Back Row America, Back Row Bronze Age Europe

Back Row America:

This was a really interesting article–book excerpt–about an upper-class Wallstreet guy who, through his daily walks, begins talking to and photographing the people he basically hadn’t noticed before.

Over the next half hour, she told me her life story. She told me how her mother’s pimp had put her on the streets at twelve. How she had had her first child at thirteen. How she was addicted to heroin. I ended by asking her the question I asked everyone I ­photographed: How do you want to be described? She replied without a pause, “As who I am. A prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God.”

I spent the next three years following Takeesha and the street family she was a member of—roughly fifty men and women who lived under bridges, in abandoned buildings, in sheds, in pits, in broken-down trucks, on rooftops, or, if they scored enough money, in per-hour motels. What she showed me prompted me to travel to other neighborhoods in cities across America, from Buffalo to New Haven to Cleveland to Selma to El Paso to Amarillo. In each of these places, people have a sense of being left behind and forgotten—or, worse, mocked and stigmatized by the rest of the world as it moves on and up with the GDP.

In many cases, these neighborhoods have literally been left behind by people like me. …

We had compassion for those who got left behind, but thought that our job was to provide them an opportunity (no matter how small) to get where we were. It didn’t occur to us that what we valued wasn’t what everyone else wanted. They were the people who couldn’t or didn’t want to leave their town or their family to get an education at an elite college, the people who cared more about their faith than about science. If we were the front row, they were the back row.

Had I asked people in my hometown why they were still there, I would have received the answer I heard in neighborhoods from Cairo to Amarillo to rural Ohio. They would have looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Because it is my home.”

The book it’s from is Dignity: Seeking Respect in Backrow America.

This article–and the larger book, undoubtedly–touches on a lot of themes I’ve been pondering myself. Unfortunately, the article doesn’t have answers. I’d like answers.

Dignity, as I’ve said before, is one of those principles I am drawn to. I am not sure what can be done for people. Maybe nothing. But I can still treat others with respect, and maybe if we respected each other a little more, we could get our heads out of our collective rear ends and make something better of this country.

Related: Crossing Borders to Afford Insulin:

All told, I bought two cartons of Lantus (5 pens each carton) for $52 each, which is about a year supply for me. I also bought six single Kwikpens of Humalog for $13 dollars each, which is about a six month supply.

My total pharmacy bill that day was $182, and I left Mexico with a year’s supply of one insulin and a 6 month’s supply of another. That same amount of insulin – the exact same, in identical cartridges and boxes with the same graphics and colors and the same words written on them (in Spanish for the Mexican insulin) – would cost me over $3,000 with my American health coverage. Even after adding in a tank and a half of gas, I saved thousands of dollars by buying my life-saving medications in Mexico, instead of the US.

Also related: Mass grave of an extended family probably murdered by invading Corded Ware People–I mean, peacefully interred by migrating pots:

We sequenced the genomes of 15 skeletons from a 5,000-y-old mass grave in Poland associated with the Globular Amphora culture. All individuals had been brutally killed by blows to the head, but buried with great care. Genome-wide analyses demonstrate that this was a large extended family and that the people who buried them knew them well: mothers are buried with their children, and siblings next to each other. From a population genetic viewpoint, the individuals are clearly distinct from neighboring Corded Ware groups because of their lack of steppe-related ancestry. Although the reason for the massacre is unknown, it is possible that it was connected with the expansion of Corded Ware groups, which may have resulted in violent conflict.

Speaking of dignity, and politeness

It seems like a lot of our problems in modern America stem from wanting to act as a unified entity but not actually being a unified entity.

Of course, we never were. No one in 1776 thought Massachusetts and Georgia were culturally or economically the same. They were so different that the whole country was set up as a “confederation” of nearly-independent states that just cooperated for reasons of national defense and trade efficiency.

Of course, that didn’t work so well and, over time, the nation installed a more and more powerful federal government, but differences in how people thought the whole thing should be run were still strong enough that we ended up fighting a civil war in the process.

That’s bad enough! But today we have nukes. We affect other people, not just ourselves, and other people are understandably concerned about those nukes. They’d like us to be a wee bit consistent in where we’re pointing them and maybe give them a heads up if we’re about to destroy their country.

Which we might be able to do if we were a single entity. But we’re not. We don’t even have the same people in power from year to year.

What’s that, we just let people vote, and if some 51% of us decide to vote for the guy whose policy is “nuke all of the penguins and use global warming to cancel out nuclear winter,” then that’s the law of the land?

Yes, that’s how democracy works, horrifying as it may sound.

The only sane response is a buildup of technocratic and bureaucratic apparati devoted to thwarting the will of the people in order to make sure no one nukes Antarctica in a fit of democratic fervor (or self-serving fervor, an actual concern during the Nixon administration.)

Who prevents the Deep State that’s supposed to prevent the president from going off the deep end from going off the deep end?

Meanwhile, we can’t get our national act together even on much simpler questions, like “Is rent control good?” or “How should we teach kids to read?” or “is abortion murder?”

Yet despite the fact that we really aren’t a single entity, we get perceived as one. We basically perceive ourselves as one. The actions of people at the other end of the country (or the world) we feel reflect on ourselves, even when we might from some rational standpoint admit that we really don’t have any control over those people and we shouldn’t be implicated in some giant mass guilt schema because of them.

In short, half of us want to run things one way and half want things the other way, and one of the side effects of this is absolute horror that some people are being RUDE.

The conservative joke about liberals is that liberals aren’t in favor of open borders, they’re just opposed to anything that would prevent open borders.

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Liberals, of course, are concerned that closing the borders is rude. Muslim bans are rude. Attacking journalists is rude. Trump is rude.

Half of the country wants to welcome immigrants, and the other half doesn’t, and the net result is liberals feel like the conservatives are rude to their guests and conservatives feel like liberals are rudely imposing guests upon them.

Meanwhile, Japan manages to have a reputation for politeness even without an open borders policy, proving that life is not actually a choice between two and only two diametrically opposed sides.

The Japanese have refined the art of politely saying “no”, such as “I am sorry, but that is very difficult,” or “We are very busy right now; we will have to address this later.”

Having rules of etiquette and politeness (where everyone understands, of course, that “I am very busy,” really means, “No”) allows people to wiggle out of difficult situations without losing face.

It may be true, for example, that the average American doesn’t really want to die for the sake of Montenegro, a small nation that didn’t even exist when the average American learned geography. Montenegro was only officially declared a country in 2006, and certainly no American was ever asked whether they want to die for it. Now, a normal person might think it a wee bit presumptuous and rude to just straight up expect a bunch of strangers in a foreign country to be willing to give up everything and die for you, without even asking in the first place, but that people don’t like dying in strange lands never seems to occur to politicians. No, it is telling Montenegro that we aren’t so keen on the idea that’s the rude part. (Much better to wait until Montenegro is in dire straits and then weasel out of it, of course.)

Well, regardless of what works with North Koreans, being rude to your allies is a bad look. A country needs some sort of consistency, or it stops being a reliable partner at all and just becomes a rampaging elephant.

At least with a dash of formal politeness, I think people could feel a bit better about themselves and the conduct of the country. Maybe they’d calm down a bit.

Or maybe not.

Dignity

Dignity seems like an under-developed concept in political discussions relative to its importance in basic human interactions.

Dignity is close to honor.

There are many polls and quizes that attempt to determine your political values or orientations along axes like Tradition vs Choice or Authority vs Freedom.  Haidt’s framework of moral attitudes highlights five realms:

• Harm/care. It is wrong to hurt people; it is good to relieve suffering.

• Fairness/reciprocity. Justice and fairness are good; people have certain rights that need to be upheld in social interactions.

• In-group loyalty. People should be true to their group and be wary of threats from the outside. Allegiance, loyalty and patriotism are virtues; betrayal is bad.

• Authority/respect. People should respect social hierarchy; social order is necessary for human life.

• Purity/sanctity. The body and certain aspects of life are sacred. Cleanliness and health, as well as their derivatives of chastity and piety, are all good. Pollution, contamination and the associated character traits of lust and greed are all bad.

Authority/respect gets closest to what I mean by dignity, but in the US, we tend only to think in terms of respecting those higher than us in the social order.

I am thinking of a more comprehensive respect; an essential dignity that all people possess or should be encouraged to possess.

When you talk to the poor, the aged, the infirm, what do they want? An end to suffering, of course–but also dignity.

Our desire for dignity explains a variety of otherwise inexplicable political phenomena. Why do whites focus more on the actions of a New Zealander who kills Muslims than a Nigerian who kills Muslims, for example? Because whites feel that the misbehavior of the New Zealander reflects badly on them; their collective dignity has been lowered. The actions of a Muslim or a Nigerian don’t reflect on non-Muslims or non-Nigerians; whites feel no collective shame or guilt over these incidents.

(Note: “white” and “Muslim” are not exclusive categories and plenty of Muslims have pale skin, but I lack better terminology.)

Similarly, much of the liberal opposition to Trump probably stems from a perception that he is undignified.

People don’t need to be at the top of the hierarchy to be treated with dignity; good social norms, I suspect, can help people respond to and treat people lower than themselves with respect, as well.

Our society seems to be engaged in an absurd dance where people fight for honor and respect by demanding it from people significantly lower than themselves on the social totem pole. For example, a female professor complains about a university janitor who assumed she was merely the wife of a male professor; a black woman complains that the minimum wage shop employees didn’t let her into the shop after closing time; another professor harasses road crew laborers over a “men at work” sign. These absurd cases all involve women trying to assert power over people who have far less power than themselves in the first place, like a prince having a peasant executed for getting mud on his boots.

Of course, our system doesn’t simply content itself with declaring divine right; it insults us by also claiming that these peasants are the ones with the real power.

Since these folks are not actually princes, though, they probably aren’t just on run-away power trips; I suspect instead that they feel a mis-match between the level of respect they want from society vs the level they get. Since they can’t get any more respect from normal avenues/their peers, they’ve turned instead to targeting the weak, like a D&D player pouring boiling water on an anthill to grind XP. 

Such behavior should be called out for the undignified farce that it is.

That said, much of modern life feels designed to humiliate and degrade; the Cabrini Green housing projects were so ugly they seem intentionally soul-crushing.

RationalRevolution has an interesting article on capital redistribution with a few points of relevance to our current discussion:

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From Rational Revolution

Capital ownership has become increasingly concentrated throughout American history. When the country was founded roughly 90% of citizen families owned meaningful capital from which they derived income, primarily land. Today less than 10% of American families own meaningful capital from which they derive income prior to retirement. …

The other important fact that is often overlooked is the fact that over that past 100 years the portion of the population directly owning their own capital has declined at a pace that exceeds the rate of financial asset acquisition. In other words, 100 years ago a far greater portion of people owned their own business and worked for themselves or within a family owned business. The largest portion of these people were farmers who owned their own land and equipment. As small businesses were overtaken by larger corporations, more people became wage-laborers. Some of these people acquired stock or other financial assets, but the acquisition of financial assets has not offset the decline of directly owned capital assets by individuals over time. Even today, the majority of self-employed people have no meaningful capital assets. The majority of the self-employed today are primarily selling their labor, as consultants, contractors or service workers.

In other words, back in the 1800s, the vast majority of Americans were self-employed; most owned their own small farms. To be self-employed is to be your own master. Since then, the number of self-employed has declined steadily, while the number employed has generally increased. (Admittedly, the increase in people receiving wages around 1865 has nothing to do with a decline in small business ownership.) Who knows what the Uber-Revolution holds, but for now, we have transitioned from a nation of self-employed farmers to a nation of employees, and I think it’s getting to people.

Man or beast, even in poverty we can feel dignified if we have the respect of our neighbors, and even in wealth we can be degraded, degenerate.

There are a lot of political issues that hinge, to me, on dignity. Restrictions on speech are restrictions on dignity, for a free man can speak his mind and a slave cannot. A revolution in social norms, either because of technology or regime change, leaves people unsure of what commands respect from their neighbors. And in a sort of moral, spiritual sense, when we expect people to violate their own natures, we violate some essence of human dignity. Humans are not infinitely malleable; each of us has our own particular nature. A fish cannot be expected to swim, nor a chicken to fly; we recognize something cruel in expecting a rooster not to crow or a dog not to bark.

I admit this isn’t exactly fully fleshed-out philosophy.