The Death of all Cultures 

 

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credit WrathOfGnon

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.

Akhivae on Twitter reflects:

“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.

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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.

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Total Fertility Rate by Country

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.)

800px-National_IQ_per_country_-_estimates_by_Lynn_and_Vanhanen_2006
Meanwhile, in IQ by country

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.)

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Fertility by political ideology

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.

iq
Source: Audacious Epigone

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.)

Whatever the future holds, it will be different.

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Why is community dead: In which I blame colleges.

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By any objective analysis, life in modern America is pretty darn good. You probably didn’t die in childbirth and neither did half of your children. You haven’t died of smallpox or polio. You probably haven’t lived through a famine or war. Cookies and meat are cheap, houses are big, most of us do rather little physical labor, and we can carry the collected works of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Wikipedians in our pockets. We have novacaine for tooth surgery. If you avoid drugs and don’t eat too much, there’s a very good chance you’ll survive into your eighties.

Yet anxiety is skyrocketing.  Something about modern life doesn’t seem to agree with people.

In the past, people grew up in small towns or rural areas near small towns, knew most of the people in their neighborhoods, went to school, got jobs, and got married. They moved if they needed more land or saw opportunities in the gold fields, but most stayed put.
We know this because we can read about it in historical books.

One of the results was strong continuity of people in a particular place, and strong continuity of people allowed the development of those “civic associations” people are always going on about. Kids joined clubs at school, clubs at church, then transitioned into adult-aged clubs when they graduated. At every age, there were clubs, and clubs organized and ran events for the community.

Of course club membership was mediated by physical location–if you live in a town you will be in more clubs than if you live in the country and have to drive an hour to get there–but in general, life revolved around clubs (and church, which we can generously call another kind of club, with its own sub clubs.)

In such an environment, it is easy to see how someone could meet their sweetheart at 16, become a functioning member of society at 18, get a job, put a down payment on a house, get married by 20 or 22 and start having children.

Today, people go to college.

Forget your highschool sweetheart: you’re never going to see her again.

After college, people typically move again, because the job they’ve spent 4 years training for often isn’t in the same city as their college.

So forget all of your college friends: chances are you’ll never see any of them again, either.

Now you’re living in a strange city, full of strangers. You know no one. You are part of no clubs. No civic organizations. You feel no connection to anyone.

county-economic-status_fy2015_map“Isn’t diversity great?” someone crows over kebabs, and you think “Hey, at least those Muslims over there have each other to talk to.” Soon you find yourself envying the Hispanics. They have a community. You have a bar.

People make do. They socialize after work. They reconnect with old friends on Facebook and discover that their old friends are smug and annoying because Facebook is a filter that turns people smug and annoying.

But you can’t repair all of the broken connections.
Meanwhile, all of those small, rural towns have lost their young adults. Many of them have no realistic future for young people who stay; everyone who can leave, does. All that’s left behind are children, old people, and the few folks who didn’t quite make it into college.

The cities bloat with people who feel no connection to each other and small towns wither and die.

As the Guardian Reports: Why are so many people dying of opiate overdoses?:

Never mind the ‘war on drugs’ or laying all blame with pharmas, this epidemic exists because millions live in a world without hope, certainty and structure…

The number one killer of Americans under the age of 50 isn’t cancer, or suicide, or road traffic accidents. It’s drug overdoses. They have quadrupled since 1999. More than 52,000 Americans died from drug overdoses last year. Even in the UK, where illegal drug use is on the decline, overdose deaths are peaking, having grown by 10% from 2015 to 2016 alone. …

Opioids, whatever their source, bond with receptors all over our bodies. Opioid receptors evolved to protect us from panic, anxiety and pain – a considerate move by the oft-callous forces of evolution. …

The overdose epidemic compels us to face one of the darkest corners of modern human experience head on, to stop wasting time blaming the players and start looking directly at the source of the problem. What does it feel like to be a youngish human growing up in the early 21st century? Why are we so stressed out that our internal supply of opioids isn’t enough? …

You get opioids from your own brain stem when you get a hug. Mother’s milk is rich with opioids, which says a lot about the chemical foundation of mother-child attachment. When rats get an extra dose of opioids, they increase their play with each other, even tickle each other. And when rodents are allowed to socialise freely (rather than remain in isolated steel cages) they voluntarily avoid the opiate-laden bottle hanging from the bars of their cage. They’ve already got enough. …

So what does it say about our lifestyle if our natural supply isn’t sufficient and so we risk our lives to get more? It says we are stressed, isolated and untrusting.

(Note: college itself is enjoyable and teaches people valuable skills. This thread is not opposed to “learning things,” just to an economic system that separates people from their loved ones.)

The Facsimile of Meaning

Most of the activities our ancestors spent the majority of their time on have been automated or largely replaced by technology. Chances are good that the majority of your great-great grandparents were farmers, but few of us today hunt, gather, plant, harvest, or otherwise spend our days physically producing food; few of us will ever build our own houses or even sew our own clothes.

Evolution has (probably) equipped us with neurofeedback loops that reward us for doing the sorts of things we need to do to survive, like hunt down prey or build shelters (even chimps build nests to sleep in,) but these are precisely the activities that we have largely automated and replaced. The closest analogues to these activities are now shopping, cooking, exercising, working on cars, and arts and crafts. (Even warfare has been largely replaced with professional sports fandom.)

Society has invented vicarious thrills: Books, movies, video games, even roller coasters. Our ability to administer vicarious emotions appears to be getting better and better.

And yet, it’s all kind of fake.

Exercising, for example, is in many ways a pointless activity–people literally buy machines so they can run in place. But if you have a job that requires you to be sedentary for most of the day and don’t fancy jogging around your neighborhood after dark, running in place inside your own home may be the best option you have for getting the post-running-down prey endorphin hit that evolution designed you to crave.

A sedentary lifestyle with supermarkets and restaurants deprives us of that successful-hunting endorphin hit and offers us no logical reason to go out and get it. But without that exercise, not only our physical health, but our mental health appears to suffer. According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise effectively decreases depression and anxiety–in other words, depression and anxiety may be caused in part by lack of exercise.

So what do we do? We have to make up some excuse and substitute faux exercise for the active farming/gardening/hunting/gathering lifestyles our ancestors lived.

By the way, about 20% of Americans are on psychiatric medications of some sort, [warning PDF] of which anti-depressants are one of the most commonly prescribed:

Overall, the number of Americans on medications used to treat psychological and behavioral disorders has substantially increased since 2001; more than one‐in‐five adults was on at least one
of these medications in 2010, up 22 percent from ten years earlier. Women are far more likely to take a drug to treat a mental health condition than men, with more than a quarter of the adult
female population on these drugs in 2010 as compared to 15 percent of men.

Women ages 45 and older showed the highest use of these drugs overall. …

The trends among children are opposite those of adults: boys are the higher utilizers of these medications overall but girls’ use has been increasing at a faster rate.

This is mind-boggling. 1 in 5 of us is mentally ill, (supposedly,) and the percent for young women in the “prime of their life” years is even higher. (The rates for Native Americans are astronomical.)

Lack of exercise isn’t the only problem, but I wager a decent chunk of it is that our lives have changed so radically over the past 100 years that we are critically lacking various activities that used to make us happy and provide meaning.

Take the rise of atheism. Irrespective of whether God exists or not, many functions–community events, socializing, charity, morality lessons, etc–have historically been done by religious groups. Atheists are working on replacements, but developing a full system that works without the compulsion of religious belief may take a long while.

Sports and video games replace war and personal competition. TV sitcoms replace friendship. Twitter replaces real life conversation. Politics replace friendship, conversation, and religion.

There’s something silly about most of these activities, and yet they seem to make us happy. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying knitting, even if you’re making toy octopuses instead of sweaters. Nor does there seem to be anything wrong with enjoying a movie or a game. The problem comes when people get addicted to these activities, which may be increasingly likely as our ability to make fake activities–like hyper-realistic special effects in movies–increases.

Given modernity, should we indulge? Or can we develop something better?

Angola and Atomization

Quick excerpt from God of the Rodeo: The Quest for Redemption in Louisiana’s Angola Prison:

Before the rodeo [Terry Hawkins] had graduated out of the fields to the position of fry cook. It was better than being A.D.H.D. (A Dude with a Hoe and a Ditch)–after stirring fried rice or flipping hotcakes on a sove ten feet long, he could grill hamburgers, bag them, and stuff them down his pants to sell in the dorm. Sometimes he snuck out with fried chicken under his shirt and cuts of cheese in his socks. Payment came in cigarettes, the prison’s currency. Later he would stand outside the canteen, and trade a few packs for shampoo or soap or deoderant, or “zoo-zos”–snacks of candy bars or sardines. He knew which guards would allow the stealing, the selling. He made sure to send them plates of fried chicken.

While reading this I thought, “This man has, at least, something to offer his neighbors. He can sell them food, something they’re grateful for. The guy with cheese in his socks and hamburgers in his pants is probably a respected member of his community.”

What do I have to offer my neighbors? I have skills, but they’re only of interest to a corporate employer, my boss. I don’t make anything for sale. I can’t raise a barn or train a horse, and even if I could, my neighbors don’t need these services. Even if I had milk for sale from my personal cow, my neighbors would still prefer to buy their milk at the grocery store.

All of these needs that we used to fill by interacting with our neighbors are now routed through multinational corporations that build their products in immense sweatshops in foreign countries.

I don’t even have to go to the store to buy things if I don’t want to–I can order things online, even groceries.

Beyond the economic, modern prosperity has also eliminated many of the ways (and places) people used to interact. As Lewis Mumford recounts (H/T Wrath of Gnon):

The Bible would have been different without public wells

To sum up the medieval dwelling house, one may say that it was characterized by lack of differentiated space and differentiated function. In the cities, however, this lack of internal differentiation was offset by a completer development of domestic functions in public institutions. Though the house might lack a private bake-oven, there was a public one at the baker’s or the cook-shop. Though it might lack a private bathroom, there was a municipal bath-house. Thought it might lack facilities for isolating and nursing a diseased member, there were numerous public hospitals. … As long as the conditions were rude–when people lived in the open, pissed freely in the garden or the street, bought and sold outdoors, opened their shutters and let in full sunlight–the defects of the house were far less serious than they were under a more refined regime.

Without all of the little, daily things that naturally brought people into contact with each other and knit them into communities, we simply have far fewer reasons to talk. We might think that people could simply make up for these changes by inventing new, leisure-oriented reasons to interact with each other, but so far, they’re struggling:

Americans’ circle of confidants has shrunk dramatically in the past two decades and the number of people who say they have no one with whom to discuss important matters has more than doubled, according to a new study by sociologists at DukeUniversity and the University of Arizona.

“The evidence shows that Americans have fewer confidants and those ties are also more family-based than they used to be,” said Lynn Smith-Lovin, Robert L. Wilson Professor of Sociology at Duke University and one of the authors of “ Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks Over Two Decades.” …

It compared data from 1985 and 2004 and found that the mean number of people with whom Americans can discuss matters important to them dropped by nearly one-third, from 2.94 people in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004.

Researchers also found that the number of people who said they had no one with whom to discuss such matters more than doubled, to nearly 25 percent. The survey found that both family and non-family confidants dropped, with the loss greatest in non-family connections.

I don’t know about you, but I just don’t trust most people, and most people have given me no reason to trust them.

Degeneracy of Type

If “evolution” is a word that comes up a lot in the late 1800s (even before Darwin,) “degenerate” is the word of the 1930s and 40s.

In Kabloona, (1941) an ethnography of the Eskimo (Inuit) of northern Canada, de Poncins speaks highly of the “pure” Eskimo, whose ancestral way of life remains unsullied by contact with European culture, and negatively of the “degenerate Eskimo,” caught in the web of international trade, his lifestyle inexorably changed by proximity and contact with the West.

In Caughey’s History of the Pacific Coast, (1933) he writes:

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.

In Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, (1939) Dr. Price argues that modern foods are low in nutrient value and inferior to many native, ancestral diets, and that the spread of this “white man’s food” caused an epidemic of disease, tooth decay, and skeletal mal-formation, which he documents extensively. Dr. Price refers to the change in appearance from one generation to the next, coinciding with the introduction of modern foods, as “interrupted heredity.” The parents represent “pure racial type,” with strong teeth and bones, while the children, bow-legged and sick, suffer physical degeneration.

(This kind of language that Dr. Price uses sometimes confuses us moderns, because we flinch reflexively at phrases like “racial type” when in fact his argument is the inverse of the racist arguments of his day.)

From SMBC--there's something wrong with this comic. I bet you can figure out what it is.
From SMBC–there’s something wrong with this comic. I bet you can figure out what it is.

Now, there is something twee about anthropologists (and historians) who long for the preservation of other peoples’ cultures when the people within those cultures seem to prefer modernity. Igloos and teepees may seem fun and exotic to those of us who don’t live in them, but the people who do might genuinely prefer a house with central heat and a toilet. Obviously the whole anthropologist schtick involves people who really like studying cultures that are distinct from their own, and if the people in those cultures adopt Western lifestyles, then there just isn’t much to study anymore.

(Imagine if we found out tomorrow that all of what we thought were variations in human DNA turned out to be contamination errors due to local pollen, and vast swathes of this blog became moot.)

It is easy to write off such notions as just feel-good sentimentalizing by outsiders, but these are at least outsiders with more first hand knowledge of these cultures than I have, so I think we should at least consider their ideas.

The degeneracy described as a result of contact with the West is not just physical or cultural, but also moral. A culture, fully-fledged, is one of humanity’s greatest technologies, a tool for the total transmission of a group’s knowledge, morals, and behaviors. Your ancestors, facing much the same environment as yourself, and armed with similar tools, struggled to obtain food, marry, raise children, and survive just as you do. The ones who succeeded passed down the lessons of their success, and these lessons became woven into the tapestry of culture you were raised in, saving you much of the trial-and error effort of reproducing your ancestors’ struggles.

picture-144Some people claim to believe that all cultures are equally valuable and important. I don’t. I think cultures that practice things like cannibalism, animal sacrifice, and child rape are bad and I don’t cry for their disappearance. But virtually every culture has at least some good features, or else it wouldn’t have come about in the first place.

Cultural lessons stem from the practical–“Ice the runners of your sled to make it run more smoothly”–to the moral–“Share your belongings in common with the tribe”–to the inscrutable–“don’t eat the totem animal.” (Some of these beliefs may be more important than others.) Throughout all of recorded human history, most of us have passed on bodies of moral teachings under the name of “religion,” whether we believe in the literal truth of mythic stories or not.

Rapid cultural change–not the gentle sort that percolates slowly across generations, but massive variety precipitated by an industrial revolution or the sudden introduction of a few thousand years’ worth of technological advancement to a long-isolated people–outstrips a society’s ability to provide meaningful moral or practical guidance. Simply put: people don’t know what to do.

Take alcohol. People have probably been producing fermented beverages for at least 10,000 years, or for about as long as we’ve been trying to store pots of grain and fruit. The French have wine, Mongolians have fermented horse milk, the Vikings fermented honey and the Founding Fathers drank a lot of apple cider.

Alcohol has beneficial effects–few pathogens survive the fermentation process–and obviously harmful effects. Societies that traditionally produced large quantities of alcohol have evolved social norms and institutions to help people enjoy the beneficial effects and avoid the bad ones. France, for example, which in 2014 produce 4.5 billion liters of wine and consumed 2.8 billion liters of the same, is not a nation of violent, wife-beating, car-crashing drunkards. French social norms emphasize moderate wine consumption accompanied by food, friends, and family.

By contrast, in societies where alcohol was suddenly introduced via contact with whites, people don’t have these norms, and the results–like rampant alcoholism on Native American reservations–have been disastrous. These societies can–and likely will–learn to handle alcohol, but it takes time.

chart_of_gonorrhea_infection_rates_usa_1941-2007Our own society is undergoing its own series of rapid changes–industrialization, urbanization, post-industrialization, the rise of the internet, etc. Andean cultures have been cultivating coca leaves for at least 3,000 years, apparently without much trouble, while the introduction of crack/cocaine to the US has been rather like dropping bombs on all of our major cities.

The invention of fairly reliable contraception and the counter-culture of the ’60s and ’70s led to the spread of “free love,” which in turn triggered skyrocketing gonorrhea rates. Luckily gonorrhea can be treated with antibiotics (at least until it becomes antibiotic resistant,) but it’s still a nasty disease–one internet acquaintance of mine caught gonorrhea, took antibiotics and thought he was in the clear, but then doctors discovered that the inside of his penis was full of scar tissue that was dangerously closing off his bladder. They had basically cut him a new urethra once they were done removing all of the scar tissue, and he spent the next few months in constant, horrible pain, even while on medication.

latestAnd to add insult to injury, everyone in his social circle just thought he was bitter, jealous, and trying to make his ex-girlfriend look bad when he tried to warn them that they shouldn’t sleep with her because she gave him gonorrhea.

Of course, gonorrhea is just the tip of the horrifying iceberg.

By contrast, the Amish look pretty darn healthy.

Degeneracy isn’t just a sickness of the body; it’s a falling apart of all of the morals and customs that hold society together and give people meaning and direction in their lives. You don’t have to waste years trying to “find yourself” when you already have a purpose, but when you have no purpose but to feed yourself, it’s easy to become lost.

I should note that Dr. Price didn’t just examine the teeth of Eskimo and Aborigines, but also of Scots, Swiss, and Americans. His conclusion–nutritional degeneracy due to contact with modern foods–was the same regardless of culture. (Note: nutrition and food production have changed since 1939.) Or as Scott Alexander recently put it:

I am pretty sure there was, at one point, such a thing as western civilization. I think it involved things like dancing around maypoles and copying Latin manuscripts. At some point Thor might have been involved. That civilization is dead. It summoned an alien entity from beyond the void which devoured its summoner and is proceeding to eat the rest of the world.

Well, that sounds a fair bit more dire than Dr. Price’s assessment. Let’s assume Scott is being poetic and perhaps exaggerating for effect. Still: massive cultural changes can sweep the normative rug out from beneath your feet and leave you injured and confused. It will take time–perhaps centuries–for society to fully adjust to the technological changes of the past hundred years. Right now, everyone is still muddling through, trying to figure out what will kill us and what will save us.

Why do people watch so much TV?

Honestly, left to my own devices, I wouldn’t own a TV. (With Mythbusters canceled, what’s the point anymore?)

Don’t get me wrong. I have watched (and even enjoyed) the occasional sitcom. I’ve even tried watching football. I like comedies. They’re funny. But after they end, I get that creeping feeling of emptiness inside, like when you’ve eaten a bowl of leftover Halloween candy instead of lunch. There is no “meat” to these programs–or vegan-friendly vegetable protein, if you prefer.

I do enjoy documentaries, though I often end up fast-forwarding through large chunks of them because they are full of filler shots of rotating galaxies or astronomers parking their telescopes or people… taalkiiing… sooo… sloooowwwwlllly… And sadly, if you’ve seen one documentary about ancient Egypt, you’ve seen them all.

Ultimately, time is a big factor: I am always running short. Once I’m done with the non-negotiables (like “take care of the kids” and “pay the bills,”) there’s only so much time left, and time spent watching TV is time not spent writing. Since becoming a competent writer is one of my personal goals, TV gets punted to the bottom of the list, slightly below doing the dishes.

Obviously not everyone writes, but I have a dozen other backup projects for when I’m not writing, everything from “read more books” to “volunteer” to “exercise.”

I think it is a common fallacy to default to assuming that other people are like oneself. I default to assuming that other people are time-crunched, running on 8 shots of espresso and trying to cram in a little time to read Tolstoy and get the tomatoes planted before they fall asleep. (And I’m not even one of those Type-A people.)

Obviously everyone isn’t like me. They come home from work, take care of their kids, make dinner, and flip on the TV.

Why?

An acquaintance recently made a sad but illuminating comment regarding their favorite TV shows, “I know they’re not real, but it feels like they are. It’s like they’re my friends.”

I think the simple answer is that we process the pictures on the TV as though they were real. TV people look like people and sound like people, so who cares if they don’t smell like people? Under normal (pre-TV) circumstances, if you hung out with some friendly, laughing people every day in your living room, they were your family. You liked them, they liked you, and you were happy together.

Today, in our atomized world of single parents, only children, spinsters and eternal bachelors, what families do we have? Sure, we see endless quantities of people on our way to work, but we barely speak, nod, or glance at each other, encapsulated within our own cars or occupied with checking Facebook on our cellphones while the train rumbles on.

As our connections to other people have withered away, we’ve replaced them with fake ones.

Google “America’s Favorite Family“:

OZZIE & HARRIET: The Adventures of America’s Favorite Family

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was the first and longest-running family situational comedy in television history. The Nelsons came to represent the idealized American family of the 1950s – where mom was a content homemaker, dad’s biggest decision was whether to give his sons the keys to the car, and the boys’ biggest problem was getting a date to the high school prom. …When it premiered, Ozzie & Harriet: The Adventures of America’s Favorite Family was the highest-rated documentary in A&E’s history.

(According to Wikipedia, Ozzie and Harriet started on the radio back in the 30s, got a comedy show (still on radio) in 1944, and were on TV from 1952-1966.) It was, to some extent, about a real family–the actors in the show were an actual husband and wife + their kids, but the show itself was fictionalized.

It even makes sense to people to ask them, “Who is your favorite TV personality?“–to which the most common answer isn’t Adam Savage or James Hyneman, but Mark Harmon, who plays some made-up guy named Leroy Jethro Gibbs.

The rise of “reality TV” only makes the “people want to think of the TV people as real people they’re actually hanging out with” all the more palpable–and then there’s the incessant newsstand harping of celebrity gossip. The only thing I want out of a movie star (besides talent) is that I not recognize them; it appears that the only thing everyone else wants is that they do recognize them.

According to The Way of the Blockbuster: In entertainment, big bets on likely winners rule:

in Blockbusters: Hit-Making, Risk-Taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment, the new book by Anita Elberse, Filene professor of business administration. Elberse (el-BER-see) spent 10 years interviewing and observing film, television, publishing, and sports executives to distill the most profitable strategy for these high-profile, unpredictable marketplaces. … The most profitable business strategy, she says, is not the “long tail,” but its converse: blockbusters like Star Wars, Avatar, Friends, the Harry Potter series, and sports superstars like Tom Brady.

Strategically, the blockbuster approach involves “making disproportionately big investments in a few products designed to appeal to mass audiences,” … “Production value” means star actors and special effects. … a studio can afford only a few “event movies” per year. But Horn’s big bets for Warner Brothers—the Harry Potter series, The Dark Knight, The Hangover and its sequel, Ocean’s Eleven and its two sequels, Sherlock Holmes—drew huge audiences. By 2011, Warner became the first movie studio to surpass $1 billion in domestic box-office receipts for 11 consecutive years. …

Jeff Zucker ’86 put a contrasting plan into place as CEO at NBC Universal. In 2007 he led a push to cut the television network’s programming costs: … Silverman began cutting back on expensive dramatic content, instead acquiring rights to more reasonably priced properties; eschewing star actors and prominent TV producers, who commanded hefty fees; and authorizing fewer costly pilots for new series. The result was that by 2010, NBC was no longer the top-rated TV network, but had fallen to fourth place behind ABC, CBS, and Fox, and “was farther behind on all the metrics that mattered,” writes Elberse, “including, by all accounts, the profit margins Zucker and Silverman had sought most.” Zucker was asked to leave his job in 2010. …

From a business perspective, “bankable” movies stars like Julia Roberts, Johnny Depp, or George Clooney function in much the way Harry Potter and Superman do: providing a known, well-liked persona.

So people like seeing familiar faces in their movies (except Oprah Winfrey, who is apparently not a draw:

the 1998 film Beloved, starring Oprah Winfrey, based on Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison’s eponymous 1987 novel and directed by Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme … flopped resoundingly: produced for $80 million, it sold only $23 million in tickets.

Or maybe Beloved isn’t just the kind of feel-good action flick that drives movie audiences the way Batman is.)

But what about sports?

Here I am on even shakier ground than sitcoms. I can understand playing sports–they’re live action versions of video games, after all. You get to move around, exercise, have fun with your friends, and triumphantly beat them at something. (Or if you’re me, lose.) I can understand cheering for your kids and being proud of them as they get better and better at some athletic skill (or at least try hard at it.)

I don’t understand caring about strangers playing a game.

I have no friends on the Yankees or the Mets, the Phillies or the Marlins. I’ve never met a member of the Alabama Crimson Tide or the Clemson Tigers, and I harbor no illusions that my children will ever play on such teams. I feel no loyalty to the athletes-drawn-from-all-over-the-country who play on my “hometown” team, and I consider athlete salaries vaguely obscene.

I find televised sports about as interesting as watching someone do math. If the point of the game is to win, then why not just watch a 5-minute summary at the end of the day of all the teams’ wins and losses?

But according to The Way of the Blockbuster:

Perhaps no entertainment realm takes greater care in building a brand name than professional sports: fan loyalty reliably builds repeat business. “The NFL is blockbuster content,” Elberse says. “It’s the most sought-after content we have in this country. Four of the five highest-rated television shows [in the United States] ever are Super Bowls. NFL fans spend an average of 9.5 hours per week on games and related content. That gives the league enormous power when it comes to negotiating contracts with television networks.”

Holy shit. No wonder Borders went under.

Elberse has studied American football and basketball and European soccer, and found that selling pro sports has much in common with selling movies, TV shows, or books. Look at the Real Madrid soccer club—the world’s richest, with annual revenues of $693 million and a valuation of $3.3 billion. Like Hollywood studios, Real Madrid attracts fan interest by engaging superstars—such as Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese forward the club acquired from Manchester United for a record $131.6 million in 2009. “We think of ourselves as content producers,” a Real Madrid executive told Elberse, “and we think of our product—the match—as a movie.” As she puts it: “It might not have Tom Cruise in it, but they do have Cristiano Ronaldo starring.

In America, sports stars are famous enough that even I know some of their names, like Peyton Manning, Serena Williams, and Michel Jackson Jordan.

I think the basic drive behind people’s love of TV sports is the same as their love of sitcoms (and dramas): they process it as real. And not just real, but as people they know: their family, their tribe. Those are their boys out there, battling for glory and victory against that other tribes’s boys. It’s vicarious warfare with psuedo armies, a domesticated expression of the tribal urge to slaughter your enemies, drive off their cattle and abduct their women. So what if the army isn’t “real,” if the heroes aren’t your brother or cousin but paid gladiators shipped in from thousands of miles away to perform for the masses? Your brain still interprets it as though it were; you still enjoy it.

Football is man-fiction.

PSA: Honesty is not hate

You can love people and still be honest about them. (You can also hate people and be honest about them.) For example, when my kids’ report cards come home, I don’t react in shock that they haven’t gotten 100% perfect scores and call up their teachers to demand to know what diabolical evil motivated them to lie about my darlings. Having paid at least occasional attention to my kids over the past few years, I already know their strengths and weaknesses–and I still love them.

I was recently conversing with a gay acquaintance who is convinced that mainstream Muslims are just fine with homosexuals. Only Muslim extremists are anti-gay folks, just like American extremists.

This is how to make EvolutionistX sputter in disbelief at your idiocy.

Then they asserted to say otherwise is racist.

Look. Let’s assume that you love Muslims. (And before anyone tries to resist the hypothetical, remember that there are about a billion people in the world who are Muslims and the vast majority of them think Islam is the bee’s knees, not to mention plenty of non-Muslims who’ve lived in Muslim countries and enjoyed the experience, or non-Muslims who have Muslim friends/family.)

You cannot simultaneously claim to love Muslims and profess ignorance of their values.

It’s not hard to figure out what Muslims believe; if you don’t like looking up poll statistics, you can just ask them. Muslims use the internet, too, and millions of them speak English.

In fact, this is true for pretty much everyone: if you want to know what they believe, just ask them. They will probably tell you. (Of course, if you have to ask what the mainstream view on homosexuality is in Saudi Arabia or Iran, I think you have forgotten how to think.)

To save us some time, I’ve already done this, and not only do “mainstream” Muslims disapprove of homosexuality, even “liberal” Muslims aren’t keen on the idea. But in case you don’t believe me, we have poll data:

From Pew Research Center, Muslim Views on Morality
From Pew Research Center, Muslim Views on Morality

Honestly, I suspect that if you told the average Muslim that you think most Muslims are okay with homosexuality, they’d get offended, in the same way that the average American would get offended if a Muslim said that mainstream Americans think pedophilia is moral. Saying things that are in direct contradiction of people’s deeply held moral convictions tends to get you that response.

Oh, by the way, from the New York Times:

US Support of Gay Rights in Africa May Have Done More Harm than Good:

In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, the final passage of the 2014 law against homosexuality — which makes same-sex relationships punishable by 14 years in prison and makes it a crime to organize or participate in any type of gay meeting — is widely regarded by both supporters and opponents of gay rights as a reaction to American pressure on Nigeria and other African nations to embrace gay rights.

Nigeria is about 60% Christian and 40% Muslim. I don’t think either group is keen on homosexuality.

Anti-gay sentiments are widespread across Africa. Same-sex relations remain illegal in most nations, the legacy of colonial laws that had been largely forgotten until the West’s push to repeal them in recent years.

Fierce opposition has come from African governments and private organizations, which accuse the United States of cultural imperialism. Pressing gay rights on an unwilling continent, they say, is the latest attempt by Western nations to impose their values on Africa.

“In the same way that we don’t try to impose our culture on anyone, we also expect that people should respect our culture in return,” said Theresa Okafor, a Nigerian active in lobbying against gay rights.

It’s sad how often people are genuinely surprised to discover that other people actually like their own cultures.

“Before, these people were leading their lives quietly, and nobody was paying any attention to them,” Ms. Iwuagwu said. “Before, a lot of people didn’t even have a clue there were something called gay people. But now they know and now they are outraged.”

One of the more amusing SJW-arguments is that white “liberals” aren’t actually liberal because they make every effort to insulate themselves, in real life, from black people. The immediate cause for this is obvious: black neighborhoods tend to have high crime and low property values. You don’t have to agree with SJWs or have any particular opinions to agree that 1. Whites tend to avoid black neighborhoods and know extremely little about black culture, and 2. black neighborhoods tend to be poor and high-crime.

If anything, it seems to me like whites have begun wearing their ignorance as a badge of pride, as insurance against the threat of being called “racist.” If you know nothing at all about a group of people and so never talk about their traits, then how can anyone call you racist? And better yet, when someone does say something about other groups, you can then, from your position of total ignorance, tell the other person that you are “deeply disturbed by [their] problematic and racist language” and stop the discussion.

Ignorance of others should be called what it is: ignorance.

Today we heap praises upon it and call it virtue.

To put things in slightly less politicized terms, modern conversation is like trying to talk about a local forest with someone who thinks that “forest” is a social construct. You say, “The forest is about 200 miles long and 100 miles wide,” and your interlocutor replies that you are ignorant, and furthermore, “This ‘forest’ consists of individual trees, which are found scattered across the entire country!”

There is no arguing with such people, and yet the temptation always remains.

I read something like Strawberry Girl, and I can’t help but suspect that 70 years ago, the average elementary-school aged child was expected to understand and handle concepts about human groups that today, graduates from our nation’s finest universities profess profound ignorance of. Lois Lenski can love the “Florida Crackers” and still speak honestly of their moral shortcomings and the aspects of their life that an outsider would not agree with. De Poncins loves the Eskimo and probably prefers their lifestyle to his, but he does not lie about their murder rate.

Even the humble Protestant parishioners of a century ago, who received lurid letters describing horrific cannibals and pleading for more money for their churchs’ missionary efforts, probably had a better general grasp of at least one chunk of the world than educated, urbanized moderns.

The devout Protestant of yesteryear believed a great many things that today’s atheists find absurd, such as anything about god. Indeed, a cynic might claim that requiring people to spout nonsense is a good way to separate out all but the true believers. But these articles of faith were focused primarily on the realm of the unprovable, a spiritual realm removed from Earth in time and space. When it came to daily life, these folks were practical and concrete, believing in the straightforward evidence provided by their own eyes.

Today’s devout believer is still required to spout nonsense, but about the very reality he passes through. His eyes are deemed liars; noticing patterns in peoples’ behavior is grounds for excommunication; racism is the new Original Sin. Like the virgin of yesteryear, he professes innocence.

But that spot will not out.

There is no god for the atheist to sacrifice to exculpate his guilt; no bleating goat to load with his sins and turn out into the wilderness.

The modern man must sacrifice himself, give his own–or his children’s–life to absolve the sin of Knowing.

What Heaven does he hope to attain?

 

Chinchillas

Photo credit Melissa Wolf
Photo credit Melissa Wolf (no, it’s not my birthday.)

Chinchillas are probably the cutest of the rodents.

They hail from the desert of the high Andes, where it is simultaneously cold and dry. They are very well adapted to their native habitat, which unfortunately results in them being not very well adapted to places like the US. Some common problems that therefore plague chinchillas kept as pets:

  1. You can’t get them wet. Chinchilla fur is actually so thick and fluffy that it can’t dry out properly on its own, so a wet chinchilla quickly becomes a moldy chinchilla. (Chinchillas take dust baths to get clean.)
  2. They can’t take heat, or even warmth. Our “room temperature” is their “oh god it’s hot.” They prefer to be below 60 degrees F; if the temp heads north of 75, they’ll probably die.
  3. Too many raisins will kill them. Chinchillas love raisins, but unfortunately for them, they’re only adapted to digest dry, brittle, nutrient-poor desert plants. A chinchilla can easily eat a couple of raisins a day without trouble, but if allowed to eat raisins to its heart’s content, its intestines will get all blocked up and the poor creature will die. (At least according to all of the chinchilla-related websites I have read; I have never personally killed a chinchilla.)

(Even though they are cute and fluffy, I don’t get the impression that chinchillas make very good pets, both because they don’t really bond with humans and because they poop constantly. If you really want a rodent, I hear that rats are rather sociable, though honestly, you could just get a dog.)

When I look at modern humans, I can’t help but think of the humble chinchilla, gorging itself to death on raisins. Sometimes we just don’t know what’s bad for us. With us, it’s not just the food–it’s pretty much everything. Find a cute cat picture on the internet? Next thing you know, you’ve just wasted three hours looking at pictures of cats. There are massive internet empires devoted to peoples’ love of looking at a picture of a cat for about two seconds. Sure, you could use that time to interact with a real cat, but that would require getting off your butt.

Facebook is worse than cat pictures. Do you really need to know that your Aunt Susie “likes” IHOP? Or exactly what your Uncle Joe thinks of Obamacare? Or where your vague acquaintance from three years ago had lunch today? No, but you’ll scroll through all of that crap, anyway, rather than face the horrifying prospect of actually interacting with another human being.

I swear, next time I go to a family gathering where people have flown over a thousand miles just to be there, and someone whips out their phone in the middle of a conversation just to check Twitter or FB, I am going to… well actually I will probably just be politely annoyed, but I will definitely be imagining stomping all over that phone.

Modernity is a drug. It tastes great. It’s wonderful. It’s fun. You get TVs and air conditioning and you don’t die of plague. Frankly, it’s awesome. But in the meanwhile, fertility drops. You end up inside, isolated, no longer talking to other humans, simply because that’s more work than clicking on another cake picture. Communities wither. So we get replaced by people who resist modernity, people who still have children and build communities.

Are you here for the long haul? Or are you just here for the raisins?

And if you’re just here for the raisins, why aren’t you enjoying them more?