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August 2, 2007

We’re not led, we’re kept
Posted by Patrick at 03:15 PM * 361 comments

Jonathan Schwarz discusses “the standard historical trajectory of imperial elites”:

[A]t a certain point they either (1) forget the power they can wield outside their country ultimately derives from a healthy society beneath them, or (2) understand that but decide they’d rather be comparatively more powerful within a poorer society and less powerful outside.

To understand choice #2 it’s useful to look at an extreme example, like Saudi Arabia. Certainly it has the natural wealth to be able to oppose Israel effectively. And you’d assume their elites want to do that, given that they’re always screeching about it. But effective opposition would require Saudi society to be internally far more democratic, educated and egalitarian. So the Saudi princes have decided they’d prefer their country to be a weak, poor backwater if that’s what’s required for them to each own nine palaces. As William Arkin said about our new $20 billion arms sale to the Saudis:

U.S. officials say the United States will seek assurances from Saudi Arabia that it will not store its new Joint Direct Attack Munitions—the satellite-guided bombs—at northern air bases, where they could threaten Israel.

Israel needn’t worry. The Saudi military is even less dangerous than the gang who couldn’t shoot straight…it’s not just incompetence when it comes to the Saudi military. The Saudi monarchy has methodically focused its military on pomp and equipment and spiffy uniforms, ensuring that it not acquire any real offensive capacity or the ability to operate as a coherent force. It does not want a competent, independent military contemplating a coup.

The same thing is true in the rest of the Arab world. For instance, at the beginning of the Six Day War in 1967, as Israel was bombing Egyptian airfields, the Egyptian air defense system was actually turned off. The Egyptian government had done this because they were more worried about internal enemies than Israel—they thought some rebel Egyptian military forces might be trying to shot down the plane of the Defense Minister, and didn’t want the rebels to be able to find out where it was.

Egyptian elites could have avoided this kind of internal conflict by having a democratic country with civilian control of the military, but who wants that? Far more enjoyable to be autocrats who turn off their air defense system RIGHT WHEN THEY’RE BEING BOMBED.

America’s elites are, at heart, the same way. They’d prefer to be emirs and kings running a shambling catastrophe of a country than moderately rich men in Sweden.

This articulates and clarifies a whole bunch of things I’ve been coming to suspect for a very long time.
Comments on We're not led, we're kept:
#1 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2007, 04:00 PM:

Patrick, there's a part of me that wants to rise up an exclaim that you and Schwartz are cynical citified SOBs who do not appreciate the true wonderfulness of America, which is why you can say such bad things.
Hoowever, its meeping is being drowned out by the 99% of the rest of my brain that isn't devoted to things like maintaining air circulation and internal temperature. The larger portion is trying to jump onto my desk and yell "Amen, brothers! Tell it! Tell it!"

Revivals should not be this depressing, though, and I wonder if a good dinner on the grounds would help any.

#2 ::: Steve Buchheit ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2007, 04:31 PM:

I'm getting that queasy feeling I got when I watched Pat Buchanan speak to the RNC in 92 (on TV). Like I need to go exercise my Second Amendment rights. I wish the cleaners would get done with my tin-foil hat. I expect I'm going to be needing it again, soon.

#3 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2007, 04:34 PM:

I wouldn't mind if I were an imperial elite: the perks are fantastic. I could finally get that Maybach with chauffeur I've been wanting all these years.

#4 ::: Keith ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2007, 04:39 PM:

This is exemplified by the tragic bridge collapse yesterday. it could have been avoided, if we simply spent money to repair our basic infrastructure. But that might require using tax money for something other than bombing Iraqi children, so those bills get vetoed if they get to the state senate floor at all.

better to rule in hell than serve in heaven, I guess.

#5 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2007, 04:44 PM:

Honestly, I think that Ayn Rand actually got something right in the more nightmarish portions of Atlas Shrugged, with the leaders who are perfectly content presiding over the collapse of America back into agrarian poverty as long as it's theirs. None of the Bush/Cheney junta have much experience actually creating anything, and certainly not creating anything for the general public and the public's well-being. If someone else can bail them out, well, that's fine, but if not, they're set to be lords of the manor in the midst of a decaying march as far back in history as it takes to squelch the competition.

#6 ::: ethan ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2007, 05:00 PM:

Following from Ned Beattie's monologue at the end of Network, my mother's theory is that the reason the vast majority of America and Americans are being left to rot by TPTB is that they're moving their consumer base to China. There's a ready-made, huge population there just waiting to be exploited, and the one here is getting too expensive to maintain. Makes sense to me.

#7 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2007, 05:05 PM:

A bit off topic, but I just realized -- again with the stupid! -- how insane the Saudis must think George Bush is, every time he talks about the Iraqi army "standing up." The last thing any of Iraq's neighbors wants is a functioning Iraqi army. Much better to have what they all have -- nonfunctional armies with bright shiny Murrcan weapons, and functional militias who spend most of their time fighting each other.

The imperial elite really, really does not give a flying f*ck for anyone not in their circle. We are all tools.

Marat we're poor...and the poor stay poor.
Marat, don't make us wait any more.
We want our right and we don't care how.

[All together now.]
We want a revolution -- now.

#8 ::: "Charles Dodgson" ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2007, 05:12 PM:

I must be a more cynical SOB than Patrick --- I'm not remotely surprised. It's just a fact of human nature that there are some people who are more motivated by power than by money. And being what they are, they tend to gravitate towards, well... positions of power. They just want it more than the rest of us. Which, in my view, is why third world elites have historically been more interested in keeping their own poor down than "deploying their productive capacity". And why, over here in the first world, many cartels have been more stable than you'd expect if the members were maximizing their profits --- they're not; what comes first is preserving their shared position on top of the heap.

I don't think this would have been much of a surprise at all to the founding fathers, by the way --- they were all too familiar with personal powerlust, and the Federalist papers are largely about containing it. If the arrangements they made are breaking down now, ironically enough, it may be because a lot of Republican senators and Congressmen have been willing to give up their personal power out of loyalty to what Publius called "a spirit of faction". Which is irrationality of a different kind; viz. "The True Believer" by Eric Hoffer...

#9 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2007, 05:22 PM:

Charles Dodgson, those Congressfolk and Senators all know that when they leave their official positions of power they will be very, very, very well taken care of -- see Billy Tauzin for an example -- and their ability to influence the powerful will probably increase. They hope and expect to give up nothing. (Honor, integrity... who cares? As Shakespeare pointed out in one of the Henrys (I paraphrase):

"Who hath honor?"

"Him that died a' Wednesday."

#10 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2007, 05:22 PM:

The word, surely, is not imperialism but kleptocracy - "a government that extends the personal wealth and political power of government officials and the ruling class (collectively, kleptocrats) at the expense of the population."

In the "developing world", the kleptocrat stashes stolen billions secretly in his Swiss bank account and then skips to Europe to enjoy them. The new kleptocracies don't seem to need the Swiss, or even the secrecy, to the same extent.

#11 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2007, 06:01 PM:

Charles D @ #8, Digby had some remarks the other day about Republicans giving up personal power:

The founders never counted on politicians "doing the right thing." Profiles in courage are always in short supply and no government can depend upon good intentions. But they did assume that they would, at least, want to preserve their own careers and constitutional prerogatives. The modern Republicans are so committed to their party that they will follow their 28% president over the cliff, and that is a mindset we haven't seen since the civil war.

I think she's spot on, and I don't understand it. When your leader is failing and is taking you with him, why do you not jump off the bandwagon?

#12 ::: Steve Buchheit ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2007, 06:05 PM:

#11 Linkmeister ..."why do you not jump off the bandwagon?"

Faith. And that 28% don't see it as failing.

#13 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2007, 06:05 PM:

better to rule in hell than serve in heaven, I guess.

Ye Gods. I remember using that phrase to oppose a friend's "I don't care! America's the best, that's all that matters!" gung-ho jingoism during my first experiment with being drunk when I was, oh, fourteen maybe.

This involving drunkeness, I recall thinking it was the height of cleverness and put-an-end-to-the-debateness, or at least most urgent, to say it many times, loudly: "Who cares if we're the best if all it means is we rule in Hell?" Eventually one of the parents came out of the bedroom area and intoned that he had just been woken up and who woke him up was me.

This would be one reason I don't do drunk. Failed experiment. But I digress.

There are people who care only about whether their faction, their nation, their family, their whatever, is "best." Whether they're good be damned. I suspect it's the same mindset that thinks "Not as bad as Saddam" is a winning defense against any accusation inveighed against Bush.

I think, also, familiarity may play a part. Who cares about being powerful among a bunch of strangers when you can bully the people you know? It's the same dynamic that makes us pay more attention when a friend criticizes us than a stranger, or compliments us. To a bully, the fear of familiar people, people who maybe despised the bully, is more warming than it is to cause fear in strangers. There's a sense of come-uppence, of having one's superiority be acknowledged, that means less when there's no familiarity between the bully and the victims.

Like I said, I don't do drunk. But I do caffeine. If the above doesn't make much sense, blame the bean.

#14 ::: "Charles Dodgson" ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2007, 06:10 PM:

Linkmeister@11:

When your leader is failing and is taking you with him, why do you not jump off the bandwagon?

Complete personal identification with "the movement"; they care more about whether it succeeds than about whether they succeed personally. Read Hoffer. "The True Believer"'s not on line, so far as I know. Read him anyway.

#15 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2007, 06:15 PM:

When your leader is failing and is taking you with him, why do you not jump off the bandwagon?

Pehaps because there's no better place. Sensible rats jump off a leaky bandwagon before it sails; it's too late when it gets to the middle of the ocean where there's nowhere to swim to.

Perhaps, alternatively, because they still somehow think this leader will get them somewhere, whereas he's more likely to throw them off the bandwagon into the snow if the wolves get too close.

#16 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2007, 07:04 PM:

Steve, Charles, John:

Maybe individually it's too hard to jump, but when the leader is dragging your entire party with him it would seem to me the height of sensibility to jettison him before the party's future is semi-permanently damaged.

For selfish and patriotic reasons I hope they hang on until 2008 and many of them get dumped by the voters for their intransigence and obstinacy, but that's predicated on my side repeatedly telling voters that it's their fault things aren't getting done as quickly as we'd hoped.

#17 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2007, 07:07 PM:

Complete personal identification with "the movement"

And complete personal identification with having supported the movement. It's hard enough to admit to having been wrong--it gets harder the more vehemently one has voiced one's support.

I know at least one person who has begun complaining about Bush's policies but reacts very badly to anyone linking those policies to Bush himself. It's like, he's a logical person who knows stupidity when he sees it, but has invested so much identity in supporting Bush since 2001 that I guess he feels obliged to keep defending Bush from critique, even while decrying Bush's policies. It's weird to watch.

#18 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2007, 07:07 PM:

Sure, there are some among this country's elite who see the world this way, but it's far from monolithic. I believe that people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett sincerely want to make the world (and this country along with it) a better place. It's just that the wrong clique among the elites are calling the shots right now. This means that change is possible, and it can have the support of a different clique of the rich and powerful.

If you want to see the same phenomenon PNH describes above writ small and in fiction, I refer you to The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter. His work features aristocratic African-Americans pining for the days of segregation, when they were kings of a much smaller hill.

#19 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2007, 07:13 PM:

#15 John:

I think a lot of Republican politicians are also in a hard place, because of three factors:

a. Hardly anyone supports the war.

b. They made all kinds of strong, public commitments about how much they supported the war, how anyone who didn't support it was a traitor, etc.

c. Many of them will be running again in a gerrymandered district, which means they can't easily walk away from supporting the war in Iraq and related stuff.

I think you can see a lot of the impact of (b) and (c) in the immigration debate, which was one in which Republicans could safely oppose the president, without either alienating lots of their own base or contradicting their previous statements.

#20 ::: "Charles Dodgson" ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2007, 07:59 PM:

Linkmeister@16, re: Republicans in Congress:

Maybe individually it's too hard to jump, but when the leader is dragging your entire party with him it would seem to me the height of sensibility to jettison him before the party's future is semi-permanently damaged.

By and large, these are not sensible people. They were selected by a process that filters for fanaticism. Some of them may be counting on the kind of Wingnut Welfare that Lizzy mentioned in #9, but I really believe that the bulk of them have a milder case of the same disease that made the followers of Jim Jones willingly drink the kool-aid: identifying with "The Movement" to the point that their own personal welfare just doesn't matter that much to them.

(Ironically enough, to people who have this disease, which movement matters less than you'd expect. An amusing case can be seen in the current crop of neoconservatives, many of whom were leftists, or even Trotskyists, in their political youth. Again, see Hoffer for case studies and analysis.)

#21 ::: MikeB ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2007, 09:01 PM:

Linkmeister@16:

Perhaps the Republicans in Congress are thinking long-term.

Richard Nixon disgraced the Republican Party. Rumsfeld and Cheney were in the Nixon administration. Twenty years later, they were running the country.

John Poindexter disgraced the Republican Party when he was convicted of multiple felonies in the Iran-Contra affair. Then he got a job in the Bush administration.

It remains to be seen just how long this particular "semi-permanent" disgrace will last. History does not provide many examples of Republicans being punished for their crimes. The last thirty years have been nothing but pardons, bailouts, and amnesia. It's not illogical for Republicans to assume that this will continue.

#22 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2007, 09:08 PM:

I've been wondering for a long time whether some fraction of Republican party discipline is actually the result of blackmail.

#23 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2007, 09:10 PM:

It's really hard for most of us to give up the faith that this is still a democracy and that elections matter to the ruling class. But it doesn't, any longer.

They have a plan, they've been planning for decades, and it's just about all in place now. The Republican Party's lawyer in California has proposed a ballot initiative that has posed the biggest hurdle we've seen yet to getting a Democrat in the White House.

http://www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2007/08/06/070806taco_talk_hertzberg

Love, C.

#24 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2007, 09:11 PM:

"Failure" has context. If someone can get very wealthy helping to push an agenda while in office and go from there to lifelong seucurity as a lobbyist, consultant, editorial writer, and the like, where's the failure? And who cares what the public thinks when their whole social network is carefully arranged to keep the public out? What matters to them are the views of those with the money, and those people - the only public they're interested in - haven't gotten disillusioned with empire, nor are they suffering from the setback of this effort or not, since their money comes up front, along the way, and through various indirect channels. One of the most important things to keep in mind about the modern conservative movement is that about 98% of us, our various fortunes and troubles, our hopes and expectations, don't matter. We are not subjects of policy but objects, and as long as we're not in actual armed revolt, then we get the sort of attention the motor pool does...and we've seen how serious they are about funding that, too.

#25 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2007, 10:07 PM:

#8, "Charles Dodgson": "I must be a more cynical SOB than Patrick --- I'm not remotely surprised. It's just a fact of human nature that [etc]"

I like your writing and I like you, but this is an online rhetorical gambit on which I call BS.

First, point to where I said I was surprised.

Second, the game of "You're surprised by $ODIOUSBEHAVIOR???" is itself odious. Hello, person who has, by dint of great effort, worked themselves around to agreeing with me! Allow me to point out in the most withering possible terms that I'm more worldly than you, more knowledgeable than you, more sophisticated than you, and boy howdy, are you ever a chump.

I've indulged in this variety of superiority dance myself. Astonishingly, it turns out to not be the most effective imaginable way of acquiring and retaining allies. Human nature is so unpredictable; who could have known?

#26 ::: "Charles Dodgson" ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2007, 10:50 PM:

I took "coming to suspect" to imply some sort of a recent change. Apologies if I misread.

#27 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2007, 11:52 PM:

You read that exactly right. What you're misreading is the nature and substance of my objection.

#28 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 12:24 AM:

By and large, these are not sensible people. They were selected by a process that filters for fanaticism. Also, they only talk to people who agree with them and who confirm their views.

Planet Bush

#29 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 01:24 AM:

THere is a well-established set of techniques for creating and maintaining a cult, an organization based on the fanaticism of the rank and file. One of the techniques used to bind the group tegether is to give them a shared shame, to make them commit acts with consequences they can be reminded of. This is blackmail, but something more as well. The binding force is not just fear of exposure, but a feeling of being closer to those within the group who've conmitted the acts than to those outside who haven't.

For instance, street gangs and white supremacist groups use this technique by having new members commit a violent act, sometimes murder, against their adversaries. The members become criminals, and their crimes bind them together. Our new kleptocratic overlords use a different sort of crime but the principle is the same.

#30 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 02:05 AM:

I think there's more to the politics of this disaster than is captured in this analysis. This sort of engineering just isn't sexy and it's almost impossible to get voters to support spending on maintenance until there's been some major failure--it is too much like trying to get people to take out the trash. The problem, of course, is exacerbated by the idea that "the government doesn't/can't do anything well". Well, no, actually. We have very good engineers, and a very good system that educates them and puts them in positions of authority. But it doesn't mean a damn thing if most of us aren't willing to take their advice.

So...though I have many problems with our elites, I don't think we can lay this entirely at their door. To some extent, sure. But only to some extent--the general voting public has to take some responsibility. BTW, Patrick, "You're surprised by $ODIOUSBEHAVIOR???" is time-warped variant of "I told you so." It's annoying, sure. But it's also an expression of frustration.

#31 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 02:32 AM:

Patrick Nielsen Hayden @ 305 on Open Thread 89

The entire practice of "message discipline," as practiced by a million and a half tech startups and entertainment-industry marketing operations, is wholly alien to her,

This point goes to the general problem of our government feeling it has to act like a bunch of corporate executives, because, as we all know, Bob, the private sector is so much more efficient and effective than the public sector. To which my reply is a rude noise and an obscene gesture. I've worked in both large and small corporations where I was close enough to the executives to see at least some of what was going on, and believe me, they don't know any more about how to run a large organization than most anybody else.*

On top of which, these so-called "executives" in the NeoBarb community are among the poorer specimens. Bush was just as successful as his Daddy and his good buddies could make him. Rumsfeld really screwed up DOD on the pretext of making it run right.** I could go on in this vein, but then so can anyone else commenting in this thread.

There's another point that Tauscher's failure to lead her staff makes: the rotting away of the requirement for taking responsibility for one's actions in the public sphere. "It's not her fault, one of the people she's responsible for did it." Put that way it doesn't make much sense, does it? But more and more that's what we're given to expect from the people who would be our leaders.***

[/rant] Thank you for letting me get that out of my system. Some days the frustration of living in what increasingly looks like the last days of Republican Rome gets to be a little too much to take without venting.


* On average, that is. There are in fact good exectives and leaders in the world, but not very many, and I highly doubt that any of them are MBAs.

** I could have told him that putting butter in the clockwork would not make it run better.

*** If they weren't trailing behind us in so many ways.

#32 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 02:51 AM:

And also, Infrastructure is patriotic.

#33 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 05:11 AM:

Complete personal identification with "the movement"; they care more about whether it succeeds than about whether they succeed personally.

Which is a problem how?

Christ cared more about the movement than about himself; so did the Buddha, Gandhi, and Hardie. One can go on; I'd start with the Catholic Church's handy lists of saints.

If you truly think that Bush is doing God's work, or even just that Bush is right, and that withdrawal will result in mass deaths, then you shouldn't be willing to betray him for momentary electoral gain. If the Congressional Republicans are logically consistent (let us assume that the sky is green), then they should be prepared to follow the President through Hell. Because that's not as bad as what they claim the Democratic policies would do.

The fact that Bush is wrong is beside the point here: Congressional Republicans don't think that's true, so they aren't going to act like it is.

If the arrangements they made are breaking down now, ironically enough, it may be because a lot of Republican senators and Congressmen have been willing to give up their personal power out of loyalty to what Publius called "a spirit of faction". Which is irrationality of a different kind; viz. "The True Believer" by Eric Hoffer...

Breaking down now? McCarthy? The South, ante and post bellum? Bellum itself?

The Framers screwed up a lot: their genius was in screwing up less than anyone else at the time. Their system has been pretty crap for long periods at a time.

One of the ways they screwed up was underestimating the basic selflessness of the human.

People are willing to die for something greater than themselves -- martyrdom is a pretty easy sell. Compared to the cross, what's losing an election? Compared to losing an election, what's giving up some power to someone doing the right thing?

#34 ::: Neil ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 05:26 AM:

I'm interested that the entire comment stream has been on the American side of the illustration, and none on the Middle-Eastern. As an American Jew, I have a butt-cheek on each side.

One of the litmus tests I've generated is that someone genuinely concerned about the "Palestinians" first, and only anti-Israel secondly, is that they are as concerned about abuses by the rest of the Arab world as by the Israelis.

Those who pass the test are vanishingly rare. I have been told on several occasions that even if the Arab Legion *did* overrun and occupy the land designated for the state of Palestine in 1948, that's Israel's fault, too.

Recently, I was very heatedly told that it was no use talking to me because my mind was closed, because I wanted to ADD facts to the discussion.

It has been clear to me for a long time that one of the most important reasons that the Arab population is kept in an uproar against Israel is that both the medieval monarchies and duchies and the military states are terrified of what would happen if their populations took a good look at education and democracy.

Better to rule in Hell, indeed . . .

#35 ::: Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 07:23 AM:

My guess is that getting off of the bandwagon would mean admitting you were wrong, and that in some sense, the other team was right. Also, the message that "If you don't support us, the terrorists will win, because the Democrats will surrender" is bought into by that 30%. They have a simple world view in which they are the muscular Chuck Norris good guys, and we are the effeminate communist loving bad guys.

I think my later suggestion is what motivates most of the Bush supporters - they see him as doing something in "the fight against international terrorism" and are convinced (by Bush propaganda) that democrats will put America at risk.

#36 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 07:49 AM:

Charles Dodgson @8: Like you, I'm surprised that this is news to anyone. (Although I don't think it's news to Patrick ...)

More to the point: It's just a fact of human nature that there are some people who are more motivated by power than by money. And being what they are, they tend to gravitate towards, well... positions of power.

The utility of money diminishes, the more of it you have. The improvement in your standard of living from an income of $100 to $1000 a year is enormous: from $1000 to $10,000 it's pretty big: from $10,000 to $100,000 it's noticable: from $100K to $1M ... you switch from flying economy to flying business class, and get a bigger house. Above $1M/year, order-of-magnitude improvements in income make very little difference to your lifestyle (you might own that 100' yacht, rather than renting it for a week when you want it, but that's about it).

So once the greedy ugly folks have maxed out the utility of their pile -- and it doesn't have to be a terribly big pile to put then in the realm where adding a few hundred million more doesn't fundamentally change anything in their lives -- what else are they left to play games with, but power?

Finally, to circle back to Patrick's opening, I've visited Sweden. I didn't see any stretch limos. I didn't see any beggars, either; or graffiti and slums and run-down infrastructure. It was actually a bit spooky. Degradation doesn't only brutalize the poor and the down-trodden -- it degrades the comfortable classes above them by forcing them to accept as natural an environment in which degradation is permitted.

If we were a well-informed, rational species, we'd all live like Swedes.

#37 ::: Martin GL ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 08:01 AM:

Re: Moderately rich men in Sweden, I am tempted to add that Europe's richest man (and probably on the world top 5) is IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad. He is notoriously media-shy but we know a few things about him. For instance that he lives at least part of the year in rural Sweden, near his childhood home, and has a net worth in the 50-billion range. He was implicated in a fascist movement when he was a young man, but has since backpedalled furiously. He is supposedly modest and thrifty, wearing simple clothing, riding a dingy old bike to work and having a Volvo as his main car. (though it should be added that part of this is real, and some of it is almost certainly company branding)

Conclusion: even the insanely wealthy of Sweden are moderates.

(Well, no they're not. But some of them are.)

#38 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 08:26 AM:

Charlie Stross #36:

An interesting question, to me, is what makes one guy reach the level of "f-ck you money" (enough he never has to work again to be comfortable) and retire or shift over to fun projects, and another guy reach that level, and keep going for greater and greater wealth. The way it looks to me, the people who keep going enjoy the game of getting greater wealth, as well as the greater wealth.

There are all kinds of similar things. Some researchers in my field, long after having established themselves, keep cranking out new and interesting ideas. Others publish a lot to get tenure (PhD, postdoc, tenure-track job, then tenure, so several years of research) and then don't innovate much after that. (Often they weren't innovating all that much per paper before, but that's another rant.) It's interesting to ask why. If Ron Rivest never published another academic paper, his (deserved) reputation as a first-rank genius would remain. Yet he keeps on going.

This is a kind of weird selection process. To get to the very top in various areas of life, you must keep being driven long after there are substantial external rewards. This shapes the whole society, because the people at the top are all people who've been filtered this way--the guy who sees he's 10th richest in America and wants to go up in the rankings, the guy whose ambitions take him past being an effective governor or mayor or senator, to running for president, the guy who keeps cranking out the research until they carry him out of his lab feet first.

I guess there are other areas with different filters. Some filters are largely luck (you need some luck for most kinds of success, but I think being a successful pop musician or actor may be more luck than being a successful businessman). Some involve consistent not-screwing-up (senior bureaucrats in both government and industry). Some people are born into places from which their climb to the top is not too long, though that doesn't seem to be most of America. (Alas, it seems to be true in politics, though!)

It's interesting to ask how this affects the dynamics of the society.

#39 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 09:09 AM:

albatross@38: the people who keep going enjoy the game of getting greater wealth,

Read an article years ago about some current stock barron (can't remember name) who was visiting a tourist site about some early 1900's bagillionaire. The tour was in one of the old houses that the old bagillionaire bought and focused on all the stuff that the bagillionaire bought with his bagillions.

The new guy stopped the person giving the tour and said something to the effect of "I don't want to know what he did with his money, I want to know how he made it." This was his telling of the story in some interview. He told the interviewer that he viewed capitalism as a sport and money was a way of keeping score.

So I think there is definitely something to the idea of money for money's sake for some people.

#40 ::: mayakda ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 10:01 AM:

One of the techniques used to bind the group tegether is to give them a shared shame, to make them commit acts with consequences they can be reminded of.

I've seen it described as the power of atrocity*, which is complex. Members are forced/coerced/pressured to commit acts which go against their values, and to protect themselves pyschologically they have to rationalize/justify the atrocity. So they defend the rationalization beyond all logic, because otherwise they would have to face the reality that they are monsters.

A way of burning the bridges -- there's no going back now.

*On Killing by Grossman

#41 ::: mayakda ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 10:04 AM:

My comment was directed to Bruce at #29. (Sorry for not prefacing with that).

#42 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 10:08 AM:

Greg London @ 39

Everyone has some set of measures of success, how satisfied they are with the outcome of their actions, and of utility, how much an action or object (or another person) can contribute to that success. Some people have very concrete measures, e.g., what position am I on a list of rich people, people with explicit rank like military officers, people with implicit rank, like members of a hierarchical social class; or how many members of a class of people are affected by me, e.g., how many people read my articles or listen to my radio show. These concrete measures almost always involve numbers; the ordinal position on a list, or the cardinal count of things possessed.

Some people have more abstract measures: how happy am I, how much do I respect myself, how much revenge can I get for injustices to me. Note that there's not necessarily a coorelation between the abstractness of person's measure of success and the nobility or "goodness" of the person's actions; it's the effect of the actions taken to get that success that determine the moral nature of a goal.

If you fixate on a single measure, to the exclusion of all others, you practically guarantee that the actions taken will be at least amoral, and often unsuccessful in a larger sense. "Take that hill at all costs" probably means you'll lose a lot more soldiers than you might if your goal were different (ask General Pickett, or one of the men in his division). "Corporate profit is the only ethical measure of an executive's fiduciary responsibility" can mean ignoring safety or the needs of the surrounding community; consider Bopal. "Monetary success is the only acceptable goal for an adult" can lead to some truly unhappy marriages and confrontational styles of relationship.

Using a single measure of success is a kind of fanaticism, and I think the history of the 20th century, and what we've seen so far of the 21st shows just how much trouble fanaticism can make for all the people the fanatic has to deal with to get to the goal.

#43 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 10:16 AM:

mayakda @ 40

Yes, precisely. And very often the group's members go on to commit more and more heinous acts to prove how important the reasons for joining the group are. The logic is that truly important goals justify aberrant acts ("The end justifies the means"), and therefore if you commit horrible acts, your goals must be horribly important. After awhile, no bad outcome can break this spiral, leading to a "Death before surrender" attitude, maybe even one of "Everyone's death before my surrender".

#44 ::: Vir Modestus ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 10:42 AM:
It remains to be seen just how long this particular "semi-permanent" disgrace will last. History does not provide many examples of Republicans being punished for their crimes. The last thirty years have been nothing but pardons, bailouts, and amnesia. It's not illogical for Republicans to assume that this will continue.
This is the very thing that terrifies me about the current crop of Dem presidential candidates. They ALL talk about "reconciliation" and "moving forward" and "bipartisianship" when they should be talking about turning over every stone and throwing every corrupt politician in jail. Yes, that would get some Dems, too, but probably just enough that the exercise wouldn't be seen as one-sided.

If the ruling class doesn't experience any consequences for illegal action, they'll just keep acting illegally. The pardon of Nixon was the first step to allowing the Nixonian cancer metastasize and we're suffering for it today. If we don't eradicate the problem now (to beat my own metaphor into the ground) we'll be suffering for it again in the future.

#45 ::: "Charles Dodgson" ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 10:47 AM:

Keir@33:

Complete personal identification with "the movement"; they care more about whether it succeeds than about whether they succeed personally.

Which is a problem how?

Well, that depends on the movement; the civil rights workers who got themselves killed in the deep south in the '60s were doing the same thing, and quite likely for the same psychological reasons.

PNH@27: Well, I see at least part of your point on rhetorical stance. Better, perhaps, to begin "Yep --- positions of power are often filled by the power-hungry because they just want it more," and take it from there; the extra words not only convey a bad attitude, but worse, they don't actually say anything. The next sentence is no peach either; it completely misses the point I wanted it to make. But once the post is up, it's too late to rewrite it.

And albatross@38: In Rivest's case, I think he actually likes his job. That happens too.

#46 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 11:12 AM:

Vir Modestus #44 : they should be talking about turning over every stone and throwing every corrupt politician in jail.

Depends what you think is the level of political corruption in the US, on both sides. If the Dems were demonstrably squeaky-clean, nationally and locally, then they could go down the turn-over-every-stone-and-throw-'em-in-jail route, and probably win. But what if, when they start calling for a purge, the Reps can come right back with dozens of examples of less-than-pretty conduct by Dem politicians? Then you're into name-calling and trying to show which of two bad sides is worse, and the voters turn right off. I'd guess that the "reconciliation" line is the better strategy.

#47 ::: mayakda ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 11:21 AM:

CD @ 45
"Yep --- positions of power are often filled by the power-hungry because they just want it more,"

Maybe triva, but I'll post about it anyway, in case other readers are fond of personality type thingies. A Myers-Briggs book I happen to be browsing says that their database of people who have taken MBTI personality tests across corporate, government, and military organizations, shows that the top executives/brass are composed almost entirely of TJs (Thinking Judging). Mostly ISTJ (32.1%), ESTJ (28%), INTJ (15.8%), ENTJ (9.4%). Then a big gap to the Thinking Perceivers, ENTP (5.3%), INTP (1.3%). The FPs are hardly there at all, starting with ESFP at 1% down to ISFP at .1%.

This distribution is way out of proportion to the general population, so if the people at the top seem different from most of us, it's probably because they are.

(ISTJ & ESTJ are described as having Traditionalist temperaments, btw.)

#48 ::: Gag Halfrunt ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 12:32 PM:
One of the litmus tests I've generated is that someone genuinely concerned about the "Palestinians" first, and only anti-Israel secondly, is that they are as concerned about abuses by the rest of the Arab world as by the Israelis.
And people who are concerned about freedom and democracy in the Middle East should be as concerned about Israeli abuses against the Palestinians as they are about what other Middle Eastern countries do to their own peoples.
It has been clear to me for a long time that one of the most important reasons that the Arab population is kept in an uproar against Israel is that both the medieval monarchies and duchies and the military states are terrified of what would happen if their populations took a good look at education and democracy.
True, but I've seen that argument deployed by supporters of Israel who want to give the impression that there are no legitimate reasons to be angry about Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.
#49 ::: Rob Hansen ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 01:00 PM:

One of the litmus tests I've generated is that someone genuinely concerned about the "Palestinians" first, and only anti-Israel secondly, is that they are as concerned about abuses by the rest of the Arab world as by the Israelis.

I'll happily state upfront that I'm more concerned by Israeli abuses. That's because Israel is a democracy and I expect better of democracies than I do of the appalling regimes in charge of many Arab countries.

#50 ::: Rob Hansen ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 01:00 PM:

One of the litmus tests I've generated is that someone genuinely concerned about the "Palestinians" first, and only anti-Israel secondly, is that they are as concerned about abuses by the rest of the Arab world as by the Israelis.

I'll happily state upfront that I'm more concerned by Israeli abuses. That's because Israel is a democracy and I expect better of democracies than I do of the appalling regimes in charge of many Arab countries.

#51 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 01:22 PM:

In another Arab case, that of Syria, Edward Luttwak in Coup d'Etat says that the Syrians need not have lost the Golan Heights to Israel in 1967, had they moved a crack unit to the heights to hold the Israelis off. When Hafez Assad, then defence minister, asked Ba'ath leader Salah Jadid for permission to move the brigade, Jadid beat him up and then explained he needed the brigade to hand to discourage any domestic enemies. Assad was so discouraged that in 1970 he staged his own successful coup.

#52 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 01:29 PM:

Earl Cooley #3: You don't have to be a member of an imperial élite for that, the King of Swaziland certainly isn't.

#53 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 02:28 PM:

Fragano, your link in #52 is munged: I guess you meant this:
Swazi king splashes on luxury car

#54 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 02:44 PM:

Rob Hansen #50 : I'll happily state upfront that I'm more concerned by Israeli abuses. That's because Israel is a democracy...

Yes, although my doubt about this often-used argument is the implication that the Israeli people have control over the Israeli state, and therefore approve what is being done to the Palestinians. The USA is also a democracy, after all.

#55 ::: ethan ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 02:46 PM:

John Stanning #54: And we're not concerned about what the USA is doing?

#56 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 02:54 PM:

Neil@34: someone genuinely concerned about the "Palestinians" first, and only anti-Israel secondly

I don't think it possible to measure that in any objective way. The treatment of the Palestinians by the Israelis since the nation was forced into the area is indemic to Israel. You can't remove the Palestinian problem and then look at Israel, because Israel's entire history is tightly coupled with the Palestinians.

I suppose if the person is straight out anti-semetic, then sure, they don't care about the Palestinians, they just hate jewish people, and therefore Israel.

But I take issue with Israel's treatment of the Palestinians throughout their entire history, and find it impossible to look at the problem in any sensible way by removing half the people involved.

Israel triggers my "collective punishment" hair trigger. Actually, they bulldoze my collective punishment trigger. Even literally. Bulldozing an entire apartment complex because one resident is violent doesn't work for me. Nor does punishing an entire population by refusing to engage in any constructive peace talks until the violent individual palestinians are stopped.

If Israel had half as much priority on making peace with the peaceful palestinians as it does on hunting down and killing the violent ones, then I'd reconsider.

But how do I separate that I take issue with Israel's behaviour without being concerned about the Palestinians if it's Israel's behaviour specifically towards Palestinians that I have an issue with? I don't think it's one first and then the other second, it's one directly because of another.

It might separate out the anti-semitic person, but it sounds like your litmus test would also separate out someone who has a legitimate problem with Israel's actions.

#57 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 02:56 PM:

ethan #55: Of course we are. But I think the analogy holds: if the Israeli people, as a whole, are assumed by virtue of their democracy to approve collectively their state's treatment of the Palestinians, then the peope of the USA are similarly assumed to approve collectively their state's behaviour in Guantanamo, Iraq, etc.

For the avoidance of doubt, I do not accept either the former or the latter assumption. But they seem to be implicit in the "Israel-is-a-democracy" argument above.

#58 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 03:11 PM:

John Stanning #53: You're right. Sorry.

#59 ::: Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 03:43 PM:

#36 - Charlie Stross- If we were a well-informed, rational species, we'd all live like Swedes.

Hm. I don't particularly want to live like a Sweede. I can't say that if I had a gazillion dollars, I'd ride around in a stretch limo, but I *would* probably have a car and a driver, and a maid, possibly even two.

There's a difference between ostentation and luxury. I have no need to scream out luxury, but when I've lived in it, I certainly appreciated it. I dislike the ethic that says that use of wealth to create comfort and even luxury is inherently immoral. I'm not saying you're suggesting that, but some subcultures certainly do. I got sneered at recently for having my laundry picked up and delivered, as if I was some sort of capitalist oppressor for not doing it myself.

And I don't think that people living in luxury, even ostentations luxury necessitates people living in abject poverty. Social mores in the US about displays of wealth are different. Not better or worse. What's worse is our level of social welfare. That's all.

#60 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 04:18 PM:

Bruce 31: I agree, but shorter (re Tauscher): "You're responsible for what goes out over your signature, whether you wrote it (or even read it) or not."

#61 ::: Leah Miller ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 04:31 PM:

Holy Crap, Maya @47!

That explains so bloody much. As an ENFP, I've always wondered how so many powerful people seem to work without considering the wider view, and without empathizing. That... pretty much sums it up right there.

It also answers my much more trivial question of "why no one in power does anything cool anymore." It seems to me that rich people used to tend to bug out and get creative more often... building castles, founding eccentric museums, financing plays and movies simply for their own amusement. It may be that in the past the elites tended towards a more varied personality sample, and thus had more varied interests.

That is really, really scary to me. There aren't ANY of my type in that breakdowns, and no INFPs either. No Champions or Lyricists.

Ooof. The problem is I have no idea how to fix that, or if it would be possible to.

#62 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 04:41 PM:

Leah #61: It may be that in the past the elites tended towards a more varied personality sample, and thus had more varied interests.

People get into an elite by two means: inheritance or earning their way in. It's the latter category, I suspect, that seems to select more for certain personality traits.

(None of this explains Andrew Carnegie, who displayed an astonishing single-mindedness in the getting of his money, but who did some fascinating things once he had a ton of it. I'm incredibly grateful to the Carnegie Libraries.)

#63 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 05:22 PM:

Several other prominent billionaires have also done interesting/cool things with their wealth, both in business and philanthropy. Think Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and George Soros for a few examples, but there are more.

#64 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 05:35 PM:

So, if I'm going to become an imperial elite, I'm going to need a good lawyer, and a personal assistant who won't rob me blind, and will recruit a posse for me. I'll certainly, at the very least, need someone to meticulously deshell crab meat for me.

Thing is, I have a basic entrenched distrust for truth parsers that I haven't coded myself, so finding a lawyer will be hard for me; they'd at least have to be EFF alumni or something. It has been alleged that some Second Life lawyers have souls, too.

As for the King of Swaziland, his birthday party cost a frugal six figures, no where near the seven figure minimum required for credible Tycoesque opulence.

#65 ::: Paul Lalonde ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 05:53 PM:

John Stanning@#57 - Yes, exactly. By virtue of their democracy, Americans can (and should) be held complicit in the events of Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. Though deplorable, I no more expect the Israelis to rise up against their democratically elected government than I expect to see Americans rise up against their own. But the atrocities are still being committed in their name. Would that more individuals could remember this and act upon it.

#66 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 05:55 PM:

Earl, you can just have your crabs air-freighted to Thailand to be shelled by cheap fingers...

#67 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 06:04 PM:

Earl Cooley III: That's because Swaziland is a poor country, with 40 percent of the adult population being HIV positive. Mswati can't compete with really big corporate heads, though he can give every wife a Mercedes.

#68 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 06:16 PM:

I am morally opposed to outsourcing as economic treason. My crab meat will be 100% American. My crab meat quality control consultant will be an American with an egregia cum laude Fisheries Sciences and Management college degree, and will be lavishly overpaid as a way to encourage personal loyalty and to avoid pesky poisoned or contaminated crab incidents. As an imperial elite, I need not be concerned about searching for the cheapest form of labor available; I prefer quality. Besides, a round trip to Thailand unacceptably ages the seafood.

#69 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 06:25 PM:

47, 61: For those puzzled (as I was) by MBTI and ISTJ, ESTJ, INTJ, ENTJ (and so on), here is a link to a wikipedia article describing Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality profiling.

#70 ::: Rich McAllister ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 07:19 PM:

#61 Leah Miller : It seems to me that rich people used to tend to bug out and get creative more often... building castles, founding eccentric museums, financing plays and movies simply for their own amusement.


Well, John Fry (of Fry's Electronics) is building a replica of the Alhambra in Morgan Hill, California, just so he can fill it with mathematicians...

#71 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 08:59 PM:

So, Earl, how are you going to house the visiting workers who pick your crabs? Because they have to be picked by hand.

#72 ::: Another Damned Medievalist ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 09:09 PM:

Historian diving in here. I call bullshit. Now, possibly, if you were going to talk about elites post-industrialism, or post-Enlightenment, I could agree. I'm not disagreeing that this is what's happened, by the way. I'm simply saying that Schwarz's argument is flawed, in the sense that his sense of history is incomplete, ignorant, and annoying. And you know, I'm not even sure that he's right for modern empires. Seriously. He's assuming that people thought a lot of things for which there is no historical evidence. What exactly is a healthy society? My own readings tell me that, for the people at the top of most historic empires, the social and economic justice implied in Schwarz's comment, healthy meant "profitable for us and people aren't trying to kill us." For some, there might be a religious aspect, "there's no heresy/there is proper worship of the god(s), so there's no plague/drought/natural disasters/vengeful acts of god(s), so we're profiting and people aren't trying to kill us."

Sorry. I just find arguments like this weaker when they're based on presentist historical interpretations.

#73 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 09:11 PM:

"Visiting workers"? What makes you think that housing them is in any way my imperial responsibility? It's not as if I will be stuffing myself full of crab meat to the extent that I'd need 24/7/365 crab worker coverage. Besides, I'd rather not be drawn into any sort of "guest worker" argument. They'd be paid a reasonable "living wage", at the very least, so would be able, by definition, to afford their own housing.

It occurs to me that I'm going to need a lot of raw power to make my imperial elite utopia work correctly. I'm going to need omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence.

#74 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 09:15 PM:

Earl @ #73, And machine guns.

#75 ::: Julie L. ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 09:43 PM:

ethan @6: my mother's theory is that the reason the vast majority of America and Americans are being left to rot by TPTB is that they're moving their consumer base to China.

Their consumer base for *what*? The domestic manufacturing base in the US has already been dismantled by globalization, and TPTB's goods are probably already being *made* in China and shipped back to Wal-Mart.

#76 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2007, 11:48 PM:

Earl @ 73

You're going to need some good henchmen too. Learn from Vader's and Blofeld's mistakes and don't get them from Thugs 'R Us. Very poor quality, especially for critical functions like world conquest.

#77 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 12:20 AM:

#72, Another Damn Medievalist: I get the sense that I might agree with you if I could figure out what you're saying. Perhaps you could take a deep breath and try again, spelling out the connections a little more s-l-o-w-l-y?

#78 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 12:34 AM:

Linkmeister #74,

We must remember, we have got
The Maxim gun, and they have not.

#79 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 01:46 AM:

Dave Luckett @ #78, what's that from? Kipling?

#80 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 02:17 AM:

Hilaire Belloc, I think.

#81 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 03:09 AM:

John @ #80, I Googled; you're right. I don't know enough about Belloc to know what the occasion was for his composing it.

#82 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 05:04 AM:

It's a couplet that's become detached from the poem it came from, which isn't very memorable. I haven't got the book to hand, but after a little Internet searching, I found this:

The Modern Traveller

Blood thought he knew the native mind;
He said you must be firm, but kind.
A mutiny resulted.
I shall never forget the way
That Blood stood upon this awful day
Preserved us all from death.
He stood upon a little mound
Cast his lethargic eyes around,
And said beneath his breath:
'Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim Gun, and they have not.'
It's said to relate somehow to the battle of Omdurman, in 1898, when the British, who held Egypt at the time, were fighting Islamist rebels in what is now Sudan. I don't know who Blood is - Colonel Blood, or even General Blood, perhaps (although it was General Kitchener who was in overall command).

#83 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 05:18 AM:

But, Linkmeister, you weren't far off with Kipling. Kipling's short story 'The Captive', in the collection Traffics and Discoveries, tells the story of Laughton O. Zigler who is in South Africa during the second Boer war, trying to sell a gun to the British Army. Zigler might well be based on Hiram S. Maxim.

#84 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 05:25 AM:

Bruce @76: the best henchmen are the ones that come out of the ACME Clone-Me™[1] -- they know what you want to do, they know how you want to do it, and they're in it for the same rewards as yourself. The only question is how to divvy up the spoils afterwards.


[1] The deluxe model Clone-Me™, where you pull the lever and the clone pops out fully mature and with all your memories and unpleasant personality traits already installed. Not the boringly mundane real world model they're working on at the Roslin Institute with all that mucking around with sheep ...

#85 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 06:23 AM:

I wonder if Kipling had Sir Basil Zaharoff in mind.

#86 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 06:52 AM:

A little more searching turned up the whole of Belloc's The Modern Traveller in the Internet Archive, where it's reproduced in facsimile in a PDF (worth looking at for the drawings), and transcribed, with shaky spelling and formatting, in a text file. IMHO it's not up to the standard of Belloc's other works such as the "Cautionary Tales".

#87 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 09:00 AM:

Maxim guns are all well and good, but sometimes not even a Maxim gun will help you.

#88 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 09:10 AM:

I knew I should have looked that quotation up before posting. Gawd, my memory's porous these days.

#89 ::: Another Damned Medievalist ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 09:35 AM:

Sorry PNH at #77, I meant first that I agree with Schwarz's fundamental argument that TPTB in this country refuse to recognize or choose to ignore the necessity of what he calls a healthy society to ultimately ensure their survival, and the survival of the US as a world power. I'd actually take that a step further and say that a large percentage of USians(enough to elect GWB, at least) have the same mindset. After all, you just have to look around and see the vast amount of luxury goods owned by people who claim that their taxes are too high.

My overall crankiness was brought on by the raising of the "historical" flag. Schwarz bases his arguments in large part on the premise that healthy society is a democratic and just one. By using 'historical' and 'imperial' together, he invokes the specters of other great empires, which I think for most people might include Rome, and possibly Persia, as well as more modern empires like the Hapbsburg Empire and the British Empire. For a person who knows more, the ghosts of empires past might included any number of non-western empires as well: Han, Mongol, Mughal, Incan, Aztec, Mali, Maurya, Songhay ... For me, of course, there's the Carolingian Empire, too ;-)


The problem with Schwarz's argument is that his original premise doesn't really work in any of those examples. The democracy and other underpinnings of what _he_ calls a healthy society did not necessarily exist, and more importantly, were not thought to be necessary, in any of those Empires. Certainly in many of them there was the idea of a just society and rights for the citizen, but the definition of citizenship was far different than ours. I can't speak to each and every one of these cases, but in terms of Europe and China, society was very stratified (and in different ways, with different reasons) and the stratification was often legally enforced. There were times of relatively greater social mobility, but these societies judged the factors that made a healthy society differently than we tend to in a post-Enlightenment, post-Industrial Revolution world.

In the pre-modern world, a healthy society tended to be one where there an absence of warfare, natural disaster, and rebellion, which often resulted from people of many social strata being fed up with the costs of war and natural disaster. A healthy imperial society was one in which the costs of war were balanced by the benefits of conquering other people and incorporating them and their riches into the empire. I realise this is oversimplified, too, but at least it's a fairly accurate oversimplification.

So even though I think what Schwarz is saying makes sense, I object to his misinterpretation of history to support it. I think it ill serves both his argument and history.

#90 ::: Another Damned Medievalist ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 09:39 AM:

eep. I just used the word 'argument' far too much.

#91 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 09:40 AM:
I don't think it possible to measure that in any objective way. The treatment of the Palestinians by the Israelis since the nation was forced into the area is indemic to Israel. You can't remove the Palestinian problem and then look at Israel, because Israel's entire history is tightly coupled with the Palestinians.
Assuming you mean its *modern* history, yeah. I see modern Israel as basically a colonial power - a recent enclave of people from a wealthier, higher-tech society, coming to a land where they are not native and basically taking it over without regard for what the natives think about it.

And like all colonial powers, they want the dirty wogs to get out of the way so they can enjoy their manifest destiny. While it's possible and even likely that not *all* Israelis think this way, it seems to me to be the predominant force in their politics and policy.

Now, I know perfectly well that I come from a country that has a colonial past itself. If I had been born then I might even have supported it - I like to think not, but who can tell. But while the past isn't changeable, the future is, and I don't really want to see any *more* colonialism - we've had quite enough of that for one planet, thanks.

Sooner or later they get the Maxim gun - or rockets that they can fire at you from the Golan Heights - and then things can get really ugly.


Complicating this are the people who try to draw a connection between modern Israel and the ancient state of the same name, claiming that they are the "real" natives and not these interlopers who have lived there for a mere 2000 years. I think that claim is, frankly, ludicrous. I might as well claim to own Ireland because I have some Irish ancestors.

Maybe they're just hoping to hang on until time entrenches their theft the way it did for the US, Canada, Australia... while the Palestinians are hoping that they'll eventually throw the colonials back out like India and most of Africa. In both cases some remnant of both sides persist, but the ethnic and cultural result is shaped more by one side than the other.

P.S. I think it is important not to confuse the Hebrew ethnic group, Judaism as a religion, and Israel as a political entity. These criticisms focus on the latter.

#92 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 10:00 AM:

John Stanning (#82) - I asked my husband, the military history buff, about this Blood person, and he came up with the info: Major General Sir Bindon Blood. He told me the name off the top of his head, but then looked in North-West Frontier 1837-1947 (in the Osprey Men-at-Arms series) to get the rank correct. He also told me there was a real General Primrose at around that time. Sounds like Gilbert & Sullivan didn't need to look far for inspiration!

#93 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 10:54 AM:

Chris 91: I wonder what would happen if the Cherokees went back to Georgia and said "This land is ours; we were driven off it by bad guys, and now we want it back. Please leave" to all the people who "own" the land now? And that's very recent indeed, by these standards. I doubt they'd get far.

That said, it would be nice if the Jews didn't need a homeland. I'm afraid the events of the 20th Century, and the many centuries of events that led up to them, demonstrate that they do.

Those two things are what keep me torn about Israel. I dislike the idea of nations where one's citizenship, or lack thereof, is dependent upon one's religious identity—and that applies to Israel today AND to Spain in 1492. Not to mention Germany in 1939.

#94 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 10:54 AM:

ADM@89: My overall crankiness was brought on by the raising of the "historical" flag.

Well, at least he uses relatively recent history. I think it's safe to say that anything prior to WW2 is probably mostly irrelevant as to what is currently possible in creating a "healthy" society.

Certainly there are things to learn from history about human behaviour, but I think that some things are possible now that simply weren't possible a hundred years ago. So what was needed to make a "healthy" society a century ago is no longer the only path.

Something like one in three societies in pre-industrial times had slavery, the apparent reasoning being slavery was the quick solution to the labor intense work of farming. The industrial revolution made this issue moot, and all the societal conversations that had been in place to justify the use of slavery to exist, suddenly collapsed. And slavery itself came into question.

So what was "healthy" back then might be abhorrent to most people now.

I believe we are at a technological point now (What is it, the post-information age? Pre-Singularity age?) where what is possible in terms of a healthy society simply wasn't concievable even fifty years ago. And what was healthy even fifty years ago is no longer applicable by default.

I'm definitely not a techno-dreamist with visions of a Star Trek world where technology solves everything to the point we don't need money, but I think technology, like a simple internal combustion engine, has changed some of the underlying premises about what is and is not healthy as a society.

#95 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 11:49 AM:

Xopher @ 93

This is essentially what the Mohawk tribe did in New York. IIRC, they laid claim to something like 80,000 acres of land, most of it inhabited to medium density by white people.* They ended up getting a little less than 15,000, none by eminent domain, plus $10E8 over a 35 year period, plus a bunch of smaller door prizes (see story). It got ugly for some time while the claim was being negotiated; if they'd gotten everything they asked for I suspect there would have been lynchings, if not an outright race war.

* I.e., it wasn't farmland, wilderness, or desert.

#96 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 11:57 AM:

Xopher @ 93

That said, it would be nice if the Jews didn't need a homeland.

I've always wondered how different the world would be if they hadn't listened to the Zionists and had set up a Jewish state on the pampas of Argentina. But it wasn't just the Jews who made that decision; the British government had a stake in it from the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which I believe was a chess move in the Great Game rather than any sort of attempt to deal with a human and political problem.

#97 ::: Another Damned Medievalist ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 11:57 AM:

Greg London @#94 -- Part of my irritations stemmed from the fact that he doesn't ever say he's talking about "modern" empires. So either he's assuming his audience will know that he's dismissing several thousand years of human experience -- and it always pisses me off when people do that -- or he's misrepresenting how people in pre-modern empires saw the world. I'm a huge fan of technology-based utopias, myself, but have never discounted the Borg/Terminator scenarios.

#98 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 12:06 PM:

Charlie Stross @ 84
The only question is how to divvy up the spoils afterwards.

That's the perennial question. It's almost inevitable that a group of highly sociopathic evil geniuses will fall out over who gets the big slice of the pie. That's why the latest model Clone-Me™, version 6.66, has a special feature called Automatic Secession. Once the evil plan is fulfilled, the original can call all the clones together at a grand celebration party, and with the utterance of a single trigger word, cause them all to fall into a deep trance called "Barbarossa Sleep". They can be kept this way for long periods of time, as a safeguard against the return of the forces of good.

#99 ::: chris y ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 12:22 PM:

Greg London@94 I can't speak for ADM, but I think you're misunderstanding her point. It isn't that we shouldn't set ourselves higher goals in the organisation of society than the Romans now that we can - we should, that much is surely unarguable. But the thing is that a longer view of history shows that there are other social equilibria besides the one we grew up with that are equally acceptable to an elite class.

Democracy is, after all, a pretty fragile flower. No serious gambler in 1940 would have put money on it surviving anywhere in the world except North America, and even there it would probably just been a matter of time. We have had 60 very privileged years, in some senses, and there is no law of nature which says there have to be another 60.

#100 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 12:27 PM:
That said, it would be nice if the Jews didn't need a homeland. I'm afraid the events of the 20th Century, and the many centuries of events that led up to them, demonstrate that they do.
Unfortunately, that particular piece of land was already someone *else's* homeland.

Even more unfortunately, you can say the same thing about most of Earth, and the exceptions are places you probably wouldn't want to live even with early 21st century technology.

However, I think the events of the 20th century demonstrate pretty clearly that no ethnic group or religion really needs a homeland in the old sense: what they need is a land where they will not be targeted because of their ethnicity or religion.

Being the locally dominant group is only one way to achieve this (and requires constant struggles for dominance against other groups, domestic and foreign); a society built on tolerance is another. Jews in the U.S. and most of Europe are (AFAIK) just as well off, or possibly better off, than Jews in Israel (and they seem to agree, since many have the resources to emigrate to Israel and choose not to), and I think that would remain true even if the Palestinians magically vanished.

The only thing Jews get from Israel's existence (that I can see) is the ability to act out power fantasies about oppressing other groups and the shoe being on the other foot - an understandable reaction from humans, I suppose, but one I see no need to promote. The antidote to oppression is justice, not counter-oppression.

And the Palestinians *won't* magically vanish - so now they need a homeland, right? Who are you going to displace to house them?

Don't create a homeland for Jews. Create a homeland for humans.

#101 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 12:46 PM:

Chris @ 100

Jews in the U.S. and most of Europe are (AFAIK) just as well off

I don't think so. There is still a great deal of hidden and not-so-hidden antisemitism in Western Europe (especially Germany and France as I understand it), let alone in Eastern Europe. At the end of WWII there were approximately 6,000 Jews still alive within the borders of Poland; there aren't very many more today, and you can't fault anyone for not being willing to walk back into the furnace (almost literally).

Even if things are better now than they were, there was no way for an individual Jew to know that would happen when trying to find a safe place to live right after the war. And there were millions of refugees, a number large enough that just leaving the problem to the private sectors of the countries that were still standing was not a reasonable solution.

And if you don't think there's any antisemitism left in the US, you aren't looking closely enough.

I, too, deplore the choice of location for Israel, but I'm not naive enough to believe that it would have been possible not to set up some sort of retreat. The unfortunate consequence of the location was that the retreat became a redoubt, and a fortress mentality set in.

#102 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 01:03 PM:

John Stanning @ 57

if the Israeli people, as a whole, are assumed by virtue of their democracy to approve collectively their state's treatment of the Palestinians

This proposition doesn't hold, as the premise is false. For at least the last 20 years, and probably for a lot longer, policy vis a vis Palestinians, both internal and external, has been set by a political alliance representing around 40% of the population (possibly even less today, given the President's lack of approval rating). Because it's an alliance, some policies have been set based on the wishes of the smaller, more religiously fundamental, but also more politically active faction, which represents less than 10% of the population. Opinion polls in the last few years have consistently shown that a percentage of voters that would be called a landslide in a US election disapprove of those policies and want them changed.

It's interesting to compare this with the Palestinians' situation. Until very recently, they had no say in their government at all. Even now, civil order in Palestine more closely resembles that in East LA, gangs and all, than a modern democratic state. And a significant fraction of the population makes it clear, when asked, that they do not consider the current situation acceptable either, and that many of them think their leaders are going in the wrong direction.

And yet, no recent (as in the last couple of decades) attempts at peace-making from outside have addressed this issue of who is creating the situation (since finger-pointing is the height of diplomacy on all sides of this issue). It's abundantly clear to me that none of the political groups or external political forces, including the US, cares much about the situation on the ground; it's just a grand chance for political jockeying, or for previous bystanders to become participants in the Great Game.

#103 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 01:13 PM:

Greg London #94 : I think it's safe to say that anything prior to WW2 is probably mostly irrelevant as to what is currently possible in creating a "healthy" society.

Ooh, ow. No, I don't think it's safe to say that. I do have a degree in history but I can't call myself a historian, so I defer humbly to ADM, but IMHO human nature didn't change magically in 1939-45 so that everything was different afterwards and we can ignore everything that happened before. We can, and should, still learn from (as ADM says) several thousand years of human experience.

For one thing, it ain't necessarily so that democracy makes a healthy society. Some quite unhealthy democracies exist around the world (take your pick) while there are a few quite healthy non-democracies (healthy, in the sense that conditions are good for the non-elite, so long at they don't go out of their way to irritate TPTB, which is a condition that many people can live with). For example, anyone who thinks that all Arab states are 'medieval monarchies', as someone up there did, take a look at the Sultanate of Oman, which IMHO is doing pretty damn well considering that the present Sultan has pulled the place up from scratch in under 40 years after gently overthrowing his father in 1970. Democracy? Not much, only an elected advisory council - the Sultan's authority is absolute. How many Omanis care? Very few.

#104 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 02:10 PM:

Bruce @ #95, Google "Hawaiian sovereignty movement" sometime for a situation which seems similar to the one you describe, if nascent at the moment.

#105 ::: Therese Norén ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 02:49 PM:

Charlie @36: If you had the time during the fall, I'd invite you. Not all of Sweden looks like central Gothenburg. There are beggars and slums (and the suburb where I live is one, at least on the other side of the main road), but the slums aren't as slummy as the ones I've seen in England and the US.

On the way out to my grandmother-in-law's tiny summer house, the bus passes through one of the most prestigeous seaside resorts, Tylösand. There, you'll find tacky displays of riches (limos and gigantic summer houses), in a most unswedish kind of way.

We're not so much modest as we have a different kind of esthetics of wealth.

#106 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 03:29 PM:

Therese @105 ... I'd take you up on that, but alas, I'm kind of busy between now and mid-November, and I suspect by then the nights will be even worse than Edinburghs!

#107 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 06:16 PM:

On the thread of why Congressional Republicans follow Bush: perhaps they have made cold political calculations that what they are doing will work. They have so many levers to pull:
* blow up Congress (cf yesterday's misbehavior) but blame the Democrats for the results;
* swift-boat the Democrats' nominee;
* get a higher electoral turnout on the Right (compared to the poll, which IIRC doesn't check for "likely voters);
* take advantage of the built-in right-wing tilt of the Electoral College;
* tip the rules per Constance's links (any bets this hasn't been a caucus talking point to keep members in line?).
With all that, who's to say they won't win?

Remember: the Big Lie worked for them in 1994, and probably would have gone on working if they hadn't been so stupid as to impeach Clinton. Why should they not expect it to work now, especially when they have a built-in scare factor to take advantage of? The calculation may not work, but it may look like a better chance of working than the alternatives.

#108 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 07:51 PM:

chris y #99: Plus democracy, in the form we know it, is a very *recent* flower. Up till the early 19th century, the prevailing view on democracy was Plato's -- that it tended to break down into demagogy and produced people of bad moral character. Our modern conception of democracy is, in some ways, closer to Aristotle's conception of 'polity' in which the middle class dominates. Upper classes may accept this, as long as they keep their wealth and don't have to fear revolution, but if they feel that they don't need the middle class and have no fear of revolution, then who knows what may happen.

#109 ::: Dena Shunra ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2007, 08:09 PM:

Bruce @101 (and various earlier) & Xopher @93:

The problem with Israel today is that it has various tiers of rights, depending on religious and ethnic affiliation and location of residence - inside the borders of Israel (well, the 1949 ceasefire line, at least; that's rather larger than the original borders of Israel, as granted by the U.N. in 1947) or in the Occupied Territories.

Between roads for Jews only, thought crimes (it is a crime in the Occupied Territories to own certain publications which are published inside Israel - since it's a different legal system for the locals. But Jews in the O.T. live under Israeli law regardless of their residence) and torture, the sense of unfairness and desperation has become terminal.

My take on it is that only resource sharing (sharing of water, land, political rights, educational capital, etc.) will save that region from being a bloodier mess than it has been already.

I am not clear on who gains from the current situation. It certainly isn't Jews in Israel (they are forced to live their lives as human shields to their army, sacrificing energy and their children's lives and their own for the dubious benefit of keeping the Palestinians from returning to the homes and lands they were evacuated from in 1948 and 1967) and it certainly isn't Palestinians in Israel or in the O.T. (no hopes, no future, no kidding). Cui bono?

The sanest call I've heard has been from Avrum Burg, whose book Defeating Hitler (sorry, it's not out in English yet; Hebrew publication was in May) has made a great deal of media flap. He proposes that Zionism goes directly against all the kinder, saner teachings of Judaism, which are evident in the way Judaism flourishes in the U.S. and (now) Europe. He sees the worship of the specific plots of land, to the detriment of all humans in the region, as idolatry.

Burg is no self-hating Jew. He's orthodox, observant, and has been both Speaker of the Knesset and Chairman of the Jewish Agency (pretty much "international chairman of Jewish stuff", if such a title can be conferred). And while I find Judaism unpalatable (no doubt because I was heavily traumatized by the virulent settler variety since childhood), Burg's version of it has the capacity to coexist with the rest of the world. Israel's vision of Judaism is terrifyingly unable to do so, and ultimately, I am afraid that it would drown in an ocean of blood. I am friend, sister, aunt, and cousin of the owners of some of that blood; I'd really prefer they keep it inside their bodies.

In other, fewer, words: at this point in history the question is not "Israel or not Israel" but rather "Israel or another way of divvying resources in Palestine". And it seems to me that the ethical answer is "another way", since the current way has as its side effect maximal bloodshed and destruction of cultures and ethnicities.

#110 ::: Joe Crow ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2007, 02:11 AM:

Upper classes may accept this, as long as they keep their wealth and don't have to fear revolution, but if they feel that they don't need the middle class and have no fear of revolution, then who knows what may happen.

Well, pretty much what's happening now, really.

#111 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2007, 03:00 AM:

Dena Shunra @ 109

I agree with a great deal of what you say. My take on who benefits is that in Israel, the fundamentalists who want an extreme form of the Zionist dream are the only beneficiaries. They get more and more to settle on lands still containing Palestinian settlements, and set up a situation where they can push them out, either by force or economic colonialism.

In the Arab world, the Palestinians, especially the refugees in the surrounding Arab states, are bit players in a political melodrama fostered by the governments of the surrounding Arab states, and paid for in part by the richer Gulf states. Its purpose is to 1) provide a continuing pretext for anti-Isreal activity, and 2) act as an object example for their own lower classes: this will happen to you if you don't let us rule and protect you.

#112 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2007, 03:06 AM:

Fragano Ledgister @ 108

The last seven years have increasingly removed my previous conviction that democracy "in the form we know it" really exists in the US or Britain. It may still exist elsewhere; I'm not familiar enough with the details of the political situation in other countries. But I'm skeptical of most of the political systems I've heard about.

It's possible we've been telling ourselves "Just-So Stories" about our own societies, and that form of democracy never did exist, but I believe that there is some difference between what is happening now and what has happened in the past. If nothing else, this is probably the first time in the history of the US that the elite went all out to squeeze the middle class out when there wasn't an economic crisis.

#113 ::: chris y ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2007, 04:15 AM:

Fragano Ledgister @ 108. Absolutely. I don't think anybody used the term "democracy" except pejoritavely between 300 bc and the American revolution (that would include the English levellers). The "Old High Tories" in Britain weren't really reconciled to it until 1918, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if the class to which Bush belongs had open reservations about it between themselves to this day.

Bruce Cohen @112. There's always a disjuncture between theory and practice. The question is not, "Does it still exist?", or "Did it ever exists?", so much as "Do we still strive for it?"

#114 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2007, 05:28 AM:

chris y: Even in Britain and the United States, democracy certainly didn't exist until the late 1920's. Before that, half the (competent, adult) population was not enfranchised. In the United States, and, alas, my own country, there were ethnic groups that were systematically disenfranchised as late as the 1970's. It would be reasonable to argue that democracy has never been achieved, if the term means 'rule by (all) the ordinary people'. Gerrymandering and weighted franchise are obvious offences against democracy, and they still exist. Nevertheless, something like democracy does exist, as a first approximation.

Reactionaries naturally reacted. That's what reactionaries do. From the 1970's, the widening of the franchise produced efforts effectively to narrow it again, to include only "the right sort of people".

The difference is that these efforts are increasingly seen as illegitimate by most people, and hence are increasingly underhanded. In the 1920s there were still bigots who could argue openly that women should not be allowed to vote, and in the 1960's that black people should not. I think that is not true now, outside of the inevitable extreme lunatic fringe.

Credit where credit's due. There has been progress made. I think to turn it back will take more than the efforts of the present incumbents of executive office in my country and the US.

Which is not, of course, to argue that nothing need be done to counter those efforts.

#115 ::: chris y ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2007, 06:25 AM:

Dave Luckett @ 114. This is what I mean about the disjuncture between theory and practice. Democracy became a respectable discourse in the late c18 and the only respectable discourse after 1945 even though universal suffrage was only achieved in Australia in 1962, and the USA in 1965, and Britain still has an appointed chamber in its legislature (Outside the anglosphere, look at the position of Germans of Turkish descent).

I don't expect the reactionaries to change the vocabulary in the short term. What they do (besids discouraging people from voting) is change the meaning of the words. And of course, formal democracy in no way guarantees pluralism in society. Eternal vigilance, and all that...

#116 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2007, 08:01 AM:

Greg London @ 94:
Well, at least he uses relatively recent history. I think it's safe to say that anything prior to WW2 is probably mostly irrelevant as to what is currently possible in creating a "healthy" society.

Leaving aside the issue that, as Another Damned Medievalist pointed out, Schwarz doesn't say he's referring only to recent history -- I don't think he offers any historical evidence for his assertion that there's a "standard historical trajectory of imperial elites." All he does is offer a handful of examples of countries which never had a "healthy society" to begin with.


And as a minor aside: I realize that "A country that can't keep its bridges from collapsing..." is mostly a timely rhetorical flourish -- but are our bridges really crumbling more than they used to? Poking around on the web site of the American Society of Civil Engineers, I get the impression that the bridge situation is slowly (very slowly) getting better: in 1993, 34.6% of bridges were "structurally deficient or functionally obsolete"; in 2000, the figure was 28.5%; in 2003, 27.1%; in 2005, 26.3%.

Of course, that figure ought to be much lower, and a saner, more rational society would work to make it lower quickly. But at first glance it appears that bridges are being improved in ways that, say, drinking water and wastewater treatement are not.

#117 ::: DaveL ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2007, 09:27 AM:

#113: I don't think anybody used the term "democracy" except pejoritavely between 300 bc and the American revolution (that would include the English levellers).

The American founders had a great mistrust of "the democracy," and set up a Constitution that had only one democratically elected part (the House of Representatives). The President was to be elected by a convention of elites, the Senate elected by the states, and of course the Supreme Court was appointed by the President. They were interested in republican government, which is not the same thing as democracy at all. When they said "democracy," they meant "mob rule."

The fact that the USA is more democratic today is the result of huge social and political movements, the Civil War, and WW1 and WW2. Some of these changed the Constitution itself, some changed common practice, some changed social attitudes and the law.

The democracies/republics of South America are nominally just as democratic as the USA, but in many of them, the oligarchic domination by the upper classes prevents any actual democracy. The upper classes like it that way; even the upper middle classes like it that way. Talk to almost anyone from, say, Brazil, who is upper or middle class, and they will rhapsodize about how cheap servants are, for example, ignoring why servants are so cheap.

There is nothing inherent in our form of government that prevents us from going that way as well; what matters much more than what percentage of wealth the upper classes have are social attitudes. More and more Americans believe the game is rigged, and so they are cynical about the game, and accept the rigging, because "nothing can be done about it."

The sad thing is, if you read history, American politics, elections and governance are less corrupt and more open than they have ever been, and practices that no one would have commented on a generation or two ago now get you expelled or censured if they become public.

#118 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2007, 09:51 AM:

Bruce Cohen: My own feeling is that the potential for what we've got now has always been there but that prior administrations didn't care or didn't dare to risk it all. It's history at work: one success encourages the next. In the normal course of things, shame, duty, lack of the right kind of imagination, and a host of other things would stop or slow the pace of this sort of innovation, but these folks combine the worst features of most or all of their predecessors while retaining basically none of the virtues. So it's potential made manifest.

#119 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2007, 10:44 AM:

Changes in technology also change what kind of balance between centralized power and freedom, or what set of balanced rights and responsibilities, are stable.

Two examples:

a. Redistricting led to gerrymandering even without computer support. But it looks completely different with modern computer support, including detailed data on voters broken down by block. The power to draw districts is enormously more important now than 50 years ago.

b. Wiretapping laws used to need to deal with a high-cost activity--someone physically tapping a wire, say, and someone listening to the tapes. With modern technology, the cost of the tap itself is negligible, and you can apparently do some automated filtering of words, as well as automating traffic analysis. The ability to wiretap is much more powerful now than it used to be 50 years ago. (Note that since the Clinton administration, we've been getting pushed toward ever easier procedures for approval of wiretaps--this is probably because of the dropping cost of carrying them out. In 1950, the ability to tap 100,000 phones would have been useless.)

#120 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2007, 12:01 PM:

Joe Crow #110: That could very well be the case.

#121 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2007, 12:03 PM:

Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) #112: I'm not that despairing yet. It does look as if some members of the upper class want to squeeze the middle class into subservience, but they haven't yet succeeded.

#122 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2007, 12:06 PM:

chris y #113: You're mostly right. The Tories were converted to democracy -- well to increased manhood suffrage -- by Disraeli (who doubled the size of the electorate in 1867 -- whereupon the newly enfranchised voters thanked Gladstone).

#123 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2007, 12:11 PM:

Dave Luckett #114: The world's oldest representative democracy is New Zealand, where all adult citizens, regardless of race or gender, have had the vote since 1893.

The United States became a democracy in 1965.

You're right about calls for restricting the vote; consider this effusion from Jonah Goldberg, which appeared in my local paper last week.

#124 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2007, 12:13 PM:

DaveL #117: I think your characterisation of Latin America is a bit outdated. Brazil, for example, has a socialist government. Democracy does not automatically cure inequities.

#125 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2007, 12:48 PM:

One of the more fascinating rhetorical tricks of our not-so-new overlords is the conflation of working democracy with economic security. They talk a lot about how the introduction of malls to the Arabian Penisula indicates how the old oligarchic ways are breaking down. And they often equate capitalist merchandising with the spread of free speech.

The plan seems to be this: convince the middle class and the still-solvent parts of the lower class that abdicating political power will give them a better economic position and more secure civil society, then suck the monsy right out of them to create an affordable servant class.

Or is this just my cynicism talking, and they aren't anywhere near this smart and organized?

#126 ::: DaveL ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2007, 12:50 PM:

#124 Fragano: I think your characterisation of Latin America is a bit outdated. Brazil, for example, has a socialist government. Democracy does not automatically cure inequities.

Lula has moved toward the center since his election (annoying the left wing of his party), and regardless, the nominal socialism of his government hasn't changed anything about societal attitudes.

But you're right that democracy doesn't cure inequities; that was precisely my point.

My conversations with upper- and middle-class Brazilians were recent, by the way.

#127 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2007, 01:46 PM:

Fragano #123: I believe some states of the US actually predate NZ as being the first to elect a democratic legislature with universal adult suffrage - Wyoming comes to mind, for some reason. They were not, of course, sovereign nations, but on the other hand neither was NZ until at least 1926, with the Balfour Declaration.

#128 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2007, 01:50 PM:

Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) #125: They are still selective about that. The growing consumerism of the Chinese has not yet been equated to democracy.

#129 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2007, 01:53 PM:

DaveL #127: Fair enough. However, since the 1980s we've seen the emergence of genuine popular government in Latin America. The main proviso seems to be that these governments can do little to challenge the established order. That raises a number of questions about the extent to which public opinion actually matters.

#130 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2007, 01:58 PM:

Dave Luckett #127: Wyoming extended the suffrage to women in 1869. New Zealand, though, is a country, and was internally self-governing when universal suffrage was introduced.

Australia, by the standard I'd use (universal adult suffrage without exclusions for race, ethnicity, or gender) didn't become a democracy until 1967.

#131 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2007, 02:32 PM:

Fragano @ 129, 130

By the standards you're applying to NZ and the US (which I think are appropriate standards), aren't most of the Latin American countries still deficient in giving suffrage to their indigenous peoples?

#132 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2007, 05:28 PM:

Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers)#131: Not since the 1980s. I can't think of any Latin American country that currently excludes the indigenous population from the suffrage -- even Ecuador does so.

#133 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2007, 05:29 PM:

Oops, add 'not' before 'even Ecuador'.

#134 ::: Constance Ash ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2007, 08:52 PM:

#94
Greg London wrote:

[ Something like one in three societies in pre-industrial times had slavery, the apparent reasoning being slavery was the quick solution to the labor intense work of farming. The industrial revolution made this issue moot, and all the societal conversations that had been in place to justify the use of slavery to exist, suddenly collapsed. And slavery itself came into question.

So what was "healthy" back then might be abhorrent to most people now. ]

Which would argue then, that slavery is about far more than labor, since slavery is so much on the rise again, all over the globe, particularly if you factor in ad hoc slavery -- that of luring labor out of their own nations under false pretenses and then taking possession of their passports.

Then, of course, there's the historically ever and most popular slavery, which is for the lucrative sex industry, and the personal, at home kind.

Love, C.

#135 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2007, 10:31 PM:

ADM@97: Part of my irritations stemmed from the fact that he doesn't ever say he's talking about "modern" empires.

Well, no, he doesn't come out and say it.

So either he's assuming his audience will know that he's dismissing several thousand years of human experience -- and it always pisses me off when people do that

I don't know if he's dismissing it. I sort of took his example to be focusing on examples that have all the civilization advances that apply to us now. i.e. not the Roman Empire, because the RE was an agrarian tech level society. So too was the US when it was originally founded.

But any examples that occured after WW2 is basically occuring with all the tech you need to show that the behaviour is backwards. During the roman empire, one could argue that you needed slaves to feed the population. after ww2, several such arguments for the justification of state fall apart.

I suppose it would be better if he used an example after 1990 or so, so that it would be after the information era really took off. But, we're sort of in the middle of that era, so all it's ramifications are probably invisible to us in some respects.

or he's misrepresenting how people in pre-modern empires saw the world.

In your either/or statement, I would say "other".

I'm a huge fan of technology-based utopias, myself, but have never discounted the Borg/Terminator scenarios.

No, I wouldn't discount them either. I think we could easily have vaporized the planet with nukes a couple of times in the last fifty years.

Technology generally solves massive old problems and creates less massive new problems. But people aren't required to use it that way.

#136 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2007, 10:47 PM:

Constance@134: Which would argue then, that slavery is about far more than labor, since slavery is so much on the rise again, all over the globe, particularly if you factor in ad hoc slavery -- that of luring labor out of their own nations under false pretenses and then taking possession of their passports.

The sex slave trade is, I think, mostly an outcome of global travel becoming commonly occuring and cheap, combined with economic disparity that pushes women to do desparate things (often hoping desperately that the "modeling" job or whatever "job" being advertised in some foreign country is a legitimate job), operating under generally older regimes that act as if the world is still in the agricultural era and therefore tolerate the market.

What will probably put an end to it is the technology era of the information age. People generally stop supporting a bad behaviour when new tech removes the justifications for it or when new tech amplifies how bad the behaviour really is.

I think steam powered printing presses (1812) are an industrial revolution technology, and I think it isn't coincidence that when Abe Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he said "So this is the little lady who made this big war". (Uncle Tom's Cabin published 1852. American Civil War 1861.)

If anything can stop the sex slave trade, it's probably some global conversation that will be enabled by the internet. That doesn't mean the internet will stop the slave trade. It means the technology will allow someone to leverage their voice and stop it, like how Stowe stopped slavery in her way.

#137 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2007, 11:07 PM:

This is an interesting post indeed -- but it's not just the leadership that thinks that way. The entire Red State philosophy nowadays is that America is great because of the many sacrifices of our military (the bumper stickers "Freedom isn't free" and "Land of the free because of the brave" spring to mind, along with the entire notion of "our brave men died to preserve your freedom to express your pathetic peacenik ideas, you naive coward", but perhaps I read too much into that.)

Now, it should be said that I am the sole proprietor of a business, or kind of two businesses, really -- programming and technical translation. I make most of my money with the latter lately. And for many years I've been really irritated by the notion that our military might is what makes America great. It's always been apparent to me that a military is absolutely useless without lots of money to run it. So it's clearly our tax base that makes America great, right? (And our universities, and our library system, and our postal network, and our telephones, and so on -- but *not* our military, which is perforce parasitic on a healthy economy.)

And in fact, peacenik that I am, as a freelance technical translator I did more than the vast majority of Red Staters to influence our balance of trade. I brought about 50,000 Euros into America last year, by the sweat of my brow alone. So it galls me to no end when some inbred mouthbreather thinks he's my superior because he supports militarism, when clearly I've done far more to make America great than he could ever imagine doing, since he shops at WalMart to make sure that as many dollars as possible are forked over to Communist China.

I know, I know. It's petty. But my point is that the notion of basing power on a robust economy is not just lost at the top of the food chain. It's embedded throughout the entire ... entire ... what are they, really? Not a movement. But you know what I mean. (And here at ML, you'll also know how to express it.)

My two bits.

#138 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2007, 11:13 PM:

Chris@100: The only thing Jews get from Israel's existence (that I can see) is the ability to act out power fantasies about oppressing other groups and the shoe being on the other foot

I think there's more to it than that.

What they get is the land promised to their ancestors by their God thousands of years ago, the God that calls them the chosen people, and Israel being deeded forever by God to his chosen people as their Promised Land.

Not all Jews take the literal view of this. But some do.

I think that it didn't help that in 135 AD the Roman emperor Hadrian expelled most Jews from Judea on the pain of death. The Romans changed the name of Judea to Syria Palaestina. (The Jews and the Romans didn't get along. At all.)

Hadrian had had enough with their uprisings, cast the jews to the winds, and renamed their land in the name of the Jews' historical enemy. Which means they had a homeland two thousand years ago, and some viewed it as rightfully theirs. Even if two thousand years had passed, someone else had moved in, and whatnot.

There is a bumper sticker on a car I see once in a blue moon that says: "God promised Israel to the Jews".

And that, as they say, is that.

#139 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 12:21 AM:

Greg at 136, the slave trade -- sexual and domestic -- is organized and run by people who make pots of money from keeping other people terrorized, poor, and exploited. They are ruthless and efficient at this, they make full use of modern technology, and it makes them quite rich. In this they are no different from the folks who run the global drug trade, and it should come as no surprise to anyone that modern slavery and drug trafficking are linked.

There are various modern abolitionists attempting to deal with the problem in various ways, but AFAIK their efforts, while laudable, have only local effect.

#140 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 12:42 AM:

Fragano, by that standard you are perfectly correct, as I acknowledged earlier, and Australia was not a full democracy until the full enfranchisement of Aboriginals in 1963. Nothing excuses this fact; I would it were not so. I can only plead that the obstacles to the full and meaningful exercise of the franchise by all Aboriginal people were, and are, formidable.

#141 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 12:57 AM:

Strange twists of history (a slight tangent). When we celebrated the centenary of female suffrage here back in 2002, I remember hearing a story about some anomaly in the voting laws in pre-Federation South Australia. That State allowed women to vote in 1895, and apparently even Aboriginal women were included — by accident of drafting, apparently. After Federation in 1901 any man or women (SA, WA) who had State voting rights could vote in Federal elections. In 1902 with women's suffrage, Aboriginal women were specifically excluded unless they could already vote at State level, until the 1960s when all Aborigines of age were permitted to enrol. I believe that enrolment for Australian Aboriginals is still optional, though like all other citizens, once enrolled, voting is compulsory.

#142 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 05:44 AM:

Well, as long as we're discussion temporary expansions of the vote, there's the case of New Jersey, whose 1776 state constitution defined voters as "inhabitants" with property worth at least 50 pounds[*]. This meant that unmarried women and widows[**] -- along with blacks -- could and indeed did vote. This lasted until 1807, when the state legislature passed a voting-reform act which included an inserted provision restricting the vote to white males.

[*] Which requirement, according to one estimate I've seen, may have only excluded the botton 5% of the white male population.

[**] The property of married women was generally under the control of their husbands, although there are reports that married women did vote in some elections.

#143 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 07:12 AM:

Dave Luckett #140: Fair enough.

#144 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 10:32 AM:

#93 Xopher--Google Mississippi Band of Choctaws.

#145 ::: Another Damned Medievalist ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 11:19 AM:

Chris y @ #99 and Greg London @#135-- that's partially what I was saying, but I would remove any trace of the implication of Progress. That's a viewpoint that I can't abide. The fact that humans have made great technological progress does not meant that they have made great progress anywhere else.

Not that I would want to live in the pre-modern world, but there is a particular kind of world-view that sees progress as good, and sees human development in terms of progress in science and technology. For many, it sees the past (and religion, in particular) as evidence of backwardness and a certain kind of superstitious primitivism.

I think it's a great mistake to apply the theory of evolution to human progress. I'm also genuinely confused at why people want to see human history as something that must needs move along a continuum that presupposes "advancement" when no one seems to know what we are advancing toward. The human as animal really hasn't evolved much at all in the past couple of thousand years, AFAIK; instead, humans have developed technologies to extend their lifespans and master (to some little extend and often at great cost) their environment.

So honestly, I'm very leery of any argument that says anything like "we should know better than the Romans" (why?) or refer to "backwards" behaviour. I agree that modern industrial societies tend to agree on certain social standards -- slavery is wrong, women should have equal rights, etc. But you can't judge the past by those standards, nor should you be surprised when you find that, in fact, many pre-modern societies also tried to ensure degrees of social and economic justice.

In case anybody gets the wrong idea, no, I don't think the past was better, I don't want to live in the Middle Ages, and I frequently get annoyed at sf/f authors who insist on creating utopian worlds that are the result of people abandoning all technology (including medicine? WTF?) to re-create some kind of faux mediaeval society.

All I'm saying is that a presentist view of history is a bad view of history. You can't understand the past unless you try to understand it in context -- and not in the context of, "oh, they were agrarian and worshipped lots of gods, so clearly they didn't know better," but rather in the context of, "These are the things the society contended with and believed and understood about themselves and others. These are the kinds of things the people would have experienced. These are the things they valued." I think that, if you can look at history through those lenses, rather than presentist ones, you understand much more about history and people in general. I'm kind of idealistic that way.

#146 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 11:23 AM:

Lizzy@139: In this they are no different from the folks who run the global drug trade,

I was talking more about how the state looks at slavery. I watched a series on the slave trade in eastern europe about a year ago and they showed a slave trader who was caught and brought to the courts and was given a years probation or something. Zero jail time. It was some former Soviet Republic, which likely has a lot of top-down directives built into its bureaucracy that will need to get flushed out before that country finds slave traders unacceptable.

What would be needed to have that state (I don't remember it's name) to change it's views on slavery? Obviously, the sex trade isn't going to be influenced by the industrial revolution, since we're not talking about plowing fields here. But I think the tools that allow global conversations to happen around concepts like justice might cause a state change over time.

Whether the slave traders continue even after the state outlaws it, is a different kettle of fish.

#147 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 11:36 AM:

ADM@145: The fact that humans have made great technological progress does not meant that they have made great progress anywhere else.

I'm not sure what this means. We went from horticultural societies, to agrigultural societies, to industrial societies, to information society. Those are tech progresses.

And I think you can map some of those tech advances with some social advances in the way the state operates. You no longer have rulers declaring themselves deities. After the industrial revolution, most states stopped supporting the idea of slavery, and moved more and more towards the idea of an equality before the eyes of the state.

I'm not saying one was neccessarily caused by the other. More like enabled. You could have all the diesel tractors in the world and could still regress to slave states if people decided to enforce that. But even if you did that, unless you systematically wipe out history, you'd still have this happen with the ideas of equality and human rights in the backs of people's minds.

I think that as long as we have a written record, then we have made progress. Because even if we do regress, we still have a record of where we used to be when we made more social progress.

#148 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 12:05 PM:

Greg @147/ADM @145: a point I'm particularly keen on is that the number of distinct specialties required in order to sustain a modern high-tech civilization is enormous. Go back to a mediaeval society and you have maybe a few hundred specialities, some of which are quite obscure -- but few enough that in principle you (an educated person) can at least have some idea of what everyone around you is doing.

Fast forward to the present day, and we're living in a complex web of interdependent systems that rely on the availability of several million varieties of consumable item and component, and the medical field alone (by which I mean the therapeutic side of things, not counting the manufacturing back-end that keeps it supplied with drugs and appliances, or the research sector) has more specialties than the entire mediaeval world.

One of the reasons why North Korea looks so backward is because they're trying to go it alone and do the self-sufficiency thing. And I don't think you can sustain a post-1950s level of technological society with a population base much smaller than, say, the USA or the EU. If you want access to the cutting edge, it takes the whole global trade system to keep it sharp. And weird shit you never imagined can affect you directly -- for example, a six-hour power cut to an obscure factory in South Korea is about to have knock-on effects for the next 3-6 months on all electronics that use >1Gb FLASH memory components. Because there's only the one factory on the whole planet making these things, and it runs flat-out 24x365, and the power cut interrupted enough processes that it takes days or weeks to reboot.

Complexity is not an automatic virtue; seen from some angles, it's a weakness. But it does mean that we can achieve things that a simpler, mediaeval-complexity society could only envisage in eschatalogical terms (like, oh, this).

#149 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 12:20 PM:

Greg, I'd be very doubtful that the industrial revolution caused or enabled any state to stop supporting the idea of slavery. The abolition movement started in the 18th century, well before the industrial revolution got going. The British act of parliament against the slave trade was passed in 1807 (hence all the bicentenary ballyhoo earlier this year) and when the Royal Navy began to suppress the trade, they did it with Trafalgar-style sailing ships.

Yes, we've moved on technologically, but most of our concepts of human rights pre-date the industrial revolution. It took a long time to get them implemented, and they're constantly ignored or abused because, basically, we haven't changed as human beings. Maybe rulers no longer declare themselves deities, but they go as close as they dare; and they are always trying to roll back those human rights, as we can see even in the USA right now. Slavery still exists in many countries where the authorities turn a blind eye, or don't care. Child labour is still commonplace. Humans are still appallingly cruel, even sadistic, to each other whenever they can get away with it, even in countries which are supposed to be civilized (think Guantanamo, or the conditions in many US jails) let alone elsewhere. We treat our fellow-creatures with casual brutality, even higher animals with obvious intelligence and sentience. We don't give a damn about our planet, which we're destroying at an ever-increasing rate. Is this progress? How should we be proud of ourselves?

#150 ::: Another Damned Medievalist ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 12:44 PM:

Charlie Stross @ #148 -- Why am I not surprised that you think that? ;-) (er, I'm assuming you're Charlie Stross the writer and not some other Charlie Stross). Seriously, though, I agree.

I just object to the value judgements that seemed loaded into Greg's comments. It seems to me that you are looking at modern technological society in terms of itself, which is what I am encouraging others to do when looking at the past. In terms of N. Korea, I think it's fair to talk about backwardness, because time-wise, it's part of this world, but more importantly, the N. Korean government sees itself as being equal to the governments of other industrialized nations and as a contender for a prestigious place in that world. Short version: they're pretty much using the G8 as their own standard, even though their self -image may be just a teeny bit overinflated.

Greg @#147 --

You really don't get it. I'm questioning your entire notion of social advancement. I'm saying that you are basing it on modern, post-Enlightnement, post-Industrial Revolution values, and that you can't use those values to judge the world before those value systems began to be adopted. And even now, they haven't been adopted by everybody.

For the sake of argument, what does it matter if an Emperor proclaims himself (or even is) a deity? What does it matter if the people believe this? Does it preclude a legal system that protects all citizens -- or even non-citizens? Does it preclude the availability of health care or food?

#151 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 01:19 PM:

Epacris 141: ...once enrolled, voting is compulsory.

You mean mandatory, right? That is, if a person is enrolled and doesn't vote, there are penalties? (On Making Light, being reasonably courteous is mandatory; penalties include disemvowelment and banning. Previewing before you post is compulsory; the system is set up so you can't post before you preview.)

ADM 145: Hear, hear! The Progress theory of history is a crock of shit, like most theories of history. Periodically it's trotted out as an objection to Paganism, for one thing. You see, Paganism and Judaism are the old way; Christianity is the successor to those outmoded ways of thinking. </sarcasm> I tell people like that that if they want the newest Abrahamic kid on the block they should try Baha'i or Islam. This generally ends the conversation, saving me time and annoyance.

I like the SCA's attitude. They bluntly state that they're doing the "good parts" of the Middle Ages, e.g. the clothes, the food, and the dancing; leaving out the nasty parts like serfdom, plague, and pogroms; and hanging on to modern things like washing, indoor plumbing, and antibiotics.

Greg 147: You no longer have rulers declaring themselves deities.

And yet Pharaonic Egypt (which had divine rulers) was a better place to live, even for the average person, than Nazi Germany (which did not, even though some treated the Führer as if he were a god). I'm not saying there's no such thing as progress; I'm saying it's not in any way a natural consequence of the passage of time, nor an automatic result of technological improvements.

When you say "enabled" I agree with you somewhat more. But every social advance has to be fought for; and fought for continually, before AND after it becomes fact (also, John is right at 149; the IR didn't enable the abolition of the slave trade). Compare the status of women during WWII to the status of women in 1953, for example. Rosie the Riveter put the idea of equality between the sexes in people's minds, and it didn't entirely go away, but only the struggle of the women's movement made it a social reality (to the extent that it IS a social reality).

ADM 150: Hear, hear again.

#152 ::: Seth Gordon ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 01:34 PM:

I think framing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in terms of an ethnic group having a right to its "homeland" obscures more than it illuminates.

Title to land is granted by the state, and states have, for all of recorded history, demonstrated few compunctions about redistributing that title according to the political needs of the hour. The US seizure of American Indian land is everyone's favorite example, but one could just as easily point to, say, Henry VIII's confiscation of monastic properties.

Peace between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East is not going to come about from either side achieving its "rights" but by all sides coming finding some political settlement that they can tolerate (and that cannot be torpedoed by extremists). Such a political settlement creates rights.

The people who benefit from the current situation are the people who would lose power, prestige, or ego if such a settlement ever came to pass. Unfortunately, the closer a settlement appears, the more dangerous those people become. (Note that Baruch Goldstein's massacre of Arabs at Hebron and Yigal Amir's assassination of Yitzchak Rabin occurred when optimism about the Oslo process was at its height.)

#153 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 01:39 PM:

Seth @ 152

Or, long before Henry VIII, the way the various kings would confiscate property from one person and give it to another, as punishment and reward.

#154 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 01:44 PM:

Xopher @ 151:

The implication of ADM's position is that the SCA is just as wrong as Greg, in that they're judging the Middle Ages by modern standards: i.e., considering "serfdom" and "pogroms" to be "nasty" and something to be avoided. And note that we're not allowed to say that, e.g., early medieval persecution of pagans was a bad thing, since that's judging past practices by our modern values (religious tolerance).

And you do believe in progress ("I'm not saying there's no such thing as progress") -- you just don't think it's some kind of automatic process, or an inevitable byproduct of technological change. I get the impression that ADM does not, because to believe in social or moral progress, however achieved, requires that you be able to say that some particular aspect of our current society (e.g., less slavery, more rights for women, more education) is an improvement on past society.

Cultural and moral relativism are extremely useful tools for understanding past societies, I agree. But I don't agree that one should apply them as blind, universal principles, and suspend any attempt whatsoever to evaluate or judge past societies.

#155 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 01:51 PM:

#145 ADM:

(Nitpick)

It's even a mistake to think evolution in biology guarantees greater complexity, or favors it. A lot of parasites evolve to lose a bunch of complexity, for example, because they can just use the systems of their host. Think of viruses as an example--at least some of them appear to have evolved from intracellular parasites (like ricketsae) back to things that could just borrow someone else's expensive protein-synthesizing and DNA/RNA copying machinery.

#156 ::: Jane H ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 02:20 PM:

Hey, everybody, guess who's been arming the Iraqi resistance and keeping the war going, and thus keeping in power those great protectors who keep escalating the war?

The Pentagon Loses Track of weapons for Iraq (about half of them).

Of course, no one suspected that with all that money flowing so fast into the war that we would be arming both sides, no, of course not. How unthinkable. I'm sure nobody in the government is responsible. No doubt our fearless leaders will say best way to address the issue is to earmark more money for guns to replace the missing ones. Yeah. Oh, and find some low level clerk or three to fire.

#157 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 02:20 PM:

Peter #154:

I didn't read ADM's comments as being about how we should evaluate things morally, but rather about how we can best understand things in different times and places, based on understanding how they evaluated things morally. Not being able to get outside of your own worldview seems like a crippling handicap in trying to understand people very different from you. This seems to me to affect understanding of history, and also foreign countries and cultures in the present, literature, etc.

IMO, there's an important balance between being able to put on someone else's mindset while thinking about how the world looks to them, and being able to retain your own when you think about the world. It's part of what makes it fun to read books written a long time ago--Jane Austen might almost live in a different world than we do now, and all kinds of assumed ideas are just not anything we'd accept. How would an Austen character have dealt with an interracial marriage or an openly gay character? Yet it's still fun and interesting and informative to read her books, even without sharing her views or the views of her character.

#158 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 02:25 PM:

Peter 154: I read ADM as saying that progress is not an inexorable process, and that it's unfair to judge societies by standards that had not been invented at the time they lived.

Personally, I brazenly define "progress" as anything that moves toward what I think is good, and/or away from what I think is bad. But even I have a problem when I hear people saying that "progress toward democracy" is one of the criteria for distributing aid to the developing world. Even though I do think democracy is overall less bad than any other system yet invented, I find that kind of arrogance breathtaking.

ADM, can you clarify whether I or Peter (or neither) read you correctly?

#159 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 02:26 PM:

albatross 157: Yeah! That.

#160 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 02:37 PM:

ADM@150: I'm questioning your entire notion of social advancement. I'm saying that you are basing it on modern, post-Enlightnement, post-Industrial Revolution values, and that you can't use those values to judge the world before those value systems began to be adopted.

I'm not judging. I'm describing with the terms available to me. If a child wants a toy and his parents say no and the child throws a fit, the child's description of that event is limited to what's available to them. An adult might be able to watch the transaction, understand what's going on in the child's mind, and be able to describe what happened more accurately because more levels are available to them.


And even now, they haven't been adopted by everybody.

Yes. I've said a couple times that whatever tech that enables some stage of progress does not enforce the progress. Diesel does not do away with slavery.

For the sake of argument, what does it matter if an Emperor proclaims himself (or even is) a deity? What does it matter if the people believe this?

If Bush proclaimed himself a diety, and the majority of Americans believed him, it would reflect a regression in social advance. Mostly it would be a regression on the language level or representational level, of people's understandings of knowlege. But I think it would also reflect a regression on the emotional level where equality first emerges.

It would reflect an overall dumbing down of the population.

Does it preclude a legal system that protects all citizens -- or even non-citizens? Does it preclude the availability of health care or food?

I think an overall dumbing down would have a measurably negative impact. You can't believe in the divine nature of a king without losing some capacity for science. You might start entertaining ideas of using prayer to heal people rather than medicine, or performing rain dances for crops rather than using meteorology. You might think that a hurricane is God's way of punishing us. Or you might refuse to believe global warming is real because you think God would never do that to you.

#161 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 02:53 PM:

Xopher: I should point out that part of what ADM is getting at is that our current idea that progress is, or can be "good", is a recent historical aberration.

Throughout most of human history, change has generally been associated with Bad Things Happening -- wars, invasions, pestilence, famine. The idea of change being good is profoundly weird, from that perspective. Only a people decoupled by several generations from their peasant farmer ancestors could consider change to be interesting.

(Peasant farmers had an interesting outlook which was informed by this one fact: if you changed the way you did things from the way your father and grandfather did them, nine times out of ten, it wouldn't work. And then you'd starve to death. Starving to death is not a happy fun experience, and bearing this in mind makes their innate conservativism a lot easier to sympathize with.)

Also, we have a world view coloured by another historical aberration -- science. We have some experimentally verifiable insight into how the world really works. Previously, the standard model was that "[stuff] happens because God set it up that way" (where [stuff] is some observable fact of nature), and "you're going to do [actions] because [God/the King/some authority figure] decrees it so". The prescriptive rule is, again, usually optimized for not starving a metric shitload of peasants to death when followed.

I will grant that there exist some pathological exceptions -- the Aztecs spring to mind -- but in general many of these customs and laws were survival-oriented, and the authority with which they were enforced was, again, related to the draconian cost of social breakdown.

Finally: there were good times, and there were bad times, but progress (in the modern sense) was rare and took a very long time to happen (see also: not starving to death). And there was usually some memory of a good time, followed by a long bad time, in the distant past. The general mind-set of conservativism and obedience to arbitrary rules was backed up by creation myths and legends of a golden age, from which people had descended to the degraded present. The golden times existed in the past; the future was just more degradation and a vale of tears.

The eschatological view of progress towards a radiant future is, arguably, an 18th century Protestant heresy that stood the traditional model of how things worked on its head, and encouraged Christians to try to work to bring about an ideal situation on Earth. It was, in fact, a revolutionary ideology, and the USA was one of its first concrete products (and one of the most significant).

But we need to keep track of this one fact: everything we, as modern progressives, believe, is a recent historical aberration.

(ADM, did I get that about right?)

#162 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 02:59 PM:

From memory, one in three societies before the industrial revolution had slavery. Which means some did not. After the industrial revolution, I think the number of societies that have legal slavery fell considerably.

That England outlawed slavery before steam is no more unusual than the two out of three societies that did not have slavery before steam.

I don't think steam power is the cause of the drop in cultures with legalized slavery. But I think it was an important enabler. Printing presses and works like Uncle Tom's Cabin was another enabler.

#163 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 03:21 PM:

ADM said (#150):
For the sake of argument, what does it matter if an Emperor proclaims himself (or even is) a deity? What does it matter if the people believe this? Does it preclude a legal system that protects all citizens -- or even non-citizens?

Well, it makes it rather harder to have a legal system that protects citizens against the emperor himself -- or against his (divinely appointed and guided!) officials.

#164 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 03:30 PM:

Charlie 161: Yes, that would be the Golden Age theory of history, another piece of bullshit. Goes with the descent of kings from gods (and there are still a couple of monarchs who officially claim descent from divine beings). Often used to justify never changing anything, because all change is bad. The Progress theory is another kind of bullshit, and doesn't necessarily represent progress from the other theories!

The Progress theory would imply that all change is good. Yes, I know the idea that change CAN be good is a modern idea, like, yes, science. I think those modern ideas are good, therefore I see the adoption of them as progress. I don't see a shining future; I see a constant struggle to make things better, continually opposed by people who don't want any change, or who want to make things (in my view) worse.

Greg 160: You can't believe in the divine nature of a king without losing some capacity for science.

OK, now I have to call "evidence" on you. By what logic do you even link these things? Do the Japanese (whose Emperor is held to be a divine being) lack a capacity for science?

You might start entertaining ideas of using prayer to heal people rather than medicine, or performing rain dances for crops rather than using meteorology. You might think that a hurricane is God's way of punishing us. Or you might refuse to believe global warming is real because you think God would never do that to you.

Well, you might, but a) you might even if you don't believe the king is a deity, and b) you might not, even if you do believe it. I think you're lumping things together because they've gone together historically, without considering whether they're really linked. This is like concluding that people who learn Spanish are likely to become Roman Catholic, because most Spanish-speaking people are RC.

The fact is, you don't know any such thing. There isn't a single example of a modern (medical-meteorological) society EITHER deciding a ruler was divine OR giving up technology. What makes you think they would go together?

Also, what's wrong with using prayer to supplement medicine, or a rain dance when the meteorologist tells you the forecast isn't good? And there are plenty of people in America right now who do believe that hurricanes are God's punishment—unless, of course, it's THEIR town that gets destroyed. And none would tell you that Dubya is a god.

#165 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 03:51 PM:

albatross #157 : Jane Austen might almost live in a different world than we do now, and all kinds of assumed ideas are just not anything we'd accept. How would an Austen character have dealt with an interracial marriage or an openly gay character?

By Jane Austen's time there were several thousand people of African descent living in England. Most were very poor but there were some notable exceptions, such as the composer Ignatius Sancho. So interracial marriages were surely not unknown in Jane's time, though perhaps less so where Jane lived in rural Hampshire (and Bath for a while) than in big cities like London.

#166 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 03:52 PM:

me: You can't believe in the divine nature of a king without losing some capacity for science.

Xopher: OK, now I have to call "evidence" on you. By what logic do you even link these things?

Science is fundamentally an exercise in representational language. scientific progress would be separating out what you don't know from what you know, with the end result of realizing how little you actually know, and how much of the universe is unknown.

Were Bush to declare himself a god, and were most american's to believe him, that would reflect a regression in representational language, specificially taking something that we don't know, (is Bush a god?) and piling it in the "know" category. (Yes, Bush is a god.)

Also, what's wrong with using prayer to supplement medicine, or a rain dance when the meteorologist tells you the forecast isn't good?

Nothing, so long as it isn't a function enforced by the state. If Bush decides that everyone must have the ten commandments branded on their forehead, I call that a problem. If Bush pushes to outlaw abortion because God told him it was murder, I call that a problem.

You are still free to practice your own spirituality. I have no problem with people's personal relationship with god. But then spirituality is not a function of representational language, so it has nothing to do with science. Spirituality is ultimately a function of being. And Science can tell us nothing about the realm of being.

#167 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 04:21 PM:

#162 Greg, the advances the Industrial Revilotion brought about in textile manufacture were in fact an encouraging factor in slavery in the US; the cotton mills in the UK and the northern US demanded more cotton than Egypt and India could produce, which led to the massive cotton plantations of the Deep South. IIRC, there were similar changes in sugar processing that encouraged the retention of slavery in the Caribbean. Slavery was ended in the UK proper as the Industrial Revolution was gaining ground, for reasons that had very little to do with labor needs and everything to do with moral and ethical issues. Land enclosure in the UK meant that there was not a shortage of labor for the new factories; displaced farm workers took these jobs, which were never much of a target for purveyors of African slave labor--most people in that trade were focussed on the Caribbean and the US.

Slavery was ended in British possessions overseas less for reasons of labor needs than for the same moral and ethical reasons; certainly they did not stop needing labor on the Caribbean plantations; they just relied on the lack of choices available to the former slaves to give them their labor supply.

Slaves were also used in the US in some of the early 19th century iron and lead works; among others, these included the Harpeth ironworks and the Cumberland Furnace works in Tennessee and the Maramec Springs works in Missouri, as well as the early lead operations in that state. All these works utilized methods and equipment developed in the early part (that is, 18th century) of the Industrial Revolution. In the Missouri works, slaves worked alongside free workers; this was not the case so much with the two operations I mentioned in Tennessee, although it may have been with others. So slavery could be employed in an industrial setting--industrial slave labor was just outweighed in economic importance by agricultural slave labor. (None of these works long survived the development of the Mesabi iron range of Minnesota, but they were doomed by the economies of scale developed in the works of Pittsburg and other major centers, and cheap rail shipping, and not the costs of labor, free or otherwise.)

It's likely the Evangelical movement in Britain, which included both Nonconformist groups like Quakers and Methodists as well as some Anglicans, played a more significant role in the end of slavery in the UK and the British Empire than the Industrial Revolution did.
In the US, the principal role of industrialization in ending slavery was in providing the Union with significant advantages in logistics and supply over the Confederacy. The most economically important labor niche slavery filled in the US--in the cotton and sugar plantations of the southern states--was not one easily met by early mechanization. Again, anti-slavery agitation came from groups with religious ties, and not, for the most part, business ones. I doubt that most 19th century American industrialists (and Andrew Carnegie, et al. were dealing with the late Industrial Revolution, at best) cared whether they used slave labor, or freeborn immigrant labor, so long as it was cheap, nonunion, and didn't know enough to argue.

#168 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 04:31 PM:

albatross @ 157 and Xopher @ 158 (and ADM):

You might be right -- I may be over- or mis-interpreting what ADM was saying. I took the following, in particular,

You really don't get it. I'm questioning your entire notion of social advancement. I'm saying that you are basing it on modern, post-Enlightnement, post-Industrial Revolution values, and that you can't use those values to judge the world before those value systems began to be adopted. And even now, they haven't been adopted by everybody.
as something more than just "Greg London is wrong to say that present-day Western society has improved socially over past societies because the Industrial Revolution ended slavery", but instead that he was wrong even to say, "Present-day Western society has improved because we no longer have slavery."

The idea being that one should not use the values of one's own society (e.g., "Slavery is wrong") to evaluate past societies that did not share those values. Doing so is a mistake akin to, say, medieval Europeans believing that they were better than their pagan ancestors because they were Christian.

If this isn't what ADM had in mind, then I apologize for misunderstanding it...

#169 ::: Another Damned Medievalist ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 04:46 PM:

Peter @#154 - Your partially right on my feelings about the SCA, because of the 'good parts/bad parts' and also because you can't really understand the society without having both. Having said that, I know more than a few SCA folks and as long as there's no attempt to let people think that there's any basis in reality for some of the stuff. It's really hard to generalize, though. The SCA (like any group of fen) is a community that ranges from the batshit crazy to the serious re-enactors, and I certainly wouldn't dismiss the organization out of hand.

Albatross @#155 -- point taken. Although I think it might be true, IIRC, that the human brain has become more complex, but again, not at the same rate as technology. Kind of a drag, since sf promised me higher brain function and ESP by now.

Albatross @#157 and Peter @#154 -- What albatross said is about right. I certainly am not saying there's no such thing as progress, nor am I a cultural or moral relativist in the sense that you mean. But I think we have to be very aware of our own perspectives and see how they colour our judgement of the past, and of other cultures. Albatross put it really well, especially the Jane Austen analogy.

Xopher @#158 (I think) -- Kind of. I think there is such a thing as progress, but you have to have a goal for progress to exist. History doesn't have a goal. People and social organizations might, but History doesn't. The mistake I see is from going from the more objective, "these are things I value and compared to the past, I'm glad I live now" view to the subjective, "these are the things I value, and the past didn't have them (whether or not they wanted them or conceived of them), so we're so much better/progressive/forward than our ignorant/backward/worse ancestors." It goes back to what Albatross said.

Greg @#160 -- Sorry, I can't follow the first two arguments at all.

If Bush proclaimed himself a diety, and the majority of Americans believed him, it would reflect a regression in social advance.
Well, no. For any number of reasons. It might be a sign of mass hysteria or mass stupidity, unless he could suddenly do a bunch of divine things. But this is really a badly-stuffed straw man.

You can't believe in the divine nature of a king without losing some capacity for science
Now that's not true at all. There are plenty of top-notch scientists who are committed believers in some sort of divine being. The dichotomy between faith and reason that exists in the modern US really isn't as strong elsewhere. Perhaps it's because intelligent people can differentiate between faith and reason? Perhaps because really believing in an omnipotent deity supports the idea that all science is possible? Can't really say, not being a committed believer myself.

Charlie @#161 -- yes, pretty much, although I would argue that the conservatism really wasn't enforced as much as natural. Why fix it if it isn't broken? There were, after all massive changes in agriculture and architecture and some sorts of technology in antiquity and the Middle Ages, after all. But I think they tended to be more reactive ... except maybe Gothic architecture. Glory to God and civic rivalries aside, the people who built and funded those buildings were all about experimentation and change.

I'm also not entirely sure what you mean by arbitrary rules. Things that may seem arbitrary to us might have had perfectly good reasons when they came into existence. One of the things about doing pre-modern history is that we don't have the wealth of sources that we do for the modern period. Makes it hard to get the whole picture ;-)

It feels like an aberration to me, but ask me in a thousand years. If this worldview lasts that long, I'd guess it's not an aberration!

The eschatological point is hugely important, I think, and I wish I'd put it as clearly.

Peter @#163-- One of the great things about China's Mandate of Heaven was that the divinely appointed could lose it! And in societies where the ruler was divine, religion tended to be polytheistic. Gods defeat each other all the time, no?

#170 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 04:55 PM:

The idea being that one should not use the values of one's own society (e.g., "Slavery is wrong") to evaluate past societies that did not share those values.

I hear you. I sat through a class session that was scheduled as "discussion of Roman civilzation" and turned into "we're good and the Romans were bad, because they had slaves and we don't". Since that was in 1981/1982, I thought it was a bit early to make that judgement. (I figured we ought to wait at least another century.)

#171 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 06:11 PM:

Greg 166: OK, so you're saying that believing a king is divine is in itself a loss of capacity for science. I don't agree, but I understand. It's not a scientific belief, but that doesn't mean the nation or any individual has lost any capacity at all, just made a different choice than you would.

But then you jump from that unscientific belief to all kinds of other stuff, like discarding medicine and meteorology. Why on Earth do you think that? You haven't addressed that point at all. I see no reason to believe those things would go together, even granting your first premise.

ADM 169: I agree completely. In fact that's what I was trying to say, and couldn't quite get out. Progress always has a goal; history has no goal; therefore history is not progress. There's no such thing as Progress in the abstract; only in the context of some real or imagined ideal state of being.

I would conjecture that the same people who think history has a goal (the state they're in if they like it, or The Revolution if not) also think evolution has a goal (humans, of course).

#172 ::: miriam beetle ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 06:34 PM:

xopher,

I tell people like that that if they want the newest Abrahamic kid on the block they should try Baha'i or Islam.

i guess that is exactly what dave sim concluded, after he donned his crazy-pants. he considers himself muslim (although maybe not exactly), because it's the most recent revelation of god's message. or the most recent before dave sim.

#173 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 07:20 PM:

Xopher: that doesn't mean the nation or any individual has lost any capacity at all,

I think it does mean that some capacity was lost.

When the population of a nation changes its worldview to end slavery, that increases the capacity for progress in that country.

When the population changes its worldview to embrace the dogma of some president who claims he is god, then I think that decreases the capacity for progress in that country.

Technology might still advance. But the worldview is locked in place. Think Germany World War 2, (Godwin!), lots of industry, lots of research and development, but all of it aimed at the goal given by a fascist worldview.

Compare that to technology advancing in a nation that allows people to use tech for their own goals, to have their own world views, and to even change their own worldviews.

At a minimum, the capacity that is lost with a state embracing a dogma (for example, the fanaticism of Bush being a God) is the capacity for that state to easily change its dogma.

I don't know if that explains it or not.

#174 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 07:23 PM:

Xopher #164: The 'Golden Age' theory (which is found in a variety of cultures) is simply the idea that 'these days everything has gone to pot' given a slight veneer of historicity. Sometimes (as in the political and ethical writings of Confucius and Mozi) it is driven by the fact that everything has indeed gone to pot,* but often it's nothing more than a nostalgia for something that never really was (as, for example, Rousseau's depiction of the golden age in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality among Men.

* Under such circumstances you may also get the 'Humans are depraved, and we're lucky that god doesn't punish us meme' developed by Augustine.

#175 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 07:23 PM:

er, wait. Just to be clear, I'm not talking about the capacity of indivuals. I mean if the nation decided Bush was God, then that wouldn't make me any dumber than I already am. I was more talking about the capacity of the nation as a whole.

Maybe you thought I was talking about individuals?

#176 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 07:24 PM:

Another Damned Mediævalist #169: Some fellows named Hegel and Marx want a word with you....

#177 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 08:39 PM:

Greg at 175: "Nations", or "states" if you prefer, don't make decisions or have ideas. This is a convenient fiction often used by lazy historians (not anyone who posts here, of course) to explain Progress. Individuals do these things.

#178 ::: Gag Halfrunt ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 08:39 PM:

fidelio @ 167:

Slavery was ended in the UK proper as the Industrial Revolution was gaining ground, for reasons that had very little to do with labor needs and everything to do with moral and ethical issues. Land enclosure in the UK meant that there was not a shortage of labor for the new factories; displaced farm workers took these jobs, which were never much of a target for purveyors of African slave labor--most people in that trade were focussed on the Caribbean and the US.
Slavery was ruled illegal in England in 1772 and in Scotland in 1776, as a result of legal challenges.
The last form of enforced servitude (villeinage) had disappeared in Britain by the beginning of the seventeenth century. However, by the eighteenth century, black slaves began to be brought into London and Edinburgh as personal servants. They were not bought or sold, and their legal status was unclear until 1772, when the case of a runaway slave named James Somerset forced a legal decision. The owner, Charles Steuart, had attempted to abduct him and send him to Jamaica to work on the sugar plantations. While in London, Somerset had been baptised and his godparents issued a writ of habeas corpus. As a result Lord Mansfield, Chief Justice of the Court of King's Bench, had to judge whether the abduction was legal or not under English Common Law as there was no legislation for slavery in England. In his judgement of 22 June 1772 he declared: "Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged." It was thus declared that the condition of slavery did not exist under English law. This judgement emancipated the 10 to 14 thousand slaves in England and also laid down that slavery contracted in other jurisdictions (such as the American colonies) could not be enforced in England.

After reading of the Somerset case, a black slave in Scotland, Joseph Knight, left his master, John Wedderburn. A similar case to Steuart's was brought by Wedderburn in 1776, with the same result: that chattel slavery did not exist under the law of Scotland (nevertheless, there were native-born Scottish serfs until 1799, when coal miners previously kept in serfdom gained emancipation).
#179 ::: Neil Willcox ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 08:50 PM:

Xopher #151, miriam #172 - I tell people like that that if they want the newest Abrahamic kid on the block they should try Baha'i or Islam.

In a strange coincidence I discovered the other day that Hegel tried to explain that Christianity was a more final and absolute religion, despite being chronolgically later than Islam, by noting that Europe wasn't Christianised until the time of Charlemagne. How much you weight you want to put on his explanation I leave to you.

(It was a footnote in an interesting post on Three Toed Sloth, which I have stolen the wording from due to being too dozy to rewrite it)

#180 ::: MD² ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 08:57 PM:

First, a quick point about about antisemitism in France: I have trouble evaluating the real extent of the problem because all external sources seem to be skewing numbers/facts to accomodate their political agendas, but from personal experience, it is very real, generally subdued, and not in any way prevalent if compared to other forms of xenophobia. I'd say it generally stay at the level of the sad and deplorable but tolerable, with rare outbursts.
I understand things can vary greatly from region to region, though.

Note also that things have in my opinon gotten a lot worse in recent years. De facto self-imposed segregation from the various communities wasn't something that pronounced when I was young.

I think that as long as we have a written record, then we have made progress. Because even if we do regress, we still have a record of where we used to be when we made more social progress.

I always understood "knowledge isn't cumulative" as "humans as a species will always have less RAM than the sum pool of processes they could/should be running". We do not so much experience regress as get inadapted results from the competition for a limited space between all that exists within that colossal pool of recorded knowledge.
The fact that, I think, the pool of recorded material grows faster than the space available (though we tend to deal with that to a limit with fragementation and specialisation) isn't reassuring to me.

Do I even make sense ?

Do the Japanese (whose Emperor is held to be a divine being) lack a capacity for science?

a) In Japan, it's not so much the person of the emperor which is held sacred, as the the imperial function (which I guess goes against Greg London's first argument @#166).

b) Keep in mind that, as I understand it, the king was used in the former exemples in the discussion as the center of the political power. Japan's Emperor isn't the center of the political power, and hasn't been for some time (some travelers to Japan before the country was closed by the Tokugawa regime compared the emperor to the pope, which was very sensible of them...).

My apologies if I managed to get everything wrong. Won't be the first time.

----------------------------

As I see it, opposition to slavery (or child labor, any "equal right" movements really, even feminism) has more to do with optimisation of the economical output of society than anything else (I'm speaking at the structural level, people's motivations would mostly have nothing to do with that).
I would say that doing away with slavery is indeed better for society as a whole, though not necessarilly for individuals, especially in the transition period.
(For the record, some of my family back in Mauritania still has de-facto slaves, even if officially, for foreign authorities, they're "household staff". They can't get rid of them, as much as they'd want to, because the slaves themselves do not want to leave: as slaves, they are assured a roof, food and clothing. The main difference these people see between slavery and employment, as it was stated to me when I went to the village: When a master do not need a slave's workforce, he still have to take care of him, or face loss of status; When an employer doesn't need his employee's workforce, he can leave him to starve, it's not his fault that there's no more work).

#181 ::: Another Damned Medievalist ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 09:48 PM:

Fragano Ledgister @#176 -- LOL. Seriously, let them come. I think they have a lot to answer for. I'll cut them some slack, though. The study of history has come a long way since they were misinterpreting it, and besides, they're philosophers and theorists raised in a world where history was expected to serve a moral didactic purpose.

#182 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 09:59 PM:

Lizzy: "Nations", or "states" if you prefer, don't make decisions or have ideas.

With regard to slavery, I was discussing whether it was legal in a particular nation, not whether individuals practice slavery even when it is outlawed.

With regard to "capacity for science", I was discussing different options based on the worldview of a government (OK, the politicians in the government) and the majority of the population in that nation (or perhaps a minority willing to use force).

I assume that people will read "nation" with some sense of perspective.

#183 ::: Julie L. ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 10:42 PM:

Lizzy L @139: [Slave traders] are ruthless and efficient at this, they make full use of modern technology, and it makes them quite rich. In this they are no different from the folks who run the global drug trade, and it should come as no surprise to anyone that modern slavery and drug trafficking are linked.

Not just modern slavery; cf. the 18th-century "triangle trade" of molasses/rum/slaves, as per the musical 1776. Rum was at least a legal drug (and indeed part of military rations, which invites comparison to modern troops being given amphetamines), but from someone's recent author interview wrt the history of rum, "Historically, rum was all too often considered a second-class spirit to the likes of gin or scotch, one that provided a cheap and fast high and appealed to the rugged classes."

John Stanning @165: By Jane Austen's time there were several thousand people of African descent living in England.

Possibly including Queen Charlotte.

MD^2 @180: In Japan, it's not so much the person of the emperor which is held sacred, as the the imperial function

Technically, the Showa Emperor had to disclaim the notion of his own personal divinity as part of the surrender documents in WWII, although the imperial family continues to maintain a tradition of descent from the sun-goddess Amaterasu. (Which may be simply be a rephrasing of MD^2's statement above.)

#184 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2007, 11:09 PM:

Neil 179: In a strange coincidence I discovered the other day that Hegel tried to explain that Christianity was a more final and absolute religion, despite being chronogically later than Islam, by noting that Europe wasn't Christianised until the time of Charlemagne. How much you weight you want to put on his explanation I leave to you.

It's a great deal of weight, but it all adds to my long-held belief about Hegel: he was a stupid nutbar. Or maybe a smart nutbar. And he's a prime example of what I was talking about upthread: a person who believes that History has a goal, and that it is HIS COUNTRY. Note that the Christianization of Europe is, for him, the birth of Christianity, since nothing that happens outside Europe can possibly be of any relevance.

In fact, nothing outside of Hegel's personal awareness can possibly have any relevance to his philosophy. This is a hell of a way to build a Weltanschauung.

#185 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 12:37 AM:

Xopher, a long way upthread at #151 (I seem to have arrived late at the party) Yes, voting in Australia is mandatory, enforced by a fine of $100.00 for failure.

That is to say, if you are enrolled and fail to vote, or if you have not correctly provided your electoral details (name, address, date of birth) to the electoral department at the time of the rolls closing (some weeks before the previously-gazetted date of an election or referendum of the state or Commonwealth), you will be fined unless you have reasonable excuse, such as illness or incapacity.

Note that "vote" here means "turn up to a polling place (any polling place), or arrange a postal vote, and receive and return the ballot papers." Secret ballot implies necessarily that you can mark them, or not mark them, in any way you please, in privacy. Specifically, you need not, in effect, vote for any candidate, but you must go to that much trouble, or be prepared to pay the fine. Not voting is not a criminal offence and does not result in a criminal record.

#186 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 01:18 AM:

On human progress. I regret that I must disagree with ADM. I accept the perfectly reasonable point that it is only possible to understand a society by understanding all of it, but I reject what I take to be his/her central thesis, "I would remove any trace of the implication of Progress" and "The human as animal really hasn't evolved much at all in the past couple of thousand years, AFAIK; instead, humans have developed technologies to extend their lifespans and master (to some little extend and often at great cost) their environment."

I regret to differ, and I find such a view unreasonably jaundiced. Humans in some societies have managed to lower their previously prevailing infant mortality rate by some 95%. Partly this was done by medical advance, true, (such as immunisation against smallpox) but it was mostly done by things like sewage systems and chimneys. I hold the vast reduction in human misery that resulted from not watching two out of five children die before their tenth birthday as unalloyed progress. And I would note that the societies that have achieved this have also very much reduced their birthrate.

Many human societies outlawed bullbaiting, bearbaiting, and cockfighting not because of any advance in technology, but because humans in those societies agreed that those things were revoltingly cruel and barbaric. Hunting with dogs is now banned in Britain, the home of the foxhunt, because it is cruel - and this despite the opposition of many of the wealthiest people. I call that progress, damned if I don't.

Perhaps it is naive of me to equate progress with the alleviation of human misery and the rejection of cruelty. If so, I am proudly naive, and chance it. I hold that this is better, and that progress has been made.

Of course it is compromised; of course it is not universal (indeed, it is at best local); of course many dreadful evils remain; of course elsewhere ground can be lost. But it exists, and where it does, I call it progress.

#187 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 02:19 AM:

Another Damn Medievalist @

So honestly, I'm very leery of any argument that says anything like "we should know better than the Romans" (why?)

Because we've got a longer historical baseline, and more bad (and good) examples to look back on than they did. I'm not a presentist, and I won't argue for "progress", since I don't know what that is. I will argue that the major evolutionary advantage human beings have over most other animals is time-binding. We can record and revisit our decisions and their consequences. That doesn't mean we necessarily get the decisions right the next time because there's no guarantee that the "right" decision, whatever that means, will be the same decision the next time the situation looks similar. But it gives us a statistical edge: if we pay attention, we'll make better decisions than if we flipped a coin, or acted as if everything is new. And the more experience we have, the better we should be able to make decisions that are like the ones we've had to make in the past**, and the better we should be at finding similarities to past decisions.

albatross @ 155
While there's no rule that says evolution goes towards complexity*, there is a strong statistical tendency for the outer envelope of complexity to move up as long as life continues to exist and evolve. This is mostly because there's a rachet effect in evolution that tends to conserve large-scale advantageous changes. For example multi-cellular cooperation in plants, animals, and fungi, the homeobox in the more complex amimal phyla, and the nervous system in arthropods and vertebrates.

Of course there are absolutely no guarantees that life will continue to exist; it wouldn't take a very big rock to put an end to Earth's biosphere completely. And a large, but not completely destructive catastrophe could remove all but the least complex forms of life. So there's no mysterious force or law that increases the overall complexity of the biosphere, but the odds are that there some species which are more complex in later eras than in earlier ones, if you take a long enough view.


* In fact, if we measure by biomass or by genetic variation, the most common and successful of all lifeforms are probably bacteria, which aren't complex at all compared to just about any macroflora or -fauna.

** Where "we" is the human race, not just this generation.

#188 ::: Kathryn from Sunnyvale ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 02:55 AM:

The NYTimes has a review article on Gregory Clarke's* book "A Farewell to Alms." The review talks about GC's theory of what caused the industrial revolution, and this theory is possibly applicable to here. I'm to tired to say why it's applicable, but something about how it provides a theory / argument that there was a significant change in human behavior that correlates with / caused the industrial revolution.

While I can't comment on the evolution side of his theory (the article seems fuzzy on that), I do know that Dr. Clarke has more data on pre-industrial-revolution economics & demography than anyone else I've read. (I once had to find some of this data for a research project. He has data.)

Anyways, quoting the article:

"...[he] believes that the Industrial Revolution — the surge in economic growth that occurred first in England around 1800 — occurred because of a change in the nature of the human population. The change was one in which people gradually developed the strange new behaviors required to make a modern economy work. The middle-class values of nonviolence, literacy, long working hours and a willingness to save emerged only recently in human history, Dr. Clark argues."

"...The basis of Dr. Clark’s work is his recovery of data from which he can reconstruct many features of the English economy from 1200 to 1800. From this data, he shows, far more clearly than has been possible before, that the economy was locked in a Malthusian trap _ — each time new technology increased the efficiency of production a little, the population grew, the extra mouths ate up the surplus, and average income fell back to its former level."

"...This income was pitifully low in terms of the amount of wheat it could buy. By 1790, the average person’s consumption in England was still just 2,322 calories a day, with the poor eating a mere 1,508. Living hunter-gatherer societies enjoy diets of 2,300 calories or more."

[As a side-note, I think that there's an interesting alternate history waiting to be written if Silphium hadn't gone extinct.]

-------------
* Professor, economic history, University of California Davis.

#189 ::: Mez ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 03:15 AM:

Picking a different strand out of the discussion thread: What Charlie Stross (#148) said, viz

"... we're living in a complex web of interdependent systems that rely on the availability of several million varieties of consumable item and component ... weird shit you never imagined can affect you directly — for example, a six-hour power cut to an obscure factory in South Korea is about to have knock-on effects for the next 3-6 months on all electronics that use >1Gb FLASH memory components ..."
Is why I get ticked off at the geologists and paleontologists who say "But there have been lots of changes in the Earth's climate, this is just another, and probably not as extreme as some." AFAIK*, there weren't >6,000,000,000 humans trying to survive those changes, and there wasn't such a complex and interdependent civilization also attempting to adapt and continue through them.

In fact, the recorded types of disruption and devastation to the populations of critters, and the complex and interdependent ecosystems they were part of, is a big part of what makes me nervous about climate change/global warming. Earth and it's/her biosphere will almost certainly adapt and abide; advanced human society very possibly not, with a lesser chance of almost complete human extinction (After Man, by Dougal Dixon, was comforting there).

*Terry Pratchett posited, in one of his books, that assorted non-human civilizations could have started in the couple of billion years of multicellular history and been comprehensively destroyed by different natural cataclysms. Reminded me of an SF story I read long ago where an academic, in delirium dying of a bird-spread human pandemic, suggests to 'Nature' that she might start again, with bears instead of apes.

#190 ::: Mez ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 03:25 AM:

Bruce (#187*) For some reading on this I recommend Planet of the Bacteria, by Stephen Jay Gould, on the "modal bacter".

#191 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 03:34 AM:

I agree with Bruce Cohen: we have the advantage of more data, and more people thinking about them - including the option to get radical in the sense of "back to the roots" - and this gives us moral as well as intellectual opportunities (and obligations, I think). It's not that we're innately better people, at all, than our predecessors, it's just that we have more to work with. It is precisely like having luxury time thanks to harvest abundance and good shelter. It's a gift from those before and around us, which we can use for our improvement

#192 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 04:54 AM:

Xopher @ 171:
I would conjecture that the same people who think history has a goal (the state they're in if they like it, or The Revolution if not) also think evolution has a goal (humans, of course).

The idea (delusion, perhaps) that history has a goal, or that there is some underlying plan and endpoint, is an old and seductive one. It underlies most Christian thought of the past two thousand years, but had its origins in late pre-Christian Judaism and Zoroastrianism. (I recommend Norman Cohn's Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come for a discussion of some of these origins, particularly the idea that history has to end in some kind of Apocalypse[*].)

[*] Or Revolution, as you point out. The Marxist idea of future history is awfully similar to the traditional Christian one, which I suspect explains a small part of its appeal.

#193 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 05:12 AM:

Mez @ 189:
Is why I get ticked off at the geologists and paleontologists who say "But there have been lots of changes in the Earth's climate, this is just another, and probably not as extreme as some."

Are there geologists and paleontologtsts saying such things? (I mean, technically it's sort of true, but saying that without any of the necessary context about how ill-equipped we are to deal with such a shift is rather duplicitous.) I wasn't really aware of that.

(Well, OK, probably the sort of petroleum geologists who gave Michael Crichton an award for "journalism," but they're rather nakedly obsessed with promoting the fossil fuel industry.)

#194 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 06:21 AM:

[*] Or Revolution, as you point out. The Marxist idea of future history is awfully similar to the traditional Christian one, which I suspect explains a small part of its appeal.

Marx/Engels knew this, I'm pretty sure. Engels certainly wrote about the early Christian Church and the early Marxists as very similar. And, given that neither Marx nor Engels were stupid, I should think the similarities were apparent to them too.

I'd also argue that progress is inherent in the idea of science; if we are to have science, then progress will come along for the ride.

#195 ::: chris y ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 07:15 AM:

Fragano Ledgister @#176 - Also, the whole point about Marx' theory of history was that the "progressive" outcome was never inevitable, even if he and his friends thought it was probable. In any given contradiction, the possibility of an negative resolution was inherently possible, and society could, in principle, slide back into barbarism. That's why Marx devoted so much of his time to political activism, rather than just sitting in a pub waiting for the Millennium.

Not saying he was right, but in that sense it actually represents an advance on the Whig narrative where the optimal outcome (always assuming you agree on your definition of "optimal") is part of the script.

#196 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 07:22 AM:

MD² #180: I had the privilege a few years ago of meeting the Mauritanian anti-slavery activist Boubacar Messaoud, who is, technically, a slave since he has never been manumitted. I wonder if he would agree with your description of slavery in Mauritania.

#197 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 07:25 AM:

Another Damned Mediævalist #181: That's a teensy bit unfair (only a teensy bit) since the basis of Hegelian and Marxist theory of history is that history is a process of interactions. However, since they believe that history is purposive, your argument has some merit (though Marx warns us that progress is not the inevitable result of the conflicts that drive history, class struggle can end in 'the common ruin of the contending classes').

#198 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 07:32 AM:

chris y #195: I know, that's the point Marx and Engels make in the Communist Manifesto when they say that class struggle will either produce the victory of the previously subordinate class or 'the common ruin of the contending classes'.

#199 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 08:03 AM:

Peter, Mez:

It's not clear to me that we're less able to handle climate change now than in the past, despite the larger population and complexity of human societies. We can do a *lot* more to survive now than people could 300 years ago.

IMO, the creepy part about climate change is that it's really not well understood at all. We can't just say "okay, the consensus view is 1 degree C per century rise in temperature, let's adapt to that." That whole system is complicated as hell, and poorly understood. Maybe we get self-damping changes, maybe we get abrupt large changes, and nobody can really say which.

It's fun to spin out rhetoric about the rich countries being destroyed by climate change, but it's mostly not true. Rich countries will mostly adapt (other than some special cases, such as The Netherlands) because we have lots of wealth with which to adapt. Poor countries whose situation is strongly affected by climate change will be screwed, because they won't have the resources to respond to it.

#200 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 08:08 AM:

How would an Austen character have dealt with an interracial marriage or an openly gay character? Yet it's still fun and interesting and informative to read her books, even without sharing her views or the views of her character.

It's not beyond the bounds of possibility that Austen knew, personally, members of interracial marriages, or their close relatives at least. Read William Dalrymple's "White Mughals" for the story of General James Kirkpatrick, who married an Indian noblewoman - an example of a relatively common trend of Indianisation among Company men of the late 18th and early 19th century.

#201 ::: MD² ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 09:30 AM:

@Julie L (#183):

Yes, it goes with it, but not only. The Emperor in himself, as a person, is being sacralised, but isn't sacred. It's the function, the title, which is sacred. This may seems like hair spliting, but might in fact help explain quite a few things.

@Fragano Ledgister(#196):
Let's be clear, as I should have from the very start: that particular exemple I gave isn't representative of the full situation in Mauritania.
Again for the record, I'm against slavery and in such bad terms with most of my familly none of them will so much as talk to me... to put things mildly.

I just gave that exemple because it made me realise this at the time: it's not enough to free slaves if we cannot promise them a decent life (“The whole point of society is to be less unforgiving than nature”, I'm glad I can re-read this one on ML's front page every time I load it), and some won't find freedom desirable as long at it imply more potential risks than gains.
I'm always amused by people supporting the freeing of slaves, but not wanting the other necessary changes that would make it bearable: oh, yes, my familly want to free their slaves - maybe not even only to stop paying for them - but to give them a piece of land so that they might live of their work ? Nope, no can do.
They should go to the city and try to find some job there.

Abolition is better for society as a whole, but not necessarily for the people who ends up crushed to oil up the machine.

(On the fictional side of things, wasn't there sometinhg along those lines in an Anne Rice story ? About a slave with an ivory leg ?)

#202 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 09:58 AM:

Seth Gordon @ 152

*Applause* As concise and comprehensive a description of the Middle Eastern Muddle as I've seen in a long time. Thank you.

To, perhaps gratuitously, expand a little bit: The geographic area around Israel is of strategic importance to almost no one except the inhabitants and their neighbors, but the international political investment over the last century or so has resulted in a place where several politico-tectonic plates meet and rub against each other. The result is a situation where the amount of force and friction in a small place guarantees that there will constant shifting of power and the geographic distribution of military and economic power, but that any change will be immediately met by more force to restore the original conditions.

This despite whatever the people living there may want. Their desires are trumped by the dead hands of the players of the Great Game, the conspirators of Versailles, and the Cold Warriors. The puppets and frontcreatures set up during all that global jockeying for position have, of course, their own agendas, but again, they bear little resemblance to those of a farmer near Hebron, or a mechanic in Jeerusalem.

#203 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 10:16 AM:

fidelio @ 167

they just relied on the lack of choices available to the former slaves to give them their labor supply.

And how is this an end to slavery? The sharecropper economy of the US Deep South was a conscious, and largely successful, attempt to restore the conditions of slavery, within the letter of the amended Constitution. I'd say that's true of any system that enforces living in inhumane conditions for the benefit or aggrandizement of the enforcer.

In other words, slavery didn't really end in the US with the Civil War, or in Britain with the change in the law. It ended effectively when there were no more people locked in economic bondage. Which means that it hasn't ended: slavery continues to exist in both countries, and has all along, just not in such large amounts.

What's important to understand is that slavery as an institution hasn't ended, but the attitude towards slavery by the general population of most developed countries has changed enough to drastically reduce both the number of slaves and the role the state takes on in maintaining their slavery. That's a considerably less sweeping statement than "slavery is no longer acceptable or practiced in civilized society", but it's a lot truer.

#204 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 10:18 AM:

MD2 #201:

I can see your point, but it seems like that could also be used as a pretty good justification for keeping some form of slavery indefinitely. The kind of slavery I am familiar with in the US featured a lot of overt and threatened violence to keep slaves in line and keep them from running away. This implies to me that most (or at least many) slaves thought a life with no master to either feed or beat them was better than a life with a master to do both.

Now, slavery in the US South was different from slavery other places, and had a lot of gradations (house vs field slaves, slaves in cities who might have considerable freedom day to day, etc.). I gather some slaves in the Ottoman Empire did better as slaves than they would have free. (Others, however, were made into eunuchs, marched across the desert with horrifying death rates, or sent off to die after a few months of living hell in the salt mines.) I don't doubt that some people would prefer slavery to freedom for the right definition of slavery and freedom....

#205 ::: Another Damned Medievalist ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 10:29 AM:

Oy. Just Oy. And where the hell is Patrick, anyway -- he's the one who initally asked me to clarify things!

But ...

Dave @#186 -- you misunderstand me. I meant that one must remove the specter of Progress (with a capital P, as in Progress, a good thing that shows we are much superior) from our interpretations of the past. If you read my comments carefully, you would see that I am not saying the past was better, nor that we are worse. I am saying that you can't judge the past by our standards; if you do, then you will not be able to understand the past.

Of course it is compromised; of course it is not universal (indeed, it is at best local); of course many dreadful evils remain; of course elsewhere ground can be lost. But it exists, and where it does, I call it progress.

Well, yes. That's my point. *you* call it progress. Most people in today's society would agree that for those of us living in industrialised nations, our quality of life is much better in many ways than life was even a couple of hundred years ago. But when you use the word Progress, you are starting from now, with the implication that *we* are better. We have more efficient technology for killing people now, too. Is it less cruel?

Did you read Charlie Stross's comment about aberration? Because he pretty much nailed the essence of what I've been saying.

I'm just saying that the idea of progress depends on working towards a goal. You have set an arbitrary goal of reducing cruelty and human misery as a way of measuring progress. I'm saying you can't do that and understand history, because humans haven't always had that goal. So if you judge the past by that goal, you aren't allowing yourself to understand it for what it was -- you're looking at what it wasn't.

Better and different are not the same thing. The idea of progress in history, which depends on now being better than it was before, not only denigrates wand warps our impressions of the past, but I think it gives us a false sense of moral superiority that affects our own ability to address our own social ills. Moreover, at its worst, that sense of superiority can create an environment where the growth of technological and scientific discoveries outpace actually thinking about and dealing with the ramifications of their applications. Just because we *can* do something doesn't mean we *should*.

Bruce Cohen @ #187 -- I don't really disagree. I think we're talking about different things, though. Clearly, if a person has more knowledge at their disposal, they should use all of that knowledge to make informed decisions. I think that the phrase "know better" implies, as does 'progress' a kind of superiority. We aren't actually better or smarter than the Romans. Our government isn't particularly better or worse for us than theirs was for them. And there's no saying that, given the same information about the world and how it works that we have, Romans might not have changed how they did things. Or not. We don't know, because that's a contrafactual situation.

But when we say "you should know better" we really aren't talking just about information. We are talking about a lot of internalised moral, ethical, and social behaviours -- hence the opposite, "he's only little/low IQ/not of our culture, he didn't know better." Knowing better, like progress, sets our status and values as the standard. *beats dead horse again* You can't appreciate the past, or understand it, if you don't put those standards aside.

HAVING SAID THAT ... I'm not saying that, when we look at ourselves in the here and now, it's inappropriate to to measure one thing against the other (or indeed, to measure one present-day culture against the other) and make our own decisions as to what we think is good or right, and to set goals to achieve those things. But unless we can dump our own baggage when looking at the past (or another culture in the present), it's very hard to understand. And we can't communicate with people that we won't try to understand.

#206 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 10:31 AM:

ADM @ 169

No, the human genome hasn't "evolved"* significantly in the last few thousand years. Human culture has evolved, in a more than metaphorical sense. As has technology, which incidentally is not something that was invented in the Industrial Revolution. A chipped obsidian knife is a technological artifact just as much as an intercontinental nuclear missle.


I'm sorry to make this post a drive-by, but there are things I need to go do now, and then I need to go to work, where our sysadmins have recently installed a nannyfilter that prevents me from getting to Making Light. I promise, that if anyone cares enough about this post to want me to back it up, I'll do so tonight. It seemed a good idea to put a stake in the ground now, before the discussion moved on to whether cows are a greater threat to the global climate than SUVs, or some equally divergent topic.


* Scare quotes because I'm getting the impression that we need another thread with at least as much traffic as this one to hash out just what evolution is, and what it does and doesn't or can and can't do. Not that biologists are in good agreement on this even yet; it's really hard for humans to completely give up anthropomorphic and teleological patterns of thought.

#207 ::: Another Damned Medievalist ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 11:07 AM:

BC @#206 -- I agree totally. That's why I said it as I did. I really meant the human as a biological creature (although I think that the whole tools thing may have led to brain evolution, but I really don't know the science enough to say).

#208 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 11:33 AM:

#203--Bruce:
A formal system of chattel slavery, as opposed to a system resulting in in highly restricted, or no practical economic alternatives, is a legal distinction, which is not at all the same as a effective distinction.
In addition to share-cropping, we need to consider the convict lease system as well. The convict leasing system is an aspect of post-Civil War labor exploitation I forgot to mention, when looking at slavery in an industrial context--much of the development of the iron and steel industries in northern Alabama between the end of the Civil War and World War I was dependent of the convict leasing system--with the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company the most notorious utilzer of this labor source.

Between sharecropping and convict leasing, there was no need for a legal system of chattel slavery, and so Americans could tell themselves they had ended slavery. For Southern capaitalists, these systems offered an opportunity for highly profitable hypocrisy. Slave owners were expected (and in some jurisidictions required, IIRC), to provide food, clothing, shelter, and medical care to their human property--wheher they were in condition to work or not, and whether there was work to be done at that very moment or not. The land owners who used sharecroppers had no such obligations, and those who leased convict labor could treat them as a sort of forced temporary labor, to be called in as needed.

Technically, both sharecropping and the convict leasing system were colorblind--and there were more than a few white sharecroppers. Oddly enough, the convict leasing system always seemed to end up applying to African-Americans--although, technically, in most states that used this system, the laws permitting the leasing of convict labor were not overtly racist, the application that was intentionally racist.

I do have to say that current comparisons to what you are prepared to call economic slavery in the US and the UK to either the ante-bellum slave system, or the post-bellum systems of sharecropping and convict leasing don't hold up for me. The legal system of chattel slavery and the technically not-really-slavery systems of sharecropping and convict leasing were all much, much worse, to my mind--and I say that as a white Southerner who has studied these systems a bit.


#209 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 11:44 AM:

Adding to fidelio @ 208

Something that tends to be overlooked is that there were, in fact, black slaveowners. A lot of them were former slaves themselves. The records apparently do not show that they were more humane owners than whites.

#210 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 11:58 AM:

ADM (#205): Yes! I particularly like this: The idea of progress in history, which depends on now being better than it was before, not only denigrates and warps our impressions of the past, but I think it gives us a false sense of moral superiority that affects our own ability to address our own social ills.

Charlie Stross also makes a good point (in #161) about how recent the idea of *positive* change really is.

Evolution may have blundered its way "onward and upward" (supposedly to culminate in us), but it has also been cyclical, a series of rises and falls, whether or not the fall is due to a truly global catastrophe. Something like that also applies to civilizations -- though now that we're comparatively global and connected, it might take a larger catastrophe to bring *everything* down.

But when I read of civilized life at the time of the Romans, or any culture that had risen above bare survival without consigning 90% of its people to misery, I can at least distantly imagine being born into that life and feeling entirely sophisticated and "modern". With luck, the citizens of some future millennium will be able to imagine us feeling the same way.

#211 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 12:29 PM:

change. Some of the big tech changes were from horitculture to agriculture, agriculture to industrial, industrial to information.

The big change that caused the advance to agriculture was the invention of the plow and some animal to pull it. A couple thousand BC, I believe.

A few thousand years later, steam engines, then internal combustion engines.

A couple hundred years later, vacuum tubes, transistors, integrated circuits, a wired world.

I imagine that the view of "change" being good probably really took off around the time of the renaissance.

I think it was at an SF convention that some panel was talking about how the human mind learns, and someone on the panel said that such and such wrote that it was good to study nature because God created it. According to the panelist, the reason the guy wrote this was to change the prevailing attitude that studying nature was a waste of time because God would take care of it.

Technology enables some social improvements, but they all come down to people changing the worldviews of everyone around them.

#212 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 12:53 PM:

The big change that caused the advance to agriculture was the invention of the plow and some animal to pull it. A couple thousand BC, I believe.

Minor nitpicking: the domestication of plants -- the basis of agriculture -- is significantly older than that. The first "agricultural" settlements probably date back to at least 6,000 BC.

And animals aren't necessary: agriculture developed in the Americas (and possibly New Guinea as well?) without any animals pulling plows.

#213 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 01:03 PM:

Isn't pre-plow tech called horticulture, rather than agriculture?

i.e. using a hoe, instead of a plow.

#214 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 01:32 PM:

ADM: I regret I cannot agree. No matter what exceptions or counter-examples can be found, I still believe that the societies in the democracies today are on the whole more free, more just and more humane - as well as healthier, more literate, more long-lived and immeasurably wealthier - than the societies of the past. I note your objections, but I'll still unapologetically use the term "progress" to describe that movement.

#215 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 01:46 PM:

Ajay #200: Most of the descendants thousands of African and West Indian slaves freed by the judicial decisions of the 1770s in Britain are white. That happened as a result of a lot of interracial marriages (and non-marriages).

One of the most famous examples, though not a slave (since his employer, Samuel Johnson, abhorred slavery) is Francis Barber, a Jamaican, who settled in Johnson's home-town of Lichfield and married a local girl.

#216 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 01:49 PM:

Greg @ 213

Horticulture is gardening, not farming. The kind of tool you use doesn't change that. (I've known people who used a tractor in their garden. It was a largish garden, but it was still horticulture.)

#217 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 01:50 PM:

MD² #201: While I appreciate that real-world situations are complex, and things are never simple. Freedom means risk and slavery means dependency. I can understand that slaves fear the dangers of freedom (which are only too real), but that's not a justification for delaying their liberty. As John Stuart Mill wisely said, people who have been slaves need to be taught to be free, and perhaps the best way to do that is to start with their freedom.

#218 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 02:01 PM:

P.J. Evans #209: It might be more accurate to say that there were mulatto slaveowners (in the US, in the Caribbean, in the Cape Verde Islands, and in Brazil) who identified with the establishment rather than with the slaves. The suppression of the distinction between mulatto and black in the United States came some time after slavery (in the 'Redemption' period following the removal of the federal army from the South after the 1876 elections) does not mean that it disappeared elsewhere. The disappearance of the distinction, however, does mask the fact that most of the slaveowners of African descent in the Americas were, in fact, Afro-European.

(Some Native Americans owned slaves, and there were a few slaveowners who were unambiguously black. One of the most interesting cases I have heard of has to do with the abolition of slavery in Mosquitia, agreed by treaty between the King of the Miskito and the British in 1840, the slaveowners of the Miskito Kingdom were Miskitos, mulattos and blacks.)

#219 ::: MD² ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 02:06 PM:

But how free are they if you're imposing their freedom against their will ?

(Purely rethorical question. As I was about to answer albatross @#204, using that argument to delay the end of slavery for more than one generation - one generation too much already - would be purely hypocritical. When there are ways to make the transition viable, they should be used. When - if! - there aren't, we should help those that can't make the transition.)

#220 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 02:14 PM:

Dave 214: But progress only to a person who believes that freedom, justice, humanity, health, literacy, longevity, and wealth are all good things, and defines them the same way you do.

I share most or all of your judgements on these topics, but they are judgements. Most medieval nobles would not see freedom (what? For serfs?) or widespread literacy as good things at all, and our "progress" on those matters would be seen as a decline in what they value.

If you want to understand that period, you have to understand that this is so. You needn't approve of medieval nobles (and no one who knows anything about them possibly could) in order to understand them.

#221 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 02:15 PM:

MD² @#219: But how free are they if you're imposing their freedom against their will ?

Free as a legal and economic category isn't the same as free in the more philosophical sense. Arguably many people are not "truly free," but having legal freedom is a good start.

#222 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 02:28 PM:

PJ@216,

Well that's a bummer.

if wikipedia is to be believed, the practice of agriculture first began around 8000 BC in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East,

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_agriculture

The domestication of oxen in Mesopotamia, perhaps as early as the 6th millennium BC, provided mankind with the pulling power necessary to develop the plough.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plow

I always thought an animal-pulled-plow signified "agriculture", and domestication of plants, which was earlier, to be horticulture. i.e. that two-thousand year window between the domestication of plants to the invention of the plow was considered a different tech level.

I would think so, but apparently not.

I might as forget everythign I thought I knew and start over.

Damn it.

;)


#223 ::: Mez ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 02:51 PM:

Peter Erwin, #193, Ian Plimer, who otherwise is a scientist I have respected for quite a few years, is an example - see this transcript from the ABC's Science Show on 30-Jun-2007. He says "there are a group of us (and most of us are geologists) who would argue that we don't have a problem with climate change, it's quite normal" (Also mentioned here. On a different point, Bill Ruddiman's work is interesting too. USians might note what he says about Native Americans.)

I don't disagree with you, albatross (#199) that it's likely that the people in poorer countries are going to suffer and die at higher rates and greater numbers — and as Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, probably poorer people in richer countries. It's one of the markers of being poor even in good times. But didn't Katrina also show some of the limits of even a wealthy, developed, country's response? What if there were five equally destructive incidents spread around the USA in one year? Plus another five across Europe? And then another few more in the year following, then again the year after that? (And indeed, a disturbing part of thinking about it is the complex, interdependent, and poorly understood functioning of climate and weather.)

BTW, Whenever people discuss reified History, I think of Thomas Hardy's The Dynasts, which he intended as the cumulation of his work, but is far less read than his novels.

#224 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 02:57 PM:

#222--Greg--when I took anthropology mumble years ago, the divide between horticulture and agriculture was where you place it, and if the horticulture and anthropology section of the wikipedia article on horticulture is reliable, this is still the case.
This has nothing to do with the way these terms are used in referring to modern growing practices; it's a specialized use of the two terms.

#225 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 03:00 PM:

Greg, go off to the library (or to one of the online book dealers) and get a copy of the Oxford (or Penguin, in the softbound version) Companion to Food. It's interesting reading, in that it gives you some idea of when stuff was domesticated, frequently farther back than you'd think. (I hadn't heard before that there's evidence of maize being grown in the Philippines before Columbus. They don't quite know when, but someone did an east-to-west trip.)

#226 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 03:06 PM:

fidelo: the divide between horticulture and agriculture was where you place it

Oh good. I thought I was losing my mind there for a bit. Now if I can just wiggle myself out of this straightjacket...

#227 ::: Seth Breidbart ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 03:11 PM:

Greg #173: When a nation changes its worldview to embrace the dogma "slavery is bad" does that result in loss of capacity? If you think it doesn't because that dogma is true, the generalization is "Embracing a dogma that Greg believes is true does not reduce capacity; embracing one that Greg believes is false reduces capacity."

#228 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 03:47 PM:

Seth: When a nation changes its worldview to embrace the dogma "slavery is bad"

Slavery is bad.
It isn't a dogma.

#229 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 03:51 PM:

Greg: so say the adherents of every dogma.

#230 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 03:52 PM:

PJ: it gives you some idea of when stuff was domesticated, frequently farther back than you'd think.

Yeah, just reading the above links from wikipedia, I see I was at least a couple millenia off on when some things happened. I thought the plow was an iron age development, but apparently people were more resourceful than that.

#231 ::: John ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 03:56 PM:

P J Evans @225:

Rosslyn Chapel, near Edinburgh, was built in the 1480s and contains an identifiable carving of a maize plant with corn cobs. (Unfortunately cf. Dan Brown / T*e D* V***i C**e). The fellow who commissioned the chapel was a Prince of Orkney and a sea-goer in the North Atlantic. Also, of course, the building was started in the 1480s and finished many years later, so it's by no means clear that this particular carving is pre-Columban. Still fun to speculate, though.

#232 ::: MD² ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 03:58 PM:

@Mary Dell(#221):

I know. As I said, purely rhetorical question.

Just writing that question made me feel it could be used in a context similar to Valjean's "Joue, mon enfant" - I mean the volitive paradox of it - except the scene you'd end up with would probably lose the humane undertone that made the original worthwile.

(All that said, I stand my original side-point, "having legal freedom" only is a "good start" to those that can survive it - it's necessary but not sufficient. You don't take a tiger that's been born in captivity and just throw it back into the wild saying "good ridance". You help it acclimate itself to its new environment. I guess the reason some don't expect to do the same with human beings is that they see them as less valuable merchandise[/sad bitter sarcasm not targeting anyone in this thread].)

This might sound like a Troll Red Herring™, but I'm often amazed at how much more aggressive I sound in english... well at least to my untrained hear.

#233 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 04:09 PM:

Xopher: so say the adherents of every dogma.

Xopher, I know you think slavery is bad, even if we both arrived to that conclusion by completely different routes. So, I'm not sure why your emphasis on calling it a dogma, when you yourself would agree with "slavery==bad".

Did I miss something?

#234 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 04:44 PM:

I wasn't saying that it was a dogma. I was saying that the fact that you (and I) don't think it's a dogma and deny that it is one distinguishes it from real dogmas. I mean, can't you picture a Christianist saying "It's not a dogma—it's The Truth!"? Or even "It's not a dogma—it's the Word of God™!!!"?

Everyone may stand up and say "I am Spartacus," but they're all lying except one. And you can't tell which one just by what they say.

#235 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 04:55 PM:

MD² #219: Well, according to Rousseau the general will forces all citizens to be free.

#236 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 05:00 PM:

can't you picture a Christianist saying "It's not a dogma

Ah. Yes, I can.

Ok, a rather quick attempt at a nondogmatic explanation as to why slavery is bad:

personal development in the emotional spectrum produces empathy, that ability to put oneself on someone else's shoes. Further development of this skill yields an emotional-level (~gut level) awareness of human equality. If you can put yourself in anyone's shoes, and can imagine anyone putting themselves in your shoes, then you come away with the sense that people are fundamentally equal.

Personal development in the language spectrum produces a groking of promises, committments, and agreements. Combined with the emotional level form of equality, the state then becomes little more than an arbiter of the agreements between citizens. Laws become mutual promises and mutual agreements between citizens codified into objective terms. Combined with the emotional capacity for equality, laws must take into account the wishes of all citizens.

Slavery, in the form of forcing someone against their will to do whatever you want, therefore breaks the concept of emotional equality (if the positions were reversed, and the owner became the slave, they would most likely object.) and requirement that laws be an agreement (the slave would not agree to be a slave).

Therefore slavery==bad.

#237 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 05:02 PM:

ADM,

You seem to want history to be a wholly contemplative discipline: all pure research, no applications. And I can understand this, partly, because I think it is important to know what actually went on, what societies were actually like, because I'm a scientist (as well as a former would-be historian), and I value knowing the truth for its own sake. Which absolutely does require trying to view past societies, at least initially, without the tinted lenses of our present-day values. But you seem to want to forbid any comparative or evaluative judgements about past societies, even after we've done our best to understand them.

You say,

I'm not saying that, when we look at ourselves in the here and now, it's inappropriate to to measure one thing against the other (or indeed, to measure one present-day culture against the other) and make our own decisions as to what we think is good or right, and to set goals to achieve those things.
But you leave out -- conspicuously, I assume -- the possibility of comparing ourselves against past cultures, or of comparing past cultures against each other, or against other present-day cultures.


It's as if it were OK for us to study, say, human physiology and biochemistry in all its complex, messy, contextual glory, but we were not supposed to ever make any practical use of that knowledge. To take a relatively low-tech example, deciding whether and how to make prescription eyeglasses for someone involves making a judgement (an informed judgement, one hopes) about the state of that person's eyes in comparison to those of other people, or to some optimum. In other words, it means making a comparative judgement about one or more objects within the field of study, something you seem to say is simply not allowed for history.

[Just so I'm clear, the logic of the analogy is merely: "Past human society is a field of scholarly/scientific study; human physiology is also a field of scholarly/scientific study; people sometimes attempt to make comparative judgements about objects within a field of study." I'm not suggesting any special deep connection between history and physiology.]


Reflection and learning from past mistakes is part of how individuals learn and (ideally) become wiser. It could be part of how cultures and societies learn and become wiser, but it requires being able to recognize and identify mistakes, and so it requires judgement.

#238 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 05:28 PM:

my post at 236 pretty much answers Seth's post at #227:

If you think it doesn't because that dogma is true, the generalization is "Embracing a dogma that Greg believes is true does not reduce capacity; embracing one that Greg believes is false reduces capacity."

Embracing the notion that slavery is bad requires a regression in either the concept of emotional empathy or in the concept of law as agreements between citizens. There is no other way to allow slavery except to "other" the slaves into non-equals and/or view the law as something other than a process of formalized agreement between all parties.

Therefore, supporting slavery reduces the capacity for emotional or language-based advances, since slavery requires their suppression.

And while one might argue the possibility of a world that embraces equality and law-as-agreement in every aspect of life except in the case of one person who is stoned to death (i.e. "The Lottery"), that simply reflects a personal development issue called "compartmentalization", which is really a fancy term for "lying to oneself". So this too reflects a reduced capacity for development.

The short of it is that supporting slavery requires a regression in the emotional or language based areas of life, which reduces a person's capacity for development.

#239 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 05:41 PM:

Greg, I see where you're coming from, but I don't think you've made your case.

I don't see that you've made a convincing case that equality of opportunity between all humans, law-as-contract (with equality of enforcement), and indeed empathy for other humans, are desirable.

(As opposed to the Feudal doctrine of the great chain of being, Law as received word of God by way of his anointed King, to be enforced by the agents of the King, and empathy as anything other than over-emotional wallowing suitable only for women, who were created for our benefit anyway and don't have anything useful to contribute other than heirs.)[*]

C'mon. All I hear is a lot of unsupported assertions that our current value system (empathy, equality, and so on) are good, and a vague appeal to the correlation between those values and the existence of antibiotics, the interwebnet thingy, and fast food.

I'd like to believe there's some firm foundation for the innate superiority of these modern beliefs -- but you're not giving me anything solid to stand on. Because of course these beliefs look preferable to Feudal 1.0, if you evaluate them from the perspective of someone who calibrates their sense of what's right by looking to their own society. (And you haven't dragged philosophy into the ring, yet, much less mentioned the name "Robert Nozick", so I'm poking you with a stick to see what you base your reasoning on.)

[*] NB: I want to make it quite clear that this is not a depiction of my own belief system. I'm just playing infernal advocate. OK?

#240 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 06:07 PM:

ADM said @ 205:
The idea of progress in history, which depends on now being better than it was before, not only denigrates wand warps our impressions of the past, but I think it gives us a false sense of moral superiority that affects our own ability to address our own social ills.

If you define "the idea of progress in history" as "History is Progress, and we've arrived at the endpoint, hurrah!", then yes. (I'm looking at you, Francis Fukuyama.)

But if you define "the idea of progress in history" as "amelioration of social ills is possible, and has been partly achieved in the past" -- then it's not too hard to argue that this helps address social ills. Certainly, the opposite idea -- "progress in the sense of alleviating social ills does not exist or is impossible" -- makes it a bit harder to rally people.

I don't think Martin Luther King, Jr., adopted Gandhi's tactics of nonviolence and achieved what he did because he believed "progress doesn't exist"; I rather suspect he believed that progress -- in the limited case of India, at least -- had occurred, and was therefore possible for his people as well.

#241 ::: Neil Willcox ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 06:34 PM:

MD² They can't get rid of them, as much as they'd want to, because the slaves themselves do not want to leave: as slaves, they are assured a roof, food and clothing. The main difference these people see between slavery and employment, as it was stated to me when I went to the village: When a master do not need a slave's workforce, he still have to take care of him, or face loss of status; When an employer doesn't need his employee's workforce, he can leave him to starve, it's not his fault that there's no more work).

I've googled Mauritania and slavery after reading this thread, and from what I've read the institution resembles serfdom in that the people are ususally bound to a house or estate. So what puzzles me is that although this shows the worst aspects of the feudal system (rape, abuse, murder, people being sold away from home and family) it also shows some of the responsibilities of the feudal system despite being illegal. I'm having trouble with the social pressure of having to care for your slaves outweighing the illegality of slavery.

Which links into other parts of this thread - these are different people with different values and understandings of the world. In a day or two I may get my head around it (I can feel a story fragment coming out of it) but until then, I'm just going to have to boggle.

#242 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 06:50 PM:

Charlie@239: I see where you're coming from, but I don't think you've made your case.

I am not really trying to "prove" this stuff, because that would ultimately be an exercise in logic. And while you can develop a logical system that is internally consistent, nothing can prove that it has any application to the physical world.

Philosophy, in the end, is nothing more than pulp and ink. You must choose. No one can tell you which direction your moral compass points. You must find out which direction your moral compass is pointing and follow it.

And you must follow it knowing that you've got nothing but unsupported assertions that you are going in the direction that's right for you.

I am sketching you a map and describing you the path I took. If it is right for you, use it.

Do you feel like your moral compass supports the idea that developing empathy, the ability to see someone else's poitn of view, as good? That equality is good? That language skills, including promises and agreeements are good? That a state that acts as an arbiter of the agreements between its citizens is good?

If so, then choose it. If not, then that's fine too.

But to say it is unproven is to miss the fundamental shortcoming of all exercises in language.

A farmer put a baby goose in a glass bottle and raised it there. The goose grew to the point where it was much bigger than the opening. The farmer would like to remove the goose from teh bottle without harming the goose or breaking the bottle. How does he do it?

#243 ::: Neil Willcox ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 06:51 PM:

Xopher #184 - I'm not really in the right state of mind to actually re-read Hegel, so the first problem I come up against is that, although it's quite possible the Christianisation of Europe created a new culture-religion (is there a German word for this?) which we might call Latin Christianity or Frankish Culture or some combination of them, Islam was facing and resolving antithesises of it's own throughout the same period. Or, if Christianity has changed (and continued to change) after it's founding to create what is essentially a new religion, why ignore the changes in others unless you are pre-supposing your result. Which leads me back to where you are, by a different route.

If anyone who has studied Hegel properly would like to point out where I've gone wrong (assuming I have), I'm interested to know.

#244 ::: Another Damned Medievalist ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 06:57 PM:

Peter Erwin @#237:
You said:
But you leave out -- conspicuously, I assume -- the possibility of comparing ourselves against past cultures, or of comparing past cultures against each other, or against other present-day cultures.
That's what I meant by "other" in the passage you quoted:
I'm not saying that, when we look at ourselves in the here and now, it's inappropriate to to measure one thing against the other (or indeed, to measure one present-day culture against the other) and make our own decisions as to what we think is good or right, and to set goals to achieve those things.
You have to pick things (in this case, history and historical fact AND interpretations) apart objectively and understand them objectively before you can use them to support an argument. And then you have to use them honestly, without subordinating the evidence to the argument. Does that make sense? I think we see too many cases of people misusing history to the point where the misuse/misrepresentations become 'common knowledge' (you can search my blog for 'feudal' if you like for an example).

And @#240 -- yes, I was talking the extreme Fukuyaman end for the purpose of the argument, because that's what Greg and Dave seemed to be arguing for.

I think one can't study history without studying change, but that isn't the same as studying progress. Moreover, I think we can study the progress of certain things -- science and technology, for example, and sometimes legal systems (and probably other things, but as it happens, I'm supposed to be working on an article on changes in land tenure and need to run) Oh -- so history of progress -- yes, when it's studying something where the actors are consciously building on the actions and discoveries of others in working toward a particular goal. But again, that is studying the actions of a particular group in pursuit of a particular goal. History in and of itself doesn't have a goal, even though people do. Does that make sense?

Taking that a step further, MLK was building on someone else's work. But they were both working towards the same goal, even though they weren't working together. So if you wanted to study the history of civil rights, or non-violent resistance, where the implicit end is the achievement of legal equality (because that's what the actors sought), then absolutely one can talk of progress and connections between the movements. But you can't take that backwards and talk about quests for equality in Ancient Egypt, and come to the conclusion that AE was an inferior or unenlightened society because such quests didn't exist. That's the kind of thinking that I've been arguing against.

Apologies to all for the end-prepositions.

Also, I think it's important to recognise that much of what I've posted here is in direct response to what someone else has said. I get the feeling that a lot of that has been taken out of that context. I'm not saying that I've been misrepresented, but that I am writing as part of a conversation, and trying to build on my own comments while answering other people. If I had simply written an essay on the idea of progress and the evils of presentism in studying history, that essay would look somewhat different.

#245 ::: MD² ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 07:17 PM:

Well, according to Rousseau the general will forces all citizens to be free.

Which, given his definition of general will, I personally understand as: "the general will forces all citizens to be slaves".
Well, at least when I'm in a sore mood. :)

The short of it is that supporting slavery requires a regression in the emotional or language based areas of life, which reduces a person's capacity for development.

Just passing by: that argument will only work if you admit that a greater personal capacity for development is always better.
While I'm not contradicting this, some philosophers (say Ogyu Sorai, or well, even Rousseau while I slyly think about it*) might argue otherwise...

My point being, I guess, that it seems to me you're here trying to say that slavery is ontologically bad, to which you could be answered it is only a relative evil.

One might argue that there was a time when slavery, to the exclusion of any other means, allowed for an educated elite to exist, which in turn allowed for the intellectual tools later used to abolish slavery - in spite of the resistance of part of the elite - to be created, and that therefore there is a point in time in which slavery was a necessary evil needed for greater good.

Edit while reading the preview: I guess Charlie Stross made a better case of conveying what I was trying to get at than my mess of an attempt, so I'll stop here...

Historical progress doesn't necessarily mean we're making things better, but rather that we have at our disposition a greater set of accumulated tools allowing answers more and more appropriate to our contextual needs, though we do not always choose the right option ?

@Neil Wilcox:
Yes, it's actually much closer to serfdom, tough I can only speak of the soninke side of things.
If you can read french, you might want to have a look at this.

*: some might understand this from his Discours sur les sciences et les arts after all...

Edit again: while editing out the part of the comment about theft and murder in the middle age, I realised it had probably become mostly obsolete...

Bah...

#246 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 07:29 PM:

MD²#245: Well, only if you think that membership in a political community is the same thing as slavery (since that's what Rousseau meant, his concern was freedom, after all).

I tend to agree with the Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts only when I am feeling deeply misanthropic.

#247 ::: Neil Willcox ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 07:43 PM:

I think my point was that, slavery being both illegal and socially unacceptable in the UK, only the most abusive and exploitative versions ever seem to surface here. To have slavery accepted by the enslaved even when illegal was (I thought) so outside my experience I had to stop and think about it.

On the other hand a school friend of mine is an immigration officer who has told me stories of situations that might be considered slavery, even though the people involved walked into them with eyes open, and the exploiters lived up to their promises.

I think I need to be more awake and, frankly, sober to read the document about the slavery question in Mauritania in French (I used to be able to read French newspapers, but am very much out of practice).

#248 ::: MD² ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 08:11 PM:

@Neil Wilcox: The paper I posted is interesting because it gives historical background, but not really indicative of today's situation. In retrospect I don't now if you'll find it that useful - though it is interesting.

You might benefit more from reading this one, it's a nice overview, addresses points I haven't seen in english google first page results.

@Fragano Ledgister: my apologies... I just can't prevent the gratuitous Rousseau bashing, even when I agree with him. It's visceral, bording on the pathological.

#249 ::: MD² ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 08:14 PM:

Grumble... "bordering", not "bording"...

I was sure I had hit the preview button.

#250 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 08:48 PM:

MD² #248: Why the antipathy? I can understand detesting Rousseau's Eurocentrism, or the gratuitous racism in his depiction of the 'Carib' who cannot understand the concept of sale, but in general?

'Bording'... Well, you could have written 'bordeling'....

#251 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 10:15 PM:

ADM@244: But you can't take that backwards and talk about quests for equality in Ancient Egypt, and come to the conclusion that AE was an inferior or unenlightened society because such quests didn't exist.

We have had quests for equality
(and even made progress in equality)
Ancient Egypt did not.
In terms of quests for equality, AE was inferior.

On what grounds you eliminate the quest for equality from a comparison between now and then is beyond me. It is a fair measure. Just because AE didn't have it doesn't mean "equality" is some odd form of "nowism". Equality is better. End of story. If you disagree, then I demand you serve as my slave for the rest of your life. I'll take your declining of my demand as implicit acceptance that equality is better than inequality.


#252 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 10:43 PM:

Xopher #220: Of course a medieval noble would have rejected with horror (and violence) the idea of personal freedom as we mean it, for that would include, for example, religious freedom - and their reaction would be a rejection of it for anyone, not only serfs. But I'm with Greg on this one. Freedom is better. Not necessarily more convenient, or productive of more wealth or happiness - or at least, the connection is indirect and difficult to prove, though I think it is a very likely one - but better. I'll accept any reasonable definition of "freedom", or "justice", or "humane values", and still say that we have generally more of them now than formerly, and that this constitutes progress. To say otherwise is merely to be detained by words.

The nobles of the middle ages had some admirable qualities, even as a class, but they were also, as a class, insanely grasping, violent, arrogant, tyrannical bullies, ignorant, bigoted and conscienceless, whose piety went, as a rule, no deeper than ceremonial observance of an elaborate set of rituals coupled with savage aggression against anything they perceived as heterodox.

Any understanding of their behaviour, even when it was admirable (as it occasionally was) must take this as a starting point. Of course they were the products of their society; indeed, as a ruling class they were the only possible product of it, but that is only to say that the society of the democracies in the present day is better than the society that bore them. For me to say as much is not in the least to deny the real qualities of medieval society, nor even to project my values on to it; rather, it is to insist that freedom, justice and humaneness are real values with an objective, demonstrable existence, that it is good to have them, and that we have more of them than they did. Which is to say, this is better, and we have progressed.

#253 ::: Another Damned Medievalist ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 10:51 PM:

Greg @251 --
Oh for f*#&k's sake. I have a green salad made in 1300 Europe, you have a green salad made in 2007 America. By your reasoning, it would be fair to say that the European green salad is inferior because it doesn't have tomatoes and avocados.

I am seriously trying to decide if you are trolling or just unable to think outside a very tiny box. Either way, I don't have time for this and you're doing a very good job of proving many of the points I've tried to make.

But seriously, "If you disagree, then I demand you serve as my slave for the rest of your life. I'll take your declining of my demand as implicit acceptance that equality is better than inequality." I haven't heard anything like that since my kid was about 9.

#254 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 10:56 PM:

Greg London @251 Equality is better. End of story. If you disagree, then I demand you serve as my slave for the rest of your life.

Wait, that doesn't logically follow. What if it turns out that equality isn't actually valuable, but Charlie's superior to you? Then you should be his slave, and he being your slave would be an overturning of the natural order.

#255 ::: Another Damned Medievalist ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 11:01 PM:

Dave @ 252 -- Have you got any evidence for that? At all? Because, you know, I study the middle ages for a living and don't know any colleague who would make such claims.

#256 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 11:06 PM:

#251 Greg:

Would a slaveowner or feudal lord have been convinced by such an argument? Or would they have just laughed and explained to this obvious lunatic that God had put them at the top for a reason?

#257 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 11:41 PM:

Bruce #206:

I believe there are a number of known or strongly-suspected cases of evolution in the last 10,000 years or so, in the sense of large changes in gene frequencies apparently driven by selection. Lactose tolerance is the usual example, but there are also a bunch of disease resistance adaptations, and I think there are also high-altitude adaptations that are different for different high-altitude populations (say, Incas vs. Sherpas). I'm not sure how you'd rule out evolution of humans in historical time--for example, a lot of the childhood diseases are minor for Europeans and Asians, presumably because epidemics of measles selected for people who would survive measles. (Though the virus must also have evolved, and might have evolved toward something less likely to kill its host.) Didn't measles show up in Europe in Roman times?

Of course, in modern times, to have really high fitness a gene needs to convince its carriers not to use birth control. I sometimes have this vague, SF-ish question about whether we're massively selecting for people who have strong religious tendencies, and also for religions that emphasize large families.

#258 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 11:55 PM:

ADM@253: But seriously, "If you disagree, then I demand you serve as my slave for the rest of your life. I'll take your declining of my demand as implicit acceptance that equality is better than inequality." I haven't heard anything like that since my kid was about 9.

Here's a simple question. A yes/no answer would suffice. Is "slavery" inferior to "equality" or not?

As far as your 9 year old goes, the emporer has no clothes. When adults are fully vested in their worldview, I do not expect them to change it lightly, if ever.

albatross@256: Would a slaveowner or feudal lord have been convinced by such an argument?

This is getting preposterous.

Murder is wrong. Find a murderer and tell me how many of them you reform solely through a one page written essay. Just because they don't "convert" or aren't "convinced" has nothing to do with whether murder is wrong or not.

How many slave owners you think you could seriously walk up to, tell them what's what, and have them go "Oh, wow. I never thought of it that way".

Tell you what, if we judge the past using nothing but the worldview that was in place at the time, then what answer can you possibly come up with other than "Yeah, they weren't so bad?"

If we judge the past using everything we know up to today, then what answer can you possibly come up with other than "Yeah, they were a bunch of brutal, slave owning bastards and we are better off than they were."

The whole point I was making is that our worldview is better than theirs. And folks apparently want to argue that that simple comparison is off limits. Sorry, I don't buy it.

No, a slave owner would NOT be convinced, because his worldview is total crap.

#259 ::: Jim Henry ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 12:00 AM:

Greg: you seem to be using "dogma" to mean "false belief" or "unsupported belief" or "opinion neither true nor false" or something along those lines. The fact that slavery is wrong doesn't mean that "slavery is wrong" is not a dogma. More commonly "dogma" is used to mean not only the axioms of a philosophical or religious system, but some of the deductions or inferences from those axioms as well.

#260 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 12:09 AM:

fidelio @ 208

I do have to say that current comparisons to what you are prepared to call economic slavery

I was referring to the sweatshops (in LA and NY for instance) that use illegal immigrants as workers, often brought in for the purpose. Granted there aren't a lot of them, and granted that there isn't a lot of support for them in the legal or law enforcement structures, but they do exist. And as far as I can tell TPTB aren't strongly motivated to go look for this sort of thing.

Some days I take a pragmatic view and am encouraged by the relative scarcity of this sort of thing; some days I take the Omelas stance and get depressed by it all.

#261 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 01:11 AM:

ADM: Have we really reached a situation where it is not academically respectable to observe that medieval society was overwhelmingly less free, less just and less humane than our own; and that its ruling class necessarily enforced those conditions or generally exemplified them? That position is, to my mind, self-evident. What evidence would you require to prove it? Would a consideration of the causes of the various peasants' revolts of the fourteenth century be relevant? Perhaps a review of medieval law, crime and punishment? A history of the Jews in Europe, maybe?

It also seems evident to me - though this is really only an aside - that the medieval ruling class freely and generally used naked force to maintain and further its worldly position, in flat defiance of the basic tenets of its religion. Hence, I conclude that its attachment to that religion, though real, was largely ceremonial and ritual. It was certainly disfigured with the most savage violence against those regarded as religiously heterodox, especially where there was profit in it. Surely I need not rehearse the events of the First Crusade, or the campaign against the Cathars, or the Reconquista, to maintain that position? (On the other hand, the nobles, at least, were generally willing to compromise their piety sufficiently to accept payments for not persecuting infidels and heretics, provided the payments were sufficient, that is, more than they could make otherwise. Consider the paria system in Spain, for example, or the exactions on the Jews.)

I really can't regard these positions as controversial, I'm afraid. And the rest follows, so far as I can see. If freedom, justice and humane values are good - and I hold that they are - and if medieval society was less just, less free and less humane than our own - and I hold that it was - then it follows that present society in the democracies is better on those grounds. That is to say that progress has been made.

#262 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 01:24 AM:

Omelas! Dang it. I was trying to think of that name when I wrote the bit about "The Lottery" back in #238.

I think "The Lottery" shows the failure of the character to achieve empathy. Tessie goes along with the lottery, until she is chosen, at which point she screams "It isn't fair".

As long as it is someone else paying the price, it's ok. As soon as it's ME, then we need to recalculate the cost of this endeavor.

An empathetic view would be able to put oneself in the shoes of the person who "wins" the lottery and see the situation is wrong, without having to actually be chosen.

#263 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 01:47 AM:

albatross @ 257

Got me. That'll teach me to be more precise when I'm talking about evolution (more vagueness has been committed on this subject than any other except religion). What I probably should have said is that there's been no significant evolutionary change in human genotype on or near the order of a speciation event. There certainly has been conservation of minor mutations like lactose tolerance, and the expected amount of neutral drift in divergent populations, but not the kind of change that's occurred at the cultural level. From the point of view of punctuated equilibrium, we've been in the middle of a sentence.

#264 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 02:18 AM:

ADM @ 205

I really think you and I are in heated agreement here. We certainly agree that Historical Progress, in the sense of a directed movement towarda a goal, especially where the goal is chosen to be the culture of the person defining the term, does not exist, any more than Evolutionary Progress, as a goal-directed movement towards the human species, or any other for that matter, exists.

There is a tendency for certain things that to can accumulate to do so. Information accumulates, because humans as a species have developed ways of conserving it, so that the sum total increases with time. But that's not progress towards a specific endpoint.

#265 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 02:52 AM:

I'll take a swing at a justification for some of our modern values in evolutionary terms. First of all, physical diversity. Diverse stocks are more robust in the face of both environmental changes and of encroachment by predators and pests, so maintaining a diverse genepool is advantageous in evolutionary terms. Diversity also provides a larger set of starting points for evolutionary change; a wider range of starting points allows a wider range of end points for genetic drift. Since we can't know in advance what characteristics will be most useful for evolutionary changes in the future, the best strategy is to maintain as many as we can. This necessitates not impeding the development of one group of related genotypes in favor of another. The same argument applies to cultural diversity*.

Next, some form of equal opportunity within societies. One way to look at a society is as a vehicle for the survival and success of the human race in the form of its individual members. Again, since we don't know what characteristics are going to be desirable in the future, we should conserve what we have available. And since we don't, and possibly can't, know how to choose the best individuals for any given role in society, the success of society will be better served by some form of true meritocracy, wherein people demonstrate their abilities, rather than by some means of predetermining individual abilities. But since we're concerned about evolution and long-term survival of the species, allowing the outcome of the meritocracy competition too much negative effect on the "losers", a la Social Darwinism, is also contra-indicated. Short-term fitness functions are not necessarily optimal in the long-term, so a balance has to be maintained.

This is a highly-abbreviated exposition, of course, and it may be a little elliptical or arcane at points; I'm trying to keep it short so I can go to sleep sometime soon.


* Cultural change over time involves a form of evolution in the sense of the generation of variations and the selection of some variants by differential propagation. So the same logic of diversity applies.

#266 ::: "Charles Dodgson" ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 09:44 AM:

Offered as counterpoint to the discussion of modern freedoms: Digby's discussion of the petty tyrannies all too many Americans endure in their jobs --- jobs that they may be unable to leave because they'd lose their health insurance (a situation which just couldn't happen in any other major industrial democracy).

Further counterpoint: James Fallows, in the July/August Atlantic Monthly, pointing out that Chinese factory workers can and do save for the future, and leave the factories to live well in the hinterland after a few years, while American workers at a minimum wage typically can't and don't. (p. 68 in the print issue; behind a paywall online).

It's ridiculous to argue, of course, that any American would benefit by trading places with a medieval serf. (Any American with a job, at any rate). The American is healthier, lives longer, and in more comfort. But it's easy to exaggerate the degree of real control that Americans, in general, have over their lives. Freedom that you can't exercise in any practical way --- heck, freedom that, for any reason, you don't exercise --- is freedom you don't have.

#267 ::: Another Damned Medievalist ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 10:12 AM:

Dave @#261 --
ADM: Have we really reached a situation where it is not academically respectable to observe that medieval society was overwhelmingly less free, less just and less humane than our own; and that its ruling class necessarily enforced those conditions or generally exemplified them? That position is, to my mind, self-evident.

It's not self-evident to medievalists. The MA lasted for about 1100 years, and there were huge changes over that time, not to mention that things were different in many kingdoms. And you are judging by modern standards. To a medieval mind, the Cathars were a dangerous threat to society, because their influence could result in eternal damnation. I admit that there were political reasons for the Albigensian Crusade as well, but it never could have got off the ground had there not been a fundamental belief that heresy was dangerous. You can think it's silly if you like, but my point is that it's what people believed at the time that drove their actions. I maintain that we don't have to agree, but we have to respect that, and see things in the context of a society where those sorts of beliefs existed and mattered. You are talking at cross-purposes, whether wilfully misunderstanding everything I've said, or just unwilling to consider that your own value system is anything but completely right for all people at all times.

Just because you don't think any of the hundreds of legal systems that existed in the MA were just does not meant that the people who lived under them thought they were unjust. The freedom that you keep touting was not part of the mentality of the MA, or even of the Classical world. Our evidence suggests that people believed in a social order of which everyone was a part. Again, what's humane? Because we have the technology to execute by lethal injection, does it make capital punishment any more humane?

I'm not arguing for a utopian vision of the MA, but I stand by my assertion that if you can't put aside your own prejudices and sense of superiority when looking at the past -- and you are clearly not able to do so -- you cannot understand it. If you can't understand it, you can't learn from it. Moreover, if you can't do this with the past, I seriously doubt whether you can do the same with other societies in the present. The kind of intolerance and lack of understanding you practice is, to my mind, one of the reasons the world is in the mess it's in.

You don't get to define freedom, for example, for everyone.

Here's a little story for you. When I lived in Seattle, I shopped at Costco now and again. One day, I saw several East African women in burkhas, trailing behind their menfolk. All of these women seemed happy, in that they were standing upright, and they were laughing and joking with each other and the men. I cringed inside, and wanted to shout at them, "you are living in the US! You don't have to do this! We have equal rights here!" But those thoughts were followed a millisecond later by "Yes, and that means they have the right to wear burkhas if they like." To me, that's freedom -- the ability to believe and act as one wishes to the extent that it does not infringe on the rights of others, as well as the obligation to make sure that one's actions do not infringe on another's freedom.

#268 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 11:05 AM:

Though I'm not at all optimistic about the possibility of humans encountering humanoid aliens (a la Star Trek, etc.) any time in the next millennium or so, the kind of open-mindedness ADM is talking about could come in handy if we *did* -- unless they were just plain bent on exterminating us as a pestilence upon the galaxy.

Was the closest earthly equivalent to that kind of startling encounter the point where the West finally came in contact with Nippon? Just a thought, since I know almost nothing about the background there.

#269 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 11:32 AM:

To a medieval mind, the Cathars were a dangerous threat to society

And to the Puritans in Salem, witches were out to conspire them harm. To a serial killer's mind, the voices tell them to do it. To a rapist's mind, the urge to exert sexual power over someone is uncontrollable.

if you can't put aside your own prejudices and sense of superiority when looking at the past... you cannot understand it.

I understand it just fine.

I was on jury duty for a murder trial. The prosecution gave us all the evidence they had. The defense gave us their side of the story and their evidence. And we the jury judged the evidence and found the accused guilty of murder.

You are arguing like a defense lawyer for the past, appealing that judgement be put off until you can get more evidence presenting your client's point of view. I understand your client's point of view just fine.

I understand that the folks in old Salem were probably looking at the world through the filter induced by ergot in their crops, by the fear generated by regular attacks from native americans, from the fear of not surviving the winter, all which was stirred up in a big kettle of superstitious beliefs.

I understand it just fine. And I understand you're acting as defense lawyer for the past, which means you aren't neutral. And the people who are best suited to judge are the folks on the jury.

And I say, just as an example, that the witch trials of Salem were wrong and were the outcome of an inferior worldview.

If you can't understand it, you can't learn from it.

What is there to learn other than what worked and what did not work? How can anyone determine this without judging inferior and superior behaviours, beliefs, laws, etc?

#270 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 11:58 AM:

#264--Bruce--You've got me there; I had forgotten these--and that sweat-shop set-up is debt bondage, which promises (theoretically) an end to servitude, rather than chattel slavery (as if the distinction mitigated the suffering)--and the fact that it is illegal and the legal authorities do make an effort to investigate and close these places when they become aware of them does not make the situation less exploitative.

#271 ::: chris y ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 01:08 PM:

#269. Greg, just as a thought experiment, imagine a world in 700 years time which has not been laid waste by nuclear war or climate change. Imagine that the values they hold dearest in that world are such that you don't even know what they mean. Imagine that you find a history book, by some miracle in a language you can read.

It is full of assertions like: "In the c20, legislators were selected by first past the post ballot in many countries, an unfortunate necessity, and yet children were hardly if ever chosen"; "In Sulawesi, in the 1980s, there was some indication of prounifune consciousness, but it never achieved glartie, and seems to have been restricted to that island"; "Apparently, most writers were not ashamed to have their books distributed by professional publlishers, and even admitted it to their friends"; "Life was intolerable in c21 America, by our standards".

Imagine that you meet one of those people, and they utterly despise you. How are you going to judge that society?

#272 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 01:36 PM:

ADM: I regret that I am not willing to continue this discussion further.

#273 ::: Another Damned Medievalist ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 01:38 PM:

Greg at @269
And I understand you're acting as defense lawyer for the past, which means you aren't neutral.

*sigh* No, I'm acting as a defense lawyer for open-mindedness and critical thinking.

#274 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 01:50 PM:

chris y, the folks in C28 will probably be looking at the world through the filter induced by spiders in their algal culture tubes, by the fear generated by regular attacks of prounifune glartie, from the fear of not surviving the summer, all which will be stirred up in a big kettle of superstitious beliefs. In other words, their worldview will be inferior.

#275 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 02:09 PM:

Greg: Julie L. said something a few days ago about medical issues, grumpiness, and you. I think she was right. Please do whatever you did the first time you told us about it...

All: I have nothing useful to contribute to the discussion because ADM has already said it. And the next time you're looking for an example of a backwater, inferior culture, may I suggest something other than the Middle Ages? Yours sincerely, Encore Une Autre Médiéviste.

#276 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 02:11 PM:

chris@271,

Imagine a child is in a store with his parents. The kid wants a supersoaker. The parents tell him that he has three at home and doesn't need another one right now. The kid blows a gasket and has a full out temper tantrum in the store. The parents try to deal with it, to no avail. And they have to forcibly remove the child from the supersoaker display that he's clutching.

thirty years later, the kid's grown up and telling his therapist about how terrible that experience was for him.

You can understand what his experience was as a child. But you can also understand the event from an adult's poitn of view and get that the guy is still looking at it through his experience as a child.

If in the future there is some major personal human development that advances society beyond what we know, then we will be the child to the future's adult. I hope there are a few of these advances. I hope folks look back at our waterboarding, our torture, our infatuation for war, and think us barbarians, think us little more than children with really high tech weapons.

I'm perfectly fine with that. In fact if I somehow magically knew that it does NOT happen, I would be severely depressed.

But the thing about history is that we can look at it and we can develop. We can advance ourselves and learn from the mistakes of the past. There may be things that happened in the past that was teh result of people being more advanced than we are, but I can say with certainty that murder is wrong, torture is wrong, slavery is wrong. And any society that endorsed it and allowed it and encouraged it and went to war to defend it, is a society that is less developed than we are in that realm.

#277 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 02:23 PM:

ADM@273: *sigh* No, I'm acting as a defense lawyer for open-mindedness and critical thinking.

open-mindedness does not mean we must avoid judging.

There was a bit by Bill Maher where he said something to the effect of "Don't be so tolerant that you tolerate intollerance."

When I was on jury duty, I started out knowing nothing about the case. I had no prejudice or bias regarding the specific case. I was given the evidence from both sides, and then we the jury gave our verdict. We understood the facts, and we judged.

I can be open minded and give a verdict of "guilty". I can look at events of the past, understand the point of view of the people going through it, and from an open minded place say "That was wrong". I can look at the Salem Witch Trial and say that was unacceptable behaviour. I can look at the witchtrials and renditions that Bush is doing now and say they are unacceptable.

And I can do this with an open mind about the facts.

Someone pointed out above that my dates for the development of agriculture was off by a couple thousand years. I'm perfectly fine with taking that with an open mind, and updating my information. But that doesn't mean we cannot judge while being open minded.

Slavery is inferior to Equality. I understand how some cultures became tied to slavery before the industrial revolution due to the overwhelming amount of labor needed to grow food for everyone. I understand their point of view. I can look at it with an open mind. And I can still judge slavery to be inferior to equality, regardless of the time in history.

#278 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 03:13 PM:

Greg: I have a thought experiment for you. Should equality apply to entities which are legal persons but not humans? In what way does conceding legal equality to a corporation act for, or against, our interests as human beings? What about [hypothetical] human-equivalent AIs? What about [hypothetical] much-smarter-than-human AIs?

I suspect your faith in the virtue of legal equality is grounded in some unspoken assumptions about the nature of person-hood, specifically on the idea of person-hood being invariant and non-fungible.

And that's just for starters, from the looking-forward department.

#279 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 03:28 PM:

I've been reluctant to get into this thread, in part because ADM has done a very good job of critiquing the presentist fallacy.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that a great deal is being said about a subject, slavery, on which I have a bit of knowledge. Much of what is being said is, frankly, nonsense.

Now, why is it nonsense? It's nonsense because the term 'slavery' refers to several different conditions, and it is unwise to lump them all together (the administrative staffs of Roman and Ottoman emperors, the standing armies of mediæval Egypt and of the Ottomans, plantation labourers in the Americas from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, craftsmen in 18th century Buenos Aires, household servants in a number of Arab countries to this day, and I haven't exhausted the list). (There are also a variety of categories of unfreedom which are not slavery -- serfdom, debt peonage, métayage, corvée obligation, imprisonment, detention at Guantánamo, just to mention a few.) I do not believe that we can simply apply a single term to all of these, or hope to understand them unless we look at them in their own terms and in their own context. It's not helpful to apply a broad categorical term to all of them and assume that they are all alike.

#280 ::: chris y ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 03:42 PM:

Greg@276: It is now 09/08/07. Are you the kid or the parent? How do you know?

Charlie Stross@278: Damn, you're a better man than I am. Nail, head, bang.

Everybody: I'm going away from this thread, which I find depressing. I love Gibbon. I love Macauley. I love Trevelyan. They tell us nothing (data aside) about how we got where we are.

#281 ::: ethan ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 03:43 PM:

I understand what both sides of this argument are saying, I think, but I have a question for people arguing against Greg: If we can't look at the past and see how things were different and how we feel about that difference, how can we work for positive change in the future?

If we're not supposed to think that our relatively greater amount of freedom over people in the past is a good thing, how are we supposed to think we should work for even greater freedom in the future?

#282 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 04:05 PM:

Charlie@278: Should equality apply to entities which are legal persons but not humans? In what way does conceding legal equality to a corporation act for, or against, our interests as human beings?

I don't buy the "corporation has rights" shpeel.

What about [hypothetical] human-equivalent AIs?

Sure. It's possible some AI could achieve a level of consciousness that I would say qualifies it for equal status with humans. I'm not certain it'll happen in my lifetime, or anytime soon, but I think it's possible.

Same goes for meeting some alien life form. It's possible that there's other life out there that I'd say qualifies for equality with humans. It may be that life is so rare and so far apart and the speed of light causes so many problems that we may never meet intelligent life from another planet. But, then again, it might happen that SETI gets a message tomorrow.

What about [hypothetical] much-smarter-than-human AIs?

The qualification I look for is a level of consciousness that includes agency, empathy, and language. Something that is "much smarter" doesn't get to be "more equal". If you have the minimums, then there is some capacity for an equality of agreement between myself and that other entity. We can empathize with the other, we can understand the other has agency (ego, free will, desire, whatever), and we can agree to let the other do what they want as long as it doesn't interfere (equality by agreement).

If you don't have that, then it's hard to get to equality by agreement. And things get a bit more tricky when you start looking at humans that don't have this capacity due to medical problems, or animals, or whatever. There is a concept in EMT training that if the patient is unconscious, assume they would want treatment and would agree to treatment. So I'm willing to extend some assumption of equality.

But as always things get tricky at the edge. For example, I eat meat. However, it might be that in the future, the standard worldview that people are born into is one where animals aren't equal, but are not raised for food. I'm for humane treatment of animals, but I also eat meat.

I would not rule out the possibility that the future develops a worldview that condemns that attitude. And that's their choice. I'm doing the best I can with what I have now. If someone gets a better map in a hundred years and teh world decides that eating meat is just wrong, that's there choice. I certainly won't hold it against them. I can see limitations with my own worldview, and they might get some clarity where my map says "There be dragons".

If so, more power to them.

Maybe that's part of the issue on this thread. I get that you can pick any time in history and you can find people are often doing the best they can with what they have. But I know slavery is wrong. They didn't. I condemn the behaviour. But I'm not saying they weren't doing the best they could. They were. It's just that I happen to have a better map that contains more detail on certain twisty mountain passages that others got lost in.

I still have big blank spots at the edge that say "There be dragons" and I know I may be doing things wrong that the future understands better than me. But I am doing the best I can with what I have. I think that is true of most people, most of the time throughout history.

I can look at the Salem Witch Trial and have some understanding for the fear they are goign through, and I can even understand that they were doing the best they can with what they have. I could even take that and extend it to this whole war on terrorism and see the similar fear mongering going on, and assume some people are doing the best they can with what they've got. But I can do that and still say that the witchtrials were wrong just as much as I can say extraordinary rendition is wrong now.

#283 ::: Another Damned Medievalist ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 04:10 PM:

Ethan @281
I understand what both sides of this argument are saying, I think, but I have a question for people arguing against Greg: If we can't look at the past and see how things were different and how we feel about that difference, how can we work for positive change in the future?

We can do that. But we have to see and understand the past for what it was, not through the lenses of the present. Putting aside those lenses allows us to try and understand the complexities of another society, and helps us to ask ourselves questions of our own society and try to address those things in our quest for change. But here's another point -- not everybody wants the same kinds of change. Not everybody sees the same things as positive change, even now.

If we're not supposed to think that our relatively greater amount of freedom over people in the past is a good thing, how are we supposed to think we should work for even greater freedom in the future?
Better is subjective. You can think that things are better, and then look for points where things seemed to turn towards what you think is better and build on them or emulate them. You can even start working from a premise that X is better -- "Given that we think a decline in infant mortality due to childhood diseases like measles is a Good Thing, life now is better in those terms than it was in the pre-modern period." I'd agree with that, because it's very narrowly defined (and recognizes that the premise is based on a personal belief, although one that is held my many people). But what about something like freedom? It's a very ambiguous term that is really defined by a culture, and within that culture, by individuals. There may be some generally agreed-upon points, but it's by no means a cut-and-dried concept. So you can say that, by 2007 US terms, the MA was less free, but it's wrong and a fallacy to expect that they measured freedom in the same way that we might and to judge the past as somewhat inferior because of it.

Presentism is temporal ethnocentrism. It's a mindkiller.

#284 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 04:17 PM:

Greg: We ought not to confuse technological advances, political development, psychological knowledge, and moral development. These are not automatically connected. The technology for projectile weapons was around for centuries (fireworks) before Western Europeans decided to manufacturer cannons. The belief that one should care for widows and orphans has been around for thousands of years, as has the principle that one should love thy neighbor as thyself, however, the whole of 20th century history provides a counter-argument to the contention that human beings have advanced psychologically and morally since Leviticus was written. No one on ML (I think) is likely to argue that human beings have not made technological progress since, say, the Athens of Socrates. Surely we have. I'm fond of antibiotics, and eyeglasses. Have we made political progress? Who's "we?" Democracy as practiced by the Athenians would not have included me, so I prefer our version, but even that version is less than 100 years old -- the Founders of our republic did not include me, either -- and is by no means universally accepted. Are you stating that there has been some actual, measurable change in the human capacity for empathy over the centuries? I certainly don't see it, and again, I offer the 20th century as proof. I see no difference between the massacre of the Canaanites, of the Albigensians, or of the Tutsis in Rwanda.

With regard to judging the political systems of the past: you are free to do so, of course, but it is always better to make such judgments from knowledge, and the professionals who post here are saying, as politely as they can, that you are making some pretty superficial assumptions about the nature of those systems. Which you are free to do.

#285 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 04:24 PM:

chris@280: It is now 09/08/07. Are you the kid or the parent? How do you know?

History provides us with an ever expanding map of what people are capable of. We have a bigger map than people did even two hundred years ago. We know that slavery is wrong (yes, Fragano, any kind of slavery) because history has shown it.

If it's on the map, if it is something that has historical basis, if it is some human behaviour that we understand, then we are the parent.

If it is something new, something we don't understand, then we are the child.

We understand slavery enough to know it to be wrong. We obviously haven't figured out how to design a government that doesnt' abuse its powers.

OK, so I answered your question. Now here's my questino to you and anyone else who thinks we cant judge history. I asked ADM and he avoided answering.

Do you agree that equality is better than slavery?

Another question if you're up for it:

Using your ability for empathy, put yourself in the shoes of someone living a thousand years ago, and answer the same question. Note that you get to keep your map of everything you know now when you do this.

If you ever end up on jury duty, you will judge a serial killer, or a rapist, not through their view of the world, but through your own worldview.

#286 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 04:29 PM:

To clarify something I said in 284: there absolutely are important differences between the massacres of the Canaanites, the Albigensians, and the Tutsis, which must be understood if one wants to make statements about political motives, or if one wants to understand the context of decisions. But in terms of the human capacity for empathy, for what we are as a species, for what used to be called "human nature" -- I see no change, no difference. Do you?

#287 ::: Another Damned Medievalist ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 04:32 PM:

Why do complete strangers, upon reading my writing, assume I'm a man?

#288 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 04:44 PM:

Lizzy@284: Are you stating that there has been some actual, measurable change in the human capacity for empathy over the centuries?

I don't think the anatomy of individuals have changed. i.e. I don't think our brains have changed so that before we weren't empathic, but now we are.

I think the worldview we are born into has expanded and gotten better over time. Language allows us a frame to hold our ideas. And language allows us a way to record and expand this frame.

I certainly don't see it, and again, I offer the 20th century as proof. I see no difference between the massacre of the Canaanites, of the Albigensians, or of the Tutsis in Rwanda.

The difference is we know it's wrong. I think a couple thousand years ago, (probably even more recent than that), the frame for justice was probably more like "might makes right" or "God's punishment" or something. So that a massacre in the ancient world would probably not have batted an eye of a third party nation, other than possibly to wonder if they were next and should they get ready.

Now, we can look at a massacre that occurs so far away from us that it will never have any direct impact on us, and we can say that it is wrong.
I think if you go back far enough in time, you'll find this reaction did not exist in any culture. Maybe on an individual level, but not a cultural level.

#289 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 04:46 PM:

Default human being = male. Hasn't changed.

*bangs head on desk*

#290 ::: ethan ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 04:46 PM:

ADM #283: Sure, fine, people in the past didn't measure things the same way I do. I know that. I think Greg London knows that, and hasn't said anything to contradict it.

And, sure, everyone has different values. There are many different sets of values that are perfectly valid.

But if history is to be used as a tool to learn how to change things (which is not its only function, but I feel should be a big part of it), we have to be able to look at the past and say "Whoa, that's worse than what we have now. Even if people then wouldn't have thought so, I'm glad I live in a world where we recognize that as bad." I don't see the harm in thinking that way.

#291 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 04:59 PM:

ADM@287: Why do complete strangers, upon reading my writing, assume I'm a man?

Hm, interesting.

When I run your first two posts on this thread through the Gender Genie, they both come up "Male".

Your long post at #89 got a score of Female: 462, Male: 794.

No harm was intended by my assumption. I'll update my mental records accordingly.

#292 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 05:01 PM:

Frack! that link should point to here:

Gender Genie.

#293 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 05:02 PM:

ADM 287: I thought you were a man from your name, because that's the kind of name I thought a man might call himself. I had come to the conclusion that you're a woman after reading this thread (and before this post), though I'm not quite sure why.

#294 ::: Iain Coleman ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 05:06 PM:

ADM @ 287:

If it's any consolation, I always assumed you were female. I can't put my finger on why, mind you.

#295 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 05:06 PM:

Just sometimes, history might enable us to look at the past and say "Whoa, that was better than what we have now."

I don't subscribe to the "Every day, in every way, we're getting better and better" school of thought.

#296 ::: Another Damned Medievalist ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 05:11 PM:

Ethan at 290 -- as long as you admit that you are saying something is worse according to your own standards and not according to absolute standards, that's fine. Greg argues that standards are absolute, and that the standards of the past are inferior. So either you don't understand him, or you don't understand what I'm arguing.

I do take exception to the last part of your statement. Why does it have to be worse? Why can't it just be different? Why can't a person or a society simply say, "I am looking at this other society, and even if they believe it's the way to run things, I don't, so I'm going to work towards creating a society where what I believe is right is the norm"?

Again, presentism is ethnocentrism applied to the past. Greg clearly believes that ethnocentrism is just fine. I do not, because I believe it encourages an arrogance and a sense of superiority that necessitates a treating of those who do not share all of our values or beliefs as inferior -- if you will, it denies their right to equal respect as thinking, feeling human beings.

#297 ::: ethan ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 05:42 PM:

ADM #296: Maybe we're using different definitions of "good" and "bad" somehow? If something is different in a way that makes it less desirable, I call that "worse." If something is different in a way that makes it more desirable, I call it "better."

Also, I can't speak for Greg, but I don't think it's at all "clear" that he thinks ethnocentrism is "just fine." I don't necessarily agree with every single thing he's said here, but that's an unfair accusation.

John Stanning #295: Of course it can go both ways. Aspects of various times in history can be better or worse than aspects of the present. Has anyone here promoted the view that all things are getting better all the time?

#298 ::: MD² ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 05:53 PM:

@Fragano Ledgister(#248): I really don't know. Purely irrational, really. I could say that it is because I think he gestated the modern oedipian complex as we now it, but that's not even that. Rousseau is one of those writers (with people like, say, Céline, or Bloy) whose work I may admire but who're made totally disagreeable to me by their writing.

"Bordeling on the pathological" sounds wonderful (if you can prevent one of those mental institution rape story from erupting). "If you can't beat your madness in a corner, make love to it."

Also @279: The voice of Reason has spoken.

TexAnne@275:And the next time you're looking for an example of a backwater, inferior culture, may I suggest something other than the Middle Ages?

Actually, I've come to think in recent years that Renaissance was in fact worse than the Middle Age... at least in France.

Another Damned Medievalist @287: Why do complete strangers, upon reading my writing, assume I'm a man?

I was wondering the contrary yesterday, why, upon reading your writing, did I assume you were a woman ?

#299 ::: Varia ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 06:07 PM:

I can see some real obvious downsides to viewing the whole of human history as some kind of exercise in what it took to produce the awesomeness that is Us. It makes you complacent about your own "successes", blinds you to problems in your own society, and makes it extremely difficult to actually learn anything more substantial about past societies than a superficial analysis like "they were worse, I'm glad we're better." I mean, I think that kind of judgment makes it impossible to do any kind of academic historical work, and makes it really difficult to even do the kind of cherry-picking historical work I'm personally interested in - using the specific work of other movements and people to give me ideas as to how we can achieve, or not achieve, similar results.

So, are there actually good sides to historical moral absolutism? I'm seriously asking this question, even though it seems a little sarcastic. What is the usefulness of that kind of judgment?

#300 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 06:09 PM:

ADM @287: Does it matter?

#301 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 06:19 PM:

ADM @ 267:
Just because you don't think any of the hundreds of legal systems that existed in the MA were just does not meant that the people who lived under them thought they were unjust. The freedom that you keep touting was not part of the mentality of the MA, or even of the Classical world. Our evidence suggests that people believed in a social order of which everyone was a part. Again, what's humane? Because we have the technology to execute by lethal injection, does it make capital punishment any more humane?

(Is lethal injection more humane than drawing and quartering, or burning at the stake? We can argue that execution of any kind is so inhumane that lethal injection is only marginally more humane than drawing and quartering, but it's sophistry to pretend they're identical and that torture is meaningless. If you cannot see this, then I begin to worry about your moral compass.)

I was thinking of posing the question of whether you thought it was possible to say that trial by ordeal was an inferior system of justice to the modern combination of forensic evidence, impartial judges, appeals, and evidence-based trial by jury -- even given the manifest defects the modern system has -- but I think you've answered already answered it. (Though you haven't considered the question of whether people in the MA might have been interested in the efficacy of a system of justice.)


I'm not arguing for a utopian vision of the MA, but I stand by my assertion that if you can't put aside your own prejudices and sense of superiority when looking at the past -- and you are clearly not able to do so -- you cannot understand it. If you can't understand it, you can't learn from it. Moreover, if you can't do this with the past, I seriously doubt whether you can do the same with other societies in the present. The kind of intolerance and lack of understanding you practice is, to my mind, one of the reasons the world is in the mess it's in.

Ah, I kind of suspected you were a strong moral/cultural relativist after all. In fact, I was wondering why you earlier said it was permissible to critique and judge other contemporary societies, but not past societies, since it's kind of inconsistent to argue for that while you're arguing that past societies cannot be judged because they're unfamiliar to us.

(Hang on -- didn't you just suggest that "intolerance and lack of understanding" in the past were responsible for "the mess the world is in"? Isn't that an example of condemning past behavior?)


... To me, that's freedom -- the ability to believe and act as one wishes to the extent that it does not infringe on the rights of others, as well as the obligation to make sure that one's actions do not infringe on another's freedom.

You know, I agree with you. But your approach offers no way to argue that our viewpoint is any more valid or preferable than that of someone who does want to infringe on the rights of others, whether they're rabid secularists fearful of religious displays, KKK-inspired lynch mobs, or the Spanish Inquisition.


What I find fascinating is that you are apparently dead set against ever trying to discern or identifying futility, injustice, cruelty, or oppression (or for that matter anything superior) in any time or place -- except in our own time. So would you argue that historians living 400 years from now would be wrong to make negative judgements about 20th Century societies that carried out acts of mass slaughter or genocide, as we are wrong to condemn any past society that did so?

Out of curiosity, what's the sell-by date in this system of thinking? How old does an event or practice have to be so that we're no longer allowed to make negative (or positive) judgements about it?

#302 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 06:24 PM:

ADM@296: as long as you admit that you are saying something is worse according to your own standards and not according to absolute standards, that's fine. Greg argues that standards are absolute, and that the standards of the past are inferior.

I don't know if I'd use the word "absolute". I don't think I used it in this thread.

I mentioned at one point to Charlie that only I can tell which way my moral compass is pointing. Only he can tell which way his moral compass pointing.

Ultimately, I would describe morality as completely "personal", not "absolute".

I have a set of concepts mapped out that I try to use as a guide for developing a morality between people. But in the end I can't prove them, any more than I can prove a Zen Koan.

Most of this, for me anyway, seems to go back to your post at #150, that said:

You really don't get it. I'm questioning your entire notion of social advancement. I'm saying that you are basing it on modern, post-Enlightnement, post-Industrial Revolution values, and that you can't use those values to judge the world before those value systems began to be adopted.

And my response has basically been, "I judge with what I have".

I take your post at 150 to mean I cannot judge at all.

I look at my moral compass and look at the map I have and say that slavery is wrong.

Your post at 150 seems to be saying I must use the moral compass that someone else had a thousand years ago when they were abusing their slaves, and use their compass to judge them by.

You seem to have been saying that ever since.

I disagree. I think I must do my best to calibrate my compass and acquire the best map I can find, and then choose. I can try and understand where someone else's compass might have been pointing when they ran off a cliff, but on my map it is a cliff and they made the wrong choice.

If your point was understanding the past, then sure, try and figure out their moral compass and try to figure out what their moral map looked like. But when you say I can't use my values to judge the world before me (historically or not), I disagree. I will judge the best I can with everything I have available to me.

And if we understand one another, then I guess all there is left is to agree to disagree.

#303 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 07:14 PM:

MD² #298: I suppose I can understand that, some thinkers just get up one's nose.

La Raison? Ce n'est pas moi. At least, that's what my beloved tells me.

#304 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 07:19 PM:

Lizzy L @ 284:
Are you stating that there has been some actual, measurable change in the human capacity for empathy over the centuries? I certainly don't see it, and again, I offer the 20th century as proof. I see no difference between the massacre of the Canaanites, of the Albigensians, or of the Tutsis in Rwanda.

Two things. First, I suspect that you mean that the three acts you refer to are to be understood as bad things (and I would agree with you). The problem I have with ADM's view is that according to it we're not allowed to say that there was anything wrong with the massacre of the Canaanites or with the Albigensian Crusade. (You're not allowed to say there was anything right with them, either. They're simply reflections of cultural values that differ from ours.) You and I might be permitted to judge the Rwandan genocide as something bad, but perhaps only if we were Rwandan, or had spent a lot of time studying Rwanda. To do otherwise would be a form of ethnocentrism.

Second, I suspect there has been some change[*] in empathy, because the reaction to and acceptance of such events has changed. There's nothing in the Bible, so far as I am aware, that suggests any condemnation of what was done to the Canaanites (or various other God-approved massacres in the Old Testament), and there's no reason to think anyone else in the world at the time was particularly bothered by it, except from the standpoint of "I hope they don't do that to us."

I have the impression that there was some queasiness in Europe, here and there, about the Albigensian Crusade, but by and large it was, as ADM has pointed out, seen as a necessary reaction to a dangerous heresy. And, after all, even the collateral death of non-heretics was excusable, since "the Lord will know his own."[**] And I doubt that either the Byzantines or the neighboring Muslim states felt or expressed any sense of shock or outrage.

The difference with the Rwandan genocide is that it was immediately condemned by virtually everyone in the world, and there was much soul-searching and guilt about how this might have been prevented. There was a very strong sense that this was something deeply wrong, something that should not have happened, and something that the rest of the world should have tried to prevent.

I think that is, in fact, rather profoundly different.

I'll be slightly ethnocentric/presentist and say that I think this is probably a positive change.


[*] Not in some silly essentialist sense ("We have purer souls now"), and not in some dubious genetic sense. More that the cultural values have changed.

[**] The original version of "Kill 'em all and let God sort them out," voiced by a Papal legate during the siege of Beziers in 1209.

#305 ::: Another Damned Medievalist ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 08:23 PM:

I didn't say any of those things and I am not a moral relativist -- at least not in the sense Peter Erwin means. I have a very strong moral compass, thanks very much. I just happen to live in a world where I know other people with strong moral compasses who don't agree with me on some fundamental things. That's one of the things about living in a secular, modern society where there is freedom of religion and the expectation that we will tolerate each other. We also have to accept that all those different teachings may result in different ideas of morality. For example, I think capital punishment are wrong. There are plenty of people who think it's right and just. (Just don't bring up examples that most people do agree on, like murder. Just don't)

But here's the thing that Peter and Greg and others don't seem to get:

I'm a historian. It's my job to learn as much as I can about the past, to interpret an awful lot of evidence, and then to present a well-argued narrative that answers some questions about the past, what happened, and what I think is the best explanation for why -- and also to present other interpretations that might not agree with mine. It's not my job to say what's right or wrong, good or bad; it's my job to ask and answer questions.

Something that occurs to me is that there seems to be confusion between the fact that values have changed overall and the rabid defense of those values as better. And when I say values, I mean the values of the industrialised west. I happen to prefer those values, but I don't for a minute presume to think that they should or do define values for the rest of the world. I wish everybody believed what I believe on sexual morality and capital punishment and abortion, but even people in my own country don't share the same moral compass on those things. There are an awful lot of religious people out there who think it's just fine to kill unbelievers and sinners. There might even be more people who believe that than don't, if you were to poll the planet's population.

You all may be so sure of your moral compasses being set to the magnetic north of morality. That must be very comforting. Me, I'm never comfortable. I see the world as a very complex place with many shades of grey.

But here's a question for you morally superior types -- how is it that even in the present-day US, there are huge differences in what people consider to be moral and immoral behavior, if we have come so far and it's so easy to judge what's right and wrong, good and bad? If you can't find a single set of moral standards in *this* society, how can you think it's ok to approach another society (whether the past or another country in the present day) with a set of moral standards in mind and judge that society by your standards?

We can try to understand other cultures and we can even use them as a touchstone for deciding our own actions and what kind of world we want to create. But we can't understand unless we are willing to believe that other cultures can be understood. We can't understand if we use ourselves as the measure of all things.

#306 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 09:07 PM:

Peter Erwin at 304: Actually, you are wrong about this.There's nothing in the Bible, so far as I am aware, that suggests any condemnation of what was done to the Canaanites (or various other God-approved massacres in the Old Testament... I can't find the exact verse, but there's a place in Exodus or Leviticus or somewhere where Moses (I think) rejoices at the death of the Egyptians, and The Lord says to him -- I paraphrase: "Be quiet! The Egyptians are all my children, too."

#307 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 10:08 PM:

ADM@305: It's not my job to say what's right or wrong, good or bad;

Well, OK. That's a rather different point than what you were making at 150:

you can't use those values to judge the world before those value systems began to be adopted

That your job as historian requires you to withold your personal judgement is one thing. That people in general cannot exercise their moral judgement about historical event because their values didn't exist where the event took place, is, well, different.

I'll chalk your job requirements as On-The-Job Hazards of being a professional historian.

And I'll judge historical events with everything available to me.

If you can't find a single set of moral standards in *this* society, how can you think it's ok to approach another society [and judge them]?

My morality isn't given by an external source. I've read, studied, questioned, challenged, and generally tested the limits of every moral basis I could find in an effort to avoid wheel reinvention. But in the end, I am ultimately responsible for every action I take or do not take.

One of the basic principles of my morality is a concept of equality by agreement. If I judge someone else's actions to be something I do not agree with, then I do not go along. I do not need universal agreement of everyone around me to confirm my morality is correct. This may sound like pride, but then I also have no way of proving my morality is in any way correct either, which brings with it a certain kind of humility.

I will not support anything I do not agree with. And I know any mistake I make is my own fault. I do not agree with slavery, regardless of its time frame. I've judged it immoral and refuse to agree to it in any way.

I must judge every action and nonaction I take, and therefore I must judge every agreement I explicitely or implicitely enter into. And I do this because the basis for my morality is that I am ultimately responsible for all my choices.

If you want some words that describe where I"m coming from, it would be a chunk of existentialism, combined with some Zen to try and keep the existential angst away, a bit of taoism for spirituality, some training as a life coach to try and engage certain levels of personal development, and some karaoke for emotional balance (fun).

I can't prove any of this is right. But I have no qualms with living my life as responsibly as I can. And to do so, I must judge every action I take and every agreement that I support.

#308 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 10:24 PM:

Peter Erwin @304: something that the rest of the world should have tried to prevent

We need more people like Christiane Amanpour out in the field speaking Truth to Power.

#309 ::: Seth Gordon ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2007, 11:37 PM:

Lizzy L @ 306: There is a midrash stating that when the Egyptians were drowning in the Red Sea, God silenced them, saying "how can you sing while My children are dying?" That's probably what you are recalling.

(Midrash is not part of the Bible itself, but a category of traditional Jewish literature that fills in lacunae and elaborates details in both the legal and narrative sections of the Bible. It's sort of like Jewish fanfic.)

AFAIK, traditional Jewish sources don't condemn the Jewish massacre of the Canaanites, but they say that Sennacherib, the Assyrian king who exiled the ten tribes of Judah, resettled a whole bunch of other ethnic groups as well, so that we can no longer identify whether or not someone is a Canaanite, an Amalekite, etc., etc.--and therefore, any commandments to displace or exterminate those groups are effectively void.

#310 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2007, 12:00 AM:

Seth at 309, that is exactly what I am recalling, thank you. Okay, not in the Tanakh but in the commentaries.

#311 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2007, 06:57 AM:

#307: I think I understand your position, but why did you describe it as non-dogmatic? "I can't prove this is true but I believe it and act on it anyway" is pretty much the definition of dogmatic belief, isn't it? Could any evidence whatsoever convince you that, say, murder isn't wrong? If not, in what sense is your belief that murder is wrong not dogmatic?

I'm not saying dogmatism is wrong: to say so dogmatically would be absurd hypocrisy, and to say so non-dogmatically would require a non-dogmatic standard of right and wrong, which is something I don't have. (And as far as I can see, nobody else does either.)

Also on the subject of dogmatism: those ancient conservative societies (and modern conservative societies, too) had some beliefs that really did continue their survival and some that didn't; planting at the right time of year actually is better for the crops[1], but human sacrifices don't really bring rain. But they didn't know the difference or make any systematic attempt to find out, because they were conservative. Conservatism is not defined by keeping the beliefs that work; everyone wants to do that. Conservatism is defined by also keeping the beliefs that don't work, and discouraging any attempts at drawing lines between the two categories.


Of course I would rather live in a society where I'm not tortured to death for heresy. But I'm not completely confident how people who *did* live in those societies would react to an offer to trade societies. I do know that *I* would reject it.

I have to live my life, not theirs; actually, I'm glad that I can live my life and not theirs, because my opinion is that their lives sucked. But if their opinion is different, what would it even mean to say that I'm right and they're wrong? And if that did mean something, how would you go about deciding whether it was true or false?


[1] Using a human-centric definition of "better", at least. The crops have no comment.

#312 ::: chris y ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2007, 07:38 AM:

Greg @285. OK, I was trying to butt out here, but since I've been directly challenged, I'll have a go. (NB much of what I would say has been said by ADM @305.)

if it is some human behaviour that we understand, then we are the parent.

This strikes me as frankly Panglossian. It only makes sense if you believe we have reached the "End of Ethics" in the sense that Fukuyama believed a few years ago that we had reached the "End of History".

We do our small best, and certainly I judge practical matters today by the values of a c21 democratic socialist, rather than a c14 canon lawyer. But this is really irrelevant to the issue here, which I take to be the degree of confidence with which we suppose that the apparent superiority of our contemporary values are timeless.

Personally, I will back them strongly to last past next Tuesday. It's the best I can do, that's all - as a meliorist, I'm innately suspicious of optimism. When I am old, and things have happened that I can't imagine yet, the young people will say to us, "How can you have believed that shit anyway?" I will reply, because I didn't know any different. What's your excuse?

Do you agree that equality is better than slavery?

Only to the extent that I think music is better than cheese. This is a category error. Do you honestly suppose Wilberforce was an egalitarian? I think liberty is better than slavery. As to equality, equality of what? Equality before the law? Check. Equality of property? Read some recent Cambodian history.

But that's a pedantic side issue. I find it appalling that people are asking on this site whether other people are opposed to slavery.

On the other hand, I take quite seriously Moses Finley's argument that the binary opposition between slave and free that emerged in parts of Greece in the c6 BCE and in Rome in the c4 BCE, by replacing the number of intermediate gradations of status that had previously existed, made possible an idea of a free society which never emerged elsewhere, and substantially contributed to the growth of the ethical traditions in which we live.

So, do I find Roman slave law attractive. No, it's utterly sickening. Do I find Aristotle's philosophical justifications for slavery convincing? No, they're meretricious and unworthy. OTOH, do I think it possible that without the experience of ancient mediterranean slavery, what we understand as free societies might never have come to be? Certainly.

Ethically, it's a bitch, isn't it? What do you do?

Using your ability for empathy, put yourself in the shoes of someone living a thousand years ago, and answer the same question.

I hope so. Slavery was abolished in England 940 years ago by a decree of William the Conqueror, so it would hardly have been an inconceivable point of view. Harder question: why did it become respectable again in the c16?

If you ever end up on jury duty, you will judge a serial killer, or a rapist, not through their view of the world, but through your own world view.

Certainly. Was their ever a time in history when murderers and rapists were judged according to their view of the world? One of my school teachers once went off on jury duty, and when he came back we asked him about it.

"There were eight cases," he said, "And five of them were incest."

Good thing he wasn't an Ancient Egyptian, then.


#313 ::: Jakob ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2007, 09:48 AM:

ADM #305:

If you can't find a single set of moral standards in *this* society, how can you think it's ok to approach another society (whether the past or another country in the present day) with a set of moral standards in mind and judge that society by your standards?

Because I think that some of the sets of standards are wrong. I don't see anything inconsistent in trying to understand the behaviour of other societies in terms of their culture and assumptions and yet judging their standards as wrong.

#314 ::: Howard Peirce ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2007, 09:54 AM:

I just recently read Conan Doyle's short horror story "The Leather Funnel" (1923), and recalled it while reading this thread. It seems to treat a lot of the same themes that are coming up here with regard to progress and empathy.

#315 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2007, 10:46 AM:

Chris@311: I think I understand your position, but why did you describe it as non-dogmatic?

Because it isn't true. I hold it as my personal truth, but I can't prove it to anyone, nor can I force it on anyone. That whole equality through agreement thing sort of short circuits any attempt to exert this as some sort of top-down, from the mouth of God, to me, to you, sort of thing.

To me, that's what a dogma is. An authoritarian assertion of truth that all must adopt.

#316 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2007, 09:44 PM:

ADM@267: in what way do the various ]episodes[ Greg and Dave have mentioned demonstrate the ability to believe and act as one wishes to the extent that it does not infringe on the rights of others, as well as the obligation to make sure that one's actions do not infringe on another's freedom?

For that matter, your example is almost as suspect as that of the Southern planter talking about "happy darkies"; people in the worst circumstances will often find \something/ to be happy about, if only because the ones who can't will just open a vein or let themselves starve. (And there's the fact that the women you saw were out on the public street; does your historical understanding make you certain that that alone was not sufficient to be happy over?) To take a deliberately extreme example, do you tolerate for FGM (aka "female circumsion")? If not, how do you draw the line?

Your comments seem to confound "understanding" and "forgiveness"; and your insistences sound to me as if you are imputing misunderstanding to anyone who takes issue with your position.

chris@312: Was incest in Ancient Egypt intergenerational rape? I've read it was between siblings, as a concentration of power; I think you're being dramatically careless about your terms here.

#317 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2007, 09:17 AM:

Chris y #312:

The whole point of the discussion is that everyone here agrees that slavery is a bad thing. We're talking about some meta questions surrounding this, right? How do you judge societies that have slavery against ones that don't, to what extent should you suspend moral judgement while trying to understand other cultures, and when (if ever) do you start back making moral judgements?

#318 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2007, 09:47 AM:

ADM #305:

Do you think there's any way at all to judge between competing moral claims, or all they all just opinion? It has always seemed to me that the "they're all just opinion" idea is easy to argue for, but hard to live by.

#319 ::: Another Damned Medievalist ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2007, 11:14 AM:

Everybody -- what I'm saying is that it's not simple, and that we have to be willing to accept that people whose social mores are different may not be wrong or inferior. I really resent the "happy darkies" comment above. My own feelings on veiling are that it's an acculturated thing that bears with it centuries of subjugation. But I also know Muslim women who see it as a form of appropriate modesty and obedience (as do Orthodox Jewish women who never let their own hair be seen in public, although hats and wigs are the more normative hair coverings there) -- in fact, some find it liberating. I also think that acculturation in western societies where Islam is not a majority religion, some Muslims, male and female, will relax their dress codes. But I don't think that we should assume that those who don't are less advanced or ignorant or any of the other logical conclusions to arguments that I've heard here.

I find it very interesting that so many of the people arguing with me are basing their arguments on incorrect assumptions of what people and life were like in the Classical and Medieval world are rejections of cultures that were much more homogeneous in terms of religion, morality, and legal/political ideals, and in fact seem to be offended by that homogeneity, but when I bring the argument to how one deals with other cultures with other social mores in the present (or the past, for that matter), they are all for supporting the idea that there should be only one set of homogeneous values.

Note -- I am not arguing that any of the social ills people have mentioned are good. I think equality under the law is good. I think separation of church and state are good. I think female circumcision and honor killing are bad. But I also know that I believe those things because I was raised in the dominant culture. As that culture is now throwing away many of the bases for its claims to superiority (torture, abrogating the rule of law, unprovoked war, etc.) while trying to ram its values down other people's throats, I have to ask just how inculcated in our society those values really are.

All I really know is what doing history has taught me, and it's served me in good stead in the present. You don't have to agree with other people, but you have to assume that they have reasons for their actions and respect that those reasons might be valid. Obviously, I'm not talking about serial killers or pedophiles or any other people who would be more or less outcast in all human societies of the past or present. But I think there are certain normative behaviours we can see now and in the past. I'm certainly not willing to assume that someone is inferior or less intelligent because they don't agree with me on all things to the same extent. That kind of assumption -- focused on entire socities, is what I feel that Greg, Dave, and a couple of other posters have been making.

#320 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2007, 12:08 PM:

Evil is like art: I know it when I see it. Perhaps it's a character flaw on my part, but cultural sensitivity is a low priority for me when it comes to pattern recognition calculations pertaining to Evil.

#321 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2007, 01:18 PM:

chris 312: Good thing he wasn't an Ancient Egyptian, then.

I'm so tired of hearing this slur against the Ancient Egyptians! The incestuous marriages were only within the royal house(s), and they were considered gods. It was NOT considered OK for ordinary people.

An Egyptian husband might indeed call his wife "my sister," but that was a term of affection and respect, indicating that the wife was close as kin to him. It does NOT indicate that she was actually his sister!

This is a prime example of what ADM has been talking about. Just because acceptance of incest among royals existed in Egyptian society doesn't mean that they had no incest taboo. It would in ours, but we don't think like Ancient Egyptians. (Google "Egypt scent cones" if you don't agree.) That acceptance is predicated on the idea that gods walk on Earth, and of course the rules for them are somewhat different.

#322 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2007, 08:50 PM:

ADM: resent my comment all you like; that's how you sounded. And but you \still/ haven't offered any resolution between your endorsements of individual freedom and broad-span cultural relativism. The fact that the current administration sucks doesn't make Taliban-style force any more attractive.

#323 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2007, 12:33 AM:

ADM@319: You don't have to agree with other people, but you have to assume that they have reasons for their actions and respect that those reasons might be valid.

Certainly. But you also have to respect that those reasons might be completely evil.

I think you have conflated "Judge" with "Understand". To understand someone's actions, present or distant past, you need to subvert your worldview as much as possible, take on their worldview as accurately as you can, and imagine yourself in a culture that reflects the worldview of where the person acted.

In that situation, you must absolutely withold your personal opinions, your worldviews, your cultural worldviews, and take on the views of the person you are trying to understand. Only then will his actions make sense.

But to judge someone, you judge them against your own worldview. You don't judge a serial killer from their worldview, you judge them from your own. You don't judge a woman wearing a burkha from their point of view, you judge it from your own. You don't judge a slaveowner of 200 years ago from their worldview, you judge from your own.

You want to understand them, then you take on their worldview. But you judge from your own worldview, your own moral compass.

The thing is that I said way back when something about how historically humans have made social progress, that we are better than we were in the past. And you objected at #150, saying:

I'm questioning your entire notion of social advancement. I'm saying that you are basing it on modern, post-Enlightnement, post-Industrial Revolution values, and that you can't use those values to judge the world before those value systems began to be adopted.

Do you hear what that requires? You are saying we must Judge the past from the worldview of the past.

This means it is impossible to measure any improvement in cultural worldviews over time. You disallow that judgement. two thousand years ago, the standard cultural worldview was X. Today, my worldview is Y.

X is not equal to Y.

You insist that the actions of 2000 years ago be measured against the worldview of 2000 years ago, and that the actions of today be measured against the worldview of today.

But you do not allow any comparison be made between worldviews. I said we've progressed. You object on the grounds that the comparison is illegal.

This, I believe, is yet another outcome of your historian training. Certainly, to understand the actions of 2000 years ago, you need to look at it from the worldview of 2000 years ago. But that does not preclude you from Judging that worldview from ours, or that worldview from the worldview of 1000 years ago.

If judging makes it hard for you to take on someone else's worldview and understand them, then I can see how you would fight any suggestion that we judge. But judge we must.

How else do you look at extraordinary rendition and judge it wrong but by comparing it to your worldview and find it grossly lacking? That is no different than looking at some slaveowner from a thousand years ago and comparing him to your moral compass and finding his actions morally repugnant.

#324 ::: Varia ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2007, 03:03 AM:

I'm not trying to be a pest here, but why are the several of you so vociferously defending your right to judge any and all human beings according to whatever standards you see fit? Of course you have that right, but isn't it, especially historically speaking, a bit pointless? I feel like there are a lot more interesting questions to be asked than "was medieval serfdom morally repugnant" - for example, why did it come about? how did it interact with local political and sexual mores? what are the economic, political, or social common factors that have occurred in the various times when societies have gone from assuming slavery is not OK to assuming it is? how can we recognize whether and if those factors are coming into play in our own time?

I'm perfectly happy to grant the background assumption that slavery is wrong, but if you study any history at all and spend all your time thinking or talking about what utter turpitude was occurring, you're not going to get very far, or learn very much.

To me the only time that your personal mores are at all relevant is when it comes to determining your own actions - or by extension what you vote for or argue for online or in public. That is, historically, I think it's a waste of time to concentrate on judgment, and when it comes to current events one has to be careful, especially as an American, as I don't think any other country has made an ass of itself in recent politics quite so badly. I would take a small dose of moral relativism over the hubris of whatever minority of voters sincerely thought we could "fix" Iraq any day.

#325 ::: Another Damned Medievalist ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2007, 09:00 AM:

Varia @#324

Thank you. A much shorter and probably clearer version of much of what I've been trying to get across.

#326 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2007, 10:01 AM:

I'm going with ADM here.

I've read books on medieval history, and there are things we find shocking that they considered perfectly reasonable. Doesn't mean they're wrong, or we are, just that their world was not our world. (Read about William Marshal and the monk who was running off with a bag of money and a female lover.)

H*ll, I can't even get into the worldview of my great-grandfather and his brother during the Civil War. It's just enough different to be like looking through a window: you can see it, but you can't reach it.

#327 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2007, 11:39 AM:

Varia @ 324,

I'm not trying to be a pest here, but why are the several of you so vociferously defending your right to judge any and all human beings according to whatever standards you see fit? Of course you have that right, but isn't it, especially historically speaking, a bit pointless

Part of the issue is that ADM seems to be arguing that we do not have that right, that it is never acceptable to judge past societies, no matter what effort you have put into understanding them first, no matter what other questions you are asking first or in addition.


I feel like there are a lot more interesting questions to be asked than "was medieval serfdom morally repugnant" - for example, why did it come about? how did it interact with local political and sexual mores? what are the economic, political, or social common factors that have occurred in the various times when societies have gone from assuming slavery is not OK to assuming it is? how can we recognize whether and if those factors are coming into play in our own time?

Those are excellent questions. They are questions I'd be interested in.
But, for the sake of argument, why should we in the here-and-now care if such factors are coming into play in our own time, if there's nothing intrinsically wrong with serfdom or slavery (other than our purely presentist/ethnocentric opinion that they're icky)?

If our society seemed to be evolving in the direction of re-introducing something like serfdom or slavery, should we even care? By the standards of the (hypothetical) future society, these practices might be seen as natural and acceptable, as they have been in some past societies.


That is, historically, I think it's a waste of time to concentrate on judgment, and when it comes to current events one has to be careful, especially as an American, as I don't think any other country has made an ass of itself in recent politics quite so badly.

How do you know this is unprecedented? If the past is not open to judgments like "X was a mistake" or "country X made an ass of itself" or "country Y did not make an ass of itself", how can you have a basis for an argument like that? (An argument which I would tend to agree with, but then I think it's possible to -- sometimes -- make evaluative judgments about the past...).

I agree with you that it's a waste of time to concentrate on judgment. The question is whether it's ever possible to use judgment, or whether one must always say "it's just different, that's all."

#328 ::: Varia ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2007, 12:01 PM:

Peter Erwin:

Part of the issue is that ADM seems to be arguing that we do not have that right, that it is never acceptable to judge past societies, no matter what effort you have put into understanding them first, no matter what other questions you are asking first or in addition.

Oh. I can't speak for hir, but I think since zhe said zhe agreed with me that maybe there was some argument-past-each-other there.

why should we in the here-and-now care if such factors are coming into play in our own time, if there's nothing intrinsically wrong with serfdom or slavery (other than our purely presentist/ethnocentric opinion that they're icky)?

I think you're arguing a point I didn't make there. Possibly also a point that ADM didn't make. Actually, I see a fairly notable lack of argument for the position that all things are OK all the time for anybody, cuz they're all just quaint local customs that we couldn't understand.

For the record, I'm all in favor of historians, politicians, and pundits with really well thought-out ethical positions. Just save your focus for when it's wanted, is all I ask.


#329 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2007, 02:49 PM:

Varia@324: why are the several of you so vociferously defending your right to judge

Sigh. Because ADM insisted, quite literally, that we cannot.

isn't it, especially historically speaking, a bit pointless?

If you wish to study history for history's sake, that's perfectly acceptable. I read about history to learn how we got to where we are today, to learn how we are different than we were then.

If ADM says we cannot judge the past using our values because those values did not exist in the past, then she is at the very least implicitely agreeing to the idea that values have changed over historical time.

I said our cultural worldview today is better than the worldview of the past. ADM said that judgement cannot be made. You appear to be saying it is historically pointless.

If you don't want to contrast and compare ancient values to current day values, that's fine. But to say comparing our values to the values of the cultures of the past is historically irrelevant is, I think, to miss a useful application for history: to find out how we got to where we are today, and to look at how our worldviews, our values, our culture, has progressed.

#330 ::: Varia ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2007, 02:58 PM:

greg But to say comparing our values to the values of the cultures of the past is historically irrelevant is, I think, to miss a useful application for history: to find out how we got to where we are today, and to look at how our worldviews, our values, our culture, has progressed.

for once you and i are in relative agreement. I get a little twitchy with the word "progressed" - it's not linear- but i think that horse got flayed and eaten a while back. I think the point is, if all you can think of when studying history is how awful all of those people must have been and how much better we are now, you're both deluding yourself as to the nature of humanity and human societies, and missing out on some real understanding. Those comparisons are at best superficial and at worst misleading.

#331 ::: Another Damned Medievalist ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2007, 04:37 PM:

Greg at 328 -- If you changed the last word of your last sentence to "changed," I would agree. But whether or not change = progress is a different question. No historian I know studies history in a vacuum. We all compare -- it's part of studying the human experience. It's the qualitative statements that imply that people in the past were somehow morally, socially, and intellectually inferior that I have been arguing against. Progress is a nebulous idea. It needs to be measured against something. Measuring the cultures of the past against a continuum that would not have been conceivable to them is pointless and can only result in viewing the past as inferior -- or superior, which is also wrong.

There is a difference between saying that morality or laws or customs have changed, and you think those changes are for the better, and saying that humankind has progressed.

My objection has always been to the claim that you can measure against the yardstick of the present, especially when the idea of historical progress is a relatively new one.

I am going to try one more time, and maybe it'll work. Take a subject like women's suffrage in Europe. It would be ridiculous to talk about progress being made on that front before the very late 18th C, and really not till the 19th C. It wasn't an issue before that -- suffrage itself wasn't particularly an issue, even for men, till a hundred or so years before that. So you could certainly talk about progress from the point that people are beginning to push for women's suffrage to the present. There's a goal, and a movement where we can see people basing their actions and writing on the work of people before them.

BUT -- it would be bad history, and a bad understanding of history, to say that the status of women has progressed since the Ancient world, because women can now vote. A good interpretation would be that the status of women changed over time, but that there was no concerted effort, nor was there a documentable desire to equate women's civil rights, including suffrage, with men's till the Enlightenment. A very good interpretation would also note that there is much evidence that people debated whether women were inherently inferior to men, but that this debate did not translate to questioning whether women should have the same legal rights and status as men. One might even -- and should -- point out that this is not particularly surprising in societies where there was an underlying assumption of a social order where not everyone had the same rights and responsibilities to society.

The person reading that might think, "wow, I'm glad that I live now!" and even, "I want to make sure that that situation doesn't happen again," and that would be fine. But when a person crosses a line and says, "We've made such progress in the last 1300 years, because now women can vote," that I have the problem.

The first case is an evaluation and judgement in the sense of looking at the facts, understanding them, and implies that the speaker understands the subjectivity of her remarks. It is not that the world is better, but that, based on her values, she assesses her own condition as preferable. The second implies inferiority of the past based on premises that cannot be supported. Er ... neither would be appropriate in actually writing history, though.

#332 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2007, 06:14 PM:

ADM: But when a person crosses a line and says, "We've made such progress in the last 1300 years, because now women can vote," that I have the problem.

I'd say "Women's Suffrage" in America, 2007 AD, is better than in Rome, 200 AD. I wouldn't say the progress from Rome to America is a straight line. But it is better now than it was then. And while the concept of "Women's Suffrage" didn't exist in Ancient Rome, it was a society populated by humans. And I don't think humans are physiologically or psychologically different now than they were then. Which means we can use the yardstick called emotional empathy because it exists in both time periods.

If you develop basic emotional empathy, you can put yourself in someone else's shoes. If you advance to higher levels of emotional empathy, you get the interchangability of people, which gives you a concept of equality that is independent of gender, race, or any surface difference you can come up with.

Our cultural worldview has developed more emotional empathy than ancient Rome. Women can vote. Blacks can vote. Slavery is illegal. There is a concept of equality before the law. The cultural worldview of ancient rome did not have nearly as developed of a sense of empathy. The cultural worldview of America, 1776, didn't have nearly as developed of a sense of empathy that we do now.

That doesn't mean it was a straight line from then to now. But our worldview is better. We have made overall progress, even if there were some ups and downs to get here.

#333 ::: Another Damned Medievalist ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2007, 06:27 PM:

Greg at #332 --

Our cultural worldview has developed more emotional empathy than ancient Rome. Women can vote. Blacks can vote. Slavery is illegal. There is a concept of equality before the law. The cultural worldview of ancient rome did not have nearly as developed of a sense of empathy. The cultural worldview of America, 1776, didn't have nearly as developed of a sense of empathy that we do now.

First, do you have any proof for that? Second ... oh just never mind. You've really just proved my point. Thank you.

#334 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2007, 06:43 PM:

ADM: First, do you have any proof for that?

Women didn't vote.
Slavery was institutionalized.
Emporers inherited their rule.

All of which are outcomes of worldviews with a low priority on emotional empathy.


#335 ::: Another Damned Medievalist ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2007, 06:57 PM:

Greg @#334 --

Sorry, I don't see that as proof. It's not even logical.

#336 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2007, 07:48 PM:

ADM... I'm... not sure what you're looking for. I assume you don't deny that ancient Rome had instutitionalized slavery. So then the question is one of understanding Roman Slavery, from the psychology of those who exercised it.

I assume you allow a person's psychology to enter into the historical discussion. Otherwise, history is nothing more than the rote memorization of events, locations, and dates. We know what Caligula did, but it is more important to know why. Was he crazy? Suffering from encephalitis? Or just cruel?

So, if psychology is allowed, then I'm not sure what remains, other than a connection between, say, slavery, and a psychological lack of empathy. Do you want a link between those two things? I would think a quick study of violent sociopaths would demonstrate that in people who have no capacity for empathy, they are capable of terrible attrocities.

But empathy isn't something all people are born with except the mentally ill. It is a function of the worldview of the culture people are born into. Take an infant and raise them in a culture where equality is given high importance, and that person's empathy goes up. Raise them in a culture where equality is less important, and that person will grow up with less empathy. Plenty of psychological tests can demonstrate something as basic as the cultural impact on empathy. There was one just recently conducted that showed Americans and Chinese(I think it was Chinese) people tend to have different types of skills in the empathy department. Americans raised more to be independent. Chinese raised more to be part of a group.

Now, take an American infant from today, rewind 2000 years, and raise them in ancient rome for 20 years, then bring them back to present day and give them a bunch of psych tests. Their level of development in empathy skills will be stunted compared to many Americans.

This is why judging the cultural worldview was important to me in the first place: Because we are first and foremost a function of the cultural conversations we are born into. And that means its important to be able to study cultural conversations, cultural worldviews, and understand what works, what doesn't, and understand what creates well developed individuals, and what does not.

So, I'm not sure where the connection dropped that it sounded illogical to you. The event of slavery? The psychology? The link between slavery and psychology/empathy? The impact of cultural conversations on individual psychological development?

I don't think it possible for someone to be a part of an institutional slave trading society and have exactly the same level of human empathy that we do. Do you?

#337 ::: Howard Peirce ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2007, 08:30 PM:

Greg, since we're all about the genre fiction at ML, please take 20 minutes to read the classic short story I linked above in #314. It's a really great story*, and relevant to this discussion and to current events.

(I'm a firm believer that we can learn real things about ourselves through the mirror of fiction. I hope that's not a minority view here.)

With the story fresh in your mind, consider public reaction to the case of Khalid Sheik Muhammed. I don't want to make pat statements I'll later regret about society this and empathy that. But "progress" is not the first word that comes to mind.

*Based on actual events! I don't want to spoil the story here, but google the name revealed at the end. Not for the squeamish.

#338 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2007, 09:25 PM:

Howard: But "progress" is not the first word that comes to mind.

If you were to somehow graph the development of every individual who ever lived over the last few thousand years, I think you could make a couple of basic observations:

First, the topology of the maximum, over time, starts out like a flat desert plain, then we enter some rolling hills, some canyons that drop to zero, and lately we seem to be in a mountain range, rising and plunging as people strive to do better and as others strive for their own interests at the expense of everyone else.

Second, the base, over time, remains at zero. The worst of the worst will always have a development score of zero. But the existence of sociopaths does not mean that the average is nulled.

#339 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2007, 09:14 AM:

Howard, Varia: if you can tar those of us on Greg's ]side[ of this argument with the worst of the U.S.A, think what guilt-by-association might be applied to yourselves. I see nobody here (save for the occasional troll) making any claims to personal greatness merely by being a citizen of a hyperpower, so attempting to drape people in the mantle of that hyperpower's gross deficiencies (national or individual) strikes me as ... excessive.

#340 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2007, 01:24 PM:

Greg @ 338

It seems unlikely that there's any way to confirm your hypothesis about a graph of individual development over time. Assuming we could even come to agreement on what that phrase means, and how to measure such a thing, it would be a massive job of historical analysis to find enough data about individuals that there was a statistically meaningful sample. And comparing one individual to another across different cultures would be a herculean task of analysis.

Now, I think that's all ADM was saying all along. Others may have joined in with additional points of view, but what s(he)* was saying is that to reach a point where you can reasonably compare the morals and ethics of an entire society to that of another, not just comparing well-recorded individuals, is a task that requires dispassionate, that is to say non-judgmental analysis. Having reached conclusions, hopefully well-founded in documentation and careful analysis, you certainly may react to the result with strong emotion and moral judgment. But until you have the facts available, that judgment is premature and prejudiced.

I'm going to speak for ADMs reasons for posting as s(he) has in this thread, and I apologize to h{im,er} in advance both for doing this, and for any misstatement I may make. I believe a large part of this discussion is very wrong-headed in that most of us are still talking past each other after more than 300 comments. This usually means either a complete disagreement in principle or a complete disconnect in communication. I think it's the latter, and I'd like you all to assume so for a bit as you think about the comments you consider in opposition to what you have said.

Many of us are professionals in highly technical fields, involving esoteric knowledge and techniques. Most of us get at least a little upset when we see laypeople discussing our fields in ways that seriously distort the underlying principles and/or our current understanding of the purpose and meaning of the field. A good example is in cosmological physics, which to most people borders on theology, and thus attracts a lot of uninformed speculation that gets up the noses of the few hundred professional cosmologists. It's become so bad that a significant fraction of the professional community now spends time writing popular books and articles, provides long interviews to mass media, or maintains blogs aimed at a lay audience, all in an attempt to raise the level of understanding and discourse.

I think for ADM the need for objective analysis, or at least as objective as it's possible for a human to get, is a key technique in the study of history, and a necessary component in the proper exercise of historical judgment. S(he) therefore reacts strongly when told that in fact subjective considerations are more important, and that the notion of objectivity is morally repugnant. That reaction, plus a natural tendency to speak from the professional stance, in which words have a precise definition and connotation not clear to laypeople, has resulted in a standoff over what amounts to a category error: not only are most of us not talking about the same things, we not talking about the same kinds of things.

My suggestion is that if you don't accept what I'm saying, there is clearly a standoff in this discussion, and it will only get more abusive and less rational over time, so now's the time to stop and talk about current politics or how to decorate in politically correct monochrome color schemes (Red or Blue). If you think I may have a point, discussing this at a meta-level may help us all understand where the discussion went off the rails.

* This pronoun usage is a figleaf I'm providing to keep at least my part of this discussion out of side-issues, like ADM's actual gender. I personally consider it impolite to make statements even indirectly about a person's gender when s(he) has chosen a nom d'net which does not display a gender preference. If you want to discuss this issue, and especially my usage here, please keep it separate from the discussion about history.

#341 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2007, 02:03 PM:

Greg at 336: I recognize that you are sincere in offering the development of empathy as some kind of standard with which to mark human development over time. The trouble is, you make a lot of statements in this post about what empathy is and about measuring empathy which are impossible to prove.

For example, you say: Empathy is a function of the worldview of the culture people are born into. This is an interesting assertion but that's all it is, an assertion. I know you believe it to be true but your belief, while honorable and genuine, counts for nothing.

You say: Now, take an American infant from today, rewind 2000 years, and raise them in ancient rome for 20 years, then bring them back to present day and give them a bunch of psych tests. Their level of development in empathy skills will be stunted compared to many Americans. This is an interesting thought experiment but it is utterly without foundation, and proves nothing, because it cannot be done.

You say: we are first and foremost a function of the cultural conversations we are born into. This sounds plausible, but it is meaningful only to you. It is an assertion about your own deep beliefs about human beings, not about history as professional historians understand it, nor about psychology as professionals in that field understand it. You may be correct but there is no way to prove the truth of your statement. You might as well be saying that we are first and foremost children of God.

#342 ::: Varia ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2007, 04:24 PM:

CHip, I think you are misunderstanding what I said (can't speak for Howard). Greg has stated explicitly that he thinks people are on average much more empathetic now than they were in (insert historical era now), and morally superior. He's also implied pretty strongly that he thinks of himself as being way high up there on the bell curve too. I don't think *most* people who supported the second Iraq war did so because of genuine naive desire to go in and fix other people's problems, or to make their lives exactly like ours, because we must be so much better in every way. But a certain segment did, and a certain segment let themselves be embarrassed into pretending they did. That kind of blind assumption of superiority - it really seems like a form of zealotry to me - is a giant fricking blidn spot. Do I think you personally felt the invasion was cool? I have no idea, I don't know you, but I'm guessing not - it's a little more personal vis a vis Greg because he brings himself into so strongly - but in either case, all I'm saying is, assuming you're better than everybody else is useless, or, when you're the government of a hyperpower (or I suppose the enablers of the government of the hyperpower), really really fucking dangerous.

#343 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2007, 06:31 PM:

ADM said @ 331:
I am going to try one more time, and maybe it'll work. Take a subject like women's suffrage in Europe. It would be ridiculous to talk about progress being made on that front before the very late 18th C, and really not till the 19th C. It wasn't an issue before that -- suffrage itself wasn't particularly an issue, even for men, till a hundred or so years before that. So you could certainly talk about progress from the point that people are beginning to push for women's suffrage to the present. There's a goal, and a movement where we can see people basing their actions and writing on the work of people before them.

It occurs to me that one problem in this discussion is that we may have several different definitions of "progress." I'm guessing that for you there is "Progress" -- a mythical force of History akin to, say, Hegel's dialectic or Divine Providence something equally dodgy and unsupported. And there is also "progress" as you outlined above: consciously directed motion in the direction of a pre-imagined goal.

The problem is that some of us think it's possible to talk about a third form of "progress," which I might term "retrospective." That is, there can be progess from one state to another even if no one was consciously planning it, or started off with some idea of the end state.

If someone was dropped on the western flank of the Sierra Nevadas, without knowing where they were, and decided on a whim to simply follow the nearest stream downhill, they would probably end up at San Francisco. After they'd done so, they could look back at a map, and trace their "progress" toward San Francisco. And I think it's not unreasonable to say that in retrospect, there was a sort of progress involved, even though for most of the journey there was no identified end point. (Near the end, the traveller might see San Francisco, and consciously decide that the city was now their explicit goal; perhaps.)

And that's perhaps what some of us are suggesting by the term "progress": there doesn't have to be an initial plan or goal or preconceived objective. Much "progress" can be unplanned and even accidental.

Indeed, I would tentatively suggest that much of the history of technological development -- a form of "progress" which you've explicitly agreed took place (#145) -- was like that: people did not sit down X thousand years ago and have discussions about how to develop tools that would enable mass production of identical artifacts, or that would allow sending other tools beyond the Earth. Much of the actual "progress" was accidental -- e.g., Chinese alchemists looking for elixirs of immortality and coming up with gunpowder instead.

#344 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2007, 07:01 PM:

Bruce Cohen said @ x:
... A good example is in cosmological physics, which to most people borders on theology, and thus attracts a lot of uninformed speculation that gets up the noses of the few hundred professional cosmologists. It's become so bad that a significant fraction of the professional community now spends time writing popular books and articles, provides long interviews to mass media, or maintains blogs aimed at a lay audience, all in an attempt to raise the level of understanding and discourse.

A tangential bit of nitpicking before I go to bed: I really don't think most cosmologists who write books, provide interviews, etc. are doing so because "it's become so bad." Cosmologists (or astronomers) have been doing that sort of thing for decades, at least. (OK, not the blogging. You know what I mean.) That's what Fred Hoyle was doing back in 1948 when he came up with the name "Big Bang" to describe a rival theory of cosmology: he was doing a BBC radio program about cosmology. Or look at the list of (mostly) popular books about astronomy and physics that Arthur Eddington produced in the 1920s and 30s. Or this account of Virginia Woolf's fascination with telescopes and cosmology. (Kind of an interesting complement to the usual discussions of H.P. Lovecraft's interest in cosmology.)

#345 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2007, 07:03 PM:

Sigh... my previous post was supposed to start with
"Bruce Cohen said @ 340"

(in case that wasn't clear)

#346 ::: Iain Coleman ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2007, 07:19 PM:

Normative political philosophy is a branch of moral philosophy. It is, by its very nature, ahistorical. Indeed, it has often involved entirely made-up hypothetical histories of things like social contracts. To the political philosopher, understanding the worldview of people in Renaissance Florence, is secondary to understanding the theory of civic republicanism propounded by Machiavelli. History can help us to understand Machiavelli's metaphors and literary references, but that's just a step on the way to the real goal of understanding the logic of his argument - a logic based on the fundamentals of human nature, not on historically contingent evaluations. If Machiavelli was right in his time, he is right today: if he is wrong today, he was wrong in his time too.

That seems to me the root of the miscommunication in this thread. There are two scholarly perspectives clashing: the political philosopher and the historian. Unfortunately, while the political philosophers have generally been willing to understand the historians' perspective and to grant it validity in its own sphere, the historians seem unwilling to reciprocate.

Another problem, of course, is an insufficient appreciation of calculus. Progress is like the derivative of a function; it can be locally defined, without reference to a global description. You can make progress by making things a bit better here and now, without necessarily having an ultimate goal in mind, just as you can walk uphill without knowing where the summit is - or even if there is a summit, or if there may be higher summits elsewhere that can only be reached by going downhill for a while. This links in to Popper's advocacy of piecemeal social improvement: revolutions aimed at reaching a peak, or at jumping from one peak to another, are unlikely to succeed, while local improvements can, step by step, lead higher and higher up the hill.

#347 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2007, 07:26 PM:

Bruce@340: It seems unlikely that there's any way to confirm your hypothesis about a graph of individual development over time. Assuming we could even come to agreement on what that phrase means, and how to measure such a thing, it would be a massive job of historical analysis to find enough data about individuals that there was a statistically meaningful sample. And comparing one individual to another across different cultures would be a herculean task of analysis.

We have no direct information to go on, we have scant indirect information, and a lot of data is missing. Much of this is based on current day experiments, and then trying to back track to see where the pattern fits.

In short, it's quite similar to the study of evolution. Those that argue that some missing link hasn't been found, that we can't go back and prove that this species mutated into that, that our tests in the labs using basic chemical elements, heat, and electrical sparks aren't realistic, are focusing on the empty space between the trees and claiming there is no forest.

We can study human behaviour in experimental settings today and determine different levels of psychological development in different individuals. And I think we can then look back in history, look at some bit of human behaviour, and ascribe a level of human development with some level of accuracy.

And I think some large patterns such as the illegalization of slavery, the tendancy towards gender and racial equality, the shift from tyranny to democracy, over time, shows a development in empathy, a psychological trait that gives us equality, as well as reflecting a development in language, which gives us commitments, agreements, law, and systems of democracy.

Have some recent individuals and some nations today shown a capacity for slavery, tyranny, and inequality? Certainly. But showing that some species went extinct recently, or showing that some species has a useless organ, doesn't disprove the notion of evolution over millions of years. Nor does some sociopathic government today disprove the notion of cultural improvement of worldviews over time.

The other objection to evolution is the idea that it violates the rules of entropy, that chemical reactions tend to disorganization, not organization, that evolution would require some sort of conscious intermediary to cause it to happen.

I'm not saying this psychological developmetn over time has been consciously done by the whole of the human population, or that there is some great underlying consciousness that is causing it to happen. I think it's much more chaotic than that, just like chemistry is, but over time, I think there is a pattern as we develop psychologically the physical, emotional, language, and spiritual aspects of being human.

I was never trying to prove this, though. And I certainly won't try to prove it to people who don't want to believe it. But I see a pattern, and I think one can look at that pattern as scientifically as one might look at species development over time and come up with a concept of evolution to describe it.

#348 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2007, 07:32 PM:

Iain@346: You had me right up till you said calculus and derivative, then a flashback to four semesters of calculus and differential equations in college just threw me in the ditch. But otherwise, good.

;)

#349 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2007, 07:41 PM:

Me@somewhere: we are first and foremost a function of the cultural conversations we are born into.

Lizzy@341: This sounds plausible, but it is meaningful only to you. It is an assertion about your own deep beliefs about human beings, not about history as professional historians understand it, nor about psychology as professionals in that field understand it.

I did some googling. A psychological test showing American versus Chinese cultural conversations affecting psychology differently is described here.

Not conclusive proof, but evidence pointing in that direction. Some of the language in the article seems a little biased too, so, read it with a grain of salt. But I think it points to a pattern that we develop first and foremost as a function of our cultural conversations.

#350 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2007, 02:01 AM:

Greg London @ 347

In short, it's quite similar to the study of evolution. Those that argue that some missing link hasn't been found, that we can't go back and prove that this species mutated into that, that our tests in the labs using basic chemical elements, heat, and electrical sparks aren't realistic, are focusing on the empty space between the trees and claiming there is no forest.

First, I don't think that just because biological evolution exists, that this argues either for cultural evolution, or for some sort of historical progress. It happens I think there is an evolution of cultures, but again, that doesn't argue for progress.

Second, our knowledge of human history at the micro-level, where we could discuss the average behavior of people, is far less than our knowledge of the history of biological organisms, simply because humans are far more complex as individuals than most other organisms, and our knowledge of the mechanisms of history, the way in which cultural changes occur is also far less.

So I don't think the situations are parallel, and I don't think that equating my argument to Creationism is accurate.

Have some recent individuals and some nations today shown a capacity for slavery, tyranny, and inequality? Certainly. But showing that some species went extinct recently, or showing that some species has a useless organ, doesn't disprove the notion of evolution over millions of years. Nor does some sociopathic government today disprove the notion of cultural improvement of worldviews over time.

No, it doesn't, but contrariwise, you haven't provided any proof that in general things are better today. Slavery? Unless I'm mistaken, it is more widespread than it was 50 years ago. Is this an aberration? Perhaps, but what makes you think so? Do you have statistical data, or is the basis for your statements anecdotal? I'm not saying you're necessarily wrong, but where's the evidence?

#351 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2007, 02:09 AM:

Peter Erwin @ 344

Of course you're right that there have been scientists who wanted laypeople to share in their discoveries all along. I was saying that I think a greater proportion of the working scientists in some fields are doing that now than ever before. To some extent this is because so much of the funding for research is dependent on political good will, and therefore at least some interest on the part of the voters, but I think in some fields scientists feel that a greater understanding of their subjects on the part of the general public is necessary to overcome some of the misconceptions that a low level of scientific education has fostered. I've talked to several physicists who feel this way, and who publish popular accounts of their work for this reason.

#352 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2007, 03:09 AM:

Bruce, I think Greg was saying that the arguments for both are similar, not that one follows from the other. Like, the arguments for any two random stars existing are likely to be similar (looking-through-telescope data), even though they are independently existent.

#353 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2007, 05:30 AM:

Bruce Cohen said @ 350:
No, it doesn't, but contrariwise, you haven't provided any proof that in general things are better today. Slavery? Unless I'm mistaken, it is more widespread than it was 50 years ago. Is this an aberration? Perhaps, but what makes you think so? Do you have statistical data, or is the basis for your statements anecdotal? I'm not saying you're necessarily wrong, but where's the evidence?

Greg didn't specify a particular time, so he's free to argue that things are better today than, say, 250 years ago, when slavery was still legal in most of the world and the worst forms of plantation slavery were being practice in the US and the Caribbean.

(You don't really think there was less slavery hundreds of years ago than today, do you?)

As for 50 years ago: well, what's your evidence that things are worse? Keeping in mind that 50 years ago, there were still gulags in the Soviet Union, as well as forced prison labor in China, and that there were still countries where slavery was legal (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen, Niger)....

#354 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2007, 06:57 AM:

Peter Erwin @ 353

I wasn't really trying to make an argument about slavery, just pointing out that there's almost no evidence from anybody (me included; I'm neither a historian nor an amateur of the field) in this thread to show that things have or have not improved over time in a measurable way. It's fine to say you believe something is true, and I can either agree or not, depending on my beliefs. But if you want to convince me of its truth, you've got to give me more than your own belief.

History is a slippery thing. Much of what most people believe about any past event or person that they haven't themselves checked in source documentation is either incomplete or incorrect. Often this is the result of deliberate falsification and obscuration in the past, e.g. "everybody knows" that Richard III of England was a murderer and a bad king. Comparing what I was taught about history in high school with what I've learned since (much of which may also not be accurate), I'd say at least 3/4 of it is either propaganda or urban myths of one kind or another. I'm surely not going to make judgments based on such unreliable data, and I'm going to be very demanding of evidence from others that they've checked out what they tell me.

#355 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2007, 09:46 AM:

Bruce, I was equating the idea of cultural progress as something as difficult and slippery as evolution. It is difficult to prove evolution in one nice, neat paragraph. It is also impossible (I don't think that is too strong a word) to prove evolution to someone whose worldview excludes it.

I keep pointing back to message 150 by ADM that comes out and flatly states that social advancement over time cannot be judged. That one cannot judge a moment in history based on current day values if those values did not also exist at the time being judged.

The scientifically sound point to start at for any investigation is "I don't know". If people who objected to the idea of social progress were saying "You haven't presented sufficient evidence to prove this", then this whole conversation would have never taken place. "You haven't proved it" comes from a different epistemology than "You can never compare the two" or "Any such comparison is disallowed".


#356 ::: Clark E. Myers ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2007, 09:09 PM:

For a social order to come to a sharp point seems common, perhaps the standard historical trajectory from just before the first well recorded dark ages the actual social structure of the Mycenaean world, which we know from the Linear B texts was a highly organized, bureaucratic setup with extensive records and tight regulation of the economy by the agents of the Wannax obs SF quoting Steve Stirling.

From Harry Erwin
Rader, T. 1971. The Economics of Feudalism. Gordon and Breach: New York.): why do settled cultures prior to the modern period tend to cycle between aggregation and dispersal?[emphasis added]
.....
Trout Rader attempted to explain this by applying some algebraic topology. In Economics of Feudalism, he developed general market equilibrium models of slave and feudal economies. He assumed self-sufficient regional economies, extensive economic obligations to local elites, and free individual agriculture, limited by labor availability and the fertility of the land. He noted that the short-run interest of the elites was in maximizing the supply of elite goods, produced in "urban" workshops. The elite preference for elite goods, combined with the relative ease of collecting taxes and tribute from controlled urban areas, led to elite policies in favor of rural-to-urban migration. His use of the Poincaré-Bendixsen theorem was flawed when he attempted to prove that rural and urban populations could be expected to cycle, but his results are recoverable with some additional assumptions, and his model for the feudal economy can be extended to more general systems.
.............
it is likely that a system coping with a collapse in the price of their trade and elite goods would have found it difficult to defend itself from a hostile takeover. Harry Erwin

I'd say Samuel Sewall's diary might be read to ask how could we be so stupid as much as how could we be so malicious. I'd doubt that we have advanced in any human characteristic to forestall equally or more stupid behavior. To suggest that our rulers regard us other than as the English landlords regarded their Irish tenants is I suggest to argue once more for an American exceptionalism that may not be justified. (shades of a white horse tale?)

Looking at some recent events - in my lifetime if not in the lives of everyone present - that some have suggested ought to inform our thinking on current events - I am reminded of Walt Rostow and his book Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto.
......how could a world-renowned expert on development policy come to recommend the bombing of North Vietnam with unsurpassed intensity and belief?..........Rostow’s magnum opus expressed certainty that all nations pass through five stages of economic growth .... Rostow argued that America alone possessed the capacity to guide those countries towards the liberal-capitalist endpoint that Rostow described unromantically as the “age of mass consumption.”.......The basic problem, however, was that such an approach – and Rostow’s Stages model in particular – explained what ought to happen, and did not consider what might happen because of unforeseen circumstances......central to Rostow’s thesis was the presupposition that the leaders of nations hold the health of their economy as the overwhelming consideration in peace and war; without such reasoning, the engine of growth would inevitably stall. Economic determinism is the sine qua non of Rostow’s study. The driving force behind history is the aspiration of poorer countries to attain the levels enjoyed by those in the west. It follows that to threaten a nation’s economy would form coercion of the highest order.....Rostow erroneously believed that the North Vietnamese leadership would cave in to American military pressure in order to save its fledgling industrial base. In ascribing such motives to North Vietnam, Rostow failed to appreciate the longevity and obduracy of an ideology – nationalism – not beholden to the economic sources that informed his own. David Milne Nottingham University for the John A. Adams ’71 Center for Military History and Strategic Analysis at VMI

Similarly from the sanctions policy of the League of Nations to the sanctions policies of today I'd say we are as stupid as Samuel Sewall ever was and as well intentioned in the main. Society has changed in many ways since LBJ bombed Laos while calling Goldwater trigger happy for proposing what was already being done in secret but I'd have trouble calling it progress. obs SF The Only Thing We Learn Kornbluth

#357 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2007, 09:34 PM:

Varia@342: I'm not sure what's to misunderstand about I think it's a waste of time to concentrate on judgment, and when it comes to current events one has to be careful, especially as an American, as I don't think any other country has made an ass of itself in recent politics quite so badly. The existence of a dreadful garage band next door would not alter the fact that I'm a competent choral singer (at least, the conductors who keep passing my reauditions seem to think so); the existence of rush-to-judgment idiots doesn't mean that judgment is impossible.

Your response also seems to me to be personalizing far too much; several of us have argued that the world can be considered to be a better place, but I've seen very little of "I'm better than the first Baron of Mucking-on-Avon." Similarly, nobody has supported the sort of fixed stair of development that dates at least as far back as Marx and appear in Clark's quote of a describer of Walt Rostow. (Which brings to mind Kennedy's inaugural speech -- which does sound grossly hubristic now, but at least his first idea of action was the Peace Corps rather than a war.)

#358 ::: Varia ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2007, 10:05 PM:

CHip - no, the existence of butt rock doesn't negate Bach, or even Bacharach, but it does mean that, say, if people have been hearing a lot about Blur (I know that's a different kind of rock, i just hate them) and you mention you're in a Brit invasion band that maybe you should qualify, oh, we're in a melodic beatles-type brit invasion band rather than something else. To me Greg seemed to rather be rushing to identify himself with my analogical Blur at every opportunity. Yep, I'm personalizing there, you're quite right; his comments apparently rubbed you a different way. Anyway, I don't think this is going anywhere really; I do think that our (or I should say my; I don't know where you're from) country's recent behavior does mean Americans are going to be held to a higher standard of behavior on most fronts; it might not be fair, but it's true, and since I do feel a certain sense of collective guilt I have no problem with it. YMMV.

#359 ::: Iain Coleman ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2007, 03:57 PM:

I'm no Blur fanboy, but anyone who dislikes "Song 2" has a soul made of navel fluff and paperclips.

#360 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2007, 05:30 PM:

The existence of a dreadful garage band next door would not alter the fact that I'm a competent choral singer (at least, the conductors who keep passing my reauditions seem to think so); the existence of rush-to-judgment idiots doesn't mean that judgment is impossible.

There's a lovely Latin proverb, abusus non tollit usum - literally "abuse does not take away use," meaning "just because a thing can be abused doesn't mean there's no proper use for that thing."

#361 ::: Naomi Parkhurst might see spam ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2011, 06:24 AM:

Apologies if it's not, but I don't read Chinese characters (at the link). And there's a certain nonspecificity to the comment.

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