality exists, they’ll never become gay.
The other difficulty with this metaphor is that gay people, left to their own devices, don’t produce children.
But putting together these two factors, we arrive at the conclusion that wizards are a distinct, mostly endogamous ethnic group that the Dursleys react to as though they were flaming homosexuals.
How many generations of endogamy would it take to produce two genetically distinct populations from one? Not many–take, for example, the Irish Travellers:
Researchers led by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) and the University of Edinburgh analysed genetic information from 42 people who identified as Irish Travellers.
The team compared variations in their DNA code with that of 143 European Roma, 2,232 settled Irish, 2,039 British and 6,255 European or worldwide individuals. …
They found that Travellers are of Irish ancestral origin but have significant differences in their genetic make-up compared with the settled community.
These differences have arisen because of hundreds of years of isolation combined with a decreasing Traveller population, the researchers say. …
The team estimates the group began to separate from the settled population at least 360 years ago.
That’s a fair bit of separation for a mere 360 years or so–and certainly enough for your relatives to act rather funny about it if you decided to run off with Travellers and then your orphaned child turned up on their doorstep.
How old are the wizarding families? Ollivander’s Fine Wands has been in business since 382 BC, and Merlin, Agrippa, and Ptolemy are mentioned as ancient Wizards, so we can probably assume a good 2,000 years of split between the two groups, with perhaps a 10% in-migration of non-magical spouses.
Harry is, based on his parents, 50% magical and 50% non-magical, though of course both Lily and Petunia Dursley probably carry some Wizard DNA.
In The Blank Slate, Pinker has some interesting observations on the subject of sociobiology:
As the notoriety of Sociobiology grew in the ensuing years, Hamilton and Trivers, who had thought up many of the ideas, also became targets of picketers… Trivers had argued that sociobiology is, if anything a force for political progress. It is rooted in the insight that organisms did not evolve to benefit their family, group, or species, because the individuals making up those groups have genetic conflicts of interest with one another and would be selected to defend those interests. This immediately subverts the comfortable belief that those in power rule for the good of all, and it throws a spotlight on hidden actors in the social world, such as female sand the younger generation.
Further in the book, Pinker continues:
Tolstoy’s famous remark that happy families are all alike but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way is not true at the level of ultimate (evolutionary) causation. Trivers showed how the seeds of unhappiness in every family have the same underlying source. Though relatives have common interests because of their common genes, the degree of overlap is not identical within all their permutations and combinations of family members. Parents are related to all of their offspring by an equal factor, 50 percent, but each child is related to himself or herself by a factor of 100 percent. …
Parental investment is a limited resource. A day has only twenty-four hours … At one end of the lifespan, children learnt hat a mother cannot pump out an unlimited stream of milk; at the other, they learn that parents do not leave behind infinite inheritances.
To the extent that emotions among people reflect their typical genetic relatedness, Trivers argued, the members of a family should disagree on how parental investment should be divvied up.
And to the extent that one of the children in a household is actually a mixed-ethnicity nephew and no close kin at all to the father, the genetic relationship is even more distant between Harry and the Dursleys than between most children and the people raising them.
Parents should want to split their investment equitably among the children… But each child should want the parent to dole out twice as much of the investment to himself or herself as to a sibling, because children share half their genes with each full sibling but share all their genes with themselves. Given a family with two children and one pie, each child should want to split it in a ratio of two thirds to one third, while parents should want it to be split fifty fifty.
A person normally shares about 50% of their genes with their child and 25% of their genes with a niece or nephew, but we also share a certain amount of genes just by being distantly related to each other in the same species, race, or ethnic group.
Harry is, then, somewhat less genetically similar than the average nephew, so we can expect Mrs. Dursley to split any pies a bit less than 2/3s for Dudley and 1/3 for Harry, with Mr. Dursley grumbling that Harry doesn’t deserve any pie at all because he’s not their kid. (In a more extreme environment, if the Dursleys didn’t have enough pie to go around, it would be in their interest to give all of the pie to Dudley, but the Dursleys have plenty of food and they can afford to grudgingly keep Harry alive.)
Most kinds of social behavior, including perhaps all of the most complex forms, are based in one way or another on kinship. As a rule, the closer the genetic relationship of the members of a group, the more stable and intricate the social bonds of its members. …
Parent-offspring conflict and its obverse, sibling-sibling conflict, can be seen throughout the animal kingdom. Littermates or nestmates fight among themselves sometimes lethally, and fight with their mothers over access to milk, food, and care…. The conflict also plays out in the physiology of prenatal human development. Fetuses tap their mothers’ bloodstreams to mine the most nutrients possible from their body, while the mother’s body resists to keep it in good shape for future children. …
Trivers touted the liberatory nature of sociobiology by invoking an “underlying symmetry in our social relationships” and “submerged actors in the social world.” He was referring to women, as we will see in the chapter on gender, and to children. The theory of parent-offspring conflict says that families do not contain all-powerful, all-knowing parents and their passive, grateful children. …
Sometimes families contain Dursleys and Potters.
Most profoundly, children do not allow their personalities to be shaped by their parents’ nagging, blandishments, or attempts to serve as role models.
Quite lucky for Harry!
The offspring cannot rely on its parents for disinterested guidance. One expects the offspring to be preprogrammed to resist some parental manipulation while being open to other forms. When the parent imposes an arbitrary system of reinforcement (punishment and reward) in order to manipulate the offspring to act against its own best interests, selection will favor offspring that resist such schedules of reinforcement.
(Are mixed-race kids more likely to be abused than single-race kids? Well, they’re more likely to be abused than White, Asian, or Hispanic kids, but less likely to be abused than Black or Native American children [Native American children have the highest rates of abuse]. It seems likely that the important factor here isn’t degree of relatedness, but how many of your parents hail from a group with high rates of child abuse. The Dursleys are not from a group with high child abuse rates.)
Let us return to E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology:
Mammalogists have commonly dealt with conflict as if it were a nonadaptive consequence of the rupture of the parent-offspring bond. Or, in the case of macaques, it has been interpreted as a mechanism by which the female forces the offspring into independence, a step designed ultimately to benefit both generations. …
A wholly different approach to the subject has been taken by Trivers (1974). … Trivers interprets it as the outcome of natural selection operating in opposite directions on the two generations. How is it possible for a mother and her child to be in conflict and both remain adaptive? We must remember that the two share only one half their genes by common descent. There comes a time when it is more profitable for the mother to send the older juvenile on its way and to devote her efforts exclusively to the production of a new one. To the extent that the first offspring stands a chance to achieve an independent life, the mother is likely to increase (and at most, double,) her genetic representation in the next breeding generation by such an act. But the youngster cannot be expected to view the matter in this way at all. …
If the mothers inclusive fitness suffers first from the relationship, conflict will ensue.
At some point, of course, the child is grown and therefore no longer benefits from the mother’s care; at this point the child and mother are no longer in conflict, but the roles may reverse as the parents become the ones in need of care.
As for humans:
Consider the offspring that behaves altruistically toward a full sibling. If it were the only active agent, its behavior would be selected when the benefit to the sibling exceeds two times the cost to itself. From the mother’s point of view, however, inclusive fitness is gained however the benefit to the sibling simply exceeds the cost to the altruist. Consequently, there is likely to evolve a conflict between parents and offspring in the attitudes toward siblings: the parent will encourge more altruism than the youngster is prepared to give. The converse argument also holds: the parent will tolerate less selfishness and spite among siblings than they have a tendency to display…
Indeed, Dudley is, in his way, crueler (more likely to punch Harry) and more greedy than even his parents.
Altruistic acts toward a first cousin are ordinarily selected if the benefit to the cousin exceeds 8 times the cost to the altruist, since the coefficient of relationship of first cousins is 1/8. However, the parent is related to its nieces and nephews by r=1/4, and it should prefer to see altruistic acts by its children toward their cousins whenever the benefit-to-cost ratio exceeds 2. Parental conscientiousness will also extend to interactions with unrelated individuals. From a child’s point of view, an act of selfishness or spite can provide a gain so long as its own inclusive fitness is enhanced… In human terms, the asymmetries in relationship and the differences in responses they imply will lead in evolution to an array of conflicts between parents and their children. In general, offspring will try to push their own socialization in a more egoistic fashion, while the parents will repeatedly attempt to discipline the children back to a higher level of altruism. There is a limit to the amount of altruism [healthy, normal] parents want to see; the difference is in the levels that selection causes the two generations to view as optimum.
To return to Pinker:
As if the bed weren’t crowded enough, every child of a man and a woman is also the grandchild of two other men and two other women. Parents take an interest in their children’s reproduction because in the long run it is their reproduction, too. Worse, the preciousness of female reproductive capacity makes it a valuable resource for the men who control her in traditional patriarchal societies, namely her father and brothers. They can trade a daughter or sister for additional wives or resources for themselves and thus they have an interest in protecting their investment by keeping her from becoming pregnant by men other than the ones they want to sell her to. It is not just the husband or boyfriend who takes a proprietary interest in a woman’s sexual activity, then, but also her father and brothers. Westerners were horrified by the treatment of women under the regime of the Taliban in Afghanistan from 1995 to 2001…
[ah such an optimist time Pinker wrote in]
Like many children, Harry is rescued from a bad family situation by that most modern institution, the boarding school.
The weakening of parents’ hold over their older children is also not just a recent casualty of destructive forces. It is part of a long-running expansion of freedom in the West that has granted children their always-present desire for more autonomy than parents are willing to cede. In traditional societies, children were shackled to the family’s land, betrothed in arranged marriages, and under the thumb of the family patriarch. That began to change in Medieval Europe, and some historians argue it was the first steppingstone in the expansion of rights that we associate with the Enlightenment and that culminated in the abolition of feudalism and slavery. Today it is no doubt true that some children are led astray by a bad crowd or popular culture. But some children are rescued from abusive or manipulative families by peers, neighbors, and teachers. Many children have profited from laws, such as compulsory schooling and the ban on forced marriages, that may override the preferences of their parents.
The sad truth, for Harry–and many others–is that their interests and their relatives’ interests are not always the same. Sometimes humans are greedy, self-centered, or just plain evil. Small children are completely dependent on their parents and other adults, unable to fend for themselves–so the death of his parents followed by abuse and neglect by his aunt and uncle constitute true betrayal.
But there is hope, even for an abused kid like Harry, because we live in a society that is much larger than families or tribal groups. We live in a place where honor killings aren’t common and even kids who aren’t useful to their families can find a way to be useful in the greater society. We live in a civilization.
Chapter 7 of The 10,000 Year Explosion is about the evolution of high Ashkenazi IQ; chapter 8 is the Conclusion, which is just a quick summary of the whole book. (If you’re wondering if you would enjoy the book, try reading the conclusion and see if you want to know more.)
This has been an enjoyable book. As works on human evolution go, it’s light–not too long and no complicated math. Pinker’s The Blank Slate gets into much more philosophy and ethics. But it also covers a lot of interesting ground, especially if you’re new to the subject.
I have seen at least 2 people mention recently that they had plans to respond to/address Cochran and Harpending’s timeline of Jewish history/evolution in chapter 7. I don’t know enough to question the story, so I hope you’ll jump in with anything enlightening.
The basic thesis of Chapter 7 is that Ashkenazi massive over-representation in science, math, billionaires, and ideas generally is due to their massive brains, which is due in turn to selective pressure over the past thousand years or so in Germany and nearby countries to be good at jobs that require intellect. The authors quote the historian B. D. Weinryb:
More children survived to adulthood in affluent families than in less affluent ones. A number of genealogies of business leaders, prominent rabbis, community leaders, and the like–generally belonging to the more affluent classes–show that such people often had four, six, sometimes even eight or nice children who reached adulthood…
Weinryb cites a census of the town of Brody, 1764: homeowner household had 1.2 children per adult; tenant households had only 0.6.
As evidence for this recent evolution, the authors point to the many genetic diseases that disproportionately affect Ashkenazim:
Tay-Sachs disease, Gaucher’s disease, familial dysautonomia, and two different forms of hereditary breast cancer (BRCA1 and BRCA2), and these diseases are up to 100 times more common in Ashkenazi Jews than in other European populations. …
In principle, absent some special cause, genetic diseases like these should be rare. New mutations, some of which have bad effects, appear in every generation, but those that cause death or reduced fertility should be disappearing with every generation. … one in every twenty-five Ashkenazi Jews carries a copy of the Tay-Sachs mutation, which kills homozygotes in early childhood. This is an alarming rate.
What’s so special about these diseases, and why do the Ashkenazim have so darn many of them?
Some of them look like IQ boosters, considering their effects on the development of the central nervous system. The sphingolipid mutations, in particular, have effects that could plausibly boost intelligence. In each, there is a buildup of some particular sphingolipid, a class of modified fat molecules that play a role in signal transmission and are especially common in neural tissues. Researchers have determined that elevated levels of those sphingolipids cause the growth of more connections among neurons..
There is a similar effect in Tay-Sachs disease: increased levels of a characteristic storage compound… which causes a marked increase in the growth of dendrites, the fine branches that connect neurons. …
We looked at the occupations of patients in Israel with Gaucher’s disease… These patients are much more likely to be engineers or scientists than the average Israeli Ashkenazi Jew–about eleven times more likely, in fact.
Basically, the idea is that similar to sickle cell anemia, being heterozygous for one of these traits may make you smarter–and being homozygous might make your life considerably shorter. In an environment where being a heterozygous carrier is rewarded strongly enough, the diseases will propagate–even if they incur a significant cost.
Von Neumann was a child prodigy. When he was 6 years old, he could divide two 8-digit numbers in his head  and could converse in Ancient Greek. When the 6-year-old von Neumann caught his mother staring aimlessly, he asked her, “What are you calculating?”
Children did not begin formal schooling in Hungary until they were ten years of age; governesses taught von Neumann, his brothers and his cousins. Max believed that knowledge of languages in addition to Hungarian was essential, so the children were tutored in English, French, German and Italian. By the age of 8, von Neumann was familiar with differential and integral calculus, but he was particularly interested in history. He read his way through Wilhelm Oncken‘s 46-volume Allgemeine Geschichte in Einzeldarstellungen. A copy was contained in a private library Max purchased. One of the rooms in the apartment was converted into a library and reading room, with bookshelves from ceiling to floor.
Von Neumann entered the Lutheran Fasori Evangélikus Gimnázium in 1911. Wigner was a year ahead of von Neumann at the Lutheran School and soon became his friend. This was one of the best schools in Budapest and was part of a brilliant education system designed for the elite. Under the Hungarian system, children received all their education at the one gymnasium. Despite being run by the Lutheran Church, the school was predominately Jewish in its student body  The school system produced a generation noted for intellectual achievement, which included Theodore von Kármán (b. 1881), George de Hevesy (b. 1885), Leó Szilárd (b. 1898), Dennis Gabor (b. 1900), Eugene Wigner (b. 1902), Edward Teller (b. 1908), and Paul Erdős (b. 1913). Collectively, they were sometimes known as “The Martians“.
One final thing in The 10,000 Year Explosion jumped out at me:
There are also reports of individuals with higher-than-average intelligence who have nonclassic congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH)… CAH, which causes increased exposure of the developing fetus to androgens (male sex hormones), is relatively mild compared to diseases like Tay-Sachs. At least seven studies show high IQ in CAH patients, parents, and siblings, ranging from 107 to 113. The gene frequency of CAH among the Ashkenazim is almost 20 percent.
Holy HBD, Batman, that’ll give you a feminist movement.
Heather Booth, Amy Kesselman, Vivian Rothstein and Naomi Weisstein. The names of these bold and influential radical feminists may have faded in recent years, but they remain icons to students of the women’s liberation movement …
The Gang of Four, as they dubbed themselves, were among the founders of Chicago’s Women’s Liberation Union. …
Over weeks, months and years, no subject went unturned, from the political to the sexual to the personal. They were “ready to turn the world upside down,” recalled Weisstein, an influential psychologist, neuroscientist and academic who died in 2015.
But one subject never came up: the Jewish backgrounds of the majority of the group.
“We never talked about it,” Weisstein said.
Betty Friedan was Jewish; Gloria Steinem is half Jewish. There are a lot of Jewish feminists.
Of course, Jews are over-represented in pretty much every intellectual circle. Ayn Rand, Karl Marx, and Noam Chomsky are all Jewish. Einstein and Freud were Jewish. I haven’t seen anything suggesting that Jews are more over-represented in feminism than in any other intellectual circle they’re over-represented in. Perhaps they just like ideas. Someone should come up with some numbers.
Here’s a page on Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia. The “classic” variety is often deadly, but the non-classic (the sort we are discussing here) doesn’t kill you.
I’ve long suspected that I know so many trans people because some intersex conditions result in smarter brains (in this case, women who are better than average at math.) It looks like I may be on the right track.
Well, that’s the end of the book. I hope you enjoyed it. What did you think? And what should we read next? (I’m thinking of doing Pinker’s Blank Slate.)
When they compared the DNA of the strain recovered from this cemetery to all published Y. pestis genomes, they found that it was the oldest (most basal) strain of the bacterium ever recovered. Using the molecular clock, they were able to estimate a timeline for the divergence and radiation of Y. pestis strains and tie these events together to make a new, testable model for the emergence and spread of this deadly human pathogen.
These analyses indicate that plague was not first spread across Europe by the massive migrations by the Yamnaya peoples from the central Eurasian steppe (around 4800 years ago)… Rascovan et al. calculated the date of the divergence of Y. pestis strains at between 6,000 and 5,000 years ago. This date implicates the mega-settlements of the Trypillia Culture as a possible origin point of Y. pestis. These mega-settlements, home to an estimated 10,000-20,000 people, were dense concentrations of people during that time period in Europe, with conditions ideal for the development of a pandemic.
The Cucuteni-Trypilia Culture flourished between the Carpathian Mountains and the Black Sea from 4800-3000 BC. It was a neolithic–that is, stone age–farming society with many large cities. Wikipedia gives a confused account of its demise:
According to some proponents of the Kurgan hypothesis of the origin of Proto-Indo-Europeans … the Cucuteni–Trypillia culture was destroyed by force. Arguing from archaeological and linguistic evidence, Gimbutas concluded that the people of the Kurgan culture (a term grouping the Yamnaya culture and its predecessors) … effectively destroyed the Cucuteni–Trypillia culture in a series of invasions undertaken during their expansion to the west. Based on this archaeological evidence Gimbutas saw distinct cultural differences between the patriarchal, warlike Kurgan culture and the more peaceful egalitarian Cucuteni–Trypillia culture, … which finally met extinction in a process visible in the progressing appearance of fortified settlements, hillforts and the graves of warrior-chieftains, as well as in the religious transformation from the matriarchy to patriarchy, in a correlated east–west movement. In this, “the process of Indo-Europeanization was a cultural, not a physical, transformation and must be understood as a military victory in terms of successfully imposing a new administrative system, language, and religion upon the indigenous groups.
How does it follow that the process was a cultural, not physical transformation? They got conquered.
In his 1989 book In Search of the Indo-Europeans, Irish-American archaeologist J. P. Mallory, summarising the three existing theories concerning the end of the Cucuteni–Trypillia culture, mentions that archaeological findings in the region indicate Kurgan (i.e. Yamnaya culture) settlements in the eastern part of the Cucuteni–Trypillia area, co-existing for some time with those of the Cucuteni–Trypillia.Artifacts from both cultures found within each of their respective archaeological settlement sites attest to an open trade in goods for a period, though he points out that the archaeological evidence clearly points to what he termed “a dark age,” its population seeking refuge in every direction except east. He cites evidence of the refugees having used caves, islands and hilltops (abandoning in the process 600–700 settlements) to argue for the possibility of a gradual transformation rather than an armed onslaught bringing about cultural extinction.
How is “refugees hiding in caves” a “gradual transformation?” That sounds more like “people fleeing an invading army.”
The obvious issue with that theory is the limited common historical life-time between the Cucuteni–Trypillia (4800–3000 BC) and the Yamnaya culture (3300–2600 BC); given that the earliest archaeological findings of the Yamnaya culture are located in the Volga–Donbasin, not in the Dniester and Dnieper area where the cultures came in touch, while the Yamnaya culture came to its full extension in the Pontic steppe at the earliest around 3000 BC, the time the Cucuteni–Trypillia culture ended, thus indicating an extremely short survival after coming in contact with the Yamnaya culture.
How is that an issue? How long does Wikipedia think it takes to slaughter a city? It takes a few days. 300 years of contact is plenty for both trade and conquering.
Another contradicting indication is that the kurgans that replaced the traditional horizontal graves in the area now contain human remains of a fairly diversified skeletal type approximately ten centimetres taller on average than the previous population.
What are we even contradicting? Sounds like they got conquered, slaughtered, and replaced.
Then Wikipedia suggests that maybe it was all just caused by the weather (which isn’t a terrible idea.) Drought weakened the agriculturalists and prompted the pastoralists to look for new grasslands for their herds. They invaded the agriculturalists’ areas because they were lush and good for growing grain, which the pastoralists’ cattle love eating. The already weakened agriculturalists couldn’t fight back.
ANYWAY. Lets get on with Greg and Henry’s account, The 10,000 Year Explosion:
The population expansion associated with farming increased crowding, while farming itself made people sedentary. Mountains of garbage and water supplies contaminated with human waste favored the spread of infectious disease. …
Most infectious diseases have a critical community size, a number and concentration of people below which they cannot persist. The classic example is measles, which typically infects children and remains infectious for about ten days, after which the patient has lifelong immunity. In order for measles to survive, the virus that causes it, the paramyxovirus, must continually find unexposed victims–more children. Measles can only persist in a large, dense population: Populations that are too small or too spread out (under half a million in close proximity) fail to produce unexposed children fast enough, so the virus dies out.
Measles, bubonic plague, smallpox: all results of agriculture.
Chickenpox: not so much.
I wonder if people in the old Cucuteni–Trypillia area are particularly immune to bubonic plague, or if the successive waves of invading steppe nomads have done too much genetic replacement (slaughtering) for adaptations to stick around?
Harpending and Cochran then discuss malaria, which has had a big impact on human genomes (eg, sickle cell,) in the areas where malaria is common.
In general, the authors play it safe in the book–pointing to obvious cases of wide-scale genetic changes like sickle cell that are both undoubtable and have no obvious effect on personality or intelligence. It’s only in the chapter on Ashkenazi IQ that they touch on more controversial subjects, and then in a positive manner–it’s pleasant to think, “Why was Einstein so smart?” and less pleasant to think, “Why am I so dumb?”
It’s time to address the old chestnut that biological differences among human populations are “superficial,” only skin-deep. It’s not true: We’re seeing genetically caused differences in all kinds of functions, and every such differences was important enough to cause a significant increase in fitness (number of offspring)–otherwise it wouldn’t have reached high frequency in just a few millennia.
As for skin color, Cochran and Harpending lean on the side of high-latitude lightening having been caused by agriculture, rather than mere sunlight levels:
Interestingly, the sets of changes driving light skin color in China are almost entirely different from those performing a similar function in Europe. …
Many of these changes seem to be quite recent. The mutation that appears to have the greatest effect on skin color among Europeans and neighboring peoples, a variant of SLC24A5, has spread with astonishing speed. Linkage disequilibrium… suggests that it came into existence about 5,800 years ago, but it has a frequency of 99 percent throughout Europe and is found at significant levels in North Africa, East Africa, and as far east as India and Ceylon. If it is indeed that recent, it must have had a huge selective advantage, perhaps as high as 20 percent. It would have spread so rapidly that, over a long lifetime a farmer could have noticed the change in appearance in his village.
In humans, OAC2 … is a gene involved in the melanin pathway… Species of fish trapped in caves… lose their eyesight and become albinos over many generations. … Since we see changes in OCA2 in each [fish] case, however, there must have been some advantage in knocking out OCA2, at least in that underground environment. The advantage cannot like in increased UV absorption, since there’s no sunlight in those caves.
There are hints that knocking out OCA2, or at least reducing its activity, may he advantageous… in humans who can get away with it. We see a pattern that suggests that having one inactive copy of OCA2 is somehow favored even in some quite sunny regions. In southern Africa, a knocked-out version of OCA2 is fairly common: The gene frequency is over 1 percent.
And that’s an area with strong selection for dark skin.
A form of OCA2 albinism is common among the Navajo and other neighboring tribes, with gene frequencies as high as 4.5 percent. The same pattern appears in southern Mexico, eastern Panama, and southern Brazil. All of which suggests that heterozygotes…may ave some advantage.
So why do Europeans have such variety in eye and hair color?
The skeletal record clearly supports the idea that there has been rapid evolutionary change in humans over the past 10,000 years. The human skeleton has become more gracile–more lightly built–though more so in some populations than others. Our jaws have shrunk, our long bones have become lighter, and brow ridges have disappeared in most populations (with the notable exception of Australian Aborigines, who have also changed, but not as much; they still have brow ridges, and their skulls are about twice as thick as those of other peoples.)
This could be related to the high rates of interpersonal violence common in Australia until recently (thicker skulls are harder to break) or a result of interbreeding with Neanderthals and Denisovans. We don’t know what Denisovans looked like, but Neanderthals certainly are noted for their robust skulls.
Skull volume has decreased, apparently in all populations: In Europeans, volume is down about 10 percent from the high point about 20,000 years ago.
This seems like a bad thing. Except for mothers.
Some changes can be seen even over the past 1,000 years. English researchers recently compared skulls from people who died in the Black Death ([approximately] 650 years ago), from the crew of the Mary Rose,a ship that sank in Tudor times ([approximately] 450 years ago) and from our contemporaries. The shape of the skull changed noticeably over that brief period–which is particularly interesting because we know there has been no massive population replacement in England over the past 700 years.
Hasn’t there been a general replacement of the lower classes by the upper classes? I think there was also a massive out-migration of English to other continents in the past five hundred years.
The height of the cranial vault of our contemporaries was about 15 percent larger than that of the earlier populations, and the part of the skull containing the frontal lobes was thus larger.
This is awkwardly phrased–I think the authors want the present tense–“the cranial vault of our contemporaries is…” Nevertheless, it’s an interesting study. (The frontal lobes control things like planning, language, and math.)
We then proceed to the rather depressing Malthus section and the similar “elites massively out-breeding commoners due to war or taxation” section. You’re probably familiar with Genghis Khan by now.
We’ve said that the top dogs usually had higher-than-average fertility, which is true, but there have been important exceptions… The most common mistake must have been living in cities, which have almost always been population sinks, mostly because of infectious disease.
They’re still population sinks. Just look at Singapore. Or Tokyo. Or London.
The case of silphium, a natural contraceptive and abortifacient eaten to extinction during the Classical era, bears an interesting parallel to our own society’s falling fertility rates.
And of course, states domesticate their people:
Farmers don’t benefit from competition between their domesticated animals or plants… Since the elites were in a very real sense raising peasants, just as peasants raised cows, there must have been a tendency for them to cull individuals who were more aggressive than average, which over time would have changed the frequencies of those alleles that induced such aggressiveness.
On the one hand, this is a very logical argument. On the other hand, it seems like people can turn on or off aggression to a certain degree–uber peaceful Japan was rampaging through China only 75 years ago, after all.
Have humans been domesticated?
(Note: the Indians captured by the Puritans during the Pequot War may have refused to endure the yoke, but they did practice agriculture–they raised corn, squash and beans, in typical style. Still, they probably had not endured under organized states for as long as the Puritans.)
There is then a fascinating discussion of the origins of the scientific revolution–an event I am rather fond of.
Although we do not as yet fully understand the true causes of the scientific and industrial revolution, we must now consider the possibility that continuing human evolution contributed to that process. It could explain some of the odd historical patterns that we see.
Well, that’s enough for today. Let’s continue with Chapter 5 next week.
How about you? What are your thoughts on the book?