I was recently discussing religion with a friend whose basic position is that religion is predatory and harmful. This is about the same position I took back in college: religions say a lot of untrue things and take people’s money in return.
But if religion is basically harmful, then its nigh-global occurrence (it is as culturally ubiquitous as cuisine) is difficult to explain: atheists ought to have done better economically, raised more children, and replaced theists ages ago. In the stone age. Furthermore, most people who go to church do so voluntarily, in their cars, at a time when they could be sleeping, and seem quite happy happy about it.
One of the early principles developed in the study of biology and human anatomy is that if a feature exists, it is there because it serves (or served) a purpose. Egyptian mummy-makers discarded the brain because they did not think it served a purpose, a move we now see as silly. Even if you haven’t figured out yet what that squishy blob does, clearly nature wouldn’t put so much effort into building it if it weren’t important. Even vestigial parts that no longer do anything offer us a window into the past because they used to be important.
Religion helps organize the rhythms and flows of human lives: it often defines people’s group identities, (“We in our tribe worship Athena. They in their tribe worship Apollo.”) it prescribes moral behavior, (“Thou shall not kill”) and it helps assuage existential angst, especially related to death.
Christianity in particular is set up to facilitate the cycle of sin, guilt, and forgiveness, with the promise of an afterlife in Heaven if you undergo the ritual and try to sin less and the threat of Hell if you do not. (I don’t know other religions as well as Christianity because I wasn’t raised in them, so my focus is Christianity.)
In obviously predatory religious groups (aka cults), leaders actively convince people that they are sinners in order to make them feel bad and coerce them into giving more time/money/sex to the cult. People who are already prone to feeling guilty about themselves are thus probably good marks for a cult; likewise, if you want people to consistently feel like they are sinners, it is probably best to target some instinct (like sexual attraction) that they don’t actually have much control over.
Convincing people that they are bad people who deserve punishment and that you are their only source of salvation is quite effective, at least for some people.
But people commit sins and feel remorseful even in the absence of cults. Non-predatory religions help people work through their guilt and absolve them of their sins, which is especially useful if you’re naturally neurotic and you can no longer find the person you sinned against in order to apologize properly. (Dear 12 grade teacher: I am sorry I cut class. I still feel very bad about it.)
One of the mysteries of the past few decades is why churches–especially Mainline Protestant denominations–have hemorrhaged members so badly. There are a few obvious reasons: technology has increased the visibility of atheists, making the potentially agnostic feel less alone in their lack of conviction; technology has made Bible-contradicting information more widely available; and of course Mainline Protestants don’t have enough babies to fill the pews.
But these trends alone seem insufficient to explain the speed of Mainline collapse. I suggest, therefore, that our idea of sin has changed.
Sexual sin was a very effective thing for people to feel bad about before the invention of birth control/condoms/antibiotics/etc., because people naturally desired a lot of sex that had very bad potential side effects, like disease or children they couldn’t afford to feed. With the advent of these technologies, most of the bad effects of sexual sin could be prevented or avoided, and so sexual sin became much less concerning.
Sexual sin is still a concern for Evangelicals and other low-class denominations, but the higher classes have abandoned this view. There are sensible reasons for this split, but they’re really background to our current moment, so we’ll explore them later. Our focus right now is on the new sin:
Neither slavery nor racism are particularly Biblical sins (slavery was legal in Biblical times and the word “racism” didn’t exist), but nobody really cares: they’re sins now.
When I say that the left is operating like a religion (or a cult), I am not using this metaphorically, nor to shut down conversation. I mean it literally: the modern left operates just like a religion, albeit a polytheistic one with many saints/demigods.
Mainline Protestant churches have been hemorrhaging, I suspect, because their followers have mass-converted to the Modern Religion.
The Modern Religion serves two purposes: it absolves its followers of the guilt of their sin and defines them against their out-group: the evil people who are still guilty of sin, aka conservatives. Since religion and group membership are roughly co-terminous, this defines conservatives who are still concerned with sexual sin as basically pagans and conservatives who object to the notion of racial sin as apostates. Apostates, of course, are worse than mere pagans.
Original Sin in this framework was not committed by Adam and Even in the mythical Garden of Eden, but in 1619 by the Founders of America. Perhaps anti-racism did not have to turn into a distinctly anti-American creed, but it is now:
Reminder that the police kill about as many unarmed black men each year as lightning kills whites.
Despite my husband’s insistence that I would wipe out and kill myself, I am successfully still alive after one week of skateboarding. I have also reassured him that I am not going to turn into one of “those people”: snowboarders. (Mostly because I am afraid of going downhill fast, and also because I don’t have the time and money to go skiing.)
I find it mildly hilarious that there is a cultural difference between skiers–proper, refined, pinkies in the air denizens of Deer Valley–and snowboarders–potheads, troublemakers, and young people with attitudes. Waterskiing also comes in two ski and one ski varieties, but as far as I know, there is no cultural difference between waterskiers who slalom and those who don’t.
Even though snowboarding was accepted by the mainstream winter sports industry in the 1990s, and is now recognized as a Winter Olympic sport (debuting in 1998), ski areas adopted the sport at a much slower pace than the winter sports public. For many years, animosity existed between skiers and snowboarders, which led to an ongoing skier-vs-snowboarder feud. Early snowboards were banned from the slopes by park officials. In 1985, only seven percent of U.S. ski areas allowed snowboarding, with a similar proportion in Europe. Because of this, snowboarders sought ways to protest such treatment from resorts owners and to a lesser degree, other skiers. Indeed, the snowboarding way of life came about to rebel against skiing. As a result, snowboarders chose to “shock” skiers by snowboarding at ski-only resorts as a protest.
Today, only Alta, Deer Valley, and Mad River Glen maintain the ban; the other resorts have recognized that snowboarders buy lift tickets, too.
However, in those early days, skiing was still very much an elitist sport. Seen as expensive, and catering largely to the more wealthy citizens, resorts weren’t about to let this new, dangerous craze into their exclusive runs. …
But the boarding boom of the 1980s brought with it a very different type of personality to the slopes; droves of teenage skate punks with an accompanying ‘bad ass’ attitude that the average skier didn’t appreciate. This new form of snow sport brought the lawlessness of street skating to the arena of strict slope etiquette. …
And so the war began; on one side, the traditionally upper class, rich kid skiers, who wanted the slopes free of these rude, dangerous, disrespectful hoodlums with their baggy trousers and “trash and thrash” attitude. On the other, a rapidly growing army of young, enthusiastic new snowboarders, scornful of skiing’s conservative yuppie style, pumped full of teenage angst and reveling in the sport’s rebellious image.
How did two activities that are essentially the same–strapping a board or two to your feet and going downhill–develop radically different subcultures? Some sports obviously attract different sorts of people–basketball players are taller than jockeys, for example, but I doubt there’s anything about fine wine or baggy pants that makes one good at one or the other, and both groups have enough money to afford lift tickets at Vail.
In this case–as skiers and snowboarders have grown less antagonistic over the years–I think it’s mostly founder effects. Learning to ski or board is tricky, but people who could already skateboard had an advantage over those who didn’t. And while plenty of serious skiers saw the potential of snowboarding, once it was outlawed, only outlaws rode snowboards.
And who rides skateboards is itself at least partly founder effects that don’t have too much to do with skill, like who lives in cities with lots of smooth concrete.
Of course, young or old, yuppie or punk, one demographic variable unites the majority serious sports enthusiasts: they’re male. Yes, there are a few sports that women dominate, like rhythmic gymnastics, but the vast majority of athletic subcultures, professional, amateur, or merely fan, are dominated by men–and this is not a founder effect.
Some typical men’s hobbies, include riding motorcycles, working on car engines, woodworking, building computers, playing Call of Duty, and sports. Some typical women’s hobbies include include reading books/book clubs, arts and crafts, baking, playing the Sims, and shopping.
Men tend to get involved in hobbies that demand either high levels of skill–technical or athletic–and tend to enjoy tinkering for its own sake. They love optimizing their rigs, maximizing performance, or just hauling the motorcycle into the living room to do whatever repairs need done. Women, by contrast, tend to prefer their hobbies less DIY (except for art and baking) and more ready-off-the-shelf.
New hobbies are often male dominated because new things tend not to be very refined or have well-established supply chains: you can’t find them ready-on-the-shelf. The early internet, for example, wasn’t available on phones. To get on the early internet you had to figure out for yourself how to get on Usenet, and few enough people joined each year (mostly in September, when they arrived at colleges that had internet access), that the internet maintained a specific culture. Then in 1993, AOL went live and an unending stream of normal people flooded onto the internet, swamping the original culture and changing it forever, in what is known as “Eternal September.”
Ham radio–which I regard as the precursor to the internet–also required technical knowledge and assembling giant antennae; early rocketry (before WWII) was a highly technical hobby, with many parts and fuels built and mixed by hand.
In the cultural realm, watching anime was much trickier in the early 90s, before you could just stream it on YouTube or Netflix. (I got into anime because my best friend was Japanese, and we watched it together.) In those days you had to look in the Yellowpages to see if any video or comic shops near you carried it. Fan communities devoted to distributing, translating, dubbing, and subtitling anime developed on the internet–active communities, not just passive consumers.
The entry of large numbers of women into a community tends to mark a fundamental change in the nature of the community, not just because they are women, but also because whatever activity or skill it involves has become easy to get into. You no longer need to build anything or have specialized technical knowledge or spend hours working on a project to get in the culture; just buy something off the shelf and you’re there. Normies of both genders show up. The place changes.
Change isn’t always bad. Most of us seem to like that we can access Google Maps on our phones when we’re lost, or that our favorite shows are easy to find on Netflix or Hulu. I appreciate the skateboarding videos on Youtube that have taught me proper board stances, since there’s no one in my neighborhood I can ask.
But this is still change, and for the people who liked their communities the way they were when they were DIY, something they enjoyed may be lost.
(But don’t worry about me; I won’t be invading your skateparks.)
Anyway, skateboarding, week one:
Since my husband’s assertion that I had bought a “murderboard” and was going to “kill myself,” I have been keeping a list of things that have hurt me worse than skateboarding injuries:
Biting my tongue at breakfast
Stepping on a small plastic Pokemon that nearly punctured my foot
Bumping into the table (I still have the bruise)
Whacking my ankle with the scooter while picking it up
The pain in my elbow from using Twitter
I think a lot of people (including my husband) jump on a skateboard once, the skateboard flies out from under them, they crash to the ground, and they decide that skateboarding must be for people with better balance and pain tolerance than they.
But this is like jumping on a bike without training wheels, immediately falling over, and concluding that bike riding must be really hard.
So if you want to skateboard and you don’t want to fall on your butt, try watching this video first:
A real skateboard is a bit expensive (mine was about $120 dollars), which is a fair impediment to figuring out whether you enjoy skateboarding enough to want to put in the effort to learn it. A good compromise might be starting with a Razor Scooter, which are pretty fun to ride but more stable, due to the handlebar, or borrowing a skateboard from a neighbor.
After my first couple days of awkward step, skate, step, skate, step, skate, leap off the board, repeat, I got used to keeping my weight on my board foot and swishing the ground with my free foot. In the process I had two falls, but neither of these actually resulted in injuries or even pain. I decided to wear a helmet anyway, just in case.
Little known fact: humans are footed, just as they are handed. If you’re having trouble getting comfortable on your board, it might be because you’re using the wrong foot. When I use my non-dominant foot to practice different stances, I feel terribly clumsy and awkward.
So far everyone who has said anything at all has been very friendly and supportive (obviously I don’t look like a miscreant teenager, but a mom supervising her kids at the playground), and most people seem to be impressed that I can just stay on the board while gliding across a flat surface.
I was originally going to name my board “murderboard”, but my lack of injuries (other than a small bug that got squashed,) has made me reconsider.
I will probably never learn any fancy tricks (because I am not very good at athletic things) but I’ve had a really fun first week and am happy to have a hobby that I can actually discuss with strangers (unlike my blog).
Specifically, throughout New Guinea and three Central Brazilian cultures, (Mundurucus, Kalapalo, and Kamayura), the flute is endowed with very similar powers and meaning. Each region considers their flutes sacred. They are stored in the men’s homes and females are forbidden to see or play them. In the event that women disobey this order, they can be subject to gang rape or other punishment. Spiritual associations with this instrument are present in all but the culture of the Kalapalo Indians. Ancestral communication is often achieved through the music of flutes as well. However, most importantly, a gender power struggle is represented by the flute, the rituals, and the ceremonies in which the instrument is used.
Of course, sometimes people make claims about parallels that do not exist, and we should be careful about believing claims about other cultures without reading the relevant source material, but assuming it’s true, it’s interesting.
There is a small trace of Melanesian DNA that shows up in the genomes of certain hunter-gatherers in the Amazon; perhaps there is a real cultural link–or perhaps it’s just random.
IMO, the peopling of the Americas will ultimately turn out to have been more complicated than we currently think of it, but unfortunately, we don’t have many DNA samples from Native Americans (because they think geneticists are out to get them). Until that changes, our coverage of Native American genomes is scanty and drawn largely from ancient burials (most of which are controlled by local tribes that don’t allow DNA testing) and from non-American Indians from places like Canada or Mexico.
Even this view, in the Tweet, is probably wrong–if people entered via the Bering Strait, why is the oldest archaeological site at the extreme other end of both continents? Did people run straight to Tierra del Fuego, then turn around and head back up to Montana?
At any rate, I’m not sure how this is “deep roots.” This is their only roots, since they’re from here. Of course, while Native Americans who’ve been here for 12,000 years have “deep” roots, Science would like you to know that “There’s no such thing as a pure European“:
In fact, the German people have no unique genetic heritage to protect. They—and all other Europeans—are already a mishmash, the children of repeated ancient migrations, according to scientists who study ancient human origins. New studies show that almost all indigenous Europeans descend from at least three major migrations in the past 15,000 years, including two from the Middle East. Those migrants swept across Europe, mingled with previous immigrants, and then remixed to create the peoples of today.
Imagine telling the Cheyenne that they aren’t a distinct people with a heritage to protect just because their ancestors got conquered by another Native American tribe 15,000 years ago. Just imagine the sheer, idiotic audacity of it.
But pomo griping about newspaper headlines aside, it seems to me that the level of technological civilization in the Americas was actually pretty high prior to Columbus’s arrival. For example, the civilizations of Mesoamerica, like the Olmecs, were literate and had developed writing and counting systems over two thousand years ago. The cities of the Inca, Maya, and Aztecs, were of course large and impressive. The Natives of America, now oddly more obscure, also had impressive settlements and built large structures like Serpent Mound, Ohio. We tend not to think of them as particularly settled and civilized because by the time white settlers encountered them, their towns had already been destroyed by disease and predation by other tribes who’d gotten horses from the Spaniards.
(The stereotypical horse-riding, tipi-dwelling Indian following herds of buffalo across the Great Plains only emerged after Columbus’s arrival, because horses came from Europe.)
Since the Americas were actually settled pretty late in the scheme of human evolution, I suspect that most Indian groups were actually pretty smart (relatively speaking,) but their technological progress was retarded by a lack of good draft animals. Not because, as some have suggested, domesticable animals simply didn’t exist in the Americas–they do–but because they didn’t have them. Domestication takes time; sneaking up on animals you want to eat is tricky. Cochran has suggested that parasites might have been involved in getting aurochs to be more docile around humans, allowing us to domesticate them and turn them into cattle; the Native Americans hadn’t had the time yet to develop similar parasitic relationships with the local bison. Given another 10 or 40,000 years, though, they might have had time enough to domesticate more of the local fauna.
If the Indians could have adopted old world beasts of burden without losing 90% of their population to epidemic and plague and then getting conquered, there could have been some interesting results a few thousand years down the line.
There’s a similar case in Russia, but more successful.
One of the mysteries (to me, at least, and maybe it’s just ignorance) of European history is why Russia enters so late onto the international. The whole country was apparently founded by the Vikings, the Kievan Rus, which is just one of the weirder bits of historical trivia, and then doesn’t do much of interest until Napoleon invades; then they become important in European politics.
Russians aren’t stupid; Russia has produced plenty of works of art, literature, architecture, etc.
Of course, part of the answer lies in the fact that Russia has an enormous frontier to its east that occasionally spawned barbarian tribes, and so before Russia could do anything on the west, needed to secure the east–and frankly, conquering a bunch of nomadic tribes in Siberia was probably easier than trying to conquer Germany, so Siberia it was. Once Russia had Siberia, then it moved on to conquering Europe.
But my other thought was more mundane: potatoes.
Wheat evolved in the Fertile Crescent–Iraq. It does well in warm climates. It does not do well in cold climates.
Sure, they aren’t always immune to the local fungi, but when they aren’t blighted, they do really well.
The introduction of a crop that grew well provided the population with more calories more easily, allowing more people to dedicate themselves to non-farming jobs, allowing eastern European countries to become more internationally significant.
Sometimes, a low state of development is just that–the locals just aren’t very good at things like building cities or writing books–and sometimes its due to a lack of local resources, easily changed by the introduction of something new, like horses or potatoes.
A lot of culture–aside from that time your parents dragged you to the ballet–is what we would, in honest moments, classify as “stupid things people used to do/believe.”
Now, yes, I know, it’s a bit outre for an anthropologist to declare that large swathes of culture are “stupid,” but I could easily assemble a list of hundreds of stupid things, eg:
The Aztecs practiced human sacrifice because they believed that if they didn’t, the world would come to an end.
In Britain, people used to believe that you could literally eat the sins of a recently deceased person, speeding their entry into Heaven. There were professional sin eaters, the last of whom, Richard Munslow, died in 1906.
Americans started eating breakfast cereal as part of an anti-masturbation campaign, and in Africa, many girls have their clitorises cut off and vaginas sewn nearly shut in a much more vigorous anti-masturbation campaign.
The Etoro of Papua New Guinea believed that young boys between the ages of 7 and 17 must “ingest” the semen of older men daily in order to mature into men.
In Mozambique, there are people who kill bald men to get the gold they supposedly have inside their heads; in the DRC, there’s a belief that eating Pygmy people will give you magic powers.
People in Salem, Massachusetts, believed that teenage girls were a good source of information on which older women in the community were witches and needed to be hanged.
Flutes assume all sorts of strange roles in various Papuan and a few Brazilian cultures–only men are allowed to see, play, or listen to the flutes, and any women who violate the flute taboo are gang raped or executed. Additionally, “…the Keraki perform flute music when a boy has been sodomized and they fear he is pregnant. This summons spirits who will protect him from such humiliation.”
Spirit possession–the belief that a god or deity can take control of and speak/dance/act through a worshiper–is found in many traditions, including West African and Haitian Voodoo. If you read Things Fall Apart, then you remember the egwugwu, villagers dressed in masks who were believed to become the spirits of gods and ancestors. Things “fall apart” after a Christian convert “kills” one of the gods by unmasking him, leading other villagers to retaliate against the local Christian mission by burning it down.
In India, people traditionally murdered their moms by pushing them into their father’s funeral pyres (and those were the guys who didn’t go around randomly strangling people because a goddess told them to).
People in ancient [pretty much everywhere] believed that the gods and the deceased could receive offerings (burnt or otherwise,) of meat, chairs, clothes, games, slaves, etc. The sheer quantity of grave goods buried with the deceased sometimes overwhelmed the local economy, like in ancient Egypt.
Then there’s sympathetic magic, by which things with similar properties (say, yellow sap and yellow fever, or walnuts that look like brains and actual brains) are believed to have an effect on each other.
Madagascar has a problem with bubonic plague because of a local custom of digging up dead bodies and dancing around with them.
People all over the world–including our own culture–turn down perfectly good food because it violates some food taboo they hold.
All of these customs are either stupid or terrible ideas. Of course the dead do not really come back, Zeus does not receive your burnt offering, you can’t cure yellow fever by painting someone yellow and washing off the paint or by lying in a room full of snakes, and the evil eye isn’t real, despite the fact that progressives are convinced it is. A rabbit’s foot won’t make you lucky and neither will a 4-leaf clover, and your horoscope is meaningless twaddle.
Obviously NOT ALL culture is stupid. Most of the stuff people do is sensible, because if it weren’t, they’d die out. Good ideas have a habit of spreading, though, making them less unique to any particular culture.
Many of the bad ideas people formerly held have been discarded over the years as science and literacy have given people the ability to figure out whether a claim is true or not. Superstitions about using pendulums to tell if a baby is going to be a boy or a girl have been replaced with ultrasounds, which are far more reliable. Bleeding sick patients has been replaced with antibiotics and vaccinations; sacrifices to the gods to ensure good weather have been replaced with irrigation systems.
In effect, science and technology have replaced much of the stuff that used to count as “culture.” This is why I say “science is my culture.” This works for me, because I’m a nerd, but most people aren’t all that emotionally enthralled by science. They feel a void where all of the fun parts of culture have been replaced.
Yes, the fun parts.
I like that I’m no longer dependent on the whims of the rain gods to water my crops and prevent starvation, but this also means I don’t get together with all of my family and friends for the annual rain dance. It means no more sewing costumes and practicing steps; no more cooking a big meal for everyone to enjoy. Culture involves all of the stuff we invest with symbolic meaning about the course of our lives, from birth to coming of age to marriage, birth of our own children, to old age and death. It carries meaning for families, love, and friendship. And it gives us a framework for enjoyable activities, from a day of rest from our labors to the annual “give children candy” festival.
So when people say, “Whites have no culture,” they mean four things:
A fish does not notice the water it swims in–whites have a culture, but don’t notice it because they are so accustomed to it
Most of the stupid/wrong things whites used to do that we call “culture” have been replaced by science/technology
That science/technology has spread to other cultures because it is useful, rendering white culture no longer unique
Technology/science/literacy have rendered many of the fun or emotionally satisfying parts of ritual and culture obsolete.
Too often people denigrate the scientific way of doing things on the grounds that it isn’t “cultural.” This comes up when people say things like “Indigenous ways of knowing are equally valid as Western ways of knowing.” This is a fancy way of saying that “beliefs that are ineffective at predicting the weather, growing crops, curing diseases, etc, are just as correct as beliefs that are effective at doing these things,” or [not 1]=.
We shouldn’t denigrate doing things in ways that actually work; science must be respected as valid. We should, however, find new ways to give people an excuse to do the fun things that used to be tied up in cultural rituals.
Yes, caring about your own stuff or your own culture’s stuff over another people’s stuff shows in-group bias. That was inherent back there in the words “your own.” It’s yours. Of course you care about it.
Only deities achieve perfect love. Even Jesus does not call on people to love strangers; he commands his followers to love each other and love their neighbors.
What does tamed mean?” [asked the Little Prince] …
“It means to create ties,”… the fox said. “For me, you’re only a little boy, like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you, and you have no need of me, either. For you I’m only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me we’ll need each other. You’ll be the only boy in the world for me. I’ll be the only fox in the world for you.” …
And [the Prince] felt very unhappy. His flower had told him she was the only one of her kind in the whole universe. And here were five thousand of them, all alike, in just one garden! ….
And then he said to himself, I thought I was rich because I had one flower, and all I own is an ordinary rose… and he lay down and wept. …
Then [the fox] added, “Go look at the roses again. You’ll understand that yours is the only rose in all the world.”
The Little Prince went to look at the roses again. “You’re not at all like my rose. You’re nothing at all, yet,” he told them. “No one has tamed you and you haven’t tamed anyone. You’re the way my fox was. … But I’ve made him my friend, and now he’s the only fox in all the world.” …
“Of course, an ordinary passerby would think my rose looked just like you. But my rose, all on her own, is more important than all of you together, since she’s the one I watered. … Since she’s my rose.”
— Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince
The inverse of loving what is yours is that you do not love what is not yours.
Part of the bittersweetness of the Little Prince is how closely it parallels the author’s own life, for not only did Saint-Exupery crash land in the Sahara, and not only was the rose based on his own wife, but he also fell from the sky and died when his plane was shot down over the Mediterranean during WWII.
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart follows the life of Okonkwo, a (fictional) Nigerian Igbo man who lived in a small village in the 1890s. The story follows Okonkwo’s determination to rise from nothing, slough off the shame of his father’s laziness, cowardice, and debt, and make a name for himself. Through Okonkwo’s eyes, we see the culture of the Onitsha Igbo, a real people, prior to the arrival of the British.
Then Okonkwo murders his foster son because the village authorities decided he should be killed (to avenge the death of a woman from Okonkwo’s tribe) and, as the title says, things fall apart.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
— W. B. Yeats, The Second Coming
It’s an interesting work from a cultural, historical perspective.
We cannot justify Okonkwo’s culture, nor Okonkwo himself. I do not think Achebe means to. It was a culture that murdered innocent people, forced some to be permanent “outcasts,” and sanctioned the beating of women and children. Okonkwo beat his wives and children (and as mentioned, murdered his foster son to avoid looking “weak” or “cowardly” in front of the other villagers.)
And yet, we hear Achebe’s voice saying, it was theirs.
My mother is not perfect, yet she is mine. My people are not perfect, yet they are mine. My culture is not perfect, yet it is mine. Okonkwo was a beloved husband, friend, leader, and father. And people love what is theirs.
Of course, taking another perspective, we could also read the novel as “Sure, the British put a stop to many terrible things, but they were SMUG about it!”
I can’t put much stock in the position that otherwise moral people committed evil acts simply because of their culture, since culture itself comes from the people in it. “I was only following orders” stopped being an excuse during the Nuremberg Trials. We moderns are expected to question and resist our culture at every turn, and I am not inclined to extend to Oknkwo generosity that would not be extended to me.
Of course, the Igbo are not the only people to have done terrible things. We all have sinned. Yes, the French committed crimes in the course of colonialism. So did the British:
The British had difficulty conquering Igboland, which lacked central political organisation. In the name of liberating the Igbos from the Aro Confederacy, the British launched the Anglo-Aro War of 1901–1902. Despite conquering villages by burning houses and crops, continual political control over the Igbo remained elusive. The British forces began annual pacification missions to convince the locals of British supremacy. …
After establishing political control of the country, the British implemented a system of taxation in order to force the indigenous Africans to shift from subsistence farming to wage labour. Sometimes forced labour was used directly for public works projects. These policies met with ongoing resistance
Of course, the British also did their best to put an end to the international slave trade and stopped the Igbo practice of human sacrifice:
However, animals were used to remove evil from the land. At times during pestilence, palm fronds, an animal or a human being will be tied at the entrance of the town with hope that the disease will enter into these objects and spare the inhabitants. To be attacked by such animal is regarded as ill luck and these living sacrifices are not eaten by anyone. In the past, two living beings were buried along side chiefs as servants to serve him in the spirit world. Slaves were usually used for this.
You can appreciate the good in a culture–and people–without accepting their evil.
Have you finished the book, yet? What do you think of it?
If you haven’t started yet, don’t worry–we’ll continue this conversation in a week.
Modernity was named “Westernization” in honor of the first cultures it devoured.
There were once more than 400 languages spoken in Europe. Today there are only 250–and some of these have fewer than a hundred speakers. Ume Saami has only 10 speakers. Manx has a robust 50 speakers–none of them native. 90% of Europe’s languages are endangered, soon to be replaced by the languages of commerce.
Westernization has absorbed traits from the cultures it devoured, not the cultures themselves. English is the language of Westernization, but Westernization doesn’t make you English. It doesn’t give you a love of tea and crumpets, double-decker buses and Queen Elizabeth, Rudyard Kipling or William Shakespeare. England was just one of the first countries devoured.
As it spreads, it morphs, but one thing remains constant: the old culture dies. My culture, your culture, every culture.
Is modernity evil?
Probably not. Agriculture destroyed hunter-gathering. It also fed far more people.
Culture contains the collective wisdom of a people, their solutions for dealing with the problems they encounter in their daily lives. Agricultural peoples develop harvest festivals. People who must constantly defend their territory develop war dances.
Modernity changes not just the means of production. It changes how we communicate, how we get our news, the stories we consume and the food we eat. It changes how we spend our leisure and interact with our families. It changes how we move, sleep, and sit, creating physical problems.
When people have the choice, most chose modernity, for modernity produces a great deal of food and rather little material hardship. But it strips their culture and leaves them adrift, for modernity has had very little time to accumulate solutions to the new problems people face. The result is “degeneracy“:
The Northwest Coast Indians felt the ill effects of too much contact with British, Russian, and American traders. The rum of the trading schooners was one of several factors contributing to the degeneracy of those not actually exterminated.
“Woke” minorities, especially East, South, & Southeast Asian ones, have a misguided attitude towards undoing colonialism. In most cases, they’ve totally internalized Western values and are often hostile to traditional ones, only seeking to guard things like food and music.
Bring up traditional Indian attitudes towards family and hierarchy and the desi intersectionalists are against it. They are backward values with no redeeming qualities, who cares if they’ve guided Indian civilization for thousands of years? But if a white girl wears a sari…
Because if the White people are doing it too, then who are we? This is also why people back in Asia and Asian immigrants (the parents of these activists) have no problem with cultural appropriation as their cultural identity is based on core values and not garments and recipes.
It’s an important insight, but who’s correct? The elders, who value the old ways? Or the youngsters, who’ve absorbed modernity but are clinging to the form of kebabs and saris? Are modernity and the old ways compatible, or will young Indians–Desi or not–have to forge something new?
I am reminded here of a joke that I can’t find anywhere on the internet:
A Sami man once lived far in the north of Norway, herding reindeer. He had three sons. The first son was very smart and became the first person in his family to go to college. After many years, he became a doctor. The second son was very hard working, went off to college, and after many years became a successful lawyer in Oslo. Then the third son grew up.
“What would you like to be?” asked his father? “A doctor? A lawyer? An engineer? An astronaut?”
“Well,” said the son. “I would like to stay here, and herd reindeer.”
“Finally,” said his father, “A son I can be proud of!”
Most cultures will not simply morph or adapt to modernity; they will die. Cornwall was once a distinct culture with its own language; today it is just part of Britain. Native American hunter-gatherers now struggle with drug use and depression as their entire lifestyle has been rendered moot by mass-production factory farming. The core of life in Inuit and Eskimo communities has been gutted and replaced with canned food and cinderblock housing.
Today, people all around the world eat at McDonald’s, shop at Ikea, and play Nintendo games. Clothes and electronics are mass produced in China and calories in Kansas. Everyone gets absorbed into mega cultural zones; the future will look a lot more like China than Tibet.
How and to what degree any culture will survive the transition to modernity remains to be seen. China went through multiple shattering cataclysms in the 20th century, but seems to be entering the 21st strong. Japan appears to have integrated its cultural values and modernity with only one attempted world-conquering hiccup. The rest of the world, I’m not so sure about.
The biggest issue modernizing countries face is cratering birth rates. The causes are many, but may be chiefly reduced to the existence of birth control, the need for extended schooling into the breeding years, requirements that families set themselves up independently before reproducing, increased living standards, and distractions like TV and the internet.
Every “modernized” country–except Israel–has a fertility rate below replacement, and the higher tech the country, the lower the fertility rate. The US has a TFR of 1.8 children per woman (replacement is just north of 2, since some children die.) Japan has 1.4. Singapore has 1.2. Iceland has 1.8. South Korea: 1.17. Poland: 1.3. Canada: 1.6.
(This is a problem when your Social Security and pension benefits are calculated based on the assumption of an expanding workforce.)
Meanwhile, Afghanistan has a TFR of 4.6 children per woman. Niger: 7.2. Mali: 6. The Democratic Republic of the Congo: 6.1.
(Interestingly, Iran fell from 6.5 children per woman in 1982 to 2 per woman in 2002. I’ve said it elsewhere before, but Iran is a more modern country than people realize. A few thousand years of Persian Civilization weren’t for nothing.)
Since most modernizing countries also go through a massive population boom as infant mortality declines, this wouldn’t be a problem if the fertility shift were distributed equally among all parts of society. It’s not.
On top of that, fertility isn’t distributed equally through all groups on the planet, and groups with high fertility now face increasing resource pressures at home and therefore find moving to areas with lower fertility attractive. As long as these two groups keep up their fertility differences, the net result will be the continued growth of one group while the other shrinks–eventually, one group will disappear or be absorbed entirely.
Modernity itself is a recent invention, dependent on the “smart fraction” of society–those with IQs above 120 or so and therefore capable of understanding things like “electrical power grids” or “why society works better if you cooperate in the Prisoner’s Dilemma.” Modernity works a lot worse if you get more folks in the 80-85 IQ criminal sweet spot–just smart enough to plan and execute crimes, not smart enough to care about the consequences.
The transition to modernity will ultimately work itself out–perhaps over several centuries–if smart moderns can have enough children to keep it going. It will collapse like the Roman Empire if less-modernized people move in, out-reproduce you, and eat your seed corn. (And as the third world continues to grow, there will be increasing pressure for countries with low TFRs to let in migrants from those with high.) It will collapse if your own less competent people out-reproduce your more competent, and it might also collapse if people get the idea that some of the other folks in society are conspiring against them to keep their numbers down.
If modernity collapses, first will come hunger, then war, then epidemics, then famine. Death rides a pale horse; maybe that Fermi Paradox is onto something.
But modernity need not collapse if countries can prevent childlessness or delayed childbearing from becoming high-status markers and ride out the wave of those who aren’t very interested in reproducing removing themselves from the gene pool without panicking. (Note an unfortunate trend: European leaders Macron, Theresa May, Merkel, and Lofven all have no children at all.)
We’re going to kick off today’s Cathedral Round-Up with a trip down memory lane.
This may come as some surprise, given my scintillating wit and gregarious nature, but I was not popular in school. If there was a social totem pole, I was a mud puddle about twenty yards to the left of the pole.
The first time I felt like I truly fit in–I belonged–was at nerd camp. This was a sort of summer camp your parents send you to when you’ve failed at Scouting and they hope maybe you’ll pick up chemistry or philosophy instead.
One evening, when I was gathered in the dorm with my new friends, a girl burst triumphantly into our midst, brandishing a book. “I have it,” she triumphed. “I have it! The book!”
The Book, which we all proceeded to read, and after camp ended, to discuss in what were my very first emails, was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
The researchers found that during their informational presentations, the recruiters—no doubt in an attempt to bond with their audiences—frequently referenced “geek culture favorites” such as Star Trek and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, focused the conversation exclusively on highly technical aspects of the roles or referred to high school coding experience. …
In case you haven’t noticed or this is your first time visiting my humble blog, I am female. All of my friends at camp were female.
“Through gender-imbalanced presenter roles, geek culture references, overt use of gender stereotypes, and other gendered speech and actions, representatives may puncture the pipeline, lessening the interest of women at the point of recruitment into technology careers,” the researchers write.
Dear Diversity Experts: In the words of the first real friend I ever had, please disembowel yourselves with a rusty spoon.
The study itself is not easily available online, so I will respectfully judge them based on summaries in HRE and Wired.
Short version: A couple of sociologist “gender researchers,” who of course know STEM culture very well, sat in on tech company recruiting sessions at Stanford and discovered that nerds talk about nerd things, OMG EWWW, and concluded that icky nerds doing their nerd thing in public is why women decide to go apply for more prestigious jobs elsewhere.
Now, I understand what it’s like not to get someone else’s references. I haven’t seen Breaking Bad, NCIS, Sex in the City, Seinfeld, The Simpsons, or the past X Starwars installments. I don’t watch sports, play golf, or drink alcohol.
But I don’t go around complaining that other people need to stop talking about things that interest them and just talk about stuff that interests me. It doesn’t bother me that other people have their interests, because I have plenty of room over here on my end of the internet to talk about mine.
But apparently these “Diversity Experts” think that the cultural icons of my childhood need to be expunged from conversation just to make people like them feel more comfortable.
Dear Correll and Wynn: when people like you stop assuming that everyone in your vicinity is interested in hearing about wine and yoga and golf, I’ll stop assuming that people who show some interest in my culture are interested in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Notice that the problem here is not that the women are being turned away, or discriminated against, or receiving fewer callbacks than male applicants. No, the problem is that the women think geek culture is icky and so don’t even bother to apply. They have decided that they have better options, but since someone decided that is imperative that all professions be 50% women (except plumbing, sewer workers, truckers, etc.) they must somehow be tricked into going into their second-choice field.
No one seems to have thought to, ahem, consult the actual women who work in Tech or who have STEM degrees or are otherwise associated with the field about whether or not they thought these sorts of geek cultural references were off-putting. No, we do not exist in Correll and Wynn’s world, or perhaps because our numbers are low, there just aren’t enough of us to matter.
STEM/tech exists in this weird limbo where women abstractly want more women in it, but don’t actually want to be the women in it. Take Wynn. She has a degree in English. She could have majored in Chemistry, but chose not to. Now she whines that there aren’t enough female engineers.
People routinely denigrate law and lawyers. Lawyers are the butt of many jokes, and people claim to hate lawyers, but lawyers themselves are treated with a great deal of courtesy and respect, and have no difficulties on the dating market.
STEM works inversely: people claim to hold scientists and mathematicians in great respect, but in practice they are much lower on the social totem pole. Lots of people would like good grades in math, but don’t want to hang out with the kid who does get good grades in math.
So feminists want women to be acknowledged as equally capable with men at things like “math” and “winning Nobel Prizes” and “becoming billionaire CEOS” (hey, I want those things, too,) but don’t want to do the grunt work that is most of what people in STEM fields actually do. They don’t want to spend their days around sweaty guys who talk about Linux kernels or running around as lab assistant #3. For a lot of people, tech jobs are not only kind of boring and frustrating, but don’t even pay that well, considering all of the education involved in getting them.
The result is a lot of concern trolling from people who claim to want more women in STEM, but don’t want to address the underlying problems for why most women aren’t all that interested in STEM in the first place.
Are there real problems for women in STEM? Maybe. I have female commentators who can tell you about the difficulties they’ve had in STEM communities. It is different being a female in a male-dominated field than being female in a balanced or female-dominated field, and this has its downsides. But “men said nerd things” or “men referenced porn” is not even remotely problematic. (I will note that men have problems in STEM fields, too.)
While we’re here, I’d like to talk about these “Diversity Experts” whom HRE cites as proof for their claims that women find geek culture off-putting. Their link heads not to a study on the subject, nor even an actual expert on anything, but an opinion piece by Kerry Flynn on Mashable:
The lack of diversity in tech isn’t a new issue, and yet top leaders in Silicon Valley still struggle to talk about it.
They struggle so much that this is an entire article about a female CEO talking about it. Talking openly about a thing is the same as struggling to talk about it, right?
The latest stumble comes from YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki speaking with MSNBC’s Ari Melber and Recode’s Kara Swisher at the media companies’ first town hall titled “Revolution: Google and YouTube Changing the World,” which aired Sunday.
The latest stumble, ladies and gents! Wojcicki might be a female CEO of a tech giant, but what the hell does she know? Kerry Flynn knows much better than she does. Wojcicki had better shape up to Flynn’s standards, because Flynn is keeping track, ladies and gents.
According to Wojcicki, one reason for the lack of women in tech is its reputation for being a “very geeky male industry.”
That kind of statement makes it seem like Wojcicki has forgotten about the diverse and minority perspectives that are fighting for representation in the industry. For instance, with the #IlLookLikeAnEngineer campaign, engineer Isis Wenger wrote about the sexism she faced working in tech and inspired a movement of women shutting down stereotypes.
See, women and minorities are trying to counter the perception of tech being a “very geeky male industry,” which Wojcicki obviously forgot about when she claimed that tech has a reputation for being a “very geeky male industry.”
Kerry Flynn is very stupid.
The entire article goes on in this vein and it’s all awful. Nowhere does Flynn prove anything about women not liking The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy.
What other interesting articles does Stanford Magazine hold for us?
So what happens when you send your kids to Stanford? Stanford Magazine has helpful interviews with recent grads. Yeji Jung got enmeshed in Social Justice, changed her major from pre-med to “comparative studies in race and ethnicity,” graduated, and went home to her parents to make collages.
I searched for Yeji Jung’s art, which is supposed to be making the world a better and more just place, and found almost nothing. This red cabbage and the lips in the Stanford Mag article are it. This does not look promising.
I bet her parents are very glad they worked their butts off for years making sure their kid got all As in her classes and aced SAT so she could come home from Stanford and paste paper together.
A quote from the article:
A thesis project to investigate the links between her Korean-American identity and the experiences of her Korean grandmothers took her to Seoul, South Korea, and Manassas, Va., to interview them in Korean.
Wait, you can get a degree from Stanford by interviewing your grandparents? Dude, I call my grandma every weekend! That should be worth at least a master’s.
“[My grandmothers’] lives are so deeply gendered in a way that I just have not experienced as someone who grew up in the U.S. One of my interview questions was framed as, ‘What did you study in college?’ [My grandmother in Virginia said,] ‘Oh, I didn’t go to college — girls in that day didn’t go to college. We went to work.’ That was a moment for me of, ‘Wow, I just have these assumptions about my life that are not a given.’
Girls in my grandmothers’ day went to college. Both of mine went to college. One of them earned a PhD in a STEM field; the other became a teacher. Teacher was a pretty common profession for women in my grandmother’s day. So was nurse.
I can take that a step further: my great-grandmother went to college.
Perhaps she meant was girls in Korea didn’t go to college in those days, though I’m sure Korea had needed plenty of nurses about 70 years ago, and frankly I’m not sure many men were going to college in those days.
I often idly wonder if elites push SJW nonsense to remove competitors. Yeji Jung is probably a very bright young woman who would have made an excellent doctor or medical researcher. Instead she has shuffled off to irrelevance.
“The end result of the complex organization that was the efficient software of the Great War was the manufacture of corpses.
This essentially industrial operation was fantasized by the generals as a “strategy of attrition.” The British tried to kill Germans, the Germans tried to kill British and French and so on, a “strategy” so familiar by now that it almost sounds normal. It was not normal in Europe before 1914 and no one in authority expected it to evolve, despite the pioneering lessons of the American Civil War. Once the trenches were in place, the long grave already dug (John Masefield’s bitterly ironic phrase), then the war stalemated and death-making overwhelmed any rational response.
“The war machine,” concludes Elliot, “rooted in law, organization, production, movement, science, technical ingenuity, with its product of six thousand deaths a day over a period of 1,500 days, was the permanent and realistic factor, impervious to fantasy, only slightly altered by human variation.”
No human institution, Elliot stresses, was sufficiently strong to resist the death machine. A new mechanism, the tank, ended the stalemate.”
Big Data describes another war of attrition:
McNamara epitomized the hyper-rational executive who relied on numbers rather than sentiments, and who could apply his quantitative skills to any industry he turned them to. In 1960 he was named president of Ford, a position he held for only a few weeks before being tapped to join President Kennedy’s cabinet as secretary of defense.
As the Vietnam conflict escalated and the United States sent more troops, it became clear that this was a war of wills, not of territory. America’s strategy was to pound the Viet Cong to the negotiation table. The way to measure progress, therefore, was by the number of enemy killed. The body count was published daily in the newspapers. To the war’s supporters it was proof of progress; to critics, evidence of its immorality. The body count was the data point that defined an era.
McNamara relied on the figures, fetishized them. … McNamara felt he could comprehend what was happening on the ground only by staring at a spreadsheet—at all those orderly rows and columns, calculations and charts, whose mastery seemed to bring him one standard deviation closer to God.
In 1977, two years after the last helicopter lifted off the rooftop of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, a retired Army general, Douglas Kinnard, published a landmark survey called The War Managers that revealed the quagmire of quantification. A mere 2 percent of America’s generals considered the body count a valid way to measure progress. “A fake—totally worthless,” wrote one general in his comments. “Often blatant lies,” wrote another. “They were grossly exaggerated by many units primarily because of the incredible interest shown by people like McNamara,” said a third. — Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier, Big Data
Humans are reasonably smart creatures, but we so easily get stuck in terrible modes of thinking.
On a battlefield men die quickly, they fight back, they are sustained by fellowship and a sense of duty. Here I saw people dying in solitude by slow degrees, dying hideously, without the excuse of sacrifice for a cause. They had been trapped and left to starve, each in his home, by a political decision made in a far-off capital around conference and banquet tables. […] The most terrifying sights were the little children with skeleton limbs dangling from balloon – like abdomens. Starvation had wiped every trace of youth from their faces, turning them into tortured gargoyles; only in their eyes still lingered the reminder of childhood. Everywhere we found men and women lying prone, their faces and bellies bloated, their eyes utterly expressionless. Anger lashed my mind as I drove back to the village. Butter being sent abroad in the midst of the famine! In London, Berlin, Paris I could see with my mind’s eye people eating butter stamped with a Soviet trademark. “They must be rich to be able to send out butter,” I could hear them saying. “Here, friends, is the proof of socialism in action.” Driving through the fields, I did not hear the lovely Ukrainian songs so dear to my heart. These people had forgotten how to sing. I could hear only the groans of the dying, and the lip-smacking of fat foreigners enjoying our butter… — Kravchenko, Victor. I Chose Freedom: The Personal And Political Life Of A Soviet Official
Like human sacrifice and cannibalism:
The word tzompantli is Nahuatl and was used by the Aztecs to refer to the skull-racks found in many Aztec cities; The first and most prominent example is the Huey Tzompantli (Great Skull-rack) located the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and described by the early conquistadors. … Excavations at Templo Mayor in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan have revealed many skulls belonging to women and children, in addition to those of men, a demonstration of the diversity of the human sacrifices in Aztec culture. After displaying severed heads, many scholars have determined that limbs of Aztec victims would be cannibalized
… based on numbers given by Taipa and Fray Diego Durán, Bernard Ortiz de Montellano has calculated that there were at most 60,000 skulls on the “Hueyi Tzompantli” (Great Skullrack) of Tenochtitlan. … There were at least five more skull racks in Tenochtitlan but by all accounts they were much smaller. —Wikipedia
All of the individual parts of a system can seem logical, and yet the end result can still be grotesque, inhuman, and insane.
I am on holiday so your normal Book Club post will resume next Wednesday.
Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees, and sometimes you look at your own discipline and can’t articulate what, exactly, the point of it is.
Yes, I know which topics social studies covers. History, civics, geography, world cultures, reading maps, traffic/pedestrian laws, etc. Socialstudies.org explains, “Within the school program, social studies provides coordinated, systematic study drawing upon such disciplines as anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology, as well as appropriate content from the humanities, mathematics…” etc. (I’m sure you did a lot of archaeology back in elementary school.)
But what is the point of lumping all of these things together? Why put psychology, geography, and law into the same book, and how on earth is that coordinated or systematic?
The points of some other school subjects are obvious. Reading and writing allow you to decode and encode information, a process that has massively expanded the human ability to learn and “remember” things by freeing us from the physical constraints of our personal memories. We can learn from men who lived a thousand years ago or a thousand miles away, and add our bit to the Great Conversation that stretches back to Homer and Moses.
Maths allow us to quantify and measure the world, from “How much do I owe the IRS this year?” to “Will this rocket land on the moon?” (It is also, like fiction, pleasurable for its own sake.) And science and engineering, of course, allow us to make and apply factual observations about the real world–everything from “Rocks accelerate toward the earth at a rate of 9.8m/s^2” to “This bridge is going to collapse.”
But what is social studies? The question bugged me for months, until Napoleon Chagnon–or more accurately, the Yanomamo–provided an answer.
Chagnon is a anthropologist who carefully documented Yanomamo homicide and birth rates, and found that the Yanomamo men who had killed the most people went on to father the most children–providing evidence for natural selection pressures making the Yanomamo more violent and homicidal over time, and busting the “primitive peoples are all lovely egalitarians with no crime or murder” myth.
In an interview I read recently, Chagnon was asked what the Yanomamo made of him, this random white guy who came to live in their village. Why was he there? Chagnon replied that they thought he had come:
“To learn how to be human.”
Sometimes we anthropologists lose the signal in the noise. We think our purpose is to document primitive tribes before they go extinct (and that is part of our purpose.) But the Yanomamo are correct: the real reason we come is to learn how to be human.
All of school has one purpose: to prepare the child for adulthood.
The point of social studies is prepare the child for full, adult membership in their society. You must learn the norms, morals, and laws of your society. The history and geography of your society. You learn not just “How a bill becomes a law” but why a bill becomes a law. If you are religious, your child will also learn about the history and moral teachings of their religion.
Most religions have some kind of ceremony that marks the beginning of religious adulthood. For example, many churches practice the rite of Confirmation, in which teens reaffirm their commitment to Christ and become full members of the congregation. Adult Baptism functions similarly in some denominations.
Judaism has the Bar (and Bat) Mitzvah, whose implications are quite clearly articulated. When a child turns 13 (or in some cases, 12,) they are now expected to be moral actors, responsible for their own behavior. They now make their own decisions about following Jewish law, religious duties, and morality.
But there’s an upside: the teen is also now able to part of a minyan, the 10-person group required for (certain) Jewish prayers, Torah legal study; can marry*; and can testify before a Rabbinic court.
*Local laws still apply.
In short, the ceremony marks the child’s entry into the world of adults and full membership in their society. (Note: obviously 13 yr olds are not treated identically to 33 yr olds; there are other ceremonies that mark the path to maturity.)
Whatever your personal beliefs, the point of Social Studies is to prepare your child for full membership in society.
A society is not merely an aggregation of people who happen to live near each other and observe the same traffic laws (though that is important.) It is a coherent group that believes in itself, has a common culture, language, history, and even literature (often going back thousands of years) about its heroes, philosophy, and values.
To be part of society is to be part of that Great Conversation I referenced above.
But what exactly society is–and who is included in it–is a hotly debated question. Is America the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave, or is it a deeply racist society built on slavery and genocide? As America’s citizens become more diverse, how do these newcomers fit into society? Should we expand the canon of Great Books to reflect our more diverse population? (If you’re not American, just substitute your own country.)
These debates can make finding good Social Studies resources tricky. Young students should not be lied to about their ancestors, but neither should they be subjected to a depressing litany of their ancestors’ sins. You cannot become a functional, contributing member of a society you’ve been taught to hate or be ashamed of.
Too often, I think, students are treated to a lop-sided curriculum in which their ancestors’ good deeds are held up as “universal” accomplishments while their sins are blamed on the group as a whole. The result is a notion that they “have no culture” or that their people have done nothing good for humanity and should be stricken from the Earth.
This is not how healthy societies socialize their children.
If you are using a pre-packaged curriculum, it should be reasonably easy to check whether the makers hold similar values as yourself. If you use a more free-form method (like I do,) it gets harder. For example, YouTube* is a great source for educational videos about all sorts of topics–math, grammar, exoplanets, etc.–so I tried looking up videos on American history. Some were good–and some were bad.
*Use sensible supervision
For example, here’s a video that looked good on the thumbnail, but turned out quite bad:
From the description:
In which John Green teaches you about the Wild, Wild, West, which as it turns out, wasn’t as wild as it seemed in the movies. When we think of the western expansion of the United States in the 19th century, we’re conditioned to imagine the loner. The self-reliant, unattached cowpoke roaming the prairie in search of wandering calves, or the half-addled prospector who has broken from reality thanks to the solitude of his single-minded quest for gold dust. While there may be a grain of truth to these classic Hollywood stereotypes, it isn’t a very big grain of truth. Many of the pioneers who settled the west were family groups. Many were immigrants. Many were major corporations. The big losers in the westward migration were Native Americans, who were killed or moved onto reservations. Not cool, American pioneers.
Let’s work through this line by line. What is the author’s first priority: teaching you something new about the West, or telling you that the things you believe are wrong?
Do you think it would be a good idea to start a math lesson by proclaiming, “Hey kids, I bet you get a lot of math problems wrong”? No. Don’t start a social studies lesson that way, either.
There is no good reason to spend valuable time bringing up incorrect ideas simply because a child might hold them; you should always try to impart correct information and dispel incorrect ideas if the child actually holds them. Otherwise the child is left not with a foundation of solid knowledge, but with what they thought they knew in tatters, with very little to replace it.
Second, is the Western movie genre really so prominent these days that we must combat the pernicious lies of John Wayne and the Lone Ranger? I don’t know about you, but I worry more about my kids picking up myths from Pokemon than from a genre whose popularity dropped off a cliff sometime back in the 80s.
“We are conditioned to think of the loner.” Conditioned. Yes, this man thinks that you have been trained like a dog to salivate at the ringing of a Western-themed bell, the word “loner” popping into your head. The inclusion of random psychology terms where they don’t belong is pseudo-intellectual garbage.
The idea of the “loner” cowboy and prospector, even in their mythologized form, is closer to the reality than the picture he draws. On the scale of nations, the US is actually one of the world’s most indivdualist, currently outranked only by Canada, The Netherlands, and Sweden.
Without individualism, you don’t get the notion of private property. In many non-Western societies, land, herds, and other wealth is held collectively by the family or clan, making it nearly impossible for one person (or nuclear family) to cash out his share, buy a wagon, and head West.
I have been reading Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders, an ethnography of rural Appalachia published in 1913. Here is a bit from the introduction:
The Southern highlands themselves are a mysterious realm. When I prepared, eight years ago, for my first sojourn in the Great Smoky Mountains, which form the master chain of the Appalachian system, I could find in no library a guide to that region. The most diligent research failed to discover so much as a magazine article, written within this generation, that described the land and its people. Nay, there was not even a novel or a story that showed intimate local knowledge. Had I been going to Teneriffe or Timbuctu, the libraries would have furnished information a-plenty; but about this housetop of eastern America they were strangely silent; it was terra incognita.
On the map I could see that the Southern Appalachians cover an area much larger than New England, and that they are nearer the center of our population than any other mountains that deserve the name. Why, then, so little known? …
The Alps and the Rockies, the Pyrennees and the Harz are more familiar to the American people, in print and picture, if not by actual visit, than are the Black, the Balsam, and the Great Smoky Mountains. …For, mark you, nine-tenths of the Appalachian population are a sequestered folk. The typical, the average mountain man prefers his native hills and his primitive ancient ways. …
The mountaineers of the South are marked apart from all other folks by dialect, by customs, by character, by self-conscious isolation. So true is this that they call all outsiders “furriners.” It matters not whether your descent be from Puritan or Cavalier, whether you come from Boston or Chicago, Savannah or New Orleans, in the mountains you are a “furriner.” A traveler, puzzled and scandalized at this, asked a native of the Cumberlands what he would call a “Dutchman or a Dago.” The fellow studied a bit and then replied: “Them’s the outlandish.” …
As a foretaste, in the three and a half miles crossing Little House and Big House mountains, one ascends 2,200 feet, descends 1,400, climbs again 1,600, and goes down 2,000 feet on the far side. Beyond lie steep and narrow ridges athwart the way, paralleling each other like waves at sea. Ten distinct mountain chains are scaled and descended in the next forty miles. …
The only roads follow the beds of tortuous and rock-strewn water courses, which may be nearly dry when you start out in the morning, but within an hour may be raging torrents. There are no bridges. One may ford a dozen times in a mile. A spring “tide” will stop all travel, even from neighbor to neighbor, for a day or two at a time. Buggies and carriages are unheard of. In many districts the only means of transportation is with saddlebags on horseback, or with a “tow sack” afoot. If the pedestrian tries a short-cut he will learn what the natives mean when they say: “Goin’ up, you can might’ nigh stand up straight and bite the ground; goin’ down, a man wants hobnails in the seat of his pants.” …
Such difficulties of intercommunication are enough to explain the isolation of the mountaineers. In the more remote regions this loneliness reaches a degree almost unbelievable. Miss Ellen Semple, in a fine monograph published in[Pg 23] the Geographical Journal, of London, in 1901, gave us some examples:
“These Kentucky mountaineers are not only cut off from the outside world, but they are separated from each other. Each is confined to his own locality, and finds his little world within a radius of a few miles from his cabin. There are many men in these mountains who have never seen a town, or even the poor village that constitutes their county-seat…. The women … are almost as rooted as the trees. We met one woman who, during the twelve years of her married life, had lived only ten miles across the mountain from her own home, but had never in this time been back home to visit her father and mother. Another back in Perry county told me she had never been farther from home than Hazard, the county-seat, which is only six miles distant. Another had never been to the post-office, four miles away; and another had never seen the ford of the Rockcastle River, only two miles from her home, and marked, moreover, by the country store of the district.”
When I first went into the Smokies, I stopped one night in a single-room log cabin, and soon had the good people absorbed in my tales of travel beyond the seas. Finally the housewife said to me, with pathetic resignation: “Bushnell’s the furdest ever I’ve been.” Bushnell, at that time, was a hamlet of thirty people, only seven miles from where we sat. When I lived alone on “the Little Fork of Sugar Fork of[Pg 24] Hazel Creek,” there were women in the neighborhood, young and old, who had never seen a railroad, and men who had never boarded a train, although the Murphy branch ran within sixteen miles of our post-office.
And that’s just Appalachia. What sorts of men and women do you think settled the Rockies or headed to the Yukon? Big, gregarious families that valued their connections to society at large?
Then there are the railroads. The video makes a big deal about the railroads being funded by the government, as proof that Americans weren’t “individuals” but part of some grand collectivist society.
Over in reality, societies with more collectivist values, like Pakistan, don’t undertake big national projects. In those societies, your loyalty is to your clan or kin group, and the operative level of social planning and policy is the clan. Big projects that benefit lots of people, not just particular kin networks, tend not to get funded because people do not see themselves as individuals acting within a larger nation that can do big projects that benefit individual people. Big infrastructure projects, especially in the 1800s, were almost entirely limited to societies with highly individualistic values.
Finally we have the genocide of the American Indians. Yes, some were definitely killed; the past is full of sins. But “You’re wrong, your self-image is wrong, and your ancestors were murderers,” is not a good way to introduce the topic.
It’s a pity the video was not good; the animation was well-done. It turns out that people have far more strident opinions about “Was Westward Expansion Just?” than “Is Pi Irrational?”
I also watched the first episode of Netflix’s new series, The Who Was? Show, based on the popular line of children’s biographies. It was an atrocity, and not just because of the fart jokes. The episode paired Benjamin Franklin and Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was depicted respectfully, and as the frequent victim of British racism. Franklin was depicted as a buffoon who hogged the spotlight and tried to steal or take credit for other people’s ideas.
It made me regret buying a biography of Marie Curie last week.
If your children are too young to read first-hand ethnographic accounts of Appalachia and the frontier, what do I recommend instead? Of course there are thousands of quality books out there, and more published every day, but here are a few:
More important than individual resources, though, is the attitude you bring to the subject.
Before we finish, I’d like to note that “America” isn’t actually the society I feel the closest connection to. After all, there are a lot of people here whom I don’t like. The government has a habit of sending loyal citizens to die in stupid wars and denying their medical treatment when they return, and I don’t even know if the country will still exist in meaningful form in 30 years. I think of my society as more “Civilization,” or specifically, “People engaged in the advancement of knowledge.”
The story we have been telling ourselves about our origins is wrong, and perpetuates the idea of inevitable social inequality. David Graeber and David Wengrow ask why the myth of ‘agricultural revolution’ remains so persistent, and argue that there is a whole lot more we can learn from our ancestors.
The article is long and difficult to excerpt, so I’m going to summarize:
The traditional tale of how our idyllic, peaceful, egalitarian, small-group hunter-gatherer past gave way to our warlike, sexist, racist, violent, large-city agrarian present gives people the impression that hierarchy and violence are inevitable parts of our economic system. However, the traditional tale is wrong–the past was actually a lot more complicated than you’ve been told. Therefore, there is no historical pattern and the real source of all bad things is actually the family.
The final conclusion is pulled out of nowhere:
Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace. Egalitarian families and households are not. Once the historical verdict is in, we will see that the most painful loss of human freedoms began at the small scale – the level of gender relations, age groups, and domestic servitude – the kind of relationships that contain at once the greatest intimacy and the deepest forms of structural violence. If we really want to understand how it first became acceptable for some to turn wealth into power, and for others to end up being told their needs and lives don’t count, it is here that we should look. Here too, we predict, is where the most difficult work of creating a free society will have to take place.
Since “inequality begins in the family” is supported nowhere in the text, we will ignore it.
What about the “traditional narrative”? Did hunter-gathers live in small, peaceful, egalitarian, idyllic communities? Or are the Davids correct that this is a myth?
It’s a myth. Mostly.
While we have almost no information about people’s opinions on anything before the advent of writing, there’s no evidence from any hunter-gatherer society we have actually been able to observe that hunter-gathering leads naturally to egalitarianism or peacefulness.
For example, among the Inuit (Eskimo), hunter-gatherers of the arctic, polyandry (the marriage of one woman to multiple men) didn’t exist because they had particularly enlightened views about women and marriage, but because they had a habit of killing female babies. Too much female infanticide => not enough adult women to go around => men making do.
Why do some groups have high rates of female infanticide? Among other reasons, because in the Arctic, the men do the hunting (seal, fish, caribou, etc.) and the women gather… not a whole lot. (Note: I’m pretty sure the modern Inuit do not practice sex-selective infanticide.)
Polyandry can also be caused by polygamy and simple lack of resources–men who cannot afford to support a wife and raise their own children may content themselves with sharing a wife and contributing what they can to the raising of offspring who might be theirs.
I have yet to encounter in all of my reading any hunter-gatherer or “primitive” society that has anything like our notion of “gender equality” in which women participate equally in the hunting and men do 50% of the child-rearing and gathering, (though some Pygmies are reported to be excellent fathers.) There are simple physical limits here: first, hunter-gatherers don’t have baby formula and men don’t lactate, so the duties of caring for small children fall heavily on their mothers. Many hunter-gatherers don’t even have good weaning foods, and so nurse their children for years longer than most Westerners. Second, hunting tends to require great physical strength, both in killing the animals (stronger arms will get better and more accurate draws on bows and spears) and in hauling the kills back to the tribe (you try carrying a caribou.)
In many horticultural societies, women do a large share of the physical labor of building houses and producing food, but the men do not make up for this by tending the babies. A similar division of labor exists in modern, lower-class African American society, where the women provide for their families and raise the children and then men are largely absent. Modern Rwanda, which suffers a dearth of men due to war and mass genocide, also has a “highly equitable” division of labor; not exactly an egalitarian paradise.
Hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, and other folks living outside formal states, have very high rates of violence. The Yanomami/o, for example, (who combine horticulture and hunting/foraging) are famous for their extremely high rates of murder and constant warfare. The Aborigines of Australia, when first encountered by outsiders, also had very high rates of interpersonal violence and warfare.
The Jivaro are an Amazonian group similar to the Yanomamo; the Mae Enga, Dugum Dani, Huli, and Gebusi are horticulturalists/hunters from PNG; Murngin are Australian hunter-gatherers.
I know, I know, horticulturalists are not pure hunter-gatherers, even if they do a lot of hunting and gathering. As we’ll discuss below, the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture is complicated and these are groups that we might describe as “in between”. The real question isn’t whether they bury a few coconuts if they happen to sprout before getting eaten, but whether they have developed large-scale social organization, cities, and/or formal states.
The article protests against using data from any contemporary forager societies, because they are by definition not ancient hunter-gatherers and have been contaminated by contact with non-foraging neighbors (I propose that the Australian Aborigines, however, at first contact were pretty uncontaminated,) but then the article goes on to use data from contemporary forager societies to bolster its own points… so I feel perfectly entitled to do the same thing.
However, we do have some data on ancient violence, eg:
According to this article, 12-14% of skeletons from most (but not all) ancient, pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer groups show signs of violence. Here’s a case of a band of hunter-gatherers–including 6 small children–who were slaughtered by another band of hunter-gatherers 10,000 years ago.
Warfare appears to have been part of the human experience as far back as we look–even chimps wage war against each other, as Jane Goodall documented in her work in the Gombe.
Then there’s the cannibalism. Fijians, for example, who practiced a mixed horticulture/hunter-gathering lifestyle (fishing is a form hunting that looks a lot like gathering,) were notorious cannibals when first encountered by outsiders. (Though they did have something resembling a state at the time.)
Neanderthals butchered each other; 14,700 years ago, hunter-gatherers were butchering and eating each other in Cheddar Gorge, England. (This is the same Cheddar Gorge as the famous Cheddar Man hails from, but CM is 5,000 years younger than these cannibals and probably no relation, as an intervening glacier had forced everyone out of the area for a while. CM also died a violent death, though.)
Increasing amount of archaeological evidence, such as fortifications of territories and pits containing dead humans blown by axes, indicates that warfare originated from prehistoric times, long before the establishment of state societies. Recently, researchers studying the animal bones in Mesolithic layer of Coves de Santa Maira accidentally discovered thirty human bone remains of the pre-Neolithic hunter-gatherer with anthropic marks, indicating behaviors of human cannibalism.
The article would like to emphasize, however, that we don’t really know why these people engaged in cannibalism. Starvation? Funeral rituals? Dismemberment of an enemy they really hated? Like I said, it’s hard to know what people were really thinking without written records.
There was a while in anthropology/archaeology when people were arguing that the spread of pots didn’t necessarily involve the spread of people, as a new pottery style could just spread because people liked it and decided to adopt it; it turns out that sometimes the spread is indeed of pots, and sometimes it’s of people. Similarly, certain anthropologists took to describing hunter-gatherers as “harmless“, but this didn’t involve any actual analysis of violence rates among hunter-gatherers (yes, I’ve read the book.)
In sum: The narrative that our ancestors were peaceful egalitarians is, in most cases, probably nonsense.
2. The Davids also argue that the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture was more complex than the “traditional narrative” claims.
This is also true. As we’ve already touched on above, there are many economic systems that fall somewhere in between exclusive hunter-gathering and pure agriculture. Nomadic hunters who followed and exploited herds of animals gradually began protecting them from other predators (like wolves) and guiding the animals to areas with food and shelter. The domestication of goats pre-dates the beginning of agriculture (and dogs pre-date goats;) the domestication of reindeer was much more recent, (I reviewed a book on reindeer economieshere, here, here, and here.) Again, there is no absolute line between hunters like the Eskimo who annually exploit migrating wild caribou and Lapp (Sami) ranchers who occasionally round up their herds of “domestic” reindeer. The reindeer appreciate that we humans kill off their natural predators (ie wolves) and provide a source of valuable salts (ie urine.) The origin of domestic goats and sheep probably looked similar, though the domestication of cattle was probably a more conscious decision given the bovines’ size.
The hunting of fish also looks a lot more like gathering or even farming, as a single resource area (eg, a bend in the river or a comfortable ocean bay) may be regularly exploited via nets, traps, rakes, weirs, etc.
Horticulture is a form of low-intensity agriculture (literally, gardening.) Some horticulturalists get most of their food from their gardens; others plant a few sprouted coconuts and otherwise get most of their food by hunting and fishing. Horticulture doesn’t require much technology (no plows needed) and typically doesn’t produce that many calories.
It is likely that many “hunter gatherers” understood the principle of “seeds sprout and turn into plants” and strategically planted seeds or left them in places where they wanted plants to grow for centuries or millennia before they began actively tending the resulting plants.
Many hunter-gatherer groups also practice active land management techniques. For example, a group of Melanesians in PNG that hunts crocodiles periodically burns the swamp in which the crocodiles live in order to prevent woody trees from taking over and making the swamp less swampy. By preserving the crocodiles’ habitat, they ensure there are plenty of crocodiles around for them to hunt. (I apologize for the lack of a link to a description of the group, but I saw it in a documentary about hunter-gatherers available on Netflix.)
Large-scale environment management probably also predates the adoption of formal agriculture by thousands of years.
Where the article goes wrong:
Just because something is more complicated than the “simplified” version you commonly hear doesn’t mean, “There is no pattern, all is unknowable, nihilism now.”
Any simplified version of things is, by definition, simplified.
The idea that hunter-gatherers were uniquely peaceful and egalitarian is nonsense; if anything, the opposite may be true. Once you leave behind your preconceptions, you realize that the pattern isn’t “random noise” but but actually that all forms of violence and oppression appear to be decreasing over time. Economies where you can get ahead by murdering your neighbors and stealing their wives have been largely replaced by economies where murdering your neighbors lands you in prison and women go to college. There’s still noise in the data–times we humans kill a lot of each other–but that doesn’t mean there is no pattern.
2. Most hunter-gatherers did, in fact, spend most of their time in small communities
The Davids make a big deal out of the fact that hunter-gatherers who exploit seasonally migrating herds sometimes gather in large groups in order to exploit those herds. They cite, for example:
Another example were the indigenous hunter-gatherers of Canada’s Northwest Coast, for whom winter – not summer – was the time when society crystallised into its most unequal form, and spectacularly so. Plank-built palaces sprang to life along the coastlines of British Columbia, with hereditary nobles holding court over commoners and slaves, and hosting the great banquets known as potlatch. Yet these aristocratic courts broke apart for the summer work of the fishing season, reverting to smaller clan formations, still ranked, but with an entirely different and less formal structure. In this case, people actually adopted different names in summer and winter, literally becoming someone else, depending on the time of year.
Aside from the fact that they are here citing a modern people as an argument about prehistoric ones (!), the Pacific North West is one of the world’s lushest environments with an amazing natural abundance of huntable (fishable) food. If I had to pick somewhere to ride out the end of civilization, the PNW (and New Zealand) would be high on my list. The material abundance available in the PNW is available almost nowhere else in the world–and wasn’t available to anyone before the First Nations arrived in the area around 13,000 years ago. Our stone-age ancestors 100,000 years ago in Africa certainly weren’t exploiting salmon in British Columbia.
Hunter-gatherers who exploit migrating resources sometimes get all of their year’s food in only 3 or 4 massive hunts. These hunts certainly can involve lots of people, as whole clans will want to work together to round up, kill, and process thousands of animals within the space of a few days.
Even the most massive of these gatherings, however, did not compare in size and scope to our modern cities. A few hundred Inuit might gather for the short arctic summer before scattering back to their igloos; the Mongol capital of Ulan Bator was oft described as nearly deserted as the nomadic herdsmen had little reason to remain in the capital when court was not in session.
(Also, the Davids’ description of Inuit life is completely backwards from the actual anthropology I have read; I’m wondering if he accidentally mixed up the Yupik Eskimo who don’t go by the term “Inuit” with the Canadian Eskimo who do go by “Inuit;” I have not read about the Yupik, but if their lifestyles are different from the Inuit, this would explain the confusion.)
The Davids also cite the behavior of the 19th century Plains Indians, but this is waaay disconnected from any “primitive” lifestyle. Most of thePlains Indians had formerly been farmers before disease, guns, and horses, brought by the Spaniards, disrupted their lives. Without horses (or plows) the great plains and their bison herds were difficult to exploit, and people preferred to live in towns along local riverbanks, growing corn, squash, and beans.
We might generously call these towns “cities,” but none of them were the size of modern cities.
3. Production of material wealth
Hunter-gathering, horticulture, fishing, and herding–even at their best–do not produce that much extra wealth. They are basically subsistence strategies; most people in these societies are directly engaged in food production and so can’t spend their time producing other goods. Nomads, of course, have the additional constraint that they can’t carry much with them under any circumstances.
A society can only have as much hierarchy as it can support. A nomadic tribe can have one person who tells everyone when to pack up and move to the next pasture, but it won’t produce enough food to support an entire class of young adults who do things other than produce food.
By contrast, in our modern, industrial society, less than 2% of people are farmers/ranchers. The other 98% of us are employed in food processing of some sort, careers not related to food at all, or unemployed.
This is why our society can produce parking lots that are bigger and more complex than the most impressive buildings ever constructed by hunter-gatherers.
The fact that, on a few occasions, hunter-gatherers managed to construct large buildings (and Stonehenge was not built by hunter-gatherers but by farmers; the impressive, large stones of Stonehenge were not part of the original layout but erected by a later wave of invaders who killed off 90% of Stonehenge’s original builders) does not mean the average hunter-gatherer lived in complex societies most of the time. They did not, because hunter-gathering could not support complex society, massive building projects, nor aristocracies most of the time.
It is only with the advent of agriculture that people started accumulating enough food that there were enough leftover for any sort of formal, long-term state to start taxing. True, this doesn’t necessarily mean that agriculture has to result in formal states with taxes; it just means that it’s very hard to get that without agriculture. (The one exception is if a nomadic herding society like the Mongols conquers an agricultural state and takes their taxes.)
In sum, yes, the “traditional story” is wrong–but not completely. History was more complicated, violent, and unequal, than portrayed, but the broad outlines of “smaller, simpler” hunter gatherer societies to “bigger, more complex” agricultural societies is basically correct. If anything, the lesson is that civilization has the potential to be a great force for good.